Blog Tour · General

Guest Post: Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes.

I’m thrilled today to be welcoming Sarah Forbes, author of the excellent Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-offs, to the blog as the last stop on her tour. When I was asked what I would like Sarah to write about for me I knew instantly, the book is filled with wonderfully awful characters so I wanted to hear more about them and how Sarah created them.
Elspeth Hart cover

Writing baddies:
The awful characters in Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-offs

I don’t know about you, but I love a good villain. Sometimes we love rooting for a protagonist who so obviously deserves to have things work out for them. Other times it’s sheer joy to lounge about reading stories about vile people doing things we would never dream of doing.

I was channel-surfing one evening and saw a remake of Fame the movie on TV. Watching it, I thought about how, as a quiet person, that would be my worst nightmare – being in a school where performing all the time was key to success. That might have sparked off some ideas for the awful show-offs in the school where Elspeth’s story is set! I wanted to have an incredibly vain ringleader character (Tatiana Firensky) and for her to have a couple of sidekicks (dim-witted Octavia Ornamento and gymnastic star Esmerelda Higginsbot). What was really fun for me was seeing how James Brown, the illustrator, interpreted my character descriptions when I’d finished writing the story. He absolutely nailed it and often draws little extra details that I’d never have thought of, really making the books come alive.

The teachers in the book area bit awful too: there’s Madame Chi-chi, who used to star in Italian soap operas and has an awful temper, Madame Stringy, who is small and fragile and cries easily, and Professor Bombast, who isn’t a professor at all but just bought a certificate off the internet saying he was. I think the idea of things (and people) being fake is a driving force in quite a lot of the story!

As for the REALLY awful characters, Miss Crabb and Gladys Goulash: I think they just seemed to appear in my mind as soon as I thought about having evil dinner ladies as the baddies in the book. They’re pretty disgusting – always burping, farting, scratching their armpits or putting slugs and cockroaches in the school dinners. I have to admit, though, they are really fun to write!

One thing I’ve learned from writing illustrated children’s books is just how useful it is to have a clear idea of how your characters look and move around. My top tip for anyone writing young fiction would be to write a really detailed character brief for each of your characters. Even if you’re not working with an illustrator, it can really help to know exactly what your characters look like, as you plot their adventures!

Thanks so much for having me on the blog! x

Blog News

A Reprint and a Blog Award.

After my review of No True Echo went live on Middle Grade Strikes Back I received an email from the editor-in-chief of Middle Shelf Magazine, a bimonthly digital magazine that celebrates Middle Grade books. She asked permission to reprint my review in the March / April magazine which I’ve granted. They reprint 2 blog reviews in each issue, these blogs along with a handful of others are awarded their Middle Grade Best of the Blogs award, so both Juniper’s Jungle and Middle Grade Strikes Back are recipients.

Best Blogs Badge 2015 (1)

My badge is now displayed across in the sidebar – it’s the first time I’ve had anything like this to display!

Book Review

First Middle Grade Strikes Back Post.

MGSB
Today I have written my first post for Middle Grade Strikes Back – a review of No True Echo by Gareth P. Jones. I’d love it if you popped over there and had a read, while you’re there why not have a look at some of the other excellent posts that have already been written?

Blog News

Middle Grade Strikes Back!

MGSB
Today sees the launch of a really exciting new venture, one I’m thrilled to be a part of. Middle Grade Strikes Back is a new collaborative blog focusing on the best and brightest of books published for the middle grades (roughly 8 – 13 year olds). There’s a fantastic mix of contributors, you can see the list as it stands here.

The site is the brainchild of Darren from The Book Zone (for boys) – he’s done a brilliant job of bringing together so many people passionate about middle grade books.There will be a real mixture of posts including news, reviews, interviews, lists and so many more. These will be from authors, publishers, librarians, bloggers and anyone else who wants to be involved.

I can’t wait to get my first post done, but even more than that I’m excited to see what everyone else will be contributing. There are two posts already:

Here’s to many more!

Book News

Cover Reveal: A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey.

Towards the end of 2014 I was very excited to receive a lovely package from Stripes Publishing. When I opened the padded envelope I found a sealed letter and carefully wrapped book:

IMG_2582

When I could finally bring myself to unwrap the book I found it was A Whisper of Wolves the debut novel, and first in a series of four, from Kris Humphrey:

Do you feel it? she asked. Alice reached out with her Whisperer sense. There was a strange presence in the trees. It rushed towards her, taking on a sickening intensity, as if the air itself was tainted by a skin of oil. Alice drew back, alarmed and afraid.

The demons are close, said Storm…

A raven. A white feather. It can only mean one thing… It’s time to enter the fantasy world of Meridina and to witness the Whisperers’ banishment of the demonic Narlaw.

This coming March sees the publication of A Whisper of Wolves, the first title in a dramatic new 4-part series, Guardians of the Wild, by exciting debut author Kris Humphrey.

After many years of peace in the kingdom of Meridina, rumours are spreading of a planned invasion – could the Narlaw be returning from the Darklands? It is up to the Whisperers and their animal companions to defend Meridina, protect Princess Ona and stop the Narlaw from destroying their world.

When hunters from her village disappear without a trace, 12 year old Alice, a novice Whisperer, suspects that something sinister is at work. With the help of Storm, her wolf companion, Alice fights to save her village, and protect the entire balance of the natural world. The Narlaw are on the attack and it’s up to the Whisperers to stop them…

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Today I’m thrilled to be one of the bloggers involved in revealing the cover so without further ado here it is.

A Whisper of Wolves cover

I really like this colour. I think the background colour is a really interesting choice – I haven’t seen any other books that I can think of with covers this colour which makes it quite distinctive. I think it works really well with the bold silhouette illustration – I’m already wondering what the subsequent book covers will look like and imagining how a set of four might work together.

What do you think of this cover? Do you like the sound of the book?

Guardians of the Wild: A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey will be published in paperback by Stripes Publishing on 2nd March 2015

Book Review

MG Monday: The Grunts in Trouble by Philip Ardagh.

middlegrademonday

Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, The Grunts in Trouble by Philip Ardagh gets the focus.

GruntsMeet Mr and Mrs Grunt. Oh, go on. They’re not that bad. No, actually, they ARE. Maybe worse, even. But Sunny, their sort-of son, is okay. They stole him from a washing line as a baby. He was hanging by his ears, which probably explains why they’re so wonky (but not why he has sticky-up hair that NEVER lies flat, even if you pour glue into it or try taping it in place). Sticky around and you’ll also meet Lord Bigg of Bigg Manor, Bigg-hater Larry Smalls, Mimi the Bigg Manor boot boy (yup, she’s a girl) and…Well, you’ll have to READ the book to find that out. But I should mention the bees. Did I warn you about the bees?!

There are a number of middle grade series that I have written on a list to try, ones that I hear about from my Beaver Scouts or from parents who have children of the appropriate age. When I do read the first book in the series sometimes it’s a case of love at first page and I find myself wondering when on earth I’m going to find the time to read all of the other books in the series. Then there are books that are an interesting enough read but I don’t feel any drive to read more – this is how I felt about The Grunts.

I can definitely see the appeal of this book to younger readers. It’s funny and engaging with larger than life characters who move from one amusing moment of trouble to the next, with each problem proving larger (and potentially funnier) than the last. I personally found that whilst the story was amusing it didn’t really make me laugh out loud, I think I had started reading expecting it to be more funny than it actually was.

This book is illustrated by Axel Scheffler who is probably most familiar for his work on The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, written by Julia Donaldson. I reviewed one of his self-penned Pip and Posy books a little while ago, you can see that here. I really like his style and it works well in this book, seeing The Grunts and the other characters brought to life in the pages – I think I’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite character.

One thing I wasn’t quite sure about with this book was the somewhat rambling nature of the narrative. The book has a storyteller style narrator who often goes off on tangents that are only partially related to the story itself. These are sometimes quite funny and entertaining, but at times I found myself wishing that the narrator would just get on with the story. I am very sure that this aspect of the book will work very differently for different readers and that some will absolutely love it.

I’m very glad that I’ve read this, the first book to feature The Grunts, and that I’ve now met the characters. I won’t be rushing to read any more of their stories, but I’ll certainly try some of Philip Ardagh’s other series in the future.

The Grunts in Trouble is published by Nosy Crow in the UK. My copy of the book is one I purchased myself.

Book Review

MG Monday: Woozy the Wizard: A Spell to Get Well by Elli Woollard and Al Murphy.

middlegrademonday

Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, Woozy the Wizard: A Spell to Get Well written by Elli Woollard and illustrated by Al Murphy earns his turn in the spotlight.

WoozyTheWizardWoozy the Wizard is a well-meaning wizard who just wants to help his friends. But sometimes his spells (and he) get all mixed up! So then he has to get back on his broom with his pet pig and zoom around the village trying to put things right . . .

Hilarious rhyming verse for children aged four and up, starring Woozy the Wizard and his pet pig!

Woozy the Wizard looks a lot like the wizards you imagine; long grey beard, flowing cloak and pointy hat, wand in hand. Where he differs a little from other wizards however is that sometimes his magic isn’t all that good. That’s the problem facing Woozy in this book, the villagers are all sick and no matter what he tries he just can’t magic them better. Whether it’s his books not having a suitable spell, or a lapse in memory, Woozy has to try all sorts of different things in his mission to cure the village.

This story is told in rhyme with some repeated stanzas that will encourage participation from young listeners. The back cover blurb suggests this story is for those aged four and up – it’ll work well at the younger end of this as a book to read out loud. The rhyming structure makes for some amusing word choices, these are always entertaining rather than feeling shoe-horned in for the sake of the rhyme.

The book is illustrated by Al Murphy. His illustrations are bold and colourful, working really well with the humorous text. They are very clear, with strong lines and solid colours – I think that this was a great choice, busier pictures might have distracted from the rhyming text. As it was I found it easy to give both the text and illustrations my full attention. I think my favourite illustration is from when one of Woozy’s spell attempts goes wrong and Woozy and his pig end up being pelted with vegetables – it made me laugh!

This is a really great, fun book. I enjoyed it and am looking forward to sharing it with others. Woozy is going to be back in the Spring in Woozy the Wizard: A Broom to go Zoom – I’ll definitely be reading this.

Woozy the Wizard: A Spell to Get Well is published by Faber Children’s in the UK. I won my copy of the book in a giveaway by the publisher, all of the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Book Review

MG Monday: The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth & The Windvale Sprites by Mackenzie Crook.

middlegrademonday

Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth and The Windvale Sprites by Mackenzie Crook are both featured.

These two books are companion novels. The Windvale Sprites was published in 2011, and The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth was published in 2013.

LJoBTOne day I will be remembered as the greatest scientist that the world has ever known and so it is my duty to mankind to record my thoughts that future generations are able to study the progress of a genius.

I am eleven years old.

These are the recently discovered journals of Benjamin Tooth: alchemist, inventor and discoverer of the Windvale sprites. They chronicle his journey of scientific discovery from pompous boy to mad old man in his pursuit of the sprites on Windvale Moor. The sprites hold the key to eternal life, and Tooth is determined to capture it.

I read this book first, though I had been assured that it didn’t matter which order you read the books in. I chose to go chronologically – this book is set before The Windvale Sprites and so that made more sense to me.

I enjoyed the first part of the book very much. Benjamin Tooth is an engaging character, a young lad focused on science and his mission to excel in his scientific pursuits. Sadly, as the book progresses and Benjamin gets older I found him harder and harder to like, and found that I cared less and less about what happened to him. A couple of times I actually found myself wishing some great harm would come to him. I’m fine with characters not being likeable, but Benjamin was the sort of dislikable that made me consider putting the book down and not carrying on.

The journal format makes this book a quick read, this probably helped me to keep reading. When the sprites make their first appearance I found I was instantly taken by them – they’re an interesting creation and Benjamin’s observations of them are fascinating. I would have loved to read more about them and their society rather than his attempts to trap them.

WindvaleSpritesWhen a storm sweeps through the country, Asa wakes up the next day to find that his town is almost unrecognisable – trees have fallen down, roofs have collapsed and debris lies everywhere. But amongst the debris in his back garden Asa makes an astounding discovery – the body of a small winged creature. A creature that looks very like a fairy. Do fairies really exist?

Asa embarks on a mission to find out. A mission that leads him to the lost journals of local eccentric Benjamin Tooth who, two hundred years earlier, claimed to have discovered the existence of fairies. What Asa reads in those journals takes him on a secret trip to Windvale Moor, where he discovers much more than he’d hoped to…

Having not enjoyed The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth that much, I picked up The Windvale Sprites with a little trepidation. I quickly realised though that I was enjoying this far more, and this stayed the case for the entirety of the book.

This book is set in the modern day, the main character Asa also comes in contact with the sprites Benjamin Tooth had discovered and ends up finding Benjamin’s journal and using this as his guide to discovering more about the sprites. There are sections of text that are direct copies of the text from the journal – I liked revisiting this and seeing it through Asa’s eyes. Many of the issues I’d had with Benjamin were expressed by Asa – this reconfirmed by belief that these books have a real value in talking about science and the ethics of scientific investigation.

I really enjoyed the contrast between the two books, and I do think looking back at the two books I feel a little more kindly towards The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth if I considerate in its context as part of a pair of companion stories. I’m glad I read the books this way around rather than in the order in which they were published. Both books are illustrated by the author, these add a lot to both stories. Overall I found these books to be an interesting and thought provoking experience though maybe not one I’m going to be in a great hurry to repeat.

The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth and The Windvale Sprites are published by Faber & Faber in the UK. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

MG Monday: Pea’s Book of Birthdays by Susie Day.

middlegrademonday

Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, Pea’s Book of Birthdays by Susie Day earns her turn in the spotlight.

PBoBIt’s Pea’s birthday, and all the family are gathered around to celebrate. But there’s one person missing – her dad. She has never known him, but is the story Mum always told her (the one about Dad being a pirate) really true? What is this mysterious Piratical Father doing now? So begins Pea’s quest to track down her dad once and for all . . .

This series of books featuring Pea Llewellyn is one of my absolute favourite series, regardless of target age. So much so that after I fell completely in love with Pea, her sisters and mum and all of the rest of the cast of characters in the first book I decided that I needed to not immediately read the next books in the series but instead space them out and savour each one. This weekend I finally picked up this, the third book in the series.

Having dealt with the family’s move to London in Pea’s Book of Best Friends and then deciding what you want to be in the future in Pea’s Book of Dreams, this time Pea’s focus is more on personal identity and knowing who you are and where you come from. Pea has never known her father, all she knows is where her mum met him and that he left shortly after she was born. Knowing that he is out there somewhere, and reminders about family leave her wondering about him and wanting to track him down. The book takes place over the month of May when Pea and her sisters and mum all have their birthdays, Pea’s is latest in May and she shares it with her mum so what better opportunity to try and track down the mystery Ewan McGregor (no, not that one).

One of the things I adore about Pea is that she’s such a thinking girl. She’s a budding writer, always creating characters and plot lines, and when she’s not doing this she has a tendency to overthink her current situation. In this book trying to choose a birthday party theme that is sufficiently “mature and sophisticated” proves really hard, she doesn’t really feel grown up but feels like she ought to. Pea is so much the kind of young person I was, I know I would have loved reading about her when I was similarly aged (pretty much like I do now). Life is full of anxieties, even when you’re young, and seeing them dealt with in such a reassuring manner is just brilliant.

The family dynamic between Pea, her sisters and mum is just brilliant. So too is the dynamic of the Paget-Skidelskys who live next door, and then the relationships between both families. I would have loved to have good friends living next door like this. I particularly like Pea’s friendship with Sam One, I always like seeing girl boy friendships in the books I read.

One thing I must highlight is the ease with which Susie writes diverse characters. This whole series of books is filled with them, all included seamlessly and naturally. Their differences are acknowledged but not dwelt on, they’re simply presented as the way of things which is of course what they are. This series is one that should be held up of an example to show that it can be done!

I loved how funny this book was at the same that it was covering some really important issues. The blend of the drama and comedy of real life works really well and results in a hugely readable book that is appealing and very lovable. The whole series is like this, and that’s why I love it so much and find myself recommending it as often as I can. The next book in the series is Pea’s Book of Holidays which includes a visit to Corfe Castle (inspiration to Enid Blyton) – I wonder how long I will be able to resist it? Not long I wouldn’t think!

Pea’s Book of Birthdays is published by Red Fox in the UK. My copy of the book is one I purchased myself.

Book Review

MG Monday: Penny Dreadful is a Disaster Magnet by Joanna Nadin.

middlegrademonday

Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, Penny Dreadful is a Disaster Magnet by Joanna Nadin earns her turn in the spotlight.

PennyDreadfulMy name is not actually Penny Dreadful. It is Penelope Jones. The ‘Dreadful’ bit is my dad’s JOKE. But I do not see the funny side. Plus it is not even true that I am dreadful. It’s just that sometimes my BRILLIANT IDEAS don’t work out completely brilliantly. Like, I didn’t mean for my cousin to end up bald and covered in superglue, and I also didn’t mean to steal our neighbour’s dog and make him speak Russian… It is not my fault. I can’t help it – I’m just a Magnet for Disaster.

This book is, without a doubt, the funniest book I’ve read in quite some time. It is the sort of book that if I had been reading it in public I know I would have ended up getting lots of slightly odd looks from strangers – I laughed out loud so many times as I read. Split into three stories this book is an absolute delight from start to finish.

Following a double page spread introducing the three stories, the book begins with an illustrated page introducing the main characters of the book. I must praise Jess Mikhail’s illustrations, they’re brilliant and add so much to the reading experience. Whilst the stories are themselves funny the illustrations are also funny, I laughed as often at the drawings as I did at the text.

Penelope Jones is the sort of character I find myself instantly drawn to. She’s a little chaotic, a little too easily excited and the sort of character that trouble comes looking for. She never intends to do things that are even the slightest bit wrong, her plans are always foolproof… apart from the way they all inevitably lead to disaster. She’s so well intentioned, she just doesn’t see the potential for things to go wrong. She’s incredibly endearing, I can’t understand how any of the long suffering adults in her life could remain cross with her for more than a few seconds.

Penny herself is a well created character and so too are the characters she shares the pages of the book with. I loved her friend, Cosmo, and posh cousin Georgia May, they made a brilliantly balanced trio. From the adults my favourite character had to be Mrs Butterworth who runs the Post Office – I think any grown up reading this book will have come across a Mrs Butterworth in the past.

This book would work really well both for newly independent readers and as a book to share. I can certainly imagine reading it with a young reader, though the way it’s structured into three short (30-40 pages long) stories may mean that the only solution for bedtime reading is to stop halfway through a story.

This is the first book featuring Penny Dreadful, there are currently seven books featuring her. I plan to read the rest of them – I can’t wait to find out what she gets up to next!

Penny Dreadful is a Disaster Magnet is published by Usborne Books in the UK. My copy of the book is one I purchased myself.