Tag Archive for McCombie Karen

What I Was Like At School by Karen McCombie

I’m feeling rather excited about 2017. An excellent start to the year with some children’s book gems falling onto my doormat. St Grizzles School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys by Karen McCombie, illustrated by Becka Moor is a madcap caper with a rather whizzy headteacher, triplets on stilts and a head-butting goat.

When Dani’s Mum lands a job looking at penguins’ bottoms in the Antarctic, Dani is signed up for St Grizelda’s School for Girls. But when she arrives, she discovers that this rather strict looking girls’ boarding school has had a change of headmistress…and direction!…

But through all the madness, this is the tale of a girl trying to overcome her angst at settling into a new place with its new rules – something with which almost all of us can identify. Karen’s writing is always springy, endearing and genuine – and this book is no exception. So I’m delighted to have her writing for MinervaReads about what she was like at school: 

Try to picture Beaker from the Muppets, all googly-eyed with shyness, only a panicked “meep!” coming out of his mouth when expected to talk. That is ME, practically the whole way through primary school.

It didn’t help that we moved from Scotland to Australia to Scotland again, traversing five schools in all. Oh, the total non-joy of being the new girl x 5!  (How to reduce a naturally shy kid to a trembling kid-shaped jelly…)

(Karen at school)

It also didn’t help that I had an undiagnosed hearing problem for a year when I was little, and fell massively behind in class. (Shy girl blinks at everything going on around her, doesn’t have a clue what’s happening.)

But things improved once…

  1. my hearing issue was spotted and addressed
  2. I got help catching up
  3. I found out I was a bit good at this writing lark.

One teacher in particular spotted some sparkiness in my writing – hurrah! But in an attempt to have an eye-dabbing, heartstring-tugging moment where she cured me of my shyness and helped my confidence blossom in one fell swoop, Miss Thomson asked me to stand up and read my ‘excellent’ short story aloud to my classmates.

Sadly, all my classmates could make out was an alarmingly trembly girl who squeaked “Meep-meep-meep-meep!” at top-speed and then flooped into her seat before she keeled over…

Luckily, secondary school was a BIG improvement. For a start, there was only the ONE secondary school, rather than multiple options. Things got better with the discovery of a vast library, cool art rooms, drama club, fab friends and lashings and lashings of black eyeliner.

(Karen with her black eyeliner)

Secondary school was also the time I had a Very Stern Talk with my shyness. I explained to it that I understood where it was coming from, but from now on, I wasn’t going to let it stop me from doing what I wanted to do. Of course, it sulked, and still liked to trip me up from time-to-time (as it does now), but at least it just moped in the wings instead of taking centre stage and spoiling all my fun.

So I suppose Beating the Lurking Shyness Monster was one major thing I accomplished during my years at school. If only there was a GCSE in that; I’m sure I’d’ve got an A+…

Thanks so much to Karen McCombie. You can buy St Grizzle’s School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys here. It’s suitable for age 7+ years, and contains lashings of fun.

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).

Embarrassing Parents

It’s Father’s Day today, so for a little twist, I thought I’d feature tween books with embarrassing mums instead.

The omg blog

The OMG Blog by Karen McCombie

I was quite smitten with this slim gem of a book from the cover – which is a bit different and highly coveted by many of my readers. The book is about four secondary school girls who are thrown together for a school project, and find something in common: they all have embarrassing mums.

But far from being snipey, or menacing, this is a super little tale that shows how to make new friends, to work together and develop loyalty, as well as using empathy to be able to see parents in a new light.

Four girls meet in detention, and although seemingly different on the surface, take part in a blogging competition together. The one thing they have in common is their embarrassing mums – and they make a blog on the subject the ‘Our Mums – Grrr’ Blog – OMG. The blog is hugely successful, but will their mums discover who they’re writing about?

One of the most striking changes that happens to children in their early teens is the different way in which they view their parents. As science has shown, this is to do with conflict created by the development of the brain’s frontal lobes during adolescence, which for a short period of time means that teens can be more impulsive and are more susceptible to poorer judgement.

What makes this novel particularly clever is that the mothers (and families) aren’t out the ordinary – the embarrassment of the girls, and their frustration with their mothers, stem from small incidences that mothers do, from being too involved in their daughters’ school, to dressing and talking loudly, to befriending their children on social media. It’s tame, and yet real.

Karen McCombie is a skilful and experienced children’s writer, and she manages to create well-defined characters and a well-crafted story in quite a condensed novel. She also promotes online safety through careful writing, not preaching to her readership, but merely portraying how the internet can be used for good – an intelligent view of our current online world.

It’s a light-hearted novel, good for a quick read or for reluctant readers, with the main narrative interspersed with the girls’ blogs and the comments of their peers. As a parent, this is a reassuring read – it promotes good friendship, appreciation of family (no matter their quirks) and safe use of the online world. Highly recommended for age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

the parent problem

The Parent Problem by Anna Wilson

Another light-hearted, easy-to-read novel featuring a Year 8 girl called Skye Green, who is also mortified by her mother’s behaviour. Her mother wears bizarre clothing, dabbles in new hobbies, and invites the new neighbour’s son to babysit – even though he’s only a year older than Skye.

Told in the first person, and dotted with excerpts from Skye’s diary, the whole story is told from her own point of view, so that the reader is truly immersed in her life. Of course, that’s part of Skye’s problem – she’s extremely self-involved, and once Wilson adds to the mix Skye’s penchant for being impulsive and jumping to conclusions, it makes for some highly comic reading as the reader sees through her story.

The serious side is explored in Skye’s relationship with her best friend – as they move into adolescence it becomes apparent that loyalty towards each other is waivering as their interests start to differ, as well as their differing views on boys – one friend maturing before the other can be a tricky part of tweendom to navigate. Anna Wilson exploits every teen’s fear of losing friendship, and explores the perceived hurts and betrayals on both sides. There’s also a focus on bullying in today’s world, as Skye’s own embarrassing moments are filmed by her peers on their phones and shared widely. The perpetrators of this seem not to be punished though, merely threatened by others with their own embarrassing moments – perhaps this is truer to life than the adult world intervening.

Skye’s mother does intervene in her daughter’s best friend problems though, and helps her to navigate through – despite being embarrassing, it turns out mothers can be good listeners.

This is a comforting read – it doesn’t push any boundaries, but merely lays out friendship struggles and points to the perils of narcissism. When Skye finally sees beyond her own dramas, she embraces her family wholeheartedly.

There are many endearing and warming features about this book – from the boy next door, who is portrayed as far from perfect but completely adorable in his own way, to Skye’s obsession with books – she talks about what she’s reading and why she likes it – almost like a recommendation list within a book, which explores a breadth of reading and is good fun. This reader obviously particularly enjoyed that aspect. The interplay between school and home life is well depicted, as are themes of jealousy, younger siblings, and realising that parents are humans too. You can purchase it here.

 

Imaginary Friends

If you include the premise that an imaginary friend can be based on an object – a very special stuffed animal for example, as well as the completely made up illusion of a friend, then about 65 per cent of children have had one*. Take out the stuffed animal, and that leaves about 37 per cent. It’s a common phenomenon.

Not all imaginary friends are born out of loneliness. According to Marjorie Taylor, author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, from the University of Oregon, children make up imaginary friends for many different reasons. Interestingly, girls tend to create characters who need nurturing, some boys create aspirational characters who are born from their own sense of who they want to be.

Imaginary friends abound in children’s books, from Hobbes and Soren Lorensen, to the Wild Things and Blue Kangaroo. Two recent additions to the canon are:

imaginary fred

Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers
A picture book for older children, this explores friendship and transience. Imaginary Fred moves the imaginary friend centre stage. Fred, our imaginary friend depicted in small turquoise dots by Jeffers, in comparison to the ‘real’ people who are in black and white, floats in the wind and waits for lonely children to summon him. Of course, what he longs for most is permanence, as most of the time he is discarded when a ‘real’ friend comes along. In the end, he gets his happy ending, but not as the reader first envisages.

Colfer’s message at the end is that all friendship is real, in whichever guise it comes. And also that friendships shift and change during childhood, as do a child’s interests. Interestingly, the real children in this picture book are often depicted as being cruel to their imaginary friend in the pictures Jeffers draws, although not necessarily in the text. Colfer imagines that Fred tries to be the best friend that he possibly can, with Jeffers drawing in what Fred has to put up with – from being imagined as a witch with the little boy stabbing him with a sword and yelling ‘Die, Evil Witch’, to another boy imagining Fred naked and laughing at his humiliation. It’s an interesting twist and can lead to discussion on how far we go to be a friend, and what that entails. Of course, it also shows great comedic potential.

The children’s use of ‘imaginary Fred’ displays their vivid imaginations, but perhaps, as with all our imaginations, allows us to do things that we wouldn’t do in ‘real’ life. This is where the book gets really interesting.

Because Colfer and Jeffers have turned the premise around so that the reader sides with the ‘imaginary’ person – the one who demonstrates emotions, as opposed to the ‘real’ children. In fact, Imaginary Fred fades a little bit each time  he is discarded – he wants a forever friend, and needs the illusion of permanence.

As always in Jeffers’ books there is much added detail in the illustrations, from the wonderful attitudes of the couple on the bench in the first scene, to the eyebrows on Frieda. Check out also the author references in the books that the boys read. And when Jeffers plays with the pictures, so Colfer plays with the text. The whole story is told very much ‘to you’ the reader, as if the reader is alone. It’s a neat device, and by the end the reader has a friend – because the author is calling you and all the other readers friends:
“And this, dear friends, is the interesting thing that happened.”
So you aren’t alone any more either.

There is also wonderful comedy for adults throughout the book, from the depiction of the teachers at the school concert, to the audience in the Carnegie Hall. Trademark Jeffers abounds with his famous noses and his squigglish captions. The pen-inked drawings contrast beautifully with Colfer’s full-bodied lively text.

Not for the very small, but a book to be treasured by all. If you find it lying on the sofa, it’s probably because your imaginary friend was reading it. Again and Again. You can buy it here.

honey and me
Honey and Me by Karen McCombie
A very different book from that above, but of equal importance. According to Marjorie Taylor’s study, school age children still had imaginary friends – they might have changed and they were more likely to have purely imaginary friends than stuffed toy friends – but they were still there. Honey and Me tells the story of Kirsten, who is starting at a new secondary school without her old friends, who are going to a different school, and she is coping with various issues at home because her Dad has lost his job. She turns to her friend Honey, who is a great listener, and has been in Kirsten’s life for a long time. In fact she always turns up when Kirsten needs her, even when they haven’t seen each other for quite a while.

Kirsten realises that Honey is still there for her, and not only helps her to think things through more carefully, but comes up with solutions for some of her problems. Her forever friend is a good listener and a troubleshooter. It is only near the end of the book that it becomes apparent that Honey is a purely imaginary friend – and Kirsten is desperate for the ‘real’ girls at school not to find out about her. Kirsten eventually finds the courage to bond with the ‘real’ people in her life, and gets her happy ending.

This is a moving book for those children coming to terms with growing up, dealing with difficult issues in life, and making new friends. It’s a great short story by an experienced storyteller, and published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke. A highly recommended read. Ages 8-12 yrs. You can buy it here.

 

*Marjorie Taylor, University of Oregon studies