Friday, 18 January 2019

The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith, illustrations by Katz Cowley, review by Lynda Waterhouse

I first came across this story via a YouTube video of a Scottish gran, Janice Clark, reading the book amid gales of uncontrollable laughter to her slightly bemused baby grandson. Her uncontrollable delight in the language and humour of the story is so infectious that I found myself cackling along too. The warm tone of her Scottish brogue added magic to the story of a journey where we are walking the road and meeting with Wonky Donkey and discovering various aspects of his character in a riot of delightful cumulative wordplay.
I am wary of so-called internet viral sensations but something about this clip was so authentic and enchanting that I found myself sharing it with friends and bought myself a copy of the book without any pretence that it was to share with children, teachers or to review. This video was not the product of an ‘influencer’ at work or a cynical ploy to create a buzz in the marketing of a celebrity author’s book. It was pleasing to note that The Wonky Donkey overtook ‘Fear: Trump in the White House’ on the Barnes and Noble bestseller list.
The Wonky Donkey is written by New Zealander Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley and it was first published in 2009 with a modest print run. Thanks to Janice’s rendition sales are going through the roof.
 In her dedication the illustrator, Katz Cowley says,
To my precious Mum, Dad and aunt Wren ... your love support and inspiration fuels my creative journey and makes all of me smile and sing. With big-fat gratitude for keeping me tuned to the magic and humour of life.
Sharing what delights you and makes you laugh is life enhancing and helps babies and children to tune into the magic and humour of life. It highlights the importance of sharing stories.
There is even a song!
I have a cherished memory of being a six-year-old and, along with the rest of the class, being delighted by our teacher’s rendition of A.A. Milne’s poem, Furry Bear, particularly the lines,
For I’d have fur boots and a brown fur wrap
And brown fur knickers and a big fur cap
We would all crack up with gales of laughter to hear our teacher say the rude word - knickers. I can still recall the delight on her face too as we begged her time and time again to read the poem to us. That Christmas I asked for a book of A.A. Milne’s poetry for Christmas so I could read the poem by myself.
Here’s hoping that this book with its humour, ‘rude’ bits and wordplay will inspire more people of all ages to read aloud to children, share the humour and magic of life, visit their public libraries and to foster a lifelong love of reading.
Heee Haww!

ISBN 978-1 407195-57-5


Monday, 14 January 2019

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

We usually review children's books here, and, to be honest, I don't think The Bear and the Nightingale was probably marketed as such. The reason I'm not sure is that I came by it in an unusual way: I didn't find it on the shelves, nor was it recommended to me by Amazon or by a friend or on a book blog. No - it was presented to me, among a pile of other books by one of the very knowledgeable bibliophiles at Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, a very fine bookshop in Bath. I had been given one of their 'reading spas' as a present. This is a marvellous thing. You go along to the shop, which is in a characterful old house full of interesting nooks and crannies. You are settled upstairs in front of the fireplace in a comfortable chair, with a cup of tea or coffee and a very delicious cake, and you talk to one of Mr B's staff about the kinds of books you like, and then they go off and gather a selection of similar books for you to choose from - the gift includes £55 to spend.

Well, one of the books I chose from a cornucopia of delights was this one. It may be intended for adults, but I'm sure it would equally delight teenagers with a taste for fantasy and magic. It's a novel set in the Russia of myth and legend: a Russia of deep snowy winters and wild forests, of sprites and demons, princes and icon painters. When I first opened it up, back in the summer, I couldn't get into it: but now it's winter, and it's the right season - and the book turns out to be enchanting. It is the story of a child born in the northern forests. Her name is Vasya, and as with many of the heroines of folk tales, soon after she is born, her mother dies. Her father is kind, but is eventually persuaded he should take a new wife - particularly to be a mother to Vasya, who is no ordinary child, but a free spirit who runs wild.

So the father, Pyotr, goes off to the city with his two grown sons. There, without realising it, he falls victim to palace politics, and is given to wife a princess - but a princess who lives in fear of all the demons she sees everywhere but in church: a woman who is quite unfit to be a mother, particularly to such a child. Also in the city Pyotr meets a mysterious stranger, who follows Pyotr and his two sons to the palace, watching them: The stranger's gaze shifted. With the three came a curling breath of wind, a wind out of the north. In the space between one breath and the next, the wind told him a tale: of life and death together, of a child born with the failing year...

I haven't finished it yet, but I'm gripped by the story and by the characters of Vasya, cool, forthright, compassionate, strong: and the mysterious stranger who is waiting impatiently for her to grow up. Although Katherine Arden is American, she's steeped in Russian folklore, and the book is like a brightly coloured piece of embroidery from a traditional costume: rich, gleaming, dazzling. It reminds me of Katherine Rundell's The Wolf Wilder, and also of Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child (though the latter weaves together folklore and the reality of life in Alaska in the 1920s): like them, it cries out to be read in front of the fire on a winter's evening, preferably with snow hurling itself against the windows. An enthralling read for the armchair traveller.

STOP PRESS - have discovered that this is the first of a trilogy - hurray!!


Sunday, 6 January 2019

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen - Reviewed by Kelly McCaughrain

Full disclosure: I am a hugeSusin Nielsen fan. There are very few writers I love enough to seek out their entire back catalogue and hyperventilate when they write a new one but she is one. But if you love a writer that much you get nervous when they write a new book because what if you’re disappointed?

I was not disappointed. No Fixed Address is wonderful. In fact, maybe my favourite so far? Hard to say, they’re all amazing.

The Susin Nielsen trademark, if there is such a thing, is warmth, relatable characters, humour and touching storylines for young teens and this has all of that. Character is everything for me and Nielsen does this so well.

After a run of bad luck, Felix and his unreliable mother, Astrid, end up living in their tiny VW van while Astrid looks for a job. At first this is an adventure; it’s summer and they’re basically camping. But when school starts and winter approaches and Felix has to hide his living conditions from his friends, the novelty definitely wears off. He has a plan to get them back on their feet but it’s a very long shot, and avoiding the police and not going hungry in the meantime is getting increasingly difficult.

The book is about the increasing problem of hidden homelessness (in fact it’s endorsed by Amnesty International), and the realisation that your parents might not be terribly good at being parents, and it’s completely touching without ever being grim or dark. Felix is a very sweet character and I loved the relationship between him and his mother, which is complicated and very believable. Felix and Astrid love each other very much but is that enough when Astrid is failing to provide the basics of a stable homelife?

One of the things I love about Nielsen’s books is that the characters are always treated very humanely. Even the bad guys are three dimensional and have reasons for their behaviour, which gives the issues a lot more interest. Astrid is very realistic – we all know an Astrid – and you can’t help liking her despite her flaws, especially when you learn about her own back story. Felix is entirely convincing as a kid who’s had to be the responsible one in his family and desperately wants to respect his mother but is coming to realise things about her that hurt and disappoint him.

I love that there are still books out there that don’t assume you need ramped up action, romantic melodrama and edgy concepts to attract teens. Nothing wrong with those books but they never stay with me the way character-based stories full of humour and heart do. No Fixed Address is a masterclass in subtlety and 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, 2 January 2019

HOLES by Louis Sachar reviewed by Sharon Tregenza

During the Christmas lead up, my writing group had a "do". We also decided we'd have a Secret Santa and bring one of our favourite books, gift wrapped, and without tags, so that it would be a lucky dip.  That way, hopefully, we'd all get to read a book outside of our normal genre choice.

I chose to submit "HOLES". I love, love, love this book.

The Yelnats family have a history of bad luck so when Stanley is falsely accused of a crime, he's not surprised. He's sent to Camp Green Lake (a place that isn't green and doesn't have a lake) a Juvenile Detention Centre. The evil warden there makes the boys dig holes every day in the blistering heat. Is this just a pointless punishment or does the warden have a secret agenda?

It's been a few years since I read this book, so I dug out my old copy and read it again. What a total treat. As before I had to place the book face down a time or two just to catch my breath. This is the book I wish I had written. The fascinating double narrative is a master class in layering. Although the structure is fairly complex it's written so well that it is always understandable. It has some deep themes and the plotting is flawless. The brevity of the language makes it a joy to read as well.

I think that "Holes" is an outstanding YA read. A real "Wow" book. Absolutely one of my all time favourites.

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Children's Books (7 May 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408865238
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408865231



Tuesday, 1 January 2019


Hello and Happy New Year from Awfully Big Reviews too!

As the ABR review organiser, I'm really looking forward to all the books and ideas that the ABR authors will bring to this blog during 2019, starting tomorrow. I'm only here for today, but I do want to mention a book that gave me much delight and pleasure during a run of wakeful Christmas nights: BOOKWORM by Lucy Mangan. 

This account of and reflection on her own childhood reading grew from a column in the Guardian and was published early last year. Mangan was, and is, someone who is happiest when reading, and part of the delight of this book is that she writes from a personal rather than academic point of view. Chapter by chapter, Mangan moves through her own experience of children's books and what could be called "the reading environment", from the horrors of formal reading lessons through to children's need to re-read books as part of their learning process and, later, the pressure of the peer group.

Drawing on her memories of life as a dedicated reader in playgroups, nurseries, and classrooms, Mangan writes about hated and favourite early picture books, through to the illustrated world of Dogger, and series like Funnybones and her love for Gobbolino chapter books and, eventually, Blyton. We revisit the Borrowers and Narnia and What Katy Did and more.

Later, thinking back to her time as a teenager in an ordinary comprehensive school, she muses on jolly school stories, on all the pony books and then the American "teenage writers" such as the beloved Judy Blume, the rise of the teen apocalypse novels, the Sweet Valley High franchise where she learns to feign enthusiasm, and what was the Twilight phenomena.

You may not agree with all the books that Mangan chooses - she avoided fantasy, myths and legends, for example - or her view of different authors, but she gives a wonderfully nostalgic portrait of education, society and children's lives at the end of the last century, as well as revealing the security that the true bookworm, young or grown, gets from reading. 

Offering up her childhood, and the contrast between her parents, she shows that life as a true bookworm does bring and create its own problems. However, BOOKWORM is laced with a certain poignancy: as a mother, Mangan hopes that her six-year-old son will become as enthusiastic a reader as she is, but that his own practical nature - and maybe, I'd suggest, his own better sense of security - make it harder for him to be the kind of child who loses himself in a book.

Honesty, humour, nostalgia, darkness, delight, gentle social commentary and a glorious trawl through the many books of ones childhood - what more could one want? I was enchanted. A great start to 2019!

Penny Dolan


Monday, 24 December 2018



Many thanks to all our readers

and especially to

the Awfully Big Review Team

for all their interesting and thoughtful suggestions throughout 2018.

We'll be back at the start of January!


Thursday, 20 December 2018

Magical Kingdom of Birds, by Anne Booth. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

I'm a big fan of Anne Booth's Refuge, a Christmas picture book that highlights the refugee aspect of the classic nativity story and I have given copies as Christmas presents to quite a few kids. Some of those kids are now old enough to tackle stories on their own, so Anne's new series will come in very handy for birthdays and other gift-giving opportunities.

Magical Kingdom of Birds, aimed at 7 to 9 year olds, has a very cute premise. Maya has inherited a magical colouring in book from her late mother. When she tries to colour in one of the pictures, she falls into the book, landing in the magical kingdom of birds and fairies. Here she becomes 'the Keeper of the Book' whose coming has been foretold.

Maya needs sticks to help her walk and this gives her confidence issues. The magical adventures in the enchanted kingdom help her prove to herself that she is brave and that, if she believes in herself, she can achieve great things despite her disability.

In the first book, The Sleepy Hummingbirds, Maya befriends a fairy princess called Willow whose evil Lord Astor has usurped the throne of the magical kingdom. The despot is planning to enslave all the singing birds. Can Maya and Willow, along with Patch the magpie, retrieve the princess's  enchanted cloak of feathers from his castle and save the birds?

In the second book, The Ice Swans, Lord Astor is threatening to freeze the kingdom of birds unless he is accepted as king. He has already frozen Swan Lake and turned the beautiful swans
into statues. Maya, Willow and Patch must outwit him and his fairy guards once again to rescue the birds and the kingdom.

These short books are very well written, with pacy chapters and lots of direct speech, which helps move the plot.  Kids will love them. They're a feathery delight. The b&w illustrations by Rosie Butcher add to the richness. As a bonus, there is a fact file at the end with info about the real-life birds that inspired the stories. And there's a colouring in page too. Who knows what will happen if you colour it in?

Saviour Pirotta's new picture book, The Unicorn Prince, is illustrated by Jane Ray. It was an editor's choice in The Guardian and The Bookseller.  His novel Mark of the Cyclops, an Ancient Greek Adventure has recently won the North Somerset Teacher's Book Award for quality fiction. Follow him on twitter @spirotta.