Matilda Meets the Universe

Matilda Meets the Universe
Dom Conlon, illustrated by Heidi Cannon
uclan publishing

The ambitious Matilda returns, as effervescent as ever, and again she will impress readers with her intelligence, confidence and skill at providing in-depth expositions of scientific subjects.

Penned in the form of an interior monologue notebook, Matilda sets out to discover whether life exists on other planets. ‘… finding alien life is going to be difficult. Finding out HOW difficult is what I’m ALL about though so BRING.IT.ON.’ she writes, going on to tell us that one reason for keeping her journal is that it helps her get things straight in her head. So true.

She writes about topics such as the Big Bang, the electromagnetic spectrum and ways of communication, mentioning ground breaking work of such scientists as Georges Lemaître, James Clerk Maxwell, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Sir William Herschel, Frank Drake and his equation (new to me) and Albert Einstein. I love the way she talks about the Goldilocks Zone.

Helping Matilda in her research are members of her family – her dad, mum,

younger brother and her friend Kareem, not to mention a lot of snacks of various kinds. However possibly THE most important thing she learns is much closer to home, something about herself and the way she has been treating her little brother: ‘I need to stop calling him my little brother or HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED. He is called Harry and I realise that when he’s hanging around, he’s only trying to learn how to communicate with me. … I need to learn how to listen. Then moving out from that ‘I’m looking around this little planet of ours and wondering if we couldn’t all benefit from learning to talk to one another in a better way.’ Wise words indeed. As is her decision to make the most of all the experiences earth has to offer.

It’s amazing how much information is packed into the pages of this book but Matilda has an infectious enthusiasm for her explorations and humour permeates her writing, helping to make it more accessible. So too do Heidi Cannon’s illustrations and diagrams, which appear at every turn of the page. There’s also a glossary at the end.

Highly recommended for curious children whether or not they have a special interest in STEM subjects.

My Brother George

My Brother George
Kelly & Zoe Allen and Tara O’Brien
uclan publishing

The creators of My Momma Zo, LGBTQ+ parents Kelly and Zoey Allen and illustrator Tara O’Brien, have collaborated on a new picture book about having the courage to be different.

Molly acts as the narrator and tells how her slightly older brother, whom she dearly loves, has long hair that confuses some people; they think he’s a girl and thus her sister.

Molly now feels sufficiently confident to stick up for George, pointing out that he’s her brother. This receives mixed results and one woman’s comment about him being ‘too pretty to be a boy’ angers Molly, who for once is unable to find the right words to respond.

Hurrah for George though: he replies thus, “I think you should get to know someone before finding out their gender.” and ever since her brother has gained more confidence. He plays with dolls, borrows his sister’s clothes, enjoys baking and is a fan of zombies; he also is an expert at nail adornment.

Despite still getting called a girl and being the source of amusement at times, he knows everything he does is just part of being true to himself and so he endeavours to help others understand, often under the watchful eye of Molly who is always there for him should she be needed.

Stylishly illustrated in bright colours by Tara O’Brien and frankly told in a heartfelt manner by Kelly and Zoe Allen, this is another empowering story that encourages everyone to be who they truly are, and to feel confident and comfortable in themselves. With too many adults quick to be judgemental about those they perceive to be different, we need this book and more similar ones in primary classrooms, libraries and homes.

The Octopus, Dadu and Me

The Octopus, Dadu and Me
Lucy Ann Unwin, illustrated by Lucy Mulligan
uclan publishing

Twelve year old Sashi’s Dadu (grandfather) has dementia and it’s getting worse. He becomes agitated suddenly, sometimes violent, and now doesn’t recognise his family. So, after a very difficult visit to the care home where he lives, Sashi’s Dad has come to a decision: no more visiting.

Sashi is devastated and her relationship with her Mum and Dad becomes increasingly strained: They just don’t seem to understand how she feels or even want to listen to her. Surely they realise what a very special bond she and Dadu (an erstwhile engineer) have built up over the years: how can they not see this decision as a betrayal of that loving relationship, Sashi wonders.

Endeavouring to make her feel better, her parents take Sashi to the local aquarium and there she encounters Ian, an octopus. Like her Dadu, Ian seems trapped in the wrong place, She decides the creature is indicating to her that it wants to be set free. She begins to channel all her feelings into planning so to do and she enlists the help of two really good friends, Hassan and Darcie.

This compassionate debut story shows a girl using her creativity and imagination to help her process her feelings about Dadu

and her character feels totally credible.

Lucy Mulligan’s black and white illustrations capture Sashi’s creativity in drawings of some of her comic strips and other art.
Prepare to be engulfed by the tentacles of this book from the outset and have a box of tissues at the ready as you read.

We Disagree About This Tree / The Big Christmas Bake / A Family Christmas

We Disagree About This Tree
Ross Collins
Nosy Crow

The duo from There’s a Bear on My Chair are back and as usual they are disagreeing: why break an established habit just because it’s the festive season?

Mouse is excited when Bear bursts through their front door clutching a large Christmas tree and urges him to relax and leave the adorning to him. Inevitably Bear soon begins making disparaging comments about Mouse’s efforts and this precipitates back and forth critical animosity, culminating in tree overload

and disaster. However, not everything is a cause for contention thanks to two neatly wrapped packages waiting to be opened. Have the two bickerers finally found a way to share a Merry Christmas?

The interplay between Ross Collins’ sparkling verse telling together and his superbly expressive illustrations that are simply bursting with humour, is wonderfully done and will appeal to both young listeners and adult readers aloud.

The Big Christmas Bake
Fiona Barker and Pippa Curnick
Happy Yak

Author Fiona and illustrator Pippa cook up a wonderful festive tale based on the structural rhythm of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas.

On the first day of Christmas two children head to the kitchen and begin to make a Twelfth Night cake. The list of ingredients is long and they wonder where everything will come from. Happily however, day after day for the next eleven days animal friends of all shapes and sizes show up bringing in turn, dried fruit, flour, sugar, candied peel, eggs, spices

and all the other things needed, until on day ten, ten lords come leaping in ready to carry the cake to the stove for baking. All that’s left then is the piping pipers to show up on the eleventh day to add the finishing touches so that come Twelfth Night, the most incredible confection is set on the table ready for every single one of the contributors to enjoy. I wonder who finds the bean that was hidden in the mix …

A tasty treat indeed and don’t forget to check out the recipe after the story.

A Family Christmas
Alana Washington and Emily Nash
uclan publishing

With echoes of Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas Alana Washington relates the events of a family’s Christmas day. There’s excitement about the arrival of guests and a kitchen of hot chocolate drinkers with cousins squeezing close together clutching their mugs.

Then at dinner time, dish after dish of delicious food is served up, an unexpected visitor turns up and when everyone is bursting with extra helpings of pudding, it’s time for a toast to the host.
In order to work off some of that food, family members go for a walk, followed by further indoor festivities: dancing and games, singing and the playful adornment of those who take a snooze.
With the washing up duly done, it’s present time at last. Darkness comes all too soon and some of the family must head for home, but there’s one final treat still to come: something big and extra bright high up in the sky. What better way to end the day than by sharing a special story and watching a sprinkling of snow fall before snuggling down in bed after a perfect family celebration.

With joyful scenes of togetherness, Emily Nash’s gently humorous art captures so well that magical feeling of the festive season described in the author’s text.

Stand and Deliver!

Stand and Deliver!
Philip Caveney

Having worked for most of my teaching career in the London Borough of Hounslow, close to Hounslow Heath, for 100 years between the 17th and 18th centuries, the most dangerous place in England on account of highwaymen, I was drawn to this story and quickly found myself gripped.

A victim of these times and of circumstance is young Ned. Awkward, shy and trying his best to find where he fits in the world, the lad has become unpaid assistant to The Shadow, the nation’s most feared highwayman aka Tom Gregory. Living in Epping Forest, The Shadow identifies himself with Robin Hood, robbing only the rich that cross his path as he proudly informs Ned, although conveniently, he ignores the part about giving to the poor and relies on his apprentice for assistance to avoid being sent to the gallows for his crimes.

Ned longs to be an apprentice carpenter but is too scared to run away from Tom Gregory in case he should end up in the workhouse. Instead he is pulled into a life of risky adventure and when Tom is injured, the lad finds himself taking over his master’s role and even briefly, his identity. Then he happens upon the infamous Bloodstone of Jaipur, a jewel said to be cursed and resulting in the death of every man who ever laid hands upon it. This jewel forces Ned to make a vital choice.

The tension builds as Ned makes new friends and some enemies too. The former include Eliza, bold determined daughter of thief-taker, William Parbold. While Parbold believes Eliza should be spending her time preparing to become a fine lady and thence wife to a good husband, she is determined to work alongside her father in a role that society at that time deemed totally unsuitable for a young woman.

As the tale twists and turns there’s plenty of excitement, daring deeds and some very scary episodes too, before this wonderful romp comes to a satisfying close.

The Bear and her Book: There’s More to See

The Bear and her Book: There’s More to See
Frances Tosdevin and Sophia O’Connor

The big brown ursine bibliophile with an enormous heart returns and despite being snuggled up cosily one warm winter’s night, she feels that urge to explore. It’s prompted by a white, book-less bear looking lonely and downhearted in a picture in her Book of Being Wise. She packs her book and sallies forth, first aboard a fishing boat and then an ice floe. Soon she encounters a kindly whale who points her in the right direction but mentions a blocked up spout. Fortunately Bear’s book has the remedy and having helped the whale, receiving a “Yay” … “my blowhole’s mended. Thank you so much, my spouting’s splendid!” off she goes again.

On land as she walks across the snowy Arctic terrain, Bear meets first a moose and then a muskox, both of whom she helps, as is her way;

and then again repeating the words, “I’m a curious bear who must explore / The world is big and there’s more to see, / And I’ll find this bear who is not like me.” she proceeds on her way, eventually stumbling into an icy sleep.

On waking she repeats her refrain once more and there before her stands the object of her search, sobbing gently and speaking of wanting “A great big book – with lots of pages”.

I suspect readers can guess what happens next, but perhaps not how this tale of friendship concludes …
Despite the chilly setting of most of this rhyming story, Sophia O’Connor’s illustrations give you a warm glow inside as you read Frances Tosdevin’s lyrical narrative of the tender-hearted Bear with a desire to do good. I hope to see lots more of this character and her passion for exploration.