March 2006 Archives


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Lewis Trondheim
First Second
Apr 2006
�there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit and taste to recommend them.�

Since the novel�s wholesale acceptance into the canon of mainstream literature, it is difficult to look back to the time Jane Austen writes of above in �Northanger Abbey�, when its value was decried, its art-form denied, proof, if any be needed the bastions of the �literary establishment� are not always equal to the challenge of realising the form in which literary classics will make themselves presented in future years�

Should the subject of performance recommend itself still through the genius, wit and taste Austen refers to above, readers could do far worse than to look to the much maligned graphic novel for inspiration. It is exciting therefore that Holtzbrinck Publishing in New York and Pan Macmillan should have collaborated in the formation of a new imprint, First Second, for the wide dissemination of the form across both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The first title published by First Second is the acronymically titled �A.L.I.E.E.E.N.� - �Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties� by French artist and writer Lewis Trondheim. Cleverly masquerading as a journal of alien life-forms, as children�s literature and pedagogy for beings from outer space, the journal was purportedly found in Mid-April 2006 within the epicentre of a perfect circle of singed grass�

Comprising of nine interwoven episodic chapters, we meet a bizarre cast of characters and players. Starting off with what appears to be a charming idyll, events rapidly take a turn towards the depraved and the gratuitous as misfortune follows misfortune, bodily functions are taken to extremes and sado-masochistic tendencies are lived out. This is an unexpected yet somehow also a deeply satisfying read.

In the body of this text there are no words. Between individual frames and their guttering, we as readers are liberated to interpret and decide upon time-spans, probable actions and interactions and ultimately to sequence this narrative form. There is nothing derivative in an art-form that prompts us towards this and in an age when visual literacy exercises an increased dominance � whether through computers and the internet, the television, cinema etc � it can surely only be a matter of time before proponents of the graphic novel exert influence to ensure works such as �A.L.I.E.E.E.N.� assume their rightful place within mainstream literary discourse.

Hugo Pepper

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Paul Stewart Illus. Chris Riddell
Apr 2006
Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell share one of the most dynamic author-illustrator partnerships in children�s literature today. The fruits of this truly collaborative process shimmer, shine and truly stand-out from the crowded book shelves in shops, libraries, schools and homes. Their �Far Flung Adventures� series � each one eponymously named after its hero or heroine � have charted a fantastical world perfect for fuelling the minds and imaginations of small children.

�Hugo Pepper� is the third, and sadly reportedly also the final, novel in this series. Mystery, adventure and humour combine as Hugo pieces together the fragments of stories amassed by renowned story collector Wilfrid McPherson, the background to the blight that The Firefly Quarterly has become upon Firefly Square and the role of himself and his family to the legend of Brimstone Kate and her lost treasure. The joy here is that readers make their own deductions in parallel alongside Hugo to arrive at the various kinds of misappropriation the media are wielding to exert control over the community of Firefly Square.

What is particularly admirable in �Hugo Pepper� is that Stewart and Riddell have crafted in this book a remarkably apt yet good-humoured exploration of the way stories construct our sense of identity � our personal history with ancestries amalgamated, the platform of the present and the possibilities the future poses for us all�

The gentlemen are on fine flying form here, prompting the request �Please Sirs, we want some more��

Frog, Bee and Snail Look for Snow

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Loek Koopmans
Floris Books
Apr 2006
A disconcerting sense of insularity and introspection accompanies the statistic that only three percent of books published in the UK are translations. It is heartening therefore that publishers such as WingedChariot Press and Floris Books are making available in the English language a range of European picture books. Dutch author and illustrator Loek Koopmans� book �Frog, Bee and Snail Look for Snow� is the latest addition to the list of translations from Floris Books.

Just as Kenneth Grahame�s opening to the �The Wind in the Willows� with mole scraping, scratching, scrabbling and scrooging, �muttering to himself, �Up we go! Up we go!� till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight�� marvellously evokes the long awaited onset of spring, Koopman�s use of intensely bright light in the forest, the vivid fresh greens of the foliage and the irreverent chattering of little bird brilliantly capture that first sense that spring has sprung.

Amongst his chatterings, bird mentions to snail the snows that fell in winter, their depth, their whiteness and cold. Entranced by this description, snail asks his friend bee about snow, but bee has spent the winter in her hive so snow is unfamiliar to her also. Through a series of exchanges, snail, bee and frog � traversing at once between them dominions of land, sky and earth are unable to find out about snow. So begins an adventure, an epic animal voyage in a quest for knowledge� Moving through the seasons from spring to summer, to autumn, the trio remain still unable to find out about snow, exhausted by their efforts they fall asleep only to awake to an unknown world in white�

Koopmans illustrations of nature are wonderfully rendered and are brilliantly accurate. His use of lighting brings each spread to life helping to create a beautiful book with an unexpected, yet a holistic ending.

Help! I'm a Classroom Gambler

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Pete Johnson
Corgi Children's
Apr 2006
�Thanks to our invention, no pupil in this school need ever be bored again. That�s an incredible achievement.�
�Help! I�m a classroom gambler� displays Pete Johnson�s characteristic wit and strong-hold over capturing both the politics and demotic of the classroom. Protagonist Harvey and best-friend George have devised a cunning strategy to assuage the boredom and monotony of their typical school regimes � tedious assemblies, long-running lessons and teachers that have fallen into becoming caricatures of themselves�

Gambling! How many times might the Geography teacher blow his nose, how many times might the French teacher interject �Well� into his discourse and how many times might maths teacher, Wobblebottom, scratch?! The possibilities are endless and soon Harvey and George�s �Chancer Syndicate� becomes the speak of the school.

The stakes are raised, however, when school football hero Jonny insists that money be betted rather than ice-creams or student servitude. Several sub-plots are skilfully interwoven at this point in the novel � George feels animosity towards Harvey who succumbs to Jonny�s demands, Harvey�s flawless sister Cynthia finds out about the syndicate and threatens to tell, only to be appeased through deception that her heart-throb Jonny might holster feelings towards her, finally and most concerning of all, Harvey�s locker is broken into and the week�s wagers are stolen�

Through a series of deft moves some form of resolve is reached for each of the above and the constituent parts of this novel make for a real romp of a read that will leave readers ravenous for more by Pete Johnson. On concluding the novel one can�t help but wonder whether Harvey and George have learnt more practical skills and greater awareness than their prescribed school-life could ever have taught them� a chilling conclusion to be left pondering.

What do elephants do?

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Hazel Lincoln
Floris Books
Mar 2006
The debate over nurture and nature, inherited and acquired tendencies and characteristics continues to be assuaged through education and child development theories. �What do elephants do� forms a phenomenological exposition through the eyes of an anthropomorphised baby elephant, Esme.

This lavishly illustrated story opens in springtime. Just as many of the animals of Africa are able to welcome new babies to their family enclaves, so too are the elephants with the birth of baby Esme. Whilst struggling to stand on her own four feet, Esme finds she has a problem � something continuously trips her up, something odd that dangles from the middle of her face�

From here-on-in, the story focuses around Esme�s needs and wants as she encounters the world around her and its manifold inhabitants� When Esme is thirsty, she sees zebras drinking and wonders �What do elephants do?� When Esme is hot, she sees tortoise shaded by his shell, but, �What do elephants do?� This simple, yet clever framework forms the base for the remainder of the story as Esme learns just what it is that elephants do and the importance of her trunk, thereby realising her own identity.

An elephant�s proboscis is a strange, peculiar and fairly alien appendage, through sensitively examining its role and importance to the identity of elephants, Hazel Lincoln creates a valuable message as to the importance of assessing actions rather than mere appearance. Here is a beautifully consistent picture-book whose world is safely outlined within its first double-page spread and given character and brought into context thereafter.

"Whoops - there goes Joe!"

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Miles Gibson Illus. Neal Layton
Apr 2006
The zany and intriguingly titled �Whoops � there goes Joe!� forms the sequel to Miles Gibson and Neal Layton�s first collaboration about the Bodkin family; �Little Archie�. These are fantastic, affordable-with-pocket-money, perfectly shaped and sized little books ideal for little hands that belong to big readers!

The Bodkin family still live by, or rather attempt to live by, the family maxim �You have to stay regular�. However regularity is a rare commodity when Uncle Bernie is about, especially when he is accompanied by �an enormous parcel made from cardboard and held together with tape and string� � a parcel furthermore containing another of his madcap inventions, on this occasion a television�

What could possibly go wrong with a television? When it has added grommets, gizmos, whatsits and thingamajigs, the answer is quite a lot�! Sure enough, before too long baby Joe is addicted to the two-hundred educational channels being pumped into the Bodkin living room. Even the attractions of playing in the garden with Archie and having a strawberry milkshake with mum are diminished now. Mr Bodkin embarks upon the enviable and engaging activity of reading baby Joe a story. All is going well until he falls asleep, then the danger begin as�

�Whoops � there goes Joe!�

So begins an inter-channel chase made �remote � (!) from the reader by its metafictional qualities as first Joe and then Archie are assimilated into the consuming drama of television.

At base, a ripping yarn, this book is also a gentle reminder of the importance of spending quality time with children and a caution against being lured into using the television as constant occupation � one never quite knows just what it is that children might be being sucked into!

It is impossible not to be captivated by the level of attention and detail that has gone into the production of these little books. The pairing of Miles Gibson and Neal Layton is pure gold. Small in stature it might be, but this book, along with its prequel will make a great addition to any child�s bookshelves.

In the land of Merfolk

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Daniela Drescher
Floris Books
Mar 2006
Published originally in German and translated into English by Polly Lawson, �In the Land of Merfolk� represents another European offering to the UK picture-book market made available through Floris Books.

Cheerfully combining poetry with expansive pastoral landscapes viewed at the eye-line of little people themselves, this book takes us on an imaginative and magical tour of the countryside depicted through the seasons. There is nothing incongruous in the fact that fairies, elves, mermaids and nymphs form a part of the populace on the pages and the loose descriptions of their actions and lifestyle leaves readers to piece together their own �take� on this world-view provided in miniature.

Daniela Drescher�s short book leaves one pensive in contemplation as to belief and the experiential evidence of the senses.

The Awful Tale of Agatha Bilke

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Sian Pattenden
Short Books
Mar 2006
�Some children are unfortunate others are just plain bad�

Agatha Bilke is a problem child, a girl with more than a passing penchant for arson. At their wits end, her parents admit her to the TreadQuietly Clinic for interesting children an institute run by Dr Alan and Tim Humphrey, who believe they have developed the ultimate �creative� therapy that will revolutionise the treatment of all forms of childhood anxiety, phobia, hysteria and neurosis� their belief is somewhat misplaced.

This is journalist, Sian Pattenden�s first children�s books and Short Books fist work of fiction and it is certainly a most distinctive and readable offering. Characters in this short, pacy book are in equal parts peculiar and endearing � Barry, a boy who has the unfortunate affliction not to be able to refer to himself in anything but the third person, is one of the most humorous and memorable.

Each child admitted to the TreadQuietly clinic has his own particular fear, phobia or some-such foible; for one this is toast, for another the belief that meteorites might befall the planet at any given point� Treatment of these characters is largely individualistic which provides a framed setting for a series of vignettes rather than the cohesion of more traditional novels. The stylish and sophisticated illustrations lend the book a quirky fable-like feel. It would sit comfortably amidst stories with a similar �cautionary� feel including Tim Burton�s �Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy�, Tom Baker�s �The Boy Who Kicked Pigs� and of course the seminar tales by Hillaire Belloc.


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Sarah Singleton
Simon and Schuster
Feb 2006

�Look at me, Elizabeth. Do you think I�m wicked? Do you think I�m a devil? In my time everyone was a Catholic, because there was only one Church, but even then I was different from the others because of the shadow land. Don�t let your mind be clouded by what other people have told you. Judge me with your heart.�

So speaks the strange green child that twelve-year-old Elizabeth finds in the forest as she secretly tends a ruined Catholic shrine. The year is 1586 and Protestant England is an unforgiving place for Catholics. But mindless blame, fear and persecution are nothing new, as the green child, Isabella, can testify. She herself was born more than three hundred years ago, the child of a wise woman and midwife. Her mother was executed as a witch, a scapegoat when a rich family�s baby was born with a faulty heart, and since then Isabella has hidden mostly in the land of faeries, leaving her bones hidden in a hollow tree awaiting her return.

Yes, this all sounds a little strange, but Sarah Singleton has a gift for blending the seen and the unseen, the matter-of-fact and the magical, into a convincing whole. After all, what is the magical other than something we are not used to or don�t understand? And that is what this book deals with; the problem of how the different (in this case the spiritually different) can be demonised by the unthinking mob. Set against the hounding of Ruth Leland (Isabella�s mother) and the sixteenth century persecution of Catholics is the simple and powerful friendship that develops between the two girls. For Isabella her tragedy is done, and yet she berates herself for not having stayed at her mother�s side until the bitter end. For Elizabeth the fear has just begun: the Queen has sent the brutal Christopher Merrivale to hunt for the priest that her family is sheltering. Perhaps here there is a chance for the two girls to help each other: for Isabella to gain �closure� and a second chance with a loving family, whilst Elizabeth gains safety and escape.

A powerful tale against a strong historical backdrop, this book introduces many themes but works most of all because of the focus on the girls� fears and hopes and needs. In comparison, the sinister Merrivale, the dogmatic and ecstatic priest, even the cold-hearted faeries, seem unimportant, no matter what their schemes and desires. The writing, too, is mostly first rate, with a great feel for visual detail:

�As the men whispered one to another, light and shadows slid over their faces, alternately revealing and hiding eyes, noses, mouths moist with wine and words. They looked like demons, leering and grimacing.�

A highly appealing, multi-dimensional historical adventure. Check it out.

No Room for Napoleon

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Adria Meserve
The Bodley Head
Mar 2006
Food for thought�

Media reportage over the past year has brilliantly emphasised the role a well-balanced diet of food-stuffs plays towards children�s development. Raising the profile of nutritional requirements has created a focal-point for an agenda of change which hopefully will mean � in educational settings at least � that no child will be malnourished or starved of the building blocks that fuel their development�

At this point, we need to speak up � loud and proud � as to the valuable roles that diverse narratives and indeed narrative forms play in our emotional development. If picture books are to remain merely as an educative preserve - nothing more than a transitional stepping stone towards independent reading - as a society we are depriving our children of rich visual and textual tapestries and of the resultant dynamic story-sharing that can and does accompany such weaving and unpicking! Stories form the vessels through which society passes down its learning, its history and its sense of self� we must take care our actions as sensitive, sentient beings do not lead to the emotional emaciation of our future generation...

�No Room For Napoleon� with its vibrant and engaging illustrations and narrative typifies the kinds of adventuring and exploration imbued within successful picture-books. Aptly named Napoleon, a little dog with big ideas, at once fulfils the role of hero and anti-hero and constitutes both conflict and resolve within the book. His arrival, with telescope, on a Utopian island is initially welcomed by its inhabitants - Crab, Bunny and Bear - however, cracks in the animals' friendship begin to appear as Napoleon�s ideas grow in size, breadth, depth and impact�

As well as exploring issues of friendship and of the unwitting bullying, or manipulation that arises through the story, illustration and text operate on dual and dialectic levels exploding into other arenas to create a neat summation of Colonial intent, comment on environmental conservation through the island�s shifts from Utopian paradise, to Dystopic nightmare, and arguably of patriarchal dominance also � symbolised here through Napoleon�s telescope, a phallic construction utilised primarily as his access-point to the island and secondarily as his power-stronghold over Crab, Bunny and Bear.

If that sounds unlikely fare for the double-folds of a picture book, look at the story, think about its themes, subtleties and nuances and decide for yourself. Through empowering the use of picture-books regardless of age, ability or background, we are opening the door to infinite interpretations of visual and textual narrative strands, we are allowing readers to invest their own experiences, rationale and world-views, we are creating a base for infinite interpretation and discussion and are thereby realising just what makes reading such a singular recreational activity!

Needless to say Adria Meserve has crafted a story that motivates, inspires and truly does show the �dog� in the dogmatist!

The Colossus of Rhodes

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The Colossus of Rhodes by Caroline Lawrence
Dolphin Paperbacks
Oct 2005
Having read about a forthcoming television series to be made of Caroline Lawrence's popular Roman Mysteries series by the BBC, I was compelled to catch up with the antics of Flavia and friends. The most recent paperback, The Colossus of Rhodes, takes to the sea, with the usual appealing mix of mystery, history, humour, myth and adventure. Each of the Roman Mysteries tends to focus on one of the four main characters - and this is Lupus's story. Setting sail from Ostia in Lupus's ship, with Flavia's father as Captain, the friends embark on their latest mission - to find and free the children kidnapped into slavery by the evil Venalicius the slave-dealer. Lupus also has his own agenda - to fulfil a sacred oath to himself to find his long-lost mother.

Lawrence's skill at mixing humour and tragedy is once again demonstrated as Lupus's dream is dangled in front of him in an emotive, frantic but ultimately abortive quest. There is some resolution as far as the kidnapping strand to the story goes - but only after Flavia and co have run the gauntlet of obstacles and red-herrings, as always ducking out of mortal danger just in the nick of time. The journey from Ostia to Rhodes entails some wonderful descriptions of the Mediterranean and Greek Islands, conjuring an atmospheric backdrop and a vivid sense of time and place. Perfect entertainment for any families heading to the Greek Islands this holiday season, The Colossus of Rhodes keeps up the momentum of this excellent series, making you eager to read the next one. Visit for more information about the BBC adaptation and details of forthcoming books in the series.

Alice Next Door

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Judi Curtin
The O'Brien Press
Mar 2006
The O�Brien Press are a small independent publisher based in Dublin. They run a distinctive and distinguished list and can boast the accolade of having discovered both Eoin Colfer and Siobhan Parkinson. With Judi Curtin, they present a challenge to the mantle currently held by the ever-popular Jacqueline Wilson.

�Alice Next Door� is structured around two best friends, Megan and Alice who are separated when the latter moves from their home-town of Limerick to start off afresh with her mother in Dublin. The book focuses on their endeavours to stay in touch, the feelings of loss both experience and a, perhaps, none too cunning plan to stay together!

Where this book succeeds so well is in showing the repercussions that decisions made by adults have on children and the ways in which, accordingly, they must live through these. A happy-ever-after scenario is not presented at the end of the novel, but then this would not be feasible either for Megan or for Alice. The resultant ending is about compromise and leaves the way wide open for a sequel featuring this indomitable duo. At once perceptive and humorous, this novel will doubtless strike a chord with many young readers.

Road Closed

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Jan Mark
Hodder Children's Books
Mar 2006
Published posthumously, this short novel illustrates just what a loss Jan Mark�s is to the world of children�s literature. Connie is staying with her gran as preparations for a street party take place. Anxious that she will not know anyone, Connie is unsure that she wants to attend�

�Road Closed� takes seriously the very real and sometimes paralysing childhood fear of the unexpected and of not knowing anyone that often accompanies parties and indeed attendance at other social gatherings. It sensitively shows how being oneself, showing awareness to others and meeting the needs of those around us responsively not only helps us have a good time, but also ensures that others do too. The story here powerfully demonstrates how the situations we are placed within and our responses towards these play key roles in determining the type of person we are seen to be�

A genuinely surprising ending is not easily achieved within so short a time-span and for such a young audience, it is testament to the writer�s skill and indeed to her latent understanding of the importance of childhood to all of us that one is here posited. A book with a big heart and a bold view regarding the ongoing significance of childhood years.


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Bob Cattell and John Agard
Frances Lincoln
Mar 2006
�Calypsos are about serious things, they about funny things, but they are always bursting with life.�

Familiar to many as the author of the �Glory Gardens� series, cricket writer extraordinaire Bob Cattell is teamed with poetsonian* John Agard in �Butter-Finger�, the fourth book in Frances Lincoln�s new fiction list for 8 to 12 year olds.

Riccardo Small � diminutive in name, stature and the regard he is held within by Calpyso Cricket Club � has big dreams of playing with and winning alongside his team. Things do not go according to plan, however, when Riccardo is afforded the opportunity to play for the team and he misses a catch. This is compounded still further when the band strike up with a new calypso called �Butter Finger�.

This short book sensitively illustrates just how crushing defeat and petty name-calling can be for young children. It also carefully outlines team-work and the roles all individuals are able to play in contributing towards this. Sometimes serious, sometime satirical but always life affirming. A brilliant blend of poetry and prose that begs to be read aloud!

* According to John Agard, a poetsonian is a poet who feels a close connection with Caribbean calypsonians

The Year the Gypsies Came

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Linzi Alex Glass
Mar 2006
�Alles moet verbygaan�

This is the ideal book for reading in one sitting on a long, hot summer�s evening when the ways of the world feel slowed and yet, somehow, more sharply focused.

Linzi Alex Glass shows a real affinity for writing ethereal, poetic prose. She conjures indelible images that carry an almost overwhelming weight of nostalgia for childhood�s transience. Taking as its central preserve the notion that failing relationships appear at their strongest to those who know little about their �insiders�, �The Year the Gypsies Came� forces consideration into the costs invoked when appearances gain greater standing than substance and inner-workings.

The pace at the start of the novel is lethargic, perfectly capturing the ways in which the Iris family feel to have stagnated amidst the heat of the summer. There is a sense in which great undercurrents of emotion already ebb and flow beneath the thoughts and actions of each of the characters even at early stage, however. It is the news that guests will be staying with the family, �gypsies of a kind�, that pours placatory oils over unsettled waters�

Any thoughts that Jock, Peg, Otis and Streak might be conciliatory influences quickly become dispelled as these large-as-life guests make their appearance. The travellers have a raw, untamed and � at points � almost savage approach towards life and its living. They bring with them their own set of values and their own prejudices which contrast greatly to the Iris family�s civilised, genteel outlook.

The urge of mother, Lily Iris, to find adventure and pace in her life and the eagerness of her husband to appease such desires leads daughters Sarah and Emily into danger and ultimately to the tragedy that besets the famil,y tearing its very fabric apart.

Here is writing that is seductively sensual, here is writing that is at once powerful, yet tender, here is a story that arises from a loose thread that once pulled leads one deeper and deeper to uncover layer upon layer of memory and self perception� a remarkable work.

A Darkling Plain

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Philip Reeve
Mar 2006
The fourth and final book in the Mortal Engines series. Six months after the seismic events described in Infernal Devices, Tom and his daughter Wren are working the Bird Roads in their beloved airship, the Jenny Haniver. While Wren thrives, Tom secretly struggles with his weakened heart and his unresolved feelings for his wife Hester, who, in a supreme act of self-destruction, deserted her family and surrendered herself to the stalker Shrike. However, Tom gains a renewed sense of purpose when a serendipitous (or so it seems) series of events lead him full circle, back to the ruins of London. Meanwhile, the uneasy truce between the Traction Cities and the Green Storm proves dangerously vulnerable to exploitation.

I absolutely loved this book, having already relished the earlier titles in the series. Reeve�s exceptional fondness for his characters frees them to behave in complicated, inconsistent and often misguided ways, and the relationships between the characters are similarly complex (Hester and Shrike being the most poignant example). This is writing of much greater emotional subtlety and empathy than is suggested by the muscular �steampunk� setting. A Darkling Plain is not as unreservedly fast-paced as the earlier books; despite the dreadful thrill of the escalating hostilities between the Traction Cities and the Green Storm, the narrative is interspersed with strange little episodes of introspection, as the Stalker Fang explores her inimical dual personalities, and Tom contemplates his rapidly failing health. Moreover, the conclusion of the book is simply astonishing and alters the reader�s sense of everything that has gone before, through an extraordinary shift of perspective. I could go on�


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Emily Gravett
Macmillan Children's Books
Aug 2005
Progression in post-modern approaches to picture books has brought exciting changes to the format. Notable innovators who have explored and evolved these boundaries include Pablo Bernasconi, Lauren Child, Sara Fanelli, Mini Grey and Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean to name but a small handful. �Wolves�, the debut book by Emily Gravett constitutes her own singular addition to the oeuvre.

Ostensibly a book about wolves, this book brilliantly charts the mimetic processes of reading undertaken by the poor, unfortunate rabbit who finds himself the hapless protagonist in this post-structural work having curiously just borrowed a familiar looking book about wolves from West Buckinghamshire Public Burrowing Library!

If this sounds staid or unappealing, it is the dynamism between the crisp, clear, well-defined illustrations and the sparse, informative text from whence, between both, the resultant meta-narrative blossoms, that brings this highly original three-tone book to life�

This truly is a book to be loved, cherished and adored by all who value reading because it wonderfully maps the way words and pictures hold that remarkable ability to fuel our minds and imaginations, drawing us gradually further into their clutches until the boundaries between reader and what is read become blurred at the edges!

The intense preoccupation and determination of the rabbit brings to mind John Tenniel�s interpretation of the White Rabbit in Carroll�s �Alice�s Adventures in Wonderland�. Here is a rabbit who is so intent upon doggedly continuing his reading and his quest for knowledge about wolves, that he is oblivious to the fact that first his ear, then his posterior and gradually his entire body becomes consumed within the narrative of the book, ultimately to be consumed by the wolves therein�

If that sounds frightening the author quickly asserts:

�no rabbits were eaten during the making of this book�

and an alternative ending is provided for sensitive readers. If this sounds like pandering towards readership in pursuit of the ubiquitous �happy-ever-after�, it is worth noting this comes after the book within the narrative is laid down and is itself pieced together from scraps of the ravaged book � a concession, or something further to think about? The choice is yours! Roll on Emily Gravett's next book, "Meerkat Mail" published in August this year...

The Carnival of the Animals

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Ed. Benson, Chernaik, Herbert Ills. Kitamura
Walker Books
Dec 2005
Instantly recognisable and highly distinctive, Satoshi Kitamura has developed an illustrative style that speaks the unspoken sensitivities and imaginings of the �inner-child�.

Following on from picture books �Once Upon an Ordinary School Day�, �Igor the Bird Who Couldn�t Sing� and �Pablo the Artist�, all of which explore the importance of the imagination and the roles of creativity and expression, it seems natural and organic that the progression should be Walker Books� �The Carnival of the Animals�� more a creative enterprise and a genuine inspiration than a book�

The origins of this project span an impressive amount of time. Over a hundred years ago French composer Camille Saint-Saens wrote a series of musical vignettes depicting animals in a zoological �frame� setting. In the present day, Gerald Benson, Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert from Poems on the Underground commissioned poets to write a poem for each of the animals.

Music, poetry and illustrations are carefully interwoven to breathe new life into the menagerie of animals presented � the majesty of the monastic lion, the flightiness of the flightless cocks and hens, the power of the horses, through to the grace and elegance of the swan. A collection of creative vision, this is truly a book to treasure, to read and to return to - a great introduction to the arts of poetry, classical music and illustration!

The Great Tug of War

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Beverley Naidoo
Frances Lincoln
Mar 2006
One of the most familiar Tricksters in literature has got to be Brer Rabbit, featuring in eight volumes of animal tales written � or rather retold � by Joel Chandler Harris in the �Uncle Remus� series. The 185 stories these volumes consist of are retellings of tales told by slaves on the plantation where Harris worked as a printer�s assistant. In �The Great Tug of War�, by Beverley Naidoo, published as the third book in Frances Lincoln�s new fiction range for 8 � 12 year olds, the origins of these stories are traced back to Africa in Mmuthla (pronounced m-moo-tl-ah) a trickster hare�

The eight stories explore the hoodwinking, hoaxing and habits little Mmutla employs to gain the better of the larger animals; elephants, hippos, lions, giraffes and baboons to name but a few� Readers are allowed privileged position whereby they see the unravelling of the chaos Mmutla creates leading to a wonderful sense of anticipation and impatience to learn how this might all end� The language of the book is beautifully lyrical and there�s a sense of richness within the untold tales that comprise constituent parts of the landscape that lies outstretched� here is a masterpiece made in miniature!

Hey Crazy Riddle

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Trish Cooke
Frances Lincoln
Mar 2006
The mood is light, the rhythm is tight in this collection of fast tempo poems published as the second book in Frances Lincoln�s new fiction range for 8 � 12 year olds. Trish Cooke � familiar to many as the award-winning author of popular picture book �So Much� � brings lightness of touch and great verve to these exuberant explanations of how dog lost his bone, why wasp can�t make honey and� of course, the eponymous �Hey Crazy Riddle�.

In the author�s note, Trish explains how she is still able to hear her father�s mischievous voice teasing as he used to when he told her the stories. This lends the poems a real sense of heritage and you cannot help but feel a part of an age-old oral tradition when reading them aloud � and they must be read aloud and be allowed to be shared, because it is then that they become alive!

Purple Class and the Skelington

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Sean Taylor
Frances Lincoln
Mar 2006
�Purple Class and the Skelington� forms the first of four books in Frances Lincoln�s newly launched fiction range for 8 � 12 year olds. These offerings bring to their genres the cultures and sensibilities of story-telling, diversity and illustration that Frances Lincoln have made their bench-mark amongst the picture book market.

Comprised of four short stories, this book is crammed full of zany and exuberant characters and the mishaps and mayhem that ensue in their everyday education. There is a perennial feel to the children presented here and readers will find it difficult not to relate, on some level, to at least one of the characters!

Sean Taylor casts an astute and an innately good-humoured glance at the practicalities of teaching young children and although members of Purple Class might not always take the most standard routes towards their learning, their experiences are meaningful and can only lead to heightened understanding, compassion and a resultant love of learning. Admirable in anybody�s eye surely�

Abuse Sometimes, Families Hurt

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Yvonne Coppard
Jan 2006
Sometimes children need help or advice to understand and contend with the situations that arise within their lives and the lives of those around them. �Abuse: Sometimes, families hurt� by Yvonne Coppard is a practical, sensitively written and easily accessible guide to a number of such scenarios.

Activities and discussion points mean this is a book that perhaps lends itself most easily to use within the classroom, particularly within Personal, Social and Health Education class contexts. With sections outlining neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, self-harm, domestic violence, parents with alcohol or drug dependency, parents with mental illness and finally racism in the family, the book is a useful reference point for all manner of abusive situations and offers practical guidance and advice as well as detailing information about where further support is available. This is a book that professionals in the field need to read, hold awareness of and make readily available in some form for young people.

Nancy Wake Secret Agent

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Nancy Wake Secret Agent
Short Books
January 2006
All too often history can be dry as dust, a collection of facts and figures, diagrams of battlefields and characters so foolhardy, brave or saintly that they belong on plinths.

This book tells is the tale of Nancy Wake, one of a select band of female spies parachuted into occupied Europe during the Second World War.

The facts are all there but so too is the humanity and the cost of the Australian�s bravery in taking on the Nazi regime in her adopted homeland, France. This is history told in real time as a story, with conversations and characters that live off the page.

Wake ran away from home at 16, left Australia soon after and blagged a job as a journalist in Paris at an age when most of us have still not left college. While in Paris she fell for well-to-do French businessman Henri Fiocca and married him in 1939.

So far, so fairy tale but as we all know it wouldn�t last. The war was coming and everyone would be asked some difficult moral questions, keep your head down or resist.

Wake was naturally drawn to the path of most resistance particularly as she had been to Austria and she knew what the Nazis were doing to Jews. Now based in Marseille she became involved in the resistance, helping British soldiers escape. Eventually, however, it became too risky and she had to flee.

Once in England she joined the Special Operations Executive and was sent to central France as a secret agent to organise parachute drops for the resistance.

The tale ends sadly at the end of the war when she returns to Marseille to try and track down her husband. Tragically her involvement with the resistance made him a target for the Gestapo and torture.

This is a great yarn made all the more engaging because it is history. You probably wouldn�t believe it if it was fiction.

Small Steps

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Small Steps by Louis Sachar
Jan 2006
Holes by Louis Sachar is one of my all-time favourite books, so it was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I approached its sequel, Small Steps. Sequels can so often disappoint and even taint fond memories of the original (Star Wars�need I say more). Having said that, Small Steps is more like a spin-off than a sequel, since it picks up on two of the secondary characters from Holes three years after their horrendous hole-digging nightmare at the notorious Camp Greenlake correctional facility. The unfortunately nick-named Armpit is catching up on his education by way of summer school, whilst also making some money working as a gardening labourer � mostly doing something at which he is well-practiced - digging holes. The Small Steps of the title refers to his rehabilitation counsellor�s advice to take things one step at a time. This worthy intention is interrupted when his well-meaning but misguided friend X-Ray turns up with a dubious plan to make money by touting concert tickets, convincing Armpit to part with his hard-earned cash in order to purchase said tickets.

Sachar�s writing is as fresh and uncomplicated as ever, and one is immediately swept up into the compulsive narrative. Tension builds quickly as the two boys find themselves hurtling back towards incarceration when their supposedly fool-proof scam inevitably goes awry. Armpit finds counsel in an unlikely friendship with his neighbour � a younger girl with cerebral palsy who takes her problems in her stride and encourages him to do the same. A romance blossoms under the most unexpected circumstances and Armpit is drawn into the daunting world of a teenage rock-chick, further complicating his already fretful situation.

The somewhat far-fetched storyline is carried along by the tender and convincingly imperfect relationships and by the unaffected directness of the author�s voice. The story comes to a satisfactory conclusion, whilst mercifully avoiding a clich�d happy ending. Small Steps has a completely different feel about it to Holes � which makes it almost impossible to compare the two. Instead I would recommend treating the latest book on its own merits � a skilfully plotted, beautifully executed tale of friendship, trust, love, prejudice, disillusionment and redemption. I am happy to say that my only disappointment was with how quickly it was all over � I challenge you to try and make it last for more than one sitting � I couldn�t.

Peace Weavers

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Julia Jarman
Jan 2006

Here is a difficult story to review. It�s aims and ambitions are admirable, as are much of the ways in which these are executed. There is a sense of unease, however, in the politicised comment against the countries who are arbitrating war. This is no criticism on Jarman�s skill as a writer, however, for the context of actions both in favour and against war � posited here through divergent siblings Tom and Hilde - must necessarily be read as allegorical and it is on this level that the novel succeeds best. Here is a book that is not afraid to pose difficult ethical and moral questions, that unflinchingly probes into the political motives of war and that provides a powerful and poignant plea for the role of active peace-weaving rather than the decimation of people.

Hilde and her brother Tom are relocated to a U.S. air force base when their mother takes part in women�s peace demonstrations in Iraq against the war. Hilde recoils from the Anglo-American culture of the camp and, somewhat unwillingly, becomes involved in an archaeological dig. Whilst there Hilde uncovers and removes from the site of the dig a gold brooch. So begins the interweaving of Hilde�s contemporary story of conflict and peace efforts and Mathilde�s earlier peace-weaving plight in Anglo-Saxon times, thus forcing the uncomfortable assessment of how far society has evolved in the intervening years.

This is the kind of book that not only requires reading, but that demands thought over the issues it poses, a book that requires discussion and that ultimately must raise understanding... There lies the foundations for change...

The Quantum Prophecy

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Michael Carroll
HarperCollins Children's Books
Jan 2006
Critics Watkins and Simpson recently proclaimed the age of heroes was dead. It seemed an odd claim given the prominence a certain boy wizard and his adversary then held� In his book, �The Quantum Prophecy�, the first in �The New Heroes� trilogy, in much the same way as Anthony Horowitz brought detectives to the teen market with his fast-paced, carefully plotted Alex Rider books, Michael Carroll transforms the super hero�

From the outset, readers of this novel and its dual protagonists are brought into a unity over much of the uncertainty of its story. Early on we learn that Colin and Danny are the off-spring of some of the last generation of super heroes. Before long, in some intensely visual scenes with an impressive quick-fire written technique, the two are kidnapped.

Suddenly the plot explodes! The nature of good and evil, the idea of how we use our skills, power and knowledge are all posited for consideration. Here is a gripping, modern read whose constituent genre parts � thriller, mystery, adventure � carry the reader along at a rapid rate of knots leaving one to think over the ideas that are being explored and with a definite thirst to learn what happens next�

The World According to Humprhey

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Betty G Birney
Faber and Faber
Feb 2006
Life in room 26 at Longfellow School takes a turn for the better when class teacher Mrs Mac buys a class hamster called Humphrey. An amiable little fellow, Humphrey wiles away his hours in his cage and travels home with Mrs Mac for the weekend. This routine is altered abruptly, however, when Mrs Brisbane, the teacher for whom Mrs Mac has been covering returns. Mrs Brisbane is most unimpressed by Humphrey and, with reasonable cause, Humphrey begins to feel a plan is being hatched to oust him.

As arch-nemesis go, Mrs Brisbane is a relatively lax one, however, and it is not long until Humprhey is playing an active role again within the class, spending each weekend with a different class member with gradual realisations as to the links between their home-lives and their behaviour in class. Soon the notebook Humphrey fills in � he�s a precocious little fellow � becomes an imaginative guide to life with sensitively scribed notes on bullying, improving self-confidence, unruly behaviour and much, much more. All of this is interspersed with remarkably salient tips from Dr Harvey H Hammer�s book �Guide to the Caring and Feeding of Hamsters�.

With cheeks chock full of humour and adventure, rarely have rodentia made for such a reasurring read.