When is a Children’s Book Not a Children’s Book?

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  • The Importance of Taking Children’s Books (& Adults Who Read Them) Seriously

“You blog about children’s books but you don’t have children? Has anyone ever questioned that you’re not qualified to do this?”

” I see you write about children’s books. Do you have your own children? No? Oh, you’re a teacher. So you’re coming from a professional point of view then.”

These are a couple of examples of responses I’ve had in relation to me and my children’s book blog www.booksagogo.co.uk.  Being questioned by strangers about my suitability as a reader of children’s books has always struck me as a bit odd (and a bit rude). I find it embarrassing and uncomfortable and I’m ashamed to say that in order to avoid these sort of comments I find that I self-justify before they can begin.  I get in there first and say that as I teach and am also doing an MA in Children’s Literature it makes a lot of sense for me to be interested in children’s books. The truth is it’s actually the other way round. I’m a teacher because of my love of children’s books. I’m doing the MA because of my love of children’s books.

Children’s Books for Everyone

What if I wasn’t a teacher? What if I had no reason deemed ‘proper’ for writing about children’s books? What if I simply loved to read them- would that not be justification enough?  To be a proper champion of children’s books, I need to be up there waving my copy of Jill’s Gymkhana with pride and claiming children’s books on behalf of everyone. So here I am, waving.

Back Up

C.S. Lewis had it right. He wrote this brilliant piece on writing for children and shared his thoughts on being a reader of children’s books at any age:

(In defending children’s books) “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.”

Also:

“They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two.”

Children’s Literature as a Genre

If we consider children’s literature as a genre open to any age, it begins to make sense. For a start, childhood is not a static state of being. Children (like adults) are all different depending on time and circumstance. Children today read books written for the children of 20, 50, 100 + years ago without any thought to it.  For example, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden might be a ten year old child of The Empire who has never been to school, but she remains credible today because she has a spirit children can identify with.  It works because children recognise the similarities rather than the differences. So should we.

What is children’s literature anyway? Robinson Crusoe was written for adults but has always held a fascination for children. It has been abridged over time and is considered by most now as a children’s book. Tom Sawyer is a children’s book but not one I’ve seen in any of the schools I’ve worked in, which is a shame and a loss. The picture book Rosie’s Walk is one of the most satisfying reads I have had the pleasure to analyse as part of my course. Fairy tales are not always about the happily ever after. Accepting that children’s books are complex is essential. This is something you can remind yourself of every time there’s a controversial winner of a children’s book prize. There is nothing that children’s literature doesn’t deal with: war, poverty, death, cruelty, violence, abandonment, it’s all there. Can you handle it?

 You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Children’s fiction has come a long way from its moralistic and didactic roots. We are in a new golden age and the choice out there is astounding. I can only begin to touch on all the good things going on in the children’s book world. I encourage you to take a look and ask yourself what you expect from a good book. I suspect it will be very similar to what you hope a child will get from reading.

Expectations for All & Some Suggested Reads

  • Expand Horizons. (The Lie Tree, Doomspell Trilogy, Bartimaeus Trilogy, Deathscent)
  • Feel Empathy. (Wonder, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, The Incredible Journey, Perijee and Me, The Arrival)
  • Learn new things. (Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm, Voices in the Park, The London Eye Mystery)
  • Be Delighted (The Bell Family, The Little Grey Men, Holiday House, I Capture the Castle)
  • Fire imagination. (The Earthsea Quartet, Strange Star, The Snow Merchant)
  • Have a laugh. (Who Let the Gods Out, Pugs of the Frozen North, I Can Only Draw Worms)
  • Get emotional. (Black Beauty, Skellig, Listen to the Moon)
  • Lose Yourself. (If You Find Me, Five Children on the Western Front, Darkmere)
  • Think. (Tape, Picture Me Gone, Noughts and Crosses, Winter Damage, Wells & Wong Mysteries)

Children’s books are for everyone. Have the hock and the lemon squash. Be enriched.

 


Triangle by Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen

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“One day Triangle walked out of his door and away from his house.

He was going to play a sneaky trick on Square.”

Triangle

Suitable for children aged three years plus, Triangle is a charming new picture book from award-winning duo Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. This is sneaky trick-based fun without parallel.

The story is about Triangle, who walks to Square’s house in order to play a trick. He does this and Square retaliates by following him home and depending on your point of view, either returning the favour with a trick of his own or getting into a scrape that inadvertently has the effect of a well placed trick.

It’s a gorgeous book to pick up and handle. It has thick board covers, it’s chunky. It’s a shape! It’s even more 3D than a normal book. (Well, it isn’t, but it feels it.)

The narrative is really well paced and reminded me of the Mr Men, my favourite books when I was little. It’s not brightly coloured and nor does it need to be; there are a range of muted colours and brush marks in the palette that are beautiful to look at. Take it outside into the sunlight and you’ll see what I mean. The backgrounds are more than a bit Rothko and we see Triangle making his way past boulder like structures which impact us in different ways depending on their size and shade. They are important enough for the narrator to draw the reader’s attention to their shapes which change as the journey progresses.

Square

What’s really impressive is how much character and personality is transmitted from two shapes with eyes and legs and nothing else. Look here at poor Square, mid-trick and very nervous:

Later in the book we see him fed up, angry, determined and slightly disconcerted and it all works perfectly. These drawings are anything but simple; every emotion gets across its message and works hard with the text to do it in a way that appears effortless. At the same time, kids will see accessible imagery and characters that say “Draw us! Send us on one of your own adventures!”.

Triangle wont be everyone’s cup of tea, but it should be. Does everything a good picture book should do and more.

PS- Upside down, Triangle looks a bit like Norman:

 

 

 

 


Who Let the Gods Out by Maz Evans

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Book seen here with terrifying Easter Bunny

“It began on a Friday, as strange things often do.”

Who Let the Gods Out

Elliot’s worries are very much grounded in the real world. His mum isn’t well and whilst Elliot is trying to hold everything together, the money problems keep coming. If he doesn’t find £20,000 in exactly one week they will be turfed out of their farm for good with nowhere to go.

But sometimes life surprises you with a bolt from the blue.

(Or a constellation.)

Possibly the last thing Elliot was expecting to land in their cowshed was Virgo: a young immortal from Elysium, on Earth to deliver ambrosia to a prisoner kept by the Gods near his home. Specifically, under Stonehenge. Thrown together by fate, they join forces but when the delivery goes wrong and the pair accidentally release Thanatos, diabolical Daemon of Death, things get a bit dicey. With the whole of the human race under threat, it’s time to get the big guns involved. Enter Zeus and a cast of Gods like you’ve never seen them before.

MG Roller Coaster

Who Let the Gods is a substantial MG roller coaster of an adventure.  It’s a big story- over 350 pages- and is packed full of action and humour. It’s properly roll around on the floor can’t get your breath funny. The characters are varied and hilarious. For example:

Charon the ferryman crossing passengers over the river Styx is genius, a kind of London cabbie:

“Right-o, we’ll take the Severn- the Wye’s murder this time of day.”

And Zeus, retired for the past 2000 years. An ageing Lothario, schmoozing mortal women and having a blast:

“…he was rather surprised to find Zeus in a badly fitting light-blue tuxedo with a frilly shirt, holding a cheese and ham vol-au-vent. The long white hair was there, albeit badly slicked back with hair gel. And it wasn’t a strapping chest bursting out so much as a gigantic belly.”

Then there’s Sisyphus, who I’m pleased to report has a lisp. Thithyphuth.

I’ll leave you to discover the episode with Her Maj the Queen; sufficed to say it’s rather surprising!

Reader Response

Whether it’s a main character or a brief encounter, the attention given to reader response is second to none. This is why I’d love to teach it and see those reactions first hand. If I were sharing this with a class, I’d have a whale of a time. I’d be going all out with drama, role play, anything to get the children up and enjoying the pure joy Who Let the Gods Out gives. Fun and learning, together at last!

Who Let the Gods Out is the first part of a series and I’m very much looking forward to the next book, out in the summer.

 

 

 

 

 


The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop

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Illustrated by Ashley King

The Bookshop Girl, with…

…and without whippet

Property Jones

Property Jones loves books. The smell, the feel of the pages, the little differences between them. She understands almost everything about them. Everything that it, except the words. Property Jones has a secret: she can’t read.

Property has managed to keep this secret despite living in a bookshop, the one she was abandoned in at the age of five. You see, Property’s parents left her there and disappeared. She was found by Michael Jones, a logical thinker, who seeing that Property was lost promptly put her in the lost property cupboard. Hence the name.

Six years later, Property, Michael and his mum, bookshop owner Netty, live there as a family. Times are hard but a competition to own the prestigious Montgomery’s Emporium of Reading Delights might just solve all their problems. They enter and await the outcome…

(But why is such a famous and esteemed bookshop simply being given away as a prize? Surely there must be a catch?)

Join Property and the Jones as they enter the most marvellous bookshop ever invented, tangle with some very bad baddies (BOOOO!) and spend time  with a really grumpy cat.

High Adventure

This is high adventure in gorgeously imaginative settings. The narrative is lovely: the book begins and ends with a chapter communicated directly to the reader which makes it a bit different. Sylvia Bishop has great warmth in her style and I enjoyed it very much. I’m sure that children will love it too.

The Bookshop Girl is a really fun mystery. It creates amazing images in the reader’s head that will be remembered long after the last page has been turned. This is a book to be read again and again, each time enjoying favourite parts and taking something new.

The text is nicely spaced out which will help give young readers a bit of room to take the story in. It’s illustrated (as all really good books are) throughout and Ashley King has done a brilliant job visually all the characters and exciting scenes. The Bookshop Girl has it all. It’s a wonderful choice for children aged seven years plus.

 

Thank you to Scholastic for sending me this copy.


Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas by Aaron Blabey

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Piranhas, Bananas and Whippet

“Hey there guys. Would you like a banana?

What’s wrong with you Brian? You’re a piranha.”

Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas

Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys was one of my favourite children’s books last year because every kid I lent it to ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT. At the upper end of Key Stage Two, finding a book that your whole class want to take home and read doesn’t happen every day, so understandably I’m a big fan of Aaron Blabey’s work. Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas has a similar feel and will go down really well with younger children because like The Bad Guys, it does funny very well indeed.

Bananas Are Not the Only Fruit

Yes, Brian the piranha likes bananas, but they’re not the only fruit recommended here. Brian knows that in order to get the other piranhas to eat something other than meat, he’s going to have to offer a few tasty alternatives. But much as he tries to tempt with bananas, plums, apples, melons, all that good stuff, what they really would prefer to be eating is….bums. There’s a strong bum theme going on here and that’s got to be a good thing.

Look- he has eyebrows!

Told in rhyming couplets, it’s a shining example of why kids love Aaron Blabey’s books: it’s not too wordy but still tells a fabulously funny story. Also, as you can see, the accompanying illustrations are fantastic. Backgrounds are left white so those piranhas really are the stars of the show, eyeballing the reader rather menacingly and looking like they’re about to swim off the page towards you.

Piranhas, Bums and Belly Laughs

Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas is a top choice and a guaranteed kid pleaser. Best bought alongside The Bad Guys as the piranha theme continues. A wonderful book for younger children (and adults) who like a good giggle!

 

Thanks to Scholastic for sending me this copy.


Superbat by Matt Carr

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“Is it a BIRD?

Is it a PLANE?

Er… I think it’s a BAT in a funny little costume!”

Superbat

Pat the bat is having trouble sleeping. Bored of being a normal bat, he wants to be more like the superheroes in his comics. Pat is the kind of bat who has an idea and acts upon it. He gets things done, has a cup of tea and then he does a bit more.

The other bats question that his super powers aren’t actually all that super, being as all bats have them. Although his ears flop a little with sadness, Pat picks himself up, takes his skills and uses them for good! Check out his antics for yourself, enjoy his story and learn more about bats along the way.

A Book with Style

Hands down the most super bat I have encountered in children’s literature with the most super art work; this is a book with style. Some proper colour genius is going on here: we have teal and red and mustard and together they are magnificent. A book that provides not only excellent design but also offers new colourway combinations for the wardrobe as we sashay into spring. What could possibly be better?

Just this: the best aspect of Superbat for me is the message it sends out to young readers that we can all do extraordinary things. What seems ordinary to a bat is extraordinary to us and what we take as normal can provide us with the means to do achieve wonderful outcomes. We can all be amazing with or without the cape. Preferably with though.

We could learn a lot from Pat the Bat. We too can be heroes.

Superbat is full-on, important, technicolour joy.

 

Thanks Scholastic for sending me this lovely book!

 

 


Countless by Karen Gregory

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Hedda and Nia

When seventeen year old Hedda finds out she is pregnant, her already fragile world is turned upside down. Largely estranged from her family and struggling to attend her college course, the only solid thing in her life seems to be Nia.

Nia who sees things from her point of view, and who is always there to tell her what to do. The problem is, Nia is an eating disorder: anorexia personified by Hedda. Nia has been in Hedda’s life for a long time. Will she move over and make room for a baby?

Hedda knows that for the next 17 weeks she must call a truce with Nia and give the baby the food she needs to grow. But will it be that straight forward and how will Hedda react once the baby comes?

Authentic and Engaging

Countless is a really brave debut written about a difficult subject but Karen Gregory has got the tone absolutely spot on. Hedda as protagonist is authentic and engaging: she inspires thought and brings questions to my mind. It feels like she could be out there, and not just on the page. 

Throughout her story, I was with Hedda, willing her to keep going and to believe in herself. The support network she has in the book is a little unorthodox (as things in life often are) and as a reader I felt that I slotted myself in as an extra unseen part of it. For that reason I’d recommend Countless as both a YA read and something I’m sure older readers will enjoy too-I know I did.

Be warned though, this is one of those books though that is incredibly hard to put down. It’s intense and all-consuming, so put aside some time! I picked it up yesterday and was still awake at one this morning reading away avidly. Some books are best read that way, and this is certainly one of them.

Bold and Brilliant

Countless is a bold and brilliant piece of debut fiction and I’m already looking forward to more from Karen Gregory. Available 4th May 2017

Big thanks to Emily’s Bookshop in Chipping Campden for generously sharing this copy with me.


Let’s Find Fred by Steven Lenton

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“Can anyone help me find Fred? He’s a panda and it’s past his bedtime!”

Let’s Find Fred!

Fred is a panda with big plans. Instead of going to bed, he decides he would rather have an adventure. As Stanley the zookeeper scoots through the town on Fred’s trail, we visit a range of colourful and exciting locations in search of him. And you know what, it’s surprisingly easy to lose a panda in a busy city, so keep your eyes peeled!

You will adore this brand new Scholastic picture book by Steven Lenton, from the front cover (complete with moving Fred eyes) to the very last lovely page. Let’s Find Fred is ideal for new readers as well as those who are just learning. The narrative nature of the pictures means children will be able to read most of the story without actually reading it, so it’s an excellent way of encouraging book talk.

Whistler’s Panda

Children will have fun spotting Fred on his adventures, including at:

  • The beautiful brightly coloured market- look out for a fine array of dogs.
  • The park. Shh, don’t wake up the old feller asleep on the deckchair…
  • The rather marvellous pand-a-maze with pandas a go-go!

And my Let’s Find Fred favourite, the art gallery with cleverly ‘pandafied’ works of art. Watch out for The Panda with the Pearl Earring and Whistler’s Panda. In fact, you’ll find nice little cultural references throughout the book as you read.

Well Worth Tracking Down

The story itself is wonderfully creative with text interspersed amongst the illustrations. It’s a book that children can be interactive with and because of the huge amount of detail included, they will find new aspects to Let’s Find Fred with every open.

For a really fun and supportive read that children will rediscover again and again, Let’s Find Fred is well worth tracking down!

 

Thank you to Scholastic for sending me this lovely book and inviting me to be art of the blog tour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Princess Primrose by Alex T Smith

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“‘Something must be done about Primrose,’ sighed the Queen one day. ‘She simply can’t carry on like this. She is a princess after all and she must learn to behave like one.'”

Fellow ex-Bablake alum and kids’ lit genius Alex T Smith has cheered up my day no end. The reason: a new edition of picture book Princess Primrose for 2017. Hurrah from me on behalf of all young readers everywhere!

Princess Primrose

Poor Princess Primrose finds life in the royal household rather boring. That’s no surprise: she’s always being told how a princess should behave and funnily enough its always the opposite of how she is behaving…

Being a princess means

  • No climbing trees
  • No dressing up as a monkey
  • No digging up muddy vegetables

amongst other things.

I can sense your outrage. It’s not right is it?

The adults of the royal household and young Princess Primrose reach a sort of impasse. This is a shame as I can see from their marvellous pink castle that they weren’t always strangers to fun.

There’s only one thing for it: HRH Grandmamma is called. She’s one heck of a woman, with the wisdom of her years and an understanding of the important things in life. You will love her. If you are a grandparent, I strongly suggest immediately gifting this book to the little tearaways in your life; you are well represented here.

The illustrations sing from the page and will bring a big smile to your face. On first glance, it’s the colour and the changing composition that draws the readers’ attention, but it’s the detail within that makes Princess Primrose all the more special. Each member of the cast of characters has their own perceivable personality. I particularly like the butler who has a striped tail coat and a withering look.

A fantastic book that’s full of fun, life and occasional interesting background topiary. More than brilliant.

 

Thank you to Scholastic for sending me this edition.

 

 

 

 


The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

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” I stared into the dark mass of trees ahead, and my imagination ambushed me with nightmarish creatures- slavering wolves, whispering tree-demons, long-fingered witches… Every part of me was alive with fear now- my fingers, my skin, my lungs…

And then a sudden, desperate shriek pierced the night like a needle.

I froze. An owl? But it sounded almost human…

I turned back to look at the house- and stifled a scream.”

Hope House

It’s 1919 and twelve year old Henrietta Abbott (Henry) and her family have just moved to Hope House. Her brother Robert’s recent death has caused deep grief for all that knew him and through Henry we see the repercussions. Mama becomes ill, Father leaves indefinitely to work abroad but Henry remains with baby sister ‘Piglet’ in the care of Nanny Jane and Mrs Berry the cook. Mama’s getting no better and Henry has a bad feeling about Doctor Hardy, who seems to have a plan all of his own in regards to her remaining family…

Nightingale Wood

As she watches and listens, Henry begins to unveil the secrets of Nightingale Wood and Hope House- but sometimes your mind can play tricks on you. Is she seeing shadows of the past or things as they really are? Prepare for a storytelling masterpiece. The quote I’ve included above illustrates this perfectly: for writing to take you into the woods at night then reveal that the home you’ve come from is the source of the fear you’ve been expecting is a brilliant way of playing with narration. As for Henry, she’s a delight. A strong spirit with the ability to learn from her own  misconceptions. A heroic soul.

Everything you’ve heard about The Secret of Nightingale Wood is true: it’s completely as wonderful as they say it is. Suitable for readers aged nine years plus but I’d recommend it equally to adults as children, I have to say. I enjoyed the intertextuality throughout the story, and the relationship Lucy Strange creates between The Secret of Nightingale Wood and children’s books that Henry would have enjoyed at the time. Young independent readers will have the extra pleasure of being able to explore Henry’s favourite writers as she mentions them in the text. I think this is just wonderful- what a way to continue getting to know a character!

Utterly Gorgeous!

This is historical fiction with a pinch of psychological thriller, enticing and captivating. I was torn between greedily rushing to discover the outcome and taking my time over some of the most gorgeous prose I’ve read in ever such a long time. It was a good problem to have! The Secret of Nightingale Wood is an utterly gorgeous book.