Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Animals in odd places

Welcome to Childtastic’s Christmas Advent Spectacular!

That’s probably a massive overstatement but, over the period of Advent, I will be attempting a post a day! So let’s see what is behind Window 1…

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At school I have been reading stories to the children about animals in strange places, as this does seem to be a recurring theme in children’s picture books in particular. There are all sorts of animals in all sorts of places but in this post, we’ll concentrate on lions and tigers.
Catherine and the Lion, by Clare Jarrett, published by Collins Picture Lions
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The premise of this delightful story is very simple – young Catherine wakes up one morning and sees a lion in her bedroom. Rather than find this situation frightening, Catherine welcomes the Lion into her life and the two enjoy a typical day together – going to school, doing arts and crafts, having meals together and swinging in the hammock. Lion is a gentle, comforting presence in Catherine’s life and perhaps a much-needed one as we’re told subtly, in a by-the-by type of way, that a new baby sister has arrived in her family. Perhaps Lion is providing some comfort in a home where disruptions is inevitable with a new baby. In any case, the story is gentle, sweet and has – I am afraid – a very funny moment when we’re introduced to Catherine’s teacher, Mrs Tickle (I kept thinking of the Mr Men and Little Miss series with this). Jarrett’s deceptively simple line drawings are flooded with warmth, making this a soothing book to share.
How to Hide a Lion at School, by Helen Stephens, published by Scholastic
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Helen Stephens’ How to Hide a Lion series is both best selling and award winning and it’s not hard to see why. The fun that Iris has hiding her best friend Lion makes for great reading, and the accompanying illustrations bring the story to glorious, humorous life. In this instalment, Lion desperately wants to be with Iris at school, but the strict Miss Holland is having none of it. Wherever he hides – behind the whiteboard, inside the piano and behind the coats – she spots him and sends him out of school. On this day, however, Lion decides to take a nap on top of the school bus so that, when Iris and her friends come out for playtime, he can listen to and watch them. Unfortunately, this is also the day the children are going on a school trip to the museum (which looks very much like the Natural History Museum in Oxford) and Lion wakes up to find the bus zooming along the road with him on top of it! What will become of Lion? And will Miss Holland spot him? A book with much humour and fun in both words and pictures.
There’s a Tiger in the Garden, by Lizzy Stewart, published by Frances Lincoln
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This picture book won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize 2017 and its appeal is instantly obvious – the cover is gorgeous, bright and welcoming – inviting the reader into a world of colourful imagination. The story focuses on Nora, who is staying with her grandmother and, despite having toys all over the place, is bored. Grandma suggests she try exploring the garden, where she might find dragonflies the size of birds, plants that can swallow a person whole, a grumpy polar bear who loves fishing, and a magnificent tiger. Unlike Catherine in our first book, Nora doesn’t believe in endless possibilities and scoffs at her Grandma’s claims … until she spots a dragonfly the size of a bird. Nora keeps exploring her grandmother’s garden with her friend, Jeff the giraffe, and comes across everything her Grandma promised – including the elusive tiger! The ending promises an extra surprise which I won’t spoil here. The children in my classes loved this book and looking for clues and hints of what they might find next. When the tiger finally appears, he bears a huge resemblance to Judith Kerr’s Tiger Who Came to Tea and it has been suggested that this character, who Lizzy Stewart adores, eventually found his way into this book from little Sophie’s home after draining dry her taps of water! Which leads me on nicely to my final book…
The Tiger Who Came to Tea, by Judith Kerr, published by Picture Lions
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This is a perennial favourite in the library, thanks to Kerr’s fantastical story of a tiger who turns up, very hungry and thirsty, and proceeds to literally eat and drink Sophie’s house empty and dry. While Sophie’s mum looks on in alarm as her house guest exceeds the boundaries of hospitality, the little girl follows the tiger around, seemingly enamoured. Children love the naughtines of the story – little Sophie behaves well but the tiger needs to learn a few manners, although admittedly he does says “Thank you for my nice tea.”
That’s today’s post. What will be behind door 2 tomorrow?
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Posted in general and welcome, non-fiction, picture books

LOTS of Dinosaurs, Urban Jungles and Monsters!

When the postman delivers parcels of books to review, I always squeal with excitement at what lies within the book-shaped jiffy bag. It’s like receiving regular Christmas or birthday presents and if anyone knows me, they know that books are my favourite things (alongside perfume and clothes!).

Whenever I receive something from Big Picture Press, I know it’s going to be gorgeous, so it should come as no surprise to you that I am going to rave about the four titles in this post.

Lots, by Marc Martin

Published earlier this year, Lots is a fun way for children to find out about the world in which we live. Rather than take a very geographical approach to exploring different countries, Australian Marc Martin chooses cities (eg Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong) and places (eg Antarctica, the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands) to crowd his double-page spreads with fascinating facts and gorgeous illustrations. Each picture, each written snippet of information, has been hand-drawn and handwritten, making this book seem very personal and inviting.

Usually if I am presented with pages full of colour and text (eg comics) I find my mind becoming confused – unsure of where to look first or next. I didn’t have this problem with this book; instead, I let my eye wander around the pages. On the Tokyo spread, for example, I found out that there are lots of vending machines (I had no idea about this before), selling everything from soft drinks (pretty standard) to underwear (quite unusual!) and flowers (how do they keep them fresh?!). I learned that the Shibuya Crossing is the busiest crossing place in the world, with 10,000 people per hour making their way through it. What about the traffic lights?! And also, that the word ‘Kawaii’ means ‘cute things’ and that Godzilla is an official citizen of Japan.

In a previous post I mentioned that I love books with fascinating facts in them. Lots has already become my go-to book for trivia and certainly describes what is in this lovely book!

Dinosaurium, curated by Chris Wormell and Lily Murray

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I haven’t yet dared to take this book into school because I know it would be snaffled in an instant by a particular group of boys who are obsessed with anything dinosaur-related. At first I wondered how another book about dinosaurs could possibly be different to the many others that have been published (with them being extinct, surely most of what can be said has been?) but I was glad to be proven wrong.

The USP of this book is its approach and presentation. The fact that it has been ‘curated’ rather than ‘written’ is indicative of its uniqueness – the book is a 24/7 museum ‘that is always open to explore’. The contents are divided into several ‘galleries’, which are then classified according to what falls into them (eg in Ornithopoda, you have Primitive Ornithopoda, The Jurassic Period, Iguanodon, Hadrosauridae and Egg Mountain). Intrigued by ‘Egg Mountain’, I was interested to discover that this name was given to a plateau in the Rocky Mountains in Montana where a herd of Maiasaura made their nests and laid their eggs. Unfortunately, many didn’t hatch as they were covered by volcanic ash, but their loss has become our gain as they have been preserved for future study.

Even though I am not a huge fan of dinosaurs, I can’t help but admire this book, which is part of the ‘Welcome to the Museum’ series. It would easily be a valuable addition to an adult’s bookshelf and I imagine many will buy this because they are equally attracted to its beauty and factual content as their children. In-depth, intricate and impressive, this surely must be a Christmas present for any child who is into dinosaurs.

Urban Jungle, by Vicky Woodgate

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This is such a novel idea – to produce a book about animals that live in 38 cities around the world – and Vicky Woodgate does it so well. The aim is to look at the different animals that populate world cities because, as Woodgate says: “As urban areas continue to expand, we’re sure to see more and more wildlife on our doorsteps.”

I’m dual nationality British/Canadian, and I used to live in British Columbia, so I was keen to read about Woodgate’s selection of Vancouver animals, having had a couple of comical encounters with raccoons in Stanley Park (apparently home to around 500 species of fauna). Raccoons didn’t make it onto Woodgate’s list, but I was gutted to learn that I’ve never seen, for example, the Northern Flying Squirrel or the Western Red-backed Salamander.

Next I turned to Barcelona, another city in which I’ve lived, and apparently seen nothing much in the way of wildlife, apart from at the old zoo! Woodgate lists the Kuhl’s Pipistrelle, the Grey Heron, and the Painted Pigeon (I’ve never seen those in the Placa Catalunya), as well as the European hedgehog and Red Squirrel. I might have caught sight of the Iberian Bluetail Damselfly though when holidaying in the rice-growing region south of the city.

This is a great way to find out about the many different animals that exist throughout the world in more urban environments and could also be a fun addition to a city break for young people – and their parents! Colourful, factual and engrossing.

The Atlas of Monsters, by Stuart Hill and Sandra Lawrence,204,203,200_.jpg

Monsters, fairy tales and myths are amongst my favourite things so when this beautiful collection landed on my mat, I was very happy indeed.

At first, the book looks similar in layout to many produced by Big Picture Books – each country or continent of interest is introduced with a map with the ‘main’ monsters of note drawn onto it. This is followed by a page or two of short descriptions to match the monsters, detailing their names and the legends behind them. I was pleased to see the Sasquatch, which was a monster I was familiar with from British Columbia (though of course I’d never seen the fellow). I was interested to see a monster from Spain called Cuegle (from Cantabria) which apparently has three glowing eyes and arms with no hands or fingers. Apparently mothers put holly sprigs onto their babies’ cradles to keep them safe from the holly-hating Cuegle! The Gurumapa has an onomatopoaeic name – at first I thought him grumpy but it seems he’s more than that as people in Nepal think he’s a terrifying ogre with monstrous fangs.

However, there is a difference in this Atlas to other similar titles. Throughout the book there are notes and questions made by a mysterious explorer called Cornelius Walters, who lived in the 15th century. Walters in fact made this map … or is it just a hoax on the readers? The librarian who writes the introductory letter to this book isn’t sure what is fiction and reality, unable to decipher the cryptic code in Walter’s ship’s log.

So, we have a gorgeous series of maps drawn in a medieval style, short, punchy descriptions of monsters and a mystery. What’s not to like?

Please note that I was sent copies of the books in this post for review purposes but the views expressed are entirely my own.

Posted in general and welcome, Gothic, Young Adult

Grave Matter

As a dedicated reader of dark things and the Gothic genre, I knew I had to read this novella, written by Juno Dawson and illustrated by Alex T Smith. I devoured it in two greedy helpings.

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A brief plot summary: Samuel lives and breathes for his girlfriend Eliza, so when she dies in a car crash in which he was the driver, he can’t contemplate a life without her. Crippled by grief, he starts to investigate the dark, unnatural world of Hoodoo to see if he can bring her back to life again. Samuel soon finds that bringing someone back from the dead is harder than he thought, and not just for obvious reasons. Can he do what is necessary to breathe life into Eliza again?

Review: Juno Dawson has been dubbed the ‘Queen of Teen’ and it is easy to see why in Grave Matter. She ‘gets’ teens – their emotions, desires, beliefs – and portrays their inner turmoils incredibly realistically. Samuel is a hero (I have to be careful how I use that word!) who is easy to sympathise with, who you can’t help rooting for even when his actions make you want to shout out in horror. The fact that he turns to Hoodoo when his father is a priest makes the irony even stronger – he has no time for his father’s religious platitudes and can’t understand his unwavering faith, yet Samuel is ready to believe anything else that could bring his girlfriend back from the dead.

And it’s so easy to understand his desperation. Who wouldn’t want to see their loved one again? However, there’s that small matter of turning to unspeakable deeds to achieve your end goals. I’ve read a fair amount of ghost stories, the Gothic, some horror too, and even I squirmed at some of the details in this book. It doesn’t get much darker than this…

Dawson’s writing eschews ornamentation, which helps make the sensation of dread even more powerful. The entire novella oozes unease, from start to finish, peaking in utter terror in passages near the end. Published by Barrington Stoke, which specialises in fiction for children and young adults who struggle with reading – either through conditions such as dyslexia or through reluctance for whatever reason – Grave Matter stands alongside any other more ‘traditional’ books. It looks fabulous, thanks to the amazing pictures by Alex T Smith – who has morphed from the more cuddly images of his other books such as Claude (the mouse) to the Gothic masterpieces on these pages. The writer, the illustrator and the publisher and the final product – they’re a match made in heaven. Or, considering what the book’s about, perhaps Hell would be more suitable. 😉





Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Et tu, Meg?

This week I’ve been busy reading Meg and the Romans, by Jan Pienkowski and David Walser, to the children.
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We’ve had the usual fun with Meg, Mog and the Owl’s antics and enjoyed the bright, engaging pictures, but we’ve also learned a thing or two. For example, we can now introduce ourselves in Latin thanks to Julius Romanus, we know that the Roman name for Britain was, well, Britannia, and we also can say the Latin name for London (Londinium). But you HAVE to remember to say this with a flourish of the arm, as if raising a sword and ordering your troops to ride on.

Julius Romanus arrives at Dover in a suitable boat but gets his toe pinched by an angry crab (well, you’d be angry too, if you were meant to be cooked for lunch) so Meg sorts him out a ride on a horse called Dobbin. The problem is, Dobbin is a bit of an equus Britannicus and an equus rapidus and likes throwing poor Julian onto the ground or into some water.

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Julius does eventually get to London, however, and bids his new friends farewell with the word ‘Vale’. His golden eagle decides life is better with Meg, Mog and Owl and flies back to their house, declaring ‘Domum dulce domum.’ Home sweet home indeed.

A great book to spark some giggles and teach a few Latin words. The Meg and Mog books are classics for a good reason, and the children were delighted with this new offering from the madcap pair.

Please note that I was sent a review copy of Meg and the Romans by Penguin.

Posted in general and welcome

Fright night! Spooktacular spooky reads

Today is Hallowe’en, All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve. I love this time of year, with early morning and evening mists, crunchy leaves underfoot and a smell of woodsmoke in the air. It conjures up an atmosphere of mischief after the long days of summer.

From this time up to Christmas, ghost stories are very much the flavour of the season (though for me, they’re always top of my reading pile!). So what better way to celebrate the festival of Samhain (the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker days of winter) than with a round-up of spooky stories that beg for a fire and a candlelit room?

The Lockwood & Co series, by Jonathan Stroud, published by Corgi Children’s

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As a lover of the paranormal, I was so excited when I first heard about Jonathan Stroud’s new series based on a team of young ‘ghostbusters’, working to help rid the UK of its ghost epidemic. Lucy Carlyle moves to London and joins Anthony Lockwood’s agency, making up a trio with studious but always-hungry George Cubbins. I devoured the first book – The Screaming Staircase – almost as quickly as I scoff a chocolate bar (and that’s quick!) and did the same with each subsequent title in this wonderful series. I love the combination of genuine spookiness (please believe me when I say the chill factor is set to extra-cold; there’s stuff I’ve read in these books that is just as scary as I read in ‘adult’ ghost stories) and fantastic, laugh-out-loud humour. This is a difficult balance to achieve but Stroud does so with amazing aplomb, making this a must-read series for anyone who loves adventure, the supernatural, and a funny read. And if you get the chance to see Jonathan Stroud live (pardon the pun), do so – not only does he talk about the books but he also offers children the opportunity to dress up like a real ghost hunter, complete with salt bombs and (mock) rapiers.

The Last of the Spirits & Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, by Chris Priestley, published by Bloomsbury

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I’ve listed two of Chris Priestley’s books but, to be honest, any would go well here. Priestley doesn’t shy away from including some details that wouldn’t be unusual in any adult horror story and I was terrified reading the above two books. The first is a collection of shorter tales linked together within an entire novel and I loved the way they all worked together. In The Last of the Spirits, Priestley has reimagined the backstory of two characters in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to great effect. You can read my review of the book, from 2014, here. Generally, anything by Priestley is guaranteed to give you the chills, so do check out his work and be prepared to sleep with the lights on.

Coraline and The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman – illustrated by Chris Riddell

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Neil Gaiman’s classic The Graveyard Book, for me, has one of the most terrifying and memorable openings of all books, with baby Bod escaping his house as a murderer slays the rest of his family. What follows is a strangely heartwarming tale of Bod’s upbringing amongst the ghosts of his local cemetery … until it becomes clear that he is not out of danger yet. The story encompasses Gaiman’s trademark creepiness and otherworldiness; it is the kind of tale that I find almost believable every time I walk through a graveyard and wonder at those buried there and what they might get up to out of mortal sight.

Coraline is equally original and quite horrific. Coraline is bored after moving into her new flat, and craves the attention of her busy and distracted parents. When she discovers a parallel home on the other side of a door in her flat, she is at first attracted to her ‘new’ family, who lavish her with attention. However, she soon realises all is not as it seems, and her new family are ghoulish and terrifying, with their button eyes and dark souls. My daughter was too scared to listen to the audio version and I can see how children of a more nervous or sensitive disposition might find the story just too close for comfort. For while it is clearly a fantasy, certain elements seem quite realistic, as if that world just might happen, given the right circumstances.

The illustrations of both books, by the wonderful Chris Riddell, bring the characters to life and accentuate the unease created by the prose.

Fairy Tales

I’ve given this a bit of a generic title but that’s because of the uncertain origins of most of the fairy tales that have come into our collected knowledge. Perhaps best known through the works of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault, fairy tales have become somewhat sanitised over the years and, even if there is some peril remaining, it often isn’t in its most horrific form. When I studied fairy tales as part of my MA in children’s literature, I was quite aghast to read some of the earlier versions. While some might cheer as the evil queen in Snow White falls to her death in the Disney film, they might feel more squeamish at one of the original endings, in which she dances to her death in red-hot iron shoes.

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Or what of the bloody and murderous tale of Bluebeard, who used to kill his wives and hang them in an underground chamber?

There are plenty more scary stories out there to share as the sun sets – try some MR James, or Henry James (The Turn of the Screw is terrifying), or Charles Dickens (the one tale that particularly freaks me out is The Signalman). More recently, I read The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, which was brilliantly spooky. Just make sure you have someone there to keep you company!

What is the scariest story you’ve ever read?



Posted in general and welcome, picture books

I am Actually a Penguin

Well, actually I’m not, but in this picture book by Sean Taylor and Kasia Matyjaszek the little girl definitely thinks she is.

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Everyone loves dressing up (I am an adult and still am thrilled to be invited to fancy-dress parties) and the little girl in this delightful picture book is no different. She uses her costumes to turn herself into someone or something completely different, such as a princess, a pirate and a witch. But then, one day, she’s given the best-present ever: a penguin suit.

The children laughed as we followed the little girl on her penguin adventures: in the supermarket (where she tells her mother than penguins can’t choose between lasagne or spaghetti because they eat neither), at her auntie’s wedding (where she blends in well with the penguin-resembling waiters) and at home (where her brother throws fish fingers into the air for her to catch with her ‘beak’). Every member of her family unsuccessfully reminds her that she’s not actually a penguin, to which she stubbornly retorts: ‘I am actually a penguin’. This carries on until it’s time for the penguin to have a wash… what will she do?

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This book has wide appeal for children who love the wacky and unconventional (hurrah, because when they become teenagers they might as well have all come off a factory production line). We often get children in Reception coming in wearing superhero outfits as they don’t have to wear uniform. And why not? I totally get it. I rather like the idea of dressing up as Wonder Woman. The book is a great conversation starter for young children too; you could ask them what they would choose to dress in and how that would affect their behaviour and their habits. I imagine we’d get many princesses in here and Spidermen – but perhaps not as many penguins.

Interestingly, the little girl in the story has short hair and nearly everyone assumed that she was in fact a boy. A heated argument broke out on the carpet about this before I even started the book, with some children insisting that she was a he, and others saying they had relatives with short hair who were girls. It perhaps goes to show that no matter what you do as writers, illustrators and publishers to combat stereotypes, they still do exist sometimes in the minds of children. The fact that we were able to debate this though was good and hopefully the children who assumed girls had to have long hair went away with a new opinion about this.

Please note that I received a review copy of I am Actually a Penguin from Templar Publishing.


Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Parakeet AWOL

Today’s review is of Oh no! Where did Walter Go? by Joanna Boyle, published by Templar Books.

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Olive and Walter are a very special couple of friends – one is a little girl and the other a green parakeet. However, they  both love the same things – pretending to be pirates, acrobats, explorers and detectives, and playing a good, hard game of Hide and Seek. However, it’s during one of those games that Walter goes missing and Oliver has a huge task on her hands to find him, especially when he blends in so well with his surroundings.

Joanna Boyle’s colourful book is a fun way to absorb children for a while in a picture book. On each spread, children will be looking out for Walter intently as Olive searches high and low for her friend. When I read the book aloud to the classes in the library, the children were keen to spot the bird, and did so on most occasions (they’ll tell you they did on every page but I know when there were silences and baffled expressions). This is definitely best shared on a smaller basis – one to one, for example, but it’s also a nice class read too and the pictures are engaging and funny. One that’s sure to ‘fly’ off our shelves soon!