Friday, 26 February 2021

The Dragon and Her Boy by Penny Chrimes - author interview and review

I was delighted to be asked to take part in the blog tour for the release of the new book by Penny Chrimes, The Dragon and Her Boy. It was a pleasure to interview Penny and ask her about the book, as well as about her future writing plans.

How would you describe The Dragon and Her Boy to someone who hasn’t yet read it?

The Dragon and Her Boy is a magical historical adventure about Stick who works as a tumbler - or a street acrobat - with his friends Spud and Sparrow. They are entertaining the crowds at a fair one very hot day in August when the earth gives a mighty heave; by the time the dust settles, Spud and Sparrow have disappeared.

Stick spots a narrow crack in the ground and summons up all his courage to go down in search of his fellow tumblers; instead, he falls into the lair of an ancient, very touchy dragon.

At first it takes all Stick’s wits to avoid the dragon eating him, but soon he realises that she is fleeing the same evil figure that haunts his own nightmares - and who is now stalking the streets of London. 

Stick vows to save the dragon, with the help of his fellow gutterlings. But it means facing up to the secrets of his own dark past.   

The ‘time-slip’ 19th century London setting feels essential to the book. Why did you choose to set it during this period, and what do you think it brings to the story?

I have always loved the rumbustious anarchy of the Georgians as well as the energy and drive of the Victorians, so I’m afraid I have prigged bits from both periods and invented a king to go with it - King Billy who sleeps in his feather bed at Buckanory Palace and holds his hankersniff to his face when he drives past his hungry subjects in his gold carriage.

I have lived in South London for many years and I love wandering the streets - especially the City where you can still take a detour down a narrow alley-way and find yourself two centuries back in time. I can feel stories sneaking up on me from the shadows.  

The real-life street-kids, or gutterlings, would have led miserable lives - and I never forget that in the books - but without parents to tell them to get to bed on time or to come in for their tea, it frees them up to have larks and adventures. They have to live on their wits, and that gives the books the spice of danger.

It also allows me to give my gutterlings a distinctive language of their own - I have a huge book of historical slang on my desk, as well as a wonderful book called Ware’s Dictionary of Slang and Phrase; the slang of that period is so vivid and funny, and it helps me to hear my characters talking.

At its heart, the book is about Stick, the main character, and his evolving relationship with the dragon. What do you think your readers might take away from this aspect of the book?

There are many things about that relationship - it is a complex one.

Very sensibly Stick is initially just worried about whether the dragon is going to eat him. It is not until quite far into the book that he begins to trust her. Dragons, after all, are notoriously cunning - and greedy.

And as for the dragon, she can’t get her head around the fact that Stick is being kind to her; ‘It is most irregular, all this helping one another…’ She’s more accustomed to knights trying to kill her and her kind.

So I suppose it’s partly about taking the time to find out why people (or dragons) behave in a certain way. As Stick gets to know her he begins to understand her fears, her vulnerability, and the loneliness of being the last of her kind.

Meeting the dragon - and facing his fears - turns Stick into a hero.

Being published soon after 2020’s Tiger Heart, The Dragon and Her Boy is your second book about the gutterlings, a group of young children who live on the streets of London. Although each story is fully self-contained and features a different character as the main protagonist, it feels as if there could be more stories to be written. What are your future writing plans and do they include further adventures of the gutterlings?

There is already a third one written - watch this space! - but I can’t say too much about that one at the moment I’m afraid!

As I wrote Tiger Heart and The Dragon and Her Boy the characters of the children in the gang - Fly and Stick, Tree and Cess, Squinty and Bandy - took on lives of their own, and I am always fizzing with ideas about their future adventures by the time I finish each book.

I have also been writing a book for older readers over the last few months - a kind of Regency romp crossed with Gothic mystery - which has been such fun!

I suspect that you’ve been able to do a fair bit of reading over the past year or so. Are there any children’s authors or books that you believe have had a significant influence on your writing style?

Oh the list is endless! Like so many authors, I was a passionate reader as a child, and I often re-read those books still. Joan Aiken was probably my all-time favourite - The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea. Lots of historical authors like Leon Garfield, who is less well known now, but whose stories and use of language still send shivers down my spine.

But I have loved reading amazing authors like Frances Hardinge, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Struan Murray, Katherine Rundell. I always try to catch up with new books when I’m between books of my own, and in the last few weeks I have really enjoyed The Valley of Lost Secrets, The Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, When Life Gives You Mangoes, Darwin’s Dragons … I’m half way through The Girl Who Speaks Bear, and The Last Bear is next on my list.

So many great books - so little time!


Review of The Dragon and Her Boy

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Tiger Heart, last year's Branford Boase Award nominated debut from Penny, I was absolutely thrilled to be sent a preview copy of The Dragon and Her Boy, which is set in the same world and features many recurring characters.

The story is set in and around 19th century London, although there's only a vague resemblance to the London that features in the history books. Stick, the main protagonist of the story, finds himself under the city streets, alongside a tired and increasingly frustrated dragon who's been trapped for several days. His options are limited, basically he either frees the dragon or ends up as her lunch. Although the two characters initially circle each other warily, they soon realise that, without trust, neither of them will escape their perilous situation.

Most of my favourite children's books focus on the importance of relationships (Varjak Paw and Edward Tulane, for example), which is one of the reasons that I found The Dragon and her Boy to be such a delightful read. Stick has to navigate his way through a wide range of relationships, including those with his fellow gutterlings (a group of children trying to survive on the harsh London streets), the villainous Sir Jasper and, most importantly, the dragon. Because he's such a kind-hearted and caring child, who shows enormous loyalty to the other gutterlings, Stick is very easy to empathise with and care about. An unexpected tragedy halfway through the book really reinforces how alone Stick and his friends are, and how every day is a literal fight for survival. The Dragon and Her Boy is a first-class adventure story that fully deserves its place in any Year 5/6 classroom library.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Bookshop Blurb by Allen Tsui

The first Bookshop Blurb of 2021 has been put together by Allen Tsui, primary and secondary computing teacher and children's book fanatic. Allen is usually to be found on Twitter (@TsuiAllen) sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge in one of the regular chats about children's books. Thank you for taking the time to write this Allen, it's hugely appreciated. If anyone else would like to write a Bookshop Blurb and help support your local independent children's bookshop, please let me know.


The Children's Bookshop

There are just some shops that don’t really grab one’s attention until becoming a teacher or parent but when they do, they make a life-long imprint. The Children’s Bookshop on Muswell Hill is just one of those stores. Filled wall to wall and floor to ceiling with a wonderful selection of the greatest children’s reads and a real treasure trove of titles for teachers of all ages.

It was on my very first in-store visit back in 2011 when I discovered my daughter was a complete Bookie Monster as the two-year-old made herself comfortable in the corner of the store, browsing the shelves of titles she was able to reach for what seemed like an eternity and carefully choosing a basket load of her favourites. The helpful and knowledgeable staff seem not only to be the most brilliant bibliophiles ever known to humankind but have the capability to obtain any title with moments of making requests. Their expertise is second to none too as I’ve experienced first-hand. Asking about an anthology of ghost stories suitable for sharing with 10 and 11-year-olds, I almost instantaneously received an e-mail reply with a range of recommendations.

Another memorable moment for me has been recommending and supplying the titles that have enabled me to make that cultural connection for my children given my own Chinese heritage. The Children’s Bookshop hasn’t sold out either, as some of their principal High Street Clone Town rivals have, filling their stores with cuddly toys to attract customers – not that there is anything wrong with having a plush mouse or Gruffalo. But for the Children’s Bookshop, it's all about the books. I'm fortunate to be within walking distance of what I think is one of Britain’s best Children’s Bookshops.

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Interview with Nigel Lungenmuss-Ward, author of Freddie's Impossible Dream

Having known Nigel for a while, mainly through us both teaching on the same stretch of the East Anglian coast, I was thrilled to hear that he's about to publish his debut picturebook. As the first stop on his blog tour, it was a pleasure to talk to him about the book, Freddie's Impossible Dream, as well as chat with his nine-year-old son, Robbie, who's also the illustrator.

Hi Nigel. It's been a while! How would you sum up your new picturebook in a sentence?

It's a story about never giving in to your worries and chasing your dreams, no matter how difficult and how far away they seem.

Having your young son as the illustrator of the book is very unusual. What's the story behind that?

Robbie’s favourite hobby is drawing. Every spare moment he gets, he has a pencil in his hand. One day, I asked him what he wanted to be when he was older. He said an animator and an illustrator. When I asked him why he had to wait until he was older, he exclaimed, "I can’t be an illustrator yet, I'm only eight years-old!" So I made a deal with him and said, "I'll write a picture book, and you can illustrate it. Then we'll try to get it published." Now, Robbie's a published illustrator at the age of nine and I wouldn't have wanted to be on this journey with anyone else.

Has being a teacher given you any insight into what makes a good picturebook?

I would say that it has. I wrote the story with the intention of using the insight I have gained from my research into reading and the knowledge I have gained through being a teacher. I just hope I pulled it off. Also, having Robbie involved was fantastic. He is the target audience and the details he added to the illustrations were wonderful. An example of this is the crab character in the book. This was all Robbie's idea and I feel it will really resonate with the children that read the book and will add a different, fun dimension to the story. 

What's next?

I already have three other stories that I've written during lockdown. I just love writing, which is very handy as I have a head full of stories. The thing I am most looking forward to is watching Robbie's drawing style develop over time. My dream is to inspire children to write their own stories because, for me, books are the greatest gift you can give.

Hello Robbie. It's lovely to meet you. How does it feel to be publishing a book with your dad?

It feels good because I'm only 9 and I'm publishing a book. Working with Dad is good because I have known him my whole life and it is great to be working with him instead of some random person who I don't know.

Why is drawing so important to you?

I love drawing because you can be very creative and imaginative with it. I am really happy with the evolution of my drawing because I have gone from drawing stick men and now I can draw someone in a landmark easily. My favourite thing to draw is Spiderman.

Do you plan to work with your dad again in the future? Are there any other authors or illustrators that you would really like to work with?

Yes, I would definitely work with him again because making this book has been really fun and I want to sell enough books to buy an Xbox Series X. I would definitely like to work with Jeff Kinney because I really like his Wimpy Kid books. I'd also love to work with Dav Pilkey because I find his books funny.

Thank you both. Very best of luck with the release of the book! I'm looking  forward to having a read.

Freddie's Impossible Dream is being released on Thursday 17th December. If you want to purchase a copy, you can get hold of it directly from Miss Wright Publishing by using this link.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Bookshop Blurb by Karl Duke

This week's Bookshop Blurb has been written by headteacher and picturebook aficionado, Karl Duke. It's a beautiful piece about a children's bookshop that clearly plays an important role in Karl's life. He's definitely worth a follow on Twitter (@KarlDuke8) as he delivers a steady stream of fantastic book recommendations. Thank you Karl.

The Rabbit Hole

To reach a reading wonderland you really do need to visit The Rabbit Hole in the North Lincolnshire market town of Brigg. Hidden amongst its well-trodden streets, this shop of wonders nestles comfortably, like a Cheshire Cat on a tree branch, amongst the local shops and close to the old market square. And once discovered, its grin can be seen for miles.

Before entering you can feel your heart race, possibly like Alice felt before clambering into the rabbit hole. For any book lover you know that feeling of anticipation: it’s not catching the white rabbit that is your aim, but getting your hands on another quality book. Perhaps the racing heart is prompted by the many temptations that will face you, like a key on a three-legged table, a ‘drink-me’ miniature potion or a small ‘eat me’ cake that tempted Carroll’s heroine.  

As a collector of children’s books those temptations are very hard to resist.

The windows display recent publications, thought provoking imagery linked to historical events or artwork produced by children. Falling further into The Rabbit Hole mirrors Alice’s fall. It is difficult to stop yourself at each shelf, at each display, at each section. Books swim around you, some close by, some out of reach for now, but in the end you land, gather yourself and are drawn to the bookshelves of dark wood cabinets and bookshelves embellished by words and illustrations from every corner of the globe. But, where to go first?

One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.

“Which road do I take?” she asked.

“Where do you want to go?” was his response.

“I don’t know,” Alice answered.

“Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”

Taking the Cheshire cat’s advice, you may start your adventure by drifting left to the picture book section which includes a wide range of books with a moral or message. This positioning is intentional; our proprietors are passionate about providing opportunities for children to learn about past and present struggles, about diversity and people overcoming adversity. There’s always a hidden gem in there – a book which will make adults and children reflect: a perfect assembly or worship book. It is what I call their Reflection Section.

Moving along, there’s a lovely range of books taking us back to our childhood, including board books for our first readers; for many this will be the start of their reading journey. There’s the traditional and the new but all aimed to enthral. The gallery of picture books then continues; it is here you may find modern classics by Shaun Tan, Aaron Becker or Jon Klassen.

Across the floor (about the length of a table suitable for a Mad-Hatter’s Tea party away) is a great selection of chapter books – distinctly lacking in celebrity, for which I give them great credit – and often promoting authors who support schools in the local area. Here, you may find a Tom Palmer, an Onjali Rauf or a Chris Riddell in amongst classic literature (you may even find one called Alice in Wonderland) and chapter books aimed at younger readers.

The Rabbit Hole’s non-fiction section continues to grow and grow, and the quality mirrors what many believe is a golden-age of writing and design in this genre; the temptation here is never less than great. Small independent publishers increasingly have a significant say in this section and the range stretches across an island display often concentrating on historical, geographical and scientific texts.

Climbing a couple of steps, you can get lost in the small but perfectly formed section of books for adults, decorated with framed illustrations from the novel which provides the shop’s inspiration. Amongst many well-known authors, there is a real emphasis on the promotion of local writers and this can be seen in many of the choices available.

Like a white rabbit you may sniff out the ‘once-loved’ room at the back of the shop. Here, you will find gems for children and grown-ups, all reasonably priced with a superb mix of the old, new and sometimes the very new. You almost need to be the size of a shrunken Alice to scramble through a gap under the stairs to find the children’s books, but that, in all honesty, is part of the fun for our young readers. And for this particular adult.

The final hidden surprise for any visitor is for those who love the sound of vinyl and music memorabilia. Take the time to climb the staircase above the ‘once-loved’ and emerge into a cavern of classics. Music is always playing providing the soundtrack to a slow peruse of records from the past.

The proprietor’s Nick and Mel have created a miniature emporium, a place that seems to change your mood as you step from the grey-paved street into its glowing warmth. The warmth not only comes from the design of the shop - the way that the bookshelves surround you and entice you in with their vibrant colour and positioning - but from Nick and Mel themselves. I have been lucky to develop a lovely friendship with them over the last couple of years and now, even when I venture in again for another browse, they greet yes, but allow time to wander and wonder; they know my habits now, they know I will spend time searching for the new or perhaps reconsider an option which I put to the side on a previous visit. I’ve witnessed first-hand their care for young children who are beginning their reading journey and have created reading groups to further engage and excite. I’ve observed their kindness and thought for the older generations who are looking for that particular read which will allow them to sink into the chair and explore.

Everyone is a special guest at their tea party.

A sign of a successful bookshop is one that makes you ‘curiouser and curiouser’ and, unlike the white rabbit who is always in a hurry, you are never in a rush to leave.

For me, that’s The Rabbit Hole.

Website: www.rabbitholebrigg.co.uk

Twitter: @Therabbits21

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Bookshop Blurbs by Dr Laura Ovenden

This week's Bookshop Blurbs are from Dr Laura Ovenden, teacher, English lead, reviewer for Just Imagine, OU/UKLA Reading Group leader and Reading for Pleasure advocate. Not only has she talked about her favourite current bookshops, she's also given an insight into the bookshops that were important to her as a child. A huge thank you to Laura for finding the time to put this together. If you'd like to write about your favourite independent children's bookshops, please get in touch.

I love the smell of new and secondhand bookshops and libraries. Growing up, Hendon Library in north London was like walking into a cathedral - a sanctuary from the traffic and bustle of The Burroughs outside.

My favourite secondhand bookshop was the Oxfam bookshop in St Ives and I was probably a bit abrupt on our last visit when I found it had been replaced with a different store, “But I don’t want kitchenware; I want Puffin paperbacks!”

When in London my local independent bookshop was Nomads on the Fulham Rd, which always seemed to welcome families and had a cavernous children’s section at the back with sofas and space for pushchairs. It was an oasis during maternity leave and went up a notch for sleep-deprived parents when a coffee shop opened inside it too. The travel book collection at Nomads was also in a league of its own, making me add to my list of countries to explore.

The Bookcase

In terms of independent bookshops, here in the Calder Valley we have The Bookcase in Hebden Bridge, which represents the pinnacle of resilience. Devastated by the floods we’ve had in recent years they have bounced back. There is a great clip of how the beautiful shop frontage doubles as a floodgate when needed: twitter.com/bbclooknorth/status/1228396992944054272. Although quite a small bookshop, it has a wonderfully curated children’s section. It also organises local author events and I spent a magical evening drinking mulled wine and hearing Horatio Clare talk abut his book The Light in the Dark.

Website: bookcasehebden.wordpress.com

Twitter: @bookcasehebden


The Book Corner

The more recently opened sister shop The Book Corner in Halifax offers even more space and a wider range of books. It occupies a corner of the magnificent Georgian Piece Hall and is light and airy. Its collection of children’s picture books is impressive. I really have to restrain myself when coming here as each table calls to me. Recommendations from staff are also thoughtful and tempting. Having recently watched an online event on Zora Neale Hurston, the owner immediately took me to copies of her work as well as Audre Lorde and others.What I have a tendency to do at all these bookshops is have a good look at the shelves of books that have been preordered by customers. Most of the books I read are recommended by people I know and peeking at the order shelf always whets my appetite for something left of field. Now you don’t get to look at those preorder shelves in large bookstores, do you?

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Bookshop Blurbs by Stephen Connor

A huge thank you to Stephen Connor, Y5/6 teacher, avid children's book reader and runner, for this week's Bookshop Blurbs. He can be found on Twitter as @StephenConnor7 or blogging about books and reading at inthetwelve.wordpress.com.

Both recommended shops are new to me but definitely sound as if they're worth visiting. They also take online and phone orders.

Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham

Five Leaves is buried away in the centre of Nottingham, a quiet oasis amongst the hustle and bustle. The owners have been supporters of the local independent literary scene for years, so it is great to see them standing on their own two feet and offering their expertise directly to the city. The shop (and in its guise as a publishing house) is passionately left-wing and is an advocate for the more marginalised sectors of society. The children’s section reflects this. It is wonderfully diverse, and each visit sees the collection of books sprawl just a little more up the walls and across the floor. The shelves are bursting with colour, with a variety of authors known and less so, and it is clear that the buyers have their finger on the pulse, as picture books from the US sit alongside new titles from UK publishers like Knights Of and Tiny Owl. Every visit is a joy, and leaves me a little poorer, but more than a little richer too.

Website: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk

Twitter: @FiveLeavesBooks


Sam Read Bookseller, Grasmere


Sam Reads is, for me, the kind of bookshop that is what a bookshop ought to be: tight, wall-to-wall with titles, warm, and welcoming. Perched on the corner of a main intersection in the charming Lakeland village of Grasmere, the first thing to notice is its windows, full to the brim as they are of the most up-to-date titles. It is an ever-changing cast that showcases the treasure that lies within.

At the back of the shop, after a couple of nooks and crannies, is the children’s section, with books somehow balancing between perfect precision and precarious positioning. The titles are practically falling off the shelves, with a good poetry section, rows and rows of fiction, and a wall full of picture books to browse. This is another bookshop that clearly knows its stuff, and always seems to be one step ahead of its customers – which I think is how it should be. I always find what I am looking for, and, tellingly, always come out with something unexpected too. Sam Read's is always a pleasure to visit, but the service they offer online is just as personal. I have made the most of their service over the last few months and am looking forward to getting back soon.

Website: samreadbooks.co.uk

Twitter: @SReadBooks


It would be great to hear about people's favourite children's bookshops across the UK so if you'd like to let us know why your local ones are so special, please get in touch.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Bookshop Blurbs by Rich Charlesworth

Now, more than ever, we need to celebrate and support independent children's bookshops. Rich Charlesworth, teacher, English Lead, children's book aficionado, UKLA regional representative, Empathy Lab judge and all-round inspiration has written about three of his favourites, explaining what they have to offer and why they're important to him. He can usually be found with a tea and a biscuit in one of the bookshops below, or on Twitter at @rcharlesworth.

The Alligator's Mouth Bookshop

The Alligator’s Mouth Bookshop in Richmond, SW London, is a welcoming sanctuary for children’s book fans. The name comes from a quote by Lemony Snicket:“A book is like an alligator's mouth – if you see one open you often end up disappearing inside”. Tony, Margaret and the team are children’s book enthusiasts through and through: they live and breathe books. I’m reminded of the bookseller in Shinsuke Yoshitake’s ‘The iWonder Bookstore’ in their ability to match the right book for the right customer. Full of recommendations which cover the whole gamut of text types (from non-fiction, poetry and picturebooks to graphic novels, Young Adult fiction and beyond), there’s always something to tempt you in.

Website: thealligatorsmouth.co.uk

Twitter: @alligatorsmouth


Round Table Books

Located in the beating heart of Brixton, this is a bookshop that prides itself on reflecting and inspiring the community that it’s based within. Round Table Books unequivocally celebrates underrepresented children’s books, writers and illustrators. The shop was originally set up as a one-week-only pop-up shop to mark publisher ‘Knights Of’ turning one. Thank goodness it decided to stick around! After a successful crowdfunding campaign, the store is here permanently and is the go-to place to pick up texts that showcase the wide range of experiences, emotions and lives of children around the UK and beyond. You may be lucky enough to find some signed copies and even spot a visiting author as Knights Of HQ is within the store.

Website: roundtablebooks.co.uk

Twitter: @BooksRound

Gosh! Comics
However tempting it is to begin this recommendation to visit this bookstore with an ‘OMG‘, I’m going to refrain from doing so. Visiting Gosh! is like someone turned your most frequently perused Comic and Graphic Novel bookshelves and fashioned them into a shop. Split over two floors in trendy Soho, Gosh! really has a huge variety of texts. They cater for every type of visual reader with stylish children’s books, graphic fiction and translated texts, alongside well-established runs / series. With staff recommendations adorning the window displays and tailor-made advice indoors, you can’t help but gush about Gosh!

Website: goshlondon.com

Twitter: @GoshComics


Three fantastic recommendations Rich, thank you so much! Even though the shops aren't currently open for customers to visit, they all offer a home delivery service via their websites so do please consider using them.

It would be great to hear about people's favourite children's bookshops across the UK so if you'd like to let us know why your local ones are so special, please get in touch.