Friday, 10 July 2020

THE LARK AND THE LAUREL by Barbara Willard. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

  This is the first book in a series of historical novels set in the New Forest. Although there are no dates and very few historical names or facts in the narrative, it's clear at the start that Richard III has just been killed in battle and that his supporters - one of them our heroine's father - are fleeing for their lives. The king, however, is not named, nor the battlefield, nor any details of the political history - and this lack of information has the effect of plunging the reader into the real life of people at the time, when such detail may well have been hazy or unknown.

  A distraught young girl, Cecily Jolland, is brought by her father from London to a house in the New Forest and forcibly handed over to an aunt she has never met before. Cut off from all normal life as she has known it, aristocratic Cecily has to adapt to a slower, more co-operative and down-to-earth way of life, with no servants to attend her. She learns new skills, meets new people, toughens up and - after much resistance - at last comes to love her new home.

  She also falls in love with a neighbour. But there are secrets in Cecily's past, half-remembered events that recur as bad dreams. And she fears what may happen when her father returns...

  This is history written from the inside: what it really felt like to be there. Barbara Willard describes the texture of the daily life of the forest people with either deep local knowledge or inspired research - and certainly with love for the place and its history.

Illustrations by Gareth Floyd.
Published by Longman in 1970.


Sunday, 5 July 2020

Under The Great Plum Tree by Sufiya Ahmed and Reza Dalvand, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

This is a story of a kind monkey, gold-hearted, Miss Bandari, who is feeds plums from her tree to a tired and hungry old crocodile, Mr Magarmach.

The silly old crocodile is a show-off, telling stories of brave deeds done in the past. Then he offers to take Miss Bandari for lunch in the swamp ... where King Crocodile awaits, and is hungry. But clever elephant Dame Hati saves both Miss Bandari and her friendship with silly old Mr Magarmach.

This handsome hardback book is full of beauty. Reza Dalvand's pictures could be a starting point for wonderful child artwork, maybe dressing animal story characters, maybe making their setting beautiful, maybe creating the fiercest crocodile.

And the story would be a good starting point to discussion about the different qualities that different characters bring to a friendship group. A story that could make for an excellent assembly, either told from the book or acted out by children.

 Published by Tiny Owl


Thursday, 25 June 2020

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge - Review by Kelly McCaughrain

This was a bit of a departure for me because I’m not a big fantasy reader at all. I typically find fantasy novels very long, plot-heavy, detail-heavy and lacking in humour (total opposite of all my fav things), so I generally avoid them. I was given a copy of Deeplight by Frances Hardinge at a conference and I admit I probably wouldn’t have read it except that I’ve heard such amazing things about her writing, and then lockdown started and it seemed like a good time to try something different.

Boy am I glad I did! I absolutely loved this. The writing was a pleasure, the characters were so believable and relatable, the concept was fascinating, the plot was exciting without being overcomplicated, the world was fully realised without becoming overly detailed, and I was completely rooting for the main characters. I thought the relationship between Hark and his best friend really gave the book heart and emotional depth and that kept me hooked all the way through.

14 year old Hark lives in a world that was ruled by gods, until the gods destroyed each other, and now his island community lives on the proceeds of ‘godware’, the detritus of their corpses salvaged from the sea.

Hark is an orphaned, homeless, petty criminal, surviving on his wits and protected by a best friend, Jelt, whom he doesn’t completely trust. When Jelt gets him arrested and sentenced to indentured servitude to a godware scientist, it might be a new start for Hark. If only Jelt would leave him out of the extremely dangerous plan he has for the godware he’s stolen from the scariest woman in the criminal underworld…

I will definitely be reading more of Hardinge’s books, and I really recommend this for a riveting summer read. If you can’t get to the beach, the island chain of Myriad is a worthy substitute!

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page


Saturday, 20 June 2020

The Skies Above My Eyes, by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer; reviewed by Anne Rooney

This lavishly illustrated concertina-book is a guide to what you can see when you look up. It's such a simple concept, yet so original. It folds out to a massive — whatever an upwards panoroma is. An up-orama? You can just sit on the sofa with a child and flick through it. But if you have a fair bit of empty floor space and can open it out, it's well worth the effort to do so. That makes reading part of a larger physical activity that might appeal to kids who don't like to sit still and read.

The up-orama is double-sided, with one side revealing what you might see looking up in a city and the other what you might see in the countryside. It's an inspired solution to the problem of including children living in very different types of area, as well giving an opportunity for a 'nature' side and a 'technology' side. Each side is one beautiful, detailed and ornate picture, with blocks of text for each item in the illustration, covering everything 'up there' from birds and planes to planets and stars. There are heaps of amazing details, from how window-cleaners clean the glass of towering skyscrapers to which bird can fly higher than Mount Everest and what comets are. It deals with the different levels of the atmosphere and distances in space. I really like that it's entirely interdisciplinary. It's not 'just' about animals or technology or Earth science or space but blends all these as needed in a book with its own very distinctive angle.

It has a bit of an imposed narrative in that it traces a journey up and then down, though I read it with MB as two 'ups', town and country ups. I guess if you do as they say, it's an 'up-and-down-orama'. There are so many little snippets of info, each with its own picture, that you can use it as a starting point for discussion or research on dozens of different projects.

To use it to best effect, it's nice if you can lay it out on the floor, but you can use it like a book if you don't have space.

This would be brilliant for lockdown or summer holidays. Because of the format, it doesn't feel too 'bookish' — it feels like an activity. You could take it outside and see which things you can spot, or make your own up-orama from your garden or street. It's a brilliant concept, beautifully executed and well researched. Thoroughly recommended!

Written by: Charlotte Guillain
Illustrated by: Yuval Zommer
Published by: Words and Pictures, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-910277-68-3
Price: £14.99


Monday, 15 June 2020

CHOCOLATE CAKE by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Kevin Waldron. Review by Penny Dolan.

Hello! Like many, many people, I was happy to hear the good news that MICHAEL ROSEN - poet, writer, educator, former Children's Laureate and general Treasure - has left the intense Coronovirus Unit and is recovering safely and slowly with those he loves.

Good wishes to Michael Rosen and his family from both Awfully Big Adventure Blogs.

Here, through an updated review, is a a reminder of the enjoyment he brings to so many people:

Michael Rosen’s picture book, which was sent to me, is based on one of his most popular spoken poems, available on YouTube.

The subject - chocolate cake! - is one which most children will have strong feelings about, while my viewing of social media suggests that it is probably a favourite daydream for many adults too, especially teachers in need of comfort in the classroom. 

 (Update: And especially right now, as teachers and support staff continue to cope with the current impact of the virus on schools and pupils, with the current state of goverment planning, and all the "media messages".)

The book is already on the way to being a winning idea. 

(Update: It was - and here is a fantastic video of Michael sharing the poem with children in Scotland - a reminder of the joy of school author visits and a hope that one day such events will be possible again!  )

The lively page spreads amplify the narrative structure of the poem. Told in his well-known first person “child” voice, Rosen retells a half-familiar family anecdote: the story of a young boy sneaking downstairs at night while his parents are asleep in bed. The boy knows there is a chocolate cake waiting in the fridge and just wants to look at it. Inevitably, bit by bit, the young narrator nibbles, eats and then gobbles up the entire delicious cake. 

I recall a Naughty Little Sister story where the greedy dish was a birthday tea-party trifle, and this half-familiarity of the incident Rosen uses that gives the story universal appeal. 
Of course, as he goes back to bed, the boy suddenly realises he will be in big trouble. . He decides that the only way to stop his Mum finding out is to remove all the evidence so he spends the rest of the night cleaning away every crumb and clue. Except, of course, he doesn't quite succeed, but you’ll have to read the book or view the poem to find out quite what he's forgotten.

Kevin Waldron, who has been named one of BookTrust’s best new illustrators, brings a welcome child’s-eye view to the pages. His spreads and page-turns dramatise the action, adding to the suspense of the slightly naughty deed done at night in a dark house. 

Waldron uses interesting text layouts and speech bubbles to accentuate the poem’s lively use of sounds - Heh- heh! Gobble-Gulp! -  and all the muttered worries and "instructions to self" – Good thinking! All right, yeah! – so that it’s easy to imagine any young reader being encouraged to join in with the friendly telling. Waldron’s artwork isn’t of the “beautiful” kind but I really liked the way he has captured the young child’s world and viewpoint. 

The picture book format makes the reader – young or old -  both an observer and a sympathetic third party, feeling the tension between the child’s longing, the delicious naughtiness of the greedy theft and the knowledge that he is bound to be found out.

I did not see Rosen’s CHOCOLATE CAKE video beforehand as I wanted this picture book to be a fresh experience. Would it have been different if I’d seen it? I can’t tell. However, as an ex-teacher, I’m sure that the younger readers may well appreciate having both versions of the poem, and that one can help the other along.

Besides, CHOCOLATE CAKE might make a useful book for Key Stage Two classes to borrow. The format, demonstrating the steps of the "plot", could encourage children and teachers to explore their own anecdotal storytelling s, and I’ve also found, on school visits, that Rosen's poems, based on everyday family life, make very good immediate ways in to creative personal writing for KS2 children.

Unfortunately, I suspect that reading CHOCOLATE CAKE might make the whole class and teaching staff long for break time treats! 

Good wishes to all of you who have been keeping children happy in one way or another over these last desperate weeks!

Penny Dolan.


Wednesday, 10 June 2020

The Worst Class In The World, written by Joanna Nadin, illustrated by Rikin Parekh, and reviewed by Casper Purkiss (aged 8).

A few weeks into lockdown, I sent this book to my grandson, Casper, who lives in Brussels. He told me that it was really good and very funny and he'd read it in a day, so I asked him if he'd like to review it for me. This is the result - we did the interview via WhatsApp. Then I sent my notes to Casper for him to check them, and he clarified a few points.
                                                                                                                                     Sue Purkiss

Me: So - can you tell me what the book's about?

Casper: It's about Class 4B - the worst class in the world - and they have this thing called 'Show and tell' where they show off about stuff. The head teacher, Miss Bottomley Blunt, whose hair is shaped like a bottom, is extremely mean and she has a humongous laminated list of rules.

The teacher, Mr Nidgett, who is very nice most of the time, has a pair of emergency shoes for in case anything gets spilled on his shoes. Miss Bottomley Blunt is horrible to him - it's a bit like in Matilda, where Miss Trunchbull is horrible to Miss Honey. 

The class has a log in the playground that they call the Smelly Death Log, which is hollow and has bird poo on it - they think that if you touch the bird poo for more than one second, you will be swallowed by the ghost pigeon.

Me: Is there a character who's the hero?

Casper: There's no one hero, the whole class is important. They have lots of foolproof plans, but often, something goes wrong with them.

Me: Was there a particular bit you specially liked?

Casper: I liked the bit where they made biscuits from a recipe that wasn't very clear - that was really funny. They didn't have all the right ingredients, so for instance they used chutney instead of jam.

I also liked the bit where Lacey Braithwaite lies about some biscuits she got in a shop called Superior Biscuits. She says the jam inside them is made of 'strawberries picked by highly-trained monkeys', and that the butter in them is made of 'milk from the world's most expensive cows', and this is obviously a terrible lie.*

Me: What did you think of the illustrations?

Casper: They were really good. Look, these are the pictures of the characters - I'll send you them.

Me: What sort of ages would you recommend this book for?

Casper: I would recommend this book for boys and girls from 7-12 - you probably shouldn't read it to smaller children, because it might make them get up to mischief. There's a LOT of mischief in this book!

Me: Thank you very much!

* Casper has become a very expert baker during lockdown, so that may be why he particularly noticed the biscuits.


Friday, 5 June 2020

Mrs Noah's Garden by Jackie Morris illustrated by James Mayhew Reviewed by Adèle Geras

There has been much talk of gardens in the last couple of months. Lockdown has made everyone  aware of their importance. Those who are fortunate enough to have one thank their lucky stars and wonder how those with no garden are managing. To be without one seems a terrible deprivation. Delightfully,  just at the right time, this book appears and what it does is give everyone who reads it a small space where they get to enjoy the pleasures of growing things in a format that they can carry around in their hands and return to again and again. 

This book sees the return of the Morris/Mayhew team which brought us the wonderful Mrs Noah's Pockets.  The worry with sequels to beloved books is that they're not going to be as good as the first book. There are no such worries here, of course. Mrs  Noah's Garden is joyous and colourful and inspired  and we can enjoy the two books equally.

This story is an account  of how Noah and Mrs Noah and their children find an initially unpromising  spot to in which to settle. But undeterred, they clear the space, build and put together a dwelling place, and above all, plant a garden. Mrs Noah of course is the one who goes out at night when all are sleeping and plants it. And it grows and provides bounty and beauty and becomes a  perfectly glorious garden,