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. 


Thursday, 7 February 2019

Armadillo and Hare by Jeremy Strong, Illustrated by Rebecca Bagley - reviewed by Dawn Finch

First the blurb…

Armadillo and Hare live with their friends in the Big Forest.
Hare loves dancing. Armadillo loves cheese sandwiches.
Hare loves picnics on the beach. Armadillo loves cheese sandwiches.
Hare loves playing the tuba. Armadillo loves cheese sandwiches.
Hare loves his best friend, Armadillo. Armadillo loves Hare – AND cheese sandwiches!

As a children’s librarian I spend a lot of time reading children’s books and always find a great deal of pleasure in them. Once in a while, however, I come across a book that makes me genuinely laugh out loud with glee. Armadillo and Hare is one of those books.

The story of this unlikely partnership, and the many other forest dwellers who visit their cabin, is not only completely charming, it’s a blast too! There are superbly absurd magical elements (such as Hare’s tuba from which spring random objects like toasters, tea towels and kittens) and each creature is quirky and individual (a favourite of mine being Jaguar, who wears the most splendid fascinator).

Armadillo and Hare live their ostensibly simple life in the log cabin – painting and eating (or trying to eat) cheese sandwiches, but their animal visitors expand the story and bring them the most wonderful adventures. Strong’s text is perfectly targeted for those children getting to grips with first chapter books, and here they will find many exciting new words and phrases.

The text is beautifully matched with Rebecca Bagley’s witty and captivating illustrations. The expressions on the animals are truly adorable, but never sickly-sweet. Her work is just lovely, and it’s well worth seeking out her short graphic novel, Tick, which is a remarkable piece of work.

Armadillo and Hare is a book that I am desperate to read aloud as I can already see the excited joyful little faces as they too dive into the brilliantly funny and wonderful world of Armadillo and Hare.

Armadillo and Hare is published by David Fickling Books
ISBN 9781788450287

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and librarian.
Her most recent publication is an exploration of historical fiction for children.


Sunday, 3 February 2019

The Unicorn Prince, written by Saviour Pirotta, illustrated by Jane Ray, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Image result for the unicorn prince image

 ‘High on a hill, where the moors ended and the forest began, stood a lonely castle.’

So begins this glorious fairytale in which Annis and her grandmother go from poverty to comfort, but a kind of comfort that best suits them. At the story's start, Annis may be squashed into a small room with her grandmother and animals, but her dreams ‘are wild and free’, finding a unicorn, then galloping those moors with him, discovering fairies in need of help … who, in turn, give help to them. 

            But the fairies imagined by Saviour Pirotta and Jane Ray aren’t the little girl birthday party kind of pink pretty flurries of cuteness. These are much more interesting, fairies with attitude and power. 

And Annis isn’t going to say ‘yes’ to princes who want to marry her and make her their queen if she finds them pompous or boring. She wants to pair up with a friend … and you’ll have to get hold of a copy of this book to find out who that might be!

            Jane Ray’s pictures are full of beauty and humour. Altogether, this is a pretty perfect picture book fairytale.

PS It's just coming out in paperback. But it's a treasure of a book you might well want to have in hardback.


Wednesday, 30 January 2019

How The Borks Became by Jonathan Emmett, illustrated by Elys Dolan - review by Damian Harvey

In this delightful and instructive picturebook (dedicated by the author to Charles Darwin) Jonathan Emmett has written his own origin of the species... the species here being the Bork. You might not have heard of Borks before but fear not, Jonathan is an expert.

Borks live 'on a faraway planet, quite like our own Earth', and while some new born Borks look like their parents, others are 'surprises'. No two Borks are exactly the same - they are all a little bit different. Some have more legs than others, some have horns, some are tall while others are short.

Jonathan explains that Borks haven't always been the way they are now and he takes us back in time to explain just how they have changed and also to explain why some survived while others didn't.

The story of the evolution of the Borks is skillfully told in rhyme which makes it great to read out loud. Not only will children be entertained by the story of the Borks but they will also learn about evolution of creatures (and natural selection) which will make it a useful book to share in the classroom.

Elys Dolan's artwork perfectly compliments Jonathan's text. It's bright and eyecatching, and gives the reader lots to look our for on each spread.


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