Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Maker Of Monsters by Lorraine Gregory

Review: The Maker Of Monsters by Lorraine Gregory

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Review:

The creature clutches at his head with his huge hands and lets out a blood-freezing cry, showing off the many rows of enormous serrated white teeth which fill his massive jaws. 

‘You will follow my orders or suffer the consequences!’ Lord Macawber insists, holding the locket with one hand and extending his other palm out towards his creation. 

(The Maker Of Monsters by Lorraine Gregory. P37.) 

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Synopsis:

Brat has lived in the castle since he was small, caring for all the monsters that his master has created. Some of the monsters are kind, but recently they’ve become scary and dangerous. Lord Macawber’s plan is to build a monster army and rescue his daughter, but one day the monsters get out of control and turn on their creator.

Only Brat can escape into the city and warn the other people of the danger but do this he must overcome the feeling that he is hopeless.

The world outside the castle may be as brutal as the one inside.

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Review:

A fantasy story which explores the definition of the word monster.

Like Dr Frankenstein, Lord Macawber creates monsters from body parts. His reasoning is that his daughter was taken from him and he is entitled to revenge. And certainly the man he is seeking to harm has done some terrible things. The novel explores whether Lord Macawber’s reaction is justified when other people who have been harmed are looking to find their own place in the world without endangering others.

Lord Macawber shows no respect for the creatures he creates. His early creatures, whose personalities were too kind for the job, are treated as scrap. Brat, whose life Macawber sees as worthless compared to that of his daughter, is treated as a slave whose life is disposable. However, it is Brat who acts with humanity, warning the other people of the danger. The theme of prejudice recurs throughout the book. Brat and his monster friends have learned that they are worthless, but eventually they question what they have always been told and find new ways to define themselves.

The setting is spook-tacular. A crumbling castle over the sea. A community of outcasts. A walled city with hidden tunnels. This is a wonderful landscape to adventure through and all the large buildings serve to make Brat appear smaller and even less significant than he feels.

Although this is short it has real depth and an extraordinary narrative which balances various subplots and settings. It would be wonderful for older readers after something shorter.

A wonderful fantasy which pays tribute to Frankenstein but brings something new and entirely magical of its own.

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my gifted copy of The Maker Of Monsters. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Field Trip To The Moon by John Hare and Jeanne Willis

Review: Field Trip To The Moon by John Hare and Jeanne Willis

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The aliens watch while a group of children is guided around the moon. They stick together for safety … all except one boy who slips away to draw pictures of what he sees. When he gets left behind, the aliens creep out to watch him, and together they add some colour to the moon. 

A story of friendship, exploration and caring for the places we visit. 

With the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing in July 2019, a whole spate of books has been published, from fact files to real-life stories of space scientists to stories set in outer space. This book falls into the latter category, imaging what a school trip or day out might look like if we could travel en-masse into space. 

The story is told in rhyme and balances both the gravitas of major exploration and the light excitement of a day trip. The one child who does their own thing will be familiar to anybody who has lead a group of children outdoors (or been a child on a school trip) and I was pleased to see the story showing that this can be lead by curiosity rather than trouble. Although the boy is in the wrong, he is the only person who takes enough time to look back and admire the view of the earth. 

When the aliens come out, the real fun begins. 

Their world is grey, and they have never seen so many colours as the boy holds in his crayon packet. A new game begins and soon the boy is less frightened about being left behind. 

The illustrations have a futuristic feel to them, and the reader is always looking forwards on to the moon landscape as if they were standing up close to the boy. This sense of being right there makes the story even more exciting. 

This would be a lovely story to get readers interested in the Moon anniversary and to help them imagine where the future of space travel might lie. 

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for my gifted copy. Opinions my own.

Days Out

Day Out: Seven Stories – The National Centre For Children’s Books. (Newcastle Upon Tyne).

Day Out: Seven Stories – The National Centre For Children’s Books. (Newcastle Upon Tyne).

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Material from David Almond’s notebooks

About Seven Stories

Imagine a place which celebrates children’s literature, illustration and all forms of creativity.

Seven Stories in Newcastle is home to the biggest archive of material related to children’s literature in the UK. It also has a visitor centre which host exhibitions, author visits and creative activity of all kinds.

Exhibitions 

My reason for visiting was to see the exhibition about David Almond’s work, Where Your Wings Were. I’ve loved Almond’s work since childhood, and every time I return to one of his stories I gain something new about creativity and humankind. His talks on art and the creative process have also influenced my writing and encouraged me to think deeper about the role writing plays in my life.

The exhibition explored different elements of Almond’s work, including the magic which exists alongside the everyday and the different settings around Newcastle.

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Artwork by David McKee

I was delighted to find that an exhibition of David McKee’s artwork was on display at the same time. Elmer is another childhood favourite. My mum, sister and I read the stories together at bedtime. Seeing so many of the original illustrations on display made me think about McKee’s use of colour and space. The exhibition explored this, and also looked at McKee’s recurring themes of tolerance and letting everyone be free to be themselves.

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A further gallery was dedicated to Aliens Love Underpants. This was very much a play space and we were impressed by the different elements of the book which had been picked out and recreated for visitors to explore and reenact. 

Thoughts after visiting 

Seven Stories is also a place where everybody is welcome. Sensory trails run alongside ordinary exhibitions. Adult dressing-up clothes hang alongside those for children. Quiet spaces are clearly signposted. Most especially, this is a space where families of all shapes and sizes are welcome. Seven Stories is the one place I have visited where it feels like nobody needs to explain themselves. Everyone can join in and everyone is welcome.

The centre understands how writing, drawing, dressing-up and play are connected. How one form of creativity leads to another. It is special to be in a place which encourages all kinds of art and expression.

I came away feeling as if my batteries had been recharged. Not only was I excited to return to my writing projects, but I also wanted to play with different types of art.

Look forward to a return visit at the first opportunity.

 

Louise Nettleton

 

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Suffragette by David Roberts [Shortlisted for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Award]

Review: Suffragette by David Roberts [Shortlisted for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Award]

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The battle for the vote was one of the most important campaigns fought in the vote for gender equality. Who were the women who raised their voices against the injustices of the political system? How did they change the law and give women a voice? 

Suffragette begins in the 1800s and follows their story from the formation of campaign groups through to the Equal Franchise Act of 1928.

With chapters of one or two pages and beautiful illustrations, this book takes one of the most exciting parts of history away from dull textbooks and turns it into something which everyone wants to read about. 

img_9143David Robert’s illustrations are filled with character. The people look as if they could march off the pages and enact their stories in front of our eyes. From the Bryant And May match girls, whose faces are full of stoical determination, to the women fending off police officers in the Black Friday protests, the action and facial expressions combine to make the reader feel that history is coming alive. 

The book is packed with information. It would make a lovely reference book, suitable for an older reader looking to improve their understanding of history, but it is also a great introduction to the topic. Read chronologically, it charts a story of political change. 

With the anniversary of the 1918 victory (when some women in the UK were granted the vote for the first time) over, the question is what relevance do the suffragettes hold in our lives today. The book’s answers are solid. Their campaigns did not, as so many people believe, end inequality among genders. We still need to question our ideas of what it means to be a man, a woman or of any gender at all. The book also shows how hard women fought for their victory, and to have their opinions acknowledged. Rights are difficult to win. 

The book’s place on the CILIP Kate Greenaway shortlist couldn’t come at a more relevant time. With political views at the front of the news, it is encouraging to know that previous generations have won hard battles. 

A wonderful introduction to an important topic, which deserves a place on every shelf. 

 

Louise Nettleton

 

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The winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway medal is announced on 18th June 2019. Learn more and keep up with news of the awards on the official website.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books and Riot Communications for my gifted copy of the book. Opinions my own.

blog tour · Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Blog Tour: Q&A with Kathryn Evans, author of Beauty Sleep.

Blog Tour: Q&A with Kathryn Evans, author of Beauty Sleep

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About Beauty Sleep

What happens when you wake up and find that forty years have passed? Do all sleeping beauties live happily ever after?

9781474954877-beauty-sleep-fc-wipIt was supposed to be the perfect solution. Laura was dying. The only chance to save her was to freeze her until medical science progressed enough for her to be cured. 

How would it really feel to wake up and find that forty years have passed? Laura not only deals with the trauma of building a new life. She is left with the mystery of her old one. 

If teenagers being frozen in time sounds like the stuff of sci-fi, you’ve missed the news stories about cryonics. It is now possible – for a large fee – for a body or a brain to be preserved until such time as the condition which killed it can be cured. There is no evidence that this will be certain. However, in 2016, a teenage girl’s dying wishes to have her body preserved made headlines. 

These kind of news stories open up a whole series of ‘what ifs’ which lead to stories. What if a girl in a similar situation didn’t know who she had been? What if some of her family were still alive? 

The questions raised about the ethics of the companies offering these services also provide rich material for storytellers.

I was delighted to be offered an opportunity to ask Kathryn Evans some questions and her answers have made me desperate to finish the book. Thanks to Kathryn for your time, and to Jessica at Usbourne for arranging this opportunity. 

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Q&A with Kathryn Evans

Was your story inspired more by Sleeping Beauty or by scientific progress?

I guess its scientific progress – I wanted to tell a story that looked at how change in modern life impacts on young people. By having Laura traverse two time periods while she was still a teenager, I was able to do that in a unique way. Cryogenics and the Sleeping Beauty story are just an obvious fit to me.

 

 How did you research Laura’s experience of returning to society forty years from when she went to sleep?

Have any real-life experiences come close to this? I did a lot of research into amnesia but there really wasn’t anything comparable to Laura’s experience. There are stories about people recovering from comas but their lives after the miracle of recovery are rarely documented in the public sphere. I used my own experience of the 1980’s and projected how I’d feel if I hadn’t lived through all the changes that have happened but was suddenly presented with them.

 

How do you imagine being a teenager at the point of going to sleep would shape Laura’s experience?

As a teenager, you expect to have your whole life ahead of you and suddenly, that door closes, and you don’t have any idea if you’ll survive beyond the next hour. It was so sad writing those scenes – not just because of Laura’s fears for herself but her for her little brother too. The one thing she did have was hope – hope that they’d be woken up. As she says, it was that, or die.

 

Fairy tales often have a darker element to the story. What is the darker side of Beauty Sleep?

Without any spoilers? That’s a hard one to answer – let’s just say I thought a lot about how good citizens could stand by in a holocaust and watch their friends and neighbours be victimised. About how we can ignore the harm that comes to others for our own benefit as long as we don’t have to see it in front of us. About how easily we learn to ignore the suffering of others if it’s an inconvenience to us.

 

With the chance to live again, Laura loses her old life. How much of our identity is formed by the people and places around us?

It’s everything – she’s suddenly rootless but she learns that to throw down new roots and that some of those tap into memories. Memory is a powerful way to hold onto people you’ve physically lost.

 

Aside from personal things like family and friends, what would you miss most if you woke up in the future? 

Aside from friends and family, it would depend on the world I woke up in. In a world without books, it would be books. In a world ravaged by disease, it’d be antibiotics. In a world with a climate damaged beyond repair it would be balmy spring days and birds singing and polar bears on ice caps. This is the problem with asking a writer a ‘what if’ kind of question, my brain is now in overdrive!

 

Q&A arranged as part of a promotional blog tour. Opinions my own. Thanks to Usborne Books for arranging this and for sending a copy of the book.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Kat Wolfe Takes The Case by Lauren St John

Review: Kat Wolfe Takes The Case by Lauren St John

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Extract:

‘And not just any dragon,’ said her father. ‘If I’m not mistaken, it’s a two-hundred-million-years-old dracoraptor, breathing fire across the ages. It’s so perfectly preserved that one could almost believe it capable of springing from its sandstone tomb to hunt again.’ 

(Kat Wolfe Takes The Case by Lauren St John. P45.) 

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Synopsis:

A pair of Hollywood actors arrive in Bluebell Bay, a strange explosion causes a cliff slide and a rare dragon fossil is unearthed on the beach. Kat Wolfe and Harper Lamb are thrilled by all the exciting things happening in their local area.

Then an apparently innocent man confesses to the murder of his old friend. The girls begin investigating the death and uncover a whole web of dangerous secrets.

Meanwhile, a series of sheep attacks put Kat’s wild cat Tiny in trouble and he is threatened by an animal control officer. Can Kat and Harper solve the mystery and save Tiny before it is too late?

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Review:

The second book in the Wolf & Lamb Mysteries series brings together a huge number of strange situations and ends in a conclusion which is both satisfying and brilliant in that it offers huge potential for the rest of the series. A new Lauren St John story is always exciting and this book is no exception. With her trademark mix of environmental narratives, Famous Five fluffiness and modern-day technology, Lauren St John has written a page-turner.

Kat Wolfe and Harper Lamb met in the first book. With Harper’s coding and language skills and Kat’s intuition and love of animals, the girls were already a strong team. Add Edith, a librarian for life, and new character Kai and the range of skills is formidable.

Kai’s own story builds across the story without distracting us from the main action. During the introduction, we learn that his father, a Chinese herbalist, has been threatened by masked men. Kai’s own quest puts him in touch with Harper and Kat.

As well as strong themes about caring for the world, this book shows how preconceived ideas and prejudice cause people to make uninformed judgments. This is about the good guys picking on good people, and Kat and Harper are as guilty of it as anyone else. When they are called out by their friend Edith, they face up to it admirably and then Kat starts seeing it everywhere. Fear of homeless people, unkindness towards stay dogs and assumptions about a bright young man who dropped out of education. With every person who makes a poorly informed judgement, these characters suffer another setback. Themes like this have never been more important in children’s literature. With politicians, news outlets and policies spouting discrimination, change needs to come from the bottom up. We will never fight prejudice and hate crime until we face up to the problems caused by basically good people making casual statements.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for my gifted copy. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

The Day War Came by Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb

The Day War Came by Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb

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Then after lunch war came. 

A little girl from a happy family is having an ordinary day at school when her world is torn apart. Her town is turned to rubble and she is left alone. She runs, then joins a group of people to walk for miles and miles, and to travel over the sea in a dangerous boat. 

She’s supposed to have left the war behind but it is everywhere. In the stares people give her. In the closed doors. In the teacher who won’t let her join in with the local school. 

This book was inspired by a true story of a child refused entry to a school because there wasn’t a chair for her to sit on. In the days after this story broke, people posted pictures of empty chairs in solidarity with the children who had been refused an education. The book ends on a happier note, with the children carrying their chairs out in protest and setting up school in a space where anyone was welcome to join in. In the book as in life, the younger generation offers hope from the prejudices of the adult world. 

Where many picture books about the current crisis tell the story in a way which allows children to fill the gaps with their own knowledge, this book doesn’t shy away from the realities of war. It shows explosions, loss and dangerous journeys across the sea. It would be a brilliant book to read with older children and young adults, as it is very visual but ends on a note of hope that the rest of the world might open its hearts. 

The illustrations show how, although she walks through some leafy and beautiful places, the little girl falls back into places of darkness and despair. The dark corner she makes a bed in later in the book mirrors the darkness of the initial explosion. This touching story reminds us that war starts in one place but its effects last long after. 

This book is on the CILIP Kate Greenaway shortlist and it is a title which is both relevant to this year and likely to encourage empathy. As well as the extraordinary illustrations and moving text, it is a tale of our times. 

A book which shows how compassion and open arms can make a difference to people in desperate situations. 

 

Louise Nettleton

 

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The winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway medal is announced on 18th June 2019. Learn more and keep up with news of the awards on the official website.

 

Thanks to Walker Books and Riot Communications for my gifted copy of The Day War Came. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Lamb Who Came For Dinner and The Wolves Who Came For Dinner by Steve Smallman and Joélle Dreidemy

Review: The Lamb Who Came For Dinner and The Wolves Who Came For Dinner by Steve Smallman and Joélle Dreidemy

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One night a wolf is hungry and he fancies a nice hotpot. Just at that moment, a lamb knocks at the door. 

img_8611So begins the tale of Wolf and his friend, who wins over his heart and takes the name Hotpot. It is a story of unexpected friendship, and Wolf finds himself overcome with the same love and affection of any new parent. At times he looks baffled by his own feelings. 

The second story sees a group of forest creatures ganging up on the wolves when they are certain Hotpot must be in danger. Their preconceived ideas about how wolves behave turn them into vigilantes who are eventually faced down and invited in for a hot drink and storytime. 

The books turn the fairytale obvious on its head and challenge the reader to think a bit harder about how we expect certain characters to behave. 

Hotpot is a ridiculously irresistible character with her big round eyes and fluffy fleece. Like many tiny people, she is filled with a big determination and is unafraid to face down adults who have it all wrong. 

The characters’ expressions are very realistic and at times theatrical, making this a fun read as we know their feelings first and predict how they might act next.

Hotpot and Wolf are as memorable as Mouse and Gruffalo. They are one of those picturebook duos whose contrast makes them brilliant in a story. Looking forward to more from this world. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my gifted books. Opinions my own.

Guest Post

Blog Tour: In The Shadow Of Heroes by Nicholas Bowling

Blog Tour: In The Shadow Of Heroes by Nicholas Bowling

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About In The Shadow Of Heroes

Emperor Nero has decreed that he shall have The Golden Fleece of Greek mythology, and nothing will stand in his way. 

When scholar Tullus goes missing, his slave Cadmus knows he must go after him. When a girl called Tog turns up with a secret message, the pair set out to help Tullus on a quest which will take them to the edges of the Roman Empire and force them to question what is reality and what is a myth. 

One of my favourite subjects at school was Latin. Both the language itself and the stories we learned about Roman culture. I thought at once of a Classics teacher when I began this story and was delighted to find out that Bowling is a Latin teacher and a classics graduate. His interest in the past and in the myths of those times is all over his work. Cadmus and Tog behave in ways which are realistic for their times and are fully engaging to the modern audience. 

The quest opens up an amazing world where the objects from Greek mythology are up for grabs. I always think it is interesting to imagine how mythological items would be abused by people in power. 

I am delighted to welcome Nicholas Bowling to my blog. He has written a guest piece which explains how Nero (a legendary figure himself) had an interest in mythology. 

Thanks to Laura Smythe PR for arranging this opportunity, and to Nicholas for your time. 

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The Myth of Nero by Nicholas Bowling. 

In 69 AD, reports spread through Greece and Asia minor that the Roman Emperor Nero had arrived on the island of Kythnos. He had robbed traders, had armed slaves for an insurrection and had ousted the Roman commander. The arrival of the Emperor anywhere in his empire was bound to cause anxiety to the locals, regardless of his behaviour. This instance was particularly troubling, though, because Nero had killed himself the previous year.

In all there were three “Pseudo-Neros” who came out of the woodwork following his death. Oracles and historians alike spoke of the “Nero Redivivus” legend, in which the monster returned from hiding to wage war on the empire he had once ruled. St Augustine and the early Christians foretold his return as late as the 5th century, and went so far as to label him the Antichrist. Such was the cruelty, decadence and downright weirdness of Nero’s reign, he had already become an almost mythical character within his own lifetime; once he was dead, the myth took on a life of its own. Nowadays the name “Nero” is still a byword for tyranny.

Not only did Nero become a myth himself, but he also had a fascinating relationship with myth while he was alive. He was obsessed with Greek culture and art, in particular with poetry and singing. In fact, he fancied himself the greatest singer who had ever lived, Apollo reborn, and – to the great shame of Rome – participated in poetry recitals dressed as the god himself. The famous story of him singing about the fall of Troy while the Great Fire of Rome raged around him is probably apocryphal but still gives an insight into how he was perceived by his subjects. In Nero’s deluded mind, reality and fiction seemed to blur. The historian Suetonius called him “scaenicus imperator” – “the emperor of the stage”, whose whole life seemed to be a story he was enacting.

When it came to writing “In the Shadow of Heroes,” Nero was a gift of a character – in fact, he was the starting point for the whole thing. The book re-examines myths we think we know and asks readers to imagine that those stories really took place, and left real, tangible objects for us to find. As a choice of antagonist, who better than Nero: the mythical bogey-man who couldn’t tell the difference between story and reality?

 

IN THE SHADOW OF HEROES by Nicholas Bowling out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)

Find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com

Follow Nicholas Bowling on twitter @thenickbowling

 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Slow Samson by Bethany Christou

Review: Slow Samson by Bethany Christou

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Samson the sloth is slow. He is invited to a lot of parties, but the trouble is by the time he gets there he is hours too late. He misses out on everything. Sorry to always miss his friends, he becomes unhappy, but Samson’s friends have a plan. The next time there is a party, they put the wrong time on his invite to give him an extra two hours to get there. 

A lovely story about friendship and the benefits of adjusting to meet everyone’s needs. 

Too often, when we plan, we plan for the majority. The able. What about the people who just can’t meet certain criteria? Be it a tricky time, an inaccessible place or a set of instructions which someone finds difficult to follow, there are so many reasons why one or two people in a group might be left behind. 

When we ask them to fulfill the same criteria as the majority, they end up exhausted. Poor Samson tries and tries to get to those parties, and sometimes he even makes the end, but he’s tired out from the dash, miserable to have failed yet again and out of the loop with what’s happening. What should we do? Accuse him of not trying? But Samson does try. Tirelessly. 

Samson’s friends know better. They tweak his invitation so that he gives himself extra time to get there. 

The ending shows how happy the group is to be together. All together. No exclusion.  

A cute story about a slow sloth and a string of parties also shows us that it can take a bit of extra thinking to meet the needs of a whole group. 

Use of colour shows how miserable Samson feels on his own, and how happy everyone is to enjoy the party at the end.

 A lovely story with a big heart. 

 

Thanks to Templar Books for my gifted copy of Slow Samson. Opinions my own.