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.

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Most Of The Better Natural Things In The World by Dave Eggers and Angel Chang.

Review: Most Of The Better Natural Things In The World by Dave Eggers and Angel Chang.

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Remember the chills you had when you read The Lost Words for the first time? Most Of The Better Natural Things In The World has the same effect. Using only one word per illustration, it presents the reader with all the wonderous places in our world. 

A Tiger travels through beautifully coloured landscapes, taking in jewel-bright seas and massive skies. She sits and stares and takes in the world around her. It is enough to give any reader the urge to travel. Throughout the book she carries a chair on her back. This presents the reader with a question – why? Where is she going and what is the chair for? This question will keep younger readers hooked as they take in the words and pictures. 

Unless people get outdoors and develop a connection to the natural world, certain worlds will be lost. Gorge. Foothills. Isthmus. Perhaps the best way to tempt people outdoors is to introduce them to these magical features. Readers will soon have favourites, whether it is the space-like badlands or the bubbling lagoon. 

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There is something enigmatic about the illustrations. By simply presenting nature in all its glorious colours, Eggers and Chang have conjured up the mystery and wonder of our world. 

One of those books which presents a simple concept in the most beautiful manner. Striking in its simplicity and memorable for the glory of its subject, Most Of The Better Natural Things In The World deserves a place on every bookshelf. 

 

Thanks to Chronicle Books for my copy of Most Of The Better Natural Things In The World. 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.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Wind In The Wall by Sally Gardner. Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

Review: The Wind In The Wall by Sally Gardner. Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

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Tap – tap – tap. 

A young man has waited out the years, trapped inside the walls. He was once, long ago, a gardener for the Duke of Northumberland. The young man and the Duke shared an admiration for the amaryllis, and the young man had hoped he would rise through the ranks to become Head Gardener. 

Then the pineapple reached Britain. The gentry were besotted. 

Pushed aside, the young man watches as a stranger appears at the house with claims to charm the pineapples. The young man knows a charlatan when he sees one, and yet he wants to know the stranger’s secret. What he witnesses has consequences that will last for centuries. 

A subtle and touching ghost story from Sally Gardner. 

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The setting of the old estate is made magical by the knowledge that a man became trapped in the walls for centuries. Sally Gardner’s stories often feel this way – as if we know the setting intimately and yet at the same time we know nothing at all, because anything might happen. The result is that we are firmly in the hands of the storyteller as we wait for all to be revealed. 

What the young man discovers will stay with the reader for life. The harmony between the words and the pictures, especially at this moment, is stunning. 

The story is something between a ghost story and a time-slip. The young man is left haunting the walls long after the other characters have gone. 

If you fancy a ghost story this autumn but want something free from gore and gimmick, this one is for you. My favourite kind of ghost stories are rooted firmly in real-life stories (albeit with the occasional pinch of magic thrown in). The terror doesn’t necessarily have to come from the undead, and it certainly shouldn’t come from the fact that ‘it’s a ghost’ alone. The Wind In The Wall ticks all my boxes with its strong back story and the chemistry between the characters. 

Rovina Cai’s illustrations tell the emotional story. The passion on the protagonist’s face as he tends the amaryllis is replaced with creeping darkness which begins with the pineapples. The illustrations tell the story by themselves and they add extra layers to the words.  

A striking read around Halloween and a timeless story that could be read at any time of year. 

 

Thanks to Hot Key Books for my copy of The Wind In The Walls. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Shadow by Lucy Christopher and Anastasia Suvorova.

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In the old house, there was nothing to be afraid of. No monsters under the bed. Nothing hiding in the dark. In the new house, Shadow appeared.

With vibes of The Bridge To Terabithia, The Snow Lion, and Skellig, this book was going to win my heart. Superficially dark and scary, it actually sees a little girl work her way through a period of unhappiness in her family. It is not explicitly stated what that is. Others have read this book as a narrative of depression, and how a parent’s illness can affect a child, but I thought the illustrations hinted at grief. Of course, we all bring ourselves to a story, and I am currently grieving the loss of my Mum, but there are pictures on the wall of the house which hint at it being the old family home, and Ma in the story is seen with her head bent over two pictures later on.

Anyway. While this is going on, a little girl is waiting. The house is dark, the world feels dark, and she’s all alone. Except for Shadow.

Is he imaginary? Is he a projection of her feelings? He leads the little girl deeper and deeper away from her ordinary life until she can’t cope anymore. She cries like never before, and suddenly she is able to tell Ma what she is feeling. From then on, the light comes back, and eventually the house is filled with a new life and a new happiness.

Sometimes before the light comes back in, we have to acknowledge the dark.

The illustrations in this story have a beautiful, ethereal quality. The gentle snowy landscapes contrast with the darkness and ensure it isn’t too frightening for the young audience. Somehow it conveys without words that this is about emotions and not about a terrible danger from the outside. At times – like times of grief or depression – it can be difficult to put emotions into words. Shadow puts them into images and promises a lighter, brighter future.

Lucy Christopher is a talented story writer, and her words together with these beautiful illustrations have created something special. The perfect reminder that when darkness strikes, the light can be found by hugging our loved ones.

 

Thanks to Lantana Publishing for my gifted copy of Shadow. Opinions my own.