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Blind Date With a Book...

It is currently February half term week in the UK, kicking off with Valentine’s weekend. Thoughts of love have no doubt been on all our minds. Yet, love does not have to be the gushy romantic type - it can be a feeling of deep contentment and happiness. For me and for the contributors to this blog this extends to the love we have for reading, for books, and for the joy they bring us.

I asked a small selection of our team if they would be interested in a challenge: I sent them a wrapped book - a surprise - and asked them to accept the challenge of unwrapping, reading and reviewing. Here are their thoughts …

Amy Ellis and her daughter received Feelings: Inside My Heart and In My Head by Libby Walden, illus. Richard Jones, pub. Little Tiger Press.

A casual Saturday lunch was the location for our date. Sitting there looking at me across the table, still wrapped up, I was biding my time. I had been waiting to make the first move - but the parcel caught my daughter’s eye. 'What’s that, can we open it?'

Well, what joy when it was discovered that it was a book to take lunch with. Spoiler alert: we are going to meet again. Way to make a lockdown weekend!

Feelings was in fact the perfect companion. Poetic and beautifully illustrated, it takes a step beyond the basics of emotion, beyond simply a happy or sad face as many similar titles would suggest. Reading together, we took our time and delved into the detail of each double page spread, exploring how a volcano mirrors anger within, or a floating cloud could indeed be lonely. With each description sparking the imagination, it was the perfect jumping-off point for our own examples.

Our date evolved into a game no less. I think you'll agree that was a tipping point in the rendezvous. It was fun! As a parent, it turned out to be an insightful lunch with a read that has been asked for several times since. A cathartic opportunity to share real life examples, as well as a book to enjoy independently in time.

Sophie Castle and her five-year-old daughter Alexandra were also the recipients of a little parcel of loveliness in the form of This Love by Isabel Otter, illus. Harriet Lynas, pub. Little Tiger Press.

It was very exciting when the specially wrapped book arrived in the post. I hadn’t told my little girl, so it was a lovely surprise for her, and she wanted to open it straight away. As soon as the paper was torn off, Alex spotted the rainbow – she initially stroked this and liked the way it was cut out so she could stick her fingers into the book. We both loved the feel of the cover and the raised and smooth illustrations of the children on the front. Alex also loved that the author had the surname of Otter (“just like the animal”)!

Alex especially liked the cut-out rain drops and imagined rain drop shaped cut-outs for children to play with. She liked the rainbow theme on each page and that the curve of the rainbow was used to make other objects, such as a curved bridge picture. She liked that there were both boys and girls depicted in the book and she tried to match children to their parents. I thought the representation of different families and family dynamics was very well presented.

The message of the book is that love exists in every family; no matter who that family is composed of. Every family is different, and this was a lovely and gentle way for me to explain this to my 5-year-old.

Alex spotted that one lady ‘had a baby in her tummy’ and it was lovely to see the baby at the end. Alex enjoyed the different cultures being represented and each page introduced a new place and background to enjoy. There were lots of talking points and the detailed illustrations were so good at drawing in the reader. We both enjoyed reading this book and I would recommend it to other parents/carers, especially if they want a book representing a variety of cultures and many different families.

Anita Loughrey - an author herself, with two books coming later this year to conclude her ‘Year in Nature’ series – received I Love You with All My Heart by Jane Chapman, pub. Frances Lincoln.

I Love You with All My Heart is a lovely sentimental picture book about the unconditional love between a mother and her child. Little Bear breaks her Mum’s favourite flower whilst playing and is worried Mum will be angry. Mum explains that she loves her no matter what. There are several memorable lines that will reassure and help young children throughout the good times and the bad times. My favourite being:

“My love will always be with you, wherever you are.”

Mum’s reassuring words help Little bear when she loses the race and when her kite sails away and again when she slips in the muddy puddle. At the end there is a heart-melting twist when Mum is upset she has burnt the cake and baby bear says the iconic line:

“Even when things go wrong, I still love you.”

Little Bear has truly learnt the meaning of unconditional love.

Jane Chapman’s illustrations support her text and portray Little Bear’s emotions perfectly from the joy of playing drums with Mum’s pots and pans, to the look of concern when the sunflower stem snaps and the sheer determination when she manages to retrieve her kite from the tree. I particularly like the end pages which show Little Bear’s house in the woods and you can see the balcony and the sunflower. When you turn to the title page and first spread you can then see the balcony and pot garden close up. This was a great touch that I think children will enjoy exploring.

A beautiful book to read aloud at story and bedtimes, which young children will want to hear it again and again.

Elizabeth Negus has discovered a true love of children’s books when she started out as an Armadillo reviewer 18 months and she loves to share the books with her family. Her Blind Date was with Love Makes a Family by Sophie Beer pub. Caterpillar Books.

Well, even at my age you still get excited by a brown paper package sitting on the doormat! It’s like winning pass the parcel all over again and there’s that expectant scrabble to get it open. Nestling inside was Sophie Beer’s ‘family cuddle’ of a book.

A quick Zoom with the grandchildren in Munich confirmed I had a winner in my hand. The older one read the book. English is her second language which she is practicing madly in preparation for a family move to Wiltshire. The younger one enjoyed spotting all the things in the pictures.

It was a career in law versus children’s publishing for the author and she chose the latter, going on to win a prestigious award from Penguin Random House in 2016.

This book ticks the boxes on colour, texture and inclusivity. A cosy choice for a pre-school reader and a satisfying option for learning to read. Ideally the learner can then read it to the pre-school child. Peace could reign for 10 minutes, perhaps?

Visual words describe love within a variety of families, backed up by a brief text. Ask your children what they see - there is lots to discuss, as I found out. Each page has a slightly different story to tell. “Are you sitting comfortably, then we’ll begin?”

Liz Speight is another new member of the reviews team, a reading advocate and very much a bookwork who couldn’t wait to get her hands on her very own Blind Date. She was treated to This Wonderful Thing by Adam Baron, pub. Harper Collins.

Since lockdown, one of the most exciting events of the day is hearing the thump of post on the doormat or, even better, the ring of the doorbell signalling the arrival of a parcel. The children run to the door and hope that it might be something for them and, to be honest, the good stuff usually is. So, when I was asked if I wanted to have a date with a book, and receive a mystery parcel of my own, I jumped at the chance.

The book arrived beautifully wrapped in delicate tissue paper and as I ripped it open, I wondered what it could be, too small to be a picture book, too thick to be an early reader. Was I about to discover a new favourite author? I was immediately struck by the bright cover and the positive title and hoped I really would be in for a wonderful read.

I am ashamed to admit I had never heard of bestseller Adam Baron and had to quickly do a bit of cyberstalking my date. His first book, featuring the fantastically named Cymbeline Igloo, Boy Underwater, was shortlisted for the Carnegie award and was a Waterstones book of the month. Although This Wonderful Thing is the third book featuring Cymbeline, it works as a stand-alone story.

Cymbeline’s narrative alternates with another child called Jessica. Initially it is hard to see what the connection is between the two stories, but links begin to become apparent and the narratives converge in a satisfying ending. Both Cymbeline and Jessica are dealing with big changes at home and the story sensitively deals with issues including parental illness and adjusting to a blended family. Despite the challenges the characters face, there is a lot of humour and some laugh out loud moments. The book fizzes along with an effervescent and joyful style. There is also a compelling mystery element to the plot, centring around a case of mistaken identity -involving teddy bears. This is an extremely pacey read, with each chapter ending with a hook that compels you to read on. I think it would be particularly enjoyed by 9+ readers.

So, would we meet again? I really enjoyed my date with this funny and engaging book and would be keen to read more by its talented author.

Rebecca Rouillard loves to get stuck into great teen reads and is rarely to be found without a good book in hand. Her Blind Date introduced her to Forever Ends on Friday by Justin A. Reynolds, pub. Macmillan.

When Louise offered me a blind date with a book I was immediately hooked by the idea. It’s one of the benefits of a book club that you often end up reading something you wouldn’t instinctively choose for yourself: a grim Icelandic historical saga, for example. Fortunately, when I opened the package, I found a contemporary YA novel called Forever Ends on Friday by American author, Justin A. Reynolds. I read a lot of YA fantasy, but not that much contemporary fiction—I had heard of the author’s debut, The Opposite of Always, but I hadn’t read it. I was excited to read something outside my usual realm.

American contemporary YA does seem to revel in death and trauma and Jamal’s life is particularly tragic: his parents were killed in a car accident two years previously, his best friend Q’s dad dies shortly after that, and then Q dies as well. Q is brought back to life for a limited period and Jamal must encourage his friend to live life to the fullest in the time he has left—without telling him that he has already died.

Jamal has been in self-destructive downward spiral since his parents’ death. While he has many wonderful, supportive people around him - his older sister and guardian Whit, his girlfriend Autumn, and his best friend Q - he sabotages these relationships in the belief that everyone he loves is doomed. When the worst happens, and Q actually does die, Jamal must come to terms with his loss, stop pushing people away and begin to appreciate the life he has. This is a strongly voice-driven narrative—the dialogue, in particular, is brilliantly authentic and humorous. Though all the relationships are wonderfully drawn, this book is a real bromance—a heart-warming tribute to male friendship.

I imagined that the miraculous process that brings Q back to life would be some kind of magical-realism-style timeslip, but instead he is ‘reanimated’ via an unspecified medical procedure at a shadowy institution called ‘The Centre’. This perhaps was the least convincing aspect of the book, and the whole section feels a little stilted in the middle of such a vibrant and dynamic story. The concept, however, is a great hook and keeps you reading despite the inevitability of the ending. The chapters are numbered in reverse order, an inspired technique for reinforcing the theme of counting down the days till death.

I’m sorry to say this blind date did end in tears. It was not a cheerful experience, but definitely a gripping, thought-provoking and emotionally engaging one.

Jess Zahra, our Blog editor (though this one is being edited by Louise), gamely agreed to also take part and was the lucky recipient of What Love Looks Like by Jarlath Gregory, pub. The O’Brien Press.

My blind date was swathed in gold tissue paper and armed with a welcome accompaniment of bath bombs – the perfect company for an evening against the (quite frankly) foul weather! The book I discovered was an important addition to the LGBTQ experience which I am very glad to have read.

It’s 2015 and the same-sex marriage referendum has just been passed in Ireland by popular vote. Ben – seventeen, well-adjusted and gay – thinks he has life sussed. School is finally over, he’s on track to his dream career in teaching and has a compassionate family and vibrant LGBTQ community on hand to support him. But prejudice is still rife as homophobia, racism and classism intersect. What’s more, Ben’s perfect guy is still in the closet; his old school bully has re-entered his life; and his best friend disappears when he needs her most. But as everything changes around him, Ben discovers that, sometimes, love turns up where it’s least expected.

What Love Looks Like is an uplifting, tender and funny LGBTQ romance. It is also a poignant coming-of-age tale with a surprise (though happy!) ending. Perhaps the best thing about this one, though, was the supporting cast: Ben’s friends are genuinely decent people. They all come from different backgrounds, bringing a diversity of experience to the table, and it makes for a very refreshing read. Just a heads up: What Love Looks Like is for older readers - and certainly not for the faint of heart!

Hannah Cooper, another new team member and another book worm, couldn’t wait to have an evening to herself with a book - and this one was made for her! Love is for Losers by Wibke Brueggemann, pub. Pan Macmillan.

The time I spent with this book will be the closest I get to a date night for some time and while it might have been a one off, I loved it. Receiving a beautifully wrapped, unknown title ignited a real excitement about my ‘blind date.’ The whole family were keen to know what it was/could they have it and for once this was just for me! Just me, a new book and some time to get to know each other.

The diary format and stream of consciousness style of writing is pacey and this tone is set right from the beginning, insinuating this book is just a snippet from Phoebe’s life, rather than a story starting from the beginning. It’s a fast mover and soon draws you in to a ‘just a few more pages.’

The tone of the book and language used is incredibly witty. Despite the teenage angst, it is a very funny read with some classic retorts from the protagonist. It is a wonderful introduction to potentially tricky topics like same-sex relationships, atypical families, stress and grief – a number of the characters experience some sort of loss and all process this differently. The book doesn’t sugar coat these difficult topics and celebrates the complexities of the characters. That said, a sequel could probe these further. I’ll look forward to that second date.

I imagine young adults would fly through this debut novel, thoroughly enjoying the ride. For adults it serves as a reminder of the complex issues teenagers face and how they can be supported. This book shows beautifully how love transcends the generations and I’d like to leave you with one insight that stayed with me; “I couldn’t be with you, because I couldn’t be without you after that.”

We’ve all been there, haven’t we?


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