Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Milton The Megastar by Emma Read.

Review: Milton The Megastar by Emma Read.

img_1651

Extract:

Zoe danced around the garden with Milton, jumping for joy, in her hand. She looked so happy it melted Milton’s heart, and he felt a sense of peace flow through him. This would be the break he needed and he would get to see his Dad again. Everything was falling into place. It was all going to be OK. 

(Milton The Megastar by Emma Read. P36.) 

 

cropped-bbd35e74-4b7a-46ca-8f8f-0e29fc08a5861.png

Synopsis:

Being the star of the #NotScaredOfSpiders campaign has stressed Milton out. His friends are supporting him, but secretly they think he’s become a real diva. Milton is on the edge of a breakdown, and he’s also concerned about his Dad who was last spotted in Hawaii.

Zoe’s new life should be easier. Since Dad got together with Greta, there’s been more comfort, less stress, and a whole lot more laughter in the house. Yet it doesn’t feel entirely right.

When Dad and Greta announce a trip to Hawaii, Zoe invites Milton along for the ride. After all, this could be the only opportunity for him to find his Dad. But Milton’s Dad is in more trouble than they know, living on the site of entrepreneur Bradley O’Hair’s latest project. Oh, and there’s also a volcano showing more signs of life than it has done for years …

Can Milton and Zoe trust other people – and spiders – to help them rescue Milton’s Dad?

 

cropped-bbd35e74-4b7a-46ca-8f8f-0e29fc08a5861.png

Review:

Zoe and the spider gang are back. Following their escapades in Milton The Mighty, the group is now suffering under the pressure of having a social media presence. Zoe has troubles of her own. As much as she likes Greta, and feels happy for her Dad, the relationship between them has moved so quickly. Where does Zoe herself fit into this new family unit? And why does everybody keep acting as if Greta is her Mum?

A holiday in Hawaii should be exactly what everybody needs, but it only makes things harder. Firstly there’s all the single-use plastic and environmentally awful activities offered by Bradley O’Hair and his mega hotel. Secondly, the man himself is clearly up to something big, and whatever it is, it appears to be bad news for Milton’s Dad and the colony of endangered spiders. Then Zoe herself is struggling – Dad used to tell her everything, but all of a sudden he and Greta are hiding things.

It is lovely to see a book about environmental action that is sensitive to the complexities. Is travelling to Hawaii wrong? Does the spider campaign justify the trip? And then what about Bradley O’Hair’s son Dillon? Dillon has only ever been taught that environmentalism is an extreme view and that there are heaps of trees to go around. Does that make him a bad person? Does it mean he will never listen? His Dad is certainly doing a lot of damage, but when Dillon listens to Zoe, he starts to think about spiders and rainforests in entirely new ways.

The story also proves that struggling with anxiety and stress doesn’t make someone any less of a hero. It is so important for readers to see positive representations of mental health struggles. Feeling overloaded, or talking about feelings, doesn’t make a person any less capable, and seeing favourite characters struggling can help to counter the stigma around anxiety and asking for support.  

Emma Read’s books fit into the growing market for stories younger than Harry Potter but older than the early reader chapter books. This is currently known as Lower Middle Grade, although I would question whether middle grade (traditionally for 8 – 12-year-olds) got so skewed towards the top that we are now seeing a resurgence of books aimed at younger primary aged children. Labels aside, this reminds me of the wonderful stories by Dick King-Smith that I read and reread as a child.

When we aren’t capable of doing something alone, reaching out to other people helps us to get things done. A triumphant return for Zoe and Milton – a story with a massive heart and absolutely loads of spiders.

 

Thanks to Chicken House Books and Laura Smythe PR for my copy of Milton The Megastar. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

illustrated · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Bad Day by Frann Preston-Gannon.

Review: The Bad Day by Frann Preston-Gannon.

img_1593

Squirrel is certain he is going to have a lovely day, until he gets stuck up a tree. The animals around him are having a terrible time too: Woodpecker is stuck in a tree, Snake is in knots, Tortoise has overturned, Fox has indigestion, and Mouse … well. Mouse is stuck in Fox’s stomach. 

When the other animals realise that Mouse is having the worst time of all, they band together in an attempt to help. Maybe working together and rescuing Mouse can turn their day into not such a bad one?

Illustrated in Frann Preston-Gannon’s beautiful style, with wide-eyed expressions and lots of texture, this will be a hit with young readers. 

Someone else is always worse off is a phrase beloved of my grandparent’s generation. Sometimes it is used unkindly, to stop a person from talking about their difficulties and experiences, such as grief or chronic illness. However, this story is about day-to-day problems (perhaps the young human equivalents might be not having anyone to play with, or tripping up over messy shoe laces). What can appear to make a day rubbish can be turned around with a little effort, and the help of the people around us.

img_1594

This would be a fantastic story for talking about interaction with others. We are so used to the idea of friendships that we sometimes forget to consider how we interact with people who we don’t know so well. The people we don’t like much, even. It is lovely to see a picture book about positive behaviour towards others, because understanding that we sometimes rely on people who we hardly know is important. I especially love the inclusion of Fox, whose guilty (and queasy) expressions betray the fact that he has done something very, very unkind. 

A wonderful double page spread in the middle of all the animals together allows the reader to predict how they might be able to help one another. This would be a wonderful point for an adult reader to pause and ask: what might happen next?

A fable-like story that readers will gain from with every read. This would be a great text for talking about working together as a team. 

 

Thanks to Templar Books for my copy of The Bad Day. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Pests by Emer Stamp.

Blog Tour: Pests by Emer Stamp.

img_1727

About Pests

Stix lives with his saftey-conscious Grandma behind the washing machine in Flat 3 Peewit Mansions. Although Stix knows that not being seeing is the golden rule – a seen mouse is a dead mouse after all – he wishes life could be a little bit more fun.

Then a rat intrudes and makes a mess, and the terrible Nuke-A-Pest are called. Grandma’s act of bravery goes wrong when she is flushed down a toilet and into a septic tank. Stix is left all alone … until he discovers the school for animals branded as pests down in the basement. Suddenly, he is encouraged to make a nuisance of himself, but what is the limit when there is so high a cost?

Pests had me hooked from the start. The strong character and voice was one reason I couldn’t stop reading. Think of Ratatouille, where a brilliant but vulnerable small creature is forced out into the wider world. Add some strong side characters and an evil non-human villain (no spoilers) with a terrible plan.

img_1728

Throughout the story, the illustrations heighten both the comedy and the emotional narrative. From the all-knowing dog in Flat 3, who is so much wiser than his humans, to Stix’s wide-eyed facial expressions, the story is made richer by the wonderful sketches.

There is also a healthy dose of humour. There are toilet jokes, although these are kept to a total minimum and done with such skill that even as a very grown-up person it is impossible not to giggle. This is in the suspense – certain things are planted earlier, and we just know … almost … that they will return in all their poo-based glory later on in the narrative.

I was delighted to be offered a guest post Emer Stamp, and even more so when she agreed to write about character creation. Stix and the gang are so believable that I can still imagine them even though I’ve finished reading the book. Thank you so much to Emer for your time, and to Lucy Clayton for organising this blog tour.

 

cropped-bbd35e74-4b7a-46ca-8f8f-0e29fc08a5861.png

Guest Post: Creating Believable Characters by Emer Stamp 

I believe the key to a good book, or film, for that matter, are the characters. You can have the best story in the world, but if the key players populating it aren’t believable, or likeable, or perhaps even dislikeable – if that’s your skit – then I can guarantee that pretty soon your audience is going to wander off and have a cup of tea or, in my case, a glass of squash.  This is why I spend a lot of time considering who my characters are and what makes them appealing or, in the case of the baddies, unappealing.

Both Pig, the protagonist in The Diary of Pig series, and Stix (a small mouse), the lead character in PESTS, possess the same quality – a childlike naivety about life. Pig is almost entirely clueless about the world beyond the farm and is quite often boggled by the everyday things inside it too. Stix is smarter than Pig but, thanks to his sheltered upbringing, is clueless about life outside the flat in which he lives. He openly admits to the reader that he has no idea what, if any, life exists beyond the front door.

I think the reason this naïve character trait works so well is that is it reflects the way children themselves so often feel – though they may not be able to give it such a sophisticated label. They see a bit of themselves in the character, which helps them invest more in its wellbeing. To be honest, even I see bits of myself in both Pig and Stix – the world still boggles me on a pretty frequent basis.

It also allows the child to feel smart.  I’ve been told by numerous parents that their child loved Pig because they felt cleverer than him. For once the child is the wise one. They know the answers to Pig’s silly questions, they know what is outside Stix’s front door.

Now, of course, not all my characters work in this way. Pig’s best friend Duck, and Stix’s best friend Batz, are more worldly-wise. They are the ones who help my protagonists make sense of everything. But, I am very careful to make sure they do this in an endearing way – no one likes a show-off or a big-head. Nobody wants a sidekick who makes the beloved hero look a fool. So, in both cases, I gave each a loveable foible, one to which I believe children can relate. Duck is the super-smart, sensible friend who needs a bit of lightening up; Batz is the over-eager friend who has a tendency to leap before she looks. In both cases my lead offers the antidote – Pig helps Duck see the funny side of life, whilst Stix’s in-built caution helps temper Batz’s dangerous gung-ho attitude.

No story is complete without a horribly bad villain. So, the thought I give to these is just as rigorous. It’s important a baddie is as bad as they can be. I want my readers to really despise them. Which is why I always imbue them with a hearty helping of sociopathic tendencies. This, I find, is always a solid base from which to build. My favourite baddies from the Dairy of Pig series are the Evil Chickens. These avian aggressors who care for no one but themselves. In fact, to be correct, the Super Evil Chicken cares for no one but itself. All the other chickens are just collateral – to be disposed of in whatever way needed to facilitate the ultimate goal – taking over the farm (for completely nefarious purposes of course). A plan which, for obvious reasons, they do their level best to keep a lid on  – secrecy being another great baddie trait. No one likes secretive characters.

And there is no one more infused with secrecy than the aptly-named Professor Armageddon, the despotic cockroach whose grand plan is to destroy the block of flats the pests live in. Not only is he keeping schtum about what he’s up to, but he’s also lying and manipulating others in order to get the job done. Again, both nasty traits that engender instant dislike.

Good or bad, naughty or nice, the most important thing is that your reader feels something towards the characters you create, be it positive or negative. If they don’t, the chances are, they’ll be reaching for the kettle or a bottle of squash.

Check out the other stops along the tour –

Blog tour banner PESTS

 

Thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for my copy of Pests which was sent as part of a promotional blog tour. Opinions my own.

 

illustrated · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: William Bee’s Wonderful World Of Tractors And Farm Machines by William Bee.

Review: William Bee’s Wonderful World Of Tractors And Farm Machines by William Bee. 

img_1234

William Bee is back. He loves machines as much as ever, and this time he is exploring the world of tractors and farm machinery. Get ready for a combine harvester, page after page of tractors, and the biggest wheels you have ever seen. 

Starting with modern day machinery, and then moving on to older farm equipment, this book follows William Bee as he gets behind the wheel of different vehicles. With retro-style pictures that give a detailed look at the workings of the different tractors and machines, the illustrations achieve the perfect balance between cheerful and informative. 

William is clearly in command of his world, but he works alongside a group of animated traffic cones. Although William appears to be allowed to try pretty much anything he wants, he does so reponsibly and shares the work with his traffic cone helpers.  

The text explores the reasons each machine exists, and is really informative on the subject of farming. Many younger children’s books about farms skirt over the reason that farms exist – for food production. There certainly isn’t any distressing information, and this side of the text focuses on crops. A page at the back of the book shows the cereal products produced from the crops on the farm. This is a clever way to approach the subject of food production – it doesn’t hide the truth, but it leaves meat out of the equation until children are ready to ask those questions for themselves. 

I am a shameless fan of the William Bee series. There are very few picture books with a single human character, and books like this offer comfort to readers who want to enjoy learning about their interests without stories about social development and interaction. Adults often forget the amount of information younger people collect about their interests and hobbies. Hands up who used to be able to rattle off all 151 original Pokemon, or recite the periodical table, or explain the workings of a steam train?

This series falls somewhere between fact and fiction. It celebrates all things machines and encourages readers to picture themselves in the driver’s seat. 

 

 

Thanks to Pavilion Books and Catherine Ward PR for my copy of William Bee’s Wonderful World Of Tractors And Farm Machines. Opinions my own.  

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.

img_1612

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.

img_1268

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.) 

cropped-bbd35e74-4b7a-46ca-8f8f-0e29fc08a5861.png

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. 

 

cropped-bbd35e74-4b7a-46ca-8f8f-0e29fc08a5861.png

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.

img_1608

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.)

cropped-bbd35e74-4b7a-46ca-8f8f-0e29fc08a5861.png

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.

cropped-bbd35e74-4b7a-46ca-8f8f-0e29fc08a5861.png

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.