Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Top Ten MG Book Covers #PicturesMeanBusiness

by Emma Perry

MG Strikes Back is a big supporter of Sarah McIntyre's Pictures Mean Business campaign (previous articles here.)

It just makes sense.

So I couldn't help but shine a lovely big spotlight on those MG covers that make my heart thump. You know the ones ... those fabulous covers that catch your eye, catch your breath and force your hands to reach out & pull them from the shelf.

So here's a big MG style bookish high five to the designers of these exquisite covers that made my heart go thumpity-thump!

Show some MG style love by instafollowing these illustrators on Twitter, and taking a peek at their websites.

Designed by Nina Tara. Twitter

1. Wells & Wong Mystery Series written by Robin Stevens
I know. I know. I'm cheating already, 3-in-1, but how glorious do these look side by side?? Nina Tara's vibrant colour choices ensure her mysterious silhouette's pop off the cover.

Designed by Jen Bielecki. Twitter
2. Worry Magic written by Dawn McNiff
Jen Bielecki's cover brilliantly capture the dream like, mysterious nature of the novel. Gorgeous colour combo too.

Designed by Daniel Davies.

3. Boy in the Tower written by Polly Ho-Yen
The vibrant yellow, the silhouettes of the birds in the sky ... and then the eye is drawn to the detail in the lower half. An eye catching style which cleverly sparks curiosity. I adore Daniel Davies' cover design.

Designed by Benji DaviesTwitter

4. Space Pirates: Stranded written by Jim Ladd
Benji Davies' covers just screams fun don't you think?! Love this depiction of a rather memorable member of Comet's crew ... Pegg and Legg!

Designed by Alexis Snell
5. Circus of the Unseen written by Joanne Owen
Alexis Snell's cover deftly blends the Russian folktale plus gothic elements from Owen's narrative. The dominating black, with shots of cream & red capture the tone perfectly. 

Designed by Emily Gravett.

6. The Imaginary written by AF Harrold
Emily Gravett's attention to detail  is heart stoppingly wonderful. The gorgeous blend of colour into her black and white dominated cover, truly draws the eye. The joy doesn't stop there with the hard cover edition. Unwrap the cover and take a peek underneath. Too clever!  And then there are those endpapers ... I'm a sucker for great endpapers. Simply wonderful. 

Designed by Chris Riddell. Twitter
7. Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse written by Chris Riddell
Hats off. This man has achieved both. Creation of a fabulous novel, AND covered (& surrounded) by his own illustrations. Bookish high fives all round. The elegant circle used to highlight the title, the extravagant purple feather and the pale blue border. Such detail. Such talent. What a cover!!

Designed by Jill CalderTwitter
8. Cowgirl written by G. R, Gemin
Jill Calder has created a cover with such a strong stroke-ability power. Can you see that from the image?! Oh it's fabulous. I dare you not to reach out & stroke it at your local bookshop. Disclaimer: I will not be held responsible from any strange looks you may receive at this point.

Designed by Iacopo Bruno.
9. Shiverton Hall: The Creeper written by Emerald Fennel
Deliciously creepy & gothic. The red hue is just enough to add a suitably spooky glare to the cream, green & black which dominate the remainder of Iacopo Bruno's cover design.

Designed by Nicola Theobald
10. The Secret Hen House Theatre written by Helen Peters
I love the hint of mystery quietly emanating from Nicola Theobald's cover. The hint of light peaking through the door, the strong presence of the barn theatre. Perfect. 

Choosing ten was a fabulous chance to pour over some of my favourite MG covers. Have I missed your favourite? Sneak it in to the comments section below ...

Monday, 30 March 2015

My Top Five Books About Ballet by Jane Lawes

Ballet stories are a staple of middle grade fiction, especially at the younger end. I devoured them when I was a child (and I still do). Maybe it’s because many of us went to dance classes when we were kids, so we could relate to the stories, but they were at the same time full of glamour and aspiration, full of the nervousness and thrill of performance. The first book in my new Ballet Stars series, Perfect Pirouette, is published on 1st April, so I wanted to look at the ballet books that have influenced me and inspired me, and some recent books I’ve enjoyed as well.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Let’s look at Ballet Shoes first, probably the most famous of all dance stories. The story of Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil and their discovery of the wonderful world of performance made me long desperately to be the fourth sister. Pauline and Posy’s passion for performance runs throughout the book, but it’s about way more than just dancing. The relationship between the three adopted sisters is the heart of the book, and it includes plenty of realistic arguments as well as the bond that holds them all together: their aim to get the Fossil name ‘into the history books’. It’s a cosy, heart-warming classic that I’ll always love going back to. Plus, it gets loads of points for showing a girl being great at fixing cars and dreaming of flying a plane.

Summer’s Dream by Cathy Cassidy

A much more recent book is Summer’s Dream from Cathy Cassidy’s Chocolate Box Girls series. When I read this, I immediately wanted to be part of the Tanberry family, just like I wanted to be a Fossil sister when I was young. Summer’s passion for ballet comes across from the very beginning, and the book deals with a similar theme to the first book in my Ballet Stars series – obsession, and how it can be both a good thing and a bad thing. In Summer’s Dream obsession leads in the direction of an eating disorder, something it’s extremely difficult to get right in fiction for middle-grade readers. Cathy Cassidy writes it well, never trivialising the disorder or making it seem easy to get over, and focusing on Summer’s emotions more than on her behaviour.

Hope in a Ballet Shoe by Michaela and Elaine DePrince

Okay, so this one’s not fiction. Hope in a Ballet Shoe is the autobiography of Michaela DePrince (written with her adopted mother Elaine DePrince). Michaela is a 19-year-old ballerina with Dutch National Ballet, but her life has not been easy. She was born in Sierra Leone, and when her parents died, she was sent to an orphanage where she witnessed the horrors of war. A photograph of a beautiful ballerina torn from a magazine gave her hope and when she was adopted by an American couple, she began to take dance classes. She quickly showed an incredible talent for ballet, but as she progressed with her training she experienced racial prejudice and other setbacks. Her story, one of ambition and dreams overcoming obstacles and fear, is really inspiring. It’s full of fun and enthusiasm, too, and Michaela writes about dancing like the ballet-mad teenager that she is. Parts of it are definitely not suitable for the younger end of the middle grade bracket, but the darker elements are written in a way that can be read by older children.

Dance Club: Footprint in the Clay by Mal Lewis Jones

One for fans of middle grade mysteries! When Annie moves from Scotland to a town in England, she quickly makes friends with Pip and Cherry, girls in her class at school who love dancing as much as she does. She joins their ballet class, and they also form a lunchtime dance club at school. But the real excitement starts when a footprint in a bag of clay in the school art room leads to a mystery that Annie and her friends must solve. There’s also a really fun rivalry with the mean girls from a rival dance school. Mal Lewis Jones also wrote a series set in a ballet boarding school, but I always preferred the funny, mystery-solving antics of Dance Club, set in the familiar worlds of the classroom and the church-hall-ballet-class. The books are out of print now but if you find old copies anywhere, they’re worth reading!

Star Turn by Jean Ure

Without any doubt, the author whose books have influenced me and inspired me the most is Jean Ure. She wrote loads of ballet stories, but my favourite was always Star Turn. It’s the story of a friendship between Jessamy, the youngest daughter of a famous ballet family, and Karen, who lives with her grandmother and is teaching herself ballet in secret because her grandmother can’t afford to pay for classes. It’s witty and fun, dramatic and heartfelt, and the two main characters are so passionate about ballet that it still makes me wish that I was friends with them. Jean Ure’s books are where I learned many of the things I know about ballet. I knew the names of ballets and dancers before I’d even seen much more than The Nutcracker, and most of that knowledge comes from this book. I love the detail about ballet steps and exercises. I love Jessamy’s wearied irritation with her busy parents and her famous older brother, and Karen’s sincerity and determination to dance, no matter what. As a child, what I loved most of all was that that it was a combination of a world I recognised – a classroom, a shopping centre, a tube train – and a world I longed to be part of. If you like books about ballet, read this one.

Jane Lawes is the author of Ballet Stars, a new series published by Usborne for readers aged 7 and up. Find out more at www.janelawes.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @jane_lawes

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Review: Violet and the Hidden Treasure by Harriet Whitehorn

This story begins on New Year's Eve in a palace in India. Violet is busy helping herself to a large plate of chicken curry, rice, dhal and samosas and anything else she can cram onto it, from a long table groaning under the weight of umpteen dishes of deliciousness.
Published by Simon and Schuster in March 2015
 Meet Violet Remy-Robinson, an amateur Sherlock Holmes in the making...Violet has spent her Easter holiday exploring India with Godmother Celeste, including visiting Celeste's good friend the Maharajah and meeting his very special parrot. And when she returns home, only to get a visit from the Maharajah's butler, asking her to look after the parrot, Violet couldn't be more surprised (and her cat Pudding couldn't be less pleased…). But as Violet discovers, the parrot holds the key to the Maharajah's fortune, and someone is trying to parrot-nap her! Can she discover who the culprit is before they succeed? Violet is on the case…
What a delightful book! Everything about this book, makes you want to hug it. This is the one I will be buying several copies of and giving out  as presents this year. It really is the whole package.  Do not buy this book as an Ebook, as it is too beautiful to miss out on as a hard back. The cover is stroke  worthy and the  detailed llustrations on the cover and through out from Becka Moor need to be looked at again and again.
The story is simply gorgeous. I adored Violet straightaway. She is the type of kid I would've loved to have been. when I was younger - lucky enough to travel the world at such a young age and see so many interesting sights. She is gutsy, determined and extremely charming, not to mention adorable. She does has some rather unusual hobbies though. You don't normally imagine a girl at her age being a bit of an expert at poker, as well as the fine art of bluffing. She is a kid that cares. She wants to do the right thing, and is only too happy to look after the Maharajah's parrot, until the new heir is named. When someone sets out to steal Maharani, she won't stop at anything to protect him and bring him home safely.
Violet is surrounded by a rather eccentric cast of characters, who are extremely well off and have come from all over the world. Before I started to read the book, I'd convinced myself it was set in the 1920's. Once I got into it, I realised I didn't have a clue when it was set. It has such a timeless feel to it, but then you get the odd snippets of modern society, such as the mention of Pot Noodles.
Reading one of Violet's adventures, is like stepping into another world. I really hope there will be many more adventures with Violet over the next few years.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

How We Learned to Embrace Our Bonkersness and Encourage Bonkersness in Others

By Miriam Craig and Lorraine Gregory

#ukmgchat has been going for one whole year! Whoop and hurrah and other celebratory exclamations! 

We’d like to say it’s down to our brilliant forward planning and excellent social media skills, but we’d be lying. We’re not even quite sure how it all started. One minute we were chatting on Twitter about how wonderful #ukyachat was and the unfortunate lack of anything similar for middle grade books, and the next we were organising the very first chat.

We’d never really organised anything before, so our planning went something like this:

Lorraine: This is so cool! I’m so excited! How are we going to do it?
Miriam: I don’t know. We should tweet that it’s happening, I guess?
Lorraine: Yeah we should. Should we plan questions?
Miriam: I don’t know.
Lorraine: What day should we have it on?
Miriam: I don’t know.
Lorraine: Should we have guests?
Miriam: I don’t know.
Lorraine: Do you want to go and get some sweet potato fries and talk about it?
Miriam: YES! Let’s do that!

We muddled (= munched) our way through. The chats evolved from lasting half an hour to an hour, then from once a month to twice a month and we have been hugely lucky to have persuaded amazing guests to join us.  Over the past year we’ve had chats on mysteries, ‘the fantastical’ and historical fiction; we’ve got into the nuts and bolts of writing craft with chats about plotting, how to write series and how to write action scenes; and we’ve discussed ways writers can address diversity in their books.

We’ve also moved on to having #ukmgchat meetups IN REAL LIFE! We’ve had two socials so far and there will be more to come (as soon as we’ve recovered from the last one). It can be a tad strange when you meet someone in person for the first time and realise that they are not, in fact, twelve years old. But once you get over that, it’s great.

And our planning for #ukmgchat hasn’t changed all that much. It’s still basically:

Miriam: We should probably organise the next chat.
Lorraine: Yeah, we probably should.
Miriam: When shall we do that?
Lorraine: Soon.
Miriam: Shall we meet up for dinner then?
Lorraine: OK.
Miriam: Can it involve sweet potato fries?
Lorraine: Yes I think so.
Miriam: And books?
Lorraine: Definitely books!
Miriam: And maybe a brownie? With vanilla ice cream?
Lorraine: *gurgle*

(It’s really ALL about the food.)

But here’s the thing: while we started using the #ukmgchat hashtag as a way of talking about the books we loved – and while we have also used it as an excuse to eat A LOT of sweet potato fries – we’ve ended up with something much better. (CHEESY MOMENT COMING UP) We’ve ended up meeting loads of great people, and hopefully helping those great people meet each other.

Because the way we see it, #ukmgchat is just a tiny part of a wider and much more splendid children’s book community – you could call it the Unofficial Children’s Book Support Network. That network is made up of #ukyachat, which is what inspired us; the new #ukpicchat that will be happening on Sunday nights; the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (which is how we met); Children’s Book Circle, which links writers and illustrators with those who work in publishing; the discussion forum BookishPeeps.com; the inordinate number of fantastic bloggers who help get people excited about books; MG Strikes Back (of course). And without question a lot more that the two of us don’t even know about yet.

These things are important. They’re how you find out your funny middle grade novel should NOT be 120,000 words long (Miriam). They’re how you learn there’s more to editing than moving commas around (Lorraine). They’re how you can get 20 recommendations for ‘great middle grade books involving wolves,’ should you so want them (AND WE DO).

Working on children’s books, whether writing them, publishing them, or blogging about them, can send you more than a little loopy. Is there any point to this? Why am I doing this? What in fact AM I doing? Why is there a weird brown stain on my writing cardigan? etc. If we want this to work in any way at all, we need to help each other out. We also need support networks like this if we want reading and writing great books to be accessible to *everyone.* And we need other people who are as bonkers as us to reassure us that it’s good to be bonkers, and sweet potato fries can in some circumstances be considered a health food.

In conclusion: we started #ukmgchat as a way of yakking about books, but we’ve ended up being part of something much more rewarding. We’d like to say a huge thank you to EVERYONE who’s joined in our chats, spread the word, guest hosted, and generally made #ukmgchat such brilliant fun – in particular Annaliese Matheron (@Matheron), who created our website.

You can have a look at said website to find out more about #ukmgchat, including a list of past guests, pictures from our latest social, and what we think of the term 'MG.' And the next #ukmgchat is happening TONIGHT - it'll be a general chat about middle grade books, at 8pm as usual.

If you have anything to add to the Unofficial Children’s Book Support Network, please add it in the comments below – the more, the better. And do tell us your ideas for the future of #ukmgchat!

Lorraine and Miriam at the #ukmgchat social in February - BOWLING!

Lorraine Gregory - on Twitter: @authorontheedge 

Miriam Craig - on Twitter: @miriamhcraig - on Instagram: @miriamhcraig

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Review: Jessica's Ghost by Andrew Norriss

Francis has never had a friend like Jessica before. She's the first person he's ever met who can make him feel completely himself. Jessica has never had a friend like Francis before. Not just because he's someone to laugh with every day - but because he's the first person who has ever been able to see her ...Jessica's Ghost is a funny, moving and beautiful book by a master storyteller, about the power of friendship to shine a warm light into dark places.

My review

For me Jessica's Ghost was one of those surprise books that arrived as a review copy without me knowing much about it. I picked it up quite unprepared for how special it really was and I was so glad that I read it by the time I was done.

Above all this book is just really sweet and full of heart. It is one of those books that could fall either into MG or YA category in the themes they cover. I think it would be perfect for anyone between 10 and 14 who is feeling a bit lost during that transition between primary school and high school because they are a little bit different and don't quite fit in with their peer group.  

I loved what this book had to say about friendships and their value. The way they main characters interact is really lovely and I loved seeing the role Jessica's ghost had in bringing them together. The story itself is nice and pacey meaning you don't want to put the book down and has a really bittersweet feel to it by the end.

All in all a real special little book which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Small Books and Big Ideas by H. L. Dennis

A well written middle grade book is a thing of exceptional value. As has been mentioned many times on this blog site already, middle grade readers tend to be at an incredibly receptive stage…keen to journey through the magical gateways available to them and venture into new and exciting worlds. I love the truth too though, that voyaging through these gateways can teach us, as readers, so much about ourselves and the world we live in right now.

It is amazing how ‘small books’ written for physically small readers can contain such colossally ‘big ideas’. And there is nothing more exciting than seeing these ideas explored by middle grade readers.

So here’s my top three suggestions for MG books that tackle some incredibly big ideas! Why not journey through these magical gateways yourself and learn more about who you are and the world you live in now, as you travel!

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket  by John Boyne
Corgi Childrens (28 Mar. 2013)

Barnaby has a special skill. He can float. But his parents didn’t ask for a child like him. They want a son who keeps his feet firmly on the ground!

This is a fantastic book about being different. Boyne presents us with a story that is both funny and incredibly moving. He deftly explores the idea of difference and the value of really being true to yourself. A beautiful book to share with young readers which is truly ‘uplifting’! I challenge anyone to come away from this read, not having thought about the world and themselves slightly differently as a result!

The Unluckiest Boy in the World by Andrew Norriss
Puffin (5 Jan. 2006)

Nicholas falls under an ancient curse and suddenly misfortune, calamity and disaster follow him everywhere! The curse can't touch Nicholas himself, but bad things happen to everyone else around him.

I’ve read this book several times with classes of ten year old children and it never fails to make an impact. At the core of the story is a wonderful celebration of the power of friendship. But the brilliance of the book runs far deeper than that. The story promotes so many discussions about luck and the effect of your thinking on what happens to you. It has always been beautiful to see children really embrace the big idea that our thoughts can have a major impact on our happiness…quite a major concept for the average ten year old. But again, I challenge anyone to read this book with a middle grade reader and not find them open to discussing this huge idea!

Matilda by Roald Dahl
Puffin; Re-issue edition (7 Feb. 2013)

Matilda's parents have called her some terrible things, but the truth is she's a genius and they're the stupid ones. Underestimating Matilda proves to be a big mistake as they, along with her spiteful headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, discover when Matilda uses her very special power to get the better of them.

Of course readers love the humour and the horror of Dahl. But I want to end this blog entry with the truly huge idea that reading can give you power. It’s the big idea that Dahl weaves through Matilda. Our hero is changed by the books she reads. She is able to tackle her problems and deal with her difficulties because of the strength that stories have given her. And I suppose that of all the big ideas this blog entry should celebrate, this is the biggest idea of all.

Books change us. We travel through magical gateways and we bring something of power back to change the world we live in. So we should look as middle grade fiction as two directional gateways. Yes, they take us to places of magic as we step through. But as we journey back to the world we’ve left behind, we would do well to pack our bags full of the big ideas we find beyond the gate. Those big ideas have the power to change us and our world!

H. L. Dennis is the author of the Secret Breakers for readers aged 7 and up. Explore the world of the Secret Breakers at
www.hldennis.com or catch her on Twitter @HLDennisauthor