Junior Book Reviews
Samuel Larochelle, illus. Eve Patenaude, trans. Arielle Aaronson, pub. Greystone Kids
Florent is a ten-year-old boy. He lives with his two loving mothers and, initially, he is a very energetic and noisy child. However, when he accidentally overhears his mothers talking about how they should not have another baby because of the state of the planet, Florent experiences an anxiety that quickly becomes overwhelming and debilitating.
Florent believes he is taking up space and that he is not worthy of it. His mothers do not know the reason for his anxiety and cannot help it stop before it reaches a crescendo and he becomes unable to speak, falling into depression. When his mums eventually find out the cause of his problems, they tell him that yes, the climate situation is serious but that the world needs more children as they will be able to take on a fresh perspective and think of new ways to ameliorate the situation.
The depiction of the grip of anxiety which Florent experiences is hauntingly painful in its accuracy. It would be helpful to children, experiencing any type of anxiety, to see Patenaude’s depiction. Butterfly Wings could gently open up discussions between child reader and their adults which could be fruitful for all. Aaronson’s translation flows seamlessly and is sensitive around very difficult topics.
Christopher Mackie, pub. Kelpies (an imprint of Floris Books)
The Wavewrecker, a monstrous sea monster, is close to achieving its ultimate goal of death and destruction: finally destroying Bastion, the last civilisation remaining, floating in the sky. Bastion has survived thanks to the miraculous discovery of lightstone, a silvery stone so light that it floats in the air. Ever since its discovery the Cloudlanders have lived safely high in the sky. But now Bastion is gradually descending to a watery grave.
Cloudlanders is a great story. The story unfolds dramatically and briskly as different characters, in different places, making different decisions, fuse into a kaleidoscope of action. Moreover, there is a hidden backstory to the main characters that they are unable or too afraid to reveal, and yet together, these backstories could save the day. Of course, there are genuine friendships and family relationships, causing calamity - the ominous Tidekin is a tricky nemesis - but it is the firm bond that cements the group as the jeopardy increases.
Our heroes really make the story. In order of appearance, the Gemstone Faerie Flicker; a funghi Shroomling called Kurt; the mechanical boy and outsider One-Zero; missing child Serena; orphan sister and brother and wood nymphs Aliana and Garrett and the shaping-changing Therian, Lycan. We get to know the characters through the twists and turns of the story, with plenty of nagging doubts about this unlikely collection of heroes, which are gradually answered. The friendships are heart-warming, such as my favourite between One-Zero with his limited words and Garrett who surprisingly learns to understand him. The villains are of course dastardly. The Boy sells out his friend, and is incredibly evil, intending to make her stay with him forever in the endless ocean. Paladin Flint, betrays all that he is meant to uphold to tighten his grip on his power. He just won’t die!
Cloudlanders is a breath of fresh air in fantasy writing. Open the book at your peril however, because inside it is a tornado of a read.
Dreamweavers: Night of the Scary Fairies
Anabelle Sami, illus. Forrest Burdett, pub. Little Tiger
I love it when a new series is announced. I love it when there are new characters to meet, new places to visit and new adventures to be had. So, when Dreamweavers was announced I knew this was going to be something special.
Meet the ultimate Dream Team! When Tito becomes friends with the mysterious new girl at school, Neena, she introduces him to the world of Dreamweaving. Soon Tito and Neena are going on adventures every night – exploring dreams where quirky creatures called Jinn roam. And when their classmates start acting strangely, they realize someone else is using Dreamweaving to cause chaos. Can Tito and Neena stop them before the dream world takes over the waking world?
Tito is a very sensitive character and only feels comfortable with his two close friends, so when his class teacher tasks him with looking after the new girl Neena, Tito decides to research her homeland so that they can have something to talk about. When they know each other better Neena tells Tito that he is exactly like her - a Dreamweaver. Dreamweavers are people who can control their dreams, they can also go into each other's dreams. They soon discover that the Jinn are playing tricks on their friends, getting into dreams and causing all sorts of problems at school. Neena and Tito must work out what is happening to their friends and then create a plan to rescue them all.
This is a magnificent first book in the series, and this series promises to be amazing. The characters are interesting, and diverse. The storyline is something I’ve not come across before, and much of this book was setting the scene for the series to come. Very exciting! I am really looking forward to seeing where this series goes in the future.
The Final Year
Matt Goodfellow, illus. Joe Todd-Stanton, pub. Otter Barry Books
The Final Year is the first novel told in verse for middle grade readers and the first full length novel by poet, and former primary school teacher, Matt Goodfellow. Beautifully illustrated by the talented Joe Todd Stanton, this is an important book to both savour and treasure.
The story follows the turbulent final year at primary school of Nate, the sensitive yet stoical hero who constantly battles to overcome “the beast” inside himself. Life is tough for Nate, with an absent father, two lively younger brothers and a mother who struggles with alcohol and is barely out of childhood herself. Nate seems to hold the family together and if this wasn’t tough enough, his best friend PS becomes friends with the school bully leaving Nate to cope with looming SATS and all the pressures of the final year on his own. Just as Nate is coming to terms with this betrayal, his youngest brother Dylan is rushed to hospital with his life in the balance.
However, to quote Mr Joshua, Nate’s inspirational and supportive teacher, “all is not lost”. Nate forges a new friendship with the equally sensitive and artistic Caleb and learns to find his place, and his voice in the world.
I approached this book with trepidation due to the references to Skellig, one of my all-time favourites, as I was worried it wouldn’t live up to this classic. However, Matt has used this inspiration to produce a beautiful and compelling story which explores universal themes of family, friendship and identity and is sure to become a classic of our times.
Lauren St John, illus. Levi Pinfold & Marie-Alice Harel, pub. Faber & Faber
Fans of Lauren St John’s previous books will know how beautifully she writes. If you’ve not yet read one yet, then Finding Wonder would be the perfect place to start! This book throws you immediately into the chaos of horse mad, 12-year-old Roo’s life. In the first few pages we learn that her mother is dead, and her father isn’t coping particularly well with being a single parent. When her father dies unexpectedly Roo finds herself orphaned with only her mother’s sister to care for her. Aunt Joni hasn’t been much of an aunt to Roo so far, she’s more used to travelling the globe in her camper van, and it looks set to be a bumpy ride for both of them.
In a strange twist of fate, a lottery ticket Roo’s father bought before he died turns out to be a winning one and Roo sets out to buy herself the real horse her father had always promised her, if ever they won. Roo finds the perfect horse for her in Wonder Boy, but he mysteriously vanishes before she even gets the chance to buy him, leaving Roo and Joni thrown into solving the mystery of his disappearance.
Lauren St John has an intrinsic understanding of the bonds between both humans and animals and writes about them in a heartfelt and powerful way. Add to this her innate ability to describe a setting, bringing the story to life, and you feel you can both see and feel just as her characters do.
Marvellously plotted with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing right up to the end this story was an absolute joy to read and was difficult to put down. Aimed at readers 9+ the story deals sensitively with the subject of grief and is a masterclass in superb storytelling! One of my favourite books this year!
I Am the Wind. Irish Poems for Children Everywhere
Lucinda Jacob and Sarah Webb, illus. Ashwin Chacko, pub. Little Island Books
Autumn is setting in with its mystery and magic being dispersed into the air, which turns warm or cold depending on its mood. The surroundings are clearer, crisper, and cuddling with a light blanket and warm tea, I am reading this green and summery anthology of Irish Poems edited by Lucinda Jacob and Sarah Webb.
Full of light-hearted poems wafting their Irish essence through the air as the reader wades through these 100+ poems in the comfort of their own room or outside on the sunny lawn, the collection is truly a joy. The editors have successfully incorporated the flavours and moods of Irish life with the inclusion of poems from well-known poets such as WB Yeats, Louise C. Callaghan, Oscar Wilde and modern, budding ones. This is a truly diverse collection of poems talking about magical doorways; warrior queens; the beauty of memories; earthworms; blackberry picking; folk tales; writing; pugs and much more. Here's one in both languages-
Ar Iarraidh …
ochtapas: má fheiceann tú é
glaoigh ar un Uisceadán!
octopus: if spotted,
Each poem carries both a unique theme and essence which enhances the understanding of the reader new to Irish culture, words, songs, food, habits etc. It can equally be enjoyed by those already acquainted with Ireland and its beauty. Carry it, recite it, read it quietly or out loud; keep it in your bag or upon the bedside table this one will spread its colours no matter where it is. It can be easily read and understood by children aged 8-15, some of the sound poems and picture narratives can be utilised by parents of children aged 4+ too. Keep this in your library, you'll love it.
In the Shadow of the Wolf Queen
Kiran Millwood Hargrave, pub. Hachette Children’s Group
In the Shadow of the Wolf Queen is the first title in a proposed trilogy – the Geomancer Trilogy.
Ysolda is twelve and one day she goes home to her stone house where she lives with her beloved sister, Hari in a small, rural village, only to find that an earthquake has destroyed their home. Hari, who has a gift for listening to trees and understanding their messages, has been taken prisoner by the feared Wolf Queen. Ysolda must unite with her enemy in order to reunite with her sister. She must also discover the Queen’s reason for taking hostages. All too soon she finds herself on a quest for magic that is far more powerful and far more dangerous than she could have ever imagined.
The strengths of this novel lie in the relationship of Ysolda and Hari and also the bonds Ysolda forms with two kinds of animal, a sea hawk she names Nara and the Wolf Queen’s wolves. Animal lovers will rejoice in the depths of the relationships and how the animal characters seem to leap off the page and are easily visualised by the reader.
This book is a love letter to nature and encourages the reader to think about their role in protecting our world for the future.
Kevin the Vampire: A Most Mysterious Monster
Matt Brown, illus. Flavia Sorrentino, pub. Nosy Crow
Kevin the Vampire: A Most Mysterious Monster follows a ten-year-old vampire named Kevin, and Susie, a normal human who happens to live in the most boring town to ever exist.
When Kevin, his family, and a group of friendly and talented monsters arrive at a town called Lower Drudging rather than the highly anticipated Festival of Fear, they decide the only thing they can do is put on a show. But, thanks to the You-Know-What destroying the town a long time ago, Lower Drudging does not like monsters, shows, or anything fun. Except for Susie, who just wishes she could run away from her boring life in Lower Lower Drudging (Upper Lower Drudging is far more fun).
This book is filled with unique illustrations every few pages and creative chapter titles that will make you want to read on. There is also a map of Lower Drudging, which features many locations with comical names such as ‘Bank of No Interest’, ‘No Toppings Pizzeria’, and ‘The Cold Toast Shop’. Readers can also find an alphabet at the back of the book, which is centred around monsters. Matt Brown has created an imaginative range of monsters (mostly harmless, except for the Killer Bunnies and the Deadly Unicorns of Death) that have their own unique fact files featured at the beginning of chapters. One of these monsters includes Dog, who is Kevin’s pet and is not actually a dog.
This book is perfect for 7 – 9-year-old readers who love adventure books with a bit of humour mixed in. People will surely love the characters and might even relate to how Kevin struggles to fit in or how Susie longs for adventure. Overall, I believe that Matt Brown and Flavia Sorrentino did a great job on this book, and it is definitely worth reading.
Mya Grant (aged 10)
The Shade Tree
Suzy Lee, trans. Helen Mixter, pub. Greystone Kids
The Shade Tree presents us with a short Korean folk story and its underlying message. Written by critically acclaimed artist and author Suzy Lee and translated by the equally talented Helen Mixter, this little story about a tree in a field with its natural shade, a traveller and a village, feels like a soothing little tale with a message for all.
The minimalist green and purple illustrations along with Suzy Lee’s words manage to encapsulate the concepts and practices of environmentalism, human greed, capitalism, consumerism. They also remind us of the need to continue protecting and caring for the gifts mother earth has given us. Additionally, we begin to understand that nature cannot be controlled by one or the other. It's free and for all. Upon opening the book, the reader enters the world of the ubiquitous tree of the title. It is clear on every page, it being so very green, and the story revolves around it. "Once upon a time, in a village, there was a huge, old tree…"
A weary traveller decides to rest in the shade of the tree, but it stands on a rich man's field and he questions the traveller about his intentions before allowing the man to rest. Finally, the shade is sold to the traveller so that he can rest in it as many times and for as long as he wishes. The traveller goes on to allow the local villagers to participate in the resting because now he owns the shade cast by the tree. It is from here that the story takes funny turns, which you really will enjoy, it really is incredibly clever!
The Shade Tree is a charming fable with an important message. It can be enjoyed by both children and adults equally, would make a lovely bedtime story or gift to any book lover.
The Silver Road
Sinéad O'Hart, pub. Piccadilly Press
Thirteen-year-old Rosaleen Darke thought she was living a normal teenage life complete with relentless bullies, busy parents, and a lonely existence at a new school. But all that changes one sleepless night when she is delivered a magical red stone by the ancient frost giant, Sioc. For Rose has been chosen to fight the evil witch, Cethlenn, who is desperate to bring her beloved (though terrible) husband Balor, back from the dead. To do this, she must find her way through the labyrinth of the Silver Road with the help of a long forgotten Irish elk, an enchanted couple who knows the ways of old magic and her nemesis, Emer, the bully who took the stone from her. With a large dose of Celtic folklore and a bewitching cast of characters, The Silver Road is a fantasy adventure like no other.
Deftly moving between contemporary life and the mystical world of gods and magical creatures, O’Hart paints a compelling portrait of a typical young teen who rises to the challenges she is presented with. At the same time, she tells an ancient tale based on Irish mythology full of vengeful gods, intriguing animals and dying magic. In a clever plot twist Rose’s father’s job is closely linked to the destruction of her town which also connects the school bully directly to Rose bringing both new and old, school and family, together. While her world is falling apart, both literally and figuratively, Rose discovers an inner strength and believes that she’s the only one that can stop the Silver Road from disappearing forever.
I thoroughly enjoyed the unique blend of Irish folklore with modern life in this exciting, adventure story. I loved that young Rose was curious about the old world – from the elderly couple whom she befriended, to the dedication she felt for her beloved grandmother and to the old magic that she experienced in the town. Through Rose’s openness to understanding the past she was able to find a strength within, one that was buried under contemporary struggles. This uplifting, entertaining story addresses environmental issues as well and speaks to the changing world around us.
Young readers will find a highly imaginative setting with larger-than-life villains and fascinating creatures in this page-turning middle grade novel. Together with an underdog protagonist and the fate of the old world in her hands, The Silver Road is an enjoyable read.
The Stars Did Wander Darkling
Colin Meloy, pub. Walker Books
This story starts in sleepy Seaham, a quiet seaside town where nothing ever happens. It is a very small town, the type you would find in 1980s Oregon and gives the story a hint of nostalgia. In this town is a community with a video store, before the days of streaming, downloading and mobile phones. The period setting will be unfamiliar to the target audience, but many will find it interesting and fascinating to be introduced to and become part of a different period.
In addition to the atmospheric and creepy setting, the characters are a real strength of this novel. Four childhood friends are planning their summer camp trip. They set off for the woods on their bikes. As the story develops, odd things start to happen. Has Archie been watching too many horror films? The friendships develop throughout the story, as the young friends try to solve a very thrilling and intense mystery. Archie has a terrible feeling, and his friend Oliver is plagued by horrible visions. This all adds up to a good, fun-filled read, which is full of action and definitely creepy.
Even worse than the problems the children are having we discover that the adults of the town are starting to act strangely. What is happening in the community? Ordinary things become sinister, like a penny on a doormat or a man in a brown suit standing under a streetlamp. Adults play a significant part in the story. Has Archie’s dad unlocked some awful terror beneath the town? Has the construction company opened up and disturbed something sinister in the cliffs under the old Langdon place?
Readers will enjoy the creepy fun, the horror, and the suspense, as well as the bizarre goings on. The interesting title and the delightful book cover will also attract readers to this novel. Can the children stop whatever it is before it is too late? What horror is lurking under the town of Seaham?
Kalynn Bayron, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Do you believe in vampires, and I don’t mean the small flying bat type. I do. I think there are vampires out there, living among us all, that they are not truly extinct. After all there are so many stories featuring them how could they not be real? Maybe you think that all the hype, all the stories I have read have finally turned my brain and I am imagining things, but can I let you into a secret? You have to promise to keep it just between us. I have written proof that vampires are far from extinct…
It comes in the form of a book that Bloomsbury Children’s Books sent me. Written by Kalynn Bayron it’s called The Vanquishers and whilst I am sure you can find it at all good bookstores make sure not to tell anyone that you are reading it to find out the truth about vampires – that is our secret remember? Would you like to know a little more about it… Well, its title is a nod to a mythical group of vampire hunters. They were true heroes who supposedly wiped-out vampires, decades ago it is said. Now they are idolised by people like you and I as well as Malika Wilson and her friends. After all they supposedly rescued us from the need for garlic, early curfews and all sorts of other inconveniences vampires created. Are you curious yet? Good because there is more. One of Malika’s friends has gone missing. That is not all. Strange things have been happening.
There are oddly shifting shadows, creepy creatures everywhere and more vampire bats than usual. Malika, unlike you and I, is not yet ready to admit that vampires may not have been vanquished, she just wants to save her friend. You and I know however that we need to call in the Vanquishers and this story is going to show us just why they are still so important. Thrilling, heartfelt, feisty and a brilliant read this is just the first in a new series of stories to reassure us all that vampires are indeed real but that the Vanquishers are only ever a call away…