Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Dress Like A Girl by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Lorian Tu-Dean, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

This is an empowering picture book about what it means to dress ‘like a girl’. Perhaps this phrase has had negative or limiting connotations in the past, but not in this story: it is a cause for celebration. As a group of six diverse little girls get together for a sleepover, their imaginative play leads them to dress up. What should they wear? Who should they be? 

Toht chooses second person point of view to address the girls and the reader directly. Her tone is playful and humourous. Adopting phrases from the fashion world, she turns these ideas on their head. Something crisp and white for hot summer days? How about an astronaut’s outfit to take you into space?  Bright vivid hues to make a statement? We see the little girls charging around in red firefighter’s and blue police uniforms. Sleek swimwear? “Slip on some flippers. Explore the seafloor.” 

Notably, the advice is positive, offering suggestions of all the things the girls could choose to be, without telling them what they cannot or should not do. The outfits span many occupations — doctors, adventurers, construction workers, artists, sportswomen…  The emphasis is on self-expression and, if after that long list there is still not quite the thing for you, “then design something new!” 

The illustrations by Lorian Tu-Dean are mixed-media, comprising watercolor, gouache, colored pencil and ink. These images show lively, exuberant, resourceful girls on adventure after adventure, accompanied by their expressive dog. The riot of ideas in the illustrations mirror the text well. 

Dress Like a Girl is an engaging story and is also ideal to show girls what they can be in the vein of recent best-selling titles such as Rosie Revere, Engineer! or She Persisted. After all, it is the person underneath that is most important -- the clothes should be tailored to girls’ dreams. 

"What does it mean to dress like a girl? 
Many will tell you in this big wide world
that there are strict rules that must be addressed,
rules you will need when looking your best.
But when you are given these rules to obey,
the secret is heeding them - in your own way."


Friday, 15 March 2019

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz review by Lynda Waterhouse

On the surface this novel is a classic gothic melodrama about an orphan child, Maud, who is adopted by the three elderly Hawthorne  sisters and promised a life filled with  happiness, pretty dresses and endless books but instead finds herself becoming a ‘secret child’ forced to take part in fake séances for the rich and heartbroken.
Maud is so beguiled by Hyacinth and the attention and ‘love’ which she gives to her that she is prepared to go along with their plans. After all she has never been the good or the pretty girl. There is a moving scene when her older brother comes to see her and we discover that she was left behind at the orphanage whilst he and her pretty younger sister were adopted by the same family,
‘Hyacinth Hawthorne- she’s the one who chose me – she wanted me. ‘She threw the word at him as if it could knock him flat.
They move to Cape Calypso to reel in the wealthy Mrs Lambert who has lost her daughter Caroline who drowned. It is a stifling existence being hidden away in the cottage with only Muffet, the deaf and mute servant for company. Their friendship develops as Maud begins to teach Muffet how to read and in doing so discovers her deep intelligence. Maud also realises how callously Hyacinth treats Muffet.
Maud takes nightly walks on the beach and rides on the carousel run by the fearsome Rory Hugelick. She meets Mrs Lambert and comes to know and like her. She begins to understand the guilt and pain that she feels, and feels a prickle of conscience as she starts to dream about Caroline.
The event of the séance and its aftermath are truly shocking as Maud discovers who values her life and who does not care if she lives or dies.
The novel is beautifully written in a fast-paced clear prose that has warmth, humour and an unlaboured lyrical quality. The characters are all three dimensional and have a moral ambiguity. There are reasons why people behave the way they do. There are characters who are kind and decent such as Rory and Mrs Lambert but you have to look beyond the surface. As my mother would say ‘handsome is as handsome does.’
This is a great read with psychological depth and one of the best depictions of grooming of a vulnerable child that I have read.

IBSN 978-1-4063-5416-4
Walker Books


Thursday, 7 March 2019

Tin by Padraig Kenny - Reviewed by Kelly McCaughrain

Padraig Kenny gives me serious cover envy (and I love my cover). Look at these! So beautiful. 

Pog is about to be released and I’m looking forward to it because I loved Tin, which came out last year and has been shortlisted for a truckload of awards.

Tin is a sweet, funny adventure about a group of mechanical children. Do I actually have to say any more?

Christopher is a ‘proper’ boy, with a real soul, and he works for a shady, incompetent engineer who manufactures the mechanical children who are Christopher’s best friends. As the engineer is a bit rubbish, all the mechanical children have things wrong with them, but as a team they manage to get through life all right, avoiding the scary government department that manages mechanicals and makes sure the strict rules around ‘ensoulment’ are not breached. 

But when a huge secret is revealed, the kids have to leave home to find out who Christopher really is and what it really means to be human.

Brilliant premise, brilliantly executed. The characters are real and endearing right from the start, and the ending made me cry (in work!). The fantasy world is just our world but with mechanical children. It’s set just after WWI, in fact, and that plays a role, though it doesn’t feel like a historical novel. The history and world building don’t take over the story, it's firmly character-based, which is the kind of book I love. 

It’s light and funny with a big warm heart and I’d really recommend it for upper MG / younger YA (or adults with any taste).

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

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at weewideworld.blogspot.co.uk 



Sunday, 3 March 2019

MURDER AT TWILIGHT By Fleur Hitchcock Reviewed by Sharon Tregenza

MURDER AT TWILIGHT  by Fleur Hitchcock

When schoolboy Noah goes missing after a fight with Viv she's sure his just trying to get attention. But when the police become involved and spots of his blood are found in her mother's car, a dark and dangerous adventure is set in motion. Viv must uncover the truth. Her hunt will entangle her in a mystery and a terrifying chase to discover what really happened. 

This is a fast paced story with twists and turns enough to satisfy the most picky of mystery readers. I read it in a couple of days. The plot is exciting and the writing engaging.  The main character is completely believable and the tension is maintained throughout with the help of the atmospheric background. This is a great read for all ages. I also recommend Murder in Midwinter by Fleur Hitchcock.

Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Nosy Crow Ltd (4 Oct. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781788000628
  • ISBN-13: 978-1788000628



Saturday, 23 February 2019

Iguana Boy from James Bishop & Rikin Parekh, reviewed by Emma Perry

Iguana Boy... saves the world with a triple cheese pizza! Oh yes, he absolutely does!

This is the brilliantly funny series from James Bishop and Rikin Parekh, perfectly suited to readers aged 7+.

Poor Dylan has been waiting absolutely ages for his superpower to emerge. It's been made ten times worse by having an older brother and sister who both have great powers. They tease Dylan mercilessly for lacking a power.

But then Dylan's superpower does emerge. And it's not what he expected. Not even close. In fact, it's pretty useless. And he is VERY embarrassed.

After some hilarious scenes in a pet shop, featuring one of my favourite black and white illustrations from Rikin Parekh [below], things start to get serious. 

There's a super-villain on the loose. 

Celina Shufflebottom's dastardly plot to round up all the superheros has worked. They are powerless to stop her, and unable to escape her clutches. Including Dylan's own brother and sister.


What Celine, and the other superheros haven't counted on... is Iguana Boy and his pizzas!

This is fast paced story telling, with a wonderful abundance of comedy. With plenty of cunning twists, James Bishop's storytelling is great stuff. Rikin Parekh's black and white illustrations feature throughout - they are brilliantly funny bringing out the characters and the situations they find themselves in. I particularly enjoyed the comic strip style scenes which pop up from time to time.

And the best news? There's a second book in this series out now... Iguana Boy vs. The 30 Second Thief. Plus, book 3 will be appearing soon. 


Tuesday, 19 February 2019

How to Draw Comics by Ilya, reviewed by Chitra Soundar

I grew up reading comics. Read more about that story here.  So I’ve a fascination with telling stories in that format. When I lived in Singapore, I worked with a local publisher – Asiapac Books, who converted some of my stories embedded within the non-fiction book into comic strips. A sort of dream come true.

Recently with my nephews growing up and wanting to introduce comic books to them, I did two things:

First, I got them a copy of the Akissi digest. It’s one of my favourite series, that’s not dissimilar to the “Jamela” picture books , reviewed here  and the Anna Hibiscus stories reviewed here by Sarah Hammond, but in comic form.

The second step was to buy a How-To Book. The book I landed on was – How to Draw Comics by Ilya, by Michael O’Mara Books. It’s a master class in storytelling through drawings and at the same time, teaching us the grammar of comic books.

The thing I liked about this book was that it started with the basics for someone like me. From terminology to conventions – how do you tell the story, in which order, do you go left to right? Does it need to be funny?

It does get technical as you go further – from which pens, how to use a drawing tablet to how to draw faces, action elements of the story to how to show character.

For me it’s almost like two birds in one stone – I can learn visual storytelling while my nephew and I can together explore how he can learn to create his own comic books.

And if you want something for young kids to start off drawing, try this one too! Written by the amazing Loui Stowell and illustrated by a team of wonderful illustrators, it’s a stepping stone to more complicated stuff and of course half-term fun.

With a full disclaimer on “I can’t draw”, here is my first attempt at a cartoon cat in comic strip form to show you that I'm learning from these books, albeit slowly. 
Oscar the Cat by Chitra Soundar

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer of children's books. She has written over 40 books for children and often visits schools to teach creative writing. Find out more at www.chitrasoundar.com or follow her on Twitter @csoundar.


Friday, 15 February 2019

The Swish of the Curtain

When I was a little girl, I was the kind of child who, when asked to sing a song by my relatives, would open my mouth and let rip, only stopping when the cake was being offered around. I have always loved performing. My teachers at school used to refer to it as 'showing off' and they weren't wrong. I've never been  nervous under the gaze of an audience, and  I think the sound of applause is the best sound in the world.  I went some way to fulfilling my ambition of a career on the stage, only setting this aside when I realised that there was no hope of any employment in the situation I found myself in in 1967 when I married.  I became a teacher of French instead but of course teaching is a performance art. You have to keep your pupils' attention on you at all times. You have  to engage them and get them on your side. It's a bit like being a stand-up comic. But it's very, very hard work and I was not a bit sorry to leave the profession and turn my hand to writing.

Three things had an enormous influence on my in my desire to be a star when I grew up. Th first of these was the movies. I went to the cinema about twice a week during my tv-less childhood and games with my friends involved pretending to "be" Jane Powell, or Anne Miller or Kathryn Grayson or any number of others. I saw Valerie Hobson (aka Mrs John Profumo) on the London stage in The King and I and that began a love affair with the theatre. In 1956, I saw Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. I went to the London production of West Side Story in its first week. And so on...

All of this is to emphasise that I was the Ideal Reader for Pamela Brown's series of books about the denizens of the Blue Door Theatre. I first read The Swish of the Curtain in 1954 when I was 10, and Pamela Brown's books pleased me enormously. I'm very grateful to Pushkin Books, first of all for reissuin these novels, and secondly for sending them to me for review.

The first thing that strikes me, reading the first volume again (I haven't got to the second and third books yet but I will!) is the liberal scattering of adverbs in the text. The book was published first in 1941 and people spoke 'breathlessly' and capered 'wildly.' An editor today would probably strike out a lot of these adverbs and would definitely frown at 'capered'.

So young readers should be warned: this is an old-fashioned book. It's none the worse for that, in my opinion. Today's readers will be deeply envious of the freedom their long- ago counterparts enjoyed. When the Halfords (Nigel, Vicky and Percy known as Bulldog) move in next door to the Darwins (Jeremy, Sandra, Lynette and Madelaine) we have a perfect cast to take part in many adventures. The book begins with a performance and some of the names of the adults are designed specifically for comedy: Mrs Potter-Smith, Miss Thropple, Augustus Wheeley and so on.

The children come across a deserted old chapel in the town and thanks to the kindness of the Vicar and his delightful wife, they're allowed to clean it up and paint the doors and window frames and all by themselves set it up as the Blue Door Theatre. Just as adults loved the fantasy element of the bonkbusters so popular in the Eighties, stagestruck children of my generations couldn't imagine anything more delightful than being able to put on plays and performances in our very own theatre. The whole set up was my idea of utter bliss.

The best thing about The Swish of the Curtain is the detail we're allowed to  see about putting on a show. Everything: costumes, props, the scripts, rehearsals, publicity is discussed  by the children, who grow up through the books. A lot of the  dialogue is humorous. The children are individuals and we  sympathise with every one of them and cross our fingers that they'll succeed and fulfil their ambitions.  The nitty gritty of the theatre is spread out before us and reading this book is the next best thing to putting on a show oneself. I still love it and would recommend it to anyone who has a child who fancies themselves a star.