Bookchat: Mark Powers, author of Spy Toys!

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Have you met the Spy Toys?! If not, Christmas might be a great time to introduce them to your children!!  There’s Dan, the super-strong teddy bear, Arabella, the doll with a serious temper, and Flax, the gadget-crazy robot rabbit.  Originally unwanted, now they’re part of a top-secret agency whose job it is to save the world – of course! In their latest hilarious and thrilling adventure Spy Toys: Out of Control, the trio do battle with a deadly unicorn and even a slightly jumbled up jigsaw. Complete with state of the art gadgets and daring deeds, brilliantly brought to life  by Tim Wesson’s fantastic illustrations, the Spy Toys series would be a fantastic addition to any young reader’s bookshelf!

Today, author Mark Powers joins me for a bookchat and shares some of the inspiration behind the adventures. Welcome to the blog Mark!

Congratulations on the publication of the second in the Spy Toys series! Tell us about the inspiration behind the stories. Thank you! I’d had the three main characters – a teddy bear, a rabbit and a rag doll – in my head for quite a while. I imagined them sharing a flat and bickering a bit like characters in a sitcom. Then I saw Marvel’s first Avengers film and it struck me it would be fun to turn this trio of toys into a crime-fighting team, to give each special powers and action scenes that would allow them to fire off snappy one-liners at the bad guys. I like writing about teams and how clashing personalities can sometimes get in the way of solving problems.

The Spy Toys stories are full of fun and it feels like you’re having great fun as a writer with the characters and the humour throughout.  Has your experience of writing them been as enjoyable as it seems?! It’s been enormous fun. I get a real kick out of writing for these characters. The fact they’re not human means I can push the slapstick a lot further than I’d normally be allowed in children’s fiction. There’s a cartoony aspect to it. If a major character in a regular children’s book got their head chopped off, it would be a pretty horrific thing. If it happens to one of the SPY TOYS, they can just have it reattached with a screwdriver at the end of the scene.

What were your childhood experiences of writing and reading and how have they helped inform your creativity? I loved reading and writing. In primary school I would often read fairly adult stuff like Ray Bradbury and Douglas Adams. When I got to comprehensive school, my friend Richard and I used to write and record comedy sketches on tape using BBC sound effects records. We did that for a good few years and it was fantastic practice at comedy writing. So much so, in fact, that by the time I was in the school 6th form, I was earning money regularly by writing material for comedy shows on Radio 4 and Radio 2.

The books include great illustrations by Tim Wesson. Did you always plan to have the stories illustrated and how do you work with Tim to bring the characters to life?It was always the plan to have illustrations. I had input and approval over how the characters looked but really the main liaison with Tim was done by the editor and designer at Bloomsbury. When I first started to write children’s books I imagined they’d be meetings with writer, illustrator, designer and editor sitting around a table (with cakes, preferably) and thrashing out between us what we wanted the illustrations to be. In reality, things are much more rarefied and most communication is via email.

The Spy Toys characters each have their own unique personality; I love the idea of the bear who hugs too hard and even the slightly less amiable rough and tough sunshine doll!! How do you go about creating the characters featured in the books?In any story, but particularly with comedy, you need contrasting character types. So a placid teddy bear, a spiky rag doll and a nerdy rabbit seemed a good combination. Again, I was lucky in having three non-human central characters. Kid heroes in books can be a bit bland and it’s the sidekick or supporting characters who tend to be the really funny ones. With SPY TOYS I have three fairly dysfunctional characters centre stage, so it’s easy to set them bickering with each other or anyone else they encounter.

Spy Toys has been described as James Bond meets Toy Story. If you could be any character – good or bad – in a spy story who would it be and why?! It might be fun to be a super-villain of the type you get in Bond films. To come up with some dastardly plan. Maybe I’d create a machine that zaps people if they talk during a film or open sweet wrappers noisily.

What can we expect in the next Spy Toys mission ‘Undercover’?! I can’t wait to see who the villain is – how will you top the dastardly unicorn?!! Oh, the usual mix of action, adventure, laughs, high emotion and petty squabbling. Glad you liked John the Unicorn! He was a lot of fun to write. In Undercover we meet diminutive child genius April Spume, who’s leader of a SPECTRE-like evil organisation of super-intelligent kids (called SIKBAG!) In this book, our three heroes go undercover in an ordinary primary school. The first book concentrated on Dan the teddy bear, the second on Arabella the rag doll, so in this third the main focus is on Flax, the ex-police rabbit. Slightly to my surprise, he’s shaping up to be the most popular character of the three.

Thank you Mark! I’m looking forward to reading Spy Toys: Undercover!

 

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Find out more at www.spytoysbooks.co and www.timwesson.co.uk.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for sending me this book to review and organising this bookchat!

 

 

 

 

 

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Guest blog: James Brown, illustrator of Al’s Awesome Science.

How many times have you opened a book and marvelled at the illustrations inside?  I often do and feel somewhat envious of someone who can pick up a pencil, pen or paintbrush and create a little bit of magic, bringing to life an authors’ words! AAS_CVR_WEB

James Brown is just such a person and his delightful illustrations in Al’s Awesome Science: Egg-speriments! written by Jane Clarke demonstrate how words and pictures work together to capture the imagination.

Today on the blog, James is sharing his experiences of working on Al’s Awesome Science and insight into his illustration techniques. Welcome to the blog James!

 

“Pictures don’t just trigger the imagination, they fire it up. And in particular for the Al’s Awesome Science series, which features lots of science experiments for young readers to try at home, it was important to get things ‘spot on’. How else could readers give the experiments a go? I think that’s what drew me most to it – the buoyancy, the action and how to convey this visually to readers.

I remember as a child being a bit disappointed when images were repeated in books or when there were insufficient drawings. Al’s Awesome Science is filled with pictures of all the key hilarious moments in the story, but the series also allows for the ‘extras’ – awesome facts and experiments – the refreshing bits and bobs which the designer Becky places so quirkily throughout each book. I admit the experiment pages bring out the kid in me. I like doing them snappily, like I used to do in my homework diary at school. I was forever doodling. I used to Tipp-Ex the inside lid of my pencil case and draw repeatedly on it. Once it was filled, I’d blob over it and start again. If it was a caricature of the teacher I could always hide the evidence!

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When I’m out and about, especially on trains, I love using sketchbooks. I’ve got lots of Moleskin ones, a different colour per project. But, I confess that, in the main, when I’m working up an idea, character or spread, I use everyday plain A4 white paper – and reams of it!  Squiggle, scratch, swirl, sweep. I’m not sure how many other illustrators do this, but I also enjoy sketching in biro first. It’s all about getting the right shape and movement – those ‘unprecious’ sketches and scorings loosen up my initial drawings. Now I understand why editors always jump to the back of portfolios to find the sketchy stuff!

 

Then, from this sketchy beginning, I start refining, trying to retain some of that initial energy. I think that’s why my other favourite stage is watercolour (which I save ‘til last). No matter how adept you might think you are, watercolour has its own mind and it can sometimes surprise you. Often the happy accidents are the ones that add more character, either to clothing or backgrounds.

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Using my lightbox really helps to overlay and position. I do less-rough roughs on my iPad, using Procreate, then crayon, watercolour and gouache for the finals. I always aim to do the final artwork in character batches, for continuity, and have whole afternoons or evenings on just one person. You really get to ‘know’ them that way!

Sometimes characters pop up first time around. Einstein, for instance, is very similar to the first sketch I drew. I was given free rein, which is always exciting. I knew he had to be big, hairy and animated. Immediately I thought of THE Einstein and gave him a big, bushy moustache and scraggly hair. The lolling tongue and sideways eyes gave him just the look I was after. Mr Boffin is basically me (if I ate my spinach, drank umpteen protein shakes and actually went to the gym, that is). Mrs Good is a take on my mum (sorry, Mum!). But Mr Good, who was a little portly at first, took a bit of slimming down… The twins Lottie and Al were a little too old at first but soon lost a couple of years.

The freedom to try things out has been the most splendid aspect of illustrating this series. It’s very much a two-way conversation between me and the creative team. We always bounce ideas back and forth! I think flexibility and being open to ideas is important. My editor Natascha even sends me videos of her son doing the experiments! Then, BINGO! I can picture it and so too (hopefully) can the young scientists reading it with their own sketches and diagrams and oodles of doodles.

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Al’s Awesome Science: Egg-speriments! by Jane Clarke, illustrated by James Brown is out now, £6.99 paperback (published by Five Quills). Look out for more fun and experiments with Al and Lottie in book two, Splash Down!, coming spring 2018!

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With thanks to Catherine Ward and Five Quills for sending me this book to review. Find out more about the illustrator at www.jamesbrownillustration.com.

Fabulous Non-Fiction!

It’s National Non-Fiction November so the perfect time to share some of the wonderful non-fiction books published recently.  I often tell children that there are so many amazing books written for them that they are spoilt for choice! And they really are; especially when it comes to beautifully produced non-fiction books like those featured on the blog today. With Christmas not too far away these books would make wonderful gifts!  They also demonstrate the brilliance of text and illustration working together to bring the world to life for young readers.

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The Picture Atlas An Incredible Journey by Simon Holland, illustrated by Jill Calder

This is an absolutely wonderful atlas exploring the world continent by continent. Stunning, detailed illustrations give life to the wealth of facts and information to be found on every page.

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Delving into each continent, the history of the people, artefacts, the landforms, the animals inhabiting the land and even the food are described through the perfect combination of words and pictures.

 

 

Every time you read it you discover something new and there’s a helpful glossary at the end of the book. This is a wonderful book to encourage children’s natural curiosity and a fantastic way to support learning about the world.

Find out more about the illustrator at www.jillcalder.com

The Picture Atlas is published by Bloomsbury

 

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How to Think Like a Coder without even trying!

by Jim Christian illustrated by Paul Boston

Have you ever wondered how on earth computer programmes actually work? Well according to this book, you already know! With straightforward explanations of what coding is, a fascinating look at early computers and of course, the most amazing computer of all, the human brain, the book explores all aspects of coding and gives the reader the chance to try their hand at creating code.

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For independent young readers, everyday situations are turned into opportunities to code – and of course, adults can join in too.  You don’t even need a computer!

 

 

It’s packed full of information and lively illustrations featuring fun robot characters who enliven the text throughout.  How to Think like a Coder takes what can be a rather intimidating topic and makes it more accessible and something all the family can share!

Find out more at www.jimchristian.net and www.paulboston.net

Published by Pavilion Books.

 

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Her Right Foot by Dave Eggars, illustrated by Shawn Harris

I will admit to having a big soft spot for New York having spent my honeymoon there.  But even as a child, I was always fascinated by Statue of Liberty (anyone remember she came to life in Ghostbusters 2!) so this book was an ideal opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the story behind it.

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Her Right Foot is absolutely fascinating, full of things I didn’t know about how the Statue was built to how people feel about it.  A non-fiction picture book, it’s totally accessible and a wonderful book to read aloud.

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The fantastic, vibrant illustrations capture the narrative brilliantly and history comes to life before your eyes – an impressive debut for illustrator Shawn Harris. And even more incredible is the message ‘found’ in the small trait of the Statue’s right foot that encapsulates the freedom the Statue of Liberty represents.

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A very timely publication, this book will be enjoyed not just for an entertaining take on history; but also for the deeper meaning of tolerance and acceptance behind it.

Find out more about the illustrator at www.shawnharris.info

Published by Abrams & Chronicle Books

With thanks to all the publishers of these books for sending me copies to review.

 

 

Bookchat: A.F Harrold, poet and author

banner newThe last time I saw A F Harrold, he was performing poetry to a classroom full of utterly enraptured children at the Bookchat Roadshow.  It was absolutely brilliant to see how much the children enjoyed the poems and the performer!  I’m delighted he is joining us today to talk about his new book, Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space (review available here, illustrated by Joe Todd Stanton) and all things writing. Thank you for participating Mr Harrold!

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A F Harrold performing poetry

Congratulations on the publication of Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space! It’s fun, full of quirky characters and a great mix of sci-fi and sleuthing . Can you tell us about the inspiration behind it? Hi Victoria. Greta comes from a combination of things I typed and things I mistyped. Back in the first Fizzlebert Stump book one of the books Fizz borrows from the library was called The Great Zargo of somewhere or other. It sounded a good sort of science fictiony sort of thing Fizz might enjoy, and when I came, a few years later, to start thinking about a new series the name popped back into my mind. I type quite quickly, but because of the ways in which my fingers move there are a few words I’m forever typing wrong and having to go back and correct… one of these is ‘great’, which, if I’m typing at a gallop, always comes out ‘greta’. And so Greta was born, inside the spelling mistake that appears inside the book!

I’ve always read science fiction, and always loved science fiction, but I’d never really written any (The Song From Somewhere Else probably counts, but that’s about it), and this seemed a bit odd. So I wanted to write some. And I wanted it to be funny. Because funny books are a Good Thing. And so, after a lot of sitting around and staring into the air, several baths, and quite a few biscuits, Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space was born.

Throughout the story there are footnotes (or more appropriately sidenotes) adding interesting anecdotes to the narrative which I loved; why did you decide to include these?  Who doesn’t love footnotes? They’re a way of having ‘a bit more’ without getting in the way of the story. They’re especially useful for (a) comedy (because you add in extra jokes) or (b) academic articles about herring pickling in 18th century Sweden (because you can cite your sources). Fortunately, as far as I can see, no one has mistaken Greta Zargo for an academic article about herring pickling in 18th century Sweden.

There are some wonderful and quirky characters in the story. I particularly loved Greta’s eccentric Aunt. Where do you draw inspiration from for your characters? And I have to say, how do you decide on the fantastic names you’ve given them?! Characters just walk into scenes as I type and if they’re at all interesting then they stay. There are occasionally very boring ones who turn up, but I’m ruthless in deleting them at the first opportunity, unless they’re boring in a funny way. That might sound a bit odd, but it’s true, the best characters walk in and surprise me. I don’t know what they’re going to say to Greta when she questions them and I listen to their answers as I type them. This is the most exciting bit about writing these books, I think, is finding out about the inhabitants of Upper Lowerbridge at the same time as the reader.

Where do their names come from? I blame the parents.

Being married to huge fan of cake, I can very well imagine the consternation if cake was stolen from my household. Can you tell us- 1) do you eat cake? 2) if so, what is your favourite? 3) if not, why not? (And what do you have with tea if not cake?!) (1) Yes, I eat cake if the opportunity arises. (2) I’m going to say Battenberg, because it has just the right amount of marzipan. (3) I said I do, so I don’t have to answer this one.

The sci-fi elements in the story are great and often times, very amusing – even with the inevitable destruction of planets going on – the Bar-Tarry-Tuffians spring to mind! Did this involve any scientific research – I’m thinking of the impressive references to hyper spatial physics, measuring of light years and so on?! I don’t remember doing any particular research before writing any of the outer space chapters, other than a lifetime of reading and watching sci-fi and sci-fact books and programmes.

That lifetime of experience has been composting inside my head for long enough that some of it made sense when mixed up and spilt onto the page. It’s fascinating to look back and remember when I was a kid we knew of no other planets outside our solar system, and now there are thousands of exo-planets known. And as our techniques and our instruments become better we’re finder smaller and more Earth-like planets out there, even around nearby stars. I don’t doubt that on some of these worlds life has arisen, and maybe even what we would call ‘intelligent’ life.

The gaps between the stars are so immense though, that it would take many lifetimes for people to travel between and so one of the ways it has been suggested we explore the galaxy is by making self-replicating robots, like the ones in the book. Because these robots don’t grow old like we do, they could spend the centuries travelling between planets without dying or going mad. And when they get there, if they have the ability to make more copies of themselves they can then send those out to other star systems.

These self-replicating machines are called Von Neumann probes, and I don’t remember where I first heard about them. But they’re not my idea, just something that made its way into the book because it made sense. The lesson of this is – those useless bits of information you once learnt might turn out to be useful after all, so never turn them away… let them live in your head – one day they might become a book.

When you’re writing fiction, do words come more easily than when you’re writing poetry? Do you have a specific process for each form of writing? I try not to think too much about it, either sort of writing. I just try to get on with it, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t and it feels like your banging an empty head against a brick wall of blank paper, then that just means it’s time to go have another bath.

When we last met at the Bookchat Roadshow, you had some wonderful advice for the audience regards encouraging children’s creativity. You said that whatever their means of expression – writing, art, poetry, drama – we should encourage children to express themselves in the way that’s best for them.  Who has given you the greatest encouragement for your work and what motivates you to keep writing? What motivates me to keep writing? That’s an odd question. I don’t know what else to do. I think it’s as simple as that. I don’t write every day and I don’t write an awful lot, but if I go any length of time without making something (and the making is usually with words in one way or another) then I feel antsy and irritable and unfulfilled and awkward and sad. I would make things with words (poems, stories, songs…) even if no one wanted to read them, even if no one was paying me to do it. Maybe not the books I’m writing right now, but who knows? (After all, I spent many years writing things that no one paid me for, before I ever had a book published.)

As for who has encouraged me… there’s such a long list, but a few I would like to mention include my editors at Bloomsbury, Kate and Hannah and Zöe, who have helped make the books we’ve published better than they would have been if I’d been doing it on my own. Part of their job is to send me back to my desk when what I’ve given them hasn’t been good enough, or funny enough, or right enough. And the fact they think I can do better makes me try harder and make the books better. Also my partner, Iszi, who suggested I try writing stories for kids, instead of just poems, in the first place. And more abstractly, out there in the world of children’s writing, many authors whose books I read or who I meet at events – they inspire me, by making Good Things themselves and showing that it can be done.

And finally, two very special sets of people – the kids I meet when I visit schools… the fact that some of them have been reading my books and seem to enjoy them makes the effort that sometimes went into making the books seem worthwhile – and secondly, the illustrators who get given my words and who make the books look so beautiful (Sarah Horne, Emily Gravett, Levi Pinfold, Chris Riddell and, for Greta Joe Todd-Stanton)… seeing what they do, the magic they work… oh it makes me want to do good, for them. I don’t want them wasting their time on any old rubbish!

So lots of people encourage and inspire me and my work.

Thank you so much for taking the time to join us and share the inspiration behind your work. 

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Read my review of Greta Zargo here.

Find out more at www.afharroldkids.com and www.joetoddstanton.com

With thanks to Bloomsbury Books for organising this interview.

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Book of the Month: BUGS by Simon Tyler

book of the monthSimon Tyler is an author illustrator and graphic designer with a passion for presenting facts and information in accessible and aesthetically pleasing ways.  He has absolutely succeeded in doing that with Book of the Month, Bugs, which he wrote and illustrated in association with the Buglife conservation charity. Published by Pavilion Books, Bugs is simply one of the most gorgeous books I’ve seen this year so a very suitable choice for Book of the Month, in celebration of National Non Fiction November!

 

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BUGS written and illustrated Simon Tyler

Enter the fascinating world of bugs with this book which will introduce you to some of the strangest, scariest, biggest and smallest insects around.  Discover the bug with a 30cm tongue, get to know the insect that east dung for dinner, and meet the ant that can paralyse with a single sting. 

What strikes you instantly about this glorious book are the stunning illustrations and incredible use of colour.  Each image is beautifully detailed allowing you to get up close to some amazing life forms.

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Bursting with fascinating facts there are over 50 bugs featured, with all types of information about the wonderful world of insects; their habits, senses, defences, what they eat and where they live.

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The presentation and production quality is really special, making this a wonderful book to give as a gift to any insect enthusiast – or indeed anyone curious about the world around them.

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There’s a helpful glossary to decipher the scientific terms used and the first few pages give a brilliant introduction to insects in general. With an attractive font and accessible layout, Bugs is a lovely book for all the family to share and even if you’re not fond of creepy crawlies, I think this book could convert you!

Find out more at www.simontyler.co.uk 

With thanks to Pavilion Books for sending me this book to review.

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New review: Greta Zargo by A.F Harrold illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton

It’s always exciting to read the first book in a new series – but even more so when the book is by A F Harrold, a fantastic writer of books and poems.  Greta Zargo doesn’t disappoint with a mystery to solve, lots of silliness, some helpful anecdotes and immensely likeable characters,  it really is just a great book for children to read.

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Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space by A F Harrold illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton

Greta Zargo doesn’t know it, but she is the only one who can save planet earth from the death robots coming to destroy it! But right now, she’s a bit busy finding out who stole all the cakes! Warning: this book contains robots, peanuts, squirrels, trousers, an eleven-year-old spelling mistake, baths and, yes, lots of cake!

There’s not much for an intrepid would-be junior reporter to, well, report on, in Upper Lowerbridge, to create an award-winning, summer holiday story.  So Greta Zargo has to settle for finding a cake-thief, little realising that the real scoop is the planet-conquering robots making their way towards earth.  Greta’s no ordinary eleven-year old having been orphaned and left to fend for herself since the age of eight. She is determined to discover the culprit, working her way through a list of suspects – some of whom are not impressed to find themselves being questioned!  Meanwhile, the strange silvery robots approach, intent on finding The Great Zargo to ask if they can have planet earth in order to add data to the Harknow-Bumfurly-Histlock Big Book of Galactic Facts.  A small spelling error puts Greta unwittingly in place to save Earth from a terrible fate.  Will she succeed?

Fun and full of imagination, Greta Zargo is a fantastic sci-fi mystery adventure.  The two narratives of cake thievery and death-defying space robots run alongside each other brilliantly; aided by quirky and humorous anecdotal notes at the side of the page. Greta is a feisty character, with admirable determination, encouraged by her very eccentric and rather wonderful Aunt Tabitha, who I loved. Greta’s journalistic efforts are put to the test by an amusing cast of characters – including a giant squirrel!  The space sequences are hugely imaginative and full of impressive technical jargon and madcap space names. Although comical, it’s somewhat bittersweet as various weird and wonderful aliens inadvertently allow the complete destruction of their planets – perhaps a lesson for us all.   Illustrations throughout capture the quirkiness of the tale and help to create a really engaging, warm-hearted story.  I won’t give away the ending, but how refreshing  – how very polite death robots can be…!

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Find out more at www.afharroldkids.com and http://joetoddstanton.com/

With thanks to Bloomsbury Books for sending me this book to review

New review: Cat Learns to Listen at Moonlight School by Simon Puttock

It’s National Cat Day and soon to be Halloween, so a good time to celebrate this lovely picture book.  Cat Learns to Listen at Moonlight School by Simon Puttock, illustrated by Ali Pye, brings to life the magic of night time as well as the perils of being a little too inquisitive. A friendly witch, a beautiful moonlit sky, a cat full of curiosity and some furry friends create an enchanting night time adventure published by Nosy Crow.

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Cat Learns to Listen at Moonlight School by Simon Puttock, illustrated by Ali Pye

Have you met Miss Moon? Tonight the class are going on a nature walk. Bat, Owl and Mouse listen carefully as Miss Moon tells them they must take care NOT to wander off.  But Cat has spotted something interesting….

This is a very sweet tale featuring a curious little cat and her classmates, all of whom are eager to learn about nature.  They spot lots of lovely things in the night sky and all around during their nature walk. Readers will love spotting what each character finds and joining in by seeing what else they can find. But Cat is just a little too curious and inattentive and ends up lost in the woods on her own!

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Thankfully it’s not long before she is reunited with Miss Moon and her friends, once they’ve discovered a trail of clues to her whereabouts.   The story is complemented with lovely muted illustrations; the forest illuminated by the moonlit night and the wonder of nature brought to life on each page. With a gentle narrative and some very sweet characters, Cat Learns to Listen is a charming story with an important message about listening at its heart.

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You can read more about Miss Moon, Cat and her friends at Moonlight school in Simon Puttock’s other stories:

Find out more at www.simonputtock.com  and www.alipye.com

With thanks to Nosy Crow for sending me this book to review.