Wednesday 31 July 2013

We Love You, Hugless Douglas by David Melling (Hodder Children's Books)

We do indeed! David Melling's latest Hugless Douglas book went 'on tour' recently, and Charlotte got the chance to meet the huge 8ft tall huggable bear on a very hot summer's day. We also got to meet David Melling too, which was a bonus as he's a local and somehow our paths hadn't crossed up till then. 

So about this book then! Hugless Douglas is going on a bear hunt! No not hunting for bears but a bear hunting for his best friend. Along with sidekick Flossie the Sheep, Douglas hunts high and low, far and wide, and everyone else in the land seems to have a best friend - except Douglas. 

Slightly sad and dejected, Douglas doesn't realise that sometimes the very thing you're looking for is right under your nose (Yes mum I remember you telling me this enough times, and yes you were usually right!)

I put Charlotte on the spot with this one and asked her if she remembered meeting Douglas. "Silly Daddy!" she said "Of course I remember meeting Douglas!" I'd always assumed that she found Hugless a bit less endearing than David Melling's other books (she absolutely LOVES The Scallywags) but I think Hugless Douglas is the sort of children's character that endures, can stand up to starring in many, many stories, and is always regarded fondly. There's a lot to be said for children's characters who are huge, perhaps a little bit clumsy at times, but utterly and brilliantly fantastic at giving hugs and there's really none better than Hugless Douglas. 

Charlotte's best bit: All the different ways of hugging! Hooray!

Daddy's favourite bit: As ever, I'm green with envy at David Melling's ability to produce the most beautiful linework in his illustrations - and of course some of the best (and funniest) animal characters you'll find in children's books today. 

(Kindly sent to us for review by Hodder Children's Books)

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#ReadItMD13 Theme Week - "The Dark and Disturbing World of children's books - The Good, The Bad and the Downright Deranged!"

Bear and Rabbit in "I Want My Hat Back". Both enter, only one leaves...
Our #ReadItMD13 Theme Week this week is all about the darker side of children's books. In some ways the aim of the week is to generate a bit of healthy debate on how dark a children's book can be before it is deemed 'too dark'. Obviously there are subjects that are completely out of the question and taboo but when we encounter a book that is that rare beast - a book that "Daddy" has to read through first to make sure it's really not as horrible as it seems - putting yourself into the shoes of a child isn't always easy when you're a grizzled grown-up. 

For example, there are two ways to look at the fabulous award winning children's classic "I Want My Hat Back" by Jon Klassen. Please be warned that it's nigh on impossible not to spoil the book within the next few sentences so if you haven't read it yet, and don't want to spoil the surprise, then stop here...

Basically Bear has 'lost' his hat. Only it hasn't been lost, it's been stolen by a rabbit. How does bear respond when the dim realisation hits his tiny brain that he's seen someone, very recently, wearing his beloved red hat?

In our review we didn't give too much away but Charlotte's best bit (and she 'got it' straight away) is the bit where Bear confronts rabbit. Something happens (Klassen is very sly here and lets YOU work out what happens) and in the next frame you see bear standing next to the leaves picture above. Wearing his red hat. With no rabbit in evidence. 

Parents who don't 'get' the book describe it as a horrifying tale of a bear hunting down, killing and eating a thief. Children who get the book describe with glee what happens to the rabbit (believe me, a child's description of a bear crunching on the bones of a rabbit are far more horrifying than anything Klassen could've written or drawn) and it's undeniably a dark work but one with a purpose, that the darkest place in a book is the place your imagination builds or pictures influenced by the book itself. 

So that's the good. What about the bad? Well, here's the thing. We have seen 'bad' dark children's books but what makes them bad? A lack of a point perhaps? Or just dark for the sake of it?

The Witch of the East. Fairy-scoffing and darkly decadent. 

"The Witch of the East" is a book that intentionally sets out to be darker than dark, menacing, quite horrifying in fact for the target audience it's aimed at. It puts a huge foot right through many of the unwritten rules we've come to expect from children's books. Baddies that are foul, nasty, sneaky and rather unapologetic in what they do - with no turnaround at the end of the story to assure children that the monstrous witch isn't really a bad egg after all. 

She eats fairies, for goodness sake! Eats them and no they're not happily resurrected at the end of the book to dance a merry jig around a fairy glen, they're dead. Eaten and dead. 

We've seen similar things in books about monsters. The monster does not exist for any reason other than to be a thoroughly nasty character that has no redeeming features. No moral message underpinning the story (does there always need to be?) just a foul stinking monster that ends the story much as it began the story. Being thoroughly mean. 

When we say 'bad' perhaps what we mean is that children's books that are dark, always serve their purpose best when they've got something to say, and if that's lost in the text, or isn't conveyed by the final page, has it failed?

We struggled to fit the final category in our article, the downright deranged but we have a close match. Of all things, it's a book that features a character that children have loved for generations, that children associate with being a little bit daft at times but always loveable. 

Mog in the Dark. Stay away from those wild mushrooms, Ms Kerr!

So what on earth happened with "Mog in the Dark" by Judith Kerr? Read one night before bedtime, the book felt like Mog's dark universe alternate reality gone seriously haywire. Mog has a trippy dream, surreal and menacing. All a child's fears are tapped into in the book and though it's alluded to that Mog's just dreaming, and wakes up with everything back to normal, we felt in our review that Kerr hadn't resolved things to the point where a child could differentiate between Mog's waking and dreaming state. Perhaps it varies with age and it's a book I'm desperate to return to for another look but reading the review back, I can remember this book giving Charlotte nightmares simply because the imagery in Mog's nightmare world is pretty harrowing, as are the descriptions of what happens in the dream. For a moment it felt like Judith Kerr, lovely fluffy and cuddly 90 year old, had let the veil slip a little and had revealed herself as the sort of lovely old lady that loves stuffing children lost in the woods into the oven for tea. EEK!

We're not quite done with dark children's books just yet. For our third article we'll be taking a look at traditional fairy tales that take a walk on the dark, dark side. Stay tuned, and as ever, any feedback on our theme weeks is always welcome. 

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Tuesday 30 July 2013

The Man with the Violin by Katy Stinson and Dusan Petricic (Annick Press)

A child's curiosity, there's nothing quite like it. Stimulating a child's sense of wonder is a fine thing to do, through whatever talents you have. In "The Man With The Violin" there's a subtle admonishment for parents who are "too busy" to listen to their children, or spend quality time with them and I wholly approve of this. Witnessing a scene at the weekend where a child desperately tried to redirect their mother's attention away from her phone (unsuccessfully) to show her something fantastic going on at a Victorian Weekend organised by the National Trust made me wonder why some parents bother to have children at all, if they're that much of an inconvenience or an intrusion into their own precious lives.

Rant over. This book is special, not just because of the aforementioned moral lesson aimed squarely at inattentive parents, but because it celebrates the magic of music, of hearing music in an unexpected place.

Hearing a busker playing a violin in an underground station, a young boy's head is filled with the divine music the busker played for the rest of the day. Excitedly, the boy realises that the music comes from other places too, but he can't stop thinking about "The Man with the Violin".

Look at the cover image we used in our header, and also look at the boy's interaction with his mother throughout the book. This is where I felt the book's real message was being conveyed, though it is also a divine celebration of how music can affect you, deep down to your very soul.

Based on a true story, Joshua Bell (the musician the book is based on) did exactly this at a subway station in the US and I'd like to think that amongst the busy commuters rushing to work there were little children just like the little boy in this book who stopped to soak up that beautiful sound as the adult world rushed by, then gasped with delight as they heard similar music on the radio, or in a store, or in an elevator.

I love how Dusan Petricic picks out the musician and the boy (and the music itself) in beautiful colours to starkly contrast against the largely grey world they inhabit.

A beautiful beautiful book with a message that we, as parents, need to pay close heed to.

Charlotte's best bit: Tracing a finger to follow the beautiful music as it weaves its way through the crowds.

Daddy's favourite bit: A book that tells you, subtly, to put your smartphone down, kneel down, and listen to what your children are saying. It's imporant, and they're children for such a short time. Pay attention to them, they are yours and want to be yours, make sure they know that you treasure, love and value them as much as possible.

(Kindly sent to us via Netgalley by Annick Press for review)
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Olive and the Bad Mood by Tor Freeman (Brubaker, Ford and Friends)

"Oh dear, SOMEONE got out of the wrong side of bed this morning!" You'll hear this phrase uttered quite often at ReadItDaddy Towers. Usually it's Daddy who, after being woken at 5 am on a non-school / work day, might have reason to be a little truculent but it's definitely something we all do from time to time.

Olive is a cat who starts off the book with a series of fairly insignificant but thoroughly annoying little irritations that build her bad mood. As the best bosses will tell you, it's a pity to waste a bad mood by putting up with it on your own so Olive heads out into the neighbourhood. Meeting her friends along the way, she leaves a path of grumpy devastation in her wake.

Tor Freeman is THE children's illustrator to turn to for bringing brilliant expressions to animal characters. You are left in no doubt that Olive is really dreadfully grumpy when you see the cover, and as she meets her happy friends on her travels, their expressions turn from child-like joy at whatever they're busying themselves with to frowning, gurning grumpiness.

Charlotte loved Matt, with his rather stylish hat but when Olive is in a bad mood, she trashes Matt's fashion sense and leaves him jumping up and down in annoyance. Poor Matt!

This is a brilliant book to read aloud. No one does triumphant indignation like Daddy when he's on a roll, and it's great to put yourself into Olive's (unlaced) shoes and stomp around the room reading "Olive and the Bad Mood" out loud. "I"m not shouting! I'm exclaiming!"

Of course, a bad mood (or a book about a bad mood) can't last forever, and as Olive slowly cheers up (aided and abetted by the best sweets in the world ever, jelly worms, YUM!) she wonders why all her friends seem to be so miserable. Tsk, some people!

Loved this from start to finish, as much as we loved Tor's other recent triumph "The Toucan Brothers". Perhaps there's something comforting and - dare we say it - rather enjoyable about reading a book where someone is having a thoroughly rotten day when it's not you, but if you are having one or your children are, read this to them and with them and it's guaranteed to put a big silly grin on your face by the end. If it doesn't, nip round to your local sweetshop and bag yourself a huge quantity of Jelly Worms because they will almost certainly work instead.

Charlotte's best bit: She really loved Matt. So stylish, and she was so upset when poor Matt ended up jumping up and down on his hat, grumpily. Naughty Olive!

Daddy's favourite bit: Love Olive to bits, her expressions, her put-downs, her downright infectious grumpiness. Tor's animal characters rock my world.

(Kindly sent to us for review by Brubaker, Ford and Friends / Templar Publishing)
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How to Wash a Woolly Mammoth by Michelle Robinson and Kate Hindley (Simon and Schuster Children's Books)

Thanks to Michelle Robinson, we already know what to do if an elephant stands on our foot but mammoths? Oh, they're an entirely different ball game.

Like most parents do from time to time, we asked Charlotte what her ideal pet was. No, it's not a Mammoth thankfully, it's a guinea pig but imagine the scenario when a little girl brings home the Pliocene era's poster pachyderm. Those things don't exactly look like the most fragrant creatures in the world so Michelle lovingly describes the ideal process for prettying up your new hairy friend.

Bathing any pet is a challenge. Bathing a pet that could turn you into a pizza if it sat on you takes cunning, verve and forward planning. Thankfully the book tells you absolutely everything - from the best mammoth beauty products to choose (what, you mean you haven't seen that section in Boots? It's next to the depilatory creams), to the best implements to use to scrub your mammoth to a high sheen.

Hairstyles are also important, and this was easily Charlotte's best bit in the book. Would your mammoth look best with a mammoth-sized mullet? Or perhaps a dinky topknot?

Our huge crush on Michelle Robinson continues, and coupled with Kate Hindley's wonderful illustrations this book is a hoot from start to finish.

We must admit that we feel absolutely no more confident in our ability to be able to wash a woolly mammoth (particularly, as Charlotte points out lovingly in homage to a certain Ren and Stimpy episode, when it comes to cleaning where the sun doesn't shine - EEK) but we had a huge mammoth-sized guffaw at this book and we know you will too.

Charlotte's best bit: Mammoth Hair Styles. No mention of the Hoxton Fin but double plus bonus points for a Mammoth Mullet!

Daddy's favourite bit: Just the right side of cheeky, and definitely the right side of fun. We love it!

(Kindly sent to us for review by Simon and Schuster Children's Books)
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Monday 29 July 2013

Ten Little Pirates by Mike Brownlow and Simon Rickerty (Orchard Books)

"OH NO, NOT PIRATES AGAIN!" said Charlotte as we popped "Ten Little Pirates" out of its padded envelope ready to review. But despite our description of being slightly burned out on piratical adventures we couldn't resist the bouncy almost sing-a-long book.

Ten little pirates, as happy as can be, set sail for adventure but in the grand tradition of countdown books, with each turn of the page something happens whittling their numbers down to...1.

Mike Brownlow's rhymes flow beautifully in nursery-rhme-like verse while Simon Rickerty's fantastic and colourful illustrations provide the visual thrills.

We were quite surprised as we read the book that those cute little pirates seem to come to more than one sticky end as things progress - but we wouldn't really be spoiling anything to tell you that all's well that ends well so don't worry if your favourite pirate is scoffed by a shark or gets blown to smithereens by a dastardly man-o-war.

A fab counting book, a hilarious and funny adventures, and the absolute joy for any child (or adult for that matter) is picking their fave pirate on the cover and seeing if they make it unscathed!

Charlotte's best bit: One little pirate being lured away by a pretty mermaid. Ooh la la!

Daddy's favourite bit: Faultless rhymes make this a real joy to read, and brilliantly funny illustrations mean you won't get too burned out on another piratical jaunt. Yo ho ho!

(Kindly sent to us for review by Orchard Books)
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#ReadItMD13 Theme Week - "The Dark Ones - The sometimes dark and scary world of children's picture books"

"A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness. Children's books can be dark but extremely effective conduits to deal with unspoken fears and real-life events. 
You may have noticed a tendency on ReadItDaddy to favour books that often feature monsters, and can sometimes be fairly scary for little ones. Our theme week this week looks into the dark side of children's books with a selection that deal with subjects that can be extremely tricky to do 'right' in children's literature, but hopefully showing you examples where authors and illustrators have absolutely nailed it.

In the header, you can see an image from Patrick Ness's superb "A Monster Calls". The book deals with a child's perception of his mother's illness (in this case, cancer) and the inevitability that one day she will die. Death in children's books is a theme that is often skirted around but Patrick describes it without 'flowering it up' or beating about the bush. For a child, mortality is not always easy to explain away in spiritual terms (particularly if parents do not have any religious beliefs themselves) and it's also not easy to describe how people can live on in the memory when to a child, the tangible presence means more than the intangible.

"La Visite De Petit Mort" by Kitty Crowther. More to death than meets the eye. 

"La Visite De Petit Mort" is a French language book we reviewed last November that also deals with death - this time not of a loved one but of the child themselves. Dark but somehow managing to retain an air of child-like 'cuteness' the story is actually more Death's than the child's. Death trying to understand why a particular child seems happy to be taken away from all they know. It's a book that, on deeper analysis, broaches the subject of death in a way that a child may not have anticipated - that for some people (even children) death can sometimes be a release, not unwelcome.

Dark books aren't always as complex as this. Books that describe a child's more immediate fears can be dark in tone, and in fact books that deal with a fear of the dark itself could fill an entire shelf in your collection.

"The Dark" by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen. Hi Dark, Hi. 

Recently we've really enjoyed Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen's "The Dark" (In fact it was Charlotte's "Book of the Week" back in March). The story of a little boy, Laszlo, who bravely one night ventures into the realm of the dark that shares his house, it's quite a tough book to read to a child who genuinely does have a fear of the dark (and most children seem to), because of the pace of the book perhaps. It takes quite a while getting to the message that there's nothing to fear from the dark, and the end pay-off where Laszlo realises this, is left (rather deliciously in our opinion) until the very last pages in the book. Of course, if you're a parent who likes to read stories aloud to your children and make a bit of an 'act' of things, it's too tempting to use your raspiest most sinister voice for 'The Dark' (in fact I used a voice that was part Lord Voldemort, part gurgling monster). Not a great idea at bedtime, admittedly.

But it's a great book, in fact Klassen and Snicket was a partnership made in dark-book heaven. Both have a rich sense of why books like this appeal to children, whereas you'd expect children to shy away from something that seems inherently scary from the get-go.

"The Bear Under The Stairs" by Helen Cooper. A boy's eye view of an unseen menace. 
"The Bear Under the Stairs" by Helen Cooper is a book that took us a very long time to love. In fact if you glance back through our blog you'll notice we've reviewed it twice. First it was almost too dark, scary and disturbing for Charlotte to cope with and gave her some pretty horrible nightmares. But it was demanded again and again. Why would a child consistently ask for a book that scared them so much that it gave them nightmares (more poignant question, why would a parent read that book to their child again and again?)

You'll notice the book - on second review - became one of our Books of the Week, purely because as Charlotte got older, she 'got it' and understood that the book was about dealing with your fears - making you confront them and that was my aim when persevering with reading it to her. Is Bear actually scary? Or is William more scary than Bear...

I know who I find more scary in this book. 

I should point out that half of the book's appeal lies in what's suggested and what's hidden. You'll notice that the book does not directly describe the bear being scary at all, in fact the poor beast just wants somewhere to live. It's in William's head that you hear the bear 'saying' that he's hungry and would rather like to eat a young boy. Helen Cooper expertly plays with the reader's perception of the real message of the book, and right at the end she even mischievously bats the ball right back into the reader's court with the final frame of what happens with Bear. I won't ruin it for you, it's probably one of the best endings of a 'dark' children's book that you'll ever see.

So where is the line? Where does a book cross over from the light to the dark path? Some books are described as 'dark' purely on rather visceral thrills, or by 'visually' breaking the rules of what perhaps parents feel is an acceptable level of 'scary'.

"The Fearsome Beastie" by Giles Paley-Phillips. No beating about the bush, this beastie is a complete rotter!
Giles Paley-Phillips' book "The Fearsome Beastie" does not mess around, does not play on a child's subconscious but arguably features one of the darkest and nastiest monsters in children's books. The titular beastie tricks children into thinking he's a lonely soul, and just wants a few friends to play with - before unceremoniously scoffing the children up in one gulp! The story's almost like Little Red Riding Hood in reverse, with the wolf winning the day from the get go and then the story backtracking to the point where a truly kick-ass Grandma gives the Beastie what for, in what has been described as one of the most shocking images in children's books.

Giles has a talent for monstery works, and in interviews you'll hear him talk about the lure of 'scary' books for children. In fact Charlotte doesn't find this book scary at all any more, simply because it's made clear that the beastie is a bad lot, there's no psychological manipulation going on here (other than the Beastie's plaintive claims that it just wants a hug, not dinner, at the start of the book).

We'll be looking at a few more 'dark' children's books as we delve deeper into this week's theme - but as ever, we welcome your input - in fact we are counting on it as the well has run a little dry with the dark stuff lately. Do you have a favourite darkly delicious children's book? Or can you describe a scene in a children's book that made you blanche in terror, yet had your children laughing their heads off? Drop a comment below or tweet us @readitdaddy, we would truly love to hear about them.

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Friday 26 July 2013

Eddie and Dog by Alison Brown (Little Tiger Press)

We're having a bit of a dog-day here at ReadItDaddy today (it's almost like we planned it this way!) so following our review of Owen Davey's beautiful "Laika the Astronaut" here's another beautiful book featuring a cool canine.

Eddie is a little boy who lives high up in a tiny flat. Eddie's a lonely chap and longs for a friend to join in with his games.

Enter a rather determined little dog, who lights up Eddie's life - for a short while at least because when Eddie takes Dog home, Eddie's mum decides that their flat is too small for a dog and dogs need space to roam and to exercise.

Sadly, Eddie waves goodbye to dog. But guess who comes back the next day?

Alison Brown's debut for Little Tiger Press is brilliant, with superb artwork and a touching story of one dog's determination to find a loving home - and one little boy's quest to find the perfect friend.

Again and again Eddie and Dog are separated but Dog is doggedly (sorry) determined that he will win the day. Does he succeed in the end? You know what we're going to say - you'll have to read the book and find out of course.

Normally at ReadItDaddy Towers we are firmly in the 'Cat' camp but this week we've enjoyed canine company so much. You can too, just pick up Eddie and Dog and read a touching and lovely little tale about a boy and his loyal and loving pooch.

Charlotte's best bit: Dog's fabulous little scooter, vrrm vrrm!

Daddy's favourite bit: Dog's rather splendid impression of Snoopy as he flies back to Eddie in a tiny (and rather brilliant) little plane.

(Kindly sent to us for review by Little Tiger Press)
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Children love to learn languages and Chineasy makes learning Chinese fun!

Shaolan Hsueh - the genius behind Chineasy
Children have a natural aptitude for learning new languages and as their vocabulary in their own native language progresses, it's the easiest time to introduce them to other languages as they progress through early years development.

We've been contacted by the developers of a new project called Chineasy - with the aim of introducing children (and adults) to the complex and sometimes seemingly unapproachable world of learning Chinese.

Behind the programme is Shaolan Hsueh, a businesswoman and entrepreneur who has developed an extremely visual and approachable way of closing the gap between eastern and western culture and language gaps.

Chineasy has a Kickstarter campaign which you can join in with here. 

Chineasy's visual approach to learning a language is a natural fit for children. 
We've taken a look at some of the example words and images that are used in the learning programme and they're smart and intuitive.

It's a brilliant idea, which will at least help with the character recognition aspects of learning chinese characters and it'd be great to see it come with phonetic and spoken stuff eventually too (it already looks like a system that would lend itself very well to app-based learning).

Stop by the Chineasy Facebook Page  or visit the website for more information on this interesting project.
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ReadItDaddy's Book of the Week - Week Ending 26th July 2013 - "Laika the Astronaut" by Owen Davey (Templar Publishing)

"So beautiful - should've sent a poet" - Eleanor Arroway in 'Contact'

We're a family of complete space nerds. My wife (the lucky thing) has travelled with her solar scientist dad to the Kennedy Space Centre, and since Charlotte was born she's always been aware of space science and exploration.

When I first heard about Laika the Astronaut by Owen Davey, I knew this would be a book we'd have to obtain. I'd touched on the subject with Charlotte before but when the book turned up this week, we weren't quite prepared for how beautiful it is, how Owen has imbued it with such an emotionally powerful and celebratory vibe that we're left agog.

Laika was a true space pioneer. Lifted from the streets as a stray, she was trained (or some might say 'pressganged') into becoming the first living being in space. The Russian space programme had already successfully launched Sputnik 1, and by 1957 thoughts turned to the first manned space flight. But rather than risk a pilot, the Russians turned to the canine world and thus Laika became legend.

Owen Davey's book describes her story from wandering the streets, to her training programme, and through to the nailbiting launch. Laika blasts off and as space nerds like us will already know, things went awry and the spacecraft developed a fault just hours into the mission.

Laika in Training! 

The book doesn't end there though but in true ReadItDaddy tradition we're not going to ruin the rest for you, suffice to say that Owen's end-of-book summary of Laika's story made me tearful, and Charlotte joyful.

If you want to see more sneaky peeks (we don't want to spoil it for you but it's truly truly gorgeous), hop over to Owen's website.

The hunt for the real Laika began

Laika in her Sputnik II Spacecraft. Heroic little dog, bless her. 
Like most books that become "Book of the Week", what happens when the covers are closed is often why we choose the books we do. Laika the Astronaut had us hauling out ever encyclopaedia in the house, firing up the iPad and trawling the Internet to find out more about Laika. To Charlotte it was important that she knew that the book was based on a real story, and that the real Laika was "out there" - No not orbiting the earth but in the archives, in books, in our stamp collection even - and of course on many many websites.

Laika in her space harness. "Just like in the book, Daddy" said Charlotte.
Looking at the movies and photos of Laika is where things got tricky. As I said, we won't spoil the book for you but obviously most adults will know what really happened here - in fact when you're a space geek but also love animals and despise the thought that they're used in scientific experiments, it's quite tough to broach the subject with a five year old. Owen's choice was to tell the story his way and it's immensely successful and rather touching.

Laika's spacecraft Sputnik II on the rocket, ready for launch
We do urge parents to tackle the book the way we did. Read it, enjoy it (and oh boy, you will most certainly enjoy it) and take a voyage of discovery afterwards. Not just into Laika's story and history but also into the various space programmes that Laika paved the way for. Never stop being curious and with beautiful and thought-provoking books like this to spur your child's curiosity, being a space geek parent can be one of the best things in the world.

Looking at the publication date for the book I feel like I should apologise. You are going to have to wait until November for it? NOVEMBER ARRGH! But I urge you, beg you even, put a pre-order in for this because you truly will not want to miss out.

Charlotte's best bit: Happy Laika when she smiles, and the end of the book which is such a beautiful, beautiful moment (and made us want to burst into tears)

Daddy's favourite bit: I'm just blown away by how good this book is. It's not just amazing to look at, it's like lighting the fuse of that amazingly powerful force that is a child's imagination and curiosity combined. A sweet story woven around the facts, and a bittersweet ending that is just so wonderful. Aww don't set me off again please...(sniff).

We found a rather neat little movie (in spanish but worth a watch) telling Laika's story too.

(Laika the Astronaut was kindly sent to us for review by Templar Publishing)

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Thursday 25 July 2013

Neil Gaiman shares his inspiration for upcoming smasher "Fortunately, The Milk" (Bloomsbury Publishing)

Coming on September 17th from Bloomsbury Publishing, Neil Gaiman's new children's book "Fortunately, The Milk" is going to be spectacularly huge, take our word for it.

Here, Neil gives you a tasty lactose-tolerant glimpse into what spurred him to write a children's book celebrating dads (hooray) and letting dads take centre stage in a heroic chase across time and space to grab a couple of pints of the fresh white stuff.

We've been lucky enough to see a preview of the UK version (with utterly brilliant illustrations by Chris Riddell, including one or two awesome cameos - not least of all the main character himself who looks a little familiar, shall we say?

You're going to love it. Trust us.
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Fish Food by Andy Mansfield and Lohlein Henning (Templar Publishing)

Great papercraft with a surprise on each page? That's what you get with the fantastic "Fish Food" by Andy Mansfield and Lohlein Henning.

We initially thought this might be a bit "young" for Charlotte, with a minimal story and a very short page count but kids of any age always love a surprise - so when a wriggly worm doesn't heed the warnings of the fish swimming around in the deep blue sea, you can guess what's going to happen next.


A fish comes along and gobbles that worm up. But is that fish paying any attention to his surroundings?  No?


He gets eaten too.

As the book builds to a climax that you'll probably guess long before it arrives, it becomes a fun and jazzy look at the circle of life, the food chain, and what happens if you don't look at all the little details on each page and miss what's lurking just around the corner. EEK!

Beautifully presented as you'd expect from Templar Publishing, and fun - even for a five year old but almost certain to have toddlers and younger children enthralled.

Tell us this though. Can YOU resist opening and closing that last page spread while making "OM NOM NOM" noises? Of course you can't!

Charlotte's best bit: The biggest fish in the ocean ending the food chain once and for all

Daddy's favourite bit: No, I cannot resist NOMMING :)

(Kindly sent to us for review by Templar Publishing)
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World on a String by Larry Phifer and Danny Popovici (Storytime Works / IBPA)

We've seen quite a few children's picture books that deal with the subject of grief and loss. It's a subject that is extremely difficult to get 'right' in a book that has a target audience who need to see a subtle approach, almost an allegorical one perhaps.

Larry Phifer's "World on a String" with illustrations by Danny Popovici deals with the subject delicately and rather beautifully it has to be said. When young Charlie finds a balloon in the middle of the forest while out walking one day, he embarks on a journey of discovery, learning life lessons about friendship and companionship. A fairly lonely little boy, the Balloon becomes Charlie's surrogate friend / sibling, as he has fun with it, twirling and whirling it around on its string.

Soon the pair are inseparable. Everywhere Charlie goes, the balloon goes too. But as any child knows, keeping a tight hold on the string isn't always possible - and one day during a thunderstorm the balloon becomes untied from its string and flies up into the big black sky, never to be seen again.

Charlie is so sad at the loss of his 'friend', but thanks to his memories of the great times they had together, the balloon is still with him, nestled in a colourful corner of his mind.

There's a killer line in the book that goes...

"I miss you, friend" he whispered into the sky.
"...but I know your light was meant to fly."

...Which had both of us almost bursting into tears. A really touching moment.

Larry chose to write the book in rhyming couplets. We've talked extensively about the need to hone, and hone, and hone again any book that rhymes and at times I tripped over my tongue reading this aloud - and that's really the only negative thing I'd have to say about the book. It's beautiful to look at and the core theme is delicately dealt with and rather touchingly portrayed.

"World on a String" is available through the Storytime Works website and will also soon be available in physical format from Barnes and Noble too.

Charlotte's best bit: Charlie's happy memories of his fabulous bouncy friend.

Daddy's favourite bit: A touching and nicely subtle way of describing loss and grief to children. Some of the rhymes need tweaks and tucks here and there to help the rhythm and flow, but overall it's a very nice book indeed.

(Kindly sent to us in digital format by Larry Phifer / Storytime Works)
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#ReadItMD13 Theme Week - "Summer Holidays - Ten Children's Picture Books to tuck into your Trunki for your holiday"

In the summertime, we love books on the beach!

This time last year we gave you our recommendations for ten brilliant summer or holiday-themed children's picture books. This year as part of our #ReadItMD13 Theme Week celebrating the first week of the long long LONG school summer holidays, here are ten more summery sunny and holiday books we've loved and know you will too!

So here goes, in no particular order...

1) Katie Morag and the Big Boy Cousins by Mairi Hedderwick (Red Fox Picture Books)

Katie Morag and the Big Boy Cousins by Mairi Hedderwick. Such a lovely book, wish we were there!

Imagine a long summer idly spending time up in the remote scottish highlands. Sounds utterly utterly idyllic to me and reading the adventures of Katie Morag, and her naughty cousins who come to stay every summer for the long vacation, you'll almost feel like you're there.

Making dens, making mischief and eventually making sure they pitch in and help the awesome Granny Island, Katie Morag and her cousins will have you googling for summer holidays north of the border. Charming and beautiful, a great summer read!

2) Meggie Moon by Elizabeth Baguley and Gregoire Mabire (Little Tiger Press)

She's smart, she's cool, she's Meggie Moon by Elizabeth Baguley and Gregoire Mabire
This book is great, as it has one of the most brilliant girl characters ever to grace a children's book tucked between its lovely covers. Meggie Moon is a girl who is imaginative and inventive, and soon shows the boys a thing or two about how to play brilliant games or make cool things out of a rubbish pile when she comes to stay nearby during the summer holidays. It's a bittersweet book, boys being boys at the start and wondering just who this annoying upstart is that butts in on their games - but in the end they miss her terribly when she goes, and realise just how cool she really was.

Utterly lovely!

3) The Lighthouse Keeper's Cat by Ronda and David Armitage 

The Lighthouse Keeper's Cat by Ronda and David Armitage. Even cats like to go on their travels!

One book in a huge range of Lighthouse Keeper's Cat stories, this moggy lives a charmed and idyllic life in a lighthouse, whiling away long summer days eating and sleeping and doing all the things cats do. Until curiosity gets the better of him and he goes off to explore.

4) The Dunderheads - Behind Bars by Paul Fleischman and David Roberts (Walker Books)

The Dunderheads Behind Bars by Paul Fleischman and David Roberts. Summer in the clink?
What do The Dunderheads do when school's out for the summer? They audition for a movie starring their favourite actress but as we know, trouble is never far behind The Dunderheads as their monstrous teacher, Miss Breakbone and her eerie look-a-like brother ensure that the children have a summer holiday they'll never forget. We were really won over by this book - which is even deeper and more amazing than it first appears. Hooray for The Dunderheads!

5) SPLASH! Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke and Lauren Tobia (Walker Books)

(See our lovely header image)

A well deserved book of the week, SPLASH! has a huge dash of joie de vivre running through its beautifully illustrated pages. Anna Hibiscus is at the beach with her family - but why won't anyone play in the surf with her? What is wrong with Dad, Mum, Granny and Grandpa, Uncles and Aunties and cousins? Anna soon discovers that you can have fun even when you're on your own, and it's amazing how quickly folk will join in with splashy games on a hot sunny day. Sublime!

6) Father Christmas Goes On Holiday by Raymond Briggs (Picture Puffin)

Father Christmas Goes on Holiday by Raymond Briggs. Bloomin' perfect!
He's Bloomin' marvellous is Santa. Raymond Briggs' Sequel to his awesome Father Christmas book sees Santa packing his things for a hot summer vacation around the world. We still giggle like drains at Santa's antics sampling French Haute Cuisine. Yet a little sad, because we remember what a fantastic job the late Mel Smith (who died this week) did voicing Santa in the animated versions of these tales. You'll be sorely missed Mel.

7) Winnie at the Seaside by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul (OUP)

Winnie at the Seaside by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul. Magical!

We still love Winnie the Witch despite not catching up with her adventures for some time now. Here in "Winnie at the Seaside" you'll see the chaotic results of witchy holiday magic. Aided by trusty sidekick Wilbur, who actually looks rather fetching as a cat-fish, Winnie enjoys the summer sunshine but made sure she packed her magic wand for the perfect vacation.

8) Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble by Tracey Corderoy and Joe Berger (Nosy Crow Books)

Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble by Tracey Corderoy and Joe Berger. Witchy Granny ROCKS!

When staying with Granny during the summer holidays - is life made more complicated just because she's a witch? When one little girl tries to re-style her witchy grandma, she realises that perhaps having a witch in the family isn't such a bad thing after all. We loved Grandma's method of dealing with a crowded beach for sure!

9) Miffy's Garden by Dick Bruna (Egmont Books)

Miffy's Garden by Dick Bruna. Green fingered summer holidays? You betcha!
Charlotte's a huge fan of Miffy and she's also a huge fan of helping mummy in the garden during the summer holidays (Daddy stays well away from anything green-fingered, he has the touch of DEATH for plants alas!). Here Miffy is given a stretch of garden to grow lovely things to eat in - and who could resist the temptation of a crop of fresh garden vegetables? Surely not a hungry rabbit! We love the Miffy books, they're still as great as ever they were and perfectly sized for tucking into tiny overnight bags when Charlotte goes to stay at Nanny or Grandma's house.

10) The Trouble with Gran by Babette Cole (Inky Sprat)

The Trouble with Gran by Babette Cole. Is Gran quite what she seems?
We reviewed the fun iBook edition of "The Trouble with Gran" from Inky Sprat, which had a fab set of voiceover videos by the stylish Babette herself. Gran is a bit of a mischief maker - what's more, she's not exactly what she seems so when Gran is roped into a boring day trip with the rest of the senior citizens, it's not long before she finds ways to upset the applecart. We did love her morphing into the winner of the Miss Lovelylegs contest (do they still have those at holiday camps?)

Whew! That little lot should keep your tiddlers entertained for a wee while. As ever, drop a comment below if you have more summer holiday favourites, we'd love to hear about them!

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Wednesday 24 July 2013

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb (Macmillan Children's Books)

Now this book is rather special. Not only is it a brilliant story that combines one of our favourite authors with one of our favourite children's book illustrators, it has a fantastic cause at its heart too.

You may have spotted the paper dolls cropping up everywhere, at your local bookshops, in libraries and anywhere you normally find children's book folk.

There's a good reason for that - and if you dive on through to the Paper Dolls Website you'll find out a whole lot more. For each set of paper dolls you send in to Macmillan for their Guinness World Record attempt, you'll be helping to donate 10p to a very worthy cause - the Save the Children Foundation.

Download this template and get colouring!

Better still your children can even draw their own by using this alternative template too!

Check out some of the dolls other folk have completed!

Contributing to the world's longest paper doll chain while aiding a good cause? You KNOW you want to join in (we already have - visit the website for more information on how to send your completed sheets to Pan Macmillan). Doll sheets can be submitted up till the 31st of August 2013, so there's still lots and lots of time.

Right then, on with the book. Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb? It's a match made in booky heaven isn't it. Combining superb rhyming text with Rebecca's utterly wonderful illustrative style to tell a story of a young girl who, with her mum, makes a string of five paper dolls and embarks on an adventure with them. As the girl plays, and her imagination is unleashed (is there a more powerful creative force on the planet than a child's imagination? I doubt it) the dolls narrowly avoid catastrophe as they dance and play.

But then the book throws you a curve ball. Just when you're happy that this is a lovely story with a carefree young girl and her wonderful cut-out friends enjoying life to the full, something happens. A young boy appears, a young boy (a rather nasty boy if we're truthful) with a pair of scissors.

What happens next is impossible to describe without completely spoiling the book for you - so we're going to take the rare opportunity here of warning you right now that we're going to give away the end. If you do not want to read on, please stop now.


Still reading?

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OK you're still here so I'm assuming you've either read it or don't mind spoilers. The next bit rather upset Charlotte because the nasty naughty little boy (older sibling? Bully? It's never made clear but he's horrible whoever he is!) chops the string of paper dolls into tiny tiny pieces, breaking the little girl's heart. What a rotter!

But perhaps the power of a child's imagination is even more powerful than the nasty streak the boy demonstrates. As the rather grief-stricken little girl returns home, folornly, the paper dolls soar into the stratosphere. All the tiny little cut-up pieces reform as the dolls are once again complete, and roam the stars dancing and laughing as they go.

The little girl grows up, and then makes paper dolls with her own daughter (which is a rather touching and lovely way of turning the story around from that horrible bit!)

We thoroughly enjoyed this book. You've already heard us talking about Julia Donaldson's expert rhyming in our review of Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou and she's nailing it here again. But for us the real star of the show is Rebecca Cobb. Her illustrations are truly magical and you'll know just how much we love her work if you take a look at our review of her wonderful book "Lunchtime".

Hope the review has spurred you into action and you're downloading and printing those paper doll sheets out to join in with the record attempt!

Charlotte's best bit: Jacky Backy.

Daddy's Favourite Bit: The little doll with two noses.

(Kindly sent to us for review by Macmillan Children's Books)
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Wake up do, Lydia Lou! By Julia Donaldson and Karen George (Macmillan Children's Books)

We sometimes wonder whether Julia Donaldson gets fed up with being inextricably linked to The Gruffalo. Fine book though it is, seeing "By the author of The Gruffalo" on everything Julia does can sometimes grate.

For instance here's a new book by Julia and Karen George, who previously collaborated on "Freddie and the Fairy", a book that is absolutely wonderful in its own right - with no need to be linked to that purple-prickled orange-eyed monster.

in "Wake up Do, Lydia Lou!" we are treated to a tour-de-force of rhyming perfection. Julia Donaldson is an absolute legend - no not because of you-know-who, but because she absolutely understands what it feels like to read books aloud, and makes it fun to do so. Whereas we find a lot of rhyming books clumsily clobbering your sense of rhythm (something that Elli Woollard perfectly described in a #ReadItMD13 piece for us back when poetry and rhyming text was our theme for the week), Julia always manages to develop a 'flow' that whispers through her books like a welcome breeze.

Lydia Lou is fast asleep, and a mischievous ghost wants to wake her up and give her a bit of a spook. But despite the naughty ghost's best efforts, Lydia Lou is soundly in the land of nod and no amount of rattling, woohing or other noises can interrupt her snoozing.

We've seen Julia Donaldson use this method of repetition before in her stories. Repeating the same lines over and over again to build to a climax - which you'll either love or hate. I personally like the approach because it builds anticipation, perhaps even tension - and each time the ghost fails to rouse Lydia Lou you wonder what's going to happen next with each turn of the page.

Special mention to Karen George for her illustrations too - it must be tough being paired with Julia, because it's probably one of those occasions where folk pay more attention to the author's work than the artist's - but here Karen produces wonderful characters (including the world's cheekiest looking teddy bear - just look at his expressions, the little devil!)

Great fun to read aloud. Younger kids might need a bit of a cuddle and reassurance at the theme (yes it's not that scary, but in the current heatwave when you've got the windows thrown open in your child's room, it's worth an extra hug or two to assure them that a noisy naughty ghost won't be floating through THEIR window) but it's an ace book and the first of two JD reviews coming up today.

Charlotte's best bit: That cheeky, cheeky teddy. He looks like he deserves his own book!

Daddy's favourite bit: Julia Donaldson's rhymes are brilliant, her sense of building a story to a tense finale is natural and enjoyable.

(Kindly sent to us for review by Macmillan Children's Books)
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Tuesday 23 July 2013

Spotlight on Ladybird Books' "Read it yourself" range. 4 levels of books for all reading abilities.

The Magic Porridge Pot (Level 1 Read It Yourself Range)
While children are away from school for the long summer holidays, it's difficult to keep up the impetus with their own reading. We traditionally struggle with Charlotte's reading during holidays (though she's always ready to be read to, she's not always ready to improve her reading skills herself) so finding a book range that satisfies two separate criteria - 1) being fun to read and 2) supporting traditional reading skills taught in schools - isn't always easy.

We've recently been looking at the fabulous "Read it Yourself" range from a publisher who have traditionally been synonymous with improving children's early reading skills. Ladybird books were books I absolutely loved as a child, and the range is as strong as ever.

Now with a mix of traditional stories (like "The Magic Porridge Pot" - one of our favourite stories reworked wonderfully here by Ladybird for their red-spined "Level 1" range) and licensed character stories (like Peppa Pig, Moshi Monsters and CBeebies' fantastic Tinga Tinga Tales) in a very strong range, there's something for just about everyone.

The range is split into four levels as described below:

Level 1

Level 1 books are for children who are just taking their first steps in reading to themselves, but want engaging and entertaining stories.

Level 2

Level 2 is the level Charlotte is at, beginning to read short simple sentences to themselves. Slightly longer stories to satisfy the curiosity of early readers who are gaining in confidence.

Level 3

Designed for children who have slightly more confidence and can handle fairly complex stories on their own or perhaps with a little help, Level 3 is a fantastic range pulling together some of the most well loved children's characters in books, on TV and in movies.

Level 4

For more fluent readers, Level 4 starts to introduce concepts of chapters and more complexity.

Find out more about the Read It Yourself levels.

Ladybird kindly sent us a book from each of the levels so that we could take a look at the range and they're fantastic. It's probably very important to point out that the major appeal of the range is that they do not feel like "school" books to a child, despite having the structure and in some cases the comprehension exercises that many school early reader books have.

In Level 1, we looked at The Magic Porridge Pot which is a story that uses repetition to good effect, and for those who know the story well, a story that sticks in the mind, introduces tension and mild peril, and introduces concepts of cause and effect. The Ladybird version is ace, as we said above.

For Level 2 we looked at Tinga Tinga Tales - Why Lion Roars...

The Tinga Tinga stories are fabulous modern fables, presented here with the original artwork style and characters from the well-loved CBeebies TV show. Charlotte loved this book best - both because of the entertaining story (who doesn't love a naughty crocodile, who rather steals the show here) and because it was a book at her level which she could disappear into on her own (parents - don't you love moments like that, when you find your child wrapped up in a book reading it on their own? We most certainly do!)

For Level 3 we looked at Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs

A hugely popular character and stories, and at level 3 you can enjoy the original story that kicked off the whole Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs phenomenon. Again, using characters and stories that children are already familiar with in the Read It Yourself range boosts confidence and really engages children in the notion that reading isn't just about learning, reading is also for pleasure.

For Level 4 we looked at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Fabulously illustrated, and although it's a familiar story and one we've seen various versions of, it's a lengthy book that might seem quite daunting for an early reader but does give them the comfort of again building confidence through familiarity with the subject.

The range is very neatly presented and for parents the uncomplicated four level system cuts through a lot of puzzling over which key stage book to get in order to match the ability of your child.

As we mentioned at the top of the review, books like these that aid education and keep a child's reading 'brain' ticking over during the long school holidays are really fantastic, and we're thoroughly impressed with the choice of titles, and of course Ladybird's keen eye for brilliant illustrators and authors to use in the range.

For full details of each level and all the books, check out Ladybird's Read It Yourself Website
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Abigail by Catherine Rayner (Little Tiger Press)

Oh how we love Abigail! Catherine Rayner's book is not only beautiful but it's a lot of fun too.

Abigail, the wonderful Giraffe, just LOVES to count. Anyone who loves to count knows how much more fun it can be if you involve everyone else too, so Abigail soon meets all her animal friends on her travels while attempting to count their spots and their stripes. Animals rarely stay still for very long though so poor Abigail soon finds that counting is tricky when the thing you're counting is a big fidget!

This book is a true work of art, with some of the loveliest animal illustrations you'll see in children's books. Abigail herself is fab (but then we do share An Vrombaut's soft spot for giraffes and here Catherine Rayner has captured their loveliness perfectly) but so are her friends. The fun counting story is also fab and it's fun to find out what Abigail counts when the long day on the plains draws gently to an end and darkness falls.

People often ask us why we don't give any age guidance / ratings on books. The simple answer is that most books have such a huge appeal to children of all ages that it's unfair to try and pigeonhole them in that way. Taking Abigail as an example you could read it aloud to a tiny toddler just learning to count on their fingers and toes, or you could read it to a little girl like Charlotte who is busying herself with adding, subtracting and multiplication and let them soak up a beautiful and rather touching story.

In a nutshell, Abigail is as good as it looks (and it looks SO good!). It's really not hard to see how Catherine won the CILIP 2009 Kate Greenaway medal for "Harris Finds his Feet", her books are sublime.

Charlotte's best bit: Trying to count all the stripes on a lot of very busy and fidgety Zebras

Daddy's favourite bit: That delicious final spread. No spoilers but if you count all the objects in it I bet you they'll add up to exactly the number Abigail says!

(Kindly sent to us for review by Little Tiger Press)
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Pi-Rat! by Maxine Lee (Caterpillar Books)

Is it possible to have too many pirate-based children's books? Purely looking back over the last year at the sheer amount of pirate-based titles we've looked at (and we've by no means caught them all) you could easily drown in the piratical sea. So it takes something pretty special to keep the jaunty theme going and engage kids in yet another swashbuckling tale.

Pi-Rat, written and Illustrated by Maxine Lee introduces us to the fearless titular rodent. With his brave animal crew, he fears nothing, he thirsts for treasure, adventure and excitement on the high seas!

Children, Charlotte included, love pirates because they represent so many things that tap into a child's tastes. The chance for a bit of subversive naughtiness, vicariously played out through pirate characters. The vast rewards of a treasure-chest full of booty. Huge levels of excitement and anticipation tracing the lines of a treasure map, following mysterious legends that tell tales of great danger and equally great riches.

Pi-Rat has these things, played out in the mind of a rather mischievous and cheeky little rat. I personally didn't connect with the book as much as Charlotte did. She loved it, and I think she really loved Pi-Rat's energy and sheer stick-your-tongue-out cheekiness. Perhaps the problem I had with it was that we've seen similar tales before (in fact if you take a look at Caryl Hart and Ed Eaves' excellent book "Plunge into the Pirate Pool" it's eerily similar, replacing a bath tub for a swimming pool but with the same core story underneath).

Pirate books are great, don't get me wrong. Charlotte will avidly enthuse about them and the fresh approach of an imagined pirate tale seen through the eyes of our cheeky rat friend is indeed engaging and fun. With another pirate-based title waiting in the wings for review (more on that very soon) perhaps it's just me but I'd seriously love to see folk leave the pirates alone for a while and seek out new characters and stories to base their brilliant books on.

Charlotte would probably say "Don't be silly Daddy, it's ace" (in fact she has told me off for being a bit 'down' on Pirate books before). So ignore my mumblings, take her advice and sign yourself up for a nautical tale aboard the good ship Soapy Dodger with Pi-Rat today!

Charlotte's best bit: The scariest monster of them all, towards the end of the book! Eeeeek! Run!

Daddy's favourite bit: Lots of fizzing energy and a good rip-roaring pirate tale. Even though I'm a little burned out on pirate books I still love 'em to bits.

(Kindly sent to us for review by Caterpillar Books)
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