Thursday, 14 June 2018

THE WHITE GIRAFFE by Lauren St John REVIEWED by Sharon Tregenza

Title:  The White Giraffe
Author: Lauren St John
Publisher: Orion Children's Books

When 11 year old Martine's house burns down, killing her parents, her life changes forever. Sent to a game reserve in South Africa to live with her strange grandmother, Martine must deal with her grief and learn how to survive in a very different culture.
     She befriends an albino giraffe and her adventure begins. Along the way Martine discovers secrets and mysteries go hand in hand in her family. This is magical adventure of myth and discovery set against the searing backdrop of the African Savannah.
       The sights, sounds and smells of Africa seep through every page and it's no surprise to learn that St John spent her childhood in Zimbabwe.

      I'd recommend this book to children 8 and up and to quite a few adults too. An exciting story with intriguing threads of mystery and mythology throughout.

      'The White Giraffe' is part of a series by Lauren St John which includes 'The Dolphin Song' and 'The Elephant's Tale'.

Sharon Tregenza writes MG mysteries. Check her website here: Sharon Tregenza


Monday, 11 June 2018

Finding Hope, by Marie-Louise Jensen. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Title: Finding Hope
Author: Marie-Louise Jensen
Publisher Fiction Express

Jake, an only boy, lives an idyllic life in the UK. His main passion in life is horse riding and he is looking forward to riding Thunder, his trusted horse, at the next showjumping event.

But when Jake's parents adopt a refugee called Faly, he finds that having a new sister is probably more than a cool kid can handle. Faly speaks no English. In fact she doesn't speak at all. Jake is resentful that he now has to share his parents' attention with a newcomer and that the new arrival is eating into his training time for the imminent showjumping event.  But gradually Jake and Faly bond and when it seems that the refugee has been kidnapped by two men in a black van, Jake proves to be a real hero and brother.

The 'hope' of the title is the name given to a rescued horse that is taken in by the stables where Jake trains. The horse's story mirrors that of Faly, who must start seeing hope in what she considers a desperate situation.

Originally written for the Fiction Express platform, this is a fast-paced story that deals with the topic of migrants in a sensitive but entertaining away. Told from the two points of view - Faly and Jakes's - it really lets you in on what the main characters are thinking and feeling. Faly's story includes her nightmare journey across the Sahara desert and the loss of her parents in the Med.  Jake's journey towards accepting his new sister is no less interesting. Absorbing stuff!

Saviour Pirotta's latest books are the Ancient Greek Mysteries series from Bloomsbury. Pirates of Poseidon is out now. Follow him on twitter @spirotta.


Thursday, 7 June 2018

Overheard in a Tower Block by Joseph Coehlo & Kate Milner - reviewed by Emma Perry


Readers of my last post for Awfully Big Reviews, will know that I'm stepping back into poetry with both feet. (Thanks so much, by the way, for the recommendations I received on Twitter - am working my way through them at the moment!) No surprise that Overheard in a Tower Block, full of poetry from Joseph Coelho and illustrations from Kate Milner, was on the top of my birthday wish list earlier this year.

There's nothing like great poetry to highlight the power of just a few words, carefully placed in just the right order to elicit a range of emotions. Deceptively simple, and oh so intriguing for being just that.

Coelho's collection is centered around growing up in a city, family, relationships... and family, accompanied by Kate Milner's great black and white pencil work capturing the mood. The result is a cohesive selection, aimed at a slighter older age group than his previous collection, (Werewolf Club Rules!). Coelho takes us on a journey - living in a tower apartment block, mean kids at school, arguing parents which escalates until Dad leaves home... and then disappears.

A trio of consecutive poems, beginning with 'The Argument' highlight the fractious relationship between Mum and Dad culminating with 'The Duelling Duo' -

'The same thought in each head
that neither could still.
Both were right,
could not be wrong.'

Whilst 'Tables Red, Green and Blue' highlights the petty yet hurtful actions of children, the prized red trainers flash through a number of the poems and in to the comfort of Richmond Park.

Some poems are short and sharp, packing an emotional punch like the powerful 'This is Your Um...', There is a lovely splattering of poems celebrating the power of reading, and the role books have had in the life of the poet...

'When I thumb through a book
their pages whisper to me
that I'll be alright.'

As the collection reaches its conclusion the tone continues to feel more uplifting,  culminating with 'There Are Things That Lurk In Your Library' (see the video clip below to enjoy Joseph Coelho reading it).

Like any great poetry collection, Coelho's Overheard in a Tower Block takes the reader on multiple journeys through multiple emotions. Some are playful, whilst many others are thoughtful, powerful and demand that you pause. Stop. And think. I like that very much.

There are things that lurk in the library - poem by Joseph Coelho from Joseph Coelho on Vimeo.

Emma Perry is a picture book writer represented by Bell Lomax Moreton. 
She is the founder of the childrens book review site MyBookCorner and organiser of International Book Giving Day. 
Twitter: @_EmmaPerry


Sunday, 3 June 2018

If I had a dinosaur by Alex Barrow, Gabby Dawney reviewed by Chitra Soundar

I picked up this book on an impulse at Tales on Moon Lane's latest bookshop in South London - Moon Lane Books.

I read it to my nephew and we read it over and over a few times during a 30-minute period and we giggled together at the pictures and the rhymes.

Dinosaurs as favourite pets have been done a few times and here are two others I found.

The story has been inspired by the discovery of the bones of a large dinosaur Titanosaur in Argentina. The little girl in the story wants a dinosaur bigger than her house and of course she imagines what would happen at the swimming pool and school. The illustrations have big white spaces (which is my favourite style) with drawings that look children can learn to draw.

Even though I though the page with the poo will elicit the most giggles, it was the page with the swimming pool where the words contradict the images.

And I think the starting phrase “If I had a dinosaur…” would elicit some wonderful responses from young readers themselves.

Go and imagine having a ginormous dinosaur in your house!

Chitra Soundar writes picture books and is the author of Pattan's Pumpkin (A Power of Reading selection) and You're Safe With Me (a BookTrust bedtime selection). Find out more at and follow her on Twitter at @csoundar.


Wednesday, 30 May 2018

SPIRIT by Sally Christie Reviewed by Adèle Geras

Sally Christie is very good at opening paragraphs. 

"I saw a real live fairy," he said, "and I took it home in a bag."
Well, what would you think if someone said that? If it was someone you knew - a friend - you might say they were joking. But nobody knew Matt Barker. No one could guess why he'd said what he'd said. Was he attention seeking? Was he a show off? He didn't look the type.

This has it all:  a mystery, perhaps a way into a fantasy, and above all, the introduction of a character we're immediately anxious to know much more about. The scene takes place on a school bus on a school trip and it's part of a game called the Truth Game in which everyone has to tell the truth.

From that beginning, we're drawn into a wonderful mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary: school life and the life of nature  around us, young protagonists who are on the edge of adulthood and who need to negotiate the difficult terrain of friendship, and relationships with their contemporaries but who also are still children and open to possibilities in the natural (and supernatural) world that adults would scoff at.

Matt Barker has a friend called Jazzy who lives up to her name. She's very outgoing, unlike Matt, and  is even playing Ariel in the school production of The Tempest. She's the only person who believes Matt and it's she who accompanies him when he goes up to Burnham Wood, which is named deliberately, I'm quite sure, to have a Shakespearean resonance.

While the fairy element is focused on the wood, back  at school, Jazzy is having to negotiate her friendship with the cool girls and Matt has to  fit into school life, too. He loves football and the story of what happens to him on that front is another thread that's a pleasure to follow through the novel. Matt also has a dog called Dash, who is an important part of the action, and altogether delightful.

The school play figures large at the end, and Jazzy's performance opens Matt's eyes to more than another facet of his friend's character.  Any young person reading Spirit, quite apart from enjoying a very exciting and involving story, will learn a great deal about Shakespeare and be led, with luck, to wanting to know more.

Christie is a most wonderfully economical and resonant writer. She knows that simplicity is more telling than laying on the purple prose. She can summon up a scene with the lightest of touches and you are transported to a wood at night as deftly as you're introduced into a modern classroom.  She's also good at dialogue and the children who surround Matt and Jazzy all come to vivid life. Angela, Dip, Mickey and the others inhabit a real world which everyone will recognise.

As an afterword, Christie writes this: "This story isn't just about trees, but readers who like explanations for things may choose to interpret it partly as my farewell to the ash." People were worried about ash dieback disease, she says, and they still are. Christie is a passionate advocate for nature and her feelings for trees, plants and the landscape shine out of the book.

This novel seems just right for Years 7 and 8, but it works brilliantly for adults too. I loved it and can't wait for Christie's third novel.

Published by David Fickling Books in hardback. £10.99


Saturday, 26 May 2018

Ella On The Outside, by Cath Howe, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Ella, on the cover of this book, is pointing a camera at YOU!  It’s Ella’s photographing of somebody’s private moment into an image that is almost instantly passed on to appease a bully ‘friend’, that brings this story to its crisis point.  

Knowing that Ella does such an intrusive and disloyal thing might make you inclined to dislike her.  But author Cath Howe has been very clever and humane in the way that she handles Ella’s story.  By the time we get to that moment of betrayal by Ella, we have a distinct feeling of ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’.  Can we honestly say that we, in her position, wouldn’t have done something similar?

Ella arrives in a new home and at a new school burdened with her mother’s insistence that nobody should get to know that her father is in prison.  She’s also embarrassed by the eczema she tries to hide.  ‘Some people are edge people in playgrounds’, says Ella in this first person narrative.  Ella is an ‘edge person’ until the popular girl shows an interest in her, but her ‘friendship’ comes with conditions.  She wants gossip about the other ‘edge person’ in Willow Class.  Poor Molly is also hiding secrets.  

This is a very accessible read aimed at 8-12 year olds, refreshingly honest and kind and unsensational as Ella tells her story in a way that carries us with her, longing to know whether or not it can reach a positive conclusion.

This is a book which will speak directly to many children, and open the eyes of others.  Highly recommended.


Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Greta Zargo and the Amoeba Monsters From the Middle of the Earth by A.F Harrold - illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton, Reviewed by Dawn Finch

So, that's possibly the longest title I've ever squashed into a box in a review! Let's do this thing... first, the blurb.

 Greta is an ordinary(ish) eleven-year-old orphan girl with journalistic aspirations. This weekend she's writing a big story about the Thirteenth Annual Festival of New Stuff (TAFoNS for short), being hosted by her absent-minded inventor aunt... who has gone missing. Can Greta find her aunt and answer the riddle of her mysterious missingness?

In the meantime, all across the town, people are being eaten by giant amoeba monsters that have emerged from the pit at the end of Greta's garden.

And, for various complicated reasons, only Greta stands in their way...

Before I get to the review, I need to confess to something. I can't write funny books. I mean, I've really tried but it never sounds convincing and always ends up feeling exactly what it is - clunky and amateur. I can write short bits that are funny, but I can't sustain it. I envy people who can write funny, and A.F Harrold totally nails it.

Greta is the perfect central character, and we first met her in Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space. Greta is an independent 11 year old (for complicated but perfectly reasonable reasons) and it has fallen to her to save the people of Earth from all sorts of hideous things. In this (book 2) she is (obviously) saving us all from jellylike amoeba monsters who have a voracious appetite and a tendency to swarm over living things and dissolve them.

Along the way we meet all sorts of wonderful characters (although I can't say I'm exactly happy with the librarian from the Immobile Library - elderly lady in a tweed skirt? hmmm - although I'd love a tiny ostrich, and I do have a tweed skirt...) Where was I? Oh yes, wonderful characters. Loads of 'em, and all wind the adventure along until things speed up towards a thrilling and very satisfying climax.

Along the way we are treated to Harrolds' clever and slightly twisted sense of humour. I genuinely laughed out loud at the names and witty twists. How could I not laugh at Bogof Boredom, Hester Sometimes, Hamnet Ovenglove (world champion onion wrestler) and Rashomon O'Donoghue (All-England Tiddlyblinks champion).
A bit of Joe Todd-Stanton's work that I can show you

With footnotes (which are actually sidenotes - they are literally on the side) and wonderful comic-book style, slick illustrations from Joe Todd-Stanton (many of which I can't show you because they'd blow the story, including an awesome double-page spread showing the amoebas... well, you'll just have to read it), this is a brilliant book for all kids (and grown-ups) who like a well-written suspenseful adventure that is also rollickingly funny.

Greta Zargo and the Amoeba Monsters from the Middle of the Earth is written by A.F Harrold and illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton
It is published by Bloomsbury (3 May 2018)
You can find more about A.F Harrold's books (and his beard*) by clicking this link.

*website may not contain beards

Reviewed by children's author and librarian Dawn Finch*

*not Hester Sometimes