Thursday, 20 October 2016

Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

As someone who loved spending time with her own grandmothers, I was attracted to Last Stop on Market Street. This picture book charts the journey of African-American CJ who is taken on a bus ride with his Nana to their stop at the end of Market Street each week after church. 

Stories that celebrate the relationship between child and grandparent are important. I also recently enjoyed the bestselling How to Babysit a Grandma by Jean Reagan and Lee Wildish, and have to confess one of my favourite fictional grandparents of all time is the storytelling, cigar-smoking Grandmother in Roald Dahl’s Witches. Nana in Last Stop on Market Street is a special lady, too.

One particular Sunday as Nana and CJ leave church, CJ is unhappy about the journey ahead. Why do they have to wait in the rain for the bus? Why don’t they have a car like his friend? Why do they have to make this journey every Sunday anyway? 

Nana answers each question by gently pointing out the beauty in the world around them, a beauty that others often miss. We are shown how to experience the world with all of our senses. Instead of riding in a car, we meet the colourful community on the bus — the bus driver who finds a coin behind CJ’s ear, the blind man who watches the world with his ears. De La Pena draws thumbnail sketches of these characters deftly. And who needs headphones and iPods when you are sitting next to a guitar player? 

The depiction of this live music is my favourite part of the story. Along with the other passengers, we are elevated by it. CJ closes his eyes and the rhythm lifts him out of ordinary life, his imagination paints pictures in his head, transports him.  The text of the story is conscious of music and rhythm: 'CJ's chest grew full and he was lost in the sound and the sound gave him the feeling of magic." 

Although the message in Last Stop on Market Street is timeless, the story feels very grounded in the modern world. We see graffiti and tattoos, iPods and butterflies in jars. We hear CJ’s authentic voice, “Nana, how come we don’t got a car?” At a time when the We Need Diverse Books campaign is championed, the subject matter is engaging. The ultimate destination of CJ and his Nana at the last stop on Market Street to help those less fortunate is also a poignant reminder of our times. Somehow the grounding in the material world makes the beauty we learn to see more real. 

The illustrations by Christian Robinson add much to the atmosphere and storytelling. The world he reveals is bright and textured. The depiction of the characters is almost childlike which reinforces our view of the city through CJ’s eyes. 

Last Stop on Market Street won the 2016 Newbery Medal in the U.S. and is available in the U.K


Matt de la Peña is the New York Times Bestselling, Newbery Medal-winning author of six young adult novels: Ball Don’t Lie, Mexican WhiteBoy, We Were Here, I Will Save You, The Living and The Hunted. He’s also the author of the critically-acclaimed picture books A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis (illustrated by Kadir Nelson) and Last Stop on Market Street (illustrated by Christian Robinson).  (Abridged excerpt taken from Matt de la Peña's website:


Christian Robinson is a 2016 Caldecott Honoree and also received a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for his art in Last Stop on Market StreetLeo: A Ghost Story, illustrated by Robinson and written by Mac Barnett (Chronicle, 2015), was named a 2015 New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book of the Year. His Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, written by Patricia Hruby Powell (Chronicle, 2014) received numerous awards and accolades and a place on the Wall Street Journal's 10 Best Children's Books of the Year List. Robinson, based in San Francisco, is also an animator and has worked with The Sesame Street Workshop and Pixar Animation Studios. (Abridged excerpt taken from Robinson's website:


Sarah Hammond is an author. She has published a picture book for very small people and teen fiction too. 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


Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Wolf Wilder, by Katherine Rundell - reviewed by Sue Purkiss

Bloomsbury, the publishers of The Wolf Wilder, clearly thought that they had something very special on their hands when they were thinking about how to present this novel, because they have produced a very lovely book. The layout is generous, with lots of white space which makes it very easy on the eye, and it's beautifully illustrated in black and white by Gelrev Ongbico.

 The book is set in the Russia of a century ago, just after the St Petersburg massacre. The Tsar is distant from his people, and Feo and her mother Marina live remotely from everyone. They are 'wolf-wilders'; this is, we are told, an inherited occupation. The scenario is that aristocrats in the city have a liking for keeping wolves as pets. When, inevitably, the wolves rebel, they are sent to wolf wilders who train them to live as they were meant to live, out in the forests. (They aren't killed because that would bring bad luck.)

Feo loves her three wolves, White, Grey and Black, and she and her mother are exceptionally close. They are happy, until one day their peace is shattered by a sadistic local army commander, Rakov, who believes their wolves have killed an elk, and orders them to kill any wolves sent to them from then on.

Of course they don't co-operate, and before long Marina is arrested, their house is burnt down, and when a boy soldier, Ilya, tells Feo that her mother has been taken to prison in St Petersburg, Feo knows at once that she will go and rescue her. So she, the wolves, and Ilya set off: and the rest of their book is about the journey, their continuing feud with Rakov, and the people they meet on the way.

It's a beautifully written book. Here, Katherine Rundell describes Marina: '...her face, a visitor had once said, was built on the blueprint used for snow leopards, and for saints. "The look," he had said, "is goddess, modified."' Or here's Ilya: 'He was tall and fair, and without the covering of snow he looked very thin; the bones in his hands seemed to be making a bid to escape from his skin. His voice sounded of cities: soft, Feo thought.'

Feo is fierce and very determined. She reminds me a bit of Lyra in Philip Pullman's Northern Lights; she's strong, rough at the edges, not at all sure how she should talk to people - but she wins others over by dint of her courage, her loyalty, and her blazing sense of what's right and what's wrong. She's charismatic: someone who others will follow.

Feo - you can just see her feet - and her three wolves, sleeping in a pile.

This book has the quality of a legend, a fairy tale - partly because of its setting, of course, in the forests of eastern Europe. But it's also grounded in a real place, in a time of turmoil, and the dialogue, the emotions of the characters, are also real; it's often funny too. i enjoyed it very much.


Saturday, 8 October 2016

Loose Connections by Malaika Rose Stanley. Review by Lynda Waterhouse

I tend to avoid any book that calls itself a memoir.  I associate the word with the misery memoir genre or cynical celebrity kiss and tell tales. I also tend to avoid most self-published adult fiction/ autobiography by anyone I know just in case ….

Loose Connections is the beautiful exception to all my ‘rules.’  It is an exceptional book – this ‘true story full of holes.’ It contains all the features of Malaika’s writing that stands out in her children’s fiction: clarity, warmth, the exploration of difficult issues and humour. In this book Malaika is shining a light on her own life in particular her experience as a mixed-race child growing up in a children’s home in the 1960s and her subsequent search for her birth parents.  It is not a spoiler to say that there are no happy ever after rosy reunions where everything is neatly tied up in a bow. This story is messy and inconclusive like life and all the better for it. Some questions are never answered, some people never found. Some family re-connections are problematical.

The contents page reads like a poem with its chapter headings, Tea and Sympathy, Flesh and Blood and Heart and Soul. Some of the chapters are written from the perspective of her birth mother and the way she was treated as an unmarried mother in the 1950s. She describes her own birth in all its harsh unflinching loneliness and casual cruelty.

Other chapters recount her life growing up in the children’s home. As a child who grew up in nearby Manchester at the same time I could relate with some of Malaika’s experiences at school.
This book is all about the search for connections.  When she left care and went to FE college in Moseley she made new friends from the Caribbean community, ‘They understood me….and they welcomed me into their homes and loved me up.’

Sometimes it is those loose connections of friends and carers that provide a solid foundation of love – albeit unspoken. Later on in the book Malaika revaluates the relationship with her ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ in the children’s home.

Upon the birth of her son she says,
 ‘He was the first of my blood relatives that I ever met and every time someone said, “he looks just like you”, my heart, and my head, swelled a little more.’

She also says,
‘I’ve missed having a history. I’ve missed knowing where my people come from, the place where I belong, where my toes would recognise the sand and people I don’t know would see my grandmother’s face in mine and welcome me home.’

I hope this book is picked up by a mainstream publisher and gets the wider recognition it deserves. Loose Connections is a moving and honest account of growing up in care and the search for identity.  It should be required reading for social workers, teachers and social historians.

ISBN 978 1533641533


Tuesday, 4 October 2016

THE CURIOUS TALE OF THE LADY CARABOO by Catherine Johnson. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull

"Doesn't she understand her lot?" wonders young Fred Worrall, when faced with a frightened and reluctant young prostitute - before daydreaming about his own 'lot': travel, university, work as a banker - everything that's been planned for him by family and social class.

This extraordinary story of love, mystery and self-deception is based on true events. It's set in 1819 and tells how Mary Willcox, a cobbler's daughter from Devon, managed to pass herself off as a princess from the Far East, fooling not only the wealthy family who took her in, but various 'experts' who examined her.

The story begins with a brutal scene in which 17 year old Mary, alone and exhausted on the road, is raped by two men. She was on her way home to Devon from London - where the man she loved had deserted her and where her newborn baby had died. After this attack, at her lowest ebb, Mary longs to become someone else. She reinvents herself as the Princess Caraboo, speaking no English, wearing a turban, and looking everyone boldly in the eye in a way that downtrodden Mary never could. She is found and brought to Knole House, home of the Worrall family, and immediately wins over Mrs Worrall, who is an amateur student of anthropology. But not everyone is convinced by Caraboo, and before long Mary finds herself wanting to escape but caught up in a net of her own making.

The story is seen from the viewpoints of several young people: Mary herself; Cassandra, the daughter of the house; Cassandra's brother Fred; and Will, the son of the local innkeeper, who falls for the self-centred Cassandra. Young Fred Worrall is in some ways the most interesting of these characters, as he changes from playboy to someone who sees women as human beings, and in so doing frees himself.

Through these various viewpoints we see love in its pure and corrupt forms, the way society treats women, and in particular the degrading lives of poor women - but all conveyed with the lightest touch in a story that sparkles with vitality.


Friday, 30 September 2016

CATS AND CURSES, by Elen Caldecott. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Title: Cats and Curses [The Marsh Road Mysteries, Book 4]
Author: Elen Caldecott
Published by Bloomsbury
Format p/b and ebook
Publication date: 11th August 2016

I am a big fan of the Marsh Road Mysteries, and of Elen Caldecott's books in general, which are brilliant page turners that weld Enid Blyton and Malcolm Saville's sense of mystery with twenty first century sensibilities and values.

This is the fourth book in the series and the five members of the crime-busting gang are back for another adventure. Meet Piotr, Andrew, Flora and the beyond-cool Sylvie.  Andrew's mum is recovering from the shock of being involved in a fire and ready to go back to work, helping out at the local junk shop. But things don't go according to plan. On her first day, she takes delivery of a mysterious package - a mummified Egyptian cat. The gruesome artefact seems to have put a curse on the shop. Strange things start happening: glass objects shatter in locked cabinets, eerie shadows appear. It has an adverse effect on Andrew's mum, and her friend the junk shop owner.

The fab five suspected human intervention and they are soon uncovering clues and tailing suspects, each member of the gang bringing their own unique skill to the investigation. The climax, in a builder's yard is a fantastic mis-en-scene and the resolution truly satisfying.

It's not just the story that makes this book a joy to read, it's the sense of friendship the characters have for one another, and the celebration of family in its various guises. The scene where Andrew gives his mum a special hairdo to cheer her up is a gem. A highly recommended read.

Saviour Pirotta
My online profile: website at
Twitter: @spirotta


Monday, 26 September 2016

SHE IS NOT INVISIBLE by Marcus Sedgwick

Review by Jackie Marchant 

This was shortlisted for the inaugural YA Book Award and, to be honest, I preferred it to the winner, but that’s another story.  There is so much to this book – a great plot, a mystery, a puzzle or two, a dash of thriller and a tough challenge, all bound up with excellent writing.  

It begins with Laureth trying to convince herself that she’s not abducting her seven year old brother, even though she’s at the airport with him and her mother’s credit card.  It takes a while to realise why young Ben is an essential companion as she tries to find out why her father has disappeared in New York when he’s supposed to be in Switzerland.  It’s only towards the end of the first chapter that you realise Laureth is blind.  Even then, it takes her a long time before she quietly confesses to someone.  She doesn’t want to bring attention to herself as she fears they will send her back for travelling with a seven year old. 

What chance does a blind sixteen year old girl have in finding a missing father, when her only aid is a young boy who thinks this is a planned trip to visit him?  But Laureth is resourceful and, despite what she thinks, responsible.  She manages to meet the person who contacted her father to tell him that he’d found his notebook.  As Lauren answers all her father’s fan mail, she now knows that her father is not where he’s supposed to be and, even worse, he’s lost his precious notebook.  Her father is a writer and, as one myself, I know that loss of a notebook is an absolute disaster.  But when Laureth meets up with the person who found it, they are not what they seemed and the mystery only deepens.

Then there is the content of the notebook.  To the reader, lots of quirky notes about coincidence, strange cults and suicides, but to Laureth the frightening truth that her father might be in real danger.  So she goes off to New York with her little brother to find him.  Then the trouble really starts.  But I will say no more as I don’t want to give anything away.

This is not your usual page-turner.  As well as gripping, it is original and quirky, beautifully written, with realistic characters and plausibility.  It’s described as a thriller, but it is so much more than that.


Thursday, 22 September 2016

UNDER WATER by Marisa Reichardt, reviewed by Pauline Francis

I chose this debut novel because of this sentence on the front cover: “Sometimes the safest place to be is underwater.” I was intrigued because I really don't like water at all. The hard cover on the right is even more disturbing to me, so I've shown you both.

Morgan is seventeen, lives in California and used to be a great swimmer, until a terrible event at school made her afraid to leave her apartment.

Sadly, we’ve become used to reading about school massacres, even used to reading about yet another loner who has taken revenge on his rejecting world. Reinhardt takes us in into new territory: what happens to the survivors? How do they recover from their trauma? Life can never be the same again, so how does a young person grow into a new one? Morgan is such a survivor. We know this early on. The tension lies in not knowing exactly what happened to her.

This novel skilfully and slowly takes us into Morgan’s mind as it is written in a very sparing present tense and first person, like a mental diary. Just when the reader is beginning to get the measure of her and her progress, thanks to her therapist, Brenda, a new thread of the trauma floats to the surface. The reader is constantly asking, ‘Is she going to get over this?’

Morgan begins her recovery when a new boy moves in next door. But this isn’t a love-cures-all novel. It’s much more subtle than that. The boy, Evan, connects Morgan to the world outside that she misses and wants to return to. And Reinhardt takes pains to point out that Morgan has to do the hard work every day, reading the mantra stuck onto the kitchen wall:  
1. Breathe 2. You’re are OK. 3. You’re not dying.

Nobody can get better for her.
“’Are you proud of yourself? Brenda asks.
I guess.’
I want you to own it, Morgan.’
I very much liked the introduction of Morgan’s car, a classic (1957) matador-red Bel Air, left to her by her grandfather. It’s a strong character and adds a dark twist to the day of the massacre, to Morgan’s final revelation.

I did find Morgan’s family situation depressing: her father suffers from war-related mental health problems; some might say it is unnecessary, as are Evan’s own family issues. But as forgiveness and acceptance are at the heart of this novel, Morgan has to forgive her father as well as the loner who carries out the massacre.

This is an honest and gutsy novel that I would recommend far and wide – to anybody suffering the trauma of physical and mental abuse - and to their teachers, parents, carers and counsellors.

Pauline Francis