Nellie Choc-Ice Penguin Explorer – Jeremy Strong

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Independent publisher, Barrington Stoke, sent me Nellie Choc-Ice, Penguin Explorer by Jeremy Strong to review.

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Another fantastic addition to their stellar, little Gems collection, I loved this. Strong brings the same wit and humour to this warmly funny story of Nellie Choc-Ice that makes stories like The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog and my favourite, Mad Iris, so popular.

The story of Nellie is wonderfully brought to life by illustrator Jamie Smith, who captures Nellie’s slightly ditzy nature perfectly. I particularly loved the snowball style bobble on her hat. Strong is great on humour, but I also enjoyed the fact that in this book, he gives little factual snippets about penguins and their habitats, in an engaging way that doesn’t feel like information is being force fed the reader.

The quality of production is as high as ever, with wonderful, nautical end papers, puzzles and quizzes on the inside covers, and the usual, dyslexia friendly font and simple chapter format.

A great book for newly independent readers and to share with children aged 5-8.

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There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday

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Amazon Vine sent me a copy of Piers Torday’s There May Be A Castle in exchange for my honest review.

I’ve read Torday’s work before. I really enjoyed his The Last Wild trilogy and have had the pleasure of recommending it to a lot of children who also enjoyed it. There May Be A Castle is equally good, but in a very different way indeed.

I really don’t want to publish any spoilers, because it is the emotional rawness and twists and turns of the inner life of both Mouse and Violet, the protagonists, that make this such a compelling read. It would be a shame to not let you find out for yourselves what is going on.

Mouse Mallory is, as his name suggests, a small, but not insignificant part of his family, which consists of him, his mum and his two sisters, Violet and Esme (his dad has gone off to Florida to live with a lady he met online). The story starts as Mouse and his family set off across the moors to visit his grandparents house for Christmas. Snow is falling. It should be idyllic, and yet it isn’t, and soon, disaster befalls them.

It is how Mouse and Violet cope with this disaster that makes this book such an epic adventure story. Today takes the tropes of the traditional quest story and employs it in a new and exciting way.

One of the best things about the book is the fact that as well as the quest narrative, we also get Violet’s adventures as she takes inspiration from her heroine, a female pirate, Grainne O’Malley. I confess that Violet is my favourite character in the book. I find it so inspiring that more and more writers are addressing gender in their books and giving both boys and girls way more interesting, gender smashing roles in fiction. I love that Violet is strong and determined and as much a hero as Mouse.

The book had me in floods of tears by the end as not content with turning genres and genders on their head, Torday delivers a gut punching emotional twist right at the end. A superb book which I feel will win many accolades, and most importantly, the love of a lot of young readers.

Recommended for eights and up.7c6541_68abf54e1a2a435c9bcab873151e6223~mv2

The Little Red Wolf by Amelie Flechais

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The Little Red Wolf by Amelie Flechais was given to me by Net Galley to review. It will be published on October 3rd, 2017.

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Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of alternative fairy tales. The topic of fairy tales is regularly picked in primary schools to help introduce children to fiction, and I’ve helped find the books to teach it on several occasions.

One of the great joys of sourcing books for the topic is the fact that we are blessed with so many alternative takes to traditional stories, and stories from many countries and faiths are now included in the mix to give a really diverse flavour to the topic. Every time I’ve seen it taught there has been some new element to the teaching that makes the topic vital and relevant to children today, as well as sharing with them stories that delighted children of many generations before them.

As a result I was really looking forward to reading The Little Red Wolf.

I have to say that the story is beautifully illustrated. The images are very special indeed. Flechais’ work has an ethereal quality that brings a real depth to her words and is visually very appealing indeed. I spent a long time looking at the artwork and I feel that it’s something you could come back to time and time again and always find something new, rich and strange.

The story however, was somewhat difficult for me. Firstly the language was fairly advanced in places, for a story that usually gets taught and shared with early years and pre school children. I can see how you could teach this as an alternative reading to older children, but that would make it a fairly niche product.

Secondly, I understand that fairy tales can be dark, and tracing them back to Charles Perrault, it’s pretty clear they were not really meant for children originally. That is not where we are today, however, and as I imagined myself having to explain to children the wolf’s diet of rabbits, and how the book ricochets between cutesy rabbits and then crunching rabbit’s paws, and scattering bones, I found the whole thing a bit tricky.

I think it’s great that Flechais has reversed the roles in this re-telling. The wolf is the hero of the piece, and much like The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas, there is much value in this topsy turvy take on things. What’s more difficult for me is that the tone is uneven. The artwork is ethereal and at times quite cutesy, but the words undercut that cuteness in quite a grim way that may need some talking through with children as you read.

Similarly the whole second half of the story with the soulless, evil child was quite problematic. Flechais’ text here strays even further from the more cartoonish qualities that water down the impact of the traditional tale and make it macabre and troubling. I personally don’t have a problem with macabre and troubling, but it did make me wonder what age group the book is really supposed to be for.

 

Chocolate Cake by Michael Rosen

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This week I was approved by NetGalley to get a sneaky peek at the new, picture book version of Michael Rosen’s classic poem, Chocolate Cake, replete with illustrations by Kevin Waldron.

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The book will be published on 24th August, 2017.

I love Michael Rosen’s work. I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t, to be honest. As a child I enjoyed reading his work myself. As an adult, teaching children about the sheer joy of reading, I used to look forward to sharing his books, particularly his poems.  Chocolate Cake and No Breathing In Class are two of my all time favourites to read and share. You can see them being performed on Michael’s YouTube channel, which is, in my mind the best way of sharing poems.

For sharing at bed time, or in class, or as part of a school library this new version is an absolute must. The illustrations by Kevin Waldron have a child-like glee to them that really help bring the poem off the page, in much the same way that performance does. The humour, the suspense, the excitement are all captured in the bright, bold pictures and really draw the reader in to the narrative.

I recommend this for all ages. It is deserving of the title classic, without making it seem dreary or only for an elite few. It is a classic because its themes are universal and it evokes all the emotions in the reader that the poem’s protagonist goes through himself. It is just lovely.

A Skinful of Shadows – Frances Hardinge

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I recently joined Netgalley and was very fortunate to be offered a sample of the new Frances Hardinge novel, A Skinful of Shadows to review. I got sent six chapters, and let me tell you, that is very unfair. Six chapters was just not enough. It cruelly whetted my appetite and I rushed off to pre-order it from Amazon. I only have to wait until September 21st.

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Wah.

Hardinge hit the big time with her last book, The Lie Tree, which you will find reviewed here in the archives at Making Them Readers. A dark and thrilling blend of historical novel and fantasy fiction, with an excellent heroine and a brilliantly original plot, it deserved all the plaudits heaped upon it.

If this was your first experience of Hardinge’s writing you will be delighted to know that there is a decent back catalogue of her work to go at, and it is all equally good. I first came across her in reading Fly By Night to see if it would make a good addition to the primary school library I was then looking after. It did, and I made sure to hunt down everything she has written since.

A Skinful of Shadows has the same blend of historical fiction and fantasy that featured in The Lie Tree, but is set at an earlier period of English history. Makepeace is a young girl whose mother keeps secrets from her, secrets about their shared past, and secrets about the things Makepeace sees in the small hours of the night. Gradually she begins to educate Makepeace about what haunts her, but before she can share everything, tragedy strikes and Makepeace finds herself thrown back into a past she doesn’t know anything about and at the mercy of strangers who she is sure do not have her best interests at heart. She feels alone and defenceless until she realises that she has inadvertently found an ally in the last place anyone would think to look.

Beautifully written, dark and enthralling, I cannot wait to read the rest when the book finally comes out.

 

Max and Bird by Ed Vere

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I recently joined Net Galley and one of my first picks was an Ed Vere picture book featuring Max the cat (who has also starred in Max the Brave and Max at Night), called Max and Bird.

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Max is a dishevelled cat, more of a kitten really, who means well, but is slightly clueless. I think I warm to Max because I have a cat called Derek, who is much the same, and really struggles with the basic principles of how to be a great cat. She is an excellent Derek, but her cat skills leave much to be desired.

One day Max sees a bird and decides that he probably wants to eat it. Bird, unsurprisingly, is not keen, and suggests they try friendship instead. In order to give Max time to think about this, Bird rather magnanimously in the circumstances, suggests that Max helps Bird learn how to fly, and if at the end of the process he still wants to eat Bird, they’ll talk it through.

There is a joyous section where Max and Bird try to figure out flying, and quite rightly, spend a great deal of time in their local library, reading books from the low shelves because they’re too short to reach the top shelves.

The book is in Vere’s trademark frenetic style of illustration with some really wonderful facial expressions that make the book very funny indeed. He uses his usual bright pops of colour as background to the otherwise minimal content. I really like this technique for making both Max and Bird seem tiny (like the reader) but also the whole focus of the attention because of their shape against the big blocks of colour.

This is funny and has a charming lesson about what makes a friendship work, that is so touching because it isn’t too saccharine, which works perfectly for me as a reader.

The book will be available to buy on September 5, 2017, and if you like Ed Vere you will find it a fantastic addition to his previous work. A great bed time sharing book and a good addition to any Early Years reading corner. Ideal for readers aged 3-6.

Alex and Eliza by Melissa De La Cruz

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Alex and Eliza by Melissa De La Cruz was sent to me by the Amazon Vine review programme in exchange for my honest opinion.

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I chose Alex and Eliza because my fourteen year old daughter is totally obsessed by Hamilton the musical, and this book is a YA novel about the romance between Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler, two of the main characters in the play.

I gave it to her to read first, she was so eager to get hold of it. After a few chapters however she brought it to me and told me that it wasn’t ‘her thing’ and would it be alright if she didn’t finish it? I asked her for more information and she said it was too ‘historical’ (I have no clue) and she just couldn’t get into it.

I then picked up the baton, and finished reading it yesterday.

I realise that I am not the ideal demographic for this novel, but it really wasn’t ‘my thing’ either. I have never read anything by Melissa De La Cruz before, and on reading the acknowledgements at the back of the novel, I was surprised to find that she has written several books prior to this and has been on the New York Times Bestseller lists. To be honest, I had thought this was by a first time author.

I wonder if the book was rushed somewhat, given all the furore and interest in Hamilton the Musical, because it seems like it could really have done with some more significant editing. There is a glaring continuity error in an episode in the middle of the book for example. I did wonder if the book had been considerably longer at one point and large sections had been excised without a lot of thought, as the story doesn’t flow terribly well, and is rather jumpy in terms of transitioning from scene to scene and section to section.

The historical aspect was also something I struggled with, not because it was too historical, or impenetrable, but because it seemed like the author had gone for a modern sensibility to make the story accessible, but then plonked bits of historical window dressing on top to give it a period feel. I felt this meant that the book lacked depth and was somewhat patronising to the reader’s ability to understand what it would have been like then.

Having said that, I imagine that given Hamilton’s popularity this will fly off the shelves in no time and readers and fans will be thrilled. It’s not too graphic, although there is mild violence, so it can easily be passed on to younger fans than the recommended teen age group for the book.

Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

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Thief of Time is the twenty sixth novel in the Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett, and one of my absolute favourites to read. I was so looking forward to sharing this with Oscar, and the experience did not disappoint. This is one of the series that really has stood the test of both time and quality for me.

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The book features Lu Tse, who pops up in earlier novels, (Small Gods for example) who is one of the Monks of History. The Monks of History are a pastiche of all the martial arts/zen buddhist/karate stuff you’ve ever seen or read about. The abbot regenerates into a baby every time he is reborn, but retains all his wisdom along with needing his nappy changing and shouting ‘wanna bikkit’. The monastery has mandalas and mystically tended gardens, and time wheels powered by yak’s butter and Lu Tse shuffles amongst it all, the mysterious sweeper with a penchant for smoking dog ends and quoting his Ankh Morpork land lady’s gnomic wisdom.

Lu Tse has to take his assistant Lob Sang to Ankh Morpork to stop the auditors stopping time altogether because time and people do not mix without making a mess. There are cosmic clocks, more horsemen of the apocalypse than you would normally expect, passing references to Reservoir Dogs and in amongst it, creating order out of chaos, Death’s grand-daughter, Susan.

Full of jokes and wisdom and humanity, it’s hard to see how Pratchett pieces all this together to create a unified narrative, but he does, and it is glorious. It can be read on so many levels, and probably enjoyed on even more.

 

The Ghost In Annie’s Room by Philippa Pearce

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The Ghost in Annie’s Room by Philippa Pearce was sent to me by Barrington Stoke in return for my honest review.

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Philippa Pearce is probably best known for her classic children’s novel, Tom’s Midnight Garden. She also wrote many other novels for children including A Dog So Small and Minnow on the Say. What’s perhaps less well known are her stories for younger readers, including The Ghost in Annie’s Room. In the years since her death, publishers have been slowly releasing these stories in picture book and novella format for a new generation of readers.

The Ghost in Annie’s Room has been published by Barrington Stoke as one of their Little Gem readers, suitable for children aged five to eight. The books are small enough for little hands to read, broken into manageable chapters and the text is well spaced for easy comprehension. It also uses a dyslexia friendly font.

The story has been lovingly illustrated by Cate James’ whose work reminds me somewhat of Pat Hutchins’ work (Rosie’s Walk) and Quentin Blake.

Emma and her family go on holiday to the seaside to visit Emma’s aunt, and Emma is put to bed in the room that used to belong to her aunt’s daughter. Emma’s family tease her about the room being haunted. Emma wonders about the ghost, but finds that nothing can dim her enjoyment of her holiday and every night finds her explaining away ghostly happenings and getting a peaceful night’s sleep.

There is a beautifully managed tension in this book which reminds me of some aspects of Tom’s Midnight Garden. It is suspenseful but not really frightening and Pearce delivers up a lovely twist in the tale.

 

Dread Cat by Michael Rosen

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Dread Cat by Michael Rosen has been sent to me by Barrington Stoke publishers in exchange for my honest review.

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Regular readers will know how much I love Barrington Stoke, who specialise in publishing books tested by children, and with children who have dyslexia and reading problems in mind in terms of format. Wide spaced text, a readable font, non white pages and a size perfect for small hands are just a few of the things that make the books so great.

In the Little Gem collection of which Dread Cat is a part, you also get the stories split into easily manageable chapters and wonderful extras like puzzles and games on the books’ integrated fly leaves and beautifully illustrated end papers.

As you would expect from Michael Rosen the story is fresh and funny. A smart cat, the Dread Cat of the title, decides to make his domestic life easier by figuring out a cunning plan by which to trick the house mice to their doom, and in the manner of the best of these stories, the mice figure out how to get their own back on Dread Cat.

The story is beautifully complemented by illustrations from Nicola O’Byrne. I particularly love her depiction of Dread Cat himself who has more than a hint of one of T. S. Eliots more rambunctious felines about him.

The story is perfect for new readers aged 5-8. My son’s primary school uses a lot of the Little Gem series in their individual class libraries throughout the school and they are perennially popular with the children. This will be another great addition to their collection.