Showing posts with label Book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book review. Show all posts

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Book Review: 'The Closest Thing To Flying' by Gill Lewis

If you're looking for a book to provoke conversation with children and young people, then this would be a good choice. Especially if you want to tackle, or just discuss, issues such as bullying, discrimination against women and human trafficking.

Semira, a refugee from Eritrea, discovers an old diary of a girl living at the end of the Victorian period. As she reads it, a bond spanning the chasm of time develops between her and Henrietta. Samira identifies with the plight of voiceless 19th century British women and is ultimately inspired by their courage to escape her own situation. Although this concept isn't original, it is certainly done well in 'The Closest Thing To Flying'.

I've read several books for children and young adults centring around the lives of refugees but this is the first one which truly takes on the theme of human trafficking. Robel provided safe passage for Semira and her mum when Semira was little but now, in the UK, he is controlling them, forcing Semira's mum into a sham marriage, taking all the money from the jobs she works and providing them with inadequate food and living conditions. Whereas many of us are aware of the term 'human trafficking', there is still little understanding of what this can incorporate, or how we can help.

But the diary isn't Semira's only lifeline. Thankfully she has school - another new one - where she meets and makes good friends, particularly with Patrick. Patrick has known life with an abusive father, however his mum's current partner provides the antidote to the other patriarchal (and just plain vile) male adults in the story. He up-cycles bicycles, bakes delicious cake and always has time to listen. Patrick's family's response to Semira's plight is a real example of how people can actually help those who are being trafficked.

Gill Lewis skilfully weaves the historical and present storylines together with various strengthening threads: readers will love spotting the links which focus on birds and bicycles. Henrietta is present at the formation of what is now known as the RSPB (all the names mentioned are actual historical people - lots of scope for further research and learning) and Patrick is an avid birdwatcher. The hat that Semira finds with the diary has on it a bird which she has memories of from her home country. Henrietta rides one of the first bicycles whilst delivering leaflets about the Society for the Protection of Birds and Semira discovers her own love of cycling. All of these links definitely mark this out as a work of fiction (a very well-realised one) yet they are what makes it such a joy to read, despite its tough content.

This would be a perfect read for children in upper key stage two, as well as children in key stage three. I'd totally recommend that parents and teachers read it if their children are reading it - not because the content is tricky, just because it would be such a shame to miss the opportunities for discussion that it affords!

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Book Review: 'The Dog Who Saved The World' by Ross Welford

'The Dog Who Saved The World' is Ross Welford's fourth book since 'Time Travelling With A Hamster' was published in 2016. In his latest novel for children Ross returns to the North East of England - Whitley Bay to be specific - and to the theme of time travel.

Except, there's a nice modern twist to the time travel aspect of the plot: Georgie Santos must travel forward in time in order to bring back a cure for a worldwide epidemic which is killing dogs and humans. Oh, and she doesn't actually need to really time travel - she's going to a virtual-reality 3D version of the future!

It all starts when Georgia and her best mate Ramzy meet the mysterious Dr. Pretorius when walking Mr Mash, the dog who will eventually go on to save the world. But before he does Georgie and Ramzy are going to wade through composting dog waste to rescue him, keep him secretly in a barn, evade the police in a rickety VW campervan, barricade themselves inside the Spanish City and nearly win the lottery. To begin with, the reader is left wondering how all the aspects of the story presented in the first half of the book will eventually entwine; this gives way to an adrenaline-filled sequence of events which results in triumph for the heroes of the story.

Once again bringing sci-fi themes to easily accessible children's literature, Ross Welford assembles a realistically diverse cast of well-drawn characters to embark on this barmy adventure set in the near-future. Along the way, Welford subtly causes readers to think. What was life like for Ramzy before he came to the UK if he had to slash the tyres of rebel soldiers without being shot? What's it like for children like Ramzy who don't have much money? How would I feel if my mum had died and my dad had a new girlfriend - could I grow to love her? How would we deal with a world-wide crisis?

The story is all told from Georgie's point of view and children will enjoy the chatty, informal style but will benefit from this being really well written. Although written from a child's perspective, perceptive readers will pick up cleverly placed clues and be one step ahead of Georgie at times - that feeling of being let in on secrets by the author is a very enjoyable one for children to experience.

A great holiday read for upper key stage 2 and key stage 3 readers, 'The Dog Who Saved The World'  will be enjoyed by girls and boys alike, and if its a shared read aloud, parents too will be happy to dig in and get involved.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Book Review: 'Kick the Moon' by Muhammad Khan

This is a first for my blog: a review of a Young Adult (YA) title. I read a few YA books but so far haven't written reviews of them, although I have featured them in a couple of book round-ups and it is true that some of the books I review are also suitable for older audiences than the primary age range I have focused on previously.

What other books might centre on as main themes, this book sidelines, making them the very fabric that the story is woven from: growing up, racism, sexism, family, friendship, gang violence, mysogyny, masculinity, homophobia, culture, religion, love, sex, and so on. In fact, the main thrust here is one of ownership.

Some might dismiss stories such as this as encouraging sentimental slush about finding yourself and then being true to self. But 'Kick The Moon' is about more than that: it allows that sometimes the self you find isn't always that great. A pre-teenage Ilyas, the story's unlikely hero (but only unlikely because we're conditioned to think that way), joins a gang as a way of being protected from bullies, only he finds himself in the hands of another bully. This version of Ilyas' self is not the self he should be true to, although he has believed it for some time. No, there is more to Ilyas, but breaking out of the grip he's in proves difficult.

In this book so many of the characters are owned: Ilyas' dad by a warped view of what it is to be a man, his sister by social media followers and society's views of beauty standards, the supporting cast by a desire to be popular, scary, noticed, loved, clever... Ilyas' mum stands out as one who understands more of what it is to be free from the judgement of others and the constant seeking of approval but even Kelly, the seemingly strong, proud feminist, temporarily betrays the values she seemed to hold so confidently. A rich tapestry of characters makes the story hugely multi-dimensional, making for a very believable read.

'Kick the Moon' is not about becoming perfect - it deals in overcoming and mastering personal flaws - but it is about taking ownership of one's life. Yet it is anti-individualism: yes, we might take ownership of our lives but that needs to include having the right people around us. And to make that happen we need realtionships; we need the right people around is. Ilyas finds his tribe, but not in a tribalistic sense - he finds those who are positive, supportive and who have the same verve for life that deep down he has always had.

Bravely tackling issues such as revenge porn and gang affiliation whilst shedding light on British-Pakistani culture and life in a South London school, Muhammad Khan uses the protagonist's love of comic books and art to weave a compelling narrative that many teenagers will identify with and hopefully learn from. Stereotypes are drawn on only to be broken down in this great follow up to debut YA novel 'I Am Thunder'.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Book Review: 'The Peculiar Peggs of Riddling Wood' by Samuel J Halpin

'The Peculiar Peggs of Riddling Wood' is a great tale of the paranormal aimed at readers aged 10 - 14. Creepy enough to provide a pleasant thrill without having to resort to hiding the book in the freezer, this debut from Samuel J Halpin has just the right amount of darkness to intrigue readers looking for something a little more disturbing.

But Halpin doesn't resort to cliches to achieve the unsettling atmosphere of this story - it's that subtle subversion of what's considered as normal that does it. Poppy goes to stay with her grandma, but something's not quite right in her town. There have been mysterious disappearances, yet life goes on just as normal life does in the 21st Century. There are plenty of clues for the reader - enough to know that something isn't right, but not enough to be properly aware of what's going on. And there aren't enough clues as to whether the occurrences can be explained away as criminal activity or whether something more sinister, more magical is going on. Halpin certainly leaves the reader guessing, which is quite unsettling, even as an adult reader!

And, as a result, this is a tale of two parts. Once the stage has been set, and Poppy and her new friend Erasmus' investigations seem to have ground to a halt, things start to get very strange, and fairytale-like. Fairly suddenly the reader is swept into a world of ancient witches and legends of old - a place where evil goings on can only be halted by those with the quickest of wit. And for while it looks like the game is up for Poppy and Erasmus - there are no easily-won happy endings in this book.

There is wit in the other sense of the word here, too. The darkness of the tale is balanced by plenty of quips and amusing set pieces. There are also plenty of sub-themes running through which enrich the substance of this novel - the death of a parent, old age, bullying, alcoholism - which would make for interesting conversation starters with children who are beginning to observe the real dark side of life.

It's hard to find genuinely disturbing but child-friendly novels - this could just be the book that some children, unsatisfied by the funny books, the adventure fantasies and the grown-up-books-for-kids, have been waiting for.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Book Review: 'The Girl With Shark's Teeth' by Cerrie Burnell

Cerrie Burnell (of CBeebies fame), author of picturebook 'Snowflakes' and 2016 World Book Day special 'Harper and the Sea of Secrets', has broken into the middle grade fiction world with style: 'The Girl With The Shark's Teeth' is a brilliant adventure story set in a fantasical but oh-so-immersive world.

And it's immersive in two senses of the word. Not only does the plot take place above and under water, it is also so well written that you don't doubt that this magical sub-marine kingdom could actually exist. Although the above-surface parts of the story draw on the reality of places such as Brighton, Reykjavik and Barbados, as well as the Carribean sea and the Atlantic Ocean, a huge portion of the story takes place in the Wild Deep - a well-imagined underwater world where all manner of seafolk live.

Right from the very beginning the reader is clued into the fact that there is more to Minnow than at first meets the eye. And when her mother, Mercy, is kidnapped, she begins a voyage of discovery, finding out along the way that her heritage is more amazing than she could ever have imagined. After a frosty first meeting with Raife, the two children set out to outwit the Greenland shark who guards the gate into the Wild Deep, leading them into a place where they aren't exactly welcome, and to an adventure they weren't quite expecting.

The convincing world building is aided by the fact that the story we read is rooted in a seemingly comprehensive mythology - I for one would quite happily read a real-life version of 'The Book of Sea Myths: Tales of the Sea', if Burnell fancied doing a JK Rowling Tales of Beedle The Bard-style spin-off volume. Not only are there stories, there are also songs - crucial for a novel so tied up in seafaring - I'd also love to hear them set to music.

Family, friendship, trust, betrayal, courage and discovery are all central themes to this wonderful, convincing book. And it's not just for fans of mermaids, or for girls - give this to your boys and they will be drawn in to this world of intrigue. I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up this book and I'm so glad that I did: here's to a sequel!




Sunday, 20 January 2019

Book Review: 'The Day I Was Erased' by Lisa Thompson

As a relatively new author on the children's publishing scene Lisa Thompson sure has made a splash. 2017's 'The Goldfish Boy' immediately caught the attention of readers and the follow up, 'The Light Jar', was eagerly anticipated and devoured by all who had read her debut. Exactly a year later Lisa is back with 'The Day I Was Erased'.

And first of all, it is definitely her funniest yet. The humour matches Mike Lowry's cartoonish illustrations making this a perfect pickup for children who are into the Diary Of... style books. They will certainly laugh along, but I'd like to think that they will get a little more from Thompson's writing.

Maxwell's parents are not happy - to an adult reader it's pretty obvious they're 'staying together for the kids' - and Maxwell's behaviour, particularly at school, is affected by it. For many children, this will be their reality and it is important that they see this reflected in the books they read. It's also a huge lesson in empathy for children who come from more stable homes, and who don't present challenging behaviour - here Thompson draws back the curtain and provides an insight in to the struggles of a naughty boy.

In fact, the whole book is about how one aspect of our character need not define us. Maxwell is a deeply caring, loving child - he loves the dog he rescued, he provides great comfort to his sister when she is bullied and he has befriended a forgetful old man, Reg.

The story really gets going when our main man Maxwell outdoes himself by ruining a huge school event which is being televised. With nowhere else to turn he heads to Reg's house where he wishes he'd never been born. Maxwell's wish comes true... in a way: he's still alive and so are all the people in his life, but none of them know him and their lives are very different.

This simple concept introduces children to the concept of the butterfly effect and is a perfect vehicle for exploring the positive impact that even the naughtiest of boys has had on the people in his life. Maxwell discovers that he has worth, he has value and that the people in his life really do need him - a fantastic thing for readers to realise about themselves, especially at moments when they are feeling underappreciated.

For Maxwell, this awakens in him a desire to return to his old life and to repent of his former ways (quite A Christmas Carol-esque, in that respect). But he doesn't really know how to get back. Thus, we have an adventure on our hands. Maxwell somehow convinces his sister and best friend (both of whom don't know him at all) to help him find out how to get back, which thankfully, they do. The ending is suitably bittersweet yet ever so satisfying.

Here we have another fantastic book from Lisa Thompson - probably my absolute favourite new author of the last few years. Fans of her previous work will love this and I suspect it will win over some new converts too. If you are a serious lover of children's fiction, don't hesitate to get hold of it. I already know who I'm going to lend my copy to - I think he'll get it.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Book Review: 'Football School Seasons 1, 2 and 3' by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton

Knowledge-rich curricula are all the rage in schools at the moment, and rightly so. And what better than knowledge-rich books to supplement what's being taught at school? I'll tell you: really interesting, really fun knowledge-rich books. Such books as Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton have written together: the Football School books.

The front cover of each of the three books carries the tagline 'Where football explains the world'. And although on each book the word 'explains' is crossed out and replaced (by 'rules', 'saves' and 'tackles') it really isn't just rhetoric. These books truly transcend football by using it as a conduit through which to explore a whole world of general knowledge as well as the football trivia.

The three books all follow the same format, kicking off with a contents page designed like a school timetable covering traditional subjects such as PSHE, History, Geography as well as some more specialist ones like Psychology, Philosophy, Business Studies and Computer Science.

Football lovers will devour the wealth of facts about football teams, players, team strips and will enjoy picking up playing tips too: there's a whole section on the psychology of taking a penalty, for example!

But the books' really majesty is in the fact that they are full of general knowledge that is unrelated to football. From sections about World War 1 to profiles of famous footballing countries such as Brazil readers will come away knowing about much more than just football. Book 3 even has a whole section about sleep which introduces its readers to terminology such as 'transitional phase' and 'circadian rhythm'.

And, just to make sure that some of the information is remembered, each section (or lesson) ends with a quiz about the chapter. With a multiple choice format these quizzes don't just focus on the football information but also on the general knowledge featured in the books.

But this sort of book wouldn't get a look-in without illustrations - Spike Gerrell's cartoon style makes for that winning formula of facts plus funny pictures; that format made popular by the Horrible Histories books. Children who love those and who are fans of books such as Diary of the Wimpy kid will be immediately drawn to these books. And it's not just the illustrations and the texts that appeal - the layout keeps things fresh with every page has its own interesting layout. Boredom will not be an issue whilst children (or adults) read these books.

With their simple yet engaging language the Football School books are pretty much an essential for any school bookshelf. Not that they would stay on the shelf for long - these are the exact sort of books that non-fiction lovers will be queuing up to borrow.

Book Review: 'Roy of the Rovers: Scouted' by Tom Palmer

This isn't just another football book to hook reluctant boys into reading. And it most certainly isn't a poor spin-off of the Roy of the Rovers comic strip which first appeared over 60 years ago in British comic Tiger. No, this is so much more and Tom Palmer has more than done justice to the Roy Race of old.

As a non-football fan I approached the book somewhat hesitantly thinking that maybe it wasn't for me. However, that hesitance was tempered by the knowledge that Tom Palmer really does write a good book - if there was any football novel I was going to like, it was going to be this one.

What this book, and its follow-up 'Kick-Off' (a graphic novel by Rob Williams and Ben Willsher), has made me realise is that one of the reasons why people love football so much is the narrative, the story, that goes along with it. It isn't just 22 players kicking a pumped up bit of leather around a piece of grass - it's everything that happens in between as well: the pre- and post-match analysis, the news stories about signings and finance, the drama of a game as seen from both the pitch and the stands, the rivalry between fans, the common ground it provides. It is the individual and interweaving human stories that make football the world's favourite sport - and Tom Palmer portrays that so well.

But 'Roy of the Rovers: Scouted' goes much further than just the football. Roy's dad's brain tumour operation went wrong and now he's paralysed down his left side and can't speak. Roy's mum is trying to work enough to provide for the family and lots of the caring falls to Roy and his sister. This theme is explored sensitively throughout as Roy's loyalty to both his game and his beloved dad are tested. Themes of love, bullying, friendship and commitment are weaved throughout the whole plot making this such a rich, emotional text.

There's also very strong female representation in the book - both Roy's sister, Rocky, and his new friend, Ffion, are excellent footballers and die-hard football fans - there's a great part near the end where Ffion calls Roy on his ignorance of women's football right before Rocky discovers that there is a team she can play for.

Football-lovers will love the description of on-pitch action which is pacy yet satisfyingly detailed. Lisa Henke's stylish illustrations, in particular cases are works of art - it's a shame her bold and stylised images didn't make it onto the front cover.

This is a book that I am looking forward to putting on the shelves at school - I know already that it will be a popular title amongst our football-loving children (not just boys!). The fact that is part of a growing 'saga', published by Rebellion, is another plus point - those who are hooked by the first two books will hopefully have more to access afterwards, not to mention Tom Palmer's own back catalogue of sport-related books.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Book Review: 'Little Bits of Sky' by S.E. Durrant

If I were to be lazy I'd describe 'Little Bits of Sky' as an emotional rollercoaster of a story about two children in care. But I have to do better than that - this book really deserves a review that does it justice.

In any case, it's not truly an emotional rollercoaster because S.E. Durrant so accurately depicts how life, even in tough circumstances, runs on the parallel tracks of opposing emotions. Siblings Ira (real name Miracle) and Zac live in a children's home and they know only too well how any given moment can be both joyful and full of sorrow. Readers of this book will experience just that - within a paragraph they will likely feel the urge to laugh aloud but be stopped from doing so by the lump in their throat.

And it is Durrant's beautiful prose that makes this possible. The writing is supremely believable as the thoughts of a child, recorded in a semi-diary form. The authenticty comes as a result of the inclusion of the small details that an optimistic child wanting to make the best of their life would focus on. Surprisingly it is these small details that keep the reader hooked - the storyline itself is slow-moving allowing plenty of space for a realistic portrayal of the world Ira, Zac and their fellow housemates live in: the coming and going, the behaviour of other children, school days, the relationships with social workers, siblings, teachers, friends, the coping mechanisms, the questions about parents.

What this everyday-ness ultimately achieves is a real feeling of empathy towards the children and a sense of mounting elation (and some dashed expectations) as the children go away to stay with Martha, a retired teacher who lives in a town outside of London. The story also contains some great twists as well as a surprising amount of history: the previously unchartered waters (in children's fiction) of the Poll Tax Riots in the late 80s are the setting for this brilliant novel.

Old or young, this moving story prompts reflection on the need for love and a sense of belonging, and the human ability to overcome adversity. Quite frankly, I wish every book I read were like this one - its gentle exploration of what it is to be a child, to be a person, is stimulating and somehow satisfyingly enjoyable. Substance, meaning and authenticity flow out of every page of 'Little Bits of Sky'. Do read it - everyone I've recommended it to so far has not been disappointed.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Book Review: Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me by Eloise Greenfield and Ehsan Abdollahi

In this heartwarming book of poems from Tiny Owl, poet Eloise Greenfield and illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi have collaborated to entertain and educate their young readers.

Veteran author Elosie Greenfield convincingly occupies the mind of both a young boy (Jace) and his puppy (Thinker). The majority of the poems in ‘Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me’ – kind of a book version of a concept album – are written from the perspective of the puppy, and the results are far better than that makes it sound. The na├»ve and innocent view point of the dog will cause young readers to stop, wonder and to consider the world they live in – adults too.

“tell me, why cold, cold water turns to ice, why some folks are mean and some are nice…”

And this isn’t just a collection of poems. They are sequenced in a chronological order so that a story is told: the puppy arrives, he is named, he gets to know his family, he wants to go to school with his boy but can’t, he stays home with his boy’s little sister, then triumph! he is allowed to go to pets day at school – the proud crescendo of this lovely little book.

As children read they will be unwittingly exposed to a wide range of poetry – much of it free verse, but not exclusively. There’s also a haiku, a rap and other forms which are intriguing to explore and possibly emulate with children (Birds Fly has a 2/3/4/4/3/2 syllable structure). Greenfield herself leaves a short comment on poetry at the end of the book helping children to understand a little more about what they have just read or heard.

Abdollahi brings a great deal to the table here too. Tiny Owl’s mission to bring a “greater awareness of the diverse and colourful world we live in” to their readers is helped massively by the vibrant pictures which accompany the text, and sometimes occupy whole double-page spreads. This is an impeccably-presented book making it seem more than the sum of its already considerable parts – in fact, it feels like a gift, something to be treasured.

Children and adults alike will love the inspiring philosophical playfulness of this beautiful tome: it’d make a perfect family present – one which will allow all generations to share in the joy of these poems.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Book Review: Red and the City by Marie Voigt

Retellings of fairy tales are not exactly few and far between: whilst some of them take the original route there are others which add something of a twist to the tale. And plenty of these retellings are great and are genuinely enjoyable. But ‘Red and the City’ by Marie Voigt doesn’t quite fall into either of the aforementioned categories – it is something else.

On one level it is a retelling where, instead of going through the woods to grandma’s house, Red goes through a city. But it’s actually deeper, and arguably far darker, than the original story. In Voigt’s version there is no literal wolf – the wolf is the allure of the city, or, more accurately, the potentially-damaging attractions and dangers of real life.

Spotting the wolf in each picture provided great amusement when reading this with my own children. But enjoyable isn’t all this book is – it is also highly thought provoking: why has Voigt decided to make billboards, fast food outlets, ATMs and so on into the big bad wolf in her version of the story? You’d be surprised at how easily children understand the metaphor with a little discussion.

In fact, it’s the brilliant illustrations, and the red, white and black colour palette, that really helps children to understand how dangerous some of life’s pleasures can be when they are given too much importance. The fact that Red is temporarily drawn in by these things instead of visiting her grandma is not lost on children and the red heart-shaped flowers that lead the way to grandma’s are a hint at what the author thinks is truly important in life.

There is an awful lot to talk about with this book but it can be read and enjoyed without doing so. Because of this it’s a book that could easily be read and understood by a wide age range, not excluding adults. It stands up admirably to repeat readings – readers will notice new details in the text and the pictures each time they open it. Reading it alongside others reveals further interpretations too making ‘Red and the City’ a great talking point. A must read.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Book Review: 'Snowglobe' by Amy Wilson

When a girl's already swirling world is shaken even further she discovers a world of magic that had been hidden from her, and for very good reason.

Amy Wilson's latest book Snowglobe is family drama but not as you know it. When a school bullying incident leads Clementine on a journey of self-discovery she gets involved in more than she bargained for - strange powers, disappearances, and an adventure in a previously-invisible house full of mysterious and macabre snowglobes.

As Clementine untangles her past she embarks on a quest for freedom, not only for herself, but for those whose only hope is her. In order to complete her quest Clem has to wrestle with family alliances, making difficult decisions about friendship and the greater good. The reality of life is never straightforward, especially not for young teenagers and pre-teens, so this book is a great sympathetic exploration of what it is to grow up and to begin to truly get to know oneself.

This adventure really picks up the pace as Clem, Dylan and Helios the dog search a network of enchanted snowglobes where hundreds of people with magical abilities are being held captive. This clever little device allows Wilson to explore a world of settings without the characters ever really leaving the room.

Upper Key Stage 2 children are sure to love the concept of this thrilling tale, and many will identify with Clem's struggles, albeit in a less magical way! A fairly dark tale ending in an explosion of light, this will have readers in its icy grip. A perfect winter read for those long dark days.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Book Review: 'Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony' by Chris Riddell

As with many of Chris Riddell's books it would be a real shame if Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony was only ever read by children. The appeal to adults and children is equal, making this a great one for parents and teachers to share with children.

Firstly, don't let the Goth part put you off (if you are the sort of person who might be put off by that): yes, there are light gothic undertones, but there are also dryads, garlands and baby lions. I say gothic undertones but if you don't like entire orchestras of the undead then perhaps it isn't for you. Such is the intriguing range of influences that Riddell, one suspects, gleefully brings to the mix.

Speaking of inspiration and adults reading children's books, this one is full, I mean full, of nods towards pop culture and current affairs as well as plenty of references to the history books (The Frying Scotsman, Joseph Haydn-Seek, Thomas Ripplingdale (the shirtless furntiure maker!)) and classic literature (Pilgrim's Progress, Narnia, Under Milk Wood, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner off the top of my head). There are times when Riddell's illustrations for this latest Goth Girl book might easily be mistaken as one of his political cartoons for The Guardian (only the lack of colour mark them out as being deliberately drawn for ...the Sinister Symphony): the depiction of Donald Ear-Trumpet (with his tiny hands and his cry of 'fake shoes' was one of my favourite parts! I certainly look forward to exploring the many links as I read this with my children.

The language Riddell injects into his work is playful, providing more entertainment for grown-ups and children who love exploring words. I've used quirky to describe his books before but the more I read, the more I believe this should just be normal for books aimed at Key Stage 2 children. Children at that age love a bit of humour in their books but often books fulfilling that criteria are very one dimensional - Riddell's Goth Girl books are anything but.

And that's a lot to say for a book whose illustrations, quite obviously, are its finest point. As ever, the pictures are liberally applied throughout, intriguing and entertaining with their wry humour and visual perfection. There are some marvellous double-page spreads - the one of The Disinterred Ghastlyshire Orchestra is a favourite as zombiefied Saxons, Victorians and everything in between rub decaying shoulders as they clutch their assortment of instruments.

Although this is ostensibly about how Ada Goth's father Lord Goth puts on a music festival, it's really a parody of aristocratic life where family, historically inaccurate classless friendships and love take centre stage (seemingly a recurring theme in Riddell's children's books: Beauty and Beast in Once Upon A Wild Wood; the foxes in Ottoline and the Purple Fox, for example). In fact, this really is quite a heartwarming tale when all is said and done - one which brings smiles and laughs along the way. A real lighthearted read with plenty to inspire children to find out more about what goes on in the world around them, and what has happened in the past.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Book Review: 'Dave Pigeon' by Swapna Haddow, Illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Funny books. That's what our children get these days when they move off the reading scheme books at school and begin to read whole chapter books themselves. And thankfully when the books are as good as 'Dave Pigeon' that's more than OK.

Swapna Haddow has balanced the funniness with good quality writing in a way that perfectly introduces young readers to the concept of reading a longer book. The story is engaging (and funny - did I mention that?) and in this way reading stamina is really encouraged. The accompanying illustrations contribute to this - some pictures take up most of the page, allowing children to experience the feeling of having read a decent chunk of a book. The speech bubbles included in the pictures are also bound to be loved by young readers - children will feel great accomplishment as they read the text and the pictures together.

Dave and his mate Skipper are taken in by a kind human lady when Dave injures his wing. Unfortunately she also has a mean cat who, of course, must be got rid of so that the pigeon duo can live in the lap of luxury in the house, rather than the shed. Their catbrained schemes are, predictably, wildly unsuccessful until, accidentally, one of their plans does work. Even then they are faced with a further dilemma - they have to share their bounty with all the other birds in the neighbourhood. This amusing story of perseverance and resilience is a great way to introduce young children to the concept of never giving up and always trying again - who'd have thought two daft pigeons could be such good role models? 

Another huge plus for this book is that it is the first in a series. So if it hooks your child in, you can build on the momentum by getting the two follow-up books for them to read too. And as Tom Fletcher picked this for his WH Smith Book Club 2 you should have no problems getting hold of this excellent (and hilarious) book.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Book Review: 'Armistice Runner' by Tom Palmer

The World Wars have provided many an author with fodder for their fiction and there are some truly brilliant books out there as a result. The best are the ones that take a slightly different angle and explore one of millions of individual lives that were affected by those conflicts. 'Armistice Runner' is one such book. Tom Palmer focuses in on one soldier, Ernest, originally a fell runner from the Lake District, and lets him tell his story of running messages between British army positions in the lead up to the signing of the Armistice in the Great War.

This isn't just historical fiction, though. Palmer has skilfully woven in a modern story of a young girl, also a fell runner, who is a descendent of the World War 1 soldier. Lily is fighting her own battles - Abbie, her rival, always seems to beat her, and her beloved Grandma has Alzheimer's.

On a visit to her grandparents' in the Lakes, and in the run up to a very important race, Lily is given a box containing some of Ernest's things. In the box are some running logs which, Lily discovers, contain much more than just details of her great-great-grandfather's exercise regime: she discovers a commentary of Ernest's time in France and she's desperate to find out what happens.

However, things keep preventing her from reading more - like the disappearance of her Grandma. Through both stories Palmer brilliantly brings together and draws parallels on the themes of family, friendship, rivalry, revenge and loss. The mirrored issues never seem forced - both stories are believable. Many children will identify with Lily's love of her sport, how annoying her little brother is and how worried she is about her grandma. At the same time they will be introduced to the horrors of trench warfare at the beginning of the twentieth century - without going over the top (pun not intended) Palmer describes the smell of a rotting flesh wound in a way that will make the reader physically recoil. For teachers looking for a story set in World War One, this book provides a good starting point to explore both the bigger picture of the war, as well as how individual lives were changed as a result.

The story concludes optimistically with a strong but implicit moral message about putting aside differences and showing kindness to others. In fact, all the way through there is much to develop empathy in the reader, making this a great book to share and discuss with children. The fact that a book with sports and war themes centres around a female character is also a plus point - too often these topics see males take centre stage.

But this isn't only a book about sports or war - it's a just a great story, expertly told, and one that every child should have a chance to read. As with all truly great children's books it's one that adults will enjoy sharing too, potentially prompting grown-ups to share their own family's history and involvement with the World Wars with their children, thus preserving those stories for another generation.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Book Review: 'The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was A Mermaid' by Tania Unsworth

I'm just going to come right out and say it: this is a perfectly told story which twists fantasy into reality in an oh-so satisfying way. Dealing with themes of loss, grief, friendship and discovery this book, I would go so far to say, is a must read.

The pain experienced by a grieving husband, the love and wisdom of a grandparent with alzheimers, the way that a child tries to deal with memories of a lost parent, the desparation of an abused employee, the delight of new friendship, the terror of being kidnapped, the bitterness and cruelty of someone who can't let go, the rushing sensation of elation when a remarkable discovery is made - this book has all the feels. Who'd have thought all of that would come from a tale about mermaids?

After the death of her mum Stella sets out on a dangerous voyage of discovery to find out more about who her mum really was. She makes brave and daring decisions but finds herself in grave trouble as she seeks to find the truth behind her mum's past. So compelling is the story, and so believable, I found myself reading the whole book in the space of day - Tania Unsworth draws in the reader with her beautiful writing and intensity of plot - an intensity that nevertheless still feels perfectly paced.

With the mention of mermaids in the title, this very well may get left on the shelf by some who assume its going to be too girly, but this real-world fantasy is far from it - it's a thrilling adventure which I would have no qualms about reading with, or recommending to, anyone (including boys). Sometimes books can really be a very pleasant surprise - 'The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was A Mermaid' is very much one of those books.

Book Review: 'Once Upon A Wild Wood' by Chris Riddell

There are many, many retellings and rehashings of popular traditional fairy tales, but this isn't one of them. Children who love fairy tales will love this but they will enjoy it in its own right. And that's because Chris Riddell, with his own inimitable sophisticated and dry humour, has told a new story, albeit with a whole host of favourite characters.

Know a child who's stuck on their favourite Disney princesses, and only ever wants to read those quite terrible picture book versions of the movies? This book could very well be the book that turns them onto some reading material of a little higher quality. The writing is wonderful, with seemingly more text than the average picture book, and, as is usual with Riddell, it never seems like he is talking down to his younger readers - he treats them in a grown-up way and gives them opportunities to think about new words and new concepts.

Existing fans of Riddell's books for younger readers, such as the Ottoline books, will recognise the style of storytelling and the kind of characters that are portrayed. The story's protagonist is a young girl, vastly more sensible and practical than the traditional Little Red Riding Hood, prone to solving problems but also demonstrating kindness and thoughtfulness - a great role model, in other words.

The illustrations, it really goes without saying, are incredible: the sort children pore over and return to again and again. Amusing details and such accurately drawn facial expressions provide excellent opportunities, along with the text and the plot, for adults and children to discuss the book at great length, making this a perfect book for parents or teachers to share.

Children will love spotting their favourite fairy tale characters, and may even be introduced to new ones, giving opportunity to explore classic tales which Disney haven't yet (to my knowledge) got their hands on. Rather like the Ahlbergs did with The Jolly Postman and Each Peach Pear Plum, Chris Riddell has brought new life to old stories and characters in this fantastically illustrated new tale.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Book Review: 'Secrets of a Sun King' by Emma Carroll

There's not been a prominent children's novel set in Egypt for a while, so when I heard that Emma Carroll's latest book was to have an Egyptian theme I was keen to read it - especially with curriculum planning in mind.

The story simultaneously follows the adventures of Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, a young girl's receipt of a cursed canopic jar and an ancient Egyptian girl's account of Tutankhamen's last days. These are expertly woven into a story exploring friendship, family, trust and secrets. Beginning in London, but, unsurprisingly, leading to Egypt, the mystery of the curse unravels as Lily, Tulip and Oz daringly arrange to return the jar to where it should be, following clues from an ancient writer and relying on local knowledge (and of course camels) to help them navigate the dangers of the desert.

Although 'Secrets of a Sun King' can be classed as historical fiction, it has a very contemporary feel. Carroll uses the post-Great War political landscape of women's rights to thrust strong female leads into the limelight, a father in the book even voicing his opinion that girls are 'the future'. With gender issues being very much in the limelight, the fact that females take centre-stage in this exciting adventure story seems only right. Whilst some of the language used by the children seems a little anachronistic (it might not be at all, it just sounds very modern) the exploration of the role of women seems to be retrospectively in-keeping with the time.

Also adding to the modern feel is the fact that many of the co-protagonists are very definitely not white, signalling perhaps that representation of ethnic diversity in children's books might be beginning to improve. The recent CLPE publication Reflecting Realities reported that in children's books published in 2017 only 4% of the characters were black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME), so the publication of this book, with its mixed-heritage and Egyptian characters (both ancient and relatively modern) comes at a time when readers might be prompted to seek out some non-white representation.

In fact, Carroll has gone beyond this: there is also an acknowledgement of the historical tendency of the (white) British to act with superiority, including to the point of robbing another country of their treasures. Lil, the main character, realises: 'Being English didn't give me the right to sort out other people's problems, not when they could solve them themselves.' And the characters of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon are not portrayed positively - this is a challenge to our general view of archaeologists and explorers as infallible gentlemanly heroes.

All of these issues make this a great reason to read this with children, especially as part of history work in school. The potential exploration of moral issues surrounding Carter's discovery and working practices will certainly make for a more in-depth way of learning about the ancient Egyptians - particulary good for older primary children who are tackling the topic.

Having said this, teachers may want to be aware of one particular scene in the book where the children use a Ouija board. The scene seems unnecessary and doesn't seem to fit with the idea that the pharaoh's curse may or may not be able to be explained by natural phenomena, or at least that the children are sure of the curse without such overt messages. The fact that the children do not seem scared or shocked by the fact that a spirit communicates with them using the board is strange. Given that this scene is not referred to again in the book, teachers could choose to skip this part if reading aloud.

'Secrets of the Sun King' is a fantastic up-to-date novel for key stage two readers and, far from being a curse, is a gift to any teacher or parent hoping to hook their children into an exploration of the ancient Egyptian times, as well as into a historical period where archaeological discovery made headlines. Superbly written and fast-paced, children will love in equal parts the characters and plot of this excellent book.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Book Review: 'Ottoline and the Purple Fox' by Chris Riddell

Two of my daughters (year 1 and year 3 currently) became instafans of Chris Riddell's Ottoline character after I picked up a hardback copy of 'Ottoline at Sea' on a whim. I then borrowed a copy of 'Ottoline and the Yellow Cat' from the school library (must take that back before I leave this summer) which they subsequently devoured. 'Ottoline Goes to School' was purchased with pooled pocket money and enjoyed just as much as the others.

Then came 'Ottoline and the Purple Fox' - time for me to really see what the fuss was all about. Published recently by Pan Macmillan in paperback, you soon forget it doesn't have the fancy covers and extra bits and bobs (Bog Goggles, school badge collection, postcard collection) - the richly illustrated pages draw you in that much. Chris Riddell fans will just revel in the sheer volume of his wonderful images.

A story told just as much in the pictures as in the text, Ottoline and Mr. Munroe's latest adventure is as zany and quirky as one might expect. In actuality, this is a love story, complete with poetry - it's Ottoline's task to discover who the mysterious poet is and who they are in love with. On the way we meet a crazy cast of characters including shy gorillas, library flamingoes and the bear who lives in the basement (not to mention a dream sequence featuring one of Chris Riddell's other characters, Goth Girl).

Every now and then Riddell includes a page of drawings too intriguing to skim over quickly - the richness of the pictures are sure to prompt lots of conversation between an adult and child reader. In fact, reading activities abound within the pages of this book - this one should be on the shelves of all teachers in lower key stage two.

And Ottoline is such an adorable, non-typical girl character that I'd say it's pretty important for boys and girls to get to know her. She's strong-minded, independent but also thoughtful and kind. Her inquisitive mind and penchant for problem solving makes her a great role model, albeit a fictional one.

Now excuse me whilst I go and read the others - this one has certainly whetted my appetite!

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Book Review: 'The Spiderwick Chronicles (Books 1 - 3)' by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black

It's no wonder these international bestsellers are being republished. There's something special about them; perhaps something magical.

These are books about faeries. Not pink, glitzy, glittery fairies, but proper badass faeries: boggarts, brownies, goblins. Magical creatures come thick and fast in these short, little bitesize stories: The Phooka, wood elves, dwarves, trolls, griffins and more besides.

There's no messing about when it comes to getting into the story in each of these little books. At around the 100 page mark each, with a good few of those dedicated to the classic yet lively illustrations, the plot comes thick and fast. Where a longer book might faff around, these ones just get straight to the point. This characteristic would make these books perfect for reticent readers - ones who would benefit from the experience of finishing a whole, proper-looking book quickly. And the fact that there's a whole series of further books to read would automatically provide a reluctant child with another book to read - they can even read the first chapter of the next book at the end of their current book to really get them hooked.

In fact, some of these readers might even identify with main protagonist Jared Grace who, since his father's departure has struggled with his behaviour at school. Taken off to live in a strange old house with his twin brother and older sister he soon discovers that there is more to his world than first meets his eye, and, once he has the sight, he and his siblings find themselves embroiled in a faerie battle to wrest ownership of a mysterious tome of faerie world knowledge from their own hands.

Whilst the stories are short and the illustrations are plentiful, there isn't a simplifying of the text. Readers will still be exposed to creative vocabulary and the most exciting of content. Small but perfectly formed these reissues are sure to find themselves to be firm favourites of a whole new generation of children.