Lottie Loves Nature: Bee-ware!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pizazz vs the New Kid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mermaids Rock: The Midnight Realm / The Kitten Next Door

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kitten Next Door
Holly Webb, illustrated by Sophy Williams

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

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

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

A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring on the sequel say I.

The Midnight Guardians

The Midnight Guardians
Ross Montgomery
Walker Books

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

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

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

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

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

Max Against Extinction / Warrior Monkeys and the Rescue Quest

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

Max Against Extinction
Tim Allman illustrated by Nick Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A House for Christmas Mouse
Rebecca Harry
Nosy Crow

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

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

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

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

Where are they going and why?

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

The Lightbringers
Karin Celestine
Graffeg

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

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

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

For new solo readers is

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

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

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

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

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

The Night I Met Father Christmas

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

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

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

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

by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini scattered throughout the telling.

Tinsel / Santa Gets A Second Job

Tinsel
Sibéal Pounder
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miffy’s Treasury
Dick Bruna

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

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

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

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

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

A Dancer’s Dream
Katherine Woodfine and Lizzy Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

Rashford Rules
Van Dijk Rules

Simon Mugford and Dan Green
Welbeck Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clifftoppers: The Frost Castle Adventure / A Christmas in Time

Here are two gripping wintry stories from Nosy Crow Publishers:

Clifftoppers: The Frost Castle Adventure
Fleur Hitchcock

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

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

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

A Christmas in Time
Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Rachael Dean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and make sure you look under the cover flaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glassheart
Katharine Orton
Walker Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean
Justin Somper
UCLAN Publishing

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

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

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

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

These are two special gift editions with Christmas in mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Puffin Keeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Dog and a Deer Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lottie Luna and the Fang Fairy

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Super Happy Magic Forest and the Portals of Panic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isadora Moon Goes to a Wedding

Isadora Moon Goes to a Wedding
Harriet Muncaster
Oxford University Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otters’ Moon / The Tipple Twins and the Gift

Otters’ Moon
Susanna Bailey
Egmont

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse & Mole: A Fresh Start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amelia Fang and the Trouble with Toads

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

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

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

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

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

Moreover, toads don’t fart …

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

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

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

Sofia Valdez and the Vanishing Vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Explorers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beast and the Bethany

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless he grows unintentionally fond of the child:

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

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

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

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

Ballet Bunnies

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

Swapna Reddy, illustrated by Binny Talib
Oxford University Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wizard in My Shed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Day I Fell into a Fairytale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fearless Fairy Tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a slightly older audience is:

The Thing at Black Hole Lake
Dashe Roberts
Nosy Crow

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

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

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

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

Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering

Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering
Harriet Muncaster
Oxford University Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Accidental Prime Minister Returns
Tom McLaughlin

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

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

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

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

Delicious daftness of a different kind in:

Roald Dahl Rotsome & Repulsant Words
illustrated by Quentin Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midnight Magic / Cally & Jimmy Twins in Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

W-hay – it’s up and away …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other colourful characters include Yiayia (grandma)

and lunchtime supervisor, Mrs Gutteridge.

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

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

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

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

and the challenges he faced through much of his life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strongly recommended reading for older children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Wishes / Frost

Winter Wishes
illustrated by Alison Edgson
Little Tiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hat Full of Secrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Journey Through Greek Myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are two young fiction titles with ecological themes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another winner from Lou Treleaven, Jasper et al.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are two terrific young fiction titles from Walker Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butterfly Brain

Butterfly Brain
Laura Dockrill and Gwen Millward
Piccadilly Press

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

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

Then one day, the inevitable happens …

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

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

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

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

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

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

A definite keeper this.

Attack of the Heebie Jeebies / A Case of the Jitters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next for Erika in Dreamteam story 3?

The Monsters of Rookhaven

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

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

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

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

There are monsters,

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

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

and his Flowers of Divine Lapsidy are truly horrifying.

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

Wulfie Stage Fright

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless, her name is signed up on the auditions list

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

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

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

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

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

Luna / Museum Kittens: The Pharaoh’s Curse

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

Luna
Holly Webb, illustrated by Jo Anne Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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