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.

 

 

 

 


Me and Mister P

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Written by Maria Farrer and Illustrated by Daniel Rieley

“The bear stood like a statue. Inside Arthur’s very still body, his heart was thumping and inside his very still head his mind was racing. He thought it best to seem friendly so he nodded and smiled at the polar bear. The bear nodded at Arthur and bared its long, sharp teeth.”

Mister P

Arthur cannot see past his brother Liam. Whether he’s blocking Arthur’s view of the football on the television by sitting far too close to the screen or embarrassing him in front of his friends, Liam seems to be blocking Arthur from enjoying a normal life. Liam’s challenging behaviour is becoming too much for his brother to deal with and he decides he’s had enough. He leaves the house. On the doorstep as he goes to leave, is a polar bear. This is Mister P and he’s come to stay.

There’s a fine tradition of marvellous bears in children’s literature and Mister P is a more than welcome addition. He is gorgeous and funny and you will love him. A giant white bear, a little on the quiet side, very skilled at blinking and dancing, with an alarmingly toothy grin. No one knows why he’s come to stay or how long he’s planning to stay for, but Arthur wholeheartedly takes on care of him.

The Good Stuff…

In turn, Mister P helps Arthur to understand that although life may not always be fair, it’s not always unfair either. Arthur begins to notice more of the good stuff whilst it’s happening and finds out what really matters to him. As well as entertaining us with lots of fun, there are also the most wonderfully touching moments in Me and Mister P.

And Chocolate Ice Cream Too.

This would be a lovely class reader for any Junior classroom. I’d be equally happy to share it in Year Six as I would in Year Three; a good book is a good book after all and this is a story that provides real depth of content and thought-provoking discussion points. Autism is never directly mentioned in Me and Mister P, but it’s fair to presume that Liam is autistic from his behaviour patterns. I like that he isn’t labelled in the book and I think you’ll enjoy how he changes throughout the story.

The most interesting children’s books (I think) are the ones that can be accessed equally on different levels and the most interesting polar bears are the ones who like eating chocolate ice cream. Luckily, Me and Mister P provides both of these key features. Beautifully illustrated, beautifully written.

Me and Mister P: what a heart warming read for this cold January day.

 

 

Big thanks to Oxford University Press for sending me this lovely book.


In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll: Rooting for Alice

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“…I fight the urge to run. I’m not a chicken. It’s only a load of old trees. Making myself breathe normally, I walk back towards the gate. I’m nearly there, nearly calm again, when to my left I see something white flicker between the trees. Quick as it appears, it’s gone.

There’s someone else in this wood.”

darkling wood (2)

In Darkling Wood

A story of magic in a very real world, Emma Carroll’s In Darkling Wood can make anything feel possible. Suitable for readers of nine years plus.

When her mum gets a call in the middle of the night with news of a heart donor for her little brother, Alice is as prepared as she can be. She’s worried for Theo of course, but clear on how lucky they all are to have had a compatible heart become available. Alice can be forgiven for thinking this will be the sum total of her upheaval for the next few weeks, as that would after all be quite enough to cope with. What she finds out though, on arriving at the hospital, is that she won’t be staying with her best friend as she previously assumed, but with her paternal grandmother: a woman she wouldn’t recognise if she passed her in the street.

Root Cause

This is what brings Alice to Darkling Wood. Darkling Wood- what a great name. Already exciting. Don’t you just love books that uproot the protagonist and place them in new settings, new situations? Children’s writers are particularly brilliant at this: think of CS Lewis and the Pevensie children, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s removal of Mary Lennox to Yorkshire, and of course Alice discovering Wonderland. Now we have Emma Carroll’s Alice in Darkling Wood, a new addition to this theme, and one that fits very well into our modern world.

The reason behind Alice’s relocation is solid, grounding, real-life stuff that draws us to her side and has us hoping for a good outcome. Instead, she finds she has even more to contend with. Firstly, she is stranded with her Grandmother Nell, away from the modern comforts of mobile signal and internet access- to all intents and purposes, already in the past. Secondly, it turns out that Granny is about as popular with her neighbours as Brian Blessed in a library, having decided to cut down the ancient woodland surrounding her house. The locals consider Darkling Wood to be not only beautiful but magical and mysterious too, something Alice can already feel for herself. Nell however, sees only the encroaching trees and imminent risk of damage to her property. This makes Alice by association unpopular at the school she has had to join whilst she stays in the area, which isolates her in ways she’s never experienced before.

Thank goodness for Flo then, a girl around her own age who she meets in the woods and appears to be from the local traveller camp. She might be a little bit eccentric, with her red coat and talk of fairies, but at least she’s on Alice’s side. This is just the beginning of Alice’s adventures, and ours too as we are given insights into not only Alice’s world, but also another one that began nearly one hundred years ago…

Family Tree

Emma Carroll is a wonderful storyteller and with In Darkling Wood she has taken quite a gollop of different aspects- the past and the present, the real world and a magical alternative- and blended them seamlessly into Alice’s story. There’s also a sensitively handled take on modern family life, with not only illness included but also estrangement and disunity. Less skilled writers could find this much information hard to handle in a three hundred page book, but in Emma Carroll’s hands it feels real, which of course is all good and proper, as life doesn’t hand you experiences sequentially, rather preferring the layering option. As a reader, it feels very natural and easy. It’s only in recalling the plot for this review that I fully realised how cleverly written it is. As for the magic, we can only hope for a little of that in our own lives and until then, escaping into books like In Darkling Wood is the closest possible thing.

In Darkling Wood shows us that magic can be closer than you think.

Themes for Teachers

As ever, Emma Carroll gives fresh insights in history, this time focussing on The First World War from the perspective of the family left at home. Other themes teachers might want to explore through the text are Alice’s transitions, to another school and also staying with an unknown relative. In Darkling Wood also considers environmental issues and how people respond to them and is an excellent book for sparking conversation on different points of view and empathy. Classes could have lots of fun developing their own family trees as they consider Alice’s, as there is opportunity to explore the metaphor of the threatened woodland and Alice’s own precarious family situation. I’d recommend this as particularly lending itself to Year Six pupils because of the aspect of transition but also as a way of bringing a little magic to their last year in primary, which is the least we can do.

 


Pugs of the Frozen North: Yip Yip, Hooray!

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Pugs of the Frozen North by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

 

pugs

“Two hundred and sixty-four tiny paws pattered on the ice, sixty-six little voices howled ‘AROOO!’ and the sled set off…”

Pugs

Pugs of the Frozen North is a fantastically funny, beautifully illustrated and sadly fictional book for anyone aged seven plus. Written and illustrated by the hugely talented team of Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve, it’s a book that presents you with the image of a sixty-six strong sled dog team of pugs (something I’m struggling to get over the magnificence of) and wraps it in a bonkers adventure, a race to the top of the world and the chance to win your heart’s desire at the end of it.

Naturally, the pugs (and of course Shen and Sita who are in charge of them) aren’t the only ones competing to meet the Snowfather at the top of the world and claim the prize. And as this event can only take place during a rare True Winter, competition is fierce. We soon meet the other racers: also taking part are scientist Professor Shakleton Jones and his robot companion Snowbot; bearded lady Helga Hammerfest and her two friendly polar bears, and also Mitzi Von Primm and her huskies which much to their shame have been poodle-clipped and dyed pink. Also racing is Sir Basil Sprout-Dumpling, all round bad egg and stop-at-nothing-cheat. Watch out for him: he really is a frightful rascal and not to be trusted.

Did I Mention There Are Pugs?

Prepare to adventure across the frozen north with Shen, Sita and the pugs as they strive to reach the Snowfather first and have Sita’s wish granted to return her grandfather (a previous racer who met the Snowfather in his youth) to good health. Look out for crazy creatures and fifty different types of magical snow, including echosnow, slumbersnow that snores and farts, and also snowtrolls: a carnivorous snow, prone to heckling:

pugs inner

Snow Trolls at Work

Celebrating Art (And Pugs)

It’s a weird thing that most books for adults usually deny their readers the joyousness of illustrations. This is something I will never understand. Luckily, we have the children’s book community to save us from this ultimate dullness of a world without art. Pugs of the Frozen North is a true celebration of drawing, bringing us more fabulous illustrations than you could shake a snowy stick at, and that makes me very happy indeed.

Why read Pugs of the Frozen North? For goodness sakes, why not! Sixty-six pugs pulling a sled people… you don’t get this sort of opportunity in literature every day! Not to mention that this is a truly lovely story, with many thoughtful and inspiring snippets, such as this one that I particularly liked:

“All things die in the end, but not stories. Stories go on and on, and new ones are always being born.”

And on that reassuring thought, I definitely rate this as….

A book of true glory. I love it.


Have You Got it on Vinyl? The Kite Who Was Scared of Heights by Simon Williams

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The Kite Who Was Scared of Heights by Simon Williams and Antonio Papaleo

kite heights

The Book and Some Owls

Sticky Floors

Well this is all very exciting, although I’m fashionably late to the party as the book was released back in the middle of 2014. For those of you grown ups who spent the nineties doc marten’d, floppy fringed and moodily hanging around in sticky floored underground indie hovels, this might just be exciting for you too: The Kite Who Was Scared of Heights is written by ex-NME journalist (when it was EVERYTHING) and Fierce Panda record label founder Simon Williams, champion of such top banana bands as Embrace, Ash, Gorky’s, The Bluetones, Kenicke, Keane and Death Cab for Cutie to mention but a few. Fierce Panda were also the indie label that first brought Coldplay to our attention, I guess hence  Chris Martin’s dubious endorsement on the back cover. Remember, Coldplay were good back then though so we’ll say no more about it.

Steve Lamacq Performance Poetry

This crossover of an NME journalist writing for children is almost as thrilling for me as when Stuart Maconie turns up at our local picnic in the park every year. I hope it prompts more diversification, ideally Steve Lamacq performing poems in our local libraries. That would be nice.

The Kite Who Was Scared of Heights is fairly self-explanatory. Said kite expresses a fear of heights and following this meets other lovely things that used to have a fear they have since overcome: for example a boat that used to be too scared to float and a car that used to be scared to go far. It’s written in rhyming couplets with some speech which makes it fun to read out loud; the pictures by Antonio Papaleo are great, really bright and friendly with lots of big eyes and a strong feel of movement.

kite innner

Ultimately we find out that the best way to overcome your fear is to be very brave and that thinking about others first helps enormously. I like the message, but most of all I like the kite, who could teach me a thing or two about dealing with acrophobia.

More Pandas

I used to know Simon back in the early to mid nineties, but having not seen him for (blimey) nearly twenty years, I have no idea what he’s been up to since. Saying that, it’s no surprise that Simon has successfully turned his hand to writing for kids, as his reviews and interviews at the NME were always a bit off the wall, well peppered with Milliganesque snippets and a healthy amount of panda referencing. I think his style sits well with this genre and hopefully there’s more to come.

As a previous appreciator of Simon’s writing, I’d like to see even more silliness introduced to the text, more pandas and possibly a sprinkling of made-up words. I’m sure it would be good if he got out there and did some school visits to further spread the message as I think he’d be great. Even better, release it with a 7″ vinyl accompanying disc with words and backing track. Perfect!

A top read for all grown-up indie kids and their kids, from three years plus.

(And for those of us who like to keep our feet on the ground, here’s what I’m sure is a Fierce Panda approved tune:)

 


Brum Radio Book Club: My January Top Reads

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The Brum Radio Book Club

For those who don’t know, I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to talk a bit about children’s books on Brum Radio‘s book show, The Brum Radio Book Club. I can’t tell you how lovely it’s been to be asked to do this and must thank Mike and Blake who do the show for inviting me to get involved. I’m currently working my way up to listening to the show later on today and feel quite terrified of hearing myself, but will be quickly getting over this as soon as I’ve written this post.

The last time I was on the radio I was about ten I think: Coventry’s finest station, Mercia Sound, played a recording of my class and me reciting our Band Aid inspired Christmas poem. It was an epic occasion destined to be recorded on an old C60 and then lost sometime in the 90s. Probably recorded over with some Morrissey I would imagine.

So, for the show I chose three new books to talk about, covering the primary age range. If you want to read the original posts you’ll find them if you scroll down. To listen to January’s Brum Radio Book Club, here’s the link. It’s really, really good *and also Jonathan Coe, local literary hero, is being interviewed about his new book Number 11 too, and he is a pleasure to listen to**.

Here are my recommendations for January:

How to Find Gold by Viviane Schwarz

gold

How to Find Gold is a picture book with a big personality, suitable for sharing with children of three years plus and will especially appeal to parents and teachers who enjoy doing ‘voices’ as there’s a good bit of speech to play with. Anna and Crocodile are after gold by use of maps, ‘secret faces’ and the implementation of much adventuring.

Why should you choose this book?

Firstly it’s a hoot: really funny, in a dry way that works wonderfully and will definitely appeal to the adults who will be reading it time and time again. With funny books recently found in a Scholastic survey to be the most popular genre for kids and adults, this has got to be good and Schwarz proves that picture books can do this just as well, if not better, than books for older children.

I also really like the way Schwarz plays with how the story is broken up. Sometimes there’s a full page of text, on others maybe just one sentence. There are actually a few pages simply devoted to pure blissful illustration, but as our friends Anna and Crocodile are underwater at this point and can’t therefore speak, that of course makes total sense.

What children can rely on with every fresh turn of the page are the presence of those gorgeous drawings. What child (or adult) doesn’t love that, especially as the pictures here grow bigger, brighter and more exciting as the adventure really gets going! Every aspect of this book amplifies the joyousness of reading and hands it over to young readers at a crucial time. Possibly even better than finding gold!

GGGGG A picture book of true glory. I love.

gold inner

 

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels, Illustrated by Emma Block

miss petitfour amended

“Some adventures are so small, you hardly know they’ve happened. Like the adventure of sharpening a pencil to a perfect point, just before it breaks and that little bit get stuck in the sharpener. That, I think we’ll agree, is a very small adventure.”

A delicious hardback: part charming story and part object of great beauty due to Emma Block’s illustrations. Suitable for children aged seven plus and probably more likely to appeal to girls, it’s ideal for bedtime reading or would be great as a class reader as each chapter is a whole different adventure. Also, for this reason it’s a good choice for children new to independent reading as it gives all the joy and pride of reading a ‘proper book’ whilst kindly providing bite-sized servings for gentle souls.

Meet Miss Petitfour:

miss p amended

Isn’t she a delight? Miss Petitfour lives in a marvellous world of cats, chums, baking, bunting and breezes. Firstly, the cats: she has sixteen of them, often be-hatted and occasionally be-jewelled. We learn that cats enjoy festooning to an expert level. Each cat of course comes with its own picture and description. Adventures start with Miss Petitfour and all sixteen cats travelling by flying tablecloth, usually to the local village which is like a really ace mix of Totnes, Hay on Wye and Camberwick Green. The style of tablecloth is dependent on the kind of day and the time of year, but blustery days are obviously the best sort. Cats, we also learn, enjoy flying greatly:

“The cats liked to be aired. They liked to feel the wind pick up every one of their hairs and set them down again, gently, as if the wind were looking for something.”

Once they’re up and away, all manner of escapades can and do occur. One even involved an ‘oom’. But I’ve said too much. You need to investigate this further and without me.

A book to bring warmth and joy this January and is sure to be picked from the book shelf time and time again.

GGGGG I really, really wish this was non-fiction.

How to Look for a Lost Dog by Ann M Martin

lost dog

“I am Rose Howard and my first name has a homonym. To be accurate, it has a homophone, which is a word that’s pronounced the same as another word but spelled differently. My homophone name is Rows.”

How to Look for a Lost Dog has recently been released on January 1st and sets a high bar for the year. Ideal for children aged nine years plus and also appropriate for Key Stage Three, this is all about Rose. Rose is a high functioning autistic eleven year old girl telling her own story. Rose tells us a lot about her fascination with homonyms. She also likes prime numbers and following rules. It’s important that everyone follows the rules and when they don’t, Rose gets upset and her aide (the book’s set in America, so this is her TA) has to ask her to step into the hall to calm down.

It seems that everyone finds it hard to see past Rose’s diagnosis: her classmates, her teacher, her father too. Ann M Martin has written this so that at first, we too might feel a little overwhelmed by Rose’s personality. On the other hand it’s easy to number those that do totally understand and accept Rose: her lovely Uncle Weldon and her dog Rain (reign, rein).

It’s watching how well-adjusted Rose is despite her daily life that makes this one of those stories that slightly takes over your life for the duration of reading. Add to that the knowledge that sooner or later we know Rain is going to go missing, and it becomes almost un-put-downable. This way, Rose’s diagnosis soon diminishes for the reader, and in turn her classmates and teacher also start to see her properly. Once we all step over the diagnosis, it’s easy to keep doing so.

This isn’t a story about an autistic girl losing her dog. The disappearance of Rain is just one part of the book, one part of Rose’s life, albeit an important one. Just like any eleven year old, she is learning, growing and figuring out the world. Her journey will leave you humbled and wet of eye.

A book to be loved and shared.

GGGG Gorgeous but there may be big, fat, blobby tears- embrace the emotion.

*Added after listening, so I can genuinely vouch for it being an extremely splendid way for you to spend an hour.

** And this too.


Grandpa’s Great Escape by David Walliams

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Grandpa’s Great Escape by David Walliams

grandpa

Oh my. No relative is left undisturbed in David Walliams’ increasing catalogue of children’s books and now it’s Grandpa’s turn, in Grandpa’s Great Escape.

Marbles

Jack’s Grandpa is getting a bit confused in his old age and spends most of his time believing that World War Two is still going on and that he is a serving RAF pilot. Jack adores his Grandpa and has always hung on his every word and loves his amazing stories of war-time adventuring. His mum and dad however, are starting to question Grandpa’s ability to live alone.

Jack is devastated when they decide Grandpa needs to go and live in a home, especially because the home is Twilight Towers, a Victorian ex-asylum ran by the vile Miss Swine and her army of butch nurses. All Grandpa wants is to take to the skies in his trusty Spitfire and win the war; all Jack wants is for his Grandpa to be happy.

Ticking the Boxes

Walliams is sticking to tried and tested methods here and Grandpa’s Great Escape ticks all the usual boxes:

  • It’s uber-sentimental, actually more so than usual, being mostly about a lovely old man losing his marbles.
  • There are fabulous illustrations by Tony Ross and this includes the usual funny pictures of all our main characters right at the start.
  • Raj is, of course, present and offering a selection of newsagent based bargains.
  • The story is well researched.
  • It will remind you a bit of Roald Dahl, as most of the adults are enjoyably ridiculous.
  • It’s not without its slapstick moments and mild peril.

Oh, But-

It’s an absolute tombstone of a book: smaller children handling this will be in danger of getting crushed under the weight of the blooming thing. Amazon reckon the hardback edition is 352 pages long. Well that’s weird. Mine goes up to page 461. This book is way, way too long and the story suffers for it. Somewhere under all the bloat, there is a good book that could’ve been more like his debut The Boy in the Dress, which was just about the perfect primary read.

Why make it so very long though? I wonder how many kids are going to get bored partway through because they’re used to a quicker, more lively read. I found this book much more challenging to stick with than his previous ones, and although there are glimmers of the old loveliness, they are spread out over three meandering sections.

Because it’s so prolonged, it becomes very obvious where the story is heading, which as you can imagine took away some of the excitement. Still, it’ll be a massive sales success regardless, because of its formulaic nature and celebrity author. If I were you though I’d go and find something less boring to read instead. How disappointing.

GG As bloated and sleepy as Grandpa after Christmas dinner. Zzzzz.


Return to the Secret Garden by Holly Webb: A Perennial Glory

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Return to the Secret Garden by Holly Webb

secret garden

Children’s Authors Rock

Revisiting classics can certainly be a tricky business so I’m always a little cautious that an author will not get the importance of doing a good job. Luckily for us though, children’s authors  are always (always!) avid fans of other children’s books and therefore totally get that when they take on a classic, they carry with them the hearts of many.

I should have known that Holly Webb would treat Return to the Secret Garden with the appropriate sensitivity and attention to detail. Like Kate Saunders, whose Five Children on the Western Front is my favourite book so far this year, she pulls her characters into a more recent and therefore plausible past. With Saunders, our five friends were reunited with us on the brink of the First World War; for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, Webb takes us to 1939 where Misselthwaite Manor is providing a home for a group of evacuees who are orphans from London.

Secrets

We are straight away swept up with young Emmie, who is far from delighted with her new situation. Emmie has not had a great life. She has no family to speak of, just her teachers and the other children at the orphanage, but having adopted a stray cat in London- Lucy- and grown very fond of it, she is naturally devastated to have to leave her hundreds of miles behind in now dangerous surroundings. My heart went out to Emmie as she struggled not to worry about her dear friend all alone.

Just as she feels at her most alone though, she finds an old diary, one that belonged to a Miss Mary Lennox, began in January 1910. Mary writes about a wonderful secret garden. Emmie understands the importance of secrets: Lucy was her secret for a very long time before she was tempted into the orphanage by the possibility of more food. Having read Mary’s tantalising description of the garden, she sets out to find it and in the early morning dew is rewarded with roses, sunshine, heavily scented lilies and chubby bees. The garden however is now unlocked so anyone can wander in should they choose to, but in Emmie’s eyes it’s all hers, for now anyway.

Webb cleverly juxtaposes the time of Emmie’s first visit to the garden with Mary’s. Whereas Mary first visited in January, Emmie is here on a lazy late summer’s morning. Such a brilliant move, and such a good way of marking Emmie’s adventure as linked but of a different time. Webb is adept at lightly adding these sort of metaphorical touches throughout her writing, like extra secrets for the reader.

Reunited

As the garden has changed over the years, so have the original characters. Remember, this is only 1939 and our old friends Mary, Colin and Dickon were children in 1910, so you should be expecting to meet them during the course of the story. The First World War has been part of their lifetimes and Webb made the decision for its effect on them to be long-lasting and life-altering. I think she really had to do this, because this is the truth of that particular war; this is what it did. It seems that no-one was left undamaged by it, and much as we wish these three were left alone, in our hearts we know it would have touched them.

Read and I think you’ll agree that Mary, Colin and Dickon somehow feel right for their time, whether you feel happy with their outcomes or not. And here they are, on the verge of the bloodiest conflict in history with all the memories of the earlier war still lingering and a house full of strangers. Maybe this isn’t a time for secrets, but one for pulling together, sharing and helping out. Times have certainly changed.

Forever

Return to the Secret Garden is a book to be cherished. It is a beautiful object to hold and look at, with the roots of a story we most of us know as well as any. Webb’s new characters fit neatly into Misselthwaite Manor, and going from busy London to the solitude of Yorkshire it feels rather like we’re all time travelling together.

I would utterly recommend it to anyone who loved The Secret Garden, as long as they can cope with seeing the original children all grown up. A gorgeous Christmas present for children and adults alike, for teachers and librarians, or anyone who ever wondered what might have happened next…

GGGG Return to the Secret Garden is propagated to perfection. A glorious read.

 

 


The Bolds by Julian Clary: From Stage to Page

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The Bolds by Julian Clary, Illustrated by David Roberts

bolds fr

Gollop

There are indeed a gollop of famous folk writing children’s books at the moment, but there again, I suppose there always have been. In my childhood, we had Prince Charles terrorizing us with his old man of Lochnagar. That was a trial. It seems somewhat unfair on regular, normal children’s authors, that a bunch of celebrity Johnny-come-latelys rock up and immediately get the coveted ‘just in time for Christmas’ publishing dates. It’s a teensy bit like pushing in really, isn’t it? Still, be thankful that at least most of them don’t go on to reveal intentions to open a free school, as Geri Halliwell has been linked with today… Heaven forfend.

School Boys

I’m always more interested in those celebrities coming to children’s fiction from less child-friendly areas of stardom. I reviewed Russell Brand’s Pied Piper on here back in January and the children I shared it with were appalled and delighted in equal measure. There was, of course, much reliance on puerile humour and details designed to gross the reader out, but blended with moments of deeper reflection.Julian Clary also comes from the world of alternative comedy, albeit it from an older (and I’d say more original) strain. Well known for his impeccable use of the saucy entendre, I wanted to see how easily he’d made the transition to children’s fiction, aged eight and upwards.

Well, similarly to Brand it would seem, he’s written with a fair amount of schoolboy humour (also see Walliams, David). I suppose this is fair enough seeing as he’s trying to get his book to appeal to school boys. It’s a much seen approach to writing books- most children enjoy sharing a giggle over a silly joke or two- however, it has to play second fiddle to a cracking story. Matt Brown, Archie Kimpton, Firna Rex Shaw and Andrew Norriss get this totally: please read their books to your children immediately. Julian Clary? Well, he’s kind of nearly there, but it needs a bit of work.

What’s Good

Don’t get me wrong, The Bolds is a lovely story. Here we have a family of hyenas living in Teddington disguised as humans and masquerading as ‘The Bolds’. The original Bolds were sadly eaten by crocodiles in Africa, and our enterprising hyena pals decided to take advantage of their demise to initiate a drastic lifestyle change. They nab their passports and move to England. Being a wild animal in suburbia comes with its challenges, but it’s all good fun and the adventures they have are entertaining and full of warmth. Their visit to the safari park is excellent reading and Clary has cleverly and succinctly given a brilliant description of their journey round the park and the encounters with the different animals. The zebras are ace:

bolds

And check out those illustrations! They are just wonderful and the book is packed full of them. There will be many carefully traced versions of these beauties on bedroom walls, fridges and in the backs of exercise books throughout the land. This is the art of David Roberts, who has previous form with some amazing authors and works well here with Clary as their styles are well suited.

So What’s Up?

My issue is whether it’s going to engage kids from the start. There is no story line introduced until page nine and in my experience children need this as early into a book as possible. They need to hang their hat on to the actions and events of a character from the off; to have something to believe in straight away, or the chances are they’ll put it down and choose one of the other hundred or so books on offer in the library, classroom, shop.

The first pages here are a bit of an exercise in being funny for funny’s sake. Anyone who’s watched a supply teacher trying to crack jokes to a room full of unknown kids will understand when I say it’s not the best idea. Build links first, crack jokes later.

I understand Clary is a comedian, but would guess most kids will not know this. They’ll be seeing him as an author first and foremost- after all, he is better known to adults- so it’s a great opportunity for him to do something really different. He almost pulls this off, but on occasions the plot rambles rather, due to his funny asides. I just wanted to get back to the story, which as I’ve said is really good.

You might argue that as it’s the adults that’ll be buying here, those who know Clary’s style well and will be making the Christmas spending choices, it doesn’t really matter how much the kids know of him. That’s all well and good but I doubt this is going to be Clary’s only children’s book, so he needs his young readers to be excited about the next release and waiting impatiently for his next adventure.

Pared down a bit, this would be just perfect for the primary market; in fact, I think with some decent pollarding, he’d be able to access more six and seven-year olds too.

GGG The Bolds needs some more snap, but one to watch.

 


Auggie and Me by RJ Palacio: Choose Kind

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Auggie and Me by RJ Palacio (Three Wonder Stories)

auggie

STOP!

To understand this review of Auggie and Me, you really need to have read Wonder first. Wonder is one of the best books ever written and you should go and read it now, or at least at the weekend. You won’t regret it, I promise. Then wipe away your copious tears, come back and read this review afterwards. But if you haven’t read Wonder yet, don’t read this review as there may be spoilers.

Carry On

For those who have read Wonder- RJ Palacio’s 2014 book about August Pullman, a ten year old boy with cranial deformities trying to live a normal life- the distinctive front cover will have already jumped out at you. Auggie and Me, however, is not a sequel. RJ Palacio is swift to point that out in the book’s introduction. The truth is Wonder is not the type of book that needs a sequel. Having shared a year of Auggie’s life, we are rightly left to imagine what might happen next, much as we might love RJ to keep on telling us. What she’s done instead, is take three characters from the original book and write their stories, expanding the world of Wonder and pulling, what I would term as, a Binchy*.

Although this isn’t a sequel, it is a proper book. Rest assured, this isn’t the publishers cashing in on the success of Wonder and drip feeding a few extra details to anxious readers. What you’re buying here with Auggie and Me is three mini books- each story is over one hundred pages long- and they are all beautifully and thoughtfully written, as you would expect. Three stories about three children, each connected to Auggie, if not each other.

Julian

The first is The Julian Chapter. This is the big one for Wonder fans, as Julian bullied our beloved Auggie in the original story. It was always a shame that we didn’t learn more about Julian, and as the popularity of Wonder really took off and RJ noticed animosity growing towards Julian in images like this…

 

…she decided it was time to tell his story. And it’s a truly wonderful one to read, one that reminds us not to judge a book by its cover. Later editions of Wonder have been released with The Julian Chapter as an extra at the end, but I prefer it being presented it a different book as it provides a distance needed by its protagonist. By the end of this story, you will have all the information you need about Julian and will at last be able to make an informed judgement on his actions in the first book.

Christopher

The second story belongs to Christopher. Chris is Auggie’s oldest friend; their mums would even spend time together when they were pregnant. The families became very close and although Chris acknowledges the past difficulties of being friends with Auggie, their friendship always won out. They got on like a house on fire. As younger children they were into all the same things and made each other laugh all the time. It was a normal friendship, in other words.

Now Chris and his family have moved some distance away, he’s finding it hard to see Auggie as he used to. Everything has changed for him: a new house in a new town, his parents has divorced, he has new friends and interests. He is struggling to visualise Auggie fitting into his new life and unfortunately he is beginning to regard him as more of a duty than a friend. Chris is at something of a crossroads, then one day things change and Chris is forced to think about his life choices. Again, it’s a bit of a tear jerker but another wonderful tale. Fair play to RJ Palacio: we barely knew Chris in the original book, but within sentences I was immersed in his life. Also, loving his description here of his hamster:

‘A hamster is basically just a warm potato with fur.’ 

I love this, but then again I am extremely fond of potatoes.

Charlotte

When Auggie first starts Beecher Prep, Charlotte is one of the children who is charged with being his ‘buddy’. She seems like an obvious choice, being an all-round ‘All American’ good egg. We don’t really get to know her in Wonder, but here she is marvellous. Charlotte’s story deals with the complications of staying neutral when those around her are in conflict. She watches the inevitable changes in social groups start to take place and although she remains steady and positive, she knows things will never be as simple as they used to be when they were younger.

Charlotte’s story is the most subtle of the three and probably my favourite. She is Wonder personified and her chapter works because through her kindness and altruism she represents the whole school community. Charlotte is the soul of all that is good at Beecher Prep and provides the perfect full stop to the world of Wonder.

And Extra Credit Goes To…

…the anomaly in Charlotte’s story: Maya, who seems not to change one bit despite all this emotional roller-coasting around her. Everyone needs a Maya I think, to keep them from keeling over.

GGGGG Of course. Auggie and Me is a pleasure.

* To ‘pull a Binchy’ refers to the narrative style of the late great Maeve Binchy, who wrote a billion or so books. Her stories were usually linked by connecting characters and often ran parallel to each other too.