Saturday, 16 November 2013

Film adaptation: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third installation in the Harry Potter series. It is Harry's third year at Hogwarts and the wizarding world is in uproar over the escape of highly dangerous criminal, Sirius Black, from the maximum security prison, Azkaban. This book is where we are first introduced to the Dementors, the guards of Azkaban, that suck out all the happiness from their victims.

The film adaptation of Prisoner of Azkaban was directed by Alfonso Cuarón and his mark on the film is unmistakeable. The first two Harry Potter films had a dream-like, magical quality to them. Cuarón's Harry Potter universe is dark, dangerous and foreboding. It was truly a foreshadowing of the things to come. In terms of the film series, I felt that this third film set the tone for the rest of the series which got progressively darker and more serious.

One of the things I really enjoy about the Harry Potter films is that the casting is almost always spot-on. Prisoner of Azkaban is no different. Although I mourned the loss of Richard Harris (he will forever be Dumbledore in my mind) and did not really like Michael Gambon's Dumbledore at first (he eventually grew on me), I felt that Sirius Black and Remus Lupin were perfectly cast. Gary Oldman really captured the grave yet slightly unhinged demeanour of Sirius Black while David Thewlis's gentle and nurturing Remus Lupin was how I imagined him to be when reading the book.

I loved the book and the film did not disappoint. Hands down, Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite Harry Potter book AND film. Definitely a must-watch. 5 out of 5 stars!

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Writers: J.K. Rowling (novel), Steve Kloves (screenplay)

Year of release: 2004

NA's rating: 5/5

The Blue Lotus

The Blue Lotus is the fifth volume in The Adventures of Tintin series. It follows Tintin and Snowy on their adventure in China where they team up with the Sons of Dragons to combat opium smuggling. There, he uncovers a nefarious plan by film director Rastapopoulos.

After having received criticism of depicting racist stereotypes in his previous works, 
Hergé carried out extensive research on China with the help of a Chinese student, Chang, while writing The Blue Lotus. There is a conversation in the book between Tintin and the Chinese orphan, Chang, where they each share their stereotyped impressions/beliefs about each other's culture and have a good laugh at how ridiculous it was. Perhaps Hergé should have done some research on Japan too, as the Japanese character, Mitsuhirato, did come across as being a rather negative stereotype of Japanese people.

The book opens with an introduction to the main characters. I found this useful as I embarrassingly have not read any other books in the Tintin series. There is some background information on the the author's real-life inspiration at the end of the book. This is interesting and enhances the reader's understanding of, and appreciation for the story.

This is a fun read with language suitable for young readers. However, it is possible that some parents would not appreciate the depiction of opium smoking and opium dens. Buyer beware!

I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Author: Hergé

Published in 2013 by Egmont UK Ltd.

Age range: 9 to 12 years old

NA's rating: 4/5


Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. Written from a child's (her younger self's) perspective, it tells the story of her childhood with revolutionary Iran as the backdrop. We learn about the many changes and upheavals that take place in Iran during that time and how these affected her and her family.

The illustrations are minimal and almost child-like. Yet, these belie the highly nuanced story that is being told. The way the story is told makes it very relatable. I personally found it very interesting as I knew little about Iran's revolutionary history before reading this book. This may be an interesting book to discuss in a class that is learning world history. However, I would recommend this for older teens as there is some foul language used.

Overall, a great read. I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Author and illustrator: Marjane Satrapi
Published in 2003 by Pantheon Books
Originally published in French. A film adaptation (animated) was released in 2007.

Age range: 16 years old and above

NA's rating: 5/5

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars is the story of Hazel and Augustus, two teenagers with cancer. It is a story about love and cancer but it is neither a love story nor a cancer story. It is much more than that; it is a story about hope and the human spirit.

John Green is a master at writing characters who are real and believable.  His protagonist is a teenaged girl with cancer and he is a man who has never been a teenaged girl or had cancer. Yet, Hazel feels real and not at all made up. His stories show great insight into the human condition. The themes explored, the interactions between characters and the emotions they feel are very relatable.

This is a wonderful read and I highly recommend it to anyone, not just teenagers. There are some "love scenes" so it would be more suitable for readers aged 16 and older. Keep the tissues handy. I give it 5 out of 5 stars.



Author: John Green
Published in 2012 by Dutton Books

Age range: 16 years and older

NA's rating: 5/5

Lola and the Boy Next Door

Lola and the Boy Next Door is a coming of age story for girls. As the title states, it is about Lola's relationship with the boy next door. It is also about her journey in learning to accept herself as she is. Lola is a colourful and flamboyant character who comes across as someone who doesn't feel pressured to fit in. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that she too suffers from the insecurities that are common during adolescence (and life).

Stephanie Perkins has a writing style that is natural and highly readable. However, I found it difficult to get behind the story's protagonist. She came across as being very self-centred and lacking self-awareness. The writing is good but the characters are not particularly sympathetic, with the exception of the long-suffering Cricket who has the patience of a saint.

This book will likely appeal to teenaged girls. It may also appeal to teenagers who are different/not mainstream as it champions being unique and true to yourself. Its themes of love and romance as well as the "love scenes" make it more suitable for older teenagers. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Author: Stephanie Perkins
Published in 2011 by Dutton Books

Age range: 16 years and older

NA's rating: 3.5/5

The Twits

The Twits is the story of horrible people who did horrible things and how they got their just desserts. It's a classic underdog tale, where the victims rise up to teach the bullies a lesson they will never forget.

The chapters are short, about 1 or 2 pages long, and the language used is simple and easy to understand. The book can therefore be used as a bridge to take young readers from picture books to chapter books.

The illustrations are wonderful and depict the expressions and actions of Mr and Mrs Twit very well. For me, Quentin Blake's illustrations are the definitive illustrations for Roald Dahl's works. I own a copy of James and the Giant Peach that features another illustrator's illustrations and the reading experience was not the same. It somehow did not feel as satisfying.

This is another one of my all-time favourites so again, I shall have to give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Author: Roald Dahl
Illustrator: Quentin Blake
First published in 1980 by Jonathan Cape Ltd

Age range: 7 to 10 years old

NA's rating: 5/5

Fortunately, the Milk...

Fortunately, the Milk... is the unexpected adventure of a father who steps out to buy some milk. He meets all sorts of characters: pirates, vampires, angry volcano gods, aliens and a really cool dinosaur.

The story is fast-paced and compels you to keep turning the pages till you reach the end. There's action on almost every page and the illustrations just jump out of the page (even though the copy I have is not in colour). The characters are larger than life. All these elements combined make the story feel so alive and vibrant. It's great for reading aloud to your child, though I wouldn't recommend it as a bedtime story. Your kids will probably be bouncing off the walls instead of settling down to sleep.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and found myself reading certain parts aloud. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars!

Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Chris Riddell
First published in 2013 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Age range: 7 to 9 years old

NA's rating: 4.5/5

The Witches

The Witches is the story of a boy and his grandmother who, after an unfortunate run-in with witches, decide to stop them from wiping out all the children in the world.

I first read The Witches when I was nine and it freaked me out; I seriously considered not taking regular baths. Even though it does get quite scary at parts, we can learn some good values from the story: bravery, the importance of family, overcoming setbacks and a positive can-do spirit.

Roald Dahl has a wicked sense of humour and can be quite rude, which was what got me hooked onto his books as a child. And Quentin Blake is the perfect illustrator for his stories: he captures the essence of the characters perfectly. The Witches is quite dark, so I would recommend it for young readers who enjoy such stories and are not uncomfortable with reading about the supernatural.

This is one of my all-time favourites, so I shall have to give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Author: Roald Dahl
Illustrator: Quentin Blake
First published in 1983 by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd

Age range: 9 to 12 years old

NA's rating: 5/5

The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book is a coming-of-age tale full of danger and hope. It is the story of Nobody Owens, known as Bod to his friends, a boy who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard.

The story is wonderfully written and has all the elements needed for a brilliant tale: the theme of good versus evil, a protagonist with a tragic past, interesting and enigmatic characters, supernatural elements and exciting adventures. I could not put the book down and had to read it through to the end in one sitting! Neil Gaiman is a masterful storyteller and he always does a superb job of writing stories with themes as old as memory yet are still really modern and relatable. His stories are usually rather dark, so I would recommend this to young readers who enjoy fantasy and the macabre.

I love this book. 5 out of 5 stars!

Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Chris Riddell
First published in 2008 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Age range: 11 to 14 years old

NA's rating: 5/5

The Island

The Island is a simple yet poignant tale of a man washed up on a strange island and the treatment that he receives from its residents.

The story is written in language that is simple and in a style that is accessible and straightforward. The illustrations are beautiful, if sombre. Characters represented are grotesque and the colours used are dark and muted. The illustrations are wonderful at depicting the emotions and reactions of the characters. They are also used very effectively to capture and relay the dark mood of the story.

This book is perfect to kick-start discussions on issues like racism, human rights and xenophobia. It gave me chills but I love it nevertheless. 5 out of 5 stars!

Author and illustrator: Armin Greder
First published in 2002 as Die Insel in Germany by Sauerländer Verlag

Age range: 8 to 16 years old

NA's rating: 5/5

The Black Book of Colors

The Black Book of Colors is about Thomas, the visually-impaired protagonist, and how he experiences the world.

The entire book is black, with text standing out in white. The illustrations are done using raised lines which the reader can feel, rather than see. Text is minimal but vividly describes how Thomas experiences the world through his other senses: hearing, smell, taste and touch. The Braille alphabet is included at the end of the book. The experience of touching the illustrations is interesting and allows the reader to get an inkling of how the visually-impaired live and feel. It's a good way to start the conversation on tolerance and understanding for people who are different. Overall, I give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Author: Menena Cottin
Illustrator: Rosana Faría
Translated by: Elisa Amado
First published in Spanish as El libro negro de los colores in 2006

Age range: 5 to 16 years old

NA's rating: 4.5/5

The World in Infographics: Planet Earth

Planet Earth presents facts about Earth's physical aspects - ecosystems, geographic features, plate tectonics, water cycle - through infographics!

The infographics featured in the book are brightly coloured and eye-catching. This definitely influenced my decision to borrow it. Each topic is given a spread over two pages. There is a main infographic taking up the bulk of the spread and smaller infographics or paragraphs of text in the remaining space. These make it quite exciting to read - it gives one the feeling that there's just so much to know about each topic!

The language used is simple but there are quite a number of difficult terms used, such as "transform boundary". It is therefore more suitable for older children. There is a glossary of terms included at the end of the book to help with understanding. An index and a list of useful websites for further reading are also included. Since infographics do not present information in a conventional manner, the index is especially helpful in pinpointing where certain facts or topics appear.

Overall, this is a nice introduction to our home planet. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Editor: Jon Richards
Designer: Ed Simkins
Part of the World in Infographics series
First published in 2012 by Wayland

Age range: 8 to 12 years old

NA's rating: 4/5

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Reticulated Python: The World's Longest Snake

Reticulated Python shares interesting facts about the habitat, distribution, behaviour and life cycle of reticulated pythons. It includes colour photographs and illustrations of reticulated pythons exhibiting various behaviours and in their natural habitat.

The information is presented in bite-sized pieces and is written in easy-to-understand language. I really appreciated the neutral tone used in the book; the snakes are not vilified. The photographs and illustrations are used to effectively illustrate and explain the facts that are presented. In addition to the main topics discussed, there are interesting related facts highlighted. For example, under the main topic of how pythons find food, the heat-sensing pits located above the python's lips are highlighted. In addition to facts on the reticulated python, there is also a section that features other long snakes such as the green anaconda. This will help children who love snakes find out what other species of snake they can read up on next. 

A glossary of terms, index and list of resources for further reading are included at the end of the book. The glossary is useful in explaining unfamiliar terms and the index is useful in locating specific topics discussed in the book. The list of resources for further reading would be useful to children who would like to read and learn more on reticulated pythons.

Overall, this is a good primer on reticulated pythons. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Author: Meish Goldish
Part of the More Supersized! series
Published in 2010 by Bearport Publishing Company, Inc.

Age range: 5 to 10 years old

NA's rating: 4/5

Komodo Dragons

Komodo Dragons shares interesting facts about the appearance, habitat, distribution, behaviour, and life cycle of the komodo dragon. It is full of colour photographs of komodo dragons in their natural habitat or displaying certain behaviours.

The information is presented in bite-sized pieces and is written in a style that is accessible and easy to understand. I appreciated the neutral tone used in the book; the komodo dragons are not vilified. The photographs are used very effectively to enhance understanding of the facts presented. A mini-glossary explaining difficult terms and words is included at the bottom of the pages where they are used. There is also an index and a list of recommended books and websites for further reading included at the end of the book. These are useful for children who are doing research for projects or those who are just interested to find out more.

Older children might find the language too simple and the explanations too brief, so this would be more suitable for younger children. But overall, it is a good primer on komodo dragons.

I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Author: Valerie Bodden
Part of the Amazing Animals series
Published in 2013 by Creative Education

Age range: 5 to 10 years old

NA's rating: 4/5

Wednesday, 23 October 2013


Flotsam is a wordless picture book that tells the story of a boy who found an old camera washed up on the beach. He develops the pictures which show wonderful and almost unbelievable scenes of life under the sea.

This book is a great of example of the often-heard saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words". It's no wonder that this book won David Wiesner his third Caldecott Medal in 2007. Even though there are no words, the illustrations keep the story flowing very smoothly. The illustrations of the facial expressions of the protagonist do very well in capturing and communicating his emotions. There are also strange and beautiful full-page scenes of life under the sea that capture the imagination.

As one with a strong interest in marine life, I found this book very enjoyable. It was also interesting "watching" the story unfold rather than reading and imagining the scenes in my head. The accessibility and clarity of the illustrations make this book easy for children of all ages to understand. Adults can also get children to participate by pointing out details in the illustrations that they find interesting or by describing the scene and what they think is happening. This is a good introduction to marine animals in spite of the elements of fantasy.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars. (Disclaimer: Reader beware! I am being very biased.)

Author and illustrator: David Wiesner
First published in 2006 by Clarion Books

Age range: 3 to 8 years old (and older!)

NA's rating: 5/5

Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are tells of a boy, Max,  who runs away to the place where the wild things are after being sent to bed without his supper. There, he commandeers the wild things and enjoys a wild rumpus. But he soon tires of the place and longs for home where someone loved him best of all.

The book won the Caldecott Medal in 1964 and was adapted into a film directed by Spike Jonze in 2009. In the early days of its release, it was deemed unsuitable for children due to its fearsome characters. The author, Maurice Sendak, once related in an interview that a librarian had told him "This is not a book you leave in the presence of sensitive children to find in the twilight." I would beg to differ; I believe children are tougher than the librarian gives them credit for. In spite of the opinions of various adults, the book became, and remains, a favourite with children.

The language used is relatively simple to understand. There is also an economy of words which ensures that the illustrations remain the main focus of the book. The illustrations are also used to elaborate on what the text describes. I especially loved the illustrations depicting the wild rumpus that Max had with the wild things. The heavy reliance on illustrations to tell the story makes it easier for younger children (from 3 years of age) to understand and enjoy the book.

My favourite part of the book, though, is its ending and the lesson we can all learn from the book: though we may long for the freedom to do whatever we want, this freedom cannot replace our family and friends.

I enjoyed this book as a child and still enjoy it as an adult. I highly recommend this children's classic to all! I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Author and illustrator: Maurice Sendak
First published in 1963 by Harper & Row

Age range: 3 to 8 years old (and older!)

NA's rating: 5/5

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Gruffalo

The Gruffalo tells the story of a mouse and its walk through the deep, dark wood. There, it uses its cleverness to escape from being eaten by a fox, an owl, a snake and... The Gruffalo!

The book is a bestseller and has won numerous prizes such as the gold award in the 1999 Nestlé Smarties Book Prize. It was adapted into a short animated film by the BBC in 2009. Julia Donaldson has since collaborated with illustrator Axel Scheffler to produce other books such as The Gruffalo's Child and The Snail and the Whale. An activity book, audiobook and music CD have also been produced for The Gruffalo.

The story is written in rhyming couplets and the dialogue between the mouse and the other characters is repetitive. The language used is simple and easy to understand. Understanding of more difficult words is aided by the illustrations, allowing the reader to visualise things such as "knobbly knees" and "poisonous wart". The repetitiveness and simple language make it suitable for younger children (3 to 6 years old). Older children may get bored. It would be fun for adults to read this aloud to children and have them role play as the characters. For a more engaging experience, different voices can be used for the different characters.

The illustrations are vibrant and at first glance appear to be simple. However, take a closer look and you may spot other small woodland creatures like a woodpecker and a dragonfly going about their day. These and the main characters of the story can be used to teach children about the animals that can be found in the woods. This is of course only applicable to children who live in temperate climes. Those living in the tropics would encounter different animals!

Overall, The Gruffalo is a charming and enjoyable story to read with younger children. It also has a nice lesson for children: might is not the only way to get ahead in life; quick wits can help too. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Author: Julia Donaldson
Illustrator: Axel Scheffler
First published in 1999 by Macmillan Children's Books


Age range: 3 to 6 years old

NA's rating: 4/5