I Dare You : Reece Wykes

I Dare YouI Dare You by Reece Wykes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a picture book and honestly? I get a little twitchy when I’m away from them. I get a little nervous, as though a part of me is missing and it’s a part that can only be completed by delightful endpapers and books that give you the world in a handful of words. Picture books are the buttress of our literacies and they make us who we are.

And I Dare You by Reece Wykes is rather, utterly gorgeous. It’s the tale of two bored gorillas playing a game of dares. The game starts in relatively innocuous circumstances before slowly building up as the dares became even more and more outrageous until the final dare – one which I won’t spoil for you here -is posed. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully handled moment that spirals off into somewhere delightfully suggestive in the final endpapers. (A brief note: books that give different front and back endpapers, that little bit behind the cover and before the ‘story’ itself, are perfect. These are immense spaces and Wykes uses them quite perfectly).

There’s a lot to love about this dry, dark, funny book and it comes from both the text and the imagery – as all good picture books should. Textually; there’s a dominant motif of ‘I DARE YOU…’ which begs for the exuberant chant of storytime. There’s also a useful point to be made in I Dare You about the risks of taking dares too seriously and though it’s not explicitly made (thank God), the lesson is very much there. This is one to have around to prompt conversation and to consider; and that’s something very important indeed.

Where I Dare You also shines is in the vibrancy of the art work; it’s a nicely restricted palette of muted greens and the blankness of the page that lets the colour of the two gorillas – blue and orange – sing in cntrast. The gorillas, though, my goodness. Great stylised, suggestive lines – the fluidity of their arms – as they slide subtly into greater and more outlandish dares, always subtly catching each other’s eyes and making sure that they’re noticed. Cleverness isn’t easy in picture books; quiet cleverness is even harder. These gorillas sing with skill. This book is such an unexpected, offbeat joy and the ending is perfect. It’s a lot to ask to pack so much into so little and yet I Dare You does it with spades. And Gorillas.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Piglettes : Clémentine Beauvais

PiglettesPiglettes by Clémentine Beauvais

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m always a little wary when I get offered a book to review that’s been written by somebody I know in real life. One of the things that I’m very deliberate on is that when I review, it comes from a place of honesty. And sometimes, I get concerned that that place might be affected by the people I know and because I am British and genetically trained for introversion, I get a bit conscious of that and so, every now and then, dither. So, I shall dither no more and simply tell you this: I’m lucky enough to know Clémentine in real life and she is as generous a scholar as she is as wonderful a writer. Piglettes is a joy and it is ferocious and particular and vivid and wonderful. It is a wonderful, wonderful book and it should be very much on your radar, my bookish friends.

Mireille, Astrid and Hakima have won a competition that nobody really wants to win. They are officially the three ugliest girls in their school and, because this is a competition that happens entirely online, there’s nothing that the school can do about it. It is something that the girls have to deal with on their own – or, together. The three of them band together in their adversity and decide that they’re going to cycle to Paris and gatecrash a garden party ran by the French president – a party that each girl has their own particular reasons for being there. It’s a trip powered by sausages, cheese, and cycles and it is glorious. I loved this. I loved it so much. There are moments in it that had me in raptures and moments that had me in tears; Beauvais writes with such nuance that this book gives you everything. Cheese. Lessons on body image. Friendship. Love. Sausages. It is a delight.

One of the big things about this bok is also how it treats some deep psychological issues. It’s easy to see it all about the sparking wit and humour of the narrator, Mireille, but there’s such a depth to it. Her wit and her humour comes because that’s how she’s learnt to survive and, in a few painfully beautiful asides, this becomes revealed as she wills her fellow ‘piglettes’ to not cry and show how upset they are. It’s painful, it’s gorgeous, it’s beautiful. And my god, the food in this book is something else. There is a special place in my heart for young adult books that dance with joy over sausage recipes. What an utter treat this book is. I want to wrap my arms around it and never let it go.

My (immense) thanks to Pushkin for a review copy. It’s due out in July. I suggest you make a note in your diary.

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My Name is Not Refugee : Kate Milner

My name is not RefugeeMy name is not Refugee by Kate Milner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this increasingly complex and difficult world we live in, I’ve been looking for books that help to explain and support younger readers. They have often proven of immense value to myself and the dual appeal of texts like this to both adult and child cannot be ignored. Step towards children’s books if you’re struggling to find answers; there’s something to be said for the pure poetics and the stylistic truths that can exist in this space.

I was delighted to come across My Name Is Not Refugee, a picture book which tells the story of an unnamed mother and son who need to leave their home. As we go along their journey, the text occasionally turns towards the reader and asks a direct question of them: “Can you speak more than one language?” or “What would you take?” It’s a simple technique and yet an incredibly potent one. Books like this thrive not only on the story that they provide but also on the discussion they provoke. I was very pleased to discover an excellent teacher’s resource kit for My Name Is Not Refugee and would direct you there as a matter of haste.

Milner’s great strength comes in her restraint; the text is poised and quiet, simply rendering the events with a sort of matter of fact air. Being a refugee is scary but also “quite exciting too”, yet she doesn’t hold back from showing the moments beyond those words. Some of the most powerful spreads in the book show great scenes beyond the text; swathes of tents in the distant, or a host of people sleeping on mats on the floor. What makes these even more beautiful is how Milner uses white space; many of the images are wrapped in white space, and so become evocative, painful little moments. It’s the detail, really, of a big journey that’s almost too big to understand, and it’s gracefully done.

There’s a lot to love about this incredibly deft and sensitively told picture book. Bring this towards little people who are asking questions – and bring it towards those little people who aren’t. My Name Is Not Refugee has this great, great range of appeal and I have a lot of time for it, I really do.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Things A Bright Girl Can Do : Sally Nicholls

Things a Bright Girl Can DoThings a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been sitting on this review for a week or so, in that gloriously selfish phase of having read a Good Book but not wanting to talk about it. Sometimes I want to wallow in that sensation and just hold it tight to myself, that feeling of having read something transformative, big, honest and real. The events of the past few days have, however, reminded me of the importance of talking about this sort of thing and so here I am; earlier than I intended, because this book is not due out until September, but I think now’s the right time to tell you about it.

Sally Nicholls is a joy. She has this great gift of story; and so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Things A Bright Girl Can Do. It’s Suffragettes, it’s history, it’s bravery, it’s love. It’s gorgeous, really, and it made me so utterly possessive of it. It follows the stories of three different girls as they work to realise their political and personal views. They fall in love, out of love, and the relationships which underpin this novel are beautiful and sensitively told. Honestly too; there’s no easy racing off into the sunset here, everything has to be earned.

I loved this book. It’s so determined and genuine, and Nicholls tells the story with such a straightforward honesty that it’s hard to not get sucked in. It’s a perspective that I haven’t read enough of and so I also welcome this. To add to that, I’m also very grateful for the rise of overtly political and politicised young adult fiction. Things A Bright Girl Can Do doesn’t sugarcoat the process of becoming politically active, but it does render it as an absolutely vital experience.

And it believes in teenagers, young people. It believes in their chance and their ability to make a difference. Get this on pre-order now, and when it comes shelve it with something like Troublemakers, and let them work their respective magics.

As I said at the start of this review, I didn’t really want to talk about Things A Bright Girl Can Do because I was selfish over it. Possessive. But here’s the thing, that’s what a good book gives you. You have that moment with it and then you realise that, as great and vital as that moment is, it’s time to share it with the world because you can’t let a book that’s as good as this go unheard.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Troublemakers : Catherine Barter

TroublemakersTroublemakers by Catherine Barter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to write this review. I loved Troublemakers but I didn’t know how to write about it. It’s a curious thing, sort of not quite what I expected it to be and somehow more than that. It’s a big book. It’s thick and edible and layered with a thousand different notes, and all of them hook into you and don’t let you go. I loved it. I don’t know how to write about it, so maybe I’ll try and give you something different than my normal reviews.

But let’s begin with the blurb. Alena lives with her half-brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, in the east end of London. She has never known her mother who died when she was a baby. Danny and Nick are her family. Danny, though, has taken a job with a local politician who’s aiming to be London Mayor; somebody is terrorising the local area by leaving bombs in supermarkets, and Alena’s suddenly desperate to know more about her past. Her family.

This is a coming of age story, and it’s a yell into the world, that moment when you walk to the edge of the beach, dip your toes in the sea and yell out into the blue beyond that you are here that you matter that you exist. Troublemakers is an affirmation; a defiance, but it’s also somehow more than that. It’s like Sunday Lunch with the people you love, those lunches where you know everything almost a moment before it happens because you know these people. It’s about family, forgiveness, foolishness, love. The shape of people. The mistakes of people. The love. The cup of tea, the feet up on the sofa, the recognition of what makes you you. It’s a little bit Jenny Downham, a little bit Annabel Pitcher, but it’s very much itself. It’s feelings, and fear and friendships. Coffee. Hope. Hate. Joy.

I still don’t know how to write about this book, but oh I know how to write about what it made me feel.

My thanks to Andersen for a review copy.

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Pigeon P.I : Meg McLaren

Pigeon P.I.Pigeon P.I. by Meg McLaren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When it comes to picture books, I always, always have to talk about the complexity of them. They are hard beasts to get right, they are even harder beasts to do well. Pigeon P.I is something quite oddly wonderful, a sort of mashup of gumshoe detective drama with a lot of bird puns and something quite delightful in the process. Forgive me for simply reciting the blurb in whole but I think it does the business better than anything I can

CASE No. 621 – Feathered friends are going missing all over town, but private investigator Murray likes the quiet life … until a little bird tells him a story the famous Pigeon P.I cannot ignore.

There’s such a lot to enjoy in this book from the wry beginning of “Business was slow / just the way I liked it” through to the exuberant flurry of detail that dots nearly every page and in substantial amounts. Some of the more specific puns may require explaining (“Privet Eye – Gardening Solutions”) but it’s a delight to pick them out and this is a book that will sing with repeated reading (“Two beaks are better than one”). As Murray starts to work his way through the case, he comes into contact with a range of individuals – plucky canaries, furtive pigeons, and the reveal of the eventual kingpin is a delight. It’s a soaring, intense, bold double spread and one that stamps the book with such a moment that you can’t help but stop and drink it in.

I’d definitely place this a little towards the older edge of picture books, somewhere around Elys Dolan and Sarah Bee because of the dense detail and puns. It’s such a smart and witty book, and it’s one that gives different endpapers! Endpapers are so important! The reader gets a guide to investigation at the start of the book – take quiet snacks, and not ‘quiet but impractical’ snacks such as jelly; whilst the end of the book has tips on advanced detection featuring Duck Tracy and Sherstork Holmes. A delight. A bold, mad, glorious delight.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Evie’s Ghost : Helen Peters

Evie's GhostEvie’s Ghost by Helen Peters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a story to tell you about this. I was chatting with one of my lovely librarian colleagues about the books I was going to review and mentioned ‘Evie’s Ghost’. It turned out that her daughter had adored Peters’ The Secret Hen House Theatre and had gone so far as to buy a copy of it for a friend for her birthday. Now that says a lot for me. I love children’s books, but I’m not a child. A recommendation from those ‘on the ground’, as it were, is an important and wonderful thing. I value them. Immensely. And so when I came to read Evie’s Ghost I was so pleased to see that Peters was worth it. This book, a sort of Tom’s Midnight Garden meets Charlotte Sometimes, is charming. Intensely.

Evie has been sent off to stay with her godmother whilst her mother has gone off on honeymoon with her new husband. Bearing in mind that Evie doesn’t know her godmother, at all, it’s all a bit awkward. However, the first night in the spare room changes everything. Evie goes to bed in the present-day and wakes up in 1814. She’s a housemaid, forced to scrub and clean and do thousand tasks whilst being painfully encouraged with the odd clip around the ear. But she’s gone back in time for a reason. Something awful is about to happen in this house and it’s up to Evie to solve it…

One of the great things about Peters’ writing is that she manages to juxtapose the everyday with the fantastical. You believe Evie’s journey between times, and you recognise her reaction. The sensibilities of a modern child, with running water and amenities, is neatly juxtaposed against the historical context of 1814 where quite a few things are different. There’s a lot of history and period terminology looped in this, and it’s handled really well. It’s a charming, pacy, rich adventure story. I rave a lot about the books that Nosy Crow produces but they have an eye for story. That transferable, rich, layered sense of story. Evie’s Ghost is such a solid and rich story. I read a lot for this age, and I’m always intrigued by those stories that catch me by surprise. This did, and I loved it. I also really welcomed how Peters … (view spoiler)

I love how I’m coming across some smart and genuine time-slip stories at the moment. Maybe this is the next thing? If they’re all as good and as well told as this, then I’ll be very happy.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy. Evie’s Ghost is out at the start of April.

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