Junior Book Reviews
Albert Johnson and the Buns of Steel
Phil Earle, illus. Steve May, pub. Barrington Stoke (Little Gems)
An attention-grabbing title! Phil Earle is an award-winning author. His books for the Barrington Stoke series Little Gems are bestsellers, with The Unlucky Eleven chosen as a National Literacy Trust Premier League Reading Stars title for 2020. Little Gems are chapter books for 5–8-year-olds and the series seeks to engage early readers by the format, which is physically small books, easily handled by young readers, limited written content per page, extensively illustrated, mainly with a picture a page, and in the case of texts by Phil Earle and illustrations by Steve May, hilariously funny. As the format is dyslexia friendly it encourages all young readers to keep page-turning! For added entertainment each book in the Little Gems series has activities hiding in the jacket flap.
Albert Johnson’s dad is a Master Baker, and so was Albert’s dad’s dad, and Albert’s dad’s grandad, and so on for years and years and years, so of course everyone expects that Albert will be a Master Baker. Certainly, Albert’s Dad expects him to, but Albert has other ideas. He loves sports of all sorts – as long as there’s a ball involved – and that’s what he wants to do when he grows up. But Albert’s Dad is desperate for someone to help him in his business and so he designs and builds the Doughmaster 5000, a robot who can make and bake a phenomenal number of buns a day. Until, of course, something goes wrong, and Albert Johnson has to come to the rescue with all his sporting skill!
This is a really funny story, with inventive, funny illustrations, and situations to which readers can relate. Well, they may not all have Master Bakers for a dad, but some may find that they aren’t really interested in following in their dad’s (or mum’s) footsteps, but instead have a passion for something quite different. Like Albert they may also find that their parents also used to have other interests when young and, crucially, the family as a whole benefits from being the sum of its parts. Great stuff to encourage young readers, bakers and sportspeople alike.
Amari and the Night Brothers
B.B. Alston, pub. Egmont
12-year-old Amari Peters is the young heroine of our novel, who ends up on a fantastical adventure, searching for her brother and finding out new things about herself along the way. Amari discovers that her missing brother Quinton was more magical than he seemed - and so is she!
This clever story follows quick-witted Amari, who takes advantage of a strange opportunity to visit the same summer camp as her now-missing brother, which she hopes will help her onto bigger and better things as well as aid in the search for him.
Amari stays strong in the face of almost constant ridicule because of her socio-economic background and stereotypes about her race from her classmates, adults, and new peers. Amari’s search for her brother takes her into the supernatural world where her strength and determination are tested in new - and magical - ways!
Alston’s writing style is comical, but full of important messages of hope and acceptance that always land in a way that make you want to jump in the book and defend Amari - not that our strong protagonist needs it.
Readers will join Amari on a magical adventure that tows the line between Alston’s creative, supernatural world, and the contemporary issues of our own current reality. The story will keep you guessing up until the end, which luckily leaves the potential for a sequel. One of many great quotes from the novel is: 'People assume stuff about you based on things you can’t change about yourself,' and Amari shows readers over and over that what others think doesn’t matter as long as you believe in yourself.
The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh
Helen Rutter, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books
Billy Plimpton is a goalkeeper, he is a drummer, he is a grandson, a son and a brother, he is a high school pupil, and he loves telling jokes. He also has a stammer.
As Billy starts a new school, he has a fresh opportunity to be someone different. He still feels the need however to hide away who he really is due to his stammer. Avoiding speaking seems a better alternative than being laughed at, or even worse, being singled out and subjected to ridicule by bullies like William Blakemore! All is going well at first but then it is announced that the class are each to give a speech about themselves in front of all of their peers – Billy’s worst nightmare.
This is an incredibly impressive debut from Helen Rutter, an author who I’m sure we will hear more from in the future! Having been inspired by her son to write this story, she captures the character of Billy Plimpton, and the struggles that he faces in his own life, perfectly and manages to do so in such a revealing way.
This book would be enjoyed by readers who love jokes. There is one at the start of every chapter plus many more throughout which are woven into the story. For me, this book is similar in many ways to Wonder and A Kind of Spark, and that is a huge compliment! With an exceptional range of characters and a variety of lovely relationships, this story is one that everyone will be able to connect with at some level.
I found myself punching the air in celebration as the book came to a finish – it is such a triumphant end to a truly heart-warming story. A fantastic read.
The Boy Who Met a Whale
Nizrana Farook, pub. Nosy Crow
Nizrana Farook has quickly become a firm favourite amongst countless middle grade readers after the success of her stunning debut, The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, and her second enchanting escapade fully confirms this and more! The Boy Who Met a Whale is adventuring at its absolute best – dazzling, daring and deliciously dramatic, it’s the perfect rival to the great literary classics Treasure Island, The Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons.
On the lush, tropical shores of Serendib, a fictional island of Sri Lanka, 12-year-old fisherboy Razi bravely rescues Zheng, a young pirate who narrowly escaped a deadly shipwreck. Full of wild tales of worldly travels, Zheng is on a mission to find the hidden location of a priceless Serendib artefact, but in hot pursuit are some dastardly villains who will stop at nothing to get their hands on the treasure first. Ravi, and his twin Shifa, suddenly find themselves involved in an exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat, high seas chase that will bring them nose to nose with the biggest sea creature that legends only dream of.
Positively bursting at the seams with thrills and peril, bravery and beauty, The Boy Who Met a Whale will sweep you up in a joyous, heart-racing, unforgettable ride that will capture your imagination and steal your heart. With punchy, bite-sized chapters set against a gorgeous Indian Ocean backdrop, Farook once again proves herself to be a master of storytelling as she beautifully binds her light-hearted adventure with a rich, lyrical love song to the wonders of the natural world.
From the calls and colourful chaos of a local fishing village to the quiet hatching of turtle eggs and the mesmerising migration of blue whales, Farook masterfully brings the flora, fauna and food of her home country to life on the page and leaves you hungry for more. This is ‘armchair travel’ heaven and I absolutely bloody loved it.
Perfect for fans of Jasbinder Bilan, Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Katherine Rundell.
Lindsay Galvin, illus. Gordy Wright, pub. Chicken House
Syms Covington is a young cabin boy and fiddler on HMS Beagle, and an assistant to Charles Darwin. While they are searching for specimens in the Galapagos Islands a savage storm blows up. As they make for the Beagle in a small rowing boat Darwin falls into the massive waves. Syms rescues him but fails to get back on board himself. Cast ashore on a volcanic island, he struggles against despair. Suddenly he is lifted high into the air by a huge creature with vast claws and wings bigger than the Beagle’s sails.
Again, and again the sky beast picks Syms up and drops him. In pain and scared, he plays his fiddle to comfort himself. A small lizard with golden eyes appears. She seems intent on keeping him from danger. Syms names her Farthing and they gradually become friends, each helping the other. Inexplicably, when the volcano starts to erupt Farthing insistently pushes him towards it. He realises she is desperate for him to save the dragon’s eggs from destruction. Against all odds he not only does so, but is reunited with Darwin and the Beagle. They return to England and the eggs hatch one by one. Darwin commands that Farthing and the hatchlings must live in London Zoo. Syms can see they are failing to thrive, even when they come under royal patronage. He has to do something.
This is an extremely well-written, exciting and memorable middle-grade novel – an impressive blend of history, science and fantasy. Syms Covington really existed and travelled on the Beagle. Lindsay Galvin has seamlessly woven a huge amount of meticulous researched facts, evidenced in the fascinating and valuable endnotes, into a highly imaginative tale full of suspense, told from Syms’ point of view. It is a tale that also carries strong messages about the value of friendship and the importance of caring for wildlife and the planet.
The attractive fold-out cover with reproductions of contemporary documents and drawings complements the text perfectly.
Bob Biddulph, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
A Sainsbury’s Children’s Book Award Winner 2020. You will find this is a brilliantly colourful and exciting rhyming story from a dog’s point of view.
What happens when a pet dog loses its human? Teddy the Pug’s story is easy to read with an exceptionally colourful background. In fact, the background adds essence to the story, and this can be used to ask questions of those listening.
So why would it be so bad for a dog to lose its human? Well, as Rob Biddulph tells us, there is a terrible troll hiding in the park and you can never be sure what will happen!
This story opens up a conversation as to how a pet dog might feel about his human. We all know that dogs can give curious looks and Rob Biddulph explains in this great book, through his words we see how dogs possibly see their owners.
Edward Pugglesworth is happy with his human but one day things go badly wrong and the human is lost. Will Teddy, as he is known, be able to solve the mystery of where his human is or will he need help from the most unlikely person?
Having read this to my class who have dogs of their own, they gave this the thumbs up and found it amusing, saying they now knew what their dogs were thinking. I really enjoyed reading this aloud and it is once again the standard you expect from Rob Biddulph who adds character to with the storyline with the self-illustration.
All that’s left to say is ...Where should he look? What should he do? I don’t want to spoil the story for you! So, find a good place to read with a friend and find out if the adventure turns out well in the end. A brilliant read and one that should find a space on your bookshelf.
The Don't Panic Gang!
Mark Sperring, illus. Sarah Warburton, pub. Bloomsbury Children's Books
'A sumo-stomping, ninja-kicking, kung-fu leaping all-action adventure featuring three unlikely superheroes and one surprise ending.' The back cover of The Don't Panic Gang sums up this high-energy picture book brilliantly.
In their top-secret rooftop headquarters live a doughnut-loving cat, a sweety-tweety bird and a window-box worm, always waiting for the next desperate cry for help. When the phone rings, they transform - with the help of snappy costumes - into Sumo Cat, Ninja Bird and Kung-Fu Worm, and race off to help, zippity quick.
They might not be the most graceful of superheroes, but the three friends are well-meaning and fierce defenders of the public who call on them, chasing away villains, and bathroom invaders.
Building up very cleverly to a fantastic twist (no spoilers, you'll have to read it), this is a fun adventure story. The illustrations are lively, colourful and brilliantly quirky - I loved their superhero costumes on the washing line on the title page, and the 'ninja bubbles' are awesome!
A fun and funny book that would stand up to repeated reading, with lots of opportunity for amusing voices and energetic actions (maybe not the ideal bedtime read). You could chat for ages about what these characters could get up to next, or why not try role-playing Don't Panic Gang adventures?
There's definitely scope for more Don't Panic Gang exploits, especially now they have a new member!
Peter Carnavas, pub. Pushkin Press
Whenever Olive looks at her father she sees beside him a large grey elephant. Olive’s mother died when she was tiny, and her father is still too sad to play or talk with her, let alone mend her bike, which used to belong to her mother. Her maternal grandfather does the caring. He brings joy into Olive’s life. Every few days, when he collects her from school, he wears his purple rucksack, signalling an exciting adventure. Olive tells her best friend, Arthur, about the elephant. He asks if anyone else can see it, and if it’s like an imaginary friend. More like an imaginary enemy, she answers. He suggests getting rid of it, but that’s not easy.
One day their teacher asks all the children to bring in something old that matters to them to celebrate the school’s centenary. Olive longs to bring her bike but will have to choose something else. She climbs to her thinking spot in the jacaranda tree in the yard. And she falls. When she comes around she sees a large grey tortoise by her grandfather. She realises her fall has made him sad. She is desperate to cheer him up. Maybe the celebration of old things can provide a way. The plan she and Arthur hatch works beautifully. Not only does the tortoise disappear, but the elephant bows out too. And there’s still one more surprise.
This novel is a sensitive, beautiful and valuable exploration of the impacts of loss, grief and depression. The metaphor of the large grey animals works extremely well, and this along with the simple language, wide text spacing and evocative illustrations by the author, who is best known for his picture books, make the book very accessible.
Despite the subject matter, this is not a gloomy read. There’s lots of love and happiness here. The message of hope is powerful and important. I have a niggling concern that some children could get the impression that depression can be cured, and that they can and should try to make depressed people better, but by far the majority will not read it this way. Highly recommended.
Everyday Magic: The Adventures of Alfie Blackstack
Jess Kidd, pub. Canongate Books
Jess Kidd has been winning plaudits since her debut Himself was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards in 2016. She won the Costa Short Story Award the same year. Her second novel, The Hoarder, was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2019 and both books were BBC Radio 2 Book Club Picks. Her third novel, a Victorian detective tale Things in Jars, was released to critical acclaim. But now, Jess Kidd, described as ‘Gabriel García Márquez meets The Pogues,’ has produced her first children's book with this fabulously witchy middle grade fantasy, Everyday Magic: The Adventures of Alfie Blackstack.
It's the story of nine-year-old Alfie, whose idea of adventure is more akin to his remembering to put on wellies before stepping over puddles. His parents, on the other hand, have a rather more spirited approach to life. And so, when Alfie is inevitably orphaned (his mother perishes dancing through a lion's cage wrapped in a chain of sausages, his father meets a watery grave in the middle of the ocean) he is sent to live with his two aunts at Switherbroom Hall, postcode, the back of beyond.
Dejected and friendless, at least Alfie won't have to worry about being judged for not being brave or strong or daring enough, after all, his aunts run a chemist shop in a village where nothing EVER happens...well actually no. Buckle up reader for a helter-skelter of a ride. Those aunts aren't chemists, they're WITCHES, and Alfie will soon find himself caught up in the Witch War to end all Witch Wars.
Deftly straddling genres, Jess Kidd has written a hugely entertaining book that will enchant and delight younger readers (7 to 11). A riot of ingenious magic, this has pacey storytelling and a bombastic and breathless ending with hints at a sequel. Will Alfie ever match the fearlessness of the carefree Calypso Fagan, whose family own a travelling circus? Has he finally found in Calypso his first best friend?
Everyday Magic abounds with joyously madcap characters: familiars, ghosts, imps, witches. But underlying the plentiful fun and giggles is a story that centres on the power of friendship, a subtle lesson on how the underdog is actually no underdog at all, but with a little bit of self-belief, very much good enough. This is a perfect book for your child to immerse themselves in. A mix of The Witches with the bonkersness of Lemony Snicket and the imagination of Nevermoor. Even with the richness of the world Jess Kidd has created, Everyday Magic is an effortless and charming read, ideal for both reluctant or dedicated MG readers. Thoroughly recommended.
The Forest of Moon and Sword
Amy Raphael, pub. Orion Books
An ‘edge of your seat’ tale which will encourage the most reluctant reader to persevere.
Back to the seventeenth century, 1644-46, to be precise. When Matthew Hopkins set himself up as Witchfinder General, predominantly in East Anglia and Essex. Stretching to wherever would buy his service, to rid them of witches - Kelso for the purposes of the story on the Scottish Borders. With the Civil Wars raging folk were jumpy, fearful and easily deceived. Matthew Hopkins (an unsuccessful lawyer) fed on this and provided a scapegoat which provided him with an enormous income. Innocent women who were attempting to help their community by providing herbal healing concoctions were easy targets along with any woman who happened to have the physical attributes associated with a witch. About 300 women died without further ado.
The story begins in the attic of Art’s home (a 12-year-old girl). She is about to lose her mother to the English soldiers. The story spares us the specific details but provides sufficient information for the reader to quickly grasp the dread of, number one being female, and number two living in 1644. These were times when you could not be sure of anything. A stark contrast to our lives today where we are sure enough to have expectations. A swift appreciation of the small things in life ensues.
The magic of this book is that all this grim reality is swathed in natural wonder. Nature soothes our way, making us realise how little importance we give to its restorative powers. Perhaps more so post first lockdown when the weather and comparative peace encouraged us to take more notice of what was around, even in the towns and cities. Elijah deserves a mention in all this mayhem. A strong, considerate boy with a challenging past, not much older than Art proves to be the linchpin to a successful outcome. He deserves a cheer. The balancing effect of this character is inspired.
A curiously worded and greatly debated sentence from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, sets the scene. 'I took a deep breath and listened to the brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.' Redolent of past history and how this will impact the future. It thumps its rhythm throughout The Forest of Moon and Sword which is about self-belief, friendship and female independence.
An ideal read for a class at school or a family at home with lots to chew over. History meets natural history in this text. They complement each other. The one making the other tolerable. Lots of themes join up to ensure a first-class reading event and plenty of chat afterwards.
Now on the “edge of your seat”. Read on.
The Giant’s Almanac
Andre Zurcher, pub. Puffin Books
When a book has a slightly slower uptake, when it takes you a little longer than usual to get into - don’t give up. I was in this position with The Giant’s Almanac and I am glad I didn’t give up. Andrew Zurcher’s writing is both intricate and enthralling, he packs so much detail into this story that at times you are left breathless. This is not just because you are running through the castle at break-neck speed, from the library to your home outside the walls, after having overheard something that you really had no business to be hearing.
Fitz is convinced that he is an ordinary boy, an ordinary eleven-year-old boy, well almost ordinary, he does have rather a passion for books that could be considered unusual. The problem with a passion for books however is that it can get you into scrapes, it can get you into adventures and it can lead to races against time. Fitz is about to experience all this and more when, forced away from home, his mother and all he knows and loves, all the truths he thought he ever knew, he is drawn into a game. This is not your average game and the players (including Fritz) are not your average players. This is a battle, a fight to save lives, to save books and to claim what rightfully belongs to Fritz.
There are lovable characters, there are terrifying characters, there is action and adventure, there are pages that leave you on the edge of your seat. The writing is strong and powerful, the story intricately plotted and masterful. This is a book for all those of love high fantasy, who love to be taken on a thrilling journey, who, in short, love books.
The Ghost Garden
Emma Carroll, illus. Kaja Kajfež, pub. Barrington Stoke
As we experience a worldwide interruption to ‘normal’ life, The Ghost Garden is a particularly apposite offering from Emma Carroll. Carroll specialises in slightly spooky novels for middle grade readers. But in a Carroll novel spooky is an addition to the main narrative, to spice up the setting and the plot, a bit like horseradish with beef, or salt on your chips. The author is also particularly adept at portraying the lives of young people in unglamorous, everyday situations and at times of crisis.
In the case of The Ghost Garden we are in the summer of 1914, at Longbarrow House, where Fran’s father is the Head Gardener. The owner, Mrs Walker, has with her three grandchildren, Leo, Evan and Jessie who are back from boarding school for the summer holiday. As the child of a working-class family, Fran is either ignored by the children, or made fun of for her country accent. As a result she keeps out of their way as far as she can, and in her own school holiday she helps her father in the garden. When Leo breaks his leg, and then Fran’s parents tell her that her mother is pregnant, Fran becomes troubled, as both things seem to have been foretold in some way by spooky things she has found in the garden. Asked by Mrs Walker to look after the wheelchair-confined Leo, Fran gradually discovers that he is shy, not haughty, and her summer becomes very different from that which she had feared.
If readers have encountered Frances Hodgson Burnett’s engrossing 1911 novel The Secret Garden either in its original form or as a film, they will recognise a certain similarity in the friendship which both Burnett and Carroll describe developing between two very different children. Even before his accident Leo has been obsessive about reading in the newspapers the daily events which precede and precipitate the First World War, and readers might wonder whether he is in fact on the autistic spectrum. Fast-paced, satisfyingly spooky, informative, heart-warming and thoughtful, with the added bonus of the excellent Barrington Stoke dyslexia friendly format.
Tamzin Merchant, illus. Paola Escobar, pub. Penguin Books
As soon as you hold this book in your hands, you can tell that the publisher rates it highly. It’s a hardback for a start, which is quite rare: and the cover is a thing of beauty, richly coloured and scattered with touches of gold foil.
And this is absolutely fitting. Firstly, because it is a very, very good book. Secondly, because it deals with beauty and the language is most definitely up to the challenge of describing loveliness. Just opening at random, for example, I find this description of the contents of a hatbox belonging to the main character, Cordelia: ‘…her baby blanket made from a piece of sailcloth, a shiny knot of nutmeg her father had brought back from Ceylon, the fragile orb of a Venetian glass song-bottle, a clear quartz crystal that scattered shards of rainbow light across the floor, a bowl made from a polished coconut shell… an iridescent feather from an Elysian Eagle…’
It’s clear that the author delights in words, is enchanted by the idea of magic, and feels a sense of wonder at all that her world has to offer.
The world is a parallel one to ours – this is London, but not as we know it. Cordelia is the youngest of a family of Makers. There are a number of these families, each of which has a particular skill which is passed down through the generations. Cordelia’s family makes magical hats, constructed from carefully chosen ingredients which weave a magical spell – to give the wearer confidence, or to calm them down, or to give them courage.
However, the Maker families are under attack from a mysterious enemy. Not only this, her father has been lost at sea and reported to have drowned as his ship sank. But Cordelia will not accept this; she simply doesn’t believe it. She is determined to find him – but first she has to sort out the threat to the Makers. This she does, with courage, tenacity and flair – and the help of two particular friends and sundry others.
I loved this book. The story whirls you along, the characters are colourful, tough and delightful, the language is full of a joy in words and in the imagination – and the message is a sorely needed one of hope and triumph over adversity. And it’s great fun, too.
Sue Purkiss’s latest book, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, is an adventure story set in the Himalayas.
The House at the Edge of Magic
Amy Sparkes, pub. Walker Books
When a feisty nine-year-old orphan steals a mysterious house-shaped ornament, she enters a wonderfully whimsical world and discovers that she has only hours to save the lives of everyone who lives there.
From acclaimed children’s author, Amy Sparkes, comes a fantastical middle grade novel for children aged 8+. Full of unforgettable characters, sibling rivalry and a magnificently magical house, this is one zany, highly imaginative, action-filled story. The pace never lets up and inventive details abound on every page. There is never a dull moment in The House at the Edge of Magic.
Young readers will quickly empathise with the plight of Nine as she pickpockets to appease her horrible caretaker, Pockets. Though tough as the life she leads is Nine may have finally found a place to belong if only she can save the motley crew and the higgledy-piggledy house she finds herself in. It will take more than warm, fuzzy feelings (or warm, fuzzy slippers) for her to break the curse that this quirky house has been put under.
From libraries with flying books to toilets that relocate without warning and actual skeletons in the closets, the house is a conundrum – and a full-fledged character -- in itself. But there is a bigger mystery to solve if they are going to survive a curse from a vengeful witch. Between action and adventure, a relentless, ever-changing setting and a sweet but stubborn protagonist on an emotional journey, The House at the Edge of Magic expertly combines the wonder of imagination with a heartfelt story of belonging.
Luna Rae is not Alone
Hayley Webster, pub. Nosy Crow
We meet Luna Rae as she adjusts to some big changes in her life. She has just moved to a new house and is also preparing to start at a new school. She faces several challenges, such as dealing with bullies and making new friends. Luna is a resilient character who is determined to stay positive but thrumming away in the background is her anxiety about her mum. Why hasn’t she seen her for days?
Luna’s great passions are baking and making observations about the people around her (being nosy!). Luna thinks she has found the answer to her problems when her teacher announces ‘The Great Big Family Baking Competition’, and she becomes fixated on winning it with her Mum.
Luna is a quirky and endearing character, and the story is told in her distinctive voice. She is funny and charming but there is also a thread of sadness and vulnerability woven throughout her narrative. The mystery surrounding Luna’s mother helps to propel the reader through the book, but the real strength is in the depiction of relationships and emotions. Family life is shown in all its complexities and there is a cast of flawed but loving characters. The book deals deftly with some sensitive issues whilst maintaining a warm and engaging tone throughout.
This is an extremely readable and enjoyable book. Luna’s story hooks you in and she is a character that you come to really care about, rooting for her to be okay. This book would be enjoyed by upper KS2 children who enjoy engaging, realistic stories. I look forward to reading more by this hugely talented author.
Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow
Benjamin Dean, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books
Archie Albright’s life has changed. His mum and dad separated and where they used to be great together, they now seem to hate each other. The worst thing is that nobody is telling Archie anything!
As Archie starts finding little clues as to why his parents are clashing so much, he starts to piece together some of the shattered puzzle pieces together. After a devastating parents’ evening at school though, he overhears his mum and dad arguing and hears two words that explain everything while also causing even more confusion. Archie and his friends then have to devise a plan which may take them to the only place that can give them the answers that Archie needs to get his relationship with his Dad back to where it was before everything changed.
This is a great debut from Benjamin Dean who has tackled some sensitive issues with respect and clarity. Whilst this book tells a fantastic story, a story of love and relationships, its success lies in showing that everything can be improved by understanding, and for Archie, gaining an education in something that he had previously very little knowledge on, will enable him to rescue his relationship with his Dad.
This book would be enjoyed by readers who love exploring relevant topics. In a world where we are constantly learning and improving our understanding of each other, this book is perfect. It represents many groups of people in an accessible and safe way for children which is difficult, but important.
Morgana Mage in the Robotic Age
Amy Bond, pub. Chicken House
Amy Bond’s debut junior novel draws us in to a fast-moving adventure set somewhere between the magical world of witches and warlocks, and the robotic fantasy of sci-fi movies.
Initially it feels like we have landed at Miss Cackle’s Academy, or indeed another very well-known school of Wizards and Muggles, but quickly we discover Morgana’s new life at the city school, away from her roots in the woods with the other witches, is anything but a classic tale of magic and mystery. It’s closer to a near-future where children routinely use electronic scrolls to communicate, travel to school by teleportation and strive to be the best robotic engineers in the land.
This book really takes you in, with the action spilling out of the amazing descriptions from the outset and continuing throughout. Whilst it doesn’t feel particularly character driven initially, we do get to know Morgana and Jonathan as their friendship blossoms and are right there with them as the drama unfolds.
With a basis in fantasy and magic this novel in fact explores a number of wider themes – friendship, diversity and acceptance, the rise of technology – and opens up a whole world of discussion about where we are headed as society. That said, at face value it’s also a fantastic dramatic thriller.
Once We Were Witches
Sarah Driver, illus. Fabi Santiago, pub. Egmont
Sisters Egg and Spel live, cut off from the rest of society, under the oppressive regime of Mistress Mouldheel’s School for Wicked Girls. Here, they are taught that they must atone for the terrible crimes of their parents and work to suppress their own innate wickedness. The rebellious and free-spirited Egg is determined to escape and forge her own future. Spel, instead, tries desperately to conform so that she can achieve her longed-for soul ceremony. Realising they are in terrible danger the girls flee from Mouldheel’s. Will they ever find safety and the truth about their identity?
Initially they seek refuge at a mysterious undertakers’ where a pudding-loving dragon lurks in the basement. The girls move further towards the truth as they begin to discover their magical powers and learn more about their mother. Later, Spel begins an exciting adventure when she is forced to venture into a strange otherworldly realm to rescue her sister. We are taken deep into a world of dragons, ghosts, and warring magical creatures. Black and white illustrations throughout the book enhance the richly described fantasy world: the double page spreads are particularly striking.
Once We Were Witches is a gothic fantasy with strong themes of friendship, family and self-acceptance. A sense of foreboding and tension is built by seeing events from Spel’s intense and serious perspective. She is an outwardly quiet character with a strong inner life and her voice is lyrical and full of potent imagery. The story moves through three atmospheric settings and the peril and revelations experienced by the characters makes for an exciting read. The book ends with a hint that there are more realms ready to be explored.
This is the start of a new series from the author of the Huntress trilogy. Ideal for 9+ readers looking for a new fantasy adventure series with strong female characters.
Panda at the Door
Sarah Thorne, pub. Chicken House
Illustrator Sarah Thorne, whose recognizable images have complemented popular books by contemporary authors (Fizzlebert Stump by A.F. Harrold and Charlie Changes into a Chicken by Sam Copeland) has written and illustrated this charming and gently told tale about hopes, dreams, family ties and friendship.
Pudding the Panda is a major attraction at Edinburgh Zoo who, when she is not charming visitors, loves to chew bamboo and watch the DVD of her hero, Mary Poppins. The news that she is being sent to China leads Pudding to escape from the zoo, and to find refuge at the house of a boy, Callum, who has recently adopted her and who has sent her a desperate message.
A giant panda, though clearly well intentioned and fun-loving, is not really what Cal is after. His dad has left home after an argument about their tight finances with his mum, the bully next-door Mike Spiker torments him and his best friend has moved away.
Yet, Pudding’s antics and her desperate desire to help Callum bring some cheer to the boy and his family at a difficult time. Things become even more complicated when the zoo offers a very generous reward for information about Pudding’s whereabouts and Mike Spiker and his dad become suspicious.
Callum’s dad reappears just in time to save the day and to plan a satisfying happy ending.
A nod to a much-loved classic and the inclusion of a lovable protagonist make of this book the perfect feel-good story for young independent readers. Bursting with optimism and gentleness Pudding brings chaos and laughter and instigates a positive change in Callum’s family life.
Family relationships are mended; bullies are put firmly in their place; friends are reunited. Every reader will wish to have a friend like Pudding.
Mark Powers, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Ten-year-old humans Connor and Ethan are enjoying another cosmic day on Starville, the space station where they live, when they discover their intergalactic home is due to go smack, bang into the moon. The two space detectives are soon on the case and hurtling through an adventure featuring multiple Tufted Grotsnoblers, a host of Neptunian Bat-Rats and the most delicious ice cream this side of the Milky Way. Can they solve this out-of-this world mystery before it’s too late?
The first instalment in a new series from Spy Toys author Mark Powers, Space Detectives zips along thanks to clear writing and a deadpan comic style. Characters are simply drawn, but still nicely individual, with the brainy Ethan nicely complemented by the more socially adept Connor. Short chapters make it suitable for reluctant readers.
Space Detectives is also lucky to be illustrated by rising star Dapo Adeola, fresh from winning the Waterstones Children’s Book of the Year 2020 for the picture book Look Up! His talent is on display again here with a series of energetic illustrations, which perfectly capture the lively tone of the story.
This edition also features a ‘Could YOU be a space detective quiz?’ and a sneak peek at the next book in the series, the irresistibly titled Space Detectives: Extra Weird Creatures (after a horde of Tufted Grotsnoblers, one wonders how much weirder these creatures could be).
Patrice Lawrence, pub. Oxford Children’s Books
Rat is a story about a young boy, Al, and his friendship with his two pet rats - Venom and Vulture. After he's caught inadvertently shoplifting, and his mother arrested and sent back to prison, Al spends much of the novel seeking revenge on the passer-by and neighbour, Mr Brayker, who alerted the security guard. As Al struggles with his schoolwork, and his only friends are his pet rats, he becomes preoccupied with more elaborate and dangerous methods of revenge, which don’t all go according to plan.
Al often struggles to contain his anger, with vivid imagery of it taking the form of bubbles: 'It's not just small bubbles inside my head now, but a giant bubble and I'm trapped inside it.' Apart from his anger, Al initially appears to be a rather emotionless character - his lack of joy due to his mother often being in prison, and also having to frequently move home due to poverty.
However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that he links his feelings to things like food. On the topic of roast dinners, Al moans that his Gran used to make them, but: 'I was always being told about my manners, so they stopped tasting good.' His bittersweet memories add a poignant tone to the novel, and we begin to sympathise with his plight.
Rat feels like it’s aimed at children, and is a novel about friendships, family hardships, and bottled-up emotions. It’s written as a first-person narrative from Al's point of view, and deals with many emotions and morals, with a surprise ending.
At the back of the book, there is a section dedicated to the background of the novel, with a word list and a quiz. Therefore, not only is Rat an interesting story about coping with different emotions while growing up, but it's also a book that invites the reader to be retrospective about their own feelings, and how they would cope with life's problems.
Chris J Kenworthy
Christopher Edge, illus. Ben Mantle, pub. Chicken House
Calling all geeks, this is the book for you! This tale is crammed with spaceships, aliens, interplanetary adventure, and a few Daleks thrown in for good measure.
This story tells the tale of Jake, a young boy who is unable to stop cringing at his super embarrassing dad. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there with Jake, we can empathise.
We begin at a school show where, no surprise, Jake’s Dad embarrasses him like never before. But, despite the odds against him, Jakes Dad is set on righting his wrongs. So, in an attempt to secure his place in the dad hall of fame, or at the very least win his son over just a little bit, Jake’s dad drags him to ‘The Getaway Experience’. The pair quickly find themselves camping, running after marshmallows and zorbing into the night. That is until Jake experiences a rather strange allergic reaction to some broccoli soup and his whole world is turned upside down. Basically, what ensues is, frankly, one of the most exciting camping trips you’ll ever have been on.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and, while it’s been a good few years since I was as young as Jake, I really empathised with the central character. Jake grew throughout the book, but not in such a sickly, sweet way as to make you feel like you’re back at school being taught a lesson. Through spending time with his dad Jake was able to learn more about him, find out some cool things about him, yet still feel a bit embarrassed by him. Let’s face it we’ll always be a little embarrassed by our parents.
As the name would suggest this book isn’t all space monsters and planet-hopping, it is an ode to the late, great, David Bowie. Released the day before Bowie’s birthday this book centres around one of his classic hits, Space Oddity, a song which is more powerful than we can ever have known. Wondering how this vintage ear worm links into this story of space, aliens and adventure? Then head to your nearest bookshop and pick up a copy, you won’t be disappointed.
Rosie Cammish Jones
Jon Mayhew, illus. Robin Boyden, pub. UCLan Publishing
The Spybrarian is one of those jolly romps where a child gets a superpower which he/she uses to save the world. The clever twist in this book, as you might deduce from the title, is that the superpower is to do with libraries and reading.
There is lots of word play to do with books in the story. Taking, for example, the names - the hero is called Kian Reader. One of the top librarians, the head of SLS, the Secret Library Service, is named Paige Turner. Her sidekick is called Carrel Filler. (I think carrels are those little cubicles in university libraries: perhaps a little obscure, this one!) The baddies are headed up the mysterious Carnegie, with the helpfully named Dr Badd as their chief agent. They belong to an organisation called F.A.R.T., the Fellowship Against Reading Texts.
The setup is that Kian hates reading, but accidentally imbibes a magic serum which gives him his superpower – the ability to absorb and text just by looking at or touching a book. Dr Badd is determined to use him in his battle against the SLS, but with the help of his friends, Prissy and Asif, Kian is determined to resist, and in the process, begins to see the value of books. Be assured though, this aspect of the story is handled with a very light touch – it’s not remotely preachy.
I think that’s enough to give you an idea as to the kind of book this is. It’s funny, witty, fast-paced, and – well, fun. I’m sure lots of children will love it, and chuckle happily over the many jokes.
Sue Purkiss’s latest book, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, is an adventure story set in the Himalayas.
Two Terrible Vikings
Francesca Simon, illus. Steve May, pub. Faber Books
Evidently Francesca Simon enjoys writing about naughty children! This book is on the same level as the Horrid Henry Early Reader series, and the story follows on from a picture book, also published by Faber, about Hack and her brother, Whack, as toddlers, published with illustrations by Charlotte Cotterill.
Steve May gives the children similarly anarchic expressions and grins, and also retains the anachronistic horned helmets, which we are now assured were a German idea in the mid-19th century. Still, they are recognisably Vikings, and, in the three stories here, the reader will learn about longhouses, shields and weapons along the way, as well as the constant need for gathering food and firewood.
Hack and Whack, like most children, dislike doing chores, and dodge them whenever possible, but more chores are always a possibility because of their bad behaviour, which is well known around the village. Their chant is 'Hack and Whack - on the attack.' They find that they are the only children not invited to Elsa Gold-Hair’s birthday party, (Elsa being the good child, equivalent to Perfect Peter and equally irritating to naughty children) and gate-crash it anyway, with predictable results.
In the second story, they decide to track a troll, with their wolf, Bitey-Bitey, their friend Twisty-Pants, who untruthfully claims to have lots of experience of adventuring, and Dirty Ulf, who never wants to have her hair combed. The large footprints they follow turn out to have an innocent explanation, but they scare each other and themselves in a most entertaining way.
The third story sees them attempting to raid Bad Island, with the same gang of friends and, accidentally, Elsa Gold-Hair, but they row round in a circle and are discovered attempting to raid their own longhouse.
The stories are simple, with girls and boys treated exactly the same, the illustrations are fun, and the text is very clear, in a font called Sweater School, which is designed for supporting reading. This collection of stories will certainly go down well with young readers.
Vega Jane and The Secrets of Sorcery
David Baldacci, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books
The first book of three in a new series previously published as The Finisher, Book of the Year in 2014. This edition has been re-edited and re-illustrated for slightly younger children from age 10 upwards. If your potential reader likes magic, fantasy, adventure and terrifying beasts they’ll like this. A reluctant reader with a penchant for the thrilling will be in their element. The compelling storyline will do the rest, and bingo, book read. Along the way the vocabulary and style are to a beneficial standard too.
Vega Jane is given a map that reveals a mysterious world of dangerous creatures on the outskirts of Wormwood, their world. This makes her question what is beyond Wormwood’s borders, why no-one wishes to leave and how they got there in the first place. Secrets and lies appear to lock them in.
This 14-year-old girl is both tenacious and enigmatic with a strong sense of duty. Qualities that her opponents can find confusing should she wish them to. Her personal code of ethics is impressive. Moral snippets abound. Making for a refreshing read despite the intermittent violent goings on. The Wugs of Wormwood live in a challenging world intermingled with fantastical events.
A brilliant fallback as a break from home learning perhaps for both pupil and teacher! A phantasmagorical journey into a strange land that will achieve that essential break from the possible trials of post Covid life for a young person. Positive messages, well developed characters and role models in an action-packed story compel you to turn the pages right to the very end. Don’t give up, battle on to the end ... echoes throughout. Leaving you waiting for Book 2. Even that reluctant reader!
Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything
Sam Copeland, illus. Sarah Horne, pub. Puffin Books
Here is the latest humorous novel by the best-selling author of Charlie Changes into a Chicken. While Charlie was dealing with anxiety, Uma is now dealing with bereavement.
The loss of her mother has pushed Uma’s father into a silence that has been dominating their lives, and Uma strives to find ways to get her dad back. At first, I hoped that the author had picked a more original trigger to the story, as the dead parent motif is quite a common setting. But Uma’s emotional world is touching and endearing, and in my opinion bears the best moments of the novel.
Sam Copeland’s playful writing style can treat heavy matters with a charming lightness. He is well known for his comicality. Children reading this story will certainly laugh with the characters, and at the characters. The very attractive black and white illustrations in each chapter also add a welcome funny twist to the episodes. In fact, I believe the author’s voice can be found at its best when it moves away from itself, without forcing the characters’ reactions, and merges with the plot. This is when his playful style emerges as most natural.
As a result, we partake of a heartfelt relationship between Uma, her best friend Alan Alan, and Athena, an artificial intelligence device lost by the evil Stella Dawn. The author invents a convincing character even for Athena who ends up reflecting Uma’s deepest desires of reconciliation with her dad, allowing for her feelings to surface and therefore to be dealt with. It is indeed a clever idea that leads the story. I thoroughly enjoyed being absorbed by such well-crafted characters, while reflecting on the role of technology in our lives. I suspect we will meet Uma again soon in another adventure.
The Valley of Lost Secrets
Lesley Parr, illus. David Dean, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books
I enjoy reading about the wartime period and wasn’t disappointed in Lesley Parr’s debut novel.
Jimmy and his brother, Ronnie are evacuated from Islington, London along with their teacher and fellow classmates to a village in the Welsh Valley’s. The story is quite fast-moving and gives the reader an indication of how differently the children felt being away from their homes and families. For some it is a blessing and brings out their true personalities, for others they miss it all terribly and are very homesick.
In this story, Jimmy is finding it hard to fit in as well as keeping a close eye on Ronnie at the same time. Ronnie sees it all as an adventure. Some locals are not always convinced the evacuees are genuine and make life uncomfortable for them. However, it appears that it isn’t just the evacuees that are made to feel like this. History has a funny way of blaming people and Jimmy, along with a friend he never considered, set out to unravel a mystery that has haunted someone for many years.
The book is full of emotion and the reader is drawn into the residents’ lives in this small Welsh village. One can easily take sides as bullying is a theme in the story, not only involving the children. It’s written in a way that is easy to read yet that doesn’t detract from the storyline. It is easy to follow and understand the theme of bravery and how even the most unlikely people can form friendships with unsaid understanding. It also defines courage and family values and how important it is to look after other.
The cover illustration is attractive and engaging and immediately indicates what the story will be about, showing children carrying their gas masks. That, along with the story, transports the reader to the Welsh Valley’s and into the wartime period. I really enjoyed reading this and was eager to find out what would happen in the end and whether the mystery is solved.
Definitely an author to look out for in the future.
This Wonderful Thing
Adam Baron, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
Cymbeline's world is turned upside down in the course of a few hours. His dad forgets to pick him up for a trip to Barcelona, his house gets burgled, and Stephen and his daughters move in, followed shortly by his Dad. This full house is bursting at the seams and all are reeling from the mess left behind by the burglars. It is not yet clear what they were after.
In a dual narrative, we meet sisters Jessica and Milly. Out on a family walk, the girls discover a yucky teddy bear stuck in a river and though he is dirty, they immediately fight over him and take him home. Cleaning him up, they continue to argue over him.
Cymbeline has lived with just his mum for so long that he struggles with this new family arrangement. Jess and Milly's lives are currently being thrown upside down with the knowledge of their fathers' illness and the need to sell their home.
There are links between Cymbeline and the sisters that are not entirely obvious in the beginning but as this incredible story continues the clues fall together and the children meet, things all fall into place, and just in time.
It was wonderful being back with Cymbeline and discovering more about Not Mr Fluffy. The stories are so brilliantly intertwined and I had that magical eureka moment when it all fell into place. The teddy bear bringing them all together is so heartwarming and special.
I read this in one sitting, finding the dual narrative riveting and engaging, helping me to piece together the mystery. Full of family angst and heartache, there is also a balance with hope, friendship and right coming out on top of wrong. The characters are so real, down to the sister's arguments, the realisation of what parents go through as well as learning to come together as a new family.
This is the perfect third book in this series featuring the brilliantly named Cymbeline Igloo.