Here be dragons…

When I was little I loved stories about dragons, notably Margaret Greaves’ ‘Charlie, Emma and the Dragon…’ series and June Counsell’s ‘Dragon in Class 4 series’.

*For the record: this was taken on holiday and that snazzy 80’s bedding wasn’t mine!*

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I wrote story after story about them too – as evidenced by one of my earliest, more gruesome tales below…!

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Thanks to fairytale and legend, dragons possess a mystery, magic wildness, which along with their supposed size, scales, fire, flight and non-existence make them ideal for stories of all kinds. Typically cast as the villains in fairy-tales, (incidentally see There Is No Dragon in This Story by Lou Carter which deserves and will get a review of its own at some point, but which in short is a fab and refreshing take on the dragon-as-bad-guy-in-fairy-tales picture book featuring all our best-loved fairy tale characters) or old, wise, usually dangerous types in fantasy adventures, they are also absolutely perfect for younger children’s chaos-ensues-when… type chapter books. Which brings us nicely to today’s book:

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“When Tomas discovers a strange, old tree at the bottom of his grandpa’s garden, he doesn’t think much of it. But he takes the funny fruit from the tree back into the house – and gets the shock of his life when a tiny dragon hatches! The tree is a dragonfruit tree, and Tomas has just got his very own dragon, Flicker. Tomas soon finds out that life with Flicker is great fun, but also very…unpredictable!”

Following in the footsteps of some of the aforementioned dragon-ish chapter books I read and loved as a child, this has all the hallmarks of a great younger read: familiar settings of school and home; characters who are recognisable (family members and friends, with that not-very-nice school ‘bully’ and grouchy next-door neighbour for balance) and most importantly – that chaos I was talking about earlier!

Imagine the uproar a dragon could cause, especially one you’re trying to hide, and especially when you know they have exploding poo, a tendency to fly off and flame-breathing skills they’ve yet to master!

Combine the two and it makes for a riot of a read: familiar scenarios are turned into hilariously sticky situations by the appearance of a flame or poo or two (flying books, kitchen carnage, scorched shorts) and that’s when there’s only one dragon! Luckily for his friends, who also want a dragon (quite frankly, who wouldn’t?!), more dragonfruit start appearing on the tree, but if one dragon causes this much trouble, what will happen if more hatch…?!

A brilliant start to what promises to be a fantastic new series for younger readers. Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations are fresh, lively and more than up to the job of capturing the warmth, havoc and humour of the text. Recommended for fellow dragon-lovers everywhere!

 

 

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All aboard…The Night Train

I’ve had this song in my head for days! And it’s all thanks to this little gem of a book:

secret of the night train

I know I may be a bit late to the Sylvia Bishop party – I still haven’t got round to reading her books for younger readers ‘The Bookshop Girl‘ and ‘Erica’s Elephant‘ (probably because my ‘resolution’ to read more younger children’s fiction, those between picture books and MG, still hasn’t really got off the ground! Maybe these books will kickstart that?!) But I loved the look and the sound of this one straight away and reading Sylvia’s description of her trip on the night train cemented the deal on Bookloverjo’s blog, so I was very glad to have the chance to read and review the copy Scholastic sent me (thank you!)

One small girl. An unexpected detective. A handful of suspects.

All aboard the night train, where no-one is what they seem.

As Max takes off on a thrilling journey across Europe by train, can she unravel the mystery of a priceless missing diamond and find a way to bring the jewel thief to justice?

Off to visit her Great Aunt Elodie in Istanbul, Max sets off by train and unwittingly stumbles into the role of detective as she finds that the suspect (and diamond!) from a recent burglary are thought to be on board the train! Each chapter of the book is set on the next stage of her journey and sees us whisked from Paris through Munich, Budapest and Bucharest to Istanbul.

I loved the time we ‘spent’ in Budapest particularly: the description of the place combined with the humour of Max’s investigative attempts were pitch-perfect and had me smiling right through. And this is common throughout the book. The way in which each destination is described is so cleverly done: this is not a book full of flowery, scene-setting paragraphs but I felt I’d just stepped off the train with Max at every stop: each place given a distinct character, geography and culture with just a few well-chosen details dropped into the story or Max’s first impressions of places and without it interrupting the flow or the pace of the story.

Max is an immediately likeable character and with a voice that feels very believable and just right for her age: while she falls into role as sleuth, she is not suddenly an expert nor bursting with confidence, she’s still slightly unsure and a careful thinker. Similarly, she is curious: yearning for an adventure to break the everyday routine and dreaming of seeing the world, but when on her way is still as apprehensive as any child leaving home for the first time would be.

From Sister Marguerite and her Mary-Poppins’-bag-like-habit to the clumsy Robert to the frightfully bolshy and rude Ester and knitting ‘hulk’ Klaus, all of the characters have a touch of the eccentric and absurd about them. But they all have back-stories and well-drawn personalities which make them much more than caricatures and, while retaining a huge dollop of humour, become just as enjoyable to read and root for (or against!) as Max is.

The story itself is fast-paced, witty and a carefully balanced mix of slapstick (the scene at Marek, Marek es Ruszy springs to mind!), twist-and-turn-filled adventure, mad-cap plans and suspects with secrets to hide. It whizzes along and keeps you guessing along with Max about who the culprit could be (some parts are more easy to work out than others, but it doesn’t spoil the fun!) With perfectly suited, lively illustrations that are equally full of character from Marco Guadalupi, this is a very enjoyable read!

The Huntress

Sea-churning
Sky-soaring
Beast-chattering
Dream-dancing
Whale-singing
Terrodyl-flying
World-saving adventure

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This should be and was intended to be a review of the most recent (and final 😭) book in Sarah Driver’s Huntress Trilogy: Storm (kindly sent to me by Egmont, thank you). However, as it’s the last book in the trilogy, I’m finding it impossible to limit myself to  review of that book without touching on the other books too, so it’s a review of the series as a whole, but weighted towards Storm.

I read Sea in March 2017 when it was first released. In the same month, I read Kiran Milwood Hargrave’s ‘Girl of Ink and Stars‘ and Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials‘. It was a time of uncertainty at work, though I was just about on the up again after what had been a horrible, anxiety filled year. My scrapbook/journal/call-it-what-you-will entry on finishing all three books simply reads:

“THINK LYRA. AND ISABELLA. AND MOUSE.”

Heart-strong, battle-ready and fierce with determination and loyalty, Mouse is one of those characters who I instantly loved and believed in. I’ve said it before and will no doubt bang on about it again, but my favourite characters are those who aren’t perfect and who feel ‘real’ and Mouse definitely ticks those boxes.

When we meet her in ‘Sea’, she is an all-too recognisable impulsive, opinionated and fiery girl who is desperate to grow up and follow in her Grandma’s footsteps as Captain of The Huntress. When we reach her adventures in ‘Storm’, she’s retained the very essence of what makes her ‘her’ and what makes her so endearing as a character (the book opens with her tired of being cooped up for protection and yearning to rove and continue on her quest, and we still see her make some questionable decisions putting herself in danger in order to defy the adults who think they know best) but she has learned a lot and grown too – more open to others (and their help) and finally recognising that being a Captain is about more than giving orders. It’s been such a well-written, realistic and subtle change over the books and lovely to see.

Similarly, her relationship with her brother, Sparrow, hits the nail on the siblings head. There’s a great post here from Sarah Driver about siblings in stories and writing Sparrow and Mouse in which she talks about the importance of not “sugar-coating their reality, with all the tears, frustration, jealousy and fighting that are often part of the deal, despite the strength of the bond and the foundations of love underneath.” And this comes across so strongly with Mouse (“stinker”, “fool-heart”) and Sparrow (“too-soon”, “slackwit”) and their devotion to and protection of each other, despite their bickering and chalk-and-cheese nature.

And this is without mentioning the many other wonderful characters and relationships we encounter throughout the books (Grandma Wren, Crow, Kes and Egret, Bear, The Skybrarian – oh, how much I love the Skybrary and Skybrarian! – …even the despicable Stag) – a great and true mixture of personalities, talents, traits and flaws, all of which make for a fantastic cast and a story that’s never dull and full of challenges, excitement and empathy.

The two other things I absolutely loved about these books was the world-building and the language.

There are many comparisons to Pullman in other reviews, and I think it’s the sheer imagination shown in the creatures and worlds created here that do that. The word-choice, phrasing and vocabulary is a delight, reading as a language unique to the world(s) the stories are set in, which is wonderfully immersive and exciting.

With the exception of Sea, which takes a bit more time to set a fantastically sea-salty scene, the description is often fast, brief and vivid as we often see it through Mouse’s racing mind as she’s in the thick of a chase/fight/escape. I found this added to the excitement and tangibility of the stories, though some younger readers may find it harder to take in (Though, I think for the younger MG age-range particularly, this would be a fantastic story to read aloud together, it reads like a story that begs to be spoken and shared).

The adventures throughout the trilogy take us through a myriad of places, where we meet a whole host of tribes and creatures: easy to identify with and liken to those which may be familiar to us, but different enough to be fantasy places, people and animals; from pirate-esque life at sea to tree-top dwellings to frozen wastelands (sorry, Axe-Thrower) to rumbling, smog-filled city life (which to me, at least, had something of Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork about it) these books really do take you on a fantastic journey around ‘a’ world.

And so, to the story itself (after all that!) Over the course of the three books, we see Mouse (and Sparrow, and Crow…) hunting for the three Storm Opals (one each for Sea, Sky and Land) to keep them out of evil hands and restore peace and harmony to the Triannukka tribes.

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Storm sees us in the latter stages of this hunt, and while I loved it, I can’t help but wonder whether it might have worked better either as a longer book, or as two books – one in the hunt for the Land Opal and one ‘grand finale’ so to speak. While it had the fantastic worlds, perilous adventures and diverse characters of the first, it felt rather rushed at times: like we didn’t have chance to settle into any of them before being whisked elsewhere. Personally, I’d have preferred more time spent on the journey to and time in the ‘Frozen Wastes’ in this one, with more time to explore the ‘Big Smoke’ and reach a less-hurried conclusion in a follow-up.

Similarly, there were times when Mouse’s behaviour just didn’t sit right (despite her growing up some): she spends a good part of the first half of the book being entirely distrustful of a particular character, which feels like the Mouse we know…only to jump head-first into telling her story and trusting a pretty unknown character in the second half, which just felt ‘un-Mousey’. More time for this relationship to build and develop gradually might have made this leap of faith more convincing.

However, those minor sticking points don’t mean it wasn’t still a fantastic book (I think I just preferred the first two)! This is still a thrilling, highly original and captivating adventure, filled with incredible lands, imagination (the Spiders in the city – what genius!) and hugely engaging characters. I am already looking forward to re-reading the trilogy as a whole (rather than with the gaps of waiting for the next installment!) as I think it will be even more enjoyable read like this, and can’t wait to see what Sarah Driver brings us next.

Hansel and Gretel

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This is another one of those books I’ve been excited about for ages! I finally bought it this week and I think it’s my favourite in Bethan Woollvin’s wonderful fairy tale series so far.

“The good witch Willow only uses good magic, and NEVER gets angry. But Hansel and Gretel test her patience to its limit…can Willow stop the naughty twins from destroying everything?”

Re-inventions, re-tellings, re-imaginings, re-workings: call them what you will, new versions of old tales are nothing new. There are a plethora of fairy-tale-turned-on-its-head stories out there. Some are great, some are awful, most lie somewhere in between and serve their purpose as texts for primary teachers with objectives to cover (call me cynical).

Bethan Woolvin’s series falls firmly into the first category: humorous, strong takes on well-known stories and characters. Each book provides us with something fresh and inspiring: Little Red gives us a bold heroine (with something of a nod to Roald Dahl’s Red Riding Hood in Revolting Rhymes); Rapunzel gives us a similarly brave and self-reliant damsel whose distress is taken firmly into her own hands (although we can’t help but wonder how she gets back into the tower?) and in Hansel and Gretel we see that no-one, no matter how good, is perfect and everyone’s patience has their limits!

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The success of these retellings is down in no small part to Bethan’s fantastic illustrations. With a striking and distinctive style, her artwork is worth a look all on its own, but as a partner to these modern versions of classic tales it’s a perfect match.

Clear, straightforward text with no beating around the bush, fussy description or unnecessary extras leaves plenty of space for the pictures to do most of the talking. Similarly straightforward with an incredibly limited colour palette; big, bold images and clever use of simple lines and marks to add texture and detail, the illustrations are full of life and the facial expressions (despite their deceptively basic features) speak volumes (personal favourites being Hansel and Gretel’s eyes on meeting the witch; their full, hamster cheeks on feasting in her house and Willow’s reactions to their antics!).

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read – children will love Hansel and Gretel’s shenanigans (and adults will no doubt recognise the witch’s shortening fuse!). And as for the ending – well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s dark, delicious and absolutely delightful! Go and get the series now (speaking of which: Rapunzel has just been released in paperback, so you really have no excuse not to!)

 

Map of Salt and Stars

map of salt and stars

Even a review quote from the Mail on Sunday couldn’t put me off this one (although the idea of the Mail positively reviewing a book whose main characters are Syrian refugees is still making my head spin). I loved the sound of it from the start and was thrilled to receive a copy to review from Orion, thank you!

 

“The Map of Salt and Stars is the moving and magical story of Nour, a young Syrian girl who must journey as a refugee in search of a new home – a journey that will mirror that of Rawiya, a fabled map-maker’s apprentice, many centuries before. This is a novel about hope, the power of imagination, and what it takes to find your way home.”

We first meet Nour in her New York home, grieving after losing her father to cancer and remembering the stories he used to tell her, in particular the story of apprentice Rawiya and map-maker al-Idrisi and their adventures attempting to map more of the world than ever achieved before.

We soon see Nour moving back to Syria with her two older sisters, Huda and Zahra, and her map-making mother, where they have comfort and support in the form of family friend Abu Sayeed; for her family, this is a return to home, but for Nour, who was born in America, it is an entirely alien country and language. This struggle for identity sets the scene brilliantly for Nour’s personal journey towards adulthood, something which I think is portrayed so well throughout the book in her thoughts, feelings, reactions and encounters.

Not long after returning to Homs, bombing and threats of war see Nour and her family once more on the move: this time as refugees after they are left homeless. And it is here that we start to see Nour and Raiya’s stories really start to intertwine.

As Nour’s journey unfolds, we are told the story of Rawiya’s journey alongside it. I loved the contrast between the two stories – the bleak and unflinching realism of Nour’s life as a refugee and the folklore-heavy tales of Rawiya’s adventures, as well as the many parallels between them – the strong heroines forced to disguise themselves as boys, the long and arduous journeys with many unknown dangers to be faced, the locations they travel through, and of course the central themes of the book: belonging, home, family, identity and courage.

I’d read mixed reviews elsewhere, with many saying they couldn’t see the parallels and found the two narratives disjointed or jarring; personally, I found entirely the opposite. I loved the way the stories mirrored each other, whilst also being very different in tone and style. Alongside the broad parallels between the stories, there were so many moments when smaller, symbolic references between the two popped up which I thought worked so well (in particular the stars and stones) and I thought the way the stories came closer and closer together towards their endings was very effective. It worked brilliantly for me.

The author notes at the end of the book show just how much research went into writing this, and it shows. The modern-day story of Nour is harrowing, tense and devastating by turn and feels incredibly raw and real; the historical tale of Rawiya feels firmly rooted in tales and characters passed down through the generations: it reads like a story that should be told in the oral tradition (which is of course how we are introduced to it, as a tale told to Nour by her father), and the characters and events are, as with Nour’s story, to greater or lesser degrees based on real people and events.

Then there is the writing itself: lyrical, poetic, clever and captivating. As with the history and people, the landscapes and places are clearly well-known or researched, and more importantly well-loved (the shape poems at the start of each chapter are simply stunning). The use of colour is magical and again, very effective. Nour has synaesthesia, but unlike other books I’ve read recently where characters have this condition, it is not ‘a thing’; it is normal for her and reads as such, but also adds tremendously to the rich descriptions which take us with her on her journey (not to mention the story in a clever, but again under-stated way that I won’t spoil). I found myself wishing for a map, or more specifically, the talent and time to create one as I read: the visuals that accompanied this story in my mind were wonderful.

This was a book I expected to devour, race through, inhale. Instead, it took a long time for me to finish: I savoured it, became immersed, journeyed slowly. I read much of it in short bursts, rather than long spells, pausing often to let each part of the story sink in and spending time digesting it, mulling it over, thinking back to it.

It’s also a book that deserves to have incredibly broad appeal. While it is an adult fiction book, there are elements of younger fiction within it, notably the young main characters, the fantasy elements and the themes of growing up and finding out who you are, all familiar to so many younger books. Yes, there are some truly upsetting events (including a sexual attack, although not one described graphically) and it is unflinching in describing the devastation of war and the refugee crisis. However, I think many young adult readers would also enjoy this – it is by no means exclusively an adult book. The viewpoint of the protagonists makes it very accessible to a younger audience too.

A simply beautiful book that I’m already looking forward to re-reading (despite having a proof copy, I have ordered the hardback as a copy for The Bookshelf). Full of compassion, wonder and hope, I can’t recommend this enough.

Pants!

When we were looking at which picture books we wanted out on the table in work this month, this one jumped out. “Pants!” the 4-year-old inner me cheered. Of course, we had no way of knowing at this point if it would actually be any good, but the illustrations looked promising (how can anyone resist a book featuring a raccoon dressed as a superhero and a penguin with pants on his head?!) So between the pictures and the pants we decided to give it a go…and I was delighted when it came in!

We Wear Pants (Paperback)

Pandas wearing PANTS? Surely not!
And what about wombats wearing wellies, sloths in socks or even…giraffes wearing scarves?Find all your favourite animals in this hilarious book about getting dressed.What will YOU wear today?

On each double page spread we see a variety of animals donning various items of clothing: pants, wellies, hats, glasses, pyjamas, coats… with a cheeky monkey to find on each page proudly declaring that whatever everyone else is wearing “I’m not!” as he’s one step ahead each time. Until, as we reach the final page, everyone is dressed (even Monkey!) in an assortment of outfits.

On the surface a book about getting dressed, this will have much wider appeal than the very youngest who might be reading it with that aim. Bursting with life and bright and busy illustrations, there is so much to spot on each page: “Look at the bee in his frilly knickers!” I exclaimed….”He’s got banana shoes!”… and so on. If I get this excited about it, little ones will love it.

There’s also questions and captions in the form of speech bubbles from the animals giving prompts for specific things to find: “Count the rubber ducks”…”Who has odd shoes?”…”Who has the same scarf as me?” which would be easy to use a springboard for other observational/matching/sorting type questions, as well as for plenty of discussion about likes/dislikes.

Perfect for fans of Pippa Goodheart and Nick Sharratt’s ‘You Choose’ range (You Choose, You Choose in Space and upcoming You Choose Your Dreams), this is one to return to time and again (no doubt finding something new each time!), this is a colourful, funny and interactive book.

Other favourite pants-themed picture books:

Brilliantly silly, rhyming books featuring all sorts of pants! Check out the youtube video here too!

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The hilarious ‘Aliens Love Underpants’ series from Claire Freedman and Ben Cort.

Don't Put Your Pants on Your Head, Fred! (Paperback)

Some more rather chaotic attempts to get dressed in this hugely funny, rhyming book.

Any other pants-themed gems I’ve missed?!

The Big Book of the Blue

The Big Book of the Blue (Hardback)

Meet all kinds of slippery, shimmery, powerful and surprising creatures from around the world in this first book of the ocean to share with young children.

 

Already a big fan of Yuval Zommer’s Big Books of Bugs and Beasts, I jumped at the chance to get hold of a copy of his newest book for review (many thanks to Thames & Hudson). And I wasn’t disappointed! As with the first two – it’s a beautifully illustrated, well-balanced, carefully laid out, polished book that you (and any young’uns!) will want to dive into (sorry, couldn’t resist!) again and again.

Each double page spread is illustrated from top to bottom with layers of detail, texture and movement; they are absolutely packed with things to spot and talk about – there’ll be something new each time you look at it! There’s also 15 sneaky sardines hiding among the pages waiting to be found, along with other ‘can you find’ challenges here and there in the book.

There’s also a humour to the illustrations – while they are accurate enough in appearance to learn from and recognise, there’s no scientific diagrams here – the creatures have wonderfully quirky facial expressions and a lightness of touch which I loved – they’re sure to really appeal to children, and grown ups alike.

Similarly, there’s a healthy dose of puns and humour in the text, especially in the sub-headings (“Claw-blimey!”…”Smell I never!”), appealing to both children’s sense of fun, but also the adults who’ll be reading it with them (“I wandered lonely as a…tuna” being a personal favourite).

The facts themselves are set amongst the illustrations and presented as short snippets of information. Immensely appealing to even the most reluctant reader in its brevity, and addictive enough to have keen beans reading through them all in one fell swoop, barraging you with a torrent of “did you know…” info as they go (ok, I admit I’m basing this on the fact that when I brought it home I sat at the kitchen table with it and did pretty much exactly this to my poor other half while he made tea!).

There’s a great balance too between a broad overview of ocean-life (including a double spread about the threats it faces) and more specific facts about particular creatures/species, as well as a simple index, contents and glossary (brilliantly titled “Fishy Phrases: How to talk like a sea-life expert” and laid out as the other pages are with each word/phrase illustrated nearby).

This is a playful, engaging and incredibly visually appealing book that’s sure to be a hit with children of all ages and deserves a spot on every bookcase in homes and schools!

Also highly recommended by Yuval Zommer (all of them also have sticker book versions!)

big book of yuval zommer