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.

 

 

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.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Christmas Unicorn by Anna Currey.

Review: The Christmas Unicorn by Anna Currey.

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Milly and her parents are spending Christmas with Grandpa. Dad hasn’t arrived yet, and not only that but Grandpa’s is away from home and Milly doesn’t know anyone. Then, one snowy night when everyone is asleep, a unicorn called Florian appears at her bedroom window. He and Milly become firm friends, and he helps in his own way to prepare for Christmas.

When Florian disappears, it seems Christmas is cancelled, except there may be an even better surprise around the corner. 

A warm-hearted tale about friendship and company. 

Going away for Christmas is something that lots of children will be familiar with, and it can be something that they have no say in. It isn’t that they don’t like to be there, not exactly, but it takes them away from their friendship circles. That means missing out on parties and events as well as having nobody to play with over Christmas. This gentle tale reminds us that to make new friends we have to accept a separation from our existing ones.

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Snowy-white Florian with his beautiful horn embodies everything that is magical about the snow-covered countryside. It is easy to imagine that the place where Milly is staying is a little wilder and a little more open than her home. Getting to know new areas is important and spending time outdoors can, in itself, be a reason to leave home behind for a little while. 

This story also reminds adult readers that, if they make arrangements over Christmas, their small people might need help to settle into a new environment and to find ideas about how to spend their time. After all, five days is forever when you are very small. 

The illustrations show just how many blues and whites can be found in a winter’s sky and they also capture Florian’s expressions and movements as if he was a playful young pony. This is the kind of story that should be read with a nice mug of hot chocolate to hand. 

A comforting read that lots of young people will relate to over the holiday period. 

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my copy of The Christmas Unicorn. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Kindness Grows by Britta Teckentrup.

Review: Kindness Grows by Britta Teckentrup.

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Sometimes a crack grows between people. Maybe it began with a mean word, or anger, or a selfish gesture. It doesn’t matter. The point is, sometimes in life we experience damaged relationships. It can be difficult to know how to go forward. 

Kindness Grows uses metaphors – the crack caused by unkind actions and a tree that grows and flourishes when it is nurtured with kindness – to consider and compare the effect our actions can have on our relationships with other people. It uses double-page spreads to compare the crack on the left-hand page with the tree on the right. The basic principle is that healing begins with a kind action. 

With cutaway details and striking illustrations, this would be a lovely book to introduce readers to the concept that actions have consequences and that our relationships with other people depend on thinking about the way our behaviour might make them feel. 

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This book offers a very visual way to approach conversations about hurt and making up. Sometimes it can be hard to understand why another person is upset with us, and getting back to the root of our words and actions can help us to empathise with how they might be feeling. The same pattern which creates the crack on the left-hand pages becomes a tree trunk on the right. This offers a lovely way to help younger people think about hurt. They might begin by asking questions such as ‘is there a crack?’ ‘how did it appear?’ and ‘how do I turn it into something beautiful again?’  

The book looks at different scenarios, from refusing to play together to not working as a team and offers possible solutions on the right-hand side. It also touches on the possibility of a crack that can’t be mended – this would make an interesting discussion about how we can be certain of our own kindness and redirect it towards other parts of our life. 

A lovely book to help in those moments when we can’t figure out how a divide has grown between ourselves and another person. Remembering that kindness is the way forward is a beautiful place to start. 

 

 Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of Kindness Grows. Opinions my own. 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Caspian Finds A Friend by Jacqueline Véssid. Illustrated by Merrilees Brown.

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Caspian lives in a lighthouse by the sea. Every day he casts his light out over the waves in search of a friend, but nobody comes. One day he finds a bottle. Inside is a piece of paper with a word written on it. Caspian finds his boat, races out to sea and goes in search of the message writer. What – or who – he finds at the other end comes as a big surprise. A big, polar bear-shaped suprise.

A beautiful tale that would make a great companion read for Lost And Found.

This gentle story won my instant affection. It is about a lonely boy who puts his trust in a message and reaches out to find out who is there. It makes a beautiful metaphor for friendships, especially those early childhood friendships forged in the playground which could begin with a phrase as simple as ‘will you play with me?’ Sometimes it can be hard to trust a new person, and when we set out we have no idea what will come of it, but this story reminds us that beautiful things may be at the other end.

It also brings to live the adventures which can be had on a beach or by the sea. 

The illustrations are stunning, especially in the numerous ways they find to show the sea. From a pale blue wash with white foam to an inky flat surface with fish hidden below, the pictures remind us that there is more than one way to see a thing. I love the use of texture and the way we can almost see the water moving as the boy plays in it. 

I also love the design – the use of white space and the way the page layout changes as the polar bear leaps forward into Caspian’s life. 

A gentle and memorable book which reminds us that friendship is an adventure and that trust is a leap of faith worth taking. 

 

Thanks to Chronicle Books for my gifted copy of Caspian Finds A Friend. Opinions my own.

poetry

Review: Poems to Fall In Love With. Chosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell.

Review: Poems to Fall In Love With. Chosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell.

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Has any subject been written about more than love? It is one of the fundamental human experiences, and if the poems in this anthology prove anything, it is that love is timeless.

The poems are categorised by different types of love. This was one of the reasons I took to the anthology straight away. It recognises that love without romance, and that friendship, are equally profound and important. This is an exploration of love in different forms, and this variety makes it richer than some other anthologies of love poetry.

Chris Riddell’s illustrations need no introduction. As a past Children’s Laureate and a long-time political cartoonist, his work is known far and wide. The pictures in this anthology are in his trademark style. They look so effortless, yet convey a huge amount of energy and detail. When I took the book to my local poetry group (a twice-monthly meeting which involves cake and chatter and the reading of any poems we fancy) a number of people went home eager to do some drawing of their own. This is the very best thing about Riddell’s work. It gives viewers the bug to doodle. To scribble. To draw.

Poems included range from the modern-day through to  Sappho. My poetry group fell in love with the story of Simon the hedgehog, who writes postcards to his mother through a particularly intense crush. Alas, the crush is ill-fated, although Simon comes out happy and well. It is also a treat to see Riddell’s take on classic poetry. 

With too many people willing to say they don’t like poetry, as if every poem is alike, it is more important than ever to have books that are irresistible to pick up. Poems To Fall In Love With hits that mark, from its embossed purple cover to the beautiful work inside. This is truly a celebration of the range of voices that have, over the centuries, explored themes of love and friendship. 

 

Poems To Fall In Love With is available now from Macmillan Children’s Books.

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for my review copy.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Pirate Tree by Brigita Orel and Jennie Poh.

Review: The Pirate Tree by Brigita Orel and Jennie Poh.

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Sam is a fearless captain, who plays all day on the tree at the top of the hill. It turns into a pirate ship under her command, and she sails the world alone. One day, a boy approaches. He reckons Sam would do a better job of exploring with a partner. 

Can the two children combine their knowledge to create a better game? 

This beautiful story looks at the compromise and sharing which make up a friendship. Specifically, it looks at how the knowledge and ideas of two people can change a game – a story – to make it better. When the children meet, Sam is off hunting for diamonds in Nigeria. Agu isn’t convinced this would work. He used to live in Nigeria and he knows what is really there to be found. 

At first, Sam isn’t convinced about playing with a newcomer, but when Agu tells his stories, Sam realises there are whole other adventures to be had when you listen to different people. 

Recently, there has been a lot of conversation about whether we should tell stories aside from our own. Wherever you stand in this debate, the key point is that stories are about real, lived experience. If you want to tell other stories, first you need to listen. To learn. Although this book is about friendship and sharing, it gently explores this idea. Sam’s world becomes richer for opening herself to new ideas. 

This would also be a lovely book to use in discussions about sharing, and listening to our friends. Sam could have kept the Pirate Tree to herself, but she would have missed out on all those new games. We might love a toy or make-believe, but by opening it up to others and sharing we will gain more from it. 

The real-world backgrounds are pale and washed out in comparison to the imagined worlds. This makes the games and stories the thing we remember when we close the book. 

A delightful and thought-provoking story that will make readers want to explore and start some adventure games of their own. 

 

Thanks to Lantana Publishing for my gifted copy of The Pirate Tree. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Slow Samson by Bethany Christou

Review: Slow Samson by Bethany Christou

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Samson the sloth is slow. He is invited to a lot of parties, but the trouble is by the time he gets there he is hours too late. He misses out on everything. Sorry to always miss his friends, he becomes unhappy, but Samson’s friends have a plan. The next time there is a party, they put the wrong time on his invite to give him an extra two hours to get there. 

A lovely story about friendship and the benefits of adjusting to meet everyone’s needs. 

Too often, when we plan, we plan for the majority. The able. What about the people who just can’t meet certain criteria? Be it a tricky time, an inaccessible place or a set of instructions which someone finds difficult to follow, there are so many reasons why one or two people in a group might be left behind. 

When we ask them to fulfill the same criteria as the majority, they end up exhausted. Poor Samson tries and tries to get to those parties, and sometimes he even makes the end, but he’s tired out from the dash, miserable to have failed yet again and out of the loop with what’s happening. What should we do? Accuse him of not trying? But Samson does try. Tirelessly. 

Samson’s friends know better. They tweak his invitation so that he gives himself extra time to get there. 

The ending shows how happy the group is to be together. All together. No exclusion.  

A cute story about a slow sloth and a string of parties also shows us that it can take a bit of extra thinking to meet the needs of a whole group. 

Use of colour shows how miserable Samson feels on his own, and how happy everyone is to enjoy the party at the end.

 A lovely story with a big heart. 

 

Thanks to Templar Books for my gifted copy of Slow Samson. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Boy At The Back Of The Class by Onjali Q Raúf

Review: The Boy At The Back Of The Class by Onjali Q Raúf

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Extract:

Then in the third week, something happened which was so surprising, and made everyone so curious, that even Mrs Khan couldn’t make us focus on our lessons properly. And it all began with the empty chair. 

(The Boy At The Back Of The Class by Onjali Q Raúf. P8.) 

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Synopsis:

First there was an empy chair at the back of the class. Then there was a boy sitting in it. 

Ahmet is quiet. He never talks, never smiles and doesn’t like lemon sherbets. That’s not stopping our narrator, who makes it a personal quest to welcome Ahmet and make him a friend. Ahmet is a refugee whose family escaped war. As his story comes out, it turns out there are things he still doesn’t know himself. Like where his family are and if they are safe. 

It’s a big thing to learn. Sometimes it feels impossible to solve something so big, but maybe there are ways to help Ahmet. 

A story of friendship and empathy and seeing past labels. 

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Review:

A book with a voice so strong that, although we don’t know everything about our narrator for a large part of the book, it is as though they are sitting right beside us in the living room. This book has taken readers, and especially young readers, by heart. It won The Blue Peter Book Award and was longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. It is a story about empathy which grabs readers from the first page. 

Our narrator is missing family in a different way. Dad died and life changed in more ways than one. Grief and a sense of loss allow our narrator to empathise with Ahmet. Although it is a very different situation, they share an irreparable loss. 

This is the main theme of the book. Seeing past cultural differences and recognising shared humanity. 

Not everybody at school reacts kindly to Ahmet. It begins with adults – some parents and carers and even teachers suggest that refugees are a drain on the country who are out to trick honest people out of jobs. And so on and so forth. And the children listen, although some challenge those views. Some children have one parent who thinks one thing and one who thinks another. The key point is that somehow Ahmet becomes a debate instead of a child. Our narrator and her friends break away from this debate and begin to offer Ahmet sweets. And someone to play with. 

The most powerful part of this story is that. It challenges the reader to stop debating and show empathy in any way they can. 

Many stories about the refugee crisis are told in a way which, while informative, contains information which might upset children. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be told, but too many details about the reality of war too early can be upsetting. The information in this book is explained in a voice which young children can understand. The narrator’s Mum, for example, explains about Syria by getting out an atlas and talking about the fruits which grow there. There is just enough information about the crisis – no lies, but not enough to overwhelm a younger reader. 

A true story about empathy and friendship which shows that what we have in common is far more important than any difference. 

 

Thanks to Riot Communications and Orion Children’s Books for my gifted copy of The Boy At The Back Of The Class. Opinions my own.

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.