Emmy Levels Up / Amber Under Cover

These are two immersive stories for older readers – thanks to Oxford Children’s Books for sending them for review

Emmy Levels Up
Helen Harvey

With a back drop of gaming and a school setting, this is a superb story that focuses on bullying, mostly of the spiteful verbal kind that includes name-calling and other covert psychological nastiness which can make a person feel utterly worthless.

Emmy is on the receiving end of this terrible treatment but finds solace in gaming and the gamer community wherein she feels confident. So we actually have an interweaving of two narrative threads: online Emmentine – confident and highly skilled, and real world Emmy – ridiculed by some of her class for not having the ‘right’ trainers and other gear that her family can’t afford.

The biggest bully is sly vicious Vanessa and it’s she who makes Emmy’s life a misery at school. Her home life too is far from harmonious, in part due her older brother Ryan’s aversion to mum’s boyfriend , Paul.

What Emmy needs to do is apply some of what she’s learned through gaming to her school adversaries, find a real life supportive tribe of her own and in so doing feel able to tap into her inner resilience and speak out against those whose desire is to humiliate her.

Helen Harvey explores the issue of bullying with enormous sensitivity and empathy in her debut novel that I have no doubt many youngsters will relate to.

Another terrific read is

Amber Under Cover
Em Norry

Meet Amber, in her early teens, bookish, under confident and able to keep her cool, in contrast to her best friend Vi who loves to be in the limelight but apt to panic under stress. Amber is shocked to learn that she’s to become a big sister but that’s only the start of her troubles; she then discovers that she’s been under surveillance by a mysterious spy agency – specialists in global espionage. This organisation were watching her performance in a supposed virtual reality game and she’s been selected to train as a teenage spy.

So clever is this agency that they successfully dupe Amber’s somewhat preoccupied parents into believing her week’s residential training is part of an inter-school programme in recognition of her superior STEM skills.
Staying in an underground bunker, Amber is plunged into a secret world where she has to undergo training in self-defence and surveillance, about which she mustn’t tell a soul: not her parents, not Vi (who would love the stylishness of the place) or anybody who isn’t ‘authorised personnel’. What has she got herself into, Amber asks herself.

However, at the end of the weekend she’s deemed ready for her first mission. What will she say to Vi having to let her down again?

Before long it’s destination Sankt Hallvard Manor an exclusive Norwegian boarding school suspected to be harbouring members of CHAOS an organisation intent on destroying the existing world order. Is she up to the task of fitting in while spying in this world of the super-rich?

Seemingly it will have to be ‘Fake it till you make it.’ in this gently humorous, tense, fast paced story at the heart of which is a girl growing up and finding her place in the modern world.

Willow Wildthing and the Shooting Star / Leo’s Map of Monsters: The Spitfang Lizard

These are new titles in two smashing series for young solo readers – thanks to Oxford Children’s Books for sending them for review

Willow Wildthing and the Shooting Star
Gill Lewis, illustrated by Rebecca Bagley

Gill Lewis enchants once again with her third adventure of Willow and her dog Sniff, often a key player in her Wilderness exploits with the other Wild Things.

As the book starts, Willow’s little brother Freddie needs to go to hospital again and Nana is coming to keep an eye on her granddaughter.
A knock at the door brings not the anticipated Nana but fellow Wild Thing, Raven announcing the imminent destruction of their River Camp on account of flooding after several days of incessant rain. “You have to come,” Raven urges. “We’re going to lose everything.”

Happily, Willow is able to accompany Raven on the understanding that she’s to stay the night with her friend and they meet up with the others.

Only able to rescue some of their paraphernalia, the friends watch as the rest of their camp is washed away. Eventually the rain does stop and Raven suggests they all camp in her back garden from where they can watch the meteor shower that night.

It’s a night that turns out to be truly magical, for three shooting stars fall. Willow is convinced the one she wished on has landed in the Wilderness and she’s determined to find it …

There is SO much to love about the story, not least the way Gill Lewis celebrates children’s creativity and the imagination. These children thrive on a lifestyle that allows them freedom to explore the natural world, make camps, light fires, get thoroughly covered in mud and generally relish being part of the great outdoors. The love of family and the importance of friends – in this book ‘the witch’ (a reclusive writer) plays an important role – are also fundamental.

Each of these elements is captured so wonderfully in Rebecca Bagley’s illustrations which aptly, have a blue theme herein. Another great thing about these stories is their appeal to both girls and boys, those just gaining confidence as independent readers especially.

This is also true of

Leo’s Map of Monsters: The Spitfang Lizard
Kris Humphrey, illustrated by Pete Willliamson

Leo Wilder is apprentice to the Guardian and his job is to keep the village safe from monsters that hide in the eerie forest all around.

In his second adventure, Henrik has summoned Leo to inform him that having left their home along the White River, two deadly Spitfangs have left their riverside home and are getting alarmingly close. His “Whatever you do boy, don’t get spat on.” is pretty troubling as Leo’s already overheard the village chief’s comment to Henrik about the possibility of the lad being eaten.

Nonetheless, off to the forest with the pouch of stones Leo goes. Almost immediately he hears beating wings and there is Starla announcing that she’s come to help. Shortly after two girls appear carrying baskets. “Not friendly. Not friendly at all,” Starla says of them.

A brief conversation ensues and they disappear leaving Leo to continue his search. Suddenly he slips and almost the next thing he knows is that his legs are encased in a grungy cocoon of Spitfire spit. Yikes!

With some enigmatic characters,

this is a highly engaging story for young solo readers: the problem-solving element and smashing illustrations by Pete Williamson contribute significantly to the enjoyment.

Wigglesbottom Primary: Dino Chick / Wulfie: Beast in Show

Wigglesbottom Primary: Dino Chick
Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Becka Moor
Nosy Crow

This contains three more episodes in the life of Class Two R and once again they’re in high spirits. At least that’s so in the first story when they learn from Miss Riley that she’s installed an incubator within which are four chicken eggs. They’re less excited to hear that the eggs will take several days to hatch especially when later in the day it comes to their notice that one egg has mysteriously changed colour. Miss Riley sits them down and tells everyone not to touch any of the eggs. Megan decides that the purple and green egg must contain a dinosaur. What a terrifying thought. Several days later three of the eggs have hatched and three fluffy chicks are in the incubator. Suddenly egg number four starts to crack … YIKES! what will emerge?

In the second story there’s a new girl in the class. Individuals take turns to show her parts of the school, including some that are strictly out of bounds. 

It’s an unlikely way to make somebody feel welcome but who gets the biggest surprise of all?

The final tale starts with the discovery that the school library is to close due to lack of funds. Can 2R come up with a plan to save it and keep Mr Hope in his job?

Another three wonderfully silly stories for new solo readers (or to read aloud) that show how easily children’s vivid imaginations can spiral into comedic craziness, a craziness that is echoed in Becka Moor’s lively illustrations.

Wulfie: Beast in Show
Lindsay J. Sedgwick, illustrated by Josephine Wolff
Little Island Books

Libby and her beloved purple fluffy best friend, Wulfie (Wolfgang Amadeus Rachmaninoff the Third) return in a second adventure. Libby’s unpleasant stepmother announces the imminent arrival of her older sister, Aunt Ilda. A fanatical dog breeder, she’s determined to win the SNOB prize in the forthcoming dog show to be shown live on TV. Concluding that her failure to win on previous occasions is due to not having a child assistant, she wants to enlist Libby’s awful, spoilt step-brother Rex.

Libby knows she must try to ensure that with Wulfie being so dog-like in appearance, he stays out of sight during the visit. No mean task as the wulfen’s behaviour is, let’s say, somewhat unpredictable and he can sometimes change size at the most inopportune times. 

Times such as his emergence from the washing machine right in front of Aunt Ilda who immediately decides that Wulfie must be her entry in the dog show. And if taking Libby as well as Wulfie and Rex away with her is what it takes, then so be it. 

What she doesn’t know however, is that in addition to his size changing and talking, Wulfie’s sneezes freeze time.

When Libby hears the words, “Your creature belongs to me now, runt, and he is going to make me more famous than any other famous person ever in the whole world.” she knows that Wulfie desperately needs to be rescued. 

But perhaps not before he’s had the chance to make Aunt Ilda look a complete fool on television.

Another fun, action-packed drama with some rather unpleasant characters, as well as the determined, lovable Libby and her equally lovable bestie, all splendidly illustrated by Josephine Wolff.

Willow Moss and the Vanished Kingdom / Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Haunted House

These are new additions to popular series both with strong, determined female protagonists

Willow Moss and the Vanished Kingdom
Dominique Valente, illustrated by Sarah Warburton
Harper Collins Children’s Books

This is the third instalment in the Starfell series, starring young witch Willow Moss and her kobold best friend, ‘not cat’ Oswin.

Now Willow has been enrolled in school – a normal school – and it’s the very first time the Brothers of Wol, the order newly headed by none other than Silas, have allowed Starfell’s magical children to be educated alongside their non-magical peers, and her parents think it’s now the right thing. Surely there’s an ulterior motive? Willow has her suspicions from the outset.

On the very first day of term Willow meets Twist, a forthright elf girl and they soon become firm friends. Also willing to accept Willow for who she is, there’s Peg, a human boy. When she learns of the new curriculum that students will study Willow finds it pretty alarming, but Peg speaks out firmly in support of ‘magic people’ and of diversity.

Before you can say ’broomstick’; though, the three of them have escaped the confines of the classroom and are heading to Lael, the elf city made entirely of marble wherein Twist’s aunts Tuppence, Griselda and Dot reside.

All they have to do thereafter is to find the vanished elvish kingdom of Llandunia and get hold of the elf staff before it gets into the wrong hands. Not much to ask then.

Dragons, trolls (including an old friend of Willow’s) and more – even Oswin’s cousin – appear in this terrific fantasy tale, but be warned: it ends on a cliff-hanger.

Somehow, despite Sarah Warburton’s illustrations, the cover apart, being in black and white, many readers will I suspect experience parts of this enormously engaging story in colour, such is the power of Dominique Valente’s writing. Bring on the next book.

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Haunted House
Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Daniela Sosa
Little Tiger

Zaiba has a third case to solve and it’s set in the home of her new friend Olivia. Olivia’s parents have recently bought the run-down Oakwood Manor and Olivia tells Zaiba that her mum thinks the house is haunted. With its plethora of secret passages and hidden rooms it is certainly steeped in history and some strange things have happened but ghosts? Surely not.

Olivia invites Zaiba and Poppy her pal, to come to the house-warming party the following day and then sleepover, as that offers the ideal opportunity to begin their ‘ghost’ investigation. Zaiba has an unexpected offer of assistance from her brother Ali and with her backpack of detective paraphernalia, and fellow Snow Leopard Detective Agency UK members they’re ready to investigate.

Once the party is underway, things get increasingly weird

and sometimes, a tad dangerous. There are plenty of suspects, and in true detective story style, some red-herrings; but this isn’t merely a junior who-dunnit with all suspects present at the final reveal. Zaiba’s family dynamics and the diverse cast of characters add to the reader’s enjoyment of this fast-paced mystery. So too do Daniela Sosa’s black and white illustrations sprinkled throughout and it was good to see the police treating the crime-solving children with respect rather than dismissing them as interfering.

Young would-be sleuths can also enjoy the additional content after the story.

The Princess Rules: It’s a Prince Thing

The Princess Rules: It’s a Prince Thing
Philippa Gregory, illustrated by Chris Chatterton
Harper Collins Children’s Books

A princess who subverts all the established fairytale conventions is definitely one for me. I’ve not read her first three adventures but am pleased to make her acquaintance in the three in this second book of the series.

The rule flouting Princess Florizella acquires a baby brother unexpectedly when a stork makes a delivery to her parents’ palace one night. Shock horror! This infant, who grows to the size of a four year old in a single day and is christened Courier, is now first in line to the throne and he, not the rebellious princess will inherit the kingdom one day. Apparently, in addition to not being intended for Florizella parents (they were only acting as the safe place for delivery) the baby was meant to be a Baby Belling (cooker).

Off goes Florizella to see her best friend, Prince Bennett. He agrees to help her teach the babe not to use his ‘prince permit’ and thus almost immediately, begins the adventuring of the three – on horseback of course.

During adventure number one that involves a run-in with some would-be kidnappers, Florizella learns of her brother’s particular expertise in peppermints.

The second story starts innocently enough as a day trip to the seaside to which Florizella invites pretty much everybody in the kingdom, and on arrival turns into a rip-roaring adventure on the high seas that includes an encounter with a Sea Serpent,

three pirate ships and the discovery of the meaning of the word ‘recoil’. Courier learns something important too.

In the third episode Courier turns inventor with some interesting results, a Mammoth makes an appearance and an agreement is reached.

Philippa Gregory’s terrific storytelling sweeps readers along and Chris Chatterton’s illustrations too, are a treat. It’s a Prince Thing does work on its own although I’d suggest youngsters who haven’t read the first book start with that and then move on to this one, which is just out in paperback.

Museum Kittens: The Sleepover Mystery / Mort the Meek and the Ravens’ Revenge

These are 2 new fiction titles from the Stripes Publishing imprint: thanks to Little Tiger for sending them for review

Museum Kittens: The Sleepover Mystery
Holly Webb, illustrated by Sarah Lodge

The Museum Kittens, Peter, Tasha, Bianca and Boris are proud of their new guarding duties though they’re finding it pretty tiring work. Tired as they might be, they’re all eagerly anticipating the museum’s latest enterprise to bring in extra visitors. A group of sixty children are to visit and stay overnight in the Dinosaur Gallery. Bianca above all the others is mega excited, so much so that she does something which causes a furore in the Costume Gallery and then, following a spat with the other kittens, wants to spend all her time with the children, even keeping them company during the night – the time when the nasty rats are on the prowl. It’s during the night that her siblings realise that Bianca is missing.

The search is on. Come morning they still haven’t found her:

surely she can’t have been intending to run away and got on the coach with the children …

There’s plenty of furry fun, frolics and frights as those who are familiar with the series will know. However, Holly’s latest book is an enjoyable read even if this is your first encounter with these lovable felines; and there are plenty of Sarah Lodge’s black and white illustrations to break up the text for less confident readers.

Mort the Meek and the Ravens’ Revenge
Rachel Delahaye, illustrated by George Ermos

The only Rachel Delahaye stories I’d read before this were her Little Animal Rescue series so this came as something of a surprise. It couldn’t be more different.
For starters it’s set in the kingdom of Brutalia – an island community – where violence is the way of life. Ravens circle overhead, dreaming of eating eyeballs or brains. With its motto LIVE OR DIE, this certainly isn’t a place to book your next summer holiday.

Its chief protagonist is young Mort the Meek who inherits the role of Royal executioner when his uncle dies. Mort is the kingdom’s only pacifist so imagine his horror when he learns that his first victim is to be his good friend Weed.

Nobody has ever dared to stand up to the heinous queen of this realm and survived. Could Mort possibly do so and perhaps even find a way to save his friend’s life?

It all sounds pretty horrifying but Rachel Delahaye’s narrative is often very funny and the tale is full of unexpected twists and turns, so if you can cope with the violent punishment regime (I share Mort’s pacifist principles) you will laugh a fair bit, especially at the ravens. that open each chapter. And, the ending is hugely satisfying …

George Ermos has done a terrific job with the illustrations that are littered with small humorous details.

The Long Way Home / Dirty Bertie: Bees!

These are 2 new Stripes Publishing books that are just right for newly independent readers: thanks to Little Tiger for sending them:

The Long Way Home
Corrinne Averiss and Kristyna Little

Baby elephant Otto likes nothing more than adventuring with Nanu and he’s thrilled when Nanu announces they are to spend a day climbing right to the top of Lion Mountain. Old she might be, but Nanu is extremely wise; she’s also brave and bold and shares Otto’s enthusiasm for exploration.

As they prepare to set out Nanu reminds the little elephant what an explorer needs to remember at all times but from the outset, Nanu seems to be having a forgetting kind of day. First she leaves the fruit out of the backpack and then she forgets the name of their destination and once they reach the top of the mountain it transpires that she’s actually left the backpack behind.

All those things are relatively easy to remedy but then as they start back down, it’s evident that Nanu has forgotten the way home and instead has been taking them into the depths of the forest.
Now it’s up to young Otto to remember everything his Nanu has taught him about being ‘a great elephant explorer’ and endeavour to get them safely back home.

Corrinne’s story is a wonderfully warm one that demonstrates pachyderm style, the importance of both family relationships and memories. A warmth that is brought out beautifully in Kristina Little’s gorgeous illustrations: who could resist falling for Otto and Nanu?

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

There’s never a dull moment when young Bertie is around and if you were to collect every one of the books regaling all his misdemeanours, they would fill an entire shelf.

This one presents three more. The first relates what happens when Bertie’s taste for the delicious honey he splurges onto his breakfast toast leads him to entertain ideas about becoming a bee keeper like his neighbour, Mr Monk with whom Bertie has previously had the odd run in. That sounds like trouble to me … and sure enough it is.

Story two sees Bertie and his Gran doing a spot of Great Aunt Morag sitting while his parents are otherwise engaged.

Surprises come thick and fast when the three of them head for the park where a nerve-wracking day unfolds.

In the third episode Bertie’s mum wins a journalism award with dinner and an overnight stay for two at a four-star hotel hotel as part of the prize. Just imagine the potential for trouble when Mum manages to bag another couple of tickets for Bertie and his sister Suzy to accompany them. But why does Bertie insist on taking his own duvet? A lively occasion really doesn’t describe it …

With its hilarious illustrations liberally scattered, new solo readers will devour this in a sitting; the episodes make fun short reads aloud too.

Magnificent Mabel and the Egg and Spoon Race / Aisha and Silver

These are the latest titles in two of Nosy Crow’s series for younger readers kindly sent for review

Magnificent Mabel and the Egg and Spoon Race
Ruth Quayle, illustrated by Julia Christians

No matter what life throws at her, young Mabel is MAGNIFICENT. But for Mabel Chase, the book’s narrator things are sometimes not fair – at all. Seemingly however careful she is about things like being a worthy partner to Edward Silitoe on school sports day, the two just don’t see eye to eye or even arm to arm, let alone egg to spoon. No matter, somehow or other her magnificence always shines through – eventually.

Next, there’s the class play and this term for a change, Mabel really, really wants to get a leading part, William Shakespeare, preferably. But then who is she asked to play but Titania. No matter, magnificence rules, and where there’s a Will, there’s a way …

Then comes the Dermot episode. It comes about when Mabel’s family finally agree to take her to a dog show one weekend. It’s somewhere you can only go (so her Dad says) if you have a dog, Time to start training for the agility event.

As always, our narrator comes out on top.

These latest comical slices of mischief of the Mabel kind with spirited illustrations by Julia Christians, will appeal to the slightly mischievous side of young children be they those readers just starting to fly solo or story time listeners in the foundation stage.

Aisha and Silver
Julie Sykes, illustrated by Lucy Truman

The Unicorn Academy series has captured the hearts of many young solo readers with its mix of sparkling magic and the kind of issues concerning friendship, loyalty and overcoming problems that most primary children have to contend with.

In this latest slice of enchantment Aisha faces problems: first the likelihood of having to repeat an entire school year as she hasn’t yet discovered Silver’s particular magic or bonded with him. Secondly, there’s been a spate of terrible hailstorms that have been causing damage to their beloved school and worse, might endanger the life of anybody caught out in one. That’s the reason for the early closure of the school leaving Aisha just five days to bond with Silver and to stop the storms.

It’s crucial to find out who or what has been causing them: with Aisha also intent on perfecting her music for the dorm’s display ride, she’s under a lot of pressure. It looks as though teamwork will be required to take on the mysterious LT.

Another engaging read with plenty of lovely illustrations by Lucy Truman to break up the text.

Kitty and the Twilight Trouble / Mirabelle Breaks the Rules

Oxford Children’s books do some cracking series for new solo readers: here are the latest books in two of those – thanks to OUP for sending for review: 

Kitty and the Twilight Trouble
Paula Harrison, illustrated by Jenny Lovlie

This is young Kitty’s sixth adventure and as the story opens she’s super excited at the thought of visiting the funfair with her cat crew. One of the crew, Pixie is super excited too for she has a cat new friend, Hazel. An introduction is arranged with Kitty for that night but it’s Figaro that turns up with a message from Pixie and Hazel, the latter claiming that she’s a Cat Superhero with her own special powers and important work to do.

It’s a rather dispirited Kitty who looks through her bedroom window into the velvety, moonlit sky contemplating the funfair. Suddenly into view come two cats skipping across the rooftop sporting matching scarves, and Kitty’s encounter with them leaves her feeling even less upbeat.

The following afternoon though, her parents keep their promise and take her to the funfair but once there, what should she see but Pixie and Hazel. As she watches them Kitty sees not superhero behaviour but feline foolishness and nastiness. Suddenly however, Kitty has other important things to attend to. Figaro reports that he’s seen a nest of baby birds that are in great danger. Guess who almost sabotages the entire rescue effort?

But that isn’t all, for back in bed that night Kitty receives another urgent message from Figaro. The supposed feline superheroes are stranded. Now it’s up to Kitty to use her own superpowers.

Yet another magical nocturnal story from team Paula and Jenny that will enthral young new solo readers. There are a considerable number on my radar who eagerly await each new Kitty story.

The same is true of another young character, Mirabelle who is also delightfully different and stars in …

Mirabelle Breaks the Rules
Harriet Muncaster

Mirabelle, cousin to Isadora Moon, is half witch and half fairy. and as a new term starts at Miss Spindlewick’s witch school, her parents are hoping to receive better reports than before.

Mirabelle’s best friend, Carlotta has brought her a present from her holiday abroad – a bottle of shimmery multi-coloured magic dust which Mirabelle puts into her pocket. The snag is that its label is printed in a different language.

As the first lesson gets under way, Mirabelle volunteers to collect the ingredients for a colour changing potion from the store cupboard; most of these too she puts into her pocket. The potion mixing gets under way but before long something very untoward starts happening in the cauldron the two friends are sharing. Pretty soon the entire room is in chaos. Uh-oh! trouble again for Mirabelle.

She does her upmost to stay on the right side of Miss Spindlewick right up to the last lesson of the day with happens to be some loop the loop practice in the forest. Looping the loop is one of Mirabelle’s favourite things to do and she can’t resist flying over, rather than under the trees per the rule. Could she be heading straight for another disaster …

Mirabelle is a character whose mischief is the result of her struggle with rule keeping, rather than wrong intentions. Her first person narration endears her to readers right from the start and Harriet’s portrayal of her in those purple and black illustrations ensures that she looks every bit as enchanting as she sounds.

The Giants’ Tea Party / Lottie Luna and the Giant Gargoyle

The Giants’ Tea Party
Vivian French, illustrated by Marta Kissi
Walker Books

In the kingdom of Little Slippington, the royal coffers are empty and with the bills unpaid the king and queen are in desperate need of some gold.

Rather than marry a wealthy princess, the anything but heroic Prince Max reluctantly embarks on a mission to the valley of the giants who, according to legend, are rich beyond imagination and might (or might not) be persuaded to part with some of their gold. First though the prince needs a steed of some kind and the only one available is Horace a rather grumpy old donkey. Deal done, off they go, first stop the abode of the Wisest One. She tells him his journey will mean having to cross the Hungry Marshes.

Meanwhile in Golden Hollow, Glom king of the giants also has a problem. Two actually, one being the need for some Papparelli roots (the only food that will make the geese lay their golden eggs), the second the constant interruption from his grand daughter Hamfreda reminding him of the first while he’s trying to put the finishing touches to his flying machine.

Wonderful weaver of words, and fashioner of neofairy-tales, Vivian French, includes a talking cat, marshes hungry for stories, a blank book and some decidedly unsavoury characters, the Crimps in her enchanting narrative: but will Max succeed against the odds? That’s the key question and to discover the answer you’ll have to read this cracking book. Marta Kissi’s illustrations bring out the humour inherent in the telling,

making this whole immersive world even more enjoyable.

Here’s another treat from Vivian: her 4th in the smashing Lottie Luna series:

Lottie Luna and the Giant Gargoyle
Vivian French, illustrated by Nathan Reed
Harper Collins Children’s Books

Young werewolf, Lottie Luna, she of super strength, super speed and X-ray vision , is concerned about all her Shadow Academy classmates discovering her special skills when an end-of-term talent show is announced,

and worse, she hears that all parents will receive a personal invitation from the head teacher. Her close friends, Marjory and Wilf are determined to help her keep her secret, but with ‘Awful Aggie’ always on the lookout to make trouble, she’s going to have more difficulty than she’s faced before convincing the other students she’s just like everyone else. No wonder she’s in no hurry to give her parents their invitation to the big event.

In the meantime Lottie wants to help Wilf and Marjory polish their magic act, as well as deciding what she’s going to do in the show. They certainly don’t want Aggie taking the prize gargoyle.

With Nathan Reed’s splendid black and white illustrations, this latest Lottie adventure will delight her many fans and likely win her some new ones too. Despite its setting and main protagonist, the pupils in this otherworldly story face challenges similar to those struggling to fit into a typical school, making it all the more easy to relate to.

Beauty and the Bin

Beauty and the Bin
Joanne O’Connell
Macmillan Children’s Books

For Laurie Larksie things seem to have improved since she started at secondary school. It’s sufficiently far from their home not to invite her new friends around, something she’s anxious to avoid as her eco-warrior parents are, despite their best intentions, an embarrassment to her. Their house is also a hydroponic growing farm, and her mum and dad involve both Laurie and her younger sister, Fern, in salvaging food from supermarket bins despite Laurie’s determination not to become as she says, ‘Garbage Girl’. While she’s happy to go along with most of what her parents do, they refuse to listen to how she feels about this particular activity. After all she just wants to fit in – buy herself some new clothes, have hot chocolate after school with her friends Zainab and Emilia, and use social media.

When an inter-school competition for young entrepreneurs is announced, Laurie sees it’s a great chance to showcase her homemade skin and beauty products that use only natural ingredients – Beauty in the Kitchen – and before you can say ‘enterprise’ she finds she’s been approached by Charley (the school’s uber-cool girl) as her partner.

Before long though, conflicts of interest begin to arise: Laurie’s family want her to be fully involved in the fast approaching March4Climate protest, so she has to try and juggle family commitments with the competition, while not losing her two best friends.

Can Laurie manage to stay true to her principles and continue working with somebody who thinks she’s always right? And who will eventually win that competition?

The author’s inspiration for her thought-provoking, humorous debut book came after spending a year as a journalist writing about food waste, so she really knows and feels strongly about waste and sustainability. Alongside these themes though she explores the personal journey of her chief protagonist, Laurie, as she learns what real friendship means.
(Also included are some beauty recipes, and ‘top tips’ from Laurie on how to avoid wasting food.)

Strongly recommend for upper KS2 readers and those around Laurie’s age just finding their feet at secondary school.

44 Tiny Acrobats

44 Tiny Acrobats
Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King
Stripes Publishing (Little Tiger)

When Fry and Sons Circus of Wonder arrives on the common right by Betsy Bow-Linnet’s house just before Christmas, it’s a huge shock for Betsy’s Grandad. More than a shock in fact, it stirs up painful memories of Grandma who used to be one of its performers.

Despite her initial reluctance, Betsy just cannot resist the lure of the big top. So, with her parents otherwise engaged, en route home from the vet’s she buys herself a ticket and in she goes to see the show (accompanied by her mice.)

Betsy is quickly spellbound by the amazing acts and atmosphere of the show and so fails to notice that the latch on the mouse case has been nosed ajar allowing forty three mice to escape … with disastrous results.
Before you can say ‘confession’ Betsy finds herself having to face the loathsome ringmaster, Mr Fry and the next thing she knows, she’s offered herself and her mice as an act for the following day’s show in front of some all-important potential investors in the circus.

How much worse can things get? …

With its focus on Betsy’s problem-solving skills, and also her determination not to upset her Grandad, this second adventure is as delightful and involving for youngsters as 44 Tiny Secrets (although this book’s not without its own secrets). To reflect the razzmatazz of the circus, Ashley King has used a red theme for her wonderfully quirky, spirited illustrations.

Scoop McLaren: Waves of Mystery / The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes: The Tumbling Tortoises

Here are two recent fiction titles from New Frontier Publishing – thanks for sending …

Scoop McLaren: Waves of Mystery
Helen Castles

Scoop McLaren, editor of her very own online newspaper Click and her best friend and roving reporter Evie return for a second mystery to solve. The newspaper has now gone national and as the story opens Scoop is playing host to young surfing ace Fletcher Stein who has set his sights on winning Higgity Harbour’s big surfing competition.

However as the semi-final approaches things start to happen that give Scoop, the book’s narrator, cause for concern: could somebody be attempting to sabotage Fletcher’s chances? Right away the two girls are on the case but their sleuthing has to be kept under the radar as Evie’s policeman dad immediately tells them to leave the detective work to the police.

It’s not long before one suspect is identified; but how many people are involved in trying to stop Fletcher even reaching the final let alone winning the whole event. And is a curse part of the problem?

However, reach the final he does but things then get even weirder as people start disappearing …

With lots of twists and turns, the fast paced plot shows how Scoop uses her instincts, intelligence and her attention to detail, to get to the bottom of things.

An enjoyable tale for older readers at the heart of which is friendship and loyalty.

Another sequel, this time for slightly younger readers is:

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes: The Tumbling Tortoises
Brenda Gurr

Zoe is excited to hear that with her Galapagos tortoise cupcakes idea she has won the Wildside Zoo’s competition and is now the official baker for the zoo’s endangered animals campaign.

However when she hears that her entire class has been invited to the launch event and that class captain Polly is to report on it, she realises that it’s going to be an enormous challenge to do the extra research she wants to make the most realistic-looking cakes possible and deliver them to the venue while ensuring that her identity as the popular cake creator Zinnia Jakes is kept under wraps.

Can Zoe possibly pull it off? Perhaps, with the assistance of her musical Aunty Jam and of course, best friend Addie.

Another action-packed narrative that is lots of fun and likely to tickle the taste buds of young solo readers.

Can You Whistle, Johanna? / Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls

Can You Whistle, Johanna?
Ulf Stark, illustrated by Anna Höglund
Gecko Press

Here’s a book from Swedish author Ulf Stark that will surely touch your heart.
The boy narrator of the story, Ulf has a grandfather he visits regularly. His friend Berra doesn’t have a grandfather but wishes he did so he could enjoy a similar relationship, so Ulf tells him that he knows just the place to find one.

The following day, he takes Berra to visit an old people’s home and there they find an elderly man, Ned

who although initially surprised, is more than happy to accept Berra as his grandson.“There I was, just sitting and feeling a bit lonely, and then you came along!”

A wonderful connectedness develops between the two with Ned remembering his wife, Johanna, and things about his world – the smells, colours and simple joys, as well as those that are now too much of a challenge. The boys learn from Ned new skills and they have tremendous fun

including sharing special ‘birthday’ celebrations …

although there is one particular skill that Berra finds difficult to master – hence the book’s title.
This leads to the boys’ visits to Ned becoming less and less frequent but not before the boys give him a very special birthday celebration.

Finally, after several weeks Berra is ready to demonstrate to Ned his whistling prowess but when he boys get to the home they learn that Ned has died. Berra is devastated.

Despite being profoundly affected by his loss, Berra wants to go and say a final farewell at Ned’s funeral and it’s then that he whistles the old man’s tune.

We see how this special relationship has enriched the lives of both Berra and Ned, and that’s what shines through this sensitively told story despite the boys’ loss. Equally moving are Anna Höglund’s wonderful droll illustrations that support the text splendidly.

Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls
Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu
Walker Books

This is the second enchanting book of three short tales starring Tola, the youngest of three siblings who live with their grandmother in a crowded, run-down flat in Lagos.What she lacks in stature, Tola makes up for in spirit and determination. Money is short and so Grandmummy spends almost all her time selling groundnuts at the roadside to earn sufficient for the children’s schooling but little else.

The first story takes place on a Saturday with all three siblings indoors but only Tola doing the chores. As she squats picking out the stones from the rice, her brother Dapo is using his knees to play with his football (strictly forbidden inside) while big sister Moji is studying on a computer on loan from her school.
Ignoring her warnings to stop or incur Grandmummy’s wrath, Dapo dislodges the contents of a shelf with a wild ball sending her gold earrings flying into the air. One is quickly retrieved but can they manage to find the other one before Grandmummy returns?

In the second episode Grandmummy falls ill with malaria and the siblings resort to desperate measures to buy her the vital medicine she needs; and Dapo surprises everyone by using his skill to make money.

The three fine girls of the title are cool, indulged young misses in their fancy gear that Tola notices when she’s out and about. The same three posh ones that she manages to impress later on when she accompanies Mr Abdul to the masquerade.

There are so many things to love about young Tola especially her resourcefulness and ability to think on her feet; but her entire family are a delight. Onyinye Iwu’s black and white illustrations are a delight too, filling in some of the details about the life of this Nigerian urban family.

Jasper & Scruff Take a Bow / My Robot’s Gone Wild

These are two new titles from Little Tiger’s Stripes imprint both featuring already popular characters. Thanks to the publishers for sending them for review.

Jasper & Scruff Take a Bow
Nicola Colton

The unlikely best friends Jasper, a dapper feline and mud loving Scruff the pup return for a third adventure.
When Jasper hears of the Reach For the Stars talent show to be held at the town hall the following afternoon the two can’t wait to take part. There’s a snag though: Scruff wants them to enter as a dazzling magic making twosome; Jasper wants to do a solo act, one he’s polished up from a previous occasion.

During the heats Jasper’s act fails to impress the judges and he’s eliminated whereas Scruff manages to get through to the finals. Finals for which the winner will receive a Grand Prize – a week on stage performing alongside Marvello the Magnificent. 

It’s a prize that Sophisticat Lady Catterly has set her sights on.
Perhaps now Scruff and Jasper should join forces to try and wow the judges.

Come the finals however, there appears to be some chicanery at work where Lady C and the Sophisticats are concerned. Time for Jasper and Scruff to do a spot of detective work of the underground variety to discover exactly what is going on.

With detailed illustrations that fizz with energy and gentle humour on every spread, this entertaining drama is perfect for young solo readers at that crucial in-between stage. Scruff and Jasper are a hugely endearing pair and there are some interesting bit part players in the cast of characters too.

Equally, Nicola’s lively narrative style with its occasional puns and plenty of snappy dialogue makes the book work well as a read aloud.

My Robot’s Gone Wild
Dave Cousins, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri

Changes are afoot in the fourth of Dave Cousins’ Robot adventures featuring the robot babysitter Robin created by twins Jess and Jake’s inventor Grandma.

As the story opens year six has just ended and the twins, accompanied by a robot (not Robin) dressed to look like Grandma, Ivana and Ali, and Digby dog, are on a train en route to the Scottish countryside. The purpose is a holiday visit to Robin currently in hiding with Grandma at Granny Anderson’s who lives in a remote spot near Loch Wilder. Said Granny (the twins motorbike riding great grandmother) has organised some ‘wild camping’ for the visitors.

The first shock is the nature of the location, the second is the change in Robin. The robot now bears some resemblance to a tree and thanks to upgrades by Grandma, has new feet and hands and sports army-style shorts and shirt. Grandma certainly hasn’t been idle while in Scotland: she’s also created pop-up tents as well as a ‘water-dragon-submarine’ supposedly to help with catching cattle rustlers.

Then a spot of fishing lands Jake (narrator) in icy cold water: this holiday certainly doesn’t look too promising especially when hedgerow stew is served up for supper. 

Surely day two must be better but …

So much happens during the rest of the holiday and by the time they leave, the children have accepted among other things, that it will be without the physical Robin although they take something with them that will make it feel as though he’s still with them.

It seems as though this is the final story in Dave Cousins’ madcap robot series, so amusingly illustrated by Catalina Echeverri. I know a fair few readers who, like Jess and Jake, will be sorry to say farewell.

Murder on the Safari Star

Murder on the Safari Star
M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Pagnelli
Macmillan Children’s Books

Tickets ready? Then climb aboard the Safari Star.

Harrison Beck is somewhat underwhelmed when he receives his Christmas present from his Uncle Nat until he discovers that the small tin contains more than just the sticks of charcoal. Inside too is a train ticket: at half term he and his uncle are going to South Africa for the trip of a lifetime all the way from Pretoria to Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia in a luxury train.

So begins another fast-paced, twisting turning, hold on to your seats adventure.

Aboard the train are a host of interesting characters from various parts of the world and even before they’ve departed Hal has made friends with Winston the son of the train’s safari guide; with him is Chipo, Winston’s yellow mongoose. There’s one passenger that almost everyone takes an instant dislike to, that’s Mervyn Crosby, an extremely rude character who boasts about having heads of four of the Big Five animals on his wall and lacking only the rhino. He also says he’s brought his rifle along – which is strictly prohibited.

No sooner is the journey under way than the two boys are off exploring the entire train and finding out what they can about their fellow passengers.

But then one of them meets with a terrible accident – or is it? At any rate there’s a fatality aboard and almost everybody is under suspicion.

Before you can say ‘rhino horns’ Hal, his uncle and Winston are investigating a mystery and it’s one that has to be solved before the train reaches the Zambian border.. It’s as well Hal has brought along his essential equipment – his sketch pad and drawing tools. He’ll certainly need to make full use of his wits, his observation skills and his powers of deduction in this life and death conundrum that involves poisonous snakes, 

hidden compartments, smuggling and more. And, there is time to see some incredible wildlife such as a rhino, zebras, elephants and impalas too. I loved the conservation element of the story.

Once again Elisa Paganelli’s illustrations are superb.

The House at the Edge of Magic

A House at the Edge of Magic
Amy Sparkes
Walker Books

Life is tough for young Nine: it certainly doesn’t give her strawberries. She spends her time on the streets stealing whatever she can to pay back Pockets, the Fagin like character who has sheltered her since her infancy in the Nest of a Thousand Treasures.

One day when attempting to steal a woman’s handbag, a tiny house-shaped ornament falls from it. Nine stuffs the object in her satchel and flees to a safer place to examine it more closely. As she strokes it imagining what life might be like to live in such a place, she touches the door knocker Bizarrely it emits a buzzing sound and the whole thing becomes a large, higgledy-piggledy house.

Thereafter the situation becomes progressively surreal for she’s pulled inside the house and she meets first a weird troll named Eric, shortly after to be joined by a strange wizard introducing himself as “Flabbergast. High Wizard, Chair of the Tea Tasters Committee, World Hopscotch Champion 1835”, and a spoon, aptly named Doctor Spoon, clad in a kilt and brandishing a sword. She learns that the three have been trapped in the house under a curse for years. They request Nine’s help to break said curse and set them free. For her help she’s offered a priceless gem.

At first she leaves without agreeing but then later realises that she’ll be far better off returning to the cursed house and helping its occupants. With the possibility of a new life, back she goes. Before you can say “cup of tea” it’s revealed that they have only till the clock strikes fifteen to discover the magic words to break that curse or face extinction. No pressure then.

Deliciously quirky with lots of humour, this story will definitely keep readers turning the pages till its wonderful finale. The magic house residents are brilliant fun. I love that feisty Nine finds solace in books she ‘acquires’ thanks to a genial librarian and that despite being desperate to escape her life on the streets, she acts for the greater good.There are some terrific bit-part players too.

Whether read solo, or aloud to a primary class, this will leave audiences wanting more – this reviewer included.

Rolo’s Story

Rolo’s Story
Blake Morgan
Little Tiger

This book starts with a bad dream, the dreamer being the puppy that acts as the story’s narrator. For the past week he’s been on the run from his cruel ‘Two Leg’ he calls humans and is having a hard time due both to the cold and the lack of sustenance. But then he meets Scrap, another stray; Scrap offers to act as his guide to ‘life on the wild side’ and there’s certainly a lot to learn.

She remains a loyal guide and playmate until one day something terrible happens: Scrap is out foraging for food to share one night but she doesn’t return. Next morning Mutt as Scrap calls the narrator, discovers his friend in a van about to be driven to the dog pound. Scrap persuades her friend not to attempt a rescue and so it’s back to the lonely life for the pup. Time to move on, but not entirely alone for the narrator discovers a scruffy stuffed duck that he takes along as company, calling it Beak Face.

After a day’s journey in the chilly weather, he seeks food and shelter in a village and the pup and Beak Face curl up together in a garden shed for the night.

Next morning a little girl, Freya is surprised to find visitors when she opens the shed door. Strangely this Two Leg seems friendly and thus begins another chapter in the pup’s life. Little by little he comes to trust the kindly disposed girl who, naming him Rolo, keeps him fed and warm; but her mother is another matter.

Can Rolo with the help of Freya, persuade a reluctant workaholic mum to find it in her heart to allow a scruffy, creature that wees all over the floor to stay and become part of the family?

Eventually yes, and there are some even bigger surprises in store before this wonderfully warm, gently humorous story concludes. Or perhaps it doesn’t, for there’s a slight hint that we might be hearing more from Rolo. I’m sure that a good many readers would be pleased should that be so.

The Wizard in the Wood / Diagnosis Danger

The Wizard in the Wood
Louie Stowell, illustrated by Davide Ortu
Nosy Crow

This is the third in Louie Stowell’s magical series.
A new term is about to begin for Kit, Josh and Alita. Before school starts though, Faith announces that the Wizards’ Council want to meet Kit.

Once in front of the council members, Kit learns that she has a very special mission – to take a new dragon’s egg to its new home beneath its own library where it will hatch.
Imagine her friends’ surprise and excitement when she and Faith return with a box containing said egg and Kit announces, “We brought you a present” and they discover what’s inside. It’s a dragon’s egg that must be planted beneath their very own school.

Faith makes two more exciting announcements: a new library awaits once school opens and that also means the arrival of a brand new wizard librarian. Surely nothing could be better than that.

The following day the term begins and the children meet this new librarian whom Faith has said is an old friend of hers. named Ben. He certainly seems a pretty cool guy. But is he?

Pretty soon the children discover that something isn’t right and they’re faced with solving a ginormous problem. It’s either that or face a world-changing disaster. Confronted by a hugely challenging, exciting mission, they really must all work as a team.

With plenty of jokes, great dialogue with lots of banter, and a smashing twist in its tail ,this is another cracker from Louie, especially as it celebrates the power of books and of story.

Whether shared as a primary classroom story time or read by individuals, this book is a delight, made all the more so by Davide Ortu’s offbeat illustrations.

Diagnosis Danger
Roopa Farooki
Oxford University Press Children’s Books

Do you know primary readers in need of an antidote to the trials of lockdown and home schooling? Then try doctor Roopa Farooki’s second exciting double detectives mystery.

Twins Tulip and Ali, the daughters of a hospital doctor, return in another sleuthing story and again they’re faced with a mysterious case to solve. Fortunately with mum a hospital doctor, and thus some medical knowledge of their own, as well a considerable amount of unsquashabilty and noses for danger, this pair have the tools for the job.

It begins when an unknown person attacks their friend Momo and he ends up in hospital, the attacker vanishing without trace. Needless to say Ali and Tulip waste no time is trying to track down the assailant.
Before you can say ‘sliced popliteal artery’ they and Nan-Nan ( a brilliant character) are on their way to a ‘holiday’ destination (unknown to two of their number). Eventually they arrive at a place calling itself Catty’s Cattery; the twins are puzzled and anything but impressed.

However, things are set to get even more strange, when, standing at the reception desk of this weird ‘kitty-obsessed-hotel from hell’ as Ali calls it, is a man who bears a close resemblance to the villainous Evelyn Sprotland. But is this a case of diagnosis ‘bang on the head’ or perhaps, ‘Diagnosis Doppledanger’. What exactly is the real purpose of this peculiar establishment? And, who is Catty; its boss? She certainly seems very choosy about who’s allowed to stay. The mystery deepens.

More important, can the twins aided and abetted by Nan-Nan get to the bottom of things?

Roopa’s mix of unusual characters, witty dialogue, large doses of humour and scatterings of medical information, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read that will enthral readers who like something a little out of the ordinary. Book your consultation with the twins right away.

VI SPY : Licence to Chill

VI SPY : Licence to Chill
Maz Evans
Chicken House

From the author of Who Let the Gods Out?, this is the first in a new spy series. In parts achingly funny, in others downright daft, it’s a fast moving page turner to be sure.

Vi stands for Valentine, Valentine Day, who is the daughter of an ex (so we’re told) secret service super spy mother and super villain (supposedly retired and now ostensibly dead) father, Robert.
When the story starts eleven year old Vi, who knows nothing of her father, is living with her mum and her nan. Her mum Susan (aka Easter) is rather fond of George Sprout who just happens to be one of Vi’s teachers – her favourite in fact. Mr S is blissfully unaware of Susan’s background but his son Russell is pretty astute and soon has her figured out.

When Mr Sprout proposes, the wedding of Susan and George comes hot on its heels and during the ceremony who should burst onto the scene but the far from dead, Robert Ford. Shock horror! Moreover, when he tells Vi that this time he’s here to stay, it appears that he means it.

In addition to this show-stopping surprise, Vi has set her sights on getting admission to Rimmington Hall, a very special educational establishment and has that to think about.

It’s not long before Vi’s parents are battling over their daughter and strangely, the girl feels a certain attachment towards Robert, especially when he treats her to triple chocolate sundae surprise. While the parental battle rages, Vi finds herself plunging into a world of heinous villains and depravity.

The cast of characters encompasses a fascinating assortment: there’s geeky Russell Sprout whose only friend is an ancient robot Agadoo; the beautiful golden haired Siren with her dog-killing farts and the ill-intentioned clown Auguste, not to mention the double-headed Dr Doppelganger, another of the EVILS; and Nan is a gem.

I read this right through in a day and my head was spinning.

Into the Wild / Poppy Goes Wild

Into the Wild
Robert Vescio and Mel Armstrong
New Frontier Publishing

Young Roman has an adventurous spirit and a love of nature that often take him to new places where he makes exciting discoveries. They might be hidden away, mysterious, wonderfully wild or all of those. He needs to keep his senses alert ready for new sights, sounds and tactile experiences.

Sometimes though in the vast, wild depths of the natural world, Roman feels that despite the wonders he’s discovered something is missing; he longs to be able to share his excitement and enthusiasm.
And then unexpectedly he comes upon something that might just satisfy that longing – something interesting and rare …

Since the start of this pandemic and especially during lockdown, more and more of us, wherever we are, have been discovering (or rediscovering) the joys of the natural world. Equally, most of us have been longing to be able to share some of the pleasure with other people, not merely virtually but in the flesh. So, this story of Robert Vescio’s with its illustrations by Mel Armstrong is a smashing portrayal of the marvels of the natural world and friendship – especially when experienced together.

Poppy Goes Wild
Nick Powell and Becca Hall
Little Steps Publishing

TV producer Nick Powell has written this story of rewilding wherein he tells how young Poppy in partnership with her grandad embark on a scheme to return his farmland to the way nature intended it to be. The way it was some fifty years back when wildflowers grew in abundance and native animals such as hares and field mice, otters, insects and birds including peregrine falcons and soaring skylarks thrived.

As Poppy’s Grandad reminisces, she and readers learn of the dramatic changes that have happened due to such things as wetland drainage, intensive farming resulting in habitat loss, and the use of harmful pesticides. “We thought we were doing the right thing,“ Grandad tells her.

Poppy’s great enthusiasm for doing what some of the farmers she’s read about are trying, reignites her grandad’s love of the natural world and project ‘rewilding’ is agreed on. Every weekend and during school holidays Poppy intends to work on the plan but their first task is to identify areas for nature to replenish itself. Then comes providing the best conditions for this to happen.

As the work gets under way, Poppy realises that it’s more than a two-person task. She enlists the help of her classmates from the town near the farm

and over the next few months great headway is made. But, as the story ends, the wonderful restorative transformation work goes on.

An inspiring, uplifting, hopeful story that presents many of the environmental challenges we face at the moment with so many of our species declining alarmingly thanks to the destabilising effects on ecosystems of human activity. In addition there are other themes – collaboration and the wonderful camaraderie between Poppy and Grandad that exemplifies intergenerational relationships.

Becca Hall’s painterly, carefully detailed, illustrations are simply gorgeous. Her colour palette is aglow with the sun’s warmth as well as evoking that inner warmth and exhilaration so many of us feel when immersed in nature.

Nick Powell hopes the book will inspire youngsters to do all they can to look after wildlife, while in a foreword, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, celebrity chef, writer and broadcaster, urges us all to be part of the re-wilding movement in whatever way we can. One truly hopes that, inspired by Poppy et al. both young and not so young will respond to their rallying call.

How To Be a Hero / The Broken Leg of Doom

How To Be a Hero
Cat Weldon, illustrated by Kate Kear
Macmillan Children’s Books

Life as a trainee Valkyrie is not going at all well for young Lotta; she’s in danger of remaining forever stuck in the lowest class. Matters get even worse when the trainees are sent out to bring back a fallen warrior.

Mistaking young Whetstone, an unconscious viking thief as a fallen hero, Lotta carries him back up to Valhalla, and that’s where the real trouble starts. Live humans are not allowed in Valhalla.

Whetstone, a human who wants only to prove himself and achieve fame and fortune, has let himself be talked into crime. He steals, hides and loses a precious talking cup – a cup that trickster Loki desperately wants and will go to any lengths to get hold of.

Now anxious to make amends, Whetstone and Lotta have to try and work together as they embark on a journey to find the cup before Loki.

There’s even more trouble for the pair though when they manage to lose a crucial Dwarf harp as well as rousing a slumbering dragon.

Now Whetstone really MUST pull out all the stops and prove himself a hero after all. Can he do so; and does Lotta finally manage to move on from being that class three trainee?

This is a highly entertaining, fast-paced romp with some crazy situations, fun and interesting characters, dragons and more. Kate Kear’s zany illustrations are just right for the playful telling. This book will surely appeal especially to youngsters with an interest in mythology. but anyone who likes a good yarn should give it a go. It’s the first of a trilogy so look out for further episodes involving Whetstone et al.

The Broken Leg of Doom
Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham
Nosy Crow

This the tenth story in the hilarious series, is narrated by Maisie’s friend Izzy. Maisie has broken her leg doing some ‘extreme dancing’ and is taken to hospital.

That in itself is bad but things are about to get even worse, starting with the fact that following e-rays, Maisie is sent to ward 13 and she’s terrified of that particular number.
Enter (he’s actually already a patient), a rather strange boy Seb, who sits down beside the sleeping Maisie’s bed and starts going on about a curse. Talk about weird. But that’s only the start of the strange events in ward 13.

Later Seb says that the curse has now sneaked inside Maisie’s cast and is causing problems. That however isn’t all we hear of curses, but there are other strange things too: somehow the sprinklers get turned on, flooding – you can guess which ward. And what about the ’mummy’ that’s roaming around. By this time it seems that only Maisie among the children isn’t talking of THE CURSE.

Then a certain very special cuddly toy suddenly goes missing, followed not long after, by the appearance of creepy messages on Maisie’s cast.

Oh yes, there’s some weird shenanigans concerning the sandwich trolley too.

Will Maisie and her pals ever get to the bottom of all the mysterious events and break that terrible curse once and for all. It’s certainly going to need some outstanding investigative skills.

Pamela Butchart capitalises on the vivid imagination of children, allowing her group of young characters to get carried away – just take a look at their expressions in Thomas Flintham’s wacky drawings in this zany adventure. It’s assuredly one that will have both individual readers and primary class listeners laughing out loud.

Introducing Rollercoasters

These three books are the first of a series from Oxford University Press called Rollercoasters developed in association with Barrington Stoke. With their highly engaging themes intended to build reading confidence and foster a love of reading, they all use the Barrington Stoke ‘dyslexia friendly font’ and are aimed at readers from around eleven. Each includes an author spotlight, some background information relevant to the story and more.

I Am the Minotaur
Anthony McGowan

Carnegie prize winning Anthony McGowan’s perceptive story focuses on fourteen year old Matthew, referred to as Stinky Mog, who is the narrator.

Matthew does his level best to care for his mum who is battling depression, while trying equally hard to fit in at school without being noticed especially by those types likely to make him the target of their bullying. Not an easy task when he frequently turns up looking decidedly dishevelled in his ragged uniform.

Enter Ari, a beautiful girl who totally captivates Matthew – ‘I longed and yearned for Ari’ he tells readers describing his feelings for her as ‘warm and golden’.

Shortly after her birthday, her brand new bike is stolen and Matthew decides on a plan to get it back from the thieves and make Ari happy as a consequence.. He heads off to the public library to start an internet search.
Next day off he goes to a rendezvous: can he pull off his bike rescue? If so, can it change the course of his life?

With themes of bullying, parental depression and poverty, this short novel packs a powerful punch. It’s great to see that for the narrator, the school library with its kindly librarian is a place he feels safe.

Edgar & Adolf
Phil Earle and Michael Wagg

Whether or not you are a soccer fan (and I’m anything but) this story based on real characters – at the heart of which is friendship – will surely move you. It certainly did me.

The book begins in 1983 in a village in Scotland with seventeen year old Adi.
Adi has come from Hamburg, Germany, with something he has inherited and is on a special mission: to find a man named Edgar Kail and return to him what is rightfully his – a special football badge that the now frail old man hasn’t set eyes on for over forty years. If he succeeds Adi will have fulfilled his grandfather’s final wish to reunite the erstwhile England footballer with his prized possession.

And succeed he does but that is only the start of the tale for it’s one that spans some sixty years as Adi and Edgar share memories, press cuttings, letters and more relating to Edgar and the lad’s grandfather Adolf Jäger.

According to the authors’ notes at the back of the book, Edgar Kail and Adolf Jäger having played for their clubs before WW2 – Dulwich Hamlet and Altona 93 – remain folk heroes celebrated by fans (including Phil and Michael) to this day. Amazing.

Rat
Patrice Lawrence

If you’ve read the author’s YA book Orangeboy, then you’ll know how utterly compelling her writing is.
As the story opens, Al is living in a flat with his mum who is attempting to stay on the straight and narrow after spending time in prison. Partly as a result of having moved several times already, Al has only. two friends, his pet rats Vulture and Venom, and he has to keep them secret from the council.

Things are tough as Al’s mum out of prison on licence, has very little money and no job. Consequently it’s not long before she shoplifts from the local supermarket and after an incident that involves Mr Brayer who lives in a flat below, is back in prison.

Al’s certain that it’s Mr Brayer’s fault and decides to get his revenge whatever anybody else says.

The entire cast of characters and the connectedness between them is interesting especially Al’s Gran and his nineteen year old sister Plum, a college student and carer, who is called on to stay with him when his mum goes back to prison. We also discover something of Mt Brayer’s back story which comes as a surprise to Al and I suspect to readers.

Gripping and thought-provoking, this should certainly appeal to older, under confident readers.

Saving Hanno

Saving Hanno
Miriam Halahmy, illustrated by Karin Littlewood
Otter-Barry Books

Rudi is a nine-year old Jewish boy who, as the story starts at the end of 1938, lives with his parents and older sister, Lotte in Frankfurt, Germany under Hitler’s rule.

When things get increasingly bad for Jewish people, Rudi’s parents take the decision to send the children to England on the Kindertransport, telling them that they will follow later on. Meanwhile Rudi and Lotte will live with an English family where they’ll be safe from the Nazis. Rudi is devastated as he won’t be able to take his beloved dachshund, Hanno with him. Amazingly though, Rudi’s family find a non-Jewish man who volunteers to take Hanno to England when he goes and then after a period of quarantine, Rudi hopes he can be reunited with his pet.
Once in England Rudi and Lotte are placed in different homes not far from one another: Rudi’s carers are kind and considerate;

not so those with whom Lotte is sent who force her to act as a maid.
After some time things in England get worse and Britain declares war on Germany. As a consequence, the children are to be evacuated to rural parts but then comes news that pets are to be put down before rationing starts. Now again, Rudi is faced with finding a way to keep Hanno safe before he relocates yet again …

With empathetic illustrations by Karin Littlewood, this is a holocaust story with a difference, and told from Rudi’s viewpoint, it’s one that primary school age readers will certainly relate to. The author confirms in her after story note providing additional background information, that it’s based on fact. Many primary schools include WW2 as part of their history curriculum and while there are many stories about that terrible time, I would definitely advocate adding this one to the books to be shared.

Lottie Loves Nature: Bee-ware!

Lottie Loves Nature: Bee-ware!
Jane Clarke, illustrated by James Brown
Five Quills

In this second adventure young nature enthusiast and would-be wildlife presenter Lottie Boffin is engaged in a minibeast survey for her favourite TV show when she encounters Noah Parfitt who lives next door. Noah’s dad is anything but a lover of small wriggly, squishy creatures on account of the mini golf course he’s developed in his garden. So when Lottie and Noah burst in on his recreational activity in their search for minibeasts that might need rescuing, he’s far from pleased. Even less so when he’s flapped and buzzed by a bumblebee looking for a flower, of which there’s a distinct lack in the Parfitt garden.

Then to make matters much worse, Lottie’s insect attracting activities result in bees swarming in a tree in her garden that overhangs Mr Parfitt’s and he’s so furious he calls the pest exterminator.

Lottie’s mum calls a beekeeper who arrives almost simultaneously.

Now all Lottie has to do is to persuade Mr Parfitt to send the pest exterminator away and allow the bees to be collected and moved to a safe new hive.

Interspersed with Jane Clarke’s lively, humorous story are pages about insects, especially bees, from Lottie’s nature notebook

and some things readers can do (as well as notes of Noah’s whose interest lies elsewhere and who sees things through a different lens). In addition to the main narrative, this is a great way to get readers interested in the natural world and the delights it has to offer through first hand experiences.

With equally lively, humorous illustrations by James Brown this is a smashing book to foster curiosity about wildlife and the environment, either at home or school. Like their previous Lottie story, there’s plenty of parrot poop courtesy of macaw Nacho and Lottie’s energetic dog Einstein to add to the fun.

Dragon Detective: That a Wrap! / Vega Jane and the Secrets of Sorcery

Dragon Detective: That’s a Wrap!
Gareth P. Jones
Little Tiger

In case you’re not familiar with the titular detective, he’s Dirk Dilly, a mountain dragon who doubles as a crime-buster, all the while endeavouring to keep the existence of dragons secret from humans – not an easy task.

This story set mainly in the USA is the 4th and final adventure in the Dragon Detective series.
Holly Bigsby, her stepmum, her dad, and Holly’s close friend Archie are unexpectedly flown out to LA in a private luxury jet at the behest of billionaire Brant Buchanan for whom Mrs Bigsby works.
Also in LA, making an autobiographical film is Petal Moses (Holly’s ex-room-mate from her boarding school days.)

On her very first day in the city, Holly meets the movie director, who while filming in the desert has captured something on camera that looks suspiciously like dragons. But before anyone has a chance to look closely at the film, it disappears. Holly is convinced it’s a case for Dirk. She rings him urging him come to LA and participate in an investigation – an investigation that involves Californian Desert Dragons. But can they solve the case and find the film before dragonkind’s reality is revealed to the world at large?

An enjoyable romp of a crime-solver, especially for those primary school readers who like fast moving stories that involve the interface of humans and dragons.

Vega Jane and the Secrets of Sorcery
David Baldacci
Macmillan Children’s Books

This was David Baldacci’s first foray into young adult fiction previously published as The Finisher, now re-edited and reissued.

It follows the quest of fourteen-year-old Vega Jane, who when the story starts works as a Finisher at Stacks, creating goods she knows she’ll never afford while living a life of hardship with her younger brother in Wormwood city. The place is surrounded by the Quag wherein lurk dangerous beasties and beyond which, it’s said, nothing exists, consequently nobody ever leaves.

Vega though is different from other Wugs; she’s curious, something that’s strongly discouraged. Then, having witnessed her mentor escaping into the unknown, she discovers a map that seems to suggest a strange world lies beyond the walls of Wormwood.

Thus begins an exciting adventure that follows Vega’s quest for freedom as she moves through time confronting not just all she’d believed was true and those intent on hiding the truth, but also, her own limitations.

Magical artefacts, mysteries, bizarre creatures, thrills aplenty, and Vega’s somewhat unusual manner of narration that blends her thoughts, Wugmort vocabulary (a translation is given at the outset) and formal speech, as well as memorable characters, are all part of Baldacci’s mix in his blend of sci-fi, myth and fantasy elements. Moreover, there’s a cliff-hanger finale that opens the way for further adventures of this strong female hero.

Pizazz vs the New Kid

Pizazz vs the New Kid
Sophy Henn
Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

You might think that being a superhero is incredible but that definitely isn’t always the case if you happen to be this story’s narrator, the almost 9½ year old Pizazz, a member of an entire family of superheroes, especially when your own particular superpower is highly embarrassing as we discovered in the first book.

Pretty annoying you’ll probably agree, but enter another young superhero going by the enviable name of Jett to make matters worse. Moreover her cape is short so consequently not a continual trip hazard, and, she’s to be in Pizazz’s class at school.

Pizazz decides she’ll offer to be Jett’s buddy and make her feel welcome but that plan is immediately thwarted when Jett chooses, of all people, Serena. Life just isn’t fair.

It gets even less so when after a humiliating trip incident caused by a long cape and one of The Popular’s backpacks, Serena decides that what’s needed is a competition – a SUPER-OFF – between Pizazz and Jett. No prizes for guessing who’s to be in charge of that, and she decides there’ll be not just one but three SUPER-OFFs. No pressure then.

Pizazz’s friend Ivy is reassuring but come break time and round one, it seems to Pizazz that she has only a very few supporters whereas almost the entire school is rooting for Jett. However, with two competitions completed the score stands at one win each. Before the third, Pizazz’s dad announces that he’s invited Jett and her family over for dinner. Awkward? You could say!

What about that third contest, you might be thinking. To discover what happens you’ll need your own superpower – or better still, get hold of a copy of this wacky story and discover how it all ends.

Even if youngsters have missed the first story, this works on its own. The ingredients are similar: Sophy’s offbeat illustrations, some comic-book sequences, lots of idiosyncratic typography, irresistible chapter-openers and distinctive characters – human and animal, not forgetting an abundance of eye rolls.

Mermaids Rock: The Midnight Realm / The Kitten Next Door

Two new titles kindly sent for review by Little Tiger’s Stripes imprint, both from authors popular with young solo readers:

Mermaids Rock: The Midnight Realm
Linda Chapman, illustrated by Mirelle Ortega
Little Tiger
The Midnight Realm referred to in the title in this, the fourth of the Mermaids Rock series, is that region of the ocean around 1,000 metres below sea level that is in constant darkness as no sunlight ever penetrates to that depth. A place where, on account of its extreme pressure and freezing temperatures, humans have only recently developed the technology that makes it possible for them to explore. Not so merpeople however and in particular those merchildren, resident around Mermaids Rock – Marina, Kai, Naya, Coralie and Luna. As the book opens these friends are busy working on the design of a poster for their latest project, corals reefs. And as those who’ve read previous books might expect, Glenda is showing off while being full of negativity towards their efforts.

Excitement rises when their teacher announces a three-day field trip that involves camping on a deserted atoll in the South Pacific.

When Marina says that her father has been researching the disappearance of strawberry squid down in the Midnight Zone, the area that the friends want to know more about for their project, it’s a case of Save the Sea Creatures Club to the rescue once again. And that’s despite being warned how dangerous a place this totally dark region is. A plan is formed: can they solve the mystery of the flashing light that Naya has noticed, (the light that then appears in the tunnel) and discover what is happening to the strawberry squid? Perhaps, but a fair bit of problem solving and creativity will be needed if they embark on such a mission.

And even more when they discover a glowing cave wherein lurks a tentacled monster – a monster that entraps Luna. Now Naya’s creative skill is required if she’s to succeed in rescuing her friend.

With black and white illustrations by Mirelle Ortega to enjoy, this story has exciting moments aplenty, strong friendship, and kindness even towards Glenda despite her misdeeds, this will be lapped up by established fans and other young readers with an interest in marine life and environmental issues.

The Kitten Next Door
Holly Webb, illustrated by Sophy Williams

In this latest story in Holly Webb’s Animal Stories we meet young cat lover Sophia. She longs for a cat of her own but her parents say she must wait until her little sister is a bit older. Then, just after Christmas Sophia spies a tiny, hungry-looking calico kitten Willow appears in the next-door neighbours’ garden and falls under its charm straightaway. She tries to spend some time with the kitten every day but as the holidays come to an end, the people next door move away, taking Willow with them, so Sophia assumes.

But shortly after Sophia notices the kitten again. Has she run away from her new home? Sophia is determined to find out. And so she does, but she finds out a whole lot more too and that’s one of the essential qualities of Holly Webb’s animal stories. Here we are reminded of just how scary fireworks can be to small creatures such as Willow, as well as how showing loving care and kindness towards animals can be hugely rewarding, sometimes in unexpected ways.

With its pencil sketches by Sophy Williams wherein she captivates even this cat phobic reviewer, this book is just right for new solo readers, especially animal lovers like young Sophia.

A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth

A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth
Francesca Gibbons, illustrated by Chris Riddell
Harper Collins Children’s Books

I read this book in a single sitting and am now eagerly awaiting the second part of what is to be a trilogy.
Imogen (eleven) and her younger sister Marie are a quarrelsome pair with a tendency (particularly on Imogen’s part) for being rude to their mum, their gran and others too.

As the story opens the girls’ mum is about to go out with ‘friend’ Mark, somebody Imogen has taken an instant dislike to, especially when out of nowhere a beautiful silvery moth appears that Mark seems intent on destroying. All this just before Gran arrives to take the girls out to tea.

Imogen follows the moth but it disappears only to reappear while they’re out with Gran and of course, Imogen follows the creature which leads her into a deserted, overgrown garden. There she comes upon a door in a tree and she finds herself in a magical world only to discover that her sister has followed her too.

It’s a world where anything might happen, and there they encounter a boy who insists on calling them peasants and saying he’s Miro, prince of the castle. He does however offer them refuge in his castle and so begins both a friendship crucial to the tale and a terrific, exciting adventure quest wherein the children race against time, pitched against a deadly threat, aided and abetted not only by Miro, but a dancing bear, a hunter of the grumpy kind, the stars in the sky even.

All these characters are superbly brought to life by the author in her richly imagined world, a world made even more wonderful by Chris Riddell’s amazing, detailed illustrations.

Perfectly paced, sometimes chilling, sometimes funny, and including fairy tale elements such as a villainous stepmother a foolish king and stolen treasure, and a magical clock, this is truly a snuggle up under a blanket and relish story by an exciting new writer, that’s ideal for dark evenings and chilly days. Don’t be daunted by the length: the chapters are short and I guarantee you’ll keep telling yourself ‘just one more’ …

Bring on the sequel say I.

The Midnight Guardians

The Midnight Guardians
Ross Montgomery
Walker Books

I was totally gripped by this wintry tale set in WW2 right from the opening pages. Twelve-year-old Col who has recently lost his father, has been evacuated to his Aunt Claire’s. He feels totally alone, for his older sister has remained in blitz-ravaged London where she faces constant danger while helping with the war effort.

Col starts hearing voices calling to him – the same voices he heard as a younger child. They’re the voices of his imaginary (so he supposes) childhood friends – the Midnight Guardians. Step up gallant knight, King of the Rogues (small and fearless), Pendlebury, a tiger brave and noble, able to change size at will and, Mr Noakes, a gentle, scruffy old badger with a nose for finding food, who sports a waistcoat.

These three have come to help him in his quest to save his sister and telling him that he’s in mortal danger as darkness, in the form of The Midwinter King, is determined to take over the land. Thus begins a race to bomb-blitzed London, accompanied by Kindertransport refugee Ruth, a brave, strong-willed girl with her own reasons for going to the capital.

So, it’s a double battle: Col and his entourage on the side of The Green Man – against time and the forces of dark. Ross Montgomery has created a terrific cast of characters that, in addition to those already mentioned, includes bogeys, fairies and Gog and Magog(s) all of whom Col encounters in this compelling tale of hope and enchantment in a world where myth and legend, history and hardships are interwoven.

Ultimately, it’s a perfectly paced tale of strong friendship, courage and trust: hope and love versus hatred and fear.

Max Against Extinction / Warrior Monkeys and the Rescue Quest

It’s good to see new titles in two popular series from Oxford University Press – thanks for sending them for review.

Max Against Extinction
Tim Allman illustrated by Nick Shepherd

Max is back and he’s still determined one way or another, (like Greta, Aditya, Nina and Mari from various parts of the globe) to make the world a better place for everyone.

On the way home from school one day he notices a large new sign on a newly erected fence. There’s a plan afoot for a huge new office development and thus begins operation Save the Bramble Field. But then Max’s mum drops a bombshell: a family holiday abroad. It’s definitely a distraction as the boy starts dreaming of sunny climes, endless ice-cream treats and more; but the planned action must take priority and to that end Max ropes in Nisha and Tessa to help.

Max is ready to take whatever action he can to thwart this development proposal, even if that means getting into headteacher, Mr Costive’s bad books (again!) as well as upsetting his own teacher. But can he persuade his parents that a staycation is the way to go. He’ll certainly do his utmost – tropical curry, padlocks and all.

With a plethora of quirky cartoon-style drawings by Nick Shepherd to liven things up even more (they’re pretty lively anyhow but … ) Tim Allman and Nick are hugely entertaining and the cause is an important one, especially now with planning laws seemingly thrown out of the window. Max’s passion and willingness to own up to his mistakes are irresistible; he’s a great character likely to encourage readers to start and stick to their own plans for making positive changes in the world, whatever they are.

Warrior Monkeys and the Rescue Quest
M.C. Stevens, illustrated by Steve Brown

This is the third story by martial arts expert M.C. Stevens. Here young Suki and Bekko are mighty concerned when they discover that their much loved and respected teacher, Chan is missing after a strange wave hit one of Senshi Island’s beaches. They immediately report his disappearance to Sensei Rika (guardian of the castle) who seems undisturbed by the news, so the two, convinced there’s been a kidnapping, decide to investigate. Soon their suspicions are confirmed and Bekko and Suki are on a quest to rescue Chan from the clutches of Emperor Ming, ruler of seven mountain kingdoms who apparently needs Chan’s help. The quest involves a very dangerous sea voyage, pirates, battling over frozen wastes

and other hazards but so says, Bekko, “Warrior Monkeys know that facing a challenge is part of learning.” Are the two up to the mark though?

Reaching their destination is only part of the challenge, there are further hazards; but with unexpected assistance

together with their own bravery, resourcefulness and determination, along the way perhaps they can succeed in getting master Chan back where he belongs.

Full of drama and suspense, this story will excite readers especially those with an interest in martial arts, yoga and mindfulness; they’ll also be amused by Steve Brown’s illustrations scattered throughout the book.

A House for Christmas Mouse / The Lightbringers / Magnificent Mabel and the Christmas Elf

A House for Christmas Mouse
Rebecca Harry
Nosy Crow

On a snowy Christmas Eve an excited Mouse arrives at Treetop Forest in search of somewhere to call home – somewhere cosy and warm, with food and friends.

Coming upon a little rabbit outside his burrow she knows she must stop and help him light a fire within and so she does. She also stops to assist Fox in his cake making

and Bear with hanging up Christmas decorations, but having done so it’s almost sundown and Mouse still hasn’t found her new home.

Suddenly a gust of wind sends her tumbling into the deep snow and when she gets up, there before her is something that might just be the perfect place to make her home. On closer inspection it seems far from perfect though, so off she goes to search for leaves to make a bed. As she looks, who should come hurrying by but Bunny, followed soon after by Fox and then bear, each carrying something with them.

Where are they going and why?

With its wintry woodland setting and sparkly touches, Rebecca Harry’s lovely gentle tale of kindness repaid is just right for sharing with the very young this festive season.

The Lightbringers
Karin Celestine
Graffeg

This is the first of a new four book series, Tales of the Turning Year. With a combination of folklore and nature the author weaves an uplifting, hopeful story that retells an ancient renewal tale found in various parts of the world in honour of the winter solstice. Assuredly during this current covid lockdown we would all welcome a visit from The Lightbringers – small beings that gather embers and put them into their seed lanterns.

Karin explains how the seasons change as the earth breathes, with a particular focus on the increasing darkening with the approach of December 21st, the winter solstice – a turning point that heralds the spring and longer, lighter days.

Her words are simple but impactful, accompanying her atmospheric, beautifully composed photographic tableaux of the natural world populated by her felted animals, particularly the Lightbringers led by Hare – the caller. With its reassuring final, ‘The light will always return because it is guarded by small beings and they are steadfast in their dark’ this is a book to share and be cheered by in these dark days.

For new solo readers is

Magnificent Mabel and the Christmas Elf
Ruth Quayle, illustrated by Julia Christians
Nosy Crow

Mabel of Rabbit Riot fame returns to relate three further episodes in which she demonstrates her magnificence. In the first we find our young narrator in the sweetest of moods as she unearths her Christmas Elf from the box of decorations. She tries to get her classmate Edward into the Christmas spirit too but without much success; but she’s more successful in allowing her naughty little elf get her into big trouble over Christmas presents.

In the second story Mabel tries her very best to befriend a new boy and also finds out that once in a while school can be really interesting.

It’s toddler-minding that gets our young heroine into a tizzy in the final episode, and that’s after she’s declared that looking after toddlers is ‘easy and fun’. Really – Even cousin William?…

Huge entertainment from such a delightful character: Ruth Quayle really does appear to have the ability to see things from the viewpoint of six-year-olds, and Julia Christians’ black and white illustrations are a spirited delight.

The Night I Met Father Christmas

The Night I Met Father Christmas
Ben Miller, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini.
Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

Jackson knows a fair bit about what happens on Christmas Eve night, as well as about that North Pole workshop, so he’s more than a little concerned when his friend suggests that the whole Father Christmas thing isn’t real. He stays up on 24th December hoping that he’ll meet the man himself and lo and behold, he does – in a rather noisy manner when a small elf-like figure clad in red tumbles into his fireplace injuring his ankle in so doing.

At first he denies his identity but Jackson eventually gets him to admit who he is. The boy asks the little character (who isn’t quite what he was expecting) a very important question: “How did you become Father Christmas?” The answer is not at all what he was anticipating. It’s the story of Torvil Christmas, an extremely rich but miserly toyshop owner that the elf recounts, 

as, having accepted the boy’s offer of help to complete his worldwide delivery round in time, the two board the sleigh and take to the air.
Cleverly weaving Jackson’s adventure into a reworking of Scrooge’s transformation in Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, and giving it a liberal sprinkling of magic, Ben Miller has created a sparkling seasonal, read – aloud or alone- that’s just right for the run up to the festive period. I love the additional “Christmassy fun’ pages too, as well as the wonderful black and white illustrations

by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini scattered throughout the telling.

Tinsel / Santa Gets A Second Job

Tinsel
Sibéal Pounder
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Being given her first ever Christmas present – a red bauble – by a strange old woman as she walks the streets of London in 1895, is only the first unexpected thing that happens to Christmas-hating Blanche Claus. Moving on she comes upon a seemingly abandoned horse Rudy, that she strangely finds herself aback – riding – almost. For no sooner is she up than she’s cascading down onto the snowy pavement and almost immediately is hauled up by a girl of roughly her own age. 

This helpful female introduces herself as Rinki. She’s dressed in what Blanche terms a ‘spectacular’ outfit comprising largely, Christmassy bits and pieces she’s picked up on the London streets, and proceeds to invite Blanche to a mince-pie picnic.

Like Blanche, Rinki is an orphan but unlike her, she’s upbeat and optimistic about life and its possibilities. Fashioning two golden rings from thread she pulls from the red bauble, Blanche gives one to her new friend and then winds one around her own middle finger too, promising to return the following day. (and every day thereafter) And that’s how for the very first time in her life, she feels something of the magic of Christmas. Next day though, there’s no sign of Rinki.

Fast forward five years. Blanche disguised as a boy, has a job as a carter at the docks where she’s known as Flimp. She’s about to make a delivery and to make a wonderful discovery concerning her erstwhile friend, Rinki.

What ensues is a magical twisting turning story with terrific characters including an elf (or several) called Carol, a visit to the North Pole, a mix of warm friendship and chilly weather, a celebration of feminism, making a difference and much more.

Surely a seasonal classic to be; mince pies anybody? Read with hot chocolate and a snuggly blanket.

Santa Gets A Second Job
Michele D’Ignazio, illustrated by Sergio Olivotti, trans. Denise Muir
Macmillan Children’s Books

Poor Santa. Things have become more than a tad troubled for the seasonal worker extraordinaire, who has eleven months annual holiday Now however, the International Postal Service is broke and even Santa hasn’t received his pay for the last three years. Moreover, he’s in rebellious mood over their latest announcement. Then out of the blue comes a letter: Santa has been sacked! How on earth will the children receive their Christmas presents, he wonders.

Equally pressing, Santa needs to find a new job, so first of all a mini-makeover is required.

However, finding work is far from easy: it’s no go at the restaurant, ditto as children’s entertainer (ageism), so when the call centre offer him a job he can’t wait to get stuck in; but when he discovers it involves cold calling, Santa quickly walks out, deciding to have one last try. 

Then what should he spy but a public notice: the council requires binmen. Success at last! A community role and even better, he meets up with an old pal, Winnie, who’s also having to take a second job.

Now little does Santa know but he has a neighbour, Bea who only recently found out who he was, and she certainly has no idea he’s now her refuse disposal officer.

Meanwhile funnily enough, Santa sees several similarities between his old job and his new one; he also makes some interesting discoveries about what can be done with the things people put in the rubbish bins. A wonderfully enterprising idea strikes him and before long, he and Winnie take to the skies once more. At the International Postal Service though things are NOT going well …

There’s also the question of some lost letters from way back sent by someone very eager to meet Santa. Can he find the writer and grant their wish in time for Christmas Day?

Absolutely certain to induce giggles, this is a smashing seasonal read (aloud or alone); it’s full of heart, festive magic and contains a large sprinkling of wry humour, and superbly droll illustrations by Sergio Olivotti at every page turn.

Thinking of Presents: Miffy’s Treasury / A Dancer’s Dream

Here are two recent books kindly sent for review by Simon & Schuster Children’s Books that would make lovely presents this year:

Miffy’s Treasury
Dick Bruna

Almost unbelievably Dick Bruna’s Miffy celebrates her 65th birthday this year and this book is an anniversary collection (in larger format than the originals) of five Miffy stories that will most certainly delight little humans as well as their parents and grandparents, who have likely grown up loving this little white rabbit.
The stories, in order and all told in rhyme are, Miffy at the Zoo wherein the little rabbit and her daddy take a train ride to the zoo, visit the animals and as a final treat, Miffy rides a giant tortoise; 

Miffy’s Birthday – a celebration of fun with family and friends, that finishes with a sharing of food before bed.
Next we meet a slightly older rabbit in Miffy at School. Being Miffy she sports a dress of a different colour from her fellow rabbits as they set off together walking to school 

where they’re greeted by a rather stern-looking teacher, who quickly settles them in and plunges them into writing and maths – not the way it’s done now – before introducing some singing, block play, art and some of the more usual activities one expects in an early years classroom, and ending with a story – hurrah!
I wasn’t familiar with Miffy is Crying (must have missed that one along the way). The cause of her tears is that her beloved teddy bear has gone missing while she slept. After spending a rather miserable day, asking friends and family if they know of teddy’s whereabouts, she gets into bed and discovers a lump under the blankets. The final story sees a very regal-looking Queen Miffy though she’s only royal in her dream of dwelling in a white-walled palace and ruling regally and benevolently over her loyal subjects in Rabbit Land. 

(Love the idea of a tree being planted every year as a royal birthday present.)

An ideal gift to give a toddler this Christmas (or any time): as simple as the art might appear, it offers plenty to talk about. Dick Bruna’s Miffy has lost none of her charm so far as this reviewer is concerned.

A Dancer’s Dream
Katherine Woodfine and Lizzy Stewart

For some, Christmas and the Nutcracker ballet (especially The Dance of the Supar Plum Fairy) go hand in hand. Now here we have an utterly enchanting picturebook story that weaves together the well- known tale of the Nutcracker with a dancer’s tale. That of Stana who is selected to dance the role of Clara at the Imperial Ballet School’s debut performance in St. Petersburg where the classic ballet was first performed.

Stana is determined to do her very best especially as her younger sister, Olga, is ill in hospital and her older sister has convinced herself that if she dances well, then her sister will surely get better. Every step taken to Mr Tchaikovsky’s music brings hope of her recovery.

With inherent themes of love and family kinship, the combination of Katherine Woodfine’s powerfully atmospheric writing that really transports you to a distant snowy city with soft echoes of Tchaikovsky’s music in the background, and Lizzy Stewart’s gorgeous, 

mainly richly coloured illustrations make a super book that’s ideal for giving to ballet fans. It’s full of the spirit of dedicated determination, a passion for dance and seasonal wonders.

Rashford Rules / Van Dijk Rules / Be Your Own Football Hero: Ronaldo

Rashford Rules
Van Dijk Rules

Simon Mugford and Dan Green
Welbeck Publishing

These two highly illustrated biographies are the first in a series of Football Superstarsand both author Simon and illustrator Dan are soccer fans themselves, supporting Ipswich Town.

Marcus Rashford has recently hit the headlines again with his superb campaigning for free school meals over the half-term holidays which received tremendous community support and certainly put the government to shame. The opening pages of the book acknowledge his national hero status both as an awesome goal scorer and as a charity campaigner. Readers are then told what makes him the brilliant player that he is, and can also discover some statistical information.
Divided into short chapters, there’s information on his Manchester childhood, early achievements, his debuts including a comment by Rashford’s hero Ronaldo. Then come his path to national England player 

and the final chapter focuses on his activist charity work during the Coronavirus lockdown. All this and he’s still only in his early 20s.
The book ends with a quiz and some key soccer words as does the companion book Van Dijk Rules

This follows a similar pattern, giving facts about achievements, his early life in the city of Breda in the Netherlands as a child who always had a football at his feet, and how he progressed from over-grown, sometimes troubled teenager with a part-time job washing dishes in a local restaurant, through his successes with Celtic 

and Liverpool, and as captain of the Dutch team. Both this and the previous title are enormously engaging for young soccer enthusiasts especially. Dan Green’s black and white illustrations capture the essence of the individuals and add additional detail and humour to Simon Mugford’s accessible writing.

Be Your Own Football Hero: Ronaldo
Matt and Tom Oldfield
Studio Press

The Oldfield brothers invite youngsters to don football boots and participate in a decision-making activity as they select one or other of the options presented at intervals throughout the book. There are many choices to be made in the world of a soccer professional such as Cristiano Ronaldo, some of which take the reader along the path taken by the real Ronaldo, others are would-be alternative realities – what might have beens.
Readers are taken back to Ronaldo’s childhood when as son of encouraging, soccer-enthusiast, hard-up parents. the football mad boy has his chance to go and play with his cousin at a Andorinha training session. It turns out to be something of a disappointment so what is your response when your dad asks if you enjoyed it? Time for that first decision …
And so it continues.

I’m not a football fan, but to readers from around six or seven, I can perfectly understand the allure of these books, written by the authors of the Ultimate Football Heroes biography series.

Clifftoppers: The Frost Castle Adventure / A Christmas in Time

Here are two gripping wintry stories from Nosy Crow Publishers:

Clifftoppers: The Frost Castle Adventure
Fleur Hitchcock

This is the fourth of the adventure series featuring Aiden, Chloe, Ava and Josh, who spend holidays at their grandparents’place. It’s coming up to New Year and as the story opens the cousins are trudging through the snow towards Frost Castle when a passing car spins out of control crashing into a snow drift. The children manage to extricate the driver, a young woman wrapped in several scarves, wearing a gold pendant and claiming to be cursed. It turns out that she’s a well-known actress who’s to play the lead in Frost Castle’s winter play – a murder mystery – and she also mentions an attempted break-in at her flat before she’d set off for the Castle.

Before long the four children are asked to help with the play. Despite talk of ghosts, they think they should stay and very soon that pendant goes missing. There must be a villain lurking in their midst.
Can the cousins use their skills and courage to discover what is really going on?

With her terrific storytelling skill, Fleur Hitchcock snares readers’ attention from the outset and keeps them involved and intrigued throughout. Whether or not they’re familiar with the previous books, children will thoroughly enjoy this one.

A Christmas in Time
Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Rachael Dean

This is the latest in Sally Nicholls’ time-slip series wherein Ruby and Alex fall through the mirror in their aunt’s house to discover they’re in a different historical period and have to undertake a task before returning to the present.

Now Aunt Joanna has broken her leg and the siblings are anticipating a Christmas doing chores when suddenly having gone through the mirror, they’re back in 1872 about to experience a Victorian Christmas instead.

As a result they meet Edith (8) who with no mother and a father soon to return to India, is about to be sent off to a horrible-sounding boarding school. Then Alex and Ruby realise that she’s being sent to the very place where in February 1873 a terrible cholera epidemic killed off two thirds of the children. Can they persuade her father – the far from pleasant Uncle Elijah – to send her elsewhere.

By all accounts it’s not going to be easy, but can they work some seasonal magic and turn things around for Edith? Or maybe she’ll decide to take matters into her own hands …

With plenty of action, a very interesting cast of characters (some rather eccentric), and details of a Victorian Christmas with singing,

parlour games, ice-skating and candles this is a smashing read, be it in the run-up to Christmas or at any time. I love Rachael Dean’s illustrations and Isabelle Follath’s cover art too.

Zombierella: Fairy Tales Gone Bad / Theodora Hendrix and the Monstrous League of Monsters

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

As a massive fan of fractured fairy tales, I couldn’t wait to read this and wow! do I love it. Told in the form of a verse novel by performance poet Joseph Coelho, it’s quite simply utterly brilliant, dark, funny and splendidly subversive to boot.

The Grimm version is the one Joseph has chosen as his starting point and right from the start he hooks readers in, holding them enthralled throughout as the plot twists and turns in unexpected ways.

We learn that our heroine has got her name because she carries her biological mother’s ashes with her in a locket. Now she is forced to live with her foul FAKE mother and her equally FAKE beautiful sisters who are living off the inheritance that’s rightfully Cinderella’s. Her one true trusted friend is her horse, Lumpkin but early in the story, he ceases to be and the poor girl has to bury him. But not before she comes upon a piece of drifting paper. It’s a flyer informing the reader of three balls on consecutive nights, on the final of which the prince will choose his bride. She assumes that said prince is moving into the old abandoned mansion atop the hill on the edge of Grimmsville.

Needless to say those FAKE sisters of hers are eager to go to the ball

but can’t abide the thought of Cinderella doing so and as well as leaving her with instructions to clean the house in their absence, they leave a trap for her at the top of the stairs. A trap that causes her demise. Enter The Fairy of Death and Cinderella becomes Zombierella, able to go to the ball, but for three nights only …

I’ll say no more on the tale but merely urge you to get hold of the book and relish every detail, gory and otherwise. Equally relishable are Freya Hartas’ illustrations that add to both the gloomy atmosphere and the humour; her use of space on the page is superb too

and make sure you look under the cover flaps.

I’m eagerly anticipating any further fairy tales Joseph chooses to turn bad with his magic pen.
More shivers and giggles in:

Theodora Hendrix and the Monstrous League of Monsters
Jordan Kopy, illustrated by Chris Jevons
Walker Books

Here’s a terrific mix of monsters, mystery, horror and humour: it all begins ‘just shy of Halloween’ in an abandoned graveyard cemetery on the edge of Appleton. There in an unmarked grave, seemingly just waiting to be discovered lies a small squalling human. And discovered it is by one George Hendrix, a zombie (along with his vampire cat, Bandit). What do they do with said baby? They take it to a mansion – occupied by the Monstrous League of Monsters (MLM) where Georgie is assured the infant will be well cared for. The carers are a group comprising a mummy, ‘Mummy’ to the infant, a vampire, a werewolf and cubs, a witch, the skeleton butler, an operatic ghost, a crow and more – I wonder …

They name the babe Theodora and surprisingly, fall for her charms, but she must be kept secret.

Full speed forward a decade and there’s Theodora thriving and loving life along with her loyal arachnid associate, a dapper tarantula named Sherman.
But then mysterious anonymous threatening letters start to arrive. Seemingly somebody or something has found out about the group and is determined to expose them and their secret to HQ. Theodora is equally determined to discover the identity of the letter writer; so too are the others.

But Theodora decides to fly solo and hatches her own plan. Can she (along with her very first human friend), solve the mystery or are her monster family members doomed to rot imprisoned in Transylvania? And what of her own fate if she succeeds? …

Told by a mysterious narrator this is a smashing story, with some laugh-out loud moments, an abundance of family love and loyalty that shows how diverse family and friendships can be.

Great for reading aloud or solo reading and made all the more fun by Chris Jevons delicious black and white illustrations

Olga: We’re Out of Here! / Judy Moody Goes to College / Zara and Moonbeam

Olga: We’re Out of Here!
Elise Gravel
Walker Books

Olga and her ‘adorable’ albeit rather smelly creature Meh (found in her rubbish bin) return with Olga – fed up with annoying humans – considering leaving Earth and moving to another planet. Perhaps they could even find Meh’s home planet.

Actually, there are several humans that Olga’s not fed up with including her pal, the dog loving Chuck and librarian extraordinaire, Ms Swoop. The latter might just be able to help with Olga’s possible foray into space.
But then Meh starts having digestive problems and before long is so poorly that Olga is truly concerned especially when she notices some unpleasant pimples on the creature’s belly.

Time to visit the library for a bit of investigation, but when Olga gets there she finds not the friendly Ms Swoop but the grumpy Mr Gumstrap on duty. Maybe a trip to the vet’s is a better option. Or is it? …
All ends happily however, and with some exciting news about Meh’s mystery ‘illness’.
Wonderfully quirky and with such an unconventional, research-loving outspoken protagonist, this illustrated notebook style story is such a fun read for primary children.

Judy Moody Goes to College
Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Walker Books

The latest story of Judy Moody finds the girl struggling with maths according that is to her sweet obsessed supply teacher, Mrs Grossman. The reason for this is that being unimpressed with said new teacher, Judy’s concentration is on anything but the measurement topic that’s being taught. Home goes a note to Judy’s parents who decide that their daughter needs a tutor. Stink, her little brother teases her talking of ‘baby flashcards’. Unsurprisingly Judy is not impressed with this tutor idea either but then she discovers that her tutor is a college student and that she too is going to college – sort of!

Pretty soon, Judy declares that having a tutor like Chloe is ‘crucial’ – ‘maths is everywhere. Maths is life.’ However, less impressed with this new-found enthusiasm of Judy’s are her school friends and it’s not long before she’s playing alone and lunching solo. Moreover, she finds herself sent to the attitude tent by Miss Grossman who’s finding her lippiness just a tad too much. Can Chloe help Judy sort this out too? Perhaps, with a bit of calming, peace-inducing yoga …

Huge fun whether or not the reader is an established Judy fan. I love Peter H. Reynolds illustrations.

Zara and Moonbeam
Julie Sykes, illustrated by Lucy Truman
Nosy Crow

Is this really the 15th magical story set at Unicorn Academy, the school on Unicorn Island where you meet your very own unicorn and have awesome adventures together. Now it’s Zara who is eagerly waiting for her unicorn to reveal her magic power. But Moonbeam keeps seeing pictures in her head and saying strange things: surely that can’t be connected to her magical power, or can it?

Suddenly who should appear but school inspector, Mr Longnose: could he perhaps be connected with the awful heatwave they’re experiencing? Zara and her friends are determined to find out. When Moonbeam keeps seeing the same images over and over she starts to think she can see into the future.

Then a school field trip is announced and after a while, Zara climbs an enormous rock and finds herself in trouble. Can Moonbeam find her magic power in the nick of time and save the girl?

With Lucy Truman’s black and white illustrations adding to the drama, Unicorn School enthusiasts especially, will devour this adventure, probably in a single sitting.

Glassheart / Brand New Boy / Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean

Glassheart
Katharine Orton
Walker Books

Prepare to be both chilled and enchanted, bothered and bewitched as you read this, the second of Katherine Orton’s stories. It tells of Nona who has lost all her family in the war (WW2) and of her adopted Uncle Antoni. This though isn’t a tale of war itself, but of its aftermath, as together they travel through the wilds of Dartmoor, each caring and protecting the other as a magical adventure unfolds. With echoes of folktale and legend, the landscape that the author crafts is wild, unpredictable – sometimes sinisterly nightmarish.

Her tale is one of power, fragility and also strength as the two walk side by side, stopping to replace stained glass windows, Nona with a small piece of magical glass in the form of half a heart reminding her of what once was, Uncle Antoni with his skill and artistry in stained glass.

With the girl as his apprentice, they undertake a mysterious commission that sees Nona face to face with her nemesis. But though fragile, Nona has an inner strength, loyalty and determination which drives her on in her endeavour to protect those she loves.

Truly evident is Katherine Orton’s understanding of suffering and the assuagement of grief.

Brand New Boy
David Almond, illustrated by Marta Altés
Walker Books

George joins an ordinary class in an ordinary school somewhere in northern England. Daniel is fascinated and watchful, especially when George’s ear falls off. It’s clear that this newcomer is far from ordinary. But then Daniel is actually not so ordinary either. He’s capable of doing extraordinary things: he’s caring, perceptive, questioning, open-minded and ready to accept somebody just a little bit different.

So, while he and his friend Maxie in particular go about their football and other activities at school, his mind is full of thoughts about the mysterious newcomer. But then just as suddenly as he came, two days later, George is there no more. Will he ever come back?

If ever there was a story to encourage children to think about what they are and to consider the true meaning of being human, and of freewill, then this is it.

Deceptively simple in its telling David Almond’s story has a quiet power while Martha Altés illustrations bring out the humour inherent in the tale.
Never underestimate children; all too frequently I see both teachers and parents so doing. They too should read this book.

Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean
Justin Somper
UCLAN Publishing

This is a reissue of a book (the first of a series) originally published some fifteen years back. It’s a swashbuckling tale of pirates and vampires set in the future in an attractive-sounding location – Crescent Moon Bay on the Australian coast.

We meet twins Grace and Connor, who are left entirely alone in the world when their lighthouse keeper father to whom so many owe their lives, suddenly dies. The children cast themselves off in his boat out to sea and all too soon are hit by a storm but they’re not to meet their demise in the ocean. Grace is rescued by Lorcan Furey, one of the vampire crew of a strange boat, Connor by friendly pirates.

The action then switches between the two as their stories unfold alternately with secrets emerging until at last, the two are reunited. With its lively cast of characters (depicted before the title page) this is an entertaining start to a sequence of further adventures for older primary readers and beyond.

David Roberts’ Delightfully Different Fairy Tales / Pippi Longstocking Goes Aboard

These are two special gift editions with Christmas in mind

David Roberts’ Delightfully Different Fairy Tales
written by Lynn Roberts-Maloney
Pavilion Books

This sumptuous edition brings together three of the brother and sister team’s fairy tales previously published as separate books, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. Lynn’s texts written with enormous verve and David’s magnificent illustrations that set each of the stories in a different era combine to re-energise tales from way back making readers experience them with fresh eyes, ears and hearts.

For Cinderella we’re transported to the art deco 1920s, age of flapper girls and glamour, where Greta’s (aka Cinderella) stepsisters, are Elvira (the wicked one) and Ermintrude (she’s exceedingly dim).

Her fairy godmother is a fashionista and her stepmother is a stone cold-hearted bullying female who immediately evicts Greta from her room giving it to her own offspring instead.

Rapunzel is set in the 1970s when platform shoes were all the rage. The beautiful miss in this version has a red-haired stunner as its star and she resides in a tower block flat, (or rather is imprisoned by her Aunt Edna who owns a ghastly pet crow).

Edna insists that safety is the reason for her niece’s current incarceration, and she uses occasional gifts of second-hand records and magazines to placate the girl, promising to show her the city sights once she’s older. Said aunt is employed as a school dinner lady, one who almost force feeds her charges with such ghastly fare as lumpy custard. Enter stage left, young Roger, lead singer of the school band. Could he be the one to rescue the red-haired damsel?

Sleeping Beauty has an entirely female cast, a 1950s vibe and a science fiction loving young lady Annabel who on her first birthday, falls under the evil spell of spiteful witch Morwenna, and wakes many more years later than the sixteen she’d first thought.

If you know somebody (or several people) who love fairy tales, then buy them this totally brilliant book: I’m going to have to invest in several copies this season. And, KS2 teachers just think of the potential this offers in the classroom.

Pippi Longstocking Goes Aboard
Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Lauren Child
Oxford University Press

This bumper book with superbly spirited, full-colour illustrations by Lauren Child (who better to illustrate this Pippi 75th anniversary edition?) is an ideal present for a lively child with an inquiring mind, and a cracking way to bring Pippi, fellow residents of Villa Villekulla, monkey, Mr Nilsson and her horse – the one she can lift with her super strength – (strictly speaking he lives on the veranda), and her next-door friends, Annika and Tommy, alive to a new generation of readers and listeners.

The episodes herein include that where Pippi gets a trifle carried away when she goes on a shopping spree with a pocketful of golden coins. The consequences are pretty unlikely (unless you’re Pippi) with a bit of bother over a false arm and whether or not the particular shop is self-service. She also gets carried away in the sweet shop buying rather an excessive amount of sugary confectionery, and uses her common sense in the pharmacy.

Another time there’s an addition to the school role, though only briefly; Pippi also livens up the school outing;

has an encounter with a rather large ’kitty’, she gets shipwrecked and almost leaves her ‘more organised’ Villa Villekulla life and sails away with her father to live a thoroughly disorganised one.

Hours of pleasure visual and verbal, lie between the two covers of this gift edition.

The Puffin Keeper

The Puffin Keeper
Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Benji Davies
Puffin Books

National treasure and author Michael Morpurgo has written this story about puffins with Puffin Books’ 80th birthday in mind. Michael is the son-in-law of Allen Lane the founder of Puffin Books whose metaphorical lighthouse lamp definitely illuminated my childhood. Here he has interwoven his own family history, the Scilly Isles, a threatened bird and his fascination with lighthouses, to create a truly memorable read for all ages.

The extraordinary tale begins one dark stormy night just off the coast of the Scilly Isles when bound for Liverpool from New York, a four-masted schooner with its masts broken and sails in tatters, starts to sink with thirty passengers and crew aboard. The event is watched from high up in his lighthouse by the keeper, Benjamin Postlethwaite who risks life and limb to rescue everyone including the story’s narrator, then five years old, and his widowed French mother.

Making several journeys in his tiny rowing boat this brave man rows back and forth five times until everyone is safely on the island. Then in his lighthouse, he silently brews pot after pot of tea, ensuring that all the rescued were kept warm. The boy, an observant lad, is amazed by the paintings of boats done on cardboard scraps and bits of wood each one signed merely BEN, that adorn the walls. The following day when those from the ship are taken from the island, Benjamin gives the boy a painting of a four-masted schooner similar to that from which he’d been rescued.

The boy and his mother then go to live on Dartmoor with his mother’s dour in-laws. Among the horrors the lad has to cope with are Miss Duval (or Devil) a cruel nanny cum governess; following his ultra-strict grandfather’s regime, and at age eight being sent to boarding school where cross country running meted out as punishment becomes a pleasure

and then a medal-winning success. The boy also discovers the joys of painting and reading storybooks but never does he forget Benjamin Postlethwaite.

Having come across an article about the rescue in an old magazine, the boy writes to Benjamin asking if he’d mind a visit from him one day. Around the address he paints a copy of the picture he’s been given. But no reply does he receive.

One day, informing his mother that he’s going on a journey of exploration, he leaves (with her approval) on his bike.

Where is he going? …
That’s nowhere near the end of this wonderful tale but if you want to discover what happens, then get yourself a copy.

In Michael’s prose no matter what his subject, there’s a simple eloquence and perceptive pitch-perfect beauty; and this story with its soft-spoken conservation message and themes of hope and fresh beginnings is, ultimately, uplifting. I can think of no better artist for the book than Benji Davies, whose illustrations with their subtle shades, somewhat reminiscent of Ravilious, truly bring to life the characters, the various settings and the feelings evoked in the text.

A book to have, to hold, to share and, to treasure.

Mr Dog and a Deer Friend

Mr Dog and a Deer Friend
Ben Fogle and Steve Cole, illustrated by Nikolas Ilic
Harper Collins Children’s Books

This is the latest story in the deservedly popular Mr Dog young fiction series by explorer and TV presenter Ben Fogle, co-written with Steve Cole.

It begins early one chilly morning with Mr Dog hearing a distant cry for help. Having emerged from his tree stump shelter, the animal rescuer extraordinaire follows his nose and discovers that the source of the cry is a young fawn stuck in a frozen lake. Having extricated the little creature from the water and warmed her up a tad, Mr Dog learns that the fallow deer fawn – Bobbin by name and with an odd way of walking – was looking for her missing mother and in so doing decided to risk a short cut across the ice.

Immediately Mr Dog offers to help in the search and off they go into the forest estate to find Betty, the deer with three legs. Soon they come upon some aggressive deer fighting over food and one tells them that the lord of the manor has got rid of ‘the one with three legs.’

What has really happened to her? Can Mr Dog discover the answer and keep them all safe as well?

As readers of the series know, you can always count on Mr Dog if an animal is in trouble …

Scattered throughout with deer facts and puns (plus the occasional D- O- G acronym), the story – inspired by Ben Fogle’s own experience – is gently humorous and just right for new solo readers, especially those who like an environmental strand to a tale. Nikolas Ilic’s black and white illustrations add to the pleasure of reading and help to break up the text for less confident readers.

Lottie Luna and the Fang Fairy

Lottie Luna and the Fang Fairy
Vivian French, illustrated by Nathan Reed
Harper Collins Children’s Books

Despite her pa, King Lupo’s initial reluctance, young werewolf extraordinaire. (Princess) Lottie Luna, she of the super-speed, super strength and X-ray vision, is allowed to join her classmates on a camping expedition. Also on the trip are Agatha Claws (Aggie) who’s a touch above herself, and Larry who announces on the coach that he’s got a very wobbly tooth and hopes to receive a silver coin from the fang fairy when it comes out so long as she can find where to leave it.

On arrival they have to agree on sleeping arrangements and once that’s done everyone gathers around the campfire for supper followed by a bedtime story telling session. Poor little Larry gets frightened by some of what he hears.


Next morning Lottie discovers footprints close to her tent and even more around Larry’s. Is somebody trying to scare the cub or is it something more sinister? Lottie is determined to find out; but of course, she doesn’t want any of her classmates to find out about her special skills.

After breakfast it’s time for a hike: everyone is put into groups. The aim is to get to the top of High Hill and en route the cubs are asked to find ten or more plant and animal varieties – a chance for Lottie to reveal one of her superpowers by accident if she isn’t careful. Then comes a realisation – Larry has gone missing; it’s time to tell the grown-ups.

They do; and Lottie, Wilf, Marjory and Aggie are sent as a search group sans teacher and as you’d expect, Aggie has equipment for every eventuality in her rucksack. On the way though she storms off after a tiff, so it’s two not one person the others have to look for. Then Marjory reveals something to Lottie which changes things somewhat, but this search is all about teamwork;

and there are footprints to follow. Where will they lead and what about that tooth of Larry’s?

Lottie Luna is a hugely loveable character – suitably dignified and princessy? errr … and this, with its themes of friendship, being true to yourself and forgiveness, is, as one expects of Vivian, another fangtastic story (book 3 in the spooktacular series). Adding to the delights are Nathan Reed’s splendidly atmospheric black and white illustrations that augment the gentle comic feel of the whole. (I love the tiny winged onlookers guarding the page numbers.) Looking forward to the Giant Gargoyle story …

Super Happy Magic Forest and the Portals of Panic

Super Happy Magic Forest and the Portals of Panic
Matty Long
Oxford University Press

I know a large number of young readers who are eager to get their teeth into this, the second of Matty Long’s fiction series featuring those five brave forest warriors including unicorn Blossom and red and white mushroom, Trevor.

Suddenly into that normally Super Happy place of picnics and frolicking there appears a puzzling porthole that threatens the peace of the forest dwellers’ existence. Even more troubling, a small and voraciously hungry monster has flown from the cavity and seemingly desires to gobble up everything that crosses its path including Gnomedalf’s breakfast waffles (not that they actually did cross it).

Off go the five heroes (beast in tow) to Wizard City in search of wise wizard Barnabus five-hats to seek his assistance. En route, the monster – now named Chompy – has the audacity to take a nibble at Trevor leaving him just a tad light-headed.

En route too, comes a surprising revelation from Gnomedalf concerning the cause of his own reluctance to proceed with the quest.

There’s another sign of weird things being afoot, in the form of bow and arrow wielding elves who just might turn them into stone,

the Wood Elf Queen and her moose Strawberry. And that’s where I’ll leave the merry adventurers

and say no more other than that the plot takes many wacky twists and turns including more portals, one leading to a spell in prison for some of our heroic bunch, a bake-off episode, and all ends happily – eventually!

Fans will surely devour this in a single sitting, relishing the wealth of wizardry, waffles, and Matty Long’s totally bonkers humour – visual and verbal – throughout. Bring on the next adventure.

Isadora Moon Goes to a Wedding

Isadora Moon Goes to a Wedding
Harriet Muncaster
Oxford University Press

Isabelle Moon the half fairy, half vampire child is mega-excited. Her Aunt Crystal is to be married and Isadora can hardly contain herself when she learns that she (along with little Honeyblossom, and cousin Mirabelle) will be bridesmaids. “A frosty and flowery wedding” so her mum tells her. Isadora’s excitement increases further when she tries on her bridesmaid’s dress. The siblings, thinks Mum, will be “the most wonderful vampire fairy bridesmaids that anyone’s ever seen.”

On the wedding morning (after a yummy pancake breakfast courtesy of Oscar) what should draw up outside the family residence but a fairy sledge – how else would they get to the winter fairy realm? And off they whizz … destination the Ice Hall.

There to greet them is mischievous cousin Mirabelle and her family.

After the marriage itself, the meal and speeches get under way and the youngsters grow increasingly bored, so Isadora’s mother suggests the cousins and Honeyblossom go off to the entrance hall and play. There Mirabelle spots the wedding cake

and that’s when the mischief starts (and the shrinking).
Now it’s down to Isadora to try and make sure that even if not everything goes exactly to plan, there’s a happy ending.

Fans (as well as those new to the smashing series) will relish this new story and love to try out some of the activities at the end of the book – a book made even more special with its silver edges and sparkly cover.

The Adventures of Harley and Lucy: The Marshland Rescue / The Cat and the Captain: Trim the Cat & Matthew Flinders

Here are two recent fiction books from Little Steps Publishing kindly sent for review

The Adventures of Harley and Lucy: The Marshland Rescue
Maria Atlan, illustrated by Adriana Santos

We meet Harley on his first day as a retired military service dog, about to embark on a new life with the Laceys. He knows that he’s going to miss his long-time companion Sergeant Garcia. However, Mamie and Greg Lacey appear amicable enough, but one thing Harley hasn’t anticipated is the presence in his new home of tiny moggy, Lucy. It seems Harley might need recourse to Sergeant Garcia’s advice: ”Be strong, be true, be brave.”

Soon comes news of a plan to pull down the historical Ashley Place, wherein live Lucy’s feline aunts, and replace it with a huge modern development. This is of great concern not only to the kitten but also to the Laceys, as it threatens both the marshland environment with its wealth of wildlife and the safety of their own homes. Despite a successful meeting addressed by Mamie and a vote to put paid to the planned project, they learn that the vote was a formality and the enterprise will go ahead after all. Or will it? If they combine their skills, perhaps an alliance between Lucy and Harley can help matters. But time is running out.

The author’s passion for conserving the environment is evident in her storytelling and readers are swept along with Harley, Lucy and the Laceys in their bid to halt a potentially catastrophic development. Occasional black and white illustrations by Adriana Santos inject some gentle humour into the tale.

The Cat and the Captain: Trim the Cat & Matthew Flinders
Ruth Taylor

Having been the subject of a picture book, Trim the cat now features in a novel for older readers. Born aboard, HMS Reliance, a sailing ship bound for Botany Bay, the kitten, after falling overboard while the ship’s anchored, is adopted by Matthew Flinders and accompanies him on all subsequent expeditions.

The two brave a leaking ship, stormy seas, illness and other disasters till by the time Matthew is twenty-nine, he’s in a very bad way and so is Trim. The man starts to despair of ever accomplishing his goal of mapping the western coast of Australia, but despite many lives being lost, and a shipwreck, his determination never leaves him.

Then one fateful day having reached Mauritius, Matthew is accused of being a spy by the Île de France (Mauritius) officials and put into prison. It’s while in captivity that he learns of Trim’s disappearance, and he never sees his faithful cat again.

Matthew doesn’t get finally back to England and his wife, Ann, until he is thirty- seven, having been parted from her for nine years; and sadly they only have three years together before his death.

This gripping piece of history is retold by the author Ruth Taylor who, while researching the role of ships’ cats in pest control at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, came upon Matthew’s tribute to his beloved Trim and decided to tell the story for children. With illustrations by David Parkins, this is an accessible and fascinating story for upper primary/lower secondary school readers.

Otters’ Moon / The Tipple Twins and the Gift

Otters’ Moon
Susanna Bailey
Egmont

I was hooked by this story from the very first page; there’s something magical about Susanna Bailey’s lyrical prose that gently draws you in and keeps you turning the pages right through to the end. The narrator is Luke, led by his mother to believe that holidaying on a remote Scottish island with his photographer mother is just the thing to help them get over a break-up with Luke’s dad. The place promises outdoor summer delights, she tells him.   

The boy’s first reaction is far from favourable – the island children seem hostile, but he does strike up a conversation with a girl who introduces herself as Meghan -Meg for short – and says she lives in a dilapidated boathouse on the beach. He later hears of her absent parents – marine biologists – and that she’s residing with her Grandad who seems rather muddled, calling the boy David, mistaking him Meg says for her own father. A puzzle for sure, thinks Luke. Even more puzzling is when Grandad later says, as he looks skyward, “Remember laddie … Remember the Otters’ Moon.”

Next day, despite her instructing him not to, Luke follows Meg to a distant rocky outcrop where there are puffins. Displeased at his appearance, she realises Luke is determined to stay at this hidden place and tells him that there are also otters in Puffin Bay, although nobody but she knows of their return. She tells him too that her parents both disappeared without trace off this coast.

With a hint of hostility, a friendship develops between the children, Luke also raw about the absence of his father, becomes more observant of and concerned for, his mum; and he wonders whether Meg’s situation, with its strange secrets, is as bad as his own. Slowly, slowly he starts to change his mind about the island: perhaps it isn’t quite the boring place he first thought.

Then the two children (“city boy” and “island girl”) manage to rescue an injured orphan otter pup, incapable of surviving on its own and they name it Willow. But it’s no easy task taking care of the creature and preparing her to go it alone in the potentially dangerous waters.

Just to complicate matters, Luke learns that his new baby sister is very poorly and needs an operation to survive. Shortly after though, it’s Luke’s survival that is in question and there’s only Willow to depend upon.

As the wonderful, poignant story ends, the visitors prepare to leave the island, but we see that some things endure: hope, friendship and love can transcend the most challenging circumstances.

The Tipple Twins and the Gift
Michelle Cordara
Matador Children’s Books

The Tipple twins are the only identical twins in England, all other twins having mysteriously disappeared never to be seen again. Also mysteriously disappeared is the twins’ elder sister Caitlin, whom nobody has seen for two years.

Suddenly, out of the blue, who should arrive but their Uncle, Aunt and their daughter. The parents announce that they’re off to to Egypt, demanding that Beatrice stay with her cousins as she’s been discovered using magic at school, hence the hasty exit.  Then comes the news: all three girls are to start at Chumsworth School, a very dark place so Boo, their ‘pet’ ghost informs the twins.

On arrival they’re greeted with warnings about avoiding a certain room thirteen, the whereabouts of which nobody seems to know. They quickly learn that the head, Miss Snippings, has a particular aversion to identical twins.  With the feeling of a hidden presence watching them things get increasing strange . Then Miss Snippings announces that the end of term play will be about the Salem Witch Trials. When she discovers that identical twins have just joined the school, Jenna and Jessica know that big trouble lies ahead. Already they’re being victimised by their head teacher; but who is she really? And what does she want with the twins?

Occasionally nightmarish, but not overly so, this atmospheric story is full of foreboding but there’s some humour too; for KS2 readers who like their fiction dark and mysterious.

Mouse & Mole: A Fresh Start

Mouse & Mole: A Fresh Start
Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew
Graffeg

This is the fifth book in the enchanting series that stars close friends Mole and Mouse. Now though, in the first of the three stories, the two decide that perhaps they’ve become just a little too close and are taking one another for granted. In order for their friendship not to pall they agree to avoid one another for an entire day, however challenging that might be. Then their friendship can start all over again.
Mole insists the manner of Mouse’s execution of the plan is kept to himself.
The following morning Mouse receives an invitation to visit Hedgehog for elevenses so, making sure to avoid Mole, off he goes leaving a note as to his whereabouts. Mole meanwhile is late to rise – as usual and on discovering no sign of Mouse, is disturbed.

An exhaustive search of their home reveals no sign of his best pal. Distraught at the possibility that Mouse has forsaken him and found a new friend, he drives off to pay a call on several other of the woodland animals leaving a message for Mouse with each. The last call he pays is to …

Hip-Dip-Dip sees Mole spoilt for choice when Mouse decides to buy his bestie the much-wanted toy sailing boat he’s seen in Hare’s toyshop window. Mole’s original longing was for a blue boat with a white sail but when they discover there are other possibilities, Mole gets into such a tizzy that they leave without making a purchase.

The following day is perfect for boat sailing on the pond so it’s back to the toyshop where Hare informs them that a mystery buyer has bought the blue boat over the phone. Oh dear! Now what will happen …

In the final tale A Bolt from the Blue, the two friends get caught in a thunderstorm. With the possibility of a lightning strike, should they or shouldn’t they take shelter under a large tree? Or is it better to make a dash for home. Perhaps neither is the best way to deal with a sudden downpour, if so what will Mouse and Mole decide to do?

The magic still holds good in these latest short stories; surprises, warmth and gentle humour abounds and there’s that characteristic element of surprise in each episode which brings such delight to readers and listeners alike. James’ delectably detailed illustrations combined with Joyce’s seemingly effortless storytelling offer a perfect snuggle up on a dark evening story share delight.

Amelia Fang and the Trouble with Toads

Amelia Fang and the Trouble with Toads
Laura Ellen Anderson
Egmont Books

This has been such a terrific series with smashing characters and I’m sad to learn that it’s the last of the Amelia Fang books; so too will countless young fans of the stories.

In this adventure, (I was laughing out loud by page three) we get to meet Vincent, Amelia’s very stinky, very snotty and very bothersome baby brother. As the story opens Amelia is excitedly preparing to join the gang of friends at Grimaldi’s birthnight celebrations. But then she learns that her mother Countess Frivoleeta (along with others in the household) has been struck down by Frankenflu and if Amelia is to go to the birthnight party then so too must her revolting little brother. A frustrating dilemma, but that much wanted time for herself is about to be sacrificed for the greater good.

Fortunately, Squashy, Grimaldi and Florence are on hand to help with the babysitting but it’s not long before Vincent has done a vanishing act, rolling himself into a mysterious, somewhat threatening land; the place to which all squished toads go. Unless he’s to be toadally and irrevocably lost, Amelia and friends must go after him.

Fortunately they have recourse to that pop-up wardrobe of Grimaldi’s so they’re able to don toad disguises and head to somewhere completely off limits unless you ARE a toad.

Moreover, toads don’t fart …

There’s SO much to relish in this tale: that the friends follow a snot trail; how Amelia truly loves her baby brother despite everything; the way the friends pull together as a supportive team no matter what, sharing their feelings at just the right time; Florence prancing and pirouetting across that cave floor; the terrific character that is Furgus; how much Amelia and other characters learn about themselves and each other during the course of the story, not forgetting, Tagine’s shoe revelation.

And the ending is just perfect – except that it IS the end. Except for Amelia’s favourite memories gallery which is a fangtastic finale.

A complete triumph both visually and verbally for Laura. I can’t wait to see what she’s got coming next.