Posted in general and welcome, picture books, popular authors

Where’s the strangest place you’ve left your favourite childhood companion?

In my next catching-up-on-book-reviewing instalment, I look at Dogger, by Shirley Hughes, published by Penguin.

Shirley Hughes is a multi-award-winning national treasure in children’s literature, and rightly so. This summer she celebrated her 90th birthday, alongside the 40th anniversary of the publication of her classic picture book, Dogger.

Rather like another grande dame of picture books – Judith Kerr – Shirley Hughes started off in another field before specialising in children’s literature. She studied fashion and dress design at Liverpool Art School and then continued studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford before embarking on a career as a freelance illustrator, which led her into writing and drawing books for children when her own children were young. You can read more about her here.

Because I grew up in Canada, I was never familiar with Shirley Hughes’ books but they have come as a lovely discovery. When I read Dogger to the youngest children in the Library, their eyes were opened to her magic too.

Dogger looks at an area many of us as children are familiar with – losing a loved soft companion. Dogger is Dave’s favourite toy and goes everywhere with him. Unfortunately, this brings a major risk: loss. This is what happens to Dave and he’s desolate at the thought that he may never find his beloved friend again.

Shirley Hughes, with the original Dogger, who belonged to her elder son!

As I read the book aloud to the children, their fidgetiness stopped. All looked on with wide-eyed worry as Dave and his family searched for Dogger, suggesting places he might be. When I paused to ask if they had ever lost their favourite animal or doll, everyone had – usually under a bed or in a different room. (I revealed that I’d left my bunny Hoppy on a transatlantic flight from Canada to London and the kind airline staff announced their discovery over the tannoy system at the airport and they were suitably impressed.)

It is this ability to tap into and soothe the worries of children that makes Shirley Hughes such a popular author and illustrator. Things that other adults or parents might think are minor are given the importance children attribute to them in her books, and the fact that the accompanying emotions are treated sympathetically and resolved is reassuring to her young readers. I have one particular boy in the Library, in Year 3, who always borrows and re-borrows the Alfie stories by Shirley Hughes because he loves them, and enjoys sharing them with his younger sister. When I told him about the re-release of this book, the joy in his eyes was unforgettable.

Please share with me your tales of favourite lost-animal/dolly/toy woes. Where is the strangest place you’ve left a much-loved toy?

Please note that while I was sent a copy of this book to review, the views expressed here are entirely my own.



Posted in picture books, popular authors

Review: Hitler, the Tiger and Me – an Imagine special on Judith Kerr

Last week, the BBC arts series Imagine ran a special programme celebrating Judith Kerr’s 90th birthday and today Holly and I watched our recording of it with eager anticipation. It didn’t disappoint! These are our thoughts on the programme.

Judith Kerr with Alan Yentob, courtesy of

Holly’s review:

Today me and my mum watched a TV programme all about Judith Kerr. It was all about her life and her books.

I think it was really interesting because I read all the books she wrote about her life. One of them, for example, is When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. On the programme it showed the house she used to live in when she was in Berlin and she went into it and looked around.

At one point in the show, they talked about her Mog books, which I think most people reading my blog will have read. And while they were talking about that, they also started saying that she had killed off Mog but they never asked her why she did that. I think they should have asked her because it would have been interesting to know why.

This TV programme was to mark Judith Kerr turning 90 this year.

Sam’s review:

We are huge Judith Kerr fans in this house so when I saw that the BBC was running a special programme about her life to mark her 90th birthday I couldn’t wait to see what they would produce.

The programme was a sensitive record of Kerr’s life to date, though in only a short amount of time they couldn’t really do much beyond scratch the surface. Holly and I were familiar with her life story from reading her trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels/books: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Bombs on Aunt Daisy and A Small Person Far Away but it was fascinating to see how her artistic nature was already manifesting itself at a very young age. Her mother saved some of her drawings and pictures that she drew as presents for family when they had to flee Germany, and these can be seen now at the Seven Stories National Centre for Children’s Books, which Kerr approached to house her archive. It is my great desire to visit one day to see this amazing collection.

What was fascinating for me to see was just what a spright and amazing lady Judith Kerr is, sprinting up the stairs in her house ahead of Alan Yentob to her studio, walking around her neighbourhood every day for exercise and fresh air. She sets a pace most of us would find brisk! And then there were the little revelations that gave an insight into her playful character, including a penchant for martinis and, of course, cats.

Mog is one of our favourite characters in a picture book series. I remember the day I picked up the final book and cried in WH Smith at the thought of this beloved pet leaving its family for good. I bought a copy for Holly when our first cat died and we were looking for a way to help her come to terms with the loss. I think she did benefit from it – perhaps now at the ripe old age of ten she has forgotten that the story helps children like her deal with grief, since the loss of a family pet is often a child’s first encounter with mortality (a rather different scenario to the violent world in which Kerr was raised).

Image courtesy of

Another of Kerr’s most famous books (arguably THE most famous, having never been out of print since it first appeared in 1968) is The Tiger Who Came To Tea. Kerr revealed that this book was the only one that came to her as a text first rather than through pictures, as she used to tell this story to her daughter before she put it down in words and images on paper. People try to read a lot into this book, and on Imagine the approach was generally to link it to her time as a refugee, constantly on the run from the Nazis. The tiger, as Michael Rosen points out, is a threatening character even if it’s jokey, and the fact that it comes into the house to take everything the family owns (in the way of food and drink) presents a situation where the unknown is feared – that one day a stranger could walk into the house and take away everything you have built up over a lifetime. However, Sophie appears enamoured of the tiger and is sad when he leaves, a trail of destruction in his wake. When interviewed, illustrator and writer Lauren Child said she felt that the tiger never coming back left a rather sad ending to the book, even though it was the right way to finish. She was firmly of the belief that the tiger is just that, and why not have a tiger drop in for tea? Why not indeed!

A hungry house guest! Image courtesy of   

A point made by Michael Rosen resonated with me. He said that in a Kafka-esque world, things end in tragedy. In picture books, and in Kerr’s, stories end back at home. Order is restored. Even when Mog has to fly away forever, she has restored happiness to her family by helping her successor adapt and gradually take her place (even though at first she’s rather annoyed by that idea!). After what must have been a traumatic childhood (although Kerr is always quick to dismiss such hyperbole – she says it was more of an adventure at the time to her and her brother), Kerr always restores the familial balance in her books so we get our happy ever after. And we are glad she has got hers too, as one of the nation’s most beloved authors and illustrators.

Holly would like to know what questions would you ask Judith Kerr if you could? Please share!

Further links:

We can’t wait to read this:  Judith Kerr’s Creatures: A Celebration of Her Life And Work



There is a BBC article dedicated to the themes covered in the Imagine programme, which could be useful if you can’t access the BBC iPlayer to see the actual episode:


Posted in popular authors, pre-teen

Review: Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, by Judy Blume

Tonight’s review is of Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, by Judy Blume.

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What it’s about: Inside, Sheila Tubman is a fury of fears, including spiders, dogs and water. To hide this from others, she adopts a very self-assured stance in life but this is severely put to the test on her summer holidays, when her family stays in a house with a dog, and Sheila is enrolled for swimming lessons. At her day camp, Sheila tries to run a camp newspaper singlehandedly but runs into trouble and then the real strife begins during a fight at a sleepover. Will Sheila overcome her fears? With her family ready to adopt a puppy at the end of the holidays, she had better try.


Holly’s review:  This book is about a girl called Sheila who goes away on holiday with the rest of her family, the Tubmans. And where they’re staying there is a dog. There are two things Sheila Tubman (odd name I know) is scared of the most, and they are dogs and swimming.

Now this book is not that girly, in fact it’s your average story except I think it’s brilliant. I like this book because there’s a worrier in it and I am a worrier.  I worry, worry. We have lots of similarities especially in the way that we worry. She catastrophises and so do I. But one thing that I am not like her is that when it comes to telling her worries. She lies about them but I don’t. In conclusion, I think this is an amazing book and I definitely recommend you read it.


Sam’s review: I think I read all of ten pages (if that) of this book with Holly because she wanted it all for herself. I can’t really remember this very well from my childhood and wonder if I did in fact read it at all. The parts I read I was silently chuckling to myself at Sheila’s false bravado. It’s funny because my reaction to it was markedly different to Holly’s. I was tutting at Sheila’s bossiness while Holly totally understood why she was like that. I think moments like these when reading books together are the most interesting because these are when you have the most obvious different perspectives on character. Holly certainly is a great worrier so it’s good that she could enjoy a book where a child with a similar personality overcomes her fears. Once again, Judy Blume nails it!

Posted in popular authors, pre-teen

Review: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. By Judy Blume

Tonight’s review is of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.


image courtesy of


What it’s about (from the publishers): Margaret Simon, almost twelve, has just moved from New York City to the suburbs, and she’s anxious to fit in with her new friends. But when the girls start talking about boys, bras and getting their first periods, Margaret starts to wonder if she’s normal. Not only does she seem to be a late developer, but there are things about growing up that she finds hard to talk about, even with her friends. Luckily for Margaret, she’s got someone else to confide in… someone who always listens.

Holly’s review: Wow. I love this book. It is amazing for girls my age and above. It is about all these girls who are competing about puberty. The main character is Margaret and she hasn’t started puberty yet which makes her feel worried and distressed wondering if she will ever start and she doesn’t want to be late, that’s a definite.

I know this book sounds all girly and weird but it’s not, it’s actually really great. And it is brilliant for girls at the age of puberty because it makes you understand more about what’s going on inside your body. But don’t worry it’s not all facts, it is still a story. Judy Blume tends to base a bit of her books around her and her family. I don’t know why – she just does. Maybe I should ask her.

I like book because … I don’t know why. I don’t see anything not to like about it. It is funny (sort of) and I don’t know… it’s just great to read. A few more things to add to this review is that the cover is incredibly girly but the book isn’t so don’t pay any attention at all to the cover.

Sam’s review: Before I say anything much, I will just qualify what Holly has said about the cover. For ages she was determined not to try Judy Blume because the recent repackaging of the books made her think that they would be all about make-up and fluffiness (not that she doesn’t like those kind of things!). I had suggested Blume’s books because she was starting to hear about puberty at school and talk about it all with her friends so thought she would find these books interesting – I remember devouring them when I was her age. Once we got past the cover (and boy, did we ever battle over that!), she couldn’t get enough of the book. And as soon as she had finished this book, she immediately started over again, separating herself from us at mealtimes so she could sit on a rug in the garden, in the recent heatwave, to read the book and occasionally eat (when reminded).

The cover used over here in the UK is therefore our biggest criticism of this book. Many of the previous ones were, I feel, more interesting and potentially appealing to all sorts of girls, rather than catering to the pink, fluffy brigade. The version I read had this cover:

image courtesy of

I always admired her hair, probably because mine was short!

Anyway… I loved re-reading this book with Holly, when I could wrestle it from her grasp. Even though it was 30 years or so since I read it,  I remembered it vividly and enjoyed all the pre-teen angst and curiosity within it. It was funny in places too and I didn’t feel, reading it again, that I had outgrown it even. (I would love to read about middle-aged Margaret – perhaps with a new chant ‘I must! I must! I must firm up my bust!’) Judy Blume manages to write about what every teenage girl thinks and feels in such a way that it’s like listening to a friend. It never feels preachy nor do you get the impression that you are being subtly told how to feel or think and it deals with a staggering amount of topics – puberty, first bras, first crushes, female friendships, moving house, religion. It’s an all-in-one book on most of life’s major changes, missing out only on death and losing a job.

Since reading and re-reading this book, Holly has moved on to other ones by Blume, including Deenie, Blubber and now Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson, which she has nearly finished. I expect we will be getting more reviews about these sometime soon. In the meantime, I am enjoying revisiting Judy Blume and experiencing a second pre-adolescence!

Which Judy Blume book is your favourite and why?


Posted in general and welcome, popular authors, Roald Dahl

Happy Birthday, Roald Dahl!

September 13th marks the birthday of one of the world’s most popular authors – Roald Dahl – and a day of literary celebration to remember his wonderful stories.I doubt children’s literature would be basking in such a marvellously modern Golden Age had it not been for Dahl’s contributions. While stories had been funny and even satirical before his books hit the shelves, perhaps they had never dared be so dark. When Dahl’s books were first published, many literary professionals didn’t approve of his plots, of his  horrendous (but hilarious) comeuppance to his villains, of the power he gave to his child heroes/heroines. But, by golly, the children lapped it up… and still do.

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Holly and I discussed Roald Dahl’s books today. We’ve read everything he has written for children, except The Witches, which Holly cannot bring herself to read or listen to. It frightens her too much. I have read it and enjoyed it but can understand her fear – Dahl blends the terrifying witches so skilfully into a ‘real’ world that it just seems too plausible that they could be lurking somewhere.

Fantastic favourites

We talked about our favourites while walking today. Holly’s is The BFG, because it was the first book she had ever read by him and she loved the language that was so particular to it, such as snozzcumbers, and the way that the BFG talks, with things being ‘left not right’ instead of wrong or right.

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Matilda is my favourite of Dahl’s. I loved how she overcame her neglectful parents and used her brains and talents to get the life she not only wanted but deserved. The portrayal of her family’s stupidity is wickedly humorous and Mrs Trunchbull must be one of the best villains around. How Matilda uses her skills, in a kind of Stephen-King’s-Carrie way, is original and has the reader cheering on.

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Whizzpoppingly wonderful

I asked Holly if there were any books she wasn’t so keen on. Interestingly we both chose Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Despite the fact we both liked Charlie and the Chocolate Factory we just felt the sequel never matched the magic of the original. It seemed a little too surreal and lacking in the ingredients that make a Roald Dahl book so easily identifiable.

‘However,’ Holly remarked, ‘Even though I wasn’t so keen on that, I didn’t dislike it. I don’t think I dislike any of his books. They’re just too good.’

So Happy Birthday, Roald Dahl, and Happy Roald Dahl Day to you all. We hope you have a whizzpopping time!

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If you want to find out more about this great writer, why not visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre?

Over to you!
What’s your favourite Roald Dahl book? Please let us know!

Posted in general and welcome, popular authors

Sad news today in the world of children’s books

I have just read the sad news that Nina Bawden, who wrote for both adults and children, died today.

Image courtesy of (where you can also read her obituary)


Although I hadn’t read any of Bawden’s books when I was younger, I was aware of her name as I grew older. When Holly started learning about World War II at school, and became interested in the tales of child evacuees, I showed her a copy of Carrie’s War, arguably Bawden’s most famous children’s book, in our local bookshop. From reading Bawden’s obituary tonight, it appears she based the story on her own experiences of being evacuated as a teenager, first to Ipswich and then to south Wales. The Guardian’s children’s editor, Julia Eccleshare, said that the novel was her best-known work because it “…remains strangely timeless while also standing as one of the most sensitive and revealing accounts of the bewildering experiences and the complex emotions surrounding them experienced by children evacuated during the second world war.” You can read more here.

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From just reading the blurb, Holly was hooked and she soon devoured the story – so quickly in fact that I barely had a chance to read the story myself. She urged me to do so in my own time, so affected was she by it.

We then moved on to another book, The Secret Passage:


This was actually Bawden’s first children’s novel, completed in 1963, and written for her own three children when they had found a secret passage in the cellar of their house. As with most of her fiction, either for adults or children, she used her own experiences and explored emotions and possibilities arising from them. Publishing company Faber & Faber writes of the book: “It beautifully reflects her own inquisitive nature – as she herself has said: ‘I was a keyhole child, fearsomely curious’ – wedded to her subtly innovative ability to empathise with the child’s view.”

On reading her obituary, I was surprised to read that she had been injured and widowed at the dreadful Potters Bar rail crash ten years ago. She and her husband Austen had been on their way to a party when the train carriage they were in was derailed. Bawden suffered extensive injuries, while Austen was one of eight people who died at the scene. After the event, she fought tirelessly for justice for the victims of the crash, becoming a very eloquent spokesperson for everyone involved on that terrible day. Oddly enough, Holly and I were at a wedding celebration in Potters Bar exactly a week ago today.

Discovering Nina Bawden’s life reads like an epic tale itself. Full of love, fear, happiness and tragedy, it is easy to see where she drew her inspiration from. But the true talent is in conveying that to generations of others, as Julia Eccleshare sums up: “[She had a] natural gift for storytelling, which combined with a rare understanding of the very particular way in which children see the world.”

What a wonderful legacy to leave behind.

Posted in general and welcome, humour, popular authors

The wonderful world of Richard Scarry

I’ve been waiting to write this post for a little while now as it deals with one of my favourite children’s authors: Richard Scarry.

Image courtesy of

Holly likes him too but perhaps with not the same zeal. Or maybe I felt the same as her when I was young but have a new-found sense of fondness now I am older and returning to books that appeal to my love of the comic and surreal.

Because this is what makes Richard Scarry’s books so good. That and the amazing cast of anthropomorphised animals who regularly appear in his books, such as:

Huckle, the cat…

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Lowly, the worm…

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and a whole raft of other funny characters who frequently drive fruit- or vegetable-shaped cars…

Image courtesy of

Many of these animals live in a place called Busytown, where life is manic and crazy disasters befall most of the characters at one point or other. Take, for example, Mr Raccoon, who gets up one morning and announces, with cheery optimism: ‘It looks like a good day.’ However, it soon transpires that it will be anything but:

The Unlucky Day, part of The Funniest Storybook Ever, by Richard Scarry (a wonderful understatement in light of what’s to come)

Bad luck hits poor Mr Raccoon from the moment he utters these ill-fated words, from a broken tap, burnt toast and the door coming off to embarrassingly ripped trousers as he tries to fix a flat tyre, an an errant hat going walkabout in the wind. The dreadful day ends with him and his wife eating cold pickles in the middle of a flooded house, as Mr Raccoon is unable to buy groceries because Warty Warthog tricks him into buying him lunch and eats everything on the menu. (Holly particularly liked this story because of the ripped trousers…)

Busy, busy, busy…

Richard Scarry’s books are often criticised for being too ‘busy’, ironic when you think that he named one of his fictional towns ‘Busytown’. I can see why the accusation has been levelled at him: there is always an incredible amount of detail on every page, as well as narrative. Normally both Holly and I don’t like comics for this reason but in Scarry I don’t really mind it. Perhaps because the paper behind is clean and white, rather than boxing the action into separate frames. We find the stories easy to read, and the intricate detail means there is always something to point at and see for the first time. The expressions on the animals’ faces are particularly entertaining – they always look rather surprised at the world or jolly or optimistic. Unless someone is driving a pickle-shaped car at them. Or stealing loads of bananas and trying to smuggle them through a cafe selling banana soup.

Another less than favourable comment against Scarry is that he was primarily an illustrator and not a writer and that his books are best read by looking at the pictures and ignoring the narrative. I disagree with this.

Poor Mr Raccoon…

Image taken from The Funniest Storybook Ever

The narrative above seems pretty matter-of-fact but this style makes the pictures more hilarious. For example, the way he nonchalantly reports Mr Fixit’s cheerful parting comment “I’ll come back tomorrow to fix the leaks” as Mr and Mrs Raccoon stare hopelessly on, half-immersed in water. What more does the story need than that? Occasionally, Scarry talks to the characters, begging them to be careful or trying to cheer them up with a positive thought or two. This usually makes Holly and I laugh as the animals stare open-mouthed at the irony of it.

Passing down the love

What has been lovely is sharing my love of Scarry’s books with Holly. I saved a couple of my books from my childhood and we’ve read those through time and time again.

Richard Scarry’s Animal Nursery Tales

The Animal Nursery Tales are a humorous retelling of classic stories we’ve all grown up with but with animals taking the lead in many cases where humans might have before. Little Red Riding Hood becomes a cat, as does Goldlilocks (but the three bears stay the same…). One of my favourites from the collection is: The Teeny Tiny Woman, who appropriately takes on the form of a mouse in Scarry’s retelling. It is a marvellously funny tale of a mysterious voice in a cupboard calling out to the Teeny Tiny Woman in an increasingly loud voice for a bone. When I was young, I demanded that my mother read it to me night after night. When I first read it to Holly, she became so enamoured of it that she demanded similar repetition… and I could see why my mother’s face would fall in dread at the request, as mine would! Repetition is appealing and entrancing to a child: to an adult it easily becomes tedious. Perhaps it’s because a child likes the familiar and finds comfort in it, whereas adults prefer the unknown.

Another of Scarry’s books that I saved was Tinker and Tanker: Tales of Pirates and Knights. I proudly scrawled my name in it when I was around five or six, and Holly added hers to mine:

Holly has added her signature to mine, thirty years apart.

The book was printed with black and white illustrations, as well as colour. I decided, as a young artist, that they needed some colour:

You can probably see from this why I never made it as an illustrator or painter…

I see that Richard Scarry is still selling strong, and am delighted by this. I think that his particular brand of storytelling and drawing are timeless, despite adults’ attempts to rewrite some of the stories since Scarry’s death in 1994 to make them more PC. Hopefully Holly’s review will help show that children still delight in his wacky tales and that there is no need to rework his stories to meet a modern adult ideal of what should be in children’s literature.

Holly’s review: The Funniest Storybook Ever is a funny, entertaining book full of fun. I liked this book because it was funny and amusing the way the author wrote the book and also the pictures. I recommend this book to all ages, especially children between four and 12. Enjoy this fascinating book and thank you for reading!

PS: Sam’s review: When I was little, I had to write a review of a Richard Scarry book: unfortunately I can’t remember which one. I remember though writing that even though the author was called Scarry, his books weren’t scary!


Have you read any Richard Scarry? Which are your favourite stories?