Saturday, 17 June 2017

CILIP Carnegie 2017 Round Up & Predictions!





Every year here at SOTB we shadow the CILIP Carnegie shortlist and endeavour to predict the winner. More often than not we get it right, but it is always a tough call, as the calibre of the books is so high. This year is no exception, the short list has been full of powerful read, written by some of the most talented and established wordsmiths, with story than span genres and vary in tone from funny to tragic. With any more ado, here is our round up and predictions…


'The Bone Sparrow' by Zana Fraillon is an 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. Told from the perspective of Subhi – or ID-DAR-1, who was born and raised on the camp, as he navigates through the dangers of life camp and from the eyes of a Jimmie a girl from the other side of the fence whose curiously takes her in the belly of the camp. The Bone Sparrow, shows the hardships, indignities and dangers of life within refugee camps, whilst interweaving a deeper fabric of tales creating a rich, multi-facetted unique tale about hope. I think The Bone Sparrow with its endorsement from Amnesty International, it hits the zeitgeist and has a real chance of taking home the medal.



‘Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth’ by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a rare gem that brings brilliant humour to the story of a homeless boy who befriends an alien dog and they join forces to save the world. Humorous books are a rare sight on the Carnegie shortlist. That in itself tells just how wonderfully brilliant and compassionate Frank’s writing is – and how difficult it is to approach big subjects with humour and to write a properly funny book. It might also make you feel differently about how aliens visiting Earth might look, but that’s another matter.



‘The Smell of Other People’s Houses’ by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock is a beautiful read. We get drawn into the separate journeys of four narrators. As they all work towards finding their place and understanding in the world, so the stories also start to connect in a very satisfying way. Well-observed, complex, and a heartfelt read about a group of likeable teenagers who are suffering, but find ways to pull through, this is a triumph of lyrical writing that helps us connect with big issues, small things that are important, and lives that feel very real.



Ruta Sepetys ‘Salt to the Sea’ is a triumph, set in the last days of WWII, it is told by multiple the perspectives of four young people, all in first person, all with distinct unique voices that effortlessly fit together to drive the plot forward. The four protagonists gradually meet and with each interaction their fate is cemented as the endure all the atrocities that the war can hurl at them, until finally they are all aboard the ill-fated Wilheim Gustloff that sets off across the frozen waters, massively over capacity with too few lifeboat. When the ship goes down, their secrets unveil along with their fates.



‘Beck’ by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff bring together two powerhouses of YA writing and comes up with a commanding story about a young man who never gives up. It is big in every way – emotional, heart-wrenching and harrowing. Beck suffers abuse from almost everyone who should be helping him. But the sensitive writing draws us right into his story and we start to share Beck’s unswerving belief that however far he must journey, whatever deprivations he might suffer, that he should never give up believing that he will find a place in the world. This might win for not only being a remarkable collaboration, but previous winner, Mal Peet’s, final book.



‘Railhead’ by Philip Reeve is a wonder of imagination, taking you to a truly unique universe where not only humans, but trains, insects, and robots, have intelligent life. Small-time crook, Zen, is recruited by a mysterious figure to steal a work of art, but he and is soon swept up in huge issues about the nature of what we are told of the truth of what surrounds us. A powerful and page-turning novel with engaging and believable characters and sublime and exciting world-building. And a page-turning plot. What more could you want? Sci-fi books for children are rare – sci-fi books for children that are this good should be cherished. Cherish. It really deserves to win.



‘Wolf Hollow’ by Lauren Wolk. Betty was a favourite ‘baddie’ character in this year’s list – a great demonstration of how appearances can be deceptive. Main character, Annabelle, is a great opposite foil for Betty, determined to stand up for wrongly-accused Toby and bring Betty’s true nature into the light and expose her all too easy to believe lies. A clever, manipulative and morally complex story. It may just have the edge for being all these things, plus successfully travelling that narrow path of also being suitable for a younger age group.



Lastly, Glenda Millard’s ‘the stars at oktober bend’ is a touching and brave book, again in multi aspect told from two very different yet complementing voices, a story of falling in love and overcoming tragedy. the stars at oktober bend’ is where four years previously, the twelve year old Alice Nightingale’s, life changed forever. Attacked and left with fault wiring, speech difficulties and fits, she lives her life is a state of forever twelveness, and she dreams of a better future that transcends her twelveness. Alice’s dreams come true when she meets and falls in love with Manny, a boy who’s trying to outrun his tragic past in a new country not plagued by war. The two heal one another and just as the begin to outrun the past, it raises it’s vindictive head, along with floodwaters that come thick and fast threatening to wash away any hopes for a future.


2017 is yet again another crop of incredible books; with strong voices and characters real enough you can almost touch them. As with every year, it is difficult to pick just one book that standout above the rest. Personally, all the book I read, were so strong that I could not pick one above the other, however Nicki has circled out Philip Reeve’s ‘Railhead’ as a worthy winner. So it is our official SOTB prediction that ‘Philip Reeve will be taking home the medal! Good luck to everyone on the list, and we all wait with baited breath for the announcement on Monday!


Friday, 16 June 2017

the stars at oktober bend –Glenda Millard – CILIP Carnegie 2017 review


Our finial 2017 CILIP Carnegie review takes us to the wilds of rural outback Australia with ‘the stars at oktober bend’ Glenda Millard’s touching tale about two teenagers whose lives have been tainted by tragedy, as they endeavour to escape the past and take control of their futures.

Initially I found, the stars at oktober bend, disorientating, finding the setting difficult to place both in time as it could easily be any time from the 1950 to present, and where, again could be any backwater town, USA, UK, anywhere. Add to this the lack of any capitalised letters in the first half dozen chapters, and the whole reading experience was a leap of faith. Faith that author Glenda Millard would reveal all in her own time, and that you didn’t necessarily need all this information up front. Indeed the leap of faith was made easier due to the strength of the voice which is so strong and endearing that reading it is a pleasure even if you are not sure where or when the action is taking place.

the stars at oktober bend is told from duel perspectives, by two young people who live on the periphery of society and who are negotiating life’s usual hurdles plus the taller ones that the past has put before them.

The book is predominantly from the view of Alice Nightingale, in her sate of ‘forever twelveness’ with broken wiring, broken speech and debilitating fits. Unable to attend school Alice spends her days, tending her ailing grandmother, and in the company of her dog Bear, writing poetry that she displays all over town. Alice dreams of being more; more than forever twelve, more than the girl from the family plagued with tragedy and scandal, more than a victim. But in her small world, with only her grandmother, Bear and her younger brother who insulates and protects them from the outside, all hope to transcend the twelveness that was inflicted on her seems impossible. As Alice posts her ANON poems around town hoping someone will hear her words her dreams are answered when Manny the adopted son of a local couple finds them.

The other perspective in , the stars at oktober bend, is from Manny, who is a long way from his war torn home, haunted by secrets and struggling to get to grips to the nuances of another culture whilst slipping the grasp of bullies. As we watch Manny, desperately try and outrun his past and problems, he navigates towards the Nightingale family and Alice in particular.

As Alice and Manny find love and begin to heal, dark forces are at work trying to unsettle their happiness, when flood water brings a deluge of destruction threatening to wash away their dreams for a future, and a foe with a vindictive thirst for revenge wades in.

the stars at oktober bend, is a beautiful and emotionally challenging book, recommended for older readers. It tackles the difficult subjects of war, murder, rape and torture, whilst challenging the labels of ‘victim’ and ‘migrant’ showing that people are more than the box others put them in. It is a brave book tackling subjects that are often shied away from in literature for teenagers, yet deals with the subject in a responsible and respectful manner, making it an empathetic and endearing read.

I believe that the stars at oktober bend is not only a book that promotes empathy, braking boxes and ripping down labels, but also like many of tales, has an element of warning. A message to young people to the danger in the world. A wolf in the woods for the twenty first century.


Saturday, 10 June 2017

Beck – Mal Peet – CILIP Carnegie 2017 review

This is the sweeping historical final novel from previous Carnegie Medal-winning author Mal Peet, telling the epic tale of the hardship of a multi-race orphan in Liverpool in the early 1900s, who suffers terrible abuse from those supposed to protect him. The story follows his journey and how his indomitable spirit only grows and how he learns not simply to survive, but to thrive.

It is a moving and memorable tale of inspiring and remarkable resilience. 

It might be bleak, heart-breaking, tough to read in places, but it's strong message shines through in Beck's character. That no matter where you might start from, even with a damaged early life, it does not stop you being able to give and receive love.

These are big themes for a children’s novel. Big themes for an adult novel. This story definitely comes with a warning that it is not for younger readers (though perfect for old children's book groups or indeed any adult bookgroups).

It is due to Beck’s unbroken spirit and strength of heart that he somehow manages to transcend the terrible triple fate of his birth – being born poor, of mixed-race and then orphaned at eleven, when he is thrown onto the mercy of the charity of the church, told he is one of the lucky ones, and shipped off to start a new life in Canada. But there he suffers appalling abuse in the hands of the Catholic brothers into whose hands he is delivered.

Even this does not break Beck's indomitable instinct to survive, his spirit never waivers, even in the bleakest of situations, and he a character that is warm. clever, resourceful and loyal.

It is in rooting for Beck to find a happy ending that keeps us reading as he survives every setback and clambers and conquers every obstacle.


It is also the beautiful writing which brings close understanding, so full of empathy in this collaboration between Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff, who completed the work after Peet died.

The writing is outstanding, varying between being sometimes shocking and raw, sometimes beautiful and tender.

What Beck is really searching for is a sense of belonging, which he so nearly reaches, but remains tantalisingly elusive. 

It unstintingly tackles huge issues: racism, sexual abuse by clergy members, poverty. Beck not only overcomes everything that is thrown at him, but, more importantly, finds a way not to be brutalised. He finds a way not simply to survive, but to remain able to give and receive love and when Beck has journeyed far, grown up, the tone finally softens. 

You will want to follow Beck’s journey right up to his hard-won happy ending in the arms of the older woman, when Beck can finally put the devastation of his harrowing early years behind him, find love and achieve the place he belongs, somewhere he can truly call home. And enjoy what he so richly deserves.

A story not without pain, but one with an uplifting and inspiring conclusion. Beck is a story bursting with life and feeling and his journey is one worth the struggle. And this book is definitely worth the read.

Nicki Thornton





Friday, 26 May 2017

Railhead – Philip Reeve – CILIP Carnegie 2017 review

Petty thief, Zen Starling, is recruited by the mysterious Raven to trick his way on board a prestigious and heavily-guarded train to steal a valuable work of art in this futuristic sci-fi thriller.

This a world where the train are intelligent and the way to move between the universe’s habitable planets.

‘You step aboard a train, and the train goes through a K-gate, and you step off on another planet, and the sun that was shining on you a moment ago is now just on of those tiny stars in the sky. It might take ten thousand years to travel that far by spaceship, but a K-train makes the jump in seconds. You can’t walk through those gates, or drive through in a car. Rocket and bullets and torch beams and radio waves can’t make the crossing. Only trains can ride the K-bahn.’

It’s a dangerous mission for Zen to con his way onto the private train of the family who runs the network, but he soon suspects that there is a much bigger plan at stake and that his benefactor, Raven, isn’t simply after an ancient piece of art.

Together with the Motorik robot, Nova, sent to help him, Zen gets a glimpse of life beyond the dirty moon of Ambersai where he was brought up and things are complicated further when he forges a close relationship with the powerful family as he works out how to steal from them.

This is an imaginative choice for the Carnegie shortlist, the one that stands out for being a work of a big ideas, a terrific pacy thriller and a mindblowing vision of a life in the future.

Some of the set action pieces are breathtakingly described as the reader is transported to a world where not only trains and stations are crucial parts of the world, but where insects use their hive mind to imitate humans and where robots are used widely yet treated badly and taken for granted.

Zen is an engaging character who is easy to like, charming and confident, but soon out of his depth when he realises his enigmatic new boss, the powerful Raven, might be a very bad guy to be working for. Things get more complicated as he starts to get to know and to be accepted by the Emperor’s family whom he is going to rob.

But the best thing about this energetic and fast-moving narrative is the full force of the imaginative story-telling power Philip Reeve unleashes on the reader.

The technological world-building and the wonder and scope of other worlds make for a vivid, engrossing read. The relationships between the humans and robots, the trains being characters in their own right and the deceptive undercurrent of the Guardians (or Gods) weaves an enthralling and satisfying emotional layer through the story.

A marvellous piece of storytelling.

Nicki Thornton

Friday, 19 May 2017

Salt to the Sea – Ruta Sepetys – CILIP Carnegie 2017 Shadowing Review


In the last days of WWII while Hitler is holed up in his bunker and the Russians sweep through Germany leaving devastation in their wake, there is one last hope, and it’s moored in the waters next to a frozen harbour. ‘Salt to the Sea’ tales the story of four young people whose lives have been decimated by war as they head towards the boat, in a bid to escape the escalating violence and outrun their personal demons that hunt them.

Ruta Sepetys ‘Salt to the Sea’ is a triumph, told by multiple the perspectives of four young people, all in first person, all with distinct unique voices that effortlessly fit together to drive the plot forward, cranking up the suspense page by page as each of the secrets that hunt them get ever closer and their fates intertwine.

‘Salt to the Sea’ follows Joana a Lithuanian surgeon’s assistant who is heading for the coast with a rag-tag bunch of refugees of which she is fiercely protective of. Florian a young German whose personal mission to extract revenge against his boss and the F├╝hrer. Emilia, a polish girl tormented by shame who is venerable and courageous as she heads towards the very people who persecuted her county in an effort to get her and her precious cargo to safety. Then Alfred, a Nazi solider preparing the Wilheim Gustloff for its voyage, whose head is full of desires of heroics and delusions of grandeur. 



The four protagonists gradually meet and with each interaction their fate is cemented as the endure all the atrocities that the war can hurl at them, until finally they are all aboard the ill-fated Wilheim Gustloff that sets off across the frozen waters, massively over capacity with too few lifeboats. 

When disaster strikes all four’s true colours shine; an unlikely hero sacrifices themself, another exposes their dark nature, and the others need to make split second decisions that will define their lives. In the moments when the Wilheim Gustloff is dragged down to its watery grave all four have to face their hunter’s and greet their fate. 



Salt to the Sea is a beautiful book which highlights the aspects of war, WWII specifically that are often overlooked, (or at least in the literature that adorns the shelves in schools and libraries in the UK anyway), that the war effected more than just those in concentration camps, the allied soldiers and children who were evacuated to the country. It illustrates that war has many casualties, that many innocent civilians from war torn Europe including Germany.

Within Salt to the Sea, Ruta expands ones understanding by showing the brutality and all-encompassing nature of war. It is a read that will bring tears, yet along with the sadness, it celebrates the humanity of individuals, showing that despite desperate circumstances people have the capacities to do great things to help on another, heroics that are lost in the magnitude of conflict. 

Salt to the Sea is a beautiful book, and is true contender for this years award.









Friday, 12 May 2017

Wolf Hollow – Lauren Wolk – CILIP Carnegie 2017

Annabelle’s life on a farm in post-War Pennsylvania and her close-knit family in the village of Wolf Hollow, are at the centre of this story about lies and truth - and how prejudice can sometimes blind a whole community.

The action centres on the arrival of new girl, Betty. She takes her seat in the single school room where all ages are taught in the same room, each taking their place in rotation in a row at the front of class. Betty's arrival disturbs cosy rituals, but it's not just the class Betty has her eye on disrupting.

She plots to hurt Annabelle and her two younger brothers for very little reason other than her wish to torment others and takes joy out of seeing people suffer. Betty's success demonstrates very neatly how effective simply telling lies about someone can be.

Betty is a brilliantly monstrous villain. One of the best (maybe worst?) of recent fiction.

Her vicious brand of nastiness soon recruits another follower to her games of torment. She is a brilliant manipulator, striking out at others, while cunningly and shamelessly avoiding any blame.

But when a girl at school loses an eye. Betty needs to find a scapegoat and blame all too believably falls on Toby. A gun-carrying veteran, disturbed by his experiences in the War, unshaven, hardly speaking, Toby lives on the outskirts of Wolf Hollow.

People already find him strange and mistrustful, except brave and clear-eyed twelve-year-old Annabelle, who has already forged an unlikely friendship with Toby and sets out to clear his name.

Her mission is to find a way to make the village see monstrous Betty for what she really is. Annabelle can only attempt to hide him from authorities while she tries to find a way to get Betty to speak the truth.

But it sparks a chain of events that only get worse and the story becomes a fast-paced roller coaster to disaster.

This morally complex coming of age tale is about how prejudice is stoked and how impossible it can be to make people see the truth when the lies are more easy to believe in.

Annabelle’s belief and determination in the face of prejudice is a bright light in a sobering tale. 

A beautifully told and complex story that gives young readers a taste of life's moral complexities and will keep them gripped until the end.


Nicki Thornton

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Smell of Other People’s Houses - Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock - CILIP Carnegie 2017

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s ‘The Smell of Other People’s Houses’ is a small tour do force of how books allow you to slip effortlessly into other lives and feel right at home, even if those lives could not be more different from your own.
The lives and minds in this case are of a group of teenagers living in the harsh wilderness of Alaska in the seventies, inhabiting down-trodden Birch Park, which is frozen until May.
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s truly captivating writing brings them right into our hearts.
Summers are spent fishing to help with food over winter. Shopping for clothes is rummaging through what’s been donated to the Salvation Army. Where a dream is to wear socks that have not already been worn underneath by someone else’s feet.
Four different stories are beautifully told. Four teenagers needing to be brave in different ways, growing up, finding a future, trying to escape the lives they have been born into – four stories to get wrapped up in and long for happy endings.
The story begins and ends with Ruth Lawrence, whose brief and early romance with a boy whose background is like another world, whose house smells like store-bought everything, brings excitement and the promise of change, but not the sort she was hoping for.
‘Ray let me know pretty quickly that he wanted a girlfriend who would sleep over, not one who just talked on the telephone late at night.’ 
And so Ruth must go on a long bus journey to live with nuns and find kind parents to adopt her child; a journey that also takes her back into the past of her own family.
Hank and his brothers are running away and when one is feared lost at sea, the adventure turns into a nightmare.
Alys longs to dance. It might be her way out of Birch Park, but as she spends only a few weeks at sea in the summer fishing with her father, how can she tell him she wants to cut the visit short and seek a life that will take her even further away from him?
Dora loves the time she is spending living with her best-friend’s family to avoid her own, but now she lives in less fear of her father, but has started to fear not being allowed to stay forever.
We are soon alive to their small human hopes, their big dreams and challenges, how they are already shaped by personal histories and families. And how the transformative smell a mother might bring to a different home or the smell of fish guts and blood might give rare comfort in this novel whose texture is of the ice and the sea.

The adult characters make decisions whether to be kind, be helpful, or take the easy way out and spend time and money with their friends at the bar. Will these spirited young people succeed in being able to break out of the traps they were born into?
As the stories begin to collide, the ties that bind communities together are tested and lives slowly and satisfyingly transform. The four stories become entangled to produce an outstandingly classy read. One that will take you on an emotional rollercoaster and will definitely melt your heart.
Nicki Thornton

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Review: Sixty Second Spelling Tips (plus one or two other useful things to remember!) by Charlotte Comley



Being a parent I have resorted to many creative methods and employed numerous quirky tricks to help my offspring master tasks and stills. Be it tying shoe laces, learning left from right, phonics, alphabet, counting or times tables, inevitably you end up racking your brain to invent fun ways to help you children learn.

We do these things because we want to support our children, to give them every advantage we can to empower them to be self-sufficient and be well equipped for education and their life beyond. Of course sometimes, some children require more of your creativity because they have other factors that make mastering these skills even more laborious. One obvious one is dyslexia which can affect reading but also spelling.

I know that I myself have spent hours of time and energy creating visual aids to help my son to prepare for his 11+ exams, creating picture based cards to help him learn the extensive lists of vocabulary he had to digest weekly. However our current project is to boost his spelling, which is quite a challenge as I am myself dyslexic. Whilst trying to come up with exciting and varied techniques to help him learn, I have found myself wondering what methods and tricks other parents have employed; and wouldn’t it be great if they shared a few of their successful ones.

So what music to my ears when I learnt that fellow writer, and SCBWI member Charlotte Comley has just done just that; she has penned a books sharing her wisdom called, ‘Sixty Second Spelling Tips (plus one or two other useful things to remember!)’

The book is available on Amazon for Kindle and priced at the incredibly low 99p [Press Here for Link], is formatted in an easily accessible way, and sets out different approaches and techniques in their own sections along with straightforward introduction, explaining how that work, and how to implement them.



The books starts with visuals in a section titled ‘How Pictures Can Help Your Child Learn.’ The section starts with pictorial images that are designed to help children remember and be able to differentiate between commonly confused letters, like; d g p q, by depicting the letters as things that begin with the letter for example: the ‘d’ becomes a ‘d’ and a ‘dinosaur’! The chapter then continues with small acrostic poems to help children remember to spell particular words, many of which Charlotte and her children have created; they are everything a child needs them to be; fun and amusing with an air of the ridiculous – perfect for committing to memory. To make them even easier to commit to memory Charlotte has paired them simple illustrated depictions of the acrostic poems, making it easier for visual thinker to digest.

The Book continues to tackle other spelling issues both explaining why people find them perplexing (which for me I found it very reaffirming to know that there are reasons why I find spelling difficult) along with presenting well-crafted tactics to help with mastering spelling.



In Sixty ‘Second Spelling Tips,’ generously shares all the years of her experience and plus all the tricks, techniques, she has developed, and what is peculiarly good, is that fact that she takes the time to explain spelling rules, and issues in a non-patronising way and at the same time, promoting fun and amusing alternative spelling learning experiences, such as using games and exiting practice techniques, all of which are included with the book.

I truly think that Sixty Second Spelling Tips is an excellent tool to be in any parents teaching arsenal, it certainly has helped me with my spelling, and in turn assisted me in supporting my son.



Friday, 28 April 2017

Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth - Frank Cottrell Boyce - CILIP2017

Prez has a problem, in fact, Prez has several problem. His grandfather has become worryingly forgetful and can't look after Prez any more, so Prez is looked after at the Temporary where all the homeless children end up. 

Prez has also lost the ability to speak, although he discovers he can communicate with one person who arrives at the chaotic but friendly farmhouse where Prez has been invited to spend the summer.

That person is Sputnik, a lively alien determined to discover all about earth and finds something to be enthusiastic about in everything from chips to buses. Most humans see him as a dog, which means he can get away with a lot - quite handy when Sputnik's approach to most tricky situations is to make things go really, really fast, or ask if he can eat them.

Frank Cottrell Boyce is brilliant at tapping into kids' wish fulfilment. Who wouldn't love it if an alien dog 'fixed' your toy light sabre at a party so it slices through everything from girls' plaits to metal bars.


Sputnik can surf gravity and can fly a digger to 'fix' Hadrian's Wall.

Frank Cottrell Boyce is an absolute comic genius, but he doesn't use his brilliant comic writing to create a book full of gags. His humour is used very cleverly to deflect all the bad things that are happening.

Prez is so full of optimism, so accepting, that it takes a while to sink in just how bad his situation is, especially as he learns Sputnik's real purpose is to write a report on what is worth keeping about the world so it won't be destroyed - if he can't find enough good things to say about Earth, soon no-one will have a home.

And although the story is funny and full of madcap wishes coming true, at its core it is a wonderfully compassionate story about how the kids with no homes of their own need fixing most of all.

With any funny story it is easy to be swept along and lulled into thinking of this as a light read. But as with all Frank Cottrell Boyce's books, there is a serious story at its heart. It's only when you look at how many other writers attempt to tell stories about such serious issues and decide to do it with such brilliant humour that you even begin to appreciate how difficult it is to tread such a fine line. To come up with a book that delivers its serious message in a way that simply feels like great entertainment? Frank Cottrell Boyce is really in a class of his own.



This is a brilliant book from a brilliant author. The book also has enchanting illustrations from Steven Lenton.

Frank Cottrell Boyce won the Carnegie medal with his first book for children 'Millions'. If you think the best way to tell a story full of hard-hitting truths is to do it with humour, then this should be the one you want to win.

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.