Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Bees of Stupidity – review

3 Jul

stinkbomb 4I can’t believe I haven’t reviewed one of these books on my site before. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent all my time telling people I meet to buy them! The Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face series has caused more bedtime merriment in this house than any other. My seven-year-old literally squeals in delight, and I have been forced to stop reading on many occasions because I’m laughing so hard. John Dougherty – a good friend (so I am naturally biased) is a comic genius. It’s SO hard to do a funny book for kids that the parents are equally keen on.

Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face are brother and sister, and they live in a house high on a hilltop above the village of Loose Chippings on the island of Great Kerfuffle. The island is ruled over by the benevolent King Toothbrush Weasel, who lives in a cottage palace, and it’s guarded by the army of Great Kerfuffle, a cat called Malcolm the Cat. The villains of the piece are the badgers, who are keen to do Evil and Wicked Things, though they’re a bit incompetent (apart from Harry the Badger, who’s the brains of the outfit), and are easily caught in each book and thrown in jail. The increasingly ingenious (and hilarious) ways to find ways to escape are one of the attractions of each new book; and I particularly liked the escape method in the Bees of Stupidity, involving a hard biscuit and some patient nibbling…

DSC_0047My daughter adores the anarchic characters (which also include an extremely rude blackbird and a sweet and helpful shopping trolley that Ketchup-Face has adopted as her pet ‘horse’ Starlight) and I and my husband appreciate the cleverness of the writing. John frequently reminds the reader that they are in fact reading a book (in an earlier book, an elephant objected to being pressed into a job, ‘because I’m needed in Chapter 28′), a stylistic device that could be annoying but somehow isn’t. We also loved the new characters, dachsunds Ziggy and Wiggo, who claim to be badger ‘experts’ but simply jump on anyone (or anything) they meet, barking ‘Badger Badger Badger!’

In this book, the fourth in the series, a series of break-ins have resulted in the theft of stripy jumpers, fairy wings and the badgers themselves. You can see where this might be heading…and so could my daughter, which made it all the more delicious for her. Stupidity, in case you’re wondering, is the name of another village on the island (you can go there by bus in Book 2: The Quest for the Magic Porcupine, though the journey does take you via the Mountains of Doom and the Valley of Despair). Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face, once they’ve been reassured that they are in fact the heroes of the story again and haven’t been relegated to minor characters, set off to thwart any Evil and Wicked plans that might be afoot.

DSC_0048David Tazzyman’s illustrations perfectly capture the surreal, anarchic style, and I wonder how he feels when being asked to draw some of the things that John comes up with…I won’t spoiler it, but this picture was particularly brilliant, and so was the one that followed immediately afterwards!

If you’ve got kids aged anywhere between six and twelve, I reckon they’ll love this. The younger ones can be read to and will just laugh at the crazy plot, hilarious characters and brilliant pictures. The older ones will appreciate the zany authorial interruptions and the cleverness of having your characters clearly aware that they’re in a story.

Be warned though, if reading aloud, your full range of voices and accents will be tested. In book 1, there’s a song called Blueberry Jam that you WILL be required to attempt (no song in this one, John, what’s THAT about?!) and in this one, there’s almost a page of quacking required…

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It’s quite hard to quack in a conversational way…

...which is why I did THIS when I saw the page

…which is why I did THIS when I saw the page

I’m absolutely delighted that there’s more to come from Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face, and, judging from the way my daughter’s eyes lit up when she saw the latest, she’ll be eagerly awaiting the next one too.

The previous books, The Badness of Badgers, The Quest for the Magic Porcupine, and The Evilness of Pizza, are all available now, and The Bees of Stupidity was published just yesterday. Congratulations to John, David and the team at OUP for another brilliant book!

Introducing Electrigirl!

2 Jul

Yesterday Cathy Brett and I met up in Oxford for the OUP sales conference. Authors don’t usually get to go to these; it’s where all the books due to be published in the next however-many-months are presented to the sales reps. I assumed that the reps were divided up geographically – so one person would handle the South West, one for Scotland etc. But in fact, each rep has their own area of expertise and handles a different ‘channel’ of sales: Amazon, High Street shops (eg WHSmith), schools, libraries, book clubs, Waterstones etc. All of them need to know about the new books OUP is putting out, so that they can talk to their ‘channels’ and persuade them to place pre-orders.

Every now and then an author is invited along to a sales conference to talk about their own book. It’s a really nice way for the reps to feel that they’ve made a personal connection, and I’m sure it helps them to enthuse about the book when they get back to their desk. Cathy and I were invited in as a double act, and we dressed for the occasion!

My leggings ALMOST glow in the dark...

My leggings ALMOST glow in the dark…

Check out my truly amazing customised shoes! Cathy did them for me, and I LURVE them. In fact, several of the reps wanted them too!

Our editor Kathy introduced us to the room, and then Elaine, head of marketing, talked about the plans to promote and publicise the book (which all sound very exciting), and then I got up and talked about the inspiration behind the book and how much fun the whole process was being – and then Cathy got everyone to draw their own superheroes, with their own personal super power!

It was a lot of fun, even though the room was very hot and the poor reps were almost melting in the heat. The biggest cheer of the day was for the arrival of ice cream! And I felt for Gill, assistant editor, who gamely donned a unicorn outfit to big up one of the other books!

We were glad when our bit was over and we could relax:

Cathy looks slightly crazy, possibly from the heat...

Cathy looks slightly crazy, possibly from the heat…

We went out for drinks and dinner afterwards and it was really great to be able to get to know some of the reps a bit more. What lovely dedicated people – and a shout-out to Camille, who was a VERY bad influence on me! ;-)

But almost better than the sales conference was the arrival of THIS!!

PROOF COPY!

PROOF COPY!

It’s an actual BOOK! I am SO excited. Look at the awesomeness!

Inside pages

Inside pages

You can see where the comic strip sections are from the black edges of the pages

You can see where the comic strip sections are from the black edges of the pages

There’s something really brilliant about bound proofs (which are what you call it when the publisher orders a special print run of the book in advance, not to be sold, but for reviews and to ‘build a buzz’). They don’t usually use the ‘real’ cover because it mustn’t be confused with the real thing when it’s finally published. But everything on the insides is pretty much as it’ll be in the final version, and I couldn’t be happier. It looks totally amazing.

Cathy and I had a great day meeting and talking to the reps and staff of OUP. It was All Good :-)

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Writing reviews at Burford School

30 Jun

I went back to my favourite school today :-) (well, I have to say that because I’m their patron of reading, but actually, they ARE my favourites, so there!) and did a creative writing workshop on How To Write Reviews, for some handpicked Y7,8 and 9s. They were FAB. We looked at six completely different reviews for the same book, and then I explained some of the things they could discuss when they write reviews (plot, characterisation, whether it feels real/holds attention etc) and they wrote their own reviews in twenty minutes. Some of them were totally brilliant!

And then I had a tea party with some kids who’ve made great strides in their reading. A great thing to celebrate. I did a quiz, and it all got VERY noisy and out of hand ;-) but I kind of like things like that.

And here’s a pic of me and Lynne Cooper, the wonderful librarian, who is so supportive of me and the students. School librarians do such a fantastic job, and they’re not appreciated enough. We appreciate you!

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PS. I am wearing new skirt, which I made from fabric I bought on ebay – couldn’t resist, since cassette tapes were my LIFE when I was a teenager!

 

Catching up…running on the spot again!

23 Jun

Oh, you know how it is. You mean to blog, and Stuff Happens, and then suddenly you’ve got to Do Other Stuff, and then before you know it another week has gone by and you still haven’t blogged…

I know. You know. We all know.

So, here’s a brief round-up of My Life in the past four weeks since I last blogged:

DSC_0080~2I went back to OUP for a publicity meeting about ELECTRIGIRL. Which was brilliant and I came away all fired up. And that reminds me, I still haven’t provided the team with my list of Awesome People I Know who might review the book, articles I could write for newspapers etc, ideas for the launch party etc etc. Must do that.

DSC_0111I went to London to meet with Cathy Brett and drink prosecco to celebrate our awesomeness as a team. We met some Minions in Leicester Square too!

DSC_0085~2I’ve made a superhero skirt for my Electrigirl events, and you should SEE the leggings I have to go with it…or actually, maybe you shouldn’t. The bright colour might actually cause damage to your eyes ;-)

DSC_0075~2And I proofread the latest layouts for the book too, which look so utterly brilliant I still can’t quite believe my luck.

Something slightly very so exciting has also happened, which I can’t yet talk about but that’s sort of why I’m rather busy again…!

And I also met up with Piccadilly editors Brenda and Tilda to talk about the latest draft of A LIBRARY OF LEMONS (which is going to need another tweak – argh!) and to discuss maybe doing another book at some point…hurrah! So I’m Having Ideas, which I’ll need to whip into shape before submitting.

Oh, and I had a go at writing some sample material for an educational publisher, which was rejected but they were very nice about it and said they’ll ask me again in the future, so it can’t have been THAT bad…!

And next Sunday is my daughter’s birthday party and AAARGH I haven’t got round to organising anything yet apart from the guest list, and next week I’ve got a lovely event lined up at my favourite school Burford, followed by the OUP sales conference at which I need to be ELECTRIFYING! Er, so I’d better figure out what I’m doing at that too. Apart from wearing a costume.

Right – that’s quite enough of that! Oh – I’ve got two reviews to write too! Not enough hours in the day!!

 

Another day of inspiration at the Story Museum

26 May

I blogged last year about our trip to the Story Museum in Oxford and how much I loved visiting. Today I went back with Jemima (nearly 7) to check out their latest exhibitions. And they’ve done it again.

Jemima and I both loved the Time For Bed room. There’s a row of pegs just before you go in, with dressing gowns for all ages, so you can select one to suit…and then you go into the room and you’re faced with THIS:

OK, you're not faced with my daughter on the bed. Unless you go the same day we do. In which case you may very well see her in exactly that position.

OK, you’re not faced with my daughter on the bed. Unless you go the same day we do. In which case you may very well see her in exactly that position.

That’s a giant bed. I mean, really giant. I gather you can fit an entire class of kids on it. This morning, we were the only ones in the room for several minutes, and oh boy, did I want to do the whole spread-out-like-a-starfish thing right in the middle. Dressed in a fetching pink gown, it was a good thing no one snapped me…

There are a couple of rooms opening off the big one too. The one playing lullabies kept Jemima chilled out for quite some time, which meant I could have a bit of a kip on the biggest bed ever…and despite it not being a sprung mattress (because then everyone would just jump up and down on it instead of reading stories to their toys etc) it was definitely comfortable enough for me to feel my eyes closing… And it’s so pretty! Fairy lights and chiffon draped around, and the biggest globe lampshade I’ve ever seen, like a glowing moon.

Upstairs, there’s another huge room, this one entitled ‘Extreme Reading’. It’s full of niches and reading areas, each with their own personality. And a ‘whispering tube’ that goes round a corner, so you can whisper to your friend from several metres away (insults are handily provided on a sheet). I was thrilled by the ‘secure books’ area, where there are sixteen numbered and locked boxes on a table. The keys are hanging on pegs nearby and on each tag there’s a teaser about the book in the relevant box. I felt smug that I could identify almost all the books from the teaser tags…

There’s a large magnetic board for those poetry magnets too – the ones you buy for your own fridge (or some well-meaning friend does, saying ‘you’re a writer; you’ll love these!’) and play with half-heartedly for a few days before the novelty wears off. Well, it wasn’t my fridge, so I was delighted to have a go at some poetry:

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I rather liked it. Jemima felt it was missing something though, so she added another line:

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I admire her practicality, I guess. If you’ve got a thousand charms coming to you, you could use one of them to clean the streets. Especially outside parliament.

We were both very pleased to see that the sensible Museum people have kept the fantastic Talking Throne and the dressing up costumes.

Jemima takes it all very seriously

Jemima takes it all very seriously

I...er...don't. The Screaming Cheese of Space! Sounds like a Steve Cole book to me...

I…er…don’t. The Screaming Cheese of Space! Sounds like a Steve Cole book to me…

And then there’s the really wonderful ‘Draw Me A Story’ exhibition, containing artwork from lots of illustrators (I particularly enjoyed Korky Paul’s contributions, showing rough artwork for some Winnie pictures along with the final versions – amazing!) and a room where the kids can do lots of colouring. And the Illustrator Zoo, where you can watch a real artist doing real grown-up artwork (Hi, Gemma!) which is pretty exciting.

We spent a happy couple of hours there and Jemima is already keen to go back. There’s the very nice cafe too, of course, which serves excellent cake. And I even got to have a chat with the lovely Tom Donegan, who organises their events. Watch this space for something I’m hoping to do there before too long!

The Story Museum has something for all ages. Even littlies will love the Time For Bed room (there are lots of soft toys you can put to bed in baskets, and a whole fabric mural which is very touchy-feely), and the older ones will appreciate the Proper Artwork (and probably, if egged on by their friends, get very dressed up in the Throne Room). Do go, folks! Places like this are SO important, to help young people develop a love for and understanding of stories – and, along the way, develop their own empathetic skills by imagining themselves to be other than they are. Hurrah for the Story Museum! (And when can I have a bedroom like that?)

Find out all about opening times, location and what’s on at http://www.storymuseum.org.uk/

ELECTRIGIRL cover reveal!

21 May

Here it is!! I am SO excited and thrilled to be able to reveal the cover for ELECTRIGIRL, out next Feb with OUP. Cathy Brett has done a fantastic drawing of Holly, our super-powered heroine, and JUST YOU WAIT till you see the insides!! I can’t believe it’s not going to be on sale for another NINE MONTHS, it’s as bad as waiting for a baby! Big thanks to Cathy, and to Holly, the designer at OUP, for coming up with something so striking and brilliant. And thanks also to Kathy W and Gill for the constant editorial support and being generally wonderful. Woop woop!

electrigirl_cover

Stop Those Monsters! – review

18 May

stop-those-monsters-9780857078742_hrI’ve been looking forward to Stop Those Monsters! since reading Steve Cole’s Aliens Stink! last year and enjoying it far more than I was expecting to. Stop Those Monsters! is another take-a-boy-out-of-normal-life-and-shove-him-into-a-parallel-world story. This time we have Bob, a 12-year-old boy being babysat by Rachel Thing (he can’t remember her surname) when his house is caught up in a whirlwind and thrown, not over a rainbow, but down into the depths of Terra Monstra, the underground world populated by monsters.

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Bob falls out of a window on the journey, and lands upside-down in a tree, stared at by astonished (and frightened) monsters. Humans don’t come down here, you see. Besides, we have a fearful reputation. Partly for over-populating the world and destroying natural habitats, but mainly for firing toxic waste out of our noses. Monsters, it seems, suffer from the same xenophobic delusions as many people…

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Soon Bob (who has a nice line in obsessive percentages) is being chased by the military (the wonderfully-named Killgrotty and his greenies) as he tries to find his house and his way home (yes, comparisons with The Wizard of Oz are apt!). Alternately aiding and hampering his efforts are an assortment of new companions. My favourite by far is Verity, the toga-wearing, ninja-kicking giant hamster:

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Verity has a lot in common with Monstar, a character from Steve’s early reader books with Orion, to which my daughter is addicted. Both are bouncy, enthusiastic and prone to licking! There’s also a hilarious sequence where Verity attempts to drive a bus as a getaway vehicle, having never driven one before:

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(You’ll be delighted to know that there is indeed an illustration of the giant pink horse with the head of a doughnut on the next page. But you’ll have to buy the book to see it ;-) )

Then there’s Zola, a gorgon (geddit?) who is somewhat of a disappointment to her gorgon family, being unable to turn anyone into stone. Instead, Zola is ‘artistic’ and uses her somewhat limited (but still useful) powers to turn monsters temporarily into works of art (the piece entitled ‘Toasted Soldiers’ made me snort my tea through my nose). Finally there’s Alfie Crudzilla, who’s also a disappointment to his family, being less interested in smashing things and more interested in a career in comedy. Less smash-up, more stand-up. See, I can do it too! (You may all politely applaud now.)

There’s a magic jewel that will enable Bob to get home, but of course it’s at the deepest level of Terra Monstra, and the journey there is fraught with dangers and – this being a Steve Cole book – toilet jokes. Including a sequence involving a giant bottom that has possibly traumatised me for life.

Jim Field’s illustrations are stunning, just as they were for the previous two in this sort-of-series (which began with Magic Ink and continued with Aliens Stink! Presumably another title ending in ‘ink’ proved elusive). In fact, though, this is visually my favourite so far; the illustrations and the font manipulation working so nicely together that I have half a mind to take STM in to my next meeting with OUP and say, ‘See this? This is what I want for Electrigirl!’

Story-wise, there are enough twists and turns and mad creations to keep any reader hooked, and the gags come thick and fast (yes, I did laugh out loud several times, all right? I’m not ashamed to admit it). As a grown-up, I missed the emotional punch of Aliens Stink! which I felt added an extra level of depth to Tim Gooseheart’s story, but that’s just me being picky. Oh, and I’d quite have liked a front cover that was a bit more…chase-like? With tunnels, or something. Or Bob and his pals. I dunno. But the BACK of the book is just awesome, and the B-movie font style for the title on the front is fab, and if that’s all I can find fault with, then really, you should all just go out and buy this book. Go on. Just don’t read the giant bottom sequence right before a meal.

Stop Those Monsters! is available from 4th June and is published by Simon & Schuster. A fourth book in the Magic Ink sequence is due out next year.

The Royal Wedding Crashers – review

18 May

weddingWhat a cute book. The Royal Wedding Crashers by Clementine Beauvais is lots of fun, as Holly, Anna and Prince Pepino attempt to save a royal wedding from total disaster. Desperate to earn enough money to go on a Holy Moly Holiday (which sounds awesome to me, especially the flying to Mars bit and then staying in a ten-star hotel with marshmallow pillows and an Olympic-sized jacuzzi in every room), the three adventurers take on employment from Mademoiselle Malypense who’s offering them a bazillion pounds to ensure the baguettes, the cake, the dress and the bouquet are delivered safely.

But strange things they are a-happening, and Holly and Anna and Pepino find themselves chased through the sewers of Parii, attacked by headless skeletons (don’t swap the heads round!) and faced with garlic icing and a bouquet full of bugs. Soon they begin to suspect that Mademoiselle may not have the best intentions for this wedding…or is there something else going on entirely?

Rather like Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs, this is packed with great character names, wacky adventures and plenty of crises for our heroes to overcome. I did have a little problem distinguishing between Anna and Holly because they seemed rather similar, but I loved the mix of bonkers and reality (French protestors against royalty? Who’d have thought it?!) and the climactic scene is very well set up and executed. I was especially delighted by the ending, actually, and would like to flag up that this book as definitely one that should come under the ‘promoting diversity’ banner. But to tell you why would spoil the ending! Clever Clementine, that’s what I say ;-)

And the pictures by Becka Moor are adorable too, reminiscent of Mina May’s illustrations in the Wendy Quill and Dottie Blanket books. A lovely accessible style, and a fab and funny book for young confident readers. This is the sequel to The Royal Babysitters.

Could This Be The First Ever Author Band?

12 May

OK, so this is the reason I made a giant fake ice cream cone last week.

I’m in a band.

Bear with me. Last year I did an author event at the Wychwood Festival and LOVED it. This year, I practically begged Barbara, the organiser of the literature bit, to invite me again. OK, that’s a slight lie: I did beg. In fact, I threatened to climb over the security fence if they didn’t invite me. (I could have just bought a ticket, I know, but I wanted to MAKE A POINT.)

I wore her down eventually. And THEN she said, ‘There seems to be a lot of musical-type authors coming this year. Fancy forming a band?’ and I fell for it. Hook, line and sinker. I know, I’m hopeless. Can’t resist a crazy idea, especially if it’s something no one has done before. So what did I say? I said, ‘What a brilliant idea! Do you want me to organise it?’

*facepalm*

I admit it, there have been several moments I’ve regretted volunteering. But, as with all the best crazy untried ideas, I’m having too good a time to mind. I’ll be playing keyboards and flute and ukulele and singing – not all at the same time – and we had our first rehearsal just over a week ago and it was BRILLIANT. I mean, we were pretty good. Need practice ;-) but gosh it was FUN to play with other musicians again! I can’t remember the last time I did that. It may be back in my touring theatre days, which is WAY back.

So who are we? We’re called FIRST DRAFT (ha!) and we are:

John Dougherty on acoustic guitar

John Dougherty on acoustic guitar

Helen Stickland on electric guitar

Helen Stickland on electric guitar

Paul Stickland on bass

Paul Stickland on bass

and me on keyboards (and other sundry items) – sorry, I sort of forgot to ask anyone to take a photo of me…;-)

We’ll be singing Paperback Writer (natch), I’d Like To Teach The World To Read (words by a local primary school) and Thank You For The Stories (words finally agreed on after a tussle between me, John and Barbara) along with John’s Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face Song (which you can watch on YouTube here) and two of my own songs.

And now we come to the reason I made a giant fake ice cream cone. One of my songs is about how much I hate editing, but the other is called 99 Reasons and is about ice cream and life and being thankful. I wrote it on the ukulele whilst sitting in my hotel room, and I never thought it’d be performed in public, but on a whim I suggested it to John who said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ and now it sounds totally awesome with extra accompaniment and harmonies and everything and I’m SO excited about singing it at Wychwood. And the others told me I should make a giant ice cream cone and attach it to my microphone stand. So I did. Because that also seemed like a crazy never-been-done-before idea.

There will be LOADS of other authors there that day too, and some of them are also taking the plunge and stepping bravely onto the stage to perform their own songs.

So if you’re coming to Wychwood, you MUST MUST come to the Waterstones author tent at 6.30pm on Saturday 30th May (eep!! Not long to go!) and sing along and cheer and clap. Because although we’re so excited and thrilled and loving the whole making music thing, we’re also faintly terrified because we’ve only had one rehearsal and this isn’t what we actually do professionally, so please come along and shake maracas and smile at me while I’m singing 99 Reasons and give me yet another reason to love the life I have :-)

Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs – review

7 May

elspethThere’s a perceived impression in publishing circles that boys are more interested than girls in snot and toilet jokes. In my personal experience, however, ALL children, regardless of gender, find farts funny. And my six-year-old daughter picks her nose and eats it. And my three-year-old’s favourite insult is ‘boo-boo’ which has something to do with bums, though I can’t now remember exactly what. Which is why Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-offs by Sarah Forbes should appeal to practically everyone. This is how it begins:

It was three o’clock on aTuesday, and Miss Crabb was picking her nose. She was digging her long pointy finger right inside her nostril and pulling out the most awful strings of green snot.

Elspeth Hart was staring at her in horror. She didn’t want to watch, but she couldn’t help it.

Doesn’t that put you in mind of Roald Dahl? What child wouldn’t be instantly hooked by that opening? And the story lives up to its potential. Elspeth lives in the Pandora Pants School for Show-offs with her horrible aunt, Miss Crabb, who is the cook (though it’s a wonder nobody has died from the revolting ingredients she uses). Her parents are dead, killed in a mysterious flood, and Elspeth’s own memory is mysteriously lacking in details. She is miserable at the school, where she is used as an unpaid servant, cleaning and carrying and generally being treated badly in conventional orphan manner. Her only friend is a boy called Rory Snitter, who is a pupil at the school. Rory isn’t very good at being a Show-off (he’s been put in Remedial Tap Dance) because he’s a bit wet and inclined to being a crybaby, so he and Elspeth share a common dislike of the school and the rest of the pupils, especially the truly awful Tatiana Firensky, whose wealthy father runs a Glue Factory and wants Tatiana to be the ONLY star of the Look at Us! show.

One day, Elspeth gets a bump on the head, and suddenly tiny pieces of memory return, along with a half-remembered tune that proves to be very important indeed…

The plot is strong, the characters are strong, the gags are funny and the payoff is just great. I have very slight reservations about the ending being too obviously open for a sequel, but I’ll forgive it that. I really enjoyed Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-offs, and what’s more, I’m handing it straight to my eldest daughter in the absolute certain belief that she will ADORE it. I just hope she doesn’t want to attend classes in Showing off in Public, Attention Seeking in General, Creating a Scene, Getting Your Own Way, and Extreme Boasting. Because, frankly, I think she is quite talented in those areas already…

Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-offs is published by Stripes, and I received a proof copy in return for an unbiased review.

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