Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Benny's Hat, written by Juliet Clare Bell, illustrated by Dave Grey, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Image result for benny's hat image juliet clare bell

This is an important book.  It depicts a childs experience of the death of a sibling, and it does so with honesty and kindness.  Its also a very good story, and one which will make you smile, and maybe even laugh, as well as possibly making you cry. 
The story is told in the first person by Lizzy.  Shes talking about her brother Benny who was strong and funny, but who then gets the kind of ill where you have to go to hospital.  Things change as little sister becomes stronger than Benny, and is no longer always able to make him laugh.  But Benny keeps wearing his funny hat, now to cover his bald head.  Lizzie experiences a range of feelings; upset when all the attention seems to be on Benny, anger at the unfairness that he is dying.  And then she does something bad.  She hides Bennys favourite hat, hoping he wont go to the hospice without it, and that will keep him at home.  The plan doesnt work, and Benny dies without his beloved hat, leaving Lizzie with guilt on top of grief.  But family love, and Bennys character, continue after his death, allowing for a new way for the family to work, with Benny very present in their thoughts.  It isnt easy.  There are ups and downs, but the story ends on a positive note, and with the potential to make the story personal to you via a frame in which youre invited to add a picture of somebody you love. 
            Both the text and the pictures in this book are simple, but far from simplistic.  Its a book to be shared and talked about, and could work with children up to even nine or ten.  Highly recommended, especially, of course, for those children who are facing the death of a brother or sister.


Friday, 13 October 2017

Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink by Jennifer Killick. Reviewed by Tamsin Cooke

If you like fast paced adventure stories full of humour, fart jokes and great characters, then Alex and the Really Big Stink by Jennifer Killick is just the book for you.

Alex Sparrow is a super-agent in training. He is also a human lie-detector. Working with Jess – who can communicate with animals – they must find out why their friends, and enemies, are all changing into polite and well-behaved pupils. And exactly who is behind it all. ALEX SPARROW is a funny, mid-grade novel full of farts, jokes and superhero references. Oh, and a rather clever goldfish called Bob. In a world where kids’ flaws and peculiarities are being erased out of existence, Alex and Jess must rely on what makes them different to save the day.

Alex Sparrow is a fabulous character. He is utterly unaware of himself, believing his own hype.  Having dreamt his whole life of being a proper super agent, he jumps at the chance to finally get a super power. But with this power, comes a side effect so unusual, stinky and downright embarrassing.  (I don’t know how Jennifer Killick came up with this one. I really want to ask her.)

You can’t help but sympathise with Alex, as he has to suffer the indignity of his side effect. But you see him grow as a person, as he learns what true friendship is and the fickleness of popularity.  This story values quirkiness and embraces children being different. Even though it’s full of humour, there’s a real warmth and empathy to the writing.

The other characters are incredibly well drawn too. There’s Jess, his new brave sarcastic friend, a goldfish with OCD, and a villain so deliciously creepy she makes your skin crawl.

Full of hilarious witty dialogue and characters that we can all relate to from primary school, this book had me laughing out loud.  With its twists and turns and intriguing plot, I think it's perfect for middle grade readers. I cannot wait to read the next adventure: Alex Sparrow and the Furry Fury.


Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Mark of the Cyclops by Saviour Pirotta, Reviewed by Dawn Finch

First the blurb...

Young scribe Nico's new friend Thrax has a strange knack for figuring things out. When they travel to wedding with their master, a valuable vase is broken and Thrax's special skills might just come in useful. Can the boys prove that slave girl Gaia is innocent, and discover what the mark of the cyclops means? 

Saviour Pirotta has a well deserved reputation of writing some of the best books  for children about Ancient Greece myths. His versions of many other traditional folk tales, myths and legends grace the shelves of pretty much every school library. His wonderful gift for storytelling has turned many often dry or complex stories into ripping yarns that read aloud beautifully. This is no exception, but in the form of an attractively illustrated novel. This story takes elements of legendary tales and weaves them into the lives of two very clever young people - Nico and Thrax. Their everyday lives in Ancient Greece are the backdrop for a mystery that only they can solve. Their unique skills will help them prove their friend's innocence. The characters are instantly likeable, and this makes for a very enjoyable read.

The story is just challenging enough to please teachers and parents, but absorbing enough to quickly hook children. At its heart, it's a really great story that primary age children will love, but older struggling readers will also find a lot of enjoyment here too. Complex themes of friendship and loyalty mix in with the adventure to make a cracking story. Coupled with Freya Hartas' charming and detailed illustrations, this makes Mark of the Cyclops the first in a series you should definitely put on pre-order. 
A great read. I liked it a lot.

Mark of the Cyclops is published by Bloomsbury. The next in the series (Secret of the Oracle) was published 5 October 2017.

Dawn Finch, children's author and librarian. Past President CILIP. Member of the Society of Authors' CWIG committee.


Friday, 6 October 2017

Tommy Donbavand's Funny Shorts - Reviewed by Damian Harvey

I'm sure that you're already familiar with many of Tommy Donbavand's books - including his popular Scream Street series, but did you know he has Funny Shorts? If not, then you're missing a treat.

Published by Franklin Watts in their Edge series, Tommy Donbavand's Funny Shorts are perfect for reluctant young readers and they nicely bridge a gap between reading schemes and bigger chapter books, (usefully for teachers and parents, each book has a book band noted on the back).  Each book consists of up 62 pages divided into 4 to 7 chapters. All of the books are funny and well written (as you would expect from Tommy - he certainly knows what he's doing) there are some double pages of text but most pages contain bright, cartoon style illustrations.


Duck! - illustrated by Phil Corbett

When old age pensioners, Norah and Tom, throw bread to the ducks they don't have any idea what they are about to set into motion. It isn't normal bread they are throwing... containing 'Omega 33' this is 'Bread To Make You Brainy. Most of the bread gets eaten by a big drake with a funny little moustache who uses a stick to fend off the other hungry ducks. While Tom and Norah make their way home, there is no one there to see the Drake step out of the water and smile as he surveys the human world. 

Six months later, there are posters of Drake hanging in every street and the whole country has been taken over by his feathery army who 'duck step' along the road. Human slaves are forced to work in Drake's factory where they make more of the Omega 33 bread for the ducks. It's down to Jasmine and Luke Viccars, and a small human resistance force to save the day. But can they put 'Operation Bake-Off' into action and triumph over Drake and his feathered army, or will the ducks and the 'Mallard Youth' stop them?
Mr Granny Bit My Bum - illustrated by Lee Robinson

Everyone knows what happens when you get bitten by a werewolf, but nothing could have prepared Billy for what would happen to him after being bitten on the bum by his Granny's flying false teeth. 

Walking to school with his friend the next morning, Billy goes through an unexpected change. His spine twists and bends forward, his hair changes colour and even his clothes change. One minute he's wearing his school uniform and the next he's dressed as an old woman and carrying a huge handbag. Not only does Billy look like a granny but he talks and acts like one too. It doesn't take Billy and his friend long to realise that he's turned into a were-granny, though they have no idea what triggers the change or when it will happen. Read on to find out what happens when Billy turns into a were-granny in his classroom and how he stands up to a couple of thugs determined to steal money form the local post office.  

Viking Kong - illustrated by Leo Trinidad

While young Erik sits with King Harald, his twin sister, Freya, is with Queen Ingrid as she shouts and curses during the birth of the royal baby. When the baby is born, King Harald proudly presents him and announces that he is Prince Olaf - future leader of the Poowiff Clan - then he and the baby crash through the wooden floor.

Prince Olaf is a huge baby. He drinks milk straight from the cow. He is too big to fit inside the village huts and on his second birthday he is given a full sized Viking longboat to play with as he sits in the bay. Nappy changes are a huge and terrible job, but when Olaf blows out the flaming tree candles on his birthday cake and sets the entire village on fire the elders decide that Prince Olaf is too dangerous to have around. Before Olaf is banished from the village, Erik and Freya step in and take him away - intending to look after and protect him. Things don't quite go according to plan though and when Erik and his sister wake up one morning to find baby Olaf missing they know there is only one place he could have gone... Home! But what will happen when Olaf gets there?       

Night Of The Toddlers - illustrated by Fran and David Brylewski

Professor Nigella Troppy has invented an amazing cream that, when rubbed on the skin, makes the user younger. Testing a little drop on herself she changes from a 59 year old woman to a glamorous 20 year old. Nigella is sure that all her hard work will get her promoted to Chief Scientist but she's furious to learn that her rival, Professor Fanton Smooth, has been promoted instead. As revenge, she gives Fanton a huge dose of the 'Born Again cream' which turns him into a toddler. 

When Bobby Savage and his sister Gail see Professor Troppy selling the amazing cream on a market stall they think it will make the perfect gift for Mum's birthday. Mum isn't impressed with the cream, or with anything else about her children it seems, but she spreads a dollop of cream onto her arm before going back to the party with her obnoxious husband and their friends. The twins are left to fend for themselves and go to bed with some toast. Despite the loud music from downstairs they fall asleep, only to be woken later by the sound of a baby crying. Going into the front room they find their parents and their friends have been turned into toddlers. As if this isn't bad enough, Bobby and Gail to discover that the effects of the cream have spread as far as Buckingham Palace and the Royal Family. Is there any way of reversing the effects of the cream or will Nigella Troppy really be the new Queen of England.  
These four titles have been out for a little while now but keep your eyes open for new titles coming soon - Invasion of Badger's Bottom, The Curious Case of the Panicky Parrot, The Dinner Ladies of Doom! and There's a Time Portal in my Pants!

I will certainly be looking out for them and recommending them to schools I visit - they're sure to be a scream...

Damian Harvey


Monday, 2 October 2017

Boris and Bella by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by Gris Grimly and reviewed by Sarah Hammond

As this is the first Awfully Big Blog Adventure Review of October and as Halloween is just around the corner, are you in the mood for a deliciously ghoulish monster story? 

If so, read on. This time, I have chosen to review the picture book Boris and Bella by Carolyn Crimi.

Set in the monster-inhabited town of Booville, we are introduced to two wonderfully incompatible neighbours. Bella Legrossi is so disgustingly messy — ‘her slime is the slimiest, her grime is the grimiest’ — that she has to live alone. Next door, Boris Kleanitoff is so persnickety — vacuuming his bats and dusting his cobwebs — that no one lives with him, either. 

The two polar opposites despise each other. They hurl insults. They delight in excluding each other from their monster shindigs. 

Until Halloween, that is. 

Both Bella and Boris plan rival parties, but to their horror, both sets of invitations are politely declined in favour of Harry Beastie’s Halloween bash. For the first time, the warring neighbours share something: a grudge against Harry. As ‘Halloween night soared in on bat wings’, Bella and Boris reluctantly attend his event. 

There are many ghoulish delights at the party: snake-spit stew, bobbing for eyeballs and a skeleton connecting his hipbones to his neckbone 'just for fun' to name a few. Much of the charm of this book is found in its wicked humour, word play and devilish details. 

What happens? As the two disgruntled guests unite in their critical assessment of Harry’s party, Bella and Boris learn that perhaps they have something in common that might take the edge off their mutual dislike… 

Structurally, this book has a tight neatness that Boris would be proud of. The illustrations add much to the atmosphere of the story, too. Gris Grimly chooses a sepia colour palette and a quirky style reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. The characters are expressive, the visuals are witty and humorous — the grill with sharp teeth at Bella’s bar-boo-cue, the unravelling mummy dancing the night away... We have a strong sense of the monsters' world. 

This story also has a big heart. As well as reading gory details and monster jokes, we watch uncompromising and objectionable characters soften, find common ground, and ultimately the basis for a new friendship. Learning to compromise and become tolerant is a special talent. I closed the book feeling satisfied and with a smile on my face. 



Thursday, 28 September 2017

The Glass Mountain, by Jan Pienkowski and David Walser: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

I'm not sure where I came across this book - browsing somewhere or other on the internet, I suppose. I noticed it partly because of the bright colours and unusual style of the cover art, and partly because I have two grandsons who are half Polish - so this seemed like a good fit.

Folk tales are often pretty brutal. Think of Hansel and Gretel, abandoned orphans who save themselves by bundling a witch into an oven and lighting it - or all the suffering Gerda has to go through to save her friend, Kai, from the cruel Snow Queen. Many have been softened around the edges to suit sensibilities more delicate than those of their original audiences, but these stories have not: they're strong and fierce and told crisply and with gusto by David Walser. The first one, for instance, called The Fern Flower, is about a young man who enters the forest on Midsummer's Night to find a magical flower which will confer on him huge riches - provided he doesn't attempt to share them, and provided he finds it before dawn.

The first two times he tries to find it - in the process missing out on all the fun everyone else is having on Midsummer's Eve - he fails. The third time he succeeds, and becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams. But, like Midas, untold wealth results in loneliness. Eventually, he goes to visit his mother - ironically, she was the one who told him about the flower - and finds her in poverty. He is about to go in and give her some money, but stops when he realises that this would negate the terms of the deal. He goes back again a few weeks later: now she is ill - but he weighs things up and makes the same decision. He returns a third time - and she is dead. Bogdan turned away. He cursed himself with a bitter oath. As he did so, the earth opened in front of him and swallowed both him and the fern flower which he still kept in his tunic next to his heart.

Jolly stuff, eh? But I guess that when these stories were first told, the world the storytellers lived in was a harsh one. Some years ago, we were in the Carpathians, in southern Poland. We walked through a forest where there were signs warning travellers to beware of bears and wolves. At one point I had fallen behind - I usually do on a walk - and looking round at the trees which stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction, I felt disorientated. Suddenly, the world of 'fairy' stories, where the forest is a place of danger, absolutely made sense; the dangers perceived, the warnings given, reflected everyday life. Children needed to be warned - and in the long dark evenings, everyone needed dramatic stories which would keep them entertained and make them gasp in delicious fear as the candle light flickered and made huge shadows on the wall.

These stories still do that. But there's one at the beginning - a true one - which I found more fascinating than all the rest. It's a glimpse into the childhood of Jan Pienkowski, the artist. The pictures, with their solid blocks of bold colour and sometimes slightly ragged outlines, are collages made of torn paper, and Pienkowski explains that paper cut-outs are a form of Polish folk-art, which he learned as a small child during the war - first from a countrywoman who would come and make 'curtains' out of white paper cut-outs which she would then glue to the windows - and later from a soldier during the Warsaw Rising, who cut out paper animals to amuse the children as they sheltered in cellars from German bombs.

I don't know if Pienkowski has written a longer memoir, but if he hasn't, I wish he would!


Sunday, 24 September 2017

I’m coming to Get You! By Tony Ross review by Lynda Waterhouse

After wreaking havoc on the planets of its own galaxy, a hungry monster sets off in its spaceship for a pretty blue planet called earth. A little boy called Tommy brown, who is particularly scared of monsters, is singled out for a visit………
This picture book first published in 1984 feels strangely relevant today as some of our current world leaders appear to have adopted the name calling rhetoric of the loathsome monster in the story. This monster spends his time hurtling towards tiny peaceful planets, calling out, “I’m coming to get you!” before gobbling up everything in its path and leaving planets looking like chewed up apple cores.
Tony Ross wrote the story and illustrated the text with large ink and watercolour drawings of the monster who looms large and fills every page. The accompanying text is sparse with no more than two sentences on each page but the language is rich and resonant with touches of humour, ‘It chewed up the mountains, and drank the oceans. It had jellyfish for afters.’
The monster, who is never satisfied, sets out for a planet called Earth. The monster finds little Tommy Brown on its radar and sets out to ‘get’ him. Tommy and his ever present (and expressive) teddy bear check the house and listen out for any unusual noises whilst the monster hides behind a rock and waits for the dawn. The tension builds
As morning comes and Tommy sets out happily for school the monster pounces with a large wooden stick in hand. There are no words on the final double spread for the picture tells the whole story. The monster is miniscule and the stick a mere spent matchstick!
This is a wonderful story to read aloud. Children love to feel the tension of the monster coming and then laugh at the final image. It can be used in the classroom to cover themes about space, fears and monsters. It can just be read for fun!
Published by Anderson Press www.andersonpress.co.uk
ISBN 978-1-84270-743-2