Tag Archives: humour

UKMG Review: Who Let the Gods Out? by Maz Evans

Who Let the Gods Out?, Maz Evans, (Chicken House, Feb 2017)

Genres in the mix: fantasy, humour, mythology

Age target: MG

Story basics: Elliot’s mum is ill and his home is under threat, but a shooting star crashes to earth and changes his life forever. The star is Virgo – a young Zodiac goddess on a mission. But the pair accidentally release Thanatos, a wicked death daemon imprisoned beneath Stonehenge, and must then turn to the old Olympian gods for help. After centuries of cushy retirement on earth, are Zeus and his crew up to the task of saving the world – and solving Elliot’s problems too?

Review-in-a-tweet: Sharply witty, a brilliant twist on the Greek myths, plus keenly-observed social commentary. Everyone will love Elliot and root for him!

The emotional ride: Elliot’s home life story is deeply sad, but delivered with warmth and gentle humour so it never becomes too much, or treated with sentimentality rather than genuine emotion (a pet hate of mine – I hate feeling manipulated for cheap emotional impact). The humour of the Gods’ less-than-perfect understanding and abilities to function in the modern world also balances this beautifully.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: obvious opportunities to follow up and learn more about the characters, places etc referenced from Greek mythology (and readers are likely to be keen to do that), but child carers as an SMSC/PSHE topic could also be explored from here.

Plotting and pacing: plenty of movement and twists to keep the target audience engaged. It’s clearly the first in a series, and there is more of the overall story to tell, but it’s not left with an unfinished feeling.  I definitely want to read the others when they come out.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

This is Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month for February, which shows how brilliant it is. As well as writing her own books, Maz Evans manages Story Stew, which runs creative writing workshops in schools. She was here on the blog earlier this month talking about writing.

Who Let the Gods Out? is out now in the UK from Chicken House, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

I’m counting this review for the British Books Challenge 2017, my fourth for the challenge (and this book is the featured debut for this month).

UKYA review: Remix by Non Pratt

RemixRemix is a fantastic UKYA novel, focusing on friendship. It made me realise how few YA novels centralise this theme, and also how peculiar this actually is, given the importance that friendship has in our teen years. I am recommending Remix for its realistic portrayal of contemporary teen life – realistic and ‘gritty’ (as they say) whilst also being warm and witty. Just like Trouble, Non Pratt’s debut YA novel, Remix has some stand-out hilarious moments and lines.

The emphasis on realism is a key strength. As you no doubt know, I love the fantasy genre. I’m a sucker for a teen with special powers, a chosen one, a mystifyingly wise teen who can be trusted with the fate of the world. I say all this, so no-one thinks I’m criticising fantasy per se. One of the best things about Non Pratt’s YA is the realism of her teen characters. The girls in Remix are not being plotted against by a vile, popular-girl bully – all of the messes they get into are of their own making. They are warts-n-all teens, let loose at a music festival to mess things up royally (I use this blog at school sometimes, so need to watch my language 😉 but I think you know what I mean…). This is how to ‘do’ realism.

The alternating perspectives of Ruby and Kaz work brilliantly to reveal all and make it impossible to take sides. So many times I was willing one or other of the girls to tell the other something, explain something or take some other choice. It was always easy to see why they did/said what they did/said, but we do get the benefit of both sides of the story, so it’s easy to see what ‘should’ be said or done.

I also really appreciate the firmly UK setting and language of Remix (and Trouble). Cool and contemporary without falling into the trap of cringe-inducing and rapidly-dating slang, Remix feels fresh and bang up to date. I’d strongly recommend reading this soon as a way of hanging onto the last of summer!

Remix is out now from Walker Books.

Opal Moonbaby and the fantastic new covers

The Opal Moonbaby series is one of our favourites for the Middle Grade set here at the Hearthfire and it’s so great to see them get a new lease of life with new titles and gorgeous new Tony Ross covers.

These novels cover several key themes of MG literature: friendship, fitting in and families, and they do so through the wonderfully quirky alien character of Opal Moonbaby, visitor from another planet. I recommend the series for readers of 8+, and particularly for girls who prefer feisty and funny to pink and sparkly.

Opal Moonbaby 1In the first novel, Martha has just decided that friends are more trouble than they are worth, and resigned to spend the summer just with her mother and brother, Robbie, when Opal Moonbaby arrives, intent on making a friend.

Martha is a brilliantly written character: easy to relate to and well-rounded. What’s impressive and effective about this debut is that the other characters are also efficiently drawn and clearly differentiated. Martha and her brother are good kids, shown through their concern for their mother and for Opal. Opal, of course, steals the show with her enormous personality and all-round craziness. Violet eyes? Silver hair? Lack of regard for rules and authority? How could we fail to fall for her?

The wackiness of Opal’s character and the overall unlikeliness of an alien arrival is countered by these characters who behave in realistic and understandable ways, allowing us to suspend disbelief and enter Opal’s world. The plot itself is also believable, and Martha’s issues with friends will be familiar to many readers. This aspect of the plot is the heart of the story and has a valuable message without being didactic or clumsy.

Overall, I loved the lightness of touch and general humour of this. I’m pleased to see there will be more and know my 8yo will love them. She’s a fan of Kes Gray’s Daisy chapter books and Joanna Nadin’s Penny Dreadful series, and this has a similar kind of warmth and voice (although those series create most of their wackiness through the first-person narration of their colourful main characters, while Opal Moonbaby is told in the third person).

Opal Moonbaby 3

Martha and Robbie are again at the centre of the story in the second book, with Opal zooming in to upend their world. This time, Opal must fit in as an earth girl, including going to school – and there is also the threat of other aliens, Mercurials, on the horizon. As in the first book, Opal is hilarious in her misunderstandings and enormous enthusiasm for everything earthly, while Martha at times despairs at her lack of awareness of how much she stands out.
As with the first novel, this is genuinely funny (without resorting to poo/pants jokes) and sweet at the same time. Opal’s determination to fit in and her blithe lack of understanding – while being absolutely convinced she’s doing everything right – make for a hilariously entertaining story. I would have liked to see more of Garnet, Opal’s Mingle (I’m sure all readers must have fallen in love with him in the first book), but he is here and still just as wonderful.
There is a lovely story about friendship in here, as Opal and Martha cope with more people being introduced into Opal’s circle and Robbie has his own subplot on a friendship theme. The book also includes an exciting build up to a climax with the potential threats to Opal’s safety and the success of her mission. You might also enjoy this fab and non-spoilery guest post from Maudie Smith about Opal going to school.

Opal Moonbaby 2This book concludes the series beautifully and I would strongly recommend it to any child of 8+. I love the gentle way it incorporates Martha’s worries about her mother’s new relationship – a well-tackled common challenge for children – as well as developing Opal and Martha’s relationship. Finally, I was happy to see Garnet (Opal’s pet mingle) playing a bigger role in this book than the last one. We’re massive Garnet fans in this house!
All three Opal Moonbaby books with new covers and illustrations are out now from Orion Children’s Books and are highly recommended as great summer reads.

Review: Trouble by Non Pratt

trouble raagI really enjoyed this ultra-realistic portrayal of teen pregnancy, which manages to avoid either being ‘gritty’ and ‘grim’ or (heaven forbid) glamorising the idea. Non Pratt’s sense of humour and pace ensure a fully enjoyable read.

Goodreads summary

troubleIn this dazzling debut novel, a pregnant teen learns the meaning of friendship—from the boy who pretends to be her baby’s father.

When the entire high school finds out that Hannah Shepard is pregnant via her ex-best friend, she has a full-on meltdown in her backyard. The one witness (besides the rest of the world): Aaron Tyler, a transfer student and the only boy who doesn’t seem to want to get into Hannah’s pants. Confused and scared, Hannah needs someone to be on her side. Wishing to make up for his own past mistakes, Aaron does the unthinkable and offers to pretend to be the father of Hannah’s unborn baby. Even more unbelievable, Hannah hears herself saying “yes.”

Told in alternating perspectives between Hannah and Aaron, Trouble is the story of two teenagers helping each other to move forward in the wake of tragedy and devastating choices. As you read about their year of loss, regret, and hope, you’ll remember your first, real best friend—and how they were like a first love. 

As an English Language teacher, I delight in UKYA novels that capture a teen voice effectively, and Trouble certainly does. A large part of the joy in reading this is the spot-on narration, shared between the two main characters. These strongly British voices also allow for considerable humour through tone and timing.

It is relatively unusual to see teen pregnancy presented with warmth and humour and this, coupled with a realistic depiction of sex, make Trouble an important book (but please don’t think I’m sticking the dreaded ‘issues book’ label on it). First and foremost, this is a great read, but as a teacher and parent, I’m also grateful that it presents this aspect of life in a lively and practical way, free of moralising or doom-prophesising 🙂

So, in conclusion, read this book for its fresh contemporary tone, its depiction of friendship and its excruciating portrayal of the complexity of the high school social circle.

 

Review: Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman

Riotous fun for young readers! (not to mention everyone else)

fortunately the milkI’ve been a fan of Gaiman’s for many years and have enjoyed the various different ways he’s written – from the Sandman comics, through quirky and difficult-to-classify novels full of mythology like American Gods to the deliciously creepy Coraline for older children. Fortunately the Milk was another enjoyable read. This is pitched at a slightly younger age range, I’d say, and has none of the creepiness of the latter book. Adjectives like ‘zany’ and ‘madcap’ are more appropriate, as also shown through the chaotic colour of the cover and quirky illustration style. Note that this is the hardback cover, which also features lovely shiny foil!

The story is quite short and highly illustrated, making it accessible to a younger audience (although the vocabulary is quite demanding – this is no ‘easy read’). It would make a good shared read and I’m sure could appeal to reluctant readers due to its length, visual appeal and fast pace.

I loved the manic nature of Dad’s tale, and the neatness of the ending. I can’t help but wonder whether the story is the result of some kind of narrative experiment (“what if we add time travel AND dinosaurs AND supernatural beings AND…”). In this case, more is definitely more.

Goodreads description:

You know what it’s like when your mum goes away on a business trip and Dad’s in charge. She leaves a really, really long list of what he’s got to do. And the most important thing is DON’T FORGET TO GET THE MILK. Unfortunately, Dad forgets. So the next morning, before breakfast, he has to go to the corner shop, and this is the story of why it takes him a very, very long time to get back.

Featuring: Professor Steg (a time-travelling dinosaur), some green globby things, the Queen of the Pirates, the famed jewel that is the Eye of Splod, some wumpires, and a perfectly normal but very important carton of milk.

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Out now from Bloomsbury (whom I thank for allowing me a review copy via Netgalley. Please note that the receipt of a review copy has not impacted the contents of my review).

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.

Review: Waiting for Gonzo by Dave Cousins

Teen realism with humour and heart: strongly recommended for teen boys and girls

Dave Cousins has done it again! I was so impressed by his 15 Days Without a Head, in which he manages to portray life for a teen forced to take on responsibilities for his alcoholic mum in an entertaining and emotionally warm way. Here again we have a teen boy centre stage as his family ‘goes through some stuff’.

Oz is a great narrator and main character. He tells us his story in the format of a letter to ‘Gonzo’, whose identity becomes clearer as the book progresses, using the past tense as he’s looking back at a string of events and evaluating their impact on his life as he goes. This structure allows the writer to invest relatively minor events with considerable importance with the benefit of hindsight. I particularly like how Oz manages to see all the things that have happened to his family as essentially his fault: a chain of events instigated by a fairly minor act of vandalism. His sense of responsibility and ability to admit to his mistakes are endearing, and also show how much he’s matured through the events described in the book: the Oz looking back and contextualising everything that’s happened is much more self-aware and thoughtful than the Oz drawing a moustache in an inappropriate place at the start of the book.

It’s easy to see that Oz is a good guy deep down, if a bit hapless and – at least initially – rather selfish (what teen isn’t at times?). He’s in a new and very unfamiliar area – a city boy transplanted to the sticks, starting at a new school where he doesn’t know the social rules and norms yet and desperately wants to make friends. Music is very important to Oz as he struggles to fit in in an unfamiliar environment, and some of the songs mentioned in the story have been created especially and can be listened to at the author’s website. It’s a brilliant idea, and really helps to get into Oz’s world.

Dave Cousin’s gift is the ability to inject humour into difficult and sad situations without reducing their emotional impact or showing any sign of not taking them seriously. I think he’s a particularly strong writer for boys, who may (unfortunately, in our society) find it difficult to pick up books which emphasise relationships and emotions above all. Those are the very things his writing deals with, but wrapped up in a witty and lively package which makes the emotional angles are more subtle. At the same time, his writing isn’t what I would call ‘laddish’ – it doesn’t exclude girls and the humour isn’t absurdly silly or overly bodily-function-focused like you see in more cynically-targeted ‘boys books’. His characters are, above all, entirely believable and relatable, and that’s the key to the warmth of his writing, I think.

Overall (as I think is fairly obvious!) I’d recommend this book very highly to 12 year olds and above. I’ll certainly be recommending it in schools.

From the back cover:

Stranded in Nowheresville?
 – check

Stalked by Isobel, the school psycho?
 – check

Befriended by a kid who dresses up as a hobbit in his spare time?
 – check

Oz likes a laugh. It’s not his fault some people have no sense of humour. But when a joke backfires, it triggers a chain of events that messes things up BIG TIME.

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Publishing 7 March by Oxford University Press
Find more information at Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me a proof copy for review