‘Bourne Identity for Kids’ – Jimmy Coates: Killer

A few months ago Moontrug took part in this: #ukmgchat action with Joe Craig. Sounds like a garbled MI6 code but actually it was a chat on Twitter with loads of UK ‘middle grade’ writers (authors who write for 8-12-year-olds) – about how to write action, led by best-selling author, Joe Craig. For two hours, Craig regaled us with tips to heighten the drama of a scene: whittle down the adjectives and verbs, use dynamic verbs, vary sentence lengths and use pens as characters to act out scenes you can’t quite visualise! By the end of the Twitter chat, Moontrug had acted out a horse chase scene with smarties (not enough pens to hand…) and put Joe Craig’s Jimmy Coates books to the top of her ‘To Be Read’ pile.

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Heralded as a ‘Bourne Identity for kids’ by The Times newspaper, Jimmy Coates: Killer is the story of an ordinary eleven-year-old boy with a secret – only he doesn’t know what it is. Who are the mysterious men chasing Jimmy across the city? Why are they after him? What are Jimmy’s parents keeping from him and who can he trust? And how come he can suddenly do all this really cool stuff?

movieposterThe book is packed full of action: think car chases, helicopter escapes, chicken skewer dueling, unexpected kidnappings, muggings – and a few superpowers throw in for extra measure. Moontrug would advise munching an energy bar and downing Lucozade while reading this book. Jimmy is an empathetic hero, full of courage, loyalty and humour (love that in an emergency he grabs chocolate from the fridge then follows up with an apple ‘in case he got really desperate’!) and Craig balances the 11-year-old boy against the secret agent killer brilliantly. Georgie is a suitably punchy older sister and Jimmy’s best friend, Felix, is a welcome joker alongside the action-filled plot: ‘Anyway, you’ll need to get back to school eventually or you’ll have no education and you’ll be stupid and you’ll get no job and you’ll die cos you have no food. I might feed you for a while, but I’m not charity, Jimmy.’ And Moontrug LOVED how Felix called Viggo ‘Vigs’ and ‘Viggy’ within minutes of them meeting – brilliant.

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Viggo is awesome (Moontrug imagined him as a sort of Pierce Brosnan type) – and the constant threat underpinning the plot (‘He let out a yawn the size of the city and didn’t notice the thin, dark figure of the only other person in the shadows that night. It had started following him’) drives the story forward with relentless energy. A must read for 8-12-year-old action junkies – and luckily for them there are another seven books in the series! In this first book Jimmy is named a killer – but in the second, he’s the target…

Train! Train! Train! Puppy…

Judi Abbot’s latest picture book has an elephant pulling a toy train on the front cover. This was a good choice for several reasons: elephants rock (Dumbo is a favourite) and Moontrug LOVES trains. Nothing beats the seven-hour train journey home along the east coast from London to Aberdeen – past sparkling seas and stretches of beach – on which Moontrug gets to write and write and write (and occasionally munch a packet of Quavers from the trolley). So when Moontrug came across Little Elephant and his adoration for trains, she knew she’d met a kindred spirit.

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Little Elephant LOVES trains. But Cat wants to play with his plane. Penguin wants to play with his car. And Rabbit would rather play with his digger. Through a series of gorgeous illustrations, Abbot shows how the animals learn to share their toys and play together. Little Elephant is a gorgeous character – bluer than the sea with a gorgeous sticky-outy tail – and he had Moontrug laughing out loud with his replies to every conversation. When Dad suggests they play pirates, Little Elephant says ‘Train.’ When Dad suggests lions, Little Elephant confirms, ‘Train’ and when Dad does some keepie-uppies to entice Little Elephant into a game of football, Little Elephant adamantly replies, ‘Train.’

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Abbot humorously charts the descent into chaos as Little Elephant, Cat, Penguin and Rabbit disagree on what to play with (the facial expressions are BRILLIANT!) – and Little Elephant’s terrible train tantrum is up there with Violet Elizabeth’s from Just William. AWESOME STUFF. A fabulously funny picture book with a message about the importance of friendship and sharing at its heart.

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After training around with Little Elephant, Moontrug turned her attention to Holly Webb’s new picture book, Little Puppy Lost – and WOW what a front cover this book boasts: possible the sweetest puppy Moontrug has ever set eyes on (even cuter than the puppies in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp). Within the first few words, Webb’s puppy, Harry, (with his gorgeous little chocolate eyes, wiggly ears and soft white paws) wins you over. And as the huge dogs close in and Harry’s owner, Evie, is nowhere to be seen you want to reach down into the pages of the book and scoop Harry up into your arms.

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But then Ginger comes along – a stray cat with an enormous heart. And it’s just as well, because Harry’s going to need a friend against the large birds that roam the skies and the vicious cats that lurk in the alleyways. The illustrations are delightful – and the park at night is definitely magical (bluebells shining under the moon and no doubt fairies tucked up inside the buttercups). This is a heart-warming book, sharing a huge love of animals with a message of friendship and belonging. And Moontrug blames Holly Webb entirely that she is now googling websites to buy a puppy of her own…

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Abigail author meets Abigail giraffe…

When the lovely people at Little Tiger Press asked Moontrug whether she’d like to review any of their upcoming picture books, one in particular caught her eye, initially because of the awesomeness of its cover. Stars: tick. Gorgeous giraffe: tick. And best of all, the title ‘Abigail’: TICK. Having studied Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at GCSE, Moontrug’s lasting memory of literary heroines named Abigail was of a psychopathic ‘witch’ dancing in the forest, and so it was refreshing to stumble across an Abigail as wonderful as the one in award-winning author Catherine Rayner’s latest picture book.

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Rayner’s book follows the story of a giraffe called Abigail who loves to count. But when she tries couting zebra’s stripes and cheetah’s spots, they just won’t stand still… The book boasts page after page of stunningly beautiful illustrations that throw you right into the African bush where cheetahs race and zebras roam. There’s an energy about each page – whether it’s cheetah whooshing past or zebra gallavanting in the flowers – that carries the reader forward with the story. We may be learning to count with Abigail but we are also delving into foreign lands where wild beasts are wandering free.

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There’s a fabulous fold-up page (a must for the animal with the longest neck!) and the colours Rayner uses make her scenes totally magical. I mean, any book that ends with a purple-blue sky full of stars and a handful of friends beneath it, is bound to win you over. This is a truly beautiful picture book, both in its story and message and in its gorgeous illustrations. And to celebrate its wonderfulness, Little Tiger Press is giving away a print of Abigail (as below) to the person who can come up with a name for the gorgeous ladybird in the book. It can be a first name and a surname – or just one name. Please send entries to abi@moontrug.com by 31st August. And as one final treat, Moontrug is thrilled to be able to share an interview with CILIP Kate Greenaway medal winner, Catherine Rayner, below:

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MOONTRUG: You say on your website that you often draw inspiration from your pets and sometimes even use them as models. If you don’t have a giraffe as a pet at home (please say you do!), what made you decide to use one as your main character?

CATHERINE RAYNER: I’m afraid I don’t have one as a pet (although I really wish I did!). I was inspired to use a giraffe for many reasons… They are striking, beautiful, graceful and full of character. I also adore the colours. I just love giraffes I could draw them all day long! 

MOONTRUG: I grew up in Scotland and have been to Edinburgh zoo many times (the penguins are my favourites). What is the most beautiful animal you’ve seen either in Edinburgh zoo or in the wild?

CATHERINE RAYNER: This is a very difficult question!  In terms of native creatures, there is something very special about seeing hares in the wild; I think they are magical.  In the zoo, it would be between giraffes, zebras and tigers as their markings fascinate me (the penguins never fail to make me smile though!). I love watching the way their stripes and splotches change shape when they move. They are all so lovely to draw.

MOONTRUG: I could spend hours looking at the stars and I LOVED the way Abigail and her friends counted them at the end of your book. Where was the best starry night that you’ve ever seen?

CATHERINE RAYNER: It would have to be one night whilst I was camping on a small island off Sicily. The stars were the biggest and brightest I’ve ever seen, I love the night sky. 

MOONTRUG: Abigail is very good at counting. Were you good at Maths at school?

CATHERINE RAYNER: No – I was useless! Maths is absolutely not my strong point I’m afraid! 

MOONTRUG: The ladybird in your book is very cool. Does he or she have a name?

CATHERINE RAYNER: The ladybird doesn’t have a name at the moment. She is a girl though – I called her Miss Ladybird whilst I was drawing her, but she could really do with a better name!  Perhaps I should run a competition for that one… 

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From left-handed polar bears to epic fantasy novel: Simon David Eden…

Everyone goes through a ‘weird stage’ when they’re growing up. For Moontrug it was dying her hair pink and developing an obsession with strawberry lip balms – and for Simon David Eden it was singing songs about left-handed polar bears while dressed in a lab-coat… Yes, that really happened. Thankfully though, it didn’t last, and since bagging a MA Distinction in Film, producing a BAFTA winner, and heading off to Hollywood as a screenwriter, Eden has written a children’s book, The Savage Kingdom, the first in his Animalian series. In this contemporary fantasy adventure, the animals of the wild are forced to rise up to challenge mankind’s reign as the dominant species on the Earth, only to find themselves battling an even more formidable foe who has lived in our shadows since the dawn of time. This is a tale about courage, humanity, ecology, a mysterious, ancient Lionman, a terrifying quest, and a gifted child who will stop at nothing to be reunited with her feline friend. Gripping stuff – and Moontrug is excited to announce that Eden is guest blogging on Moontrug TODAY. Check out the below…

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Greetings Moontruggers! Great site. And I’m a big fan of the ‘inventing words’ concept as that’s something I do all the time. As luck would have it, mostly it’s just the family felines Bea & Mosey who get to hear it. That said, there are several invented nouns in my debut novel The Savage Kingdom (skerrets and night-nifts) that I’m hoping will, in the fullness of time, become a part of the lexicon. Now that’s a word I like, even though it sounds like it ought to mean something else. The lexicon, a hairless nocturnal shrew found in Patagonia. The lexicon, the world’s first fully collapsible fold away solar powered car that fits in a back-pack. Then there’s the Mexican Lexicon

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You see what our cats have to put up with. Not that they’re averse to chipping in with some interesting tongue twisting exercises themselves. Anyone who thinks that kitties just mew hasn’t spent any quality time with one. Our two chirp, snore, chitter, whine, hiss, groan, growl, hiccup and even howl on occasion. Often as not when they’re sprawled on my desk – between me and the keyboard – while I’m trying to write. And I wouldn’t have it any other way of course. They’re a constant inspiration. And the fact that they have the run of the house and the sprawling cottage garden and even the open fields and farmland beyond, yet they choose to settle wherever I’m working, gives me a little warm glow every day. We’re pals. We hang out. We often eat at the same time (though not off the same crockery I hasten to add) and when it’s hot, we siesta on the sofa together. Sounds kinda crazy? Well, I’m not alone in recognising the benefits of sharing my creative space with a feline.

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History is littered with the moggy as muse as the following ode will demonstrate…

 

 ‘The Artists’ Mewwwws

 

What is it with art and the feline muse?

Those bewhiskered creatures who purr at our shoes,

Demanding a snuggle when they know we’re creating,

Or some grub, or a treat, or some lengthy play-baiting.

For a while I thought well, perhaps it’s just me,

But no the tradition’s as old as can be.

I’ll share a few names and you’ll see what I mean,

I’ve a minute or two while the bowls are licked clean.

Now take the photographer Cartier-Bresson,

He learned early on a most valuable lesson.

For all the kings and wars and street paupers in hats,

The muse that amused was always his cats.

And the painter Paul Klee had a kitty called Bimbo,

And without fluffy Tyke, Kerouac was in limbo.

Colette was devoted and so too was Plath,

And Hemingway probably had cats in the bath!

As he housed twenty-three, though Snowball was king,

Jean Paul Satre had Henri a dear little thing.

And you know the old master of mystery called Poe,

His cat Catterina was always on show.

Leonardo Da Vinci was equally smitten,

And for Lessing, Capote and Borges a kitten,

Was the purrrrrrr-fect source of inspiration,

For Mark Twain too this admiration,

Is as clear as white cat hairs on a black sweater,

Philip K Dick, well he likes nothing better.

So too Joyce Carol Oates, and Herman Hesse,

Okay there’s the offerings which can be a mess(a),

And hairballs and retching and snags in the rugs,

But you can dig out the tics and get rid of the bugs.

Else why would so many choose a cat as a pal?

Like Oates, Edward Lear and Dali et al.

Well the truth is they choose us, aye there’s the rub,

And the essence of Jean Cocteau’s ‘Cat Friends Club’.

So the next time you pick up that novel you’re reading,

Spare a thought, it was written while the moggies were feeding!

 

Simon David Eden, July 2014

The Savage Kingdom is out now and keep your eyes open for Moontrug’s review this summer…

Magic under a sea studded with stars: ‘The Sea Tiger’

When Moontrug saw Waterstones Bookseller, Leilah Skelton, write: ‘Each page turn of The Sea Tiger took my breath away…the “watery” oil-blurred technique and turquoise/sepia colour palate make me want to hang every single page as a work of art’ she knew she had to get a copy of The Sea Tiger ASAP. That day in fact. And as Moontrug sat down to read it hours later, she knew that Skelton was absolutely right about this book: author and illustrator, Victoria Turnbull, has produced a truly sparkling debut…

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Oscar and the Sea Tiger are best friends and together they travel to extraordinary places under a sea studded with stars. Each page draws the reader deeper into a world of circus shells and carousels, past shoals of shimmering fish and clusters of sea horses. Moontrug read the book at lunch-time in London – cars were zooming past the house and taxi horns blaring, but Moontrug was so far under the sea that all she could hear were turtles croaking and whale song rising and falling with the current.

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The Sea Tiger and Oscar’s world is brimming with magic and wonder, just like Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, and the colours Turnbull uses are mesmerising: turquoises, corals, deep greens. It’s impossible not to lose yourself in her book. The Sea Tiger is beautiful – a large and mysterious creature (a bit like C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, a bit like something even more magical and unknown), and Oscar, with his punk of orange hair and gorgeous stripy mer tail, is adorable.

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The language is simple but powerful – and lines like Sea Tiger’s ‘When we’re together, anything is possible’ and ‘Where I lead, Oscar follows’ reminded Moontrug of Pooh’s friendship with Piglet. Because although the Sea Tiger shows Oscar the secrets of the ocean, Oscar has no other friends. And so it’s up to the Sea Tiger to lead Oscar on a journey towards making one. From start to finish – MAGICAL – a truly gorgeous debut and Moontrug can’t wait to see what Turnbull’s next book holds…

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Dare you enter the Shadow Forest…

As well as full moons, hidden caves and Oreos, Moontrug also likes forests (good for building treehouses in), Norwegians (she swims in the Norwegian fjords every summer) and pixies (they rock). And so when she opened up Matt Haig’s 8-12s children’s book, Shadow Forest, and discovered that it contains all of those things and more (think Snow Witches, Huldres and Tomtegubbs), she knew she’d struck upon something good.

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Following the death of their parents (in a most unusual series of events), Samuel Blink and his sister, Martha, must leave England to live in Norway – with an aunt they barely know, in a remote village beside a large, dark forest. Forced to eat smelly, brown cheese and banned from entering the forest, Martha stops speaking altogether and Samuel is bored and miserable. But when Martha runs off into the forbidden forest and is captured by hideous huldres, Samuel must delve inside and bring her back…

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Matt Haig’s narrative voice is perfectly poised between dark humour and magical adventure. For example, shortly after Martha and Samuel lose their parents, Haig talks of their other relatives’ unfortunate demises: ‘Granddad had a heart attack carrying a box of ornamental gnomes into his back garden… Nan, two months later, tripped over one of the gnomes and fell head-first into the greenhouse.’ And then, just pages later, Samuel is whisked away from gnomes and greenhouses to the magical depths of the Shadow Forest: ‘[Samuel] stood still for a moment, looking at the rough trunks of the pine trees… They stood like awesome gateposts to the shadowy and unknown land beyond. He thought he heard something, a strange and distant calling that didn’t seem to belong to the world he knew.’

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The Shadow Forest is full of magical beasts – of sun-fearing creatures who invent a language called ‘Okokkbjdkzokk’ and angelic-looking Truth Pixies who cannot lie: ‘It would have been very hard to imagine that such a face could belong to a murderer, but murderers come in very many shapes and sizes. As Samuel was about to find out’. It’s a feast for the imagination and all the time ideas and characters are underpinned by amusing and often ‘rude interruptions from the author.’ The villain of the story, The Changemaker, is delightfully complex, both terrifying and pitiful, and readers will love the way his past is gradually revealed. And set alongside the hilarity of creatures like the Truth Pixie (‘All that was good has been lost… Oh, it is terrible. I am terrible. How I would love to see your head explode’) you have the quiet power of individuals like the Snow Witch: ‘The words she uttered seemed to chill the prison because they told the deepest secrets of the forest’.

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From the absurd to the sublime (Moontrug LOVED how the Snow Witch flaked the moon), Shadow Forest is an entertaining and magical adventure, perfect for children hungry for a mystical plot told by a tongue-in-cheek author. Small wonder it was hailed winner of the Gold Smarties Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award, and shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal…

‘Travel well’ – Allan Boroughs on the importance of having adventures

Every so often Moontrug posts a photo up onto Facebook or Twitter which gives a glimpse into the adventures behind her writing – whether it’s learning to ‘play the bones’ inside a Romany gypsy’s wagon or hang-gliding over Rio-de-Janeiro…

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And recently Moontrug has noticed that there’s another author out there who loves exploring and going on adventures just as much as she does. Cue Allan Boroughs, best-selling author of Ironheart. Boroughs openly claims that he likes to write books ‘in which a lot of stuff happens’ and having adventures – jumping out of his comfort zone and into unexplored territory – is what makes his stories come alive. As he says, ‘the key to a successful adventure story is to give the reader a sense of being “on the journey” and to achieve that, first hand experience is the most essential tool I have.’

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Moontrug met up with Boroughs to chat books and adventures and as Boroughs sat on the sofa chatting about swimming in the Antarctic Ocean (WITHOUT a wetsuit!) and camping with Mongols, it was hard to believe that ‘by day’ the man runs a Management Consultancy firm. Moontrug knows next to nothing about management, consultancy, finance or business but if she knew her consultant was a dare-devil explorer for much of his time, she’d most definitely invest/sign up/enlist/shuffle tight – whatever the management consultancy expression might be.

Ice plungeBoroughs seconds after his Antarctic plunge

Boroughs’ first book, Ironheart, follows the story of thirteen-year-old India Bentley whose father goes missing while prospecting for oil in Siberia. Little does India know that her father was actually searching for Ironheart, a legendary fortress containing the secrets of the old world. Along with tech-hunter, Verity Brown, and her android, Calculus, a killer from the old world turned protector in the new, India must make the journey to remote Siberia to try to find her father and finish his work. Now, Boroughs didn’t lock himself up in a candle-lit room and listen to whale songs until inspiration came. He went out and found it – and shamans, pirated ice rigs and a lost fortress were the result of his travels in Siberia, China and Mongolia.

ice caveBoroughs on a rib amongst the Antarctic icebergs

The sequel to Ironheart, called Bloodstone, is out January 2015 and Boroughs journeyed to Antarctica to research it. Although the trip got off to a tentative start in Chile (‘Getting off the plane I help an old lady with her bags and she responds by groping my bum’) he soon found himself writing beside penguins and watching enormous whales slink between groaning icebergs. Boroughs admits that he could have found out a lot of the research on the internet but he says, ‘These journeys are not just about collecting data… What first-hand research [gives me] is a much deeper sense of place that is grounded in all the senses. No Google search can ever tell you what it feels like to breathe the gin-clear air of the Antarctic, how a Siberian meat market smells or what fermented mare’s milk actually tastes like (yoghurt and cat pee in case you were wondering).’

penguinBoroughs writing beside a penguin

Even though Boroughs’ worlds are imaginary, he understands that children have ‘an obsessive need to test the walls of an imaginary world to see if they will hold the weight of their dreams,’ and so all being well, Boroughs hopes to journey to Venezuela to research the last book in the trilogy, Rain God. Moontrug is pretty sure a visit to Mount Roraima in Venezuela will help him build a world as evocative and brilliant as the one in Ironheart – and in the meantime, Moontrug is planning a trip to St Kilda, an isolated archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean, home to hidden caves and mysterious ruins – just the sort of adventure material needed to build the sequel to Oracle Bones... 

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A wowzer-snuggle of picture books from Little Tiger Press…

Moontrug is a BIG fan of collective nouns. Among her favourites are: a grumble of pugs, a smack of jellyfish, a knot of toads and an unkindness of ravens. Naughty ravens. Recently though, Moontrug has coined another collective noun – for the array of stunningly gorgeous picture books on her desk: a ‘wowzer-snuggle’ of picture books (thanks to the Book Sniffing Pug for help in coining that). Up first is Tracey Corderoy and Tim Warnes’ Why – because ‘why’ opens up a whole world of possibilities: Why don’t aeroplanes fall out of the sky? Why do waves roll? Why do lambs skip? Just the kind of questions Archie puzzles over in this gorgeous picture book.

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Archie is a rhino with a lot of questions: Why is milk splashy? Why are there so many bubbles when you wash up? Why do dropped things go smash? Why is mud so sticky? And through a series of beautifully illustrated pages (think a rhino with a bubble beard and a tiger teddy eating jam on toast), Archie tries to make sense of the world. His questions are the type of ones that rumble inside young children’s minds and Moontrug loved that Archie’s imagination was left to go WILD in the museum. Why is a delightful picture book, perfect for curious kids – and packed full of awesome animals: a bespectacled chicken, a string of obedient mice and a studious-looking antelope…

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Next up on Moontrug’s picture book raid is Alison Brown’s Mighty Mo – cue an adorable racoon undergoing an identity crisis. At Golden Dodo zoo, rhinos skate on ice, hippos serve ice creams and gorillas bake scrumptious cakes. But little Mo is unsure what makes him special. Surely there must be something that makes him great? But when Mo tries his hand at making icecreams (soooooo want a Triple Whippy right now by the way), things go terribly wrong. Balloon-blowing doesn’t go much better and before long Mo is truly miserable. But when Big Ron makes off with the golden dodo, Mo comes into his own. This is a lovely picture book with beautiful illustrations and a very real message: everyone has something ‘mighty’ about them.

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Last in the wowzer-snuggle of picture books is Sue Mongredien and Nick East’s Harry and the Monster. Having grown up in a farmhouse in the Scottish highlands with two brothers who invented stories of a spindly-fingered witch called ‘Cackly’ living in the attic, Moontrug was no stranger to nightmares as a child. And it turns out poor Harry doesn’t like night-times much either. But when his mother tells him to imagine the monster with pink pants on its head, Harry is hopeful the monster in his nightmares might not be quite as scary… But this purple-haired, snaggle-toothed, green-eared monster is NOT impressed when Harry hurls a pair of flowery knickers onto his head – and he frightens Harry even more. When Harry’s Dad tries to suggest imagining the monster stuck in jelly, Harry gives it a shot. But this only makes things worse. Maybe – just maybe – a cross mummy can sort the monster out once and for all… This is a fantastic picture book – and the gloriously colourful monster will stay in kids’ dreams long after they finish the last page – not as some bone-munching beast but as a friend in the darkness who will take children on adventures through snow-capped mountains on starry nights…

A BIG thank you to Little Tiger Press for sending Moontrug such a delightful wowzer-snuggle of picture books.

 

A book that will ‘make your life larger’…

Moontrug is a big fan of sticky things: toffee, honey, magnets, post-it notes, raspberry jam… But top of the Sticky Things chart has to be STICKY BOOKS – books that stick with you long after you’ve read them, that open your eyes and widen your life with every turn of the page, without you even realising. When Moontrug was little, the Northern Lights series by Philip Pullman had a lot of stickiness about it – as did C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – they are stories full of adventure, discovery, friendship and hope. Just recently though, Moontrug came across a book that was as sticky as a pot full of treacle, a book this year’s Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize Winner, Katherine Rundell, said this about: ‘I love this book so much that I have about 10 extra copies, to foist on passing children and say “this will make your life larger.” ‘ It’s a book Moontrug’s agent raves about and Michael Morpurgo repeatedly praises: Eva Ibbotson’s Journey To The River Sea.

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Moontrug can’t help feeling that although she learnt a fair bit at school, there was A LOT of very useless information shoved her way during lessons:

  • Pythagorus’ theorem (still no idea what it is but Pythagorus is potentially quite a cool name for a character)
  • The pluperfect tense (again, still no idea what is it but it’s fun to say)
  • Mg – the chemical symbol for Magnesium (irrelevant and nothing cool about it)

If only the teachers had passed me Eva Ibbotson’s books back then – because often the real lessons in life happen when we don’t realise we’re being taught – when we’re thrown headlong into adventures like Maia’s in Journey To The River Sea. Maia, an orphan, can’t wait to reach her distant relatives a thousand miles up the Amazon. She imagines a loving family with whom she will share great adventures. Instead she finds two spiteful cousins who see the jungle as the enemy and refuse to go outdoors. But the wonders of the rainforest more than make up for the hideous Carters. And when Maia meets a mysterious boy who lives alone on the wild river shores, she begins a spectacular journey to the heart of an extraordinary world.

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Maia is a gem of a character. Although life has dealt her a tricky hand – she’s an orphan who is bullied and neglected by those she hoped would love her – she is kind, loyal, humble and FULL of adventurous spirit: ‘ “When I get to Brazil I still have to travel a thousand miles along the river between trees that lean over the water, and there will be scarlet birds and sandbanks and creatures like big guinea pigs…” She broke off and grinned at her classmates. “And after that, I don’t know, but it’s going to be all right.” ‘ You wouldn’t catch her playing Angry Birds on an iPad; she’d be out in the jungle exploring hidden lagoons and swinging from twisted vines… Unlike her spectacularly odious cousins – the kind of materialistic girls who today would spend all their time taking selfies in the girls’ loos. Ibbotson creates two clones of Violet Elizabeth from Just William – and Moontrug LOVED the way the Carter twins hoarded their money from each other and ‘smelled violently of Passion in the Night perfume’ at the Keminsky’s party…

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Ibbotson’s characterisation is stunning; she manages to conjure whole characters from single sentences. Take Aunt Jones, The Basher, known so because ‘she bashed people’ or Westwood’s previous heir, Dudley: ‘he rode horses with large behinds, he shot things – and of course he was the apple of his father’s eye.’  But perhaps Ibbotson’s most memorable character creation is the brilliantly dreadful Mr Carter – a character who collects the glass eyeballs of famous dead people! So sinister… Set alongside him and his awful wife, we have Miss Minton: ‘the tall, gaunt woman looked more like a rake or a nutcracker than a human being… with a fearsome hat pin in the shape of a Viking spear.’ Her austere exterior is fabulously enriched by her sense of humour though. When Maia asks how she broke her umbrella, Miss Minton replies: ‘I broke it on the back of a boy called Henry Hartington.’ But contrary to how Miss Minton first appears, she is the gateway to adventure for Maia – how could she not be with a trunk packed full to the brim of books. Her words are imbued with a proverbial wisdom: ‘People make their own worlds’ and ‘Nonsense… Anyone who can walk can go on expeditions’ – and Moontrug was just delighted when she sent a certain something floating away down the Amazon…

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Perfectly contrasting the Carter’s world of insect disinfectant and silk dresses there is the jungle, and Ibbotson’s descriptions conjure up exotic birds, slinking rivers and long-hidden lagoons – even if you’re reading the book on a London bus: ‘Then he set the canoe hard at the curtain of green and vanished into his secret world.’ Maia’s sense of wonder at the beauty of the rainforest is tangible: ‘she heard rushes making a dry sound against the side of the canoe, felt branches brushing her arm… They were in a still lagoon of clear, blue water, shielded from the outside by a ring of great trees. The only entrance, the passage through the rushes, seemed to have closed behind them. They might have been alone in the world.’

parrot

The book may not be filled with the magic of dragons and pixies – but the magic that lies at its heart is a very real one – the magic of having adventures, forming unlikely friendships, being brave and living life to the full. As Finn’s father told him: ‘Seize the Day. Get the best out of it, take hold of it and live in it as hard as you can.’ And that’s a magic worth believing in… Ibbotson doesn’t sugar coat adventures though – she owns up to the unexpected difficulties life often deals us but as Maia so wisely realises: ‘We mustn’t only remember the good bits… We must remember the bad bits too so that we know it was real.’