Saturday, 22 July 2017

SUPERDAD'S DAY OFF by Phil Earle. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Stanley's dad's day job is being a superhero. The kind that saves cities from crashing comets, captures audacious burglars red-handed and rescues pussycats from trees.

Stanley is very proud of his dad, of course. Except that once in a while, he wishes they could have a NORMAL day together, doing ordinary things like going on the swings in the park, buying ice cream etc.

When Stanley notices that his superdad is supertired, he is determined to make sure he has a restful day off.  The rest of the world, though, has other plans for Superdad and soon poor Stanley is run ragged tackling disasters so Dad doesn't have to. It's a mighty ask, but in the process Stanley discovers his true potential...

Part of Barrington Stoke's Little Gems series, this is a quirky and excellent quick read that will enthral both boys and girls. Hull based author Phil Earle's writing  zips along at a superhero pace and the plot will leave you breathless. Steve May's full colour illustrations take their cue from 1970s and 80s comics. They add panache to the whole book and I can imagine children could spend days trying to emulate his style.

The ending hints at a sequel. Hope it surfaces soon. A joy of a book.

Published by Barrington Stoke, 2017

My latest book MARK OF THE CYCLOPS is out now. Visit my website at Follow me on twitter @spirotta


Tuesday, 18 July 2017

EVIE’S GHOST – by Helen Peters

Reviewed by JackieMarchant

Evie’s Ghost is the sort of book I loved to be engrossed in when I was a child – a real curl-up-and-read.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it equally as an adult – I might not be as physically able to curl up without a bit of creaking now, but I loved this from the moment Evie was sent to an aged (in child’s terms) godmother who lives in a flat in a big old house.

OK, child being sent to live with aged person in a big old house might not sound the most original start, but it’s one that always gets me going.  I loved what happens after Evie arrives and it is made clear she will left to her own devices, because aged godmother is far too busy digging up skeletal remains. 

This is when, at the invitation of a distraught ghost, Evie finds herself 200 years in the past, in the same room, in the same house.  Unfortunately she’s no longer a guest, but a housemaid.  Plunged headlong into the drudgery and sheer hard work of household staff, Evie soon appreciates the things we have today – like hot water from a tap and a switch to bring instant light.  A vacuum cleaner to suck up dust instead of having to brush carpets every day.  A fireplace that doesn’t have to be scrubbed until it shines every morning.  Sorry, I mean eight fire places – this is 200 years before central heating has been invented.

While Evie’s hands blister and cut thanks to lack of rubber gloves (not invented yet) and the caustic cleaning products that sting and scald sensitive skin, she is also supposed to be saving the daughter of the owner of the big house from a horrible fate.  But Evie soon learns that in those days maids did not talk to the daughters of the owner of the house.  Evie can’t even talk to the housekeeper without a clip round the ear – which was a perfectly legal thing to do in those days.

But there are moments when Evie manages to see the delights of living in that era – the scent of an unspoiled bluebell wood, the peace due to lack of motor cars, the splendid gardens of the house she knows will be long gone when she returns.  If she returns.

Evie can only hope that she will return once she has fulfilled the task of solving the desperate plight of the ghost.  But, as a lowly maid, this is not easy and Evie learns a hard lesson in class division.  Tension builds as Evie tries and fails until she despairs of ever returning.  At the same time, she learns a lot about the injustices of that world.

I could say that this is a book about being grateful for what you have, but that might make it sound preachy, which it certainly isn’t.  It’s a good story and a page-turning read.


Friday, 14 July 2017

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, reviewed by Pauline Francis

This novel was shortlisted for the 2107 Carnegie Medal.

Annabelle is twelve years old when she learns to lie. She lives with her extended farming family in Pennsylvania, close to a wood and Wolf Hollow, where wolves were once trapped and caught. The small close-knit community is feeling the effects of the war (it is 1943) and a war-ravaged loner called Toby is living in an old smoke house, tolerated and by the community, and especially by Annabelle and her family.

Into this small world comes mean-hearted, bullying Betty who sets out to do her worst, including a hate campaign against Toby. Betty is not just a bully. She is cold and chilling. She knows exactly how to play one character off against another. She knows how to exploit prejudices – and there are plenty beneath the surface.

I wondered if Betty would ever improve. Probably not. I liked Annabelle’s Grandfather stark comment that “a wolf is not a dog and never will matter how you raise it.”

Annabelle does her best to protect Toby, herself, her friends and her younger brothers. She doesn’t tell her family what is happening– until Betty disappears.

This is when I sat up to take notice. My mind roamed over Betty’s fate. I was already beginning to think that perhaps Toby wasn’t as good as I thought – or as I wanted him to be, thanks to Betty’s hate campaign; but I knew, in my heart, that the author had plenty of surprises for me.

She had. They took us on a dizzying ride to the truth.

Betty is discovered alive in a well in Wolf Hollow, thanks to Annabelle and Toby. She accuses Toby of throwing her into it to keep her mouth shut.

Everybody wants justice. Who is right? Who is wrong? Is Betty the wicked wolf – or Toby?

At this point, I paused to wonder how the novel would end. Would the author find redemption for Betty, let her survive to be a better person, to have learned from her wickedness? Would Toby turn out to be bad after all and would Annabelle have to grow up overnight because she had been deceived?

I’m not going to give away the ending. It’s enough for me to say that it is unexpected, poignant. It satisfies our deep desire for justice on nearly all levels, but still reveals prejudice in all its ugliness.

Pauline Francis



Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Nits and Grubby Cuddly Toys - Reviews by Damian Harvey

Nits and grubby, cuddly toys aren't always the most welcome of things but they can feature in the lives of all children so it seems only right to put these two picture books together here - especially as both books show them from a different viewpoint.

There's Only One Scruffle - Written and Illustrated by Robert Dunn

Stories about a child's favourite toy are nothing new but I do like the way that Robert Dunn has paired Ellie, a slightly precocious, mischievous looking little girl, with her cuddly toy. As with many a child's favourite cuddly toy, Scruffle is tatty and threadbare, he has only one eye and a "very curious smell." Mum and Dad just don't understand why she loves him so much.

When Mum attempts to replace Scruffle with a big, new bear that smell of strawberries, Ellie is less than impressed. Mum isn't happy when Ellie asks if the new bear can be kept in the bin, and wisely explains that Ellie should at least play with the new cuddly toy for a while as she "won't know what he's really like until you've spent a little time together."

Ellie thinks about what Mum has said as she drags the new bear around with her - finally agreeing that she would like to play with it after all - even though he doesn't smell as fresh as he did. Mum looks horrified at the new toy which, by this time is covered in paint, mud and who knows what else. When Ellie happily declares that she couldn't possibly play with the new bear now, Mum sighs and finally asks Ellie why she loves her old toy so much. Ellie is now able to echo Mum's words of wisdom and handing Scruffle to her says "Well you won't know what he's really like until you've spent a little time together, will you?"

Children will easily identify with Ellie and her favourite, much loved toy and this book will spark talking points for use in the classroom about children's own experiences. There are even suggested talking points at  the end of the book to help with this.

Nat's Naughty Nits - written by Giles Andreae and Illustrated by Jess Mikhail

Nits are even less popular than a child's much loved smelly toy but Giles Andreae and Jess Mikhail have produced a picture book here that might just help people see these unwanted pests in a slightly different light.

On the first page we are greeted by Nat, a friendly, if somewhat disheveled and grubby looking young boy, clutching a magnifying glass and a book about bugs. Nat is going into the garden and wants us to come and play with him. By contrast we can see Nat's sister, clean and fresh faced as she dances with a doll in one hand and a freshly picked flower in the other.

Nat's sister clearly doesn't have a care in the world, unlike Nat himself who, on the second page, has developed an itch. Nat quickly realises that he has got a nit and further inspection under his microscope reveals that his hair is full of them. If you aren't itching by this stage in the book, you soon will be. Giles Andreae and Jess Mikhail show us that nits don't just crawl around in your hair - to them your hair is a whole universe. There are nits playing chase and flying rockets into space. We see nits playing football, eating sweets, making pancakes and a whole host of things. Children will delight in seeing all of the things that nots get up to and will no doubt giggle at the thought of them playing kiss chase, sitting on the toilet and even seeing a shy looking "Nit[s] in the nuddy when there's no one else around."

Thankfully, Nat's Mum steps in "with her shampoo and her comb" and soon the nits have their bags packed and are heading home. But just where will they go?

Children will enjoy the simple rhyming text, bright illustrations and will certainly find lots to laugh at in this itch infested book.  

You can follow Damian on Twitter @damianjharvey

And visit his website 


Monday, 10 July 2017

Here I am by Patti Kim Illustrated by Sonia Sanchez Review by Chitra Soundar

How do you belong? Fit in? Not feel like the other? Especially when there's no way to go back and no place to go back to?

In this wordless picture book Here I am, Patti Kim and Sonia Sánchez bring the awe, the unfamiliarity of a new city to a young immigrant. As there are no words, children who are in similar situations, (sadly more of them nowadays), can fill it in with their own unique stories. The cities they might have found refuge might be different - but the strangeness of it all is not.

How do you make a new place home? When you don't speak the language and when you don't eat the same food, when buildings look different, people dress different, how do you find the bond that you seek?

How do you keep memories of your home alive in your heart while absorbing the vibrancy of your adopted city? Told from the viewpoint of this young boy, Patti Kim shows us all that there is a common humanity that binds us all. This might remind young readers and perhaps even older readers to think about those special objects they brought back from their home. Is it a photograph or a pendant? Is it a bag that has been in the family for long? Does that symbolize home now?

The story begins with the unfamiliar at first. But when the boy runs out into his neighbourhood, meets people, mingles and shares, his gift from his home becomes something everyone can share. He feels more at home now that he's not only familiar with his new community but he also contributed towards it.

Have you read A Story like the Wind by Gill Lewis where the young protagonist brings a violin with him on the boat. That's his only possession. And that is home to him. It has stories to tell and it will forever be precious.

In beautiful watercolour brushstrokes, Spanish illustrator Sonia Sánchez brings the city alive for us. It's a great book to share with children of all ages right up to secondary school. It's a great book to initiate questions and discussions, interpret feelings and importantly be empathetic - wear the shoes of an immigrant or a refugee as you walk through your own city - what do you see?

Here is the trailer for this book.

Check out the book here.


Thursday, 6 July 2017

RADIOBOY by Christian O'Connell. Review by Penny Dolan.

Oh dear! I hesitated when this book came through my large letterbox, because RADIOBOY is a children’s novel by a celebrity, even if  - shhh! sorry! - Christian O’Connell isn’t someone I’d ever heard about.  He is, I’ve now discovered, a popular early-morning presenter on Absolute Radio - which may not reach the North . . .

Knowing O'Connell's background, it’s not a great surprise that the hero of this book, eleven-year-old Spike Hughes, has been presenting his own 6am radio show, The Wacky Kids Wonder Hour, as a volunteer at the local hospital radio station. However, when the book opens, Spike’s single, wonderful hour has been allocated to Graham’s Garden Gang. 

As Spike explains:
 I was being sacked and replaced by a show about allotments and hedges presented by a gnome.
“When’s my last show?” I asked, thinking at least I could have one big send off.
“You’ve just done it.”
And that’s how my career in radio ended.

I really warmed to young Spike as a character: he is a shy, timid boy who struggles to be heard and who feels that radio is his only one way of expressing himself.  He has two best friends, Arty and Holly, and these three make up the membership of St Brenda’s After-School AV Club, run by a sympathetic teacher, Mr Taggart.

At Taggart’s suggestion, the school Headmaster Mr Harris - aka Fishface   decides to have a radio station in school. Spike and his friends are overjoyed. Who else could run it but the AV Club? Arty is a music buff, know for his huge collection of old vinyl records, the super-organised Holly will be an excellent studio producer, and Spike already has the needed experience  . . .

Unbelievably, Mr Harris announces that his own son will present St Brenda’s “Merit Radio” show, a programme quickly revealed to be Mr Harris’s way of imposing his views on the school.  
“Each lunchtime, pupils who have achieved high grades will have their names readout on the air, as I believe you disc jockeys say.”

Mr Harris uses the radio station to publicise children he considers winners, as well as Grade One trumpeters and stamp collectors.

Spike is disgusted. A school radio station should be for everyone, and especially for those children who aren’t winners and who don’t get the best grades. Spike knows that the underdogs, the also-rans, the losers and the kids with difficulties are the children who need the fun!

Luckily, Spike’s father reveals his is on his side. He encourages Spike to set up a once-a-week radio studio within the overgrown shed at the end of the garden. Spike doesn’t want his over-worrying Mum to find out, so he names the internet radio show THE SECRET SHED SHOW and Art and Holly are there to be part of the team.

As an adult reader, I did enjoy and appreciates Spike’s dad’s secret help as a re-assertion of his own youthful dreams.

At first, the school programme goes brilliantly. Spike, using a voice-distorter as a disguisee, becomes the funny, rebellious Radioboy. Soon word spreads at school about the Secret Shed Show and there’s a growing audience of kids listening and emailing in to the station.

However, as Spike feels the power of his RadioBoy persona, he pushes things too far. His joke “interviews” with Mr Harris and his comments on life within St Brenda’s school start to bother Art and Holly. They ask Spike to hold back but, carried away by his new fame, he ignores them.

The furious Mr Hughes imposes additional homework on everyone so Radioboy - without checking with his team or thinking things through - calls pupils out on a sit-down strike on the school playground. Art and Holly, furious at being ignored, walk away from the studio.

Stunned, Spike realises he’s in the wrong. How can he sort things out? How can he hold on to the show’s fans? And how can Radioboy survive Fishface’s cunning scheme?  

The sneaky Mr Harris comes up with a cunning challenge: whoever reveals Radioboy’s identity will have no homework for the rest of the school year. Who will be able to resist that? Someone is bound to reveal the truth, maybe even Art or Holly. Time is definitely running out for Spike and THE SECRET SHED SHOW!

Because this is an amiable story, the reader senses that everything will work out alright for Spike although it is difficult to see how. Things soon escalate into, what Spike says, are the
         “barely believable events of the weirdest day of my life.”
I really liked the surprises and complications in the well-developed ending, and how problems aren’t solved easily or quickly.

Although RADIOBOY is written in the first person (echoing the popular Wimpy Kid or Tom Gates type series) I felt that the story is a stronger and more substantial novel than it first appears.  I wasn’t absolutely sure that younger KS2 readers would follow Spike’s long and slightly off-plot riffs on parents, neighbours and school life – especially the hugely overblown Mr Harris and his jumbo sausage rolls – but these moments certainly added to the slightly anarchic mood of comedy within of the book.

Besides, there’s definitely a love of language partying away in O’Connell’s writing, for example: in the way that Arty’s cake-factory-owning father calls his home Chateaux Gateaux, or in Lionel Vinyl, the second-hand record store where Arty gets his LP’s, and so on, and I must mention the quiet humour hidden within Rob Biddulph’s black and white illustrations.

A particular thing I did welcome about the RADIOBOY book was the friendly feeling of an everyday family, living within an urban community in Britain now. It felt like a place where, while the grown-ups might display quirks and odd preoccupations, they were mostly on your side.

So, all in all, RADIOBOY, for me, was a book with a good heart, if that makes sense. Along with the planted stink-bombs and flights of wacky comedy, the book shares wise lessons about the mixed roles of media, the dangers of anonymous messages and makes the point that radio (and therefore other) shows are a team effort, not just a single star performer.

I read RADIOBOY myself first - after that initial grumble mentioned earlier - and then, warmed by the story and character more than I expected, decided to road-test it on a Year 6  friend in the evenings. An able reader, he often feels overdosed by school online comprehension tests and reading reports.   

Well, we read chapters of RADIOBOY together and then I left him to read on – and  then one night he read right through to the end while I was still busy downstairs. Bah! It was good to see him reminded that books can still be fun.
Thanks for that, Christian O’Connell!

Penny Dolan


Sunday, 2 July 2017

ONCE UPON AN ABC by Sophie Masson/Christopher Nielsen Reviewed by Adèle Geras

Regular readers of this blog know that I often review books by friends of mine, contrary to the normal rules which govern things like favouritism, log rolling etc. I've often said: it's not my fault if my friends write recommendable books and I hope readers will trust me in this matter. The book I'd like to draw to your attention on this occasion breaks EVEN MORE RULES! The writer is not only a friend of mine, but her publishing house, Christmas Press, has actually published a book by me. So I'm on a bit of a sticky wicket here... but I have no connection whatever with the artist, Christopher Nielsen, who takes half the credit for this smashing picture book.

But to be honest, when I was given this book as a gift by Sophie Masson, I was struck by what an original idea it was. There are hundreds of alphabet books, and lots of them are marvellous. My favourite when my own children were growing up was Helen Oxenbury's The ABC of Things. But what I've not seen was a book which introduced both the alphabet (endpaper below)

and for every letter, a picture of a character from world folk and fairy tale. Below is a mermaid, whom I particularly like because she seems to be advertising Shell Petrol!

And here's Pegasus and the Queen from Snow White. Masson covers  a huge span of fairy and folk tales from all over the world, from Anansi the spider to "Z is the Zero becoming a hero" at the end, through Yggdrasil and trolls and Red Riding Hood's Grandma, and many more besides. 

The text rhymes with great cleverness and there isn't a child who won't enjoy  speaking it aloud with its parents and who will soon have it entirely by heart. You've seen some of the pictures. They're  beautiful: strong and modern and printed in unusually subtle shades of every colour.  It's a winner, this book and I do hope many reception teachers as well as parents will try and get hold of it. In these days of the internet, it shouldn't be a problem buying it from Australia.  The publisher's website address is below. And maybe, who knows, there's a British publisher who will step up and make it available here.