Tag Archives: week of children’s books

Review: The Comic Cafe by Roger Stevens

Author: Roger Stevens
Title: The Comic Cafe
Genre: Mystery/adventure/humour (children’s)
Publisher: Frances Lincoln
Published: April 2012
Source: Won from the publisher in a Twitter competition

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Accidentally abandoned in a rundown seaside cafe, how are Will, Elizabeth, Jaz, Briony and Sammi going to endure the summer?

Ghostly sounds, oddball visitors and a mystery surrounding the cafe’s previous owner all conspire to sabotage their grand reopening plans in this laugh-out-loud comedy of errors from one of the UK’s leading children’s poets.

My verdict: Genuinely funny; suitable for Scooby Doo fans (i.e. everyone!)
Lots of aspects of this book reminded me of Scooby Doo including potential ghosts, mystery elements and zany characters (most of whom you can’t help but suspect of something). The story is highly improbable, and yet you can’t help but be drawn in. It succeeds entirely in casting that story spell which prevents you from questioning any of the bizarre events or characters.

Will narrates this story and his quirky (but natural) voice is definitely part of the appeal. Who can help but love a narrator who has a thing for words and uses particularly interesting ones, like “surmised”, at points in the story? And don’t worry for the child readers – since Will speaks to us in a direct way, he explains all of these fascinating words. It’s a great way of characterising Will.

His sisters are all sharply characterised too and it’s easy to distinguish between them. They all have a part in dealing with the weirdness of being accidentally abandoned, in preparing for reopening and in working on the mystery. I can’t imagine that any child would fail to find someone they empathised with in this motley crew of child characters.

The parents are also well drawn. It isn’t easy to create sympathetic characters out of parents who accidentally abandon their five children, but Roger Stevens does so effortlessly. It’s partly a factor in the general craziness of the story, and partly because the parents are drawn almost entirely through the loving eyes of their children.

Overall, the general craziness of this tale make it a genuinely funny read, easily accessible by both genders of around 8 and up.

Review: Writing for Children by Linda Strachan

For Words on Wednesday during this Week of Children’s Books, it seems fitting to review a title for writers on the children’s book market.

Author: Linda Strachan

Title: Writing for Children
Genre: Non-fiction – writing manual
Publisher: A & C Black
Published: 2008
Source: purchased on my Kindle
Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads  

The blurb says:
Many people want to write for children but are often unaware of the wide variety of markets to choose from or how to find the right publisher for their idea. Aimed at both established and aspiring writers, this book aims to offer advice on the whole publishing process from initial idea through to final publication and beyond.

All the key areas of children’s publishing are covered: picture books, fiction, poetry, plays, non fiction, educational books, books for reluctant readers. There will also be useful advice for the newly published on publicity, setting up a website, tax and accounting, and handling school/library author visits.

My verdict: Comprehensive overview with many nuggets of great advice.
This book’s range really is its strength. Most books on writing for children (and writing more broadly) assume that the reader is only interested in fiction – and probably only novels in the 9-12 or teen ranges. It can be difficult to find advice on breaking into non-fiction writing, picture books or the educational market. All of these (and more) are covered here, and all from the author’s own experience, lending the book an air of reliability. Linda Strachan has published in many different age ranges, genres and markets and her experience is generously shared here, although she is careful to avoid presenting the way she works as some sort of set of rules.

It is true that the book deals with so many different areas that it cannot be a full and complete guide to any of them, but her basic advice to read examples of the type(s) of book you want to write, coupled with her practical comments on submission, contracts, tax matters etc, provides enough to get you going in a wide range of fields. I think sometimes we seek out writing handbooks assuming they will hold The Key to Publication, which of course doesn’t exist. To my mind, a writer is likely to be able to judge what any given type of book ‘should’ be like by studying published examples. The ‘insider info’ that I was seeking was exactly what I found in these pages. You rarely find such additional advice as dealing with tax, school visits, author websites etc, so this was great to see (and will hopefully all be directly relevant one day!).

Overall, a very good buy for anyone looking for a broad career in writing for children, or for someone seeking publication in any of the fields less covered in other similar guides.

Review: My Own Special Way by Mithaa Alkayyat, retold by Vivian French

Author: Mithaa Alkayyat
Retold by: Vivian French
Illustrator: Maya Fidawi

Title: My Own Special Way (Early Reader)
Genre: Family story (children’s)
Series: no
Publisher: Orion
Published: Mar 2012
Source: kindly sent for review by the publisher
Find it at Amazon UK

The Orion website says:

Hamda feels left out. She wants to be like her four sisters. One evening she makes a decision, and nobody can change her mind. She wants to wear the veil like her sisters. Each sister puts forward her own suggestion based on what worked for her. But it is up to Hamda to work out her own unique way to wear the veil making it a part of her active and happy life.

My verdict: Charming story about being small and wanting to be like older siblings.
Although this story is explicitly focused on Muslim experience (wearing the veil), there is plenty here that is universal, in Hamda’s feelings and her relationships within the family. Little Hamda is lively and wants to do what her older sisters do, like making necklaces, going shopping and baking cakes. Hamda decides she wants to be a big girl and realises that wearing the veil when she goes out is a way to achieve this.

As an Early Reader, the story is straightforwardly told, with no excessively long sentences for beginner readers to get lost in. At the same time, it’s an interesting enough story to be worth reading and it isn’t patronisingly simple. I can also picture UK primary schools using it as a prompt to discuss cultural differences.

It’s also illustrated in full colour, with the family wearing boldly patterned and brightly coloured clothes, and the various scarves Hamda tries offering further texture and colour to the visuals. The illustrations have a quirky quality that is appealing and produces endearing characters.

Overall, this is a sweet story about younger children’s desire to be more grown up.

Funky Non-Fiction for Kids

Like the books featured in my post yesterday, these non-fiction titles all make liberal use of quirky humour to engage their child audience (and any adults lucky enough to get a look in as well!). I was extremely fortunate to be one of the winners of this bundle on Non-Fiction Day last year, and this review is sadly long overdue.

The books cover three broad topic areas: Maths, Science and History, and all have been at least dipped into over the past few months by both my daughters (aged 8 and 13). In all cases, an initial dip has lead to a longer reading session than originally intended, and a series of “Did you know that …?” type comments. What more could you ask of kids’ non-fiction? 🙂

The Murderous Maths of Everything by Kjartan Poskitt takes a narrative approach and can be read cover to cover. It uses a framing story of a visit to the Murderous Maths Organisation to give the reader a tour of some fascinating mathematical ideas, concepts and quirks. As a tour type book, it covers different areas including weird arithmetic, interesting geometry and quirks in measurements. It proved interesting to my fairly maths-averse daughters and certainly succeeds in showing how maths can be fun without getting dangerously geeky.

The two Horrible Science books are quite different, and have both been enjoyed in quite different ways. The Horrible Science Annual features experiments as well as explanations of concepts and comic strips of discoveries and facts. As an annual, this is an assortment of various types of science topic rather than having a theme. My youngest particularly enjoyed the ‘Make a Freaky Face’ page, which has kids doctor a photo of themselves to make the eyes and mouth upside down. Looking at this picture upside down is fine, but the right way up is really freakish. Naturally, this would be a fun thing to do with pictures of everyone in the family, and maybe some celebrity pics from magazines or newspapers … [NB I’ve also seen this done on QI with a hideous version of Alan Davies, so it’s not just kids who enjoy this.]

How to Draw Horrible Science has probably been the most revisited of all these titles, and both kids have been pleased with the results they’ve had in following the instructions in this book. I particularly like the care with which this has been produced: the book is wire bound, so it always lies flat open and it’s easy to work from. Lots of different styles of people and animals are included, as well as essential and scientific additions like gaseous emissions, indications of speed, bodily excretions of all types and ways to indicate temperature and movement in drawing.

The first History title is the Horrible Histories Annual which, like the Horrible Science Annual, dips into lots of different historical topics rather than taking a theme. It serves as a perfect introduction to the Horrible Histories series or adds extra content to an existing collection. In typical annual style, it features puzzles and comic strips on suitably gruesome topics such as the Witch Trials, poverty in the Victorian period and ‘Revolting Revolutions’. And, being the 2012 annual, there is also a section dedicated to games and sports with the Olympics and similar events.

How to Change the World with a Ball of String is an easily browsable volume that covers scientific as well as historical information. Its organising idea is the arbitrariness of important discoveries and events, and introduces many key world events by drawing attention to their randomness. Headings such as “Discover a Continent … by going the wrong way” and “Fight a War … by sitting still” will entice children to read about Columbus’s discovery of the Americas and the lack of movement in the Western Front of WWI.

Overall, these volumes are great examples of enticing and intriguing non-fiction for children which capitalises on kids’ natural curiosity. Each of these titles clearly starts from an assumption that children want to find out about things, rather than working from a list of what kids ‘should’ know.

Quirky Kids’ Series

All of these funny series feature oddball characters, and all are favourites of my youngest daughter (aged 8). All focus on a female lead character but are not ‘girly’ in the sense of pink and sparkly. I would happily give most of these to boys to read, with my only slight hesitation the Daizy Star series. All are also strong in terms of voice: most are first-person narration, and all characterise effectively using voice and dialogue. The characters all have funny sayings or catchphrases and/or are prone to hilarious turns of phrase.

Kes Gray’s Daisy series

Daisy, the star of picture books, now has a series of younger reader chapter books about her too. All are called “Daisy and the Trouble with” something, and in each she’s in (unsurprisingly!) some kind of trouble, which you usually don’t know the details of until some way into the book. Each is narrated by Daisy herself, and she addresses the reader directly. She doesn’t mean to get into these scrapes, but genuinely doesn’t understand the implications of her actions at first. She’s easy for kids to relate to and has a friendly, quirky voice. Daisy’s ‘troubles’ are rooted in real life, but are quite extreme for children to delight in, not being things that normal kids would typically do.

Tamsyn Murray’s Stunt Bunny series
Harriet Houdini is Stunt Bunny. She lives with the Wilson family as their pet and enters Superpets Live, a series of TV competitions for talented pets (a different competition is the focus of each book). Harriet also tells us her own story, and shares her thoughts about the competitions. Stunt Bunny, unlike Daisy, faces dangers in her stories: she is always at risk of being bunny-napped, and she has stiff competition from other Superpets.

Joanna Nadin’s Penny Dreadful series

Penelope Jones, nicknamed Penny Dreadful by her father, also gets into scrapes based on real life. This is an anarchic funny series focusing on the Jones family and Penny’s friends. Again, Penny narrates her own adventures in her distinctive voice and offers her own slightly off-centre views on things. These books are easier for their young readers to navigate, as each volume features three separate stories, rather than a single longer plot. In our house, these are current favourites for re-reading in bed as comfy blanket reads.

Kjartan Poskitt’s Agatha Parrot series
In Agatha Parrot we have another less-than-perfect girl explaining her adventures to us. This series focuses more on Agatha’s friends than her family, with the first in the series being school-centred and the second more of a family story. These oddball stories feature an introduction to the gang at the start of the book, which helps children to figure out who’s who. Agatha’s narration is also aware of the reader and she carefully contextualises events and people for us.

Maudie Smith’s Opal Moonbaby series

This is the odd one out here, in that it’s not a first person narration. It still belongs, though, as adjectives like madcap and zany apply to it as much as the others here. It’s also the least real-world of these series, as Opal Moonbaby is an alien, and a lot of the humour here comes from Opal’s misunderstandings of our world. Only Opal Moonbaby is currently available, but we have heard that there will be others featuring her human friends Martha and Robbie. I reviewed Opal Moonbaby in January.

Cathy Cassidy’s Daizy Star series

Daizy Star is the only truly girly one of these series, perhaps because its audience is pitched slightly older (Daizy is in Year 6 and therefore aged 10-11, whereas Kes Gray’s Daisy has her seventh birthday in Daisy and the Trouble with Zoos). This series focuses on the effects on Daizy as her father is going through a mid-life crisis which prompts and interferes with Daizy’s various schemes for stardom. Again, Daizy tells us her own story and injects her narration with plenty of her own personal thoughts and feelings. School friends and other family members also feature in the stories, and Daizy has a personal nemesis in Ethan Miller, an annoying boy who her best friends both have a crush on.

Review: The Giants and the Joneses by Julia Donaldson

Author: Julia Donaldson
Title: The Giants and the Joneses
Genre: Fantasy adventure (Children’s)
Series: no
Publisher: Egmont
Published:  March 2010
Source: purchased on my Kindle

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Most giants don’t believe in iggly plops and, down on earth, humans don’t believe in giants either. But a real girl giant is on her way down the beanstalk, and the Joneses are about to find themselves in BIG trouble.

My verdict: A thrilling adventure to read with children 6+
This is not a gentle bedtime story. Rather, it is an exciting adventure with violence (almost) worthy of the Grimms. I read it with my (then) 7 year old and there were gasps and tears in a couple of places, and I was a bit surprised at some of the peril the human children found themselves in as toys of the giant girl Jumbelia. This is not to say that it’s inherently a problem, but it is perhaps better as a shared read for younger or more sensitive readers. To be honest, it’s probably more of a statement about how sanitised many kids’ stories have become, and it’s certainly true that the violence in this story is easily matched by many cartoons, but somehow it is more surprising enacted on human characters in a book.

The story features an invented language for the giants, with a glossary at the back. (Although for us, reading on a Kindle, we didn’t really see this until the end.) Most of the words are guessable in context anyway, and when there are whole songs or sayings in the giant language, the English translation is given in the main text. This language is fun, playful and inventive, and I’m sure most child readers will bring some of the giants’ words into their play as my daughter did.

For all the excitement and adventure, there is a moral core to this story which encourages children to think before making pets or toys of wild creatures. Children will not experience this as moralising, but they will absorb the messages about how the children are treated by Jumbelia, who doesn’t mean them any harm, but also doesn’t quite see them as living creatures who can be hurt.

Overall, I’d recommend this for fans of Donaldson’s picture books who are ready to move onto chapter books at bedtime. For the more delicate among them, though, her Princess Mirror-Belle adventures might be more suitable.

Review: Road to London by Barbara Mitchelhill

Author: Barbara Mitchelhill
Title: Road to London
Genre: Historical (children’s)
Series: none
Publisher: Andersen Press
Published: April 2012
Source: kindly sent for review by the author

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says:
When Thomas flees to London in search of life in the theatre, he meets his hero, William Shakespeare, and thinks his dream has come true. But Elizabethan London is a dangerous place full of scoundrels, treachery and murder. Thomas and his friend, Alice – a feisty girl with ambitions of her own – soon find themselves caught up in a treasonous plot to kill the queen. The question is: will they be able to find the villains without putting their own lives at risk? And what will happen to William Shakespeare if they don’t?

A galloping adventure with all the stink, grime and noise of Elizabethan London.

My verdict: a great historical adventure for kids.
I really enjoyed this one and am certain that confident readers will love it too. It would also make an enjoyable shared bedtime read for developing readers. The historical detail really brings the era to life: a child would learn a lot about the Tudor period by stealth as they enjoy Thomas’s adventures.

Thomas narrates the story and his charming voice quickly endears him to us. We first see him in his normal routine: attending school, interacting with his family, doing his chores and, of course, daydreaming of an acting career and idolising Shakespeare. These familiar activities, although the details are very different to modern children’s lives, will help contemporary child readers to relate to him as a young, ordinary lad with big dreams. He is rather naive and trusting, and this is highlighted more strongly once he meets and teams up with Alice, who is much more worldly wise. I really appreciated this dynamic, and the opportunities the plot provides for discussing gender issues. This is undoubtedly a book that will appeal to both genders, avoiding gender stereotypes and creating positive representations with believable and sympathetic characters.

The plot moves quickly, pulling us with Thomas and Alice into London as they dodge villains and struggle to survive. Characters are efficiently drawn and it is easy to feel you ‘know’ even quite peripheral characters. The presentation of Queen Elizabeth is deliciously disrespectful and a shining example of Thomas’s lively and realistically childlike voice.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to readers of around 8+ who enjoy adventure or are already interested in the Tudor period, Shakespeare or London. This book almost made me wish I taught younger kids so I could recommend it to them, or find some way of sneaking it into the curriculum. I shall content myself with recommending it here, and adding it to my daughter’s shelf.