Showing posts with label children's books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label children's books. Show all posts

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Book Review: 'The Perfect Parent Project' by Stewart Foster

I keep wondering whether I should stop reviewing children's books at all - it is time-consuming and sometimes the desire to wax lyrical about something that has been lovingly crafted by a real writer just doesn't present itself. However, since my blog gets a respectable number of hits, and people do read my reviews,  I suppose I feel duty-bound to continue writing them. The urge to actually read the books in the first place rarely deserts me, and hardly do I ever choose to read one which disappoints. In fact, most of the time the books I read really are worth talking about. 

So here I am, ready to enter into another year of reviewing children's books, and kicking things off with the latest book from, I will admit, a favourite children's author of mine: Stewart Foster with his 'The Perfect Parent Project'.

'The Perfect Parent Project' is in the vein of Stewart's previous books in that it centres on a character who represents a potentially marginalised group of children. Sam is a foster kid, and although he loves his support worker, Rock Star Steve, he dreads the day when he'll bring the news that he is moving on from his current foster carers. Avid readers of Foster will have come to expect an absolute spot-on rendition of the child's voice, and this one is no exception: the reader is put well and truly in the shoes of Sam as he searches beyond his current foster family for his perfect parents.

And the heartache feels real. Sam plots with his friend Leah to find his perfect parents, not realising how well things are going with Reilly and his mum and dad. After spying his perfect parents and contriving to get to know them, Sam finds himself spinning a web of lies that eventually ensnare him. Unable to keep up the pretense Sam jeopardises all his closest relationships in his bid to make new ones. Readers, adults and children alike, will recognise that Sam's happiness really lies closer to home than he thinks; the downward spiral Sam creates for himself is sure to generate a sadness in readers of all ages.

Yet, this isn't purely a sad book. Again, Foster's writing is full of humour - a perfect antidote to the emotion of the main storyline. Sam remains upbeat for the majority of the story and his optimism carries the reader onward: although I knew what ending I wanted, I genuinely wasn't sure if I was going to get it. Given that this is a story that contains no real dramatic set-piece moments, it is full of drama, and as a result is extremely compelling - the desire for Sam to stop digging himself into deeper holes hooks the reader in.

As well as being an enjoyable story, this is one of those books that should get children thinking. Orphaned children are a staple of stories for children - many Disney movies, for example, rely on children having no parents so that they can get up to all sorts of mischief. But here we have a much more realistic interpretation of what it is like not to know one's birth parents, and to be seeking a loving home. Here we have a window into a world that, for many children, will be one that they have no experience of. And perhaps, for some children, this will be the opportunity to see something of themselves represented in story form. Either way, it feels right to have this experience acknowledged rather than fantastically exploited.

 Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's UK (January 21, 2021)

'The Perfect Parent Project' is available on my Children's Fiction 2021 book list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Friday, 4 December 2020

22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 (Part 2)

Turns out that before lockdown (v1), and during much of it, I was pretty disciplined in my reading and reviewing of books. Many of the titles on this list were given a full review and so, I will quote myself a fair bit in this second part of my 22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 list. 

If you missed part one, then you may want to give that a read too: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/12/20-great-middle-grade-books-from-2020.html

Here goes with the second part of my list:
 
Talking To The Moon by S.E. Durrant (Nosy Crow)


I love S.E. Durrant's books - I am a massive fan of Little Bits of Sky so I jumped at the chance to read and review her latest: 'A mystery novel for children who don't like mystery novels. Usually, children's books which centre around some sort of mystery to be solved are full of high adventure and often verge on being scary - not for everyone. But 'Talking To The Moon' is different: it takes a family drama, one which many children will relate to and adds a dash of the unknown, enough to keep any reader pondering throughout the book.' (Read the rest of the review here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/03/book-review-talking-to-moon-by-se.html)

Talking To The Moon can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

DustRoad by Tom Huddleston (Nosy Crow)


DustRoad is one of those books that you don't really ever forget - it's cinematic scenes are etched into my memory as if I had been there as the events unfolded. I wrote similar things at the time of reading it: 'This book is so cinematic I ate popcorn as I read it, I kid you not. Every page sees the reader's retinas seared with images so lucid, if not a little hazy from desert dust, that it is impossible not to feel like you are living the action. And in 'DustRoad', action there is a-plenty.' (Click here for the full review: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-dustroad-by-tom-huddleston.html). And if you haven't read it's predecessor, then you'd better get hold of a copy of FloodWorld too.

FloodWorld and DustRoad can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

Viper's Daughter by Michelle Paver (Zephyr)


I'd never read any of Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother books before but when this one dropped through my letter box I was more than willing to give them ago. I was immediately drawn into a prehistoric world where magic might just be real, and long-since extinct creatures certainly are. With an exploration of the arctic circle and tribalism, the story had a wonderful conclusion, which I just can't spoil for you but the awe and wonder check box was well and truly ticked. I've yet to return to the earlier books in the series, but I certainly intend to. Here's my full review of the Viper's Daughter: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-vipers-daughter-by-michelle.html

Viper's Daughter can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction

Wink by Rob Harrell (Hot Key Books)


From my full review of Wink: 

'Wink' by Rob Harrell tells the story of a pre-teen boy who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one which has attacked the gland that produces tears. It is a book that made me both laugh and cry in equal measure and it deserves a huge audience. Imagine if you will, a less saccharine version of RJ Palacio's hit MG novel 'Wonder' - that's what this is. It's all very real and very raw which is not surprising since it is semi-autobiographical in a sense: the author was inspired to write the book after suffering the exact same cancer as the book describes, albeit when he was 37 and not 11. Here's the link to read the rest: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-wink-by-rob-harrell.html

Wink can be found on my Humorous Children's Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/humorous-children-s-fiction

Do You Know Me? by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott (Scholastic)


Can You See Me? was a massive hit in our house so we were all excited when the follow-up Do You Know Me? was published. It continues the story of autistic Tilly, and given that it is co-written by Libby Scott, a young autistic girl, it gave me a huge insight into what home and school life can be like for autistic children. As a father of a girl on the waiting list for an assessment I actually found both books to be quite difficult to read as so many of Tilly's characteristics are reflected in one of my daughters. However, the fact that much of the story felt close to home meant that I found the book immensely enlightening, both as a parent and a teacher.

Can You See Me? and Do You Know Me? can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

Mohinder's War by Bali Rai (Bloomsbury)


'Mohinder's War follows the story of Joelle, a French/British girl living in France during the Nazi occupation. She, her family and their friends are a part of the resistance and when a downed RAF pilot needs hiding, he is taken into the home of the Bretons and concealed in their cellar. The pilot is Mohinder Singh, a character based on a real life RAF pilot who flew in the Second World War. He and Joelle strike up a friendship - Joelle keeping him company and sharing her local knowledge, and Mohinder teaching her about his homeland and Sikh faith and opening her eyes to philosophies regarding life.' Read my full review before choosing to give it a child as there are some warnings: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/05/book-review-mohinders-war-by-bali-rai.html

Mohinder's War can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

The Infinite by Patience Agbabi (Canongate)


The Infinite is an intriguing sci-fi adventure centering on time travel. Once you've got your head around the concepts that the book is based on, you are taken on a completely unique adventure, the likes of which I've never encountered before neither in film or in children's literature. Here's my full review of the book: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/08/book-review-infinite-by-patience-agbabi.html

The Infinite can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman (Pan Macmillan)


The first of two books in 2020 from the duo's Adventures on Trains, The Highland Falcon Thief had that Agatha Christie vibe that was oh-so-missing from the MG market. To be honest, they had me at 'Adventures on Trains' and I wasn't disappointed. There a plenty of train-y facts and details and the constraints that are placed on the narrative by the fact that the action has to take place (largely) on a train make for a really cleverly-written story. In fact, a story that I enjoyed so much that I was more than ready for the follow-up...

The Highland Falcon Thief can be found on my Children's Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Kidnap on the California Comet by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman (Pan Macmillan)


Everyone knows that American railways are very different from British ones, so a hop across the Atlantic made immediately for an almost entirely different story, except for there are still trains and there is still a crime to solve. Tension is ramped up (sorry, I know that has been one of the absolute worse phrases of 2020) by the fact that this time a child's life is in peril. As with the first book, the reader is kept guessing (even adult ones) in true crime mystery style. An absolute romp of a book with a brilliant cast of potential criminals to suspect of dastardly deeds.

The Highland Falcon Thief can be found on my Children's Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Empire's End - A Roman Story by Leila Rasheed (Scholastic)


I read the whole Voices series in 2020 and have nothing but high praise for them. This one is set in one of my favourite historical periods, and in one of my favourite places: Roman Britain. It's rooted in true history and in this respect is very eye-opening: 'The gripping and fast-paced story is all carefully interwoven with historical fact: a Roman emperor from Libya did live and die in York, archaeological research has shown that those with black African heritage did live in Britain during the Roman period and that people from all over the Roman provinces ended up marrying each other and having children. In 'Empire's End' Rasheed imagines how one such character may have ended up in Britain, despite having been born in North Africa.'

Empire's End can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction

Where The World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold (Stripes)

This is one of those books that you finish and immediately decide there needs to be a sequel. By the end of the story the reader is fully satisfied by the outcome but so invested in the characters and the world that they have no choice but to be left wanting more. Close to the bone for 2020, this story features a virus which has been deliberately released by environmentalists, a blight which wipes out half of the world's population in a bid to re-wild a concrete planet (this was certainly one of the conspiracy theories circulating back at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak). Nicola Penfold does a great job of navigating the ethics in this dystopian novel, celebrating both human life and the preservation of environment. I think this was one of my absolute favourites of the year.

Where The World Turns Wild can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton


I'm casting my mind back on this one as I read it at the back end of last year, however, it is still crystal clear in my mind. Set in Venice and featuring a gondola-load of menace and peril, this story as an absolute magical belter. Check out my review of the book (here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/01/mask-of-aribella-anna-hoghton.html) and Anna's guest post about masks (here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/01/world-of-masks-anna-hoghton-aribella.html). Here's a reminder of one my most pretentious attempts at metaphor in a book review ever: 'The story skims along at a cracking pace, yet, just as with the wooden piles on which Venice is built, there are foundations that run deep - the power of friendship and family, trust and responsibility provide a solid base for this dark tale of good versus evil.'

The Mask of Aribella can be found on my Simon Smith's Favourite Longer Reads For Children 2020 bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/simon-smith-s-favourite-longer-reads-for-children-2020

Finally, if you've got this far, I'd love to hear your recommendations as to which other 2020 MG books are worth a read. Drop me a comment on the blog or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/thatboycanteach

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 (Part 1)

I feel like this year I've read far fewer of the newly released middle grade books - I think I've read more grown-up books this year, particularly more adult non-fiction, and I've read a few older children's books too. 

However, I've read a decent number of really great books released for children in 2020 - enough to share a few in a round-up blog post. Now obviously, because I've not read all the books published in 2020, I can't call this a 'best of' list, so instead it is just a list of really great new books to add to your shelves or put under someone's Christmas tree.

In no particular order, here are the first 10:

The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery (Walker)

twitter.com/mossmontmomery

A historical, magical tale which sits so comfortably in a long tradition of children's literature and makes for an original but familiar-feeling read. Readers will feel the warm homeliness of such classics as the Narnia stories and The Wind in the Willows whilst recognising the gritty realities and family drama of war that they've read of in Goodnight Mr. Tom and Carrie's War. The Midnight Guardians brings together two worlds at war, weaving folklore, magic and oh-so accurate historical fact together into a truly engaging race-against-time tale of dark versus light.

The Midnight Guardians can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Fantasy and Magic bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-fantasy-magic

The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Q Rauf (Hachette)


After the huge success of The Boy At The Back Of The Class, and it's follow-up The Star Outside My Window, Onjali Rauf was back in 2020 with another modern tale of derring-do. Interestingly, this time it's the turn of a school bully to take the role of protagonist. As in all good children's stories, his transformation slowly takes place as he begins to understand more about the plight of homeless people: a bid to impress his mates with his unkindness leads to him both witnessing, and helping to solve, a crime. This modern mystery story is certainly a page-turner, and just like it's predecessors is a celebration of the difference children can make in the world.

The Night Bus Hero can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu (Old Barn Books)

twitter.com/a_reflective

Quite a few books have been published in recent years which portray the plight of refugees. Boy, Everywhere sits nicely between books aimed at older children, such as Boy 87 and Illegal (which have a slightly more graphic portrayal of the harsh realities involved in seeking refuge in another country) and The Boy At The Back of The Class and The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle (which don't go into as much detail but rather focus on the realities of life after making the often hazardous journey). Boy, Everywhere provides the modern parallel to books about World War 2 refugees such as The Silver Sword and Number The Stars, providing a realistic picture (which has been praised by people who have experienced similar circumstances to those portrayed in the book) without some of the more distressing, potentially age-inappropriate details that sadly are the experience of some refugees. A very compelling read.

Boy, Everywhere can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Refugee Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-refugee-stories

Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan by Sufiya Ahmed (Scholastic)

twitter.com/sufiyaahmed

Just before hearing about this book I had discovered Noor Inayat Khan during some research for a year 6 topic focusing on the role of women and children in the world wars, so when I did discover this I was very keen to read it. I was really pleased then to win a copy in a competition from charity Making Herstory. Sufiya Ahmed does a cracking job of retelling a well-researched, child-friendly version of the key events in spy Inayat Khan's life. As a woman of Indian descent and the first female radio operator sent to Nazi-occupied France by the British SOE, it is an incredibly important story to be told, one which exemplifies how people of many ethnicities played a part in World War 2. Great for children to read alone but equally suitable as a curriculum-linked read aloud.

Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

The House of Clouds by Lisa Thompson (Barrington Stoke)

twitter.com/lthompsonwrites

A short story this time from Lisa Thompson for the ever-excellent Barrington Stoke (who specialise in books designed specifically for dyslexic readers). In this story of loss and hope, grief and guilt, Lisa blurs the lines between dreams and reality and ultimately leaves the reader questioning but willing to believe that there actually is just a little bit of magic present in this world. Tackling the difficult subject of losing a family member and the regret of not appreciating them enough in their lifetime, this story follows a girl's journey of discovery as she investigates the links between her grandad and a mysterious artist. A brilliant little tale for those who need a grown-up feeling book but don't always find reading the easiest thing to do.

The House of Clouds can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Short Reads bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-short-reads

The Invasion of Crooked Oak by Dan Smith (Barrington Stoke)

twitter.com/DanSmithAuthor

Chris King's cover illustration says it all, really. Bikes, supersoakers and an undead army is exactly what you get in Dan Smith's excellent short reader for Barrington Stoke. Opening up a market for books inspired by 80s movies that the kids of today probably haven't even seen but would love if they watched them, The Invasion of Crooked Oak will certainly appeal to adults of a certain age as well as children who just want an awesome, spooky, mystery adventure (and this is what plenty of children want). If you haven't got this for your class bookshelf, then do, and prepare for the next installment coming next year.

The Invasion of Crooked Oak can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Padraig Kenny (Pan Macmillan)

twitter.com/padraig_kenny

More spookiness now in this Adamms Family-esque thriller. A strange assortment of otherworldly beings are confined to the grounds and house of Rookhaven, supplied and kept secret by the local villagers. Two siblings, a brother and sister, stumble through a tear in the magic veil and find themselves involved in a cruel plot to rid the world of the kinds of people who call Rookhaven their home. With amazing black and white illustrations from Edward Bettison, this book feels like very few others I've read - darkness permeates the book, yet the more the reader becomes familiar with the family, the more they realise there is real light in them. A subtle call to respect and love those perceived as outsiders, this beautifully-written story should be widely read and loved. Read my review for more: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/08/book-review-monsters-of-rookhaven-by.html

The Monsters of Rookhaven can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

Eating Chips With Monkey by Mark Lowery (Piccadilly Press)


This was one of those books that you pick up in an idle moment, begin to read and then get totally hooked by. I loved the combination of serious subject matter and absolute hilarity - Mark Lowery takes sensitive content and treats it respectfully whilst allowing the reader to see the funny side of the events. After a traumatic accident, Daniel, an autistic 10-year-old, retreats into himself, only relating to his toy monkey and seemingly deaf to his family's attempts to help him. The narration alternates between Daniel (and the monkey) and his sister Megan as the family set off on a road trip to find the best fish and chip shops in the country in an attempt to help Daniel to recover. An uproarious read, one which one of my daughters has read cover-to-cover several times, which I would recommend to absolutely everyone!

Eating Chips With Monkey can be found on my Read By My LKS2 Daughter bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/read-by-my-lks2-daughter

After The War by Tom Palmer (Barrington Stoke)


Winning plaudits left, right and centre, Tom Palmer did it again this year with his portrayal of how children liberated from Nazi concentration camps learn to live again in the reviving surrounds of the Lake District. Based on careful research and focusing in on three friends Tom writes with such care and verve, bringing true events to life for a new, young audience. Back in March, just before we went into lockdown I reviewed the book and had this to say in summary: 'A tale of hope, friendship and altruism that is all too relevant in the current times we are living through.' Little did I know how those current times would turn out!

After the War can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

Crater Lake by Jennifer Killick (Firefly Press)


Another spooky mystery story - it's been a good year for them! This one reads like a comedy horror movie aimed at children, taking the year 6 school residential as its inspiration. It's probably a good thing that residentials were cancelled this year as any 11-year-old who'd read this would probably have a few nightmares about going away for a couple of nights. It's enough to put off any teacher planning a residential too, especially since the book basically features a virus - albeit an alien-induced one - that rips through the participants and staff with great efficiency. Anyway, I raved about it in other ways in my review, so have a read of that if you need further convincing: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/03/book-review-crater-lake-by-jennifer.html

Crater Lake can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Book Review: 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' by Pádraig Kenny

As a pair of down-on-their-luck siblings, Jem and Tom, stumble through a tear into the hidden grounds of an eerie manor house, the reader is drawn through the closed doors of Rookhaven and into a world of intrigue. In fact, the reader almost becomes Jem as the story focuses less on her and more on what she discovers as she spends more time with The Family.
With great skill Pádraig Kenny sets to work, in the subtlest of ways, weaving motifs and feelings seemingly drawn from classic and contemporary literature and film. The effect of this is highly successful - in an instant the reader will feel a comfortable discomfort as intertextual synapses spark reminiscences and remembrances of other stories they have experienced. The magic that Kenny weaves is all in the fact that despite the nods and references, 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' feels like a highly original piece of work - indeed, one that had me on the edge of my seat.

Perhaps the reason for this is that 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' turns some of the most common classic horror* tropes on their head. Like Shelley's Frankenstein, the 'monsters' are misunderstood and there is more to them than meets the eye. One particular character, Piglet, who is a key player in the events of the book, is a monster who, locked up for years, never seen even by the others in The Family, has a secret weapon and it is most certainly not what you think it is. And it is this secret weapon which brings the story to a beautiful, healing, albeit highly dramatic, conclusion.

The illustrations in this book more than warrant their own paragraph in this review: the black and white woodcut print-style illustrations of Edward Bettison are something else. The images lend real gravitas to the story, giving 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' a real classic feel and making the cover stand out from the current pack of more contemporary-looking children's books. The double page spreads are excellent, providing a feast for the eyes yet not revealing unnecessary details which are best left to the reader's mind's eye - this really is a masterclass in illustration for books aimed at this age range.

One of the enjoyable aspects of this book is that it is just a brilliantly told adventure with just enough magic to be believable and exactly the right amount of elaboration to keep a reader guessing whilst feeling like they get it - I enjoyed reading a children's book that didn't appear to be moralising as I read it. However, once finished, I was left with an understanding: empathy is the enemy of division. I hadn't realised as I read that here was a tale of how communities can be divided, and how certain influential characters can use this division to their own ends, to the point where they provoke and stir up dissension - certainly a tale for our times. And I applaud Pádraig Kenny for this, his ability to leave the reader be as they read but to leave them with life-changing message.

*although this book is influenced by some classic horror and sci-fi it is not at all too scary for its intended audience of Middle Grade readers.

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny and Illustrated by Edward Bettison is out on 17 September 2020 (ISBN: 9781529031492)

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Book Review: Diver's Daughter by Patrice Lawrence

I've previously reviewed two other books from Scholastic's Voices series (here and here) and, after reading the first, I did not intend to stop there. 'Diver's Daughter' by Patrice Lawrence was next on the list.

Not exactly based on a true story, but involving one very real and pivotal character, this book is rooted in the true, often untold history of Black people in Tudor England. Having read the section in David Olusoga's Black and British that dealt with the Tudor period I had recently become more aware of the fact that there were hundreds of people from Africa or of African descent living in Britain in the 16th Century.

Eve is a Black Londoner, living, at the beginning of the story, a poor life in Southwark with her mother, a Mozambican by birth. Moving around, getting work where they can, they dream of a better life. Eve's mama is a diver and, faced with a chance to earn some real money in Portsmouth where the Mary Rose has sunk, they make a perilous journey in order to attempt to make their fortune, or at least in search of a better living. Along the way they are beset by illness, untrustworthy companions and ultimately, by their poor circumstances.

Upon arrival, things seem to look up for while, but not for long. The pair struggle to find work, and even the famous African diver Jacques Francis (historically significant not only as being lead salvage diver on the sunken Mary Rose, but also as the first Black person recorded to have given evidence in an English court) doesn't want to help them. They suffer the rejection of the townsfolk, betrayal by supposed friends before the racist viewpoints of the time lead to the kidnap of Eve's mama.

As well as being a thrilling, albeit sad, adventure, the book also evokes many other details of a time gone by - descriptions of living conditions, architecture and every day life as well as explanations of royal lineage and the tussle between religion and politics all ensure that young readers might even learn a thing or two as they read.

Providing, as I believe is the purpose of this range of stories, a way into Black British history for Key Stage 2-aged readers, this book is a great starting point for more learning around the ethnic diversity of Britain in Tudor times. Expertly written and exceedingly evocative, Patrice Lawrence's compelling narrative reveals, in a palatable way, the harsh realities of living in historical England as someone who is part of an ethnic minority group. A must for bookshelves at home, at school and in libraries.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Book Review: 'The Infinite' by Patience Agbabi

'The Infinite' by Patience Agbabi felt like a very unique read. What made it unique, I asked myself as a I read it - it was clear right from the beginning that this was something else.

Well, perhaps, it is the fact that you are plunged headlong into a world which at first, you do not understand. And there are layers to this world.

Perhaps the one layer is to do with the fact that Elle lives with her Nigerian grandmother - beautiful snippets of Nigerian culture are scattered throughout the story. Obviously some readers will understand and identify with this, but for this White British reader it was a great opportunity to learn more. I was, however, able to identify with Elle's grandmother's strong Christian faith - another thread that runs through the book.

The next layer to the world that the reader enters upon opening up 'The Infinite' is that Elle has some un-named additional needs. Given that the story is told from a first person perspective, this comes into play a lot. As such, characterisation is strong: the reader really gets to know Elle. We know she needs to sit under tables in certain situations; we know sometimes she spends days without speaking as she deals with trauma. And in this way, understanding of the world Elle inhabits grows as progress is made through the book. It's not only the protagonist who is characterised well - Elle's first person narrative is open and honest - she speaks the truth about the people she encounters in the story meaning that the reader builds up a great picture of the diverse cast of Elle's friends and acquaintances.

And then there is the fact that Elle is a Leapling - one who is born on the 29th of February - who has The Gift - specifically, the gift of being able to time travel. It takes some time to adjust to what is actually a very well-thought-through concept of time travel, and it is this that will draw any curious reader further into this book. Essentially, this is crime fiction, but very much complicated by the fact that crime can happen across time if perpetrated by others with The Gift. The story concludes satisfyingly and logically - a testament to the fact that the parameters of Agbabi's concept of time travel are very well-communicated throughout the book.

'The Infinite' is a really inventive, imaginative and innovative book - I've certainly never read anything quite like it. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Book Review: 'Spaghetti Hunters' by Morag Hood

Writing children's picture books that are loved by both adults and children can't be easy. But there is one avenue, open only to the most skillful of writers and illustrators, which, if nailed, is a sure-fire way to appeal to both parties in the pre-bedtime reading session: surreal comedy.

Morag Hood combines her bold illustrations with limited wry text to hilarious effect. From the zany story line (a duck has lost his spaghetti and is aided in its attempted retrieval by a character called Tiny Horse, who is, indeed, a tiny horse) to the seemingly-incidental props (duck lives in a teapot, Tiny Horse's lecture on the finding of 'the trickiest of all pastas', the peanut butter which forms part of their hunting equipment) every word, every image has been selected for humourous purposes. 'Spaghetti Hunters' is (age appropriate Reeves and Mortimer-style frivolity in picture book form. When this is featured on Cbeebies Bedtime Stories it would only be right for Noel Fielding, or someone of that ilk, to read it.

'Spaghetti Hunters' is a celebration of more traditional pastimes - reading books, going fishing and home cooking are all on the table here - and is a gentle challenge to children (and perhaps some adults) as to where our food comes from. And whereas many books for children of this age focus on a harmonious, friendly relationship, Duck and Tiny Horse's friendship is a little more strained. During the story Duck, although clearly agitated (the eyebrows give it away, and the mental image of a duck trying to stomp off) by Tiny Horse's seemingly-pointless antics, demonstrates the patience needed when your friend has different ideas to you.

Morag Hood more than understands the necessity for images to mesh seamlessly with the words - the greatest outcome of this in this book is that the characters are so well portrayed - you know Duck and you know Tiny Horse within a few pages and, by the end, despite Tiny Horse's misplaced enthusiasm and single-mindedness, you feel like they are your friends. The rich but uncluttered illustrations make re-reading an extra pleasure - why do they need matching hats for spaghetti hunting?!

A perfect launch pad for some back catalogue delving (I'd heartily recommend 'The Steves'), 'Spaghetti Hunters' is a great bit of fun and has been a hit in my household with children across the primary age range. Books that are supposed to be funny are easily come by, but books which genuinely are don't come along all that often: Morag Hood's quirky style shines again in this one - a necessary addition to your child's bookshelf, for sure.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Guest Blog Post: Storyboarding With Children by Bethan Woollvin


After playing with traditional tales and creating my own twisted versions, including Little Red, Rapunzel and Hansel & Gretel, I decided I was up for a new challenge. Wanting to stay in the fairytale realm, I began channeling my love for folklore and traditional tales to write my own, more contemporary tale.

Anchored in a medieval era, I Can Catch a Monster follows a little girl who desperately wants to go monster-hunting with her brothers, but is told she is far too small! Exploring the kingdom anyway, she goes on a quest of her own to catch herself a monster, meeting some unlikely friends along the way!

Though I Can Catch a Monster is a step in a slightly different direction for my books, the idea unfolded in the same way that most of my books do - through pictures. I’ve always considered myself to be more confident as an artist than as a writer, and this is really due to how I think. I’m an incredibly visual person, so all of the book ideas I create, I do so nearly entirely in pictures to begin with. After some interesting research into mythical creatures, folktales and medieval lore, I quickly jumped in to sketching my ideas across a storyboard. This helps me to quickly map out the story in small, rough drawings, helping me to tell as much of the story as possible in pictures as possible. Words come much later in my process, and I usually use them to fill in any gaps in my story.

When I visit schools for author events, one of the first things I admit to children is that I find writing really difficult at times. I share my more picture-based method of story creation, and remind them that there’s no right or wrong way to create a story. My aim is always to encourage children (or anyone really!) to have more fun when creating stories. Mirroring my exact process of creating new story ideas, we work on a wordless story activity together. I usually focus this activity on a theme such as - ‘Create your own twisted fairytale’. I ask them to draw their story across a storyboard without any words. I encourage them to think about their characters, the environment and how they might progress their story over several panels of the storyboard.

For those who find writing particularly difficult, this activity really lifts the burden of writing. I’ve noticed with this activity, that it allows children to be more imaginative with their characters, environments and overall story plots. Sometimes children even add in words after they’ve finished their storyboarding, using more complex storytelling techniques such as dialogue and humour! But most importantly they have fun creating their own stories, and will feel more confident when it comes to the next story they create.

To celebrate the publication of I Can Catch a Monster, I’ve adapted a version of this very activity which you can do at home or in the classroom. I hope you find this inspiring, and keep on creating exciting stories! Click here to download Bethan's printable storyboarding activity!





Monday, 1 June 2020

Empathy Day: Guest Post by Planet Omar Author Zanib Mian

Empathy is a vital human force. One that creates happier children, stronger communities and a better world. It’s come into sharp focus during the pandemic and right now, we’ve never needed it more. Empathy is being able to imagine and share someone else’s feelings.

The good news is that it's a skill you can learn, and Empathy Day on 9 June aims to help everyone understand and experience its transformational power. Empathy Day focuses on how we can use books to step into someone else’s shoes. Scientists say that we can train our brain with stories – the more you empathise with characters, the more you understand other people’s feelings.

Empathy Day was established by not-for-profit EmpathyLab, who are on a mission to inspire the rising generation to drive a new empathy movement. On 9 June they will host a day of brilliant online events and home-based celebrations to help children READ, CONNECT AND ACT using empathy. Children can join in whether they're at home or at school, and authors, illustrators, schools and libraries across the country will all be taking part.

To mark the countdown to Empathy Day, Zanib Mian, whose book Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet is included in EmpathyLab’s Read for Empathy Collection, has chosen an extract from their book and tells us why they feel it’s a powerful read to develop empathy.


Extract from Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, Chapter 8

One afternoon, when we were doing an art lesson about Picasso, Mrs Hutchinson was so excited about how he made everything abstract that her curls started dancing with joy. She asked us to paint self-portraits just like his. Charlie and I were having loads of fun giving ourselves colourful triangle noses and weird-shaped eyes, when Daniel walked past our desk and sent the dirty water pot tumbling onto my painting.

‘Oops, clumsy me …’

There he was again with the upside-down talking. It definitely wasn’t an oops moment, it was a hey, let’s ruin Omar’s painting on purpose moment.

Charlie’s mouth dropped open in surprise and my heart took a little dip, as if it was falling into a different and less comfy place in my chest.

It seemed like Charlie could tell exactly how I was feeling. Because he leaned in to whisper, ‘He’s just a big frogspawn head. I bet you can paint a new one even better!’ And he gave me the biggest toothy grin I’d seen yet.

I imagined what Picasso looked like. I wondered if he looked like some of his paintings, all out of shape, but happy. Happier than all the other paintings from those old days. And then I thought, hey, what if some kid had ruined Picasso’s painting at school one day, which is why it came out all different and weird and that’s what made him famous? So I took my paintbrush, I grabbed it like it was alive and like it was the first time I ever held a paintbrush, and I painted.

When Mrs Hutchinson saw my work, her curls almost rose to the ceiling.

‘Omar, Omar,’ she said. ‘You DID this?’

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘It’s … wow. It’s brilliant!’

Daniel’s face was red. Like the beetroots my dad will never eat. He passed me a note.

It said:

WATCH OUT

Zanib Mian writes:

As I wrote this, I felt sad for Omar. But I also felt very proud of both Omar, and his new best friend Charlie, for how they handled the situation.

When Daniel tips over the paint pot, Omar recognises his emotions and allows himself to feel them, which is always the first step towards moving on from them. He didn’t use words like, ‘I felt sad,’ or ‘I felt upset.’ But we know how he felt because of the way he describes his heart falling into a different, and less comfy place in his chest. Unfortunately, everyone has probably experienced one of those moments when someone has said or done something, that made their heart ‘drop’ like that, with disappointment, sadness or discomfort, which is why readers might empathise with Omar at this point.

The reason I chose this extract to write about for Empathy Day however, isn’t solely for the empathy that it may elicit from readers. It’s because the way Charlie reacts upon seeing this happen to his friend is one of the most gorgeous Charlie moments in the book! Charlie is an amazing friend to Omar during this incident. He’s there for Omar. He sees Omar. He recognises how Omar might be feeling, and he does something to help him through. That is a wonderful example of showing empathy towards others. It’s a complete empathetic reaction.

What I love most is how this scene displays what showing empathy for someone can do. Encouraged by Charlie’s words, Omar regains his spirit and produces a piece of art more brilliant than before!
That’s the beauty of empathy – it has a great power to change every situation for the better.

For the first time this year, EmpathyLab will host its Empathy Day programme online to support families at home. Schools and libraries across the country will also be offering a wide range of home learning and story-time activities.

Prior to the big day, EmpathyLab are hosting a Countdown Fortnight on their social media channels (26 May-8 June). Highlights include brand-new empathy-themed illustrations from leading artists, short stories from favourite authors and video readings of empathy-boosting books and poems from the writers themselves. Families can also download a new Family Activities Pack, featuring 14 writing, drawing, crafting, listening and reading activities to do at home: https://www.empathylab.uk/family-activities-pack

Events on 9 June will begin at 9:30am with Children’s Laureate and best-selling author Cressida Cowell, who will introduce Empathy Day. The day’s activities, designed to introduce children to the concept and importance of empathy and how to put it into action, include a draw-along with Rob Biddulph, a poetry challenge with Sarah Crossan, Empathy Charades with Joseph Coelho, exercises on listening with Jo Cotterill and Robin Stevens, before rounding up the day with an activity on putting empathy into action with Onjali Rauf and Sita Brahmachari. Finally, an evening event with Cressida Cowell, Muhammad Khan and psychologist Professor Robin Banerjee aimed at parents, teachers and librarians will address the science that drives EmpathyLab.

The full programme can be found HERE https://bit.ly/EmpathyDay2020

Join in with the #EmpathyDay social media campaign and share your #ReadforEmpathy book recommendations.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Book Review: 'The Dog Runner' by Bren MacDibble

The fact that I read this review copy just over a year of it being published is testatment to the fact that I loved Bren MacDibble's last book so much that I knew I had to keep this on my TBR&R (To Be Read and Reviewed) pile until I had the time to give it the attention I suspected it might deserve.

I'm glad I kept it there on the shelf, ready for such a moment: the moment being lockdown during a worldwide pandemic straight after I'd read Jack London's 'The Call of the Wild' (Goodreads review here). It's funny how things conspire together - I think I may have read this book very differently had we not been a couple of months into COVID-19 restrictions.

You see, 'The Dog Runner' is set in Australia in the near future following the spread of a fungus which has killed pretty much all plant life, but crops in particular. People in cities are struggling to survive and the best hope is out in the country where fewer people are competing for resources. Ella and her half-brother, Emery, head out on a treacherous journey in the hope of making it to Emery's mum's house. They leave behind their dad who is searching for Ella's mum after she was designated as a key worker and drafted who-knows-where to work for 8 months.

Picking up on key themes from 'How To Bee', MacDibble once again excels as she tells a tale laced with environmental and family themes. It is no mistake that readers of this will close the book with thoughts and questions in their heads: Should I begin to learn how to survive without all the things I currently take for granted? Do I need to learn how to grow my own food? What does family really mean? Who would I want to be with if I was in a similar situation?

If you've read post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction before, or indeed films within these genres, then you'll have a pretty good idea of the kind of plot line you'll find in 'The Dog Runner'. Two kids on the run, fighting for survival against both the elements and potential enemies, placing all their hope and energies into reaching a place where they think they will be safe the the forseeable future. The Australian setting, the dog team, the nature of the disaster that has become the world and the family scenarios are the context in which the adventure unfolds.

But this certainly isn't a depressing book. It is full of light and beautiful moments between the characters, and between them and their dogs. Seeds of hope are sewn throughout the book - indeed, there are some positive plot twists where ordinarily you might expect events which plunge the protagonists further into the pit - and, ultimately it is not all doom and gloom in the end.

The real beauty of the book is that there is a message of hope for the reader - the events of the book are something that we can perhaps avoid, and if not, can be prepared for. It celebrates togetherness and collaboration and it encourages responsibility when it comes to food. On this second point, the story could germinate further exploration of where the food we rely on for life comes from and how it is produced, and what are alternatives might be if we want to live more sustainably.

All in all, a cracking adventure with plenty of tension and a novel setting for the action to take place. 'The Dog Runner' is an ideal introduction to a genre which is popular for teens and adults, but less so for younger readers. Suitable for children aged 10+.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Book Review: Mohinder's War by Bali Rai

I love a historical novel set in World War Two so when I saw that Bali Rai had written another (read my review of his excellent Now Or Never - A Dunkirk Story) I jumped at the chance of reading and reviewing it.

Mohinder's War follows the story of Joelle, a French/British girl living in France during the Nazi occupation. She, her family and their friends are a part of the resistance and when a downed RAF pilot needs hiding, he is taken into the home of the Bretons and concealed in their cellar.

The pilot is Mohinder Singh, a character based on a real life RAF pilot who flew in the Second World War. He and Joelle strike up a friendship - Joelle keeping him company and sharing her local knowledge, and Mohinder teaching her about his homeland and Sikh faith and opening her eyes to philosophies regarding life:

'We are all family,' he said. 'Every man, woman and child on this earth. I believe that all of creation is one whole. We are bound together, each of us, by invisible links, and all are equally important.'

During the course of the story, as result of key events (desparately trying to avoid spoilers here but there is treachery), their friendship develops into something much more resembling a father/daughter relationship - an interesting, rarely explored dynamic between two unrelated characters. This aspect of the story is executed particularly well with some genuinely lovely moments between Joelle and Mohinder, resulting in a very ultimate act of commitment and love (again, trying to avoid spoilers).

I would advise caution when choosing to give or read this book to children - it actually contains some quite starkly violent scenes, ones which in the context may not have been out of the ordinary, but which could be shocking to children living in a time and place of peace. Seeing as the action focuses not on warfare between soldiers, but civilian acts of resistance and episodes of violence against civilians, this less familiar territory should be carefully trodden. Having said that, with the right adult guide, the content of this book would be suitable for 11+ children who have some historical understanding of the time period.

That aside, this is a heartwarming tale of friendship, bravery and derring-do. Joelle and Mohinder use their wits to work together, defying all odds in their bid to escape France to the safety of Britain. With an exciting climax sure to ignite the imaginations of young readers, this is a fantastic adventure story which provides a much-needed window into a World War which has, to greater or lesser extent, been whitewashed: Bali Rai's latest book is a welcome addition to the bookshelf.

'Mohinder's War' will be available on 11/6/2020 and is part of Bloomsbury's Flashbacks series.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Book Review: 'Survival In Space: The Apollo 13 Mission' by David Long

I've read quite a lot of children's non-fiction books about space, and whilst many are excellent, they can usually be put into one of two categories: easy-to-read but fact-light or fact-heavy but harder-to-read. This book, 'Survival In Space: The Apollo 13 Mission', sits very nicely in the middle: packed with astounding facts but extremely simply written - and that is by no means an insult. To be able to convey such information in such a way that young children (or older ones who struggle with reading) can understand it is a rare skill.

Beginning with a few chapters of background information - the space race, the Apollo 11 moon landings - the book then gets into the real story, one that is less often told to children: that of Apollo 13 (more recently of Tom Hanks film fame). The story contains everything that fiction has and more: the narrative non-fiction writing is woven with straight non-fiction, providing those amazing titbits of information that will make readers gasp aloud and then find someone to tell the fact to. For example, did you know that 'when a spacecraft re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it is travelling at nearly seven miles a second'? Wow! Perfect for information-hungry young minds.

David Long's story-telling takes a very conversational tone which will make the reader feel like they are talking to someone they are familiar with - an enthusiastic teacher or a knowledgeable relative. (example: You might think the easiest thing would be for them to just turn the rocket around and fly back to Earth, but things are never that simple when you’re this far out in space.) The writing prompts questioning and provokes a level of engagement that other books lack. What's for certain is that this is not a boring book.

The book is brilliantly illustrated by Stefano Tambellini. Some of the illustrations are in the form of diagrams, others depict events from the story - both serve to enhance to the text as well as to break it up, making this 80-pager a far less daunting read. The book is split into super-manageable chapters too and the story is well-paced to ensure that readers are nothing but gripped.

Perfect for KS2 readers, as well as some expert readers in KS1, the book is being published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 13 mission. This is a perfect time to learn about the bravery of the crew and the initiative taken by NASA staff, ultimately ensuring that no lives were lost - and as your children might be too young to watch the film, 'Survival In Space: The Apollo 13 Mission' by David Long is the perfect resource!

Read the first chapter now on Barrington Stoke's website: https://www.barringtonstoke.co.uk/books/survival-in-space-apollo-13/

https://issuu.com/barringtonstoke/docs/survival_in_space_the_apollo_13_mission_chapter_sa

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Book Review: 'Now or Never - A Dunkirk Story' by Bali Rai

It's hard to write an enthusiastic review about a story so terrible. Terrible because the horrific events which inspired this telling are true. Not terrible because it is told badly - not at all.

The evacuation of Dunkirk took place in the May and June of 1940. It saw the evacuation of over 330,000 troops to Britain as Nazi German forces closed in, however 68,000 men were captured or killed during the operation. Bali Rai's tale of Private Fazal Khan, a member of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, and his journey to Dunkirk is an enlightening but sadenning one. He, his company and their mules, under the leadership of the wonderful Captain Ashdown, trek across France, braving one of the worst winters on record and the constant terror of German airstrikes, not to fight but to flee.

However, despite the awful circumstances of that first year of the second world war, there are incredible moments of light in this brilliant book. The fact that this story is even being told - how men from all over the then British Empire signed up, feeling like they were doing their duty - is a major positive. There's also the flashbacks to a young Fazal's life when lessons he learnt from his grandfather come in handy as he deals with death and destruction at the hands of an enemy. Then, when you are expecting racist antagonism from all quarters, you read of kind, humane characters who accept the Indian soldiers as equals and who treat them with great respect.

There is, however, a realistic depiction of prejudice and discrimination coming from individuals and of systemic racism coming from the British government. Yet, again, there are some lovely moments where Fazal and his best friend Mush get the opportunity to teach the British soldiers a little more about the culture and religion (both are Muslims) giving this story a spiritual backbone that isn't always found in children's books.

This is a frightening story, one which doesn't avoid the horrors of the war. Nor is it gory, thus making it an appropriate read for children in upper key stage 2 and beyond. It is the sort of novel, however, which shouldn't be read lightly - there are serious issues to discuss here and I'd expect most children who read it would want to talk it through during and after reading. This would be ideal as a class read for those studying WW2 at school - especially as it presents a very different perspective of the war. A totally recommended read, just not an easy one.

This book is the first in Scholastic's Voices series. Click here to read my review of  'Empire's End - A Roman Story' by Leila Rasheed, the latest book in the series.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Book Review: 'Wink' by Rob Harrell

'Wink' by Rob Harrell tells the story of a pre-teen boy who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one which has attacked the gland that produces tears. It is a book that made me both laugh and cry in equal measure and it deserves a huge audience.

Imagine if you will, a less saccharine version of RJ Palacio's hit MG novel 'Wonder' - that's what this is. It's all very real and very raw which is not surprising since it is semi-autobiographical in a sense: the author was inspired to write the book after suffering the exact same cancer as the book describes, albeit when he was 37 and not 11.

As main character Ross tells us about the present situation - the treatments and the trials and tribulations of school life and friendships - he intersperses it with flashbacks of the diagnosis, the medical decision-making process and how he shared his news with his family and friends. I'm not sure exactly if the voice that Harrell gives to Ross is realistic, but it certainly is brilliantly hilarious - full of sarcasm, often playing on stereotypical relationships between children and their parents, as well as with their peers at school.

Having said that, pretty much any stereotypes that exist in the story are smashed by the end - the bully, the grumpy old man, the embarassing dad, the scary-looking punk, the popular girl and the stepmum are all allowed to let their true colours shine. In fact, in a book about a boy who is scared about how his public image is affected by his cancer treatment, the focus is more on how he percieves others than one would expect.

The story provides a great case study in how to talk to someone who is going through a tough time. Ross is annoyed in equal measure by the constant questions about how he's doing and the total lack of engagement (as displayed by one of his best friends, Isaac). However, the tightrope is walked perfectly by his other best friend, Abby, who knows him well enough to know when to sit and listen, when to talk and when to challenge Ross for his own selfishness.

Inter-generational friendships abound in 'Wink' too - most notably as Ross gets to know his radiation technician and Jerry, a much older cancer patient who he bumps into every time he's at the clinic. Both storylines are heartwarming, but for different reasons. Frank, the guy who gives Ross his radiation therapy, introduces Ross to music - hard, angry music which speaks right into Ross' life and situation - and eventually becomes Ross' guitar teacher. Jerry, in his gruff old way, provides Ross with the grounding he needs - advice he can take from someone who has been through it.

The whole story ends in riotous, harmonious dischord - a true real life ending. Ross gets to rock out at the school talent contest, showing the real bullies what's what and who's who, sending his best friend Abby off to her new home and gaining a new true friend in the process. It truly is bittersweet.

Recommended for the upper end of the Middle Grade range (so, year 6 to 8 in English money), this is an story is one that needs to be heard. Navigating illness and the potential of death is a tricky topic for children of this age, and one that is dealt with pretty strangely sometimes in popular media. 'Wink' walks the line perfectly and could teach adults and youngsters alike a thing or two about how to come to terms with such difficult issues.

Oh, and there's also really cool comics throughout the book featuring Ross' own character, Batpig!

Wink was published in the UK on 31st March 2020 by Hot Key Press

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Book Review: 'Viper's Daughter' by Michelle Paver

I'll admit from the outset of this review that despite being an avid reader of children's books I'd never read a Chronicles of Ancient Darkness book before, not even 2004's 'Wolf Brother' which kicked off the whole series. Now, after an 11-year hiatus, Michelle Paver is back with 'Viper's Daughter', which, thankfully, I can confirm, works brilliantly as a standalone novel.

I'm often wary of children's books involving magic (although I do read a lot of them) but this one is different. The magic is deeply rooted in a spirituality which pervades all human life in the time period the story is set in - a pre-agricultural Stone Age. And it is spirituality which marks this book out as different to so many novels written for this age range: the idea that strongly-held beliefs could guide someone's life choices to such a degree as they do for those in Torak's world is alien to many children today. Making sense of how humanity interacts with the natural world surrounding it, the 'religion' followed may be fictitious but it could help children to empathise with and understand those who follow modern religions.

But I digress. The acknowledgement, worship and fear of higher forces lends credibility to the magic in this book. Those who are more open to understanding nature are more able to work with it and use it to bring about change - in this sense, the magical ability of some of the book's characters is believable,  and not just convenient to ensure the plot progresses. As for the plot, it's a classic good vs. evil, overthrow the villain type affair - and an exeedingly good one which is set in a vividly-painted world.

As he tracks his 'mate' Renn, Torak's epic journey with Wolf takes him from his native forest into the arctic regions, encountering different clans and a surprising and awesome array of wildlife (including an exciting encounter with a now extinct species) on his way. Despite depicting a very hard way of life, Paver's descriptions of survival in the great outdoors is inspiring. Releasing into a nation of people confined to their homes, this book will surely make the young reader re-assess their current way of living, and at the very least will ready young minds for exploring nature more deeply, either during their daily allowed exercise, or in more depth once the lockdown is over.

Equity between male and female is a surprising theme in the story. And whilst the topic is dealt with in a light-handed way, it is there nontheless - the contrast drawn between the parity and respect that Torak and Renn share and the way that one particular clan treats their womenfolk. And for one character it is a story of emancipation and empowerment - an important storyline for children living in a modern society which still has some way to go before fairness reigns.

Perfect for children in UKS2 and KS3, this is a fantastically unique fantasy story which speaks to heart, mind, body and soul. A story in the vein of the greatest and oldest adventure epics, and importantly, one that raises many pertinent questions for our own life and times. I shall certainly be seeking out the other books in this series, such was the excellence of this one.

Published by Head of Zeus/Zephyr books on 02 April 2020 * 256pp * £7.99 * 9781789542400

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Book Review: 'DustRoad' by Tom Huddleston

This book is so cinematic I ate popcorn as I read it, I kid you not. Every page sees the reader's retinas seared with images so lucid, if not a little hazy from desert dust, that it is impossible not to feel like you are living the action.

And in 'DustRoad', action there is a-plenty. Huddleston, it appears, is a master of the set-piece - something that not many authors these days seem to even deem necessary. In that sense it harks back to the old days of serialised children's stories - the ones that were published a chapter a week and that probably would have been cut if readers lost interest. Whether it's a Mad Max-style car chase, a bull ring event (albeit without any livestock, only crazy cars) or a pirate attack on an ark, within a page or two the action is taken to boiling point by way of razor-sharp writing.

It's not just the action that is written with such precision - descriptions of post-apocolyptic places pull on the memories and ideas we have of cities and landscapes that exist somewhere in the world. Despite being so distorted by a world ravaged by rising water levels and the fall out of humanity, the locations of this all thriller, no filler adventure are as clear as day. It doesn't matter that none of us have ever seen a half-subemerged plexglass globe that acts as a parliament building, you'll know exactly what it looks and feels like when you read about it.

Whilst the first novel in this series, FloodWorld, seemed very bleak and devoid of hope, there is something about this one that seems much more optmistic. Sure, the odds are more than stacked against Kara, Joe and Nate as they travel thousands of miles, often apart from each other, in their attempt to bring about a little more piece in the fractured world they inhabit, but their determined outlook and their wiliness brings them through. Yet, not all is well, not by a long stretch. The book is punctuated by stabs of realism - in such utter brokenness, how could a few kids really make a difference?

Yet difference they do make - a powerful message to the young readers of this book. Joe, Kara and Nate may not be able to save the world in 309 pages, but they can make a sizeable contribution to what this reader hopes will be eventual salvation. But for that, we willhave to wait for book 3... that's assuming this is a trilogy!

The cast our heroes encounter on their way is brilliant too - an unearthly quintumverate of rebellious leaders, a scary but kind dump-dwelling artist, a gang of teenage petrolheads and some seemingly back-from-the-dead meglomanics (not all of whom have retained a full desire for power) all feature in this blockbuster of a novel.

If there's one book I've read this year that needs the Steven Spielberg treatment, it's this one - the hardwork of making it screen-ready has already been done. Recommended for fans of Philip Reeves' Mortal Engines and Fever Crumb sequences as well as for fans of high octane blockbusters.

Give that at the time of writing cinemas are closing and the world seems as dystopian as some of us have ever known it, it's the perfect time to self-isolate with a book that at least reminds us that things could perhaps be worse!