When I Grow Up by Tim Minchin & Steve Antony

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Published by Scholastic, 2017.

When I Grow Up is inspired by Tim Minchin’s hit song of the same name from the award-winning Matilda the Musical. I haven’t yet seen the musical so I watched some clips on YouTube of the cast performing the song and I loved it! It’s hopeful and jubilant and full of childish naivety, yet poignant and moving at the same time. It made me cry. The book adaptation conveys these very same feelings.

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Tim Minchin’s words are spoken from the perspective of childhood. Children imagine what it will be like when they grow up. They think about all the things that they’ll finally have free rein to do: eat sweets every day, stay up late, and watch TV until their eyes go square. The children are joyful and fun-loving. They embody the exuberance of youth. Steve Antony’s illustrations capture this perfectly; children cartwheel, climb trees, have pillow fights and fly imaginary unicorns and dragons. The double page spread that illustrates the words, “And when I grow up, I will have treats every day…” is one of my favourites. Supermarket trolleys are piled high with pizza, popcorn, fizzy pop and cakes. There’s a pack of tasty-looking doughnuts too – a nice nod to Steve’s fabulous Mr Panda series. There’s also a humour and light-heartedness in the text and illustrations. I particularly like the line, “…and I’ll play with things that mums pretend that mums don’t think are fun.” In this case, firing water pistols and splashing around in ornamental fountains.

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Another thing that I love about Steve Antony’s work is the amazing detail that he packs into his pictures. In When I Grow Up the pages are brimming with delightful details: the snowman melting on the library bookshelf; world-famous landmarks and cityscapes adorned with sweets and other goodies; and Steve, Tim and Roald Dahl even make it into the background on one page! There’s so much to notice and enjoy.

Alongside the children’s optimism and wishful longing, on a couple of pages there’s also a more sombre side to the words and pictures. The very real childhood fears of under-the-bed monsters are evoked, and there’s a recognition of the burdens that grown-ups carry around with them, a foreshadowing of the troubles that may come to weigh on these children’s shoulders when they grow up. Adult life may not actually be all fun and games.

When I Grow Up is a glorious, life-affirming picture book. It’s a celebration of childhood optimism, hope and imagination but with a subtle nod towards the realities of adult responsibilities. I loved it!

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 2+

Thank you to Scholastic for sending me this book to review. I reviewed this book as part of the When I Grow Up blog tour (click link for more details). Head over to Twitter @GetKidsin2Books to find out how you could win a copy of the book.

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Eddy Stone and the Epic Holiday Mash-Up by Simon Cherry

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Illustrated by Francis Blake.

Published by Usborne, 2017.

Eddy Stone and the Epic Holiday Mash-Up made me laugh. A lot. Frequently the humour is laugh out loud stuff (which is apt as the book has been shortlisted for the Laugh Out Loud Children’s Book Awards). When I wasn’t guffawing, I was quietly sniggering to myself. Then there were the times when I simply smiled at the dry wit and clever wordplay. Or at the other end of the scale there was the giddy, childish humour of fart jokes and pirates’ naked bottoms. I actually had to stop reading because I was laughing so hard about Frankie Halftrousers and his single buttock. And yes, I did pore over the illustration until I found it!

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Eddy Stone’s busy parents have bundled him off to stay with his gran during the school summer holidays. He is bored. Sleepy Tidemark Bay is a dreary, run-down seaside resort and his gran is not much company. The local children are unwelcoming and unfriendly. So, when a pirate lands in his gran’s bath, Eddy doesn’t think twice about agreeing to join him on an adventure to find Grungeybeard’s buried treasure.

The pirate, Mad Bad Jake McHake (or Captain, for short), has had a dream that he will find the treasure map in a junk shop. Eddy and the Captain follow the dream’s exceptionally detailed instructions and find a treasure map, exactly as foretold. Their next mission is to hire a crew and commandeer a boat. Amusingly, the frustrated ageing junk shop owner ends up as the Crew (assuming all of the roles except for Cabin Boy, which falls to Eddy). Their only other shipmate is a grumpy stowaway penguin. Their boat, the Codcake, started out as a snack bar but magically transforms into a sailing vessel.

The map turns out to be magic too. It’s a bit like a sat nav and it also spells out the different clues which will eventually lead them to the treasure. The four of them embark on their quest, solving clues, completing dangerous trials and collecting various items that will prove them worthy winners of the treasure. Along the way they also have to outrun and outwit the terrifying Barracuda Bill and his bloodthirsty crew (rival pirates on board the Scavenger).

If I were to choose my favourite character it would be a toss-up between the grumpy penguin with aspirations to be a world famous stand-up comedian (he actually has some of the best lines in the book) and the miniature resistance fighters, the Raisins of Death. Just writing their name makes me chortle. Their full names are highly entertaining too (although perhaps not to children): Chevalier François Cabernet Lalande-de-Pomerol and his companion, Plonque.

Eddy Stone and the Epic Holiday Mash-Up is an hilarious, action-packed, off-the-wall adventure. I highly recommend it.

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 6+

Thank you to Usborne for sending me this book to review. I reviewed this book as part of the Lollies 2017 blog tour. The Lollies are book awards that celebrate the funniest children’s books. Read more about them and how you can vote by clicking on the link above. You can also enjoy reading a guest blog post from author Simon Cherry where he talks about what inspired him to write.

Prisoner of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren

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Published by Bloomsbury, 2017.

I loved Prisoner of Ice and Snow and read it in record time. It’s a real page-turner. The excitement and tension begin in the first chapter and don’t let up until the end. It’s edge-of-your-seat stuff.

Valor and Sasha are thirteen-year-old twins. At the start of the story, Sasha has been in prison for a month. She is accused of having stolen a priceless and politically symbolic music box from the royal family. She is being held in Tyur’ma, the kingdom of Demidova’s notoriously bleak prison of ice and stone. Valor is determined to rescue her sister. She fakes an assassination attempt on the Crown Prince and gets herself arrested and sentenced to life at Tyur’ma. Her plan: to break her sister out from the inside.

What follows is a story of bravery and determination. The themes of sisterhood, family, loyalty and friendship are positive, powerful and life-affirming. For me, the most beautiful and moving line in the book is one spoken by Valor. The Prince observes how Valor has given up her whole life to be with her sister and she replies,

“We’re sisters. Twins. I don’t have a whole life without her.”

I was completely drawn into Valor’s world. I love how Ruth Lauren has evoked a really strong sense of place. She has vividly created a remote and desolate icy world. The frozen wastelands bring to mind the Siberian plains. Indeed, there is a strong Russian feel running throughout the book, from place names and character names to the imperial palace with its onion domes. The most fully realised aspect of the book is the brutal prison regime, presided over by Warden Kirov and the terrifying Peacekeepers (prison guards). The prison and the horror of the daily life of its child inmates is shockingly harsh. Many of the scenes make for uncomfortable reading. Ruth Lauren has also crafted a cast of well-drawn, believable characters. I think it’s really important to be able to empathise with a book’s protagonists and I cared deeply about Valor and Sasha’s plight. I was willing them to succeed.

Books with strong female characters always draw me in and Prisoner of Ice and Snow has them in spades. Women are portrayed in positions of power and strength. The kingdom of Demidova is ruled by Queen Ana and it is her daughter, Anastasia, and not her son who is set to inherit the throne. The prison is run by a woman and there are female guards alongside the men. Valor and her mother are exceptional hunters, skilled with bow and arrow. Sasha is thoughtful and intelligent. She has a way with words and a sharp mind, able to grapple with political intrigue and power play. Different female characters exhibit a full range of human qualities and traits: we see strength, bravery, wisdom, honour, perseverance and loyalty, but also scheming, manipulation, brutality, selfishness, and a ruthless hunger for power. There are no meek damsels here. These women can stand up for themselves and fight their own battles. Literally.

With its fearless, fiesty female lead, Prisoner of Ice and Snow sits confidently alongside other recent favourites of mine, such as Girl of Ink and Stars and Rooftoppers. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a nail-biting, fast-paced adventure. The twists keep on coming right to the very end. Much is resolved in the last few chapters but there is one final cliffhanger that left me desperate to know if there would be a sequel. We’re in luck. Seeker of the Crown is out in 2018.

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 8+

Thank you to Bloomsbury for sending me this book to review. I reviewed this book as part of the Prisoner of Ice and Snow blog tour (click on the link to read a special guest blog from author Ruth Lauren where she discusses her recent favourite MG books).

One Button Benny by Alan Windram & Chloe Holwill-Hunter

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Published by Little Door Books, 2017.

more robotsOne Button Benny is a brilliant book; I really enjoyed it. It’s funny (I laughed out loud at the hairy, scary aliens with green bottoms), and exciting. Benny is a robot. He’s feeling left out because all the other robots have lots of buttons whereas he just has one big button. When the other robots press their buttons, wonderful things happen: music plays, bubbles blow, lights come on. Benny’s button, however, can only be pressed in an emergency.

My absolute favourite page is where Benny is considering what might constitute an emergency. I’m with him on the empty biscuit barrel being pretty catastrophic!

One morning Benny wakes up and realises that there is something terribly wrong. During the night, aliens (known as the collectors) have taken over the planet. They are rounding up all the robots so they can crush them and turn them into teapots.

This is Benny’s moment! He presses his button and zooms into action!

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I love the book’s design and layout. There’s a comic strip feel to some of the pages: speech bubbles (with a cool, robot font), and split pages. The illustrations are great too and there’s lots of lovely detail – Benny cleans his teeth with polish instead of toothpaste, for example. Benny is a really cute robot and makes a very loveable hero.

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 3+

Thank you to Little Door Books for sending me this book to review.

#BabyLove: My Toddler Life by Corine Dehghanpisheh

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Published by My Art to Inspire, 2016.

On the surface this is a simple cautionary tale for toddlers. The lesson: Mommy’s smart phone is not a toy. However, it also works on a deeper level and there’s a message for parents too.

The story shows Mommy busily recording the minutiae of her young son’s life. We see him painting, reading, and banging a drum. Mommy snaps away on her smart phone, capturing these precious moments. However, while she is stuck behind her phone, she’s not fully engaged with her son; they’re not really playing together. The illustrations are very effective at highlighting this disconnect: mother and reader only view the son through the camera screen.

#BabyLove: My Toddler Life is a timely wake-up call reminding us to live in the moment. In our digital age that’s driven by social media interaction, we are often so intent on recording and sharing precious moments that we forget to actually experience the moment for itself. We can too easily view our child through a camera lens instead of face-to-face.

I think the book will strike a chord with many parents. It certainly did with me.

Rating: 💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 2+

Thank you to Corine and Book Publicity Services for sending me this book to review.

Woolf by Alex Latimer & Patrick Latimer

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Published by Pavilion, 2017.

IMG_2574This is a book about struggling with your identity, trying to fit in, prejudice and finding your own way.

It begins when a wolf and a sheep fall in love. They marry and have a son who is half wolf, half sheep. They name him Woolf. In appearance and character he is both wolf and sheep. He grows up happy but a little lonely. As he gets older, he ventures further from home. He meets a pack of wolves. Initially they are suspicious of Woolf, unsure of what he is. He assures them that he is a wolf. He makes an excuse for his woolly coat by pretending he’s in disguise, hunting sheep. This impresses the wolves and they let him join them. That night, desperate to fit in, he shears the wool from his body. However, he soon grows tired of trying to hide the wool that is growing back, he doesn’t actually enjoy hunting rabbits, and, most of all, he can’t stand how rude the wolves are about sheep. Later, he encounters a flock of sheep. A similar pattern of events unfolds except that this time he tries to hide any wolfish traits. He slicks down his pointy wolf ears, and curls and whitens his tail. However, following each other around aimlessly soon loses its appeal and he can’t stand how mean the sheep are about wolves. He leaves the flock and returns home.

IMG_2575His parents find him crying and he tells them that he doesn’t belong anywhere; he is neither wolf or sheep. His parents help him to understand that he is something new and special, and that ignoring part of who he is will only lead to sadness.

My biggest reservation with the book is that I think the pun around Woolf’s name is beyond the understanding of its target audience; they can’t spell yet and won’t appreciate the subtleties of the word play. I read the story to my four-year-old niece and she didn’t get the pun. When you read the story aloud (and I imagine this is how most children will access the story), it’s difficult to pronounce Woolf in a manner that is significantly different to wolf and this leads to confusion. In a story about identity where the main character is both wolf and sheep, you don’t want his name to associate him more closely with one animal than another.

Nevertheless, this book has lots to recommend it. Its themes are pertinent to children and handled sensitively. It has a reassuring message about self-acceptance. Relationships with family and friends are depicted positively. It is told with humour, and the illustrations are attractive.

Rating: 💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 4+

Thank you to Pavilion for sending me this book to review and to Toppsta for organising the giveaway.

Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival

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Published by Bloomsbury, 2017.

Perfectly Norman is a beautiful story about celebrating  differences and having the confidence to be yourself. Norman had always been perfectly normal until the day he grew wings. Initially he is delighted with his wings and has the best fun ever, swooping around in the sky. A bit later, the worries and doubts creep in. His new wings set him out as different. He becomes self-conscious. What will his parents and friends think? How will they react? Will he still be accepted?

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He decides to wear a great big coat to keep his extraordinary wings covered up. This makes life difficult. Norman is uncomfortable and too hot. Bath times are problematic. He can’t join in with his friends at the swimming pool or on the bouncy castle. Eventually he realises that it’s the coat and not his wings that’s making him miserable and, with the encouragement of his parents, he throws off his coat and lets his wings fan out once more. By embracing his differences Norman is able to be happy.  His new-found confidence to be himself even inspires other children to do the same.

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I was immediately drawn to this book; I love the dazzling neon cover for a start! For me, the book’s appeal works on many levels. Its plot is heartwarming and the themes of self-confidence and acceptance are positive and uplifting. Perfectly Norman is also a visual treat. I love the illustrations. Tom Percival’s use of colour is really effective. Everything in Norman’s world, apart from him, is drawn in shades of black and white. Norman, with his yellow jumper and later his yellow coat, stands out as a pop of colour on each page. It’s only in the scenes when Norman has his wings that the rest of the image is bursting with colour too. There’s another little detail in the illustrations that I also really liked – the bounce and swoosh in Norman’s hair when he’s in motion.

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Perfectly Norman is a wonderfully reassuring book to share with children. You could read it with a child who’s feeling troubled by their own differences. Sharing it with your child, or your class if you work in a school, would also be a great way to build empathy and understanding; it’s the perfect prompt to trigger discussions about otherness, acceptance and individuality.

You can watch the book trailer for Perfectly Norman here.

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 2+

Thank you to Bloomsbury for sending me this book to review. I reviewed this book as part of the Perfectly Norman blog tour.