Monday, 19 March 2018

Leaf, written and illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

Crow saw it first. The strange white creature carried upon the dark waves towards the shore.”  

This picture book opens with the unexpected arrival of a polar bear, who is mistrusted by the animals of the wild wood. They do not understand him. They are scared of him. The creature behaves in unusual ways, collecting leaves from all over their wood. What should they do? 

The premise is deceptively simple but brings with it deeper questions. How do we treat those who move into our home, who are different, who do not behave as we do? The animals gather to discuss the creature every day ‘although no one was brave enough to talk to him.’ Because of his fondness for leaves, and also because the animals want him to leave, they name the creature Leaf. 

This is reminiscent of another book, also published in 2017: Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. Based on similar themes, the word ‘LEAVE’ is inscribed into the trunk of the Wishtree when a Muslim family moves into the neighbourhood. We are invited in both books to consider our reaction to ‘otherness’. 

One day, Leaf bursts through the trees covered in the leaves he has collected, and jumps off the edge of a hill, falling into a lake. It is the crows, in the illustrations, who follow Leaf back to his cave. If the reader looks closely, he will see that illustrator is showing us, with the lightest of touches, that the bear is crying. 

The animals meet again. Now what should they do? Their attitudes are changing. The crows have sympathy for Leaf but the other animals still fear him. Nothing is agreed so nothing is decided. 

Again, Leaf runs through the woods covered in leaves. Now he is more desperate, jumping over the cliff and into the sea. Finally, the crows take action: it is time to hear Leaf's story. 

For the third and final time, all animals meet. They approach the bear. This time they all listen. At last they understand. 

The bear had ‘drifted over from far across the sea, where the ice was melting.’ He had been launching himself into the air, covered in leaves, trying to fly home.  

Here is our second theme: climate change. The initial illustration of the sad polar bear, arriving on a too-small piece of ice, has striking resemblances to the widely circulated photos of these creatures as their habitat disappears. 

The animals now want to help Leaf to find his way home. Having learned the importance of listening to his story, this becomes part of their solution. After all, a story is a powerful thing. 

Although the two themes — of displaced characters, of climate change —  are timely, the book seems timeless. Sandra Dieckmann’s illustrative style is dreamy, evoking the mood of fairy tales. She uses a refined color palette which complements the subject matter, and her combination of intricate techniques play with space and keep the eye moving around the page. Notably, Dieckmann uses more volume and lifelike details for the animals, changing point of view as the story progresses. In the distance, we often find the repeated outlines of faraway mountains, suggesting that beyond the wild wood is a bigger world. 

The quote at the front of the book is significant: ‘Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught in life.’ — Friedrich Schiller. 


Thursday, 15 March 2018

Rabbit's Bad Habits by Julian Gough and Jim Field: review by Kelly McKain

Rabbit's Bad Habits: Book 1 (Rabbit and Bear)

Rabbit's Bad Habits is the first in an exuberant and charming series charting the adventures of two unlikely friends. Rabbit and Bear's friendship is especially unlikely as, early in this book, Rabbit steals all Bear's food from her cave!

Neil Gaiman calls it: 'The sort of story that makes you want to send your children to bed early, so you can read it to them.' I completely agree, and the reason this book got chosen for a review was exactly that - we had so much fun reading it aloud, cackling at the startling, spot-on humour and falling in love with kind Bear and grumpy Rabbit that I want to make sure other parents know about the fun this series can bring to reading time!

Plot-wise, when good-natured Bear accidentally wakes up early and finds it's still winter, and that all her food has been stolen, she sets about making a snowman. Soon irascible Rabbit has joined her and is haughtily explaining a few things - like gravity for example, on which he is an expert, because 'Gravity nearly killed my Grandfather.' Bear also learns that rabbits have to eat their own poo and digest it twice to get all the nutrients out. My children and I all learnt this at the same time, to much hilarity, as you can imagine. Freddie, 7, says: 'I liked it when rabbit pooed and then ate the poo. It was really funny.' (Cue graphic demonstration and much giggling).

Julian Gough's text is quirky and lively with a distinctive style, and Jim Field's illustrations are a joy - the character's faces are so expressive and there's such dynamism in the drawing that it felt as though they might leap off the page. Together these two epic talents deliver a story that's both hilarious and very moving, and I'm thrilled to have the Rabbit and Bear books on our shelves at home!

Hodder Children's Books
ISBN 978-1-444-92931-7

The Woollies: Follow the FootprintsThe Woollies: Pirates Ahoy!

Kelly McKain and Jon Stuart's new picture book series, The Woollies, is published by Oxford University Press. The first two titles are available now.


Sunday, 11 March 2018

Teacup House – Meet the Twitches by Hayley Scott illustrated by Pippa Curnick review by Lynda Waterhouse

As soon as I heard about the Teacup House series I was intrigued. As a child I never owned a dolls’ house but I spent all of my time creating small worlds and building Lego homes. My favourite possession was a Quality Street tin filled with miniature tea cups, food and various household items so the opportunity to meet the Twitches, four tiny toy rabbits who live inside a tea cup, was not to be missed.
The Teacup House is given to Stevie Gillespie by her Nanny Blue on the day that she is moving from her flat in a tower block to a cottage in the countryside miles away. The only good thing about moving would be that she would be living closer to her dad but Stevie is sad to leave her school, her friends and her room where she loved to watch the clouds and think.
Teacup House is not a doll’s house, rather it is home to a toy rabbit family. There is a father, mother, sister and brother rabbit, Gabriel, Bo, Silver and Fig. These toy rabbits have a secret. They come alive when Stevie isn’t looking. During the move Gabriel gets dropped in the garden and Silver has to find an ingenious way to rescue him and bring him back to Teacup House.
The story is beautifully written, well-plotted and is pitched perfectly for readers of six years upwards. The language is rich but accessible and has a lovely warmth and gentle humour that makes it ideal for reading aloud.
The author and illustrator are perfectly matched too. Hayley Scott loves tiny things and when she was little she used to make tiny furniture for fairy houses, and Pippa Curnick describes herself as a bookworm and bunny owner. Her delightful illustrations enliven every page of the book.  I loved looking at the titles of the Twitch-sized books.
I am looking forward to meeting the feisty Stevie again and seeing what adventures and scrapes she and the Twitches get into next!

ISBN 978-1-4749-2812-0


Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, by Horatio Clare: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

I've recently read and very much enjoyed a couple of adult books by Horatio Clare, Icebreaker and Orison for a Curlew; I suppose you would say he's a travel writer, or maybe a nature writer, or quite likely both those and other things as well. So I thought it would be interesting to see what he would do with a children's book - and the answer is, he does a great deal.

From birth, Aubrey is recognised as being a 'rambunctious' boy. By the time he's four, he's managed to get out of the house and into his parents' car without anyone noticing, and to let off the handbrake; so that the car drifts gently into beloved German car of his neighbour, Mr Ferraby. (Mr Ferraby is a delightful character. He follows Aubrey's progress with interest and astonishment, and I think it's typical of Clare's writing that Mr Ferraby does not shout and jump and down and hate Aubrey forever - rather, he says 'quietly. "No-one's hurt, that's the main thing."')

Aubrey's parents are Suzanne, a nurse, and Jim, a teacher. For several years, all goes well for the family. But then something horrible happens. Jim begins to worry about everything. All the colour has gone out of the world for him, and gradually he is spending most of his time under the duvet, unable to work, unable to be happy. The adult reader recognises this as depression. Aubrey doesn't know what it is, but he does know that he's going to find a way to help his dad.

If I explain how he does this, it will spoil the story for you, and it will sound very complicated - whereas when you're reading it, everything seems beautifully logical. In any event, what happens is that the creatures who live in the nearby wood help him to help his father, explaining that he is under attack from the Terrible Yoot, and Aubrey must battle it on his father's behalf.

Well, he does. But even that doesn't turn out entirely as you'd imagine.

This is a really lovely, very original book, which has at its centre something which must be very difficult for children to cope with - a deeply depressed parent. It explores what this feels like in a completely unpreachy sort of a way, using characters who are quirky, charming, funny - and just nice. At the same time it's an adventure, a quest, and it's firmly rooted in the natural world. It's beautifully illustrated by Jane Matthews, and beautifully written by Horatio Clare. I loved it.

Sue Purkiss's latest book is 'Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley'.


Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen: review by Kelly McCaughrain

I know you’re supposed to mention it if you know an author you’re reviewing, and if you look at the cover of my book you’ll see Susin Nielsen has given me a lovely review quote for my YA novel, but I hasten to add that this isn’t because she and I are great mates! I’ve never met her, and the reason she read my book was that I’m such a huge fan of hers I asked my publisher to send her one. I never thought she’d read it, I just thought it would be really cool to think that she had a copy.

Anyway, the point is, she’s my favourite YA writer.  I’ve loved all her books and Optimists Die First was no exception (and what a fab title!). I love books that are firmly character-based, where the characters are so beautifully drawn and endearing that you really don’t need to add an explosion or a melodramatic vampire every three pages to keep readers hooked. Nielsen’s characters grab you from the first page and stay with you.

Which isn’t to say there’s no plot. Her books deal with some serious issues and heavy stuff – I think every one of them features the aftermath of a death – and they deal with it well, but still manage to be light and funny, which is a skill I really admire. They’re the sort of books where you laugh the whole way through and then find yourself crying at the end (how does she do that!). They’re beautifully written and she’s brilliant at making you feel for the characters without adding an ounce of unnecessary sentiment. There’s absolutely no mush – the tagline of Optimists Die First, ‘A Love Story for Cynics’ is very apt.

In this latest book, Petula’s family is imploding since the death of her little sister. She believes she is responsible for the accident that killed Maxine and is now completely obsessed with calculating the risk of death in any given situation and avoiding it. Unfortunately, this means avoiding living her life too. She has adopted pessimism as a survival strategy, which is working fine until she meets optimist Jacob – the mysterious ‘bionic man’ – in her therapy group.  

As well as being a love story between two characters we care about, there’s plenty of comedy in the shape of cat videos, truly awful counsellors, and quirky minor characters who all have poignant stories of their own.

I’ve been sharing Nielsen’s books with my teen writing group (13-16s) and they all love them, boys and girls, younger and older. In fact, I asked one of them for a quote for this review:

Sophia (13) on Optimists Die First: “Relatable and heart wrenching”

I couldn’t have put it better.

Kelly McCaughrain is a YA writer and her debut title Flying Tips for Flightless Birds will be out in March 2018 from Walker Books. Visit her at @kmccaughrain


Friday, 23 February 2018

KOOK by Chris Vick, reviewed by Sharon Tregenza

Image result for KOOK book coverThe title of this book intrigued me immediately.

The main character, Sam is fifteen and recently torn from the comfort of his city life to live in the alien landscape of Cornwall. His family are broken and struggling after the death of his father. He’s is a self-confessed nerd and all round good kid who is about to experience the thrills of danger. He discovers these in his new-found passion for surfing and his even greater passion for the local bad girl, Jade.

As time goes on their love grows - the emotions swelling and receding like the waves off the Cornish coast. Sam’s grief and Jade’s obsessions create conflict and add interest to their relationship. Teen romance is a tough ask from any writer but Chris Vick handles it perfectly - no cringy moments or squirmy dialogue. But, their story takes an unexpected turn and grows darker and more menacing.

The Cornish setting is a perfect metaphor for their romance – both beautiful and dangerous. I was born and brought up in Cornwall and although I was never a part of the surfing culture, I had friends who were. The passion and commitment for this sport rings so true here.

This book seems to be aimed mostly at the “girl” market which is a pity – the well-rounded characters will appeal to everyone. Most of all - it’s an exciting read. Oh, and I learned that the intriguing title is because a “kook” is an aspiring wave rider, a nerd, or someone who tries - and fails - to mimic the surfing lifestyle. Perfect.

Sharon Tregenza writes Middle Grade mysteries. Her latest book ‘The Jewelled Jaguar’ is published by Firefly Press.