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

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.

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!

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Book Review: 'Crater Lake' by Jennifer Killick

You, or your child, may want to exercise caution when choosing to read this book.

Let's take the context first: it's a year 6 residential that goes very wrong. If a year 6 child reads this this year they are going to be super upset that because of COVID-19 they are most likely going to miss their summer residential. However, if a year 5 child reads this they will most likely want to avoid next year's residential like the plague. Simultaneously, Montmorency school's outward bound trip to Crater Lake is the stuff of nightmares and dreams come true.

Do you really want a distraught year 6 or a petrified year 5 on your hands?

Secondly, the events are pretty horrifyingly terrible - if this stuff really ever happened there would be no school trips ever again. There would be no amount of risk assessing that could convince a teacher to put children in such danger - forget risk assessing, teachers would need to be succession planning. However, the almost-nonchalant approach to averting crisis that the main character, Lance, takes, is most certainly likely to make any upper key stage 2 reader supremely confident in his or her own ability to casually battle parasitic aliens.

Do you really want to be scared out of ever running a residential again? Do you really want to give a child the confidence to take insanity-level risks?

I'm going to suppose the answers to the above questions are all affirmative and go on with this review.

'Crater Lake' is not one of those books where you wait around for ages for something to happen. Killick makes short work of introducing the characters - after a few pages you feel like you've been at school with the kids for 6 years and it's not long before their coach hits a bloodstained crazy dude who warns them not to go to Crater Lake. Inevitably the tropey evil assistant head pushes on with the visit and the children arrive at the world's weirdest outdoor residential centre.

With bags of humour (seriously) and never a dull moment, Lance guides his friends and the reader on a textbook how-to-evade-crazy-evil-non-humans mission to save year 6 and get out of the place. And this book has heart too: as the friends work together, they discover even more about each other than they ever knew before. As the plot thickens, their insecurities fade and as they trust each other in defeating their enemy together, they trust each other with their life stories. Sounds cheesy, but it isn't - in amongst the sci-fi horror there are brilliant moments of realism that all school children of a certain age will easily identify with.

I would suggest that anyone who wants to tear their way through a rip-roaring adventure story should read this book, but I have an even more specific recommendation: for reluctant readers who are fans of roleplay computer games and action movies, this might just be the book that turns them on to reading forever. Just as Point Horror and Goosebumps recruited swathes of cool kids to reading in the 90s, Jennifer Killick's latest novel could do the same in the 2020s - here's to hoping!

Book Review: 'Talking To The Moon' by S.E. Durrant

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.

Iris is living with her grandma, Mimi, whilst her dad deals with a damp problem in her bedroom at home. She's glad to be out of the house as the two-year-old twins make life very stressful. She loves living with her zany grandma, even if she doesn't really like having to go swimming with her in the sea. However, Iris begins to notice that her grandma's changing behaviour isn't just down to her quirkiness, although she doesn't like to admit it.

The story follows Iris as she tries to discover more about Coral, the girl who is in the photo on the mantlepiece. Joined by her neighbour, the annoying Mason, and in a sequence of happenstance, Iris learns more about what happened to the gap-toothed, red-haired girl who looks just like her.

S.E. Durrant certainly has carved out a style of her own - the simply-written prose, split down into short alluringly-titled chunks, perfectly encapsulates the thought-processes and story-telling ability of a bright child. Characterised by plenty of incidental detail, life for Iris is painted with precision in this compelling but gentle story.

And although this book would be great for children who are sensitive to high jinks escapades of derring-do, it certainly doesn't pull any emotional punches. Once again, S.E. Durrant has written a story full of heart, mind and soul. The pain Iris feels as she navigates family life with a mum who always seems busy and stressed, younger siblings who are never quiet, a lack of meaningful friendships (apart from the one she is trying hard to stop from becoming a friendship) and a grandma who is displaying all the signs of Dementia, is well-communicated, albeit in a sensitive and often humourous way.

'Talking To The Moon' is a great book for developing empathy and for introducing children to literary realism. Given that there are plenty of children's books which fall into a similar category it could also act as a great gateway to a whole range of excellent books. Anyone who has read and enjoyed 'Running On Empty' and/or 'Little Bits of Sky' will definitely enjoy this, as will anyone who loves titles such as 'Wonder', 'The Boy At The Back Of The Class', 'Bubble Boy' or 'Goldfish Boy' (especially seeing as in this one you get a female protagonist!). Perfecct for children in UKS2 and KS3.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Book Review: 'After The War' by Tom Palmer

Tom Palmer's latest run of war-themed stories continues with 'After The War: From Auschwitz to Ambleside' -  a story focusing in on three Polish teenagers who are brought to the safety of the Lake District for recuperation after Europe is liberated in 1945.

The story follows Yossi and his friends Mordecai and Leo as they arrive on the Calgarth Estate beside Lake Windemere and begin to attempt, with the help of a multitude of kind heroes, to rebuild their shattered lives. As they gain in strength and trust they have to make decisions about what to do and where to go next. Yossi lives in hope that the Red Cross will find his father yet life inevitably must move on whilst the search continues.

In this heartwarming tale of true and beautiful friendship, Tom Palmer communicates to a young audience with crystal-clear clarity the atrocities and the fall-out of war. As seen before in his books, he doesn't avoid the harsh realities, nor does he glorify them or play them down. Instead, he says just the right amount for the intended readership - a real skill. And, given the publisher Barrington Stoke's mission to provide credible, yet easy-to-read books for less confident readers, it is remarkable that a book written in a more simplistic style than others in its category has emotional depth beyond that of its peers.

In fact, perhaps the low use of complex language is all a technique to help us to understand Yossi. Here is a teenager who speaks no English, yet finds himself in the middle of the English countryside. Here is a teenager whose life has been devastated and dominated by cruelty beyond words. The narration of the story only serves to help us to know and love the character as he finds the meaning to life once more, as he learns to express himself to those around him and as he finds and understands himself once more.

With lots of World War Two references, particularly to warplanes, and the trademark sport references (I was pleased to read Yossi's celebration of the bicycle), this is exactly what I wanted from a new Tom Palmer novel. A tale of hope, friendship and altruism that is all too relevant in the current times we are living through.

After the War: From Auschwitz to Ambleside will publish on 7 May 2020 in Barrington Stoke’s middle-grade Conkers series.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Guest Blog Post: The World of Masks by Anna Hoghton

Click here to read my review of The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton.

In this guest blog post, author Anna Hoghton explains how she researched a key motif in her debut novel for children and shares some of her findings. A great read for anyone who has read the book, or wants to, and for teachers who want to encourage children to research information for their own stories:

Masks are clearly important in the world of my book – I mean, they’re in the title and on the front cover. Given that I was writing about Venice, I always knew I would use masks, it was just a question of how. What did I want masks to mean for my characters?

For inspiration, I investigated into how masks have been used throughout history. Masks have been used for centuries and the oldest mask ever found is from 7000 BC, though the art of mask making is likely to be even older than this. There are as many different styles of masks as there are different cultures and they’ve been used for everything: rituals, ceremonies, hunting, feasts, wars, in performances, theatres, fashion, art, sports, films, as well as for medical or protective reasons. Here are a few examples of how masks have been used by everyone from the ancient Greeks to Spiderman.

Ancient Greece

The iconic smiling comedy and frowning tragedy masks were used in ancient Greek theatre. Paired together, they showed the two extremes of the human psyche. Before this, Greeks also used masks in ceremonial rites and celebrations during the worship of Dionysus at Athens.

West Africa

In West Africa, masks are still used by some tribes (such as the Edo, Yoruba and Igbo cultures) as a way of communicating with ancestral spirits. These masks are skilfully made out of wood and often have human faces, though they are sometimes in the shapes of the animals. Some tribes believe that these animal masks allow them to communicate with the animal spirits of savannas and forests. Some tribes also use war masks with big eyes, angry expressions and bright colours to scare their enemies.

North America

In North America, the skilled woodworkers in coastal Inuit tribes make complex masks from wood, leather, bones and feathers. These masks are cleverly crafted, often with movable parts, and are very beautiful. Used in shamanic rituals, these masks represent the unity between the Inuit people, their ancestors and the animals that they hunt. When people are sick, the masks are also used to exorcize the evil spirits from them.

Oceania

In Oceania, where the culture of ancestral worship is very important, masks are made to represent ancestors. Sometimes these masks are enormous, even six metres high. They are also used to ward off evil spirits.

Latin America

In Latin America, Ancient Aztecs used masks to cover the faces of their deceased. At first these funeral masks were made from leather, but later they were made out of copper and gold.

Venice (of course I had to mention this one)

In the Republic of Venice, the concealment of identity was part of daily activity and used to break down social boundaries. This was useful as it meant state inquisitors could find out truths without citizens knowing who they were. But masks also meant that people could get up to no good... Eventually the wearing of masks in daily life was banned except for during certain months of the year.

However, masks continued to be used in the Commedia dell’Arte - an improvisational theatre that was popular until the 18th century. Their plays were based on established characters with a rough storyline, called Canovaccio. If you’ve read ‘The Mask of Aribella’ that name might sound familiar…

During the Black Death, plague doctor masks were also worn in Venice. These masks had long, white beaks, which were filled with sweet-smelling herbs and used to protect the wearer from breathing in infections, which at the time people believed to be airborne. I’ve used this iconic mask as the Mask Maker’s mask in ‘Aribella’.

Nowadays, masks are the fodder of superheroes such as Spiderman and Zorro who wear masks to protect their identities. Masks were used interestingly in the new ‘Watchmen’ TV series, which imagines a world where police also wear masks to protect their identities. There are several great lines, such as: "You can't heal under a mask [...] Wounds need air." and ‘Masks allow men to be cruel’.


So, in conclusion, masks can, and have, been used for many different purposes, even within a particular culture. I love the empowering, spiritual side of masks and decided to use masks in my story as a tool that could not only hide their wearers (by making them ‘unwatchable’), but also help them become more fully themselves and access the unique strengths inside of them. We all wear masks to greater or lesser extents in our lives. At the start of the novel, Aribella is hiding from the people around her. However, throughout the course of the book, she learns to trust her own power. When she eventually gets a mask of her own, one that is made for her, and puts it on, she knows she will never hide again. I think lots of young people could learn to trust themselves a little more and drop some of the false masks that we all hide behind in order to fit in. Imagine a world where we all fearlessly showed our true selves and unique powers? What a magical place that would be.

THE MASK OF ARIBELLA by Anna Hoghton is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Book Review: 'The Mask Of Aribella' by Anna Hoghton

Choosing the islands and lagoon of Venice for the setting of a magial middle grade escapade was a stroke of genius. The surrealness of such a location makes the events of the story seem entirely plausible: very surely an only-just teenager in that strange place could find out they are a member of a magical order and that actually, they are the one to avert the catastrophe that is looming over the people of Venice.

It's on the eve of Aribella's 13th birthday that, in a fit of rage, she discovers she has the power to conjure fire. Very quickly she is whisked away into an ever-present but invisible parallel world where she discovers there is more to her unique city than meets the eye. But it is clear that not all is well, and is the way with such tales, she finds it is up to her and her new-found friends to save the day.

With the odd hint of certain giants of the genre, albeit with an Italian twist, this story is bound to enchant anyone within just a few pages. 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.

Not only is this a fantasy adventure, it will also have its readers guessing whodunnit-style as to who is really responsible for the sinister goings on. As I read, I mentally drew up my own list of suspects and weighed up their motives, questioning their behaviour and coming to my own conclusions about who is behind the appearance of spectres in the lagoon, the disappearance of all the animals and the too-regular appearance of the Blood Moon. I, of course, was wrong, but that made the ending all the more satisfying - and there was more than one goosebump moments as the elements of the plot came together in the final moments.

A strong start for children's publishing in 2020 and a great introduction to Anna Hoghton, a new voice in children's fiction.

Published by Chicken House · 2nd January 2020 · Paperback · £6.99 · 9+ year olds

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Book Review: 'Empire's End - A Roman Story' by Leila Rasheed

There are over 30 other books in Goodreads' Roman Britain in YA & Middle Grade Fiction Listopia list, some by eminent writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff. So why do we need another book which falls into this (very niche) category?

Well, Leila Rasheed has an important story to tell. Scholastic's Voices series focuses specifically on 'the unsung voices of our past' - in this particular book it's the voice of a young Libyan Roman woman who finds herself at the empire's end - in Britain. She has accompanied her father, a doctor, who is an aide to Septimius Severus, a Roman Emperor originally from Libya, and his powerful and influential Syrian wife, Julia Domna.

Not only do we get a much more diverse cast than in other historical novels, and are allowed to hear the stories of those who history doesn't always like to remember, but we also hear it from the pen of an author who herself grew up in Libya and who describes herself (on her Twitter bio at least) as British-Asian European.

CLPE's Reflecting Realities survey of ethnic representation in UK children's books  found that in 2018 only 4% of children's books published featured a Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) main protagonist. The BookTrust Represents research into representation of people of colour among children’s book authors and illustrators found that in 2017 less than 6% of book creators were from a BAME background. That's why we need this book.

But this doesn't just fill a void in the market, this is a seriously good book. 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. Although slavery is a key theme in the book, it is important that we follow the story of a high status a BAME character - as we've mentioned before, it is these stories that are seldom told. As Camilla's destiny is linked to that of the struggle for power in the Roman Empire, nothing is very certain for her as she travels the world and settles in a place that seems as far from home as she can imagine. The story twists and turns, painting vivid characters and their realities in a human way against the backdrop of one of the Roman Empire's trickiest times.

Young readers will be thrilled to find this combination of qualities in one fairly short story which is bound to hold the attention of even the most flighty of readers. And with this being the fourth book in the series, there is already plenty for readers to go back and discover. A fantastic first read for 2020.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Book Review: 'The Star Outside My Window' by Onjali Q. Rauf

As an adult reader, I found this book a difficult one to read - difficult but compelling, yet strangely heartwarming. However, what is apparent to grown ups will certainly be less so for younger readers - the age range the book is really intended for.

The difficult thing about it is that the clues are all there as to what Aniyah and Noah have been through prior to the events in the story. I remember saying when Lisa Thompson's 'The Light Jar' was published that I hadn't encountered themes of domestic violence in a children's book before - in The Star Outside My Window it is a much more central theme.

In its plot, there are definite reminders of Onjali's previous book 'The Boy At The Back Of The Class' - a group of optmistic children hatch a hare-brained, heart-filled scheme to ensure that justice is done. Aniyah, Noah and their new foster brothers Ben and Travis, run away on Halloween and head to London to gate-crash the naming ceremony of a brand new star which is travelling closer to earth than any other star has before.

With the scientific element of the story being quite fantastical, and the terrible realities of domestic violence being ever present, a balance is created. Aniyah's love of astronomy brings another dimension too - there are plenty of great factoids scattered throughout the story. But it is the narrator's voice which really sets this story firmly in place as appropriate for the intended age group despite its upsetting premise. The child's point of view which Rauf adopts, and carries off so well (as she also did in her first book), makes for a gentle and palatable yet serious treatment of the subject matter.

Books which tackle ideas about what happens after death are usually problematic: more often than not, they push one particular, definite idea or another - beliefs which definitely wouldn't align with everyone's way of thinking, therefore alienating potential readers. In 'The Star Outside My Window' a new precendent is set: all it portrays is one child's own rationalisation of what they think has happened to their mum - an idea forged in the furnaces of grief and the only thing that makes sense to them at the time. The author pushes no religious or secular beliefs, she just tells the story of one little girl, struggling to come to terms with what has happened.

And whilst the bulk of this review has focused on the deep and meaningfuls of this book, it really must be said that it is a rip-roaring, heart-in-mouth adventure too - will they really make it all the way to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich from Waverley Village in Oxfordshire in time without being caught? The odds are stacked against them but you'll cheer repeatedly as they thwart well-meaning citizens who only want to keep them safe, and you'll laugh as squirrels - yes, squirrels! - pretty much save the day in the nick of time.

This certainly is one of 2019's must-read books, but perhaps one that parents and teachers might want to exercise caution with. To help with potential upset, and to promote growth of empathy, the book actually contains a few helpful sections pre- and postscript about the nature of the story and domestic abuse, as well as information for how to get help if aspects of the story ring true for its readers - a thoughtful and essential addition to this brave new book.

Orion Children's Books - 3rd October 2019 - Price: £6.99 - ISBN-13: 9781510105140

Friday, 20 September 2019

Extract From 'Guardians Of Magic' by Chris Riddell

An extract from Chris Riddell's latest book 'Guardians of Magic', the first book in the new 'The Cloud Horse Chronicles' series:

Chapter 1: The Runcible Spoon

Zam Zephyr woke early and climbed out of bed, careful not to disturb the other apprentice bakers of Bakery No. 9, who were still fast asleep around him.

It was the day before the Grand Duchess of Troutwine's Tea Ball and Zam was too excited and nervous to stay in bed. Today, they would bake for the tea ball tomorrow. All twelve bakeries in the city competed for the honour of making the most delicious treats for the ball. If anything went wrong again, after last year's disaster that put Bakery No. 9 at the bottom of the heap, Zam and his friends would be sent home in disgrace. The thought of his father's disappointed face was too much to bear. No, Zam thought. He would do anything he could to make sure that his baking was perfect.

In the corner of the attic dormitory, his best friend Langdale the goat boy was gently snoring. Beneath the flour-sack blanket, his hooves twitched as he dreamed of chasing blue butterflies through the summer pine forests of the Western Mountains. In the other corner, the two Shellac sisters clutched the comfort shawl they shared. In the cots in between, the gnome boys from the Grey Hills slept soundless and still, five to a blanket, their small grey-tufted heads just visible.

Looking out of the window, Zam could see the golden roofs of the palaces glittering in the early morning sunlight. He gazed up at a billowing cloud and made a wish: 'To bake the best gingerbread ever, he whispered. 'Cloud horse, cloud horse, far from view, make this wish of mine come true.'

Zam took his apron and cap from the hook and crept out of the attic, leaving his friends to their dreams.

Zam ran all the way down the stairs to the basement, opened the door to the flavour library, and stepped inside. This was his favourite place. He loved how precise, tidy and ordered everything was here. He smiled to himself. With everyone asleep upstairs, it was the perfect time of day to practise without any interruptions.

Shelves lined the basement walls from floor to vaulted ceiling. Looking up through the glass paving stone, Zam could see the shadows of feet walking overhead as people passed the doors of Bakery No. 9.

The shelves around him were stacked with jars of all shapes and sizes, each clearly labelled.



Zam selected the jars he needed, opening each one in turn and taking pinches of the powders they contained. Carefully, he placed the spices on little squares of baking parchment, which he folded neatly and placed in different pockets of his apron. Satisfied with his choices, Zam crossed the stone floor to a large chest of drawers set in an alcove. He opened a drawer labelled 'Index of Crusts' and selected one with crinkle-cut edges and memorized the baking instructions written in small lettering on the underside.

‘For a crumbly texture, short, intense mixing and slow bake in quiet oven ... Zam read. The memory of the calm, reassuring sound of the head baker's voice filled his head, as it always did when Zam read his recipes. 'For a more robust biscuit, easeful mixing with broad, generous spoon and a short, fierce bake in busy oven...

‘Broad, generous spoon,' Zam repeated to himself, returning the crinkle-cut crust to the drawer and closing it. He looked up and was about to select one of the wooden spoons, which hung from the hooks in the ceiling, when he trod on something. It was a large spoon he hadn't noticed lying on the flagstone floor.

'That is so careless,' Zam muttered, picking it up. The spoon was broad and long handled, carved from a single piece of wood, by the look of it. Zam turned it over. It was a slotted spoon, full of small holes, with three large ones near the base of the handle.

‘Easeful mixing with broad, generous spoon,' the head baker's voice sounded in Zam's head.

‘Perfect,' he said, wiping the spoon on his apron before slipping it into a pocket.

He selected a favourite battered old book from a shelf: The Art of Baking. “There you are," he said happily and climbed the back stairs to the kitchen.

An hour later, the other apprentice bakers had been woken by the six o'clock gong and were filing in, putting on their caps and rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Balthazar Boabab, the head baker of Bakery No. 9, followed them into the kitchen smiling.

'Good morning, apprentices!' he said cheerfully, peering over the top of his half-rim spectacles. “As you know, the twelve bakeries of Troutwine are baking for the Grand Duchess's Tea Ball tomorrow, and we all have our parts to play.W

The head baker smiled again, a little ruefully this time. 'Bakery No. 1 is doing the first tiers. Bakery No. 2 the second and third tiers. Fillings are being produced by bakeries No. 3, 4 and 5. While No. 6, 7 and 8 are baking pastry shells and meringues. - Bakeries No. 10 and 11 are fruitcake and turnovers, and Bakery No. 12 is making floating islands...' Balthazar Boabab took a deep breath. 'This means, once again, Bakery No. 9 is picking up the crumbs…'

The apprentice bakers began to mutter. It wasn't fair. They had tried so hard, but they weren't being given a chance.

'I know, I know ...' said the head baker. 'It's not ideal, but after last year's cake collapse and exploding-eclair incident, Bakery No. 9 has a lot to prove ...'

'But that wasn't our fault,' protested one of the gnomes.

'The last head baker didn't pay off the League of Rats, said Langdale the goat boy, stamping his hooves, "and they ruined everything…'

'Nothing was proved,' said Balthazar gently. 'I am head baker now, and things are different, aren't they?'

Zam and the other apprentices nodded. It was true. Bakery No. 9 had changed since Balthazar Boabab had taken over: no more bullying, tantrums or random punishments. The kitchen was a happy place, and everyone was respected and baking beautifully. It was just as well. A year ago, after the disaster of the last tea ball, Bakery No. 9 had almost been shut down and everyone sent home. If Balthazar hadn't joined them from the fashionable Bakery No. 12, the apprentices would have had no future. None of them wanted to let him down.

"But what about the rats?' asked Langdale anxiously.

‘Let me worry about them,' said the head baker, doing his best to sound cheerful. ‘After all, we have heard nothing from the rats since I arrived.
Meanwhile, you have baking to do. We will be making the crusts as well as gingerbread and some spun-sugar decorations. And, at the tea ball itself –

Balthazar cleared his throat; even he couldn't sound cheerful about the next bit – 'Bakery No. 9 will be doing the washing-up.

The apprentice bakers groaned.

‘Langdale and the Shellac sisters are on shortcrust pastry shells,' Balthazar instructed. 'Gnomes are on glazed piecrust. Zam, are you confident to bake the gingerbread and help me with the spun sugar?'

'Yes, head baker,' said Zam excitedly. “I've already been down in the flavour library ...

‘Baker's pet,' muttered Langdale.

Balthazar gave the goat boy a stern look. But before he could say anything, an unexpected sound silenced them all.

In the shop, the doorbell had rung, and now they could hear the scritch-scratch of claws on the floorboards.

'I smell a rat,' said Langdale.
 


Publishing 19th September 2019 | Hardback, £12.99 | Macmillan Children’s Books | ISBN 9781447277972