Press Start! Game On, Super Rabbit Boy! / Super Rabbit Powers Up!

Press Start! Game On, Super Rabbit Boy!
Press Start!! Super Rabbit Powers Up!

Thomas Flintham
Nosy Crow

As the first story opens in this graphic novel series, Sunny, the boy protagonist starts playing his favourite video game – Super Rabbit Boy – and its that storyline which comprises most of the book. The setting is Animal Town, a peaceful place where the inhabitants are fun-loving animals, especially Singing Dog who loves to make others happy.

Enter fun-hating King Viking who aided and abetted by his army of robots dog-naps Singing Dog. Who can save the day? The best chance is to send Simon the Hedgehog, the fastest among the Animal Towners, to get help from Super Rabbit Boy; he who gained his powers by consuming a super magical carrot.

Subsequent chapters take Super Rabbit Boy through six increasingly hard levels each of which has classic, video game–style settings and enemies to defeat.

No matter what happens though, the game player protagonist must not give up. Nor of course must Super Rabbit. Can the latter save not only Singing Dog but Animal Town’s fun.

Two, brightly coloured artistic styles distinguish the two storylines, the human one ending with a “PLAY AGAIN?” to set things up for a new adventure.

In Super Rabbit Powers Up Sunny’s family can get involved in what’s going on in the adventure as the game console is connected to the television. Super Rabbit receives a letter from King Viking informing him that he intends to find the legendary Super Power Up. This is supposed to make the finder invincible.

The race is on to discover its whereabouts. First stop for Super Rabbit is to ask for assistance from Wisdom Tree whose help comes in the form of a map (only to be used in times of great need)

leading to the Secret Dungeon wherein the Super Power Up is hidden. Off he goes but can that Super Rabbit find the three keys and get inside that large door to discover that which he seeks? It might be possible with some help from a friendly ghost (so it says) named Plib the Plob. If so it will stop the dastardly king’s plan to gain immeasurable power.

Just right for those readers just starting to fly solo: paying tribute to the power of video games Thomas Flintham’s series is a treat which imparts the occasional life lesson as each pacy story unfolds.

Puppy Club: Coco Settles In / Dragon Storm: Erin and Rockhammer

Puppy Club: Coco Settles In
Catherine Jacob, illustrated by Rachael Saunders
Little Tiger

The second of the series sees Elsa and her fellow Puppy Clubbers – Jaya, Arlo, Willow, Daniel and Harper – all coping with the ups and downs of life with a new puppy. Elsa especially is finding things tough with two cats in her home as well as her puppy Coco. The cats chase Coco all over the house, Coco chews everything left lying around and Mum seems stressed all the time.

Thank goodness Elsa has fellow club members ready with lots of useful suggestions for keeping Coco out of trouble and ideas for helping her bond with the moggies.

Meanwhile other things on the Clubbers’ minds are the imminent visit to the vets for the puppies’ injections and a class presentation related to an organisation that helps animals. No doubt readers will guess what Elsa et al choose as their subject. However with frequent disasters in Elsa’s home, she cannot help but feel anxious: suppose her mum has had second thoughts about keeping Coco.

With puppy love aplenty, strong supportive friendships, training advice and puppy facts and lots of Rachael Saunders’ black and white illustrations to break up the text, young solo readers with a liking for animals especially, will enjoy this.

Dragon Storm: Erin and Rockhammer
Alastair Chisholm, illustrated by Eric Deschamps
Nosy Crow

This is the sixth of the fantasy series set in the land of Draconis and it’s another exciting, action-packed page-turner that’s ideal for new solo readers. We’re plunged straight into the drama with Erin in the sand circle facing a number of opponents in some Dragonseer sword-fighting training. A training session it may be but Erin is determined to beat each of the other trainees and this she does. She’s less successful at summoning her own dragon, something that her fellow Dragonseer students seem to find easy – a click of the fingers is all they need do.

As a result Erin is somewhat lacking in self-confidence: she’s fearful of the feelings she experiences when trying to summon her dragon, Rockhammer despite the reassurance that Drun offers her. She becomes even more worried when Lady Berrin, Dragonseer Guild’s chancellor informs her there’s a place just outside the city she wants her to go to that might help with her panic attacks. Despite what she’s told, it seems to Erin that she’s being thrown out just like happened when she was in foster care.

Both Erin and fellow Dragonseer trainee, Connor (who Erin doesn’t get on with) are sent off to Stillness. Perhaps spending time here will help the two build a better relationship and maybe with Connor’s support Erin can succeed in summoning Rockhammer just when he’s most needed.

Courage, friendship and trust are key themes in this powerful tale which ends on a cliff-hanger.

Halle had a Hammer / No Pets Allowed! / Mischief on the Moors

These are new publications in the colour banded Bloomsbury readers series – thanks to the publisher for sending them for review

Halle had a Hammer
Richard O’Neill and Michelle Russell, illustrated by Elijah Vardo
No Pets Allowed!
Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Fay Austin
Mischief on the Moors
Stephen Davies, illustrated by Maria Dorado
Bloomsbury Education

At ‘Lime Level’ Halle had a Hammer is a story about a Romani Traveller family whose truck is specially fitted out so that as well as a home, it’s a workshop that can move to wherever they have customers. The workshop is Halle’s favourite place and she’s had instilled in her the importance of putting things back where they belong after use. Having learned how to use tools, she is now teaching Henry, her younger brother tool using skills as they make a wooden box for his toy cars.
When their work takes the family back to the village of Trindle to make some new signs for a race, Halle discovers that her hammer isn’t in her toolbox and Henry was the last person to have used it. Happily though it turns up in time for her to play her part in the sign-making and Henry redeems himself by drawing a map that turns out to be particularly useful. The race is a great success and the following day the family move on to their next assignment.
Another story that provides an insight into an all too frequently misunderstood minority group written and illustrated by storytellers and an artist who are all members of Romani families.

At the same reading level, illustrated in black and white is Chitra Soundar’s No Pets Allowed! wherein we meet Keva and her family – Mum, Grandpa and Grandpa’s pet tortoise, Altas – who live above Grandpa’s pet adoption centre. Atlas goes everywhere with Grandpa until the day Grandpa has to spend time at the hospital for a series of check-ups. The trouble is the hospital has a ban on pets. Keva is determined to change the mind of the seemingly curmudgeonly hospital manager, Mr Sallow. Can she possibly succeed in winning him over?
A funny story that demonstrates the importance of family and of pet powers with humorous black and white illustrations by Fay Austin.

Stephen Davies’ tale is set on Dartmoor and inspired by folklore. Mischief in the Moors is the result of a mysterious creature that sisters Daisy and Liberty encounter when out riding their bikes. Could it perhaps be a pixie like those in the book of local folklore that once belonged to Gran. According to this book pixies play tricks on humans but they also respond positively to kindness.
Suddenly very strange things start happening and with their entries for the local fete to be prepared, that is the last thing any of the family needs. Impish mischief or something else? That is what the sisters need to work out as soon as possible.
A magical adventure imbued with humour and illustrated by Marta Dorado that will keep readers involved as the girls try to solve the mystery. (Grey book band)

A Spoonful of Spying

A Spoonful of Spying
Sarah Todd Taylor
Nosy Crow

Both baker par excellence at her mother’s patisserie in Paris and a somewhat unconventional spy, Alice Sinclair has an exciting double life. In this story she is working alongside a new senior partner Claude.

Now her patisserie skills extraordinaire have taken her to the World Fair being held in Paris, where again she finds herself combining her baking expertise with espionage.

Both artists and inventors are attending the fair and thanks to a chance encounter with Eva, one of the models, Alice finds herself thrown into the world of high end fashion, (the author’s amazing descriptions of the dresses and outfits matches those of the cakes). After employing her brilliant creative artistry to impress designer, Monsieur Fouray, from her vantage point in the fashion hall she is able to continue to work undercover as a spy watching the audience and trying to decide if anyone is acting suspiciously.

With people going missing, it soon appears to Alice that there are enemy agents with different interests: innovative clothing designs and ground-breaking aviation in the form of an aircraft prototype, code-named ‘Daedalus’. Could there perhaps be a connection?

Clues and suspects mount, then Alice makes another young friend, a talented engineer named Sophie who has made a glider. Both Sophie and Eva subsequently come to Alice’s aid just when she needs: Sophie with her glider and Eva on a motorbike. But who are the two students that Alice keeps on seeing and is Sophie too trusting of them? With so much at stake, will brave, determined Alice be able to draw all the threads together and save friends, families and more.

Sarah Todd Taylor gets your taste buds tingling right from the outset, gradually turning up the heat and keeping the reader guessing until the plot reaches its dramatic and satisfying denouement. I really love the way the new characters contribute to this show stopping sequel.

There’s A Beast in the Basement!

There’s A Beast in the Basement!
Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham
Nosy Crow

We’re back in the company of Izzy and her friends for yet another splendidly silly, chaotic tale that begins with their headteacher Mr Graves dashing around the school emptying the contents of every cupboard onto the floor. Strange indeed, so what is bothering him? He even starts sobbing during assembly. Assuredly something is wrong.

The following day they hear talk of ‘missing treasure’. The obvious answer is that hidden away somewhere in their school lies something very valuable. It’s time for the gang to investigate. Led by Gary Pertie (they had to let him be involved because he seems to know things the friends don’t) they start following him to an area that’s out of bounds.

They discover that beneath the school is a basement; add to that those decidedly weird scraping noises and sighs: the assumption is that not only is there treasure down there but also a sinister guardian beastie watching over it.

Probably Mr Graves has his sights set on securing the treasure for his own purposes.

We can always count on the gang to let their imaginations run wild: they certainly do here with wonderfully wild theories coming thick and fast. There’s lots of ‘FREAKING OUT’, a very clever invention or two (that’s down to Gary) and Jodi jostling to take back leading the investigation, all of which result in a hugely entertaining read. All this plus Thomas Flintham’s very funny illustrations, the liberal scattering of capitalised and otherwise adorned words in the text: what more can one ask? A pizza made by Gary’s dad to consume while reading the story, perhaps.

Mort the Meek and the Perilous Prophecy

Mort the Meek and the Perilous Prophecy
Rachel Delahaye, illustrated by George Ermos
Little Tiger

Mindful of the introduction to this tale, lacking a rat disguise I worked on my scuttling and creeping skills, then donned my brown jacket and trousers before settling down to read Mort and Weed’s latest adventure, which like the previous two, begins in the rat-infested kingdom of Brutalia.

Happily for the two of them, or maybe not all that happily, some of the story takes place on a different island named Bonrock. Before that though, the friends meet two girls from Bonrock, Vita and Genia. It’s to this place that, not long after, the best friends are sent on a military mission, which will likely start ringing alarm bells for if you’ve read the first two books, you will know that Mort and Meek are staunch pacifists.

Bonrock seems pretty idyllic; surely the inhabitants won’t greet them with ‘fists of ferocity’ as happens on Brutalia? Are they friendly or as it appears to the two pacifists, intent on inflicting torture on their own people? It starts to look that way to the visitors as Genia and Vita show Weed and Mort around the classrooms and kitchens respectively. However misunderstandings are abundant in this story – I’ll say no more on that topic. I will say though that Weed develops a serious crush.

So much happens before the finale: there’s oodles of excitement, the possibility of a very painful punishment and Brutalia has a new Royal Soup Sayer; but throughout Mort is as determined as ever to promote peace and harmony over fury and fighting.

Rachel Delahaye is a superb linguist – her writing is cleverer and wittier with each new book. The wordplay is wonderful; even the characters get involved in explanations of such things as homophones and this works well. Whether the essence of the story is trusting strangers and fearing soup or fearing strangers and trusting soup, you can decide when you read it.

I’m off to change out of my brown attire and have a bowl of tomato soup. Oh yes and adding to the deliciousness of the book are George Ermos’ black and white illustrations.

Blackbeard’s Treasure

Blackbeard’s Treasure
Iszi Lawrence
Bloomsbury Education

This is a swashbuckling adventure set in the Caribbean in the early eighteenth century and features real pirates.

Eleven year old Abigail Buckler lives with her father, a plantation owner; she’s being brought up as a young lady wearing the finest clothes and isn’t allowed to play in them or go out alone. Abigail is resentful of the fact that Boubacar, a young slave who is being trained as a clerk, gets more of her father’s attention than she does. 

However all that changes when pirates attack, slaying Major Buckler. Abigail starts to question everything she has come to understand about right and wrong, and ultimately about family, as she and Boubacar embark on the Salt Pig, a ship crewed by pirates and bound for Nassau.

Abigail makes some highly unlikely friends, a surprise revelation is made about Boubacar and both of them face numerous life-threatening situations and ups and downs in their relationship during the next two or three months, with Abigail having to take a number of difficult decisions. 

Will she and Boubacar be able to hang on to their very existence?

What a dazzling cast and where there are pirates there must surely be treasure somewhere; or is there? ARRRR! that would be telling.

This tale will have you on the edge of your seat as the plot twists this way and that, while at the same time providing a wealth of historical detail about the Atlantic slave trade, the damage caused by empire and the human losses resulting from the provision of such luxuries as sugar and tobacco to Europeans.

The Bookshop at the Back of Beyond

The Bookshop at the Back of Beyond
Amy Sparkes
Walker Books

This third adventure in the House at the Edge of Magic series sees the travelling house in the magical land of Beyond where Nine, wizard Flabbergast and companions have come to look for Dr Spoon’s partner, Professor Dish.

Their search takes members of the party into various shops; all must be visited and something bought at each one. The shopkeepers are often less than helpful and some shops seem never to be open, most notably the bookshop.
Add to all his the fact that Nine is determined to unearth the secrets her mother left behind. She has a guilty secret too; both Flabbergast and witches also have secrets. Power-craving Aunt Ophidia is determined to get the secret formula that Dish and Spoon have been working on but the others from the magic house are frustrated by the continued non-opening of that bookshop. A showdown seems inevitable.

The entire story fizzes and zizzes with madcap magical happenings and mayhem as the fast paced plot zigs and zags. Amy Sparkes’ world building is superb as ever and I love the way her characters develop in this one. It’s altogether weird and utterly wonderful including Ben Mantle’s cover illustration.

Read this to a KS2 class and they will be entranced.

Monster Hunting: Monsters Bite Back

Monster Hunting: Monsters Bite Back
Ian Mark, illustrated by Louis Ghibault
Farshore

In this second of the zany adventure series, Jack, his best friend Nancy and grumpy, 200-year-old monster hunter Stoop, head off to Scotland where certain monsters are misbehaving.If you’ve read Monster Hunting for Beginners you will know that when monsters start doing that, it’s the job of monster hunters to sort them out.

The monsters in Scotland are causing trouble and making life extremely difficult for the Sisters of Perpetual Misery, the nuns who reside in the ancient Muckle Abbey.

Said nuns have such apt names as Nun the Wiser, Nun Whatsoever, None of This, None of That, Nun of the Above (what fun the author must have had inventing those and others). If they move from their home, which just happens to be above the underworld, it will be THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT.

This task is fraught with obstacles including discontented ghosts, fog goblins, strange loch monsters (maybe they’ll even encounter Nessie) and a newly established and hence rival, hunting agency, which Nancy may or may not join. Not to mention dodgy bowls of cabbage.

Can our favourite monster hunters save the day and hence, the nuns? I truly wish them the beast of Loch with this challenge.

Enormous, or rather monstrous, fun, which is added to by Louis Ghibault’s hilarious illustrations, plus the intermittent lessons about monsters provided throughout the story.

The Octopus, Dadu and Me

The Octopus, Dadu and Me
Lucy Ann Unwin, illustrated by Lucy Mulligan
uclan publishing

Twelve year old Sashi’s Dadu (grandfather) has dementia and it’s getting worse. He becomes agitated suddenly, sometimes violent, and now doesn’t recognise his family. So, after a very difficult visit to the care home where he lives, Sashi’s Dad has come to a decision: no more visiting.

Sashi is devastated and her relationship with her Mum and Dad becomes increasingly strained: They just don’t seem to understand how she feels or even want to listen to her. Surely they realise what a very special bond she and Dadu (an erstwhile engineer) have built up over the years: how can they not see this decision as a betrayal of that loving relationship, Sashi wonders.

Endeavouring to make her feel better, her parents take Sashi to the local aquarium and there she encounters Ian, an octopus. Like her Dadu, Ian seems trapped in the wrong place, She decides the creature is indicating to her that it wants to be set free. She begins to channel all her feelings into planning so to do and she enlists the help of two really good friends, Hassan and Darcie.

This compassionate debut story shows a girl using her creativity and imagination to help her process her feelings about Dadu

and her character feels totally credible.

Lucy Mulligan’s black and white illustrations capture Sashi’s creativity in drawings of some of her comic strips and other art.
Prepare to be engulfed by the tentacles of this book from the outset and have a box of tissues at the ready as you read.

My Father is a Polar Bear

My Father Is A Polar Bear
Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Felicita Sala
Walker Books

Drawing on his own experience, Michael Morpurgo wrote this story over fifteen years back with the insight of adulthood. It’s hugely poignant as, starting in 1948, we read of two boys, Andrew and big brother Terry and their search for their biological father. Andrew is aware that he has two fathers; Douglas the one the boys live with, and the one who is never spoken of.

When his brother shows him a picture of a polar bear in a Young Vic Company’s dramatisation of the Snow Queen and says it is his father, five year old Andrew is more confused than ever. However, Andrew’s father is an actor. playing the role of the polar bear and it is that which triggers their search. It’s one that takes many years until eventually both Andrew and his brother

find the way back to their birth father and to a healing acceptance.

Michael’s beautiful prose and Felicita Sala’s drawings both capture so well, the child Andrew’s view of the world in this short pensive book.

Letters to Anyone and Everyone

Letters to Anyone and Everyone
Toon Tellegen, illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg
Boxer Books

More than twenty short tales each with an epistolary element and all written by a group of animals including elephant, snail, squirrel, ant, carp, bear and mole, are found between the covers of this delightfully quirky and unusual book translated from Toon Tellegen’s original Dutch by Martin Cleaver. You will find a fair number of cakes,

friends aplenty and some wonderful meditations on life itself. Whether or not, like the squirrel, you can convince yourself that it’s possible for a table to write a letter is your decision, but really it’s only a small step from accepting that an ant can attempt to write his memoirs.

It’s impossible to choose a favourite but I really loved the first – Elephant’s letter to Snail:

Dear Snail,
May I invite you to dance with
me on top of your house? Just a few
steps? That’s what I want most of all.
I promise I’ll dance very delicately,
so we won’t fall through your roof.
But of course, you can never
be really sure.
The elephant
.’

Snail responds and this eventually results in the two dancing together, to the pachyderm’s delight.

Others are more surreal and the book ends with all the animals coming together on the final day of the year and writing a very considered letter to the sun. And yes, in case you’re wondering, they do receive a reply.

Jessica Ahlberg’s delicate illustrations bring the letter writers to life and provide a perfect complement to the tone of the text.
This is a thoughtful book to savour and one that will appeal especially to those who enjoy reading something thoughtful with an edge of excitement.

A Dancer’s Dream

A Dancer’s Dream
Katherine Woodfine and Lizzy Stewart
Simon & Schuster

Recently out in paperback is this lovely story that combines history and fiction to present the story of The Nutcracker ballet from the viewpoint of Stana, a young dancer at the Imperial Ballet School, St Petersburg. In the run up to Christmas, Stana auditions and on account of her feeling for the music, and her imaginative expression, is selected for the leading role, Clara, in a brand new ballet, The Nutcracker.

Stana’s reaction to her selection is tempered with other concerns. She loves the chance rehearsals (overseen by the composer, Tchaikovsky, himself) bring to escape from worries about her older sister who is in hospital, but the worries are still there especially the cost of her treatment. She worries too about the reaction of her best friend who wanted to play the lead; and of course, is she up to the part? However, she also feels that if she dances well enough, her sister will recover, which is a powerful motivator as well as a huge responsibility.

Although she receives kindness and approval from Tchaikovsky, the first reviews for the ballet are disappointingly negative. ‘Stana’s magic chance to shine melted away’ we read. However, just when she’s feeling that nothing is working out as she hoped, she receives good news and a wonderful, surprising gift. Christmas will after all be brighter than any dream she might have had.

This magical book of kindness, friendship, determination and self-belief would make a smashing Christmas present for readers who already love the world of ballet or are yet to discover it.

A Clock of Stars: The Greatest Kingdom

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

This is the third part in Francesca Gibbons’ fantastical adventure trilogy.

With Anneshka now in the world of humans searching for the greatest kingdom and Mum’s boyfriend, Mark, dangerously ill in hospital on account of some monsters he accidentally carried home, Imogen and Marie face some enormous problems and the clock is ticking to save Mark’s life.

There’s magic aplenty awaiting as we follow the sisters as they make one final journey through the door in the tree. Their quest will mean they must travel – much further than they’ve ever done before – right into the strange enchanted lands of Nedobyt; giant birds and a lot of flying are involved.

Meanwhile elsewhere, feeling more lonely than ever before, Miro, is also on a journey – to find his mother’s family. Almost thankful to be accompanied by Princess Kazimira, he heads towards the Nameless Mountains where he hopes to track down his two grandmothers.

This is an absolutely brilliant, breathtaking finale with so much at stake. Lots is learned including that Imogen realises she’s not the only one to have ‘worry creatures’, Miro has them too.

I don’t want to reveal too much about what unfolds or it will spoil readers’ enjoyment of Francesca’s truly spellbinding tale. Make sure you take a good look at Chris Riddell’s superb portraits of the characters at the front of the book

With all prophecies fulfilled, the clock of stars has stopped ticking; wither next for this amazing author I wonder.

Mountainfell

Mountainfell
Katharine Orton
Walker Books

With her exquisite descriptions Katharine Orton brings her own special brand of magic to this sparkling fantasy tale.

To live in the shadow of Mountainfell, is to live in perpetual fear be it from witches cursed with hex-magic, the cloud dragon that terrorises the community, or from the earth-shaking tremors rolling down from the wild mountains.

Erskin, a shy lonely girl and her elder sister, Birgit, are the children of the mountain keeper, the guardian of their village of Lofotby; and when Birgit is snatched by the dragon, Erskin knows she must summon all her courage to embark on the journey of a lifetime to find her and bring her back home.

What ensues is a perilous quest that not only tests Erskin’s determination and bravery but some of her long held beliefs and she finds herself searching not only for her sibling but much more besides.

She makes some surprising friends, meets a least one heinous villain and there’s magic aplenty as she finds out more about that supposedly deadly dragon. She also has to try and avert an ecological crisis and learns to accept herself as she is, thanks in no small part to a friend she makes, who accompanies her on her journey.

This is one of those books where you are desperate to discover how the breathtaking adventure turns out, but equally, you don’t want the story to end; it’s just so brilliant and for me Katharine Orton’s best yet.

The Snow Bear

The Snow Bear
Holly Webb
Little Tiger

Sara is visiting her Grandad who lives in the north, deep in the countryside. It’s the run up to Christmas and the intention is that they will both return to Sara’s parents in time for them all to be together at Christmas. Mum is expecting a baby imminently.

However things don’t quite go to plan, a very heavy snowfall cuts them off making the journey impossible. Grandad, who is writing a book on Inuit folk tales, does his best to keep her entertained with stories about his Arctic childhood, in particular about finding a young polar bear when he accompanied his own father to the Canadian Arctic.

The following day Sara builds a snow bear of her own and in the worsening snowstorm she and Grandad make a small igloo. Then in his efforts to keep his granddaughter’s homesickness at bay, Grandad agrees that the two of them can share a midnight feast in the igloo.

There, under the twinkling stars, Sara dreams her very own magical adventure wherein she meets a bear cub looking for its mother, an Inuit boy Alignak and his grandmother, and learns something of their culture.

Beautifully written and full of charm, albeit with lots of shivers, this is a lovely story to read aloud in KS1 or for solo readers from around 7. Snuggle down and prepare to be transported by this 10th anniversary edition.

Johnny Ball International Football Genius / The Naughtiest Unicorn and the Firework Festival

Johnny Ball International Football Genius
Matt Oldfield, illustrated by Tim Wesson
Walker Books

In this third title in the hugely funny Johnny Ball series, the nine year old football manager has perhaps his biggest challenge yet: to take the Tissbury Tigers all the way to becoming winners of the WORLDIES (aka the World Youth Championships). Just imagine the headlines in the local paper. There’s a big problem though, Johhny’s elder brother, the mega-talented striker Daniel has been injured – a broken tibia – and has been instructed to rest for two months. 

However, with their victory in the play-off match, the Tigers are on their way to Capdevila in Spain. Next comes organising their coaching team and after that, the players. With four needed to make the squad complete, it’s time for a team trial. Job done, and with packing also complete, the journey begins.

Arrival means that Johnny’s brain must go into overdrive as the matches get under way. With three results in the group table, the Tigers reach the semi-finals and after a day of rest, must play the Lions. 

What happens thereafter, I will leave readers to find out and just assure them that so doing is definitely worth it.

Full of hilarious moments and some nail-biting ones, this story, with Tim Wesson’s rib-tickling black and white illustrations, will most certainly be a winner with young soccer enthusiasts.

The Naughtiest Unicorn and the Firework Festival
Pip Bird, illustrated by David O’Connell
Farshore

Having missed the Diwali extravaganza, Mira is really excited about the forthcoming firework festival at Unicorn School, especially as she’ll be watching with her unicorn Dave. Once there though, Mira finds out something upsetting: there are to be no fireworks. Surely that can’t be right?

Step forward DI Mira Desai to try and solve this mystery. It doesn’t help matters that Dave has already managed to get himself covered in sticky caramel after immersing himself in the toffee apple mixture in the cauldron; but the investigation must go ahead no matter what. That means Mira and Dave must track down the ‘Lightning Bugs’ that live in the Fearsome Forest. Said creatures love to put on magical light shows with their glowing bums and the key to getting the bugs to perform is to make them laugh. Off go Red Class plus unicorns into the forest … 

But what will make those bugs laugh? It’s certainly not going to be straightforward.

With a considerable number of rear end emanations from Dave, this latest episode starring Mira and Dave will provide plenty of fizzing fun and frolics for fans of the series whenever they read it.

Snow White and other Grimms’ Fairytales / A Fairytale for Everyone

Snow White and other Grimms’ Fairytales
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, illustrated by MinaLima
Harper 360

Twenty fairy tales are given the design team, MinaLima (Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima) treatment in this glorious collection. What this means in short is wonderfully imaginative artwork exquisitely detailed and engaging design with interactive elements (nine herein), bring to life timeless stories including, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood (Little Red-Cap),The Frog Prince and The Elves and the Shoemaker.

You will delight in such surprises as the awesomely intricate thicket surrounding the castle the prince must deal with to release Sleeping Beauty from her slumbers, a pop up tower that climbs right out of the book in Rapunzel, with a prince you can make climb up her golden hair – possibly my favourite.

A close contender though, is the pop-out house in Hansel and Gretel that opens into a diorama of the interior with a kitchen and a wicked witch waiting to lure the two children inside.
It’s good to see that ethnicity has also been a consideration in the portrayal of the characters, some of whom have brown or black skin: Red Riding Hood is shown as black, for example.

With vividly coloured illustrations, both large and small throughout, this book is one for keeping and for giving. With the festive season fast approaching, it would make a magical Christmas present.

A Fairytale for Everyone
edited by Boldizsár M. Nagy, illustrated by Lilla Bölecz
Farshore

This groundbreaking collection of seventeen re-imagined traditional stories was highly controversial when originally published in Hungary on account of its inclusive nature. However because LGBTQ+ characters are featured it rapidly became a symbol in the fight for equality and against discrimination in Hungary and received a great deal of support both in the country and outside.

You’ll find stories that push back the boundaries of traditional gender roles showing how heroes can be any shape or size, princesses enormously powerful such as Margaret the Giant Slayer. In the final story written in rhyme, a prince finds true love, not with the blonde princess presented to him, but with her equally fair brother.

I loved the reworking of the Thumbelina tale of Little Lina who discovers what being big really means when she meets a fairy prince, small in stature like herself.

A true celebration of diversity that will likely appeal most to those with an interest in traditional tales.

Tiggy Thistle and the Lost Guardians

Tiggy Thistle and the Lost Guardians
Chris Riddell
Macmillan Children’s Books

This is the second and sadly, final story in the brilliant Cloud Horse Chronicles sequence. Before even starting to read it, I knew I was in for another treat for the book begins with a blue and white illustration in Chris Riddell’s iconic style depicting The Mighty Wizard Thrynne: that was me hooked.

Zam, Phoebe and Bathsheba, the three guardians of magic, disappeared suddenly almost ten years ago, leaving the Kingdom of Thrynne in the icy grip of powerful sorceress, Thalia Sleet.

One day while out looking for firewood, young Tiggy Thistle saves one of the Stiltskin brothers from some ferocious cats and is given in return three magical objects – boots, a scarf and a rucksack.

Soon after, with time running out to save Thrynne from the curse of endless winter, young Tiggy leaves the safety of the home she shares with kindly badger, Ernestine, and sets off on a quest to find the lost Guardians and their cloud horses; the only ones, she believes can save Thrynne.

Along the way, the determined child encounters some wonderful characters including tin man Helperthorpe, rat Sinclair Sinclair and giant Mote, each one as caring as Tiggy herself. Along the way too, Tiggy comes to know that she is able to feel and control magic, a big asset as she journeys high and low over vast, varied landscapes. These, as well as the superb cast of characters are depicted in detail in the awesome illustrations.

However, as well as being an amazing artist, Chris Riddell is a wonderful storyteller and creator of worlds. What better way to pass the chilly wintry evenings than to curl up warm and let yourself be transported by the magic of Tilly’s adventure with its echoes of some classic literature, and find out whether she can bring the lost guardians home as well as discovering what she learns of her own identity.

The Christmas Carrolls: The Christmas Competition / We Wish You a Merry Christmas and other festive poems

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

This story sees the Carrolls competing for The Most Festive Family. Also in contention for winning the prize – a trip to New York City – are the Klauses.

With just two weeks to prepare for a visit from the editor of the Christmas Chronicle who will be judging the competition, the Carrolls go into frenzied preparation mode. Surely those Klauses, with a house on Candy Cane Lane couldn’t be more festive, could they? Holly is worried. Also on her mind though, are the upcoming Halloween activities her friends are all excited about. Must she miss out completely on the spooky fun to try and do her utmost to help her family win that competition? She feels somewhat conflicted, but can she make her mum and dad understand. Top of their agenda is to pay a clandestine visit to Candy Cane Lane and take a look at their opposition. Things don’t quite go to plan though. Just as they’re on the point of leaving, the front door opens and out come the Klauses – Mr, Mrs and their children Poinsettia and Toboggan. 

Rather than sending them packing, Mrs K offers to show them round Klausland with its dancing penguins and private ski mountain. That’s when Holly sees a baby penguin with a broken wing and unequal size feet that the Klaus children call Nuisance.
Next morning what does Holly discover in her room but the very same baby penguin, which she names Sue. Mum insists that Holly return the penguin that same day: Holly however, has other penguin plans.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking and that visit from the newspaper editor draw ever closer …

Zany seasonal reading that is full of heart, some shenanigans, a sackful of good intentions and plenty of lively illustrations from Selom Sunu.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas and other festive poems
chosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell
Macmillan Children’s Books

Chris Riddell has selected almost fifty festive poems, mixing lots of old favourites including Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St Nicholas with some exciting new seasonal poetry. You’ll find the secular and the religious, and both serious and fun offerings herein, some of the latter being those Talking Turkeys of Benjamin Zephaniah – I definitely support ‘Turkeys United’; and Clare Bevan’s spirited Just Doing My Job about a Christmas drama performance: teachers and pupils together will enjoy this one.
You’ll likely be amused by the sequel to The Twelve Days of Christmas (for which Riddell provides several superb illustrations) – it’s Dave Calder’s offering on a phone call that takes place on the thirteenth day of Christmas.

I really enjoyed another poem new to me, Dom Conlon’s Father Christmas sent me the Moon.
With the world as it is at the moment though, I was especially drawn to John Agard’s Green Magi and Lem Sissay’s Let There Be Peace.

Awesomely illustrated throughout, this has something for all ages.

The Red Red Dragon

The Red Red Dragon
Lynne Reid Banks, illustrated by Kristina Kister
Walker Books

The author transports readers to a world of dragons and uprights (humans as we know them). The latter have been forced from the mainland (the Great Ridding) following years of war between them and the dragons. Now the dominant beings, the dragons have become a caring, peaceable community and they solve any problems that arise through discussion and debate.

Into the dragon community is born a dragon named Ferocity but on account of being the only red dragon he becomes known as Red once he starts dragon school. Not only is Red a different colour, he appears to possess the capacity to use his ‘think-space’ to think thoughts that other dragons can’t. Add to that, the notion that he is central to some ancient legends that are important for a shared future for them all. The current problem for dragons however, is their essential need: supplies of coal have almost gone and need to be replenished in order that their chest fires can remain hot. The only way to do so is make contact with the uprights, they who have hands and can mine. This is the mission that Red and his parents undertake.

It’s wonderful watching how Red develops during this mission, which is full of adventures, especially as the bond between him and the young upright Lou, grows. Particularly exciting is the development of his ‘thinks’ as he gains an understanding of ideas such as the imagination described thus, ‘It had the sound of beautiful newness. Like the start of warm-time when everything is bursting, and anything is possible.’ Indeed it is the young beings – Red and Lou, who are the real channel for meaningful interactions between the two sides and with them lies the possibility of future reconciliation.

This is a wonderful, moving story that radiates warmth and hope for a better world. Wonderful too are Kristina Kister’s black and white illustrations, especially those between blocks of the narrative.

Stand and Deliver!

Stand and Deliver!
Philip Caveney
uclanpublishing

Having worked for most of my teaching career in the London Borough of Hounslow, close to Hounslow Heath, for 100 years between the 17th and 18th centuries, the most dangerous place in England on account of highwaymen, I was drawn to this story and quickly found myself gripped.

A victim of these times and of circumstance is young Ned. Awkward, shy and trying his best to find where he fits in the world, the lad has become unpaid assistant to The Shadow, the nation’s most feared highwayman aka Tom Gregory. Living in Epping Forest, The Shadow identifies himself with Robin Hood, robbing only the rich that cross his path as he proudly informs Ned, although conveniently, he ignores the part about giving to the poor and relies on his apprentice for assistance to avoid being sent to the gallows for his crimes.

Ned longs to be an apprentice carpenter but is too scared to run away from Tom Gregory in case he should end up in the workhouse. Instead he is pulled into a life of risky adventure and when Tom is injured, the lad finds himself taking over his master’s role and even briefly, his identity. Then he happens upon the infamous Bloodstone of Jaipur, a jewel said to be cursed and resulting in the death of every man who ever laid hands upon it. This jewel forces Ned to make a vital choice.

The tension builds as Ned makes new friends and some enemies too. The former include Eliza, bold determined daughter of thief-taker, William Parbold. While Parbold believes Eliza should be spending her time preparing to become a fine lady and thence wife to a good husband, she is determined to work alongside her father in a role that society at that time deemed totally unsuitable for a young woman.

As the tale twists and turns there’s plenty of excitement, daring deeds and some very scary episodes too, before this wonderful romp comes to a satisfying close.

The Beast and the Bethany: Battle of the Beast / Llama on Ice / Dungeon Academy: Tourney of Terror

These are additions to three popular series from Farshore: thanks to the publisher for sending them for review

The Beast and the Bethany: Battle of the Beast
Jack Meggitt-Phillips, illustrated by Isabelle Follath

With the beast safely imprisoned after controlling Ebenezer Tweezer for 511 years and twice attempting to eat Bethany, Ebenezer is trying to attract new clients for the problem-solving business, The Wise Tweezer. He also keeps receiving phone calls; these he determinedly ignores until eventually Mr Nickle gets through and announces some strange, disturbing news concerning the beast.
Almost before you can say the dreaded word, Bethany and Ebenezer are on the beach of D.o. r. r.i.S Island facing Mr Nickle. He informs them that the beast is to be released on account of its having lost its mind and become a reformed character. Moreover, in the next stage of his rehabilitation, he’s being put in the care of Ebenezer and Bethany; either that or the former will be arrested. Bethany though is having none of it and off she storms.
Nonetheless the beast sets about proving how adept he is at do-gooding as he gets involved in Ebenezer’s business. carrying out kindnesses around the neighbourhood by vomiting out things people need. But Ebenezer surely can’t carry on ignoring those rumbling sounds that come from the beast’s belly every so often? Bethany meanwhile is determined to prove that the beast is still its evil self. Enter Mortimer the parrot. Let battle commence …
Fiendishly funny and darkly discomforting, this will definitely leave readers wanting still more

Llama on Ice
Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

It’s the Christmas holidays and with her llama pal Levi away on a training mission and her best human friend Ezra enjoying himself in Jamaica with his grandad for a fortnight, Yasmin is feeling pretty miserable stuck in London. Then comes the snowstorm: apparently the thickest for twenty years, so the TV news announcer says and soon after she hears from Ezra that the adverse conditions mean his return flight is cancelled. What will she find to do? Certainly not have a family Christmas; her family don’t celebrate that festival.
The snowstorm also means that Tia, her erstwhile best friend and now arch enemy, can’t go on her luxury holiday to France to see her dad and stepfamily and visit that Fantasy Icestravaganza.
Suddenly as Yasmin is sitting in her bedroom trying to cheer herself up, the llama landline lights up and she receives a message from Mama Llama, head of Seen Not Herd, informing her of a mission: to give Tia her best ever Christmas. Eventually she accepts. But then what? With just three days to go, Yasmin must switch to guardian llama mode. Let the carol singing begin …
Things don’t always go to plan and this looks like being one of those times, especially when Yasmin lets her temper get the better of her. Surely her very first mission isn’t going to be a failure?
Perhaps with the help of the unexpectedly returned Levi and Ezra, she can achieve what she sets out to do and even give Tia a version of that special ice show …
Despite the chilly wintry setting, this story has at its heart, warmth, kindness, forgiveness and family love.

Dungeon Academy: Tourney of Terror
Madeleine Roux, illustrated by Tim Probert

This is a sequel to No Humans Allowed. Secretly human, Zelli is having enigmatic nightmares sent by Lord Carrion the necromancer currently a captive in Dungeon Academy’s detention room.
The adults (Zelli’s adoptive minotaur mothers included) instruct her to leave things to them but she’s not convinced they’re doing sufficient, especially when she learns that she’s not the only one having nightmares and so she turns to the Danger Club to help her research the clues left by Lord Carrion. Meanwhile chaos ensues at the school, which is host to rivals, the Waterdeep Dragons for the Tourney of Terror, a monstrous sporting event.
Nonetheless Zelli decides she must investigate and close to a portal she discovers a dragon, or really, a human boy, Tavian. Soon the two, both of whom are masquerading as something they’re not, are swapping back stories, they form a bond and Tavian decides to join Danger Club’s investigation.
With some fierce battles, the tale twists and turns all the way to its cliff-hanger ending that will leave Dungeons and Dragons fans in suspense awaiting the next instalment.

The Book That No One Wanted To Read

The Book That No One Wanted To Read
Richard Ayoade, illustrated by Tor Treeman
Walker Books

This is one of the most crazy books I’ve ever read: it’s the first actor, writer and director, Richard Ayoade has written for younger readers. It’s also fiendishly funny, clever and thought-provoking.

Let’s consider how it feels to be a book – the best way is to allow a book to be both main character and the narrator telling things from its own viewpoint – sounds as though we’re getting a bit autobiographical here. Still that way allows us readers to imagine such things as the importance of making one’s cover alluring – failure to do so could all too easily result in being hurled across the room, abandoned under a whiffy pant pile or, horror of horrors, left on a shelf to be nothing more than a mere dust collector. And unless the tome under consideration happens to be a yogi there’s the possibility of having to perform some pretty sophisticated folds,

have your spine broken or, should you be totally unwanted then – gasp! – be sent off to a warehouse and there ‘pulped’ to near oblivion.

Hang on though, this book that we’re reading is in the process of charting its own destiny and that means finding its way into the hands of readers like us who will take great delight in discovering it in a bookshop – preferably on a display table with that irresistible unicorn cover or similar.

Tor Freeman captures with panache, Richard Ayoade’s wry humour in her wonderfully quirky illustrations that accompany the narration. Contrary to its title, this is a book you most definitely WILL want to read.

Dragon Storm: Kai and Boneshadow / Duck’s Backyard

Dragon Storm: Kai and Boneshadow
Alastair Chisholm, illustrated by Eric Deschamps
Nosy Crow

This is the fifth book in Alastair Chisholm’s fantasy series for younger readers, set in the city of Rivven.

After dinner one night Kai and his fellow dragonseers are called to the office of Berin, Chancellor of the Dragonseer Guild. She informs them that at the king’s beset they have been summoned to the Royal Palace where trade negotiations are taking place. There they are to act as ‘apprentice clerks’ to assist Prince Harald by copying out various relevant documents because members of the clerical division at the palace have been struck down by a mysterious sickness. 

Following their first day’s work, the children are talking in their dormitory and Tom mentions seeing a dragon entering the palace. They decide to search in secret for this dragon and while so doing Kai picks up a leather pouch, containing a bottle holding a mysterious potion. This Kai has in his hand when he is rushing to get back to the dorm; it breaks and a shard of glass penetrates his palm and the liquid goes all over his hand. The result is that Kai starts feeling completely different – more confident and powerful.

Back home at the weekend Kai’s dragon Boneshadow notices a change in the boy. The dragonseers are also warned by Berin not to go exploring the castle on their return there the following week. During the weekend Kai’s actions cause consternation among his friends especially when he causes Erin to get injured. Back at the palace, when he starts following the call of that other dragon, Firedreamer, 

not only does he risk losing his human friends, it appears that he might lose Boneshadow too. Will Kai realise what is happening to him before it’s too late? Will Boneshadow discover what her power is? And what is the significance of that crest on the leather pouch …

Gripping reading and a cracking addition to the series.

Duck’s Backyard
Ulrich Hub, illustrated by Jörg Mühle
Gecko Press

A duck with a ‘wonky’ leg lives a lonely life in a backyard from which she’s never ventured. Then one day in wanders a chicken wearing dark glasses. The chicken is rather egocentric, determined and also blind, almost immediately deciding that the duck will be her guide on a journey to a place “where all our secret wishes come true” She knows not where this place is but is certain she’ll know when they reach there. Duck eventually accedes to Chicken’s wishes and off they go, taking it in turns to lead the way. 

They talk and they squabble and dance a fair bit as they conquer ‘the darkest forest in the world’, cross a huge ravine, on a plank placed there by duck, 

and climb the world’s highest mountain. Or do they? No matter, for they find themselves and each other; and they certainly find what matters most of all.

There’s a great deal to ponder upon in this superficially simple, philosophical tale, the drama of which is underscored by Jörg Mühle’s humorous depictions of the travellers. A small piece of thought-provoking brilliance this.

Magic Keepers: Crystal Chaos / Theodora Hendrix and the Snare of the Shadowmongers

Magic Keepers: Crystal Chaos
Linda Chapman, illustrated by Hoang Giang
Little Tiger

This is the first of a new series wherein Linda Chapman establishes a magical world based at Curio House. Ava and her mother have just moved into what was her archaeologist great aunt Edith’s home, where she has left her collection of curios saying in her will that this must remain there and not be sold. Rather it was her hope that one of her relations would find this collection ‘special’. 

Enter Ava and her dog, Pepper. Pretty soon Ava discovers that special means magic or perhaps ‘Magyck’ in the case of the crystals. Each of said crystals holds its own potential energy. It’s into this magical world that Ava, together with her new friends Sarah and Lily fall. Ava discovers an ancient mummified crocodile that is affected by the resurrection crystal and it’s down to the three girls (and Ava’s dog Pepper) to discover how to control and make use of the other crystals’ powers, and do so pretty snappily, if they are to prevent the scaly creature terrorising the entire town.

As well as an exciting adventure this is a tale of new beginnings and of friendship that demonstrates that everybody is different and that working together is the best thing to do for them all.

A thoroughly enjoyable read for primary age children, strikingly illustrated by Hoang Giang. I wonder what comes next for the Magic Keepers and that curio collection.

Theodora Hendrix and the Snare of the Shadowmongers
Jordan Kopy, illustrated by Lisa Hunt
Walker Books

Theodora, the girl raised by monsters, is back for a third adventure along with Sherman (spider) and friend Dexter. Theodora is excited at the prospect of visiting New York for the Christmas holidays (other than having been given homework on the very last day of term, which she’ll have to take with her). She can’t help thinking of all the pizzas she will be able to consume. On arrival they discover that the Big Apple is packed with the horrendous Shadowmongers, supposedly banished to the Antarctica several thousand years back; and then they come upon the sinister Hilda who says she has unbanished them and now they have joined forces. Their aim is to bring down the Monstrous League of Monsters and with it Theodora, once and for all, thus putting humans the world over in the most terrible danger, causing them to have nightmares every night for the rest of their lives.

Facing perils aplenty, Theodora (the one who sees the Shadowmongers), Dexter (who doesn’t) and Sherman (he seems to know a fair bit about these vile creatures) have to navigate the city where the ghastly beings seem to reappear whenever they think they’ve escaped them.
With New Year over, it’s time to head back to face another school term but is that the last of the Shadowmongers? That would be telling …

With Lisa Hunt’s expressive black and white illustrations throughout, this is just right for autumnal reading, especially for those who enjoy spooky stories tinged with humour.

The Arctic Railway Assassin / Solve Your Own Mystery: The Missing Magic

The Arctic Railway Assassin
M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli
Macmillan Children’s Books

Hal flies off to Sweden where he is to meet Uncle Nat. From Stockholm the following day they will take a Christmas trip aboard the sleeper train bound for the Aurora Sky Station to see the Northern Lights. Uncle Nat announces that his friend Morti, who has just won the Nobel Prize, is to accompany them, but then she suddenly changes her plan. After the announcement of her prize she’s been scared by some inexplicable events with things of hers disappearing and now Hal and Nat are to travel without her.

While waiting to board the train Hal sketches a group of musicians,

then as they leave Stockholm, he and his uncle think they are being followed, and Nat tells the boy that one of the people in his drawing is an assassin from his past, supposedly long dead. Something doesn’t quite add up with this picture of Hal’s. And what about the sudden appearance of Hal’s mum on board too?

Full of suspense, and with some great new characters, this truly is a gripping page turner with some really perilous episodes when readers will find themselves fearing for the lives of some of the characters. Hal’s drawing skills really come to the fore in this adventure, considerably helping to solve the mystery of what the assassins are after and where it is. Elisa Paganelli’s illustrations do a wonderful job bringing his sketches to life and adding to the reader’s involvement in solving the mystery.

My only regret is that this is the final book in the brilliant Adventures on Trains series.

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

In the third interactive adventure from Gareth P. Jones there’s another puzzling mystery waiting for readers to solve. Like previous titles it’s set in the town of Haventry, a place where with its unusual population almost anything can happen at any time. Now it’s the opening day of Magicon, the world’s biggest magic convention and everyone is gathering for the great event when suddenly disaster strikes: all the magic in the town disappears. Who is responsible for this catastrophe?

It’s up to readers to don their detective hats, find out, and get it back in time for the opening ceremony. Could the thief perhaps be Evil Enid; or maybe Nigel Rigmarole whose business is magical energy? These are just two of the possible suspects that detective you, along with boss Klaus Solstaag (a yeti) need to consider. There are also the likes of meditative unicorn Moondance (too good to be true maybe)

and powerful Magic Circle head, Grandmaster Dimbleby.

There’s not a minute to lose: time to make the sparks fly – unless you want to shoulder the responsibility of allowing an ancient monster to waken from a century-long sleep beneath the town.

With a multitude of possible routes to take, this is terrific fun and with Louise Forshaw’s splendid portrayal of the weird and wonderful characters, this diverting read will delight primary age readers who like fantastical tales.

Creeping Beauty: Fairy Tales Gone Bad

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

We’re back in the Library of Fairy Tales Gone Bad for the third and sadly, final tale in this cracking series, where the Librarian has found a really frightening treat. Prepare to meet Eshe, the youngest of thirteen sisters, which makes her a tredecimalet. Eshe, like her sisters, is a fairy godmother with the ability to bestow amazing gifts, and thus invited to every christening party in the land. However Eshe has a rather different ability: she is able to to see into the future.

One day she foresees something truly terrible – ‘a world blanketed in thorns!’ endlessly growing vines that defy the sharpest of axes, shears, and even weedkiller. At the centre of all this is a beautiful girl, Princess Rose. It’s to her christening party that the sisters have just received an invitation and whereas her siblings are focussing on suitable gifts for the baby, Eshe’s head is filled with thoughts of the terrible future. She must attend the christening and she absolutely must try to prevent the very worst. This however will required, deep and very powerful magic and the use of her alchemistical Eye of Grimm.

Moreover she will require the help of others …

Dreadfully dark and brilliantly subversive, Joseph’s decidedly prickly twisted take on Sleeping Beauty is, like Zombierella and Frankenstiltskin, absolutely awesome. Long live the power of love and friendship. Freya Hartas’ wonderful black and white illustrations are in turn eerily eye-catching or cleverly comical.

Crimson Twill: Witch in the City / Midnight Magic: Witch Trap

Crimson Twill: Witch in the City
Kallie George, illustrated by Birgitta Sif
Walker Books

Crimson Twill is anything but your typical witch. Instead she wears a hat to match her name, giggles rather than cackling and she’s a dreamer. She can hardly wait to pay her very first visit to the world’s biggest department store, Broomingdale’s in New Wart City. There she will spend her hard earned money, but what will she buy? After some deliberation, she heads off to the Cat floor and yes there are plenty of cats, but what interests Crimson most is actually a puppy; this she rescues from a highly disapproving saleswitch, Ms Whiskers.

It’s not until she reaches the hat floor that the quirky little witch finds something she likes, a hat completely different from all the pointy ones: this one has a huge bouncy bow but there is only one of them and just as she’s about to make a purchase, Crimson encounters another witchling whom she learns has been saving up for this very hat for weeks. What will Crimson choose: the hat for herself or happiness for her fellow witchling? 

This turns out to be only one of the opportunities Crimson has to demonstrate her compassionate nature and in the end she realises that not only is it okay to be different, but also that there is something more valuable than any purchase she might have made – friends.

With its theme of being true to yourself, full of witchy whimsicalness and gentle humour – I love the fun word plays – this is the first of Kallie George’s chapter book series. Birgitta Sif’s black and white illustrations are a delight, depicting an inclusive city community.

Midnight Magic: Witch Trap
Michelle Harrison and Elissa Elwick
Little Tiger

This is the third in the rhyming series starring black cat Midnight and her human friend Trixie. It’s October half term and the two are building a den in the garden (‘their own top-secret lair’), while Nan plants bulbs and Dad sweeps up leaves. With his magic, Midnight creates a leaf dragon and the friends are so excited they fail to notice that somebody is watching them. That somebody is a witch called Wendy who is especially interested in Midnight’s special powers and tries to buy her. Trixie gives her a flat refusal and the witch flies off with a worrying glint in her eye, leaving Trixie a tad concerned.

That night into the room where Midnight and Trixie are fast asleep creeps Wendy, who takes the cat away in a cage. The following morning Trixie discovers a clue to the identity of the catnapper 

and off she goes on a rescue mission, accompanied by Dad and Nan. Readers meanwhile discover why Wendy has taken Midnight and the cat in turn learns that her family is coming to her rescue. All ends happily with further revelations, a promise, understanding, kindness and more.

Huge fun for reading aloud or reading solo, this sparkling story has an autumnal feel thanks to Elissa Elwick’s choice of orange to predominate in her bold illustrations of the action.

The Adventures of Team Pom: The Last Dodo / War of the Wind

The Adventures of Team Pom: The Last Dodo
Isabel Roxas
Flying Eye Books

It’s the summer break in Shadyside and Team Pom comprising Roberta, Ruby and Agnes have decided to spend it at the Natural History Museum where Ruby’s aunt Dr Octavia – a de-extinction biologist in training is currently working. There she is mighty proud to show the junior naturalist group a very precious specimen, a fossilised dodo foot. Who should be lurking in the background masquerading as cleaners though, but that ratty pair of the dastardly Steve’s minions, Mister Gilbert and Monsieur Georges. The next thing Dr Octavia et al know is that the dodo specimen has gone missing. Quickly Team Pom is on the trail but they are going to have to foil Steve’s wicked plan to turn all the humans to dodos if they’re to save the city.

If only they can find an ‘antidote’ and get the dodo-humans to consume it; otherwise it will be a case of “The dodos shall inherit the earth.”

With both inventiveness and action galore, this second off-the wall adventure, presented in Isabel Roxas’s whimsical graphic novel style, will delight those who met Team Pom in their previous adventure as well as winning them plenty of new fans.

War of the Wind
Victoria Williamson
Neem Tree Press

On a remote Scottish island lives fourteen year old Max with his parents and baby sister. As the story opens Max is struggling to come to terms with his hearing loss that happened after an accident on board his dad’s fishing boat. Up until then Max had been a popular boy – one of the crowd – but now he’s become one of the zoomers, those with additional needs whom he and his friends had previously laughed at. In addition Max feels that his parents have replaced him with perfect baby sister Sally. He doesn’t understand why his Dad can’t be bothered to communicate with him in writing and is irritated that his mum always seems too tired to sign accurately.
Max’s village is not on the internet, nor indeed is a mobile phone network available. But then, setting aside the noise pollution in exchange for the promise of wi-fi for everyone and a power source, the islanders vote to allow huge wind turbines to be installed in the bay just off the coast.

We follow Max’s developing relationships with three children who have been ‘different’ all their lives: David, uses a wheelchair, Beanie, who has Down’s Syndrome and lives with her granny, and Erin, who was born deaf; his gradual acceptance into this community being somewhat bumpy. Almost as soon as the wind farm appears it’s evident that the animals and islanders are acting oddly. In a few short weeks they become irritable, bad tempered and unpredictable. The strange behaviour spreads to the children and acts of violence threaten to tear the community apart.

On account of his hearing loss, Max, unaffected by the changes, discovers that a sinister scientist, Doctor Ashwood, and the government are using the wind turbines to test a new sound wave weapon on the island population. Using their strengths, can Max and his three new friends find a way to shut down the wind farm’s signals and halt Doctor Ashwood’s plan before the experiment has tragic consequences?

Not only is this a gripping thriller but it’s also an empathetic portrayal of children with additional needs, showing how all too often, they can be underestimated.

Cress Watercress

Cress Watercress
Gregory Maguire, illustrated by David Litchfield
Walker Books

As the story begins young rabbit Cress, her mother and baby brother Kip are grieving the loss of Papa Watercress, who ‘went out and didn’t come back’; (though Cress still has hopes of him being alive). Mama Rabbit has decided to move her family from the warren to new digs: the one-room basement of an ‘apartment tree’ – a dead hollow oak known as the Broken Arms. Its landlord is Mr Titus Pillowby Owl and he takes payment for rent in moths. Failure to pay could result in eviction or if he changes his diet, the loss of their lives. Other residents include a noisy squirrel family with a doctor father, rent collector Manny and wife Sophie mouse and two songbirds. The birds are always on the lookout for dangers ,particularly in the form of the legendary snake ‘The Final Drainpipe’ and Monsieur Reynard the fox.
We’re treated to a mix of adventures, domestic detail, growing pains (Cress), clever crafting (Mum rabbit weaves tapestries) and great danger. Examples of this are when Cress and squirrel Finian are swept over a waterfall on a raft;

Cress confronts and enchants Tunk the Honeybear, but then she and Finny are held captive for a short while by pompous skunk, Lady Cabbage – she who has designs on Cress as a housemaid.
Full of heart, with some sadness, essentially this is a charming story of moving on, growing up, forming friendships and learning to love, becoming part of a new community and flourishing.

Or as Cress tells Fricassee the hen, “today might not be good. But it might be good enough.” In his glowing illustrations David Litchfield captures both the wry humour of the tale and its unforgettable cast of characters.

Read aloud or read alone, animal lovers especially will be utterly enchanted by both words and pictures..

Happy Stories for Nature Lovers

Happy Stories for Nature Lovers
Dawn Casey and Domenique Serfontein
Ivy Kids

Watching the Earth Prom on TV today I heard Chris Packham say this: “Now is the time to ask what we need to do for wildlife. We know we are on the brink, … but there is still hope … we can stop the loss of millions of species but we have to understand the need to change what we do, to accept and celebrate that change – we need to do it together with tolerance and kindness, because ultimately we are one species on one very special planet with one very big problem and one last chance to sort it out. Now is the time for ALL of us to make a difference.”
Author Dawn Casey writes in her introduction to this book of an environmentalist, Joanna Macy, who talks of the fact that more and more people are indeed taking action in response to nature’s needs, calling this shift ‘The Great Turning’.

The eight narrative non-fiction stories herein are examples telling how individuals and conservation bodies have made a difference to wild life in various parts of the world. We read of young Anna who, on account of her love of trees, was responsible for the founding of the Children’s Forest movement by passing on her passion to her pupils. 

A grandpa talking to his grandson outlines how the Humpback whales were rescued from the brink of extinction. In the 1930s only 440 were left but with the banning of hunting and killing of whales for commercial gain in 1986, their numbers have grown to 25,000.

Intensive farming methods with their use of pesticides and the destruction of hedges and trees have created green deserts in many parts of the world. However in Nature’s Plenty we learn how a farming couple in Normandy, Charles and Perrine followed their dream of growing healthy food for their family. Starting small, they bought a field and without the use of machinery, by feeding the soil only natural things, replanting hedges and planting crops for their mutual benefit, developed over the years a rich ecosystem of pastures, pools, orchards and hedges. This aroused the interest of scientists who came to see and were vastly impressed to discover the amount of food the farm grew on so small an area of land. Now the couple help others learn to farm in a similar low impact manner.

These and the other five examples, stylishly illustrated by Domenique Serfontein, should give young readers cause for hope and will surely inspire them to take action in whatever ways they can. The final spread offers some suggestions of how we might all walk more gently upon the earth.

Autumn Moonbeam: Spooky Sleepover / Pages & Co: The Treehouse Library

Teamwork is a key ingredient of both these magical fantasies.

Autumn Moonbeam: Spooky Sleepover
Emma Finlayson-Palmer and Heidi Cannon
uclan publishing

In this second story where the world of witches meets the world of dance, it’s the first day at Sparkledale Dance Academy for dance and gymnastics-lover, Autumn. With a mixture of apprehension in case she isn’t up to it and excitement at being in the Black Cats dance team, she meets her best friend Batty at the door. As their teacher Verity welcomes the newcomers and announces the warm up, one of the team is still to arrive. Suddenly there she is at the door, Severina Bloodworth, Autumn’s conceited neighbour, showing off her new hairstyle.

As the session gets under way Verity announces a special team bonding sleepover in two weeks time. She also sends Severina to the store cupboard to find something to tie back her hair. On her return strange things start happening, but are they Severina’s doing or is something or someone else responsible for the trouble?

The following Monday back in their normal classroom Autumn comes upon a book with a paragraph about pixies. What she reads has an uncanny match with events at the dance academy the previous week. Perhaps it’s worth trying out the anti-pixie mischief remedies suggested.

Excitement mounts on the day of the sleepover and Autumn takes the opportunity to accuse Severina of being behind the weird happenings that occur whenever they dance. Her response is something of a surprise to her accuser but a relief to the accused. Perhaps if everyone remembers what Verity always says, “Teamwork makes dreamwork” they can work together to find a way out of the trouble once and for all.

Pages & Co: The Treehouse Library
Anna James, illustrated by Marco Guadalupi
Harper Collins Children’s Books

At last, it’s time for Milo to take centre stage as driver of the Quip in this the penultimate book of what has been an amazing series. Now accompanied by Alessia (the Alchemist’s daughter), is he ready to be a hero? Having been poisoned, his Uncle Horatio is currently lying unconscious in the care of the Pages family, and it appears that the only way to cure him is with a recipe in Alessia’s notebook. Together Milo and Alessia set out, bound for Northumberland in the hope of finding the Botanist, the only person who might be able to help them.

Having grown up on a train and never before left it, Milo is surprised to discover the sense of peace he feels close to trees.; a peace that is disturbed by a human voice. It’s that of the Botanist, aka Rosa, who lives and works in the Treehouse Library of the title; she who is the sworn enemy of the the Alchemist. From her Milo learns that his grandmother is also there and willing to see him. That’s two new and interesting characters who both readers and Milo encounter for the first time and happily for Milo, Rosa makes a decent mug of hot chocolate.

Time is of the essence as they hunt for ingredients for the cure, searching in The Secret Garden, sailing in a pea-green boat, 

repelling the terrifying Jabberwock and challenging Robin Hood as to whether he’s truly all about helping the poor.

With the ruthless Alchemist prepared to do anything it takes to get hold of The Book of Books and discover its secrets, the entire realm of the imagination is in danger: a thrilling struggle for book wandering’s destiny unfolds, and Milo, Tilly, Oskar, Alessia and Rosa have to put all their skills together to find that book first. An awesome read and I can hardly wait for the final story.

Grimwood: Let the Fur Fly

Grimwood: Let the Fur Fly!
Nadia Shireen
Simon & Schuster

Absolutely brimming over with bonkersness is this second story in the Grimwood series. Fox siblings Nancy and Ted are happily settled in Grimwood enjoying life with their new friends, although they do still wonder about their parents. As Ted is wandering along one day he is suddenly accosted by a mysterious stranger, a grown-up Fox, whom it is suggested by Sharon the party crow, is from Twinklenuts. Further investigations reveal this fox to be the ultra cool Sebastian Silver who introduces himself as Mayor of Twinklenuts Forest. 

Beguiling as he might seem, said fox is a dastardly schemer and he wants to take over Grimwood for his own purposes.

With the future of the home they’ve come to love at stake, Nancy, Ted and their friends must summon up all their courage, speed, strength and teamwork skills. A challenge is issued: there’s to be a treebonk showdown: Grimwood vs Twinklenuts. Nancy decides they need to learn as much as they can about their opponents if team Grimwood is to stand a chance. Time for a bit of spying: step forward the glamorous duck Ingrid, an erstwhile spy so she says.

Already shocked at discoveries on the way, when eventually the Grimwood spies reach their destination they are more than a little surprised at what they see (and I don’t mean Ingrid falling head over heels in love at first ’quack’ and swanning off – make that ducking off – into the sunset).

Surely that isn’t the last we see of her; and what about that all important contest? Things are not looking good, especially with Grimwood’s star player missing as the match time draws ever nearer.
Prepare yourself for further revelations, glitter galore and a surprise ending: like woodlouse Eric Dynamite, I certainly didn’t see that coming.

Gloriously anarchic, made all the more so by Nadia Shireen’s totally brilliant illustrations. I can hardly wait for the next visit to Grimwood.

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
Farshore

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
Farshore

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
Farshore

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
Graffeg

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
Farshore

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
Farshore

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.