Category Archives: Children’s Books

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

If you spend any time on the internet at all, you might have noticed that 26 June 2017 was the 20 year anniversary of the publication of one of the most famous books of our time. I don’t reread many books these days, but I thought I would make an exception for this one. I also want to talk about some of the beautiful new editions.

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“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J K Rowling is the first in a children’s book series that took the world by storm. The story follows Harry Potter, an orphan boy who discovers he is actually a wizard, as he learns about his identity, the secret wizarding world and the magical boarding school of Hogwarts. Harry navigates schoolwork, friendship and his newfound fame as the Boy Who Lived with his new friends Hermione and Ron. Together, the three uncover a plot that could spell disaster for not only themselves and their school, but all the wizarding world.

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I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read this story, but it has been a while since the last time. I recently bought the Bloomsbury 20th Anniversary Edition (pictured at the top) which was available both in paperback and hardback in each of the four Hogwarts house colours. I have come to terms with the fact that I am a Hufflepuff so I bought the Hufflepuff hardcover edition with the yellow and black tinted edges. This edition is simply gorgeous and has plenty of great new content about the house, the common room, famous Hufflepuffs and Hogwarts as a whole.

Last year I also bought the illustrated edition (pictured above) so after having a flick through the bonus content in the anniversary edition, I decided that I’d reread the story together with Jim Kay’s beautiful watercolour artworks. They are absolutely stunning, but there weren’t quite as many as I had expected. There are lots of character studies and sweeping scenery (the Hogwarts Express and Hagrid’s Hut really stand out), but I had expected a little bit more magic.

Then, as a reward for completing something really long and boring last year, I bought this great Harry Potter set where the spines all line up together to make a picture of Hogwarts (pictured below). It matches a similar set I have of the Narnia series where the spines make an image of Cair Paravel. Unfortunately, there’s no bonus illustrations or information in this edition but gosh it looks wonderful on my bookshelf.

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Anyway, enough about editions – the story. It’s been 20 years since this book was published, and I really think that J K Rowling has written something timeless. Apart from the fact that she’s still releasing new books and the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” movie franchise is going gangbusters, there is a whole new generation of kids who are starting to read these books. At the heart of this story is the classic fantasy premise of:

  • orphan boy discovers magical powers
  • orphan boy goes on an adventure to learn how to use them
  • orphan boy recovers magical object
  • orphan boy save the world from evil

You know, the fantasy story that everyone knows and loves. However, by setting her story with one foot in a magical world (heavily inspired by European mythology) and the other in 1990s England (with all its accompanying cultural references), this book has a modern relevance that no ordinary high fantasy novel can achieve.

I first read this book when I was about nine years old after a friend of mine recommended it to me. Even though I was skeptical of a book called “Harry Potter” (my own nickname being Harry), I was absolutely blown away by what I read. I was also completely swept up in the Harry Potter hype which culminated in the release of the seventh and final book in the series in 2007, and which had a small revival last year. Rereading this book as an adult, I have a more critical eye, but I think this is still an ideal book for children. Scattered with equal parts wonder, humour and social commentary, it’s little wonder children devoured, and continue to devour, this book. The rest of the series grows darker and more mature, and this really is a story that grows up with a child as the child reads it.

Reading it now, it’s not perfect but it’s pretty close. Rowling cleverly drops little hints throughout the first book that have relevance not only to the ending of that book, but to the series as a whole. It’s an ideal book for an 11 year old – the same age as Harry himself – to immerse themselves in and picture themselves getting their Hogwarts letter (I’m still waiting for mine), learning that they are special and going to exciting classes to learn spells. Some of the writing is admittedly a bit simplistic – even for a children’s book. However, that simplicity is also what makes some of it incredibly funny, even all these years after I first read it. There are also a couple of inconsistencies which become a bit more apparent as time goes on. One of these is the rule that underage (or expelled) witches and wizards aren’t allowed to do magic at home, a rule that Hermione, Lily Potter and even Hagrid all break at some stage in this book. Harry has to buy a pointed hat for his school uniform, something which I don’t think we ever see him or his peers wear. The number of witches and wizards in Hogwarts (and in the wider wizarding community) is also not really clear. You’re never really sure if there are 140 or 1400 in Hogwarts, or how many live in the UK as a whole.

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” is a much shorter story that the rest of the books in the series, and you do at times feel like some of the detail of how magic works is glossed over a bit. For example, if transfiguration is turning one thing into another, how exactly is bringing chess pieces to life transfiguration? Wouldn’t that be charms? I feel like Rowling takes her time with this aspect of the story more in the later books as magic and spells are more relevant to the plot. However they are nevertheless a bit relevant to this plot and I think she could have fleshed her concepts out a bit further.

Ultimately though, I only have to ask myself a few questions to determine how I feel about this book. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I read it to my children? Yes. Will I keep on engaging with new content like the “Fantastic Beasts” film franchise and the Pottermore website? Yes. Yes. Unashamedly yes. 20 years on this book is just as popular as ever. It’s now published in nearly 70 languages including Latin and Welsh. It is a literary phenomenon that spoke to a generation and is already speaking to the next.

There will always be Harry Potter books on my bookshelf.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges, Young Adult

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning

Somehow, I never read this book when I was a kid. I’m not quite sure how this happened. It was first released when I was 11 years old, around the time the Harry Potter books were gaining traction, and I was a big reader. I think I had heard of them, but maybe I thought they sounded a bit childish, or maybe they sounded needlessly grim. Either way, I missed the boat. Now, you may remember that some years ago a film adaptation was made starring Jim Carrey. I remember watching it and being quite underwhelmed, and the film was not memorable at all. However, recently a new TV adaptation has been made starring Neil Patrick Harris. It’s available on Netflix, it’s gotten really good reviews, so I figured the time was nigh for me to give this book series a go before I watch the show. Canty’s had plenty of copies in stock, and the hardcover editions have really cool roughly cut page edges that add to the ambiance. Also, if you watch the show before reading the book – be warned: there are spoilers in the first episode that aren’t in the corresponding book.

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“The Bad Beginning” by Lemony Snicket, is the first book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” series. The story introduces the three Baudelaire children. 14 year old inventing genius Violet, 12 year old bibliophile Klaus and baby Sunny who is good at biting stuff. When the children receive the terrible news that their parents have died from the executor of the will, Mr Poe, they are sent to live with their distant relative Count Olaf. It’s not long before the children cotton on to Count Olaf’s nefarious plans to steal their inheritance.

I think the first thing to say about this book is that it is definitely a book for children. I’m pretty certain that if I had read this book as a child, I probably would have gotten a lot more out of it. Snicket has a that glib style of writing that I remember finding very funny as a kid. He uses lots of “big” words but explains their meaning in a careful way without being condescending. He also gives plenty of examples of the children being independent and being able to capably solve problems, do chores and cook. I think this is a quirky, educational book that would probably be a good gateway book to get reluctant readers reading. However, as an adult (especially an adult that studied law), it’s a bit hard to suspend disbelief enough to really immerse yourself into the story. A big piece of the plot hinges on a “law of our community” that itself is completely implausible in both it’s text and application. I also found the sheer incompetence of the adults (particularly the judge and the banker) to be really annoying. I know this is a bit of a trope in children’s book, but their collective ineptitude was just a bit much.

A solid children’s book that would be perfect to help kids improve their reading, but probably a bit of an eye-roller for parents.

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Five go on a Strategy Away Day

I got this little book as a Christmas present this year, and I chuckled to myself at the title. Clearly a spoof on Enid Blyton’s “The Famous Five” series, it was a tip of the hat to the fact that since I started my grown up job, I now get to go along to corporate training sessions.

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“Five go on a Strategy Away Day” by Bruno Vincent is one of the new “Enid Blyton for Grownups” satire series that rewrites “The Famous Five” books with the characters now adults dealing with modern issues. George, Dick, Anne, Julian and Timmy the dog have been summoned by the multinational corporation they work for to attend a day of team-building activities to a hotel in the countryside. There their team is put to the test while they compete with other teams, including a particular team made up of seven, to win a prestigious award. However things don’t go as planned, and there seems to be something sinister going on.

This book looks a lot like the “Ladybird Books for Grownups” series that came out a while ago, so I was expecting it to be more of a book full of classic style illustrations with hilarious captions. Instead, it actually was just like an Enid Blyton book. I think there is a lot of nostalgia value to this book, and I think that anyone who works in any kind of big organisation can probably relate to the kind of team dynamics that are explored in this book. Vincent captures the tone and spirit of Blyton’s stories, with a twist of modern sophistication. However, although it’s quite clever, it didn’t quite elicit from me the scandalised giggles that the “Ladybird Books for Grownups” series did.

This would make a good office waiting room coffee table book or a fun Kris Kringle present for a colleague.

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Daddy’s Bedtime Adventures

It’s school holidays, and over the next couple of days I’ll be posting up some reviews of children’s books to help you keep the kids entertained. I received this book courtesy of the author, and as a big supporter of dads being involved in caring for their kids, the title hooked me from the outset.

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“Daddy’s Bedtime Adventures” by Kida Lopes Brino is a children’s book about a little boy’s bedtime routine with his dad. This book has a unique structure where the first half of the book is told from the boy’s perspective, and the second half is the same routine but told from the perspective of the father.

I think this is a great little book for kids for several reasons. First of all, I really like the dynamic between the father and the son. It’s playful but firm, and takes into account that the son is still very young and that the father is sometimes worn out from the day but maintains enthusiasm for their routine anyway. I also really like the way the story is told twice from both the father’s and son’s perspectives. I think this is a great way to teach kids empathy and to be able to understand that different people experience the same situations differently. Finally, I really like that this is an example of a diverse children’s book. I know that 20 years ago, when I was a kid, the overwhelming majority of children’s books were about white children.

This would be a great little book for dads to read to their preschool aged kids at bedtime to help them learn about empathy and routines.

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The Day My Fart Followed Santa Up the Chimney

This is the second Christmas book I recently received, and this one is for kids.

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“The Day My Fart Followed Santa Up the Chimney” is an independent children’s book by Ben Jackson and Sam Lawrence and the third in a series about a young boy called Timmy and his friend the Little Fart, a cute, green, fluffy personification of a fart. This book is a fun overview of the classic Santa Clause tradition complete with reindeer, chimneys, cookies and milk.

I’m not really a big fan of toilet humour, but then again – this book wasn’t written for me! I haven’t read the other books in the series, but my understanding is that they are meant to be cheeky yet educational books to teach kids when it is and isn’t appropriate to flatulate. Instead of containing any particular social lessons, this book uses the Little Fart as a lens through which children can learn about some Christmas traditions. The lighthearted tone is matched by colourful digital illustrations. I think probably the main issue with this book is that the premise doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you’ve read the first one. However, the Little Fart is a funny character and this non-denominational take on Christmas is wholesome without being ham-fisted.

A jovial Christmas children’s book that would probably go best as part of a set.

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Fantastic Mr Fox

This is the 7th and last Roald Dahl book I read for the Roald Dahl Read-a-Thon in celebration of 100 years since the author was born. “Fantastic Mr Fox” was a bit of a childhood favourite of mine, and I knew it was going to be a high note to end on.

“Fantastic Mr Fox” by Roald Dahl is about a fox and his family who live near three farmers: Boggis, Bunce and Bean. After many successful expeditions to steal their chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys to feed his family, Mr Fox is taken by surprise when he’s ambushed by the farmers outside his hole one night. Although he escapes with his life, the farmers are onto him and will stop at nothing to dig him out.

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This book is an excellent example of a modern fable. With all the elements of a classic animal story (especially the sly fox trope) and some pieces of fairy tale (three challenges),”Fantastic Mr Fox” is a fun, memorable story about animals banding together against some rotten villains. It’s got Dahl’s sense of humour, enthusiasm and wordplay throughout and it isn’t dull for a moment. The only thing that was a bit different for me is that I realised that I had a different edition when I was growing up. The edition I just read was illustrated by Quentin Blake, who has pretty much become synonymous with Roald Dahl’s children’s books. However, the one I had growing up was illustrated by Tony Ross. I have to say, I think I prefer Tony Ross’ softer style. The animals look much more cuddly and likeable, and his villains are far more revolting. I remember Bean in particular being depicted picking muck out of his ear, and being so thin he could cross his legs around three times.

This is an absolutely wonderful children’s story, and one that I will absolutely have on my shelf if ever I have children of my own.

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Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Still in celebration of 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl, here is the 6th review in my Roald Dahl Read-A-Thon is its sequel: “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”.

“Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” by Roald Dahl is the sequel to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and picks up immediately where the previous book left off. Willy Wonka, Charlie and Grandpa Joe have just collected Charlie’s parents and other three grandparents and are zooming into the sky in the Great Glass Elevator. Wonka’s plan is to get enough altitude so they can speed back down to earth with enough velocity to break through the roof of the chocolate factory. However, distracted by Charlie’s grandparents, Wonka misses his chance to hit the button at the right time. The occupants of the elevator find themselves adrift in space, just in time to see a shuttle that is about to connect with the world’s first space hotel.

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Although this is the sequel to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” it lacks a lot of the, dare I say it, sweetness of the first book. Where “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a wild journey into a wonderful place, “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” seems to have gotten stuck on the wild part. It has all the hallmarks of Dahl’s other children’s books, bubbling enthusiasm, small but clever child, idiotic adults and reams and reams of nonsense language. However, this book is missing some of his usual charm and humour. It definitely doesn’t seem to have undergone the same editorial treatment that the first book did, and there are pages of jokes at the expense of people from other countries.

I don’t remember caring much for this book as a kid, and I didn’t care for it now. Apparently Dahl was working on a third book in this series that was never finished, and I have to say thank goodness. Stick to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, this one is just disappointing.

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