Review: The Wild Way Home by Sophie Kirtley

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This book is an extraordinary feast for the senses. A story about the power of family, it also feels like a celebration of the ancient woodland of the British Isles, with a deep love of nature permeating every description of a majestic tree or the instinctive behaviour of a forest animal. The language resonates with nature-related similes;  examples include the description of footprints in the sandy riverbank: “bird prints, like little letters in another language.” ancient flowers are “massive and speckled and wrong, like tongue-out faces with wavering tentacles.” Meat cooked in the smoke of a fire is “so tender I hardly have to chew and it’s delicious, like ham would be if ham was less pink and more wild.”

 Charlie Merriam loves Mandel Forest which stands at the edge of his home and town, and knows every inch of it, having played there with his two best friends, Lamont and Beaky since their early childhoods. On the eve of his twelfth birthday Charlie finds a deer’s tooth on the forest floor which he picks up to add to his “Mandel Museum”. The following day Charlie goes to visit his much longed-for, newborn baby brother Dara only to find that his parents are devastated as Dara faces a life-saving heart operation. Unable to cope with the anguish, Charlie runs to the forest, from where he glimpses the multiple windows of the distant hospital looking like a fly’s compound eye, each seeing things from a slightly different perspective. 

This is appropriate to Charlie’s sense of disorientation, when, after squeezing the deer tooth tightly in his hand he finds himself in altered surroundings. Although the familiar landmarks are recognisable, the forest seems wilder and the colours and sounds have taken on a greater intensity. Then he spots the body, face down in the stream…

Somehow, Charlie has time-slipped back to the stone-age! As he forges a relationship with Harby, the stone-age boy he rescues from the stream, he begins to realise that both of them are running from emotions too powerful to deal with. The primitive instincts for survival, for companionship, home and family are all explored.

The sense of a landscape linking the distant past with the present day is beautifully imagined in this emotional story, with the ancient Spirit Stone standing as the totemic link between past and present. The tale also conjured for me an evocation of a more carefree past when children spent their summers playing outside and roaming independently rather than being glued to a screen or tracked by worried parents through their digital devices. 

This is an exciting and thought-provoking tale, with some deeply emotional moments and some episodes of heart-stopping, adrenaline-pumping, jeopardy. I would recommend it for readers in Year 6 and beyond, perfect for readers who have loved The Last Wild trilogy by Piers Torday, The Explorer by Katherine Rundell  or Stig of the Dump by Clive King.

I am grateful to Bloomsbury Kids UK for approving me to read an e-ARC of this story on #NetGalley

Blog Tour: Extraordinary! written by Penny Harrison, illustrated by Katie Wilson

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Welcome to my stop on the Extraordinary! blog tour. I am very grateful that I had the chance to ask Penny Harrison some questions about her inspiration for this wonderful book. Here are her answers:

This book abounds with an appreciation of the natural world, does this stem from your own childhood?

Yes! I grew up on a cattle farm in the middle of New South Wales, in Australia. It was an incredible place, in the Capertee Valley, surrounded by the bluest mountains.

We really did experience four seasons there and each season bought something special, whether it was exploring and camping in the bush in spring and swimming in the creek in summer, or picking fruit for homemade jam in autumn and hunting for natural treasures while collecting kindling for the fire in winter.

I felt a strong sense of place in this natural world from an early age.

Could you tell UK readers what life is like on an Australian farm?

I was five years old when we first moved to the farm. It was in the middle of one of Australia’s worst droughts and all I can remember is the dust and driving around on the back of a truck, feeding hay to the cattle.

I learned to read when I was very young and escaped into books, like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, where nature was pretty and lush.

But the drought eventually broke – the hills turned green, the trees in the orchard were laden with fruit, and the rivers and creeks started flowing. At times they even flooded, cutting us off from the nearest town.

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We had plenty of pets, including a poddy calf, a joey kangaroo, a milking cow, and various guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens.

We would catch a bus to the nearest primary school, which usually took about an hour (including a bumpy 15-minute drive along our dirt driveway).

For high school, we were sent to boarding school in Sydney. But, being a shy homebody (and a country girl at heart), I didn’t last long and ended up doing most of my schooling by correspondence, which involved packages of work being sent to me in the mail.

I read in your biography that you have written for many audiences, what drew you to children’s picture books?

I’ve mostly written for newspapers and magazines, covering every thing from courts and police rounds to gardens and interiors. But the thing with journalism is that you’re telling other people’s stories and often using their words.

I’ve always loved children’s books and am completely obsessed with illustration (I would so love to be able to draw). It just took me a long time to realise that these were the stories I wanted to tell, and even longer to build up the confidence to try writing them.

Why did you choose to write this book in rhyme?

It honestly just came out that way. The concept didn’t begin as a rhyming story, but when I started, I found it really wanted to rhyme. Some stories are stubborn like that.

What message would you like your readers to take away from Extraordinary!?

That the little moments in life are what matter most. We can strive for success and grandeur, but being able to notice and treasure the ‘ordinary’ is what will ultimately fulfil us. And what we need more of in this world.

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For years I’ve had a quote from William Martin (beautifully illustrated by children’s author/illustrator Jess Racklyeft) pinned to my wall and this was the inspiration for Extraordinary:

Penny Harrison

How closely did you work with the illustrator, Katie Wilson, and what do you think about the way she has illustrated your story?

About six years ago, I started following Katie’s beautiful work on Facebook and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’d love to see her illustrate a picture book’. When I heard that I’d been paired with Katie for one of my own books, I was blown away. Katie worked with the publisher and designer. I simply sent her effusive messages every time I saw some of the pages. What she’s done is exquisite.

What were your favourite picture books from your own childhood, and do you have any favourites that you shared with your own children?

I was a big Shirley Hughes fan as a child. I adored Dogger, but my favourite was probably Sally’s Secret, about a little girl who finds a secret cubby hidden in the garden. I spent a lot of my childhood creating similar cubbies. My son and I loved reading Koala Lou (Mem Fox and Pamela Lofts) and anything by Dr Seuss. And my daughter and I both adored Peggy (Anna Walker), Sadie (Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad), and Ada Twist Scientist (Andrea Beaty and David Roberts). We still do.

Do you have a particular writing space in your home?

I have a lovely big old table for a desk that looks out into my garden, but, to be honest, I don’t often write there. Usually, I’m scribbling notes while waiting in the car to pick up one of the kids, sitting outside with a cup of tea, or unable to sleep in the middle of the night!

Can you tell us what you will be working on next?

I have a couple of picture book ideas that I’m working on and a concept for a junior fiction series that I’d love to explore.

Thank you so very much Penny for this insight into the background to Extraordinary! I cannot wait to read your next picture book. In the meantime, here is my review of Extraordinary!

This amazing picture book encourages children to appreciate the beauty of nature and the everyday moments which make life extraordinary.

Firstly, you have to take a few moments to linger over the glorious hardback cover. The stunning woodland scene painted in rich autumnal colours, with small details such as leaf spines picked out in foil is so evocative that you can almost smell the loamy scent of the forest floor as the young boy and his dog explore it.

Penny Harrison has written the entire book in gentle rhyme, with a soothing rhythm that lulls you into a meditative recognition of the simple pleasures of life.

The accompanying artwork by Katie Wilson immerses the reader initially into open landscapes where the imagination is invited to soar like an eagle as your wishes expand to the horizons. Then, from these grand vistas the story moves to the domestic, where simple indoor pleasures like relaxing with a bookcase full of wonders in a cosy lounge are to be treasured. Outside, the focus zooms in to observe the antics of insects exploring a blade of grass, or the delight to be found in inhaling the scents of a spring day and observing new life bursting forth. On every page there are joyous depictions of the life-enhancing experience of appreciating the natural world throughout the seasons, with numerous tiny details to find, which will reward re-readers of this book. The words and pictures are in complete harmony as they encourage a feeling of deep gratitude for precious moments in life.

 

As we learn to appreciate the benefits of children spending time exploring the natural world for the benefit of their mental and physical health, and as we encourage them to enjoy and protect their environment, this book will be a wonderful addition to any primary school classroom or library and indeed to any home picture book collection. In a world where even the youngest children are spending large amounts of time staring at screens, this book is a welcome reminder to relish the fleeting special moments of connection with nature.

 

Thank you to New Frontier Publishing UK for my review copy of Extraordinary! and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

 

Perfect and Timely Picture Books

Little Puggle’s Song written by Vikki Conley and illustrated by Hélène Magisson

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I am ashamed to say that I have had this picture book in my reviewing stack for rather a long time and was prompted to retrieve it by the recent heart-breaking reports of the devastation wreaked by the bush fires in Australia. It goes without saying that I have immense sympathy for all of the people affected, but it is also very upsetting to see so much of the unique flora and fauna of Australia destroyed so rapidly and in such quantity.

This story of one little echidna’s determination to follow his dreams becomes all the more poignant in the light of such a  background. Vikki Conley has written a wonderfully gentle tale of Puggle’s desire to sing like all the other animals. This shy little creature is desperate to join the animal choir to sing for the arrival of the emu chicks. He watches in wonder as animals and birds rehearse for their performance; bluebirds, doves, cockatoos, kangaroos and koalas all conducted by the kookaburra known as Brown Feather. He summons the courage to ask for a place in the choir, but he does not have the ability to make a sound. However, when Brown Feather becomes ill at the last moment, Little Puggle’s dedication might just pay off!

Throughout this story the beautiful artwork of Hélène Magisson imbues the story with life and energy. Native flora and fauna are painted in subdued, earthy tones and will provide hours of wonder as they are explored. A gorgeous tale of the importance of following your heart, for young readers and a reminder for us all of the beauty and fragility of the natural world.

 

Under the Same Sky written by Robert Vescio, illustrated by Nicky Johnston

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Another poignant picture book, with very few carefully constructed sentences by the author Robert Vescio, comparing and contrasting the lives of two children as they endeavour to build a friendship from opposite sides of the world. The astonishing artwork, by Nicky Johnston, in muted watercolour tones cleverly highlights the very different environments in which the two children live. One is clearly in an affluent society while the other child appears to be in a barren place, with barbed wire possibly hinting at a conflict zone. The determination to find a way of communication, and send a message of hope is portrayed with such sensitivity that I am sure this book will provoke deep conversations about cultural differences and long-distance friendships.

 

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me copies of these picture books in return for an honest review.

Review: Magical Kingdom of Birds The Snow Goose byAnne Booth

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This is a wonderfully gentle story, perfect for children from the age of six who love magical, fairy adventures and have an interest in the natural world.

Firstly, the book itself is irresistible with its seasonably scarlet cover featuring the titular snow goose, embellished with just the right amount of glitter to appeal to its intended readership. The 117 pages are beautifully illustrated by Rosie Butcher, which together with the font size make this book ideal for newly confident readers.

The story begins with Maya enjoying the company of her big sister Lauren, who has newly arrived home from university. They are preparing for Christmas, enjoying building a snow goose in the fresh snowfall and looking forward to a visit from two of Lauren’s university friends. When they go inside to warm up, Maya notices that the “Magical Kingdom of Birds” her special colouring book  is open in her bedroom, with a picture of a snow goose waiting to be coloured.

Only Maya is aware that this book, inherited from her mother, transports her to the Magical Kingdom of Birds as she colours the pictures. Once there she helps Princess Willow and a talking magpie named Patch to foil the wicked plans of Willow’s uncle, Lord Astor. This time Maya finds herself sitting beside a lake, in a wintry landscape, which is covered with magnificent white and blue geese. Princess Willow appears and explains to Maya that the geese are waiting for the Silver Snow Goose to arrive, bringing the first snows of winter, and then leading the Winter Festival before guiding the flock in their migration south. However, it appears that Lord Astor has kidnapped the Silver Snow Goose and it will take a great act of bravery to rescue him and ensure that the noisy gaggle of geese are safely lead to their winter feeding grounds.

As the adventure unfolds, the courage and teamwork of the geese is explored and an incredible amount of knowledge about these awesome birds is provided quite seamlessly as a natural part of the story. The loyalty and community spirit of the birds is inspirational to Maya and the lesson “to find your own way and listen to your heart” is presented in a non-preachy way. I loved the fact that Maya’s physical disability does not prevent her showing courage and contributing her skills and ingenuity to the rescue mission.

At the end of the book there is a factual section presenting a great amount of interesting information about snow geese; this is followed by an introductory chapter to another Magical Kingdom of Birds adventure, The Silent Songbirds.

I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful story and highly recommend it to readers of 6+.

 

With thanks to OUP Children’s Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review: The Tree That’s Meant to Be by Yuval Zommer

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A joyous celebration of the natural environment, told through the tale of a tree, this book is a “must” for festive reading lists! Firstly the cover simply shouts “Christmas” with its sparkling, green tree, topped with a glittering star and placed on a rich, red background. However, rather than being surrounded by a festive family, this tree is encircled by forest birds and animals, hinting at its celebration of nature.

Inside, on pages painted in the broadest range of greens, yellows and browns, and populated by sparse paragraphs of text, we learn of the tree, grown from a tiny seed, which never manages to grow tall and straight like the other forest trees. As the seasons roll around the forest suddenly turns white and humans arrive to cut down the trees. In an inversion of the classic “little fir tree” folk tale, our little tree is the one left behind in the forest, whilst all the others are cut down in their prime for a brief seasonal trip indoors.

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The following pages are suffused with the beauty of the natural world, as the wonky tree is adorned with decorations of nuts, berries, leaves and cones. It provides a focal point for the woodland creatures’ Christmas celebrations and subsequently becomes a home for birds and beasts. It is surrounded by love. The final, perfect illustration shows it providing shelter for two reading children.

My words simply cannot do justice to the magic of this book. Yuval Zommer’s finely detailed illustrations and lyrical text command hours of attention, the more closely you observe each page the more you are rewarded by the sight of delicate insects, beautifully patterned feathers and a sense of awe at the diversity of life.

As we hear the calls to protect our planet, this book provides a timely reminder of the wonder of the natural world. I hope that this picture book will be shared by adults and children, and that it will encourage the members of my generation to reflect upon the need to act to protect and nurture the glory of our planet. I am sure that The Tree That’s Meant to Be is going to be very popular at school where we are trying to be stewards of creation, and I will certainly be gifting copies to the youngest relatives this Christmas.

 

I am most grateful to OUP Children’s Publishing for sending me a review copy.