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.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Illustrated Year: Ahmed and the Feather Girl by Jane Ray



Most of my teaching career has been spent in diverse, inner city schools; latterly in London where it is common to find that over 30 languages are spoken (although of course English is the lingua franca. There is a great incentive to learn to speak English so that you can communicate with the rest of your class!) As Britain becomes more culturally diverse outside the cities as well as inside, there is a real imperative for teachers to find books that represent the children in their classes. As I said here , it's very important for making children want to read.

Image: franceslincoln.co.uk

This beautiful book, from the wonderful Frances Lincoln Children's Books is the story of Ahmed, a circus boy. The circus is run by the cruel Madame Saleem. One winter's day, when Ahmed is gathering firewood, he finds a large golden egg in the forest. Madame Saleem locks it in a golden cage, and when spring comes a little girl hatches out. Madame Saleem puts the girl, names Aurelia, on display and charges a lot of money. Gradually Aurelia grows feathers, and Madame Saleem grows rich, but Aurelia stops singing and grows sad. Ahmed steals the key to the cage and rescues her.  Madame Saleem of course is very angry, and beats Ahmed, but in his dreams Aurelia visits him, and every time she leaves him some feathers. Eventually he has enough, so that he can fly away with her.

This is a wonderful fairy tale, one that I recommend to read to children of 6+. Look out for it, and if it's not in your local library, request it! There are still not enough picture books featuring Asian children as protagonists, apart from rather worthy books explaining religious celebrations. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

An Illustrated Year: So Much! by Trish Cooke


Most of my teaching career has been in culturally diverse, inner city schools. I started training as a teacher 20 years ago last month (where has the last 20 years gone?) and of course, one of the most important duties of a Primary school teacher is to ensure that the children in their care make progress with their reading. However, I found that we can make sure that children learn their letter sounds and apply that knowledge to words- this is a relatively easy job- but making children want to read is far more tricky. Over my teaching career I have become more and more convinced that young children must see themselves and their cultures presented to them in books, as well as the cultures of their peers.


So Much! by Trish Cooke was published nearly 20 years ago, in 1994. I remember picking up a copy to read to the children I was teaching as a Traveller Support/ English as an Additional Language support teacher in Beeston, Leeds. It's the story of Mum and Baby, sitting at home, when- DING DONG! the doorbell goes, and relatives arrive one by one to see the baby to show him how much they love him. They want to hug, squeeze, kiss the baby- and also eat and fight him! At the end of the book, we see that the family have gathered to celebrate the baby's Daddy's birthday.

It's told in the sing-song rhythms of Dominican English, and I absolutely love this book. I love the fact that the family is an ordinary family, gathering for a celebration the way that other families do, but the family is shown playing dominoes, dancing and singing, giving the book a distinctly Caribbean flavour. We don't see outside the house, only the front room and the baby's bedroom, but the tiled hall in front of the door in one picture (when Auntie Bibbi arrives) reminds me of the one in the terraced houses in Leeds where I lived as a student and young teacher. Trish Cooke grew up in Bradford with her Dominican parents and brothers and sisters, so Helen Oxenbury may have taken inspiration from this.

I recommend this book for children around the ages of 3-6. It's lovely!

I'm looking for picture books showing Asian children in urban settings for my students who are starting their teaching practice in London schools. Please do comment if you know of any! It's a shame that in 20 years we don't seem to be moving forward in representations of diversity in picture books.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Dance to the Music

This post is part of Playing By The Book's I'm Looking For A Book About... carnival. This month the theme is music. Please do go and check out the links on 15th October; there are always amazing recommendations from all over the world.

Writing a novel for children or young people based in popular culture is a fraught matter. Just look how quickly we've moved technologically in the past few years, and how that has influenced the way that popular culture is consumed and valued. Oddly, reading novels from the 60s and 70s can seem less odd than reading those from the 80s and 90s, with references to cassettes and videos.

Image: gillian-cross.co.uk

Chartbreak by Gillian Cross is a case in point. First published in 1986, it is the story of Janis Finch, about to leave school, living with her mum and mum's boyfriend, fed up of school and of her life in Birmingham. After a row with the boyfriend, she runs out of the house in a temper and ends up at a cafe near the motorway. As she's eking out her coffee, avoiding going home, a group of young men come into the cafe, and sit near her. They are the band Kelp, and the charismatic but confrontational singer Christie provokes Janis into singing. Pretty soon she has run away from home to South London to join the band, and her identity as Finch is born. However, Christie's controlling nature and charisma both threatens and attracts Janis. Is it love or hate that she feels for him? and can she continue to assert herself in the face of it?

I loved this book, and despite the outdated references, and I think older children/ younger teenagers would too. Janis/ Finch is a great character, and the descriptions of the excitement and emotion that music creates both in listener and performer are really believable. I like the fact that Janis is emphatically not a pretty girl, but supremely talented, and as someone who has sung and hung out with bands, the portrayal of the band is believable. They are a hard working, up and coming band at the beginning of the book, playing awful support slots in grotty clubs, sound checking, setting up and taking down themselves, and it is Christie's drive and perfectionism, while frustrating, that gets them on the road to fame. 

Image: girlsheartbooks.com

I have written about Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes and The Growing Summer, but I think that Apple Bough (also known as Travelling Shoes- You've Got Mail has a lot to answer for!) is well worth revisiting. Three of the four Forum children are talented: Ethel as a dancer, Wolfgang as an actor and pop composer, but Sebastian is a very gifted violinist, and the family are touring the world with him. Myra, the oldest Forum child, is not talented, but is a loving sister and an ally of Miss Popple, the governess hired to teach them, since Sebastian's music career means that he can't go to school. When Ettie and Wolf decide that the time has come for them to assert themselves and pursue their own talents, it is Myra who finds a way for them to stay in London instead of travelling with Sebastian and their parents, who are totally oblivious that the children have tired of touring. Myra's love of their old house, Apple Bough, is eventually the inspiration for the family to find a permanent home.

Noel Streatfeild was an actress before she became a novelist, and I think that she portrays the realities of a career in performance for children very well: the hard work and dedication, but also the boredom, waiting around and sacrifices needed. The reader is often told that Sebastian is not considered a child by the other musicians he works with while playing, but outside music he is, if anything, quite young for his age.

Streatfeild fans will be glad to know that Madame Fidolia, the head teacher of the stage school attended by Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil, appears in this novel.

Sadly both books are out of print, but are readily available from online stores. Chartbreak is most suited to children 11+, and Apple Bough for 8+.

The title of this post comes from Sly and the Family Stone's Dance to the Music, a song which perfectly expresses the joy of listening to music!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Review: Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner

Image: amazon.co.uk

I'm a big fan on Sally Gardner, author of I, Coriander and many other fantastic picture books and novels for children. Her books are inventive and often use fairy tale with powerful effect.

Operation Bunny starts with the discovery of a baby in a hatbox at Stansted Airport in Essex, just outside London. The little girl is named Emily Vole and is adopted by the narcissistic Daisy Dashwood and her husband Ronald. Emily is treated more like a doll than a child until Daisy has triplets of her own, at which point 5 year old Emily is moved from her opulent pink bedroom to sleep on the ironing board in the laundry room and forced to become a servant, looking after the house and babies.

Emily's life would be very miserable if she wasn't befriended by Miss String, the next door neighbour much despised by the Dashwoods, and her giant talking cat. Before long Emily discovers that she has inherited a magical shop and must defeat a fairy-hating witch whose magic lamp turns humans into pink bunnies, with the help from the cat, a fairy policeman and a grumpy detective called Buster.

In the press release from Orion, this enchanting book is compared to Roald Dahl. I'd say that apart from the Dashwoods, who are similar to the Wormwoods in Matilda, it reminds me more of Eva Ibbotson's books for younger readers. I loved it, and can't wait for the next one! It would be devoured by 7+ as an independent read, and 6+ as a bed time story.

My one quibble is that I felt the authorial disapproval of the Dashwoods very strongly (although Daisy does get to redeem herself) and it makes me a little uncomfortable in the way that Dahl's disapproval of "common" parents does. However, the Cinderella aspects of the story clearly need a weak father and unkind mother, and the pantomime tone makes it funny.

I am very grateful to the publishers for sending me this lovely book, but the review is my honest opinion.