Wednesday, 25 May 2016

RETURN TO THE SECRET GARDEN by Holly Webb, reviewed by Pauline Francis

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1911. This continuation of the story was published by Scholastic in October, 2015. Although it works well as a stand-alone story, I imagine that most readers will know the original.

Is our expectation as a reader of a sequel high because we know that the original is a classic? I think so. It’s always tricky to write a sequel and Webb wisely chooses her own set of characters to open her story. The reader engages with her characters before we meet some from The Secret Garden. This is important so that children who haven’t read it are not at a disadvantage. 

The events of Webb’s story, told from Emmie’s point of view, take place almost thirty years later. She is ten and one of a group of evacuees being sent from their London orphanage just before the declaration of the Second World War. Destination? Misselthwaite Manor in North Yorkshire, the setting of Burnett’s book. When a Mrs Craven comes into the dormitory to see that the children are settled, the link is established. One of the children remembers the plaque in their orphanage, which reads: Founded by a Mr Archibald Craven of Misselthwate Manor in gratitude for the recovery of his son, Colin.

Emmie isn’t happy at all. She feels lonely without her cat, Lucy, especially as she is the only girl of her age in the group. Wandering alone In the huge manor garden, she comes face to face with Jack, a boy of her age, who is Mrs Craven’s son – and later, Mrs Craven herself.

Now I’m ready for a strong link with Mary Lennox, the orphaned child of The Secret Garden, and Webb doesn’t disappoint me. Emmie finds Mary’s dairies, begun in 1910, from which we learn about Mary’s discovery of a secret garden. Emmie finds it too, not the desolate winter garden of Mary’s time, but an end-of-summer garden full of scented roses and lilies.

As the seasons change, there are many happy times: Jack and Emmie become friends; Jack’s father comes on leave from the Air Force, bringing Emmie’s beloved cat from the orphanage; and games of hide and seek in the gardens. This idyll is brought to an end: Mr Craven is killed rescuing soldiers at Dunkirk. Emmie finds Mrs Craven weeping in the secret garden. There’s no tenderness in this scene. The gardener pulls Emmie away, shouting, ‘It’s her place, his and hers, their secret. Leave her alone. Stay out.’

This is the most dramatic part of the story. Emmie is even more desperate and alone. Jack still has his mother. She hasn’t. She only had the garden to make her feel special. It is biblical – chased from paradise, the Garden of Eden. ‘What if I can never go back?’ Emmie whispers.
She has to go back to rescue her cat and comes face to face with Mrs Craven, who says. ‘I stole this garden, Emmie, did you know? I can’t really complain if you do the same, can I?’
Now Emmie understands. Mrs Craven is Mary Lennox. Her husband was Colin, the sick boy who helped her in the garden almost thirty years ago.

Sometimes, as readers, we imagine what young protagonists might be when they grow up. What would Mary Lennox be like? She was a mean and sad orphan, just like Emmie. Yet she has become, thanks to Webb’s skill, a sensitive and caring adult. And now we understand that Emmie’s has the same chance to change.

Return to the Secret Garden is a book about friendship, the effect of war on families – and hope.
The secret garden has worked its magic again.

Pauline Francis

Pauline Francis


Saturday, 21 May 2016

A DOG CALLED FLOW by Pippa Goodhart Reviewed by Adèle Geras

My usual disclaimer to start with: Pippa Goodhart is a friend of mine but I promise you I am reviewing her book because I like it   and because, apart from liking it, I think that this kind of book is often overlooked in the press and online in favour of louder, more glamorous books: books which are perceived as sensational in some way: newsworthy,  shocking, edgy.

This short novel was actually Pippa Goodhart's very first book and was shortlisted for the Smarties Prize. It's now  been reissued by Troika Books. It's short and there's a lot to be said for books which are designed for  younger children in a way that isn't too daunting or difficult, and this length will attract readers who might be put off by something denser and more complicated.

One of this story's  most important achievements  is that it encompasses many different plot strands and themes in a very elegant way. It's economical, too, and manages to paint a picture not only of a landscape, but also of a community and a particular family in very few words but without leaving anyone feeling short-changed.

 Oliver is having trouble at school. He can't quite manage reading and writing as well as he would like to.  He desperately wants a dog.   He has a problematic relationship with  Craig, a boy in his class. His parents and sister provide a happy family for him to live in, but even there, his Dad seems set against the idea of a puppy.

For  a while, Oliver  has to hide Flow,  but eventually, even Dad is won over by the puppy who is partly blind. Oliver didn't have to pay for Flow, because the farmer knows he won't make a working dog on the Fells.  

I'm not going to tell you more of the plot, but tension and excitement mount as the story progresses and everything is as  sharply organised and worked out as you could wish for. Problems that Goodhart has set up are resolved in a neat and convincing way, and the satisfaction of a happy ending for everyone is very welcome. 

This would  be a perfect book for readers who are just beginning to try whole books on their own and I think every classroom ought to have a copy on their shelves.

Readers also, incidentally, get a good idea of what the Fells look like and learn about the work of the Mountain Rescue teams. It may be a short book but it packs a punch....and there's a nice little surprise at the very end, which I am not revealing!

Illustrated by Anthony Lewis
Pbk: TROIKA BOOKS (price  £5.99)
ISBN: 9781909991163


Tuesday, 17 May 2016

MISTER CLEGHORN'S SEAL by JUDITH KERR, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Last year Judith Kerr, now in her nineties, had a very special new book published.  Mister Cleghorn's Seal is a delight.  Handsomely produced on thick cream paper, with gold lettering on the cover, this book is a classy one, and a fun and a moving and a beautiful one.  It isn't a picture book.  It's a story book.  But every spread has wonderful soft pencil drawings to accompany the text.  The stubby nice people who live in this story world along with the big-eyed seal pup are very appealing, and the whole book has the most comfortable feel of a story one smiles one's way through reading.

The hero of this story isn't a child.  He's a recently retired old bachelor who isn't sure what to do with his time now that he has no work.  But, never mind that, Mr Cleghorn wants exactly what a child would want, and does exactly what a child would want to do.  When faced with an orphaned seal pub that's starving, Mr Cleghorn simply takes that seal pup home with him on the train.  He feeds it with a baby bottle, and waters it on his balcony with a watering can, and puts it into his bath.  

But there's a problem with keeping a seal in a flat where there's a janitor who is keen on the rules, and those rules state that no pets are allowed.  What is Mr C to do?  He considers the nearby zoo, but it isn't good enough.  Then a lady neighbour proves sympathetic ... and I'm sure you can guess how this story manages to end happily after all.  In saving the seal pup, Mr Cleghorn has saved himself.  

A post script from author/illustrator Kerr tells how this story actually puts right a sadder true story that has haunted her over for years.  'More than a hundred years ago' her father, as a young man, had saved a real life seal pup, taking it home to his flat in Berlin, feeding it with a baby bottle and watering it with a watering can on his balcony, and putting it into his bath, but that pup died.  The post script doesn't add that the man himself was then hounded from his home by the Nazis.  There's a lot of restrained emotion in this story, and that, along with the beauty of the pictures and the production, makes it moving and memorable whilst also fun.  This one really is and story and book for any age from about four up to anything you like!  


Friday, 13 May 2016

The Great Chocoplot by Chris Callaghan. Review by Tamsin Cooke

When I read the blurb for The Great Chocoplot by Chris Callaghan – I thought what a great idea for a children’s book. I raced out to buy it, read it in one sitting, and YES – the story more than lives up to its blurb.

Jelly and her family live in Chompton-on-de-Lyte, where everyone loves a Chocablocka bar or two. So when the end of chocolate is announced, she can't believe it. Determined to investigate, Jelly and her gran follow a trail of clues to a posh chocolate shop and its owner, the pompous Garibaldi Chocolati. Gari's suspiciously smug, despite his failing business and yucky chocolate. Is it really the chocopocalypse, or is there a chocoplot afoot?

Jelly is a fabulous heroine – she’s smart, feisty and intrepid. And each member of her family is quirky and funny with their own role to play. Their witty dialogue made me laugh out loud.

This fun adventure is well paced and very clever. Chris manages to weave in science and history making the story sound so plausible, I actually might start stockpiling chocolate myself.

Jam-packed with jokes, it is aimed at 8+ , but I think it is just as entertaining for adults as it is children. In particular, I adore the witty news bulletins on the 'Chocopocal App', spread throughout the story. Plus there are great black and white illustrations by Lalalimola that really add to the humour and bring the book even more to life.

This is a truly fantastic read. And in my mind, any book that includes the word 'chocolpocalypse' deserves to be read!


Wednesday, 11 May 2016


Kate Di Camillo’s “BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE” which won the Newbery Prize in 2000, has long been one of my favourite children's books, so I was very glad to hear about the publication of her newest novel, RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE.

RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE is not a Di Camillo fantasy but a story set in Florida during the summer of 1975. The tale is peopled with a variety of eccentric and alarming characters and yet, despite some dark themes, filled with a slightly dazed optimism. 

The story opens as Raymie Clarke, the central character begins baton-twirling lessons with the alarming Ida Nee:  
“Stop that nonsense immediately,” said Ida Nee.

Even though she was old – fifty at least – her hair was an extremely bright yellow, She wore white boots that came all the way up to her knees.

“I’m not kidding,” said Ida Nee.

Raymie believed her. Ida Nee didn’t seem much like a kidder.
Raymie isn't in love with baton-twirling. She's there because, two days earlier, her father ran off to New York City without leaving any contact address. Raymie wants to enter the Little Miss Central Florida Tire Competition, hoping that when her father sees her photograph in the newspaper, he’ll feel so proud he will call her and come home again. 

She is standing in Ida Nee’s back yard with two unknown girls who both intend to enter the Competition too. The dainty Louisiana Elefante - given to fantasy, bunny-clips in her hair and fainting –  needs the prize money for herself and her Granny while the brooding, knife-wielding, lock-picking Beverley Tapinski merely wants to sabotage the whole event.  Louisiana enthusiastically names the odd trio the “Three Rancheros” and that summer's adventures make the three unlikely girls into firm friends.

Not content with just baton-twirling, Raymie decides to do a Good Deed for her competition interview. She visits the Golden Glen Nursing Home taking A Bright And Shining Path: The Life of Florence Nightingale, a library book - and hence the title of this novel. However, good-deed Raymie finds reading to the elderly is so alarming that she escapes, leaving the library book behind. 

Once Louisiana and Beverley hear about the lost book, they escort Raymie back to Golden Glen and succeed in getting the book back, mostly. From there, Di Camillo develops the story into a strong and heartfelt experience with an inspired ending and a host of eccentric adult characters. Slowly, during their escapades, Raymie understands more about Louisiana and Beverley’s lives as well as her own.

Lightly based on her own childhood, Di Camillo’s RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE deals with longing, friendship, death, determination and bravery in a wonderfully unique and remarkable way – and unlike Di Camillo’s earlier “Winn-Dixie” novel - no dogs are involved in this story. There is, however, a search for Archie the cat, last left in the care of the Very Friendly Animal Centre as well as an incident with a caretaker’s canary and some devious driving by a tiny Granny. A remarkable book with a clear sense of time and place that feels enjoyable, gently humourous and often poignant.

Meanwhile, I will be lending my copy of RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE to a certain twelve-year-old girl when we meet. I wonder what she'll think of it?

nb. I was alerted to RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE’s arrival by a recent review on the Bookwitch blog. Thank you for the recommendation, Bookwitch!

Penny Dolan

published by Walker Books (2016) £9.99 hbk.


Wednesday, 4 May 2016

THE STORY OF ALISON HUBBLE by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman. Reviewed by Penny Dolan

Once a teacher always a teacher, I admit, even when enjoying new picture book titles.  
 Some picture books immediately suggest use within an educational context, partly because the story can be interpreted through interesting topic work, often with a classroom “play-corner” alongside. These titles become popular within Early Years, Foundation and Year One classrooms because they fit in with aspects of the curriculum and are not any the worse for that.

(For example, an Early Years classroom I visited recently was working on THE BOG BABY, written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Gwen Millard. The internet offered instructions on how to make a Bog Baby collage, a gallery of blue-painted bog-babies created in classrooms and a downloadable record sheet where children can record their bog-baby observations. Well done, Puffin, for spotting that possibility!)

Occasionally, however, a particular book brings the reader the sense of a close family moment or a privately shared armchair story-time. This book is one of those. I imagined Alison Hubble being read by grandparents or parents, each reading-aloud taking place within the bonds of love and quiet fun. The plot feels as if it sprang from a family joke or teasing comment, and then developed into a delightful fantasy. The full title explains the whole dilemma:

This is the story of ALISON HUBBLE
 who went to bed single and woke up double.

The writer of this rhyming story is the much-beloved author Allan Ahlberg whilst the talented Bruce Ingman – possibly the only artist who has brought a poignant conflict between pencils and erasers so vividly to life – forms the illustrating hand in the team.

The plot echoes a familiar complaint, gently sighed from adult to child at the end of a long day: “Whatever would I do if there was another one of you?” and this is exactly what the Hubble parents discover, because Alison herself does what the title says. 

The Hubble's one little girl becomes two Alisons then four and eight and more, doubling on and on and causing much consternation at home, at school and beyond. 
The troubles are pursued with gentle humour: when eight Alisons become sixteen:
“Oh no,” said her mum
“What a tragedy!
It’ll take us four hours
To cook her tea.”

“You’re right,” said her dad.
“What rotten luck!
We’ll have to do the shopping
In a three ton-truck.”

As in all cumulative plots, everyone tries to help. The local council does send an enormous tent for the increasing family but the excitement of camping is spoiled when thirty-two little girls now find themselves squashed into just sixteen sleeping bags.

Ingman’s illustrations offer enjoyable tiny "subplots": the harassed teacher, registering the many Alison Hubbles, does not see a boy in the background answering as Alison and the newspaper photograph of a batch of identical Alisons contains one Alison gazing off to the side, like real-life child who won't do the helpful thing for the camera. 

You can have a peek at some of the spreads here

Eventually, the many Alison Hubbles need a whole town of their own - but I won’t say which or where - and the end-paper suggests that even further choices might be needed, raising a few more issues that might need discussion. 

However, for now, ALISON HUBBLE (please add the full title yourself!) makes an enjoyably eccentric picture book. Promoted as a tale of Mathematical Mayhem, the book is full of fun, wit and would be lovely to share.  

ALISON HUBBLE will be in bookshops from today, 4th May, and I'm sure the well-established writer-and-illustrator team means that libraries will stock copies sometime soon. The picture book is recommended for children between 3 - 5years.

Penny Dolan
Ps. I’m just checking the publicity sheet here, as this was a picture book I received for review, and spot that the picture-book publisher is the ever-cunning Puffin! So I’m now wondering if I’ll find Alison Hubble "Times-table" games on screens when I next visit early-years classrooms? Or rows of identically Hubbley-paper-dolls on display? Perhaps you should take my review as an early “Alison Alert”?


Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby: reviewed by Sarah Hammond

Laura Ruby’s teen novel is set in Bone Gap in rural Illinois, a place that everyone knows "had gaps just wide enough for people to slip through, or slip away, leaving only their stories behind."  Brothers Finn and Sean are only too aware of people slipping away: their father died, their mother ran away to Oregon with an orthodontist leaving them to fend for themselves, and the story begins just after Roza, Sean’s beautiful girlfriend, is kidnapped by a mysterious man at a local fair. 

Finn is the only witness to the disappearance of Roza, but his description of the alleged kidnapper as moving "like a cornstalk in the wind" is frustratingly inadequate. The searches reveal nothing. Roza becomes another person who is lost through the gaps, leaving a rift between the two brothers behind her. 

Yet just as we gradually learn that neither Finn’s strange vagueness, nor the odd disappearances in Bone Gap are quite what they seem, neither is the novel itself. Although we follow the vivid, realistic, well-drawn lives of the people of small-town America —  the local eccentrics, the sassy beekeeper, the bullies —  another story begins too. This story reveals Roza, trapped in an increasingly fairy-tale-like world by her strange captor and desperate to find her way home. 

And this magical world begins to spill into Bone Gap. A black racehorse appears at Finn’s house without explanation, taking him on rides through unrecognisable landscapes, over strange cliffs in the middle of cornfields. We begin to notice subtle sprinklings of Greek mythology. Roza’s garden wilts and dies in her absence. When Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, was dragged by Hades to the underworld against her will, didn’t Demeter let the world go barren in her absence? Didn’t Demeter also take the form of a black-winged mare? 

Other questions emerge, too. How important is beauty? Petey, Finn’s new girlfriend, is seen as conventionally ugly yet Finn does not notice. Some of my favourite scenes show the pair falling in love, making up increasingly ridiculous college essays “Describe someone who has had the biggest impact on your life using only adverbs”, “Tell us how you feel about Thursday - is it better or worse than Tuesday?” Roza is kidnapped for her beauty, yet this is not how Finn ultimately recognises her, and Sean’s first drawing of his girlfriend was of her hands. 

And what of abandonment? Who is at fault when someone leaves? Alongside the mysterious story of Roza's abduction, many characters are alone or have missing family members. In learning to heal and move forwards, who rescues whom? 

Bone Gap won the 2016 Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature in the U.S. and was published in the U.K. in April 2016. It is a well-written, thought-provoking novel that encompasses realism and myth, changes in worldview, abandonment and rescue, and, ultimately, questions how we see those we love.


Laura Ruby writes fiction for adults, teens and children. She is the author of the newly-released YA novel Bone Gap as well as the Edgar-nominated children's mystery Lily's Ghosts, the ALA Quick Pick for teens Good Girls (2006), a collection of interconnected short stories about blended families for adults, I'm not Julia Roberts (2007), and the forthcoming middle-grade trilogy York. She is on the faculty of Hamline University's Masters in Writing for Children Program. She makes her home in the Chicago area. 

You can find her online at:

twitter: @thatlauraruby


Sarah Hammond is a writer for young people. She has published a picture book, Mine!, and a teen novel, The Night Sky in my Head, which was short-listed for four awards in the UK. She is a Brit abroad, now living happily in Chicago, with strong ties to the UK which regularly pull her back across the Pond.

You can find her online at:

facebook: SarahHammondAuthorPage

twitter: @SarahHammond9