MG Review: Help! I Smell a Monster, by Justin Davies

Help! I Smell a Monster

Justin Davies, illus Kim Geyer

out now from Orchard Books

Fab and funny MG mayhem with monsters

I enjoyed this so much and readers of the target age (and up…) will too. The adventures are fast-paced, and have that irreverent madcap humour that particularly appeals at the younger end of the MG bracket (9-11), with some lovely nods to the real world, such as social networks for monsters.

The underlying messages about acceptance and working together are clear without ever being didactic/preachy, and child readers will find it easy to root for Alice and her new-found monster friends. This is a great start to a series, and I am sure it will be a success.

It would make a lovely shared bedtime read – I know I would have enjoyed reading this with my kids when they were younger. Kim Geyer’s illustrations are great too, making it suitable for that kind of ‘bridging book’ that you can read before kids can really handle a book alone, but they feel too old for the picture books you’ve read a million times (at their insistence, obviously!) There’s a perfect balance of danger/ excitement and warmth. It had something of an Eva Ibbotson vibe for me, for a slightly younger audience – probably because of the crazy monsters.

Clearly, I’m recommending this – it’s lots of fun, and would offer plenty as a class book too. Loads of creative possibilities, obviously, but also chances to explore monster lore and mythology.

The book was provided to me by the publisher via Netgalley, for review purposes. This review constitutes my honest personal opinions.

Reading Recommendations Slide 27: Revision Season Escapism 3 – Historical

This half term, all my recommendations will focus on reading for pleasure, relaxation and escapism during revision season. This week I’m offering four historical titles allowing students to get lost in rich evocations of the past.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 4 – Revision Season Escapism – Historical

The last theme posted was escape into fantasy for revision season. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 23: For Fans of The Big Bang Theory

I haven’t done a media-linked theme for a while, so I thought I’d offer these books for this week, which I think will all appeal to fans of The Big Bang Theory. Each has that geek chic vibe and humour (the top two are more laugh-out-loud than the lower two, but all have some), and has something to say about different types of people getting along.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 4 – For Fans of The Big Bang Theory

The last theme posted was International Women’s Day. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 20: Friendship

These books all share fabulous representation of friendships – whether those friendships pre-exist before the story or are formed through the story.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: Friendship

The last theme posted was genre-twisting/unusual reads. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 16: For Marvel/DC Fans

A selection of comic-book/superhero-themed titles for this week’s recommendation slide, and since last week I offered stretch titles, this week I’ve got a couple of easy-reads/younger titles (Electrigirl and My Brother Is a Superhero). Both of these are books I’ve recommended to lower-attaining KS4 students before, although they’re intended more as upper KS2-lower KS3 reads.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 2 – For Marvel and DC Fans

The last theme posted was Romance. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Book Stocking Filler Recommendations

Want recommendations for book gifts that aren’t necessarily the obvious titles this year? Look no further. I’ve got kids, teens and adults covered here.

The Incredible Billy Wild by Joanna Nadin

Buy it for: any child (7+) who would enjoy this ‘championing the outsider’ story that takes on the cruelties of the dog racing world in a child-friendly way. Also features a class talent show, chaotic parenting and some top-class mayhem (as you might expect when hiding a greyhound from your family…)

The Circus by Olivia Levez

Buy it for: fans of contemporary YA who will enjoy the gritty realism as posh girl Willow is forced to learn hard lessons on the streets, contrasted against the lure of the circus glamour as she hunts for clues to her long lost mother. Atmospheric, gripping and heart-wrenching.

More of Me by Kathryn Evans

Buy it for: those who enjoy YA with a sci-fi element. This features 15-year-old Teva who appears normal to the outside world but hides a weird secret at home: each year on her birthday, she separates and leaves behind a copy of herself. This means that she lives with an array of different versions of herself, including Fourteen, who is upset with her for ‘taking’ her friends and boyfriend…

It Only Happens in the Movies by Holly Bourne

Buy it for: teen romance fans who may enjoy the gentle (maybe not always so gentle) takedown of romance culture in this brilliant novel which explores – through a great story – how abusive acts are packaged as ‘romantic’ in the media. (The author also works as a teen relationships advisor online and her other novels are equally thought-provoking and promote healthy relationships.)

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Buy it for: fantasy fans who will tear through this ensemble heist story set in a brilliantly realised fantasy universe (the Grishaverse – also featured in the trilogy opening with Shadow and Bone). Strong on diversity and suitable for a YA or adult reader, the story concludes in Crooked Kingdom if you want to be really generous and gift the whole thing.

Sweetpea by C J Skuse

Buy it for: anyone over 18 likely to sympathise with serial killer Rhiannon’s outlook on those who cross her by bruising her produce at the supermarket, getting in her way at work or generally being a creepy bloke. Do not buy for those offended by graphic language, sex or violence. Deliciously black humour.

If You Could See Me Now by Keris Stainton

Buy it for: those who like their romance served up with wryly feminist observational comedy. Sharp, witty and with a light touch. Poor Izzy is just trying to get by, but everything is going wrong and then she decides to go for the big pitch at work and grab a promotion. Of course, just then something awful happens…

Recommendations: Great Examples of Friendship in Recent Children’s Books and YA

I thought it might be good to recommend a few books that model good friendships. This seems especially useful in YA, where the relationship focus is so often on romance rather than friendship, although the reality in teen life is that a lot of emotional energy and time is devoted to friends.

Remix, Non Pratt

YA Contemporary about a ‘best friend’ relationship and all the complexities that entails. It takes place over the weekend of a music festival and deals with fandom, loyalty and the ways friendships change as teenagers get older and start to have sexual relationships. Dual narration by the two protags, with convincing voices. Authentic and engaging for KS5 and 4.

Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo

YA Fantasy heist novel about a group of outsiders who are effectively forced by circumstances to work together. Their relationship (as they negotiate it) is what makes this brilliant story work so well. The representations in this book are also fab with a truly diverse cast including in terms of disability and sexuality. Multiple narration, so you get to know each character’s outlook. First in a duology. Good for KS5 and 4

Mind the Gap, Phil Earle

YA Contemporary about a boy who’s falling apart since his Dad died, so his best mate helps him recover something of his Dad to help him cope. A really touching story which, unusually, covers male friendship. This is a Barrington Stoke book, so it’s dyslexia friendly – printed in a special font on yellowish, non-glare paper and using a controlled vocabulary. (If you’re unfamiliar with Barrington Stoke’s brilliant work on ‘super-readable books’, do check out their website.) Good for KS3-4

Murder Most Unladylike, Robin Stevens

MG Mystery featuring a fantastic friendship at the heart between Daisy, a classic 1920s boarding-school girl and Hazel, from Hong Kong, who doesn’t always quite know the social norms of the UK. Relationships with other girls at the school also feature and become increasingly important in this hugely popular murder mystery series, narrated by Hazel who plays a ‘Watson’-type role in the girls’ Detective Society. Great for KS3

Perijee and Me, Ross Montgomery

MG Fantasy focusing on Perijee who is an alien being who appears on the beach one day and is at first kept secret but then must be protected from the world of adults. Perijee arrives just when Caitlin is feeling really lonely as her parents are very busy with important work and school is hard for her, but Perijee grows to an enormous and impossible-to-hide size and then the story becomes a mad chase. This is an unpredictable, zany story with a lovely emotional heart. Great for KS3.

Reading Recommendation Slide 2: Comedic Reads

Here’s a new slide for this week. I just leave these up while I take the register and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s another of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

This week’s theme is comedy.

Download the slide here:

Comedy

Last week’s was books for fans of Lemony Snicket. Some links will be thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Introducing Reading Recommendations as a Register/Settling Task: Slide no. 1: for Fans of Lemony Snicket

I’m going to be sharing a slide here every Sunday. These are slides I use at the beginning of lessons while I’m taking the register – I simply display them for students to look at and take note of anything they fancy reading. I’ll occasionally comment on/discuss the titles or the reason I’ve chosen this week’s topics, but over time students get used to the idea and I found last year that some started asking me for particular genres or topics. Some of these will be grouped by topic and may be topical (e.g. for Black History Month or International Women’s Day), while others will be clustered around more English-focused ideas (such as multiple narrators). Note that I’ve been using these with KS4 and 5 (I haven’t taught KS3 for a while until this year, but I do intend to show them to KS3 classes too).

This week’s selection is for students who have enjoyed A Series of Unfortunate Events, whether that’s the book series, or the recent brilliant Netflix show. They are all therefore somewhat dark and quirky.

For fans of Lemony Snicket – download the file here

I hope these slides will be of use to some of you.

Writing Funny Books for Children by M L Peel

Today at the Hearthfire, we are privileged to be visited by the fabulous M L Peel, author of The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair, out now from Walker Books and a great fun summer read. Here is a brilliant authorly meditation on laughter and humour in children’s books.

The first time my daughter really laughed, she was around five months old. We were in the bathroom blowing bubbles. Pop. Pop. Pop. I burst them with my finger, and each time I burst one, she gave a little giggle. But then, I failed to blow one. Bubble-less, I was left fat cheeked, puffing into the air. My daughter stared in confusion, and then, from deep within her belly, there erupted a gurgling torrent of laughter.

When we had stopped laughing along with her, my husband and I stared at each other in amazement. Our baby could not yet feed herself or even sit up unaided, and yet she had just displayed a fully-fledged sense of humour: she had laughed at the incompetence of her bubble blowing mother.

I finished writing my first comic novel for children ‘The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair’ a year before my daughter was born, but it is only since observing her instinctive sense of humour, that I have really stopped to consider just how important laughter is to children’s emotional development, as important in its own way as food and water, touch and movement.

Laughter is bonding. It unites a family. Funny books make reading together a shared joyful experience. When reading together is a pleasure, parents will be inspired to do it more often, and children will concentrate for longer. Funny books foster a love of reading in general, a love that will last well into adulthood and be passed down into the next generation.

Even base bodily humour can be educational when it helps to keep children turning the pages. When I wrote my book The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair, I was aware that the concept of ‘phartling’ would be off putting for some adults. Many agents rejected the manuscript with a cursory glance at the synopsis. One agent wrote to tell me that “whilst the odd whizz popper may be amusing, a whole book about them will not be.” One posh London primary school cancelled my school visit over fears that parents would feel they had put “unsuitable material into the hands of children.” (My favourite rejection letter ever…)

In one sense, the agent who wrote to tell me that a “whole book about whizzpoppers” would not be amusing was right. But had she read the book, I hope she would have discovered that whilst it’s full of whizzpoppers it’s not really about them. Whizz-poppers are the pretext that let me talk about our society’s obsession with instant fame, without, I hope, ever sounding worthy or pompous. The farcical nature of ‘phartling’ allows me to discuss (amongst many other things…) both Mozart’s work for opera and stranger-danger, two topics which, in their different ways, would indeed be ‘unsuitable material for children’ if presented in a more serious context. When I talk to children on school visits, after the initial sniggers, it is rarely the ‘phartling’ they dwell on: instead they enthuse to me about the parrot disguised as an owl; or the Duke of Phartesia’s moustache done up in curlers; or Agent Frogmarch shouting at the spoilt celebrity parents….

As well as being bonding, laughter is sometimes punitive. Anyone who has been a child knows, laughter can be cruel as well as joyful. One thing I have been mindful of when writing is to avoid poking fun at ‘easy targets’. I have tried to make the rich and the powerful the butt of my jokes (excuse the pun, I just can’t help it…), rather than the weak or vulnerable.

Since my daughter has been born, I have become even more conscious of the way in which girls and female characters are portrayed in children’s fiction. My characters are deliberately larger than life and so can sometimes sail close to stereotypes, but I have tried to make sure that I tease men, women and children equally. A few friends have asked if I could put their children into a book, or name a character after them, but since my characters are rarely one hundred percent pleasant, this is a request I have had to decline!

Above all, I try to remember the weird and wonderful things that made me laugh as a child, and to use those memories as my inspiration, (so for instance, the origami loo paper is a standing joke in my family). I also try to make myself laugh as an adult and to include a few jokes especially for the parents reading aloud to their children. Sometimes, I have to sit down to write when I am not feeling particularly funny, but if I haven’t cheered up by the end of my writing session, I know I’ll probably end up going back and deleting most of what I’ve written later. If I’m not laughing, why should anybody else be…

What a fascinating post! Thank you so much. 
 
If this has whetted your appetite for a funny summer read, The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair is available now.