Meandering through Middle Grade: Spy Toys

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meandering-through-middle-grade

As a kid, did you have a teddy bear whose ears were slightly nibbled at the edges?  Or a doll whose hair would never quite sit flat?  Then today’s book is for you, and all the kids out there who appreciate toys that aren’t exactly how they are depicted on the box. Today I bring you Spy Toys by Mark Powers, which we received for review from Bloomsbury Australia and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The world’s leading toy manufacturer makes playthings for the rich and famous, and every toy they create contains a tiny computerised brain and a unique personality. These toys are seriously awesome! But every so often there’s a faulty toy …

Dan is a Snugliffic Cuddlestar bear – he should be perfect for hugging. But because of a faulty chip, Dan is so strong he could crush a car. Thrown on to the rejects pile, he meets Arabella, a Loadsasmiles Sunshine Doll, who has a very short temper and is absolutely NOT good with children. Soon Dan, Arabella and Flax (a custom-made police robot rabbit gone AWOL) are recruited by Auntie Roz, the ‘M’ of the toy world, and together they make up THE SPY TOYS.

Their first mission: to protect the prime minister’s eight-year-old son from being kidnapped ..

 

spy-toys

Spy Toys by Mark Powers.  Published by Bloomsbury Australia, 12th January, 2017.  RRP: $12.99

 

We on the shelf, being a little bit not-quite-right ourselves, thoroughly enjoyed this original, fun, fast-paced, funny early middle grade offering.  Dan is a teddy bear designed for hugging but could crush a child with his malfunctioning strength chip.  Arabella is meant to bring sunshine into a little child’s life, but has a snappy comeback that could burn your ears off.  And Flax…well, he’s a bunny with a problem with authority.  These three toys, after managing to save themselves from the reject pile, are charged with the job of protecting the Prime Minister’s son – what better way to hide bodyguards in plain sight, than to disguise them as toys? – and so the intrepid trio become…Spy Toys!  While it’s a steep learning curve for our sharp-clawed, sharp-tongued and sharp-eyed friends, they must do all they can to protect the Prime Minister’s son from a criminal gang run by an elephant-human hybrid ex-circus clown, or perish in the attempt.

This early chapter book is pure, unadulterated fun from beginning to end, with oodles of line drawings throughout to add zest to the action.  There’s no mucking around with boring filler either: from the moment Dan is singled out as a defective toy it’s non-stop action, escapes and chases until the thrilling (and quite dangerous!) finale.  Clearly the author isn’t afraid to throw in a bit of silliness – the human-animal hybrid gang being a case in point – but there are also some nicely touching scenes in which the Prime Minister learns a bit about being an attentive parent – awwww!  The Snaztacular Ultrafun toy factory also had something of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory about it – I can imagine kids desperate for a golden ticket to visit such an exciting place!

The three heroes are loveable, in a defective sort of way and I can’t wait to see where this series goes next.  As an early chapter book, it’s the perfect length for newly independent readers who love action, adventure and comedy all rolled into one.

For the device-happy reader, the book also has an accompanying app, in which the user must help Dan the bear leap over barrels and boxes on a conveyor belt to avoid being dumped down the reject toy chute at the Snaztacular Ultrafun factory.  The game is almost embarrassingly simple, but the eldest mini-fleshling in the dwelling (at six years old) proclaimed it the “best game ever” and got far more mileage out of playing it than I would have expected.  It’s also a satisfyingly small download so you don’t have to worry about it taking up too much space on your phone or device.

Spy Toys is definitely an intriguing opener to the series and I can’t wait to join Dan, Arabella and Flax on their next spy-tastic adventure!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Picture Book Perusal: The Patchwork Bike

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picture book perusal button

Today’s picture book is an homage to all the creatives out there who can’t see a bit of household flotsam without imagining how it could be better used in the pursuit of fun.  We received The Patchwork Bike by Aussie Afro-Carribean author Maxine Beneba Clarke and street artist Van T Rudd from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb:

What’s the best fun in the whole village? Riding the patchwork bike we made! A joyous picture book for children by award-winning author Maxine Beneba Clarke.

When you live in a village at the edge of the No-Go Desert, you need to make your own fun. That’s when you and your brothers get inventive and build a bike from scratch, using everyday items like an old milk pot (maybe mum is still using it, maybe not) and a used flour sack. You can even make a numberplate from bark, if you want. The end result is a spectacular bike, perfect for going bumpity-bump over sandhills, past your fed-up mum and right through your mud-for-walls home.

Now doesn’t that bike look like every bored kid’s dream machine?!

This is a wonderfully fast-moving picture book that celebrates the rebellious, the inventive and the just plain entertaining spirit of kids who are left to, rather than on their own devices.  There is not a screen in sight here, yet the girl and her brothers seem to have plenty of ways to make their surroundings a fun place to be.  There’s the sandhill for sliding, the tree for climbing and jumping and, of course, the epic bike they have patched together from bits and pieces that have been left unattended.  The bike may not be the prettiest creation ever (although the tree-branch handles certainly have an earthy design charm all their own), but it does the job and deftly delivers the three adventurers from one end of the village to the other in style.

The text features plenty of rhythm perfect for reading aloud, as well as some fantastic examples of onomatopoeia that bring the bike and the riding experience to life.  The illustrations are so unusual; a cardboard-looking background with bits of printed text glinting through thick smears of coloured paint and old bits of sticky tape suitably reflect the patchwork nature of the bike (and perhaps even the village?), while our proud protagonist is so super-cool in her reflective shades that it would be impossible to be unmoved by stirrings of envy on seeing her fly past on her fantastic creation.  The other characters are also beautifully fleshed out in the illustrations, with the “crazy” brothers first seen dancing on what appears to be a police car, while the mum really does look fed-up, although perhaps not necessarily at the antics of her children.

One can’t fail to notice that this story is not set in an urban environment and this will no doubt arouse some curiosity in young readers.  The exact location of the village (in terms of country) is never mentioned and this might open up conversations about how others live and what non-urban living might be like.  This would also be a great pick for early years classes looking for inspiration around creating functional objects out of unexpected materials.  I can picture the classroom creation station or cardboard box and bits tub suddenly becoming hugely popular after a class reading of The Patchwork Bike.

All in all this is a fun and engaging story that will speak to the adventurer in all of us and have younger readers planning, designing and rummaging through your recycling bin before the back cover is closed.

Until next time,

Bruce

Ollie’s Odyssey: A Top Book of 2016 Pick!

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Bruce's Pick

We’ve got a right old beauty for you today: an early middle grade, art-fest, epic-quest beauty chock full of original characters that you will just want to cuddle (or run away from…depending).  Today’s book is also a Top Book of 2016 pick for its stunning visual appeal and gorgeous presentation.  So what is today’s book?

It’s Ollie’s Odyssey by William Joyce, which we received gratefully from Simon & Schuster Australia for review.  I won’t keep you in suspense any longer though – here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Can a beloved but lost stuffed rabbit save himself and other Losts from becoming the most feared designation of all: The Forgotten? Find out in this epic quest from the author of The Guardians series and the creative force behind The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.

Ollie is a favorite. Of all the toys in Billy’s home, the stuffed rabbit takes top rank: everywhere Billy goes, so goes Ollie. But being a favorite is more than a privilege—it’s also fraught with danger. Because of Zozo.

Zozo has never been a favorite. An amusement park prize who was never chosen, Zozo has grown so bitter that, when the amusement park closes, he seeks revenge on every toy lucky enough to be a favorite. He wants them all to become The Lost, and even better, Forgotten.

When Billy accidentally leaves Ollie under the table at a wedding, Ollie finds himself on an unplanned adventure, kidnapped by the nefarious Zozo and his gang of creeps and faced with the momentous task of saving not only himself, but all the other stuffies who are “lost” as well…

With nods to Toy Story and Knuffle Bunny, but with that insoucient joie de vivre that is all William Joyce’s and Moonbot’s own, here’s a look at what REALLY goes on with your stuffed animals when the lights are out.

ollies odyssey

We had our collective eye on this from the moment we saw the cover and read the blurb, but we were unprepared for the incredible thud of loveliness when this hardback treasure landed on the doormat.  Just to give you an idea of the gasp-worthiness of this book’s presentation, here’s a taster:

Pretty impressive, no?  One of the biggest pleasures of the reading experience of Ollie’s Odyssey is the tactile nature of the book itself – it’s satisfyingly heavy, the pages are tinted with a slight sepia tone and those eye-popping illustrations are not rationed out but appear regularly every few pages.  There are even a couple of double page spreads that take things to the next level.

Just from flicking through the illustrations, it’s obvious that the book contains some highly original characters.  Reminiscent of Jim Henson’s original characters in films like the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Joyce has pulled out all the stops in exploring the dark underbelly of children’s imaginations, while trusting that the overall courage and warmth of the main characters will keep his young readers on the right side of the “frights” divide.  Besides, all the best stories push the reader a little bit in the scares department, don’t you think?  We especially loved the junkyard characters as they reminded us strongly of a more innocent version of the creations in Garry Kilworth’s Attica, one of our favourite books.  There’s an enormous amount to be said for taking a risk with inanimate objects as characters and plumbing the theme of forgotten, lost and useless entities.  Something about these kind of characters certainly fires our imaginations and generally leads to the characters taking on lives of their own in our heads.

Ollie is possibly the most adorable original character we’ve seen in a while, a teddy-bunny with his own dialect that has grown out of being the favourite toy of a young lad from birth to kid-hood.  Despite being a “homemade”, kid’s will definitely see their own favourite toy reflected in Ollie and will no doubt cheer him along as he takes on a seemingly insurmountable quest to get back to his boy.  There will be obvious comparisons made between this book and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, both for the presentation and the content.  Ollie’s story is a bit simpler and less heart-breakingly emotional than Edward’s though (from what I can remember of Edward’s story anyway – it’s been a while since I’ve read that one), which makes it a great choice for a read-aloud or read-together for those just moving into the middle grade age bracket.

Mad Martha was so enamoured of Ollie that she couldn’t resist whipping up a pocket-sized Ollie to join us on the shelf.  Ours doesn’t contain the contentious bell-heart, but will be a cherished Shelf-denizen nonetheless:

pocket ollie

I would definitely recommend getting your dexterous human hands on Ollie’s Odyssey.  Apart from the fact that it would make a jaw-dropping gift for some lucky mini-fleshing, Ollie is a character that deserves a place on your shelf.

Until next time,

Bruce