#MGTakesOnThursday: The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife by Maz Evans, illustrated by Chris Jevons

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.
Illustration by Chris Jevons, published by Hachette Children’s Group

Author: Maz Evans

Illustrator: Chris Jevons

Publisher: Hachette Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“Then Miss Hugg went very quiet and William U got Mr Nibbles and I got some BIG FEELINGS about it”

This book in three words: Fun – Feelings – Family

I know that we have not yet reached the end of March but I already feel sure that this will be one of my books of the year when December arrives. Anyone who has spent any time reading with children will know that a funny book will keep them engaged, entertained and contribute to a love of reading and stories.  When that book is written with such skill that it delivers a laugh in practically every paragraph and, underneath the laughter, contains some powerful life lessons, it becomes a treasure in every classroom, library and home.

Scarlett Fife is instantly relatable, an almost-ten-year-old girl with the sorts of worries that any school child will recognise, including wanting to win sufficient “positivity points” to gain the ultimate classroom reward, fending off one particular classmate’s unpleasant behaviour and worrying about losing her best friend to the popular “new girl”. On top of that, her engineer mother is exhausted from working extra hours “to make ends meet” because her stepdad Jakub has been dismissed by his racist boss. This results in the sort of oversights which are huge to a school child like forgetting to send in Scarlett’s spending money and lunch order for a school trip.

However, Scarlett’s biggest worry is her tendency to experience BIG FEELINGS and subsequent temper loss. She describes the way the anger bubbles up inside her tummy until it explodes out of her in language that will ring a bell of recognition with many. We are led to understand that this trait has frequently landed her in trouble, and now Mum has laid down the ultimate Mumishment! If Scarlett loses her temper again she will have her long anticipated trip to Super Mega Awesome Sicky Fun World theme park cancelled. Thus Scarlett must try to contain her anger throughout the provoking situations she faces…with hilariously explosive consequences.

She can rely on her best friend Maisie for sensible words at crucial moments, although Maisie’s use of Latin expressions was the cause of much merriment from this reader. The level of humour in this book is outstanding, with jokes and asides which will have adults and children in fits of giggles. William U, the source of many of Scarlett’s enraged moments is blessed with the Chinook of helicopter parents, who constantly excuses his bad behaviour with an imaginative list of syndromes and Scarlett’s definition of an executive head teacher made me snort with laughter!

I do not want to give away too many plot details for fear of ruining your enjoyment of this story but instead will say that I loved it on so many levels. Firstly the uproarious humour. I honestly laughed out loud at many situations, word plays and misunderstandings scattered throughout the plot. This really is a book which will be enjoyed as much by adults who might read it aloud as the children who are listening or reading it independently. Which brings me to my second point; it is another wonderful example of illustrated fiction which makes the reading process relaxing and enjoyable for those children who are still on their way to mastering the process of reading independently. 

Then there is the representation which flows so naturally throughout the book and ensures that many children will see their own experience or that of their classmates on display. Scarlett’s parents have an amicable divorce ensuring that Scarlett feels loved and valued, but she herself compares this to a classmate whose parents do not have this mature relationship. Scarlett’s stepdad Jakub is Polish and her real Dad has only one arm and hardly ever uses his “Prosecco” arm. Much of the plot is built around the upcoming wedding of Scarlett’s Auntie Rosa, a high-powered lawyer to Auntie Amara, a creative therapist. As prejudices to some of these characters are mulled over by the childlike fair-mindedness of Scarlett’s voice, readers can see the obvious message that everyone should be valued for who they are.

Finally, through the different voices of wise adults, Scarlett comes to understand that anger is natural, can in some cases be used to positive effect and that there are strategies she can use to deal with her feelings rather than having to bottle them up inside.

This is a marvellous book, bursting with joy and good sense and celebrating love in its many forms. I am sure that it will become a much-loved addition to your classroom, library or home and I certainly hope that there will be more books featuring Scarlett Fife.

I am grateful to NetGalley and Hachette Children’s Books for access to an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

Advent Review: Ballet Bunnies written by Swapna Reddy, illustrated by Binny Talib

I was fortunate to be sent an ARC of the first book in the Ballet Bunnies series earlier in the year and absolutely adored the story of young ballerina Millie nervously joining her new ballet class and befriending the four little rabbits who live in Miss Luisa’s School of Dance. You can read my review of Ballet Bunnies: The New Class here.

Cover art by Binny Talib, published by OUP Children’s Books

Now there are three books available, all beautifully produced in full-colour and enhanced with glittery covers, the perfect collection for any young dancer’s bookshelf. These are wonderful early chapter books to inspire confidence and enjoyment of reading in children who are taking the first steps in their independent reading journey.

Ballet Bunnies: Let’s Dance

Cover art by Binny Talib, published by OUP Children’s Books

In a scenario that will be familiar to every child (and parent) who attends dance lessons, the pupils of Miss Luisa’s School of Dance are in a state of high excitement as the day of their Gala Performance approaches. Millie’s tummy is fluttering with butterflies despite the fact that she has rehearsed until she knows every move of her dance by heart. Fortunately, the ballet bunnies are there to offer calming advice and when mean girl Amber tries to sabotage Millie’s performance, little Dolly is the hero who saves the day!

Ballet Bunnies: Millie’s Birthday

Cover art by Binny Talib, published by OUP Children’s Books

Summer term has come to an end at Miss Luisa’s School of Dance. As she helps to tidy the ballet studio Millie tells the four tiny, dancing bunnies about her impending birthday party. Sensing her apprehension about the visit of so many friends to her house, the bunnies offer to come and stay with her to help with her anxiety about the event.

This is another lovely story which encapsulates the nervousness that afflicts some shy children over an event that they are expected to be excited about. The friendship shown by the bunnies and their sensible strategies to help Millie stay calm when the party seems to be overwhelming her will reassure and delight young readers.

I am most grateful to OUP Children’s books for sending me review copies of these books which will be shared with young dancers through the school library. I think they would make a lovely Christmas gift for any young children aged 4-7.

Review: The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

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This has to be one of the most exquisitely crafted and emotionally touching books I have read. Onjali Rauf’s talent is beyond measure as she demonstrates in this sensitively told story featuring domestic abuse, which she has somehow made suitable for a readership of 10 years and upwards.

This brilliant author is able to distill the feelings of the displaced and disoriented Aniyah and her younger brother Noah and weave a tale from their despair which invokes the power of the human spirit to overcome hardship and heartbreak. Along the way she shows us the power of unconditional love, as demonstrated by the amazing foster mother Mrs Iwuchukwu.

As an adult reading this tale, recounted in the first person by 10 year old Aniyah, I found myself torn between heart wrenching sadness and awe at the author’s ability to express very difficult concepts with a totally believable childlike logic. We learn instantly that Aniyah has a deep interest in astronomy and, as she slowly reveals her family situation, you understand how she has conflated ideas from her favourite cartoon, The Lion King, with scientific concepts and overhead snippets of conversations between social workers and police officers. She has thus come to the understanding that her mother has left them in order to become the new star which astronomers have spotted racing across our galaxy. The woman who looked after Aniyah and Noah before they arrived at the foster home told a policewoman that,

“Mum belonged in the heavens now, and that she was going to be looking down on us forever.”

In order to convince the astronomers to give the new star its correct name Aniyah must embark on a race against time, to the Greenwich Royal Observatory, accompanied by her new friends from the foster home in this beautifully hopeful story.

Onjali Rauf is truly a shining star, sent to guide us, in these dark times, towards a place of kindness and empathy and tolerance. A most highly recommended read for adults and children of 10 years and older. I believe that a percentage of the author royalties are being donated to a charity for the victims of domestic abuse, so buy a copy if you can.

If you love this book, make sure you read the debut novel by this author, The Boy at the Back of the Class.

Hey Warrior and Hey Awesome by Karen Young

In an age where anxiety seems to be affecting young people at an alarming rate these two books are a welcome addition to any school library, or collection of books for pastoral care purposes. The author, Karen Young began her career as a psychologist and has clearly put that training to great effect in producing these titles to explain anxiety and empower a young audience.

In a gentle and accessible manner these books help children to identify stress and understand that anxiety is something which can happen to anyone, whether they are an astronaut, a lion-tamer or a child! I love the fact that the author respects her readers to the degree that she explains the workings of the amygdala, presenting it as the “warrior” part of the brain which is designed to protect us from any threats. She uses brilliantly child-friendly comparisons, for example, explaining that sometimes the amygdala can set off false alarms, like a smoke detector going off when the toast is just a little overdone! Clearly detailed descriptions of the physiological changes caused by the released stress hormones are discussed, again with language and imagery that children can understand.

The second half of the books present simple strategies for dealing with attacks of anxiety, taking back control of the brain and rebuilding self-esteem. In essence Hey Warrior helps guide children to embrace their inner warrior, while Hey Awesome encourages the belief that the active imagination which causes anxiety can be harnessed to develop the individual’s creativity.

 

The beautiful watercolour illustrations, in muted tones, by Norvile Dovidonyte not only reinforce the text, but embody the soothing, calming sentiments of the books. I think these titles will be a great asset to those adults working in a pastoral role with primary school children and are likely to be most useful when adult and child read and discuss them together.

Karen Young’s website www.heysigmund.com is packed with resources and advice on the subject of anxiety.

I am most grateful to Little Steps Publishing for sending me copies of Hey Awesome and Hey Warrior in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Amazing by Steve Antony

Amazing

This gorgeous picture book is written and illustrated by Steve Antony and the joyous front cover, featuring four children and a small dragon zooming along on various forms of wheeled transport, just compels you to pick it up!

Each of the 22 pages are filled with large, brightly coloured illustrations and a few simple sentences and/or speech bubbles celebrating a range of enjoyable childhood activities. These include: having a pet, playing with friends, attending birthday parties, dancing, singing, snacking, drawing and spending time in the library. It is apparent that the un-named boy and his pet dragon, Zibbo, support each other in participating in all of these experiences, and have as much fun doing so as all of the other children in the pictures.

I love the way that this book encourages children to accept each others’ differences by highlighting the pet being unconventional so that the boy’s wheelchair use is not commented on. This book conveys the message that everyone is amazing, just the way they are, in a delightful format for starting a conversation with young children. A great addition to our “read for empathy” collection in the school library.

Review: Ghost by Jason Reynolds

I had seen some Twitter love for this book and added it to my “want to read” list without any urgency to move it into pole position, but then it was selected as the #PrimarySchoolBookClub choice! What a great decision, as it made me rush out and get a copy.

Ghost, real name Castle Cranshaw, is a teenager who spends a lot of time alone and bored whilst his single mother works long hours at the hospital to support them. He is constantly in trouble at school, where he feels an outcast in his non-label clothes and outfits which are always too big as his mum needs to buy him things he won’t outgrow too quickly. He walks home from  school in slow-motion each day as the prospect of being alone in the apartment, with its harrowing memories is not an appealing prospect. The highlights of his journeys are the daily interaction with Mr Charles in the neighbourhood store where he stops to buy sunflower seeds to snack on, and watching people working out through the windows of the gym. One afternoon Ghost’s eye is caught by an athletics practice taking place on the running track at his local park… a coincidence that could change his life.

Ghost learnt to run the night his drunken father decided to shoot at him and his mother and has natural, raw talent which is spotted by “Coach” when, despite wearing jeans and badly fitting basketball boots he takes on the star sprinter! After that dash down the track Ghost becomes a member of a group for the first time in his life and knuckles down to the training regime imposed by Coach. He gradually learns to trust the other “newbies” Lu, Sunny and Patty and realises that everyone has their own issues to confront. However, membership of the team is based on trust, good behaviour and discipline at school … can Ghost fight the rage inside himself, keep out of trouble and earn himself a place in the Defenders Athletics squad?

Given it’s storyline, it comes as no surprise to find that this is a fast paced story, with short chapters which most readers will want to race  through as quickly as possible. But if you can pace yourself through the book you will be rewarded with a remarkable story of a young person finding out what is important in life. In the words of Coach, the story will:

Show you that you can’t run away from who you are, but what you can do is run toward who you want to be.”

I loved this book. The author, Jason Reynolds, has conjured up a hugely sympathetic character for whom I found myself rooting from the opening chapter. Yes, he makes some mistakes in his behaviour, but he learns from the consequences and you fully understand the background issues which lead to that behaviour. The relationship between Ghost and the store owner Mr Charles is beautifully written, and the “father figure” roles played by both Mr Charles and Coach make you realise how important it is for adults to support the dreams of young people. Ghost’s love and respect for his mother is graphically highlighted when he begs Coach not to tell her about his big mistake. All of these themes are covered with the lightest of touches by Jason Reynolds, and are wrapped up in a thoroughly enjoyable story.

Although the book would be an easy read for anyone of 9 and above, it does touch on issues of gun violence, domestic abuse, poverty and even a reference to drugs, so I would advise younger readers to read it alongside an adult with whom they can discuss these issues. The publishers, Knights Of should be congratulated for their mission to publish books that appeal to every kind of reader, and I am very much looking forward to reading the next in the “Run” series by Jason Reynolds. Finally I must mention the glorious cover art by Selom Sunu which only adds to the appeal of this winner of a book.

 

If you loved this, why not try Holes by Louis Sachar next?