All the Ways to be Smart written by Davina Bell illustrated by Allison Colpoys

A celebration of what makes each and every child special, this positive and joy filled book acts as a reassuring balance to the message that the only things that matter are those that can be measured and assessed.

“I can’t wait to share with you how smart you are the whole day through.”

From the opening lines this book’s message is an extremely positive one. The rhyming text continues to explain that being smart is not only about having work marked as correct but also about being creative or practical or knowing how to use your imagination. Perhaps even more importantly being smart means being kind and caring and knowing how to be a thoughtful friend. All manner of life skills are included and acknowledged as a vital part of learning and growing. Everything from being able to choose what to wear to having a go at things even when you are scared is celebrated and valued. So many different aspects are included that each and every child sharing this book will discover that they are smart at something. I love the idea of a child listening to this read aloud or reading it alone and realising that their skills or things they enjoy matter. Even being able sit still and quiet is mentioned, a skill not all little people can manage for very long!

The cheerful illustrations are slightly nostalgic in appearance but are also diverse and inclusive and a delight for young children to examine. They complement the text well and the overall tone of the book is a comforting one. A lovely book to share both at home and in school this has the added advantage of being both reassuring and encouraging.

Thank you very much to the publishers, Scribe Publications UK Ltd, for providing my review copy.

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr – 20 Books of Summer (1/20)

“Nowadays, my escape from Germany and everything that followed seems far away. I’ve lived in London more than seventy years. I have been happily married and our children are a joy. It has been a wonderfully happy life. But it almost didn’t happen…I can never forget how lucky I’ve been.”

Judith Kerr ( Note from the author 2008 When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit)

When Judith Kerr, the award winning children’s author and illustrator, died in May at the age of 95 there was an outpouring of love, respect and, despite her great age, a sense of shock. There were many articles written about the long lasting effect her picture books such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Mog the Forgetful Cat had on children. These picture books are classics, their images and storylines have become part of the fabric of many families’ everyday life and traditions. Like all the very best children’s books Judith Kerr’s gentle stories work partly because they encourage us to savour those small, everyday joys.

My first book in the 20 Books of Summer challenge is When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. This is a semi autobiographical novel relating the story of Judith Kerr’s family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1933 and their life as refugees in Switzerland, France and finally in England. The first of a trilogy it is regarded as a classic and has been popular in school classrooms since its publication in 1971. Anna, the nine year old narrator of the story is a child of intelligence but also of practical and resolute optimism. She notices the good things each day and treats life as an adventure. Although this was largely due to the manner in which her brave parents protected Anna/Judith and her brother from the mounting horrors of pre-WW2 Europe, the author’s positive attitude to life is undoubtedly a trait which helped carry her through these difficult times. This positivity shines through her children’s books and is, quite probably, one of the reasons why we love them so much.

At the beginning of this novel Anna is too busy with schoolwork and tobogganing to pay much attention to the talk of Hitler. Her friend says that when her little sister saw his face on a poster she mistook him for Charlie Chaplin. This innocence is in sharp contrast to the reality for Anna’s Jewish parents. Unknown to Anna and her older brother, their father, a published writer of anti Hitler articles, is wanted by the Nazis. In the middle of the night he flees to Switzerland to avoid capture and this is when Anna’s world changes. They must leave Germany quickly and Anna may choose only the very few things that will fit in her bag. After deliberation she selects a new woolly toy dog rather than her old but much loved pink rabbit, a decision she later regrets. She, her brother and her mother rush to join Anna’s father in secrecy, leaving their home, their friends and everything the children have ever known.

“He put his arms around Mama and hugged her. Then he hugged Anna and Max. He hugged and hugged them all and would not let them go.

‘I couldn’t see you,’ said Papa. ‘ I was afraid…’

‘I know,’ said Mama.”

Judith Kerr tells the story of the family’s escape as an adventure with moments of humour. However there are difficult incidents too and once or twice the reality of the brutality and horror of the situation strays into the protective bubble Anna and Max’s parents have created for their children. For the children their lives as refugees revolve around adapting to their new surroundings, learning a new language and making new friends. Anna’s matter of fact attitude to her changed circumstances makes the moments when the exposure of the cruelty that has triggered their situation all the more shocking. The burning of books by the Nazis, including those written by Anna’s father and the prejudice shown by the German family holidaying in Switzerland who will not allow their children to play with Anna and Max because they are Jewish give young readers an idea of some of the attitudes at the time. The most shocking moment occurs when Anna overhears a conversation between her mother and grandmother about the fate of a well known professor who was imprisoned in a concentration camp. Anna feels sick as she listens and the reader feels a similiar sense of revulsion. As an adult reader with a knowledge and understanding of historical events this is difficult to read and yet Judith Kerr has carefully presented her experiences in an accessible manner for young readers that makes it easier for them to cope with.

It is the fact that the family are united throughout all of this that enables Anna to cope. Their previous comfortable lifestyle may be long gone but she draws great comfort from the sound of her father typing in the next room and family meals in their cramped flat in Paris. Again and again we are reminded of what matters. A sense of belonging, no matter where they live, and the support of a loving family make things bearable for Anna. In fact there are times when she thinks her new life is exciting and an improvement on her old one. As an adult reader we realise that this is largely due to her parents keeping the worst of the situation from their children but for children the underlying message of hope, determination and resilience is an encouraging one.

“Do you think we’ll ever really belong anywhere?”

“I suppose not,” said Papa. “Not the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives. But we’ll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.”

Judith Kerr was a shining example of someone who made the most of her opportunities and was lucky to be able to seek refuge and make a home in a country that welcomed her. This important novel will continue to convey a message of kindness and hope to future generations of children.

This lovely and fascinating interview with Judith Kerr from The Financial Times in 2017 is well worth a read.

Following a recommendation by children’s author, Emma Barnes I intend buying a copy of Judith Kerr’ s Creatures – A Celebration of the Life and Work of Judith Kerr

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Owen and the Soldier by Lisa Thompson

Owen and the Soldier is a touching story relating how we all need to have someone to listen to us when times are hard but also need to be brave enough to ask. In her first title for Barrington Stoke, Lisa Thompson has yet again tackled difficult subjects, depression, loss, anxiety and grief, with an understanding and kindness that children will find both comforting and relatable.

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Owen has a secret. He likes to go and sit in the park and talk to his friend the soldier. The soldier is made of stone and sits on a bench in the memorial garden, a tribute to the brave people who lost their lives in war. Things are difficult for Owen and his mum. They are both struggling to cope and this struggle manifests itself in different ways in each of them. Owen finds comfort in talking to his silent friend as he can share his worries with the soldier safely. Then he learns that the council are planning to modernise the park and get rid of his soldier. Owen is devastated and decides to fight to save the statue and show everyone how important it is. However to achieve this Owen will have to be brave and reveal why the soldier means so much to him.

This is a compelling read that I found extremely moving. Lisa Thompson has already proved that she can write about difficult subjects with compassion and understanding in her longer middle grade novels such as The Light Jar and in this novella she has made them accessible to slightly younger readers. Owen is an extremely likeable character and young readers will readily engage with this worried and sad little boy.  As they follow his story they will also learn the importance of asking for help when it’s needed, the importance of accepting the hand of friendship and that sometimes you can be braver than you imagine.

The school scenes were, I felt, extremely realistic. They captured the feel of everyday routines, the chat amongst classmates and friends and the kindness shown by Owen’s teacher, who, despite what Owen thinks, only wants the best for his pupils. The publication of this book coincides with Empathy Day which was marked this week and this tender story is a wonderful example of the way in children’s fiction promotes an understanding of others and ourselves. Owen and the Soldier is a book that encourages children to care. I loved it, even though it made me tearful and would highly recommend it.

There are some great books being published by Barrington Stoke at the moment and I would like to thank Kirstin Lamb for sending me my free review copy. The finished book has a very appealing cover by Mike Lowery.

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Special Delivery by Jonathan Meres illustrated by Hannah Coulson – Dementia in children’s books

A book about finding friendship in unlikely places, this gentle story focusing on helping others, provides a kind and thoughtful look at dementia and is suitable for younger readers.

Frank would like a new bike. Unfortunately it is not Christmas or his birthday so he has a problem. He needs to start saving! His older sister, Lottie, suggests that Frank helps her with her paper round to earn some money to put towards the bike of his dreams. When he starts his early morning routine he makes an unexpected new friend. Mary is an old lady who wears a cowboy hat and boots and sometimes seems a little forgetful and confused. When she is in trouble Frank is there to lend a hand.

Although dementia is never specifically mentioned this book successfully introduces this difficult subject to younger readers in an accessible and understated manner. Many children will, sadly, know of someone, possibly grandparents, who have some form of dementia and books can be a very useful way of prompting discussion and understanding. Special Delivery will enable this to happen. I liked the kindness shown in the story by the different characters including Frank’s sister and Mary’s son. A short story told with understanding, this would be a useful addition to primary school bookshelves.

Special Delivery is a book in the brilliant Little Gems series for children aged 5-8 published by Barrington Stoke and is presented in a super readable format meaning it is dyslexia friendly too. Perfect for both newly confident readers and those who prefer a shorter read, it would also work as a read aloud for younger children.

Thank you to Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke for sending me my free review copy. Special Delivery is published on 15th June.

Dementia can be a difficult subject to talk about with children and teens but some organisations have put together lists of books that may help young readers understand and prompt discussion with adults. Here are a few you may find helpful.

Alzheimer’s Society – Recommended books about dementia for children and adults

Book Trust – this well known charity have produced a useful list Books on Dementia

Young Dementia UK – this charity assists people affected by young onset dementia Books for Children

The website, www.dementiaexplained.org , provides child-friendly dementia information focusing on the ways people with dementia can change and the effect this can have on families. By bringing together a range of resources including stories narrated by the broadcaster Edith Bowman, videos and interactive games, the site allows young people to discover more about the brain, how it is affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s and share their experiences to help others.



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Twenty Books of Summer

Cathy at 746 Books is hosting the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge again this year. In previous years I have not become involved but having investigated Cathy’s blog she appears to have a very relaxed approach to this “challenge” so I have succumbed. Although I seriously doubt I will manage twenty books between 3rd June and 3rd September, particularly as I’m starting late, I thought it may prompt me to tackle my toppling to be read book mountains. According to Cathy I can reduce the number if I wish to and may alter the list if I fancy too. This sounds appealing! Many thanks to Paula Bardell-Hadley, Book Jotter for making me aware of the challenge.

With my various reviewing commitments, chiefly for children’s books, the time available for reading simply for fun has diminished. Although I greatly enjoy the children’s books I review it will be refreshing to have complete freedom of choice. My list of twenty titles does include some children’s titles, nonfiction and some old classics in addition to presents that I have not had time to read plus one or two I have been sent by publishers to review. So here goes…my #20BooksofSummer list. Perhaps you would like to read some of these too?

1. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – Judith Kerr – When I noticed that a shared reading of this book was to take place on Twitter throughout June in tribute to this loved and respected author I knew I wanted to get involved. I was due to hear this remarkable woman speak at the Barnes Children’s Literature Festival last month and have used my ticket refund to buy a new copy of this classic. You can get involved by following the #PinkRabbitReadalong organised by Lorraine Gregory and Annalise Avery

2. The Bookworm – Lucy Mangan – watching the 63Up documentary has prompted me, like many others I imagine, to look back on my life in 7 year chunks. Some of the chunks would be linked to favourite books so I’m sure that this memoir of childhood reading will be fascinating.

3. Cousins – Salley Vickers – I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s books, in particular Mr Golightly’s Holiday. Family sagas have always featured in my favourite books lists and I am intrigued by this story across the generations.

4. When We Were Warriors – Emma Carroll – a children’s author whose novels always make me feel 10 years old again. I should have read this collection earlier and am determined to put that right.

5. The Writer’s Map – Hugh Lewis Jones – a beautiful Christmas present that I want to make time to savour. I love the imaginary worlds that authors create and am looking forward to finding out more about the process.

6. The Salt Path – Raynor Winn – I came across this memoir when browsing in Waterstones and was struck by a lovely review by Jackie Morris so bought it on impulse. It may be moved up the list…

7. The Old Ways – Robert MacFarlane – I loved The Lost Words created by this author and Jackie Morris and enjoy his word of the day on Twitter. However it is the idea of history hidden in our footpaths and lanes that makes me want to read this one.

8. Singled Out – Virginia Nicholson – a second hand book fair buy, this book about the generation of women who were left alone after the First World War should, I hope be an interesting read.

9. The Silk Roads (Illustrated edition) – Peter Frankopan & Neil Packer – an introduction to world history for children, this beautifully illustrated book is appealing to this adult too.

10. & 11. Little Men & Jo’s Boys – Louisa M Alcott – two childhood favourites. Over the last eighteen months I have reread Little Women and Good Wives and would like to complete the series. I have happy memories of these books.

12. Straw into Gold – Hilary McKay – a retelling of fairy tales by a children’s author I respect.

13. Children’s Hour Folk Stories and Fables – another second hand book fair find I think it will be interesting to dip into this one alongside Hilary McKay’s recent book

14. La Belle Sauvage Volume 1 The Book of Dust – Philip Pullman – a signed copy bought at a British Library event. I have heard so much about this book and want to form my own opinion.

15. Cranford- Elizabeth Gaskell – this was hiding on a shelf in a wonderful secondhand bookshop in a converted chapel in Suffolk and has hidden on my bookshelf ever since. How shaming…

16. The House with Chicken Legs – Sophie Andersen – a children’s book award winner that I have kept intending to read and don’t know why I haven’t done so.

17. Year of Wonder – Clemency Burton-Hill – this is cheating a little. I have had this fascinating book for some time and dip in occasionally. I hope that adding it to the list will mean that I will check the recommended piece of classical music each day.

18. Anna at War – Helen Peters – this is a proof copy sent to me by the publishers, Nosy Crow. I am very impressed with the fiction they have produced for children this year and this sounds like my sort of book so I am looking forward to reading and reviewing this one.

19. Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy – “Hardy’s most bright, confident and optimistic novel” it says on the back cover. I will let you know!

20. The Library Book a collection published by The Reading Agency – as we lose our libraries and librarians around the country this tribute feels like a timely read.

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Well, these are my twenty books. Will I change some, quite possibly but I intend to try and keep to the original choices if possible. Even if I only manage five books over the period it will be a valuable exercise in focusing on books I already own. The problem is going to be resisting the pull of the local library and bookshops. There are so many fabulous books being published at the moment but I am aware that this results in some older and just as fabulous books being neglected. #20BooksofSummer is a great idea and I am looking forward to taking part. I hope to post regular updates on my progress.

 

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McTavish Takes the Biscuit by Meg Rosoff

McTavish the rescue dog returns in this charming and witty third instalment of life with the Peachey family.

McTavish is not just any dog. McTavish is a rescue dog and he has made it his mission to rescue the Peachey family. So far he has done a pretty good job of it, having gently encouraged tidiness and healthy eating in book one McTavish progressed to introducing the family to the wonders of nature and exploring the flora and fauna in book two. Just as McTavish may have been tempted to relax and rest on his laurels a little, for indeed the Peacheys were now a much better and happier family, Pa Peachey takes up baking. Unfortunately his plans for entering the local bake off competition far exceed his baking skills. Can McTavish come to the rescue yet again?

This book is an absolute delight. Meg Rosoff has created in McTavish a canine version of a wise and world weary grandparent overseeing the daily mayhem that is family life for the Peacheys. Told with a dry wit coupled with an understanding of people and what makes them tick this charming novella should appeal to a wide audience. It is a title in the Conkers range by Barrington Stoke targeted at readers who may find the standard middle grade titles too overwhelming and also has the advantage of being dyslexia friendly in appearance. However the content should appeal to anyone who enjoys a good story, especially those who like their reading to be humorous.

The members of the Peachey family made me smile for a variety of reasons. The individual and very different characters are entertaining and the family conversations extremely well observed. It is Pa Peachey who takes centre stage in this instalment desperate to show off his ‘skills’. The despairing children are mortified at his attempts to create a model of the Palace of Versailles, in intricate detail, out of gingerbread! Ma Peachey believes that following your dreams is important and is reluctant to dissuade Pa from entering the competition so it is McTavish who must come up with a cunning plan to save face. There is a subtle message about the importance of keeping fit in this story too. The rejected gingerbread pieces find a way into McTavish’s dog bowl and onto nine year old Betty’s plate and both of them have expanding waistlines and feel rather ill as a result. Another problem for McTavish to solve.

The illustrations add greatly to the appeal of this book and are by Grace Eaton and David Shepherd. There is a recipe for making gingerbread at the end of the book for any aspiring Bake Off contestants. You don’t have to have read the first two books to enjoy this one but I think you would enjoy Good Dog McTavish and McTavish Goes Wild just as much.

A big thank you to Kirstin Lamb at Barrington Stoke who provided my free copies of all three books. I had a very happy time reading them. McTavish Takes the Biscuit was published in May. The first chapter is available to read on the Barrington Stoke website



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The Longest Night of Charlie Noon by Christopher Edge

How to review a book as clever as this one without giving away its secrets has given me pause for thought. Perhaps it could be summed up like this…I read this in one sitting, utterly captivated, and as I read the final sentence I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. It asks questions about the human understanding of the concept of time, questions about our natural world and about our influence on events. It will encourage children to think and to care. All this in less than 200 pages!

Christopher Edge’s recent books for children have combined science including space travel, black holes and virtual reality with adventure and, sometimes, with hard hitting emotion. Charlie Noon’s story begins like so many before it with the words, “Once upon a time” but then asks what exactly is ‘a time’? The author then introduces the three children who one day decide to find out what lies hidden in the heart of the woods near their village. At first they enjoy the rural idyll and the descriptions of the natural world around them are evocative of long hot summers of childhood. However Johnny, one of the three has told them about the legend of Old Crony, a monster who lurks there unseen. As darkness falls rapidly and the three children become lost the tension mounts as the secrets of the wood, the dangers and the puzzles, whatever their cause, slowly increase the children’s fear of the unknown.

The storytelling in this book is so skilful that I was completely unprepared for some of the breathtaking events and surprises. What at first feels like a traditional adventure gradually evolves into something both thoughtful and thought provoking. By setting this story deep in a wood the reader is reminded of scary woods in other children’s stories. Who among us has not at one time gasped at the idea of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood or hidden in terror at the thought of the witch in Hansel and Gretel both set in similar woods to these that Charlie, Dizzy and Johnny explore. These familiar fears return as you read. However Christopher Edge balances this with descriptions of a natural world that can also be a solace and a place of great beauty. We witness this through the eyes of Charlie, a child who is knew to the great outdoors and this will mirror the attitude of some of the book’s readers.

It is the playing with the idea of time and our place in it that I found most intriguing. I love the way that this author uses story to introduce children to scientific concepts and feel sure that it will capture young readers’ imaginations in the same way that it captured mine.

The development of the three main characters throughout the story is well done and these children feel very real. The plot is masterly in its twists and I absolutely loved the ending. This is a children’s book of intelligence and emotion and highly recommended. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is a book that will make children think and ask questions but will encourage them to care and to take notice of the world around them too.

Thank you very much to Clare Hall-Craggs and Rebecca Mason and Nosy Crow Publishers for providing my free review copy and the beautiful finished book with its stunning cover by Matt Saunders.

If you are new to Christopher Edge’s books I can highly recommend The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day



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Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone

As a child I sometimes used to sneak inside a wardrobe and push gently on the back wondering if I could reach my beloved Narnia. This wonderful, epic adventure by Abi Elphinstone will have a new generation of children trying to discover the secret entrance to the magical world she has created.

Eleven year old Casper Tock is an unlikely hero. We first meet this quiet, lonely, anxious boy hiding in a lost property basket trying to avoid the school bullies, Candida Cashmere-Jumps and Leopold Splattercash, who are just as dreadful as their names imply. Casper doesn’t take risks, he is fond of to do lists and strict timetables and likes to avoid trouble whenever possible because he is most definitely a boy of a nervous disposition. Yet one day an unexpected event occurs and all Casper’s lists and plans are no help at all when you find yourself in a magical kingdom full of dangerous beasts, storm ogres and drizzle hags. Casper wants to go home but a girl called Utterly Thankless, an impetuous child who hates rules and possesses a fierce and independent air has very different plans for him. As the story unfolds Casper, Utterly and a miniature dragon named Arlo, embark on a dangerous journey to try to save the kingdom of Rumblestar from the evil Morg and in doing so protect Casper’s world too.

All of Abi Elphinstone’s adventures have had friendships at their heart but Rumblestar feels subtly different to her previous books. Alongside the danger and the beautifully created world of the Unmapped Kingdoms there is humour and clever wordplay. The names of some of the characters and the language used is reminiscent of Dahl’s The BFG. I may adopt the term wigglysplat myself for occasions when life gets a bit complicated. I also thought the snow trolls were wonderful characters being both endearing and wise. It is Bristlebeard the Snow Troll who helps Casper to see what really matters in life and how he may manage to achieve it.

It is this wise message of the importance of friendship and loyalty that is at the heart of the adventure. Utterly and Casper, with Arlo’s help, face great danger and difficult decisions and through learning to trust one another they both develop as people throughout the story. Many children who enjoy reading adventure stories are not naturally adventurous themselves and by accompanying Casper on his journey perhaps they too will gain a little confidence. Sometimes it helps to see that just because you are frightened it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to be brave. Utterly is not all she seems intially either. Occasionally first impressions can be wrong and readers will see that even the fiercest of characters may be hiding troubles of their own.

In Abi’s last book, Sky Song, I was struck by the beauty of the world she had created. In Rumblestar, again, the descriptions of the landscapes are clearly inspired by the author’s own adventures and are all the more vivid for this reason. Once, in a school in which I worked I was told that in education it is our duty to inspire in young children a sense of “awe and wonder.” Abi Elphinstone does just that by prompting the reader to take a moment to stop, think, look at and appreciate the beautiful world around us. A timely and important message.

This is the writing of an author who understands children and how they feel about life and this is, I think, why it works so well. Rumblestar has all the ingredients that encourage children to enjoy a book: an exciting edge of your seat adventure, characters that readers will empathise with and root for, an evil villain and a dash of magic too. Oh, and what child will be able to resist a loveable miniature dragon who fits in your pocket!

Rumblestar can be bought at all good bookshops, online or borrowed from your local library.


Rumblestar is the first of the Unmapped Chronicles, a series of stand alone novels about these magic kingdoms. The prequel, Everdark, was one of the World Book Day special £1 books. The stunning cover of Rumblestar is by Carrie May and Jenny Richards and the book also contains a super map by Patrick Knowles.

Thank you very much to Abi and her pubishers, Simon and Schuster Children’s Books for providing my free review copy.

Teachers who are planning on using Rumblestar in the classroom may be interested in the scheme of work designed by Ian Eagleton, The Reading Realm which is available to download on Abi Elphinstone’s official website

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Barnes Children’s Literature Festival – a celebration of children’s books

Five years ago the first Barnes Children’s Literature Festival took place with the aim to become an inspiration for book lovers everywhere. Since then it has grown into a two day event for families that is now the largest dedicated children’s literature festival in London. In 2017, the organisers launched their Education & Community Outreach Programme, specially curated, curriculum-linked sessions which are provided free of charge for primary schools. The authors appearing over these last few years read like a veritable Who’s Who of the children’s book world including Michael Rosen, Judith Kerr, Lauren Child, Michael Morpurgo and many more.

BCLF19-5thWEB-LOGO-finalWhat is it about literature festivals and especially ones for children that make them so special? There is always a happy buzz about them and a general feeling of enthusiasm amongst the festival goers. This, I think is magnified at events for children. As I travelled by train to Barnes I read a tweet from Michael Rosen that summed it up perfectly:

“The thing about book festivals, children come and hear authors and ask authors questions and there are no tests or exams. The children just get to think and reflect and wonder and ponder – on their own or with friends or family.”

Throughout my visit I watched with pleasure as excited children listened and engaged with well known authors, asked thoughtful, articulate and interesting questions and discussed favourite books with other children and adults as they queued. It is a lovely touch by the organisers to have school children introduce the authors and illustrators at each event, emphasising that children truly are the heart of the weekend.

Marcia Williams

IMG_20190511_120525My first event was a talk by author and illustrator, Marcia Williams who I have long admired for her illustrated books such as Archie’s War, My Secret War Diary and Bravo, Mr William Shakespeare. At Barnes, Marcia introduced the audience to her first novel, Cloud Boy. This book combines two separate stories, one of present day best friends Harry and Angie told in diary format and the second of a young girl imprisoned in Changi prison in World War 2 told in letters written to her pet kitten left at home. The inspiration for Cloud Boy was initially Marcia’s visit to a quilt exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum where among the extravagant and beautiful quilts on show she saw a small coverlet made by children in Changi prison. The twenty children involved belonged to a guide group formed by one of the women prisoners comprising twenty girls aged 8 -16. When Marcia’s own grandson was going through a particularly difficult time aged only four she was struck by how important friendship is to young children and how they look after each other. The author wanted to show children how special this type of friendship is. These two moving elements combine in her new novel.

IMG_20190511_123317Marcia also introduced a very special guest to her audience, Olga Henderson who at just 10 years old was imprisoned in Changi Prison in appalling conditions alongside her mother. For almost half an hour this quietly spoken eighty seven year old woman had the children hanging on her every word as she told us about her experiences during WW2 and answered the children’s questions. It was a moving experience to hear her speak about her own life at the same age as many of the youngsters in the audience. The children will have gained a great deal from this experience, Olga’s story was a lesson in the value of optimism, hope and love. The session finished with a quiz which the the children entered into with enthusiasm and a book signing with both Marcia and Olga. I left the session with much to think about as I am sure everyone did.

David Almond

A quick walk down the road took me to St Mary’s Church, the beautiful venue for my second event, a conversation between Bex Lindsay of Fun Kids Radio and Carnegie Award winning author, David Almond. David is probably best known for his award winning novel, Skellig. However he has created a fabulous range of titles for children and young people including my favourites of his, My Name is Mina, a prequel to Skellig and My Dad’s a Birdman. In addition he has collaborated with illustrators such as Levi Penfold for the stunning picture book The Dam and David McKean for the new graphic novel, Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist. 

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This hour of conversation passed far too quickly, I could have listened for ages. It was a wonderful, wide ranging discussion about writing, language and stories and full of inspiration for budding writers of all ages. David Almond’s books frequently use the language of his native north east and during his conversation he touched on the importance of this and of really engaging with the rhythm and sound of words when we read or write as this can be so beautiful.

As a child he grew up surrounded by aural story telling and loved myths and legends, enjoying books by authors such as Roger Lancelyn Green. He also occasionally pinched his sister’s Enid Blyton books! Libraries, as is so often the case, were important to the author and his reading material expanded to include John Wyndham and Ernest Hemmingway.

Bex asked David Almond about his books and about the specifics of the writing process. His answers were extremely thought provoking. He mentioned that writers have to be quite brave and said that any good book is created by something inside the writer, “writing is a physical, emotional thing that comes from your bones.”

There was, inevitably, a great deal of discussion about Skellig, a novel now used widely in schools. David said that he loves the stage play based on the book and is particularly happy to see how his book has touched readers and released something inside people. The wonderful thing about Skellig is to witness the creativity it has inspired in others. This is one of the reasons why books matter. All over the country teachers are working with children on art, drama and dance, all linked to this remarkable story.

When the children started asking questions David advised them that if they want to write they should read widely and when writing don’t write to try and impress anyone. He also gave them freedom to write the sequel to Skellig as he has no idea what happens next! The book itself leaves many unanswered questions. David also confessed that he finds starting a book easier than finishing it. He also warned the audience that all writers have doubts when writing and it’s important to learn to push aside the inner voice telling you that the story is no good.

Bex also asked David a quick fire round of questions from which we learned that he prefers books to a Kindle (of course!), writing about villains rather than heroes, Narnia to Hogwarts, doing school tours rather than bookshop visits as he loves talking to children and last but not least would choose cheese and onion rather than salt and vinegar crisps! His favourite word is hawthorn which made me smile as I love the hawthorn blossom at this time of year. 

The queue to have books signed by David Almond afterwards was lengthy but so inspired were the children that all around me I could hear snippets of book related chatter. This book talk was enthusiastic, informed and frankly interesting for me to listen to. Youngsters discussed their favourite authors who alongside David himself included Robin Stevens, Philip Pullman, Matt Haig and Kate Di Camillo, a broad cross section showing a knowledge of current authors. One young girl commented that she “liked sad books best”, an interesting observation as David Almond had mentioned in his conversation that he believes that “children can manage all kinds of things.”

These two events that I attended were only a very brief taste of what was available over the weekend. There was an impressive range of activities on offer for families including an outdoor theatre trail linked to the wonder book The Lost Words by Jackie Morris and Robert McFarlane, model making with Aardman Animations, the Poetry Zone and much more besides.  

The Barnes Children’s Literature Festival is a true celebration of the magic of children’s books conveying a feeling of creativity and inspiration but perhaps what makes it really special is that it makes children happy. I plan to return next year. 

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Not My Fault by Cath Howe

Ever since the accident Rose and her sister Maya have not been talking. Maya asked her sister to push her harder on the roundabout and when Rose did there were terrible results. Now Maya blames Rose and treats her unkindly and in her frustration behaves badly too. Rose, full of guilt for what has happened, wants to make things right again. The sisters have to go away on a week long residential school trip and their parents, teachers and even their friends worry about how this will work out. Will the trip mend the broken sibling bond or break it completely once and for all?

I am often intrigued by how two people can sometimes have entirely different recollections of exactly the same event. This often does not mean that they cannot remember the incident properly but simply that different aspects resonate more with people depending on their views, interests or attitudes. Cath Howe takes this a stage further by looking at how a traumatic event has a lasting effect on those who suffer it or witness it. In this case that the event involved children, and even more poignantly siblings, adds to the emotional impact.

Not My Fault is told in the alternating voices of the two sisters and this works extremely well. Maya and Rose are very different characters indeed and how much of this is due to the accident and how much is down to their individual personalities would be an interesting subject for discussion. Rose is reserved and quieter than her sister, she tries to be good and is a bit of a perfectionist whilst Maya is popular with other children at school, full of humour and with an air of bravado. Rose has become involved in the world of gymnastics and her increasing commitment and success results in Maya becoming even more bitter than before. Things come to a head during the school trip when events conspire to throw the sisters together despite their wish to stay apart.

Cath Howe is a primary school teacher and she has captured the voices of ten year olds and the highs and lows of residential school trips to perfection. The writing displays an understanding of children and is extremely well observed. This feels realistic and believable and I feel sure that young readers will find both the characters and the storyline relatable. School trips can be a source of worry for some children but this book demonstrates that despite these fears they should be, and generally are, an enjoyable and enriching experience. In addition to the main storyline about Maya and Rose, there are amusing moments and some of the supporting cast of characters including Maya’s friend, Bonnie and the poor harassed teacher, Mr Goodman are very appealing.

I enjoyed reading this and as I somehow never got around to reading this author’s acclaimed debut, Ella on the Outside, I will be putting that one on my to read list also.

Thank you very much to Rebecca Mason and Nosy Crow publishers for providing my free review copy.

If young readers enjoy this type of school story with relatable characters they may also enjoy Splash by Charli Howard



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