Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Night Before Christmas In Wonderland by Carys Bexington and Kate Hindley.

Review: The Night Before Christmas In Wonderland by Carys Bexington and Kate Hindley.

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The Night Before Christmas, just as Santa is ready to set off in his sleigh, he receives a letter from the little Princess Of Hearts. She would like a Christmas present but her parents said no. Santa is her last hope. Ignoring warnings from his reindeer, Santa sets a course for Wonderland. 

It takes AGES to get to Wonderland by sleigh. (That’s why you need a rabbit hole). Still, Santa and his reindeer eventually arrive. The only trouble is they are greeted by utter mayhem. No stockings, no carrot, and a creepy semi-invisible cat that can pop up at will. Not to mention the Queen Of Hearts. She takes one look at Santa and issues an order for her guards to cut off his head. 

A chase ensues, in true Wonderland style. This is not only a witty take on The Night Before Christmas but it has truly thought about which story would be appropriate to tell if the rhyme was transferred over to Wonderland. It makes strong use of Lewis Carrol’s worldbuilding and characters to create something which Wonderland fans – and readers excited for Christmas – will love and enjoy. 

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This is high up among my Christmas picks of 2019. It has that quality which makes it lasting. This could be enjoyed again and again and, as well as being perfect for this time of year, has the additional draw of appealing to seasoned Wonderland fans. 

Kate Hindley’s style fits Wonderland to perfection. It has a touch of the strange and mysterious but it also finds the fun and friendly in Wonderland. This is especially important for the picture book market, and personally I think it is a more faithful interpretation of the original text than making Wonderland entirely scary. Yes, there’s all that stuff about chopping off heads, but what about the tea parties and races and neighbourhood friendly lizards?  

The illustrations are striking and will go down well with both children and adults. 

A return to a favourite setting combined with a super twist makes this a classic Christmas text. 

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books UK for my copy of The Night Before Christmas In Wonderland. Opinions my own.

Blogmas 2019 · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Mimi And The Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Helen Stephens.

Review: Mimi And The Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Helen Stephens.

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A shy girl called Mimi finds a baby dragon asleep in the woodpile. Everyone in the village is afraid of the great Mountain Dragon but Mimi decides that the baby must be returned. As soon as the bells ring and call the other villagers to church, Mimi sneaks out treks up the mountainside to take the baby dragon safely home.

The Mountain Dragon is huge. She breathes fire. She is also relieved to have her baby home. As a gesture of thanks, she keeps watch over Mimi’s village which, being situated under the snowy mountains, is in constant danger from avalanches. 

Get ready for television animation by sharing the story together. 

This story, which has been available in a smaller book format for many years, has been remade as a larger picture book. The form suits it beautifully. Looking at the double-page and full-page illustrations, I felt as if I was a part of the landscape – looking down on the village from the mountains or up the slopes with Mimi as she climbed. It also allows us to look at the smaller pictures in more detail, and the illustrations are so beautiful that this is fully-deserved. 

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The main themes are friendship and fear and the way we judge others. A person who comes across as terrifying – maybe because they shout too much, or maybe because their tone is blunt and to the point – but who is kind and generous and filled with empathy. The dragon in this story may have a reputation for being fierce, but she cares greatly for her child and wants to show thanks for the little dragon’s safe return. 

Sir Michael Morpurgo is one of our best-known storytellers. Reading his stories always feels more like being told the tale of something that happened by a witness. Often this is intentional. In Mimi And The Mountain Dragon, as in some of Morpurgo’s books, we meet the narrator and learn of their connection to the tale before we hear the story itself. This is so rarely done now in children’s literature and yet it reminds us that the narrator is a part of the story and that stories are, after all, about people and places and experiences worth sharing. Putting The Mountain Dragon down, it is hard to believe the story never happened. 

A touching and gentle story that teaches us not to judge other people on their temperaments so readily. Grab your popcorn and enjoy the animation over Christmas, or make some hot chocolate and read the story together. 

 

Thanks to Egmont UK Ltd for my copy of Mimi And The Mountain Dragon. Opinions my own.

 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Snail And The Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

Review: The Snail And The Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

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A little snail who longs to see the world. A Whale who happens to be bound for a trip around the world. The pair make perfect partners and soon the snail is on the voyage of a lifetime. There is only one problem – the world is so vast and the mountains so high. The snail feels impossibly small. 

The Snail And The Whale is among my favourite of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s picture-books. Possibly my very favourite. It is coming to television this Christmas and I can’t wait to see it on-screen. 

What makes it so fantastic? In my opinion there are two things – the snail and the rhythm of the words. 

Julia Donaldson is one of the most incredible storytellers working today. Every aspiring writer should read her books because, in very few words, she demonstrates a wealth of knowledge. I appreciate that this isn’t why everybody buys the book – and excuse me if I am going off on a tangent – but whether you are buying the books to study them or to read to a very small child, there is one thing I am certain of – a well-crafted story stands the test of time. 

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The snail is a brilliant character. She wants to see the world desperately. She has a huge ambition. She also has a character flaw that gets in her way. The snail is certain that she is small and insignificant. Initially, it stops her from getting the most out of her trip. It is impossible not to root for this tiny character, whose journey demonstrates to the youngest of readers that characters must come back changed from their experiences. From the word go we want to know whether or not she will come back feeling bigger inside. 

The story also has a wonderful rhythm. In this book of all of Donaldson’s work – and it stands out among every picture book in print today – the words just flow. They sing and dance and fly free on the page and in the reader’s mouth. How can anybody not enjoy reading this story aloud? How can anybody read it and not subsequently find the chorus – the words repeated most often throughout the book – stuck in their minds? 

Scheffler’s illustrations are iconic but I look forward to seeing the story animated. These films have become a staple part of Christmas over the past decade and I wish you all fun and laughter as you watch the Snail and the Whale embark on their voyage. 

 

Thanks to Macmillain Children’s Books for my copy of The Snail And The Whale. 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: My Naughty Little Sister And Father Christmas by Dorothy Edwards. Illustrated by Shirley Hughes.

Review: My Naughty Little Sister And Father Christmas by Dorothy Edwards. Illustrated by Shirley Hughes.

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Do you know what my Naughty Little Sister did? 

This refrain is known and cherished by four generations of readers. The My Naughty Little Sister books, originally published in the 1950s, are very much of their era but they are still loved for two reasons – they are short but witty stories perfect for bedtime and they hold a certain nostalgia for childhood as it actually was. Not where everything went perfectly and everyone had a lovely time but where any given day was almost bound to end in tears and tantrums. And that was OK because everyone made up again by teatime. 

The narrator of My Naughty Little Sister gives nothing away about her own misdemeanors. Instead, she focuses on the highs and lows of living with a younger sibling. Perhaps that is a third reason that the books are so popular because elder children who have outgrown their pre-school tantrums need somewhere to turn to feel that they are not alone. I wouldn’t know. You would have to ask my own big sister. 

Naughty is a word which is, today, thankfully used only to describe behaviour and not individual children. That is the big twist in the tale – the younger child here isn’t naughty at all. She is just prone to moments of naughtiness which add drama to every outing. In My Naughty Little Sister And Father Christmas, for example, her worst actions stem from a fear of Father Christmas. He is the big unknown, told to her in stories, and meeting him in person proves too much. 

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At least for a little while. Father Christmas turns out to be as lovely as everybody always said and the story ends happily ever after. 

What makes the story work so well is how beautifully behaved the little sister is through most of the tale. She smiles and claps and sings more beautifully than any of the other children. With her little pig-tails and rosy cheeks, it is hard to imagine her capable of a bad thought. The reader, knowing how these stories go, waits in anticipation for the big moment when her behaviour slides. Just how terrible can a small child be?

These long-treasured books are made more popular by Shirly Hughes’s illustrations. Hughes is a legendary artist best-known for her pictures of everyday life in all its happy mayhem and warmth. Her pictures are relatable across a class-divide which is her other big draw. The children playing out or singing together could be from any neighborhood. 

A classic loved by parents and grandparents is now available in picturebook format. This will be gifted straight to my sister, who listened to the stories with me over and over … and remembered my own misdemeanors more than hers. 

 

Thanks to Egmont UK LTD for my copy of My Naughty Little Sister And Father Christmas. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Alice’s Wonderland Tea Party by Poppy Bishop and Laura Brenlla.

Review: Alice’s Wonderland Tea Party by Poppy Bishop and Laura Brenlla.

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Alice wants to host the perfect tea party. Not a party with tricks and jokes. Not an upside down party with upside down cake. Just a perfectly ordinary perfect party. Unfortunately, Wonderland specialises in the extraordinary.

The tea party scene is one of the most famous from across Lewis Caroll’s works. With more than a little help from Walt Disney, whose Very Merry Unbirthday song is memorably catchy, the Hatter’s Tea Party has proved to be an enduring legend. What we often forget is Alice’s frustration as she searches frantically for the stable and ordinary.

Hosting a tea party in Wonderland is quite a challenge. With magic and mayhem around every corner, the residents must be a tricky bunch to impress. In this story, while Alice’s efforts are thwarted, the residents pull together to produce a party which nobody will forget. The book introduces some of our favourite Wonderland characters – from the Hatter and the Hare to characters from the original text like the Duchess. Alice In Wonderland is one of those stories which is so popular that readers are likely to know about it before they ever encounter the book and enjoyable picture books like this bring Wonderland to life. 

The themes will be relatable to many, especially at this time of year when sometimes we just want to organise things without other people and their not-so-great ideas getting in the way. Learning to compromise – and finding space to share our own ideas – can be a difficult balance. This story teaches us that, frustrating though other people can be, their ideas can bring a new and unexpected type of magic. 

The design is superb too, with flaps of every shape and size and cut-out details. The illustrations strike a balance between the quirky and the cute, making characters seem out of this world without being at all scary. Likewise, there is a mix of pastel and navy backgrounds. 

This will be a hit with fans of Wonderland and with anyone who has ever felt the frustration of other people being anything other than perfect. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of Alice’s Wonderland Tea Party. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Shadows Of Winterspell by Amy Wilson.

Review: Shadows Of Winterspell by Amy Wilson.

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Extract:

There’s a magical boundary, just at the point where our fence divides the garden from the green marshland that leads to Winterspell, and the creatures in the forest don’t cross it, but sometimes I hear them at night, faint whispers of parties, the clamour of hooves, the high-pitched call of fierce, flying things. 

(Shadows Of Winterspell by Amy Wilson. P8.)

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Synopsis:

Stella is lonely and she is tired of hiding. She has lived in fear of Winterspell Forest for too long, kept safe from its shadows by her ghost Nan’s rules. Now Stella is determined that she is putting herself out there. And that begins with going to school.

Unfortunately, she happens to pick just the sort of school her Nan would be afraid of – one where students with any hint of magic share special lessons in Fae history and craft once a week after school. It is here that Stella first hears the legend of The Lost Prince and realises that there is more to her own family story than her Nan ever let on.

The darkness which holds Winterspell was created by Stella’s father, the Shadowking, and only Stella can release the forest from its hold.

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Review:

Amy Wilson, the author of three previous novels, is back with another lyrical fantasy. Her work has impressed me over the years for its understated magic systems and its clear attention to language. Winterspell is no different.

The other thing which Wilson’s novels have held in common is that the protagonists often have a complex relationship with school. They rarely shun education and learning, but often don’t quite fit inside the system. This book is a little different in that Stella desperately wants to go to school. She loves making friends and socialising but her right to access this is complicated by her family history and the fae politics of Winterspell. Wilson’s work shows that fitting in can be a challenge but by being unafraid we can gain so very much from other people.

While the magic of this world was more conventional than in, say, A Faraway Magic, Wilson used it to create something very much her own. This is a world of faeries and centaurs and sprites. It is also a world held under the shadow magic of a raging king.  Throughout the book, Top-Trumps style card pages help the reader to keep track of the different inhabitants of the forest and to compare their different magical powers.

Friendship and family play an important part in the story. My favourite character this time was Nan, who has lingered as a ghost to raise her grandchild. From the very first page, I cared deeply about Nan’s connections to the world and wanted to know whether she would remain beyond the story to continue raising her grandchild. I am currently grieving for my mother and I forever berate myself for not meeting my mother’s standards in day-to-day tasks. So often I know what she would say without thinking. It made the idea of being raised by a ghost not only relatable but intriguing.

The language in this book is, as ever, rhythmic and beautiful. It feels as if the story itself is a form of magic that conjures the world of Winterspell into being.

An exciting and beautiful story. Amy Wilson’s work continues to be imaginative and creative and every new novel is a treat.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for my copy of Winterspell. Opinions my own.