A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth
Francesca Gibbons, illus. Chris Riddell, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
Magical fantasy and adventure entwine with a generous sprinkling (for those of us old enough to know the stories) of Narnia and even Mary Poppins in this chunky – 477 – page story. Please do not be put off by the number of pages, I use that only as a way of explaining to you that this book may take up some space on your shelf but it won’t stay there long for it is such a delight to hold it in your hands and drink in the story, page after glorious page, again and again.
If we had met Fran (the author) when she was 12, we would have met a girl who was simply excited about the idea of writing a story about a door in a tree. Fast forward to meeting Fran the grown up who has done just this and then propel yourself into the story itself. Meet here Imogen and her annoying little sister (well she couldn’t be anything else could she!). Imogen thinks of herself as a grown up, too old for adventure, for silliness and for her sister but her sensibilities only go so far, and her curiosity often gets the better of her. Seeing a silver moth she is intrigued, though she has no idea why, and having rescued it from being swotted she is compelled to follow. Of course, her sister is in turn compelled to follow and as by now neither girl has done what they are told there is nothing to lose! The girls find themselves plunged into a world of magic, of fantasy, of new friends, old enemies and adventures but can they survive AND find their way home, not forgetting of course, win a race against time?
A classic adventure story but one that makes the reader question the stories they are told, this one included. A clever, twisting, turning story that will absorb and fascinate the reader, once, twice, many, many times. I hope there will be more adventures to follow.
A Most Improper Magick
Stephanie Burgis, pub. Piccadilly Press
Stephanie Burgis and Piccadilly Press have republished this book in a 10-year anniversary edition, complete with new artwork, and in anticipation of the release of the second instalment in February 2021. Whilst this would most likely be described as a fantasy novel but that element doesn’t dominate the story which also runs themes of adventure, determination, family and bravery.
The protagonist is a headstrong, 12-year-old girl who learns much about herself, secrets about her family and the ways of society living throughout this book.
There were some stereotypical features of the storyline that felt, at times, a little dated. The notion of marrying young girls off to rich, older men and that of the character of the unkind stepmother harked back to fairy tales of bygone years. Stories depicting girls pinning their happiness on finding love and wealth doesn’t tend to inspire but here the strength, fire, cunning and loyalty from the mainly female characters attempting to shun these expectations goes a long way to overshadowing this.
It felt unusual to have a fantasy story set in these times. It did mean that some of the language used was more complex and would most likely appeal to accomplished readers and those willing to question the words they might not understand. Younger readers may not be familiar with some concepts in this book (such as dowries), if you add to this the murder accusations and the expected age of a reader for this book goes up again, perhaps to pre/early teens.
The storyline was full of twists and would keep readers well engaged. It is exciting, a definite page turner and not at all your run of the mill fantasy book. This book isn’t just for fantasy fans though, a thrilling adventure awaits inside.
A Poem For Every Day of Autumn
ed. Allie Esiri, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books
I've read Allie Esiri's A Poem for Every Day of Year; and Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year; and now I have happily read through this, her latest anthology titled A Poem for Everyday of Autumn; which is a part of the four part season collection. A truly well put book with poems historically located in Septembers, Octobers, and Novembers of the past as lyrically painted by popular poets. Major events from English history have been decorated by poetry from/for that specific occasion.
There are 60-61 poems in each month, with two for each day; including hymns, lyrics and popular prayers from world religions which both adults and children can enjoy anytime of an Autumn season!
All the much-lauded poets from literature are enriching this collection with their peculiar expressions; there's John Keats with his Ode to Autumn, singing praises thus:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.
And Rabindranath Tagore, connecting with the world outside through Paper Boats; then there is Michaela Morgan with her powerful words on Malala Yousafzai who was shot by a Taliban shooter on 9th of October, 2012.
A girl with a book.
A girl with a book.
That's what has scared them-
A girl, with a book
Because a girl with a book,
A girl with a voice,
A girl with a brain,
A girl with a choice,
A girl with a plan To have rights, like a man.
That’s what they’re scared of
One girl, with a book.
A number of emotions like joy, hate, grief, love, curiosity, bravery, ecstasy, longing and peace are part of these myriad poems; associated with the season of Autumn which is a time of reflection, retrospection, celebration of the harvest season and a preparation for the rest of Winter.
This gorgeous book has a pumpkin spice-y hardcover with autumn foliage and golden leaves; making it a perfect companion for returning to each dawn and dusk with a warm cup of tea!
The B on Your Thumb
Colette Hiller, illus. Tor Freeman, pub. Frances Lincoln Children's Books
This entertaining and educational book by former BBC Education producer Colette Hiller and London based illustrator Tor Freeman is a delightful collection of phonetic rhymes created for little ones aged 3-7 years old. It has tongue twisters as nursery rhymes for kiddies, helping them to develop good English pronunciation skills.
Here we have excellent play on words and sounds with homonyms and homophones which have been devised by the author to help parents and educators to teach kids; not only that, but these poems have been successfully recited in schools and on the BBC channels.
As I open a page and see, there's a cat sitting in its study with a book titled 'Mr Know-it-All'; and the poem that follows plays on the sound 'N', here how it goes:
Now You Know
N-O spells no!
Easy Least. Even so…
If you know something
that's know with a K.
And now you know
so that's okay!
This is an engaging book with 60 poems full of laughter and learning hidden inside its pages for kids just beginning to grasp pronunciations, to those ready for some tricky poems.
Here an E dresses as a magician and K butterfly sits on a girl's knee, and an army of frogs celebrate with an 'oi'. There are full-page illustrations depicting a variety of emotions and these, coupled with the sounds and words take the reader on an adventure.
Children will definitely enjoy reciting these and adults can have a good laugh along with the kiddies.
Brand New Boy
David Almond, illus. Marta Altes, pub. Walker Books
David Almond’s books aimed at younger readers, like The Tale of Angelino Brown, The Boy Who Climbed into the Moon and My Dad’s a Birdman, for example, are a happy blend of magic and realism. Family life, personal experiences and feelings are at the centre of the story, but a fantasy element is present to soften the edges, giving stories which deal with important topics a unique otherworldliness.
Almond’s latest book for this age group is similarly thought-provoking and intelligent, though slightly more steeped into reality. Well, in the sense that the topic of artificial intelligence and its development is already widely discussed and accepted as a concept in our world. Here, though, the author imagines how young children may relate to the concrete application of this technology.
At Darwin Avenue Primary Academy Daniel and his friends welcome a new boy to their class. George impresses them with his skills in mathematics but his peculiar social skills and the fact that he is permanently followed by minders, Miss Crystal and Mr Marsch, soon give rise to speculation.
Nevertheless, the children grow fond of George and do their best to include him in their community, including introducing him to football with amazing results. However, Daniel and his friends cannot avoid noticing certain details and following a tea and play session at Daniel’s house, they are convinced that George may not be just what he appears to be.
It is a special announcement at Darwin Avenue Primary and its consequences on George that convince Daniel and his friends to step into action in order to help their new friend.
While targeting the younger audience, this book raises deep questions about the use of artificial intelligence, and, in particular about what makes us human. This is a concept with which the protagonists of the book grapple and which is addressed with great sensitivity. Overall, it is the sense of warmth and gentle humour that pervades this story.
The positive interaction among children, the kind attitude towards the younger pupils – the delightful ‘fairies’ – and the readiness to accept the newcomer offer very positive models for any reader. I loved the little but consistent regional inflection in the dialogues, while the way in which the relationship between Daniel and his mother, a single parent, shines through completes this heart-warming picture.
And, of course, it is the humanity that pervades this setting and its characters that offers the starkest contrast with the plan of those who consider perfection the ultimate goal.
Chocolate Milk, X-Ray Specs and Me
Bethany Walker, illus. Jack Noel, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books
Freddy Spicer wants three things in life; his parents to come back from sprout farming in Outer Castonga; to go to the 'Blast Yourself Bonkers' laser game for his tenth birthday, to make friends at his new school.
Freddy misses his parents, not just because they're the only people who know how to make his favourite chocolate milk, shaken not stirred. He can't join them due to an unfortunate allergy to Outer Castonga pine spores. Instead he is stuck at home with his tight-fisted grandad, whose culinary skills are limited to all things sprouts, producing the kind of gases that get Freddy known for all the wrong reasons #FreddyFartyPants. But Freddy is resilient, and through illustrated hand-written letters (Outer Castonga has no internet or phone access) he regales his parents with life back home, his determination to fit in at school and the glamorous new neighbour Mrs Allbright, who has developed a serious flirtation with Grandad.
A series of classified dispatches and news bulletins reveal the truth to the reader who will discover more about criminal mastermind, Dr Alpha Bett, and how Mrs Allbright is using Freddy and his grandad as bait. Will Freddy end up as sprout stew before his crush on Head Girl Samira Hadid is ever requited? Is new exchange student Harry Covair, all that he claims? Will Freddy lean espionage isn’t French for spinach? Is neighbour Desiree Delicata really helping Freddy post his letters to his parents? The plot thickens and not just with sprout mash. The whole world is in danger, can Freddy save it, albeit totally unknowingly and in madcap fashion?
A truly hilarious debut with an endearingly innocent hero. Freddy's resolute efforts to see the best in everyone is comedy gold, ensuring he misses every clue and warning. Clever use of letters also makes for a tight, fast-paced action-packed story.
Jack Noel's illustrations are a perfect partner to bringing alive Freddy and this world of international spinach, I mean espionage. A laugh-out-loud, high energy middle-grade adventure for young readers. For insight into the mind of the author that brought you a sprout-themed spy book, read my interview.
Crystal of Storms (Fighting Fantasy)
Rhianna Pratchett, illus. Eva Eskelinen, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books
I’m this book’s natural audience. I was there for Tunnels & Trolls’ Deathtrap Equalizer Dungeon and remember Fighting Fantasy’s original launch. I start off feeling warm towards Crystal of Storms. Gamebooks, briefly: alternative versions of a story, of varying success for the protagonist, are presented as a series of jumbled, numbered paragraphs. The reader, as protagonist, is presented with choices at regular intervals that switch them between the alternatives. Navigation is achieved through the paragraph numbering. Kids, it’s what we did before computer games. Zork and its antecedents were pretty much hidden away on university mainframes.
Every game book is conspicuously artificial, and depends on its ability to be immersive and evocative. Description, language, names, locations all need to do huge amounts of work and feel never less than believable. Tick. These are all excellently done. The occasional illustrations are moody and dynamic, they deserve separate and significant praise.
A game book has to be fair and present genuine jeopardy. If every choice is too obvious, there is no agency. Neither is there any if every choice is random. A reader needs to be rewarded for good judgement, likewise making the right choice shouldn’t lead automatically to success.
The book uses equipment, codewords and luck as gatekeepers. Frequently, there’s conflict with monsters and enemies. The slow way in which this is resolved is exciting, without being so slow that it’s a mood-breaking chore.
Consequently, it’s possible to grow and dwindle as a character throughout the story which also adds to its replayability. You can be more or less ready for encounters.
Choice-making is not so influential (paragraph 143, I’m looking at you), so I’m going to say this book is skewing towards a younger audience. The puzzling out is not so important. While this might add to replayability (there’s less invested in working the story out), it’ll make the book less satisfying for someone who’s done a lot of these before, so again we’re pointing at younger audiences.
Perhaps that’s why there’s nothing I can find that actually deals with you as the protagonist dying in, say, the tentacles of the Great White Squark. I would have liked a rewarding respawn routine as perhaps the adventure is handed on to the next eldest sibling in the family along with the pick of whatever equipment the previous protagonist died with.
Overall, it’s high adventure in a fantasy setting with lots of two-fisted interaction. It’s not remarkable, but it gets so many things so right that I’d say it’s quintessential.
Katie and Kevin Tsang, illus. Petur Antonsson, pub. Simon & Schuster Children's Books
When you go to a summer camp, you may expect a few things; to make friends, to learn from new activities, to have a few stories to tell upon your return. For Billy Chan however, going to Camp Dragon results in discovering his destiny - to try and prevent the Dragon Realm, and the Human Realm as a result, from certain devastation at the claws of the Dragon of Death.
Billy is reluctantly thrust into a friendship group upon his arrival at Camp Dragon but soon finds out that this unlikely quartet, which he is part of, has more than just camp challenges to take on together. The mixed group have quirks and skills which seem to complement each other although that does not necessarily bring them guaranteed success in their first quest together – to follow a clue and collect their unknown item. When they mysteriously disappear into Dragon Mountain, their lives are about to change.
Dragon Mountain, which is the first in the Dragon Realm series, is cleverly written so that the rest of the series has a strong foundation to build upon. This book leaves the reader unsure about what is going to come next for the characters, although it is clear that their journey is far from over, and not far from the next dangerous turn. This book is perfectly suited to those looking for their next adventure!
With a variety of characters, both human and dragon, and a number of setbacks and twists along the way, this engaging story will excite the imaginations of younger readers.
The cover art by Petur Antonsson is stunning and captures the characters with the dragons in the heat of the Dragon Realm.
Eve McDonnell, illus. Holly Ovenden, pub. Everything with Words
Debut Irish author Eve McDonnell crafts an enthralling story suspended between two worlds, one set in 1864, and the other in 1928 - the year of the great Thames flood in London. Twelve-year-old Glory and Needle, accompanied by a mysterious black crow, masterfully hold the threads of a time travelling adventure which will keep you from putting the book down.
The narrative is not always linear, so I would recommend Elsetime to a confident reader. As somebody who is just about to enter a new world, it took me a few pages to find the emotional connection to the characters. It may have been due to the sudden jump through historical time between the prologue and first chapter. Or perhaps to the initial atmosphere which appeared quite gloomy (lost parents; lost hand; school expulsion; bullies; difficult childhood). By chapter two this feeling had vanished, and the tension generated by the parallel worlds in the book turned out to be one of its strongest points.
The plot is driven by the determination of the protagonists who manage to get over themselves and achieve their individual goals. Needle is beautifully depicted through his quirky language, his vision, his magical skills. Glory comes alive in her determination, her kindness, her uplifting dreams. Their friendship plays a pivotal role in the story’s outcome.
I warmly invite you to ‘enter’ Elsetime. Like the great flood of London, its murky puddles and strong currents will sweep you away.
The Greatest Inventor
Ben Brooks, pub. Quercus Children’s Books
Victor has never left his home village of Rainwater and is beginning to yearn for adventure. When inventor Walter Swizwit passes through Rainwater, Victor doesn’t think much of it: he’s just the latest in a long line of inventors and magicians with nothing interesting to sell. But when the villagers reject Walter’s cheap magic tricks, he turns spiteful and puts a curse on the entire village.
Only Victor is left unaffected and now he must leave his village for the first time to try and find a way to lift the curse. Along the way he meets new friends Elena, practical and fierce with a bow and arrow, science prodigy Mo-Lan, and the more nervous Mingus. Together with pet tortoise St. Oswald they will have to take on Walter – and it’s soon clear that they have underestimated his malevolent power…
Written in a clear, humorous style, The Greatest Inventor is a warm-hearted and magical adventure. Slapstick humour is neatly combined with a more subtle social commentary, which speaks up for the value and pleasures of real life against the potentially dulling and unsatisfactory virtual life of smartphones and computer games. Readers will come away with a renewed sense of the importance of ‘quiet’ time, where you can be ‘alone with your thoughts’.
The Island That Didn’t Exist
Joe Wilson, pub. Oxford Children’s Books
Imagine being whisked off to the fancy London Law offices of one Arnold Crump only to discover, in the reading of a will, that you’ve inherited the private island of your eccentric old Great Uncle Silvester (who incidentally has left his entire £2.5 million inheritance to a seagull sanctuary). And what if the island in question hadn’t appeared on any map in hundreds of years and maybe didn’t even exist? Intrigued and undaunted, the resilient 12-year-old Rixon persuades his mum to drive him to the coastline nearest to the island then affects a daring, not to mention dangerous, solo getaway to try to find it in a hijacked motorboat ferry.
Splinter Island turns out to be inhabited by four half-wild, spear-throwing children, hidden away from outsiders by a concealed, seagull-controlled curtain. Gradually the significance of the other part of Rixon’s inheritance becomes clear - an envelope of old newspaper clippings about a group of scientists who disappeared with an invention that could change the world and a memory stick of unintelligible diagrams and formulae. Rixon and the island children find themselves forced to solve scientific problems, create energy-saving inventions and battle a corrupt and power-hungry multimillionaire tech giant to protect not just their home but the future of the planet.
The Island that Didn’t Exist is a timely, page-turning eco-adventure with a real Famous Five feel but set firmly in the here and now. The adults are, largely, not to be trusted, while the children excel themselves facing character tests aplenty, ultimately proving they’re more than capable of putting the world to rights on their own. The risks feel very real, the danger is perfectly pitched for the upper KS2/lower KS3 audience. The underlying theme is the use and abuse of power both by individuals and by corporations on society and the responsibilities which that power entails. This is a book to make you think and a book which makes you want to get outdoors adventuring.
The twisty turny plot and cliffhanger chapter endings would make this story a fantastic classroom read aloud and the plot lends itself perfectly to a myriad of creative curriculum projects from imaginatively mapping your own island to creative diary writing and news reporting. Definitely a debut author we need to hear more from!
Readers seeking more exciting island adventures might try The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave or the classic story Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo. Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer is an equally exciting adventure story of children fighting for survival set in an untamed Amazon landscape. Other outstanding adventures tackling the climate crisis include Swimming Against the Tide by Jess Butterworth and Across the Risen Sea by Bren MacDibble. Spylark by Danny Rurlander is another tense and tightly plotted adventure where techno-gadgetry proves crucial to thwarting danger.
Jumbo: The Most Famous Elephant Who Ever Lived
Alexander Stewart, illus. Emily Sutton, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books
East Africa 1890, a baby elephant is trying to stand up for the first time.
As a young elephant Jumbo travelled 10,800km from Africa to Europe. He ends up in London zoo, there (so they say) he gives rides to people. Rumour has it that a young Winston Churchill was among those who rode on Jumbo. Sadly, at night Jumbo would fly into rages, so bad that he would try and break down his enclosure. There was only one member of staff who could calm him. He was eventually sold to a circus where he was paraded in front of paying guests. Sadly when he died the circus that owned him still used him as a source of income. Happily today zoos are more educated about animal habitat and welfare, and circuses are discouraged from having animals perform.
This is a powerful book which will make you smile in places and make you feel sad in other places. The pictures are beautifully drawn. Some of the pictures are double pages, some are single pages, and some pictures are scattered across the book. There are different fonts of writing which makes it fun to read. The book is easy to follow and it’s full of interesting information.
I was really pleased to have reviewed this book, I really enjoyed reading it, and it has reinforced my belief that wild animals are better off in the wild.
King of the Swamp
Catherine Emmett, illus. Ben Mantle, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books
This is a lovely story with such an important and relevant message. Children will enjoy reading it again and again.
The book could be used to encourage children to think about their environment and to appreciate the natural beauty that is all around them. It features a very clear and easy to read font and the rhyming verse makes it even easier for young children to read. The beautiful illustrations by Ben Mantle will also attract young children. The page when all the caterpillars turn into beautiful, colourful butterflies is a real delight. The whole layout is simple, very effective and very attractive.
McDarkly, the swamp monster, is a very loveable character and children will readily connect with him. He lives on his own in a dark swamp and cares for the plants all around. One day his peace is disturbed by a King who wants to build a new roller skate park. McDarkly quickly has to show that the swamp is a beautiful place full of colour and beauty. Young people today are very conscious of their environment and will love the idea that the swamp monster wants to stop the King from developing the swamp where he lives. McDarkly is desperate to save the flowers and the butterflies. This message of conservation is told in a way that children will understand and respond to.
This is a really delightful tale, with a very important message. It is very easy to read and a pleasure to look at, for both parents and children. The illustrations are magical, and children will love the ending.
The Lost War Dog
Megan Rix, pub. Penguin Random House Children’s Books
An animal story with a difference…
Megan Rix has many middle-grade novels to her credit in which animals play a crucial role, and which are set in specific times and circumstances. Some are placed in situations which result in uncertain, challenging or mentally disturbing experiences for young people, but in particular Rix chooses significant, primary school curriculum-based points in history which produce those situations.
In The Lost War Dog she engages readers in the plight of Tilly, a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany just prior to the start of the Second World War. Rix begins Tilly’s story during the events of Kristallnacht, November 9-10 1938, when the Nazis undertook a campaign of organised violence against the Jewish population across Germany. The ensuing destruction of their homes, shops, synagogues and way of life, and the transportation of many men to concentration camps resulted in families desperately trying to send their children out of Germany, on the Kindertransport. In the lead up to WWII this organised transport to take almost 10,000 children to England. Rather than just tell Tilly’s story as a historical narrative, Rix sets the events around Tilly’s dog, a dachshund called Wuffly.
Wuffly is an accomplished escapologist, who takes every opportunity to ensure that she is never far away from Tilly, or failing that, from one of Tilly’s friends. That’s not easy in wartime, and certainly not easy when Gretchen, Tilly’s best friend, is not Jewish, and by law is now not supposed to have anything to do with Jews. One of the highlights of this engaging novel is that Rix shows how some Aryan – non-Jewish – families changed their opinions of Hitler and the Nazis as they saw what was happening to those who had previously been part of their community, and their friends. In Tilly and Gretchen, and their deaf friend, Hans, Rix creates likeable and brave characters whose reactions to the history happening around them are exciting, understandable and realistic.
A fast moving, sometimes heart-wrenching story, with a wealth of accurate historical information woven skilfully into the text, and a helpful glossary provide an excellent novel.
The Marvellous Land of Snergs
Veronica Cossanteli based on the original by E.A. Wyke-Smith, illus. Melissa Castrillón, pub. Chicken House
Pip and Flora are recent arrivals and the very best of friends at Sunny Bay Home for Superfluous and Accidentally Parentless Children. When Flora is abducted and Pip gives chase, the two children suddenly find themselves in the Marvellous Land of Snergs. Their fantastical adventure begins.
Pip and Flora face many dangers as they navigate through the Land of Snergs and into the Kingdom of the Kelps, the Snergs’ arch-enemies. There are wobsers, a forest of Twisted trees, Fungus tunnels populated by hairy walruses and the Distressful Swamp with its myriad of deadly occupants for the unwary. There are however allies, including their good, but blundering friend Gorbo and Flora’ puppy, Tiger. Unbeknown to Pip and Flora, they are slowly and inexorably being lured into a deadly trap set by the wicked witch Malicia. She is planning a nasty surprise for Pip and Flora and all the residents of Sunny Bay Home.
Pip and Flora are great characters, always getting into trouble, but their courage and friendship hold true. They both however need to confront their past and their parents’ failings if they are to stop Malicia’s evil plans. Whilst Gorbo’s buffoonery causes much calamity and hilarity, he is a very likeable companion and unlikely hero. There is an interesting backstory to all the characters, including Miss Watkyns, currently in charge of Sunny Bay Home. In essence it is a story of two sets of orphans: Pip and Flora and Miss Watkyns and Malicia.
The Marvellous Land of Snergs inspired The Hobbit and there are some obvious comparisons, for example, each chapter begins with an introductory outline. Moreover, Flora and Pip travel across different lands, populated by the fantastical races of the Snergs and Kelps, whilst avoiding goblins and trolls. Despite the perils, the children have to take the initiative and save themselves as much as Gandalf leaves Bilbo Baggins to his own devices. Like any good adventure there are always lessons to be learned and Sunny Bay Home will never be the same again.
This delightful story, originally published by E.A. Wyke-Smith in 1927, is brilliantly retold by Veronica Cossanteli and illustrated by Melissa Castrillón, enabling this forgotten classic to be enjoyed by a whole new generation of children.
Malice in Underland
Jenni Jennings, illus. Hannah Peck, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books
The title of this book gives you a good idea of what to expect. It takes the idea of Alice in Wonderland and plays with it: so, as in Alice, we have a girl adventuring in a fantasy world beneath the earth. This girl is the antithesis of Alice in looks; she has short dark hair instead of the familiar long golden hair – but, like Alice, she’s tough and determined.
Malice belongs to the Malign family, who live in our world but have one foot in Underland. Their job is to be bad: to do annoying things, to stir up trouble. But, following a familiar trope – the ‘normal’ one in a family of weirdos – such as Count Duckula, the vegetarian vampire, or my own Spooker Batt from Spook School, a ghost who doesn’t like to frighten people – Malice doesn’t like doing bad stuff; in fact – whisper it – she’s rather good.
This being the first of a series, it takes a while to establish the set-up. But once it gets going – grandpas, including Malice’s own, of whom she’s very fond, are going missing, and Malice is determined to find them – it takes us on a fast-moving adventure in Underland. Malice has helpers – her Uncle Vexatious, another outcast in the Malign family, and her ordinary human friend Seth, who is fascinated by his glimpses into Malice’s world and thinks nothing of sharing a cupboard with a skeleton. These three form an excellent team, which is clearly all set to undertake more investigations in Underland.
The illustrations are charming and add a great deal to the story, and the cover, with a sort of keyhole arrangement through which the main characters peer, is really rather gorgeous and should certainly make people want to pick it up.
Meesha Makes Friends
Tom Percival, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Meesha Makes Friends is the latest book in Tom Percival’s Big Bright Feelings series, and my favourite one so far. (Ruby’s Worry was excellent but, when I read it to my four-year-old niece, the visual of a big cloud of worries following her around made her even more anxious!)
Meesha is excellent at making things, but she finds it hard to make friends—she doesn’t know what to say or when to say it, and she doesn’t understand why everyone else seems to find it easy. So instead, she creates her own friends out of paper, paints and glue. When Meesha has to go to a party with a lot of children she doesn’t know, she hides in a corner making her own friends as usual. But this time a boy wants to join her, and Meesha has to decide whether to let him into her made-up world. In the end Meesha’s made-up friends finally help her to make some real friends. I’ve read it aloud to several reception and year 1 classes this week and I’ve choked up on the last page every time.
As always, Tom Percival’s illustrations are delightfully whimsical with a wonderful relationship between emotions and the intensity of colour.
Meesha Makes Friends is a moving and sensitive portrayal of a subject that most children can relate to, to a greater or lesser degree—an uplifting story that will also inspire children to be kind and inclusive.
Mina Mistry (sort of) Investigates: The Case of the Disgusting School Dinners
Angie Lake, illus. Ellie O’Shea, pub. Sweet Cherry Publishing
Mina Snotbridge, a.k.a. Mina Mistry has a secret diary which is ‘pink and fluffy and girly.’ She keeps it ‘badly hidden at the back of her sock drawer,’ but that isn’t her real secret diary – that one is hidden under a floorboard at the back of her closet. Her real secret diary is full of notes from her ‘investigations’.
As well as the notes, Mina keeps files on anyone and everyone that she knows. When an expert arrives at school to talk to the children about the importance of healthy eating, Mina realises that all of their school dinners - pizza, chips, chocolate cake, ice-cream, cheese burgers – is unhealthy junk food. Mina thinks that this is very strange, as does Granny Meera. Granny knows the school cook and knows that she is concerned about healthy eating too – so why is she making unhealthy meals? Mina knows there must be a reason why this is happening and it’s a mystery that she is determined to solve – with the help of her best friend – not her self-obsessed best school friend, Holly Loafer, but Mr Panda (an old one eyed cuddly toy).
Young readers, and especially girls, will enjoy this fun mystery story. Written in the first person with an easy conversational tone, Mina really jumps off the page. There are bold illustrations on almost every page and the text is in a large enough format, and with different fonts, to make reading easier and more appealing for younger readers – the font size and plentiful illustrations also allow for a thicker book which will be another draw.
Readers that enjoy this won’t have long to wait for the next Mina Mistry Investigates The Case of the Disappearing Pets.
Roxy & Jones: The Great Fairytale Cover-Up
Angela Woolfe, pub. Walker Books
Roxy, 11, has just moved into her sister’s home in the city of Rexopolis in the kingdom of Illustria but things are very odd. Gretel, her sister, is a cleaner who is always on call at the mysterious government Ministry for Soup. When, late one night, she finds an underground stone staircase behind a panel of the bath, she can’t help but investigate and it is in the old underground chambers that she meets Jones, a strange girl, who leads her into all sorts of danger and adventures as she learns the truth about her new home.
With tongue-in-cheek humour using well-known fairy tale elements such as Jones always losing a shoe, a talking mirror (always in rhyme), or vegetables becoming modes of transport this is an amusing and entertaining fantasy adventure where fairytales are true stories and magic is real but forbidden and hidden because the mysterious Ministry has covered up history, forced inhabitants like magical godmothers underground, and placed an enchantment over the world.
There were elements I found a bit confusing or annoying such as why soup, of all things, is so prominent and it was slow and plodding at times but there was also some intriguing sections which I wished were made more of such as the Rumpelstiltskin character, the witches’ retreat, and the invisible flying minibus. The development of Roxy’s character is also interesting because as she becomes increasingly involved in Jones’ adventures the more she questions things around her and discovers hidden skills and depths of bravery.
This feels like it is the first in what could become a long-running series and as Woolfe has also written under the name Emerald Everhart there are other titles already available for readers who enjoyed Woolfe’s work.
Natalie J. McChrystal Plimmer
The Secret of Magic: The Forbidden Box
Natassa Louppou, pub. OnTime Books
This is the first adventure in a time travelling series of books by Natassa Louppou. The Magic Bus, book two, is currently being translated and will be available shortly.
To whet your appetite book one features a young girl who makes a fascinating discovery. Tania has just celebrated her 12th birthday on the 15th of April. A magician was hired to be the entertainment for her party and she discovers his magician’s kit left behind at the end of the evening. Containing several varied items and a rabbit, she is intrigued and begins playing with an old fashioned pocket watch. Feeling a strange surge in energy, Tania closes her eyes and when she opens them again, she is no longer in her room. She finds herself on a boat and must figure out when and where she has arrived. Every time Tania picks up another item from the magician’s kit, she is immediately transported to the same day but in different years. Accompanying her is the rabbit, who is named Mike and can speak while travelling through time.
This is a fun and intriguing book with the potential to teach readers about events in history, important time periods and influential people from history. Tania moves from the sinking Titanic, to Rhodes in WWII and then back to 1504 where she meets DaVinci, her hero. Set in Rhodes, the story begins to make historical links between Tania and the family she meets during WWII. I thought this was a sweet story and would make for some interesting conversations with readers about events from the past. I am curious to see where Tania may end up next so look forward to book two.
Liz Pichon, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books
Shoe Wars is a brand-new story from the creator of the Tom Gates series. Ruby and Bear Foot live in Shoe Town with their Dad, but he has a secret - he has invented some amazing flying shoes. But he has to keep them a secret from his evil boss, Wendy Wedge, or she will steal them to win the prestigious Golden Shoe Award. When Wendy catches wind of the shoes and arrests their Dad, Ruby and Bear must rescue him, keep the shoes out of Wendy’s ambitious grasp, and find a way to get rid of Wendy Wedge once and for all.
Wendy Wedge is an excellent villain, with her malicious insistence that everyone in Shoe Town must wear her uncomfortable wedges, and her hypocritical determination to ban fluffy slippers. Her offspring, Walter Wedge, is almost as bad as her.
Reading Liz Pichon’s stories is a wonderfully visual experience—each page is not just illustrated, but beautifully constructed and designed, including literal ‘foot’-notes and shoe sizes for chapters. The gold, red and black cover is particularly striking, and I loved the red shoelace bookmark.
Shoe Wars is an inventive, madcap, page-turning, adventure, filled with hilarious shoe puns. As it says on the cover: Liz Pichon ‘likes shoes not war’ and above all this book is a love letter to shoes - crammed full of ridiculous footwear that perform a dazzling variety of functions beyond merely covering the feet. I can’t decide if my favourites are the ‘Octi Shoes’ that can walk up walls or the ‘Book Shoes’ with reading light and automatic page-turner. A wonderfully engaging, laugh-out-loud story that children will love to read.
Voyage of the Sparrowhawk
Natasha Farrant, pub. Faber & Faber
Natasha Farrant’s literary skills materialise again to thrill her audience. This book will not disappoint with its humdinger of a tale to tell. Paced well for 9-11+ year olds and especially for the reluctant reader. “What happens in the end” proves to be irresistible.
Set around 1919 at the end of the First World War, a prologue recaps on recent past events. Here we find Nathan’s narrowboat The Sparrowhawk unknowingly moored near an orphanage. He meets Ben and Sam, two of the ‘inmates’ of this establishment, after Ben has sustained a foot injury due to owning no shoes. Nathan’s concern about the boys encourages him to put the offer of a home to the orphanage After some speedy alterations to his boat in preparation, and the orphanage not being bound by child protection legislation, they say yes.
Sam the older boy, leaves some years later to fight in the 1st World War, and is badly injured. Nathan decides to go over to France to visit him. He is killed in a bombing raid and Sam is reported missing. This leaves young Ben on his own living with Mercy, a friend of Nathan’s. One thing leads to another and the story opens when Ben returns to the Sparrowhawk to assess its condition after this interval only to find Lottie on board?
Lottie’s parents have recently died and she is living with an uncle and aunt in her parents’ house until she is old enough to inherit her estate. They do not have her best interests at heart. She is anxious to contact her maternal grandmother in France. Ben is equally concerned to find out what happened to Sam, the friend he considers his brother and of course the man he regarded as his father, Nathan. They decide to travel to France together on The Sparrowhawk. A daring feat in itself, on a narrowboat tantamount to suicide. They are chased by several parties, some official, others are friends with concerns for their well-being. And family with little good will in their hearts. They meet other folks on the journey and so begins a wonderful, pacy tale of altruism, friendship, leadership, tenacity, stoicism and empathy.
Themes for discussion arising from this tale will be thought provoking for the solitary reader, whilst a class at school can chew over the relevant issues. The fate of orphans whilst never a happy topic, back in 1919 takes precedence. The lack of accountability for children finding themselves in this plight, is strikingly illustrated with both Ben and Lottie. Lottie comes from a well-off family but this does not secure her safe passage. A child’s safety would depend on the consistent presence of a well-meaning person. A tricky commodity in post WW1 Britain. These children’s lives were lotteries.
In essence a brilliant little tale which manages to unpack all sorts of early twentieth century unique realities that had to be endured. Then wrapping them all up again in a mantle of strength and indefatigability.
The Wizard in my Shed: The Misadventures of Mervyn the Wild
Simon Farnaby, illus. Claire Powell, pub. Hodder Children’s Books
Have you ever felt like an outcast or a weirdo? Been bullied because you weren’t the best singer or didn’t have the most fashionable hairstyle? We’ve all been there; growing up is tough stuff. But fear not because Rose has been through it all, and she’s now got a wand wielding warlock to deal with too!
When Mervyn turns up in her, quite frankly, dull world Rose’s life takes a strange turn. She finds herself helping him find disguises, welcoming him to the greasy delights of fish and chips, and that’s before she finds herself on national television. But it isn’t all fun and games, Rose learns life lessons along the way, and we see her grow as a person through the narrative.
This book is a pure joy to read, it cast me back and forth from the dark ages to the present day- painting a vivid picture as the story moved back and forth. My own imagination was bolstered by the wonderful illustrations; Powell’s scribbly drawing style perfectly complements Farnaby’s comic writing and gives further clarity to the story.
It’s difficult to believe that this is Farnaby’s first book- though the keen eyes amongst you will have seen him acting in the likes of Paddington and Horrible Histories. His writing style is fun and accessible, yet intelligent and informative. He even goes so far as to include a guide of different types of grass for the green fingers amongst you.
Warlocks, wizards, talking guinea pigs- this book has it all, and would make the perfect pick for anyone who revels in fantasy and magic.
Rosie Cammish Jones
Rosie likes to read and write in her free time. Her own debut young adult novel, Man vs Machine, is due out later this year.
Wulfie: Stage Fright
Lindsay J. Sedgwick, illus. Josephine Wolff, pub. Little Island
Libby is a lonely child terrorised by her horrible step-brother Rex and his gruesome tales of the Big Bad Wolf.
Everything changes for Libby when she discovers a wolf-like creature in a mysterious trunk in the corner of her bedroom. Despite his yellow eyes and long claws, Wulfie turns out to be a sweet and big-hearted character. At last Libby has a friend, albeit one that inadvertently causes her a lot of trouble! He wreaks all sorts of havoc with his well-meaning but not always successful attempts to help Libby out. There is a lot of fun to be had following Wulfie’s antics as he grows and shrinks at will and sneaks off to explore. Children will enjoy the fact that his favourite food is smelly socks and that when he eats cakes he starts to smell so bad the whole school has to be shut down!
Libby wishes she could star in the school play and with Wulfie’s help she might just get her chance. There are various hurdles to overcome such as Rex’s jealousy and Libby’s lack of confidence. The story will have you rooting for Libby to succeed and longing for Rex to get his comeuppance (which when it comes is suitably disgusting).
This book would be suitable for newly independent readers who still like to have the text broken up with pictures. The black and white illustrations throughout capture Wulfie’s cute and mischievous character and sympathetically portray Libby and her struggles with the monstrous Rex. Wulfie’s adventures are set to continue in a series of books.
Zombierella: Fairy Tales Gone Bad
Joseph Coelho, illus. Freya Hartas pub. Walker Books
Joseph Coelho, writer and poet, is probably best known for his anthology of poems Overheard in a Tower Block and he has also written picture books, but this book is definitely a story for the older primary ages.
Coelho has taken the classic fairy tale and turned it into a Hallowe’en-esc story where he takes the opportunity to use death as the main theme, produce ghostly settings, and change key characters into zombies, skeletons, vampires and ghosts. You feel Coelho having fun with readers as characters pull out brains and guts, pull woodlice from cracked heels, and it certainly isn’t the shoe that Zombierella loses as she runs from the ball.
The tale is told over eight chapters, and the story is accompanied by Hartas’s superb black and white drawings on every page, giving the young reader (and old) plenty to think about upon every turn– sometimes you just don’t know what you are going to get next!
All this is driven by Coelho’s poetic writing. On each page the narrative is laid out like free poetry, with occasional rhyme, and there is a rhythmical feel to the writing that bounces the reader on and on through the story. His use of language throughout is rich - a nod to his poetic roots - and he does not shy away from using advanced vocabulary choices such as glissaded and mewling to describe.
Underneath the fun, the gore and the laughter, Coelho still manages to make this a romantic love story, that pulls at the heartstrings, and just to finish off, the sisters cut off their feet and slip down the stairs in poo in an attempt to woo the prince – why not!
Even though one can imagine children going ‘eww’ or ‘that’s disgusting’ as they read the story, you just know that they will want to read on, and enjoy every minute of it.