Friday, 20 November 2015

The Drop in my Drink By Meredith Hooper & Chris Coady reviewed by Julia Jones

A few months ago I used this space to write about Meredith Hooper's A Pebble in my Pocket.  I was inspired by the motivating effect it had on my grandchildren -- they were outside at once, collecting and comparing pebbles, then they clustered back indoors to draw and paint their pebbles and create their own volcanos.  I bought myself a copy and felt I was closer to understanding certain basic geological facts and sequences than I'd ever been. As I read it aloud to the youngest child I admired the energy with which this dramatic story was narrated. Millions of years roll past and the pebble is formed and endures and finds its way into our pockets. I'm still amazed by this.
The Drop in my Drink is the natural sequel to the Pebble and has just been re-issued by Frances Lincoln. The challenge this time is slightly different: to express the changeableness, the fluidity and yet the eternal nature of water. "All the water we have is all the water we've always had."
     It's an extraordinary concept -- can it be right? we may ask ourselves during our period of anxiety about climate change: about droughts and flood and over heating. The overall quantity of water remains the same -- where else could it go?  -- only its state changes.
    The changeable nature of water inspires Hooper's imagination and consequently her language. She begins with the simple explanation that every drop of water is constantly different both from every other drop and from itself because the water molecules are always on the move. Water trickles and seeps, flows, freezes, floats. Illustrator Chris Coady supplies a contemplative image of a child watching drops from a tap splashing into a tumbler: "Where do you come from, drop of water?"
     The language of the answer is gloriously vigorous. "Water dribbles down rocks. Water churns along rivers and fills great oceans. Water tumbles inside clouds, drifts as snowflakes, collects in puddles. Water creeps up the stems of sunflowers and slips down the throats of tigers."  (I especially love "tumbles".) This rush of verbs and images carries carries the reader along to the simple central statement: "It's all the same water."
     In one sense that's all there is to say and the rest of the book explains and expands. Yet the sense of drama as well as the sense of wonder is never far away. We feel the paradox of the weight of water that floats above us in the sky "hundreds of millions of millions of tonnes", then we are ripped from this magical altitude and "howled" above the mountains in icy jet streams.
    The sense of time and the passing of geological ages is not as powerful in this volume as in the Pebble but it's still there. Water has been the essential nutrient from the first simple life-forms, through the earliest plants to the increasingly complex vertebrates and on into the luxuriant growth of the rainforest. Continuity and diversity is the theme of the Drop and Hooper's intellectual excitement at this combination is memorably conveyed through her language as well as Chris Coady's vibrant paintings. Another great example of science writing for children which can engage and challenge adults as well.


Monday, 16 November 2015

THIS BOOK IS GAY - by James Dawson

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

This book, as well being gay, is important.  It’s an important book because it deals in an open an honest way with a subject that should be, but isn’t, covered in schools.  It deals with the bit they miss out in sex education – the fact that some people are not heterosexual, but still need to know what’s what in regard to themselves and their relationships.  And it deals with this information in an open, honest, sometimes funny and, most importantly, factual, way. 

It is also a very sad book.  Sad because there is a whole chapter about the prejudice people face if they are not heterosexual.  Or, as a lot of people put it, not normal.  But, as the book quite rightly points out, being in a minority does not make you not normal. 

It's an alarming book.  Alarming in its list of countries that carry the death penalty for gay sex, some of which are popular holiday destinations.  (Might make you want to change your plans for that dream vacation).   Alarming in the way religion is used as an excuse to terrorise those who happen to fall in love with someone of the same gender, or decide that they were born in the wrong one.

But it is an upbeat book.  It’s a celebration of being allowed to be who you are and what you are.  It’s a book that says it’s OK to be different, that it’s OK to love and be loved in a relationship that may fall outside of the statistical average.  And, more importantly, it offers support for anyone who is discovering their sexuality and a lot of sage advice on how to go forward.
It’s a book that should be available to young people, in school libraries, accessible by those who need a friend at what can be a difficult and confusing time.  And it should be read by everyone else as well, so they can understand their own prejudices and accept, support and celebrate those who are different.  As the author himself says  ‘I want young LGBT people to know they're not alone, and we're here – everywhere – and ready to help.’

Unfortunately, I think this may also be a book that is sneaked out and read in a brown paper bag.  But, having been read, maybe it will one day come out with its reader. 

This book is a thank you to those in the majority who accept the minority for being who they are – and how important it is to carry that message of support. 

In other words, it’s a book for everyone.


Thursday, 12 November 2015

FIVE CHILDREN ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Kate Saunders, reviewed by Pauline Francis

I know that Kate Saunders is a huge fan of E. Nesbit’s classic Five Children and It so – in addition to the fact that her novel won the 2014 Costa prize and has been short-listed for this year’s Guardian Fiction Prize – I wanted to see how she would weave these two books together, especially since I didn’t enjoy the original.

The Prologue begins in1905, when the Psammead (an ancient sand fairy) takes Cyril, Robert, Anthea and Jane twenty five years into the future (1930) to meet their old friend, the Professor. It’s only when they’ve left that Anthea wishes that she’d looked at his photographs more clearly. She remarks: “I didn’t see any grown-up men who looked a bit like you boys – I wonder why not.”

She doesn’t know that the Professor is crying after they’ve left – and so am I!
This story is wonderfully done. The Psammead re-appears just as the First World War is breaking out. By this time, Edith, aged nine, has been born and she is our link to the original story.  

“Everything interesting happened before I was born,” Edith sighs when she sees the Psammead for the first time. She’d heard the wonderful stories of magic and flying adventures from her older siblings. And what about this marvellous sentence? Edith again: she could almost smell the wave of magic that had suddenly swept into her life and the bigguns almost forgot they were grown up.

How the reader wishes those children hadn’t had to grow up. The tone of the novel slowly darkens as Cyril is sent to France, thinking that the war will soon be over; followed the next year by Bobs and then Anthea as a nurse at the front. The war goes on and on, as does the Psammead’s stay with the family.

The tour de force of this novel is the back-story that is given to the creature – “I’m a senior sand-fairy, not an animal!” he protests. A complicated and humorous investigation by the children in the British Library reveals that this grumpy sand fairy was once a desert god who had killed thousands of people. He snaps, ‘I don’t know how many of them died. Numbers aren’t important.’ Who will forget the vision of the skeleton, pointing with its bony arm at the Psammead, crying, “REPENT.”

This is a marvellous device, weaving the Psammead’s predicament with the terrible war, which comes to the reader through letters, home leave and occasional flying visits, with the Psammead, to the Western Front. Before the poignant ending, Cyril asks the sand-fairy, ‘Since when have you cared about dying?’

In this brilliant anti-war novel, there is no attempt to imitate E. Nesbit – just pages full of humour and pathos, peopled by characters who are individuals that we care about, and whom we desperately hope will survive the war.

It is the Psammead in the end who sums up war. “Wars never change. It’s basically two sides trying to kill each other.”

The Epilogue, set in 1930, in which we meet Anthea’s daughter, assures us that “once magic is with us, it never disappears.”

Do I need to tell you that I’m now reading Five Children and It?



Sunday, 8 November 2015

THE WILD SWANS by Jackie Morris Reviewed by Adèle Geras

"It was a book so beautiful that she felt at any moment the painted characters would leap out of the pages and come to life."

So says Eliza, the brave and resourceful heroine of Jackie Morris's THE WILD SWANS. That sentence sums up my feelings about this retelling of one of my favourite fairytales. 

Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will know that I always say, right up front, that I know this or that writer; that I can't help it if some of my best friends write super books and so on. With Jackie, I can truthfully say that I've only met her once briefly in person. But she's a Twitter chum and anyone who takes part in that online cocktail party will know that such relationships can be a great deal of fun. I have followed Jackie and because I've been an admirer of her work for years,  I did actually ASK to review this book.

I had another reason for doing this. It's this: I myself wrote a version of this fairytale for David Fickling's collection of stories, which sold for £1 each back in 1998. My story was called THE SIX SWAN BROTHERS and it was beautifully illustrated in black and white by Ian Beck. 

There are twelve swans in Morris's version. The whole book is so beautifully produced and presented that it's worth pausing to pay tribute to those who made the decision to publish it in this format. It's a square-ish hardback, with full colour illustrations and turning every page is a pleasure.

Morris has written the text as well as providing the haunting illustrations. I am always deeply envious of anyone who can do that. It seems to be the most perfect way of creating a book and here the writer has managed to produce such a rich story,  so full of pleasurable language that actually, it would be possible to read it with no pictures whatsoever and still have the images in your head. Take, for example the painting below. It shows Eliza after she's been enchanted by the White Queen.

 The text reads thus: "...the queen now pulled and backcombed and filled her hair with things.  Eliza saw jewelled combs where there were only tangled twigs and thorns and ragged nests of birds."

And yes, the picture adds to the words but they are poetic and vivid in themselves, even without the help of an illustration.

The story is well known to many  in one version or another. What Morris adds to it is nature and detail. The story is told at much greater length, with many more layers of story for  readers to enjoy. It's told well, with good pacing and gorgeous choice of language. I've also tried reading the text aloud and that works very well, so I hope there will be an audio version. Morris is one of the best illustrators of  creatures: bears, cats, birds and hares. She shows us the world as a beautiful place but also one where cruelty is constantly present, always there waiting to catch us unawares.

In this book, the two creatures who matter are a dog and a hare. Shadow is Eliza's companion and friend. She is a big, grey, skinny animal, but also very gentle and loving.  The White Hare,  (the animal embodiment of the Queen who turned Eliza's brothers into swans) is both sinister and lovely. And the swans themselves are magnificent: white and powerful and crowned with gold.   

 This book will doubtless appear in paperback in the fullness of time but  the very competitively-priced  hardback  would make the most wonderful Christmas present for anyone who loves fairytales, and nature and the joys of holding in their hands something that will go on giving pleasure for years and years. John Keats said it and he's quite right: A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.

THE WILD SWANS is published by Frances Lincoln
Hbk: £10.99
ISBN: 9781847805362


Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Girl On A Plane, by Miriam Moss, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Image result for girl on a plane miriam moss image
Miriam Moss gave a wonderful talk about her new book at the CWIG conference in Bath, with the result that her book sold out within minutes of the talk ending.  I bought the book later, and I’m very glad that I did.

This is an extraordinary tale, written by an established writer of children’s fiction who just happened to have lived through the real life terrifying ordeal of a four day hijacking. 

In 1970, teenaged Miriam was travelling from her family’s temporary home in The Middle East back to boarding school in England.  Two aeroplanes had been hijacked by Palestinian guerillas in the previous couple of days, and were now parked in desert in Jordan as the hijackers made their demands and threatened to blow the planes up with all on board.   Suddenly, in mid-flight, there was a man with a gun, and another with suitcase of explosives, on Miriam’s own flight.  Following the hijackers' demands, that Boeing 747 with over a hundred people on board joined those others, parked in the desert with the clock ticking towards the terrorists’ deadline for death. 
Miriam did survive, and she went back to ‘normal’ life.  Her school felt that the best way to help her overcome that traumatic experience was to act as if it had never happened.  For over forty years the experience lay dormant.  Then she mentioned it to her publisher, who told her she must try writing about the experience.  She wasn’t sure she could, but began researching and remembering and finding things from that time, and found that she could write about it, but in fictionalised form because of course she couldn’t remember every conversation that had happened, and because to write about other people on the plane who are still alive wouldn’t be fair on them.
So this story is fiction, but heavily based in reality.  It is the story of fifteen year old Anna, the four days of her hijacking ordeal, and a day or two either side of that.  It is written in the first person in short chapters headed with a time and place.  Most of the text gives Anna’s point of view as she and her co-hostages endure the extreme heat and cold of the desert, lack of food and drink, and, of course, the threat of death by being blown-up or shot one by one is Prime Minister Heath doesn’t agree to release their comrade back in the UK.  The mix of extreme boredom and extreme terror is well handled, along with the relationships she develops with other passengers, crew, and even the hijackers.  But we also get glimpses of Anna’s parents’ and brothers’ experiences through all this, particularly Marni’s (as she calls her mother).  Maybe it’s because I am a mother of daughters that I found those parts the hardest to read, and their eventual reunion weepily moving!

This is a compelling and relatively short read, simply told but with a voice that (apart from odd use of very modern dialogue) utterly convinces as it tells the story in a way which I’m sure is different from the way a writer making it up would work things.  We’d expect Anna to surely hate the plane that has been her explosive-primed prison, and yet, when freedom comes, she is scared to leave it and reacts with grief when she sees the plane blown-up on the television news.  Who would dare make up the scene in which the hostages are lined-up on the desert for a flock of journalist and photographers to photograph and interview?  And yet it happened, and you can look online to see the resulting photographs. 

We are given some insight into the plight of the Palestinians driven to the desperate acts of kidnap and murder, and that’s interesting.  But the real story here is Anna’s experience.  That stays with you long after finishing reading.


Sunday, 1 November 2015

Lilliput, by Sam Gayton. Reviewed by Sarah Hammond (and her two nieces)

‘Have you heard of the tale that’s short and tall? There’s an island in the world where everything is small!’ 

Lilliput is a gem of a story for middle grade readers. In this sequel to Gulliver’s Travels, we learn that Gulliver returned to Lilliput to kidnap one of its inhabitants, Lily, and brought her back to London to prove that his incredible travel tales were true. However, Lily does not like this plan one jot. She just wants to go home.

We join the story as Lily, imprisoned in Gulliver’s attic room, embarks on Escape Plan 34.  It is hard to break free when you are only three inches tall and trapped in a birdcage, yet Lily is feisty and will never give up. Her adventures set her against Gulliver and his misplaced ideas, against poisonous spiders and terrifying cats and, worst of all, against Gulliver's odious landlord, a wicked clock maker whose arrival is preempted by an overture of stink. And Lily, who measures her life in moons not years, worries that her time is slipping through her fingers

All is not lost as Lily finds a colourful band of allies. She meets a gigantic Spanish chocolatier and bon viveur who talks in rhyme, a multilingual parrot called Señor Chitchat, and also an unexpected but faithful friend whose eyes speak his truth. Together, they come up with another escape plan. 

As we follow this tiny person through the story, we see her giant world in all its wonderful, sensory, and sometimes frightening glory. One of my favourite scenes finds Lily crawling amongst the inner workings of a clock, which is “as big as a cathedral, as complicated as a steam engine, as busy as a bee’s nest”. Pete Williamson’s evocative illustrations in my version of Lilliput added much to the atmosphere of the story, too.

The originality of the characters, plot-turns and sparkling ideas set this book apart for me. Readers are led through many good old-fashioned rambunctious adventures and high jinks — Lily travels down chimneys, falls into muddy puddles and gets stuck in smelly socks — yet Gayton also gently punctuates his story with reminders of deeper truths. Are all cages made of metal bars? Are goodbyes happy or sad? And what of the Lilliputian custom of paying respect to their ‘Ender’ who made their world and dwells in the time before time? They remember him because they want “to remind ourselves: we all came from kindness. We all sprang from the same place. The world is a gift.”

This spirited storytelling stays with me still. But what was the verdict of some younger readers? 

Lilliput is a great book because it has an amazing storyline and it is very intriguing. You will never want to put the book down. I didn't anyway! How many stars would I rate it?  4 and 1/2 out of 5! It would be a great book to read if you love adventure!” (My 11 year old niece)

“It was a wonderful story. I loved all the characters, especially the wicked clock maker because he was creepy. I liked the fact that Gulliver stole the little girl because he wanted proof that his tales were true. I loved it when she […edited to avoid plot spoiler as to how the book ends!] like Thumbelina.” (My 8 year old niece)


Sam Gayton is an author and playwright who completed the Writing for Young People MA at Bath Spa University in England. Lilliput is his second book. When he’s not writing, he likes playing old board games, strumming his guitar, and joining as many rock bands as possible (currently at seven). He lives in the UK by the seaside. 

You can find him online at:

facebook: SamGaytonChildrensAuthor
twitter: @sam_gayton


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


Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone: Reviewed by Tamsin Cooke

This is my first book review for An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and I wanted to choose a middle grade story that had me racing through the pages with my heart pounding. The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone does just that. It’s filled with magic, adventure, suspense and hope.
Twelve year old Moll lives in the Tanglefern Forest with a group of Romany gypsies. Discovering her past isn’t as she thought, Moll embarks on an adventure to discover the truth. She soon learns that the dreaded Dreamsnatcher is after her. ‘He’s already taken her dreams. Now he wants her life.’ Brave, feisty and stubborn, Moll and Gryff  - a wild cat always at her side, never to be mistaken for a pet - are the only ones who can stop his dark magic.

Through Moll’s journey, we learn about the mystical world of gypsies, their traditions and beliefs.  We see the forest through her eyes and see how spiritual and close to nature humans can be. We meet complex characters such as Alfie and wonder whether they’re friends or foe. And when we meet Skull, he is spine tinglingly evil.

There are some great gems in this book. I particularly love the bemused pet worm called Porridge the Second and the magical relationship between Moll and Gryff.

The Dreamsnatcher is beautifully written with stunning imagery, fantastic characters and so many twists and turns. It’s the perfect blend of compassion, horror and intrigue.