Fish Boy : Chloe Daykin

Fish BoyFish Boy by Chloe Daykin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this determined novel from Daykin. Fish Boy, her first book for middle grade readers, sings of something very peculiar and very distinct. Billy Shiel is a boy with a lot on his mind. Some of that centres on his mother’s mysterious illness, some of that centres on his troubles at school where he’s not really managing to cope and so he swims in the sea and listens to David Attenborough and somehow, manages to keep going. Just. But then everything changes when a new boy starts at school and a mackerel swims up to Billy and starts to talk to him…

It’s a delightful book to sum up because it is so resolutely what it is. The episodes between Billy and the mackerel sing of something so resolutely other and unknown that there’s a temptation to tie it off with a precise explanation. This, I’m pleased to note, is something Daykin resists and I applaud that. The world has space for mystery and for doubt and this book sings of that edge in between knowing and unknowing. Fact. Fiction. Sometimes it’s very hard to parse the world when you’re under a lot of pressure. It’s even harder to do that when you’re dealing with unknown and unnamed illnesses, as Billy and his family are.

I like this. I like Daykin’s fragmentary and determinedly restrained prose. It’s shard-like at points; jagged, bare-boned paragraphs that consist of maybe one word or two and even then, you’re not sure you wholly know who’s speaking or where the language is coming from. Magic. Mystery. Mackerels. Even writing that makes me smile. Give Fish Boy to those readers who love David Almond but also Micheal Morpurgo where he’s at his more magical. There’s something rather beautiful about this stubborn, pointed, eccentric and utterly vivid novel. I really hope it swims.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Dragon’s Green : Scarlett Thomas

Dragon's GreenDragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dragon’s Green is a really intriguing book and one that I sort of thought I wouldn’t like and then really rather did. It reaches in a thousand different directions, some more successfully than others, and when it hits, it’s utterly wonderful.

So, a plot precis: Euphemia Truelove, pupil of a school for the Gifted And Strange, is set to inherit a very unusual library from her very unusual grandfather. And alongside that inheritence come problems of a very deep and dark nature that can only be solved with some friends, some magical boons, and a lot of bravery. It’s the first novel of a series and, perhaps even more praise-worthily, manages to deliver a self-contained story that doesn’t have one of those hideous ‘tune in next time’ cliff-hangers.

There’s a place for this sort of novel within children’s and young adult literature and I’m pleased that Thomas is filling it. I get asked quite a lot about books to read after Harry Potter and despite a lot of effort (again, some better than others), there’s never really been anything to fill that gap. Dragon’s Green inhabits that ‘next’ space really nicely and in doing so, delivers something that speaks to both Harry Potter but also to Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson. And they’re not authors to invoke lightly, but Dragon’s Green, when it connects and when it hits its moments full on, invokes those connections and does it with spades.

I like this. I like the complexity of it, and I like how straightfoward Thomas is in delivering it and I love how much she trusts her characters to do the things that they need to do. It’s not a perfect novel. There’s a saggy middle which loses its way somewhat, and there’s a few moments which needed a bit of rereading in order to fully understand. But, even having said that (and it is something that definitely needs to be acknowledged) I didn’t stop reading this wonderfully distinct and convincing novel. I didn’t want to stop reading it at all. There’s the kernels of something very good here.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Inside, Outside, Upside, Down : Yasmeen Ismail

Inside, Outside, Upside DownInside, Outside, Upside Down by Yasmeen Ismail

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to like about this charming sequence of activity books from Ismail and I think a lot of centres on the value of an unfinished line. Take a look, next time you’re somewhere bookish, at a similar book, maybe one of those colouring in things that are everywhere. Take a look at how they construct an image. I’ll guess that it’s definite, solid, unbroken line. The sort of line you colour firmly within the boundaries of. Those lines are great and gorgeous and serve an incredibly relevant function in that context but Ismail’s lines are different. They have space in them; air, and don’t quite touch at the end, or run over a line, or leave a little gap before bouncing out into the whiteness of the page beyond. And that’s important in a book like this, aimed at those who have a little bit of dexterity in drawing, a little bit of ability to colour (4yrs+), because it allows mistakes. It allows ownership. It allows and it facilitates drawing to fall out of the gaps and spill across and over things. It’s a simple thing, but it’s smartly done and it recurs in the other book in the series I had a look at: Push, Pull, Empty, Full. Ismail gets line. She gets the freedom of it and what it can tell a reader, even when they don’t know that it’s talking to it.

Content wise, Inside, Outside, Upside Down is a joy. Three characters, Duck, Bear and Rabbit, explore a range of situations involving paired words and opposites over a series of double page spreads. In one example, Bear holds his bag right side up and the reader is asked to colour Bear’s bag. The pairing image, on the right hand side of the page, sees Bear’s bag upside down and the reader asked to ‘draw what’s falling out’. There are some quite complex thought processes here which is why it reaches a little bit towards the older age of the demographic. But oh, Ismail’s use of line and the slightly offbeat questions and challenges towards the reader are so very definitely worth it. What a smart and kind book this is.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy of this title.

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The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen : Hope Nicholson

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book HistoryThe Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History by Hope Nicholson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Due out in May, this is one of those books that I want to write about now and talk about now because it’s great. Simple as that; I have been looking for books and for writers that historicise their work from a female and a feminist perspective because, so often, that is a perspective that is lacking. And it’s a perspective that I’ve not come across that much in comics and so, because of all of that, and the characters that this text covers, and the sheer welcome presence of it, that I review it and tell you to get it on order and get it on request and to find a hole in your budget for it now.

Nicholson writes with a lot of love for her subject and isn’t afraid to pull and poke at the holes within it. There are always problems in beloved things; nothing is not perfect and there’s a skill in being able to love and to address the problematics within your subject. Nicholson doesn’t shy away from addressing these and I was struck most powerfully by this with her discussion of Witchblade. Witchblade is a comic I’ve always struggled with visually and Nicholson both reassured me with this perspective whilst helping me to understand the aesthetic more. And I like this; I like people that make me think twice about something.

So yes, this is an early review, but it’s a review that I’ve sat on for about two weeks now and that I don’t want to sit on any more. This is an important and relevant book that talks about heroines ranging from Squirrel Girl through to Xavin through to The Wing. Nicholson ranges widely and freely around her topic and I like that a lot. I like this book, can you tell? There’s a place for it in the world, and I’d like it to inhabit it quite solidly. As Nicholson herself writes, strong female protagonists “belong in comics [and] they’ve been there all along.”

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Transformers Robots In Disguise : Where Crown City Comes to Life

Transformers: Robots in Disguise: Where Crown City Comes to LifeTransformers: Robots in Disguise: Where Crown City Comes to Life by Caroline Rowlands

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s something rather wonderful about a book which elicits a “Whoah” from everyone you show it to. Transformers : Robots in Disguse : Where Crown City Comes To Life is a non-fiction media tie-in with one very unique aspect: augmented reality. For those of you yet to come across this, the most overt example of augmented reality within the media recently has been Pokemon Go. Through the usage of an app on their phone, people are able to look through the camera onto a scene and ‘see’ an introduced virtual object into that scene.

I’ve not seen much work with augmented or interactive realities in children’s literature, fiction or non-fiction (perhaps the best one I know of is the The Search for WondLa though that’s a few years old now), and so when I heard about this title – and its contemporaries – I got in touch with the publisher who kindly provided me with a review copy. And oh, oh, it’s really brilliant. This is the sort of book that challenges the opposition between books and technology by integrating the two; the book is used as a book, but as a space for interactive play, and for investigation, and as a game. It is the sort of book that you give the child who will play a game for ever and yet, struggles with books for one reason or another. It’s a bridge, this, but it’s immensely spectacular in its own right.

Format wise, it’s fairly traditionally presented nonfiction and it’s the AR element which makes it. It’s not the biggest of books, but it’s well produced and robust. It goes through several of the key autobots and decepticons, and certain pages have embedded AR elements on them so after downloading the free app, you’re able to hold your phone over these pages and ‘unlock’ a further element of them. This ranges from being able to walk and transform bots, through to driving around the room. Additional features of the app let you have robot fights with another party. I tested all the options but the latter and found them all excellent. Some of the finer detail / handling was a little complex, and there’s a brief learning curve to cope with so it might be useful to have a parent / savvy elder sibling round if needs be. But, I loved this. This is exciting, savvy work, and I’m thrilled to have a book out there in the world that does it so well.

I’ve added some pictures here of some of the AR features on the Sideswipe page. The first shows the page as it is, the second and third with the AR activated.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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What is Red? : Suzanne Gottlieb & Vladimir Bobri

What Is Red?What Is Red? by Suzanne Gottlieb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recently republished by the blessed Bodleian Library, What is Red? is a charming and rather beautiful book. It’s a simple journey through a series of colours framed around a question and answer dialogue: “What is Red? / Red is the colour of many things / – apples and berries and warm glowing fires” (A quick reminder, when I use ‘/’ in quotes, it’s to show where the line breaks are.) This continues throughout as we learn that the earth is brown, that the sky is blue and that the sun is yellow. The book concludes with the protagonist, Jonny, learning that night is black and it’s time to go to bed and dream of tomorrow’s adventures.

Originally published in 1961, this has a rather distinct charm about it. Bobri’s vibrant and beautiful illustrations would sell this book by itself. It’s a thick, chunky sort of style that occasionally borders on abstraction and it’s gorgeous. These are illustrations to wallow in; colour spills from edge to edge on the page, a tall sunflower grins down, and beyond the window, a fat, rich sun rises with thick yellow triangular rays. I did feel some of the accompanying texts were a little cumbersome and wordy, but I suspect much of that is grounded in my love for the illustrations; I’ll always inch towards a slender, finely worked narrative where the illustrations are this strong and impactful.

I am grateful to the Bodleian for the chance to review this title.

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The Farmer and the Fairy and other stories : Elizabeth Clark

The Farmer and the Fairy: And Other StoriesThe Farmer and the Fairy: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘The Farmer and The Fairy and other stories’ is a beautifully produced volume of Elizabeth Clark’s folkloric stories. Drawn from a variety of cultures, these stories range from ‘Yogodagu and the Bees of Yamato’ through to ‘The Tale of King Solomon and the Hoopoe’. Illustrated throughout by my beloved Nina K. Brisley (who worked on the original Chalet School hardbacks), the volume contains a series of small, detailed black and white illustrations and the occasional full page colour plate. It also has a ribbon of which I approve greatly. There is very little better in books than a good ribbon.

Clark is new to me, but her work reminded very much of the Perraults and of Madame D’Aulnoy. She retells stories without losing their original roots, situating them within their cultural context whilst allowing the story to speak for itself. Certain of these cultural aspects, particularly as embodied in Brisley’s illustrations, have dated a little but again, these are discussions and learning processes for the reader to engage with and learn from.

I liked this slim volume a lot, though I suspect it might inch in appeal towards the collector as opposed to the more general audience. One aspect I undoubtedly loved were the comprehension questions at the back of the novel; I’m not sure as to whether they’re original or added in for this volume, but they’re all twisted towards asking the reader to retell the story and make it their own. This focus on the communicative aspect of story, of the transference of literature, is something that has a very great weight within children’s literature. and I will always love it.

I am grateful to Pikku Publishing for the review copy.

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