Shetland Centaurs, frizzled pies & blunderbusses: Goth Girl

Some books look boring even before you’ve opened them. Bland covers, rubbish titles, dodgy colour schemes… Now those ones are great for swatting flies and using as table-tennis bats, don’t get me wrong, but there are some books out there that are so eye-catchingly awesome they should be framed and hung up next to the Mona Lisa. We’re talking titles that whisper with magic, illustrations that leap off the page and fonts so funky they look like they belong to some secret code. And Moontrug’s been lucky enough to stumble across one of these books recently: Chris Riddell’s exquisitely packaged Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse.


Moontrug’s always been a fan of Chris Riddell, the award-winning illustrator behind the much-loved Edge Chronicles books. I mean anyone who can draw like this…


…is onto something kind of mega. So when Moontrug heard Chris Riddell had illustrated AND written a book, she scurried down to the bookshop to check it out. Ada Goth lives at Ghastly-Gorm Hall with her father, the famous cycling poet Lord Goth. There are a host of servants, plenty of eccentric house guests and at least half a dozen ghosts, but Ada is lonely. She doesn’t have any friends her own age, and Lord Goth believes children should be ‘heard and not seen’, making her wear clumpy boots so he can always hear her coming. Then one night, a ghostly mouse called Ishmael appears in Ada’s bedroom and asks for her help. Soon, Ada finds herself joining forces with some young visitors, William and Emily Cabbage, as well as their friends in the Attic Club, to unravel a dastardly plot being hatched by Maltravers, the sinister indoor gamekeeper. Together, can they stop Maltravers before he unleashes his terrible plan on the day of Lord Goth’s famous metaphorical bicycle race and indoor hunt?


Even before the story has begun, the purple-edged pages and silver-foiled endpapers shimmer with Gothic possibilities. And the regular Footnote musings (notes by the actual severed foot of a famous writer who lost the aforementioned foot at the Battle of Baden-Baden-Wurttemberg-Baden) add to the book’s Gothic charm. Moontrug’s a big fan of interesting facts, and the Footnotes have them in abundance: ‘Ornamental deer are extremely expensive, having to be smuggled out of China in the pockets of explorers and diplomats all the way from the Emperor’s Palace in the Absolutely-Forbidden-I-Won’t-Tell-You-Again City.’ For more Moontruggy facts, click here.

Goth Girl illustration by Chris Riddell.

The characters are beautifully drawn, hilariously named and brilliantly described. There’s the formidable Mrs Beat’em, Ghastly Gorm’s cook, who brews up ‘rhinoceros-foot jelly and baked sea-otter pie in a reduction of scullery maid’s tears’ while hurling instructions like some sort of enraged sea monster: ‘Agnes, fuddle those eggs! Maud, bevil the batter! No, not that batter, you idiot! Pansy, frizzle those pies until they’re piping hot, then frangellate the crusts – quickly, girl!’ The mythical creatures are so quirky and original they’re practically leaping off the page (with her Scottish roots, Moontrug has a soft spot for Hamish The Shetland Centaur), and even Ada Goth’s new friends aren’t exactly ordinary – William Cabbage has a way of blending in with his surroundings. ‘It’s called chameleon syndrome.’ Can you spot him?!


Ada is a true Moontrug, preferring to draw monsters instead of flowers: ” ‘I’ll draw a monster,’ said Ada, opening her crayon box. ‘From my imagination,’ she added quickly” and your heart immediately goes out to her as she strives to win her father’s affections. Tricky, though, when Ada reminds Lord Goth so much of his late wife, and he’d rather shoot at garden gnomes (with a blunderbuss) than engage with his lonely daughter. But all that could change if Ada can get to the bottom of the problems at the heart of Ghastly-Gorm Hall. Goth Girl is a charming story and truggers aged 7 years and above will love it. And Riddell’s humorous twist on the 18th century Gothic tradition, with his alternative versions of literary and historical characters, (from architect Metaphorical Smith to writer Mary Shellfish), will appeal to any adult looking for a bit of fun. I mean, what’s not to like? Gorgeous illustrations, quirky footnote facts, mythical creatures and buckets of humour… Oh, and a secret pocket containing a teeny weeny book by Ishmael Whiskers.



A boy covered in hair, raised as a monster. Meet Wild Boy…

‘London, 1841. A boy covered in hair, raised as a monster, condemned to life in a travelling freak show. A boy with an extraordinary power of observation and detection. A boy accused of murder; on the run; hungry for the truth. Behold the savage spectacle of WILD BOY. Ladies and Gentlemen, take your seats. The show is about to begin.’ And so the back of Rob Lloyd Jones’ book, Wild Boy, reads. What a blurb! Tingling with intrigue and drama…


Wild Boy throws you into the breathless rush of the Victorian circus world: of a showman with a face so scarred ‘he looked like he’d been sewn together from patches of skin’; of a legless friend called Sir Oswald; of a Ringmaster with a ‘face covered with a thick layer of white make-up that fairground rumours said she hadn’t rubbed off since the day her husband disappeared’; of the Human Colossus; of the Living Skeleton; of the Bearded Lady… But it is the boy covered in hair, known as ‘the monster’ or ‘the missing link between man and bear’, that the story really concerns. Snatched away from a dingy workhouse by brutish showman, Augustus Finch, Wild Boy becomes a freak spectacle at the circus. Day after day crowds jeer at him, calling him names while hurling fists and rotten fruits. But all the while, Wild Boy watches – watches every person: their clothes, their mannerisms, their accents, their style of walk. EVERYTHING. Because Wild Boy has a gift – and he’s waiting for a chance to use it. He sees things other people don’t.


In a matter of seconds, Wild Boy can tell that a man is a retired soldier, an opium addict and is heavily in debt: ‘the red-brown tinge to the man’s teeth caused by smoke from the opium pipe and the slight tremble of his hands from withdrawal were clear indications of the man’s addiction. The sprig of heather in his pocket suggested that he’d visited one of the gypsies at the park gates, a sign of both desperation and concern for his immediate fortunes. And as for the man’s military past and current debt problem, Wild Boy could see that he’d once worn medals on his coat – the darker patch on this lapel, unfaded by the sun, showed where they’d been.’ And then one night, when Wild Boy flees the beatings of his master, the dreaded Augustus Finch, he intercepts a mysterious clue, meant for someone else.


Within pages, a terrible murder has been committed and Wild Boy has been framed for it. Together with an unlikely companion, the red-haired, fiery-tempered acrobat, Clarissa Everett, Wild Boy must trail the killer to find out why he’s being framed and what on earth this extraordinary machine is… But Wild Boy and Clarissa must act quickly because a second murder frames them both – and their names are sprawled in blood across the wall above the murder scene. And so begins a perilous journey across London: through underground sewers; towards a man with a golden eyeball; past a killer who strikes without breaking an entry; through secret tunnels and across rooms littered with jars of eyeballs.

circus freaks

The author, Rob Lloyd Jones, has really nailed it with this book. The plot is so fast-paced that the final carriage chase left Moontrug totally breathless: ‘ “That’s him! Go faster!” Wild Boy tumbled back onto the seat as the Lord Mayor’s coach jolted over cracks in the road. Two wheels came off the ground and the carriage almost tipped over before slamming back to the broken surface. Drunken crowds ran screaming from the street. A chestnunt seller dived out of the way, only to see his tin stove crushed like paper beneath the coach’s wheels. Sparks flew, but Marcus wasn’t slowing down.’ And each chapter ends with a hook that leaves you wanting more: ‘The hunt for the hooded man – and for the machine – was back on.’

hooded man

Coupled with outstanding courage from Wild Boy and Clarissa (loving Wild Boy’s actions on page 168 by the way!) and a deeply unsettling twist, Wild Boy is a must read for 2014 – straight up there on Moontrug’s Altocumulus Tower. And the best thing about it all? Wild Boy and Clarissa are just getting started. The next book, Wild Boy & The Black Terror, follows the detective duo to the city’s vilest slums and to its grandest palaces – right to the darkness lying at the hear of its very highest society. Watch out Sherlock Holmes – you’ve got competition on your hands from Wild Boy and Clarissa… So if you’re 8 years old (or older), roll up, roll up, for a copy of Wild Boy and check out Rob Lloyd Jones’ website – lots of Moontruggy facts about his life up there. And if any of you can tell me why Rob Lloyd Jones goes everywhere with a roll of tape in his pocket, there’s a prize to be had. Get thinking, detecting, observing and wondering Wild Boy style… (Email ideas to:


‘Yes! No! Maybe? What! Hello!’ The best opening lines in children’s books

Phobias are unpleasant things – up there with brussel sprouts and liquorice allsorts. But a load of people have them. Shark-haters? They got landed with Selachophobia. School-loathers? Didaskaleinophobia. And authors – want to know their phobia? The thing that really freaks them out? The thing that sends shivers of terror down their spines? THE  BLANK A4 PAGE. Because beginnings are frightening for a writer. No matter how good your ideas are, getting that first line onto the page is tricky stuff.


But the opening line is as important as the cover or even the title. It’s the deal-breaker in that 30-second decision of whether the reader wants to buy your book or read on with your story. Moontrug recently read a very helpful article by picture book author, Kim Tomsic, who in turn was told a ‘golden nugget’ of information by famous author, Richard Peck: ‘action in books for the young must start before the opening line.’ And here’s what he meant:


‘Minutes after the shootings, everybody’s cell phones rang.’ (After by Francine Prose)
‘When all’s said and done, killing my mother came easily.’ (Almost Moon by Alice Sebold)


You’ve got to plunge your reader into a story that they can’t possibly put down. So lines like ‘One day I got up and brushed my teeth’ ain’t gonna cut it. You’ve got to hand the reader a line that totally transfixes them. Here are a few of Kim Tomsic’s favourite opening lines to help you grasp the idea:


1. ‘If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.’ (The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck)

2. ‘Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial and found guilty.’ (The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi)

3. ‘Life was good before I met the monster.’ (Crank by Ellen Hopkins)

4. ‘Of all the kids in seventh grade at Camillo Junior High, there was one kid that Mrs Baker hated with heat whiter than the sun. Me.’ (The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt)


And here are some of Moontrug’s absolute favs:


1. ‘The monster showed up just after midnight.  As they do.’ (A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness)

2. ‘Yes! No! Maybe? What! Hello.’ (Mr Gum and the Cherry Tree by Andy Stanton)

3. ‘Sometimes there’s no warning.’ (Oath Breaker by Michelle Paver)

4. ‘When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.’ (Stormbreakerby Anthony Horowitz)

5. ‘It was seven minutes after midnight.’ (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon)

6. ‘On the morning I was scheduled to die, a large barefoot man with a bushy red beard waddled past my house.’ (Seven Wonders Book 1: The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis)

7. ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’ (I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith)

8. ‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.’ (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis)


So no matter how scary starting a book may seem, you’ve got to do it. Imagine if JK Rowling had never written: ‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much’ or RJ Palacio had never scribbled down the words: ‘I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.’ Being an author means being BRAVE, being BOLD. And even if the opening line doesn’t come to you right away, start with the second line and go back to the opening line later. Below are some story title ideas – have a go at writing your own first line to them and send Moontrug your ideas: And if you fancy another short but sweet writing task, enter Moontrug’s ‘One Sentence Story’ Competition

– The Floating Child
– Mask Man
– Rain Monster
– The wild woods
– The cursed mirror

Aliens scared me & space totally freaked me out – until I met Lucky & Bixa

Up until recently Moontrug was not a fan of science fiction books. E.T. kind of stressed her out and even WALL-E made her feel a bit shivery. But SF Said’s latest book, Phoenix, is packed full of the best aliens ever – and Moontrug is starting to realise that there are boundless stories lingering up there in the stars. Phoenix is a cracker of a book, as Moontrug knew it would be after meeting the author, SF Said, back in October (click here to read about that little adventure). But when the book started topping Best of 2013 Children’s Book charts Moontrug knew she had to start reading it right away…


Lucky thinks he’s an ordinary Human boy. But one night, he dreams that the stars are singing – and wakes to find an uncontrollable power rising inside him. Now he’s on the run, racing though space, searching for answers. In a galaxy at war, where Humans and Aliens are deadly enemies, the only people who can help him, are an Alien starship crew – and an Alien warrior girl, with neon needles in her hair. Together, they must find a way to save the galaxy. For Lucky is not the only one in danger. His destiny and the fate of the universe are connected in the most explosive way… For a sneak preview at the book trailer, click here. Its tingly strangeness is full of magical supernovas and dark black holes.


Even from the opening lines of the book, SF is onto a winner. He talks of ‘a million points of silver light, shining in the black,’ and of the ‘small, soft, silvery sound, like the chime of a faraway bell.’ The writing is so ‘fierily poetic’ that you end up feeling the stars aren’t just calling Lucky; they’re calling you, too, up into their sparkling galaxy. And the writing just gets better and better as the book goes on. An Alien called Mystica tells Lucky that ‘the stars call across the immensities of space – like great whales singing in the oceans deep, or bells chiming out, like silver in the black – we hear their songs, and we feel the truth inside ourselves.’ SO COOL. Moontrug is secretly hoping that she might discover she’s in fact a Startalker in disguise. Unlikely though – because Moontrug’s as clumsy and ‘unmeditative’ as you can get, like some explosive ball of misdirected enthusiasm. Not sure how the stars would respond to someone like that… Moontrug will settle with the knowledge from the Professor that she’s part star instead: ‘You see, Lucky, everything in the universe is made of atoms and elements that were created in the heart of the stars, billions of years ago. Even our own bodies. You are entirely made of stardust.’


Phoenix is bursting with stunning illustrations by Dave McKean. Somehow he makes black and white squiggles look so enchanting, so mind-bogglingly magical, that he’s able to conjure up space in just a few pages.


On top of fabulous writing and brilliant illustrations, Phoenix also boasts a fantastically fast-paced plot: Shadow Guards are bent on ripping brainscans, Supernovas are exploding and Astral Martial Arts are being done on a MASSIVE scale. And while all of that is going on, Mystica is brewing up Xoco – the alien version of hot chocolate which smells like a ‘strange mixture of gunpowder, chocolate and spice’ – and Lucky is discovering important truths: ‘Lucky looked at the world, laid out beneath them like a tapestry, or an open book… “But just because it’s going to die one day…doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting for. Maybe it matters even more, because it’s all we’ve got.” ‘ Despite the vastness of the galaxy, Lucky realises that we ‘matter.’ And that’s a truth worth hearing.


Lucky’s warrior-friend, Bixa, is original and as feisty as they come. I mean, anyone who uses ‘moonbrain’ as an insult is going to get you on side. And wow, what an ending the book has… Lucky’s realisation of who he is is SPECTACULARLY good and Bixa’s realisation of his significance is heartbreakingly cool. Nice work, SF Said – Phoenix has earned a place up on Moontrug’s Altocumulus Tower. The Tower is growing nicely in size these days, jostling for space amongst the clouds. Who knows, perhaps the tower will reach so high soon that the books will start hearing the ‘small, soft, silvery sounds’ of the stars…

(Extra moontrug comment for SF Said himself: I reckon the ‘S’ of your name stands for ‘Star.’ Star-Flyer? Star-Finder? Hmmmmm…)