Tiggy Thistle and the Lost Guardians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awesomely illustrated throughout, this has something for all ages.

Rosie and the Friendship Angel / Everybody Feels Fear

Rosie and the Friendship Angel
Lucinda Riley & Harry Whittaker, illustrated by Jane Ray
Macmillan Children’s Books

This is the third of the Guardian Angel series written by Lucinda Riley with her son Harry Whittaker before her death in 2021. Like the previous ones it’s based on stories she would tell her childen when they were facing challenging situations that made them fearful.

Here we meet young Rosie and her Guardian Angel Frederick. It’s Rosie’s first day at a new school and she is feeling very nervous as she ‘s greeted by her teacher Miss Marshall and reluctantly lets go of her father’s hand. Rosie is introduced to her classmates, one of whom, Jessica, has been asked to look after the newcomer. However Jessica doesn’t seem particularly friendly and come playtime Rosie is made to feel an intruder.

By the end of the day she’s feeling invisible and lonely, especially after what happens in the final task.
That night having kept her feelings to herself, Rosie lies awake in bed and she makes a wish, a wish that is heard by Angel Frederick, whose job it is to help anybody in need of a new friend.

Frederick moves down towards Rosie’s home town and sets in motion events that result in Rosie finding a wonderful new friend.

Starting at a new school is an event that many children find stressful and scary and this gentle story is one that could help them overcome those fearful feelings. Jane Ray’s illustrations are strikingly beautiful and capture Rosie’s anxiety perfectly. There’s a special angel bookmarked ribbon attached to this lovely book.

Everybody Feels Fear
Ashwin Chacko
Dorling Kindersley

As this book’s creator asserts we all have fears, some long-lasting, others much less so, some are small and some can be huge and overwhelmingly. This picture book is an exploration of the wide variety of fears we might have, from spiders to mice and bears to monsters. The text starts in rhyme and part way through changes to prose that offers encouraging words about fears: no matter how seemingly overwhelming a fear feels, with a modicum of courage, ‘as small as a mustard seed’ we can begin to face up to whatever is making us fearful. Assuredly fear does not define a person and most importantly love fuels courage and ‘where love lives fear cannot be.’ In other words, working together is the way to go.

Chacko uses a wacky, bold illustrative style combining it with arresting typography to put across his important message. This zany book offers a helpful starting point to encourage children to talk about their fears and in a classroom could act as the prelude to a circle time discussion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and powerful Magic Circle head, Grandmaster Dimbleby.

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

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

The Big Amazing Poetry Book

The Big Amazing Poetry Book
chosen by Gaby Morgan, illustrated by Chris Riddell
Macmillan Children’s Books

What a gargantuan task Gaby Morgan gave herself in selecting the seven poems to represent each of the fifty two poets from Dom Conlon, Paul Cookson and Charles Causley to Lewis Carroll, and Liz Brownlee to Carol Ann Duffy, included here in what is called in the foreword an ‘annualogy’. Even listing all 52 poets in a short review such as this one would be a big ask but let me just say that thirty are men and twenty two are women. Of the total, forty three are still alive and writing.

Most definitely there is something, or rather several things, for every mood and as many ways or more to enjoy the book, as there are poets included in this glorious ‘galaxy’ – the word Roger McGough uses to describe the poems in his introduction. Surely poetry lovers wouldn’t want to restrict themselves to just one per day; this is a book to lose yourself in, whether or not that is your intention when you open it. You’ll find a variety of poetry styles including haiku, shape poems, ballads, tongue-twisters, raps, sonnets and more on such diverse topics as wildlife, school, magical things, special days, the weather, war and love.

On account of something I heard said by Vogue editor Edward Enninful, reading from his recent autobiography, A Visible Man and mentioning a demeaning comment somebody had said to him, on the day of writing this review, two poems absolutely shouted out to me. One was Paul Cookson’s Let No One Steal Your Dreams, the final verse of which is ‘Set your sights and keep them fixed / Set your sights on high / Let no one steal your dreams / Your only limit is the sky.’

The other was Matt Goodfellow’s Start Now that begins and ends thus, ‘ be the change / you want to see / / walk the walk / stand with me’.

Bibilophile that I am, I just have to mention our current Children’s Laureate, Joseph Coelho’s Books Have Helped Me, that concludes ‘When I thumb through a book / their pages whisper to me / that I’ll be all right.’

Each of these in its own way is empowering and empowered is the way the pages of The Big Amazing Poetry Book make me feel. To add to the delights, Chris Riddell’s intricate black and white illustrations placed over, under, through and around the poems are quite simply, brilliant.

Grimms’ Fairy Tales / Lore of the Land

Grimms’ Fairy Tales
retold by Elli Woollard, illustrated by Marta Altés
Macmillan Children’s Books

Having read Elli Woollard’s splendid rhyming renditions of some of Aesop’s Fables I was eagerly anticipating these new rhyming fairy tales. Elli has chosen five well known ones on which to weave her rhyme magic and the result is again brilliant.
First to get the touch of her wand is Little Red Cap who is off to visit her grandma with a freshly baked cake and some elderflower wine. I love the way that wolf meets his demise. Next is The Elves and the Shoemaker, followed by Hansel and Gretel, The Musicians of Bremen and finally Cinderella, each story being deftly retold in a way that makes them a sheer pleasure to read aloud.

Marta Altés gorgeous illustrations too, help bring each telling to life and contain some really fun detail. The spread showing the stepsisters’ preparations for the Fancy Fantabulous Right Royal Ball is hilarious.

Enormous fun for young readers and listeners as well as adult readers aloud, and a cracking book from cover to cover.

Lore of the Land
Claire Cock-Starkey and Samantha Dolan
Wide Eyed Editions

Folktales about landscapes the world over, along with secrets from the natural world are unearthed in this stylishly illustrated book.

There are six parts, each presenting the folklore of a different landscape: forests, seas and oceans, mountains, hills and valleys, rivers and lakes and finally, wetlands. Each part begins with a folk story, the first being a Czech tale Betushka and the Wood Maiden telling how a girl and her mother’s fortunes are forever transformed by the daughter’s acceptance of an invitation to dance with a stranger instead of working at her spinning when she takes her goats into the forest to graze.
The next spread has synopses of creation myths associated with the forest. (Each of the other landscapes also has a creation stories spread.)

There’s an abundance of ancient wisdom associated with such things as sprites, spirits and other mythical creatures, plants, and more. You can discover why the massive volcanic mountain, Mount Tararnaki stands alone on the edge of New Zealand’s North Island as well as why Ancient Greeks thought there was a forge beneath Mount Etna and what was made there. This and much more is arrestingly illustrated in folk style artworks that grace every spread. There’s plenty to engage young lovers of nature, especially those with an interest in fictive possibilities.

I am Cat!

I am Cat!
Peter Bently and Chris Chatterton
Macmillan Children’s Books

It’s pretty clear who rules the roost in this story: it’s the moggy narrator and very cleverly, said creature is able to talk in rhyme as it presents a day in the life of itself.

Whether it’s causing damage to the furniture, demanding to be fed, alarming intruders – really? 

or any other of its vital cat pursuits, our narrator does it with gusto and indeed panache – well maybe not when it comes to encountering the large hound next door. 

Imaginative play is our cat’s forte as it takes on the personas of in turn Tiger, Leopard – “ I am Cat. Bird I see. / Leopard, leopard up the tree. / Bird up. Cat up./ Bird Up. Cat. // Bird. Cat. Now I’ll catch you! Drat.” and Lion before running out of steam and seeking a temporary respite before the next mealtime.

Team Bently and Chatterton have created another highly amusing read aloud tale with lots of fun action that young children will love to follow in Chris’s hilarious scenes and Peter’s catchy, highly join-in-able, rhythmic text. Even this cat fur allergic reviewer was captivated by their feline protagonist.

Five Bears

Five Bears
Catherine Rayner
Macmillan Children’s Books

With every book I see by Catherine Rayner, I think to myself, this is her best, but now staring out at me from the cover of her new one are five absolutely wonderful bears and I know this is going to be my favourite ever.
It begins with just one Bear, a nice one by all accounts; but then he finds himself face to face with Other Bear, a shaggy one. Bear’s initial reaction is guarded, even a tad antagonistic so Other Bear calmly continues walking, followed now by Bear rather more slowly, each thinking different thoughts and looking in different directions, but both moving the same way towards a new bear.
Slightly suspicious, Grunty Bear asks what the other two want and seems rather embarrassed by their placatory response, so decides to tag along.

Soon before the three, looking right down at them stands the far from friendly Very Big Bear. “Go away” he says immediately. The other three ask “Why?” “Because I don’t know you,” comes the response.

Their calm, friendly “… good to meet you. Have a nice day” disarms Very Big Bear. Feeling a trifle lonely he follows the others. They now, we learn, are starting to think similar thoughts and to enjoy one another’s company. Of course they’re all looking in the same direction and consequently all spot a bear in a very large tree. A Stuck Bear but one that eschews their company and indeed their help, for its evident that Stuck Bear needs help.

So there we have four like-minded bears co-operatively and gently encouraging their fellow bear safely to the ground.

The now Unstuck Bear wants to know why the others helped and is calmly told, “Some things are hard on your own”

There follows a crucial life lesson for Unstuck Bear that is equally applicable to humans, for we too tend to be wary of those whom we perceive as different. Many of us know however that superficial differences are easily transcended and strong friendships can be built by kindness and empathy.
With her utterly delightful ink and watercolour illustrations, Catherine’s story is a brilliant one to demonstrate this to young children, though perhaps it’s not they who need the story so much as their parents and grandparents. Share, share, share wherever you get an opportunity.

Once Upon a Fairytale

Once Upon a Fairytale
Natalia and Lauren O’Hara
Macmillan Children’s Books

This is the fourth collaboration between the O’Hara sisters, author Natalia and Lauren, illustrator.
It’s a ‘choose you own fairytale adventure’ that really does put child readers centre stage as they decide the direction in which the story goes at almost every turn of the page.

Things start peacefully enough in fairyland with the land being ruled by a wise, kind Queen; but then comes a messenger to the door of the first character of the reader’s choice with some terrible news. “A villain has put a curse on the realm and done something outrageous: you might choose turning ‘all the babies into pigs’, ‘the mums and dads into rocks’, ‘the Queen and court to birds and bugs’ or ‘our dinners into socks’. Her royal highness needs a hero to set forth, fight and defeat the villain and break the curse.
Now’s the time for whichever character the reader selected – maybe a friendly gingerbread man, a kindly farm girl or a jolly woodcutter’s son – to sally forth clad in a scarlet cloak.

Thereafter said character has the opportunity to dine with gnomes upon gold bars sprinkled with rubies, or indulge in roast stars, mashed snow cloud and fresh-buttered sunbeams at the fairies’ table.

You’ll plunge into rivers, climb mountains, fly through the air and creep through a dark wood to reach the villain’s abode; but what about defeating that villain – I wonder …

Superbly interactive with hundreds of possible combinations, this captivating magical book is an empowering springboard to encourage young readers to let their imaginations soar off to that once upon a time world of fairyland, creating a new and exciting adventure every time they pick up this book.

Alongside those exciting words of Natalia are Lauren’s bold, exquisitely detailed illustrations making the whole experience sheer joy. Perhaps later with creative juices flowing, children will want to start writing/drawing their own fairytales. You never know they might even be so inspired that one day, like the O’Hara sisters, they will start delving into the works of Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Propp. Till then, happy story-creating from this latest spellbinding O’Hara offering.

I Love Me! / We Are the Rainbow!

I Love Me!
Marvyn Harrison and Diane Ewen
Macmillan Children’s Books

Narrated by two small children, this enormously empowering book of positive affirmations came about as a result of the author Marvyn’s own child-rearing experience.

Starting on a Monday, it takes us through the week giving examples to back up the powerful statement. So, Monday’s declaration, ‘I am brave’ is demonstrated by using the big slide, superhero play, facing up to monsters and showing courage in new situations.

Tuesday is brain boosting day with showing one’s skill at maths, reading, dressing and potion brewing. And so it continues through the week as in turn the focus word is brave, kind, 

happy, loving and on Sunday, ‘We are beautiful!’ Those though aren’t the only uplifting statements the book contains, as is revealed beneath the fold-out page that comes before the author’s notes for parents and carers.

This book, with Diane Ewen’s bold, eye-catching mixed media illustrations of the affirmations in practice might have originated with black parents/carers and their offspring in mind, but the powerful feelings of self-worth it will engender in children are crucial to developing confidence in every single youngster no matter who they are, making it an important book for all family and classroom collections.

We Are the Rainbow!
Claire Winslow and Riley Samels
Sunbird Books

One colour at a time, this lovely little rainbow of a board book explores the LGBTQIA+ flag, its symbolism and history. The first eight spreads each use a colour to highlight a particular attribute: purple is for spirit, a reminder to listen to your heart, you are unique. Blue is for harmony, ‘Together our voices can change the world.’ Yellow is sunlight – ‘Happiness grows when you let your light shine.’ These important heartfelt messages are for everyone so the next colour, brown, is for inclusivity and this is followed by black for diversity.

Having presented each of the colours of the rainbow plus black and brown, 

we see a joyful rainbow spread: ‘The rainbow is for PRIDE. Pride means being glad to be who you are’. The final spread is devoted to a short history of how the Pride flag developed since it was first created in 1973.

Yes, this is a board book but its messages of acceptance, empathy, kindness, inclusivity and celebrating who you are, are vital for everyone; it can easily be used with older children, perhaps in a circle time or assembly.

A Dress With Pockets

A Dress With Pockets
Lily Murray and Jenny Lovlie
Macmillan Children’s Books

Oh wow! Jenny Lovlie’s illustrations for this story are simply out of this world – every one of them is brimming with exquisite detail. Attention to detail is evident too in Lily Murray’s rhyming narrative; with its playful language it’s a brilliant read aloud.

Now without further ado let’s head over to the Fabulous Fashion Store where, on young Lucy’s birthday, she’s taken by her Aunt Augusta to choose a new dress. The shopkeeper brings out all manner of dresses: fancy ones, frilly ones, stripy ones, silly ones, sun dresses, fun dresses, blue dresses, green dresses and a host of others.
However, be they witchy, swirly-twirly-whirly, wispy-gauzy-floaty, or even twinkly, they don’t impress Lucy.

What she has in mind is something much more practical; something with places to accommodate the creepy crawlies, ‘fossils and flints and butterscotch mints,’ … with room ‘for skimming stones and mysterious bones’ and any other curious things that might take the fancy of this inquisitive child.

Can the shopkeeper come up with the dress of her dreams? He certainly has all the sales patter. Let’s just say that Aunt Agatha does make a purchase as we discover in the final reveal.

Gently whimsical and humorous, and underscored with a subtle feminist message, this is a joyous ‘read it again’ book and one that if shared with more than one child at a time, must be taken sufficiently slowly to allow for enjoying the wealth of detail and ongoing canine capers shown in every scene.

All About Cats / Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes

All About Cats
Frantz Wittkamp (trans. David Henry Wilson), illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Macmillan Children’s Books

As an ailurophobe I wasn’t predisposed to like this book, but on the other hand I’m a poetry lover and Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are terrific fun so the positives have it. And David Henry Wilson’s translations from the original German work well too and rhyme well. Do I detect a touch of the Eleanor Farjeons in Cats are … Sleepy?

From the fourteen four-line poems herein we discover a fair bit about cats, their habits and their predilections. They enjoy reading, arithmetic – yes really, painting, making mischief, playing toss with a ball or perhaps a small rodent if they can get their paws on one; and when it comes to food, each one has a favourite – it’s not always fish.
Parent cats show love towards their offspring, working together to keep things sweet between mums and dads. However I definitely disapprove of certain tomcats – those that net butterflies and keep them as pets, whereas the bath routine at the end of the day gets an endorsement from this reviewer, and how wonderfully economical with water they are in Axel’s illustration at least (3 in a tub together.)
But no matter if said moggies are making music or celebrating a birthday with rhubarb juice and fishcakes, or even feeling a tad grumpy if caught in a rain shower, they make the best of the situation, as is evident in Axel’s splendidly droll scenes and tiny vignettes.

To foster a love of language in young children, cat lovers or not, share the rhymes and playful pictures with them: perhaps some of them can come up with own cat capers too.

Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes
Axel Scheffler
Macmillan Children’s Books

This treasury of almost sixty nursery rhymes is linked by eighteen short stories written by Alison Green, the first of which sets the scene by introducing Mother Goose herself. She lays three eggs and it’s to her goslings the rhymes were told and then eventually written down by a wise old heron. (I love that.) It’s also her’s and her goslings’ activities that are related in the stories.

You’ll find lots of your favourites here: I Had a Little Nut Tree,

Miss Muffet, Jack and Jill, The Grand Old Duke of York, Polly (who puts the kettle on), Old King Cole, Humpty Dumpty, Sing a Song of Sixpence, Hey Diddle Diddle

and lastly some bedtime ones including Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Wee Willie Winkie, still dashing round town in that nightgown.

Every rhyme and story is humorously illustrated in such a way by Axel Scheffler that the wit behind the words is evident. A super present to give a new baby and a book to acquaint preschool children with the richness of nursery rhyme language that sadly, many of them are unfamiliar with.

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for sending both titles for review.

Investigators: Off the Hook / Investigators: Ants in Our P.A.N.T.S

Investigators: Off the Hook
Investigators: Ants in Our P.A.N.T.S

John Patrick Green
Macmillan Children’s Books

More crime busting, pun filled sprees for Investigators Mango and Brash. As Off the Hook opens Mango and Brash are debating the tricky question:should you or should you not let your partner die for the cause of the greater good, or save your partner first and foremost. Little do they know however that Mango is going to have to face what he calls that ‘no-win scenario’ for real in their next mission – a mission in which they are to test the latest camouflage V.E.S.T technology. while tracking down and seizing Crackerdile et al. Crackerdile has enlisted into his evil T.A.I.L.Blazers the combined Hookline and Slinker – now a snake-armed man.

He and his new recruits – the only two of what he hopes will grow into a large criminal team – rob a bank and then head to a Chicken and Waffle restaurant so that he can be turned into a waffle – the largest size possible.

Can our agents possibly work out exactly what is going on, capture the arch villain and most important, both emerge intact from what seems to be their most difficult mission to date?

As always Green’s plot abounds with clever humour and madcappery, contains a layer of intertextuality for adult audiences and a motley cast of lesser characters; plus the book ends with a hook to lead you into the ‘Ants’ story. Don’t miss the detail in these illustrations -it’s terrific. (Colour added in Off the Hook by Aaron Polk.)

Taking up where the previous book left off, it’s been decided by HQ that rather than wait for crimes to occur, as soon as they ‘get wind of an evil-doer’s scheme an Anti-Crime-Unit will go undercover as fellow evil-doers and follow the straightforward P.A.N.T.S procedure. Easy-peasy – errr … Maybe not quite so with one of our star team temporarily out of action. Meanwhile those all-purpose V.E.S.T.s have been deemed not really ready for purpose and so it’s back to the assignment-specific kind for this mission.

We soon find Cilantro wrestling with herself: should she turn evil or not? But then she notices someone seemingly up to no good in the old opera house and realises it’s a heroine, not a villain she wants to be. Cilantro reports her findings to our Investigators and it’s a case of putting those new P.A.N.T.S. procedures into action forthwith.

With a decided lack of information regarding Crackerdile, and Brash’s mind to be sorted out, the do-gooding duo have an awful lot of work to do if they’re to prevent the city being taken over by giant ants. Then there’s the question of a certain agent facing up to his fears 

– a Miss Tick or maybe Mrs Tick, but certainly not a mystical thing.Time perhaps to allow Cilantro out in the field and for the Aunty Crime Unit to step forth and put their knitting skills and their ‘purls of wisdom’ to work.

With the usual super-abundance of groan-worthy puns and the reappearance of some characters from previous books, this is yet another high octane (and high-tech) drama, this time with added colour by Wes Dzioba. Established fans will gobble it up but if you’ve not read any of this series, you are missing out on a great deal of fun.

Sabotage on the Solar Express

Sabotage on the Solar Express
M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli
Macmillan Children’s Books

In the fifth of the Adventures on Trains series, Hal and his Uncle Nat are on a three week trip to Australia. Billionaire train enthusiast, August Reza, has invited Hal and his uncle on the inaugural journey of the Solar Express – the winning design of his Reza’s Rocket competition. Also on the maiden voyage is Marianne, August’s daughter about whom Hal has rather mixed feelings though with her around he knows the journey won’t be boring. So too is the inventor of the hydrogen powered, Solar Express, a 14-year-old Aboriginal boy, Boaz who is enormously proud of his ‘no pollution, no waste’ engine as Hal discovers when he meets him on the day they arrive.

The following day comes the actual train journey, it’s to last around four and a half hours but as the locomotive departs, Hal is concerned that something isn’t right. His suspicions are confirmed when the journey gets underway for it’s not long before an alarming discovery is made: the Solar Express has been sabotaged. What’s more Hal and his team, notably Marianne and Boaz, only have a small window of time to find out exactly what the saboteur has planned.

Full of twists and turns, this truly nail-biting, unputdownable story unfolds at breakneck speed. With each new book authors M.G. Leonard, Sam Sedgman, and illustrator Elisa Paganelli add to the series, I think it’s the best so far, and then along comes another that’s even better.

Kaleidoscope of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life / Dinosaurs Rock!

Kaleidoscope of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life
Greer Stothers
Wide Eyed Editions

If you thought that dinosaurs were just brown and green, then this book will make you think again.
By means of fossil evidence and modern scientific information that uses examples of living species, author/illustrator Greer Stothers, presents a fascinating, vibrant array of prehistoric creatures like we’ve never seen before’ showing them as they might have been with colours and patterns.
Some of the ideas are speculative and based on what is already known about modern equivalents:

the author visits different locations – polar regions, the sea, forests, deserts – for instance, as well as using art from such places as the Ice Age Americas, ancient Africa, the cave paintings in France from which to hypothesise. We’re also given a look at primeval plants some of which died out alongside non-avian dinosaurs while others survive today.

The ‘Mighty Melanin’ spread is especially rich in detail explaining how this pigment is contained within tiny melanosomes that can be preserved in fossil feathers, scales and skin, thus offering information on the original colours. However every single spread offers plenty of food for thought: What would mutant dinosaurs have looked like? Would a dinosaur living in a snowy region have been super-white?

What role did camouflage play in the time of dinosaurs?

With the countless young dinosaur enthusiasts out there, always hungry for more, the approach taken by Greer Stothers (who studied evolutionary biology at university) offers something stimulating and exciting.

Dinosaurs Rock!
Dougie Poynter
Macmillan Children’s Books

Dino fanatic (eco-warrior and bassist from McFly) Dougie Poynter turns his attention back to dinosaurs, but in a non-fiction book for older primary readers this time. He adopts a light-hearted style but this doesn’t mean that the writing is light on information, far from it. Dougie introduces readers to a wealth of dino-related topics. Before that though, we’re taken right back to the dawn of life on earth for a brief history of how these creatures evolved.

We get up close to a variety of dinosaurs with several profiles including the author’s favourites and then meet five experts on the topic some of whom work in the field of palaeontology. There’s a section on fossil evidence and we read something about Mary Anning and her discoveries in the field, as well as two Americans who started out as friends but then become arch rivals both making lots of mistakes in their efforts to become top palaeontologist.

Also included are a scattering of dino jokes, some historical errors, a sprinkling of true or false statements including this one – Dinosaurs were cold-blooded – that scientists still have different opinions on, with the majority currently thinking that most were warm-blooded.

Lots of the content is presented infographics style, which makes it more easily digested.

Epic Adventures

Epic Adventures
Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Sam Brewster
Macmillan Children’s Books

Tickets ready! Sam Sedgman, co-writer of the Adventures on Trains fiction stories, turns his attention to capturing that same sense of excitement as he invites readers aboard twelve iconic trains to undertake railway journeys through some thirty four different countries and six continents.

For each journey, he and illustrator Sam Brewster, conjure up for the reader some of the history, culture and wildlife of the countries visited or passed through. Such is his enthusiasm for the subject that I will now seriously consider, when I plan my next trip to Amsterdam (one of my very favourite cities in the world) the possibility of travelling the 355 km. not by plane but through the Channel tunnel on the Eurostar.

While going from Kolkata to Darjeeling, if you change at New Jalpaiguri Junction, you can take a trip on the ‘toy train’ that uses the narrow gauge mountain railway. Or maybe you’d rather have An African Adventure, savouring the sights from Dar Es Salaam to Cape Town and imagine being on safari in Botswana en route.

By contrast you’ll definitely need to wear your thermals if you take the sleeper train from Stockholm on a journey to the remote Norwegian town of Narvik, that will take 19 hours and make eighteen stops.You might even think about sampling some warm reindeer stew as the train nears the Arctic Circle –

think I’d stick to anticipating the appearance of the Northern Lights and pass on that stew.

Informative and filled with that special sense of wonder, the illuminative narrative – verbal and visual really makes you want to try some of those journeys for real.

My Mum is a Lioness

My Mum Is A Lioness
Swapna Haddow and Dapo Adeola
Macmillan Children’s Books

From the same team that gave us My Dad is a Grizzly Bear comes this hilarious follow-up starring a mum with a very big personality and a huge amount of love – love she clearly both gives and receives.

The little human narrator introduces readers to this larger than life parent serving her up by means of suitably leonine language that Dapo Adeola dramatically portrays in his action-packed scenes of family life. This powerhouse of a personality, is constantly busy. She appears to have boundless energy as she goes about her role as mum,

partner, friend, sporting hero and teacher. Most important she always manages to be there at the ready to bestow those wonderfully warm ‘lioness hugs’ just when they are most needed.

An absolute corker of a book for mums and little ones to share at home and for educators to do likewise at school or nursery. This rip-roaring tribute to the power of mums everywhere would make a smashing present for mothers of young children on Mother’s Day.

How to be a Hero: A Gathering of Giants / Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Smuggler’s Secret / Solve Your Own Mystery: The Time Thief

How to be a Hero: A Gathering of Giants
Cat Weldon, illustrated by Katie Kear
Macmillan Children’s Books

In the finale of Cat Weldon’s terrific trilogy, Whetstone and banished trainee Valkyrie Lotta are fugitives, now in hiding in Asgard. Whetstone is on a mission – to rescue his mum who, according to Thor, is being held, along with the second harp string, by the Frost Giants in Castle Utgard. It’s definitely time for him to work on becoming a proper hero, tough and fearless. Step forward Rhett the Bone-Breaker. But how many of Lotta’s plans is it going to take for them to succeed in outwitting Loki the trickster? They certainly won’t do it without encounters with treacherous trolls, indoctrinated Valkyries and an entire army of giants.

With Katie Kear’s illustrations helping to ramp up the drama, this fast-moving tale is full of thrills and a fair few spills too, plus a generous scattering of insults adding to the hilarity. This will keep readers on the edge of their seats right through to the cup’s final poetic offering. So gripped was I by the telling that after finishing the story late at night, I found myself back in the quest along with the heroic duo in my dream.

Readers who fancy sampling the sort of meal one of those giants might eat, should turn to the recipe adapted by Whetsone for spiced oat cakes. A tasty treat indeed.

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Smuggler’s Secret
Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Daniela Sosa
Little Tiger

Zaiba and fellow members of the Snow Leopard Detective Agency have a new case to solve. There’s a school History Club trip to Chesil Bay involving an overnight stay. The children are told that divers have just discovered a priceless artefact from Assam among the wreckage of a ship and it’s currently in the safe-keeping of the local museum prior to being sent back to India. While there they’ll be able to witness the unveiling of the artefact and Ms Talbot challenges them to discover what it is before it’s revealed. Now that is just the kind of thing Zaiba, Poppy et al love.

No sooner are they on the train down to the coast than the intrigue starts: Zaiba notices a man replacing a magnifying glass in his briefcase and then she thinks she sees him on the boat trip out to the wreck and again leaving the theatre in the evening after the play they’re invited to watch. In fact he seems to pop up all over the place. What is he up to?

Next morning everyone is excited about the big reveal but then it’s discovered that the artefact has gone.Now Zaiba and co. really must ramp up the action. There are quite a few possible suspects and some leads to follow, but not much time to discover the culprit.

Embracing a controversial topic: the returning of precious artefacts to their countries of origin, once again Annabelle Sami keeps readers guessing right to the final pages of this story of teamwork and as with previous titles in the series, there are lively black and white illustrations by Daniela Sosa throughout.

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

Choose your own adventure books have long been popular but rather went out of fashion. Now with Gareth P. Jones’ new series of which this is the second, interactive tales are back for readers who may well be offspring of the original enthusiasts.

In this instance the scene is set in the opening pages: in the town of Haventry the Museum of Magical Objects and Precious Stones (MOPS for short) is putting on a time-travelling exhibition but its key feature, the Time Sponge, an object able to stop and start time for whoever squeezes it, has gone missing. Then in the role of main character, the reader must make the first decision: two choices are presented as to what to do next: interview suspect mermaids or go to the crime scene – in the company of Klaus Solstaag the yeti detective, of course.

With a fair number of potential suspects and a multitude of paths to choose from, none leading to a dead end, you will eventually reach one of three possible endings.

A fun and intriguing read for key stage two readers especially those who like to do a bit of detecting.

A Hero Called Wolf

A Hero Called Wolf
Lucy Rowland and Ben Mantle
Macmillan Children’s Books

There are all kinds of heroes in storybooks – big ones, small ones, male and female, but wolves? No, never. That is certainly the experience of the one in author Lucy Rowland and illustrator Ben Mantle’s new book. It’s a wonderful take on the world of fairy tales starring a reformed wolf who now, thanks to the library, has become an avid reader who loves to share that book love with his new friends.

One day however, he pays a visit to the library looking very downcast. He’s come to the realisation that no matter what kind of heroes he meets in the books he reads there’s never, ever one of the lupine variety: wolves are always portrayed as the baddies. The librarian makes a suggestion: write the kind of story you want to read. Do I have what it takes, he wonders, far from sure. Then into the library storms a woodcutter with a blunt axe.

Shortly after a troubled knight appears, followed by a handsome prince, all of whom wolf helps with the aid of books, the prince actually calling him “My hero!”

Suddenly there comes a shelf-shaking stomp heralding the arrival of a giant. The others want to send him packing.

Can Wolf summon up his courage to act … ‘For heroes are BRAVE and they’re CLEVER and KIND.’ Could that now be Wolf? …

The combination of Lucy Rowland’s rhyming text, which is a joy to read aloud, and Ben Mantle’s playful, often arresting illustrations make for a stereotype-challenging tale. As well as being huge fun to share, it demonstrates that everybody can be a hero, no matter who or what they are. That, and giving a real plug to the importance of libraries and the power of reading.

The Hundred Decker Bus / The Hundred Decker Rocket

The Hundred Decker Bus
The Hundred Decker Rocket

Mike Smith
Macmillan Children’s Books

New to me but a reissue of his debut picture book is Mike Smith’s The Hundred Decker Bus. Tired of his usual routine, the bus driver takes inspiration from a passing hot air balloon and decides to take a new route that he’s never before noticed. Imagine being on that bus: what would your reaction be to a diversion to nobody knows where? That of the passengers (whose numbers increase en route), is one of happy abandon, as after a day’s driving the bus reaches …

But that is only a small part of their adventure about which I’ll say no more other than the sky’s the limit … or maybe it’s not.

This fantastical story with its awesome fold-out page will grip youngsters as they explore not only that spread but every one of Mike Smith’s humorous, highly detailed scenes be they large or small.

Share this uplifting picture book reissue either with one child, a group or a whole class. It has huge potential in the classroom.

So too does The Hundred Decker Rocket. This begins in Ivy’s bedroom where she’s just finished creating a massive telescope through which she sees a strange and beautiful ‘something’ glimmering in the sky far off. An adventure beckons Ivy and her trusty dog Eddie, but that will require another round of constructing.

Several days later the two are blasting off skywards in their rocket, landing unceremoniously, after what seems an incredibly long journey. on a planet entirely covered in rubbish.

Eddie learns from the resident environmentally un-savvy aliens that they’ve messed up their home and now want to leave and find a new place to live – if Ivy and Eddie help them build a spaceship that is. The construction continues apace as more and more aliens appear and yet more rubbish accumulates and is used, leaving the planet much cleaner.

With a hundred decks duly built, they deem the rocket ready for boarding and blast off takes place that night.

Eventually the aliens agree on what they feel is a suitable new planet and down they go … but there’s a strange familiarity about it …

With a great final twist, incredibly detailed, zany scenes that youngsters will pore over for hours revelling in the wealth of humorous touches, including speech bubbles and onomatopoeic noises off, and its fold-out page, this is a cracking book. Highly relevant is the vital environmental message about the importance of caring for our planet.

If you’re after a fun story or a super starting point for an ecological discussion that will galvanise children to take care what they throw out and where/how they dispose of it, this is it.

Ruffles and the Teeny, Tiny Kittens / I am Dog!

Ruffles and the Teeny, Tiny Kittens
David Melling
Nosy Crow

Puppy Ruffles is in many ways similar to a little human as he learns about the world – its ups and downs. There’s much he enjoys but if there’s one thing he particularly dislikes it’s teeny tiny kittens. So you can imagine his feelings when five lively kittens of the teeny tiny kind come to stay. He is far from happy about their high-spirited actions, their noises and their poo. They follow him wherever he goes and try to do whatever anti-sharer Ruffles does. Worst of all is that they want to enjoy the delights of his Big Blue Blankie.

When a tug of war over this special object occurs the kittens’ game results in catastrophe.

Can these frolicking felines perhaps help Ruffles learn one of life’s important lessons – that sharing is the best way to make friends and have fun.
Once again David’s observations are spot on and this funny follow up to Ruffles and the Red, Red Coat is sure to be another winner with youngsters of the human kind. With its text closely matching the terrific illustrations this is also an ideal book for young learner readers.

I am Dog!
Peter Bently and Chris Chatterton
Macmillan Children’s Books

We meet another playful pooch herein, this time acting as the book’s narrator and telling of a day in its life from its very own doggy viewpoint. And what a clever creature to speak in clipped canine rhyme about liking such things as ‘beggy-beggy trick’ and ‘fetchy-fetchy stick’.
This canine can’t resist a watery chase,

a race or ‘feeling wind in face’, not to mention rolling in strongly ponging foxy droppings.

However, like the majority of canines, our narrator has a great aversion to the moggy residing next door.

Much more enjoyable are cosy cuddles, ‘lap-lap-lappy puddles’, sniffing the rear ends of fellow dogs and the ‘sniff-sniff’ aromas emanating from the tasty meal laid out on the table. But therein lies both disaster and satisfaction:

now what does the little human residing in the same home think of all this? …

Chris’s action-packed scenes portraying the predilections and pranks of Dog are hilarious and provide the perfect complement to Peter’s bouncy, splendidly onomatopoeic text.

Jack and the Beanstalk & Cinderella / Vocabulary Ninja Workbooks

Jack and the Beanstalk
Cinderella

Stephen Tucker and Nick Sharratt
Macmillan Children’s Books

When I was a KS1 class teacher these lift-the-flap fairy tales were very popular with children just taking off as readers. The fact that youngsters were in the main already familiar with the stories, their rhyming texts, and Nick’s trademark cartoon bright, bold humorous illustrations made them ideal choices for confidence building as well as entertainment and getting across the vital reading is fun message.

Now with new editions that include a QR code to scan to access audio versions read by actor Anna Chancellor, the playful, witty tellings will be sure fire winners with a new generation of learner readers and listeners in school or at home.

Vocabulary Ninja Workbooks
Andrew Jennings
Bloomsbury Education

This series of six vocabulary books is intended to support home learning. There is one for each year group from Y1 through to Y6 ie covering both KS1 and KS2 and providing the vocabulary likely to be needed in the National Curriculum topics such as geography, history and science.

With most children missing a lot of school over the past eighteen months these books are likely to be a boon for parents struggling to help their youngsters and not knowing where to turn.

Aiming to extend vocabulary and literacy skills in general in a fun, imaginative way, the activities on the pages of each book are grouped into levels: grasshopper, shin obi, warrior, samurai, assassin and grand master. In his introduction, the author (a teacher) suggests that a child should attempt to do the first two levels as independently as possible while from level three and beyond, he recommends some adult support to ensure full understanding. However those of us who are teachers or work in education will know that a great deal of differentiation may be required within a class, so parents will have to be guided by their own judgement and assuredly children will enjoy some adult interaction.

With their colourful graphics, straightforward instructions and activities that never overwhelm,

these books offer engaging and much-needed support and empowerment for learning at home, especially at present.

Wild Child

Wild Child
Dara McAnulty and Barry Falls
Macmillan Children’s Books

This is such a beautiful book written by award-winning author of Diary Of A Young Naturalist and gorgeously illustrated by rising star, Barry Falls.

With his distinctive voice, Dara McAnulty invites readers to take a close look at the world around, journeying into and exploring with all your senses, the five different locations that he describes both poetically and scientifically.

First off is a look through the window, after which we go outside into the garden, wander in the woods, saunter up onto heathlands and meander along the riverbank. At each location we pause while Dara provides a lyrical introduction to the habitat followed by a wealth of factual information about the wildlife – both flora and fauna – to be found there.

This includes a discovery spread where in turn, you can learn the collective nouns for eleven different birds,

take a look at classification, find out how various trees propagate

and about migration and metamorphosis.

An activity to do once you get home concludes most sections: make a bird feeder, make a terrarium, create a journey stick (I love that).

Assuredly this will help any reader, young or not so young, connect more deeply with the joys and wonders of the natural world, and find their inner wild child.

The author finishes with some sage words about the fragility of nature and caring for the countryside, plus a glossary.

Altogether a smashing book for families and schools.

The Bookshop Cat

The Bookshop Cat
Cindy Wume
Macmillan Children’s Books

In rising star Cindy Wume’s new book we meet a bibliophile black cat.

One day, while out exploring the city, said young moggy lands his dream job at the children’s bookshop thus acquiring his titular name too. He’s certainly an ideal assistant and before long proves himself both to his family who had despaired at his insistence on putting reading before achieving, and to the shop’s young customers for each of whom he manages to find just the right book.

Then one morning, disaster strikes: torrential rain causes the pipes to burst and a flood in the bookshop; outside is also under water. The result is that for several days nobody at all comes to the shop: both young Violet the owner’s grandaughter and the Bookshop Cat are thoroughly downcast.

Back at home, the Bookshop Cat’s family decide to pitch in and help. Happily Violet comes up with a wonderful idea:

if the children don’t come to the bookshop, the bookshop must go out to them. Indeed the entire city is transformed into a library and not only that, the workers find a way to get the customers back into the shop. Hurrah!

It’s an absolute delight with superb detailed illustrations; and what a wonderful demonstration of the power of reading, of books and bookshops, as well as an affirmation of the Bookshop Cat’s words early on in the story, “With a book, I can go anywhere and be anything.”

Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door / Mirabelle’s Bad Day

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

This is the first of a sparkly new series starring Aziza who is fanatical about all things fairy; she’s even named after a type of fairy creature from West African folklore.

On the day this tale unfolds, Aziza is celebrating her birthday and is especially excited by the mysterious parcel containing a fairy door with DIY instructions, that arrives from she knows not where.

The intrigue increases when having found a place to stand it (she’s a flat dweller so it’s not easy), Aziza lying in bed that evening hears a knocking sound seemingly coming from the other side of the decorated door. When she touches its knob, the door opens and she finds herself transported to Shimmerton where she soon makes friends with Princess Peri and nose-twitching shapeshifter Tiko. 

Just the characters she needs to help her take on the Gigglers aka Kendra, Noon and Felly who take possession of the doorknob thus leaving Aziza trapped in Shimmerton without her only means of returning home. This threesome need to learn a few lessons, not least about taking things that don’t belong to them without asking and about kindness and fairness.

With the help of her new friends, will Aziza manage to make it back to her family?

By creative duo Tólá Okogwu and Jasmine Richards writing under the pen name Lola Morayo this is a thoroughly engaging magical story about perseverance and earning respect among other things, that’s just right for new solo readers. In their fantasy setting, they introduce readers to a diverse host of fascinating characters not least a curmudgeonly anthropomorphic clock and a talking unicorn shopkeeper. 

Cory Reid’s black and white illustrations have an appropriate quirkiness about them and are a perfect complement for the text.

I’m sure the delightful Aziza will have youngsters eagerly awaiting her next adventure beyond that Secret Fairy Door.

More magic in

Mirabelle Has a Bad Day
Harriet Muncaster
Oxford Children’s Books

We all have days when everything seems to go wrong and so it is with half fairy, half witch Mirabelle. She’s actually set herself up for one the previous evening by not putting away her spell ingredients before going to bed, as well as forgetting to bring her broomstick in from outside. 

The day in the title begins when she sees the state of her hair on waking and then at breakfast time learns that her brother has finished the rose petal fairy flakes leaving her no option but to have some of the batwing porridge her mum’s made instead. And as for her broomstick …

From then on things get even worse: she arrives at school late and sopping wet, her best friend is absent and she can’t join in the playground games on account of her over large borrowed attire.

Later, at home even bigger disasters are waiting to happen, in part due to the transformation potion Mirabelle made in class, a portion of which she was allowed to bottle up and take home; 

that and the fact that her infuriating brother has gobbled every single one of the remaining chocolate biscuits and is playing with her pet dragon.

Will Mirabelle end up going to bed in a foul mood or will things get better before she closes her eyes?

This enchanting book with its dramatic illustrations ends with some magical Mirabelle extras including a recipe for witchy cakes.

Established fans will likely gobble this (not the cakes) in a single sitting and Mirabelle is sure to gain some new followers too.

Sometimes I Am Furious

Sometimes I Am Furious
Timothy Knapman and Joe Berger
Macmillan Children’s Books

Who can fail to fall for the adorable little person standing in angry mode on the cover of this book. She’s the narrator too, so we get the picture straight from the toddler’s mouth as she talks of life as she sees it – the high points and the lows. The times when you feel like sharing some of the good things, or being helpful perhaps; even when one of your special grown-ups has made a mess of things.

All too often it seems though, things just don’t feel fair AT ALL: your parents boss you around, your favourite cake has sold out; your body in your tights feels all wrong and your yummy ice cream splats on the floor. These things are totally INFURIATING.

It’s at times like that when you need a good cuddle and some welcome words of advice spoken softly.

Then next time those ‘not fair’ feelings start to bubble you know some lovely deep breaths, slow counting and a happy song will take care of your fizzly emotion – well almost always.

What a smashing way to present to little ones (and grown ups) the gamut of emotions that are part and parcel of toddler life, as well as some simple strategies to deal with life’s lows. In their dynamic delivery – verbal and visual – of one of life’s vital lessons, team Timothy and Joe have created a cracking book that is just the thing for sharing and discussing with little ones at home, or in an early years setting. (Perfect for supporting PSED.)

Exploding Beetles & Inflatable Fish

Exploding Beetles & Inflatable Fish
Tracey Turner and Andrew Wightman
Macmillan Children’s Books

Sam, narrator of this funky STEM information book is totally obsessed with all that’s weird and wonderful about members of the animal kingdom. (There is mention of the occasional plant too.) He keeps four pets – stick insects of the Indian variety named Twiggy and Wiggy, a goldfish named Bob (deemed boring by Sam’s elder brother) and a hamster, Letty. Readers learn a fair bit about these creatures along the way including the fact that stick insects often eat the old skin they’ve shed and as a defence mechanism, they might exude from their joints a foul-smelling liquid or spray attackers with a nasty chemical substance. Best not to attack a stick insect then.
I should say at this point that throughout the book Sam has drawn or rather claims to have done (actually Andrew Wightman is the illustrator) all kinds of funky creatures eating, pooing and just generally going about their lives.
On the poo topic, did you know that a fair number of animals including woodlice eat their own? (they never ever wee though) Or that wombats have cube-shaped poo – how on earth do they manage excreting that without discomfort?

I’m pretty sure your reaction to the revelation that bombardier beetles can explode like toxic water pistols will be similar to mine – best to steer clear of their bums.

Much of this fascinating information is related during a hunt for Twiggy. Sam discovers that the little creature has gone awol from his vivarium when he goes to spray water inside.

Happily she is eventually found (hiding in plain sight) but not before Sam has shared a considerable number of amazing factual snippets with readers.

Terrific fun and gently educational too.

On a Building Site / How it Works: Rocket / Dinosaur Snap! The Spinosaurus

What Can You See? On a Building Site
Kate Ware and Maria Perera
Little Tiger

The building site herein is destined to become a brand new primary school. Youngsters (hard hats donned) can follow the action from the demolition of an old building to the school’s near completion. There are lots of vehicles visiting and working on site including lorries, a digger, a bulldozer, a crane and a cement mixer. It’s good to see both men and women hard at work carrying out their various roles, building, operating machinery (including a woman in a scissor lift, bricklaying, trench digging, tiling, fitting windows and solar panels and more.

In addition to the narrative describing the entire process there are questions to encourage little ones to hone their observation skills by searching for a little mouse, a white cat and other items. With die-cuts and lots of details in the illustrations this will keep your little one’s ears and eyes engaged as you share the book.

The same is true of

How It Works: Rocket
Amelia Hepworth and David Semple
Little Tiger

Get ready to zoom off into space as you read this with your toddler. It starts by explaining briefly what a rocket is and how astronauts use a service tower to get inside. David Semple’s spreads show the release of some of the rocket parts no longer required; an astronaut floating in space beside a command module; the same astronaut walking on the moon’s surface and another flying the rocket. Then come preparations for the return to earth including the ejection of everything no longer needed and finally, splashdown and the collection of the rocket and astronauts by a ship.

Simple language and illustrations to which a touch of playfulness courtesy of a tiny mouse passenger are added, provide a first introduction to the popular topic of space.

Dinosaur Snap! The Spinosaurus
Macmillan Children’s Books

A spinosaurus takes centres stage in this rhyming story inspired by the Strickland’s hugely popular Dinosaur Roar book. Said to be the scariest beast ever it lies in wait for other dinos. such as the young stegosaurus that accidentally gives it a whack with its tail. Its next encounter is with a wily oviraptor that induces an attack of dizziness in Snap before making a dash for it.
Now pretty peckish, Snap sets its sights on the compsognathus aka Dinosaur Squeak luring the little creature down to the water’s edge where a very big surprise awaits …

Created in association with the Natural History Museum this amusing sequence of events ends with a spread giving some basic information about Spinosaurus’s features and also sends young listeners back to the start of the book in a game of seek and find. Look out for further stories in the World of Dinosaur Roar.

Aunt Amelia’s House / We Want Our Books

Aunt Amelia’s House
Rebecca Cobb
Macmillan Children’s Books

When it comes to aunts, Aunt Amelia, is surely unique. Now the children are mega-excited as they’re off to stay at her house for the very first time.

Arriving with high expectations of lots of fun, they certainly aren’t expecting her to present them with a long list of jobs that need to be done.

However, whether it’s watering the plants, picking fruit and sharing it with the neighbours, feeding her pets, hanging out the washing, cleaning the windows,

or entertaining visitors, Aunt Amelia has her own highly unusual way of doing it. And the children need not have feared about chores being enjoyable: done Aunt Amelia style they are enormous fun, albeit pretty exhausting.

As always, Rebecca’s illustrations are full of fun, fascinating details making each spread one to linger over, while both words and pictures exude warmth and a gentle humour that celebrates the special relationship young children have with aunts (or other family members).

With its unexpected ending, this is a super story, to share at home or in the classroom, that will likely spark discussion of what is special about listeners’ own aunts or other relations.

We Want Our Books
Jake Alexander
Two Hoots

When Rosa visits her local library she discovers that it’s been closed. Horrified, she seeks advice from her elder sister who says that a protest is what’s needed. However their ‘SAVE OUR LIBRARY’ poster fails to impress and so the girls try to enlist help from other people in the town but they’re all too busy even to see them, or to hear their voices.

The girls aren’t giving up that easily though, so they up their game much to the disapproval of the developer.

Determined to thwart the planned closure, the family stands outside the library where they soon discover that they’re not the only ones who feel strongly about saving what is very much a vital part of their community.

Finally it’s a case of mission accomplished and rather than losing interest in using the facility, the community members make the library a thriving establishment; and it was all thanks to one little girl who reignited their enthusiasm.

Powerfully illustrated and simply told using Rosa as narrator, this story of determination and community beats the drum for local libraries, too many of which have already had their hours drastically cut or been forced to close altogether, and demonstrates the importance of protesting peacefully for what we believe in.

The Pet

The Pet
Catherine Emmett and David Tazzyman
Macmillan Children’s Books

Young Digby David is a demanding sort of a boy, especially when it comes to wanting a pet, and happily for him, his dad is an obliging sort of guy, maybe somewhat over indulgent. So when the lad issues one of his urgent stipulations, what does Daddy do (after his hair has turned slightly grey that is) but pick up the phone to the pet shop. Before long there they stand in the shop with Digby insisting on having, contrary to the owner’s advice, the hairiest rodent there. Dad offers double the price and off they go. Digby is a loving guinea pig owner – but for a mere half day, after which the poor creature is left untended in her hutch.
Things continue in similar fashion. Digby wants to better Lily Jean’s cat,

Lola’s frog, and Dipak’s froggy threesome and each time it’s a case of Dad gaining a few more grey hairs, calling the pet shop and making an extravagant purchase.

But then what should catch young mister ‘I WANT’s eye but Gus the gorilla.
Mr David parts with all his cash (is he crazy?) and finally Digby is happy. For a while at least, but then as the novelty wears off, so does the attention Gus is paid.

What does a bored gorilla do? This one decides to make a break for it. And we’ll leave the large hairy creature there …

But what of Digby, you might be wondering. Sorry but I’m going to leave that matter hanging too …

Delivered in jaunty rhyme that reads aloud brilliantly (so long as you can resist the urge to dissolve into giggles), and David Tazzyman’s wonderfully droll, scribblesome illustrations, this is a corker of a cautionary tale showing how crucial it is to take proper care of your pets – whatever they are. Oh! and stop and think before you wish …

Destined to become a firm favourite with both adult sharers and their young audiences.

Investigators Take the Plunge

Investigators Take the Plunge
John Patrick Green
Macmillan Children’s Books

Top agents and crime busting alligator duo Mango and Brash have a new mission involving a rocket containing stolen code that can turn any machine into a combitron (a device able to stick any two things together). They are able to stop the rocket from causing total destruction in the city; but by inadvertently pressing the wrong button, they transmit the code and it falls into the wrong hands – those of a robot. YIKES! – a robot they most definitely have to track down.

There’s another problem though: also hunting for this bot is their arch enemy Crackerdile, ex SUIT agent and presently in a fragile, easily dissolvable state. This creature intends using the combitron to merge himself with something that would make him a while lot stronger and thus better placed to get revenge on the Investigators.

Then another wrong move while down in the sewers results in a flooded city and demotion for Mango and Brash who are replaced by the B-team (badgers).

Meanwhile some weird combinations have occurred:, a scientist now has banana hands and a plumber and an anaconda have combined. However, the A-team aren’t ready to give up that easily. Who will crack this increasingly crazy case: Team A or Team B or might a spot of collaboration work? …

Delivered in zany, graphic novel style, this is assuredly another fast moving instalment of mayhem and madness that’s brimming over with ridiculous names, puns and other rib-tickling wordplay. Moreover, it ends with an indication of more to come and that’s sure to be welcomed by fans.

Beyond the Burrow

Beyond the Burrow
Jessica Meserve
Macmillan Children’s Books

Rabbits prefer to stay close to their cosy burrows with other rabbits for company and juicy carrots for sustenance. When it comes to other creatures, particularly large hairy ones with claws, they’re considered terrifying, avoid at all costs, beasties.

When the Rabbit protagonist in this story discovers what looks like the most delectable breakfast carrot, little does she know that it’s about to change her life.

In attempting to reach said carrot, she takes a tumble and finds herself entering the wrong hole. Not only that but when she emerges it’s to feel herself plunging into the depths of a river. Happily she surfaces and is able to cling tight to a passing log but she’s far from her burrow. But then comes a face-to-face encounter with a not-rabbit that has all the alarming features Rabbit most fears.

Time to make a rabbity leap for safety and dig for all you’re worth.

Is this the end for our long-eared friend? She fears it might be so. Instead however, the not-rabbit pushes something towards her and such is Rabbit’s hunger that she risks a tiny bite.

Then follows an entirely new, brave idea that results in her climbing way up out of her comfort zone until she sees …

Despite claws and hairiness, the giant not-rabbit turns out to be ‘no so very scary’. Likewise the other not-rabbits that have gathered up in the treetops. Mutual acts of kindness ensue and Rabbit decides that falling can sometimes be fun.

That night though, she stays awake thinking about home and come morning, she spies a familiar sight far away. Time to try to reach it, but with friends in tow everything feels less scary

and eventually her burrow is in hopping distance …

Can things get any better? Perhaps, but to find out, you’ll need to get hold of a copy of Jessica’s book …

With plenty of dramatic moments, and full of warmth and humour, the story is huge fun to read aloud. Jessica’s depictions of ‘NOT very rabbity’ behaviour and indeed the antics of the treetop dwelling menagerie are highly entertaining. So too are the plethora of signs scattered strategically in various places throughout Rabbit’s adventure.

A Poem for Every Spring Day / The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems

Here are two recent poetry collections from Macmillan Children’s Books – thanks to the publishers for sending them for review

A Poem for Every Spring Day
ed. Allie Esiri

This is the third in the seasonal series – almost every one of which is taken from Allie Esiri’s A Poem for Every Day of the Year and A Poem for Every Night of the Year and once again it’s brimming over with poetry to lift your spirits.
Among the offerings herein you’ll certainly find many old favourites – lots took me right back to my days in primary school and even before that when my dad read A.A. Milne and Lewis Carroll aloud to me, as well as unearthing some new treasures.
As with the Autumn and Winter books, there are two poems for each day from 1st March through to the end of May and again Allie provides an introductory paragraph for each of her selections. Most of us associate spring with new life and yes, there are plenty of entries reflecting that aspect of the season but it’s more than just longer days, birdsong and buds opening and A Poem for Every Spring Day reflects this. There are poems commemorating specific occasions such as Rachel Rooney’s First Word (After Helen Keller) where she writes of Helen feeling water flowing from a pump with one hand while the letters for ‘water’ were spelt on her other palm. That moment took place on April 5th.
Another one that is hugely moving and also new to me is Duranka Perera’s Bitter State. The poet is also a doctor living in the UK and native of Sri Lanka where horrendous terrorist attacks took place on 30th March. It begins thus: ‘I was angry when it happened. / I was angry when the numbers continued to rise. / I was angry when bitter tongues lashed old wounds. / I was angry when a dying monument drew more /money than / The dying themselves.’
From John Agard to William Wordsworth, whatever your taste in poetry, there will be plenty to savour in this collection.

The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems
chosen by Brian Moses

Poet Brian Moses has chosen an assortment of splendidly silly poems for this compilation of over a hundred giggle inducers.
The selection has ten sections, each named with a line from or title of, one of the poems included. Thus for example we have ‘The red ear blows its nose’ from Robert Schechter’s What’s Mine for the first – Silly and Even Sillier Poems.
The teacher part of me wanted to turn next to the Headmaster’s Welcome where among the thirteen I totally loved Brian’s own The School Goalie’s Reasons
The writer/reviewer part of me just had to turn next to the Fantasy and Fairy Tales offerings where there are some terrific four liners including Rachel Rooney’s Epitaph for Humpty Dumpty: ‘ Beneath this wall there lies the shell / Of someone who had talents. / But (as you can probably tell) / One of them wasn’t balance.’ What a great starting point for a bit of epitaph writing in the classroom using a nursery rhyme theme. On the subject of the classroom, in the Funny Poems About Poems section is Joshua Seigal’s terrific I Don’t Like Poetry that offers a smashing lesson on similes, metaphors, alliteration, onomatopoeia and repetition. An invitation to youngsters to play around with words for sure.
Should your taste be more for pets, dinosaurs, family, space or things spooky, never fear: you’ll find all these covered too.
We all need something to cheer us up at the moment so why not start with this collection: it will long outlast the current pandemic however.

How Do You Make a Rainbow? / Finney’s Story

Positivity shines through in both these recent picture books:

How Do You Make a Rainbow?
Caroline Crowe and Cally Johnson-Isaacs
Macmillan Children’s Books

Rainbows have always been symbols of hope but during the last year have come to symbolise not only that hope of better things to come, but also our appreciation of NHS staff and other key workers with children everywhere creating their own rainbows to say thank you.

This book starts with a little girl and her grandad looking out on a grey rainy world and the child asking for his help to create a cheering up the sky rainbow. Rather than offering a scientific answer, Grandad explains that rainbows aren’t really painted; rather they’re created from kindness and hope, love and thinking of others.

Then, taking one colour at a time,

he goes on to give examples of small, everyday things that bring and give cheer both to others and ourselves.
Told in Caroline’s jaunty rhyme and through Cally’s playful, vibrant illustrations that exude positivity and kindness,

this is a hugely heartwarming book (with two final spreads of activities), for sharing both at home and in foundation stage settings. Definitely one to reach for if you’re feeling a bit down; it will surely act as a reminder of focusing on the positive things in life.

Finney’s Story
Alana Washington and Charlotte Caswell
UCLan Publishing

Finney the fox is an aspiring book author but he has a lot to learn about the whole process of authorship. Fortunately however, he has a moggy friend that is ready and willing to offer some helpful advice, or should that be, criticism. The trouble is, does Finney really have any ideas of the original kind,

let alone an understanding of what that word actually means.

Cat’s suggested visit to the library …

leaves him even more dispirited “All the original stories are gone,” he reports. Finney does notice something else however, something that might just be of assistance. But will this ‘ideas machine’ as he calls himself ever actually produce the goods?

Listeners will love being in the know with Cat as Finney puts forward his proposed storylines from traditional tales in this dialogue between the two friends. They’ll love too, Charlotte Caswell’s bold illustrations with their silhouettes depicting the fairytale characters Finney mentions in his story openers.

There’s a QR code inside the front cover which when scanned gives access to a free Sarah-Ann Kennedy audio reading of the book.

Beauty and the Bin

Beauty and the Bin
Joanne O’Connell
Macmillan Children’s Books

For Laurie Larksie things seem to have improved since she started at secondary school. It’s sufficiently far from their home not to invite her new friends around, something she’s anxious to avoid as her eco-warrior parents are, despite their best intentions, an embarrassment to her. Their house is also a hydroponic growing farm, and her mum and dad involve both Laurie and her younger sister, Fern, in salvaging food from supermarket bins despite Laurie’s determination not to become as she says, ‘Garbage Girl’. While she’s happy to go along with most of what her parents do, they refuse to listen to how she feels about this particular activity. After all she just wants to fit in – buy herself some new clothes, have hot chocolate after school with her friends Zainab and Emilia, and use social media.

When an inter-school competition for young entrepreneurs is announced, Laurie sees it’s a great chance to showcase her homemade skin and beauty products that use only natural ingredients – Beauty in the Kitchen – and before you can say ‘enterprise’ she finds she’s been approached by Charley (the school’s uber-cool girl) as her partner.

Before long though, conflicts of interest begin to arise: Laurie’s family want her to be fully involved in the fast approaching March4Climate protest, so she has to try and juggle family commitments with the competition, while not losing her two best friends.

Can Laurie manage to stay true to her principles and continue working with somebody who thinks she’s always right? And who will eventually win that competition?

The author’s inspiration for her thought-provoking, humorous debut book came after spending a year as a journalist writing about food waste, so she really knows and feels strongly about waste and sustainability. Alongside these themes though she explores the personal journey of her chief protagonist, Laurie, as she learns what real friendship means.
(Also included are some beauty recipes, and ‘top tips’ from Laurie on how to avoid wasting food.)

Strongly recommend for upper KS2 readers and those around Laurie’s age just finding their feet at secondary school.

Murder on the Safari Star

Murder on the Safari Star
M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Pagnelli
Macmillan Children’s Books

Tickets ready? Then climb aboard the Safari Star.

Harrison Beck is somewhat underwhelmed when he receives his Christmas present from his Uncle Nat until he discovers that the small tin contains more than just the sticks of charcoal. Inside too is a train ticket: at half term he and his uncle are going to South Africa for the trip of a lifetime all the way from Pretoria to Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia in a luxury train.

So begins another fast-paced, twisting turning, hold on to your seats adventure.

Aboard the train are a host of interesting characters from various parts of the world and even before they’ve departed Hal has made friends with Winston the son of the train’s safari guide; with him is Chipo, Winston’s yellow mongoose. There’s one passenger that almost everyone takes an instant dislike to, that’s Mervyn Crosby, an extremely rude character who boasts about having heads of four of the Big Five animals on his wall and lacking only the rhino. He also says he’s brought his rifle along – which is strictly prohibited.

No sooner is the journey under way than the two boys are off exploring the entire train and finding out what they can about their fellow passengers.

But then one of them meets with a terrible accident – or is it? At any rate there’s a fatality aboard and almost everybody is under suspicion.

Before you can say ‘rhino horns’ Hal, his uncle and Winston are investigating a mystery and it’s one that has to be solved before the train reaches the Zambian border.. It’s as well Hal has brought along his essential equipment – his sketch pad and drawing tools. He’ll certainly need to make full use of his wits, his observation skills and his powers of deduction in this life and death conundrum that involves poisonous snakes, 

hidden compartments, smuggling and more. And, there is time to see some incredible wildlife such as a rhino, zebras, elephants and impalas too. I loved the conservation element of the story.

Once again Elisa Paganelli’s illustrations are superb.

How To Be a Hero / The Broken Leg of Doom

How To Be a Hero
Cat Weldon, illustrated by Kate Kear
Macmillan Children’s Books

Life as a trainee Valkyrie is not going at all well for young Lotta; she’s in danger of remaining forever stuck in the lowest class. Matters get even worse when the trainees are sent out to bring back a fallen warrior.

Mistaking young Whetstone, an unconscious viking thief as a fallen hero, Lotta carries him back up to Valhalla, and that’s where the real trouble starts. Live humans are not allowed in Valhalla.

Whetstone, a human who wants only to prove himself and achieve fame and fortune, has let himself be talked into crime. He steals, hides and loses a precious talking cup – a cup that trickster Loki desperately wants and will go to any lengths to get hold of.

Now anxious to make amends, Whetstone and Lotta have to try and work together as they embark on a journey to find the cup before Loki.

There’s even more trouble for the pair though when they manage to lose a crucial Dwarf harp as well as rousing a slumbering dragon.

Now Whetstone really MUST pull out all the stops and prove himself a hero after all. Can he do so; and does Lotta finally manage to move on from being that class three trainee?

This is a highly entertaining, fast-paced romp with some crazy situations, fun and interesting characters, dragons and more. Kate Kear’s zany illustrations are just right for the playful telling. This book will surely appeal especially to youngsters with an interest in mythology. but anyone who likes a good yarn should give it a go. It’s the first of a trilogy so look out for further episodes involving Whetstone et al.

The Broken Leg of Doom
Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham
Nosy Crow

This the tenth story in the hilarious series, is narrated by Maisie’s friend Izzy. Maisie has broken her leg doing some ‘extreme dancing’ and is taken to hospital.

That in itself is bad but things are about to get even worse, starting with the fact that following e-rays, Maisie is sent to ward 13 and she’s terrified of that particular number.
Enter (he’s actually already a patient), a rather strange boy Seb, who sits down beside the sleeping Maisie’s bed and starts going on about a curse. Talk about weird. But that’s only the start of the strange events in ward 13.

Later Seb says that the curse has now sneaked inside Maisie’s cast and is causing problems. That however isn’t all we hear of curses, but there are other strange things too: somehow the sprinklers get turned on, flooding – you can guess which ward. And what about the ’mummy’ that’s roaming around. By this time it seems that only Maisie among the children isn’t talking of THE CURSE.

Then a certain very special cuddly toy suddenly goes missing, followed not long after, by the appearance of creepy messages on Maisie’s cast.

Oh yes, there’s some weird shenanigans concerning the sandwich trolley too.

Will Maisie and her pals ever get to the bottom of all the mysterious events and break that terrible curse once and for all. It’s certainly going to need some outstanding investigative skills.

Pamela Butchart capitalises on the vivid imagination of children, allowing her group of young characters to get carried away – just take a look at their expressions in Thomas Flintham’s wacky drawings in this zany adventure. It’s assuredly one that will have both individual readers and primary class listeners laughing out loud.

Board Books for Christmas

Who Said Merry Christmas?
Becky Davies and Yi-Hsuan Wu
Little Tiger

Ho Ho Ho! comes the mystery voice, but who spoke the words? Was it Penguin? Feel the tactile soft tummy (it gives a clue), lift the flap and discover the owner of the jolly utterance. Do similar for the “Tweet!”, the “Roar!”, the “Merry Christmas!” greeting and lastly, respond to the final question above the mirror.
Hide-and-seek fun for the very youngest, engagingly illustrated in Yi-Hsuan Wu’s jolly scenes of Penguin, Mrs Claus, Snowman and Reindeer and the characters hidden beneath the four flaps.

Can’t See Santa!
Mandy Archer and Chris Jevons
Little Tiger

It’s Christmas Eve and all is ready but where oh where is Santa? That’s what the little mouse asks as he searches everywhere both inside the house, and outdoors in the snowy garden where at least there should be signs of Santa’s sled. Then back indoors again the tiny creature’s so downhearted he can’t even face a nibble of his carrot let alone the seasonal fare spread out on the table. Worse still is the complete lack of a single present beside the sparkling tree. Has Santa forgotten our little rodent friend? So miserable does he feel that Mouse heads off to his attic bed. But there’s something he doesn’t know and that’s not revealed until the final flap in Chris Jevons’ festively detailed sequence of story-telling pictures is opened. Mandy Archer’s rhyming couplets tell the tale from Mouse’s viewpoint on the bottom stair, in snow-filled garden, on the table, beneath the Christmas tree or in his bed. With several flaps to explore and assist mouse in his search on every spread, little ones will delight in the hunt and the secret that they might or might not, already know about.

Peas on Earth
Jonny Marx and Lindsey Sagar
Little Tiger

The five little peas in their pod can barely contain themselves so full of festive cheer are they feeling. Indeed, one by one the small spherical objects pop out io their case so great is their excitement once that Christmas wreath is attached to the door. So, we have four left to help decorate the tree one of which needs to get the star bringing their number to three enjoying the view outdoors. Santa’s grotto isn’t too far so off goes another and so on till atop the tree sits just one. It’s she that will delight in the appearance of a pair of booted feet before a special delivery is made and there’s something for them all. HURRAH!
A fun-filled yuletide countdown to share with the very young who will love poking their fingers into the die-cut circles, as well as following the frolics of the peas described in Jonny Marx’s rhyming text and shown in Lindsey Sagar’s jolly seasonal scenes.

My Magical Snowman
illustrated by Yujin Shin
Campbell Books

Oh dear! Santa’s sleigh – so the elves say – is in need of a quick repair before he can start on his delivery round. So who can they call upon to help? Snowman seems willing once his door has been opened (move the slider) and off they all go whooshing over the frozen lake and whizzing down the slippery slope (2 more sliders). Then with a touch of the snowman’s magic, it’s up and away for Santa “Ho, Ho Ho-ing” on his sleigh as he bids all his helpers a “Merry Christmas”.
Simple, satisfying and lots of fun – both in the manipulating of the sliders and the rhyming text that accompanies the chilly wintry scenes of elvish frolics and willing assistance.

Dear Santa
Rod Campbell
Macmillan Children’s Books

This is a board book version of Rod Campbell’s Christmas classic which, almost unbelievably, is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Yes, it’s that enormously engaging sharing of a letter to Santa requesting something special for Christmas and what the old man does and thinks as he wraps up all manner of not quite right gifts before, on Christmas Eve, he decides upon the one that’s just right and much appreciated by the letter writer.
A Christmas must if you have a toddler.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas
Alex T. Smith
Macmillan Children’s Books

Creator of the wonderful Claude books, Alex T. Smith presents a comical sparkling new take on the seasonal classic song. Herein the narrator is a stylish young miss and ‘my true love’ has been replaced by a generous grandma. To call her merely generous might be somewhat inaccurate for despite starting off relatively sensibly – the partridge in a pear tree on day one, the two turtle doves along with the partridge in its tree on day two but by day five things have begun to get a tad out of hand,

and thereafter, particularly from day seven things are completely crazy …

And as for that final twelfth day gift, I’ll leave you that to discover what it is and how it’s received … I’m pretty sure it’ll make you splutter; I certainly did!

There’s some delicious alliteration, and

an abundance of visual hilarity – heaven help the post-person who has to deliver all that lot. Alternatively titled ‘Grandma is Overly Generous’ is most definitely no exaggeration (unless the grandma in question happens to be giving a copy of this book; in that case, she’s perfectly generous.)

Tinsel / Santa Gets A Second Job

Tinsel
Sibéal Pounder
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Poem for Every Winter Day

A Poem for Every Winter Day
edited by Allie Esiri
Macmillan Children’s Books

I’m still relishing my daily reading of A Poem for Every Autumn Day as I start writing this review of Allie Esiri’s latest selection, the first month of which is December. The riches herein take us through, with two offerings per day, to the end of February, by which time one hopes, we’ll have a spring selection.

As in the previous book, Allie prefaces each of her selected poems with a brief introductory, background paragraph linking it to the date on which it appears.

You’ll surely find some of your favourites and take delight in making some new discoveries too: I was excited to find a fair few that were new to me and lots of familiar ones both traditional and new, from Coleridge to Wendy Cope and Robert Louis Stevenson to Benjamin Zephaniah.

Ist December remembers and celebrates Rosa Parks and all she stood for, with a poem by Joseph Coelho, and another by Jan Dean, both superb; also on the theme of Black American experience is Maya Angelou’s very powerful Still I Rise that follows straight after.

Wearing my teacher hat, I was enormously moved especially to discover spoken word artist, George Mpanga’s (aka George the Poet) The Ends of the Earth. It begins ‘A child is not a portion of an adult. It’s not a partial being. /A child is an absolute person, / An entire life.’ And concludes ‘Go to the ends of the Earth, for children.’ Equally moving and as pertinent now as when W. H. Auden wrote it in 1939 is Refugee Blues chosen here for 10th December which is Human Rights Day.

Inevitably snow features several times: there’s Brian Patten’s Remembering Snow that talks of the transformative effect on a little residential street and Snow in the Suburbswherein Thomas Hardy highlights its effects on animals. Then as expected there are a number of poems celebrating aspects of Christmas both secular and religious.

Strangely, three consecutive early January choices, Sara Coleridge’s The Months, A.A. Milne’s Lines Written by a Bear of Very Little Brain and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Robert Frost) are poems I’ve learned by heart and can still recite – the first at primary school, the second at around the same age, at home, and the third at the beginning of secondary school.

What more uplifting way than Edward Thomas’ Thaw to look forward to the coming of Spring: ‘ Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed / The speculating rooks at their nests cawed / And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass, / What we below could not see, Winter pass.’

This superb seasonal celebration is an ideal companion for dark chilly evenings and bright days too, to read alone and to share with the family.

Coming to England

Coming to England
Floella Benjamin and Diane Ewen
Macmillan Children’s Books

In a colourful autobiographical picture book story of her own life and that of her family, Floella Benjamin celebrates the Windrush Generation, many of whom have been so badly treated as a consequence of our government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy.

It’s a beautifully written and illustrated account of the move from her childhood home in Trinidad

to England, undertaken first by her Dardie and then a year later by her Marmie and two siblings; then finally Floella and her remaining two brothers.

This new version will surely open the eyes of young children to long voyages undertaken during the middle of the twentieth century, by many, many families from Caribbean Islands who came to England. Certainly it was a shock in so many ways, not least being the cold and greyness in stark contrast to the vibrancy and warmth of Trinidad.

It still hurts to read of the treatment she and her brothers and sisters initially received from other children when they started at school in London;

but the book ends on a happy upbeat note with Floella receiving recognition for all the incredible work she has done for children.

Apart from one or two scenes of England, Diane Ewen’s mixed media illustrations are aglow with rich colours that really make the images come to life on the page.

The way to overcome adversity is through courage and determination: Baroness Floella’s life is an inspiring example of this, and it’s fantastic to see a version of her life story for a younger audience than her earlier 2016 memoir.

All KS1 classrooms need this special book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another winner from Lou Treleaven, Jasper et al.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Poem for Every Autumn Day

A Poem for Every Autumn Day
ed. Allie Esiri
Macmillan Children’s Books

Allie Esiri has selected 61 autumnal poems for this terrific poetry collection to take readers through from 1st September to 30th November.

For this poetry-loving reviewer much of it was a trip down memory lane, some of which, including Christina Rossetti’s Who Has Seen the Wind?, William Blake’s The Tiger, Someone Came Knocking (Walter de la Mare) and Leigh Hunt’s Abou Ben Adhem took me right back to my primary school days when I learned them by heart.

I’m back in my secondary classroom with my English teacher reading us Edward Thomas’ Digging, Hardy’s Drummer Hodge, Betjeman’s Diary of a Church Mouse and Robert Frost’s The Runaway with that beautiful soft Welsh lilt to her voice.

Then I’m up on the stage in my final year at the same school performing those lines from Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.

Some of my favourite poems are included: there’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 ; and Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken; I can think of no better way to start October than with that.

It’s great to discover new things too.
Surprisingly I’d not comes across John Agard’s terrific poem about bullying, The Hurt Boy and the Birds, beginning ‘The hurt boy talked to the birds / and fed them the crumbs of his heart’ , the final lines of which are, ‘But the hurt boy talked to the birds /and their feathers gave him welcome – // Their wings taught him new ways to become.’

Bang up to date is Michaela Morgan’s Malala: the opening verses  are: ‘A girl with a book. A girl with a book. / That’s what has scared them – / A girl with a book. // They get on to the bus. / They call out my name. They aim. And they fire. / A shot to the brain.’

I was greatly moved by all the war poems chosen for November, and by James Berry’s Benediction, also new to me, that goes like this:
‘Thanks to the ear / that someone may hear // Thanks for seeing / that someone may see // Thanks for feeling / that someone may feel // Thanks for touch / that someone may be touched // Thanks to flowering of white moon / and spreading shawl of black night / holding villages and cities together’

Reminding us of the way smell and taste can bring back long forgotten memories, Crab Apples (Imtiaz Dharker) is another exciting discovery for me: ‘My mother picked crab apples / off the Glasgow apple trees / and pounded them with chillies / to change / her homesickness / into green chutney.’

Much as I really don’t want the summer to end, this treat of a book will assuredly help me feel my way through the shortening daylight hours as I read A Poem for Every Autumn Day.

The Little War Cat

The Little War Cat
Hiba Noor Khan and Laura Chamberlain
Macmillan Children’s Books

This story was inspired by a real man ‘the cat man of Aleppo’, Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, a truly kind individual who set up a sanctuary that became home to hundreds of cats in his home city after his family left for safety.

It became a place not only for the cats; adults young and not so young also came ‘to help and play, making it a place of love and hope for everyone’. So Hiba tells readers in a note at the end of her story, a story that begins with a little grey cat living a contented life in Aleppo. But that was before the war which brought with it terrible changes including those tramping big boots and a lack of food for the little cat .

As time passes, the scared creature kept to the shadows, his hunger inceasing.

Then one day she sees someone different – a gentle, soft spoken person – and she follows him until almost at the point of exhaustion, they reach somewhere safe and she hides herself away till the kind man sees her, feeds her and stays with her the entire night.

The following morning restored and sated, the grateful cat notices something and she knows just what to do … It’s time to pay forwards the kindness she’d been shown.

Hiba Noor Khan and Laura Chamberlain together show the transformational effect of kindness; something the author writes of in relation to the war in Syria, but it’s also something that many of us have discovered during the pandemic.

Attack of the Heebie Jeebies / A Case of the Jitters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next for Erika in Dreamteam story 3?

The Monsters of Rookhaven

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

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

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

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

There are monsters,

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

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

and his Flowers of Divine Lapsidy are truly horrifying.

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

Just One of Those Days

Just One of Those Days
Jill Murphy
Macmillan Children’s Books

Four decades on from their first picture book appearance in the now classic Peace at Last, the adorable Mr and Mrs Bear and Baby Bear return for a third story. It begins with a late awakening Mr and Mrs Bear leaping out of bed and preparing for work, leaving Baby Bear to his dinosaur dream.

Once awake though, the little one has to get ready for nursery, a particularly protracted process on this occasion and then it’s raining, all of which means that Baby arrives late at Nursery. It’s no surprise when he’s reluctant to go in but a story does the trick and off comes his coat.

Then there are problems over a dinosaur toy but Baby Bear isn’t the only member of his family whose day doesn’t go well.

Mrs Bear sits on her glasses; Mr Bear spills coffee all over some important papers – and that’s only the morning’s mishaps.

Afternoon nursery continues to be a trial

and by the end of the session it’s a very sleepy Baby Bear that greets his Mum before they walk home through the rain.

Back indoors, the two get themselves togged out in their PJs just in time for Mr Bear’s return. Not only is he carrying a large pizza box but he also has a carrier bag containing a special surprise for Baby Bear.

Then it’s time to share that delicious pizza and exchange a few comments about their respective days, which Mr Bear aptly sums up with the title line.

As wonderfully warm as ever, this is another tour de force for Jill Murphy; a celebration of a loving family and a story that parents, carers and little ones will immediately relate to.

A must have for family bookshelves and early years collections.

Hello Friend! / Bunny Braves the Day

Hello Friend!
Rebecca Cobb
Macmillan Children’s Books

It’s the mismatch between what is said by the small girl narrator and what is shown in Rebecca Cobb’s enchanting, warm illustrations that make this book such a winner.

From the start the girl enthusiastically shares everything during playtime both indoors and out, at lunchtime, during quiet times and noisy ones.

What is evident though is that the boy on whom she focuses all this sharing attention is going to take much longer to feel ready to share in the well-intentioned advances of the little girl.
However, a friendship does develop …

and it’s one where both parties are equally enthusiastic about their togetherness.

This is a gorgeous story to share with youngsters especially those starting school; it offers plenty to reflect on and talk about, both at home and in the classroom.

Bunny Braves the Day
Suzanne Bloom
Boyds Mills Press

It’s Bunny’s first day of school but he wants nothing of it: he doesn’t know anybody, supposes nobody likes him; his socks are too short, his shorts too long and he can’t tie his shoes. Oh woe!

Big sister cajoles him with plenty of empathy and ideas,

but with a hurting tummy, it’s decided … ‘I’d better not go … Because I don’t even know how to read!’

After more loving comments, ‘Sometimes you just feel like crying before you feel like trying. You’ll find a friend. Not all shoes use laces. And teachers love to teach reading…’ and listing things little bro. CAN do, he’s almost ready to surrender but not before one last try, ‘Mom will miss me.’ (Said parent has uttered not a word in all this, though she does take a photo).

Finally, it’s time to face up to the inevitable and once more it’s down to big sis. to deliver the final upbeat reassurance at the classroom entrance.

The entire text takes the form of the dialogue between the bunny siblings –blue for the new boy and red for older sister; while Suzanne Bloom’s watercolour and pencil illustrations highlight the feelings of the two characters beautifully.

Just right to share with little ones, especially in families where there’s likely to be starting school nerves; or with children in a nursery setting.

New in Town

New in Town
Marta Altés
Macmillan Children’s Books

Despite its shaggy dog narrator, Marta Altés latest book is anything but a shaggy-dog story.

After a long and tiring journey, said narrator, in search of a new home, arrives at a large town.

After asking around and looking in lots of places, and in spite of all the wonderful sights, sounds and smells, he still hasn’t found anywhere that feels just right.

The people are a delight despite their rather different ways of doing things

but everyone seems just too busy, and nobody can understand, or perhaps even see the home seeker

untll the dog has a chance encounter with a little girl who is lost and wants to go home.

As they look for the child’s home together, the feelings of loneliness (the dog’s) and of being lost (the child’s) grow less

but then it’s time to say goodbye – or is it?

Warm and funny – the illustrations especially – this tale of kindness, friendship and accommodating differences needs to be read several times to appreciate all that’s going on in Marta’s splendid scenes of bustling city life.