Junior Book Reviews
A Glasshouse of Stars
Shirley Marr, pub. Usborne
“There are real things you ought to be scared of, you remind yourself. Like starting a new school, having to make new friends, a language you can hardly speak or read…”
Meixing Lim and her family have arrived in the New Land to begin a new life, where everything is scary and different. Their new house is ever-changing and confusing, and she finds it difficult to understand the other children at school. Yet in her magical glasshouse, with a strange black-and-white cat, Meixing finds a place to dream. As unexpected events change her life and her family forever, two new friends and the glasshouse of stars show her how to be brave and make the future shine brighter.
Based on the author’s experience of immigrating to Australia in the 1980s at the age of seven, A Glasshouse of Stars explores the culture shock of moving to a new, utterly different country through a sensitive child’s eyes. Marr does not shy away from the often painful challenges Meixing faces, but the story is always hopeful, seeing the wonder, adventure, and humour of the new too. An important theme is the difficulty immigrants face in communicating their stories when the language is new and unfamiliar, something Marr has discussed in the past, commenting: 'I've witnessed myself how first-generation immigrants may not possess the language skills to document these vital experiences.' In this context, Meixing's journey from mutely struggling to explain her feelings to growing confidence in her ability as a reader, writer, and storyteller is especially hopeful.
Although A Glasshouse of Stars is specific to the Chinese-Australian story, Marr has taken care to make her novel relevant to the broader immigrant experience, providing a relatable story for the many children who move to a ‘New Land’, while building empathy and understanding among their new classmates. There is also a nuanced, subtle exploration of grief, notable for how it shows not just the initial impact of a bereavement, but how it impacts in the weeks and months to come - and how friendship and support can help to make the stars shine bright again. A lovely, gentle, compassionate book.
An Alien In The Jam Factory
Chrissie Sains, illus. Jenny Taylor, pub. Walker Books
Young Scooter McLay lives with his parents in McLay’s Jam Factory, next door to Dodgy Doughnuts, which is where his parents used to work. McLay’s is the most famous jam factory in the world, with its amazing tasting jam and ingenious flavours. Their secret weapon is Scooter who has a unique talent for jam-related invention. Scooter also happens to have cerebral palsy as a result of an eight-minute delay of oxygen reaching his brain at birth. But this same delay has also produced “hyper creativity”, stimulating a brain fizzing with ideas like bubbles in a lemonade bottle.
Two dilemmas are introduced early on: (1) Scooter really wants a pet, but his parents will not allow it due to hygiene concerns at the factory and (2) the owner of Dodgy Doughnuts – Daffy Dodgy – is scheming to find out the secret of the factory’s success so that she can steal it and put them out of business, aided by her sidekick guinea pig, Boris. As far as the first goes, Scooter’s wish comes true when a tiny alien being from space, called Fizzbee, plops through the factory window one night. The second dilemma leads to our adventure.
This is a fabulously anarchic story with a lively tone and some hilarious wordplay – plenty of alliteration which Absolutely All Adore, of course! With a nod to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, Chrissie Sains has run riot with all manner of brilliant inventions. I loved the description of the mechanical factory assembly line with “huge robotic hands” and jam-filled pipes. There is so much imagination at play here, with the megaphone/ear trumpet/translator and Fizzbee’s suitcase of treasures. Daffy Dodgy is deliciously villainous and I loved her Bond style sidekick – the white furry Boris.
The overarching theme of this story is one of ability – emphasising what Scooter can do, deftly illustrated by the beautiful little scene where Scooter realizes, he has been guilty of underestimating Fizzbee, just as he has been underestimated in the past.
Jenny Taylor’s drawings perfectly complement this story and are full of entertaining and illuminating detail.
Children aged 7 up who love funny adventure stories and cunning inventions will very much enjoy this book.
Antigua de Fortune of the High Seas
Anna Rainbow and Oli Hyatt, illus. Steve Wells, pub. Chicken House
There has always been a mystery surrounding the age-old story of the Pirate King. However, as the Bloodmoon approaches, it is once again on the minds of the people of the fate their boys once suffered. Is the Pirate King truly gone or will their celebrations be ruined?
Antigua de Fortune of the High Seas is a lovely novel which takes you from the land to the high seas. It is full of sea creatures, mermaids, and the magic of the ocean. It is a magical and engaging story that sails the reader on a mystery with a very feisty young lady and her friends. It is written in a way that once, you understand the ways of the ocean people, becomes easy to follow. It is full of colour too as the descriptions used are exceptional allowing you to at once feel the spray on your face and the salt in your hair. What also comes across is the power of love and friendship. If you are intent on making things right, then this book shows that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Work as a team, even with the most unlikely group of people and given the best leader, great things can happen.
The cover is engaging and intriguing and even though there are no illustrations throughout the book per se, the small illustrations at the start of each chapter, keeps you on the sea faring course. In the first few chapters, the details of the people and their magic was slightly confusing as “madre” being mother is a term that not everyone would be familiar with, however, it soon becomes apparent and once I was a few chapters in, it was like rolling on the tide. Excitement built despite the anxiety of the story and by the time I was halfway through I was unable to put the book down.
If you like stories built around mermaids, pirates, and the sea, then this is the book for you. It is a little scary in places, but this builds the tension of the novel. The question you need to ask is: Does Antigua de Fortune save the stolen boys? I’m not going to tell you so you will have to pick up the book and read it for yourself!
Swapna Haddow, illus. Sheena Dempsey, pub. Faber
This little chapter book tells the story of Lin, who is “an absolute rotter of a panda.” But she did not start out this way; once she was the most adorable panda in the sanctuary. She was so perfect and cuddly that visitors came from all over to ooh and aah at her cuteness. But being perfect all the time is a huge effort for Lin, she has far more fun with her mischievous brother – Face-Like-A-Bag-Of-Potatoes – until her brother does something so bad he is banished to the far side of the sanctuary. Things get worse for Lin when she is in turn shipped off to a zoo far away. She determines to be the worst panda ever so that she will be sent back home again. Frustratingly, though, she cannot overcome her essential cuteness, however much she tries! So she hits upon a different plan and things get rather chaotic…
Behind the funny story there is a very sophisticated message around the anthropomorphizing of animals and the nature of zoos. Written by the same team who created the Dave Pigeon series, this is a really great format, and it uses the ever-appealing panda bear as its main character! There are eight punchy chapters over less than one hundred pages, a limited colour palette and it uses an engaging blend of straight text and comic strip. In look and feel it is reminiscent of Alex T Smith’s Claude series, Harriet Muncaster’s Isadora Moon and Laura Ellen Anderson’s Amelia Fang. For children reluctant to engage with dense blocks of text Bad Panda is accessible and still feels like a proper chapter book.
Children age 6-8 will enjoy this and hopefully there will be more Bad Panda adventures to come!
The Chessmen Thief
Barbara Henderson, illus. Sandra McGowan, pub. PokeyHat (Cranachan Books)
Anyone who has visited the British Museum or the National Museum of Scotland and seen the tiny figures of Viking life which are the Lewis Chessmen will relish this fictional explanation of how they came to be buried in the sand dunes on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland.
In this well-researched, exciting book Barbara Henderson imagines the adventures of 12-year-old Kylan, born on the Isle of Lewis but taken as a seven-year old, along with his mother, as a slave, by Viking raiders who transported them back to their homeland, the country which is now called Norway. Kylan it turns out is a handy person with a knife, but not, as we might imagine, to threaten foes with, rather to carve walrus ivory into beautiful patterns and shapes. He is a thrall, and his job is to fetch and carry for the workmen who make and carve items from the ivory. The very useful glossary at the story’s end tells us that ‘thrall’ is a Norse word for a slave, and among many other explanations it also tells readers that Norse is an early medieval Scandinavian society and language.
At this time the Scottish islands were part of the Viking empire, and Kylan is determined to return to his home on the Isle of Lewis, in the hope that he can find his mother who has travelled back there as a Viking princess’s maid. When a very special commission is placed with the workmen by Archbishop Birgersson Kylan sees an opportunity to escape. The Archbishop is on a mission to spread Christianity amongst the heathen of the Scottish islands, by first converting their leaders and then ensuring the ordinary people become Christians rather than believers of the Norse gods. Kylan’s adventures vividly immerse us in Viking life, the craftsmanship as well as the violence, with detailed descriptions of the Lewis Chessmen, whose images beautifully head the chapters.
This thoughtful, fact-packed, engrossing middle-grade novel is an excellent antidote to counter the numerous tales of pillage and murder which tend to bias the resources for those young readers studying the Vikings.
Tim Tilley, pub. Usborne
A thoroughly enchanting fairy-tale for modern times, Harklights is as educational as it is compelling. The story follows in the footsteps of Wick, an orphan who spends his days tirelessly working in a matchstick factory for a wicked and greedy woman. But from this darkness a ray of light comes to Wick when he finds an ‘acorn baby’, his ticket out of the misery and into a life of magic with the Hobs: a clan of tiny magical people who live in the nearby woodland. A whole new world opens up for Wick as he is taken on a journey of discovery where he learns about trees, animals, leaves, and so much more.
This book weaves a wonderful tale about all the marvellous things that are lurking in our woodlands. However, it isn’t all magic and wonderment, something threatens the lives of the Hobs and Wick won’t stand for it. Not only is this a thoroughly enjoyable book, but it is also a great book to get children interested in nature and to teach them the importance of the animals and plants that live there. It has some interesting insights into the horrors of deforestation and pollution, while still being a compelling and cosy read. Moreover, it carries a strong message of hope something that, this year more than ever, we could all use more of.
Tim Tilley has adorned this book with his own charming illustrations, which perfectly reflect the characters of his story. While he has previously worked in illustration Harklights is his first children’s novel, I just hope it isn’t his last!
Harklights would be a lovely book for any child who wants to get more involved with nature, those who are never happier than when they are jumping in mudding puddles or looking in wonder at squirrels as they bound about in the park.
Rosie Cammish Jones
How to Make a Pet Monster: Hodgepodge
Lili Wilkinson, illus. Dustin Spence, pub. Allen & Unwin
Artie is eleven years old, he lives with his mum, stepdad (though he’s not sure what to call his stepdad) and his thirteen-year-old stepsister Willow. He doesn't believe in ghosts or monsters, but he does believe in science, oh and that Willow is scary.
While searching though the attic of their new home, Willow and Artie come across a weird book called ‘The Big Book of Fetching Monsters.’ Of course they have to stop and read it … it is whilst reading through the book that they come across a way to make their own monster, but Artie doesn't believe in monsters, because they don't exist, right? Well is was right until before they know what has happened they have Hodgepodge. Hodgepodge definitely makes life interesting, for while Artie and Willow are desperate to keep Hodgepodge a secret, Hodgepodge has his own secrets and a mission that is at first known only to him (of course).
This is a wonderful middle grade book, it’s written from Artie’s perspective and newly independent reader's will love the accessibly short chapters. Dustin Spence’s illustrations help tell the story and rally give an extra dimension, bringing the character of Hodgepodge to life.
This is a great book dealing with important issues such as blended families, and I’m sure after reading this everyone (even those who don’t believe in monsters) will want their very own Hodgepodge.
Kate on the Case
Hannah Peck, pub. Piccadilly Press
When Kate, her Dad and her mouse-accomplice Rupert, or Roo for short, board a train to visit Kate’s mum at the International Polar Station in the Artic they have no idea of what an eventful journey it’s about to be. No sooner have they set off than mysterious things begin to happen, missing gymnastic trophies, stolen gingernuts and the vanishing of ancient scrolls baffle the passengers. But who is responsible? Well, who better to investigate than wannabe reporter Kate? With the help of her handy ‘Special Correspondent Manuel’ and Roo by her side, Kate sets out to catch the thief and she’s certain she already knows who it is. There’s something fishy about fellow passenger Madam Maude and her cat Master Mimkins and Kate is determined to find out just what they are up to.
This deliciously written crime drama for young readers has all the mystery and suspense of a great Agatha Christie novel but with a humorous and unexpected twist in the plot.
Written and illustrated by the brilliantly talented Hannah Peck, the story is interspersed with wonderfully amusing images that make turning the page even more of a delight. With an array of colourful characters and a strong but simple plotline this book is impossible to put down as you follow Kate on her mission to catch the culprit. An exciting and gripping read for younger readers!
The Lightning Catcher
Clare Weze, pub. Bloomsbury
Alfie Bradley and his family have moved from a town to a small village. The weather there is bizarre. Frozen puddles suddenly appear on a warm summer’s day. Massive rainstorms break out just over his house. And it’s not only the weather that’s strange. There’s a peculiar man called Nathaniel Clemn who lives in a weird house. Rumour has it that he’s doing experiments on animals. It seems he might be involved in the odd weather phenomena too.
Alfie persuades his new friend Sam that they need to investigate. They break into the Nathaniel’s garden and find a box with wires coming out. They crack it open, releasing a massively powerful, seemingly electrical creature. It’s not long before Whizzy, as they call it, starts creating havoc. Alfie gets the blame for everything that happens. The head of the parish council was already convinced his behaviour was out of order. Now he’s in big trouble. It doesn’t help that his father is away working in Sweden, and won’t really listen to him, nor that his older sister Lily has an eating disorder and mental health issues brought on by bullying in the town where they used to live. Even Sam refuses to have anything to do with him. How can Alfie put things right?
This is a very impressive middle-grade novel. Children will be gripped by the fast-moving plot, and by the characters, not least the wondrous Whizzy. Clare Weze has worked in biomedical and environmental research. She weaves science and fantasy intriguingly and enjoyably together. She skilfully interlaces important social and emotional themes too.
Like the author, Alfie and Lily have British and Nigerian heritage. They are the only children in the village who aren’t white. The antagonism Alfie meets from the head of the parish council is clearly racism though this is not overtly stated. Lily’s mental health issues are sensitively treated. The first-person narrative from Alfie’s perspective works very well. Recommended.
Ele Fountain, pub. Pushkin Children’s Books
What if things are not what they seem to be, be it for our own family or the world we live in? Ele Fountain, the acclaimed author of Boy 87 explores this issue in her latest novel Melt. Through the lives of her characters Yutu and Bea, Fountain takes the reader on an action-packed adventure in the Tundra, involving snowmobiles and planes.
Yutu lives in an arctic remote village with his grandmother and with each passing year, their way of life is threatened by the melting snow and ice around them. Bea lives in the city, struggling to make friends at yet another new school. Her father is her ally but when his behaviour becomes odd, she grows worried as she wonders why. Suddenly, Bea and Yutu’s lives collide in a way neither could have ever imagined. Then begins a race against time as they scoot across the snow to safety.
Readers can easily relate to Bea and Yutu. Whether it is their teenage restlessness or acute perceptions, it sets the scene, and the pacey narrative keeps the reader glued to the pages.
Travelling with Yutu and Bea I could feel the icy wind blowing on my face as the arctic region came alive in these pages. Fountain highlights the issue of climate change through irresponsible actions of profiteering corporations and the effects they can have on traditional lifestyles such as Yutu and his grandma. The title Melt is a hard-hitting, apt word that captures the essence of the story.
This racy adventure is aimed at middle grade readers but recommended for anyone who loves an engaging read with an urgent message at its core.
The Nightsilver Promise
Annaliese Avery, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books
In the Empire of Albion, which is ruled by science, everyone’s destiny is predetermined and told to them as infants, but not Paisley Fitzwilliam’s. Paisley has been waiting thirteen long turnings to hear her destiny. Now she’s been summoned and she’s sure the stars are about to tell her she will be an explorer just like her father. So, when Paisley learns that she will die before her fourteenth turning she’s shocked and confused. Determined to keep her destiny a secret from her family Paisley resolves to carry on like normal. That is until her mother goes missing and is presumed dead, leaving Paisley alone to protect her Dragon Touched brother Dax.
What follows is a gripping, breath-taking adventure through a reimagined world where the Floating Boroughs of upper London hold secrets and an ancient power stalks the dark sewers of lower London.
This is the first book in a magical, fantastical trilogy from the wonderfully talented, debut author Annaliese Avery whose richly imagined world where the Great Dragons are no more and the Celestial Mechanism pre-determines our track, is every bit as incredible as the world of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights.
However, be prepared to dive in, Annaliese thrusts her readers into her world from page one and you are swept along with Paisley on her sometimes dark and twisting rollercoaster of a quest. Bursting at the seams with both science and magic The Nightsilver Promise raises deep questions such as whether our destinies are predetermined or whether we have free will over our path in life. The believable characters and powerful storyline had me turning page after page. Add to this more than a sprinkling of stars, a little magic, a good helping of dragons and a wonderfully endearing and brave protagonist and you find Annaliese Avery has managed to create the most wonderful world to escape to.
The only problem…the wait for book two!
Philosophy Resistance Squad
Robert Grant, pub. Little Island Books
Join student no. 8728473 aka Milo Moloney and his friends on a thrilling, action packed, philosophy filled adventure, exploring ways to resist their sinister headmaster’s excruciating system with their ‘shamazing’ philosophical friend Ursula.
I will start off by saying, this book is a great way to teach children and adults alike about philosophy. It brings many different emotions to the table such as rebellion, longing, helplessness, perseverance and triumph. Threading a magnificent tale of courage, questioning and thrills - through the middle of an epic fictional adventure. Though this book has a familiar plot-line of school/teachers conspiring against children, it also teaches children how to question authority, in the right way!
In my opinion, the age to be reading it without an adult should be 9+ since there is a touch of foul language and mild violence and if your child is younger, you may need an adult's help. This book would be enjoyed by children who love futuristic vibes, rebellion stories and philosophical quotes (since there is a quote or question to ponder on every chapter). This gives children a window into the world of philosophical thinking.
It is not similar to any other book I have read (although it does give a sprinkle of Demon Headmaster) making it unique and that quality makes it really shine through. I recommend discussing the chapter quotes and philosophy scripts just so you can take them in.
To summarise, this is an amazing book to help teach people about philosophy whilst telling one of the most amazing stories.
Archie (age 9)
Rise of the Shadow Dragons
Liz Flanagan, pub. David Fickling Books
The return to Arcosi is an interesting one; the changes made by Duke Vigo and Tarya seem to be positive and offer more freedom to the people, but the formation of the Brotherhood seems to be turning the island into a more dangerous place, once again.
Jowan desperately wants to have his own dragon, and things are looking encouraging for him – he is related to some of the most famous dragonriders, he has been around dragons all of his life, and he has been dreaming of a purple dragon. When Hatching Day passes without Jowan being paired with a hatchling, he becomes so distraught that he acts out in an unforgivable way. In shame, Joe goes into hiding, sure that everyone will be better off without him until he can make amends. It is down in the hidden tunnels and chambers of Arcosi, however, that Jowan really discovers his true destiny and will have the opportunity he desires; to right his wrongs. But the Brotherhood are rising, and Jowan may not quite be ready for the clash that is about to commence.
Rise of the Shadow Dragons is the sequel to Dragon Daughter, the first book in the Legends of the Sky series. While many of the characters from the first book remain constant in this book, there are enough new faces to enjoy getting to know as well.
The cover art by Angelo Rinaldi is terrific and draws the reader to the book straight away: the large shadow dragon surrounded by fire offers a perfect contrast between dark and light.
Secrets of a Schoolyard Millionaire
Nat Amoore, pub. Rock the Boat
What would you do if you found a million dollars? Ask this question at any point in any conversation (more or less, use your judgement) and it’s guaranteed to give an interesting reaction. As such, it forms a compelling premise for Nat Amoore’s debut novel for 8- to 12-year-olds.
The main character, Tess, is placed in exactly this situation and Secrets of a Schoolyard Millionaire follows her and her best friend, Toby, as they try to work out what out the best way to spend money, and learn some valuable life lessons along the way. There are two things that make this book stand out. The first is the pace. Amoore writes with the confidence a good plot can bring – there is no need for drawn out ‘fillers’ because the action zips along with exuberance and energy. Such is the strength of the narrative that we the ending is revealed in the first chapter – and acts as a hook rather than a deterrent. Clever stuff.
Second is the morals. Despite its peppy tone and galloping plotline, this book has a strong moral core. Amore invites her readers to reflect on the importance of friendship, truth, altruism, honesty and integrity through a series of ‘tips for life’ that pepper the narrative. They are bite-size, light-touch and certainly not over directive or preachy – but nevertheless they invite the reader to stop; pause; consider ... and then plunge back in to see what happens next.
Secrets of a Schoolyard Millionaire is a book with bounce, combining action with integrity and an open door to explore some of life’s bigger questions. Perfect for budding entrepreneurs, amateur detectives, would-be Greta Thunbergs and pretty much everyone in-between.
M. G. Leonard, pub. Walker Books
Twitch is a story about trust, friendship and birdwatching. It follows a young boy called Twitch, who is a keen birdwatcher and often visits the nearby nature reserve of Aves Wood. Twitch gets bullied by Jack - a pupil at school - in the last week before the summer holidays, and is rescued by a stranger called Billy, with whom Twitch forms a friendship. When he was seven, Twitch's grandad built him his own human-sized bird box in his bedroom. Twitch had then decorated the interior to make it more homely. "It was his nest and he felt safe inside."
It is a heartwarming backstory, but since his own bed is shaped like a bird box, it brings attention to Twitch's biggest fault. Although "Ornithologists make good detectives," people's habits and intentions can't be observed as easily as watching them through a pair of binoculars, and the other characters are quick to remind him that people are not birds. Twitch starts an unlikely friendship with Jack, but he soon begins to learn for himself about the complexities of human behaviour. Billy tries to convince Twitch that he can't be friends with Jack, his former bully, and explains: "A leopard doesn't change his spots [...] You might know a lot about birds, kiddo, but you don't seem to know a lot about people."
Twitch is a coming-of-age story for its main protagonist, and a life lesson in human behaviour - set against the backdrop of birdwatching in a nature reserve. There is a subplot that a robber is on the loose, and this makes the story exciting to read, and has an important role in the later stages of the novel. The lessons for its readers are about the difficulties of knowing who to trust.
It is a fun story to read and would make a great book for a class to study in school, as it teaches its readers all about trust, friendship, making secret dens and exploring the countryside with friends and family.
Chris J Kenworthy