Posted in blog tours, general and welcome

Lollies Blog tour – meet Andy Stanton!

Could you drink the sea like Danny McGee does? Find out more, and read an exclusive interview with author Andy Stanton, in today’s post, as part of the 2017 Lollies Blog Tour!

Danny McGee and his sister Frannie go for a daytrip to the seaside, where Danny confidently declares that he can drink the entire body of water. Watched on by his curious (and understandably dubious) sister, Danny proceeds to suck up all the salty water through the world’s longest straw, before going on a rampage to consume everything else in the entire world (including Andy Stanton, who is in the process of writing the book). He thinks he’s got everyone, until he stumbles across Frannie. Will Danny burst? How bad is his indigestion? How will he get rid of all that water if there are no more toilets left?

When I read the book aloud to the children in the school library, they fell about laughing. They all expected Danny to explode or run off for a wee and kept watching in disbelief when he didn’t. They tried to anticipate the rhymes and giggled at the absurdity of the situation, made even more hilarious by Neal Layton’s brilliant, anarchic illustrations. Danny McGee was certainly a winner in our eyes.

Therefore, you can imagine how delighted I was to be offered the opportunity to interview Andy Stanton as part of the Lollies blog tour. Huge thanks to Andy for taking part, and thanks to you for reading. Enjoy!

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How did you come up with the idea for Danny McGee Drinks the Sea?

For some reason, I’ve always thought that ‘McGee’ is a funny surname. Others seem to agree because it feels like it gets used a lot in comedic writing. So the name ‘Danny McGee’ popped into my head and I just loved the rhythm of it and started playing around with rhymes that could tell a story.

Is it difficult to write a book in rhyme? What are the challenges?

I love writing in rhyme, it comes very naturally to me. All of my Mr Gum books have at least one rhyming song in there and I often put little rhyming phrases into the narrative too. For me, writing a whole book in rhyme isn’t too difficult – what’s difficult is finding the right idea, something that’s worth telling. Having said that, ‘Danny McGee’ held some particular challenges because I use a very strict rhythmic structure (one that’s quite like some of the Dr Seuss books) and that means that you have to find very succinct ways to tell the story. Not only that, but I gave myself the additional difficulty of only using one rhyme sound – ‘ee’. So it’s McGee, sea, tree, pea, three, tea, glee, etc. I couldn’t even use words like ‘gravy’ because the rhythmic structure means they wouldn’t scan. So yes, that was the challenge. But often, when you find the ‘game’ in writing something, then the challenge becomes fun. For ‘Danny McGee’, the difficulty of what I’d set out to do became a game, and that’s sort of hinted at by the fact that I made up a nonsense word to give myself an extra rhyme, when Danny swallows a ‘swee’. It’s often when you’ve set yourself tight rules that you come up with the best stuff and the funniest ways of getting around those rules.

How is writing picture book different to writing a novel? Did you find one easier than the other?

Picture books are easier to write because they have a simpler through-line and, hey, they’re a lot shorter. But any type of writing is demanding. With picture books you have to come up with the killer idea and then you have to tell it well, and there’s just no space for something to be not quite right – every word has to work very hard, every word has to count. And you pretty much have to have a killer ending too. With ‘Danny’ I wrote about a third of the story in an hour or so and then I got stuck and thought, no, it’s impossible to write a book using one rhyme. A year later I showed it to someone and she said, ‘you have to finish this book!’ so I sat down and gave it another go. It took me about two hours to get the rest of it done. So I like to say that it took me a year and three hours to write ‘Danny McGee Drinks The Sea’. Anyone who thinks writing a picture book is easy probably hasn’t tried to write a picture book. It’s like solving a really difficult and multi-dimensional crossword. (And then there’s the matching up of the words to the pictures and I like to work collaboratively with the artist to get things exactly right. That’s a whole other subject.)

What has the response to the book been so far? Are children and parents delighted?

From what I’ve heard the response has been really good. One mum told me that her kid likes the book so much that he pretends to drink his bathwater to be like Danny. I’m not sure that’s what I want to encourage but it’s quite flattering.

Is there going to be a follow up or is this a standalone book?

I do have an idea for another ‘Danny’ book. Like the first one, I wrote half of it and got stuck. But it’s been about a year now. Maybe it’s time to dust it off and see if I can finish it…

Have you ever drunk the sea?

I’ve drunk tiny bits of it by accident. It’s not very tasty.

Where is your favourite place by the sea?

This is a great question but I haven’t got a great answer. I spent a year in New Zealand and you really feel the presence of the sea and the coastline there. You’re never too far from some rugged coastline with a dramatically crashing sea; or some impossibly beautiful and underpopulated beach. Then again, somewhere like Cornwall where it’s colder and harsher and exciting because you think of old stories about smuggling… I’d like to live by the sea one day but I’ve no idea where.

Can you drink a lot of anything in one go?

When I was at school, a bunch of us would sometimes have eating and drinking contests after home time. It was pretty gross. I was quite good at drinking an entire can of soft drink in one go. These days I’m trying to cut down on the sugar though.

When I read this book out loud to the children in my library they were convinced Danny would either explode from too much water or need a wee desperately. Did either of these outcomes occur to you when writing the book?

No, I didn’t think of either of those things! One of the things you worry about is that the reader will guess the ending of your story before you get there, so I’m glad the kids thought it would go in a different direction, because hopefully the real ending comes as a surprise.

What was your favourite funny book as a child, and what makes you laugh now?

In terms of pure funny, probably The Twits, although I loved the Just William books too. They’re probably the funniest children’s books ever written. A lot of things make me laugh – funny books, films, TV and music. I love silly songs and I’m always coming up with them. Me and my brother have about fifty stupid songs that we’ve made up together and which we sing all the time instead of talking like normal people. Most of the songs aren’t suitable for children though, so that’s enough of that. And cats. Cats are the funniest animal on the planet and I’m glad they’ve taken over the Internet.

Childtastic would like to thank Andy Stanton for his fab answers and Scholastic for asking us to be part of this blog tour.

Make sure you check out tomorrow’s post by Family Book Worms on http://familybookworms.wales/ and VOTE FOR YOUR FAVOURITE laugh out loud title at: www.scholastic.co.uk/lollies/vote!

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Posted in general and welcome

If you go down to the woods today…

… you might meet the Minpins!

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Today I am delighted to be reviewing the latest edition of The Minpins, called Billy and the Minpins, illustrated by Quentin Blake and published by Penguin.

I was surprised to discover that The Minpins was Roald Dahl’s last book for children – somehow this fact eluded me until, well, today when I read an interview in the Guardian with Quentin Blake. As part of a dynamic publishing duo with the ever-popular Dahl, this was one book that Blake did not illustrate on first publication – the honour went to Patrick Benson (at the time, Blake was illustrating another of Dahl’s books – Esio Trot).

When Blake was asked to illustrate this new version of The Minpins, he was understandably reluctant, not wanting to tread on another illustrator’s toes. His publisher – Penguin Random House – reassured him that it was to fit in with other books in the Dahl series: Benson’s version had amazing images that could not be scaled down in size to fit in a pocket. So, in 2015, Blake agreed to take on the challenge and what we now have is a beautiful, sympathetic and, in Blake’s inimitably comic style, fascinating reimagining of the original tale.

What the book’s about

Like many fairytale characters that have preceded him, Billy is constantly warned by his mother NOT to go into the woods because, therein, lie dangers such as Whangdoodles, Hornswogglers, Snozzwanglers and Vermicious Knids’. (Yes, you might very well recognise some of these monster names from other Dahl books!) So worried is Billy’s mum, that she does her ironing in the kitchen, while administering occasional reminders of what not to do and asking her son where he is and what he’s doing. Of course, anything forbidden acts like a charm on human curiosity, and Billy eventually succumbs to his desire to see just what is so bad in the deep, dark woods.

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He doesn’t have to wait long, as he is soon terrified by the Gruncher – a monster that has fire inside his belly and who exhales so much smoke that he can’t see in front of him (luckily – or perhaps not – his sense of smell is so acute that he can track his prey with his nose). Billy climbs a tree to escape and stumbles upon a colony of Minpins – tiny people dressed in old-fashioned clothes (Blake says they’re modelled on 17th century garb), who wear suction boots so they can walk wherever they like – and even upside down – on the trees. The leader of the group is Don Mini, who makes it his business to try to help Billy return home without being eaten by the wicked Gruncher.

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I loved this book for all the usual reasons why I adore Roald Dahl. In Billy he has created a daring and disobedient child who’s still likeable – who here hasn’t gone against parental warnings to explore the world around them? Billy might get into an awful scrape but he’s also capable of getting out of it when he creates, in the words of Blackadder’s sidekick Baldrick ‘a cunning plan’. Dahl’s trademark talent for creating new and crazy words is ever evident and children will love the mix of fear and excitement, fun and thrills, that are always part of his stories.

Quentin Blake’s illustrations, as usual, are spot-on – I cannot think of a better author/illustrator pairing. While Benson’s original paintings were beautiful and rather epic in their use of colour and ratio, Blake’s leap off the page with life, creating a different side to the typical fairytale world of ominous threat. Blake’s is a world of fast  action and quick thought, his characters quirky and amusing.

This latest release in the Dahl collection is a must-have for any fans. You will not be disappointed!

Note: I was sent a review copy of Billy and the Minpins by the publisher.

 

 

Posted in general and welcome

What a collection!

Children (and some adults) love to collect things. When I was little, I used to collect any and all stickers, particularly the scratch ‘n’ sniff ones, which I promptly stuck in a photo album. I still have them somewhere and there is still a faint whiff about them. Holly also used to collect stickers, even the BOGOFs and special price labels on clothes, not that you’d ever know from her now-minimalist decor in her room.

Nina Chakrabarti’s fabulous book My Collection of Collections is a fantastic way to encourage a child’s fascination with collecting things and creating stories from objects.

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There are spreads on items in a railway’s Lost and Found department, mugs (that you can decorate by drawing on them or using the stickers in the back of the book), objects that share a common colour (eg blue birds, pegs, beads), edible items and labels, to name but a few.

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There is also a lovely, big envelope to ‘store special tickets, photos or other mementos’ in, so a child can transport this book with them on visits to museums, art galleries, cities, countries – anywhere where they might like to keep items that remind them of a special journey. I used to do a holiday scrapbook with Holly when she was young and we’d keep airline tickets, travel stubs, receipts from restaurants, etc, to accompany the photographs and make the pages more ‘authentic’. This book helps with similar activities, while also providing fascinating information on facts such as ‘Years ago cowrie shells were used as currency’. I love it when I find out something new and interesting! There are also spaces to stick in tree leaves or press flowers towards the back, there is even a spread about enjoying language and adding new and favourite words – examples include: Sassafras, Razzmatazz, Perspicacious, Mumbo-Jumbo, etc.

This really is a lovely and extremely interactive book that is a joy to read and work with. I won’t be putting this in my school library (the children might be too tempted to write in the pages and spoil it for the others) but I will definitely add it to my personal library, unless I start completing it myself soon… now.

Note: Laurence King sent me a copy of this book for review purposes.

 

 

Posted in general and welcome

Dino -myte!

Today’s review is of Dino, by Diego Vaisberg, published by Templar.

We now have our milk delivered by a milkman, and Holly thinks the glass bottles arecute and quaint. I think he also deliver eggs but we’ve not tried that yet and, after reading Diego Vaisberg’s book Dino, I think we might carry on refraining!

A family discovers a strange egg, which will immediately get children guessing its contents (the family in the book suggest a giant canary or lizard or tortoise) but the title page is of course the spoiler. A little dinosaur hatches out of it and it’s so cute and friendly, they decide to keep him and give him the very apt name of Dino.

Dino quickly becomes part of the family and does all the sorts of things dogs do really (he is much more amenable than a cat). He loves being outside, going to the park and playing fetch, although he can’t always bring the ball back.

The problem is of course that he’s a dinosaur and he turns out to be a particularly large one. This means lots of breakage in the house and other animals are naturally quite frightened by his roaring and run away.

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At this point, a book often reveals the main problem and demands a resolution. Will Dino go to live in a dinosaur park or special zoo? Vaisberg doesn’t really hint at there being any other dinosaurs in the world, just this one, so that doesn’t look likely. In fact, Dino just stays with the family and they work around him until … three more eggs appear and … they move house to accommodate their extra guests.

I loved the humour in this book – very understated. By contrast, Diego Vaisberg’s illustrations are vivid and exciting and also unusual – dinosaurs are usually depicted in greens but there are only three colours in this book’s palette: white, red and blue. The jarring of colour expectation works well to make this book visually appealing.

Dinosaurs are very popular in my school with the children, particularly the boys, and I think they will be very excited to read this book (many of them can tell me the names of the most obscure creatures around). This is a delight to read and I hope that this, the first of Diego Vaisberg’s picture books, won’t be the last. It really is Dinomyte!

Please note that Templar sent me a review copy of this book.

Posted in general and welcome

Having your cake and eating it (yum, yum)

On a day when we’ve experienced torrential downpours, thunder, lightning and hail, I really fancied a nice cake with a cup of tea, so I couldn’t pick a better book to review than Lucia Gaggiotti’s and Simon Philip’s I Really Want the Cake, published by Templar/Bonnier.

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Perhaps nothing gets your mouth salivating as much as a large slice of delicious cake (or even an entire cake, if you’re up to it). The little girl in I Really Want the Cake IS up to it although she tries her hardest to resist temptation, often with wildly scary expressions of desire. Her dog’s on board too – some things are just too good to miss. And when Mum leaves a note expressly saying NOT to eat the cake … well, you know what happens when someone says not to do something, don’t you?

Written in rhyming triplets, with a repeated refrain that changes slightly each time to reflect the progress of the book, this is a delight to read out loud. Children immediately are drawn into rhymes and I don’t doubt that they will fall into this book as greedily as the girl who wants the cake. The added attraction factor of having VERY LARGE EXCLAMATIONS written in CAPITAL LETTERS is also popular with young children – they’ve cottoned on very easily to the typographical meaning that they’re meant to be shouted. And so I am deafened…

I Really Want the Cake also deals with the horror of reality when you’ve done what you’re not supposed to – and the desperate measures you will go to, to make amends. The girl thinks that baking a cake can’t be too hard (she hasn’t seen me in the kitchen, covered in flour and sugar and emanating panic) but then she discovers my reality and ends up in a total mess. Will she win her mother over? I wish I knew!

As an added bonus, there’s a lovely chocolate cake recipe in the back of the book for children to try, with a helpful warning that, while picture book dogs can eat chocolate cake, it’s not for real canines. I might have to give this a go, when I buy some more baking paper.

Please note that Bonnier sent me a review copy of this book.

 

Posted in general and welcome

Blog tour: A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars

Today, I am delighted to kick off the blog tour for Yaba Badoe’s new book A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, published by Zephyr.

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Fourteen-year-old Sante knows she is special. She has certain powers, talents, that set her apart from most people. She’s an able circus performer who can ride bareback and perform gymnastic tricks on the back of her faithful white stallion Taj. She’s athletic, flexible and fast, both in body and mind. But in addition, she can read other people’s thoughts, and often is aware of sounds, visions and presences that are the ghosts from her past trying to help guide her into the future.

Mama Rose discovers Sante washed up on a beach in a sea chest – the sole survivor of a shipwreck carrying migrants and refugees from Africa – and saves her, adding the little girl to her band of travellers. However, Mama Rose knows that this baby is someone special, not just from the note from her mother but also from the bamboo flute, golden bangle and diamond-encrusted sword that have journeyed with Sante across the ocean. And one day, when two mysterious men appear at one of the circus’s performances, Mama Rose knows it’s time to tell Sante of her past so she can fulfil her destiny.

Yaba Badoe’s novel deftly entwines some of the tropes of the fairy-tale tradition with the tragic realities of Europe’s contemporary migrant situation. Describing with brutal honesty the sight of washed-up bodies of drowned migrants on the beaches of Spain, just metres away from “women tanning themselves”, Badoe doesn’t flinch from presenting the reader with the uncomfortable truth that we’re living in a time where desperation washes up on our shores. As Mama Rose tells Sante about her own journey: “‘From the cargo they bundled into this chest here, your people were rich, Sante… People from Africa. They must have wanted to start a new life over here. If times were bad then, they’re even worse now. Floods, famine, drought … every disaster you can think of, there’s worse to come’.”

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is set in southern Spain, and opens with the troupe performing in Cadiz, an area that has seen many migrant landings in recent weeks. Sante has been lucky – she’s had Mama Rose and Priss, her ornithological protectress, watching out for her for over a decade. Now it appears it’s her turn to do something great and the reader has no doubt that Sante is the person to do it. She has the typical traits of a young adult heroine – she’s brave, at time to the point of foolishness, she’s strong-willed and she’s also loyal, although she insists on discovering who her mysterious followers are when Mama Rose would rather she run away with the rest of the troupe to safety. Sante has no hesitation in facing up to her destiny and does so with admirable spirit.  

Yaba Badoe’s writing flows fast and fluently. The story cracks along and the reader is swept into the intrigue at a breathless pace. The dialogue is well written – there are some concessions to Sante’s way of speaking (or writing!) such as dropping letters off the beginning of some words, but this doesn’t get in the way at all or distract – it’s all part of her quick-thinking character. Badoe also manages to evoke a real sense of place in the book – I know this part of Spain well and felt I was travelling alongside Sante during her adventures.

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is one of the most interesting and unusual debuts I’ve read for a while. Badoe throws you straight into the action and yet manages to also infuse the story with magical qualities and rhythm that separates it from, for example, the relentless and exhausting fear of the books in The Hunger Games trilogy. The world that Badoe describes in her book is, sadly, very real to any of us who watch or read the news, but the fairy-tale element leaves the reader with the hope that things can change for the better.

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is published in hardback on 7 September 2017, priced £10.99: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jigsaw-Fire-Stars-Yaba-Badoe/dp/1786695480/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504093743&sr=8-1&keywords=jigsaw+of+fire+and+stars

and Head of Zeus: http://headofzeus.com/books/jigsaw-fire-and-stars

Follow Yaba Badoe on Twitter: @yaba_badoe

Follow Leo Nickolls (illustrator) on Twitter: @leonickolls

Posted in general and welcome

And the moral of the story is…?

There’s an interesting debate happening on Twitter this morning regarding a recent study which claims that, according to the Guardian’s headline, “Only children’s books with humans have moral impact.” (You can read the rest of the article here.)

The study was conducted by the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and focused on the likelihood of young children sharing with their peers after listening to a book about sharing. Lead academic, Patricia Ganea, revealed that “the type of story characters significantly affected whether children became more or less inclined to behave pro-socially. After hearing the story containing real human characters, young children became more generous. In contrast, after hearing the same story but with anthropomorphised animals or a control story, children became more selfish.”

This has come as a shock to all of us familiar with, for example, Aesop’s Fables – traditional fodder given to children to warn them to be nice to others and avoid  antisocial behaviour. Additionally, many of the books I read aloud from in my Library storytime sessions are based on animals and I have very interesting discussions with the children about any underlying messages. Take, for example, Duncan Beedie’s book The Bear Who Stared – a tale about a shy bear who’s rather scary and overBEARing (pardon the pun) in his attempts to make new friends. Too tongue-tied to speak, he stares at whoever he comes across until they move on or shout at him to go away.

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A wise frog opens his eyes to the error of his ways and helps the bear become a more sociable being.

When I read to the children at school, I often stop at key points and ask them what is happening, why a character might feel a certain way, and what they could do about it to make things better. The children had no difficulty identifying what the issues were with the bear and had plenty of suggestions about how to make things better.

Arguably, children can deal with issues that are explored through the animal world better than in the human one. For example, there are excellent children’s books dealing with grief by looking at it from an animal’s perspective, including Badger’s Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley, in which the titular Badger prepares his animal friends for his impending death. I think the success of books like this lies in the fact that children are seeing human emotions through the eyes of an animal and, therefore, they are one step removed from their own experience; a parent portrayed doing similar things might be too traumatic for child readers.

Teaching children about emotions and morals can be a tricky area: you don’t want to lecture or distress. Using animals is a useful way to get round this issue as Tracey Corduroy comments in Alison Flood’s piece, “the slight distancing that this affords the young child does a number of important things. It softens the moral message a little, making it slightly more palatable. Some would feel that this waters it down and makes it less effective. But the initial ‘saving-face’ that using animals brings quite often results, I feel at least, in keeping a child reader engaged.”

In a way, you could argue that picture books featuring animals are similar to fairy tales, if you are looking to attribute some sort of moral function to them. Fairy talesaccording to Freudian psychoanalysts and academics such as Bruno Bettelheim, are essential to children’s moral and emotional development precisely because all the dreadful events happen in a world that isn’t anything like the child’s own (unless of course there are talking wolves, magic death apples and dragons etc in your neighbourhood). The child experiences the actions one step removed and therefore can process all the emotions – fear, anger, sadness – in a non-threatening way. (Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment makes for excellent reading even if some of his theories are WAY out there!)

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I must say that, as a Librarian, I often look to picture books to discuss a difficult subject. At school we have children who come from homes where there are difficulties in the families of which the children are inevitably aware – depression, self-harm, eating disorders, divorce, etc. I’ve searched, in vain, for picture books that deal with these issues in a helpful way. There are ones that focus on child psychology, with humans as characters. They look unappealing, are poorly illustrated and written in a dull way. They are meant to teach and, boy, does the reader know it. In this case, I will always, always, look to see if I can find a better alternative in a ‘proper’ picture book that I can use instead. Unfortunately there aren’t many around for some of the deeper things, but I can honestly say that there is a desperate need for these!

And if I can add more fodder to the fire, I’d like to point out some excellent books on autism and other conditions, written for autistic children, which have – shock horror – animals as protagonists! For example:

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These books are a Godsend because they explain emotions and conditions in a fun and non-threatening way. Even children who do not have these conditions love looking at these books, which is great because they, then, learn about the struggles their friends and classmates may have and why they behave in certain ways.

To conclude – I can’t say I agree with these findings and have questions of mine own about the research. For example, I wonder which books the researchers used, for example, and how they were read aloud as that can, in itself, have a huge impact to a child’s reaction. Any book that is read with sensitivity to the text and images can create massive discussion, whereas the best book in the world, read aloud badly, can bore and turn listeners off. I think the researchers have raised interesting points, but they need much further discussion if they stand any chance of dethroning evidence that has stood children’s literature in good stead for many years.