17 October 2011


Back home from Cheltenham.

Well, that was fun, as always. An event with Kevin Brooks, Melvin Burgess and Sophie McKenzie to talk about their new teen novels; a discussion with Michael Farr and Raphaël Taylor about Tintin (these two know all there is to know on the subject, and had brought along some great pictures, too); then the wonderful Michael Foreman and Terry Jones (a last-minute addition to my slate) to discuss their latest collaboration, Animal Tales, and significantly I managed an hour on stage resisting the temptation to talk about Life of Brian, which felt like an incredible feat (I didn't even ask Terry to say "He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy...", just once, oh go on, just say it once, pleeeease...); and finally a chat with Kevin Crossley-Holland and Katherine Langrish about their latest books, Bracelet of Bones and West of the Moon, respectively.

This last was my favourite, I think - Kevin and Katherine, though they'd not met before this event, clearly really like each other's work, which always helps, and the whole event felt like an actual, proper, interesting, coherent conversation about important things, rather than a sort of hybrid interview to promote a couple of products - we talked about language and about stories and about Vikings and more and more. Brilliant.

I wonder what Chelt '12 will have in store. Looking forward already...

04 October 2011

Percy etc..

What a day - the library has been full of boys bouncing about the new Percy Jackson, bouncing about Rick Riordan having answered some of their questions and bouncing about getting their photos online! There might have been the odd lesson in there too, and the announcement of the teams who'll take part in this year's Kids' Lit Quiz competition AND special cake as it was Frances the chef's birthday and she baked for us, so all in all today was a day well spent.

I'm still in mild shock that Rick Riordan is guesting here - a little bit like having one of the gods reach down from Olympus!

The Son of Neptune - a review

To celebrate today's publication of The Son of Neptune and author Rick Riordan's visit to our blog, a review:

The Son of Neptune is about Percy Jackson. Percy has had his memory blanked and now can’t remember who he is or where he’s from. In the beginning of the book Percy is being pursued by two Gorgons called Sethno and Euryal, who don’t seem to die – this is because the giants have imprisoned Hades’s linuete keeper, Thanatos - who is also known as Death. Polynepthys is planning to bring a huge army of mythological beasts such as cyclopses, centaurs, dracane and lots of others to Camp Jupiter. Percy and his friends Hazel and Frank, alongside the rest of the legion, have to stop him. Before the fight, Percy, Hazel and Frank are assigned a mission to free Thanatos – can they do it in time?

I think that Rick Riordan is a very funny, creative writer and nothing is better than sitting in bed with one of his books. I’m absolutely sure that there not one of my friends who has not read at least one of his books and loved it. Now I’m already looking forward to the next book when it comes out!

Reviewed by Isaac Lockwood, aged 9

Percy Jackson competition!

To mark the publication of The Son of Neptune, Rick's publisher Puffin have launched a Hunt for a Half-Blood Hero competition!

So if you want Rick streamed live to your school assembly, visit the competition site and tell them why you should be chosen to join Percy on a new adventure!


It's Rick Riordan!

We're thrilled that Rick Riordan - bestselling author of the brilliant Percy Jackson series - is joining us on the UBG blog today! It's the final date on his Olympian Week UK blog tour, to celebrate the return of Percy Jackson in his new book The Son of Neptune. Each of the stops on Rick's tour is dedicated to one of seven Olympian gods, and today is ATHENA. So, time for some words of wisdom from Rick himself...

Leonie has gathered seven questions about the Percy Jackson books, which we've put to Rick...

How did you come up with the idea of Percy Jackson? James

It started as a bedtime story for my son. He loved Greek mythology when he was young. Percy Jackson was roughly based on him, since they are both ADHD and dyslexic.

Did you like the movie of Percy Jackson and how much input did you have in the writing? Ayomide

I didn't see it. I just write the books. I didn't have any part in creating the movie.

Will Percy ever change his mind and agree to become immortal? Asher

I doubt it. That was the selfish choice he could've made, but he chose to help all demigods instead. That's what makes him a hero!

Why did you stop writing about Percy and start writing about Leo and Jason? Ayomide

I don't want to try to write the same story over and over again. I like writing about different characters with different adventures. But I certainly didn't stop writing about Percy, as you'll see in The Son of Neptune.

If you could be a god, which one would it be, and what powers would you have? Freddie

I'd love to be Zeus and have the power to throw lightning.

If you could create a new weapon for a god, what would it be and what would it do? Ben

I actually did already. I invented a sword for Hades, as he didn't have a weapon in Greek mythology. His sword acts as a key to the Underworld, and can send souls to Tartarus with a touch.

Which of your books is your favourite and of other authors, which is your favourite book - both adult and kids? Mani

I can't choose a favorite book of my own. It's too much like choosing a favorite son or daughter. I love them all for different reasons. I have many favorite books by other authors. If I had to choose, I'd probably pick The Lord of the Rings.

The Lord of the Rings, eh? Since we've got him here, we also asked Rick to do the usual UBG thing, and let us have 100 words on his favourite book - here's what he said:

The book that had the biggest impact on me as a reader and a writer was J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. When I was about thirteen, Tolkien’s trilogy opened up the world of fantasy for me. My eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Pabst, had done her master’s thesis on Tolkien. She showed me how the trilogy was patterned after Norse mythology. She was also the first person to encourage me to submit stories for publication. The idea of writing a fantasy based on myths never left me, and many years later, this would lead me to write Percy Jackson.

While we're celebrating the publication of The Son of Neptune, you can also read a review by nine-year-old Isaac, and learn about an exciting new competition launched by his publishers.

Huge thanks to Rick for taking time from his busy schedule to stop by, and good luck with the new book - published today!


[Photo of Rick (c) Marty Umans]

03 October 2011

Lightning Thief

While we're waiting for tomorrow's exciting visitor, here's a reminder of what Julia Golding wrote about the very first Percy Jackson book for the UBG all those years ago...

The Gods of Olympus are still running the earth even in the twenty-first century. Surprised? So is Percy Jackson. And then he finds out that he is the son of one of them - a very powerful god who shouldn't have had him at all. It explains a lot, like why one of his teachers turned into a harpy and tried to kill him. Packed off to Camp Half-Blood to come to terms with his parentage, Percy finds himself plunged into an adventure that takes him across America and into the Underworld on the trail of the lightning thief.

A great hybrid: road movie meets The Odyssey. And you'll never look at your teachers in the same way again.


A very special guest

Rick Riordan, creator of Percy Jackson, will be visiting the blog tomorrow!

To commemorate the publication of his new book, Heroes of Olympus: The Son of Neptune, Rick is doing a week-long UK blog tour, which will end here on the UBG blog, on Tuesday 4th October - publication day!

He's going to be answering a few questions, and telling us a bit about his own favourite book - so be sure to check back here to find out what he has to say...


30 September 2011

Cheltenham 2011

My children's/teen events for Cheltenham have been confirmed.

I'll be talking books for teens with Melvin Burgess, Kevin Brooks and Sophie McKenzie on Sunday October 9th at 2:30pm (Mad, Bad and Dangerous); discussing Tintin with Raphaël Taylor and Michael Farr on Saturday 15th at 5pm (Tintin); and exploring the appeal of Vikings with Kevin Crossley-Holland and Katherine Langrish on Sunday 16th at 5pm (Vikings!).

Really looking forward to them - and hope to see you there!



Ah, a new door-stopper volume from the incomparable Brian Selznick. It's called Wonderstruck and it's gorgeous. (Obviously.) Review to follow in the coming days.


26 September 2011

UKLA longlists - here they are!

So, after wading through over three hundred submissions, we met last week to come up with our three longlists for the 2012 UKLA award. And they're announced today! The award is given for books for children and teenagers in which the writing uses language in ways that's particularly powerful/interesting/effective.

The longlists (one for each age range covered by the award) are as follows:

Longlist for 3-6 category
A Splendid Friend, Indeed (Suzanne Bloom)
Mine (Rachel Bright)
When Titus Took the Train (Anne Cottringer)
A Place to Call Home (Alexis Deacon)
I Want a Mini Tiger (Joyce Dunbar)
Just Because (Rebecca Elliott)
Eddie's Toolbox (Sarah Garland)
Wolf Won't Bite (Emily Gravett)
A Bit Lost (Chris Haughton)
Rollo and Ruff and the Little Fluffy Bird (Mick Inkpen)
Up and Down (Oliver Jeffers)
The Boy Who Cried Ninja (Alex Latimer)
Little Red Hood (Marjolaine Leray, tr. Sarah Ardizzone)
Marshall Armstrong Is New to Our School (David Mackintosh)
One Two That's My Shoe (Alison Murray)
Iris and Isaac (Catherine Rayner)
Busy Boats (Susan Steggall)
Chill (Carol Thompson)
Mole's Sunrise (Jeanne Willis)
Scruffy Bear and the Six White Mice (Chris Wormell)
Frank and Teddy Make Friends (Louise Yates)

Longlist for 7-11 category
Farther (Grahame Baker-Smith)
Noah Barleywater Runs Away (John Boyne)
A Girl Called Dog (Nicola Davies)
The Memory Cage (Ruth Eastham)
Small Change for Stewart (Lissa Evans)
Grace (Morris Gleitzman)
Three By the Sea (Mini Grey)
The Young Chieftain (Ken Howard)
One Dog and His Boy (Eva Ibbotson)
Animal Tales (Terry Jones)
Sky Hawk (Gill Lewis)
Moon Pie (Simon Mason)
Caddy's World (Hilary McKay)
Scrivener's Moon (Philip Reeve)
The Girl Savage (Katherine Rundell)
Nobody's Horse (Jane Smiley)
When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead)

Longlist for 12-16 category
My Name Is Mina (David Almond)
Long Lankin (Lindsey Barraclough)
Flip (Martyn Bedford)
Buried Thunder (Tim Bowler)
iBoy (Kevin Brooks)
Tyme's End (B.R. Collins)
Bracelet of Bones (Kevin Crossley-Holland)
The 10pm Question (Kate de Goldi)
Annexed (Sharon Dogar)
You Against Me (Jenny Downham)
Being Billy (Phil Earle)
Quarry (Ally Kennen)
Everybody Jam (Ali Lewis)
Pull Out All the Stops (Geraldine McCaughrean)
Trash (Andy Mulligan)
A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)
Half Brother (Kenneth Oppel)
Bruised (Siobhan Parkinson)
My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece (Annabel Pitcher)
The Dead of Winter (Chris Priestley)
White Crow (Marcus Sedgwick)
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (Francisco X. Stork)

We're all really happy with our choices. Do give them a try!


(P.S. You'll have to wait till the New Year for the shortlists, I'm afraid...)

19 September 2011

UKLA longlist

This post is not to tell you what's on the UKLA longlist, because I can't do that. It's only to tell you that we do now have a longlist (chosen today), and that it's great, and that you'll know what it is on the 26th. Which isn't very interesting information for you, I grant you, and is really just a bit of a tease, but *I'm* very pleased with it so wanted to say something. So there.

Details this time next week.


13 September 2011

A very general update...

Even though we're not currently at work on an edition of The Ultimate Book Guide, there's been plenty of children's books activity in my summer, some of which I've mentioned here already and some not. But here's a little run-down...
  • In mid-May, Leonie and I were in Qatar, running a two-day workshop for local teachers and teacher-trainers on 'Getting Children Reading'. Also in May we concluded our Books of the Week series with our 100th recommendation, for Hilary McKay's delightful Caddy's World, and I wrote a couple of YA reviews for the Indy.
  • June then began with the Hay festival (I chaired an event with Jason Wallace, Jim Carrington and Irfan Master); and the following day saw the start of the Pop Up schools programme, which ran right through the month (I'm proud to be on the board of Pop Up, and it was lovely to see it become a reality after all the planning!), culminating in the Pop Up public festival in Coram's Fields in July. Which was wonderful. (Plans afoot for the next already...)
  • Then there was August with Edinburgh, and early September in which I - sort of by accident - wrote my first picture book... Of which I'm rather proud. But more of that in another post...
  • And throughout the summer, I've also been working on a number of ideas for promoting more translated children's books in the UK; and reading reading reading for the UKLA award (over three hundred books submitted! Help! Drowning!...) - I'm on the selection panel and we meet to longlist on Monday 19th; I've been going through about seventy abstracts sent in by people who want to speak at our IBBY congress next year; and meantime attempting to make progress on the rather massive undertaking which is my new Oxford Companion to Children's Literature.
So: busy-busy. But that's all in the past; so what's next on the blog for this month coming up?

Well, we'll have the announcement of the UKLA longlist, just as soon as we've made our final selection; I'll be reviewing Wonderstruck, the beautiful new book from Brian Selznick, author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (a particular favourite of mine); and I'll be telling you all about that surprising new picture book I've been working on (publishing in the New Year). And then going into October there will be some lovely events at Cheltenham, as usual.

But before all that, we're going to be announcing a very exciting special guest who's going to be visiting us on this blog in just a couple of weeks... Watch this space...


31 August 2011

Teen writing competition

Delighted to announce that today we launch the third edition of Right Words, the writing competition for 14 to 16 year olds in the UK. It's something I started a few years ago with the Human Rights Watch London Network, and this time we're running it in association with the Readers and Writers programme at English PEN, too. The theme is 'freedom of expression'. The competition will run into January (we're running free workshops in schools throughout the period), and then the best bits of work in each of the categories (story, poem, essay, song/rap) will be chosen by our amazing panel of judges (Tim Minchin!) and we'll publish those pieces in an anthology in the spring. I'll keep you up to date with it all on this blog, of course.

You'll find all the information here - do encourage any teenagers you know to enter, teachers you know to use our resources with their classes, etc., and of course drop me a note to ask if you'd like to know any more. It's a good thing.


20 August 2011

Neil Gaiman event

Loved doing the event with Neil Gaiman on Tuesday! He arrived just in time for the event and afterwards was whisked off to a three-hour signing queue, so I didn't get a chance to have any kind of chat with him off-stage at any point, but I had him all to myself for an hour on stage (just the two of us, and five hundred other people in the tent eavesdropping) and he was just great. And The Graveyard Book is still one of my very favourites ever. Read it if you haven't already.

The festival haven't put up the audio/video of the event - tho' they might? - but in the meantime the Guardian have helpfully published some of the highlights here. Fortunately, the Milk, eh? Brilliant.


15 August 2011

Edinburgh 2011!

If it's August, it must be...

Yes, time for the Edinburgh International Book Festival again. And great programme, as usual.

I'm there for the day tomorrow, to introduce the lovely Geraldine McCaughrean, and then to chair two events - one with Tim Bowler and Mike Lancaster, and the next with the amazing amazing Neil Gaiman. I know Geraldine and Tim, and I've met Mike before, too - and tho' I've never met Mr Gaiman I think he's amazing amazing amazing (might have mentioned) so I imagine it's going to be a lovely day.

Then going up again next week, to introduce Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, introduce Charlie Higson, and interview Ali Lewis (Saturday 27th); introduce Steve Cole, introduce Anne Fine and chair a discussion on Partition between Jamila Gavin and Irfan Master (Sunday 28th); and finally interview David Almond about his extraordinary new teen/adult novel, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean (Monday 29th).


Come say hello if you're around.


02 August 2011

Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur

At the beginning of this story Elise is eleven and still a child. An orphan, she lives with her aunt and uncle in the country and plays with the best friend, Franklin, inventing epic stories where they fight evil. But Elise is about to move up to her next school, and from the day she starts there things change. Her world has always been safe and secure, without doubt or thought for anything much more than what to do today - people have always been kind and Franklin has always been the perfect companion...

The steep learning-curve that Elise runs through is painful. Suddenly she's at sea with everything from her friend, to her enemy and her home. Bullied at school, failing academically and struggling with seeing the world from a more teenage perspective, she suddenly starts to find a series of keys; keys that fit doors on the upper floor of barn behind her house - a place she has always been forbidden to go.

Elise's struggles with friendships - and with finding out who she is becoming - are very real. Even though this book is quite slight it packs a real emotional punch as the reader learns, along with Elise, about her story and the love her parents had for her.

There is nothing here that makes it a teen book, but if I was going to choose an ideal recipient I'd pick a girl, about the same age as Elise. Though this isn't a handbook for growing up, it certainly shines a light on many of the predicaments any child on the cusp of maturity will encounter.

Simply written, beautifully told, Elise's story stays with you - I loved it and dearly wanted to know more (Amanda's story next, please!).

16 July 2011

Pop Up!

Over the last year or so I'm very proud to have been involved with Pop Up, a new project established to bring books and stories to thousands of kids in the Kings Cross area. The programme culminated in a huge public festival last weekend at Coram's Fields, which featured some of my favourite children's writers, illustrators and storytellers, and a lot of creativity and fun and imagination and sunshine and Moomins.

Have a look at the Pop Up website to learn a bit more about it.

We're now beginning our plans for the next year's activity - even bigger and even better! - and we're at that difficult fund-raising stage (the Pop Up programme is absolutely free to all the kids involved, and we're determined to keep it that way) so if you think it looks worthwhile and you're able to make any donation towards the running of the thing, it'd be very much appreciated!


18 June 2011

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

Bilbo Baggins is just a small hobbit when an unexpected party bursts into his hobbit hole, taking him on an adventure filled with excitement and mysteries. With Bilbo goes Gandalf the wizard, the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield and his eleven followers. In Bilbo’s path he finds a magical ring that helps them on their way to finding the greatest treasure of all time, which is guarded by the most ferocious dragon, Smaug.

Will Bilbo and his friends survive the dangerous adventure and claim the treasure they dreamed of? You have to read it to find out! I think this is a thrilling book and it is a Must Read!

Oscar Harvey age 10
Dorset House School, West Sussex

The above was written as part of a lesson about review writing – a lesson using the UBGs and their entries as examples. I think it works brilliantly (the UBGs on how to write reviews and Oscar’s review on how to enthuse about a book!).

17 June 2011

Amy and Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson

Amy has isolated herself from all her friends, and to make life even more dispiriting than it already is her mum has upped stakes and moved across America - pretty much as far away from their California home as you can get and stay on land. The plan is that Amy will follow her, driving across country with the son of a family friend. A family friend who not only is disconcertingly cute but who has an agenda of his own, and enough emotional baggage to fill the trunk of the car with some to spare. Though that's still less than Amy's...

So, what you have is a road trip with two almost grown-up teens, a trip complete with pictures of receipts from diners, tourist photos, diary pages, playlists of music that they listen to whilst on the road, broken-hearts, grief, despair and laughter as well as tears. But put all that together and what you get is one of the most warm-hearted stories I've read in ages. It's a story of hope that shows how life's complexities can be battled through and how friendship really is the most important thing you can find. I loved it, and thought about the characters long after the book was done.

Danny was sent the advance copy and he didn't fancy it, so maybe the cover appeals more to females than males, but certainly the content is readable by both and isn't cloying or girly or romancy. Or maybe it's a perfect example of don't judge a book by its cover (though I infinitely prefer this to the American version!).

Looking back (I read this a couple of weeks back) I want to re-read it already. In fact I want to pick it up and take it on a road trip, listening to Roger's playlists, adding in a little Elvis and eating at roadside diners. For a first time writer, Ms Matson? Well done, this is bliss in a book!

Oh, and again no vampires/ghosts/werewolves/angels! Yay!

11 June 2011

Indy reviews

I've just reviewed a couple of sort-of Young Adult books for the Independent - little piece on Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram ran yesterday, and Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls last month.

They're unquestionably two of the best books I've read in a long time. Both will win many things over the next year, and people will talk about them for a long time to come.

Meantime, please, please read them.


PS A Monster Calls has been reviewed on this blog already, too - there's a rave from Tessa here.

04 June 2011

Strings Attached by Judy Blundell

I loved What I Saw and How I Lied - as a teen novel it was fresh-looking, brilliantly insightful and beautifully written. That Judy Blundell had managed to come up with a story that was set in the past but that spoke so eloquently to the present was something I was a little afraid she wouldn't be able to replicate. Well, I needn't have fretted: Strings Attached is another wonderfully sophisticated, complex novel.

Set in 1950, but with the past told in snapshots that piece together like a jigsaw, this is the story of smart-mouthed redhead, Kitty Corrigan. With a tangled history that binds her more securely than she dreams, she runs away from a broken romance to find fame on Broadway. But success as an actress is hard to find and, lying about her age, she becomes a nightclub dancer, all the while trying to ignore the complex presence of her ex-boyfriend's father and the plans he has for her life. Kitty's hunger for love, for life and for success blind her to almost everything, especially to the fact that actions have consequences and that very little in life comes for free.

I loved this book, as it's a real novel (woo hoo, no magic, no vampires!), a real story, with three-dimensional characters and a nail-bitingly tense mystery. Sleaze and sex ripple through the book, but Kitty is - for all her would-be sophistication - an innocent abroad and none of the sex is overt. All the period details are delicious (Mad Men watchers? Read this now!) and the claustrophobia of an America waiting for the bomb to drop or the Reds to take over is satisfyingly evoked. The nod to David Levithan in the acknowledgements is just, though this is not a carbon copy of his style at all, as Ms Blundell is far too much her own writer for that - a writer with style, panache, a real ear for dialogue and a heart for story.

With the hedonistic world of clubs, dancers, gangs, McCarthyism and mobsters evoked with all the stark depth of Film Noir, String Attached reads like a movie, one that flickers in your head long after the story is done.

The one thing I'd have changed? The title - it really didn't work for me...


24 May 2011

The Western Mysteries: WANTED by Caroline Lawrence

Wanted is the first instalment in the Western Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence and is released on the 2nd June 2011. It is fiction. It is set in the Wild West during the great American civil war. The main character is a boy called P.K. Pinkerton, nicknamed ‘Pinky’. It all starts when he comes back from school and sees his foster parents lying on the floor looking dead and the adventures start there and get more nail-biting as the book goes on.

I think the book is different from The Roman Mysteries because his parents die and then he sets off alone to solve a major mystery whereas in The Roman Mysteries their parents don’t die and they solve the mysteries purely for fun. In ‘Wanted’ Pinky sets off to escape killers, but then starts to do mystery work as a job - and to follow in his father’s footsteps - not just for fun! The fact that it is all sounds more serious doesn’t make it any less exciting.

I think that this book is as good as The Roman Mysteries and is more grown-up. I think it will have up lots more great surprises too as the series continues. I think it’s a great read and recommend it very much.

Asher Laws age 10

16 May 2011

The end.

With our hundredth recommendation, just published, we’re bringing our ‘Book of the Week’ series to a close. Huge thanks to all our contributors, especially to Noga Applebaum, Tessa Brechin, Ariel Kahn and Matthew Humpage, for sharing with us their enthusiasm for some of the brilliant books published over the twenty-seven months since we started.

We’ll all still be posting recommendations of books on this blog from time to time, of course, albeit occasionally rather than regularly, whenever we come across anything that we’re just too excited to keep quiet about…


Book of the Week (100): "Caddy's World" by Hilary McKay

If you’ve read the rest of Hilary McKay’s Casson Family books, you won’t need my encouragement to read Caddy’s World. Just the knowledge that there’s another one in existence and you’ll be utterly desperate to get your hands on a copy, longing to throw your arms around these characters you’ve so missed. Caddy, Saffy, Indigo and their slightly delinquent parents…

(But wait – you’re wondering – what about Rose?)

In Caddy’s World we go back to a time when the Cassons had only three children – the eldest, Caddy, is just twelve. She has three best friends (perfect Beth, brainy Ruby, and Alison who hates everybody), a sort of boyfriend, Dingbat (whom she shares with the other three) and worries about the stability of her mad family’s mad household, where things seem to keep being upturned just as she’s managed to get her bearings. And then her mother tells her there’s a baby on the way…

You may, like me, worry slightly when a book like this appears – the others in the series are so gorgeous, what if this one doesn’t live up to your expectations? Well, you needn’t fret. Everything you loved about Saffy’s World, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose, Caddy Ever After and Forever Rose is here in this book, too, in abundance – a lot of laughs, warmth and mischief, characters with more character than any family of children I think I’ve ever read about, a lightness of touch and, well, so many other things. It’s quite hard to talk about, really – quite hard to describe what it is that makes the Casson Family series so special. But as I say, if you’ve met them already you don’t need me to tell you. So, I’ll just say, Have a wonderful time. Caddy’s World awaits.

(If you haven’t read these books, what on earth are you waiting for? You won’t find a more endearing, eccentric, maddening and marvellously warm family in any other book, by anyone, ever. High claim? I don’t think so. But find out for yourself. Start from the beginning, and go read Saffy’s Angel now. Just do what you’re told. You’ll be so glad you did.)

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

09 May 2011

Book of the Week (99): "One Dog and His Boy" by Eva Ibbotson

When Eva Ibbotson died in October, aged 85, she had just finished work on one final book, this story about a dog, a boy, and the adventures they go through in order to be allowed to keep one another. And to my mind One Dog and His Boy is as good as anything she wrote in her amazing 35-year career.

Ten-year-old Hal has always wanted a dog. His super-materialistic parents lavish expensive gifts on him at every opportunity, but just won’t stand for the idea of a pet. All too messy for their beautiful, luxurious, spotless, lifeless house. But they believe they can cure Hal’s enthusiasm by letting him have a dog just for a weekend, certain that he’ll quickly tire of it – so they go to the Easy Pets Dog Agency and hire one. But boy and dog become immediately attached, so when the parents return Fleck to the agency, Hal has to take drastic action. He kidnaps the dog and runs away. But not long into his escape he finds he has acquired four other canine friends, as well as a human friend to accompany him on his journey. Oh, and there is a private detective trying to track him down now, too, and a huge reward for any information leading to his apprehension…

Ibbotson can be wickedly funny when she wants to be, but what will stay with you once you’ve finished this book is the warmth of it – of the story (loyalty, bravery, hope, belonging), of the characters (all of them pin-sharp – including some particularly ghastly grown-ups) but mainly of the voice – that voice, inimitable, that made us all feel as though we knew Eva Ibbotson personally, and just loved being in her company. And here, and in so many other marvellous books, we’ll have her around for a long time yet. What a legacy that is.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

02 May 2011

Book of the Week (98): "A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness, with illustrations by Jim Kay

A Monster Calls is the extraordinary new novel from Patrick Ness. It is based on the story idea of Siobhan Dowd, a much loved, Carnegie Medal winning author, who sadly lost her battle with cancer before she could write the book. Patrick Ness has taken that kernel of an idea and created an impressive tale, which will stay with me as one of the most insightful, heartbreaking and powerful novels I’ve ever read.

Having been somewhat in awe of Ness’s ‘Chaos Walking Trilogy’ I was desperate to get my hands on this new novel. Desperate and a little nervous, wondering how he could possibly follow it. I was not disappointed. A Monster Calls is not at all like his ‘Chaos Walking Trilogy’, yet it is equally unique and spectacular. The emotional intensity and skilful storytelling once again keeps you turning page after page until you finish and sit stunned.

Here is the story of Conor, a teenage boy trying to cope with the likely loss of his mother to cancer. With his father now living in America with his new family, Conor has to be grown up and brave as his Mum battles her way through treatments. And then a monster comes to call, but it’s not the monster he’s expecting. This one isn’t nearly as terrifying as the one that visits his nightly nightmare - ‘the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming’. Yet this one is ancient and wild, it tells him stories and it demands the truth from Conor.

With a style reminiscent of folklore story telling and dense with symbolism, Ness captures the confusion and pain of Conor’s experience incredibly well, providing a depth of understanding to teenage grief that I haven’t before encountered in fiction.

Hauntingly beautiful illustrations by Jim Kay add extra depth and intensity to this affecting tale. As Kay says on his website ‘Get hold of a copy, hide yourself away, and throw yourself between the rollers of an emotional grinder’.

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

29 April 2011

Book of the Week (97): "Actual Size" by Steve Jenkins

A few weeks ago I was asked to do a reading assessment with a boy who didn’t like reading, didn’t want to read and would be going out now to play football not stay inside with the nasty teacher-woman, thank you very much. He, however, stayed inside. And sulked. I sat on one sofa, he on the other – tears glistened in his six-year-old eyes as he stared through the window at the bright sunshine and the green grass that just begged to have a ball kicked on it.

I, however, had a secret weapon. Instead of cajoling him, I sat back and started reading. Occasionally I gasped or ooed. Sometimes I laughed. As we all know, someone laughing at a joke you don’t know about is a terribly aggravating thing… I caught him looking at me – and at the cover of the book I was reading. After a while I exclaimed – no way, that can’t be true!

And at that, I had him. Five minutes later he was engrossed in the book. An hour later he was complaining that he didn’t know enough words yet to understand all the information. It won’t be long before he does.

And the book? Actual Size by Steve Jenkins.

It’s quite simple – pictures of creatures (or bits of creatures) actual size: the tiniest fish (no! THAT small??); the biggest spider (eek!); a 60cm tongue (complete with ants for dinner) and a gorilla’s hand (so, so human…). Simple, but genius. There is no child capable of not being intrigued.

The book isn’t brand new, but has been re-issued by Frances Lincoln – another addition to their truly outstanding range of picture books.

Oh, and many apologies for this being rather late…

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

Next for me is going to be hunting down a copy of Prehistoric Actual Size by Steve Jenkins – I can’t wait to be astonished!

20 April 2011

Book of the Week (96): "Clash" by Colin Mulhern

On the cover of Clash there is an enthusiastic endorsement from Anthony McGowan, author of The Knife that Killed Me, one of my favourite gritty teen novels from recent years. McGowan hails Mulhern as “the next name” in the genre. I agree. Clash is a well written, gripping, tough story of two very different boys, told from alternating perspectives. Alex comes from a violent background – his father is abusive, his uncle is something of a gangster, running cage-fighting nights. He is drawn to this dark world, and turns out to be quite a talented fighter. At school, however, he acquires a reputation of a loner and a psycho who can erupt with little warning leaving a trail of battered victims. Kyle on the other hand has a talent for drawing, and a more sensitive disposition. Their different personalities are bound to clash, yet there is obviously a mutual emotional connection. Alex is a surprisingly avid admirer of Kyle’s art, and Kyle is terrified of Alex, yet is fascinated by him, just like he is with his own pet scorpion, Harold. Their story intertwines in more than one way, and beyond the boys’ initial realisation. This allows Mulhern to build up the tension and supply the final twist. I certainly found the book hard to put down once the snowball of events started rolling. The two teen narrators are well realised, though I felt Alex’s voice was stronger. I did, however, have my doubts about the sincerity of his transformation following a catastrophe and some unexpected revelations that naturally I will not spoil by disclosing here. Gladly, the final paragraph implies that Mulhern does not forget the volatile nature of this character either. An absorbing read, and a new voice to watch out for.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

12 April 2011

Book of the Week (95): "A Year without Autumn" by Liz Kessler

What would you do if you could see the future?

Autumn and Jenni are best friends. They are inseparable, sharing everything, even family holidays. On her way to visit Autumn, Jenni accidentally finds herself transported one year into the future. She’s bigger, and things are almost the same; but to her horror something has gone very wrong. Tragedy has struck their families, and her friendship with Autumn is falling apart. She has no memory of what’s happened, and everyone thinks she’s acting strange. Can she figure out what went wrong and get back to the past? If she can then maybe, just maybe, she can stop the terrible future and save the people she loves.

A beautiful little book about the enduring power of friendship, A Year Without Autumn is possessed of a simple sophistication that lends great authenticity to its characters and events. Liz Kessler presents a riveting believable story of adventure, tragedy, and one girl’s indomitable will to fix the errors of the past.

Eminently accessible to younger readers and adults alike Kessler evokes an atmosphere that plays on the universal nostalgia of family holidays; leaving the reader feeling that in some way they have shared the experience on a deeper level. I challenge every reader not to feel an indefinable sense of recognition with some element of this family holiday.

A Year Without Autumn is the new novel by the bestselling author of the Emily Windsnap series and delivers a gripping tale that I was totally unprepared for. The first Liz Kessler novel I have read, I was impressed by her talent for blending pitch perfect family relationships with humour, tragedy, and time travel of all things. This book is a gem, that should remind us all just how important our friendships are, and that we should never stop fighting to protect them.

Recommended by Matthew Humpage

04 April 2011

Book of the Week (94): "The Magical Detectives" by Brian Keaney

When I first saw this book I thought to myself, ‘oh goody, a new Diana Wynne Jones!’ (This was before the very sad news of her death reached my ears.) The reason for this mistake was that the cover’s artwork resembled the rebranding of DWJ’s back catalogue post Harry Potter. I don’t think the resemblance is a coincidence, as there is a whiff of DWJ in The Magical Detectives. Certainly two of the main characters – the lemon sherbet popping detective Maximillan Hawksmoor who investigates magical mysteries and the cynical talking cat Cornelius – could have made an appearance in her novels. The plot of The Magical Detectives, however, is not as complex as the ones DWJ devised in the Chrestomancy or Howl’s Moving Castle series. It is aimed at a younger audience (around 8-9 years old), and moves in a more traditional, yet very amiable, direction. Otto Spinoza comes home from school to discover that the bookshop his mother runs is closed, and there is no sign of her anywhere. Otto is aware that if he calls the police, his lack of other relatives may land him in a care home, so he enlists a magical detective instead. Enter Maximillan Hawksmoor with his spells and knowledge of parallel universes. A short investigation leads him to believe that Otto’s mother was kidnapped by creatures from such a universe, and together with Otto he sets off through a Janusian Portal to retrieve her. Unfortunately, Otto’s classmate, Juliet, and her aforementioned cat happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so the expedition team gains two more members. Adventure, danger, and some humorous moments ensue, until the team finally finds their way back into our world. As mentioned earlier, the plot is a tad predictable, and there are a couple of holes that could have been better cemented, but this is the opener of a series, and the characters certainly have a good potential to launch themselves into deeper trouble in the next book. With a very engaging premise and some good protagonists, I hope Brian Keaney will come up with tasty twisty challenges in forthcoming sequel.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

28 March 2011

Book of the Week (93): "Dear Dumb Diary: Let's Pretend This Never Happened" by Jim Benton

These are the diaries of Jamie Kelly, a girl for whom life is never easy. Sarcastic, gloomy, slightly cynical (with hair like that, who wouldn’t be?) and beset with problems – mainly caused by the oh-so-perfect Angelique – Jamie suffers through middle school. She trusts her innermost thoughts to her diary, and that is what we read – a dairy complete with cartoon-style illustrations and complaints about everything including school, teachers, Stinker the dog (he stinks AND eats her homework), her hair (which will never be long, blonde and perfect), boys and life generally. Luckily for us her complaints are hilarious.

So hilarious that, despite Jamie being a girl, these books are too good to keep just for female readers – boys get them too. In fact they make a perfect ‘next’ after the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.

In America the Dear Dumb Diary series is up to book twelve, though here in the UK we’re just catching up and the first in the series is just available. Go read. Then be patient and wait for the rest of the series – anticipation will only sweeten the fun of each book as it appears.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

  • In case you’ve missed them, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney.
  • Big Nate by Lincoln Pierce is a slightly easier read, but is just as American and just as funny.
  • The original and best diary? Sue Townsend’s genius, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾.

12 March 2011

Brief hiatus

Hi -

We're taking a fortnight off our Books-of-the-Week - back with the next one on the 28th.