Review: Gormless Gods and Hapless Heroes: Tim Baker and the Ancient Curse by Stella Tarakson

The first in what promises to be an epic series.

Publication date: 6th April 2017
Publisher: Sweet Cherry Publishing

Funny, compelling and oddly educational, Gormless Gods and Hapless Heroes: Tim Baker and the Ancient Curse blends realism and fantasy seamlessly. When Tim Baker accidentally broke his mother’s priceless, ancient vase, he expected to get a telling off not his own resident hero! As Hercules bursts through the life of the 21st century school boy like a bull in a china shop, Tim learns a little something about how to navigate his own life himself.

Tim and Hercules are a dynamic duo of entertainment. They are well-constructed characters, that Stella Tarakson truly brings to life. Tim is multi-faceted, and his reaction to Hercules’ takeover of his life is constructed in a sensitive and realistic way. Likewise, Hercules and Tim’s mum – who may have run the risk of fitting into stereotypes of the ‘meathead’ hero and ‘no-fun’ mum – demonstrate an unexpected breadth of character. Tarakson’s characterisation alone is a joy to experience, and the book just gets better and better.

Mythologically, it brings in more than I expected it to. The story juxtaposes the original labours of Hercules with the trials of being an awkward young boy trying to support both himself and his mother. Lesser known labours, such as the Augean stables, make a welcome appearance. Perhaps I was ready to be confronted by another portrayal of Hercules as per Disney or Kevin Sorbo, but what I got instead is a genuine adaptation of the original hero.

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy a school-and-friendship-based novel, and are open to the fantastical, mythological world the flows through it. It is the first in a series, and it ends with a cliffhanger, so I am excited to see how it develops! This is solid middle grade at its best.

 

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Review: The Girl with the Parrot on Her Head by Daisy Hirst

A bit like Inside Out but without the Hollywood whirlwind.

Publication date: 5th February 2015
Publisher: Walker Books

The Girl with the Parrot on Her Head is a wonderful book which really touches on the anger and confusion that comes with losing a best friend. After Simon moves away, Isabel is needs to learn how to spend time on her own. This turns into an attempt to ignore her loneliness by creating an organisational system wherein she categorises everything from books to wolves. The spiral of accumulating boxes is broken by the discovery of a new friend.

Hirst’s use of the almost obsessional image of Isabel separating all of her things into boxes is poignant. Amidst the emotional turmoil, Isabel is trying to find meaning and clarity, but ends up simply putting her “wolves” into boxes rather than confronting them. This is such a sensitive representation of the child’s inner world when their life changes drastically. The emphasis on an imaginary world further reinforces the internal nature of the boxes. With the introduction of a new friend, Isabel is able to release her creativity again, and expand it.

The illustrations suit the book perfectly. They have a childish quality which complements the raw sentiments behind the story, and a playfulness which really accentuates the concerns raised. It is also really good to see characters of colour represented in such a lovely way.

I recommend this book to anyone struggling with losing  a friend, or simply to readers who enjoy a considerate and unique picture book exploring children’s emotional worlds.

Review: The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield

A musical, magical ode to imagination.

Publication date: 3rd September 2015
Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children’s

The Bear and the Piano is a wonderful picture book about perseverance, and discovering the important things in life. From the striking front cover – making it impossible not to pick it up – to the very last page, every aspect of it is carefully thought through and successfully executed. It’s no wonder it was the winner of Waterstones Children’s Book Prize: Best Illustrated Book 2016. 

Litchfield’s story is a often-told one: the main character is a prodigy in something, they leave everything they know behind to pursue their dreams but realise that there’s no place like home. However, it is retold in such an imaginative way, with such a charming, curious protagonist, that it transcends its origins. It’s a story about unconditional love, just as much as it is a story about learning to create and succeed – whilst remaining a story about a bear who learns to play piano and makes it to ‘the big city’.

The illustrations are fantastic. They’ve got a surreal, atmospheric quality; the colours and shapes a perfect combination for the fantasia of the story. The sharp lines give the magical nature of the text a solidity to work against. They add so much to the book, making the biggest impact at the end, when Bear is welcomed back into the forest.

I recommend this book to anyone who has ever needed to leave their family behind in order to pursue their desires. And for anyone who loves interesting illustration techniques and stories about the importance of creativity, The Bear and the Piano is an unmissable book.

Review: Kings of the Castle by Victoria Turnbull

Fantastically atmospheric book about friendship through imagination.

Publication date: 5th May 2016
Publisher: Templar Publishing

Kings of the Castle  is an absolutely stunning book. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it, and the story reflects the marine setting as it flows and then is reined in. The characters are creative and the result is a balanced, beautiful book.

George, Boris and Nepo’s story unfolds (including literally!) as George tries to use the night to create the best sandcastle. Despite little to no ability to communicate, he sets to work with the stranger from beneath the waves to create a night-time kingdom. The book demonstrates that friendship and common ground, can go beyond what can only be put across with words.

The illustrations make the book by far. There is something so peaceful yet intriguing about the moonlit seaside. Much like Turnbull’s Sea Tiger, the creatures are beautifully rendered and seem to embody the silent life of the seabed. All this is not to say the the story is any less then great. Turnbull is a master of the picture book form, as the illustrations and words slip into each other perfectly.

I recommend Kings of the Castle to any fan of good picture books. Children are captivated by it and adults are awed by it. Turnbull is swiftly becoming one of my favourite author-illustrators.