Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Book in Every Stocking suggestion by Nicki Thornton - Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss

Dear Santa

We know how much teen readers like dark stories, but what about a few feel-good reads for teens in some stockings this year?

Can I suggest ‘Jessica’s Ghost’ – one of this year’s best feel-good teen reads. It is a story that many teens (or tweens) will relate to – it’s about how hard school can be if you don’t fit in. And yes, it does have its dark moments – but it is a wonderfully warm story about friendship and having the courage to be yourself.

The main characters are all those misfits who find school a challenge – Andi, who is an awesome good fighter and puts her fist to anyone who teases her for not being tall and beautiful. Overweight computer-games nerd, Roland, and Francis – who’s serious interest is fashion and who makes dolls clothes.

When Roland is first faced with Francis’s room of over 50 dolls, fabrics, patterns and a sewing maching his comment is: ‘don’t they give you a bit of a hard time about it at school?’ And this is the heart of the tale.

But we haven’t even yet mentioned the ghost!

This is possibly the most unconventional ghost story ever, as Jessica is a confused and lonely ghost who brings the three friends together by the common factor that they are the only people who can see her (we learn why as the story progresses).

Jessica’s big skill as a ghost is that she can help Francis with his fashion obsession by thinking herself into any outfit she can visualise – and making the misfits see that they have more in common than they realise.

The children are all clever and articulate – and all really, really good at something. You just know that once they get out of school how suddenly being bright and unconventional will be a benefit and lead to successful lives – but it is the difficulties of negotiating school that this novel deals with. And just how serious things can get when teenagers feel there is no way out of the problems they face and the loneliness of feeling you are the only one who doesn’t fit in.

Andrew Norris’s comforting voice tells the story, which skilfully steers its way through being fun, while dealing with serious issues.

It is reminiscent of ‘Wonder’ the book about a boy’s gradual acceptance at school when he has a very bad facial disfigurement and I think the readers who enjoyed that will also enjoy this.

Children won’t often find a friendly ghost to help them with their problems – but discovering that children are all different and that everyone can find a way to fit in, is a great message to receive at Christmas.

Merry Christmas


Monday, 21 December 2015

Book in Every Stocking - Suggestion by Jane Martin - Magic Marks the Spot (The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates.)

It's a piratey stocking filler suggestion today from writer and Golden Egger Jane Martin.

Dear Santa

I think all stockings should have a copy of Magic Marks the Spot (The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates.) This is the story of Hilary who REALLY wants to be a pirate but The Very Honorable League of Pirates won’t accept her because she’s a girl. It doesn’t help that her dad is an Admiral and he’s on a mission to get rid of all pirates. Instead of heading to learn piracy, Hilary ends up at Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies (or does she?) This is an excellent story with great characters, including a talking stone gargoyle. There are ships, swords /ghosts and treasure maps. Plus, it’s really funny – especially the letters, newspaper clippings and other bits of writing that appear between chapters. These also make it more interesting to read than a normal book.

Although Magic Marks the Spot is about a girl, I think boys would like it in their stockings too. After all, it’s about pirates and being a kid; having to do what adults say (sort of) and going to school; having friends and being determined.

Most of all, it’s a funny book about pirates. What’s not to love?

Best wishes


By Caroline Carlson & Dave Phillips

Jane blogs at she can also be found on Twitter as @janemartinwrite

Friday, 18 December 2015

Book in Every Stocking Suggestion by Emma Perry - The Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haigh and Chris Mould

Today's Book in Every Stocking Suggestion to Santa is about Santa, picked by Book reviewer, writer and Golden Egger, Emma Perry.

Dear Santa,

This year I'd love you to add a sprinkling of Christmas cheer by popping a copy of The Boy Called Christmas - Matt Haigh (words) & Chris Mould (illustrations) -  in to as many stockings as possible.

Why? Well Santa, it tells your story - and what could be better than that? 

It tells of your humble beginnings in that wooden hut with your turnip toy. With great pace it retells your adventurous journey to Elthem - the elves you met there and the struggles you went through to help them see the beauty in kindness. I loved how it showed your own personal journey to discover what you were truly destined for. 

What a magical, Christmas tingling story it is, especially with those illustrations from Chris Mould peppered through out. He really caught your best side don't you think?

Don't be bashful Santa, this sparkly blue book telling 'the true story of Father Christmas' will look quite magnificent in plenty of stockings.

With love & bookish wishes,

Emma Perry
My Book Corner

To read Emma's full review of The Boy Called Christmas press here

Monday, 14 December 2015

Book in Every Stocking Suggestion from Sally Poyton - Toby and Ice Giants by Joe Lillington

Dear Santa,

I hope you are well and that your Christmas preparations are going well. I know that you are busy man, and far too busy to keep up with amazing amount of Children’s books that are published, and so I'm suggesting a stocking filler picture book, for yonder children and older ones with an inquisitive mind.  My suggestion is the beautifully illustrated ‘Toby and the Ice Giants’ by Joe Lillington.

The book tells the charming tale of Joe a young bison living in the Ice Age, who encounters many of the amazing prehistoric animals which roamed the Earth at that time.  In each page he meets another giant of the ice age and next to the story there is a fact file with interesting information about the species, including the Homo Sapiens.  The end of the book has a line-up of all the animals showing their size in relation to modern day children, in addition to glossary and more illustrations of ice age creatures whom Toby didn’t meet on his adventure.

The book is beautiful object in hardback with a tactile cover, and inside it is a feast for the eyes with lovely illustrations, depicting he beasts but making them not-too-scary for young readers.  As I mentioned this is a lovely book for sharing with younger children but is also interesting and can captivate the more independent reader (I know this as my 9 year old son loves it.)

I hope you like my suggestion, and that it may be make some children very hapy to find it in their stocking on Christmas morning.

Have a lovely Christmas.

Festive Cheers


Monday, 7 December 2015

Book in Every Stocking Suggestion from Amanda Hatter - It’s your world, get informed, get inspired and get going by Chelsea Clinton

So today's Book in Every Stocking suggestion comes from Amanda Hatter author of Callum Fox and the Mousehole Ghost that we featured on the blog in January to read the features press here.

Dear Father Christmas

If I could recommend one book, to be popped into stockings all over the world this Christmas, it would have to be Chelsea Clinton’s ‘It’s your world, get informed, get inspired and get going.’ It’s an amazing book that I pick up whilst visiting the UN head office earlier this year. I read it with my 14 year old daughter and it sparked more conversations and thought than either of us had expected. Every chapter covers a different issue, from cancer and obesity to poverty, war and child brides. It’s an easy and accessible read, full of facts, graphs and real life inspiring stories. I’d recommend it for all teens, in particular girls. It motivated my teen and I to think about what we could do to make a difference and I hope you get a lot out of it too.

Wishing all the readers of Space on the Bookshelf a very happy Christmas!

AC Hatter

Friday, 4 December 2015

Book In Every Stocking Suggestion by Philippa R. Francis MA - The Children of Green Knowe'. L.M. Boston

Christmas is almost here, so it's time for the Space on the Bookshelf annual 'Book in Every Stocking' to help you count down the days until Santa visits. To help Santa along the way, and knowing he is far to busy to keep up with all the amazing books that are published for children, we have asked some budding writers to write to the man in red and suggest some great stocking filler books.

To kick us off we have suggestion from  SCBWI- folk, Golden-Egger and Chicken House  Runner-up Philippa R. Francis...

Dear Father Christmas,

I know you will find exactly the right stockings to hold 'The Children of Green Knowe'. L.M. Boston's classic story is perfect for the season - it all comes to a marvellous climax on
Christmas Eve. There are ghosts and a curse, a wild ride on horseback through a storm and an ancient house that was once a castle. At the end of it all, a lonely boy finds his courage, and love in some unexpected places. Old-fashioned, eerie and funny and sad at times - ideal for those who already have Joan Aiken, Helen Cresswell and John Masefield on their shelves. I've read it aloud too - and it's great fun for that - though some bits still make me cry!

Thank you for sharing a book I treasure - and did you know you can visit the real house?

Philippa R. Francis MA

Philippa R. Francis writes as K.M.Lockwood and her web-site is:
She can also be found on Twitter as @lockwoodwriter

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Spreading the Christmas Book Cheer - Charitable Book Gifting

Christmas is the season for good cheer and spreading that cheer far and wide. Here at Space on the Bookshelf we've been thinking of how book loving folk can spread their love of books and do a good deed this festive season, so here are a few suggestions…

It seems hardly possible that some children within our own society will wake up on the 25th of December to no stocking or gifts, but sadly this is a sad reality for many children living within the UK. So with this thought is lovely to know that The Blackwell’s Oxford Giving Tree is back again this year. The Giving Tree is an opportunity to gift a book to one of these children from less-than-ideal circumstances, and what makes it truly unique and special is that you can choose a book for a particular child. The Gift Tree is a Christmas tree in store that is adorned with parcel tags which has written on it the age, gender, and preferences of a child. You pick a tag, choose a book , buy it and Blackwell staff wrap the gift and work with a charity to distribute the gifts on Christmas Eve.

Last year, friend of SOTB Robin Stevens launched the Giving Tree, to read more about it press here. Also good news for anyone who isn’t local to Oxford, as Blackwells now to an online Giving Tree, press here to find out more.

This year has seen a lot of coverage over the plight of the Syrian Refugees and the migrant camp at Calais. There have been some truly remarkable fundraising efforts, like Patrick Ness’s campaign that raised a phenomenal sum or the Migrant’s library. Back in the summer I donated a pile of OUP Picture dictionaries to the Library, but due to the massive amounts of supports they have been inundated with books, however there is another way to support them, by a monetary donation to the library (press here to find out more) or by way of the Waterstones Buy-a-Book-for-Syria initiative.
Waterstones, have partnered up with Oxfam and publishers to see a series of books within their shops where all the profits go to the Syria appeal. To find out more, pop into your local Waterstones. Or press here.

If you want to spread your book cheer closer to home, then the booktrust supports UK based children, by providing children and organisations with books and works tirelessly to promote literacy and the love of reading. Booktrust always welcome donations, to find out more press here.

Image courtesy of The Book Bus

When you are looking for gift inspiration for the person who has got everything, how about sending them the gift of giving with The Book Bus, Gift a Book Card. Book Bus, travel Africa bringing books to communities, and you can buy a beautiful Quentin Blake illustrated Christmas Card for £10, where the money goes to buy books for The Book Bus appeal. To find out more about The Book Bus Cards press here.

Image courtesy of The Book Bus

Of course spreading the Christmas Book Cheer could start even closer to home, how about instead of /or as well as sending your children’s teachers a box of chocolates at Christmas, why not donate a book to the school Library?

Or finally if a random act of book giving is more your style, you could have a go at Bookcrossing. How about registering with the Bookcrossing website, then warp up some books and leave them in public places for people to find. To find out more read out interview with Bookcrosser Jan Markey here, or press here to go to the bookcrossing website. 


Saturday, 28 November 2015

150 Years of Alice in Wonderland - Review - The Looking-Glass Girl by Cathy Cassidy

Continuing our celebration of the 150th Anniversary since Alice in Wonderland was released, Nicki reviews Cathy Cassidy's Wonderland Inspired new book...

Some of the themes familiar from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ take on a nightmarish tone in Cathy Cassidy’s ‘The Looking-Glass Girl,’ written in celebration of 150 years of Lewis Carroll’s timeless classic.

Cathy Cassidy is one of our best-loved authors, cherished for her family stories of friendship and light teen romantic fiction. So it’s a departure and a move into new territory that ‘The Looking-Glass Girl’ takes on a thriller tone right from the start.

Alice has been increasingly isolated since her best-friends from primary have moved into a much ‘cooler’ set at secondary school. So when she gets invited to a sleepover with them she is not sure whether to be pleased or concerned – a feeling many girls of this age will easily relate to.

What does the night have in store? Is there some other motivation for inviting her along? What will they being doing and will she be ‘cool’ and grown-up enough?

From when she arrives at the Wonderland-themed party, everything from costumes and the painted faces of the other guests is unsettling. The drink is served in a teapot that Alice suspects is spiked with alcohol, Alice knows she is out of her depth, but desperate to be included.

She has to tread as carefully as her namesake to work out friend from foe, but it all goes horribly wrong.

We know from the opening of the story Alice will end up in a coma, with everyone lying and covering up exactly what went on.

The tension is cranked up from unexpected arrivals at the party and a few games where Alice feels she is less of a guest, more of bait.

The arrival of a boy Alice likes ratchets up the tension as she can see clearly that one of the other girls likes him too . . .

Taut plotting means the story of what actually happened that night and what is really going on among Alice’s ‘friends’ is revealed only slowly, partly through confessions at her hospital bedside and her nightmarish dreams as she tries to find her way back from unconsciousness to the real world.

Tweens and early teens will love this fresh tale with more than a hint of threat and danger in amongst this tale of friendship and early romance. A total triumph and really true to the original tale, while being really fresh and different.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Alice 150 Anniversary – Alice Tea Party Food

One thing we all know is that food features heavily Wonderland, and that it has magical properties, therefore if you are celebrating Alice’s 150th anniversary at home or in the classroom then food is a key ingredients.

Of course there is the usual and obvious choices; tea,  jam tarts, mushrooms sweets and cakes with  'Eat Me' iced on top, but here are a few easy party foods that can be made easily with children.



So easy to do, buy some rolls, fill them with which ever filling you like, place on a plate twisting around like a caterpillar and use grapes and carrot sticks to make the features.

Suit Sandwiches

Cut with cookie cutters or by hand sliced bread into the shape of the playing card suits, then cover in jam for hearts and diamonds, and either darker jam or Marmite or chocolate spread for spades and clubs. Keep open and they look fantastic.


Mad Hatter's Hats

What you Need:
Jaffa Cakes
Mini Chocolate Rolls
Melted chocolate
Sweet shoe laces

Cut a top off the Chocolate mini-roll, dip it into the melted chocolate and then stick to the top of the Jaffa Cake.  Wait until cooled then cut and wrap the shoe lace around the base of the Choclate Roll like a hat-band.

Playing Card Shortbread

What you Need:
Your favourite shortbread/biscuit recipe.
Apricot Jam
White roll on fondant icing
Red icing pen

Make your favourite shortbread/biscuit recipe cut into rectangles, bake and cool. Cut the icing into rectangles the same size as the biscuits, and fix to the top with apricot jam. Decorate with the cake pen to look like a playing card.

Mock-Turtle Tea Cakes

What You Need
Tea Cakes (the chocolate kind)
Roll out fondant icing in two colours
Icing Pen
Gingerbread Man Cutter

Roll out your fondant icing. Ice the top of the tea-cakes with one colour (for the shell) and trim the edges. Roll out the other colour icing (for the body) and cut out a gingerbread-man shape with an appropriate sized cutter. place the icing-topped tea cake on the gingerbread man cut out, use jam for glue. Decorate the shell with sweets, and use icing pens to make the features of the mock-turtle's face. DON'T Forget this is MOCK-Turtle, so also give me ears!

For Drink

Serve tea or warm squash out of a tea pot in cups and saucers or use bottles labelled, ‘Drink Me'.

'it’s always tea-time, and we’ve no time to wash the things between whiles.’
The Mad-Hatter 

Thursday, 26 November 2015

150 Years of Alice in Wonderland - Alice inspired Craft for the Classroom or a Alice Tea Party

This year marks the 150th Anniversary since the publication of Lewis Caroll's 'Alice in Wonderland.' The story of Alice who ventures further and further in a world of wonderland experiencing curiouser and curiouser animals and adventures.

Despite the book not being an instant hit with critiques, receiving some less than favourable reviews when first published and being renegaded into the genre of ‘Literary Nonsense,’ Alice and the Wonderland residents have risen to become some of most loved stories and characters in children’s books, and has fascinated generations of children (and adults) ever since.

At Space on the Bookshelf we thought very hard about how to celebrate the anniversary, and decided that we would treat you to a series of celebratory posts. But today we’ll kick off with some ideas to help you have your own Mad Hatter’s Tea Party with crafts suitable for home or the classroom.

Alice in Wonderland Craft 1 #Playing Card People 

What you’ll Need

  • Old Playing Card
  • White card
  • Pipe Cleaners (x4)
  • Hole Punch
  • Scissors
  • Coloured Pencils / Pens
  • Split Pin (x1)
  • Plasticine (optional)

To Make

  1. Hole punch five holes in the card (as pictured)
  2. Cut out a round head shape with a 2cm long neck. Hole punch neck and use split pin to attach to card.
  3. Take pipe cleaners put through remaining holes and twist together to make limbs, (see picture) use plasticine to make hands and feet if you wish you card-people to be able to stand up.

Alice in Wonderland Craft 2 #disappearing Cheshire Cat Card

What you’ll Need

  • A4 Black Card
  • White Paper
  • Woggly Eyes
  • Cheshire Cat Paper i.e. Craft Paper / Wrapping Paper/ Wall Paper
  • Scissors
  • Black Marker Pen/Felt Tip Pen
  • Glue

To Make

  1. Cut A4 in half to create to A5 pieces. Fold the paper in half to make a landscape card.
  2. Cut out cat face out of your chosen Cheshire Cat paper.  For Template e-mail
  3. Cut out two grins out of white paper and draw vertical lines with black pen for teeth. .  For Template e-mail
  4. Glue Cheshire cat face on to front of card, then glue on woggly eyes and one of the grins.
  5. Open up the card and glue the second grin on the inside in the same place that it is on the front. When you open the card it looks like the Cheshire has disappeared all but her grin!

Alice in Wonderland Craft 2 # Playing Card Bunting

What you’ll Need

  • Old Pack of Playing Cards 
  • Hole Punch 
  • String / twine / ribbon 

To Make

  1. Hole punch each playing card twice on the top - see photo. 
  2. Tread the ribbon through the card as pictured. 
  3. Hand the bunting!

Hope you enjoy the crafts and come back for more Alice in Wonderland features!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Happy Un-Birthday Alice – 150 Years of Wonderland and Counting! Reviews of Alice in Wonderland

The 26th of November see’s the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen-name, Lewis Carroll. To celebrate Space on the Bookshelf are having a Wonderland Week, (and as we all be mad here, it’s not what you’d call an actual week, but when you know Time personally he doesn’t take offence!).

In the next few day’s our posts will include idea’s so you can run your own Un-Birthday Party with wonderland crafts and foods, and a review of Cathy Cassidy’s ‘Looking-Glass Girl. But to start off we are going to do a 3D review of Alice in Wonderland, (or as much as we can, with an editor and author interview quite out of the question) with a review by 11 year old Bea an adults review (by me) but with a difference. So, without further ado, hold your breath and down the rabbit hole we go…

Reviews, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Children’s Review by Bea aged 11

Two glowing eyes, one large smile and a very cheeky attitude it’s the Cheshire cat. Join Alice and the strange animals of wonderland as she takes a mysterious stroll trying to find her way home to a normal life. Through her magical journey Alice meets evil head chopping queens, unusual talking animals and a rabbit that’s late for an important festival. This adventure starts by a large fall through a ginormous rabbit hole but will it finish the way Alice wants it to with a blanket and a family next to a warm fire or will Alice be trapped with nasty queens and curious creatures. I like this book as its funny and has lots of cliff hangers, it is really well written and it’s just and amazing book that you will never forget. I recommend this book as I think you will enjoy it, if you like mysterious places and creatures, also this book makes you feel like you’re in the adventure and it helps you to learn the creatures’ personalities. Once you’ve picked up you can’t put it down!!!

Adults Review

It came as a surprise to me when I realised that I had never actually read Alice in Wonderland, as I know the story so well. Like many of my generation, I was practically weaned on tales of curious Alice and the mad residents of Wonderland; I played a ducked-billed platypus in a school production as a teenager, and have watched all manner of televised adaptations, from the well-known Disney animation to Tim Burton’s live action 2010 feast of a movie, and every adaption in-between (who can forget Ben Kinsley’s caterpillar?). My children have been on Alice themed floats on Village Fetes, and I’ve read about the neuroses and psychoses of the Wonderland residents in Laura James ‘Tigger on the Couch’, learning that The Queen of Hearts is suffering from Acquired Situational Narcissism.

Also as an adult, and having written a dissertation on ‘The Freudian Impact on The Loss of Innocence in Artists Representations of Children’, I’m also aware of the more sinister associations and misuses of the phase ‘Wonderland.’ So when I came to reviewing the book for this post, it became something even deeper, it became a study into reviewing a book when you already have so many preconceptions of the plot and characters. The question was in my mind, how much will all this baggage erode the enjoyment of reading the book?

Starting the book was the hardest, (as when I opened my copy, out fell some of the research from my dissertation which was disconcerting), but then sitting down and letting my mind be free to focus on the words Lewis wrote opposed to paying heed to the images in my mind was tricky. I found that comparing the text to all of the adaptations and re-writes I had seen and read was near on impossible, and was seriously impleading the reading experience. Getting past this was difficult and I struggled, taking a hideously long time to get through chapter one, but then half way through the second chapter all these struggled dissolved, lost in a Pool of Tears, when I realised that the story I know is just a mere duplication, a caricature of the original. As soon as I settled down and allowed myself to switch off my brain and just concentrate on the book, a strange thing happened; I began to enjoy the story, which is strange as I have never actually liked Alice or any of the Wonderland stories before. 

It turn out Alice, who comes out as rather pretentious and un-likable in the screen adaptations, is actually rather endearing. Yes, she is precocious BUT she is also naive and many of the clever things she think she knows, she doesn’t at all; she is just a curious child with a yearning for adventure.

“When I used to read fairy-tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am I the middle of one! There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought!”

A child with a curious nature, and a willingness to eat things fully knowing that the consequence will be height altering, and to converse with anthropomorphic creatures with the least bit of concern.

“I almost wish I hadn't gone down the rabbit-hole-and yet-and yet-it’s rather curious, you know, his sort of life! I wonder what can have happened to me!”

Another welcome surprise was that despite Alice seemingly meandering around Wonderland from one adventure to the other, the book is actually fast passed and that much of the adventure is instigated by Alice herself rather than her just happening upon it. Like when she decides she wants to visit the beautiful walled garden and making it her own mission to realise that goal.

The Wonderland inhabitants also had be surprised, the lack of Tweedledum and Tweedledee for example, (who don’t appear until Alice goes Through the Looking-Glass), the leniency of the hen-pecked King of Hearts, or the Cheshire Cat who may be the most sane Wonderlander there is. Then there are the characters that I’d never heard of, like The Duchess who arguably features as much or even more than the more well-known charters like The Mad Hatter or The Cheshire Cat. I adored the Mock-Turtle and the Gryphon, especially their humorous quirky logic.

“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

With reading and reviewing this book, I discovered that many things, about the book, not least the fact that I actually enjoyed it, and found it an amusing and fascinating journey into a truly unique world, but also about myself and my traits at writing books off by judging them by their imitations, and adaptations. What I now know, is that I need to read a book before formulating an opinion about it, and that I need to embrace my inner child, and forget all of the information that I already know about a story to really appreciate it and have an enjoyable reading experience.

Friday, 13 November 2015

A Song for Ella Grey - review

David Almond's dramatic retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in 'A Song for Ella Grey' is an updated story of doomed love that serves as a wonderful showcase for his luminous, lyrical writing.

You don't need to be familiar with the original story to know from the start that everything is going to end badly as the prose sweeps with sadness.

The bitter-sweet tale is told by Claire, best friend of over-protected and dreamy Ella. When Ella meets musician, Orpheus, capable of charming not just the birds and the beasts with his magical music, but even the rocks and the sea, Claire knows her place in Ella's life has been moved to the sidelines.

Will Claire watch the blooming of a beautiful relationship in the coming together of ethereal Ella, with her trusting poet's soul, and the wandering Orpheus? They instantly feel they were meant to be together and that love will conquer all and Claire can only look on at the whirlwind and find a role in helping the couple. But there is a palpable sense of foreboding throughout - that the love is too perfect to last.

The most wondrously created scenes are of the 'wedding' party, where a group of kids nearing the end of their school days camp wild on a beach. As more and more of their friends arrive to re-create Greece in Northumberland, there are adders in the sand and jealousy at the heart of the party that Ella and Orpheus have found what everyone else is seeking - a magical bond with someone they can call true love.

The book is faithful to the original myth, but by making modern teenagers walk in the shoes of mythical characters gives the story an added poignancy as they try to find a way forward for their fragile and tender love.

A beautiful read for anyone who likes their love stories beautiful and dark - the way all love stories should be?

Friday, 6 November 2015

Five children on the Western Front - review

Fans of thought-provoking and moving children's fiction are in for a treat with Kate Saunders 'Five Children on the Western Front' which gives a viewpoint of the First World War from a group of younger siblings at home when their two older brothers go off to fight.

The book was published to coincide with hundredth anniversary of the start of the War last year and tells the tale of the War in a way that is engaging for children as young a nine or ten. 

This follow-up to E Nesbit's classic 'Five Children and It', cleverly and poignantly takes central characters from the original classic story and plunges them into a First World War setting. The original cast of characters would have been of the generation of Edwardian children who would have been at the heart of the fighting, so it neatly brings in new characters and a new setting, but with an existing cast that some readers will already be familiar with.

On the home front, younger siblings are at first excited by the news of war. Then, as the war lengthens, its impact takes hold. Change is happening at home all around - from women's rights to social mobility, it's an exciting time to be a child. One of the girls find determination not simply to offer charity to the sick, but to become a doctor. The tennis court is dug up to plant potatoes as shortages bite.

As a historical novel it is a time very rich with possibility.

But the heart of the story is the arrival in the children's lives of a sand fairy - a character taken from the original book, the Psammead. For years the younger children have been hearing stories about him and the adventures they had when he granted wishes. But when he appears back in the children's lives, he is not to take them on exciting adventures. He is unwell and unable to grant many wishes and they must treasure him and look after hiim. 

This great historical novel entwines the social history of the day with the magical elements of the sand fairy. This fantasy twist to the narrative lends a lightness and humour and makes it a really accessible and enjoyable book, which is, ultimately, a sad novel about loss and the impact of the War that packs quite an emotional punch

The Psammead is undoubtedly the star of the show, prickly, ungracious and often unkind, he manages to grant enough wishes so that the children get to visit their older brother at Christmas in the trenches, and there is just enough magic to allow a few happy endings.

It's an emotional family story, that effortlessly juggles a huge cast of characters that you grow to know and love throughout the novel. Some lives may be short, but where they touch, they touch deeply.

Many people will be reading this as a sequel because they loved the original novel. But it stands very well on its own and can be enjoyed as one of the best children's books around that help demonstrate the consequences and social upheaval of the First World War. Those who enjoy historical fiction will love it.

It may also cause children to seek out the original, or some of the other classic E Nesbit stories.

Friday, 30 October 2015

An Island of our Own and The Lie Tree reviews

We start a look at the great feast of wonderful writing for children that is the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize shortlist by starting with a couple of adventure stories - although neither are quite your traditional adventure stories.

An Island of our Own - Sally Nicholls

After the death of their mother, Holly and Davy are being brought up by their eighteen-year-old brother, Jonathan. They have been struggling to look after themselves and each has had to grow up very fast. 

They all put their own needs on hold while their priority becomes the fight to find a way to make ends meet, get everyone to work or school on time, put food on the table and stay together.

You might describe Sally Nicholls 'An Island of Our Own' as starting off with almost a Jacqueline Wilson feel. It makes you believe you are heading for a quite serious family story. 

But things quickly change. 

It is clever and unexpected that the siblings' journey becomes a road-trip search for treasure and adventure. Their latest quest develops not as one of day to day survival but how to crack codes and travel to the other end of the country.

Jonathan, Holly and Davy get on the trail of clues left by their great-aunt which may lead to buried treasure - and they desperately need that money. And whereas none of them felt they could ask for help before - suddenly all their friends, acquaintances and family (well, most of them)  pitch in with helpful suggestions and all sorts of canny ways to find out where their eccentric aunt might have buried her money and get to the next clue.

It's great to see a writer that has the courage to be so unexpected and take the reader in a totally different direction from where you think you are going at the beginning. 

The book is a really joyful modern take on an old-fashioned adventure story, but with a really bold and original feel. It can be thoroughly enjoyed as a fabulously warm contemporary road-trip, treasure-hunting adventure - or as a family drama, and will appeal to readers of both.

And probably what is the most satisfying is that by the end of the book it has, indeed, all been about how the siblings are going to cope, cleverly delivering the message that communities can be there to support, but often people don't know how to ask for, or to offer help. While the most fun is had with the mad ways everyone has to try to solve the aunt's cryptic clues. 

This has been a big hit with independent booksellers and was voted the winner of the Independent Booksellers Week Children's Fiction Award  2015. It is really great to see that other judges, too, have picked this out as a really outstanding book. 

The Lie Tree - Frances Hardinge

In Frances Hardinge's 'The Lie Tree', Faith also finds herself with an unexpected adventure on her hands.

Faith would love to be a scientist and serious, like her father. She rather despises her mother's fripparies and choice of pursuits. But in Victorian times, this is definitely a man's world and Faith may know a lot about science, but she has much to learn about society.

Faith can be more intelligent than most of the people around her and know and learn plenty, but it's a real challenge to be taken seriously, particularly when she becomes convinced her father has been murdered. 

But she discovers what women can be good at - manipulating and working behind the scenes and secretly doing things no-one would expect a woman to do. She sets about covertly trying to find out what her father was really working on and who might have guessed his secret.  

Without any of her enemies knowing, she gets closer to bringing her father's studies to fruition, while also plotting how to reveal what really happened to her father.

This is a page-turner with a serious heart. It's a thought-provoking and imaginative tale that manages to weave a historical scientific adventure with a thread of feminism and fantasy. Not an easy thing to pull off, but Frances Hardinge does it with lashings of style.

These are both great stories that can be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good mystery - but they both cleverly weave in some serious themes and the layers make them both really enjoyable, very clever, and seriously impressive reads.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Desert Island Books – what would you choose?

Boy there has been a lot of head-scratching around the country for the latest Books are My Bag campaign. And I have been scratching with the best of them.

Bookshops are challenging everyone to pick just eight books they would take if stranded on a desert island. Yes, just eight.

Impossible right?

This was difficult enough, but as I noticed as I scribbled mine down that many of my choices are for adults, I thought just for Space on the Bookshelf I thought I would challenge myself further and pick my eight books by just sticking to children's books.

Top of the list obviously is reserved for Harry Potter. But unlike lots of people who have been tweeting they would take the whole set – I am sorry but that is CHEATING. That is not one book. That is seven (or eight if you include the new illustrated version).

(No apologies for the shameless opportunity to include pictures of the magnificent new illustrated edition.)

Arguably, you could just take the whole Harry Potter collection for your eight books and have done with it. Choice made. And a sound idea because they just score the highest ever as books you want to read again. And again, which might be jolly useful on a desert island. It is stopping I have always had a problem with.

My son was set some dangerous English homework this week based on just a small section the first Harry Potter book and just had to re-read just that tiny bit. But oh no, that was it. Then he just couldn’t stop.

‘Why is it that so many books I like I wouldn’t want to read again but with Harry Potter I always want to re-read them again, every time?’ he asked me.

This what they call a Very Good Question. I think the easy answer is JK Rowling is a genius. But really – how does she do that? Perhaps on my desert island I might find time to finally get an answer.

But I cannot seriously take all eight books by one author.

. . . I mean,if entire collections are allowed, it is tempting to go for Skulduggery Pleasant as well as/instead of?, because you actually get more books and more words.

In fact, if we were allowing author collections then a complete Dickens and a complete Jane Austen are definitely up there – because they do these in children’s editions don’t they. So these count – right?

So my ideal list looks something like this at the moment:

  1. Complete Harry Potter (including the illustrated edition)
  2. Complete Skulduggery Pleasant
  3. Complete works of Charles Dickens
  4. Complete works of Jane Austen
  5. Douglas Adams Hitchhiker's trilogy (five books that only count as three! I am getting good at this)

That is a seriously nice lot of pages. I think I might just about be happy with that on my desert island. Most of them are kids books (sort of).

It is also possibly closer to about 50 actual books (sigh). 

And I haven’t really got started yet. Roald Dahl? I think so.

I have decided choosing eight books is, in fact, far too difficult, so I am probably going to just do a longlist while I whittle them down to just eight. This may take some time.

I need some criteria. 

Books I would want by my side are definitely  those I would happy to read again and again and ones also that are nice and chunky.  (I wasn’t planning on using them to fend off starvation, I think am assuming if I am stranded there for a long time there will be readily available delicious food, but if not I am definitely taking The Hunger Games because I will need all that great intel about catching and eating wild animals.)

I can't just have classics. I also need favourite current reads and one that I can happily re-read, and in children's books that definitely means something by Marcus Sedgwick or Meg Rosoff or Frank Cottrell Boyce.

I am thinking this might have to be ‘Broccoli Boy’ just because it is so unbeatably funny and I think I would need some humour on my desert island. I am pretty sure it will be ‘She is Not Invisible’ by Marcus Sedgwick, which is quite unlike his usual style, no whiff of the Gothic about it. But a sublimely good thriller with a main character who is blind and has to kidnap her younger brother to be her ‘eyes’ when she takes off to New York, convinced her father is in trouble. It also manages to be about maths, which is a superb achievement for a thriller and definitely is worth re-reading.

And talking of current favourites My most recent discovery are Jonathan Stroud’s totally brilliant and very scary ‘Lockwood and Co’ that I am recommending to anyone who will stand still long enough. I think I may have to take ‘The Hollow Boy’ because I haven’t read that one yet but I just know I am going to love it. Taking a book I haven’t read yet is going to be such a treat.

All right. Eight. Just eight.
I think it is going to be:

  1.  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  2.   Skulduggery Pleasant Dark Days (because Valkyrie is so brave)
  3.  She is not Invisible
  4. The Astounding Broccoli Boy
  5.    Lockwood & Co: the Hollow Boy
  6.  A classic, either ‘Bleak House’, ‘Rebecca’, ‘Persuasion’, or ‘Little Women’
  7.   Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I am nearly there.

Only, thinking of ‘Little Women’ does make me realise I only have UK authors on my list, which surely cannot be right.

I think I may just have to start all over again.