Junior Book Reviews

Escape to the river sea.jpeg

Escape to the River Sea

Emma Carroll, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

Emma Carroll’s compelling new novel, Escape to the River Sea, is inspired by Eva Ibbotson’s bestselling masterpiece, Journey to the River Sea. Set in 1946, our story follows Rosa Sweetman, who has been living in a town called Westwood after having left her family in Vienna as a part of the Kindertransport during the Second World War.

 

We find Rosa living in a broken-down West Country mansion waiting to be reunited with her own family when she is visited by a mysterious family friend, Dr. Fielding, a scientist who offers Rosa the opportunity to travel to Brazil. Her post-war loneliness and desire to find out what happened to her family drives Rosa to accept her offer, and they embark on an adventure that will show them the true meaning of danger, realization, and acceptance.

 

Apart from these themes, Emma Carroll takes on the theme of conservation, as much of our story takes place in the Amazon. Our characters discover and learn about the many threats to the Amazon that continue to threaten the rainforest to this day, where they need to dig deep within themselves to find out how to face the danger and see where they truly belong.

 

Fans of the original story will be excited to recognize some old friends and many new ones in this delightful tale, giving the reader the feeling that this story is familiar and yet entirely new at the same time.

Anne Singer

Extraordinary adventures.jpeg

The Extraordinary Adventures of Alice Tonks

Emily Kenny, illus. Flavia Sorrentino, pub. Rock the Boat

The Extraordinary Adventures of Alice Tonks is one of those rare gems that stands out above many middle grade novels. I was totally hooked by Emily Kenny’s unique concept of a young autistic girl who can talk to and shapeshift into different animals.

 

The book is set at Pebblewood Boarding School, situated on a clifftop overlooking the beach and caves. The book opens with Alice finding it difficult to keep calm on the beach during the school’s open day, with the hazards of the gritty sand and slimy seaweed threatening to overcome all her senses. Her panic attack leads her to storm off, leaving her grandmother on the beach. When a seagull tells her he has a job for her Alice is unsure whether she has sunstroke and is hallucinating. Alice discovers she must endeavour to solve the mystery of who is stealing the animals. Her mission challenges her friendships with the other new students, Ottie and Tim. Both the animal and human characters have been well developed with distinct characteristic traits. All the main characters have difficulties fitting into their new school, each for their own reasons: Emily because she is on the edge of the autism scale, Tim because his mother is suffering from depression and Ottie because her uncle is the headmaster.

 

I would recommend reading this book as part of national mental health awareness week as, from a teacher’s point of view who has worked in special education, as Emily’s portrayal of Alice’s coping mechanisms and problems negotiating new people and situations were realistic and sensitively shown, as was Tim’s protectiveness of his mother and her depression. Perfect for stimulating a discussion on empathy.

 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Alice Tonks would be a great novel to read to a Key Stage 2 class and is the ideal addition to any child’s bookshelf. There were several well-plotted twists and turns that even took me by surprise. Emily Kenny has succeeded in creating an exceptional book that left me wanting a sequel.

Anita Loughrey

Fake.jpeg

John Dougherty

John Dougherty’s Mark & Shark: Detecting & Stuff is published by Oxford University Press Children’s Books.

Fake

Ele Fountain, pub. Pushkin Children’s Books

Jess is fourteen, and about to start school for the first time - actual, physical school, that is, as opposed to the online “live-learning” lessons that constitute education for the under-14s in this skilfully imagined near-future novel. Following a Scarlet Fever epidemic two decades earlier, and the subsequent failure of almost all antibiotic medication, much of society has moved online and it is forbidden by law for underage children to mingle or even meet.

 

School itself is a closed community where Jess, now largely isolated from her close-knit family, must integrate with a group of strangers while heeding her dad’s warning: “The other children will have led very different lives to you. Be careful what you share with them.” For what Jess is slowly to realize is that when everything that matters is online, it’s easy to conceal where real power resides - and as she tries to use her coding skills to challenge that power, events conspire to threaten the security of her family, and perhaps even the life of her sister.

 

It seems fairly likely that the initial inspiration for Fake came from the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Fountain tells the story deftly, with no heavy-handed parallels drawn between Jess’s world and our own. The advances in technology which make Jess’s world possible are never laboured or over-explained, helping the reader to settle into the story quickly, and while this is in many ways a boarding-school story, it doesn’t tread over-familiar ground.

 

If I have a quibble with the novel, it’s a sense that one character - a classmate of Jess, who turns out to be key to unravelling the mystery with which she is presented as the plot unfolds - feels a little underdeveloped; I’d have liked to slowly find out more about her, and see her motivations explored more fully. But others may feel differently, and it’s a relatively minor point. Broadly, Fake is an intriguing and original story about identity, conformity, and societal values, and one will no doubt find the wide and enthusiastic readership it deserves.

The Insiders

Cath Howe, pub. Nosy Crow

Callie, Zara, Nico and Ted are the very best of friends, and as Callie’s mum is their childminder it’s fair to say they are like family. In fact, Callie once called Ted her ‘nearly-brother’, after all they’ve been together since Nursery. When money gets tight for Ted’s mum he volunteers to go home after school each night rather than be childminded by Callie’s mum but living next door and seeing what your friends are doing whilst not being involved is difficult for Ted who misses the warmth and chaos of Callie’s house. Uncertain why Ted has stopped coming, Callie can feel the distance between them growing. The quietest and smallest in their class Ted seems an obvious target for class joker, Billy Feldon, and when Billy manages to humiliate Ted in front of the whole school, Ted pretty much stops talking to the others or indeed anyone.

 

One evening Callie, Zara and Nico find a hole under Callie’s back fence leading into the school playground and decide to explore, until a light coming on in the building gives them a fright. But when Mr Dunlop confiscates Nico’s skateboard at school the three decide to be brave and hatch a plan to get it back. But things aren’t all they seem – someone is sleeping in the school and as Callie, Zara and Nico investigate the secrets and lies between the friends grow. From his tree in the garden Ted is watching and suddenly it seems Callie has replaced him with Billy Feldon, whatever’s going on Ted doesn’t like it. It’s time to get revenge on Billy for humiliating him and taking his best friend. But is Billy even all he seems?

 

Cath Howe, writer of Ella on the Outside, Not my Fault and How to be Me, has done it again in exploring those tricky to navigate waters of friendships, families, school life. This heart-warming story builds to a terrifying climax that literally has you turning the pages in a hurry! And as friendships and families fall apart, we learn that everyone, every family, and every situation is unique and in that we are, in fact, all together.

Tracey-Anne Corner

Insiders.jpeg

The Lost Girl King

Catherine Doyle, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Sister and brother, Amy and Liam Bell, are out exploring in their beloved Connemara, a remote (and rainy) part of Ireland, when they follow a mysterious hawk to a waterfall and inadvertently discover the entrance to Tir na nOg, the land of eternal youth. Immediately, they are thrown into danger as the evil mage, Tarlock, searches for a human child to complete his spell confirming his place as ruler of this decaying kingdom.

 

In a dangerous journey through the dying lands of Tir na nOg, Amy races to get to her brother, Liam, who has been captured by a troop of headless horsemen serving Tarlock. Under a debilitating chained sun, the land of Tir na nOg burns and dies while Tarlock hunts for the final ingredient in his spell – a human child’s bones. Meanwhile, Liam, who is imprisoned in Tarlock’s castle awaiting his fate, discovers a young king named Gilda, who embodies a curse over the land.

 

From acclaimed author, Catherine Doyle, comes an action-packed, and often quite humorous, stand-alone middle grade novel, The Lost Girl King. This fantastical adventure is led by Amy, a headstrong (some may say, reckless) young girl who is determined to get her way. In her bold manner, Amy confronts ocean princes, fierce warriors, and imaginative creatures to rally their support in fighting Tarlock and returning to a peaceful way of life. With the Fianna and Greencloaks by her side, Amy learns the history behind the suffering people of the land and is more determined than ever to confront Tarlock and rescue Liam before it’s too late. With an intriguing premise and page-turning pace, the story of the lost land of Tir na nOg centres around the warning from Amy and Liam’s grandmother… “Sometimes places don’t want to be found.”

Stephanie Ward

Lost girl king.jpeg

Magicborn

Peter Bunzl, illus. Maxine Lee-Mackie, pub. Usborne

It is time for a story, a story of magic, a story that is full of sparkle (that could be the fairy dust), a story full of wonder, of friendship, of rollercoaster adventure rides of danger and intrigue. In summary this is a story that you will find difficult to put down for Peter Bunzl is a masterful storyteller.

 

There is a curse, but the curse has been altered, it is not something anyone will ever know for the truth of the curse, the truth of truths has been lost and now all that can happen is that lies will grow. The curse was one set by fairies, but they are not alone in causing mischief and mayhem for there is also a scheming royal family in this story and there is dangerous magic. This is a story about being a stranger in a strange land and, if you take time to look at the carefully drawn map before you start reading you can see for yourself where the locations described in the story are. You can see how easy it may be to end up a stranger in a strange land.

 

Perhaps even more intriguingly this is a story that is set in 1726 so it takes us back in time to a place, a time that none of us as readers are familiar with, we may become the strangers in the strange land, and we need to be careful of the Royal Sorcerer of England who is on the hunt for anyone who is magicborn. They capture Tempest and Thomas. Tempest is an accidental magic user; she didn’t even know she had any power. Together they are about to discover not only their magic but some long-lost memories. These are good memories, but they come with a price, a battle is about to commence and there is no way of knowing who will survive.

 

I was absolutely gripped by this story, by the power of this storytelling and I hope that you will be too.

Louise Ellis-Barrett

Magicborn.jpeg
Oliver Jones.jpeg

Olive Jones and the Memory Thief

Kate Gilby-Smith, pub. Orion Children’s Books

What do you do with memories? We all have them, and we like to look back over them, bring them out for special occasions perhaps, sometimes we use them for giggles, sometimes they are simply precious and they help us to feel safe, warm, loved. Memories are special things and need to be cared for. Kate Gilby-Smith has taken the concept of the memory and turned it into a fun-filled and exciting story filled with the unexpected at every turn.

 

Olive Jones has inherited memories from her grandmother, the funeral has just taken place and Olive has just learnt of her inheritance as we begin the story. Olive has not just inherited these memories though she has inherited them in a special form which means she can watch them. She wants to because, well her grandmother was not the cute and cuddly type so Olive is curious – what will these memories that she has been left hold? Will they tell her more about the woman who was her grandmother? Before Olive even has a chance to find out more however the memories are stolen, right from under her nose. As far as Olive can understand there is no reason for anyone to do this, but she has to get them back and find out just what is going on.

 

Following the trail of the thief brings Olive into contact with her grandmother’s life and what she finds there is very much unexpected, there are secrets galore and there are also clues for Olive as to who the thief may be, clues left by her grandmother! This is a book filled with the unexpected, it is an engaging read that keeps us o our toes, it is a mystery to warm the heart and there are even some futuristic twists. Kate Gilby-Smith has packed so much into Olive’s story that I think I will be going back for another read!

Dawn Jonas

Please Write Soon

Michael Rosen, illus. Michael Foreman, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

Please Write Soon is an extraordinary story which I read in a sitting, but which will resonate for a long time.

 

Inspired by the wartime experiences of Michael Rosen’s father’s cousin Michael Rechnic, Please Write Soon is a short epistolary novel set during World War 2. Solly and Bernie are Jewish cousins, one living in London, the other in Poland. Their boyish worlds of football, playing marbles and playground squabbles are shattered by war. Both boys are displaced, Solly to the Herefordshire countryside as an evacuee, Bernie, more dramatically, to the east of Poland where his parents hope he might be safer from the Nazis. While Solly’s life has its hardships and anxieties (‘Sometimes when I’m going to sleep I don’t know if I’m scared, or sad, or both.’), it is Polish Bernie who experiences the true horror of Nazi menace, forced into a Russian work camp, conscripted into the army and always fearful for his parents (‘Some say that the Nazis make camps for Jews and work them till they die. I am scared so much for Mami, Tatte and the family.’)

 

Rosen’s deft, clear prose brings to life the boyish enthusiasm of young Londoner Solly going to watch Arsenal in the cup final; the halting, direct English of Polish Bernie, and, framing the letters, the sadness of Solly’s ‘quiet, considerate’ teacher Miss Drury, who has suffered her own wartime loss, having lost her fiancé in the First World War, only twenty years before the start of the Second. Michael Foreman’s lively, emotive illustrations remind us, as starkly as the story itself, of the human horror of war and displacement. His pictures of Londoners fleeing the Blitz could as easily be those of the Polish fleeing both Nazis and Russians, and they could, of course, be Ukrainians, Afghans, Syrians, or anyone else fleeing war today.

 

Please Write Soon is a simple enough story, but its emotional and political impact is huge, and it could not be timelier, as another generation comes of age into a world of conflict and prejudice. I will be passing on my copy to the local primary school and buying more copies for everyone I can think of. It’s a book for adults and children, a book to start conversations. As Rosen observes, after Solly finishes reading Bernie’s letters to his classmates, ‘There were questions that people hardly dared to ask in case they heard the answers.” This book helps us to ask the questions, and to answer them.

Sheena Wilkinson

Please write soon.jpeg

Seed

Caryl Lewis, illus. George Ermos, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

Award winning Welsh language writer, Caryl Lewis, has turned her hand to middle grade fiction in English, and Seed is the result.

 

This story concerns Marty who is a bit of a loner, though not through choice. His father has never been on the scene, so his family unit is himself, his mother, and his grandfather. Unfortunately, his mother suffers from mental illness in the form of excessive hoarding. She has stuffed the house with anything and everything so that it resembles a rubbish dump. Marty is fighting a rear-guard action to keep his little bit of space, his room, as the only place in the house not crammed with junk. On his young shoulders is the responsibility of making sure they both eat, looking after all his own needs, and keeping away from the authorities. Hence, he keeps a low profile at school but is still the target for bullies.

 

His only support is his grandfather who, though estranged from Marty's mum, maintains a close and loving relationship with Marty. They spend many an hour on Granddad's allotment, part of the little horticultural community. Grandfather is a dreamer and loves to come up with wacky plans so when he gives Marty a giant seed for his birthday, promising amazing things, Marty is sceptical and bemused. At the same time, Marty finds a kindred spirit at school, in the form of newcomer, Gracie. Gracie has problems of her own at home and is also hearing impaired. She is a gifted dancer and dreams of going to dance school. She's spikey and entertaining.

 

The story unfolds unpredictably into an adventure where something amazing does indeed happen (you'll need to read it to find out – no plot spoilers here!), and where Marty and Gracie learn to dream big and believe in themselves. There are some wonderful characters in this book, and, like all the best children's writing, it is brim-full of hope.

Rose Palmer

Seed.jpeg
Sherlock bones.jpeg

Sherlock Bones and The Case of The Crown Jewels

Tim Collins, illus. John Bigwood, pub. Buster Books

Sherlock Bones and Dr Jane Catson are world famous for their crime solving. During each case that they take on Catson will write down everything that happens which is very helpful for us, the reader, as we can follow their adventures more thoroughly.

 

In this particular case, The Case of the Crown Jewels, the Queen’s jewels have been stolen from Kennel Palace, and it is up to Bones and Catson to find the culprit before the trail goes cold. From their headquarters in Barker Street (adult readers, and young Sherlock fans, will notice the links here to Sherlock Holmes and his Baker Street base) the friends must work hard to find and return the jewels to the Queen.

 

With a cast of great characters including Inspector Bloodhound, Molly Ruffington and the police pugs there is something for everyone. This is an action-packed fun adventure that is written at a nice pace for younger children. Of course, you will have worked out that this story, this series, is a play on Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson with of course our main characters being a dog and cat. This is a great way to introduce younger children to Holmes and Watson, and it’s written in a way that helps them to understand what is happening every step of the way.

 

The illustrations are full of details and one of the things I like best about is there are over 30 puzzles for children to do, there are mazes, number puzzles and search-and-find puzzles. These were extremely fun to do, though I was glad that the answers were at the back as I couldn’t do them all…I’m told I need my eyes testing.

Helen Byles

Shop of impossible ice cream.jpeg

The Shop of Impossible Ice Creams

Shane Hegarty, illus. Jeff Crowther, pub. Hodder Children’s Books

If you like ice cream, magic and a good giggle, this book might be the cherry on your ice cream sundae. I think this fun-filled and sweet sentimental book is a definite choice for your summer reading list.

 

Meet Limpet (birth name Liam) a self-conscious, anxious young boy. So anxious in fact that he continuously writes in his notebook of ‘Things that can go badly wrong’! He is coping with a lot of changes in his life. Liam has moved to a curious, little seaside town named Splotpool. Unfortunately, Liam’s evil, little sister Eve has moved with him and does not make life any easier. All Liam wishes for is a simple and safe life, as simple as his favourite ice cream flavour, Vanilla. His mum, on the other hand, has different ideas and opens up an ice cream shop full of outrageous flavours, such as Mushroom and Cheese, Garlic and Carrot? Not quite to Liam’s taste.

 

As always in any great read there are heroes and villains! In this magical tale the villain is Mr Fluffy (he is far from Fluffy), he is the one big, horrid problem in Liam's life. Mr Fluffy owns a huge shiny, all singing, all dancing, ice cream emporium. But there is something not quite believable or real about this business, and it will be up to Liam and his new friends, including a crazy chicken?! To get to the smelly bottom of what is going on. Whilst fighting Mr Fluffy's nasty campaign to bring down Liam’s Mum’s Impossible Ice Cream Shop. There are lucky lemons, hidden gardens and even a few fairies. Surely all the ingredients needed for an exciting and heartfelt seaside adventure.

 

Alongside this fantastical story are the funny and inspiring illustrations, by Jeff Crowther, which add a huge extra sprinkle of craziness! With quirky tension and ludicrous plot twists running until the final pages, I was left craving for more. Recommended for reading age 7+.

Archie Sewell, age 11

Skandar and the unicorn thief.jpeg

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief

A.F. Steadman, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

Prepare to enter a new world, a world so skilfully built and crafted by A.F. Steadman that you will start off cautiously, taking careful steps into it yet very quickly find yourself immersed in its wonder, beauty, complexity, not wanting to find a way out. Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is a story that once you start will not let you go.

 

Skandar Smith lives on the Mainland but feels, and readers may be able to relate to this, that he wants to leave, he wants to see new places. He also needs to escape for he yearns to be in not just another place but a very special other place, a secretive island, a place where the most powerful of unicorns are roaming free. Living on the Mainland has allowed him to prepare for and take his Hatchery exam, the annual test that picks out only the very best, the top few 13-year-old Mainlanders to become trainee unicorn riders. For Skandar everything hinges on the exam, however fate has other plans and on the day of the exam, when everything goes horribly wrong his hopes and dreams are shattered. A midnight knock on his door and a mysterious message could however change the course of fate.

 

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is a book of adventures, of magical battles, of living in treehouse cities, of training grounds shrouded in mystery and amidst all of this, all of the new there is the hidden. Skandar is the hidden, he has secrets, he is different. Can his secrets unlock the potential within him, can he once more change the hand of fate?

 

This is one of the most powerful and immersive middle grade fantasy novels I have read in a long time, and it is a debut too. It is well-written, fast paced, multi-layered and fun. Highly recommended reading for anyone young at heart and willing to find themselves immersed in a new world of wonder.

Antoinette Patrick

Small.jpeg

Small!

Hannah Moffatt, pub. Everything With Words

Harvey Small lives with his mum in a house by the edge of a swamp. They move around a lot, something to do with mum's job buying kipper socks and getting big profiteroles, at least that's what Harvey thinks she said she does. Anyway, it's weird, but profiteroles are good. Sadly, profiteroles are not what Harvey receives for his 10th birthday and he certainly isn't given football boots. No, what Harvey gets is a pair of stilts, an oversized pair of dungarees and a top hat. And things are about to get a whole lot weirder because mum has had a brilliant idea...

 

You see Harvey is having to move school again. Unfortunate things tend to happen when Harvey's around and he's convinced he's bad news. If he had been wearing his lucky socks Smallington Rovers wouldn't have lost five-nil, and then there was the time he took the school hamster home, and it met an unfortunate end. Do not feed hamsters Bolognese. As for setting the Head's trousers on fire…it's hard making friends when people think you are cursed. So, with options dwindling mum decides to send Harvey to Madame Bogbrush's School for Gifted Giants. Hence the stilts and oversized dungarees. All Harvey has to worry about is convincing his new club wielding schoolmates that he is very much a giant and not a Small (i.e., human), because Smalls tend to get stomped on, ending up as sandwich filler. How difficult can that be? He just has to master roaring, stomping and eating live tadpole broth for his tea. Then there's Walloping Toenail whose hands are bigger than boxing gloves but whose heart is equally as large. Is he the best friend Harvey has been yearning for? Is the school inspector Ms. Sugar Plum, who's about as sweet as a bitter lemon, planning to close the giant school down? Could it end up being Harvey's fault?

 

What follows is a truly original adventure from author Hannah Moffatt, who has created a huge buzz with her hilarious debut book Small! Its motley cast of characters have been expertly brought to life by Rory Walker's superb illustrations, capturing every madcap detail of this high stakes tale of friendship and belonging. Highly recommended, Hannah has a deft comedic touch that will delight her readers and have them demanding more.

Matilde Sazio

When I See Blue

Lily Bailey, pub. Orion Children’s Books

Ben is starting year 8 in a new school in a new town and he’s very anxious. There’s no hope he will make friends and he knows things will be difficult because they always are. Even his Tardis backpack, in the only shade of blue that is acceptable to him, doesn’t fit in, but at least the Dr Who connection is positive. The only ways he can deal with stress are constant counting and endlessly repeated movements. Everything must be divisible by four for him to feel any level of control. It’s not long before he’s ridiculed and bullied by his classmates. But the bullying from inside his head is harder still to cope with, the bullying that says he must keep up with his rituals or terrible things will happen to his family.

 

The fact is though terrible things are already happening. His mother is more and more often incapacitated through drink. His father disappears for longer and longer periods. His brother stays away as much as he can. The one light is a girl called April. A girl who defies convention and is brave. A girl who chooses to sit next to him. A girl who, astonishingly, becomes a friend. A girl who has her own problems, though Ben fails to recognise this. A girl who suggests to him that he’s got OCD, and that help is available. Counselling is revelatory and Ben makes stuttering progress. Then there’s a crisis.

 

This is an impressive and valuable novel, movingly dedicated to ‘everyone who has ever lived inside a noisy head’. Lily Bailey herself suffered from severe OCD as a child. Her voice is authentic. The protagonists are highly engaging and believable. Readers will strongly empathise with Ben, both those who themselves struggle with mental health issues or have family members who do and those lucky enough not to. All will gain useful insights into OCD and other mental health problems and their impact. The book is good too on family relationships, addiction, friendship, and school dynamics. It’s a shame that a few things don’t ring true. Are there any secondary schools with class teachers who teach lots of different subjects? Better editing would also have eradicated several inconsistencies in the plot. However, these are minor cavils about an enjoyable and important book.

Anne Harding

When I see blue.jpeg

Zo and the Forest of Secrets

Alake Pilgrim, pub. Knights Of

With plenty of intertwined plot lines scary, mutant creatures and dangerous experiments gone wrong, this book is utterly beguiling. As you begin this tale, you immerse yourself in Alake Pilgrim’s wild descriptions of the hot, sweaty climate and tangled jungle.

 

Zo has plans to run away from home, where she lives with her Mum, Jake and the new baby. Zo’s Dad now lives in NY and he feels far from her in rural Trinidad. Her plans will hopefully bring her dad back so she can move to NY with him. She doesn’t plan to stray far, just enough to cause some worry. Samaan Bay is boring, and Zo is unhappy there. When she gets warned about local elderly women, Mrs Kofi, Zo is certain she witnessed more than a warning. Was it a trick of the light or sunstroke? Mrs K turned into a giant spider…

 

The premise of this book takes time to learn, and the plot becomes even more intense and at times terrifying as Zo tries to survive plenty that wants to kill her. The forest does hold many secrets and it will take huge amounts of courage and self-discovery to survive the ordeal. Zo is not alone on this journey. She has met, saved, and delved into the memories of Adri. What she has witnessed while in his mind terrifies her on many levels and she knows she can no longer touch him and to be extra cautious of dangers lurking everywhere.

 

This is an absolute heart pounding read for just as safety arrives from one fear or danger, something else rises out of the forest. I could not put this book down and though it has ended, I am left with plenty of questions and hopes for more to come from Zo!

Erin Hamilton

Zo.jpeg