Book review – Dreaming the Bear by Mimi Thebo

Dreaming The Bear by Mimi TheboSometimes a book can sneak into your consciousness, and warm the parts of you that you hadn’t even realised were cold.

So it is with Mimi Thebo’s Dreaming the Bear, a story beset with snow and wilderness but very much rooted in contemporary life.

Darcy is a British girl displaced by the careers of her parents to live far from the shopping malls she’s most at home in. Instead she’s struggling to get to grips with life in the winter of Yellowstone National Park America.

We meet Darcy when she’s recovering from a bout of pneumonia and is trying to build up her strength though daily walks recommended by her doctor. Everyone is busy, so she goes alone, grumbling inwardly about boredom, tiredness and missing everything she’s left behind in England. As frustration takes hold she decides to climb a steep hill, something she’s been warned against as her lungs are still “crinkly and wet” from her illness.

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How to write children’s books

Sunshine snail cr Judy DarleyI’ve decided to treat myself to a special gift by signing up to Rachel Carter’s Children’s Book workshop at Bristol Folk House.

Taking place on Saturday 12th March 2016, Children’s Book in a Day promises inspiring exercises that will help you explore aspects of writing “such as character, setting and plot.”

Ethan's Voice coverRachel Carter is the author of children’s novel Ethan’s Voice, about a boy who cannot speak. I was keen to discover more about the course teacher, so got in touch with Rachel to find out what drives her own writing.

“I was always drawn to creative writing as a child,” she says. “When I was twelve, I was chosen to be sent on a residential writing course in a big old house for a week. I think that experience sowed a seed.”

Rachel grew up surrounded by animals and fields on a Somerset smallholding. “There was lots of space and time to reflect. I worked in publishing for years, including children’s non-fiction publishing. I decided instead of editing other people’s work my heart lay in creative writing and I was drawn to writing for children because it felt like such a flexible medium…a really broad genre.”

She admits that writing for children is challenging. “I think it’s harder than writing for adults because you have to tailor your language and so on to the age of the children you’re targeting. It’s very competitive and hard to make a living just from being a writer. There is a lot of rewriting involved as with any form of writing.”

Rachel CarterThe best things, Rachel suggests, are “being able to lock yourself away, or sit in a cafe, and focus on creating something you really want to create; meeting children who genuinely love what you have written, and going into schools to do author visits.”

The course is designed to provide the tools needed to start writing your children’s book. “It’s a combination of discussion, imparted advice and inspirational creative writing exercises,” says Rachel, who is also available for school author visits, talks and workshops. “It covers character, plot, setting, the ages and stages and the industry/getting published side of things. It is a fun, uplifting day that uses pictures and objects, and guided exercises to prompt the imagination.”

Sounds wonderful to me.

Children’s Book in a Day at Bristol Folk House is on Saturday 12th March 2016. Taking part costs from £18.10 to £25.90. Find out how to book your place at www.bristolfolkhouse.co.uk.

Book reviews – Thoroughly modern Miffy

Miffy activity booksHow do you take a beloved character and her endeavours and update them for a modern audience? In the case of poet and author Tony Mitton’s work on Miffy, it seems the answer is with great respect, grace and subtlety.

Of all the children’s books I’ve encountered, the Miffy books by Dutch artist Dick Bruna have embodied the genre with the greatest restraint – by which I mean that he invented something good, and ran with it.

The Miffy original artwork is key here, with simple shapes, bold colours and sharp outlines – not unlike the later work of Matisse who so inspired Bruna – just take a peek at the legendary ‘Miffy At The Gallery’ to see what I mean!

Miffy at the Gallery

The text is far from secondary, but works in seamless harmony with the images, with clean, straightforward ideas and words telling uncomplicated yet pleasing stories about adventures any child can relate to.

Tony’s work on the new releases from Miffy’s UK publisher Simon and Schuster has ensured a tightness of phrase and clarity of language that modern children will enjoy – with plenty of questions included to ensure that reading these books is an interactive experience.

Two of the releases in particular hold interactivity at their centre – Miffy Draws: a wipe clean book (complete with a special Miffy pen!), and Miffy Outdoors, a sticker scene book with 50 individual stickers using Dick Bruna’s artwork. Both encourage children to get involved creating the scenes Miffy explores, and think about their own favourite pastimes.

Miffy Draws sunny and snowy

I think they’re great fun, and work beautifully with Tony’s prose – “Miffy is sailing on the sea! What can you add to the picture? Maybe you could draw a friendly whale or a quacking duck.”

It’s the perfect balance of informative and open to prompt kids to use their imaginations and thoroughly engage. I have a sense these will become treasured family heirlooms, packed with children’s early artwork – and the sweet stickers, which include a gorgeous one of Miffy in a bright yellow tent, are bound to be collectors’ items in years to come. But only if no one peels a single sticker, and where’s the fun in that?

Miffy stickers

They books are wonderful gifts for children, artists, or anyone with an enduring fondness for the little white rabbit with an inquisitive nature.

Miffy Draws and Miffy Outdoors are both available to buy from Amazon.

Find out how you can win a family trip to Amsterdam and Utrecht.

Win a trip to the home of Miffy

Tony Mitton meets MiffyRemember Miffy? The white rabbit from Utrecht, near Amsterdam, embarked on a mass of adventures in 1955 thanks to illustrator, graphic designer and writer Dick Bruna. And now, prompted by her UK publisher Simon and Schuster, she’s setting out again, ready to enthrall a brand new generation.

How could they resist? I’m not sure I can. From Miffy At The Gallery (pictured below) to Miffy At The Zoo, this is one curious and cultural bunny. With her 60th anniversary on the horizon, award-winning poet Tony Mitton has produced updated text modern readers will enjoy. The new books promise to interest children in a wide range of activities, while pleasing adults too.

Miffy at the Gallery

In case you were wondering, that’s Tony pictured at the top of this post, shaking hands with his new muse – Tony’s the one on the left 🙂

Dick Bruna at work

Dick Bruna at work

To celebrate, Waterstones is running a competition to win a weekend in Amsterdam for a family of four. The prize includes a day trip to Miffy’s home town of Utrecht to find out more about Dick Bruna, the Dutch artist who invented the fluffy adventurer to entertain his young son while on a rainy seaside holiday. He ended up writing and illustrating 32 books about the perky rabbit.

The competition runs throughout August and is open to Waterstones loyalty card members only (you can sign up for a loyalty card in any Waterstones branch or online at www.waterstonescard.com).

The winning entry will receive flights from a UK airport for a family of four, two nights in a hotel in Amsterdam, plus rail tickets to Utrecht and free entry to the Dick Bruna exhibition.

Find the full competition details here. I think it sounds well worth entering – and a great excuse to jump back into the colourful world of Miffy.

Hop by next week to read my review of the latest Miffy titles to hit the shelves.

Children’s books for adult minds – part 2

Children's Books Post2Last week I posted reviews of four of my favourite books for children and teens – the kind of writing that, in my experience, appeals to adults and young people alike. Here are four more that top my list.

If you have any suggestions for YA or children’s books you think should make it into my library, or fond memories of the ones I’ve already included, let me know by clicking on the Leave A Reply button. Thanks!

Ninety-nine Dragons by Barbara SleighNinety-nine Dragons by Barbara Sleigh

As a small child I REALLY wanted a pet dragon, so my discovery of Barbara Sleigh’s gentle adventure tale gave me a voyeuristic thrill.

On a hot summer’s night (back in the days when Britain still had summers), Ben and Beth can’t get to sleep so their dad suggests counting sheep. So far, so ordinary. But Ben chooses to count dragons instead, which is fine except that the smallest, 99th dragon, doesn’t quite make it over the gate, and then they work out that the sheep and the dragons must be in the same place, and that dragons love nothing better to eat than sheep.

The only thing for it is to each count the other jumping over a gate and go to warn to the sheep…

My Sister Sif by Ruth ParkMy Sister Sif by Ruth Park

This teen novel is a more grown up version of the mermaid stories I grew up on, which is possibly why I found it so entrancing. Add to that an exotic location and a waft of ecology and I was utterly transported.

And then there are the Menehune, and the wildlife, and feisty Riko whose sister Sif of the title is more sea-dweller than land. It simultaneously fuelled my love of wildlife, travel and (though I would not have wanted to admit it as a teenager) fairy tales.

There’s plenty of drama as Riko fights to save both the tropical wonderland she grew up in, and the family (which includes a few dolphins) she adores from the encroaches of the modern world, but in the end the real threat comes from love.

The Owl Service by Alan GarnerThe Owl Service by Alan Garner

I only discovered this book towards the end of last year, when a friend mentioned the impact it had made on her as a child.

Reading it as an adult I found myself gleaning tips on how to enthral readers, offering just enough information to keep them hooked without giving the game away.

Following the discovery of a set of crockery patterned with owls that seem to disappear at whim, Alison, Roger and Gwyn find themselves locked into the equally mysterious patterns of an age-old feud that threatens to destroy them all.

Owls, plates, ancient legends and the glorious Welsh countryside… How could you resist?

The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughreanThe Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean 

The tale begins with Paul Roux, nicknamed Pepper, reaching his 14th birthday – a momentous event considering he’s been told since birth that he would die before this date. But when his birthday arrives with Pepper Roux intact, he flees and begins a series of adventures, hiding in other people’s lives.

It’s a wonderfully imaginative journey that requires the reader to leave their grown up skepticism at the door and accept Geraldine’s reminder that: “People see what they expect to see. Don’t they? Or do they see what they choose?”

Read more of this review.

Discover the first four books on my ‘Children’s books for adult minds’ list.

Children’s books for adult minds – part 1

Children's books post1I had originally intended this to be a post about the top few books I remember meaning a lot to me growing up, and a handful I’ve discovered in more recent years. However, scouring my bookshelves I re-discovered too many to whittle them down to any fewer than eight.

The idea for this post came from a discussion I had at a party recently, when I explained I was in the midst of writing one book for teens and one for adults, and had just completed one for adults with a child protagonist. It made us laugh, but the thought stayed with me that long before so-called ‘crossover novels’, there were many books my parents had introduced to me, or that I discovered by myself, that were written so beautifully they seemed to transcend age-appropriateness and just appeal to everyone. Clever.

Here are the first four that remain favourites for me. Four more will follow next week.

Halfling coverHalfling by Rebecca Lloyd

Danny Broadaxe is an ordinary 11-year-old boy, but his life is anything but ordinary. Since the death of his mother in a car accident that also put his father in a wheel chair, Danny has been trying to take care of his dad while dealing with his grief on top of the usual trials of school and life.

His story, however, is far from bleak, Rebecca Lloyd’s delicate touch ensures that a genuine love resonates between Danny and his dad, while a thirst for knowledge about the natural world keeps Danny enthralled in the discoveries he makes all around him. And then he discovers a secret one of the neighbours has been hiding.

Read more of this review.

Shine by Jill Paton WalshShine by Jill Paton Walsh

It’s so long since I read this book, yet it made such an impression on me I can replay most of in my mind. Pattie and her family have to move to another planet as Earth goes cold and an unnamed disaster looms. They’re each allowed to bring one book, and everyone is horrified when they discover Pattie brought an empty notebook. Such a waste! But months later… but that would be spoiling the surprise.

This beautiful, poetic little book shares the experiences of the families as they seek ways to survive on the planet that Pattie, as the youngest child (other than the babies) names Shine.  It’s a gentle adventure full of curious challenges (the trees here need to be split rather than hewed and lamplight seeps through their translucent planks) with gorgeous illustrations by Sue Smith. Perhaps that’s partly why the scenes are still so vivid in my mind today.

BTW, it seems that since I got my copy way back when, the book has been reissued with its original title, The Green Book.

The Ordinary Princess by MM KayeThe Ordinary Princess by MM Kaye

I utterly adored this book as a child. The idea of a run-of-the-mill heroine (Amy – rather than Amethyst) trouncing around climbing trees, pretending to be a kitchen maid and eschewing all the usual traits of being a princess was refreshingly different to the perfect, beautiful images of perfect princesses (“with “long golden hair and blue eyes” and “extremely dull” to quote Amy’s mate Peregrine) I’d been presented with up until then.

 

 

Double Vision by Diana HendryDouble Vision by Diana Hendry

Two sisters, one aged 8, the other 15, rampage through a 1960s summer by the sea seeing the world around them in two very different ways. Eliza, the elder, is in love, entranced by Beatnik Jake who lodges in the attic of her friend/foe Jo.

Lily, the younger, is more concerned with nightmares, curses and a shrunken head. Through it all sweeps the oldest sister Rosa, as haughty as she is glamorous, until she too falls in love.

I re-read this book recently and actually I found I enjoyed it more as an adult.