Showing posts with label book reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book reviews. Show all posts

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Book Review: 'The Adventures of Harry Stevenson' by Ali Pye

Adults love to recommend children's books. But what do kids actually think about them? For this review I decided to get my daughter's thoughts as well as give my own. And it only seemed right to let my daughter (who is in year 2) share her thoughts first:

Harry is a guinea pig who is always getting lost. Billy and Harry are best friends who always tell each other everything.

At Billy's birthday party Harry floats away and although he is scared he is determined to get back to Billy.

This book is about friendship, finding your feet and it talks a lot about a football team called 'The Sparky F.C'.

The illustrations of Harry are really cute and they are really interesting to look at.

It is simple enough for 7-11s to read but definitely entertaining.

Harry Stevenson is a really good book and it is very enjoyable to read!

And here's my review:

Harry Stevenson is a guinea pig - of course he is, what else would he be with such a name? Harry lives with Billy and is pretty much his best friend and confidant. In this new book from author and illustrator Ali Pye we get not one, but two of Harry's charming and barmy adventures.

In the first story, Billy and his family move house and in a bizarre twist of fate (or twist of the cage's latch) Harry gets left behind. Of course, he finds his way back but not without severely spooking a dog, having a close shave with a cat and ending up in a box of pizza (which he doesn't even eat as he sticks closely to a proper guinea pig diet).

The second story also sees Harry let loose in the outside, this time in an even more crazy set of circumstances - Ali Pye's illustration of a beat up VW van in hot pursuit of an airborne rodent is one I'd love to have a print of!

Speaking of the illustrations, their screenprint-style of limited, but bright, colour palette are what makes the book immediately appealing - so much so that when my copy arrived it was promptly removed from my shelf and read within a 24 hour period by my 7 year old daughter.

Once the illustrations have hooked in their readers young and old, all will delight in the warmly told stories of a boy and his guinea pig. Pye opens up the mind of a devoted pet and confirms what everyone who keeps an animal secretly hopes - that they completely understand their humans and their complicated lives and love them unconditionally. Harry's mixture of wisdom (when it comes to how Billy must be feeling about loving house, starting a new school and hoping that his football team win) and daftness (when he dreams he's eating spaghetti but is in fact chewing the strings of helium balloons) is quite delightful!

Unlike many books aimed at this age range (I'd say 6-9ish), it's one that will appeal to grown ups as well as children. It's funny without being silly, or rude, and far-fetched in such a heart-warming way that no one could dislike it! It falls into the category of 'great books to introduce children to reading chapter books', of which I've not yet read enough - thanks Ali for writing a good one!

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Book Review: 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' by Christopher Edge

Thinking back on this book there are certain things which I'm really unsure of: when was it actually set? I'd assumed here and now, but as I've thought about the mind-bending events of the story I'm now not so sure. Did some of it occur in the imagination or were there actually slips in time? A book that keeps you thinking long after you've read the last page has got to be a book worth reading.

In fact, the questions it leaves you with really give you no option but to read it again. As someone with a To Be Read pile that takes up an entire bookshelf (and that's just the children's books) re-reading is not usually an option, but in this case I think I'll have to. The knowledge that Christopher Edge has put together one of his playlists to accompany the book is another point in favour of picking up this excellent novel again, especially as it contains The Cure, Paul Weller, Beastie Boys, James, The Kinks... the list goes on.

Charlie and Dizzy are lost in the woods, looking for some strange symbols that they think might be clues as to who lives in the woods - is it spies, or is it monsters? Or is it Old Crony? And Jonny, the school bully, has ended up with them too. But as night falls (or does it?) things begin to get strange. Trippy even. And suddenly the book is kind of a World War 2 novel - but not one like you've ever read before.

The children experience strange things which are genuinely quite scary - nightmares become a kind of questionable reality where neither the characters or the reader can quite understand what is going on. However, Edge has written it cleverly enough for readers to begin to build up a picture of what might be going on - especially those who have some background knowledge of theories about time, Greek mythology and World War 2. But for those who don't know what's going on, nearly all is explained - perhaps that second read-through will reveal all, though?

And it's not just the intrigue of the plot that makes this such a captivating read - the writing itself is so evocative. I would defy anyone not to feel transported to those woods with those children on that night:

"Above our heads comes a sudden hushing of leaves, the treetops swaying with a leathery creak... Beneath the tunnel of leaves, dappled light swirls along the path like reflections on a river, but beyond this, the thick ferns and bushes straggle into shadow."

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon takes a look at how, with the benefit of understanding the bigger picture of life, some things which once seemed so important become trivial - what's the point in being at enmity with those around you when the world holds much greater enemies and threats? But it does the opposite too: if you can change the small things in life, then perhaps you can change the big things too - once one has changed one's own world, maybe they can go on to change things in the wider world.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Book Review: 'Girl 38 Finding a Friend' by Ewa Jozefkowicz

'Girl 38 Finding A Friend', brings to life not only a narrative of present and past, but also introduces a third storyline in the form of an imaginary story which is being written by the story's main character, Kat.

In her second novel for children, Ewa Jozefkowicz draws on the second world war experiences of her own grandmother in Poland. Her story is told by the lips (and paintbrush) of Kat's elderly neighbour Ania, who tells her life story in installments throughout the book. The modern day storyline focuses on the arrival of a new boy at school - a boy who Kat's supposed best friend is intent upon bullying. But Gem doesn't do her own dirty work - that's what she's developed her toxic relationship with Kat for.

If Kat's conscience isn't enough to put her off the cruel things that she's putting Julius through, then Ania's story is. The book itself is a celebration of the power of narrative; through listening to someone else's tale, whilst simultaneously creating her own comic strip, Kat develops her empathy towards others.

And that's just what this book will do for its readers. The elderly are not to be snubbed or looked down upon - they are wonderful people with vast experience and understanding of life and what it is to be human. Newcomers are always potential friends - people who can expand our horizons and open our eyes. Friends are supposed to be friendly - they are meant to do good to you, not harm. It even hints at the fact that even the nastiest people might have a back story that we need to know so as to understand their negative behaviour.

As with other narratives in this vein - Once by Morris Gleitzman and The Silver Sword by Ian Serrailier, for example - there is also the exploration of how, in war, not everything is black and white - there are good people trying to do good things despite their circumstances; despite looking like the enemy.

Suitable for children in upper key stage 2 and older, this delicately written yet compelling book would be a great read for those who enjoy history and slightly more grown-up themes in their reading material. Very much a coming-of-age novel, 'Girl 38 Finding a Friend' (a clever title with dual meaning) will sit well alongside recent books such as 'Armistice Runner' by Tom Palmer and 'Closest Thing To Flying' by Gill Lewis, as well as the aforementioned older books.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Book Review: 'D-Day Dog' by Tom Palmer

If you've read any of Tom Palmer's other historical novels - Over The Line, Armistice Runner, for example - then you will not be disappointed by D-Day Dog at all. In fact, you'll be blown away and left pondering whether, in fact, this is actually his best one yet.

Reading 'D-Day Dog', you'd be forgiven for thinking that what you are actually reading is an accurate retelling of real life events, so thorough is the historical research that has informed this story. But that makes this brilliant book sound far too cold and clinical - here we have a story full of heart, warm and so tenderly handled.

As with Armistice Runner, stories of past and present intertwine, only this time there are several threads running through: Jack's love of war simulation computer games, his dad's desire to fight with the TA in Afghanistan, a Falklands veteran's story, a Syrian refugee's experience of war and the story of Emile and his dog, Glen, who both parachuted into France on D Day during the Second World War.

Jack loves his dog and when he has to do a project on a war hero prior to a school visit to Normandy he learns more about the part that animals, especially dogs, played in the World Wars. But things aren't great at home - his parents don't see eye to eye on his Dad's potential deployment - and Jack's perception of war is changing. What's the point? Why would a soldier choose to go into battle knowing he might be killed, or have to kill others?

The crowning glory of this book is that Tom Palmer sensitively answers those questions - questions we've all turned over in our minds at some point - all through the perfect and powerful medium of story. Tom's inclusion, and positive treatment of, marginalised characters - a child who has a 1:1 learning support, a shell-shocked survivor of conflict in Syria, a boy caught in the middle of family tensions, a grizzly, grumpy old ex-soldier-turned-bus driver - is so natural - there is no shoehorning here.

In fact, cohesion is the name of the game: all the strands mesh together perfectly to promote diversity, inclusion and understanding. What's more, published by Barrington Stoke's Conkers imprint for 7 to 10 year olds, this book is readable by design, allowing such serious subject matter to be accessed and explored by younger children - it's dyslexia-friendly too.

With so much packed into a short read, there is ever reason for this book to be devoured left, right and centre. Get it on your bookshelves - at the library, at school, at home. The children need this.

Here's Tom telling us a little more about the dogs featured in the book:


Book Review: 'The Middler' by Kirsty Applebaum

I knew nothing about 'The Middler', nor Kirsty Applebaum, before I decided to read this book. Yet I was drawn to it. Perhaps it was the fact that I hadn't seen everyone raving about it before I read it - I'm not much of a fan of being part of the herd.

But now I am. I am now just adding to the many voices who are singing the praise of Kirsty Applebaum's debut novel. It would seem that I was not the only one to be drawn by the magic of a book which gives very little away at first glance.  It's funny that I should mention magic, actually. This isn't yet another MG book relying on magic to provide all the answers, but it is a magical book. Not only was I unable to resist this book when came the time to start something new, I was also in thrall to it throughout - I read it at an unnatural pace.

Gently unsettling, at least to begin with, the reader is drawn into the mindset of a small town, a town which could be anywhere, who appear to venerate their eldest children above all others. Things begin to appear gradually more menacing as it is revealed that no one is allowed outside of the town, that any outsiders (or 'wanderers') are regarded with deep suspicion, worse even: hatred. And then there's the matter of all eldests being sent off to fight the silent war.

The depiction of family life within a close-knit, closed-minded community is reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird; the air of mystery is akin to that in Holes. And when you find out where the eldests are supposedly going, one can't help but think of The Hunger Games. Now I don't usually make comparisons in reviews and honestly, I'm not making comparisons here, either. Truly, The Middler stands tall amongst the aforementioned tomes and in no way is a derivative of anything else. Despite my making links between this and other books, I would happily claim that this book is unique, something else - a new experience.

When Maggie, a quiet middle child, meets Una - someone she's been indoctrinated to hate - she battles internally with her feelings about the developing friendship. Her heart tells her there is no reason for her to despise her - her head, fed with songs and lies about outsiders, tells her otherwise. If this story line isn't a lesson in empathy that most of us could learn from, then I don't know what is.

Perhaps this is a deeply political novel with themes for children and adults to unpick together, and to relate to current affairs or historical events. Perhaps it's a perfect introduction to post-apocalyptic literature. Or maybe it's really a story about family, friendship, loyalty, curiosity, challenging the status quo and doing the right thing, even when everyone else seems to think it's wrong.

Whatever it is, however we might choose to define it (we, because you will read it - you must), its absolutely certain that 'The Middler' deserves all the praise it gets. Kirsty Applebaum is certainly a name to watch out for in the world of children's books - I'm already looking forward to the next one. Perhaps I'll just read this one again.

Kirsty Applebaum has written a blog post for me entitled Showing Instead of Telling in The Middler which gives advice to budding writers about how to make sure the reader know what characters are like without telling them.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Children's Books Reviewed By Children #1

Well, ever since I wrote TES's best children's books of 2018 article I've been inundated with books. I'd love to be able to keep up with full reviews of each and every one but with a full time deputy headship to occupy me, as well as a family to be a part of, it's just not possible.

However, the fact that I have a family means that I also have some extra readers and reviewers. I (8), A (7) and J (5) are all pretty avid readers and book-lovers who have recently shown interest in beginning to write reviews of what they read. So I thought I'd try harnessing their powers to provide some extra coverage on my blog. And after all, surely, it is their voice that counts the most - these are children's books, written for children, so if they love them, then they must be good!

Without further ado, the first 6 titles that they have turned their attentions to:


The 39-Storey Treehouse is a very good book. I liked the bit where Andy and Terry flew to the dark side of the moon and found professor Stupido so that he could uninvent the once-upon-a-time-machine but instead he uninvented everything. The whole plot was to keep on building storeys onto the tree.

It’s funny how they’ve got a ‘top 5 disgusting things Terry does’ list. Examples of things on the list are sneezing snot into Andy’s face and washing his underpants in the shark tank! Andy and Terry have lots of fun things in the treehouse e.g. the world’s scariest roller-coaster, a bowling alley, a not-very-merry-go-round and a baby dinosaur petting zoo. It’s awesome!

I would recommend it to friends and family. I’m sure I’ll like all the Storey Treehouse books. I think people who like The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton would like this book.

- I, 8

The 39-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths, illustrated by Terry Denton, was published by Pan Macmillan on 30th July 2015 (ISBN: 9781447281580)


Captain Cat and the treasure map will entertain you! It is very funny when Cutlass the parrot poops on the cursed treasure map. This is a great book for any age 1 2 3.... just any age! This is a great book, Sue Mongredien and Kate Pankhurst! Great example of a creative book! πŸ‘ High five? ✋πŸ˜‰✔️

- A, 7

Captain Cat and The Treasure Map by Sue Mongredien, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst, was published by Pan Macmillan on 7th February 2019 (ISBN: 9781509883905)

Isadora Moon Has A Sleepover by Harriet Muncaster

Even the first bit of "Isadora Moon has a Sleepover" is fun! (literally like 1000000% fun!) It was really good when Isadora and Zoe were making a massive five layer cake but then, in the morning, they made a different little cake but on Monday, Zoe brought the 5 layer cake that they agreed not to bring in! So Oliver and Bruno won the a competition instead! So kind! Awww!❤️😍😘

- A, 7

Isadora Moon Has A Sleepover by Harriet Muncaster was published by OUP on 7th March 2019 (ISBN:978-0-19-276711-0) 


The first story of Dirty Bertie '' Spider'' was so good. Bertie actually brought a spider into class! "Nitwit" was one million trillion% good because he ripped his sweater and it unravelled in half and granny got him a new one. In "Gold" he found a Canadian 10p in the park with his friends.

These are some of the best books ever in the UK and these books are suitable enough for any age..... 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 or even grown ups!

- A, 7

Dirty Bertie: Spider! by Alan Macdonald, illustrated by David Roberts, was published by Stripes on 7th March 2019 (ISBN:9781847159465)


Matisse's Magical Trail by Tim Hopgood, illustrated by Sam Broughton

At first all the walls were grey and black and boring and at the end they were really colourful. In the middle, Matisse the snail wanted to draw and draw and draw. First, I was feeling bored. At the end I was feeling really colourful.

- J, 5

Editor's note: I particularly enjoyed the fact that the creators had taken inspiration from Henri Matisse's artwork entitled 'The Snail' which was then referenced in the artwork. It led me and J on a mini journey of art discovery as we looked at Matisse's work and compared it to the drawings that Matisse the snail does in the book.

Matisse's Magical Trail by Tim Hopgood, illustrated by Sam Broughton, was published by OUP on 4th April 2019 (ISBN: 978-0-19-276726-4) 

Meet the Penguins by Mike Brownlow

First I felt really sad because the animals didn't let the penguins play. At the end a little cute bear came and he asked 'Can I play?' and the penguins said 'Yes!' and then I felt happy. At the end all of the animals want to play!

- J, 5

Meet the Penguins by Mike Brownlow was published by OUP on 4th April 2019 (ISBN: 978-0-19-276867-4)

The next reviews are in the pipeline and I intend to work with my little reviewers to improve their reviewing technique - one step at a time!

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Frank Cottrell-Boyce - Reviewed By Children


To celebrate the new republished, redesigned versions of Frank Cottrell Boyce's well-loved books 'Millions', 'Framed', 'Cosmic', 'The Astounding Broccoli Boy' and 'Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth' I've gathered together some reviews from the people who really matter: the children who read and love them.

Steven Lenton (who illustrated the older versions) has designed new covers which are sure to give these modern classics a new lease of life and a brand new audience, but why should you and your children read them? Let's find out...

Cosmic - a review by Thomas Groves, age 13.

Everyone loves space don’t they?

Liam is a very, very tall boy for his age. He’s so tall in fact, that people often mistake him for a grown up. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Book Cosmic embraces this when he is mistaken for the new teacher at his new school and has to present an assembly and also when he later nearly gets away with test driving a new Porsche!

Things only get more laugh-out-loud funny when he is mistaken for his father by a woman who offers him the chance to take part in a very special competition that will make him ‘a hero in the eyes of his children’. He takes up the offer, wins and then ends up being launched into space with four other children. When things go wrong, can he save the day?

My favourite character is Liam because he is very plucky and easy to relate to and because he gets into lots of scrapes which only get more and more hilarious as the story goes on.

I like this book because it is very funny and moving and shows good and bad human qualities and a great plot.

I would heartily recommend it for all ages.


Broccoli Boy - a review by Jake Niemi, age 9

Broccoli Boy is an interesting, adventurous story about a boy called Rory Rooney, who is being bullied by a horrible bully called Grim Komissky. (That’s not his real name, Grim would be an odd first name.) One day, on a school trip, Rory turns bright green and is taken to the hospital. Imagine his shock and surprise when he finds out he’s there, and trapped, with none other than his bully! After believing turning green means he’s a superhero and he’s going to save the world he finds out he’s not actually the only one who’s green.

This book is brilliant, it’s cool, interesting and amazing. It has all the things that kids need: laughter, friendship and a reminder that adults don’t know it all even if they act like they do (in fact, adults should read this too!) I rate it 5/5 and think any child would love this book, in fact you’ll be wanting the whole collection of books! Hope you enjoy reading!

Remember, as the book says, ‘The thing that makes you different is the thing that makes you astounding.’


Sputnik’s Guide To Planet Earth by Shannon Finlan, age 14

Sputnik’s Guide To Planet Earth is a light-hearted fun tale of an orphan boy named Prez who has an encounter with a dog who is actually an alien, whilst living in the countryside in a foster home. Prez is a young carer to his Grandfather who has been dignosed with dementia. Caring for his Grandfather is a fun day-to-day chore for Prez, with laughter and games around the house... Or so it seems. 


As we delve deeper into the book however, we learn that the protagonists grandfather’s dementia is no longer a laughable silly matter and it’s actually quite heart breaking and sad. I could really relate to this with my personal experience of my Grandad’s dementia. With personal experience as a child seeing my Grandad’s memory deteriorate, I didn’t fully understand the severity of the condition at the similar age that Prez is in the book. Towards the end of the book as Prez begun to understand the condition more, I could relate to when I also began to understand that Dementia was more than silly jokes about things like forgetting about the rules of card games, getting names wrong, to forgetting completely those close around you.

Frank Cottrell Boyce uses an excellent ratio of light-hearted humour to sadness to make the book having you want to laugh and cry. This is an amazing viewpoint into a young carer's life to which Frank Cottrell Boyce has shown how a child, such as Prez, would interpret the situation at hand. I cried for hours after I had finished reading the book, it really pulled at my heart strings. I would highly recommend this book to children and adults alike.

Now head over to my Twitter to feed to take part in my competition to win a whole set! (Competition runs from 21/2/19 to 24/2/19 at 8pm)

Don't forget to look out for Frank's new book for World Book Day this March: The Great Rocket Robbery is a brilliant little story perfect for new and old fans alike.

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 naΓ―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.