Chapter Books, In Translation, Middle Grade, Picture Books, Reviews

Middle Grade Reading Recommendations

Following on from last week’s post about YA Poetry anthology INK KNOWS NO BORDERS, this week’s post concentrates on chapter books and middle grade novels that I’ve come across over the last few months.

Geronimo Stilton by Geronimo Stilton, translation from Italian credited to the Italian publisher (Sweet Cherry Publishing – UK)

Oh my goodness, how have we not discovered these books before? Full of cheese and rodent-based puns, these are just such good fun. My seven-year-old chuckles every time we come across exclamations like “Putrid cheese strings!” or “Rancid rat droppings!” and our absolute favourite, “HOLEY CHEESE!”  Each book follows the protagonist Geronimo Stilton and various members of his family on an adventure and can be read as standalone books. These are gentle adventures with a hint of danger but nothing more. There are far more giggles than gasps! Chapters do tend to leave you on a cliff-hanger which often leads to pleas for “just one more…” I also like that each book often has a repeating phrase, “Oh what a day!” for instance, so when reading aloud, I often get my daughter to fill that bit in. So far we’ve read the first two and a half books and there’s still plenty more to come. A spin-off series about Gerrykins’ sister Thea and a graphic novel series are still to be explored! It’s also worth pointing out that as well as being great fun, they really are a master-class in pun translation.

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The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt, translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson (Puskin Press)

I think I might be a little late on the uptake on this one, having now been made into a Netflix series, but better late than never! The Letter for the King is a great adventure novel with a new twist or turn around every corner. When an old stranger interrupts Tiuri’s night time vigil in the chapel on the eve of his knighthood, little does he realise the adventure that will follow. While disobeying the King by answering the old man’s pleas, Tiuri accepts the task given to him by the stranger and follows it through to completion. The book highlights friendship and loyalty as well as pursuing a course of action based on what you think is right.

One section that struck me was where Tiuri has met a man in the woods with a strange aspect, who appears to be a fool. While initially impatient to continue on his journey, Tiuri stops and makes time to talk to the Fool. As he leaves, he promises to visit the Fool upon his return. Not forgetting the kindness the Fool has shown him, he does return to speak to the Fool again on his way back. I really liked the tenderness displayed by a would-be knight who is made out to be courageous and daring. Brave boys can be kind-hearted too!

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Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, newly translated from Japanese by Emily Balistieri (Random House Kids)

One for fans of the Worst Witch series, this is a lovely little chapter book about a young witch who, following the rules of being a witch, sets out on her own to find her own place to live and work, taking her talking cat with her. Every witch has a special skill but Kiki isn’t sure what hers is. With witches being a rarity, her neighbours are somewhat skeptical when she moves into town. She settles on providing a delivery service, which has its ups and down but she ends up winning over her neighbours with her kindness. My only slight bugbear was that everywhere Kiki went, she was greeted by someone telling her she was “cute”. I appreciate the original Japanese version of this story was written in 1985, but I do wish they wouldn’t comment on her looks every time! But that aside, it’s a very sweet adventure story of a girl going out into the world, learning her strengths and carving out a future for herself. At the end of the allotted year, she returns home and reflects on just how much she has grown.

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Earlier in the year, I also reviewed Lampie by Annet Schaap, translated by Laura Watkinson (Pushkin Press, UK), which has just been released in the USA as Of Salt and Shore by Charlesbridge. That first masterful scene of the storm and the light house still remain with me today!

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And not forgetting The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius, translated by Peter Graves, also published by Pushkin Press. And the great news is that the third Sally Jones title by Jakob Wegelius has recently been picked up by Pushkin. I can’t wait!

In Translation, Picture Books

Picture book review: She rides like the wind and In Great Numbers

It’s been a little quiet on here due to homeschooling through the pandemic and getting ready for #WorldKidLitMonth over on the World Kid Lit Blog, but today I’m reviewing two new picture books from publisher Little Gestalten. One of the things I love about Little Gestalten books is how they feel. Recognisable because of their large-scale dimensions, matt finishes and gloriously thick pages, they really are a joy to behold.

In Great Numbers written by Isabel Thomas, Robert Klanten, Maria-Elisabeth Niebius and Raphael Honigstein. Illustrated by Daniela Olejníková.

In our house, numbers are celebrated. My husband and kids love maths so this book has gone down a treat, and not just with the kids. I started flicking through In Great Numbers one evening and it didn’t take long until I was calling over to my husband: “did you know…?” or “listen to this!” Packed full of interesting facts about the history of our counting system and calendar, how GMT ended up being used as the standard measure for time and why computers only use two numbers, I learnt more than just a thing or two. When it was my son’s turn, he too called over, “Mum, did you know…” We really enjoyed having a go at Kaprekar’s Constant. We also had an interesting conversation about a call I had planned with several people in different countries and the times we could or couldn’t meet depending on the different time zones.

The book nicely highlights the global origins of many of the concepts we still use today, from India and Egypt to the Greeks and Romans, with the illustrations conveying this diversity of people. One of my favourite pages is the explanation about money. A long line of people snakes across the page, depicting people from all different races negotiating the exchange of goods. The line starts back in the stone age with two men exchanging animal skins for food, and works its way up through history to the present day where two people are using cards to pay.

She Rides Like the Wind written by Joan Negrescolor, translated from Portuguese by Jethro Soutar.

New out for August, this bright yellow non-fiction picture book from award-winning illustrator Joan Negrescolor, translated by Jethro Soutar tells the true story of Italian cyclist Alfonsina Strada. Alfosina overcame disapproval from her family and society and became the first and only woman to ever win the Giro D’Italia. The words tell the story of when she first rode a bike and how she learned to cycle. It mentions falling off (or rather landing head first in a puddle!) and getting back on again – a great lesson for children to hear about how successful people have overcome their challenges.

While the words convey the story of her journey to success, it’s the illustrations that explain how this was received by the local community around her. People point and stare, their stylised facial expressions depict shock at what she’s doing. With my adventurous six-year-old daughter, these aspects brought up interesting conversations about how girls were and sometimes still are viewed. Alfonsina wears men’s clothes to make herself look more like a man and on one page, she’s called “Tomboy” and “Alfonso” – a boy’s version of her name. Despite all that, she pushes on and ultimately enjoys great success.

The illustrations are really interesting. The pages are predominately bright yellows, oranges, blues and greens and quite abstract in design. I love how people’s emotions or expressions are conveyed using just a few lines or even a simple oval for a horrified mouth. On one page there’s a race spectator whose only feature is a big bushy moustache and yet it conveys so much!

Two great new titles! Many thanks to Little Gestalten for these review copies.

Get ready for #WorldKidLitMonth. Head over to the World Kid Lit Blog and find out how you can get involved.