Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Dragon In The Library by Louie Stowell. Illustrated by Davide Ortu.

Review: The Dragon In The Library by Louie Stowell. Illustrated by Davide Ortu.

The dragon In The Library

Synopsis:

When Alita and Josh suggest a trip to the library, Kit is majorly unimpressed. What is there to do at the library? Won’t she just die of boredom? She’s reckoned without her own magical powers, the amazing librarian Faith and the dragon who lives beneath the bookshelves.

Suddenly the library doesn’t seem like such a boring place after all.

When it is threatened with closure, and the magic is threatened, Kit and her friends know they must do everything within their power to save it. Because libraries are magical places which should never be threatened by men in suits.

 

Review:

A magical adventure about the power of reading by prolific non-fiction author Louie Stowell. This is a story which will have broad appeal. Bookworms will love it because it celebrates that special magic which can be found in any place with bookshelves. People who dislike reading (at present) will relate to Kit. A bad early experience with words can be enough to frighten people away from a lifetime of magic. Luckily librarians like Faith know that people who are afraid of books are often the ones who enjoy a good story.

Kit is the Wizard. The one with special story-related powers. Not bookish Alita or polite Josh. This is an empowering message and it is particularly appropriate in a book which could be enjoyed by readers of all ages yet has a lower reading age than standard middle-grade books (like the early Harry Potter books or stories by Robin Stevens).

Deciphering the words is a skill. Getting into the story is very real magic.

The antagonist in this story is a businessman who intended to turn the library into a shopping centre. During my last year in London, my local library was reduced in size to accommodate a gym on the bottom floor. While this was far less drastic than the loses suffered by other communities, it still felt like an attack on the space where I had grown up and dreamed. Baddies, as bookworms generally know, don’t always have magical powers. In fact, they are usually very mundane people who can twist a situation to their advantage and back themselves up with powerful friends. Showing this all to real kind of nastiness in stories is important. Even if most people aren’t wizards, they can, like Kit, find good friends who also refuse to bow down to injustice.

Louie Stowell’s message is clear. Libraries are magical and those who seek to take them away are greedy, villainous tyrants. At a time it too often feels that all the power is in the hands of such people, this book offers a healthy dose of hope along with the adventure.

Black-and-white illustrations by Davide Ortu add extra sparkle to the story. He is especially good at bringing out the hidden traits of his characters. Librarian Faith looks like she is prepared for adventure at any moment, while Mr Salt has meanness brimming out of him like an exaggerated Lord Business (of Lego Movie fame).

A delightful story which states loudly and clearly that the magic of reading belongs to everyone. I’m looking forward to more fiction from Louie Stowell.  

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Ltd for my proof copy of The Dragon In The Library. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

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Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: I’m Not Grumpy! by Steve Smallman and Caroline Pedler

Review: I’m Not Grumpy! by Steve Smallman and Caroline Pedler

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Everyone knows about the grumpy little mouse who lives in a tree. Everyone except Mouse, who doesn’t think of herself as at all grumpy. One day, she wakes to find a baby badger blocking her front door. Baby Badger is upset because he’s lost and he’s trying to find his mummy. Together the pair set off in search of the baby badger’s home. They join up with other animals, who discover that there is more to Mouse than her legendary temper.

A cute story about friendship, bravery and looking beyond the surface.

The grumpy woman down the road. That mean man who walks his dog near school. Such characters are part of the landscape of childhood and everyone can reference at least one person from their own childhoods. A running theme with these stories is how little is actually known about the person in question. They were horrible. We avoided them.

That’s how the story usually goes. Mouse is such a character and her temper is legend. However, she has a good heart and her determination is exactly what is needed to get Baby Badger safely home through the forest. 

The other animals learn to look past Mouse’s temper, and once she has been given a chance to make friends, Mouse feels much less grumpy than before. 

Gentle woodland greens and different leaves and flowers provide a peaceful backdrop to a story which has moments of real drama. Like all the best fictional forests, there is a sense that something could be lurking unseen on the edges and as more animals join the mission we feel happier about their chances of getting through safely. 

The characters are painted with such relatable facial expressions. There is never any doubt about how they are feeling and this opens up lots of conversation about what is going on inside their minds. 

A brilliant story which reminds us that the best of friendships don’t always start with a friendly face. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my gifted copy of I’m Not Grumpy. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction

Review: Edvard Munch Love And Angst. Edited by Giulia Bartrum.

Review: Edvard Munch Love And Angst. Edited by Giulia Bartrum.

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Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ is an iconic image of our era. For the first time ever the British Museum has put together a major exhibition of his work, which is also the largest show of his prints in 45 years. The accompanying book, Edvard Munch Love And Angst, examines the society and times in which his works were produced and how they influenced his work. 

Munch grew up in 19th-Century Europe. Industrial advance and high mortality existed hand in hand. Munch’s own sister and mother both died from tuberculosis, which meant he was familiar as a child with blood-stained handkerchiefs and agonizing decline. Great theories about the world were in their infancy, and a sense of the uncanny was born from the possibilities about the world which were opening up but not yet confirmed.

The scene is set in an opening chapter, then Munch’s career is examined in chronological order.

Munch had a conviction from early on that art should show more than the surface. Inner secrets and turmoil were at the heart of his work, and the trauma of watching his mother and sister die from tuberculosis left him with a terrible fear that he too would succumb to the illness. Today such complex grief would be recognised and aided, but Munch’s obsessions are apparent even in work from his later life. 

Seeing this collection of images gave me a broader context to ‘The Scream’. Even a person with no interest in art can associate the image with inner-turmoil, but seeing it alongside Munch’s images of sick beds and dying children helps relate that famous image to the time in which it was created. Looking at the full-colour pictures in the book, I got the sense of a time when death was so normal it was continually on the mind. 

Another thing the book taught me is the number of mediums Munch worked in. Woodcut, oil, etching and printing are represented among others, and Munch’s experimentation with medium is as fascinating as his subjects and life story. Later chapters are dedicated to his process and I was particularly interested to see different works which had come from the same printing moulds. 

Although this book was produced to accompany a museum exhibition, it is possible to appreciate it without attending (and I am now desperate to see the exhibition which runs until 21st July). 

A fine study which gets behind the popular image to reveal the human story. 

 

Munch Love And Angst runs at The British Museum from 11th April – 21st July 2019.

Thanks to Thames and Hudson in association with The British Museum for my gifted book. Opinions my own.

 

 

Young Adult Reviews

Review: Maresi Red Mantle by Maria Turtschaninoff

Review: Maresi Red Mantle by Maria Turtschaninoff

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Extract:

I am not alone. I have my family around me, and my friends. Marget and I see each other every day. But our friendship is no longer as effortless as it once was. When I talk about the First Mother and her three aspects, or about the Crone and her door, Marget listens politely for a while but soon starts gossiping with my mother about the neighbours or discussing the best remedy for nappy rash and colic with Náraes, who often comes to see us and brings the children. I am no longer one of them. I am an outsider. 

(Maresi Red Mantle. P61. Maria Turtschaninoff.) 

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Synopsis:

In a patriarchal world, the Red Abbey has always been the one haven where girls and women can learn. Now Maresi has left the Abbey. Although she could have stayed all her life, she chose to take her knowledge back into the outside world. She journeys back to her home in Rovas filled with ideas about opening a school and passing on all she has learned.

The people of Rovas live by tradition and superstition. Most people are happy to follow in their family’s footsteps, and few of the others have considered it could be otherwise. Maresi fails to pitch her ideas in a way which interests the village people.

Meanwhile, the rule of an oppressive Earl and his followers threatens peace and security in Rovas. People are losing their homes and girls and women are being targeted by soldiers.

Maresi wants to protect her people, but how can she when she is uncertain where she belongs?

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Review:

A feminist epic and compelling narrative which continues the story which began with Maresi. Although this is the third story in the Red Abbey Chronicles, Naondel is a prequel which tells a story from the time when the abbey is founded.

Anyone who is familiar with the series will be desperate for the next installment. You won’t be disappointed. Although the community which Maresi returns to is less overtly magical than the island and Abbey setting, there is, as Maresi herself discovers, more to her homeland than is apparent from the surface. The First Mother – the three-form goddess who unites the women and girls of the Abbey – is present here too, even if people’s understanding of Her takes a different form.

Maresi’s crisis goes deeper than her struggle to set up a school. Her story is told in epistolary form, through the letters she sends to her friends and superiors back at the Abbey. What initially seems like regular reports turn into something more like a lone member of a chat group firing off messages into the night. Maresi can’t stop writing. She misses the Abbey, where she so clearly belonged, and her failure to reintegrate into the community forms a large part of her personal crisis. Should she change to fit back in? Can she remain the educated young woman she became at the Abbey? Is anyone even interested in what she has to say? I found this character development interesting because, even though Maresi is brilliant in many ways, she still has her flaws. She considers herself to have outgrown her childhood home and fails at first to see what it still has to teach her.  

For the first time in her life, too, Maresi is grappling with romance. Given the brutal treatment she has seen in the past this is a complex area for her to face.

Maria Turtschaninoff’s writing is masterful. At all times it feels as if she is weaving a myriad of rich threads into a tapestry, and her prose is so beautiful that I read slowly just to enjoy the words. This book spans the generations, too, with a final section looking ahead to the choices Maresi makes in her elder years. The books have always dealt with rites of passage – birth, love and death – and their interconnectivity, but before now we have often seen them in a figurative way. In the rituals and beliefs of the island. This time they hit Maresi’s family straight on.

An extraordinary and complex novel. This series is rich and beautiful, examining the literal and figurative havens women find when confronted with a Patriarchal world. Prepare to cry alongside Maresi, but more than that, be prepared to grow as a result of reading her story.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for my gifted copy of Maresi Red Mantle. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu

Review: The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu

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Extract:

The applause builds anyway until the benches are shaking. I can’t help myself; I turn to look. 

The silks flap emptily and Belle’s nowhere to be seen. 

(The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu. P29 -30.)BBD35E74-4B7A-46CA-8F8F-0E29FC08A586Synopsis:

Sisters Tansey and Belle are the stars of the Butterfly Circus. Their trapeze act turns them into human butterflies. Then a bad accident leaves Tansey on the ground. Afraid to get back on the trapeze, she is certain her career is over, so she doesn’t see what happens the night Belle disappears.

The best lead is an invitation from a rival circus. Determined to find Belle, Tansey sets out on a search which takes her across the isle of Gala. Tansey’s shadow comes to life and drives her on in the quest to find out what happened.

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Review:

A story about bravery, confidence, friendship and rivalry. Tansey is certain she will never be brave enough to fly through the air again, but she doesn’t know just how many wonderful things are hidden inside her.

Stories set in performance spaces are always a treat and The Butterfly Circus is no exception. Drawing on the golden age of the British seaside holiday, Francesca Armour-Chelu has created a world of piers and promenades and fairgrounds and music halls. It is also a world of poor health and hard grind. The people on the mainland are worked to the bone, and they are only permitted to enter the holiday island of Gala if they are scrubbed down. Candyfloss and sideshows may seem light, but they came from a time which was difficult in many ways. In a world where so many things glitter and shine, it is easy to see the dirt.

Tansey has always looked to her big sister Belle for confidence. Belle is quite literally the person who catches her when they are performing, and in life she is the person who stops the pair falling flat. However, when Tansey is on her own and her shadow Rosa comes to life, Tansey finds a whole new personality to admire.

The challenges Tansey faces during her quest come in different forms. At times the story is almost Dickensian, with the threat of the orphanage looming large and disgusting characters with equally odious names prepared to kidnap children and work them to the bone. The idea of ‘freak’ shows is also explored, and it is clear from the story that it doesn’t take much for someone to be labelled as different.

A strong protagonist whose story teaches us that there are different ways to be brave. This is a story which is all about the internal struggles of the protagonist, but those are brought to life in a beautiful and visual way. Although there are plenty of circus stories for children, this one adds to the canon with its darker edge and brilliant characters.  

 

Thanks to Walker Books Ltd for my gifted copy of The Butterfly Circus. Opinions my own.

 

Activity Book · Non-Fiction

Review: The Unworry Book by Alice James

Review: The Unworry Book by Alice James

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Let go of your worries and identify your emotions. This brilliant activity book is on hand to help everyone deal with worries, fears, and bad memories. 

Unlike standard activity books, this has a range of different pages. There are advice sheets, spaces to write and identify worries, drawing pages, puzzles and games for mindfulness and distraction, diary pages and places to figure out what is most important to the reader. It is not only a fun space. It is a toolkit and helping hand. 

The Unworry Book came at a brilliant time. I was able to test it out not only in the spirit of a good reviewer but as a place to help me deal with my own emotions and fears. Although I am an adult, and this is targeted at younger readers, I found it a brilliant way to try out new management techniques. For example, I would never have thought of using a dot-to-dot for mindfulness or of drawing a creature to represent my feelings, but both activities have their place. Following on from this it would be possible to build a worry kit based on the activities which worked best for me. 

Worries lead to so many places. To a sleepless night, to a shouting session, to sheer desperation. The Unworry Book has a technique for every occurrence. It encourages the reader to manage their emotions and keep their fears in proportion. 

The design mixes calming colours with happy ones. Pale blues and greys with bright yellow. A round, friendly-looking guide follows the reader through the book. Not only does this provide a friendly face, but we see a different range of facial expressions which might prompt the reader to think about how they are feeling. 

This book is a big hit in so many ways. Unlike conventional books about emotions, which can feel heavy on the lectures, this leaves the reader to find the right page for the moment. 

A section of numbers and advice at the back suggests places where young readers can go if things get too much. 

A treasure trove of ideas for dealing with stress and unhappiness. 

 

Thanks to Usborne Books for my gifted copy of The Unworry Book. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Milton The Mighty by Emma Read

Review: Milton The Mighty by Emma Read

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Extract:

‘You and me, Mr Macey. Together we’ll clear this house of invaders.’ 

‘So, you’ll kill them?’

Felicity smoothed down her corduroy skirt.

‘Every. Last. One.’ 

At this point, Milton stopped having thoughts altogether. He went cross-eyed, eight different ways, and fainted.

(Milton The Mighty by Emma Read. P30.)

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Synopsis:

When spider Milton discovers he has been branded deadly by a popular internet story, he realises his life is in peril. His house human has a phobia of spiders and will go to any length to destroy them, which makes him an easy target for Felicity Thrubwell whose pest control business thrives on fear.

Milton’s only hope is to prove he is not a deadly spider. Luckily he has help. Milton’s eight-legged friends are on board, and so is the younger human Zoe. Together they set out to straighten out the facts.

But will that be enough to stop Felicity Thrubwell?

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Review:

A story about a little spider with a big heart. Milton’s quest to clear his name and save spider-kind is the sort of animal tale I loved when I was small. Dick King-Smith was one of my favourite childhood authors, and this reminds me of his work. It has the same mix of charm and resilient characters, with up to date technology.

Milton’s campaign for justice is balanced with a whole load of creepy crawly fun.

The theme couldn’t be more relevant to our times. Milton has always had trouble from some humans, but a piece of viral internet content turns the whole world against him. And it’s just not true. Milton isn’t a killer spider. Emma Read resists an anti-internet stance. Instead the book shows that the internet can be used for good or bad and that we must trust our own judgement and knowledge.

Zoe is a wonderful character. She’s having trouble at school because she just refuses to cave into the anti-spider hype. She knows better. It is good to see a role model who sticks to her principles and is determined to make a change. Like Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist who has turned heads and opinions, Zoe knows that making a change isn’t about being big or special. It’s about being unafraid to get your message out.

This is also a book about friendship and the power of changing our habits. Fears and actions can be ingrained. It takes kindness and understanding – not anger – to help people change their ways.

A fantastic story with two heroes (a spider and a girl) whose resilience, determination and kindness make them perfect role-models to us all.

 

Thanks to Chicken House Books for my gifted copy. Opinions my own.