Saturday, 26 May 2018

Ella On The Outside, by Cath Howe, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Ella, on the cover of this book, is pointing a camera at YOU!  It’s Ella’s photographing of somebody’s private moment into an image that is almost instantly passed on to appease a bully ‘friend’, that brings this story to its crisis point.  

Knowing that Ella does such an intrusive and disloyal thing might make you inclined to dislike her.  But author Cath Howe has been very clever and humane in the way that she handles Ella’s story.  By the time we get to that moment of betrayal by Ella, we have a distinct feeling of ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’.  Can we honestly say that we, in her position, wouldn’t have done something similar?

Ella arrives in a new home and at a new school burdened with her mother’s insistence that nobody should get to know that her father is in prison.  She’s also embarrassed by the eczema she tries to hide.  ‘Some people are edge people in playgrounds’, says Ella in this first person narrative.  Ella is an ‘edge person’ until the popular girl shows an interest in her, but her ‘friendship’ comes with conditions.  She wants gossip about the other ‘edge person’ in Willow Class.  Poor Molly is also hiding secrets.  

This is a very accessible read aimed at 8-12 year olds, refreshingly honest and kind and unsensational as Ella tells her story in a way that carries us with her, longing to know whether or not it can reach a positive conclusion.

This is a book which will speak directly to many children, and open the eyes of others.  Highly recommended.


Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Greta Zargo and the Amoeba Monsters From the Middle of the Earth by A.F Harrold - illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton, Reviewed by Dawn Finch

So, that's possibly the longest title I've ever squashed into a box in a review! Let's do this thing... first, the blurb.

 Greta is an ordinary(ish) eleven-year-old orphan girl with journalistic aspirations. This weekend she's writing a big story about the Thirteenth Annual Festival of New Stuff (TAFoNS for short), being hosted by her absent-minded inventor aunt... who has gone missing. Can Greta find her aunt and answer the riddle of her mysterious missingness?

In the meantime, all across the town, people are being eaten by giant amoeba monsters that have emerged from the pit at the end of Greta's garden.

And, for various complicated reasons, only Greta stands in their way...

Before I get to the review, I need to confess to something. I can't write funny books. I mean, I've really tried but it never sounds convincing and always ends up feeling exactly what it is - clunky and amateur. I can write short bits that are funny, but I can't sustain it. I envy people who can write funny, and A.F Harrold totally nails it.

Greta is the perfect central character, and we first met her in Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space. Greta is an independent 11 year old (for complicated but perfectly reasonable reasons) and it has fallen to her to save the people of Earth from all sorts of hideous things. In this (book 2) she is (obviously) saving us all from jellylike amoeba monsters who have a voracious appetite and a tendency to swarm over living things and dissolve them.

Along the way we meet all sorts of wonderful characters (although I can't say I'm exactly happy with the librarian from the Immobile Library - elderly lady in a tweed skirt? hmmm - although I'd love a tiny ostrich, and I do have a tweed skirt...) Where was I? Oh yes, wonderful characters. Loads of 'em, and all wind the adventure along until things speed up towards a thrilling and very satisfying climax.

Along the way we are treated to Harrolds' clever and slightly twisted sense of humour. I genuinely laughed out loud at the names and witty twists. How could I not laugh at Bogof Boredom, Hester Sometimes, Hamnet Ovenglove (world champion onion wrestler) and Rashomon O'Donoghue (All-England Tiddlyblinks champion).
A bit of Joe Todd-Stanton's work that I can show you

With footnotes (which are actually sidenotes - they are literally on the side) and wonderful comic-book style, slick illustrations from Joe Todd-Stanton (many of which I can't show you because they'd blow the story, including an awesome double-page spread showing the amoebas... well, you'll just have to read it), this is a brilliant book for all kids (and grown-ups) who like a well-written suspenseful adventure that is also rollickingly funny.

Greta Zargo and the Amoeba Monsters from the Middle of the Earth is written by A.F Harrold and illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton
It is published by Bloomsbury (3 May 2018)
You can find more about A.F Harrold's books (and his beard*) by clicking this link.

*website may not contain beards

Reviewed by children's author and librarian Dawn Finch*

*not Hester Sometimes


Friday, 18 May 2018

The Pirates of Scurvy Sands by Jonny Duddle - reviewed by Damian Harvey

The Jolly Rogers make a welcome return in Jonny Duddle's latest picture book, The Pirates of the Scurvy Sands. Matilda lives in the modern day seaside town of Dull-on-Sea where it's bleak in midwinter but full of folk in the summer, playing on the beach and in the arcades.
Unlike most children Matilda has a young pirate boy named Jim Lad as a pen friend so she gets to go on exciting pirate adventures with him and the rest of the Jolly Roger family on their pirate ship.

When Matilda receives a message in a bottle from Jim (he doesn't have a mobile phone so it's the only way they can keep in touch) she learns that the Jolly Rogers are going on a special pirate trip and will be picking her up in the morning. Luckily, Matilda's Mum and Dad know that the pirates "aren't so bad" so they are happy to let her go with them to Scurvy Sands, a holiday resort that's only for pirates.

It doesn't take long for the other pirates children and their parents to realise that there's something not quit right about Matilda. She's too clean and polite, she doesn't eat shark's brains or maggoty biscuits. Her teeth are shiny and white and even her hair smells nice. Matilda has to do something to prove that she's not a land lubber so she leads Jack in a search for Mad Jack McMuddle's treasure.

The rhyming text for this book never seems forced - it's spot on and made for reading out loud. Children will love the familiar pirate themes and the way they have been cleverly mixed with the modern day.

This picture book was a year in the making and it's easy to understand why. Every page is packed with beautifully detailed illustrations - there's a big double page fold out spread and even a treasure map. This book will be great to share with a class...  


Monday, 14 May 2018

Mary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

“Picture books by Lita Judge” was the theme chosen by my friend for one of our book club meetings. This was a great idea as Judge is an accomplished picture book author and illustrator. As I perused my local library catalogue, I stumbled upon another book for older children (aged 13-17) that immediately caught my eye: Mary’s Monster, Love Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein. Mary Shelley was a runaway pregnant teenager and rejected by society, the Introduction informed me. My interest was immediately piqued. And rightly so. I had only to read the initial few pages to know this was something special. 

As the first modern science fiction book, birthing the ‘mad scientist’ archetype and also the legendary Creature that still haunts us 200 years later, Frankenstein was a novel that defied convention. Judge’s book is also deliberately hard to categorise. It is part biography, written in first person free verse, and also veers into fantasy as the narrative delves into Mary Shelley’s inner world. Judge has made over three hundred full-bleed black-and-white watercolour illustrations which create, in her words, ‘a dance between words and art’. The overall effect is an all-consuming immersion into the life of Mary Shelley, her work, her imaginings. 

The beginnings of Frankenstein are often ascribed to a famous ghost-story challenge set by Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, to Shelley and her circle one rainy evening. However the seeds of this story lie much deeper. Judge uses concise, evocative poems to communicate the threads leading to the creation of Mary's story, embedded in well-researched historical and societal context.  

Mary was born into a world of extremes on the night Herschel’s Comet lit up the London sky. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an advocate of women's rights, later considered the founder of the feminist movement. She died ten days after giving birth. Her father, an anarchist who fought for the poor and the oppressed, encouraged Mary to be independent and imaginative. Yet her practical application of these teachings was too much for both her father and society.  Mary fell in love with a married man, Percy Byshhe Shelley, and ran away with him together with her sister. Soon she fell pregnant and was publicly shunned. Modern readers might be interested in considering some of these themes in light of the recent #MeToo campaign.

Judge does not shy away from the harsh life Mary faced, including the loss of her baby and her lover sharing her sister, Claire. 

Although scandalous, Mary’s social circle gave her access to cutting edge scientific thinking of the time. For instance galvanism, a process by which a corpse could be ‘animated’ using electric shocks, was a popular topic of conversation. How far could these scientists go? How far should they go? 

As dark events circle ever closer around Mary, she takes refuge in the story that is growing within her. The illustrations show that the Creature is often near her now. Significantly, Mary’s Monster is divided into nine parts, and Mary took nine months to write and give birth to the first full draft of her own creation: Frankenstein

Tellingly, it is her Creature — Frankenstein’s monster — who opens and closes her story in the Prologue and Epilogue.  

“Most people didn't believe Mary Shelley,
a teenage girl, unleashed me,
a creature powerful and murdrous
enough to haunt their dreams.”

For those interested in delving deeper, there is a useful Teacher's Guide and also a short video about The Making of Mary's Monster. The back matter is also rich with detail, including thumbnail explanations about what happened to the rest of the characters. 


Thursday, 10 May 2018

Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face by John Dougherty, reviewed by Kelly McKain

Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of BadgersStinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Evilness of PizzaStinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Bees of StupidityStinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Quest for the Magic PorcupineStinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Great Big Story NickersStinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Great Kerfuffle Christmas Kidnap

We love the Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face books so much in our house that we've decided to show you six of these great book covers, with joyous illustrations by David Tazzyman. These exuberant romps by comedy genius John Dougherty feature brother and sister badger-busting duo Stinkbomb (Occupation: Boy, Interests: Interesting things, thwarting badgers) and Ketchup-Face (Occupation: Girl, Interests: Singing, jam, ketchup, pretend horsies).

Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face set off on meta-texual journeys through the pages of their own books - 'Is it Chapter 15 already?' Stinkbomb asks. 'Chapter 14 didn't last long.' They tackle intriguing quests involving travelling to Siberia to paint the stripes on tigers, busting the badgers' worm pizza racket, discovering the rare, mythical magic porcupine and getting their library books back on time. Along the way they meet a colourful and crazy cast of characters including King Toothbrush Weasel and Malcolm the Cat, the Evil and Wickedish Badgers, a Ninja Librarian and a little shopping trolley who is definitely not a horsie (whatever Ketchup Face tells you).

They usually make it home in time for tea and blueberry jam, or at least for one of Ketchup-Face's tuneless songs about blueberry jam, which was sung in my own house interminably for a long, long time (but please don't let that put you off these fantastic books!). I'll let Holly (9) have the last word: 'I really enjoyed these books because they're really funny and I'd recommend them to all ages, well, from age 2 until 98 anyway.'

The Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face series by John Dougherty, with illustrations by David Tazzyman, is published by Oxford University Press.

Kelly McKain and Jon Stuart's new picture book series is The Woollies, also published by OUP.

The Woollies: Flying HighThe Woollies: Follow the FootprintsThe Woollies: Pirates Ahoy!