Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Malamander by Thomas Taylor, reviewed by Dawn Finch

First the blurb…
Nobody visits Eerie-on-Sea in the winter. Especially not when darkness falls and the wind howls around Maw Rocks and the wreck of the battleship Leviathan, where even now some swear they have seen the unctuous malamander creep…
Herbert Lemon, Lost-and-Founder at the Grand Nautilus Hotel, knows that returning lost things to their rightful owners is not easy – especially when the lost thing is not a thing at all, but a girl. No one knows what happened to Violet Parma’s parents twelve years ago, and when she engages Herbie to help her find them, the pair discover that their disappearance might have something to do with the legendary sea-monster, the Malamander. Eerie-on-Sea has always been a mysteriously chilling place, where strange stories seem to wash up. And it just got stranger...

First off, let me get the gushing out of the way because this book is BRILLIANT! I know people say “I couldn’t put it down,” all the time, but I REALLY COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN.
Okay, I’ll calm down now.

Thomas Taylor has such a wonderful way with words and right from the start we feel that Eerie-On-Sea is a very real place. In fact, I completely believe Taylor when he says that we have “probably been to Eerie-On-Sea without ever knowing it.” This means Eerie-On-Sea feels like such a familiar place that we anything that happens there seems possible, and there are some very strange and mysterious things happening.

The characterisation is particularly strong in the novel, and all of the characters are compelling and engaging. Strange things are afoot, and with each punchy chapter (which all have great chapter headings) we creep closer and closer to finding out what’s really going on.

Brilliantly illustrated throughout by Taylor himself (and with a cracking cover by George Ermos) the book is a physically beautiful object too and one that any child would be happy to carry about like a treasure. Malamander is one of those books I loved in school. It is the kind of book I’d have on my desk and the kids would be looking forward to me reading the next chapter so much, that it would repeatedly disappear from my desk. This would read aloud so well, and I was delighted to see that Sony has snapped up the movie rights to the novel in an eight-way bidding war.

The story gently rocks along like a rising tide that creeps up on you, and then sweeps you away. We’re all going to be spending a lot more time in Eerie-On-Sea, and I’ve got my bucket and spade ready!

Malamander by Thomas Taylor is out now from Walker Books

Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian.


Saturday, 13 July 2019

Cyril and Pat, written and illustrated by Emily Gravett, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Image result for cyril and pat image
A beauty of a book

Lonely Cyril the squirrel meets a friend called Pat, and Pat's a (spot the difference?)... 

Image result for cyril and pat image
... squirrel as far as Cyril is concerned. Pat's also a brilliant sharer, and a scruffy, naughty FUN friend to scamper around  and make mayhem with ...
Image result for cyril and pat image
... until a small boy tells Cyril that actually Pat isn't a fellow squirrel, he's a turn... RAT! And everyone is telling Cyril not to be friends with such a creature. So Cyril is on his own again, trying to do the same games, but it just isn't fun. And then being alone turns scary ...

Image result for cyril and pat image

...until Pat comes to the rescue, along with a whole pack of rats. And soon Cyril is back with 'his brave and clever best friend, Pat'.

Emily Gravett is a master of rhyme and using page turns to dramatic effect, and, of course, creating beautiful, funny, moving pictures for this story about the importance of staying true to your friends. 
A picture book of the very best sort.


Thursday, 11 July 2019

Hurrah for THE GREAT SEA DRAGON DISCOVERY by Pippa Goodhart. Review by Adele Geras.

I'm hugely delighted to re-post this review to celebrate THE GREAT SEA DRAGON DISCOVERY by PIPPA GOODHART winning the Historical Association "Young Quills" Award yesterday. The book's publisher is Catnip, so congratultions to them too!

Adele Geras, another reliable author and reviewer, posted this review of THE GREAT SEA DRAGON on Awfully Big Reads in September 2018. 

Pippa Goodhart is one of the writers I call The Reliables. They're the ones whose name on the cover says: don't worry, you're safe with me. I know exactly what I'm doing. My usual disclaimer here: Pippa is a friend and I've known her for decades and you will have to trust my honesty when I say I would never recommend a book I didn't  enjoy. My life is too short to read books I don't like, let alone write about them.  But even though I've known her for a long time, and knew that she'd been no slouch where writing books for children was concerned, a short visit to her website was an eye- opener. She has been hugely productive and versatile and is the author of such real favourites as YOU CHOOSE and YOU CHOOSE IN SPACE and the Winnie the Witch books, as well as historical novels for somewhat older children. 

This book is one of those. It's the very model of what a historical novel  for children should be. There's a duty to tell a good story, first and foremost. As in every other novel, you need sympathetic characters,  a plot that bowls along at speed. All novels  benefit from knockout emotional punches along the way, together with a good few surprises.  This book has every one of these elements in abundance.

The other thing a historical novel needs is, of course, history. Novelists who write such books for children have a secondary intention: they have to provide some real facts, some true historical knowledge which will add to the store of information the child possesses.  Again, Goodhart is generous. We end the novel (and I have to confess that I am including myself in this. I'm very ignorant about these things) knowing an awful lot more than I did at the beginning. And since I live in Cambridge I am going to take myself off to the Sedgwick Museum very soon to see all the 'true things' for myself.

The historical layer of the novel concerns the discovery in Grantchester of remains of an ichthyosaur during the 19th century diggings for coprolites. These were ground up and used for fertiliser in the land around the village. A postscript helpfully provides everything you need to discover what and who are real people and who is a character from the writer's imagination. It's wonderful to have this postscript,  but while you're reading the book, distinguishing what's true and what isn't is the furthest thing from your mind.

You are caught up in the story from the very beginning when Bill Ellwood is in his classroom, watching a daisy turn blue from being stuck into an inkwell. He's our hero. I find it hard to outline a plot without giving away surprises the author didn't intend any reviewer to reveal, but during the course of this novel, Bill endures hardship, separation, violence, exhilaration, shocks and discoveries of every sort and by the end has undergone several kinds of transformation. His many relationships: to his parents, to his friends, especially Alf, to the other villagers, to the wonderful Mr. Seeley (who is a kind of real -life fairy godfather) are wonderfully delineated. Minor characters such  as Mrs Coddle (a midwife who makes you gasp and close your eyes in horror) and Mrs Buckle, the vicar's wife and Miss Snelling the teacher are described with great humour and affection. It's a crowded canvas, teeming with events and people and discoveries and does not gloss over the  dark side of life. We read of  pain, poverty, hardship and deprivation as well and Goodhart explains every situation clearly and sympathetically. But there is joy for Bill  in the story too, and enjoyment of small pleasures. This  novel encompasses all of those things. 

The new school term is just starting. I urge teachers to buy a copy of this for their school bookshelves. I hate categorising books by their suitability for this age of child or that. Anyone over about nine would love this story. Do buy it and read it. It would make a fantastic family book to read together....I loved it. 

Published by Catnip in paperback. £6.99
ISBN: 9781910611081


Friday, 5 July 2019

The Book of Mistakes, by Corinna Luyken, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

Some time ago, during one of my Story Explorer Creative Writing workshops for youngsters, a little girl became very frustrated that she could not get her drawing ‘right’, that she kept making 'mistakes’. In fact, she almost ripped through the page with her pencil as she scratched out her illustrations. We worked through the problem, but shortly afterwards I stumbled upon The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken which is the perfect picture book to help in this situation. What an excellent resource to show children that a 'mistake' can actually be the beginning of a whole new set of possibilities. 

The premise of the story is simple: the narrator makes a mistake when drawing a character's face. One eye is bigger than the other. So the narrator tries to fix the problem… and makes it worse. Now the other eye is even bigger than the first eye. BUT, if the too-big-eyes are turned into a pair of glasses, then the character looks even more interesting than in the original drawing. 

The narrator makes more mistakes: the neck is too long, the feet do not touch the ground, a splodge of ink messes up the face. However, with a bit of imagination and creativity, each error develops the story and moves it forward: now the neck is decorated with a beautiful collar, the character is actually wearing roller skates, and the ink blot becomes her hat. 

Some mistakes just do not work out and are disregarded. But in the grand scheme of the other inventions in the book, this does not really matter.  The reader sees that the unfolding story is a work in progress, that it is fun to experiment, to turn one thing into another and see where it takes us. 

After a while, the words in The Book of Mistakes disappear completely. For five straight double-page spreads, the illustrations alone tell the story. Our newly-created girl character moves into a story world, which develops into an adventurous fantasy land of possibility, peopled with children playing around a big tree. 

The perspective for the illustrations now changes, zooms out, so that the tree becomes part of a bigger wood. Then we realize the dark wood is actually on top of a girl’s head (part of her mind?) — a girl that has an uncanny resemblance to the character that was created at the beginning of the book. And now this girl starts to draw a face which reminds us of how the story began… 

We are left with two final questions that address the reader directly: “Do you see how with each mistake she is becoming? Do you see now who she could be?” 

As observed by a child at story time, “Since the girl in the book is the one making the pictures of herself, it’s like she’s the real artist. We’re seeing how the real artist thinks.”


Monday, 1 July 2019

Loose Connections by Malaika Rose Stanley. Review by Lynda Waterhouse

I am reposting this today as a tribute to Malaika Rose Stanley who was such a wonderful writer of warm, funny and diverse children’s books. I will never forget her warmth, wit and words of encouragement.
With love to you Rosxxx
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 reconnections 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 re-evaluates 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


Sunday, 23 June 2019

Mud by Emily Thomas - Reviewed by Kelly McCaughrain

I loved this debut novel for teens by Emily Thomas. I think you rarely see such complex issues dealt with in children’s books in such a believable way and with such wisdom.

Lydia’s mother is dead and her unreliable father has just lost their house and is moving their family of five plus his new girlfriend plus her three kids plus the cat to live on a houseboat called the Lady Beatrice. (This is my idea of hell btw. Not the boat, the sharing it with eight other people).

Amazing as that plot sounds, the more extraordinary thing is that it’s based on Emily Thomas’s own childhood when she did indeed live on a barge with a very large stepfamily. The book begins in 1979 and if you remember the 80s there’s a lot of throwback fun to be had.

I don’t know how much of the story is strictly autobiographical, but I’d believe you if you told me it all really happened because it felt like Thomas knows what she’s talking about. The book deals with big emotional stuff – living with an alcoholic, the powerlessness of childhood, loss of a parent – that would be hard to write about if you hadn’t experienced it, but I completely believed in the characters.

I became hooked as things just got progressively worse and worse for the family, and right up until the end I was wondering how on earth they were going to turn things around. Or if they would turn it around. Usually with children’s books you can pretty much expect a happy ending but this felt so real I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, and the ending did feel true to that sense of life being more complicated than fiction.

We’re told when we write we have to have a character who wants something and they have to go out there and actively make it happen (with carefully placed dramatic moments along the way) and all that’s great, but it’s not real life at all. In real life children are often completely lost and powerless, washed about with the parental tides and it takes all their effort just to stay emotionally afloat, never mind make things happen. And yet for all her powerlessness, Lydia isn’t a weak character. She comes to realise she’s emotionally much stronger and more resilient than she knew, and that maybe the bravest thing she can do is realise that she can’t fix her family, they have to do it themselves.

Despite all this disaster, the book is also warm and funny and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I highly recommend it!

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 





Wednesday, 19 June 2019

THE BURIED CROWN by Ally Sherrick Reviewed by Sharon Tregenza

Mix Anglo-Saxon myth, history and archaeology, add a touch of the supernatural and what do you get? You get Ally Sherrick’s splendid book, “The Buried Crown”.

George is evacuated out of London, to Suffolk, during WWII. Bullied by the local children and badly treated by the farmer he’s living with - George’s life is miserable and lonely. Until he meets Kitty, who is a different kind of refugee. She’s a Jewish girl who has been sent to stay with her grandfather, an archaeologist.

The pair find themselves unwittingly caught up in a dangerous adventure involving an ancient Anglo-Saxon crown. The priceless artefact is also being sought by Hitler’s treasure hunters. Is the myth true? That whoever holds the crown is the Keeper of the Kingdom?

This multi-layered story moves along at a cracking pace. Great characterisation and a thrilling story makes it a joy to read. It’s historical fiction at its best. I’d recommend it for Middle Grade but it’s a great read for all ages.

·       Paperback: 320 pages
·       Publisher: Chicken House; 1 edition (5 April 2018)
·       Language: English
·       ISBN-10: 1910655325
·       ISBN-13: 978-1910655320

Also try: “Black Powder” by the same author.