Adder, Bluebell, Lobster, written by Chrissie Gittins and illustrated by Paul Bonner (Otter-Barry books)


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Today is launch day for this lovely book and, although teaching commitments have meant this blog has been much neglected, I had to write about this (and hooray, it’s the summer hols!).


I first came across Chrissie’s work a few years ago when I was asked to review ‘The Humpback Wail’ for Write4Children, the International Journal for the Practice and Theories of Writing for Children and Children’s Literature based at Winchester University. Here’s that review (on page 34 if you care to look!):

Click to access w4cJanvol4iss12013.pdf

Two years ago, Chrissie just happened to pop into the Children’s Department at Heffers in Cambridge on one of my shifts. It was lovely to meet her and find about ‘Stars in Jars ‘, her latest offering at the time. I have always read poetry to the children, but they particularly like Chrissie’s work (High-Chair is still their firm favourite).

Poetry is brilliant for children because you can dip in and out of them, a huge range of topics are covered and different emotions can be conveyed, all in the same book. And of course they are heaps of fun to read out loud. Jess especially likes reading poetry because it helps her think of ideas for songs. Toby likes the sound of them when you read them out.

‘Adder, Bluebell, Lobster’ is particularly special because it was written in reaction to the discovery by Lisa Saunders that words – particularly nature words – were disappearing from the Junior Oxford Dictionary in favour of words like blog and broadband. My kids always dropping words like hashtag and vlog, and of course they have their place, but it is sad that other words are vanishing from the dictionary they are most likely to turn to at school. When I was their age, the school nurse (we still had one) used witch hazel to cure all ails (only 30 years ago but seems so alien now) and I learnt that willow bark was natural aspirin and that people used to chew on it during labour (bet that helped). Words like hazel and willow are important to me, and I’m so glad they are being celebrated in this way – such a positive thing to do. I love that they are being preserved in this way – like a bumper crop of blackberries turned into jam that sees you through winter. And unlike the jam, this will happily sit on your shelf for the rest of your life. I also love that the publisher’s name includes one of the words in the collection! And it is also wonderful to have Paul Bommer’s illustrations in this – he illustrated ‘The  Humpback’s Wail’, so it’s nice to see the pair reunited.

The kids and I really loved reading these poems and I wanted to thank Chrissie for writing them. So they’ve read a few that they really love (with me reading the first line of ‘Blackberry’ because Jess couldn’t quite pronounce ‘globule’ and wanted it to be perfect!). I hope you can hear them! And do, do buy this book – children need poetry, and this book is especially lovely (and important).

For further info about Chrissie, this is her website:

This is Paul Bommers’ website:

And to find out more about the disappearing words, please to go

Book, written by David Mills and illustrated by Natalie Hoopes (Familius)


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I am always (probably mis-)quoting Philip Pullman about books. In a BBC documentary a while ago he said that a book is second only to the wheel as the best piece of technology human beings have ever invented. You could break its spine or drop it in the bath, and it still works.
Book by David Mills taps into that idea. With books there are no bonus levels to find or viruses that can wipe it – just words and pictures that are transformed with a reader’s imagination. That is why I love books – because reading is an active thing (I’m always banging on about it): what you bring to the story matters. You, as reader, matter.
I thought that Book was perhaps a bit too obvious about what is isn’t – i.e. modern technology – but my kids didn’t pick up on that. They saw it for a reading of what a book is or can be – focussing on the positive, and how it is better than so many things and not just a broken screen etc. It is a gentle tale showing how wonderful reading is and we really liked it. We also really liked the illustrations.
 There is so much to see in each illustration and lots to spark new ideas. For me, I found them to be a kind of beautified version of illustrations by Maurice Sendak. I know everyone loves his stuff but Where the Wild Things Are has always totally creeped me out. But these have beauty and intrigue – and definitely peril – but without the disturbing element I always see in his work. Maybe that’s just me, but I love these.
So, a lovely book about books with fantabulous (I am allowed to use that word as it’s my blog) illustrations. Check it out.

Penguin’s Way and Whale’s Way, written by Johanna Johnston and illustrated by Leonard Weisgard (Bodleian Children’s Books)


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I was very excited when I read in The Bookseller that the Bodleian Library has launched a children’s imprint. Penguin’s Way and Whale’s Way will be the first to be released.

There has been a fashion in the children’s book industry to plunder out of print titles for the last few years – and many of them, and indeed I think most of them, deserve this resurrection. These books were heavy on the nostalgia – mainly targeted at grandparents – but that has definitely moved on. Books are being brought back to life because they are still relevant for the current generation – and this is definitely the case with these Johanna Johnston books.

Both of them offer facts about the way of life for the animals, and there were many things in both books that I didn’t know – for example, plankton meaning ‘wandering’. In Penguin’s Way we are taking through a year’s cycle, and it doesn’t focus on a particular penguin. There are no named characters in it, and yet it is most definitely a story – and a compelling one at that. Out of the two, it is definitely my favourite, but that is only because I really love penguins.

In Whale’s Way part of it does focus on a family – but again does so with this balance of neutrality of observation, the same kind of space you get between animal and narrator in a nature documentary, with enough carefully chosen words to get you to care about the animals. And luckily nothing bad happens to this family – though you know that it could have done, and that is enough to get the heart racing. It is extremely clever.

The illustrations, both done with a stripped back palette, are beautiful. I would love to see an exhibition of them some day – they are gorgeous works of art.

My two were transfixed throughout both. They would make perfect presents for any child interested in nature or these animals in particular – or if you want to get them something in between fact and fiction that you know they will read again and again.


These books really are forgotten gems and take the fashion of bring back out of print books to a new level. They both feel modern, they are engaging and fascinating and allow us to discover an author and illustrator team we might never have known about. I certainly didn’t.

I am delighted that with these choices – and look forward to seeing what will be discovered in the Bodleian archive in the future (and my goodness, who has that job? How much fun is that!!??).

Both books sent for review by Bodleian Children’s Books.

The Winter Wolf, written by Cliff McNish and illustrated by Trish Phillips



It gives me great pleasure to introduce this story by Cliff McNish. I was privileged enough to see it whilst it was being fine tuned and it is wonderful to see it complete – and accompanied by beautiful illustrations.

link-to-a-new-children-s-fairy-tale-by-cliff-mcnish-the-winter-wolfIt’s not very summery at the moment anyway, so it seemed appropriate to read it, snuggled up together on the sofa.

It is a tale about a wolf, tortured with grief over the death of his youngest cub. The young animals of the forest hear his cries but keep away because of the stern warnings from badger and their parents. But one brave squirrel is drawn to the desolate howls and offers to keep the wolf company during the night.

Each night, the squirrel gets closer and closer. It is only when he feels the wolf’s hot breath on his neck that he remembers what badger said……

But the wolf does not mean to harm him and the squirrel looks on as his friend is united with the ghost of his son.

It is a moving tale and the language is beautiful. It reminds me of Eastern European folk tales – and has a touch of the Oscar Wilde about it (I’m thinking of his stories for children), with its maudlin feel. My daughter in particular was captivated throughout and was hugely animated during the telling – ‘He ISN’T bad Mummy, the other animals have it wrong’, ‘Oh the poor wolf, he is so sad’. When the squirrel is close to the wolf she suddenly grew very worried – her hands were clenched into tight fists, pressed under her wide eyes as she breathed out ‘Oh no!’. ‘Phew!’ she said, when she realised the squirrel was safe. I was particularly pleased about her reaction as that is the part of the story I saw being developed – the build up is spot on, and the lovely reunion just after is such sweet release.

It was such a pleasure to read it out loud and I would love it if a drama company took hold of it – I think this would make a fantastic production and I could see it being lapped up at primary schools. It certainly deserves to be performed.

I know this story means a lot to Cliff. He is being incredibly generous and is allowing anyone who is interested to download it for free – so please do take up him on that. And if you don’t know his work then get reading! You are in for a treat if you do. Go to his website to access it:

I (Don’t) Like Snakes, written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Luciano Lozano (Walker)


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This is a fact book framed by a simple story. The story is about a little girl doesn’t like snakes but the rest of her family love them (and own a great many).

41ixbbk8ctLThe girl lists all the reasons why she doesn’t like them – they are slimy, their eyes are stare-y and so on, and varying family members explain a bit about them (how in fact they aren’t slimy or that their eyes do seem to stare because they don’t have eyelids). Eventually she comes around to liking them – not even when her brother explains the ways they kill their prey. With new enthusiasm, she even finds things out about how snakes have their babies herself.

The kids really enjoyed this. The facts were fascinating and the story made it interesting and encouraged the kids to ask their own questions.

The illustrations are a mix of fun sketch-like pictures of the family and detailed ones of snakes.

The kids have re-read this book several times already this week. It’s nice to have a non-fiction book that works in picture book format. It’s a definite thumbs up from them about the book and about snakes.

I however did not know that snakes could fly until I read this book. Toby has explained that it really is just big leaping but OH DEAR ME. I did NOT want to know about this. I want to unlearn it. Desperately. I wasn’t fussed either way about snakes before but now, I’m really not keen. I definitely don’t like snakes.

Mum goes to work, written by Libby Gleeson and illustrated by Leila Rudge (Walker)


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After the glut of Dad-focussed books I thought I’d share this one (first out in May of this year).


It is aimed at young children, possibly just starting their childcare experience. However it’s useful for any children who have mums that go to work. Because it’s a very common thing to actually explain to your child what it is you do when you’re not with them. The work we do, the places we go, are often a complete mystery to children and they are very keen to know!

I realised this last year when my daughter told everyone in her class that I definitely did something with a computer some times and other times I talked about books in a bookshop. She didn’t mention the teaching I do or various other things and so I made a point of taking both kids to – or showing them photos of – my workplaces and explained a bit more about what I did. After that she always wanted to know – and still does – which job I’ve been doing and was I sitting in the chair I span her around in? And the fact that mummy needs to work – in order to pay for things – is something important for them to know too.

Anyway – this book does a lovely job of showing what children get up to in a nursery setting and also what the different mummies are doing. Ali’s mum, for example, is a teacher and reads a story to her class. She then helps them write their own stories and prepares for the next day.

It is similar to What Does Daddy Do? by Rachel Bright (Puffin) although that is a funny account – this is a gentle exploration of the adventures both the children and the parents have.

So if your children are about to start nursery – or are gearing themselves up for school – then keep this in mind.

Don’t Think About Purple Elephants, written by Susan Whelan and illustrated by Gwynneth Jones (EK Books)


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Some kids are very chilled out and others – like my daughter – worry about everything. This is a book for the worriers of the world.


Sophie worries all the time but especially at night. Her family come up with all sorts of ideas to help – a glass of milk, a favourite toy (or in the case of the family cat, a mouse to play with – eek!). Nothing helps. Until her mum tells her not to think about purple elephants.

Sophie thinks that this is a very silly thing for her mum to say. But as soon as her eyes are closed images of purple elephants immediately pop up into her mind. They are very nice elephants too, doing all sorts of fun things, and do she is finally able to drift off into a happy slumber.

At the end of the book she has firmly decided to not think about purple elephants – she is going to not think about blue monkeys instead.

As a worrier myself, I know all about how they always come at night – when the world is quiet and your brain starts going crazy. Jess enjoyed this story without seeing it as issue focussed because it is tackled with a light approach. The illustrations are also lovely – and show how Sophie feels when she worries very successfully. The elephants are also extremely cute.

If you don’t worry, you’ll still enjoy it. But if you do worry, this is a good book to have around. We’ve taken to saying things like ‘I certainly won’t be thinking about green hedgehogs’ when I tuck the kids up at night. The idea has definitely caught on.

This would be a great book to use in schools too – sadly with things like SATs, kids are all too aware of feeling anxious these days. Young people need guidance about dealing with fears and worries, and I think this is a great book to choose.

(Kindly sent to us for review by EK Books)

The Secret Dog written by Joe Friedman (Birlinn Ltd)


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I have been excited about this book since February when I first saw the proof in the bookshop.


The story concerns 11 year old Josh who, since his mother’s death, has been living on a remote island with his uncle Calum. Calum is a hard working farmer who doesn’t really do emotions of talking. Josh is seen as an outsider by most of the children on the island and so he is lonely and still deeply grieving. However, he has one distraction – animals – which, of course, are in abundant supply on the island. He is naturally skilled at finding injured animals and then helping them get better. One day he discovers an abandoned Border collie pup and decides to take her home. Calum would never allow a pet and so Josh has to keep her a secret, vowing to train her up as a sheepdog and so show her worth.

This is a compelling story. Josh is mature in so many ways, caring for animals with great tenderness and devotion. Yet he is so young in other ways – and so lonely it is heart breaking. But the arrival of Reggae (named after his mother’s favourite kind of music) is the catalyst for great change. Yvonne, the vet’s daughter, discovers Josh’s secret and helps him out – developing a friendship along the way.

There are some nasty characters in this – a man called Dunham who mistreats his own dogs as well as his son Kearney. Kearney starts off as Josh’s foe but when Dunham steals Reggae and Josh and Yvonne set out to get her back, he makes a brave decision and stands against his father.

John is allowed to put Reggae through her paces at the local sheepdog trials and there is success. Uncle Calum softens and you know that things are going to be ok.

There are some real tense, nail biting moments. I’m not one for nature, but I felt I was there on the island, enjoying its beauty and searching for animals in distress. The story has great pace and the ending is satisfying but not over the top – things are just as they should be. It left a smile on my face for days.

Any Dick King Smith fans would love this – but equally, if you don’t think you really ‘do’ animal stories, then do read this – you will most definitely enjoy it.

A note about the Radio 2 500WORD final (finally!)


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Yes I know, I know – this has taken me a while to mention but I HAVE been in the middle of exam marking. Well actually I still am – but I’ve got to have a bit of fun in my life again.

The Radio 2 500WORD final took place on 29th May and it was a fantastic event. Here’s a bit about what happened.

As well as the Chris Evans Breakfast Show crew there were actors, presenters and musicians. There were also 25 of us volunteer judges. But most importantly there were 50 finalists, accompanied by just one parent (that must have been hard to choose which one – and it made me think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where those children clutching golden tickets could also only take one parent). It was the first time the Final has been held at St James’ Palace and it was a bit surreal, sitting in on a live Radio 2 broadcast from a state room.

We had to get to the Palace for 6am so there were lots of bleary eyed people when I arrived. There was a lot of excitement though and everyone had dressed up – one boy wore a top hat and carried it off brilliantly. The broadcast itself was fun and relaxed and there were lots of opportunities to wander around and talk to people. The Vamps sat just in front of me and played really well. Will Young did alright too.

The main judges – Malorie Blackman, Charlie Higson and Francesca Simon – were there, looking very pleased. They’d had the task of selecting the winners, and the ones they chose were well balanced: two highly moving, two funny and two outstanding stories. The parents were so proud – one of the Dads of a finalist (Lara) cried throughout the whole broadcast! It was wonderful to see them read by well-known actors also dressed smartly – although Jeremy Irons did look very dishevelled (in a deeply cool way of course). He later told me he’d raced down from Oxford on his motorbike which I guess explains why.

Three of us volunteer judges were interviewed, including me. A fair few people have since said that they heard me which was cool. Chris mistakenly said that I’d been married for 3 years, rather than judging, which was hilarious.

We weren’t allowed to take photos in the Palace so all I have to show for it is me outside it:


Note the Palace themed belt (very important that sort of stuff):


But I prefer this photo which is me at a totally deserted King’s Cross waiting for the Tube to open so I could make my way there:


I am very cross now as I could have done the Harry Potter thing, pushing the trolley through the wall – it is ALWAYS surrounded by of queue people but of course it wouldn’t have been that day. I should have thought about that!

It was wonderful to go the Final and see the finalists but anyone who submitted a story should be proud of themselves. Constructing a story in 500 words or less is a challenge and I enjoyed all 30 of the submissions that I had to mark. And that is what stories are all about – enjoyment. If you haven’t listened to the final 6 stories then I urge you to do so. You can check them out here:

And any teachers and librarians out there who were thinking of judging next year – do it. It’s lots of fun. And you may end up watching the winning entries being announced before your very eyes. In the words of all medium sized people – EPIC.

The 26-storey Treehouse, written by Andy Griffiths and illustrated by Terry Denton (Macmillan)

So here’s a Fab Friday book.  My son can still be a tricky reader, in terms of getting him to open a book. Once he’s opened it, he’s fine. But The 13-storey Treehouse took no persuasion. It is one of his favourite books, and so we have been keenly waiting for the sequel to come out. Last month, it finally did. Here is Toby’s review:


So why is this so good? Well, mainly it has some amazing ideas about a place you would live in if imagination won over reality. Andy and Terry, in the book that is (I wish in real life) live a near utopian existence in their fabulous treehouse. The only thing they occasionally have to do is create stories….

There was a lot of giggling with both books. Lots of talk about bananas (giant ones are created in the first book). There of course is a plot in both books, but it’s the setting and the silliness that are the most wonderful parts to them. In the first book, the bananas were the thing that Toby found hysterical (I’m kind of over him shouting ‘BANANAS!’ at me now). In the second book, they have an ice cream place with all sorts of crazy flavours such as Brain Freeze, Bacon and Eggs, without Bacon and Eggs and so on.

Kids everywhere (big and small) will want to imagine their own treehouse. The first book inspired Toby to come up with his own book – The 100-storey treehouse, and designed his own book jacket in anticipation (currently still a work-in-progress):

DSC_0031I hope this series runs foreeeeevvvveeeerrrrrr. Or certainly a long time.

One thing though – there is a ‘lemonade fountain’ in the first book. Yet it supplies orangeade and all sorts of other flavours. Surely that makes it a fizzyade fountain, rather than a lemonade fountain. Yes I KNOW that is a grown up niggle but it bugs me. Sorry. So Andy and Terry – if I came to stay I’d want a marshmallow themed room please with a bath that runs hot chocolate. And I’d want the fountain re-named. OK?