Posted by: janesandell | May 24, 2017

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Lee

Following on from yesterday’s piece about the Carnegie Medal I’d like to draw your attention to a book that won its sister Medal.  The Kate Greenaway Medal is awarded for excellence in illustration and in 1993 it was won by Alan Lee for Black Ships Before Troy, a retelling of Homer’s Iliad.  It is just about to be republished by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.

It’s a beautifully written, illustrated and designed book as one would expect from Frances Lincoln.  The text by Rosemary Sutcliff is as well written as you would suppose from a Carnegie Medal winner.  It is written as prose but keeps enough rhythm and pace to remind the reader that it is in fact a poem that is being translated and paraphrased.  And it’s a complex read, reminding us that the Kate Greenaway Medal is not only given to illustrators of books for very young children.

The illustrations are also complex and diverse.  Alan Lee worked in film and in 2004 won an Oscar for his work as conceptual artist on The Lord of the Rings.  Here he brings atmosphere and detail to his watercolours (I think!) of ancient Greece.  The soft tones belie the aggressive nature of much of the story but they are dynamic and engaging.  The overall design is clever, ensuring that the text and pictures work together with neither outshining or overwhelming the other.

Posted by: janesandell | May 23, 2017

Collecting the Carnegie

I first made an abortive attempt to collect a copy of every winner of the Carnegie Medal back in 2007 when I was involved in organising the Carnegie Children’s Book Festival in Dunfermline. I did track down some of the older titles but since then I’ve moved house twice and not all of them have survived those processes!  Now, ten years on as the eightieth anniversary of the Medal is celebrated, I’m starting again.

Some of the books have been part of my life for a long time irrespective of their Medal-winning status. It was The Edge of the Cloud by KM Peyton that first made me aware of the prize.  I borrowed it from Lossiemouth Library back in the day and the front cover had an image of the Medal on it.  I didn’t know what it was at that point but it was clear that it was significant. The Edge of the Cloud is still one of my favourite books – and I now have a signed copy, a treasured possession.  An even earlier acquisition is Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome, the very first winner.  I read all of the Swallows and Amazons books at a very early age and they remain on my shelves.  And so, in an aside, does Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick, a fictionalised account of Arthur Ransome’s time in Russia.  It was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal but unaccountably didn’t win.

There are other winners on my shelves including the Scottish trio of The Wind on the Moon by Eric Linklater, The Stronghold by Mollie Hunter and Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin.  Naturally, I have A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly and Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce as I was involved in awarding those two Medals.  And as I looked back through the list of winners I realised that along the way I’ve acquired many others simply because they’re books I want to have: One by Sarah Crossan, Just in Case by Meg Rosoff, Tamar by Mal Peet,The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo, Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty, Wolf by Gillian Cross, The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Last Battle by CS Lewis, We Couldn’t Leave Dinah by Mary Treadgold, Visitors from London by Kitty Barne, The Circus is Coming by Noel Streatfeild and The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett.

So here we go again. Some will be easy to find as they’re still in print, others will be trickier and a few, I have no doubt, will be nigh on impossible. A Valley Grows Up anyone?  Or The Story of Your Home?  But I love a challenge!

Posted by: janesandell | May 19, 2017

Interesting Animals

9781454921141Earlier on this week Paul at GMC sent me a couple of books published by Sterling Children’s Books.  I couldn’t choose between them so, as they both feature animals, I thought I’d share the two with you.

First up is Dance is for Everyone by Andrea Zuill, set in Mrs Iraina’s dance class and starring Tanya (that might not actually be her name).  The class is surprised to see an alligator at the barre but given that she’s bigger than them (than all of them put together, in fact) they decide to be happy to let her join in.  There are a few challenges but nothing the class can’t cope with…

And then there’s Ella Who? by Linda Ashman and Sara Sanchez.  In it a little girl makes an unusual new friend the day her family moves house.  The grown-ups are a bit too distracted to pay proper attention to the girl and are just delighted that she has found someone to play with.  The two spend a happy day reading, dressing up and splashing in the pool but all things come to an end.  The little girl is sad – until Babette shows up.


I love the vitality in the illustrations in both these books and their strong colours.  And they’re ideal for young children with their clear messages of acceptance and true friendship.

Posted by: janesandell | May 19, 2017

Cute Cats, Cruel Cats, Crazy Cats

I love cats and over the years I’ve reviewed lots of books in which they star.  Here are just a few of my favourites.

It’s summertime and Ava is enjoying the seaside. But with Squishy McFluff in tow there always seems to be something that can go wrong.  Whether digging a hole, buying an ice-cream or chasing invisible fish, nothing goes quite to plan for the inseparable twosome.  And then Squishy goes missing.  Pip Jones and Ella Okstad return with another funny adventure starring the little girl and her invisible cat in the early chapter book Seaside Rescue!

In This is NOT a Cat! by David Larochelle and Mike Wohnoutka the first lesson at mouse school is how to recognise danger.  And danger, of course, means cats.  It’s a simple story but clever and very funny with a double twist in the tail!  The text is repetitive, ideal for encouraging small children to join in, and the illustrations are strong and dynamic.  I especially love the expressive faces of the three pupils.  Much of the plot is told pictorially and repeated readings will only enhance the enjoyment.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, one little girl thinks.  When a cat turns up on her doorstep and makes it clear he’s there to stay, she is quite pleased.  But she struggles to find a name for him.  Finally, however, the right one presents itself. I Don’t Know What to Call My Cat by Simon Philip and Ella Bailey is a simple and warm story told in words and augmented by cute pictures in gentle pastel shades.  The dynamic characters jump off the page and into the imagination.

The Lost Kitten  is a charming and engaging picture book by LEE and Komako Sakai. Hina and her mother are surprised when a cat appears on their doorstep and seems to be asking them to take care of her tiny kitten.  But they take on the task.  When her mother goes to buy some cat food, Hina is left in charge of the kitten.  An adventure and a fright ensue for both but all ends well and Hina is finally able to name the new kitten.  The delightful illustrations perfectly capture the emotion of this gentle and delightful tale.

Stanley the Amazing Knitting Cat  by Emily MacKenzie is crazy and quirky and colourful and fun. Mice are safe around Stanley and he doesn’t care about dozing in the sunshine.  Stanley loves to knit.  All his friends are dressed in his handiwork and stay warm thanks to him.  But when he runs out of wool before an important competition he is forced into desperate measures.  With its cute animals, bright woollens and happy ending, this is a joyful story about friendship and loyalty.

The Cat, the Mouse and the Runaway Train is a rollicking, rolling adventure of suspicion and friendship. Peter Bently’s resonantly rhyming tale is of Carruthers, the mouse-chasing station cat who rules the roost, petted by the stationmaster.  But when Carruthers’ tail gets stuck in the rail as a runaway train approaches, who will save the day?  Steve Cox’s illustrations are full of colour and vitality as they capture the drama of the story.  Brilliant for reading aloud, this is a book to be shared again and again.

Of all TS Eliot’s Practical Cats, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat  is my favourite.  From ‘the whisper down the line…when the Night Mail’s ready to depart’ the rhythm, rhyme, pace and story of the poem draw the reader in to Skimbleshanks’ domain.  Arthur Robins brings the word pictures to life with his spirited, dynamic illustrations (even if he is a little confused about which way is east).  Those who have read the earlier poems in this series will be delighted to spot Macavity and Mr Mistoffelees on board, heading for ‘the northern part of the northern hemisphere’.  I first met Skimbleshanks as a seven-year-old at Troqueer Primary School in Dumfries and loved the poem so much that at one point I could recite the whole thing.  But Skimble is significant for another reason too: for the first time I felt the excitement of reading (albeit very fleetingly) of a place I knew.

Posted by: janesandell | May 17, 2017

Wave by Paul Dowswell

Following the highly successful Eleven Eleven, Paul Dowswell returns to the First World War with Wave, a novel set on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  Compelling and brutal, it is the story of the (imaginary) Hastings Pals and specifically of brothers Charlie and Eddie.  In the midst of the chaos of that notorious day the Pals’ home community is shattered.  The brothers’ lives are both changed and the repercussions of the summer morning echo down the years.  Paul Dowswell’s unflinching writing and eye for detail make this a gripping and haunting read.

This novel was commissioned and published by Barrington Stoke which specialises in books for young people who struggle with reading, particularly because of dyslexia.  I say that not to suggest anything other than that this is a book for any teenager.  And I’d whole-heartedly recommend it.

Posted by: janesandell | May 17, 2017

Hill of the Angels by Sue Mayfield

Religious intolerance, radicalisation, violence and flight: a story of our times you might think. But Hill of the Angels  by Sue Mayfield is set centuries back during the English Civil War.  Full of complicated relationships, family feuds and deeply held beliefs, the novel is told alternately by Grace and Abigail, friends who unwillingly find themselves on opposing sides by association.

Sue Mayfield is a superb storyteller with a gift for creating characters with strong voices. Hill of the Angels is a welcome addition to her all too small collection of novels.  I only wish that she’d write more fiction for teenagers.  I discovered her through I Carried You on Eagle’s Wings, a book that stayed with me for a long time.  And then, many many years later, Voices was one of the longlisted titles for the Carnegie Medal when I was a judge.  It’s a very different book but I loved it just as much – for its strong characters and for the clever way the plot twines round a production of The Tempest.

Posted by: janesandell | May 16, 2017

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce

I have never grown out of my delight at reading books set in places I know so when I realised that Frank Cottrell Boyce had set his latest book in Dumfries I was ridiculously excited.  In fact I felt it necessary to share my excitement with Catherine at Macmillan Children’s Books!  As a very former pupil of Troqueer Primary I was delighted to find myself reading about my old haunts but wherever you’re from you’ll enjoy walking those streets with Prez, Sputnik and their friends.

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is whimsical, heart-wrenching and hilarious. Prez is a boy whose life has been turned upside down causing him to retreat into silence.  When his grandfather is taken ill, Prez is sent to live with a family on a farm for the summer and in their care he begins to relax.  But when Sputnik erupts into his life everything changes.  For the better?  Well, eventually.  Frank Cottrell Boyce’s books are always enjoyable and this one, set in and around Dumfries, is no exception.

Posted by: janesandell | May 16, 2017

Murder Mystery

I tend to say, if asked, that I don’t like crime fiction.  It’s certainly true that I can’t read explicit violence or about lots of blood and anguish.  However, I do like the mystery element of these books.  I enjoy the unfolding discoveries of the detectives (professional or otherwise) and trying to understand the workings of the characters’ minds.  So I was delighted to come across some murder mysteries for younger readers and thought I’d share a couple of them with you.

Travelling home by bus one day, Maya takes a photo of the Christmas lights as she passes but inadvertently catches something else. Suddenly she is under police protection and living in the remote Welsh mountains with her distracted aunt and surly cousin.  Is she really in danger as the police think?  And is being cut off by snow a blessing or a curse? Murder in Midwinter is a taut and exciting thriller.  Fleur Hitchcock beautifully captures Maya’s sense of unreality and fear as she untangles family relationships along with the mystery.  This is just one of Fleur Hitchcock’s novels for Nosy Crow and the others are well worth reading too.

Puffin has already established an excellent series and Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong return for another unladylike murder mystery in Mistletoe and Murder.  The school friends are spending Christmas in Cambridge with Daisy’s brother and great-aunt.  Before they’ve even settled in they are faced with puzzling and unsettling events.  And when a fatal accident occurs in Maudlin College the girls suspect that it might have been planned.  Determined to prove that it was, in fact, murder the girls reluctantly accept the help of fellow Cambridge visitors, George and Alexander.  Nancy Drew meets the Chalet School in this clever crime novel set in the 1930s.  Robin Stevens’ period detail, strong characters and meticulous plotting come together in a satisfying story.

Posted by: janesandell | May 16, 2017

Steve Antony and the Queen

Her Majesty, the Queen returns in a red and green triumph by Steve Antony. It’s Christmas Eve and the Queen is still trying to decide what to buy for some of her great-grandchildren.  Although some of the most famous stores in the land are at her disposal she just doesn’t know what to get.  Fortunately Santa Claus is on hand to help and he whisks her off around the world to search for gifts.  Full of elves, reindeer and quirky details to spot The Queen’s Present is a welcome and worthy addition to this picture book series published by Hodder.  The other books are The Queen’s Handbag and The Queen’s Hat and they are just as much fun.

Posted by: janesandell | May 16, 2017

Some New Looks at Old Ideas

I came quite late to picture books as a professional but now that I’m there I can’t get enough of the best of them.  Here are three that are standing out for me currently.

Many years ago I had a much-treasured copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.  I love the beautiful underground world where the sisters danced in secret away from the confines of the palace, and the little hint of mystery.  This new version by Alison Jay and published by Templar is gorgeous.  Her crackle-glazed style with sumptuous colours and dynamic characters draws the reader in to the princesses’ private world.  I particularly like the forest and lake scenes which contrast so well with the lighted ballroom.  This is just as much a treasure as my well-loved and read older copy.

Princess Eliza is clever, busy, kind and lonely. She needs a friend but few people make it to her snow-bound kingdom.  One day she ventures out alone into the forest where, instead of the bears she’d expected to meet, she finds a reindeer who carries her off to meet his friends.  Told in verse, this is a joyful story with sly allusions to other fairy tales, and the illustrations bring to life a Nordic winter.  In The Princess and the Christmas Rescue from Nosy Crow, Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton have created a modern take on an age-old story of friendship.

Cinderella: an art deco fairy tale published by Pavilion is a retelling of the well-known story by Lynn Roberts-Maloney illustrated by David Roberts. The text gives the tale a gentler feel and makes the stepmother and stepsisters less horrific but still self-centred, demanding and dismissive of Cinderella.  The illustrations set the story very firmly in the 1930s and are full of art deco style from the hairstyles to the shoes and the pictures on the walls.  The attention to detail makes this a fabulous book to view and the tightly-written story is laced with an undercurrent of dry humour.


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