Review policy

I am very happy to review any novel that fits in with the theme of this blog: novels aimed at 9-14 year olds, preferably with a fantasy/ speculative world setting. However, I will make clear in the review that I was sent the book by the publisher and I will write my honest opinion. Please feel free to contact me via Twitter or Facebook, or fantasticreads at gmail dot com.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

This week it has been Chinese New Year. Coincidentally, I have recently finished reading a novel set in 12th Century China by the wonderful Geraldine McCaughrean, who has won numerous awards and was chosen to write the official sequel of Peter Pan (the rights are owned by Great Ormond Street Hospital for sick children), Peter Pan in Scarlet.

Image: Goodreads.com

12 year old Haoyou lives in 13th century China with his mother, father and little sister Wawa. After Haoyou witnesses the death of his father in an accident at the hands of Di Chou, the brutal First Mate of a ship, he joins the Jade Circus as a kite rider to make enough money to prevent his mother from being forced into marriage with Di Chou by his greedy great uncle Bo. Haoyou and his cousin Mipeng, who is posing as a medium, travel with the circus as far as Xanadu, the summer palace of the conquering Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. 

This novel combines vivid descriptions of China and Confucian beliefs with amazing evocations of the excitement and terror of flight, and Haoyou's longing to communicate with the spirit of his father. The supporting characters are vividly drawn and I particularly enjoyed Mipeng; this is a clever use of the unreliable narrator, where the story is told from Haoyou's point of view but the (adult) reader can spot her growing feelings for the owner of the Jade Circus, The Great Miao, who is hiding a secret of his own. 

It strikes me that if I was reading this to a class of children, it would be great to explore some Chinese food and culture. 
  • There is a great recipe for wrap your own spring rolls on the BBC Good Food website. 
  • You could listen to some of Sa Dingding's (a Chinese pop star compared to Bjork) music. My favourite is Ha Ha Li Li. I have no idea what it means, but I like the epic feel of it.
  • You could make a kite. There is a round-up of some instructions for making different types here. Maybe the children could draw a picture of Haoyou to include as a kite rider?
I recommend this book to read to children aged 8+, and for 9+ children to read for themselves. Happy New Year!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

An Illustrated Year 1: On The Way Home by Jill Murphy


This year I have decided to take part in the Illustrated Year challenge hosted by An Abundance of Books.    I hope to review a picture book every month. My first review is of Jill Murphy's On The Way Home. 

Image: borders.com.au

Claire hurts her knee in the park, and goes home to tell her mum. On the way she meets different friends, and her stories of how it happened. Was she injured escaping from a wolf, snake, gorilla, dragon, space ship or witch? When she finally gets home, she tells her mum the whole story, is comforted and gets a plaster on her knee.

This is a lovely book, with a subtext of the power of imagination and story to comfort and support us in difficult times. I adore Jill Murphy's illustrations, and this is firmly set in an urban environment, with a canal, tower blocks, corner shops and garages. It could be Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff or London, but I think that any children reading it could imagine themselves bravely escaping from the story book baddies. The pages are divided almost into comic strips; it would be delightful to read to children and I expect that they would pour over the pictures themselves. I can't wait to share it with my 4 year old nephew, and hear his own stories of bravely escaping from baddies!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

I was recently sent the much-awaited sequel to Lauren Oliver's Delirium, Pandemonium. These are highly recommended, far superior to many Young Adult dystopian fantasies. In an alternate USA, where love has been classed as a disease, a repressive government insists on all young people being "cured" through a medical procedure similar to a lobotomy. A young woman named Lena has escaped the city and joined a rebel group, when she meets the son of a government official. He tells her of the banned books his father locks away. The one he describes is L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Image: Wikipedia.org


This American classic was first published in 1900. It was a huge success, and although Baum tried to leave Oz behind in later years, his child fans insisted on more. After his death in 1919 other writers continued the series. Baum's intention was to write American fairy tales, but without what he considered the frightening aspects of those books, although Princess Langwidere from Ozma of Oz with her collection of interchangeable heads scared me as a child!

Probably most British people are more familiar with the musical film version, The Wizard of Oz (1939). As with Baum's own film version of it and those made later, Dorothy is not a little girl, but a teenager; Judy Garland was 16 when The Wizard of Oz was made. Denslow's illustrations from the Baum's books clearly show her as much younger.

Image: bygosh.com

By one of those serendipitous coincidences, two other cultural experiences have made me think about Oz this month. The first was watching the original film of True Grit (1969) with John Wayne. I am not normally a great Western fan, but I love this film, and it has a great many Oz resonances for me. 

The story of a young girl, Mattie Ross, who is on a quest: this time not to get home, but to find the murderers of her father, she must exhibit a great deal of courage and persistence, and to team up with a less than prepossessing group of companions to do so. 

Image: movieposterdb.com

While Dorothy is by far the superior of her companions in courage and intellect, Mattie has the moral superiority over her companions; her avowed aim is justice for the murder of her father, while La Boeuf and Rooster Cogburn want the reward Chaney's capture will bring. The process of the journey and achievement of "natural justice" in both The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and True Grit is redemptive to the companions: their characters are reformed. Mattie and Dorothy both get to return home. Interestingly, in Baum's book Dorothy does not stay in grey and dreary Kansas for long; soon she and Aunt Em and Uncle Frank are permanently living in beautiful, colourful Oz (which is much like Hollywood where Baum moved after the success of his Oz books); clearly novel-Dorothy doesn't subscribe to the MGM view that "there's no place like home"!

Image: fanpop.com

The second event was a trip to the theatre to see Wicked, a lovely surprise from my lovely boyfriend. Billed as the "untold story of the witches of Oz", it is based on the series of novels by Geoffrey Maguire. Events are told from before Dorothy arrives in Oz and while she is there. I haven't read the book, so please forgive me if the treatment of the story in the novel is different! Wicked is the story of Elphaba, a girl born to the governor of Munchkinland with green skin. She has a sister, Netta Rose, who is born disabled due to their father's insistence that their mother eats a herb to ensure that she is born with white skin. They are both sent to Shiz University where they meet the spoilt, shallow Galinda. Through a misunderstanding, Galinda (Glinda) and Elphaba become room-mates, and eventually, friends. Elphaba's strong sense of justice and fairness leads her to travel to the Emerald City to obtain justice for the oppressed talking animals of Oz, where she, like Dorothy before her, expects to meet the Great and Powerful Oz, and finds that he is something very different. Elphaba and Galinda's reactions to this knowledge are different, causing a rift between the friends. Will they become reunited?

It should be noted that the novel of Wicked is not aimed at children, Pandemonium is definitely Young Adult (13+) and the 2010 film of True Grit is a 15. However on the two occasions I have been to the theatre to see Wicked, children of I would guess 8+ have been in the audience. I would recommend the book of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to 7+, and of course the film can be enjoyed by all ages.

The best known song from Wicked, much murdered by the cast of Glee and American Idol contestants(!) is Defying Gravity.


Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Heavens Above

Last April, I visited the London Book Fair. While I browsing the Australian publishers' stand, a book caught my eye.

Image: penguin.com.au

I was lucky enough to get hold of a copy of Jen Storer's Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children. The story of a mysterious red-haired orphan, found by truck driver Albie Gribble after she has been dumped in the River Charon. Something nasty is in the water, the evil Matron Pluckrose is after her when she is betrayed to the Home for Mislaid Children, and even worse, she has been born without a Guardian Angel. How will Tensy survive the awful Home, with its murderous crows and mysterious Watchers? And what is the evil Thing living in the cave?  But all is not what it seems, and with the help of some rather unreliable angels and some of the other orphans, Tensy can show just what a special little girl she is. This is a beautiful looking book, and would be a great read for fans of A Series of Unfortunate Events. I just hope that it gets a UK publication soon. There's a great trailer here.

Image: bookdepository.co.uk

"It was a dark and stormy night", begins Madeleine L'Engle's award winning fantasy/ SF novel. (For Wikipedia's round up of other books riffing on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famously purple prose opening line, see here.) A mysterious woman turns up at Meg Murry's house, Mrs Whatsit, who is a friend of Meg's gifted little brother, Charles Wallace. After drying her feet and eating a sandwich, Mrs Whatsit tells the Meg's mother "there is such a thing as a tesseract". The following day Meg learns that the tesseract is what her scientist father was working on before he disappeared. Meg, Charles Wallace and a popular boy from Meg's school, Calvin O'Keefe, go to visit Mrs Whatsit, where they meet Mrs Who. That evening, Charles Wallace tells Meg and Calvin that they must go with Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Who to rescue their father. They meet the Mrs Whatsit's third friend, Mrs Which, and travel through the tesseract, the wrinkle in time, to the planet Uriel where they learn about the threat from the evil Black Thing. They learn that Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which are angels, who help them travel to another planet, Camazotz, controlled by an autocratic mind reader, IT, where the children must battle to save their father.

First published in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time is considered a classic in the USA. It is interesting to compare the portrayal of angels in the book with those in Tensy Farlow. The three Mrs Ws remind me strongly of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid and Mother Carey in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies: 
Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid by Jessie Willcox Smith

not because they are strict, didactic and punitive, but because they are they holders of knowledge and power. The children must learn from them (particularly Mrs Whatsit) to obtain their desire, as Tom must learn from the fairies in The Water Babies. The angels in Tensy Farlow are fallible beings, unreliable and confused. The power (although not the knowledge) lies with Tensy and her ability to inspire others to act for themselves. This is an interesting contrast. L'Engle was an Episcopalian, a commited Christian- however this has not stopped the books being on the American Library Association's list of the most frequently challenged books, for its unconventional approach to religion.

I would recommend A Wrinkle In Time and Tensy Farlow for 9+. A Wrinkle In Time and other books about the Murrys are still in print in the UK.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

There's a ghost in my house...

I recently finished the wonderful new book by Cathy McPhailOut of the Depths. Set in a Scottish school, it is the story of Tyler Lawless, who sees dead people. The story opens wonderfully: "I saw my teacher in the queue at the supermarket last Christmas. Miss Baxter. I was surprised to see her. She'd been dead for six months."
Image: catherinemcphail.co.uk

Tyler's ability to see ghosts is not necessarily a positive thing though; it gets her in trouble at one school, the reputation of being a self-dramatising liar, and jeapordises her ability to settle at her new school. St Anthony's Academy had been a Catholic boys' school, though it is now coeducational and multi-faith. On her first day, she notices that the statues of the saints appear to be moving. Even more strangely, she sees a boy in her classroom that nobody else has noticed. Her new friends tell her about the murder that happened at the school years ago, of a troubled boy called Ben Kincaid. Tyler realises that the boy she can see is Ben. Then he asks her to help him... A gripping story; the final twist I really didn't see coming. I can't wait for the next one!

Image: orchardbooks.co.uk

Another great series about a girl who can see ghosts is Fiona Dunbar's Kitty Slade. Fire and Roses is the second in the series; the third, Venus Rocks, has just been published. Kitty is now home schooled by her Greek grandmother (events in the first story means that she can't stay at school!) In this story, Kitty and her family are visiting an old family friend. Strange Poltergeist activity at their house leads Kitty to discover that they are under a curse because of their ancestor Sir Ambrose Vyner. Another ghost, John Wilkes, a fellow member of the Hellfire Club (a drinking club that invoked Bacchus and Venus and engaged in various practices designed to shock society) appears to Kitty, and she must solve a mystery to break the curse and ensure her friends can stay in their home. Much of the action of the book takes place in and near the Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, South East England; a great feature of the book is that young readers will learn some of the history and geography of the area alongside enjoying the story. 

This book is lighter in tone than Out of the Depths; Fiona Dunbar aims to write stories similar to the Famous Five; I felt it was more like Nancy Drew crossed with Scooby Doo. Very enjoyable.

Out of the Depths I would recommend to 11+, and Fire and Roses to 10+. Two very enjoyable books.

The title of this post is from the Northern Soul classic, R. Dean Taylor's Ghost In My House.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Young bookworms

Image: coolspotters.com

I have written here about encouraging reluctant readers, but a conversation on Twitter with @ActuallyMummy, @LesleyAnneWeir, @Playbythebook and @BroughtonLass made me think about the opposite problem: how do you find reading materials suitably challenging for a 7 year old reading well in advance of their chronological age?

The temptation can be to encourage children to read increasingly difficult books. However, books for older readers can be unsuitable for children in plot, content and ambiguity; young children expect resolution, goodies rewarded and baddies punished. Books for Young Adult readers rightly address the concerns of their readers: relationships, which may include sex, politics, racism and violence. These are clearly not appropriate for young readers.

Image: lemonysnicket.wikia.com

Equally, I frequently see comments on the Amazon forum and on newspaper websites from adults claiming that they just went straight from reading Enid Blyton to Dickens. In my opinion this is equally inappropriate. I was assessed at 9 as having a reading age of 14 (after refusing to learn to read until I was 7). Indeed I read Wuthering Heights at 10. It put me off reading classics for years. (I have often been puzzled by people pushing Wuthering Heights at young girls. Far from being a romantic hero, Heathcliff is a murderer, domestic abuser and the desecrater of Cathy's grave! I can only assume they're remembering the bowdlerised Laurence Olivier film). Even some classic children's books such as Little Women and What Katy Did may not be appropriate: we tend to forget that they were the Young Adult books of their time.

So, my fiction suggestions.

1. Historical fiction. Rosemary Sutcliff's books for younger readers, such as The Armourer's House, and Cynthia Harnett's The Wool Pack, are wonderful. There is a lovely blogpost on The Wool Pack from DoveGreyReader here. Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse was my favourite as a child, and recommended to those who like their history with some fantasy; equally Joan Aiken's Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. Good readers have their comprehension skills challenged as they have to think carefully about the historical background.

2. Fantasy fiction, carefully chosen, may be a good option. Eva Ibbotson's fantasy fiction for younger children and Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci series are good options, as well as the first three Harry Potter novels. (Some parents may consider that the later ones are not appropriate for their children; some will not be unduly upset, but others may find them frightening, as well as very long!) I particularly enjoyed Lucinda Hare's Dragonsdome Chronicles novels last year, which combine the close relationship between children and animals that I enjoyed in pony books as a child.

3 Animal stories, such as those by Michael Morpurgo, Dick King-Smith and Lauren St John are very enjoyable. Some parents may consider some of Michael Morpurgo's books too challenging for younger readers, but the synopses on the website should give a good indication for your children.

4. Classic children's books. The Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, Noel Streatfeild's novels (and children who enjoy them may like Lyn Gardner's Olivia books) and Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons may be enjoyed by younger readers. The narrative drive of the stories may over-ride the historical setting and unfamiliar language.

I hope that these suggestions are helpful; thank you to the tweeters named above for their suggestions which inspired this post!