Belle and Sébastien by Cécile Aubry; The Goat by Anne Fleming; A Different Dog by Paul Jennings

I recently obtained three short chapter books from various publishers which I feel compelled to review as they are unusual in their style, content and originality. Unlike many short chapter books in the current publishing climate, these do not fall neatly into genres or categories. They do however contain quality language, great storytelling and appealing and relatable characters. It would be a great pity for these  three books, one of which is an English translation, to be overlooked.

Belle and Sébastien by Cécile Aubry translated by Gregory Norminton

The language and style in Belle and Sébastien is more traditional and sophisticated than your average short chapter book  but this need not be discouraging for a confident emergent reader. The familiarity of the family setting and the dialogue between characters will carry a fluent reader along with the French setting and simple plot. Sébastien is a child of the mountains, rescued at birth by a local man and adopted into his family. Belle is a Pyrenean mountain dog, roaming free in the mountains after 6 years of neglect, carelessness and circumstances by a variety of different owners. This is the tale of an unlikely friendship between boy and dog sustaining them both through their adventures in the mountains and the prejudices of the local villagers.

The Goat by Anne Fleming

Kid and her parents have moved into a New York apartment where there are an assortment of unusual characters. Kid’s home life has been a little unconventional and she struggles with her shyness. However, on discovering that there may be a goat on the roof of the apartment she finds the courage to investigate further. In doing so she becomes familiar with all the other residents and even makes some new friends.

This is a charming, amusing tale with very simple little plot and some great characterisation. The setting provides the ideal, atmospheric backdrop to this quirky little tale and gives a flavour of the diverse mix that makes up any inner city community.

A Different Dog by Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings is, I think, more famously known for his wacky humorous middle grade fiction and collaborations with authors such as Morris Gleitzman. So this was a refreshing and thought provoking departure for him. Of the three books reviewed, this is the easiest read with black and white illustrations introducing each chapter, clear spacing between lines and economy of descriptions and dialogue. However, of the content this is probably the most challenging tale to tell.

A boy walks up the mountain to run a race in the hope of winning the prize money to help his mother to feed and clothe the two of them. He is taunted and bullied by school children as he ascends and the reader discovers that the boy is an elective mute. He observes the driver of a truck coming down the mountain at speed, with a dog in the passenger seat. When the van passes him he realises it is going to skid out of control on the bend. He races after the van into the undergrowth to see if he can help, thereby passing up his chance to participate in the race.

There is depth to the plot and character development in this story despite the very simple premise and which cannot be told in a brief précis. As in Belle and Sébastien this is a tale of two misfits, boy and dog.  By the qualities of the boy’s temperament, courage and resilience he saves the dog and in turn the dog saves him, against all the odds.

my thanks go to Alma Classics; Pushkin Press and Old Barn Books for copies of these books to review.


Running on empty by S E Durrant

AJ loves running. Grieving for his grandad who recently died, AJ is having difficulty coming to terms with his loss especially as his grandad was a runner too and supported AJ with his training. His parents have learning difficulties so grandad made sure the family kept going financially as well as emotionally. But now there is no-one to pay the bills and deal with the adult things that his parents struggle to understand. AJ is afraid that he will be taken into care if he tells another adult about the situation so he tries to manage on his own.

This is a moving, heartwarming story that shows how important it is that extended families talk to each other and share their worries as well as their successes. AJ is surrounded by people who could help but is afraid to ask in case there are negative consequences.  I appreciated the characterisation of his mum and dad with their big hearts and childlike approach to life and the fierce, loyal and funny younger cousin Aisha. AJ also learns that people at school aren’t always as mean as he thinks they are, and this enables him to form valuable friendships. Overall this book is an easy read with some thoughtful issues. The serious topic of life as a young carer is dealt with sensitively and there is a lot of humour which plays off nicely against the tense, more challenging events in AJ’s life. AJ idolises Usain Bolt and the story is set in London near the Olympic park which is referenced throughout the book. Reading level 9+

Skeleton Tree by Kim Ventrella 9781509828678 £6.99

skeletontreeStanley finds a bone growing in the garden which he plans to film for a National Geographic online competition with a prize which he is sure will persuade his absent father to return home. The bone soon becomes a full body skeleton and Stanley tries to keep it secret from his stressed mother and sickly younger sister while he and friend Jaxon photograph it on Jaxon’s ipad.  Stanley’s sister Miren discovers his secret and soon there is a struggle to keep the evidence from the adults and prevent Miren blabbing to their mum. As Miren’s illness becomes worse and the animated skeleton becomes the only thing to keep Miren entertained and happy, events begin to spiral out of control.  Will Stanley ever be able to convince his father to come home? Will Ms Francine stop feeding them borscht and telling them to eat up their hot chocolate? Will Stanley and Miren’s mum ever stop working, pay more attention to Stanley and see what is right in front of her eyes?

This is a marvellous tale of gothic humour and joyous imagination with a more serious underlying theme of family, bereavement and acceptance. The chapters are short and pacy and the characters are richly faceted including a Kyrgyzstan childminder who has a significant part to play in keeping this dysfunctional family together. An emotionally challenging read for 9-12 year olds, the effortless style and light-hearted 3rd person narrative belies the serious message in the tale. More than one tear will be shed by the end!

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

In the snowy kingdom of Erkenwald, whales glide between icebergs, wolves hunt on the tundra and polar bears roam the glaciers. But the people of this land aren’t so easy to find – because Erkenwald is ruled by an evil Ice Queen and the tribes must stay hidden or risk becoming her prisoners at Winterfang Palace.

Sky Song is a lyrical tale told in the style of the ancient Celtic myths and legends with  a similar mystical, magical and inspiring feel. The reader will be drawn in and compelled to follow in the footsteps of Eska and Flint as they begin their quest to save the kingdom of Erkenwald. The characters are believable and relatable and the world building is magical and carefully thought out with the right mix of arctic fact and fantastical imagery. But what really makes this book stand out for me is the satisfied feeling when I had read the last page and put the book down. I felt as one does after eating a superb meal in a favourite restaurant. Nothing was too exaggerated or frenetic and neither was the pace slow and turgid. I loved all the characters and would welcome reading more about them, but equally I didn’t feel bereft for not reading further. I wanted time to reflect on the character development and the magical features of the story. I’m looking forward to reading more from this author in the future.


The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson

This is a story of a boy who is on the run with his mum and hiding out in an old house which his mum inherited, out in the countryside  They are escaping from something sinister at home, which is gradually revealed as the story progresses. The majority of the story centres around Nate’s experiences in the old cottage on his own when he mother goes out to get milk and does not return and he has to fend for himself. It provides the reader with a believable plot device to explain the mental and emotional resilience Nate has to develop in order to deal with the challenges in his life including the present one, in the form of an imaginary friend. It is easy therefore to dismiss this story as another tale of imaginary friends when there is much deeper more relevant message feeding through. The issue of Nate’s emotional development from being unable to accept his father’s decision to leave to accepting that his mother has finally left the abusive boyfriend is crucial to appreciating the nuances of this tale. While I found the multiple plot lines which interweave a little confusing at times, the overall effect, neatly tying up the loose ends, does serve to present a round picture and satisfying story arc that includes all the characters and the part they play within the story.

The story left me feeling uncomfortable yet relieved. Perhaps because I am interpreting from an adult point of view, the issue of being alone in the house for 3 days concerns me. Similarly the sub-plot which explains the reason why Nate’s mum has gone missing also stretches believability despite emergency services coming to the rescue. The use of the book “Freaky things to freak you out”is a superb device aping the neurotic obsessions of many teenagers while having a common link with the theme of the book. As a stand-alone novel for upper KS2 this is a page turning satisfying read which has the potential of being a very fine adult thriller.

The 1000 year old boy by Ross Welford ISBN: 9780008256944 £6.99

Alfie Monk isn’t like other children. He is 1000 years old and can remember the last Viking invasion of England. But Alfie is tired of living so long as an 11year old, watching his friends grow old and having to keep starting again. When he is made homeless and motherless by an accidental fire he decides to find a way to grow old alongside his new found friends Roxy and Aidan.

I have been taking a long time to finish this book and I will attempt to say why. When I began reading I found the pace of the first third of the story was very slow. There was a lot of background relating to Alfie and his mum and how they came to be living for such a long time. I found all the backstory filling very tedious but I persevered because I know a few Carnegie winners where I have struggled with the start and persistence has paid off. So I was pleased when two thirds of the way through the tempo was picking up. Alfie was taken into care, Aiden’s sinister “uncle” is following Alfie, and Roxy and Aiden are struggling to keep Alfie out of the limelight. The plot was moving on at a pace and I was keen to see Alfie progress to his ultimate aim, with hopefully some last minute danger involving the uncle. But just before this can occur, the two characters readers were introduced to at the very beginning of the story, reappear to make their peace with Alfie. I was completely flumoxed by this, as it seemed to have no bearing on the rest of the current story line. I wonder if, with more judicious editing, it would have been removed so the reader could cut to the chase. Then Alfie and Aiden steal a boat – an illegal act that bothers me less as a responsible adult recommending books to year 6 children than the fact that they call the coastguard out on false pretences as a distraction! Everything ties up very neatly at the end but it was an upstream swim to get there and I can’t help feeling that Alfie should have been adopted by (spoiler alert!) Dr Heinz and Prudence rather than Aiden’s parents. My favourite part of this book is the character of Roxy’s mum, Precious Minto…genius! I’d like more of this aspect of Welford’s writing in future novels.

my thanks go to Harper Collins Children’s Books who supplied me with a copy of the book via the YLG newsletter.

Completely Chloe by Candy Harper

Chloe has quit rugby in protest because her coach didn’t choose her for training camp. In order to take her mind off how much she misses playing, she forms the Adrenaline Club where she and her 3 friends dare each other to do dangerous things. She soon starts to realise everything is getting out of hand, but what can she do about it?

This is a moving and funny family story which cleverly interweaves the complexity of having 4 sisters all with different personalities and the struggles of growing up; taking on more responsibilities and being more self-aware.  The genius of this character led storytelling is that all the girls have character flaws but they are all likeable and learn from their mistakes (most of the time!) which endears them to the reader. Candy Harper has written books on 3 of the sisters so I eagerly await the one to come which should focus on the youngest belligerent and tough cookie Lucy. I’m loathe to compare authors usually but as a fan of Cathy Casssidy’s Chocolate Box Girls series this comes a close second in my opinion.

Why I chose these books for 6 year old niece

Martin Brown’s Lesser Spotted Animals by Martin Brown ISBN 9781910200537 £12.99 

I gifted this to my niece for Christmas 2017 and am pleased to say she seems to be enjoying sharing it. I was not certain that at 6 years of age she would be old enough to appreciate the more complex text which is pitched at Year 3/ 7-8 year olds. She is a fast learner and one of the oldest in her class, so I’m confident that if she wants to read it then it won’t take her long to learn. However, she can happily enjoy the clear colourful yet cartoon style illustrations with brief boxed annotations without adult intervention. The reason I chose this particular book is that last year she discovered the magic of ‘Siri’ and, after the novelty of asking silly questions and throwing insults at it, she found that the internet could tell her more about the naked mole rat…a character she had come across in another storybook. This title is a perfect way to introduce less conventional animals to childrens’ attention in a fun, accessible  and informative way. It also appeals to my niece’s wicked sense of humour!

That is Not a Good Idea! By Mo Willems ISBN 9781406355581 £6.99

Knowing my niece’s propensity for mischief and a love of slapstick humour I was fairly confident that she would enjoy this story. A hen chicken meets a fox and is invited back for tea, and throughout the story baby chicks pop up and warn “that is not a good idea” right up until the surprise denouement! The cinematic style of illustration with 1920s style text between each page of character and plot development brings a little sophistication to what is otherwise essentially  an alternative version of Little Red Riding Hood. But it is the humour implied in the illustrations juxtaposed with the text which makes this a little gem to share together.

How to Find Gold by Vivian’s Schwarz ISBN 9781406371642  £6.99 

Before my niece started school most of her creative play came from her mum’s ideas and resources from the local children and family centre. But for a lively 4 year old indoor activities don’t keep her interested for long.  Luckily they live near the beach and this is one of the most popular activities for our outdoorsy little girl, so I knew Schwarz’s treasure hunting story would be spot on. While the illustrations are deceptively childlike, there are many styles and textures of painting and drawing demonstrated with Anna and the crocodile outlined in charcoal and the sea in broiling blue wax crayon and pastels. However the key to the success of this story is the treasure seeking, with map and ship to aid them and the determination not to give up resulting in treasure at last. Refreshing to have a story led by a girl with a strong character, steely determination and independence – all traits I can see my niece developing, and I am pleased she can see herself reflected with humour and charm in the character of Anna even though they don’t look alike.

The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson illustrated by Paul Howard ISBN 9781405201773  £6.99

I chose this particular edition of “The Owl Who Was Afraid” because it is an illustrated edition and felt that was more appropriate for my niece who is still learning to read and is not ready for short chapter books just yet. Plop is an owl who is afraid of the dark, so  his mum sends him into the night to talk to some characters who love the dark with the hope that knowledge will help take away his fear. I must confess to giving into to a little bit of nostalgia in choosing this title, as I remember this title fondly from my own early reading days. But the main reason I chose it is because it is such a perfectly constructed simple yet entertaining tale about night time. Most people suffer from night fears at some time in their life and this is such a great story to share with anyone who wants some reassurance and the warmth and comfort of great storytelling, lovable characters and soothing language. Perfect as a bedtime story to share over several nights.

Chocolate Cake by Michael Rosen illustrated by Keith Waldron ISBN 9780141379203. £6.99 

In my opinion most poetry is written to be performed aloud rather than read, and Michael Rosen’s poetry is no exception. A quick search on YouTube will locate the live performance by the author of this singular creation of wit and wickedness about the awful theft of a whole chocolate cake! My niece has, with the encouragement of her father, developed a taste for chocolate of all kinds. She is also a budding diva who, though unwilling to perform in front of strangers, will happily sing Let it go in front of her toy microphone and borrow her auntie’s acoustic guitar to strum along to the music from mummy’s iPad. As this poem requires some emphasis and change of pace in the telling, it is advised to rehearse and read with your accompanying child together before viewing the performance by the master, or you may suffer from performance anxiety. Well worth the effort however you choose to tell it.



Why I chose these books for my 3 year old nephew

Sir Dancealot by Timothy Knapman illustrated by Keith Robinson ISBN: 9781408846995  £6.99 paperback

I gifted this book just before the start of the Strictly Come Dancing series in the autumn. The story features a dragon who defeats his foes not by fighting and eating people but by a dance off with accompanying disco ball and sparkly costumes. This is a fun simply told tale filled with the highs and lows of competition and ending on a final page full of glitter and glitz. Even though the reader suspects a happy ending, the final dance off leaves the reader with a warm glow. Just perfect for bedtime reading and short enough to keep the attention of a lively curious little boy.

This is Our House by Michael Rosen illustrated by Bob Graham. ISBN: 9781406323887 £7.99 paperback with accompanying CD

I gifted this book because my nephew had started attending nursery and, as an only child, had the new experience of playing with lots of other children his own age. The story is about a boy who finds a discarded box and makes it into a playhouse. When everyone else suddenly wants to play he is not so sure but eventually all the children learn that it is more fun to play together. I love this book for two reasons: I remember the magic, as a child, of turning a cardboard box into any number of things; and I love the combination of Michael Rosen’s lyrical dialogue and the urban backdrop of Bob Graham’s calm fluid watercolour illustration

Shark in the Park by Nick Sharratt ISBN: 9780552549776. £6.99

If you’re purchasing this book, make sure it is the Nick Sharratt version and not the Usborne phonics title. Good though phonics reading is, there is no comparison with the warmth and humour of Sharratt’s unparalleled storytelling for under 5s. This is a very simple story, told in rhyme, of Timothy Pope who thinks he can see a shark through his telescope but is in fact mistaken on every occasion! The rhythm and rhyme coupled with the predictive text and inference on every page of what is to come make this a great read-a-loud story for any time of the day.

What is Poo? by Katie Daynes illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguenz ISBN: 9781474917902. £7.99 board book format with flaps

You can currently only buy this book in the very small hand sized board book format   but this hasn’t detracted from the pleasure my nephew draws from this title. Like all small children he has a great appreciation for toilet humour and enormous curiousity about how things work. This book explains the process of digestion for all animals including humans in a very simple way including flaps which introduce a more interactive element. The flaps will help keep the attention of those who are not yet reading fluently but have a veracious interest in non-fiction. I gifted this book because it is both fun and educational at the same time; my initial concern after gifting it was that I had purchased something that was too complex for someone so young. However, I appear to have chosen precisely the topic to capture his interest and I don’t think he will tire of reading this any time soon!

Du Iz Tak by Ellis Carson ISBN: 9781406373431. £6.99 paperback

This is a very unusual picture book in that it has very few words and those it does have are not recognisable as modern English. The essence of the story is following the daily lives of a group of insects and their habits and routines. The language they speak is not one we as readers recognise but can be inferred by using the sumptuous colour illustration to draw conclusions. This is a great way to introduce the concept to children of how words and pictures can be integral to each other. It also highlights lots of other discussion points such as how there is more than one language in the world. Fun can be had speculating what language do dogs speak for example, discussion could take place about types of language where you don’t speak such as sign language and programming language. There is so much that can be gleaned from this book yet even just enjoying the retro feel of the illustration and speculating on what the bugs are up to make this the perfect sharing book for a quiet time just for two.

To be continued…………