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


Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge, recently made headlines by winning the Costa Book of the Year Prize - the first children's book to have done so since Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials. This is a richly complex Gothic horror story, with language and concepts as challenging as Pullman's. It is the story of Faith, a girl whose father is a vicar but also an archaeologist and natural scientist living at the beginning of the nineteenth century - a time when people (mostly, but not entirely, men) could be all these things at the same time; when the worlds of art and science were much closer than they are now; and when new wonders were constantly being discovered - and old certainties anxiously challenged.

Faith's father is strict and distant, and dismissive of his daughter, even though she is clearly much cleverer than her younger brother, Howard. No-one tells her why the family must suddenly move to the island of Vane, but Faith is a curious girl who refuses to be limited by what is expected of her, and she makes it her business to find out what is going on. 

She soon discovers that her father is fleeing from rumours that he is a fraud; that many of his most famous fossil finds are not genuine. She decides to investigate further - and she finds that at the centre of his obsessions is a mysterious tree which he has hidden in a sea cave. This tree, she eventually discovers, literally feeds on lies - and produces fruit which, when eaten, reveals hidden truths...

Meanwhile, the rumours about her father have reached Vane. Gossip spreads, and the atmosphere becomes as menacing and brooding as the swiftly growing tree. Faith decides she will harness the tree's power to find out the truth - but of course, when we go searching for the truth, we don't always like what we find.

The tree itself - well. Very sinister. There's something about this element of the story that reminds me of The Monkey's Paw, by WW Jacobs, which also features an object with mysterious powers found abroad, whose appropriation by westerners leads to unexpected and terrible consequences - as does Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. Perhaps there's something to do with colonialism going on here - the downside of the urge to explore which led to so many adventures and discoveries from the end of the eighteenth century on.

I found this a compulsive, richly textured read, and you have to admire Faith's determination to confound expectations about what, in Victorian times, would have been appropriate for a girl in terms of life chances and behaviour. There are other interesting female characters too; her mother, Myrtle, seems fairly dreadful at first, but I very much warmed to her as she gradually revealed  unexpected depths of deviousness and determination.

For more reviews and other stuff, please see my blog, A fool on a hill.


Tuesday, 19 April 2016

BROKEN SKY by Lee Weatherly: reviewed by Gillian Philip

"Everyone has to believe in something," says Amity Vancour's little brother, Hal. He means, of course, that people need to believe; but as it turns out, an awful lot of people love to believe in something. What Hal has not yet seen, at the quarter-point in this chilling novel, is a population persuaded with alarming ease to believe willingly, gladly, joyfully in something entirely irrational. 

I say 'chilling', but L.A. Weatherly's Broken Sky is more of a spine-freeze. Following the Cataclysm – a nuclear conflagration a couple of thousand years ago – the world has essentially been rebooted. Amity Vancour lives in an era that is more or less the 1940s, but second-time-around. And this time, humanity seems to have learned its lesson. 

Wars have happened in this universe – it's what people do – but Amity's own grandmother Louise, who lived through an appalling one, was instrumental in putting an end to them forever. The world is now overseen by the World for Peace, an international organisation that prioritises and ranks inter-state conflicts, then resolves them. The instruments of this admirable policy are the Peacefighters, a noble force who fight for their countries' rights against one another, at great personal risk but with none to civilians or large armies. For this service, Peacefighters are idolised by a grateful population – and fully trusted. Their thrilling Firedove [Spitfire] duels take place in the skies above the WfP complex, neutral territory in the Western Seaboard where the pilots of all nations socialise (when they're not engaged in aerial combat with one another). This world is not utopia, but it feels like the best version of humanity, and the Peacefighters are at its heart.

Enter John Gunnison, the demagogue who rules the neighbouring Central States – and who eyes the Western Seaboard with avarice. The Peacefights have been going his way lately, so Amity is thrilled and proud when her win in a duel retains the Western Seaboard's oil rights for five years. When that result is overturned for reasons she doesn't understand, the first doubts creep in – and when pilots begin to die in straightforward fights, things quickly get a lot more sinister.

Gunnison is a tremendous and shockingly believable villain. When we finally meet him, through Weatherly's secondary character Kay, his charisma shines, and it's clear how he has reached the pinnacle of power. His genius has been to manipulate the population with astrology; his strength comes from his genuine, fanatical belief. Astrological charts are cast for every citizen of the Central States; a Discordant outcome results in correction camps, torture and death. And while Gunnison's belief is sincere, those around him survive by knowing just how to manipulate a chart to make him happy. Kay prides herself on knowing how to read people; resourceful and ruthless, she is determined to reach his inner circle and stay alive.

Broken Sky begins with Amity on the run, alone and desperate and terrified for the life of her lover and childhood friend, Collie. From this heart-in-mouth flash-forward, Weatherly takes us back to Amity's previous golden existence as a respected Peacefighter, and the great mystery begins: how did she get from there to here? The story rarely lets up the tension, and when it does it's only for touching interludes of love and family life. Amity is a splendid protagonist, courageous, compassionate and able; and we fall in love with Collie almost as thoroughly as she does. But don't let me give the impression there's sentimentality in the romance; Peacefighters can't afford it. These are tough, passionate, honest warriors and their relationship feels real. 

What also feels very real is the world they live in. I felt sorriest for a character we never meet: President Lopez of the Western Seaboard, a politician doing his best for a nation that is increasingly unhappy and deprived as the Peacefights go against them. The people of the WS gaze with envy at the prosperous Central States and its strong, charismatic leader, and they begin to wonder if astrology can do the same wonders for them. They don't know – or don't want to know – about the Discordants and their fate. 

One of the creepiest aspects of the novel is the Astrology shops that begin to pop up with increasing frequency in the Western Seaboard; everyone has to believe in something. Astrology might seem like a stretch as a way to hypnotise a population; but Weatherly makes it an entirely believable phenomenon. And why not? These are not the first nations to fall wholesale for the joyfully bombastic rallies of a demagogue. Soon everyone's wearing their star sign on their lapel; after all, it's just a brooch, just a bit of fun. It's not as if it'll ever be obligatory... but what if Gunnison's right? What if the Discordants are somehow responsible for everyone's problems? Harmony is a benevolent ideal, isn't it? Perhaps a truly perfect world is within reach if Discordant elements can be neutralised.  

Lee Weatherly does a magnificent job of examining the good intentions of humanity, and the fragility of those ideals when put into practice. Good people succumb to temptation; good people begin to think about ends, and the means they are willing to tolerate in their pursuit. Good people decide to believe in bad people, and it's never going to end well.

Action, romance, heartbreak, betrayal, agonising guilt and heart-stopping tension: Broken Sky has it all. Oh, and fascinatingly detailed Spitfire dogfights. And delightful future-historical period detail. And TWISTS; dear Lord, the twists. And by the way, it's more than suitable for fully-grown adults as well as young ones. 

I should stop before I gush any more about this tremendous book (the first in a trilogy), but I'll leave you with a link to Lee Weatherly's Broken Sky Pinterest board (I was going to steal some illustrations from it, but the choice is too difficult). And besides, I found this shot of Ms Weatherly in a Spitfire: 

BROKEN SKY by Lee Weatherly; Usborne, £8.99


Friday, 15 April 2016


 I have to hurry with this book review, as I have promised to send the copy down to a certain nine-and-three-quarters year old boy. I'd bought the book to review, he started reading while we were staying with them - and he’d really like it back so he can continue. Which, in its way, is the best kind of review.

Eleven year old Luke Parker, comic book enthusiast and “ordinary” hero, gets down from their garden tree-house because he needs a wee – which is why Luke misses the moment when a good alien power visit Earth and bestows a blast of superpowers on his shy, studious fourteen-year-old brother Zak, as well as a row of three stars across his chest.

At first, Luke – the narrator - is outraged by the unfairness of this choice. Zak knows nothing about the world of comics! He refuses to wear anything more noticeable than a dark hoodie, spurning the star-patterned bathroom curtain Luke offers him as his superhero cape. Zak even needs Luke’s help to discover what his Superpowers might be:

The burning question was, could he fly? In my opinion, a superhero who can’t fly isn’t in the Premier League. So that evening I decided to find out.
          “Hey, did you just try to push me out of the tree house?” said Zack, teetering on the edge of the doorway.
“No,“ I said. “Well, maybe a bit. I just wanted to know. Aren’t you curious?
“Not enough to jump out of a tree fifteen feet off the ground.”
I peered out investigatively. “You’re right,” I said. “It’s not nearly high enough.” I glanced across to the house. “We should go up on the roof.”
“Are you trying to kill me?” said Zack, backing away. “I bet that’s it. You’re still jealous that I got to be a superhero and you didn’t.”
He was right, I was still jealous and always would be. How could I not be? My brother was living my fantasy.

When Zak, as STARLAD, saves a toppling bus, Luke starts to worry about how long he can keep his brother’s other identity a secret, especially when STARLAD gets involved in more and more rescues. This situation is made worse when nosy Lara Lee, the would-be-journalist from his own class, starts a quest to unmask the new Superhero. Luke, still cross and jealous, has to pretend to join in her quest for the truth. 

Luke, who knows how the superhero genre works, decided he must discover the identity of NEMESIS, the person from whom Zak is destined to save the world. A villain soon arrives: Christopher Talbot, who is the owner of the Crystal Cave comic book store chain and also a suspiciously over-ambitious robot inventor. Could Talbot be Zak's NEMESIS? Luke, Lara and his friend Serge think he must be, because Talbot certainly wishes to be the most powerful person on earth. He certainly won't want his schemes undone by STARLAD.

Just as we enter a  world of Scooby-Doo-like intrigues, mad machines and mysteriously secret settings, the true NEMESIS appears: a giant asteroid, destined to strike Earth. Will Talbot’s mighty fire-power stop the asteroid before - or as - those same weapons destroy the planet? And will STARLAD be free in time to fulfill his mission . . ?

Of course, the answer is obvious, but the title is more than a triumphant ending. One of the reasons I liked this book was because, among the jokes, the pace and the adventures, Solomons builds in a friendly, good-hearted feel to many of the "real" relationships. Luke, Zak and their parents live together as an ordinary family, getting along despite their grumbles and odd ways and annoyances. Luke and Zak do look out for each other (despite the Superpower thing) and Luke and his French friend Serge enjoy a quiet but trusting friendship, based on a sharing of each others interests and skills.

There is a boy/girl dimension: Luke and Zak are both aware and wary of girls. For example, Luke finds it simpler to explain Lara as a going-out-together girl-friend than to say the pair are working together - despite his mother's cooing reaction - while poor, love-struck geek Zak can’t even manage to speak to her big sister Cara Lee despite being STARLAD. Behind the joking and joshing, there's a kindness about the way Solomons shows all the personal conflicts, and there's a welcome thread about the building and rebuilding of relationships.

Later on, when the huge asteroid NEMESIS is about to hit Earth – which some readers might find quite scary – Solomons’ offers touching, almost reassuring descriptions of how many people behave on the Last Day, especially Luke’s family, keen to be loving to each other and to appreciate all the good things about their family life.

This book has, as well as the planets, robots and adventures, what I’d call a good soul, and that’s a fine thing for young reader to come across. there are also plenty of gentle superhero references, jokes and wordplay, such as when Luke disparagingly alters the name of “Zorbon the Decider” because he is in such a rage at his lost destiny. Of course, there's some silly toilet humour in the telling too, but it felt quite well balanced for the age of the reader: the plot was definitely more important.

Why did I opt for this particular title? I chose MY BROTHER IS A SUPERHERO because of what one could call literary osmosis. I half-heard something about a book about a boy who loves comics and was instantly alerted as its a love shared by certain young people I know. Only when I picked up the last copy in the shop that weekend did I discover the book had just won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2016.

I was even more pleased when I found out that the story was set in the London suburb of Bromley, not only because I'd once lived near there but because of my very slight grudge against sudden “bestselling books” over here that turn out to be “best selling books from over there”, i.e. America. 

I also feel fairly happy admitting this viewpoint as, towards the end of MY BROTHER IS A SUPERHERO, Solomons’ own scriptwriting background seems to feed into this view. 

There’s a section where Luke, the younger brother (and ordinary hero) explains that he is telling the reader the true story of what happened. He knows the reader could be confused because when STARLAD's adventures became a movie, the American film company set it totally in the USA. Moreover - and one can almost hear Luke’s resigned sigh - he didn’t even appear on screen: the film company replaced him as his brother's side-kick with a cute puppy dog!

Luke is definitely a much wiser boy and the brothers are much better friends at the end of this enjoyably comic “Superhero” adventure and that’s how it should be. There’s also a great twist in the final scene.

That’s it, my review done, and I’m speeding off to the Post Office now, without even slipping on my starry curtain cape.
Happy reading! 

Penny Dolan

MY BROTHER IS A SUPERHERO is illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson. Published by Nosy Crow.Solomon’s next title, offering more adventures for Luke and friends, is MY GYM TEACHER IS AN ALIEN OVERLORD, out this July. 


Thursday, 7 April 2016

Shakespeare and his Stage by Marchette Chute review by Lynda Waterhouse

I was intending to review one of latest books about the bard ; Michael Rosen’s or Andrew Donkin’s The Weird World of William Shakespeare but my heart kept tugging me back to Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare and his Stage and so Hamlet-like  I changed my mind.
I love Horrible Histories and I know literally hundreds of children who do but my serious inner ten year old child also craved something else.
I had stumbled upon Shakespeare and his stage a few weeks ago in the Amnesty Book shop in Newcastle. My copy had once belonged to Whitley Bay South County Primary School and was the third impression from 1964.
The blurb on the cover of this slim volume sets out its stall; the aim of this lively book is to recreate for the reader the Elizabethan world of the theatre in which Shakespeare lived, and for which he wrote his plays.
The book is written in chapters and reads like a novel. There is only one illustration in the book but the power of Chute’s prose and her ability as a storyteller paints a vivid picture of the theatre and Shakespeare’s life and work.  The book also provides a description of his plays, poems and songs.
‘In that age of great singing voices, Shakespeare’s was the greatest. And even at the close of his career, with its weight of experience and knowledge of evil, he could still write like a young poet who had never known anything but spring.’

Shakespeare and his Stage by Marchette Chute was published by University of London Press 


Sunday, 3 April 2016

MIXED FEELINGS, edited by Miriam Hodgson. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

This collection of short stories about mothers and daughters was first published in 1992 and is still just as lively and relevant today, despite the absence of such things as mobile phones and selfies.

The themes are timeless. Ten favourite authors explore those early teenage years when girls grow up quickly, to the alarm of their mothers, and begin to form their own ideas and tug at the constraints of home.

In Anne Fine's opening story, the unnamed narrator begs her mother for a story she's heard many times before: how her mother came to be born. It's a brilliantly funny and involving story that tells much in a few pages, and it touches on the timeless themes that echo throughout the book: birth, first love, independence, finding out who you are and where you came from, and the unbreakable bonds between mothers and daughters.

Here we have rebellious daughters (from the first nudges of independence shown by Berlie Doherty's Jenny to the desperate struggle of Jamila Gavin's Nasreen), unconventional and embarrassing mothers, schoolfriends, boyfriends, people in the workplace. Above all there is the tension between the powerful urge to fly the nest and the pull of home.

The authors are Anne Fine, Berlie Doherty, Vivien Alcock, Jamila Gavin, Marjorie Darke, Gwen Grant, Annie Dalton, Monica Hughes, Jean Ure and Jacqueline Wilson. All great storytellers - and the book is still in print!

Mammoth, 1997.