The Last Mapmaker

The Last Mapmaker
Christina Soontornvat
Walker Books

Twelve year old Sai, daughter of a con man and the narrator of this fantasy, comes from a marshy Fenland area where its inhabitants are looked down on. Nonetheless, thanks to her quick thinking she has become assistant to Paiyoon, the Mangkon Royal Navy’s Master Mapmaker, until her 13th birthday, at which point, when she does not receive a lineal, (a golden bracelet with links representing the recipient’s noble ancestors), her lowly status will become evident to everyone, Paiyoon included. She loves her job but secretly wants to save sufficient money to escape her home kingdom before that fateful date.

As her birthday draws near, the Queen issues a new directive. Now the kingdom has achieved peace for the first time in twenty years, it’s time to rededicate itself to exploration. This presents a wonderful opportunity for Sai when Paiyoon, invites the girl to assist him on an expedition aboard the ship Prosperity to chart and discover the Sunderlands for the Queen. Due to advanced age, his handwriting has become shaky and Sai can copy his writing without anyone knowing their secret. An enormous money prize awaits any crew who can locate the Sunderlands where, legend has it, Mangkon’s long-departed dragons now dwell.

Once aboard ship, Sai quickly discovers that many others have secrets of their own, including Miss Rian and her friend, the war hero Captain Sangra, even Paiyoon. She’s also worried that there’s a boy aboard who might know her identity. In fact it’s difficult to know who she can really trust.

Utterly compelling adventuring on the high seas: full of surprise twists and a fair few betrayals, with a diverse cast of complex characters, Soontornvat has constructed a tight plot full of wonderful descriptions – you can almost smell the brine – with undertones of colonialism and environmental issues,

Strongly recommended for older readers especially those who love unusual fantasies and a protagonist determined to chart her own course through life.

Luna and the Treasure of Tlaloc

Luna and the Treasure of Tlaloc
Joe Todd-Stanton
Flying Eye Books

At the start of this, the fifth of the Brownstone Mythical Collection series, Professor Brownstone introduces readers to Luna Brownstone, the most cunning of all the Brownstones. Daughter of renowned and respected adventurers known for their selfless acts, Luna decides after her parents were robbed and left abandoned while on a mission, that she would look after nobody but herself. This is just what she did: running away from home as soon as she was old enough, Luna began stealing priceless treasures from all over the world.

On the hunt for her next treasure, she goes to Aztec America and there learns of a young girl, Atzi, who has volunteered to undertake a journey, taking an offering, to the Aztec rain god Tlaloc and imploring him to save her village from drought. Luna decides on a cunning plan: she’ll befriend the girl, take her map and find the rain god on her own.

Their journey to his home beneath a sacred mountain is full of hazards including strange creatures

and they have to solve a riddle to discover the entrance to the palace. Luna realises that she must work with Atzi to navigate powerful waterfalls and evade hungry creatures, avoid dangerous ice shards and much more. Suddenly as they near their destination, Atzi is in peril of her life. Luna finds herself unable to let her die, though she doesn’t abandon her plan to steal the gold offering.

But is there something else that matters more than treasure and self- interest: Luna is soon faced with a crucial decision: does she have within her the power to change?

Luna is a rather different protagonist from others in the picture book cum graphic novel series – an anti-hero – and as always, Joe Todd-Stanton’s richly coloured illustrations for this thought-provoking story are full of wonderful details to pore over.

The Thief of Farrowfell

The Thief of Farrowfell
Ravena Guron, illustrated by Alessia Trunfio

Twelve year old Jude Ripon is part of a criminal family and so desperate is she to impress the other family members, in particular the patriarch Grandleader, that she steals some rare magic from the Westons, one of the most powerful families in all of Farrowfell. Surely that will make them take notice of her so they’ll allow her to do more than keep watch while they carry out daring heists.
However, she learns that the magic – which can seriously impair her family’s business – is protected by a curse that can only be lifted by returning it to the rightful owners. This though isn’t possible, as Mr and Mrs Weston have been missing for more than a year.

Reluctantly, Jude joins forces with the Weston children to find their parents and break the curse. While doing so, she begins to question her loyalty to her own family and consider whether she really wants to be a true Ripon at all.

The three children search for clues and piece together evidence, taking care to evade any Lilthrum, the blood-thirsty monsters formed from raw magic, whose deadly attacks on people have recently been increasing at a disturbing rate. The more time Jude spends with Eli and Fin, she cannot but appreciate and enjoy their kindness and friendship, things she’s never before experienced. This makes her feel even more at odds with her upbringing in a criminal household.

With edible magic (I’ve not met that before), a flawed hero and a twisting, turning plot with Alessia Trunfio’s interesting chapter heading illustrations, this is the first of what will become a series; it’s hugely exciting and full of dark humour. I envisage children around Jude’s age will be eagerly anticipating the next adventure; this reviewer certainly is.

Mermaid Academy: Isla and Bubble / The Magic Faraway Tree: A New Adventure

Mermaid Academy: Isla and Bubble
Julie Sykes and Linda Chapman, illustrated by Lucy Truman
Nosy Crow

Fans of the Unicorn Academy books will love this, the first of a magical new series set beneath the waves of Wild Sea. Just as the pupils of that establishment have captured the hearts of countless younger readers, I’m sure those of Mermaid Academy, led by headteacher, Dr Oceania, will do likewise, starting with Isla and the twins, Isobel and Cora who join the school on the same day.

Once the new pupils have been allocated their dorms, rather than lessons, they all participate in a treasure hunt intended to enable them to get to know one another, the dolphins and their new environment. Isla is a spirited character with a tendency to be headstrong, so when it comes to saving the woolly seahorses, even if that means breaking one of the Academy’s strict rules and venturing beyond its walls, she feels compelled to do so, however much danger that puts her team in.

Can she perhaps use her bubbliness to extricate them all from an emergency situation?

With adventure, friendship and discovering their magic and bonding with a special dolphin awaiting, (not to mention Lucy Truman’s black and white illustrations) who wouldn’t want to join Isla as she dives into this underwater world and helps protect its fauna and flora.

The Magic Faraway Tree: A New Adventure
Jacqueline Wilson, illustrated by Mark Beech
Hodder Children’s Books

The Faraway Tree is a series of popular children’s books by British author Enid Blyton. Blyton’s classic The Magic Faraway Tree, first published in 1939, was Jacqueline Wilson’s own favourite book as a very young child. Now the accomplished, popular contemporary children’s author, Wilson, has woven a new story that revisits this much-loved magical world in A New Adventure, that is just right for the next generation of young readers.

Those familiar with the original classic will remember some of their favourite characters, Moonface, Silky the fairy and The Saucepanman who loves to make up songs (and is now selling his wares on-line); but it’s the turn of a new family to experience what the magical tree has to offer.The family – dad, mum and three children are to spend their six week holiday staying at Rose Cottage and almost immediately, Birdy the youngest of the children meets a fairy outside her window. She invites the little girl to the Faraway Tree and so begins their adventure.

The next day Milo (10, the oldest), Mia about a year younger and Birdy (fourish), led by a talking rabbit, venture into the Enchanted Wood where among the whispering leaves stands the Faraway Tree: the tree that offers those who climb to the top, the opportunity to discover extraordinary places. Newly created by Jacqueline Wilson, the places the children experience are the Land of Unicorns – Mia absolutely loves this one,

the Land of Bouncy Castles, the Land of Princes and Princesses and finally, the Land of Dragons where a dangerous encounter awaits one of their number. This fourth story ends somewhat suddenly, I suspect to leave the way open for another Wilson sortie into the Enchanted Wood.

While keeping a strong sense of the original place, Jacqueline Wilson has challenged the stereotypical Blyton attitudes and language, one example being the way Mia is quick to admonish Mr Moonface: “Why on earth should it be Silky’s job to clean up after you … It’s terribly old-fashioned to expect a woman o keep a house tidy, … My mum and dad share all the chores and we have to help too.”

Also helping to give the book a modern feel that is just right for 21st century readers are Mark Burgess’ lively, often gently humorous illustrations.

We’ve Got This!

We’ve Got This!
Rashmi Sirdeshpande with EmpathyLab, illustrated by Juliana Eigner
Words & Pictures

One of the most important life skills children need to develop is empathy and this book is intended to help them do that. How exciting it is to have a book emphasising the power of reading to boost empathy and to read this in Sir Michael Morpurgo’s foreword: ‘ Books and stories to me are the key to empathy and understanding everyone. They are the pathway to understanding people as individuals. Read books. Enjoy books. And, most of all, learn from books.’

Readers of this particular book will assuredly do so. Empathy, we read at the outset is a ’real superpower’ and herein youngsters are offered a six-step process that uses case studies, empathy exercises and activities, to supercharge their empathy. Participating along with readers on this exciting journey are members of the Sharma family – mum Shivaji and her children, Isha and Rahul.

There are pieces by a number of well-known authors – Cressida Cowell, Malorie Blackman, Jacqueline Wilson, Sue Cheung (aka Sue Pickford), Jen Carney, Manon Steffan Ros, Ben Davis, Patrice Lawrence, Nadia Shireen,

Abigail Balfe, Dom Conlon, SF Said and Joseph Coelho, all of whom are affiliated with EmpathyLab. And there are examples from books by other writers in the fourth step Learn to Recognise Emotions, where one of the ideas is to be an emotions detective as you read. From the next section, I love this example of ‘super questioning between Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.

The text is chatty and child-friendly, and Juliana Eigner’s inclusive, often gently humorous illustrations are engaging. (Further resources are listed at the back of the book.)

A must for all KS2 school children, classroom collections and I think lots of adults would do well to read it too.


Ross Montgomery
Walker Books

Used to going unnoticed, even by her parents, an ordinary twelve year old, Evie, wakes from a weird dream of being in a theatre where it pours with rain and the audience sleeps, other than the five in the front row, an odd assortment of people who happen to be the last members of a secret magical organisation, the Order of the Stone. Its leader, Wainwright tells the others, that he has discovered a sorcerer who may be their last hope in defeating an evil magician intent on finding the Spellstone and unleashing the dark magic contained within and destroying the world. He then proceeds to introduce Evie.

After school that day, feeling even more unseen than ever and despairing that she’ll ever find her own people, Evie takes the route home along the canal towpath. Suddenly a cyclist comes too close causing her to fall over, but she’s helped by a man whom she recognises from her dream. He introduces himself as Wainwright and tells her about Emrys, the Spellstone, which he’s been tasked to keep hidden and an evil magician determined to find it. He hands Evie a rusty old piece of metal on a chain, saying it’s precious and she must keep it hidden until she’s ‘with the others’. Before she has time to ask who is the mysterious Alinora he’d mentioned, he dashes off hotly pursued by a number of men.

That evening there comes a scratching sound at her bedroom window and Evie discovers the cat from her dream, a cat that can talk. A cat that tells of smoke men coming and insists they leave right away. Evie follows her, eager for answers, and she’s led to a narrow boat, the hideout of the members of the Order – the people from her dream. “She’s here! I’ve got her! We’re safe! announces the cat.

Thus begins a breathtaking adventure in which an unsuspecting girl is plunged right into an ancient battle against a dangerously power-hungry magician intent on unleashing on an unsuspecting world the evil bound within the Spellstone. You’ll surely find your heart racing as Evie struggles to discover her magic power before it’s too late. She needs to find the hidden Spellstone and do to it what’s needed before it once more unleashes darkness upon the world. All this with an army of evil Vale’s smoke men always on the watch.

Again storyteller extraordinaire, Ross Montgomery, has created an amazing world: this fantastic tale will grip readers as a determined Evie and the other Members of the Order face danger after danger. It’s imperative that they work as a team if the mission has a chance of succeeding. Can good overcome evil and will Evie finally be reunited with her parents?

The Great Fox Heist

The Great Fox Heist
Justyn Edwards
Walker Books

Justyn Edwards really ups the stakes and the tension in this sequel to The Great Fox Illusion. Desperate for answers as to her father’s whereabouts following his disappearance, Flick Lions has little choice but to go to the town of Linth in Switzerland and there with her best friend Charlie, take part in another TV competition, The Battle of the Magicians, for the Great Fox, whom she already distrusts but has promised to help. All the Fox (forever in his mask) is interested in is being elected the new chancellor of the Global Order of Magic and winning the competition would enable him to secure that position. That and having the right to know the workings of any trick in the world. But does he have another agenda?

We follow the friends as they find themselves tasked with something that seems an impossibility: stealing some twenty-five million euros worth of diamonds from one of the most secure bank vaults in the world. 

If you’ve read the first story though, you will already know that despite her prosthetic leg, Flick is a character with a steely resolve; she’s astute, highly observant and loyal.
It’s clear that as the plot thickens, the author expects readers to keep their wits about them just as much as Flick and Charlie. What is the significance of the Bell System that appears everybody wants to get their hands on?

Without divulging too much I’ll just say that with danger lurking everywhere, loyalties are tested and the final twist will make you gasp. A fascinating and enthralling read.

Fairytale Ninjas: The Glass Slipper Academy / Slugs Invade the Jam Factory

Fairytale Ninjas: The Glass Slipper Academy
Paula Harrison, illustrated by Mónica de Rivas
Harper Collins Children’s Books

You’ll meet some favourite fairytale characters in this, the first of a new series, starring friends Red, Snow and Goldie who are pupils at the Glass Slipper Academy; Red rather reluctantly as she considers there are plenty of more exciting things to do than learning how to pirouette – things such as fighting trolls and riding dragons.

It quickly becomes evident that Red is a headstrong character who doesn’t always think before she acts; so when she grabs Snow’s penny and throws it into a supposedly broken wishing well, it might just be a case of be very mindful of what you wish for.

Once inside the academy, Red continues with her thoughtless behaviour and one of her wild acts results in her discovering a secret door in the studio behind which is a small storeroom full of clothes, silver armour, swords and a rolled up carpet. Just the kind of things for an adventure, thinks Red.

Madame Hart catches them red-handed and as a result agrees to give them sword-fighting lessons, telling the girls that the moves are very similar to dance moves. She also tells them that the most important thing she can teach them is self-belief.

Some weeks later during a lesson, Madame Hart is arrested for supposedly kidnapping little Prince Inigo and a group of soldiers take her away. Before you can say Diamond Palace, the three girls have stashed what they think they’ll need in their backpacks, ninja suits included, and along with wolf pup, Tufty, are off to find the real villain responsible for the young prince’s abduction.

Highly enjoyable either as a read aloud or as a chapter book for emergent readers, especially fairy tale fans, who will delight in discovering some of their favourite characters in different situations. Black and white illustrations by Monica de Rivas add to the fun.

Slugs Invade the Jam Factory
Chrissie Sains, illustrated by Jenny Taylor
Walker Books

This is the third adventure for inventor, Scooter McLay, his little alien chum, Fizzbee and his human friend Cat Pincher. Between them they have transformed McLay’s jam factory into a tropical jam glasshouse wonderland.

Now they have a problem: an attempted take over of the sluggy kind. In fact the slimy creatures have found several ways to infiltrate and moreover appear to be well-organised. How on earth is this possible?

Equally seemingly impossible is that Scooter’s mind has gone blank: he doesn’t have one single idea that might help the situation. With slugs leaving their slimy trails everywhere, feasting on the fabulous fruits and most likely causing the factory to fail its imminent hygiene inspection, on account of slug infestation, the situation is pretty desperate.
Daffy diagnoses Scooter with having creative block but has no knowledge of how this might be fixed; but could some of Fizzbee’s Cocoa Bean Creativity Jam help?

Something needs to be done and fast to thwart chief slug, Mucus’s plan to turn their factory into the first ever slug cafe and wellness spa. He seems to be taking the place over completely so the jam clan must pull out all the stops to halt his dastardly scheme and save their beloved establishment..

Did anyone say Brussels Sprouts? And be prepared for a surprise announcement before the end.

Hugely funny and equally silly, with Jenny Taylor’s illustrations adding to the enjoyment, this tasty offering concludes with a spread giving information about cerebral palsy, the condition that Scooter has.

Clutch / Dragon Storm: Connor and Lightspirit

These are additions to two exciting series:thanks to Walker Books and Nosy Crow for sending them for review

M.G. Leonard
Walker Books

This is the third story of the Twitchers and for me it’s even better than the previous two.

Twitch and Jack are alarmed to hear that somebody has been stealing eggs from the nest of a peregrine falcon in Aves Wood. As the Easter holidays start, all the Twitchers come together for the first time in a while and are determined to solve the mystery of the missing eggs before the thief strikes again.

In the knowledge that the thief’s actions are both against the law and immoral, the gang set off to find clues and learn what they can about any possible suspects. With the police involved Passerine Pike is now a crime scene, but is the criminal a local or somebody from outside come to participate in the Canal Masters fishing competition? With the competition only lasting a few days and a pair of Spoonbills nesting on the edge of the pond in the locality, time is of the essence in catching the thief.

However, suddenly Twitch receives a visit from the police and learns that he fits the suspect profile and evidence places him at the crime scene. Now it’s not only the nesting birds but Twitch in need of saving and the evidence against him seems to be mounting.
With several red herrings and wrong turns, the friends finally succeed in their mission: all ends well for Twitch, the real crooks are unmasked and there’s a new member of the Twitchers too.

With its superb mix of mystery, crime and environmental issues, this is another cracker for established fans of the series but others new to the Twitchers will quickly find themselves engrossed too. Whither next for these conservationists? I can’t wait to find out.

Dragon Storm: Connor and Lightspirit
Alastair Chisholm, illustrated by Eric Deschamps
Nosy Crow

This is the seventh of the author’s Dragon Storm series for younger readers and what a gripping tale it is. Relatively new to life in the Dragonseer’s Guild, Connor and the other children are told by vice-chancellor Creedy of a code that needs solving. But how trustworthy is Creedy? Connor thinks he’s OK but not all the others agree. The boy sets about cracking the code, which he does, helped by a clue about some of the symbols from Cara.

However the more involved he gets with Creedy, the more troubled Connor is by doubts that he’s doing the right thing by helping him, especially when under cover of darkness Creedy leads him to the Royal Palace. Moreover, Lightspirit is far from happy about what is happening: the truth is what matters to this dragon. Is King Godfic up to no good, or is it his son, or somebody else?
The Dragon Storm grows ever closer but can trust and truth save Draconis from a horrific war?

The story, with its atmospheric black and white illustrations by Eric Deschamps, ends on a real-cliffhanger leaving readers eager to discover what it is that Connor knows.

The Time Machine Next Door: Explorers and Milkshakes and The Time Machine Next Door: Scientists and Stripy Socks

The Time Machine Next Door: Explorers and Milkshakes
The Time Machine Next Door: Scientists and Stripy Socks

Iszi Lawrence, illustrated by Rebecca Bagley
Bloomsbury Education

These are the first of a new series of historical adventures for younger primary readers.
Explorers and Milkshakes begins with the announcement that Sunil is in BIG trouble. We soon find out that while at home alone he’s accidentally broken a prized gramophone record of his grandfather’s and needs to fix it at top speed before his parents discover what has happened.

It just so happens that next door lives the eccentric Alex, owner and inventor of a time machine: could this Boring Machine or BM as she calls it, provide a highly unusual solution to the boy’s problem?

Before you can say ‘belly button’ Sunil finds himself on a hair-raising trip during which he encounters the likes of famous astronaut Neil Armstrong, and then visiting Antarctica and meeting Ernest Shackleton and some of his fellow explorers (plus a cat) stranded as they head for the South Pole. BRRR!

All of this happens while Sunil is trying his utmost to steer clear of the strange Mr Shaykes and kiwi companion.

In Scientists and Stripy Socks, Mr Shaykes announces that his Interesting Machine is in need of repair and if Alex doesn’t fix it for him, the milkshake cafe will ‘go bust’. But then his mention of Charles Darwin arouses Sunil’s interest and off he sets on another time-travelling caper. He learns a considerable amount about earthworms thanks to Charles, as he asks Sunil to call him when they take tea together.

He also temporarily loses his toe when he meets physicist Isaac Newton; in fact he briefly loses several body parts in this adventure. The final part of this book includes a discussion with astronomer Caroline Herschel; but with Alex’s time machine increasingly unpredictable, will our intrepid adventurer get back before Sunil’s mum and dad come home?

Giggles aplenty await when you read these two wacky stories as well as a considerable amount of information. Iszi Lawrence offers an unusual and very entertaining way to introduce readers to famous people from history. Adding to the fun are Rebecca Bagley’s black and white illustrations.

Wendington Jones and the Missing Tree

Wendington Jones and the Missing Tree
Daniel Dockery
uclan publishing

The story opens with Wendington Jones learning that her adventuring, anthropologist mother has died in a car crash. A mother who had always been Wendington’s inspiration and idol; indeed she’d always dreamed of following in her mother’s footsteps one day. Feeling that her world has been turned on its head, Wendington is left to grieve in the care of her Grandmamma and the valet Rohan but then a small light appears in her dark. Delivered at midnight to the family home is a parcel containing her mother’s last and incomplete manuscript revealing the discovery of the mythical Tree of Life – an ancient curiosity said to bring the dead back to life. Could it perhaps bring, her mother, Pennington, back to life?

So, bag packed, her mother’s ticket for the SS Pembroke in hand and her trusted friend Perceval the newt safely tucked away, she heads off in the dead of night, destination Freemantle, Australia.

Irresistible as the thought of bringing her mother back to life may be, Wendington is not the only person searching for the legendary tree and not all those so doing can be trusted. However, this young lass is nothing like your stereotypical 1920s girl: she’s a risk-taker, brave, quick-witted, caring and thoughtful of others and hugely determined.

Readers will immediately find themselves rooting for Wendington as she pursues her quest, a quest that is truly gripping and sometimes surreal. The plot twists and turns, as more is revealed about some of the other characters, especially Rohan, till it reaches its unexpected ending.

A brilliant book : absolutely unputdownable – older KS2 readers and beyond will love exercising their detective skills as they read this.

Mirabelle and the Magical Mayhem / Magic Keepers: Spirit Surprise

Mirabelle and the Magical Mayhem
Harriet Muncaster
Oxford Children’s Books

Cousin of Isadora Moon, Mirabelle, has a witch mother and her dad is a fairy. What anybody who has encountered Mirabelle in her previous stories will know and others quickly discover, is that she seems to create mischief wherever she goes. Here she and her brother Wilbur visit their fairy grandparents for a sleepover. With Mirabelle goes her little pet dragon, Violet. No magic without the supervision of the grandparents is the promise the children make to their parents.

After just one night at Granny and Grandpa’s both Mirabelle and Wilbur have broken that promise and the result is messy and mucky. 

Surprisingly Granny, who inevitably finds out about the disasters they’ve created, isn’t furious. Instead she is thoroughly understanding and helps her grandchildren put things back in order before Grandpa wakes from his nap. ‘Mirabelle you must never try and hide who you are just to fit in with who you think other people might want you to be,’ she tells her granddaughter. Wise words indeed. Moreover she doesn’t let on what has happened when Mum and Dad come to pick up their offspring.

Another sparkling story that Mirabelle fans will absolutely love and newcomers to the series will enjoy too and likely want to go back and read all her other books.

Magic Keepers: Spirit Surprise
Linda Chapman, illustrated by Hoang Giang
Little Tiger

Life has changed since Ava and her mother moved into Curio House, the large Victorian villa left to them by Great Aunt Eva, Ava and her friends Sarah and Lily have discovered a magical world that surrounds the curios left in the house and are determined to keep it secret from the world at large. At the start of this story the three friends are exploring the magical energy of the crystals – the first magical things Ava found in her new home.

Outside the house and in the surrounding town, strange things start to happen. Despite it being late autumn, pollen has become so prolific that Ava’s mum is suffering badly from unseasonal hay-fever and plants are growing amazingly fast with vines shooting up everywhere.

Could the girls have accidentally unleashed some kind of nature spirit during their crystal investigations that is causing all this? 

If so, with Sarah’s mum far from happy about the influence the other two girls are having on her daughter, can they set things to rights before any of their parents or the townsfolk discover the cause of the out of control flora?

A second engaging episode for new solo readers with just the right amount of suspense.

Olly Brown, God of Hamsters / The Big Breakout

Olly Brown, God of Hamsters
Bethany Walker , illustrated by Jack Noel

Olly Brown is obsessed with hamsters, so much so that when told to write down three targets for the final weeks in his year 6 class, his first is ‘Look after the class hamster at home for one weekend.’ He’s absolutely determined to do so and then by means of a spot of subterfuge he succeeds in smuggling home Tibbles; that is despite the fact that his dad is supposedly allergic to the creatures, not to mention his hang-ups about health and safety.

Surely though it was just the one hamster he took, so what are all those others doing creating havoc (and a great deal of poo) in his home.

He can’t tell his dad but he must share this news with somebody: that somebody is his best friend Stan. The trouble is Stan then starts calling him such names as ‘Master of the Hamsterverse’. It’s certainly pretty amazing that the furry beings can communicate with Olly, certainly Tibbles can.

In addition to the hamster invasion, with the end of term drawing ever closer there’s the class outing, leavers’ party and more to contend with so it’s no surprise Olly feels as though things are spiralling out of control.

How on earth and in the Hamsterverse is Olly going to extricate himself from all this? To find out you’ll need to get yourself a copy of this hilarious book. Also funny are the drawings by Jack Noel who appears to like hamsters too, if the number he’s drawn for Bethany’s story is anything to go by.

Add to KS2 class collections: what fun it would be to share this with a Y6 class in their final term.

The Big Breakout
Burhana Islam, illustrated by Farah Khandaker
Knights Of

This laugh-out-loud story concludes the trilogy featuring Yusuf and his crazy escapades.
Yusuf’s elder sister, Affa, is about to have a baby and Yusuf – who has now gained a fair bit of street-cred. – is determined to become the best ever uncle to the soon to be born addition to his extended family. Not only that but he’s currently ‘man of the house’ in charge of his amma (mum) and Nanu (gran) who needs to pay a visit to the opticians.

At school, as form captain, he’s charged with showing the ‘very special visitors’ ie Ofsted inspectors aka MI5, around his school while keeping Chompy the school chameleon out of their way. What could possibly go wrong? Errm …

I laughed my way through this wishing I’d met this British Muslim family in the previous two books and will certainly seek them out. Not only are they ideal for bringing more diversity to KS2 class collections, Yusuf, his family and friends are enormous fun to read about and Farah Khnadaker’s black and white illustrations bring out much of the madness and mayhem for which the well-intentioned Yusuf is responsible one way or another.

My Life on Fire

My Life on Fire
Cath Howe
Nosy Crow

Ren, her mum, dad and younger brother Petie arrive home after spending an evening with friends and discover their house ablaze. The fire-brigade tell them it can’t be saved; “we’re so lucky” say her parents, “we’re all OK. That’s all that matters.” But what about all those toys, books, photographs and other things that make a house a home; they’ve all gone up in flames.

Having spent the first night in a B&B, the family moves in with Gran but she only has one spare room. This the children use but their parents occupy a caravan in the driveway. Nothing feels right: Mum and Dad are busy trying to keep their business going while also making an insurance claim and Gran (an ex headteacher) has lots of rules she expects the children to keep.
All of this makes Ren feel very stressed, even more so when she overhears snippets of conversations between her parents. Then Petie starts getting upset at night over the fact that Mr Softie is missing and wanting big sister to tell him stories about his beloved teddy. 

This adds to the pressure on Ren and realising she really doesn’t have a life any longer, sad and angry, she starts stealing again, mostly small items from people at school.

Enter Caspar, the second of the book’s narrators. He is in Ren’s class and is enthusiastically involved in the class project ‘My Life in a Box’ that is underway when Ren returns to school. He also lives not far from Ren’s gran and so when she and Caspar’s dad decide to share getting the children to and from school, they find themselves spending much more time together. Almost inevitably he discovers what his friend is up to and is shocked that she can be thieving. He is determined to help Ren return all the items she has taken and stashed away. What will be the outcome of his endeavours?

The way Cath Howe tells the story from two viewpoints is superbly done; one cannot help but feel for both characters, each of whom feels things deeply. Engrossing and thought-provoking, with themes of sharing problems, friendship, taking responsibility for one’s actions and the importance of family, this is another powerful piece of writing from an author who gets better and better.

Fireborn: Phoenix and the Frost Palace

Fireborn: Phoenix and the Frost Palace
Aisling Fowler
Harper Collins Children’s Books

The saga continues with Twelve, (she of fiery powers) now adopting her aptly chosen name, Phoenix. With these powers though, comes responsibility so when Nara, a representative of the long-lost witch clan arrives from the frost palace of Icegaard, begging for Phoenix’s help, she realises that her fire power is their only hope: Icegaard and the whole world of Ember are in grave danger from a dark force called the Shadowseam. So, together with fellow Hunters Five and Six and the not fully-fledged Seven. she travels north to the frost palace.

Bound for Icegaard too, only taking a separate path, is Dog. Other characters from the first book are also here, for on the trail of the Hunters are Morgren and Victory.

It’s crucial for the mission that Phoenix learns to gain absolute control over her magic; this is a huge challenge. She has Nara’s guidance and support but that dark force grows stronger with each passing day. Is this a battle that she just cannot win?

Once again Aisling Fowler snares our attention from the start, immersing readers in a wondrous world of magic, monstrous creatures new and old, witches and dreadful dangers. There’s tension throughout, plenty of action and downright scary moments that will set your heart thudding, and poignant ones too; and what a cliff-hanger of an ending – phew! I read this on a long haul flight and never have I known the hours pass so fast: I just couldn’t put it down. I wish the time would pass that quickly till the third book comes.

Bear and Bird: The Picnic and Other Stories / A Rabbit Called Clover / The Railway Kitten

Bear and Bird: The Picnic and Other Stories
Walker Books

Bear and Bird are best friends and like most close pals they have their ups and downs:there are jealousies, misunderstandings and some tetchy words but fundamentally each of them wants to make the other happy. Consequently their friendship is strong enough to withstand the downs and focus on enjoying each other’s company. 

In four short stories with Jarvis’ super-cute digital illustrations, readers learn of a rather unfortunate misunderstanding with a talking flower that results from a toppling Bird; a picnic, the preparations for which Bear isn’t completely honest about, the result being the outing doesn’t quite go as intended; an afternoon of painting when Bird feels his talent isn’t quite up to the standard of Bear when it comes to representing a tree,

and finally, a warm, snuggly, fluffy blanket that is very hard to stir from under.
A lovely book for bedtime (especially curled up under a cosy blanket), for foundation stage classroom sharing and discussion; and it’s ideal for those just starting to gain confidence as independent readers.

With a rather more challenging text::

A Rabbit Called Clover
Helen Peters, illustrated by Ellie Snowdon
Nosy Crow

It’s the start of the Easter holidays and Jasmine, daughter of a vet mother and farmer father is anticipating spending lots of time looking after animals, especially keeping things trouble free. But early one evening Jasmine spies two pet rabbits and so begins ‘operation rabbit, the aim being to catch and return the two creatures, which she and her little brother name Clover and Dandelion, safely back to their owner. Not such an easy task as Jasmine first thought but with a bit of help from her best friend, Tom, it might just be possible at least to get them safely into a cage and home to Oak Tree Farm.

It becomes evident that Clover is ace at escaping and they only manage to catch Dandelion, so the hunt is on for the elusive Clover. Moreover, finding the person who is responsible for looking after the pair is only part of the battle.

Delightful, gentle storytelling once again by Helen Peters whose writing is supported by Ellie Snowdon’s plentiful black and white illustrations.

The Railway Kitten
Holly Webb, illustrated by Sophy Williams
Little Tiger

Cat lovers especially will enjoy this heartfelt tale of Scarlett and her friends. On the way to school they notice a kitten at the railway station and are so enchanted by Whiskers as they name her, that when she gets run over, they decide to do everything in their power to save her. 

They take her to the vets and are told that an expensive operation is needed to mend Whiskers’ shattered leg. Her owners can’t possibly afford the vets’ bill but Scarlett and her friends are not going to give up easily. Is there a chance they can raise the money needed to prevent Whiskers from being put down? If so what will happen to her afterwards.

Determination and friendship are key in this gentle story of a Tortoiseshell kitten for younger primary readers. Occasional black and white illustrations by Sophy Williams show just how those involved with Whiskers are feeling.

The Nowhere Thief

The Nowhere Thief
Alice M. Ross
Nosy Crow

This story is a multiverse adventure starring Elsbeth and Idris. Elspeth lives with her mother in an alternate UK, capital city Lunden. She helps her mother in their shop that sells antiques in the seaside town of Lewesby, sometimes using her rare power to visit other spheres in the multiverse and acquiring items to sell in their failing business. This she does through an unworldly portal using a kaleidoscope of colours. Now to make financial matters worse, the rent is due and there’s insufficient money to pay the unpleasant landlord, Mr Lennox.

With eviction imminent Elspeth needs to generate custom and when it comes in the form of the strange Mr Persimmon, she is unsure whether to trust him. Does he know how she obtained the items he has purchased?

What about the boy Idris who keeps appearing wherever she goes? Is he following her and if so why?

Crime, as we know, has consequences and Elspeth’s actions soon catch up with her. Forced to flee from the draconian law enforcement services of the universe next door, Elspeth’s actions soon catch up with her. Idris; who, it turns out, has very similar talents, comes to her rescue and a friendship between the two begins to develop.

When she discovers her mother is missing, Elspeth is faced with a difficult choice: flee with a boy she’s only recently met or trust Mr Persimmon. She opts for the former and the bond between them becomes stronger as they travel together to Nowhere and different Somewheres with all sorts of people eager to find Elspeth on account of her gift. However, by using her powers Elspeth seems to have disturbing meteorological side-effects. Indeed everything she knows about her powers and her family are called into question in her rescue mission.

Providing plenty of food for thought is the relationship between Idris and his grandmother and later, his mother too.

Set against a backdrop of different worlds, there is so much to be learned herein but to give too much away will spoil the story, so let me just say, the author keeps readers gripped and open to new developments as the plot turns hither and thither towards its satisfying conclusion.

Yesterday Crumb and the Teapot of Chaos

Yesterday Crumb and the Teapot of Chaos
Andy Sagar

Apprentice tea witch, Yesterday Crumb, she who adds the double portion of T to attitude, returns.

At the start of this sequel Yesterday, who is trying to find her mother, is London bound. Despite warnings that it’s dangerous, she is eagerly anticipating seeing the Wild Feast cooking competition, but that isn’t quite what happens.
There’s an unexpected turn when suddenly her beloved Dwimmerley End is stolen with Miss Dumpling inside and in order to regain it Yesterday must enter and win the competition.

On top of that the Faerie Queen accuses Yesterday of being responsible for the disappearances of some of the Faerie Court, so at the order of the Queen, she has her innocence to prove too. Can things get any worse?As Yesterday and her loyal friends start to investigate, she realises the entire magical world is at risk.

We meet lots of new characters including villains aplenty, but always lurking near the surface is Mr Weep (who happens to be Lord of the Underworld and Yesterday’s father). What can our junior tea witch do in the face of so much adversity?

As good battles against evil, the story bubbles over with tension, wild magic and dramatic, sometimes perilous, twists and turns, all wonderfully brought to life by Andy Sagar through his excellent world building and elegant use of language. Underlying the whole tale are themes of identity, prejudice and acceptance, all of which Yesterday struggles with as a ‘neither-nor’ endeavouring to carve out her own identity; fortunately though she has the support of good friends.

There are issues in Yesterday’s world that readers in our world will recognise and relate to – the effects of water pollution on mermaids, tree dryads having to contend with a lack of green spaces, for example.

Utterly thrilling, this soul-stirring page turner leaves us on a cliff-hanger, a-boil with eager anticipation for the third story.

Tourmaline and the Island of Elsewhere

Tourmaline and the Island of Elsewhere
Ruth Lauren
Little Tiger

Twelve year old Tourmaline lives with her archaeologist mother at the Pellavere University and as the story opens she overhears a conversation and discovers that her mother, Persephone, has gone missing on an expedition. Quickly realising that despite reassurances, not one of the university staff is interested in finding her, Tourmaline decides to take matters into her own hands and launch her own rescue mission. For support she has her best friend, George (son of the Dean), and a new friend of his, Mai who she is yet to trust, but whose mother has recently joined the faculty.

With clues left in her mother’s lab and hastily written warning notes, the three set off on what turns out to be an absolutely incredible adventure to find the Island of Elsewhere, the place Tourmaline thinks her mother is trapped. It involves ‘borrowing’ a motorbike; they encounter fierce female pirates – Captain Violet and her crew, a floating island that disappears, with a maze of mirrors, talking trees and enormous spiders; add to that magical artefacts, trickery and memories that start to diminish.

There are certainly challenges aplenty for the three youngsters each of whom brings their own strengths – Mai’s limitless determination, George’s reliability and loyalty as a friend and Tourmaline’s boldness, bravery and single-minded focus – to a quest that tests their friendship to its utmost. But somehow their belief in each other and in themselves is a key part of this exhilarating story. I love too, Ruth Lauren’s crafting of the relationship between Tourmaline and Persephone – Tourmaline’s hunt for her mother is as much about finding her again in her heart as it is about seeing her again in the flesh. That, and the children’s discovery that yes, there is real magic in the world, though not everyone wants to use it responsibly.

The cliffhanger ending ties up the vital threads of the story but offers further Tourmaline excitement to come. Fresh, funny and gripping this will wrap you in its enchantment sweep you away, unable to stop until you reach the final page, but then, having savoured every word, you really don’t want to it end.

Rudy and the Secret Sleepskater / Isadora Moon and the New Girl

These are additions to popular Oxford Children’s series : thanks to the publisher for sending them for review

Rudy and the Secret Sleepskater
Paul Westmoreland, illustrated by George Ermos

Rudy is a wolf boy; his good friends are ghost girl Edie and Femi the mummy and they love to skateboard together. In this story, Rudy and Edie are invited to Femi’s home for a sleepover, something Rudy is eagerly anticipating until he’s told he must leave his beloved pet wolf cub Wolfie behind.

When he gets there, Rudy finds the food, let’s say, somewhat unusual and certainly not to his taste; but then one of Femi’s older sisters divulges something even more unusual about their young brother: he’s a secret sleepwalker. 

At bedtime, unable to sleep on account of Femi’s grandmother’s snoring, he climbs out through the skylight and howls to his Wolfie; he then embarks on a game of hide-and-seek with Edie. However Rudy has failed to close the window and not long after, the two of them notice Femi sleepwalking on the roof. 

Not only does he sleep-walk though: a fall lands the young mummy on his skateboard and off he goes at considerable speed. Can Rudy and Edie steer Femi back safely from a nightmarish situation? Perhaps, with a bit of assistance from a certain wolf cub. Moreover can the friendship between the three transcend the differences that make themselves apparent during the sleepover?

I’ve not met these characters in their previous adventures but certainly found this one, with its important messages and splendid illustrations by George Ermos, a fun, snappy read.. The series is ideal for bridging the gap between picture books and solo reading of longer chapter books and I have no doubt Rudy et al will find a place in the hearts of younger newly independent readers. The power of Rudy’s pack clearly extends well beyond his family.

Isadora Moon and the New Girl
Harriet Muncaster

Isadora doesn’t take to Ava, the new girl who joins her class wearing snazzy, sparkling boots, thinking her standoffish and mean. Nevertheless, at the insistence of her Mum and Dad Isadora agrees to make an invitation for Ava along with all her friends for the party she’s going to host for her beloved Pink Rabbit.

The following day she hands out almost all the invites but somehow can’t find the right time to give Ava hers and in fact Ava’s behaviour seems even meaner so she keeps her invitation in her bag.

Back at home she eventually confesses to her Dad saying she feels really mean about the way she’s acted. He suggests two things: first that Isadora gives Ava the invitation the next morning and second that they take a pre evening breakfast fly to help his daughter clear her head. As they swoop over the park, Isadora spots some ducklings; so have other people – Ava and her parents are watching them too. 

Suddenly Isadora spots something else, something small that Ava has just taken from her pocket. From that moment the little vampire fairy starts to change the way she treats the new girl.

Don’t make judgements about people too quickly; get to know them first is the message that emerges from the latest Isadora Moon story. As always, it’s an Isa-delight to be in the company of the Moon family, but young solo readers new to the series might want to start with the first book, Isadora Moon Goes to School.

The Wishkeeper’s Apprentice

The Wishkeeper’s Apprentice
Rachel Chivers Khoo, illustrated by Rachel Sanson
Walker Books

This debut novel is a tale of belonging, wishes, family and self-belief. set in a magical world of wishkeeping.

One day when his sister hasn’t turned up to collect him, feeling lonelier than ever, ten year old Felix Jones tosses a penny into Whittelstone’s wish fountain and makes a wish. To his surprise almost immediately he notices a very unusual man fishing for his coin in the fountain. It turns out that this is none other than the town’s wishkeeper, Rupus Beewinkle, who shows surprise that Felix can see him and then invites the boy to partake of some hot chocolate with him. It’s then that the elderly man reveals his identity and announces that Felix is to become his apprentice saying, “The future of Whittlestone depends on you helping me. And I do believe fate has brought us together.”

Thus begins a new education for Felix who takes home the book Rupus gives him entitled A Complete Guide to Wishkeeping and that evening begins reading it.

Well, Felix had been wishing that things were different and now perhaps he’s got his wish. There are new things to learn about such as wish grades from one (‘highly suitable’) to four (‘ungrantable’); but he also learns of the malevolent presence of the Wishsnatcher. This menacing being is intent on reversing existing wishes and preventing any future ones being made.

A wishless world is a very bleak place with inconceivable threats to Rupus, Felix and indeed Whittlestone town. Felix has a quest: to fight for good: what a roller-coaster of a ride he’s embarked on.

The imagery in the story is superb: Rupus’s home, Snugwarm, is chaotic but has lots of unlikely magical objects including a wishofax machine, the vanquisher (fire extinguisher to defeat the villain), and the messaging wishfulness gauge.

Emerging above all from the book are the comments Rupus makes to Felix, “I remembered there is more to life than darkness and despair’ and “A creature capable of great wonders could turn into the greatest monster of all when deprived of hope.” Pertinent in our world assuredly and vital for today’s young readers.

Add to Rachel Chivers Khoo’s superb storytelling, Rachel Sanson’s black and white visuals, which add even more sparkle to this book: it’s a cracker either shared with a class or as a solo read.

The Book of Legends

The Book of Legends
Lenny Henry, illustrated by Kenos Ferrell
Macmillan Children’s Books

Fran and Bran are twelve year old twins who live with their mother in a small town in the Midlands; she is the storyteller at the Once Upon a Wow bookshop and loves to tell them stories, some of which are woven into the narrative of this book. During a camping trip four years previously, their Dad disappeared suddenly in a lightning bolt and since then Mum’s stories – the Tales of Koto Utama and the Nine Dominions, have become even more important.

Then history repeats itself, for on another camping trip Mum too vanishes, seemingly snatched up in a bolt of lightning. This leaves Fran and Bran in the care of Auntie Madge from the bookshop. Bran is deaf and both children go to a British Sign Language school where Bran is often in trouble because of the way he responds to being teased. The one thing that helped calm him down was to hear one of Mum’s stories; but when Madge is called into school to hear that Bran is threatened with expulsion she decides it’s time they went away to a boarding school.

However, that doesn’t happen thanks to Mum’s book of stories which provides a portal through which they are transported on a quest to solve the mystery of their parents’ disappearance. What an amazing adventure it proves to be. Along the way they face evil princes, murder fairies, mud monsters and even Vikings. Fortunately, though they receive help from Wilma, the Wizard’s Wife, and Zachary, the wisecracking Zebracorn.

There is SO much to love about this book: the interweaving of stories within the overall narrative, the strength and determination of the twins and their use of groan-worthy jokes, the diverse representation and inclusive nature of the characters, the author’s wit and humour, a satisfying finale and Keenon Ferrell’s black and white illustrations. Also included is a BSL alphabet chart so readers can learn to sign their own names.

A cracking tale to share with a KS2 class and for individual readers.

The Story Shop: Dino Danger! / Little Rabbit’s Big Surprise

The Story Shop: Dino Danger!
Tracey Corderoy, illustrated by Tony Neal
Little Tiger

It’s always a treat to enter the Puddletown High Street establishment run by Wilbur and his ferret assistant, Fred. This unusual place sells stories but it’s not a bookshop, rather it sells stories you can actually be in. Dino Danger is the third in Tracey’s – if my experience is anything to go by – very popular series and offers three adventures, together with suitable costumes and characters, that are just waiting for a scaredy Bear to participate in.

Somewhat surprisingly, Fred and Wilbur suggest he dons a dinosaur outfit as does Fred who will accompany Bear. Our ursine character will definitely have to find a whole lot of courage if he’s to face a lot of prehistoric beasties, starting with a T.Rex and companions -Stegosaurus, Diplodocus and Apatosaurus. Can he avoid ending up as lunch for the terrible tyrannosaurus? Perhaps if he can outplay Big T. in a game of crazy golf …

In the second episode Bear turns baby sitter for three mischievous little Triceratopses that are leading their teacher, not to mention Bear and Fred, on a merry dance, after which the latter need to make a hasty exit.

Story three sees the adventurers on the trail of the real Veggie Nibbler(s) with just three days to catch them or they could well end up popping endless amounts of pea pods at the dinos’ Famous Allotment Club.

With plenty of amusing black and white illustrations by Tony Neal to break up the text, these stories will please followers of the series and likely win lots of new fans for The Story Shop.

Also for newly independent readers and just out in paperback is:

Little Rabbit’s Big Surprise
Swapna Haddow and Alison Friend
Little Tiger

One of the first in the publisher’s short fiction series with full colour illustrations, the original hardcover was reviewed four years back on this blog.

Winnie-the-Pooh and Me

Winnie-the-Pooh and Me
Jeanne Willis and Mark Burgess
Macmillan Children’s Books

Inspired by A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard, author Jeanne Willis and artist Mark Burgess have created a new story featuring the favourite classic characters, the inspiration being Milne’s poem Us Two from Now We Are Six, which is printed before this book’s title page.

We join Pooh and Christopher Robin one fine day as they head off on a tricycle and endeavour to discover which of their friends – a ‘what’ or ‘who’ – is following them. It definitely isn’t Kanga and Roo; they are sailing a boat, bound for Timbuktu. Nor is it Rabbit – the maths doesn’t add up, so what about Owl? He’s certainly at home

and he does offer a couple of suggestions, one regarding possible followers and the other concerning Pooh’s favourite food.

Off they go again further into the Hundred Acre Wood, intent on getting rid of pursuers: but is that possible? Perhaps Eeyore has the answer …

Jean Willis’ rhyming narrative with repeat refrains, together with Mark Burgess’s delightful illustrations that include all of Winnie and Christopher’s friends in one way or another, make this sequel one that will captivate both adult readers aloud and young children to whom the characters may perhaps be new.

Mind and Me / Barney the Horse

Mind and Me
Sunita Chawdhary
Knights Of

This funny story is about much more than just losing your pet rabbit, which is what Maya, the girl narrator of this book does. 

When she wakes one morning she discovers her beloved Pooey is missing from his house beside her bed. Mysteriously it appears that the rabbit must have opened the door herself.

It’s also about lies and their consequences; determination, lots of poos (rabbit ones for the most part), identical twin cousins – the daughters of Maya’s favourite aunt who has a ‘way of sprinkling happiness over everyone’ – a warm, loving family and Mind. Mind is Maya’s own mind that acts as a kind of prompt, voice in the head alter ego. Into all this, author Sunita Chawdhary weaves occasional snippets of information about Indian customs and life in India, (Maya’s mother is from India), a few pearls of yoga wisdom, lots of humorous black and white illustrations and more.

Most of the book relates what happens when Maya, aided (sort of) and abetted by cousins Tanya and Anya search for Pooey, though it’s only Maya who knows what they’re actually looking for.

There’s plenty to delight younger solo readers in this, Sunita’s debut chapter book; this adult reviewer loved it too.

Barney the Horse
Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees
Harper Collins Children’s Books

This book contains three short stories set in turn at Nethercott farm, Treginnis and Wick Court which constitute the Farms for City Children Organisation set up by the author and his wife to give city children, (who come to stay along with their teachers), experience of such things as feeding sheep, milking cows, looking after horses and generally interacting with other animals and the natural world.

The first, Missing! is a little boy’s account of what happened when he and his classmates went to feed the sheep and discovered that one of the lambs wasn’t there. The farmer declares that the one who finds the errant lamb will be awarded the ‘farmer of the day’ badge. This results in the narrator straying a bit too far, just like the object of his search, in what turns out to be a very dramatic rescue.

In Bird Boy, story two, Matt is staying away from home for the first time. Despite enjoying the stories by the fire in the evenings, the berry picking, eating the beans he’s helped to gather, and the interactions with the animals, the boy feels homesick. It’s the wealth of birdlife though, that makes all the difference for Matt. He especially likes to observe the swallows that have nested in one of the barns and are rearing their young. 

What he doesn’t anticipate is that he will play an important role in the early life of one of the little chicks.

The third story is a retrospective one told by an adult narrator and contains an empowering message.. Go For It was the motto of the narrator’s Grandma and it was this catchphrase and her gran’s birthday gift that were responsible for the story teller going to stay at Wick Court with her primary school friends. She tells how her interactions with the horses there, especially Barney, completely changed the course of her life.

For younger readers, these gentle tales, accompanied by Guy Parker-Rees’ plentiful, spirited black and white illustrations, convey the lasting effects a stay on a child-friendly farm can have.

Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door and the Magic Puppy / Star Friends: Mystic Forest

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

In her latest magical adventure it’s not just Aziza who goes through her magic door; her brother visits the world of Shimmerton too. It happens shortly after Otis has been pleading with their parents to get them a dog despite the ban on flat dwellers keeping such pets in their homes. Almost immediately Aziza goes to her bedroom and sees that her fairy door is making those ticking sounds again. Suddenly the door opens and Aziza passes through, closely followed by her big brother, also pulled through by its golden beam.

The siblings arrive in Shimmerton to find the village fete is in full swing. Encouraged by Aziza’s fairy friend Peri to have a turn at the giant roulette wheel, Otis learns he has chosen the winning number and selects for his prize a puppy – a magical one. But Hainu as he names the pup is not as easy to handle as he anticipated though like most pups this one loves sticks.

Suddenly the midday bell rings heralding the unveiling of the ancient clock, a clock that represents spring and growth, without which nothing will grow. Horror of horrors! The three hands of the clock are gone and thanks to a rash action by the Gigglers, all three have returned to their places of origin. Aziza, Otis, Peri and Tiko must find them and they only have till sunset to do so.

They need to fix the clock before it’s too late.

With an abundance of magic, friendship, teamwork and a generous sprinkling of mischief this inclusive tale, inspired like the previous one by fairies and creatures from world mythology, will enchant new solo readers. Cory Reid’s quirky illustrations are a delight and the perfect fit for Lola Morayo’s telling.

Star Friends: Mystic Forest
Linda Chapman, illustrated by Kim Barnes
Little Tiger

I’ve not previously met the Star Friends, Maia et al, a group of children with a special secret: they have magical animal friends who help them learn magic and fight evil, some of it from the Shades.

In this book, Maia’s human friends Sita, Ionie and Lottie are excited about spending half term at a forest camp. They are hoping to learn all kinds of survival skills but Mrs Coates who has a farm on the forest edge is not at all happy about the arrival of campers, fearing they will upset her free-range chickens. Then strange things start happening. 

First the boots belonging to all those sharing Maia’s tent disappear and are later found in the stream where the boys went to collect water. Then the four girls discover the den they’d spent so long building the previous day has been completely destroyed. 

Add to that various objects are being moved from one place to another. Surely somebody isn’t trying to sabotage the camp, are they? If so, is it Mrs Coates or is it some kind of bad magic? No matter what or who, Maia and her friends are absolutely determined to find out and stop their trip being spoiled completely.

The author’s mix of magic, talking animals, strong friendship and problem solving works well and with the addition of Kim Barnes’ black and white illustrations, this addition to the adventure series with a difference, will appeal strongly to many newly independent readers whether or not they’ve read previous Star Friends books.

Montgomery Bonbon: Murder at the Museum

Montgomery Bonbon: Murder at the Museum
Alasdair Beckett-King, illustrated by Claire Powell
Walker Books

With a moustache and beret at the ready, there’s a new sleuth on the block; it’s ten-year-old Bonnie Montgomery aka Montgomery Bonbon, Widdlington’s best detective. He is always at the crime scene on the look out for likely suspects and searching for clues, usually accompanied by erstwhile ice-cream seller, Grampa Banks whose van comes in very useful for stake outs. Clever, easily ignored by adults and with excellent powers of observation, this unlikely crime-fighting duo are the stars of this first in a mystery series.

As the story starts, Bonnie and Grampa Banks are visiting the Hornville Museum – Widdlington’s oldest building. Suddenly there’s a frightful scream and they are plunged into darkness. A security guard has been murdered and a carved stone eagle has been stolen. On goes her disguise and transformation! There is Montgomery Bonbon, on the case in an instant. Quickly on the scene too is Inspector Sands; she is definitely not a fan of Montgomery Bobbon and in return Bonnie has a very low opinion of the detective.

A few clues are soon found and Bonbon is immediately on the trail of suspects, the thief and the appropriately named Blowpipe Killer. Could any of the museum staff have played any part in the murder or theft? I love the clever way illustrator Claire Powell provides readers with a look at Bonbon’s case notes throughout and her depictions of the characters are superb.

With some tricky red herrings, an interfering scarlet macaw, seagulls, crisps and scones along the way, can our determined young detective maintain her cover and solve the case before disaster strikes again?

Beckett-King has created some superb characters in his gently humorous, thought-provoking debut novel, not only team Bonnie and Grampa whose fondness for one another and their age difference are a big asset, but several others too including Bonnie’s new friend Dana Hornville. Youngsters will love meeting them and like this reviewer, eagerly anticipate more of Bonnie. Has she been perhaps taking lessons from a certain Belgian detective whose voice (or rather David Suchet’s) I caught echoes of as I read.

Diary of an Accidental Witch: Unexpected Guests / Super Happy Magic Forest and the Distant Desert

Diary of an Accidental Witch: Unexpected Guests
Perdita & Honor Cargill, illustrated by Katie Saunders
Little Tiger

It’s always a delight to be in the company of Bea Black and the first thing she does according this latest journal (after having a scrumptious tea out with her dad) is to attend the inaugural meeting of Finkelspark Club along with fellow founding members.

The following day though, the spring term at Little Spellshire School of Extraordinary Arts begins and Bea has other things on her mind: a history project, her allocated famous witch from the past being Minerva Moon; then there’s the visit from school inspectors who will not be impressed if they catch sight of anything at all magical going on. 

In addition, Bea has accidentally taken home what appears to be an ancient diary written by Minerva Moon, from Old Bertie’s bookshop and she can’t return it as the owner, Bertie, has gone away.

The good news is that Bea and her dad are going to stay in Little Spellshire but with all those things going on, one eleven year old witch has a lot to keep her busy, not least making sure her school isn’t closed down.

The series just gets better and better: this fourth book seems to have even more zany magical mayhem, humour and surprises than ever. It’s a sparkling delight for primary readers.

Super Happy Magic Forest and the Distant Desert
Matty Long
Oxford University Press

This fourth book in the Super Happy Magic Forest chapter series starts at the Gnome Tashwhisker exhibition where Tiddlywink the pixie accidentally gets trapped inside a cursed puzzle cube. Endeavours to free him are unsuccessful, leaving Blossom feeling more than a little guilty about fiddling with the cube. The only hope of freeing Tiddlywink, so says Gnome Tashwhisker’s Desert Diaries, is for the five heroes ie Herbert, Tiddlywink, Blossom, Twinkle and Trevor, to journey all the way to the Distant Desert and there to consult the all-knowing Almighty Oracle. This they must do before the sands of time run out. 

The journey, despite its length is the easy part, for when they reach the Oracle, it’s fast asleep. A Desert Diary entry tells them this: “only adventurers who have completed the Desert Trials and thus earned three trial gems are worthy of waking the Oracle.’ 

Is that a possibility for our heroes? Perhaps with help from the genie, if they can first reunite her with her magic lamp. Then there are still those particularly prickly cacti to contend with, 

as well as a recalcitrant magic carpet. This quest is certainly going to test the heroes to their limits

Super clever, super silly and super fun: as ever the madcap frolics of Matty Long’s forest dwelling characters are a treat for primary readers, not to mention this adult reviewer.


Michael Mann
Hodder Children’s Books

In this Ghostcloud sequel, Luke, who escaped from Battersea Power Station, is back with his family and has started making a new life (in an alternative London). By day he’s an Apprentice Detective; by night he travels on his kite-cloud along with ghost friend Alma, helping lost souls make their final journeys.

However, Luke’s thoughts and dreams, or rather nightmares, are filled with his friend Ravi who was left behind. This makes Luke feel terribly guilty. He learns that Tabatha (the power station’s owner) has Ravi and many other child labourers, held prisoner.

On his first day working at the Detective Guild with his mentor, Inspector Oberdink, things don’t go well; he manages to cross the Inspector who tasks Luke with envelope-filling. While so doing he comes upon a witness statement referring to Tabatha; but when he questions Oberdink, the inspector dismisses it as an old tramp’s ramblings. Nevertheless, Luke slips it into his pocket.
That evening Luke and Alma take to the skies and when Alma hears about Luke’s nightmares, she suggests a visit to a ghost that can read dreams. Instead they first find themselves at a Ghost Council meeting where the council head shares the memories of a Battersea guard and they see the building being broken into and someone escaping with a case.

With an opportunity to discover what is really going on, Luke and Alma soon find themselves in terrible danger, not only from human enemies but ghostly ones too. Can the two, with some help from friend, Jess, discover who is behind that break-in and what the case contained. Most important: can Luke find where Ravi is and bring him home safely? With that strong sense of loyalty and love, as well as being very determined, Luke sometimes overlooks the threats to his family and friends. Apart from Alma, who can really be trusted?

Michael Mann draws readers in from the outset, taking them on a breathtaking adventure that includes superb descriptions, until we reach a satisfying and affecting conclusion. I couldn’t put it down.

The Time Tider

The Time Tider
Sinéad O’Hart
Little Tiger

Time tiding – the art of locating and capturing a warp of unspent time lies at the heart of this fantastic book.

Constantly on the move, twelve year old Mara and her father Gabriel live in a battered old van, packed with glass vials and other strange items. This is how Mara’s life has always been, though she has never understood why. Her only bedroom is a bunk, she’s never been to school, or made any friends. It’s something to do with her father’s job, although Mara doesn’t know what that really is, though he often hurries off to secret meetings. On such occasions he returns with sufficient money for half a tank of petrol or a visit to a cafe; but what he’s traded she knows not. With their travelling lifestyle, often moving by night, the two are able to avoid those her father suspects are following them.

One morning having woken to find her father out, Mara comes across Gabriel in the middle of one of his meetings: the transaction she sees and what ensues immediately, trouble her deeply. She really HAS to know what her father actually does: after all, people ‘don’t just vanish do they?’ On his return she starts to question him but he tells her very little before their van is under attack. Telling his daughter to drive, Gabriel hastily gives her some instructions and jumps out.

Finding herself abandoned with his old bag in which is a handbook containing a strange set of instructions, ‘For the Attention of the Newly Appointed Time Tider’, it’s up to Mara to attempt to do as her father said, the first thing being to find someone called Lenny, of whom she has only a very vague recollection.

Then she encounters a boy called Jan who tells her that he knows Lenny but has bad news about the man and other things. The two become friends, Jan joins the search, which grows increasingly dangerous; but it’s hard to know who can be trusted so the pair rely largely on their instincts.

As the plot twists this way and that, the author poses a number of important questions for readers to consider about power and how it can corrupt, and the lengths one would go to for somebody you love. There’s also the issue of how isolating fear and grief can be with the result that your focus is on what you’ve lost at the expense of what you still have.

With Sinéad O’Hart’s skill at world building, the story is hugely exciting and compelling. Mara is such a credible character – hugely determined and despite her self-doubt, very capable.

I’ll say no more, rather I’ll leave you to ponder : If you could extend your life or that of a loved one, no matter how the possibility arose or the consequences for others, would you do so?

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

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

Thomas Flintham
Nosy Crow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Spoonful of Spying

A Spoonful of Spying
Sarah Todd Taylor
Nosy Crow

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s A Beast in the Basement!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mort the Meek and the Perilous Prophecy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackbeard’s Treasure

Blackbeard’s Treasure
Iszi Lawrence
Bloomsbury Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bookshop at the Back of Beyond

The Bookshop at the Back of Beyond
Amy Sparkes
Walker Books

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

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

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

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

Monster Hunting: Monsters Bite Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Octopus, Dadu and Me

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

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

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

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

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

and her character feels totally credible.

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

My Father is a Polar Bear

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

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

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

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

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

Letters to Anyone and Everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dancer’s Dream

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

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

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

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

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

A Clock of Stars: The Greatest Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Katharine Orton
Walker Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Snow Bear

The Snow Bear
Holly Webb
Little Tiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiggy Thistle and the Lost Guardians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awesomely illustrated throughout, this has something for all ages.