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BookMurmuration has moved to a new site

After three happy years as a blogger I decided it was time to give my site a makeover. The new domain has drop-down menus making it easier for users to find the content they are interested in. 

Thanks again to every single one of my followers. I hope you will join me over on https://bookmurmuration.com/ for more bookish content. 

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Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Milton The Megastar by Emma Read.

Review: Milton The Megastar by Emma Read.

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Extract:

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

(Milton The Megastar by Emma Read. P36.) 

 

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Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

 

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Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

illustrated · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

illustrated · Picture Book Reviews

Review: Paolo Emperor Of Rome by Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Claire Keane.

Review: Paolo Emperor Of Rome by Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Claire Keane.

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Rome is a beautiful city of freedom – but not for Paolo. He is stuck inside a hair salon, and never ever allowed out. One day, when a customer leaves the door open, Paolo senses his opportunity and makes a bid for freedom.

Paolo fights a gang of cats, visits the opera, and wins the support of the street dogs. He becomes bigger and braver, proving himself to be imperial and wise. Soon the whole city is in awe of Paolo, but such attention comes at a cost.

A thumping good animal adventure. Face-offs with tough cats and a nighttime parade through the city are contrasted with images of Paolo curled tight, and looking desperately from a window at the outside world. He’s vulnerable, and he wants his freedom so much, that we root for him from the start.

The narrative and illustrations both remind me of the Madeline series by Ludwig Bemelmans, with fly-on-the-wall style reporting of Paolo’s movements and short, exaggerated statements from Paolo himself. Some of the double-page spreads are divided into multiple, short illustrations that give the reader a tour of the setting as Paolo’s adventures begin. Key scenes are given full double-page illustrations, heightening the drama without using a single word. The style of illustration, too, is also reminiscent of Bemelmans’s work, with a muted colour palette and sparing use of line.

Not only is this a beautiful story, but it is also a wonderful introduction to the history of Rome. Paolo’s walking tour takes in The Colosseum, the opera houses and the Trevi Fountain among other notable locations. Alongside the historical buildings and monuments, the illustrations include the contemporary tourists and citizens of Rome. 

This story reminds us that, while comfort is important, it should never come at the cost of personal freedom. 

 

Thanks to Abrams Books For Young Readers for my copy of Paolo Emperor Of Rome. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peirce.

Review: Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peirce.

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Extract:

Yep, we’re talking fourteenth century. That means a lot of important stuff hasn’t been invented yet. Like paved roads, the toothbrush, and a little convenience called indoor plumbing. It’s a tough life, and – sorry Uncle Budrick – I can’t see how a few songs or some lame magic tricks will make it any easier.

(Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peire. P3.) 

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Synopsis:

Max’s uncle Budrick is a troubadour. Not a very good one. He and Max roam the countryside, living off the vegetables that people throw to chase them away. According to tradition, all children follow in the footsteps of their parents or guardians, but Max doesn’t want to be a troubadour. Max wants to be a knight.

When uncle Budrick is taken prisoner by the evil King Gastley, Max has an opportunity to be a hero. Furthermore, it appears that King Gastley shouldn’t even be on the throne. Together with a group of new friends, dubbed the Midknights, and the aid of a retiredish wizard, Max sets out to save the realm of Byjovia. 

 

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Review:

Swords and sorcery and snorting with laughter. Lincoln Peirce, author of the Big Nate series, has returned with a brand new adventure set in a world of castles and dragons and really, really, awful singers. Presented in his trademark style – with a mixture of comics and short sections of text – this is the ultimate funny book for readers of fantasy adventure. 

Essentially it is the story of a realm suffering under the cruelty of an imposter King, and the kids who band together in defence of all things good. What makes it unique is the hilarious wit, the iconic cartoons, and the relevance to today’s society. Take Max’s friend Simon, who is desperately sad because his parents appear to be held under some kind of terrible spell that makes adults worship powerful figures regardless of the hate and suffering their reign causes. While the book doesn’t condone what Simon’s parents have done, it offers the readers hope that their parents will, eventually, come to reason and stand for a more loving society. 

And there are dragons. And witches. And there is a cameo from zombies. 

The balance of serious themes with humour is perfect. This is entirely readable, and the ideas about equality and kindness remain with the reader after finishing the book, even while they want to go back to specific pages to laugh again at the illustrations. 

With high stakes and a range of humour – from Max’s deadpan declarations to the wonderfully self-deprecating wizard Mumblin – this reminds me strongly of Merlin. Max And The Midknights is the perfect story for escapism and reassurance – the world isn’t always perfect but a good band of friends can make it easier to cope. 

Highly recommend. 

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books and Clare Hall-Craggs for my copy of Max & The Midknights. Opinions my own. 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Troofriend by Kirsty Applebaum.

Review: Troofriend by Kirsty Applebaum.

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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.

 

 

blog tour · Guest Post · Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe by Martin Howard. Illustrated by Chris Mould.

Blog Tour: Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe by Martin Howard. Illustrated by Chris Mould.

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About Alfie’s Fleet’s Guide To The Universe. 

A good funny book is gold. A great one is invaluable. Last year, I especially enjoyed The Cosmic Atlas Of Alfie Fleet where Alfie’s determination to buy his Mum a birthday present saw him embark on an adventure across the universe alongside his new friend the Professor. Its humour was woven so cleverly into the story that it was impossible to join in the adventure without laughter. Now Alfie is back, and this time he and the Professor are offering holidays to the most wonderful planets in the universe. 

As they embark on one final tour, putting everything in order before they open for buisness, Alfie and the Professor run into trouble. For starters, some of the beings on other planets are reluctant to accept that humans aren’t … well … aliens. Then there is the motely pack of cartographers, the UCC, that they meet on Planet Bewarye, led by the terrible Sir Willikin Nanbiter, that sets about trying to destroy the Unusual Travel Agency. 

A quest ensues to discover the long-lost other members of the UCC, who have the power to outvote Sir Nanbiter before his damage destroys Alfie’s dreams. 

As with the first book, the new worlds that Martin Howard and Chris Mould have created are super-imaginative. I am delighted to welcome Martin Howard (AKA Mart) back to my blog with a wonderful piece about creating new worlds. 

Thanks to Mart for your time and efforts. 

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Creating Worlds for Alfie Fleet – a guest post by author Martin Howard. 

Hullo, hullo, hullo and a big thank you to Louise for another invitation. Book Murmuration is starting to feel like a second home. For this visit, she asked me to jot down some thoughts on building magical worlds, a fascinating subject and no one’s ever asked me about it before, so hurrah and here we go …

I’ve said before that I’m wary about dishing out writing advice, because every writer finds their own way of working, so I can only describe my own methods. For me, creating a world is a key part of the process. Settings play a big part in the plot, create atmosphere and can be as fun and funny as the characters. In fact, the worlds writers create are very much characters in their own right. And sometimes, like any other character, they just materialise in that strange, mystical idea process – an integral part of the tale and the obvious background for the story and the characters. It’s great when that happens because you can dive straight in, perhaps making a few tweaks as the book develops. Other times – such as for the new Alfie Fleet – magical worlds are born in the fiery crucible of a brainstorm. My notebooks are full of half-formed worlds that never made it and I even have a few finished chapters that took place on worlds that never made it into the book. (If anyone’s interested, I’d be happy to share one or two in a future visit.)

Inspiration can come from anywhere: half-remembered movies and books from my childhood or artwork I’ve spotted online, for example, or straight from the depths of my own imagination. Then, I’ll mix and match trying to build something original. Obviously, with some worlds – Outlandish from The Cosmic Atlas in particular – it’s fun to play with magical features and themes that are clichés of the sci-fi or fantasy genres. That’s something Terry Pratchett was famous for and it’s essential to come up with a new twist rather than just repeat the same ideas. I imagine that’s just as true for serious writers as for funny authors.

For worlds where the whole story takes place, it’s wonderful to have the luxury of introducing detail: history, cultures, languages all create textures that help hook the reader in, but the new book – Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe – simplicity was key. In this book Alfie, Derek and the Professor putter through many worlds on Betsy the moped. As they spent so much time on Outlandish in their last adventure I wanted to expand their universe and give a sense of the multitude of wonders that could be found by popping through a stone circle at the Unusual Travel Agency. That meant each world had to have amazing features but couldn’t be too complicated. There was no space to properly explore cultures, societies, etc, so each planet had to be painted in broad brush strokes and bright, popping colours. They also needed to be very different from each other and – for the most part – be somewhere readers would enjoy visiting. After all, Alfie and the Professor are running a travel agency. That cut down the options. There was no point having our heroes explore icy wastelands (unless good skiing was available), or radioactive fog planets where ravenous maggot-things roam, or anywhere too bizarre because the Unusual Travel Agency wouldn’t want to run tours there. Alfie has actually worked out a scale for this. He calls it the Fleet Unusuality Scale. Worlds so unusual they score more than five are too bonkers and tend to give people a headache. Less than three and they’re so dull people might as well stay on Earth.

Getting back to my point. What was my point? Oh yes, broad brushstrokes. The planet of Nomefolch, for example, has one memorable feature: everything grows massive there, except for the people (who are rather stubby). It’s possible to climb trees all the way into space. Winspan, on the other hand, is a broken world – a hollow, half-tennis ball of a planet. This means it doesn’t have much gravity and people can fly there by strapping wings to their arms. Solstice, meanwhile, is a planet of ten-thousand islands, so it has a nautical theme. With the plot and characters also needing breathing room and a limited number of words I tried to bring a few of these worlds to vivid life while giving fly-bys of a few others. I hope this helps create the impression of a vast universe without describing each planet in minute detail. That was the plan, anyway!  

In fact, the sheer number of worlds in Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe caused a fair amount of heartbreak as there are one or two – especially Winspan and Nomefolch – where I’d have liked Alfie and the Professor to have stayed longer. Creating fun, distinctive worlds and then leaving them behind after a few paragraphs was a real wrench. On the plus side, I hope the fact that I didn’t want to leave some of the world’s behind means readers will feel the same. The one bit of writing advice I will share, and which I think applies to all writers of magical, fantastic tales is that your readers should always feel homesick for your world when the story ends.

 

Catch the other posts along the blog tour: 

 

alfie fleet tour

 

Thanks to Martin Howard for your wonderful blog post and to Martin and Emma Howard for arranging this blog tour. Thanks to Oxford University Press for providing me with a copy of Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe. 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.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

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Extract:

As sunset bloomed in the west like coloured ink spreading in water, Arthur and Maudie stood with Felicity and Gilly at the aft end of the sky-ship taking in the view of hills, rising and falling like gentle waves, criss-crossed with farm fields and woodland patches will full, blousy trees. It felt good to be under the wide sky again.

(Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy. P86.)

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Synopsis:

The Brightstorm twins are back for another adventure. Arthur and Maudie witness a burglary by their nemesis Eudora Vane. The very next day, Eudora announces a search for the missing explorer Ermitage Wigglesworth – the person whose house she has burgled.

Arthur, Maudie, and Harriet Culpepper are convinced that the search is a cover for something else. What could Eudora Vane want in the legendary Eastern Isles?

The Eastern Isles are almost impossible to find and hold many secrets of their own. The twins are separated for the first time in their lives in a territory which they hardly know. Will they be reunited? Will they work out what Eudora is up to in time?

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Review:

A spectacular, high-flying sequel to hit adventure novel Brightstorm. This is perfect for readers who dream of big, daring adventures. With skyships and jungles and magical continents, Darkwhispers builds on the legacy of the first book as an exciting and intelligent story about exploration.

Arthur and Maudie are separated for the first time and this allows us to know them better as individuals. We see Maudie’s vulnerabilities and Arthur’s desperation to live up to his brilliant sister. Grief for his father causes him difficulties, and at times people write off his reactions as being grief based. Arthur’s emotional narrative plays a strong part in the story and he grows as a character. 

The new settings are as memorable as the old, and there are some new creatures, not least the Darkwhispers of the title.

There is not only a love for geography in these books but complete and heartfelt respect. The worlds are brought to life with care and detail. It feels as if Vashti Hardy must have visited them to give the reader such a clear picture. Her worldbuilding offers questions about our own world – could we invent power sources that do no harm to the environment? Are the other animals around us more intelligent than we give them credit for?

Vashti Hardy has confirmed herself as an exceptionally strong storyteller. Her narrative is told with a confidence that allows her imaginative ideas to soar. I look forward to reading whatever she writes next and hope that there will be a return to Arthur and Maudie’s world.

 

Thanks to Scholastic UK for my copy of Darkwhispers. Opinions my own.

fairytales

Blog Tour: Fierce, Fearless And Free by Lari Don. Illustrated by Eilidh Muldoon.

Blog Tour: Fierce, Fearless And Free by Lari Don. Illustrated by Eilidh Muldoon.

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Meet Inanna who conquered a mountain. Bridget who rid her house of witches. Kandek who outsmarted a wearwolf. These heroines are fearless, bold, quick-thinking and smart, and their stories make for excellent reading. 

Folk stories have been important to me since I was small. It began with music. Songs I heard as my Dad worked through his collection of LPs, cassettes and CDs. Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention – the stories they sang weren’t always fully comprehensible to my young mind but I got the jist enough to know that they were a little more exciting than the limited cannon of fairytales that was read on a regular basis to children. Later, I found a collection of folk tales retold by Kevin Crossley Holland and my interest in folklore really took hold. How stories grow out of human experiences. How time and place shapes the retelling, until each culture has its own canon of best-known tales. 

This collection includes tales from different cultures. It reflects the fact that stories are told and retold all around the world. 

My favourites included The Lace Dragon, the story of a girl who outsmarts the Emperor demanding her hand in marriage by drawing on her magic as a lacemaker, and Goddess VS Mountain, which is the story of a girl up aganist the might of the land itself. The stories have such different themes and settings that the collection remains engaging. As an adult reader, it reminded me of the magic of being a child and begging for just one more story. 

The way these stories are written lends itself to speaking aloud. It is an art in itself to write with such clarity and yet in a way that draws the reader in and keeps them hooked. 

As a society, we are becoming increasingly aware that the notions we form about gender begin early and restrict our ideas about our identities. Countering stereotypes is important if we are to offer the next generation a wider range of ideas about who they might become. The fact that this collection shows girls being clever and active, angry and proactive and energetic will make it  popular with teachers, librarians and parents looking to counter narrow ideas about what it means to be a girl. 

It turns out happy ever after can come in all kinds of ways. These tales are well written, timeless and filled with strong female role models. 

 

Thanks to Faye Rogers PR and Bloomsbury Education for my copy of Fierce, Fearless And Free. Opinions my own.