Picture Book Review: Madeline Finn and the Rescue Dog by Lisa Papp

Cover art by Lisa Papp, published by Old Barn Books, 9th March 2023

The second book in the Madeline Finn series from American illustrator and author Lisa Papp is like a warm hug in book form. It is a perfect book to share with young children and I simply cannot wait to snuggle up and read it to the youngest relative.

Madeline’s dreams come true when she finally persuades her mum to let her have a dog and she is allowed to choose a puppy from the litter of Bonnie, the library dog. Truth be told, the puppy, Star, chooses Madeline rather than the other way round! Lovely librarian, Mrs Dimple, explains to Madeline that there are other ways of finding pets such as rescue dogs and cats, and she inspires Madeline and her mum to visit the local animal shelter. Reflecting on her visit, Madeline realises that the sadness of the animals who await new homes might be explained by a lack of love and being the kind-hearted child that she is, she makes a plan to ensure that every dog and cat feels as loved as Star,

Every page of this story deserves to be lingered over. The illustrations in warm, pastel shades radiate gentleness and care, you can feel the unconditional love that Madeline has for her puppy in every adoring glance and cuddle. The contrast in the expressions and body language of the caged animals on Madeline’s first visit to the shelter compared to the day when the shelter fills with children and books and blankets is heart-meltingly glorious. The story was apparently inspired by a “read to dogs” project at the author’s local library and this incredible, non-judgemental bond between animals and children is certainly reflected in this beautiful book. Quite honestly, the highest praise that I can bestow is that reading it gave me the same feeling as I had when sharing the “Alfie” books by the late, great Shirley Hughes with my children many years ago. The characters and storytelling resonate with the same kindness, wisdom and observation of the joyful details of everyday life. I highly recommend Madeline Finn and the Rescue Dog as a gift for any young child of your acquaintance, for every nursery and early years and Key Stage 1 classroom.

I am most grateful to Old Barn Books for my gifted copy ahead of publication, which will be passed on to my great-niece, who I am sure will adore it.

Blog Tour: How to Make a Story by Naomi Jones, illustrated by Ana Gomez

Cover illustration by Ana Gomez, published by Oxford Children’s Books

Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for How to Make a Story, a book which has enraptured me since my review copy arrived. I have been looking forward to reading this picture book since hearing about it at an online launch event for another of the author’s books in 2022, and the finished copy is even better than I had imagined.

Naomi Jones has a genuine understanding of young children’s imaginations and their anxieties and has used this knowledge to craft a story which both sees their experience, and engages them in finding a practical solution. The joyous artwork by Ana Gomez works perfectly with the text to bring the story to life in beautiful colourful spreads that are totally relatable. This is a picture book that cries out to be shared in homes, nurseries and early years classrooms.

On the pages, we meet Milo, who wants to make up his own story but is not sure where to start. His mum offers guidance, explaining the basic three-part structure and reassurance that he can’t get it wrong. She helps him with the opening phrase and then he’s off; drawing inspiration from his multigenerational family, his home and garden and mixing these familiar elements with the unfettered imagination of a young child. Dad is on hand to give advice on the middle section, Nana supplies motivation and Milo’s younger twin siblings appear to influence the inclusion of slimy, dribbling monsters into the storyline.

Every element of this picture book works to make it as precious as the golden treasure of Milo’s imagination. The vibrant artwork beautifully depicts Milo’s creativity as he turns objects and situations that are familiar to most children into a story. There is so much detail to study on every page that I am sure youngsters will want to return to the book often and I can imagine them comparing many of the pictures with their own families and homes. I loved the way that Milo’s supportive family helped him break the story-making process into small, manageable chunks and the way that Lego bricks became a visual metaphor for constructing the story from its individual pieces. This is such a valuable model for children, many of whom can struggle when faced with the prospect of writing a story when little or no scaffolding is provided. I know from personal experience how challenging a blank page can be for a child who has dyslexia for example, and I am sure that this celebration of the creative process will act as a gentle guide to help so many youngsters translate the brilliant machinations of their brains into stories that they will be proud to share in the same way as Milo.

I wholeheartedly recommend How to Make a Story to anyone who is lucky enough to know a child of 3-6; I will certainly be buying copies for young relatives. My thanks to Liz Scott and Oxford Children’s Books for inviting me to participate in the blog tour and I urge you to read reviews written by my fellow book review bloggers outlined in the graphics below.

Picture Books from Farshore: Amazing Mum by Alison Brown and Pick a Story by Sarah Coyle & Adam Walker-Parker

I have been very fortunate to receive two beautiful picture books published by Farshore this month, both of which will be a delight to share with young children.

Amazing Mum is a wonderfully inclusive celebration of mums in all their guises, written and illustrated by Alison Brown. This book is so clever and so appealing, I can see it being requested over and over again as a book to snuggle up with. The very simple rhyming text consists of only a few words per page, which will encourage the youngest children to join in with the “reading”. Alison Brown’s illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. She sweetly captures mums of every kind through her anthropomorphic menagerie and the over-riding impression is one of loving relationships, no matter what the mum looks like, what her occupation might be or what her particular talents are. Every child will recognise aspects of their mum and reading this as a mum to now grown-up children, many spreads provoked nostalgia and the mum retrieving lego from under a bed made me laugh out loud! I am looking forward to sharing this with a young relative very soon, and I highly recommend it to families, nurseries and early years classrooms.

Pick a Story A Dinosaur + Unicorn + Robot Adventure is a great way to encourage young children to let their imaginations wander and construct their own version of a story. The glittery, sparkly foiling on the title and colourful cartoonish illustrations are visually appealing, ensuring that this will be selected from the bookshelves. This is definitely a book which needs to be shared with an adult as it requires discussion and assistance to move to the correct pages (especially when some alternate storylines are on adjacent pages), but it gives children agency over the direction of the story. This interactive element is an excellent opportunity for children to learn the joy in playing with stories and experimenting with different story arcs. Sarah Coyle’s text presents children with the task of tracking down which character has taken Gwen’s birthday cake; as well as deciding which option to follow there are plenty of questions throughout to engage young minds and ecourage observation of the pictures. Adam Walker-Parker’s graphics reminded me of computer games which will hopefully lure children away from their screens, with lots of activity to explore and enjoy on every page. A novel book choice to share with an individual child or perhaps a small group in a nursery or early years classroom.

I would like to thank Farshore Books and publicist Antonia Wilkinson for my review copies of Amazing Mum and Pick a Story A Dinosaur + Unicorn + Robot Adventure.

2022 Reading Highlights

So here it is; I offer you my highlights from newly published books that I’ve read this year. It is always so difficult to pick out just a few, but these are the books that have stayed in my head and my heart long after I finished reading them. I offer them to you, in case you are looking for a bookish gift and are still wondering what to choose from the huge and tempting selections on the bookshop shelves. From the sixty or so books that I’ve read this year, here are my favourites by age category.

Picture Books: For the youngest readers, this selection provides gentle stories combined with gloriously vibrant illustrations to enjoy every time the covers are opened. Read my reviews for the two Tatty Mouse stories and The Marvellous Doctors for Magical Creatures.

Illustrated Chapter Books: For any young readers who are just gaining their confidence in reading independently, the books in this selection offer entertainment presented in short chapters with the text broken up by illustrations. You can read full reviews of each story by clicking on the links: Wildsmith, The Little Match Girl Strikes Back, Rainbow Grey Eye of the Storm, Edie and the Flits in Paris and Breakfast Club Adventures The Beast Beyond the Fence.

MG Highlights: Three of my favourite MG stories were sequels and so well written that I thoroughly enjoyed them, despite not having read the first in each series: The Unexpected Tale of the Bad Brothers, The Butterfly Club: The Mummy’s Curse and Amari and the Great Game. I hope that Seed might have a sequel, the story certainly ended on a note that cries out for a follow up. Wished by Lissa Evans is absolute perfection, she is one of my favourite authors of both adult and children’s books and I love this story.

Young Teen Highlights: I highly recommend these outstandingly well-crafted novels to readers just moving on from primary to secondary school, looking for immersive and enjoyable reads with rich underlying themes. Reviews are available by clicking the links: War of the Wind, The Raven’s Song, Ghostlight and The Haunted Hills.

The YA books that I have read this year indicate to me that there has been a huge improvement in the scope and quality of books for this readership. These three are superb; a story full of righteous anger told in free verse, a reimagining of Greek myth and a deeply moving reflection on grief. Read my full reviews by clicking on the links: Activist, Her Dark Wings and Aftershocks.

Adult Books: The majority of books that I read in my bookclubs this year were not newly published, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr I think was published just at the end of 2021, so I am perhaps cheating a little by including it here, but it held me enthralled throughout and I loved the way that the multiple narratives were pulled together at the end. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus was a birthday present and dredged up some long forgotten knowledge from undergraduate studies, made me laugh, made me cry and was the perfect summer holiday read and I can’t even begin to describe the work of genius that is Super-Infinite.

I shall end by thanking the wonderful blogging community that I am a part of, for constant inspiration and encouragement. Thank you to the authors, illustrators and publishers who constantly strive to create books that appeal to all tastes, and grateful thanks to the book PRs who send me review copies. I hope that you’ve enjoyed some of my reading highlights from this year, let me know if you have read any of these in the comments. Wishing all my readers a very happy and peaceful Christmas, however you choose to celebrate during this festive season.

New children’s book publisher – Noodle Juice

What is Philosophy and Elephant Makes a Smell, December 2022 publications from Noodle Juice

It is always good to see new publishers innovating to switch children on to reading, thus I was delighted to receive this dazzling package from new children’s publisher, Noodle Juice Books. The brains behind this operation are husband and wife team, Mark and Sarah Walden, who between them have many years experience in the children’s publishing industry. These first two publications certainly set a high standard and make me very excited about a new stream of fantastic book choices for young readers.

Firstly we have Elephant Makes a Smell, a vibrant, witty, rhyming board book on the subject of manners! The fabulous illustrations by Mr Griff portray the humour in the many malodorous situations created by elephant’s antics. The choice of an elephant to depict the smelly conditions caused by some thoughtless behaviours is sure to make little children smile, and elephant’s cute animal friends with their nose pegs and breathe-holding expressions will be very appealing. The humorous rhymes bear repeated reading, which I suspect will be demanded by youngsters who will be awaiting the final line with glee!

The second title is What is Philosophy? which is the first in a series called Little Book Big Idea. This is written by the Noodle Juice team and illustrated by Katie Rewse, in a format suitable for children aged from 5 upwards. Each double-page spread poses one question with multiple answers expressed in just a few words adjacent to a clear illustration. The artwork depicts settings that will be familiar to a young readership such as classrooms and playgrounds, helping to contextualise the information. I love the effort that has been put into ensuring that all children will be able to recognise themselves in this book, and the range of questions and answers are likely to satisfy the most curious young reader. My particular favourite page poses the question, “what should I say?” and is filled with answers which encourage kindness and thoughtfulness when choosing which words to use. With a clear and comprehensive glossary at the back, this is a beautifully produced non-fiction book which I would highly recommend to any primary school library, Key Stage One classroom or home containing inquisitive children.

I am most grateful to Noodle Juice Books and Antonia Wilkinson PR for my gifted copies of these books in exchange for an honest review.

12 Days of Christmas Blog Tour: Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher

Cover illustration by Sam Usher, published by Nosy Crow

I was delighted to be invited to join the 12 Days of Christmas blog tour as it was such an enjoyable experience last year and I do urge you to read the recommendations by my fantastic fellow bloggers on the tour.

This time around I am revisiting one of my all-time favourite picture books, Refuge. It was first published in 2015 and resonates as powerfully now as it did then. The marriage of Anne Booth’s thoughtful retelling of the Nativity story with Sam Usher’s artwork is utter perfection, drawing parallels between the ancient story and the plight of so many in the present day.

Before the title page, the clue to the narrator is given in a spread depicting a small donkey tethered outside a small dwelling, set against a huge golden sky. The book begins with a stark sentence on a spread which shows three small figures travelling across a vast landscape:

The man led me, and I carried the woman all the way to Bethlehem…

page 2

Subsequent pages reveal the traditional story of the birth of a baby, and visitations by shepherds and kings. However, the story is extended beyond that normally enacted in a school nativity, with the new family fleeing from a dream of danger, under cover of darkness. The flight into Egypt is recounted with simple words and compelling illustrations which encourage you to pause and reflect on the whole picture; a universal, poignant tale of love and hope. The descriptions of the parents kissing their new baby before wrapping him up for a journey into the unknown to flee the danger that threatens them is quite heartbreaking when you appreciate that this situation faces so many families in the world today. The washed out greys and blues of Sam Usher’s art invoke a sense of exhaustion but every time I open this book I am moved by the use of gold and deep yellows to express hope and kindness and love.

The repeated phrase “the kindness of strangers” reminds us of the essence of Christmas and I feel that Anne Booth, in writing this book without specifically naming Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, must have intended to make us consider the many families who need our love and kindness. I think that it is a wonderful book that could be shared with children of any age within a primary school setting or amongst families at home. It is a book to prompt valuable discussion and quiet reflection and I think that its universal theme makes it appropriate for everyone. I love this book and I hope that you will too.

Make sure that you check out the remainder of the recommendations by following the blog schedule, there’s something for everyone. Merry Christmas!

Image created by Kate Heap @kateheap1

2022 Halloween Recommendations

image created using Canva

As in previous years I have put together a shortlist of books that I have read this year which would make excellent treats for young readers this half-term holiday as we approach Halloween 2022.

Winnie and Wilbur: Winnie’s Best Friend by Valerie Thomas, illustrated by Korky Paul

Always a delight for children of 5-7, the Winnie and Wilbur series are wonderful books to share with a young child. The stories are fun, Winnie is probably the most colourful and accident-prone witch in children’s fiction and there is so much to see and talk about in every one of Korky Paul’s brilliant colour spreads.

Midnight Magic: The Witch Trap by Michelle Harrison, illustrated by Elissa Elwick

Bursting with autumn colour, the latest rhyming adventure of magical black cat, Midnight, is perfect for newly independent readers of 6+.

Diary of an Accidental Witch: Ghostly Getaway by Perdita and Honor Cargill, illustrated by Katie Saunders

In the latest outing for Bea Black, she and her friends take off from Little Spellshire’s School of Extraordinary Arts to participate in a school trip to Cadabra Castle, allegedly haunted by the ghost of High Master Maggitty Crawe! This wonderfully funny story has been designed with extra care to increase accessibility for dyslexic readers.

The October Witches by Jennifer Claessen

Magical, feminist refashioning of the Arthurian legend. A pacy story of witchy family feuds, perfect for readers of 9+.

Ghost Scouts series written and illustrated by Taylor Dolan

A funny, fully illustrated series of books set in a fabulously spooky summer camp, deep in the swamps of the southern states of America. A certain Halloween treat for readers of 9+.

The Mummy’s Curse by M.A. Bennett

Ever wondered about the origins of the curse of King Tut? Well this rollicking time-travel adventure will take you back to the discovery of his tomb, 100 years ago and reveal all. A spine-tingling adventure, perfect for confident readers of 9+

Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor, illustrated by George Ermos

Experience your first Halloween in Eerie-on-Sea with Herbert Lemon and Violet Parma as they uncover the secrets of the spooky seaside town’s Ghastly Night! Fantastically paced and plotted adventure for readers of 9+.

The Haunted Hills by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

The wild landscape of the Peak District is the setting for this tale of grief, loss and guilt. As a family’s attempts to recover from a fatal accident is interwoven with the legend of a local ghost. A sensitive, beautifully written story for readers of 11+.

The Billow Maiden by James Dixon, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

Another sensitively crafted tale, this is set on a remote Scottish island where a young teen is being sheltered by her uncle and aunt while her mother recovers from what appears to be a mental health crisis. This story is interwoven with the discovery of a terrifying mythical creature in one of the island’s caves. The Norse legend combined with modern setting are perfect for readers of 11+.

Ghostlight by Kenneth Oppel

Boy meets ghost in this brilliantly written and imagined coming of age story, set in and around Toronto. This is a book which will absolutely transport readers of 11+ into an alternative reality where ghosts battle for dominance over humans in a setting which will be unusual and educational for many UK based readers.

Picture Book Reviews: Tatty Mouse – Rock Star and Super Racer by Hilary Robinson and Mandy Stanley

Cover images by Mandy Stanley
Published by Catch a Star

It is always such a treat to receive new titles from Catch a Star, they produce books which have been designed, written, illustrated and produced with meticulous care to appeal to toddlers and pre-school children. With immaculate timing, the gifted partnership of author Hilary Robinson and illustrator Mandy Stanley have created a new series featuring Tatty Mouse. She is the perfect character for our new age of austerity and up-cycling to increase sustainability.

When Tatty Mouse wants to participate in an activity, she doesn’t let a lack of equipment get in her way. Instead she turns to her instruction books, her tool kit, paints, glue, tape and discarded household objects and creates whatever she needs; whether it’s a musical instrument or a go-cart! Hilary Robinson’s sparse text tells the stories perfectly, with humour inserted through speech bubbles and added interactive interest in the form of “can you find” callouts which are cleverly designed in a recycling-style logo. Mandy Stanley’s artwork is absolutely stunning, the images pop off the page with the 3-D effects gloriously enhanced by the lift-the-flaps element of the books. Tatty Mouse is an adorable character, with her expressive face, dungarees and tool belt accessorised with what looks like a home-made necklace.

In both Tatty Mouse Rock Star and Tatty Mouse Super Racer, every page is packed with interest and vibrates with colour which will stimulate so many opportunities for conversation and vocabulary building when shared with young children. The pages and flaps are constructed from thick, high quality card that will bear up to repeated reading which is fortunate as I am sure that these books are going to be extremely popular with their target audience. It is so important to generate a love of books in children at the earliest opportunity and if you are the carer of a pre-school child, I absolutely recommend the Tatty Mouse books to begin their book adventures.

I am grateful to publishers Catch A Star for sending me review copies of these books in return for my honest opinion.

If you enjoy Tatty Mouse, I also recommend the Gregory Goose series by the same creative partnership: Gregory Goose is on the Loose in the Jungle, Gregory Goose is on the Loose on the Moon, Gregory Goose is on the Loose up the Mountain and Gregory Goose is on the Loose at the Fair.

Books I’ve read from the Gadgeteers Summer Reading Challenge 2022 List

A selection of books from the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge 2022

One of my favourite activities when my children were young was to visit the public library during the summer holidays to take part in the annual summer reading challenge. I love the way that this initiative has grown over the intervening years and with my science head on, I was delighted to see the Gadgeteers theme for summer 2022. Noticing a number of books that I’ve previously read and reviewed on the list, I thought that I’d post a summary of my reviews in case they help anyone to make their first choices.

Picture Books: here is the official list

One More Try written by Naomi Jones and illustrated by James Jones. Cute shapes demonstrate the principles of perseverance, resilience and tessellation.

The Little Pirate Queen written by Sally Anne Garland. An inspiring tale of a little girl who has learnt to create something from the resources she has at hand, can be read on a literal or metaphorical level and I think therefore appropriate for any class within a primary school.

Early Reader Books: here is the official list

Marv and the Dino Attack by Alex Falase-Koya, illustrated by Paula Bowles. A superhero powered by kindness and imagination saves the day at the Natural History Museum.

Middle Grade Books: here is the official list

Beetles for Breakfast written by Madeleine Finlay and illustrated by Jisu Choi. A stylishly illustrated exploration of the application of biology to solve some of the problems our planet will face over the coming decades. An absolute feast for the brain!

Sabotage on the Solar Express written by MG Leonard and Samuel Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli. Futuristic fuel cells, scientific sabotage and a runaway train in the red heart of Australia all contribute to an edge-of-the-seat, runaway train detective adventure.

Harley Hitch and the Iron Forest written by Vashti Hardy, illustrated by George Ermos. A thoroughly engaging and entertaining mystery for readers aged 8+, with scientific exploration and discovery at its core. Illustrations throughout make this a great choice for children who are emerging readers.

Escape Room written by Christopher Edge and illustrated by David Dean. A fast-paced, immersive adventure with mathematics and artificial intelligence driving the plot.

I hope that you all enjoy these marvellous stories which introduce STEM principles, and find many more books at your local public library, to entertain and engage you in new ideas over the summer holiday.

#PrideMonthReview: The Marvellous Doctors for Magical Creatures by Jodie Lancet-Grant, illustrated by Lydia Corry

Cover image by Lydia Corry, published by OUP, June 2022

This was the most perfect book to read on a hot, sunny June day which radiated the same warmth and colour found within this picture book. Published to coincide with the June Pride celebrations, this story imaginatively promotes acceptance of unique identities, representing a family with two dads as the backdrop to a funny, engaging tale. The interplay of Lydia Corry’s beautiful artwork and Jodie Lancet-Grant’s creative storytelling will bring smiles of delight to readers young and old(er).

From the first page we are introduced to a town populated by a wide variety of magical and non-magical creatures. The text names some of these; dragons, fairies, mermaids and centaurs and children will enjoy spotting many more depicted amongst the humans on the bustling street (I loved seeing the pirate mums from the previous book by this partnership). We are told that whenever anyone in town feels poorly, they know to consult Ava and her dads, Daddy and Papa. I loved the illustrations of “trainee doctor” Ava, with her stethoscope, too long labcoat and expressive face. Alongside the narrative which portrays her inquisitive, kind and observant nature as well as determination to uncover the cause of a unicorn’s tummy-ache, she is a heart-warming poster girl for a career in medicine, in the opinion of this health librarian! The spread where Ava is struck by the answer to her medical mystery is an absolute masterpiece of “show, don’t tell” and strikes right to the heart of this book’s message of celebrating difference.

The Marvellous Doctors for Magical Creatures bursts with a kaleidoscope of colour, energy and kindness and whilst promoting a message of inclusivity, is first and foremost an entertaining and throughly engaging story. Family life is portrayed in scenes such as bedtime story time familiar to all, and shows that whilst there are all kinds of families, they have more similarities than differences. I highly recommend this picture book to be shared with children of 3 -6 years of age and I will certainly be adding it to my recommended reading list for health-related books.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and OUP for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.