Tag Archive for Ogilvie Sara

All the Fun of the Fair, and Circus too

Bright and loud, brash and fun, circuses and funfairs are excellent places to set a children’s book.

samson-the-mighty-flea
Samson the Mighty Flea! By Angela McAllister and Nathan Reed

Flea circuses started in the early 19th century, when an Italian impresario advertised an ‘extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas’.

Samson is quite possibly the most extraordinary, but also warmest and friendliest looking flea we have ever seen. He is the big star of Fleabag’s Circus and shows his prowess to the somewhat strange crowd of colourful insects by lifting such heavy items as peas and matches, as well as hoisting his colleague, Amelie. But this smallest strongman dreams of being an even bigger star and sets off to make his fortune.

When Samson leaves his circus to join the big wide world, he finds out just how big it is. (Perception is everything.) When he joins The Circus of Dreams, he performs his act aloft the head of the Mighty Moustachio, to rapturous applause – deluding himself that the adulation is for him.

Combining a touching flea love story (don’t start scratching) with a message about being happy with what you have, and understanding that being a big star is all about your audience, this is a book that bursts with colour, enthusiasm and humour.

Told in rhyming verse that’s slightly reminiscent of the Ugly Bug Ball, this is a book with a heart. The story contains a plethora of insects and a zingy rhyme, as well as occasional moments of pathos.

The illustrations merge a circus with the insect world brilliantly – the insects’ antennae portrayed as bobbling dress-up hairbands, our protagonist flea wearing armbands to match his shorts, while his girlfriend Amelie wears a pink ra-ra skirt, pink glasses, and shows off her pink hair fuzz.

This is a vibrant picture book that is a joy to read aloud, and contains much within for discussion. A heart-warming tale about keeping perspective and seeing how your friends perceive you. We particularly loved the bravery of the lady flea left behind. Most tellingly, in a house fit to bursting with new picture books, this one has been declared a new favourite. A showstopper indeed. For ages 5+ years. You can buy it here.

jinks-and-ohare

Jinks and O’Hare Funfair Repair by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Another successful collaboration from Reeve and McIntyre, following Cakes in Space, Oliver and the Seawigs, and Pugs of the Frozen North. This one allows Reeve to go even further in his excellent world-building, fabricating a universe filled with planets, such as Funfair Moon, in which the book’s action is set, and OfficeWorld with its Water Cooler Flume Ride, opening hours 9-5 of course.

Emily is a girl engineer, who hangs out with the funfair fixers – Jinks and O’Hare – for enjoyment, and in the hope of becoming their apprentice. Jinks and O’Hare are excellent at their job, but when a safety inspector turns up, there is a horrible coincidental breakdown of rides resulting in terrible catastrophes, ranging from a fudgeplosion to a serious gravity inversion on the helter-skelter.

Emily is on the case to solve the mystery of why the rides keep breaking down, and what the strange ‘rustlers’ are doing in the funfair.

This is zany storytelling at its very best. Inventive, witty and engaging, Reeve and McIntyre work together like rhubarb and custard. There are Miss Haversham-esque dining table allusions in the ghost train, Star Wars and Alien witticisms throughout – both in text and illustration.

The observant reader will spot many hilarious incidents, and much attention to detail, from the illustrations of a mermaid with coffee cup and mobile phone to the self-referential newspaper, the innovative vocabulary, and the allusions to prior books (pugs).

But even if the reader isn’t aware of the allusions, the book remains a fun, madcap caper with loads to look at, with a great adventure and a stellar example of how to let loose with the imagination. An absurd treat of a rollercoaster ride. For ages 7+ years. You can purchase this here.

the-girl-who-walked-on-air

The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll

Inspired by history, Emma Carroll’s circus tale is set in the world of Victorian circuses. Another girl protagonist, this time Louie, who sells tickets at Chipchase’s circus. But she dreams of being a funambulist, training in secret before anyone else is awake.

There are other people keeping secrets though, including Mr Chipchase, and before long Louie is unravelling the mystery surrounding her absent parents, and her phenomenal talent for tightrope walking.

The structure of the book is purposefully like a show – with the first act at Chipchases, an interval in which Louis traverses the Atlantic, and the second act in which she defies death and crosses Niagara on a tightrope (inspired by the true story of Jean-Francois Gravelet, known as Blondin’ for his blonde hair).

Enthralling and riveting for its circus content, Carroll draws on a number of well-played tropes to establish her novel, from a red-haired extrovert orphan protagonist searching for a mother, to a Titanic-esque style sea-crossing (without the iceberg crash), and maltreatment of children/employees. However, Carroll has drawn from history, and the truth behind the stories she tells of daring stunts with wheelbarrows and all manner of props on a tight-rope make this story for children absolutely breath-taking.

It’s a gripping adventure mystery, mainly due to Carroll’s excellently tight plotting and her winning style, which carries the reader along with ease and grace. Bound up within the story is the determination of the heroine, and the life lessons of trust and bravery – two key skills from tightrope walking that can be transferred to real life.

This is a thrilling tale of circuses and self-discovery which leaves the reader satisfied. Another testament to a good book – every child I’ve met who has read this story has loved it. For age 9+ years. Buy yours here.

the-greatest-show

The Greatest Show of All by Jane Eagland

This rather easy yet compelling story by Jane Eagland retells the story of Twelfth Night in a dyslexia friendly print for a reading age of eight, yet with a teen audience in mind. It transposes the hidden identities, misplaced romance and fun world of Shakespeare’s play into the world of the circus.

Kitty follows her brother in running away from her family farm and joins a circus. But to work with the horses there, she has to disguise herself as a boy, which she does, successfully. Kit works with horse performer Jack and falls in love with him, but he in turn is in love with the tight-rope walker, Sarah. And Sarah is further tied into the love triangle.

With escaping lions, evil clowns, daredevil performances, this is a whirlwind of a book, but at no time too challenging to understand the plot twists, identities and emotions. Our protagonist Kitty is more than likeable – she is empathetic herself, kind and generous, and its lovely to see a story where good triumphs over bad and there’s a happy ending.

A great re-telling, perfect for its audience. Check it out here.

poppy-pymthe-war-next-door

Other great circus reads include Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse by Laura Wood, and The War Next Door by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie. Poppy Pym is about a girl who grows up in the circus, but when she turns eleven, the circus decide to send her to a proper school. The book turns into a mystery, after an incident with an exhibition of Ancient Egyptian artefacts at Poppy’s new school, but Poppy discovers she needs her circus family to help her solve the crime. The first in the series, this is a great adventure for readers aged 9+ with another feisty heroine. Buy it here.

Phil Earle’s book, The War Next Door, is the third in his series about Storey Street. The plot pivots on a turf war over a houseless patch of land in the middle of a row of terraces. The tussle over space and ownership and the reaction to the circus family who pitch up one day holds a dark side that contrasts nicely with this series’ generally upbeat and funny tone and self-referential author jokes. As in the first in the series, Demolition Dad, in which the father’s tendency to depression was tested, this too provides a good story with a deeper moral angle behind it, in this case, how one treats neighbours and ‘outsiders’. The circus performers are particularly brought to life by talented illustrator Sara Ogilvie. You can buy it here.

Mystery Stories

We start solving mysteries from early on. Most toddlers play with some kind of shape sorting – working out that the square block fits through the square hole. Perhaps then moving onto jigsaw puzzles – at first the large ones with sticking up handles, and then finally the traditional puzzles, creating pictures of Disney heroines or maps of the world. All this goes towards child development in developing the gross and fine motor skills of course, but solving puzzles enables a child to hone memory, use logic and refine observation skills, and to sort the red herrings from the real clues.

Then eventually, putting pen to paper, children may tackle a spot the difference, a wordsearch, a crossword, a su doku.

What’s satisfying about these tasks is that by solving the problem, a child is restoring order at the end – bringing closure to the problem, much in the same way that authors end children’s books – with uplifting closure.

And the same applies to reading a detective or mystery story. Enid Blyton used to be the doyenne of such spiels – her Secret Seven and Famous Five solving mystery after mystery. Scooby Doo followed on TV, and we became a nation of child detective experts. Mysteries force the reader or viewer to hold information in their head, whilst following the story and working out critically where the story is headed – analysing characters for motive and honesty.

In contemporary children’s literature the depth and breadth of mystery stories is quite astounding; more and more of these land on my desk every day.

detective dog

Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
In picture books, the most recent is Julia Donaldson’s The Detective Dog. Not her strongest, but this time she’s paired with illustrator Sara Ogilvie, whose illustrations are bright, comic and refreshing. The Detective Dog’s mission is to see where all the books from the school have disappeared to. Despite some rather tenuous plotting, the book celebrates love of libraries (if only I knew of a real library that looked like the illustration in here – every booklover’s dream), but the story is sweet and the illustrations exquisite. There’s no doubt Donaldson is our queen of picture book rhyme:

“Thousands of books, from the floor to the ceiling.
The books gave the thief the most heavenly feeling.
He gazed in amazement. “Where am I?” he said,
And Peter replied, “In the library, Ted.”

You can buy it here.

dotty detective

Dotty Detective by Clara Vulliamy
For newly independent readers, Clara Vulliamy’s offering, Dotty Detective, fits the bill beautifully. Filled to the brim with illustrations, capital letters, italics, and written in a clearly paced diary format, this is the story of Dot, a little girl with more personality than doodles in the book. The text reads breathlessly – Dot talking to the diary – and soon she forms a detective agency with her school friend and faithful dog. There are some lovely ideas tucked in here, from the pink wafer code to homemade periscopes – lots of references to what’s important to this age group – sparkly red lucky shoes and yummy dinners, and enough dropped clues that the young reader can solve the mystery ahead of Dot. This is a perfect step up from picture books – the number of maps, illustrations, fake photographs, notes and even word searches mean that this is a story that lends itself as much to visual literacy as to textual. Seek the first in the series here.

nancy parker

Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection by Julia Lee
Another diary format, and more mysteries in this historical book from Julia Lee. It is the 1920s and Nancy Parker has been employed as a housemaid for her first job. She has a penchant for reading six-penny thrillers, and wants to be a detective, so she seeks our mystery where she can. And luckily for her, there does seem to be some strange activity from her new employer – she has lavish parties, a murky past and a cook with a secret. Add to that a spate of local burglaries, and Nancy’s detective skills are put to use.

There’s a lovely rounded cast here, from the boy next door – Quentin Ives who wishes he was a dashing undercover spy called John Horsefield, but is really rather a nincompoop, and Ella, the brave and daring daughter of a local archaeologist. The three children are thrown together in solving the mystery, and although reluctant at first, realise that they are stronger together.

This book is full of wry comic fun, and great characters. Each child is so well painted, so thoroughly flawed and yet likeable that the reader will never tire of reading of their adventures (albeit there is no massive mystery to solve in the end). Partly written as Nancy’s diary in stunning handwritingish typeface, and partly in third person prose from the different children’s points of view, this was a really enjoyable read with great historical detail. Highly recommend. For 9+ years. Buy it here.

alice jones

Alice Jones by Sarah Rubin
Far more contemporary, Alice Jones is presented as a bit of a whizz kid. She excels at maths, and has a reputation for solving mysteries before the story begins. When a famous scientist goes missing after reputedly inventing an invisibility suit, Alice has to work out how to find him, at the same time as protecting her friends.

Alice is a great character, not merely a Nancy Drew who only solves mysteries, but someone with a life outside, including school, friends and family. She is clever but displays dry humour, and develops well during the novel, realising that classroom troublemaker Kevin Jordan may work as a good ally in problem solving. She also has to deal with her home life – a family that needs some problem-solving too.

The story is set in Philadelphia and there are definite Americanisms throughout, but the hardest task was solving the mystery – readers will need to be steered thoroughly by Alice – there is none of the blatant clue-dropping as in the titles above, where the reader learns more than the protagonist. However, it’s great to see a heroine deciphering clues with her intelligence rather than random flashes of intuition, and it makes for a gripping read. Age 10+ years. Buy it here.

There are so many more mystery stories for this 9+ age group, that it’s hard to cover them all, but here are some of my favourites:

mmu

The Wells and Wong Mysteries, starting with Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens is one of my favourite series. Set in the 1930s, it mashes Agatha Christie mysteries with Enid Blyton boarding schools. In the first in the series, Daisy and Hazel set up a detective agency in their school to look for missing ties and suchlike, but then stumble across the body of the science mistress lying dead in the gym. Suddenly they have a real mystery to solve. A brilliant story, complete with boarding school rules and regulations, but also the twist of a murder to solve. Great gentle fun; if you haven’t discovered them yet, you’re in for a treat. Seek it here.

marsh road mysteries

The Marsh Road Mysteries, starting with Diamonds and Daggers by Elen Caldecott. This series, all set in the same street with the gang of children who live there is reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives simply because the setting is almost as much a part of the story as the mystery itself. Caldecott is a very skilful writer, and hops from head to head in the narrative, so that each child’s viewpoint is seen. The first book in the series tells the story of a missing diamond necklace – a famous actress comes to the local theatre, but when her necklace goes missing, the prime suspect is one of the local children’s dads. Piotr has to fight to find out who really did it to avoid being sent ‘home’ to Poland with his security guard Dad. Each character is well defined; and the readership will adore the familiar territory of friendships and loyalties as the series progresses. Compelling and really vibrant – a modern day Famous Five (but better!). Buy it here.

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Mystery and Mayhem anthology
This is one I have featured before here, when Helen Moss kindly guest-posted. This is a sumptuous book of mini-mysteries from many of the authors featured today, so the reader can have a sample of small mysteries (which are easy to solve by the reader) and find out which author’s style they like. My favourite, The Mystery of the Green Room by Clementine Beauvais.

Try also Helen Moss, The Adventure Island and Secrets of the Tombs series, Lauren St John, The Laura Marlin Mysteries, and Katherine Woodfine, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow.

 

Mothers in Modern Children’s Books

In a great deal of children’s fiction, mothers are either dead, disappeared or distant. As a mother myself, that’s always a little frustrating – although I realise that the reason my children haven’t discovered a Magic Faraway Tree in the garden, escaped to another world through the wardrobe, or fallen down a rabbit hole is because I’m always there, beating on the door, interrupting every scene, making a nuisance of myself with my rules and fussiness.

The following children’s books all feature mothers very kindly – in one even pointing to the fact that they are superheroes – so for mother’s day, I’m celebrating the mothers who feature, rather than fade into the background.

the paper dolls

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
One of the slightly lesser known Julia Donaldson stories, this is a nostalgic ride through childhood, describing the craft activity of a small girl, and her memories of it as she grows. The mother, first labelled as ‘nice’ in the text, is portrayed with more empathy in the pictures – the reader sees her on her knees beside her daughter with a cup of tea in hand. She looks on fondly at her daughter colouring in the paper dolls. She has clearly helped to make them.

The mother disappears as the girl takes her dolls away to play, but returns to join in the make-believe at the breakfast table – donning a crocodile puppet. Unfortunately she can’t rescue her daughter’s paper dolls when a nasty boy comes to snip them to pieces. The little girl then grows into a mum herself:

“And the girl grew…into a mother”, my favourite illustrations portraying the child growing from holding a book to holding a baby – and then

“who helped her own little girl make some paper dolls”, this time at the table, but mimicking the former picture, with similar props.

The text doesn’t rhyme, as in many favourite Donaldson titles, but there is a superb sing-song rhythm to the story, which a reader can’t help but pronounce as its read aloud.

Of course I’ve picked it for the depiction of a mother who plays with her child, but actually the story is about loss – the fluidity of time, the memories of things now long gone, including people, and the inherited culture that continues from one generation to the next. Because after all, as mothers, we’re teaching children about our heritage, and giving them tools to manage and enjoy their future. Purchase it here.

polly and puffin

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty
Just published, this is a book that captures the relationship between mother and child in a few simple words, and with just a few pages evokes real emotion in the reader.

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day is the second in the series. Polly is waiting for her father to come home in his boat, but the waiting is difficult, and even harder when it’s raining outside and a storm makes her feel anxious. With beautiful two-colour illustrations throughout, shades of orange and grey creating the perfect mix between a child’s outlook and the approach of a grey storm.

Of course, her puffin, Neil, features heavily in this series of books about the friendship between the girl and the rescued puffin – and the illustrations of Neil are also accentuated by the chosen colour palette (black and white and an orange beak). Polly is distressed when he flies off into the storm and she has to wait for him to return as well as her father.

There are some beautiful touches of interplay between mother and daughter. Polly wakes up early, the inference is that it is too early, and:

“Mummy was trying to do Busy Stuff.”

She asks Polly for five minutes – and the author turns to talk to the reader:

“Can you just give me five minutes?” said Mummy. (Does your mummy ever say that?)”

There are some real moments of emotional intelligence all the way through the book, from the illustrations of Mummy at the computer with Polly hanging round her neck, to Mummy’s comforting of Polly during the storm:
“I would come and find you. That’s what mummies do. Shelter you from storms.”

Mummy also shows Polly that she is not alone in her waiting – with a sympathetic and understanding explanation of all the other people who are waiting in the café. There is a beautifully happy uplifting ending of course – a hug of a story. At the end there is information on lighthouses, recipes and activities. Perfect for newly independent readers, and mums who want their heartstrings twanged. You can buy it here.

superhero street

Superhero Street by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
For my eagle-eyed readers, you’ll see that this is the second in Phil’s series of Storey Street books, and the first, Demolition Dad, I featured last Father’s Day, so it’s rather fitting that this second slots into my Mother’s Day post.

Mouse lives on Storey Street with his twin and triplet brothers. He is obsessed with superheroes, and knows he could be one himself, as heroes tend to come from the ordinary – just look at Clark Kent. So far though, he hasn’t been successful.

When he and his mother accidentally foil a bank robbery, his dreams of being a superhero come true. When other ‘superheroes’ arrive at his house, he and they band together to stop a dastardly villain returning to claim her missing diamond.

The story is slightly more insular than Demolition Dad – it is almost entirely focussed on Mouse’s family, with friends on the street as periphery characters only, but this is mainly because Mouse’s own family is a bit of a mess, and rather sprawling. Mouse feels overlooked at home, with five smaller brothers to look after, his parents are exhausted. Then when his Dad walks out, Mouse’s despair sinks to new levels. If children are unhappy at home, it’s hard to shift the focus away.

Because this is for younger readers than Phil Earle’s YA territory, he very cleverly weaves the silliness of the story, complete with madcap and lunatic characters such as superhero Dandruff Dan, into the mix, so that bodily function jokes mask the seriousness of a father leaving home and the burden left behind on the mother.

The underlying message is that anyone can be a superhero if they act in the correct way – Mouse’s mother is certainly a superhero in my eyes, and in illlustrator Sara Ogilvie’s eyes: her portrayal of Mum in the kitchen supervising her six boys. Mouse’s mother is also the school lollipop lady – another community superhero.

Phil’s penchant for authorial references and asides to the reader always makes me giggle, and emphasise that he’s telling a story:

“People throw parties for lots of different reasons. Birthdays, weddings, chickenpox…don’t laugh, it’s true, go and ask your mum. Well, go on! OK, are you back? Comfy? Good…”

So combined with the silliness of the plot, the hilarious illustrations, and the comedic text, this makes for a riotous book despite the underlying seriousness.

A superhero writer – showing the goodness of mothers. For readers aged 7+ years. You can buy it here.

sam and sam

The Secrets of Sam and Sam by Susie Day

What’s better than one mum? Two mums! As Susie Day puts it in The Secrets of Sam and Sam:
“One mum was good. Two mums was best.”

This novel is a spin-off title from Susie Day’s much loved series about Pea (including Pea’s Book of Best Friends). Secondary characters in Pea’s books, the twins Sam and Sammie move centre stage with their own story here, in a loveable tale about being twins, having a loving family, school trips, conquering fears, making friends and builders!

Told in a series of vignettes about Sam’s secrets, and then also third person narrative about both twins, as well as letters, annotations on the book Mum K (child psychologist) is writing, and various other documents and text messages, this is a hilarious look about finding out who you are, what you can achieve, and how to make friends.

Sam is scared of heights and wants to avoid the school trip, which sounds dangerous and risky. Sammie is delighted about the school trip, but rather worried that her best friend has a new best friend. And she needs to prove to everyone that she’s definitely the Best Twin. Meanwhile Sam and Sammie’s two mums have secrets of their own.

This is a fun story that children will whizz through, sympathising at times with both twins, and seeing the delightful irony and wit that shines through Susie Day’s writing.

The author is brilliant at conveying the messiness, stresses, and love of the family unit in all its different guises and ways – even with the peripheral characters in this novel, and that’s what makes the read heart-warming, sincere, and sharp too. She imbues her characters with a warmth and generosity – even when they’re making mistakes (the adults too), so that the reader both empathises with them, and feels a familiarity with the book too. Her settings are incredibly visual – the street is particularly well-described, so that the reader is completely immersed.

Dotted throughout with doodly illustrations by Aaron Blecha, the book feels both meaty in content and yet satisfyingly easy to fly through – highly recommended for children aged 8+ years. And it features a family with two mothers. Hard to beat on Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.

Top Ten(ish) Books Published 2015

I’m not convinced on the end of year lists thing. MinervaReads raison d’etre being that one list of ten books would not suit any two children – different books suit different children. However, this being the time of year when we all go crazy and make top ten lists of absolutely everything, here are the top ten children’s books of MINE for 2015 – simply the books I most enjoyed reading (for review purposes). And by the way, this was ridiculously tricky (which is why I kind of cheated and mentioned 16).

bear on chairplease mr pandaBear and the Piano

There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins
I first saw a copy of this book pre-publication in April when a sample was thrust upon me at a conference. I agreed with the publisher that this was bound to be a hit and subsequently reviewed on publication in June. For me, I like picture books that, as a parent, you are happy to read over and over – as that’s what a child demands. I also like inference – when you have to work out a bit of the story for yourself – and illustrations that elicit a wry smile or an outright guffaw. The text is reminiscent of Dr Seuss, the pictures humorous and warm. This ticked all the boxes and it’s my picture book of the year. A small mention to Please Mr Panda – which just crept into 2015 books, and is probably my joint favourite – Steve Antony is proving to be a master of his trade – and the panda is one of my favourite modern picture book characters, demanding politeness from children in the simplest yet most exquisite way. I can’t wait for him to demand patience from them, as he will be doing in 2016 with I’ll Wait, Mr Panda. One other picture book I’d recommend as a startling debut and one to not be missed from the 2015 publications list is The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield. The messages within the story, and the way the illustrations capture light, make this a totally exquisite book.

tree

Tree by Britta Teekentrup and Patricia Hegarty
Non-fiction is being packaged more and more effectively by clever children’s publishers, and for me Tree stood out as one of the best cross-overs between fiction and non-fiction this year. The text is poetic (it also rhymes) and fictional – but through its illustrations, Tree shows the changing of the seasons, making clever use of die-cuts so that the reader can see inside the tree too. The colour palate in this book is a treasure in itself – as the same tree morphs from season to season – the leaves, creatures and surrounding atmosphere changing, the basic trunk stays the same. This was a book that was pounced on by all children as soon as they saw it, and held wonders within.

the school of art

School of Art by Teal Triggs, illustrated by Daniel Frost
This features as my non-fiction title of the year, as never has a book managed to explain complicated concepts and high-art techniques and subjects to me in such a simple way. Knowing nothing about the subject, I came to this as a child would and was entranced with the wonderful explanations – the introduction of professors who taught different knowledge bases, and the fantastic examples and try-it-at-home sequences – all of which worked exceptionally well. The design of the book was different too – clean, tidy and neatly colourful. In my initial review I found some of the text quite dense, but actually have since dipped in and out very successfully, and love that the book is so comprehensive. A rich overarching story within which the separate sections operate well on their own or as part of a whole. The book imparts great knowledge.

completely cassidy

Completely Cassidy: Accidental Genius by Tamsyn Murray
I have to admit, many books purporting to tell a story from a 9-13 year old contemporary girl’s point of view about her family/friends/school/boys, crop up on my radar. This one stood out for me because I simply couldn’t put it down. Cassidy rang so true, her character was so alive – I demolished this book in a sitting and was laughing out loud. With random doodles, fun graphics and capital letters, this was the most fun I had reading this year.

Mango and Bambang

Mango and Bambang by Polly Faber and Clara Vulliamy
This is the year for me in which illustrated stories piqued the attention like no other category within children’s books – from the phenomenal duo of Philip Reeve and Sarah Macintyre with Pugs of the Frozen North to Squishy McFluff by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad , to Dave McKean’s Illustrations of Phoenix by SF Said, to the ongoing success of Claude by Alex T Smith and Tom Gates by Liz Pichon, and of course our children’s laureate’s wonderful Ottoline. However, Mango and Bambang was like a breath of fresh air in the genre – a tidal wave of happiness – with its two tone colour perfection – its stripes, its worldly setting, its characters. This first book contains four individual stories about a girl who discovers a lost tapir. It is gentle, yet alluring.

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Stonebird by Mike Revell
Although published early in 2015, and one of the first books I reviewed, this story still sticks fast in my memory – its poignant storytelling with a touch of magic about a boy who moves house, so that his mother can be nearer his grandmother who suffers from dementia, both engages and enthralls. The book deals sensitively with the consequences of the move, including the bullying Liam experiences at his new school, as well as the effect on his mother. Liam overcomes some of his problems by seeking the help of responsible grown-ups, and using the magic of storytelling. It deserves to be in every school library, and I hope for more from this author. Later in the year, reading In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll, I was also smitten with a protagonist dealing with the fallout from illness in the family, and some magic in the surroundings – both these titles, for age 9+ yrs struck me as being brilliantly evocative.

An Island Of Our Own

An Island Of Our Own by Sally Nicholls
I was gearing up to interview Sally Nichols for #YASHot in September (although this didn’t quite happen as Sally had her baby – congrats!) but in preparation I read all of Sally’s books. This one stands out for several reasons. Beautifully short chapters that enable even the most reluctant reader to sample small delectable portions of Sally’s writing, and wonderful characterisation – Sally definitely wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Cast, as her secondary characters are so wonderfully defined I know I’m not the only reviewer to have fallen for Jonathan, the protagonist’s big brother. She also weaves a neat mystery plot. Sally incorporates great use of setting from the flat the children live in, to the island they visit, as well as introducing exciting extra information into her books, in this one, the MakerSpace organisation. A great book.

demolition dad

Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Phil Earle has been writing for a while, but mainly for slightly older children, so it was a blessing that he decided to reach down the age ladder slightly with this terrifically funny, yet also poignant, well-crafted novel. A great plot, sense of community, carefully dealt with emotion, an insight into father/son relationships – this book has so much. The humour is intensified by Phil’s self-referential jokes, as well as Sara Ogilvie’s amazing illustrations. A gem (and also more to come focussing on the same community next year).

The Dreamsnatcher cover FINAL

The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone
Another book I stumbled across pre-publication, and adored. Dark fantasy with such dense imagery, but led by a forcefield in the shape of Moll, our protagonist. Brave, feisty, impetuous, like a younger contemporary Northern Lights Lyra mixed with the determination of Sara Crewe from A Little Princess, and Wonderland Alice’s curiosity, and Elphinstone has drawn quite a heroine. With the darkest prologue I’ve read for a while (I like dark), and a vigorous plot, this was an influential read. Looking forward to reviewing the sequel The Shadow Keeper next year (with some more deliciously dark scenes from Abi Elphinstone’s wild imagination).

The Boy Who Drew the Future

The Boy Who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivory
This was such an enjoyable read, it was another I consumed in a day. Told from a dual narrative point of view, one set historically, the contemporary, the themes and settings danced between the two – Ivory cleverly dropping clues in each to build to a dramatic climax. The characters were intensely loveable, there was clear anguish and conflict, and some brilliantly spooky coincidences. Simple, compelling storytelling.

OneRailhead

Young Teens
Two books that stood out for me in the highest age range I cater for, were One by Sarah Crossan, and Railhead by Philip Reeve. The former for Crossan’s stunning use of free verse to tell her story of conjoined twins – packed with beautiful memorable language, and strung with emotion. The latter for its uncompromising science fiction world-building, to the extent that the reader is pulled in without any misgiving. Intriguing characters, tense, grotesque (I will never forget the hive monks), exciting, scintillating – and the sort of book you wouldn’t just thrust upon your young teen, but also share with all the grown-ups too.

Wolf Wilder

Lastly, (I know I’m already well over ten), my award for most stunning writing goes to Katherine Rundell. I imagine her as a kind of Elsa from Frozen – words flung from her fingertips onto the page with magnificent magical majesty, just as ice flies from Elsa’s fingertips. She writes with meticulous precision – every word well placed, every phrase constructed like dainty decorations on a wedding cake. It is clear, crisp, attractive, easy to read, and highly perceptive.

Long before publication of her 2015 novel, The Wolf Wilder, the enchantment of the first line was on everyone’s lips “Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl” and the images of the snowy landscape, the descriptions of the soldiers, the telling of the life of the wolves suck the reader into the story. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Father’s Day

Sometimes the best presents are those that you share. For Father’s Day – and I’m posting this early so that you have time to buy the right gift, here are some books about dads that fathers can share with their children. For me, and many others, the quintessential father in children’s books features in Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World: “My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”

But I’ve found some other marvellous and exciting fathers for you in children’s literature. First, picture books:

superhero dad

Superhero Dad by Timothy Knapman, illustrated by Joe Berger
A simple idea, astutely executed. To the narrator (the small boy) of the picture book the boy’s Dad is a superhero – everything he does is super. Of course to anyone else, he is a normal Dad. Although, clearly an excellent modern Dad who spends a considerable amount of time with his son, cooking for him, telling him jokes, and playing with him. An exuberance pitches the reader headlong into the book and the rhyming text and joyful rhythm continue to the end. The illustrations match perfectly, so that our rather comical fairly skinny ordinary Dad in glasses is seen holding the tiny dog Jumbo above his head in an extraordinary pose:
“His jokes are Super Funny…
…and his laugh is Super Long.
He can pick up our dog Jumbo
so he must be Super Strong.”
Every word is taken tongue-in-cheek, every picture matches. And yet the tone is loveable, warm and enchanting. The punchline is simplistic yet apt – the father denies he is a superhero, insisting instead that he knows of a superhero – his superhero son. There is also playfulness with the layout of the text – using bold and larger letters to convey emphasis and differentiation. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad beard

My Dad’s Beard by Zanib Mian and Laura Ewing
This was published last year by a new publisher, Sweet Apple, which continues to grow their list. Although slightly niche, in that it appeals obviously to those whose fathers have beards, it is both cute and original. For younger children than those I usually cater for, each page draws on an example of why the child loves his Daddy’s beard – and how it defines him. It draws on our sensory perceptions from describing the look of the beard – how it is different from other family members’ beards – to the feel of it in different situations, and finally to what the child imagines lives in it (spoiler: a teeny tiny cat). It also manages to draw in the rest of the family as the child witnesses their perceptions of what the beard means to them. This is clever in that it highlights the important place the father has within this family – as a protector, and a person whom they trust and look up to. It draws on Islam in that it explains why this particular Dad has a beard, and so works as a picture book that reaches out to a diverse audience. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad birdman

My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
Many children’s authors absent one or both parents so that the children of the story can go on an adventure without parental restrictions. What’s beautiful about David Almond’s writing is that so often (as with Roald Dahl), it is the adults themselves who bear the idiosyncrasies that make the story so appealing. Although one parent is absent here – the death of the mother is an overriding concern throughout this short tale – the consequences lead to a strengthening and developing of relationship between the daughter and the father. Lizzie’s Dad wants to enter a Human Bird competition, and believes he needs to adopt the characteristics of a bird to be able to fly. He encourages Lizzie to join him in this mad venture, despite the protestations of her adorable Aunt Dotty. The premise is barmy, the characters eccentric – but illuminated by Polly Dunbar’s flamboyant illustrations, the book manages to soar. Highly original, imaginative and everything a children’s story should be. Wonderfully typical David Almond. Age 6+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

demolition dad

Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Phil Earle’s fictional father comes about as close to Danny the Champion’s Dad as I can find. However, as with much children’s fiction I’ve been reading recently, this is a depiction of a modern Dad who fits right into our current world. Jake and his Dad love to spend every Saturday together pursuing their hobby in common – wrestling. Jake’s Dad George knocks down buildings as a day job, and at the weekend takes part in wrestling matches – knocking down other men – and he’s really good at it. So good, that Jake thinks he should go public, and so secretly enters a video of him in action in a pro-wrestling competition. When George wins, he agrees to travel to America for training and a headline fight, mainly for Jake, but unfortunately things start to unravel, and it’s not quite the dream venture they had all planned.
There were so many things to love about this book. As a refreshing change from much of the ‘humorous’ fiction in the marketplace for this age group – this book wasn’t full of silly jokes and slapstick happenings. It is extremely funny but the humour is carefully woven into the story; there are many wry laughs here, not fart jokes. Also, the wrestling is a major factor but doesn’t dominate. What comes across and leaves quite an impression is Phil’s adeptness at portraying the hidden emotions of parents, the sense of a community in a town, friendships, and most importantly father and son relationships. It’s clever, has emotional depth, and packs quite a punch. Touches I enjoyed – how the mum’s past career influences her behaviour, Phil’s capturing of the small town landscape complete with the ‘house that was stolen’ mid terrace, and Jake’s wonderful innocence and naivety – and his gradual responsive awareness. There are some stunning illustrations from Sara Ogilvie – the cover itself betrays this – but there are even better ones inside (the fight scenes are spectacularly hysterical). Moreover Phil Earle’s self–referential authorial musings are brilliant – see chapter 17. If you buy your Dad just one book this Father’s Day – make it this one. (then keep it for yourself). Age 8+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

a boy called hope

A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson
On the other end of the spectrum from Danny Champion of the World’s Dad is the Dad in A Boy Called Hope. That’s mainly because he’s absent, having left his family and remarried. This is heartbreaking for Jake Hope, the boy in the story, especially when his Dad appears on the television in his role as a journalist – the first time that Jake has seen him in four years. Sadly, this speaks to so many children today. But despite the sadness of the situation, this is a poignant and uplifting story. Jake comes to see that he is surrounded by a loving family – especially as his Mum has met someone new, Big Dave, who actually turns out to be a terrific father to Jake.
Lara Williamson has magic on her side – she imbues the novel with a myriad of symbols and devices from sky lanterns to glow-in-the dark statues and stars that lift Jake’s situation from the humdrum of normality to the wonder of childhood – she lets us see things through Jake’s eyes that we would never normally capture in our vision.
There is humour too – Jake frequently misinterprets situations which leads to some trouble, but in the end, much laughter, and there are some splendid characters too – from his friends Christopher, who has his own troubles, to Jo, who is obsessed with the saints. It was also hugely enjoyable to read about Jake’s teenage sister through his eyes – older siblings can seem so detached from the family until you dig beneath the surface a little.
This is a wonderful book – fantastically true characterisation, and great writing. Be prepared for tears to accompany the laughter though – as in real life – sometimes you have to make the best of what you’ve got. You can buy it here from Waterstones or see the Amazon sidebar.