The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

29 Apr

I have been feeling a bit despondent lately, with schools being forced into becoming academies, junior doctors having to strike, and our government voting to abandon thousands of refugee children. It can be hard to find the good.

So I did what any sane person does in this situation and I turned to my books for hope and refuge. A trip to my local bookshop was in order. And I found this gem. 

‘What if? Why not? Could it be? When a fortune-teller’s tent appears in the market square of the city of Baltese, orphan Peter Augustus Duchenne knows the questions that he must ask: Does his sister still live? And if so, how can he find her? The fortune-teller’s mysterious answer (An elephant! An elephant will lead you there!) sets off a chain of events so remarkable, so impossible, that you will hardly dare to believe it is true. With atmospheric illustrations by fine artist Yoko Tanaka, here is a dreamlike and captivating tale that could only be told by Kate DiCamillo. In this timeless fable, she evokes the largest of themes – hope and belonging, desire and compassion – with the lightness of a magician’s touch.’

This book restored by faith in the world, as books so often can. The Magician’s Elephant is a patchwork quilt of characters, linked together by chance meetings, and united by their cause. 

The writing is, of course, sublime. The blurb above mentions her lightness of touch and that is absolutely true of DiCamillo’s writing. It is almost as if she’s not telling you the story at all but suggesting it, offering it, giving you the space to find yourself within it. 

Like this:

‘Leo Matienne cleared his throat, once, and then again. He opened his mouth and spoke two simple words. He said, “What if?”

The magician raised his head then and looked at the policeman. “What if?” he said. “‘What if?’ is a question that belongs to magic.”

“Yes,” said Leo, “to magic and also to the world in which we live every day. So: what if? What if you merely tried?”‘

DiCamillo is saying, “here, believe again.” 

And I did. 

You can get your copy here

Kate DiCamillo’s latest book, Raymie Nightingale was released by Walker Books earlier this month and has just moved right to the top of my wish list.

Source – bought from the delicious Book Nook, Hove.

In the Dark, in the Woods by Eliza Wass – YA

26 Apr


 ‘Father wants sixteen-year-old Castley and her five siblings to hide from the world. Living in a falling-down house deep in the woods, he wants to bury their secrets where noone will ever find them. Father says they are destined to be together forever. In heaven. Father says the sooner they get there, the better. But Castley wants to be normal. She wants to kiss boys and wear jean shorts. CASTLEY WANTS TO LIVE.’

When Louise O’Neill says a book is ‘one of the best books I’ve read this year’ then you read it. Fact. And oh, this book! If I was highlighting perfect sentences then every page would be yellow. Eliza Wass’s writing reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s in that it has such depth. Every sentence is layered with meaning and revelations. 

Wass has beautifully depicted the confusion and angst of a teenager trying to find the strength to be herself and find her place in the world. This book sings to the insecure teenager in all of us. 

A debut author to watch. I can’t wait for her next book. 

I loved it. Can you tell? 

You can get your copy here.

Source – kindly sent for review by Quercus Children’s Books

Seed by Lisa Heathfield – YA 

21 Apr

‘Seed loves you. Seed will never let you go. Fifteen-year-old Pearl has lived her whole life protected within the small community at Seed, where they worship Nature and idolise their leader, Papa S. When some outsiders arrive, everything changes. Pearl experiences feelings that she never knew existed and begins to realise that there is darkness at the heart of Seed. A darkness from which she must escape, before it’s too late. A chilling and heartbreaking coming-of-age story of life within a cult, Seed will take readers on a journey of gripping self-discovery reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale.’

There’s been quite a buzz surrounding fellow Brightonian Lisa Heathfield’s writing on twitter- and it is all totally true. I really can’t recommend this one enough! Brilliant writing, twists and teases, and emotional punches throughout. Think HBO’s Big Love meets We Were Liars

Told from the point of view of Pearl as she gets her first period and becomes a woman in the eyes of her community, as well as an unknown secondary narrator who suggests that things are not as they seem, Seed places the reader in a challenging position. Simultaneously one step ahead of Pearl and reading through your fingers as she steps into an abusive, adult world, and one step away from seeing the bigger picture. This is skilful writing. Painfully and beautifully so.

A word of warning… clear some space in your diary and check your coffee supplies. Once you start you won’t be able to put it down. I was up til the early hours finishing it and it was worth every second of bleary eyed no-adulting the next day. 

Seed is out now and you have time to order and devour it before her next book, Paper Butterflies, is released in June. 

You can get your copies from Indy-loving, tax-paying here

Source – purchased copy. 

The Journey by Francesca Sanna 

15 Apr


I think this book might be perfect. 

‘What is it like to have to leave everything behind and travel many miles to somewhere unfamiliar and strange? A mother and her two children set out on such a journey; one filled with fear of the unknown, but also great hope.

Based on her own interactions with people forced to seek a new home, and told from the perspective of a young child, Francesca Sanna has created a beautiful and sensitive book that is full of significance for our time.’

I have been using social media to post about politics a lot lately. I think it’s important to share; to raise awareness and do our bit. Signing a petition, sharing a meme, just talking about this stuff, might feel like a drop in the ocean but it all adds together to make a wave. 

Another thing you can do is talk to your kids. Share books with them. Watch CBBC’s newsround together. Answer their questions. Because, as Whitney said, they are our future, and helping them to understand, and to get it – to grow up to be empathetic and kind – could be what fixes everything. 

This book is…everything. So beautifully done, it tells the stories of migration in a brilliantly child friendly way. It links their migration with nature and shows their hopes and fears through the stories they tell each other. All things that will help you talk your kids through this book, through newsround, and hopefully, then, to the new kids in their classes and into a future that is less bomby and bordery and more inclusive and smiley. 

It’s a book that will work across a wide age range, making it perfect (and vital!) for schools and libraries. The illustrations and text are layered with meaning and act as a jumping board for discussion. This double page spread is a favourite of mine and a great example:

Look at how the left page is brighter and full of colours and nature. The right page is darker and some of the natural elements are replaced with threatening hand shadows and eyes. Younger children will be able to take the text as they hear it but older children will find so much here to think about and question. 

Beautiful, relevant, important. 

You can order your copy from Indy-bookshop-friendly, tax-paying here.

Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin

15 Apr

‘No parents, no rules…No problem?

When 13-year-old Joe is left behind in Peckham while his mum flies to Spain on holiday, he decides to treat it as an adventure, and a welcome break from Dean, her latest boyfriend. Joe begins to explore his neighbourhood, making a tentative friendship with Asha, a fellow fugitive hiding out at her grandfathers’ flat. But when the food and money run out, his mum doesn’t come home, and the local thugs catch up with him, Joe realises time is running out too, and makes a decision that will change his life forever…’

Joe All Alone is a very deceptive book. In a very good way. On the surface it’s a home alone adventure with a light boy-meets-girl storyline, written in a brilliantly accessible way that will have children racing through it. But as you read it you find so much more. Lurking just under the surface is a world of drug deals, domestic violence, bullying, mental illness, racism, neglect and poverty. Sounds dark, hey? And yet it isn’t. Because the key here is the accessibility.

The story is told from Joe’s point of view and Nadin writes so that we see all the shiny potential in him. We see the darkness of the world he lives in as he casually drops it into his story, but he is such a brightness within it, that the story becomes full of hope. We are full of sympathy and empathy and we are rooting for him to succeed, despite his circumstances. 

The supporting characters bring so much to the book. Asha and her grandpa see the positive and the potential in everything and their outlook is infectious, encouraging the reader to look beyond the surface and find the brightness within. They give the reader hope in the face of adversity. Yet I love that there’s no fairytale happy ending here. Nadin creates a truthful portrayal of what poverty and deprivation can do to a family. 

A brilliantly written book that will help children understand the effects of poverty, whilst giving them hope and showing them that there’s always a bright side to be found. A stunner! 

You can get your copy of Joe All Alone here.

Asha’s story continues in White Lies, Black Dare available here

Source: my lovely local library. 

One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart 

12 Apr

  This book is stunning. 

The cover is gorgeous and perfectly depicts the essence of the story- all hail Kristine Brogno. But the writing! The writing is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Think Sarah Crossan meets Jeanette Winterson. It is the book that I am still holding even though I’ve finished it. Because I can’t quite let it go yet. I’m not ready to move on to another. And when I do, it will be the next book by Kephart. Because, right now, it feels like nothing else will match up to the writing-made-new of One Thing Stolen.

I want you all to read this book, yet at the same time I’m so jealous that you’ll get to experience it for the first time. 

Something is not right with Nadia Cara. While spending a year in Florence, Italy, she’s become a thief. She has secrets. And when she tries to speak, the words seem far away. Nadia finds herself trapped by her own obsessions and following the trail of an elusive Italian boy whom only she has seen. Can Nadia be rescued or will she simply lose herself altogether? Set against the backdrop of a glimmering city, One Thing Stolen is an exploration of obsession, art and a rare neurological disorder. It is a celebration of language, beauty, imagination and the salvation of love.

The depiction of mental illness is artfully and truthfully done. As a reader you are enveloped in Nadia’s thoughts and her memories and her creations. Kephart understands the dislocation and portrays it perfectly with clipped sentences and poetic structure and the imagery throughout. Yet it feels universal. It encompasses teenage angst and awkwardness and self-doubt. This is a book that I would gift to teens and young adults to show them that they are not alone. That love and loss and the search for identity is painful but beautiful and ultimately worth it.

There are so many love stories in here. Besides the obvious girl meets boy (which is in no way written in an obvious way), there is the most beautiful celebration of  friendship that left me remembering the power of first loves and the emotional intensity of having a best friend in the world. Then there is the love of place; of history and architecture and all the memories and stories that knit together to create a city. And the love and stability and comfort of family. And, beautifully, a real ode to the power of creativity. 

This one is special.

You can order a copy here

Source – review copy kindly sent by Chronicle Kids 

Loving my library

22 Mar

I’m reading a book that is holding me by the shoulders and staring hard in my face. It Will Not Let Me Go. And I love it when a book does this to me.

The book is The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. Not a children’s book, so perhaps a little out of place on this blog, but it has led to a bit of a revelation and I’m feeling sharey. 

I was in the library for my daughter. We had a big pile of books for her and I happened across The Burgess Boys in the Quick Picks section while we were hanging out in the queue. (Those pesky librarians and their chocolates-at-the-checkout hard sell!) Seeing it there, beckoning to me, reminded me of how much I’d loved Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge and the tv adaptation. So I grabbed it. And I’m so glad I did because it has started off an adventure. Because I am suddenly remembering how awesome libraries are for adults. I’ve always been a fan for small folk but I am fickle and tend to forget how much they have to offer for me. 

I am immensely lucky; reading books is basically my (sadly, as yet unpaid – but you know… one day) job and to do that job I get sent some books for free. And I’m lucky that I have a good local independent book shop and can afford to buy a book that I am desperate to read. But I am also painfully aware that it hasn’t always been this way and certainly isn’t this way for many people. I have a collection of yellowing, creased and oh so loved paperbacks that I bought, one a month, for 50p – a pound at a push, if I wanted it so much I was willing to forgo my payday chocolate bar – from my local charity shop. Anything above that was from the library. The library has always been there for me. When I was a child trying to understand who I was and where I could fit; when I was living in an unfamiliar bedsit and the few paperbacks on the shelf helped me remember and hold on to the me I had discovered; when I lived above a band who liked to rehearse ‘full-amp’ and I needed a place to study; and when I was feeling tired and isolated as a new mum looking for a community. The library gave me identity, refuge, community, friendship. Books were, at those points in my life, both a luxury and a necessity. But now that I am happy, secure and able to buy books as I want to read them, I forget to use the library and I miss out on chance encounters like The Burgess Boys. Just because I don’t need the library doesn’t mean I don’t need the library, if you get my meaning. 

But (cue dramatic music) just as I’m falling back in love with my library, along come The Cuts, knocking at the door. My lovely local library has gone into consultation for a round of cuts to staffing and opening hours. I’ve campaigned against library cuts and closures and watched them creeping ever nearer and now here they are, encroaching upon my library. And so.. My new adventure. I’m going to be using my library hard! I will support them with footfall; drop in more; borrow more. Maybe start a Quick Pick challenge to mix up my reading a bit. I’m joining in the consultation and having my say; speaking to the librarians; donating books; seeing how I can help. I want to stop being complacent; to get in there and make the most of my library; to encourage others to do the same so that we don’t all become complacent and forget what we have until it’s taken away from us. Because if we don’t use it, we’ll lose it. 

The library adventure starts here.

There’s a Dragon in My Dinner

9 Feb

There’s a Dragon in My Dinner by Tom Nicoll and Sarah Horne is a brilliantly pitched book for newly independent readers who are looking for something to get their teeth into. 

‘When Eric finds a tiny dragon nestled among the beansprouts in his Friday night takeaway, he thinks it’s a free toy. But Pan the Mini-Dragon is very real indeed – and he’s about to get Eric into a whole heap of trouble… How is Eric going to explain the trail of devestation caused by one creature not much bigger than a spring roll?’

Split into ten short chapters with Sarah Horne’s fab illustrations throughout, There’s a Dragon in My Dinner is a fun, fast paced and action packed story that will have kids everywhere digging through their beansprouts with bouncy anticipation.

To celebrate the launch of this fab new series, I asked Tom Nicoll to share his favourite books for new readers. And what a stonking selection he made! 

Top 10 Books to get your teeth into as a new reader

1. Fantastic Mr Fox – Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake(Illustrator). I’ll be honest, I could have picked any book by Roald Dahl here or even filled the whole list with his books (My wife suggested the same thing). I’ve picked this one though because it’s brilliantly funny, but one of Dahl’s shorter books so it should hopefully leave you wanting more. The good news is there’s plenty.

2. Peanuts – Charles Schultz. I read tons of comics when I was young, but my favourite was always Peanuts. One of my favourite experiences in the past few months was taking my four year old daughter to see the new Peanuts movie. In a way it almost felt like passing something on to her. There are countless collections available and you can’t really go wrong getting any of them, though I do love the new the recent hardback releases of every strip going back to 1950.

3. Cakes in Space – Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre – This is the second book by Reeves and McIntyre and has possibly one of my favourite titles for a book ever. I live to think that their publishers asked them what their next book was going to be and they were just like ‘Three words: Cakes. In. Space.’ *Mic Drop* The book itself is delightfully mad and full of fantastic illustrations by Sarah McIntyre.

4. Flat Stanley – Jeff Brown, Scott Nash(Illustrator) – Another book that tells you all you need to know in the title. Stanley’s life is changed when a pin board falls on him, turning him into a human pancake. Hey, we’ve all been there. Imagine what life would be like if you could slide yourself under a door or post yourself on holiday. Well you don’t have to imagine because this book will tell you.

5. Fortunately The Milk – Neil Gaiman, Chris Riddell (Illustrator) – “Where there is milk there is hope” A wonderfully illustrated shaggy dog story involving pirates, vampires, aliens, time-travelling, a stegosaurus professor and a carton of milk. What else do you need to know?

6. The Grunts In Trouble – Philip Ardagh, Axel Scheffler (Illustrator) – The first in the series about Mr and Mrs Grunt and their sort-of son Sunny, who they stole from a washing line. I love the way Ardagh writes – there are so many jokes packed into every sentence.

7. The Spy Who Loved School Dinners – Pamela Butchart, Thomas Flintham (Illustrator) – When a new French girl starts at her school, Izzy is convinced that she must be a spy. The evidence: she loves school dinners. No one loves school dinners. I like the rambling style of the book, told from Izzy’s point of view.

8. The Little Vampire – Angela Sommer-Bodenburg, Amelie Glienke (Illustrator) – The first in the series of stories translated from the original German about a nine year old boy Tony and his vampire best friend Rudolph. One of my childhood favourites.

9. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White, Garth Williams (Illustrator). Alright, so most of these recommendations are funny stories. I really like funny stories. But if you’ve had enough laughing and want to have a good cry instead then you could try this book. It’s about the friendship between a pig who doesn’t want to get eaten and a spider who does everything she can to help him. We read this when I was in school, so just picture a room full of kids all trying, and failing, not to cry in front of each other. Yeah, so be warned, it’s pretty sad.

10. Dirty Bertie Stinky Stories (Mud! Germs! Loo!) – David Roberts (Illustrator), Alan MacDonald – if you’re needing a good laugh after Charlotte’s Web then this book should do the trick. Full of disgusting humour, these stories will turn your tears into, well, more tears actually. But they’ll be tears of laughter this time so that’s good. And this one is actually three books in one – bargain!

You can also read an interview with Tom over at Emma’s Bookcorner here.

There’s a Dragon in My Dinner, written by Tom Nicoll and illustrated by Sarah Horne, will be published on the 11th of February by Stripes Publishing. Look out for There’s a Dragon in My Backpack and There’s a Dragon in My Toilet later this year.
Source- Review copy kindly sent by Stripes Publishing.

Rabbit & Bear: Rabbit’s Bad Habits

31 Jan

Rabbit & Bear by Julian Gough and Jim Field is a scrumptious book. I love the tactile hardback format and the gorgeous use of the icy turquoise colour throughout. 

‘Bear wakes up early from hibernation and decides if she can’t sleep then at least she can make a snowman. She soon meets Rabbit, who is an Expert in Gravity, who never ever smiles, and has never said the word F-U-N before. But with avalanches and hungry wolves on the prowl, Rabbit soon realised that sometimes it’s nice to have a friend on your side and someone to share your winter with.’

Jim Field is a master of expression and the perfect match for Julian Gough’s writing. There’s a lovely mix of poo humour and mild peril, brilliant for reading aloud dramatically with comedy voices, making this a book that will become a firm favourite with kids and adults alike. 

The thing that really caught me was the balance of the text. It doesn’t talk down to children but doesn’t ‘do a Pixar’ and try too hard to appeal to the adults and end up going over the children’s heads. It’s perfect for newly confident readers; there’s not too much text per page but Gough uses complicated sentence structure and wonderful vocabulary that will challenge an independent reader. We had a great discussion about the language and structure of the text and why some words had a capital letter for emphasis, even though it ‘breaks the phonics rules’ (take that, Gove/Morgan). I love it when a book opens up a reader’s eyes like that. Bravo, Gough, Field and the Hodder team.  I can’t wait for the next instalment!

Source: review copy kindly sent by Hodder Children’s Books. 

Little Rebels and Radical Acts of Kindness

11 May

I missed The London Radical Book Fair and the awarding of the Little Rebels Award on Saturday. We were away visiting family and I couldn’t make it. But I was there in spirit and via Twitter and it prompted a lot of thinking over the weekend. Allow me to share…

Letterbox Library’s Little Rebels Award celebrates radical children’s books; those that stand up for diversity, inclusion and above all, social justice. They are books that show children the world and how they can make it better. These books are the ones we should want our future leaders to be reading now. Books that let us imagine a future that stands against social injustice and discrimination. Hurrah for the Little Rebels shortlisted authors and winner, Gill Lewis! And for Letterbox Library who back the award. 


(Picture by Letterbox Library)

I will be honest, I really wanted Anne Booth‘s Girl With a White Dog to win. It is an exceptional book that deals with immigration, inclusion, and what can happen when people demonise difference. It is a book that awoke a real sense of social responsibility in the children I read it with. It is also a wonderful story, beautifully written. I wanted it to win because it warns about excluding people that are ‘other’, and it teaches children to look at the world with empathy and understanding and not to be led by propaganda. After Friday morning’s election results I felt like we needed this book more than ever. 

How do we deal with the fallout from last week’s election? So much disappointment and anger and incredulity. I think it’s easy to feel guilty for not doing enough before the elections, to blame others, and to feel helpless and despondent. But that won’t help those already being squashed and it won’t prevent further injustice. I think reading the shortlisted books would be a great place to start. Share them with your children, your friends’ children, donate them to your local school. Because these books could change the world. And let’s face it… We need a bit of that right now. 

When I heard the results on Friday morning I headed straight for Twitter and was so boosted by the positivity on my timeline. There was (is!) a real desire to work together to fight further cuts and act as a safety net for those who are being affected; to make things better. It has reminded me that real change happens not when political parties win elections, but when people take a stand against injustice, and are willing to fight for an inclusive future, together. My Twitter feed is full of booky peeps, journalists, artists, and theatre peeps. It is generally a very inclusive and forward thinking bunch. But the children’s authors especially were winning Twitter on Friday.

By 9am Friday morning, Michelle Robinson was calling for a mass donation to food banks to offset some of the Tory ugliness. Lots of us did. Later that day, thanks to Polly Faber, #foodbankfriday was born – a weekly food bank donation to support people who are being squashed by cuts. 

There was talk of our kindness being seen as support for Cameron’s Big Society. That he will take the credit for our actions. Well, let him. Just because he is a self-serving arrogant bigot doesn’t mean we have to follow his lead. Let’s be inclusive and empathetic and support those who are affected by the Government and their actions. Let’s help pick up the pieces. But let’s not do it quietly. 

Elli is absolutely right with her comment above. We mustn’t mop up the mess quietly. We must rage and raise awareness, we must support those who have the power and legal knowledge to fight the cuts and we must take action to stand up for what we believe in. Together. 

So let’s all be Little Rebels. Let’s make Radical Acts of Kindness. Let’s donate to food banks, volunteer, support, sustain. But let’s back up each act of kindness with action. Join a protest group, join an organisation that fights for justice, support them, donate to them so they can make change happen. And share it all on social media so that others can make their own Radical Acts of Kindness too. #LittleRebelRAK

Here’s my starter:

David Cameron wants to replace our Human Rights Act with his own leaner and meaner version- the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. Let’s not stand for that. Share your support here:

And here:

The shortlisted books are available here:

Girl With a White Dog by Anne Booth (Catnip Books)

Grandma by Jessica Shepherd (Child’s Play)

Made by Raffi by Craig Pomranz, illustrated  by Margaret Chamberlain (Janetta Otter-Barry Books/Frances Lincoln)

Nadine Dreams of Home by Bernard Ashley (Barrington Stoke)

Pearl Power by Mel Elliott (I Love Mel)

Scarlet Ibis by Gill Lewis (Oxford University Press)

Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton (Walker Books)

Trouble on Cable Street by Joan Lingard (Catnip Books)


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