Review: The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth by Katherine Woodfine

Middle grade Sherlock that passes the Bechdel Test.

Publication Date: 25th February 2016
Publisher: Egmont

The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth is a fantastic sequel to Woodfine’s debut The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow. The main characters, Sophie and Lil, are wonderful to read and the assisting characters also have strong, well-rounded roles. It is particularly such a breath of fresh air to have a friendship group with both boys and girls, where the girls are allowed the greater role. Woodfine proves expertly that a book about girls is not just a book for girls; the story and relationships are universal.

The writing is fluid and a pleasure to engage with, with an Edwardian backdrop and a careful knowledge of the London of that age. In fact, as is made evident at the end, Woodfine has done her research – especially into the Chinese community in the East End – which certainly shines through as she treats the character Mei and her family with uncommon sensitivity.

The twists are unexpected and the plot is intricately knitted together. Intrigue, theft and even murder add up to create the bigger picture. It is aimed at an age group during which I was just starting to read Agatha Christie, and the depictions of the flamboyant qualities of the English upper classes are certainly comparable. Júlia Sardà’s occasional illustrations add to the gilt atmosphere and complement the text’s vivid imagery.

I recommend this novel to anyone with any appreciation of mystery. It is lively and unpredictable – a perfect introduction to the genre for younger readers. It is a highly enjoyable read, and one which has left me craving the next instalment.

Review: Hippopotamister by John Patrick Green

Meta use of anthropomorphic animals in story of self-acceptance.

Publication Date: 10th May 2016
Publisher: First Second Books

Hippopotamister is a graphic novel aimed at younger readers, with great characters and an entertaining premise. The conclusion is a wonderful – if somewhat predictable – tying up of loose ends, and an excellent positive note to end on. John Patrick Green has also not missed out on the opportunity for humour, and a quick reminder that ‘being yourself’ is always better than trying to be anyone else.

The plot and character development is just right, and the story flows well. There does seem to be an odd disparity between a fairly traditional ‘picture book’ story, and a length of over 32 pages, but once the reader gets used to the format that is easily forgotten. The text is also riddled with puns, making it a consistently enjoyable read. A personal favourite is a literal interpretation of ‘balancing the books’, which is not commented on but lies within the illustrations as an in-joke between writer and reader.

The jewel in the book’s crown is definitely its illustrations. The various jobs that Red Panda and Hippopotamister take on are wonderfully recreated, and Hippopotamister’s natural talent in all of them is comically juxtaposed with Red Panda’s apparent ineptitude. A wonderful bonus comes at the end, in the form of a couple of instructional pages on trying your hand at drawing the characters yourself. This compounds the pleasure from the story and allows the reader to engage in another way.

I would recommend this book to children in the older end of the picture book age bracket, simply because of its length, but also to anyone partial to a humorous graphic novel. It would also make an excellent graduation present for any young people just entering the job market.

Review: Wildwitch: Wildfire by Lene Kaaberbøl and Rohan Eason, translated by Charlotte Barslund

The Worst Witch meets the Hunger Games.

Publication Date: 21st January 2016
Publisher: Pushkin Children’s

Wildwitch: Wildfire was a thoroughly enjoyable novel, with interesting characters and a compelling plot. Part bildungsroman, part fantasy, part court drama, Kaaberbøl’s story allows the reader to follow young Clara’s journey from her normal life, to a new and magical world.

The writing is clear and enticing, a testament both to the original and to Barslund’s translation. Apart from creating an impressive and wondrous imaginarium, where ‘wildwitches’ protect and control the natural world, ruled by their own councils and laws, the novel’s greatest attraction is the simplicity with which Clara carries herself; the way honesty is rewarded above skill. Unlike other novels in similar genres, where the main character miraculously acquires the skills they need under pressure, Clara does not surpass herself, nor is she surprised by what she can do in her trials. She is simply true to herself, and the only thing she needs is confidence in her and the desire to keep learning.

There are a few aspects which remain unexplained, perhaps unnecessarily – how did Clara perform magic with iron around her throat? Why is Chimera after her? What does Oscar think of all this? The important thing about these questions is that they don’t affect the reader during the novel, only after, demonstrating the fluency and pace of the story. Wildfire is just the first in a series – these unanswered questions certainly cement the reader’s desire to keep reading the Wildwitch series.

The illustrations are sensitive and work well with the tone of the story. Eason has created classic images with creative twists, that add atmospheric touches to this beautiful novel.

I recommend Wildwitch: Wildfire – and the ensuing addiction to the series – to any children with a penchant for magical writing, and anyone who holds out a secret hope that there are powers yet to be discovered. I would also encourage those with a love for the natural world to give this novel their full attention, as it is wonderfully represented. Overall, a fantastic read, and one that you’ll find hard to put down.

#CoverKidsBooks: what it means when we don’t review children’s literature

When news of S F Said’s campaign to get newspapers to review more children’s books came out at the beginning of last week, I felt pride, rage (at the statistics), and a sense of being part of something bigger. Throughout the ‘Ebook crisis’, the financial crisis and all the other factors which meant we saw vast fluctuations throughout the book publishing industry, children’s fiction and non-fiction were the most steady, often exhibiting some growth. Therefore, even those philistines who believe that children’s fiction is somehow ‘lesser’ will have to agree that it is silly at best not to showcase what has proven to be publishers’ greatest asset.

Not only do myriad high-quality, beautiful books get buried due to lack of visibility, the decision not to give space to children’s book reviews is obviously informed by – and perpetuates – the notion that the child reader is not discerning enough to need ‘good books.’ Obviously, especially with younger readers, the book-buyer tends be an adult. Therefore, the review-reader, naturally, seems to be an adult. This is not necessarily true – how will you know if a 10-year-old won’t read reviews if you don’t give them the chance? – but, significantly, a space dedicated entirely to well-written children’s book reviews would force adults out of their comfort zones. It might even change something which even the most well-intentioned of parents often fall into the trap of: stop giving them an excuse to think of their child as an extension of themselves.

Children (shock, horror!) have their own personalities and their own tastes, meaning that by placing gravity on the books they read – brilliant, innovative, formative books – you are acknowledging their individuality and their right to a critical spirit. Contrariwise, if all – bar 3% – of the space dedicated to reviews in newspapers focuses on ‘adult’ books, not to mention entire publications whose sole mission statement is to review books yet which include no children’s books at all, what is it other than dehumanising? ‘Just’ a children’s book. For ‘just’ a child. As if either of those things is unforgivably, irrecoverably wanting. These things add up and affect the way our children relate to themselves and to their peers.

And if you’re tempted to ask why we need more reviews in newspapers when there are many online – the reviews page is just the bit you skip to get to the crossword, right? – then Charlotte Eyre puts it better than I can, reminding us of the ‘stumble upon’ factor. People seeking out reviews for new children’s books can find thousands online, but the beauty of discovering a book by accident – a process which has been at the heart of the campaign against online booksellers – cannot and should not be replaced.

It has frequently been called the ‘golden age’ of children’s literature, especially after Hardinge’s fantastic win, and online, this is being reflected in full force. There are independent bloggers out there doing what I’m doing but better, and there are official websites – like the Guardian’s brilliant children’s book section – which are committed to making sure children’s books are seen and valued. However, in this online world we live in, print reviews for adults have not lapsed; there is no reason we be content with only online coverage for children, no matter how great.

Newspapers are universal symbols of ‘all that is worth knowing’, if children’s books aren’t represented in them, what does that say about our society’s attitude towards the desires and interests of children?

For more information about the campaign, check out S F Said’s original blog post and follow the #CoverKidsBooks hashtag on Twitter.