Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Wizards of Once, by Cressida Cowell - reviewed by Sue Purkiss

This is the first of a new series by Cressida Cowell, author of the very popular 'How to Train your Dragon' series. That was rooted in the world of the Vikings; this is set in a magical long-ago time in
Britain, when woods covered the islands were truly wild.

There are two sets of beings: the Wizards, who are magical but well-intentioned, and the Warriors, who have no magic but do have iron, against which magic has no power. There was also a third set, the Witches. These had magic but were evil, and have been destroyed by the Warriors. Unfortunately, in their zeal to rid the world of the Witches and their evil, they have decided that every other magical creature must also be destroyed.

There are hints of Shakespeare's The Tempest - one of the characters is called Sycorax, for example. But there is also a nod to Romeo and Juliet: Xar, the son of the leader of the Wizards, the Enchanter, meets up with Wish, the daughter of the Queen of the Warriors, Sycorax. In a twist, Xar so far shows no signs of having magic, whereas it seems that Wish perhaps does. The two children at first squabble, but later become friends.

First Xar is captured by the Warriors, then Wish falls into the hands of the Wizards, or possibly it's the other way around. You get the feeling that everyone quite enjoys these tussles. But something much darker is going on. At the beginning of the book, Xar has found a huge black feather. He's convinced that it's a witch's feather, and he thinks that if he can summon up a witch, this will help him to gain access to the magic he desperately wants. But he utterly underestimates the power and the evil which will be unleashed if these creatures are allowed to return...

Xar and his father, the Enchanter

Xar and Wish are both delightful characters. Xar is impulsive, disobedient, and very likeable. Wish is more serious, and more wistful; she's treated with contempt by her powerful, beautiful mother, but still wishes to please her - just as Xar wants to please his charismatic father, the Enchanter. There's a host of delightful magical creatures and other acolytes of the two children too. The book is a beautiful object: hard-backed, chunky, and lavishly illustrated by Cressida Cowell. (The pictures of animals in particular, such as the wolves above, are really beautiful.) She has created another very engaging world, and I suspect this series will prove as popular as the first.


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A Note Of Explanation by Vita Sackville–West illustrated by Kate Baylay. Review by Lynda Waterhouse

A Note of Explanation is being published by the Royal Collection Trust for the first time since its creation in the 1920’s in a 250 x175mm sized cloth bound edition with stunning illustrations by Kate Bayley.
The original miniature copy of this book is housed in the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle. This Little Tale of Secrets and Enchantment was hand written by Vita Sackville-West and housed alongside works by Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad ,Edith Wharton and  numerous other authors in the dolls’ house library. The book plates were designed by Winnie the Pooh illustrator E.H Shepherd.
Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House is more an architectural model than child’s plaything. It was designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens at the request of one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter’s, Princess Marie Louise. She wanted to create a gift for her childhood friend Queen Mary. The house with all its miniature working models forms a perfect record of an Edwardian country house created in the aftermath of the First World War.
No dolls live inside its lavish interiors. There is a tiny doll in the nursery, a cat and a mouse in the kitchen and a snail and a bird’s nest in the garden. But in Vita Sackville-West’s story the house is inhabited by a lively inquisitive time travelling house sprite.
Prior to moving in she had waved Cinderella off to her ball and been present when the Prince kissed the Sleeping Beauty. One of her most treasured possessions was the pea which had given the Princess such a sleepless night. She has visited Scheherazade (whom she thought long-winded and a bore), Aladdin’s palace and travelled through the centuries always following the fashion of the country and the day.
Once installed in the house she makes full use of all the facilities in the house; riding up and down in the lift, bathing in the malachite bath, testing all the beds  and generally making a mess around the place.
The author Vita Sackville-West was a poet, novelist and garden designer, best known for designing the gardens of Sissinghurst Castle.  She is also known for her relationship with Virginia Woolf, and being the inspiration for her 1928 novel Orlando.  Dedicated to Sackville-West, Orlando tells the story of a fashion conscious, gender-fluid poet who lives for centuries, meeting famous historical figures along the way. Sounds familiar? Sackville-West created this story with its similar concept four years earlier.
 Kate Bayley’s beautiful art-deco style illustrations are perfect for this story reflecting the wit and playfulness of the text.
This would be a delightful story to read aloud. Children familiar with Downton Abbey or Agatha Christie dramas on television will relish the language.

ISBN 978 1 909741 52 2

Published by Royal Collection Trust


Friday, 10 November 2017

THE BEAUTIFUL ONE by Frances Thomas. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

   Readers who enjoyed Frances Thomas's recent Girls of Troy trilogy will welcome this story (available in e-book form only) which goes back in time and visits Helen of Sparta as a young girl.

   The story begins with Helen waking to find a swan's feather on her bed. The appearance of this feather at key moments serves to remind Helen of the whispers that her mother was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan. Helen is aware of a weight of destiny, but doesn't know what it is that lies ahead of her. For the reader, however, certain names - Paris, Iphigenia, Agamemnon - drop into the narrative and send out ripples of premonition.

   The emphasis in this beautifully written short novel is on Helen's thoughts and feelings. Frances Thomas wisely avoids the modern tendency to make her heroine unrealistically active and assertive. Helen often wishes she could have a life more like that of her beloved brothers, but she knows she can't achieve it. So this is mainly an 'interior' story, but none the less compelling for that. Helen's thoughts, hopes and fears are so involving that the narrative never feels slow. We tend to think of Spartan women as bold and active because in later times they were trained for combat and the whole society was warlike, but it was different in Helen's time, especially for a princess, and we see Helen and her sister Clytemnestra living very restricted lives, rarely leaving the palace and its surrounds, but occupied with weaving and waiting to be married. No other future was possible for them. So it's hardly surprising that Helen spends a lot of time wondering about love and sex and childbearing.

   She also thinks about her own beauty, which is already famous. Not surprisingly, she finds it something of a burden - the more so when the terrifying, brutish Theseus visits her father and makes it clear that he wants Helen for his wife.

   The climax of the story is the arrival of suitors from all the warring kingdoms and the ensuing mayhem as they drink and fight and vie for Helen's hand. At the end of this Helen must choose the man she will marry.

   This is a realistic picture of a violent time - a man's world in which rival kingdoms struggled for power. Frances Thomas does not pull any punches in showing just how hard a world it was for women to inhabit.

Published by sBooks (an imprint of SilverWood Books), 2017.   E-book only.


Tuesday, 7 November 2017


I’ve always loved seeing small groups of children poring over favourite "sharing" books. I like the way they talk about the pictures and pages, pointing out characters and interesting things and making or retelling their own mini-stories. Sharing with friends or with grown-ups – especially those who enjoy the playfulness of the task and delight in funny choices - is a positive and friendly part of a child’s reading experience.

Today’s review includes three titles that fit into the “books for sharing” picture book category.

YOU CHOOSE IN SPACE, created by NICK SHARRATT and PIPPA GOODHART, is the latest title in the popular You Choose design formula, offering a tool-kit of “space” ideas to enjoy and bright, detailed spreads. The young readers are led through the spreads by two “human” characters ( a boy in a wheel-chair and a mixed-race girl) whose speech-bubble suggestions help the reader to create their own individual imaginary story. What job will you do on the space ship as you fly to Planet Pick and Mix? What clothes and shoes, friends and monsters and more will you choose? The spreads are full of ideas and visual jokes while across the end-papers, just inside the covers, are examples of wonderfully expanded adventures to guide the space journey.

CHRISTMAS FAIRY TALE MIX-UP, my second “sharing book”, comes from HILARY ROBINSON. (Mixed-Up Fairy Tales, created by Hilary and Nick Sharratt, has been a favourite in schools for some years.) CHRISTMAS FAIRY TALE MIX-UP, her newest title, is another in the hands-on, split-page, spiral-bound format, but this time illustrated by Jim Smith. Children can flip and re-arrange the flaps to create story variations involving characters like Santa Claus, Jack Frost, Cinderella, Snow White, Christmas Fairy and more. So, for example, the three flaps could create Little Red Riding Hood / went shopping for a special present for / the Big Bad Wolf or Santa Claus / got stuck in the chimney of the house belonging to / the Three Little Pigs  or several alternative combinations.

HIDE AND SEEK, the third picture book, is told in a much quieter and more thoughtful mode than the titles above. HIDE AND SEEK is by well-established illustrator ANTHONY BROWNE, with scenes that remind me of earlier books, especially his version of Hansel and Gretel.  Poppy and her bored, younger brother Cy are in the caravan, feeling sad because their puppy Goldie is missing. Poppy takes Cy outside and sends him off to hide in the wood outside their door. As Poppy seeks for Cy, and Cy waits to be found, the wood takes on a shadowy feel and strange, surreal things are glimpsed, half-hidden, within the spooky trees. What can you find? asks the book. I felt the items were very well hidden, but thankfully, there's a page at the back listing the eighteen hidden objects, and HIDE AND SEEK does have the hoped-for happy surprise ending. There's an anxious mood to the spreads which, combined with the lack of any parent roles around in the story, makes me feel that it would be good to have a book-sharing, talking adult by your side for comfort as much as for help with the seeking task. I felt HIDE AND SEEK is more suited to book-shelves and book-boxes of KS1 than to EYFS collections.

I wonder if you have any favourite sharing books?

Reviews by Penny Dolan


Thursday, 2 November 2017

Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul, reviewed by Emma Perry

The shelves of many a book store are choc-o-block with tomes about writing. Bursting at the seams, jostling for position – the array is mind boggling.

I confess to owning a sizeable selection. Some are finished, some are not. Plenty have been flicked through – all with great, grand intentions. But the one that reached out to me, that held my attention and grabbed hold of my imagination, was Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books.

My copy of Writing Picture Books is always within reach. It’s filled with brightly coloured sticky notes and is often referred to – both as a source of inspiration and for more practical tips.

The style and tone is both informative and personal as Ann begins with her own tale of countless rejection letters from editors whom she assumed simply must be wrong. Haven’t we all assumed that?! But, as most writers finally discover…

‘Completing a draft of your story is not the end of the writing process. It is only the beginning.’

And so Writing Picture Books takes the would-be picture book writer by the hand and guides them through this process. It encourages careful, timely revision helping writers to build a more objective approach to the polishing of their craft.

Writing Picture Books is divided in to helpful, logical sections which guide you through the process of honing your own picture book writing skills. The first, and one of the most important, is looking at picture books from a different perspective – from that of a writer. Look at the how, and why, behind what seems to work so effortlessly. Consider the child’s perspective. Always. Respect your young audience. Know children – what they like, how they see the world.

From here Ann guides us through point of view, followed by an entire chapter dedicated to the all important voice. Crucial.

A large comprehensive section is dedicated to structure – how to develop your character, how to handle varied action, then build to the crucial ending.

For me a stand-out features of Writing Picture Books was the wide range of activities and prompts, the constant reminder to read, READ, read picture books, and finally the guidance on what to do next. I wouldn't be without my copy.

Emma Perry is a picture book writer represented by Bell Lomax Moreton. She is the founder of MyBookCorner and organiser of International Book Giving Day. 
Twitter: @_EmmaPerry


Saturday, 28 October 2017


Sometimes, as you start reading a new book, you forget that you know the writer personally, finding yourself instead in the grip of a wonderfully well-written story. Who is it by? you vaguely think. Who? . . . Oh! . . .Of course!  It’s So-and-so’s book! How nice! I’d forgotten that . . . What a pleasure!

Which is what happened as I read JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY, a novel for 8-12 year olds, written by Sue Purkiss, co-editor of the Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

Inspired by the lives of 18th century plant-hunters, Sue has written a fast-moving historical adventure story.  Jack Fortune, the young hero, is energetic and interestingly naughty. Bored and with no school to attend, he can’t resist devising tricks - ones that made me laugh - mostly on his stern widowed Aunt Constance and her guests. He is immediately likeable and trouble!

Jack accidentally causes real damage, so Constance summons her scholarly bachelor brother, Uncle Edmund, as it is his turn to take responsibility for his nephew. Uncle Edmund refuses.

 Not only is he unused to children, but he is about to set off on his first plant-hunting trip to India. Jack, hearing this exciting news, wants to go along with Uncle Edmund and Aunt Constance, unable to take any more, agrees.

 Jack and his uncle  and the reader – experience a new life full of challenge and interesting people and places. They sail to Calcutta, cross the great plain and travel through the jungle before reaching a high mountain kingdom with a hidden valley. All the way, Jack and his uncle face setbacks and dangers: vagabonds, wild animals,  “mountain sickness” and, at last, reports of a huge, legendary being who attacks intruders to the Hidden Valley. Moreover, an unknown traitor is spoiling the expedition party’s food supplies and causing problems with local villagers.  Who wishes them ill? Is it Sonam, their guide or Thondup, the heir to the throne, whom Jack has begun to admire?

Sue Purkiss’s plot moves along with plenty of pace and action and just enough description to fix the story in its historical time and place, and without overloading her young reader’s enjoyment. She also touches lightly and skilfully on darker issues such as servants and colonisation, but lets the bold adventure end as happily as it should.

However, I felt the book was about more than the plant-hunting quest: Jack and Uncle Edmund make a wonderfully odd and warm partnership, and the hardships met on the expedition teach them more about the other. Bookish Uncle Edmund slowly reveals his bravely determined nature and his passion for plant-hunting - especially for the blue flower that will restore the family fame and fortune. Meanwhile, faced with real demands and responsibilities rather than tea-parties and polite manners, Jack becomes the boy hero he was meant to be and is even able to accept his own inherited artistic gifts.

I liked JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY very much because, despite the difficulties Jack and his Uncle face, the adventure is a positive and hopeful experience and one that might encourage children to look beyond everyday life and issues in school and out into a wider world.

Alma Books have also created some downloadable activities to support of this title:

as well as an interview with the author Sue Purkiss:                                                                          

Penny Dolan


Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Pirate Baby by Mary Hoffman & Ros Asquith reviewed by Chitra Soundar

My five-year old nephew is not into pirates. He thinks it’s strange that a grown-up like me likes them. I love pirates and their adventures, although the last time I was on high seas, I spent the whole day in front of a bucket.

Being a big fan of Amazing Grace, I delved into Mary Hoffman’s Pirate Baby (published by Otter Barry Books) with relish. The illustrations by Ros Asquith are full of fun and naughtiness – keep an eye on the cat and the parrot, lest they should run away with a story of their own.

The pirates in this book are faced with an impossible situation – surely they went in search of treasures and finding a screaming baby wasn’t really a sign of good luck? The pirates from the school of hard-knocks try and keep the baby fed and looked after as best as they could.

But then if you have a baby you need milk and where do you get milk on a ship? The pirates are not known for drinking milk. But they come up with a clever plan. The pirates get resourceful – to feed the baby, to make clothes and to protect her from falling overboard. What more could a baby ask for?

Well the baby didn’t ask for a monster to attack them either. But her resourcefulness saves the pirates and earns her a place in the crew. Now she’s not just a baby or bad luck, she’s a pirate baby on a pirate ship.

This book is full of energy and fun and would have children chuckling and giggling for a long time. But it’s also subtly reversing roles among the pirates (check out the fierce lady pirates they meet) and showing there’s a place for a girl anywhere she wants to go and in anything she wants to do.

I’m hoping my nephew who’s not into pirates will love this book when I share it with him because it’s important for young children to understand that there are no set gender rules and anyone can be a pirate if they want to be. Although they do need a strong stomach to withstand the high seas. Not me then, sadly.

If you like pirate stories like me, maybe you can also check out these:
  • Johnny Duddle’s The Pirate Cruncher
  • Pirate Pete and his smelly feet by Lucy Rowland & Mark Chambers
  • Ten Little Pirates by Mike Brownlow and Simon Rickerty 

And on this site, we have all reviewed a number of wonderful pirate books. Click here to see all of our pirate recommendations.

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, storyteller and author of children’s books, based in London. Find out more at or follow her on twitter via @csoundar.