The Great Cake Race / Sindhu and Jeet’s Missing Star Mystery / Time Travel at Puddle Lane

These are three additions to the Bloomsbury Readers series – thanks to the publisher for sending them for review.

The Great Cake Race
Teresa Heapy, illustrated by Erica Salcedo
Sindhu and Jeet’s Missing Star Mystery
Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Amber Huq
Time Travel at Puddle Lane
Emma Shevah, illustrated by Laura Catalán
Bloomsbury Education

In the first story Jamila sees a note announcing The Great Cake Race ‘fastest cake wins’ she reads. Now she knows that she’s a fast runner but something of a novice at cake making. However she resolves to create a cake like no other and to do so in honour of her beloved Nani. With her name on the list of entrants all that remains is to learn how to bake. With her dad to help and memories of what her Nani used to say, off she goes but her initial attempts are pretty disastrous. Maybe that box containing Nani’s baking books might just be what she needs. With Nani in her mind, can Jamila create something truly spectacular and beat the person who has won the title for several years in a row?
An unlikely story but one that with its determined little girl as main character is great fun especially for those readers just starting to fly solo. Erica Salcedo’s black and white illustrations are a delight.

Rather more challenging is the second set of adventures of detective duo Sindhu and Jeet. The first of the three mysteries involves working out which of two wills of a deceased neighbour is the valid one. The outcome can make a big difference to one human and a lot of rescue dogs.
The second story involves a missing film star, Ranjith Kumar who disappears on the day he is supposed to make a TV appearance. Where has he gone and why has he vanished? Readers may well be surprised when they find out.
In the third story a precious emerald ring is missing on the day of the wedding although the bride-to-be swears she put it safely away in a wooden box the previous evening. Can the children discover what has happened to it so that the wedding can go ahead as scheduled?
Readers will find out something about South Indian traditions as they read these three enjoyable episodes.

Time Travel at Puddle Lane refers to what two friends, Ariella and Yusef, suspect their school librarian is doing when they notice the sooty state of her clothes and her filthy fingernails on several occasions. They decide to investigate using the same means as that they suspect Miss Riche uses – by taking an artefact from the school’s collection kept in a cabinet in the library and going through a door that’s always kept locked. The soap dish the children use transports them to early 19th century London where they have an exciting adventure, are helped by some very kind people, meet their school’s founder when she was just a child and discover things about slavery. An unusual tale that will likely leave KS2 readers hoping for further time travelling adventures of the friends, perhaps in the company of their school librarian.

Always, Clementine

Always, Clementine
Carlie Sorosiak
Nosy Crow

Clementine is a mouse, an extraordinary one. On account of her altered DNA, from the day of her birth she’s been thinking about prime numbers, sometimes uses Latin and is able to sign to her friend. This amazing book is made up of imaginary letters written from this mega-intelligent mouse to her much-loved chimpanzee friend, Rosie, left behind when she escapes from a research lab. This is thanks to a research assistant who feeling guilty about her treatment, smuggles her and another mouse out of the lab, depositing them in a nearby mailbox. Clementine’s series of reports to Rosie, tell of the wonders of the outside world.

She’s discovered by the kindly Pops and his grandson Gus who on hearing of the large reward being offered for the return of the mice, resolve to keep their whereabouts a secret. This is particularly difficult when they receive a visit from the lab, on account of Clementine’s raspberry aroma. Having considered possible options, Pops decides in an unlikely consultation with Clementine that the best plan is to teach the mouse to play chess and then televise a match, with the intention of creating a public outcry against the lab. A few days later Clementine defeats not one, but five human players simultaneously. Is she now safe?

Clearly interwoven with the main storyline are other issues. The other mouse escapee, Hamlet, also has an amazing talent that is slower to reveal itself than Clementine’s; however it turns out he’s an amazing architect and using wood chips constructs a model of Notre Dame. Thus another issue to ponder is that of alternative kinds of intelligence. So too is why Pops, an erstwhile chess champion, hasn’t played for many years. We discover the reason is a personal one as we do that Clementine too has an image issue.

Friendship and love are key in this poignant, sometimes gently humorous book, as are the importance of social justice and what true goodness really means. Be prepared to lose your heart to Clementine as she bares her soul in her letters. The book ends on an optimistic note and a realisation that each of us must work out our own definition of goodness. Truly awesome writing.

Beyond the Frozen Horizon

Beyond the Frozen Horizon
Nicola Penfold
Little Tiger

Prepare to be chilled to the bone and not just on account of the setting of this gripping story.
The setting being a hopeful 2030 when humans have taken huge leaps to avoid climate disaster, passing Universal Climate Laws and creating Wilderness Zones to save wildlife and absorb carbon. However, the recovery is still all too fragile. Rory, who is finding life at home and school difficult, accompanies her environmental geologist mother, to the Arctic Wilderness Zone to approve Greenlight’s plans to extract from there, the rare earth metals which will be used for ‘clean’ transport and technology. So she believes when she accepts this once in a lifetime opportunity for herself and Rory, who will be able to see those northern animals she’s dreamed of.

The local people in the town of Pyramiden, who live in harmony with the beautiful, harsh and dangerous environment are becoming increasingly suspicious of Greenlight’s activities and Rory struggles to try and fit in with them. However eventually after experiencing some supernatural happenings, she makes friends with one local boy, Mikkal, and together they strive to discover the truth about what is really happening and pass it on to Rory’s increasingly stressed mother before it’s too late. Perhaps in so doing they will be able to bring peace to the ghosts of the past.

This is such a powerful environmental story, full of atmosphere, a build up of tension you can almost feel, with some dangerous events and some totally credible characters. Most important, it’s a brilliant portrayal of corporate greed and ‘greenwashing’ that is surely a wake-up call to all of us: the precious environment must be protected and we must change our ways before it’s too late. Anyone who cares about the Arctic and the environment in general will want to read this, but then pass it on to those who have yet to wake up to the crisis.

Narwhal’s School of Awesomeness / The Lola Bee Bop / The Snotty Dribbler

Narwhal’s School of Awesomeness
Ben Clanton

School has never been so much fun as it is when having followed the fishy pupils (love their names) of the Aquatic Academy to their place of learning, Narwhal and Jelly find that lessons are cancelled on account of staff sickness and volunteer to become substitute educators – Narwhal as Professor Knowell and Jelly as his ‘sort of super teacher’.

The first subject the best friends offer is Wafflematics – a tasty way of learning about basic addition if you’re a fish

(and a splendid incidental vocabulary lesson for readers of this sixth Jelly and Narwhal book). Next up is a spot of science, which takes the form of a fact-finding scavenger hunt with the class split into two teams and a yummy surprise for the winners.

Break is spent playing a game of Tag and then, when it’s a toss up between Jelly’s art and Narwhal’s writing as the next lesson, what better way to settle their difference of opinion than with a comic, co-created by teachers and class members – a new episode of the Super Waffle and Strawberry Sidekick Comic series involving a teacher-eating mucus monster. Everybody has so much fun that the day whizzes by in the flash of a fin: assuredly the teaching is unconventional (something that often works well if you happen to be doing a bit of supply in an unknown school); and of course, each lesson is taught with Jelly and Narwhal’s own brand of humour and positivity (further requisites of supply teaching, I suggest). I wonder what grade Narwhal receives from his teacher – that you’ll have to find out from this fun-packed, fact-filled book.

Some of the fun comes from the way that when one fish says something, each of the others responds with a synonym or variation on the word – incidental learning of the memorable kind for young readers. A gigglesome delight from start to FIN!

The Lola Bee Bop
John Dougherty, illustrated by Pauline Gregory
The Snotty Dribbler
Effua Gleed, illustrated by Kamala Nair
Bloomsbury Education

These are additions to the Bloomsbury Young Readers series.
Told in rhyme the engaging jaunty The Lola Bee Bop tells of Lola, a bee that just can’t resist waggling her bottom in bee bop time as she works hard among the flowers. When distaster strikes in the form of their favourite flowers being mown, at the queen’s behest Lola joins her fellow bees in search of more blooms from which to collect nectar and pollen. Eventually they find just the ideal field, collect the necessary and return to the hive. But how will they ever find the way back to those flowers again?

Could this be where Lola’s waggling really comes into its own?

Lots of fun, some gentle scientific learning and splendidly expressive illustrations by Pauline Gregory.

The Snotty Dribbler is seven year old Blay’s name for his baby sister who at fifteen months old frequently annoys her brother intensely especially with her snot, dribbles and fits of crying just when it’s his TV watching time. Oh how Blay wishes for some time apart from this little person. But then when something happens causing baby Bethany to need to spend the night in hospital with his mother, he really starts to miss her; clearly he doesn’t mind her as much as he’d first thought.

A new sibling story, sweetly and simply related with Blay’s emotions evident throughout, made all the more so through Kamala Nair’s bold illustrations.

The Mooncatcher’s Rescue / The View from the Very Best House in Town

There are two fiction titles for older primary age readers from Walker Books – thanks to the publisher for sending them for review.

The Mooncatcher’s Rescue
Karen Lamb, illustrated by Lia Visirin

Something of a loner, River is a boy who likes going mooncatching, skimming his net over the reflections of the night sky in the Bigdeepby village pond. One night while so doing he accidentally awakens the ghost of Mona Brightly and learns that she drowned in that spot and is now searching for her lost treasure so she can go and join her erstwhile husband Raphty. She suggests River dip his net again and what does he pull out but a badger. Not the toy he first thinks it is but a real one that Mona says is an old friend of hers called Boot and that River should take it home with him.

Next morning there’s lots of talk outside class about ghosts in the pond, but then in the classroom is a new girl Kaleisha, who serves as a temporary distraction from the ghosty discussion and gives River hope that he might finally have found a friend in this new girl.
Next time River meets Mona, she talks of a dastardly pirate, one Dashbuckle Fearless, also on the hunt for her treasure and the lad becomes determined to find Mona’s lost treasure before the pirate.

Absolutely full of heart, this magical, sometimes funny adventure is superbly imagined and shows that sometimes friendship can be found in the most unlikely places. Lia Visirin’s splendid black and white illustrations add an additional sprinkling of enchantment to the telling.

The View from the Very Best House in Town
Meera Trehan

Sam and Asha have been best friends for years; they both have an autism diagnosis and each has a special, intense interest. Sam’s is in killing Screech-Leeches in his favourite Househaunt game, Asha’s obsession is with architecture, in particular that of Donneybrooke, the mansion that overlooks the town where she lives. Said mansion is home to Prestyn who is Asha’s arch enemy. (Asha has been banned from visiting since an incident at a party some years before).The story is told from three viewpoints, those of Sam, Asha and the mansion, Donneybrooke.

When Sam is accepted at the prestigious Castleton Academy, everything starts to fall apart between the two friends. After they work together on a school project, Prestyn appears to be befriending Sam but has she a hidden motive in inviting him to her home? Sam feels conflicted: he’s not telling his mother where he really goes instead of football and he knows he’s starting to ignore Asha, but finds Prestyn’s invitations to Donneybrooke hard to resist; she’s certainly very manipulative. It’s when her mind games put Sam in real danger that he realises there’s only one person he can really trust. That person is Asha and he calls out to her.

I felt myself growing increasingly angry at the unkind way some pupils, and adults too, treated both neurodivergent youngsters, but sadly this does reflect real life and this story – a friendship tale with a thriller element is definitely one that will make readers ponder upon what makes a true friend, as well as what is a real home. Powerful indeed.

Rosie Raja: Churchill’s Spy / The Secret School Invasion

Rosie Raja: Churchill’s Spy
Sufiya Ahmed
Bloomsbury Education

Set in Word War 2 this is a thrilling read, a historical adventure that presents the oft-overlooked role of Indian people in the war and is told from the viewpoint of young Rosie, a strong-willed, brave Muslim girl who until early in 1941 lived in a palace in India, the princess daughter of an English father, a Captain in the British Indian army and an Indian mother. As the story opens her Mama has died and she’s in England with her father, unhappy about her new restricted village life and often left alone by her Papa.

So when she overhears a discussion between her Papa and his guests during which she discovers that he is about to depart for France to spy for the British government, she seizes the chance and stows away in his plane to occupied Paris. Her Papa decides not to send her back to England and Rosie finds herself surrounded by secrets, lies and spies; but Rosie is an eager, fast learner who is ready to give her all to the cause of what is right.

Vividly told, there’s action aplenty, much bravery and a betrayal. We also learn something of the Indian Independence movement including the role of women, in particular Rosie’s aunt, Rani-K, as well as the actions of those in the British Empire. An enthralling story and one that would make a wonderful class read for upper KS2 classes studying WW2.

The Secret School Invasion
Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham
Nosy Crow

Always expect high drama when in the company of Izzy and her friends Jodi, Zach and Maisie. Now they are faced with yet another far out crisis: their school is to be amalgamated with St Balthazar’s, their ARCH-ENEMIES. Shock horror! Followed almost immediately by chaos and shortly after by the sound of marching feet and Mr Graves’ whisper of “They’re here. Save us all.”

In come the new pupils with their perfect blazers, shiny shoes huge creepy smiles. Even worse though is when our four friends enter their classroom and discover that sitting at their desks are four of the newbies. Let’s say that Miss Jones’s comment “… I know this isn’t ideal” does not go down well with Izzy et al. especially as it’s obvious that said teacher is actually freaking out at the present situation. So too are Izzy, Jodi, Maisie and Zach when they notice that four of the newcomers look pretty much identical to them. Time to call an urgent secret meeting.

But that is just the start of things: these new ‘Super Pupils’ definitely need investigating, if as it seems, they’re not just spying but planning on taking over the entire school. And that must be stopped at all costs.

As always Pamela Butchart shows to perfection the way her young characters allow their imaginations to run wild, conjuring up the most preposterous possibilities, possibilities that Thomas Flintham underscores in his zany illustrations that add another layer of crazy fun. A splendid, frequently hilarious, back-to-school read.

Sona Sharma: A Friend Indeed / Barry Loser Worst School Trip Ever

Sona Sharma: A Friend Indeed
Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Jen Khatun
Walker Books

Sona is in a state of emotional turmoil. Her family is busy planning a first birthday celebration for her little sister Minmini causing Sona to feel left out and her class teacher has just announced an election for their class leader. Sona puts herself forward to stand as she wants to prevent Pradeep from becoming their leader but this has caused her to be at odds with both of her best friends. Joy has also put herself up as a candidate and Renu seems to be taking her side. This is one of those instances when Sona has acted before thinking things through and now she must face fighting against her best friend whom she knows would be a great class leader.

Can her beloved stuffed toy Elephant and the President (Sona’s other grandmother) help her decide what to do so that the rift between the three girls can be healed allowing them all to enjoy doing something special for Minmini’s birthday?

Set in Tamil Nadu, as always with these stories warmth, loving relationships and gentle humour are key ingredients, and readers also learn something of the traditions and foods of Sona’s Hindu family. A delightful addition to this series of illustrated chapter books for younger readers.

Barry Loser Worst School Trip Ever
Jim Smith

The Barry Loser series reaches its stupendously silly ninth book with this one. Now with baby brother Desmond most decidedly ruling the household at breakfast time, Barry sets out for school anticipating a dreadfully boring visit to a museum with his classmates; the aim being to find out about the history of television.

It seems as though Barry’s worst fears about the trip will be realised unless he and his mates can pull off their plan; the intention being to sneak out of the museum and onto the set of Future Ratboy

What unfolds is not quite what Barry hopes but there’s a plethora of daft pranks, one involving a gathering of grannies in a loo queue, a grossness of egg and cress sandwiches of the minuscule kind and a large spattering of jokes about bodily functions, as well as a crazy cartoonish drawing on each page, all of which fans of the stories will love.

Amari and the Great Game

Amari and the Great Game
B.B. Alston

In this second book starring Amari Peters, the young magician turned thirteen and almost a year has passed since she proved that magicians can be good. Now as a Junior Agent at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, excited to be there for her summer internship, she has another mystery to solve. Following a time freeze that’s over in a moment, the Supernatural World Congress is trapped in time as are many of Georgia’s schools. Who can be responsible for such a terrible happening – a powerful magician? That is definitely the belief of the new temporary heads of the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs.

Turning to the secret League of Magicians in the hope of receiving help, Amari receives instead the
offer of the Crown of Count Vladimir. However she doesn’t feel ready to accept the powers that come with this and so turns it down. This allows another to step forward, someone with very dangerous plans. Nevertheless, in a determined attempt to save her brother from the curse he is under and to prevent war between the League and the Bureau, she agrees to face the other challenger in the Great Game, the winner of which takes the crown. So begins the deadly competition. Fortunately for Amari, her best friend Elsie (who, she has just learned, is heading off to Oxford for a year) and some other allies are there to help her save the world again.

Combining magic and realism, B.B. Alston’s superbly crafted first person narrative is a terrific sequel, adroitly interweaving magic with real-world issues of discrimination and mis-information. Exciting and hugely satisfying, this is a truly immersive read with some wonderful characters.

Mouse & Mole Clink, Clank, Clunk!

Mouse & Mole Clink, Clank, Clunk!
Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew

It’s always a pleasure to be in the company of Mouse and Mole and this book contains three brand new stories. In the first, Clink, Clank, Clunk, Mouse, relaxing in his hammock with a book suddenly hears a horrible noise coming from the direction of the shed. There he finds Mole tinkering with their motorbike. Informing his friend that one is supposed to do this from time to time, Mole proceeds to dismantle the entire machine and try as they might, the two just can’t put it back together. Along comes Fox who offers to take it off their hands giving them instead a balloon each. Is that the last the friends will see of that motorbike though?

Next, Mole is very troubled about the possibility of Something on the Roof, talking of sleepwalking, a bird nesting in the chimney and others of his thoughts. Can a ripe rosy apple help such notions to disappear?

In A Frisky Fluttery Ghost Mouse has to wait a very long time to share the crispy buttery toast he’s made for breakfast and so while his friend continues to slumber, he hangs out some washing. Once again Mole lets his thinking turn into worrying when he eventually wakes up, looks out of the window and even causes Mouse get an attack of the frights.

Just the thing to share with young children as well as for those beginning to read independently to try as a solo read. Either way, James Mayhew’s superbly expressive illustrations capture the ups and downs of the characters’ everyday life together just perfectly. A delight for both children and adults.

Alcatoe and the Turnip Child

Alcatoe and the Turnip Child
Isaac Lenkiewicz
Flying Eye Books

I am a huge fan of vegetables but those grown underground are just not my thing. Nonetheless, I immediately found myself rooting for the Turnip Child in Isaac Lenkiewicz’s magical story told in comic format.

The setting is Plum Woods where spells come alive and witches gather for the Annual Harvest Festival to celebrate the season. Therein among others, resides reclusive Alcatoe the witch who acts as narrator for the tale. There’s also the grumpy Mr Pokeweed, reputedly half goblin who has his eyes firmly set on the main prize at the harvest festival pageant and the local children, three in particular – Emma, Chris and Holly – who are determined to beat him.

Fortunately for them, they come upon a hat belonging to Alcatoe on their way to school and that gives them a perfect reason to visit the witch and enlist her help in growing a prize-winning turnip.

Happily Alcatoe knows just the right ingredients to make magic happen and she wants to get her own back on the one in charge of the pageant; but the three children must gather the items for themselves. Off they go in search of the tail hair of a copycat, the sneeze of a donkey and a chocolate bar.

However, operation champion turnip works just a little too well, astonishingly so for the children.
Can disaster be averted? Perhaps, but only if Alcatoe comes to the rescue – again!

Start with a large amount of creative talent, add several spoonfuls of magic, umpteen vegetables, sprinklings from the condiment containers, drams of determination and the result is one cute character, a fair bit of mayhem and a wonderfully funny, tremendously tasty tale.

Dead Good Detectives / The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries: Drama and Danger

These are exciting detective stories recently published by Farshore – thanks to the publisher for sending them for review.

Dead Good Detectives
Jenny McLachlan, illustrated by Chloe Dominique

Here is something completely different from the author of the fabulous ROAR series and it’s way more than ‘dead good’, this is dead fantastic. It features twelve year old Sid Jones who lives with her dad who runs the miniatures museum in the the town of Fathom. Sid has a terrific imagination, a liking for maps and spends a lot of time hanging out in the graveyard with her best friend, the clever, eccentric Zen. Sometimes though she gets embarrassed by his behaviour and slowly starts to avoid his company particularly when she accidentally calls forth a 300-year-old pirate ghost, Bones, by means of a Crunchie bar and a red gel pen as her town prepares for its annual Pirate Day extravaganza.

Bones starts to follow her around, calling her magical for releasing him from his imprisonment in Halfway House, and irritatingly talking of his lost treasure. The peculiar establishment is full of lost souls in limbo trapped by landlord Old Scratch, a truly menacing character and now Sid’s help is required to assist Bones in his search for the treasure, thus allowing him to leave the world of the living at long last.
Time is running out: can Sid and Zen help Ezekiel ‘Bones’ Kittow before it’s too late.

A super piratical adventure – in the words of Bones, ‘a rollicking caper’ it certainly is, but it’s also a tale of being strong enough to be your true self as you grow up, however unconventional that may be. The dead good news is that there’s more to come of the DGD soon, meanwhile chips with curry sauce are the order of the day.

The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries: Drama and Danger
J.T.Williams, illustrated by Simone Douglas

Set in London towards the end of the eighteenth century, this is a riveting tale from author J.T. Williams who is new to me,. It’s particularly unusual as the two main protagonists are black girls, Lizzie Sancho, age twelve, and her new friend from an aristocratic family, Dido Belle. We follow the girls as they try to discover who attempted to murder Lizzie’s father, Ignatius, as he was about to make his debut as Othello at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. (Both Dido Belle and Ignatius Sancho were real people.)

There’s high drama indeed as people they know start disappearing; it’s difficult for the girls to know who to trust but they do know there’s a tall shadowy figure lurking and watching them. There are surprises for Lizzie when she discovers things about some of her own family members she wasn’t previously aware of.

Through these enormously likeable, determined people we learn something of the experiences of Black British people in the 18th century, the British slave trade and how some people were striving towards the total emancipation of people of African descent.

A vivid, superbly told historical adventure that is fast paced, unpredictable and filled with genuine peril. With super black and white illustrations by Simone Douglas, I definitely recommend it for older primary readers and beyond. At the end of the book something happens that sets the scene for Lizzie and Belle’s next adventure: I look forward to it eagerly.

A Flash of Fireflies / Space Blasters: Suzie Saves the Universe

Two recent fiction titles from Farshore – thank you to the publisher for sending them for review.

A Flash of Fireflies
Aisha Bushby

We join twelve year old Hazel Al-Otaibi as she travels from Kuwait to England to stay with her great aunt (Grant as she calls her) in her fairy tale cottage in a village until her parents join her. She also has to attend summer school three days a week. Adjusting to her new, strange-seeming life triggers the return of Hazel’s fireflies that had constantly troubled her with demands and challenges when she was younger, leading her once again into compulsive, repetitive behaviours.

At summer school the project is fairytales and the teacher talks of the themes and typical tropes that go along with these popular tales and Hazel and her friend Ruby start their research into the deep dark forests, curses and enchantments contained therein. Hazel feels herself drawn into a frightening adventure of her own where she needs to fulfil increasingly challenging tasks and quests.

Adult readers see that this is the author’s brilliant and sensitive way of presenting what it’s like to live with the despair and compulsions of OCD, while younger readers are given the space to interpret what they are ready for as Hazel’s real and fantasy worlds intertwine. Hazel herself has support from Ruby, her teacher and Grant, who has ways of her own to deal with similar challenges.

By delving into the fairy tale world and exploring its tropes and patterns through new lenses, Hazel feels able to begin to take control and change her narrative: finding the inner strength to share her own story with Ruby and Grant is a vital step to challenging the hold the fireflies have on her.

Thought-provoking, magical, totally original and utterly compelling.

Space Blasters: Suzie Saves the Universe
Katie & Kevin Tsang, illustrated by Amy Nguyen

Meet young Suzie Wen with her head absolutely bursting with amazing ideas but feeling down because her best friend has recently moved right away and with a ban or supposed ban on building any new inventions, she is certainly not enjoying the school holidays. To liven things up she starts watching Space Blasters, her favourite TV series but before you can say ‘Super 3-D TV Gizmo’ she finds herself actually in the series aboard an actual spacecraft, TUBS. A surprise for Suzie but equally for the crew, Captain Jane, Spaceman Jack and Five-Eyed Frank the green alien. However they welcome her, with the exception of Frank who seems put out by the unexpected arrival of a small human, calling her a spy.

Before long though Suzie is feeling part of that crew and on an exciting mission, for it transpires that three moons have gone missing. This enables her to visit three planets, each with weird inhabitants. Then a situation occurs that means Suzie has to step up as Jack and Jane are unavailable for action, perhaps now she can win over Frank at last and play a vital part in finding those moons and saving the universe.

As the story concludes Suzie receives an invitation to remain aboard the spaceship for one more universe saving mission, which nicely sets us up for the next book.

Emphasising Suzie’s inventive talents, this is a fun story sprinkled with Amy Nguyen otherworldly black and white illustrations and with fact boxes of science information to spark readers’ interest.

Alice Eclair Spy Extraordinaire!: A Recipe for Trouble / Mouse Heart

These are two gripping adventures set in the past – thanks to Nosy Crow the publisher for sending them for review.

Alice Eclair Spy Extraordinaire!: A Recipe for Trouble
Sarah Todd Taylor

This adventure story is set in 1930s France and stars thirteen year old Alice Éclair who despite her young age, is a highly skilled cake maker and decorator at Paris’s famous pâtisserie, Vive Comme L’Éclair run by her widowed mother. During the day Alice creates scrumptious masterpieces, cakes and pastries for her mother’s fortunate customers. However this girl, aka Little Phantom, also has a burgeoning talent: for several months, she has been leading a double life training as a secret agent. Who the spymaster is, she doesn’t know, but she has her suspicions. 

Then comes the possibility of an exciting mission and Alice truly wants to undertake it for her country. A spy will be travelling on France’s most glamorous train, The Sapphire Express but she of course cannot be a passenger, instead she uses her powers of persuasion and her baking talent to obtain a job as pâtissière aboard the express, Monte Carlo bound. All she has to do now is satisfy the maître d’ and keep her eyes wide open so she can spot the spy L’Anguille without arousing any suspicions. No easy task, in fact it’s a series of challenges especially as the passengers all appear to have secrets; can she trust anybody at all?

The plot – in cake mix style – thickens as she narrowly escapes discovery, putting her very life in danger in a culinary, code-cracking extravaganza confected by Sarah Todd Taylor that makes truly enthralling reading. Grab yourself a chunk of cake, a mug of coffee (iced, if this weather continues) and be prepared for thrills and spills aplenty: satisfaction guaranteed, especially as its finale paves the way for further treats and a new mission for Alice.

Mouse Heart
Fleur Hitchcock

This thrilling tale is set in the reign of Queen Ann 11 and stars thirteen year old Mouse. Mouse by name but anything but by nature, this foundling lives contentedly with the Hawkins family in the Moth Theatre beside the river in Bristol, along with other actors – Walter, Ambrose and Valentina. The Hawkins have two children, Eve who continually makes trouble for Mouse and her kinder brother.

One day a blood-spattered Walter rushes into the theatre saying he’s seen a murdered woman; he tries unsuccessfully to hide himself but is then arrested for the murder and taken off to prison. Certain that her friend Walter is no killer, Mouse determines to find out who did murder Lady Grey. In the meantime she takes food to Walter every night, cooked by Kwadwo a runaway who is hiding in the theatre, mending and cooking for the residents.

However, as further killings take place, the stakes are raised as the plot twists and turns, with Mouse unsure who she can trust but having a strong feeling that Valentina who is behaving very strangely, is the likely murderer. If so, how can she unmask her? Her investigation leads her into some extremely dangerous situations, but it’s not only her own life that is threatened by this mysterious cold-blooded killer. Mouse must be cunning, swift and fearless if she’s to keep those she loves safe!

Another breathtaking thriller from Fleur Hitchcock: full of period atmosphere and theatrical detail, this gripping drama will certainly have readers on the edge of their seats until the curtain finally falls – or perhaps it doesn’t …

Monster Hunting for Beginners

Monster Hunting for Beginners
Ian Mark, illustrated by Louis Ghibault

Monster hunting is far from easy, so says Jack and he’s in a position to know, for a scary green ogre has appeared in his garden intent on eating his Aunt Prudence. Jack is no fan of this mean woman who has turned up telling the lad that his highly protective dad has gone off on a round-the-world voyage and asked her to look after him till he returns. Very suspicious and entirely out of character for his risk-averse dad. Hmm. However, Jack seemingly kills said ogre and then looking down as instructed by a sudden voice, finds it belongs to a tiny bearded man who introduces himself as Stoop, a monster hunter of two hundred years standing. This grumpy man hands him a strange book thus making Jack his apprentice, which is far from what Jack wants; he needs to find his father not go hunting monsters. 

Nonetheless he accepts the role, is kitted out and before you can say ‘King’s Nooze’ he’s off to Cornwall where there’s a ‘Category Four ‘ emergency. Now all he has to help is that Monster Hunting for Beginners book, his wits and his catapult. Is he the hero they’re all eagerly waiting for? Perhaps young Nancy can help and Humbert the bear – he may or may not have a magic harp.

With a fair amount of burping, flatulence and delicious silliness, author Ian Mark’s debut novel is packed with danger, mayhem, marvellous beasties such as crusted hairy snot nibblers, ogres galore, wonderful characters especially Jack who is essentially just a normal kid, plus its sprinkling of traditional fairytale twists, surprises too, and Louis Ghibault’s suitably outlandish illustrations, it’s not since Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels starring Tiffany Aching that I have loved a fantasy story so much. Book two can’t come soon enough.

Puppy Club / Kitten Love

Puppy Club
Catherine Jacob, illustrated by Rachael Saunders
Little Tiger

The Puppy Club comprises four fanatical puppy loving friends, Jaya, Elsa, Harper and Willow. They’re all thrilled to learn that Lulu, a relatively new arrival at Underdogs rescue centre owned by Jaya’s Auntie Ashani, and where they help out, is expecting puppies. They’d love a pup each but can they persuade their respective families to adopt one? It doesn’t seem very likely, so to that end they set about ‘Operation PAWfect Puppy. First though they need to decide whether Puppy Club can accommodate two new dog-loving members, Daniel and Arlo, who both appear to have something to offer. 

Oh ‘my woofy word’, the answer is yes. Now all that’s left is to get all those parents on board with the idea of a puppy for each family; it’s certainly going to take a lot of coaxing and convincing but the children are very determined …

With likeable characters, and the seamless embedding of a fair few puppy facts, particularly with regard to adopting a pup, into her narrative, Catherine Jacobs’ story, which cleverly sets readers up for a sequel, is just right for those just starting out on chapter books. Delightful illustrations by Rachael Saunders help break up the text and there’s even a cookie recipe courtesy of Arlo and a dog breed quiz from Daniel and Arlo at the end.

Kitten Love
Holly Webb, illustrated by Sophy Williams
Little Tiger

This bind up of three kitten stories is excellent value for young solo readers who haven’t read the individual books, Lost in the StormThe Curious Kitten and The Homeless Kitten.
Lost in the Storm is young Ella’s kitten Fluff. One snowy day while exploring outside during a snowstorm Fluff can’t find the way home because the snow makes everything familiar look different. She takes refuge in an abandoned house where she discovers a distressed tiny white kitty and the two spend the night together. Meanwhile Ella is distraught as her Fluff isn’t there when she returns from school. Over the weekend Ella searches; she and her pet are eventually reunited but what is Fluff trying to tell Ella? When she too discovers the white furry ball clearly weak and barely breathing, the family must decide if there’s room in that cat basket for one more kitten, if it survives.

The Curious Kitten, Cleo, belongs to Amber. One day her curiosity leads her into a builder’s van when some work is being done across the road and its owner drives off without noticing. The kitten escapes to find herself in a strange new place. Will she ever find her way back to Amber? Perhaps with the help of another kitten lover, George.

Lily has come to love her family’s rescue dog Hugo but what she wants more than anything is a kitten so she’s thrilled to bits when Hugo sniffs out three tiny abandoned kittens in an old sofa while out on his walk in the woods with Lily and her Dad. Even better for Lily is when she hears that the animal shelter has no room for the kittens and as a consequence her parents reluctantly agree to give them a temporary home. Despite all the hard work involved Lily absolutely loves caring for the kittens, especially the little white one she names Stanley. She knows this is only a temporary home for them, though she has a plan to persuade her parents to let her keep Stanley but then things go wrong. Will Stanley become a permanent part of his new family or will he have to go elsewhere? Let’s say there’s an unexpected final twist to The Homeless Kitten

Summer holiday indulgence for cat-loving readers.

The Last Monster / Dennis & Gnasher: Super Slime Spectacular

The Last Monster
Dan Walker
uclan publishing

When it comes to fighting monsters there are none better than the Light Hunters’ young Squad Juno. Lux, who is the Squad’s healer has stopped using his light-hunter powers to heal his teammates in case he accidentally hurts someone again with his strange purple light, a terrible twilight energy that comes from within.

When the team is sent on a new mission to gather information from a professor who is a former light-hunter, they are drawn into a dangerous adventure that is crucial for the fate of the entire world. If killing Monsters is the wrong approach to these creatures, it might mean that the war against them can end. However, their mission is under a terrible threat from Demios who has his own destructive ideas that are in total conflict with those of Luke and the squad. Fortunately though the Light Hunters make new allies as they strive to unearth an ancient secret that might be the key to stopping further monster attacks. So, can they succeed? And what of Luke’s power: after the journey he goes on – physical and mental -will be heal again?

It’s great to return to the Light Hunters’ world for this second adventure. Like the first, the story unfolds at a fast pace with lots of twists and turns, tension aplenty, great danger, dilemmas too; but the emphasis is on friendship, teamwork and trust.

Dennis & Gnasher: Super Slime Spectacular
I.P. Daley, Craig Graham and Mike Sterling, illustrated by Nigel Parkinson

Little does class 3C’s teacher Miss Mistry realise just what she is about to unleash when she announces on the Thursday before the end of term that her pupils haven’t done their science module and consequently must do so on a science-related school trip the very next day,

On said outing Dennis and his partner Khadija, aka Sketch, decide to make their slime recipe one thousand times better than everybody else’s. What in the name of science experimentation could possibly go wrong?

The very next day sludgy slimy goop is ‘pranking’ the whole of Beanotown and in Dennis’s own words . ’at the same time it’s making endless fart noises. It’s like the Attack of the Fifty-Foot Whoopee Cushion!’ But is this all the doing of Dennis et al or could the town’s mayor Wilbur Brown have anything to do with mucous mayhem.

Delicious daftness in novel form that fans of the comic will relish as will chapter book readers who have a fondness for crazy capers.

The Feeling Good Club: Smash Your Worries, Bella / Diary of an Accidental Witch: Ghostly Getaway

These are two Little Tiger books both written in diary form: thanks to the publisher for sending them for review

The Feeling Good Club: Smash Your Worries Bella!
Kelly McKain, illustrated by Jenny Latham

This is the first of a new series, told through the journal of Bella, a Y5 pupil at Cavendish Juniors. As the book opens she’s feeling particularly down as her best friend Rohisha has just moved and to make matters worse, Bella has a Big Worry: she has to give a talk to her class in a few days. Her parents are trying their best to make her feel better but with no success: how is she going to make it through the next six weeks to the summer holidays when Rosh is coming to stay? Their Zoom calls make her feel worse still; her friend only talks about her new situation leaving Bella no opportunity to get a word in edgeways.

However, after a disastrous presentation to her class, during what’s supposed to be Feeling Good Week, Bella begins to bond with two empathetic classmates, Shazmin and Archie and little by little Bella’s confidence grows and she thinks she might even give that talk another go. Then comes a special Feeling Good session from Kris, a parent who is a mindfulness teacher. This is especially useful in helping Bella feel differently about how she reacts to situations and provides some activities to help cope with worries. After all this Bella, Archie and Shazim decide to form the Feeling Good Club.

Now things are definitely looking up but can Bella find the confidence to let Rohisha know how she feels on those Zoom calls and most important can she finally send those worries packing once and for all?

Kelly McKain’s writing shows clearly how well she understands children and their emotions; Bella’s voice is one teachers and parents will recognise, so real does she sound. Equally readers around Bella’s age will understand exactly how she feels as she faces and comes to terms with the challenges presented in this story. It’s one that celebrates everybody’s uniqueness and the power of friendship. The book ends with some mindfulness activities for children. I look forward to hearing more of Bella and her friends.

Diary of an Accidental Witch: Ghostly Getaway
Perdita & Honor Cargill, illustrated by Katie Saunders

Living in Little Spellshire with her weather scientist dad, Bea Black, through whose third diary we share her latest experiences and thoughts, is just into her second term at witch school. She’s mega-excited about the residential school trip and when it’s announced that their destination is Cadabra Castle in the middle of nowhere, Bea is a tad worried about the possibility that it might be haunted. When they arrive there’s a scramble for rooms and Bea, Amara and Winnie end up in a slightly spooky room with a ginormous four-poster bed big enough for three.

The time table they’re given looks very interesting with challenges, quizzes and picnics one of which is followed by a scavenger hunt. Can they succeed in keeping their magic a secret especially when there’s a group of ‘ordinaries’ out hiking who have a special interest in the possibility of a ruined castle. Another challenge is the team building of a shelter – who will win that?

In the final challenge Bea is paired up with Blair – somebody she doesn’t get on with at all – and that in itself is a challenge. However, Bea’s biggest challenge of all is to stop her Dad from finishing his book about Little Spellshire’s micro climate thus preventing the two of them from moving away from the area and the school she loves so much.

This is another winning witchy tale from team Cargill and Saunders. It’s fuelled by cake – a lot of it, friendship, the need for teamwork and the possibility of a ghost: will they actually discover one? You’ll need to get a copy of the book to find out.

PESTS: Battle to the End / The Ape Star

PESTS: Battle to the End
Emer Stamp
Hodder Children’s Books

It’s now the summer term for P.E.S.T.S and when Dr Krapotkin announces the sports night competition, no pupil could be more surprised than Stix when his hyper-cautious Grandma signs the chit allowing him to participate, which means going Outside into the garden. Our favourite mouse is super-excited. Their opponents are to be local arch-rivals and sister school V.E.R.M.I.N and the teams will be vying for the Mexico World Cup 86 trophy (actually an old chipped mug).

Some rigorous training takes place before the big event, the result of which doesn’t leave the PESTS bursting with the confidence Dr Krapotkin had hoped, though she still remains confident her team will win. Perhaps sone positive affirmations might help.

On competition day the PESTS head off to the venue and meet their streetwise opponents and their waspish headteacher Sir Sting-a-lot. After two events the VERMIN have zoomed into the lead and a despondent Stix briefly considers quitting but decides against it and the PESTS pull back to make it 2:2. A tie-breaker is the order of the day. Then suddenly something feels very wrong. Surely it couldn’t have anything to do with the dastardly Professor Armageddon, could it? Perhaps now it’s time for co-operation rather than competition.

With creepy cockroaches, a few smatterings of poo (of various shapes and sizes), an injured Batz, and a singing toy phone, it’s going to be a close call in more ways than one. Never mind the trophy, there’s a very big surprise for Stix when he finally reports back to Grandma.

I found myself laughing out load frequently as I read this hilarious, third PESTS romp and I’m sure the target audience of primary school age readers will do likewise. Love the mischief, love the characters – most of them – and love the droll drawings.

The Ape Star
Frida Nilsson
Gecko Press

Originating in Sweden, this is a story about love of an unconventional kind and being an outsider. It begins with a group of children, freshly washed and adorned, lining up in an orphanage in the hope that one of them will be chosen to be adopted and move to a home of their own. Who though is the visitor that arrives? It’s not a caring mother, nor a rich, charitable person; rather it’s a gorilla standing before the children and the one chosen to accompany the adopter is the narrator, nine year old Jonna who has always dreamed of being part of a loving family.

Now she has to go with this huge creature and goodness knows what might happen, for her adopter lives in a junkyard; but the papers are duly signed and so Jonna has no choice but to climb into the old Volvo with the gorilla whose head is like an overgrown pear.

At the gorilla’s residence Jonna is given a hammock to sleep in and Gorilla sits in her battered armchair reading Dickens. Seemingly the two have more in common than you might imagine; a bond forms between them. Just when the two are getting along just fine a man from the council turns up threatening to send Jonna back to the orphanage.

There’s near heart-break and a surprising discovery but can the combination of Jonna’s courage, perseverance and empathy combined with Gorilla’s compassion, and teamwork prevail over prejudice, greed and dishonesty? Long live books and the power of love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper Boat, Paper Bird

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

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

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

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

and eventually Mina and Mikaya meet one another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Kid to Good Home

Free Kid to Good Home
Hiroshi Ito
Gecko Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Book Will Save the Planet

This Book Will Save the Planet
Dany Sigwalt, illustrated by Aurélia Durand
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

As I sit reading my copy of this book, (it’s part of the Empower the Future series), much of the UK swelters in temperatures of 40 degrees C, wild fires are raging in various parts of the world and people are dying as a result of the heat: it’s clear our planet is in crisis. So Dany Sigwalt’s thought-provoking look at climate change couldn’t be more timely.

Herein she shows how it’s the marginalised communities across the world over that are most affected, stating that it’s those of us among the more privileged who need to use whatever privileges we have to help less fortunate and hence, less powerful people.

All is not quite lost. There is still just enough time for every single one of us to make a difference; by pulling together – mutual support and aid is paramount – and by using Dany’s framework we can all further the cause of climate justice. In order for this to succeed, people must come before profit.
Our precious planet will be protected if all its inhabitants are protected; the people will be protected if the planet is protected.

The vibrant illustrations by Aurélia Durand add to the impact of this hugely pertinent, powerfully presented book. Read it, make sure you do the activities at the end of each chapter and act – NOW! Make that crucial difference.

The Mermaid Call

The Mermaid Call
Alex Cotter
Nosy Crow

This tale of acceptance and bravery, and a multitude of mysteries, offers an entirely new take on mermaids, and with folklore seamlessly woven into the plot, it’s utterly compelling. The voice is that of Vivien; she lives with her grandmother Mimi, who runs a tourist shop, Enchanted Tails, that pays homage to the legend of the Mermaid of the Lake. Other places also rely on the legend of Lake Splendour: Vivien’s friend Eleni’s family owns the chip shop and another friend, Erik’s Dad works in the tourist office, both of which count on tourists for extra trade. Then there’s the traditional Mermaid Crown competition and costume parade soon to be held unless MPs get their way.

Vivien hopes her mum will arrive in time to see her race in the lake; she’s not been home for three years but she’s in for a disappointment when her mother cancels unaccountably, making her daughter’s level of self confidence plummet. Add to that her best friend’s developing friendship with member of the cool crowd, Hero, and the fact that Vivien now feels she falls well short of her glamorous mum’s idea of beauty, she couldn’t feel much lower. It’s only in the water she feels mermaid-like.

So when Vivien meets Alice de Lacey from the big house it feels as though she’s been thrown a life-line, especially as she starts falling out with her old friends Eleni and Erik. But Alice draws Vivien into a very risky adventure and they discover way more than they ever imagined.

At the heart of this wonderful, thought-provoking story is the importance of being true to oneself, standing up for what you believe in, what real friendship means and being kind not only to those around you, but essentially, to yourself –something that’s vital for good mental health. Dive deep the author urges us, don’t rely on shallow superficiality be it related to gender, history or your essential self.

Another unmissable, unputdownable winner from Alex Cotter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragon Storm: Mira and Flameteller
Alastair Chisholm
Nosy Crow

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pancake Champ / The Monster Who Was Scared of Soap

These are new additions to Bloomsbury Young Readers: thanks to Bloomsbury Education for sending them for review

The Pancake Champ
Joanna Nadin, illustrated by Ana Gómez

A new boy at school, Manjit has yet to make any special friends but then he works with Leon and they quickly become good friends. Then comes an invitation to tea from Leon’s dad and the panic begins. He frets about various possibilities, the worst being what he’ll be offered to eat. Nonetheless he agrees to go but then Leon’s dad says it’s pancakes for tea – it couldn’t be a worse prospect. But suppose you have the opportunity to join in the making and even choose the flavour, that might just make all the difference …

An amusing tale of friendship and facing your fears by author Joanna and illustrator Ana that will go down well with learner readers at home or in school.

The Monster Who was Scared of Soap
Amy Sparkes, illustrated by Jack Viant

A very funny tale of Gerald a little monster that hates the idea of a bath and whose mother goes to special lengths to get her little one to comply with her bath time regime. Gerald in response does his level best to get out of the annual watery, soapy situation, dashing out of the house to hide. Will the promise of a special secret surprise lure him to the bathroom and if so what will be the outcome? In Ana Gómez’s bright jolly illustrations Gerald’s mum bears remarkable resemblance to something your granny might have created as a bathroom accessory back in the day. With its surprise finale Amy Sparkes’ addition to Bloomsbury Young Readers series should definitely go down well with learner readers.

Both books have the usual tips for grown-ups and fun-time activities inside the front and back covers respectively.


Nicola Skinner
Harper Collins Children’s Books

Nicola Skinner’s latest book is quite simply gargantuan. Actually though, nothing is simple about this utterly brilliant story.

Eleven year old Minnie Wadlow lives on an island in Quake Quarter, the gated walled city to be more precise: there’s not much wrong with said island if you can ignore the earthquakes that regularly strike, causing buildings to crumble and schools and houses to collapse. Fortunately the island’s inhabitants have come up with the perfect way to fix their crumbling walls: they use giants (one of the two kinds living in the island). These servant giants act as minders for the human children including Minnie: her giant is Speck; but when the girl turns twelve years old, she’ll have to kiss Speck goodbye thus turning her to stone forever. The stone is then used for repairs: all perfectly normal and fair – so Minnie and the other human children have been led to believe; it stands to reason they must never, ever develop any warm feelings towards their giant; nor must there be any secrets between child and giant.

Minnie and her family live in Quake Avenue, at number twelve, the least up market of all the twelve mansions, each of which belongs to an employee of the Giant Management Company and Mr Wadlow is endeavouring (unsuccessfully), to invent something that can stop the earthquakes for good. Minnie is forced by one Mr Straw, to take twice daily doses of medication – painkillers and muscle strengthener so she believes.

Not long after the Goodbye ceremony of Florin and his giant a violent earthquake strikes the island. Minnie quickly realises that despite what she’s been told, she isn’t ready to bid farewell to her giant forever. So, she runs away, thus betraying not only her parents but everyone she knows. She doesn’t remain entirely alone for she encounters first a jackal and then Robin Scragg whom she’d met at Florin’s ceremony..

Her journey becomes a race against time during which she has to face the truth about her island, Speck the giant and crucially, herself and who she really is.

With Flavia Sorrentino’s fantastic illustrations, this is a spectacular tale of letting go of all you thought right and genuine in order to remain true to yourself and your loved ones.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Katy Willacott

The Extraordinary Voyage of Katy Willacott
Sharon Gosling
Little Tiger

This novel with a feminist theme is set in Victorian times; its main character is Katy Willacott, daughter of a botanical taxonomist in the Herbarium at Kew Gardens. Having spent a gap year working in the Herbarium at Kew I suspect I was predisposed to like this book and wow! I absolutely loved it.

Already Katy knows that much as she admires what her mother does and enjoys assisting her, she wants much more out of life than working with dried specimens: her dreams are of
going on great expeditions, finding new wonders and making a name for herself. However she faces a huge obstacle: girls aren’t allowed to do that sort of thing. Then a journalist, the embodiment of the spirit of adventure, Fran Brocklehurst, who is researching an article about women in the sciences tells her of extraordinary women in the world doing extraordinary things, and this acts as a catalyst for Katy.

Almost at the same time though, she learns that her brother is about to depart for Hastings accompanying their father who is leading an expedition there. The day they leave, her grandfather shows Katy a newspaper article about an expedition to Brazil to collect meteorite specimens and she makes up her mind to disguise herself as a boy, head for Southampton and join the crew of the ship Alerte, destination Brazil.

Within a few days, Katy, calling herself William Chandler, has landed herself a job as cabin boy aboard said ship and boy does she have a lot to learn: not least, what is the true mission of the expedition led by Sir Thomas Derby?

After a highly eventful voyage the ship finally reaches its destination and Katy goes her own way. She adds more wonderful friends to those she made at sea and makes some alarming discoveries, as well as having an unexpected meeting as the plot twists and turns.

Katy is a determined, strong, caring and capable character; her journey is one of personal growth too: she learns more about the impact early scientists and collectors are having on the world and she’s faced with some challenging decisions. Many controversial issues are covered that are still relevant today: colonialism, deforestation, the destruction of ecosystems and the impact on the indigenous people; there’s racism and misogyny especially related to STEAM issues.

Katy however is not the only tremendous character: this superb book has several including Fran Brocklehurst, but to meet them all I urge you to get a copy yourself; it’s absolutely full of adventure, excitement, brave people young and not so young, and some truly nasty villains too.

Nura and the Immortal Palace

Nura and the Immortal Palace
Walker Books

Clever, ambitious Nura lives in the fictional Pakistan town of Meerabagh. Since her father died she has worked mining mica to help support her family – her mother, her three younger siblings and herself. In the mine too, toils her best friend Faisal, often teased for his stutter by other child workers. Nura’s mother dreams of sending her to school, but Nura is more interested in treating herself to gulab jamun from her wages and more important saving up to send her younger siblings to school so they can break free of the family’s cycle of poverty. She also wants to find the legendary Demon’s Tongue buried deep within the mines; so doing would certainly solve all the family’s money issues.

When a terrible accident happens burying among others Faisal, Nura goes to the rescue and in so doing she digs too deep causing the earth to collapse over her friend. Digging even deeper, even further to save him, lands Nula in the realm of the jinn, at the opulent Sijj Palace, a jinn hotel. There she finds Faisal, and the two face trickery from the evil jinn, who offer luxuries untold and attempt to manipulate human children into labouring for the hotel; indeed nothing is as it seems. Can Nura outsmart the jinn, thus saving herself and her friends?

Into her wonderful storyworld building, in addition to friendship and magic the author skilfully weaves observations on child labour and poverty, and systems that maintain inequality that are relevant today. The narrative is fast paced and full of action, and with a wealth of lyrical imagery, this superb fantasy shines like the mica glistening in the sunlight that Nura mentions as the story starts. The cover illustration by Hazem Asif is fabulous too. I can’t wait to see what this debut author writes next.

(In her note at the end of the thought-provoking book, she talks of both child poverty in today’s world and of the importance of education as a way of escape from poverty, discrimination and war.)

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

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

Too Small Tola Gets Tough
Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

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

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

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

finding herself working for a super-rich family. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishes Come in Threes

Wishes Come in Threes
Andy Jones
Walker Books

Phyll has recently moved from London to the coast with her mum, which Dad hopes, will help with Mum find her Happy again as our soon to be twelve year old narrator tells us. Mum is a writer and has been suffering from depression for a while and so is unable to provide the emotional support her daughter needs at this challenging time.

Now Phyll has just started attending summer camp near her new home and Camp Sunshine is providing yet another challenge in the form of Hilda and her two pals, who Phyll thinks of as Hilda and the Horribles. On the positive side though, at the camp too is a friendly boy, Clark, with a seashell bracelet and he says he is going to the same high school as Phyll come the autumn.

When rain curtails outside activities, the camp leader offers the opportunity to visit an old folks home, which both Phyll and Clark accept. There she meets the rather mysterious Mr Djinn who talks of pirates, loves to play cribbage, tells her that magic is real and that he’s a genie – an idea she decides to go along with. Phyll also sets up a free dog walking service, helps a woman with a lost dog, longs for a dog of her own and is instrumental in the arrest of a dog-napper.

A lot more happens too but I urge you to get your own copy to discover what. I have to admit to having tears in my eyes as I finished this wonderful story of friendship, self belief, wishes and the possibility of magic. The characterisation is superb: Mr Djinn especially has some powerful things to say, in relation for instance, to the slave trade – ‘the greed of men is a terrible evil.’

My wish having put the book aside is that Andy Jones writes another story as beautiful and moving as this, his first for children.

The Whale Watchers / When Things Went Wild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Offline Diaries / How to Hide an Alien

These are two stories about friendship and its challenges

The Offline Diaries
Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené
Harper Collins Children’s Books

Presented mainly through the diaries of the main characters, Shanice and Ade both in Y8, this funny, fresh contemporary novel follows the ups and downs of the friendship of the two girls.

Ade is about to start at a new school; she has just been forced to move with her mother and sisters to be near her stepdad’s new job and he’s somebody she definitely doesn’t get on with. Shanice.something of a loner, has been at Archbishop Academy for a year, lives with her dad and irritating brother, and to help her cope with her mother’s death, has mostly been spending a fair bit of time at her dad’s salon where she loves to people watch. She has an older brother James who seems to get away with everything. The salon is where the two girls first meet; they appear to have a fair bit in common and decide to chat online.

Things go well at school too until Ade gets involved with the popular, mean, Double-A girls and Shanice feels increasingly left out. Meanwhile Ade attempts to juggle the friendships, but before long she realises she needs to make a decision: who is a real friend? And then what? …

Can Ade and Shanice’s powerful friendship survive if Shanice refuses to have anything to do with Ade: online doesn’t work, Shanice avoids personal contact with Ade; but could a letter help work things out?

This is a captivating and effective combination of diary entries and online chat that will resonate with readers around the age of the two main characters, both of whom are hugely likeable. There’s a feeling of authenticity about the entire thing: it’s relatively easy to make a friend but making up requires the ability to see things from another person’s perspective, and strength of character: these two girls with their distinctive voices, have the latter in bucketloads.

How to Hide an Alien
Karen McCombie
Little Tiger

Star Boy crashed into the school playground and thus the lives of Kiki and Wes in How to be a Human and is now named Stan.

After being on earth just ten days he’s trying hard to learn the rules of being human and understand about emotions, the latter being discouraged among his species. Kiki and Wes too are having to learn quickly – hiding and training an apprentice human’ is far from easy even with the help of Eddie, the owner of the Electrical Emporium. There’s an urgent need to be able to pass their alien pal off as human so that they can all go to the funfair that’s arriving very soon. Bothering Star Boy at the same time is that he’s started experiencing pings and pangs. Equally those electrical surges are hard to hide first from Kiki’s dad but soon they’re causing a growing problem for Wes and Kiki as they create electrical disturbances all across town.

Add to all that, the family situations of Kiki and Wes continue to be challenging, so that makes three characters struggling to find where they belong in this world. But then by accident Star Boy channels his true form onto the interactive whiteboard, not only in Wes’s class but that in every single classroom at Riverside Academy.’ How much of a catastrophe have I caused? he wonders. The school is temporarily closed for starters. Time for some breathing exercises to calm things down a bit.

Before long though come reports of an alien sighting, trending on Instagram and soon Star Boy has gone viral. Another possibility raises its head too: is Star Boy being tracked from whence he came?
Now friendship, empathy and all they mean, are even more crucial than ever if Kiki and Wes are to keep their friend safe. Can Kiki’s mum do anything to help?

Told with gentle humour, this is another totally gripping story that I read in a single sitting: it could be read as a stand alone but it’s even better if you’ve already read How to be a Human.

Neon’s Secret Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wizards’ Banquet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rex: Dinosaur in Disguise

Rex: Dinosaur in Disguise
Elys Dolan
Walker Books

Elys Dolan triumphs again, this time in the form of Rex, an out-of-time dinosaur. By that I mean
that one moment, King of the dinosaurs, he’s happily roaming the swamps of yore and then along comes the Ice Age, he becomes frozen in an ice block, which eventually defrosts and there he is 65 million years later, in New York City, with humans very much in charge. Even worse is the dinosaur exhibition at the museum he comes upon. How on earth will a T.Rex cope?

With considerable difficulty, though fortunately a yeti, Bigfoot, finds him and takes him back to his abode. Bigfoot, who has found his own way to blend in, starts teaching Rex all he needs to know to survive in this world; there are a few basic rules he has to get his head around and most importantly, he needs to find a job. He’s also introduced to Bigfoot’s friends including Nessy and the only remaining dodo family. Nessy is now a lifeguard and the Dodo is “a very successful local businessman.”

With an interfering nine-year-old neighbour to cope with,

and the constant risk of discovery, Rex has a number of near misses before, thanks to some help from a couple of eagle-eyed children, he lands the perfect job.

Crazy, thoughtful comedy reigns. Elys’ writing is brilliantly funny, full of absurd situations and Rex is a captivating character; oh! there’s a super subplot too. The story also has subtle messages about tolerance, letting people live how they wish, and the vital importance of thinking for yourself. Full of giggle worthy details, the subtly coloured cartoon style illustrations are hilarious and there are occasional plans, maps and speech bubbles to keep readers engaged, further adding to the humour.
KS2 readers will devour this.

A Seed Grows

A Seed Grows
Antoinette Portis
Scallywag Press

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

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

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

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

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

The Consequence Girl / The Secrets of Cricket Karlsson

The Consequence Girl
Alastair Chisholm
Nosy Crow

The only writing of Alastair Chisholm I’m familiar with is the super Dragon Storm series for younger readers on account of which, I came to this novel for older readers with high expectations; I definitely wasn’t disappointed. It’s a brilliant fantasy adventure that starts with a prologue introducing Lilith, a mercenary on a mission to rescue a stolen child. With nothing to lose since her soulmate was killed in battle, she’ll stop at nothing to get baby Cora back.

Forward thirteen years, Lilith now goes under the name Seleen. She lives in an isolated mountainside cabin having brought up Cora out of the sight of civilisation. What are they hiding from? Life is hard and there’s often the need to forage for food to add to that Seleen gets from Recon, the nearest settlement.
Cora possesses a gift she’s forbidden to use by Seleen: if she concentrates really hard she can alter outcomes.
One day though Seleen goes alone to Recon, instructing Cora not to let herself be seen; but she hears a cry for help seemingly close by. Disobeying orders Cora comes upon an injured boy, Kai. Why he’s there she knows not. However after running away at first, she resolves to help him, little realising that it’s a life-changing decision. Later as he recuperates in the cabin, Kai tells Cora things about the world that come as a huge surprise. He also tricks Cora into revealing her secret power to him.

As the story continues to unfold we watch Cora develop her powers as she discovers herself, why she was brought up in isolation, and considers the importance of friendship with someone her own age. She also learns about the township system, the powerful people from whom she has been kept hidden and much more. With his observations on power and prejudice that are so relevant to Britain in 2022, the author’s portrayal of government, church, the resistance movement and the use of technology are spot on.

Showing the importance of the choices we make and their consequences, this is a gripping read from beginning to end.

The Secrets of Cricket Karlsson
Kristina Sigunsdotter (translated by Julia Marshall), illustrated by Ester Eriksson
Gecko Press

At the start of this delightfully quirky novel Cricket Karlsson rates her life as pretty good – chickenpox notwithstanding. However after her one hundred and three chicken pox spots, on her return to school a fortnight later, Cricket downgrades her life to a catastrophe for she discovers that her best friend Noa is totally ignoring her, and is now hanging out with the cliquey ‘horse girls’. To make matters even worse, not long after, her much loved Aunt Frannie (an artist as Cricket aspires to be too) has lost her zest for life and is institutionalised in Adult Psychiatric Ward 84.

This means Cricket now has much to cope with and her way of so doing includes hiding in the school bathroom, 

taking every opportunity to pay secret visits to her aunt, spending sleepless nights – the wolf hour, as her Aunt calls this – outside, standing on a bridge tossing jelly-filled water balloons or even cucumbers over the rail. In addition she has to adjust to having only one person at school who wants to have anything to do with her and that’s the extremely boring sweaty boy, Mitten who has decided he’s in love with her.

The narrator tells it exactly like it is from her life currently in turmoil viewpoint, and includes some revealing lists, for instance ‘Secrets I have told only Noa’, one being “ I sometimes shove a sock in my pants and pretend I’m a boy’; and among ‘Presents I’ve had from Mitten’ – ‘Oven mitts he made in sewing’.

Adding to the impact of the writing are Ester Eriksson’s slightly wacky black and white illustrations giving the entire book a journal-like feeling. I love a quirky book and along with the pre-teen uneasiness, this shortish one, expertly translated by Julia Marshall, has quirkiness in abundance.

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

Rainbow Grey: Eye of the Storm
Laura Ellen Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Seagulls Dare / Agent Asha: Operation Cyber Chop

Where Seagulls Dare
Anthony Horowitz, illustrated by Mark Beech
Walker Books

Private Investigators Nick and his older brother Tim, the world’s worst private investigator are without clients, the last case having been some three months ago. All they have for breakfast is a mini box of cornflakes between them so when a rather unusual-looking woman walks into their establishment, introducing herself as Jane Nightingale, leaving them a large bundle of fifty pound notes in advance for finding her missing father, supposedly a writer, they can’t believe their luck.

They start by paying a visit to what they think is the man, writer Alistair Nightingale’s home in Bath and that’s when things start to turn very weird and in fact, downright dangerous with shots being fired in their direction and threatening messages being left in unexpected places.

The danger really ramps up with steel girders plummeting towards the two, 

out of control computers and much more, including a meeting with an old acquaintance, Mr Waverly. He talks of his final operation involving the sinister far-right White Crusaders and the kidnapping of a certain Alistair Nightingale – the very case that the brothers unbeknownst to themselves, are looking at.
The well-organised Crusader group is led by one, Neville Fairfax who not only wants to be in charge of a smallish island but of the entire UK. To that end he plans to break into GCHQ, access their computers and … Now the brothers have a choice: cooperate with Waverly or face a month locked up, till the case is over. Looks like they’re in over their heads.

With a superabundance of thrills and spills, jokes on virtually every page and Mark Beech’s droll, disarming illustrations, this latest Diamond Brothers story will have readers hooting with laughter from start to finish.

Agent Asha: Operation Cyber Chop
Sophie Deen, illustrated by Priyanka Sachdev
Walker Books

The second spy story blending STEM subjects with deadly adventure sees Asha and her robo-hamster sidekick Tumble on a mission to protect her favourite Wembley Park from the evil teenage trillionaire Shelly Belly who plans to chop down all its existing natural trees and replace them with new electronic Cyber Oaks that can monitor what people are doing all the time. Said trees are supposed to be able to reverse climate change – if you believe the hype, that is. Definitely don’t fall for the anti-real tree propaganda being put about by the pro-fellers on social media platform FaceSpace. Now if there’s one thing Asha knows about the world’s youngest CEO Shelly Belly, it’s that she’s very, very bad; she’s even gulled Asha’s elder sister Nush into believing her disinformation.

Could this be Asha’s big chance to crack this case, ultimately save the planet and become a fully-fledged member of the CSA, even if it means facing robot security parrots, taking on an iffy internship and visiting Shelly’s secret test site in Orkney, Scotland.

Wittily written, with high tech devices, coding and critical thinking, diagrams, charts, plus fart fun aplenty, and Priyanka Sachdev’s cyber-style illustrations, this is a great read for young eco-warriors, fans of gadgets, in fact anyone who enjoys a good crime caper.

Olive Jones and the Memory Thief

Olive Jones and the Memory Thief
Kate Gilby-Smith

Nobody could have been more surprised than twelve year old Olive Jones to discover on the day of her grandmother’s funeral, that she has inherited something from the old lady whom she hardly knew, despite living opposite her. Olive is convinced that with her keen interest in world events, her secretive fitness fanatic, Grandma Sylvie, has been hiding something from her family. ‘What you see is what you get’ her mother tells the girl, adding that such notions are a result of her daughter’s overactive imagination.

Then Olive learns that she has inherited her grandmother’s memories stored on a new technological device called a Memoriser. Imagine this though: having received the device and complied with the instructions on how to use it – lie down somewhere comfortable, place it on your head, close your eyes and clear your mind – before she knows it, the Memoriser stops and she realises that it’s been stolen. Surreal or what!

Now a mystery has opened up and who is there to solve it but Olive and her younger brother Frankie. Frankie is a chess champion, super smart and very trusting, in contrast to day-dreamer, quick to react Olive, who frequently finds herself in trouble. However it’s these complementary differences that are to prove very useful as they set about solving the case of Operation Shadow. The legendary Sylvie Jones has left the children four dossiers of potential moles within the British Intelligence Service and they have to complete her life’s work and clear her name.

Full of surprises, in the manner of a spy movie this page-turner unfolds at a terrific pace right from the start: we follow Olive and Frankie as they try to work our who can be trusted, get involved in chases and unearth secrets aplenty; and in so doing find out about the incredible life their grandmother led. Then comes the final surprise twist that brings them full circle. I suspect that like me, many readers will be unable to put this down until they’ve read the very last page.

Looking For Emily

Looking For Emily
Fiona Longmuir
Nosy Crow

Having just moved with her Mum, twelve year old Lily’s first impressions of her new seaside hometown, Edge, are not favourable; she misses the bustle of her old city life; moreover her teacher challenges her with weekend homework – she must say hello to someone new.

Walking home along a street she’s not previously explored, feeling disorientated and completely without friends, she chances upon an old museum with the unlikely name The Museum of Emily. Inside she finds carefully displayed such things as recipes for apple pie, books, buttons and pencils. How bizarre. Lily thinks there might be a story here but being new isn’t easy, so who can help her?

Then on Monday morning she is approached by another girl who introduces herself as Sam, thus saving Lily the need to worry about that homework challenge, and they begin to form a friendship. Sam later introduces Lily to Jay and she confides in them about finding the strange museum. They decide to find out more about Emily and so begins an exciting adventure that really draws readers in.

In true detective style the three spend many hours in the library searching through documents looking for leads about who the mysterious Emily was, discovering that she disappeared some twenty years back. Over the weeks they begin to piece together the puzzle, following several leads, the main one being Lily’s encounters with a sinister man who is lurking around the town. The town of Edge has a shadowy history with caves, pirates, a lighthouse and tales of enormous diamonds, so the story moves backwards and forwards in time and is also told from two alternating viewpoints, Lily’s and Emily’s.
There are unnerving events – the room in which they’re doing their investigation is trashed, life-threatening situations, the strong ties of friendship between Lily, Sam and Jay are tested to their limits but amazingly they hold together, thanks in no small part to their determination, trust, courage and bravery.

In her superb debut novel Fiona Longmuir includes pretty much everything a reader could want: a gripping mystery, superb characterisation including “exactly the right curious, incorrigible little girl”, a well paced storyline with some surprising twists and revelations, as well as a lingering aroma of salty chips.

Barry Loser Total Winner! / Dennis & Gnasher Attack of the Evil Veg

Barry Loser Total Winner!
Jim Smith

In this latest of the graphic novel series starring Jim Smith’s ‘keel’ character, Barry Loser is full of the joys of spring as he walks to school in the first episode at least. Therein too are all kinds of Barryish shenanigans concerning his ‘ex-best friends’ Bunky and Nancy’s joint party, resulting in Barry declaring loud and clear that he’ll never speak to either again. There are also a fair few arachnids of the biting kind involved.

The next episode sees Barry with a new bestie, Snozzy, behaving even more weirdly than ever. It involves a dog poo incident, a damaged facial feature and further sniggersome scenes.

Episode three takes us to the supermarket along with Barry and Bunky and Nancy to make it less boring. It’s certainly anything but that on account of some walkie talkies and a sudden epidemic of yawning. 

I’ll say no more on that topic and move swiftly on to the Granny’s handbag episode at the start of which Barry receives from said grandparent, a new and terrible toy – one that kind of comes and goes. 

In the final incident (or several) Barry oversteps the mark when it comes to the ‘twiddler’ leaf-blowing game; is asked to try mindfulness in class, which is not an overwhelming success at the time, there’s a temporarily distraught Dad, not forgetting the odd surprise. And, it’s interesting to see the new character in the shape of French Fries.

Masses of mayhem and mischief, cringe making moments, and lots of the rolling about kind of laughs are assured when individuals embark on this tenth anniversary offering. Perhaps they’ll even discover that Barry isn’t always such a loser.

Dennis & Gnasher Attack of the Evil Veg
I.P. Daley, Craig Graham, Mike Stirling, illustrated by Nigel Parkinson

Dennis’ pals have been bitten by the gardening bug and are now spending pretty much all their time at Beanotown’s allotments. Then comes an announcement from the town’s mayor: The Great Beanotown Grow Off and there’s to be a large money prize – a very large one – for the grower of the biggest, tastiest vegetable. No prizes though for guessing who has his eyes set on that: the problem is Dennis knows absolutely nothing about cultivating veggies. 

Dennis however, is not the only one intent on bagging the prize but he’s so desperate so to do that he visits Professor Von Screwtop who tells him of his own failed experiments when trying to make super-growth serums. “One day I’ll look into it again. Until that day, those three failed experiments will sit safely on that shelf by the door.”

No sooner has he uttered this than Dennis is out the door with them, endeavouring to make them work. They don’t, or rather he thinks they don’t until he returns to the allotments at night and sees a giant, evil veg (strictly speaking a fruit) destroying the place. The trouble is almost nobody believes his story and now Dennis is accused of being the culprit. Determined to prove his innocence, he embarks on a mission to do so. 

With a little assistance from Minnie and Gnasher, they’re determined to root out the army of mutant veggies before they take over the entire town.

Fast-moving silliness, full of jokes, with guest appearances from several Beano characters including Calamity James that will satisfy the comic lovers as well as lovers of chapter books of the zany kind. Don’t miss the fun facts, extra veggie jokes and further daftness at the end of the story.

The Hunt for David Berman

The Hunt for David Berman
Claire Mulligan
The Moth

This gripping thriller set during the early part of World War 2 is Claire Mulligan’s debut novel.
Eleven year old Robert, like many other children, has been evacuated and he’s now living with his grandparents on their farm on the coast of Scotland and missing his parents greatly. His father is fighting and his mother is serving in the WRENS. The boy finds it difficult to adjust to rural life after living in London but he’s keen to use the torch his Dad gave him before he left, suggesting he use it to explore the nearby caves: maybe he’ll even find that treasure his grandfather mentioned.

What he finds however, when he enters one of the caves near Tor Head Farm, is a boy who introduces himself as David. David is a Kindertransport child who has taken refuge in the cave after running away from the cruel farmer that he’d been sent to stay with. Now terrified that he’ll be recaptured and returned to Germany and the Nazi regime, the boy is trying to survive alone.

David has unknowingly carried from Germany in the lining of his suitcase something important. That secret something is an Enigma codebook that is likely to get him killed, for a Nazi secret agent sent to retrieve it is now hunting for him.

Robert feels somewhat conflicted however: Germans are the enemy surely, the people his father is fighting, so can he trust this boy? He provides him with basic necessities – food and warm blankets – while endeavouring to keep David a secret from his grandparents. The lives of the two boys become increasingly entwined and dangerous as little by little the trust between them builds, a friendship grows, and they discover that they have more in common that they first thought and are braver than they ever imagined they could be.

With parts set in the Gestapo HQ, this is a tremendously thrilling, powerfully moving story, rich in detail, exemplifying the incredible courage and resilience of people, children included, during the Second World War. Claire Mulligan has created two superb characters in Robert and David, around whom her superbly crafted tale is constructed. Now, as we witness through the media every day children fleeing from war in Ukraine, her book has an added poignancy.

The Dawn Seal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Silent Selkie / Daisy Fitzpatrick and her Worries

Here are two books intended to support the mental well-being of youngsters.

The Silent Selkie
Juliette Ttofa, illustrated by Paul Greenhouse

“We have to remember in order to heal,” So says one of Elif Shafak’s characters in her brilliant novel The Island of Missing Trees and so it is in this picture book.

Using the metaphor of a hidden wound this perceptive story, written by a specialist educational psychologist and child therapist and engagingly illustrated by Paul Greenhouse, is ultimately one of reassurance. Aiming to offer a safe space in which children affected by trauma can, with the help of an understanding adult, begin their crucial healing journey, it is intended to be used along with an accompanying guidebook.

The picture book shows the journey towards healing taken by a deeply traumatised young selkie that is so troubled that she’s lost the ability to speak. With her wound buried deep within she expresses her feelings through the weather 

and this leads to her being questioned and then isolated in a distant cave by the seal folk who fail to understand her plight.

There she remains engulfed in a fog, growing progressively wilder until one night as dreams intrude upon her sleep, her hair becomes entangled in the nets of a fishing boat. She’s dragged from her confinement and after unsuccessful attempts by the seal folk to rouse her, the trawler pulls her to a distant unknown land.

On waking she finds herself on a sandy shore, still entangled in the net but showing some bare skin on her tail. In the full sun, it feels as though her golden scales are aflame. Then holding a shiny stone she glimpses a splinter protruding from her tail. The pain causes her to cry out but attempts to get help from self-serving creatures that stop, lead to more pain and the loss of some of her golden scales. The intensity of the burning increases and the Selkie begins picking off her own scales and that night her slumbering body remembers the long forgotten story of how as a pup, the thorn entered her skin inflicting a wound. Her moans echo through the deep sea. Next morning she sees a humpback whale and the two sing together. 

Thus begins the release from her entrapment: “It is time for you to be who you really are,” the empathetic whale tells her, assuring the `Selkie’ that she won’t be alone on her healing journey.

Daisy Fitzpatrick and her Worries
Nancy Carroll
Ragged Bears

Daisy Fitzpatrick is beset by anxieties, and her mind is full of worries, the kind that could trouble any of us from time to time. I certainly go along with her on the fear of heights, though not really most of her other worries – buzzing bees (and other minibeasts), the dark, the sea, vegetables, storms, dying ( I guess most of us aren’t eager to contemplate the end of life), crossing the road, being alone, her parents’ separation. She considers a dozen worries in all and by the end of each poem, has found the means to discover a new perspective on each troubling issue.

Sensitively written by an author who shares many of these fears with Daisy; after the rhymes she provides helpful notes and suggestions including mindfulness and finding someone else with whom you can talk over particular anxious feelings – as well as links by which readers can get additional information. There are occasional recipes that include a vegetable ingredient too.

An unusual book to help children face and eradicate childhood worries.

Keep Dancing Lizzie Chu

Keep Dancing Lizzie Chu
Maisie Chan
Piccadilly Press

The Lizzie Chu of the title lives in Glasgow with her grandfather, Wai Gong, a ballroom-dancing enthusiast, but since the death of his wife, Grandpa has started acting strangely, forgetting things and spending lots of time talking to his statue of the Chinese goddess of kindness, compassion and mercy, Guan Yin. Lizzie already has her hands full with shopping, cooking, even making sure household bills are paid, but now there are additional things to contend with such as Grandpa almost getting run over by a bus; and she does sometimes find it rather lonely since he’s started eating his evening meal in his room.

Then comes Lizzie’s twelfth birthday and it looks as though Wai Gong has forgotten all about it: not so her friends Chi and Tyler though and in the end she’s asked to go round to Chi’s to celebrate, which she does. When she gets home after an eventful time at the Phams, her grandpa surprises her by handing her an envelope, not from himself but from Grandma Kam. Inside are a jade pendant, a note and four tickets for the tea dance at Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom in November.

Now all she has to do is to learn to dance and most important to get to Blackpool: it won’t be easy as there’s no money to spare and Wai Gong is now refusing to leave the flat and also insisting that he won’t go to Blackpool. Weirdly though when Lizzie goes to the Comic Con event she’s saved for ages to visit, she discovers her Grandpa there and he’s acting even more strangely than ever; and then he disappears.

To her relief when she returns to their flat there he is and something he says, gives Lizzie an idea of how to get Wai Gong to agree to go to Blackpool. Will she succeed in her mission? Perhaps with help from Chi and Tyler, some very clever costumes and a big brother with an old Mini, Lizzie might just manage it; but can anything help Wai Gong get better?

With her poignant, sometimes funny, and uplifting intergenerational story, once again Maisie Chen shows what a terrific storyteller she is; her characters endear themselves to you, especially Lizzie with her determination, powers of persuasion and problem solving. Cha-cha-cha anyone?

(Backmatter includes information about how to reach out for support with the dementia and grief issues raised in the story.)

The Invisible World of Germs / The Secrets of the Universe

The Invisible World of Germs
Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Geraldine Sy and Ana Seixas
The Secrets of the Universe
Dr Mike Goldsmith, illustrated by Adam Quest and Ana Seixas
Oxford Children’s Books

These are the first two in a new small format non-fiction series Very Short Introductions for Curious Young Minds. Full of fascinating information, it was written in consultation with one expert in the field (Alan Redford of Liverpool University) and contains easily digestible infographics, photos and dialogue boxes in addition to the explanations, and in each chapter there’s a ‘Speak Like a Scientist’ feature that provides readers with key terminology. If you want to discover what germs are, something about their history, key scientists and other ‘germ heroes’, how germs are transmitted, how our natural defences work,

the affects of medicines on germs, ponder the questions ‘Will there ever be a world without germs?’ and what might be the future of germs, then this engaging little book is definitely for you. It’s also one to add to KS2 class collections.

I was equally impressed by The Secrets of the Universe, this one being written by a doctor of astrophysics in consultation with Cambridge University cosmologist Sunny Vagnozzi. Again the writing style is engaging and lively and there are the same key features as The Invisible World of Germs – infographics, photographs and cartoons and most important the key questions such as What is the universe?; how was it discovered”; what are the important findings relating to the universe and who were the scientists responsible? …

how big is the universe and what is our place therein? are explored in bite-sized, easily digestible chunks. Find out about galaxies, gravity, the Big Bang, dark energy, consider the possibilities of life existing elsewhere in the universe and even of other universes in this exciting introduction to a mind-boggling topic that science-loving children will relish. 

Both books have a final glossary and index.

Autumn Moonbeam: Dance Magic / Isadora Moon and the Shooting Star

Autumn Moonbeam: Dance Magic
Emma Finlayson-Palmer and Heidi Cannon
UCLAN Publishing

Meet Autumn Moonbeam lover of dance and gymnastics and enthusiastic watcher of dance shows on spell-a-vision. Imagine her delight when she learns of a try-out for Sparkledale Dance Academy’s competitive dance team, Black Cats: she’s so excited she can barely concentrate in her Potions lesson in school. Once back home she and her two friends Leif and Batty practise their moves in Autumn’s garden.

There’s a rather large problem though, her arch enemy Severina Bloodworth is also trying out for the team and she’s pretty amazing. Autumn suffers a crisis of confidence: what if she’s not good enough?
Then comes audition day. There are highs and lows as the event proceeds in front of the three coaches: will Autumn secure one of the four places on offer?

Emma Finlayson’s spell-tastic tale of whirling, twirling young witches is a delight. It has some charming characters (and the occasional not so charming one), warm family dynamics, strong friendships and key messages about self belief, overcoming your collywobbles, not forgetting the pure joyful liberating magic of dance. Pure enchantment too are Heidi Cannon’s illustrations: the perfect complement to Emma’s sparkly writing. If you know anyone looking for their next chapter book series, this would be a terrific choice, especially for lovers of dance and magical things.

Isadora Moon and the Shooting Star
Harriet Muncaster
Oxford Children’s Books

Decidedly different Isadora Moon is enormously excited when her teacher Miss Cherry announces that their next class project is space. To get their brains thinking skywards, the homework for that evening is to create something to do with space. Isadora enlists the help of her Dad and that night as they watch the sky from the astronomy tower, what’s that Isadora spies falling earthwards?

A shooting star perhaps? The hunt is on for its landing place.

Then follows an encounter with a new, twinkling friend named Nova, a Glow Sprite who’s not supposed to be there. Moreover, Nova’s moon kitten Pluto is missing and she needs Isadora’s help to find him. Between space lessons with a special visitor, emergency searches in the forest, magical campfires, a glowing sleepover, not to mention moon cheese, Isadora must do all she can to help Nova find Pluto before her new friend has to fly back to the stars in time for her mother’s return.

With her keynote pink, silver and black sparkly cover, and pink and black illustrations throughout, Harriet Muncaster’s fourteenth episode starring our favourite fairy/vampire is full of its usual charm and humour and certain to delight Isadora’s countless fans. They’ll be delighted too, by the Isadorable make and do activities following the story.