Monday, 20 January 2020

Quill Soup, written by Alan Durant, and illustrated by Dale Blankenaar

This is a richly handsome hardback book that retells the traditional story that many of us know as ‘Stone Soup’. But this time the story is in its African form. It’s an ancient story, but apt for our present time, and for our children. Should we share? With strangers?

Just look at the glorious endpaper that meets you when you open the cover.  

Here we have a cast of pangolins, monkeys, warthogs, aardvarks, meercats, pelicans and more, all being mean to the stranger they spot coming their way. They hide. And when porcupine traveller Noko knocks on their doors asking for food they all pretend not to have any. Alan Durant’s text quite rightly doesn’t point out what we can observe in the pictures. Actually they all have plenty to spare. 

Here is Rabbit claiming that she has no carrots left –

The resident animals have all lied, so isn’t fair enough that Noko then does some lying of his own? As the text says, Noko’s ‘brains are as sharp as the quills on his back.’ He begins making quill soup, just as the king likes it, his story drawing the animals near. But it appears that the soup could be made even better if it had a few carrots in it. Oh, Rabbit does have some carrots to spare after all! What about mealies, and worms, and beans and peas and potatoes and spinach … producing a wonderful cauldron of soup that Noko then shares with them all, along with some shared songs. So he’s kind as well as clever. And the animals, no longer feeling mean now that they’ve come to know Noko, and impressed by his acquaintance with the king, offer him the best bed for the night. 

A wonderful story, wonderfully told, and illustrated in vivid prime colours and dramatic black to give busy pictures full of extra interest and humour. 

With so much to notice, and so many points to talk about, this book would make a perfect present to an individual child or to a school.

Published by Tiny Owl in their One Story Many Voices series


Wednesday, 15 January 2020

THE GREY SISTERS by Jo Treggiari. Review by Katherine Langrish.

Hello! Back in the early December rush, this review filled an unexpected gap. I alwways felt it deserved a full span of days, so here it is again - with a cover that matches the grey weather outside my window.

Today AWFULLY BIG REVIEWS once again welcomes the author Katherine Langrish as a Guest Reviewer, with her review of THE GREY SISTERS, an atmospheric, character-driven YA thriller by Canadian writer Jo Treggiari.

The Grey Sisters - By Jo Treggiari (Hardcover) : Target

D and Spider have always been friends, but became even more closely united in grief when a plane carrying both their siblings crashed on The Grey Sisters, a three-peaked mountain towering ruggedly from the Canadian backwoods. Two years on, D spots in a news photo her sister’s cuddly toy tucked into the pillow of the crash’s sole survivor, a flight attendant recently woken from coma. Spurred into action, she sets out with Spider and their friend Min to visit the crash site on The Grey Sisters and perhaps find closure. But there’s growing disquiet as the girls drive their unreliable old VW wagon past squalid settlements in the wild, unfriendly woods to reach the bleak mess of the crash site.
Once she’d trained her eyes to see through the tangled undergrowth [Min] caught glimpses of RVs tucked under the trees, a cluster of dilapidated houses no bigger than her parents’ goat shed and so derelict they seemed uninhabited, a few tiny shacks covered with tar-paper, which she guessed were outhouses, many abandoned sites strewn with bags of garbage, old refrigerators and wrecked cars. No one sitting on porches or working on their cars. She wondered if they were standing behind the curtains watching the VW go by.

…They almost missed it. At first glance it looked like another abandoned site, a dump of moldy papers and assorted garbage, but Min spied a thicket of wooden crosses marking the head of a dirt road leading through the trees. ‘Stop. Right here,’ she called. D pulled over and they got out.

It was a mess.

People had come here with their white candles and prayers and their tears, but now all that remained was what they’d left behind. Brightly coloured plastic flowers trodden into the dirt, photographs too rain-soaked to identify, pinwheels and lots of toys.
Without knowing it, the three girls are running into danger. The Grey Sisters is home to a survivalist, militarist cult called Avalon, run by a leader known as Big Daddy who keeps his people isolated and teaches them to prepare for the apocalypse. Women in the cult are either warriors or ‘cows’, used for breeding; babies are sold to buy guns. Ariel has lived in the cult all her life and distrusts outsiders, but desperate to save her friend Aaron who’s been savaged by a bear, she descends the mountain for help and encounters D, Min and Spider. Then the three newcomers pitch camp not far from Big Daddy’s compound – and Min disappears. Heart-stopping adventures ensue.
I read this book in a single sitting. It’s gritty, fast-paced, with a wonderful sense of place. Most of all I love the courage of its four resourceful, active heroines as they take on Big Daddy and his armed warriors, the brutish Uncles. 

 THE GREY SISTERS by Jo Treggiarri  is published  by Penguin Random House/Penguin Teen Canada 2019 . It is available from Thursday 5th December in hardcover (£14.99) and as an e-book from
Novels: The Troll Trilogy Katherine Langrish is the author of several notable childrens books, including the TROLL FELL trilogy.
She also writes wonderful posts about myths, fairytales and folklore in her own blog SEVEN MILES OF STEEL THISTLES:   https://steelthistles.blogspot

Her current post is  on the theme of the "Grey Sisters" in all their many appearances.
A selection of Katherine's earlier Steel Thistles articles, expanded, is available in print and e-book format from Amazon.


Friday, 10 January 2020

Welcome to 2020 - and THE BRITANNIA MYSTERIES by LYNNE BENTON: Review by Penny Dolan

HAPPY NEW YEAR for 2020 . . . and SALUTE!  

Yesterday I saw that an area of land beside Hadrian's Wall, containing a Roman site, had been donated by private landowners to English Heritage. 

Consequently, today feels like the right moment to update a past Awfully Big Reviews post, and show how a couple of historic titles had now grown into a complete Britannia Mysteries Trilogy.

A book arrrived through my letterbox a while ago. It was a copy of DANGER AT HADRIAN’S WALL by Lynne Benton, the second in her Britannia series; set in Roman Britain, these are exactly the kind of stories that many KS2 readers would enjoy.

The first, THE CENTURION’S SON, (set in 312 AD) takes place in Isca, in what’s now known as South Wales. 

Felix - the hero and twelve year-old son of the title – is anxious: Gaius the Senior Centurion, his trusted father, has been missing for days.

But Gaius has disappeared without telling Felix where he is going, or making any of his usual preparations for a journey, nor leaving any money for Felix to buy food while he was gone.

Felix had hoped that Commander Octavius had sent his father on a secret mission, but then soldiers arrive, claiming his father is a runaway traitor and Felix is thrown in prison himself.  Who will believe or help him? Even if he escapes, what can he do next? Fortunately, his long-time friend Catrin, a Silesian slave-girl with second sight, is ready to help. Despite ill-treatment, cruel treachery and life-threatening dangers, the two determined friends use their wits and their keen, watchful eyes to untangle the mystery.

DANGER AT HADRIAN’S WALL, Lynne Benton’s second book,  Felix and Catrin have been now adopted by Commander Quintus Maximus and his wife Drusilla. When reports arrive of trouble with the Barbarians, the 2nd Augustan Legion is ordered north to Hadrian’s Wall, Felix is left behind. Desperate to prove his own bravery, Felix hatches a plan that soon has Catrin, himself and others following the footsteps of the legion. The journey is long and hard.

Unfortunately, when the band of travellers finally reach the camp at Hadrian’s Wall, the Commander is not pleased. Felix and Catrin find there are worrying signs of treachery and suspicion around the camp too, and trouble with the local Caledonian tribes. 

In addition, not only does Catrin become annoyingly jealous of Mina, the new slave girl that Felix has befriended, but she has started dreaming of flames and danger.

Then, to Felix’s horror, Catrin disappears. How can he find what has happened? He will find her, he will and, luckily, the friendly soldier Tullio is there to help and guide him on his quest beyond the Wall . . .

BOOK 3 COVER FINAL 2The third book of the trilogy, THE LOST TREASURE OF AQUA SULIS is set in Bath. This novel continues the story of Felix and Catrin as they travel with Drusilla their foster mother to the great city. 

Drusilla is there to visit the magical healing waters and make offerings to the Goddess for the safety and health of her young child and her family. Soon enough, Felix and Catrin find themselves caught up in a mystery filled with stolen treasures, false accusations, crimes and secrets.  

At the same time, they are both concerned for themselves. Now that Quintus Maximus and Drusilla have a child of their own, what will happen to tCatrin and Felix, especially as they have such an awkward way of finding trouble wherever they go?

Lynne Benton’s writing reflects her knowledge of children, These books in this trilogy, at around a hundred and fifty pages, are not overlong and are easy and pleasing to read.. The short, neatly-plotted chapters make the books very suitable for 7 to 9 year old readers and the author adds just as much incidental historical information as the plots require. 

These books are a good choice for children who have Roman Britain as a topic on their school curriculum. 

Even though the plots and characters are fictional, the three historical settings - Carleon Roman Fortress in Wales, Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, and the reconstructed Bath House at Bath - are all there in the real world and available for interesting historical visits, with added inspiration from the BRITANNIA MYSTERIES inspiration.

All three books, published by Coppertree Press, are available through Amazon.

Penny Dolan.


Thursday, 19 December 2019

Ish by Peter Reynolds, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

Whether you are a child or an adult, who has not been frustrated at some point in time that whatever-you-have-created is not ‘good’ enough? I certainly have. As a creative writing teacher, I have witnessed children making this comment many times about their stories or illustrations, too. 

Here is a suggested solution: read Ish by Peter Reynolds. 

Ish follows the story of Ramon who loves to draw. He draws passionately anytime, anything, anywhere until one day his brother Leon makes fun of his artwork. 

WHAT is THAT?” he asked.

And with that, Ramon’s confidence in his artistic abilities is dented. His inner critic becomes rampant. Nothing he draws is good enough. Nothing looks right. Drawing after drawing is crumpled and thrown to the ground. 

This, I suspect, is an uncomfortably familiar scenario for many creatives the world over. 

Finally, Ramon gives up. 

However, all is not lost. His sister, Marisol, who has been watching from a distance, picks up Ramon’s crumpled drawing and runs away with it. Furious, Ramon chases after her into her room, but then falls silent. This is not the first crumpled drawing that Marisol has retrieved: a whole gallery of his discarded drawings have been saved and pinned to her wall. When she points out her favorite, a vase of flowers, Ramon mutters that it doesn’t look right. Marisol answers: “Well, it looks vase-ISH!” 

And with those words, she releases her brother from his exacting, paralyzing standards, and he begins to see his artwork ‘in a whole new way.’

Ramon felt light and energised. 

Thinking ish-ly allowed his ideas to flow freely.

He began to draw what he felt — loose lines.

Quickly springing out. 

Without worry.

His confidence grows, and he becomes prolific once more in creating ish-drawings, unfettered by the need to get everything ‘just so.’ And he is not even restricted to his artwork but expresses himself ‘ish-ly’ in writing and other forms too. 

This is such a wonderful message to anyone who needs to give themself permission to loosen up, to silence their over-active inner critic, and unburden themselves from the impossible strain of perfectionism. Instead, why not celebrate trying to the capture the essense, or ish-ness, of the world and your experiences? Although the advice in Ish is simple, it is gentle and forgiving and effective and profound.

Ish is part of a trilogy of picture books by Reynolds called Creatrilogy, including The Dot, which encourages us to make a mark and see where it takes us, and Sky Color, which invites the reader to really look at the world around them for inspiration.  


Monday, 16 December 2019

The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan, illustrated by Ben Mantle, review by Lynda Waterhouse

I discovered this book in WH Smith’s at Piccadilly Station in Manchester. First I had to wade through the shelves of David Walliams and Julia Donaldson, then I had a struggle to read the title because of the large ‘3for2’ sticker obscuring it. The tag line, ‘believing is just the beginning’, intrigued me; the illustrated map of Roar with its Bad Side and gentle puns such as  Archie Playgo made me smile.  The first sentence, ’There is a wizard in Grandad’s attic’, clinched the deal and with minutes to spare I bought the book and boarded the train.
The story is told by eleven year old Arthur Trout. It is the summer holidays and twins Arthur and Rose Trout are spending it with their Grandad before they start secondary school. Arthur and Rose used to be close but Rose is changing. She is looking for new friendships and seems more interested in hanging out with 13 year old Mazen Bailey, playing on the trampoline or going to Claire’s Accessories.
Grandad offers them the use of his attic to create their own space. Arthur and Rose jump at the chance until they discover that they have to empty it first. It is crammed with their old toys including Prosecco the rocking horse and the mouldy old Z-bed that used to be the portal to the imaginary land that they created and filled with all the things they loved like mermaids and ninja wizards and all the things that they are afraid of too.
When Grandad disappears through the Z-bed Arthur and Rose returns to the Land of Roar to rescue him, they face their own fears and rediscover the power of imagination and creativity.
This is a wonderful story.  It made me smile, laugh and cry. It also has truly scary moments with sinister scarecrows and a terrifying villain called Crowky (I shudder just mentioning his name). It has all the ingredients of a classic children’s book. I hope it becomes one. It is beautifully written with a light touch and warmth that only a skilful writer can create. Ben Mantle’s illustrations are both humorous and just the right amount of scary as they flow across the pages.
A perfect read for anyone but especially for Year 6 children who have been bludgeoned by SATS preparation and are facing secondary transfer.

ISBN 978-14052-9367-9


Thursday, 12 December 2019

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy - Reviewed by Kelly McCaughrain

This is an unusual choice for a review site about children’s books, but I think it’s relevant for anyone who works with kids (as children’s writers often do) and I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

Kate Clanchy is a poet and novelist who has been shortlisted/won, among other things, the Forward Poetry Prize, BBC National Short Story Award and the Costa Book Awards for her first novel. She is also a teacher and this latest book is a non-fiction account of her experience of teaching English and creative writing in the British education system and working in some of its more ‘difficult’ schools (the ones no one wants to send their kids to, but that she did send her kids to because she’s that committed to them).

It’s organised into short sections under the (changed) names of some of her students, so it’s really a collection of stories, making it very readable, but it’s also an absolutely mind-blowing and fascinating insight into the experiences of kids in modern education.

Things have changed in schools since we were there. In Northern Ireland, where I live, that’s particularly true. One of the many unpleasant hangovers of The Troubles was that no one wanted to emigrate to NI until about 1998. There was very little diversity. To this day a ‘mixed marriage’ in NI means Catholic/Protestant. In my entire (quite large) high school, when I left in 1996, there was one person of colour in my year. Three in the whole school, and two of them were siblings. I’m not even exaggerating. The lack of diversity was incredible. And no one was ‘out’, there was no ‘inclusion unit’, no special educational needs provision, no school counsellor, and everyone spoke perfect English.  

Schools are just different now, and if you’re writing for kids, writing with kids, or working with kids in any way, this book is a really helpful insight, as well as being a good read.

A lot of Clanchy’s students come from ethnic minorities, often immigrants, refuges and asylum seekers, and the accounts of the things they bring to their education, the difficulties they face there and the ways they find to overcome these (or the times they don’t) are shocking, heart-breaking, inspirational and completely fascinating. How does a white middle-class Scottish woman communicate with a twelve year old who’s come to the UK with very little English having witnessed her three sisters blown up? Or seen a human head roll down the street after a terrorist bomb?

For Clanchy, the answer, as well as empathy, patience, kindness, unstinting dedication, hard work, and a willingness to take on the system if necessary, is poetry. Which will sound trite to many people but just read the book and see how it worked.

She has been leading poetry groups for her students for many years and the book is packed with insights about this that are so helpful if you do any creative writing with kids. But I feel like, if you work in schools at all, you should read this.

The insights into how our education system is massively failing in terms of minorities, special educational needs and social-class are eye-opening. Her views on the teaching of creative subjects are especially relevant with falling numbers of students taking up A Level English and changes to the curriculum making less room for creativity. And her passion for the hugely important job teachers do, and their potential to do so much more if only the curriculum weren’t so constricting is refreshing too and I’d definitely recommend this as a Christmas present for all your teacher friends.

Though it’s clear that her priority is telling the kids’ stories, rather than dazzling you with her metaphors, she’s a writer, so it’s of course beautifully written. It’s a book you can rocket through in the best page-turning sense, but also one you’ll have to stop and take a breath over because the stories are so revealing and affecting.

Philip Pullman said it’s “The best book on teachers and children and writing that I’ve ever read.” And I’m sure he’s right. I could write several blog posts about the things I’ve taken away from this book but this is just a short review so you’ll have to go read it and find out for yourself!

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland and blogs about running creative writing groups for teens at The Blank Page





Sunday, 8 December 2019

SEAGLASS by Eloise Williams reviewed by Sharon Tregenza

SEAGLASS by Eloise Williams

Who doesn't love a good ghost story and Seaglass by Eloise Williams IS a good ghost story. 

Lark, a thirteen year old girl, is going through a bad time. A sick mother, a troubled sister and an estranged best friend leaves her feeling lonely and angry. A family holiday in Wales sounds like a good idea. But things get even more complicated when Lark, and her younger sister Snow, become entangled with a young ghost - a mysterious figure in a green dress. Who is she and what does she want with Snow?

The bleak setting of the out of season caravan park adds a spooky atmospheric touch as the story grows in suspense and tension.

'Seaglass' deals with the important themes of grief, discrimination and bullying while never digressing from the path of a 'gripping story'.

It's written mainly for Middle Grade but can be enjoyed by anyone. A thoroughly good read. 

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Firefly Press (12 Sept. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1910080802
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910080801