Posted by: janesandell | July 25, 2017

Elizabeth Wein

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is drawing near and I am, once again, looking forward to introducing and chairing events. One of these is with Elizabeth Wein who has generously agreed to be in conversation with me.  We’re going to be considering her novel The Pearl Thief set in Perthshire in the summer of 1938.  It’s a very good book full of rounded jump-off-the-page characters living, moving and having their being in a landscape with which I am fairly familiar.

The heroine is Lady Julia Beaufort-Stuart, only daughter of the Earl of Craigie and grand-daughter of the late Earl of Strathfearn. But think again if you’re expecting a story of the aristocracy at play.  Elizabeth’s event at Edinburgh is entitled A Very Scottish Mystery and that’s exactly what The Pearl Thief is.  Actually it’s a mystery spawning other mysteries and delving deep into the Scottish landscape.

The Strathfearn estate has been sold to a school and Julie, her grandmother, mother and assorted brothers are clearing and packing generations of family history while the local librarian and a visiting academic are cataloguing precious documents and artefacts. Then the academic disappears, Julie is attacked, some water pearls vanish and everything is blamed on the McEwens, a Travelling family well-known to Julie’s mother.

Julie plays many parts as the multiple mysteries are solved and she tries to discover who she is and navigate her way into adulthood. Like anyone else her journey is full of twists and turns, shocks, surprises and confusion.  She is an engaging, complex, human heroine full of passion for life and I was left wanting to know how her life developed.

Those of you who know Elizabeth’s books will be aware that we do know more of Julie’s story. The Pearl Thief, whilst being an absolutely complete book in its own right, is a prequel to the massively successful Code Name Verity.  Incredibly I failed to read it when it was published so I turned to it immediately after finishing The Pearl Thief.  And I couldn’t bear it.  I read it in the space of about eight hours, always thinking I’d have to stop but unable to put it down.  I knew enough about the book to know that it wouldn’t, couldn’t end well but, nonetheless, I kept hoping against hope.  However it all ended in tears – mine!

I don’t want to give anything away to those who haven’t yet read these novels. Because you must read them.  The dilemma now, though, is whether to read them chronologically by publishing date or internal dating.  And I don’t have an answer to that.  Whatever you choose your heart will break but Julie Beaufort-Stuart will stay with you.



There is a very cute monster in this brand new picture book by Tom Fletcher and Greg Abbott from Puffin. And it turns out he’s difficult to dislodge. You can shake the book, tickle his feet, tilt him to the left and to the right and even spin the book round and round and the little monster is still there.  Only one thing seems to work but that has unfortunate repercussions…  Simple, amusing and interactive There’s a Monster in Your Book features bold and dynamic illustrations of a very engaging star.

Posted by: janesandell | July 13, 2017

One Book, Many Editions

I recently received a copy of Anne of Green Gables from Alma Books.  As anyone who has known me for more than a few moments will know, I am great admirer of LM Montgomery’s books.  I’ve written about them at length here and drive my colleagues to distraction singing her praises.  So, obviously, this is not the first copy of Anne of Green Gables I’ve ever seen or owned.  Since the copyright on the work expired it seems like every publisher has issued its own edition.  Naturally the text remains the same so they’re all looking for a way to make their own stand out whether by commissioning an introduction from a well-known author, adding notes, including extra material or inserting illustrations.  And then there’s the front cover…

Alma Books has included helpful notes on the text, a short biography of Lucy Maud, a brief history of the novel and its main characters. It also offers a quick overview of some other well-known orphans in children’s literature.  There are chapter heading illustrations by Susan Hellard which I rather like as well as a front cover that I don’t (although she does get Anne’s hair right unlike a remarkable number of illustrators).

I’m really pleased to have this copy and will add it to my already large collection. At first glance it seemed a pretty unremarkable addition but then I read the blurb, something I had neglected to do as I sort of know the story!  Pretty much everything it says is true but it has a very modern feel to it, clearly designed to appeal to today’s readers.  I’m not knocking this – far from it – but it did occur to me to wonder how blurbs have changed over time.  Needless to say, I will be looking in to this and will report back!

Posted by: janesandell | June 27, 2017

The Hippo at the End of the Hall by Helen Cooper

“Come now or come never!” it says on the back of the invitation to the Gee Museum. The invitation lands on Ben’s doorstep along with the milk and, although the envelope is blank, Ben is confident it’s meant for him.  He wants to visit but his Mum is strangely reluctant to let him.

The bees who went to great lengths to deliver the invitation wonder what is delaying him and one highly-strung shrew is stretched to snapping point when Ben finally stumbles in. By this time Ben knows two things: he has been here before and at least one person hopes that there will soon be no museum left to visit.  Has he left it too late?

The utterly frustrating truth is I can’t tell you! Sabina at David Fickling Books has tantalised me by sending the opening few chapters.  I’m completely hooked now and the book isn’t being published until November.  This seems like cruel and unnecessary treatment!

So look out (but don’t hold your breath!) for The Hippo at the End of the Hall by Helen Cooper.  Yes, that Helen Cooper, double Kate Greenaway Medallist for Pumpkin Soup and The baby Who Wouldn’t Go to Bed.  This is her first novel but fortunately for us she has also provided illustrations for it.  If the rest of it lives up to what I’ve read it will quickly become a critical and popular success.  And maybe even a Carnegie Medal winner…

Posted by: janesandell | June 26, 2017

Be Creative

With the summer holidays fast approaching in Scotland, I thought I’d take the opportunity of sharing some books with you for children and young people with a creative bent. There are loads out there and the five I’ve chosen aren’t necessarily the best but they do comprise a selection of my favourites.

From Edinburgh-based Floris books, in its Kelpies imprint, is A Super Scotland Sticker Book with illustrations by Susana Gurrea.  As you’d imagine there are stickers galore to affix to the pages of typical Scottish scenes: a highland glen, the Royal Mile, the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh Zoo and so on.  The stickers and illustrations are bright and cheerful and will provide hours of amusement.  For good measure there are a few puzzles thrown in too.


I have two offerings from Sterling Books. Now these come with a caveat: they are American publications so, of course, some of the spelling is a bit weird!!  If you can cope with that these are great books.  One is a crafty one, Creative Lettering for Kids by Jenny Doh.  It gives tips on different techniques you can use to create art with letters.  It’s lavishly illustrated and clearly laid out and has loads of different ideas to try, none of which needs expensive or specialist equipment.  If you like your letters formed into words and sentences try Write It Out by Brandon T Snyder.  This is a journal full of creative-writing prompts and lots of space to let your imagination run riot.


From Ammonite Press comes another journal, this one giving prompts for creative artwork. Creative Space Journal by Lucy Irving is organised by emotion so whether you’re sad, playful or sleepy, happy or bored there are ideas for you to try.  Some are fairly obvious but there are more quirky prompts too that should have all teenage artists (I fail to qualify on two counts) rushing for a pencil.


My final offering comes from Nosy Crow and is another of their collaborations with the British Museum. The Colouring Book of Cards and Envelopes does exactly what it says on the tin.  Inspired by objects from the museum’s collection Rachel Cloyne has designed this selection of stationery that will need meticulous attention to detail to do it justice.

If you’re looking for something challenging and fun for a young person this summer give one of these a try. You’ll probably find yourself wanting to help with the project – or maybe buy one for yourself!

Posted by: janesandell | June 5, 2017

Stylish Fairy Tales

Although I know more now than I did fifteen years ago, I still don’t consider myself to be any kind of expert on illustrated fiction. However, from being someone who was fairly ambivalent about it, I have become a bit of an enthusiast.  Not being an artist by any stretch of the imagination I don’t really have the technical knowledge or vocabulary to describe illustration particularly eloquently.  But, in that well-worn saying, I do know what I like!

One of the things I’m enjoying just now is a series of books by David Roberts and Lynn Roberts-Maloney published by Pavilion Children’s Books. The books play around with fairytales, setting them in different periods and subtly altering their messages.  I’ve blogged elsewhere about Cinderella and today another two floated across my desk.

Sleeping Beauty (subtitled A mid-century fairy tale) brings the setting fairly up to date – and beyond.  Annabel, aka Aurora, lives with two aunts and has been cursed by a spiteful witch.  Clever Aunt Flora modifies the wicked Morwenna’s spell although she can only diminish its power.  If Annabel pricks her finger before her 16th birthday she will sleep for one thousand years.

For Little Red, the duo has gone back in time and across the Atlantic to pioneer America at the end of the eighteenth century.  Unlike most versions of Little Red Riding Hood, the main character is a boy but the wolf and Grandma are still there.  This one is subtitled A howlingly good fairy tale with a twist and it very much does what it says on the tin.

What I love about the illustrations in these books is the detail, not just the attention to it but also the amount of it there is. The clothes and hairstyles in both books are particularly wonderful.  I especially love the 1950s styles of the first part of Sleeping Beauty.  Morwenna stands out from all the other guests at Annabel’s christening by dint of her dress and Annabel’s teenage ponytail proclaims her vintage.  Equally evocative are the pictures in Little Red with their stylised fashions voluptuously fixing the story in the eighteenth century.

Look out for both of these as well as Rapunzel, a groovy 1970s fairy tale and the aforementioned Cinderella in art deco design.

Posted by: janesandell | May 30, 2017

Nosy Crow

One of the best things to happen in publishing recently is Nosy Crow.  The independent publisher of children’s books and apps launched in January 2011 and has gone from strength to strength garnering awards every year.  The high production values and wonderful mix of authors and illustrators make the books things of great joy.

Recently Nosy Crow has worked in partnership with two venerable organisations: the National Trust and the British Museum.  Hitting the shelves later this week are a couple of non-fiction titles published in association with the former designed to get children out and about and discovering the natural world.  Go Wild in the Woods by Goldie Hawk and Rachael Saunders is described as an adventure handbook and is packed full of information about being safe and having fun.  Night Explorer is an activity backpack complete with torch, constellation map, glow-in-the-dark stickers and guidebook.  With its help you can spot nocturnal creatures, navigate the night sky and create a night garden.  Both these offerings are brightly coloured, attractively illustrated and carefully researched and written.  They’re ideal school holiday books although, this far north, Night Explorer might be better held over until October!

Children whose tastes are more artistic and creative might like Origami, Poems and Pictures, published in conjunction with the British Museum to celebrate its Hokusai exhibition.  The title describes it pretty accurately: at the front there are pages of instructions for making origami objects including a boat, a fan and a dragonfly.  Accompanying each set of instructions is a haiku about the object.  The rest of the pack is full of sheets of origami paper to enable the reader to turn the instructions into works of art.

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.

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