Junior Book Reviews
Alastair Chisholm, pub. Nosy Crow
Today was different. After two hundred and forty-three years, eight months and six days, different is good. Although Adam’s days may have been exactly the same for all this time, the world has changed.
Adam is confused. The maps and pictures stored in his memory are of an Edinburgh, much like today, full of intact buildings, gardens and trees, bustling with people, with Castle Rock towering above. The city he walks through is desolate with blackened out shells of buildings, populated by birds and animals and over-grown. Humans and funks are at war. A war of annihilation. Unbeknown to either side, one they are both close to winning.
The three main characters, in order of introduction, Adam, Runa and Linden, have a complex relationship. Adam, technically Adam-2, is a humanoid robot of a by-gone era with an extraordinary capacity to think for himself. Runa, an orphan, is partly-mechanized and, in a human society fearful of machines, further outcast. Linden is non-binary, something matter-of-factly introduced early in the book, his mother was killed by the funks and he wants all funks destroyed. It is perhaps the characters of Adam-2 and Linden that reflect most intensely on what it means to be human. For Adam, human behaviour often causes problems as he tries desperately to adhere to inconsistent, contradictory information. Meanwhile Linden’s deep-seated resentment, prejudice even, seems impossible to shake. If Adam is too naïve and trusting, Linden does not trust at all.
The funks or functional consciousness are robots. Little more than mechanical slaves, they were reprogrammed to fight, to kill their human creators. Their limited programming has meant humans have survived, lacking the ingenuity and creativity to change tactics and adapt as the fighting continues. Adam is the key to both sides winning. On the human side, Adam has the skills needed to repair obsolete technology that can be rearmed and reused. On the funks’ side, Adam can problem-solve and overcome the barriers allowing them to access top-secret information. Adam unwittingly is the destruction of them all…except him.
Adam-2’s messianic name, title of this brilliant science-fiction novel is tantalizing. Will he save the world?
The Beatryce Prophecy
Kate DiCamillo, illus. Sophie Blackwell, pub. Walker Books
The Beatryce Prophecy is a glorious ‘folktale’ style novel set in the Medieval era. The partnership between Kate DiCamillo (who was twice winner of the Newbury Medal) and Sophie Blackwell (who was twice winner of the Caldecott Medal) is a perfect combination. The intricate black and white ink illustrations compliment and highlight the lyrical writing in a magical, atmospheric way that keeps the readers turning the pages. Each chapter begins with an enlarged, decorative, inhabited initial letter, giving the book a historical, illuminated manuscript feel.
At the heart of the novel is Beatryce, found by Brother Edik in the barn at the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. He’s shocked to discover her curled up next to Answelica, the ferocious goat, clutching the goat’s ear as a comforter. The monks are afraid of Answelica, comparing her to a demon, she bites and has a nasty habit of butting them in the backside. The only thing Beatryce remembers is her name. When Brother Edik finds out she can read and write he fears for her safety. He shaves her head and disguises her as a young monk. Answelica is her constant companion and protector.
Kate DiCamillo expertly creates her characters with vivid evocative details - Brother Edik’s wandering eye that dances around in its socket and Answelica’s sharp teeth and hard uncompromising head. I particularly like the way Kate DiCamillo does not name the antagonists. Throughout the story they are nameless shadows who are hunting Beatryce because of a prophecy.
The monks are the creators and keepers of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. They record what has happened and has not yet happened. A prophecy was foreseen by Brother Edik and has been previously ignored, it states a girl child will come who will unseat a king. This king has been manipulated by an evil counsellor. Beatryce embraces the prophecy and heads off to confront the king, find her mother. She is with a misfit group of characters including Answelica the goat, 12-year-old Jack Dory, a bee, Brother Edik and Cannoc an old, bearded vagabond who lives inside a tree and claims he used to be king.
The book encompasses themes of love, courage and determination, ideal for KS2 book corners and libraries.
Reviewer’s Website: www.anitaloughrey.com
The Book Cat
Polly Faber, illus. Clara Vulliamy, pub. Faber & Faber
Morgan is a young orphan cat who has to scrap and scavenge to survive on the streets of London before his luck changes and he finds his way to a new life via the chimney of the Faber and Faber publishing building! What a fantastic co-incidence that they are the publishers of this beautiful book written by the talented Polly Faber and illustrated by the equally talented Clara Vulliamy.
The Book Cat is a beautiful wartime story that involves a real cat who decided to make his home in the Faber publishing offices. Other cats are attracted to Morgan as he becomes quite the famous cat of Russell Square, the home of the publisher and now Morgan. The cats all come to Morgan’s new home to eat, rest, share stories and party together – forgetting about the awful war that disturbs the streets of London. Morgan then takes it upon himself to help other cats in the area find their own homes with various authors and publishers.
The illustrations in this book are absolutely wonderful, with each of the delightful cats enjoying themselves in various situations. They are shown to us on each double spread, keeping the story lively for younger readers, and Clara has used a limited palette of certain colours so that the dark colours contrast with the bolder pinks and reds to really stand out.
The Book Cat is a gorgeous read which lends itself to a range of readers of different abilities. If you love animals - and in particular cats – then this book will be right up your street!
Curse of the Dearmad
Emma Mylrea, illus. Hannah Jesse, pub. Tiny Tree Children's Books
Curse of the Dearmad is a story about friendships, family issues, character building and 'gillies' - humans who, like fish, have gills which makes them amphibious. Throughout the novel, we follow the adventures of Nell, her brother Percy, and Connor.
Nell is a strong and fearless young girl, who would do anything to protect those closest to her. Although she's slightly jealous of Percy for being the 'gifted one,' she shows the strength of character to accept it rather than let it affect their family ties. Connor is a brave young boy, and despite Nell disliking him, she does everything she can to save him - an important lesson to younger readers in the acts of kindness and humility. Percy, on the other hand, does not possess any humility. As he's the 'gifted one,' he looks down on others and believes they are weak. At the start of the story, he never fully appreciates his sister's bravery with her special gift, nor Connor's strength or courage. However, each of the three protagonists develop in their own ways throughout the story, making this book great for learning the art of character building.
Curse of the Dearmad has an interesting storyline, with mystical elements about a cave, an island and the surrounding water. There's a map of the area, a dictionary entry showing the definition of 'gilly,' and a labelled diagram of the skeletal structure of gillies. These help the reader to visualise the scene and understand what 'gillies' are and what they look like. Each chapter has a playful subtitle and a small illustration of the scene, which helps the reader to visualise the characters and the changing scenery of the narrative.
The story contains scenes of family issues, which personify the characters and make them more three dimensional - as though they are real people, not fictional characters. The book is captivating, moralistic and educational, and will appeal to young explorers and inquisitive readers.
Chris J Kenworthy
Diary of an Accidental Witch
Perdita and Honor Cargill, illus. Katie Saunders, pub. Little Tiger
Fans of The Worst Witch will enjoy this magical adventure. Bea and her scientist Dad have just moved to Little Spellshire, as Dad is writing a book about is famously freaky microclimate. There are a couple of clues there that this is no ordinary town, and the shops are special too - Mr. Riggle’s Emporium sells all sorts of odd things, like fresh cuckoo spit… It’s big enough to have two schools, The Academy, where Bea’s next-door new friend Ash goes, and ‘the other school’, the School of Extraordinary Arts, which is in the forest and, of course, as absent-minded Dad makes a mess of registering Bea, that is the one she goes to. She is furious, and wants this changed, but that will take time, naturally.
The story is told in the form of a diary, and it’s very funny, as Bea’s career at the school is full of mishaps, not always her fault, and her efforts to fit in, usually involving trying to do magic, just cause more chaos. Using her wand to do levitation is particularly challenging! Once she masters riding on a broomstick, though, she turns out to be very good at the sport of Go, and gradually gets involved in school activities, especially in planning for the Hallowe’en party. That turns out to be ‘the best party ever’, with Bea having fun with her new friends and finally managing to use her magic wand to avert a crisis. She is still buzzing when Dad tells her that she has been accepted at The Academy, but the reader will have guessed by now that this is no longer what she wants, and, at the end of the book, she is looking forward to writing new hopes and plans into her next diary.
Katie Saunders’ cartoon illustrations on most of the pages are perfectly suited to the mayhem in the story, and the diary format means that the text, in something like Comic Sans, with a round ‘a’, is broken up into very manageable chunks - this will be fun for readers of about 8-11.
Leo’s Map of Monsters: The Frightmare
Kris Humphrey, illus. Pete Williamson, pub. Oxford University Press
As the Guardian’s apprentice, Leo Wilder must protect his village from the monsters that lurk in the surrounding forest. His job is secret, but that secret has come under threat. To protect his world, Leo must use his Slingshot, Magical Stones and Monster Map - oh and his monster friend Starla, to battle it out with the deadly Frightmare, a powerful Monster that haunts the abandoned ruins, breathing ghostly blue fire at any intruder. With only two stones and with so much at stake this surely will be Leo's most dangerous monster mission so far.
This book is awesome, it is an action packed, adventure filled, fantastical book. The story itself starts off with a normal day in the life of Leo, the Guardian’s apprentice and spins off into a whole world of thrills and excitement. This book is great if you struggle to sit down for long periods of time or are reading a long book and need a bit of a break, since this book is fast paced, action packed and full of brilliant illustrations from Pete Williamson.
The age rating for this book, in my opinion is about 7 plus, as it is a bit spooky at points and features some vocabulary that may be slightly advanced but to be honest, I wouldn't be surprised to see a six-year-old reading this thrilling story. The authors skills at ‘fantasy world’ building are credible and the way he makes it accessible for those who haven't read the first two is great.
So, to conclude, this book is a spectacular quick read with cool illustrations. So do yourself a favour and read it.
Archie, Age 10
Yassmin Abdel-Magied, pub. Puffin
Listen, Layla is the sequel to You must be Layla although if you’ve never encountered Layla before it’s not an issue as this book stands perfectly well on its own.
Irrepressible and passionate Sudanese-Australian Layla is a wannabe inventor who is part of a design team at school. The team are about to enter the Grand Designs Tourismo and there is a lot to be done to ensure they have an award-winning invention ready on time. However, things don’t go to plan when Layla’s life is thrown into turmoil with the news that her grandmother is sick in Sudan and the family must fly out straight away. Layla is suddenly torn between family and her dreams, and for a young teenage girl who is still under the guidance of her family she has little say in what happens next.
The story follows Layla not only on her trip to Sudan but on a voyage of discovery as she begins to question her identity and where she belongs. Is she Australian? Or Sudanese? How and where does she fit in and why will no-one let her just do what she wants? A flawed character, Layla exhibits the sometimes arrogant and selfish nature of young teens who sometimes forget that their actions have an impact on others. In this book Yassmin Abdel-Magied has managed to create a believable teenage girl who still has a lot to learn in life and I found myself torn as I read through some of the interactions between Layla and her family, remembering only too well that teenage frustration that Layla exhibits so perfectly, whilst feeling myself empathise with her parents as a parent to teenagers myself.
Set around the time of the Sudanese revolution (2018 -2019), the book covers many themes such as racism, stereotypes and human rights and is perfect for teens who are just exploring the world beyond their own bubble.
The only downside for me was that it initially took me a little while to get into due to the many acronyms and Arabic words (for which there is a very handy glossary at the back of the book). However, this really helped set the tone of the book and I was soon gripped by Layla’s dramas. Overall a gripping read and one which doesn’t shy away from real issues and real characters.
Locked Out Lily
Nick Lake, illus. Emily Gravett, pub. Simon & Schuster
When Lily is diagnosed with a debilitating illness which requires constant hospital treatment her world is shattered, even more so when her parents announce the imminent arrival of a new baby. Angry and resentful, Lily pushes away those who love her most leaving her frightened and alone.
When the baby arrives, Lily is sent to stay with her grandmother but is determined to return to her own home so runs away. It is here she embarks on a frightening adventure where she encounters strange beings who have invaded her house and are pretending to be her parents.
Locked out Lily is a powerful story exploring what happens when we allow our fears and insecurities to take control of us instead of confronting what worries us. Lily allows her illness to redefine who she is, and it is only through the support and guidance of an unlikely group of friends that she finds the courage to confront both her sickness and her fear of rejection by her family.
Nick Lake writes a magical tale with superb twists to keep young readers gripped, however, possibly the most engaging narrative thread is the friendship that develops between the unlikely group of comrades. They not only help her conquer the invaders but most importantly her own demons. There is mighty Mouse with his armoury of weapons, Mole who does not need to see to be insightful as well as know-it-all Crow and slippery Snake.
Emily Gravett’s wonderful illustrations defy the age-old-saying that a book should not be judged by its cover. The eye-catching sleeve is hauntingly beautiful and immediately draws the reader not only into the pages but also into the mystery of the key which can unlock Lily’s future.
Lake’s modern classic intertwines beautiful imagery, excitement and humour but most importantly this is powerful reminder that none of us can face our adversaries alone.
Nell and the Cave Bear
Martin Brown, pub. Piccadilly Press
Nell and the Cave Bear is an enchanting new adventure for fans of illustrated fiction. Perfect for younger readers enjoying their first foray into chapter books, or for older readers wanting a prehistoric adventure.
Prepare for friendship and fun as you embark on a journey with Nell in the aim to protect her cave bear. Nell has a pet cave bear and her pet cave bear is her port in the storm of life – he is the one who keeps her comforted in the absence of her parents. When Nell’s tribe hear that another tribe is planning to visit, they realise that they need a gift for them. Overhearing the grown-ups' plans to gift her Cave Bear, Nell makes the bold decision to run away.
Set in prehistoric times, Nell must find the courage to face the hardships of a journey in a big and unknown wider world with its own tough hardships awaiting and with just her cave bear for company. At times the story is funny but this is mixed with often poignant moments of friendship making this a beautiful book, a book to read, to absorb, to feel at one with. The journey that Nell and her Cave Bear take will have them following a stream from their cave through the wilderness where they will face giant mammoths, hunters and hunger. Together they can face anything! An uplifting and positive tale.
A story that has been simply told but with wonderful illustrations, I can see this being very popular with children of all ages.
Polly Pecorino: The Girl Who Rescues Animals
Emma Chichester Clarke, pub. Walker Books
Are you brave enough to go down to the Wild Bear Woods? Polly doesn’t know if she is, but we are about to, with her find out … Why is Polly not sure? Because she lives in the town, a town enclosed in tall walls, walls that circle the town entirely. Outside the walls live the bears, big ferocious bears.
Inside the town there is a run-down zoo, Polly’s uncle works there and Polly helps him out. As we are about to learn, Polly has an amazing talent, she can talk to animals. Therefore, Polly works with her uncle in the zoo and it is an arrangement that works well especially when and if the animals are ill. If this happens then they are able to tell Polly and Polly, in turn, can tell her uncle. Unfortunately for the animals, Polly and her uncle the zoo is owned by Mr and Mrs Snell. They are a devious couple who do not love the animals but will do anything for money.
Mr and Mrs Snell decide that to make more money they need a baby bear, so they steal one. Polly must find courage, call on all her bravery to defeat the Snells, and to return Booboo to his parents. This means finding enough courage to go out of the city and into the woods beyond.
Polly is a wonderful character, showing humans at their best, and demonstrating to the reader that doing the right thing is always best, even if at times it can be scary. This story stayed with me because it shows us the world from the perspective of its animals, we glance into their world. It is a heart-warming book, a charming story, perfect for younger independent readers.
Rules for Vampires: Get Spooked this Halloween!
Alex Foulkes, illus. Sara Ogilvie, pub. Simon & Schuster
Leo (short for Eleonore) is a vampire. A very young vampire; she’s only a hundred and eleven years old, having been turned, and then adopted, by the Great and Terrible Sieglinde von Motteberg a century earlier at the age of eleven. Now it’s time for her first Hunt, and it’s very important that nothing goes wrong.
Something, of course, goes wrong. Before Leo can snack on Minna, the orphan who is her intended prey, she is interrupted by the evil Orphanmaster. During the fight that follows a fire breaks out, and Leo barely escapes. Minna, it later transpires, does not. She returns as a ghost, which is problematic for Leo, since ghosts and vampires are mortal enemies. Worse still, her ghostly senses tell her that the Orphanmaster, too, is returning with evil intent. The two girls must join together in uneasy alliance to defeat him before he comes into his full unearthly power and makes things rather unpleasant for everybody.
Alex Foulkes has great fun with the central concept of Rules for Vampires, playing with established fictional motifs and adding ideas of her own to create an entertaining cast of characters. The twist regarding Leo’s older sister is both funny and clever, while her parents are an unlikely but successful match - mother, an evil vampire overlord (or, er, overlady?); father, an affectionate, absent-minded vampire scientist.
The heart of the book, though, is the growing friendship between Leo and Minna, the two very likeable supernatural protagonists, and their quest to foil the villain of the piece.
There are a few questions that remain unanswered, in whole or in part - why, for instance, is the family’s butler a sentient, female, empty suit of armour? But there are sequels on the way in which to address both those and the only lightly touched-upon conflict between Leo’s conscience and her vampire nature. In the meantime, Rules for Vampires is a fun and at times exciting read, perfect for someone who is developing an interest in horror but is too young to be actually horrified.
John Dougherty’s Mark & Shark: Detecting & Stuff is published by Oxford University Press Children’s Books.
Tabitha Plimtock and the Edge of the World
Erika McGann, illus. Phillip Cullen, pub. O’Brien Press
We all know the world is round and has no edge, don’t we? But perhaps we just didn’t know where to look. Circle the globe enough times and you will find the house of the Plimtock family, teetering on the brink of an enormous cliff face at the very edge of the world. Our resilient heroine, Tabitha, lives with a family of Dahlesque grotesques. Meet foul Aunt Bertha, of unknown but enormous age, thinks every day is her birthday and spends her time festering on her stinking beanbag demanding birthday cake. Cousin Wilbur turns into a different (but equally bad tempered) animal each time the wind changes and Gower and Gristle are no better. Poor Tabitha, the family go-getter (the one who goes and gets things…) must scale the cliff face to gather food and supplies for her ungrateful family.
On her journeys down the cliff face Tabitha finds warmth and friendship with the eccentric characters who live in the wall pockets. Her absolute favourite is Mr Cratchley, who lives below the sunline in a cave of wonders, the most treasured is a jar full of glimmers of lost love blown in on the wind. However, the equilibrium of life at the edge of the world is under threat as rumours abound that the ‘whatever-they-ares’ lurking at the bottom of the cliff are beginning to climb upwards. Tabitha and the indominable Dr Sherback must find a way to restore harmony.
McGann creates a richly imaginative world which becomes increasingly strange and wonderous the further you descend below the sunline. This world is brought vividly to life in the illustrations, with the fantastical creatures being a particular delight. We share Tabitha’s awe as she explores the base of the wall, and she remains curious and inquisitive even about the terrifying parts! This love and respect for nature combined with her determination to restore the balance of her environment conveys a gentle environmental message.
There is something of Cressida Cowell in the fizz and wit of the narrative voice guiding us through the story. I loved the inventive playing with language, particularly in the spectacular insults that the characters hurl at each other such as ‘malodorous pimple’ or ‘floundering glutfish’. The wry asides and humourous digressions keep the tone bright and sprightly throughout.
The Week at World’s End
Emma Carroll, pub. Faber & Faber
Did you know that if we learn something in the context of a story it is 75% more likely to stay in our memory? Ok, that statistic is mainly for rhetorical effect but the principle holds: knowledge is a tricky beast – but wrestle it into a narrative and you’ll significantly reduce the chance of it slithering mischievously out of your brain. Thus, as a result of reading The Week at World’s End I not only spent an enjoyable few days second guessing the ending (and I admit I really didn’t see it coming) but I can also consider myself to have a solid pub quiz winning level of newfound knowledge about a nail biting time in modern history.
The central plot of The Week at World’s End focuses on the main character Stevie Fisher, and her best friend, Ray. Both are outsiders at school – with seemingly little else to define them. However, the mysterious appearance of a girl, Anna, in Stevie’s coal shed brings not only intrigue, but purpose, to their lives as they try to save her. Carroll places this story in the historical context of the Cuban Missile crisis – during the week in 1962 when the world’s fate – like Anna’s – hung in the balance. This is no arbitrary pairing: as the tension mounts in Stevie and Rays’ lives, so to do the tensions on the world stage. A central lesson of the book – which is to stand up for what you believe is right – applies equally to Stevie’s choices in helping her friend Anna, her determination to stand against nuclear weapons and perhaps also the politicians who did, ultimately, put ego to one side and choose dialogue over bombastic posturing.
You can read this book and enjoy the dual mounting tensions and climactic ending. You can also enrich your knowledge of modern history (and retain it to impress your friends at a later date). However - ultimately - this book shows its readers how strong convictions, words and people can make a difference – in our own relationships and in changing the course of history.
The Wild Before
Piers Torday, pub. Quercus Children’s Books
On a stormy, snowy night the silver calf is born on a farm under a full moon. According to a dream passed down from animal to animal, if the calf dies, terrible things will happen. These terrible events include rising seas, a plague and fire. Little Hare is determined that none of these events will be allowed to happen. Keeping Mooncalf safe however proves to be a difficult task and Little Hare needs the help of all the other creatures.
This is a delightful and charming story where all the main characters are animals. There is also a main theme throughout, about climate change and saving our planet. There is a brave hare and a world in trouble. One hare alone cannot save our world, so this is a story about hope and friendship. Little Hare is fighting against all the odds and against time. Can he do it?
The story sets alarm bells ringing and will make children think about the impact that humans are having on our planet. Little Hare sees how the land is changing and how time is running out. It is a simple story and young readers will understand and relate to the messages and themes. They will already be aware of the climate crisis and can learn that working together will make a difference and there are good as well as bad people in the world.
This book is not all doom and gloom. There are some lovely, light hearted moments within the serious messages. There is a singing field mouse and following the animals is a lot of fun. There is some wonderful descriptive writing and lots of humour. This is a magical story about a lovely little hare determined to save the world. Friendship is important throughout the story and there is hope.
The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud
John Hearne, pub. Little Island Books
The story is set in a rather dreary city called Blunt, whose chief industry is the manufacture of plastic Christmas trees. Indigo McCloud lives there with his father and his four truly horrible sisters – the worst of whom is the eldest, Peaches. Peaches is sweet and pretty: she charms all the grownups, but terrifies the children as, under the charming exterior, she’s a sadistic bully and extortioner. Her fellow sisters are almost as bad and together they form a group of bullies who will stop at nothing to get their own way. However whilst Indigo’s other sisters may be awful, they pall into insignificance beside Peaches.
Indigo is terrified of Peaches, but he is determined to resist her, with the help of his friend Polly, who never leaves her bedroom but is a complete whizz at mathematics and IT. Indigo does live a life of some adventure however and the reader will be thrilled as they are taken with him, leaping across the rooftops of the town of Blunt, trying to keep himself one step ahead of their wicked plans and schemes. There are hungry geese, an avalanche of toilets and even curry to contend with too! When Idigo becomes a threat to her plans Peaches gets him confined to a cruel bootcamp. But in the end, she meets her worst nightmare, and the quietly determined Indigo triumphs, and saves the children of Blunt from his vicious sisters.
It’s a dark tale, in which some graphically unpleasant things happen to good people as well as bad. It’s anarchic, wildly inventive, and in places very funny. Handle with care!