Junior Book Reviews

A Pocketful of Stars

Aisha Busby, pub. Egmont

Safiya’s mum, Aminah, is from Kuwait, although she hasn’t shared much about her life there before coming to England as a teenager to go to school.  When her parents’ marriage broke up, Safiya chose to live with her father, enjoying Saturdays with her mother, despite their slightly prickly relationship.  Aminah doesn’t understand her daughter’s love of video gaming, whilst Safiya feels she is trying to push her into doing the things she enjoyed at the same age.  One weekend sees them have a major argument, with Safiya storming out.  Unfortunately, Aminah falls ill with a stroke and lapses into a coma.  Safiya is desperate to aid her recovery, hoping that familiar objects and the smell of her perfume will bring Aminah back.  The perfume has almost magical properties, drawing Safiya into her mother’s memories as she finds herself in a game-like scenario, attempting to understand her mother’s teenage life whilst trying to save her.  There are links between the past and future that she was unaware of and the growing realization that she and her mother are more alike than she thought. 

During this time Safiya is also having to negotiate the changing relationship with her best friend and discovering that being true to yourself leads to opportunities.

This assured debut novel draws the reader into a bittersweet fantasy dealing with the love of family, friendship, and loss.  Hope, bravery and understanding can blossom in the most unexpected of places, especially with a little sprinkling of magic to guide the way.

Jayne Gould

The Accidental Rock Star

Tom Mclaughin, pub. Oxford Children’s Books

We loved this hilarious book in our house!  If you are looking for a laugh-a-minute, fast-paced read for somebody who has just started KS2 get this book!

 

The story fulfills every child’s dream - becoming a rock star - and we meet Ollie and Hector who live with their hilariously bonkers family!  Sadly neither of them have any musical talent at all and it really looks as if their dream will remain just that.

However, whilst they are making their own music video in Ollie’s bedroom, a chance encounter with his deranged pet cat and fate shoots them to overnight fame!!  They are, suddenly, the most famous band ever!

Will they let the cat out of the bag....?  Will people find out that they are really, completely talentless, will their friendship survive, is life on the road really their dream?  We read this until far too late in our house ... ‘Just one more page’ was heard and shouted far too often!

Jo Hardacre

The Adventures of Harry Stevenson

Ali Pye, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

This book contains two short stories, entitled Who Are You, Harry Stevenson and Come Down, Harry Stevenson. Harry is a guinea pig with no special powers.  He belongs to Billy Smith, aged seven.  The narrative technique of these stories is cleverly adapted.  The story is told from the viewpoint of the intelligent guinea pig but in the third person, giving the author the facility to introduce elements that are not part of Harry’s stream of consciousness.  This facility is particularly significant in the first story, when the family move house and Harry goes missing.  Will he return? 

In the second story Billy has a birthday, which is also the day of the local football cup final.  What havoc will ensue?

The key to understanding why young readers will respond to this book is that Billy is an ordinary boy and Harry has no special powers – he is an ordinary guinea pig.  The book revolves around the relationship between Harry and Billy, between boy and pet. Some children have no pet.  They will find in this book the pleasure of a relationship not yet enjoyed.  Children who have a pet will put themselves in the spirit of Billy and share his enjoyment.  Ali Pye is both the author and illustrator of the book.  The illustrations punctuate the text at regular intervals, to facilitate the progress of less confident readers. 

Rebecca Butler

Agent Weasel and the Fiendish Fox Gang

Nick East, pub. Hodder Children’s Books

Agent Weasel is a super spy, though he’s not too super at avoiding scrapes (always good to know when hoping for a few chuckles).  We meet him as his rather magnificent card tower crashes to the ground, taking him with it as the phone rings and Doorkins, his faithful dormouse pal and co-adventurer bursts in to find out what the noise is all about. 

 

H, the big boss, needs Weasel on this job (there’s no one else available).  The shocking deeds that are hitting the news are too much: rabbit warrens covered with itching powder; vole holes caved in, and badgers waking up to find they have had their bottoms shaved.  This mayhem needs to be stopped!

A fun read for independent readers or to be shared so as to increase the chuckling.  Agent Weasel and the Fiendish Fox Gang is a fabulous laugh-out-loud tale with animal characters that jump off the page. 

Nick East as author and illustrator has created some wonderful black and white illustrations to bring the action alive - he has even drawn the badgers shaved bottoms! - and these I suspect will help reluctant readers be carried along.

United Woodlands needs Agent Weasel to succeed and for security to be restored – a bold and clueless super spy who wants to be home in time for tea and biscuits - how can we not root for him, and chuckle along with his chaos as he comes up against the mean guys of the woods? 

If you are hoping for a new series of books for your child to get into, this could be it.  Book two is out in early 2020 (at time of writing this) and has the rather enticing title of Agent Weasel and the Abominable Dr Snow.  

 

Ideal for 7+ (possibly younger), and definitely younger for being read to and sharing the fun.

Anja Stobbart

An Unlikely Spy

Terry Deary, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

As well as the hugely popular Horrible Histories series, their author Terry Deary has written several middle-grade novels about the twentieth century’s two World Wars.  Ten years ago, in Put Out the Light!, he drew parallels between the lives of children facing the Blitz in Sheffield, and those in German-occupied Poland.  In 2018 came The Silver Hand, an excellent adventure set in a village in the Somme area of France in the last days of the First World War.  Here we met Aimee, a young French girl who has just discovered that her mother is part of a spy network working with the British against the Germans.  We also met Marius, a German boy helping to nurse wounded soldiers, but who is now desperate to return to Germany before the war’s end, but first he and Aimee attempt to outwit a British traitor who is threatening their lives.  In the new novel we discover that Aimee and Marcus met again and married after the Great War, and came to live in England.  Now we meet their daughter Brigit, as brave, resourceful and outspoken as her parents, and find that as the Second World War begins her father, now a respected doctor, is nevertheless interned in a camp because he has a German surname.  Aimee is recruited again for spying work, and sent back to her home village in France to train the resistance fighters there, and Brigit engineers a situation which ensures she accompanies her.  We learn a lot about the evacuation of children from the cities to the countryside, about the training of members of the SOE (Special Operations Executive), the secret army of spies and saboteurs Churchill built, and about the conditions, and resistance in occupied France.  This is another exciting wartime adventure packed with well-informed historical detail. 

Bridget Carrington

Caterpillar Summer

Gillian McDunn, pub. Bloomsbury Children's Books

Cat is the glue that holds her family together, especially since her Dad died of cancer.  Her children’s book illustrator mum is working extra hard and Cat is the one who has the responsibility for looking after her little brother Chicken, who has special needs.  She has always had a close bond with him, understands the things that cause him stress and is the one who is able to calm him down when he has a meltdown.  But who is looking after Cat?, because these are some big responsibilities and she is desperate not to add to her mum's sadness and burdens.  When the family’s plans to stay with Cat’s friend Rishi and his family for the summer go awry, Cat and Chicken find themselves going to stay with their maternal grandparents whom they have never met because their Mum doesn’t speak to their Grandfather.  Cat doesn’t know why this is or what the family secret is but she’s very apprehensive about how Chicken will cope.  However, she discovers that living on Gingerbread Island, gives her the space to be a child again, to get to know her Grandparents and become part of a community, to make new friends and starts to understand that this may give her the chance to heal her fractured family.

I absolutely loved this powerful and emotional debut novel.  Beautifully written, it wraps itself around the reader from the start.  Characters develop well and the reader carers deeply about them and particularly Cat. Language and description evoke a strong sense of place and setting and the small rural community is really brought to life.  Chicken and Cat are mixed race and the book explores the theme of this well.  Chicken has special needs and although they are never given a label, his behaviour would suggest that he may be on the autism spectrum. This is accurately and sensitively portrayed, as is the impact on Cat and the family and it is rooted in the author’s own personal experiences.  The storytelling is excellent and although the book deals with some challenging family dynamics, there is always an underpinning note of hope. 

A thoughtful, thought-provoking, thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing read, it’s a book that will stay with me.  A really strong middle grade debut and I think this is definitely an author to watch out for.

Annie Everall

Cookie! ...and the Most Annoying Boy in the World

Konnie Huq, pub. Piccadilly Press

Cookie Haque loves science and her best friend Keziah, hates birds and the annoying boy who's moved in next door, and she really wants to appear on Brainbusters, her favourite TV show.  This is the story of when everything goes horribly wrong in her life.

 

Told in the first person, with great doodles, notes and cartoons (there's even an appendix with recipes and science projects), Cookie's story is engaging, funny and relatable.  It's like having one long conversation with a friend who gets really excited about her favourite things (and not-so-favourite people).  I'd recommend it to pre-teen readers and fans of the Wimpy Kid books.  It would be fun to read together at bedtime, and could lead to some interesting conversations!

Cookie's story is fast-paced, with plot twists and misunderstandings galore. Science competitions, TV appearances, kleptomaniac teachers, disappearing fish, cats (both real and make-believe), best friends and new friends; there's lots of real-life experiences that readers will identify with and learn from.

This is former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq's first children's book.  There's autobiographical elements to the character of Cookie and her story (Huq was on Blockbusters as a teenager!), and it's refreshing to read about a Muslim, science-loving heroine.  As Shappi Korshandi says in the reviews at the front, "Wonderful to see a children's book that properly embraces diversity and makes outsiders cool."

There's definitely scope for more Cookie adventures; the nine-year old I lent the book to said she'd definitely read a sequel.

Antonia Russell

Dark Blade: Whispers of the Gods

Steve Feasey, Bloomsbury Children’s Books

This is a well written, epic fantasy from Steve Feasey and anyone that enjoys a good fantasy story will love it.  

 

The story begins with a baby being left in a barn in the middle of the night.  There’s no knowing where he’s come from but Lae Fetlanger says he’s a gift from the gods and that they are keeping him.  Her husband, Gord knows better than to argue.  It isn’t until the boy, Lannigon (Lann) is thirteen years old and his adopted mother dies in childbirth that he discovers he’s a foundling.  The witch, Fleya was unable to save Lae, but she warns Lann that in a few years’ time he will see a star with a serpents tail, and that when he does he should run for all he’s worth. 

 

A couple of years later, Fleya’s prophecy comes true.  As Lann rides back to their farmhouse he sees the distinctive shooting star streaking across the sky.  The figure of a man emerges from the house and changes into a wolf-like beast before his eyes. Remembering the witch’s prophesy, Lann turns and gallops away but the beast is right behind him. Fleeing into the dark forest, Lann is certain that he’s going to die, however, the beast is killed and Lann is left blinded. 

 

Lann goes to live with the witch, Fleya, so that she can look after and teach him.  Whilst there he is visited by an ancient god who offers him a magical sword (the Dreadblade) that has been forged to destroy evil. Ancient powers are stirring and the old gods aren’t strong enough to stop it, but perhaps Lann can. Accepting the sword, Lann’s sight is restored but the blade has a power and will of its own and he must learn to control it if he is to fulfil his destiny.  

Together, Lann and Fleya set off to save a prince, wrongly accused of murdering his father, the king, and to stop a portal from being opened between this world and a chaotic world of monsters that will destroy everything. 

Dark Blade: Whispers of the Gods is a complete story in itself but there’s plenty more for the heroes to do so readers will be left wanting more.  

Damian Harvey

The Dragon in the Library

Louie Stowell, pub. Nosy Crow

Kit can’t stand reading – she’d much rather be outside playing games and getting muddy, than stuck inside with a book. But a trip to the library with her more bookish friends, Josh and Alita, ends up being more magical than she could ever have imagined: Kit is really a wizard, and ‘probably the world’s youngest’ at that. Soon the three children are in the middle an adventure involving magic spells, sleepy dragons, and a villain who turns out to be even more nefarious than he first seems as they fight to save the library…and the world.

 

The Dragon in the Library is author Louie Stowell’s debut fiction title, but she has previously written many works of non-fiction for a middle grade audience on everything from pirates to astronauts.  Her understanding of the age group really shows: The Dragon in the Library has a clear, accessible style with lots of humour and a fast-paced plot which is well-calculated to hold the attention of younger readers, perhaps in the 7-9 age group.  It would also be suitable for more reluctant or less confident readers, complemented as it is by Davide Ortu’s lively illustrations which break up longer passages of text.

 

Kit’s friendship with Alita and Josh is reminiscent of the iconic Harry-Ron-Hermione trio of the Harry Potter series, though Stowell has made her own characters memorable and individual, with their own quirky traits which pleasingly avoid gender or other stereotyping.  Shy and tomboyish Kit is a particularly lovely and original heroine, and her worries about being average (‘She was not incredibly clever, but not stupid. Not especially sporty, but not pathetically-unable-to-catch either’) and her sometimes-uncertain approach to new things will be relatable for lots of young readers.

But this is only part of the book: there is also a lot of magic, a cheeky “dogon” (half-dragon, half-dog), and a message about the importance of libraries in the community, even in the internet age, which could lead to good classroom (or home) discussion points.  The Dragon in the Library would be a particularly appropriate addition to a school library, or as an entertaining home read, and the upcoming sequel is eagerly awaited.

Olivia Parry

Dragons of the Prime: Poems about Dinosaurs

Richard O'Brien, pub. the Emma Press

Get ready to hear the ROAR and CRUNCH and the STOMP and the THUMP with this bright red and shiny collection of Dinosaur poems, edited by poet and translator Richard O'Brien.  Merging out of curiosity, this collection features facts and fantasy of the Mesozoic era based on our friendly neighbours - the Dinosaurs! Dragons of the Prime: Poems about Dinosaurs is a delightful and informative read offering a holistic vision of the Dinosaur world.  Not only do these verses feature the mighty mysterious creatures; but also their fans, researchers, attributes and the places where they may reside!  There are little bird like creatures such as the 'Junornis huoi' and huge beastly ones like the 'Ornithocheirus', termed 'giant of the skies'!  Here you'll know how to preserve dinosaur fossils you may find in your garden and and know how a dinosaur walked or smelled!

 

The poems, illustrations and informative notes work in conjunction to bring an awareness and a sense of hope to readers.  Laden with factual knowledge and enriching philosophical contemplation, this work poses thought provoking questions about the limits of human imagination or the abundance of it; and the truth and fantasy about the Dinosaur universe conjured by scientists, dreamers, poets and movie makers explored through themes of loss, love, strength, evolution, history, and cyclical time.  You'll meet all these fantastic beasts, experience with them their elemental homes and read about literary and historical events!  Such as this interesting note about mammals -

 "Mammals - the group of creatures which now includes you- emerged in the Triassic Period, like Dinosaurs."

 

You'll learn how relevant Dinosaurs are even today and what messages they have for you to unleash your personal Dinosaur juju -

 

"May you grow to fly like a Pterodactyl

and run like a Gallimimus.

May you and your friends move as one

like a velociraptor pack

And may no asteroid ever stop you."

 

This book can be enjoyed by children and adults alike because of its fun facts and games and for the profound messages behind the words.  Bright and colourful, this nostalgic and informative book leads a journey back in time to paint the present and past together and contemporize a life which appears extinct but still reflects itself in many forms all around us on land, water and sky.

Ishika Tiwari

Read the interview with Richard O'Brien here ...

Fire Girl, Forest Boy

Chloe Daykin, pub. Faber & Faber

Fire Girl, Forest Boy, tells the story of Maya, a sparky inquisitive Scottish girl, who watches the world closely from behind the shadow of her grieving father, Dr Handi Anderson, a scientist with an obsession with light.  When her father disappears to go on a mysterious mission in the jungles of Peru, Maya ignores his instructions to return to Scotland, and escapes from the suspicious couple he has tasked with taking her home.  On the run in the ‘cloud forest’, with ‘dragonflies as thick as your thumb and trees with teeth spikes,’ Maya is found by Raul, a young Peruvian boy.  Forced to leave his home because of illegal logging, Raul has travelled back to the jungle, having been called to arms by his blood-brother Matias, who is looking into the activities of JVF, a deforestation company.  It is Matias who reveals to Maya that her father is involved with JVF, the same company responsible for the destruction of his and Raul’s village, and the deaths of family and friends.  But Maya is convinced her father has been coerced into helping these criminals, and the trio set off to track him down and uncover the truth.  Added to the intrigue is Maya’s ability to command little balls of fire, a power she discovers when evading her father’s captors.  What are these magical orbs, why have they suddenly appeared and why are they helping her?  Are they spirits of the forest or something closer to home?  The answer is both powerful and moving.

 

The story is told as a dual narrative, with chapters alternating between the viewpoints of Maya and Raul.  Lyrical in quality, the short chapters and tight paragraphs ensure the pace moves quickly.  The descriptions of the jungle are rich and poetic, tapping into the mythology of the Amazon.  Exploring grief, faith and the complexities of life, this book offers a thought-provoking adventure for middle grade readers, who enjoy their stories with a low fantasy twist. 

Matilde Sazio

The Garden of Lost Secrets

A. M. Howell, pub. Usborne

Never has a book been more aptly titled than The Garden of Lost Secrets which is packed full of mysteries and secrets for 12 year old Clara, sent off to stay with her aunt and uncle as war takes hold and her father convalesces from a wartime gas attack.  

 

There’s the dark, locked room, a hidden key, a scheming thief stealing the earl’s pineapples, mandarins popping up in unusual places, a mysterious boy who only appears at night, the coldness of a seemingly uncaring aunt - not to mention Clara’s own guilty secret - a letter from the War Office stolen from her own parents about her brother fighting in the war.  

 

Clara is an engaging, lovable and determined character who lets the reader into her thoughts and who, with the adults otherwise occupied by the war, just can’t help herself breaking some of the many rules and limitations imposed by the situation she finds herself in.  Impossible not to put yourself in Clara’s shoes and try to solve the mysteries and unravel the secrets alongside her.

Inspired by the discovery of an old gardener’s notebook on the National Trust-owned Ickworth estate in Suffolk this story feels very real with the estate and the gardens brilliantly described (and illustrated in the opening map).  Clara’s uncle is Head Gardener at the Big House and the story brings to life very clearly the different roles and relationships both above and below stairs and  evokes the impact of the Great War on the home front in England on all kinds of families, never once shying away from its horrors. 

This is an accomplished and imaginative debut novel bringing the people and places of the past to life, full of tantalizing false clues and cliffhangers and plenty of drama too, with short chapters constantly ramping up the tension.  Its key themes of friendship and bravery are inspiring ones for middle grade readers - “sometimes just pretending to be brave is enough, you’re braver than you know”.  

The Garden of Lost Secrets is perfect for fans of historical mysteries by Emma Carroll, Lucy Strange and Robin Stevens.  I’m sure I won’t be the only reader desperate to see what A. M. Howell will do next!  

Eileen Armstrong

*A selection of Book Club Questions are included at the end of the book alongside an explanation of the author’s inspiration but it’s also worth checking out the comprehensive and well thought through supporting resources by Usborne on their QuickLinks website which include teacher notes, Booktalk points, pre-reading activities, creative writing opportunities, language and vocabulary studies, responses to literature, video clips, photos and first hand accounts of the Great War, the Home Front, Women’s lives and rights as well as information about Ickworth House itself.

The Girl With Space in Her Heart

Lara Williamson, cover illus. Julie McLaughlin, pub. Usborne

This is a superbly cute book, which presents me with a problem.  It means that it’s constantly endearing, which obviously is great, but at the same time I’m always aware that I’m reading it, so I have to work to develop the intimacy with the story that its themes and subject matter deserve.

And it’s properly weighty stuff: Mabel’s dad’s gone, and she blames herself for it.  It’s a familiar premise, but Williamson explores it in ways that writers rarely do, poking into the logical but uncomfortable consequences of that terrible thought.  Mabel gets to mull it over thoroughly, and we see some of the horrible dark places her mind visits.

Because this is a story and a writer who don’t shy away from the truths of anxiety, and there’s the value in this book, really: that Mabel’s going to end up holding the hand and being the comfort and light to – I believe – many pre-teens experiencing difficulties with loss, responsibility and victimization.  On that basis alone, this is a must for school libraries (which must despair at the condescending self-help style of titles nudging their way into the market-place).

So that’s the set-up, and that’s the direction.  It’s explored within a fairly conventional arrangement – the recovering mum, the scarred older sister, mum’s trying-too-hard boyfriend, the class-room antagonist, the inspirational teacher – but it needs to be, because we can’t afford to be distracted from the proper service being done to Mabel’s interior life.

There’s an argument to be had as to whether the plot too conveniently mirrors Mabel’s journey and facilitates it, but I’m inclined to ignore that.  Again it’s Mabel’s emotional journey that is the important thing, and it’s strong enough to sweep us along to a suitably victorious finish.

I like Williamson’s writing stylistically, but it does have a strong flavour.  It may feel precocious to some readers, maybe a bit over-analytical, confessional, very heart-on-sleeve, but I imagine that more action-oriented readers will be opening up other books.  I think if they do read this one, however, they will read to the end: Williamson is nicely witty, which is a very valuable alternative route to engaging the initially reluctant.

And getting this in front of all Year 5s and 6s would be a good thing to do.  I’d hope a fair few would pick it up without prompting, but it is one of those books that surreptitiously will lay building blocks for empathy and self-believe in many young minds.

Finally, before I hog the entire page with this review, this may just be me – I hope it isn’t – but Mabel’s passion for astronomy opens up an endless store of perfect metaphors and allegories that I loved and appreciated.

Happily recommended.

Dmytro Bojaniwskyj

I, Cosmo

Carlie Sorosiak, pub. Nosy Crow

A really beautiful story of one incredibly loyal, loving and protective family pet dog Cosmo, and his need to keep his family safe, happy and together.  Cosmo can sense that something isn’t right with his family members, mum and dad have been arguing more and more and Max – the son in the family that Cosmo has known since a baby – has shut himself in his room lots recently too.  Max confides all of his feelings in Cosmo including that the pair may get separated if things don’t work out with mum and dad.  Fearing the worst the duo work tirelessly on a plan to show Max's parents just how much the boy and dog love and need each other in the hope that they will stay together for always.

This is a heart warming and often funny story that is hugely easy for young readers to relate to and incredibly immersive too, and that the book shows family life in a more realistic light to so many is utterly brilliant especially with the impact parents arguing and not getting on being shown through the eyes of a child and also the family pet.  The humour inserted into the book makes the book enjoyable with many laugh out loud moments especially when Cosmo ingests random items like so many dogs do! 

Samantha Thomas

Jack from Earth

Chris Wooding, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

Jack is not your typical boy.  His parents move every year.  Each year he starts a new school, makes new friends mainly to avoid being bullied, fails all his subjects and then moves on.  When Jack goes home -- although he is never too sure when and where his parents will stage a mock assassination -- he faces hours of gruelling mental and physical training.  Oddly his parents wear identical black tracksuits and sneakers all the time, never seeming to go to sleep.  What Jack does not know is that he looks exactly like Gradius Clench: the galaxy’s most wanted spy, dead or alive.

 

Jack’s world implodes when his first kiss is nearly a kiss of death.  His parents then die fending off a Changeling, a robot programmed to be a Victorian Big Game Hunter and a cloud in a giant mechanical suit armed with a flame-thrower.  Jack manages to escape only to be captured by a group of bickering bounty-hunters, who normally bootleg Earth Reality TV shows.  Taken-off planet in a sleek spaceship Epsilon that goes absolutely crazy when in combat mode, Jack must convince everyone he is not Gradius Clench before they kill him.  He is simply Jack from Earth.

 

Jack from Earth is a great misadventure of an anti-hero, who must at the very least avoid getting in the way of the real hero trying to save the universe.  There is lots of fun, arising from the farce of Jack from Earth being a look-a-like for Gradius Clench and the general galactic attitude towards a back-water, bug-infested Earth.  There is also Jack’s unlikely friendship with Thomas, an asthmatic earthling and school nerd who had latched onto him. Moreover, Jack from Earth is a great parody of science-fiction culture -- a rag-tag team of no-hopers in a deranged spaceship thwarting an evil cyborg empire attempting to assimilate the whole of the galaxy -- with a number of homages, such as the cyborg General Kara and the masked Vardis, wielding a vorpal blade. 

 

Jack from Earth is a funny caper, but a story of genuine friendship between a group of alien odd-balls. 

Simon Barrett

Jemima Small Versus the Universe

Tamsin Winter, pub. Usborne

What an incredible book- full of humour, superb characters and a strong sense that being you is the most important thing you can do. 

 

Jemima is nearly thirteen and is a larger girl, and she knows it.  Everyone knows it and most try to make her feel worthless and small with their cruel words and actions.  Themes of bullying are prominent throughout and it is heart breaking to Jemima that she is dealing with this all on her own.  Her mum is no longer in the home, and Jemima lives with her Dad and older brother.

 

On the first day of school, mortifyingly, everyone needs to be weighed and their weights compared to amounts of bananas.  Jemima creates a diversion which lands her in trouble but saves her number being shown to all. An invitation then arrives for Jemima to join a Healthy Lifestyle Program, or “fat club” as it gets dubbed by classmates.  Gina, a bright, energetic woman is leading the group, and although all invited moan and groan at the prospect of the group, time changes their perspectives. 

Jemima is beginning to feel a sense of empowerment and is encouraged to channel her inner goddess.  Being overweight and incredibly intelligent are a hard pair to deal with for Jemima. Her school is offered the opportunity to send their brightest to compete for the TV show Brainiacs.  Torn between her low self esteem, and her anger over being bullied, the question throughout the entire book is will Jemima show them just how brilliant she is? 

 

I love that Jemima in encouraged to eat well, exercise and feel good about who she is.  So many novels might take a darker path into anorexia, bulimia and self harm, just so the student can fit in.  But Jemima was not made to fit in, she was made to stand out! 

A wonderful book that had me hooked and rooting for Jemima every step of the way! 

Erin Hamilton

King Dave: Royalty for Beginners

Elys Dolan, pub. Oxford Children’s Books

When Dave the dragon finds himself throne-sitting for the King of Castleton, the best adventurer and semi-qualified hero Dave quickly realizes he doesn’t know the first thing about ruling a kingdom … but that won’t stop him from trying his best and giving it his all.

With the help of his BFF and trusty sidekick, Albrecht, and an incredibly useful book, Royalty for Beginners, Dave is in for another mad-cap adventure that involves a lot of fancy clothes, pool parties, oh, and a power-mad potato-wielding queen who wants to steal the kingdom!

I for one haven’t had the pleasure of reading Elys Dolan’s first two Beginners books yet, which involve Dave learning to be a knight and disguising himself as a wizard, but if they’re anything like King Dave then I’m in for an utter laugh because this wild and wonderful tale had me giggling from start to finish. 

In amongst the brilliant black and white illustrations and all the marvellous medieval mayhem, author-illustrator Dolan has captured the importance of friendship and being yourself, even if you get a little distracted along the way. 

Despite being from a fantastic series, King Dave works equally great as a standalone story, one that’s perfect for newly confident readers who are looking for their first chapter book to read alone, or for sharing out loud. A must read for fans of Roald Dahl and Mr Gum!

I can only imagine what the next beginner guide Dave will get his hands on…

Fern Tolley

The Last Spell Breather

Julie Pike, pub. Oxford Children’s Books

Rayne is a 12 year old who is being taught how to use magic by her mother.  She is a very reluctant spell breather, who would rather be out playing with her friends.  The main character is a girl and the story is a mix of magic, spells and the fantastic.  It is an imaginative story with lots of atmosphere and some unusual ideas and concepts.

So, welcome to the amazing, magical and imaginative world of the apprentice spell breather.  Prepare yourself to be scared with some monsters and mud biting devils, there to help protect mum’s spell book. There are lots of twists and turns to keep your interest, but also a tale of friendship and love. How does the story develop?  A stranger finds their hidden village.  Mum announces that she has to go away and Rayne must use her new magic skills to help the neighbours and she promises to do what she can.  But the spells break and a monster curse is unleashed on the village.  Scared, Rayne and her best friend Tom set out to find mum and fix the spells.

This is an enchanting story with many magical twists and unusual turns.  There is Frank, the talking fox and the ‘grotesques’, the snapping creatures from the mud that protects the spell book.  The magic is the best part of the story, but the characters also add to the overall delight of the story.  The story is told by Rayne, but it is also about her friend Tom and their journey together.  It is a story of friendship.  But, can Rayne find a way to save the village from the monsters?

The story is about tricksters, monsters, magic, talking creatures and friendships.  It is a must for fans of magic and monsters, helped along by the unusual and imaginative twists. 

Gary Kenworthy

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon

Christopher Edge, pub. Nosy Crow

This is a story where the adventure and tension builds right from the start.  In Chapter 2, a scary monster appears and from then on the suspense, surprise and adventure come thick and fast.  It is a difficult book to review, without giving too much away and spoiling the surprises.

It is the third book from Christopher Edge, after the successful Maisie Day and Albie Bright.  This is a gripping book to read.  There is a lot of mystery throughout and the reader is kept guessing from beginning to end.  The story is a journey full of twists, puzzles, codes, secrets and discoveries.  There really are some genuine surprises, lots of twists and real suspense.

The plot centres around three children; Charlie is the new kid and the story teller, Dizzy is Charlie’s only friend and Johnny is the bully.  Charlie is fed up of being told what to do or not to do, by Johnny and even by Dad.  Charlie is determined that anything is possible.  In the background, Mum and Dad constantly argue and this gets worse.  They argue about the future, the past and about Charlie. Dad drinks and shouts.

At the beginning, the children are told about Old Crony, who is supposed to live in a nearby wood.  Old Crony is scary and he builds his house out of the bones of the children he catches.  This he does after he boils them up.  Is there really something lurking in the wood?  What is it?  Is it a monster?  Is it a spy?  Here begins the anticipation of who Old Crony is and the hint that the woods are both scary and fascinating.  So the scene is set for a story full of puzzles, codes, mystery and suspense.  Enter the woods and you will start a brilliant adventure.  The children do enter the woods and they get lost.  It is night time and scary.  The children find sticks on the ground, forming some kind of secret code.  This has to be worked out.  Clever readers will be able to decipher the code for themselves.

 

The rear cover of the book tells us this is “a timeless novel for anyone who’s ever felt lost”.  This is a great summary of the book.  The children have to investigate the woods.  Will they ever get out of the woods?  This story might be too scary for the very young, but 10+ readers will love the mystery, suspense and the scary bits.  They will love the uncertainty and not knowing what is coming next.  Both boys and girls will love the codes and the puzzles.  Definitely a story to keep the reader engaged and interested from chapter one to the end and wanting to read more of Christopher Edge.  

Gary Kenworthy

Milton the Mighty

Emma Read, pub. Chicken House

Written in the perspective of spider Milton, this is the story of how he has to find a way to communicate with humans in order to save his species after his type of spider – the false widow, is accused of being extremely dangerous and deadly, causing hysteria amongst humans all over.

 

The humans Milton shares a house with couldn’t be more different, Mr Macey is terrified of spiders whilst his daughter Zoe isn’t. It is Zoe who sees potential issues with  the news article declaring Milton and his breed of spider the most dangerous and she who takes the time to research it too whilst Milton busies himself working out how to make humans see he and his friends are harmless but the clock is ticking as dad has called in an exterminator who is hell bent on witnessing the demise of arachnids everywhere.

 

A great story and I can see the spider perspective being a huge hit with younger readers and recommend this book to children starting out in chapter books.  There are lots of spider related drawings within the book to accompany the text and help the reader imagine the world of spiders coming to life.

 

Samantha Thomas

The Monster Who Wasn’t

T.C. Shelley, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Many different kinds of monsters fill the pages of this story; the space in which they dwell, called The Hole, is not as far from the human world as you might like to think.

 

The book quickly becomes an immersive one, moving into the lives of these creatures and the many conflicts arising between levels of an established monster hierarchy - one that oppresses any monsters with even vaguely human characteristics. It is the divides of this hierarchy that give the tale its central thread: when protagonist ‘Imp Boy’ comes to life during the monsters’ Hatching Day, his identity poses interesting questions about the human and monster worlds, and the ways it may be possible for them to merge.

 

For Imp Boy - so named in the first part of the story because precisely the kind of creature he is remains uncertain - his ambiguous state of existence is a dangerous one, for it places a rather large price on his head. He is widely sought, left fearful and confused as he tries to adapt to the steep learning curve occurring in his first few days of life.  This difficulty for the newly hatched ‘Imp’ makes a tense but enjoyable read, one that has high stakes from its beginning.

When he is fortunate enough to find unlikely friends, a chance at life seems like it may become possible - but some threats aren’t easily dispelled.  He must move between human and monster worlds, where he encounters for the first time families, chocolate, Brighton seafront and cheese.  There are gargoyles, pixies, angels, banshees, and a mix of grief and wonder.  As his vocabulary and experience - as well as the threat to his life - grow, there come several wrenching moments of loss and hurt, but also a rising appreciation for the moments of happiness and connection.

Jemima Breeds

My Parents Cancelled My Birthday

Jo Simmons, illus. Nathan Reed, pub. Bloomsbury Children's Books

Tom can’t wait to turn eleven on the eleventh of  August – his lucky birthday.  But after a series of unfortunate events including a flattened Chihuahua, a concussion of Tom’s dad’s head and his sister Meg’s alleged tooth fairy curse, there’s no choice but to cancel Tom’s birthday party. Tom won’t stand by and let that happen though. Not on his lucky birthday! With a plan to make it the best birthday ever, Tom and his friends create an epic party that no one will ever forget.

 

Tom is an endearing character who just wants his birthday to be special.  But it soon becomes clear that his family has a lot of problems, so when his parents cancel his party, Tom realizes that the only way to get his birthday back on track is to fix each member of his family.  He goes to work helping each and every one of them and learns a lot about his lonely grandmother, his estranged parents and his loyal sister, not to mention who his real friends are.  With less than £9 to spend on the party, three days until the big day and no parental involvement, what could possibly go wrong?

Perfectly aimed at children aged 8-10, newly independent readers will appreciate the fast pace, short(-ish) chapters and non-stop action.  I was immediately drawn to Tom and the cast of zany characters that work together to save his birthday.  Each situation and character is hilariously creative – a huge pig that falls off of the roof, a dad who makes up his own swear words, a grandmother who tries to connect with her dead dog through seances, and much, much more.  This book is crazy, fun fun to read and there is never a dull moment.  Every chapter brings a laugh, but there are also lovely, heartfelt moments of realization and empathy. 

My Parents Cancelled My Birthday is a humorous story that works on many levels.  A great choice for readers who enjoy funny, fast-paced, contemporary chapter books.

Stephanie Ward

Peril en Pointe

Helen Lipscombe, pub. Chicken House Books

Milly is in trouble.  Her prima ballerina mother has disappeared, she has completely messed up what was quite possibly the most important dance of her life and she has been invited to join a ballet school, Swan House, which is both mysterious and most certainly not all that it seems.

 

Helen Lipscombe knows how to write a spy thriller but she has created one that will have a huge appeal to a young audience and certainly to any budding ballet stars.  Why?  Because whilst we not only learn about the trials and tribulations of being a young ballerina - and the pressure of being the daughter of a prima ballerina - we also learn that there are great adventures to be had and brilliant friends to have them with.  A very clever twist on two strands of story, bought together to create a highly readable and at time unputdownable book!

 

Boarding school, friends, enemies, textbooks to learn by heart - all this is new to Milly and she must find a way to adapt to her new life, keep up the ballet practice and undertake her mission whilst of course looking to solve the mystery disappearance of her mum.  Helen Lipscomeb has created in Milly a strong and feisty heroine who will no doubt become a great role model for her readers.

 

Turn the pages of this book - you won’t be able to stop - immerse yourself in some fantastic storytelling and sit back for a great read which, like me you won’t want to come to an end (so I am hoping this is just the start of more to come!)

 

Louise Ellis-Barrett

Princess BMX

Marie Basting, pub. Chicken House Books

Ava, is a princess and heir to the throne of the kingdom Biscotti.  But Ava is bored of acting like a princess and likes nothing better than misbehaving.  Forget dismal towers and stepmums that may be just a little bit wicked, the fairytales are completely wrong, for this feisty princess it is the boredom and her father’s “troll-poop” face which are all too much to bear.

 

Tumbling through a portal (well this is a fantasy fairy tales after all) Ava finds herself in Camden, London.  Here just about everything is strange ... then she discovers a BMX.  Learning that she can divide her time between Biscotti and Camden -making new friends and finally enjoying her life all is well until she goes on a dangerous Quest…

The setting are brilliantly captured with fun being poked at all the fairy tale kingdoms we have all been imagining whilst some of the stark reality of London and the ‘real world’ comes across too there is plenty of safe adventure, great characters and characterisation and lots of laughs.  Parents, if you are reading this then the references to fairy tale language will have you laughing and hopefully your children too. 

When my 10 year old son saw this book he immediately took it away to read and now its on his book shelf!  This may appear to be a book for boys but it being about a princess barely even registered, with its fantastic characters and funny plot he loved and loves it.  Plus there are some great illustrations too.

Helen Byles

The Princess Who Flew with Dragons

Stephanie Burgis, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Sofia is a princess with a conscience, who likes nothing better than reading, especially books about philosophy.  She’s disaster-prone, and her repeated gaffes against royal protocol go down very badly with her domineering older sister Katrin who’s been in charge of the kingdom of Drachenheim since their mother died and their father went off the rails. Sofia has none of her sister’s ability to conduct affairs of state. 

 

Sent on a diplomatic mission to a neighbouring kingdom, the journey a long one in a carriage dangled from a dragon’s claw that makes Sofia horribly sick, she fails her task within minutes of arrival.  She is mortified, but delighted by the opportunity this gives her to go to Villene University in disguise, and to attend a lecture by her favourite philosopher.  Freed from royal restrictions and expectations, she quickly makes friends, mostly with goblins, who introduce her to fascinating experiences.  But the philosopher’s message is seditious, and she and her new friends are in danger.  They are saved thanks to the magic of a blue-skinned kobold called Fedolia, and the flying skills of Jasper, a young dragon and pen-friend of Sofia’s.  Fedolia is not the ally she seems however, and now they have the Ice Giants to contend with, and they have encased all the heads of state of the continent in ice, including Katrin.  Can Sofia outwit these terrifying enemies armed only with philosophy?  And even if she does, how will her sister respond when she finds out what Sofia has been up to?

This middle-grade fantasy adventure is fast-moving and exciting.  The motif of a princess who hates her royal position is scarcely a new one, but in Sofia Burgis has created an appealing and spirited protagonist. While never being remotely didactic, the book raises valuable questions about loyalty and the meaning of power, the dangers of stereotyping and the benefits of diversity and immigration.  Although the third in a series, it works fine as a stand-alone novel. 

Ann Harding

The Return to Wonderland

Various, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

This book is made up of short stories inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice.  The stories are captivating, mystical and take you on a magical journey of the unknown.  In addition they are easy to read, hilarious and slightly crazy. You never quite know which twist or turn they are going to take or what creature is going to appear next.  As you tumble down the rabbit hole once again, but this time without Alice, learn what is happening in Wonderland.  Does the Queen of Hearts still rule?  Is the Mad Hatter still having a tea party and will Tweedledum and  Tweedledee resolve their long-standing arguments?

A much-loved classic has been given a new lease of life by a selection of very skilled children’s authors who have all let their imaginations run wild!  Peter Bunzl, Pamela Butchart, Maz Evans, Swapna Haddow, Patrice Lawrence, Chris Smith, Robin Stevens, Lauren St John, Lisa Thompson, Piers Torday and Amy Wilson are the authors whose stories appear in this collection.

The descriptive language used in each of the stories draws you into the Wonderland world perfectly and allows your imagination to immerse itself into the magic of it all. 

 

I enjoyed the personalized introduction to each story by the respective authors which reflected the passion and enjoyment behind writing them.  Although similar characters are used (there are only a limited selection in the original Alice after all) each story is very different and refreshing.

I believe that this book would be perfect for children aged 8+.  The length of the stories, adventure and characters are so much fun.  These are fantastic stories that I would recommend to anyone who loves to let their imagination run wild. 

 

Amy Wall

Spylark

Danny Rurlander, pub. Chicken House Books

Tom, walking stiffly and painfully following an accident on a school trip, finds a way of escaping his limited mobility through a drone (originally named Skylark) which he has constructed himself in his Great-Aunt Emily’s shed.  Tom’s mother died when he was very young and, ever since his father went missing in action in the Middle East, he has lived with Emily in a remote part of the Lake District. Flying his drone high over the hills and valleys, he finds respite from the pain in his leg, the bullying of his classmates and the anger in his heart. 

 

It is while flying his drone that he witnesses a strange and worrying event that he just has to investigate.  The arrival of a family to spend their holiday in Emily’s guest accommodation and the instruction to show the two visiting children, Joel and Maggie, around the area make that difficult.  Through some difficult initial encounters, Tom, Joel and Maggie forma a friendship and a trust which leads them into danger as they try to stop a plot to assassinate the Queen.

This is an exciting fast paced story involving plucky children, adults very much in the background, technology and terrorism. It also dwells on bullying, grief in all its manifestations, disability, friendship and the need to do the right thing with neither fear nor favour.  Tom is an interesting character – he is clever, a whizz with technology, wary of people, brave and determined with a deep-seated sorrow that is in danger of overwhelming his future.  Joel and Maggie, with their mixed-race parentage, are also no strangers to being regarded as somewhat ‘different’.  The adult characters range from Joel and Maggie’s parents and Great-Aunt Emily (solid, supportive and for most of the story blissfully unaware of what is going on) to Rufus Clay and his co-conspirators (clever, ruthless and mercenary). Jim Rothwell, part time odd-job man at Tom’s school, sailor and gourmet chef, is the only interesting adult character.  His past is drawn in by Tom for the other children and his conversations with them are full of notions that will make the young reader stop and think.

Confident young readers will enjoy this blend of heart-stopping adventure and the discovery of true friendship and loyalty.  There is enough detail about drone technology to satisfy the young engineers amongst the book readers and it adds an interesting slant to the story.

June Hughes

Tulip Taylor

Anna Mainwaring, pub. Firefly Press

Tulip Taylor, schoolgirl make-up vlogger and dictionary enthusiast, is maneuvered by a variety of factors into applying for a place on a reality TV show along the lines of ‘teen survival in the wilderness’, organised by the TV star father of Harvey, the new boy in Tulip’s class.  To her surprise, she is successful but then shocked to find that Harvey and his brother Hector are also going to be taking part.  The question is, does she have the skills and resilience to survive the challenges thrown at them (jumping from a helicopter into water, hunting their own food, eating and drinking unspeakable items).

 

Chapter 1 introduces Tulip to the reader – obsessed with her online presence, gossiping with her friends, always in full make up and very interested in the new boy in her class.  As the book progresses, however, the reader discovers that there is more to Tulip than the obvious (the cover of the book has the subtitle ‘take another look’).  In a class discussion on the value or otherwise of social media Tulip talks particularly of the way girls are judged on their appearance and how make-up is a tool to build a shell around the real person. Her mother thinks nothing of posting videos of the lives of her children online, seemingly unaware that this might expose them to ridicule and her father shows little interest in his children following the breakdown of his relationship with their mother.  Tulip, on overhearing a conversation, realizes that she was picked for the show to be the comedy element and is humiliated and outraged in equal measure.  Her interactions with the other contestants are initially based on their disbelief that she could have any skills or attributes that might be useful in dealing with the challenges but, surprising herself and everyone else, she finds herself in the final two with Harvey where they face the most difficult challenge of all.  When it goes accidentally and horribly wrong, it is Tulip’s inner strength and character that ensure their survival.

The book is full of humour (the one eyebrow incident, the live streaming of an embarrassing conversation and mistaking a dolphin for a shark come to mind) and Tulip is an engaging character, willing to give things a go (apart from the urine drinking challenge where she gives a reasoned argument for not doing it) and with a mine of strategies to help her through difficult moments.  The story builds up to the competition finale and then deals with the aftermath when Tulip understands how she has been portrayed and re-evaluates her online life.  There is much in this book for the reader to enjoy and think about; the plusses and minuses of social media, the glib stereotyping of people, the development of relationships and the empowerment of teenage girls to use social media as a tool rather than being defined by it.

June Hughes

Under a Dancing Star

Laura Wood, cover illus. Yehrin Tong, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

This book is stylish, chic and bohemian. 

 

Meet Bea and Ben.  Bea is highly intelligent, quick witted and rebellious of her sheltered upbringing.  Ben is a womanising artist with an ego to match his handsome face.  

 

This isn’t your typical romance of boy meets girl, and they fall in love.  Ben meets Bea, Bea punches Ben and they immediately start bickering. 

 

This is a story full of upset, intrigue and perhaps a spot of infatuation. Artist friends, Klaus and Ursula, extend a challenge to set up a summer romance for sheltered Bea, and Ben readily accepts.

 

One condition: they must not fall in love!

 

I love the setting of this book, in terms of history and the significance of 1930’s Europe.  Allegiances are made and names like Mussolini and Hitler are being discussed while the political scene is beginning to change drastically.

 

Artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, are also topical and you can almost imagine the bohemian lifestyle for these artists against the stunning backdrop of Italy. 

 

This summer romance is beautifully written, full of lyrical and imaginative prose.  It is so easy to fall in love with Bea and Ben and it makes me wish I were in Florence with them visiting the important sights in the city. 

 

Of course, as in any Shakespearean drama, all does not end well, or as is expected and I found myself so keen to carry on with the story, find out what happens to the cast of characters and of course, hoping that Bea and Ben would have their happy ever after!

 

This is a superb book and I was thrilled to read and review it.  Now to read A Sky Painted Gold.

 

Erin Hamilton

The Unexpected Find

Toby Ibbotson, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

A middle-grade novel that skilfully blends magic realism with a portrayal of several significant social issues, all within a tremendously exciting and insightful twenty-first-century adventure story is quite a turn up for the books!  Toby Ibbotson achieves all this wonderfully with The Unexpected Find.

 

He introduces us to William, Judy and Stefan, and to the Great Storm which changes their lives for ever. The storm knocks down trees, but it also uncovers things, and William, whose autism inhibits his social skills, is an avid collector of things – special things which intrigue him.  When two unpleasant classmates try to take the special thing he found under a fallen ash tree Judy comes to his rescue and beats them off.  Judy’s Iranian father has disappeared, gone to find a friend, a refugee in danger, somewhere in northern Sweden, and in her fear of being put into care she has becomes determined to follow and find him.  When the two unpleasant boys come after her, she ducks into a house to escape them, where Mr Balderson, a mysterious, eccentric old man, seems delighted to help her find her father.  With his feckless mother on holiday and his Nan taken ill and in hospital, William has no hesitation in hiding in an old campervan in a scrapyard, but only emerges when the van – bought by Mr Balderson – has crossed into Europe, with Judy on board.  Once in near-Arctic Sweden they meet Stefan, a teenage boy who lives with his elderly grandmother on a remote farm.  As they all cope with the bitter winter weather, and William and Judy discover the old stories of the Norse gods, they all find answers which change their lives forever. 

 

Excellent, multi-faceted characterization and a compelling storyline make this an outstanding novel.  For Odin’s sake – a sequel please. 

 

Bridget Carrington

What’s That in Dog Years?

Ben Davis, pub. Oxford Children’s Books

Gizmo the family dog is ill and George takes him to the vet only to be told that Gizmo will continue to get poorly more frequently as he is old.  Hearing that his best friend and loyal pet hasn’t got long George decides to ensure Gizmo enjoys every last minute he has left and sets about working through a bucket list to created for the canine.

 

From a trip to the seaside and eating ice cream to giving Gizmo his fifteen minutes of fame there are laughs to be had whilst consciously aware as the reader of the sentimental aspect.  There is something truly admirable about George's dedication to his dog and the extent he will go to for him and this book certainly helps the reader to understand that we do out live our pets and it is an awful experience to endure, that said the book is tactful where needed and sincere too .

With brilliant illustrations to complement the story throughout, this is one of those books you would love to read again, and would encourage competent KS2 readers to do so too.

Samantha Thomas

You Won’t Believe This

Adam Baron, illus. Benji Davies, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books

There is an awful lot going on in the nearly four hundred pages of this book. In no particular order, there is; the mystery of why Veronique’s grandmother, Nanai, has suddenly stopped eating; the struggles of Cym’s mother to hesitantly, softly, tell him that the person she goes to the cinema with every Friday is, in fact, far more significant than just a cinema-going companion; the issue of who is doing nasty things to the most popular teacher in the school and, more importantly, why.  Add to that diversions into the development of friendships, the benefits of multiculturalism and the struggles of people forced to leave their home seeking refuge in strange lands, and we have a book full to bursting.

The book is narrated in the voice of Cym (Cymbeline Igloo to give him his full name), a boy of about eight or nine and the author does a brilliant job of recreating the restless, frenetic, disjointed thinking of a child that age, veering from frustration at the strange spelling rules of the English language to hero worship of a local football star.  There is much humour throughout the book, Cym’s retelling of the litany of disasters that led to his first visit to the local A+E department (along with several other people caught up in the incident) is very, very funny, as well as the unlikely outcome of a game of Scrabble.  Cym’s feelings about his trip to celebrate Chinese New Year with Veronique and her family demonstrate a youthful understanding of the richness of a society formed by people of many cultures.  Towards the end of the book, when Nanai and Thu are explaining what happened to them during their flight from Hanoi, Cym instinctively understands that it is going to be a difficult and upsetting story and muses that perhaps he and Veronique are too young to hear of such things.  He concludes, however, that children should not be shielded from things that happen to other children, echoing a trend in recent children’s books where difficult issues are broached in stories thus giving opportunities for further discussions between adults and children.

 

The four hundred pages of this book require some stamina on the part of the young reader but the engaging tone of the narrator, the humour and intriguing plot lines will enthrall and delight, sustaining the reader’s interest throughout.

June Hughes

Zanzibar

Catharina Valckx, pub. Gecko Press

Zanzibar is a wonderful little crow who was happily eating his dinner until Achille LeBlab, a reporter (and lizard) knocked on his door looking for exceptional characters to feature in his newspaper, ‘Do you do anything out of the ordinary?’ he asks Zanzibar.

 

When Zanzibar’s mushroom omelette does not fit the bill, he is inspired to do something extraordinary by performing one single feat: Zanzibar will lift a camel above his head with just one wing!

 

This delightfully eccentric tale will engage young readers and have them cheering Zanzibar on.  What I loved most was the surreal nature of the story mixed with the everydayness of Zanzibar’s life.  I saw a review on Bruno, another very popular book by Catharina Valckx – it read, that Catharina ‘mixes the mundane with the bizarre to interesting effect ’ and this in turn describes Zanzibar.  Add uplifting and heart-warming and the potion Ms Valckx uses for her writing is laid before you.  It’s gorgeous. 

The message of this tale, through its language and wonderful use of humour is not simply that it’s never too late to chase a dream but at its core this book celebrates the importance of friendship, old and new and the support that brings.  Zanzibar achieves the extraordinary but also discovers the happiness in the everyday and in his determination to do something unusual he brings his friends together and makes a difference to those who care about him too. As for Mr LeBlab, the cynic and the non-believer – he is won over. Eventually.

Zanzibar is an entertaining, heart-warming and quirky tale - the bright yellow cover with a little crow sitting on a stool wearing a lopsided hat is just the start.  The child-like illustrations continue throughout the story, using gorgeous orange and grey pencil-esque sketches to create Zanzibar and his host of animal friends. Catharina Valckx is both author and illustrator.

This gorgeous book will be read many times over I have no doubt and will entertain those early independent readers as well as the grown ups supporting them.  Ideal for 5+ as it is a great one to be read aloud too.

Anja Stobbart

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