Thursday, October 17, 2019

The dreaded "C" Word - Are christmas books suffering from an identity crisis? This week's ReadItTorial

Maybe we've just outgrown them. Maybe it's just that Christmas is no longer that magical time in C's life when she can't wait for Santa to blunder his way down the chimney to drop off a sackload of presents (including, we'd hope, a ton of books).

Or maybe it's that this week's ReadItTorial is talking about the dreaded "C" word (Christmas - not my daughter!) way too frickin' early. I mean it's not even November yet.

But like all dutiful book bloggers who try to stay ahead of the curve, we've been reading and reviewing this year's crop of christmas books released so far - and we're considerably underwhelmed.

In fact, let's be honest about it, most of the time Christmas books are truly awful, recycling saccharine-sweet messages that make you want to claw your own eyes out, or worse - resorting to farts, poo, wee, bums and pants to try and jolly up the season of goodwill.

The reason for using Raymond Briggs' classic "Father Christmas" in the header image of this document is not because this is a bad example of a christmas book, but the very best example of a children's picture book (some might argue - given Raymond Briggs' 'comic strip' stylings in some of his stories that this is more a graphic novel than a picture book) that has a christmas theme but has so much fun with the whole concept that you could read it at any time of year and still giggle about it.

In fact we have - for this and his follow-up with a holidaying Santa.

Many authors tap the christmas market quite successfully for 'bread and butter' books but seldom few make books that you'd consider for any 'book of the year' awards. Arguably so, but whenever we draw up our list we very rarely bother to look at anything even vaguely yuletide-related, because it never feels like that's where the innovation, the excitement, the true originality will be found. It's nearly always in books that (statistically, for us at least) arrive slap bang in the middle of the year just after the first few major book fairs have been and gone.

So why is it so hard to write a decent christmas book? I suspect that it's for the same reason it's notoriously hard to write a hit christmas song / single. The whole season is draped in so much cheesy nonsense that it's impossible to see through all that tinsel and garishness and nigh on impossible to deliver a message that hasn't been seen or heard a zillion times before.

Before this article went live, a few blogger / Twitter chums did actually see the point in beginning the blog talk about Christmas books a bit earlier than our usual December Booky Advent Calendar. So how about this for a compromise. Below are ten truly awe-inspiring Christmas books from yore that stand as brilliant examples of how do to Christmas books 'right' (11 if you include Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs of course, which you absolutely should!)

In no particular order...

"How Winston Delivered Christmas: An Advent Story in Twenty-four-and-a-half Chapter" by Alex T. Smith 

(Macmillan Children's Books) 

Part Advent, part brilliantly inspirational story about sending and receiving wonderful letters at christmas, and an entirely classy and fabulous wordy book that will keep you reading every bedtime right up until the big day itself!

"Home Alone - The Classic Illustrated Storybook" by John Hughes and Kim Smith 

(Quirk Books)

The range of movie adaptations from Kim Smith and Quirk really is incredible now, but this was one of the first we read - and it's still one of the best. If you love the movie, or for that matter if you've never heard of the movie and just want a gorgeous heart-warming story, this is absolutely perfect, ya filthy animals!

"Emily Brown and Father Christmas" by Neal Layton and Cressida Cowell 

(Hodder Children's Books)

Poor Santa is under the weather, so it's up to plucky Emily Brown and her rabbit bestie Stanley to help save the day. Cressida and Neal's timeless series gets festive and we absolutely couldn't be happier! Brilliant stuff!

"The Accidental Father Christmas" by Tom McLaughlin 

(OUP / Oxford Children's Books)

Tom's "Accidental" series is always a giggle, and once again the kids step into the breach when Santa has an off day.

Young Ben doesn't want a flashy toy or a new bike, he just wants his dad home for Christmas. Can Santa deliver the seemingly impossible? You know what they say about christmas, wishes and magic!

"Mog's Christmas" by Judith Kerr

(HarperCollins Children's Books)

Another book that's been a mainstay of our pre-christmas bedtime readings for a number of years, and I secretly hope it will be this year too. Made all the more poignant by the fact that Judith is no longer with us, it's a funny, fabulous and truly original slice of feline brilliance from a sadly missed creative.

"Red and Lulu" by Matt Tavares 

(Walker Books)

There's definitely something magical about New York as a Christmas destination - and when two birds meet and become friends in the christmas snow you're in for a treat of a story that just pours on the festivity and christmas atmosphere, until all you can think of is how amazing it'd be to go Ice Skating in the big apple. A gorgeous story full of heart and emotion. 

"Katie's London Christmas" by James Mayhew 

(Orchard Books)

We couldn't have a festive roundup without James Mayhew's gorgeously atmospheric christmas entry in the "Katie" book series as Katie makes for London for a magical christmas surprise. Look out for the bit with the lion and the scarf if you know the series well!

"Christmas Dinner of Souls" by Ross Montgomery 

(Faber and Faber)

C was completely won over both by Ross (when he came for an author visit at her school) and by this book, that treads lightly into darker festive territory, and the sort of delicious tale that's perfect for those of us who love the idea of mashing together Christmas and Halloween. As a young boy called Lewis gets ready for Christmas Day he's called back to college by his headmaster - and ends up playing host to some truly weird guests. Filled with a gorgeous dark sense of humour, this isn't your average schmaltzy Chrimbo read but is absolutely perfect nonetheless!

"Shooting at the Stars - The Christmas Truce of 1914" by John Hendrix 

(Abrams Young Readers)

You're probably familiar with the tale of the temporary detente that took place in the trenches of World War 1 as troops battled the bitter cold and each other for the first time in Christmas 1914. Never told better than in this gorgeously illustrated version of the story, once again it's the perfect book if you love your stories filled with atmosphere so real you can almost feel the flakes of snow stinging your nose!

"When It Snows" by Richard Collingridge 

(David Fickling Books)

Another book we couldn't possibly miss out in any Christmas-related book round up and there's a good reason this always crops up - it's still as brilliant, breathtaking and visually rich as it was when we first encountered it on the blog. A trip through a snowy landscape that (for us southerners at least) feels like it belongs from an entirely different era (we seriously do not get snow like that any more). We both love the way Richard perfectly captures what happens to the world when a thick coating of snow appears overnight, something magical and transformative that, of course, lends itself well to a brilliant and timeless Christmas story like this. 

So there you go, that's just 10 of the books that, looking back through the blog, for us demonstrate how to do Christmas books 'right' - What say you Tweeters and blog pals? What did we miss out? 
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"Through the Animal Kingdom" by Derek Harvey and Charlotte Pepper (Dorling Kindersley)

As we've come to expect from Dorling Kindersley, this is a fantastic natural history book that takes us right to the doorsteps of the amazing animal species we share a planet with.

"Through the Animal Kingdom" by Derek Harvey and Charlotte Pepper cleverly combines paintings and photographs in an absorbing and involving way, showing us the habitats of different animals, some living in the most harsh environments imaginable.

Join in on a journey that spans every corner of our planet.

What do freezing mountain peaks, vast deserts, lush forests, and the deepest, darkest oceans have in common? 

They're all places that incredible animals call home.
Discover the secret lives of the animals that live there. 

Track a bald eagle as it soars majestically over the Rocky Mountains.

Follow migrating wildebeests across the Serengeti as they attempt a dangerous river crossing under the watchful eyes of hungry predators, or trace the tracks of the solitary amur leopard - the rarest cat on Earth - as it silently stalks its prey through the icy forests of the Siberian wilderness.

The book is packed with fascinating information, from maps of the world where each habitat can be found, to those aforementioned brilliant montages helping kids learn what each animal looks like, following their lives in detail. 

Sum this book up in a sentence: A gorgeously presented natural history book filled with amazing facts and information about the places animals call home. 

"Through the Animal Kingdom" by Derek Harvey and Charlotte Pepper is out now, published by Dorling Kindersley (kindly supplied for review). 

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"So you think you've got it bad, a kid's life in ancient rome" by Chae Strathie and Marisa Morea (Nosy Crow / British Museum)

History isn't always horrible, but as we've seen in the previous fantastic book in the "So you think you've got it bad?" series, life wasn't always easy for youngsters.

In "A Kid's Life in Ancient Rome" we find out just what kids had to put up with, as well as a terribly high infant mortality rate.

Snacking on dormice? Check!

Washing your clothes in pee? Check!

Fighting in the gladiatorial arena? Check check and double check - yep, even kids weren't exempt from becoming warriors for the entertainment of others.

Expertly written by award winning author Chae Strathie, with consultation from the British Museum's amazing history boffins, this is a fun, engaging and above all approachable book for kids who will be taking history for the first time this term, and for bigger kids who love their history truly horrible.

Sum this book up in a sentence: A brilliant addition to Nosy Crow's excellent non-fiction range, showing just how tough kids had it back in the days of Ancient Rome.

"So you think you've got it bad - A Kid's Life in Ancient Rome" by Chae Strathie and Marisa Morea is out now, published by Nosy Crow / British Musem (kindly supplied for review)
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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Celebrating awesome science and STEM in "Slimy Science" and "Cool Circuits" from Susan Martineau and Kim Hankinson (B Small Publishing)

Here's a pair of awesome books from superb non-fic publishers B Small Publishing, engaging kids with fantastic STEM subjects with experiments they can try out themselves.

"Slimy Science and Awesome Experiments" is the first book, concentrating on lots of fun activities for your little science whizzes that will test their tastebuds and other senses, or allow them to create a ton of brilliant and cool things.

Make some disgusting Ectoplasmic Gunk. 

Trick your friends with The Incredible Rubber Egg. 

Create your own Volcanic Eruption. 

Revolt your family with a Pus-filled Boil. 

There are clear step-by-step instructions and 'Fact Files' explain the science behind each experiment. Slimy science is freaky, fascinating and fun!

There's also something for the budding tech geniuses out there too...

"Cool Circuits and Wicked Wires" lets kids master electricity with more fun ways to have some inspired electrical fun with these simple experiments using all kinds of household equipment. 

Set up a cool circuit using salty water and kitchen towel. 

Use pencils to create circuits. 

Make a home-made battery that really works. 

Fascinate your friends with a break-dancing magnet. 

There are clear step-by-step instructions shining a light on electrons and electronics. 

Sparky, scientific fun!

Sum these books up in a sentence: Both books are gorgeously presented and illustrated, helping kids develop and maintain an interest in cooooool science. 

"Slimy Science and Awesome Experiments" and "Cool Circuits and Wicked Wires" by Susan Martineau and Kim Hankinson are both out now, published by B Small Publishing (kindly supplied for review). 

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"The Doughnut of Doom" by Elys Dolan (Nosy Crow)

Doughnut go gently into that long night. OK I'm misquoting here, but in "The Doughnut of Doom" by Elys Dolan it's time for a particularly sweet hero to step into the breach, showing that anyone can be brave if they put their mind to it.

It's another ordinary day in Food Town and Alison McNutty (hah, I like that name - now where have I heard that before?) peanut butter sandwich and rookie reporter, desperately needs a big break. 

So, when news comes in of a monster doughnut on the rampage, she's straight on the case - she knew there was something dodgy about the superfoods down at Lemon Labs! 

And boy, is that doughnut hungry! 

It's EATING everything in sight and not even the police, the fire chiefs OR the military can bring it down. 

Whatever will President Bacon do? Luckily, Alison has a cunning plan. All they need is a plucky hero who will sacrifice themselves for the good of all food kind!

Elys has a gift for completely whacky characters and bookworlds, and this is no exception. Whether you've got a sweet tooth or not, you'll get a lot of laughs out of "The Doughnut of Doom" - Just don't get crushed under all that fondant. 

Sum this book up in a sentence: Surreal but brilliant food-based knockabout comedy from someone who knows how to weave a sweet tale or two. 

"The Doughnut of Doom" by Elys Dolan is out now, published by Nosy Crow (kindly supplied for review). 
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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

"A Home For Luna" by Stef Gemmill and Mel Armstrong (New Frontier Publishing)

A huge and scary adventure for a diminutive little kitty is up next in our review schedule so let's dip into the fabulous "A Home For Luna" by Stef Gemmill and Mel Armstrong.

Poor Luna has been cast adrift at sea, but bravely clings on as she's battered by the waves - eventually ending up on a deserted island.

But Luna soon realises that her adventures have just begun.

She is petrified, lonely and just wants her warm comfortable home.

Soon though, this brave little kitty begins to find amazing beauty in her new-found home, and even makes new friends along the way as she begins to explore.

Can a lonely little kitten find the inner strength to persevere in the face of such odds? Well you'll just have to read this fab book to find out won't you!

"A Home for Luna" by Stef Gemmill and Mel Armstrong is out now, published by New Frontier Publishing (kindly supplied for review)
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"The Horrible Craft Book" by Laura Minter and Tia Williams (Little Button Diaries / GMC Publishing)

Something horrible this way comes. No, we're not talking about Brexit (but could they have picked a more appropriate date for it?) but Halloween. It's time to gear up and really take your ghoulish celebrations to the next level with a truly exceptional set of makes from those gorgeous Little Button Diaries gals, Laura Minter and Tia Williams.

In "The Horrible Craft Book" there's a truly grim and gross make for just about everyone. Poo, snot, guts, severed fingers, more poo - you name it and it's all in this fabulous makes book.

Learn the secrets of making truly grim and disgusting puke-slime (arrrgh!), learn how to trick your friends and frenemies with a realistic severed finger or perhaps even a few scars and scabs of your own.

Make delicious snackables that look disgusting but taste wonderful, such as guts pizza, snot cakes and squishy cake-pop eyeballs.

We read through this with a mixture of "ARRRGHS" and "OOOHS" in equal measure, sheer genius from those superb creative mums over at Little Button Diaries

Sum this book up in a sentence: A dream "Makes" book for kids and adults who love grim and gross stuff, with easy-to-make recipes, crafting projects and quick tricks for jolly japesters - perfect for halloween.

"The Horrible Craft Book" by Laura Minter and Tia Williams is out now, published by GMC Publishing (kindly supplied for review). 
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Monday, October 14, 2019

"Reading Beauty" by Deborah Underwood and Meg Hunt (Chronicle Children's Books)

Time for another far-out fairy tale courtesy of a brilliant duo who have wowed us previously with a truly stratospheric take on Cinderella ("Interstellar Cinderella" - check out our review elsewhere on this blog!)

In "Reading Beauty" Deborah Underwood and Meg Hunt take on the tale of Sleeping Beauty, this time updating the central character to a cool blue-haired little girl who simply adores books.

Her parents encourage this excellent habit, right up until one birthday when suddenly poor Lex's books are all taken away from her without a word. She does discover that a wicked fairy has cursed her to suffer that terrible fate of all book lovers - a paper cut - on her birthday, a paper cut that will send her to sleep for a thousand years.

Lex isn't going to stand for that though, and along with her trusty poochy sidekick she confronts the fairy and discovers the truth of the curse - and how to reverse it for good.

Sum this book up in a sentence: A rollicking version of a classic tale brought bang up to date, with a truly brilliant diverse set of characters and a fab core message about a love of books and where it can lead you.

"Reading Beauty" by Deborah Underwood and Meg Hunt is out now, published by Chronicle Children's Books (kindly supplied for review). 
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A touching story of two little bears in a fantastic new book endorsed by AdoptionUK helping children understand the importance of adoption in National Adoption Week. "The Blanket Bears" by Samuel Langley-Swain and Ashlee Spink (Owlet Press)

It's National Adoption Week (14th - 20th October 2019) and we're delighted to cover a very special book that touches on the subject of adoption in a brilliant and heartfelt way, helping young children understand the importance of adoption and the need to feel part of a 'forever' family.

In "The Blanket Bears" by Samuel Langley-Swain and Ashlee Spink, two bear brothers begin their own adoption journey.

At first their future seems uncertain and scary, but they're determined to stick together no matter what happens.

Thankfully the two adorable little cubs find a loving family who will care for them, and keep them together but what's very interesting about this book is that it doesn't shy away from the adversity some kids may face in the adoption process, and aims to show the good and the bad in a touching, inspirational and thoughtfully sensitive way.

A happy ever after for two adopted bear cubs. 

With a strong and positive message about hope, and a brilliantly observed and sensitively handled story, this is rather special indeed.

Owlet Press is a small independent publisher, but they have a really cool catalogue of picture book titles building including this one. Worth visiting their website for a closer look.

Sum this book up a sentence: A superb little adoption story told through the eyes of two little bears looking for their 'forever' family, lovingly and sensitively put together to highlight the process of adoption for younger children.

"The Blanket Bears" by Samuel Langley Swain and Ashlee Spink is out now, published by Owlet Press (kindly supplied for review). 
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Friday, October 11, 2019

ReadItDaddy's Comic of the Week - Week Ending 11th October 2019: "Claire: Justice Ninja" by Joe Brady and Kate Ashwin (David Fickling Books)

Our Comic of the Week this week is a fantastic collection of a strip that took a decidedly different tack to the usual 'superhero' stuff you see in comics.

"Claire: Justice Ninja" by Joe Brady and Kate Ashwin first appeared in The Phoenix Comic some time ago, and instantly felt like a breath of fresh air.

Not just because its chief character is a BAME force to be reckoned with, a girl, and possessor of a strong moral compass - but also because it covers the sort of subjects that drive most of us (adults AND kids) absolutely barmy when we see others behaving like the receivers of said justice in the strips.

Folk who let their dogs crap everywhere? Yeah they get served.

The bully at school? Oh you just know they're going to get their comeuppance at the hands of this pint-sized purveyor of solemn justice and her hapless sidekick Nigel. She's more than just your friendly neighbourhood Ninja-girl, she's chronicling and dealing with horrors that you hope and pray others might recognise in their own behaviour, and do something about before Claire comes a-knocking.

This strip was a huge hit with C, a girl with her own strong sense of right and wrong, and one who (like me - though not quite in the same "Victor Meldrew" moany old way) will root for characters like Claire all the way.

Absolutely fantastic stuff from Joe and Kate!

"Claire: Justice Ninja" Book 1 is out now, published by David Fickling Books (kindly supplied for review). 
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