Junior Book Reviews

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds

Annabelle Sami, pub. Stripes

The first in a promising detective series for confident young readers to enjoy, this is the story of Zaiba and the adventures and antics she gets up to while determinedly detectiving in the hotel they are staying at. 

 

Before long there is a crime to investigate and Zaiba jumps at the chance to prove herself and save the day. 

 

Zaiba will prove to be a great role model to children of similar heritage as she herself is British-Pakistani, and children will not only see a great young girl with an excellent eye for detail but they will get to enjoy a fun and upbeat story that has none of the content associated with older children to put off reserved types. 

 

There are illustrations through the book that help the reader to immerse themselves in the story and envisage the story too.

 

Samantha Thomas

Agents of the Wild: Operation Honeyhunt

Jennifer Bell and Alice Lickens, pub. Walker Books

Agents of the Wild is a new book series by Alice Lickens and Uncommoners author, Jennifer Bell, aimed at informing and inspiring the 7-9 age group about endangered species. 

 

Agnes Gamble is a wildlife whiz kid whose parents died tragically in an Unfortunate Series of Events-style accident, and who is recruited to be a field agent by a top-secret organization called SPEARS - The Society for the Protection of Endangered and Awesomely Rare Species. Once she has completed her training Agnes is entrusted with her first assignment, Operation Honeyhunt, an expedition to the Atlantic Forest in South America to rescue a rare bee who has been separated from his hive. Naturally, the villain is a heartless collector who only wants to pin the bee to a collecting board and put him in a museum. But Agnes outwits him by teaming up with her partner, an elephant shrew called Attenborough, and by using her knowledge of animal habits and behaviour. The story is brought to life with a vibrant jungle of charming animal characters and abundant botanical illustrations.

 

Operation Honeyhunt brilliantly combines a funny, fast-paced story with a wealth of fascinating facts about animals and their habitats, and a vital message about the conservation of animal habitats. I would highly recommend it. 

 

Rebecca Rouillard

Alice In Wonderland Graphic Novel

Russell Punter, pub. Usborne

We all know the story of Alice in Wonderland. When Alice follows the white rabbit into the burrow, she enters a strange and magical world. She encounters the Mad Hatter, the invisible Cheshire Cat, the crazy caterpillar and many more weird and wonderful creatures. So why publish another version of Alice in Wonderland?  The answer is that this is a graphic novel which is packed with wonderful and colourful illustrations. Alice herself says ‘what is a book without pictures or conversations?’ This has both in abundance. The many eccentric characters are brought to life in a brilliant way. This is a graphic novel to introduce younger children to the world of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland. Children should begin to make sense of some of the lovely nonsense in the story.

 

Seeing Alice fall down the rabbit burrow is like watching a film. Very clear pictures will make children think they are there with Alice. When Alice shrinks and grows children will also feel that they are there with her because of the way the pictures are cleverly shown on the page. There is just enough text to complement the illustrations, but not too much to put off younger readers. Children will want to look at this book on their own or it is ideal for adults to read with children. 

 

The book includes a very useful map of Wonderland, which helps to explain where Alice travels on her adventures. There is also a short chapter of text which gives some interesting background information about Lewis Carroll and his life. Overall, this is an excellent re-telling of a very well-known story, which should help a new generation to understand the characters and adventures in a wonderful story full of mayhem and nonsense.

 

Gary Kenworthy

Anna Gain and the Same Sixty Seconds

Guy Bass, illus. Steve May, pub. Barrington Stoke

This book is about one minute. It is the minute it takes Anna to walk from her front door, step over Mrs Crimp’s cat Pandora and let Late Kate cycle past, before reaching the bus stop to catch the Number 13 bus to school. The same minute that Anna experiences again, again Anna Gain. What a brilliant title and pun!

 

Guy Bass vividly describes the calamity that erupts when a blue butterfly surprises Anna. An unhappy cat, a cowardly dog, pigeon poo, Late Kate and a life and death rescue all mean Anna misses the bus and she relives the same minute time and time again. Every time Anna makes changes, another series of unpredictable events prevent her from catching the bus.

 

It seems that it couldn’t happen to a better person than Anna Gain. Anna, who despairs of her brother who is late for everything and does not seem to mind, and smugly shakes her head as Late Kate cycles past, definitely needs a lesson in not keeping time. The way that Guy Bass describes Anna’s determination to be on time and her complete meltdown, when it proves impossible, is absolutely hilarious. This story is, additionally, fantastically illustrated by Steve May. My favourite part, for story and illustration has to be when Anna Gain realises that she can do anything, because in less than a minute’s time it won’t have happened! Time keeps repeating until she learns her lesson.

 

Anna Gain and the Same Sixty Seconds is a gut-busting, side-splitting and gleeful take on Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day.   

 

Simon Barrett

Attack of the Smart Speakers

Tom McLaughlin, pub. Oxford University Press

Aged 7 and over? This is a must read for you. A heartfelt thank you to Tom McLaughlin for his reality check on the subject of the internet and our children. Do we really wish them to become automatons that unwittingly respond to orders from internet devices? 

 

This book is a timely arrival on the children’s book scene as our recent news programmes inform us about the famous cloud-based voice service platform that powers a smart device ecosystem and what it is actually capable of. The well-known owners admit to retaining and analysing this information from the iCloud on the pretext of providing a better service……wake up wake up. They can trace this information back to the owner too……ouch!

 

“Are you tired of having to use your brain” the book asks, if so then place a Nova in every room. Nova is the Wi-fi device in Happyville where Ashley, Dylan and Tyler live, three geeky girls. They along with the other characters have their recognisable glitches and familiar human traits, helping to make you feel more at home with them. From here we progress to Robot Spiders, as the Nova’s manage to develop legs provided by their human automatons from knitting needles and the like. They feed on information which they attempt to extract from their victims at every available opportunity, ultimately using it against them. Even the owner of the above Cloud based smart device admits to switching it off if he has something confidential to discuss. Have you explained the internet honeytraps to your children?

 

Again, the book asks “would you like to disengage your brain”, as this gives you more time to think about the less important things in life such as games, fashion, gadgets etc. Conversely “Terms and Conditions” it states should be up there near the top of your important considerations. We naively accept these with gay abandon but …. read your terms and conditions, the folk in Happyville did not. The book manages to package this message up in a funky gift wrap which young folk will enjoy opening and reading, 

 

A hilariously funny book despite the sinister message, which parents and teachers would do well to read. A family/class discussion could extend that learning curve. Everyone should read this. Humour is the antidote to the gravity of the message. It is positively educational without you noticing it.  

 

Elizabeth Negus

The Bigwoof Conspiracy

Dashe Roberts, pub. Nosy Crow

Spirited, purple-haired investigator Lucy Sladan is completely obsessed with all manner of bizarre phenomena, the stranger the better.  She has “always wanted to be the first person to prove to the world that there’s a vast inexplicable universe outside our puny understanding of reality”  and so is absolutely determined to prove there’s something weird out there in her sleepy small town home of Sticky Pines. On the same stormy night she spots a beast in the woods she meets Milo, smartly-dressed photography-obsessed son of the new Sticky Sweet Factory where her own dad works.  Lucy and Milo team up to investigate and try to get photographic proof of the hairy beast. When people begin to disappear, Milo’s dad doctors their photographs and creepy clowns are employed to protect his factory, it’s clear there is something more sinister going on than Lucy could ever have anticipated.  

 

Lucy is an outstanding protagonist.  She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, is willing to bend and break the rules for what she knows is right and struggles to balance her determination to uncover the truth with protecting those she cares about.  Her playful and inventive cursing gives rise to much of the humour of the novel (“crudberries”, “son of a scab licker”, “what the hangnail was that?”) Milo Fisher is the perfect foil to her eccentric quirkiness - smart, sensitive, slightly posh and very proper.   His factory-owner, carnival-throwing dad is the perfect villain, outwardly respectable and magnanimous, inwardly scheming and conducting human experiments in secret.

 

The author has clearly had huge fun bringing The Bigwoof Conspiracy to life  and it shows on every page.  Roberts cleverly combines paranormal phenomena, conspiracy theories and mysterious creatures into a breathtakingly fast-paced, genuinely funny, madcap Scooby-Doo style caper which deserves to be cult reading for 9+ readers.    She skilfully balances the ordinary and the extraordinary and makes both believable.  The small town US setting adds extra authenticity to the darkness and danger of the Stranger Things vibe.    The Bigwoof Conspiracy is packed full of twists right to the the end:  just when you think this mystery is solved a key character is gruesomely liquified and the destroyed factory is being rebuilt, more tests on the Nu Co sweetener are being run and a drone is tracking our intrepid investigator Lucy.  The scene is clearly set for book two in the Sticky Pines series: The Thing in Black Hole Lake.  It launches September 2020 and it can’t come quickly enough!

Weird and wonderful and very more-ish.  I had to read this in a sitting.  

 

Eileen Armstrong

Cloudburst

Wilbur Smith and Chris Wakling, pub. Piccadilly Press

Best known for his blockbuster thriller and adventure novels, the internationally bestselling Wilbur Smith is now making his first foray into children’s publishing with a new middle grade series, co-written with travel writer and children’s author Chris Wakling. The first three titles will tell the story of British teenager Jack Courtney, the youngest member of the Courtney dynasty, who have featured in Smith’s novels since his 1964 debut.

 

Set in the modern day, the first instalment, Cloudburst, sees Jack forced into action when his parents are kidnapped during a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Along with his siblings Xander and Amelia, he has no choice but to embark on a perilous journey to rescue them – a journey which will take them out of their cosseted comfort zones and test them to their limits.

 

The adventure unfolds with great pace, and the combination of clear, straightforward prose and convincingly dangerous situations is sure to hold the attention of the target middle grade audience. It is hard not to see the Alex Rider series as a comparable touchpoint, and Cloudburst is likely to appeal to fans of Horowitz’s reluctant teenage super-spy looking for another thriller in an unfamiliar land. Jack and his siblings will certainly impress younger readers with their survival skills and ability to outsmart a cast of pleasingly nefarious adults. Equally, while the setting and, to an extent the setup, may be familiar to Wilbur Smith’s many adult fans, both are likely to be new to a middle grade audience (it is certainly difficult to think of many recent Congo-set novels for readers in this age-group). Cloudburst does touch on geopolitical issues relevant to the region, particularly from an ecological perspective, but the focus remains firmly on the adventure aspects of the story, perhaps avoiding too easy stereotypes for a young audience.

 

Olivia Parry

Clouds Cannot Cover Us

Jay Hulme, pub. Troika Books

It's beautiful to see more and more powerful voices from different intersections, surface and resound. So, here for spring, I have teenage poet Jay Hulme's Clouds Cannot Cover Us- an impactful poetry collection by a person who identifies as a transgender from a working-class background.

 

The book is aptly designed with a dark and bright division, signifying the struggles and hopes the poet faces in building his identity in the transitions of youth as an adolescent in a politically active world; evident in changes of the body, mind, social and political issues and an equally empowering acknowledgement of diversity and individual expressions in the world. The preconceived notion that youth is a foolish state with nothing worthwhile to offer, is dismantled by the poet through his making a case for the voice of the young to be acknowledged-

 

"I wrote when I was in high school. Poems about the fear, anger and burning sense of injustice that I felt, when I looked out at the world as a teenager, and saw not only this encroaching cloud of darkness, but a constant unwillingness among those who could do something about that darkness to listen to young people like me."

 

This book is as much about the young ones who have a voice and the power to articulate powerful messages on platforms of hope and revelation of bitter truths, as is about the development of a person existing within layers of class, gender, age group, physiology and events with empowering words like these-

 

"So we will keep on fighting,

until we are equal to you.

Because these photos

in black and white,

blurry and crumpled, 

are not a sign of failure;

They are fuel for the fire

of the anger today,

and if we cannot be change,

you can be sure,

We will fuel it."

(Poem: Picture Quality)

 

I would definitely ask teenagers and adults, to give this book a read, because it will resonate hard if you've struggled, organised and articulated what you need or do not need, and formed your unique identity on the path you took which was convoluted but worth each step, because it was your truth. Keep this book and share it too, because it is centred on hope in a crumbling and reviving world, in the words of the author again-

 

"Yes, there's darkness, but darkness only exists in contrast to light. Without one, the other cannot exist."

 

Ishika Tiwari

Crater Lake

Jennifer Killick, pub. Firefly Press

This is a book that gets better as you read it because you notice its strengths and forgive its weaknesses more as you go along. I’d persevere, it’s worth it. The final third, as things are falling into place, is a sweet read. The set-up is so: Year 6 are on their outdoorsy mini-break to Crater Lake, the brand-new, never-yet-visited activity centre in the middle of nowhere. It’s a disaster movie. There are flecks of horror, some science-fiction trappings, a really well-developed mystery to investigate, but essentially this book is ‘it’s all gone horribly wrong – how do we escape the incipient life-threatening threat before it overwhelms us?’ And then it becomes ‘there’s no-one else to fix this – what do we do?’ Stakes are escalated nicely. Responsibilities are shouldered nobly.

 

The plot engines are the narrator-protagonist Lance’s relationships with his teacher Ms Hoche, bully Trent, and best friend Chets. The events already unfolding at Crater Lake when the kids arrive provides a ticking clock. I like the way they impact those relationships. Let’s talk about Ms Hoche. She is an inexcusably evil teacher, she should not be allowed anywhere near children. She’s bad even before she gets caught up in and ramped up by events, with her vendetta against Lance. It’s a missed trick: a more nuanced early-chapters Hoche would’ve made her later actions tragic. This is the sort of thing that exposes the clumsiness in the book. All those things that satisfy in the story take a while to develop: the setting, character motives and relationships, interlocking schemes and mysteries, the escalating threat and the kids’ responses to it.

 

All those things that annoy are there from the start: dialogue and vocabulary that don’t feel right for Year 6, characters that ping off clichés too strongly (to the extent of evoking 70s/80s style writing), baffling similes, awkward pacing, and not knowing when not to describe (Killick’s descriptions are good, but often unnecessary). It’s not until the banter about Hoche’s shoes in Chapter 3 that I feel there’s something interesting and genuine going on. Some creepiness starts coming through in the writing and Lance’s front displays some brittleness.

 

The theme: how it’s better to drop your public face and be confident in your true self, to own and be open with your personal history and not fear judgement, is a key lesson that stretches into people’s early teenage years. I can’t imagine this being read in Year 10, but I can imagine someone in Year 10 remembering having read this and drawing on the positive thoughts it’s left behind in the back of their head.

 

The readership: emotionally and in tone I’d say Years 4 and 5, but with some mis-steps in terms of vocabulary.

 

Overall: dodgy start, but in the end very nicely crafted. Dialogue could be better. Happily recommended.

 

Dmytro Bojaniwskyj

The Cure for a Crime

Roopa Farooki, pub. Oxford Children’s Books

Ali and Tulip are twin sisters with an interest in all things medical and a keenness for solving a mystery. In this first Double Detectives Medical Mystery the girls are worried about their Mum, a surgeon at the hospital. She’s tired all of the time and really isn’t her usual self. Ali and Tulip are sure that Mum’s new boyfriend, Brian Sturgeon is to blame as the trouble seems to have started when he moved in. When the twins discover that it’s not only Mum that’s ill, they decide to investigate and are determined to get to the bottom of things. Along the way they uncover more than they expect and make new friends or ‘frenemies’ in Zac and Jay – the other twins in their class at school. 

 

The Cure for a Crime is a well written mystery that has a really modern feel from Roopa Farooki – a junior doctor herself and the award-winning author of literary novels. Readers will love the rapport that is developed between both sets of twins, as well as with the girl’s electric wheelchair riding ‘Nan-Nan’ who may or may not have once been a spy. 

 

I liked the clever addition of the Appendix which contains useful medical information (‘Emergency Twinterventions’) taken from the twins’ medical blog. A welcome addition to the mystery genre for this age group that will appeal to girls and boys alike.

 

Damian Harvey

Evernight

Ross McKenzie, pub. Andersen Press

Many centuries ago, a sinister force known as Evernight descended onto the Silver Kingdom, intent on destroying everything in its path. Only the courage and powerful magic of the witches could keep it at bay and protect the world and its future generations from its fearsome darkness. Years later, Larabelle Fox, a girl more at home scouring the sewers of King’s Haven for lost treasure, finds herself drawn into a life-changing adventure where the burning secret of her true heritage lies waiting to be discovered. As Larabelle embarks on her quest of self-discovery she has no idea of the evil that seeks to silence her. 

 

The sinister Mrs Hester lurks in the background, stealing souls for her White Witch army, a cohort of magical slaves whose only purpose is to serve the Silver Kingdom, she plans on using the Evernight as her weapon to keep control over everyone and everything. Mrs Hester is frail though, her powers slowly fading with age. Afraid of losing her grip on power over the King and the Silver Kingdom, she enlists the help of a mysterious man with no shadow. Finally let loose, Shadow Jack craves souls and will stop at nothing to get what he wants. 

 

Ross Mackenzie’s Evernight is an emotional adventure filled with heart-stopping action and magic. Woven throughout are themes of grief and loss as Larabelle and her new friends fight to find their place in the world. Thoughtfully crafted and exhilarating, Evernight takes the reader on an epic journey where familiar YA tropes are cleverly intertwined with lyrical prose. While the hero and villain roles are clearly defined, the characters are well-rounded and three-dimensional. Even younger readers will recognise that Larabelle and Mrs Hester share similar fears, based around their own survival in an uncertain world. A bold and thrilling story. 

 

Tammy Myers

The Faraway Truth

Janae Marks, pub. Chicken House Books

Zoe Washington never met her real father as he was sent to prison before she was born. When she receives a letter from him on her 12th birthday she starts to question the stories her Mum has told her about him – is he really the monster she’s been brought up to believe?

 

A page-turner of a mystery, The Faraway Truth deals with big issues – race, parental imprisonment, injustice, falling out with friends - in a sensitive and entertaining way. The plot is intertwined with Zoe’s desire to be a famous baker, and the cupcakes are described so well that you can almost see them hovering in front of you: just out of reach, more’s the pity. Who wouldn’t want their first part-time job to be in a popular bakery whose delicious smells almost waft out of the book? Food provides a common bond between Zoe and the other characters and a gentle relief from the tougher themes.

 

Zoe is portrayed as a fully rounded character – kind, curious and stubborn, and sometimes the choices she makes are frustrating for the reader, just as when Harry Potter declines to confide in Dumbledore. This makes her all the more real and relatable, as her poor friend gets the silent treatment for just a bit too long. Her stable and loving home life provides the perfect counterbalance to dealing with a parent in prison.

 

The Faraway Truth is a heart-warming read, recommended for readers age 10+. Its sweet notes leave it possibly unpalatable for a more critical YA audience, but left this (grown up) reader feeling happily satisfied.

 

Catherine Millar

Ghoul Scouts: Welcome to Camp Croak!

Taylor Dolan, pub. Guppy Books

A wrong turn on the way to summer camp delivered Lexie Wilde not to the Happy Hollow Camp for Joyful Boys and Girls, but to Camp Croak, home of the Ghoul Scouts and a three-headed Troop Leader. Quickly making friends with her roommate (a werewolf) a talking skeleton (the adopted daughter of voodoo leader Baron Samedi), a baseball-cap wearing ghost and a zombie, Lexie braves her way through a series of surprises and gains a few Ghoul Scout badges on the way, using her storytelling talents and active imagination wherever possible. A serious challenge appears for the Ghoul Scouts in the form of sleeping sickness which attacks the Troop Leader; the replacement Scoutmaster Euphemia Vile is a horrible, sickly-sweet piece of work. Lexie and her friends – in their hideous new ‘Sunday best’ uniforms – must work together to get rid of her and save their Leader.

 

The lively yellow-and-black, two-colour illustrations are scattered around the pages; the chapter about learning to ride a broom is entirely illustrated. With the large print and well-spaced lines, this would make a great transitional book for children moving away from picture books but not quite ready for long novels. It would also be a perfect choice for children who enjoy the ‘darker’ fairy tales and fantasy stories, like The Worst Witch.

 

The author is from Texas, and you can hear the drawl in Lexie’s voice; the mentions of voodoo, grits and gumbo (all helpfully explained in the glossary) give the book a delicious flavour of the American South. This is Taylor Dolan’s first novel, and there’s plenty of scope for a sequel – another year at camp, a school invasion, Hallowe’en or Christmas maybe? – and I could certainly read more from Lexie.

 

Antonia Russell

The Highland Falcon Thief

M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illus. Elisa Paganelli, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

‘Budding artist and resourceful stowaway catch Royal diamond’s thief on steam train’s farewell tour’. This is possibly what a newspaper would write to capture the essence of the story told in The Highland Falcon Thief

 

Harrison Beck, also known as Hal, and his writer-uncle Nat board the Highland Falcon, an iconic steam train on its farewell tour around Great Britain. The other guests on the train are members of the aristocracy, an entrepreneur, an actress and a retired train steward, and all are travelling towards Balmoral where the Prince and Princess will join them for the rest of the journey. Hal, reluctant to leave his parents and to miss the arrival of his baby sister, is even more unimpressed when his casual wardrobe is deemed below the standard required by the event and it is replaced by some Royal hand-me-down itchy garments. Yet, all is soon forgotten when Hal is caught up in the mystery of the disappearance of a precious brooch and accused of being the perpetrator of the crime.

 

Helped by resourceful stowaway Leena, the daughter of the train driver, Hal sets out to investigate the theft, putting to use his observation and drawing skills. It soon becomes clear to he and Leena that the thief is planning to steal the Princess’ Atlas Diamond. Their efforts cannot stop the crime being committed and, quite the opposite, lead to Leena being found out and accused of the crime. As time is running out and the journey is approaching the final destination, Hal can only rely on the support of his uncle Nat and of the train staff to help his friend and uncover the truth. Hal does so in a moment reminiscent of the best detective stories, and he and Leena bring the perpetrator to justice in a fast moving and exciting scene.

 

Leonard and Sedgman have created a cracking crime story, whose setting and characters bring to a young audience the appeal and entertainment of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. To this, they have added beautiful descriptions of the train and of its clever design, technical features and unexpected hidden corners, turning the steam engines and its carriages into a place of wonder and adventure. Thrown into the mix is also a group of delightful dogs, which complete the recipe for a highly entertaining story which will appeal to middle-grade readers. Independent readers will be soon drawn by the rich details of the characters and settings and by the flowing dialogues and will look out for any clue that may lead them to reveal the identity of the thief. Less confident readers will be supported by Elisa Paganelli’s detailed illustrations, which enrich the story with great style. The voices of the two writers mix effortlessly and their shared passion for the setting and attention to detail enhances the storytelling. 

 

A must for any library, this book would be a great class reader as well, with its many cliffhangers, as well as the opportunities to inspire creative writing and drama and to explore technology and history topics – the locomotive is based on the A4 Pacific model and a royal train was used since 1842. Readers will be pleased to know that this is the first in the series Adventures of Trains and that the release of further stories is already planned.

 

Laura Brill

The House of One Hundred Clocks

A.M. Howell, illus. Saara Soderlund, pub. Usborne

From its earliest moments, Helena's tale is one of apprehension and mystery: it begins on the brink, when a hefty threat is made that leaves her and Father on edge. They quickly understand that joining the employment of Mr Westcott, as they must do for a livelihood, comes with considerable risk. But aside from the clear terms of Mr Westcott's demands, now that they are lodgers in his house of clocks nothing else about the household is transparent. Strange occurrences multiply with each new night, and there is an unusual lack of other staff…Westcott also harbours an intimidating aversion to Orbit the parrot, Helena's companion. 

 

It is enjoyable that so much mystery and danger emerge from inside this one primary setting. Rather than slowly becoming clearer to solve, Helena's problems continue to build, and stakes grow as she tries her best to pursue answers for the sake or her father and friends. She makes a determined and emotional protagonist, her frustration and need to understand are very tangible expressions of our discomfort with being out of control. 

 

The atmosphere of mystery firmly holds your interest, and Howell uses many short phrases of powerful imagery to communicate Helena's emotional upheaval. There is a comforting understanding of instances when words are not enough, alongside those moments when they refuse to come, or cannot be held back. The lives of Helena and the Westcotts are both shaped by experiences of loss that thread through the story. 

 

This novel looks reassuringly at the complexities of grief, expressing different needs and approaches of family members who drift apart in coping with their losses. Howell is excellent at tracing the messiness of emotion, and how it manifests in the body. Nerves, compulsion, sadness and fear are woven in and out of the mystery, with Helena struggling to make sense of the house around her. Hopefully a book that will leave you warmed, as well as satisfied by its dose of mystery!

 

Jemima Breeds

The House on Hoarder Hill

Mikki Lish and Kelly Ngai, illus. Steve Wells and Maxine Lee, pub. Chicken House

The wonders of modern communication - two friends, and now two debut authors, Mikki Lish, living in Australia, and Kelly Ngai in the USA, have co-written this spooky, funny, scary middle-grade story. Originally intending their story (at that time called The Mysterious House on Hoarder Hill) to be a film, and seeking sponsors, they also released a trailer for the proposed film, which can be found here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=thW2Md9s6Ks.  Instead the story is in production as a TV series, and an audiobook will be published alongside the hard copy. 

 

The mystery begins when young visitors Hedy and Spencer start receiving messages scrawled on dusty picture frames, and Christmas at their grandfather's spooky house turns into a mission to solve the mystery of their grandmother's disappearance. Something’s not adding up - what is their magician grandfather not telling them? With the help of Stan, a (talking) mounted stag head, Doug, an (also talking) bear rug, and other (currently) disembodied spirits, and against the resistance of gargoyles and ravens, Hedy and Spencer and their cousins set out to find the truth. The children have to overcome several of their own private fears as well as those which result from the frightening happenings both within and without the House. Grandpa John is portrayed as a rather bad-tempered man, while his brother Peter, who had also been a magician, seems a far friendlier person. By the end of the book, however, both Hedy and Spencer, and readers, discover a bitter rivalry which triggered the whole mystery. We learn that those people who we know, love and trust, yes, even grandparents, might have acted badly in the past. It’s an exciting storyline, often quite frightening, and probably not for readers of a nervous disposition! On occasion it also reads more like a screenplay ready for character development by the actors rather than a fully-fledged novel. 

 

Prologue and epilogue feature a white raven, normally a statue, the children’s unseen guardian, and it seems the story isn’t totally finished, that the house’s most evil character hasn’t been successfully overcome, and that a sequel may be on its way.

 

Bridget Carrington

The Kid Who Came From Outer Space

Ross Welford, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books

A quiet Northumberland village is devastated by the seemingly inexplicable disappearance of twelve-year-old Tammy. People keep on searching, but clues are thin on the ground, and the village is starting to give up hope. Only her twin brother, Ethan, knows – as only a twin knows – that she is safe. He is right – but the truth, when he stumbles on it, is truly out-of-this-world. To bring her back, Ethan will have to embark on a nail-biting adventure of intergalactic proportions, with only the help of his eccentric friend Iggy, the (very) hairy Hellyann, and a pet chicken called Suzy…

 

Since his 2014 debut, Time-Travelling With a Hamster – which does exactly what it says on the tin – Ross Welford has been recognised as one of the most consistently original writers for children, taking an inventive, often absurdly comic, premise, and from there building an equal-parts madcap adventure and thoughtful journey of self-discovery. The Kid Who Came From Space is no exception. The style is simple and immediate, and chapters are short, but the writing is still remarkably expressive, making the book an inclusive choice for less confident readers despite its length. 

 

The opening chapters in particular are highly successful in capturing the distress and shock of the community in a gentle, muted way which is suitable for younger readers, but nevertheless builds a realistic sense of urgency which keeps you wanting to turn the pages. The later action is well-paced, and characteristically madcap, but the friendships and thoughtfulness of the central character are also genuinely touching, creating a rich and rewarding read.

 

Olivia Parry

The Mask of Aribella

Anna Houghton, pub. Chicken House Books

Aribella is the daughter of an impoverished Venetian lace-maker. Ten years ago her mother disappeared, presumed drowned on the lagoon and even now, her father’s grief and sadness overwhelms their lives. Life is hard in Venice, the people are afraid, there are worrying signs and portents making them fearful that a blood moon and bad times are coming.  

 

Aribella takes comfort from her one friend Theo and it’s on the eve of her 13th birthday, when the neighbourhood bully starts attacking Theo and her mothers’ memory, that she discovers he has a secret power – when she is angered, deadly flames shoot from her fingertips. In fear, she runs away but through the stranger Rodolpho, who witnesses the incident, she learns that she is one of the Cannovacci, magical warriors, who live in the Halfway Hotel masked from the view of ordinary Venetian people. Each Cannovacci has an individual power, encapsulated in a personal Venetian mask, created for them at an appointed time by the Maskmaker. It’s their job to protect Venice from the dark spectres and rising tide of evil threatening to engulf and destroy Venice and its people. Aribella discovers she may have the biggest part of all to play, if only she knew what it was and understood the power she has.

 

A fantastic middle grade fantasy adventure set in the rich and historical world of Venice. Really well written, the characters and magical creatures come alive. The sense of place is strongly drawn bringing the sights, sounds and feel of Venice to life. I loved the idea of the Venetian masks imbuing power to the wearer and the imagery of the mask hiding the person wearing it but bringing their power to the fore. It’s a story about friendships, about the power of evil to corrupt but most of all it is about love, about believing in yourself and being true to who you are.

 

“Rodolpho laughed again, as he had done on the lagoon, light and bright. He held up three fingers and counted them off one by one. Never judge a book by its cover. Never judge a person by their mask. And never judge a hotel by her façade. Most people are so preoccupied with how things appear on the surface that they never find out what they’re really like”

 

This sums up the book for me, it’s one of those books whose power of story is deceptive. It reels the reader in, oh so gently and slowly until you suddenly find yourself completely hooked and compulsively reading, knowing you cannot put it down until you’ve finished it. I loved it – it’s a debut novel by an author who is definitely one to watch out for.

 

Annie Everall

Max and the Midknights

Lincoln Pierce, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

This is a medieval adventure. It is highly illustrated and is full of black and white comic-style artwork. The text is funny and fast paced. The pictures and text combine to produce some hilarious and laugh-out-loud fun.

 

10-year-old Max wants to be a knight. Max is travelling around the country with Uncle Budrick, who should have been a knight, like his father. However, he fled and became a troubadour, a travelling entertainer. The two start a journey which becomes an epic adventure. This fun and magical adventure features wizards, dastardly villains, a dragon and plenty of jokes. The really great thing about this story is that Max is not what you may think! To tell here may spoil the story for the reader. Young readers will love the funny names, like King Gastley and Sir Gadabout. Uncle Budrick is kidnapped by the cruel King Gastley. Max and the Midknights set out on a thrilling quest to save the realm. Can the young knights defeat King Gastley and rescue the kingdom of Byjovia?

 

Young readers are sure to love the combination of hilarious pictures, fun text and great adventures, as the funny characters bustle from adventure to adventure. Improving readers will be encouraged by the illustrations and the easy to read words. 

 

If you enjoy this book, you will be pleased to learn that the second one in the series is due out later this year.

 

Gary Kenworthy

Mustafa's Jumper

Coral Rumble, illus. Charlotte Cooke, pub. Wacky Bee Books

It is Spring - the season of love, friendship, blossoms, and here I have with me a beautiful and poignant tale of a sweet camaraderie: Mustafa's Jumper, a children's book by poet and author Coral Rumble and illustrator Charlotte Cooke. 

 

The narrative is centered on a few simple school days, from Milo's perspective, who is in the Oak class. The titular character Mustafa is a new kid in the Oak class, shown through Milo's emotionally intelligent narrative. Diversity is most evident in learning environments such as schools and colleges and the way it should be dealt with- with understanding, fellowship and curiosity is one thread of the message of the book. The other one being the refugee crisis which is expressed in impactful visual narration:

 

"That night Mustafa and his mum came to Milo's house. Milo plays with Mustafa and his mum talks to Mustafa's mum in the kitchen. Mustafa tells Milo he has to go on an aeroplane with his family back to his old country."

 

This tale explores understanding, acceptance and friendship on one hand and the political and particular view of the uncertain lives of refugees on the other. It also gives the valuable, resonant messages on being a little 'extra', like this one given to Milo by his mum:

 

"Mustafa will always be in your memories,"she says."You made that extra effort to be extra friendly and that made Mustafa proud to be your best friend."

 

This little book is written with a focus on the cultivation of awareness and understanding, it teaches acknowledgement and fraternity with a deep political and social message on refugees and migrants. 

 

It is definitely recommended as a powerful book for children; written in an easy to understand English, this book can be used to make kids aware about the plight of refugees and how they can understand and cooperate lovingly. It can be read and enjoyed by all ages for its adorable and powerful tale of Mustafa and Milo's friendship as well as its precocious shedding of light on the refugee crisis.

 

Ishika Tiwari

Orion Lost

Alastair Chisholm, pub. Nosy Crow

Beth is thirteen. She’s on the spaceship Orion, travelling with her parents to Eos Five, a planet twenty-six light years from Earth. Despite the distance, the journey will take just nine months, because the ship can jump vast tracts of space while its passengers are put in a special sleep. It’s on one of the jumps that things start to go wrong. Beth is woken from her sleep by Ship, Orion’s central interface. Ship tells her that none of the adults on board can be woken, only the children, and that she must be acting captain. When she asks why, she is told she scored highest – by just .5% – in Command Training. She has no choice but to have Vihaan, son of Orion’s captain, as her second-in-command, despite difficult communications between them. 

 

These two, with four other children, find themselves coping with a major emergency. Orion is very severely damaged. Everyone’s lives are at risk, and not just because of the fire that has engulfed important parts of the ship, or the memories that have been wiped, or the equipment that has been destroyed. There are terrifying space pirates not far away, and the alien Videshis too. Beth is terrified and struggles with her responsibilities. Some of her decisions have disastrous consequences, and conflict flares. Then the dangers multiply. Can there be an enemy within Orion as well as outside?

 

Orion Lost is a gripping middle-grade sci-fi adventure with a high suspense quotient and numerous twists and turns. Alastair Chisholm has created a great cast of characters. The six protagonists are very believable. All exhibit skill and bravery, but all have fears they don’t want the others to see, and all have weaknesses, weaknesses that lead to technical problems and weaknesses that threaten collaboration. Beth’s difficulties with her role are particularly well depicted. The book poses important questions about the nature of good leadership, without ever being remotely preachy. This is hard to put down. Recommended.

 

Anne Harding

Otto Tattercoat and the Forest of Lost Things

Matilda Woods, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

Otto Tattercoat is a charming middle grade fantasy novel, with a strong flavour of Germanic folk tale about it. Otto and his mother – a dressmaker who makes superlative coats – arrive in the frozen city of Hodeldorf, where it is forever winter. (A nod, perhaps, to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?) Almost immediately, Otto’s mother disappears, and Otto soon finds that the hearts of many of the people of the city are almost as cold as the weather. He manages to link up with the Tattercoats, a group of children with no parents who live as best they can on the streets. At night they sleep on roofs, huddling up against the chimney for warmth, much to the disgust of the people who live in the houses.

 

The children’s greatest enemy, though, is Frau Ferber, who owns a boot-polish factory. She captures children and makes them work for nothing. The Tattercoats are brave and loyal, though, and they help Otto when he decides to venture into the enchanted forest nearby in search of his mother. There they brave many dangers to find the answers to all sorts of mysteries…

 

Otto and the Tattercoats are delightful characters, and the story moves along at a gripping pace. Any reader who enjoys fantasy will find this a heart-warming tale, with a bewitching setting that evokes all the dangers and delights of traditional folk tales.

 

Sue Purkiss


Sue Purkiss’s latest book Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley is published by Alma Books.

Snow Foal

Susanna Bailey, pub. Egmont

Addie is eleven years old when she is taken to stay with a foster family on a remote farm in Exmoor. It is winter-time and Addie is hurt, angry and mistrustful. We come to learn later that she has been living alone with a mother increasingly unable to look after her and afflicted by addiction to alcohol. Addie is a tightly wound ball of fury and bewilderment who resists any attempts by her foster family to accept that she is unable to be at home with her mother for the time being. Also living at the farm are another two looked after children - 6 year old Jude, traumatised into silence by past events and 10 year old Sunni who has her own demons. They have been living for a while with Ruth and Sam and their adopted son, Gabe, who helps run the farm. Addie remains trapped in resentment until a tiny wild foal is rescued on the moor and brought to the farm to recuperate. Reluctantly she agrees to help look after the foal and discovers a deep connection with this motherless animal. As time passes she finds out more about little Jude and forms a real friendship with him, but relations with Sunni remain stormy. Through her experience with the foal and with those around her, Addie learns difficult lessons about human relationships and about knowing when to let go and how to trust.

 

I really enjoyed all the characters in this book – the adults striving to provide the best care for their troubled children, the troubled figure, Addie’s Mum, who we never meet but learn so much about, Jude, the fragile elfin child who is so good at friendship, Gabe the very cool teenager and of course the foal – so beautifully evoked.

 

This is a wise and sensitively told story that draws you straight into the characters’ lives. The beautiful, slightly sparkly, cover art belies the grit in this unflinching realistic drama, but it will draw in mature 10 + readers who enjoy Jacqueline Wilson and Sarah Lean. It would be perfect for a Year 6 Greater Depth reading group.

 

Rose Palmer

Talking to the Moon

S.E. Durrant, pub. Nosy Crow

Iris loves staying with her grandmother - she has a room of her own, with no mould and no leaks, there is a seagull on the roof, dad is not pulling his hair out worrying about the mould, the twins are no trying to pull radiators off walls or pretend that they can fly … in fact living with grandma is the opposite of living at home for Iris and grandma can set their own rules. Sounds great doesn’t it. Well it would be and of course it is, except, well except for the fact that Mimi (grandma) is really and truly all at sea. She wears her clothes inside out, puts jam on scrambled eggs and talks to the moon. Life becomes more and more muddled the longer that Iris is living with Mimi and at the same time a mystery from the past presents itself in the form of a girl called Coral. Luckily Iris makes a friend – Mason – and between them they search for the answers, whether they will find them is for you to discover when you read too.

 

This is a poignant and simply beautifully told story. It is sweet, funny, touching and clever. It is about Iris searching for order among the chaos and disorder that continues around her, it is about Mimi and her struggle with the onset of dementia and it is a thoughtful, poignant examination of the relationships formed in families and between friends. There are chapters but there are subchapters as Iris and Mimi’s stories unfold. We are putting together the pieces of their lives as we read and as it all slots together we are encouraged to work with Iris and Mason to solve the mystery and learn at the same time how we can help those around us in times of need.

 

A very gentle, heart-warming and hopeful novel of family, friends, trust, hope, relationships and dealing with dementia or other forms of memory loss. An important novel and yet a fun read for younger readers too.

 

Louise Ellis-Barrett

Threads of Magic

Alison Croggan, pub. Walker Books

Pip lives with his sister in the city of Clarel. Magic is outlawed and the royal officials control everyone and everything. Pip makes his way on his wits and as a petty thief, but when he runs off with a silver casket that a noble drops when he’s being robbed, things take a dramatic turn. Inside the casket there is a blackened and wizened heart, and it seems to be trying to tell Pip something.  The nobles want their treasure back and will stop at nothing to get it. Now Pip is caught up in an ancient war between the Spectres and the Witches of Clarel and has to deal with a mysterious dried heart that seeks vengeance.

 

An exciting new fantasy from an established writer that has a lot to offer. Lots of exciting dashing around and well described scenes to keep the reader of fantasy intrigued. The plot twists and turns and is on the whole satisfying. The complexity of the story does mean that there are quite a few extended explanatory scenes and this can feel a bit frustrating at times. The book is listed as 9+ but linguistically I feel it would suit a young reader who is already reading with quite an extensive vocabulary. The language is quite old-fashioned, which suits the setting but some might struggle to catch the action if they are tripping over words they are not able to tackle contextually. Personally I feel that this book would be best enjoyed as a read-aloud. This would make a great addition to a teacher’s shelf to share at the end of each day for a gripping storytime!

 

Dawn Finch

Too Small Tola

Hilary McKay, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

This small book (95 pages) contains three short stories concerning Tola. Tola is the youngest of three siblings, aged roughly seven although her age is not specified in the text. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria, with her older brother and sister and her grandmother. Her father is working in the United Kingdom. Her mother is largely absent from the narrative. The family survives on minimal income. 

 

In one story the power supply to Tola’s home fails. As a result their supply of water also ceases. To get water they must resort to the nearest public pump. The intended readers for these stories would be aged seven or so. It is a brave step to include a story highlighting a serious domestic problem like a water shortage. 

 

Tola is a spirited and resilient child. Girls of all nations and all cultures will respond to her courage and determination. Iwu’s illustrations are slightly reminiscent in style of the work of Nick Sharratt.

 

Rebecca Butler

Willow Wildthing and the Swamp Monster

Gill Lewis, illus. Rebecca Bagley, pub. Oxford Children’s Books

An intriguing map fills the first two pages of this brilliant story: it's enjoyable to study and also indicates the book's effective pairing between story and image, one that makes the slim volume satisfying to hold. Small drawings appear along the corners and edges of many pages, while the whole page illustrations are an appealing mix of fine line detail and looser scruffy strokes. 

 

Willow is a character it is easy to warm to: she very quickly becomes a firm favourite protagonist, from very early on. There are striking moments where she acknowledges sadness and loneliness openly, and she has a touching bond with Sniff, her dog, who is himself a pretty hard character to beat. Lewis' book offers an enjoyable, fast moving story, with high stakes soon emerging and a vast unknown proving to be closer at hand than Willow could ever have thought. The Wilderness behind the row of houses where she lives is not at all as it seems, and four children soon involve her in its dangers. 

 

It feels well-paced and develops good inter-character group dynamics, not without their problems. Their adventure proves exciting and tense, but also makes space for comforting observations about struggling to feel brave or confident. There are some pleasingly scary creatures in its pages, and its illustrations use a reduced pallet of green and grey to merge the children with their landscape. Willow's tale is an eerie but warming one, that you'll likely be glad to have found.

 

Jemima Breeds

Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor

Ally Carter, pub. Orchard Books

April is different from the other children at the orphanage; her mother is coming back for her. Even after twelve years of waiting, she’s not about to give up. The sole clue to her mother’s identity is a key marked with a crest, a crest that matches with that of the Winterborne collection displayed at the museum. Having been caught up in the arson of the very same museum, April is whisked away to the Winterborne Home to join four other children, where she encounters Gabriel Winterborne, a presumed-dead billionaire, and a mystery that may well just lead back to her mother.

 

The first in a new series, Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor is a pacey and action-filled read that will keep readers guessing until the final line. The cast of characters are engaging and compelling in their idiosyncrasies and together form a formidable team, determined to solve the mystery at the heart of the story. The interplay between the children and the adults of the story is also an interesting element that sets this novel apart from others concerning the foster care system.

 

Full of dark intrigue, with an ending that leaves plenty of room for a continuation of the series, Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor is great for fans of Lemony Snicket.

 

Jess Zahra

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