The Wondrous Prune / Orla and the Magpie’s Kiss

The Wondrous Prune
Ellie Clements
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

This is a terrific, heartwarming story of family love, finding your inner strength and remaining positive against the odds.

Eleven year old Prune, a talented artist, her mum and older brother Jesse, have recently moved into the house Prune’s mum inherited from her parents. It’s on the other side of town and so the siblings are facing the challenge of new schools and a new location. Jesse though, is still hanging out with his friend Bryce, a very bad influence on him- a friendship her mother was hoping would be severed by the move.
Prune really misses her best friend Corinne and at her new school are a group of bullies – the Vile-let girls. The sadness and anxiety Prune feels on account of these things act as catalyst for the fantasy element of the story: every time she’s beset by one of these feelings vivid colours swirl inexplicably before her eyes. Moreover if she focuses on her feelings as she draws, her images come to life. Seemingly this girl has an unlikely superpower and sometimes it lands her in trouble; in school for instance and it certainly alarms her mum when she finds out, demanding that her daughter keep it under wraps.

Meanwhile saving Prune from complete misery is the kindness shown by classmate, Doug, a previous victim of the Vile-lets’ bullying. Then there’s that legend of the Delmere Magic. It’s not long however, before Prune discovers that her brother is getting into deeper trouble on account of Bryce and she realises that she just can’t keep her power hidden. Perhaps if she can learnt to harness it, she might be able to save her brother from an increasingly toxic relationship, deal with those bullying her and restore harmony at home.

Ellie Clements’ wonderful blend of fantasy and realism has at its heart the healing power of creativity and will keep readers turning the pages as they root for the Wondrous Prune. I suspect they will also be intrigued by the boy on the bus Prune notices near the end of the book.

Orla and the Magpie’s Kiss
C.J. Haslam
Walker Books

Here’s another eco-themed adventure following on from Orla and the Serpent’s Curse.
Orla Perry, her Jack Russell dog Dave and her two brothers Tom and Richard are holidaying in Norfolk, staying with their eccentric Great Uncle Valentine. “We’re going to die of boredom,” is Tom’s prediction when they arrive at his place of residence but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Orla has recently discovered her witchy powers but it’s been agreed, no magical witchy stuff from her: this will be a normal holiday; nonetheless, Orla has taken her gwelen along.

Although not on the lookout for trouble, Orla soon learns that the beautiful ancient Anna’s Wood is about to be bulldozed for shale gas by a company called GasFrac.

Despite warnings from her uncle not to venture anywhere near, early next morning she just has to investigate; and she certainly doesn’t like what she finds. Impossible as it might be, the natural magic of the wood has disappeared: seemingly something sinister is afoot. Moreover, Orla rescues a magpie from a trap receiving a nasty gash on her face in the process.

Back at Uncle Valentine’s, she’s told that a magpie’s ‘kiss’ will show what fate has in store and then she dreams of GasFrac’s destruction of the wood’s animals. However all the local people seem convinced that the energy company’s promises of a new shopping centre and country park, either that or sheer indifference. It seems everyone has sold their souls to GasFrac, including the postmistress and local witch. But why the change of heart on the part of the erstwhile protesters? As she starts investigating, Orla soon finds distrust and even dislike for herself and Uncle Valentine. Digging deeper, she begins to suspect there’s dark magic involved here. Then she meets the person behind GasFrac and discovers the truth about his evil intentions …

With magic and mayhem, witches, wizards, ravens and a key role played by Dave, not to mention a ‘not buried’ dead cat, and liberal sprinklings of wry humour, this increasingly fast-paced book will grip readers , right to the final page.

Rumaysa Ever After

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Shadows Fall

When Shadows Fall
Sita Brahmachari, illustrated by Natalie Sirett
Little Tiger

Massive in impact, – I often read right through a book I’m loving but I had to pause and set this aside and do some deep breathing several times as I read this intensely powerful work, so raw inside did the writing make me feel – and towards the end when I read what unfolded on 18th December I found myself unable to hold back my tears.

Using a combination of very powerful first person recounts, journal extracts, narrative verse (including that of a pair of ravens) Sita’s lyrical tale of love, loss, grief, forging connections is told from several viewpoints, but chiefly that of Kai. We also hear from Orla – she, like Kai lives in the high rise flats, Zak (from the big house on the other side of the wilderness), and later in the book, from Omid (Om). Om is a gifted artist and having gone through loss and trauma himself develops a special understanding of Kai who, by the time Om comes on the scene, has lost his much-loved baby sister Sula causing his family to fall apart. I can’t speak too highly of Natalie Sirett’s hauntingly evocative illustrations that are also interwoven into the story.

Kai, Orla and Zak grow up near an abandoned piece of wild ground, the Rec. where they unearth and restore a bothy. This is a kind of paradise when they’re young but it later becomes the place of Kai’s corruption; but not only that: it’s also the backdrop to incredible creativity by Om and Kai: a place that must be protected and saved from developers by the Greenlands Guardians.

Further adding to the amazing sense of place are Sula’s memorial tree, the nearby Tower, with its resident ravens and the school, with its protective railings.

Is it possible for Kai, who has left behind his childhood innocence and now seems on a path to self-destruction, to be pulled out of his Slough of Despond?

Ultimately those bonds of friendship, forged both in their childhood and later with the coming of Om, prove the more powerful and along with the creativity that Om sparks, lead to Kai’s salvation.

Including several sensitive topics – infant death, attempted suicide, drug abuse and gang culture – the author emphasises the importance of understanding the reasons for the choices made. With its wealth of life lessons, this is surely destined to become a modern classic. I’ll finish by quoting these wonderful words from the epilogue: ‘I take my pen back out of my pocket … to write the new beginning. As I do I’m blasted by the bright, sweet voice of a song thrush. I close my eyes, picturing the words that flow now from my pen as they sing through me.’

Sita Brahmachari’s storytelling has certainly sung through this reviewer; Natalie Sirett’s art too has sung through me. Awesome.

Endorsed by Amnesty International UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghostcloud / The Treasure Under the Jam Factory

Ghostcloud
Michael Mann
Hodder Children’s Books

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

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

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

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

Another adventure much of which takes place below ground is:

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

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

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

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

With fun illustrations by Jenny Taylor …

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

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief
A.F. Steadman
Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

Thirteen year old Skandar Smith, a modest boy, longs to become a unicorn rider. This would allow him to get away from his grieving father and school bullies; indeed so his dad tells him, his now dead mother once promised him a unicorn.

Forget any previous unicorn notions you might have: the unicorns in this story are either bloodthirsty and wild or, hatched by specially called 13 year olds and then joined together with a magical elemental bond either air, earth, fire or water. Skandar has always yearned to hatch and then bond to a unicorn and now it’s just weeks away from the Hatchery exam that could offer him the opportunity to do just that. c

However on the day of testing, his hopes are dashed when inexplicably, he’s told he cannot take the exam. Back at home in bed that same night, there’s a knock on the door. It’s a woman come to take Skandar secretly to the island Hatchery so he can try to open the door behind which are the unicorn eggs. With barely time for his sister to wrap their mother’s special black scarf around Skandar’s neck and a quick ‘Be better” farewell to his Dad, the boy and woman are off aback a white unicorn. This woman – Agatha – also warns Skandar about an evil being, the Weaver.

Tension builds as Skandar endeavours to work out the Weaver’s plan; he’s troubled when the group of children who see his unicorn hatchling, notice the mark of the deadly forbidden fifth spirit element, which is wielded by the Weaver. Now Skandar must learn to trust his new group, all of whom must keep his dangerous secret.

Prepare yourself for enormous challenges, shocks and betrayal in this gripping, suspenseful story that will keep you on the edge of your seat right to the very end of Annabel Steadman’s terrific debut novel.

Uncle Pete and the Forest of Lost Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Light Hunters / Dragon Storm; Ellis and Pathseeker

The Light Hunters
Dan Walker
UCLan Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Whale

The Lost Whale
Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold
Harper Collins Children’s Books

Hannah Gold is a wonderful weaver of words. In this story we meet eleven year old Rio who is sent to stay with his grandmother in a small coastal town in California while his musical mum goes to hospital for treatment. Having last met Grandmother Fran over five years ago, and knowing virtually nothing about where she lives, he is reluctant to go but has no choice about leaving his friends and everything familiar.

Then, one day Fran gives Rio a box containing treasures that had belonged to his mum. Inside is a sketchbook of drawings of whales, one of which seems to call to the boy. He discovers she’s named White Beak on account of her distinctive markings. This leads him down to the harbour

and a chance meeting with Marina, a girl around his own age who lives on a boat with her Dad, Birch, and they run whale-watching trips for visitors.

Now, Rio has a focus and perhaps too an anchor, for he feels that if he can find White Beak it will help heal his mother. He discovers that not only has he an affinity for whales, but he is able to hear them when nobody else can.

You’ll likely feel tears welling up at certain places in this beautiful, unputdownable book. The author’s way of embedding information about animals (in this case whales and protection of their environment), within a gripping narrative with brilliant characterisation is awesome. I urge you to dive headlong in, relish the opportunity to lose yourself in this watery world, spot some whales in Levi Pinfold’s illustrations that are as exquisite as Hannah’s writing and notably capture the majesty of White Beak, as well as Rio’s journey both emotional and physical.

Starfell: Willow Moss and the Magic Thief

Starfell: Willow Moss and the Magic Thief
Dominique Valente, illustrated by Sarah Warburton
Harper Collins Children’s Books

The fantastic fourth instalment of Dominique Valente’s fantasy series sees young witch, Willow Moss without her magic power that has been stolen by the renegade wizard Silas. Now with Starfell on the brink of disaster and destruction, facing formidable danger Willow and some friends set out a-back dragon Feathering to the Mountains of Nach , where if a story her Granny once told her is right, she will find the legendary beast, the Craegun.

She hopes what’s believed about this powerful being – that it can restore anything that has been lost, albeit at a cost – is so. The clock is ticking and she has only a few days to complete her mission or all the magic of Willow’s world will be forever lost.

It’s a huge learning journey for Willow; by the time this epic tale ends wherein she often recalls her Granny’s wonderfully wise words, she’s learnt to love herself for the awesome person she is; and a lot about magic, it’s might, and what it really means to herself, her family and the Starfell community.

Truly a celebration of friendship, empathy, kindness and consideration, equality, determination and resilience: oh my shrinking giants! – this is such a terrific read, full of memorable moments and so superbly illustrated by Sarah Warburton. Please don’t let it be the last we hear of Willow et al.

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

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

Max Counts to A Million
Jeremy Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Up For Air / Sisters of the Mist

Coming Up For Air
Lou Abercrombie
Little Tiger

When Coco has to move to the seaside town of Piscary where her mum grew up, she’s eager to make friends and learn more about the family her mum has kept from her. What she doesn’t expect is the resentment shown by the community and her mum’s secrets are certainly deep-rooted.

Staying with her reputedly brilliant biologist Uncle Henry who is struggling with ME, Coco is an aspiring film-maker and an excellent swimmer with as she discovers, a talent for freediving.

Within Piscary are factions: the residents born and bred in the town (Fishes), those who have bought property to live in (Cuckoos), and the ‘Zombies’ who come to spend the summer enjoying what the town offers. As Coco explores the rift between her mum, her family and her hometown, making an occasional friend along the way, she becomes more and more determined to bring the town together.

But then disaster strikes when she and ace swimmer/diver Leo and new friend Shiv investigate a cave that involves diving deep and swimming along a tunnel. Will it be a case of tragic history repeating itself or can Coco finally see herself as part of a proper family?

Lou Abercrombie’s powerful, gripping coming of age story is told from the viewpoint of Coco who intersperses her narrative with filmic directions, adding an unusual element to the book.

Sisters of the Mist
Marlyn Spaaij
Flying Eye Books

Frygea Forest is ancient and mysterious; trolls lurk and mischievous changelings scuttle around. It’s also the place on the edge of which three sisters go every summer to stay with their grandmother on her farm.

Kyra and Janna have been eagerly anticipating another chance to climb trees, toast marshmallows and play some silly games in the woods with their big sister Margot who will be starting senior school after the holidays. Things are different this year however. Margot is less enthusiastic about spending all her time with her siblings. But when she’s lured into the midst of the swampy woods by the phantom-like beings in the mist – the Fog Furies – a worried Kyra is determined to help her

and that means facing the frightful Hellhound. What’s actually happening is that on account of the mysterious forces, Margot is being transformed into a young adolescent.

Marlyn Spaaij’s cleverly conceived, dramatically illustrated graphic novel combines swirlingly strange fantasy elements with Margot’s coming of age and starting her periods, both these being aided by the Furies and her understanding grandmother. It’s a good one to give girls especially those around ten before those changes of growing up start to happen, especially as it shows that facing up to scary changes doesn’t have to mean leaving behind the power of the imagination.

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

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

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

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

There’s more magic with tiny beings in:

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

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

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

The Ogress and the Orphans

The Ogress and the Orphans
Kelly Barnhill
Piccadilly Press

Hugely moving and sublimely written with carefully considered pacing, this is a book for everyone at all times, but especially these troubled times through which we’re living.

It’s set in Stone-in-the-Glen, a once idyllic town that after a fire destroyed its library, has undergone many changes for the worse: the school also burned down, other fires led to the loss of the town’s trees. Rather than the close community it was, rumours spread easily as people are now focussed on their own problems, suspicious of one another and reluctant to do anything for the benefit of neighbours. There’s a flashy self-serving mayor who manipulates any attempts at discussion leaving those of his constituents who go to him for help unable to recall what their problems are.

In the town too is the Orphan House: home to a group of fifteen children cared for by a loving elderly Matron and her husband Myron. Now no longer supported by the townsfolk, they do their best to stretch their meagre resources. In the orphanage though is a wonderful resource of a different kind: a fantastic reading room.

Living on the town’s edge is an Ogress. She’s a gentle loving soul who delights in leaving vegetables and wonderful goodies made from the produce grown in her garden for the residents as they sleep. However being different, she’s become the townsfolk’s scapegoat, so when one of the orphans, Cass, decides to run away, the Ogress is held responsible for the girl’s disappearance. In fact it’s she who rescues Cass tending her and bringing her safely back to the orphanage, but her return is seen and misinterpreted by a man as confirmation of the wickedness of the Ogress.

When the grownups won’t listen to Cass and the other children, they must find another way to help their generous neighbour and repair their broken community. This means getting the townsfolk to ask key questions such as ‘What and who is my neighbour? Is that possible? Perhaps yes, with the help of some crows, the ogress, one or two empathetic townsfolk and a stone. Happily, in the end, it’s knowledge, story and books, community, kindness and sharing that wins out. So it is in Stone-in-the-Glen and so we hope, can it be again in our own fractured world.

It’s impossible in a short review to do full justice to this powerful story: the author leaves space for readers to form their own opinions on some of the book’s philosophical questions and I suspect we’ll all bring different things to this allegorical tale.

Every Cloud / You’re Not the Boss of Me

Every Cloud
Ros Roberts
Little Tiger

Moving from primary to secondary school is a big change for everyone, but nothing is going right for eleven year old Amy. She’s already had to move house and that means she’s no longer in the catchment area of the secondary school her best friends will be going to. Moreover with Amy’s supposed best friend Cassie being unaccountably mean and Pop’s dementia getting worse, so much so that she and her Mum are to spend the holidays on the other side of town with Pops and Gran. Things can’t really get any worse.

However, to Amy’s surprise, living across the road from her grandparents is Jay a quiet, kind boy from her primary school who is going to her designated secondary school. Pops confuses him with his erstwhile best friend Spinney whom he hasn’t seen for many years and the two of them start playing shove ha’penny together.

As a friendship develops between Jay and Amy, she discovers that friendship can mean much more than she originally realised: having somebody you’re comfortable talking to, someone who listens attentively, is just as vital, maybe more so, than any other quality.

During her stay with Gran and Pops, a lot of surprising things happen and towards the end of the holiday Amy has an important decision to make: one that will affect the next stage of her life. How will she respond?

Exploring the importance of family, friendship and growing up, this empathetic story will appeal particularly to those readers around the same age as Amy.

You’re Not the Boss of Me
Catherine Wilkins
Nosy Crow

Loud and proud, positive but far from perfect, Amy Miller truly is a force to be reckoned with.
When the lower school comedy show is announced, she signs up immediately; she can’t wait to start writing some sketches; but then their drama teacher puts Harry in charge. Initially Amy doesn’t understand why he blocks her writing submissions and is extremely unpleasant towards her. She thinks that he just doesn’t like her but then she sees other girls also being sidelined and realises it’s more than that. Harry is being sexist, her elder sister, Caz informs Amy. Moreover, Mrs Hague who appointed Harry her shadow director, won’t listen to anything Amy says about her treatment. Fortunately Caz provides Amy with the information she needs to show how unfair the planning and organising of the revue really is, preparing her to do battle to fight for her rights.

Meanwhile at home Amy’s determined efforts to make life for her entire family better, have the completely opposite effect; the same is true, when she does likewise for school friends.
On a more positive note, Amy begins to forge a new friendship with Lexi who becomes her musical collaborator for the show. Anil too (her erstwhile best friend) also steps up to the mark, but then declines to own his part in Amy’s plan.

By the end of this laugh out loud story, Amy has learned a fair bit about herself, not least concerning her misguided helpfulness both at home and with best pals Mai and Sadie; she also finds out more about Anil and gains an insight into Harry’s behaviour.

Showing that everyone has the right to demonstrate their passions in a way that feels right for them, Catherine Wilkins’ brilliantly observed tale of determination and drama in the face of sexism and misogyny, is a great one for older readers.

Investigators: Off the Hook / Investigators: Ants in Our P.A.N.T.S

Investigators: Off the Hook
Investigators: Ants in Our P.A.N.T.S

John Patrick Green
Macmillan Children’s Books

More crime busting, pun filled sprees for Investigators Mango and Brash. As Off the Hook opens Mango and Brash are debating the tricky question:should you or should you not let your partner die for the cause of the greater good, or save your partner first and foremost. Little do they know however that Mango is going to have to face what he calls that ‘no-win scenario’ for real in their next mission – a mission in which they are to test the latest camouflage V.E.S.T technology. while tracking down and seizing Crackerdile et al. Crackerdile has enlisted into his evil T.A.I.L.Blazers the combined Hookline and Slinker – now a snake-armed man.

He and his new recruits – the only two of what he hopes will grow into a large criminal team – rob a bank and then head to a Chicken and Waffle restaurant so that he can be turned into a waffle – the largest size possible.

Can our agents possibly work out exactly what is going on, capture the arch villain and most important, both emerge intact from what seems to be their most difficult mission to date?

As always Green’s plot abounds with clever humour and madcappery, contains a layer of intertextuality for adult audiences and a motley cast of lesser characters; plus the book ends with a hook to lead you into the ‘Ants’ story. Don’t miss the detail in these illustrations -it’s terrific. (Colour added in Off the Hook by Aaron Polk.)

Taking up where the previous book left off, it’s been decided by HQ that rather than wait for crimes to occur, as soon as they ‘get wind of an evil-doer’s scheme an Anti-Crime-Unit will go undercover as fellow evil-doers and follow the straightforward P.A.N.T.S procedure. Easy-peasy – errr … Maybe not quite so with one of our star team temporarily out of action. Meanwhile those all-purpose V.E.S.T.s have been deemed not really ready for purpose and so it’s back to the assignment-specific kind for this mission.

We soon find Cilantro wrestling with herself: should she turn evil or not? But then she notices someone seemingly up to no good in the old opera house and realises it’s a heroine, not a villain she wants to be. Cilantro reports her findings to our Investigators and it’s a case of putting those new P.A.N.T.S. procedures into action forthwith.

With a decided lack of information regarding Crackerdile, and Brash’s mind to be sorted out, the do-gooding duo have an awful lot of work to do if they’re to prevent the city being taken over by giant ants. Then there’s the question of a certain agent facing up to his fears 

– a Miss Tick or maybe Mrs Tick, but certainly not a mystical thing.Time perhaps to allow Cilantro out in the field and for the Aunty Crime Unit to step forth and put their knitting skills and their ‘purls of wisdom’ to work.

With the usual super-abundance of groan-worthy puns and the reappearance of some characters from previous books, this is yet another high octane (and high-tech) drama, this time with added colour by Wes Dzioba. Established fans will gobble it up but if you’ve not read any of this series, you are missing out on a great deal of fun.

Sabotage on the Solar Express

Sabotage on the Solar Express
M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli
Macmillan Children’s Books

In the fifth of the Adventures on Trains series, Hal and his Uncle Nat are on a three week trip to Australia. Billionaire train enthusiast, August Reza, has invited Hal and his uncle on the inaugural journey of the Solar Express – the winning design of his Reza’s Rocket competition. Also on the maiden voyage is Marianne, August’s daughter about whom Hal has rather mixed feelings though with her around he knows the journey won’t be boring. So too is the inventor of the hydrogen powered, Solar Express, a 14-year-old Aboriginal boy, Boaz who is enormously proud of his ‘no pollution, no waste’ engine as Hal discovers when he meets him on the day they arrive.

The following day comes the actual train journey, it’s to last around four and a half hours but as the locomotive departs, Hal is concerned that something isn’t right. His suspicions are confirmed when the journey gets underway for it’s not long before an alarming discovery is made: the Solar Express has been sabotaged. What’s more Hal and his team, notably Marianne and Boaz, only have a small window of time to find out exactly what the saboteur has planned.

Full of twists and turns, this truly nail-biting, unputdownable story unfolds at breakneck speed. With each new book authors M.G. Leonard, Sam Sedgman, and illustrator Elisa Paganelli add to the series, I think it’s the best so far, and then along comes another that’s even better.

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

Isadora Moon Gets the Magic Pox
Harriet Muncaster

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ebb and Flo and Their New Friend
Jane Simmons
Graffeg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stick Boy and the Rise of the Robots

Stick Boy and the Rise of the Robots
Paul Coomey
Little Tiger

Strange things are again happening in Little Town and it’s all on account of the super new gadget given to all residents by Baron Ben. Called the HeadBox, it is according to the Baron, “a marvel of modern technology.”

Within a couple of days everybody is plugged in to their amazing techno thrills, or rather everybody except Stick Boy and that’s because the HeadBox just won’t fit over his different shaped head. So that ‘one size fits all’ claim. isn’t one hundred per cent accurate. In addition, the megalomaniac has been elected Mayor of the town, electronically of course.

Now, feeling isolated both in class and at home, the already suspicious Stick Boy gets on the case. His investigations soon see him discovering a secret underground tunnel that leads him to a cavern full of robots. Looks like a take over of the town is indicated.

However, Stick’s pals Ekam, Milo and Nick are so busy playing Battle Racers that it looks like he’s going to have to go it alone.

Then unexpectedly he comes upon somebody who shares his passion for hot chocolate and biscuits.
Can she help Stick persuade the other Mystery Mates to set aside those techno games and join them in saving their home town?

One final consideration: when is a secret library not a secret library? To discover the answer, get hold of a copy of the book.

Existing Stick Boy enthusiasts will wholeheartedly welcome his return and he and his friends should win lots more followers with this latest episode.

Llama on Holiday

Llama on Holiday
Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan
Farshore

This is the third Llama extravaganza starring Yasmin and her toy best friend, Levi, as well as Yasmin’s human bestie, Ezra. It’s the May half-term holiday, an ideal time to have a break from Guardian Llama responsibilities especially when a week’s visit to the seaside is in the offing. The only snag is it means having to share a bedroom with cousin Omar who is let’s say, not at all their favourite person and exceedingly unwelcoming.

At breakfast on the first morning of their Whitehove stay there comes a beeping on the llama landline: it’s a message from Mama Llama regarding a new mission, the only other information being, it’s called Help Omar. Is it at all possible to get the boy to lighten up and have some fun? Team Yasmin, Levi and Ezra need to find out what is troubling Omar. A good place to start is the funfair but that proves to be a dodgem disaster.

So what about a beach party with all the activities Omar likes? That too ends in disaster in more ways that one. It now appears that what at first seemed like an easy mission might be turning into Yasmin and Levi’s toughest challenge so far, especially when the two fall out.

Could a visit to the arcade on the pier be a better bet?

Can Omar start to believe in himself and could it be that at the end of the day, being a bit weird is something to be celebrated.

I suspect a lot of primary school readers, along with this adult reviewer, will be sad that this story with its terrific black and white illustrations by Allen Fatimaharan, concludes the super series during which Yasmin has grown hugely in self-confidence, and happily as she transitions to secondary school with Ezra, she’s determined not to let go of all the fun and magic in her life.

Yesterday Crumb and the Storm in a Teacup

Yesterday Crumb and the Storm in a Teacup
Andy Sagar
Orion

Born with fox ears, and nothing of her own except The Pocket Book of Faeries bearing her name found by her side, Yesterday Crumb has spent the first part of her life trapped in a cage, a curiosity for visitors to the travelling circus.

Then one day, with the aid of a raven familiar she escapes, having first learned that she’s actually a witch herself, albeit now without her magic; but she meets the sinister Mr Weep, demon in charge of the world of the Dead and he puts a shard of ice into her heart. Happily though she is then taken in by Miss Dumpling, a tea witch who runs the magical tea shop with legs, Dwimmerly End, where the raven familiar and a boy with a wolf’s nose also dwell. However unless she can remove that shard of ice before the winter solstice just a month away, Yesterday’s blissful new existence with its sense of belonging as a trainee witch will be very short-lived.

Meanwhile that new nurturing learning environment with its fantastical customers, flying teapot turtle Pascal and magic in every teacup, along with supportive Miss Dumpling’s ‘where there’s a witch there’s a way” attitude, Yesterday begins to believe in the possibility of finding the all important spell ingredient needed to break that curse of the shard. Before that she has to face a visit from the College of Witches and the test on her magic skills; that and learn to deal with her anger.

Both wonderfully whimsical and sometimes, surprisingly spooky and sinister, this is a truly spellbinding adventure quest and there’s a twist in its tail. With a touch of genius Andy Sagar has created a wonderful world full of teapots, tea and brewing, not to mention scrumptious cakes and a little coffee, as well as a cast of amazing characters, (and the occasional rogue) to populate it. Prepare to be swept away; it’s absolutely superb and I can’t wait for the next brew.

Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms / Escape Room

Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms
Jamar J. Perry
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Drawing on West African and Igbo culture and mythology the author has created a powerful, multi-layered fantasy quest.

Twelve year old Cameron is of Igbo descent and having lost his parents two years earlier, is living with his grandmother in Atlanta. From time to time he has strange experiences but puts them down to his prolific imagination. Cameron is forbidden to enter the attic wherein is kept The Book of Chidani, a family heirloom which he’s been told not to touch.

At the start of the summer holidays, he and his two best friends Aliyah and Zion are having a sleepover. Drawn by the book, Cameron’s last connection to his parents, they sneak into the attic to read it and in so doing, open the portal to the kingdom of Chidani.

There he learns that he’s now the Chidani people’s Descendant and is tasked with saving the country from a power grab by the Queen’s sister Amina. That means he, with the help of his friends has to retrieve three stolen magical artefacts while at the same time face monsters, gods, and their personal fears. They have just three moons in which to do it: will they find all three in that time?

A gripping adventure of loss and love, courage and perseverance.

Escape Room
Christopher Edge
Nosy Crow

Christopher Edge’s story sucks you in right away. Full of twists and turns, it’s a fast-paced adventure, a mystery and a game all in one and will have special appeal to fans of computer games.

The narrator is twelve year old Ami, who is given a ticket to an escape room as a birthday gift from her dad. On arrival she’s expecting to participate in a game but having checked in, met her fellow players – Adjoa, Ibrahim, Oscar and Min – Ami learns from the Host that they have been chosen to save the world and they must work together to find the Answer.

However, when he locks them inside the first room, they quickly realise this is no ordinary game. It’s essential that this disparate group learn to work together, drawing on individual’s strengths in order to solve all the problems they confront in the various chambers they enter. There’s a chess computer to beat, a vast dusty library, a Mayan tomb, a shopping mall that’s deserted save for extinct animals, as well as the commando module of a spaceship bound for Mars. Is there no end to the dangers?

Time is running out: Ami just needs to find the Answer …

There’s a brilliant final twist to this hugely thought-provoking, topical tale and it’s one that lingers long after you’ve put the book down. Just superb.

Marv and the Mega Robot / Marv and the Dino Attack

Marv and the Mega Robot
Marv and the Dino Attack

Alex Falase-Koya, illustrated by Paula Bowles
Oxford Children’s Books

This is a new series of early chapter books that star a new superhero protagonist, Marv along with his excitable sidekick, robot Pixel. One of the author’s aims in writing the series was so that children would have black superheroes in their stories, something he didn’t find when he was growing up.

Essentially Marvin is a normal boy who likes to spend his time with his empathetic Grandpa, reading comics and doing science experiments with best friend, Joe. Life is fairly normal until one day, Grandpa sends Marvin up to the attic where, stowed away in a dusty old suitcase, he finds a superhero outfit, which when he tries it on, shrinks to fit him perfectly. He soon discovers that Grandpa too was a superhero and that the suit is powered by two things: kindness and imagination; now it’s up to Marvin to take on that mantle.

In the first story supervillain Mastermind, plus her evil giant robot appear at the school science fair, it’s up to Marvin to assume his Marv role and try to save the day.

Aided and abetted by Pixel, of course the time has come for Marvin to meet his destiny.

In the second book Marvin and his friends are super excited: their class is on a school trip to The Natural History Museum. Marvin and Joe are thrilled to get right up close to their favourite dinosaur skeletons when suddenly the ground begins to shake and skeletons start to move. It’s supervillain Rex intent on causing complete dino-chaos. Marv knows he must employ those newly found superhero skills to save his classmates (and everyone else) from violent velociraptors, trampling T-Rexs and the other rampaging dino-skeletons.
Will it be another case of ‘superhero mission accomplished’ for Marv – hopefully so long as he can assume that super-suit in time.

Fizzing with excitement, and with themes of kindness, friendship, creativity, courage and resilience these two snappily-written tales are a super-duper start to Alex Falase-Koya’s action-packed series. Paula Bowles’ two-colour illustrations are terrific fun and help ramp that action right up.

The Magic of Seasons

The Magic of Seasons
Vicky Woodgate
Dorling Kindersley

From this veritable cornucopia of a book about the changing seasons in our world, with Mimi the cat for company, readers can experience seasons- related science, history, geography, myths and legends.

First comes a scientific explanation about what exactly is meant by the seasons, after which is a quick generalised look at in turn, spring, summer, autumn and winter, as well as a spread explaining how for many places in the tropics, there are just the wet and the dry seasons, (these seem to be getting a bit blurred though for, according to my friends in Udaipur city in India, it’s rained every single month in the last year.)

My favourite part was the ‘Seasons in Nature’ section that gives more detailed information about the incredible changes and different delights that characterise each of the seasons – be they the four we have in temperate climes or the tropical two, rainy and dry.

This part also encompasses information relating to animal migrations by land, sea and air as well as seasonal effects on the world’s ocean life.

Throughout, Vicky Woodgate’s text uses language appropriate for most key stage two children, and visuals – illustrations, maps and charts that make every spread enticing, so that readers never feel overwhelmed. There are also occasional quizzes, tips and activities.

A book for classroom use as well as one parents and children can enjoy browsing together.

Fred and the Fantastic Tub-Tub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria Stitch Free and Famous

Victoria Stitch Free and Famous
Harriet Muncaster
Oxford Children’s Books

Breaking Wiskling law, Victoria Stitch has escaped from Wiskling Wood and entered the world of humans. Once there she talks to and soon becomes best friends with a young human named Naomi, something that is to have repercussions not only for her but for her twin sister Celestine who is now the wisklings’ queen, as well as for the safety of the entire kingdom.

It’s not long before their friendship has led to fame and indeed adoration for Victoria Stitch, who humans believe to be a fairy.

Meanwhile back in Wiskling Wood, Celestine has learned of her twin’s activities, and greatly alarmed at the possible consequences of her sister’s acclaim in the human’s world, determines to go out in secret, find Victoria Stitch and warn her before it’s too late.

With the help of her loyal friend, Tiska, off she goes, putting herself in great danger; but even if she’s successful in finding her twin, will Victoria Stitch even take notice of what she has to say?

It’s definitely a case of freedom comes at a price: but at the end of the day, is it one Victoria Stitch is prepared to pay? Has the bond between the siblings reached breaking point or is it just too strong, especially when there’s the possibility of a new role for both sisters on the horizon in Wiskling Wood?

With themes of fame and friendship, love and loyalty, this magical tale sometimes frizzles with frights as well as sparkling with the intensity of the enchanting world Harriet has created in this wonderful series.

Emmanuelle (9) shown above couldn’t wait to start reading this new book commenting “The first Victoria Stitch is one of my very favourite books ever.”

Flyntlock Bones: The Ghost of Scarletbeard / Leo’s Map of Monsters: The Shrieking Serpent

Flyntlock Bones: The Ghost of Scarletbeard
Derek Keilty, illustrated by Mark Elvins
Scallywag Press

With the distinct lack of parrot messengers to the Black Hound, crew members Amy and Flint are despairing about where their next meal is coming from, when a mysterious visitor appears asking to buy the ship from Captain Watkins. Fortunately the bemused Captain turns the supposed merchant sailor down; but with little else to do, the two young friends sneak off the ship for a spot of exercise. Suddenly they spy a newspaper stand with the headlines of the Bohemia Times which reads “Countess of Bohemia jewels stolen.”

Back they go to their ship and so begins another case for the pirate investigators.

Having obtained a copy of the newspaper, the Captain together with Flint and Amy head off to visit the Countess, who the youngsters learn, gave the Cap’n his first case as a pirate investigator. The Countess says that she knows who the thief was, once again none other than Scarletbeard, scariest pirate that ever sailed the seas and the original stealer of her jewels, who Cap’n Watkins knows full well is dead beneath the waves. A ghost then? …

The only place to look for those is Davy Jones’s Locker, so now the crew must descend to the murky depths of the Mystic Sea to search for the dastardly being. But he isn’t there so where can he be? Ghost-napped perhaps?

The grisly plot twists and turns but all ends happily for the crew of the Black Hound in this, the third of a terrific trilogy that is full of humour, action and piratical lingo. With plenty of super black and white illustrations by Mark Evans adding to the fun, this piratical tale will appeal to both girls and boys.

Leo’s Map of Monsters: The Shrieking Serpent
Kris Humphrey, illustrated by Pete Williamson
Oxford Children’s Books

As Apprentice Guardian, it’s Leo Wilder’s role to ensure that the monsters inhabiting the forest never roam too near to the village; moreover, nobody must know about them apart from the Guardian Henrik and Village Chief, Gilda.

Now after a period of monster inactivity, Leo learns from Henrik that the supply of precious stones with which the lad keeps himself safe, has run out. Consequently, he must go and search for more in the Endless Mines, a labyrinth of tunnels beneath Mammoth Peak. If this doesn’t sound scary enough, Henrik then mentions the Shrieking Serpent, a creature with hearing and sight so sensitive it’s impossible for a living being to pass undetected. All Henrik can offer for protection is a small bottle of powder that when ignited can temporarily blind the Serpent, that and the help of Leo’s Leatherwing friend, Scarla, plus a couple of maps.

With a swamp containing Goretusks to negotiate, forest people lurking (mostly unfriendly ones) and, when he finally reaches his destination, the question of getting the stones from beneath the waterfall and swimming up with them, there’s an enormous challenge ahead. Does Leo possess the special kind of bravery required to do all of that? Perhaps, with Scarla’s assistance and that of an unexpected source.

Again Kris Humphrey delivers a cracking tale with just enough frights to keep readers gripped without causing nightmares, and with Pete Williamson’s splendidly expressive illustrations to make the story even more accessible and exciting, this will be devoured by fans. Those new to the series might want to start at the first bookThe Armoured Goretusk however.

Memorable Characters Return – Pizazz vs the Demons / Magnificent Mabel and the Very Bad Birthday Party

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

Super-talented Sophy Henn’s fourth book starring the irrepressible, eye-rolling, weirdly super-powered 9½ year old superhero, Pizazz sees her having to face not one but five Demon Pizazzes on account of that super bad Copycat with her Super Power Duplicator.
But how does this dastardly device actually work? That is what Pizazz must find out; but the really big issue is that she must defeat those deadly demons or maybe they’re only ‘five awesome but slightly bad’ alter egos, all on her own.

One thing is certain however and that’s the urgent need for an unlimited source of snacks to help things along.
Next day when it seems the situation can’t really get any worse, Mrs Harris picks our narrator(s) to read in the following week’s special happiness assembly.
Can Pizazz possibly get the better of so many demonic selves in this, her trickiest ever undertaking?

Fans of these part graphic novel style stories will devour this in a single sitting and it’s likely Pizazz will also win some new followers too.

Magnificent Mabel and the Very Bad Birthday Party
Ruth Quayle and Julia Christians
Nosy Crow

Young Mabel unleashes her magnificence for three further episodes in this, her sixth book.
In the first, it hardly seems fair that on 25th August, her birthday, despite all her best plans Mabel ends up writing and sending out party invitations to every one of her classmates. It’s either that or face a distinct shortage of presents on the big day.
Then comes the question of those packed lunches her parents send her to school with. Cheese sandwiches, yogurt and a measly apple every day is pretty terrible, especially when one of her classmates, Elsa Kavinsky is allowed to consume such alluring items as Star Bars: it’s enough to leave her weak with hunger. Time to procure one of the tasty treats for herself – uh-oh! But whose lunches contain those most important muscle-building vitamins?
It’s holiday time in story three but rather than being the restful time Mabel so hoped for, her family members are always doing something or other and like them, she doesn’t get a minute to relax. Can Mabel discover the delights of being busy too or is she doomed to have a horrible time away?
At the end of the day, no matter what happens, wherever she goes, whatever she does, this young narrator always emerges as magnificent.

Ruth Quayle’s amusing writing again presents ideas that young children relate to and together with Julia Christians’ equally amusing illustrations aplenty, this is spot on for young readers just starting to fly solo. It would also make a fun read aloud for reception classes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to be a Hero: A Gathering of Giants / Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Smuggler’s Secret / Solve Your Own Mystery: The Time Thief

How to be a Hero: A Gathering of Giants
Cat Weldon, illustrated by Katie Kear
Macmillan Children’s Books

In the finale of Cat Weldon’s terrific trilogy, Whetstone and banished trainee Valkyrie Lotta are fugitives, now in hiding in Asgard. Whetstone is on a mission – to rescue his mum who, according to Thor, is being held, along with the second harp string, by the Frost Giants in Castle Utgard. It’s definitely time for him to work on becoming a proper hero, tough and fearless. Step forward Rhett the Bone-Breaker. But how many of Lotta’s plans is it going to take for them to succeed in outwitting Loki the trickster? They certainly won’t do it without encounters with treacherous trolls, indoctrinated Valkyries and an entire army of giants.

With Katie Kear’s illustrations helping to ramp up the drama, this fast-moving tale is full of thrills and a fair few spills too, plus a generous scattering of insults adding to the hilarity. This will keep readers on the edge of their seats right through to the cup’s final poetic offering. So gripped was I by the telling that after finishing the story late at night, I found myself back in the quest along with the heroic duo in my dream.

Readers who fancy sampling the sort of meal one of those giants might eat, should turn to the recipe adapted by Whetsone for spiced oat cakes. A tasty treat indeed.

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Smuggler’s Secret
Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Daniela Sosa
Little Tiger

Zaiba and fellow members of the Snow Leopard Detective Agency have a new case to solve. There’s a school History Club trip to Chesil Bay involving an overnight stay. The children are told that divers have just discovered a priceless artefact from Assam among the wreckage of a ship and it’s currently in the safe-keeping of the local museum prior to being sent back to India. While there they’ll be able to witness the unveiling of the artefact and Ms Talbot challenges them to discover what it is before it’s revealed. Now that is just the kind of thing Zaiba, Poppy et al love.

No sooner are they on the train down to the coast than the intrigue starts: Zaiba notices a man replacing a magnifying glass in his briefcase and then she thinks she sees him on the boat trip out to the wreck and again leaving the theatre in the evening after the play they’re invited to watch. In fact he seems to pop up all over the place. What is he up to?

Next morning everyone is excited about the big reveal but then it’s discovered that the artefact has gone.Now Zaiba and co. really must ramp up the action. There are quite a few possible suspects and some leads to follow, but not much time to discover the culprit.

Embracing a controversial topic: the returning of precious artefacts to their countries of origin, once again Annabelle Sami keeps readers guessing right to the final pages of this story of teamwork and as with previous titles in the series, there are lively black and white illustrations by Daniela Sosa throughout.

Solve Your Own Mystery: The Time Thief
Gareth P. Jones, illustrated by Louise Forshaw
Little Tiger

Choose your own adventure books have long been popular but rather went out of fashion. Now with Gareth P. Jones’ new series of which this is the second, interactive tales are back for readers who may well be offspring of the original enthusiasts.

In this instance the scene is set in the opening pages: in the town of Haventry the Museum of Magical Objects and Precious Stones (MOPS for short) is putting on a time-travelling exhibition but its key feature, the Time Sponge, an object able to stop and start time for whoever squeezes it, has gone missing. Then in the role of main character, the reader must make the first decision: two choices are presented as to what to do next: interview suspect mermaids or go to the crime scene – in the company of Klaus Solstaag the yeti detective, of course.

With a fair number of potential suspects and a multitude of paths to choose from, none leading to a dead end, you will eventually reach one of three possible endings.

A fun and intriguing read for key stage two readers especially those who like to do a bit of detecting.

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

The Tower at the End of Time
Amy Sparkes
Walker Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aven Green Baking Machine

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

Monster Doughnuts: Cyclops on a Mission / Real Pigeons Nest Hard

Monster Doughnuts: Cyclops on a Mission
Gianna Pollero, illustrated by Sarah Horne
Piccadilly Press

The sequel to Monster Doughnuts sees crotchety cyclops, Mr Harris, back for another delectably daft mission with ten year old Grace and her family from Cake Hunters bakery.
(In case you haven’t read about fearless Grace in the first book, her special monster-destroying technique involves baking cakes with a large sprinkling of an explosive kind of baking powder.)
The 360 year old cyclops has become Grace’s partner in crime on this new assignment from the Secret Service – to rid the city of the dastardly Bottom Biter that is creating let’s say, extreme discomfort in the nether regions of anybody unfortunate enough to become its victim.

It’s possible that the one-eyed member of the team could be an asset but during training sessions all that Mr H seems interested in doing is consuming not only monsters but doughnuts from the bakery and any other delicacies he can lay his hands on too. He does however appear to have quite an aptitude for baking but then as well as gobbling up his own fairy cakes, his passion for the sweet stuff causes him to visit Monster World where a potentially useful encounter takes place and some ‘valuable evidence’ is acquired.
Time to head off to the Natural History Museum …

Then from HQ comes news of another development concerning those the BB has attacked. Catching the creature has just become even more crucial.

KS2 readers looking for something wacky, witty and wonderfully wild with lashings of laugh-out-loud moments need look no further. Once again Sarah Horne has done a smashing job illustrating the various monsters and there’s further fun provided in the monster glossary that follows Gianna Pollero’s tasty tale.

Real Pigeons Nest Hard
Andrew McDonald, illustrated by Ben Wood
Farshore

The city-protecting crime fighting pigeons Rock, Frillback, Grandpouter, Tumbler and Homey return in a third set of loosely linked cases.
First, Beardy Vulture persuades them to take on the search for his missing extra large nest, which he claims has been stolen by humans; it’s either that or, so they think, risk getting cursed by the bone eating bird. Disguises are definitely required for this.
Episode two sees Rock et al discovering a beastly human child but why is she roaming in the park without her humans? According to the little one she’s escaping from a horrible monster. Now all they need to do is to return Kid X to her family – almost all anyway.

Awoken by their rumbly tummies, our crime-busting birdies learn that Homey’s family is being held hostage – It’s a case of bird-knapping! Heroic as ever, the pigeons resolve to find the relations he’s not seen since he was a baby. Thus begins another rescue mission and it’s not long before they discover some of their previous adversaries.
Episode three of this fun book that’s ideal for new solo readers, ends on a cliff hanger that paves the way for book 4 so there’s more to look forward to.

Bursting with humour, and with a great cast of characters (COO-l and otherwise) brought to life in Ben Wood’s zany visuals that also up the pace, this graphic novel/ picture book hybrid is huge fun. The book concludes with some words of ecological wisdom and a couple of drawing activities.

Dragon Storm Tomas and Ironskin / Dragon Storm Cara and Silverthief`

Dragon Storm Tomas and Ironskin
Dragon Storm Cara and Silverthief`

Alastair Chisholm, illustrated by Eric Deschamps
Nosy Crow

As the son of a blacksmith it seems as though eleven year old Tomas is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. Then strange things start happening. First he sees a dragon face in the flames of the fire and then after watching Tomas wield a sword, a man returns offering the lad an apprenticeship. With his parents in financial difficulty, it’s an offer not to be refused.

Off he goes to the city leaving his parents far behind and it’s not long before he learns a secret. Despite what he’s been led to believe, the dragons are anything but extinct, at least not in the land of Draconis, and Tomas’s apprenticeship is with the secret Dragonseer’s guild. There’s a lot to learn as Tomas and his fellow apprentices discover during their training with their dragons.

Soon a problem rears its head for Tomas: Ironskin, his dragon reminds him of home and he misses his parents. This gets in the way of him forming a true bond with her, meaning he has to leave. Then a fire breaks out endangering his parents’ lives … Seemingly real trust between boy and dragon is the only thing that can save them and get everyone out of a desperate situation.

Fast moving and full of excitement, this is ideal for newly independent readers, and Eric Deschamps black and white illustrations make the book even more appealing.

The second magical adventure in the series focuses on Cara and Silverthief, her dragon. Cara, whom we met in the first book, has spent her earlier life on the streets and consequently is unused to having friends (other than the voice in her head,) nor trusting others.

What is it that they’re not being told? What lies on the other side of the stone door not to be entered?
Trust is again key in this gripping tale of derring do; so too is friendship; but then really the two are interconnected; so will rule-breaking Cara become part of the Dragonseer family or will she return from whence she came? The choice is hers …

It’s really good to see a series that both boys and girls will enjoy.

Raven Winter

Raven Winter
Susanna Bailey
Farshore

Having enjoyed both Snow Foal and Otter’s Moon I was anticipating another treat with Raven Winter and was not disappointed. Susanna’s lyrical prose sweeps you away from the start but with themes of domestic abuse, coercive control, hurt, and loneliness this is anything but a comfortable read despite the sensitivity with which difficult issues are presented.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Billie whose father is in prison and whose mother has allowed her new man, Daniel, to move into their flat making life a misery not only for the girl but also her Mam.
Eventually Billie decides that her life has become unbearable (Dad’s letters have stopped coming months back, but she doesn’t believe he’s stopped loving her) and she decides to run away. But then she finds a badly injured raven in the woods where she goes to feel closer to her Dad. She takes the bird home to care for it endangering herself and forcing her to defer her plans but in so doing she finds hope. Hope in the form of letters which her mum must have kept from her, with an address that she’s never before seen. This increases her determination to find her Dad, but now she’s even more conflicted inside.

Meanwhile Bille has met Nell, also something of a loner, who lives nearby with her Nan. At first Billie brushes aside her approaches but little by little a bond develops between the two girls.

There are many strands to this powerful story and binding them together is a celebration of nature and its power to heal: what the author has achieved is a fine balance between sadness and beauty. Not everything is resolved but father and daughter are reunited and there’s hope for the future. There’s also a reassuring message to any reader in a situation similar to Billie about the importance of going to a trusted adult for help.

Mort the Meek and the Monstrous Quest / Mike Falls Up

These are two new fiction titles from the Little Tiger Stripes imprint – thanks to the publishers for sending them for review

Mort the Meek and the Monstrous Quest
Rachel Delahaye, illustrated by George Ermos

According to the introduction to this second adventure of Mort, I am mad, for it warns readers not to proceed to the first chapter if they suffer from seasickness, which I most definitely do. Nonetheless having enjoyed Mort the Meek and the Ravens’ Revenge, I was prepared to swallow some anti-nausea tablets and board ship along with the founder of Brutalia’s pacifist society and vegetarian protagonist, as eager as he, to leave the ghastly shores of Brutalia with its gruesome Queen. In fact it’s partly on account of said Queen that Mort sets sail on the Salty Sea for she has issued a challenge that would give him the opportunity to search, not for the treasure she desires, but for his missing father and sibling twins Gosh and Gee.

However, find an amazing treasure – the three tentacled Belgo – is just what Mort and his tough companion Punky, daughter of a rock crusher, do.

That happens only half way through this story though, by which time Mort has more or less convinced himself that said Belgo has consumed his missing family members, What of his pacifism now? Will it lose out to his anger?

The fact that Rachel Delahaye is a wonderfully humorous wordsmith is part of what makes this dark tale a smashing read; she’s replaced those chapter opening ravens with masters of misinterpretation, Bruce and Larry, a pair of lobsters. There’s danger aplenty too, but the story isn’t without hope: after all where there’s pacifism there’s always hope, all of which George Ermos brings out in his plentiful black and white illustrations.

For slightly younger readers is:

Mike Falls Up
Candy Gourlay, illustrated by Carles Ballesteros

This addition to the Stripes series of full colour fiction for newly independent readers begins in the Chocolate Hills, in the Philippines. It’s a very hot day, too hot really to do anything much and Mike’s mama has sent him and his dog Bowow out for some fresh air while she prepares dinner. They’re sitting on a hill when a sudden earthquake occurs, the ground splits open and Bowow leaps into the hole.

Soon after an anonymous note blows up on which is written BIRTHDAY. COME NOW. JUST FALL UP.
The boy has no idea who sent it, nor how to fall up but he does know that he has to find Bowow, so into the darkness he plunges. The next thing he knows Mike is roused by a dog with an unfamiliar face and a voice shouting, “Foofoo! Is he awake?”

What follows results in an altogether different kind of birthday party but it isn’t for the little girl Kaneisha in whose London room he finds himself. Nor does it take place in a setting either child recognises; suffice it to say that their host is exceedingly happy to see the unexpected guests, a fun time ensues and friendships are forged.

The author has certainly left gaps for readers to fill in this strange story that Carles Ballesteros has made even stranger with his almost surreal, computer game style illustrations.

Interestingly, this is the first in the series to be published as a paperback original, which I think, the target audience might prefer.



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

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

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

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

The Little Prince
Louise Greig and Sara Massini
Farshore

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

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

The Very Merry Murder Club

The Very Merry Murder Club
edited by Serena Patel & Robin Stevens, illustrated by Harry Woodgate
Farshore

This bumper collection of wintry mysteries wasn’t quite the novel I originally anticipated.. Rather it brings together stories by thirteen authors: Elle McNicoll, Roopa Farooki, Annabelle Sami, Abiola Bello, Patrice Lawrence, Maisie Chan, Dominique Valente, Nizrana Farook, Benjamin Dean, Joanna Williams, Serena Patel, E.L. Norry, and Sharna Jackson.

Only some of the tales are of murders: the first, set in Inverness, tells of a ballerina’s death, which, main character Briar, an underestimated autistic girl, is determined to show was the result of foul play.
Another murder (also taking place in a hotel) is Nizrana Farook’s ‘Scrabble’ mystery narrated by young Saba, a member of the Hassan family who are on their way to spend the Christmas holiday with Grandma. However an impassible road results in an overnight stop in an isolated hotel an hour away from their destination, and that’s where another guest is discovered stone dead after a game of Scrabble.

Other Christmas tales involve theft, sabotage and a Christmas Eve visit to a very weird funhouse that really sends shivers down your spine.

However if you want to be really chilled, then turn to Dominique Valente’s The Frostwilds which is a fantasy set in an icy-cold world wherein children’s lives are under constant threat from the mysterious Gelidbeast.

It’s impossible in a short review to mention every story but suffice it to say that with a wealth of interesting and determined, often brave protagonists, settings modern and historic, as well as invented, there’s sure to be something for everyone to puzzle over and enjoy, especially snuggled up warm with a hot chocolate and a mince pie close at hand.

Harry Woodgate’s black and white illustrations (one per story) are splendid – full of detail and there’s also a clever ‘book cover’ that serves an a visual introduction to each one:

Be sure to look under the book’s dust jacket where a colourful surprise awaits.

Happy Narwhalidays

Happy Narwhalidays
Ben Clanton
Farshore

It’s holiday time in this, the fifth instalment in the series starring the delightful duo, Narwhal and Jelly as they consume warm waffles, do some singing while swimming and eagerly anticipate the coming of the Merry Mermicorn. In case like Jelly you’re wondering what that might be here’s Narwhal’s description of her …

We meet the friends in several scenarios including The Perfect Present wherein Jelly makes a discovery and then spends ages racking his brain over the perfect present for Narwhal.

Then comes The Mean Green Jelly Bean, a story the friends co-write and illustrate about a unappealing sentient jelly bean. This sour being is, in its own words, flavoured like ‘pickle-scum snail-slime puree’ and unsurprisingly not to every one’s taste, but is it to anyone’s?

As per usual in this funky series, sandwiched between the events are some facts on ocean life – in this instance of the particularly ‘cool’ kind; and underlining the kindness theme, the book ends with a rendition of The Merry Mermicorn Song. (the friends’ version of ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’)

Perfect for new solo readers at this time of year are these delectably daft seasonal diversions of Clanton’s underwater pals, one ever the optimist, the other, decidedly not.

Little Bunny’s Book of Friends

Little Bunny’s Book of Friends
Steve Smallman
Graffeg

I’m sure that since the publication of Steve’s Little Bunny’s Book of Thoughts, his adorable character has acquired enough friends to fill up countless books. However here is our long-eared Little Bunny to share with readers some of the joys that having friends can bring, be they big or small, especially when you’re feeling down.

A friend will offer a shoulder to cry on, hold you in their arms, front limbs, wings or whatever,

lend a listening ear so you can share your woes or have a little weep. Friends help you feel safe and ensure you never feel completely alone.

On the other hand, who better to share the good times with than those same friends? The very same ones who are prepared to tell you the occasional home truth but never judge you, rather they’ll always support you in being and becoming your very best self, there for them too.
What a clever little lapine our narrator is to share his thoughts on friendship entirely in rhyme, aided and abetted of course by Steve’s superb portrayal of the character’s wide range of emotions shown through both facial expressions and body language.

This is the perfect stocking filler, as well as a must buy for any one of your special friends who needs a bit of a boost.

The Girl Who Talked To Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishyouwas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fledgling

Fledgling
Lucy Hope
Nosy Crow

This is Lucy Hope’s debut novel and what a brilliant one it is: seemingly the author has a rare kind of imagination.

Perched on a rocky cliff deep in the Bavarian Forest is a house like no other: it’s 1900 and now owned by a self-absorbed opera singer mother who spends almost all her time rehearsing. This place is home to Cassie Engel (who narrates the story), her parents and her dying grandmother who is attended once a week by two seemingly sinister nurses known as Crunch and Grind. The house is full of amazing inventions: steam-powered lifts with foot brakes, mechanical morphine pumps, winches, pulleys, and has a whole storey for her erstwhile great-great grandfather’s collection of stuffed owls which now belongs to her father, whose hobby is taxidermy.

Into this strange abode one stormy night through Cassie’s bedroom window, is blown a little cherub to which Cassie feels immediately drawn.

Its arrival sets in motion a chain of weird, sometimes terrifying events. Cassie’s best friend Raphael starts to act differently – a transformation is slowly occurring, while outside in the forest is a growing sense of brooding and malevolence. Then there are the sinister Sturmfalken, the stuff of nightmares.

Cassie it seems is attempting to deal with so much on her own: she’s terrified and she, like the reader, never knows what will happen next. The tension builds as weird discoveries are made: discoveries that send Cassie and Raphael to the dusty castle library to research long-held secrets of the Engel family—dark secrets that are now closing in on the family.

Can Cassie do anything to save them? It’s certainly going to take a great deal of courage and entail accepting who she, her family and best friend are.

However, family love -complex as it may be – is a powerful driving force, so too is the love of Raphael; but prepare yourself for a shock final revelation as the story reaches its dramatic climax. Will light win over the power of darkness?

A superbly crafted gothic novel: the characterisation is superb and like this reviewer, you’ll find likely find yourself unable to put it down once you start reading.

The Christmas Carrolls

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Lo and Behold! Mouse & Mole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Night Train / The Naughtiest Unicorn in a Winter Wonderland

The Night Train
Matilda Woods and Penny Neville-Lee
Little Tiger

This is a wintry addition to the Stripes series of stories for new solo readers that have beautiful full colour illustrations at every turn of the page.

Herein readers can take up the guard’s final call and board the non-stop express train to Sleepy Town Platform ZZZ. Charles is anxious to get his special passengers in on schedule so that they don’t lose the chance to shine in their dreams.

There’s Henri, about to perform in front of the Queen, Princess May on her way to meet the family of her dragon, then comes the yeti – a regular on the train – bound for the North Pole and now accompanying Lily who longs to be a great explorer.
Then one more passenger reveals itself – a huge green furry monster that hopes it has just the thing to stop its dreamer being scared any longer.

Suddenly the train comes to a halt and the driver announces that something is blocking the way. The princess leaves the train to investigate and discovers a tree has fallen across the line. But are any of the passengers willing to help her and the guard Charles to move the obstacle and allow the train to arrive on time? Perhaps if they draw on their yet to be discovered skills, together they can save the situation and enter their dreamer’s dreams.

It must be worth a try.

Despite it’s chilly setting, Matilda Woods tells a warm-hearted tale of teamwork and determination. Penny Neville-Lee’s snowy scenes capture beautifully, the sometimes tense atmosphere of the telling and her portrayal of the characters is charming – even the monster.

A smashing snuggle up in the warm book for youngsters just taking off as independent readers.

The Naughtiest Unicorn in a Winter Wonderland
Pip Bird, illustrated by David O’Connell
Farshore

Can it really be the ninth story featuring Mira and her exuberant unicorn Dave? As he tries his hoofs at some winter sports, it’s evident that the creature hasn’t lost his burping and farting habits or his tendency to gobble up ice-cream or pretty much anything edible he can get hold of.

Then comes the announcement: Unicorn School Winter Expedition. It’s to be Red Class’s very first time and in addition to the sporting activities there’s to be a special quest: The Unicorn School Art Project inspired by the Aurora Lights.

The excitement is high though there’s talk of Snow Beasts by pupils who have been on previous winter expeditions, and it’s even higher when they reach their destination. Armed with ‘snow tools’ just in case of any unwanted encounters, the pupils start to settle in and decide on their activities.

Then comes the real fun and for Mira and Dave that begins with sledging – watch out for a ginormous snow poo-ball.

Will they really meet a yeti though?

What about that art project: will everyone be having such a great time sledging that they miss those magical Aurora Lights? And could somebody discover a use for that Abominable Snow Poo? You’ll never know … unless of course you get hold of this hilarious episode in the life of Mira, Dave and their friends both old and new.

I know a fair number of young solo readers who will gobble it up – Dave fashion – all in one go, pausing to enjoy David O’Connell’s super black and white illustrations along the way.

How Winston Delivered Christmas / How Winston Came Home For Christmas

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

How Winston Delivered Christmas


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

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

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

How Winston Came Home For Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Runaways of Haddington Hall

The Runaways of Haddington Hall
Vivian French
Walker Books

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

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

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

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

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