Junior Book Reviews

Boy Giant: Son of Gulliver

Michael Morpurgo, illus. Michael Foreman, pub. Harper Collins

Following Jonathan Swift’s novel, Gulliver’s Travels, a politico-social satire on his own early eighteenth-century times, Michael Morpurgo has joined the many writers who have used that novel as a springboard for their own critique of contemporary life. At the centre of Morpurgo’s re-imagining are refugees from the war in Afghanistan, with Omar – who estimates he is sixteen years old – the central character. Escaping from a refugee camp because they fear the war is moving ever closer, Omar’s mother has only enough money to pay for Omar to travel on a people-smuggler’s boat, in the hope that he can reach his Uncle Said, who runs a café in Cornwall. When the boat runs out of fuel, food and water Omar is shipwrecked, and is washed up on the island of Lilliput, where the descendants of the tiny people of Gulliver’s Travels call him ‘Son of Gulliver’. 

 

Morpurgo shows the modern Lilliputians to be a race whose attitudes have evolved from those of Gulliver’s times, and they are now an entirely socially responsible, benevolent and pacifist people. Morpurgo shows readers the difference between the horrors which have resulted in our time from the inhumanity of people, greed, hatred, fear of anyone different, and the people the Lilliputians have become. For example for every old or lonely person there is someone to befriend them, and bullying is unknown. Unlike Swift Morpurgo divides his book into five, not four parts, with the third a retelling of the original story, told to Omar by the Lilliputians in order to show why they have changed their ways from Gulliver’s time. 

 

Like the original Gulliver Omar is instrumental in resolving a threat of war, where tyranny in a neighbouring island, whose dictator wishes to enslave the Lilliputians, will remind readers of the many similar situations around the world at present. The symbolic destruction of a wall reminds us of the use of particular twentieth and twenty-first century walls to restrict people’s movement. The final part depicts Omar’s arrival in England, showing both the hostile and helpful attitudes Omar finds. A deeply thought-provoking, wonderfully illustrated, absolutely compelling novel.

 

Bridget Carrington

Butterflies for Grandpa Joe

Nicola Davies, illus. Mike Byrne, pub. Barrington Stoke

Grandpa Joe has changed.  He used to spend all his time in the garden or in the fields exploring and catching butterflies, but he now sits inside watching television.  Everything is dark and silent in the house since Granny Lou died. Ben, his grandson, does not know what to do.

 

Butterflies for Grandpa Joe is a heart-breaking story of a family growing apart.  Ben’s dad Stewart died when Ben was young and he had lived happily with his Grandpa and Grandma for many years.  Then his mum met Keith, married and had twin girls. Grandpa and Grandma stopped visiting and no-one spoke about it.  It seems that only Ben and the home-help Mrs John cares about Grandpa Joe. Mum is too busy anyway, working as a teacher and looking after twins.  It looks like Grandpa Joe will be put into an old people’s home. That is, until Ben hatches a plan.

 

The author Nicola Davies beautifully describes the deep affection between Ben and Grandpa Joe as Ben’s memories mix with the present, allowing the reader to empathise with Ben’s situation.  The author also communicates effectively the confusion children feel when situations aren’t explained to them. For example, Ben’s mum and Keith exchange a knowing look twice that Ben sees, but does not understand.  The message seems to be that he is too young or the reasons too painful. A malaise seems to gather and a palpable sense of hopelessness. The story however will end happily.

 

Butterflies for Grandpa Joe is a great story as well as help children understand families do fall out and find it difficult to reconcile.

 

Simon Barrett

Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror

Natasha Farrant, illus. Lydia Corry, pub. Zephyr

Are you one of the generation of rebel girls for whom many books are now being written? Perhaps you are a princess in the making or maybe you are just someone who loves a story with a touch of magic, a sprinkling of adventure and a modicum of determination? Natasha Farrant has combined all these elements here for us, for you, in her stores of eight different princesses. Set in different times, in different places there are modern alongside old tales and accompanying them are illustrations from a new talent who has selected the highlights from Natasha’s stories and turned them into pictures which pick out some of the strongest untold aspects of each story bringing them to life in even more detail.

 

The stories in this collection made me smile, and laugh too for here there are princesses who know their own minds, who want to argue, have their own way and go straight to the rescue themselves - after all is there much point in waiting for that knight in shining armour these days? Are you wondering where all these princesses have come from - after all our traditional tales are not full of them - well it was an enchanted mirror, of course. When an enchantress wants to know something she has her ways of finding out and for one in particular her way was to transform a mirror into one that would be all seeing, all knowing and would help guide us through these tales which span both continents and centuries.

 

Natasha Farrant has a magical and natural storytelling style which is evident throughout the book and will entice any who are reading these tales - yes they are traditional in many ways but they are also modern, fun and thought provoking and I, for one, had a great time when I was reading them.  I just hope that you will too.

 

Louise Ellis-Barrett

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone

Jaclyn Moriarty, pub. Guppy Books

Ten year old Bronte Mettlestone is far from concerned when she receives a telegram that her parents have been killed by pirates, after all, her parents did run away to have adventures of their own when she was just a baby. But when Bronte discovers that her parents have left her a bizarrely detailed list of instructions – instructions that if left uncompleted will mean terrible things will happen – in their will, Bronte’s previously pleasant and quiet life of afternoon teas and riding lessons becomes a wild and whimsical journey across kingdoms far and wide delivering guests to a string of aunts she barely knows. But as she travels from aunt to aunt, Bronte suspects there might be more to this journey than the simple deed of delivering treasure; though little does she suspect that she will have to play such a big part in the extraordinary events that follow…

 

Between a sprinkling of subtle clues and connections, Jaclyn Moriarty skillfully unravels a delightfully wholesome and unique tale of friendship, family and finding yourself set in world of dragons, water sprites, elves and an evil Whispering King. Rich in charm, magic and wonder, Moriarty’s words beautifully dance between the pages in a slow, satisfactory way, resulting in a tale that utterly captivated my heart.  

 

As entertaining as it is enchanting, featuring a whole host of unforgettable characters, including the fearless Bronte and some truly spirited and special aunts, The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, is a storytelling masterpiece. It is one that I thoroughly recommend for anyone wanting to escape on an extraordinarily quirky adventure for an hour or two. Perfect for fans Joan Aiken and Kiran Millwood Hargrave. 

 

Fern Tolley

Flember: The Secret Book

Jamie Smart, pub. David Fickling Books

Perched at the top of an island called Flember, the little village of Eden is home to Dev, his mother and brother. Dev is an enthusiastic inventor, his designs ranging from Chicken Boots, Cheese Wings and Portable Airbags, to Banana Lights and a Goat-Powered Washtopus. It is while using the Washtopus to clean up a mishap caused by the Cheese Boots, that Dev finds himself in great trouble. Summoned by Mayor Bumblebuss, Dev is forbidden from attending the celebrations of Flember Day and ordered to clean the mess created by the Cheese Boots.

 

While removing the messy aftermath of the cheese explosion from an antique shop, Dev comes across a giant golden heart and enters in possession of an intriguing book, Flember Island. Books are banned in Eden to prevent ‘encouraging troublesome thoughts’. Dev is certainly inspired by the pages on the transference of flember, the energy that flows through the island and that is shared among all living things.

 

Using the information on the book initially with the intention to repair a toy bear, Dev ends up creating a huge, living bear called Boja who soon proceed to bring chaos to the celebrations of Flember Day taking place in Eden every year.

 

Humorous disasters follow, while Dev realises that a choice may be necessary between protecting Boja and the very life of Eden.

 

A lively and funny book, full of inventions which are illustrated in details for the joy of the most creative readers, this book by Jamie Smart will become a firm favourite for those children enjoying the style of this author. A fast sequence of events, an eclectic cast of characters including a blacksmith reminiscent of the god Vulcan, a group of friends called Space Fleet and a pompous mayor complement a story that has at its core a message about the importance of caring and sharing.

 

While I would recommend it to the younger audience, I also have to say that a very little, rather graphic, sentence spoken by grumpy antique dealer Zerigauld jarred with me and felt just a bit over the top compared to the language of the rest of the book. It is obviously a very personal comment. It will probably raise many giggles among the young readers who are going to love this mad adventure and will wait eagerly for its sequel.

 

Laura Brill

FloodWorld

Tom Huddleston, pub. Nosy Crow

Set in a flooded future world, Kara and Joe spend their days in a floating slum between the edge of a ruined London, now protected by a wall built to home the privileged, and the vast ocean where ruthless Mariners, who are deemed as murderous terrorists, spend their lives entirely at sea. But when fearless Kara and determined yet naïve Joe find themselves in possession of a mysterious map, they suddenly find themselves treading water in a dangerous world of gangsters, pirates, corruption and power struggles. What unravels is a vivid dystopian thriller about the repercussions of power and greed, the morals of political activism and protecting the community and the planet.

 

From perilous waterways of a sunken city, to the ruins of a floating London, from high-tech submarines to deserted underground stations, Huddleston has skilfully created a thrilling yet scarily unsettling world, in which I found myself utterly immersed in. Huddleston’s startlingly cinematic take on the devastating consequences of a world ravaged by a changing climate, rising sea levels and a society in turmoil felt as fictitious as it did foreseeable. With our own planet's current cry against climate change, the environmental edge to FloodWorld made this a thought-provoking and timely tale. Yet in amongst these important issues is a fast-paced, action-packed adventure. Whirlpools of twists and turns await in every chapter, an array of fierce and diverse characters feather the horizon and a sibling relationship built on love and loyalty is what kept me rooted to my seat, eagerly turning the page.

 

Suitable for readers 10/11+, I already can’t wait to read the sequel, DustRoad (out March 2020), where Kara and Joe’s gripping adventures continue, this time in the US, as they continue to fight to save the future.

 

FloodWorld is perfect for fans of The Dog Runner by Bren MacDibble and for older readers, The Secret Deep by Lindsay Galvin.

 

Fern Tolley

The Fowl Twins

Eoin Colfer, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books

This is a follow-up from the best-selling Artemis Fowl series, featuring the 12 year old Artemis. The Fowl twins are 11 year old Myles and Beckett. They are very different twins. Beckett is blond and messy and doesn’t like wearing clothes. He likes to juggle goldfish. Myles is very neat, has an IQ of 170 and he has jet black hair. He wears a suit every day, which he 3D prints. Very exciting things happen to the Artemis twins; they are shot at, kidnapped, buried, arrested, threatened and killed, although not permanently. Importantly, they discover that the strongest bond is the one that exists between twins.

 

This is an epic adventure with many dangers and some very impressive high tech gadgets. There are some exciting characters, including a troll, an evil immortal duke and a knife wielding nun called Jeronima. She is not your average nun and is out to prove the existence of magical creatures. There is also Lazuli Heitz, a hero and a pixie come elf. Lord Teddy Bleedham Drye is a royal thorn in the twins side. 

 

Just after their 11th birthday the twins are left in the care of their house security system for one night and what follows is a very intricate and fast moving plot full of mystery, mayhem, suspense and death. There is some very fast dialogue. The chapters are long and there is some difficult language, which some readers will find hard to get into.

 

This series should be enjoyed by both existing Artemis fans and new ones. It can be read without having read the previous Artemis Fowl books. So, if you are looking for a very entertaining novel, with lots of action, gadgets and humans, fairies and trolls, then this is the book for you. Not forgetting the dastardly villains and some humour.           

 

Gary Kenworthy

Frostheart

Jamie Littler, pub. Puffin Books

Ever since Ash’s parents left him at the Fira Stronghold out in the desolate, coldest part of the Snow Sea, he has been waiting and longing for their return. But it has been several long years, during which time he has been regarded with increasing suspicion and hostility by the Fira people. Ash is a Song Weaver but must keep his talent hidden, because singing, and music of any kind, is forbidden, as it attracts Leviathans, awful monsters which lurk in the snowy wastes, preying on anyone foolish enough to venture out of the Stronghold. 

 

The urge to sing is something Ash must learn to ignore but on one occasion he can’t help himself. At this time he is handed into the care of a new guardian, grumpy yeti Tobu. When a Pathfinder sleigh arrives, Ash eagerly accepts the invitation to join the crew of the Frostheart, hoping this will enable him to find his parents. A whole world of adventure awaits, as well as the opportunity to practice his singing. With Tobu guiding his studies, Ash must learn patience as well as perseverance, before he can master his amazing powers and fulfill his destiny.

 

Peopled with a fantastical array of characters, set in world consisting of snow and ice, where survival is anything but certain, this is a rip-roaring adventure, shot through with humour and the power of friendship. 

 

There is a definite undercurrent of Star Wars, with Ash learning to use the power of the World Weave [or Force] as he masters singing and struggles with temptation to the Dark Side, but this just adds to the enjoyment! 

 

Illustrated throughout by the author, this is recommended for readers of 9+, who I’m sure will look forward to the continuing adventure as much as I am. 

 

Jayne Gould

The Girl Who Lost her Shadow

Emily Ilett, pub. Floris Books

On Gail’s birthday the most peculiar thing happens, her shadow disappears – literally slips under the door and is gone! Given that her dad has already displayed similar behaviour by leaving her and her sisters behind Gail things nothing of it, accepting it almost. But when the shadow of her older sister goes missing too Gail feels compelled to investigate and meets creatures, makes new friends and discovers the truth about herself along the way. 

 

In a story that touches on highly relevant topics like mental health and the protection of marine animals - a subject that is dear to both Gail and her sisters’ hearts - there are dark parts to this story, yes – and not just when there is mention of the shadows.  However Emily Ilett balances this with much light and good throughout the story too.

 

The balance between dark and light is expressed brilliantly as we follow Gail into the dark on her pursuit of the shadows which contrasts perfectly with blossoming friendships and strengthening relationships between the sisters. 

 

Confident readers will enjoy reading this book as it has a lot to offer and they will take a lot from it. This is a tale of true bravery and one which I thoroughly enjoyed and would highly recommend.

 

Samantha Thomas

The Girl Who Speaks Bear

Sophie Anderson, illus. Kathrin Honesta, pub. Usborne

This has been one of the most anticipated books of the year, building up from watching the proofs being hand stamped to seeing them land on twitter in the hands of lucky readers.

 

I can attest that it is worth waiting for, will become an instant classic and most certainly a new favourite for many. I also predict accolades and awards.

 

We meet Yanka, a girl found in the woods as a baby. She is found and loved by her foster mother, Mamochka and the village she lives in, but feels like part of her belongs in the forest.  “But if I don’t know where I came from, how can I be sure where I belong?” She has a best friend Sasha and a house weasel named Mousetrap. Mousetrap is one of the fiercest and most loyal friends Yanka has on her adventure to self-discovery. When Yanka feels drawn to the forest, she has to leave her home, and it is Sasha who she will miss and who wants her to stay. It is Mousetrap who helps her along her journey.

What a journey it is! Yanka’s spirit, determination and courage are tested every step of the way. She meets fascinating and dangerous creatures and friendly, loyal characters who impart nuggets of wisdom and stories that provide clues to Yanka's heritage.  

 

This story is full of rich language, lyrical and full of imagery from folk and fairy tales.  Yanka is courageous, curious and loyal. She yearns to know more about her past and we learn details from the interwoven folktales that all link together seamlessly. These are told as part of an oral storytelling culture, passing them from generation to generation. 

Kathrin Honesta’s rich and expertly drawn illustrations take the reader one step closer to the story. There is a map at the beginning and who doesn’t love a map!!

Sit back and relax while Sophie Anderson begins, “Once Upon a Time...”

 

This is simply stunning! Full of magic, courage and finding family along your journey! If you liked The House with Chicken Legs, then I can guarantee you will like this too.  

 

Erin Hamilton

The Goldsmith and the Master Thief

Tonke Dragt, pub. Pushkin Children’s Books

The Goldsmith and the Master Thief are brothers who have come to these occupations through following their aspirations in life. At the same time however, because they are related and look similar the pair are easily mistaken for one another. This mistaken identity happens on many occasions leading to adventures that need the pair of them to work together in order to find the resolution they require.

 

The brothers are names Laurenzo and Jiacomo and their lives are struck by tragedy but tragedy which leads them to escapades of such incredible daring and adventure that they will be tested to their limits and have their readers on the edges of their seats! Danger, riddles, adventure on land and at sea - it is all here.  Can the brothers survive their adventures, will you dare to join them?

 

This is the first English translation of a classic adventure that feels familiar through similar films and stories (Barbie even did one called Princess and the Popstar) and it has that highly quality feel to it that all good classics should.  This story will be a huge hit with fans of adventure stories and traditional tales. 

 

Samantha Thomas

Guardians of Magic: Cloud Horse Chronicles #1

Chris Riddell, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

Have you ever seen a cloud horse? No? You are not alone, none of the children looking up at the billowing clouds day in, day out have seen one either, they look up, they make a wish and they hope very much for it to come true.

 

The scene is now set and the story will unfold.  We are in the Kingdom of Trynne, a place where there is magic and there are fairy tales but neither of which will behave - in fact the magic insists on cropping up in the most unexpected of places!  Because of this there is danger for Zam, Phoebe and Bathsheba - our courageous heroes and heroines. Magic is forbidden you see but it is still there and it is under threat from the King Rat who is getting decidedly too big for his boots, the Clockmaker who is in charge of the time and the Professional Princess all of whom want the sacred magic for themselves and their own evil purposes.

 

Whilst the story may sound as though it has familiar premises it is as fresh and new as all Chris Riddell’s tales.  Combine this with his sparkling wit, his brilliance in illustration and his desire to make children laugh, read, repeat this is the first book in a new series that is most definitely not to be missed.  Children of all ages will find plenty to enjoy whether it is in the description of the fantastical land and cityscapes, the reinvented classic fairy tales or Chris’ own twists and turns. 

 

A highly recommended read which may just make all your wishes come true!

 

Louise Ellis-Barrett

Harriet versus the Galaxy

Samantha Baines, illus. Jessica Flores, pub. Knights Of

Harriet Green is ten years old. She uses a hearing aid. To her surprise Harriet learns that her hearing aid has an unexpected capability. It can translate alien languages into English. At the same time Harriet discovers that her grandmother also has a secret. She is part of a clandestine organisation called Secret Astronaut Spies. The aim of this group is to combat a species of alien invader known as the Munchas, who devour lipsticks, pens, socks and knickers. 

 

Unknown to her grandmother, Harriet has been fraternising with the enemy. She has a friend named Sock Muncha, thus illustrating that not all the Munchas are a threat to humanity – or to humanity’s underwear. 

 

Baines’s book is written from a specific point of view. The author herself is a hearing aid user and thus understands the feelings of those who may struggle to hear all they would wish to hear. There is also a child who is non-binary, that is to say someone who identifies neither as wholly male nor as wholly female. Robin is the first such character that this reviewer has encountered in middle grade books. The book also maintains a high level of comic absurdity. One of the alien planets is named Do You Want Fries With That? The illustrations of Jessica Flores are truly quirky. They look as if they could easily be part of a comic strip or a graphic novel. Why not?

 

Rebecca Butler

The International Yeti Collective

Paul Mason, illus. Katy Riddell, pub. Little Tiger

Twelve-year old Ella is in the Himalayas helping her celebrity explorer uncle film his new television series following his search for yeti. As any signs of the mysterious creatures continue to elude the team, Ella begins to question whether they are actually mythological as many suspect. That is until Tick, a curious young yeti, crosses paths with her and sets into motion events that could put the whole Yeti species and indeed the whole world into danger.

 

As human and yeti paths intertwine there are escapades and adventures galore, family secrets are uncovered, confidence and bravery develop, and an age-old secret civilisation that has communities all around the world unites once again. For the Yeti world lives by its ancient sacred rules and one that is very important is the deep distrust they have towards their distant cousins, humans. This law turns out to be both true and false but it is because of inquisitive and impulsive Tick that the yeti discover the devastating affect the human species have had on the world but also that they are not all the same and some can do good.

 

Mason has created a fascinating and very detailed very realistic yeti world where the differences and similarities between the various tribes across the world such as Tick’s Himalayan Mountain Yeti or the New Zealand Makimaki or the British Greybeards are skillfully drawn. He has constructed societal traditions and customs with such aplomb that they seem so convincing for such an archaic society; you could easily believe that it is not solely his imagination that has conjured them up but that he has been personally privy to such worlds. There is also great wit and humour involved that makes the yeti very endearing characters. Their food includes delicacies such as cicadas with snail gravy or rabbit dropping dumplings. They greet each other with wise sayings; some profound like one shall not reach the top of a mountain by sitting on the bottom or if you kick a stone in anger, you hurt only your own foot and others just strange such as the first pancake is always a mess or with patience, even the ant can eat an elephant.  They also have charming humorous names such as Leeke (She who smells pleasingly like onions), Song (He with tuneful voice), Nosh (She who makes nibbles) or Aspp (She with venomous tongue).

 

Ella is an engaging character, she is a strong resourceful girl who is kind and thoughtful and is brave enough to stand up to the adults around her in a forceful but considered way so that they listen instead of dismiss her. Mason also interestingly uses montage scenes to speed the story along and introduce the different clans but it is also through these scenes that we learn what each group’s role is in protecting nature and the earth.  The map at the end of the book (together with a glossary of yeti terms) highlights how each group have their specific roles such as seed dispersal squad, fungus maintenance, forest custodians, or guardians of the apes. One of the central themes is that everything is connected and humans are destroying the earth as the yeti endeavour to keep the ecological balance of the world intact. One key scene is when Tick observes humans purposely setting a forest alight so they can plant new trees to make palm oil. The book ends with a quote from Gerald Durrell reinforcing the message of the world being a delicate and complicated spider’s web which humans are tearing holes in.

 

Another key theme is the idea of cryptozoology and what it means to still have areas of the world that people do not know much about.  It asks the reader to think about whether wild spaces untouched still by humans and the mysteries they hold such as creatures like the yeti should be celebrated and preserved or whether people, such as Ella’s uncle, are right in wanting to find out the truth and share it with everybody.  It alludes to examples from the past where people’s search for answers have had devastating impact on the environment.

 

This first book in The Yeti Collective series is a heart-warming exciting funny action-packed read and an unusual captivating addition to the eco-lit genre. I look forward to more yeti filled adventures.

 

Natalie McChrystal Plimmer

Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue

Paul Harrison, illus. Jennie Lovlie, Oxford Children’s Books

Meet Kitty - feline superhero in training, by moonlight she has the most amazing adventures and here, in her first outing, we are going to share them with her.

 

Kitty, as you may have guessed from the title is a young kitten and whilst she would love, more than anything, to be as fearless and brave as her mum, disappearing into the dark of the night to help others she just doesn’t think she is quite there yet. When she has a chance encounter with another cat, the black and white Fiago, a cat in search of her own mother Kitty realises that bravery comes in many forms and that in fact she has her very own and very special set of superpowers.  After all when mum is out on call it is completely up to Kitty to set aside her fears and prevent disaster.

 

With  mysteries to solve, untold dangers to overcome and fears to address there is much here for the young reader to enjoy.  The text is pitched at a level for newly confident readers to be happy with this book as an independent read whilst the use of a two-tone colour palette really brings the dark night to life and sets the scene perfectly for all of Kitty’s adventures.

 

Louise Ellis-Barrett

The Land of Roar

Jenny McLachlan, illus. Ben Mantle, pub. Egmont

When twins Arthur and Rose Trout were little, they were rulers of the fantastical Land of Roar, the imaginary world they created each summer at their grandfather’s house. Spanning wild, tangled forests, perilous cliff-faces and snow-topped mountains, Roar was filled with magical creatures and even more magical adventures. But now the twins are eleven, Rose no longer believes in magical places – she’s more interested in swiping the screen of her phone. It seems that Roar is almost forgotten… Until, that is, strange things start to happen and the twins are forced to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the magical land of their childhood is real…

 

The Land of Roar takes place at that very specific point towards the end of childhood when teenager-dom and the terrors of secondary school – here the gigantic Langton Academy – loom large. Rose, the more confident twin, seems to be navigating this change well: she wants to grow up and make new, older friends. There are always some children who manage to cling onto childhood a bit longer, however, and Arthur still enjoys childish games and make-believe, while feeling more and more left behind. Author Jenny McLachlan convincingly suggests his bewilderment and hurt at how Rose has grown up without him: ‘Suddenly Rose got her phone and got into Youtube, make-up and her mates and the Rose I knew just sort of disappeared,’ he tells us in a page which will resonate with many young readers. The pressures on the sibling relationship, and how it mends and repairs,  is drawn particularly well throughout the novel, as is Arthur’s growing independence and self-confidence.

 

But the real draw is ultimately, of course, Roar itself, which is imagined vividly in full technicolour: ‘There were millions of stars in Roar – blue, green, pink, purple,’ Arthur tells us breathlessly, ‘and their light was as warm as the sun.’ There magical creatures, and old friends, such as the charmingly-useless wizard-ninja, Winninja, whose magic is almost as bad as his jokes, and the joyfully feral Lost Girls who have a secret hideout in the Tangled Woods. (Of the magical creatures, furries – ‘tiny furry fairies, basically mice with wings…but with human faces’ – were my favourite.). The wonder of Roar contrasts gently with the trappings of modern tween-hood, rendered here in references to social media, and mobile phones, and Youtubers, but the point is made subtly.

The wistfulness certainly isn’t at the expense of excitement: the story rattles through various escapades and adventures – there is a particularly well-written action-sequence involving a rope-bridge over a gorge – at quite a pace, and the tension is held in place by a suitably-terrifying villain, Croaky the Scarecrow.

 

The first in a new middle-grade fantasy series, The Land of Roar has already won praise among booksellers as the Waterstones' Book of the Month for August 2019. It is wonderful and wonderfully-fun book about the power of childhood imagination, with a message about the challenges of growing up which will resonate particularly with end-of-primary school and early secondary school-age children. It has been produced in an absolutely beautiful edition, complete with Ben Mantle’s panoramic, sparkling illustrations of Roar which spread from across the front and back covers and then within two fold-out inside pages, which should also help to entice younger readers into The Land of Roar

 

Olivia Parry

Lori and Max

Catherine O’Flynn, pub. Firefly Press

Lori and Max are our detective duo in this engaging and pacey mystery. Lori is eleven and lives with her Nan. She loves detective stories and wants to be a detective, so she’s honing her skills, solving mysteries like- where are Nan’s glasses? She’s permanently on the look-out for suspicious happenings at home and school.

 

Max arrives at school as a new girl who has supposedly been expelled from a series of schools. Her appearance is unkempt, bordering on unclean, and her manner is disdainful and can be intimidating. Lori is tasked with looking after Max and gradually they become friends, doing their best to deal with the classroom bully’s determination to pick on Max. Max turns out to be an expert at dealing with bullies but this leads to her being implicated in the theft of money from a charity box in the classroom. Whilst Max is suspended from school pending investigations, a potentially far worse crime is committed and it is up to Lori to use all her sleuthing powers to save her friend.

 

The story is presented through chapters alternating between Lori and Max. Thus we learn that Lori’s parents have died and this is why Nan is bringing her up. Max’s home life is chaotic due to her father’s gambling addiction and her mother who may be suffering from depression. The actions of her father have resulted in the family being forced to move house repeatedly and have exposed Max and her mother to frightening and threatening behaviour by semi criminal associates of his. Max has had to learn strategies to survive.

 

There is a lot of charm to this story through its characters and its satisfying conclusion. Children aged 9 plus who like reality-based tales with a bit of mystery, suspense and humour will enjoy it.

 

Rose Palmer

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It

Susie Day, pub. Puffin Books

Max Kowalski is the kind of boy who doesn’t mean to go looking for trouble because it always just seems to find him anyway.  He’s always accidentally getting into fights, breaking things or supergluing himself to desks - like boys do. He wants to be just like his dad, Big Pete - brave, strong, capable and sole caregiver since the death of Max’s mum. But one day Big Pete disappears leaving Max with a suitcase full of cash and instructions to look after his 3 lively younger sisters. What at first seems like an exciting adventure rapidly becomes a nightmare for Max as he struggles to provide food for his sisters, keep the family together and keep his dad’s disappearance a secret. When Max finds a key to a remote empty cottage in Wales belonging to the family of his best friend, he sets off with his sisters to hide out there. This is where the adventure really begins, the tension ramps up a notch and a golden dragon rumoured to live in the mountains seems to promise a way out of their difficulties as well as add a fantastical element to the story.   

 

This is an exceptionally clever book which wraps the important issue of coping with grief and loss in a highly readable and hugely exciting adventure story. Max’s situation genuinely reflects the world so many children inhabit with the accompanying challenges of poverty, single parenting and getting by. There is humour too to balance the realism and toughness - in the characters and sibling relationships of Max’s sisters - all completely credible characters in their own right.
 

Max himself is a supremely well-crafted character who instantly wins the reader over: hard on the inside, soft in the middle, still desperately trying to figure himself out, modelling himself on his dad - a man he sees as tough and capable but who is crumbling with grief and running away from his problems as well as his children.  

 

It’s a fascinating and sensitive take on family relationships, toxic masculinity and what it means to be a boy today. In Wales Max is helped by Tal, the boy next door, and his two dads, one an accomplished  mountain-climber coach and one a baker of cakes, who help him understand that his own dad’s expectations are unreasonable and that there can be more than one kind of role model. When Max - and finally his dad -  accept the kindness of these strangers and start talking about how they feel then the future seems more hopeful for the family.  

 

This is the perfect book for developing empathy; emotionally intelligent, exciting and very funny too. This book definitely fills a gap in the market for boys  (but girls will love it too!) We need more books like this. 

 

Eileen Armstrong

Nevertell

Katharine Orton, illus. Rovina Cai, cover illus. Sandra Dieckmann, pub. Walker Books

I read this twice; that’s a first. I’d not read a novel I was reviewing twice before. (Sorry Louise, I didn’t mean to be late sending in this review, Katharine made me do it.)  You can infer from that where this review will end up. This is a big book. In size (377 pages!), in scale, in themes, in ambition. It’s a slow book, unravelling patiently around deep detail, but so efficiently that it was only (!) 377 pages long. I feel that in less craftful hands this could’ve been a thousand; it feels like I’ve travelled a thousand pages.

 

It reminds me of no-one so much as Alan Garner, and I love Alan Garner. It’s grounded in convincing locations and mundane interactions. In great emotions and fierce dilemmas – and then the Other intrudes, and it’s an Other that feels properly not around here. There’s an unfamiliarity to the supernatural elements that’s alien, that’s true to its Siberian roots.

 

I’m meandering.

 

This is a Russian novel. It’s fairly convincingly written as if it were an English translation from Russian. There’s that slight awkwardness to it. The landscape is huge and oppressive; a thing to be endured, not won over. The setting is a Siberian labour camp in the closing years of Stalinism. Everything is about survival, about seeing the next day.

 

Our hero is Lina. She and her mother, Katya, are prisoners. Katya engineers Lina’s escape so that she might find her grandmother on the outside, in Moscow, and not die in the camp as her uncle and grandfather have done. The opening quarter of the book covers the same kind of ground as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and could be a bit dreary for the less dedicated reader were it not that it is so involving: the characters are good, their lives are sharp, the text is evocative.

 

The second quarter brings in the excitement of the escape, the perils of being on the run, the kind of treachery and paranoia you might expect in Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s the segment that begins bringing in sorcerous weird forces… We pass into the second half of the book and Lina and her friend and co-escapee Bogdan are pitted against the witch Svetlana and her army of spirits, who is intrigued with Lina, and whom Lina and Bogdan must elude in trying to get to Moscow.

 

I very much want to avoid spoilers. Sufficient to say the result is a world, no, let’s say World, that is complete unto itself and alive, with depth and breadth as well-realised and fresh as Tolkien or Moorcock or Le Guin must have seemed when they were stretching out what fantasy could do. It’s not a rehashed blend of tropes masquerading as something new.

 

I am very impressed.

 

All the elements of the plot come to satisfying conclusions. All the twists are twisty. Nothing is simplistic. There is even a softly-achieved change of pace after the plot climax that means the last part of the book isn’t a rush for the door, but a thing in and of itself.

 

I don’t know that this is a book that’ll be immediately very successful, but I think this is a book that will still be being a success in decades’ time, when this year’s bestsellers are clogging up charity shops. I think it’s in with a decent shout of being a trend-setter that inspires copyists. I think it’s got enough skill and hook in its opening pages to get most readers through their doubts as to whether they want to read 377 pages of Siberian prison camp, and I would point any child with a Year 5 or better reading ability in its direction.

 

I love it. But then I think you guessed that in the first paragraph.

Dmytro Bojaniwskyj

The Pearl in the Ice

Cathryn Constable, pub. Chicken House

The Pearl in the Ice offered some welcome escapism from my rather monotonous university reading list. Cathryn Constable’s third novel is a sweeping historical adventure that glides effortlessly between realism and marine mythology.

 

Twelve-year-old Marina has never seen the sea. Her emotionally distant father, a naval commander, has kept her from water all her life for reasons he won’t share. Marina suspects that his reticence may be connected to the memory of her mother who mysteriously disappeared many years before. With war on the horizon, her father leaves for sea, condemning Marina to a boarding school for young ladies. But determined to uncover the truth, Marina stows away on her father’s ship and is soon caught up in a world of intrigue and danger…

 

This novel is superbly atmospheric; Constable’s historical detail is immersive and convincing. What I appreciate the most is how the shadow of WW1 only haunts the edges; Marina’s coming-of-age story is the focus. The subtle undertones of political turbulence are certainly there, nonetheless. Radio transmitters are being tried and tested in the distant reaches of the north, and the ‘new woman’ is embodied in the stylish and thrillingly unconventional - though mildly sinister - Miss Smith.

 

I would be lying if I denied that I was immediately won over by those stunning end pages, but the mystery between them is as equally engrossing and moving. The Pearl in the Ice is the perfect winter read, great for fans of Emma Carroll, and best with a blanket and a hot chocolate.

 

Jess Zahara

The Runaways

Holly Webb, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

A middle-grade evacuee story with a difference. Webb places her story in London in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Molly hears that the children in her neighbourhood are being evacuated, and she feels relieved because the war scares her, and living in the city means living in the heart of danger. When her mum refuses to let her go, telling her that she has to stay and help with the war effort, she watches her classmates leave, and then discovers that because of food shortages city dwellers are being advised to have their pets put to sleep. This means that Molly’s beloved dog Bertie is now in danger, and so Molly decides to escape from the city. Stowing away on a train, leaving no message for her mother, Molly makes it to the country, but once there she realises that she doesn’t know where she is or who to trust. 

 

It’s not until Molly comes across two other runaways that she starts to feel safe again. Like Molly, John and Rose have been living rough, sleeping in barns, eating whatever they could find. When John is injured climbing into a garden they are all taken in by ‘Auntie Lucy’, pregnant and recently widowed and sick with grief. Caring for the children provides her with something to keep her mind off her own sorrows, and she willingly misleads the authorities about her ‘evacuees’. Webb shows that not all evacuees found their new homes kind or happy, and Rose has become mute as a result of the physical abuse she suffered. When the local children ridicule her Molly cunningly devises a way to explain Rose’s condition which will save her from being bullied. The denouement of Molly’s story is unexpected, but ultimately hopeful. 

 

Although we may feel that the storyline of children successfully evading the authorities and remaining as runaways Webb never shirks the need to show her readers the realities of war, and particularly the fear of the unknown which pervaded the early months of WWII. This engrossing, powerful, exciting adventure is also deeply thoughtful.

Bridget Carrington

Shadows Of Winterspell

Amy Wilson, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

In a book that encapsulates a wintery magic feel – something Amy Wilson is fantastic for (read A girl called Owl, A Far away Magic and Snowglobe) this latest title tells of a girl called Stella who lives on the outskirts of a magical forest with her nan, eager for some company of her own age. Determined to make friends and enjoy experiences with other children Stella starts at the local school and this marks the first step in her journey to discover who she truly is, her family’s history and the significance of the forest that she has always lived so closely too and yet never been a part of. 

 

This adventure story is fantastic for confident readers to enjoy, accompanying Stella on a magical fueled adventure that sees many characters from that world feature with these pages, and the world of magic itself feel as though it could be waiting around the next corner for any of us to enter especially as author Amy Wilson makes that realm so realistic, inviting and exciting to enter. Whilst there is a dark side to the story there is also hope and the mentality that good will prevail as Stella and her new friends enter the magic forest and look for answers she never realised the importance of but shows a fierce, admirable determination to uncover the truth. 

 

Samantha Thomas

The Space We’re In

Katya Balen, illus. Laura Carlin, pub. Bloomsbury Children's Books

This is a book about two brothers, five year old Max who is autistic, only eats three food items, hates bright colours and loud noises, and 10 year old Frank who likes cracking codes, football and hanging with his friends Jamie and Ahmed. They live with their parents. Mum is an artist but since Max was born no longer has the time or energy to paint, so her attic studio lies dusty and unused, except as a refuge for Frank when things get tough at home. Dad is a computer coder who goes to work in a suit. To Mum, her boys are “her world…her universe…her space…her sky…her galaxy…her cosmos.” This book gives a vivid insight into the world of autism and is the story of how the family cope with their everyday challenges and more serious challenges that life throws their way.

 

The text of this book is an unusual combination of words and numbers – literally a code the reader has to crack. The shape and layout of the words and simple drawn illustrations are an expression and extension of what is going on inside Frank’s head as he struggles with his love of his brother and parents against his despair of how difficult Max’s arrival has made their life. Frank is a sensitive, intelligent and loving character who we easily empathise with; we want him to be able to hang out with his mates and have a “normal” life, but we also witness the beautiful bond he has with his brother.

This book will break your heart and warm your soul. I could not put it down and I was in tears by the end. If you enjoyed R J Palacio’s Wonder you will love this book even more.

 

Rose Palmer

The Taylor Turbochaser

David Baddiel, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books

This sizzler of a book embraces head on the nitty gritty of being disabled, aged 11. Well done to David Baddiel for writing a boundary crossing tale about Amy Taylor, who at the age of 8 loses the use of both legs in a car accident. Amy is a “petrolhead” like her father, a Formula One car designer  who endorsed her potential driving skills pre-accident on the dodgem cars, since when Amy has cherished this praise.

 

A strong backbone of family strength prevails as we are introduced to a delightful group of characters all endearingly human in their strengths and weaknesses.Tried and trusted adages, trite but true, often presented by Amy’s mum Suzi, surround them all in a flexible armour. This is achieved without sentimentalism and does not interrupt the pace and momentum of the plot. Sentence construction has been adapted in places, possibly to maintain this pace? 

 

David Baddiel manages to convey the joy of experiencing a  powered wheelchair for the first time after struggling with a manual chair to date, establishing the extent of its performance and delighting in its spontaneity. We experience Amy’s joy as she whizzes up and down the ramp of their transit van, or twizzles round in tight circles on the spot, but most importantly her ability to choose who or what she will come in contact with.

 

Believe in yourself and the rest will fall into place, chin up and get on with it, are prevailing themes. “One thing I never do is use my legs as an excuse” says Amy. The reader is left in no doubt, if Amy can do it so can you. “Trust your instincts they will never betray you” is advised. 

 

8 - 11 year olds will enjoy this book. A reluctant reader may just be sufficiently captivated to keep on reading, bowled along by the pace of events, itching to see what happens in the end. Brilliant family reading, a few chapters each night perhaps. An ideal gift for Christmas providing non-stop entertainment even for those duller moments when coerced into being with the relatives.

 

Here we have disability faced head on albeit in a surreal rollercoaster setting. The licence to dream is not the privilege of just able bodied folk, and this book fills that gap.

 

Elizabeth Negus

The Time of Green Magic

Hilary McKay, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

Abi’s life is changing, and in ways she doesn’t like. Her beloved dad Theo is re-marrying. Her wonderful Granny Grace, who has always been there for her since her mother’s death when she was ten, is moving back to Jamaica. From being an only child, she now faces being one of three, with two annoying brothers, one older, one younger. Parting from the flat she has always called home and squashing into her step-family’s small house is wrenching and disorienting. Abi retreats further and further into her books. They and her Granny Grace’s letters are her solace. But then she finds herself tumbling into her books – becoming part of them. When the family moves into an old ivy-covered house with a Narnia lantern, Abi is happier, but her book tumbles keep happening. Strangely, Louis, her new younger brother, for whom the house is scary, seems to experience some of what she sees. When the boys’ mother Polly goes away to work abroad so that they have enough money to pay the rent, other mysterious things start to happen. There is a peculiar, disturbing being who appears and disappears. Louis is initially comforted by a strange creature that appears on his bed. At first he thinks it’s an owl, but then it appears to be a cat. It grows and grows. It’s no longer comforting. It’s very frightening. Theo is not aware of it, but to Abi, Louis and older brother Max, it is terrifying. They have no choice but to cooperate to rid free themselves of from all the sinister happenings they are caught up in.

 

This is a haunting, lyrically written, brilliant book. The portrayal of the difficult emotional journeys Abi and her brothers make is sensitive and realistic. Readers will readily relate to Abi and her stand-offish ways of dealing with the pains of loss and change. Louis’s loneliness and vulnerability and Max’s turbulent teenage feelings are very well depicted. The peculiar ivy-clad house with its unsettling visitors and events is singularly characterful. There is magic in this book in more senses than one. 

 

Anne Harding 

Uki and the Outcasts

Kieran Larwood, pub. Faber & Faber

This is another book in the Podkin saga and the latest addition to the Five Realms series. Fans will be familiar with the overlapping story, but to keep our interest there are some new characters. Uki is the main character and an unlikely hero. He has been rejected by his village and left to die. He is joined by two other outcasts, a trained assassin who refuses to kill people and a very short rabbit who rides the fastest jerboa on the plains.

 

It is a gripping tale for children who enjoy fantasy, adventure and rabbits. The author, Kieran Larwood, always loved fantasy stories and enjoyed reading The Hobbit as a boy. As well as all the action and excitement, this book also deals with issues like bullying and self-worth.

 

Wulf the Wanderer, the Master Bard, shares his stories and adventures with his fellow rabbit inhabitants of the Five Realms. The Bard says ‘you have to let the story build up. A good story comes to the boil slowly, just like a good vegetable stew’. Another character is Rue, the Bard’s apprentice. There are rumours of strange activity at a long abandoned tower. The Bard and Rue make a difficult journey to the tower.

 

There are some scary bits, as the story covers the battle between good and evil, but there is plenty of fantastic adventure, which children will love. Excellent illustrations by David Wyatt are made up of some brilliant black and white artwork.

 

The series is probably best read in order, but don’t be put off this latest one if you haven’t read the earlier books in the saga.

 

Gary Kenworthy

White Fox

Chen Jiatong, trans. Jennifer Feeley, illus. Viola Wang, pub. Chicken House

The back cover of Chicken House books offer a three-word summary of what’s inside: the three words that sum up White Fox are: magical, animal and quest. It is, quite simply, a magical animal quest. Published in China in 2014, it’s a bestseller there. The translation is smooth and lyrical, as I imagine the original would have been; the story picks up the reader and gallops along with them, breathless and exciting.

 

We meet Dilah, a white Arctic fox, snuggled up warm with his mother’s tail around him, in a burrow deep beneath the Arctic Circle, listening to much-loved myths and stories of heroic and legendary foxes from the past. But by the end of the first chapter (spoiler alert), he has heard her last ever story. She and Dilah’s father are killed by hunters and young Dilah is alone in the world – he has an older brother he’s never met, but no-one else. His mother’s last story, as she lay dying, was a new one; a tale of a magical moonstone that has the power to change animals into humans. She told Dilah where to find that same moonstone, buried deep in their burrow, before she died.

 

Dilah, who’s always been fascinated with the lives of humans, sets out on a quest to find out how the moonstone can help him become human. Along the way, he unlocks the mysteries of the magical gem and the riddles written on its pouch. He makes friends, narrowly escapes enemies, has heart-stopping adventures and – whenever he can – watches humans, realising that not all of them are nice. Is he still sure that he wants to become human? Does he find the special enchanted place of Ulla, the patron saints of foxes, where his dreams could come true?

 

I won’t spoil the ending – because I can’t. Find out what happens in the sequel…

White Fox is a fast-paced, magical tale of friendship, hardship, bravery, betrayal and adventure. A must-read for animal lovers from age 8 upwards.

 

Antonia Russell

The Wind in the Wall

Sally Gardner, illus. Rovina Cai, pub. Bonnier Books

A visually attractive large format book by multi award-winning Sally Gardner offers older middle grade readers a brand new folk tale with a dark denouement. 

 

The book jacket entices the reader, with a night time view of a building with a cupola like a pineapple centred between golden plants bearing a pineapple, plants which grow from a wall and twine up and round the sides of the image. Pineapple and wall are the crux of this blood-chilling tale, and illustrator Rovina Cai perfectly captures the weird, wonderful and terrifying quality of the story. Set in a stately home in the eighteenth century, a Duke sets his gardener the task of growing pineapples, introduced from tropical countries, something almost impossible to achieve in the bleak climate of northern Britain. When the pineapples fail to thrive the gardener is replaced by the mysterious Mr Amicus who successfully grows the coveted plants. However the gardener suspects Amicus is a trickster, and sneaks into the pineapple house to spy on him and the large covered bird cage he brought with him. What he finds there horrifies but intrigues him, and his fate is set. 

 

Although Gardner’s tale is new, inspired when she was writer in residence at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, one of the many stately homes which, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries created great gardens in which they cultivated pineapples and other exotic plants to indicate their wealth, to impress rival landowners, and in particular for suitors to attract a wife appropriate to their status. 

 

Gardner’s folk/fairy tale/myth/fable is in a long and splendid tradition of twisted tales, with an unsettling message to be careful what you wish for. Alnwick’s hothouse no longer exists. Instead Cai has used the 4th Earl of Dunmore’s summerhouse near Stirling to represent the hothouse in Gardner’s tale. This fantastic building, known now as The Pineapple, and its grounds, are in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, and visitable, while the Landmark Trust offer it as one of its quirky historic holiday lets. It’s a great pity that this isn’t credited in the book.

 

Bridget Carrington

With the Fire on High

Elizabeth Acevedo, illus. Erick Davila, pub. Hot Key Books

Emoni Santiago is THAT girl. The one your parents warned you about. The walking bad example. Whispered about in the halls at school. Pregnant at fourteen. But she’s also so much more. She’s a friend, a grand-daughter, a mother and a cook. A proud Philly girl with a Puerto Rican father (who has always chosen to live there, giving back to his community) and a “straight from the Carolinas” black mother, who died when she was born. 

 

With the Fire on High starts in Emoni’s final year of high school, three years after she gave birth to Emma (who she calls Babygirl and raises alone with her abuela). With her daughter in daycare, she’s back at school, taking an option called ‘Culinary Arts’. Emoni has always loved to cook. She watches all the cooking shows she can, cooks every day and loves nothing more than wandering around supermarkets looking at all the different foods, especially spices. And she has a talent: her food can evoke powerful memories and emotions in the people eating it (older readers will be reminded of Like Water for Chocolate – there’s recipes dotted throughout this book, too). Her cooking technique is instinctive and adventurous, something which doesn’t go down well with the chef trying to instruct her in following recipes.

 

Told in the first person, the book follows Emoni through the trials of her last year at school, earning money to pay for daycare, fundraising for a Culinary Arts field trip to Spain, dealing with Emma’s father and the pain of him taking Babygirl away for weekends, worrying about her grandmother’s health, missing her father . But – refreshingly – this is no moralistic tale, warning of the dangers of teen pregnancy. With the Fire on High just tells a story of a girl it happened to, and what she is doing to deal with how her life turned out. There are highs as well as lows, joy as well as sadness, friendships new and old, amazing experiences and not a little drama.

 

The text is rich in cultural tone and reference, naturally utilising both foreign and slang words between Emoni, her family and her peers (I had to look several words up – a great learning experience!). The New York Times called it “literary soul food”. 

 

This is Elizabeth Acevedo’s second book; her first, The Poet X, was written in verse and won the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and many other awards, including one recognising her positive portrayal of Latin culture. Based on the subject matter, I’d recommend this for older readers, from age 11; it would be a great book to kick off all sorts of discussions, around teen pregnancy, solo parenting, cultural difference, cooking, what makes a family, and following your dreams.

 

Antonia Russell

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