Wednesday, 20 September 2017

THE FLITHER PICKERS and THE HERRING GIRLS by Theresa Tomlinson. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

   These two stories (now newly published in one volume) celebrate the lives of the fishing communities around Whitby. Theresa Tomlinson was inspired not only by the history of these places but by the photographs of working people taken by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe around 1900. Some of his photographs illustrate and enhance this book.

   Both stories are about families in the same village, and both are about young girls on the cusp of adulthood growing up in difficult circumstances, making important decisions about their futures and gaining a sense of self-worth. In The Flither Pickers Liza, caught up in troubling adult concerns, seeks and gradually unravels the reason for her mother's emotional distance, and begins to develop a closer relationship with her.

   The Herring Girls, set a few years later, focuses on thirteen year old Dory, whose father has died and whose Mam has become the village washerwoman in order to support the family. When Mam has a stroke the children are in danger of being sent to the workhouse, and will do anything to prevent this calamity. Dory's eleven year old brother joins the fishing fleet, and Dory goes to Whitby to become a herring girl.

   Much of this story is about the hard, skilled work of the herring girls. Dory and her friends learn how to gut the fish, and do it fast - though they can never match the speed of the 'Scotch' girls who dominate the trade. The work is so relentless that the young girls can hardly stand, can't stop to wash or change their clothes, and fall into bed each night exhausted. But they succeed. And by the end of the summer, not only have they made enough money, they've made friends with the Scotch girls - and Dory has knitted her first gansey, for her brother.

   There are no easy endings in these stories. Liza gets a job as a children's nanny but loses it; Dory's Mam doesn't entirely recover, and Dory must face the necessity of taking on her mother's job of washerwoman over the winter. But somehow this makes for an upbeat ending. And when Dory says, "I'm a herring girl - I can do anything," you believe her and want to cheer for her.

The Flither Pickers was first published in 1987 and The Herring Girls in 1994. Since then they have both been through several editions, apart and together. This edition is published by The Old Print Workshop, 2017.


Saturday, 16 September 2017

DOUGAL DALEY - IT'S NOT MY FAULT, by Jackie Marchant. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Author: Jackie Marchant
Illustrator: Loretta Schauer
Published by Wacky Bee
Publication date: 2017
format: pb

I have to admit that 'It's not my fault' was an oft-used mantra of mine when I was a kid. Not that it ever got me out of whatever punishment was being doled out for the mishap. Still, I kept on using it for years and, I have to admit, still use it on occasion now that I am a mature adult.

So when I saw this book at authors' retreat, I related to Dougal Daley right away. Daley is an ordinary city boy with ordinary likes and dislikes. He likes football, loves his pet dog and can't help getting into scrapes both at home and at school.

When a massive furry creature with sharp claws sets up home in the garden shed, Dougal decides to write a will in case he comes to a sticky end - rewarding those in his favour and disinheriting people who get on his bad side.

Jackie Marchant has an easy style that makes this story super-readable. It's written in the first person, which makes it feel vibrant and immediate. Kids will be able to identify with Dougal right away. Especially recommended for reluctant readers. I loved Dougal, and the creative way the book is put together using different fonts and formats. Can't wait to read more.

Saviour Pirotta is the story of the Ancient Greek Mysteries published by Bloomsbury. The first book, Mark of the Cyclops, is available now. The second, Secret of the Oracle is out on 5th October. Visit Saviour at Follow on twitter @spirotta.


Tuesday, 12 September 2017

CHOCOLATE CAKE by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Kevin Waldron. Review by Penny Dolan.

Michael Rosen’s new picture book, which was sent to me, is a picture book based on one of his most popular YouTube spoken poems.

The subject of chocolate cake is one which most children will have strong feelings about and my limited viewing of social media suggests that it is probably a favourite daydream of many adults too, especially teachers in need of comfort in the classroom. The book is already on the way to being a winning idea.

The lively page spreads amplify the narrative structure of the poem. Told in his well-known first person “child” voice, Rosen retells a half-familiar family anecdote: the story of a young boy sneaking downstairs at night while his parents are asleep in bed. The boy knows there is a chocolate cake waiting in the fridge and just wants to look at it. Inevitably, bit by bit, the young narrator nibbles, eats and then gobbles up the entire delicious cake. 

I recall a Naughty Little Sister story where the greedy dish was a birthday tea-party trifle, and this half-familiarity of the incident Rosen uses that gives the story universal appeal. 
Of course, as he goes back to bed, the boy suddenly realises he will be in big trouble. . He decides that the only way to stop his Mum finding out is to remove all the evidence so he spends the rest of the night cleaning away every crumb and clue. Except, of course, he doesn't quite succeed, but you’ll have to read the book or view the poem to find out quite what he's forgotten.

Kevin Waldron, who has been named one of BookTrust’s best new illustrators, brings a welcome child’s-eye view to the pages. His spreads and page-turns dramatise the action, adding to the suspense of the slightly naughty deed done at night in a dark house. 

Waldron uses interesting text layouts and speech bubbles to accentuate the poem’s lively use of sounds - Heh- heh! Gobble-Gulp! -  and all the muttered worries and "instructions to self" – Good thinking! All right, yeah! – so that it’s easy to imagine any young reader being encouraged to join in with the friendly telling. Waldron’s artwork isn’t of the “beautiful” kind but I really liked the way he has captured the young child’s world and viewpoint. 

The picture book format makes the reader – young or old -  both an observer and a sympathetic third party, feeling the tension between the child’s longing, the delicious naughtiness of the greedy theft and the knowledge that he is bound to be found out.

I did not see Rosen’s CHOCOLATE CAKE video beforehand as I wanted this picture book to be a fresh experience. Would it have been different if I’d seen it? I can’t tell. However, as an ex-teacher, I’m sure that the younger readers may well appreciate having both versions of the poem, and that one can help the other along.

Besides, CHOCOLATE CAKE might make a useful book for Key Stage Two classes to borrow. The format, demonstrating the steps of the "plot", could encourage children and teachers to explore their own anecdotal storytelling s, and I’ve also found, on school visits, that Rosen's poems, based on everyday family life, make very good immediate ways in to creative personal writing for KS2 children.

Unfortunately, I suspect that reading CHOCOLATE CAKE might make the whole class and teaching staff long for break time treats!

Penny Dolan.


Friday, 8 September 2017

Beyond the Wall by Tanya Landman, reviewed by Pauline Francis

I met Tanya some years ago when we were both shortlisted for the Highland Book Award, and I have been a huge fan of her heroines ever since. Then I met Siki, a warrior in Apache. And later, Charley in Buffalo Soldier (which won the Carnegie Medal in 2015).

So it is no surprise to meet Cassia, “strong, tall, fierce”, the daughter of the slave of a Roman general, Titus Cornelius Festus, who lives in luxury just outside Londinium.

I asked Tanya for some wise words about Cassia.  She says, “I remember coming across a little footnote in a history book about a number of infant burials at the site of a Roman villa in England and there seemed to be a suggestion that they were slave children, deliberately killed. “

Why is Cassia allowed to live when her sisters have been murdered on the day they were born? For no other reason than that her master is suffering from the effects of a sexual disease. When his son is born on the same day as Cassia, he has this thought. What if he keeps Cassia innocent and disease-free for his son and heir?

Unfortunately, the son is sickly and dies just before his fifteenth birthday. Titus decides to have Cassia for himself. Bathed, robed and bejewelled, Cassia is presented like a succulent dish for Lucius to feast upon. But it is she who takes the first bite - her master’s ear.

Then she runs for her life. She dare not even stop to collect her young brother, Rufus.

This is the magnificent opening to Beyond the Wall.

How will Cassia survive on the run in Roman occupied Britannia? How will she go back to free Rufus? Clever Cassia works out this problem swiftly. She has already met Marcus, a solitary and lonely Roman. Later, she seeks him out, saying, ‘I need a Roman.’

Who is this mysterious Marcus? Can Cassia trust him? Why does he offer to help Cassia? Does he know who she is?

As Cassia and Marcus escape to the lands unoccupied by the Romans north of Hadrian’s Wall, Cassia finds her true home. Marcus is yet to find his. Just as the reader feels the quest must end, another begins, one even more dangerous than the last. These events are set against a time called the Great Conspiracy (AD 367) when slaves rose against their Roman masters.

Beyond the Wall is told in the third person by a mysterious shaman, which adds another satisfying layer to the mystery. This shaman reminds us: “There are two players in this tale: Cassia and her Roman.”  I love the last three words. They create huge intimacy with the reader. We know that Marcus and Cassia are important to each other. Now we have the chance to learn his story, to see life from a Roman point of view – and it is as compelling as Cassia’s. He, too, has been brutalised – “his soul fragmented” by his father, Primus. “Piece by piece, the boy was rebuilt in his father’s image... he was a true and perfect son of Rome by the time he met Cassia.”

In Britannia, Marcus sees his own people through fresh eyes. He is torn between family love and loathing. In this dizzying and daring journey together, Marcus and Cassia come to terms with their own lives and their love for each other against the background of an ugly Roman occupation – violent and visceral on every page.

A wonderful novel for older teens with a clever and mysterious conclusion.

Pauline Francis


Monday, 4 September 2017


Reviewed by JackieMarchant

There’s so much to like about the main character of this book, twelve year old Darby.  She lives for the moment, she dishes out hugs as frequently as she recovers from upsets, she is kind, loving and forgiving.  She loves dancing with her headphones on full-blast and she loves chocolate.  She has a habit of wandering off to try and solve things, even though she knows this exasperates her parents.  But the thing I love best about Darby is that she accepts everyone for who, and what, they are.

Still, it’s very hard for Darby when her big sister Kaydee has a girlfriend over for the weekend.  Kaydee and Darby are close and this newcomer doesn’t like it when Darby barges into Kaydee’s bedroom whenever she feels like it.  And, when it becomes obvious that Kaydee wants to spend time alone with her best friend, Darby finds that hard to bear.
Unfortunately, her parents’ strawberry farm is in crisis, due to a weekend of storms that threaten to cause damage enough to seriously impact their livelihood.  This means that Mum and Dad are not so ready to sympathise and Darby’s big brother Olly isn’t much help either –he’s far more interested in the newcomer.  All of this is very muddling and Darby has to do a lot of earphone-dancing to keep ahead of things.

Things come to a head when the high winds threaten to spoil Mum’s annual chocolate egg hunt.  Especially as everyone seems cross with Darby and she can’t quite grasp why – giving away Kaydee’s secret was a complete accident and not really her fault.  As for why Olly is cross, she has no idea.

If only she could tell her family to get a grip, but sometimes it’s difficult to find the right words to express what you want to say.  Especially when you have Down’s syndrome.

This is a book with a real heart – as well as strawberries and chocolate.  What’s not to like?


Friday, 1 September 2017

The Wooden Camel by Wanuri Kahiu and Manuela Adreani reviewed by Chitra Soundar

I am a big believer in dreams and visualising the future. Although that wasn’t the reason I picked up The Wooden Camel written by Wanuri Kahiu and illustratedby Manuela Adreani published by Lantana Publishing. What drew me into the book was the amazing cover illustration that shows a boy racing a camel. Juxtaposed against the title The Wooden Camel, it alerted me to the dream, the aspiration of the young boy.

Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.
Anais Nin

Etabo has a hard life and like any other child he takes it in his stride. His ambition and dream is to become a camel racer. But difficult circumstances lead them to selling all their camels almost closing the door on Etabo’s dreams.

But as Paul Coelho once said, only fear of failure can stop one from achieving his dreams. It is true in Etabo’s case. However dire the circumstances, he doesn’t give up and neither does his sister allow him to let go of his dreams. When you lose what you have and all you have left is family, you learn to look after them and keep their dreams alive, even at the cost of your own. In this story Etabo’s sister demonstrates her love by making him a wooden camel.

Will it assuage Etabo’s  hunger for racing and allow him to let go or would it keep the flame alive? Knowing Etabo, I think his dreams will come true one day.

 This book was chosen as one of the 21 Must-Reads for Empathy by Empathy Lab UK and The Sunday Times. I love the vastness of the desert, the resting goat on the acacia tree and the hope in every page in spite of the troubles the characters face.

Is it a story just for those in troubled parts of the world? Then perhaps it is for all of us – we all live in troubled spots. There are many children in the UK who live in poverty, there are children in refugee camps across the world and there are children who seemingly have everything, but perhaps still are dreaming about something else. It is for all these children, wherever they are. Today’s dreamers are tomorrow’s leaders, creators and peacemakers. And may they all have the courage to dream a world that is full of love, peace and a well-looked after nature.

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer of children's books. Find out more at or follow her on Twitter @csoundar.


Monday, 28 August 2017

THORNHILL by Pam Smy. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

Where to begin? As ever, with full disclosure. I met Pam Smy when we moved to Cambridge in 2010. Before that, I knew her as the wonderful illustrator of very good books by my friend Linda Newbery: Lob and The Brockenspectre. And again, you will have to believe me when I say that I would not be reviewing Thornhill if I didn't want everyone to find it for themselves. It really is both too good and too unusual to miss. If it wins for Pam Smy BOTH the Carnegie and the Greenaway medals next year, I reckon that would be perfectly fair. It's an extraordinary book in very many ways, and though there are things in it which are familiar to readers of both ghost stories and children's books, there is much that is strange and new.

The first thing to say about Thornhill is this: it's a marvellous example of what a publisher can do with a book if they make the effort. It's a huge, handsome volume. It's heavy. It's meant to be heavy because it's full of darkness and sadness and they weigh a lot. It costs only £14.99, which is amazingly good value. Do buy the hardback. The paperback will be lovely but not the same. The hardness and stiffness of the volume is important. Many congratulations to David Fickling Books for such a brilliant production.

There are black pages throughout the book, dividing the modern sections from those in the past and these, oddly, aren't empty at all, but full of remembered images of what you've just read or seen in the last section.  Having the same person in charge of both the words and the illustrations means there's a solid framework that runs through the book. The artist knows exactly what must and what must not be shown; the writer knows just what to say to tell us enough, but not too much.

The photos I've taken to illustrate this post are very amateurish and I apologise for them. They don't do Smy's pictures any kind of justice but they're better than nothing. Above is a picture of Thornhill. It's an orphanage and the events which concern this story take place in 1982, when a girl called Mary lives there. We come to Thornhill as it's being taken out of use. The girls living there are on the point of being sent to other homes, or foster homes. The staff show differing degrees of sympathy and care but on the whole it's a dreadful place. Mary is being seriously bullied. She is an elective mute and her life is a misery. I won't say more than that. We read Mary's story in her own words.

The wordless illustrations concern Ella in the present day. We learn that she and her father (her mother is either dead or has abandoned the family. We don't really learn which) have just moved into a  house which is opposite the derelict orphanage. One day, Ella sees a girl in the overgrown garden and her curiosity and loneliness (we never see her father or any other person except in the street outside) send her exploring in the wilderness. She comes across in the present the place where Mary in the past used to hide from her tormentor.  Ella also finds objects that Mary has left behind, and she takes them home with her...

The two stories unwind in parallel. Ella watches Mary. What she sees and how it's shown to us adds a background to the parts of the story written from Mary's point of view. Ella grows closer and closer to this girl from the past. She finds a diary written by Mary. Meanwhile,  in 1982, Mary's situation grows worse and worse. Above is a picture of a bird. It's sinister, but quite gentle compared to the images of dolls and bits of dolls that appear in these pages. Smy is very good indeed at terrifying us, using nothing more than black and white and shades of grey and twisting ordinary things into nightmares with the greatest subtlety. There are overt references to The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and to any reader who knows Jane Eyre, Thornhill is a clear echo of Thornfield Hall. Dolls, as we know, have a long history in such stories. They are, because they are at the same time like us and very much not like us, deeply spooky. 

I'm trying hard not to give anything away which will spoil the story, but be prepared. Do not expect a happy ending. Instead, we are given a kind of repeating vista of unhappiness, stretching into the future. It's a bold creative decision, and it pays off. This book doesn't pull any punches. Going back through the images, there is much that fills in a background of poverty and neglect. We know, because there are stories about it every day in our media, what can go on in care homes, orphanages and the like, and even without any hint of sexual abuse, this story shows up bullying for what it is: a daily source of unutterable misery for many children, and one which is only now beginning to be talked about seriously and properly. The distress of all the bullied children in the world is immeasurable and it's to Smy's credit that she's chosen to apply her great gifts to exposing some of it in this beautiful book.  

Published by David Fickling Books in hardback  £14.99
ISBN: 9781910200612