Junior Book Reviews
The Amazing Tale of Ali Pasha
Michael Foreman, pub. Templar Books
Ali Pasha is a survivor with a fantastic tale! Travelling all the way from Gallipoli back to Britain during World War I, Ali Pasha became a national treasure. The Amazing Tale of Ali Pasha recounts the journey that Ali Pasha went on with his lifelong companion, Henry Friston.
This beautiful wartime story involves a real tortoise who was picked up by Henry Friston, a 21-year-old sailor, during the battle of Gallipoli. During the hardest days of his wartime experience, Henry came across Ali Pasha on the beach during a heavy attack and became very fond of his new friend. Once the pair were able to, they made it back to HMS Implacable where they continued their service until the end of the First World War. Once back in Britain, Henry took Ali home to live with him and he soon became a local, and later, national superstar who made headlines all over the world for his incredible story.
The way that the story is told is brilliant. With discussion between Henry and young Trev, the office boy turned young reporter for local paper, The Lowestoft Journal, carrying the majority of the story. The two develop a bond after Trev is asked to report on the emergence of Ali Pasha after his hibernation. Henry recounts his experience of the War and Trev listens intently, noting down the details for the story and asking great questions along the way. Henry also shows Trev his diary and the book integrates these entries into the tale.
The Amazing Tale of Ali Pasha is an enjoyable wartime story which is as much a tale of friendship as it is of history. Michael Foreman cleverly tells the story in an engaging way which is pacy and keeps you connected to the characters throughout. A lovely, heart-warming read!
Best Friends Forever
Lisa Williamson, illus. Jess Bradley, pub. Guppy Books
Best Friends Forever is a book about moving up to middle school and dealing with making friends. The main character is Lola, a girl who has just started secondary school with her best friend Evie. However, when Lola and Evie get put in different classes, Evie starts hanging around with a girl called Cleo. At first, Lola doesn’t really mind Evie having a new friend – as long as they can still stay best friends – but she soon learns that Cleo is selfish and loves to make fun of Lola. She and Evie met as babies and have been best friends ever since, and the thought of Evie being stolen away makes Lola feel anxious and upset. Lola also has to deal with her mum and dad’s divorce and moving away from the house that she was born in (literally).
The style of writing and illustrations are similar to those of Jacqueline Wilson, so readers who enjoy her books are bound to enjoy this. The illustrations are cute and funny, and the words are easy to understand without being too simple, so readers of all ages can enjoy the story. It is perfect for anyone who has just or will soon transition to middle school. The characters, especially emotional Lola and joyful Evie are very relatable characters that everyone will identify with a little bit.
Each chapter unveils a new situation, location, or character, each one unique and nostalgic. My favourite part of this book was the accurate descriptions of middle school, the classes, friendships, and clubs. Overall, this book is extremely relatable, funny, and entertaining. I would recommend this book for ages ten and above.
Mya Grant (age 11)
Casander Darkbloom and the Threads of Power
P. A. Staff, pub. Walker Books
Every day of his young life Casander has woken up without memories. Drawn by the Curious Mrs Crane’s Shop of Even Curiouser Curiosities, where an astonishing collection is displayed. One day he is invited to enter the shop. And, to Casander’s own astonishment, he breathes life into a stuffed raven. In the chaos that engulfs the shop after that revelation, Casander is dragged away by the shop assistant and led into a parallel world. Here, magic rules and its skills are learnt at Wayward School, where Casander is identified as the Foretold, the child whose destiny is to fight the Master of All and his army of Heretics.
Casander, believing himself to have finally found the place to which he belongs, embraces the fight, surrounded by a brave group of friends. Rather than answering Casander’s many questions, though, the quest unravels further mysteries and finally provides an unexpected denouement which leads to further adventures.
It is difficult to read a book about a group of friends attending a school to be trained in magic arts without thinking of the Harry Potter saga. While there are some nods to that story, the tale of Casander maintains its own character. The author is keen for her work to be inclusive, and her characters not only celebrate differences: they become their strengths. The description of the settings is skilled and imaginative, and the dialogues are used well to reveal aspects of the characters and to move the story forward. Librarians will love the depiction of the library and its intrepid guardian, Ms Crane. This is a highly readable book, whose final twist opens to further adventures, which readers will want to explore.
Annet Schaap, trans. Laura Watkinson, pub. Pushkin Children’s
What a wonderful collection of familiar stories twisted and spun into something new and a little bit more modern that some might be used to. While the titles have been changed, to reflect the retelling, the stories are inherently familiar from Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast and not forgetting The Frog Prince. This is a classically modern collection of stories giving girls the power.
With strong female lead in each of the stories, it seems as though the familiar trope of the girl, the princess, waiting for their prince remains evident and a strong theme. Then, as you continue reading you begin to see that, within each of these retellings each girl holds her own power and makes her own choices. The Girls of the title have been given the power. With modern twists to each story, adding technology such as computers and phones as well as adding in larger society’s, these stories have the added charm of being both legendary and modern at the same time.
They are easy to read, thrilling and entirely enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed The Frog Prince and the enjoyment the princess gets from kissing the frog, even though he never changes into a prince! They are soon settled into a routine together and even though she does try to find a new prince the princess soon discovers that she misses her frog.
Brilliant and modern!
Leila and the Blue Fox
Kiran Millwood Hargrave, illus. Tom de Freston, pub. Orion Children’s Books
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a poet and multi award winning author of The Girl of Ink and Stars. Leila and the Blue Fox is Kiran’s second collaboration with her artist husband Tom de Freston – the first being Julia and the Shark. In Leila and the Blue Fox, Kiran combines her poetic skills with her storytelling ability to create a beautiful and moving tale that looks at themes of migration, belonging and climate change.
Leila and her family migrated to England after fleeing from Syria to escape the war. Her mother, a scientist, left to work in Norway and Leila hasn’t seen her daughter properly for six years. The story starts with Leila arriving in Norway to spend some time with her mother, and hoping to connect and perhaps understand why she left her behind. Leila’s mother, Amani, and her scientist partner, Liv, have been tracking Miso, an Arctic fox who, due to climate change, has itself been forced to migrate and go in search of a new home. The story becomes a migration story, based on the real journey of an Arctic fox that walked the over 2000 miles from Norway to Canada. Leila joins her mother and Liv as they travel by boat and then on foot across the ice, following the fox. A journey that lets them experience the wonders and dangers of nature whilst also allowing Leila and her mother to have much-needed time together.
Leila’s narrative is interspersed with that of the fox’s – atmospherically told in the author’s poetic style which helps capture the otherness of the fox’s natural world. Tom de Freston’s atmospheric artwork perfectly complements Kiran’s writing, and beautifully helps depict the arctic world. I’d highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in adventure and the natural world.
Elli Woollard, illus. Dorien Brouwers, pub. Penguin Random House
Goodness, what a delight this book is for both the senses and the soul!
A true celebration of our planet and its rich history, all told in the most beautiful verse, Elli Woollard takes the reader on a journey through time. From the ’time before time’, and the very beginnings of our beautiful planet, to the present day. Starting from when the ‘Earth was a big burning ball,’ to the tiny, microscopic bacteria which heralded the start of life, through dinosaurs and the ice ages right up to our time as humans, Elli Woollard has created a rich poetic tapestry blended with science and history. However, this book is so much more than a story of evolution. Adorned with the stunning illustrations of Dorien Brouwers, it is a lesson in life and love with a powerful message at its heart. A message which creeps up on you, quite by surprise, and reminds you of the fragility of our own lives and of our beautiful planet which is in need of so much care.
I don’t know what I expected from this book, but I was wonderfully surprised and found myself deeply moved by it. This is a book for all readers young and old, a lyrical blend of storytelling and immersive illustrations. It is a book which inspires, a book which teaches and a book whose message is so incredibly pertinent. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Man-man and the Tree of Memories
Yaba Badoe, illus. Joelle Avelino, pub. Zephyr, an imprint of Head of Zeus
Man-man and the Tree of Memories feels as if it is set in contemporary London, at the Notting Hill Carnival, although the time is never specified. This vagueness adds to the magical realism of the story as Man-man, real name Emanuel, calls upon the help of a mysterious Queen of Revels.
Man-man’s family is complicated. Man-man’s mother, Trilby, has an unexplained illness, something her Grandma Gatsby had, and she seems to be deteriorating. Her mum and Man-man’s Nan, Fedora, has come from Jamaica to look after her. Fedora is forthright in her parenting advice and very clear about the wickedness of carnival and its African roots. Asking Fedora to come to England at all had been a difficult decision for Man-man’s dad, Jules: they didn’t get on! She seems to have disapproved of Jules, a villager from Haiti, marrying her daughter Trilby, an uptown girl in Kingston, after they met at a carnival. None of this dissuades Man-man and his older sister Panama from practising their dancing and preparations for the up-and-coming carnival.
At the height of the carnival the book slips into magical realism as Man-man, Panama and his best friend, Kareem are spirited away by the Queen of Revels. She takes them to a mysterious memory tree holding the secret to Trilby’s illness and a grandmother begging for slavers to release her granddaughters. Man-man draws upon powerful west African mythology of Shango, a Yoruba God of Thunder, Lightning and Justice as well as historic people, Toussaint, and Dessalines (leaders of the Haitian Revolution who liberated themselves from French colonial rule) as he tries to break the chains of his mother’s illness.
Man-man and the Tree of Memories is an addictive read, accessible with likeable characters. Man-man and Pan are both strong characters, continuing to do what they believe is right, loyal to each other and, for Man-man, loyal to his friend Kareem. In addition Joelle Avelino’s artwork becomes more abstract and expressive complementing the magical realism of the book and yet anchoring the story in different times and places. The choice of palette and style seemingly evoke an African landscape.
Above all, Man-man and the Tree of Memories is about justice, remembering the pain of slavery but also celebrating the joy of freedom.
Mexikid: A Graphic Memoir
Pedro Martin, pub. Guppy Books
This is a story about a Mexikid called Pedro. A Mexikid is a child born in America whose parents are from Mexico. The story is about the challenges of being a child from two different cultures. This presents a unique and very different adventure story. It is centred on a family made up of more than one generation with its nine children, mother, father, and grandfather.
Mexikid is an easy-to-read graphic novel packed full of very colourful pages and dialogue. The illustrations and quirky artwork are brilliant throughout. They are detailed and often very funny. There is a particularly good two-page spread showing a detailed plan of the Winnebago, the family motorhome. The very readable and sometimes hilarious text contributes well to this dynamic and captivating graphic novel and its story.
When Dad suddenly announces that the whole family, yes, all eleven of them, will be driving the 2000 miles south from California to Mexico to find, and bring home their legendary grandfather, we know that a brilliant adventure and fascinating story is about to unfold. This is their exciting crime fighting grandfather who was part of the Mexican Revolution. The journey will turn out to be the road trip of a lifetime and one that is full of family history and adventure. This graphic novel is a very personal, hilarious, chaotic, and absolutely brilliant memoir. Many mistakes are made by the family and lessons learned along the way. It features the sights, sounds and tastes of America and Mexico. In summary, this is a very different and enjoyable novel.
The Miraculous Sweetmakers: The Frost Fair
Natasha Hastings, illus. Alex T Smith, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
This is the sort of book that makes you long for snow, a cosy fire to snuggle up in front of and nothing pressing to do for the next eight hours. It took me back to the first time I read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and walked with Lucy through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia. It has the feeling of a sweeping series in the vein of Lewis or Pullman.
Set during the great frost of 1683 (a lovely history tie in), a young girl Thomasina and her family experience the tragic loss of her brother Arthur. This is quite vividly told as we experience Arthur having an undiagnosed asthma attack. The shock of Arthur's death leaves Thomasina's mother unable to speak and bedridden and her father shut off from the world. An epic adventure that is full of emotion The Miraculous Sweetmakers weaves the experience of Thomasina living with grief and self-blame for Arthur's death, whilst struggling to cope with her family's mental health.
Thomasina’s family are sweet makers, but times are hard, and people are not buying sweets and gingerbread. Until that is the great frost settles and freezes the Thames, a true fact that should send children reaching for a history book or at any rate Google to find out more. Thomasina and her father decide to set up a stall on the ice, as others do and the novelty pays dividends. At the same time as the frost arrives new friends start to enter Thomasina's life too. A girl called Anne who works in an apothecary; a boy called Henry who has been sent by the ice folk to help her; an ice bear and a mysterious character called Inigo with a Jack Frost-esque persona. Their growing bonds offer brilliant moments of true friendship or is it all deceit (I'm not going to say) as our heroes band together. Inigo offers Thomasina the tantalising temptation that he has the power to bring Arthur back to life. For a price of course. The price, to give her memories of her brother which will be taken over four visits to the Other Frost Fair where grey cloaked beings, frost folk, and ice animals roam, hidden from mortals and held by the power of Father Winter a frost bearded, brittle old man with a face from a crypt (whom I would not be at all surprised to learn was the brother of Narnia’s White Witch.)
If you love your reads to have the depth and description that comes with epic adventures, effortlessly blending fantasy, myth, legend, history, emotional loss and heroic tales of friendship then look no further you've found your next read and with a sequel due next July this looks set to be a series to watch. Suitable for 9+, those of a sensitive nature may find Arthur’s death and the impact it has on the family upsetting. The detailed nature of the book and long build up at the beginning probably won't make this book one to entice in reluctant readers.
Adam Baron, illus. Benji Davies, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
This is a magical tale accompanied by some very effective black and white illustrations by Benji Davies. It is a lovely piece of storytelling, which parents can share with their children, or young readers will enjoy reading independently, its short chapters being perfect for this.
Oscar’s Lion is (perhaps unsurprisingly) about a young boy called Oscar and a lion. Oscar awakes one morning to discover that his parents have disappeared, and their bed is occupied by an enormous lion. At first Oscar is terrified. When did the lion last have a meal? Will the lion be looking for his next meal? Imagine a lion coming to live in your home to babysit you and look after you for the whole weekend! Oscar eventually begins to relax a little when he realises that with a lion as a babysitter he can eat as many biscuits as he wants to. The lion is also an excellent reader and Oscar is allowed to read his favourite book as often as he likes. Perhaps the lion coming to visit isn’t as bad after all. The lion is even willing to take Oscar to school and he helps Oscar to tackle a bully.
There are some unanswered questions in this story; Is the lion real? Is this all a big dream? Where are Oscar’s parents? What has happened to them? There are also some messages for young children which they may want to talk about with adults. For example, coming to terms with grief is touched upon, as is the question of being a good parent. This is a very exciting adventure story. The lion can change into animals and the two of them have lots of fun. A seagull and a den are featured. There is Lord Nelson and a battle at sea. Then there is an aircraft, and they are suddenly parachuting to the ground. Overall, this is a brilliant story to be enjoyed by young readers.
The Taming of the Cat
Helen Cooper, pub. Faber & Faber
I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to be reviewing a new book by Helen Cooper, whose Bear Under the Stairs was a well-worn favourite of my children when they were young. However, I had no idea what a treat I was in for until I opened the package and held The Taming of the Cat in my hands.
Everything about this book is magical, from its size, its cover to its simply stunning illustrations - I was in love before I’d even read a single word! And then it began, a story set in a cold and draughty cheese shop, where Gorgonzola the cat waits at night for the mice who may dare to try and steal the cheese. Our hero Brie, however, is a mouse most unlike the others that live within the walls, preferring bread to cheese and only wanting the cheese labels so he can dream up stories to tell the birds in the summer. The other mice think Brie is rather odd, so, when caught in Gorgonzola’s claws, Brie is left to save himself and a story is the only way he knows how. As Brie begins to weave his wonderous tale he has no idea if it will save him from being eaten, but he is determined to try.
This is no ordinary story of cat and mouse. It is a story within a story. A tale of missing queens and runaway princesses, of a silk black cat who can grow to the size of a panther, an enchanted feast, a family of foxes and even a dragon. It is a story of facing fears, finding friends and of daring to be different. A fairytale style story so incredibly plotted that the stories weave together seamlessly, this was an absolute joy to read and so difficult to put down. I wanted to savour every single page! The death of a character does come as a bit of a shook and without warning but is carefully handled. Aimed at readers 9+ this story is exquisitely written and illustrated. Simply stunning!
Xander and the Pen
David Lawrence, pub. Exisle Publishing
Xander and the Pen is the second story in a series that began with the amazing Ruby and the Pen. Can you imagine solving all life's problems with a pen, a simple everyday object? David Lawrence can and has translated that into his stories with descriptions of characters so detailed that you can see them in your mind just as I am sure he does.
Xander is bullied by the self-styled Bruise Brothers, Tony, and Jeff Clagg — who are cast as comically stupid young thugs with an equally thuggish dad who employs many of the adults in the town. But Xander, running from the bullies, stumbles across a market where he finds a strange pen that he feels compelled to buy. When he uses it for his superhero sketches, he soon discovers its magic. It begins well enough. He transforms life for his sister who is a wheelchair user, helping her run again. Then he garners a spot representing his school in a national maths contest in Canberra and his father catches a special fish, winning a large monetary prize. He also gets his own back on the Bruise Brothers. But each apparent triumph quickly turns sour.
All too soon his once funny and loving parents are squabbling, and he’s alienated his friends. Worse yet, under the pen’s influence, his formerly bubbly disposition takes an ominous turn to the bitter and spiteful. Luckily, Xander has a moral compass in his sister, Phoebe. Readers will cheer Xander on as he resolutely sets out to right matters and, for finishing touches, see the nefarious pen and all three Clagg louts justly dealt with. With fantastically detailed illustrations, filled with detail this book promotes messages about bullying, family dynamics, disability, and the environment.
A fast-paced, entertaining middle grade fiction that will resonate with kids everywhere. After all, who wouldn’t want to fix all their problems with the stroke of a pen!