Friday, 21 April 2017

The Bone Sparrow – Zana Fraillon – CLIP Carnegie 2017 - Shadowing Review

The clocks have jumped forward, the days are getting longer, the blossoms are blossoming, spring is well and truly sprung- which can only means one thing – it’s time for SOTB’s annual CLIP Carnegie shadowing!

First up is The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon, which has gone straight from the 2016 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize shortlist and on to the shortlist for this year’s Carnegie medal. The Bone Sparrow is engaging, empathetic, enlightening and harrowing; in short it is a work of poignant beauty that shines a light on a very contemporary humanitarian crisis: refugee camps.

Just the cover speaks volumes, the illustration depicting an open toped birdcage surrounded by barbed wire, with a sparrow flying to freedom, along with best tag line in this year’s shortlist; ‘hope can set you free,’ promises a tale about hope.

The Bone Sparrow is told from two viewpoints, predominantly in the first person by Subhi, a nine year old boy who was born in the camp. The second being told in the third person following the adventures of Jimmie, a curious girl from the other side of the fence.

Subhi – or ID-DAR-1 is an endearing child whose outlook on life is optimistic as he finds hope in stories; ones other tell, ones he makes up; ones he dreams, and ones he draws. Having no experience outside the fences of the compound, these stories are Subhi’s; history, identity and aspirations for the future.

In a place where everything is rationed; water, clothes, food, toilet roll, and hope, the resident’s mortal rapidly starts corroding, and unrest begins to cloud the air. The ominous feeling is exacerbated by the presence of a sparrow inside Suhbi’s tent, and people whisper that the bird is an omen, a precursor of death. Subhi is taken under the wing of ever so slightly older, street wise entrepreneurial Eli, who shares his black market business with Suhbi, literally keeping shoes on his feet. Together the best friends navigate the dangers of life in the camp, from other restless angry youths to bad food, and the trigger and fist happy warden Beaver. When Eli is moved from the family compound to Alpha where the adult men are housed, Subhi takes comfort from his new friend Jimmie.

'May you forever bring us luck and protection, and may you carry our souls to freedom.'

Jimmie, is curious about the people behind the fence, breaks in, and soon becomes friends with Subhi , sharing food, and Jimmie late mothers stories that Subhi reads to her. Subhi is practically interested in Jimmies necklace, an heirloom from her mother; a sparrow pendant carved from bone, which protects her family. Despite the pair being from completely different worlds, they are kindred spirits, and when in the midst of chaos with the camp, Subhi risks everything to save his friend. But as he does so the question is on his min;, is the sparrow a guardian or an omen?

With The Bone Sparrow, Fraillon, shows the hardships, indignities and dangers of life within refugee camps, without shying away from the realities and yet keeping it censored enough for the audience. It is perfectly balanced; revealing just enough to open our eyes but not so much to make it unreadable or inappropriate for the audience, whilst interweaving a deeper fabric of tales creating a rich, multi-facetted unique tale about hope. Both hope of individuals; like Subhi’s unfaltering optimism, and larger hope; the hope that society can change and humanity will prevail.

Image result for carnegie medal

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Dragons Green by Scarlett Thomas - review

‘Dragon’s Green’ is one of those books that feels instantly like an absolute treat to settle down with. Firstly, it features a library, which turns out to be magical, and just when you thought it couldn’t get any better it has the most brilliant contest with a dragon to save a princess.
When Effie Truelove’s grandfather is attacked and a sinister book-buyer is desperately keen to get his hands on his library, Effie feels powerless, until she is plunged into a parallel world of magic.
She is helped by unlikely schoolfriends who start to discover their own special magical ability and together they form a team formidable enough to defeat the nasty book eaters who are intent on stealing all the magical power from Effie's grandfather’s books.
There is so much to enjoy in Scarlett Thomas’s boldly imaginative first book for children. As with all of the best children’s books, it can be enjoyed on many levels. 

The writing is smart and playful, full of literary allusions, including a group of existential thinkers guarding the underworld who challenge those who want to cross to swap quotes. Characters rely on quick thinking and verbal jousting as much as fights and magic (note great battle to defeat the dragon).
It is also full of sharp observations on books and the publishing world in general. Not only are the main baddies, the Diberi, evil book destroyers, there is fun to be had with an evil publisher trying to banish stories and encourage everyone to read self-help and useless diet books instead. And newly-emerged witch, Raven Wilde, being the daughter of a very famous writer of magical fiction who has no idea magic really exists. Splendid fun.
The magical world-building is also satisfying (How does someone actually cast a spell? Is magic unlimited? and just what can be discovered in the pages of a magical book?). I can see children loving learning the power of magical objects ‘boons’ and wondering about their own magical skills.
Effie dashes between worlds, some of which can only be found in the pages of books, and the plot weaves in enough complexity so you must keep your wits about you. The fact that it is demanding yet tremendous fun means it will appeal far more widely than to its 9-12 year old core readership. So settle down for a treat.
In fact there is so much to enjoy it is my favourite children’s book of the year so far – and it will take some beating.
Nicki Thornton

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone – review

A welcome return for the intrepid Moll Pecksniff who takes on fantastical enemies and riddles that can only be defeated by magic in The Night Spinner, the final part of this thrilling trilogy of monsters and magic.

Following on from her earlier successful adventures, Moll has discovered a set of sinister enemies who want to shut out good magic and replace it with the bad and there is  danger and adventure at every turn as all manner of foes are sent to fight her. 

Moll now has just three more Shadowmasks to defeat. But can she do it in time to stop the old, good magic being banished forever from the world?

Moll travels north, with only a cryptic note from the oracle spirit to guide her, she begins her search for magical objects she will need to defeat the many, unknown obstacles that will stand in her way.

As readers who have loved the first two of this series will expect, Moll encounters non-stop threat from the magical monsters who have been sent by the evil Shadowmasks to try to stop her reaching and killing the ultimate Shadowmask called Night Spinner.

From an early assault by witches, Moll encounters a wonderfully trickster goblin called Kittlerumpit, a Gollum-like figure, living underground in a system of tunnels, dishing out riddles and surrounded by cages and mirrors. But Moll also finds friendly giants and new-found Highland helpers including a selkie as she quests to find and destroy the Night Spinner.

Yet one of the strongest elements of this part of the trilogy is where Moll starts to have doubts. Her arrows stop flying so truly and she begins to fear failure. As Moll is a character marked by certainty and unstinting bravery and a fearless fighter, Moll is floored by these feelings of self-doubt. But this builds to one of the highlights of the story where she discovers the real reason she has faltered – and it is all down to those evil Shadowmasks again. They have been stealing her hopes and dreams and bottling them to dwindle her energy and resolve. A really great twist as Moll has never faltered before and she fights her way to regather all her strength and belief.

If you haven’t read them yet it is worth starting at the beginning of these Abi Elphinstone’s adventures with ‘The Dreamsnatcher’. 

The jeopardy is constantly thrilling and imaginative as Moll draws on magical objects to defeat her enemies in a wonderful collective rollercoaster of fantastic enemies and ingenious ways to defeat them. 

Moll is a heroine for our times and manages each encounter with a brave heart and a clear head. She is a great heroine, never short on resilience and a stout heart to see her through the worst of troubles.

A brilliant ending for a brilliant trilogy and with everything from a strong jacket design to a strong heroine these deserve to become a classic for every bookshelf. Here's hoping this won’t prove to be the last we hear from Moll.

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