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.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Trailblazers Lin-Manuel Miranda by Kurtis Scaletta

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 Luisa Uribe, published by Little Tiger Press

Author: Kurtis Scaletta

Illustrator: Cover image Luisa Uribe, internal images David Shephard

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“Overall the show won eleven Tonys, including best musical.”

This book in three words: “Meet me inside”

I can give this book no higher recommendation than to tell you that as soon as it arrived through my letterbox it was read in one sitting by the teenage uber-Hamilfan in my household and given her seal of approval!

This latest biography from Little Tiger’s Trailblazers series is aimed at a Middle Grade readership with an engaging blend of illustrations, short chapters and fact-filled illustrated panels, but the evidence here suggests that it will also appeal to the huge number of Hamilton fans amongst the YA readership. Author Kurtis Scaletta presents the details of Lin-Manuel’s non-stop rise to the top of his profession in an engaging and entertaining manner. Throughout the book you learn about Lin-Manuel’s important influences, the stories behind his musical productions and his key collaborators as he has turned the world of musical theatre upside down. It certainly gives the impression of a man who writes as if he is running out of time and leaves you wondering “what comes next?”

As well as exploring Lin-Manuel’s unique musical and creative talent, this biography is careful to explain that a lifetime of hard work is behind the phenomenal success that he enjoys today. I also love that it outlines his continuing involvement with the Puerto Rican community, inspired by his father’s political work, and his determination to portray his culture in a positive light. His hugely generous charitable activities and his dedication to his family are further details which contribute to the picture of an individual who combines great talent with humility.

History certainly has its eyes on Lin-Manuel Miranda and this book fizzes with the energy apparent to anyone who has had the good fortune to see the live performance of Hamilton. I hope that it will inspire young readers to believe in their talents, follow their hearts and dedicate themselves to using their skills to make the world a better place. It is lovely to see a book which promotes the arts and their place in society as budgets for the arts seem to be constantly under threat both in schools and society as a whole. Highly recommended for all existing fans of Hamilton and all children who have an interest in music and drama.

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Trailblazers Stephen Hawking written by Alex Woolf

Cover image by Lisa Uribe, published by Little Tiger UK

This is the second biography from the Trailblazers series that I have been fortunate to read and once again it delivers on the series’ goal to inspire middle-grade readers with a story of a remarkable individual. Stephen Hawking’s life story is recounted by Alex Woolf in clear language, filled with everyday analogies which enable young readers to understand his revolutionary theories.

There is sufficient detail in this book to arm young scientists with an overall understanding of some of the key questions that cosmologists have tried to answer, and inspire them to formulate new questions of their own. If you will forgive the pun, the book starts with a brief history of the theory of black holes, presenting the key breakthroughs in understanding and naming the physicists and mathematicians involved. Alongside the chronological story of Stephen Hawking’s life this book is filled with information about new theories and discoveries in the fields of cosmology and theoretical physics. For example, the reader will learn that the term “black holes” was popularized in 1967 as the young Stephen Hawking was working as a post-doctoral researcher at Cambridge University.

Many fascinating details of Stephen Hawking’s life are included, I can imagine a multitude of young readers will identify with his childhood fascination with model trains and exploring The Science Museum in London. I was very surprised to read that he had not worked particularly hard for his undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences at Oxford, putting more emphasis on his rowing activities and socialising than on studying Physics! However, his diagnosis with the incurable disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) propelled him to focus his intelligence in a way that is inspiring to any reader.

The author Alex Woolf has addressed Stephen Hawking’s life challenges and scientific discoveries in language that confident readers at the upper end of primary school can understand, assisted by excellent diagrams and illustrations created by David Shepard. I would also recommend this book to any secondary school children studying GCSE Physics as excellent background reading to their syllabus. The use of panels throughout the narrative, summarising theories or describing key contributors to the understanding of the universe, certainly aide the comprehension of some complex scientific concepts.

Aside from its value as an educational science book, this biography presents Professor Hawking as an incredibly inspiring individual who refused to let his illness define him or hold him back from pursuing his intellectual dreams. The subtitle “A life beyond limits” encompasses his phenomenal cerebral achievements despite his physical restrictions and his 1983 theory of a “no-boundary” universe. His compulsion to ask questions, propose new theories and not be afraid of making mistakes is a great example to all of us. The fact that he became a best-selling author and cultural icon, even featuring in “The Simpsons” provides empowering knowledge for any young person who might be suffering with an illness or disability. At the end of the book one of his most famous quotes is printed, finishing with the words:

Be curious.

If all readers are inspired to follow this advice then who knows what new theories could emerge to solve the many unanswered questions that still exist about our universe.

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Publishing for my copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Trailblazers Simone Biles Golden Girl of Gymnastics by Sally J Morgan

Simone Biles

The  2016  Rio de Janeiro Olympics was the time that those of us not engrossed in the world of gymnastics probably first heard of Simone Biles, as we watched her incredible performance, triumphing by a huge margin in the women’s gymnastics event.

This detailed biography charts her journey from a childhood of 32 hours per week of gym training to the top of the Olympic podium. Her ascent from a poverty-stricken childhood, when there was often insufficient money for food due to her mother’s problems with addiction, through foster care and eventual adoption by her grandfather eventually led her to Bannon’s Gymnastix in Houston. The book makes clear the combination of natural talent and energy, input from top class coaches and hours of dedication that contributed to Simone’s rise to the top of her sport. It also explains her diagnosis with ADHD, as well as pointing out other top sports stars who have been diagnosed with this condition.

Great care has been taken with the design and layout, making it most attractive for an MG readership. The biographical narrative is punctuated with illustrated panels explaining technical details of the sport. There is a concise history of gymnastics as a competitive sport, detailing its arrival at the Olympics and the way that the women’s competition has changed since women’s artistic gymnastics was introduced at the 1928 Games in the city of Amsterdam. I particularly liked the feature named “All around the Apparatus” dotted at appropriate points throughout the text, with its descriptions and diagrams showing the routines that Simone has pioneered and perfected.

Importantly, the book also covered the setbacks that Simone has faced, including injuries, struggling with some of the gymnastic disciplines, racism and even sexual abuse by a USA Gymnastics doctor. I applaud the author for showing young gymnasts that even those at the top of the sport have had to overcome difficult times, and presenting a clear message that they must not be afraid to speak up about any wrongful adult behaviour. In celebrating the achievements of the most decorated gymnast of all time Sally J Morgan has provided readers with many examples of what makes Simone Biles such a great role model for young people involved in any competitive sport. The illustrations by Luisa Uribe and Emma Trithart show not only the technical aspects of gymnastics, but also the obvious enjoyment that Simone Biles gains from her sport.

Overall I would say that this is a fantastic addition to the Trailblazers series and a fascinating book for anyone of 10+.

Review: Fantastically Feminist Non-fiction by Anna Doherty

Ada Lovelace by Anna Doherty

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This is the second utterly fantastic non-fiction publication that I have read by Anna Doherty. This time her subject is the fantastically feminist and totally true story of the mathematician extraordinaire Ada Lovelace.

Firstly, the book is a beautifully produced hardcover. The colour palette of lime green, black, white and grey looks stunning and as you open the book the endpapers are decorated with all the tools of a mathematician’s trade. Next you encounter an illustrated family tree of Ada Lovelace’s family alongside the two people who probably had the greatest influence on her life; Mary Somerville the Scottish mathematician and astronomer who acted as Ada’s maths tutor and Charles Babbage the foremost mathematician and inventor of the time.

As you might expect from a non-fiction book where the subject is one of our foremost mathematicians, the story is told in a strictly logical chronological order starting with Ada‘s mother taking the very brave step of leaving Ada’s unfaithful father,  the famous poet Lord Byron, and setting off with baby Ava to start a new life together. You learn that the mother Annabella doesn’t want Ada to grow up poetic and eccentric like her father and therefore decides to educate her in mathematics and science. This was extremely unusual for the nineteenth century, where if girls received any education it would be in the arts not the sciences.

I think that Anna Doherty‘s drawing style, with its almost collage style, does an amazing job of bringing to life the ideas fizzing through Ada’s imagination and really portraying so clearly her love of learning. It fully illustrates the way that she explored everything that she was learning about and tried to make practical applications out of her mathematical and scientific knowledge. The other great thing about this book is that the author puts into context how unusual Ada and her upbringing were for the time period of the 19th century. It’s made very clear that young ladies were not supposed to be educated in science or mathematics and that the society ladies amongst whom Ada and her mother socialised were quite scandalised at the unladylike behaviour of Ada. We learn that Ada was taken by her maths tutor Mary Somerville  to a party hosted by a very famous engineer of the time, Charles Babbage. He had invented a calculating machine which was known as the analytical engine. When Ada was asked to translate a paper written about the analytical engine by an Italian engineer she added her own notes showing that she realised that this analytical engine could be used for things other than just mathematical calculation. As she described in theory what could be done with a machine like this she was in fact describing the invention of the computer. Hence she is now regarded as the prophet of the computing age.

I think that this incredible book should be sitting in every school classroom and school library. I hope it will inspire all children to realise that they should not  be defined by their circumstances or their surroundings. The power of the imagination is clearly shown to have immense power, and when coupled with an interest in STEM subjects can lead to major breakthroughs in technology.

Ada Lovelace day is celebrated on the second Tuesday in October each year, to honour Ada and all the women who work in science technology engineering and maths careers and to inspire the next generation of young scientists and mathematicians. This book will be an invaluable resource for that occasion as well as a general reminder of the importance of determination and lifelong learning.

I borrowed this book from my local public library, but will be adding it to my school library shopping list immediately!

 

The Brontës by Anna Doherty

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Here is another wonderful work of non-fiction written and illustrated by Anna Doherty, to tell the story of the Bronte sisters and their extended family.

It follows a straightforward timeline of their lives; each page contains just a few paragraphs of text alongside brilliantly quirky illustrations in muted shades of green, brown and black. The book begins by highlighting the unusual decision of their father, the Rev Patrick Bronte, to spend money educating his daughters. Fans of English Literature owe him an enormous debt! We learn of the tragic deaths of the two eldest Bronte sisters, following severe illnesses caught at their dreadful school, and how their subsequent home education fired the imaginations of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. I am sure it will come as a surprise for children to learn how difficult it was for females to publish books and that the sisters had to use pseudonyms initially. The summaries of their published work at the end are likely to pique the curiosity of future readers of these novels.  

 

A highly informative and enjoyable book to grace the non-fiction shelves of any library, likely to be appreciated by anyone over the age of 10. 

Review: Little Leaders Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison

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This book is a collection of short biographies of 40 inspiring women which the author began as a project during Black History Month. It celebrates the incredible achievements of a diversely talented group of women who had to overcome the dual disadvantages of being both female and black in order to fulfil their dreams. Vashti Harrison states in the introduction that she hopes “readers from every background find these stories compelling and inspiring” whilst recognising from her own childhood experience how important it is for children to see that people who look like them can be role models in any profession.

Each profile is a single page in length and written for a Key Stage 2 audience, with an accompanying full-page illustration exhibiting Vashti Harrison’s artistic talent. They are arranged in chronological order, starting with Mary Prince the author and abolitionist, born circa 1788, and finishing with Lorna Simpson, American photographer born in 1960. Readers will probably be familiar with some of the women featured in these profiles: Oprah Winfrey, Katherine Johnson, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks and Ella Fitzgerald for example. Others will be entirely new discoveries for many readers, but all share the ability to inspire and amaze with their achievements. I was particularly astonished by the story of Mary Bowser, a spy for the North during the American Civil War, who worked undercover as a slave in the home of the Confederate President.

At the end of the book there are short paragraphs about a further twelve women, with the challenge to link their stories to the women who paved the way for them in the previous profiles.

Overall, this is a wonderfully inspiring collection of stories of brave and talented women who would not be defined by convention, but act as role models for future generations. An essential addition to any classroom or school library to be enjoyed by all.

Review: Lightning Mary by Anthea Simmons

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This new biography of Mary Anning is perfectly pitched for the Middle Grade market, a dramatic retelling of the life story of an extraordinary girl fighting to become a scientist in an age where the social mores were against her.

The opening line of the prologue sets the tone:

“Tisn’t everybody gets struck by lightning and lives to tell the tale.”

From this moment the reader is enraptured by the engaging narrator (the story is written as a first person narrative) and her tale of battling against her poverty stricken, lower class background to prove her sparky intelligence.

This version of Mary Anning’s life gives young readers an excellent insight into the life of a poor, female member of the lower classes and the way in which she contributed a great deal to science but received no acknowledgment for her discoveries during her lifetime. The author captures the disappointment and frustration that her place in society denies Mary the chance to join the new scientific societies that were being established. It also touches on the friction between the scientific discoveries and the religious authorities, as evidence emerged that living creatures had evolved rather than been created in their current forms. The pencil illustrations by James Weston Lewis fit perfectly with the description of the drawings made of Mary’s “curiosities” by her friend Henry De la Beche.

A great book to inspire children aged 9+ to be determined in the face of difficulties and to understand the scientific upheavals taking place during the nineteenth century.