Category Archives: Non-Fiction

The Ultimate Book Guide (For 8-12s) revised & updated edition

ed. Leonie Flynn, Daniel Hahn & Susan Reuben

A & C Black


January 2009

As a search of this blog will reveal (if you scroll down after clicking the link), I was not an immediate fan of the Ultimate Book Guides. Coming to them from the point of view of someone who was used to contributing to works of reference such as Larousse Dictionary of Writers, H. W. Wilson’s World Authors and the New DNB, I initially found the tone irritatingly enthusiastic and exclamatory and, in the worst instances, such as the entry (unrevised in the new edition) for The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, vacuous.
But I was missing the point. These are not books for the reference shelf, but hands-on guides intended to encourage and help young readers to move on from one book to the next. In this context, the range of contributors and the pervasively jolly and upbeat tone are essential ingredients.
The first Guide for 8-12’s is now five years old, so a revised and updated edition is timely. The first book had 288 pages. The new one has 416, but is more compact in its dimensions (a much better size for reading and carrying around) and only has room for two entries per page in comparison to three in the earlier edition.
Additions include recent titles by the likes of Frank Cottrell Boyce (a shame he is not one of the contributors), A Dog Called grk by Joshua Doder (a shame neither Chris Priestley the contibutor nor the Next? sidebar make reference to the fact that this is the first book in a sequence rather than a one-off title) and Fly By Night by Frances Hardynge. Caroline Lawrence who was only represented in the first book by The Thieves of Ostia, Book 1 in her Roman Mysteries series, now deservedly has her entry retitled to refer to the series as a whole. I was pleased to see Rodman Philbrick’s Freak The Mighty in this new edition, and although losses from a book of this type are to be regretted and can be somewhat poignant, they are inevitable. I noted that there were no longer entries for The Ennead by Jan Mark or Farm Boy by Michael Morpurgo, though bouth authors remain sufficiently represented by other entries.
Entries receive one, two or three dots “as a rough indication of the relative difficulty of a title”. This is a new feature and although much better than any attempt to give age advice, the allocation of the dots does appear to relate to age appropriateness rather than reading difficulty. Morris Gleitzman’s Once, a very accessible and easy book to read from the point of view of vocabulary and simple sentence structure, is given three dots, presumably because of its subject matter. As the entry itself says, “it is a quick read and written in simple language, but the subject is not for young children.” All credit to the editors for including the title in this book, rather than reserving it for the teen guide.
As important as the entries themselves, are the sidebars giving suggestions for what to read next. At the book’s launch party, Leonie Flynn announced that the Ultimate Book Guide blog would henceforth be having a Book Of The Week entry (each Monday) with the all-important What To Read Next as an essential feature. ACHUKA will blog these recommendations to help spread the word.

The Time Traveller’s Journal

Ruth Redford



Winter 2008

The guidebook for any budding time traveller, this book takes you on a journey through time. Each page is bursting with pop-ups, pull outs, activities, rich drawings and weird and wonderful facts. Much like ‘Dragonology’ and ‘Pirateology’ this book is somewhat of a novelty, yet artfully compiled. Filled with intricate details ‘The Time Traveller’s Journal’ fits into the ‘ology’ book genre that is so popular with younger readers currently. Written by Ruth Redford, and presented as ‘Prospero Hermes’ Journal, the book mixes diary entries with factual information from the dinosaurs to life in space. While the first glance might dismiss this book as a gimmick, there is no doubt that Rachel Clark’s design is enthralling. Indeed, there was many an argument when this book arrived in my book corner; everyone wanted to use the mirror to decode the secret message or read the pull-out newspaper documenting the Titanic sinking. A firm favourite, making history compelling.
reviewed for ACHUKA by Danielle Alder.

A River Of Words – The Story Of William Carlos Williams

Jen Bryant, ill. Melissa Sweet



Autumn 2008

William Carlos Williams – a poet who also worked as a family doctor – has long been a hero of mine so, while some people may question what audience a picture book biography of a twentieth century American poet is aimed at, I’m predisposed to look kindly on it. The illustrations, strong and modern with collage effects, together with the artfully simple condensing of Williams’ life to its bare essentials, produce a strong evocation of the life of a working man scribbling lines for poems on yellow prescription pads when he can, corresponding by letter with other poets and writers in the evening, in those pre-internet days.
Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and ‘This Is Just To Say’ have been much anthologised in children’s collections, so a copy of this book should be in every primary school library.

Voyage Across The Cosmos

Giles Sparrow



Autumn 2008

This mega-sized non-fiction title is without doubt one of the most striking books about space I’ve seen. It’s superbly well-produced and designed, with high-quality photographs and illustrations. Sparrow’s writing is never condescending. It commands respect and attention, and because it’s presented in manageable factboxes, even less fluent readers will be encouraged to read for meaning. Presented as a flight through the solar system (with a double page spread given to each of the planets and their moons), the Milky Way and then out beyond our galaxy, it is easy to navigate around.
A white typeface on black page backgrounds contributes to the book’s striking impact.
This is a book that will be pored over for hours and is complex enough to provide several years of interest.
I can imagine an inquisitive child given this when he or she is eight years old still finding things to interest them when they are fourteen. Indeed, any adult seeing the book lying around is likely to pick the book up and find likewise.
Pleasingly free of flaps and fiddly bits.
Simply highly recommended.

Minders Of Make-Believe

Leonard S. Marcus

Houghton Mifflin


Summer 2008

This wonderfully well-written and assembled history of children’s book publishing in America will prove indispensable to all those making a serious study of the genre, but is also fascinating reading for anyone with an interest in bookish affairs.
For me the most rivetting passages in the book fell within the first two-thirds. During the early history it was a joy to come across names familiar to me from the time when I did my research into the friendship between Melville and Hawthorne. This part of the book describes, for example, the first moves of librarians to separate out children’s literature from the rest of the stock. As the story moves into the 1920s and 1930s Marcus is good at pointing out the degree to which children’s literature had separated itself off from the main culture of modernism.
Several times during my reading I found myself wanting to turn to a few pages of illustrative plates giving portraits of some of the key players in this fascinating story. Margaret Wise Brown is described as “the charismatic ash-blond editor with film-star good looks” – it would have been helpful to be able to turn to a photo to corroborate this description 🙂
Marcus finds room for some fascinating detail regarding the editors who turned down Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. The last two decades covered – the 1980s and 1990s – are given brushstroke treatment in comparison with the in-depth analysis accorded the earlier years, but that didn’t bother me in the least.
Meticulously indexed and referenced, this is a work of high scholarship written for the general reader.

Chewy, Gooey, Rumble, Plop!

Steve Alton, ill. Nick Sharratt

Bodley Head


Oct 2007

Following the processes of digestion and excretion literally from beginning to end, ‘The Gooey Chewy, Rumble, Plop Book’ is a cavalcade of consumption! Taking as its premise the ingestion of ice-cream ‘ and sporting a highly tactile tongue that can be made to waggle in a most disconcerting manner ‘ the book takes us on a voyage around our extraordinary bodies, highlighting key learning areas such as taste, superb stomach statistics, an amazing account of absorption, and a double-page plop-out that will have readers doubled up with laughter! The joy of this book is the meticulous detail that has been afforded to its production. Innovative paper-engineering together with carefully penned descriptions of the processes encountered as parts of digestion and excretion make this an active ‘ and thereby memorable ‘ learning experience. A victory for the voyage of discovery!

Looking for Enid

Duncan McLaren

Portobello Books ltd


Oct 2007

As well as being ubiquitous in the children’s literature field, Enid Blyton’s legacy has been highly influential. With around 8 million copies of her various titles sold annually and a body of work that embraces some seven-hundred-books, Blyton was and remains a true phenomenon in children’s publishing.
Purporting to guide readers through the ‘mysterious and inventive life of Enid Blyton’, Duncan McLaren’s ‘Looking for Enid’ documents the geography that lay behind much of her life and attempts to place this in context of her work. The major initial problem with this line of thinking is that the hypothesis it posits is reliant upon the weight of emphasis and significance that McLaren places upon particular works and characters at the exclusion of others that are in contravention of his pre-defined ideologies, making this a curiously single-sided work. Only those out of the many tunnels and secret passages that fit with McLaren’s slightly aslant psycho-analytic reading, only those towers which fit with the autobiographical detail he feels permeates the works are granted accord, the remainder meanwhile are dismissed.
In spite of this, parts of McLaren’s work are revelatory and parts of his research ‘ where it is grounded and does not involve flirtatious theorising that seems to serve its apparent primary purpose, the titillation of his travelling companion Kate ‘ are to be applauded. This, however, is too dilute and embedded within too much supposition to be of major interest.
With the literary equivalent of a nervous-twitch, McLaren appropriates Blyton’s characters and lives out parts of his own thoughts, feelings and desires and those that he projects upon Blyton herself. This occurs most inappropriately when Enid and first husband Hugh have an imagined bed-time conversation as rabbits, Binkle and Flip discussing the hope for a fully-developed uterus’ ‘Oh, it wouldn’t have to be a fully developed one. Not an arterial road running right through me! But perhaps I could wish for the uerus of an 18-year-old girl. Do you think that would be too much to ask for?’ It becomes hard not to recoil!
Blyton’s position within the children’s literature world and the sheer mass of work she produced means that further consideration ‘ and that which travels beyond the shifting trends and tectonics of political correctness ‘ is needed, but this title is unequal to that. Barbara Stoney’s official biography is far more engaging, more precisely written and of lasting interest than the current work.
Portobello must be praised for the high-production values on this work, however, whether the self-indulgent content in its current form warranted publication is certainly questionable.

Unzipped: A Toolkit for Life

Matt Whyman



Aug 2007

In ‘XY – a toolkit for life’, Matt Whyman achieved that rare balance of finding a chatty and informal voice and means for communicating information about puberty ‘ the bits that everyone wants to know but that few feel comfortable in asking, or by turns in answering.
‘Unzipped ‘ a toolkit for life’ is a welcome return of the winning format used previously but here updated for revised. Carefully interwoven firsthand experiences and the occasional joke prevent the book from becoming a diatribe of paternalistic guidance and advice diminishing the very real concerns that can accompany adolescence.
Written and designed with precision, many will feel as comfortable with reading this as with FHM, Loaded, Nuts or any of the other boorish magazines aimed at the young male market and further restricting popular constructions of masculinity through positing football, cars and sexual bigotry as the unique preserves of the male and denying all that is emotional or cerebral in content. Matt Whyman’s skill is in appropriating this style but through subtle awareness of the head of emotional steam that lies behind all as they encounter the transition from childhood to adulthood, paying tribute to the emotional concerns that lie beyond the front, a standpoint worthy of applause.

The Boyhood of Burglar Bill

Allan Ahlberg

Puffin Books


Mar 2007

‘I had this bald, mouldy-looking tennis ball which I dribbled with on the way to school till it disappeared down a drain. I even had a ball that I’d made myself out of cut-up rings from an inner tube wrapped round a core of silver-paper sweet wrappers. It was hardly bigger than a golf ball and bounced about, all that rubber, like a live thing.’

Continuing the social history gleaned from Allan Ahlberg’s childhood that was begun in “My Brother’s Ghost‘, this book is set in 1953, the Coronation year, the stimuli for the Coronation Cup, a football tournament local to Oldbury in which the young Ahlberg took part.
Childhood memories and recollections are vividly realised by Ahlberg who describes with verve and zeal anecdotes surrounding the football matches ‘ stolen kits accidentally dyed purple, his mother’s dressing gown-clad nocturnal meanderings’ Nostalgia figures highly in this deftly written account of a ’50s childhood that succeeds in going beyond mere reminiscence to explore social setting, character motivation and childhood from the heightened standpoint of more matured experience and understanding.

Jacky Daydream

Jacqueline Wilson



Mar 2007

Handed the dubious mantle of being somehow wholly attuned to the minds and sensibilities of her child readers, Jacqueline Wilson’s prose has become increasingly emotionally dispossessed, as the marketing surrounding her books appears to have forced her further and further into a creative cul-de-sac.
Jacky Daydream‘, her latest work epitomises this process by mythologising her own childhood alongside the preoccupations and ideas that have bubbled through the body of her work post-‘Tracy Beaker’. What feels palpably frustrating to readers here is that the obvious capability of Wilson as a writer, her curiosity, intellect and intrigue, all of that potential is neither attained nor even properly attempted. Simmering preoccupations are never given full time to gestate, to develop and grow and thereby to reach the exhilarating climax of a rolling boil. By consequence, Wilson’s output has begun to feel, at best, increasingly formulaic and at worst, unashamedly stale.
With the exception of touchingly considerate and astute passages ‘ notably those recollecting her father’s sensitivity and the manner through which his inability to achieve expression led to manifestations of anger ‘ much of the book is enigmatic choosing to focus on the trivialities of which plastic dolls were favoured on lustful trips to Woolworths, rather than on the emotional grist of grappling with what inspires her as a writer, of what aspects of her own childhood burn bright at the heart of her own fiction.
As an autobiographical work ‘Jacky Daydream” appears peculiarly one-dimensional, it operates best as a series of reminiscences and on this level is not without appeal. That it chooses to omit reference to any of Jacqueline’s early work is strangely elliptical .
A sad lack of pride or sense of fulfilment in her body of work per-se pervades the book and is entirely disparate to the sparky enthusiasm and intellect with which professionals in the field will have experienced first-hand as Jacqueline articulated her literary tastes, beliefs and considerable enthusiasm during her time as laureate. This together with the quote ‘I was delighted to discover that children in adult novels were much more characters’ with rich inner lives and fears and fancies‘ leaves readers anxious in the hope that Jacqueline will be afforded and indeed will afford herself as much time and emotional free-reign as is needed to write a book that truly matters to her, which realises the types of inner-life and motivation that modern children’s fiction is able to embrace, and in which justifiable pride is able to be taken.