Friday 28 June 2013

Louis - Red Letter Day by Metaphrog (Metaphrog Publishing)

Ah Louis, how I empathise greatly with you today! We're back once again looking at the wonderful work of Metaphrog, and here's the book that started it all for one of the most intriguing, interesting and downright surreal characters in comics, the sublime Louis.

You may have seen our interview with John and Sandra AKA Metaphrog (if not, go take a peek!) and we've previously also reviewed the utterly excellent "Louis - Night Salad" and the touching "The Photographs" from this talented duo, so let's take a look way back at Louis' first outing.

Louis is a fairly ordinary everyday kind of chap. Like most of us, he has a day job that kinda sucks, he has some companionship (in the shape of his awesome little robo-bird FC) and as we're introduced to Louis here in "Red Letter Day", he has a caring aunt who writes to him at great length.

Or does he? You see, key to the Louis books are a pair of nefarious characters. A "boss" who seems to delight in psychological manipulation and teasing, playing rather cruel tricks and jokes on Louis (who is largely completely oblivious to his cruelty, thankfully) and an annoyingly wheedling sidekick ("Shiny") who aids "the boss" in his trickery.

So we soon find out that they are actually writing to Louis, pretending to be his long lost aunt, just to get him to do daft things ("Wear big shoes! Grow a silly little chin beard!").

Charlotte pointed out that Louis books are like dreams. Imagine if you can a fever-dream where your frenzied night-time mumblings as you talk in your sleep during fitful dreams start to form a world around you. This is how it feels when you read a Louis book, like you're tapped directly into Louis' thoughts as his conscious and subconscious states mix and meld together.

The story delights in throwing you curve-balls thick and fast (Charlotte was on the edge of her seat when Louis' beloved FC is kidnapped and unceremoniously dumped in the trash, HOW DARE THEY!!) but as with Night Salad, it's down to the individual to discover the rather touching, and at times quite dark story of isolation, friendship and the daily grind that underpins Louis' characters and settings.

We can't get enough of Louis. Best of all, towards the end of the book you'll learn a lot more about Louis' origins, and some of the processes that John Chalmers and Sandra Marrs use while dreaming up Louis stories.

Fantastic for children, essential for grown ups. Love Louis!

Charlotte's best bit: Louis' joy at seeing FC enthusiastically scarfing down lots of lovely seeds and nuts (and a 5 year old fist-shake at Louis' nasty tormentors for making off with FC!)

Daddy's favourite bit: Beautifully told, wonderfully illustrated, at all times a book that makes you feel you're being slowly enveloped in an allegorical dreamscape whispering in multi-tones about the human condition. So much to come away from this book with, can't wait to read more!

(Kindly sent to us for review by John and Sandra at Metaphrog)

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ReadItDaddy's Book of the Week - Week ending 28th June 2013: "Wild" by Emily Hughes (Flying Eye Books)

We kept spotting glimpses of this book on the back of other Flying Eye titles, we kept hearing people whispering about how great it was on Twitter. Now it's in our grasp and we're definitely, positively not letting it go.

Emily Hughes "Wild" is beautiful, and the cover knocks your eyes out the minute you see it, but that's nothing compared to what's inside. The story of a feral child, lost in the forest but cared for by the animals - almost like she's supposed to be there, in fact.

Taught to talk by birds, taught to play by foxes, taught to fish by bears, the Wild Child leads an idyllic lifestyle until one day she's caught in a trap. A human trap. Soon people turn up to find out what they've caught and really don't expect to see a little girl wrapped up in the bear trap (caught by her beautiful green hair, owch!)

Perhaps well meaning but ultimately interfering, the hunters carry the child back to civilisation with them and she's adopted by a psychologist and his wife, who find life with a wild child is anything but easy. It's not her fault. To her, these 'animals' can't talk properly, they can't eat properly and most of all they really do not know how to have fun.

What happens next? You know what I'm going to say - I urge you, nay BEG you to discover this book for yourself because you really need to. It had an electrifying effect on Charlotte. I think she liked the fact that the wild girl looked a little bit like a pint sized version of Merida, from Brave - and lived a fairly carefree life before human intervention. What child could possibly resist a tale where a girl does exactly what she wants, has fantastic animal friends to play with, and can curl up snugly to snooze with furry creatures? Certainly not Charlotte, she loved this book to bits from the moment she laid eyes on it.

Comparisons are made in the press release to the works of Sendak and Scarry (which I thought was a trifle odd as this really is nothing like a Richard Scarry book and really only shares heritage with Maurice Sendak through the word 'Wild' in the title).

If the intent was to compare this to the classic children's books that have become hugely well known and well loved, cited as hugely influential, and universally revered then that's fine - and if the intent was also to announce Emily Hughes to the world as a colossal talent fit to rub shoulders (figuratively) with the likes of Sendak, Scarry, Carle, Seuss, Bloy Graham, Keats (as in Ezra Jack) or any other legendary children's book creator then that's also mighty fine too. But this lady stands on her own two feet and if this is her first published book, you can only imagine how great she's going to be by the time she reaches her 5th. A star to eclipse the rest, mark our words.

Find out more about Emily on the Flying Eye Books website

Charlotte's best bit: Wild girl's eating habits once introduced to civilisation. Grarrr!

Daddy's favourite bit: This book is quite short (so perfect to squeeze in before bedtime), but it has a huge impact. Shades of Tarzan and The Jungle Book infused with one of the best female characters I've seen in a children's book in a long time. Beautiful art, massively impressive presentation, don't just stand there wide-eyed, go and get it now!

(Kindly sent to us for review by Bounce / Flying Eye Books)

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Thursday 27 June 2013

The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss (HarperCollins Children's Books)

Though my memory is hazy at times, I can remember my childhood being dominated by Dr Seuss books. I can also remember exactly how many copies of this utterly essential book I have owned. 6. The reason we ended up having to buy a new copy for Charlotte recently was mainly because those six have been borrowed, stolen or have ended up read until they literally fell apart (one copy I owned while studying art and design in Brighton was mercilessly stolen from my student digs along with a rather scratty Cat in the Hat T Shirt - at least the thief had taste!)

Charlotte loves Dr Seuss books, so rather than relying on the completely random chance that our local library has some (they are nearly always out on loan, with good reason!) we bought three. You've already seen my hopeless attempts at rhyming in our review of Green Eggs and Ham, so here's what we thought of the book that pretty much made Theodor Seuss Geisel a household name.

Two children are home alone (can you imagine two kids being left on their own with just a goldfish as a babysitter these days? The Daily Mail would have a field day, tsk tsk), bored, staring out of the window at the pouring rain. Bored with toys, bored with playing, bored bored bored.

But with a sharp rap at the door, the jauntiest and most fabulous hat in children's literary history, and the cheekiest grin enters The Cat in the Hat.

The Cat in the Hat knows what to do about boredom. He knows a million and one games you can play. Basically though he's an absolute show-off so all of the games basically involve him playing to his new captive audience, the two children and their grumpy (but quite justifiably so) goldfish.

Cats and balancing household objects usually means chaos, so despite the fish's loud protests The Cat in the Hat proceeds to trash the house, pretty much. It doesn't end there, because The Cat soon ropes in two friends for new games - Thing One and Thing Two!

If anything, they're even worse than the cat - flying kites indoors, skidding around the house and making even more mess and chaos than the Cat did.

Soon enough though, the wise goldfish spies Mum coming down the path. Cat-astrophe! Can the children possibly tidy up the humungous mess in time?

Just in case you're the one person on the planet who hasn't read the rest, I'll not spoil it for you. Knockabout fun in children's books doesn't really get any better than this, and it was obviously so hugely successful when it was originally written way back in 1954 and eventually printed and released in 1957.

Many authors are cited as the agents of radical change in the way children's books were written and perceived but right here is the very book and the very author that I'd say is responsible for and hugely influential on the way children's books are made today. It's timeless, it's fantastic fun, the rhymes flow like hot melted butter and it never ever gets boring. I was so pleased to see Charlotte's reaction to the Dr Seuss books (nothing but abject joy), and hope that she'll always love them as much as I do.

Charlotte's best bit: Thing One and Thing Two (they are SO CUTE, Daddy!)

Daddy's favourite bit: I won't spoil the end but I just cannot get enough of Seuss' crazy machinery in his stories. The one at the end of this book? I want one!

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Letterland - My First Dictionary by Lisa Holt (Letterland)

Back when Charlotte was still learning her ABCs, we picked up a brilliant Letterland ABC book - which we still read with her today (even though she's pretty hot on her alphabet).

So it was great to be able to revisit the idea of using letter-shaped characters to introduce early reading and literacy concepts to children, this time in the form of "Letterland - My First Dictionary".

As a visual guide through our language, what words mean, how to say them and how to spell them, this is a colourful and immersive book that (like most Letterland titles) doesn't feel like a 'school' book even though schools do indeed make good use of the series themselves.

One thing Charlotte really does get stuck on still is the difference between 'd' and 'b' - and this book gets around that neatly by having a duck-shaped character to represent 'd' (as you can see on the cover in our header above). Having letter characters designed this way helps immensely if children get stuck on particular letters, or have problems with tricky words.

Included in this dictionary are example sentences and stories using the words children begin to learn as they take their first literacy steps. What's good also is that this isn't strictly a phonics / decoding thing, though it does support those programs in the way it's laid out and structured.

Though the book says "Ages 3 +" it was still enjoyable for Charlotte (who is 5) and not too 'babyish' which was my first thought when I saw the cover. Actually it's a great little starter book for children who are learning to write sentences, and start putting together their own stories, as reference or just purely for the fun of taking letters and characters and using them in various ways (for instance, a great activity making pictures or scenes purely using letters and even numbers).

Charlotte's best bit: Lots of fun drawing and writing activities, with clear layouts and engaging illustrations

Daddy's favourite bit: Good for a range of ages and abilities.

(Kindly sent to us for review by Letterland)
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Wednesday 26 June 2013

It's Ed Vere Week at MeBooks - Fancy winning yourself a brace of brilliant titles for your MeBooks app?

Ed Vere's utterly awesome Banana! Made even more awesome with a Rik Mayall Voiceover!
You may have already seen our slightly gushing review of the MeBooks app - and things have certainly taken off for this innovative storytelling app over the last few months. Now the zany characters and deliciously crazy books of Mr Ed Vere himself have hit the MeBooks store.

Narrated in his trademark genius style by none other than Rik Mayall, these are brilliant fun so don't miss out!

Don't reach for your wallet just yet though, because MeBooks are giving you the chance to win 3 of those books as part of their Ed Vere Week.

Find out more on the MeBooks Website:

The MeBooks app is free to download, with in-app book purchases.

For more information, take a gander at how the app works below:

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Night Zookeeper - Teleporting Torch (Interactive App) by Wonky Star

What happens at the Zoo when darkness falls? Call the Night Zookeeper!
We'd not encountered Wonky Star's pair of "Night Zookeeper" apps before, but when they rather kindly contacted us to offer us a promo code for "Night Zookeeper - Teleporting Torch" we were rather intrigued. We're still at pains to point out that it takes something a bit special, a bit unique sounding, and with a good dose of creativity and learning at its heart to make us dive back into the app reviews scene and luckily that's exactly what's on offer here.

"Night Zookeeper - Teleporting Torch" isn't your ordinary everyday drawing app. In fact some parents might actually fall at the first hurdle - as we nearly did - as Night Zookeeper asks you to register an email address as part of the app's interactive features and the unique way it works.

Panic ye not though, if you're already familiar with the concepts behind "DrawSomething" by OMGPOP, you'll be OK with this. You use an email address (your email address) to register, and then you can put in a child's name or nickname as a Zookeeper name - so that they can begin to play with the app and download daily special missions to earn their Zookeeper stripes.

Largely these take the form of mini drawing challenges. For instance, your child might be asked to draw what happens when a wonky shelf full of paint falls on one of the zoo animals (Aiieee!) or perhaps even draw a picture of a holiday destination they've always wanted to visit.

New challenges become available daily, and these are downloaded to your iPad through the app. Once children have completed a drawing, they can add a bit of explanatory text to explain what's going on.

And here's the first problem - but one that could potentially be easily solved with a patch. The app uses the standard iPad apple keyboard for text input, which is great if your children are old enough to know their uppercase (capital) letters but not so great if your child is Charlotte's age, and has been brought up only recognising lower case letters. Some apps neatly get around this by re-mapping the standard keyboard input to something a bit more phonics-friendly but this isn't the case with the Night Zookeeper app.

Luckily with a helping hand from me, and a bit of patience, Charlotte soon got her head around leaving little notes to accompany her drawings.

Actually on the subject of the drawing interface, here's the potential second problem. The drawing interface tool bars appear / disappear as your child touches the screen - they're not constantly switched on (probably to save a bit of drawing space around the edges perhaps?) This is massively distracting and means that children get a little frustrated with the tool / colour selection. In fact it was such an annoyance to Charlotte that she mainly stuck with one colour, one tool while drawing and didn't want to change. A static tool bar set and palettes would've been better for us but I'd be interested to know if any other folk had the same issue.

It's a cool idea though, so please don't let our little niggles put you off. Basically this is an app with a huge amount of creative potential, that will perhaps break your children out of the mould of just drawing the same old things every time they sit down for a bit of iPad finger painting.

Night Zookeeper - Teleporting Torch is available from iTunes, priced £1.99

You can also pick up Night Zookeeper - Drawing Torch for free via the following link:

Find out more about the apps at the Night Zookeeper Website
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Baggy Brown and the Royal Baby by Mick Inkpen (Hodder Children's Books)

My goodness, has it been that long since we last read "Baggy Brown"? Back when we used to 'rate' books, the original Baggy Brown (just Baggy Brown, mind) got a respectable 4 out of 5 stars as we rather loved the touching tale of a lost teddy finding its way to its rightful owner via a rather upstanding young gent named Jack.

Of course, with a Royal Baby due, there's no better time for the publishing industry to go into complete overdrive. Not just putting out new books all about the upcoming birth (and jumping the gun more than a tad - something we wholly agree with the awesome Anne Marie over at Child-Led Chaos on, by the way) but also respinning some of their back catalogue to, well for want of a better phrase, 'cash in'.

So we took another look at Mick Inkpen's classic, which thankfully has only had a cover makeover and a mere whiff of being linked to the upcoming birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's first child.

It's still a touching tale of how a Teddy destined for royal hands (Number 1 at that) falls off the production line at a toy factory and ends up on a long winding journey, through the hands of young Alfie, and eventually into the waiting arms of the wailing Princess Sophinyiniannia of Thingland (she has to have the WORST name of any character in children's books, thank goodness you can shorten it to Sophie!)

As before we like Mick Inkpen's lovely way of injecting his characters with such emotion and feeling with just a few deft strokes of his (ink)pen. We soon discover that Baggy Brown is not the soothing influence who finally gives the princess a restful night's sleep (though the cover suggests otherwise), we'll leave you to find out what (or rather who) does the trick.

It's still a lovely book. Call it savvy remarketing if you will, but the story is still touching and nicely told.

Charlotte's best bit: The awesome tree house at the end of the book (and no, you can't have one in the back garden, we don't have any trees!)

Daddy's favourite bit: Really love Mick Inkpen's drawings, so deft and nicely done.

(Kindly sent to us for review by Hodder Children's Books)
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Spotlight on Okido Magazine, a brilliant arts and science magazine for kids!

Issue 24: Animals. Bear Blueberry and Banana Pancakes are more awesome than awesomeness itself!
Though we narrowly missed featuring Okido Magazine as part of our #ReadItMD13 Comics and Magazines Week last week, we still wanted to tell you all about Okido Magazine - an arts and science mag for kids that won't break the bank, is absolutely packed to the rafters with interesting content and well worth looking into if you're seeking an alternative to those nasty plastic-gift trash mags.

Children soak up knowledge like a sponge from a very early age, so being able to source magazines and comics that can help further their knowledge at the same time as being a huge amount of fun isn't as easy as you'd think.

Thankfully there are some brilliant magazines out there that do just that - and Okido is one of them. For instance, in the issue pictured above you can whizz up those delicious bear pancakes and find out a metric ton of interesting facts and figures about the animals we share a planet with (for instance, what exactly IS an animal? Is a spider? Does a bird count? Where do they live and what do they eat?)

Each issue of Okido Magazine (which arrives quarterly and costs £4.00 per issue with subscription charges at reduced rates too) follows a particular theme...

Issue 23 - all about taste (and it made our tummies rumble a LOT)
As the cover says, there are stories (and some brilliant kid-friendly comic strips of course!), activities (lots and lots of them - particularly some great inspiration for things to do during that long long school summer holiday), games, doodles, experiments and even poems.

For parents, the price of magazines can quite often be offputting so looking at any new magazine is always an exercise in balancing content and price. I can comfortably say that Okido ticks both boxes and Charlotte has spent a huge amount of time with these whereas we've always found the 'popular' TV character-based or licensed magazines such as the CBeebies Mag (which is by no means the worst of the bunch - at least it has a fair amount of educational content) are all over and done with as soon as the sticker sheets are used up - which for Charlotte takes about 20 mins at best!

The magazine is pitched at children aged 3 and above, but it's eminently suitable for kids up to the age of 8, thanks in no small part to the brilliant presentation and the way it doesn't "talk down" to your child.

Drop by the Okido website and take a look at the subscriptions page and the list of stockists to see what you think.

(Okido very kindly sent us the above issues for review).
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#ReaditMD13 Theme Week - "Book Merchandising - Let's play a game (or puzzle a puzzle!)"

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle - Very popular puzzle fare!
This week we're looking at all sorts of aspects of book merchandise, products spawned by some of the most successful children's books and perhaps even some we'd really love to see.

Thanks to an excellent suggestion by the awesome Damyanti Patel (who has a brilliant book blog - MeanBoyFriend - which you really ought to go and visit!) we thought we'd take a look at games and puzzles based on popular children's books.

What better place to start than perennial creepy-crawly favourite "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle which is the sort of book that just BEGS to be turned into all manner of merchandise (in fact you name it, you can probably get it with The Very Hungry Caterpillar emblazoned across it).

One of the very first book-based pieces of merchandise we bought was a VHC floor puzzle. Jigsaw puzzles are great for children, improving their manual dexterity and of course giving them the reward of piecing together a huge picture to enjoy before they get the immense satisfaction of trashing the puzzle (often to start all over again).

The puzzle we bought was nice and chunky, and all importantly, had pieces that stayed put when put down - even on carpeted floors (how many times have we bought puzzles and watched Charlotte's frustration as the pieces all lift as each new piece is laid down! Gah!)

Think of a popular book or book series and you can bet you'll find a jigsaw puzzle of it here or here

Moving on, if board games are your thing (and there really is no electronic ipad game that can knock getting out a proper board game on a wet sunday afternoon in our opinion) again you're spoilt for choice. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's books seem to be popular book-to-boardgame conversions, for instance there's the awesome Gruffalo Hide and Seek game for really young children:

Spin and play, what do you know! There is such a thing as a Gruffalo!
For slightly older children there's also a Gruffalo mix and match memory game and an awesome Gruffalo themed snakes and ladders game.

So best sellers do pretty well when it comes to games, but how about the more obscure children's books? How well does a book have to sell before it becomes worthy of being turned into a brand or merchandising opportunity?

For instance, we always thought that the Richard Scarry books would be a brilliant basis for a whole range of Sylvanian Family-style action figures and vehicles - and indeed you can buy some (just check out that pickle car, it is just SO CUTE!)

Brrm! Brmm! Burp!

Lego fans fare slightly better but we think that most of the book-based Lego (for instance the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings / Hobbit stuff) is more spawned by the movies based on the books than the actual books themselves.

The Lego Hobbit Goblin King playset. J.R.R Tolkein would've played with this, fo sho!
Looking at the Lego Cuusoo programme (where lego fans can submit and suggest new ranges for lego to put into production) I'm always surprised not to see more book-based submissions appearing but there are one or two:

Nancy Drew Lego anyone? How awesome!
Nancy Drew Cuusoo Submission

The awesome Dawn Treader from The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia Cuusoo Submission

So perhaps there is more book fan demand for awesome lego-ness than we thought (this Tintin stuff really does need to be made, pronto!)

We've seen some brilliant suggestions from folk on twitter (including some potentially wallet-busting ones from the awesome Zoe at PlayingbyTheBook) but if you've got any more, pop them in our comments box below, we'd love to see them.

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Tuesday 25 June 2013

My Big Truck Book by Author Unknown (TickTock Books)

We've been quite impressed by the range of TickTock non-fiction books, branching out into subjects as diverse as fast cars, fleet of foot animals and here with huge whopping great big diesel-chugging roaring trucks.

Chock full of facts and figures about everything from furiously fast firetrucks, to destruction-dealing diggers, this is a nicely presented book for boys and girls who like their vehicles on the large side.

The great photospreads are peppered with facts about each vehicle class. For instance, you'll get to know the inner workings of a cement mixer. For instance, did you know they sometimes use dynamite to free up all the dried-on concrete inside the mixing bay? I think I should use that technique next time I bake a lasagne and can't clean the dish!

Did you also know that monster trucks can get through 4 or more engine changes a year? A little less economical than your family hatchback then!

Check out the TickTock Books range on their website, they're worth investigating if your children are more into factual stuff than stories. It's also a great range to introduce more reluctant readers to subjects that might be more of interest to them than fairytales.

Charlotte's best bit: The Monster Trucks crushing cars under their huge wheels

Daddy's favourite bit: Diggers doing ballet? Who'd have thunk it!

(Kindly sent to us for review by TickTock Books)

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Tom and Millie's Whizzy Busy People by Guy Parker-Rees (Orchard Press)

We're back for a second look at Guy Parker-Rees' fantastic Tom and Millie books. This time Tom and Millie aren't on a Great Big Treasure Hunt , they're wondering what they'd like to be when they grow up (depressingly, I put the question to Charlotte while we were reading this and she said "I want to work in a shop!" and I said "A bookshop?" and she replied in stern tones "NO silly, Co-Op!" - eep!)

Tom and Millie decide to visit their relatives and friends to find out what jobs they do, and how much they enjoy them. Mum works at the hospital and loves it to pieces. Auntie is in charge of a building site, and Uncle drives a recycle truck!

As with Tom and Millie's Great Big Treasure Hunt, this book encourages children to find lots of different things in each busy and detailed scene - and threaded throughout the book is the challenge to find a tiny little ladybird who features in each double page spread (we particularly loved the GIANT version in the museum, hehe!)

Lots of people have compared the Tom and Millie books to the works of the late great Richard Scarry - which would be a heck of an honour for anyone indeed. But I think Guy has carved out a neat little pair of books that are absolutely perfect in their own right, and great books for spurring a child's imagination, creating great discussion points and of course playing "I-Spy" as children search for their favourite characters in each scene (as well as that elusive ladybird), play counting games in some of the panels and enjoy the story too of course, mean that you end up with a nice multi-faceted book to read and re-read again and again. Top work Mr Parker-Rees!

Charlotte's best bit: The dinosaur museum (and the naughty kid hiding in the dino eggs! Tsk!)

Daddy's favourite bit: Love the Scarry-esque anthropomorphised animals, but love the different approaches you can take with this book (and The Great Big Treasure Hunt too, of course). Stunning stuff!

(Kindly sent to us for review by Guy / Orchard Press)
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Good Knight, Sleep Tight by David Melling (Hodder Children's Books)

We were lucky enough to meet David Melling at a recent Hugless Douglas book event in one of our local bookstores recently. I don't think he knew who we were though, but he was a very busy guy so we'll forgive him! Tucked into our library book bag was a copy of this very book (which we couldn't get him to sign because it was a library book!) and it's another brilliant story from David Melling's 'fairy tale' trilogy (including "The Kiss that Missed" and "The Three Wishes".

Once again the kingdom turns to a brave and gallant knight to do his duty, this time to ensure that a fussy princess gets a good night's sleep. She won't stop crying as she can't get comfortable, and so the knight must ride out into the sunset to find something warm and snuggly to fill her pillow with.

Bear hair? Oooh too scratchy by half!

Feathers? A bit crackly!

So what on earth can the knight find that will do the job? With his sturdy steed, he roams the countryside, fights hordes of creatures (or at least persuades them to donate their fur and fuzz to his noble cause) but will he make it back before bedtime? And what will the knight eventually choose?

As with all David's books, we sit for hours delighting in the delicious little details in each of his story panels. If there's a successful mathematical formula that contributes towards the perfect bedtime story, this man knows the secret, keeps it locked up in a safe, and brings it out from time to time to take it for a walk across the page.

Lovely. We look forward to reading "The Three Wishes" next!

Charlotte's best bit: Hilarious bear expressions seem to be something Charlotte always looks for in David's books (and there are some corkers in this one!)

Daddy's favourite bit: Love those tree creatures!
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Beachmoles and Bellvine (Blue Nose Island Stories) by Mick Inkpen (Hodder Children's Books)

Mick Inkpen, megastar in children's books, has a knack of coming up with original characters that become firm children's favourites almost overnight. So it was quite something to find a Mick Inkpen book from a series we'd not previously heard of.

The Blue Nose Island stories are completely new to us, and in "Beachmoles and Bellvine" we meet a quirky little character called Ploo (no it's not a silent 'l' Charlotte!) and his dog. Ploo is an inquisitive little chap who lives in a beautiful little house near the sea.

One day Ploo goes exploring in search of new plant life to bring home to brighten up his home, and so into the forest he goes in search of the legendary Bellvine.

Bellvines aren't just any ordinary plant. They produce the most beautiful flowers, that ring when touched. Ploo soon finds some Bellvines with the aid of his dog, and brings home some seeds to plant.

Only one plant grows - and grows fast at that. From a tiny little seedling, to producing its first little ringing flower almost overnight.

Soon though things get completely out of control and while Ploo sleeps, the Bellvine takes over, swamping the little village where Ploo lives and trapping Ploo and his neighbours in their homes.

What on earth is Ploo going to do?

Ah you see we've cunningly not mentioned the Beachmoles yet - as they're pivotal to the rest of the story (which we'll let you discover for yourself). Suffice to say that Ploo soon learns a valuable lesson - be very careful when you uproot a plant or relocate an animal to somewhere it doesn't belong, the consequences can be dire.

Beautiful colourful illustrations and a surprisingly strong moral message make this a classic work of Inkpen genius and one to seek out at your local Library or indie bookstore (it is still in print even though it was first published in 2005).

Charlotte's best bit: The cute little Beachmoles with their blue trumpety mouth / noses

Daddy's favourite bit: A really good tale that feels as fresh and original as Inkpen's brilliant little characters.
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Monday 24 June 2013

#ReadItMD13 Theme Week - "Children's Books as merchandising opportunities"

Jane Cabrera merchandise.
Cute as heck but I wouldn't want to blow my nose on the handkerchiefs, they're too nice!
This week on #ReadItMD13 we're delving into the world of children's books in a slightly off-centre way. We're looking at products and ideas that have leapt off the page, where books and book characters have become more like big brands as the steamroller of merchandise rolls ever onwards.

It's not a new idea, after all I'm sure quite a few of you tucked yourself into bed as youngsters with one of these nose-ticklingly hairy things...

Orinoco - Pretty much the best Womble bar none. 
Or clomped around the house toting one of these (if you were really 'posh' you had the one with wellies)
Ahh Paddington, you and your chunky little anorak and wellies!
Of course plush toys are just one aspect of the mighty merchandising machine as each new hit book spawns a range of products so diverse and so all-encompassing that you often completely lose sight of the original book that spawned them. At the moment, stroll down just about any supermarket aisle, homewares shop or toy store and you'll see a huge variety of Gruffalo-based merchandising. In fact, thanks to three rather successful TV adaptations, The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo's Child and Room on the Broom really have shifted from book to TV to toyshelf almost effortlessly. 

Does this affect the way authors write and illustrators draw though? We already know that something in the region of 65-70% of a successful children's TV programme's revenue is clawed back from merchandising tied to the show, and it's probably a major reason why the BBC make such massive international profits every year. Name a CBeebies show and there'll almost certainly be a toy range or tupperware container with characters or images from the show on it. 

So it is with successful books, in fact from time to time merchandising takes us by surprise. For instance we had no idea that Oliver Jeffers' books have spawned an accompanying toy range...

Own your own fat penguin (and the book, of course!)
Or for that matter, that you can now own a vinyl toy of the coolest female heroine in kid's comics (if you can stump up the rather whopping £49.99 for this stunning Hilda doll)

Peek-a-boo, I see you!
Is book merchandising such a bad thing though? I sometimes think it's quite cool to see kids (and their parents) idolising book characters to the point where they feel the need to stick on a pair of Gruffalo underpants. 

We'll be taking a look at a few more examples during the week. In the meantime, if you have a particular fave from now or yesteryear, drop a comment in the box below or tweet us @readitdaddy. We'd love to hear all about them!

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Write to Read (iPad App) by WriteReader AP

Write to Read is Easy, intuitive and can help your child to learn to read through writing!
Here's an interesting educational app from WriteReader AP, a Danish developer who has flipped traditional learning methods on their head to show that children can actually learn to read by writing.

It sounds completely crazy, trying to run before you can walk, but we took a look at the app after we were given the opportunity to review it - and it's actually a really interesting idea.

Basically, any app that allows a child to 'own' it by putting their own stamp on it is a very good idea as far as we're concerned (I feel like I've been banging on for years about user-generated content in apps and games being a real 'hook' to keep children and adults interested). Here in Write to Read, the basic steps of using this intuitive app are:

  • Children create their own 'book', choosing a name for the book and a cover picture (which they can use the iPad camera to take, or use an existing image from the iPad photo library)
  • Children can then add pages, again with a photo (or even a snapshot of a child's own drawings) and some accompanying text that the child types themselves. 
  • Adults can then make a comment underneath the child's typed text to correct any mistakes in the sentence - so the child can refer back to them and learn what they got right and what they got wrong. 
So basically it's a 'framework' for a whole new way of learning, that has the added bonus of getting children used to keyboard skills - which is a real boon in today's computer-dominated world. 

Charlotte needed some help navigating around the app, and help to get things set up initially. But like most 5 year olds, she's extremely sharp and tech-savvy when it comes to most apps so she could get on and start using the app as intended. 

It's quite nice to let children loose on the app and see what they come up with on their own (Charlotte's school does actually use a fairly similar method of letting children write a sentence in their own way rather than the right way, and then showing them where they went wrong if necessary - as a means to back up the way a child hears and interprets words and sounds so the app was a great fit for us!)

The only extra feature I'd suggest would be to allow children to draw directly in the 'photo' window rather than the reliance on the iPad camera. Children seem quite happy using their snaps or taking pics of their own artwork with the app, so it's probably not really necessary.

Once books are completed, they can be saved and retrieved within the app so adults can drop in and take a look at what children have been doing under their own steam. 

It'll be interesting to regularly use the app and see what effect this has on Charlotte's literacy (and writing, typing) skills - so we'll definitely have to do a follow-up article at some point. As it stands though, it's a really unique and novel idea and it's good to hear that several nurseries and schools who have access to the app have found it useful and engaging. 

There's a trailer for the app below: 

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Friday 21 June 2013

TOCA Builders (iPad App Review) by TOCA BOCA

Need to build something tall? Use Connie the Crane!
The release of a new TOCA BOCA app is always cause for excitement at home. TOCA BOCA have been producing some of the best children's 'toy' apps for a long time now, and so we were extremely excited to hear that TOCA Builders would be next.

Having already dipped our dainty toes into the intricate world of Minecraft, with Charlotte telling me what to do (as usual) and me trying to work out in my head how to build "A love heart shaped house with a princess bed in it", I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to let Charlotte loose with something similar - but slightly simpler for her age range.

Actually, describing TOCA Builders as being like Minecraft is a bit unfair. It's more like a digital set of Hama beads - and in fact the principle of creating anything that "looks like anything" is the same.

Initially you're given a blank 'sandbox' to play in, and you're introduced to the builders themselves...

Meet the TOCA Builders Team. Not a sweaty bum crack in sight!
Connie (The crane), Blox (basher and builder), Cooper (he rolls paint around with his fab rollerball), Stretch (useful for reaching high places), Jum Jum (she's static but is a dab hand with her paint squirter) and Vex (who is deft and agile enough to climb up on blocks and lay down blocks too).

If you imagine TOCA Builders as being like a Heath-Robinson pixel art tool, you're pretty much bang on the nail. The thing is, despite appearing a bit fiddly and convoluted at first, you can leave your children to discover themselves what the on-screen controls do, what each builder is capable of - then sit back and watch their imaginations spark up and see what happens when they realise the best way to place, manipulate and paint blocks.

Charlotte, admittedly, spent a lot of time running around with Blox, just mindlessly building little fenced-off areas. Soon though she'd worked out how the game's rotate controls (to spin your characters on the spot) worked, and how those delicious rollerball controls worked (for Cooper and Jum-Jum - App developers take note, that is a BRILLIANT control system but TOCA did it first so no stealing, OK?)

Once Charlotte was tucked up in bed, I sneaked out the iPad for a bit more of a go myself and managed to knock up a crazy looking Easter Island head. More dextrous kids will find it a breeze but younger children may well struggle a bit until they get into their groove. It's certainly a TOCA app that demands a little bit more thought and a huge amount more time than their others.

That said, you'll find hours slipping away to it. It's as addictive as a bag of strawberry bon-bons, it's utterly beautifully produced and slick (as you'd expect from the team) and with the picture snapping tools (which I actually think could've been a LOT better - you're limited to taking snaps of the immediate area surrounding the character you last controlled rather than snapping an overview of a chosen chunk of your scene) your children can share their creations with the world.

Falling in love with Volcanoes!
Charlotte is hooked, even though she's still at the stage of experimenting with it all, but in her mind she is swiftly getting a handle on how to produce something cool from her world of coloured blocks. Maybe one day the old man will have to show her how to get cracking with some pixel art too!

Charlotte's best bit: Splattering a scene with paint using Jum Jum!

Daddy's favourite bit: Slick controls, brilliant presentation, a few disappointing bits (the camera capture really could've been better and sometimes the rotate controls for characters are a bit too quick) but as addictive and vital to your iPad collection as everything else TOCA BOCA do!

TOCA Builders is available from iTunes for 69p for a limited time so get in quick!
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#ReadItMD13 Comics and Magazines Week - "Can comics change your child, and the world for the better?"

Azzi In Between by Sarah Garland (Frances Lincoln Children's Books). Deep, thought provoking, vital.
We've delved into the world of comics and children's magazines for our #ReadItMD13 Theme Week this week, and often dealt with the light-hearted and knockabout world of children's comics. But there is a more serious side to comics that parents and children don't often expect to be there.

The visual impact of a story laid out in comic strip format often feels more cinematic and immediate than in other forms of written and illustrated media. As the emphasis is on dialogue and character, and often seeing through the eyes of the central characters, it's a powerful medium to use to deliver the most important messages of our times.

In the header, you can see the fantastic "Azzi In Between" - a children's book by Sarah Garland that deals with a tough and sensitive issue - that of the plight of millions of refugees around the world, forced to flee their countries for numerous reasons. We meet the strong character Azzi, in some respects an ordinary little girl placed in the most extraordinary circumstances purely because of where she was born.

Approved by Amnesty International, Azzi In Between raises awareness in children (and adults) in an impactive and direct way, triggers further discussion and investigation into what happens when war, famine or oppression affect people's lives.

Sarah's child-friendly artwork and the story's curve between Azzi's initial fairly normal life, and what happens when war arrives on the doorstep, is compelling and gritty stuff but produced in a way that children will understand and digest, and best of all, raise their own questions about long after you've turned the last page.

It's easy to see why this book is held in such high regard and it's not the only comic or children's book that's out there doing this. There are more than you'd imagine.

A Child's Garden by Michael Foreman (Walker Books)
In "A Child's Garden", which we recently borrowed from our excellent local library, the message of hope is beautifully woven into a story that begins with dark and fairly disturbing imagery. A young boy lives in a shattered landscape and an ever-present barbed wire fence reminds him that the world he once knew, a world without boundaries where people were free to roam and enjoy the countryside, has now changed as war arrives and land is divided.

Seeing a tiny scrap of greenery within the shattered landscape, the boy endeavours to nurture and grow the plant - until eventually it turns into a strong vine that envelopes the fence, covering it with leaves and flowers.

Soldiers destroy the vine, tossing it carelessly into a ditch. But soon the vine's seeds, scattered by the soldiers' thoughtless actions, start to grow again and a girl on the other side of the fence soon follows the boy's actions, watering the vine once again until it grows, and springs up on both sides, creating a beautiful garden for children to play in.

The message of hope is subtle but utterly beautifully delivered. At home this is a book that raised more questions than it answered, and proved the point that children's books and of course comics have impact, their messages do sink in, and best of all they stay as the comics and books are demanded and read again and again.

There are just two examples of brilliant comics and books that do this so well. If you have any more, we would dearly love to hear about them so please leave a comment below or tweet us @readitdaddy and we'll add them to this article.
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ReadItDaddy's Book of the Week - Week ending 21st June 2013 - "Green Eggs and Ham" by Dr Seuss (HarperCollins Children's Books)

This week, as rain and sunshine fought
We read a lot, new books we sought
And hearing Charlotte's plaintive plea
To purchase something filled with glee.

And so here is "Green Eggs and Ham"
(I'm sure you like it, Sam I Am)
Familiar, loved by mums and dads
and grandmas, grandads, lasses and lads

"I do not want this as book of the week"
Said Daddy, with such barefaced cheek.
"I much prefer The Fox in Socks!"
"I love tongue twisting with Knox and Fox!"

"But Daddy!" Charlotte, hands on hips
With stern face and protruding lips
"It HAS to be Green Eggs and Ham!"
"For I'm in love with Sam-I-am!"

"I Love this book when in my den!"
"I love to read it again and again!"
"I'd read it in the bath or bed!"
"I cannot get it out of my head!"

And so the frank discussion raged
Till Daddy felt all tired and aged
And like most Book of Week Reviews
I succumbed to darling daughter's views.

I do rather like "Green Eggs and Ham"
The antics of that Sam-I-Am
Like a Betterware or Insurance Salesman
We cannot get enough of his tales, man!

So please forgive our rhyming text
We hope that it has charmed, not vexed
And give your kids some Dr Seuss
The dude abides, and that's the truths!

Charlotte's best bit: "Would you like them on a train? Would you like them in the rain?"

Daddy's favourite bit: "Would you like them in a boat? Would you like them with a goat?"

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Thursday 20 June 2013

#ReaditMD13 Comics and Magazines Week - Nostalgia Fest! "There ain't no comic like an old skool Brit comic!"

Looking around for great child-friendly comics for Charlotte got me thinking about the comics I loved as a kid. I was always completely nuts about comics, and at school comics were almost a currency. If one of your friends bought Buster and Monster Fun, you could swap it with your copy of that week's issue of The Beezer or Whizzer and Chips.

Whizzer and Chips, featuring the awesome Sweeney Toddler
Most kids at school (even the girls) would swap comics this way, and each Christmas we'd do the same with our annuals (though I remember getting a bum deal one year when one kid swapped a copy of The Topper Book with me for a Six Million Dollar Man annual he'd drawn all over, the rotter). Back then, even in our wildest imaginings of what the future might hold we never foresaw a day when kids would be able to subscribe to their favourite comics and have them delivered through the letterbox (some comics did offer subs but I don't think I ever remember any kids at school being "posh" enough for subscriptions to anything). For that matter I doubt we could've ever imagined that kids would be able to read comics on portable devices with glorious colour screens, downloading each new issue and reading it.

I'm still a bit of a techno-luddite when it comes to comics on devices though. There's still something really cool about having a comic as a 'physical' rather than an intangible thing (though of course, once you get to a certain age you're a lot more merciless about consigning comics to the recycle bin to save on storage space).

This guy was like a lot of our teachers at school.
Also like a lot of parents now! Grr!
My comic of choice as a kid was Krazy Comic. It was funny, had a brace of brilliant regular characters like Cheeky and the Krazy Gang, and always slipped in little hidden jokes and daft stuff into page borders and margins, or had brilliant "trick" back covers (I seem to remember one being a fake antimacassar. Does anyone even have those on their furniture any more or am I just ancient?)

Krazy eventually folded and spawned Cheeky Weekly, but it never felt as zany. I still thought Cheeky's amazing stretch chopper bike was the best thing ever though.

I also loved The Topper, Beezer, Monster Fun and Sparky (again this is where swapping with friends came in handy, can you imagine having to shell out 5p for each of those? It'd cost you a fortune!)

Mostly I picked up comics on cover impact and art appeal, always more interested in the visuals than the stories.

Characters were always the right side of subversive, and that's still part of the massive appeal of comics for Charlotte. If kids in comics are slightly naughty, or perhaps don't always do what adults tell them, they're always going to be a big draw for kids who can live vicariously through them and not get into too much trouble. Roger the Dodger, Dennis the Menace (of course), Cheeky, the utterly brilliant Beryl the Peril and Minnie the Minx - they were all naughty kids who usually ended up on the wrong side of a slipper by the end of the issue (or on rare occasions, won out the day and tucked into a huge feast!)

The Numskulls. I swear biology lessons ruined this strip for me forever

It wasn't just about the naughty kids though, there were the downright WEIRD characters like The Numskulls, tiny little people living inside a man's head (and body). Really good to see that they are still kicking around today (thanks to Jamie Smart, a comics genius who is busily putting together brilliant strips for The Beano and The Phoenix amongst others).

Then of course there were the heroes. As I got older, I moved away from the funny stuff into more serious waters - first with 2000AD and then with a whole brace of gritty comics hitting shelves in the 80s and 90s like Deadline - which had some of the best art and writing of any brit comic there has ever been and featured one of the best female comic characters there has ever been - Tank Girl...

Deadline - a kick between the big toes in comic form
I used to read Crisis too. But now we're moving well away from kid-friendly comics into a whole other realm.

Oddly enough, I never bothered with American comics till quite late on. Some kids at school would bring Marvel and DC stuff to school but these always felt (just as they do today) unapproachable, always in the middle of some huge story arc that went on for so long that you couldn't ever hope to catch up or make sense of a particular character's current quest or storyline. When graphic novels and collections came along, I always preferred to hoover those up instead (and I still take this approach today).

Frank Miller's seminal "The Dark Knight Returns" - When Batman got 'interesting'

Going back to childhood though, those original funny knockabout comics will always hold happy memories. That really rubbish quality paper, and the fact that if you had a comic out in the rain it would literally disintegrate in your hands - and if you tried to store them for too long they'd always yellow in the light and fade...blissful stuff.

It's great to see the fine tradition of fantastic brit comics still carrying on, with a whole new generation of artists and writers contributing to brilliant stuff. The modern-day comic heroes like the awesome Zoom Rockman (of Zoom Comic fame), Gary Northfield, Sarah McIntyre, Neill Cameron, The Etherington Brothers, Laura Ellen Anderson, Andi Watson, Luke Pearson and a whole host of others are now fast becoming heroes to Charlotte because, once upon a time, they were comics kids too and saw how kick-ass and brilliant things happen when kids and comics get together. Long may it continue!

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Tom and Millie's Great Big Treasure Hunt by Guy Parker-Rees (Orchard Books)

The super-talented awesome Guy Parker-Rees (the genius illustrator of "Giraffes Can't Dance", by Giles Andreae) got in touch with us to ask us if we'd like to take a look at his new Tom and Millie books.

For the uninitiated, Tom and Millie are a playful pair of perfect pussycats who live in a vibrantly coloured animal world, and along with their many friends embark on all sorts of adventures.

This time, Tom and Millie embark on a great big treasure hunt! Each page is preceded by a clue, and it's up to your busy little bees to find the clues on each beautifully detailed page spread, along with Tom and Millie and their friends.

We liked the fact that the inside covers of the book show all the different characters you can meet along the way - and children will always want to pick their favourites. Charlotte loved Sophie the Raccoon (because she has a friend at school called Sophie) and loved trying to find her in each part of the story if she cropped up.

The book's cover proudly claims that there are "100s of things to hunt for" and there most certainly are. Each wonderfully illustrated page is crammed with busy little things going on, brilliant for children who love observation games or just love to hunt for the funny little incidents Guy has illustrated so perfectly here (a huge guffaw from me when I spotted a pig with "that suncream expression" on his face, as mum dutifully applies the Factor 50 - All parents will know that face so well!)

Tom and Millie were an instant hit with Charlotte, and we'll be taking a look at "Tom and Millie's Whizzy Busy People" very soon too.

Charlotte's best bit: Finding Sophie throughout the book and talking about all the crazy antics the animals get up to

Daddy's favourite bit: That suncream piggy. So funny!

(Kindly sent to us for review by Guy Parker-Rees / Orchard Books)
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#ReadItMD13 Comics and Magazines Week - ReadItDaddy interview the mighty Metaphrog!

Louis - Red Letter Day. If you haven't "met" Louis yet, it's high time you did!
It's #ReadItMD13 Comics and Magazines week and we've been very fortunate to have a brilliant response from all manner of fantastic comic and magazine folk on the blog this week. Today we feel extremely honoured to be joined by Metaphrog, aka John Chalmers and Sandra Marrs - the genius duo behind one of the most brilliant, bittersweet and surreal comics we've ever read - the fantastic Louis comics.
The dastardly boss and his sidekick up to no good. Shiny!

ReadItDaddy (Phil): Thanks for joining in with our #ReadItMD13 Theme Week celebrating children's comics and magazines. Tell us a little bit about yourselves, and the mighty Metaphrog!

Metaphrog: Metaphrog is just the two of us, John Chalmers and Sandra Marrs. We met almost 18 years ago when Sandra moved to Scotland from France and John returned from The Netherlands. Pretty much right away we realised we got on well and wanted to work together making comics. Sandra has always been drawing, and John always wanted to be a writer. We have made lots of different comics together and are probably best known for our Louis stories. We have been very fortunate that they have received so much attention in the media and have been nominated for so many awards.

ReadItDaddy (Phil): We really love Louis, and it seems a lot of other folk do too. How did you come up with such an original character and concept, what inspired Louis?

Metaphrog: The first Louis book came out in the year 2000 and was inspired by the world around us. We wanted to explore the idea of a character who was almost a prisoner and who couldn’t quite see the world around them. The world Louis lives in is quite dark, dangerous and nasty. Some of the inspiration certainly came from the way our own environment and eco-system was being treated. For example, Louis’ job is to make fruit and vegetables and to fill bottles with air. It is not exactly a fulfilling role and so it is understandable that he dreams of exploring the mountains.
Beautiful panel work as Louis gets on with his day
ReadItDaddy (Phil): We've really struggled to find great child-friendly comic stories, graphic novels and magazines that are engaging and 'meaty' (most seem quite lightweight). Do you have any favourite influences?

Metaphrog: Both of us grew up in different countries at different times reading Tintin, but we both read a lot as children growing up. Favourites would include Oor Wullie and The Broons for John, and Sylvain et Sylvette for Sandra. Funnily enough, neither of us really read comics between the ages of 12 and 16 but then Sandra read a lot of European Bande DessinĂ©e, American and British comics, while John explored things like Zippy the Pinhead and other underground comics and fanzines. There is definitely room for growth in the world of great comics for kids!

Louis and his beloved friend FC
ReadItDaddy (Phil): I grew up with some of the great 70s comics, most of which seemed to involve lots of very talented Scots. What do they put in the water up there!

Metaphrog: It’s true a lot of Scottish writers and artists were involved with magazines like 2000AD and have worked for the bigger American comic publishers over the years. I suppose there is a strong oral tradition of telling stories in Scotland. Many of the comics published by DC Thompson sold in vast quantities for decades and that meant millions of people read comics which must have influenced the following generations.

ReadItDaddy (Charlotte): Can FC have his own story one day?

Metaphrog: That would be a great idea, we don’t think Louis would mind.

ReadItDaddy (Charlotte): Will Louis ever get married? (Daddy points out that this MAY have already happened but we haven't finished off all the Louis stories yet!)

Metaphrog: Louis hasn’t already been married but he does meet a friendly girl in Louis - Dreams Never Die and also in Louis – The Clown’s Last Words so who knows? It could possibly happen. Part of the sadness of the Louis stories must come from the fact that apart from FC Louis is alone.

Our huge thanks to John and Sandra for stopping by the blog. Visit the Metaphrog website at  and John and Sandra's blog at and get some seriously awesome Louis in your life too!

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