Round-Up

Round-Up: Children’s books for Halloween.

Witch Girl by Jan Eldredge

IMG_E7056Evangeline Clement is almost thirteen and there is no sign of her familiar. She’s afraid it will never come and she will turn out to be a middling with no magical powers. Magic has been handed through her family for generations and she spends her days learning from her grandmother.

When the pair are called to an old mansion, they are confronted with a terrifying case and Evangeline finds out secrets about her family’s past.  

This has serious Princess And The Frog Vibes. Set in Louisianna, the landscape is all swamps and cypress-trees and rivers. The language, too, reminds me off The Princess And The Frog – Evangeline wears gator skin boots and lives for her Grandmama’s pecan pie. 

I liked this version of witch-craft – it was less about waving wands and more about talismans and forcing dark spirits along on their journey. The magic has been handed down for generations and I always like stories where the character learns about their family history through the adventure. 

IMG_E6915The Trouble With Perfect by Helena Duggan

There are two types of people in Town – the ones who believe only perfect people should be allowed, and the ones who believe there is no one ‘right’. Since Perfect was liberated from the Perfectionists and renamed Town, the two groups have lived alongside each other.

Now strange things are happening in Town.

First objects go missing, then children. Violet’s friend Boy is blamed, and old questions are raised about whether certain people should be locked away for the good of others.

This was the perfect book to read ahead of Halloween – it has vibes of Dianna Wynne Jones. Town is often painfully ordinary – with committees, schools and day-to-day activities – that the stranger things, like the eye-plants which are used as a security-system – stand out.

I love how the theme of diversity and acceptance was handled. It encourages the reader to think for themselves, to empathise with others and never to follow others blindly.

 

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Vlad The World’s Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson and Kathryn Durst

Vlad is the world’s least-scary vampire. He’s afraid of spiders, he’s afraid of the dark and he’s especially afraid of looking like a failure next to cousin Lupus.

Lupus upholds all the Vampire traditions, like drinking blood. He keeps a raven near him at all times and he has mastered all the flying skills. Nobody seems to notice that he is rude and horrible. Nobody except Vlad.

Is Lupus really as perfect as he seems? Is there any chance he could be friends with Vlad?

This is a lovely series, perfect for newly-readers, and would make a lovely bedtime story. The events of the story are much like any book about friendship and family, except the family happens to have fangs. And ravens. This would be a great Halloween read for children who don’t like scares but love a touch of the gothic world.

 

Night Of The Living Ted by Barry Hutchinson and Lee Cosgrove

Zombie Bears! Ghost Bears! Witch Bears! Alien Bears!

Lisa-Marie is adjusting to having a step-parent and living with her new step-brother Veron. Vernon can be nice but he won’t stand up for his new step-sister.

When Lisa-Marie makes a witch bear at Create-A-Ted, she gets more than she bargained for. Henrietta is alive and she is dangerous. In fact, there is a whole army of Halloween-bears on the loose, led by the terrifying Grizz.

If Lisa-Marie is going to stop them from destroying humankind, she’ll need help from her new step-brother Vernon.

The premise of this story is hilarious. A shop where children pick a bear-skin, add stuffing then provide the bear with a heart. What’s creepy about that?! Someone has clearly spent an hour too long in Create-A-Ted.

This story shows that ideas come from observation. I reckon children will love this spooky twist on their favourite shop.

I love that the humour is accessible to adults as well as children. Books of this length are often read aloud and it makes a difference to the child’s experience when the adults are laughing along too.

 

Dirty Bertie – Frights And Bites by David Roberts or Alan MacDonald

Fangs! Scream! Zombie!

Experience three whole volumes of Dirty Bertie in one book. Know someone who loves Dennis the Menace and Horrid Henry? You need to introduce them to Bertie. He’s silly, he’s full of terrible ideas and best of all, he embraces all things disgusting.

The three books in this compilation are divided into stories which are about forty pages long. There are nine stories between the three books, which means plenty of silliness and troublesome events.

I love how the stories have recurring features. They quite often end with Bertie in some kind of bother – whether his head is stuck in the railings or he is running away, you can be sure the story will end on a memorable note.

These are perfect for newly confident readers. Finishing the short stories offers a high level of reward and there are plenty of hilarious illustrations.

 

Thanks to Scholastic UK, Stripes Books and Usborne Publishing for the books featured in this round-up. Opinions my own.

What are you reading this Halloween? Let me know in the comments below.

Chat · Monthly Wrap Up

Four things I learned in October

October. It has gone quickly, leaving the branches bare.

I travelled across the country to see a friend, blew out the candles on my birthday cake and edited, edited, edited my middle-grade manuscript. It is coming to six months since I began this work and the changes it has seen in that time are ginormous. There is no way to explain to someone who hasn’t written a story of this size how much it takes to make it even vaguely like those things you see on the bookshelf. 

This also marks the first full month of GrasmereBulletJournal – a blog about literature, bullet-journalling, and stationery. I began the blog in consultation with The Wordsworth Trust, who loved the idea of Dorothy Wordsworth as a bullet-journaller. I have translated parts of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals into bullet-journal form, and this is the journal at the centre of the blog. The first month has given me new experiences – such as making a YouTube video – and put me in touch with wider networks. 

So begin the dark nights and the countdown to Christmas. Snuggle up, find time for yourself and decide what is really important to you rather than being swept along by the festive-tide. 

Let me know what you’ve been up to this month – I love hearing from my followers. 

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MG Leonard at the Guildford Book Festival

We’d be dead without dung beetles

Really. MG Leonard told me and she is the undisputed queen of beetles. 

It was a pleasure to get to an author talk with my friend Christina, especially because our long talks about children’s literature are a special part of our friendship. My visit to the South East coincided with the Guildford Book Festival, so we booked tickets to see M.G. Leonard. 

What a fabulously interesting morning. 

Leonard’s trilogy is about a group of children who befriend genetically-enhanced beetles and uncover the plot of fashionista and scientist Lucretia Cutter. One of Leonard’s early thoughts was that there were no books in which beetles were the heroes. We think of insect life as creepy and other, when in fact our planet wouldn’t be the same without beetles.

Take the dung beetle. By gathering rolling dung into balls, burying it underground and feeding on it, dung beetles take it away from the surface of the environment. Without them, there would be far more parasites, and large areas would be inhabitable. 

This is one of the true joys of children’s literature – it teaches us so many interesting things about our world. 

 

Lights, Camera, YouTube

I am camera-shy. Painfully so. A good picture emerges every six or eight years but mostly when I see a camera I stop acting naturally.

But you know what? I took part in a YouTube video

I filmed this with the team at The Wordsworth Trust, to promote the GrasmereBulletJournal blog and the bullet journalling station which we’ve created at the museum. The whole experience has been tremendous and the video explains everything I would have hoped.

New experiences are pivotal – they give us a taste of other disciplines and encourage us to think more widely about what we can do. I have learned so much about other social media over the past two years and have totally embraced content-creation. It was amazing to learn about creating for YouTube. 

 

How to make a hedgehog from an information booklet 

There has been lots of discussion on the Twittersphere about what should happen to old proofs. Several weeks ago I came to the conclusion that the proofs I didn’t want to keep were perfect for crafting. 

Following on from that, my friend and I checked into her local library for a session on paper folding. 

Without scissors, without anything other than folding, I turned an information booklet into a hedgehog. It certainly took patience – there were a lot of pages to fold and the action was the same every time – but it was a lovely craft for a Saturday morning. Two googly-eyes later and my hedgehog came to life. His name is Harold and he lives on my shelves. 

Papercrafting is a brilliant solution to the proof question – so brilliant that I hope to feature some posts in the run-up to Christmas. 

 

CS Lewis never considered the mental health of his characters

You’re eleven years old. World War Two is raging around you, so you’re sent to live with a total stranger. All that is traumatic enough. While playing with your siblings, you find yourself trapped in another world. A world which is also at war, and by the way, only you and your siblings can end that war. Although you solve the war, the door to your own world is shut, so the only option is to stay in that realm and grow into an adult.

Then suddenly you are eleven years old again. The Blitz is still very real. 

The characters in The Chronicles Of Narnia showed unswerving loyalty to this other world. Once a King or Queen in Narnia, always a King or Queen. The exception was Susan Pevensie, a character derided as shallow and vain.

This month I read  The Light Between Worlds, a book which takes up the same narrative through different characters, and considers the impact such an experience might really have on different people. Susan is vindicated as the one who was able to adjust back to her past reality. 

I will always love Narnia, but the questions posed by The Light Between Worlds are valid. I wonder whether CS Lewis imagined how this experience might affect his characters? The assumption that they would become good, loyal Narnians never considered the impact this would have on their other lives. 

 

What have you been up to this October? Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Murder At Twilight by Fleur Hitchcock

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Synopsis:

The worst thing about living on a big estate is Noah. Viv’s mum has cared for Noah since he was a baby and Noah has always been the most important. He thinks he is far more important than Viv. Viv has grown up in the shaddow of the big house and the heir to the Belcombe family fortune. 

Then Noah disappears. At the same time, his PE teacher goes missing and is named as a major suspect. Viv is forced to question everything she thinks she knows about life on the estate. 

With Mum held as a suspect, it is up to Viv to figure out what has happened. A gripping and totally modern mystery.

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Review:

It is no secret that I love middle-grade mysteries. Fleur Hitchcock’s stories are the closest thing in the middle-grade cannon to adult crime novels. They are set in the modern day, which is fairly unusual. There is no shying away from the internet, mobile phone technology and modern policing here.

The story gives a little more detail about the crime than other mysteries. Do you remember knowing about crime dramas on television but being told they weren’t suitable? Nothing frustrates kids more than being told they are too young to handle something. These will be a hit with fearless readers. The grizzly details come in manageable doses, and the worst comes when the protagonist is safe. This allows a taste of those forbidden subjects but keeps the age of the audience in mind. 

There was good tension between the main characters. Viv and Noah are forced to work together despite the fact they have spent years at war. We are able to empathise with both characters at different times – Viv has grown up feeling second-best and Noah is quickly labelled because of who his parents are. He is also under huge pressure to grow into a particular role. 

The story also has a strong setting – a rural landscape of rivers and sawmills. It is easy to get lost in and full of interesting micro-settings. 

A strong mystery set firmly in the modern day. The story will keep you guessing, and you want to follow Viv and Noah to a safe end. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow for my arc of Murder At Twilight. Opinions my own. 

Non-Fiction

Review: Absolutely Everything by Christopher Lloyd.

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Review: Absolutely Everything by Christopher Lloyd.

Do you want to know about everything? Absolutely everything? Earth, Dinosaurs, the past, the present. It’s all covered here. This is the book for children who are hungry for facts. A cross between an encyclopedia and a trivia-book, Absolutely Everything explores any number of subjects. 

This book begins with pre-history and leads to the present day. The sections are not strictly chronological – they cover time periods which slightly overlap. This does away with the common impression that history was divided into neat sections. Historical periods overlap, with the events of one era leading directly to another. Not that this is a history book – it dips into history, science, geography, technology and politics. While this was a fabulous selection, I would have liked to see artistic and literary achievement thrown into the mix. This, of course, is the problem the author faced – there is so much worth covering in a book of this scale – and he has already embarked upon book two. 

Photographs of landscape and historical sources are mixed with illustrations. These bring topics neatly to life and make it possible to visualise things we cannot see such as deep underwater life and historical events. Maps and graphs add detail and show different ways of recording information. 

The tone of each section is conversational, which may appeal to readers who otherwise find fact books daunting. It would be a lovely book to have out in a classroom and it would make a great Christmas present for kids who want to explore the breadth of human knowledge. 

My only other thought was that the time periods are not covered in equal measures – anything pre-1500s is given more space than the modern world. Perhaps that is the charm of this book – rather than being a comprehensive guide to anything, it allows children to figure out what fascinates them and gives them just enough that they want to go in search of more information. 

A real dip-into read which will appeal to the insatiably curious. 

 

Thanks to Laura Smythe PR and What On Earth Books for my copy of Absolutely Everything. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Froggy Day by Heather Pindar and Barbara Bakos

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Review: Froggy Day by Heather Pindar and Barbara Bakos. 

The weather woman wasn’t joking when she said it was going to be froggy. There are frogs everywhere – on the farm and in the shops and in the cars and coming out of people’s hair. There are frogs everywhere! 

A funny picture book which celebrates word-play. 

As a small child, I often misheard and mispronounced things. Trinket-pots were treacle pots, for example, and I couldn’t imagine what all that treacle would do to the velvet-lining. As well as reassuring children that they are not alone in mishearing worlds, Froggy Day shows that mistakes can lead to great leaps in imagination. 

Both text and illustration will bring young readers to laughter. The one joke runs through the text and the big question as you turn the page is where will the frogs get next? This anticipation leads to increased amusement when the question is answered. 

This would be a lovely book to encourage wordplay and art. After reading, it would be lovely for children to make their own maps of unusual (imaginative) weather. 

A humorous book which will appeal to young readers. Prepare to be bombarded with plays on words.

 

Many thanks to Maverick Arts Publishing for my copy of Froggy Day. Opinions my own. 

Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth

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Review: The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth. 

 

Synopsis:

One minute the three siblings were huddling in the bomb shelter. The next they had been called out of this world to serve as Kings and Queens in a woodland realm.

The Hapwell siblings – Evelyn, Phillipa and Jamie – had an experience like no other. They spent years in another world, growing into young adults, except when they returned to their own world they found their adventure had taken no time at all. They were children once more.

Five years on from that experience, the siblings are divided, most particularly Phillipa and Evelyn. Elder sister Phillipa would rather pretend it never happened. She was never comfortable in the Woodlands and always wanted to return home. For Evelyn, the Woodlands is sanctuary and home. She won’t be happy unless she finds a way to return.

A fantasy which shows the flip-side of adventures in other worlds.

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Review:

The Light Between Worlds has been on my radar for months. What I was most excited about was the parallels between this story and Narnia, and the commentary which Weymouth makes on the Pevensie siblings. I wasn’t disappointed. As well as being a touching story about mental health, trauma, and healing, the book re-examines the experience of going into a portal world and returning to exactly the same point in time. I cannot do this review justice without referencing another series of books –some of the most famous books in children’s literature. I am talking about The Chronicles Of Narnia by CS Lewis.  

The Hapwell siblings – the characters in Weymouth’s novel – experience something so similar to the Pevensie siblings that it is Narnia in all but name. Woodland realm, ongoing war, omniscient-but-slightly-hands-off God – tick, tick and tick. These similarities work for me because I think Weymouth has offered significant commentary on a common trope in children’s literature.

In the Narnia books, most of the children return to this world as loyal subjects of Aslan, ready to answer his next call. The exception to this is Susan Pevensie, who returns first reluctantly, then not at all. In the final book, it emerges that Susan grows older to deny her whole experience. She is derided for this choice as someone shallow and ignorant. The Light Between Worlds examines in greater depth what Susan might have been feeling and challenges the original evaluation.

Evelyn Hapwell – like Lucy Pevensie – is at home in the Woodlands. Her heart belongs to the Woodlands and her only thought it Cervus’s next call. A call which isn’t coming. While she may be true to her heart and her own values, Evelyn is also unwell. She has never recovered from her forced return our world.

Phillipa, meanwhile, is determined to hide her experience and make a life in this world. The difference in opinions has divided the sisters.

The narrative is split in two – we hear first from Evelyn, then Phillipa. This form is unusual for YA but allows us to consider both stories, and re-evaluate Evelyn’s experience after seeing it through Phillipa’s eyes. Both characters feel real and I think this is because of our close view of their internal lives.

A story which is worth reading on its own merits, but doubly-interesting for the commentary it makes on a famous trope. This book is sure to provoke discussion and make us think deeper about how fantasy-experiences would really affect our characters.  

Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Book Of Dust – La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman

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Extract:

There was no refusing this man. Malcolm led him out of the Terrace Room and along the corridor, and out onto the terrace before his father could see them. He closed the door very quietly behind them and found the garden brilliantly lit by the clearest full moon there’d been for months. It felt as if they were being lit by a floodlight.

“Did you say there was someone pursuing you?” said Malcolm quietly.

“Yes. There’s someone watching the bridge. Is there any other way across the river?”

“There’s my canoe. It’s down this way, sir. Let’s get off the terrace before anyone sees us.”

(The Book Of Dust – La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman. P186 – 187.) 

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Synopsis:

Malcolm lives in his parents’ pub in Godstow, where he helps with the customers and works on his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.

One night, Malcolm finds a message which puts him in touch with a resistance spy. When he agrees to keep her updated on the things he sees, Malcolm becomes aware of the powers that dictate the world around him.

The Magisterium holds power over all and it operates through different branches. The Constitutional Court Of Discipline is in charge of surveillance and discipline, while another branch goes into schools and persuades children to turn on their family and neighbours. 

Then there is Lord Asriel, clearly on the run, and there is Mrs Coulter with the evil demon, and the man named Coram. All these people are asking about one thing – a baby called Lyra who resides at the priory near to the inn.

With a storm brewing, and different sides all taking an interest in Lyra, Malcolm vows to be her protector and do what it takes to deliver her to safety.

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Set ten years before the events of His Dark Materials and featuring characters from the original trilogy, La Belle Sauvage has to be one of the most anticipated books in the history of children’s publishing. It tells the story of Lyra’s early childhood but centres on a new protagonist, Malcolm Polstead who takes it upon himself to watch out for Lyra.

Although the story is set in Lyra’s world, it features a far-smaller geographical area – the riverbanks of and around Oxford. The most interesting aspect of this was the magic specific to the location – it is a place of fairies and enchantment which draws directly on the English canon. The location, although ostensibly set close to our time-period, is more reminiscent of the Oxford known by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. This can be explained by the fact that Lyra’s world is not our world but at times comes across as nostalgic.

Malcolm is a likeable character – he’s a nice boy who is handy to have around in a crisis. He questions what he is told when other children around him accept blindly the words of the Magisterium and he never takes what he sees at face value. I liked the parts of the story which focused on the new characters – at times it felt like they were new players in the same story, but this added a new depth to the original conflict.

I first read the original trilogy when I was nine and have read it at different points in my life. The books of the original trilogy have grown with me – I see more in them at every read, but at the same time I wish I could recapture that first reading which was so much about the adventure and the magic of the world. Reading La Belle Sauvage, although I was aware of the conflict between church and resistance, I recaptured that childish wonder as I was caught up in the descriptions of the chase downriver. At times it is less important to know why things are happening than to simply enjoy the journey.

I love the illustrations – the line-drawings suit the story and bring to life the riverbank landscape.

Described by Pullman as an ‘equal’ rather than a prequel or a sequel, the first book in the trilogy certainly gains depth with an understanding of the original books but I don’t think it is necessary to have read them to enjoy La Belle Sauvage. I look forward to seeing where the trilogy goes next – with the events of the next book take place after the events of the original trilogy, I am interested to find out what draws the series together.

 

Thanks to Riot Communications and David Fickling Books for my copy of La Belle Sauvage. Opinions my own.