Wednesday, 19 September 2018

THE GREAT SEA DRAGON DiSCOVERY by Pippa Goodhart. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

Pippa Goodhart is one of the writers I call The Reliables. They're the ones whose name on the cover says: don't worry, you're safe with me. I know exactly what I'm doing. My usual disclaimer here: Pippa is a friend and I've known her for decades and you will have to trust my honesty when I say I would never recommend a book I didn't  enjoy. My life is too short to read books I don't like, let alone write about them.  But even though I've known her for a long time, and knew that she'd been no slouch where writing books for children was concerned, a short visit to her website was an eye- opener. She has been hugely productive and versatile and is the author of such real favourites as YOU CHOOSE and YOU CHOOSE IN SPACE and the Winnie the Witch books, as well as historical novels for somewhat older children. 

This book is one of those. It's the very model of what a historical novel  for children should be. There's a duty to tell a good story, first and foremost. As in every other novel, you need sympathetic characters,  a plot that bowls along at speed. All novels  benefit from knockout emotional punches along the way, together with a good few surprises.  This book has every one of these elements in abundance.

The other thing a historical novel needs is, of course, history. Novelists who write such books for children have a secondary intention: they have to provide some real facts, some true historical knowledge which will add to the store of information the child possesses.  Again, Goodhart is generous. We end the novel (and I have to confess that I am including myself in this. I'm very ignorant about these things) knowing an awful lot more than I did at the beginning. And since I live in Cambridge I am going to take myself off to the Sedgwick Museum very soon to see all the 'true things' for myself.

The historical layer of the novel concerns the discovery in Grantchester of remains of an ichthyosaur during the 19th century diggings for coprolites. These were ground up and used for fertiliser in the land around the village. A postscript helpfully provides everything you need to discover what and who are real people and who is a character from the writer's imagination. It's wonderful to have this postscript,  but while you're reading the book, distinguishing what's true and what isn't is the furthest thing from your mind.

You are caught up in the story from the very beginning when Bill Ellwood is in his classroom, watching a daisy turn blue from being stuck into an inkwell. He's our hero. I find it hard to outline a plot without giving away surprises the author didn't intend any reviewer to reveal, but during the course of this novel, Bill endures hardship, separation, violence, exhilaration, shocks and discoveries of every sort and by the end has undergone several kinds of transformation. His many relationships: to his parents, to his friends, especially Alf, to the other villagers, to the wonderful Mr. Seeley (who is a kind of real -life fairy godfather) are wonderfully delineated. Minor characters such  as Mrs Coddle (a midwife who makes you gasp and close your eyes in horror) and Mrs Buckle, the vicar's wife and Miss Snelling the teacher are described with great humour and affection. It's a crowded canvas, teeming with events and people and discoveries and does not gloss over the  dark side of life. We read of  pain, poverty, hardship and deprivation as well and Goodhart explains every situation clearly and sympathetically. But there is joy for Bill  in the story too, and enjoyment of small pleasures. This  novel encompasses all of those things. 

The new school term is just starting. I urge teachers to buy a copy of this for their school bookshelves. I hate categorising books by their suitability for this age of child or that. Anyone over about nine would love this story. Do buy it and read it. It would make a fantastic family book to read together....I loved it. 

Published by Catnip in paperback. £6.99
ISBN: 9781910611081


Tuesday, 11 September 2018

70 Ways to Bully-Proof Yourself, by Jenny Alexander, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

This is a book that is very much on the side of children experiencing bullying. It is kind and clear and properly helpful.  Divided into short chapters, and each of those is subdivided into the making of clear points, illustrated with brief example stories, followed by a series of positive activities you can do to strengthen yourself against bully attack.  From the start we’re given permission to use the book as we like, perhaps skipping parts or going to the headings that most interest us. The range of activities will give something to suit all temperaments.  Some are logical, almost scientific, in their approach, creating charts and diagrams. Others are more arty, tearing up magazines to make mood pictures.  Some are simple and private, just thinking of words at particular moments.

The book tackles different kinds of bullying, from the physical assault, being ambushed on the way home from school, to the ‘we were just having a laugh’ kind of bullying that puts the blame onto you for not having a sense of humour.

Down to earth, and told with humour (‘Shit happens, but it makes great manure!’), the advice feels practical and friendly, but also, very importantly, realistic.  Jenny Alexander recognises that there are risks with telling teachers or parents about bullies, so gives a range of sources of help.  The main source of help is yourself once you are armed the techniques she teaches here.

This book claims that to equip you against bullies in ways that are easy, not scary, that work, and that give you skills for life.  And all of that’s true.

Laid out with humorous pictures and sub-titles so that there are no daunting pages of solid text, this is a book that addresses the reader directly, as a friend.  That reader could be a KS2 child, but could equally well be somebody in secondary school, or an adult.  I found it an empowering book.  It would certainly be a useful tool for teachers; a great resource for any wanting to do assemblies or other sessions about bullying.  Every school library should stock this book because every school suffers from bullying.  


Monday, 3 September 2018

A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Lane Smith and reviewed by Sarah Hammond

I stumbled on this little gem a few weeks ago. I read it, and read it again. And again. It is a lyrical picture book that somehow seeped into my bones. What is it about? It is a story of two children who stumble upon an abandoned house in the woods. Yet this summary of the subject doesn’t really do it justice. Here is the opening: 

Deep in the woods
is a house
just a house
that once was
but now isn’t 
a home. 

Although there is no punctuation, there is no doubt as to the rhythm of this sentence. The story has a strong voice. We know exactly how to read it out loud. Also, there is a hint of fairy tale — deep in the woods — and a wistfulness in the tension between what is and what was. 

The children get closer, noting evidence of the house’s past and its current state. The house is magnetic and ‘waiting’. Temptingly, the front door is “closed but not quite.” And the window is: 

A window that once opened wide. 
A window that now has no window at all. 
A window that says climb inside.” 

Slowly the children start to look for clues. Who lived here? They ask questions in hushed tones, growing bolder as they explore.

It is a story full of wonder and exploration. Empty houses can be sad places and at times there is a sense of loss, of the house waiting for someone to come home. But the author also balances this with humour in the children’s pondering:

‘… were they shipwrecked and now live on an island
wearing coconut clothes with a pineapple tie?’

The children even wonder if the house likes savoring its memories, hidden in the forest, intertwining with nature.

The illustrations by Lane Smith mirror the wistful nature of the story, teasing us with artifacts and possessions around the house of ‘someone who’s gone but is still everywhere’. The present day scenes are made with India ink, drawn on vellum, then pressed onto watercolor paper to create a blotted line effect. However, the illustrations showing the children’s flights of imagination and wonder — such as, ‘was it a man with a  big beard and glasses who would look out the window and dream of the sea?’ — are created using different techniques. They are brighter, more definite and also more whimsical. For these imagined scenes, Smith used oil paint on hot press board and scanned with paper collage elements that were combined digitally. 

As with the artwork, this ostensibly simple story has many layers. It is an adventure. It teases and stimulates the imagination. It also muses on the passage of time, on memory, on change, yet gives a reassuringly comforting ending for its audience. It is also a picture book poem.


Thursday, 30 August 2018

Deep Water by Lu Hersey, reviewed by Kelly McKain

Deep Water

So, last month I was laying in my garden lounger making sure I got every ray of this amazing summer sun that I possibly could, and looking for a book that would enthrall and hook me. Well, I certainly found one! This thrilling and un-put-downable YA novel from Lu Hersey had me absolutely gripped from the first page, and when I had to stop reading it to, you know, feed my family and that kind of thing, I was thinking about it, and about when I could get back to reading it!

Malorie Blackman clearly felt the same, because Deep Water is a winner of the Mslexia novel prize, which she judged, and she says of it: ‘Outstanding … I raced through it.' Praise has also been heaped on the book by The Independent ('excellent'), Julia Eccleshare (‘Such an accomplished, tightly-shaped book, with a depth of information’), Elen Caldecott (‘It has a lovely, mythical quality’) and Julia Green (‘Outstanding and lyrical writing’).

So, what is this amazing, incredible book actually ABOUT, you ask me! Urgh. Hmm. I kind of don't want to tell you. Which I know is not very helpful in a book review. BUT if the aim of a book review is to bring fantastic books to the attention of readers WITHOUT giving the plot away and spoiling the whole thing, then I'm fulfilling the brief... I'll just tell you that the back cover blurb says: 'Danni never knew about her family's strange legacy until her mum disappeared. And now the only way to save those she loves from a living hell is to embrace her incredible new gift - however impossible it seems. A compelling and beautiful story of family secrets, elemental magic, and the deepest mysteries of the sea.'

Investigating and finding out Danni's family secret along with her as she discovers it herself, and makes sense of the strange things happening to her, will pull you along through the first half of the book. Travelling with her as she steps into who she is destined to be and sets out to face the powerful forces that want to destroy her will propel you through the second half. And I'm absolutely not going to say any more than that because it was a total thrill to dive into Deep Water and I'm not going to spoil that for you!

Deep Water by Lu Hersey is published by Usborne, e-book also available.


Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Knight who said ‘No!’, text by Lucy Rowland, illustrations by Kate Hindley Review by Lynda Waterhouse

Ned is the one and only child in the village. He is a little knight who likes to say ‘Yes’ and to do what he is told straight away, be it washing up, picking up cabbages or obeying orders to go indoors when the dragon arrives.
Then Ned wakes up on the morning:
He felt quite odd: all hot inside,
And cross from top to toe.
He shook his head from side to side
And then Ned answered…NO’
This prickly feeling lasts all day with Ned testing out the power of ‘No’ well into the night when he refuses to go inside and hide from the dragon, with surprising results.  
His friendship with the dragon helps those angry, prickly, lonely feelings to disappear for the moment. The story is not preachy but Ned learns that there is a time for ‘Yes’ and a time for ’No’ and that it is OK to have those prickly cross feelings. I also like the hint at Ned’s developing empathy when he has an inkling that the dragon might be all alone like him.
Lucy Rowland’s text is written in rhyme with a lively rhythm that children will enjoy listening to, anticipating the next line and joining in. The language is rich. This is a book to be read, re-read and enjoyed! Kate Hindley’s distinctive, colourful and bold illustrations have a vintage and folk art feel reminiscent of Pat Hutchins. They beautifully capture Ned’s world, his changing moods and his relationship with the dragon.
The book also has a QR code for a free audio reading.
Nosy Crow
ISBN 978 1 78800 208 0


Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Jelly, by Jo Cotterill: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

This is a thoughtful novel - funny, but with very serious undercurrents - about Angelica, who is known as Jelly (not only because it's short for Angelica). Jelly is the narrator, and just as in class she plays the comedian to deflect attention from her weight, she acts a part for the reader too, often trying to convince us that she really doesn't care about being teased or not being able to wear the kind of clothes her slimmer friends wear - though her hurt does show through. Jo Cotterill handles this very adeptly, using poems which Jelly writes in secret to express her real feelings.

But the poems also play a crucial part in the plot, which of course I won't reveal. But trust me, it's cleverly done.

Jelly's mum is single, slim and pretty, but seems to have bad taste in boyfriends - until she meets Lennon, a musician. Lennon is a lovely character. He is genuinely interested in Jelly, and turns out to be good for both her and her mother - which is actually a delightful surprise: writers often take delight in throwing at their hero or heroine every misfortune they can think of, so when Lennon first appears, you take a deep breath and wait for him to turn out to be deeply unpleasant beneath the charming exterior. But it doesn't happen, and I found this really refreshing: Jo Cotterill is good at upending the reader's expectations.

Jelly is a brilliantly realised character. She's clever, she gets on with people, and she knows how to deflect attention so that she won't be bullied. There are times when it could happen, but she swerves to avoid it: for example, when she's playing football - which she's good at - she gets annoyed with another player and makes a mistake. Will, another player, teases her: "You're like the Hulk, Jelly. He lets his anger get the better of him too." The ball comes at her and she falls awkwardly. Will laughs raucously, and even her friend is smiling. She could get angry, but instead, she deflects: she clowns another fall and says, "Did you see that? I was like a hippo falling off a cliff!" The others laugh, so it's worked: but 'something twinges painfully inside me, but I keep going because they're laughing.'

Even the teachers, to start off with, are amused by her antics. But somehow things start to unravel, and she goes too far and it all goes wrong.

There was one thing that I felt a little puzzled by. Jelly wants to be judged for herself - of course she does, and quite rightly so. But clearly, being overweight makes life difficult for her, and I wondered sometimes why her mother seemed not to see this, buying her doughnuts for treats and so on. A point to discuss - but only one of many: this would be a brilliant book to read with early or pre-teens: a very good read, and one with lots of layers.


Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Show Stopper by Hayley Barker - Reviewed by Kelly McCaughrain

I was recently on a panel at YALC, the preparation for which involved me spending a few days prior to the event lying in a hammock in the sunshine reading three of the most charming YA circus books ever written and calling it work. Not a bad life. 

I’m a sucker for anything circusy, obviously. I think there’s so much you can do with the circus as a theme, and this just proves it. My own contemporary romcom was on this panel with a dystopian futuristic thriller, an 18th century science-themed love story and a Victorian Mermaid Fantasy and they were all inspired by the Circus.

They were, in brief, Julie Mayhew’s The Electrical Venus (Older YA. I fell in love with the characters in this. Fantastic voices), Christina Henry’s The Mermaid (Part fairy tale, part answer to the hideously sweet Greatest Showman version of PT Barnam) and Hayley Barker’s Show Stopper.

Julie, Me, Christina and Hayley.
There is some seriously impressive book-themed clothing going on here.

The Electrical Venus has already been reviewed here and I think Henry doesn't technically class her books as YA (though The Mermaid certainly could be a cross over) so I thought I’d review Barker’s Show Stopper, the sequel to which, Show Stealer, is just out. 

Barker had a huge signing queue at YALC so she's obviously very popular with the yoof, and deservedly so. I absolutely loved the concept of Show Stopper. It’s a big melting pot of Hunger Games dystopia, Handmaid’s Tale speculative fiction, and Greatest Showman Freak Show romance and its message is very timely.

The Cirque is a travelling circus set about a hundred years in the future, when attitudes to immigrants in Britain have been taken to their ugly conclusion. The ‘Dregs’ (anyone of colour) live in slums, have no rights and are considered less than human, while the ‘Pures’ (anyone white) are in control. Dreg children who have performing potential are press-ganged into the Cirque to perform deadly dangerous feats for the entertainment of the Pures, and if one of them has a fatal accident then all the better. No one gets old in the Cirque.

Hoshiko is a tightrope artist who’s manged to reach the ripe old age of about 16, barely remembers the parents she was stolen from, and hates Pures with a passion.

Ben is the Pure son of the government minister who’s currently making it her life’s work to oppress the Dregs even further and possibly just wipe them out, and he’s never really questioned her beliefs because it’s just what he’s grown up with.

And then one day, they meet…

This is Romeo and Juliet with tigers, sharks, evil ringmasters and political uprisings. Ah, circuses. Is there anything they can't do?

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

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at