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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 

Binny for Short – Hilary McKay

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Attention please…! You must all read this book:

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I am newly converted to Hilary McKay’s outstanding writing. She has such a gift for observation, understanding, warmth and wit in her writing. This is a book that feels like coming home.

‘Binny’s life has been difficult since her father died and her dreadful old Aunt Violet disposed of her beloved dog, Max. Her world changed then, to a city flat with not enough space for her Mum, her big sister Clem and her small brother James. Definitely no room for a pet.

Then one day Aunt Violet dies, leaving a small cottage in Cornwall to Binny and her family. Binny finds herself in a new world once more, full of sunshine and freedom and Gareth, the enemy-next-door and the ideal companion for dangerous dares. But Max is still lost in the past, and it seems impossible that she’ll ever find him again…’

Binny is a character that readers can aspire to be like. All of McKay’s characters are so beautifully realised that they jump from the page and follow you around. They get into your head and pull you in to their story, their lives. And then, without your realising it, your lives have become intertwined and you look up from the book, unsure as to what is real and what is written.

McKay is a truly gifted storyteller and she invites you inside the world of Binny and her family through a brilliantly delivered dual narrative. One layer tells the story of Binny and her new enemy, Gareth, as they attempt to pull out a huge barbed fishing net tangled amongst rocks.
The second layer provides the background, the family history and the build up to their mission.

McKay’s writing is pared down to perfection with sentences that surprise with their exactness:
‘For Binny it had happened the way some people become friends. Totally. Inevitable from the beginning, like the shape of a shell.
Only it wasn’t friends; it was enemies.
Binny had known at once that she was looking at her enemy, and the boy had known it too. The understanding was like a swift brightness between them.’

The best children’s writers can place themselves inside the mind of a child. They can remember and imagine what it feels like to be a child, the everyday thoughts, worries, dreams and actions. McKay has the fantastic ability to master this across a wide age range. James, six, is portrayed beautifully. His dreams and inspirations, his ideas and imagination feel plucked straight from the mind of a creative six year old boy. Binny is adventurous and headstrong and big sister Clem is full of determination and self belief, and McKay excels at Gareth’s anger and hurt, his fear and bravado.

McKay really *knows* children. She writes about the things that affect children and play on their minds. And that makes her books so perfect for child readers. They can see themselves in these books. They can read about characters believably going through the same experiences as them. And they can see these characters come out the other side, they can watch them develop and learn and grow alongside them. By including positive images of older children, teenagers and adults, McKay is filling her books with role models and inspiration. I can’t wait for Binny in Secret to be published so I can catch up with them all again

You can get your copy of Binny for Short here.

Try the Casson family stories too. The first book, Saffy’s Angel is stunning.

Source – kindly sent for review by Hodder Children’s Books.

Opal Plumstead by Jacqueline Wilson

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I’m going to let you in on a secret… This is the first Jacqueline Wilson book I have ever read. Gasp! My year 6 book group were horrified when they found out, and spent a year howling at me and plying me with recommendations. Somehow I still remained a JW virgin until this book came along. But what a way to start! Tying in beautifully with the centenary of the Great War, this is Jacqueline Wilson’s 100th book. And it had me hooked from the very first page!

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Opal Plumstead is the Matilda for this generation. A book I wish had been available to me when I was growing up. I longed for a book like this where I could see characters who thought like me, and learn about a world I could be a part of. Books are such magical tools in this way – they show us who we are and who we could become. They inspire, comfort, open the mind and create hopes and dreams. Opal Plumstead offers the reader all of this, and more.

Opal Plumstead is a scholarship girl. She is always top of the class but wants more from life than the prescribed future of marriage or a career in teaching. She is intelligent, self aware and proud of her individuality and dreams of university. When her family’s circumstances change she is forced to leave her school and her dreams behind to work in a sweet factory. Opal has to take on new responsibilities and find her way in a world of older, more street-wise girls. But through this new working life Opal meets Mrs Roberts, the factory’s owner, and is whisked into the women’s rights movement, meeting Mrs Pankhurst and her fellow Suffragettes. Perhaps Opal will have a bright future ahead of her after all?

On one level Opal Plumstead does what the Enid Blyton books did for me as a child – introducing children to a whole new era of language and culture and history. But Opal Plumstead does so much more than describe a character in a historical setting. It introduces the reader to inequalities of the past in a highly accessible way, enabling them to compare their own lives and make connections with social and political situations in the world they live in now. Opal Plumstead‘s themes introduce the reader to feminism, the realities of poverty, injustice, corporate greed, the economic class system and social politics, as well as more domestic ideas such as the reversal of the parent/child relationship, the need for positive role models, unhappy adult relationships and a new generation’s hope to do things differently.

Opal Plumstead, along with her sister, Cassie, are fantastic characters for children to relate to and emulate. Readers will be able to find shared characteristics; see themselves and confirm who they are and who they could become. Opal feels misunderstood by her teachers and her family and longs to find a soulmate who she can share her dreams and ideas with. Opal and Cassie have strong self awareness and know who they respect (and who they don’t). Despite set backs and circumstances that are thrown at them, they stay true to their beliefs and follow their dreams with passion and integrity. As Cassie says, “I’m the heroine in my own life and I’ve got to live it the way I want”. Isn’t that what we hope for in any role model?

Opal Plumstead is a thoroughly enjoyable read with a storyline that had me in turns hiding behind my hands waiting for the inevitable disaster and sitting up into the small hours racing through to the end. But more than that, it’s an important book that will show a new generation of children that they can look at the world they live in and make it better.

I am officially converted. *orders 99 books*.

Published on 9/10/14 pre-order your copy here.

Source: kindly sent for review by Random House

Rosie Revere, Engineer

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Hurrah!!!! A book that shows a female engineer! In fact, Rosie Revere, Engineer (Abrams) provides two stonkingly good role models for children and celebrates the history of women engineers and aviation pioneers. Shortlisted for the Little Rebels award 2014, it is a book that has the potential to empower children and change their future.

Shy Rosie Revere dreams of becoming an engineer. She collects treasures for her engineer’s stash and alone in her room she creates gadgets and machines from all her broken bits and pieces. Worried about being laughed at and failing, Rosie keeps her inventions to herself. Until great-great-aunt Rose comes to stay.

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Great-great-aunt Rose built planes during the war and inspires Rosie to invent something bigger and more daring than ever before.

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By handing down her notebook of role models throughout history, and sharing that all-important life lesson of persistence, Great-great-aunt Rose teaches Rosie (and the reader) to always follow dreams and never give up.

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Andrea Beaty’s inspirational story full of diverse characters, positive role models and stereotype-squashing, is matched perfectly with David Roberts’ absolutely gorgeous illustrations. This book deserves to become a feminist modern classic.

Imagine a young girl who is fascinated by science and loves to design and invent and create. Imagine this book in her hands. Empowering, much?? In a world where gender stereotyping is still sadly rife, young children need all the positive role models and gender-stereotype-free messages that they can get. Bravo to all behind Rosie Revere, Engineer!

As an added bonus, the hardback copy reveals this under the dust jacket. Beautiful!

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Source – bought from Letterbox Library to inspire and empower my own little engineer. You can get your copy here

Pea’s Books of Pure Joy by Susie Day

17 Jun

I spend a lot of time looking for and championing inclusive books. Books that show real people and real characters, reflecting the true diversity of our world. If I could have given you an overview of what I have been personally looking for, it would have looked a bit like this:

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I can’t tell you how happy the Pea books make me. If only there had been books like these around when I was a girl. I would have devoured them then as joyously as I am savouring them now.

Full of wonderfully diverse characters that are beautifully real and flawed and intriguing, Susie Day’s Pea books are the books I am foisting upon everyone at the moment. My friends, their children, my year six book group, my daughter’s school librarian, anyone who will listen to me! Because I think these books are really important and I think people deserve to be able to read them as much as the books deserve to be read.

I am so thankful that my daughter will be able to read these when she is a bit older. She will be able to read about real children who grow up in diverse families that are brilliantly unique and creative and imaginative and caring and fun. She will be able to read about a family like hers – one that has two mums. And she probably won’t even notice because the story won’t be about that. The story will be about things that she will care about – finding a new best friend, settling in at a new school, having a really good birthday party, planning what job to do as a grown up.

Hurrah to Susie Day for creating genuinely diverse characters that are refreshing, relevant, unique and casually included. For me, casual inclusion is when you have no idea that you are about to meet these characters. When the book is all about the story and the fun. When the book looks like it could fit nicely in to any child’s bookcase or any school shelf and looks enticing enough for the child to want to grab it and read it. The inclusion is secondary to the story itself and the book is something that children want to read. Congratulations to Susie Day – she’s nailed it on all those fronts.

This is storytelling at its best. Brilliantly skilful writing, fantastic characters, and a series that you will never want to end. I am off to read the latest book in the series, Pea’s Book of Holidays. Treat yourself to a few copies – you’ll be wanting to share!

This book will change the world.

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In the last few weeks I’ve been reading a lot of books for older children and looking for books to recommend to my year six book group. There is a wide range of ability and interests in the group but a lot of passion and a lot of great ideas. I want to start sharing a few of the books that are inspiring my year six kids. This one has been more than a hit.

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Girl with a White Dog by Anne Booth. Quick disclaimer – I would consider Anne a friend but she hasn’t pulled my arm behind my back or bribed me with chocolate to recommend her book. She just wrote a stonkingly good book that genuinely has the potential to open eyes to the wider world and inspire children to want to change it. She wrote a book that I feel compelled to thrust upon people and buy for all my friends and recommend (fairly forcefully) to my year 6 kids. There’s no wonder that Girl with a White Dog was chosen as one of Booktrust’s Books of the Month in March.

Jessie is excited when her gran gets a white Alsatian puppy, but with Snowy’s arrival a mystery starts to unfold. As Jessie learns about Nazi Germany at school, past and present begin to slot together and she uncovers something long-buried, troubling and somehow linked to another girl and another white dog.

I love this book for its sensitive portrayal of a child growing up and learning about moral responsibility in a world that can be full of intolerance and discrimination. It is beautifully and naturally inclusive and manages to quietly raise the reader’s awareness of the importance of moral and social responsibility.

My year six children have relished this book. Are relishing it. I bought them a copy to share within the group and they now have my copy on loan too. They all know exactly who has a copy and are watching closely for their opportunity to grab one as soon as it is finished. They have been moved by the story and inspired by Anne’s writing. It has provoked, awakened, engaged and changed them. We have had wonderful and passionate discussions about immigration and UKIP and social responsibility, about discrimination and the responsibility of honest and fair media reporting. Girl with a White Dog has enabled them to look at their world and question what they see, and that is hugely important. That is a life skill that will help them change the world for the better.

Congratulations, Anne. You have written a book that is engaging children and inspiring them to think and assess their role in the world. It is making them look towards a more positive and fair future. Hurrah to you and hurrah to Girl with a White Dog.

Buy your copy from Hive here.

Snowflakes

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Every snowflake is different, every snowflake is perfect.

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Cerrie Burnell has made a name for herself as an actress and a children’s presenter on cbeebies, as well as a theatre practitioner. Her theatre show The Magical Playroom is currently touring the UK. Now she has published her first children’s book Snowflake, illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson. It’s the perfect Christmas cuddle-up book and tells a beautiful, inspiring story about embracing our differences and making new friends.

Mia is a little girl who left her home in a city of streetlights and stars to live with her grandma in the depths of the forest. We aren’t told why she has left her home, and that absence speaks for itself. It allows children to question, and to view the situation from their own imagination, history, or ideological viewpoint. A lovely inclusive touch. I love the way the illustrations enhance and extend the inclusive aspects of the story, truly bringing Mia to life. The text suggests that she doesn’t look the same as the other children but Mia’s brown skin is never mentioned explicitly, it is the illustrations that show the reader. This is a beautifully subtle way of reproducing children’s experiences of encountering diversity.

Mia’s grandma is full of warmth, in the text descriptions as well as the gorgeous illustrations. Who wouldn’t want her as their grandma?

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But Mia hardly knows her and has only heard of forests in storybooks, everything is new and different and she doesn’t look the same as the other children. She is nervous of her new beginning. Her days are full of new experiences; her first encounter with hens, her first feel of snow. Her first visit to school! The shining moon and the perfect snowflakes remind Mia that everyone is different and everyone is perfect and she embraces her new start, her new found friend, and her new home.

A touching story that will entertain and inspire children. A beautiful way to introduce equality and inclusion, and to soothe worries about new beginnings, this book feels gentle and warm and natural. Particularly impressive as Snowflakes is the debut picture book from both author and illustrator! I’m excited about seeing them both grow and explore their talents.

Source: bought from my lovely local children’s bookshop, Bags of Books.

Mimi Make-Believe. My faith has been restored!

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Sometimes a book can restore your faith. If you are feeling ill or down, turning to an old favourite can be the tonic you need to get you through. Or you can be wading through piles of stereotypical mush, feeling disheartened and disappointed, wondering what it would take to make progress. And then a little beacon of hope can catch your eye and top up your positivity. Mimi Make-Believe has been my ray of sunshine this week. Every time I feel like banging my head against the table and giving up I think, ‘It’s ok. We have Mimi. We have Martha. We have Ella.’

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I had my head in my hands this week when Anne-Marie from Childledchaos reminded me of this article. It was published in the Guardian in May 2011 and talks about the disproportionate numbers of male characters in children’s books. It has some interesting figures and is worth a read, even if just to get a big picture of the inequality. (If you are new to my rantings on this subject you may want to have a peek at this post where I talk about the effects of the overwhelming majority of animal characters in children’s picture books being male). It saddened me to think that not much has changed since this report was published. It is 2013 and this is where we are as a society. And it’s not just female characters in children’s books that get the raw deal, it’s the female authors and illustrators too. I was pointed in the direction of this piece about women and the Caldecott award by Damyanti from Overdue Books. And the inequality is not just in children’s books but in their toys too, the Keep Merida Brave and Let Toys Be Toys campaigns are a clear sign of the segregation and degradation that face our children as they learn through their play. We are in 2013 but as a society we are still teaching our children 1950s gender concepts.

And that is why I find it so important to hunt down and highlight the books that go against the gender stereotypes. And one of those special books is Mimi Make-Believe. I would like to get all the people involved in creating this book and getting it into the hands of children into a room together. Then I would like to give them all lots of cake. I would shake them all by the hand and maybe get overexcited and give out some full on bear hugs. Because this book is brilliant in so many ways. It is the kind of book that deserves much more recognition than it has had. It’s another that I think should be in every classroom across the land. Perhaps I should start a list of classroom must haves?

Mimi Make-Believe is about a raccoon called Mimi who loves imaginary play. She spends her time dressing up and playing, rescuing and exploring. But she would really love a friend to share her games, so when a beaver moves in next door she hopes that he will want to join in. On the surface this is a gorgeous book about making friends and having adventures together. But there is so much more to it than that. This page says it all.

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Mimi is the rescuer. She is brave. She chases away the dragon. All through the book Mimi is at the centre of her imaginary play and she is the strong, positive figure. This is a book that celebrates imaginary play and childhood. It doesn’t pander to gender stereotypes because it is too busy showing children being children and having fun. Hurrah! More like this please! Imagine if this book was propped up in every role play area in every classroom. It shows girls and boys using their imaginations to turn cardboard boxes into castles and toy boats into pirate ships. It shows them working together equally and having adventures together. It portrays the power of imagination, creativity, and friendship. One little book could have such a positive impact on so many areas.

So, Claire Freedman and Gemma Raynor, I salute you and all who worked with you to get Mimi onto bookshelves everywhere. I will certainly be buying lots more copies of this book. Surely everyone should have one.

Source: The RhinoReads bookshelves. You can buy your copy here.

Lulu Loves the Library and Lulu Loves Stories

28 Jun

Continuing the celebration of the ‘This is Me!’ book packs by Inclusive Minds and Letterbox Library, I am grinning with book-joy brought about by the Lulu books by Anna McQuinn and Rosalind Beardshaw.

I love a book about books. I love a book that celebrates stories and promotes reading and libraries. So imagine how happy I am right now…

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Three books that celebrate the joys of books in an effortlessly inclusive way. Hurrah!

Lulu Loves the Library is the first book in this gorgeous series. Lulu loves Tuesdays because on Tuesdays, Lulu and her mummy go to the library. We share Lulu’s excitement as she packs the books she borrowed least week, finds her library card and walks to the library with Mummy. Childhood joy jumps out from every page as Lulu joins in all the fun at the library, from singing time to choosing her books. Each page shows her leaning forward in anticipation, grinning with joy or in tongue-poking concentration. The illustrations really capture the way children live in the moment and see joy and excitement in every experience.

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A must for any book lover, Lulu Loves the Library is the perfect book to introduce young children to the library and all the fun it can offer. It’s also useful for nourishing the library habit. My daughter loved pointing at each picture and saying ‘we do that!’ Especially when it came to sharing the cappuccino froth! The book comes with a multi-language CD so that it can be enjoyed by families no matter what their reading level or what language they speak. A lovely touch that works towards making this book truly inclusive for all. My library copy has a stamp in it for every single month between March 2011 and now. This is clearly a well loved book that doesn’t get a moment to languish on the shelves.

Lulu Loves Stories is included in the early years ‘This is Me!’ book pack and also comes with a multi-language CD. This time it is Dad who takes Lulu to the library. Lulu chooses some books to bring home and the family share them together over the following week. Each book in turn prompts a day of imaginary play and we see Lulu dancing round as a fairy princess, travelling on an exotic adventure, working on a farm and building a house. A book’s power to inspire is explored as well as the importance of children’s imagination and play. This book is all about having fun and playing. There’s no gender stereotyping. Dad and Mum share time with Lulu, both reading and playing with her. She is equally happy dancing round as a fairy and fixing up her broken house. Lulu Loves Stories is inspiring and inclusive and, importantly, truly child-friendly.

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More Fab Female animal characters

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The quest to highlight positive female animal characters in picture books continues. I have received brilliant suggestions through twitter and comments on my previous posts, thank you so much to everyone who is joining in the hunt. Between us, we have sourced some fabulous female crocodiles. But I am still yet to track down that elusive female rhino. Perhaps I am the only one? And I am yet to be realised in a book, although I do think I have the character for it. Alas, the search continues on that front. But I do have some corkers to share with you here. Today I have a brave and heroic female dog, and a cat who isn’t afraid to show her true feelings. Next up is a mighty raccoon and I also have it on very good authority that a female gorilla is on her way over to the Rhino reading room. I shall keep you posted on that matter. For now, I give you….

Bella Bones from Bella and Monty – A Hairy, Scary Night by Alex. T. Smith

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Alex T. Smith is a very clever soul who is making his second appearance in the round up of strong female animal characters. That alone entitles him to use the name Sir Alex T. Smith of Fabulousness. I wonder if he will? His Ella is a work of feminist genius and should be required reading for all 4 year olds. Gove shouldn’t be messing about with breaking the curriculum, he should be getting a copy of Ella into every reception classroom. Anyway, I digress.

Sir Alex T. Smith of Fabulousness is clearly a feminist. He has created yet another strong female role model for young children. Bella is a dog who loves life and isn’t afraid to live it to the max. She isn’t frightened of anything and doesn’t let anything get in the way of fun. But…her best friend, Monty Mittens, is a scaredy cat. He is scared of EVERYTHING. Luckily, Bella reads books and is very intelligent (as all true feminist icons are) and she boldly leads Monty into the night and explains away his fears using a beautiful mix of knowledge and imagination.

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The traditional gender roles of nervous, passive girl and brave, bold boy have been reversed with style. The illustrations are gorgeous and quirky and Sir Smith’s humour is always apparent. Bella and Monty provides another example of a female dog and a male cat. When I read this book with children there was no confusion over genders, perhaps due to the illustrations portraying their gender, maybe because they are so well characterised. Perhaps because these children are now so used to me throwing books at them that challenge their assumptions? Whatever the reason, the children didn’t question a female dog and a male cat. and it felt like progress. Hurrah for a book with a strong female animal character and a reversal of typical gender assumptions!

Source: The Rhino-shelves, thanks to a recommendation by ReaditDaddy

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Olive from Olive and the Bad Mood and Olive and the Big Secret by Tor Freeman
Olive is a cat who knows her own mind. She is strong-willed, confident and not afraid to be herself. Olive and the Bad Mood begins with Olive tripping over her shoelace and landing with a button-popping bump. She is Not Impressed. She is now in A Very Bad Mood. As she stomps along she meets her friends one by one and takes out her frustration on each of them in turn. They catch her bad mood and all is not well. But, hooray! A sweet shop and a bag of jelly worms that saves the day. Almost!

In Olive and the Big Secret Olive can’t quite contain the temptation to tell a secret and so starts a chain of blabbing that leads right back to the start.

I love the humour in the illustrations- Olive’s physicality and facial expressions, the extra long giraffe-sized straw, Matt the dog singing as he changes after swimming. The joy of these books, though, is the lack of gender stereotyping. There’s an even mix of boys and girls and all the characters wear bright clothes. No pink princess dresses here. Olive in particular wears very fetching dungarees and Matt has a gorgeous floppy hat. It’s also refreshing to see the characters playing with a mix of toys regardless of gender.

Olive is a great character to use to step away from the gender stereotypical passive girl characters. She is confident, self-assured and not afraid to stand her ground and show her feelings. If she is grumpy, you will know about it. It’s great to see a female character being given the freedom to be wrong, make mistakes, feel frustrated and be bad-tempered and yet come out the other side. After all, that’s what happens to children every day, it is how they learn when they are young and it should be reflected in their books.

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Hurrah for Tor Freeman representing a strong female animal character and showing children being children.
And… wait for it… There is a female crocodile! Whoop!

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Source: Both kindly sent for review by the smiley souls at Templar.