Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Alice’s Wonderland Tea Party by Poppy Bishop and Laura Brenlla.

Review: Alice’s Wonderland Tea Party by Poppy Bishop and Laura Brenlla.

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Alice wants to host the perfect tea party. Not a party with tricks and jokes. Not an upside down party with upside down cake. Just a perfectly ordinary perfect party. Unfortunately, Wonderland specialises in the extraordinary.

The tea party scene is one of the most famous from across Lewis Caroll’s works. With more than a little help from Walt Disney, whose Very Merry Unbirthday song is memorably catchy, the Hatter’s Tea Party has proved to be an enduring legend. What we often forget is Alice’s frustration as she searches frantically for the stable and ordinary.

Hosting a tea party in Wonderland is quite a challenge. With magic and mayhem around every corner, the residents must be a tricky bunch to impress. In this story, while Alice’s efforts are thwarted, the residents pull together to produce a party which nobody will forget. The book introduces some of our favourite Wonderland characters – from the Hatter and the Hare to characters from the original text like the Duchess. Alice In Wonderland is one of those stories which is so popular that readers are likely to know about it before they ever encounter the book and enjoyable picture books like this bring Wonderland to life. 

The themes will be relatable to many, especially at this time of year when sometimes we just want to organise things without other people and their not-so-great ideas getting in the way. Learning to compromise – and finding space to share our own ideas – can be a difficult balance. This story teaches us that, frustrating though other people can be, their ideas can bring a new and unexpected type of magic. 

The design is superb too, with flaps of every shape and size and cut-out details. The illustrations strike a balance between the quirky and the cute, making characters seem out of this world without being at all scary. Likewise, there is a mix of pastel and navy backgrounds. 

This will be a hit with fans of Wonderland and with anyone who has ever felt the frustration of other people being anything other than perfect. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of Alice’s Wonderland Tea Party. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Shadows Of Winterspell by Amy Wilson.

Review: Shadows Of Winterspell by Amy Wilson.

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Extract:

There’s a magical boundary, just at the point where our fence divides the garden from the green marshland that leads to Winterspell, and the creatures in the forest don’t cross it, but sometimes I hear them at night, faint whispers of parties, the clamour of hooves, the high-pitched call of fierce, flying things. 

(Shadows Of Winterspell by Amy Wilson. P8.)

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Synopsis:

Stella is lonely and she is tired of hiding. She has lived in fear of Winterspell Forest for too long, kept safe from its shadows by her ghost Nan’s rules. Now Stella is determined that she is putting herself out there. And that begins with going to school.

Unfortunately, she happens to pick just the sort of school her Nan would be afraid of – one where students with any hint of magic share special lessons in Fae history and craft once a week after school. It is here that Stella first hears the legend of The Lost Prince and realises that there is more to her own family story than her Nan ever let on.

The darkness which holds Winterspell was created by Stella’s father, the Shadowking, and only Stella can release the forest from its hold.

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Review:

Amy Wilson, the author of three previous novels, is back with another lyrical fantasy. Her work has impressed me over the years for its understated magic systems and its clear attention to language. Winterspell is no different.

The other thing which Wilson’s novels have held in common is that the protagonists often have a complex relationship with school. They rarely shun education and learning, but often don’t quite fit inside the system. This book is a little different in that Stella desperately wants to go to school. She loves making friends and socialising but her right to access this is complicated by her family history and the fae politics of Winterspell. Wilson’s work shows that fitting in can be a challenge but by being unafraid we can gain so very much from other people.

While the magic of this world was more conventional than in, say, A Faraway Magic, Wilson used it to create something very much her own. This is a world of faeries and centaurs and sprites. It is also a world held under the shadow magic of a raging king.  Throughout the book, Top-Trumps style card pages help the reader to keep track of the different inhabitants of the forest and to compare their different magical powers.

Friendship and family play an important part in the story. My favourite character this time was Nan, who has lingered as a ghost to raise her grandchild. From the very first page, I cared deeply about Nan’s connections to the world and wanted to know whether she would remain beyond the story to continue raising her grandchild. I am currently grieving for my mother and I forever berate myself for not meeting my mother’s standards in day-to-day tasks. So often I know what she would say without thinking. It made the idea of being raised by a ghost not only relatable but intriguing.

The language in this book is, as ever, rhythmic and beautiful. It feels as if the story itself is a form of magic that conjures the world of Winterspell into being.

An exciting and beautiful story. Amy Wilson’s work continues to be imaginative and creative and every new novel is a treat.

 

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

Non-Fiction

Review: Rebel Dogs! Heroic Tales Of Trusty Hounds by Kimberlie Hamilton.

 

Review: Rebel Dogs! Heroic Tales Of Trusty Hounds by Kimberlie Hamilton.

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Wow – bow-wow wow, in fact. This book is packed with tales of history’s most heroic hounds. You’ve heard about Rebel Girls. Now it is time to acknowledge the rebel dogs. 

Rebel Dogs follows on from the surge of interest in real-life stories, especially stories about the great and extraordinary. This year, tales about our animal friends have been added to the shelves. Rebel Dogs tells the stories of dogs such as Trakar, the 9/11 search and rescue hero, Aussie the penguin protector, and Mari, who helped an elderly man escape from an earthquake. 

From dogs whose faces are widely known (like Laika the space dog) to dogs whose stories have rarely been told, this book is filled with stories of our canine companions. I was particularly interested in the story about a dog called Robot who discovered a prehistoric cave. This was a tale I had never heard and it would be a rich source of inspiration for anyone looking to write something creative. 

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Our fellow animals are capable of more than some people know. Stories like these are reminders that our interactions with other animals can be moving and extraordinary, and that they deserve as much respsect on a daily basis as our human friends. 

The book is made extra-informative with timelines and snippets of information about other well-known dogs. It is also beautifully illustrated with contributions from an entire team of illustrators. These illustrators are credited at the back of the book with a little snippet about their careers and lives. 

Young readers are often especially inclined to pick up a book if it is about their favourite animal friends, so there is space for this kind of non-fiction any day of the year. The perfect present for a dog lover this Christmas. 

 

Thanks to Scholastic LTD for my copy of Rebel Dogs! Heroic Tales Of Trusty Hounds. Opinions my own.

illustrated · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland & Through The Looking Glass. Illustrated by MinaLima.

Review: Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland & Through The Looking Glass. Illustrated by MinaLima.

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‘What is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’

Alice would, I feel certain, approve of this edition of her tale. There are pictures and graphics and a wealth of patterns. The Mina Lima classics range has become something of a cult hit in the book community and they also make the most beautiful Christmas presents known to bookish kind. 

MinaLima is a design studio based in London. Best known for their contribution to the Harry Potter films (look out for the Daily Prophets and Quibblers and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes logo), their iconic style and meticulous attention to detail make their work instantly recognisable to their many fans. My favourite aspect is their distincitve use of pattern. 

What makes their work so suited to Alice In Wonderland? 

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Anyone who is familiar with previous editions of Alice will be aware that – with several ntoable exceptions – it is often perceived as a mildly scary story. Think of Tim Burton’s films or the seminal work of Sir John Tenniel. While the book is never portrayed as a horror, the darker side of Wonderland often comes out in the artwork. MinaLima’s editon builds on this with a sharp-clawed Cheshire Cat, thorned plants and the scariest card people since Tenniel’s edition. 

Interactive elements include fold-outs and tabs and lavishly-illustrated game boards. This is not only a book but a fully immersive Wonderland experience. 

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It is always a pleasure to revisit classic texts. Too often we think we are familiar with these stories because they have been retold and animated and become part of our pop-culture. Going back to the original prose teaches us more about the world than anything else ever could and a beautiful gift edition is a perfect reason to dive back into the story. 

I own the MinaLima Peter Pan and spent Christmas 2015 enthralled by the detail, and drinking in the story as a result. Alice In Wonderland & Through The Looking-Glass lives up to the high MinaLima standards and I expect it to be popular this holiday season. 

 

Thanks to Antonia Wilkinson PR and Harper Collins Publishers for my copy of Alice In Wonderland & Through The Looking-Glass (Illustrated by MinaLima). Opinions my own. 

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Greta And The Giants by Zoë Tucker and Zoë Persico.

Review: Greta And The Giants by Zoë Tucker and Zoë Persico.

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Her name was Greta. She lived in a beautiful forest filled with animals. The giants had always been there, but they had stopped caring about the forest. They chopped down the trees and built cities to generate money. Luckily Greta wasn’t daunted by their size. 

 For years everyone has known that the climate is in terrible peril but too many people have found it easy to wave this fact away rather than sacrifice their own comfort. It took one voice to remain strong. One person to point out – regardless of the response she met – that saving our world was more important than capitalism. 

And suddenly other people felt bold enough to join in. 

That person was, of course, Greta Thunberg, and she has become an icon not only for her generation but of our times. She and other young eco-warriors have moved the conversation about the climate crisis to a new level. 

It is what the politicians and major broadcasters and other giants of our world failed to do. 

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What Greta Thunberg proved was that if every small voice speaks a bit louder the world starts to listen. Her school strike hit adults where it hurt because they had to admit that, while the loss of education was a serious issue, the children had a valid and urgent message. Books like this one, aimed at young readers, remind us that no voice is too small to make a difference. Stand a little higher, shout a little louder and someone somewhere will listen. 

I am delighted to see books and media for children about environmental issues. I was fascinated by these issues at twelve or thirteen but there was nothing aimed at children or teenagers. It was too easy for my peers to dismiss something they only heard about in a couple of science or PSHE lessons. If children grow up with books that reflect what is happening, they will respond in a more positive and informed way than any previous generation. 

 The illustrations in this book are like a modern take on a traditional fairy tale anthology. With cooking pots and leafy forests and little people taking on the giants, this could be a tale as old as time. Except that it is happening here and now and there are some cities and bright modern raincoats to prove it. 

This story could be told over and over again until readers are familiar with its morals and that is what makes it stand out amongst the sudden rush of books about the environment. It is relatable and memorable and, although it is quick to tell, it raises some big issues which will take a lifetime to learn about. 

 

Thanks to Frances Lincoln Children’s Books (in association with Greenpeace) for my copy of Greta And The Giants. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Kindness Grows by Britta Teckentrup.

Review: Kindness Grows by Britta Teckentrup.

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Sometimes a crack grows between people. Maybe it began with a mean word, or anger, or a selfish gesture. It doesn’t matter. The point is, sometimes in life we experience damaged relationships. It can be difficult to know how to go forward. 

Kindness Grows uses metaphors – the crack caused by unkind actions and a tree that grows and flourishes when it is nurtured with kindness – to consider and compare the effect our actions can have on our relationships with other people. It uses double-page spreads to compare the crack on the left-hand page with the tree on the right. The basic principle is that healing begins with a kind action. 

With cutaway details and striking illustrations, this would be a lovely book to introduce readers to the concept that actions have consequences and that our relationships with other people depend on thinking about the way our behaviour might make them feel. 

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This book offers a very visual way to approach conversations about hurt and making up. Sometimes it can be hard to understand why another person is upset with us, and getting back to the root of our words and actions can help us to empathise with how they might be feeling. The same pattern which creates the crack on the left-hand pages becomes a tree trunk on the right. This offers a lovely way to help younger people think about hurt. They might begin by asking questions such as ‘is there a crack?’ ‘how did it appear?’ and ‘how do I turn it into something beautiful again?’  

The book looks at different scenarios, from refusing to play together to not working as a team and offers possible solutions on the right-hand side. It also touches on the possibility of a crack that can’t be mended – this would make an interesting discussion about how we can be certain of our own kindness and redirect it towards other parts of our life. 

A lovely book to help in those moments when we can’t figure out how a divide has grown between ourselves and another person. Remembering that kindness is the way forward is a beautiful place to start. 

 

 Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of Kindness Grows. Opinions my own. 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith.

Review: The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith.

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‘…there is nothing – absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’ 

So begins the meeting between Mole and the Water Rat and one of the most famous scenes in children’s literature. Kenneth Grahame captured something idyllic and many people assume the book is a bit of light-hearted escapism. However, there is a threat to Ratty and Mole’s world. The weasels from the wild woods are encroaching on the Riverbank and unless Ratty and Mole can get the eccentric landowner to behave the days of messing about in boats may be lost for good. 

And so the other best-known part of the story is introduced – Mr Toad. 

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Mr Toad’s escapades and misadventures with caravans and race cars are so well known that even people who have never touched a copy of the original text can describe them. They have been played out on stage and on television and on the big screen and in school halls up and down the country. Everyone believes they know the story even if they have never read the book – and yet Kenneth Grahame’s prose is so beautiful, so effortlessly descriptive and gentle in its rhythm –  that it is a book everybody deserves to read. 

Many talented illustrators have produced an edition of the story, most notably Arthur Rackham, but I jumped up and down in excitement when I heard about this edition. Grahame Baker-Smith is a Kate Greenaway Medal-winning illustrator and his work captures the magic and mystery in the everyday. This comes into its own in illustrations of the Wild Woods and the River itself. 

There are illustrations in different styles – full-page colour illustrations which look almost like film concept art in their energy and sense of movement and smaller, sepia and similarly muted colour pictures at the head of or to the side of the text. The design is glorious too, with the ripples and willow branches of the end pages repeating at the chapter headings. 

Both the high quality of the illustration and the way this has been presented make it an edition to treasure. A beautiful copy of a classic which would make a beautiful present this holiday season. 

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and Grahame Baker-Smith, published by Templar Books, is available now. 

Thanks to Templar Books and Antonia Wilkinson PR for my copy of the book. 

Non-Fiction

Review: Remarkable Trees by Christina Harrison and Tony Kirkham.

Review: Remarkable Trees by Christina Harrison and Tony Kirkham.

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Trees are remarkable. As the introduction to this beautiful book notes, they are central to our existence, providing, food, shelter, resins, and materials which we use to support our everyday life. Trees are also incredible examples of evolution. You only have to compare the trees of one climate to another to see that they have adapted to survive in their habitat. 

Over 8000 species are currently under threat and yet too often we are unaware of trees, treating them as scenery instead of as living, breathing plants. 

This wonderful book, written by two experts from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, details the lives and plights of over sixty trees. 

What is interesting about this book is the sections it is divided into are all about the human relationship with trees. Building And Creating, Feasting And Celebrating, Healers And Killers, Body And Soul, Wonders Of The World, Threatened and Endangered – nearly all of these headings are about our existing knowledge of trees. That the Caco tree creates chocolate, or that Mahogany was once popular for furniture is relatively common knowledge. However, once you reach the pages on the individual trees, you learn not only about the human relationship to the tree but about the plant itself. This is something like moving a lens away from the close-by towards the distance and the unknown. 

Even the trees we walk past every day have hidden lives of their own. 

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Each fact file is three or four pages long and accompanied by full-colour pictures. Headed with the common and Latin name, there is also a single fact away from the main text which stands out to a reader flicking through the book. This not only makes it a great coffee table book, but it is also a wonderful way to hook a reader. I found myself drawn in by these snippets and had to read more.  

It is fascinating how much of human history we can learn through the lens of trees. Remarkable Trees touched on trade and diet, literature and religion, all by studying human interaction with trees.

The illustrations are detailed, both the full page botanical drawings and pictures which show the tree in situ, as it were, which help us to build an idea of how trees differ across the world’s habitats. The muted colours and exquisite detail make this the sort of book which you can’t help but pick up. 

A stunning non-fiction title or coffee table book. This would make a beautiful gift for anyone with a growing interest in the natural world and reading it reminds us that we live in a truly remarkable world. 

 

Thanks to Thames & Hudson in association with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for my copy of Remarkable Trees. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: This Is A Dog by Ross Collins

Review: This Is A Dog by Ross Collins

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This is a cat. But wait a second – what is that dog doing in the pictures? And why is he scribbling all the words out with a black crayon?

First animal books are great sources of information for early readers … but Dog reckons they could be improved. What if he posed on every page? It could all be about him instead. And everyone loves a dog.

The other animals aren’t so certain, and eventually they rebel. The result is a chase, but don’t worry. Dog has more than one trick up his sleeve.

A hilarious take on a first animal book from the award-winning picture book creature behind There’s A Bear On My Chair. 

First dog jumps into the picture. Then he rolls around like a giddy, playful puppy. Then he dresses up as an elephant. Excitement builds up as the reader is left wondering what he will do next. 

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Picture books have a very tight word limit and one of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that they have to cram as much information as possible on to the page. Then there are genius books like this, which seem to get straight into the mindset of their very young readers. Ross Collins has mastered the art of creating as much fun as possible with very few words. This is a book that makes great use of the unexpected.

First word books are fabulous. Early readers need to soak up a huge amount of vocabulary before they can decode stories for themselves. However, like an adult presented with a list or a factual document, sometimes there is great joy in seeing all the rules broken. Dog is a maverick and it is clear from his joyous facial expressions that he knows he is being cheeky. Like all the best picture books there is a slightly subversive message: breaking the rules is fun …. but only for as long as you get away with it. 

This book is delightful in its energy and humour. It uses very few words, as I said, but I can guarantee you will read them over and over. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow LTD for my copy of This Is A Dog. Opinions my own.

blog tour · Young Adult Reviews

Blog Tour: The Sky Weaver by Kristen Ciccarelli.

Review: The Sky Weaver by Kristen Ciccarelli.

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Extract:

‘There’s no need to be unkind.’ The Death Dancer’s mouth bent up at the sideas she moved towards Safire. ‘Now, what’s behind that scarf you don’t want me to see?’ Safire took a step back, but those quick fingers snagged her sandskarf. The girl tugged it free, revealing Safire’s face.

(The Sky Weaver by Kristen Ciccarelli. P. 65-66). 

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Synopsis:

Safire is now a soldier. She maintains the peace of Firaard – but there is one criminal she can’t catch. 

Eris, a pirate and known thief, is known as the Death Dancer. She has a reputation for evading capture made possible by her magical spindle, and the ability it gives her to vanish and reappear at will. She can evade everyone … except the pirate who holds her captive. 

Safire and Eris are thrown together when they are united by a common mission – to find Asha, the last Namsara. As they spend time together, they realise they may be bound by more than a common goal and that their fates may be inextricably entwined. 

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Review: 

The Last Namsara was one of the first major releases I was offered as a book blogger back in 2017. It is hard to imagine now that before it arrived I had little idea how phenomenally good it would turn out to be. Think dragons and fearless heroines and a story linked to its world’s mythology. Now the trilogy concludes with The Sky Weaver. 

The story is centered around two characters. Pirate Eris has a deadly reputation and a strange skill that enables her to vanish and reappear anywhere else at will. Safire, familiar to readers of the first book, is now a soldier and catching Eris becomes her own personal mission. Then the pair find themselves on a common mission – to find the last Namsara Asha. 

It is a classic enemies-to-lovers storyline which promises to be a great yarn from the beginning. The early chapters make it seem impossible that the pair could ever find anything in common, but that is what makes this trope so timeless. It tells the eternal truth that sometimes we can work together in spite of insurmountable differences and that in doing so we can find previously unimagined common ground. 

Both girls narrate. Seeing Safire as a protagonist will be a big draw for established fans of the series because she was the character who was both of the incredible court world and an outsider – or the relatable insider. It is also interesting, having seen her root for and protect Asha, to see Safire begin from a position of distrust and enmity.

As in previous books, a myth is built up alongside the main story. No spoilers – readers of the series will know that clues about the main story can be found in these myths – but this time the myth is about Crow and The Fisherman’s Daughter. 

Now that the trilogy is complete, I look forward to reading the three books together. The overlap of characters and plotlines between them is fascinating and confirms Ciccarelli as a strong and ambitious storyteller. 

 

The Sky Weaver was provided as part of a promotional blog tour. Opinions remain my own. Thanks to Gollancz for my copy.