Thursday, 14 November 2019

DEAR NOBODY by Berlie Doherty. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull

   Published in 1991, this Carnegie-winning novel centres on two talented, ambitious young people in love, on the brink of adult life and about to go to separate universities - and how they feel when they realise that their one act of lovemaking has resulted in pregnancy.

   A story like this has a built-in momentum. It takes us through Helen's instinctive denial, followed by growing anxiety, the pregnancy test, and her admission of the truth to herself - and to her boyfriend, Chris.

   Romantic, loving Chris is determined to stay with Helen. Neither of them really thinks through how they can do this. As the pregnancy advances Helen becomes increasingly desperate. She even puts herself in danger in an attempt to abort the pregnancy, but fails. Once her mother realises the truth, events move fast. Helen finds herself being pushed into an unwanted abortion - and yet she is also in despair at the thought of giving up her university place.

   Meanwhile Chris, on holiday abroad with a school friend, is distracted in other ways.

   The complex family situations are detailed and convincing. Every character is rounded, and all develop and change during the course of the story. And when the resolution comes, it feels inevitable and exactly right.

   This is a strong, engrossing story about a common dilemma that has no right or wrong answers, only the natural confusion of people's lives. I'd read it years ago, but - probably because it's so real and true to life - I couldn't remember exactly how it ended. And I certainly couldn't put it down!

   I hope young teens are still reading this story, because this is one situation that will never feel dated.

Available in paperback in several editions by different publishers. The one shown is my own copy,  from Lion Tracks (Harper Collins).


Sunday, 10 November 2019

Corey's Rock & That Asian Kid - Reviewed by Chitra Soundar

I recently read two books by two Asian authors – both very different in feel, different in target age-group and the topics they dealt with. But both books affected me in a way that very few books have done in a long time. I'm reminded of them at odd moments and recall thinking about the characters as if they are real.

Author: Sita Brahmachari, Illustrator: Jane Ray
Published by OtterBarry Books
I first got hold of a copy of Corey’s Rock at least a year ago. It’s written by Sita Brahmachari and illustrated by Jane Ray. The beautiful watercolour illustrations draw you into the world of the story and the text lulls you into a magical land.

Corey’s Rock is like a calm sea – you might not see the waves rising or the ripples in the water,  but it has innumerable depths like the sea. In this story, Sita and Jane have deftly handled the loss of a sibling, migrations, mixed-race families and how new communities can be not just daunting but surprisingly welcoming. It anchors the story in parental love, friendships made in classrooms and the love for a place, a place that has belonging. Sita has wonderfully woven the myths of selkies into Isla’s story and the myth not only helps with the reconciliation of Isla’s loss but also gives her hope.

Every character we see in this book gives us a sense of belonging, reminds us of someone we’ve met in our lives who brought a smile to our souls or someone we’d hope to meet when we are dealing with such difficulties on our own.

Sita does not shy away from difficult topics and with the help of the gorgeous illustrations by Jane, she has given us a story as magical as the selkies.

Written by Savita Kalhan, Published by Troika Books

And now to the second book, That Asian Kid by Savita Kalhan. It’s not a book I’d read normally. But based on the first chapter Savita read at her book launch, I bravely sat down to begin. Soon I found myself racing through the pages and even though I read only just before bedtime, I finished the book in 3 nights, each time, reluctantly closing the book as sleep took over my senses.

In this book, we see the story of Jeevan, who has a normal and regular life in a grammar school and he’s good at studies and doesn’t have any major hang-ups at home or in school. Enter English Lit and a teacher who doesn’t seem to like him. As Jeevan realises that his chances at acing his English Lit wasn’t going according to plan, because he thinks his teacher might be biased, he gets a chance to take revenge on her. You have to read the book to get the rest of the plot because I’m so worried I’d give it away.

What I wanted to share about this book, as a writer and as a reader are the characters and the dialogue. The characters are wonderfully real, fun to be around and I love the camaraderie between Jeevan and his friends. Their differing viewpoints drives Jeevan crazy but also keeps him grounded.

I love the family setting of this story – an Asian family, high-achievers, yet both pragmatic and supportive. I love the friends – old and new Jeevan gets to deal with and a new friend Ree he meets, who seems to be constantly playing devil’s advocate. In fact I’d like to see Book 2 in which Jeevan and Ree are on their own exciting adventure – perhaps another blunder that leads them towards big decisions.

These two books deal with difficult subjects of love, loss, bigotry and yet the characters are redeemed by the power of friendships. These are wonderful stories that are relevant to our times for children to cope with the various challenges and highlight the need for safe spaces – where children can discuss their worries, ask for help and find a support system.

In these two stories, the embrace of the family and the hand of a friend has been offered and accepted. But in real life many of our children suffer from anxiety and depression and have no tools to articulate their troubles. The role of these books is to provide that safe space, where children can reflect their realities in the troubles of the protagonist and figure out a way to talk about their own anxieties.

Chitra Soundar is an author and storyteller based in London. Chitra writes fiction, non-fiction chapter books and picture books. Find out more at and follow her on twitter at @csoundar.


Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Midnight Feasts - poems chosen by AF Harrold, Illustrated by Katy Riddell, reviewed by Dawn Finch

First the blurb...
One thing that unites us all – across time, nations and peoples – is food. From chocolate, rice pudding and sandwiches to breakfast in bed, banana phones and the fruit of a mythical jelabi tree, A.F. Harrold has brought together a wonderful and diverse collection of poems on the topic of food.

Illustrated in full colour by rising star Katy Riddell, this anthology brings together work from a broad range of poets, including William Carlos Williams, award-winning Joseph Coelho and Sabrina Mahfouz. 

I love a good poetry book, and this one is particularly delicious. A.F Harrold has expertly gathered together works by some of the finest poets for children and baked them into a collection that is deeply satisfying. The poems span continents, and cultures, and time all linked together with the one thing that binds us all - food.

There are so many feasts to be had here, and food from around the world is stuffed into the pages. I particularly enjoy the fact that this book contains so many different forms of poetry too. Here the reader can find poems from the hilariously funny (I laughed out loud at Harrold's own poem, "The Perils of Breakfast" and Cat Weatherill's "The Unknown Jelly Baby") to the deeply moving (Imtiaz Dharker's tiny gem-like poem of homesickness, "Crab Apples", is one of the most beautiful things I've read in a long time).

Katy Riddell provides the illustrations and she has a deft and charming touch that gives a sense of great familiarity to the pages. These seem to be people and places we know and recognise, and the food all looks as if we could pluck and eat from the pages. Her work makes this a very complete book, and a lavish-feeling physical object that will make a wonderful addition to any bookshelves and one that should be dipped into regularly. Snacked on, feasted on.

Stuff yourself with these poems, they're so delicious they should be fattening!

Dawn Finch is a children's author and librarian.
Chair of CWIG committee and trustee of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)


Saturday, 2 November 2019

Handa's Noisy Night, by Eileen Browne, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Hooray, hooray, there’s a new Handa picture book from Eileen Browne, and it’s a lovely one!

            Twenty-five years after the publication of Handa’s Surprise and sixteen years after Handa’s Hen, Eileen Browne has created another richly simple wonderful picture book about Handa and her friend Akeyo. It has all the magical ingredients of the other two books, delivering a delightful surprise for the story characters, but leaving us, the book’s audience, knowing more than they do. I’m sure that little taste of power experienced by child audiences for these books that is part of their appeal. But there’s so much more.
            In this story, Handa is going for a sleepover with Akeyo in a hut in their Kenyan village home. She’s a bit nervous as they play, then settle with their toys in the hut. She hears worrying noises. First it’s a snorting sound. ‘It’s Dad,’ said Akeyo. ‘He snorts when he laughs.’ Then she hears, in turn, chattering, rattling, squeaking, slurping and crying as they finish their games and settle for sleep. But Akeyo has explanations for them all. She has a very noisy family! There’s a mysterious thud in the night, then tap-tapping on the door in the morning. But there’s nobody there when they open the door. And the family claim to have been quiet all night, leaving the girls wondering what could possibly explain the noises.

But we know ...

Every young child who has stayed away from home for a night will recognise Handa’s fears. They will enjoy seeing how life in a Kenyan village differs from their own, whilst the family behaves much as their own one does. They will enjoy learning to recognise and name a range of nocturnal animals. And they will certainly love the joke that they are in on!
A beautiful story in every way. One to share again and again. 


Friday, 25 October 2019

Sparky! by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

I chuckled many times when reading this offbeat, quirky picture book. Many parents express concerns when their child wants a pet. In Sparky!, the protagonist extracts her mother's promise that she can have any pet as long as it ‘doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.’ 

And where would a child go when researching the solution to such a problem? Answer: her school librarian Mrs. Kinklebaum ‘(who knows everything in the world).’

Fast forward to the arrival of a sloth by Express Mail. 

Sparky is an endearing new family member. Offill makes wry observations about his appearance and the peculiarities of his interactions with his new owner. It takes two days for the sloth to wake up, and when he does:

‘He didn’t know a lot of games, so I taught him some. 
We played King of the Mountain
and I won.
We played Hide-and-Seek
and I won…
We played Statue and Sparky
was very, very good.’

The story builds to its climax as the protagonist tries to show off her new pet’s skills to a skeptical neighbor and the local crossing guard in a Trained Sloth Extravaganza. Sparky is not receptive to the girl’s training sessions and, in the end, while the extravaganza does not go as planned, the protagonist accepts his unique characteristics with humor. 

‘I tagged him on his claw.
“You’re it, Sparky,” I said. 
And for a long, long time he was.’

The story is told in first person, and although we never learn the girl protagonist’s name, we get a strong sense of her character. She shows resilience in finding a suitable pet, works enthusiastically to engage with her sloth, and ultimately enjoys the sleepy companionships he offers. Offhill’s thumbnail descriptions of the other characters are also deft and telling.

For me this is a story about a girl adapting to befriend an unusual character with charm and humor at its heart. There is a distinct atmosphere to the book. The writing is concise and spare, the jokes dry and understated. Chris Appelhans (an artist for animated feature films including Coraline and Fantastic Mr Fox) captures the slow-moving Sparky with similar humor in his illustrations. Sparky does not move a muscle whether up a tree or sitting on the ground. Even his expression remains largely the same.Tellingly, the last illustration shows the girl and her sloth sitting happily side-by-side on a branch, watching the sun set.  


Monday, 21 October 2019

Emily Lime Librarian Detective – The Book Case by Dave Shelton, review by Lynda Waterhouse

It was the title of the book that made me buy it – who can resist a story about a librarian detective called Emily Lime and a story called The Book Case?  It was Frugal Husband who pointed out that Emily Lime is actually a palindrome.
I was also familiar with the author Dave Sheldon from his hilarious comic strip Good Dog Bad Dog in the Phoenix.
The story begins with Daphne, a girl who is desperate for something new to read, being handed a book on a train station. Daphne, after an unfortunate incident in her previous school, is on her way to St Rita’s School for Spirited Girls where Mrs Crump, the headmistress, had offered her a scholarship in recognition of Daphne’s ‘skills and abilities that would be of great use in our library’.
 The period that this novel is set in is never explicitly stated but it feel like post Second World War with its steam train and use of language and is a clear homage to St Trinian’s and Ronald Searle’s St Custards. St Rita’s is falling apart and a place full of anarchy, danger and practical jokes.  Daphne teams up with the only boy in the school, George, and the irascible Emily Lime to solve the mysteries of the bank robbery in town and a break-in at the school and uncover the villains.
The writing is fast paced and full of slapstick, deadpan and laugh out loud humour, a scary smoking nun and a stash of hidden loot. The pages are filled with black and white drawings. The plot is full of cannon ball shaped holes but as Emily Lime says – ‘The answer to any problem is always in a book.’
ISBN978 1 910989395


Friday, 18 October 2019

Every Sparrow Falling by Shirley-Anne McMillan - Kelly McCaughrain

This is Shirley-Anne McMillan’s third novel (plus one self-pubbed) and I’ve loved all three. She doesn’t shy away from difficult topics but they’re handled with sensitivity and a light touch leaving plenty of room for humour. 

Cariad is a foster kid who’s been tossed around the system and chucked out of more than one foster home for being a bad girl. At 16, she is realising that this is her last chance to make a foster home work and have a family. Unfortunately this new home is the home of a conservative evangelical Christian couple she has zero in common with. 

Her attempts to fit in with the local Youth Fellowship and the Scripture Union kids at school are frustrating and hilarious and she’d really rather be drinking on the cliffs with Brains and his boyfriend Muff, or groping Stevie B from school who she’s not even sure she really likes.

The small seaside town becomes a lot more interesting when she meets a boy from school who’s been missing, presumed dead, for weeks… 

I read this in one sitting and found the storyline about the Christian/LGBT conflict, which is a large part of the plot, realistic enough to leave me feeling physically angry and frustrated at times, and the ending was heart-breaking. 

Cariad is a really believable character in that she isn’t unrealistically good or brave. She’s a normal girl trying to keep her head down and feeling powerless but troubled by what she sees going on around her. But helping her friends means risking the only stability she’s had in her life and facing down a whole community by herself. 

And if that’s not enough to tempt you, there’s a very funny incident involving a black mass, a Ouija board, a load of drunk teens and a police raid in a National Trust monument… As you do. 

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 #CWFNI