“Us” An Old-Fashioned Story by Mrs Molesworth

Us (an Old Fashioned Story)

Us by Mrs. Molesworth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


First published in 1885, ‘Us’ is a fairly typical piece of children’s literature for this age. The good are good, the bad are bad, and the upper classes are full of moral upstanding-ness and the lower classes (particularly gypsies) are the worst. They are prejudices of the time, and though I don’t excuse them in the slightest, it’s important to recognise that they exists and that they colour this book quite substantially. Having said that however, it’s also important to recognise that this is a ferociously well-written book. Honestly, I was surprised by how post-modern it felt at points; Mrs Molesworth engages in asides to the reader, ruminations upon the motives of the characters, and genuinely tells this story in such a fresh and dynamic manner, that it doesn’t feel like an 1885 kind of story at all.

The children, however, are tools. Forgive me, but I can’t describe them in any other manner. Everybody is besotted with their angelic ways and their fair appearance, but then the kids accidentally break a bowl, don’t confess, decide to buy a new one from the gypsies, and then get stolen by said gypsies, and really there’s nobody to blame but their own idiocy at this point. Of course there’s some social commentary at play here and some pointed moralising about how it’s best to confess to your sins otherwise you might be stolen by gypsies and sold to a circus man, but that’s all par for the course for the books of this era. They work to maintain the status quo, whether it’s right or wrong. (I was particularly amused, for example, that the Noble Gypsy Boy Who Helps Out The Tool Children gets the happy reward of being their servant).

Baby speech aside (forgive me, but if you write about “mouses” and “teef”, that will always make you lose brownie points with me), not everybody does this as well as Mrs Molesworth. Us was a real surprise and a solid, solid read.



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A trio of board book reviews

I have a trio of board books to bring to your attention today! When I’m sent something to review, it doesn’t always get to the point of being reviewed. Sometimes we don’t click, sometimes there’s very little I can say about it, or sometimes it’s so out of my remit that I wouldn’t know where to begin. But sometimes, it’s a gorgeous pack of board books that demand attention, and this is the substance of today’s post.

The board book is a curious thing. It’s the first introduction to story for very little people, and as such needs to do a thousand things – and also survive more than one read. I’ve spoken about the quality of Nosy Crow’s books before, and I think they really handle the early years well. I mean, I wouldn’t be talking about them here if I didn’t. 🙂 Here’s a look at a few of my recent favourites …

Where's Mrs Kangaroo, front cover.

Where’s Mrs Kangaroo? by Nosy Crow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A charming and rather lovely board book illustrated by Ingela P Arrhenius, this is a treat. It’s chunky and solid and well put together, and Arrenhenius’ illustrations are a treat. They’re stylish, modern and very nicely done in such a small space. Textually, it’s very straightforward and based around a question and answer: “Where’s Mr Koala?” “Here he is!” The answer is located behind a flap of felt that’s shaped and coloured to match the scene. I’d welcome some books of this nature to start to explore alternatives to ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’, but other than that, this is a lovely, lovely thing.


Superhero Mum and Daughter front cover

Superhero mum and daughter by Timothy Knapman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I got to the final spread of this, I absolutely fell in love. I’m a sucker for exuberance in board books, particularly those that celebrate the power of mums. This is a simple story written by Timothy Knapman that celebrates a day in the life of a mum (and it’s quite an exhausting one!). She runs with her daughter to catch the bus; she plays in the playground; and she finds the lost teddy. She’s a super-mum indeed, but the conclusion rather nicely points out that this isn’t just a one-off: “Every mum’s a superhero and so is every girl!” (The illustrations here by Joe Berger are particularly wonderful; a rainbow bright, fierce explosion of love).

One thing to bear in mind is that Superhero mum and son is a gender swapped version of this story. The text and images are substantially similar, save for the gendered detail (the female protagonist shifts to a male one).

Animal Families Farm front cover

Animal Families: Farm by Nosy Crow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Much more visually distinct than many other board books out there, this is a really beautiful thing from Jane Ormes and Nosy Crow. Artistically it’s reminiscent of some powerful things – Orla Kiely; Pat Hutchins to name but two – and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a simple lift the flap exercise, though instead of moving on a north-south dynamic, these flaps explore east-west (and as such, offer the opportunity to play around with developing some other skills, plus the awareness of the ‘movement’ of the book itself).

I also rather loved that it doesn’t shy away from esoteric and strange vocabulary. Not everything for this age group has to be written in a particular manner; this teaches the collective noun for donkeys (a pace!) and talks about the different names for mummy and daddy animals to be found on a farm. The illustrations throughout are lovely, and this is such a gorgeous thing.


I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman

I Was Born for This

I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been meaning to read Alice Oseman’s work for a long while. It’s always a good sign when her books fly in and out of the library, quicker than swifts in summer, because that means they’re being read. Fiercely, voraciously, passionately. Always, always good things. And so when I saw I Was Born For This, I picked it up without hesitation and realised that the signs were true. Oseman writes a lovely, rich, heart-felt slice of humanity; and it’s beautiful. I am looking more and more for writers who value what it is to be human, and to look for this in their work, and she does this with absolute bells on.

I Was Born For This is a week in the life of a fandom. Angel is a fan of The Ark, a band on the cusp of phenomenal success, and Jimmy’s the lead-singer. They come together in the most challenging and complicated of circumstances and, in the process, figure out who they are and what they’re going to be in the world. It’s perhaps a traditional premise in the world of YA; meet-cute, inevitable romance, challenging circumstances separate the couple before Inevitable Things bring them back together at the end. But that’s not this book and to read it as such is to lose the massive heart at the centre of it. Oseman is interested in people, in the brutal messy truth that people are and can be, and she lets her characters live. Absolutely live. There’s no easy answers, no neatly compartmentalized ending, and it’s all the more richer for that.

I’m conscious for many people that sort of an ending might not work. It didn’t for me, at first, because I’m a greedy reader. When a book is as deliciously truthful as this, and stuffed to the brim with richness, I want more of it. But this is life, and things don’t always work the way I want them to. Acknowledging that, however, is important. I wanted this to end somewhere else than it did. But then, it’s not my story. It’s Angel’s and Jimmy’s and Lister’s and Juliet’s…

Oseman’s delivered something rich and wonderful here, and I’m so pleased to have more of her books yet to discover.

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So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? A Kid’s Life in Ancient Greece by Chae Strathie, illus. Marisa Morea

So You Think You've Got It Bad? A Kid's Life in Ancient Greece

So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? A Kid’s Life in Ancient Greece by Chae Strathie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was fun. ‘So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? A Kid’s Life In Ancient Greece’ isn’t the pithiest of titles (and indeed, a structure paralleled by others in the series such as So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? A Kid’s Life in Ancient Egypt) but it is a rather pithy and well-told piece of non-fiction. What’s really interesting is that this comes from a partnership between Nosy Crow and the British Museum and clearly draws upon some of the themes, objects and knowledge of that institution. It’s easy for books of this nature to become simple ‘let me pay you some money and whack my brand on the front of it’ exercises, but I suspect that this is something that wouldn’t ever happen in the Nosy Crow stable. Their books always have a really nice sense of quality and pride about them, and this is no exception.

And so to content –

Covering topics such as ‘The Home’, ‘Diet’ and ‘Fun And Games’, A Kid’s Life In Ancient Greek works through societal rules and expectations for children. I was pleased to see it include a section on ‘Life As A Spartan’ which quite tactfully introduces the hardship of this experience, and I also loved how each section had colour coded page edges – it’s the little notes like this that bind the experience together.

Tonally, it’s more reminiscent of all the all-devouring Horrible Histories series though it does shy away from full on pastiche (which is a good thing!). Instead Strathie takes a lot of pleasure in exploring history from a contemporary perspective and embracing the humour that comes from this: “In Greek Pictures warriors were sometimes depicted with no clothes on. Nakedness was a symbol of bravery in Greek art. It is not a symbol of bravery nowadays. We repeat, it is NOT a symbol of bravery nowadays.” It’s perhaps not the most historical ‘tone’ one might expect, but he does work a lot of information into this, and neatly too.

I loved discovering Marisa Morea’s illustrations. She’s got a very gentle sense of line and colour, embracing that kind of contemporary, natural edge to her work, and as such makes it all very relateable. There’s a substantial mixture of skin-tones and body shapes represented, which is something very lovely to see.

My only concerns with the volume were that I’d have welcomed more being done with the endpapers (particularly as ancient Greek art is so rich with this sort of thing), and the glossary could have done with a little more relationship to the text itself – it felt a little disjointed. Other than that, this is a smart and solid endeavour.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.



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Revisiting The Bunker Diary; or, the state of Children’s and Young Adult literature today

I’ve recently been revisiting The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Much of the prompt for this comes from a class I’ll be teaching in a couple of weeks about writing young adult fiction, though I admit a part of me was interested to see how it felt reading this complex, challenging book from a fresh perspective. When I first read it, I didn’t quite know how I felt about it; but I knew it had made me think. 

In the time between that review and this, I moved back into academia and my thoughts have become increasingly concerned with two distinct things: that is to say the representation of the female body, and the representation of power in children’s and young adult literature. I tend to lean towards the younger end of the market, in my reading, theory and creative work, and have recently had a project accepted to look at the representation of the preadolescent female body in children’s literature (but more of that anon). For now, it’s worthwhile wedding that idea of ‘power’ and ‘body’ with The Bunker Diary as I think there’s something interesting there – and something that reflects on the state of play in children’s and young adult literature today.

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Charlie Changes Into A Chicken by Sam Copeland

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


There’s something rather appealing about a book that displays its intent so clearly. Charlie Changes Into A Chicken gives you everything from page one, and continues to do that on every page that follows. It’s determinedly readable (seriously the drive behind this is almost palpable), full of direct address to the reader and some very funny moments. Charlie McGuffin (the layers of meaning in THAT surname…) has developed a curious talent. At times of great personal stress, he turns into an animal – and for somebody who has a beloved brother in hospital, panicking parents, and a school bully on his tail, that’s a lot to deal with.

The first of a series, and Copeland’s debut, Charlie Changes Into A Chicken is, as I say, a determined book. I like that sort of a feel to something; this wants to be read, and doesn’t want to let its readers go without a fight. Copeland embraces every technique at his disposal to keep his readers, and it’s very nicely done. Confidently, too, and that’s something that says a lot about Copeland’s knowledge and belief in his fictional creation. It’s also very funny.

Paired with Sarah Horne’s fiercely dynamic illustration, it’s a potent mix. Horne has a lovely sense of movement and dynamism to her lines; there’s not one instance of her artwork that doesn’t push right to the edge of the page.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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You’re Not A Proper Pirate, Sidney Green! by Ruth Quayle and Deborah Allwright

You're Not a Proper Pirate, Sidney Green!

You’re Not a Proper Pirate, Sidney Green! by Ruth Quayle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’re Not A Proper Pirate, Sidney Green! is a lot of fun. I can’t imagine things not looking up after a read of this. It really is genuine, exuberant, ‘drop it all at once and have an adventure’ fun. Written by Ruth Quayle, and illustrated by Deborah Allwright, it tells the story of Sidney Green and his dog Jemima who go on adventures – but, according to Captain Shipshape and his pirate crew, Sidney and Jemima should be more concerned with being a Proper Pirate. Right now!

I always think it’s a good sign if a picture book embraces rhythm. It’s so important to understand that these books are not about being just seen – they’re about being heard. You’re Not A Proper Pirate has some delightful refrains, but also some lovely use of repetition. It’s about using all the tricks of your trade to build readers and Quayle works her story to the max to do this. It’s great. It’s also a visual treat. Some of the spreads are busy, but there’s a nice internal logic to them. You can find and work out what’s happening, and much of the credit for that must go to Allwright. She handles a spread well, and the scenes where they go to space are lovely. (Pirates in space, yep). Finally, it’s worthwhile mentioning that – as ever with Nosy Crow – You’re Not A Proper Pirate depicts a wide range of skin colours and genders. This quiet representation is something Nosy Crow books really do excel at.

I do grant that there’s a leap to be made about accepting the presence of a pirate in your local neighbourhood, let alone one who’s concerned for the pirate education of the local youth, but make the leap. Come on. It’s better if you do. This isn’t about pirates at all; it’s rather about finding adventure and imagination in the everyday – and giving yourself permission to be part of that. It’s a great lesson to learn. It’s also a pretty damn great one for adults to be reminded of as well.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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