Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe / Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day

Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe
Martin Howard, illustrated by Chris Mould
Oxford University Press

Holidays may seem like a distant dream at the present time but there’s no harm in looking forward and we all need something to keep us cheerful. This second Alfie Fleet story will certainly do just that and perhaps keep holiday dreams alive too.

If you’ve not encountered Alfie before, he has sandy coloured hair and awkward knees. In this adventure he and Professor Pewsley Bowell-Mouvemont are soon to open their enterprise the Unusual Travel Agency and are compiling the final few entries to the Guide to the Universe.

Pretty soon though, the two find themselves in trouble as they drop in on other planets that turn out to be anything but welcoming to the visitors.

In addition there’s that motley crew, members of the Unusual Cartography Club with their thoroughly nasty leader, Sir Willikin Nanbiter who is determined to sabotage the Unusual Travel Agency, to deal with.

A brief review cannot do justice to this utterly crazy, twisting-turning story with its wealth of Chris Mould’s brilliant illustrations portraying the fantastical cast of characters;

let’s just say that with its weird words and toilet humour and more, this is a total hoot from beginning to end. Just give it to children who have a particular penchant for unlikely quests and stand well back.

Now I’m off to try that ‘Stuttering Ferret’ pose at Guru Wobbli Rubbalegs Bindobendi yoga retreat way off on Planet Baldy and leave readers to discover for themselves whether Alfie finally succeeds in finding all those whom he seeks and bringing love and peace – well maybe just peace, to the universe.

Also full of fantastic characters but of a rather different kind is:

Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day
Dominique Valente, illustrated by Sarah Warburton
Harper Collins Children’s Books

With her second adventure just published it’s time to get acquainted with Willow Moss. Young Willow comes from a family with magical powers. She too has a special power but hers is less impressive-seeming than other family members. Willow, has the power to find lost things.

Then the scariest, most powerful witch in the whole of Starfell appears on the scene and changes things, for none other than Moreg Vaine has chosen Willow to help in a crucial search,

Apparently last Tuesday has disappeared– nobody remembers a thing about it – and almost unbelievably Moreg needs the talents of a finder like her. How on earth can she possibly manage such a thing, especially as failure to track down and return Tuesday to the place it belongs, could have catastrophic consequences for the entire world?

Really, Willow has little choice but to get on board (rather broomstick) and accept the mission. If truth be told though she’s long harboured a desire for a bit of excitement, so it’s bag packed and off they go (accompanied – in Willow’s bag – by lie-detecting cat-like kobold Oswin, Willow’s only friend).

Magical writing of a magical tale – Dominique Valente’s debut has everything younger fantasy lovers could want: humour, fabulous characters including a dragon with an empty egg and trolls, plus there’s a portal cloak (Moreg’s), a splendid compass-like device that can act as guide when tricky moments present themselves and much, much more.. In particular, the wonderful Willow herself – resourceful and determined and lacking in self-belief. And yes, she does finally discover what happened to that lost Tuesday.

The potency of all this textual magic is further strengthened thanks to Sarah Warburton’s cracking illustrations.

This reviewer can’t wait to read more of Willow, and I’m certain that will be the response from youngsters too.

The Princess and the Shoe

The Princess and the Shoe
Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton
Nosy Crow

Young Princess Jasmine, hater of fancy frills and beribboned gowns has much better things to do than think about dancing with a prince, let alone getting one to kiss her. She’d far rather run about playing on the green with the other children, so when she spies a poster announcing a cross country race scheduled for the following Sunday, she’s determined to enter.

First though, she has to practise, which proves something of a challenge, especially as she ends up waist deep in muck.

And then she discovers that the date of the race clashes with her Big Birthday Ball.

It’s a rather downcast young Jasmine who sits in her window that night contemplating her lot. Suddenly out of the darkness there appears …

The tiny being offers to grant young Jasmine her wish and with a swish of her wand she produces some super go-fast shoes, saying that the magic runs out at midday.

On race day, Jasmine is ready at the starting line and sets off confidently, looking as though she’ll easily finish in time to get to the ball. But then as she’s crossing a sticky, muddy patch disaster strikes and one of her shoes is washed away down the stream.

Does the princess give up in despair: oh no she doesn’t. On she strides wearing just one red trainer gaining speed all the time …

Guess who makes it first through the finishing tape where a welcome party awaits.

Was her win due to those magic trainers or could it have been Jasmine’s self-belief and determination?

As always Caryl’s faultless rhyming narrative slides off the tongue making it a joy to read aloud, while Sarah’s scenes are sheer delight, brilliantly expressive and full of sparkle without the need for any added glitter or foil adornment.

A deliciously different Cinderella tale.

Peter Pan

Peter Pan
J.M.Barrie, Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton
Nosy Crow

Caryl Hart retells in rhyme, the ever-popular J.M. Barrie classic Peter Pan, the boy who wanted never to grow up, making it a truly magical experience for children long before they’re able to read the original for themselves.

And to keep up the rhyme so superbly well making it easy on the ear and a pleasure to read aloud – all seventy odd pages of it – is something of a mammoth achievement.

Right from the gorgeous silver embossed cover you know this book is going to be something special and Caryl’s wonderful telling in combination with Sarah’s gorgeous, brilliantly expressive illustrations make it truly that. The characterisation is terrific and every scene worth lingering over.

“Second to the right!” they cried. “Then straight on until morning!” If you start reading this with a child at bedtime, you may well find that enchantment prevails and straight on till morning is exactly what happens.

I love everything about this book and what a smashing present it would make this Christmas season.

Three Pirate Tales

There appears to be a plethora of pirate picture books at present: these three arrived in a single postal delivery:

The Treasure of Pirate Frank
Mal Peet, Elspeth Graham and Jez Tuya
Nosy Crow
Taking the rhythmic pattern of the nursery rhyme The House that Jack Built, the authors have woven a lovely lilting tale of a young boy set on discovering the hiding place of Pirate Frank’s treasure.
He has a map so show him the way, a trusty ship in which to sail,
To the island with spices and gold and tall mountains all snowy and cold,
On which is a forest with monkeys bold, and a swamp with lilypads topped with frogs.

He must beware of the volcano, spitting out fire,
As he ascends the steps going higher and higher;
then crosses the bridge to the tall palm tree; there to behold – my goodness me!
Who’s this standing atop that chest?

It seems there’s only one thing to do. What would that be if the boy was you?
Jez Tuya’s imaginative perspectives and creature crammed spreads are worth revisiting once the treasure has been found and the tale completed.

Pirates in the Supermarket
Timothy Knapman and Sarah Warburton
Scholastic Children’s Books
First there were Dinosaurs in the Supermarket; now the place is beset with pirates hell-bent on creating mischief and mayhem among the groceries as unsuspecting shoppers go about the task of filling their trolleys with goodies. They leave plenty of clues but nobody save one small boy is aware of the piles of rubble appearing in the aisles,

the cannon-wielding gang on the rampage, or the piratical accoutrements appearing around the store. Fortunately for all concerned just when it seems things might be getting somewhat out of hand, the aforementioned boy springs into action and before you can say, ‘shiver me timbers’ he has things under control – well and truly so methinks …

Which all goes to show that you need to keep your eyes wide open whenever you embark on a supermarket shop; you never know who might be lurking …
Fun, fast and full of crazy characters, oh and the odd observant one too.; and they’re all colourfully portrayed in Sarah Warburton’s comedic supermarket scenes. What more can a swashbuckling child ask?

Pete’s Magic Pants: Pirate Peril
Paddy Kempshall and Chris Chatterton
Egmont
Another pair of Pete’s snazzy magic pants come out of the suitcase for a wearing – pirate’s stripy ones in this instance – and before you can say ‘Avast’, with a wiggle and a wobble, the lad is off on the high seas aboard the Flying Fowl with Cap’n Ted and his trusty, clucking crew. They’re on the trail of Long John Silverside the most feared buccaneer on the high seas; he who has seized the treasure rightfully belonging, so we’re told to Cap’n Ted and his pals.
Can they escape the jaws of the sharks and the clutches of the soggy-suckered octopus, find their way to where the treasure is stashed and then get past the loutish-looking Long John himself?

Perhaps – with the help of Pete’s brain and the odd touch of brawn thereafter.
Fans of Pete’s previous adventure will welcome this second tale, which is pacey, pant-revealing and full of high drama and I suspect it will capture some new pants followers too.

I’ve signed the charter  

The Princess and the Christmas Rescue

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The Princess and the Christmas Rescue
Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton
Nosy Crow
On top of the world where the icy winds blow,
A beautiful palace grows out of the snow.

This palace is home to Princess Eliza, a bright child with a passion for making things of a technological nature, though not for making friends, largely because she never sets foot outside the palace walls.
One day as she stands gazing out across the valley after abortive friend-making efforts within, she sees some smoke and decides to follow it and discover its source. Off she goes into the forest and is soon lost. What should loom up out of the snowy mist but a friendly reindeer who offers to take her to a place of safety.

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This turns out to be Santa’s Workshop where she discovers that the elves are in desperate need of some assistance and before long Eliza has set herself to work designing and creating some new machines.

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Can the problem-solving princess and her inventions speed things up sufficiently; and will she succeed in her friend-finding quest?
Just the thing for sharing at the start of the build-up to Christmas: this rhyming tale reads aloud beautifully. Children will doubtless enjoy the fact that Eliza’s kindness and problem-solving skills are both rewarding and rewarded.

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Sarah Warburton’s North Pole scenes are full of humour, wonderful details and seasonal warmth; and those elves with their crazy headgear are terrific fun.

Twinkle Tames a Dragon/Mamasaurus

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Twinkle Tames a Dragon
Katharine Holabird and Sarah Warburton
Hodder Children’s Books
In this, the third story of friendship, fun, frolics and all things fairy, young Twinkle has a yearning for a pet as do her pals Pippa and Lulu. Her wishing song is heard by the Fairy Godmother who duly grants each one a wish. Pippa’s pet is a butterfly; Lulu gets a ladybird and Twinkle? The ‘sweet little pet’ she’d anticipated turns out to be anything but cute and fluffy, rather it’s scaly, decidedly boisterous …

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and in need of a rather drastic training regime – Dragon Obedience Class no less. But can she tame him in time for that Fairy Pet Day her godmother had mentioned?
The day of the show dawns and Scruffy has certainly scrubbed up well; in fact he looks pretty darn cute, but winning a prize?

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He definitely isn’t the prettiest pet: Pippa’s butterfly wins that award and Lulu’s ladybird is the cleverest trickster but what about the best-trained pet? No chance surely; or maybe, just maybe …

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I know quite a few under sixes who will love this book though I have to admit they’re all female. Sarah Warburton’s illustrations are just quirky enough to be cute but not sugary sweet; they’re full of zany details that will delight adult readers aloud as well as young children – look at the expressions on the faces of those animals here …

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Don’t forget to have a good look at the endpapers too; you’ll find all the animal characters there.

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Mamasaurus
Stephan Lomp,
Chronicle Books
When Babysaurus accidentally loses his grip on Mamasaurus’s spine he’s launched into space

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and then finds himself in a heap of leaves but with no sign of his parent. So there’s nothing for it but to wander about in the jungle asking its other inhabitants if they’ve seen her. However, each one he asks only sees Mamasaurus with characteristics of their own parent. But she can’t run like the wind, doesn’t have a long horn, nor wings to fly as high as the sun,

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she’s much larger than tiny Hespero’s mama and she definitely doesn’t have the sharp teeth that Rexy’s mama has.

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Where, oh where is Babysaurus’s mama? I wonder what that loud noise might be …
The luminous colours of the various prehistoric creatures set against the black background really make the images stand out in Lomp’s striking brush pen and photoshop illustrations. The storyline reminds me somewhat of P.D.Eastman’s’ classic Are You My Mother but the visuals are altogether different.

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Up the Beanstalk

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The Princess and the Giant
Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton
Nosy Crow pbk
I love pretty much everything about this book but then I’m a real sucker for fairy tale spin offs or anything that promotes books and the enjoyment of reading. This one offers both. And, I’ve so much enjoyed every occasion when I’ve shared it with children; it’s a real treat to read aloud both for audience and adult reader – this one certainly.
The tale centres around Princess Sophie whose dwelling is a tiny house, her companions a tabby cat servant and a mouse butler, in addition to her parents that is:
Her father made the porridge
And her mother chopped the wood,’ (love that)

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Life should have been pretty peachy for our heroine who is free to ride her bike at will but every night the pesky giant who lives atop the magic beanstalk in the yard kept her whole family awake with his stamping and stomping.
So after a series of intolerably sleepless nights Princess Sophie stows various items in her backpack, scales the beanstalk’s dizzying heights and visits the giant. However, her sleep-inducing supper fails to produce the desired result and so she makes a second attempt –
also story inspired –

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but the noise only gets worse. Undaunted, Sophie keeps on visiting and trying until she hits upon a solution and guess what? It’s a bedtime story and the giant isn’t the only one she manages to send off to sleep with her once upon a time …

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A celebration is announced, though that’s not quite the end of this delicious tale. However I don’t want to spoil that, so let’s just say that Sophie has some nifty teaching, not to mention line walking still to do before she and her large new friend can live ‘Happily Ever After.’
Gorgeous illustrations absolutely packed with delicious details , and superb storytelling – what more can one want?

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Jack and the Beanstalk
Kathleen Lines and Harold Jones
Oxford University Press pbk
This is a classy classic collection of some of the best loved traditional tales retold by a great storyteller in a direct manner as befits the oral tradition, and illustrated by Harold Jones whose distinctive, wonderfully composed watercolour paintings are now so gloriously old-fashioned.

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In addition to the title story are nine other nursery favourites including The Story of the Three Bears, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and The Story of the Three Little Pigs.
It’s hard to believe this book was first published about fifty-five years ago. It was considered a treasure then and should be a treasure now.

In contrast, a thoroughly modern take on the traditional story is now out in paperback; it’s one I reviewed last year when it came out in hardback:

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Jack and the Jelly Bean Stalk
Liz Pichon
Hodder Children’s Books pbk.

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It’s Time for Bed

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Max and the Won’t Go To Bed Show
Mark Sperring and Sarah Warburton
Harper Collins pbk
Take your seats for a star-spangled performance by young Max who is giving a presentation of his world famous, death-defying PUTTING OFF BEDTIME FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE SHOW. Drum roll. Said show comprises a handful of amazing feats, trick one being a disappearing act. No not Max but a cup of milk and a cookie v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y,

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followed by the second trick – the taming of a savage beast (aka Brian the family dog).
Oops! Whose is that hand pulling our young magician up the stairs? Quick! Another trick is called for – THE GREAT DISAPPEARING BOY TRICK. But where has our star gone?

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Applause called for here…
Hastily followed by trick number four: the FLOATING PYJAMA TRICK (possibly thirty minutes worth of entertainment here). Not tonight maybe. Don’t leave yet though: Max still has more magic up his sleeve, or rather … under the bed, within the wardrobe… inside the toy box.
Before attempting his grand finale – daring to demand not one but ten bedtime stories (huge round of applause for this one I suggest) – he gets two and then … yawn… curtains, lights dimmed… good night everyone.
This book requires not so much a reading more a performance (with numerous curtain calls and encores I suspect). It’s cleverly constructed, beautifully controlled (with additional manipulation of the text through the use of various fonts and integration of words and pictures)

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and bursting with energy and humour. The illustrations too abound with energy and humour: despite his diminutive stature Max is certainly a larger than life character portrayed as a cute cuddlesome infant, albeit a supercharged one. In contrast, all we see of his parents are the occasional limbs helping their offspring on his way to the inevitable.

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It’s clear that Sarah Warburton greatly enjoyed herself, playing to the gallery by appropriately patterning various items of clothing, furniture and bedding, not to mention the wallpaper and more.

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A double act winner delivered with panache and pizzazz.
For bedtime reading? Well, that all depends …

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Harry and the Monster
Sue Mongredien and Nick East
Little Tiger Press pbk
A scary monster invades Harry’s dream one night. The following night he’s reluctant to go to bed in case it makes a return visit. “Try imagining him with a pair of pink pants on his head,” suggests Mum. The monster returns, Harry imagines;

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the monster is furious frightening Harry once again. The jelly plan – Dad’s this time – for Wednesday has a similar effect, so does Mum’s monster tickling plan on Thursday; in fact that only inflames the monster’s temper more. So what about Dad’s plan for Friday night? Perhaps even scary monsters are scared of furious mums …
With a not-too-scary monster, repetition and suspense, together with funny illustrations,

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take for instance a jelly-spattered monster, or one with prickles in his bottom and sporting Christmas tree decorations, this is one to make small children giggle at bedtime or any time.

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Funky Fairy Tale Flights of Fancy

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Hector and the Big Bad Knight
Alex T. Smith
Scholastic Children’s Books pbk
It’s a case of little versus large in this wacky tale of derring-do and dastardly deeds in the peaceful, bunting-festooned haven of Spottybottom village. Peaceful that is, until Hector’s Granny’s magic wand is stolen by none other than the Big Bad Knight. (BBK hereafter) “You’ll never catch me,” laughs the boastful Knight as he gallops away on his trusty steed. Hector has a plan however, and is determined to prove him wrong, much to the amusement of the villagers. ”You?” they giggled, “But you’re tiny and small! And your spindly arms have NO muscles at all!
Having packed a hanky full of useful things (crisps, scissors and an umbrella) Hector, with friend Norman set out on their rescue attempt.

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Into the deep, dark forest they go whereupon, with a twirl of Granny’s wand, the BBK causes an enormous and very tall tangle of thorny weeds to spring up.
Time for Hector to put plan A into action: SNIP! SNIP! SNIP! Think again BBK.
So over the dingy moat he goes and with a twirl of Granny’s wand, the drawbridge is no more. Time for plan B Hector: boating across umbrella style.

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Up the castle tower flees the BBK – the terribly tall one hotly pursued by Hector and trusty hen, Norman. More boasting and wand waving from the BBK and his horse becomes a hungry dragon, but it’s not Hector that he has his eyes on – oh no! The BBK would make a much more satisfying meal. Quick Hector: plan C – the crisps but first, a quick grab of Granny’s wand.
Then comes a triumphant return for Hector and Norman and a less triumphant one for the BBK. But what to do with the latter, Granny wonders. Luckily Hector has yet another plan – one of the malodorous variety and thoroughly deserved by the roguish thief.

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Alex K Smith’s madcap medieval tale of magic, mayhem and more makes for a marvellous storytime read. His madcap (and occasionally menacing) illustrations, be they large or small, garishly coloured or silhouette, are magnificently mirth-making manifestations of the ridiculous.
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The Deep Dark Wood
Algy Craig Hall and Ali Pye
Orchard Books
What is that little girl thinking about going alone into the dangerous, deep, dark wood wherein all manner of nasties lurk? She certainly doesn’t know the identity of the friendly tagger-on she acquires on her way; she’s off to visit her best friend’s house for tea, she casually informs him. But then, neither does her large black companion know the identity of said best friend. On they go together, deeper into the deep dark wood till there’s a YIKES! from the little girl. She might be frightened but her companion is unperturbed. His bristling and grizzling quickly have that witch running scared. He dispenses with the smelly old troll in similar fashion with some added claws and gnaws.

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On go the sweet little girl and her “very brave” companion … The hungry giant is disposed of howlingly and growlingly and then they are at the friend’s house. Big bad wolf, mouth a-watering, cannot wait to meet her but is puzzled by her place of residence.
Time for the friend to show herself …

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Guess who’s running scared now.
With twists and turns aplenty, plus a wonderfully satisfying finale, this hilarious reworking of the old favourite is guaranteed to keep listeners on the edge of their bottoms even though they know what the large black hairy animal accompanying the little girl really wants.
It’s a real joy to read aloud and Ali Pye’s illustrations are just brilliant, adding even more to the already sublime mock scariness of the story.Don’t miss this one.
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The Princess and the Presents
Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton
Nosy Crow
With her head of wild auburn curls and fiery temper, pampered princess Ruby puts me in mind of a modern day Violet Elizabeth Bott.
As her birthday draws near, the princess’s demands are issued loud and clear and if they are not fulfilled, she’ll ‘ “scream and scream and SCREAM!” ‘

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When the presents crammed within, cause the catastrophic collapse of the castle with her most precious possession (so she thinks) crushed inside, Princess Ruby comes to her senses. All is not lost however, for what do the hard-working fire fighters discover in the rubble after hours of digging? the object of their search, safe and sound.

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Then selfishness set aside, the princess and her pater set to work to reconstruct, first a birthday and then, a new residence – just for two.
Pink? Yes. Princessy? Assuredly, but this feisty miss does finally see the error of her ways and does indeed abandon her perfect pinkishness – almost!
An up-to-date cautionary tale with a powerful punch and peachy ending.
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Jack and the Jelly Bean Stalk
Rachael Mortimer and Liz Pichon
Hodder Children’s Books
This is the third twisted traditional tale from Mortimer and Pichon and another winning, albeit slightly silly, one it is too. (I have to admit to a particular penchant for such stories though).
Jack’s mum sends him off to sell their beloved cow Daisy, which he duly does – for twenty gold coins no less. Unfortunately however, Jack cannot resist the lure of the sweetshop he passes on his way home.

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There he parts with his precious coins for an enormous bag of jelly beans with every flavor imaginable and some unimaginable ones too. Needless to say, Jack’s mum is livid, hurls his spoils outside and despatches him to bed. During the night Jack is awoken by a gloriously mouthwatering smell and discovers in his garden in the moonlight, a gigantic jelly bean stalk. Oh joy!
Off up the beanstalk he goes forthwith, coming upon a golden gate at the top. In he goes tentatively, only to be apprehended by sobbing goose with a tale of woe.

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Soon both Jack and goose are fearing for their lives, as the ground shakes and they hear
Fee-fi-fo-foy,
I smell a juicy boy!
Goose is good but boy’s so tasty,
Served with chips and wrapped
in pastry!

The quick-thinking Jack makes a deal with the giant and is soon hard at work frantically picking jelly beans. The hastily harvested jelly bean feast meets with the giant’s approval but the hungry goose cannot resist partaking of said feast – oh no! All is not lost however; the beanstalk cannot support the jellybean stuffed giant’s weight.

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CRASH! Farewell giant, hello goose and a never ending supply of jelly beans; watch out for those smelly old socks tasting ones though.
Ridiculously funny, with its slightly tongue in cheek telling and bright, appropriately garishly coloured, pictures that are perfectly in keeping with the tenor of the tale and the nature of the beanstalk’s origins. Many of the illustrations are chock full of witty, laugh-making details both visual and verbal.
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