Tag Archive for Davis Ben

Summer 2019 Reading Recommendations

I always like to leave a list of great new children’s books on my main page at the end of July, because MinervaReads doesn’t blog in August. And, usually you’d find a small selection of picture books, nonfiction, novels etc. This year THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS. Narrowing down my summer reads for you has become increasingly difficult. So without further ado, I’ve tried to sum up each book in a concise way in order to feature as many as possible. Flick to the heading for the correct age group.

picture books

Picture books

Falling below the threshold of the age group for whom I normally review, but too adorable to ignore, is a new series of lift-the-flap board books called Treacle Street by Kate Hindley. From following Marcel Trunkmore delivering parcels in Marcel’s Parcels, to the star ballerina bunnies in Prima’s Missing Bunnies, the books are tightly plotted with intricately detailed illustrations for curious minds.

Stylistically arresting, Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett is a curiosity in itself. Coloured orange and blue, it not only explores the dynamism of a grandparent/grandchild relationship and the power of imagination, but adds retro dimensions and quirky elements to stand out from the crowd. Wild, exuberant, full of energy.

In the holiday spirit, Clem and Crab by Fiona Lumbers is cognitively dissonant as it feels both traditional and completely fresh. Clem explores the beach, and rescues a crab stuck in plastic. If ever a book made you wish you were at the seaside, this is it. And with an environmental message. Illustrations are expressive and wholesome – a whole story encapsulated in each vignette.

Also by the beach is The Tide by Clare Helen Welsh and Ashling Lindsay. Slightly more linear illustrations with harder colouring, this also captures the sensual nature of the seaside, but deals with dementia too. A heartwarming grandfather/grandchild relationship with clever analysis of memories and making memories.

For fun, The Big Stink by Lucy Freegard will capture hearts from the cover, just as mouse is captured by cat in this heist adventure. Nods to Mission Impossible, among other references, this mouse-led caper will have adults chuckling along with captivated children. Who could escape arrest with ears like that?

young fiction

Young Fiction (ages 7-9 years)

Newly independent readers are well served nowadays. Ariki and the Island of Wonders by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear is pure summer adventure. Shipwrecked to a paradise island, Ariki and Ipo are initially struck by the wonder of nature they encounter, but then realise there is a darkness to paradise. With conservation overtones, and textured black and white illustrations, this is an immersive text that sparks a real sense of purpose and love for nature.

It’s not a new premise, but My Babysitter is a Robot by Dave Cousins, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri is neatly executed. A grandma inventor, twins, swimming pools, football and more, this is a fun and funny new series.

Fairy tales remain high on the list of starting points for stories, and Cinders and Sparks by Lindsey Kelk, illustrated by Pippa Curnick is another twist on the Cinderella story. A talking dog, an unreliable fairy godmother, and neighbours called Jack and Jill combine in a modern deviation and continuation of the traditional fairy tale. Fun, neat and magical.

middle grade

Middle Grade (Novels for 9+ years)

Abi Elphinstone’s new novel Rumblestar is possibly her best yet, and that’s saying something. She writes with a keen intelligence, a fiery spark, and a wisdom that infects the fantasy she writes, so that the reader feels there is an importance to the story being told. And she sweeps the reader away with engrossing, action-filled storytelling. In this first of the Unmapped Chronicles series, Casper accidentally stumbles into an unmapped kingdom in danger, and finds out that the peril is tied to his own world.

More peril in Peril En Pointe by Helen Lipscombe, described as Ballet Shoes meets Murder Most Unladylike. The novel has a relatable protagonist and a surprising reveal. A series to watch.

The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike delves deep into fantasy, as main character Rayne discovers more about the magic that keeps her village safe. A wholly original idea with a great mother/daughter dynamic, and a sense that magic and darkness pervade everything. Well crafted.

Ben Davis often makes me laugh, whether it’s a one line tweet or a whole novel. What’s That in Dog Years? is a tender book about losing a dog but gaining perspective. Part narrated by owner, part by dog, this is a heartfelt and touching book about friendships and families with a mystery at its heart, and a bucketful of humour. Makes the reader laugh and cry.

Stewart Foster’s Check Mates offers a surprising twist and marries ADHD, chess and the Stasi. It’s a longer, slower read, but merits rewards to those who stick the course with superbly drawn characters and a great reveal.

Halo Moon by Sharon Cohen is an easy read, but the short sharp chapters belie a degree of profundity in its message. Blending two disparate cultures – Ageze in Ethiopia and Halo in Yorkshire, Cohen uses the stars to navigate her protagonists towards each other and avert a disaster. Told with aplomb, this is a hope-filled, inspiring story.

Fleur Hitchcock’s The Boy Who Flew has an explosive opening and immerses the reader in Bath during the Georgian era. It’s dark and inventive, and leads the reader in a twisty mystery involving flying machines and shadowy villainy.

A much more down-to-earth mystery in A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths, also set in the past, this time the 1930s, in which the heroine is sent to boarding school, where crimes and misdeeds need investigating. From an experienced adult crime writer, this is a delight, with common room gossip, games in the rain, and a Christmas play, and although the ingredients feel old, the result is fresh and lively, and will be devoured in one day by competent readers.

Scavengers by Darren Simpson is for those looking for something completely different. It’s a coming-of-age that’s gritty, clever and brave. With a sort of wild abandon, this novel shows how far an imagination can go, and there’s a terrific undertone of tenderness and empathy.

I was blown away by Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm last year, and this year Wildspark: A Ghost Machine Adventure is another success. A sort of steampunk mechanical adventure, reminiscent of Tin by Padraig Kenny and Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart, this has a particular focus on dealing with grief, and the things that drive us. Hardy is most adept at creating new worlds and absorbing the reader with superb detail.

As climate change dominates the young generation’s thoughts, Sita Brahmachari’s timely Where The River Runs Gold explores a dystopian future of rations and compounds, in which children labour to pollinate the crops. But of course, there is hope amid the inequality and deprivation. Dense and thoughtful.

If you’re just after some short stories – the Return to Wonderland anthology brings some of the very best modern children’s writers together in a mission to re-imagine Alice and her Wonderland.

YA

YA (novels for 12+ years)

It’s rare for a book to catch the attention of both my older children – but William Sutcliffe’s The Gifted, the Talented and Me was whipped through by both, each stopping only to roar with laughter. Light and humorous, this satire of a modern middle-class family who go to live in Hampstead hits all the right spots.

Slightly darker but also an accessible read is Because of You by Eve Ainsworth, a dyslexia-friendly story about family dysfunction and learning to live with a parent’s new partner. Ainsworth excels at getting inside the head of a teen, particularly a victim of bullies, and this is an emotionally astute short novel.

Rose Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence is another tale that invokes social media, so important to today’s teens, but it explores it from a different angle, as Rose and brother Rudder have escaped from a religious sect and are coming at it anew. How do you navigate this new world where everything is so alien? A coming-of-age that uses a new approach to show us the perils of modern life, and how we work out who we really are.

Lastly, The Boxer by Nikesh Shukla is a brilliant exploration of the psyche. Told over the course of the rounds of a boxing fight, with flashbacks, this is a fantastic read about a seventeen-year-old who feels disengaged, but finds a community and a purpose. With themes of radicalisation, violence and belonging, this is an essential teen read.

non fiction

Nonfiction

Three completely different reads here. Be a Super Awesome Photographer by Henry Carroll gives 20 photo challenges for the budding photographer, with real photographs to illustrate and inspire, and ideas for tasks to make different and interesting photos. We’ll be using it on our summer holiday.

Incredible Journeys by Levison Wood, illustrated by Sam Brewster is an informative and inspirational large-size book about famous explorers. With illustrated maps and full page illustrations, this book travels from The Silk Road to Zheng He, and all the way to Nellie Bly and into space.

Watched too much Love Island? A modern and relevant book for teens is Body Brilliant by Nicola Morgan. It takes the reader through the steps to embracing a positive body image. Morgan provides data, encourages taking challenges to make her points and inspire confidence, and aims to change mindsets. Common sense goes hand-in-hand with examples and explanations.

glitchLastly, a graphic novel for you – the only one that dropped in my mailbox this summer, but anyway, Glitch by Sarah Graley would be a good choice. Ever since Aha’s Take On Me, we’ve dreamed of entering into our own comic. Here, 14-year-old Izzy, the protagonist, is depicted in a comic, but enters into her video game. But what happens when she gets Game Over? Great bright visuals, humorous too.

Well that should keep you busy reading over the summer! Come back in September for ballerinas in Russia, furious teens, prison camps, 1870’s opera houses, shadows in the woods and frosty hearts.

Make Me Awesome: A Guest Post by Ben Davis

I’m delighted to host Ben Davis talking about ‘writing funny’ on the blog today. His latest book, Make Me Awesome, has the remarkable capability of not only making the reader fall about laughing, but also being astute and spot on with its portrayal of a teenage boy using grit and optimism to help his down-in-the-dumps Dad. As daft as it is sympathetic, Davis uses modern technology to inspire this self-help story about the importance of friendship, family, and above all, trying! 

Hello! I’m Ben Davis and I write funny books. Well, they’re supposed to be funny. I wrote The Private Blog of Joe Cowley series, which concluded last year, as well as standalone books for younger readers such as My Embarrassing Dad’s Gone Viral and Make Me Awesome, illustrated by Mike Lowery, which has just come out this month.

Make Me Awesome is the story of Freddie, a boy whose family has fallen on hard times. He decides that if no-one else is going to pull them out of their slump, he will have to do it. He signs up to Chuck Willard’s Complete Road to Awesomeness Program – an online guide to success, and tries to apply its sometimes questionable advice to his situation.

Anyway, enough plugging. Let’s get down to brass tacks. The reason I’m here is to share with you my top tips for writing funny fiction. Barry Cryer once said that ‘analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies.’ Well, that may be true, but I’m going to try anyway. Let’s start slicing some frogs.

  1. It’s All About Character

This is an important one. You can have the best jokes in the world, but if the characters delivering them are one dimensional, no-one’s going to care. When your character has a clearly defined personality and worldview and is put through the ringer, the comedy will follow.

The best writing tip I ever received is ‘put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them.’ When I finally realised it wasn’t meant literally, I was set. You see, the best comedy comes when your character is up against it. We laugh at their failures, and as a handy side-effect, root for them to keep going.

One of my all-time favourite films is Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It’s about two men, Neal and Del, who are trying to get home for Thanksgiving. They begin as complete strangers but end up joining forces through cancelled flights, broken-down trains and burned-out cars. Del is sweet and affable but massively overbearing with some odd boundary issues. Neal is aloof, brittle and short-tempered. Putting two such wildly different characters together and throwing tons of obstacles in their way results in some of the best comedy ever committed to film. In my opinion, anyway.

In Make Me Awesome, Freddie, a well-meaning but slightly misguided boy, is trying his best to become more entrepreneurial and serious, but his every attempt ends in disaster. Like when he puts on a suit of armour and buries himself at an archaeological dig site because he wants to be a famous prankster. Or when he runs for school president and somehow ends up getting caught in the girls’ changing room with a camera. Basically, reading and writing about the misfortunes of others makes yours seem much more bearable.

This way of writing comedy was best summarised by the great Mel Brooks when he said ‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open sewer and die.’ Depressing, but true.

  1. Crank up the cringe

As lakes were to Wordsworth, embarrassment is to me. It’s my muse. My inspiration. All of my books are built around it. I have an incredible memory for embarrassment. I couldn’t tell you what I had for lunch yesterday but I can remember an embarrassing thing that happened to me in Year Seven in crystal clear HD. Writing cringe humour is like tightrope-walking. Too mild and it flops. Too extreme and the reader might want to burn the book on a massive bonfire. My Joe Cowley books are filled with moments like this. Joe’s habit of speaking before engaging his brain gets him into all kinds of toe-curling scrapes. The wider point to be made here is write what makes you laugh. It might not be cringe humour for you, it might be surreal comedy or observational or anything, but if you like it, chances are someone else will, too.

  1. Draw from your own experiences.

Everyone has a funny story or two up their sleeve, and with enough tweaking, it can become great fiction. The key is to take only the best bits and embellish the rest. I’ll give you an example. When I was about thirteen, I was referred to a dental specialist because one of my teeth wasn’t growing down properly. He put one of those plastic stretcher things in my mouth that made me look like Wallace and snapped a few polaroids, which was awkward enough. Then he brought in a few dental students and they all leaned close and had a good gawp. For a mortally self conscious teenager like me, this was no fun at all. Years later, I knew I had to use this for something, and by the time it made it into Joe Cowley: Return of the Geek, it had become an epic tale where Joe’s girlfriend Natalie gets her lip piercing stuck in Joe’s brace and they have to be freed by a dentist while being stared at by a load of dental students.

Of course, the whole thing is a wild exaggeration, with just a kernel of truth in it, but it shows how you should never be short of inspiration when writing the funnies.

So that’s it from me. I hope some of this has proved useful to you, and if you do put any of my tips into practice and get a book deal out of it, all I ask is an acknowledgement and 75% of the profits.

With thanks to Ben Davis. If you want to buy Make Me Awesome, and see how comedy’s done, click here.

Technology in the modern kids’ book

As anyone who lives or works with children knows, technology is an integral part of their day (and night). And it’s cropping up more and more in contemporary children’s literature as writers portray how contemporary children live. Of course Mary couldn’t have texted for help when she was left alone at the beginning of The Secret Garden, any more than Five Children could have googled ‘It’. But today, children in books are not only navigating their way out of trouble with iMaps, and texting parents their excuses for staying out beyond curfew, they are actively using the Internet to seek adventure.

my embarrassing dad

My Embarrassing Dad’s Gone Viral! By Ben Davis, illustrated by Mike Lowery
Nelson’s mum has left, leaving him, his little sister Mary, and his Dad; and as a result Nelson’s life dramatically changes. Written as a series of vlog vignettes as if the reader were viewing Nelson’s videos on YouTube, this is Nelson’s hilariously funny account of what happened to his family.

Of course at the heart of the comedy is the extreme pathos of the situation – his Dad’s sadness, the change in family circumstance, and Nelson’s heartrending search for his mother, but because Nelson’s voice is brilliantly funny from the outset, and because he documents what happens to his father so well and in such a comedic way, this is a laugh-out loud book.

Nelson’s father decides to shake up their lives even more dramatically after his wife leaves, and they move house to the middle of nowhere, with no mod-cons, Nelson’s Dad banning TV, Internet, computer games and even buying a house with no plumbing – the toilet is outside. He takes up whittling as a way to earn money (having previously been an estate agent).

Nelson reports not only the hilarious consequences of his father trying to live ‘at one with nature’ in a Bear Grylls type parody, but he also describes viewers’ comments on his videos, repercussions at school, and the difficulty of making the videos (because of having to hide the equipment, but also the technical hitches).

His relationship with his sister Mary is both touching, and equally funny, as he explains her obsession with a cartoon called Peter the Pirate, and her reaction to sugar overloads.

It takes quite something to make me laugh out loud – this book had me crying with laughter. Delightfully, despite its happy and tech-embracing ending, it also extols the benefits of doing some outdoorsy stuff too. All in all, a very funny, entertaining read. Giggle your way through it here. For age 9+ years.

secret cooking club

The Secret Cooking Club by Laurel Remington

A technically reverse situation in The Secret Cooking Club, because it is the mother doing the blogging. In fact, Scarlett’s mother is a very successful blogger; her blog is about parenting and contains anecdotes taken from her daughter’s life. Twelve-year-old Scarlett finds this mortifying, to the extent that she has stopped doing any activities at school, and pretty much shut down her relationship with her mother to avoid any of her personal embarrassing incidents being related over the Internet.

Then, one day Scarlett discovers a gleaming kitchen in her next-door neighbour’s house – left empty when the occupant is admitted to hospital. Scarlett enters to feed the cat, and finding the correct ingredients on the work surface for delicious cinnamon scones, she starts to bake. Before long, her successful baking leads to a secret cooking club, and has consequences that will change her life forever, and in turn, show her the good side of the blogging world.

This is an intensely readable book, published at a time when baking is in the public headlights, with The Great British Bake Off leading the way. With warmth and mouth-watering descriptions, this is pitched perfectly at a young readership who may be unsure of their place in the world – one in which they have to forge friendships at school, and navigate through tricky family relationships.

A particularly poignant note in this book is the young girls’ relationship with the elderly neighbour, and the cognisance that the elderly need caring for and company as much as young people. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

bus stop baby

Bus Stop Baby by Fleur Hitchcock
So many connections are made and held today because of the Internet. When 13-year-old Amy finds a newborn baby abandoned at the local bus stop, she can’t stop wondering about the mother. Her grandmother, Zelda, a feisty loveable character, agrees to help her on her mission to find the missing mother, in return for a few favours of her own. And before long, Amy finds out that there’s more to her grandmother and tales of missing mothers than she had previously thought.

This is a gem of a book – it’s written with warmth and comes across as kindhearted and welcoming. There’s a priceless relationship between Amy and her grandmother that’s never too schmaltzy, but strikes a chord as being quite real – Amy doesn’t adore her grandmother – in fact she finds her difficult at times, but gradually as the story develops, she realises more and more that her grandmother is a person in her own right with a history, and relationships and feelings.

In fact it’s this startling awareness that sells this book. Fleur Hitchcock has drawn Amy perfectly – a young teen who is beginning to look outside herself, and beginning to realise that the world doesn’t operate in just black and white – that there is a great deal of grey space between what’s right and what’s wrong in certain situations.

The baby’s abandonment has resonance for Amy, because her own mother left her and her sister ten years ago, and the book explores the ability of the Internet to plug gaps or create them in modern life – from Amy helping Zelda to find old friends, to Amy talking to her mother in Australia via Skype, to trying to solve the mystery of the missing mother on the Internet.

With wonderful complex characterisation, and true-to-life emotions, this is a great story to provoke thought in your young tween or teen. You can buy it here.