Category Archives: Book review

New review: The World Made a Rainbow by Michelle Robinson illustrated by Emily Hamilton

First published in September 2020 by Bloomsbury, with a proportion of proceeds for every sale going to Save the Children, The World Made a Rainbow is a delightful and moving story sharing a message of hope for young children and families – that is relevant for any day you might be feeling blue. Bestselling author Michelle Robinson was desperate to find a way to help small children navigate their way through the complex emotions caused by the lockdown. With charming illustrations from new talent Emily Hamilton, The World Made a Rainbow is the ideal picture book to share with all the family, giving them just the lift and spark of hope needed at this time.

I will happily admit, that as we live through another lockdown, and as life feels a bit like a never-ending hamster wheel, this story was just the encouragement I needed when I read it. Empathy and understanding pours from every page, as a little girl and her mum decide to make a rainbow to help everyone feel better about being stuck at home. Soon her Dad and her brother are helping too, bringing the family together as they create a symbol of hope for all and recall the happy times they have shared. Told with a rhyming narrative and bright and colourful illustrations, the story cleverly highlights all the things we might miss most whilst having to stay at home- family, friends, school days, going outside on adventures. And it reminds us that all those things are still there and will be there when this time comes to an end, and we will be able to make new memories, together.

Gemma Sherrington, Executive Director of Fundraising and Marketing at Save the
Children said: “The money raised from the sale of this heartwarming book will go towards supporting Save the Children’s programmes to help every child reach their full potential and to make sure they stay safe, healthy and learning.”

To explore the themes in the book with young children, you can use the activity pack to help with opportunities to think about the things that make you happy and colour your own rainbow.

As we approach #BookGivingDay 2021, I can’t think of a better book to gift a child (and their family) at this time – or any day when life isn’t quite where you want it to be.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for sharing this title with me. Find out more at www.bloomsbury.com

BLOG TOUR: Opie Jones Talks to Animals by Nat Luurtsema, illustrated by Fay Austin

It’s BLOG TOUR time! What a great first book to host for 2021! Opie Jones Talks to Animals is written by stand-up comic, comedy writer and film-maker Nat Luurtsema, published by Egmont Books. In her first novel for middle-grade readers, she starts this new series with a bang in a brilliant twist on the traditional superhero story. Today is my stop on the blog tour and I’m sharing my review.

Opie Jones Talks to Animals by Nat Luurtsemam illustrated by Fay Austin

10-year-old Opie Jones is Very Ordinary. In fact nothing remarkable has ever
happened to her. So she is naturally very surprised when she is recruited to join
The Resistance – a team of superheroes who can read minds, and have a dastardly brainwashing villain to defeat. HOWEVER… it turns out Opie can’t read human minds, she can read ANIMAL ones. The other members of the Resistance are very disappointed. But when the brainwashing villain is out to get Opie and her friends, it might just be that listening to all the creatures great and small is what makes Opie Jones the right person to save the world.

What a fantastic read! It’s not always you find a book you want to read without stopping – I read this in two hours. Opie is a delightful character and alongside the animal mind-reader/superhero storyline, there’s also a whole theme around the challenges of making friends, feeling different and discovering that actually, most people feel like that for one reason or another. Opie is surrounded by a wonderful cast – her parents, Harvey and Violet, both actors and fabulously theatrical; Jackson, her handsome, but perhaps a little thoughtless friend; Cillian, her frenemy, unkind but perhaps hiding his own insecurities; The Resistance – never a group less likely to be superheroes! And of course, the animals. I will never look at my cats the same way after meeting Margot Von Catten – just brilliant! And then there’s worms, insects, all manner of birds, moles, dogs, frogs, badgers and more, all of whom have their own, hilarious and often unexpected personalities. Take Malcolm the guinea-pig and psyhco-therapist in the making! I absolutely loved the spotlights on these fantastic additions to the tale, brought to life with brilliantly expressive illustrations by Fay Austin. It’s not all fluffy bunnies though with dastardly villain, Hugo Varling planning a takeover of Opie’s schools with an evil, mind control plot. Well-paced, witty and full of moments of wisdom, I defy anyone to read this and not enjoy it (and also wish they could talk to animals afterwards…especially their cats!)

With thanks to Egmont Books for sending me this book to review and inviting me to participate in the blog tour! Don’t forget to check out the rest of the tour:

New reviews: A little middle-grade magic – great books for Christmas!

Today I’m sharing some middle-grade magic in the shape of fantastic books for middle-grade readers that I’ve enjoyed in recent months – all of which would make great Christmas gifts!

The Peculiar Thing with the Pea by Kaye Umansky illustrated by Claire Powell is a fantastic retelling of The Princess and the Pea. Prince Pete has no interest in getting married, after all he’s only 11! But his mother the Queen has other ideas and soon she’s putting her tried and tested method of using a pea to discover if Patsy really is the Princess she claims to be. An accessible read with lively illustrations, this story will have children laughing-out-loud and no doubt joining in with some of the eye-rolling at the embarrassing-mum moments! Published by Barrington Stoke, find out more The Peculiar Thing with the Pea – Barrington Stoke

Lori and Max and the Book Thieves by Catherine O’Flynn is the second in the series featuring two school friends who have a penchant for solving mysteries! Warm-hearted and thoroughly enjoyable, this story sees Lori and Max solving several mysteries with a priceless book at the heart of the equation. Not just a mystery story though, there are layers of emotion as Lori and Max deal with multiple real-life issues and use all their determination and the power of their friendship to find the solutions. A standalone adventure, this is a great addition to the series. Published by Firefly Press, find out more Lori and Max and the Book Thieves | Firefly Press

The Marvellous Land of Snergs by Veronica Cossanteli illustrated by Melissa Castrillon is a total delight! A forgotten classic first published in 1927, the story has been brought back to life with the support of the family of the the original author E.A Wyke-Smith. Pip and Flora, running away from a Children’s Home, stumble into the Marvellous Land of the Snergs – a magical world of cinnamon bears and incredible feasts alongside vegan ogres, dastardly Kelps and a purple-wearing villain. Enter Gorbo, a lovable snerg who proves to be Pip and Flora’s only friend. But can he help them find their way home? A fabulous adventure ensues, full of everything you would expect from the story that is said to have inspired J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Marvellous by name, marvellous by nature, this totally deserves it’s place as a classic and will surely find it’s way into the hearts of a new generation of readers. Published by Chicken House, find out more Chicken House Books – Marvellous Land of Snergs

Little Badman and the Time-Travelling Teacher of Doom by Humza Arshad and Henry White, illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff sees the return of the wannabe rapper, Humza aka Little Badman and his best friend Umer. This time they have been sent away to summer school in Pakistan, and something strange is going on. Humza is convinced there’s a sinister plot and given recent experiences with Alien Aunties, perhaps he’s right! Guaranteed mayhem and chaos, hilarious observations and a huge helping of laugh-out-loud humour; if you are looking for a funny book for the middle-grade readers in your life, then Little Badman is it! Published by Puffin, find out more Little Badman and the Time-travelling Teacher of Doom (penguin.co.uk) Read my review of Little Badman’s first outing here.

Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre retold by Tanya Landman brings two classics of English literature to a new audience, in these accessible retellings. The Carnegie Medal-winning author uses her critically acclaimed writing talents to take both these stories to new heights, accentuating key elements and scenes into a more concise format. The stories lose none of their timelessness nor any of the power of the characters they portray. Both of these titles would be a great way to introduce the classics to a new generation of readers in an accessible format, giving the stories a new lease of life. Published by Barrington Stoke, find out more Wuthering Heights: A Retelling by Tanya Landman – Barrington Stoke

Trouble in a Tutu by Helen Lipscombe is the sequel to the critically acclaimed Peril en Pointe (review here) and returns to the Swan House Ballet School – a secret spy training school! This time, Milly must investigate a dangerous trickster in the shape of the ‘Mouse King’ as he threatens the safety of everyone at the school. Milly has to contend with suspects all around, making sure her jealously of a new arrival doesn’t blind her investigations. Full of adventure and themes of friendship at it’s heart, this is middle-grade espionage at it’s best, perfectly combining the art of ballet with the world of spies! Published by Chicken House, find out more Chicken House Books – Trouble in a Tutu

With thanks to Barrington Stoke, Chicken House, Firefly Press and Puffin Books for sending me these books to review.

New reviews: Wonderful children’s books for Christmas – and all year round!

Today I’m sharing my thoughts on some beautiful picture books written by brilliant authors and illustrators who have created stories that will capture the imagination and bring a smile to readers faces – young and old. These books would make lovely Christmas gifts to be enjoyed all year round!

Delightfully Different Fairy Tales written by Lynn Roberts Maloney and illustrated by David Roberts is a stunning treasury gift collection of these original and captivating takes on fairy tales we know and love. The series has sold nearly 60, 000 copies and delighted young readers (and many adult readers too) with brilliant portrayals of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel, each set in a different historical period and showing these familiar characters in a totally different light! No longer the damsels in distress, our heroines are enterprising and resourceful and will inspire a new generation of young readers to be the the same. Spellbinding storytelling and stunning illustration unite to create a beautiful gift edition ideal to enjoy together and share as a family. Published in hardback by Pavilion, find out more David Roberts’ Delightfully Different Fairytales | Pavilion Books

The Pocket Chaotic written by Ziggy Hanaor and illustrated by Daniel Gray-Barnett brings to life a delightful family of kangaroos, in a story of a journey towards independence. Alexander lives in his mum’ pocket and despite his sister’s protestations that it’s time he moved into his own bedroom, he insists on staying! But as his Mum gets more and more chaotic, and fills her pocket with everything from her mobile phone to old sweet wrappers, Alexander finds there’s less and less space for him to snuggle. Maybe his sister is right?! Delightful illustrations bring the kangaroos to life and there’s a lovely lesson about the inevitability of growing up – but not being as scary as you think. A quirky tale to enjoy throughout the year! Published in hardback by Cicada Books, find out more The Pocket Chaotic — Cicada Books

The Tooth Fairy written by Samuel Langley-Swain and illustrated by David Ortu is a fantastic new series from The Royal Mint, bringing the Tooth Fairy tradition bang up to date! The series centres on twins Ollie and Grace who have just lost their first tooth. Their Grandpa reveals that for generations, tooth fairies and coin makers have been secretly working together from The Royal Mint, to make sure every child receive a shiny new coin for their tooth! Featuring a host of magical characters, the first two titles The Tooth Fairy and the Home of the Coin Makers and The Tooth Fairy and the Magical Journey are sure to delight the imaginations of young readers all year round! Published in paperback by The Royal Mint, find out more The Tooth Fairy | The Royal Mint

Music A Fold-Out Graphic History written by Nicolas O’Neill and Susan Hayes illustrated by Ruby Taylor is a simply gorgeous book celebrating the history of music, produced in association with The Royal Albert Hall. If ever we needed to celebrate our arts and heritage, it’s now and this books achieves this in spades! Showing how music has been a part of the way we live for thousands of years, children will discover music in prehistoric and ancient times, right up to music we know and love today. There’s a focus on the Royal Albert Hall of Fame and this book brilliantly reminds us why music is at the heart of culture and even has a playlist at the end so children can experience it for themselves. A wonderful book to share with incredible detail and fold out pages, this is a great gift for Christmas. Published in hardback by What on Earth Books, find out more Music – A Fold-Out Graphic History – What on Earth Publishing What On Earth? Books

The Three Wishes A Christmas Story by Alan Snow is a wonderful origin story of some of our most beloved Christmas traditions. If you’ve ever wondered how Santa Claus came to be, how he visits every child in one night, how his reindeer fly and why he wears a red coat, then this story is the answer! With beautiful illustrations and a tale that feels truly authentic, as if it had been passed down through generations, The Three Wishes is an original take on a story we love to imagine. A wonderful book to share with children this Christmas. Published in hardback by Pavilion Books, find out more The Three Wishes | Pavilion Books

With thanks to Cicada Books, Pavilion Books, The Royal Mint and What on Earth Books for sending me these books to review.

GUEST POST: Author Catherine Bruton on Another Twist in the Tale and Creating Characters the Dickensian way!

It’s the second Victorian-inspired blog this month in celebration of the launch of Mr Dilly’s A Very Victorian Christmas, the festive treat for primary schools that the whole school community can enjoy! I’m really excited to welcome Catherine Bruton to the blog, author of No Ballet Shoes in Syria and most recently, the Oliver-Twist inspired Another Twist in the Tale. Today, I share my review of this wonderful tale and Catherine is sharing some wonderful insight into creating Dickensian characters.

You have heard, no doubt, the tale of Master Oliver Twist – that rags-to-riches boy; the parish orphan who became heir to the Brownlow fortune. But what few know is that was a second Twist – a girl, brought into this world moments ahead of her brother. This is the story of Twill Twist – and her journey through the gambling dens and workhouses of London, as she attempts to make a life for herself, rescue her friends, and uncover the mystery of her past – while meeting some familiar faces along the way…

For me, Oliver Twist always brings back memories of Christmas – the musical version was always on at Christmas time and who can fail to recall Ron Moody’s fantastic performance as Fagin?! And now, author Catherine has brought to life Dickens’ Victorian London again, with the most wonderful twist, as the title suggests. Meet Twill, none other than Oliver Twist’s twin sister, rescued from death by Baggage Jones, herself a young girl fighting for survival in Victorian London. Intertwining characters from the original story – including the wonderful Artful Dodger- with utterly delightful new faces, Catherine weaves a world fraught with danger for Twill as she navigates her way through the backstreets of Victorian London, trying to discover the truth about her past. Another Twist in the Tale is one of the most authentic, engaging and downright enjoyable books I’ve read in recent times and I am really pleased to welcome Catherine to the blog with a brilliant post about creating Dickensian characters. Welcome to the blog Catherine!

Creating Incredible Characters – the Dickensian way! By Catherine Bruton

“What was the best thing about writing ‘Another Twist in the Tale’, my sequel to Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ set in Victorian London and featuring Oliver’s long lost twin sister? That’s easy – it was the characters! Rediscovering familiar old faces from Dickens – the Artful Dodger, Fagin and Oliver Twist himself  – and creating a host of exciting new heroes and villains of my own – Baggage Jones, the Monstrous Madame Manzoni and Miss Twill Twist –  was just so much fun!  So what did I learn from Dickens about how to create incredible characters?

Names

From Mr Pumblechook, Martin Chuzzlewit, Ebenezer Scrooge, Pip Pirrip, The Aged P, the Artful Dodger, Mr Jaggers, Abel Magwitch and The Barnacles  to Creake, Crumple, Cripples and Cruncher, Dickens’ character names are as weird and wonderful, glorious and grotesque, sad and funny and moving and brilliant as Dickens’ incredible cast of characters themselves. So how did he do it?

Well, Dickens knew how to play with sounds, from the assonantal Scrooge and Drood, the plosive Pip Pirrip, the alliterative Newman Noggs and Nicholas Nickleby, to the onomatopoeic Creakle and Jingle and Crimple.  And he loved using homophones and puns too – Micawbre/Macabre, Jaggers/Jagged, Uriah/Urine, Claypole/Maypole, Krooks/Crook, to name but a few. Sometimes the word association goes further – from McChoakumchild, choking all the joy out of children, to the deadly Lady Dedlock and the heartless Harthouse. Dickens also  enjoyed using everyday objects in his names – Bucket, Pocket, Guppy, Slime and Honeythunder – and he was the absolute master of the pithy epithet: who can forget The Artful Dodger, The Avenger and The Aged P?

So I gave myself licence to have fun with names in ‘Another Twist in the Tale’. I have my own alliterative heroes and villains – from Tommy Tickle, Madame Manzoni, Bob the Butcher’s Boy to Twill Twist herself (not that she becomes a Twist right away!) as well as my own associative names – Mrs Spanks who is famous for her beatings, Fleet who is fast and stinky as the river she takes her name from, and the cherubic Angel.

Names in ‘Another Twist in the Tale’ are particularly important because many of my characters’ names have been lost – or found! ‘Baggage Jones was quite sure she’d had another name once but it had been lost like a penny down the floorboards or an odd sock in the laundry  … she  had spent her fourteen years on this earth being addressed thus ‘Get over ‘ere, you baggage … Fetch this, you useless baggage …. Get on, you baggage you’ – that she had come to believe Baggage was indeed her name.’ Similarly, all of the members of the Sassy Sisterhood of Saffon Hill are named after the places where they were found, shivering and starving on the streets – ‘There was Sloane whose half-closed eye and scarred cheek had been gained in an encounter with the Old Bill on the King’s Road, Chelsea who has slept a whole winter in the snow on Eaton Terrace and little Angel who has been found starving on a street corner in Islington.’ Poor Piccadilly and Trafalgar – the asymmetrical twins – come off rather worse in this particular naming strategy! Meanwhile, many of the urchins who find themselves prey to the exploitative Blacking Factory sweatshop are nameless – ‘the latest arrival had no idea what his name was so the boys called him Nemo (which means nobody)’  Oh, and there’s  the one known simply as Boy Number 12 (my nod to ‘Hard Times’!)

Meanwhile some of my names are riddles. The mysterious Mr Barrabas (not his real name!) takes his pseudonym from another literary baddie who poisoned his own daughter and a houseful of nuns with porridge (can you name the author and the play?) Oh, and this evil gentleman’s name also links him to another famous Dickensian villain to whom he bears a striking resemblance. ‘Mother Earth’ and the mysterious Mrs C also have names that prove to be riddles to be solved before our heroine can save the day. Meanwhile, Madame Manzoni is a tribute to one of my favourite characters from a classic novel NOT by Dickens! I shall leave the literary sleuths amongst you to figure out who (look out for the clue later on in the blog!)

As for  Miss Twill (Twist/Brownlow) Jones – also known as Camberwell, Will Camberwell or  just South o’ th’ River to her friends – well, our plucky heroine loses a name,  gains a name, changes her name, throws off  a name and gets a brand new one at the end! Yes, names are a big part of this story!

Appearance

Dickens’ character descriptions are famously gloriously visual, almost cartoon-like at times. His characters come in different shapes (the ‘square’ Mr Gradgrind), sizes (Tiny Tim) and colours (just think of Miss Havisham’s wedding attire faded to sere yellow, like her hopes!) and his descriptions are peppered with wonderful metaphors and similes  – who can forget the letterbox mouth of Mr Wopsle?

So, you can just imagine how much fun I had creating my own character descriptions, drawing on Dickens’ techniques and allowing myself licence to exaggerate as much as I liked. There’s the monstrous Madame Manzoni ‘who had once been a diminutive bird-like woman of singular beauty. But over the years a monstrous accumulation of flesh had descended upon her tiny body like lava upon a doomed city, burying the fairy-like girl in waves and waves of undulating white flesh’. Or Baggage Jones, ‘a scrawny scrap of a creature who bore a squashed appearance as of clothing hastily scrumpled.’ Or Twill Jones who ‘shared all her brother’s angelic beauty, but her big blue eyes shone with a fierce light and there was a determined tilt to her chin and firm set to her rose-petal mouth which reflected her fearless temper.’

And I had the most brilliant fun inventing suitably Dickensian metaphors and similes: ‘wobbling like a colossal blancmange’, ‘a tall hot, poker of a woman’, ‘tiny beady eyes that glimmered like currants in the swelling pudding of her doughy face’, ‘an eyebrow raised like a slug wriggling on a vast mountain of lard’, ‘he had the soft, plump features of a newborn and not much more hair on his head than a babe-in-arms neither’, ‘a squat looking girl with the appearance of a pugilistic pug’. Yes, when it comes to creating Dickensian characters it’s all about the imagery – the more weird, wonderful and grotesque the better!

Voices

During a trip to the Dickens’ Museum in London I learned that the great man would ‘act out’ his characters in front of a mirror to get the voices right (I even got to stand in front of the actual looking glass and mutter a few of the Artful Dodger’s choicest phrases!)  Dickens uses dialogue almost like a play-write to evoke his characters’ idiosyncrasies. From Mr Sleary’s lisp and Harthouse’s lazy drawl, to the catchphrases for which so many of his characters are famous – Fagin’s obsequious ‘my dear!’, Scrooge’s ‘Bah Humbug!’, Uriah Heep’s ‘Umble’  to Jo the Crossing Sweeper’s ‘I don’t know nothink’ and Stephen Blackpool’s ‘Tis all a muddle!’ not forgetting my personal favourite, Joe Gargery’s ‘Ever the best of friends!’

Dickens researched the idiolect of his characters carefully, studying a book of Lancashire dialect before writing ‘Hard Times’ and introducing into his  London novels the earthy  Cockney slang associated with the working class, the theatre, or the criminal underworld,  such terms as butter-fingers (a clumsy person), flummox (bewilder), sawbones (surgeon), and whizz-bang (sound of a gunshot). He also made up plenty of words of his own – comfoozled meaning exhausted is my particular favourite. He turned nouns into verbs (and vice versa) ‘I won’t submit to be mother-in-lawed’ declares Fanny – adding prefixes and suffixes, and creating compound words, many of which have found their way into the Oxford English Dictionary (manslaughter and corkscrew apparently!). This playfulness with language lends a richness and variety to his  novels and particularly to his dialogue, bringing characters vividly and memorably to life.

So, as a writer who spends a (possibly worrying!) amount of time ‘acting out’  characters in my head – and sometimes out loud, too (I frequently find myself talking in role as I potter round the supermarket or on the school run!), this was music to my ears. I loved going back to my well-thumbed copy of ‘Oliver Twist’ and studying the dialect of Fagin, Bumble, Dodger and other characters. This allowed me to mimic the cadences and rhythm of their speech, as well as echoing the syntax, peculiar idiosyncrasies of grammar, lexical sets and other idiolect features (yes, my English teacher geekhood quivering with delight!)

Oh, and I rather fell in love with Philip Thorne’s appendix in the Penguin Classics edition with its glorious list of Dickensian slang which I devoured hungrily, allowing me to pepper the Sassy Sisters’ dialogue with some of the choicest Victorian vernacular.  I gave my characters their own catchphrases – ‘Spare the spoon and spoil the child,’ ‘Beauty is your duty’ – and allowed myself to go fully to town on accents, phonetic spelling – and even the occasional made up word of my own!

Yes, Dickens’ characters inspired many children’s authors, from Roald Dahl to J K Rowling, and his methods of characterisation are so distinctive that his creations live long in the memory. Following in his footsteps was the most incredible fun as a writer and when young readers close the covers of ‘Another Twist in the Tale’ I hope it might inspire them to check out one of Dickens’ stories for themselves. I love the idea that Twill Twist might introduce readers to her long lost brother Oliver and  Nancy and Bill Sykes, to  Pip and Magwitch and  Miss Havisham, to Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim, to Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield and many more of  the glorious characters and unforgettable adventures created by the inimitable Charles Dickens!”

Another Twist in the Tale by Catherine Bruton is published by Nosy Crow (5th November 2020, £7.99 paperback). With thanks to Nosy Crow for sending me this book to review.