#MGTakesOnThursday – TrooFriend

Mary over at Book Craic has started a really exciting new meme (I think that’s the right word!) #MGTakesOnThursday.

  • Post a picture of the front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book.
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Following on from last week’s post which finally got my review of the hilarious Freddie Yates posted, I thought I’d use this week to highlight another book I read a while ago but have been lax in reviewing…

TrooFriend by Kirsty Applebaum, art by Sam Kalda, published by Nosy Crow.

I loved The Middler by this author and while TrooFriend didn’t leave me with quite such a book hangover, it was nevertheless a very clever and very enjoyable read that I would be recommending to many young readers if work was open at the moment!

Like The Middler, it takes on a potentially dark and difficult subject area not typically seen in children’s fiction and makes it not just appropriate, but appealing, relatable and interesting for a younger age.

Set in a fictional but plausible not-too-distant future, Sarah is given a Troofriend by her parents. The Troofriend is an android designed to be given to children as a ‘safe’ friend – one that will not bully, harm, lie, covet, steal or envy – a perfect friend in fact. But reports start to come in that the robots are developing real feelings and putting their owners at risk of harm.

Not only does this open up many questions about rights, freedoms, morality, parenting, values and actions but it also deftly and realistically explores issues of friendship that will be familiar to many (if not all) in one way or another – the desire to belong, to be popular and fit in; falling out with best friends and the challenges of making new friends.

I thought the way we saw Ivy gradually becoming sentient was so clever and having the reader see what was happening ahead of but not instead of the characters was very effective. Likewise, I thought the way we grow to really feel for Ivy was equally well done.

Overall, this was a quick but original and cleverly written read that blended contemporary MG with sci-fi ideas seamlessly.

In three words?

Technology. Friendship. Philosophical.

My favourite sentence from page 11

Yes, Shirley-Mum. My name is Ivy. Sarah named me. I like my name very much.

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this from the publishers. All views and opinions are my own.

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Fahrook, cover art by David Dean

This is a book I would have read at some point, but probably one which would have joined the pile in my shelf for a while in favour of others had it not been for the fact it’s the Children’s Book of the Month in work! So it jumped to the top of said pile, and I’m really glad it did!

In many ways it’s got everything you’d expect from a great MG adventure – friendship, danger, a feisty, female main character and a beautiful and unusual but often inhospitable setting – but it’s also got plenty to make it stand out.

For starters, our main character Chaya is a thief. The book opens with her stealing the Queen’s jewels and the tension doesn’t let up from there.

From the fear of being caught to realising the implications of her actions to examining the reasons behind them and ways to put things right, this is not only a gripping adventure but also a book which subtly explores feelings and actions, right and wrong in a completely non-judgmental way.

When Chaya’s beat friend Neelan is arrested for stealing the jewels, the adventure really begins with a jail break and an escape on an elephant with newcomer Nour in tow (much to Chaya’s annoyance).

The relationship between Nour and Chaya is really well drawn as we see them getting the measure of each other, with Chaya hard and unwelcoming and Nour alternating between being cool and unbothrted and keen to join in. It’s lovely to see this friendship take shape tentatively and to see the feelings behind their actions so well understood.

The escape is a dangerous trip through the jungle to who-knows-where. I loved the off-the-cuff nature of their escape – tension is high and the action is pacy. And, while I partially figured out how they’d resolve things, there was a great twist at the end that I didn’t see coming til right before it happened.

I really liked Chaya as a character – she has that strong-willed, determined self-belief common in female leads, but combined with an absolute heart of gold and a wish to do what’s right (morally if not legally). She’s utterly believable and loveable.

This was a quick but utterly gripping read. The setting was vivid and easy to picture, the characters were likeable and the plot fast-paced.

With a royal robbery, a prison break, a jungle escape on the King’s stolen elephant, bandits and a coup, not to mention opportunities galore to explore questions of morality, justice right and wrong – there’s a lot packed into this relatively short book! I look forward to seeing what Nizrana does next!

Peapod’s Book Advent Day 10

You can find out more about our Christmas Book Advent here.

Last night we read…

Little Robin Red Vest by Jan Fearnley

This is one we received and reviewed last year, but I was very happy to get it back out again today and enjoyed it even more this time around.

It’s absolutely over-flowing with Christmas spirit as Little Robin shares his vests with the other animals to keep them warm before being found by a rather jolly man and his wife who make him a special red vest to keep.

Peapod loved looking at the front cover for ages, then looking at the animals in the story and signing bird for the Robin as we read through, even while semi-distracted by milk!

Peapod’s Picks 26/8/19

We were lucky enough to request and receive copies of these free from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. Opinions and views are all my own.

Peapod’s Picks is a weekly round up of some of the books that Peapod* has read (often, but not always, for his bedtime stories) each week plus a review of at least one of them.

*His social media alter ego, not his real name!

My Pet Star by Corrinne Averiss and Rosalind Beardshaw

This is a lovely story and one that I think will be extra enjoyable as the nights draw in and autumn arrives – there’s just something really cosy and comforting about it.

A little girl finds a star that’s fallen from the sky. She takes it home, patches it up and takes care of it. As the days pass, the star gets better and brighter until the time comes when it’s time to say goodbye as the star returns to the sky.

With pared back text, this is a perfect example of illustration and text working in harmony to tell a story, create atmosphere and express feelings. To do this using rhyme (and using rhyme which flows, reads well and doesn’t feel clunky or forced) is an achievement indeed.

Bonus points for a non-white main character who doesn’t live in a detached house with garden!

I loved the way the book conveyed imaginative play and bigged up reading – if I still taught I’d have the spread below framed:

“I showed him pictures in my book. He couldn’t read, but he could look.”

So many early years children would start the year telling me “I can’t read though” as if being able to decode the words was the only way to enjoy a book. A lot of work went into encouraging looking at pictures, making up stories etc.

And of course, there’s a gentle introduction to the idea of letting go, transience and saying goodbyes.

This is a warm, tender-hearted book perfect for snuggling up with at bedtime.

I can’t wait to have Corrinne into work in October for one of our Read and Make sessions!

There’s a Rang-Tan in my Bedroom by James Sellick and Frann Preston-Gannon

Produced in collaboration with Greenpeace, this starts much like your typical picture book might – funny, animated, bright and seemingly light-hearted. An orangutan (or Rang-Tan) has arrived in a little girl’s room and is causing chaos.

But, when the little girl stops to find out why the Rang-Tan is there, the book’s more serious message is revealed, along with a clever change in illustration style to mirror it.

We see how humans are destroying the Rang-Tan’s home for palm oil in dark and muted tones, desolate and bleak.

We’re then offered a ray of hope along with a nudge of encouragement not to be passive but to do whatever we can to help. We see the little girl writing letters to big companies, rallying friends and neighbours through posters and word of mouth and going on protests.

It finishes with more detailed information about orangutans and their habitat as well as palm oil, its uses and the problems with it, as well as suggestions for action similar to that taken by the girl in the story.

This would be ideal for use in schools, as well as for reading at home, as a way of both developing understanding and interest in environmental issues and getting children engaged and involved in doing something about them.

Be More Bernard by Simon Philip and Kate Hindley

Bernard pretends to be just like the other bunnies, who all eat, dress, act and even dream alike. But deep down, he knows he’s different.

Until one night, he decides to let his inner self go! Of course, the other rabbits are shocked at first but they soon start sharing their dreams of being different too and slowly the burrow realise they can be themselves as well.

We always love Kate Hindley’s illustrations but the burrow scenes in this are truly fab and not without a touch of Richard Scarry which is wonderful!

Its an enjoyable read with a positive and affirming message about being yourself and following your dreams, and Bernard is brilliant in both words and pictures.

Here’s the thing though – we love You Must Bring A Hat by this duo so were very excited for this and, honestly, although we enjoyed it and it did have some of the dry humour that we love in YMBAH, it just couldn’t compete with it…even with Bernard’s absolutely kick-ass, roller-disco-dancing outfit and moves.

Fun, positive and guaranteed to make you smile, but it didn’t have the originality, daftness or ‘just because-ness’ of ‘You Must Bring A Hat’ so while we like and recommend this, for one you’ll want to read and read again get YMBAH.

This is a Dog by Ross Collins

This is a great example of a book that benefits hugely from not being afraid to strip the text back to bare bones and let the pictures do most of the work.

Written in the style of a young children’s animal primer, each page introduces us to a different animal…except that dog (in typical dog style) isn’t content with just his page. He needs your attention on everyone else’s page too!

From crossing them out to chasing them off the page, disguises and even wee – dog goes to great lengths to remain centre stage!

The other animals eventually get fed up of dog’s antics, but he has one last trick up his sleeve to ensure he stays top dog (couldn’t resist that, sorry!!)

It’s such a great book – dog is utterly doggish! It’s simple but clever and its minimal style allows the humour to really shine.

Peapod loved looking at this too. It’s a book that we enjoyed as a softback story to read together, but one that would make an even more fantastic board book – perfect for toddlers to ‘read’ with its repetition, recognisable animals, block-coloured backgrounds and visual humour. I’m told there are whisperings so fingers crossed!

Peapod’s Picks – Review Reads

Peapod’s Picks is a weekly round up of some of the books that Peapod* has read each week plus a review of at least one of them.

*His social media alter ego, not his real name!

This week, we’ve been lucky to receive two picture books to review.

We also recently received not one but two of our favourite That’s Not My… books as well. Let’s start with them!

I’ve posted before about how much we love this series and these two 20th anniversary celebration editions are no exception, and have made a fine addition to our current animal themed shelf downstairs.

Peapod has most of his books in his room, but some on the bottom shelf of our bookcase downstairs, I just switch out which ones every so often.

Peapod is especially taken with That’s Not My Lion, as it has it has a shaggy mane, but his favourite ‘feel’ is always the scratchy, velcro-y, rough one so we were very pleased that there was both a flamingo and a lion with rough feet!

That’s Not My Flamingo feels perfectly summery and fun (so much so that I’m using it for one of my storytime sessions over the summer and I’m very excited), while Lion has classic kid appeal – who doesn’t love a chance to roar along with a lion book?!

With shiny, sprayed edges and the usual touchy feely fun, as well as the obligatory mouse-spotting on each page and bright, illustrations, these are welcome additions to our collection! We now have nearly half the set. I think I have a problem…

Next up, picture books.

Chatterbox Bear by Pippa Curnick.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, but all three of us really enjoyed it.

Gary is a chatterbox. He chats about everything to anyone everywhere, but not everyone appreciates Gary’s chat so he sets off to find someone who does…

Peapod (and I) liked the bright illustrations, whose pallette zings with neon pinks and yellows, dark purples and tropical blues. The lively style is really fun and characters’ expressions are depicted brilliantly.

Speaking of expression, I loved the eyebrows. I don’t want to give too much away here, but prawn eyebrows are a touch of genius. I also loved the ending – one of those ‘here we go again…’ endings that really makes you smile.

This book is a subtle and touching take on friendship and finding ways to overcome barriers to welcoming newcomers, but mostly it is a hugely fun read with lots to love and laugh about.

Suzy Orbit, Astronaut by Ruth Quayle and Jez Tuya

Suzy Orbit is an ingenious, enthusiastic and problem-solving (female, BAME) space engineer working on a space station with her boss, Captain Gizmo, who would much rather buy his way out of sticky situations with shiny new gadgets and clothes.

As an aside, I have no idea how they haven’t killed one another alone on that space station, or more to the point how Suzy hasn’t lost her infinite patience with her dismissive, arrogant and incompetent boss. If this review were to take a drastically different turn about now, I’d say it was a fine example of modern politics, a warning on capitalism and its effect on the environment and a portrait of how racism and gender issues are still rife in the workplace. But, we’re not going down that route today, so instead I’ll say…

Peapod loved Suzy Orbit, who he kept reaching out for, and the pages put on space where the contrast between the dark sky and the bold colours of the shiny spacesuits, swooshing spaceships, fiery jets and nearby planets helped create striking and lively spreads.

An enjoyable story with everything space-loving children could ask for – speeding space pods, meteoroid storms, aliens…and pizza. This is also a great example of a smart, capable (insanely patient) BAME girl absolutely killing it in a STEM job.

Have you read any of these?

Which picture or board books have you been reading this week?

No Ballet Shoes in Syria

I requested and received a copy of this free from the publishers, in exchange for an honest review. All views are my own.

Apparently today is Empathy Day. Its amazing that I know this when I’m not often sure whether it’s Tuesday or Sunday at the moment, and keep thinking it’s March. But, you know, good old Twitter.

And so I should (but don’t) have a whole post full of books that would help develop empathy. Though really I think all good books do that to a certain degree, because they all force you to see the world through the characters’ eyes.

But, as luck would have it, I needed to give myself a kick up the bum and post my review of No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton, and as that’s perfect for empathy day, let’s all pretend I planned it this way…

We follow Aya and her family as they attempt to find their feet in England after escaping the war in Syria.

Billed as a modern version of, and as the author herself explains in the introduction, influenced by the wonderful ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’, this had big shoes to fill (excuse the pun).

While I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a modern version, it certainly has echoes of Pink Rabbit. Miss Helena especially feels like she’s stepped straight out of it and I loved her character and the way we gradually discover her back story along with Aya’s.

The other character I loved was Dotty. She brought real balance to a book that tells a sad but all too common story and doesn’t shy away from the dark bits. Dotty though lifted it with her cheerfulness, her slight clumsiness, her brightness and sparkle, her positivity and friendliness.

What I liked best was that she was properly fleshed out, not just a one dimensional, cheery new friend. She had issues of her own and it is testament to Bruton’s lightness of touch that they were made an integral part of the book while emphatically not over-shadowing its main message and Aya’s story.

At the community centre she visits with her mum and brother, Aya stumbles across a dance lesson which reminds her of her own ballet school in Syria. Tired and worried with more on her plate than she should have as she struggles to support her mum (depressed, grieving and alone with a baby and child in a new country with nowhere to live and no English), she discovers an escape in dance.

But it becomes more than that. As she joins Miss Helen’s dance class, interacts with the others and, of course, dances, her memories of her old life resurface.

The way what is happening or being said in the present is mirrored in her memories and flashbacks, and the way they gradually move us forward from before war hit her home to her arrival in England is genius and so skilfully done.

It also helps to convey the idea that this is not something vague happening somewhere else to some ‘other’ people – they are just like us and it could happen anywhere to anyone.

Similarly, the juxtaposition of bombs and shrapnel and fleeing and fear and camps and danger and loss and despair with everyday life really brings home how awful it is. And I was pleased to see Catherine Bruton didn’t shy away from this. While it is sensitive, it is also unflinching and honest.

I really enjoyed Catherine Burton’s writing style. The little details in her descriptions brought everything to life and the amount of research she’d clearly done showed through in how believable Aya’s voice is.

This was a brilliant, well-balanced and carefully thought out book. The way it looks at the war in Syria is timely, sensitive and informative. But more importantly it makes it real, and it makes those fleeing it real. Honest and unflinching, but sensitive, hopeful and joyous too – I can’t recommend this enough.

Peapod’s Picks – A Suitcase, A Small Thing, Some Same Things, A Song

Peapod’s Picks is a weekly round up of some of the books that Peapod* has read (often, but not always, for his bedtime stories) each week plus a review of at least one of them.

*His social media alter ego, not his real name!

This week I’m sharing a few of the books we’ve read this week – two (The Suitcase and The Same But Different) I’ve bought and two (I Don’t Want To be Small and Hop Little Bunnies) we were lucky enough to be gifted by the publisher (honest opinions all our own though!)

The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros

I loved Chris Naylor-Ballesteros’ first book ‘I Love You, Stick Insect’ so I’ve been very excited about this one. We bought it without opening it or reading the blurb so sure was I that I’d love this one too.

And I was right.

It’s completely different to Stick Insect, save for the fabulously free and expressive illustrations – the characters’ worries, doubts, thoughts and feelings are so clear.

The story itself though, has a more serious message – it introduces us to a tired and weary refugee at the end of his journey. It is beautifully told and not at all heavy or preachy.

This new creature has arrived with a big, old suitcase. When the animals ask what’s in it, they don’t believe the answer they’re given and sneakily break into the case to see. They then have to deal with what they find.

Throwing up questions of trust, conscience and respect, this is ultimately a story about kindness and the way we treat others. But it is also a story about the power of imagination, memory, friendship and home.

Beautifully illustrated (the ‘resolution’ scene has really stayed with me) and with echoes of Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’ and Sandra Dieckmann’s ‘Leaf’, this is an evocative yet unsentimental book that every child (and adult) should read.

I Don’t Want to be Small by Laura Ellen Anderson

Along similar lines to Laura’s first picture book ‘I Don’t Want Curly Hair’, this one takes on an unhappiness with height (or lack of) and how being short is just not fair!

After explaining why it’s rubbish being small, our young protagonist throws a tantrum in which Teddy ends up in a tree. Now needing to be considerably taller to rescue Ted, they try various ways to grow taller, each only leading to some rather smelly, wet and muddy situations. However, they soon discover that it’s really not so bad after all, rescue teddy and find a new friend too!

I like that this doesn’t over simplify the feelings of not being happy with an aspect of yourself (in this case, height) – it’s not reduced to a simple ‘I wish I was bigger’ or made top funny. While it’s told with humour and warmth, the upset, unfairness and frustration of it is explored thoughtfully. Anyone who has felt like this is likely to relate and anyone who hasn’t is given plenty to think about when developing their understanding of others, our differences and feelings.

I also liked that the main character has no name, and while I’ve seen in a couple of blurbs they’re described as a ‘he’, I read it having not seen these and it struck me that they really could be either a boy or a girl. I like that we don’t need to know and/or can make up our own minds.

The Same But Different Too by Karl Newson, illustrated by Kate Hindley

I was instantly sold on Kate Hindley’s illustrations in You Must Bring a Hat (Simon Philip) and as soon as I saw them on the cover of this new book I wanted to see more!

They are lively, busy and detailed and just have a really fun style that’s full of character. There is so much going on in each image that you could pore over them daily and not get bored (always a bonus in a picture book!)

They are perfect for this book too, which shows a whole host of both children and animals in various situations demonstrating how they’re sort of the same but sort of different too!

I’ll be honest, it was the illustrations that made me pick this up. If I’d only known the title and nothing more, I might have given it a wide berth – I’m pretty hard to please when it comes to stories with morals or messages!

Fortunately I did pick it up, because it is a brilliant example of how to do this sort of book really, really well.

Written in short, fun rhyme, it makes great use of opposites and every day actions to highlight both similarities and differences in a matter of fact way that I really liked – “I am big, you are small. I am short, you are tall.”

It doesn’t feel the need to labour the point, keeping it punchy and letting the simple comparisons and images get the message across concisely, clearly but also subtly.

Sparse text with spot on rhyme and those wonderful illustrations together give a real sense of fun and humour to the story and I love the way it comes together at the end.

I really loved this and will be keeping my eyes peeled for Karl Newson’s next offering.

Hop Little Bunnies by Martha Mumford and Laura Hughes

We sing this song at nearly every one of our baby groups, so I have it hopping round my head at the best of times! This book has only added to that, but at least there’s extra verses to stop me going completely doolally!

It takes the Hop Little Bunnies song and adds to it with chick’s, ducklings, lambs and kittens, so there’s plenty of animal noises and actions to do too, as well as flaps to lift as you wake each of the animals so there’s lots of fun for little ones.

I really like the addition of a final verse where they “Shhhh!” quieten down and get ready to go back to sleep again too.

The illustrations are perfectly suited to the book and are simply alive with colour and movement. The flowers on each spread are bright and I love that, despite the loose style, they are clearly based on real varieties.

It’s a gorgeous book and one that will be going in our Spring book collection each year for definite – it is sunshine and spring in a book.