Wednesday, 23 April 2014

ZERAFFA GIRAFFA by Diane Hofmeyr illustrated by Jane Ray. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

First of all, the usual disclaimer: I  know both the writer and the illustrator of this book. As I've explained before, I've been around for a lot longer than I care to think about and know a great many of the creators of the books I review. You will have to take my word for it that I would only  review books that I genuinely believe readers of this blog would enjoy reading.

This book also confirms a  strongly - held opinion of mine which run counter to the prevailing thought among many publishers. For many the received wisdom is that texts have to be ultra short.  Frances Lincoln, happily,  don't agree. They  publish, for example,  the beautiful books produced by Jackie Morris which I reviewed here last time,  and are not afraid of text. By this I mean: they are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the parent of the child whose book it is  (yes, I'm happy to read  a slightly longer story at bedtime) and also to the child (yes, I can sit quiet and listen for more than two minutes at a time if the story is interesting enough).

This tale is a true story. It's about the bringing of a very young giraffe from Africa to Paris and the effect this has both on the giraffe and the people who catch sight of her on her way over the sea and the desert and the countryside to her home in the Jardin des Plantes.

Hofmeyr has a very beautiful, poetic and evocative way of putting things, but the lyricism is never overdone and it's always in words that the youngest child can understand. The last page reads: "Then they stood in silence and looked out over the lights of Paris. And on those evenings, when the air was particularly balmy, all three turned their faces southwards and on the warm air they felt the kiss of Africa."
This is quite a complicated thought, but one that's easily explained. The reader has seen and experienced Zeraffa's journey and can see that she might miss Africa and that  the wind coming from the South reminds both the giraffe and her owner that the South was where they came from; where their journey began.

The story is exciting, too. Zeraffa becomes a sensation. Women style their hair to copy the animal; and everyone comes out to see her in her enclosure, La Rotonde. Atir, who brought her on her journey was still with her when she died, many years later and the whole tale is a touching demonstration of love and devotion and care.

The illustrations are typical of Jane Ray's work. Richly coloured, humorously detailed (Zerafa's orange cloak is lovely!) and laid out on the page in a way that brings out what Hofmeyr is saying, they are very beautiful. As a reader, you turn each page expecting another  sumptuous surprise and every time, your heart lifts to see that Ray has done it again. The spread which recounts how Paris fell in love with Zeraffa is very funny too. Those giraffe-shaped biscuits, especially, look delicious. I learned from Twitter that there were giraffe-shaped biscuits at the launch of the book, which I believe the author baked herself.  

All in all, this is another delightful book from this publisher. Maybe Hofmeyr and Ray can come together again. They are a very good combination. I'm sure this will be a very popular book and one that teachers and parents will be happy to read aloud over and over again.

Written by: Diane Hofmeyr
Illustrated by: Jane Ray
Publisher: Frances Lincoln hbk: £11.99
ISBN: 9781847803443


Saturday, 19 April 2014

‘Penguins Stopped Play’ by Harry Thompson
Reviewed by Pauline Chandler

I love penguins, they always bring a smile to my face, so, naturally, when I was browsing through the books for sale at my local library and spotted a book with penguins on the cover, I took a closer look. 
Adult non-fiction? A book about men playing cricket? Even with penguins, it wasn't an obvious choice for me.

According to the blurb, the book was a ‘hilarious odyssey in which an amateurish bunch of English eccentrics play cricket across the globe’.  I’m a great fan of tv’s ‘Have I Got News For You’, so once I realised that the author, Harry Thompson, was the show's creator, and that Ian Hislop, one of the show's regulars, was also one of the‘eccentrics’, I thought I'd give it a try.

‘Penguins Stopped Play’ documents the quest of a group of failed cricket players to take a team round the world and play cricket on seven continents. They call themselves the Captain Scott XI, their aim being to lose every game. Any batsman who starts to take winning seriously, is deliberately run out. The target is to be out as soon as possible and retire to the pub.

For a number of years, the team plays on a UK circuit, against village teams, losing handsomely, before the author comes up with a more ambitious plan: to complete a world tour. His efforts to bring this had me laughing out loud. I loved the jokes and japes, the Blandings-style fixes the team gets into, and I loved the factual stuff, sometimes quite detailed, about  the geography and history of the places visited.

This book is about blokes at play, blokes with enough leisure time and financial means to go off around the world playing cricket for several weeks, with not a woman in sight. I could easily have missed it and I'm so glad I didn't! I loved it and recommend it as a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Pauline Chandler        


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Hobbit - by J R R Tolkein

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

I re-read this wonderful book recently, and not for the first time.  I think that was when I was about 10 – the first re-read I mean.  I don’t remember my first read, only that it’s a book I love reading and will probably do so many more times. 

It’s been described as the gateway to fantasy.  I couldn’t agree more – partly because it’s the gateway to another, bigger fantasy, which has become mother to them all, but it’s also the first book I read that made me think this is a fantasy.  It’s what the fantasy genre is all about – and I don’t mean strange worlds with strange creatures.  

This is a different world, but it’s realised so perfectly you accept it without issue; its peoples and beings are not of our own world, but belong so easily here that you don’t question them.  The characters and the adventures they have belong utterly in that world – yet they are perfectly easy to relate to.  We live in the story as we live in the world of Middle Earth.

I have to admit that the reason I chose to read it again, was because of the films.  When the first one came out I kept thinking – was that in the book?  Will this really last another two films? 

Three long films from one book – impossible.  Yet, reading the book, there is so much packed into Bilbo’s adventures, it’s easy to see how Peter Jackson was tempted to spin out the action.  And, for reasons of political correctness, I might be able to forgive him for inventing a kick-ass female elf – although I could have done without the attraction between her and the dwarf. 

The films are highly entertaining with special effects begging for 3D.  But, despite being prequels to Lord of the Rings, I couldn’t help feeling that these were sequels – the sorts that have numbers 4, 5 and 6 after them, ie more of the same, but not as good.  These films fell far short of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Why?  In short, because they put too much in that was not in the original.

But back to the book.  If you’ve not read it and are relying on the films, then I urge you to visit this wonderful book.  It needs no 3D embellishments to make it stand out – just a great story, brilliantly realised setting, breathtaking adventure and good writing. It’s stood the test of time, as is evident by the myriad editions I could have chosen to illustrate this review – I’ve only managed a few of them.


Friday, 11 April 2014

The Crocodile Who didn't Like Water, by Gemma Merino, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

This is one of those very rare perfect picture books that makes you laugh, moves you, and leaves you thinking about  it for a long time after closing the book.  It is simple and fun at the same time as exploring a problem that almost anybody, big or small, can relate to; the problem of being the odd one out.

The little 'crocodile' of the title doesn't like water as his siblings do.  The bliss and excitement on those siblings' faces as they play water volleyball, jumping off trees into the water, and even synchronised swimming is in wonderful contrast to the terror and loneliness and determination of our little crocodile protagonist.  He does his very best to join in, being brave, and saving his pocket money to buy a rubber ring, but it doesn't work.  He just gets cold and miserable ... and that cold leads to a magnificent sneeze of fire that proves that he isn't actually a crocodile after all; he's a dragon!  Now that he knows what he is, he's happy.  He takes his siblings ballooning and flying on his back, but there's more.  The opening and closing images of this book are wordless but tell so much.  The opening image is of a basket of white eggs and one blue one.  The last image is of a nest made from the rubber ring, and inside that nest are lots of blue eggs ... and one white one.  The odd one out problem moves on a generation!

Gemma Merino has been very clever with this book, playing with different layouts on each spread to pace the story and milk the drama and humour.  Amazingly, this is her first ever book, developed from work done on an Anglia Ruskin MA course in children's book illustration.  This book is, deservedly, winning prizes, and I can't wait to see more from this Spanish architect turned children's book creator.

NB  This book is a very good example of the way that stories about anthropomorphic characters can often more pleasingly and more deeply (therefore more effectively) address problems that children might have in being included than human characters can.  I discussed that question in this blog


Monday, 7 April 2014

CRACKS by Caroline Green, reviewed by Cecilia Busby

I thoroughly enjoyed Cracks, although it's not the best of titles for a sentence like that - actually, it's hard to think of a sentence with the title in that wouldn't draw a snigger from several of the teenage protagonists of this book. That aside, it's a rip-roaring adventure that will appeal to many of the readers who devoured The Hunger Games, and reminded me of some of the futuristic thrillers I read as a child by Peter Dickinson, John Christopher, or Robert Westall. Essentially, it's the revolutionary underground against the evil system, but there is scope in that general area for all sorts of interesting things to happen, and Green adds her own inventive take, with some memorable characters and a good deal of exactly the right kind of nail-biting tension and multiplication of layers of plot which need to be uncovered.

In the first part of the book, we meet Cal, who appears to be an average teenage boy, stuck with a rather nasty stepfather and older stepbrother and a mother who's turning a blind eye to the bullying going on in the family. But from the first sentence we are aware that all is not as it seems: Cal sees a crack running across the ceiling of the school toilet which, when he runs and calls for help, has disappeared. More cracks appear and disappear, he hears strange voices, saying things like, "He's waking up. We need to increased the dose", and sudden stoppages or slippages in time. Despite these clues, it's actually quite a shock when Cal "wakes up" and we discover where he really is.

I don't want to give too much away, because one of the joys of this book is that, along with Cal himself, you have to piece together what's going on from little bits of information or disinformation, and often Cal is forced to reassess things he'd previously thought he had nailed. But essentially, from the point he wakes up, Cal is fighting to find and regain his lost identity, as well as to avoid the establishment scientists who took it away in the first place. Along the way he makes contact with some other lost souls, and meets a girl, Kyla.

The future as painted by Green is recognisably extrapolated from our present - more terrorism, more control, more marginalisation of the poor or non-white. It therefore asks teenage readers to think quite hard about the possible end results of the casual racism, anti-immigration and fears of terrorism we are constantly showered with by the current government and press. White teenager Cal, by way of contrast, associates his warmest memories with an Asian family who ran the local shop in his home-town, and the girl he falls for, Kyla, is black - his growing feelings for her are tenderly drawn, as is his friendship with her best mate, also black, Jax.

I read the book in a little under a day, and it was perfect for that fast-paced, can't put it down, plot-driven story that is sometimes just exactly what you want. Green has recently published a sequel to Cracks, which continues the story, but focuses on Kyla, called  Fragments - I will definitely be looking out for that one, too!

Cecilia Busby writes as C.J. Busby, and writes funny, adventure-filled fantasy for readers 7+

Twitter: @ceciliabusby


Thursday, 3 April 2014


Here are two new books for the 7-10 age-group - both by writers who have more books in the same series.

THE DRAGONSITTER TAKES OFF by Josh Lacey, illustrated by Garry Parsons.

"Dear Uncle Morton,
I know you don't want to be disturbed, but I have to tell you some very bad news.
Ziggy has disappeared.
Mum says he was asleep on the carpet when she went to bed, but this morning he was nowhere to be seen."

Uncle Morton is staying at an ashram for a week in the hope of finding inner peace. He has left his pet dragon, Ziggy, with Eddie and his mum. This unsettles both the dragon and Eddie's long-suffering mum, and sets in train a series of hilarious problems which an increasingly concerned Eddie relates to his uncle by email - along with requests for help.

This book was shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, and is indeed very funny. It's also very well written and tells a good story at just the right pace. Lively illustrations on almost every page add to the pleasure. I especially liked the one of Mum and Ziggy bonding over tea and biscuits.

Publisher: Andersen Press, 2013.

SIR LANCE A-LITTLE by Chris Inns and Dave Woods

Young Sir Lance A-Little is leading a quest, accompanied by the Cowardly Knights of Camelot - Sir Render, Sir Hugo First, Sir Cumference, etc. - plus a minstrel to make songs about their exploits:

"I'm Quaver the Minstrel
And we're on a brave quest.
I'm wearing clean pants
And I've tucked in my vest!"

With a short text, lots of pictures and captions, and a constant stream of verbal jokes, this book had me laughing straight away. There's a cookery-loving wizard who says things like "Abra-Kebabra" and "Hey, Pesto!", an "All Knight Diner", and the "Joust-a-Minute Jousting Tournament - sponsored by Shield and Armour Insurance." Our heroes' final task is to "slay a beast that rhymes with flagon." Now what could that be?

Glorious fun for a wide age-range.

Publisher: Orchard, 2014.


Sunday, 30 March 2014

BEAR'S BEST FRIEND, by Lucy Coats and Sarah Dyer. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Bears have always been a mainstay of picture books. But they became even more so when the book industry went global and foreign co-editions became a make-or-break component of the book contract.  Bears look the same in and to every culture and and making them the star of your book often means you do away with the many niggly details that illustrations of children do.  Authors, however, nearly always use them as children-in-bear-clothing and write them into stories dealing with human issues.

The gorgeous bear in Lucy Coats and Sarah Dyer's story is blessed with many friends but not a 'best friend'.  He longs for that special someone he can share special moments with and the thought of not having one fills him with sadness.  

To while away the lonely hours Bear makes tree-pictures of all his woodland friends. He's got a real talent for trimming topiary and one day someone turns up to admire the pictures....might that someone be looking for a best friend too.....?

Lucy's witty text is a perfect foil for the childlike illustrations, full of muted colour. A winner of a book that could become many a child's best friend. 

Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta
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