Review – Sew It Yourself (Daisy Braid)

Keywords: sewing, sewing patterns, fashion, accessories, manual, how-to guide, step-by-step, informational, crafty, sustainability.

The front cover

I’ve always wanted to learn how to sew. I remember watching my mum in fascination as she used this huge sewing machine she brought from her home country. It always scared and fascinated me – the sharp needle going so fast you couldn’t even see it, the sounds of piercing fabric getting louder and louder…

It was because of this fear that I never learnt how to use a sewing machine growing up. What a shame! Because now that I’ve been learning to sew, I find myself wishing I started earlier! Imagine the clothes I could have made for myself…the scrunchies I could have made for my friends…

Daisy Braid, the author

Oh well. Better late than never! My journey into sewing is what led me to the book I’m reviewing today: Sew It Yourself by Daisy Braid. I thought it’d be a simple book of sewing patterns, but thankfully it’s also a guide on sewing terms and how to sew.

Did you know that the sewing world has a lot of special words? I definitely didn’t! Thank goodness this book actually explains these words. Otherwise, I’d be completely lost and confused. Some terms you learn about in this book are:

  • Warp/Grainline
  • Weft/Crosswise Grain
  • Bias binding
  • Overlock
  • Toile (pronounced ‘twahl’, since it’s a French word!)
  • Seam allowance
  • Pinking shears
  • Silk crepe de chine (another French word!)

There was another surprise in this book. Apparently, sewing requires maths. Lots of maths (or at least more than I was expecting!). If you want to sew things, you need to understand how to measure. You’ll find a lot of measurement formulas for the sewing patterns so that you know how much fabric to cut. For example, here’s the formula for cutting the fabric for a scrunchie:

Fabric = 12 cm (4 3/4 inches) x 60 cm (23 1/2 inches)

Elastic = 5 to 10 mm x length. (Length = circumference of your wrist + 2cm [3/4 inches] OR 20 to 22 cm (8 to 8 3/4 inches)

The first scrunchie I made!

I know that might look like a lot to take in (I was pretty flabbergasted when I saw it!). Or maybe you’re more the mathematical type of person, and the formulas aren’t intimidating at all. Great! The thing is, reading these formulas and actually following them are completely different. Once you get your head around all those numbers, it’s surprisingly simple to follow. You basically just get a ruler or measuring tape, draw lines where the measurements in the formula are, then cut out the fabric. It becomes a lot less intimidating when you actually do it!

Now, the most important benefit about sewing has to do with the environment. Think of it this way: we buy and throw out cheap, weak clothes so often that we create a lot of trash. Plus, the workers who make cheap and weak clothes (‘fast fashion‘) often face horrible working conditions, with extremely low wages and dangerous work environments. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone – the workers, the shops, and the people who buy the clothes – to support fashion that’s made ethically? That means making sure the factory workers are treated fairly and the clothes we buy are made to last. By doing this, we also save the environment from unnecessary trash.

One way to be more sustainable is to sew your own clothes! You can either buy your own fabric or even work on old clothes that might not fit you anymore. That’s why it’s so important to know how to sew!

So far, I’ve made a scrunchie and a bag. Don’t tell my friend, but I’m making another tote bag for her birthday! When I’m feeling more confident, I’m totally going to create a Sophie Trapezoid Skirt and a Rectangle-Sleeve Jacket. The instructions in Sew It Yourself are fairly easy to follow, especially if you read the first section (the one that explains all those sewing terms and techniques). In a year from now, when I look at all the clothes and gifts I’ve made, I’ll have Daisy Braid to thank!

There’s a lot to research about sewing and Sew It Yourself provides a lot of that information. So, Sakura is very fond of this book! Gus loves it too – like me, he has always wanted to learn how to sew.

Review – Yesterday Crumb and the Storm in a Teacup (Andy Sagar)

Keywords: fiction, Year 5+, fantasy, magic, tea, witchcraft, funny, mysterious.

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘tea‘?

The front cover

For me, I think of boiling kettles, spoonfuls of sugar, and steam wafting from a mug. I have at least two cups of tea every day – sometimes with a cookie, sometimes just on its own. Not everyone likes tea, of course. But regardless of your opinion, you will end up loving tea by the time you finish reading Yesterday Crumb and the Storm in a Teacup by Andy Sagar.

Yesterday Crumb is a fantasy with witches and magic, but it is also a love letter to tea and its power to heal. A girl named Yesterday (or ‘Essie’) learns how to become a tea witch from Miss Dumpling – a tea witch with her own travelling teashop. Throughout the story, tea has a huge role. It’s like tea in the real world, but with one tiny insignificant difference: the tea Yesterday and Miss Dumpling make…is magical. As in, literally, it’s made with magic and can give you magical powers.

If you drink tea like Miss Dumpling’s ‘Chamomile of Confidence’, you suddenly become more confident in yourself. Another wonderful tea is ‘Jumbling Jasmine’, which gives you the temporary ability to change into any animal you’d like! My favourite part of the tea in this book is that sometimes, you get to see the recipe. It’s fun to read them and see which ingredients seem normal, and which ingredients seem…a bit strange. For example, here’s the recipe for Jumbling Jasmine:

  • One tsp ground cinderspice
  • One tsp finely chopped toothweed
  • A pinch of jasmine petals
  • One teapot’s worth of unicorn milk (boiled, preferably by tea spirit, salamander, or dragon)
  • Optional: pickled starlight, to extend the magic’s longevity.

Interesting ingredients, right? It’s hard to choose a favourite part, but I absolutely love how the unicorn milk needs to be boiled by a tea spirit. You see, tea spirits are really, really cute. Don’t believe me? Look at this little fella!

Isn’t he adorable!? His name is Pascal and I love him with all of my heart! Best character in the whole book, 10/10. He boils water and other liquids for Yesterday’s teas. He’s a little guy who just wants to make tea! Who wouldn’t love him?

The book has also been translated into German!

There are other wonderful characters, of course. Like Yesterday, Jack is a strangeling (a magical child who was left in the human world for too long). He lives and works in the teashop with Miss Dumpling. An inventor, he loves to create new kinds of candies. One candy he’s working on is the ‘Marshmellow of Memory’. When you eat it, you can see a very vivid memory! Oh, and did I mention that Jack has a wolf’s snout? This is because strangelings grow animal parts when they’re left in the human world. Jack has a wolf’s snout, while Yesterday has fox ears. Yesterday actually doesn’t like her fox ears very much (because of them, she was trapped in a circus as a freakshow performer for most of her life). It’s a shame she doesn’t like them, though. I’d love to have fox ears! If you could have an animal part, what would you have? (I’d like some cat whiskers!)

My version of Yesterday Crumb in Animal Crossing: New Horizons!

One thing I would love to see in this book is more illustrations. I’d love to see drawings of not only Yesterday, but Miss Dumpling, Jack, Madrigal – everyone! I suppose a benefit of having little to no illustrations is that you’re free to picture the characters however you want. You’re told in the story what they look like, sure, but we all have very different imaginations; so even if readers are given the same information, they can come up with wildly different ideas of what characters look like!

Here’s a little activity: since there aren’t any illustrations of Miss Dumpling – Yesterday’s mentor tea witch – try to draw what you think she looks like based on what the narration tells us.

A lady stepped out, wreathed in the aromas of cinnamon and gingerbread. She wore a dress like woven candyfloss. Her butterscotch-blonde hair tumbled from beneath a pointed hat around her rosy pink cheeks. Her eyes were the colour of lavender.

Yesterday Crumb and the Storm in a Teacup, page 1.

Here’s what I drew based on that information:

How I pictured Miss Dumpling!

Is my illustration similar to what you pictured? Or did you think she looked completely different? The best part of this activity is that there’s no ‘correct’ answer. One of our rights as readers is to be able to picture the characters anyway we want! Do share any drawings you create of Miss Dumpling, as I would love to see everyone’s different ideas!

Jack, by the German translation’s illustrator, Kristina Kister

So, because this book is truly magical and creative, I sincerely enjoyed it! I actually borrowed from a library to read this, but I love it so much that I’m going to buy my own personal copy. Hopefully, there will be more Yesterday Crumb books soon. I just have to see what happens next and – of course – what other kinds of tea there are!

It’s a fantasy book, so Felipe obviously loved Yesterday Crumb and the Storm in a Teacup. Millie actually loved it too! She enjoyed trying to figure out the various mysteries in the plot and trying to figure out what the characters will do next.

The Bookitties came up with some fun activities you could do

  • Draw a picture of Miss Dumpling based on the paragraph in this review. What does she look like? How is she similar or different to the drawing in the review?
  • Create your own type of magical tea. What power would it give you? What mystical ingredients would it need?
  • If you could replace one of your body parts with an animal’s, what would you choose and why?

Review – A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories (Angela McAllister)

Keywords: Shakespeare, fiction, narrative, collection, age 9+, illustrations, classic.

Alice Lindstrom’s portrait of William Shakespeare

At last, an excuse to talk about Shakespeare! We all knew I had to review this guy eventually. I mean, he’s literally one of the most famous writers of all time. I cannot stress enough how famous this guy is. So, let’s look into why he’s so well-known and why we’re even talking about him over 400 years after he passed away.

William Shakespeare was a playwright (a person who writes plays) and poet. He lived from 1564-1616, in England. He was considered a brilliant actor and playwright, even becoming a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I! We’ll be talking about the plays that he would’ve performed for royalty and for countless people who watched them at the Globe Theatre.

The front cover (gorgeous, isn’t it?)

Shakespeare’s plays can be divided into three categories: comedies, histories, and tragedies. You might have heard of some of his most popular plays before: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you’ve never heard of those plays before, don’t worry! We’re going to explore them a bit in today’s reviewed book: A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories, written by Angela McAllister and illustrated by Alice Lindstrom.

A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories is a collection of 12 Shakespearean plays, rewritten as narratives. You can read it on your own or have someone else read it for you (it’s a wonderful bedtime story!). The 12 stories you’ll read in this book are:

Othello and Desdemona from ‘Othello’
  • Romeo and Juliet (a romance between a boy and a girl whose families are sworn enemies)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a comedy where fairies make four people fall in love randomly, leading to hilarious trouble)
  • The Tempest (a story about a shipwreck, a magical island, and a wizard guy)
  • Othello (a tragedy about a man lying so much that a husband thinks his wife is cheating on him)
  • Hamlet (a tragedy about a dramatic prince who sees his murdered father’s ghost and promises to avenge his death)
  • Twelfth Night (a comedy where a girl dresses up as a boy, but when her twin brother comes to town, there’s a lot of confusion!)
  • Macbeth (a man with a powerful wife is driven mad by ambition as he kills people so that he can become king)
  • King Lear (an aging king tells his three daughters that he’ll give his kingdom to the daughter who loves him most, and chooses the wrong daughters)
  • As You Like It (a comedy where the characters fall in love at first sight and have fun in a forest)
  • Much Ado About Nothing (an island where a man is tricked into thinking his fiance is cheating on him, and a man and woman who hate each-other are tricked into falling in love with each-other)
  • The Merchant of Venice (a scheming money-lender tries to trick a man into an evil money loan. The man must be saved in court by a woman dressed up as a man.)
  • Julius Caesar (the historical story of a Roman senator and how his fellow senators assassinated him)
Each story begins by showing the cast of characters

Every single story is well-written and engaging. Having said that, you might prefer some stories over others, depending on the type of stories you like. For example, my personal favourite Shakespearean play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream (it was the first of Shakespeare’s plays I’d ever read, and it made me laugh so hard that at one point I spat out my tea!).

“But,” you might ask me, “If the original plays are so good, why would you rewrite them as narratives?” An excellent question! You see, the original plays are written in Elizabethan English. This is the kind of English that was written and spoken while Queen Elizabeth I was ruling England. It’s very different from modern English, since 400 years have changed the language a lot.

King Lear in a storm

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. Here’s one part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Hermia is telling her friend Helena that she and her lover Lysander will escape the city to get married. Keep in mind, Hermia is basically just saying, “Helena, I’ll leave Athens with Lysander. Athens used to be such a great place to me, but since I met Lysander, my opinion of Athens has become sour. I just love Lysander so much!”

“Take comfort: he no more shall see my face;

Lysander and myself will fly this place.

Before the time I did Lysander see,

Seemed Athens as a paradise to me.

O then, what graces in my love do dwell,

That he hath turned a heaven unto a hell?”

(Hermia talking to Helena, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 202-207.)

So…yeah. The way the characters speak in the original plays is challenging to understand, especially if you’re not used to Elizabethan English. It takes some practice and reading to understand the original plays.

Ariel the sprite flying over Ferdinand and Miranda in ‘The Tempest’

That’s why 12 of the plays have been rewritten as narratives: to make them easier to read and to be a nice introduction into Shakespeare’s stories. It’d be so easy to be scared by the original plays’ language and think, “Um, I don’t understand this. I don’t want to read anymore.” But then you’d miss out on some of the greatest stories ever written!

So, did I like A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories? Of course! I found it very fun to read and to see how the Elizabethan English can be translated into modern English. The only thing I can criticize is that a lot of cool details and jokes are left out of the narratives. But I think leaving some things out is necessary, since if you wrote absolutely every detail, the book would be way too long. Each story cuts down the plays to its most important details, which means that the stories aren’t usually longer than 4-5 pages.

Puck the fairy putting a love potion on Demetrius’s eyes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The illustrations are really interesting too. They’re paper cutouts painted over in gorgeous colours. I haven’t seen this art style very often in books, so it was lots of fun to look carefully at the illustrations and guess how they were made! Sometimes you can see how the artist used their paintbrush to make different patterns on the characters’ clothes. It’s beautiful work! It makes me want to try out this art style for myself, actually.

This was a long review, I know, but it needed to be long! There’s just so much to talk about when it comes to Shakespeare. If you’re interested in learning more about him and his stories, A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories is a brilliant introduction. You see, there’s information about Shakespeare and the 12 plays at the end of the book!

It’s not only me who enjoyed this book, by the way. Dmitri adored it, since he’s such a fan of Shakespeare (he can even recite passages from Hamlet by heart!). Surprisingly, Gus liked this book too, even though he’s told me before that he doesn’t like Shakespeare’s stuff. When I asked him why he liked this particular book, he said that the way it was written made it easier for him to understand the actual stories. “I don’t understand the original plays,” he said, “So I’m happy that I can enjoy the stories in a way that I do understand!”

Review – Why Do Tigers Have Whiskers? (The Conversation)

Keywords: picture book, non-fiction, research, ages 8+, science, biology, animals, fun facts, quirky, The Conversation.

The front cover

You are witnessing a historic moment: the very first time I have ever reviewed a picture book! I’ve thought of reviewing picture books before, of course, but none of them really interested me enough to write about them. So, you may ask, “Why are you suddenly reviewing a picture book, then? What’s so good about this one that you just had to write about it?”

Well, the first thing that caught my attention was that the picture book – Do Tigers Have Whiskers? – has an eye-catching title. Have you ever wondered about tigers’ whiskers before? Never have I! Looking into the book further, I realized that it’s actually a collection of one of my favourite series of articles – “Curious Kids” from a news outlet called The Conversation.

“Curious Kids” articles answer quirky questions that kids ask about nature, science, and just about anything they can think of! What’s so great about this series is that experts actually take the questions seriously and write their answers in a fun and interesting way. People of all ages can enjoy these articles. (I certainly do!)

A ferocious little kitty!

Do Tigers Have Whiskers is a collection of some of the best “Curious Kids” articles that have to do with animals. Every question is answered by a different expert. For example, Alexander Braczkowski – the person who answers the tiger whisker question – is a big-cat biologist from the University of Queensland (fun fact: he also works as a photographer for National Geographic!) I found out about him from the book, because there’s a section where it describes the experts and what they’ve studied! All the experts’ answers have been edited and made into this book by editor Sunanda Creagh, who is also the editor for the ‘Curious Kids’ articles on The Conversation.

“Why do tigers have whiskers” is just one of the questions experts like Alexander answer. I don’t want to spoil the book too much, but I just have to tell you a couple of the other questions:

  • Do sharks sneeze?
  • Do butterflies remember being caterpillars?
  • And my personal favourite: Why don’t cats wear shoes?
My drawing of a sneezing shark!

Honestly, I have no idea how people come up with questions as creative as these. Just reading the questions makes me want to read the answers immediately! Having said that, you could have a lot of fun trying to figure out the answer for yourself. Here’s a challenge for you: what would you search (on Google or in encyclopedias) to figure out the answer for, say, “do sharks sneeze”? And here’s the challenging part: you’re not allowed to just repeat the question. I reckon you’d first need to figure out the body parts needed for humans to sneeze, then see if sharks have them. The rest is up to you! Can you figure it out?

Once you’ve done your research and figured out your answer, go ahead and read the answer in the book! How close were you? It doesn’t matter too much if your answer was wrong. The important thing is practicing your research skills so that one day, you could answer other people’s creative questions, or perhaps write a book just like Do Tigers Have Whiskers? (If you do, please let me know, because I’d love to read it!!)

Do butterflies remember being caterpillars?

Another great thing about this book is its glossary. To remind you, a glossary is the part of a book (a text feature of non-fiction texts) where it tells you what some words mean (their definitions). Why do you think you’d need a glossary? Well, it’s so readers completely understand the book and the words its using. You wouldn’t learn very much if you didn’t understand the words, after all!

Some of my favourite words in this book’s glossary are:

  • Burrow
  • Chrysalis
  • Metamorphosis
  • Proprioceptor

No, I won’t tell you what those words mean! You’ll need to look them up for yourself! What I can tell you is that each of those words (and every other word in the glossary) talks about something really interesting. (Especially ‘metamorphosis’!) Plus, if you can say those words, define them, and spell them correctly, imagine how impressed your teachers and friends would be!

Learn more about animals like this little fella!

To summarise my thoughts on Do Tigers Have Whiskers?, it’s the perfect introduction to becoming an expert on animals. It gives its readers the opportunity to read some great, reliable research and to practice their own researching skills. I tried to figure out if there was anything I’d change about this book. The only thing I could think of was that it’s not long enough! I need more information, more questions and answers! I want to know absolutely everything there is to know about sneezing sharks, shoeless cats, and tigers’ whiskers!

If you’ve read this far into the review, congratulations! You have unlocked a sneak peek into the book. This will give you a taste of what to expect, and to see if the language is a bit too challenging (which is absolutely fine!). So, tell us, why do tigers have whiskers? Here’s the first sentence:

“Just as the hairs on your arm help you feel a soft breeze, or a spider crawling on you, a tiger’s whiskers give it information about its environment.”

(Page 4, Alexander Braczkowski)

It goes without saying that Sakura, our research-loving cat, enthusiastically recommends this book to pretty much everyone. Those who find the language in the book a bit challenging could try having someone else read it to them and explain what it means. Also, the book is very scientific, because it talks about biology and shows what proper scientific research looks like. So, Louise the scientist cat has a hard copy that she reads very often!

Review – Real Pigeons Fight Crime (Andrew McDonald)

Keywords: funny, Year 2+ reading, paragraphs, chapter book, comic strips, crime-fighting, mystery, comedy.

Okay, I have a confession to make: the only reason I read this book is because a lot – and I mean a lot – of my students seem to love it. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up and read it.

The front cover

It’s not because it looks bad or anything! It just didn’t seem like something I’d personally like to read. And that’s fine! You don’t need to like every single book you see. But here’s the thing: looking at a book and actually reading it are very different things. How does the idiom go again? “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Well, that’s definitely true in this case, because I actually enjoyed this book far more than I expected!

Real Pigeons Fight Crime is the story of a group of…well, what do you think? A group of pigeons who fight crime. A straight-forward title that tells you exactly what the book is about!

The main thing that surprised me was how how much fun it was to read through the three stories. (That’s right: this book is actually three stories in one!) The first story introduces Rock, the main character. We learn about how he joins the crime-fighting pigeons and saves a park from a mysterious monster. The second story tells us about how the pigeons save a group of bats from another mysterious monster.

But then comes the third story. You’d think it would be about another mysterious monster causing trouble, right? Well, you’re only a little bit correct, because there are actually two mysterious monsters! And they are very familiar characters…

Andrew McDonald (author) and Ben Wood (illustrator)

But even though the main plot is fun, it can be a bit distracting. I noticed on my second read-through (yes, I read this twice!) that there were sub-plots hiding behind the main story. A ‘sub-plot’ is like a mini story that’s inside or next to the big story. Think of an episode of any TV show or cartoon you like. There’s usually a main story, but there’s also a second story that another character goes through. It’s not as big as the main plot, but it’s just as important!

Anyway, the sub-plots in Real Pigeons Fight Crime can be tricky to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for. My favourite sub-plot is from the second story about bats. It involves friendship and feeling like people respect you and acknowledge what makes you special! When you read the book, see if you can spot which characters I’m talking about.

The book itself is presented in a very fun way: lots of pictures and lots of words that bend and stretch in really cool ways. Definitely give this book a try if you want inspiration when designing your own books! The style reminds me of the Geronimo Stilton series (I plan on reviewing that one day, don’t worry!), so if you like those books, you’ll probably like this one too. Real Pigeons also reminds me of Dogman (which I have actually reviewed before!) with its zany sense of humor and plot twists!

The book is presented with paragraphs, comic strips, illustrations and labels!
My attempt at drawing Tumbler! I got the instructions from the Real Pigeons website.

There’s one last amazing think about Real Pigeons. It has its own website! That’s right, you can go to a website, join the ‘Super Coo Club’ and get a whole bunch of fun activities to do! My favourite activity is the one where they teach you how to draw the characters. I got to draw my favourite character (Tumbler, the bendy pigeon)! Honestly, if a book teaches you how to draw its characters, it immediately becomes 10 times better to me. Every book series should have fun activities like Real Pigeons!

Obviously, as a reader who gobbles up funny books, Alfie loves Real Pigeons Fight Crime. Jun likes it too! It’s the perfect book for some light reading when you’re having a break from schoolwork! These two like the book so much, in fact, that they have both forgiven it for calling cats ‘scary’ and ‘evil’. Both kitties would much rather become pigeons now, honestly!

Review – A Man and his Cat (Umi Sakurai)

Keywords: manga, Year 3+, adorable, cats, feel-good, light-hearted, friendship, love, pets, animals, really cute!

Okay, so we’ve spoken about graphic novels like Nimona and comic books like Dogman. But what about manga? Manga is the name given to Japanese comic books. You can find lots of manga translated to English. The main difference between manga and other comic books is how you read them. In English comic books, you usually read each panel and speech bubble from left to right, right? Well, in manga, you actually read them right to left! This is because Japanese books are written right to left. I think that everyone should read at least one manga book in their lifetime. And what better place to start than with an adorable manga about cats?

The front cover of the first volume

A Man & His Cat is exactly what it says: it’s the story about a man who adopts a cat. The cat lives in a pet store for the first year of his life. Nobody wants to adopt him because they think he’s ugly (which is just objectively wrong, since he’s so adorable!). He comes to the conclusion that nobody will ever adopt him or even want him around. He resigns himself to living alone in the pet store for the rest of his life.

But then, an elderly man visits the store. And without a second of hesitation, he chooses the cat. He adopts the kitty joyfully, calling him ‘Fukumaru’ (which loosely means ‘joy’ in Japanese). And so begins the adventure of Fukumaru the cat and his human Mr Kanda.

Fukumaru: cat, main character, and absolute cutie who deserves the world!!

The manga follows Fukumaru and Mr Kanda’s friendship as they grow used to each-other. You see, Mr Kanda has never had a cat before, and Fukumaru has never had an owner. Thankfully, Mr Kanda is an incredibly kind person who tries his best to take care of his new kitty. He’s actually a great role model for any readers who want to adopt a cat (or any pet!).

Of course, this manga would probably be more enjoyable for cat people, since the story centers around a cat. There are many moments in the story that are just so relatable to humans who live with cats. I laughed with utter joy many times while reading this! For example, this is one of my favourite parts:

The amount of times my cats have done something cute, only to stop doing it as soon as I get my camera…it happens way too often! So yeah, that particular comic strip is very relatable.

But throughout the cute and fluffy chapters are moments of real emotion and love. To be honest, there were many times that I was actually about to cry. And I mean actual sobs. The best example of an emotional, tear-jerking moment is the very first chapter, where the man decides to adopt Fukumaru.

I’ve read this manga at least a dozen times. Every single time I read that first chapter, I start tearing up because it’s just so sweet and emotional and ah! I love this book!!

So, a word of advice to end this review: read A Man And His Cat when you’re feeling sad or lost or hopeless. This is one of those rare books that remind you of the sweetness of life. There is no problem that pops up in this story’s plot that cannot be solved with love. But beware! Those with tender hearts will definitely cry of joy while reading!

While these two cats are usually at odds with each-other, Jenny and Alfie both agree that this is a wonderful book! Jenny recommends it to those who love adorable and love-filled stories. Alfie recommends the book as a good way to start reading manga for the first time.

Review – Kiki’s Delivery Service (Eiko Kadono)

Keywords: fiction, ages 8+, fantasy, slice of life, light-hearted, coming of age/growing up, 13-year-old female protagonist, talking animal sidekick, magic, quirky, funny, inspired a movie!

When you see a movie before reading the book it’s based on, it can change what you expect from the book. I first saw Kiki’s Delivery Service as a film when I was a kid. It’s one of my favourite movies ever and I’ve watched it dozens, maybe even hundreds of times! So when I picked up the original book Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono (and translated from Japanese to English by Emily Balistrieri), all I could think about was the movie. How similar is the movie to the book? What things did the movie leave out from the original story?

The front cover.

Comparing the book to the film is fun, but it can be a little unfair. After all, the book deserves to be read and enjoyed for its own niceness, not because it happened to inspire a nice movie! So, I will try to talk about the book first – only the book.

The story starts with Kiki, a witch just about to turn 13. To be a proper witch, she needs to have a ‘coming-of-age day’: a tradition where 13-year-old witches go and live in a different town for a year and survive on their own magic. There’s a problem with magic, though. Over the years, witches have lost their knowledge of certain skills and spells. So now there are very few magical skills left. For example, Kiki’s mother Kokiri can make magical medicine (like her famous sneeze potion!), but she’s actually the last witch left in the world who knows how to do this properly. And while Kokiri tried to teach Kiki how to make magical medicine, the young girl hates it. Instead, Kiki has one magical skill that she truly loves: flying on her broomstick.

Kiki flying away from her hometown.

While she flies and does her magic, Kiki is accompanied by her little black cat Jiji. Kiki and Jiji grew up together and are constant companions. The wonderful thing is that Jiji can talk…but only to Kiki! Everyone else just hears meows. How amazing would it be to talk to cats and have them talk to you? I want to be a witch now!

So, Kiki and Jiji fly off to find a new town to live in. All Kiki wants is to see the sea for the very first time, so she looks for a town close to the ocean. And luckily, she finds one! The town of Koriko (lots of ‘K’ words in this book!) is a big seaside town with no witch living there yet. The rest of the story is about Kiki’s adventures in the town as she lives there (on her own!) for a whole year.

Kiki’s adventures are really fun to read! You see, this clever witch decides to run her own business – a delivery service, of course! So basically she flies around the town to deliver random things to people. And when I say ‘random things’, I mean it. I don’t want to spoil too much, but here are just a couple of things Kiki delivers:

Kiki on an average delivery.

– A trumpet

– A pair of underpants

– A pacifier

– New Year’s Eve

I won’t tell you how or why she delivered any of these things; you’ll need to find out for yourself!

So, what was it like reading this book? In a word: magical. I really enjoyed following Kiki’s growth into a true witch as she helped people around the town. My favorite part of the book was the characters, especially the two kids Kiki meets in Koriko. One is a boy who is obsessed with airplanes and looks like a dragonfly. The other is a girl who has interesting strategies when she wants to give a present to a boy she likes. It’s fun to see how Kiki interacts with kids her age, because it shows you just how different we can be from each-other. Just because you’re the same age as someone doesn’t mean you’re exactly the same!

I’d say the only thing I didn’t like too much was the book’s pacing (how quickly the story goes). Kiki arrives at the town, we’re told about some of her deliveries, then BAM! It has been a full year and pretty much the end of the book! I would have liked to hear more about her life during that one year.

Here’s the thing: there is a way to learn more about Kiki’s adventures and read about her life. There are actually sequels! However, we cannot read them – unless you’re fluent in Japanese. Yup, none of the other books in the Kiki’s Delivery Service series has been translated to English! Only the first one! So if anyone reading this review is fluent in Japanese, please read the other Kiki books and tell me about them. I’m super curious about what she does next!

By the time I finished reading the story, I completely forgot about the movie version. Both are really nice in their own ways and I recommend both!

This book has fantasy elements to it (of course! there’s a witch in it, after all!), but it’s also a slice-of-life sort of story. So, both fantasy fanatic Felipe and slice-of-life lover Jenny adore Kiki’s Delivery Service!

Review – Eliza Vanda’s Button Box (Emily Rodda)

Keywords: Year 4+, fantasy, magical, light-hearted, emotional management.

The front cover, complete with Sultan and a box of buttons! Can you find Victor and the magic mirror?

Before we start, I just gotta say that I miiiiight be a little bit biased. You see, Emily Rodda – the author of Eliza Vanda’s Button Box – also wrote The Key to Rondo, which happens to be one of my all-time favourite books from my childhood (and a book we have reviewed before!). So there was a part of me that already liked Eliza Vanda before I even read it. I mean, it’s written by a beloved author and it has a pretty cover? Sign me up!

Of course, there is far more to a book than how it looks and who wrote it. There is definitely truth to the idiom, “Never judge a book by its cover”! This review is my attempt at being fair; I’ll try not to like or dislike the book for no good reason at all.

The character of Eliza Vanda is similar to Mary Poppins!

Okay, so let’s start with the plot. Despite its title, the main character of Eliza Vanda’s Button Box is not actually Eliza Vanda! It’s a girl named Milly Dynes, an 11 year old who lives in the seaside town of Tidgy Bay. She lives with her dad Rory and together they take care of holiday houses, which they rent out to people. One of these people is the titular Eliza Vanda, a mysterious woman who brings magic and buttons along with her. Think ‘Mary Poppins’ but with more dress-making!

Other characters include a snobby mouse named Victor, a grumpy black cat named Sultan, and a witch who will remain unnamed, because I don’t want to spoil the plot too much! I will, however, say this:

  • Yes, there is a hidden world that Milly explores;
  • Yes, there are magical creatures and characters;
  • And no, the hidden world is not what you think it is.
Lots of fantasy books involve characters travelling to hidden worlds, like Alice in Wonderland.

After you read a lot of fantasy books, you start to pick up on a lot of similarities between them. You even start to predict what a book must be about. For example, when I picked this book up, I said to myself, “Oh, there has to be a hidden world and the main character has to save the day with magic or something!” While this is the case for Eliza Vanda, the plot is actually not as predictable as it seems. Ugh, I wish I could tell you why it’s unpredictable but I can’t ruin the surprise! Just trust me on this one!

I would like to divulge one spolier, though, because it’s just too cool to ignore.

Every person in this hidden world has emotions. Those emotions, however, take the form of ‘mysies’, which are little creatures that live outside of their bodies. They’re mostly kept in hats, though some people keep them in pockets and bags. Some mysies include ‘Temper’, ‘Memory’, and ‘Sense of Humor’. So whenever someone needs a certain emotion, the mysie comes and whispers in their ear to help out! For example, when one character forgets who Victor is, his memory mysie helps him out:

The man stared at him blankly, then fumbled in a silver mesh purse hanging from his belt. A small, neat, lizard-like creature sprang from the purse and ran up his arm to perch on his shoulder and whisper in his ear…

“Victor!” cried the man, his face lighting up. (Chapter 6, page 71.)

This is what I think a memory mysie looks like!

But if you lose a mysie, then you lose that emotion. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “losing your temper”!

I truly love the idea of mysies. Actually, it’s a wonderful way to think of your own emotions; they can be easier to control and understand if you think of them as creatures and pets rather than something untouchable and invisible. The mysies are a vital part of the book’s plot and provide a lot of moments to think about our own emotions. What happens if you lose your ‘Courage’? How would you control a wild ‘Temper’ mysie? You could spend hours thinking about it!

The author, Emily Rodda

Having said all that, the book isn’t without areas of improvement. For example, it seemed a bit too fast-paced to me. There is a main villain, but we don’t hear about them until we’re three-quarters of the way through. It would’ve been much more engaging if the villain was hinted at much earlier in the book then revealed triumphantly near the end. That would be much more enjoyable and dramatic!

This also seems less like a stand-alone book and more like the first book in a series. Everything wraps up a bit too quickly for my liking. Hopefully, this will turn into a series. There are just too many unanswered questions!

The delightful fantasy of this plot appeals to fantasy-loving Felipe, so he had a great time reading it. Surprisingly, Gus actually liked it too! When I asked him why, he just shrugged and said, “You said it was fast-paced, so I decided to read it slowly. It was pretty good, not gonna lie.” So yeah, both Felipe and Gus recommend Eliza Vanda’s Button Box!

(Psst! If this book looks familiar, it’s because I wrote a reading comprehension exercise based on its first chapter! Check it out here!)

Review – Dogman: Grime and Punishment (Dav Pilkey)

Keywords: Year 1+ (ages 6 and up), fiction, comic book, humour, adventure.

Okay, so it took me a while to finally get into the Dogman series. In my ignorance, the first Dogman book I ended up reading was actually the 9th in the series: Grime and Punishment. So, yeah, not exactly the best place to start a series but I actually enjoyed it. A LOT!

I confess that I was reluctant to read the book. It looked a little too silly for me. (And I can be quite silly, so that’s saying something!)

The front cover.

So my expectations weren’t very high when I first dove into Dogman. The only reason I even began reading it was because there was a group of Year 1 students in my last class who loved – and I mean loved – this series. They’d even take their whole collection outside with them to read during recess and lunch! Now THAT is dedication!

“Just because lots of people like this book doesn’t mean I will too!” I said to myself. And that’s true! A book being popular doesn’t automatically mean that absolutely everyone will like it.

So imagine my surprise, my complete shock, when I actually read the book and absolutely loved it.

Sure, the story is a bit silly, but it’s a good kind of silly. It’s the type of silliness that has a meaning behind it. Silliness without a purpose can get tiring after a while, but silliness that has a clear role in the story? Now that I like! The humor isn’t always my cup of tea. (That means that I don’t always find it funny.) But there aren’t any jokes that I find stupid or weird in a bad way. My absolute favourite joke in the whole book was this one about an English teacher fish teaching adverbs:

A laughing Petey.

As for the characters, I adored Petey! (And not just because he’s a cat!) He’s my favorite character for two reasons:

1. He’s the classic ‘bad guy turned good’ that I love so much in stories.

2. His relationship with Lil Petey/Cat Kid is so gosh dang adorable!

If ‘love’ was a cat, it would be Cat Kid.

I was blown away by the depth and significance of Petey and Cat Kid’s familial relationship. The main idea of this book – Love vs Hate – is illustrated best by Petey and Cat Kid’s conversations. Petey represents ‘Hate’, because he was fueled by hate for most of his life. Then Cat Kid, to nobody’s surprise, represents love. I mean, just look at him! He radiates love and compassion!

Something that completely knocked my socks off was a note at the very end of the book. George and Harold (the authors of the book even though it’s actually Dav Pilkey) say that a part of Chapter 3 was inspired by a poem. This poem (‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’) is by Mary Elizabeth Frye and it is one of my all-time favourites! I reckon I’ll even publish a reading comprehension exercise for it soon (*wink wink*). You can check the full poem out here!

Dogman’s title references this Russian classic. It’s very serious and long.

There are other references too! For example, the title (Grime and Punishment) references a classic book by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment. So, this book’s title is actually an excellent example of a pun. A pun is a play on words to change the meaning in a funny way (like saying ‘What do you call two dinosaurs in a car crash? Tyrannosaurus wrecks!’). I think in Dogman‘s case, the title ‘Grime and Punishment’ refers to ‘Crime and Punishment’ just for the silliness of it! After all, Crime and Punishment is about a man who commits a serious crime, thinks about whether or not he should go to jail, then decides to go to jail. Dogman‘s story does involve crime and punishment, but it doesn’t follow the same plot as the original classic. (And it’s not quite as serious or scary!)

My attempt at drawing the characters (the only thing I had to draw on was a paint sample card)!

One last thing that I loved about this copy of Dogman: there are step-by-step drawing tutorials at the back! Apparently this is something every Dogman book has, but with different characters each time. It was so much fun drawing them! What a wonderful way to engage with the story! I think I had the most fun drawing Snug (the muscular cat with the ‘J’ shirt). Let me know if you drew him too!

As this is a funny, light-hearted comic book, Alfie absolutely loves Dogman: Grime and Punishment! Jun loves it too. He thinks that the story is easy to follow and that it’s perfect to read when you just want a laugh. Both cats recommend this book!

Review – The Magic Misfits (Neil Patrick Harris)

Keywords: Year 5+ (ages 8 and up), fiction, humor, adventure, magic, first in a series.

The front cover

I’ve always known Neil Patrick Harris as the womanizer from How I Met Your Mother or Dr Horrible from Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. He filled my childhood with his acting and singing skills. Knowing all of that, I was still surprised to see that he’s talented in yet another area: writing!

The Magic Misfits is the first middle-school book Neil Patrick Harris has written. Once I knew that, I was very impressed. This book has the strong plot and witty narration of someone’s second, even third middle-school book!

But enough about the celebrity author. It’s time to get down to the good part: the book itself. The main character, Carter, starts his journey by doing someone all of us have dreamed of doing at some point: running away from home. (Wait, it’s just me who has dreamed of that? Oh. Okay.) After hitching a ride from a train, he finds himself in the town of Mineral Wells. Like all fictional small towns, it’s all very charming and full of wonder. And yet, something seems…off. Maybe it’s the circus where everyone frowns at you. Maybe it’s the circus boss that has the creepiest smile in history. Maybe it’s literally just the circus, because it’s a crime gang that sullies the honorable name of magic and entertainment. Clearly, they must be stopped. The Magic Misfits tells the story of how Carter tries to bring them to magical justice. As Carter meets like-minded magicians, he gradually understands the meaning of friendship but also of magic.

The author (Neil Patrick Harris) playing Dr Horrible

…Sorry if that last line was corny, but it’s true! The strongest themes in this book are, in fact, friendship and magic. The friends Carter makes are exactly the sort of people you’d want to befriend. For instance, there’s Leila, the confident and wise-cracking escape artist who always makes you feel welcome. Then there’s Ridley, the clever magician who seems mean at first but becomes her true, kind-hearted self once she trusts you. Finally, there’s my personal favourite: Theo, the violinist who can levitate objects with his music. Honestly, if I had a group of friends like these in my childhood, things would’ve been much more magical!

The main strengths of this book lie in the witty narration, adorable illustrations by Lissy Marlin, and “How to do magic” sections (drawn by Kyle Hilton) that are sprinkled throughout the pages. The humour is the main spectacle, though. There were quite a few things in this book that made me chuckle and laugh (out loud!). The first giggles came when I saw the chapter names:

One – the first

Two – the second one

Three – the third of these

Four – one more than three

Five – one less than six

My two favourite chapter names are definitely these:

Eleven – looks like two lines. Or two lowercase Ls, which could be confusing. For example, this is two lowercase L’s: ll. Looks like this 11, right? Confusing.

Seventeen – six more than nine, multiplied by ten, plus three, then divided by nine

So, those are the strengths! Now onto the weaknesses.

The mysterious Mr Vernon

I’d say my main point would be the very late introduction of the twin siblings Olly and Izzy. You can see them on the front cover on the far right wearing green plaid suits and matching hats. Since I saw them on the front cover, I was expecting them to be significant side characters like Carter’s magic friends. I was pretty disappointed to see that Olly and Izzy were only introduced three-quarters into the book and barely had any lines! Hopefully, we’ll get to see more of Olly and Izzy in future books.

The Magic Misfits isn’t a fantasy book. It does, however, deal a LOT with magic. (I mean, ‘magic’ is literally in the title!) Therefore, magic-loving Felipe can’t help but love it! Light-reader Jun was entranced by the light and witty writing style and the genuine fun he had while reading it. Both cats heartily recommend The Magic Misfits!