Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Pog by Pádraig Kenny

Review: Pog by Pádraig Kenny

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Extract:

There was an enchantment laid here. Deep and powerful. One that the tall folk had never suspected. It was an enchantment so strong they had even built their house around it without knowing. 

(Pog by Pádraig Kenny. P27.) 

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Synopsis:

Everything has changed since Penny’s Mum died. Dad is pretending to be fine, David’s anger is close to the surface and they’ve moved to a whole new house in the middle of a forest.

And there is a strange creature creeping about in the dark.

Pog is one of the First Folk. He guards the house from more sinister creatures who feed on the memories of its occupants. It has been many years since his Grandfa died, but Pog still wants to make him proud.

With the strange creatures multiplying inside the house, David and Penny will need Pog’s help if they are going to save the goodness in the world.

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Review:

David is hurting, Dad is clammed-up and pretending to be fine and Penny feels as if too much has changed too soon. Pog is a sensitive story about grief which shows how it affects people in different ways. Pog’s own sense that he still needs to please his grandfather takes the story away from the raw grief that Penny’s family are feeling in the immediate aftermath of a death into the way that bereavement can affect us years later.

As a story about loss it couldn’t be any better.

The creatures which Pog fights reminded me of dementors. Not in their physical shape but in their haunting talent for sucking the memories from their victims. This isn’t about loud battles. It is as much about emotional fights as physical.

As in ET, this is a story about a visitor who helps a family adjust to their new circumstance. I adored Pog. He’s two feet tall, furry and from a magical race of guardians. His connection with the children is touchingly real and he is able to empathise with their emotions.

Like all the best fantasies, Pog is a story which is grounded in the real world. With a theme which is relevant to everybody, this has the timeless feel of an instant hit.

 

Thanks to Chicken House Books and Laura Smythe PR for my gifted copy of Pog. Opinions my own.

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Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Meet The Penguins by Mike Brownlow

Meet The Penguins by Mike Brownlow

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Meet the penguins. They really want to play, but nobody wants to play with them. Everybody else is busy concentrating, playing complicated games or hurrying along. When the penguins find someone to play with, and they are able to show how many brilliant games they know, they find themselves with a queue of new friends desperate to join in. 

A witty picture book which will be especially relatable to children coping with playground time. 

The penguins are polite to the point of being charming. Enthusiastic. Friendly. They just can’t find anybody who wants to play. This can be a frustrating and frankly baffling situation for children small enough that their world is governed by the rules. Sticking to the rules about good manners and kindness should result in a win. The trouble is, social situations are complicated and other people can have their own agenda. This would be a lovely picture book to open discussions about the fact that sometimes it just isn’t about whether we’ve done the right things. Gorilla wants to focus, Rabbit is in a hurry and Kitty is just plain rude and unfriendly. 

There’s a lovely picture in the middle where the dejected penguins slump down. They’ve given up. The story turns this around and demonstrates that once you’re enjoying your own games, there might be plenty of people looking to join in.

The final page puts a spin on it again when the Penguins stop wanting to let everybody into their games. This would be a great picture for opening up a debate. Did the Penguins do something wrong and unfriendly, or is it just a fact that sometimes there are too many people to play a game properly? 

The illustrations are all about facial expressions, with exaggerated disappointment, pleading, rudeness and enjoyment. The sober backgrounds of the early scenes turn to a riot of colour as the penguins’ games get going. 

A funny and relatable story about friendship and social situations. 

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Sunflower Shoots And Muddy Boots by Katherine Halligan and Grace Easton

Review: Sunflower Shoots And Muddy Boots by Katherine Halligan and Grace Easton

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Do you love to dig in the dirt and get messy? Then you’re a gardener. 

This guide covers every kind of outdoor space, from hanging baskets and things grown in pots to spotting insects in the great wide spaces. It has something for everyone, from decorating plant pots for the craft lovers to digging right in and planting huge trees. It is presented in beautiful spreads which cover different topics in a visual and exciting way.

With such handy guides to tree types, sowing meadows and making compost, this guide could be read by a wide range of ages from four upwards. Everything from the small size of the book to the ring-bound pages makes it friendly to the littlest of hands, and the attractive and colourful illustrations make it a joy to browse. 

With green space increasingly harder to find, especially for younger families who may be renting a flat, in a tower block or in a house with a tiny patio, it is important that books about gardening for the current generation make clear that there is a space for everyone, otherwise we risk children thinking that it is a middle-class hobby. Sunflower Shoots And Muddy Boots does this exceptionally well, with a spread on ways to grow plants in tiny spaces and a large number of spreads which focus on things which can be done in any outdoor space (such as insect hunting, making shelters and having fun with mud). It never makes an assumption that readers are playing in their own garden. 

Activity instructions, word banks, and spotting guides come together to make gardening fun and accessible. Two muddy-thumbs up and a gold star. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Books for my gifted copy of Sunflower Shoots And Muddy Boots. Opinions my own.

 

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Big Beyond by James Carter and Aaron Cushley

Review: The Big Beyond by James Carter and Aaron Cushley

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Once upon a time man looked at the skies and dreamed of the stars and planets which lay beyond the Earth’s boundaries. Over the centuries our understanding of space grew until, in 1969, humans walked on the moon. 

img_8837This beautiful rhyming picture book takes readers on a tour through the centuries, from the time when stories about the constellations were told, through Galileo and his telescope to the moonwalk and beyond. It is a beautiful introduction to physics and space travel and encourages readers to see themselves as future astronauts. 

Multisubject approaches are so important. It can be easy to talk about scientific concepts in isolation and yet when we give them historical context, it not only explains what the big breakthrough was and why the science is so important, but it emphasises that science is a process of question and discovery (and not one of parroting formula). Beautiful texts like this make this idea accessible and exciting. 

There is so much joy in the illustrations. What might have been a heavy topic is made fun through the young characters pretending to fly, looking at the constellations and dressing up as astronauts. This book is not only about history, but it is also a nod to the future and it encourages the reader to aspire to the highest travels. 

There is a lovely fact file at the end with some key dates and figures. This is written as a separate acrostic poem with the word rockets and again it was a joy to see creative writing forms used in a book about science. 

A joy to read and share. This will encourage readers young and old to look up to the stars. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my gifted copy of The Big Beyond. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: What Clara Saw by Jessica Meserve

Review: What Clara Saw by Jessica Meserve

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Clara has been looking forward to the class trip to the animal park, but Mr. Biggity enjoys it for all the wrong reasons. He takes every opportunity to explain to the children why humans are superior – other animals don’t have the same range of emotions, they can’t use tools to get what they need and they just don’t care about the world around them. 

Meanwhile, the animals use their abilities, intelligence and natural instinct to outwit the keeper and help a giant tortoise to remain with her friends and life partner at the zoo. 

img_8242A clever story in which man, in all his ridiculous and self-centered glory, shows himself up by underestimating other species. 

It comes around every so often in the news. Scientists have discovered that animals are more intelligent than we realise, or a certain ability has been observed in a particular species. The strange thing is that we’ve so severely underestimated animals in the first place. I have lived with cats all my life and can tell you that they communicate. Learn what their gestures mean – those flicks of the ear, those expressions, those nudges and carpet scratches – and they will begin to use them with you on purpose. They also know how certain things work (door handles and taps, for example,) form and stick to routines and show huge empathy when their humans are upset or ill. 

And yet there are people who treat them as something inferior. As pets. 

One of the best ways to learn, and to open our minds to new attitudes, is through humour, and this story has it perfected. While Mr Biggity (who is an adult straight out of Roald Dhal, set in his ways and proud of it) rants and preaches and uses pseudo-science to explain why other animals are inferior, Clara observes what the zoo’s residents are up to. She is able to help Elsie the tortoise and to give her schoolfriends first-hand evidence that other animals are amazing. 

The message of this story is to observe with an open mind. Throw off those preconceptions and try to figure out what the animals in front of you are doing. Maybe they aren’t joining together in prison-break style, but they may be caring for their young or attempting to open a cupboard or showing the love which means you have formed a genuine bond. 

The sketch and watercolour illustrations reminded me of John Burningham’s work. Although Jessica Meserve’s animals are more detailed and realistic, she uses textures and patterns to form backgrounds and trees, and her people move with the same whimsical energy. 

I adore this book, both the theme and the execution. An important message shared without the slightest hint of Mr Biggity style preaching. Excellent. 

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books UK for my gifted copy of What Clara Saw. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Galloglass by Scarlett Thomas

Blog Tour: Galloglass by Scarlett Thomas

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About Galloglass

Love fantasy adventure and magical schools? 

Welcome to the World Quake series, about a group of magical students who are pitted against a secret organisation called The Diberi who are bent on destroying the universe. This is the fantasy trilogy I dreamed of as a kid, with a female protagonist at the centre, magical books, and dragons. 

Galloglass sees Effie imprisoned, Wolf on a journey to find his missing sister and Neptune the cat faced with the disappearance of all the other cats. It also sees the raised as the Diberi threaten to destroy the universe. 

I am delighted to have an extract here from the second chapter and will be hosting a giveaway over on my Twitter account. Do keep an eye out and check back for a full review later on. 

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Extract from Chapter 2 of Galloglass by Scarlett Thomas. 

Euphemia Sixten Bookend Truelove, known as Effie, had been in the Otherworld since the end of school. Time worked differently there; three days in the Otherworld (they
called them moons) only took 57.3 minutes of Realworld time,
which meant it was always possible to slip off for a long weekend
there if you had an hour to spare.
But it took M-currency – also known as lifeforce – to stay in the Otherworld. People from the Realworld couldn’t store very much of it, and Effie’s seemed to run out particularly quickly. So she always had to leave too soon.
Today (in Otherworld time) Effie had woken up early in the large, comfortable bed in her lovely light room in Truelove House. This room always had fresh linen and clean towels, unlike in her Realworld home in the suburbs of the Old Town, where if Effie wanted anything cleaned she had to do it herself, and where it never got fully light at this time of year anyway. She’d looked at her watch – it told the time in both worlds – and
calculated that she’d have to leave the Otherworld by early evening if she wanted any chance of being back in the Realworld in time for supper.
But there was still a whole Otherworld day to enjoy, and Effie was going to spend it in the nearby town of Froghole with her cousin Clothilde. She was sure she’d have enough lifeforce for that.
As usual, the morning was warm and bright. After eating the lavish breakfast that Bertie the maid brought for her – a massive bowl of creamy porridge with maple syrup and fourflower jam, and soft toasted muffins with peanut butter, banana, chocolate chips and marshmallows, and a pot of tea – Effie dressed in the blue silk jumpsuit that Clothilde had made her. She brushed her hair and scraped it into a slightly more tidy ponytail than usual. Then she put on the long necklace that held a vial of deepwater that her friend Maximilian kept topped up for her. She didn’t have to put on the golden necklace that held her Sword of Light, because she never took it off. She’d stopped
wearing her Ring of the True Hero lately, because it seemed to drain her in ways she didn’t understand. She’d threaded it on a string to wear around her neck, but she usually didn’t even bother with that.
Soon there came a knock at the door, and her cousin’s voice.
‘Are you ready?’ Clothilde asked.
‘Nearly,’ said Effie. She took her wooden caduceus from where it was propped against the wall and used her magic to shrink it to the size of a hairpin. She admired the two snakes wrapped around it, and the wings carved into it. It had been a gift from
her Otherworld cousin Rollo. She tucked it into her hair at the back. ‘But do come in.’
Clothilde entered the room. She was wearing a long, flowing dress in one of the Otherworld colours that was close to what we would call yellow. It was something like summer parties and pale marzipan and the middles of soft cakes all mixed into one.
‘So, are you very excited about going to Froghole?’ Clothilde said.
‘Yes,’ replied Effie, grinning.
‘And getting your consultation at long last?’ Clothilde raised
an eyebrow.
‘Double yes,’ said Effie. ‘I mean, I don’t think they’re going to tell me that I’m not a true hero-interpreter but . . .’
‘It’s good to have it confirmed,’ said Clothilde. ‘And there’s your shade, of course. I guess you’ll already know all about it. I know what you’re like with The Repertory of Kharakter, Art & Shade. You must have read it fifty times by now.’ Clothilde
smiled. ‘Do you already know what you think you are?’
Effie shook her head. ‘No. I heard that if you find out too much about the shades in advance it can distort the results of the test. So it’s all still a complete mystery to me. I’ve saved that part of the book for after today.’ She smiled. Clothilde squeezed Effie’s arm gently. Effie knew how excited Clothilde was for her. It was so wonderful having someone who understood her so well.
In all the time she’d been visiting the Otherworld, Effie had still not actually been to an Otherworld town. People kept meaning to take her, but Pelham Longfellow – the other traveller who regularly visited Truelove House – was always being called away urgently to investigate ‘the Diberi situation in Europe’, and Clothilde couldn’t leave the Great Library for very long. But today, at long last, it was finally going to happen.‘And you’ll be getting your Keeper’s mark as well,’ said Clothilde.
‘I know,’ said Effie. ‘I can’t wait to be able to help you all in the Great Library. To be actually allowed to go in, and—’
‘Oh no!’ Clothilde suddenly put her hand to her mouth. ‘We’re supposed to do a sort of official induction in the Great Library before you get your Keeper’s mark. I can’t believe I
forgot. I think it’ll only take five minutes. We’ll do it before we
go. Is that all right?’
‘OK,’ said Effie. But somewhere nearby the sun seemed to go behind a cloud. It wasn’t that Effie was scared of the Great Library exactly – she wasn’t afraid of anything – but the last time she’d been in there she’d almost died.
‘I’ll go and get my things and wait for you downstairs,’ said Clothilde.
Effie found Clothilde in the entrance hall, carrying a large wicker basket that seemed to be full of tissue paper and colourful striped boxes. Her cousin now put these down and
took from around her neck the brass key that opened the Great
Library.
‘Ready?’ asked Clothilde.
‘Yes,’ said Effie, frowning slightly. ‘Definitely.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes.’
‘Is something wrong?’
Effie shook her head. She couldn’t lie and say no out loud. She couldn’t tell Clothilde about the slight headache that had just started. Was it because she was remembering what had happened last time she’d been in the Great Library? Or did it mean that she was running out of M-currency? Effie blinked and tried to put it completely out of her mind. Lexy had once told her that something between 90 percent and 100 percent of
pain was in the mind. Which meant you could control it – if you knew how. The first step was not believing in it, apparently. The wooden panelled doors to the Great Library were just underneath the large sweep of the grand staircase that went up to the gallery, where Effie’s room was, and the doorway leading to the staircase to Cosmo’s private study. Clothilde approached with the key. Effie gulped silently. Would it be like it had been
before?
‘All right,’ said Clothilde. ‘You first.’
‘Really?’ said Effie.
‘We’re not going very far in,’ said Clothilde. ‘I just want to map your version of the Great Library onto mine, so that we can go together in future. While you’re being initiated it will help you to go into my version until you build up enough strength to go to your own. Eventually we’ll be able to merge our versions in order to be in there together. And then you’ll be able to visit your version on your own too. Does this make any kind of sense
at all?’
‘Yes.’ Effie nodded. ‘I think so.’ She already knew that the Great Library was in a different dimension and in order to become real here it had to be sort of folded down into three
dimensions. Everyone did this in their own way, which meant the library looked different to each person who went in. Generating the library took lots of lifeforce. That was only one of the reasons it was dangerous.
Clothilde opened the door.

 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Mira’s Curly Hair by Maryam al Serkal and Rebeca Luciani

Review: Mira’s Curly Hair by Maryam al Serkal and Rebeca Luciani

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Mira doesn’t like her curly hair. She wants it to be beautiful and straight like her mama’s. One day, Mira and Mama go for a walk and the rain comes down. Little by little, the curls return to Mama’s hair and Mira sees how beautiful curls really are. 

A touching book about the relationship between appearance and identity. 

Mira’s issue is one which lots of children will relate to, from an early age right through to teens. Images of perceived beauty are everywhere and they can result in peer pressure to look one particular way. When I was a pre-teen is was all about very straight hair. Very straight and blonde was better. There was also lots of discussion about straight noses and facial symmetry.  What I didn’t understand at the time was that this idea which was rife in my school began with Hollywood. With the catwalks. With the narrow images of beauty available to young people at the time. 

This is particularly damaging when children aren’t seeing people from their own culture or people of many cultures and the many kinds of beautiful in the world. Thankfully, social media, for all its faults, is helping to fight this because suddenly there are photographs and hashtags which celebrate curly hair and fuller figures and people of every kind. It is also important that books reflect the diversity of the world from an early age. Mira’s Curly Hair shows how important it is not to look for the kind of beauty we see elsewhere, but to celebrate the things which are beautiful about ourselves.

Bright blocks of colour and beautiful patterns bring this to life and add to the feeling that this is all about celebration. 

A book which offers readers a new way to define and search for beauty. 

 

Thanks to Lantana Books for my gifted copy of Mira’s Curly Hair. Opinions my own.