New Review: You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! by Em Lynas illustrated by Jamie Littler

Em Lynas writes stories and poems for children aged 5 to 12 years. You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! is her fantastic debut novel, published by Nosy Crow and illustrated by Jamie Littler. A perfect combination of lively narrative and marvellous illustrations that bounce off the page, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read!

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You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! By Em Lynas illustrated by Jamie Littler

Daisy Wart is NOT a witch! She is an ACTRESS!  And actresses do NOT go to witch school! So when she finds herself at Toadspit Towers, sleeping in a swinging cauldron (surprisingly comfortable) and eating gloop (unsurprisingly disgusting), she vows to escape at all costs.  But how can she get past the TOADSPIT TERRORS that lurk in the corridors? And what if she REALLY IS a witch? Maybe even the WITCHIEST WITCH of them all?

Daisy Wart is furious when her Granny leaves her at Toadspit Towers boarding school for witches. Adamant that she is not a witch and determined to escape, so she can prove her thespian abilities in her school play, Daisy hatches an escape plan. And another, and another….all of which are doomed to fail! Stuck in a dormitory with the irritating Dominique, Best and Brightest Witch in the school, the longer Daisy spends at Toadspit, the more the mystery surrounding her ancestry unfolds.  Not only this, the school has a few mysteries of its own and it seems Daisy’s escape is tied up with the fate of Toadspit. With two new friends to help her, Daisy gathers all her courage and ingenuity to once and for all prove she is not a witch….!

You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! is a fantastic story, full of humour and original, fun magical details that will delight readers.  I particularly liked the school reward system – magical ticks giving students the ability to ‘buy’ treats (I’d love to be able to do this at my school!) A lively cast of characters include Mrs Toadspit the resident ghost and headmistress; Mrs Thorn, a teacher with looks that cold ‘shrivel’; Jess and Shalini, Daisy’s friends; and of course a variety of magical creatures from hooting owls, carnivorous plants to magical wooden cats! I particularly enjoyed Ms Lobelia the singing/gardening expert (wonderfully drawn by Jamie Littler).

Daisy who is a loveable but somewhat feisty girl has to quickly learn how to fit in at her new school and make friends, something many readers will identify with – although I don’t imagine many readers sleep in swinging cauldrons! Jamie Littler’s fantastic Illustrations bring to life the humour and magic of the story and as the plot thickens, there are some brilliantly described edge of your seat moments. There is a slightly unexpectedly gruesome moment as the story climaxes to watch out for with younger readers, but I’m sure You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! will be a hit with all who read it and they’ll be clamouring for the next in the series!

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Find out more at www.emlynas.weebly.com.

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

 

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Bookchat: Adam Hargreaves

 

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I am so very excited to say that Adam Hargreaves is on the blog today! I think if someone had told me when I was young that one day I’d be talking to one of the creators of the Mr Men, I would never have believed them!

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Adam is the son of original Mr Men creator, Roger Hargreaves.  Not only has he continued the work of his father, Adam is also a painter, creating beautiful oil on canvas landscapes.  I was delighted to be invited to interview Adam following the publication of his first book from his very own series, Molly Mischief: My Perfect Pet!  The adventures of Molly are bound to delight young and old alike. I read the story aloud with my five year old niece who laughed out loud and announced that Molly was exactly like her!

Molly is a wonderful character – full of life, mischief and mayhem – exactly what an inquisitive little girl should be.  Her first adventure centres on a trip to the zoo, where Molly becomes inspired to find a pet more perfect than her own little mouse, Polka.  The antics that follow as Molly tries to find her ‘perfect’ pet are very funny and utterly endearing.  Try as she might, none of the animals she ‘borrows’ from the zoo quite fit at home, from a hippo to a giraffe to an elephant.  Eventually she realises that maybe her pet mouse, Polka, is more perfect than anything else – much to the relief of her family (except maybe her brother…!).  Molly Mischief: My Perfect Pet is exactly what a children’s story should be – funny, full of imagination, with a valuable lesson to be learned. And perfect for sharing!

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Welcome to the blog Adam and congratulations on the publication of Molly Mischief!  I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it – as did my five year old niece who said ‘Molly reminds me of me!”. It’s a wonderful story and feels like an absolute classic. Can you tell us about your inspiration for writing it? The inspiration for Molly comes from the wonderful ability that children have to imagine something and for that to also be real for them. I particularly remember this when my kids were young. My son Jacob would dress up as Batman and then we would have these surreal conversations about what Jacob was doing in another room in the house. I wanted to capture this power of imagination in a character. Molly can be or do anything she wishes.

This is your first children’s book outside of the Mr Men. Was creating Molly a very different experience from working on the Mr MenThe creation of the idea for Molly Mischief was obviously quite different, but writing and illustrating Mr Men books has given me a lot of experience which I have been able to apply to writing Molly. Over the years I have developed a sort of process that fits to anything I am trying to write.

Can you tell us about the creative process behind Molly? I hand draw everything and then scan the black line drawing into my computer where I colour the illustration as I like the flat finish I can achieve that way. I have a pretty good idea of the page layouts from the start, so don’t often need to make any major changes to composition later on. It took a while and a few variations to pin down exactly who I wanted Molly to be (and she went through various name changes before Molly Mischief, but now she is a Molly I can’t think of her in any other way), but once I had given her a mischievous nature then everything fell into place. Strangely, even for lots of different versions of drawing her, she has always had the same outfit.

When I was young, my sister and I would literally spend hours drawing the Mr Men; some drawings were more successful than others!  Molly Mischief is wonderfully drawn and I particularly love her mischievous expressions. What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators and artists to help them develop their creative talent – particularly when it comes to storytelling? The more you draw the better you get, so keep practising and then, as you get better, the more fun it becomes. Drawing is all about observation, so it is important to look at things very hard when you are trying to draw them.

What adventures can we expect from Molly in the future? I am writing a second story about Molly which explores the advantages and pitfalls of being a superhero. And her superpowers, of course, involve a lot of chaos and mayhem for her family.

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. I’m looking forward to reading Molly’s next adventure (and so is my niece!)

Adam Hargreaves will be introducing Molly Mischief, including a live draw-along, at the Bath Festival of Children’s Literature. Sunday 1stOctober, 1.30pm.

For more information visit www.pavilionbooks.com.  With thanks to Pavilion Books for sending me a copy of this wonderful book.

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New review: Help! I’m a Genius by Jo Franklin

More fun and hilarity is to be had in this second instalment of the Help! series featuring Daniel and friends written by Jo Franklin.  After the success of  Help! I’m an Alien and like all true aliens, Jo is well on the way to achieving her dream of world domination!

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Help! I’m a Genius by Jo Franklin with illustrations by Aaron Blecha

Daniel Kendal has the smallest brain in his family and the smallest brain in the world. He knows absolutely nothing about anything. Everyone is shocked when he is mistaken for a genius and selected to compete in the National Brainiac Championships. What can a pea-brain like Daniel do to avoid making a fool of himself? And will his friends Freddo and Gordon the Geek help him?

Daniel thinks he has no chance when by a strange twist of fate he ends up representing his school in the National Brainiac Championships, an inter-schools contest.  After all, he’s nothing like his super-clever parents or his best friend Gordon the Geek.  And it’s Gordon and his other best friend Freddo who he turns to for help with hilarious results.  From a disgusting diet regime (radioactive pond weed anyone?) to a skull-stretching device (to make room for a bigger brain of course…) the three friends try everything to fill Daniel’s brain with facts, to no avail. Coupled with the news that his family might be moving to America, Daniel’s headaches go from bad to worse! As the date of the competition draws near, Daniel realises he’s just going to have to make a big fool of himself in front of everyone – or rely on his friends to help him cheat!

Laugh-out-loud moments and humiliation abound as Daniel tries to find a way to ‘win’ the competition.  I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the quirky cast of characters again – even Freddo with his interesting bodily functions! We see more of Daniel’s family who still drive him mad –and the daily dilemmas he faces feeling like the odd-one-out in his family – something all readers can relate to. There’s even some Dad-dancing brilliantly brought to life by Aaron Blecha’s illustrations which complement the story throughout. It’s not all slapstick though, with the more ‘serious’ thread of the possible relocation of the family to America due to Daniel’s Dad’s new job. This adds greater pressure to Daniel, as his sister Jess is convinced if he wins the competition they’ll be able to stay in England.  The tension mounts and Daniel’s self-awareness may just be the biggest barrier to realising he’s not as dumb as he thinks he is! Help! I’m A Genius is a very funny read and Daniel learns another valuable lesson this time about believing in yourself, even when you don’t feel good enough.  I’m looking forward to the next instalment!

Find out more at www.jofranklinauthor.co.uk . With thanks to Troika for sending me this book to review.

Book of the Month: Prisoner of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren

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Introducing a new feature to the website and blog….Book of the Month! And our first choice is a fantastic debut adventure by Ruth Lauren, Prisoner of Ice and Snow, publishing today from Bloomsbury.

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Prisoner of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren

Valor is under arrest for the attempted murder of the Crown Prince. Her parents were cast out from the royal court. Her sister was banished for the theft of a national treasure. Now Valor has been sentenced to life at Tyur’ma, a brutal prison built from snow and ice. But that’s exactly where she wants to be: her sister was sent there too, and Valor intends to break her out. From the inside.

No one has escaped Tyur’ma in over three hundred years though, and if Valor is to succeed, she will need all of her strength, courage and love. If her plan fails, Valor faces a fate worse than any prison….

Prisoner of Ice and Snow is set in the fictional land of Demidova. It’s a thrilling adventure featuring Valor, who lives up to her name as a brave and fearless heroine, stopping at nothing to free her twin sister, Sasha.  Sasha has been imprisoned for stealing a music box; an artefact of such importance it can stop impending war.  Meticulously planning her own capture and an impossible escape, Valor’s determination to free her sister is palpable from the first page; even if it means treason against her country and the royal family her parents once served.  Inside the fearsome prison for children, it quickly becomes clear all is not what it seems; Valor finds herself fighting a hidden enemy as well as surviving the brutal regime of the prison run by the ruthless Warden Kirov. Initially not wanting to trust anyone, Valor keeps her counsel and becomes even more determined when she discovers Sasha was framed. The sisters soon realise their fate is tied up with solving the mystery behind the theft as well as finding an escape route.  It seems that luck is not on their side and there is no choice but to put their trust in some of their fellow prisoners and accept help, whatever the motivations might be.

I read this gripping story in one sitting! It’s a fantastic adventure, with a wonderful heroine and great supporting cast. The snow covered landscape of Demidova gives a magical feel to the whole tale and the well-written descriptions create a captivating setting.  In particular the sense of foreboding around the prison is very real – you can almost feel the ice-cold air as you read! The plot is full of intrigue with the importance of the music box and indeed of Valor and her sister becoming more significant with each turn of the page. The over-riding theme of sisterly loyalty is very appealing; Valor and Sasha whilst being twins have distinct personalities and are instantly likeable.  I enjoyed the relationships between Valor and the small group of prisoners caught up in the plot; Feliks is a good contrast to the darker moments with his cheeky sense of humour and the slightly gruff Katia makes a great cellmate for Valor.  The friendships are totally believable and you can just imagine that in those circumstances they are absolutely crucial to surviving.  The more sinister characters are suitably menacing and you find yourself rooting for Valor, Sasha and their friends to defeat them. Edge-of-your-seat action scenes are well described and with a very satisfying ending, this couldn’t be a more enjoyable debut! With a sequel to follow, ‘The Seeker of the Crown’, readers will be captivated by Valor and the kingdom of Demidova.

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Find out more at www.ruthlauren.com.

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

New reviews: Cool Coding and Cool Physics

Cool Coding by Robert Hansen and Cool Physics by Dr Sarah Hutton both illustrated by Damien Weighill.

When these gorgeous two books arrived there was a scramble as to who would look at them first – me, the boys or my husband! Aimed at older children and interested adults, both books are a fantastic introduction to the areas of science they’re focused on.  My eldest is due to start GCSE Computing Science in September so he has claimed Cool Coding for himself – not before I’d had a read of course! Cool Physics will be a useful addition to the shelf in support of GCSE Science – and may even help me help my son with his Science homework now and then!! A continuation of the Cool Science series from Pavilion Books, Cool Coding and Cool Physics are great reads.

In the digital age, information books have a lot to compete with in terms of accessibility and interest with information being so readily available online. The best non fiction books have to work hard to attract their readers and these books are absolutely right up there with the competition being both user friendly and informative with a great layout.  Even the size is appealing.  The colourful illustrations and diagrams ably support the information being given and help describe the ideas for activities and experiment. Each book is full of fascinating facts – for instance did you know the first ever computer weighed twice as much as a full-grown African Elephant?! Or that Sir Isaac Newton was also warden of the Royal Mint?!

I’m always saying to students in the library that so many books present information in such a friendly way and are so much easier to navigate than the internet as a starting point for research; these books are a great example of this! Both present the information in short paragraphs, accompanied by bullet points or soundbite boxes which convey a wealth of ideas and a comprehensive, easy-to-understand overview of complex subjects.  I would thoroughly recommend both books as great introductions to the topics they’re focused on and to support learning in these areas.  They’re also a great option for children who are don’t want to read fiction and prefer fact books; even the most reluctant reader couldn’t fail to find these books fun!

Thank you to Pavilion for sending me these books to review.

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Bookchat: Jane Mitchell

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Some months back I read A Dangerous Crossing, by Jane Mitchell, a moving story about a Syrian family fleeing conflict in their home country (you can read my review here). I found that when I watched the news at the time, which was full of refugee-related headlines, I felt even more empathy for the people forced to flee their homes. News stories create a spotlight on issues around the globe, but when the media turn their attention elsewhere, it can seem as though that particular ‘issue’ has resolved or is forgotten. This is, of course, far from true and for me, that’s why books like A Dangerous Crossing (endorsed by Amnesty International) are so important providing a more permanent reminder of the humanitarian crisis caused by conflict.

So I’m really pleased to welcome Jane Mitchell to the blog today for a bookchat about her novel A Dangerous Crossing. Thank you for joining us Jane!

A Dangerous Crossing gives a completely new meaning to the images we have seen on the news over the last few years. Why did you decide to write this story and how did you go about researching it? My publisher Little Island Books wanted a book about the Syrian refugee crisis, to bring it to life for young readers, and invited me to write a story about a young refugee. It was something that was very important to me. The crisis has galvanised me over the last few years and I was hugely interested in proving a glimpse into what it must be like for one boy, one family, caught up in this war. I undertook research in a range of areas:

  • I follow the Syrian Network for Human Rights on social media. An independent, non-partisan, non-governmental, non-profit organisation, it is registered in the UK and USA. Its mission is to work to protect the human and civil rights of Syrian citizens, regardless of their ethnicity and affiliations. It documents violations against the Syrian people—including the names of people killed in the war—on a daily This is where I obtained all the names and ages of the children.
  • I met with a Syrian family who moved to Ireland before the outbreak of the Syrian war. They told me about pre-war Syria, and provided great insight into routine life for Syrian children when their country was at peace, including education, food and life-styles.
  • I read travel books about Syria and Turkey, studied the geography, layout, and means of travel through the two countries by public and private transport. I traced out routes followed by many Syrian refugees today.
  • I read up on personal stories and experiences of refugees crossing Turkey and the sea to Greece, including reports and accounts from Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières, and researched the towns and cafés along the Turkish coast where smugglers meet with refugees seeking to get to Europe. I also read about how Turks arrange illegal crossings to Greece.
  • Finally, I volunteered in the Jungle Camp in Calais. In this unofficial camp, I saw first-hand the conditions in which illegal refugees survive, with bad sanitation, inadequate shelter, little medical support, and no washing facilities. I met and spent time with refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Apart entirely from the poor physical conditions at the camp, people there are socially isolated from mainstream society, with no access to education or employment opportunities, and no means of economic support. I was at the camp when French police launched a tear gas attack in response to a rush by the refugees to trucks stopped on the bridge leading to the port. These frequent attacks cause widespread panic, distress and anger, as well as physical discomfort and pain—an experience I recreate for Ghalib.

The story is so well-imagined and there are some heart wrenching moments. Did you find it difficult to write some of the more emotional scenes? It is always tough to write about something that’s emotionally distressing, particularly when the character is a child and someone I care about. I try to put myself into the character’s head and to imagine how they might feel, to make it as real as possible for the reader. As a result, I find it tiring and demanding to write emotional scenes and often find the scene replaying in my head long after I have written it.

The names of all the characters are real Syrian refugee children. What made you decide to use these names? I was looking for authentic Syrian names for my story, and I also wanted some way to remember the hundreds of children whose lives have been needlessly cut short by the war in Syria. Early on in my research, I found on the Syrian Network for Human Rights the names of children who had been killed in the war, and this seemed a fitting tribute to these lost children.

A Dangerous Crossing will, I am sure, generate empathy and sympathy for the refugees fleeing Syria. What would you say to children who would like to do something to help the refugee situation but are limited to what they can do because of their age? The age of young readers doesn’t mean that they can’t still do something positive or take important action to help the desperate plight of refugees fleeing Syria.

  • Young people can organise collections of clothing and other items to help refugees, through their schools and/or local communities. Essential goods can then be dropped off at collection points for distribution to refugees in camps and centres.
  • They can hold cake sales or sponsored walks to raise money to donate to legitimate charities, such as Medécins Sans Frontiéres or Amnesty International.
  • They can attend rallies, days of action and marches to show their support for refugees and to raise awareness.
  • They can sign petitions, and email world leaders, MEPs and politicians to demand a more proactive response to the crisis and to pressure them to provide emergency funding.
  • They can read about and share stories of refugees so that others can learn more about them.
  • Young people can make a real effort to befriend and welcome refugees who are relocated to their schools and/or communities. Refugees have been through a tough time, and welcoming them or making them feel included in their new communities is an important gesture of friendship.

Why do you think it’s important that children’s fiction focus on stories like Ghalib’s? Children in Ireland and the UK need to understand the terrible things that are happening to Syrian children. I believe passionately that words have the power to create empathy, to engender understanding, and ultimately to provoke action. The more that young people learn about this crisis, the more they will understand its underlying causes.

It is often tempting to shield children from the harsher realities of life, such as death and war, but children have a remarkable capacity to empathise when something is presented to them in a way they can understand. With such broad media coverage of the civil war, they are very aware of the crisis, but perhaps don’t quite appreciate what it means. To this end, fiction can be a wonderful medium to explore difficult topics safely. An honest storyline that doesn’t shy away from the truth enables young readers to explore multiple perspectives and gain insight into complex issues. However, when writing a distressing story, I try to remain sensitive to the young minds absorbing the difficult narrative. I always try to include a note of optimism and hope, and even a touch of humour where possible to lighten the tone.

A Dangerous Crossing is endorsed by Amnesty International. How did this come about? My last book—Chalkline—was endorsed by Amnesty International as contributing to a better understanding of human rights and the values that underpin them. Such endorsement means a great deal to me: human rights are an important theme in my books and of personal importance to me. My publisher, Little Island Books, approached Amnesty International to ask them about the possibility of also endorsing A Dangerous Crossing and I am honoured that they agreed. Additionally, the Executive Director of Amnesty Ireland launched my book in Dublin.

This is your seventh novel; how did writing A Dangerous Crossing compare to your previous writing experiences? The topic of A Dangerous Crossing is such a current and burning issue that writing it was far more urgent and important for me that any other novel I have written. It is a highly political story compared to my previous works and as such, it has attracted a lot of attention. This can only be a positive thing for the desperate people in Syria as anything that brings attention to their ordeal can only be a catalyst for action.

And finally, what are your three best pieces of advice to aspiring writers? It is always great to hear of writers who aspire to write stories for publication and/or submission to publishers, and I would encourage them to keep at it. My three pieces of advice are as follows:

  • Finish your work. So many aspiring writers tell me about the work they have just started. Sometimes, when things get really tough, it is easier and tempting to put a manuscript aside and start again. The result is that lots of new writers have lots of works-in-progress, but never actually finish a complete manuscript. So my top advice is finish your work. There is a great sense of achievement in completing a manuscript.
  • Don’t send in your first draft. Editing and rewriting your work will make it so much stronger. When you rework your writing, you’ll see things that you never noticed first time around, such as plot errors, repetition, typos, and so on. It is always so much more professional to send in a polished and redrafted manuscript for consideration.
  • Be open to feedback and criticism—especially if it’s from an editor or agent. New writers can sometimes be a little precious about their work, but try to remember that it’s an editor/agent’s job to make your work as strong as possible. Be open to the feedback and look on it as a way to improve your work.

Thank you Jane for some wonderful insight into your work, amazing ideas for helping young reader’s (and indeed older readers) respond to the refugee crisis and great advice for aspiring writers.

A Dangerous Crossing is published by Little Island.  Find out more about Jane Mitchell at www.janemitchell.ie.

 

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New review: Dog on Wheels by Gillian McClure

Gillian McClure has written and illustrated wonderful picture books including We’re Going to Build a Dam, which was nominated for the UK Literacy Association (UKLA) book awards and the Kate Greenaway medal.  Dog on Wheels published by Troika Books is a lovely picture book and I instantly fell in love with the skateboarding dog Dubbin!

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Dog on Wheels by Gillian McClure

Dog pals Dubbin and Todd are going on a walk before breakfast: Dubbin on his skateboard and Todd lagging behind on paws. Not only that, but poor Todd is also carrying a huge bone which is attracting attention from another, not so nice, dog.  Can Dubbin, Todd and the bone get home safely?

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A dog with a very special skill springs off the page in this lovely picture book. Dog on Wheels stars Dubbin, a dog who can skate board, taking his friend Todd on a pre-breakfast jaunt through the town!  But Todd isn’t quite so adventurous and ends up moaning about his heavy bone – which Dubbin quite rightly says he should have left at home!  When Todd realises his bone is lost, it’s up to Dubbin, aided by his wheels, to get back the bone and both dogs to the safety of home in time for breakfast!

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The lively narrative and rhyming words create a fun story brimming with energy.  Dubbin is a great character – you’ve got to love a dog that can skateboard! Whilst Todd slows Dubbin down, Dubbin still looks out for his friend and helps Todd when he most needs it!

The lovely illustrations and text layout compliment the story and bring to life the daring Dubbin perfectly – I loved the stars that surround him wherever he skates.  Dog on Wheels is a celebration of a dog’s life – walkies on wheels! It’s a story that will make all who read it smile! Great for readers aged 3+ and a brilliant book to read aloud.

With thanks to Troika Books for sending me this book to review. Find out more about the author at www.gillianmcclure.com.