Fearless Fairy Tales

Fearless Fairy Tales
Konnie Huq & James Kay, illustrated by Rikin Parekh
Piccadilly Press

If like me you’re fond of fractured fairy tales, then this subversive collection of seventeen is a must have. Even the titles made this reviewer splutter with giggles and as for the important note before the contents page, I’ll say no more.

On closer reading it’s probably true to say the stories have been not so much fractured as entirely pulverised, pounded and then reconstituted adding new magic to the mangled mores of old, replacing them with modern reinventions for a more demanding, “I can change the world” generation.

I couldn’t resist turning first to Trumplestiltskin and sure enough there is the easily identifiable ‘Trumple’ hailing from the United States of Kraziness. Said little man is obsessed with gold and power mad. No need for me to regale the whole sorry story – it had me in stitches throughout – but having thrown the king and his daughter, Princess Marla into a dark dungeon, an aide lets slip that Marla can spin straw into gold.

Needless to say, Trumple cannot resist making the girl an offer and the princess being a pretty savvy person, eventually manages to out-trumple the Trumple. (Love the postscript.)
Rumplestiltskin has been my favourite fairy tale since as a youngster, I heard the late Sara Corrin tell it at a book event. She’s in my head narrating this new one even now.

There’s also Sleeping Brainy (‘a flipping genius!’) who aspires to become Chancellor of the Exchequer and does so – against all the odds.

Absolutely cracking is Mouldysocks and the Three Bears in which he of the stinky foot attire is computer crazy. This almost causes his complete undoing when Mummy Bear, Other Mummy Bear and the little baby bear return from their forest foray –

that and the disgusting pong emanating from a certain pair of socks bad enough to put Baby Bear off his porridge. All ends happily however with everyone, including Mouldysocks (newly named) living spotlessly ever after.

It’s impossible to talk about every story in this review but I must  mention that The Princess and the Snog is written entirely in verse. Herein we meet pink-haired Pandora and the frog that catches her punchball when it lands in his boggy residence. Does she want to grant him a kiss – err … not quite and the outcome is, ‘A very wise rule for a mister or miss: / You choose who you / hug and you choose / who you kiss.” No coercive control for this wily young miss.

Finally, another princess – Zareen by name – is only a princess because that’s what her stepmother Tania (a goodie rather than the usual kind) calls her. Actually she’s a normal girl residing in the ‘magical suburb of Crystal Palace and dead keen to follow the latest school playground craze and get a Zoom Peashooter (basically just an overpriced paper straw). Hence the title The Princess and the Peashooter.

She ends up having got her mitts on one, with a rather funky eyepatch due to an errant flying shot – not hers – and being the leader of the anti-peashooter side for the next school debate. Bring on the Zoom Bands, say I. Much less dangerous, or maybe not …

Make sure you read this corker of a book right past THE END, including the small print. I’m wondering who would score higher on the enjoyment scale, team Konnie and James and illustrator Rikin, or readers who guffaw their way through its pages, relishing every satirical story,

Butterfly Brain

Butterfly Brain
Laura Dockrill and Gwen Millward
Piccadilly Press

Gwen Millward’s cover for this book is absolutely delightful; don’t be beguiled by this however. What’s inside is a story about a boy dealing with his grief. There’s even a warning on the first page informing readers that what follows is ‘rather strange and gory.’

Time and time again, Gus gets into trouble; he breaks the rules at school, is rude to his teachers, angry towards others and is always leaning back on his chair, taking not one scrap of notice of warnings about injury from those in school or at home whose anger he’s aroused.

Then one day, the inevitable happens …

CRACK! and that crack becomes a large gap through which Gus’s brains with his dreams, understandings, feelings and memories are exposed for all to see.

A butterfly appears – his very own brain butterfly – a guardian guiding light, it says, but that too flies away. There’s only one thing to do.

Out of the window and up into the night sky goes the pyjama clad boy in pursuit.

During their journey Gus learns how important memories are, be they good or bad, including those buried deep within. He revisits long gone, alarming dreams, learning of one that should not be left behind, and discovers the vital importance of the imagination.

Is he ready finally to own the secret and the painful fear of loss?

Enormously moving, forthright, and written in rhyme, this is a truly heart-rendingly incredible book that can speak to everyone, child and adult, through its words (Laura’s) and its powerful pictures (Gwen’s) rendered in mood-invoking hues.

A definite keeper this.

Marie Curious Girl Genius Saves the World / Cookie and the Most Annoying Girl in the World

Marie Curious Girl Genius Saves the World
Chris Edison
Orchard Books

This is the first of a proposed new series featuring twelve-year-old inventor Marie Curious.

Marie is mega-excited when she receives an unexpected parcel containing a message from one Sterling Vance head of a high-tech corporation in California, inviting her to spend her summer holidays at Vance Camp in his high-tech headquarters. Marie can hardly believe that her robot project has won her a place among thirty other mega-bright young scientists and the theme of the camp is to be robotics. Perfect.

There she and the other campers get the opportunity to attend tutorials and workshops given by the world’s top scientists, test some incredible gadgets and to build robot entries for the competition, the winner being given a year’s apprenticeship and an all expenses paid trip to the world’s biggest tech fair.

Something’s not quite right though. First there’s Marie’s roommate who is very standoffish and then it appears that somebody is sabotaging the campers’ robots. Vance had told Marie when she arrived that there was a spy in the camp but who could it be?

Next comes talk of a computer virus that will create havoc the world over. Competition or no competition, Marie decides that teamwork is key if they are to outwit the culprit and prevent a catastrophic outcome. No pressure then …

A gripping story that will keep readers guessing almost to the big reveal.

Cookie and the Most Annoying Girl in the World
Konnie Huq
Piccadilly Press

Cookie returns and now, as she celebrates her tenth birthday, she finds herself having to cope with the world’s most annoying girl, Suzie Ashby.

Disappointed in discovering that Suzie is holding her birthday party on the day of Cookie’s actual double figures birthday, the day she intended to hold her own party, and even worse, that she is inviting everyone in the class, is only the start of Cookie’s problems.

Next she discovers that her own mum has already committed them to spend the day at Uncle Mehdi’s house for a family reunion making matters worse. Plus, instead of the bike she really, really wants from her mum and dad, all she gets is a token for £25 for the local bike shop.

But then she’s given two tickets to see popstar, Aliana Tiny: perhaps things will start looking up after all.

Or perhaps not: enter Mrs Edmonds, supply teacher, who seems intent on dishing out detentions to Cookie and her pals – except that they’re not really all her pals right then for she’s managed to fall out with both her besties Keziah and Jake.

Then said teacher starts a misleadingly titled club that isn’t at all what Cookie et al. are anticipating. Turns out though that, ex army Mrs E. isn’t quite as awful as they’d first thought, especially as she organises a weekend camping trip; and pretty eventful that proves to be.

But can Cookie manage to win back Jake and Keziah, save the planet and get that much longed-for bike? Now telling would be story-spoiling so I’ll say no more other than there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in this enormously appealing sequel throughout which Konnie Huq has liberally strewn hilarious drawings to accompany Cookie’s narrative.

Return to Roar / A Most Improper Magick

Return to Roar
Jenny McLachlan, illustrated by Ben Mantle
Egmont

It’s half term; Rose and narrator Arthur are excited to enter the folded-up camp bed portal in Grandad’s attic that takes them back to the Land of Roar.

Their first stop is to see Win, a wizard ninja whose wizarding skills leave something to be desired. Rose leaves the two boys together and aback a dragon, heads off to look for her merwitch friend Mitch.

She has no success and returns bringing Mitch’s spell book and tattoo kit.

During the night Arthur is woken by a rather sinister presence and hears a whisper asking, ‘Arthur, take me to Home’ that he persuades himself is a dream. But next morning, painted on the wall outside Win’s cave in letters, still wet, he sees WHAT’S IN THE BOX?

Arthur makes an immediate link to the villainous scarecrow, Crowky and convinces the others that he must be out to find The Box (an old cardboard one containing those things the twins most fear) and thus be able to travel back through the tunnel into Grandad’s house.

There’s only one thing to do: they must find the box before Crowky and so begins their next adventure.

What a thrilling, sometimes dangerous, one it is as they encounter a number of their old friends including the Lost Girls (lovers of loom bands and rather wild). There are dragons, unicorns – some more obliging than others – pirate baboons, honey badgers, orang-utans; and eventually Mitch; plus a fair few spells, wolves and a rather unpleasant character, Hatai Skoll.

Readers will certainly feel frissons of fear at times as they become swept up in the dramatic events as they root for the children and their real friends.

Can they find the Box or will it be Crowky? Will Rose and Arthur get back to Grandad’s before their parents arrive to collect them?

Like this reviewer, young readers will find it well nigh impossible to put down this superbly written book, before they’ve discovered the answers. What a testament to the power of the imagination in children it is. Superb too are Ben Mantle’s illustrations – sometimes scary, sometimes gently humorous; and the front cover is truly powerful.

Fear not, a thrilling finale to the Roar series is promised – coming soon.

A Most Improper Magick
Stephanie Burgis, illustrated by Hannah Peck
Piccadilly Press

This reissue of the first of the ‘Improper Adventures’ of twelve-year-old narrator, Kat Stephenson is set in Regency England. It’s a blend of Jane Austin and Georgette Heyer, together with magic and adventure.

Rather than doing what proper young ladies should, Kat eschews embroidery, chops off her hair and decides to go to London. But then Kat is not an ordinary young lady: although her father is a respected clergyman, her late mother was a witch whose magical powers, her youngest daughter seems to have inherited.

Then she discovers her mother’s magic books and mirror, which is not your everyday kind of item; this golden object has powers of its own. Now for sure Kat is determined to learn how to use her magical talents for the good of her own family, no matter what her Stepmama says.

How will she deal with the decidedly sinister Sir Neville, her elder sister’s intended fiancé, as well as her other sister Angeline with her own style of witchiness, not to mention a highwayman?

Can the indomitable Kat succeed in saving her entire family from ruin and win her sisters the true loves they so much desire?

Bursting with charm, mystery and humour, this tale of high drama will appeal most strongly to confident female readers around the age of its chief character.

Mermaids Rock: The Floating Forest / The Time Travel Diaries: Adventure in Athens

Mermaids Rock: The Floating Forest
Linda Chapman, illustrated by Mirelle Ortega
Little Tiger

This is the second title in Linda Chapman’s Mermaids Rock series featuring some animal-loving mer friends. They have formed their own special Save the Sea Creatures Club, their aim being to come to the aid of animals in trouble.

As the story starts Coralie and Dash enter a whirlpool and find themselves in a wonderful forest with sea lions. Therein Coralie discovers among the fronds a bottle containing what looks like a rolled up message.

On returning to her friends she learns from Marina (whose dad is a marine scientist) that the place she’s just visited is a kelp forest. The others are eager to see it too so they schedule a visit the following day.

In the meantime Naya manages to open the bottle; inside is a map with a rhyming message.

Next day with 4 clues to solve, operation treasure hunt begins.

But one of their classmates, the sneaky Glenda is determined to find out what the others are up to and starts watching their every move.

The following week when the club members return to their search they discover that the kelp forest has been destroyed leaving the animals unprotected and in great danger.

Saving them becomes much more important than the treasure hunt but can they do it before it’s too late?

Mirelle Ortega’s expressive illustrations add further interest to the narrative and help break up the text for newly independent readers.

After the story are pages with information about the kelp forests and the animals living there, as well as some marine-related jokes.

A tale that’s ideal for young nature-lovers and environmentalists who like their adventures bubbling with mermaid magic.

For slightly older readers, also the second in a series:

The Time Travel Diaries: Adventure in Athens
Caroline Lawrence
Piccadilly Press

With her outstanding, expert knowledge of classical history and superb storytelling skill, Caroline Lawrence immerses readers in ancient Athens circa 400BCE when her heroes Alex and Dinu, on a luxury holiday in Athens, time travel – at the behest of Solomon Daisy – to the time of Socrates. Unbeknown to the boys, Dinu’s younger sister has followed them through the time-travel portal and is also swept up in the adventure.

It’s no time at all before having arrived at the Temple of Athena, Alex and Dinu are taken by the Scythian archers – the equivalent of the police in ancient Athens.

As with the previous book, the story is pacey, gripping and rich in historical detail.

Here’s what Daniel (nearly 11) thought:
‘This book was action-packed and a great read. The plot involves a group of characters who travel back in time in search of Socrates, the wisest man in the world. The main characters are really interesting because of their individual personalities.
Through their journey we learn about an ancient time and some historical dates. My favourite part is when the main characters go inside a public house and they play music through holes in a bone.
Overall I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it to 9-11 year olds.

The Boy Who Dreamed of Dragons

The Boy Who Dreamed of Dragons
Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Piccadilly Press

Dragon dreamer Tomas is back for a fourth tale. Now his special dragon Flicker has gone to live in his true dragon home in the frosty North and only comes on occasional short visits but the dragon-fruit tree in Grandad’s garden has just produced a bumper crop of fruits and that means more potential dragon adventures.

As this story starts Tomas and another of the superhero squad, Ted, discover an unhatched fruit on the ground that narrowly escapes being squashed to oblivion.

When it eventually hatches, a tiny sky blue and silver creature suddenly whizzes into action appearing to be super-charged as it zizzes about like there’s no tomorrow. There is of course, and one of the things Tomas must do is to nurture all those little dragon-fruit seedlings to keep alive the hope of another dragon-fruit tree that actually grows dragons.

Before long it’s evident that the recently hatched, havoc wreaking blue dragon has taken a liking to Tomas and is sticking with him.  Little sister Lolli, aptly names the creature Zing.

Not only has Tomas to contend with Zing, there’s also the question of his own dragon costume for the school dress up day and then a new girl shows up wearing an absolutely amazing one.

To further add to his troubles, two of the squad, twins Kat and Kai announce that they’re shortly moving to China and next day Aura claims to ‘know all there is to know about dragons.’
Her claim soon leads to an explosive outburst from Tomas.

This results in the revelation of a secret he’d intended to keep quiet about, the details of which I won’t divulge. Instead I’ll mention that streams of sweet-scented farts and a fair spattering of poo are part and parcel of subsequent events.

Like the previous adventures, this is a delightful mix of zany humour, warmth, mayhem, touches of magic and more. Once again Sara Ogilvie’s wonderful illustrations add to the book’s appeal and another good thing: by all accounts, the series isn’t over yet.

Hotel Flamingo: Fabulous Feast

Hotel Flamingo: Fabulous Feast
Alex Milway
Piccadilly Press

It’s always a huge treat to pay a visit to Animal Boulevard’s  Flamingo Hotel where now as winter recedes Anna and T. Bear are outside enjoying themselves while hoping that business will pick up after a slack period.

Suddenly into their midst from high above crashes their first new season guest in the form of a stunt pigeon named Alfonso Fastbeak.

Over a warming cocoa in the lobby Alfonso explains that he was working on his routine for a forthcoming record-breaking attempt when things went a little awry. Hence his unexpected mode of arrival.

Mightily impressed by the hotel, Alfonso decides to book a room for the duration of his recuperation and this prompts Anna to realise something needs to be done to improve business – something like a ‘Battle of the Chefs’ competition. Their very own chef Madame Le Pig is the greatest chef in town; they just need to prove her superiority over the chefs of rival establishments.

Ever the grumpy one, Madame Le Pig needs a bit of persuasion but having won her round, Anna and T.Bear set about the task of getting Peston Crumbletart and Laurence Toot-Toot on board too.

Meanwhile Ms Frangipani is enlisted to facilitate the recovery of Alfonso

and T. Bear finds a judge for the cooking competition.

As news of the event with its promised accompanying feast spreads, room bookings rise rapidly and pretty soon guests start showing up.

A pretty demanding lot they prove to be too. There’s Norman and Petal Horntop intent on sampling all the regional grasses, not to mention octopus Simon Suckerlot who insists on having a constant supply of brine. But even the most exacting guests must have their needs attended to, even if that means getting rid of any cowpats that appear on the carpets at the most inopportune moments

and procuring large amounts of precious sea salt from the kitchen.

When the competition eventually gets underway, things get pretty tense especially when Madame Le Pig gets an attack of stage-fright.

But who will be declared the final winner? And what of guest Alfonso: he too needs to summon up all his confidence for his big day.

Camaraderie, determination and self-belief are key in this deliciously offbeat drama. Add to the mix a generous garnishing of Alex’s brilliantly expressive two colour illustrations (20 with bees hiding in plain sight to find) and the result is a mouth-watering read that’s sure to satisfy young readers.

Eating Chips With Monkey / Super Stan

Eating Chips With Monkey
Mark Lowery
Piccadilly Press

Ten-year-old Daniel absolutely loves fish and chips, almost as much as he loves his soft toy Monkey; and when the two are part and parcel of the same experience – like his family’s annual Chip Shop Championships, then things really can’t get much better.

They can however get a whole lot worse for during a trip to find the winning chip shop one November day, the lives of Daniel and his family are shattered by a terrible accident when the boy rushes out of the shop straight into the road.

Following his accident Daniel becomes withdrawn while members of his family struggle to cope with the accident’s impact on their own lives.

Then Dad decides to stage a kidnap or as he put it ‘just borrow’ the entire family and redo the Chip Shop Championships mentioned in Daniel’s notebook and in an effort to stimulate the boy’s senses revisit the five contenders. That entails driving all over the country from Norfolk to Bedfordshire, to Yorkshire and thence to Camden Town and finally King’s Cross.

Mark Lowery has created a story that is highly affecting and also funny – think chip-guzzling giraffe, Grandma ‘seizing the day’ with a Major, and designer food. His characterisation of all family members is such that each one truly comes to life on the page, while the portrayal of Daniel (who has autism) is empathetic and might surprise readers who have little of no experience of what this might mean in terms of behaviours.

No matter which way you like your chips served, you cannot but be swept up in this highly unusual family drama.

Super Stan
Elaine Wickson, illustrated by Chris Judge
Oxford University Press

This is the third episode in the life of Stan. All the space enthusiast boy wants to do is to be left in peace so he can watch the total solar eclipse that’s coming up soon but his younger brother Fred has a much more important mission that threatens to eclipse any plans that big bro. might have for the near future.

Fred has donned an eco-warrior hat and is determined to solve the plastic pollution crisis. Moreover he wants everyone else to get involved too.

Add to that Gran’s big announcement regarding her and a certain salsa instructor as well as a certain umbraphile named Roberta Macklin who Stan is determined to meet.

And what’s all that about a certain King prawn vandalising the local supermarket?

Readers will be amazed at how all these threads are woven so neatly together by the author in such a highly entertaining manner; not only that, for Chris Judge’s inventive infographics

are an integral part of this SUPERb adventure that is once again much more than the SUM of all its parts.

Go Stan, go! and, go Fred go! The planet needs you both.