Sofia Valdez and the Vanishing Vote

Sofia Valdez and the Vanishing Vote
Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
Amulet Books

The Questioneers – Sofia and her friends – return in a new chapter book adventure and just in time for the USA election. It’s also time for Sophia and her classmates to have an election to select what animal should be their class pet – another one of their teacher, Miss Greer’s ‘Learning Experiences’.

Clearly there won’t be a perfect candidate that everyone wants so the ‘best one’ will have to do, so says Abuelo as they walk home together; moreover, the pet must be small enough to fit (inside its home) on the bookcase. Eventually the list of possibles is whittled down to five contenders and then just two.

When Sofia is put in charge of managing the election (as election commissioner) things are tricky, as the candidates backed by two of her best pals are against each other.

Pretty soon Sofia learns that being i-c a fair election is more than a little challenging. It’s fortunate however, that she has both Abuela’s wise advice and assistance from the local library to act as guidance.

Highly entertaining and superbly explained, Andrea Beaty’s story contains a number of messages about classroom relationships and community, as well as imparting vital points about freedom of information, good journalism, a boycott, fake news, and that about there never being a perfect candidate in an election. And if things haven’t got spicy enough, there’s even a baking tip or two included and of course, all those smashing illustrations and diagrams from David Roberts.

The Secret Explorers

The Secret Explorers and the Comet Collision
The Secret Explorers and the Lost Whale
The Secret Explorers and the Tomb Robbers
The Secret Explorers and the Jurassic Rescue

S J King, illustrated by Ellie O’Shea
DK (Penguin Random House)

These four books, ideal for newly independent readers, feature seven children from different parts of the world, each with a special interest and expertise in a particular STEAM subject. Whenever their help is required, they receive a signal alerting them that they’re needed for a mission.
In The Comet Collision it’s space expert Roshni with Ollie (his expertise is the rainforest) who are called to the Exploration Station to undertake a mission and it’s truly out of this world. Tasked with fixing the space probe that’s orbiting Jupiter before it’s hit by a comet in less than two hours, the chosen two whizz off in a spaceship leaving the other team members to monitor the mission and communicate via control monitors. As the clock ticks Roshni prepares to undertake her first spacewalk – but that is only part of the story …

With a South Pacific Ocean setting, The Lost Whale sees Connor (marine expert) teamed with Roshni, a seeming unlikely partner but as in all the stories, the role of the less expected one is revealed during the course of the mission. Connor and Roshni set out in a submarine in an attempt to save a pod of humpback whales that have lost their way by steering them back onto the right track. However, those whales need air every 45 minutes and there are lots of boats in the waters likely to make things difficult. And difficult it soon is particularly when one of the whale calves gets separated from the pod. Will the Secret Explorers’ mission end in success?

Once again there’s plenty of action (love the rap) and a wealth of information is given in the course of the story – here it relates to marine life, threats to ocean ecology and climate change; and like the other books, after the story are further facts and diagrams relating to the themes, plus a quiz and a glossary.

It’s Gustavo with his expertise in history and engineering expert Kiki who pool their skills in The Tomb Robbers adventure. They find themselves travelling back in time to ancient Egypt on a mission to save the Cairo museum in their own time from having to close on account of lack of treasures to attract sufficient visitors. That entails preventing tomb robbers from plundering the Great Pyramid for artefacts. As ever teamwork is key though it’s not easy for Kiki and Gustavo to work out who is and who isn’t to be trusted. This time, readers will learn a fair bit about life in ancient Egypt during and after the story.

Paleontology expert Tamiko, together with geology expert Cheng already have a fair bit in common and it’s they who undertake The Jurassic Rescue, going back in time 150 million years. There’s a precious Archaeopteryx egg to be rescued but in order to do so the two must hold off a group of predatory allosauruses. What with an earthquake, a landslide and the unexpected hatching of that egg, things are anything but easy, especially as so another of the team informs them, if they look too long at the hatchling, it might think Cheng and Tamiko are its parents. Will they ever manage to reunite it with its mother?

Dinosaur addicts in particular will love this one and enjoy the relevant back matter after the exciting adventure.

If you know or teach readers who are starting out on chapter books and like a good, well-illustrated story but want some facts too, then this series is a great starting point.

The Beast and the Bethany

The Beast and the Bethany
Jack Meggitt-Phillips, illustrated by Isabelle Follath
Egmont

What a feast of a book is this deliciously droll take on The Picture of Dorian Gray for a younger audience.
The key characters are a diverse lot: there’s soon to be 512-year-old, and still dapper-looking, Ebenezer Tweezer; underneath that patina of youth and respectability lies a fearful, ruthless human. He resides (and has done for more than five centuries), in a huge house full of luxuries, courtesy of an attic-dwelling beast with a voracious and horrifying appetite. These two have a special deal going: the old man feeds the beast whatever it asks for and said beast spews out whatever Ebenezer wants.

Now, as the ancient man prepares to celebrate his birthday, he notices he’s starting to look his age and requests his annual anti-aging potion from the beast – to be withheld until Ebenezer procures the beast’s next meal – a human child. “You can’t go around eating children, there’s something so very impolite about it,” comes the response. But which is more important to the man – his own life or that of a child? You can guess what Ebenezer decides.

This story has several comic episodes, the first being operation child acquisition. Things don’t come easily when it comes to getting hold of a child however, and after several dead (almost) ends, there’s mention of the local orphanage run by Miss Fizzlewick wherein resides Bethany. Far from likeable, this young miss is the ideal candidate, sullen, uncivil, and extremely naughty, but scrawny with it. And therein lies the rub; for once procured by Ebenezer, the child (who has already decided to torment her adoptive parent) needs to add more flesh before the beast will dine upon her. That means trouble for Mr E.T. – three days of it.

Nonetheless he grows unintentionally fond of the child:

could it be that the two might find themselves on the same side endeavouring to get the better of a thoroughly inhuman would-be child consuming creature?

With lashings of deliciously dark humour and a handful of unforgettable characters, this book with its suitably tasty illustrations by Isabelle Follath,

will hold you in its bone-crunching jaws right through to the last page.

Bring on the second uncaging of the Beast and The Bethany.

Ballet Bunnies

Ballet Bunnies: The New Class
Ballet Bunnies: Let’s Dance
Ballet Bunnies: Millie’s Birthday

Swapna Reddy, illustrated by Binny Talib
Oxford University Press

This series for newly independent readers will definitely appeal to a certain sector of readers; these are the first three of what will eventually be six books starring young Millie and the four tiny magical bunnies residing at Miss Luisa’s School of Dance that she attends. Each one has a wealth of cute full-colour illustrations by Binny Talib.

In the first story we meet six-year old Millie who excitedly attends her first lesson, only to receive an almost instant put-down from the star of the class, Amber. As the class continues Millie’s despondency grows as she finds herself unable to accomplish the perfect-looking, graceful steps of her fellow classmates and at the end of the class she’s left alone to wait for her mum to collect her.

Suddenly she notices a moving shadow behind the stage curtain and discovers to her surprise, Dolly, Trixie, Fifi and Pod the miniature dancing bunnies. Perhaps these friendly little creatures can make all the difference to her time at the ballet school.

Swapna offers an encouraging voice to youngsters feeling somewhat disheartened by a new challenge especially when some classmates are less than kind. Support and warmth are powerful forces in the face of anxiety.

In Let’s Dance, Millie and her entire ballet school are to dance at a gala performance. Moreover, they’re to perform with props and the theme is ‘The Garden’: Millie’s class will be flower fairies. Teamwork is essential but not every class member is a hundred per cent co-operative. What will happen on performance night?

The third book begins on the last day before the holidays at ballet school with Millie’s birthday fast approaching. As she helps clear up, she shares with the bunnies her anxieties about the large number of people invited to her party to celebrate her, as her furry friends point out.

The bunnies agree to accompany Millie home to help her cope with the ballet-themed party; but can she keep them hidden from her mum and will it be a Happy Birthday when Millie turns seven?

The Wizard in My Shed

The Wizard in My Shed
Simon Farnaby, illustrated by Claire Powell
Hodder Children’s Books

Having narrowly avoided spluttering my coffee over the opening pages of Horrid Histories star Simon Farnaby’s new adventure tale, I envisaged that I’d continue spluttering throughout (not coffee – I hastily consumed that before resuming reading), and so it was. (Though I did have to stop after every chapter to take a few ‘mellow moments’ – like Evanhart, wizard Merdyn’s bestie until he decided to follow the ‘path of darkness’ and become a warlock aka a bad wizard x1000.)

The story follows both madcap Merdyn (from the Dark Ages) and would-be star singer,/dancer

twelve year old Rose, from now, residing in the normal town of Bashingford with her mum and brother. Each has a desire: Merdyn wants to avenge his banishment to the Rivers of Purgatory (actually it was The Rivers of Time) and at the same time get out of the 21st century in which he’s mysteriously arrived and return to the Dark Ages; Rose is anxious to sort out her broken family,

after her father’s death, which happened before this story begins.

There’s also Rose’s guinea pig, Bubbles, a frequent poo-er, that seemingly doesn’t do much else and certainly doesn’t enjoy sharing Rose’s fairy story books.

When Rose happens upon a ‘cloth creature’ wearing peculiar shoes, gesturing weirdly and thinking he’s in the land of Purgatory – you can work out his name – she decides he might actually be of some help to her.

A deal is struck. A family-sorting-out spell (and perhaps one to make her the world’s best singer) in exchange for Rose’s assistance in coping with so many strange 21st century ways and means.

That necessitates keeping the visitor in the garden shed away from Mum – to protect her smartphone – though that might be the least of her worries about the curious stranger. They will need to locate Merdyn’s treasured magic staff and find a way to return him whence he came. Surely nothing could possibly go a-miss – could it … ?

There’s masses of madness, magic, crazy characters,

not to mention high drama, and that enormously endearingly bonkers Merdyn, to enthrall readers throughout what proves to be a heart-warming tale.

And, with the addition of Claire Powell’s terrific illustrations, the enchantment just got even stronger, while ‘the world watched in silence.’

Read alone or, read aloud it’s an absolute winner.

The Day I Fell into a Fairytale

The Day I Fell into a Fairytale
Ben Miller, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini
Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

Lana is a lover of stories and books, often using them as a starting point for fantastical games played with her brother, Harrison.
Now though, Harrison has started secondary school and considers himself both too grown-up and too busy with studies to play with his sister. Consequently, Lana feels lonely.

Then something strange and magical happens when with her mum, she visits the mega offers supermarket that’s recently appeared in town and there she discovers something totally unexpected – a portal leading to a fairytale world.

There is SO much to discover in this other world and her own.
Just who is the strange little old man she encounters in the supermarket?

Lana manages to get her brother to take her back to the supermarket
but “tubs of sweets that lead to fairytales … it’s just too far-fetched” is his reaction. But is it so?

Even when both siblings have cascaded through a portal, large white deer fail to convince him of its otherworldly nature; so what about flying arrows?

Lana though, is used to happy-ever-after fairytales and what she experiences are anything but; they’re dark and perilous. Even that odd little man when next they meet him, insists that the Sleeping Beauty fairytale the siblings have just left, is of the scary kind.

Enter Hansel and Gretel, a wicked witch (now where did she come from?) and what in fairytale land do oxbow lakes, Archimedes and the lever principle have to do with anything?

So, can Lana – dubbed Lana of Azupermarket – with the aid of her brother, defeat that evil witch? Perhaps, but only if she can convince him to resurrect his belief in fairytales.

With a big push for the power of the imagination and the importance of having fun, Ben Miller has created stories within a story and it’s so cleverly done. No reverse psychology required to get this reviewer and lover of fractured fairytales to read it right through, relishing every word. I love the border embellishments and occasional illustrations by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini too.

As a teacher I’ve never been one to stick to timetables but having read this cracking story, I might just have to think again on that one – in certain circumstances that is.

Fearless Fairy Tales

Fearless Fairy Tales
Konnie Huq & James Kay, illustrated by Rikin Parekh
Piccadilly Press

If like me you’re fond of fractured fairy tales, then this subversive collection of seventeen is a must have. Even the titles made this reviewer splutter with giggles and as for the important note before the contents page, I’ll say no more.

On closer reading it’s probably true to say the stories have been not so much fractured as entirely pulverised, pounded and then reconstituted adding new magic to the mangled mores of old, replacing them with modern reinventions for a more demanding, “I can change the world” generation.

I couldn’t resist turning first to Trumplestiltskin and sure enough there is the easily identifiable ‘Trumple’ hailing from the United States of Kraziness. Said little man is obsessed with gold and power mad. No need for me to regale the whole sorry story – it had me in stitches throughout – but having thrown the king and his daughter, Princess Marla into a dark dungeon, an aide lets slip that Marla can spin straw into gold.

Needless to say, Trumple cannot resist making the girl an offer and the princess being a pretty savvy person, eventually manages to out-trumple the Trumple. (Love the postscript.)
Rumplestiltskin has been my favourite fairy tale since as a youngster, I heard the late Sara Corrin tell it at a book event. She’s in my head narrating this new one even now.

There’s also Sleeping Brainy (‘a flipping genius!’) who aspires to become Chancellor of the Exchequer and does so – against all the odds.

Absolutely cracking is Mouldysocks and the Three Bears in which he of the stinky foot attire is computer crazy. This almost causes his complete undoing when Mummy Bear, Other Mummy Bear and the little baby bear return from their forest foray –

that and the disgusting pong emanating from a certain pair of socks bad enough to put Baby Bear off his porridge. All ends happily however with everyone, including Mouldysocks (newly named) living spotlessly ever after.

It’s impossible to talk about every story in this review but I must  mention that The Princess and the Snog is written entirely in verse. Herein we meet pink-haired Pandora and the frog that catches her punchball when it lands in his boggy residence. Does she want to grant him a kiss – err … not quite and the outcome is, ‘A very wise rule for a mister or miss: / You choose who you / hug and you choose / who you kiss.” No coercive control for this wily young miss.

Finally, another princess – Zareen by name – is only a princess because that’s what her stepmother Tania (a goodie rather than the usual kind) calls her. Actually she’s a normal girl residing in the ‘magical suburb of Crystal Palace and dead keen to follow the latest school playground craze and get a Zoom Peashooter (basically just an overpriced paper straw). Hence the title The Princess and the Peashooter.

She ends up having got her mitts on one, with a rather funky eyepatch due to an errant flying shot – not hers – and being the leader of the anti-peashooter side for the next school debate. Bring on the Zoom Bands, say I. Much less dangerous, or maybe not …

Make sure you read this corker of a book right past THE END, including the small print. I’m wondering who would score higher on the enjoyment scale, team Konnie and James and illustrator Rikin, or readers who guffaw their way through its pages, relishing every satirical story,

Skeleton Keys: The Legend of Gap-Tooth Jack / The Thing at Black Hole Lake

Skeleton Keys: The Legend of Gap-Tooth Jack
Guy Bass, illustrated by Pete Williamson
Little Tiger

If you’re looking for a darkly comic adventure story that’s full of mystery, monster chases, and outlandish ghoulish decapitations, (that’s also about friendship, fitting in and finding self-confidence), then accept the invitation of Keys – Skeleton Keys – and allow this character to tell his tale (actually it’s that of Gap-Tooth Jack) that he claims is a “truly unbelievable, unbelievably true’ one.

However, in order for this tale to be unfolded back in the past, it’s necessary to begin in the here and now with a second story and in particular with wildly imaginative, seven-year-old, Kasper. This lad conjures himself up an imaginary friend whom he names Wordy Gerdy. By all accounts (or rather our storyteller’s), this ghost of a girl possessed an amazing ability: once she has in her fragile fingers a pen, she can rewrite any story she cares to, or even as here, she doesn’t.

Oh! We must mention Daisy; she’s Skeleton Keys’ unimaginary partner-in-problem-solving without whom, our bony being storyteller might have been a has been.

Find out what takes place when a highly dangerous, ghasty, goulish unimaginary escapes into yesteryear. Can Jack thwart her malevolent game plan by joining forces with Mr Keys? Plunge into Guy’s spooky saga, full of terrific characters,

extremely quirky humour with Pete Williamson’s fangtastically spooky illustrations and find out. It will definitely make some superbly silly story sessions as a lower KS2 class read aloud.

For a slightly older audience is:

The Thing at Black Hole Lake
Dashe Roberts
Nosy Crow

We’re back at Sticky Pines, the small US town of weird events and secrets lurking in woods, for this spooky sequel to the Bigwood Conspiracy; and once again there are weird things afoot.

We get two perspectives on events, those of Milo and Lucy (currently not on speaking terms). Milo Fisher, loyal son of business tycoon NuCo president – a double-crossing guy; and Lucy Sladen, who’s determined to discover the truth about the mysterious, alien life, Pretenders of Sticky Pines, and protect them from the greedy NuCo company, set on exploiting every one of the town’s resources.

In the previous adventure it was Lucy who made the astonishing discovery but now it’s Milo’s turn, for there’s something very strange in Black Hole Lake; something that will put both he and Lucy in terrible danger. Danger that begins as Milo leaves a party early in order to avoid Lucy, takes a short cut and soon finds himself sinking into the lake and there are eyes watching him from below the surface.

Mesmerisingly brilliant fun., fast-paced with lots of twists and an abundance of ever-deepening mysteries, creepiness and with the philosophical good guy/bad guy dilemma underpinning the tale, this is a stonkingly good, enormously satisfying read.

Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering

Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering
Harriet Muncaster
Oxford University Press

As the story starts, living alone in a small tree trunk, twin fairy-like beings ‘wisklings’, Celestine and Victoria should be princesses.

But the single royal diamond from which they were born is impure so their birthright is denied them.

The mild Celestine is accepting, but with her frenzied energy, Victoria Stitch as she likes to be called, is obsessed with becoming the next queen and very angry about the decision Lord Astrophel has made.

Between the twins there exists a fondness, but it’s maintained by a fragile thread that’s all too easily snapped. ”She took all the kindness and I got all the rage,” is how Victoria Stitch puts it.

Then Victoria encounters secret-loving Ursuline who needs a friend and offers to help in her unthwartable mission to become queen after Cassiopeia.

But will this new alliance prove to be a force for good or not? And what will happen after the twin’s graduation …

Any reader who fell for Isadora Moon and is ready for something a bit longer and rather darker, will surely love Harriet’s new gothic fantasy. The illustrations are simply divine especially as Victoria Stitch with her funky, pointy toed, heeled boots is a fashionista who loves to strut her stuff in melodramatic wiskling style as befits the superbly woven, absorbing narrative.

To enter Wiskling Wood is utter enchantment every step of the way; it’s hard to leave for whatever reason …

Saving the Planet – The International Yeti Collective: Shadowspring / Astronuts Mission Two: The Water Planet

The International Yeti Collective: Shadowspring
Paul Mason, illustrated by Katy Riddell
Little Tiger

The Yeti Collective is a worldwide organisation with each of its strands having responsibility for an element of conservation while simultaneously aiming to avoid human detection.

Shadowspring (underground water upon which all wildlife and the humans depend) is under the protection of the Greybeards (the British group) but now somebody or something is interfering with the water levels and things are looking bad for the inhabitants of Tadpole’s community.

Tadpole (she of unripe character), daughter of the sett’s leader, Shipshape (she in perfect order), is next in line to become the Greybeards’ leader, a role for which she feels anything but fit.

Despite the precedent for avoiding humans contact, like her grandfather before her, Tadpole meets a human; his name is Henry, a boy just adapting to boarding school life.

Now, on account of the danger the Greybeards are facing, Tadpole and Henry (aka Hen-ree) must work together: an extremely dangerous undertaking ensues.

It’s a delight to enter and share in this world with its highly pertinent environmental messages, that’s populated by wonderful characters such as the two main ones in this story.

I missed the first book in the series, but I intend getting hold of it forthwith; I’m sure it too will be a superb read.

Astronuts Mission Two: The Water Planet
Jon Scieszka and Steven Weinberg
Chronicle Books

AstroWolf, LaserShark, SmartHawk, and StinkBug, the four NNASA agents, return having previously failed to find the perfect Goldilocks Planet, with a new mission, to find a planet fit for human habitation.

Having splash-landed on Water Planet, they discover it is awash with clams, a power-hungry, sub-aquatic force led by their president, P.T.Clam . Said creature is absolutely gushing with praise about his home planet and more than a little keen to swap his planet of residence for Earth. the polluted waters of which he claims to filter. Now why might he be so eager for that exchange?

It appears that he’s willing to do a special deal on the quiet with AlphaWolf (the mission’s leader) but another clam, Susan B. Clamthony tells a rather different story

and it’s one that the Astronuts really need to hear. It sounds as though not all the residents of Water Planet are as dastardly as their leader.

Packing the adventure with punny humour, hilarious interchanges and with a bounteous brio, Jon Scieszka, via his Earth narrator, cleverly knits together environmental information and facts about climate change. Combined with Steven Weinberg’s equally zany collage illustrations, every one of which is as immersive as the watery environment of the story’s setting, (love the spread on how they were created) this is a terrific second instalment.

More please! I hear youngsters, (especially fans of graphic novels) cry. (And this reviewer.)

The Accidental Prime Minister Returns / Roald Dahl Rotsome & Repulsant Words

Books that make us laugh are much needed at the moment: here are two such, sent for review by Oxford University Press

The Accidental Prime Minister Returns
Tom McLaughlin

Do I detect a touch of irony in this title? Perhaps the return of Joe who found fame by accidentally becoming Prime Minister while trying to save his local park, knew just when he’d be needed again. Now, I defy you to get through even one chapter of this new story without splitting your sides with sniggering snuffling laughs and ginormous guffaws, let alone wait till chapter four.

Who better than Joe (aka your Primeministerness) to bring back a bit of cheer? So here he is – the perfect counter to all the current doom and gloom – at the ready to remind the populace of life’s good things, and how they can all do their bit to make our great country (or rather, tiny island) and the world, a better place in which to live.

With his entourage, that’s best pal, Ajay dubbed ‘an all round absolute dude, and Alice, democracy’s most mega enthusiast (also a total dude), not to mention Mr Rottweiler (a useful ally?) who else could possibly get our vote. (He’s even got the right colour hair – almost!)

With its healthy herbal juice, spare false eyelashes and an absolute wealth of shenanigans, book seven, laying bare the ups and downs of political life, could not have come at a more apt time. Bring on the ‘coal addition’ – right now!

Delicious daftness of a different kind in:

Roald Dahl Rotsome & Repulsant Words
illustrated by Quentin Blake

Roald Dahl was a prolific inventor of rude words. He used some incredibly adroit putdowns and curses, insults and expletive forms.

Now, thanks to editor and lexicographer Dr Susan Rennie, they’ve all been brought together into this collection of naughty-sounding words that will absolutely delight any child (and probably adult) who gets their hands on a copy of Rotsome & Repulsant Words. (my spell check is NOT happy!)

So, if you want to try creating your very own ‘gigantuous’ curse word, there’s a spread to show you how. Or perhaps you’d rather become ‘as Grumpy as a Grandma’ then you can find out how so to do.

I have to say I rather enjoyed the ‘How to be rude in other languages (so grown-ups won’t notice).’ It doesn’t always hold true however: I can recall several occasions when teaching reception and nursery age children, hearing extremely insulting words (meaning much worse things than the examples in this book) coming from the role play area, spoken by children not knowing that their teacher could understand their Hindi, Urdu, Panjabi etc.

Naturally children will relish the collecting of ‘bottom’ words and even more so, those relating to sounds that emanate from same.

There are some smashing onomatopoeic examples here including the Spanish ‘popotraques’ and the Scots ‘rummlypumps’.

Think of the fun you might have in a group discussing ‘swatchwallop’ (the most disgusting thing you can eat. An opportunity for some more creative word inventions methinks. Think too of the wealth of language lessons you could enliven using this with your class.

Whether or not you’re a Dahl fan, I’m pretty sure you’ll relish this little linguistic goldmine, especially with those Quentin Blake illustrations.

Midnight Magic / Cally & Jimmy Twins in Trouble

Midnight Magic
Michelle Harrison, illustrated by Elissa Elwick
Stripes Publishing, Little Tiger

This is the first of a new rhyming series by author of the A Pinch of Magic books, Michelle Harrison; it’s superbly illustrated by Elissa Elwick and it’s absolutely perfect for young solo readers or for reading aloud.

It all begins when with tummy swollen and heavy, ‘One frosty evening, / A tabby cat prowled / Through white winter fields / While a bitter wind howled.’

Said tabby cat makes her way into a barn and there, watched by the animal residents, produces three kittens that she duly and aptly names Snowdrop, Foxy and Midnight. The third one, born at midnight is different – both mischievous and magical. And this magic seems to be doubling each day and potentially troublesome. Indeed, she soon starts calling herself a ‘cat-astrophe’ and before long forges a friendship with the broom from the barn, naming the thing `Twiggy’.

The two travel together and they’re spotted by a girl named Trixie as she plays in her village.

Trixie takes the kitten home where she’s eventually welcomed whereas the broom is treated less favourably. But with her mischievous nature, will the rest of Trixie’s family allow Midnight to stay?

Trixie is certainly happy with her new friend but it’s not long before sparks start to fly. And then Nan makes a discovery about that broom she’d unceremoniously tossed into the cupboard.

W-hay – it’s up and away …

A magical tale, this surely is; it reads aloud like a dream and is perfect for sharing or independent reading. especially around Halloween time.

Cally & Jimmy Twins in Trouble
Zoe Antoniades, illustrated by Katie Kear
Andersen Press

Meet twins Cally and Jimmy: twins they might be, but you’d be hard pushed to find two more different people. Cally – short for Calista meaning ‘most beautiful’ – the quiet one, is our narrator and is well behaved, most of the time. Jimmy in contrast (his real name is Dimitri on account of having a Greek mother) is far from quiet and his behaviour, not helped by ADHD, leaves a fair bit to be desired. In class, he has a special table right beside the teacher’s desk and far away from his sister’s ‘top table’.

In four short stories we get a pretty clear picture of what it’s like to live with the most-annoying-brother-in-the-whole-wide-world. His actions frequently land them both in trouble, though there are plenty of fun times too. And even after getting into trouble together they often end up laughing together afterwards.

Like the time when they made brownies using dad’s ‘fool-proof recipe’ only they added some rather interesting extra ingredients to the mixture. Not sure I’d want to sample those.

Then there’s the time they contribute to a class assembly, the practising of which doesn’t quite go smoothly.

The final episode sees the celebration of the twins achieving double digits and celebrating it in style.

Other colourful characters include Yiayia (grandma)

and lunchtime supervisor, Mrs Gutteridge.

Trail Blazers: Stephen Hawking / Little People Big Dreams: Ernest Shackleton

Trail Blazers: Stephen Hawking
Alex Woolf, illustrated by David Shephard
Little Tiger (Stripes Publishing)

‘Be inspired’ says the first line of the blurb of this book. Who could fail to be inspired by reading about Stephen Hawking, an incredible individual who refused to be defined by his illness and which he never allowed to hold him back from pursuing his awesome scientific dreams, and whose life story is told therein by historian Alex Woolf.

It’s both a biography and a science book – ‘A life beyond limits’ as the subtitle says. Alex Woolf explains by means of an informative narrative together with David Shephard’s illustrations and clear diagrams, Stephen Hawking’s scientific discoveries (panels giving theoretical summaries are provided)

and the challenges he faced through much of his life.

There’s just enough detail of the genius’s revolutionary theories and of the key questions cosmologists have sought answers for, to inspire but not overwhelm readers from the top of KS2 onwards.

The narrative begins with a summary of the history of black holes theory, a brief explanation of the space-time continuum and a mention of other mathematicians and physicists involved in the theory.

There’s also information about Stephen’s formative years: I was particularly interested and amused to read of his family’s trip to India when the car got caught in monsoon floods and had to be towed to safety. (Sounds to me like an almost familiar incident!).

Children will be interested to learn that during his under-grad. days Stephen was far from hard-working and later calculated that he’d spent on average just one hour a day studying, spending much of his time rowing or at the boat club; getting by on his utter brilliance and managing to talk his way into getting a first in his Oxford degree.

It was when he became a student at Cambridge that both Stephen’s clumsiness and his resulting focus on his intellect began to take hold. A diagnosis of the incurable amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) might have overwhelmed even the most determined of people. Not so Stephen whose propensity to ask difficult questions and to put forward new theories without fear of being wrong is exemplary.

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. “ So says the final quote – truly inspiring and one hopes, motivating …

Strongly recommended reading for older children.

Little People, Big Dreams: Ernest Shackleton
Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Olivia Holden
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

This addition to the popular series of biographical stories presents the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton from the time he was a child growing up in rural Ireland dreaming of wider horizons, when even at a young age, he showed the qualities of a good explorer – optimism, idealism, patience and courage.

We learn of his participation as a young man, in expeditions endeavouring to reach the South Pole. Then how, inspired by Roald Amundsen, he planned to cross Antarctica from sea to sea, via the pole.

This expedition aboard Endurance, began in August 1914 with a crew of 28 enthusiastic, optimistic men and assorted animals. After months crossing the ocean, the ship became trapped in ice;

and so it remained for nine months with their calm leader doing his utmost to keep the spirits of his crew high, until the ice began to break up their ship.

Though there was scant hope of a rescue, Ernest never lost hope of saving his crew, and finally he and five of his men reached a whaling station. Then, having found help, he returned and brought his crew back home, Incredible though it may seem, every one of them survived.

With his unfailing optimism, Shackleton, a true inspiration to countless others, died at the young age of 48, as the final timeline shows. A true inspiration to young readers too, especially at this time when remaining optimistic is to say the least, challenging for us all.

Winter Wishes / Frost

Winter Wishes
illustrated by Alison Edgson
Little Tiger

This collection of tales comprises ten illustrated wintry tales each by a different author.

From Caroline Juskus, there’s a lively little penguin Pip, eager to improve his marching in time for The Penguin Parade. There’s a rather confused, large hairy ape-like creature wandering around the snowy forest in Guy Bass’s Finding Bigfoot, an adorable seal pup eager to get in on the act in Michael Broad’s Seeley’s Song.

Caroline Pitchers’s story Is of a husky pup, anxious about her first sledge pull as a member of the team;

Elizabeth Baguley tells of a rather homesick little girl, wishing and an elephant, set in India; while Karen Wallace’s story has a fox cub puzzled about the white ‘feathers’ in the garden in the days coming up to Christmas – he certainly has a lot of learning to do about the season.

Malachy Doyle’s Morning Bear is full of wishing, surprises and lots of guessing; The Kitten in the Snow takes a while to acquire a name in Penny Dolan’s chilly tale; Narinder Dhami’s Tiger in the Night has three fox cubs discovering what it means to be a Siberian tiger and Holly Webb provides the final Just in Time for Christmas, telling how little dog Max leaves the rescue shelter and finds a family home.

Just right to snuggle up and dip into, along with a hot chocolate. Young independent readers might want to read one or two stories a day, or spend a whole afternoon/evening relishing the entire book.
More from the final author in:

Frost
Holly Webb
Stripes Publishing, Little Tiger
This story is part of the author’s wintry animal tales that cleverly mixes fantasy and historical fiction to create magical books for younger solo readers, and for reading aloud.

This one features Cassie, often known as William’s ‘baby sister’ and hence frequently left behind when it comes to the activities of the other older flat-living children. But on one occasion being left behind gives rise to her spotting a little fox on the waste ground close to her London home.

Cassie forms a special bond with the fox cub naming it Frost and feeds it regularly till one winter’s night the creature leads her off on a very special adventure, as they time-slip back to the 1683  Frost Fair on the frozen River Thames.

It’s exciting spending time in this other world but Carrie finds herself lost; can she make it safely back to her own time …

In addition to the consideration of urban foxes and the differing viewpoints about these creatures, another element woven into the story is that of the importance of understanding and helping others, herein through Cassie’s developing relationship with her somewhat irascible neighbour, Mrs Morris.

Plenty of food for thought and discussion, as well as a wondrous wintry adventure. (Line drawings from the Artful Doodlers add further atmosphere to Holly’s telling.)

The Hat Full of Secrets

The Hat Full of Secrets
Karl Newson, illustrated by Wazza Pink
Stripes Publishing, Little Tiger

Picture book author, Karl Newson turns his hand to writing a longer story, and with Wazza Pink’s full colour illustrations it has become one of Stripes Publishing ‘Colour Fiction’ series for emergent readers.

It’s a cracking story that starts with young Henry Pepper discovering a ‘secret’- a really big one. He rushes back excitedly to tell his Grandad but finds himself getting tongue-tied as he attempts to do so.

Grandad however understands and suggests that a good place for keeping secrets is under your hat. Henry has no hat, but Grandad comes to his rescue giving him one of his specials, a very large one called a Jones, ‘made for adventures’.

And so it is, for no sooner has Henry set off again down the garden path than strange things start happening in the form of flying luggage labels – five of them – all of which except one, float off in different directions.

Henry picks up the remaining one which reads, ‘Shh! The Egg Box Crown’ and returns to his grandpa to tell him. Grandad too has a label and he tells Henry that they’re his secrets.

As memories come back, Grandad regales the boy with wonderful stories of things that have happened in his life relating to each label that once read aloud, morphs into an item pertinent to the message, before disappearing into dust.

Besides the one already mentioned, there’s a label about a missing Tyrannosaurus Rex Bone, another about The Ice and the Polar Bear, one that says ‘Shh! The Fastest Arrow’ about an awesome drive and the final label, ‘Shh! A Moon with a View’ that results in an incredible lunar happening.

Having shared Grandad’s secrets, it’s time for the wonderful final surprise in the form of Henry’s own secret. What could it possibly be? Is that Jones hat large enough to contain it – I wonder.

I absolutely loved every minute spent reading this gorgeous tale that has at its heart the special relationship between a young boy and his aging Grandad. It truly celebrates the power of the imagination and the magic that memories can bring. Illustrator Wazza Pink succeeds in bringing out these qualities in her scenes of the two characters together.

A Journey Through Greek Myths

A Journey Through Greek Myths
Marchella Ward, illustrated by Sander Berg
Flying Eye Books

Classics expert Marchella Ward, courtesy of Little Owl and her grandpa owl, takes readers on an exciting journey through Ancient Greece and the Greek myths from the beginnings of the Universe in Greek mythology, right through to the tale of Daedulus and Icarus, via the Labours of Heracles in her spellbinding sequence of stories awesomely illustrated by Sander Berg.

Perched atop the Parthenon in Athens, Little Owl listens to her Grandfather Night owl as he begins to regale her with stories of the ancient Greek world, stories that had so he says ‘taught the owls all of their wisdom’, the first being of events before Athens even existed and of whence came gods that first the Greeks and then, all humankind came to know.

The stories are divided into several parts: Athens, (where we hear of The Birth of Zeus and the incredible Birth of Athena), Mount Pellon, Mount Parnassus, where the owls encounter Pegasus, and we’re told the tale of his friendship with Bellerophon;

the city of Thebes, Across the sea, The city of Argos,

the Underworld (approaching which the two owls meet a third, White Owl that tells his favourite story Demeter and Persephone;

and finally, the ‘Land of the Living’, each of which acts as a stopping point on the journey we take with the two owls during a cool, dark night.

Be regaled by tales well known and less so, of gods and goddesses, and heroes as you tour the Mediterranean, learning too about the places where each story takes place and why it is important.

As well as the manner in which the myths unfold, I love the family tree at the start, the map of the stopping points and the end papers.

This book would make a smashing present for an older child (there’s a note before the title page that ‘some content may not be suitable for younger readers).

Lottie Loves Nature: Frog Frenzy / Mermaid’s Rock: The Ice Giant

Here are two young fiction titles with ecological themes:

Lottie Loves Nature: Frog Frenzy
Jane Clarke, illustrated by James Brown
Five Quills

I’d not met nature-obsessed Lottie Boffin in the Al’s Awesome Science series but was excited to make her acquaintance now in her very own-eco adventure series for young solo readers.

In a cleverly and carefully constructed story so that youngsters learn a lot about the natural world as they read, Jane and James include a wealth of information (verbal and visual) via such scrapbook pages,

activities and experiments about such things as ants, worms, the frog life cycle and other froggy facts, hydroponics, potential pond residents and visitors, and creating a wormery.

Lottie, inspired by her favourite wildlife TV show presenter, Samira Breeze, decides to make a pond in her back garden using an old dustbin lid, in the hope that frogs will come and inhabit it and perhaps, if she writes up and sends in her nature notes to the programme, she might even win the opportunity to be a presenter on ‘Every Little Thing’.

However, new next door neighbour, Mr Parfitt with his pristine fake grass putting green is definitely not going to be enthusiastic about Lottie’s plans and he’s far from happy about her pet parrot but maybe she can enlist the help of his son Noah who aspires to become an inventor and programmer of robots. That’s when he made sure that his dad’s back garden is totally minibeast free and it will help him keep fit.

With Mr Parfitt’s ant infestation (on a special cake for a special visitor) to contend with,

not to mention a lively dog, and a plethora of parrot poop, will Lottie succeed in her environmental enterprise?

I look forward to Lottie’s Bee adventure coming early next year. So too, I’m sure will newly independent readers who meet her in this first Lottie Loves Nature book.

Mermaid’s Rock: The Ice Giant
Linda Chapman, illustrated by Mirelle Ortega
Little Tiger

There’s a decidedly chilly feel to the third Mermaid’s Rock adventure.

When Marina announces that she is to accompany her father to the Arctic so he can do his walrus research, her friend Kai is not happy. However Kai’s mum says she can stay with them so long as Marina’s father, Tarak, is agreeable. He is, and she does.

Before he leaves, Marina gives her father a bag of stones, each with an M on and he promises to keep in touch by dropping one each day through the whirlpool. In the meantime there’s the ‘most talented pet’ competition for Marina and her friends to think about.

On the sixth day of her father’s absence, when Marina goes to look for the stone, there isn’t one, nor the next day. Marina and her friends grab some necessary supplies and via the whirlpool, Operation Arctic Rescue is under way.

They soon discover that the ice has begun melting uncustomarily early, spelling danger. Can they find Tarak and get him to safety before it’s too late?

Newly independent readers, especially fans of the series will likely devour this story in a single sitting, enjoying Mirelle Ortega’s black and grey illustrations along the way, and afterwards can learn something about one of the important ecological issues our planet is facing.

Turns Out I’m an Evil Alien Emperor / The Orphans of St Halibut’s

Turns Out I’m an Evil Alien Emperor
Lou Treleaven
Maverick Publishing

A month on from saving Earth from an alien invasion, things have got even weirder for Jasper and his sister Holly. He now knows that his true parents are slugs and that he too can turn into one  (especially at inconvenient times and often triggered by anger), as well as that he’s heir to a planet full of green slime.

Peculiar enough and more than enough to come to terms with surely, but not so. Despite reservations on the part of his foster parents (soon to be his adoptive ones), Mary in particular, Holly drags him off to her teen pop idol, Harry Handsome’s concert. Naturally Jasper has an ulterior motive for going however.

Thus begins another intergalactic adventure wherein seemingly HH is up to his old tricks helping Andromeda invade Earth and brainwashing the whole planet starting with the concert attendees. Why though; and what role is the Asbi supermarket chain in all this shenanigans?

Add to the mix, fluffy balls aptly named Fluffians, assorted aliens and robots, a spindly spider receptionist, an army of clones, plus coping with a surge of hormones and changes in Jasper’s body, as well as an upcoming adoption party; oh and regular things like attending school, and what readers have is an action- packed, slimy, fast moving story that will keep them turning the pages right through to the final Fluffy chirrup.

Can Jasper save the Earth again and can he do so in time to attend his adoption party? Pressure? Who says? After all’s said and done, ‘ It’s a wonderful world’  …

Another winner from Lou Treleaven, Jasper et al.

The Orphans of St Halibut’s
Sophie Wills
Macmillan Children’s Books

Readers who are fond of dark stories will love this grisly comedy of errors.

It stars eight year old Herc, his older sister Tig and their friend Stef, the only three orphans remaining at St Halibuts home for Waifs and Strays in the aptly named town Sad Sack. Also playing a significant role is Pamela, a goat.

Indeed, they’re now the only residents, due to an unfortunate freak library accident (for the matron who lost her life) and ‘Happy’ for the children,

After careful consideration, the children accept the utter importance of keeping their new-found freedom secret and thus some semblance of normality must be shown to the town’s inhabitants even though most rules are tossed aside with joyful abandon.

Into the midst of this jubilant happiness comes a letter duly delivered by postie Maisie. “DEATH is coming’ announces Tig, DEATH being The Department for Education, Assimilation, Training and Health coming to inspect the orphanage. The intention is to ensure the highest of standards are being adhered to; and should the residents not manage to deceive the inspector they’ll be sent to The Mending House of Sad Sack for troublesome children.

For sure the three have a pretty big task, but they’re both shrewd and clever. Is that sufficient to keep them living the good life?

Full of wonderfully funny, twisting, turning antics, mischief and mishaps, superb wordplays and delicious description, not forgetting the sprinkling of fantastic fiends, Sophie Wills’ comedic Victorian story world is one children will relish, (along with a game of football with a broccoli muffin) as will adult readers aloud.

Sona Sharma Very Best Big Sister / Agents of the Wild: Operation Icebeak

Here are two terrific young fiction titles from Walker Books

Sona Sharma Very Best Big Sister
Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Jen Khatun

Young Sona Sharma lives with her family in the Tamil Nadu city of Chennai.

As the story opens, she’s getting increasingly agitated about the forthcoming birth of a new baby sibling, an event about which the rest of her household and extended family seems obsessed. (It’s also one that children in a similar situation to Sona might find difficult adapting to).

Sona most definitely needs the sympathetic listening ear of Elephant, her best friend and constant companion (except at school). Everybody seems set on Amma having a baby boy and when talk of the naming ceremony comes up, Sona resolves to help her Appa find the perfect girl’s name (her Amma is ‘looking for boy names’ he tells her.) Nobody in the family is allowed to know if it’s a boy or girl until after the birth.

Even with this important task, sharing is still a big issue for young Sona: can it be resolved before the baby arrives?

Can Sona become the very best big sister and live up to that family motto ‘Iyavadhu Karavel’? (Always help as best you can.)

I totally fell in love with Sona and the rest of her family and community (how great to have a woman auto driver). Through Chitra’s absolutely gorgeous story of welcoming a new arrival into the hearts and home of a loving community, told from Sona’s perspective and beautiful line drawings by Jen Khatun, readers/listeners will encounter some of the traditions

and rituals – cultural and familial – of this large Indian Hindu family which may well be new to them.
I can almost smell the jasmine and feel the steamy heat as I’m transported to one of my most favourite parts of the world – one I can’t wait to revisit once this terrible pandemic allows. Till then I have this warm-hearted tale to re-read over and over (until I can bear to pass it on). More please.

Agents of the Wild: Operation Icebeak
Jennifer Bell and Alice Lickens

Now permanent SPEARS field agents, Agnes and her partner Attie receive an emergency call and before you can say ‘penguins’ the two of them are disappearing down a speed funnel, destination Antarctica. It’s from there, sent by the team at the marine outpost, that the distress call came.

What is causing the seismic tremors being felt within and around the vicinity of the treatment centre, outpost 22? Why are all the Adelie penguins behaving in such an odd fashion? And, what on earth is the celebrity presenter and rare bird expert Cynthia Steelsharp, (one of Attie’s heroes) doing in a tent in the middle of the ice fields?

Moreover, why is she so interested in the little shrew’s trinoculars (that he’d needed to pass a two weeks training before being allowed to use in the field)?
Looks as though it’s a case of ‘operation species rescue’ for the SPEARS partnership (even though it may also mean an operation rescue of one of the pair).

Once again, team Jennifer (author) and Alice (illustrator) successfully interweave ecology and biology into an exciting and very funny story making it both enormously entertaining and educative (not a hint of preachiness at all).

Established Agnes and Attie enthusiasts (and I know a fair number) will devour this, likely in a single sitting; but you don’t really need to have read the first book to love this one, though if you’ve missed it I’d recommend getting hold of book Operation Honeyhunt and then move on to Operation Icebeak.

If you’re a teacher of 7s to 9s and would like to encourage your children to become eco-warriors, either book makes an enormously enjoyable class read aloud. (Back-matter includes information about the fragility of the Antarctic ecosystem and how readers can help reduce global warming.)

A word of warning – two actually: first -never say the word ‘onesie’ to your partner, let alone one clad in a watertight thermal body suit with SPEARS emblazoned across it; second – it doesn’t always pay to trust little lizards with the ability to change their colour.

Butterfly Brain

Butterfly Brain
Laura Dockrill and Gwen Millward
Piccadilly Press

Gwen Millward’s cover for this book is absolutely delightful; don’t be beguiled by this however. What’s inside is a story about a boy dealing with his grief. There’s even a warning on the first page informing readers that what follows is ‘rather strange and gory.’

Time and time again, Gus gets into trouble; he breaks the rules at school, is rude to his teachers, angry towards others and is always leaning back on his chair, taking not one scrap of notice of warnings about injury from those in school or at home whose anger he’s aroused.

Then one day, the inevitable happens …

CRACK! and that crack becomes a large gap through which Gus’s brains with his dreams, understandings, feelings and memories are exposed for all to see.

A butterfly appears – his very own brain butterfly – a guardian guiding light, it says, but that too flies away. There’s only one thing to do.

Out of the window and up into the night sky goes the pyjama clad boy in pursuit.

During their journey Gus learns how important memories are, be they good or bad, including those buried deep within. He revisits long gone, alarming dreams, learning of one that should not be left behind, and discovers the vital importance of the imagination.

Is he ready finally to own the secret and the painful fear of loss?

Enormously moving, forthright, and written in rhyme, this is a truly heart-rendingly incredible book that can speak to everyone, child and adult, through its words (Laura’s) and its powerful pictures (Gwen’s) rendered in mood-invoking hues.

A definite keeper this.

Attack of the Heebie Jeebies / A Case of the Jitters

Attack of the Heebie Jeebies
Tom Percival
Macmillan Children’s Books

Tom Percival is extremely empathetic and skilled when it comes to creating highly engaging picture books dealing with children’s emotions – think of Ravi’s Roar and Ruby’s Worry for instance.

Now comes the Dream Team series (this is the first) that aims to help slightly older readers explore childhood emotions.

Meet Erika Delgano who is far from happy. Her baby brother is getting away with everything, ruining her favourite toy, scribbling on her pictures and generally making an atrocious noise. Worse than that, her parents are too tired or even too busy to talk to her.
Angry to the point to exploding,

Erika stomps off up to bed; but, going to bed angry can result in bad dreams, an Angermare indeed. Uh-oh!

She finds herself in a very strange world with rainbow coloured trees, bouncy grass and waterfalls that flow in an upward direction. This world powered by dream crystal is the province of the Dreamteam whose role it is to protect children from Angermares and Anxietymares. However, weird creatures called Heebie Jeebies (fluffy beings with fangs) have invaded Erika’s dream and are consuming it.

They also steal a vital object – a powerful dream crystal – that could assist the girl in returning home safely, worries overcome, before the end of the dream cycle. The alternative is that she remains forever trapped in the Dreamscape.

With a host of weird characters in addition to the titular ones,

including a stoneman Wade and Madam Hettyforth, Tom has deftly, sensitively and with gentle humour, woven together a wonderful story with several threads, that explores angry feelings and their management.

With a purple colour theme, his fantastic illustrations are full of wonderful details and add to the impact of the book.

The development of emotional literacy in children is crucial if they are to grow up confident, happy, well-adjusted individuals. Tom deserves accolades for his contribution to that end in a way that encourages both self-reflection and conversation.

Whether or not there’s a new sibling at home, this is a corking book for home or school reading.

A Case of the Jitters
The second adventure begins with Erika contemplating a notice about the school talent show and desperately trying to think of a talent of her own to perform when suddenly she receives a communication via the magic crystal from Silas of the Dream Team. They have a rather tricky case and her help is required  with a girl named Chanda Anand.

Chanda is decidedly lacking in confidence, her dreams being haunted by a jittery dark shadow that refuses to go away, even in the daytime, such is its power.

Now it’s up to the Dream Team to help her regain control of both her dreams and her life. It certainly won’t be an easy task, but courageous Erika isn’t one to give up easily. Could it be that she does indeed have a special talent?

Another superb read (you have to work on your inner demons in order to deal with those outside of you) wherein friendship features strongly, anxiety is got to grips with and self-belief emerges. And, another set of terrific illustrations, this time with yellow, and some great new characters including a boxing kangaroo.

What next for Erika in Dreamteam story 3?

The Monsters of Rookhaven

The Monsters of Rookhaven
Pádraig Kenny, illustrated by Edward Bettison
Macmillan Children’s Books

Prepare to be intrigued, startled, uncomfortable, terrified and mesmerised as you follow orphan siblings Jem and Tom through a rip in the air and into the grounds of an other-worldly manor house, Rookhaven and almost into the mind, much of the time, of Jem herself.  She is welcomed by one of the residents, Mirabelle, and thus spends time with other members of The Family while her brother recovers from his sickness.

I’ve not come across the work of Pádraig Kenny before but he’s an enormously talented writer who, in this instance, has interwoven motifs from both contemporary and classic stories producing a book that, rather like the carnivorous flora standing sentry on the Path of Flowers therein,

grips the reader tightly; it feels as though it will become a neo classic.

There are monsters,

notably Piglet, a misunderstood character who plays a key part in the resolution of the story in a totally unexpected, but wonderful way; and then there’s Mr Pheeps who will certainly make you shudder at the way he manipulates others.

Equally as brilliant as the writing are Edward Bettison’s black and white woodcut style illustrations that show detail but never too much;

and his Flowers of Divine Lapsidy are truly horrifying.

Both timeless and a story of our times, this is a tale of division, empathy, high drama and healing that will make you think and keep on thinking long after you’ve closed the covers of the book.

Wulfie Stage Fright

Wulfie: Stage Fright
Lindsay J. Sedgwick, illustrated by Josephine Wolff
Little Island Books

Young Libby is something of a Cinderella character with an archetypal wicked step-mother who makes her life a misery while doting on her own son, Rex (a real meanie). Her father is too busy being a boffin to notice what’s going on, or even listen properly to most of what his daughter has to say.

Consequently Libby is excited to discover in an old trunk in her bedroom, a little purple wolf-like creature that she names Wulfie for short. Said creature has three tummies, the ability to grow and shrink pretty much at will and an aptitude for getting into trouble; he quickly becomes Libby’s best friend on account of his sweetness and loyalty.

When Libby’s teacher announces that she’s written a play to be performed by the pupils and entitled The Big Bad Wolf Learns his Lesson, she longs to star in it. However there seems little chance especially as Rex (also in her class) has drama lessons.

Nevertheless, her name is signed up on the auditions list

and thanks to Wulfie, she lands the part of her dreams.

Then comes the hard work but up steps Head Coach of Wolfing, aka Wulfie, to help her get to grips with the lupine moves and sounds she needs for a stellar performance, aided and abetted by her other new friend and classmate Nazim.

But come the big day, will Libby be able to produce a performance worthy of Ms Emily’s ‘Be spectacular’? And, can she finally get her own back on her brother?

Young readers will empathise with the long-suffering Libby who, despite everything remains determined and positive; and there’s plenty to laugh at too.

The other characters- pleasant or unpleasant – are also memorable, made all the more so through Josephine Wolff’s black and grey illustrations.

Luna / Museum Kittens: The Pharaoh’s Curse

Here are two new young fiction stories from Holly Webb, both published by Little Tiger

Luna
Holly Webb, illustrated by Jo Anne Davies

The ninth of Holly Webb’s Winter Animal Stories is another time-slip adventure, this one featuring young Hannah.

She’s on holiday with her family and visiting a Christmas market in Dresden when she spots a wooden bear cub puppet on one of the stalls and knows immediately that she wants it.

Then back at the hotel in the bedroom she was sharing with her sister, the two get into a squabble over the bear and it gets broken.

During the night, Hannah wakes up and finds she is not in her hotel room but sitting on a dirty, straw strewn floor. She’s in a stable; a bear cub is there too and a much larger bear, she thinks.

Managing to open the door of the stall, she bumps into a boy and the two go outside and into a market square. But why is he anxious not to be seen?

Little by little Matthias explains what he was doing in the stable and why he is so determined to stop the cruel bear leaders getting hold of the cub Luna especially, and training her to be a dancing bear. She also learns that the boy sells carved wooden toys and when he invites her to join him in a rescue Luna attempt, she cannot but agree, especially when she actually sees bear dancing in action.

Another lovely seasonal tale full of snow and festivity, but also with a big emotional pull about the plight of the real bear cub and about the cruelty of bear dancing, which happily has almost died out.

Museum Kittens: The Pharaoh’s Curse
Holly Webb, illustrated by Sarah Lodge

Watched by the resident museum kittens, there’s great excitement among the museum staff standing in the Egyptian Gallery and it’s on account of a part of the Book of the Dead on loan from another museum.

It’s rumoured that there’s a curse on this particular piece of papyrus and when unpleasant things start occurring coinciding with its arrival, Peter kitten decides something terrible is going to happen to the museum. Tasha thinks otherwise and is determined to prove him wrong.

Then part of the gallery ceiling collapses, but that’s only the first disaster.

The entire gallery is flooded on account of a burst pipe; the kittens are trapped, so too is Grandpa Ivan. Is he right when he says, “Museum cats are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves,” or are they to fall victim to that pharaoh’s curse everyone’s been talking of? And what of the precious papyrus? Will it be ruined by the water?

Exciting stuff; those relatively new to chapter books will be whisked away, rooting for the kittens throughout; they’re made even more adorable thanks to Sarah Lodge’s plentiful illustrations.

All’s Happy that Ends Happy

All’s Happy that Ends Happy
Rose Lagercranz, illustrated by Eva Eriksson
Gecko Press

I suspect that a great many young readers will be sad to learn that this, the 7th book, concludes the My Happy Life series featuring Dani, her family and friends, in particular, her bestie Ella.

The story opens at the start of the Easter holiday without Dani. She’s been off school for seven weeks. But where is she?

Certainly not at home, as visiting classmates discover; nor has she as others assume, gone to stay with Ella. Even she doesn’t know where Dani is, though she’s determined to find out. To that end, Ella writes a letter which she puts in a bottle and despite having been left in charge of little sister Miranda, runs to the cliff to toss her message into the sea. Having done so she goes back to the house but there’s no Miranda.

Frightened of the consequences when her mother returns, Ella goes into hiding too.

Dani herself eventually appears in the seventh chapter; she’s in hospital still recovering from the pheumonia that was a result of her failed attempt to visit Ella in the previous book.

In the eighth chapter there’s a lovely proposal attempt from Danis’ dad to Sadie, leading into much ado about a wedding in Dani’s head.

The real thing does happen though not quite in the same way as she’d imagined but still in Rome; it’s only to be a small affair and without Ella as a guest.

Meanwhile the Italian side of Dani’s family are eager to introduce her to the sights of the city

Once the wedding celebrations are over, there’s more exciting news. But will Dani ever get to see Ella; that always seems to be uppermost in her mind, no matter what.

There are more surprises in store before the end, but as readers know, Dani is determined, resilient and has a firm belief in happiness.

This book is longer than any of the previous ones but Rose Lagercrantz’s terrific, gently humorous text is conveniently broken up into seven parts, each comprising short chapters with plenty of Eva Eriksson’s utterly charming, splendidly expressive black-and-white illustrations throughout.

A smashing solo read, but also a lovely read aloud.

Little Fox / Little Polar Bear Rescue

Little Fox
Edward Van De Vendel and Marije Tolman
Levine Querido

The story begins with a visual sequence of five stunning double spreads showing Little Fox is playing on the dunes among the water birds and animals when he spies two butterflies – purple ones.

The text now begins, telling how he cannot resist chasing after them. His focus, solely on the airborne creatures, causes the fox to plunge over a hilly edge and fall heavily onto the ground. There he lies still, seemingly unconscious.

Then in a dream, his whole life hitherto passes before him as he recalls his earliest time with his mother;

slightly later, playing with his siblings; his adventures in the wider world; his encounters with humans in particular a child; his father warning him of over curiosity, ”Too nosy is dead nosy”, which on one occasion almost turns out to be true.

Suddenly the entire narration turns full circle as the child who came to his rescue previously comes upon Little Fox again. This small human picks the creature up and carries it in carefully, followed by a procession of other animals,

safely back to his fox family, where aroused by the familiar smell, Little Fox opens his eyes once more.

Superb illustrations by Marije Tolman (notes at the end explain how they were created) combined with Van De Vendel’s text (translated from its original Dutch by David Colmer) unfolding stream-of-consciousness style for the most part, make a touching triumph readers will want to return to over and over.

Little Polar Bear Rescue
Rachel Delahaye, illustrated by Jo Anne Davies
Little Tiger

This is the most recent in the author’s deservedly popular Little Animal Rescue series.

One minute young Fliss is playing hide and seek in the forest with her Forest Club group and the next seemingly, she’s in remotest Canada in a polar bear look out.

Outside, surveying her surroundings, she looks through her binoculars and spots a little cub that appears to have been separated from its mother and left behind. She names it Nanuk after the lookout.

By following a trail of footprints and using all her skills and knowledge, can she reunite the mischievous little creature with its mother?

There are encounters with caribou, a fox, a pack of wolves, some Arctic hares, walruses and a far from friendly polar bear family but will Nanuk’s elusive mother be found in time?

Problem-solving is key in this enchanting story for animal-loving new solo readers especially. Jo Anne Davies’ line drawings heighten the enjoyment of the drama.

Fashion Conscious

Fashion Conscious
Sarah Klymkiw, illustrated by Kim Hankinson
Red Shed (Egmont)

This book is aimed primarily at teenagers and young adults but I too learned a fair bit from it. Indeed, families, educators, everyone really, needs to become more aware of all the factors surrounding clothing and its manufacture.

We’ve all been hearing recently of the horrors happening to people working in the garment industry, particularly those employed by suppliers to the fast fashion sellers.

One of the good things that’s come out of this pandemic is that we’ve had the opportunity to re-evaluate the relationship we  have with the natural world; and considering the impact our clothing choices have on the planet is a vital element of that rethink.

Many of us have been taking stock and looking at what we have stuffed into our wardrobes and drawers. I was shocked at how many items I discovered with labels still attached. Since shops re-opened I’ve bought nothing new to wear, nor did I order anything on line during the lockdown and having read Sarah Klymkiw’s book, do not intend to any time soon.

Hurrah for Sarah and Kim’s creative guide to sustainable fashion. It’s packed full of practical, positive (never preachy) advice on how to become a more sustainable consumer of fashion, as well as the facts and figures we need to know.

There’s never been a better time to change your wardrobe ways – to re-use and repair what you have (step-by-step instructions are provided) or to swap it;

and if you really need something new, then this book will help you make a wise choice.

Emil and the Great Escape, Emil and the Sneaky Rat and Emil’s Clever Pig

Emil and the Great Escape
Emil and the Sneaky Rat
Emil’s Clever Pig

Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Mini Grey
Oxford University Press

Oxford University Press are gradually re-issuing Astrid Lindgren’s books for a new generation of children to enjoy and now it’s the turn of the high-spirited young Emil who lives with his family on Katthult farm in the Swedish village of Lönneberga.

In the first book of stories Emil gets up to all manner of mischief and derring-do – he manages to get his head well and truly stuck in a soup tureen; then he hoists his younger sister Ida up the flagpole,

and disobeys parental instructions by riding an old mare to the village fete.

In the second, Emil continues to drive his parents and others in the neighbourhood crazy with further scrapes. There’s the time he attempts to snare a rat in a trap and something else gets caught instead. Then having somehow managed to get through the whole of Christmas Day without misbehaving, Emil decides to hold a Boxing Day party, which turns out to be a party like no other.

There are six more Emil adventures in Emil’s Clever Pig including those on one fateful Sunday in June when he makes three disastrous attempts to pull the ‘maidservant’ Lina’s tooth out and decides to give Ida a dose of typhus by means of blue paint.

Then there’s that frog in the picnic basket episode one hardly dares to mention; followed by several days when the lad does some good things but can’t manage to sustain this goodness, for he gets carried away with locking doors and unthinkingly locks his father up in the Trisse hut (aka the old privy).

Finally, it’s almost Christmas again and Emil does something very brave and quite dangerous to save the life of farmworker, Alfred.

Mini Grey’s spirited illustrations are just right for bringing these stories to a new audience of young listeners and readers.

Bibbit Jumps

Bibbit Jumps
Bei Lynn
Gecko Press

Meet energetic young frog Bibbit who loves to jump and does so at every opportunity, often with his friends; but when it comes to water that’s another matter altogether – he’s forgotten how to swim. Something that becomes evident in the first episode wherein he and his friends build a frog pyramid and then he tries to assist his little tadpole sister and her friends in making a pyramid too.

The second chapter sees Bibbit receiving swimming lessons from his froggy fellows after which it’s time to celebrate his younger sister becoming Little Frog with a special picnic. This ‘outing’ gives Bibbit the ideal opportunity to demonstrate his exceptional jumping talent as well as his determination in picking a banana.

A birthday is celebrated in the next chapter, not a froggy one but that of Little Rabbit and Bibbit manages to deliver the perfect present – just!

Bibbit’s perseverance comes to the fore in Not giving up, an episode about the consumption of a rather unpleasant tasting apple.

Jumping occupies most of the next two chapters; no, make that three, as in the third, Bibbit refrains from his favourite activity on account of an experiment he undertakes that concerns saving up energy for, guess what – jumping, and also making lots of mental leaps.

Finally, thanks to Little Frog, Bibbit is able to confront his fears about leaving home to explore the city. To do so though and find his sister, he has to cross a river and ascend to new heights.

A delightful first chapter book (translated by Helen Wang) with short episodes that are perfect for new solo readers.. Equally they read aloud beautifully too. The watercolour and ink illustrations embody the spirit of the narrative beautifully and they too are enchanting.

Adventures on Trains: Kidnap on the California Comet

Adventures on Trains: Kidnap on the California Comet
M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elise Pagnelli
Macmillan Children’s Books

In this sequel to The Highland Falcon Thief 12 year old Hal Beck is on another railway trip. Now he’s with his journalist Uncle Nat, embarking on a three day journey from Chicago to San Francisco.

Before they’ve even boarded the California Comet, Hal has his sketchbook out and has started recording what he sees. He’s also met up with Mason and his sister Hadley who tells him later on that she practises magic.

Shortly after, he meets Marianne, daughter of August Reza, the billionaire technology entrepreneur whose press conference Uncle Nat is to report on.

Hal encounters a host of other unusual characters, including Seymour Hart who always wants to stay close to his briefcase, and teenager Ryan whose speech is hampered by the dental braces he wears, but wants to communicate with Hal all the same.

As the train speeds on across the plains, Hal feels increasingly uneasy; something strange and possibly dangerous is going on.

Around 7.30pm, Hal sees a girl in a yellow dress being dragged into the boot of a waiting car that drives away into the night. Seemingly, Marianne has been kidnapped.

Can he possibly discover exactly what is going on? Perhaps, with the help of his new friends, Hadley and Mason.

Full of mystery and intrigue, this cracking story is full of interesting details and dropped hints.

It’s not only Hal (aka Sherlock da Vinci) who has an extremely deft hand when it comes to sketching: Elisa Paganelli’s smashing, sometimes finely detailed illustrations add considerably to the atmosphere of the twisting, turning adventure.

Lovers of trains and detective stories especially, will devour this; so too will anyone who loves a gripping yarn.

Freddie’s Amazing Bakery: Dancing with Doughnuts / Willow Wildthing and the Dragon’s Egg

It’s great to see new stories in two fiction series for younger readers, both from Oxford University Press

Freddie’s Amazing Bakery: Dancing with Doughnuts
Harriet Whitethorn, illustrated by Alex G. Griffiths

It’s summer time in Belville the town of Freddie’s Amazing Bakery and the Summer Talent Show is imminent.

Freddie’s friend and bakery manager, Amira already has her show clothes: she’s going to dance with Samuel and the auditions are that very night; but the nefarious Bernard (of Macaroon’s Patisserie) is also intending to compete – as a magician.

Then disaster strikes in the form of an injury to Samuel’s leg that means he’ll have to pull out. (I wonder who was instrumental in that?)

Next day Freddie gallantly offers to step in, (so long as he can overcome his stage fright) but then, so too does Bernard, who is of course, rebuffed.

However Bernard is determined to get in on the act by fair means or foul.

Just how far will somebody go to sabotage things for the new partnership?

Is there any way Freddie and Amira can emerge triumphant in spite of everything?

Freddie’s third adventure is just as tasty as his previous ones. Harriet Whitehorn’s recipe, with its liberal sprinkling of Alex G. Griffiths’ humorous illustrations is just right for newly independent readers and for reading aloud to reception and Y1 audiences. Why not test out the recipe for Freddie’s doughnut muffins given at the back of the book too?

Willow Wildthing and the Dragon’s Egg
Gill Lewis, illustrated by Rebecca Bagley

As Willow and her family finish creating a safe indoor haven for the ‘baby dragon’ her little brother Freddie has found in the garden and head back indoors, Willow and her dog, Sniff, find a message from the Wild Things ( Fox, Bear, Hare, Mouse and Raven) telling of ‘Trouble in the Wilderness’ and asking for her help.

Off they go to the secret place, Willow taking a batch of Nana’s cookies with her, and she learns that River Camp, home to the Wild Things, has been invaded by strangers and some of their stuff taken.

Then the cookies are stolen from right under their noses and the thief runs away into the Forest of Forever Night

only to disappear completely, Moreover they discover that Mouse has also vanished and a note left in his place.

The other Wild Things decide they have to find him even if it means going deep into this forest, a place they’ve never been before. It’s in there, they see Mouse stuck up a tree and meet the no longer “Invisible Tribe’ who call themselves the Bark Skins, and demand to be given River Camp in exchange for Mouse.

Time to consult the ‘witch’ (actually a writer who lives in a cottage) – about dragons in particular. She gives the Wild Things wise words about dragons and dragons’ eggs and off they go to find a dragon’s egg.

Thus the battle of clans really gets under way, but what is really going on and can the dispute be resolved peaceably and in such a way that everybody is happy with the outcome?

And what will eventually be the fate of Freddie’s ‘dragon’? It can’t live in a tank forever …

Once again, Gill Lewis’ story of friendship and determination celebrates both the natural world and children’s imagination. Willow and her friends are terrific models of resilience and curiosity for young solo readers and listeners who will love this new adventure with Rebecca Bagley’s terrific illustrations and page borders.

Rocket Boy / You’re a Star, Lolo / Charlie & Mouse Even Better

Rocket Boy
Katie Jennings and Joe Lillington
Stripes Publishing

Young Callum has a dislike of broccoli, a fertile imagination, and is passionate about space, Mars especially.

One Saturday he decides it’s time he learned a bit more about his favourite topic, above all, what it would be like to witness a Martian sunset.

Having stocked up on some vital supplies and donned his space boots and helmet he’s ready to board Epic. Then, final checks carried out, comes the countdown …

Out in space he is surprised to discover he has a stowaway, his cat Oscar, and the creature now has the power of speech. In fact Oscar proves to be a valuable crew member when things get tricky on account of a meteor storm and again once they’ve safely landed on Mars, where Callum does finally set eyes on that which he has come to view.

However, as he heads back to the landing module a very strange sight meets his eyes. “What on Mars is that…?” he asks.

Will Callum succeed in returning safely to planet Earth?

Flying a flag for the power of the imagination, Katie Jennings’ story with Joe Lillington’s detailed full colour illustrations on every spread,

should go down well with young, just flying solo readers, particularly space enthusiasts like its main character.

You’re a Star, Lolo
NIki Daly
Otter-Barry Books

This, the third in the series about the adorable, Lolo who lives with her Mama and Granny Gogo contains four episodes for new solo readers to relish.

In the first, Lolo adds a secret ingredient to the soup she makes especially to warm up her Mama when she comes home on a chilly, rainy day.

Next we find Lolo kept awake by a scary sound convincing herself the ‘Ghorra-Ghorra! Hoooaaah! Bwoooooo!s’ she hears are those of a monster, till she and Mama discover what’s really creating such a terrible noise.

The third story starts in school when Lolo’s favourite teacher gives each pupil some seeds to plant. Lolo has tomato seeds from which she learns a lot. So too do the other members of her family; but when it comes to bringing in the results of their labours to show to their classmates, Lolo surprises everyone …

In the final episode Lolo is super-excited when she discovers that she and Gogo are to spend a week of the summer holiday in a seaside town near Cape Town.

The holiday is great but the journey home is more than a little eventful and Lolo wonders if she’ll make it back in time to start school again.

Like the previous books, with its combination of gentle humour and warm family relationships, and of course, Niki Daly’s own  black and white illustrations at every turn of the page, this one is sheer delight.

Charlie & Mouse Even Better
Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes
Chronicle Books

If you’ve yet to meet the rather mischievous brothers, Charlie and Mouse, now’s your chance in their four latest seemingly ordinary activities.

First of all it’s Pancake Day and Mum receives some rather unlikely requests for pancakes from the boys – baby pancakes, a pancake turtle and even a pancake dragon.

It’s as well that Mum knows just how to curtail all this pancake bingeing before the table is totally full, not to mention two little tummies.

Shopping sees Charlie and Mouse off with Dad on a secret expedition to buy a birthday present for Mum. She’s fond of sparkly things; but what will the boys eventually choose – something more practical perhaps?

In Helping, Dad is busy baking a cake so the boys decide to make some decorations. You are going to love Mouse’s final remark on their endeavours.

Eventually it’s birthday time. Before the celebration actually happens though, Dad and the boys need to do some hasty de-smoking of the house. Then once she comes home it’s down to Mouse to do some clever Mum distracting – four minutes worth to be precise – before the presentation of that special Surprise offering.

In these four short chapters, Lauren Snyder demonstrates the astuteness of her observations of very young children, and of course how parents respond. Equally well-observed are Emily Hughes’ illustrations of the family.

With its gentle humour, both verbal and visual, this delightful book is just right for emergent readers.

Marie Curious Girl Genius Saves the World / Cookie and the Most Annoying Girl in the World

Marie Curious Girl Genius Saves the World
Chris Edison
Orchard Books

This is the first of a proposed new series featuring twelve-year-old inventor Marie Curious.

Marie is mega-excited when she receives an unexpected parcel containing a message from one Sterling Vance head of a high-tech corporation in California, inviting her to spend her summer holidays at Vance Camp in his high-tech headquarters. Marie can hardly believe that her robot project has won her a place among thirty other mega-bright young scientists and the theme of the camp is to be robotics. Perfect.

There she and the other campers get the opportunity to attend tutorials and workshops given by the world’s top scientists, test some incredible gadgets and to build robot entries for the competition, the winner being given a year’s apprenticeship and an all expenses paid trip to the world’s biggest tech fair.

Something’s not quite right though. First there’s Marie’s roommate who is very standoffish and then it appears that somebody is sabotaging the campers’ robots. Vance had told Marie when she arrived that there was a spy in the camp but who could it be?

Next comes talk of a computer virus that will create havoc the world over. Competition or no competition, Marie decides that teamwork is key if they are to outwit the culprit and prevent a catastrophic outcome. No pressure then …

A gripping story that will keep readers guessing almost to the big reveal.

Cookie and the Most Annoying Girl in the World
Konnie Huq
Piccadilly Press

Cookie returns and now, as she celebrates her tenth birthday, she finds herself having to cope with the world’s most annoying girl, Suzie Ashby.

Disappointed in discovering that Suzie is holding her birthday party on the day of Cookie’s actual double figures birthday, the day she intended to hold her own party, and even worse, that she is inviting everyone in the class, is only the start of Cookie’s problems.

Next she discovers that her own mum has already committed them to spend the day at Uncle Mehdi’s house for a family reunion making matters worse. Plus, instead of the bike she really, really wants from her mum and dad, all she gets is a token for £25 for the local bike shop.

But then she’s given two tickets to see popstar, Aliana Tiny: perhaps things will start looking up after all.

Or perhaps not: enter Mrs Edmonds, supply teacher, who seems intent on dishing out detentions to Cookie and her pals – except that they’re not really all her pals right then for she’s managed to fall out with both her besties Keziah and Jake.

Then said teacher starts a misleadingly titled club that isn’t at all what Cookie et al. are anticipating. Turns out though that, ex army Mrs E. isn’t quite as awful as they’d first thought, especially as she organises a weekend camping trip; and pretty eventful that proves to be.

But can Cookie manage to win back Jake and Keziah, save the planet and get that much longed-for bike? Now telling would be story-spoiling so I’ll say no more other than there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in this enormously appealing sequel throughout which Konnie Huq has liberally strewn hilarious drawings to accompany Cookie’s narrative.

Mirabelle Gets up to Mischief / Leo’s Map of Monsters: The Armoured Goretusk

Young solo readers will be excited to discover the first titles in two new series from Oxford University Press

Mirabelle Gets up to Mischief
Harriet Muncaster

Meet Isadora Moon’s older cousin, the half fairy, half witch and absolutely adorable, Mirabelle Starspell.

It’s the day of the Midsummer Dance, highlight of the fairy year, and Mirabelle is under strict instructions from her (fairy) dad to keep her witch side firmly under control: potions, pointy hats and cauldrons must remain at home.

As she gets ready for the event, Mirabelle comes upon a couple of necklaces from each of which dangles a tiny potion bottle. No harm in putting something special in them and tucking them out of sight under her dress surely? After all, she’s not intending to use them.

But when Mirabelle meets up with Isadora the temptation to sneak off and experiment with the contents of those bottles proves irresistible for big cousin M.

Thank goodness for Seraphina Starspell – Mirabelle’s mum – who comes to her aid to prevent the entire evening being wrecked; and It’s a very penitent young Mirabelle who eventually comes down to earth right in front of her Dad.

Luckily for her, he understands the importance of his daughter being herself and comes up with the perfect way for Mirabelle to become a responsible speller.

New solo readers, especially the rule-benders among them, will love Mirabelle and her exploits, as well as the fact that she acts as narrator of her own magic doings illustrated in those uber-cool, purple and black illustrations of Harriet’s.

More mischievous magic will certainly be the order of the day.

Leo’s Map of Monsters: The Armoured Goretusk
Kris Humphrey, illustrated by Pete Williamson

It’s Leo Wilder’s ninth birthday and he’s been eagerly anticipating the letter telling him of his assignment. What he receives is an envelope marked TOP SECRET followed shortly after by a knock at the door.

It’s none other than Gilda the village chief who announces to Leo’s mother that she needs to ‘borrow’ her son.

Ordering him to remain silent, Gilda leads the boy out of the village and into the forest to a cabin. There he meets the village Guardian Henrik who tells him of the dangerous monsters lurking outside the village walls. Telling Leo that he too has Guardian work to do, Gilda leaves them together.

Henrik shows the boy the Map of Monsters with its different colour lights for the habitats of various kinds of monster. He also shows him the wound on his own leg made by an Armoured Goretusk and tells Leo that it’s not only the villagers but the monsters that it’s their job to keep safe.

There’s a secret at stake and it’s down, to Leo, armed with a pouch of stones and a slingshot, to turn the angry monster around in its tracks.

Can he succeed in his task? Perhaps, with some unexpected help …

And what will he decide about his future?

In addition to being gripped by Kris Humphrey’s story young solo readers will love the monstrous ‘zoological’ and ‘geological’ information at the back of the book, and be excited to learn this is just the first of Leo’s adventures.

Pete Williamson’s illustrations add further tension and sinister shivers to the telling.

Return to Roar / A Most Improper Magick

Return to Roar
Jenny McLachlan, illustrated by Ben Mantle
Egmont

It’s half term; Rose and narrator Arthur are excited to enter the folded-up camp bed portal in Grandad’s attic that takes them back to the Land of Roar.

Their first stop is to see Win, a wizard ninja whose wizarding skills leave something to be desired. Rose leaves the two boys together and aback a dragon, heads off to look for her merwitch friend Mitch.

She has no success and returns bringing Mitch’s spell book and tattoo kit.

During the night Arthur is woken by a rather sinister presence and hears a whisper asking, ‘Arthur, take me to Home’ that he persuades himself is a dream. But next morning, painted on the wall outside Win’s cave in letters, still wet, he sees WHAT’S IN THE BOX?

Arthur makes an immediate link to the villainous scarecrow, Crowky and convinces the others that he must be out to find The Box (an old cardboard one containing those things the twins most fear) and thus be able to travel back through the tunnel into Grandad’s house.

There’s only one thing to do: they must find the box before Crowky and so begins their next adventure.

What a thrilling, sometimes dangerous, one it is as they encounter a number of their old friends including the Lost Girls (lovers of loom bands and rather wild). There are dragons, unicorns – some more obliging than others – pirate baboons, honey badgers, orang-utans; and eventually Mitch; plus a fair few spells, wolves and a rather unpleasant character, Hatai Skoll.

Readers will certainly feel frissons of fear at times as they become swept up in the dramatic events as they root for the children and their real friends.

Can they find the Box or will it be Crowky? Will Rose and Arthur get back to Grandad’s before their parents arrive to collect them?

Like this reviewer, young readers will find it well nigh impossible to put down this superbly written book, before they’ve discovered the answers. What a testament to the power of the imagination in children it is. Superb too are Ben Mantle’s illustrations – sometimes scary, sometimes gently humorous; and the front cover is truly powerful.

Fear not, a thrilling finale to the Roar series is promised – coming soon.

A Most Improper Magick
Stephanie Burgis, illustrated by Hannah Peck
Piccadilly Press

This reissue of the first of the ‘Improper Adventures’ of twelve-year-old narrator, Kat Stephenson is set in Regency England. It’s a blend of Jane Austin and Georgette Heyer, together with magic and adventure.

Rather than doing what proper young ladies should, Kat eschews embroidery, chops off her hair and decides to go to London. But then Kat is not an ordinary young lady: although her father is a respected clergyman, her late mother was a witch whose magical powers, her youngest daughter seems to have inherited.

Then she discovers her mother’s magic books and mirror, which is not your everyday kind of item; this golden object has powers of its own. Now for sure Kat is determined to learn how to use her magical talents for the good of her own family, no matter what her Stepmama says.

How will she deal with the decidedly sinister Sir Neville, her elder sister’s intended fiancé, as well as her other sister Angeline with her own style of witchiness, not to mention a highwayman?

Can the indomitable Kat succeed in saving her entire family from ruin and win her sisters the true loves they so much desire?

Bursting with charm, mystery and humour, this tale of high drama will appeal most strongly to confident female readers around the age of its chief character.

A Bear Named Bjorn

A Bear Named Bjorn
Delphine Perret
Gecko Press

This delightfully whimsical book has six episodes telling the everyday adventures of cave dwelling bear Bjorn and his forest friends including Rabbit, Badger, Squirrel, Weasel, Fox and Chickadee.

In the first Bjorn wins a sofa, which his friends think is great but not so the bear; he considers it too soft and way too big. Then Rabbit comes up with an idea that turns out to be perfect for everybody.

The Carnival sees Bjorn and Fox perusing clothing catalogues – yes really – and one day the latter has a fantastic idea “What if we dress up as humans? What if we have a carnival!” And so they do. Great fun is had by all as they sing, dance and feast the night away before returning all the ‘borrowed’ items to the owners.

Nothing much happens in a certain bear’s life but he’s never bored. The thing is, he’s a contemplative soul and is perfectly happy sitting watching life, playing the odd game of cards with a pal, eating, napping, reading (of course) and doing an occasional drawing in the mud.

Further human intrusion occurs in The Present. It takes the form of a shiny fork sent as a gift to Bjorn by a little girl named Ramona. But what can he give her in return? Happily his friends are ready and willing to help him find the perfect present.

In Glasses, Owl’s latest idea is to hold medical check-ups and it’s discovered that Bjorn is very shortsighted. Fortunately Magpie has several pairs of specs stashed away but will the bear actually wear the pair he receives?

In the final episode, seasonal changes are evident; It’s Time for Bjorn to think about hibernating but first there are preparations to be made before he’s ready to bid his friends a pleasant winter and snuggle down in his cave.

Beautifully simple and imbued with a gentle whimsical humour, both visual and verbal, Delphine Perret’s book is ideal for readers just flying solo, as well as for sharing with small groups or individuals.

Challenge Everything

Challenge Everything
Blue Sandford
Pavilion Books

Central to this book written by Blue Sandford, seventeen year old activist/author and founding member of Extinction Rebellion Youth London is the all-important message ‘You are responsible for your own actions’.

“Don’t take things for granted – challenge everything. That means challenging big business and your governments and, most of all, challenging yourself to act now and save the planet,” says her inspiring introductory rallying cry.

She speaks of the disillusionment of young people with world leaders, angry at the seemingly insatiable greed of big businesses with their clever words that are largely forcing the world’s downward spiral. Not only the disillusionment of young people though, for during the pandemic many of us adults have taken stock, questioned our almost compulsive consumption and realised that we don’t for example, need to buy new clothes nearly every week. Nor will we.

‘When you start to really notice what you’re consuming, you’ll be able to tell what you need, what you’ll actually wear, and whether you really need anything new’ says the author as she shows her intention to empower readers to change their mind-sets and challenge, challenge, challenge.

Covering pretty much everything from the destructive effects of flying, the impact on the planet of what we choose to eat/drank,  to the importance of re-wilding and reconnecting with nature, Blue’s practical, persuasive book concludes thus: ‘Do everything you can for the survival of the planet. The future is in your hands. You can make a difference. Fight. Challenge everything.’

The potency of those words will one hopes, galvanise readers to think for themselves and to take action.

The Chocolate Unicorn / Crumbs!

Here are two recent releases in Bloomsbury Education’s series Bloomsbury Young Readers

The Chocolate Unicorn
Jenny McLachlan, illustrated by Sarah Lawrence

Olive Brown worries a lot, so much so that she misses out on all kinds of wonderful opportunities.

Then one day her Grandpa gives her a present containing chocolates of different shapes. Wanting to make them last as long as possible, she eats one each day until only her favourite is left. It’s the chocolate unicorn with fudge hooves and a glittery horn and it seems too magical even to nibble. The unicorn remains in the box and Olive looks at it every morning and evening until the day it’s no longer there.

Following a trail of footprints, she discovers its hiding place and so begins a series of learning experiences through which the unicorn shows Olive how to be, first a little bit brave and then more so,

until she’s no longer holding herself back at all.

A while later, Olive, her mum and the unicorn visit the seaside where she meets a little boy. Could it be that it’s time for the unicorn to start working his magic on somebody else who needs to find some courage?

With gently humorous illustrations by Sarah Lawrence, this is a charming story for children who are growing in confidence towards becoming independent readers,

Crumbs!
Ben Bailey Smith, illustrated by Sav Akyüz

Ben Bailey Smith, actor and rapper has written this story of Farmer Dan’s missing lunch in rhyme.

When the farmer discovers the sandwich he’s been so eagerly anticipating is no longer in his lunch box his wife – a much brighter character – suggests an animal is responsible. But which one? Is it Harry the horse, Bridget the chicken

or perhaps, Bill the pig?

Dan is absolutely determined to track down the culprit that’s gobbled up his favourite egg mayonnaise sandwich and left him with a few crumbs.

A funny tale with spirited illustrations by Sav Akyüz, that should go down well with young readers whether or not they share Farmer Dan’s penchant for egg mayonnaise sandwiches.

The Stone Giant

The Stone Giant
Anna Höglund
Gecko Press

This rather dark tale was inspired by a Swedish fairy tale by Elsa Beckstow and tells of a father and daughter who live on an island. The father is a knight and one day he tells his daughter that he’s going off to fight a terrifying giant who turns people to stone.

The girl is left alone and she waits and waits for his boat to return. Come evening as she bids herself goodnight in the mirror she wonders what would happen if the giant looked in a mirror.

Days later, when her father still isn’t back, the child sets off alone in the pitch dark taking nothing but a knife and a mirror.

After a long swim

her feet finally touch land again and having walked till nightfall she comes upon a house. Therein lives an old woman who gives her a meal, a bed for the night, and an umbrella as protection from the giant’s dangerous eyes.

When the girl eventually encounters the giant, it’s these everyday items that in true fairytale fashion, work the magic that is the salvation of everyone, except the giant.

She becomes stone and happiness and peace are restored.

There is SO much to love about this neo fairy story. The child’s bravery and determination; that the reader, like the child feels frissons of fear throughout; the slightly but not too scary, etched/ watercolour illustrations; the fact that magic doesn’t always have to be flashy – the quiet thoughtful approach shown here can work wonders; the joyful reunion that takes place, the excellent translation by Julia Marshall, and the beautiful production of the entire book.

Roxy & Jones: The Great Fairytale Cover-Up

Roxy & Jones: The Great Fairytale Cover-Up
Angela Woolfe
Walker Books

I absolutely love fairytale pasticcios and Angela Woolfe sets hers in a world where witches and magic are real, and fairy tales are recent history.

It begins once upon a modern time in the city of Rexopolis in the kingdom of Illustria wherein resides eleven year old Roxy Humperdink along with half-sister Gretel who apparently works as loo cleaner for the Ministry of Soup.

Not long before midnight Roxy is brushing her teeth when she notices a slip of paper sticking out from beneath the bath. Pulling it free causes the bath panel to break and as a consequence Roxy finds herself pyjama-clad and shivering in a cold, dark labyrinth of corridors beneath the aforementioned Ministry.

Enter a girl dressed as a giant buttercup in search of a particular rhyming book – Mrs Tabitha Cattermole’s Chronicle of the Cursed Kingdom. This rather rebellious young female is Jones (aka Cinderella) and she disappears as quickly as she arrived dropping the book she’d just found.

Roxy takes the book back with her and as a result has to spend a night in the Decontamination Zone where she finds herself face to face with none other than the scary Minister Atticus Splendid. Roxy, we learn has a photographic memory, which is fortunate because Atticus has the book destroyed, something she informs Jones when next they meet.

That’s when the two become a proper team, aided and abetted from time to time by Jones’ fairy godmother Frankie who, on account of an errant spell, has the appearance of a ten-year-old boy.

A host of other fairy tale characters make appearances as Roxy and Jones go all out to save the world from the evils of a queen who has recently broken out of prison and can hardly wait to re-establish herself as ruler.

It’s fabulous stuff, very funny and the dialogue is superb; assuredly as fractured a fairy tale, or many, as you could wish for. Apart that is from wishing for further adventures of Roxy and Jones, I won’t divulge any more. Instead I’ll go in search of some special vegan muffins to consume, sans goji berries I hasten to add.

The Princess in Black and the Bathtime Battle / Stick & Fetch Investigate: Off the Leash

New additions to  two very popular Walker Books series for primary readers:

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

When a decidedly unsavoury stink starts wafting in from the goat pasture, Princess Magnolia has little choice but to leave her bridge-building in the kitchen, don her Princess in Black gear, mount her trusty steed and follow her nose to the source of the stench and deal with it.

So she does temporarily, but all she’s actually done is shift this particular stinky emanation elsewhere as it quickly becomes evident. For, one by one other masked princesses appear on the scene to try and overcome what they discover is a stinky monster.

This stinky monster however is truly powerful – ‘stinkier than a full litter tray … stinkier than a blocked toilet … stinkier than a pile of dirty nappies on a hot summer’s day. …more stink than monster.’ PHOAW!

It’s definitely time for all the princesses and the Goat Avenger to join forces and try a spot of teamwork.

This is book seven and the final pages indicate that there’s still more to come – something that will please the large numbers of newly independent reader fans of the series

Stick & Fetch Investigate: Off the Leash
Philip Ardagh, illustrated by Elissa Elwick
Walker Books

Detective partners Sally Stick and Fetch are hot on the trail again in a third adventure.

Following an operation Granny Stick is holidaying for a week at the seaside, staying at The Roxbee Hotel and that means Sally and her dog are there too.

No sooner are they installed in their very own room than the detective duo start discovering clues and looking for evidence of criminal activity.

So who is the mysterious thief that’s breaking into rooms, stealing shampoo, towels and other things, loading them onto a getaway trolley and eating chocolate bars?

This is assuredly an unusual case – or is it even a case? That would be telling.

What can be told though is that this crazy story is enormous fun for new solo readers. The mix of Philip Ardagh’s bonkers humour and Elissa Elwick’s chucklesome illustrations makes for a splendid first full-length adventure for the Sally and Fetch team.

Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Great Big Purple Underwater Underpants Adventure

Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Great Big Purple Underwater Underpants Adventure
A.L.Kennedy, illustrated by Gemma Correll
Walker Books

I can’t believe we’re already at number four in this utterly bonkers, somewhat surreal series starring Uncle Shawn, his llama pals, badger Bill et all.

What on earth is causing all those mysterious Purple Bottom explosions and creating great alarm with regard to underpants the world over?

There’s surely one person who knows how to deal with a crisis such as this Particularly Purple one: look no further than Uncle Shawn, plan or no plan.

There is a plan though of sorts; it involves leaving the farm to the llamas and embarking on an adventure to find and save the Living Fish Tree. All it takes, surely, will be several pairs of Undersea Boots, a plentiful supply of powdered undersea air, buckets (to go over heads) and a bit of bravado.

There’s an encounter with Timothy the shark, one of the Great White variety (apparently Uncle Shawn has saved the creature’s life back in the day). Let me say here that sharks’ mouths can, when needed, be extremely useful means of rapid transportation particularly if you need to get from Scotland to the Pacific Ocean.

They’re also a pretty decent place to consume a lunchtime sandwich should you feel a tad peckish, oh and the tongue’s a suitable place for a game of snap and while so doing discussing the likelihood of the nefarious Sylvester Pearlyclaws being behind the massive, ever increasing, purple problem.

But is this a problem too large even for Uncle Shawn et al? I for one would hate to be a story spoiler so I’ll leave you on tenterhooks and a tad entangled in the hope you’ll get hold of a copy of this delicious daftness served up by A.L. Kennedy, garnished by Gemma Correll, and discover for yourself.

Moomintroll Sets Sail

Moomintroll Sets Sail
Alex Haridi, Cecilia Davidsson & Filippa Widlund
Macmillan Children’s Books

This adventure in the magical world of Moominvalley that so many of us loved to escape to as children, is an adaptation from the Tove Jansson classic by Alex Haridi and Celia Davidsson with illustrations by Filippa Widlund.

It all begins with Moominpappa leading Moomintroll, Little My and Sniff through the forest to reveal his latest enterprise, a sturdy boat he’s named Ocean Orchestra.

There’s a distinct snag though: the boat is on land and far too heavy to drag to the river. Instead the river must come to the boat. And so it does, courtesy of a creature called Edward the Booble. Then it’s all aboard (not the Booble) and away down the river and out to sea.

It’s not all plain sailing though for there’s a rescue (Hemulen’s aunt in a very bad mood – to start with but it improves after a night’s sleep),

a visitation from niblings, one of which gets left behind aboard the Ocean Orchestra; and as a second night falls, a huge storm blows up.

Can the Ocean Orchestra make it safely back to Moominvalley with all the Moomin family or might it be a case of lost in the storm?

As always this is full of the usual Moomin idealism, sensitivity, kindness and courage – sheer delight.

Chick and Brain: Egg or Eyeball? / Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere

Chick and Brain: Egg or Eyeball?
Cece Bell
Walker Books

Presented in graphic novel format, a super-silly sequel to Smell My Foot and once again Chick and Brain go head to head in a dispute. This time it’s on account of the ovoid object that Brain has come upon. It’s an eyeball he insists, but Chick knows better: after all, the creature emerged from such a thing. A bout of bickering ensues though perhaps Chick has the upper ‘hand’ for he produces a book to back-up his argument.

In comes Spot the Dog to claim the item as his lunch and he too is on the ‘egg’ side. The ensuing noisy exchange between the three wakes up a rather large cat and then it’s Chick’s insistence on politeness that almost causes him to become the moggy’s lunch.

Brain however steps up to the mark to save the day and the daftness continues with the arrival of Something Else and then comes the great revelation, for this being happens to be sans something rather important …

Daft it is, but who cares; even the most book-averse will find themselves giggling their way through this wacky comedic offering.

Presented in a semi-graphic novel format and rather more challenging a read is:

Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere
Elise Gravel
Walker Books

Inquisitive young Olga is an animal obsessive (barring mosquitos that is) who aspires to be a world-famous zoologist. (She’s less keen on humans however.) Olga loves everything about the world’s fauna – farts and all, writing all her observations in her notebook and it’s this that she gives readers access to.

Imagine her delight when one day she discovers a trail of rainbow poo that leads her not to the unicorn she suspects it might be, but to what she describes as ‘a ‘cross between an inflated hamster and a potato drawn by a three-year old’, calling itself a ‘Meh’.

Some observations and introductions ensue and then Olga takes the erstwhile rubbish bin resident home for closer observation.

Finding out what the creature actually is (a new species perhaps?) and what it likes to eat proves pretty challenging, so much so that our scientist in training has to resort to accepting the assistance of other humans.

One day disaster strikes: Olgamus Ridiculus disappears. It’s then that some of the previously annoying people prove to be anything but, and all ends happily, albeit a tad unexpectedly.

Elise Gravel’s style of presentation is a zany mix of first person narrative, splendidly expressive comical style illustrations, lists, diagrams, jokes and more that will ensure laughs aplenty and a wide appeal.

Mermaids Rock: The Floating Forest / The Time Travel Diaries: Adventure in Athens

Mermaids Rock: The Floating Forest
Linda Chapman, illustrated by Mirelle Ortega
Little Tiger

This is the second title in Linda Chapman’s Mermaids Rock series featuring some animal-loving mer friends. They have formed their own special Save the Sea Creatures Club, their aim being to come to the aid of animals in trouble.

As the story starts Coralie and Dash enter a whirlpool and find themselves in a wonderful forest with sea lions. Therein Coralie discovers among the fronds a bottle containing what looks like a rolled up message.

On returning to her friends she learns from Marina (whose dad is a marine scientist) that the place she’s just visited is a kelp forest. The others are eager to see it too so they schedule a visit the following day.

In the meantime Naya manages to open the bottle; inside is a map with a rhyming message.

Next day with 4 clues to solve, operation treasure hunt begins.

But one of their classmates, the sneaky Glenda is determined to find out what the others are up to and starts watching their every move.

The following week when the club members return to their search they discover that the kelp forest has been destroyed leaving the animals unprotected and in great danger.

Saving them becomes much more important than the treasure hunt but can they do it before it’s too late?

Mirelle Ortega’s expressive illustrations add further interest to the narrative and help break up the text for newly independent readers.

After the story are pages with information about the kelp forests and the animals living there, as well as some marine-related jokes.

A tale that’s ideal for young nature-lovers and environmentalists who like their adventures bubbling with mermaid magic.

For slightly older readers, also the second in a series:

The Time Travel Diaries: Adventure in Athens
Caroline Lawrence
Piccadilly Press

With her outstanding, expert knowledge of classical history and superb storytelling skill, Caroline Lawrence immerses readers in ancient Athens circa 400BCE when her heroes Alex and Dinu, on a luxury holiday in Athens, time travel – at the behest of Solomon Daisy – to the time of Socrates. Unbeknown to the boys, Dinu’s younger sister has followed them through the time-travel portal and is also swept up in the adventure.

It’s no time at all before having arrived at the Temple of Athena, Alex and Dinu are taken by the Scythian archers – the equivalent of the police in ancient Athens.

As with the previous book, the story is pacey, gripping and rich in historical detail.

Here’s what Daniel (nearly 11) thought:
‘This book was action-packed and a great read. The plot involves a group of characters who travel back in time in search of Socrates, the wisest man in the world. The main characters are really interesting because of their individual personalities.
Through their journey we learn about an ancient time and some historical dates. My favourite part is when the main characters go inside a public house and they play music through holes in a bone.
Overall I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it to 9-11 year olds.

44 Tiny Secrets

44 Tiny Secrets
Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King
Little Tiger

There are actually even more secrets than the 44 tiny ones in the title of this captivating book and some of them are pretty big ones.

Betsy Bow-Linnet is the daughter of two internationally famous concert pianists who spend a fair bit of their time jetting off to play abroad leaving young Betsy in the care of her Grandad.

Betsy has set her heart on becoming famous like her parents but no matter how hard she practises, she lacks the natural talent of her mother Bella and father, Bertram and feels she’s a disappointment to them both.

One day she discovers a letter on the doormat bearing only her name. Inside she finds a letter written by one Gloria Sprightly. The woman claims she has a special method that will make Betsy’s next performance ‘completely, totally, stupendously stunning’ and it isn’t necessary that the two of them meet. The other requirements are that the Method is a secret, and plenty of pumpkin seeds.

Needless to say Betsy jumps at the opportunity and posts off her acceptance right away.

Another letter follows instructing her to look inside the parlour piano and to await a parcel.

Sure enough, the following morning on the doorstep is a large parcel inside which is a box containing the titular tiny secrets in the form of 44 pygmy mice.

Betsy is baffled: how can the tiny reddish-brown creatures help her improve her piano playing and how can she possibly keep all those mice a secret?

Moreover, who is this Gloria Sprightly?

Woven into this quirky story are some wonderful verbal images: Betsy’s mother has a particular penchant for ferns and there are pots of the things everywhere in their home. She even looks and smells like a fern we’re told.

Before the end there are some unexpected revelations of more than one kind and the sharing of some rather yummy cream cakes but all ends happily. Not ever after however for there’s promise of a new story of Betsy and her 44 rodent friends coming soon. Hurrah!

A delight through and through, made all the more so by the splendid visuals provided by Ashley King whose offbeat illustrations underscore the humour of Sylvia’s telling.

Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Longstocking Goes Aboard & Pippi Longstocking in the South Seas

Pippi Longstocking
Pippi Longstocking Goes Aboard
Pippi Longstocking in the South Seas

Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Mini Grey
Oxford University Press

I absolutely loved these stories as a child more years ago than I care to remember, and thanks to these new editions splendidly illustrated by Mini Grey and translated by Susan Beard, I find that red-headed rule-breaking Pippi – the ‘strongest girl in the world’ –clad still in her odd (one black and one brown) stockings, has lost none of her wildness and charm.

Nine-year old Pippi lives sans parents in Villa Villekulla – mum is an angel and dad a South Sea Island king she proudly announces. With Pippi lives her monkey Mr Nilsson (a present from her dad), while on her veranda lives her very own horse.

In the first book Pippi meets and makes friends with neighbours Tommy and Annika, gets the better of some bully boys, outthinks some police who come a visiting, is persuaded to go to school (briefly) and gets a bit carried away with her drawing, does some entertaining up an oak tree,

rides bareback at the circus and more.

The second book sees Pippi joining school again – but only to provide the ‘jollification’ on an outing. Other adventures include a face-to-face encounter with a tiger and a surprise visit from Pippi’s dad. Finally Pippi has the chance to accompany her father on his travels. Will she bid farewell to Annika and Tommy and sail away or remain at Villa Villekulla? It’s a difficult choice to make …

The third title is the last of the original Pippi books. Herein Pippi organises a quiz

and then as autumn turns to winter, she invites Tommy and Annika, (both recovering from measles), to accompany her on a trip to the island where her father is king.

As always there are escapades galore including when Pippi seizes a shark, gives it a good telling off and then hurls it back into the ocean. She also manages to protect the island pearls from a pair of would-be thieves and generally have a wonderful time – until Tommy and Annika decide they want to go home for Christmas. They don’t actually make it in time but as always, Pippi finds a way and they don’t miss out altogether on the festivities.

(Happily the mention of cannibals from the original tales has gone but the anarchic Pippi – celebrating her 75th anniversary this year – will surely never lose her power to delight.)

The Funny Life of Sharks

The Funny Life of Sharks
James Campbell and Rob Jones
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Full of gill-slittingly silly stuff unrelated to the particular elasmobranchs of the title as well as plenty of real sharkish information too, this bonkers book is one to dip in and out of – unless that is, you are a total shark addict and then you might go for total immersion.

Or perhaps you’d rather make your own way through using the different options signposted on almost all the spreads. Trying to do that left this reviewer’s brain starting to feel like not-properly-set jelly.

Another consideration is one of how to classify the book: is it non-fiction or fiction. It’s really hard to decide and anyway, does it really matter? It’s hilarious either way and cleverly interactive to boot.

Moreover it includes pretty much everything you would ever need to know about sharks and a whole lot more you definitely wouldn’t;

but you may well end up so befuddled that you’re unable to tell which is which.

Take for instance, that there are three main kinds of shark attack:  the hit and run variety (I can’t quite work out who or what might be doing any running however); the bump and bite type during which the decision is made about whether or not you become a shark’s dinner and thirdly, there’s the deadly sneak attack.

Apparently great white sharks catch seals using that method, approaching them at 50kmph.

Of course no self-respecting shark book would omit what is frequently child readers’ favourite topic – poo; so James Campbell has obligingly included a poo spread. Thereon you’ll discover that shark poo is ejected ‘like a liquid bottom burp.

Moreover shark poo is an important part of the ecosystem. Really truly.

To finish, let me just say, this whole inventive compilation – liberally littered with Rob Jones drawings – is cartilageniously crazy and particularly perfect for selachimorphaphiles as well as bibliophobes who need their reads in easily digestible bite-sized chunks.

The Boy Who Dreamed of Dragons

The Boy Who Dreamed of Dragons
Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Piccadilly Press

Dragon dreamer Tomas is back for a fourth tale. Now his special dragon Flicker has gone to live in his true dragon home in the frosty North and only comes on occasional short visits but the dragon-fruit tree in Grandad’s garden has just produced a bumper crop of fruits and that means more potential dragon adventures.

As this story starts Tomas and another of the superhero squad, Ted, discover an unhatched fruit on the ground that narrowly escapes being squashed to oblivion.

When it eventually hatches, a tiny sky blue and silver creature suddenly whizzes into action appearing to be super-charged as it zizzes about like there’s no tomorrow. There is of course, and one of the things Tomas must do is to nurture all those little dragon-fruit seedlings to keep alive the hope of another dragon-fruit tree that actually grows dragons.

Before long it’s evident that the recently hatched, havoc wreaking blue dragon has taken a liking to Tomas and is sticking with him.  Little sister Lolli, aptly names the creature Zing.

Not only has Tomas to contend with Zing, there’s also the question of his own dragon costume for the school dress up day and then a new girl shows up wearing an absolutely amazing one.

To further add to his troubles, two of the squad, twins Kat and Kai announce that they’re shortly moving to China and next day Aura claims to ‘know all there is to know about dragons.’
Her claim soon leads to an explosive outburst from Tomas.

This results in the revelation of a secret he’d intended to keep quiet about, the details of which I won’t divulge. Instead I’ll mention that streams of sweet-scented farts and a fair spattering of poo are part and parcel of subsequent events.

Like the previous adventures, this is a delightful mix of zany humour, warmth, mayhem, touches of magic and more. Once again Sara Ogilvie’s wonderful illustrations add to the book’s appeal and another good thing: by all accounts, the series isn’t over yet.

Kevin’s Great Escape

Kevin’s Great Escape
Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre
Oxford University Press

Roly-poly pony Kevin returns in a new adventure with Max and his family; he’s still as biscuit-obsessed as ever, his particular penchant remaining custard creams.

In this story Max’s sister is totally obsessed with pop idol Misty Twiglet, so much so that she persuades Kevin (guess how) to take her to see Misty’s new abode about thirty minutes flight time from Bumbleford.

Misty seems to be a charmer, but the consequence of this visit is that Kevin is pony-napped. That leaves Max and Daisy to devise a rescue operation – aided and abetted by some of Kevin’s magical creature friends perhaps.

There are some terrific new characters to meet, not least a cardigan-loving faun unsurprisingly called Cardigan Faun, a bespectacled mermaid named Iris,

Cedric the centaur, gorgon, Zola (groan) and a tiny dragon, Belling – all captive too.

But we mustn’t forget Misty’s manager, the dastardly, devious Baz Gumption

and her enormous butler Lumphammer; oh! and the character on page 10, Nobbly Nora is definitely not to be missed.

Philip Reeve’s story is just as magical and just as hilariously brilliant (read aloud or read alone) as The Legend of Kevin (another must read if you’ve not done so). Once again Sarah McIntyre’s two-colour illustrations are totally terrific and as yummy as all those biscuits that actually were not why Kevin Goes Pop in the final chapter.