blog tour · Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: The Thirteenth Home Of Noah Bradley by Amber Lee Dodd.

Blog Tour: The Thirteenth Home Of Noah Bradley by Amber Lee Dodd.

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Guest Post: The Billy Goat Curse by author of The Thirteenth Home Of Noah Bradley, Amber Lee Dodd. 

In 1945, William “Billy Goat” Sianis brought his pet goat, Murphy, to Wrigley Field to see the fourth game of the 1945 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers. However, many fans weren’t too happy to have to stand next to the badly behaved and rather smelly goat. So they got together to get William and Murphy booted from the stadium. But as William and Murphy where being led from the stadium, William promised to have his revenge. Later that day William reportedly put a curse on the team. Ever since, the Cubs have had legendarily bad luck. More so than any other team in the league. Don’t ever mess with a man and his goat.

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Synopsis:

Noah’s family never stays in the same home for very long. Legend goes that a curse was placed upon them long ago to ensure that they were never able to settle. Twelve-year-old Noah is about to move into his thirteenth home – and this time, he would like to remain. He not only has friends at school. For the first time in his life, Noah is one of the cool kids. Everything is great, even if he feels awkward about the way his friends treat his new neighbour, Neena.

When the curse returns, with a flock of birds that attack Noah and Neena, Noah keeps quiet. The trouble is, the curse has a mind of its own, and it will take more than one boy’s determination to break it.

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Review:

A beautiful story of magical-realism that is set in a very ordinary world. Legend says that once upon a time, the Bradley family were given magical gifts to enable them to settle on an island. After becoming greedy and using these objects to strip the island of its resources,  the islanders cursed the family to always be chased from their home by the winds of the North. That was many years ago. Now, twelve-year-old Noah wants more than anything else to be normal.

Curse aside, the story is set in a very ordinary contemporary world. Noah’s life means he has gone from school to school, changing his identity every time to fit into his new surroundings. He has a knack for blending in. At one school, he was very academic. In another, he was a drama kid. Now, for the first time in his life, Noah is popular. This comes with trials as well as perks, because Noah feels compelled to laugh at Neena, the girl from over the road who he would otherwise have liked as a friend. This theme is explored beautifully, showing empathy with Noah but not ultimately excusing his behaviour. Adults can be too quick to say that’s just fitting in when dealing with issues of childhood popularity, but bullying is bullying, and no child should be on the receiving end.

Noah’s family also experiences additional upheaval when his Dad insists on leaving for a time to work abroad. Living with the curse has taken its toll, but it is never easy for children who feel that their family has become too much for a parent. The constant moves, too, will be relatable to many readers. With increasing numbers of children moving from one rental property to another, plenty of readers will identify with Noah’s confused sense of identity.

The characters are created with such empathy that reading the story is like seeing straight into their souls. I especially loved Noah’s brother Billy. Billy is partially deaf, and the representation is spot-on. Billy’s hearing problems affect his life, but so does the way he is treated at times by other people. The things he struggles with need to be recognised and accommodated for without Billy being treated like a baby. He is also finding his own identity for the first time, and this causes Noah endless anxiety. Why must his brother wear girl’s tops? Doesn’t he know what happens to boys who carry sparkly backpacks? People with disabilities, as well as autistic people, often face this kind of overbearing guidance that makes it difficult for their own confidence to develop. Seeing this represented in a children’s book was wonderful because stories enable empathy to grow.

A great story, with strong characters, relatable problems, and a really memorable premise. I raced through the pages and the story was so vivid that I could almost hear the birds of the North.

 

Check out the other stops along the tour:

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The Thirteenth Home Of Noah Bradley is available now. RRP £6.99.

My copy of the book was provided as part of a promotional blog tour. Thanks to Scholastic UK for sending my book, and for inviting me to take part.

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 Lost Fairytales by Isabel Otter and Ana Sender.

Review: The Lost Fairytales by Isabel Otter and Ana Sender.

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Once upon a time, there was a girl at the centre of the story who didn’t need rescuing … 

If you’ve ever fancied a fairy tale with a strong heroine, look no further. This anthology contains 20. Better than that, these stories haven’t been rewritten to change the roles of the characters. They always featured strong females. 

The range of stories is brilliant, with tales from different cultures around the world. I loved seeing the range of influences, and also similarities between the tales – bold eagles, special presents and magic wells recur in stories from all over the world. 

IMG_E9890It also contains an old favourite of mine. Tam Lin, here known as The Company Of Elves, is about a girl called Janet who rides out at Halloween to prevent her love Tam Lin from being paid as a tithe to hell. She’s up against another strong woman, the Fairy Queen. And we’re not talking innocent fairies here. This Queen turns Tam into a series of animals which turn on Janet, but she holds tight. I’ve heard this in folk music many times, but rarely see it included in fairytale anthologies. 

A section at the back contains some thinking points about each story. These are designed to motivate young readers and to encourage readers to think about what makes the heroines so strong. There are also some useful summaries to each story which explain its background and origins. 

The book is illustrated in a way which makes it irresistible. I particularly love how details and colours are used to give an impression of the different landscapes, and how the page colours coordinate with the illustrations. This apparently tiny thing makes each tale feel unique and separate from the others. 

This beautiful anthology stands out for its range of world fiction, and for the heroines who prove that there are different ways to be strong and brave. It would make a lovely addition to any bookshelf and is going on my list of Christmas gift recommendations. 

 

Thanks to Caterpillar Books for my gifted copy of The Lost Fairytales. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Alice In Wonderland – A Puzzle Adventure by Aleksandra Artymowska.

Review: Alice In Wonderland – A Puzzle Adventure by Aleksandra Artymowska.

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Fall down the rabbit hole and puzzle your way through Wonderland. This beautiful volume presents Wonderland as it has never been seen before. Familiar characters and settings remain, but instead of telling the story it is up to the ready to work through the puzzles and on to the next page.

From counting games to mazes, spotting challenges to pairing games, there is something for everyone. Some of the puzzles are more difficult than others, which ensures that everyone solves something and feels rewarded. Details from the book are cleverly incorporated into the game: finding a key to escape the rabbit hole, spotting a lizard inside the White Rabbit’s house, and spotting the differences between Tweedledum and Tweedledee are among many examples. Part of the delight is in recognising favourite scenes from the story.

Put this on a coffee table or in a book corner and it is bound to be poured over.

img_9790Aleksandra Artymowska has previously constructed puzzle adventures based on the work of Jules Verne, and her experience shows. The pages draw the reader in and maintain their attention, with additional mini-tasks to keep everyone going even when the main puzzle is proving hard.

Minimalist, modern characters are contrasted with a wealth of pattern and detail. The important parts of the illustration – the puzzle – draw the eye while the backgrounds are clean and simple. This ensures the focus remains on the important details, but it also creates a unique and attractive style.

This has proved a big hit in my household, both with Wonderland devotees and people who can’t rest until they figure out the answer. It is a perfect gift for fans of Alice In Wonderland. It is also one of those books which attracts anyone who sees the cover.

 

Thanks to Big Picture Books for my gifted copy of Alice In Wonderland – A Puzzle Adventure. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Your Mind Is Like The Sky by Bronwen Ballard and Laura Carlin

Review: Your Mind Is Like The Sky by Bronwen Ballard and Laura Carlin

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Your mind is like the sky. It changes from blue to grey. Your thoughts are like clouds. There are nice, white fluffy clouds. Then there are the darker ones. The ones which bring worrying thoughts. The question is what can we do to prevent those clouds from hanging over us and obscuring the view? 

A beautiful picture book that introduces mindfulness concepts and techniques. Brownwen Ballard is a psychologist and coach who teaches mindfulness in primary schools, so she is well-placed to write a book for children. 

Anxiety, worry and fear can all become overwhelming, and when that happens it can be difficult to see past our thoughts and to understand that other possibilities are equally likely. It can be difficult to see that we are in control. Your Mind Is Like The Sky suggests that rather than fighting or trying to ignore our feelings, we acknowledge them alongside all the other thoughts in our head. This helps us keep negative thoughts in perspective. 

img_8431The book follows one child through a world. We see what is really there alongside any number of other things, some of which are really there and some of which are inside the child’s head. At times it can be difficult to tell between the two, but I think that is the clever thing about the illustrations. Pictures often show what has been observed, but there is more to the world than that. There are the things we fail to see, the things we can’t possibly see and the things inside our head. At times our thoughts can feel as real as the world around us. 

Gently shaded backgrounds and colourful line-drawings add to the impression that we are sharing the child’s experience. The line-drawings have a childish quality about them in the very best way. Flowers sit alongside pianos and toy dinosaurs and lines of marching ants. All are out of proportion but somehow they build a lively and imaginative world. 

A gentle and informative introduction to the principles of mindfulness. 

 

Thanks to The Quarto Group for my gifted copy of Your Mind Is Like The Sky. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Dog Who Saved The World by Ross Welford

Review: The Dog Who Saved The World by Ross Welford

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Extract:

So that was it. Damage done. I had started the end of the world.

Obviously, I didn’t know it at the time. I’ve kept the secret until now: how I handled the tennis ball that was infected with Dudley’s germs, germs that he had picked up from the little girl who wanted to adopt him. I then passed on the infection to poor Ben by letting him lick my germy hands, and then to the other dogs …

(The Dog Who Saved The World by Ross Welford. P69.)

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Synopsis:

Georgie has two best friends in the world. Her school friend Ramzy and her beloved rescue dog Mr Mash, who lives in a dog shelter.

The trio meet an eccentric and reclusive scientist and agree to take part in her virtual reality project. Georgie steps in front of a super computer, puts on a helment and is transported to a digital version of the real future.

A disease breaks out at the dog shelter, a disease as terrible as Ebola. It could very quickly spread to all the dogs and then to humans. The shelter goes into lockdown and a cull is announced.

With mankind and dogkind under threat, Georgie knows she must act quickly if she is to save the world and her beloved Mr Mash. 

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Review:

An extraordinary and poignant quest set in the near future. I bought into the science and was so immersed in the story that I felt as if I had walked in Georgie’s footsteps.

What works beautifully is how the story is set in an almost contemporary world. The dog plague is not so different to the viruses which have killed thousands of people worldwide. The supercomputer is not so far off virtual reality experiences which already exist. This is the sort of sci-fi I enjoy best, where the fiction, the make-believe, is subtle.

It is impossible not to love the dogs. From Mr Mash, who swallows things which are totally not edible, to Dudley to Ben the snarly Jack Russel, the dogs add a huge amount of warmth to the story. Having fallen in love with their individual characters, we are desperate for Georgie to do the impossible and change the future.

Georgie’s character development centres around her acceptance of her stepmother, Jessica. Jessica is allergic to dogs, and this is the reason Mr Mash had to go back to the shelter, where he lives as a permanent resident. Georgie hasn’t adjusted to the new family dynamics and she hasn’t forgiven Jessica for the allergy. This story isn’t a typical bad-stepmother narrative. Jessica is a great role model and a brilliant scientist who plays her own part in the story. She’s just not Georgie’s Mum. It was great to see this story told in a way which wasn’t melodramatic or over emotional. The family functions, but it takes time for Georgie to feel OK about that.

Ramzy is another brilliant character. His family has fled a warzone and their life in the UK is nothing like their life back home Ramzy is the kid who has to wear the same shirt to school every day. Who goes hungry to help his siblings. Often characters suffering from extreme poverty are featured in books which focus in on ‘issues’. Ramzy is bright and capable and he is 100% part of the adventure. It is important for people from every background and in every circumstance to see themselves at the centre of the action. Ramzy’s poverty isn’t brushed over and there is a powerful scene where he opens up about his experiences.

A dystopia filled with love and laughter. Having read this I want to read everything else Ross Welford has written, and I would recommend it to any reader of middle-grade fiction.

 

Thanks to Harper Collins Children’s Books for my gifted copy of The Dog Who Saved The World. Opinions my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Vote For Effie by Laura Wood

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Extract: 

I’ve got six weeks to win over my fellow students, and that’s loads of time. Just think about all the good things I could achieve. Like doing away with lunch passes for the privileged few, and setting up more clubs and activities so people don’t have to eat their lunch alone. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This could be the first step on my path to prime minister. 

(Vote For Effie by Laura Wood. P43.) BBD35E74-4B7A-46CA-8F8F-0E29FC08A586Synopsis:

New girl Effie Kostas isn’t afraid to speak her mind. It’s not helping her to make friends, so the last thing she needs now is to be involved in a campaign, but when she finds out that popular boy Aaron is only on the student council to get a lunch pass, Effie feels compelled to speak up.

Effie signs up to run for the student council. With her new friends behind her, she sets out to win people’s votes.BBD35E74-4B7A-46CA-8F8F-0E29FC08A586Review:

If 2018 was the year of the inspirational book, 2019 looks set to be a year of inspirational characters. As much as I believe there is a place for list books I am glad to see this shift. Seeing a fictional character developing and growing can be so much more empowering than reading about someone who already appears to be impossibly special.

Effie is unafraid to speak out, even about the smallest things, even if she drives the people around her up the wall. However, as Effie’s elderly neighbour constantly reminds her, fairness and equality doesn’t come for free. Sometimes we have to speak up for what we believe in. The lunch pass may cause more than one adult to roll their eyes (rather like Effie’s teacher) but it is a twelve-year-old sized battle.  It also leads Effie to investigate other inequalities in her school, such as the disparity in funding between girls’ and boys’ sports teams, and then to issues which affect the wider world. Children, and particularly girls, are often told to accept the way things are, but only when we are all unafraid to speak up will things change for the better.

Effie learns to voice her views in a constructive way, to listen to her opponents and to take setbacks with resilience and grace. The conflict between herself and Aaron turns into something healthier as they learn to respect each other’s stances.

It is lovely to see a contemporary novel about issues which affect every young person, and one which encourages readers to speak up and form their own opinions. This would make a great introduction to topics around discussion and debate. Effie is a brilliant role model for today’s preteens.

 

Thanks to Scholastic UK for my copy of Vote For Effie. Opinions my own.

 

 

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller

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Extract:

Torvil’s was most definitely one of the town’s richest elves. In fact, as the owner of its only toyshop, he had done rather well for himself. But whereas most people who make money are happy to share it with their family and friends, Torvil kept his fortune all to himself. 

(The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller. P19.) 

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Synopsis:

Jackson has always wondered where Father Christmas came from. How did he come to be the man who delivered all the presents around the world. 

Then, one magical night, Father Christmas arrives and takes Jackson on the ride of a lifetime. Along the way, he tells a story. A story about a stingy elf who never thought of those less fortunate, until one night three strange beings showed him a different way of thinking. 

A Christmas Carol meets the magic of the North Pole. 

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Join Jackson on the adventure of a lifetime as he searches for the answer to the ultimate question – how did Father Christmas get his position? 

There are two parts to this story – the strand in which we see Father Christmas and Jackson, and the story of Father Christmas’s – or should I say Torvil’s – life. It is this second strand where the action and development takes place, so the story is about Torvil and not Jackson. 

Let me be clear – this is a retelling of A Christmas Carol. Although the landscape is different and there are some minor changes (Torvil, does not, for example, face his own grave,) the plot builds in just the same was as the original Christmas classic. What Ben Miller has done is made it accessible to younger children, and added a bit of Christmas sparkle for bigger kids. 

This narrative has never been more relevant – young Torvil’s claims that he will grow up to help the poor fade as he grows older and greedier. At a time when politicians are putting their own personal feuds and whims above the increasing number of Foodbank users, it is important for children to understand why the wealthy and powerful need to think about others. 

The world is full of magic – think snowy hills and starry skies and reindeer. 

Accepting that this is a retelling, I think it brings the story to a younger audience. Snuggle up and listen with wonder to the story of Father Christmas himself. 

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Young Middle Grade

Younger Middle-Grade – Christmas round-up.

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Unicorn Academy: Olivia And Snowflake by Julie Sykes. Illustrated by Lucy Truman. 

Olivia is happy to be at Unicorn Academy, but life would be even better if she could bond with her unicorn, Snowflake, ahead of graduation, otherwise her friends will leave her behind and she’ll be stuck with the horrible girls. Olivia is also hiding a secret. She doesn’t want her friends to find out her family is super-rich. Meanwhile, someone at Unicorn Academy is causing trouble with dangerous spells. Can Olivia and Snowflake save the day?

This will capture the attention of all young readers who love unicorns and sparkle, but more to the point it is a well-written story. We care about Olivia and Snowflake, and want to see them graduate alongside their friends. There are also messages about kindness and empathy which will resonate with young animal-lovers. 

 

Snow Sisters: The Silver Secret by Astrid Foss. Illustrated by Monique Dong

The Keepers Of The Lights keep everything in balance. It is their job to guard the Everchanging Lights which shine in the sky. Triplets Magda, Hanna and Ida know that one day it will be their responsibility. The Shadow Witch has returned and she is determined to steal the lights from the sky. When their parents fall into trouble, it is up to the girls to hunt for the three snow globe which will keep the Lights safe. If they don’t act fast, the Kingdom will fall under an evil power. 

The first in a new series, this story is full of the same magic as Frozen – lights in the sky and arctic animals, a palace with stained-glass windows and sisterly love. The world is clear from the first word and young readers will want to join the sisters as they venture through this landscape. A strong quest-narrative which will keep the reader hooked across the series. 

 

Snow Sisters: The Crystal Rose by Astid Foss. Illustrated by Monique Dong

With The Keepers Of The Light trapped buy the evil Shadow Witch, it is up to Magda, Hanna and Ida to protect the Everchanging Lights from harm. With one orb found, the girls have two to find before they can save their Kingdom from harm. Their mother’s clue sets them on the trail of the crystal rose and the blue orb. 

This book is the second in the series, and continues the quest began in The Silver Secret. This is a very strong quest story for very young readers. There is enough threat to build suspense but nothing which would overwhelm the audience. The world is enchanting and we learn more about the main characters as they develop. 

 

The Dog That Saved Christmas by Nicola Davies. Illustrated by Mike Byrne. 

Jake hates Christmas. There’s no routine, everyone acts differently and the flashing lights fill his head so he never has a break from them. Even school is disrupted by preparations for the Christmas show. Nobody cares about all the facts Jake can contribute to the nature show – they just want the kids to dress up in animal-costumes. Jake decides to take on Christmas … and causes a lot of damage in the process. Then Jake meets a stray dog, and Christmas no longer feels so unmanageable. 

This story shows how Christmas can disrupt the lives of people on the autistic spectrum. It also shows that, although people with autism sometimes behave in a way which appears frightening, it is often because they themselves are overloaded, confused or frightened. The bond between Jake and Susan shows the instinctive empathy many autistic people have with other animals, and slowly the people around Jake begin to see how Christmas feels from his perspective. 

A brilliant read for empathy. 

 

Frost by Holly Webb. Illustrated by Artful Doodlers. 

Cassie thinks the Foxes that live near her block of flats are beautiful, especially Frost, the fox with the white-tipped tail. One night, Frost leads Cassie out of her home and into the streets of 1600s London. The Frost Fair may be fun, Cassie needs to return to her home and help her neighbour. 

A winerty time-slip adventure which captures the magic of London’s historical frost fairs. 

I loved the relationship between Cassie and Mrs Morris. It begins with misunderstanding and grows into true empathy and a shared-secret.

 

One Snowy Night (Anthology). Illustrated by Alison Edgson. 

Why pick one wintery animal story when you can have ten? This charming anthology brings together some of the strongest writers of younger middle-grade fiction including Sita Brahmachari, Linda Chapman, Holly Webb and Candy Gourlay. From a trip to Mongolia to see snow leopards in the natural surroundings to the story of a baby-panda who gets separated from her mother on the journey down the mountains, this anthology is full of animal tales. 

Some of the stories are about humans who come into contact with animals, while others focus on animal-characters. All are well-written and my favourites were the ones which taught us about real animals in real habitats. As an anthology for very young readers, it could not be better – there is something to suit everyone and every one of these stories would be a perfect read in assembly or ahead of bedtime. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Books, Stripes Publishing and Barrington Stoke for the books featured in this round-up. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books · poetry

Review: I Am The Seed That Grew The Tree – A Nature Poem For Every Day Of The Year

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I am the seed

that grew the tree

that gave the wood

to make the page

to fill the book

with poetry

(From Windsong by Judith Nicholls.) 

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This beautiful collection contains 366 nature poems – one for every day of the year. Every double-page spread is illustrated with pictures of nature.  This is beautifully designed and was clearly thought out with love for the subject.

img_7049The introductory letter explains how Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow publishers was gifted a volume of poetry as a child. Although she read and reread the book for years to come, the lack of illustrations meant that her initial reaction was not one of enthusiasm.  I Am The Seed … is designed to be attractive to the very youngest readers. Its illustrations are bright, bold and take up every single space. Gone are the terrifying pages of black and white. This is a book to pour over. To enjoy. To share.

The length of the poems, too, has clearly been considered. The inclusion of many short poems – some five or six lines long – and poems with short lines makes this collection perfect for newly confident readers.

I often wish I could recapture the magic of reading poems as a child. I didn’t know my modern poets from my Romantics. My haiku from my free verse. I read without discrimination and judged only on the sound. On the experience of reading and being read to. I Am The Seed… is designed to promote such an experience. There is nothing to tell the reader the date or origin of the poem. This allows the reader to pick their favourites free from ideas about what they ‘should’ enjoy.

To have 366 poems on one theme is special. Flick through the book and something special happens – you’re reading about animals and skies. The sea and the woodland and the stars. A picture of the world builds in the reader’s head. A picture which promotes love and respect for the natural world. The pictures add to this experience and it is possible to browse the book for illustration alone.

Whether you read one poem a day or pour through the anthology, this is bound to be a lovely experience. A beautiful anthology which will be treasured by those lucky enough to read it.

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow for my copy of I Am The Seed That Grew The Tree. Opinions my own.