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A great end to 2016!

Christmas may have passed but it was a time in the cosy warmth revelling in the other lives and times which good books bring us. Outstanding in my Christmas reading pile was the first in a new series from Alex Woolf, which reminds us of 2016’s celebration of Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Plot series begins with Assassin’s Code (Scribo), an exciting historical adventure set in and around London in 1601.

​​Alice Fletcher is a stagehand at the Globe Theatre, where she works alongside the Chamberlain’s Men – a company of actors that includes the talented playwright William Shakespeare. But Alice has a secret – women aren’t allowed to act or be stage hands in the Elizabethan theatre, so, to remain with her brother, an apprentice actor, she has become Adam. When Richard goes missing, Alice resolves to find him with the help of Tom Cavendish, a young servant of the ambitious and power-hungry Earl of Essex. Using the coded messages Richard has left behind, and risking life and limb, Alice and Tom uncover a plot to kill Lord Cecil, Queen Elizabeth I’s chief minister, and usurp the throne. Woolf vividly portrays the life of an actor, and that of servants to the great (though often not good…), and the ordinary people living in early seventeenth-century London. The endpapers give us a bird’s-eye view of the city, and of old London Bridge, with its crowded, bustling streets, and houses and shops packed in across the bridge itself. Central to decoding the spies’ communications is Holbein’s great painting of The Ambassadors, now in the National Gallery in London, but imaginatively located in the Earl of Essex’s Great Hall (the painting was in fact in France until the nineteenth century) for the purposes of Woolf’s plot. This is all great fun, a book where historical detail can be painlessly absorbed. The next instalments are to be looked forward to by KS2 readers.

Pony books remain a very popular reading choice for young readers, but not since Enid Bagnold’s 1935 racing-based novel National Velvet have they had the chance to see a totally different aspect of equestrian life. Now Clare Balding’s first children’s book, The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop (Puffin), draws on her long experience of horse-racing, having grown up with several family connections to training yards, and herself ridden as an amateur.

She spins an entertaining story around Charlie, a horse-mad ten-year-old who dreams of owning her own pony. When she accidentally manages to buy a racehorse, Charlie is thrilled. The horse she buys, Noble Warrior, looks the part: strong, fit and healthy. There's just one problem - he won't gallop. In fact, he won't even leave his stable without his best friend, a naughty palomino pony called Percy. Charlie is convinced that Noble Warrior has what it takes to be a champion, and is determined to overcome all odds to win the Derby and prevent the family farm from being repossessed. To achieve all this, Charlie has to work hard to turn her chaotic family into a top training team. The serious family issues don’t prevent there being a lot of humour in Balding’s tale, and the detail about racing and training introduce a welcome new perspective for horse-mad KS2 readers.

Three picturebooks in the pile: Bryony Supper’s The Inventing Tubes, Tola Okogwu’s Beth’s Twists, and Mari Lumpkin’s Ruby’s Red Squiggle.

Supper anticipates a 40-book series of ‘Pasta Kidz and Petz’, this first title, illustrated by Julian Bray, showing how important it is to read the instructions before making something! The illustrations are definitely the high point of this book, especially those of the Petz, but, despite its laudable attempts to promote gender equality, the text cannot match their ingenuity or humour.

Beth’s Twists is also the first in a projected series, Daddy Do My Hair! illustrated by Rahima Begum. Okogwu’s principle aim is to engage fathers with their children and promote bonding, but within the plot device of a father and child sharing a special time in which he creates a hairstyle for her, she has also planned the series to confront common worries which children have, and challenge racial stereotyping. This is a delightful book, with a simple rhyming text and bright, energetic images that parent and child can discuss. I look forward to more of these.

​Ruby’s Red Squiggle is a picture book for an Early Years/KS1 audience, whose first attempts at ‘art’ may not look quite like the pictures they see around them! Ruby’s mother likes to visit art galleries and sketch the works she sees. Ruby likes to draw too, and when one day one of the drawings – the Red Squiggle – leaps from the page and races through the gallery trying to find where she (yes, the squiggle is a feisty female) will look best, Ruby discovers a lot about the variety of art on show, and just exactly where her style fits. As well as the fun of seeing the Red Squiggle in the most inappropriate places on famous works of art (the Mona Lisa’s addition is lipstick), we learn a lot on the way, and there are activity pages at the back to explain some of the specialist vocabulary and tell readers about the paintings and sculptures. The only downside for UK children is that most of the artworks are in museums and galleries in the US, with only two being in Europe, both in France. Apart from that, this is a hugely engaging book that will entertain young and old, especially all those who have ever added a moustache to an image!

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