December 2006 Archives

Lucy Willow

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Sally Gardner
Orion Children's Books
Oct 2006
��Poppycock,� said Miss Fortwell firmly. �I believe completely in extraordinary things happening. No doubt about it.��

As with previous novels, in �Lucy Willow�, Sally Gardner makes a powerful and heartfelt assertion as to the roles individuality, belief and responsiveness to one another and our environment play in establishing a conducive cultural climate.

Eponymous Lucy Willow is a girl who, together with her pet snail Ernest, lives an extraordinary life. Their abode consists of three railways carriages and their lifestyle is idyllic, if not somewhat non-conformist! Privatisation of the stretch of railway on which they live, however, threatens the Willow family�s lifestyle forcing Mr Willow to take a job at the local, fairly dilapidated garden centre, Peppercorns.

Whilst in employ at the centre, the fairy-tale fire that burns at the heart of this novel, really takes hold� Wronged out of their familial inheritance, the Peppercorns, lost one of their garden centres to the opportunistic Sparks family

It is the understated beauty, liveliness and interest in the curious that makes Gardner�s fiction toasty-warm, satisfyingly familiar and yet at once extraordinary. They feel to be fairy-tales etched out of the modern day and are augmented admirably by Peter Bailey�s sparsely expressive illustrations. An achievement indeed.

Cat Call

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Linda Newbery
Orion Children's Books
Oct 2006
�Facts are everywhere � the only way not to find them would be to walk around with your eyes and ears shut.�

Opening with the cataclysmic change for brothers Joshua and Jamie as newborn step-sister Jennie is brought into the world, �Cat Call� expertly contrasts knowledge and understanding against fears and doubt. Stepping beyond mere sibling rivalry, childhood neurosis is depicted here with an astute accuracy, but also with compassion and perception.

Overt didacticism is skilfully avoided as through Joshua�s often laconic narration, Newbery carefully negotiates the feelings of brother Jamie, his jealousy of his sister and the manifestation this takes as he becomes horrified by the force and intensity of these internalised feelings.

An impressive depth of knowledge is presented into all things feline � from factual information to mythology. The tectonics of familial relationships and alliances are related with extraordinary power and prowess. The success of �Cat Call� is the genuine credence it affords to insecurity and its lithe ability in so doing to avoid the slightest patronising hue.

Three for Tea

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Anne Fine, Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson et al
Sep 2006
�Three for Tea� collects three stories by each of the children�s laureate authors, anthologising these for the first time in a single volume.

Jacqueline Wilson�s story �My Brother Bernadette� takes an astute look at gender stereotyping as the bully-boy of the summer project, Big Dan, picks on sensitive and creative Bernard prompting the group to follow his lead. Rugged determination wins the day, however, as Bernard single-mindedly sets out to learn to sew and through so doing finds a highly creative way to wreak his revenge upon Big Dan.

The clock is on in Anne�s Fine�s �Countdown� which sees Hugo desperate for a pet gerbil. His dad agrees provided Hugo is able to stay alone in his bedroom for seven-hours, the length of time any prospective pet gerbil would be expected to entertain itself within caged walls during Hugo�s absence at school. This compassionate and deft allegory stimulates early moral and ethical consideration.

The third tale, �Snakes and Ladders� plays out the downs of bullying and the ups of heroism and bravery in the school yard! Michael Morpurgo gives an expose that provides insight into the roots and the dynamics of bullying. The victim of Simon McTavish�s snide remarks, Wendy�s home life is disturbed when her granddad is taken into hospital for a hip operation. Concerned as to what to display from her life on the �interesting things� table, Wendy eventually settles on Slinky, her granddad�s pet snake, things quickly � and quite literally � get out of hand�

Each story showcases the works of the three �author� laureates incredibly well. It seems a shame that the opportunity to cohere the stories through this has not been formalised with an introduction providing background to the laureate scheme thus advocating this. This omission feels a little like a missed opportunity and lends an otherwise very strong and inventive collection an air of the arbitrary. With full colour illustrations, and three tales by leading authors, "Three for Tea" will make a heartingly cost-effective introduction to favourite writers for many...

One Year With Kipper

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Mick Inkpen
Hodder Children's Books
Sep 2006
One of the most familiar and favoured dogs in children�s literature makes a return in this annual account of life. Beginning in January, Kipper takes photographs with his new camera � used to photograph key events in each month � and makes a New Year�s resolve not to throw snowballs at Tiger. This is quickly broken, however, as in February the snowfall proves too tempting to pay no heed towards. March, April and May elapse with high winds, ponds full of frogs and tadpoles and blossom and ducklings.

The summer months of June, July and August pass in a reverie watching insects in the long grasses, of hot, hot storms and of summer holidays. Autumn arrives and with it the months of September, October and November bring brambles full of blackberries, pumpkins, twiggy branches and warm, misty breath in frozen air.

The story concludes in December as Kipper prepares for Christmas, making a special present for his friend Tiger, this it transpires is the yearbook with all of the photographs he has taken throughout the course of the book. Special mention must be made of the different palettes Mick Inkpen sensitively utilises to successfully evoke each of the seasons, the blues and white of winters, the fresh greens of spring, the bright colours of summer and the golden browns of Autumn.

Uuan the Lamb

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Sandra Klaassen
Floris Books
Sep 2006
Uan is Gaelic for lamb. Set upon a small, somewhat old-fashioned, though beautiful island in the sea, a farming family live, battling against the elements to secure a livelihood. One springtime an abandoned newborn lamb is found of the shoreline.

Bedraggled and famished, the lamb is rubbed dry, given milk and placed in a box next to the range. The family adopt the lamb and take special care of her to compensate for the absence of her mother. She is played with and cuddled and as she grows in size and strength, so too she grows in confidence following the children of the family everywhere.

Eventually Uan has grown big enough to join the other lambs in the field, where she plays games with them and has fun. She becomes a sheep and one day has a lamb herself, becoming the best mother in the world.

This is a tender, sweet story evoking the love and care that enables children � of whatever species! � to grow and develop, finally being able to utilise the knowledge and experiences of their own childhood experiences responsively.

Mammoth Academy

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Neal Layton
Hodder Children's Books
Oct 2006
�By tusk and trunk�

Those who have followed Oscar and Arabella, that indomitable, woolly mammoth duo, in their picture book adventures: �Oscar and Arabella� and �Hot, Hot, Hot� will be delighted to learn that the pair have ascended to school age.

On arrival of a letter from Professor Snout at the Mammoth Academy, the pair are both advised as to the items they will need in readiness for their first school day. Use of the novel form, allows significant character development, Neal Layton includes a facsimile of Oscar�s letter � and later of his school map � both of which have been rather carelessly crumpled and smudged!

Activities take a turn towards the unexpected when Oscar discovers a set of footprints in the snow which, being the inquisitive mammoth that fans of the series will know that he is, he decides to follow...

It transpires the tracks lead to the kitchens where a thief has been stealing oranges. The mystery unravels and Oscar becomes entwined in playing out the role of detective in a furiously paced adventure that sees him do battle against the humans using a rather unwieldy prehistoric skateboard!

This novel will appeal to those who have enjoyed Ian Whybrow and Tony Ross� �Little Wolf� series. Illustrations and text alike are brilliantly executed by Neal Layton whose brilliant first novel guarantees mammoth amounts of fun!

Wild About Books

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Judy Sierra, ill. Marc Brown
Frances Lincoln
Jul 2006
In the summer of 2002, Springfield librarian Molly McGrew drives her mobile library into the zoo. Initially, the animals are suspicious and resistant and it appears folly, but librarian Molly, armed with knowledge of the best story to read to conquer the biggest level of resistance, attracts a mink and a moose by reading aloud from good Dr Seuss.

Shortly thereafter a stampede for reading begins with each animal and creature having his or her own particular penchant. The giraffes love tall books, the geckos love stick to the wall books, the pandas love Chinese books, the otters love water proof Harry Potter, the llamas love dramas and the hyenas and snakes love joke books.

�Wild About Books� succeeds brilliantly in showing the diverse reading tastes that can accompany a love of books, it emphases the importance of discussion, of dialogue and of debate. Reading is not show here as being solitary and isolated, but real culture for reading is depicted. A marvellous achievement and one itself that reads aloud in a group brilliantly well and is a gift for the level of tie-in craft sessions and activities that could so easily be themed around the story.

The Perfect Pop-Up Punctuation Book

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Kate Petty, ill. Jenny Maizels
Bodley Head
Sep 2006
Punctuation is sign posted as building blocks in this, clever and compelling guide to its basic usage. This motif forms the foundations of the book with subtle illustrative reference to the three little pigs and the house of straw at the beginning of the book to the bricks and mortar of the four-tiered, three-dimensional finale at the close.

Lift the flaps and pull-tabs help to actively engage readers in the process of proper, standard, punctuation. This begins with the basics of starting each sentence with a capital letter and ending it with a full stop.

A practical guide to the use of commas is then presented, this is consolidated through showing some of the humorous outcomes that their neglect can cause. Question marks, exclamation marks, semicolons and colons, speech marks, and much more are covered along with the hugely abused apostrophe � a quiz is presented to help clarify the rules of real apostrophe usage.

Kate Petty and Jennie Maizels have managed to make a subject that can often be tediously repetitive and monotonous truly engaging. With the pop-ups and paper engineering, this is a book that both readers and writers will delight in and will doubtless wish to return to.

A Boy Wants a Dinosaur

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Hiawyn Oram, ill. Satoshi Kitamura
Andersen Press
Sep 2006
The eagerness to care, look after and show warmth towards a creature, to find companionship and closeness, together with the fascination for dinosaurs, forms the basis of one of Hiawyn Oram and Satoshi Kitamura�s justly acclaimed collaborations. �A boy wants a dinosaur� is re-issued again this year by Andersen Press.

Ben has a dog, Alice has two snails, but poor Alex is desperate for a dinosaur, showing compassion his grandfather states �A boy wants a dinosaur this much, a boy should have a dinosaur�. So it is that the pair take a trip to the gargantuan glass �dino-store� � a veritable haven for those who desire a dinosaur!

After much agonising over species selection, Alex chooses a Massospondylus, a dinosaur that eats everything. Alex calls her Fred. Fred requires ample food, ample sleep, ample water for her bath and ample walks� shortly after gaining perspective into the cumbersome practicalities of having a dinosaur as a pet, Alex awakes, finding he had only dreamt of having a dinosaur, together with grandfather he decides a rabbit would make a far better suited pet!

Indulgent text and lavishly good humoured illustrations combine to make this a richly imaginative and fiendishly funny story with a considerate caution about the responsibility a pet entails.

Setting of A Cruel Sun

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Alan Gibbons
September 06

Hmm. Had this one for over three weeks and I�ve just finished. (Sorry Michael) My wife suggested that this initial sentence would suffice, but on we go.

Chapter One. Forces of light and of darkness. Mention of a �Nine� of heroes and heroines. A dark lord, a Black Tower (no, not the Liebfraumilch), a demon battle host. Any of that sound at all familiar?

Don�t get me wrong, I�m not at all anti-fantasy. I read and re-read The Lord of the Rings many times as a child. I consider Garth Nix to be �the business�: Ursula LeGuin even better. There is some tremendous stuff out there in this genre, but (to misquote Groucho Marx) Setting of a Cruel Sun just isn�t it.

Funnily enough, despite some of those early clich�s, lack of imagination isn�t the root of the problem in this book. There are a complex host of different peoples and even species imagined against a backdrop scented with our own Middle East. Roughly speaking they are grouped into the Hotec-Ra, the tyrants who have ruled the land with an iron hand (not a wooden foot or a piece of string�. Cf The Goon Show circa �59?), the Helati rebel slaves, who wish for a new era of equality and justice, and the fearsome Darkwing, a once-human, now life-hating demon lord. So, all the heroes have to do is defeat the overlords in a great battle and thwart the Darkwing�s scheme to destroy the life-giving sun and everyone can settle down to a bit of serious sunbathing with maybe a cocktail or three. Piece of cake, and (although the usual good-versus evil-for-the-fate-of-mankind fare) an okay fantasy plot.

The problem comes first that this is a sequel that really feels like one for at least fifty pages, if not more. The story opens at the end of another great battle, with the Nine just recovering from a previous victory, and feels like a strange mixture of a formal history being unfurled and glimpses of a large number of individuals with too many pasts and characteristics to possibly cram into the text. Result: a real hard slog for several chapters.

But even when I had worked out who everyone was and what their aims were, I still struggled. I think this is partly due to that uncomfortable mix mentioned above (great history versus personal events) a mix that Tolkien manages well in a much longer work that grew over decades of imagining and re-imagining but just feels rushed, messy and formulaic here. Add to this a correspondingly strange narrative style that sometimes has characters directly analysing their own motives and actions against the wider backdrop in a most unconvincing way - �What do I feel?� asks one particular traitorous villain, �Yes, I am jealous� There is comradeship among the enemy, whereas we Children of Ra cheat and deceive... I am without friends or confidants. In my loneliness, I envy my foe.� � and quite often brutally spells things out rather than letting us draw our own conclusions or allowing tension to mount: �The decision would have grave consequences. Before nightfall the next day, it would bring the swords of the Sol-ket down on his village.�

I kept asking myself during my reading if I was being too harsh, but the reality is that I failed to engage emotionally with any of the characters, I was rarely surprised by the plot and, by the end, I felt as if I was simply filling in the numbers in a hellishly large but low-level Sudoku puzzle.

As ever, just one person�s opinion. You might love it.

Alone on a Wide Wide Sea

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Michael Morpurgo
Oct 2005
Arthur Hobhouse, an orphan shipped to Australia when he was six years old, has only one link with his past: a small key on a piece of string, given to him by his sister Kitty. He has no idea what it is for and no clear memory of his only living relative, but he treasures it. Arthur dies never knowing if his sister ever really existed, but his daughter Allie sails across the world, all alone in the boat he built for her, to find out.

Two distinctively different but equally compelling narrators tell the story of Arthur and his daughter Allie, whose love of sailing is as passionate as her father�s. Morpurgo masterfully manages the dissimilar voices of each storyteller. Arthur�s tale is an honest reflection on a life of hardship occasionally lightened by love. Allie�s narrative, written partly in e-mails, captures absolutely the tone of a spirited young woman on an incredible journey.

The strong tidy thread of plot belies a myriad of inspirations, deftly woven together. Morpurgo�s story is informed by the harrowing historical accounts of child migrants, Coleridge�s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the e-mails of Alex Whitworth and Peter Crozier, who circumnavigated the world in their yacht in 2004.

Discussing �what makes a children�s book great?� critic Julia Eccleshare once said �what makes a book so amazing is the feeling that you cannot stop reading it� an urgent book.� Urgent this book certainly is.

I would have read the book in one sitting if it were not for the two sections � as such it demanded two! Be warned: once you start this epic adventure story, you won�t want to stop.


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Kate Petty
Frances Lincoln
Sep 2006
Although cultural constructions of the child vary and � at times - collide, where the �Around the World� series succeeds is in laying out the shared common ground that unites these constructions, regardless of geographical location, of background economic vitality etc.

�Playtime� explores the forms and means that play takes for different children around the world. Cidinha and friends in Brazil play tug-of�war, Sasha in Russia plays in a hidey-hole carved out of the snow, Timo in Mali plays with toy boats, Shakeel in India plays football, Giorgi in Azerbaijan races go-karts, Gianni in Albania has made a toy helicopter, families in Sudan play with animals modelled from clay Linh in Vietnam plays have made catapults from elastic bands and much more�

The series breaks down barriers of understanding and unfamiliarity by outlining areas of commonality and shared experience. Each double-page spread features a bold photograph of the children playing, a brief explanation of who they are, whereabouts in the world they are based and the times of games and toys they play with. Children themselves are given the opportunity to further elucidate through means of speech bubbles. The close of the book features a map of the world with each place featured clearly indicated through the use of a miniature photograph.