Looking After William : Eve Coy

WilliamLooking After William by Eve Coy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s very easy for me to become a little cocky when it comes to reading children’s books. I read a lot of them, and when you read a lot of anything, you become familiar to the tips and tricks that such books use. You become wise to how they do what they do, and to be frank? Sometimes you become a little bit blind. Sometimes it’s easy to read something not for what it is, but for what you think it is. It’s a trend that I’m increasingly aware of within myself and so I am thrilled and delighted by those books that challenge my preconceptions. That rear, perhaps, out of the paths that I have chosen for them and ask me to consider them anew and with fresh, eager eyes.

Looking After William is a perfect little book and I adored it. It’s told very simply, often pairing a clean sentence with a vibrant and rich double page spread, and it has this sort of timeless, rich taste to it. A lot of this is due to Coy’s quietly confident language, but also the rich, unfinished edge of her artwork. These illustrations sing with unfinished energy and movement; they’re part of the tapestry of this life, and rich with an almost infinite sense of potential. She’s not afraid of the more abstract edge either, pairing a lion tamer scene with an astronaut, and linking the two through some smart visual clues. There’s also a delightful hidden thread throughout the book, with the cat, and some thickly gorgeous endpapers.

I love books like this, because they speak. They speak out and loud and proud about what they are and this is a book about love. It’s the story of William and his Mummy; but, is in fact, told from the child’s point of view. It’s such a subtle and clever way to flip the story, and it’s one that will leave the parents nodding sympathetically at William’s exhaustion and children delighting in being in control. Books like this are good, you know? They work. They remind me what is good and right with the world.

Thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Running On Empty : SE Durrant

Running on EmptyRunning on Empty by S.E. Durrant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Running On Empty: a story of family, relationships, and of knotty moments and problems that need solving but don’t have easy solutions, a story of life, really. It’s the second novel from SE Durrant (the first, A Little Bit Of Sky, I review here). She’s an interesting writer in that she kind of slides into the heart of things and does so in a very gentle, truthful and honest manner. She’s a writer with heart, and Running On Empty is full of it.

AJ, the twelve year old lead, is having a bit of a rough time. He’s worried about his parents, who suffer from learning difficulties, and he’s trying to come to terms with the death of his grandfather, and the bills are piling up and he’s convinced that social services are at the door ready to break up his family. Throw into the mix the transition to senior school, trainers that don’t fit – not great when you’re a star runner – and there’s a whole whirl of problems all vying to make themselves felt first.

Running On Empty is somewhat stiff at first, reading a little protectively and defensively, but after a while it starts to work its subtle magic. Durrant has this great gift of finding the truth of people and of letting them be what they are, whether that brave or scared or foolish or whatever. This feels like a grounded and honest book, not in the least of the representation of AJ’s relationship with his parents. Young carer’s aren’t represented that much in children’s literature, and Durrant handles this well; never sliding towards ‘I AM WRITING ABOUT A YOUNG CARER ASK ME HOW’, but rather tenderly and sensitively sharing this story with the world.

It’s really quite something to deliver two books in a row that are as quiet and calm and as carefully crafted as these. I really do look forward to seeing what comes next from Durrant.

I am grateful to the publishers for a review copy.

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Ella On The Outside : Cath Howe

Ella on the OutsideElla on the Outside by Cath Howe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charming, subtle and incredibly – suddenly – moving, Ella On The Outside is one of those delightfully unclassifiable ‘thank god it’s in the world books that Nosy Crow does so well. It’s due out on May 3rd and I think it’s something to get on your radar now.

Ella is the new girl at school and things are going as well as you might expect under the circumstances. She’s trying to fit in, not really managing, and there’s this big secret that she’s not allowed to tell anybody. When she’s made friends with by Lydia (and I phrase that most deliberately thus), the school’s number one, things seem to work out but they really don’t. Lydia wants to know what Ella’s secret is and nothing’s going to stop her from finding out. And the worst sort of secrets are the ones which, inevitably, make themselves heard.

There’s a lot of heart in this, and Cath Howe’s writing is perfectly pitched. It captures that confusion of trying to do the right thing, trying to fit in, whilst all along not being sure what that right thing is. It’s a horribly familiar sentiment whatever age you are, and Howe gets the horrible edge of it so well. She also manages to get those moments of connection perfectly judged, those moments when you meet somebody who might normal and might be nice and might actually just turn out to be a friend after all of the drama has worked itself out.

Ella On The Outside also touches on some important issues, namely parental responsibility, the influence of prison on families, and mental wellbeing. Howe handles these well, and gracefully; I am increasingly looking for authors who present adults as adults within children’s literature, flawed and honest and real and scared, and this is a massive mark in this book’s favour.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy.

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Max the Detective Cat – The Disappearing Diva : Sarah Todd Taylor

Max the Theatre Cat and the Disappearing DivaMax the Detective Cat and the Disappearing Diva by Sarah Todd Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s been a spate of detectives in the world of children’s books over the last few years. There hasn’t, however, been a detective with four legs and a white tail. This is Max the Detective Cat who lives in the Theatre Royal and solves mysteries. There’s bold, and then there’s making your lead protagonist somebody who can’t communicate with humans bold. I’m pleased to say that, for the most part, Sarah Todd Taylor pulls it off.

There’s a little bit of scene setting at the start to get Max into position, as it were, and once that’s achieved, this book races off and merrily does its thing. And it does race. It’s sparingly put together in some nicely accessible chapters that are beautifully illustrated by Nicola Kinnear. I’d have welcome a tiny bit of variety with the images that open each chapter; there’s a mouse running across the stage and they are beautifully rendered but represent a bit of a lost opportunity with the storytelling (what would happen, for example, if the mouse’s position changed slightly as the book went on?). But I do also acknowledge that I am greedy with books like this because when they’re this enjoyable, you want more. Always.

I was a little concerned at how the resolution might be handled with the whole, you know, cats not being able to communicate intricate details of mysteries to humans thing, but it’s surprisingly convincing. I have to give Taylor a lot of credit in making this work, and making it work so plausibly. Her language is clean and direct, with a few very nice moments of character development for Max. There’s more to come from this series and I really do look forward to reading them.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Weaver : Qian Shi

The WeaverThe Weaver by Qian Shi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love in this debut picture book from Qian Shi, not in the least her fine and delicate artwork that sings of heart and love. The titular weaver is Stanley the spider who collects things and keeps them in his web. One day, his collection is washed away…

Where this book shines is in the artwork. There’s a sort of animated edge to Shi’s work, that roundness of line and that vibrancy of colour that makes many of these pages into something quite special. I’m always partial to a book that does something with endpapers, and even more partial with a book that does something good with endpapers, and these are subtle and wonderfully handled here. I’m also very fond of the balance here between double page spreads and multiple beats on the same page: this is a book which is almost filmic in its structure, with the storyboard of images and text working together so very nicely.

The story itself is simple, teaching children that they can hold onto the memory of something even when the thing itself is not there. There’s an obvious applicability towards grief and loss towards such a narrative, but this is also maybe a book to trot out when the favourite toy goes missing or when a big life change is about to occur. Shi’s text is sensitive, gently paced and restrained, knowing when to step back and let that fine and heartfelt artwork shine through. A charming, rather beautiful and rather evocative book.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley : Sue Purkiss

Jack Fortune: And the Search for the Hidden ValleyJack Fortune: And the Search for the Hidden Valley by Sue Purkiss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My eye was caught by the premise of this one. Jack is an orphaned boy and, after one prank too far, his Aunt washes her hands of him. Jack is sent to be with his Uncle, an exploring botanist, and the two of them are off to the Himalayas to find the rare blue rhododendron. But, as such things always are in books, that’s a lot easier said than done.

Jack Fortune and The Search For The Hidden Valley is a very enjoyable thing. Occasionally some of Purkiss’ prose feels a little conscious, and I’d welcome some clarity to the structure of the novel at points, the weight of the adventure carries her through. This is a really unusual setup for a book – not the adventure elements, but the botany subtext – and I think that’s a very welcome thing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that merges botany with a Boy’s Own adventure, and the little historical note for context at the back of the book is nicely done.

Set in eighteenth century England, and touching on issues of colonisation and British rule, there’s also an option for a lot of related discussion. Jack’s interactions with the locals are nicely done, if a little too briefly, and I’d welcome this sort of discussion being pushed forward in the sequels – I suspect there may be a sequel. It feels as though there should be. I’d like there to be one. There’s something so delicious about the premise, and Purkiss’ clear love of the genre, that one book really isn’t enough.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Stone Bird : Jenny McCartney, illus. Patrick Benson

The Stone BirdThe Stone Bird by Jenny McCartney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me a long time to understand The Stone Bird. When I first received it for review, I read it and didn’t quite connect with it. There was something not there for me, and so The Stone Bird slid to the pile of books that I don’t review, and it stayed there for a while. It was only recently when I revisited this pile, for I dislike not being able to write about books, and reread The Stone Bird that I realised I’d missed something. Whether that was me, or it, I’m still not sure, but I’m here and writing this review because this is an intriguing and very quietly powerful book. I suspect, perhaps, that quietness may lead it to be overlooked at first. It’s not a noisy story, and Patrick Benson’s illustrations, though wonderful, are a gently poised thing.

But quiet books matter, as much as the noisy ones, and the more I studied the pages of The Stone Bird, I began to understand the place in the world for this book. It’s a rainy day book; the sort that might get pushed under a cushion at first, but then suddenly catches your eye and is read and sings with that reading. It’s a long journey book, a thick summer evening book, a nestle into your life and never let go book. It is both sad and wonderful, elegiac and hopeful, poetic and soft, and I took a long time to realise that.

The story itself is one of apparent simplicity: Eliza has a pebble from the beach, and she knows the truth of it. It is no pebble, but an egg, and one night it hatches… There are some loose edges to McCartney’s language which I welcome; this shouldn’t be a story about precision and definite resolutions. Patrick Benson, illustrator of the blessed Owl Babies approaches this story with a quiet sensitivity. His work never rears off the page but rather lulls the reader in. It’s soft, rich, shimmering artwork that plays with edge and frame, and somehow manages to catch the thick heat of a summer’s day. It is a powerful, beautiful work and I am so glad that The Stone Bird gave me a second chance.

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