Spark! Children’s Book Awards: Ages 4-7 Shortlist

The final category in the Spark Book Awards is Picture Books, and it was very difficult to judge between four books that vary so greatly in tone, style and content.

Clean Up by Nathan Bryon, illustrated by Dapo Adeola 

Rocket is very excited that she’s going on holiday to see her grandparents at their island Animal Sanctuary. But when she gets there, she discovers that the beach is full of plastic rubbish that is endangering the local wildlife. Can Rocket organise a beach clean up and save a baby turtle that has been tangled up in plastic?

Clean Up! is a bright, fun and inclusive story with an important environmental message.

The Last Tree by Emily Haworth-Booth 

When the people first discover the forest, it is an ideal place to live. But as they start cutting down the trees to build their homes and construct walls around their village, the people also create barriers in their hearts. When the children discover the last tree, it helps them to remember why the forest was so important in the first place.

The Last Tree is a beautiful and poignant environmental fable about our relationship to the natural world.

Who’s Your Real Mum by Bernadette Green, illustrated by Anna Zobel 

Elvi has two mums but her friend Nicholas is confused, “Which one’s your real mum?” he asks her. Elvi gives Nicholas lots of exciting and imaginative clues (she “can clip a dragon’s toenails while she’s standing on her head and eating a bowl of spaghetti.”) until he realises what she’s telling him—they’re both her real mums.

Who’s Your Real Mum is a humorous and heartfelt story about love and the true meaning of family.

Avocado Asks by Momoko Abe 

When Avocado overhears a child at the supermarket ask her mum whether he is a fruit or a vegetable, the foundation of his world is shaken! Suddenly he’s not sure where he fits in. Fortunately, Tomato is there to remind him, that even if he’s not quite like all the other fruit, he is simply amazing anyway.

Avocado Asks is an engaging and whimsical story about learning to love yourself—whether you’re a fruit or a vegetable, or anything else.

In my experience of reading picture books aloud in schools and libraries, the stories that connect the best with a group are inevitably the funny ones. Although all four are wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated, I’ll place my bets on the one that elicited the most laughs – the millennial fruit identity crisis…

Spark! Children’s Book Awards: Ages 7-9 Shortlist

This category of books is so vital in children’s reading development and yet often doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. There’s such a sense of achievement in reading your first real chapter book by yourself. I remember my children devouring the Rainbow Magic and Beast Quest books in that thrilling early stage of independent reading. So hooray to Spark! for acknowledging this age group. It will, however, be a difficult category to judge as the books in this shortlist bridge the gap between chapter books and shorter ‘junior’ or ‘middle-grade’ fiction. Here are my reviews:

Too Small Tola by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

This short chapter book is made up of three stories about Tola. Tola lives with her older sister Moji, her older brother Dapo, and her grandmother in a run-down block of flats in Lagos. Her brother and sister tease her about being short and call her ‘Too Small Tola’ but Tola proves that even though she is small…she is mighty.

In the first story Tola has to go to the market with her grandmother. She realises that her grandmother is also small but she is strong, and Tola can be strong too. In the second story Tola wakes to find the electricity and the water have gone off. She must collect water from the borehole before she can get ready for school, but when a bully gets in her way, she discovers that she’s not too small to stand up for herself. In the third book Easter and Eid happen to coincide and everyone in Tola’s block of flats is celebrating. Tola is excited about getting a new outfit for Easter, but when their tailor falls off his bike and breaks his leg, Tola steps in to help him fulfil all his orders.

Too Small Tola is a wonderfully uplifting collection of stories that simultaneous feel like folk tales and small portraits of contemporary Nigerian life. These stories create empathy by giving a window on a different way of life, while all children can relate to Tola’s family dynamics – being teased by your siblings, having to do chores around the house, and enjoying a holiday celebration.

Willow Wildthing and the Swamp Monster by Gill Lewis, illustrated by Rebecca Bagley

Willow and her family have moved to a new town to be closer to the hospital where her three-year-old brother is a patient. This means that her parents are often at the hospital, or busy working, or just too tired to spend time with Willow. On the first night in her new house, Willow hears an eerie howling from the Wilderness at the bottom of her garden. When she investigates the next day, she meets the Wild Things—a group of children with animal code names who explore the Wilderness together. But, as they warn Willow, strange things happen in the Wilderness—when you step across the boundary you are changed forever. Willow crosses the bridge and is swept up in an adventure including a missing person, killer plants, a witch and a terrifying swamp monster.

Willow Wildthing and the Swamp Monster is also a chapter book and the first in a series. It’s a wonderfully accessible story, filled with mystery and excitement, that perfectly encapsulates the magic of childhood.  

The Long-Lost Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Samurai by Tim Collins, illustrated by Isobel Lundie

Suki Akiyama is definitely not the world’s worst samurai, though she is not the best either. (The title of this book confused me until realised it was part of a Secret Diary of the World’s Worst… series.) Suki is smart, ambitious and convinced it is her destiny to be a samurai like her father and her brother, despite the fact that she is a girl. She is also over-confident about her own abilities, lacking in discipline and, after she makes some silly mistakes, she gets sent home from samurai school in disgrace. When her father and brother leave to fight in a battle, their village is left unprotected, and some opportunistic bandits scope them out. Suki must rally the women and children to defend their homes from the bandits and prove that she is worthy to be a samurai.

It’s an interesting series concept. The fictional main character gives children an entertaining and relatable insight into living in a particular period, while the ‘Get Real’ inserts present historical facts to add depth to the story. The book was lots of fun, though perhaps not quite as funny as I was hoping for, the samurai facts were fascinating—particularly about female samurai warriors in history, and Suki was an inspiring protagonist. 

Llama Out Loud by Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

It’s Yasmin’s tenth birthday but no one is her family ever listens to her or asks her what she wants, and she’s given up trying to make herself heard. When her birthday dinner ends in disaster and Yasmin gets blamed for her brothers’ prank, she begs the universe: I wish I could stand up for myself. Little does she realise that her wish is about to be granted in the form of a cockney llama plush toy called Levi.

Levi, the small annoying llama, is not what Yasmin was hoping for. Only Yasmin can see and hear Levi, but his ‘helpful’ interventions have real consequences and Yasmin keeps getting blamed. It seems like Levi is only making things worse. When Levi sabotages the one good thing in Yasmin’s life, the checkers tournament at the Octogenarians’ London Daycentre (O.L.D.), Yasmin has had enough. But will she speak up at last? 

Llama Out Loud is a hilarious story, full of wonderfully vivid characters, about finding your voice and learning to stand up for yourself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Once again, a difficult choice as I enjoyed all of these books. I can’t wait to see which one the children vote for but I suspect, like me, they might be won over by a small, raucous and incredibly annoying llama.

Spark! Children’s Book Awards: Ages 9-11 Shortlist

I was excited to hear about the inaugural Spark! Kingston and Richmond Children’s Book Awards, especially when three of the four shortlisted books in the 9-11 category were already on my to read pile. Here are my reviews:

A Clock of Stars by Francesca Gibbons

I went for the biggest book first, and the one I’ve been looking forward to reading the most.

Imogen and her little sister Marie follow a silver moth through a door in a tree to a different realm. There they meet Miro, a lonely prince, in a world of monsters. They must confront the king of the monsters in order to find their way home, but perhaps they can also help restore peace to the City of Yaroslav and the surrounding Kolsaney forest.

A Clock of Stars is full of charmingly quirky and authentic characters, is beautifully illustrated by Chris Riddell, and alight with magic and wonder. A pitch-perfect portal fantasy from a gifted storyteller. I adored it.

The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson

I don’t read a lot of funny books, so this was a complete change of pace but the author made me laugh out loud almost immediately (at something tragic that you wouldn’t laugh at ordinarily), so it was off to a great start.

When something sad happens at the beginning of Freddie’s summer holiday he makes a plan to go on a quest with his friends…but they hadn’t prepared for an onion-eating competition, losing their clothes, being chased by criminals or being mistaken for superheroes. Freddie doesn’t believe in miracles, but will his super-miraculous journey change his mind?

I loved this laugh-out-loud hilarious, madcap romp with a surprisingly warm heart. A book that makes you laugh and cry is always a winner.

When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten

I’d already bought this book after the virtual SCBWI Mass Book Launch last year, so I was looking forward to reading it.

Clara lives in the small village of Sycamore in Jamaica where nothing ever happens. But that’s not entirely true – something happened last summer but Clara doesn’t remember it. All she knows is that her best friend Gaynah doesn’t believe her amnesia is real. But then a new girl arrives on the island from England and, as Clara shows her around, they delve into old family secrets and grudges and Clara’s memories start to come back. 

This book sucked me right in. You’re immediately immersed in the tension between Clara and Gaynah and compelled to read on to find out out what catastrophe was that led to Clara’s memory loss. When Life Gives You Mangoes is a wonderfully atmospheric, voice-driven narrative, with a clever plot and a stunning conclusion.

Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant

The final book has a real nostalgic look (it reminded me of the cover of The Skylarks War), which I suspect may appeal to adults more than children.

In the aftermath of World War One, Lotti’s horrible aunt and uncle want to send her away to boarding school, and the police won’t let Ben stay alone in his narrowboat when his older brother is declared missing in France, presumed dead. Lotti and Ben hatch an ambitious plan to sail the Sparrowhawk across the Channel to France to find his brother. Along the way they have to contend with bad weather, suspicious lock keepers, quite a lot of dogs, and a determined police officer, tracking them every step of the way.

Voyage of the Sparrowhawk is an exciting and heartwarming Enid-Blyton style adventure about friendship and family.

All four of the shortlisted books are excellent and it’s incredibly difficult to pick a favourite. I’m really looking forward to finding out which one the children go for. If I had to choose a winner, I think I’d go for the Mangoes – mainly for that gasp-inducing ending! But best of luck to all of the shortlisted authors.