Monday, December 24, 2018

Santa Tracker is go!

In just about 2 hours, Santa will leave his workshop home and begin his worldwide journey, and NORAD has been tracking his worldwide journey for over 60 years.
You, too can follow along...a great way to build the excitement and join in the fun. There's also games, quizes, photos, music and a library to explore.
So as the story says....

Here's the link:

Friday, December 21, 2018

My Best Books of the Year 2018 - The Picture Books

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

Picture books are very dear to my heart, inspire my imagination still to this day. I'm a big believer that you are never too old for picture books and even as children grow up, they should always have picture books close at hand.
This year, as always saw some incredible new picture books hit the shelves with a wide variety of illustration and story style. Here are a few of the very best from 2018, in my opinion.


author: Malachy Doyle  illustrator: Andrew Whitson
Graffeg Ltd (7 June 2018)
ISBN: 9781912050130
From the moment this book fell into my hands, I just adored it. A lovely, heartwarming tale of love, sacrifice and hope, it is the story of a small girl, a wild storm and a father lost in the raging sea. But it is Molly's belief and her willingness to give the sea her most precious things that brings him home. The story is woven with clear, expert use of language and exquisite illustrations that set the scene and the mood to perfection. Simply magical. Available in English, Irish and Welsh. Best news of all: there are more 'Molly' books to come.

author/illustrator: Shona Shirley MacDonald
O'Brien Press (1 October 2018)
ISBN: 9781788490009
Extraordinary, magical illustrations bring to life a lyrical, imaginative tale of the Pooka. He lives all alone on the mountain where he spends his days mending things, gardening and dancing. But even Pookas get lonely. So what can he do? Why,throw a party, of course! A madcap, mystical story of friendship, loneliness, responsibility and empathy, with each page a work of art, you'll get lost in this one for hours.

author: Nicola Davies  illustrator: Rebecca Cobb
Walker Books (7 June 2018)
ISBN: 9781406376326
This extraordinary book takes us on a long, tumultuous journey with a young girl fleeing her home after war has taken everything from her. She is on her own and hoping to find  refuge in a place she can grow, learn and be accepted. But it isn't always that easy...or is it? Nicola Davies' moving verse became this picture book, filled with empathy and compassion, but also filled with truth. Cobb's illustrations with their child-like clarity and subtle palette add great meaning and an all too vivid reality to the page. This is one picture book everyone should read.

author: Mara Bergman  illustrator: Birgitta Sif
Walker Books (1 November 2018)
ISBN: 9781406366204
With lilting, rhyming verse, we are given a modern fable of little and large and how everything and everyone has their special talents and great life is a bit easier and much happier if we help each other. The story ebbs and flows with pitch perfect pace and is filled with little surprises. And the illustrations are dreamlike, enchanting and full of appeal.  You'll want to spend time on each page looking through the intricate details and discovering what lies there. It is gentle, soothing, but also packed full of interest and heart. Gorgeous!

author/illustrator: Emma Yarlett
Walker Books (4 October 2018)
ISBN: 9781406379716
A brilliant and fun tale of friendship and asking for help when you need it. Alex finds a baby dragon living under his stairs. While this is really exciting, it also causes quite a number of questions. Alex looks for help from the experts in a series of letters and gets some intriguing and funny answers. If you like reading other peoples' post (and who doesn't?) this is the book for you. Lively, colourful illustrations and a great story that will entertain endlessly!

author/illustrator: Jonny Duddle
Templar Publishing (8 February 2018)
ISBN: 9781783704088
It's a welcome return for the Jolley-Rogers in this fantastic, exciting book. Matilda receives an invitation to join her former neighbours on their summer holiday to Scurvy Sands, where she finds herself seeking a mysterious hidden treasure. Fresh, cartoon-style illustrations, a lively rhyming, rapid-fire text with loads of pirate dialogue, this is a real are all the others in the series. With positive messages about friendship and acceptance, it's also just plain fun.

author/illustrator:Benji Davies
HarperCollinsChildrensBooks (22 March 2018)
ISBN: 9780008212766
A gentle, rhyming mystery leads us on a story about nighttime fears and worries, amusing misunderstandings and things that really go bump in the night and resolve these in a way that is both satisfying and humourous. The atmospheric illustrations are filled with detail for the reader to ponder and lose themselves in. The Grotlyn invites wonder, investigation and imagination. Reassuring and an absolute joy!

author/illustrator: Francesca Sanna
Flying Eye Books (1 September 2018)
ISBN: 9781911171539
A young girl has traveled far to a new country with her secret, very small friend, Fear. But since she has arrived, Fear isn't small anymore. When she starts a new school, Fear tells her to be afraid and alone. But when she meets a new friend, things start to change. A sequel to her previous book, The Journey, this colourful, fresh and comforting book is very special. A bittersweet, but lovely ending that you will hold in your heart. It's message....we all have our own unique fear, and that's okay.

author: Timothée de Fombelle
illustrator: Isabelle Arsenault
Walker Books (1 November 2018)
ISBN: 9781406377101 
A picture book for older-ish children, this book opens up the world of a childs' imagination and the desire to read to reveal something truly special. It invites us into a tale about hope, longing, grief and peace that is powerful, yet quiet and thoughtful. The flowing, minimal language navigates through Rosalies' vision of the world around, revealing the innocence, inquisitiveness and sense of adventure at the heart of the child. It is loving, protective  and accepting in its' telling.And the illustrations are emotive, expressive; setting the mood with a very limited palette. Simply beautiful.

author: Lucy Rowlands  illustrator: Ben Mantle
Macmillan Childrens Books (January 2018)
ISBN: 9781509825226
Focusing on the magic of reading and the importance of creative play, this is a joy of a book. The clever rhyming text leads the reader through a colourful landscape of woodland and daydreams. It is alive with rhythm and texture, fun and drama; and places the reader where they belong… in the heart of it all. The detail in the illustrations offers the opportunity to imagine different journeys and a variety of outcomes, not just in this story, but in all books. A truly enchanting book.

So there we have best books of 2018; not an easy task, I can tell you. I hope you find something here that inspires and delights you. Thank you all for reading.
Now....roll on 2019!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

My Best Books of the Year-2018 part two

The teen/YA book market continues to grow from strength to strength. This year was outstanding! Again, there were offerings from new authors and publishers, and old familiar friends who have set the mark in quality, expanded on topics and issues of interest to this reading group and brought to book new ways of looking at time-honoured concepts.
Here are my favourites in the teen/YA section:

author: Laura Weymouth
Chicken House Publishers (1 November 2018)
ISBN: 9781911490036
This book just blew me away. At first, you will see distinct parallels between this and the Narnia books, but there is so much in this beautiful tale of 3 siblings transported to another land while sheltering during the blitz. In fear, Evelyn wishes to be 'anywhere but here.' Her wish is granted and they spend years in the Woodlands. But on their return, Evelyn has trouble adjusting to her 'normal life' and longs to return. This is a sibling love story,; a story of struggling to be accepted for who you really are and finding your place in the world.The fantasy element exposes the reality of coming-of-age and the heart-breaking face of severe depression. Exceptional world-building, beautiful, lyrical writing and heart-felt dialogue.

author: Brian Conaghan
Bloomsbury YA (14 June 2018)
ISBN: 9781408871539
Conaghan has surpassed himself in giving us a novel that is filled with tension, humanity and a delicate, but insuppressible sense of humour. Bobby Seed has been watching MS steal his mother from him for a long time; since before her official diagnosis. He cares for both her and his younger brother and keeping it all together. But the weight of it all is enormous. Now, he is being asked to do something that he should never have to face. Courageous, uncomfortable, compelling...this is a masterpiece in observation and emotion.

author: Cath Crowley
Hodder Childrens Books (5 April 2018)
ISBN: 9781444907896
Rachel and Henry were the best of friends.She loved his familys' bookshop and the comfortable and easy way Henry had about him. In fact, Rachel had a crush on Henry, something he never seemed to see. The night before she moved away, Rachel left a note for him in his favourite book; on the page of his favourite poem. She waited for Henry...but he never came. This is an utterly beautiful book. Set in and around a wonderful bookshop with its' Letter Library holding much of the storys' content, it has a glowing emotional punch. And it is charming, compelling and filled with the joy and pain of real life. Especially for fans of John Green and Jandy Nelson.

author: Siobhan Curham
Walker Books (2 August 2018)
ISBN: 9781406379235
The story of 14-year-old Stevie, living with her chronically depressed mother and her friendship with Hafiz, a refugee who has left behind his family in Syria, seeking safety in the UK and having to cope with overt racism on his own. A sincere and heartfelt book, Don't Stop... deals with the difficult and timely issues of racism, the Syrian refugee crisis and depression. It pulls no punches, handling the issues with great understanding and sensitivity, but also with pinpoint accuracy. At the core of the story, it is about friendship, empathy and belonging. While in other hands, this could make for a very heavy, depressing read, Curham has injected this story with hope and promise.Thoughtful, expressive and joyful. The road to happiness is not as far away as you might think.

author: NIcky Singer
Hodder Childrens Books (26 July 2018)
ISBN: 9781444944525
Severe drought and climate change has turned the planet into a desert wasteland, with very few places left where anyone has a real chance of survival. Mhairi Anne Bain is trying to make it home to a remote island in Scotland with only two possessions to her name; her identity papers and a gun with no bullets. Along the way, she comes across a young boy with no voice and no one to speak for him. This book stands apart in the canon of young adult dystopian literature. Incisive, gripping, filled with suspense and desperation; it also shows plainly that single act of kindness, born of conscience and concern might  be the very thing to make a world of difference. Stunning.

author: Lydia Day Penaflor
Bloomsbury YA (31 May 2018)
ISBN: 9781408890936
Told in a series of interviews and journal entries, this is a chilling fictitious scandal with all sensationalism of the real thing. As the author moves seamlessly from narrator to narrator, the plot twists and turns, pulling the reader into a psychological examination of the effects of 'fan fever'. he characters are tangible and very human...we have all seen people like them, perhaps we are them. With issues of class divide, privilege, trust and betrayal, this book is a surprisingly addictive read, constantly questioning perspective. The emotional impact is shattering. A disturbing, edgy, riveting view of teen culture and obsession, this is a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat read.

author: Susin Neilsen
Andersen Press (4 October 2018)
ISBN: 9781783447213
Felix Knutson lives with his free-spirited, artist mother and pet hamster, Horatio. He's funny, very smart, memorises all kinds of facts and trivia and is nearly 13 years old. Everything is fairly normal in Felixs' life. Apart from one secret Felix MUST not let slip...they live in a van. His mother can't seem to keep any job going for more than a week or two, her depression overwhelms her and winter is coming. Then, Felix comes up with a plan that just might get them out of their situation. A beautiful book; fascinating, funny, empathetic, timely and truly gripping.

author: Leslye Walton
Walker Books (6 September 2018)
ISBN: 9781406373509
Nor Blackburn wants to live the life of a normal teenage girl; commonplace, unexceptional; escaping the inherited abilities of the Blackburn women. She has reason to believe she may have done just that, until the arrival of a newly published book; The Price Guide to the Occult. Written by Nors'  beautiful, ultimately cruel mother, from whom Nor has been estranged since early childhood; Fern the book promises to cast any spell...for the right price. These are abilities far beyond Ferns' reach and they cost a horrific price. And now Fern is coming...she's coming for Nor. Fluid, hypnotic with vivid descriptions of time and place; it fills the senses with sights, scents and sounds. Breath-taking, absorbing, evocative and thought-provoking; a horror story to haunt your dreams.

author: Tom Pollock
Walker Books (3 May 2018)
ISBN: 9781406378177
 "This story is a lie." Everything about it is a lie; a bad, dark, conspiratorial lie acted out through the life of 17-year-old Peter Blankman; a mathematical genius, prone to analyse everything around him in terms of statistics and probability and suffering from mental illness, severe panic attacks and self-destructive behaviours. When his mother is brutally attacked and stabbed at an awards ceremony held in her honour and his sister Bel vanishes, Peter is plunged into a world where violence, espionage and state and family secrets merge into one. With magnificent pacing and imagination, this book is a roller-coaster ride of a thriller. With a shocking,turbulent conclusion, this is a "spy novel" with a real difference. Powerful riveting and incredibly gripping.

author: Jason Reynolds
Knights Of... (4 October 2018)
ISBN: 9781999642532
This is truly a book for everyone. Written as a poem, it is a letter for anyone who has ever had a dream; an that inspires you to dig deeper, try harder, be successful. It challenges you to think beyond what is expected. A love letter that gives hope and excitement, especially when times are tough. Dreams take time; they require struggle. But simply having the dream is the start. Take that leap of faith! Sublimely written...this is a wonderful gift for everyone.

Stayed tuned for part three, where I show you the best picture books of 2018; in my opinion.

Friday, December 7, 2018

My Best Books of 2018 - Part One

This has been another fantastic year for the publication of childrens' books; so many great titles, new authors and even a few new publishers have presented themselves. It is a very difficult task to decide which of these new books are 'the best'. I've toiled over my stacks (many, many stacks) and looked back over the reviews and I think I've come up with quite a satisfactory list. I'm sure when I finish this I will want to add more, but you have to stop somewhere....
You may be wondering how I decide what makes a book a 'Best Book'. What do I look for?  After many years as a childrens' book specialist, selling, reading and talking about books to children of all ages, raising readers of my own and spoiling grandchildren with books, I do have some criteria in mind. And yes, I do read them myself, from beginning to end. I look for those books that really pull me into the story, well-written and with well-drawn characters that elicit an emotional response. It needs a good pace, appropriate for the type of story it is telling. The book may not be one that appeals to me on a personal level, but I have to be convinced of the story and understand why it will appeal to its' audience.
I would like to say here that I don't like the 'age-ranging' thing...the standard method for categorising books for young people. I feel that a good book is a good book and the age shouldn't matter. However, it is a handy way for judging which books are suitable for which child. All that in mind, I'm going to start with the 'middle-grade' books, generally for ages 9-12 years.

Middle Grade Fiction
I have to start with my number one choice; Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan (Walker Books ISBN: 9781406366020) This is the story of Mup, whose family is pursued by the 'Raggedy Witches' on the way home from the hospital where her Auntie is dying. With Auntie out of the way, the Witches intend on taking Mups' mother back to Witches Burrow to their evil Queen, who happens to be Mups' grandmother. This book has everything I could ask for and more; great story, enthralling characters, action, adventure, magic, humour and a really exciting ending. There is so much in the tale that makes it appealing; family drama, questions of loyalty, political and social issues all wrapped up in a crackin' story. You will love it. The first in the Wild Magic Trilogy.
Moving along in no particular order (they are all so wonderful, I just couldn't rank them.)
The House With Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson (Usborne Publishin ISBN: 9781474940665) builds on old Eastern European folktales and brings it forward in a new way. Marinka lives with her grandmother in a house with chicken legs which has the habit of wandering off in the night to wherever it feels it needs to be. Her grandmother is the witch, Baba Yaga, whose job it is to help spirits cross from one world to the next. Marinka is bound to the house and the life her grandmother has built for her. But Marinka longs for a normal life, with school and friends and games. Imaginative, thought-provoking and quietly humourous, this is simply magnificent.
Knights and Bikes by Gabrielle Kent is the first offering from Knights Of... publishers (ISBN: 9781999642501) and what a brilliant book to start with! Demelza spends her days daydreaming in the derelict miniature golf course of sleeping little Penfurzy Island. Nothing ever happens there, in spite of its' legends of ghostly knights and hidden treasure. But the sudden appearance of new-best-friend Nessa, a girl of many talents, kicks more excitement into her Demelzas' life than the island has seen in a long, long time. Off they go on a treasure hunt to save her home in this action-packed mystery; just the two of them and their faithful goose sidekick, Captain Honkers. Action, adventure, mystery and yes...there are ghosts.

The Storm Keepers Island by Catherine Doyle (Bloomsbury ISBN: 9781408896884) is a book that absolutely sings with magic, history and expert story-telling. Young Fionn travels to Arranmore Island with his sister to spend time with their grandfather. Though he's never been to his ancestral home before, the island seems to awaken the moment Fionn sets foot on its' shores. Every generation, the island chooses a new 'Stormkeeper' and it seems its' choice is Fionn. But an ancient danger is awakening threatening to claim the island as its' own. This is a story that will live on in your dreams long after you've turned the final page.

In My Secret Dragon by Debbie Thomas (Little Island ISBN: 9781912417063), we meet Aidan Mooney who has spent his entire life hiding a deep secret; so much so that he has never been to school, never had friends over. His mother is part dragon and if it ever got out, his world would change drastically, and not for the better. Aidan is now 12. He is going to school for the first time. When he arrives home one day to discover his mother missing, he realises the secret is out. He and new friend, Charlotte track her  to a remote location in county Galway. What they find when they get there is astounding! Incredible adventure, packed with drama and humour, mixed with a warm-hearted tale of family and friendship make this book simply unforgettable.

Louisiana's Way Home by Kate DiCamillo (Walker Books ISBN: 9781406384208) builds a story around a character we first met in Raymie Nightingale. When Louisiana's grandmother wakes her in the middle of the night and says 'the day of reckoning has arrived', Louisiana finds herself driven away from her home, her cat and the only real friends she's ever had. Louisiana struggles to make sense of her grandmothers' demand that they run and to find a way back home. But her life becomes entangled in the lives of those in the small town they land in, her grandmother takes off, leaving her behind and she wonders if 'goodbyes' are all she ever destined for. Thoughtful, compassionate, beautiful wrapped up in a pitch-perfect story.

I have a real thing for steam-punk novels, so when Tin by Pádraig Kenny (Chicken House Books ISBN: 9781911077657) appeared in front of me, it immediately had my attention. Christopher was orphaned in a fire and now lives and works with Mr Absalom. He is the only 'real' boy in amongst a collection of mechanical children. He is pretty happy with his loyal, eccentric metal friends, even though Mr Absalom isn't a very good engineer and is a rather nasty conman. But one day, a near-tragic accident in the snow reveals a horrific truth about Christophers' life and leads the friends on an epic adventure. A bit Pinocchio, a bit Wizard of Oz and a whole lot more. A gripping, brilliant read.

The List of Real Things by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Orion Childrens Books ISBN: 9781444014815)  combines exquisite touches of magical realism and a poignant look at the world of the heart to create a truly extraordinary book. Grace knows what's real and what's not real. It's much more difficult to make little sister Bee understand that. Mum and Dad died...that is very real. Her sisters' nightmares, the storms that Bee thinks are angry ghosts and the magical Hotel Magnificent that sits on the cliff nearby...those are definitely not real. But one night, when Grace and Bee are trapped in a storm, they seek shelter in a most unusual place and the lines between real and not real get blurred. Gentle, understanding with bits of humour and chaos, this is simply a beautiful book.
The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher (Firefly Press ISBN: 9781910080849) weaves a truly magical tale filled with imagination. This is a perfect winters' story with a sinister twist that is really chilling. Orphan Seren Rhys is journeying to the first real home she's had. In a freezing, isolated train station, she is given a mysterious package before arriving at a home she imagines will be filled with warmth, luxury and welcoming faces. What she discovers is a missing boy, a dark mystery and a house in mourning and filled with eerie, unearthly happenings. But armed with an enchanted snowglobe and a clockwork crow who may or may not be telling the truth, Seren undertakes a perilous underground journey to find the truth. Incredible world-building, lyrical writing and an intriguing plot.

Pages & Co: Tilly and the Book Wanderers by Anna Jones (HaperCollinsChildrensBooks ISBN: 9780008229863) This book is a real treat, taking the reader into a world of infinite possibility and imagination...the world of books. Since her mothers' disappearance, Tilly has sought comfort and adventure from the books in Pages & Co., her grandparents bookshop. But when characters from her favourite books begin to appear right in front of her and take her away into their books, Tilly discovers something truly unique about herself. She is a book wanderer and enter stories whenever she likes. Tilly is being followed, however, by a strange man who visited the shop to speak with her grandfather. It seems this new-found talent is not unique toTilly and it may also be fraught with danger. This is a real book-lovers book. And if you weren't a bookworm before, you will be after reading it.

There's 10 of my Best Books in the Middle-Grade range. Watch this space for more Best Books 2018 coming soon...Teen/YA and Picture Books.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Blog Tour: The Christmas Play Rehearsal!

I am always delighted to hop on the Blog Tour bus and Rachel's Random Resources has a plethora of blog tours to excite and interest everyone! 
Today we have a truly delightful picturebook that highlights one of the special events in the school calendar...the Christmas play. Every child knows the excitement of taking part. And every teacher knows the joy and chaos it brings into the classroom life. And with nearly every school about to go on stage, it's a great introduction for the kids. So here it is:
author: Sue Wickstead
illustrator: Helen Smith
Sue Wickstead (December 2018)
ISBN: 9780993073779
"It is Christmas time, and the school has been getting ready to perform their Nativity play.
With lines learnt and songs to be sung, it is time for the dress rehearsal. The teacher knows there might be a few problems to sort out, but at least they will know what to improve on or change along the way."
The Christmas Play always brings great excitement to the classroom, with each child working hard on their part. First, they must learn the Christmas story and then rehearsal begins! Joyous little faces abound in this book, as do the nervous ones. And when it's time for the dress rehearsal, we can expect things to go a bit haywire. With the head angel getting sick at the last minute, confusion over angels and fairies, remembering cues and lines, there are loads of laughs trying to get through the performance. But in the end, the teacher guides the shepherds, the angels and the Kings through to the right place with the choir singing along. When the Christmas Star appears, there is a real surprise for everyone in the audience. It's going to be brilliant on the night!
For everyone who is taking part in a school Christmas Play, or anyone who ever has done, this is a charming and memorable picturebook. When I shared it with a local story preparing for their own play, the children were enchanted by the story and could see themselves in the pictures. I dare say, it soothed a few nerves. The lively, expressive illustrations add to a wonderful story that will warm your heart and make you laugh. Lovely...just lovely.

About Sue Wickstead:

I am a teacher and an author and have currently written six children’s picture books with a bus theme.
For over 20 years, alongside my teaching career, I worked with a Children’s Charity, The Bewbush Playbus Association, which led me to write a photographic history book about it.
I soon found that many children had never been on a bus before, let alone a ‘Playbus’ and they wanted to know more. I decided to write a fictional tale about the bus, his number plate JJK261 gave him his name.
‘Jay-Jay the Supersonic Bus,’ came out in print in 2014. It is the story behind the original bus and is his journey from a scrap-yard to being changed into a playbus for children to play in. From Fact to fiction the bus journey continued.
This story has now been followed by five more picture books.
I also undertake events and author bookings and love to share the story. There are also a few more stories in the writing process, with links to real events and buses.
The story has been read in many schools in the south-East of England, where I teach as a cover teacher, it is always well received and certainly different. 
Facebook: - Author Page