Review: Elisabeth and the Box of Colours by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb

Illustration by Rebecca Cobb, to be published on 3rd February 2022 by Barrington Stoke

The latest title from the Little Gems series by Barrington Stoke, designed in super readable format for individuals beginning their reading journey is a delightful read, based on the true story of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and written by one of my favourite children’s book authors, Katherine Woodfine. I have lost count of the number of times that I have praised Barrington Stoke books on my blog, for their remarkable record of serving up truly engaging books which appeal to all readers, but are especially accessible to those for whom reading does not come easily. As an individual with close family members who are dyslexic, I will never tire of banging the drum for these books.

As for Elisabeth and the Box of Colours, it is a book which will appeal to a broad audience, written with real heart by Katherine Woodfine, and sumptuously illustrated throughout in full colour by Rebecca Cobb. The first part of the book is written as a story, whilst the latter part presents a short biography of the famous portrait painter and points out where some artistic licence was taken during the story. 

The opening page transports you right into the heart of a happy family, positively brimming with energy and laughter. Papa is dancing with the young daughter whilst Mama is joining in the gaiety with a toddler riding on her shoulders. The illustration is a riot of jewel colours; Papa wears an azure coat splattered with multi-coloured paint, the daughter wears jade, Mama is in coral and the toddler wears emerald. You know that you are entering a world in which colour, joy and art are celebrated. Time in this tall, elegant Parisian house seems to pass pleasantly, with Papa painting in the studio on the top floor and Elisabeth sharing his studio space and his artist materials and painting everything that she sees.

But then, suddenly the colour drains from the pictures as Elisabeth is sent to boarding school on the other side of Paris, and the crayons that Papa carefully packed for her, are confiscated by her new teacher. The illustrations in this part of the book reveal the depression experienced by Elisabeth so brilliantly, as well as the lift she gets from the natural world when the grey pictures are enlivened by small splashes of colour. My favourite page is one which depicts Elisabeth drawing for her classmates in the glowing light of a candle in their dormitory. It is so beautifully rendered that I could almost feel the warm glow from the flame, which for me symbolised the warmth of companionship. After tragedy strikes her family, Elisabeth can only remove the grey fog of grief by remembering the colours that defined her Papa. Katherine Woodfine’s delicate writing, using simple but emotionally sensitive vocabulary, helps readers to recognise that however grey life might become, colour will always return.

After the moving story, I found the brief biographical details at the end of the book absolutely fascinating. I have to admit that I had never heard of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun before reading this book, despite the fact that she was one of the few members of the French Royal Academy and has artworks on display in many museums and art galleries. It is even possible that I have looked at some of the portraits that she painted of Marie-Antionette and never noted her name. This is one of the absolute joys of great children’s books; they provide enlightenment for ALL readers. I highly recommend Elisabeth and the Box of Colours for all readers of 8+.

I am grateful to NetGalley and Barrington Stoke for allowing me to access an electronic proof prior to publication on 3rd February 2022.

Halloween 2021

Books featuring ghosts, magic, monsters, vampires and witches for readers of 4 -14

For anyone heading out to a bookshop or the library this weekend, here’s a brief guide to a range of books for primary and early secondary school children to enjoy on these dark autumn evenings! There are many others out there, but these are all stories that I have read over the past year, although some might have been published prior to 2021.

Winnie and Wilbur and the Bug Safari – Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

The Winnie and Wilbur series is laugh-out-loud funny as Winnie constantly gets herself into a fix when her magic goes wrong! This story will transport youngsters back to warm summer days as Winnie finds herself in the middle of insect mayhem! Suitable for age 4+

Midnight Magic – Michelle Harrison and Elissa Elwick

Fun, rhyming adventure with a magical kitten. An early reading book with delightful illustrations, short chapters, warmth and humour. The first in a series that will captivate youngsters of 5+

Isadora Moon Goes to a Wedding – Harriet Muncaster

Isadora Moon, half fairy-half vampire, is bursting with excitement at the prospect of being a bridesmaid at Aunt Crystal’s wedding, but will the day survive naughty cousin Mirabelle’s magical interventions? This gorgeously illustrated, short-chapter story is engaging and entertaining and additionally contains recipes and craft activity ideas. Perfect for ages 6-8.

Sam Wu is NOT Afraid of the Dark – Katie and Kevin Tsang, ills Nathan Reed

With comic book style graphics throughout by Nathan Reed, lovely characters and sharp plotting, the Sam Wu series totally fulfils the “read for pleasure” criteria that encourage a love of reading. As Sam embarks on a camping trip, he is not sure what to be most afraid of…aliens, werewolves, vampire bats, bears or just THE DARK! Recommended for ages 7+

Leo’s Map of Monsters – Kris Humphrey and Pete Williamson

Nine year old Leo learns that his Assignment for the next two years is to become a Guardian and protect his fenced, medieval-style village from the monsters that roam the land beyond TheWall! An exciting, illustrated, short-chapter series that will appeal to Beast Quest fans of 7+

A Girl Called Justice: The Ghost in the Garden – Elly Griffiths

The third adventure in this MG Mystery Series sees Justice Jones investigating the disappearance of a classmate against a backdrop of the ghostly presence of Grace Highbury haunting the corridors and grounds of Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk. Cracking mystery adventure for readers of 8+

The Monster in the Lake – Louie Stowell and Davide Ortu

The second adventure of young wizard Kit, brilliantly illustrated by Davide Ortu, sees her and her friends investigating the strangely disrupted magic in the local town. All clues point to the lake…but what is lurking in its depths and can the three friends put things right? Packed with fun for readers of 8+

Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire – Anna Wilson and Kathryn Durst

Vlad’s mother, Mortemia, constantly tells him that he is a disgrace to the Impaler family name…what will she do if she finds out that he has been secretly attending human school and has even made a best friend there? A funny and charming story that shows young readers that being an excellent best friend is more important than being a perfect vampire! Suitable for readers of 8+

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Haunted House – Annabelle Sami and Daniela Sosa

The third outing for Agent Zaiba and her young detectives from the Snow Leopard Detective Agency finds the team investigating mysterious and ghostly occurrences at Oakwood Manor. Can Zaiba’s team uncover the real culprit and dispel the rumours of ghostly Jinn? Readers of 9+ will enjoy this “cosy crime” investigation.

Lightning Falls – Amy Wilson, ills Rachel Vale and Helen Crawford-White

A glittering and magical tale featuring life-like and friendly ghost characters, making it suitable for readers of 9+. Superb plotting, immersive descriptions and a lovely tale about family in all its forms.

Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering – Harriet Muncaster

Sumptuously illustrated and brilliant storytelling from multi-talented Harriet Muncaster are sure to engage readers of 9+ in this tale of magical “Wiskling” twin sisters, Celestine and Victoria Stitch. A story of forbidden magic, envy, betrayal and ultimately the bonds of sibling love.

Everdark – Abi Elphinstone

The introductory book to the Unmapped Chronicles series sets up an immersive world run by magic, controlled by an imaginative range of magical creatures which has come under threat from the corrupting dark magic of Morg, an evil harpy. A series that will absorb and delight readers of 9+

Gargantis – Thomas Taylor, ills George Ermos

“When Gargantis wakes, Eerie quakes” Eerie-on-Sea is literally cracking apart in the second instalment of this brilliant series and it’s up to Herbert Lemon and his loyal friend Violet Parma to investigate the fearsome monster, Gargantis, who is stirring out in the bay! Fast moving, ferocious plotting fro anyone of 9+

The Ghost Garden – Emma Carroll, ills Kaja Kajfež

Spookily atmospheric story set in a country manor house in the summer of 1914, this novella from Emma Carroll is published in dyslexia-friendly format by specialist publisher Barrington Stoke. Perfect for readers from 10 through to secondary school age.

The Hungry Ghost – HS Norup

An incredible story that blends Chinese tradition with modern day sensibilities. Set in the cosmopolitan city of Singapore, this beautiful story weaves Western and Eastern attitudes to grieving and treasuring memories of the dead and is a powerfully moving read for anyone of 10/11+

Strange Star – Emma Carroll

An imagined tale of the creation of the Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley in 1816. The plot moves between Somerset village life and the grand surroundings of the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva; epic storytelling, fabulous characters and a feminist slant make this my all-time favourite Emma Carroll title, recommended for anyone of 10+

Frost Hollow Hall – Emma Carroll

Yes, I know this is the third Emma Carroll book on my list, but as well as being labelled “The Queen of Historical Fiction” Emma really does have a talent for gothic atmosphere. In her debut novel she produced a ghost story, which at one point in the tale, genuinely made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! I would not give this to anyone of a nervous disposition, but for KS3 readers of 11+ it is guaranteed to send shivers down the spine.

Dracula – retold by Fiona MacDonald, ills by Penko Gelev

Finding myself pushed for time to complete a reading of the original novel by Bram Stoker for one of my book groups, I reached for this graphic novel version from one of my children’s bookcases. It is an accessible introduction to the Dracula story, which certainly remains faithful to the major plot points and atmosphere of the source text. Perfect for teens, dyslexic readers and adults who leave insufficient time to fully read classic novels!

Review: Lightning Strike by Tanya Landman

Cover art by Chaaya Prabhat, published by Oxford University Press in association with Barrington Stoke

This book is one of the Super-Readable Rollercoasters series published by OUP Children’s Books in association with Barrington Stoke, and in my opinion is a perfect spark to ignite enjoyment in reading. Tanya Landman is an award winning author and her talent is on full display here as she conjures an enthralling work of historical fiction with fully imagined characters and a gripping plot in just over one hundred pages.

The story is based on an actual event, the Match Girl’s Strike of 1888. It is told through the first person voice of Eliza, and through her eyes the reader is presented with a vivid picture of the lives led by the working poor in the East End of London during the Victorian era. Eliza and her sister Nell work 12 hour shifts in the poisonous confines of the match factory, where a tray of dropped matches can lose a worker her week’s wages, a cruel and crooked foreman takes a cut of the wage packets and the prospect of the dreaded “phossy jaw” hangs in the air. Their father works long hours in the dockyards, where tragic accidents are commonplace and their mother takes on piecework at home so that she can look after the youngest children. Despite their backbreaking industry, the family can never afford enough to eat and are constantly worried that they will not be able to pay the rent. Eliza’s anger and frustration at their powerlessness burns through the pages.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but a catalyst for change arrives in the form of a “toff” who actually listens to the grievances of the working class leading Eliza and the factory’s match girls to discover the power of collective action.

For such a short book there are an amazing number of themes woven into the plot; poverty, feminism, socialism, collective protest, religion and education. Tanya Landman introduces these themes organically through beautifully drawn characters, you never feel that you are being preached at, rather, the strands occur naturally within the intriguing plot. Even more impressively, the vocabulary and sentence structure have been carefully designed so that they are accessible with a reading age of about nine/ten. As you expect from Barrington Stoke, an off-white paper is used in combination with an easily readable font, so that anyone with visual stress or dyslexia will find it easier to read than traditionally printed books. Finally, there are discussion points, background information and a vocabulary list (which in keeping with the plain English style is called a Word List) at the end of the book.

I absolutely recommend this book to school library collections, classrooms and for home bookshelves for readers of 11+. It is first and foremost a brilliantly written, enjoyable story which will inform and entertain all readers in equal measure. Additionally, it is so carefully constructed that it could re-ignite the spark of reading for pleasure which, sadly, the recent disruption to schooling has extinguished in some tweens and teens. Put it into the hands of a Key Stage 3 pupil who has enjoyed reading the works of Emma Carroll, Katherine Woodfine or Michael Morpurgo at primary school and watch their face light-up with the joy of reading again.

I am most grateful to OUP Children’s Books for providing me with a review copy of Lightning Strike in exchange for my honest opinion.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll, illustrated by Kaja Kajfež

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
Cover art by Kaja Kajfež, published by Barrington Stoke

Author: Emma Carroll

Illustrator: Kaja Kajfež

Publisher: Barrington Stoke

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ Who’d hit their brother so hard as to break his leg, eh?”

This book in three words: Friendship – Prescience – Upheaval

A new book from “the Queen of Historical fiction” Emma Carroll is always worth celebrating and I was delighted to find that one of my favourite authors had been commissioned to write for dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stoke. Readers who have followed my blog will know that I am passionate about books that encourage dyslexic readers. I was first introduced to the publisher Barrington Stoke by a marvellous specialist dyslexia tutor who worked with one of my own children many years ago. I am so pleased that they now publish books by highly regarded children’s authors so that dyslexic children can benefit from reading the wonderful fiction that these authors produce; not feel any sense of stigma that they are reading “different” books; and be given a gateway to perhaps tackling longer books or possibly listening to audiobooks by the best writers for children.

This novella is set in the summer of 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War and although not a first person narrative, it is very much told from the point of view of Fran, daughter to the head gardener of a fine country property named Longbarrow House, owned by Mrs Walker. Emma Carroll has the extraordinary ability to capture the essence of her protagonist’s personalities in a few lines of dialogue and you soon realise that Fran is a curious mixture of no-nonsense, hardworking, emotionally-intelligent working class child who has an imaginative side which is open to the possibility of ghostly occurrences. She feels inferior to the noisy, fussy, rich grandchildren who arrive from their boarding schools for the summer holidays preferring to keep out of their way and avoid the teasing of the young twins and the superior attitude of Leo, the eldest.

However, when Leo’s leg is badly broken by a cricket bat and Fran finds herself assigned to be his companion for the summer, an unlikely friendship and some supernatural manifestations develop. The illustrations by Kaja Kajfež throughout the book not only give readers a chance to pause but also add to the spooky atmosphere.

Despite writing a short book, which gives less confident readers the optimum chance to finish it and feel the accompanying sense of achievement, Emma Carroll has crafted a perfect treasure of a story. The tension mounts throughout the narrative as Fran and Leo investigate the archaeological landscape whilst rumours of impending war swirl in the background. The depicted change in normal social relationships predicts the upheaval and change about to be inflicted on the norms of society by the declaration of war with Germany. I would highly recommend this story to all readers of 9+ and for those who are discovering Emma Carroll for the first time and perhaps want to try something slightly more challenging next, I would suggest Skychasers, The Snow Sister, her book of short stories When We Were Warriors before moving onto Letters from the Lighthouse, Secrets of A Sun King and my all-time favourite Strange Star.

Finally, I would just like to give a shoutout to The Rocketship Bookshop from whom I was able to purchase a signed copy of this book. It is so vital that we bookworms do our best to support independent bookshops to help them survive in these uncertain times. I usually try to buy books from an independent bookshop in my own town, but as my daughter owns all of Emma’s books in signed format I was desperate to continue adding to her collection. Not only did this lovely bookseller supply me with the perfect copy, they also wrapped it beautifully as you can see from the picture above! (I am not an affiliate of this bookshop, I just want to give praise where it is due.)

Review: McTavish on the Move by Meg Rosoff

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This is the perfect book for anyone who longs for a loyal and super-smart pet dog, or anyone who enjoys realistic family stories or for any child who might be anxious about a house or school move.

In case you have not read any other books in this series, McTavish is a rescue dog, who knows that it is his duty to rescue the Peachey family – Ma, Pa, Ollie, Ava and Betty from danger or harm. He is the perfect pet!

This story starts with Ma and the children being extremely worried by Pa’s unusual behaviour – he is acting happy for the first time that anyone can remember. The author, Meg Rosoff, brilliantly captures the family’s discomfort and confusion at Pa’s change in attitude, caused by the prospect of his new job. This will involve moving to a new house, which most of the family are quite happy about. However, Betty the youngest member of the family is apprehensive about starting at a new school and it is up to the wonderful McTavish to make things right.

From an adult perspective, this is a delightful and humorous family story, produced with Barrington Stoke’s usual care and attention, an enjoyable read for anyone in Key Stage 2 and particularly suitable for dyslexic readers with its off-white paper and clear font. The family members are all fully-developed characters and the family interactions are beautifully observed. There is a gentle message contained within the humour for any child who might be nervous about moving house or joining a new school, with the addition of Betty’s rules for making friends being a lovely touch.

I am very grateful to have been sent a review copy by Toppsta and Barrington Stoke..