Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone - review

When famous actress Lydia Duchamps visits the lively Campion’s music hall to see the Great Gandini performing his magic act, she is wearing the famed, but possibly cursed, Doomstone diamond. 

Then, in a packed theatre, it is stolen. Is it part of some trick? 
Rose Campion and her friend Aurora (the other half of a bicycle act at the run-down, but much-loved theatre), respond to this intriguing mystery and soon find plenty of shady goings-on when they turn detective.

This is a lively mystery that makes the most of its energetic Victorian theatrical setting. Lyn Gardner brilliantly creates a truly colourful atmosphere of life behind stage. There is an eccentric cast list of showbiz folk, all shady in their own way, all making a living not being what they seem. Other London landmarks, such as the grim Newgate Gaol add gritty historical ambience. 

Rose and her theatre friends are a great bunch of sleuths and their relationships give the story a lot of heart. They never know when they are beaten and fight for the scattered strays that have made Campions their home. 

The clues and red herrings stack up satisfyingly, then the stakes ramp up when the mystery becomes a murder – also committed in a packed theatre.

The plot keeps twisting in a very clever way. Whoever the reader next suspects is bound to be revealed to have a totally different secret to the one you thought! 

A gutsy intelligent heroine, brilliant setting, an intriguing mystery, clever and with enough plot twists to keep young sleuths guessing. Great stuff.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Covers of my Book are Too Far Apart (and other grumbles) – Vivian French & Nigel Baines - Review

The Covers of my Book are Too Far Apart (and other grumbles), is a unique and inspired picture book that tackles the matter of reluctance to read head on by carefully and amusingly putting a positive counterargument for many of the common ’justifications’ for not reading.

The books is simple formatted with a character that gives their personal justification for not reading; ‘Reading’s rubbish,’ ‘I don’t have the time to read’, and ‘I can’t find a book I like’, to name a few and then shows other vibrantly visualised characters sharing their solutions to the reason while encouraging the character to reconsider their stance and give reading another chance. 

Having raised two children and helped them on their journey from reluctant readers to avid readers, plus my experiences of bookselling and helping out in schools, I’ve heard each and every one of the justifications for not reading that are addressed in this book, and have myself used the counter points and so I find this book a breath of fresh air. ‘The Covers of my Book are Too Far Apart (and other grumbles)’, is an accessible and light-hearted way of encouraging children (and adults) to reconsider their preconceptions about reading. The book cleverly highlights many peoples anxieties about reading and shows that reading, when given the chance can be rewarding whilst demonstrating that reading is personal and that each person can experience and enjoy reading in their own way.

Coming from publisher Barrington Stoke, it may be no surprise that ‘The Covers of my Book are Too Far Apart (and other grumbles)’ also illustrates the plights of people who find reading difficult, and in a nurturing manor shows alternative ways of accessing books, like audio books, and e-books, along with explaining ways that make reading easier like using coloured lenses or filters. But most importantly and reassuringly, it shows in print and pictures that finding reading difficult is not uncommon, and that there are many people who find decoding words and letter challenging. Sometimes knowing you are not alone is all you need to help you persevere.

‘The Covers of my Book are Too Far Apart (and other grumbles)’, is not only an accessible book that can engage reluctant readers and encourage to them to read, but it also a valuable resource for promoting empathy and understanding to children whom don’t have difficulties accessing the written word, to the challenges of children who do.

In short I would love to see a copy of ‘The Covers of my Book are Too Far Apart (and other grumbles)’ in every classroom and library, to encourage reluctant and challenged readers to pick up a book, and to help other children to be emphatic and encouraging to their classmates who may find books intimidating. 

Having said that, ‘The Covers of my Book are Too Far Apart (and other grumbles)’ would be equally placed on a home bookshelf, as it also doubles as manifesto of reader’s rights, mirroring in a child (and parent) friendly way many of the concepts of Daniel Pennac and Quentin Blake’s ‘Rights of the Reader’, by reassuring that it is OK to stop reading a book that you are not enjoying.

Lastly, I must take my hat off to ‘The Covers of my Book are Too Far Apart (and other grumbles)’ creators; wordsmith Vivian French, illustrator Nigel Baines and publishers Barrington Stoke for tapping into the current zeitgeist and shining a light on an accept of publishing that has long been under represented.

The Covers of my Book are Too Far Apart (and other grumbles) is in short; a brave and engaging book with positive messages which is effectively a love letter reading, but more than that, it is a humorous and charming picture book, which can be enjoyed for its story alone.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Creating a Story Sacks on a budget - Oliver Jeffers - 'Lost and Found' Story Sack for under £10.00

Before Christmas we promised you an economy Story Sack feature to illustrate that it is possible to create one on a budget. Knowing that Christmas has come and gone, and that many of us are tightening our purse strings to save for our family summer get always, it seems like the perfect time to share this post to demonstrate that creating Story Sacks, doesn’t have to cost the earth. So armed with one £10.00 note, and with an hour on the parking meter, I headed into town to see if I could create a fun packed and engaging Story Sack for under a tenner.

Before I carry on with the results of my Charity Shop crawl, I will quickly remind you what a Story Sack is; it is a devise to help children engage with stories through play and learning, with the aim to help them develop a love for reading. The format is simple it’s a draw string bag full of fun goodies comprising of…

  • A good quality fiction book, (picture book or novel
  • A non-fiction book related to the story and themes in the chosen picture book.
  • Toys, (ideally a soft toy for younger children).
  • A game or activity also related to the theme of the chosen fiction book.
  • Optional worksheet based on the story and themes off the story sack.

So back to me, an hour and a tenner, I hit the charity shops, and struck gold in my very first one. Well not gold, but two books, and a soft toy, which is a very credible start to a story sack! My first find was a lovely hardback copy of 'Lost and Found' by Oliver Jeffers, about a; boy, a penguin, an umbrella, and a boat load of heart-warming friendship. I paired this with an Usborne non-fiction book about penguins, which like the first, book was in near perfect condition and cost a mere 50p. From the same shop I purchased a BNWT (brand new with tags) Penguin soft toy (with safety marks) for yet another 50p. Meaning that in shop one I had got about half of the contents for the Story Sack for only £1.50.

Felling very pleased with myself, I went to the next shop, and found a BNWT TY Boy plush for (you guessed it) 50p, and a woolly hat for him to ware for 10p, and the all-important ‘sack’, for 50p. This took my total up to £2.60.

Feeling rather pleased with my finds, but knowing that the most challenge part in any story sack creation, the finding of a themed game or activity, was next, I set off for the next charity shop. To my joy, I found a BNWT toy boat for £2.50, which would tie in very well, so I gave myself a metaphorical pat on the back, whilst imagining the plush penguin and boy using it to sail off on an amazing adventure, when I totted up the total which had raised to £5.10, and began to worry that I may not bring the sack in on budget.

With the remaining £4.90 jingling in my pocket I scoured the last charity shops in town and indeed the toyshop (which is one of a well know chain, which frequently has reduced toys) but could find not any toy or activity to complete the sack. Feeling despondent, I browsed in the local indie toyshop, at its beautiful rag dolls, and wooden castles with no expectations at all, when I discovered a wooden penguin puzzle for £4.50. So this lovely addition completed the story sack with 40p to spare.

The last inexpensive addition was to create a worksheet, so a minute on the computer and the use of clip art, I soon had an umbrella that can be photocopied and used to colour in and cut out, ready to take the penguin and boy on lots more adventures together.

With a complete story sack, created for under £10.00, and in under an hour, I am pleased to say that it is possible to create story sacks on a budget. Not only that, but I had a great deal of fun doing it. So I challenge you to do the same, go out with a small budget, and see if you can create a story sack, for your children, or better still with your children and donate it to your school.

For more article and ideas for creating Story Sack press here.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Stories of finding courage and hope after grief

Foggy February has been a time for reading atmospheric stories about the different ways of coping with loss and grief. Who'd have thought that means it’s been a month involving ghosts, time travel, evil doctors and alchemy.
‘Through the Mirror Door’ by Sarah Baker is the first story, of Angela, who has been moving around children’s homes since she lost her family. Then an aunt invites her on a summer holiday with her cousins as a final chance to see if they might get along well enough to adopt her.

Horrible relatives and a summer spent in a spooky, isolated French house create the perfect setting for mysteries that need to be solved and soon Angela has more on her plate than simply than putting up with Aunt Cece’s sour comments, and cruel jibes from her cousins. She quickly stumbles on a secret. 

There is a mirror in a deserted room that connects with 1898. And when she steps through to 1898 she finds a sick boy whom Angela realises only she can help.
Should Angela abandon all her good intentions and risk upsetting her aunt in order to save the boy? She knows if she flouts all the rules she will jeopardise a future outside of children’s homes. 
It’s a lovely story with great description that draws you right into believing that shimmering mirror. And it lets you straight into what happened more than a century ago and the dilemma Angela faces. 
Even better, admirably clever plotting and some deftly handled twists means past and present storylines start to intertwine in a very satisfying way as Angela’s determination grows to do the right thing in both time zones.
A really elegant time-travel adventure story.
Lucy Strange’s ‘The Secret of Nightingale Wood’ is set just after the terrible losses of the First World War. But Henry’s (Henrietta’s) older brother died in a terrible accident and the whole family is struggling with immense grief.

The War has also brought in a new vogue for researching mental illnesses and Henry’s distraught mother is moved to an isolated house to receiving cutting edge treatment.
Her father copes by throwing himself into his work and disappears on a huge engineering project abroad, abandoning Henry with little to do but explore the house and woods, listening into what is going on around her, until she realises that darker things are afoot in Hope House.
The story ramps up as Henry realises that Dr Hardy does not want her mother to recover, but would rather have her as a subject for his experiments in the new field of mental health. And with her father absent, if her mother is institutionalised, this would also leave the way clear for the scheming doctor to take Henry’s baby sister, known rather charmingly as Piglet. 
The threat is now to Henry’s whole family, and forbidden to even write to her father, each adult Henry turns to lets her down. This failure of adult help means Henry’s feeling of isolation is very scary. She is the only one who has her mother's best interests at heart.

And you can’t get a much nastier villain than Dr Hardy.

The fact that he is is no imaginary monster, but a figure of trust, puts Henry in the terrifying position of being the only one who can stand up for her mother and sister and prevent his evil plan of turning her mother into an experiment and stealing her sister.
Luckily Henry is the sort of redoubtable character well able to fearlessly stand up to wrongdoing and never gives up on saving her family. The plot is a great demonstration that being brave does not have to be about taking up a sword and slaying monsters – that evil can sometimes come with a trusted face and be very close to home.
A really scary and atmospheric adventure that takes an unusual and imaginative slant on the nature of evil and how it can be defeated.
Cathryn Constable’s ‘The White Tower’ also starts with a death and takes a journey into the dark heart of grief when Livy loses her best friend.
Her father gets his dream job running the library of a prestigious and ancient school and Livy knows it is the chance for a new start. But how can she move on and make new friends when she doesn’t want to forget her old one?

But others are interested in her. She shares a name with the founder of the school, which has a history of outlandish scientific experiments. Notes from daring experiments have been lost and many people seem keen to rediscover those secrets.
Livy is a character that makes you feel her sadness and understand how being surrounded by a treasure house of obscure scientific thought, she hurls herself into a frenzied sleepless world, trying to recreate ancient experiments in the forlorn hope that she can find a cure for blood diseases and stop others from dying.
But what if her ancestor really did make a breakthrough discovery? Did he find a way to stop time and death up on the rooftops? What if there is a way of cheating death? Livy’s journey takes her into asking some big questions. 
But the story at its heart is about letting go and moving on after loss – and how the lesson loss really teaches us is how to treasure those we have.
A foggy February, on the verge of spring is the perfect time for stories with grief at their heart and these three all provide moving and thought-provoking stories of people overcoming odds to emerge with renewal in their lives.
Perfect reads for those who like an emotional core of families in crisis, stories with an nicely old-fashioned feel and a hint of mystery and secrets.
Nicki Thornton

Monday, 6 February 2017

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson - review

Matty spends his day watching the lives of everyone in his street out of his bedroom window. So he is a crucial witness when a toddler is snatched from outside his home - and Matty really wants to help.

Only Matty is living an increasingly isolated life owing to his overwhelming fear of germs. 

His compulsion to clean, and to go nowhere near anything he perceives as remotely dirty, has resulted in him skipping school and hardly even leaving his room.

The crime, committed just outside his front door means Matty will have to overcome his crippling anxiety to do the right thing.

Readers of  Lisa Thompson’s contemporary debut for children ‘The Goldfish Boy’will be rooting all the way for Matty. He's a great character and his debilitating illness provides a unusual obstacles in his quest to solving a good mystery.

Matty gets the surprising help of two other lonely children in his street, so this is a story about courage and fighting your fears head on. It’s got a great message at its heart of the importance of community, and how, if you talk to people, you might discover that everyone lives with their own fears.

The biggest strength of the story is Matty, whom you are willing on at every painful step.

We learn he has more than one shameful secret in his past. He treated his best friend really shabbily when he was really needed and when stepping in would have made a big difference. Yet what is actually at the root of his obsessive compulsive behaviour is another issue entirely, one where Matty sees the consequences and feels blame, even though this time it is not his fault.

It is a strong recommend for reading groups with lots to discuss about mental illness, the nature of guilt and how letting things eat away at you inside can have consequences.

But it is also a very enjoyable mystery all about whether the fate of an eighteen-month-old is safe in Matty's very over-washed hands. 

Can he confront his fears, do the right thing - and, also, help himself on his own road to recovery?

A complex, emotional and uplifting story to start the new year.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Happy New Year: 2017 Chinese Year of the Rooster - Favourite ‘Kids Lit Chicks!’

This Saturday (28th January) sees the Luna and Chinese New year, and the move from the year of the Monkey to the year of the Rooster. So we thought we’d celebrate this by sharing our favourite ‘Kids Lit Chicks!’ So here they are; some choices may controversial; the lack of Rosie from Rosie’s walk or the hens from Dick King Smith's ‘The Fox Busters’ may ruffle some feathers, but we love the capers of these feathery fowl and think you will too…

Nicki’s Favourite Literary Fowls …

My best rooster in fiction award goes hands down to Professor Rooster in Chicken Mission: Danger in the Deep Dark Woods, by Jennifer Gray, part of the Chicken Mission Series. This story about ninja-training for chickens is action-packed, funny and a bit bonkers, plus is great for adults reading with their children as they will appreciate all the wonderful puns. Hooray for Kung-Fu Poultry (KFP).

Another of my favourite fowl is Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, I love this series for many reasons, but perhaps mostly because I can’t think of many series which focus on the villain – in this case a twelve-year-old child prodigy millionaire who not only believes in fairies, but that they truly have gold and he plans to steal it.

Fowl kidnaps Holly Short, but she is a special agent and more than a match for the boy, aided by his Butler, who thinks he has thought of everything. This is a great fantasy series, high on gadgetry and smart dialogue and characters that develop over the series showing that being an evil genius is not an easy road to riches. And it’s very funny too.

Both books are great reads for kids up to teen.

Sally Favourite Literary Chickens…

To quote one of the most misunderstood poets of all time William McGonagall, ‘The chicken is a noble beast,’ and I concur completely so narrowing down my favourite Kid’s Lit Chicks was not easy, (although Mr McGonagall kind of took away the compliment by comparing it to a cow which; stands in the pouring rain with a leg in every corner.) however I did manage to narrow the list down to two...

My first choice goes to the fabulously mean Super Evil Chicken from, Emer Stamp’s ‘The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig.’ Super Evil Chicken is the nemesis of both the Pig diarist and his best friend Duck, but this chicken and his brood of other evil chicken comrades, are more than merely mean; pooing on cow and eating Pig’s slop! No The Evil Chicken’s hatch a plan; fashioning a rocket out of an old tractor, and convince Pig to fly the ‘Trocket’ to Pluto. Super Evil Chicken is the most evil and wicked of all of Pig’s feather foes, and pig soon discovers to his peril, that sometimes first impressions are the correct ones. 

‘The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig’ is perfect for early readers, but funny enough to appeal to children young and old.

But my all-time favourite Chicken is, Kureno Sohma from Natsuki Takaya’s, Shojo Manga; Fruits Basket. The story follows homeless orphan Tohru as she befriends the mysterious wealthy and beautiful Sohma family, discovering their secret curse. Collectively called ‘The Zodiac’, the Sohma’s curse causes some of its members to change from humans into the animals from the Chinese’s zodiac (and a cat with a grudge), when they are poorly or are embraced by someone of the opposite sex. As Tohru’s life becomes more entwined with the Shoma’s, she realises that there is more to the curse than metamorphosis; uncovering a dark cruelty, and starting her on a quest to free the family from their curse.

Kureno is the Sohma family Rooster, he’s aloof, endearingly clumsy, self-scarifying and loyal to a fault. Despite being the cursed member of the Sohma zodiac that the reader sees the least of in the books, he is beautifully empathetic and exquisitely flawed, making it impossible not to love him. But Kureno has a secret and when it is revealed, it soon becomes apparent that it may mark the beginning of the end for the Sohma curse.

Fruits Basket is a great read for young adults 13+.

Thank you for stopping by, we'd love you too hear what your favourite Kids Lit Chicks are, so please comment and let us know!

Monday, 16 January 2017

Wed Watbbit by Lissa Evans - review

I just love it when the year starts with a bang – and by a bang, I mean a book that you want to shout about and tell everyone to read. This year starts with a very evil rabbit

I wanted to add my voice to the already shower of good reviews for ‘Wed Wabbit’ by Lissa Evans, which gloriously imagines what might happen if you tumbled down a hole and landed in a favourite story, worse, the favourite story of your annoying four-year-old sister?

Ten-year-old Fidge does not want to read again the idiotic jollity of ‘The Land of Wimbley Woos’ to her sister, Minnie. But Minnie has an accident and somehow Fidge finds herself sucked into Wimbley Land.

Fidge has to rely on that endless reading of the story and knowledge of its annoying characters to find out why she is trapped and how to solve the puzzle to get home again.

And if there is one person she would not want trapped with it is her delicate, worrier of a cousin, Graham, who freaks out if his mid-morning organic ice cream is not delivered exactly as requested.

There is so much to enjoy in the premise of what toys might be like if they came to life, such as having to listen to comfort toy (now life coach) Eleanor Elephant, advise on stress control and not rushing into things  –  when you've a hoard of evil, greedy blue dustbins on your tail.

Lissa Evans steers making the nightmarish world of Wed Wabbit, created in the mind of a four-year, old terrific fun, with lashing of jeopardy, while also subtly bringing in complex contemporary themes. It follows in the strong tradition of the very best children's stories – using fantasy and humour to explore challenging ideas, so plenty for adults to enjoy and definitely one for sharing (or keeping to yourself).

Loved the ‘punishment’ room where you are made to eat broccoli soup and crusts.  


But then who could fail to love a story about a giant, malevolent rabbit?

My only quibble is why does Lissa Evans not write more? I adored the Costa-nominated ‘Small change for Stuart’ and her adult novel ‘Crooked Heart’. I look forward very much to whatever she might do next.

So make 2017 the year of Wed Wabbit. Otherwise that toy in the corner of the room, the one with the evil expression, might just be out to get you.

Nicki Thornton