The Story Shop Anchors Away! / There’s a Dog in my Brain: Dog Show Disaster

The Story Shop Anchors Away!
Tracey Corderoy, illustrated by Tony Neal
Little Tiger

I loved the idea of The Story Shop, the place selling real adventures that its customers can actually be in, when it blasted off during the spring this year. So it’s a delight to be back in the company of shopkeeper Wilbur and Fred Ferret his assistant, with their plethora of props and plot possibilities for three more episodes.

The first begins when explorer Pearl practically tumbles in just when Wilbur and Fred are about to shut for the day demanding they find her an adventure she’s not experienced before. Thus this fearless woman becomes Captain Pearl and after a bit of persuasion, she agrees to take Fred aboard her ship as her pirate assistant, along with pirate, Edie. But what are scarf knitting pirates and other crafters doing already below deck when she wants a PROPER piratical adventure? Yo Ho Ho! Let operation retrieve their priceless black pearl commence.

Having bobbed about in barrels for ages after their successful mission, Pearl and Fred wash up on shore only to be confronted by a bunch of scary-looking pirates led by Long Jane Silver who is convinced the two are spies sent by Blunderbuss Bob, her rival in the up-coming annual raft race.
Stinky Socks!

Can the two come up with a placatory plan to help their captor win the entire event?

The third episode finds Pearl and Fred sans ship, knocking on the door of a guesthouse belonging to Meg O’Cuttlefish. Once within, they accept an attic room and soon find themselves swapping pirating stories with Meg before bedtime. However something decidedly ghostly disturbs their slumbers; what could be the cause of that mysterious wailing sound?

Full of swashbuckling fun, a scattering of puns and Tony Neal’s comical illustrations, this is a treat for story lovers of the land-lubbing kind taking their early voyages as independent readers.

There’s a Dog in my Brain: Dog Show Disaster
Caroline Green, illustrated by Rikin Parekh
Walker Books

Here’s a crazy chaotic canine caper if ever there was one: actually it’s the second canine body switch episode. It all begins when Dudley the dog consumes almost every single one of the cakes Danny’s dad has so lovingly baked and Mum decides there’s no other choice but to send the pooch to Doggy Boot Camp. Needless to say ten-year old Danny is horrified but shortly after he realises that he’s swapped bodies with Dudley, something his parents fail to notice even though the ill-fated creature is absolutely useless at being a human.

However after the incident at the fancy farm shop that ends up costing in excess of four hundred pounds, the hose escapade

and Danny’s feats at canine classes, there’s no option but to reveal to the parents that a body swap has taken place again. But that means Danny as his alter-ego Dudley has to perform at the dog show and take on dog trainer Rex Power’s perfect pooch, Princess Fenella. nothing can possibly go wrong, surely.

Those with a penchant for pooches, slapstick and perhaps cake will relish Caroline Green’s romp, that’s if it doesn’t render them barking mad. Rikin Parekh’s black and white illustrations add to
the hilarity

Paper Boat, Paper Bird

Paper Boat, Paper Bird
David Almond, illustrated by Kirsti Beautyman
Hodder Children’s Books

Mina – a character from Skellig and its prequel My Name is Mina is now visiting Japan with her mother, experiencing the culture and learning a great deal. While travelling on a bus in Kyoto she watches a woman folding a piece of paper that becomes an origami boat; this she gives to Mina and soon after, a paper bird and when she leaves the bus, some origami paper. Watching the woman fashion these almost magical things from squares of paper captures Mina’s imagination.

As she travels to the temple at Kinkaku-ji, she holds onto her delight in the origami

and in the garden surrounding the temple Mina creates a boat and bird herself. She places the bird in the boat and gently puts it into one of the streams. Later it’s discovered by Mikaya who is with his dad; the boy notices the name on each one and when they stop, he writes his name on the bird and launches it into the air: communication and kindness are passed through origami,

and eventually Mina and Mikaya meet one another.

Powerfully beautiful – the power being in the simplicity of the telling and also in Kirsti Beautyman’s illustrations that have an airy, almost ethereal quality to them. David’s story is based on a real life happening when he was in Tokyo with his young daughter. He uses his awesome art of creating a story out of brief experiences and as always with his stories, this one with its quiet, contemplative gentleness resonates long after you’ve put the book down.

The Magic of Magnolia Moon / Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door and the Mermaid’s Treasure

The Magic of Magnolia Moon
Edwina Wyatt, illustrated by Katherine Quinn
Walker Books

If you take time you will find magic in the everyday things of life – that’s how it is for ten year old Magnolia Moon who returns in this her second book. Her kind of magic is found in many different places – in puddles and boots, in umbrellas and hats, bubbles and fairytale books, even in a tree. It’s that rare, quiet sort that’s easily missed if you don’t know how to look and more important, where. I’ve not read the previous one The Secrets of Magnolia Moon but it made no difference to my enjoyment of this story.
Magnolia faces many challenges in this year of being ten: she has a new teacher – could she be a witch, Miss Mackerel has a broom and a black cat? She has to come to terms with the fact that her best friend Imogen May, who has now moved, will form new friendships as will Magnolia herself, but how many best friends can you have? However there’s still plenty of magic for Magnolia – she’s creative, independent and imaginative, she’s quirky, kind and lots of fun; a very special girl, the person you’d love as your best friend.

Cleverly structured – each chapter presents its own scenario that seques neatly into the next and into the whole narrative, with Magnolia always keeping her eyes and ears open to magical possibilities be they mind magic, green magic or perhaps most important of all, the magic that could help her friend Reuben smile again after his parents’ divorce. True magic is found in kindness, bravery, second chances and real love. Creativity, imagination, and magic of course, have power, and this book is a wonderful celebration of all these. I love too the talking grandfather clock – or is it? The author leaves it to the reader to decide about that, and whether Magnolia’s magic is real or imagined – another wonderful feature of the book. 

Add to all this the scattering of Katherine Quinn’s gorgeous black and white illustrations and you have an enchanting, immersive story that invites readers to look at the world around them in a different way and to be open to possibilities at any time.

Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door and the Mermaid’s Treasure
Lola Morayo, illustrated by Cory Reid
Macmillan Children’s Books

This is the fourth in the magical series of adventures inspired by world mythology and it begins as Aziza and her family are preparing for a camping holiday but the weather conditions are let’s say disappointing. As Aziza half-heartedly finishes her packing she notices tiny seashells guiding her towards something: her fairy door is shining again – it’s time to return to Shimmerton.

Almost the next moment Aziza finds herself on the crowded sandy beach where amidst the masses she sees first the Gigglers creating a drama as always, then at the edge of the shore Peri and Tiko and sitting close by on the rocks, a mermaid. The mermaid introduces herself as Sirena and Aziza is hugely impressed when she hears of some of Sirena’s adventures. Suddenly as they chat the ground begins to shake; Aziza fears it’s an earthquake but her new friend assures her it’s a shell-walker sneezing in its sleep deep underground. But when ice-creams and picnic baskets start flying around, the possibility is that the creature is not asleep but about to emerge, grow huge and endanger the whole of Shimmerton. Fortunately Sirena knows of a magic conch shell that plays a song which could just be the answer to their problem.
With no time to lose and with Sirena’s help, the friends embark on an underwater adventure. 

It’s one filled with challenges for Aziza but with her reassuring, empowering friends, can she and they avert disaster?

There are new mythological creatures (details of their origins in folklore are given after the adventure) in this exciting, inclusive, summery seaside story that is perfect for young fantasy lovers just taking off as independent readers.

Free Kid to Good Home

Free Kid to Good Home
Hiroshi Ito
Gecko Press

A new baby brother Daichan who looks like a potato, who cries the whole time and who demands a mother’s undivided attention does not impress our narrator sister. Far from it. She decides to run away and find a new home and a family who love and appreciate her and only her.

Coming upon a cardboard box gives her an idea: she writes Free Kid on the side, climbs in and waits for those perfect parents, contemplating her wonderful new life as people come and go. Her effort to attract attention don’t provide what she seeks so she continues her wait.

Soon along comes a dog; it joins her in the box as in turn does a cat,; both for reasons of their own are seeking new homes.

Shifting their pitch to the outside of the railway station they each put on their best face and wait. Up comes a turtle and that too joins the waiting home-seekers. One by one the animals are taken until only the little girl remains.

After what feels like a very long time along come two people searching for a ‘perfect sister for – guess who …

An absolute delight: the deadpan humour works really well and I suspect many older siblings will relate to the narrator’s situation. The author’s slightly quirky line drawings with pops of red complement the telling well: the facial expressions of the characters – human and animal – are splendid and those of the narrator really convey her mounting frustration as she waits.

This is a great read aloud story but equally, it’s ideal for new solo readers.

A Beginner’s Guide to Ruling the Galaxy / Dragon Storm: Mira and Flameteller

A Beginner’s Guide to Ruling the Galaxy
David Solomons
Nosy Crow

Gavin, a pupil at Middling High School prefers to keep himself to himself so he’s far from pleased when a new and exceedingly annoying girl starts following him around. This girl is Niki, who announces she’s a galactic princess and says such weird things as “ I claim this adequately rated secondary school in the name of the Galactic League.” and almost immediately starts tucking into his packed lunch. A boy also joined the school at the same time as Niki and is supposed to be her brother Bart, but we have our doubts from the outset. Surprisingly to Gavin, other members of the school community are ‘spellbound’ by this extraterrestrial female. But what is her secret?

After some time Gavin sees her following what seems to be a talking cat; and then Niki turns round and calls him intrusive. What on earth is going on? Suddenly Gavin finds himself entangled in a situation where the whole of humankind could be doomed unless he can fix the spaceship so Niki can escape from Earth.

Full of twists and turns, this pacy story has lots of humour – some relating to how things work on planet Earth and some I suspect adult readers like myself will appreciate more than the target audience; indeed there’s never a dull moment throughout. There are some great characters and there’s also a lot of heart when it comes to friendship, kinship and family. Gavin is a foster child and desperate to belong; you’ll likely find yourself rooting for Niki too as the tale develops.

All in all, a clever sci-fi comedy for older KS2 readers and beyond.

Dragon Storm: Mira and Flameteller
Alastair Chisholm
Nosy Crow

In this fourth book in the magical Dragon Storm series for younger Alastair Chisholm fans, Mira’s dragon Flameteller is still working out what his special power is. However they both enjoy discovering how things work so when a visit to an ancient waterwheel, The Rivven Wheel, is announced, they are excited and Mira eagerly tries to find out everything about it.

However, on their return to the city Mira hears a worrying announcement: on account of the loss of an ancient magical object – a tool of dragon magic – that was under royal protection, the King of Draconis plans to root out and destroy all dragons and those who work with them.

Then she is given an opportunity to visit a part of the caves that she’s never been to before and see how the Dragonseer Guild is powered. She even has the chance to work with Grimbal who keeps everything going there, although he is not at all enthusiastic about having two assistants. When an issue arises with the magic powering the Guild, Grimbal assures the two that he has it in hand, but they both feel something is wrong.

Can Myra and Flameteller find a way to fix things and so prevent King Godfic’s soldiers finding the Guild and the dragons? They’re certainly going to need help from her fellow dragon seers and their dragons

and they’ll need the materials to do the work required on the machinery; and maybe Flameteller’s special power can come into play too.

With plenty of excitement and superb illustrations by Eric Deschamps, this is another fire-cracking, compelling adventure that will thrill new solo readers.

Too Small Tola Gets Tough / The Princess in Black and the Mermaid Princess

Popular characters return in two early chapter books for new solo readers: thanks to Walker Books for sending them for review.

Too Small Tola Gets Tough
Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

These three stories of the wonderful Tola, who lives with her siblings and Grandmummy in a flat in Lagos, show her as more determined than ever. 

In the first she makes an exciting mathematical discovery and this in turn leads her to a realisation about life itself. However her excitement about these is quickly overtaken by news of a virus and the word ‘lockdown’ is spoken in the family residence. But it’s only in places like London where that happens surely. However the following day comes an announcement: Lagos is in lockdown. Now important decisions have to be made: will Lola’s family stay together or will her studious sister Moji, and brother Dapo now employed mending cars, go their separate ways?

In the second episode the question of lack of money becomes a huge issue: food is scare and Tola and Grandmummy, like countless other folk, keep going on one meal a day. Even Tola’s Papa, earning money far away driving his taxi is unable to help as his business too is out of action. Then comes a chance for Lola to contribute some much needed cash; reluctantly she decides to take it 

finding herself working for a super-rich family. 

However she soon discovers that rich people too now have problems, especially when they’re being cheated. Hurrah for Tola’s mathematical skills, and of course her kindness, cleverness, resourcefulness and mighty determination.

If you’ve not met Lola before, this third book offers a wonderful chance to introduce her to new solo readers. Those already familiar with her will welcome this new book with its lively drawings by Onyinye Iwu.

The Princess in Black and the Mermaid Princess
Shannon & Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Now in her ninth adventure, the ever popular young Princess in Black is plunged into an underwater mission involving a mermaid princess (along with of course those elements her fans love: heroes in disguise, hungry monsters, imperiled goats, and ninja skills). 

As the story begins the three heroes are sailing in Princess Sneezewort’s ship. The Princess in Blankets wants to battle sea monsters, whereas the Princess in Black hopes to see a mermaid. It’s the Princess in Black who gets her wish for they soon encounter the beautiful mermaid Princess Posy and the creatures of her realm.

The three offer to help her protect the capricorns from the hungry kraken. However they quickly realise that monster-fighting moves aren’t much use underwater. 

The Princess in Black sends her new friend a message about assertiveness and helping others. Perhaps Princess Posy knows some new ninja moves that will help.

With appealing new characters, a totally different setting, teamwork, the wonders of the power of the imagination, links with previous episodes and a wealth of lively undersea filmic style scenes by LeUyen Pham, this is certain to be winner.

The Whale Watchers / When Things Went Wild

These are two adventure stories set in Scotland and both with an environmental theme: thanks to Owlet Press and Harper Collins Children’s Books for sending them for review.

The Whale Watchers
Dougie Poynter, illustrated by Amber Huq
Owlet Press

It’s the start of the school summer holidays and Finn is anything but pleased to be travelling by train to Scotland to study whales along with his marine biologist mum and younger brother Jesse who is really excited about the prospect of whale watching. Who wants to go to a cold, rainy place at the end of nowhere when you might go somewhere hot like Spain or France? But it’s part of his mum’s job to collect data on the various kinds of whales, minke whales in particular. Moreover, the thought of such creatures and ideas of plastic pollution in the oceans and endangered animals makes Finn’s stomach churn: contrary to what his mum believes Finn thinks the world is already doomed.

However when he arrives next morning things don’t seem quite so awful: the cottage where they’re to stay is right on the beach. Then while on the shore the boys meet Skye and Rain, her dog. Gradually as they spend time together sharing experiences and an adventure neither will forget,

their friendship grows strong and Finn is able to see things differently.
After all his misgivings he has an unexpectedly incredible summer holiday and has a wonderful surprise even before his train home has reached its destination.

Dougie Poynter, himself an avid conservationist, cleverly weaves information about the marine life of the Moray Firth and the impact of pollution on its waters and the wider environment into his splendid story: everyone can make a difference and although it might seem small to the individual, the impact of each person together can be huge. I was horrified at the comment from a colleague of Finn’s mum, ‘just a single one-litre plastic bottle can break down into enough tiny pieces of plastic to put a piece on every single mile of beach on the planet.’ Amber Huq’s illustrations add to the dramatic impact of the tale.

There’s also an excellent final factual section reinforcing the novel’s message that includes lots of ways that everybody can help contribute to the cause of marine animals and the environment in general.

When Things Went Wild
Tom Mitchell
Harper Collins Children’s Books

From the quote from Tennyson’s The Eagle before the story begins I knew I was going to enjoyTom Mitchell’s latest book; it even exceeded my high expectations.

With his parents and irritating younger brother Jack, Kit has recently moved from Nottingham to an old house in Granton, in the highlands of Scotland, a place he describes as in the middle of nowhere. He has a lot to contend with: the wi-fi is rubbish, he’s starting at a new school and now his mum is wanting him to join them on a walk. It’s on said walk however that pesky Jack stumbles upon an unknown object and later on when PC Lennox comes knocking on their door, the boys learn that the object they found is a tracker that has been removed from the leg of a missing golden eagle named Adler.

Then a school project is announced and everyone in Kit’s class is expected to produce an idea to investigate. Is there perhaps a chance he could become ‘Kit Brautigan, bird detective’? Apparently the killing of these awesome birds is fairly common and when the brothers realise there is actually a pair of nesting eagles under threat, they feel they must do something. Before long the school’s most popular pupil, Tamora, becomes involved as does her younger sister, Bea.

But who wants to harm the eagles and why? The main suspects are a local farmer McNab, the sinister game keeper Mosby and landowner Lord Cavendish, (father of Tamora and Bea.) Can the city children catch the killer culprit?

With mishaps and mayhem aplenty, Tom’s gently humorous tale – a whodunnit but so much more – is a timely reminder that we all need to take responsibility for protecting our precious environment and its wildlife.

Me, My Brother and the Monster Meltdown / Dirty Bertie: A Collection of Chaos

Me, My Brother and the Monster Meltdown
Rob Lloyd Jones, illustrated by Alex Patrick
Walker Books

The author of this crazy, laugh-out-loud book was aided and abetted by his two sons who came up with the initial idea and some of the bonkers situations in the story. The setting is the unassuming Sussex coastal town of Rottingdean that has a lot of supermarkets and nothing else much apart from a library and a ‘Home for Ancient People’. The key characters are Otis (the narrator), his younger brother Jago (a doodler of weird images) and their four pals, Daisy, Suzie (she who attempts to burp the entire alphabet), Hardeep and Ben. Chaos reigns pretty much sums up this adventure.

When the story opens the local Tesco has just been under attack from a six-headed gingerbread man with a vicious grin or rather several. But there have been other supermarket onslaughts too and because of all this Otis and Jago’s Dad has turned the basement of their home into a survival bunker, such is his panic at the monstrous situation. Even the prime minster is involved, (not panicking in his bunker and giving daily speeches of the (un)reassuring kind); he’s amassed a team of elite scientists called the Bureau of Investigation of Giant Beasts and Unexplained Monsters. Said group have put posters around the town proclaiming DON’T PANIC! and EVERYTHING IS FINE!

Suddenly the penny drops: the Tesco trasher bears an uncanny resemblance to what Jago had drawn two days earlier on his bed frame using his clicker pen of many colours. Strangely enough some of the other giant monsters look familiar too, but none of the grown ups wants to listen to what Otis tries to tell them

so now it’s left to him and his friends to sort out this monstrous mess. On the more serious side, I love the dig at the government about libraries being shut down.

With a fair phew rear end explosions and a liberal scattering of suitably silly illustrations by Alex Patrick (shame Mr Khan appears to be wearing a Sikh pagri), this is a madcap romp if ever there was one.

Dirty Bertie: A Collection of Chaos
Alan MacDonald and David Roberts
Little Tiger

Young readers who have missed the redoubtable Dirty Bertie in his three separate books Worms!, Fetch! and Trouble! will be pleased to know that they can now find them in one bumper volume of mischief.

Any small boy who wants to avoid going to a ‘wear something pink’ party might be tempted to emulate Bertie in the first episode when he receives an invitation from the adoring Angela. Then comes the occasion when Bertie tries – unsuccessfully as you might expect – to be polite for a whole day.
Next we join Bertie as he accidentally adds his mum’s floral arrangement to the rubbish for collection; after all they did look practically dead. Serious trouble looms large so perhaps a substitute entry for the competition could save the day …

In Fetch! Bertie has a robot dog, Tiny, in tow, poor Whiffer’s status is relegated and both end up getting into all kinds of scrapes as a result. You’d expect nothing less. Then there comes an invitation to attend a garden party hosted by none other than Her Majesty the Queen. Now Bertie has to be on his very best behaviour but guess who the dogs that he offers to give their daily walks belongs to: it definitely isn’t the maid. After such an exclusive outing he’s sure to be on form for his cousin’s wedding where he’s to be a pageboy and even worse, wear a kilt …

Finally Trouble! – there’s a plethora of that for sure. First Bertie forgets he has a maths test and tries using a magic potion to make Miss Boot forget all about it; this of course doesn’t quite go to plan. Next he goes to a sleepover at Know-All Nick’s home: he’d rather sleep in a cave with vampire bats but nonetheless he is made to go. Is there perhaps a way Bertie could make this work for both boys? Finally in this hilarious collection, Bertie manages to teach Masher the school bully a lesson.

Scrapes galore, bad habits – of course – and emotions that all children will relate to; plus plethora of pricelessly funny illustrations: what more can a fun loving reader of a certain age possibly want?

Neon’s Secret Universe

Neon’s Secret Universe
Sibéal Pounder, illustrated by Sarah Warburton
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

This is a splendiferous, fantastically funny take on unicorns by the deservedly highly popular writer Sibéal Pounder.

Nine year old Neon Gallup has just moved with her parents to the town of Brunty. Her first impressions leave her far from impressed but little does she realise what adventures are in store. 

Exploring in her new cobwebby bedroom, she comes upon a very sticky, goo-covered envelope bearing the words ‘SECRET! DANGEROUS! DO NOT TOUCH! Needless to say she ignores this and tips out a luminous green lipstick and within the lid is another message, an intriguing one. Now not long back Neon had decided to be as normal as possible and has taken to dressing in black but this changes everything, for that night using the lipstick, she draws a green line from her room to the bathroom, thus opening the portal to UNIverse. This is a secret place where unicorns live: real ones not the fake horse-like kind you imagine with a horn and rainbow mane. These are inventions to put humans off the scent thought up by Greg, whereas those in UNIverse are just people like all of us except for one thing. This clever ruse has worked well for goodness knows how long but now by accident, into this secret realm has stepped young Neon Gallup.

Almost immediately she finds herself facing Moya McGlow who tells the visitor that she’s actually a real unicorn with magic and that they are in Lumino, UNIverse’s capital city. This zany world has
magic made with goo, Gooheads and other oddities. 

Pretty soon Neon is told she has until her imminent tenth birthday to learn how to command goo or she must remain forever in this weird world. Thus begins her unlikely quest.

A magical mix indeed, with its endearing resourceful, albeit somewhat impulsive protagonist, an evil villain on the loose, a degree of scariness and a satisfying conclusion, this madcap laugh-out-loud romp, illustrated in suitably zany style by Sarah Warburton, the first of a new series, is a wonderful tribute to friendship, teamwork, nonconformity and being yourself. Moreover the scene is cleverly set for the next Neon adventure.

The Wizards’ Banquet

The Wizards’ Banquet
Vivian French, illustrated by Marta Kissi
Walker Books

Readers will delight in the abundance of magic and mayhem in this latest of Vivian French’s fantasies; there’s a degree of mischief and wickedness too. From her opening paragraph, we know we’ll be swept away, unable to stop reading until the final page.

One morning early, Pippin Potts is told in no uncertain terms by his aunt, to leave and not return until he’s found a job. Determined to succeed he heads off towards town eventually coming upon a gate from which hangs a sign on which is written ‘Helpful Boy Wanted! Must be good with puzzles! Green door, top of Grabbling Hill.’

He duly arrives at the green-doored cottage and is welcomed by ancient wizard (second level) Abacus Peridot. Almost immediately the lad discovers that said wizard is both an amazing cook and exceedingly forgetful. The wizard wants Pippin to help him get to the Wizards’ Banquet where he hopes to win the centenary golden trophy and prize that goes with it. He definitely wants to avoid being the 99th arrival.

Pippin quickly realises that the task he faces will be challenging. On the journey they (that includes the talking cooking pot, Ms Latterly).

encounter the dastardly wizard Boldways Grime accompanied by half elf half girl, Kitty Scarper. With their eyes on the main prize, they are secretly plotting against Abacus.

Pippin however is a determined boy; but can he discover the way over the Nine Hen Hills, across the Rambling Rocks and through the Neverending Forest to reach the competition venue first? He’ll likely have to outsmart the equally determined Kitty. Perhaps Mavis the bat can help.

Put together Vivian French’s wonderful way with words, and wizardry at world building and character creating

and Marta Kissi’s enchanting black and white illustrations: the result is sheer enchantment.

A Seed Grows

A Seed Grows
Antoinette Portis
Scallywag Press

Brilliantly simple and simply brilliant is Antoinette Portis’s new picture book documenting the life cycle of a sunflower. With its pleasing rhythmic pattern, the entire written narrative comprises just two sentences, that are ideal for beginning readers. The first, which presents ten stages, starts with a single seed and brings us almost full circle. The second, ‘ And a seed falls’ completes that circle, setting the reader up to turn back to the beginning and start all over again. There’s a pattern too, to the whole story with almost every verso containing a single phrase – ‘and the sun shines’ … ’and the plant grows’ with the key word colour coded to match the illustration on the recto.

Beauty and clarity sum up Antoinette’s science-based introduction to one of nature’s wonders, about which readers and listeners will feel a sense of awe and wonder as they follow the falling seed, that settles, sprouts, roots and pushes its way through into the air, growing and growing, forming a bud that, almost magically, opens into a glorious tall flower

the centre of which becomes filled with seeds. These seeds fall to the ground, provide food for the birds and they in turn facilitate dispersal and the process begins again.

Before re-reading however, adults will likely want to share the information pages with young children – two spreads, one giving straightforward facts about a sunflower seed and plant opposite which is a visual life cycle; the other provides some botanical activities and five true or false questions.

I think this one even outshines the creator’s previous presentations of nature and its wonders.

Rainbow Grey: Eye of the Storm / Princess Minna: The Unicorn Mix-Up

Rainbow Grey: Eye of the Storm
Laura Ellen Anderson
Farshore

Writing a sequel that’s as brilliant as the magical Rainbow Grey is no mean feat but Laura Ellen Anderson pulls it off and I think, out-dazzles the first of the series.

With those magical powers at her fingertips – more or less – Ray is now fairly used to her life as Rainbow Grey but she can’t resist a little bit of showing off, which is NOT a good idea. Especially when one of her little cousins asks her to demonstrate her rainbow magic to a friend. It’s baby Cloudiculus’ first birthday, which means a puff pod party is being held. Soon, things spiral out of control: the puff pods are all empty, so the infant can’t bond with a cloud-creature. Who or what is responsible for the disappearance of the cloud creatures, one of which is Rainbow’s own much loved cloud cat, Nim? Disaster.

Ray and her friends now have a mystery to solve; Ray is convinced dark magic is behind the vanishings: she really needs to work out this puzzle and clear her name before cloud magic is forever lost.

With a degree of turbulence, brilliant world-building, a superb cast of characters (some new),

Ray’s indomitable spirit and resilience, and an abundance of magic, along with loyal friendship and the importance of team work in the community, not forgetting wonderfully whimsical illustrations all expertly woven together, this is a shimmering triumph.

Princess Minna: The Unicorn Mix-Up
Kirsty Applebaum, illustrated by Sahar Haghgoo
Nosy Crow

With its vibrant colour illustrations, this new Princess Minna adventure will I know be eagerly devoured by many new solo readers, especially those who have read the first book in the funny and enchanting series.

After sleeping badly, (not she thinks on account of peas under her mattress) Minna wakes to screeching squawking seagull sounds she now knows signify all is not well in the kingdom. She dashes down the long windy staircase to report this to her parents who are already having breakfast. The queen is especially anxious her daughter can sort out whatever the problem is as she and the king are expecting guests that very afternoon.

Minna rushes from the castle, soon hearing a cry for help from the T shop. It’s little Tommy Turrett announcing a unicorn emergency, (pause for some amusing wordplay). Said unicorn is apparently trampling through the T shop presumably leaving a trail of trash in its wake. Conveniently, taming unicorns just happens to be one of Minna’s special talents. But with her trusty sword in her hand, things don’t go quite to plan and by now the young princess is terribly tired.

The next thing she hears is a ribbet, followed swiftly by a shout of ‘frog emergency’. It’s fortunate that another of Minna’s special skills is kissing frogs. Unfortunately though, her extreme tiredness leads to a mix-up, swiftly followed by yet another emergency. Where will all this lead?

Happily, this time the princess’s prowess wins her a friend for life;

but that’s not quite the end of the story. Let’s just say there’s not just one, but a plethora of peas awaiting Minna as she finally returns to the castle, peas that provide a reassuring answer to her sleepiness mix-ups and the means of helping to put everything back to rights in the entire kingdom.

The Dawn Seal

The Dawn Seal
Holly Webb, illustrated by David Dean
Little Tiger

Lissa, soon to be ten, is spending the summer holiday with her dad on his barge Rose Dawn, on the River Thames. She’s been looking forward to having some time with him but it doesn’t happen in the way she’d hoped. Yes, she loves the special room Dad has created for her and there’s so much wild life to see, but then on the third day of her holiday comes the news: Dad has taken some last minute work and so won’t be free for at least two weeks. What about the paddle-boarding he’d promised? Will that still go ahead? The answer is yes, but now all Dad will do is drop her off and then go back and work.

However, during her first paddle boarding lesson Lissa meets Alfie who lives on one of the houseboats; she also spots an animal swimming in the river that Alfie doesn’t think is a dog as it has no ears. In the next lesson she feels her board rocking unexpectedly and then finds herself face to face with a seal:

a seal that she gets the feeling needs her help; but she’s concerned she might merely scare away Pup as she names the creature.

Can Lissa help the seal to return to its home? Perhaps, with the assistance of Alfie

and another houseboat dweller, Rosy. To that end she does lots of research, spends a fair bit of time observing, both of which fill the void her father’s unexpected job has created.

Such is Holly Webb’s ability to draw readers into a story that as we follow Lissa’s efforts to ensure Pup returns safely to the Thames estuary, it feels as though we too are participating in both the rescue and the ups and downs of her family life, sharing her emotions every step of the way. David Dean’s black and white illustrations certainly heighten the feelings of loneliness, concern, empathy, disappointment, determination and delight during the drama. I’m sure KS2 readers will be swept away, loving every moment of this heartwarming tale. It would also be a lovely class read aloud.

Princess Minna: The Enchanted Forest / The Allotmenteers

Princess Minna: The Enchanted Forest
Kirsty Applebaum, illustrated by Sahar Haghgoo
Nosy Crow

Ideal for solo readers just making their first forays into chapter books, this is one of a new series giving a new, fresh twist to traditional fairy tales. Each spread is enticingly laid out with Sahar Haghgoo’s bold, bright artwork taking at least half of the space.

Residing in Castle Tall-Towers with the King and Queen and a wizard named Raymond, Princess Minna is a confident, determined and capable young girl, always up for a challenge. In this story it comes in the form of preventing a curse taking effect. Said curse was laid by a bad fairy upon Prince Welling-Tunboot on the day of his birth to come into play on his tenth birthday, the day the King and Queen receive urgent pleas for help from the prince’s parents.

Off she goes aback her best friend, dragon Lorenzo, walloooping towards Tunboot Palace in the centre of the Enchanted Forest, pausing en route to come to the aid of various other characters that also come aboard the dragon.

All the while the clock ticks ever closer to the sundown hour by which time the sleeping prince must be awoken or remain asleep for ever more.

With its girl-power element, this very funny subversion of the Sleeping Beauty story will assuredly enchant newly independent readers and leave them eagerly awaiting further episodes in the life of this spectacle-wearing little princess.

The Allotmenteers
Theo Moore, illustrated by Sarah Van Dongen
Ragged Bears

This small gem is full of life lessons for youngsters, especially those just starting out on chapter books. It features the Brown family. Changes are afoot in the family with young Tim about to start ‘big school’ thus enabling Mum to return to her old job at the library. Yes, that means more money but the downside is she’ll no longer have any time to spare for looking after their allotment, something the older children Tom and Sally are very upset about.

Determined not to let it happen they persuade their mum to let them take charge of the allotment and thus they become The Allotmenteers of the title, their first job being to replant the herb garden.
Very soon, the children are able to offer some of the veggies grown to their neighbours thereby changing the diet of at least one of them. Each of the three further chapters tells a different story though they all mesh well together, as more members of the local community are brought into the unfolding events and Tom and Sally become adept problem solvers as well as gardeners.

With recipes and tips on growing, this slim book is full of warmth, charm and community spirit, made all the more so by Sarah Van Dongen’s illustrations.

Rumaysa Ever After

Rumaysa Ever After
Radiya Hafiza, illustrated by Rhaida El Touny
Macmillan Children’s Books

This is the bewitching sequel to Rumaysa: A Fairytale. Kidnapped by witch, Cordelia, when she was a baby and kept prisoner in a tower for twelve years, Rumaysa has escaped and is using the power of her purple onyx necklace to lead her to “the one most in need” hoping all the while that it will eventually take her to her long lost parents.

During her travels far and wide, she comes across a boy in need of her assistance. He introduces himself as Prince Aydin and tells her he was fighting off the Winged Beast of Bishnara. Rumaysa soon finds herself heading to the apple-themed home he shares with his sister Saira White

and discovers that the two are the stepchildren of a notorious wicked witch. She discovers much more too including that not everything or everyone is as they seem. 

Now Rumaysa is plunged into another dark and magical adventure, this time with talking animals, strange beasts and a magic mirror, to help yet somebody else in desperate need.

Will she eventually make it to the home of her parents and be reunited? Happily yes, for Rumaysa is a brave, smart Asian girl, determined to be in charge of her own destiny: she’ll not let anything or anyone get in the way of achieving her goals. She certainly deserves her happily ever after. (I just hope this isn’t the last we see of her.)

Along with the fairytale elements, Radiya Hafiza has worked with a splendidly light touch, aspects of her own Muslim culture – clothes, food, colour, buildings, prayer and more, into this fantastic once upon a time tale. Adding to the impact are Rhaida El Touny’s black and white illustrations throughout the story.

It’s so good to see authors spinning stories like this that enable so many more children to see themselves as powerful female heroes.

Pearly and Pig and the Great Hairy Beast / The Giant’s Necklace

Pearly and Pig and the Great Hairy Beast
Sue Whiting
Walker Books

Ten year old Pearly Woe is an inveterate worrier; her chief worry being that she’ll never be brave enough or sufficiently clear thinking to become a member of The Adventurologists’ Guild, a group of stealth adventurers founded by her Grandpa. However she does have talents: she’s a multi-linguist and can even speak animal languages, most importantly with her unlikely pet, Pig.

Quite suddenly she finds herself with very big worries: her parents have gone missing and Pig is pig-napped. After an encounter with villainous Ms Emmeline Woods, Pearly becomes a stowaway on an icebreaker bound for Antarctica, transporting readers along too on a dangerous rescue mission: but then she discovers Ms Woods is actually in charge of the Might Muncher. She also discovers that her parents are not as she first thought, on the ship.

Fortunately for the girl, numbered among his skills, Pig has a finely-tuned snout that can sniff out all forms of trouble; he’s also bold, brave and helps to keep Pearly relatively calm and focussed on the task in hand – and trotter. What a great, albeit unlikely, team they make.

What exactly is Ms Woods’ purpose in undertaking this trip; what is her interest in finding the Great Hairy Beast?

With danger at every turn – next in the form of an Antarctic blizzard – Pearly must muster every possible bit of courage, bravery and initiative if she’s to have any chance of saving the Great Hairy Beast, her parents and a displaced animal.

I shivered my way through every twist and turn of this thrilling, pig-pun scattered, adventure – the first of a new series – with its engaging protagonist and splendidly quirky sidekick – unable to pause until I reached the rules, guidelines, survival tips and ways to survive a sticky situation for Young Adventurologists at the end of the story.

The Giant’s Necklace
Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Briony May-Smith
Walker Books

This is a small masterpiece, a ghost story and an adventure about eleven year old Cherry, on holiday with her family. During her time away, Cherry has been collecting cowrie seashells to make a necklace fit for a giant; the trouble is giants’ necks are very large and an awful lot of shells are required. Now it’s the final day of the holiday and despite her mother urging her to leave her creation as it is, (5,325 shells in all) Cherry is determined to add more before they leave the following morning. 

With her mum’s permission, off she goes to the beach to continue her search. So engrossed does she become though that she fails to notice the huge black clouds rolling in and the increasing size of the waves. Now the tale becomes much darker, for Cherry becomes cut off from the cove and at the mercy of the violent Atlantic waves. Her only way of escaping to safety is to climb the steep rock face: can she do that and what of the shells she’s risked life and limb to collect? Then she remembers the mine tunnels her father had spoken of – definitely worth a try. Increasing eeriness now pervades the events as Cherry encounters spirit people and then comes the final shocking twist …

Thrilling and tense with powerful word images and an important message about safety beside the sea; and beautifully illustrated by Briony May Smith who captures the tension perfectly, 

readers cannot help but root for Cherry all the way, hoping for the best but perhaps, fearing the worst.

Thanks to Walker Books for sending these smashing books for review.

Ghostcloud / The Treasure Under the Jam Factory

Ghostcloud
Michael Mann
Hodder Children’s Books

This is a ghost story with a difference, or rather several differences. It’s set in a grim dystopian future London beneath Battersea Power Station, twelve year old Luke and numerous other kidnapped children spend their miserable lives shovelling coal, working for the iniquitous Tabitha Margate.

After two years, Luke is eager to escape and return to his family, believing his only means of so doing is to gain one of the much coveted amber tickets to freedom. Luke is not without friends in this dark place: there’s Ravi and then Jess, an optimist and plumber in the making. There’s also ghost-girl Alma, who Luke saves, another terrific character; it’s she who shows him what it is to be a ghost cloud.

It’s one crisis after another in a prodigious adventure as Luke and Jess, aided by Alma ,attempt to free themselves from the clutches of the evil Tabitha and return to their homes – something that’s even more crucial once Luke has discovered the truth of what the heinous villain is up to. Is it possible? Perhaps with some assistance from the Ghost Council Alma talks of.

Superbly plotted, full of suspense and darkness but also powerful friendships, plenty of problem-solving, hope, determination and humour. Can one ask for more? Perhaps some moments of quiet, but Michael Mann provides those too in this brilliantly inventive debut novel. I can’t wait for the follow up.

Another adventure much of which takes place below ground is:

The Treasure Under the Jam Factory
Chrissie Sains, illustrated by Jenny Taylor
Walker Books

Having dealt with An Alien in the Jam Factory, McLay’s jam factory now faces a new challenge.

With his hyperactive brain a-fizz as always, differently abled Scooter McLay (he has cerebral palsy) can barely contain his excitement at the prospect of the Grand Re-opening with all that jam-themed food ready to be served. However, horror of horrors, all of a sudden something happens that nearly freezes young Scooter’s blood: the door unexpectedly opens and there before him and his parents, stands their hostile adversary, Daffy Dodgy clutching closely Boris, her guinea pig, come to claim what she insists still belongs to her. Surely all can’t be lost at this crucial moment. Time to call on the contents of tiny alien, Fizzbee’s, suitcase perhaps. Either that or find enough money to pay off Daffy once and for all.
Enter resourceful Cat Pincher and she has some more horrifying news for Scooter, news that increases the urgency to find treasure. Is she to be trusted? They’ll have to take a chance on that.

All manner of weird shenanigans take place deep underground when they find themselves face to face once more with Daffy. A deal is struck but it’s not long before Scooter, Cat and Fizzbee find themselves in the stickiest of situations imaginable on account of Cat’s jam-hating Uncle Perry who is intent on sabotaging the factory. Can Scooter’s knowledge of jam possibly extricate them from this? Cat certainly thinks so …

With fun illustrations by Jenny Taylor …

this really is a yummy sequel and one likely to leave Scooter fans licking their lips at the possibility of further encounters. Meanwhile they could always try baking some of the jammy biscuits using the recipe at the back of the book.

Uncle Pete and the Forest of Lost Things

Red Reading Hub is thrilled to be part of the blog tour for this new Uncle Pete and Tiny Mouse book.

Uncle Pete and the Forest of Lost Things
David C. Flanagan, illustrated by Will Hughes
Little Door Books

Barely giving themselves time to recover from their magical blanket delivery – but time enough to consume a fair amount of their favourite foods – Uncle Pete and his indomitable sidekick, TM, are off again. Now they want to track down their plane, abandoned when it ran out of stardust; surely it couldn’t have ended up in the Forest of Lost Things could it? And what’s more the two couldn’t really be thinking of entering this alarming-sounding place where it’s recommended nobody sets foot, to search for it could they? 

Of course they could, even when squirrel leader, Shona, is horrified at the notion. Nonetheless she does make sure the adventurers are equipped to the best of her ability before they sally forth, aided and abetted by the Squirrelcoaster. Their journey takes them over land and into peril deep, deep beneath the sea – bother those cans of beans – but thank the universe for those emergency underpants of Uncle Pete’s, one of the more sensible items he stuffed into that rucksack of his. Finally the two, by different means, reach the forest, but then they need to locate one another.

Uncle Pete has an encounter with an owl that’s far from happy about the present state of the forest, an erstwhile peaceful, magical place and now far too full of rubbish. 

Said owl also talks of giant cats, incredibly grumpy ones; the same felines that TM has already met and happily not been consumed by on account of her extreme smallness. Happily too, Uncle Pete and TM are soon reunited and the search for the plane continues. However, there’s also the pressing problem of tidying and decluttering the forest and recycling as much as possible, that the former raises. Recycling though is getting a bit ahead of things as the lost plane must be located for that to happen. On the lost theme too is a little polar bear, Berg, that they come upon and invite to join their adventure.

An adventure about which I’ll say no more, other than that there are further twists and turns, thousands of fireflies, a multi-stage plan fuelled by the thought of feasting on favourite foods- again! – a terrific squash and a squeeze; plus a finale that leads neatly into Uncle Pete and TM’s next adventure. 

Hurrah! say all the readers of and listeners to, this terrific tale with its important environmental theme, as well as the thrills and spills, kindness and consideration one has come to expect from the fearless friends. Not forgetting the quirky drawings by Will Hughes that help to make this an ideal read for those fairly new to chapter books.

Make sure you check out the other stops on this blog tour too.

The Light Hunters / Dragon Storm; Ellis and Pathseeker

The Light Hunters
Dan Walker
UCLan Publishing

Prepare to be immediately swept up in this rip-roaring, action-packed fantasy adventure. ‘You ask me what light is? Light is everything. Every single thing . The very fabric of our world is made up of this force – people, trees, … Few can access Light, control it. You are one.’ So writes Professor Medela before the real story begins; but it’s key to the entire thing.

Twelve year old Lux lives with his ailing Grandpa and Miss Hart, his grandfather’s carer (but much more besides) in Grandpa’s clock repair shop. At school Lux, his best friend, tech-loving Maya and their fellow students are drilled in what to do should there be a Monster attack. For centuries the Light Hunters have, for the benefit of the townsfolk of Daven, done battle with these terrible creatures, not always successfully. In one attack a decade back, Lux’s immediate family along with half the town’s residents lost their lives, turning the people against Light.

Lux is on a mission to save his Grandpa’s life and to this end has been told to search for a book called Investigations into Light and Healing by a former Light Hunter. Now Lux himself has a secret: not only is he able to wield light, there’s a possibility he might be the finest Light Healer ever. Against his Grandpas’s strict instructions never to reveal his secret, Lux first uses his healing power for saving Maya when she receives a life-threatening injury from a Monster. However this deed draws to the town, one Deimos, a fallen Hunter determined to harness Lux’s power for his own dark and nefarious ends.
Readers join the hero on a journey with lightships, heart-stopping sights and perils unbounded, in this deft amalgam of relatable real-life emotions, a vividly conjured world, a race against time, humour and some wonderful characterisation. What more could one ask, other than, when is the second episode coming?

Dragon Storm: Ellis and Pathseeker
Alastair Chisholm, illustrated by Eric Deschamps
Nosy Crow

In the kingdom of Rivven dragons are forbidden. However, hidden from normal people and their King is The Dragonseer Guild, a place for a group of people with a special power enabling them to see beyond the human world. Ellis and his dragon Pathseer are part of this secret league.

Now it’s the Maze Festival in Rivven, and Ellis and Pathseeker are set on being first to complete the three mazes in the the king’s palace grounds and become this year’s tournament winners. But in the mazes they discover a mysterious girl who has her own reasons for wanting to win the tournament and she’s secretly using dangerous dragon magic by wielding a strange necklace.

Now there’s much more at stake for Ellis and Pathseeker. It will take all their courage and expertise to find a path back out of the mazes; yes Pathseeker does eventually discover her power. But can they keep the existence of dragons and the Guild a secret from King Godfic?

This third Dragon Storm adventure is every bit as exciting as the previous two and existing fans as well as new readers will be swept up by the narrative, but want to pause to enjoy Eric Deschamps’ illustrations along the way.

Max Counts to A Million / Wigglesbottom Primary: The Talking Lamb

These are both very funny books from Nosy Crow – thanks to the publisher for sending them for review

Max Counts to A Million
Jeremy Williams

Those first days of lockdown in March 2020 are probably still lingering in the minds of many of us in the UK whether we are adults or like Max, a child at primary school. Max, so he tells readers, is an ordinary eight-year old boy living an ordinary life with his father, a hospital doctor, and nutritionist mother. Then Covid 19 happens: like the rest of us he is scared, frustrated, confused, often bored, missing close contact with family and friends, and thinking it can’t last for long. But it does; schools close and for Max it means that his father goes to stay in a hotel to keep family members safe; he’s under his mother’s feet much of the time and his Grandad is briefly hospitalised with the dreaded virus.

Max doesn’t actually plan to count beyond the hundred he’s told to, it just kind of happens when after an upset with his mum he announces, “Fine” … I’ll count to a million.” This extraordinary statement, crazy as it may sound, becomes not the way to distract himself the boy first intends, but a protracted act that over the weeks, with the help of family, friends and neighbours, brings together a whole community and raises vast sums for NHS charities.

Poignant, honest, humorous – I found myself laughing out loud on many occasions – and splendidly told in a chatty style by Max himself a keen observer who shares his ups and downs, this ultimately uplifting book perfectly captures a moment in recent history we’re unlikely to forget.

Wigglesbottom Primary: The Talking Lamb
Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Becka Moor

It’s always fun to be in the company of Miss Riley’s Class 2; in this eighth book are three further lively episodes. The first tells of what Theo Burke decides is probably the best day of his life, a trip to a petting zoo. Having visited and appreciated – mostly – several animals everyone sits down for lunch on the picnic benches beside the lambs. And that’s when the real fun begins: one of the lambs puts in a request.

Or does it? Be it yes or no, the result is considerable chaos, some chastisement and a surprise revelation.

The same is true when a new art teacher arrives. Dev, as she asks to be called, rather foolishly – but then it’s her first encounter with Class 2 – asks them as she sits on the floor, to “Paint! Paint your passion! Paint off the paper!” Enough said …

In the final episode of this book (but hopefully not of the series), despite it being almost the end of the summer term, and Year 6’s final day ever because they’re off on a week’s residential trip, members of Class 2 are surprised when they are approached by the leavers, who pass on instructions that as of now it’s down to them to protect “the school secret”. To reveal what this is would be to spoil the story but let’s just say it involves a very big box and something potentially very dangerous.

Laughs aplenty guaranteed for readers be they the solo kind or adult readers aloud. As always Becka Moor’s illustrations are a hoot and play a significant part in the hilariousness of this series. ( Her portrayal of Dev is splendid.)

Woodland Magic: Fox Cub Rescue / The Smidgens Crash-Land

Woodland Magic: Fox Cub Rescue
Julie Sykes, illustrated by Katy Riddell
Piccadilly Press

This is the first of a new series about a community of tiny sprite-like beings residing in the depths of Whispering Wood in Hidden Middle, out of sight of the Ruffins (humans) who live on the edge of the woods. Living off the land, seeking out and collecting their food and useful objects discarded by Ruffins, these tiny folk are called Keepers. Early every morning the Keepers head off into Ruffin territory to repair and protect the environment from the actions of the Ruffins.
The main protagonists of this story are Cora and Jax, would-be Keepers in training who are excited about their very first venture in the Big Outside where they’ve been asked to reseed land bulldozed by the Ruffins, and if possible to collect various natural items. They must complete this work by dawn or risk being sent back to school.
The two friends think they’ve plenty of time to do the bidding of Scarlet Busybee, but once in the Outside they’re soon distracted, first by a mother fox and her cubs and then a shiny metal slide and only just make it back in time. They’re given another chance and the following day set out, full of good intentions, with two specific jobs to do.
Again the two are distracted in part by something that’s happened as a consequence of their previous day’s actions. Seemingly it’s going to take more than a mere sprinkling of Cora’s woodland magic to put things right 

but perhaps some timely unexpected assistance by fellow Keepers could yet help save the situation.
Julie Sykes cleverly weaves the actions and consequences thread into her enchanting story while Katy Riddell’s sprinkling of black and white illustrations imbue the telling with a misty magical feel.
New solo readers, especially lovers of nature sprinkled with woodland magic, will delight in this book and eagerly anticipate the further titles in the series mentioned after the ‘create your own wildflower meadow’ instructions that follow the adventure.

There’s more magic with tiny beings in:

The Smidgens Crash-Land
David O’Connell, illustrated by Seb Burnett
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Since her previous adventure Gafferty Sprout has been very good but this hot-headed young Smidgen seems to have a nose for trouble. In this second adventure it isn’t long before trouble is what she finds as she and new best friend Will take to the air but only briefly; a mishap with their glider plunges them down right by Noah who is out shopping at the ‘Big Folk’ market with his mum.
Even bigger trouble soon turns up in the form of another Smidgen, one Crumpeck, who claims to have discovered the location of the third Smidgen clan’s home, a place called Burrow. ‘… even more Smidgens to get to know – and more friends’ thinks Gafferty. But is it really that straightforward, for Crumpeck steals Gafferty’s precious magical knife and starts heading for the Burrow. What else can she do but follow him, harmless Smidgenologist or not?
However when Gafferty eventually finds a way into the Burrow she discovers that these Smidgens are not the friendly folks she’d anticipated.

Meanwhile the evil Claudia Slymark is on the prowl, still searching for a piece of that magical mirror.
In the end (though happily not the end of the series), Gafferty must rely on Smidgen rule 4 to extricate herself from a very very tricky situation. Can she do it?
Superbly illustrated once more by Seb Burnett, this is another of David O’Connell’s wonderfully exuberant mixes of humour, adventure and magic. It’s sure to leave readers and listeners eagerly anticipating Gafferty’s next adventure: perhaps therein the three Smidgen clans will be reunited – you never know …

Favourite Characters Return: Isadora Moon Gets the Magic Pox / Kitty and the Woodland Wildcat

Isadora Moon Gets the Magic Pox
Harriet Muncaster

When Isadora Moon receives the news that after the weekend, her class will be tested on their times tables, she decides to contact her cousin Mirabelle just on the off chance she might be able to offer a maths test avoidance spell. The answer is yes – hence the title of this latest book in the series – and then, armed with a list of the ingredients she’ll need to collect, Isadora sets out to search for them.
Having collected the required items, that night she mixes the potion, rubs some on her face, hides the rest outside and goes off to sleep. However, what happens the next morning isn’t exactly what Isadora had been hoping for. Yes it does result in her missing school, but the side-effects are shall we say a fluffy, magic-induced chaos that’s impossible to keep from her Mum …
Is there any chance Isadora can make everything better again?
Isadora is an irresistible delight and although some of those emerging readers who lapped up her first stories may well have moved on to Harriet’s Victoria Stitch books, I’m sure there are plenty more waiting in the wings to meet the little half-fairy, half-vampire in this magical offering.

Kitty and the Woodland Wildcat
Paula Harrison, illustrated by Jennie Lovlie


Kitty and her friend and fellow superhero-in-training Ozzy are on a camping holiday with their families. The first night Kitty hears what she’s sure is a cat outside but Ozzy thinks she’s mistaken. Next morning Kitty finds a cat’s pawprints in the mud she follows them and discovers a wild cat. When she tells Ozzy he agrees to stay awake with her that night and together they find her and eventually persuade her they can help her find her missing kittens.
However, the forest is large and it looks as though a storm could be brewing. Kitty and Ozzy are definitely going to have to use their superpowers if they are to have any chance of finding Hollytail’s kittens.
This latest magical adventure, with Jennie Lovlie’s eye-catching two colour illustrations on every spread is, like the previous eight in the series, ideal for readers just starting out on chapter books.

Thanks to the publishers Oxford Children’s Books for sending these titles for review.

The Story Shop: Blast Off! / Dirty Bertie: Poop!

These are two young fiction titles from the Stripes imprint of Little Tiger – thanks to the publisher for sending them for review

The Story Shop: Blast Off!
Tracey Corderoy, illustrated by Tony Neal

The Story Shop – now there’s an irresistible name to give a place selling stories, but if that isn’t enough to lure in customers, then surely the idea that this particular establishment run by shopkeeper Wilbur and Fred Ferret his assistant, sells stories you can actually BE in with characters you can meet, should be irresistible. Moreover they have a huge stock of plots and props just waiting for customers.
On the particular day the story starts, the first customer to enter is a rather boastful mouse. Said mouse knows just what he wants, demanding “Something out of this world”. Then it’s time for the story pot to appear, and the ingredients to be added. With that task duly done, and an important reminder given to Mouse, WHOOSH! POP! the adventure begins. In no time at all Mouse, together with Fred, find themselves on the moon, whereupon a certain rodent very quickly lands himself in a whole lot of trouble with the resident aliens in a very cheesy environment. However having managed to get away from that particular whiffy situation, largely thanks to Fred’s help, Mouse quickly discovers planets with other kinds of aliens. On the Planet of Games he recklessly bets his tail on a game of Tiddlywonks with Phoebe FairPlay as his opponent. Will he, or will he not, end up tailless.

In the third of the linked adventures complete chaos ensues when a certain Mouse lands on Planet Cog. Can order be restored and even more important will the two space adventurers manage to return safely to the Story Shop?

Bursting with fun and humour, and a wonderful celebration of the power of the imagination, this first of a new series, full of smashing illustrations, is spot on for emergent readers.

Dirty Bertie: Poop!
David Roberts, illustrated by Alan MacDonald

Is there no end to Dirty Bertie’s misdemeanours? Ideal for those fairly new to chapter books here are three further episodes. The first relates what happens when the zealous park-keeper, he who has recently erected new signs, bans him and Whiffler from the park on account of the pongy deposits his pooch has supposedly left on the grass. Could it perhaps be a case of mistaken identity …
In the second chapter there’s more mistaken identity only of the human variety this time. This happens when Bertie tries his level best to get his unfavourite class teacher, Miss Boot, an award for excellence in education and in so doing see her promoted out of his school.

The trouble is that the arrival of the judge pretty much coincides with that of another visitor.
Finally – well not actually finally as we know Bertie will be back – he manages to get himself on a film set in the role of an extra: what could possibly go wrong?

Splendid shenanigans as ever when this young lad is involved, and hilariously illustrated with Alan MacDonald’s plentiful line drawings.

Ebb and Flo and Their New Friend / The Tale of the Tiny Man

Ebb and Flo and Their New Friend
Jane Simmons
Graffeg

Jane Simmons’ books with their gorgeous, soft focus, painterly illustrations, were very popular with foundation stage classes in my early teaching days and it’s good to see Graffeg reintroducing Ebb and Flo to a new generation of young children.

For those unfamiliar with the characters and their adventures, Ebb is a dog and Flo a young girl. They live near the sea and are constant companions. As this story opens the two of them are sitting in their boat with Ebb in her favourite spot in the bow when suddenly her place is usurped by a large bird. Flo urges Ebb to accept the visitor as a friend but Ebb is anything but accepting of the newcomer with its frequent ‘beep, beep, beep’ sounds. 

As the days pass even Granny takes to Bird, giving it some of Ebb’s favourite snacks. 

Ebb wishes Bird gone and the following morning, to Flo’s disappointment, the wish has come true.

However, it quickly becomes an instance of you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, for Ebb finds herself missing Bird and that beeping, especially when as the summer days pass, they see reminders on their journeys along the river. 

Then one day, Ebb hears a familiar sound: could it be …

This gentle exploration of change, jealousy and the challenges of accepting a new friend into an established group, will resonate with many young listeners who will likely look forward to hearing more about Ebb and Flo in the other titles Graffeg will also publish.

The Tale of the Tiny Man
Barbro Lindgren (translated by Julia Marshall), illustrated by Eva Eriksson
Gecko Press

This is a re-illustrated classic tale from Sweden originally published over thirty years ago. It tells of a tiny and sad man who lives a very lonely life ignored and sometimes mistreated by other people perhaps because ‘he was too small and possibly a bit slow.’
One day as spring approaches he attaches a note to a tree ‘Friend Wanted’ and giving his name and address. For ten days he waits, sitting on his doorstep by day, and crying at night on account of the blackbirds’ song. Then on the tenth night he’s dozed off only to be awakened by a large and playful stray dog.
Little by little over the next few days, the tiny man’s kind actions gain the animal’s friendship and trust. It moves in to share the man’s house, his food and even his bedroom. 

When they’re out and about, the dog protects the tiny man from bullies.

By summer life together is happy for both tiny man and big dog. Come the following spring however, a cheerful little girl comes along and she too makes friends with the dog causing the tiny man to feel left out and hurt. 

Convinced he can’t compete with the little girl, full of sorrow the tiny man wanders off into the woods. For seven days he roams alone; meanwhile dog and child sit on the steps wondering where the man has gone. On the eighth day the tiny man returns to find on his doorstep, a dejected dog and an equally dejected little girl. Can it be that this friendship can accommodate three? Is there room in dog’s heart for two human friends and in the tiny man’s heart for the dog and the girl?

With its themes of loneliness and friendship, this beautifully told and illustrated story looks at various emotions including empathy, loneliness and prejudice. Whether read alone or aloud, there’s much to think about and one hopes, talk about with family members and/or classmates.

Fred and the Fantastic Tub-Tub

Fred and the Fantastic Tub-Tub
Zeb Soanes, illustrated by Anja Uhren
Graffeg

Fred is staying with her grandfather in the countryside for the summer holidays. Grandpa is a botanist who lives in a messy farmhouse around which are dilapidated greenhouses housing all manner of plants from all over the world. Imagine her surprise when one night she hears a banging sound outside and when she investigates, discovers her Grandpa attached to a sausage-shaped balloon.

Even more surprising is his announcement that this contraption is to take them to Papa Nupi a distant island whereon it’s said the rare Tub-Tub plant grows. This plant blooms just once every two hundred years when it is reputed to produce the most amazing music.The last time it bloomed was two hundred years ago the following week so time is of the essence and as Grandpa says, “There’s no time like the present.”

So begins a magical adventure that embraces the threat plastic pollution poses to wildlife as well as showing the transformative possibilities of music and the difference one small hand held device can make.

Which all goes to show that Grandpa was absolutely right when he said at the start of this unusual story, “Music is a language everyone can understand.”

The engaging tale had its origins in a project between the author Zeb Soanes and composer James Marangone. The latter wanted to create an inclusive narrated adventure that inspired children to explore sound no matter their musical ability. To go alongside the music, Zeb included in his story ‘audio clues’ that children can listen for in the text.

With the addition of Anja Uhren’s fantastic quirky illustrations, this became a tale told through illustration, music and writing. The orchestral performance, which includes narration of the story by Zeb alongside James Marangone’s music, will be premiered by Orchestra Sinfonia later this year.

(Related facts and some suggestions for reusing plastic are given at the back of the book.)

News Hounds: The Dinosaur Discovery / The Princess in Black and the Giant Problem

News Hounds: The Dinosaur Discovery
Laura James, illustrated by Charlie Alder
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

From the author of the fabulous Pug and Fabio series comes new star, Bob. Bob belongs to Colin, the stationmaster at Puddle Station, and in addition to ensuring the trains run to time, he acts as a reporter for the Daily Bark, the town’s one and only newspaper for dogs. Now there’s a new dog in town; her name is Diamond and Bob thinks he’d like to become her friend, so one morning he heads off to the park where he’s been told she’s taken for a daily walk by her owner Mr Marcus who runs the Curiosity Shop. In order to open the friendship he decides to give her a present and having come upon a pile of bones – the biggest he’s ever seen – under the bandstand floor, thinks a large bone the ideal gift. However it takes so long to dig it out, that he misses his chance.

Temporarily diverted from his Diamond friendship forging, Bob dashes back to the newspaper office to report ‘the most amazing story Puddle has ever known.’ It could just be the scoop of the century. However, it’s not only News Hounds who are interested in the bone.
Diamond – yes she does eventually get her present – is amazed at its size and thanks to a book in her owner’s establishment is able to tell Bob when he finally meets her, what she’s discovered therein.
The trouble is Mr Marcus is more than a tad interested in the skeleton find too. The race is on … It’s definitely time to enlist the help of the entire canine population of Puddle.

Another highly engaging story from Laura and with Charlie Alder’s frequent coloured illustrations that help ramp up the drama, this book will appeal to new solo readers and work as a read aloud.

The Princess in Black and the Giant Problem
Shannon & Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Walker Books

Readers will really need to have read some of the previous titles in the series (this is the eighth) to fully appreciate this one. It’s set on a chilly winter’s day and sees the Princess in Black, the Goat Avenger and the Princess in Blankets with a giant problem – literally. While they’re engaged in building snow monsters, with a shout of “Squashy!” a massive foot flattens their latest creation. Said foot belongs to a giant and it continues to shout and flatten everything in its path. The race is on to prevent the total destruction of the village. It’s a task beyond just three but with the help of some superhero friends, it might just be possible.

There’s a lovely twist to this story, wherein teamwork is important but to reveal what would spoil things so I’ll leave you to guess what it might be. Sure to be a hit with established fans of the princess with an alter ego. With a bright illustration by LeUyen Pham at every page turn, it’s ideal for newly independent readers.

The Tower at the End of Time / Diary of an Accidental Witch: Flying High

The Tower at the End of Time
Amy Sparkes
Walker Books

Reformed pickpocket Nine, Eric the troll, wizard Flabbergast et al return for a second wonderful adventure that again mixes wit, magic, some nail-biting moments and occasional chaos.

Now the curse on the magical house has been lifted allowing the friends to travel between worlds, their first destination being The Wizarding Hopscotch Championship. It’s particularly important that Flabbergast attends the championships – he’s missed three years already and his worthiness is at stake. Moreover, the final prize for winning the event is a visit to The Tower at the End of Time, where one question can be asked!

There’s a problem though, for the house, being nervous about travelling again, is beset by an attack of the hiccups, which unsurprisingly upsets plans somewhat as with each HIC they bounce from one world to another till they finally reach those championships. More problems ensue when Flabbergast discovers that the hopscotch grid is aflame and he encounters many obstacles thereon, but negotiating it is the only way he can get the answer to his question.

In the end everything becomes a race against time, or rather gigantic sand-timers, with every contestant desperate to find an answer to their particular question. And what about Nine? She too has questions concerning who she really is and who left her that music box she treasures so much.

Hugely inventive and sparkling with excitement: primary readers with a penchant for high octane fantasy will jump at the chance to read this.

Diary of an Accidental Witch: Flying High
Perdita & Honor Cargill, illustrated by Kate Saunders
Little Tiger (Stripes Publishing)

With her first diary safely hidden away and her first half term at the School of Extraordinary under her belt, Bea Black starts a new one for this second book.
At home she’s still struggling to give sufficient time to her neighbour and close friend Ash who goes to an ordinary school..

With the Winter Solstice fast approaching, the main topic of conversation after the break is the forthcoming Grand Tournament and Bea finds herself a vice-sports captain. With the Go matches coming up, it’s even more important that she polishes up her broomstick skills. And then following a to do involving buns in town, headteacher Ms Sparks announces that in the hope of improving relations between the two schools, she is inviting the pupils from the Academy to participate in the Grand Tournament and that means no magic, no flying and definitely no Go after all. Indeed the event has now been renamed Sports Day.

Can the rift between the two establishments be healed? Then what about that egg or rather Egg, that Professor Age has given her to tend at home?

Honor Cargill’s smashing illustrations are sprinkled throughout and once again this is hugely engaging and lots of fun, with all the pupils having to deal with similar concerns and issues that readers themselves are likely experiencing.

The Worst Class in the World Dares You! / Aven Green Sleuthing Machine / Aven Green Baking Machine

The Worst Class in the World Dares You!
Joanna Nadin, illustrated by Rikin Parekh
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Nits and Dares are the topics of the two riotous episodes contained in this third volume of the exploits of Class 4B taught by the long-suffering Mr Nidgett; yes that’s the one headteacher of St. Regina’s Primary, Mrs Bottomley-Blunt, has decided are “LITERALLY the worst class in the world.” I’ve no idea how she managed to land the job as she thinks learning should absolutely NOT be fun.
However as always, Manjit and Stanley (our narrator) have imaginative fool-proof plans at the ready and as is ever the case, they never intend to cause the mayhem that seems to ensue; it’s just that their foolproof plans do not always work quite as anticipated.
So, when there’s a possibility that an epidemic of Nits could cancel Maths Test Tuesday, the class plot to make certain this does actually happen: they definitely don’t want to have to forgo watching War of the Wizards on TV to revise. Perhaps they might even have to be off school on the day in question. Little do they know what chaos their plans will unleash. After all, those containers full of mini-beasts of various kinds are perfectly safe with Class 4B- surely; err …

The second story sees the arrival of new girl, Bridget Pickersgill and she’s a person who likes dares – of the mad variety; the reward for doing one of her dares is to become an Overlord of the Universe. Anybody fancy eating that ‘Very Dead Fly’ that’s been lying beside the ‘Abandoned Plimsoll’ for over a week? Or indeed accepting any of the other dares the girl dreams up on subsequent days …

Great fun for solo reading as well as a class read-aloud.

Aven Green Sleuthing Machine
Dusti Rowling, illustrated by Gina Perry
Sterling

Despite being differently abled, eight year old Aven Green (born without arms) is still an ace sleuth (a private investigator is what her mum and dad have dubbed their daughter.) Her take on the matter is that all those extra arm cells went instead to her brain.
When someone starts stealing food – her teacher’s lunch and items from the school cafeteria – she’s on the case. But food is just the first thing to go missing. Next it’s her great grandmother’s dog, more food disappears – are these things connected perhaps?
Then a sad-looking new girl joins Aven’s class. Why is she sad? Yet another mystery. That seems rather a lot for one girl however super-powered her brain. Perhaps some help from family members and some of her classmates might be needed to discover what is going on.

With plentiful illustrations by Gina Perry , this is just right for new solo readers especially those who like strong, self-willed protagonists. Moreover, those that do will be delighted to discover that before this story ends, Aven decides to set aside her P.I. business and instead concentrate on baking. Hence she becomes known as:

Aven Green Baking Machine

As this tale opens Aven has already honed her baking skills at home – she uses her feet to crack eggs and measure out ingredients and now, along with her three friends, she wants to enter the baking competition at the upcoming county fair. The first task is to decide which of their recipes to use and the way to do that is to try out each one and decide upon the yummiest.
That’s when the problems begin and after Aven has found fault with each of her friend’s choices, it’s decided that they don’t want to work with her. This offers an opportunity for the sometimes over-opinionated girl to see the error of her ways, learn to forgive and become more open-minded.
There’s a great opportunity for readers who like to cook too: at the end of the narrative, the author provides the six recipes mentioned in the story.

Classic Inspirations: Once There Was a Bear / The Little Prince

Once There Was a Bear
Jane Riordan, illustrated by Mark Burgess
Farshore

To celebrate the 95th anniversary of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, having previously written two standalone Pooh books, Jane Riordan has created a prequel collection of ten stories, again in the style of Milne. It takes readers back to where it all began, when Pooh was bought in Harrods as a gift for baby Christopher Robin. Using a similar style to that of E.H. Shepard, Mark Burgess illustrates each episode with panache depicting Pooh and his friends Eeyore, Rabbit, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Owl and Tigger.
The original Pooh books have an enduring appeal for those who met them first as children; however this one has a charm of its own with many of the adventures taking place outside of Hundred Acre Wood. I loved the museum outing wherein dinosaur skeletons with their ‘bothersome long words’ for names prove unusual ladders for a bear to climb upon.

This is definitely worth getting hold of if, like this reviewer, you’re a fan of Pooh et al.

The Little Prince
Louise Greig and Sara Massini
Farshore

Award-winning author and poet Louise Greig has adapted Antoine de Saint- Exupéry’s classic as a picture book for a younger audience than the original novella: it’s illustrated by Sara Massini who has also won many awards. The result is a thing of beauty, mysterious and poetic both verbally and visually.

I’m not sure whether the stranded pilot’s encounter with a little prince who visits neighbouring planets will appeal to children; its enigmatic nature will certainly provoke much thought and lots of questions for, as the author says, ‘What is hidden is beautiful.’ That in itself is well worth exploring.

The Girl Who Talked To Trees

The Girl Who Talked to Trees
Natasha Farrant, illustrated by Lydia Corry
Zephyr

Olive is eleven, so shy that she is overwhelmed when she has to talk to people but is comfortable talking to trees especially her old oak in the meadow. Said oak tree is four hundred years old and in great danger from Olive’s father, Sir Sydney. He has resolved to build a new summerhouse in the meadow so that he can impress friends when they visit. When Olive learns of this, so distressed is she that she finds the courage to speak out in defence of her precious friend oak. Surprised by his daughter he gives her until teatime to think of something more impressive than his proposed summerhouse and if she can, he promises not to cut down the oak. With that he departs for the day leaving Olive with just seven hours to come up with something. Full of determination, she dashes outside to think and falls asleep beneath her oak tree.

Thus, fuelled by arboreal magic, begins a truly wonderful adventure wherein Olive listens to a series of enchanting interlinked stories told by seven different trees from various parts of the world (one for each hour she has) every one at a particular stage in its development. She finds herself scaling ivy to the topmost branches of an oak and helping a prince; then she hears in turn tales told by a linden tree, an alder, a London plane, a wild apple, a tulip tree and finally a grudge-bearing box tree. She hears of such things as mermaids, a storyteller who shows a duchess something unexpected, sisters escaping from unwanted marriages

and more, each imbued with the stuff of fairy tales as well as crucial messages about conservation and especially, the vital role of trees to our planet.

Between each is a superbly illustrated double spread giving information about the next tree to regale Olive and readers with its story. Both these and the colour illustrations throughout the narrative are the gorgeous work of Lydia Corry, helping to make Natasha Farrant’s stories within a story, a book that will delight lovers of the natural world, fairy tales and captivating literature. If you want to know whether Olive succeeds in saving her oak, you’ll need to get a copy so I suggest you buy to keep and buy to give.

(The botanist in me noticed that the Linden is misnamed as Talia, not Tilia and several of the trees given both genus and species names have capital letters at the beginning of both eg Liriodendron Tulipifera rather than Liriodendron tulipifra – a shame in such a super book).

Wishyouwas

Wishyouwas
Alexandra Page, illustrated by Penny Neville-Lee
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

The author sets her splendid debut story in 1952 smoggy London where, in the run-up to Christmas, we meet young Penny Black. Penny is staying with her postmaster Uncle Frank above his post office because her airmail pilot mother is stuck in France due to the smog, and may not make it back in time for Christmas.

Writing to her mum one night, Penny is feeling especially lonely when she discovers a tiny creature stuck in a rat trap. However she quickly learns that this is no rat; ” I is a Sorter Second Class” the furry thing announces, going on to introduce himself as Wishyouwas and explaining that his role, along with his friends, is to collect lost mail and get it to the rightful recipients. Thus begins a wonderful adventure, for Wishyouwas takes Penny to the subterranean world of the Sorters and Deliverers whose very existence is threatened on account of Stanley Scrawl, the thoroughly unpleasant Royal Mail rat catcher.

Dear Penny, as Wishyouwas calls her, is determined to protect her new friend and the Sorters and Deliverers;

but will she be able to keep them safe and thus save Christmas, with that sinister Scrawl and his greyhound Ripper (both brilliantly described) on the prowl?

With its warmth, friendship and potential perils, who wouldn’t be enthralled by this magical seasonal adventure, made all the more so by Penny Neville-Lee’s super illustrations? I couldn’t put it down.

The Christmas Carrolls

The Christmas Carrolls
Mel Taylor-Bessent, illustrated by Selom Sunu
Farshore

Nine year old Holly, daughter of Christmas crazy parents Nick and Snow Carroll has been home schooled until a house suddenly becomes available on Sleigh Ride Avenue. Thrilled to bits her parents decide to move the family there and she is enrolled at the local primary school.

However, when Holly goes to Lockerton Primary with the Backpack of Cheer her dad’s given her and first day Christmas cards (in hot September!), for her year five classmates she realises not everyone shares her enthusiasm for spreading seasonal cheer; and, there are all those school rules and regulations to contend with too. She desperately wants a friend.


Then she hears some of the things that have been said about her: ‘from another planet’, ‘weird’, ‘eccentric’ or was it ‘electric’, ‘that I didn’t know how to dress myself’. How much worse can things get?

Seemingly Holly is on a downward spiral. However, the new unChristmassy approach she tries doesn’t feel right either: her cheerometer rating plummets to zero and she tells her parents, “Nobody wants us here … Nobody wants to celebrate Christmas all year round … And I don’t think I want to either.”

But, could her burgeoning friendship with Archer (which has also taken a turn for the worse) help her out and restore that feel good factor, and not only for herself? Perhaps – for when she learns of some children who really need help, Holly decides that nothing is impossible when it comes to spreading good cheer.

Now I’m somebody who is anything but filled with festive delight when I see the Christmas lights put up and turned on early in November, so initially I wasn’t sure about Holly and her family. However, Mel Taylor-Bessent’s debut story, for all its seasonal trappings, is about so much more that Christmas. For Holly it’s a steep learning journey and one whereon she discovers the importance of real friendship, that not everyone lives in the same way, as well as that her mum hasn’t always had it good.
What emerges loud and clear from this wonderfully warm, humorous tale is that the essentials of Christmas are hope, inclusion and community; and these should be for every day of the year rather than being restricted to just a short time. The author has created some smashing characters (illustrated by Selom Sunu) that certainly will linger in the minds of readers and listeners. This would make a terrific KS2 class read aloud.

Lo and Behold! Mouse & Mole

Lo and Behold! Mouse & Mole
Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew
Graffeg

Brimming over with seasonal warmth and the spirit of friendship is author Joyce and artist James ‘ visit to the wonderful world of Mouse, Mole and their other animal friends.

The first of the three stories finds the two opening the curtains to discover a blanket of snow covering the ground outside. The prefect day for making a ‘snowsomething’ and so eager to enjoy the outdoors are they, that they eat their breakfast porridge on the doorstep. Then it’s time for some games before meeting up with Rabbit, Rat, Hedgehog and Owl for a spot of sledging.

‘Snowsomething’ building is next and they have to wait until it’s dressed before deciding what sort of something it actually is. A Snowmole it turns out to be and then Mole decides to have his supper beside it to keep it company. He even beds down beside the Snowmole and eventually falls fast asleep. How come when he wakes up, Mole is in his own bed inside their cosy home? However Mole is still concerned about Snowmole being lonely but good old Mouse has done something to make sure that isn’t so.

It’s not long before December comes around and Mouse announces that it’s time to start using the advent calendar

until, as the second episode is called, lo and behold, it’s Christmas. Despite having said that, Mole decides that the big day is a really long way away that year. Meanwhile, as they have lots of preparations to make, the friends are so busy that Christmas Eve soon arrives.

So, what is the very important thing that Mole thinks they’ve forgotten to do as they get ready for bed on 24th; or rather, several important things seemingly? Then what is the bump in the night referred to in the title of the final episode?

I suggest snuggling up with a hot chocolate and sharing this with your little ones in the run up to your own Christmas. What wonderful Christmas cards some of James’ watercolour illustrations would make.

How Winston Delivered Christmas / How Winston Came Home For Christmas

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for sending these wonderful Alex T. Smith seasonal Winston books for review

How Winston Delivered Christmas


If you missed this terrific tale in hardback two or three years back then mouse Winston’s first adventure told in 24½ chapters is now in paperback with black and white illustrations. It tells what happens when said mouse, rummaging around for food comes upon a letter, a letter to Father Christmas eight year old Oliver thought he’d posted in a post box.

Now being a literate mouse, Winston realises that in order for it to reach its destination, there’s just one thing to do: although he has absolutely no idea of the way, to the North Pole, he must take the letter to Santa. His journey is far from easy but he eventually makes it and receives an unexpected surprise as the story ends. It’s a surprise that will remind readers that that in real-life there are people who need understanding, shelter and food at Christmas.

Designed to be read throughout advent this seasonal tale is jam-packed with festive delights and leaves the door open for another Winston festive adventure …

How Winston Came Home For Christmas

A year has passed since Winston’s first adventure and now the mouse and his human friend, Oliver, are back in a new seasonal story that begins five days before Christmas as Oliver is reading aloud to the little rodent, but having reached a cliffhanger the story is set aside and Oliver goes off to sleep. 

Not so Winston though. Beset by strange feelings and foggy memories he becomes certain that someone of great importance to him is lost. Now being a determined little creature, having left a note for Oliver promising to return for Christmas, Winston embarks on a mission – a Very Curious Mystery – to find the singing figure from his memories – a search that involves travelling first to Paris. Now how on earth (or in an appropriate sized envelope) can he do that?

There he is met with much kindness but doesn’t find the character he seeks so on he goes to Germany. There too he encounters helpful characters – human and animal – but the search must go on and now Winston takes to the air courtesy of kindly owl Hilda. 

By this stage of the story readers know the identity of the character Winston seeks but I won’t reveal that; merely bid them a safe journey and allow the travellers to continue towards nordic lands, Winston with the words of that lullaby running through his head; but what is it’s language? 

More importantly will he ever find its singer and be able to return to Oliver as promised?

Once again, readers and listeners will be swept away by the wonderfully warm tale Alex T. Smith has spun. It’s full of drama, friendship and that good-will spirit of the festive season. The full colour illustrations are suffused with humour and between each chapter is a seasonal activity, be that baking, crafting or otherwise creating, that all family members can share in.

With its star scattered cover, this is another 24½ chapters of sheer delight to make somebody’s Christmas special this year.

The Runaways of Haddington Hall

The Runaways of Haddington Hall
Vivian French
Walker Books

Poor Minnie O’Sullivan, she means well but seems to be beset by accidents and the result is at the behest of the Reverend Obadiah Marpike, that she is sent away to a supposedly charitable institution, Haddington Hall, a home for wayward girls. 

This in itself is terrible for it means she has to leave her poor hard-working washerwoman mother to cope with all the labours and her little brother Bobby all by herself. But she quickly discovers that it’s a truly ghastly place, founded and run by a stony-hearted woman, Mrs Haddington, aided and abetted by housekeeper Mrs Krick, and parlour maid Nellie, who immediately take a dislike to the girl for her attempts to stand up for herself.

Happily though she has two allies in Edith Lavingley, daughter of Lady Lavingley, and Ernst an errand boy; as well as Grobbler the dog. But can Minnie discover the truth about the person calling himself the Reverend Obadiah Marpike and most importantly, will she ever be able to return to her mother and brother?

With echoes of Dickensian England, Vivian French provides child readers with an insight into what it was like to be poor and live in Victorian times, when conditions for children were to say the least, precarious. Her characterisation is superb and her twisting turning plot serves up several surprises.

Whether read aloud to older primary classes, or enjoyed as a solo read, this is a gripping tale of friendship, loyalty and young people striving for what is right.

Books For Giving That Keep On Giving

William Bee’s Wonderful World of Things That Go!
Pavilion Books

This book brings together three of William Bee’s much-loved titles – Trucks, Trains and Boats and Planes, and Tractors and Farm Machines, in one bumper volume. I’ve already reviewed each of them on this blog so I won’t repeat myself; rather I’ll suggest that if you have a young child with an interest in things mechanical (or perhaps even yummy sounding breakfast cereals such as those sold down on William’s farm), then unless they already own the individual books, a copy of this totally immersive publication narrated in William Bee’s chatty style with his detailed, gently humorous illustrations, would make a smashing present.

Pippi Longstocking
Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Lauren Child
Oxford Children’s Books

This large format, beautifully produced new edition of a classic has been brought up-to-date with terrific contemporary illustrations from Lauren Child and a new translation by Susan Beard.

We follow Pippi Longstocking on her amazing adventures as she moves, sans parents, into Villa Villekulla with a horse, a monkey, and a big suitcase of gold coins. Despite well-meaning adult villagers’ attempts to guide Pippi, she’d far rather be a wild spirit. She meets Tommy and Annika who very soon become her best friends. These new friends join her on her amusing escapades – leading the police a merry dance, going to school – briefly, joining the circus taking on a strong man and wowing the crowd, dancing a polka with thieves and celebrating her birthday.

Young readers and listeners will delight in their encounters with this intrepid, sometimes outrageous heroine while older ones and adults will rekindle their love of her with this bumper book that would make a super Christmas present.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll & Grahame Baker-Smith
Templar Books

It’s always interesting to see new visual interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale and although for me none can outdo those of Tenniel, assuredly Grahame Baker-Smith’s distinctive illustrations, breathe a different kind of life into Carroll’s story.

Every chapter has full page, richly coloured detailed spreads as well as several smaller pictures executed either in blues or sepia. 

One I lingered long over was the double page colour spread of the Mad Tea-Party and an amazing spread it assuredly is. There’s a large iced cake, the upper surface of which is crammed full of liquorice all sorts and what look to be those flying saucer sweets that contain sherbet. I couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of an egg cup containing an egg and peeking through the crack in its shell is the face of a chick. It’s details such as those that the new generation of readers who go down the rabbit hole , as well as those familiar with the story taking the descent again, will remember.

With illustrations full of mystery and magic and a superb design, this is a terrific gift book.

The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales
edited & illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen
NYR Children’s Collection

This anthology contains a dozen ‘literary’ fairytales selected by the husband and wife team to illustrate with their own whimsical touches.

Among those included are Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale, Oscar Wilde’s literary The Happy Prince, The Three Wishes told by Barbara Leonie Picard, Arthur Rackham’s classic version of Beauty and the Beast, Elinor Mordaunt’s The Prince and the Goose Girl, a reworking of Grimm’s Goose Girl, Parker Fillmore’s retelling of the Finnish story The Forest Bride, and a tale new to me, A.A. Milne’s Prince Rabbit. With an unexpected final twist, this is an amusing story of a childless king who is urged to name an heir. To that end the king arranges a series of contests for would-be heirs who meet certain criteria; one of which is a rabbit.

I found it fascinating to have such a variety of storytellers side by side in one volume, with the Provensens’ humorous, sometimes dark illustrations and I suspect this is a book that will appeal more to book collectors and older readers with a particular interest in fairy tales, than to child readers.

Genie and Teeny: Wishful Thinking

Genie and Teeny: Wishful Thinking
Steve Lenton
Harper Collins Children’s Books

Before this second story starts properly it’s necessary to get Grant and Teeny to wake from their slumbers. But where are they? Fortunately they’re discovered before it’s time for Tilly to set off for school which is handy because it’s Friday July 9th – and that means Bring Your Pet To School Day; so long as Grant can get Teeny back to his normal size in time, that and stop himself getting hyper-excited on the way to school.

En route though, they encounter Billy Krump the school bully and have a narrow escape. But then once inside school said bully looms large again when the headteacher asks if anybody has come without a pet and guess whose hand goes up.

That is when the trouble begins but the real trouble starts when Billy Krump grabs Tilly’s rucksack, takes out the teapot and makes a dash to the boys’ loos. Therein Grant (who is still endeavouring to improve his wish-granting skills) accidentally grants the boy three wishes.
Then, Alaka-blam-a-bumwhistle! chaos ensues …

Will it ever end and even better will Billy Krump find a new friend?

Full of jokes, puns and just plain daftness, this sequel is huge fun and possibly even better than Genie and Teeny Make a Wish. It will have youngsters in fits throughout not to mention any teachers who share it with a class. The illustrations are a hoot and Steve has even included a ‘How to draw Teeny the dog’ finale.

Roll on book three say I.

The Queen in the Cave

The Queen in the Cave
Júlia Sardà
Walker Studio

This story begins when Franca, one of three sisters gets a strange feeling. It’s on account of her previous night’s dream about a marvellous queen who lives in a dark, dark cave deep in the forest beyond the garden fence, so she tells her sisters Carmela and Tomasina.

Franca persuades her sisters to join her in an investigation whereby she hopes to discover the veracity of her dream and thus rid herself of the feeling that now besets her.

Thus begins an adventure that takes the three ‘where no-one has ever gone before’. As the three walk, the forest surroundings take on a troubling stillness but fearless Franca urges them onwards and suddenly the ground begins to shudder. Strange sights are revealed and even stranger encounters take place

some of which are very frightening. Gradually though Carmela and Tomasina’s fears turn to thrills and they press forwards as it grows darker and darker.

Then suddenly they find themselves all too close to a thoroughly nasty neighbour: time to run until they reach … the entrance of the cave from Franca’s dream.

But what of that queen? Is she within and will she reveal herself?

Prepare to be enthralled by this powerfully atmospheric book: readers will feel occasional frissons of fear along with the sisters, as the layers of meaning are gradually unearthed and the queen’s kingdom is revealed. Spellbinding indeed: the richly coloured illustrations have a quirkiness and are full of weird and wonderful details, patterns and textures.

Dulcinea in the Forbidden Forest

Dulcinea in the Forbidden Forest
Ole Könnecke (translated by Shelley Tanaka)
Gecko Press

Dulcinea lives happily with her father in a house on the edge of a large forest. They have a cow for milk, chickens for eggs, and grow much of their own food. Assuredly this is the stuff of fairytales;:all the more so when we read slightly further on that in the forest is a castle, wherein dwells a witch; a singing witch who sometimes roams in the forest. I guess she has no worries about being attacked by the monsters said to lurk in the moat surrounding her residence.

Now on the day of Dulcinea’s birthday, the girl’s chosen breakfast is blueberry pancakes; but oh woe! neither father nor daughter has remembered to buy blueberries at the market. Off goes her father but not as the girl thinks, to the market; rather he enters the forest where the desired berries grow in abundance.


Therein however, an encounter with the witch results in him being turned into a tree.

Now generally speaking, young Dulcinea is an obedient child, but fuelled by determination, the desire to celebrate her birthday with the specified pancakes (and one assumes, a love for her father), accompanied by her ever-present goose, she too enters the forest to look for her pa. There she (as will readers) instantly recognises him on account of his moustache, cap and basket.

Then it’s down to her wits to save her father,

herself and her birthday. Each of these she does with aplomb, in best fairy tale fashion.

Brilliantly comedic, both verbally (‘the witch always found young children exhausting’ … ‘besides nothing bad could happen to you on your birthday, could it?’) and visually -superb linework with minimal colour – and the contrast between the expressions of child and witch. In combination, these elements make this a neo-fairytale that will delight both solo readers and readers aloud.

Roxy & Jones: The Curse of the Gingerbread witch

Roxy & Jones: The Curse of the Gingerbread Witch
Angela Woolfe
Walker Books

We’re back in that wonderful world where witches and magic are real, and fairy stories are part of modern history, for another fairytale potpourri featuring Roxy Humperdink and (Cinderella) Jones. I challenge readers to find out how many traditional fairytale elements are found between the covers of this one.

Now Roxy has seen a sign concerning the return for a record launch, of her older half-brother, musician and leader of the band H-Bomb and the Missiles; and she hasn’t set eyes on him for five years.
She also receives the strangest seemingly senseless letter from someone signing it PM but she knows nobody with those initials: a coded message perhaps? 

And so it is, from Jones of course, asking her to meet in a swanky department store wherein she’s currently residing. (It’s also the very same place where Hans Humperdinck’s record launch is to take place.) Thus begins another mission for the two, a search for the Missing, and Jones already has a clue.

Almost the next thing Roxy knows is that she (plus Mirror) is at a party in a nightclub, something at age thirteen she’s never done before; and then she discovers that Gretel is also there. Before you can say ‘awesome magic’ the two girls are whizzing up a giant beanstalk (we know which story that belongs in); but what in the world of fairy-tales is The Law of Sevens? And what is Magiscience?

It turns out that the children who followed the Pied Piper into the mountain some thirty years back are the Missing they seek, now trapped deep in a hidden mountain, completely forgotten thanks to enchantments. 

This madcap adventure also takes the girls into the evil Deadwoods with the possibility that the deadly Gingerbread Witch still lurks somewhere deep therein. Her cottage is certainly there.

With frissons of fear throughout, and humour too, Angela Woolfe’s gripping thriller of a tale will hold readers in its enchantment till the final page, and leave them asking for more.

Wulfie Saves the Planet

Wulfie Saves the Planet
Lindsay J Sedgwick, illustrated by Rosa Devine
Little Island

You can never be sure what might happen next when you have a best friend like Wulfie with those super powers of his. That’s how it is for Libby who in this third book has a rather challenging school project that requires thinking up some new fun ways to make people care about the environment. Moreover she has only three days to think of something amazing.

However what Libby lacks in ideas (she doesn’t have many but is desperate to make her stepmother Veronika proud and beat her annoying ‘sibling’ Rex) is in complete contrast to Wulfie. He is positively bursting with ways to save the planet – he could be a superhero no less and to that end the purple wulfen decides getting much bigger might be useful, along with adopting the name Wonderwulf, donning a red cape and wearing socks – on his ears – as well as adding one of Veronika’s sleep masks, or maybe not.

Later on, Libby is just settling down to tea, when something on the local news catches her eye, something that gets her heart all a-flutter. Surely it couldn’t be – or could it? Then come sightings of a purple bearded masked superhero …

Libby and her friend Nazim are hot on the trail.

Shall we say, the best laid plans of mice and men… or rather those of wulfen and girl – don’t work out exactly right. Time for Wulfie to employ that nose-tickling, sneeze-inducing feather he keeps behind his ear …

But is it too late for Libby to complete her winning school project and protect not only the planet but her very best purple eco-friend?

Let’s just cross our fingers and say, ‘WonderWulf: For All. For Ever’.

A madcap romp with Rosa Devine’s funny black and white illustrations that will make primary children giggle throughout, and at the same time remind them of the vital importance of doing all they can to protect our precious planet

Charlie & Mouse Lost and Found / Ghoulia and the Doomed Manor

Charlie & Mouse Lost and Found
Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes
Chronicle Books

With four separate, interconnected stories amusingly illustrated by Emily Hughes, this is the fifth book in a series featuring two young siblings, that is just right for children just moving into chapter books.
In the first story it’s Mouse’s blanket that is lost and he’s feeling sad about it. Charlie offers to help him look in ‘all the somewhere’s” -all day if necessary. They search the house but Blanket isn’t there, nor is it in the garden, nor the playground. Blanket is nowhere, Mouse concludes but then Charlie from ‘Somewhere’ produces the lost object – hurrah!
While engaged in doing Errands with mum, the brothers discovery of a lost something they’ve always wanted, makes their day – and many more to come …

Story three sees the something recently found being called Silly and said Silly has now become a much loved part of their family although possibly not by their moggy, Kittenhead. A walk will give the feline some welcome respite but the outcome of the walk is less welcome when the children return home to discover they need to bid farewell to Silly.

In the final story, Boop, the siblings still sad at the departure of Silly, agree with their Dad that she was “a lot of dog” but the prospect of ice cream cheers them up somewhat. Then while consuming same, the boys see something considerably smaller that might just work as a replacement for Silly.

Silly but sweet, playful family tales, these are as delightful as ever.

Also huge fun for new solo readers, though with a rather more spooky feel is

Ghoulia and the Doomed Manor
Barbara Cantini
Amulet Books

The story starts with Auntie Departed, resident of Crumbling Manor, receiving a phone call from her sister Auntie Witch inviting her and Ghoulia et al from their abode, to spend their summer holiday at Fancy Manor where she resides with Cousin Dilbert on the shore of Lake Mystery. With mounting excitement, bags are packed and three days later driven by albino greyhound Tragedy, off they go.
They settle in well on arrival;

however they then discover a problem: on account of the run-down state of the Fancy Manor, the town council, thinking the property uninhabited, plan to auction it off, unless that is a living heir comes forward. Panic immediately breaks out but Dilbert comes up with a plan in the form of a Back-to-Life potion.
Then it’s down to Ghoulia and Dilbert to collect the required ingredients and once they have, to brew the potion, making it sufficiently powerful to ensure it lasts long enough for Auntie Witch to convince the town planner, not only of her identity but also that her house is fit for human habitation.

No pressure then!

Mock-scary comedic fun, appropriately weirdly populated, this 4th Ghoulia tale works both as a read aloud and a solo read that will delight monster-loving youngsters. Don’t miss the final ‘extra-special fun’ pages.

Billie Swift Takes Flight

Billie Swift Takes Flight
Iszi Lawrence
Bloomsbury Education

This story is set in 1942 and yes World War 2 is a period fairly often used in children’s fiction. but this is something altogether different.

Twelve-year old Billie Swift would much rather spend time in the company of her mum’s chickens than with other humans. She finds school boring, though she’s bright and a quick learner with an avid interest in planes.

One day when out cycling with her favourite chicken Susan, Billie suddenly sees a Spitfire crash in a field. Knowing better than to go close up and investigate in case of fire, she dashes home thinking to herself, “That is the second time you’ve murdered someone” and she’s not proud of herself. However she remains concerned about the fate of the pilot as well as her brother’s bike (which she needs to retrieve); but when she returns to the site, there’s no sign of the plane.

Before long she’s managed – not entirely honestly – to become a member of the ATA cadets, meeting lots of pilots – men and women – who against the odds, fly planes from factories to the front lines; and she too learns to fly. At the airfield she meets all kinds of people including the person she thinks was piloting the ‘crashed’ spitfire whom she begins to suspect is a Nazi spy.

On a mission to find out the truth and to clear her friend Nancy’s name,(accused of smuggling)) Billie finds herself in increasing danger and towards the end of the story there are some very frightening moments that left me with my heart in my mouth.

Truly inspiring, full of the spirit of the time and with so many real life people who were the inspiration for Iszi Lawrence’s characters, this is a book that brilliantly evokes a part of history where relatively little of the fictional focus has been on women. It helps to bring their contribution to the notice of today’s readers, many of whom won’t be much younger than Billie herself.

Definitely a book I recommend for anyone learning about WW2 at school, either as a class read aloud or a solo read; and for home reading by children who love an exciting tale.

Fairy Tales Gone Bad: Frankenstiltskin

Fairy Tales Gone Bad: Frankenstiltskin
Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Freya Hartas
Walker Books

Delectably dark, this is the second classic fairy tale to which, with his rhyming magical touch, poet Joseph Coelho gives a new spin.

Here we meet young animal lover and stuffer of animal skins, taxidermist Bryony, and a King – King of all Mythica who, thanks to her father’s boasting of her supreme skills, carries Bryony away to his palace where he wants her to bring creatures back to life. The first is a wolf brought to her room by one Yeltsin Thorogood who announces himself as the Tongue of the King.

This is the first of three tasks – impossible ones – that the King issues to Bryony. There then appears through a door within a door, a hairy child-sized creature smiling mischievously and offering to help her. However his assistance doesn’t come without cost.

Not then, nor for the next two tasks, the first involving a polar bear,

the second of which is more unthinkable than ever; and guessing the creature’s name is the price demanded for this.

In the meantime though Bryony will achieve much as queen of a realm where animals and humans live side by side harmoniously; but then back comes the little creature, come to collect his happiness …

Totally brilliant, Joseph has seamlessly stitched together this tale with its two elements, Frankenstein and gold-spinning Rumpelstiltskin: I especially love that no matter what, Bryony stands up for what she believes, forcing the King to produce a vegan menu, as well as calling him a monster at one point. Superb too, at every turn of the page, are Freya Hartas’ black and white illustrations.

Lovers of fairytales, fractured and otherwise, will adore this book.

Theodora Hendrix and the Curious Case of the Cursed Beetle

Theodora Hendrix and the Curious Case of the Cursed Beetle
Jordan Kopy, illustrated by Chris Jevons
Walker Books

Ten year old Theodora Hendrix the only human resident of the Monstrous League of Monsters )MLM) mansion returns in a second funny adventure that is surely bound to lead her into deadly danger. At present Theodora loves her life with her fiendish family and is pretty certain she can cope with anything; but can she handle an Egyptian-themed adventure. She thinks so until that is, she encounters the nasty Inspector Shelley and her even nastier pet rat. 

(Mary) Shelley and Ratsputin have come to spy on the Monstrous League of Monsters, and are hell bent on shutting them down for an alleged breaching of the MLM charter – punishable by banishment to one of the darkest, dankest prisons in Transylvania or being sent to live with humans, perhaps.

Having demanded that the temperature of their room doesn’t go above four degrees Celsius, the foul pair prowl through the mansion, examining everything for evidence of rule-breaking. To have any hope of success, and prevent Inspector Shelley from becoming the new head of the London MLM, Theodora must enlist the help of her loyal friend and classmate Dexter Adebola (who has also had some difficulties with school). They have to stop her finding the Mummy’s true name and thus gaining control of her mind and that means tracking all her movements. Then Theodora makes a discovery of her own in The Ancient Curse Breaking Room: a cursed scarab beetle. 

This she must destroy urgently and without attracting the inspector’s attention.

Then comes news that the school has been chosen to host upcoming Halloween celebrations; can they get rid of the inspector by then? With the friendship between Dexter and Theodora strengthening in this story, they form an unlikely alliance with trouble-making, bullying Billy; this they do in what they term S.R.R.T. (Stop Rumple’s Reign of Terror) – Rumple being the ghastly, fun-hating headteacher of Appleton Primary who does her utmost to make the children’s lives a misery.

What do Theodora’s torat cards have to say about all this? Will good triumph over evil? That’s the question throughout.

With their superb characterisation and quirky amalgam of horror and humour, team Jordan Kopy and Chris Jevons have another winner here.

Midnight Magic: Mirror Mischief / Skeleton Keys: The Wild Imaginings of Stanley Strange

These two books both from Little Tiger imprint Stripes Publishing are ideal for reading in these dark evenings – thanks to the publishers for sending them for review

Midnight Magic: Mirror Mischief
Michelle Harrison and Elissa Elwick

The second rhyming story starring Trixie and Midnight, her black moggy born at the stroke of midnight with a nose for trouble, along with Trixie’s Dad and her Nan. Once again the lovable kitten brings a sparkle of mischievous magical mayhem to a tale that is pitch perfect for youngsters at that stage between picture books and assured independent reading.

It all begins with a tampering with time by the moggy to allow more minutes together before Trixie has to leave for school. Time during which both Trixie and Midnight look in the mirror with surprising results that start a concatenation of chaos all through the house, as left to her own devices, Midnight unleashes double the trouble when a breakage occurs.

Is there any chance that Nan, just off to her yoga class – so she thinks – can step in and curtail the pandemonium,

perhaps even putting paid to that reflection’s rioting and placing it back where it ought to be?
Sparkling with excitement and humour, made even more so by Elissa Elwick’s wonderfully expressive illustrations of the drama, this tale is irresistible.

Skeleton Keys: The Wild Imaginings of Stanley Strange
Guy Bass, illustrated by Pete Williamson

The spooky narrator Skeleton Keys – he of the door-opening ‘fantabulant fingers’ is ready to regale readers with the fifth of his darkly comic ‘tall-but-true’ tales. This one features young unimaginary Lucky and when we first encounter him, he’s decidedly chilly and wandering alone on a hillside looking for his friend Stanley who has unaccountably disappeared. So desperate is Lucky that he’s even resorting to asking sheep if they’ve seen his pal, the actual human that imagined him.

Soon though, Skeleton Keys and his partner in problem-solving, Daisy discover Lucky and they’re determined to reunite the small creature with his human imaginer. The hunt is on but where can the vanished Stanley be?

Lucky mentions The Door to Nowhere as a place Stanley wanted too see and that sparks something in the mind of Skeleton Keys. Their search takes them first to said door and thence into the Kingdom – a hidden world for unimaginaries, the first rule of the place being ‘no human allowed’. So what in Kingdom’s name is Stanley doing thinking of entering. And what about Daisy? Nevertheless, SK is determined and in they go.

It’s a totally weird place full of unimaginaries brought there by SK himself – ‘a haven he calls it, ‘ a sort of retirement home for unimaginary friends.’ They scour the streets encountering trolls and other weird things before visiting Lady Byrd, in the hope she can help. Hmm. Maybe but maybe not.

The next encounter is with a dreadful dinosaur but once that’s been ‘disappeared’ there are robots on the rampage. YIKES! When is this all going to end – hopefully before the whole place becomes nothing but heaps of rubble. Surely we must all be dreaming – or maybe just somebody is …

Brilliantly imagined by author and illustrator, this is perfect reading for the longer evenings that are now upon us; yes it’s bursting with wild happenings but at the heart of the tale lies friendship, and finding your place.

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes: The Super Spy / Sky

These are both additions to popular, established series: thanks to the publishers for sending them for review:

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes: The Super Spy
Brenda Gurr
New Frontier Publishing

With cooking programmes on TV as popular as ever, I’m sure there are many young aspiring Zinnia Jakes, aka Zoe who will relish this the third in the series about baking and the challenges it presents to nine-year-old Zoe, her best friend Addie, her Aunt Jam a musician, and Coco the seemingly magical cat that appears at specific times, some of which are exceedingly inconvenient.

In this story we find Zoe coping with the annoying shenanigans of the moggy especially when it invades lessons, the forthcoming school sleepover for Year 4 and the challenge of making a fabulous spy-themed Cake for the Parents’ Association party this coming weekend.

On receiving the cake request sent as usual to Zinnia Jakes, Zoe’s mind immediately goes into over-drive; but how will she manage delivering a cake in secret without revealing the identity of Zinna Jakes, especially as Aunt Jam will be otherwise engaged? Perhaps her dad might help as he’s going to be at home on the night of the sleepover, so he tells Zoe.

First though Zoe has to decide on a design for the cake and with suggestions from Jam, Addie, not to mention Coco, she finally settles on a combination of their ideas.

However, things begin to go downhill when she received news from her dad -he’s been delayed; and then she overhears one of the organiser’s mention of spy traps – supposed to be part of the fun but not of course for Zinnia. Is her identity after all, destined to be discovered?

Full of surprises, this tale of teamwork and friendship, determination and resilience will go down especially well with younger readers of chapter books; it would also make a good, short read-aloud for KS1 classes. Don’t miss the recipe for a ‘hidden secret cake’ at the end of the story.

Sky
Holly Webb, illustrated by Jo Anne Davies
Little Tiger

This is the latest in the author’s Winter Animal series that have a time slip and a creature linking the two periods.

When Lara and her parents arrive in the Scottish Highlands to spend the Christmas holidays with her grandparents, she’s surprised when Grandad tells her of a snowy owl he’s seen. Then both Lara and Grandad spot her again and despite the snow that’s fallen overnight, Lara insists on going out the next day in the hope of seeing the bird again; and see Sky as she names the white bird, she does. It leads her all the way to the Big House before disappearing but Lara notices that the Christmas tree in its window has real candles burning brightly.

The following morning, Lara is drawn back to the house and as she approaches, there at the edge of the driveway, she comes upon a sobbing girl in a long white dress lying on the snowy ground.

A girl from another era who says her name is Amelia and is surprised that Lara is dressed in, as she calls her trousers and jacket, ‘boys’ clothes’. Lara in turn is amazed at Amelia’s ‘old-fashioned, fancy clothes’ especially her underwear that she sees when Amelia takes her into her bedroom in the big house. Now Lara is convinced that, thanks to that magical owl, she’s gone back in time.

With lots of lovely black-and-white illustrations by Jo Anne Davies, this is a gorgeous wintry tale that primary readers, especially animal lovers will adore, either around Christmas, or really, at any time.

Count

Count
Melvin Burgess, illustrated by Chris Mould
Andersen Press

This is award winning author Melvin Burgess’s first book for younger readers and what a hoot of a story it is.

Meet Brandon an inveterate boaster: strongest in his class, super at soccer, tops in every subject in class, in fact, according to him, he’s the best at everything. It’s only his younger sister who believes his claims, and his teacher, while approving of his having a wonderful imagination, points out that continuing with such wild pretences will result in people not accepting a word he says.

Then to go one (actually many many) better than his best pal Waris, Brandon announces that he can count to – wait for it – TEN MILLION!

Off he goes and to his surprise, once he starts counting he finds himself totally besotted with numbers, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else.

Even being sent to the headteacher, Miss Hexx who he flatly refuses to obey when she tells him to stop counting. A special staff meeting is called but oddly quite a few of the teachers actually find Brandon’s counting ‘rather beautiful’ or similar. The teacher part of me fell about to read Mr Wyke’s comment: “This is a school. You’re supposed to learn how to do things – you’re not supposed to actually start doing them yourself until you’re grown up.”

Calculations are made and the boy discovers that to reach his goal will take a whole year, so what about Christmas, which would involve his entire family?

Will this love affair between Brandon and numbers ever stop? Assuredly it’s having an effect on everyone at school and the boy’s fame is spreading far and wide.

Nobody quite knows what will happen next …

Brilliantly anarchic and pricelessly funny – made even more so by Chris Mould’s comical black-and-white illustrations, I envisage countless children reading this in a single sitting eager to know how the story ends; all I’ll say is that they’re in for a surprise. It would also make a smashing class read aloud, so long as KS2 teachers aren’t worried about putting ideas into the heads of their charges.

More for primary age readers please Melvin.

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden
retold by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Margarita Kukhtina
Nosy Crow

If you’re looking for a beautifully designed gift edition of this Frances Hodgson Burnett classic, look no further than award-winning author Geraldine McCaughrean’s retelling with its gorgeous art work by Margarita Kukhtina.

I loved the story as a child and have continued to do so since; I’m sure this version will create a new generation of readers equally fond of the tale of Indian born Mary Lennox who is orphaned and sent to live with her uncle in England, to be brought up in Misselthwaite Manor, a disquietingly gloomy building.
There she meets housekeeper Mrs Medlock

and the kindly servant, Martha. There is a huge culture shock for the spoiled girl who’s more than a little angry at the situation she now finds herself in. She’s lonely too though, until she discovers a walled garden that has been kept secret for years.

In that garden, she meets Ben Weatherstaff, an elderly gardener and his friend Mr Robin. Later she unearths the key and with it unlocks the wonder that lies beyond the garden walls.

First though she finds the gentle Dickon who talks to animals and birds and the sickly Colin: through them she also discovers that making friends like these two can be every bit as life-enhancing as a magical garden.

With Geraldine McCaughrean’s supreme story-telling skill and totally captivating illustrations as rich as the text, this tale of light and darkness is destined to be the go-to way to introduce the story to children of today.

Tales from the Ocean

Tales from the Ocean
Chae Strathie, illustrated by Erin Brown
Little Tiger

With Erin Brown’s colour illustrations on every spread, this is a collection of twenty original short stories about sea creatures large and small by Chae Strathie.

The oceans are teeming with life whether it be in the tropical waters of the coral reefs, the coastal waters and shallows, tropical and temperate waters or those of the Arctic and polar regions, the four locations in which the author sets these tales.

First we meet a rather impatient young Giant Clam. He’s in a hurry to find a place to settle and grow his shell. Will he listen to the advice of others that have made far from perfect choices?
In the shallows, Hermit Crab too, needs a new home on account of a shell, but hers has become too tight; now she’s on the hunt for one that ‘feels just right’ and in so doing she helps two other crabs find something that’s ‘a better fit’.

Out in the warmer waters Ocean Sunfish is suffering from a bout of itchiness on account of not finding a cleaner wrasse to nibble off the irritating parasites tickling her skin.

Resigned to having to put up with the discomfort, she sets off jelly hunting and by late afternoon although her appetite is sated, her itchiness is worse. Another sunfish makes a suggestion but this fails to rid her of the wretched irritants. Maybe the seagull can help …

In the immense whiteness that is the Antarctic, living in a colony of Adelie penguins is Small Penguin. Despite his size compared with the Emperor penguins that live close by, Small Penguin has big ideas about himself and is more than ready to take up the challenge of one of the Emperors: ‘first penguin to catch a silverfish is the best’. Which penguin will be the victor?

It’s impossible to choose a favourite tale: that will depend on listeners and readers. Each one ends with a verse from the marine protagonist and with the author’s infusion of gentle humour and lots of incidental learning built in, as well as Erin Brown’s gorgeous illustrations this is ideal for sharing with younger children or for older ones to read independently. (The book concludes with two finals spreads with paragraphs of additional details about each of the twenty creatures featured.)