Do You Speak Chocolate? By Cas Lester

 Jaz is in Year 7 and unhappily getting used to new friendship dynamics. When a new girl joins her class she sees a chance to make a new friend. Only problem is, Nadima doesn’t speak English. How will they find a way to communicate and how will Nadima’s inclusion affect the existing relationships in class?

This is a wonderful a story of friendship, communication , family support and overcoming challenges. Underpinning the writing style is gentle humour, chocolate metaphors and a wonderful understanding of pre-teen girls.

Jaz has the challenge of dyslexia which is sensitively portrayed, but it is Nadima who has faced the brutal challenges we come to understand and empathise with.

Even with books I find moving, I tend not to actually cry. But with the later chapters of this book I found myself welling up; tears fell as the full details of Nadima’s story unfolded and the friendships grew.

My only other book-induced tears this year were when reading Nikki Sheehan’s  Goodnight Boy, another emotive immigration story. (Rock The Boat Books, July 2017).

With a Beautiful cover illustration by Kate Forrester, depicting themes from the book on a chocolate brown background, Do You Speak Chocolate? gets a big thumbs up emoji from me.

Do You Speak Chocolate?

Written by Cas Lester.  Published by Piccadilly Press, August 2017


Witch for a Week

This gorgeous new book from Kaye Umansky is sure to be a hit with primary school aged children everywhere! With gold-trimmed cover artwork and internal illustrations from the talented Ashley King, children will be happily drawn into the world of Magenta the witch.

When Magenta calls into Elsie Pickles’ family shop, Elsie finds herself accepting the position to house-sit at Magenta’s mysterious tower in the woods. Keen to have some peace and quiet to read Magenta’s books, can she resist the spell book in her bedroom?

With a cast of thieving sisters, woodcutters, a raven and a tatty dog, this story shows Elsie to be strong-minded, capable and bright.  The illustrations, some full page, highlight the whacky world of Crookfinger Forest, with its magical tower and the lotions and potions Elsie comes to use.

I am so pleased that ‘Witch for a Week’ is just the first instalment – a further book about Elsie and Magenta is due for release in May 2018.

Witch for a Week  

Written by Kaye Umansky; Illustrated by Ashley King; Published by Simon and Schuster,  5 October 2017


Also just out from Simon and Schuster is this new edition of two of Kaye Umsanksy’s Pongwiffy stories illustrated by Katy Riddell.

St Grizzle’s School for Girls, Ghosts and Runaway Grannies – Karen McCombie

June sees the launch of another chapter in the life of Dani, Swan and Zed and the lively youngsters at the quirky St Grizzle’s boarding school.
St Grizzles 2

In the first of the entertaining series by Karen McCombie we saw Dani learning her way around a very different school to which she was dropped off by her zoologist mum, who was off to investigate penguins’ bums.  Now settled and actually happy, despite missing her friend Arch and her mum and gran, Dani is excited to learn of a film making competition.  She and Arch made films for their YouTube channel so she enthusiastically accepts headteacher Lulu’s proposal that she direct the film. While out in the expansive school grounds, Dani and her friends find a colourful Campervan, here drawn by Becka Moor.  Its owner proves to be a happy surprise to Dani – her runaway granny.  With Granny’s help, will Dani work well with her schoolmates and make a winning film?  And will she learn that she can make true friends in the zany atmosphere of St Grizzle’s school?

The lively illustrations by Becka Moor again enhance this fun, laugh out loud book, ideal for children from about 7 years old.

St Grizzle’s School for Girls, Ghosts and Runaway Grannies

Written by Karen McCombie; Illustrated by Becka Moor; Published by Stripes,  June 2017

Many thanks to Stripes, via Netgalley, for an advance e-copy of this book in exchange for this, my honest review.

Erica’s Elephant

To mark the release of The Bookshop Girl, I am publishing Bishop, Sylvia Erica's Elephantmy review of Sylvia Bishop’s charming first book, Erica’s Elephant.

This book reminded me of the wonderful writing of AA Milne, not just in the fabulous chapter titling like, “The Second Chapter: In which the Elephant earns a reputation”, but also in the manner in which the Elephant’s abilities and personality are written.

When Erica finds an elephant on her doorstep, little does she know the friendship they will form or the lengths she will go to protecting him from being sent to a zoo.  Accustomed to living alone, this ten-year-old is incredibly resourceful, finding ways to fund feeding Elephant and learning about his care.  When the authorities catch up with Erica, she finds an unlikely ally and a hidden talent – will these be enough to save her situation?

Ashley King’s pen and ink illustrations perfectly draw out the humour in Sylvia Bishop’s story-telling; I particularly love his interpretation of Erica’s busybody neighbour, Mrs Pritchett, which truly highlights his cartoonesque ability.   In other parts of the book, such as scenes at the zoo, his eye for detail is delightful.

An enchanting debut book, perfect to read to children from about six and for confident readers them to enjoy from eight.

Erica’s Elephant

Written by Sylvia Bishop; Illustrated by Ashley King; Published by Scholastic, 2 June 2016

Bishop, Sylvia The Bookshop GirlThe Bookshop Girl, the second collaboration between Sylvia Bishop and Ashley King was released by Scholastic on 6th April 2017.



The Giant Jumperee

Written by Julia Donaldson; Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury;  Puffin, 6th April 2017

The Giant Jumperee 2017 04 06Today sees the release of The Giant Jumperee, a beautiful picture book with a simple story supported by wonderful images of its cast of 6 animals.

The story shows animals of increasing sizes, each with characteristics its pre-school target audience will recognise, in fear of the unseen creature which is claiming to be a giant Jumperee. Like Aesop’s lion and mouse or hare and tortoise, there is a realisation that every creature, no matter what its size, has its own strengths.  Also, much as in Julia Donaldson’s own Gruffalo, there is a sense that fear of the unknown can be out of proportion with what the unknown actually is!

Julia Donaldson’s works have fortunately been supported by a range of talented illustrators. Axel Scheffler, of course, worked on the Gruffalo stories and many more including Room on the Broom and my personal favourite, The Smartest Giant in Town.  Lydia Monks illustrated the Princess Mirrorbelle stories, The Singing Mermaid and What the Ladybird Saw amongst others.
This is Julia Donaldson’s first collaboration with the lovely Helen Oxenbury Number of ThingsOxenbury.  I grew up with the award-winning Helen Oxenbury’s earliest works and have always loved them. She is probably best known for her illustrations to Michael Rosen’s text We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, and in The Giant Jumperee we again see the great outdoors with her watercolour brush.

This book doesn’t draw on Julia’s often-seen rhyming talents, but that in no way stops it from being a great read-aloud book which children will be joining in with after a few readings.  I have been fortunate to take a group of children to see Julia perform her works live, husband on guitar to sing the rhyming texts.   If you ever get the chance, do take your youngsters to see her – the many animal hats for this book will no doubt be added to her repertoire!


Published by Puffin – Penguin Random House – 6th April 2017 – 32 pages

St Grizzle’s School for Girls …. and more!

Today, 12th January, sees the release of not one but two school-based middle grade books from Little Tiger Group’s Stripes Publishing.  Karen McCombie’s ‘St Grizzle’s School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys’ is up against Barry Henderson’s ‘Worst School Trip Ever.  Here I give my review of St Grizzles.  I will be reviewing Worst Trip soon.

book cover of  Goats and Random Boys  When her mum goes away for work, Dani is upset not only that she will miss her mum and gran, but that she will be attending a dull, grey boarding school far from her best friend with whom she makes whacky YouTube videos  using their old toys as actors.  But when her mum drops her off for her dreaded term at St Grizelda’s School Girls, she is shocked to find it is nothing like the website had led them to believe!  Firstly there are no grey uniforms, secondly, as the title suggests there is a goat roaming around and a boy on the register, but thirdly the lessons are like none Dani has ever experienced before!  Will Dani be able to make friends and settle or will her mum come and save her?

This is a fun read, perfectly suited to children from 7-12, which is brilliantly enhanced by the illustrations of Becka Moor, who captivates the weird and wonderful school which Karen McCombie has created.

I am so pleased that ‘St Grizzles School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys’ is just the first instalment – book 2, ‘St Grizzle’s School for Girls, Ghost and Runaway Grannies’ is due for release in June.  This is another entertaining great from Karen McCombie which could run and run.  Karen is, after all, the queen of long series with Ally’s World and Indie Kidd as just two examples.

I would like to thank the publishers, Stripes, for allowing me advanced access to a review e-copy of the title through NetGalley.

St Grizzle’s School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys

Written by Karen McCombie; Illustrated by Becka Moor; Published by Stripes,  January 2017

YAShot 2016 – with Steve Tasane



For my turn on the fabulous YAShot Tour 2016, I’ve had the pleasure of discussing with writer and poet Steve Tasane why he is campaigning for libraries and how he brings a working class voice to YA.

Steve, your poem Save the Libraries ( shows your passion for libraries and I know you are determined for them to remain open for all despite funding cuts.  Tell us a little about your involvement/campaigning.

Libraries are a resource for working class communities; books are essential items that are increasingly becoming a luxury for families that struggle to afford groceries. At the end of the last library event I ran, the pupils were told they had five minutes to choose one book each, and there was a stampede. It was like ‘kids in a sweetshop’. Except it wasn’t sweets they wanted to stuff themselves with, but stories.

School libraries are being similarly squeezed by spending cuts. Working class children are being denied quality education, and the other end of this is that funding for the underprivileged to go to university has also just been cut. Now, the main supplier of fairy tales is the Murdoch press. Keep us ignorant, so we’ll keep believing that their kick in the face is actually a kiss. That’s why I’ll be attending the Save The Libraries National Demonstration on November 5th.

Your two novels, ‘Blood Donors’ and ‘Nobody Saw No One’ have urban working class settings and issues.  Why do you see this as important in YA fiction?

That’s a good question, but ironically because it’s such a stupid one. Why would an artist use the colour blue in a painting? Why would a musician write a song in the Key of C? If there was one word I would choose to become redundant in the English language it would be ‘inclusivity’. There are millions of us out there. So why does the YA universe so often refuse to acknowledge us? Or – more to the point – if we write about the millions of kids in urban settings, why does this become ‘issue-based’? It’s just normal life.

Too many YA publishers say there is no ‘market’ for working class stories, which is beyond crass; it is insulting, and political too. But if we writblood-donorse about our own lives and communities, it is we who are labelled as ‘political’. Working class kids have always read fabulous books about the adventures of middle class kids, without anybody questioning it, but if today’s middle class kids are offered stories about working class kids, this is too often seen as radical or difficult. Great stories allow the reader to go on an imaginative journey into unknown experiences. Isn’t that the point?

I’m with you there, Steve.  And the characters in your books are exciting and the stories gritty.

I’d like to ask you about male readership as I feel the majority of YA books have more appeal to a female audience.

When I do readings, boys love my books (Killer Bugs!!!).  But, yes, most bloggers/reviewers seem to be female. I love the fact that Sis in Blood Donors is twice as tough as Marshall, but tender too, and the fact that Marshall learns that ultimately his muscle-power won’t help him anywhere near as much as friendship and family will; and that the boss of the tnobody-saw-no-oneowerblock, Big Auntie, wields a terrifying chainsaw.  I love it that one of the heroes of Nobody saw No One – Alfi – is a ‘wimp’ despite being totally fearless. I’d love more young women to read my books, and enjoy them the same as I enjoyed reading Little Women or Matilda or Catherine Johnson’s excellent The Curious Tale Of The Lady Caraboo. A wonderful story has no gender divide.

You’ve also been writer-in-residence for the Charles Dickens bicentennial celebrations.  Dickens portrayed the working class life of his day, how did you bring your modern YA twist to this?

Dickens was a brilliant storyteller and social reformer. Today, he’d probably be dismissed as “issues-based” and the Daily Mail would call for him to be banned. He wrote about characters from all walks of life, but he’s harder to read in 2016 because most of his books were originally designed to be serialized and weren’t therefore tightly edited, language constantly evolves (making much older books more of a reading challenge), and his female characters have dated badly as they tended to be typified as doomed floozies or doomed angels or doomed wives, very much reflecting the social attitudes of his times. I’m sure he would represent female characters very differently if he were writing today. He’d be standing up for refugees and for the NHS and for the Human Rights Act, and be utterly eviscerated for it.

On the other hand, you can’t put a good book down, and I enjoyed taking a similarly colourful approach to Dickens, whether writing about the dynamic cultural hubbub of Seven Sisters Road, the over-the-top villainy of Jackson Banks, or the linguistic gymnastics of Citizen Digit. Dickens could really make words dance, and I hope I succeeded in dancing similarly in his footsteps.

Steve, you are also a poet, with a published collection (for adults), Bleeding Heart.  Can you tell me anything about your poetry?

Poetry is absolutely integral to my work as a novelist.  Without my passion for performance poetry, I wouldn’t be a writer of YA/children’s fiction. For starters, it was my poetry that first took me back into schools – writers needing to run workshops in order to pay the rent. And it was the children – of all ages – in the schools who inspired me to write for a younger audience. And it was my poet-in-residence status that really allowed me to expand my repertoire – particularly as official poet for Battersea Dogs Home (, and as writer-in-residence for the Dickens Bicentennial Celebrations – during which I wrote a ballad poem adaptation of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. This was a wonderful trip inside Dickens’ working mind, with regard to his structure, themes, imagery, pacing; and of course Oliver Twist was the main inspiration for my book Nobody Saw No One. I write all my books to be read aloud, so you can really be convinced by and enjoy the characters’ voices. Most recently of all, I’ve written a tribute to one of the great masters – Roald Dahl – with this Gobblefunk Rap:

Steve Tasane will be at YAShot 2016 in Uxbridge on Saturday 22nd October.  He will be part of a fabulous panel with Michael Byrne, Patrice Lawrence chaired by Polly Ho Yen.  Their panel, To Have and Have Not: exploring poverty, privilege and class through YA will run from 17.50 – 18.45 in The Golden Hall at Uxbridge Civic Centre.

Steve campaigns as part of the Save The Libraries campaign, and would love to see as many people as possible join the national Save The Libraries demonstration on 5th November.