illustrated · Picture Book Reviews

Review: Paolo Emperor Of Rome by Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Claire Keane.

Review: Paolo Emperor Of Rome by Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Claire Keane.

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Rome is a beautiful city of freedom – but not for Paolo. He is stuck inside a hair salon, and never ever allowed out. One day, when a customer leaves the door open, Paolo senses his opportunity and makes a bid for freedom.

Paolo fights a gang of cats, visits the opera, and wins the support of the street dogs. He becomes bigger and braver, proving himself to be imperial and wise. Soon the whole city is in awe of Paolo, but such attention comes at a cost.

A thumping good animal adventure. Face-offs with tough cats and a nighttime parade through the city are contrasted with images of Paolo curled tight, and looking desperately from a window at the outside world. He’s vulnerable, and he wants his freedom so much, that we root for him from the start.

The narrative and illustrations both remind me of the Madeline series by Ludwig Bemelmans, with fly-on-the-wall style reporting of Paolo’s movements and short, exaggerated statements from Paolo himself. Some of the double-page spreads are divided into multiple, short illustrations that give the reader a tour of the setting as Paolo’s adventures begin. Key scenes are given full double-page illustrations, heightening the drama without using a single word. The style of illustration, too, is also reminiscent of Bemelmans’s work, with a muted colour palette and sparing use of line.

Not only is this a beautiful story, but it is also a wonderful introduction to the history of Rome. Paolo’s walking tour takes in The Colosseum, the opera houses and the Trevi Fountain among other notable locations. Alongside the historical buildings and monuments, the illustrations include the contemporary tourists and citizens of Rome. 

This story reminds us that, while comfort is important, it should never come at the cost of personal freedom. 

 

Thanks to Abrams Books For Young Readers for my copy of Paolo Emperor Of Rome. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peirce.

Review: Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peirce.

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Extract:

Yep, we’re talking fourteenth century. That means a lot of important stuff hasn’t been invented yet. Like paved roads, the toothbrush, and a little convenience called indoor plumbing. It’s a tough life, and – sorry Uncle Budrick – I can’t see how a few songs or some lame magic tricks will make it any easier.

(Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peire. P3.) 

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Synopsis:

Max’s uncle Budrick is a troubadour. Not a very good one. He and Max roam the countryside, living off the vegetables that people throw to chase them away. According to tradition, all children follow in the footsteps of their parents or guardians, but Max doesn’t want to be a troubadour. Max wants to be a knight.

When uncle Budrick is taken prisoner by the evil King Gastley, Max has an opportunity to be a hero. Furthermore, it appears that King Gastley shouldn’t even be on the throne. Together with a group of new friends, dubbed the Midknights, and the aid of a retiredish wizard, Max sets out to save the realm of Byjovia. 

 

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Review:

Swords and sorcery and snorting with laughter. Lincoln Peirce, author of the Big Nate series, has returned with a brand new adventure set in a world of castles and dragons and really, really, awful singers. Presented in his trademark style – with a mixture of comics and short sections of text – this is the ultimate funny book for readers of fantasy adventure. 

Essentially it is the story of a realm suffering under the cruelty of an imposter King, and the kids who band together in defence of all things good. What makes it unique is the hilarious wit, the iconic cartoons, and the relevance to today’s society. Take Max’s friend Simon, who is desperately sad because his parents appear to be held under some kind of terrible spell that makes adults worship powerful figures regardless of the hate and suffering their reign causes. While the book doesn’t condone what Simon’s parents have done, it offers the readers hope that their parents will, eventually, come to reason and stand for a more loving society. 

And there are dragons. And witches. And there is a cameo from zombies. 

The balance of serious themes with humour is perfect. This is entirely readable, and the ideas about equality and kindness remain with the reader after finishing the book, even while they want to go back to specific pages to laugh again at the illustrations. 

With high stakes and a range of humour – from Max’s deadpan declarations to the wonderfully self-deprecating wizard Mumblin – this reminds me strongly of Merlin. Max And The Midknights is the perfect story for escapism and reassurance – the world isn’t always perfect but a good band of friends can make it easier to cope. 

Highly recommend. 

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books and Clare Hall-Craggs for my copy of Max & The Midknights. Opinions my own. 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Troofriend by Kirsty Applebaum.

Review: Troofriend by Kirsty Applebaum.

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Extract:

We are the Jensen & Jenson Troofriend 560 Mark IV. We are The Better Choice For Your Child. She no longer needs to play with other human children, who might bully or harm or lie or covet or steal or envy. We are programmed only for fun and goodness. 

(Troofriend by Kirsty Applebaum. P2.)

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Synopsis:

Imagine having a friend who never disagreed with a word you said? A friend who did everything that you wanted. A friend, like a TrooFriend 560 Mark IV, who wasn’t even human.

Sarah’s parents are often absent, and her friend’s complicated family situation means that she is regularly out of town. Sarah has another friend, but the complicated rules of High School popularity mean that they can no longer hang out together. As a result, Sarah is lonely.

Her mother is convinced that android Ivy is the solution, but Sarah isn’t so sure. At first, she turns the android off when nobody is looking, but over time evidence convinces her that Ivy is something more than other technology. That she is almost human.

As Sarah uses Ivy in a bid to win popularity at school, a factory recall puts Ivy’s existence into danger. There are people out there who reckon Ivy shouldn’t exist, and if they track her down, she will be destroyed.

A complex and philosophical story about popularity, taking account for our own actions, and what it means to be human.

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Review:

Technology is taking over our lives. It is now the norm, where is wouldn’t have been several years ago, to look at smartphones and tablets during conversations with other people. Increasingly we consult search engines about our problems before we talk to an expert. The story demonstrates the effect all this technology has on our social skills and imagines things one step further, where children are actively encouraged to replace human friendships with technology.

Sarah is a relatable character. Transitioning to secondary school can be painfully hard. What makes someone popular, and what makes a person likeable, isn’t often taught in a way that is obvious to all children. Being treated as unpopular – being shunned, for example, for some imperceptible flaw -isn’t always treated as bullying by adults in the same way it might have been in a primary school. Sarah, the protagonist in the story, is desperate not to be labelled as unpopular, but her quest to be liked by the ‘right people’ leads her to behave in unkind ways to her old friends.

What I loved about Sarah was that her behaviour wasn’t perfect. She was like so many kids, struggling with day-to-day life, and the story shows her moving from selfish and desperate behaviours to an acceptance that she has to take ownership of her actions. The quest to be popular is no justification for behaving unkindly.

Ivy’s quest to prove that she is unique is also touching. It reminded me in many ways of the characters in Never Let Me Go, using art to communicate their inner selves. Troofriend is a great adventure, but everybody I have spoken to who has read the book is especially moved by the themes.

The reader is constantly challenged to think about their own stances. When the androids are recalled it seems obvious that Ivy should be helped … except that some very real children are being hurt by the android’s actions. This conflict makes for a real page-turner. How can such a conundrum possibly be resolved?

A moving and philosophical story told in such a way that it is impossible to put down. I had high hopes for this after reading The Middler, and I wasn’t disappointed. Kirsty Applebaum is a skilled literary writer and Troofriend confirms her as a real talent.

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Ltd and Clare Hall-Craggs for my copy of Troofriend. Opinions my own.

 

 

blog tour · Guest Post · Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe by Martin Howard. Illustrated by Chris Mould.

Blog Tour: Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe by Martin Howard. Illustrated by Chris Mould.

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About Alfie’s Fleet’s Guide To The Universe. 

A good funny book is gold. A great one is invaluable. Last year, I especially enjoyed The Cosmic Atlas Of Alfie Fleet where Alfie’s determination to buy his Mum a birthday present saw him embark on an adventure across the universe alongside his new friend the Professor. Its humour was woven so cleverly into the story that it was impossible to join in the adventure without laughter. Now Alfie is back, and this time he and the Professor are offering holidays to the most wonderful planets in the universe. 

As they embark on one final tour, putting everything in order before they open for buisness, Alfie and the Professor run into trouble. For starters, some of the beings on other planets are reluctant to accept that humans aren’t … well … aliens. Then there is the motely pack of cartographers, the UCC, that they meet on Planet Bewarye, led by the terrible Sir Willikin Nanbiter, that sets about trying to destroy the Unusual Travel Agency. 

A quest ensues to discover the long-lost other members of the UCC, who have the power to outvote Sir Nanbiter before his damage destroys Alfie’s dreams. 

As with the first book, the new worlds that Martin Howard and Chris Mould have created are super-imaginative. I am delighted to welcome Martin Howard (AKA Mart) back to my blog with a wonderful piece about creating new worlds. 

Thanks to Mart for your time and efforts. 

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Creating Worlds for Alfie Fleet – a guest post by author Martin Howard. 

Hullo, hullo, hullo and a big thank you to Louise for another invitation. Book Murmuration is starting to feel like a second home. For this visit, she asked me to jot down some thoughts on building magical worlds, a fascinating subject and no one’s ever asked me about it before, so hurrah and here we go …

I’ve said before that I’m wary about dishing out writing advice, because every writer finds their own way of working, so I can only describe my own methods. For me, creating a world is a key part of the process. Settings play a big part in the plot, create atmosphere and can be as fun and funny as the characters. In fact, the worlds writers create are very much characters in their own right. And sometimes, like any other character, they just materialise in that strange, mystical idea process – an integral part of the tale and the obvious background for the story and the characters. It’s great when that happens because you can dive straight in, perhaps making a few tweaks as the book develops. Other times – such as for the new Alfie Fleet – magical worlds are born in the fiery crucible of a brainstorm. My notebooks are full of half-formed worlds that never made it and I even have a few finished chapters that took place on worlds that never made it into the book. (If anyone’s interested, I’d be happy to share one or two in a future visit.)

Inspiration can come from anywhere: half-remembered movies and books from my childhood or artwork I’ve spotted online, for example, or straight from the depths of my own imagination. Then, I’ll mix and match trying to build something original. Obviously, with some worlds – Outlandish from The Cosmic Atlas in particular – it’s fun to play with magical features and themes that are clichés of the sci-fi or fantasy genres. That’s something Terry Pratchett was famous for and it’s essential to come up with a new twist rather than just repeat the same ideas. I imagine that’s just as true for serious writers as for funny authors.

For worlds where the whole story takes place, it’s wonderful to have the luxury of introducing detail: history, cultures, languages all create textures that help hook the reader in, but the new book – Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe – simplicity was key. In this book Alfie, Derek and the Professor putter through many worlds on Betsy the moped. As they spent so much time on Outlandish in their last adventure I wanted to expand their universe and give a sense of the multitude of wonders that could be found by popping through a stone circle at the Unusual Travel Agency. That meant each world had to have amazing features but couldn’t be too complicated. There was no space to properly explore cultures, societies, etc, so each planet had to be painted in broad brush strokes and bright, popping colours. They also needed to be very different from each other and – for the most part – be somewhere readers would enjoy visiting. After all, Alfie and the Professor are running a travel agency. That cut down the options. There was no point having our heroes explore icy wastelands (unless good skiing was available), or radioactive fog planets where ravenous maggot-things roam, or anywhere too bizarre because the Unusual Travel Agency wouldn’t want to run tours there. Alfie has actually worked out a scale for this. He calls it the Fleet Unusuality Scale. Worlds so unusual they score more than five are too bonkers and tend to give people a headache. Less than three and they’re so dull people might as well stay on Earth.

Getting back to my point. What was my point? Oh yes, broad brushstrokes. The planet of Nomefolch, for example, has one memorable feature: everything grows massive there, except for the people (who are rather stubby). It’s possible to climb trees all the way into space. Winspan, on the other hand, is a broken world – a hollow, half-tennis ball of a planet. This means it doesn’t have much gravity and people can fly there by strapping wings to their arms. Solstice, meanwhile, is a planet of ten-thousand islands, so it has a nautical theme. With the plot and characters also needing breathing room and a limited number of words I tried to bring a few of these worlds to vivid life while giving fly-bys of a few others. I hope this helps create the impression of a vast universe without describing each planet in minute detail. That was the plan, anyway!  

In fact, the sheer number of worlds in Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe caused a fair amount of heartbreak as there are one or two – especially Winspan and Nomefolch – where I’d have liked Alfie and the Professor to have stayed longer. Creating fun, distinctive worlds and then leaving them behind after a few paragraphs was a real wrench. On the plus side, I hope the fact that I didn’t want to leave some of the world’s behind means readers will feel the same. The one bit of writing advice I will share, and which I think applies to all writers of magical, fantastic tales is that your readers should always feel homesick for your world when the story ends.

 

Catch the other posts along the blog tour: 

 

alfie fleet tour

 

Thanks to Martin Howard for your wonderful blog post and to Martin and Emma Howard for arranging this blog tour. Thanks to Oxford University Press for providing me with a copy of Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe. Opinions my own.

illustrated · Non-Fiction

Review: Viking Voyagers by Jack Tite.

Review: Viking Voyagers by Jack Tite.

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The Vikings gained a reputation as fearsome and bloodthirsty warriors, but their contributions in other areas deserve equal attention. This book offers a more rounded picture of the Vikings as a voyager civilization. 

An account of the Viking era – which spanned more than 300 years and various countries – is presented alongside information about the Viking myths and legends. That history is given together with mythology offers the reader a rich picture – after all, the stories we tell most often offer clues to who we are as people. The book is divided into six chapters, covering everything from mythology and seafaring to home life, legends and an overview of the earlier and later parts of the Viking era. I was particularly pleased with how the book situated the Vikings within a context of world geography – by showing a world map marked with Viking travel routes, the book makes clear that other parts of the world were home to different people. 

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Illustration brings to life the Norse myths and the day-to-day life within a Viking settlement. Showing the two side by side makes plain how the stories we tell grow out of our geography and our lived experiences. Seeing the same mountains in pictures of the Gods as in the picture of a small farmstead made this plain in a way that no words can. Not only will readers of this book learn about history, but they can begin to think about the links between mythology and life. 

As well as larger, double-page spread illustrations, smaller groups of pictures are labelled clearly such as the food the Vikings might have eaten or the names of the lesser deities. Seeing pictures with labels enables children to learn and test their memories, and readers will soon return to their favourite spreads to find their favourite images. 

Fold-out spreads offer even more to look at. I was particularly impressed with the spread on the Bayeux Tapestry – it looks more modern than replicas of the real thing but maintains a faithful style, engaging younger readers and allowing them to browse and ask questions about what is going on at their leisure. 

This is the kind of book that encourages children to engage their own creativity. The drawing style invites readers to copy or to put the characters and images into scenes of their own. I can see this being hugely popular in classrooms where the topic is being studied for its engaging and intelligent content. It maintains a serious tone whilst offering readers plenty to look at if they aren’t up for a long read. Some spreads have very short sections that are a few sentences long, yet they are all informative and interesting. 

A winner both with adults and young readers. Viking Voyagers offers a rounded perspective and beautiful content to bring to life a favourite topic. 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Don’t Mess With Duck! by Becky Davies And Emma Levey.

Review: Don’t Mess With Duck! by Becky Davis And Emma Levey.

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Duck likes peace and quiet. When his neighbours continue to quack and splash, Duck packs his suitcase and sets off in search of a quiet place. The trouble is that everywhere he goes is noisy and overcrowded. When he finally finds a peaceful spot, he has competition. Duck And Frog refuse to talk to one another, each determined that the pond belongs to them.

Everyone needs some chill time. With increasing numbers of people renting in busy cities, and living without garden space, it can be difficult to find somewhere to unwind or concentrate. Duck and Frog are both in search of the same thing, but they realise that maybe the competition for space doesn’t have to be so fierce. Maybe a little noise is worth it if it means having a friend around?

Duck’s anger is brought out in the illustrations to humorous effect and the crowds get noisier, busier, and more extreme (a flock of bats, anyone?) with every move he makes. Knowing how Duck has reacted in the past builds anticipation, and his reactions get more and more comically livid. This would be a wonderful book for discussing overreaction with children – Duck’s initial response might be justified, but it soon becomes an ongoing campaign.

It is lovely to find a picture book that makes the most of watery settings. From elegant white ducks in boaters rowing across a pond to a fountain populated by pigeons, seagulls, and rodents, the illustrations especially bring the settings to memorable life. There is a touch of The Wind In The Willows – perhaps a homage – in the interactions between the different communities on the water. 

A humorous and enjoyable story about balancing our needs with an open mind to new experiences. A true keeper. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of Don’t Mess With Duck. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

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Extract:

As sunset bloomed in the west like coloured ink spreading in water, Arthur and Maudie stood with Felicity and Gilly at the aft end of the sky-ship taking in the view of hills, rising and falling like gentle waves, criss-crossed with farm fields and woodland patches will full, blousy trees. It felt good to be under the wide sky again.

(Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy. P86.)

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Synopsis:

The Brightstorm twins are back for another adventure. Arthur and Maudie witness a burglary by their nemesis Eudora Vane. The very next day, Eudora announces a search for the missing explorer Ermitage Wigglesworth – the person whose house she has burgled.

Arthur, Maudie, and Harriet Culpepper are convinced that the search is a cover for something else. What could Eudora Vane want in the legendary Eastern Isles?

The Eastern Isles are almost impossible to find and hold many secrets of their own. The twins are separated for the first time in their lives in a territory which they hardly know. Will they be reunited? Will they work out what Eudora is up to in time?

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Review:

A spectacular, high-flying sequel to hit adventure novel Brightstorm. This is perfect for readers who dream of big, daring adventures. With skyships and jungles and magical continents, Darkwhispers builds on the legacy of the first book as an exciting and intelligent story about exploration.

Arthur and Maudie are separated for the first time and this allows us to know them better as individuals. We see Maudie’s vulnerabilities and Arthur’s desperation to live up to his brilliant sister. Grief for his father causes him difficulties, and at times people write off his reactions as being grief based. Arthur’s emotional narrative plays a strong part in the story and he grows as a character. 

The new settings are as memorable as the old, and there are some new creatures, not least the Darkwhispers of the title.

There is not only a love for geography in these books but complete and heartfelt respect. The worlds are brought to life with care and detail. It feels as if Vashti Hardy must have visited them to give the reader such a clear picture. Her worldbuilding offers questions about our own world – could we invent power sources that do no harm to the environment? Are the other animals around us more intelligent than we give them credit for?

Vashti Hardy has confirmed herself as an exceptionally strong storyteller. Her narrative is told with a confidence that allows her imaginative ideas to soar. I look forward to reading whatever she writes next and hope that there will be a return to Arthur and Maudie’s world.

 

Thanks to Scholastic UK for my copy of Darkwhispers. Opinions my own.