Monday, 29 August 2016

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

The One and Only Ivan tells the story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla, who was taken from the wild as an infant to live in captivity in America. It is an intelligent, poignant middle grade fantasy told from Ivan's perspective. The story is heartbreaking and heartwarming by turns.  

When we first meet him, Ivan has been living in a cage in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade for the last 27 years. He does not seem to remember or miss his life in the jungle. He only has a few friends around him: Stella the elephant-next-door who performs tricks for the crowds; and Bob, a stray dog who sneaks in to see Ivan at night and to sleep on his belly. Ivan occupies his days with his TV and his ‘artwork’, which is sold at the mall gift shop.

One day, to address the falling popularity of the animals and low visitor numbers, a newcomer is brought to the mall: a baby elephant called Ruby. Memories of home are very raw for this little elephant, and Ruby has not yet acclimatised to the human world. In helping her, and in addressing the changes that she brings, Ivan finds himself reassessing his own captivity, too. 

The story is told by Ivan using deceptively simple words and short chapters. As he says, "Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot." Long after reading this book, many sentences and images — poignant and poetic in their understatement — stay with me still. We learn that Ivan is patient and thoughtful and resilient and resourceful. Slowly, we discover his harrowing past. A reader warning is due here: it would be difficult to finish this book with a dry eye, and many questions are raised about the treatment of animals in captivity. 

However, the overall message of the book is not downbeat. A strong thread of humanity and tenderness runs through the story. Although Ivan's worldview anchors the book, many other characters contribute to this growing sense of kindness: Stella, the stoic and maternal elephant; the not-as-tough-as-he-seems dog, Bob; sensitive and intuitive Julia who understands Ivan's paintings; lively, questioning, and loving baby Ruby; and George, the caring caretaker of the mall. As Ivan seeks to protect and rescue Ruby from her difficult new environment, he strengthens enough to confront his own buried memories and to rescue his own identity as a silverback in all its glory. 

The author was inspired to write The One and Only Ivan by the story of a real gorilla of the same name who was captured from (what is now) the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an infant, and who lived in a domestic home in America until he became unmanageable. Then he, too, lived alone in a cage for almost three decades without seeing another gorilla in a circus-themed mall in Washington state. Eventually, as attitudes towards animal welfare and understanding of primate needs developed, his plight was given publicity by a feature in the National Geographic, called 'The Urban Gorilla'. This article triggered a public outcry and Ivan eventually found a home in Zoo Atlanta in 1994. There, he became a celebrity, living with the largest group of captive western lowland gorillas in the US. This Ivan was also renowned for his paintings. He died when he was 50 years old. 

Katherine Applegate won the 2013 Newbery Medal for The One and Only Ivan. She has written many books including the Roscoe Riley Rules chapter book series and the picture book The Buffalo Storm. Her novel Home of the Brave was a School Library Best Book of the Year and won both the Golden Kite Award and the Josette Frank Award for best children's fiction. She wrote the bestselling series Animorphs with her husband, Michael Grant. She lives in Northern California with her husband and their two children.You can find out more about her on her website:


Sarah Hammond is a writer for young people. She has published a picture book, Mine! (Parragon), and a teen novel, The Night Sky in my Head (OUP), 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 


Friday, 26 August 2016

MARIANNE DREAMS by Catherine Storr. Review by Penny Dolan.

When I saw a copy of MARIANNE DREAMS re-issued in the Faber Classics imprint, I had to buy


My curiosity about this heard-about but unknown, “classic” book was increased by the attractive cover, the slightly squat and chunky shape and the generous font and layout. MARIANNE DREAMS was inviting: a  pleasure to hold. 

The story seems quite simple. Just as Marianne is looking forward to the summer, she is struck down by a serious illness. Because the doctor insists Marianne must stay in bed for six weeks convalescence, her mother arranges for Miss Chesterfield, a kind of "governess", to give her lessons. 

 One day, rather bored, Marianne opens her drawing book and, using a special silver-topped pencil, draws:
“a house with four windows and a front door. . . she drew a fence round the house and a path leading from the front door to the gate . .  . (and) flowers inside the fence and all around she drew long scribbly grass . .  .waist-high, at least . . and outside the fence, a few large, rough-looking stones or lumps of rock.”

Later, as Marianne falls asleep, she dreams she is walking through a strange empty house. When she wakes, Marianne realises that the house in her dream was the house she’d drawn. Not liking the empty feeling of the house, she decides to draw a boy’s face, looking out of one of the upstairs windows, Inevitably, in yet another dream, meets Mark, the boy she has drawn, right down to having one leg thinner than the other because she hadn’t drawn him well enough.

Gradually, as the dreams recurr, Marianne discovers that "dream" Mark is an invalid too, barely able to walk, and that he is also a pupil of Miss Chesterfield, “her” new governess. Marianne starts drawing useful things that are needed in the eerie dream house but although the children get to know each other, their relationship is often prickly. Mark himself seems unwillingly trapped in Marianne's dream but unable - or too ill - to do anything about his situation..

There is a very big falling out. Wanting to be liked, Marianne has spent all her pocket money on a few expensive roses for Miss Chesterfield on her birthday, However, while waiting, Marianne hears that not only has Mark given their governess with an enormous bouquet of the same flowers but that Miss Chesterfield won't be visiting her that afternoon.

Marianne completely loses her temper with Mark and with her pitifully few roses. In a jealous rage, she scribbles strong dark lines across the windows of the house, and puts some tall stones outside the fence, giving them dots for eyes, as shown in the child-like drawings within the book.

When Marianne dreams again, she finds a much-weakened Mark. His room is now darkened by puzzling bars that criss-crossed the window and he feels that the stones outside have begun watching him. 

Worse, Marianne hears the real-life Mark is now in a hospital ventilator machine and the eerie dream steadily develops into a nightmare. The stones are threatening the children, trying to get inside the dream house, although it is never clear why or to what end. The illogical but inevitable quality of the dream greatly adds to the tension.of the tale, and how can the pair escape when  they both feel almost powerless?

Gradually, with the help of The Pencil, Marianne decides to draw things that will help Mark grow stronger, both in the dream and - according to various reports from the grown-ups – in his real life too. Finally, with Mark-in-the-Dream better in health and spirits, the pair make a desperate cycle-ride towards the lighthouse and to freedom. Marianne herself is left on a gentle cliff-hanger of an ending, possibly best suited to a dream.

MARIANNE DREAMS has a truly mesmeric quality, reminding me of the anguish of trying to solve problems you only partially understand and the powerlessness one feels when trapped within a recurring dream. Catherine Storr is also accurate about the annoyance of being ill and stuck in bed – as was prescribed in the past - and how that feeling can often make people behave badly. MARIANNE DREAMS might be fantasy, but it felt based on firm emotional ground.

Originally published in 1958, MARIANNE DREAMS does show both its age and social context, although the writing is admirably clear. The book would have been written around the time of a polio epidemic, when there were scary news items about children suddenly struck down and kept alive by the use of an “iron lung”. All this would have been familiar to Storr as she herself had been a Senior Medical Officer in the Middlesex Hospitals Psychiatric Department, and this book is definitely strengthened by a deep knowledge of illness and psychology.

I am glad that the book was re-issued, and I missed out on it first time around, but I am honestly not quite sure who I would recommend MARIANNE DREAMS to, other than KS2 and pre-teens who like different books and any adults who read it in the past. The steady pace is unlike any modern “busy” fantasy, the ending is more dream-like than fully resolved and there is no “romance” in the relationship between Marianne and Mark. Yet Storr has created a ghost story without any of the traditional horror but one that is scary enough in its own right: there is a memorable sense of  suspense as the reader experiences the strongest sense of being trapped with Marianne inside her darkening dream. 

The book has been made into a tv film, into an opera, and interpreted in drama. Here's the publicity video of a production some years ago in Dublin that gives a good sense of the feeling one gets reading the book. I hope the play did well. 

Catherine Storr also wrote the popular CLEVER POLLY AND THE STUPID WOLF series, which makes quite an interesting contrast!

Penny Dolan.


Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Book of Storms, by Ruth Hatfield: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

First, a warning: this is the first part of a trilogy, and the third part isn't out till November.

This is a highly original fantasy, about Danny, whose parents are obsessed by storms. One night they go out to track a particularly powerful one - and they don't return. When Danny ventures out into the garden looking for them the next morning, he finds that an old sycamore tree has been struck by lightening, and his eye is caught by a small stick which, though it's lying in the centre of the debris, is curiously unburnt. He picks it up - and finds he can hear the voice of the dying tree - and the voices of every other living thing, too...

The world the stick opens up to him, the strangeness of the events surrounding his parents' disappearance - and the fear that there might be trouble from social services if they find out that his parents left him alone - he is 11 - in the middle of the night: all these things convince him he must find his parents himself.  He finds clues in some notes made by his parents, and becomes convinced that he needs a certain Book of Storms, which is in the possession of an old man called Abel Korsakof who lives not too far away.

And so it begins. The reader finds out, quite a while before Danny, that the enemy of the piece is Sammael - who is a quite extraordinary creation. He's described as a demon - but he's not a typical demon; he doesn't breathe flames or have cloven hooves. He does do Faustian-type deals though - with, among others, Abel Kosakof - offering people what they most want in return for their souls, or 'sand'. He does, though, have a dry sense of humour, which I rather liked. And he's fond of his dog, though he doesn't treat her well. But there's no denying he has it in for the human race - and when Danny starts to get in his way, things turn very nasty, both for Danny and for those closest to him.

I found this a really powerful read. It's very well written: the fantasy world, and its relationship with the real world, become entirely convincing. The second book, The Colour of Darkness, is equally strong - though the new character, Cath, is so resilient and determined that she makes Danny look a bit of a wimp. When I'd finished the first two books, I immediately went to download the third - and teeth were gnashed when I found out that it doesn't come out till the autumn.

Just a word of caution - although Danny and Cath are 11, the trilogy is definitely not middle grade: this is not a happy-ever-after fantasy. There is death and violence, perpetrated by real-life characters as well as by fantasy ones. The covers are dark, and so are the stories. I'm hoping for a happy ending, but I'm not convinced I'm going to get one! But then, The Lord of the Rings also has a hefty share of darkness, and in that too, while good ultimately triumphs, it's at considerable cost.

Ruth Hatfield is a very talented new writer, and I look forward to seeing what she will produce next.


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

SEVEN MILES OF STEEL THISTLES by Katherine Langrish; reviewed by Gillian Philip

I wanted to take more time to read this lovely book, a collection (with amendments and additions) of Katherine Langrish’s posts in her blog of the same name. In fact, halfway through I paused to berate myself. If a book is as beautifully written and engrossing as this one, I told myself, you ought to relax, take your time, roll it around your brain for a while and make it last.

But by that time I was with the story of Briar Rose, the Sleeping Beauty, and Langrish was placing it in a context of stopped time, suspended animation, preserved moments. And I realised that it was fine to spend a hot and sunny afternoon doing nothing but immersing myself in this investigation of, and paean to, fairytales. So long as thorn bushes didn’t start growing up around the house, one gulp at one sitting was a perfectly good way to devour it.

Rescuing Sleeping Beauty from her reputation as the most passive heroine in storytelling is just one of the author’s feats. (I use the word deliberately; ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’ is a description of an obstacle in a story of one of those rambling fairytale quests, but Langrish also likens it to the act of writing a book. I can totally relate.) She kills stone-dead the notion that fairytales are all about weak, passive princesses awaiting rescue; her retelling of the story of Mr Fox – a far more feminist folktale than Perrault’s Bluebeard –  is especially delightful, and I envy the schoolchildren who have heard her tell it live. 

Langrish begins, though, with an analysis of what fairytales are, and where they came from, and the often blurred distinctions between fairytales, myths and legends. As she puts it in the introduction:

“The field of fairy stories, legends, folk tales and myths is like a great, wild meadow. The flowers and grasses seed everywhere; boundaries are impossible to maintain. Wheat grows into the hedge from the cultivated fields nearby, and poppies spring up in the middle of the oats…”

But Katherine Languish has a forensic approach to classifying them and clarifying the distinctions. It’s not about the fairies: plenty of fairytales have none at all. They’re not about characterisation, or intricate description, or even sane and logical plotting. These are stories most of all about ordinary people, their lives, their hopes and fears – albeit through the filter of weird metamorphoses and talking foxes. Fairytales “don’t ask to be believed”; but in the splendid chapter Desiring Dragons, Langrish declares that it’s our ability to think symbolically that makes us human. Far from telling children (and adults) they should grow out of Harry Potter, Langrish believes that “Myths and stories deserve to be taken seriously - read and written seriously - because there are things humanity needs to say that can only be said in symbols.”

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is a wide-ranging journey through centuries – millennia – of these symbolic stories; as well as retelling and analysing fairytales from many cultures, Langrish gives us personal stories of her own love – begun in childhood – for these uniquely human creations. The chapters are punctuated by some of her own beautiful, sharp poems inspired by folk and fairytales. And she has done some fascinating detective work on the various versions of The Great Selkie of Sule Skerrie. It’s unsurprising that the original can’t be tracked down (though the journey is entertaining) – as she points out, there are no such thing as original folktales. We have no idea how they began – and one highly entertaining chapter (The King Who Had Twelve Sons) details how we sometimes don’t even know how they end.

I’m a huge fairytale nerd, so I guess it’s not surprising that I loved this book: one to make time stop on a hot, languid summer afternoon. I may have read it faster than I meant to, but I’ll be reading it again, very soon. It’s a story all of its own, and after all, that's what stories are for.

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish; The Greystones Press; rrp £12.99

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish; The Greystones Press; rrp £12.99


Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Black Powder by Ally Sherrick review by Lynda Waterhouse

This is Ally Sherrick’s first novel and it is a sparkling debut. Black Powder is set in the year of 1605. There is a new king on the throne, King James, and English Catholics hope that he will be more tolerant towards them but there are also fears about what Robert Cecil and his ring of spies are up to. These are dangerous times to live in especially if you are, like twelve year old Tom Garnett, a Catholic. The opening paragraphs illustrate the real danger and dilemmas that Tom faces as he goes to fetch water,
The hangman stood hunched at the top of the wooden scaffold like a hungry black crow. A mob of screaming gulls wheeled above him, but his eyes stayed fixed on the noose as it swayed to and fro in the cold sea breeze. Tom’s heart jolted. He didn’t want to watch a man die, but if he ran away now everyone would know he was a Catholic for sure.
Trouble comes closer to home as his father helps a priest escape and Tom is forced to betray his whereabouts in order to save his mother and younger brother. He sets out on a journey to free his mother and rescue his father. He visits Cowdrey House, his mother’s family home – the seat of the powerful Montague Family where he meets the feisty Cressida.
Along the way he also teams up with a mysterious stranger called The Falcon who promises to help him save his father in exchange for help with his plot to destroy Robert Cecil. But nothing is what it seems. There are truth, lies, spies and compromises everywhere. Tom, aided by Cressida and his pet mouse, Jago, face danger as the plot thickens and we get closer to the fifth of November. Will sparks fly?
This is both a fresh retelling of a difficult period in history and its themes are also relevant for young people today. Is it possible to see clearly when you are surrounded by hatred? 
A cracking thriller with heart.


Friday, 5 August 2016

LIBERTY'S FIRE by Lydia Syson. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

In this powerful and complex novel Lydia Syson brings to life the three months of the Paris Commune of 1871.

Four young people living in Paris come together in a story of war, revolution and comradeship: Anatole, a violinist, shares an apartment with Jules, an American photographer, and pays for his room by modelling for photographs; Marie, a colleague and friend of Anatole, is a beautiful young singer at the opera, hungry for success and anxious about the fate of her soldier brother. Into their lives comes Zephyrine, who used to work for a living but is now destitute.

When we first meet Zephyrine, she is on the brink of prostitution as she attempts to earn some money to pay for a proper funeral for her grandmother who, like many others, has died of starvation during the siege of Paris. She is rescued by Anatole, and their growing love for each other forms the core of the first half of the book as Zephyrine draws Anatole into the heart of the city's revolutionary fervour.

Although the rise and fall of the Commune is a dramatic setting, it's the characters in this story who make it so compelling that you become desperate to know what will happen to them. In particular, the subtle interplay of relationships and unspoken feelings between Jules, Anatole and Zephyrine are described with delicacy and care and without a false note. I love all Lydia Syson's novels but I think this one is my favourite because the characters are so interesting. Add to that the bohemian lifestyles and the excitement of the people's uprising and you have the perfect mixture.

This is historical fiction at its best: opening a window on the past and showing a moment that has echoes and resonances with our own troubled times.


Monday, 1 August 2016

The Star Tree, by Catherine Hyde. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Title: The Star Tree
Written and illustrated by Catherine Hyde
Published by Frances Lincoln/Quarto Kids
Publication date: 4 August 2016

I have to confess that I'm a bit biased when it comes to Catherine Hyde's work. She illustrated my 2010 version of Firebird, which earned us some fantastic reviews and an Aesop Accolade in the US.

Catherine had already illustrated Carol Ann Duffy's The Princess' Blankets before she worked with me and she went on to team up with Jackie Morris for Evie in the Wild Wood. This, however, is the first book that she has written and illustrated herself.

Here is a dreamy, lyrical story of a girl who makes a wish on the moon. It is midnight on midsummer's eve, a time when all wishes come true. And so starts a magical picaresque journey that will take Miranda from her warm seaside home to the frozen North where the fabulous star tree grows.  She is helped on her way by magical creatures of the night: an owl, a hare, a bear, a stag and finally a silver-feathered goose. Will she find the magical star tree?

Catherine Hyde's pictures are always mesmerising and here she employs a pontillist style to great effect, giving the book a very organic feel. It feels almost like some of the pictures formed naturally on the page, like lichen patterns on old stone or cherry blossom petals on a late-spring lawn. The text, almost a poem, is carefully crafted, inviting you to turn the page and accompany Miranda on her enchanted journey.

All in all this is a wonderful bedtime treat you would want to revisit again and again, both for the story and the enticing pictures.

Saviour Pirotta's next book Ballet Stories for Young Children will be published by Orchard in October 2016. 
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