Conjurors, spells & a long lost book… The Society of Thirteen

Last October, Moontrug was lucky enough to witness an afternoon of ukeleles and gravedigger grunts with Blue Peter Award-winning author Gareth P Jones – and more recently, Moontrug read Jones’ latest book, The Society of Thirteen. No ukeleles this time, but two 13-year-old orphans and a ‘remarkable object’ that has the potential to unlock ‘the truth about magic’…


London 1891. Thirteen-year-old orphans Tom and Esther are in a most peculiar situation. Recruited by the enigmatic Lord Ringmore to run errands for his Society of Thirteen, a clandestine group gathering to uncover the mysteries of the occult, they find themselves drawn into an extraordinary world of conjurors, magic and peril. And with the appearance of a mysterious book, a talking magpie and a perplexing green-eyed cat, things are about to get even stranger…


The book opens with the charismatic Lord Ringmore (who brings to the table, as he himself declares, ‘obvious flair for mystery and melodrama’), exposing the tricks in a magician’s show: ‘This evening you have been entertained not by a mystical medium called Meze, but by a two-bit performer called Maybury. David and William Maybury, a pair of brothers, married to the top and bottom half of poor bisected woman whom you so enjoyed watching being halved this evening.’ And just like that, the book is opened up for a magic that goes beyond magician tricks and escapologist stunts… a magic that lies open to two 13-year-old orphans, Esther and Tom. They’re fabulous characters, street hardy and brave, and always at the heart of the plot: ‘the doors of a cabinet burst open and Tom and Esther crawled out from their hiding place.’


But Esther and Tom are up against a lot: power hungry adults, ferocious nuns, street thugs (like the brilliantly named Worms and Stump) and two very peculiar animals… The plot is action-packed, and at times pretty scary (as Sir Tyrrell says: ‘There’s always something to fear’) and the endings to Chapters 33 and 66 are superbly done… Above all though, the book is imbued with an earthy magic: ‘The real stories of these lands are not of the battlefields but of the dark, secluded corners where strange things occur, the places where superstitions lurk and folklore thrives.’ The Society of Thirteen is a fast-paced Victorian adventure bursting with magic and perfect for 10+ years who loved Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series or Rob Lloyd Jones’ Wild Boy. And the book has one of the best ‘child to adult’ one-liners Moontrug has read in a while: ‘You can’t just break into people’s homes and expect them to play cards with you.’ Esther: 1. Harry Clay: 0.

‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ – like Robert Paul Weston…

There were two reasons I booked onto SCBWI’s Fantasy Writing for Young Readers workshop. Firstly, because the internationally award-winning author, Robert Paul Weston was leading it and secondly, because of the name of the location: The Theodore Bullfrog, in London. Possibly the most fantasy-appropriate name for a pub I’ve come across – sounds like a swash-buckling pirate or a devilish smuggler…


Marketed as a ‘Fantasy Writing’ workshop, I was hoping to come away with a few tricks of the trade, but what Weston offered up was nothing short of a lowdown on EVERYTHING you need to know about writing a bestselling MG/YA fantasy novel. Admin note to SCBWI: amend the workshop title to Fantasy Writing for Young Readers with Robert Paul Weston – comes with complete lowdown on writing bestsellers. BOOM. Weston was approachable and instructive (not to mention ridiculously talented), and after his Fairytale Machine ice-breaker (think telepathic streets and trees that can fly), we looked at the ingredients of a captivating fantasy world: what makes it plausible, how to avoid info dumps, ways to make the world feel original… And Weston introduced us to two words that have already transformed the new series I’m planning: WHAT IF. ‘The what if spreads through your whole world. Check out Philip Pullman’s Northern Lightswhat if a person’s soul is represented by an animal… The book hinges on this idea and even the first line of Chapter One punches that what if home: ‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.’


From settings we explored the ‘9 traits of sympathetic characters’ – possibly the most instructive 9-step powerpoint slide I’ve seen (I reckon Weston could sell it on ebay for a few thousand…) and the ingredients of a compelling first person narrator: ‘There’s not much point having a first person narrator unless they speak in an interesting way. Take Moira Young’s Blood Red Road – the narrative voice is compelling and it works.’


We tackled the art of ‘being funny’ with Weston succinctly revealing that ‘funniness is about unpredicted endings, right from sentence level to scene level’, and looked at the concepts of conflict and suspense. Conflict: I want something. Suspense: will you get it? The finale saw us working on structure – the ebbs and flows of action and happy versus tragic endings – with every point backed up by an example from a fantasy novel. My ‘To Buy’ book list is now as tall as Hogwarts… It was an invaluable workshop (enhanced by the fact that the pub served amaaaaazing pizza at lunch) and if Gandalf is the wisest fantasy character out there, then Weston is one of the wisest creative writing tutors I’ve come across. I’m very pleased to be standing (not literally, because that would be weird) on the shoulders of fantasy giants like him.




Who’s been munching the moon?

When I was little I assumed 30-year-olds spent their days reading the Financial Times, discussing stamp duty and dreaming of good pensions. So it has come as a bit of surprise that next month I’m turning 30 and I’m spending my days reading children’s books, discussing tree spirits and dreaming of riding snow leopards. But it turns out that kind of lifestyle suits me pretty well and it comes with extra cool bonuses – like the fact that wonderful publishers like Walker Books send me UBER beautiful picture books to review. Cue Petr Horacek’s stunning new book (and SO appropriately Moontrug-themed): The Mouse Who Ate The Moon.


Following the success of his other picture books, like the award-winning Suzy Goose and A New House For Mouse, Petr Horacek is back with another gorgeous classic. When Little Mouse wakes up one morning, she finds her dream has come true. Outside her burrow, a piece of the moon has fallen from the sky and it smells delicious. But what happens once Little Mouse has had a little nibble? Horacek’s peep-through story book is a little treasure, full of brilliantly bold yellows, blues and greens, an adorable little mouse and a magical-looking forest. Each turn of the page draws you deeper into the mouse’s world of wonder – where pieces of the moon do just drop from the sky.


The illustrations are gorgeous (Moontrug especially loved the rabbit and the fact that little mouse wears super cool stripy socks) and Horacek perfectly captures the sense of wonder children feel when looking at something as extraordinary as the moon: ‘The moon is beautiful…I would love to have a piece all of my own’ – good point, who wouldn’t? The book’s imaginative scope is HUGE and each page is full of possibility, posing big ‘what if’ questions that swim through children’s minds: ‘I’ll just have a tiny nibble… Oh no! Now the moon won’t be round any more’. Moontrug loved the fact that little mouse was a bit greedy: ‘So she took a tiny bite, and another, and another, and just a tiny bit more…’ – although Moontrug has never munched the moon, she’s munched her way through tons of delicious Ben’s Cookies so she sympathises with little mouse’s unstoppable appetite.


Little Mouse’s sense panic at having eaten the moon: ‘Nobody can eat the moon,’ said Rabbit. ‘Well, I just did,’ said Little Mouse’ so perfectly captures the way children often think and the peep-through element of the book is adorably cute – and works so well with the ‘moon’ theme. The Mouse Who Ate the Moon is a little gem of a picture book – and once which will be an eternal reminder to Moontrug that it’s not only she who dreams of munching the moon.

Literary Rap Battle: Abi Elphinstone vs Rachel Hamilton!

What do an exploding loo and magical bones have in common? You’re right – absolutely nothing. But Rachel Hamilton and Abi Elphinstone (aka Moontrug) have three very important things in common – and this is where bogs and bones come in:
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  1. They both write children’s books for 9-12 years
  2. They are both debut authors (Rachel’s The Case Of The Exploding Loo is out this month and Abi’s Oracle Bones comes out Spring 2015)
  3. They both share the same brilliantly awesome publisher, Simon & Schuster

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Rather than wade through a set of standard interview questions, we thought we’d Moontrug it up a little and bring you… a LITERARY RAP BATTLE – two authors going head-to-head in a series of increasingly bonkers questions. So, here goes:


Rachel, you are ten again. A vegetarian ogre (he only eats paper) is tearing through your house, devouring all your books. In a moment of rare reasonableness, he lets you keep one book. What would it have been back then?


Okay, so part of me wants to keep the biggest, heaviest book I own, to use for a spot of ogre-whacking. WALLOP! I remember, as a kid, being given this book called ‘The Art of Walt Disney’ that was so insanely HUGE I couldn’t even lift it until I was seven.

moon trug art of walt disney
But I’m a rubbish fighter and a bit of a coward so I’m going to leg it instead, along with one of my favourite books at that age – Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’.

I loved the idea that beneath the seemingly perfect surface of mothers, teachers and other mild-mannered, middle-aged ladies there lurked rash-covered, child-squelching, cadaverous old harpies. Even now, I’m slightly suspicious of sweet old ladies who wear gloves indoors and scratch their heads too often.


Roald Dahl was a genius, so let’s assume you’re braver than me, Abi, and you’ve stayed to fight the ogre. If you could conjure one of Roald Dahl’s characters out of thin air to fight the ogre alongside you, who would it be and why?


I’m going to conduct my Ogre Annihilation Operation using three of Roald Dahl’s characters (in-your-face-fickle-ogre) because I’m a teeny bit greedy, too:

  1. Conjure up Aunt Sponge from ‘James and the Giant Peach’ to plant her big fat bottom on top of the ogre to hold him steady
  2. Conjure up Miss Trunchbull from ‘Matilda’ to give the ogre several hard wallops with her hammer
  3. Conjure up the Fleshlumpeater giant from ‘The BFG’ to, um, eat the ogre’s lumpy bits

And while these shenanigans go on, I will be looking effortlessly cool on the sideline, sucking on one of Willy Wonka’s everlasting gobstoppers.

Back at you, Rachel: it turns out Aunt Sponge, Miss Trunchbull AND the Fleshlumpeater giant are on holiday and can’t come to fight the vegetarian ogre after all. Invent a word that will make the ogre disappear right away.


Ah, that’s a tricky one. This is your territory, Abi. I’m not as good as you are at word-invention. I prefer to steal words that already exist and mash them together. For example, in ‘The Case of the Exploding Loo’, Aunty Vera becomes the Vigil-Aunty because she pursues wrongdoers with her Handbag of Mass Destruction. Also, you’ve got Uncle Max chucking mantrums, and Dad doling out rubbish dadvice. So I’d probably just yell, “BaniSHED!” and magic-ify the ogre to a small hut at the bottom of the garden where all nasty, troublesome things are sent.


Um, Abi, speaking of homes and gardens, I hate to break it to you, but the ogre has left your house in a total mess. You’ve been told that rather than facing Operation Clean Up, you can up and leave to one fictional place. Where do you go?


Narnia – without a doubt. As a kid, I used to huddle by the fire with my siblings in Scotland and watch the BBC adaption on TV. Whenever I hear the theme tune now, I get magical shivers down my spine – and I can almost see Lucy edging through the wardrobe into the snowy woods beyond… Once in Narnia, I’d love to make snow angels with Mr Tumnus then, if the White Witch was snoozing, I’d skate around her palace shouting rude words at her nasty wolf guards. I’d also really love to have a milkshake with Aslan in Cair Paravel – that would be super cool.

Rachel, turns out Narnia is a bit of a trek so TFL (Transport for London) have given you an oyster card, enabling you to travel on ANY mode of transport you please. What do you go for?


Soooo easy. A TARDIS every time. But to mix things up a bit, I’d like one in the shape of a portaloo rather than a phone box. I wouldn’t have any objections if Tom Baker or David Tennant wanted to come along to make me laugh.

In fact, why not Tom Baker AND David Tennant. And while we’re on a greedy tip, Abi, when you arrive in Narnia, it’s time for a slap up meal. You can have any fictional treats you want. Yum. What’s on your menu?


So, I’d definitely have three courses – that portaloo tardis got my appetite up… For my starter, I’d have doci baci balls (little balls of crisped up bacon, wrapped in roasted doc leaves and sprinkled with vinegar – Moll’s favourite in ‘Oracle Bones’). After wolfing that down I’d cruise on into a massive bowl of Willy Wonka treats for my main course (yeah, there are no dentists or parents around to say no): five mouthfuls of chocolate rhododendrons, three chews of minty sugar grass, several humungous gulps from the chocolate waterfall, a mouthful of Has Beans, a slather of Hair Toffee and four licks of the Lickable Wallpaper For Nurseries. Pudding would be a bar of Xoco (from SF Said’s ‘Phoenix’) and I’d accompany the whole thing with a glass of Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting Drink. After all of that I’d like a lie down – on Wonka’s Eatable Marshmallow Pillow, of course.


Phew! Last question goes to you Rachel: as a treat for writing such a fabby book, your publisher has organised a party for you. There’s karaoke. Which fictional character do you want to sing with and why? For bonus points, what would the theme song to your debut novel be?


The Cookie Monster. Pleeeeeeease let me sing with the Cookie Monster! We’d be brilliant together . . . ♫ “C is for COOKIE!”♪♫ Why? Well, partly because he is so wonderfully blue, fluffy and huggable. But mainly because together we would EAT ALL THE COOKIES! Also, if gives me the chance to show you my favourite thing on the internet, ever. Tom Hiddlestone and the Cookie Monster. Also known as ‘Tomnomnom.’ Hm, a theme tune for my book. It would have to be something over-excitable and slightly demented. Can I have the lovely impressionist, Max Dowler, being Alan Rickman, being The Sheriff of Nottingham, being Queen, singing ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’?  Haha. I hope so.


Ummmm, TIME OUT, TIME OUT! Before we spiral further into bookish absurdity, we’d better lock up the literary rap battle and leave you with a very exciting piece of news. Rachel Hamilton’s brilliantly funny The Case Of The Exploding Loo is in bookshops NOW! Twelve-year-old Noelle (Know-All) Hawkins may be one of the brightest girls in her class but even she can’t explain how her dad, wacky scientist Big Brain Brian, spontaneously combusted while sitting in a portaloo. She needs your help…

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Fairytales, white dogs and trumpets…

There were two reasons Moontrug bought Anne Booth’s debut for 8+ years, Girl With A White Dog: everyone was raving about it on Twitter and she thinks white animals are super cute (white dogs, white owls, white wolves, white rabbits and her FAVOURITEST WHITE ANIMALS EVER: unicorns). Proof of Moontrug’s adoration for unicorns is in the photo of her below.


Jessie is excited when her gran gets a white Alsatian puppy, but with Snowy’s arrival a mystery starts to unfold. As Jessie learns about Nazi Germany at school, past and present begin to slot together and she uncovers something long-buried, troubling and somehow linked to another girl and another white dog… Booth creates a gorgeously compelling narrative voice in Jessie Jones. Jessie opens the book revealing that her Year 9 homework is to write a modern fairytale. She says: ‘You see, at the beginning of this story, I really did have three wishes. It was easy to imagine that having them all come true at once would be my happy ending. I just didn’t realise how sad the beginning would have to be.’


As if being in Year 9 isn’t complicated enough, Jessie has to deal with her father working overseas the whole time, her cousin’s increasingly unfriendly behaviour and her beloved gran falling ill. Booth perfectly captures the struggling emotions Jessie has to contend with and when Jessie’s English teacher asks why fairy tales often need happy endings, Jessie replies: ‘Because if it doesn’t end happily and if everything isn’t all right, then what’s the point? It’s all horrible and there’s nothing you can do about it,’ and Booth finishes the chapter with two brilliant sentences that reveal just how upset up Jessie is inside.


While reading the book, Moontrug felt like she was absolutely back in Year 9 again. Jessie may have a lot on her plate but she’s gorgeously funny, even if she’s not intending to be: ‘I do not think this story is suitable for bedtime or cartoons’. And on the subject of Ben Green, Jessie says: ‘He’s really good at funny voices. And he’s really good at trumpet.’ Because let’s face it, those kind of qualities are exactly the sort of incidental things you notice about boys in Year 9. And as for Ben’s Mum, Moontrug loved Jessie’s description: ‘If I was going to make Ben’s mum into a fairy tale character I would definitely make her into the Pied Piper, but with dogs.’ Jessie’s crush on her English teacher is also fantastically done: ‘Basically, I went bright red, and then tried to flick back my hair like Nicola Barker – I’m not sure why – I think I had some vague idea it would make me look more sophisticated or something.’


Booth plays out the friendship between cousins Jessie and Fran brilliantly (the end of Chapter 13 is superbly done) – and she so realistically captures the way tensions between two characters can have knock-on effects even (perhaps especially) towards those we love the most. Cue Jessie’s wonderful friend, Kate. Restricted to a wheelchair, Kate still manages to play Sitting Volleyball (extremely well) and she’s a reminder that although, as Yasmin points out, ‘life isn’t happy and safe… bad things do happen to people, and you can’t do anything about it sometimes,’ with courage and determination you have a chance at getting through. Perhaps one the central messages of the book though is of forgiveness – on small scales and on mightily massive ones. As Ben’s gran says: ‘It is only by forgiveness that we can move forwards.’ Girl With A White Dog is a message to us all that everyone has a story. And set against the atrocities of the past, like the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, and the problems of the present, you have Kate’s determination, Jessie’s capacity for forgiveness and even Fran’s ability to say she’s sorry. Growing up is hard but Booth gives us characters full of hope.

Lobsters: a socially awkward love story…

Okay, so Moontrug usually reviews books for 8-12-year-olds but today she’s going to break tradition by talking about a socially awkward love story for 15+ years. To avoid frightening consequences, if you are younger than 15, Moontrug suggests you put cotton wool in your ears, blindfold up and, um, wrap yourself in bubble wrap for the next few minutes. So, Lobsters, the debut YA novel by best friends, Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen (who, once upon a time, dated at school…). I haven’t laughed so hard for a long, long time; the book so perfectly captures the awkwardness of being a teenager that you’ll find yourself squirming and giggling the whole way through.

lobstersLobsters will be published in June 2014

Sam and Hannah have just one epic summer before uni to find ‘The One.’ Their lobster. But as fate works to bring them together (in a toilet), they must navigate social misunderstandings, the plotting of well-meaning friends, the general awkwardness of being a teenager and their own fears of being virgins for ever. In the end, it all boils down to love… And Ribena.


The book is told in alternating chapters where Ellen narrates the male side of the story (as Sam) and Ivison narrates the female (as Hannah) – and both authors have totally nailed the narrative voices. They sound just like teenagers – real, honest and funny – and on speaking to Ivison she revealed both she and Ellen composed the last few chapters of the book via MSN messenger! A pretty modern a way to write a book – appropriate for the techy world of teenage love. Hannah opens the book amidst a clamour of excitement – the end of exams, the start of the summer holidays and her thoughts on what it actually means to lose your virginity: ‘How can we live in a world where they can identify serial killers from their DNA, but we can’t figure out if Tilly’s a virgin or not?’ Meanwhile, Sam is kneeling before a big steel bucket with a friend. They are trying to burn their A-Level textbooks in an act of rebellion against the system, a sort of heralding that life is going to be a whole lot more exciting now school’s out the way. Only the textbooks are laminated – they ain’t gonna burn. Frustrating. Awkward. A fab prelude into the rest of the book…


photo chAuthor Lucy Ivison with Moontrug


The summer is fraught with socially awkward events: bikini lines, buying alcohol when underage (love that Sam’s friends arm him with conversational topics to use on the off licence vendor, like ‘tax’ and ‘Pink Floyd’), holidays in Kavos (and Sark), Panda onesies, celeb crushes (Ivison admitted to moontrug that her own school crush was Jared Leto – and she was so in love with him sometimes she couldn’t leave the house), dropping Alevel results in puddles, and of course, Ribena. It’s a miracle any of us made it through that ‘summer-after-school’ alive when you think about it… Sam and Hannah are two wonderfully endearing characters: self-deprecating, funny and kind. That’s not to say they’re perfect (at times Sam acts like an idiot, or as Stella would say ‘a tortoise-munching sociopath’, and Hannah whines like a baby) but that’s what makes them such real protagonists. And although the pressure from peers and the media tries to shape who they are, it’s great to see them being totally themselves in the Mad Hatters Tearoom Tent at the festival. Sam and Hannah manage to throw all social pressures to the wind – and that’s pretty cool.


Lobsters is a hilarious and totally original debut in its co-authored narration. It completely works (and sorry, Ellen, but I really like the character’s line about wearing yellow shoes so he can have ‘sunshine on his feet always’ – Ivison was right on that one – it’s kinda cute!). And although Bella from Twilight would have us believe those final years of school can be conquered by a sultry pout and a vampiric crush, Ivison and Ellen know the truth: that time of life is suuuuuuper awkward but very, very funny. You remember it forever – not as a series of perfectly-planned events but as a jumble of mad growingup-ness… There’s a fair bit of ‘naughty language’ in the book and, um, ‘scenes of a sexual nature’ – so librarians will need to take that into account when recommending to teens, and likewise, parents might want to read it first before giving it to their children. But it’s a BRILLIANTLY FUNNY book – a cross between Friends, The Inbetweeners and a younger version of Bridget Jones (minus the bunny ears).



The best-named heroine in children’s books today…

There is a lot ‘right’ about the front cover of Julia Lee’s debut 9-12s book, The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth: a super creepy lady with clawed hands; a fearful-looking orphan with a stormer of a name; a bow-wearing Pekingese and a band of Red Indians. If that’s not enough to make you open a book, I don’t know what is… Clemency is utterly penniless and entirely alone, until she’s taken in by the marvellous Marvels – a madcap family completely unlike her own. But it’s a surprise to them all when she’s mysteriously bundled from the house by the frightening Miss Clawe. Concerned about Clemency’s fate, the Marvels set out to find her. Enlisting the help of some not-quite-genuine Red Indians, it’s a calamitous race across the country. But Clemency’s misadventures are more dire than her rescuers suspect… will they reach her in time?


The marvellous Marvels are brilliantly colourful characters: the dim-witted Less-STAH (Leicester), a Pekingese-snatching theatrical called Whitby and the all ‘seeing’ Gully… They provide a fabulous contrast to the villains in the story who are desperate to get Clemency out of the way: the sinister child-catcher Miss Clawe and the two eerie inhabitants of the Great Hall… But top of the pile has to be the wonderful Clemency Wrigglesworth. At first quiet and shy (not unlike Frances Hodgson Burnett’s gorgeous heroine in A Little Princess, Sara Crewe, sent over to England from India), Clemency proves to be more than what she seems. With tremendous energy, she encourages her housemaid friend, Polly, to scoff the mistress’ food from silver bowls, and when Polly’s mouth drops open in amazement, Clemency simply drops a chocolate mint into it.


Clemency holds her own against her captors (even if they have to prompt her of the alias she so cleverly adopted) and perhaps what makes her so endearing as a heroine is her ‘apparent’ innocence: ‘she tried to arrange her features to look sweet and innocent, but slightly dim.’ Behind her big, blue eyes ideas are brewing and plots are hatching… And her melodramatic ‘plea for help’ letter is hilariously tragic: ‘My mother was taking me home to England but unfortunately she died on the way. You may have heard about it from her friends the Cleavers, unless they died, too.’ And her adherence to social etiquette, even in the direst of situations, is brilliantly done: ‘Do give my regards to the Glover-Smiths.’ Let’s face it – any heroine who hides getaways clothes in a pineapple jar, has got to be worth a look in… The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth is a gorgeous adventure for 8-12s, packed full of lively characters, wonderful wit and a brilliant new heroine – only Clemency would wield ‘Admiral Lord Nelson’s very own telescope’ in such a triumphant manner…

Sometimes a little bit of hope can go a long way…

Moontrug loves a good book blurb and get this for the back of Lara Williamson’s debut book for 8-12s: “I’m Dan Hope, and deep inside my head I keep a list of things I want to come true. For example, I want my sister, Ninja Grace, to go to university at the North Pole and only come back once a year. I want to help Sherlock Holmes solve his most daring mystery yet. And if it could be a zombie mystery, all the more exciting. I want to be the first eleven-year-old to land on the moon. I want my dog to stop eating the planets and throwing them up on the carpet. And finally, the biggest dream of all, I want my Dad to love me.” WOW.


A Boy Called Hope is a brilliantly funny and touching insight into the life of eleven-year-old Dan Hope – a character so awesomely cool he stays with you long after reading the last page… Since the day Dan’s Dad walked out (to be with Busty Babs), Dan has had to cope at home with just his Mum and sister. But when Dan flicks on the TV and sees his father presenting the news, a spark of hope kindles inside him: maybe, just maybe, he can win his father back. A pretty ENORMOUS task but if you’re as courageous and hopeful as Dan, you’ve got to give it a shot…


The book is packed full of original characters. Take Jo, one of Dan’s friends at school, whose obsession with the saints (she makes rosary beads from the ‘tears of baby unicorns’!) is both endearing and brilliantly funny: ‘Jo admitted that Saint Francis of Assisi would have loved the hamster, even if it had a stupid name… Christopher said he wanted to know more about Jo’s saints and asked her to go through the alphabet, naming a saint for every letter. Jo thought about it for a moment and replied, “Is this a holy wind-up?”‘ And perhaps one of the loveliest expressions in the book comes from saint-loving Jo: ‘Feathers are angels’ calling cards. It means the dead person is up there and looking after you and they’re sending you a white feather to let you know that everything will be okay.’ Although Dan replies with, ‘Jo, I hate to break this to you, but feathers come from birds’ bums,’ perhaps by the end of the book he’ll have changed his mind…


Dan’s reading of situations (or rather his mis-reading of situations) leads to some of the funniest moments in the book. And as he tips folic acid into the orange juice in an attempt to understand The Club, you can’t help but laugh: ‘I appear to have poisoned my mother.’ He’s a truly original protagonist and has something of Sam McQueen in him from Sally Nicholls’ wonderful Ways To Live Forever. At times he is amusingly eloquent (even if he realises he sounds ridiculous): ‘Okay, I’d better go now anyway because Mum is serving snails for dinner and I can’t be late’ and then at other times he’s just a young boy desperately missing his Dad: ‘Music puddles into the dark corners of my bedroom and I play until my fingers ache and I have to stop.’ The book captures so realistically the hugeness of emotions that go on inside children: their capacity for hope but also their need for love and attention.


The plot bounds along with Dan offering up some of the best one-liners children’s books have to offer: ‘I AM HAPPY WITH MY BEHIND,’ ‘Nothing good can come of watching people in dressing gowns’ and ‘No good story has a main character called Graham’ but above all, Dan is absolutely endearing. There is often such a huge (and amusing) gap between his intentions and the actual outcome of events that you can’t help falling for him. In fact, Moontrug could spend hours and hours wandering around inside Dan’s mind – it’s full of magical things like sky lanterns, stars, zombies and rainbows – and hardly any common sense (proper Moontruggy stuff). A Boy Called Hope is a truly fantastic book and its message of hope and courage when life doesn’t pan out as planned is one of the strongest Moontrug has read in a long while. DEFINITELY worth a read and deserving of its place in Moontrug’s Altocumulus Tower. I mean, any book that teaches you to cycle an imaginary air bicycle through the stars is bound to win you over… That, and the dog called Charles Scallybones.


The evil lurking in Old Scratch Wood…

Having totally freaked myself out reading Emily Diamand’s Ways To See A Ghost recently, I decided to give myself one more scare (because sometimes scary is pretty fun) – and this time the scariness came in the form of Sandra Greaves’ 9-12s debut novel, The Skull In The Wood, runner up for this year’s Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize. I mean, the blurb didn’t sound toooooooo frightening (‘In Old Scratch Wood, cousins Matt and Tilda find a buried skull. From that moment, black things begin to happen: birds and animals go bad, and there’s talk of the return of an ancient curse. But what can Matt and Tilda do to stop it…?’) but after reading the first few chapters, things started to get REALLY creepy…

Skull in the Wood cropped

Eager to get away from his Mum’s ‘four-eyed pillock’ boyfriend, Matt decides to spend half-term with his cousins on their farm in Dartmoor. Although his Uncle Jack and youngest cousin, Kitty, welcome Matt into the family, twelve-year-old Tilda is burning with resentment. Matt treats Tilda with the same contempt and their animosity gets even worse when they uncover a sinister-looking skull in Old Scratch Hill… The Skull In The Wood feels like a classic ghost story, not unlike Conan Doyle’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Just as Conan Doyle paints the moors as a bleak and forbidding place where dark things could happen at any moment, so Greaves presents Dartmoor as an unsettling backdrop to Tilda and Matt’s story – a place steeped in ancient folklore and restless ghosts: ‘Imagine a wilderness that goes on and on and on. Acre after acre of desolate landscape covered in dead bracken. That was Dartmoor.’


Whilst the story has its roots in ancient folklore, Matt and Tilda are two fantastically current and real protagonists. The hatred between them is tangible, even if remarks like ‘Chickens are the closest living relatives to Tyrannosaurus Rex’ and ‘We shouldn’t even be talking to him, let alone feeding him. It’s like offering your supper to a cannibal’ sometimes ease the tension. But their hatred blinds them to the sinister course of events lurking out on the moors. Even the brilliantly depicted Gabe cannot make them see: ‘It’ll be the birds first, I reckon. They’re the omens. The harbingers.’ And before long, Matt and Tilda are caught up in events that neither of them can control.


The suspense is brilliantly crafted: ‘Another crack, only nearer. What was it? An animal? I could hear it breathing now, great breathy breaths and scufflings. I looked around wildly, my hands scrabbling on the ground for something to defend myself with’ and ‘I can see black fur and teeth and drool-flecked jaws, and I sense bellies empty as stones and a hunger that drives them.’ And the action scenes are executed with pace and urgency: ‘You know normally you don’t notice your internal organs? Suddenly they were all there and larger than life – stomach, lungs, heart, the works. I could feel my blood hot and violent in my veins. All the saliva had disappeared from my mouth.’ But perhaps what makes such suspense and action all the more intense is the contrast of it with Kitty’s gorgeous and often humorous nature: ‘Kitty beamed like a demented frog.’ Her angelic presence makes the dark events darker, Tilda and Matt’s anger stronger… Because in amongst the darkest of tales (and this is one) you need hope and goodness, so when the harbingers come, when the gabbleratchet materialises, when almost everything seems lost, there’s still a goodness bigger than all of that, bigger even than the menacing skull found deep in a rotting wood…