Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Girl, The Cat And The Navigator by Matilda Woods

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Extract:

It was a big decision: four whole months at sea. It would be dangerous and wet. It would be cold and windy. And maybe she would fall overboard and drown. But it would, without a doubt, be an adventure, and she had always wanted to go on one of those. 

(The Girl, The Cat And The Navigator by Matilda Woods. P72.) 

birdbreakSynopsis:

Oona Britt dreams of a life at sea. She has always wanted to join a ship’s crew and go in search of a mysterious and mythical creature called the Nardoo. Only one thing stops Oona from joining her father’s ship.

Girls don’t go to sea.

It was a major disappointment that Oona was a girl – her father had hoped for a strong and adventurous boy. Oona is desperate to prove herself to her father. She stows away on a ship and sets sail for an adventure, where she proves time and again that she can handle anything the world throws at her.

birdbreakReview:

Meet Oona – she’s bright, she’s bold and she can do anything she sets her mind to. Oona’s whole future is altered in one instant, the moment when she is born and turns out to be a girl. Her father ends the celebrations and mourns for the child who would have sailed beside him.

This may be a fairytale world of Nardoos and cats with nine lives, but it tells a story which is very real. Studies have shown that even those of us who think we are liberal differentiate by gender. We speak to babies in different tones, offer them different toys and talk about different subjects with them. By the time they are old enough to think for themselves, their idea of gender-roles is entrenched.

Yet girls can have adventures too.

I loved the tone of the story – it reads like a fairytale or a bedtime story, yet the adventure is solid and it leads to a satisfying conclusion. The prose is so beautiful it demands to be read out loud and the world is so magical and so unique that it is conjured in our minds. Welcome to a place where wrecked ships are turned into buildings and sea-shells are used to tell fortunes. Where mythical sea-creatures have been known to fly. Where cats hold memories of the ships they sailed in their previous nine lives.

Oona is a brilliant heroine who sees through the nonsense she is told. She’s a great role model and will hopefully give readers the courage to question the messages they receive – conscious and subconscious messages.

The adventure already feels like an old-favourite. There is something timeless about the story, except it says something which relates to the present and the future. Set sail and see how wide the world can be.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Picture book review: Not Yet A Yeti by Lou Treleaven and Tony Neal

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Review: Not Yet A Yeti by Lou Treleaven and Tony Neal

Everyone in George’s family is a yeti. Everyone except George. George explores what it means to be a yeti, and what he will need to do to become one … and that’s when he realises he isn’t a yeti at all. George is a unicorn. A gentle story about self-discovery. 

I loved this book. George *knows* he is a unicorn, knows with conviction, and his family love and support him. It is a book about discovering who we are and learning that people will love and support us no matter how we identify. It is clearly a book which would be useful in early discussions about gender and sexuality. Without being about those things, it helps children to understand that knowing deep down who we are is OK, even if it comes as a surprise to our family. 

I liked the idea of being a yeti as a choice – while some act ‘yeti’ without considering it, George knows that just isn’t him. This would be a lovely introduction to discussions about gender. How much of being a boy or a girl is fixed, and how much is about choice? About what we have picked up and learned along the way? 

There isn’t a negative moment in the story. It is an accepting, inclusive book which encourages young children to accept people for who they are. 

I also adore the illustrations – think snow, think rainbows and think yetis teasing the people who venture up the mountains. 

If you are looking for a narrative of acceptance and self-discovery, this one is perfect. 

 

Thanks to Maverick Arts Press for my copy of Not Yet A Yeti. Opinions my own. 

Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Q&A: Author Matilda Woods

Q&A with author Matilda Woods.

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Set sail on an adventure to the sea and the stars. 

For years, Oona Bright has dreamed of her own adventures. While her father is away at sea, Oona reads stories about the fabled beast, the Nardoo. She stows away on a whaling boat and sets off in search of the truth. Is the Nardoo real? Will she ever find out?

I am delighted to welcome author Matilda Woods to my blog to talk about magic, the sea and how girls can have adventures too. 

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  • Tell us a little about The Girl, the Cat and the Navigator

The Girl, the Cat and the Navigator is about a girl called Oona who has always dreamed of going on a great adventure with her father who owns a whaling ship. Unfortunately, Oona’s father doesn’t think girls belong on ships: its too dangerous and wild and wet. To prove him wrong, Oona stows away when he sets out on the annual whaling hunt. Oona encounters all sorts of magical creatures on the hunt – some kind and some cruel. She also discovers a truth about her father which she never would have known if she had stayed on land. The story is set in an unnamed Nordic country in the 1900s and has elements of magical realism. It’s very much about taking chances, going after your dreams and being open to changing your mind about things as you grow older and see more of the world and the people (and creatures) in it.

  • Why does the sea play a huge part in your stories? Also, the setting is cold (and wet!), why did you choose that setting rather than a similar climate to Australia? 

I’ve always loved the sea and the connotations it has. For me, the sea makes me think of adventures, escape and going to new places. These have all been central elements of my first two books. I’m lucky (or, maybe, unlucky) to live in a part of Australia where we experience the extremes of all four seasons. We have really cold, wet and windy winters and summers so hot that even the blowflies slow down from the heat. I like to match each story with the season I think will be the best fit. So far, this has always been winter.

  • Oona is a girl trying to prove herself so she can take part in activities that are normally prescribed for boys/men – do you think you ever came up against these challenges as a young girl?

I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy. I can think of a few times when I didn’t do things because they were seen as too much of a “boy/man” type of activity. In school I wanted to study engineering but I would have been the only girl in the class so I studied textiles instead. I also wanted to play cricket but there weren’t enough girls to start a girls team and the boys team (and their coach) didn’t want a mixed gender team.  I think in both of those cases if I’d really wanted to pursue those options I could have done it, but I’m not sure if I was brave enough or passionate enough (about cricket and engineering) to fight for them.

  • Who are your favourite writers? What are your favourite books?

The first book I fell in love with was The Twits by Roald Dahl. I thought it was disgusting and funny and brilliant. Our librarian read it to the whole class. We had library lessons once a week so I always wanted the weekends to end faster so I could hear what happened next. When I started reading books myself I really enjoyed anything by Tamora Pierce and I also loved the Harry Potter books. I also went through a phase where I loved reading biographies and non-fiction books, especially ones about ancient history, anthropology and animals. I also love mysteries – especially those written by Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle.

  • How do you develop your characters? Are they based on real people/yourself?

Whenever I have an idea about a character – a name, trait, scene, physical description – I write it down in a notebook. When I’m developing a new story I flick through the notebook and pick all the ideas that I like. I group them together to form different characters. This is how I create the main characters in the story. Then, the secondary characters usually develop out of necessity e.g. in The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker I needed a character who would notice that Alberto was hiding a boy in his home. So, I created Rosa and Clara Finestra: two old ladies who are always spying on their neighbours over the back fence.

  • There is a sense of magic that underlies the seemingly real world that you have created. Did you choose to write a magical realism story or was this something that happened organically?

When I wrote my first book – The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker – I had never read anything in the genre of magical realism. In fact, I’d never even heard of that genre until someone said I wrote that type of story (and then I had to google the meaning to find out what it was). So in my first book that did happen organically. When I started writing my second book I was more aware of purposely making it fit into that genre. I really do love the genre – I love that it isn’t so far removed from reality that it’s all fantasy, and I love that it allows you to make impossible things happen within a world that feels real. 

 

Many thanks to Laura Smythe PR, Scholastic UK and Matilda Woods for making this Q&A possible.

 

Chat

Chat: Hibernation urge – how to go forward when all you want to do is crawl under a blanket.

Hibernation urge – five simple ways to feel better. 

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Adapt your routine as the days get colder.

September: Even those of us past our uni days invest in planners and highlighters.

January: Reading trackers, fitness monitors and every other type of goal setting under the sun.

What falls between is November. If you are currently huddled under a fleece-blanket and wishing you could lock yourself away from the rest of the world, know you are not alone. Welcome to the November-slump.

It hit me as Halloween approached.

Regular readers know I am editing a middle-grade manuscript. Since I returned from my trip South, I have been thinking about my writing beyond this project. The average number of manuscripts written ahead of publication is four. There won’t be any need for me to set resolutions in 2019 – the year will be about working through as many novel-sized stories as possible.

In the week of Halloween, I sat down to develop some ideas. Ten minutes later I was hit by the strangest feeling – I wanted a plot then and there or I was crawling under the covers with a family-sized box of Quality Streets and staying there until mid-April.

This attitude does not a story write.

 It was only when I returned to my social media that I figured it out. There was a prevalent mood across my Twitter feed. The wording of each tweet was slightly different – some said demotivated, others tired or in a slump but they were saying very nearly the same thing. The sky is darker, the nights colder and it is too early to put up the fairy-lights.

When I realised I was not alone, I changed my approach. November-slump would be better known as the hibernation-urge. It comes as surely as the desire to buy a box-file comes in September. Instead of working against hibernation-urge, I chose to embrace it.

That’s not to say I put on a onesie and locked the door. The Quality-Street-and-a-blanket plan could only be healthy as a short-term solution. What this mood tells us is it is time to pull out the fleece-lined boots, cook porridge for breakfast and take care of ourselves. It sounds indulgent but putting these changes in place now might mean a more productive and happier winter.

Here are five ways to embrace hibernation urge and take care of yourself this winter.

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Eat a warm breakfast:

Start the day as you mean to go on. My hot breakfast of choice is porridge – cook a batch at the weekend and you can microwave it each morning. Porridge can be dressed up with cinnamon, honey and raisins. Those flavours combined give me an instant boost and I am warmed to the tip.

 

Dress for the weather:

Fleece-lined boots, thermal leggings and winter-tights are my go-to clothes for keeping wrapped up outside the house. Evenings are about winter pyjamas and warm socks. Sort your wardrobe so you are wearing the right gear.

 

Keep hydrated:

As we crave sugary chocolate-drinks it can be easy to forget the most important thing – water. To keep motivated we need to drink enough water. Carry a bottle and aim to refill it several times a day.

 

Light the room:

String-lights. Candles. Sparkly lamps. Our spirits lift at Christmas and it is not all to do with the joy and goodwill. We add light to our homes and hang decorations like tinsel which sparkle as they reflect the light.

It may be too early for the tree but now is a good time to put out extra light. My friend bought me some kitty-shaped string lights for my birthday. I’m going to put them in a jar for some instant sparkle. 

Use scented products:

Scent is the sense we neglect most often despite the fact that smells we associate with particular things have the power to affect our mood. Smelling basil reminds me of holidays in the sun, while ginger and cinnamon remind me of making gingerbread ahead of Christmas.

Using ginger bath products or lighting a scented candle is an easy way to lift my mood.

Make a list of scents which remind you of a time when you felt comfortable then make a shopping list. Whether it is bath bombs, essential oils or scented candles, this could be a simple way to make yourself feel cosy and warm.

 

Have you experienced hibernation urge? What little things help you to keep on track in the winter? Let me know in the comments below.

Middle Grade Reviews

Two books about World War One

Reviews: Short titles about World War One. 

img_7515White Feather by Catherine And David MacPhail

The Great War is over but the grief has just begun. Tony’s brother Charlie did not return from the front. Instead of dying a hero’s death, Charlie was shot as a traitor for deserting his post. Tony can’t cope with the shame – something which isn’t helped by the white feathers which people hand to the family.

Charlie’s final letter contains a coded message. Tony sets out in search of answers and confronts the trauma faced by the boys and men on the Front.

This book shows the attitude towards desertion at the time of the war alongside the terrible reality – that men and boys came home traumatised from their experiences. I liked how the story drip-fed facts about the front. It also explored the difference in treatment between average soldiers and those of higher rank and wealth.

This would be a great book to read alongside Private Peaceful because it how the stigma of cowardice extended beyond the men shot to their families.

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IMG_E6956Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer

There’s a lot going on in Lily’s life. She’s struggling to give her best performance at fell running and her grandmother is changing as a result of Alzheimer’s. Then Lily finds the diaries of her great-great grandfather Ernest – a champion fell racer and messenger boy in World War One. On the day of the Armistice, Ernest was tasked with his most challenging run of all – to get a message to a platoon of soldiers in time to save their lives. His story inspires Lily to be her very best – in running and in friendship.

A wonderful story which focuses on a specific area of World War One – the boys who ran long distances to deliver messages when other forms of communication were down. It was a brilliant idea to tie this in with a story about fell running. It made the war narrative more accessible to young audiences – the horror of war is certainly shown, but part of the story takes place in the modern day, meaning that the war scenes don’t become overwhelming. I connected with Ernest more because I could imagine his home life.

The Alzheimer’s, too, was sensitively handled. I have seen grandparents deteriorate to Alzheimer’s and the emotions were spot-on – the frustration mixed with fear. The awareness that other members of your family might one day suffer the same illness. The uncertainty about whether what your loved one is saying is accurate. It was all there and balanced with Lily’s love and pride for her family.

 

Thanks to Barrington Stoke for copies of the books featured above. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Endling – The Last by Katherine Applegate

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Extract: 

And then I saw them.

All of them.

My mother.

My father. 

My siblings.

They were piled on the ground like discarded hides, blood pouring, white and pearly, soaking the leaves, eyes glassy and open, mouths open. Torn and stabbed.

They lay in a mound, as if they’d been too late to scatter, my parents on top, protecting as always. 

I ran. 

(Endling – The Last by Katherine Applegate. P45.) 

birdbreakSynopsis:

Humans are not the only intelligent species. Byx is a Dairne – one of the governing species. Dairne have been hunted for generations. When her pack is killed, Byx is forced to confront the possibility that she may be the last Dairne alive.

Joined by Tobble the wobbyk, and a girl who disguises herself as a boy, Byx sets off in search of the legendary haven which is said to protect and home other Dairne. As new friends and allies join her, she confronts a secret which may threaten every other creature in the world.

The first book in a new trilogy.

birdbreakReview:

An extraordinary middle-grade adventure which explores the way humans treat other animals. Set in a world which humans govern alongside other intelligent species, Katherine Applegate shows how the human urge to dominate leads to death and destruction.

Not all humans in the story are bad – some, like Khara, seek only to survive under the rule of the Murdano. Khara’s storyline explores gender roles and gender stereotyping. She disguises herself as a boy so she can use her gift for tracking in order to survive and send money home to her family.

The book is not solely about extinction – at its heart is the last remaining member of a species, trying to figure out what it means to be something which almost doesn’t exist. Anybody who remembers the news stories about Lonesome George – the last-known Pinta Island tortoise – will remember how he became a figurehead for the damage wrought by humans.

None of the characters are perfect – Khara initially holds Byx captive, and Byx herself has eaten Wobbyk. This makes the story feel more realistic and the themes more pressing -this is not about poor, innocent animals and nasty humans. It is about the difference between taking to survive and taking through greed and power.

Katherine Applegate writes the perfect scene – short and concise, giving the reader a little more information every time.

A wonderful addition to the canon of children’s books our place in the natural world. Empathising with Byx will make it easier for readers to empathise with other animals. This is an ambitious world but the fact that totally fictional species are made so believable is an achievement. I look forward to continuing the trilogy.

Feminist/Gender Equality · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Ladybird Tales Of Adventurous Girls

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Review: Ladybird Tales Of Adventurous Girls

Stories retold by – Julia Bruce 

Illustrators – Olga Baumert, Molley May, Kerry Hyndman, Hannah Tolson, Hannah Peck and Holly Hatam, 

 

Once upon a time there was a girl … 

Join six girls from around the world, in six separate stories, as they set off on an adventure and use their courage, strength, and intelligence to return safely home. 

This collection of bedtime stories features familiar tales, such as the Snow Queen, but the stories are told with a difference. Every story has a girl at the centre. Hansel and Gretel? Try Gretel and Hansel. It was Gretel who pushed the witch in the oven and saved her brother. Without spelling it out, the stories show readers that girls can be intelligent, brave and resourceful. 

It also features girls from around the world. It is so important for young readers to see that people from different cultures can encounter the same feelings and demonstrate the same skills. 

The book is a beautiful collection of fairy tales. It would make a lovely present for a younger child or a less-confident reader – the stories are short enough that nobody will lose patience and there is a full-colour illustration on every other page. 

A different illustrator was chosen to work on each story. This adds to the experience because without reading a single word each story has a unique feel. Every story has a decorative title spread and beautiful full-page illustrations. 

Not only is this a wonderful collection of fairy tales, it puts girls at the centre and shows how much they can do. This would be a wonderful book to keep on a bedside table or to share with a class in KS1/Lower KS2. 

 

Thanks to Ladybird Books for my copy of Ladybird Tales Of Adventurous Girls. Opinions my own.

 

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Hello World Animals by Nicola Edwards and L’Atelier Cartographik

Review: Hello World Animals by Nicola Edwards and L’Atelier Cartographik

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A lift-the-flap atlas which explores the wildlife by location, teaching readers simultaneously about wildlife and geography. 

The book is a large-format with thick cardboard pages. There is something exciting about holding a book this size. It demands that you settle down and get lost in its pages. Inside are eight double-page spreads: one for each continent and one introductory section.

img_7385The introduction explains that some animals have spread across the world because of their relationship with humans while others are so adaptable they can survive almost anywhere. This was an interesting start because it didn’t shy away from the fact that human activity has had an impact on wildlife. This section also introduces the seven continents, giving a hint about what is coming in the rest of the book. 

Each spread shows the map of one continent. Different animals are located on these maps, with information hidden under flaps. This interactive element will keep readers engaged and guessing what there might be to learn. Flaps also act as a great memory-game when readers are more familiar with the book. Around the maps are different fact files, with topics as varied as camouflage, the life-cycle of a butterfly and environmental crisis. 

Although the format is friendly for readers as young as four, the facts are in-depth enough that this book will satisfy much older readers and it will certainly keep the adults interested. 

A beautiful gift for any lover of wildlife or budding explorer and a wonderful way of learning more about our planet. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of Hello World Animals. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

The Trouble With Perfect by Helena Duggan

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Extract:

Violet felt a pang of something, deep in her stomach. Why had Boy lied to her? He said he had to go home. And whose bike had he handed to Conner? A thought formed in her head, but she shook it off. It couldn’t be Lucy’s. It just couldn’t be.

She decided to follow them. Maybe there was a good reason for this whole thing?

Maybe Conner knew something about the eye plants? Maybe he was helping Boy, and Boy couldn’t tell her because … well, she didn’t know why Boy couldn’t tell her anything. They’d never kept secrets before – at least none that she knew about.

(The Trouble With Perfect by Helena Duggan. P61.)

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Synopsis:

It’s no longer Perfect. Now it’s just Town.

Perfectionists and No-man’s landers have been living alongside each other in a unified town. There are no longer any rules to follow – people can be themselves and live without fear of being taken from their families.

Then strange things start to happen in Town.

First objects go missing, then children. Violet’s friend Boy is blamed, and old questions arise about whether anyone who is not absolutely perfect is fit to live alongside others. Violet confronts Boy, but he insists he has nothing to do with the disappearances. Why is Boy lying?

To find out what is going on, Violet must confront a terrible monster and figures from Town’s past.

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Review:

Compelling and original, The Trouble With Perfect is a fantasy story which reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones. It follows on from A Place Called Perfect. Thanks to a handy catch-up guide at the front, it is possible to read the story if you haven’t read book one, but only if you are happy for spoilers.

The main theme of the book is acceptance. People who do not conform to one idea of normal, to one standard, have previously been expelled from the town and forced to live in a place where they are invisible. There could be no better metaphor for the attitude some people take towards mental illness. Towards neurodivergence. The book satirises conservative attitudes, including the idea of labelling and cutting up society into subgroups and shutting others away from their families and friends. It also shows how people with strong communication skills can turn others against their neighbours. Without using labels, it opens a conversation about empathy, tolerance and respecting everyone in society.

The monster storyline was very Frankenstein, although it has been reimagined to fit into this setting. This was an apposite reference – Frankenstein’s monster wanted human dignity.

I loved the setting – Town is almost a contemporary setting, except for the eye-plants which act as security devices and the creepy passages in the graveyard. It’s apparent normality – the committees and rules and day-to-day events – make the stranger aspects stand out.

A wonderful read which encourages readers to challenge the world around them and to respect everybody, not just the people laying down the rules. These themes are brought to live through a gripping adventure. I am looking forward to book three.

 

Thanks to Usborne Publishing for my copy of The Trouble With Perfect. Opinions my own.