Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Lula And The Sea Monster by Alex Latimer

Review: Lula And The Sea Monster by Alex Latimer

Lula And The Sea Monster

Lula loves her home by the beach, but she won’t be living there much longer. Soon her family will be forced to leave and the beach will be covered over to make way for for a new highway. One morning, Lula makes friends with a little creature named Bean. To her surprise, Bean gobbles up the food Lula brings. He grows and he grows and he grows until he’s bigger than Lula’s house.

When the demolition trucks come, Bean is ready to face them with is tentacles and he chases them away. 

A delightful story about good hearts winning out over greed, with strong messages about protecting our seashore. 

Stories about children in need of help offering food to an angel in disguise are old as time, but this one feels up to date and perfect for our times. Overdevelopment is a major problem, especially the kind which is motivated by money. Lula’s appreciation for her seaside home comes strongly across and will encourage readers to look out for their wild spaces. 

Bean’s name is perfect because he grows and he grows and he grows. Looking at him when he is a full-sized sea monster made me smile because we know that really he started out as just a little blob. This is a perfect metaphor for the first person to speak out and gather support against a cause. 

I especially loved the double-page spreads which focused on Lula and Bean. From little Bean wrapped around Lula’s fingers to their shared picnics and finally Bean’s ginormous eyes peeping out of the water, the progression made this book a real joy. 

 The perfect story to give hope to even the smallest of heroes, and a lovely book about friendship and kindness. 

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my copy of Lula And The Sea Monster by Alex Latimer. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur by Richard Byrne

Review: The Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur by Richard Byrne

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Finlay wants to keep some jellybeans to share with his friend but a big dinosaur has other ideas. Fortunately, Finlay knows a really, really, really big dinosaur. He just needs to keep talking long enough for him to come along. 

A story about sharing, size and not getting too big for our boots. 

Bold shapes and jelly-bean colours make fun illustrations which are impossible not to smile at. 

Finlay the little dinosaur has something about The Gruffalo’s Mouse about him. He’s little but he’s brave. The archetypal small character faced with a bigger threat. Every time the big dinosaur comes at him, Finlay comes back smarter. Quicker. Braver. 

I liked the ending of this book because it turns the story on its head. The big dinosaur might be a bully but the really, really, really big dinosaur is a nice guy. He helps his friend out once then helps to divide the jelly-beans into three piles. He sets a good example to the dinosaur with a big personality. Showing off and getting above ourselves is unattractive regardless of size. 

This came as a refreshing change from the ending where the big guy runs away, a narrative which fails get to any meaningful truth. At nine or ten I got small for my age. Sat down in the class photograph and wore clothes for children two or three years younger. Then I turned eleven and grew. And grew. And grew. In that time I noticed a change. Things which got my short friends into trouble got me into bigger trouble. Adults expected more responsibility of me because I was of adult height. A friend’s parent once spent a whole game making me stand in different places so I didn’t put the others at a disadvantage. (Disadvantage, woman from dim and distant past? I couldn’t have aimed the ball straight if I tried). The strangest thing was I was young for my age and not very self-confident. These judgments were made on the grounds of height. Meanwhile, some of the short kids had massive personalities. 

This story is a reminder to the adults reading the book, as well as to the younger readers, that we have two sizes. A literal size and a metaphorical one. It would be lovely to draw charts showing where we think we fall in terms of height, then where we feel we fall in terms of personality. Have we ever had moments where we get above ourselves? Does this happen for a reason? (Some of those small kids from my childhood? Their big personalities were a defence against being treated like babies). 

A fun story which shows the difference between our height and our personality … and reminds us that sharing is more fun than showing-off. 

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my gifted copy of The Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur. Opinions my own.

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.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

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Extract:

His words are mild ; his tone is not. And what he says unlocks some long-buried memory. Just like that, I’m no longer in the lecture hall but back at Rose Hill Plantation, watching as the major slowly uncoils his horsewhip from its hook. 

This ain’t your place, girl. You run back inside ‘fore you’re next. 

(Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. P76.)

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Synopsis:

Jane McKeene is nearing the end of her training at Miss Preston’s School Of Combat. Since the shamblers first rose on the battlefields of the American Civil War, a programme has been in place to train young black people in the combat skills necessary to keep them at bay.

Jane was born to a white mother and longs to find her way home. Instead, she is sent far away to a Western outpost where she uncovers terrible secrets. It seems not all the monsters are undead.

A zombie story with a political message about the consequences of ignorance and division.

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Review:

At last, a zombie novel which challenges the reader’s intelligence and makes a statement about the current political climate.

The shamblers (what a great word for zombies) are terrifying. They are unashamedly gory and bear a close resemblance to their living forms, roaming the world in ragged clothes.

They are not the only antagonists.

The Survivalists Party puts out propaganda about non-white people’s links to the shamblers and attempts to save themselves by building a wall. You would have to have spent the past two years with your head in the sand if you can’t spot similarities to political events in modern America.

Jane is a feisty and unapologetic heroine whose ideas about combat are often three steps ahead of her elders. She is forced to fight the zombies against her will, and at the same time she is faced with a climate which views her as something less than a person. As well as being an alternative history which builds on very real events, the book speaks out about the experiences faced by black people at the hands of the countries, politicians and neighbours.

If it sounds bleak, remember that this book is giving voice to experiences which have been white-washed out of history. Own voices fantasy brings lived experiences to a mainstream audience, and the world will be a richer place for having these voices in print.

A zombie novel like none I have read before. It proves that zombie stories can be about more than cheap thrills and that the most real horror is the systematic oppression faced by groups in society.

 

Thanks to Titan Books for my gifted copy of Dread Nation. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Storm Hound by Claire Fayers

Review: Storm Hound by Claire Fayers

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Synopsis:

Jess Price finds the cutest puppy in a rescue centre, but it turns out he isn’t any ordinary dog. He is Storm of Odin, the youngest puppy in the wild hunt, and he is in danger.

Storm hounds are full of magic, a resource which is running short in the human world, and there are people who would kill Storm for his magic. Meanwhile, Jess can’t tell whether the new boy at school has an agenda of his own.

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Review:

A magical adventure with a big heart. I love stories about magic which are rooted in folklore and place, so it was a delight to read Storm Hound which is set in Wales. It imagines a world where the figures from mythology are an eternal presence. The magicians of stories past are as alive today as they were centuries ago.

The relationship between Storm and Jessica is beautiful, and I love Storm’s unique voice. Although he is a tiny puppy, he has the voice and attitude of an ancient god. He thinks an angry neighbour as the Valkyrie-Lady and refers to Jess as his human servant. If you like stories which give you an insight into the thoughts of other animals, this one is for you.

This is also a story about a family finding their new normal after an amicable split. Jessica and her brother are from London, and the Welsh countryside is outside their experience. They’ve left their friends and everything they know behind to be with their Dad. They adjust to this in different ways. It was nice to see a story about a break that wasn’t traumatic. Sometimes separation is a healthy and mutual choice. Although it hurts, young readers need stories where the characters move forward with a positive outlook.

A gentle sense of humour makes this stand out among middle-grade fantasy adventures. Although the threat is there, and it has the potential to change the world, this story never felt dark or frightening. It maintained that sense of wonder and humour which is unique to children’s literature.

After Mirror Magic in 2018, a book which swept me away, Clare Fayers had a hard act to follow. I have to admit I was turning the pages until I reached the conclusion and will be back here for her next story.

 

Thanks to Karen Bultiauw and Macmillan Children’s Books UK for my proof copy of Storm Hound. Opinions my own.

 

 

waiting on wednesday

Waiting On Wednesday: The Colour Of The Sun by David Almond

wowcolourofthesunbannerSynopsis (from Hodder Children’s Books):

“The day is long, the world is wide, you’re young and free.”

51w0hs8achl-_ac_us218_One hot summer morning, Davie steps boldly out of his front door. The world he enters is very familiar – the little Tyneside town that has always been his home – but as the day passes, it becomes ever more mysterious.

A boy has been killed, and Davie thinks he might know who is responsible. He turns away from the gossip and excitement and sets off roaming towards the sunlit hills above the town.

As the day goes on, the real and the imaginary start to merge, and Davie knows that neither he nor his world will ever be the same again.bird

Why I can’t wait to read The Colour Of The Sun:

– Gangs and routines and friendships. I want to know Davie’s connection to the murdered boy, and what there is to learn about this boy’s life. David Almond is brilliant at setting up convincing links between children. 

– The real and the imaginary start to merge – I have read a couple of stories where the protagonist loses their grip on reality, but I am interested to know whether this is a straight psychological thriller. Is there some commentary on the nature of reality and imagination?

-The story takes place in a single day. This reminds me of modernist works such as Mrs Dalloway. I am interested to see how the story pans out in such a short time-scale.

-Almond has written about the same region in many of his novels, but it looks slightly different each time. Real meets imaginary, always to great effect. I love books which are set in a distinct geographical region. It is great to see different places reflected in fiction. 

– A new novel from David Almond is a treat. He is one of the greatest authors working today. He shows a deep love for the craft of storytelling. 

 

The Colour Of The Sun by David Almond

Hodder Children’s Books

May 2018

Non-Fiction

Review: Mr Shaha’s Recipes For Wonder – Alom Shaha

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Mr Shaha’s Recipes For Wonder puts the look, ask and play back into science. From the start it makes clear that its aim is to help children to make enquiries for themselves. It is a recipe book of experiments which can be conducted at the kitchen table.

There are some positive messages here about enquiry and growth-mindset. The book deidicates a section to the idea that the reader might not know the answers when they set out. A helpful chart suggests the kind of questions they might start asking.

The book is divided into five sections:

  • Motion
  • Sound
  • Electricity, magnetism and light,
  • Atoms
  • Living things

These divisions are friendly to younger readers who might not have come across biology, chemistry and physics. Chapter pages give some information about the area of science, including examples of where it might be found. I would note that the book is physics-heavy. All the experiments are great but it would have been lovely to see more biology.

The experiments are easy to follow with clear illustrations of each stage. It is lovely that these instructions aren’t confined to tiny boxes. There is nothing worse than not being quite sure what you are supposed to do. The visual checklist of equipment also makes the book more friendly for younger readers. 

Timg_5186he book would be nice for a broad age-range. Younger children might gain something from supervised experiments while children in secondary school could use it to revise scientific concepts. It would also be nice for adults looking to demonstrate science to children. When I was a Brownie Leader, for example, we were always looking for half-hour activities which could be done with basic equipment. The book encourages adults to revise the concepts themselves first to help children get the most out of their learning.

This is also a lovely book to look at. Beautiful, bright water-colour illustrations accompany the experiments and it has an attractive and exciting cover. This would make a lovely gift for children who are curious about the world.

Thank you to Alom Shaha for my review copy. Opinions my own.

Louise Nettleton

Literary Fiction Reviews

Review: The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton

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Extract:

‘…Had Irene in all her strength risen, we would have driven the occupiers back into the sea. It was not faith or the lack of it that did for us. It was the cowardice of your elders. A shame they mean to ram down your throats. And will you kneel like supplicants while this happens?’

(The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton. P86.) 

 

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Synopsis:

In Ancient Britain, a young boy discovers a terrorist plot against the Roman Invaders. His brother is implicated, and he thinks he can find a way to spare his family from retribution. In the 21st Century, a man shattered by divorce tries to assert his hold on family land and finds himself up against enraged locals who have always used the land. One of these is Aitch, who is traumatised after fighting in Afghanistan. In a future ravaged by climate change, a band of children try to reach safety. The world is ravaged by war, and the children are in danger from slavers and starvation. They fight among themselves about the extent to which they should trust outsiders.

Our relationship with the land is examined and questions are raised which have never been more pertinent. The cycle of time challenges our assumptions as we see the destructive nature of civilisation repeating itself.

birdReview:

One setting, three time-periods and a cycle which repeats over the centuries. The Devil’s Highway is an extraordinary work which challenges our ideas about civilisation, and explores our relationship with place and time. Themes and motifs recur and build as we cycle between three stories set along a Roman road known in folklore as The Devil’s Highway.

This is the sort of novel which demands a second reading. It is intelligent and thought-provoking, and I am certain I would make more connections on a second reading, as well as marveling at the detail I missed first time around. It shows different people coming into one place, so bent on progressing their own cause they are willing to cause destruction. It depicts the people caught in the wake of such times: a group of children, a band of disenfranchised young men and a man with PTSD. I was stuck by these depictions of the young caught up in the acts of their elders.

The future depicted is dystopian. The words which tell the story are like our own language, except instead of developing with time it has been ravaged. Languages fall apart as communities are broken up, and the children live in a world of tight tribes and poor connections. Reading the narrative this way was like experiencing that break-up. At one point a character points out that we should fear the damage of climate change far more than the damage of war. Climate change is equally the result of society bent on its own agenda, and the cycle of life will continue if we can reduce the impact of climate change.

The narrative set in the present is interesting within the context of the others. The disagreement we see is between landowner and local council tenants, but there is another war discussed. One which is happening far away in Afghanistan. This is the story of our time – of Brexit and dissatisfaction. Of the Middle East which has been invaded too many times by the West, and of the young men who have grown amid these wars and want revenge. We see a middle-class man hound the men from the council estate off ‘his’ land. It is the same cycle of behaviour we have seen before, played out on local scale. Perhaps everything begins on local scale, with attachment to land pitted against legal ownership or political control.

This is a compelling narrative which tells the story of our times without referring to Brexit or Syria or Trump. This is the story of our times, and it is the story of all times.

 

Thanks to 4th Estate Books for sending a copy to review. Opinions are my own.

 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Feather by Cao Wexuan

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A single white feather wishes she knew which bird she belonged to. She sets off to the skies on a journey of self-discovery. A philosphical refelction on the ultimate questions in life: who am I? Where do I belong? Feather sets off certain she belongs high in the sky, but learns that there is plenty to love on the ground.

It is interesting that this book comes from a culture where asiprations can be high. Its ultimate message is that security and happiness are more important than great achievements. This is a nice narrative to turn to when children feel pressured by modern life and the pressure to achieve.

img_4279The illustrations are a work of art. I would happily have these individually on my walls. This is the sort of book I would pick up and drool over in an art-gallery shop. The design is as much a part of the book as the story. The early pages are shorter than the end pages. All the way along we have a sneak-preview of a page where the feather floats towards a bird, and we think we know which bird feather belongs to. Life is not predictable, and nor are stories, as we discover when we reach the page.

I love the calm colour-palette and the alternating colours of the pages.

Feather would make a lovely bedtime story for a young child, but it is also the sort of book you might choose as a special gift. The book is a beautiful object and I can see it being thumbed through many times for the pleasure of looking at the pages.

 

Huge thanks to Sarah Mather and Turnaround UK for my copy of Feather. Opinions remain my own.

top ten tuesday

Ten[ish] Books I loved in 2017

2017 has been a stellar year for children’s literature. Picking 10 books was a challenge I was not worthy of, so I have divided my choices into MG and YA. Even then a sneaky extra worked its way onto the YA list. I left one or two off the MG list, but *deleting* an extra impossible.

To narrow the choice further, I decided only to include:

  • novels – there have been some great short story anthologies, but I will give these a seperate post
  • Books with a 2017 publication date

 

Picking favourites is so subjective, and difficult – are you judging the most literary? Those you enjoyed most? Those which best suit their target audience?  I have called this ‘books I loved in 2017’ rather than ‘favourite books’.  There are still books I could include, but I am pleased with the range of books I settled on, and hope no offence is caused. 

I would like to highlight the number of debut authors on this list. Every book on this list is fantastic, but it is especially encouraging to see that children’s literature is producing new talent.

Thank-you to every author on this list for writing me a wonderland. 

 

Middle Grade

The Midnight Peacock by Katherine Woodfine

Kick by Mitch Johnson

Michael’s Spear by Hilton Pashley

Nevermoor – The Trials Of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr *

A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson *

The Amber Pendant [The Rose Muddle Mysteries]  by Imogen White

Letters To The Lighthouse by Emma Carroll 

Evie’s Ghost by Helen Peters

Where The World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

 

Young Adult 

A Pocketful Of Crows by Joanne Harris

The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli

A Semi-Definitive List Of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland

One Of Us Is Lying by Karen M McManus

S.T.A.G.S by MA Bennett

Piglettes by Clemantine Beauvais

The Stars At Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard

Spellslinger by Sebastien De Castell

Ink by Alice Broadway *

The Jungle by Pooja Puri*

 

  • On old blog – link will take you off this site.

 

What is your top read of 2017? Let me know in the comments below.