Where Seagulls Dare / Agent Asha: Operation Cyber Chop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narwhal The Arctic Unicorn

Narwhal the Arctic Unicorn
Justin Anderson and Jo Weaver
Walker Books

Stunning illustrations by Jo Weaver grace every page of this awe inspiring narrative information book written by Planet Earth 11 producer Justin Anderson who, with the help of his team, captured the first aerial footage of narwhal migration for the Nature’s Great Events documentary.

The book takes readers to the frozen Arctic inviting them to dive down deep into the icy waters and follow some narwhals aka ‘toothed whales’, relations of killer whales and dolphins. I was previously unaware that it’s mostly males that grow the characteristic long, sensitive tusk suggesting their possible use as a display tool for attracting females.

In the murky waters we see right up close one narwhal that has reached its half century, chasing a massive flatfish for food.

We also follow the entire pod as the journey north continues for hundreds of miles and are shown the incredible jousting behaviour, that it’s been suggested might be to determine which male is in charge.

For the females, it’s time many miles further on, to pause their journey and having carried their babies inside for a whole year, to give birth. The calves then spend between two and three years with their mothers, after which time the young males grow a small tusk; one that will eventually grow more than two metres long; the occasional one perhaps becoming a ‘double tusker’ a phenomenon new to me.

Eventually the pod reaches its High Arctic Island destination where the sun has warmed the sea and melted most of the ice. That’s where a calf will grow rapidly, thanks to its mother’s milk. Sometimes however predatory killer whales may have tracked a pod and guided by that old narwhal, they have to escape to a safe hiding place. September heralds the end of summer when once again it’s time to move and the pod’s long journey south begins.

After the narrative is a page giving facts about the future of these wonderful animals, now sadly threatened by climate change and humans encroaching on their habitat. Other backmatter gives some websites giving more information on how to help secure narwhals a safe future as well as an index.

A must have for anyone who cares about the ‘Arctic unicorns’.

Ready for Spaghetti

Ready for Spaghetti
Michael Rosen, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
Walker Books

Michael Rosen’s consummate skill at creating rhymes that small children and indeed grown ups find irresistible, is legendary. He knows so well the importance of rhyme, rhythm and repetition in crafting playful compositions as demonstrated in every one of the thirty plus rhymes in this terrific book, joyfully illustrated by Polly Dunbar.

It takes youngsters through the day as they embrace those commonplace routines turning them into opportunities for spontaneous creativity and imaginative play. Whether its looking at a reflection in the mirror, rushily brushily cleaning teeth and whoosh, whoosh, whooshing and sploshy sploosh-ing in the bathroom, breakfasting on an eggy with a plate of bready soldiers, dancing with delight ( sporting a rather over-size pair of shoes), or with a pal perhaps; taking a break to talk to the sun or address a balloon, the delight – mostly – of the child participant is evident in Polly’s picture of same.

These small children, (like those I’ve taught over the years) love to converse with tiny creatures as they do in Bumblebee and Butterfly and Snail. The bumblebee one, the first verse of which is : ‘Bumblebee rumble, / Bumblebee tumble, / Buzzy Bee bumble … / Give me apple crumble!’ takes me back to Russian poet Kornei Chukovsky’s words in his seminal work, From Two to Five wherein he called young children linguistic geniuses.

No matter where you open this book you’ll find words and pictures you will love to share, be that with a class, or at home, at any time and preferably as many times as possible through the day. Don’t miss out on the opportunity: get a copy of this beautiful book. Later on those same children will pick it up and they will delight in reading it aloud to you. They’ll likely want to invent their own songs, and create word pictures and colourful drawings as well.

The Secret Wild

The Secret Wild
Alex Evelyn, illustrated by George Ermos
Walker Books

How super to have an adventure that revolves around plants.

Ten year old Fern Featherstone is, according to her father, an overly curious child. She has spent most of her time travelling the world with her botanist parents and has accrued a fair bit of information about plants, many of which she talks to, but her father disapproves of non-theoretical knowledge. As the story begins, Fern and her parents are in the Amazonian rainforest; but after a mishap her parents decide to send her to London to live with Uncle Ned: after all she’s never had a friend or been to school like other children her age. This is something about which Fern is far from happy; but then on the plane, she finds herself unexpectedly in possession of a strange small plant – one that can understand her – her very first friend.

Once at Uncle Ned’s, she learns of strange happenings in London’s public places: a spate of unusual plants appearing from nobody knows where, growing destructively large, disrupting people’s lives and even causing seismic tremors. The following morning, feeling uprooted Fern wanders into the city, meets neighbour and plant phobic Woody. But when her plant – she’s named it Special – starts getting weaker, she only has this strange boy to ask for help to locate the botanist woman from whom she acquired it.

It’s not long before Fern discovers that this woman – Oleander, as she tells Fern to call her – has nightmarish plans and that her so called ‘green revolution’ must be stopped before time runs out.

There are so many things to love about this debut novel: the main protagonist who lives life on her terms, her lovable author Uncle Ned whose main skill apart from writing is toast-making; Fern’s friend in need, jigsaw-puzzle loving Woody, the way in which both scientific knowledge and London landmarks are woven into the story, the use of plant names for many of the characters, not forgetting that botanist turned villain and the whole thing is sprinkled with humour. With a fab. cover by George Ermos whose plant drawings grow around each new chapter page, it’s a book that will wind its tendrils around you and not unfurl them until you reach the end.

The Wondrous Prune / Orla and the Magpie’s Kiss

The Wondrous Prune
Ellie Clements
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

This is a terrific, heartwarming story of family love, finding your inner strength and remaining positive against the odds.

Eleven year old Prune, a talented artist, her mum and older brother Jesse, have recently moved into the house Prune’s mum inherited from her parents. It’s on the other side of town and so the siblings are facing the challenge of new schools and a new location. Jesse though, is still hanging out with his friend Bryce, a very bad influence on him- a friendship her mother was hoping would be severed by the move.
Prune really misses her best friend Corinne and at her new school are a group of bullies – the Vile-let girls. The sadness and anxiety Prune feels on account of these things act as catalyst for the fantasy element of the story: every time she’s beset by one of these feelings vivid colours swirl inexplicably before her eyes. Moreover if she focuses on her feelings as she draws, her images come to life. Seemingly this girl has an unlikely superpower and sometimes it lands her in trouble; in school for instance and it certainly alarms her mum when she finds out, demanding that her daughter keep it under wraps.

Meanwhile saving Prune from complete misery is the kindness shown by classmate, Doug, a previous victim of the Vile-lets’ bullying. Then there’s that legend of the Delmere Magic. It’s not long however, before Prune discovers that her brother is getting into deeper trouble on account of Bryce and she realises that she just can’t keep her power hidden. Perhaps if she can learnt to harness it, she might be able to save her brother from an increasingly toxic relationship, deal with those bullying her and restore harmony at home.

Ellie Clements’ wonderful blend of fantasy and realism has at its heart the healing power of creativity and will keep readers turning the pages as they root for the Wondrous Prune. I suspect they will also be intrigued by the boy on the bus Prune notices near the end of the book.

Orla and the Magpie’s Kiss
C.J. Haslam
Walker Books

Here’s another eco-themed adventure following on from Orla and the Serpent’s Curse.
Orla Perry, her Jack Russell dog Dave and her two brothers Tom and Richard are holidaying in Norfolk, staying with their eccentric Great Uncle Valentine. “We’re going to die of boredom,” is Tom’s prediction when they arrive at his place of residence but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Orla has recently discovered her witchy powers but it’s been agreed, no magical witchy stuff from her: this will be a normal holiday; nonetheless, Orla has taken her gwelen along.

Although not on the lookout for trouble, Orla soon learns that the beautiful ancient Anna’s Wood is about to be bulldozed for shale gas by a company called GasFrac.

Despite warnings from her uncle not to venture anywhere near, early next morning she just has to investigate; and she certainly doesn’t like what she finds. Impossible as it might be, the natural magic of the wood has disappeared: seemingly something sinister is afoot. Moreover, Orla rescues a magpie from a trap receiving a nasty gash on her face in the process.

Back at Uncle Valentine’s, she’s told that a magpie’s ‘kiss’ will show what fate has in store and then she dreams of GasFrac’s destruction of the wood’s animals. However all the local people seem convinced that the energy company’s promises of a new shopping centre and country park, either that or sheer indifference. It seems everyone has sold their souls to GasFrac, including the postmistress and local witch. But why the change of heart on the part of the erstwhile protesters? As she starts investigating, Orla soon finds distrust and even dislike for herself and Uncle Valentine. Digging deeper, she begins to suspect there’s dark magic involved here. Then she meets the person behind GasFrac and discovers the truth about his evil intentions …

With magic and mayhem, witches, wizards, ravens and a key role played by Dave, not to mention a ‘not buried’ dead cat, and liberal sprinklings of wry humour, this increasingly fast-paced book will grip readers , right to the final page.

Snakes on a Train / Maisy Goes on a Nature Walk

Snakes on a Train
Kathryn Dennis
Walker Books

The sibilant sounds of the hissing train and slithering snakes takes little ones and their readers aloud on a playful railway journey with a group of scaly reptiles. Having handed over their tickets and boarded the train, with the safety checks duly completed, the passengers find themselves encountering such things as a runaway pig on the track, a dark tunnel, a high hill, and a tall bridge before finally reaching their destination just before it’s time to find their dens and have some shuteye.

A fun sharing book illustrated in simple concrete colours and silhouette shapes: tinies will love hissing along to those snakes and that sound of the train.

Maisy Goes on a Nature Walk
Lucy Cousins
Walker Books

With her bag duly packed, Maisy meets her friends Tallulah , Charley, Cyril and Eddie for a nature walk in the park. There’s lots to see such as dragonflies flitting above and in which tadpoles and fish swim; woodland animals peeping out from between the trees, many of which are filled with noisy birds. Maisy gets close to the earth to hunt for minibeasts …

before they all stop beside the hives all abuzz with bees in the wildflower garden where Cyril gets out his magnifying glass for a closer look at those little creatures that live around the flowers. Finally comes what all children love to do – build a den together and then have a picnic lunch.

Another bright episode in the life of every small child’s favourite mouse character that’s just right for sharing with the very young.

Who Jumped into the Bed? / The Best Bed for Me

Who Jumped into the Bed?
Joe Rhatigan and Julia Seal
Sunbird Books

On Julia Seal’s serene wordless opening spread we see, side by side, two adults slumbering peacefully. Then first a small girl, then her brother, followed by a cat, a drooling dog, a slithering snake, 

a host of feathered fliers and a creature with an extremely long neck all make their way into the sleeping accommodation designed for two. Finally, bump! Out falls Dad and with bleary eyes makes his way to the kitchen where he sets to work preparing a delicious-looking breakfast. Guess what: when the hoards hear that this is on offer, every single one – be they bed jumper, snucker, wanderer, bounder, slitherer, flier or neck stretcher want to partake of the feast there and then.

I’m sure many parents will recognise at least the child invasion, in Joe Rhatigan’s rhyming narrative whereas young listeners will delight in joining in with the ‘Who —- into the bed? and be amused at the growing number of intruders that so innocently worm their way under the covers.

The Best Bed for Me
Gaia Cornwall
Walker Books

It’s bedtime for Sweet Pea – so says mama – but seemingly this little one wants to delay sleeping. Making imaginative demands of the animal kind – a koala high up in a tree, a puffin tucked into a burrow, 

a bat that dangles from a branch for instance – the child attempts, in between Mama’s efforts with the bedcovers, to emulate the creatures named.

Having gone through a fair number of creature possibilities together with their ways of sleeping, Sweet Pea eventually comes to the conclusion that a “big-kid bed, with a soft pillow and a fluffy blanket … is the best bed for me.” At last it’s time to bid goodnight to a patient, understanding Mama and snuggle down for the night.

In her pencil and watercolour, digitally finished illustrations, Gaia Cornwall shows another female caregiver with a baby affectionately watching Sweet Pea’s stalling tactics. 

There’s a gentle soporific feel to both Gaia’s visuals and telling, along with gentle humour, making this a playful, tender bedtime tale with added animal antics.

Pearly and Pig and the Great Hairy Beast / The Giant’s Necklace

Pearly and Pig and the Great Hairy Beast
Sue Whiting
Walker Books

Ten year old Pearly Woe is an inveterate worrier; her chief worry being that she’ll never be brave enough or sufficiently clear thinking to become a member of The Adventurologists’ Guild, a group of stealth adventurers founded by her Grandpa. However she does have talents: she’s a multi-linguist and can even speak animal languages, most importantly with her unlikely pet, Pig.

Quite suddenly she finds herself with very big worries: her parents have gone missing and Pig is pig-napped. After an encounter with villainous Ms Emmeline Woods, Pearly becomes a stowaway on an icebreaker bound for Antarctica, transporting readers along too on a dangerous rescue mission: but then she discovers Ms Woods is actually in charge of the Might Muncher. She also discovers that her parents are not as she first thought, on the ship.

Fortunately for the girl, numbered among his skills, Pig has a finely-tuned snout that can sniff out all forms of trouble; he’s also bold, brave and helps to keep Pearly relatively calm and focussed on the task in hand – and trotter. What a great, albeit unlikely, team they make.

What exactly is Ms Woods’ purpose in undertaking this trip; what is her interest in finding the Great Hairy Beast?

With danger at every turn – next in the form of an Antarctic blizzard – Pearly must muster every possible bit of courage, bravery and initiative if she’s to have any chance of saving the Great Hairy Beast, her parents and a displaced animal.

I shivered my way through every twist and turn of this thrilling, pig-pun scattered, adventure – the first of a new series – with its engaging protagonist and splendidly quirky sidekick – unable to pause until I reached the rules, guidelines, survival tips and ways to survive a sticky situation for Young Adventurologists at the end of the story.

The Giant’s Necklace
Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Briony May-Smith
Walker Books

This is a small masterpiece, a ghost story and an adventure about eleven year old Cherry, on holiday with her family. During her time away, Cherry has been collecting cowrie seashells to make a necklace fit for a giant; the trouble is giants’ necks are very large and an awful lot of shells are required. Now it’s the final day of the holiday and despite her mother urging her to leave her creation as it is, (5,325 shells in all) Cherry is determined to add more before they leave the following morning. 

With her mum’s permission, off she goes to the beach to continue her search. So engrossed does she become though that she fails to notice the huge black clouds rolling in and the increasing size of the waves. Now the tale becomes much darker, for Cherry becomes cut off from the cove and at the mercy of the violent Atlantic waves. Her only way of escaping to safety is to climb the steep rock face: can she do that and what of the shells she’s risked life and limb to collect? Then she remembers the mine tunnels her father had spoken of – definitely worth a try. Increasing eeriness now pervades the events as Cherry encounters spirit people and then comes the final shocking twist …

Thrilling and tense with powerful word images and an important message about safety beside the sea; and beautifully illustrated by Briony May Smith who captures the tension perfectly, 

readers cannot help but root for Cherry all the way, hoping for the best but perhaps, fearing the worst.

Thanks to Walker Books for sending these smashing books for review.

Smile Out Loud / Marshmallow Clouds

Smile Out Loud
Joseph Coelho and Daniel Gray-Barnett
Wide Eyed Editions

I’m sure that like me, many others have in the past couple of years of mandatory mask wearing in so many places, wondered how to show somebody that we are giving them a smile. Perhaps if I’d had a copy of Smile Out Loud then I could have performed one of Joseph’s 25 ‘happy poems’ poems in a shop or elsewhere. I wonder what the reaction would have been to The Dinosaur way of walking funny, which is to Pull your trousers up / as far as they will go, / stick your bottom out / and walk like a chicken / … But instead of clucking – / … let yourself roar! / Like a dinosaur, / … a roar dinosaur! Then there’s The Ballerina way that involves a turn, a spin, a leap followed by Plié! Plié! Petit / Jeté / flutter and glide / the day away.

I’m always plugging the power of the imagination so I really like Imagination Running Free where the instructions are to tell the audience for a read aloud of this poem to close their eyes and imagine the scenarios presented by Imagine your legs / are two conker trees! Imagination running free. // Imagine your knees / are stripy like bees! / Imagination running free. // Imagine you’re running with / toes wet / legs wooden / knees stripy! I love too how Daniel Gray-Barnett has clearly let his imagination run free for this accompanying illustration. 

There are poems to read and act out in a group, one or two to inspire readers to create poems of their own, a funny one that uses spoonerisms and lots more besides. Certainly you should find something to help cheer up not only yourself but those who hear the tongue-twisters, riddles and giggle inducers. So, get a copy for home or school and spread a little sunshine thanks to Joseph’s words and Daniel’s lively, inclusive illustrations.

Marshmallow Clouds
Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek, illustrated by Richard Jones
Walker Books

Subtitled ‘Poems Inspired by Nature’, this is a dreamlike, often pensive collection of thirty poems, each a beautiful word picture placed under one of four elemental section headings: Fire, Water, Air, Earth and all intended, as Kooser says in his afterword, to “encourage you to run with your own imagination, to enjoy what you come up with.”

Being a tree person I was immediately drawn to Trees, the final four lines of which are:
They don’t ask for much, a good rain now and then,
and what they like most are the sweet smells
of the others, and the warm touch of the light,
and to join the soft singing that goes on and on
Beautiful words and equally beautiful art by Richard Jones, whose illustration here reminded me so much of one of the places where I pause to sit on my walk and look up at the surrounding understory.

Tadpole too is a poem I found great delight in reading, having recently watched a pool full /of swimming tadpoles, / the liveliest of all punctuation.

No matter where you open the book though, you will find something that’s a joy to read aloud again, and again; something thoughtful and thought-provoking, something likely to make you look at things around you differently. What more can one ask?

Ghostcloud / The Treasure Under the Jam Factory

Michael Mann
Hodder Children’s Books

This is a ghost story with a difference, or rather several differences. It’s set in a grim dystopian future London beneath Battersea Power Station, twelve year old Luke and numerous other kidnapped children spend their miserable lives shovelling coal, working for the iniquitous Tabitha Margate.

After two years, Luke is eager to escape and return to his family, believing his only means of so doing is to gain one of the much coveted amber tickets to freedom. Luke is not without friends in this dark place: there’s Ravi and then Jess, an optimist and plumber in the making. There’s also ghost-girl Alma, who Luke saves, another terrific character; it’s she who shows him what it is to be a ghost cloud.

It’s one crisis after another in a prodigious adventure as Luke and Jess, aided by Alma ,attempt to free themselves from the clutches of the evil Tabitha and return to their homes – something that’s even more crucial once Luke has discovered the truth of what the heinous villain is up to. Is it possible? Perhaps with some assistance from the Ghost Council Alma talks of.

Superbly plotted, full of suspense and darkness but also powerful friendships, plenty of problem-solving, hope, determination and humour. Can one ask for more? Perhaps some moments of quiet, but Michael Mann provides those too in this brilliantly inventive debut novel. I can’t wait for the follow up.

Another adventure much of which takes place below ground is:

The Treasure Under the Jam Factory
Chrissie Sains, illustrated by Jenny Taylor
Walker Books

Having dealt with An Alien in the Jam Factory, McLay’s jam factory now faces a new challenge.

With his hyperactive brain a-fizz as always, differently abled Scooter McLay (he has cerebral palsy) can barely contain his excitement at the prospect of the Grand Re-opening with all that jam-themed food ready to be served. However, horror of horrors, all of a sudden something happens that nearly freezes young Scooter’s blood: the door unexpectedly opens and there before him and his parents, stands their hostile adversary, Daffy Dodgy clutching closely Boris, her guinea pig, come to claim what she insists still belongs to her. Surely all can’t be lost at this crucial moment. Time to call on the contents of tiny alien, Fizzbee’s, suitcase perhaps. Either that or find enough money to pay off Daffy once and for all.
Enter resourceful Cat Pincher and she has some more horrifying news for Scooter, news that increases the urgency to find treasure. Is she to be trusted? They’ll have to take a chance on that.

All manner of weird shenanigans take place deep underground when they find themselves face to face once more with Daffy. A deal is struck but it’s not long before Scooter, Cat and Fizzbee find themselves in the stickiest of situations imaginable on account of Cat’s jam-hating Uncle Perry who is intent on sabotaging the factory. Can Scooter’s knowledge of jam possibly extricate them from this? Cat certainly thinks so …

With fun illustrations by Jenny Taylor …

this really is a yummy sequel and one likely to leave Scooter fans licking their lips at the possibility of further encounters. Meanwhile they could always try baking some of the jammy biscuits using the recipe at the back of the book.

Do Lions Hate Haircuts?

Do Lions Hate Haircuts?
Bethany Walker and Stephanie Laberis
Walker Books

Leonard might be leader of his pride and king of beasts but when it comes to haircuts, he’s just a big baby that hates even the prospect of a trim. Consequently he searches everywhere in his kingdom for an expert barber until eventually he meets Marvin mouse. Sceptical about the possibility of such a tiny creature being a hairdresser, Leonard finally decides to give him a chance. The result is a
tonsorial work of art that delights the lion so much that he allows Marvin to try out all manner of funky styles and soon the two become best friends.

All is serene in the kingdom until one day Leonard detects a familiar aroma drifting on the air and
his nose leads him, to horror of horrors, his best pal working his magic on another animal. Consequently Leonard decides to let his hair grow and grow, vowing never again to get it cut. But with the increasing growth of his hair comes increasing sadness as Leonard misses his friend. Wiser than their parent, Leonard’s cubs suggest finding Marvin and apologising for the jealous behaviour Leonard has shown but he refuses so to do.

Suddenly Leonard hears a protracted yet familiar sound

and off he dashes to the rescue only to trip and take a precipitous tumble. Happily however, despite some mild injuries Leonard saves Marvin and in so doing finally sees the error of his ways, apologising profusely to the mouse. That isn’t quite the end of the story though for Marvin’s response generates a clever idea in Leonard’s mind and results in an exciting new enterprise. Even that however isn’t quite the end for there’s a clever and fun final twist yet to come …

Hair-raising indeed is Bethany Walker’s comic story of an unlikely friendship with its themes of learning to say sorry and to share. Hilarious illustrations by Stephanie Laberis are full of dramatic moments and laugh-out-loud twists and turns. A story-time favourite in the making methinks.

A Best Friend for Bear

A Best Friend for Bear
Petr Horáček
Walker Books

As Black Bear wanders alone he decides a friend would cure his loneliness but finding one in a large forest is far from easy. Suddenly to his surprise he comes upon another creature: it’s Brown Bear and co-incidentally that bear too is searching for a friend. Brown Bear agrees to Black Bear’s suggestions that they look together and off they go, both commenting on the difficulty of their mission. The search is occasionally hazardous but exciting

and it’s good to have a fellow creature to help when needed.

After hunting unsuccessfully for a while, Brown Bear suggests they practise with each other by playing hide-and-seek. All goes well until Black Bear is unable to find Brown Bear until …

and then as they sit side by side, a realisation dawns …

Young listeners will delight in being in the know with the author about what’s coming in the two final spreads and equally will love the warmth and on-going humour of the story. Petr Horáček’s arresting, richly textured and coloured, scribbly visuals are truly gorgeous: I love too, the way the bears’ eyes say so much in their search for what’s right there in front of (or beside) them all along.

One World: 24 Hours on Planet Earth

One World: 24 Hours on Planet Earth
Nicola Davies, illustrated by Jenni Desmond
Walker Books

With the clock striking midnight, a little girl and her even littler sister leave their bedroom and take a round the world trip visiting animals large and small. 

They see elephants and lions in Zambia, baby turtles on Gahirmatha Beach in Odisha, India, 

gibbons in a Chinese nature reserve, sharks in the warm waters around the Philippines, kangaroos in one of Australia’s national parks, emperor penguins on Antarctica’s Ross Island and encounter a humpback whale near a Hawaiian island. At the same time California’s Pinnacles National Park is a-buzz with bees and hummingbirds, 

owl monkeys wake up in a forest of Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, jaguars hunt their prey in Pantanal Brazil where it’s 8pm and finally, in Southern Georgia an albatross sits huddled on her nest. 

The last stroke of midnight is the signal for the sisters to traverse land and sea while beneath them are numerous warning signs of global warming. As the first hour of Earth Day, 22nd April begins in London it’s time to reflect upon the amazing wonders the girls have seen and contemplate the multitudes of others they haven’t, in preparation to issue a rallying cry to the world; it’s time to make a difference before it’s too late. We can all help to halt climate change but the clock is ticking …

As well as celebrating our awesome planet, author Nicola and artist Jenni show the way actions of we humans are adversely affecting different ecosystems worldwide. 

Powerful words and stunning illustrations make this a must have book for families and primary school classrooms: Celebrate Earth Day 2022 by sharing it.

The Boy with Flowers in his Hair

The Boy with Flowers in his Hair
Walker Books

Whimsical, wonderful and full of heart is this latest offering from Jarvis. The narrator is a little boy who is best friends with David the boy with flowers adorning his hair. Both boys are members of a happy class with a caring teacher, Mrs Jones, and nobody show the least concern about David’s unusual hairdo, not even Mrs Jones who gets hay fever; and not even when it attracts bees or a family of birds settles there for a while. 

‘But one day something happened.’ We know not what except that a petal comes off into his friend’s hand as he waters David’s hair. David becomes quiet and uninterested in playing.

The following morning David comes to school wearing for the first time ever, a hat and he’s uncharacteristically quiet. Having removed outdoor garments as Mrs Jones’ instructs, David reveals a ‘twiggy, spiky and brittle’ head sans the remaining petals that fall once his hat is taken off.

Initially David’s classmates are somewhat unnerved and steer clear of the boy, not so his best pal however who remains close not concerned by occasional scratches. He has an idea – a very creative one

– and before long everyone else in the class is involved in project restore David’s colour.

Little by little David regains his joie de vivre and eventually his original flowers too, although his best friend keeps his box of bits and pieces just in case they’re needed ‘Because he’s my best friend, and I am his.’

In Jarvis’s painterly illustrations he shows so beautifully the changing emotions of David and his best friend as well as other members of the class. With themes of acceptance and the power of friendship, his story is a touching demonstration of kindness and supportiveness just when it’s needed. Full of messages adults will want to pass on to youngsters, this book is perfect for sharing and discussing with foundation stage classes, and with young children at home too.

Piano Fingers

Piano Fingers
Caroline Magerl
Walker Books

Adorably quirky and absolutely magical is this latest Caroline Magerl picture book.

Little Bea comes from a musical family. Her self-confident and a trifle bossy big sister, Isla, creates beautiful music on her violin (her honey fog machine) while Bea, dissatisfied with the bink, bink, bink sound she makes with her triangle, casts it aside and goes to search for something with more potential on which to express her latent talent.

What she discovers is a piano, but despite being ‘a baby mountain’ it doesn’t play the sweet music that Bea yearns for. “The world is not ready for my genius” she declares. However, up steps the encouraging Maestro Gus with his, “There are whole symphonies up those sleeves. All you have to do is …pick a key. And with a plink there comes ‘the sound of an icy tear falling from a star.”

The music swirls forth as ‘A song of winter trees spinning barley sugar clouds for springtime.’ – what a wonderfully sparkling debut. But while Maestro Gus may have helped Bea discover her talent, she subsequently sends him packing outside into the rain in the ‘moth foggy dark’.

Eventually, back indoors, the three music makers, Isla, Bea and Maestro Gus come together before the Maestro retires for the night.

Their music making will assuredly enchant young listeners to this lyrical story from a hugely talented picture book creator, whose words embody musicality and when read aloud, are as mellifluous as the sounds one imagines emanating from the sisters’ instruments.

A subtle exploration of finding one’s own talent that should act as an encouragement to children to persevere, work hard and follow their passions.

Arabic Folktales: The Three Princes of Serendip & Other Stories

Arabic Folktales: The Three Princes of Serendip & Other Stories
retold by Rodaan Al Galidi (trans. Laura Watkinson), illustrated by Geertje Aalders
Walker Books

This is a collection of stories Rodaan Al Galidi has garnered from his childhood, from history and from literature, universal stories that belong to everyone, rewritten in his own style. Through tales such as these we find the commonalities among humankind.

Having said that, it’s probably true to say that there’s something for all interests in this gorgeously illustrated offering of twenty short tales. Some feature animals: an ant and a cockroach debate whether hard work and preparation are more important than doing things that make you happy;

a group of turtles endeavour to get a visiting partridge to change his lifestyle and remain on their island always; and an arrogant rooster learns that he’s not as indispensable as he’d always thought; and, a lion, a wolf and a fox discover that they have different views about sharing their hunting spoils.

Humans too have much to learn, not least regarding perceptions: upset as a result of boys calling her ugly, a beautiful girl retreats inside her grandmother’s home. In response her grandmother tells her of a father, his son, and a donkey travelling to Baghdad. The man rode, the son walked, and people thought it was disgraceful that the father was not more caring for the boy. Hearing their comments father and son change places before reaching the next village. I’m sure you can already imagine where this story is going …
There’s a tale about finding a way to eat with a spoon three feet long (one I’ve used in school assemblies from time to time) that demonstrates the difference between merely having love on your lips and having love in your heart too.

The title page of each story has a gorgeous cut paper design surround and further beautiful illustrations, some exquisitely detailed, are woven into the fabric of every tale by the hand of Geertje Aalders. These help readers and listeners conjure up ideas of the setting the author uses for each of his tellings although in his introduction is this: ‘Feel free to change the names or to choose other flowers, waters, windows or doors. … stories are the best migrants and the finest travellers. Let these stories become your own.’ Assisting readers of English to do exactly that is Laura Watkinson the translator, who like the illustrator, lives in the Netherlands.

Ancient though folktales may be, they contain much that is relevant in today’s world and I’d wholeheartedly recommend adding this book to your shelves at home or at school.

A Good Place

A Good Place
Lucy Cousins
Walker Books

Insect friends Bee, Ladybird, Beetle and Dragonfly all set out in search of a good place to live but they all want different things. Bee desires flowers, Ladybird loves leaves, it’s dead wood for Beetle and Dragonfly wants a pond.

In turn each of them finds what seems to be the ideal place,

but all have danger or unpleasantness lurking ready to strike at any moment. 

Hungry, sick and exhausted, the friends are in despair; but then a beautiful butterfly appears and asks what is wrong. When she hears the problem, she offers to help. Might it perhaps be that what their new friend shows them could be the perfect place – somewhere that fulfils all their hopes?

What a gorgeous book: a cleverly crafted text with repetition that youngsters will love to join in with; using a vivid colour palette and bold patterns, Lucy’s portrayal of the intrepid insects will surely evoke sympathy from young readers and one hopes, inspire their own efforts to create ‘A Good Place’ for minibeasts to inhabit.

Perfect for story time sessions and for beginning readers. Definitely my favourite Lucy Cousins book for many a long day.

Chirp! / Five Little Chicks

Mary Murphy
Walker Books

As a new day begins, each bird adds its voice to the dawn chorus. The Thrush warbles, Blackbird whistles ‘Tooraloo’ and then in turn we hear a sequence of onomatopoeic contributions from the Wren, the Lark, the Finch,

the Robin, the Swallow, followed by Wagtails, a Starling, Magpies, the farmyard Goose, Duck and Hen, the Pigeon and the Cockerel.

Suddenly into the crescendo of early morning sound, from a tiny blue unnamed bird that’s been watching and waiting patiently, comes a “Hush! It’s my turn to sing.” It then adds a zippy-zippy-zippeeeeee that serves as a reminder that. ‘ … We all have something to say. / We all get to shout / for a brand new / day!’

As it is with our feathered friends, so it should be for humans: everyone deserves a chance to get his or her voice heard.
With its wealth of sounds that cry out to be echoed by little humans, this is a fun story with an important message at its heart. And what an abundance of sound/symbol associations to be enjoyed.

Five Little Chicks
Lily Murray and Holly Surplice
Templar Publishing

In Lily Murray’s version of the nursery song Five Little Ducks, she’s replaced the ducks with chicks and a Mama Hen and makes the entire text more interactive by asking after every foray over the hills, ‘Now how many chicks / can you see?’, as well as offering some seemingly irresistible bait to her offspring. It certainly has the desired effect and there’s a lovely final surprise for Mama Chick provided by her little ones.

Holly Surplice has included lots of other baby animals and their parents in her springtime illustrations of the chickens and their adventure that takes them through a flower-filled meadow, a bluebell wood, a field of gambolling lambs, a farmyard and beside the stream.

Every one of the scenes is absolutely bursting with bold images and bright colour; and ramping up the interactive nature of the book are the numerous flaps to explore on every spread.

Little humans will definitely enjoy sharing this with their own mother figures, particularly around Mother’s Day and Easter, though this is a book that youngsters will want to go back to time and again. With it’s predictable text it’s also a good one for those in the early stages of reading to try for themselves.

Mindi and the Goose No One Else Could See

Mindi and the Goose No One Else Could See
Sam McBratney and Linda Ólafsdóttir
Walker Books

Young Mindi has a night time problem; it appears in her bedroom, ‘quietly as a thought comes into your head,’ in the form of a large shadowy goose, staying as long as it wants. Neither of her parents can see it but do their best to dispel her fears.

“Well, you’ll just have to close your eyes and make it not real,” says her mother.

Concerned, her father goes off to consult a wise farmer, Austen, who lives up on the hill. He suggests that both Mindi and her dad come up to visit his farm, and when they do so, he introduces the girl to his animals, including two geese before taking her inside for a drink. Suddenly, into the kitchen strolls a young goat to which Mindi takes a great liking, naming her Black-and-Whitey. On the way home however, Mindi admits she likes the Shelling Hill geese but still insists that BIG goose isn’t nice.

About a week later, who should come to visit on a wet day but Austen, plus the goat Mindi liked.

Austen says he will give her the goat but must have something in exchange. Could that perhaps be Big Goose …
What a superbly understanding character is farmer Austen who shows such empathy towards Mindi, making her become part of the solution to dispelling her fears.

Sam McBratney’s story – a longer text than many of his other titles – is one that many young children will relate to and the ending is hugely satisfying. Linda Ólafsdóttir’s mixed media illustrations – both large and small are simply gorgeous. How well she captures the warmth of Mindi’s loving family and the rural setting of the book. Read aloud or read solo, this has much to offer young audiences.

John Agard’s Windrush Child

John Agard’s Windrush Child
John Agard and Sophie Bass
Walker Books

With a final embrace from his Gran, Windrush child waves farewell to his Caribbean home, and with his parents, boards a ship to sail across the ocean to Britain and a new life. As the blue waters roll past, the boy’s parents remember ‘story time yard and mango mornings’ as they anticipate fresh beginnings in the hope that everything will turn out all right. 

The child recalls his grandmother’s parting entreaty to remember to write as she bestows that last fond hug.

On dry land at last, as the family walk away from the ship, they feel unsure on their feet. Then once ensconced in a new home, Windrush child keeps his word, telling his grandmother in a letter about ‘stepping into history, bringing your Caribbean eye to another horizon’ her words but now winging their way back.

Meanwhile the new arrivals have much to learn about this place where so much is different and where so many challenges await. For as poet John Agard writes in his author’s note, those from the Empire Windrush and many other ships brought with them ‘Caribbean culture’ that ‘had such a powerful and positive impact on British culture’ making Britain a much better place because of them.

The author’s hugely moving, lyrical and haunting evocation of the journey families of the Windrush generation made is rendered all the more powerful by Sophie Bass’ vibrant illustrations – a vibrancy that truly reflects the richness of the contribution made by those who came.

An important book that needs to be shared as widely as possible in homes and primary schools.

Not That Pet!

Not That Pet!
Smriti Halls and Rosalind Beardshaw
Walker Books

Mabel is super excited: her family is getting a pet and she’s allowed to choose it from the pet shop she visits along with her mum and little brother. Her choice is – wait for it – an elephant! He’s a splendid hugger, gives terrific rides, makes a super slide and is really useful when it comes to watering the plants and pulling up weeds. However, he also tramples on all the family’s fruit and worst of all, sits on Mabel’s mum. “Not that pet!” comes the cry, “Choose something smaller!” And Mabel obligingly does so.

The elephant is replaced by ants, lots of them and they march through the house eventually finding their way into Dad’s underpants – yikes! You can guess what his instant reaction is, followed by instructions to choose something they can all see.

And so it continues with a skunk, a snake, a spider,

worms and several others. Poor pet shop Pete: will he ever deliver something that satisfies everyone. Eventually, close to giving up Mabel has a good think and what she thinks is ‘I just need to pick something furry and sweet … something friendly that everyone likes.’ Now what could that possibly be? It’s definitely not what you’d expect.

The final reveal will surely come as a surprise to readers and listeners. I love a fun final twist and this book certainly has that and much more. Smriti’s rhyming narrative reads aloud well and is huge fun and Rosalind Beardshaw’s illustrations are full of details to explore and giggle over, not least the bathroom scene and that of the visitors to Dad’s underpants, Make sure you watch the antics of Mabel’s little brother too: he’s a real cutie. Altogether a smashing storytime winner methinks, and one sure to get children talking.

News Hounds: The Dinosaur Discovery / The Princess in Black and the Giant Problem

News Hounds: The Dinosaur Discovery
Laura James, illustrated by Charlie Alder
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

From the author of the fabulous Pug and Fabio series comes new star, Bob. Bob belongs to Colin, the stationmaster at Puddle Station, and in addition to ensuring the trains run to time, he acts as a reporter for the Daily Bark, the town’s one and only newspaper for dogs. Now there’s a new dog in town; her name is Diamond and Bob thinks he’d like to become her friend, so one morning he heads off to the park where he’s been told she’s taken for a daily walk by her owner Mr Marcus who runs the Curiosity Shop. In order to open the friendship he decides to give her a present and having come upon a pile of bones – the biggest he’s ever seen – under the bandstand floor, thinks a large bone the ideal gift. However it takes so long to dig it out, that he misses his chance.

Temporarily diverted from his Diamond friendship forging, Bob dashes back to the newspaper office to report ‘the most amazing story Puddle has ever known.’ It could just be the scoop of the century. However, it’s not only News Hounds who are interested in the bone.
Diamond – yes she does eventually get her present – is amazed at its size and thanks to a book in her owner’s establishment is able to tell Bob when he finally meets her, what she’s discovered therein.
The trouble is Mr Marcus is more than a tad interested in the skeleton find too. The race is on … It’s definitely time to enlist the help of the entire canine population of Puddle.

Another highly engaging story from Laura and with Charlie Alder’s frequent coloured illustrations that help ramp up the drama, this book will appeal to new solo readers and work as a read aloud.

The Princess in Black and the Giant Problem
Shannon & Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Walker Books

Readers will really need to have read some of the previous titles in the series (this is the eighth) to fully appreciate this one. It’s set on a chilly winter’s day and sees the Princess in Black, the Goat Avenger and the Princess in Blankets with a giant problem – literally. While they’re engaged in building snow monsters, with a shout of “Squashy!” a massive foot flattens their latest creation. Said foot belongs to a giant and it continues to shout and flatten everything in its path. The race is on to prevent the total destruction of the village. It’s a task beyond just three but with the help of some superhero friends, it might just be possible.

There’s a lovely twist to this story, wherein teamwork is important but to reveal what would spoil things so I’ll leave you to guess what it might be. Sure to be a hit with established fans of the princess with an alter ego. With a bright illustration by LeUyen Pham at every page turn, it’s ideal for newly independent readers.

Hat Cat

Hat Cat
Troy Wilson and Eve Coy
Walker Books

The old man in this story has a daily ritual: he puts peanuts in the crease on the top of his hat, goes outside, and sits, ‘as still and welcoming as a grand old tree.’ Then he waits for the squirrels to come. One day he’s delighted to find a cat emerges as he lifts up his hat and unsurprisingly he names him Hat.

Taking the creature inside, he allows Hat to do whatever he wants other than going out. “If I let you outside, you might leave me. Or you might chase the squirrels … or worse.” So whenever he goes for his daily outdoor sit, the old man closes the back door behind him leaving a mewing cat inside watching from within.

Then one day the old man isn’t there:Hat is alone for days until other people come and feed, rub and talk to him.

Times passes and one day Hat notices that the door has been left open. Seizing the opportunity, out he goes straight onto the decking. Now what will he do?

Nothing is said about why the old man is absent and we surmise that he’s been ill. Happily though there is a happy ending for Hat and for the old man and the other humans who have stepped in.

Troy Wilson’s words and Eve Coy’s soft, warm watercolour pictures work beautifully together showing the deep affection between Hat and his old man in this warm-hearted tale wherein
companionship, trust and love are key.

Apple and Magnolia

Apple and Magnolia
Laura Gehl and Patricia Metola
Walker Books

Britta insists that her two favourite trees Apple and Magnolia are best friends; this she knows deep down inside herself and there’s no swaying her. She visits the trees every day and watches how they communicate with one another. Some members of her family tell her that trees cannot have friendships – her father speaking kindly, her elder sister Bronwyn forcibly; her Nan in contrast says, ‘unusual friendships can be the most powerful of all’.

One night Britta notices that Magnolia’s branches have started drooping. While her father and sister tell her the tree won’t survive the winter, Nana asks about a plan. This galvanises her into action. 

Aided and abetted by her pets she makes a telephone using cups connected by string for the trees to use, knits an enormous scarf and wraps it around them so they can share one another’s warmth during the chilly winter months and hangs a string of lights between Apple and Magnolia so they can always see each other.

Time passes and one morning Britta thinks that the trees have become closer together. She measures the distance between them and continues to do so every morning, getting the usual responses from family members. The arrival of spring sees pink blossom on Apple’s branches whereas Magnolia doesn’t flower, although Britta’s measurements decrease and you can’t argue with scientific data. 

Eventually the first blossom appears on Magnolia sending Britta’s hopes soaring. Soon it’s time for a celebration.

The repetition of the comments, be they negative or positive heightens, the impact of the telling of this delightfully fanciful story. Not entirely fanciful however; author Laura Gehl includes this in an introductory note, ‘Scientists are just at the beginning of understanding how trees are able to communicate with and support other trees.’ Equally delightful are Patricia Metola’s whimsical illustrations of the characters, both human and arboreal.

Saving the Butterfly

Saving the Butterfly
Helen Cooper and Gill Smith
Walker Books

This is a timely and very moving story about trauma, the way different people respond to it, empathy and the possibility of recovery.

Two children, a big sister and her small brother are rescued from a boat adrift on the dark sea; they’ve lost everything. The younger one remembers little of his ordeal whereas his sister appears more resourceful, talking to rescuers and being instrumental in finding them shelter in a broken house.

However, while she remains inside dwelling on what’s gone before, her little brother ventures outdoors and begins to make friends.

Feeling greatly concerned about what to do to help shift that ‘dark in her mind’ the boy, keen to coax his sister outside, catches a beautiful butterfly and brings in back to their refuge.

The girl upsets him by telling him to release the tiny thing that begins hitting its wings against the walls. It needs space and it needs time, she tells the boy. The boy goes out again; his sister counts the colours of the butterfly’s wings to calm her breathing. Eventually the girl opens the door; the butterfly settles on her hand. She steps out and blows the tiny thing. Can she now find the courage to follow the butterfly as it takes flight towards the sun where it belongs?

Helen Cooper’s heartfelt telling shows how, in their own ways, the siblings help one another to begin to move forward after such a life-changing ordeal. To me the blackness of the sea at the start represents their loss and the butterfly symbolises transcendence of that dark fearful state. Equally poignant, Gill Smith’s stunningly beautiful illustrations perfectly capture the feelings of the siblings in those early stages of rebuilding their lives.

Every primary school classroom needs a copy of this one.

I am NOT an Octopus

I Am Not an Octopus
Eoin McLaughlin and Marc Boutavant
Walker Books

As he pushes a shopping trolley loaded up with tins of tuna, eight-limbed Terry states firmly, ‘I am NOT an octopus.’ and continues to do so as he leaves the supermarket and walks to the park. Seeking to justify his pronouncement he continues that he’d be in the sea if that were the case, ‘Unless I were afraid of water (which I’m absolutely not).’

So why the panic when he finds himself showered by the sprinklers he passes?

Terry carries on talking about the potential difficulties fear of water would pose for an octopus: no meeting octopus friends and family, no outings to Super Octopus Fantasea Adventure World either. Perhaps Terry should try learning to swim: he asks readers for some advice were he to pay a visit to the swimming pool including to pee or not to pee, and he decides to take the plunge.

Then with a newly acquired skill under his trunks, there comes Terry’s big reveal. However what’s said will come as no surprise to readers.

Delectably daft, Eoin McLaughlin’s tale of facing and overcoming your fears, octopus style, is one that children will relate to while relishing its silliness: silliness made all the more engaging by Marc Boutavant’s zany scenes of the protagonist narrator and his antics.

Toddler Take-Along: Nature / Hello, Bee / Jeppo Finds His Friends

It’s never too early to start introducing little ones to the delights of nature and the first two books from Little Tiger should help do just that. Thanks to the publishers for sending them for review

Toddler Take-Along: Nature
Ana Zaja Petrak and Becky Davies

Bold images on bright backgrounds with peep through die-cuts and a simple question per spread, invite toddlers to look all around and with the help of the labels, name what they see, be it on the ground, up in the sky, or on and around the pond.
As suggested in the title, a handy carrying handle makes this one ideal for taking out on walks.

Also bursting with mini beasts is:

Hello, Bee
Sophie Ledesma

A buzzy bee leads the way through the pages of this touchy-feely, lift the flap book wherein we meet small creatures that fly, crawl, slither and walk; there’s an odd surprise too. Sophie Ledesma’s multicoloured images are gently humorous yet recognisable, and in combination with the brief chatty text and hidden animals element and the final ‘What did you spot on the way?’ spread showing an assortment of natural objects that were passed on bee’s flight, make for an interactive experience that little humans will enjoy sharing with an adult or perhaps an older sibling.

Another interactive board book is:

Jeppo Finds His Friends
Ingela P Arrhenius
Walker Books

Tiger Jeppo can’t wait to meet up with all his friends but although he soon finds Larry Lamb and Flora Fox, of Odd the owl there’s no sign. So off the others go to look for him. After several misidentifications, disappointed, they’re on the point of giving up but there’s one last place to check. Perhaps they might be lucky this time …
Toddlers will have fun lifting the various flaps as they join in the search for Odd the owl in Ingela Arrhenius’ bold, bright playful spreads.

The Tower at the End of Time / Diary of an Accidental Witch: Flying High

The Tower at the End of Time
Amy Sparkes
Walker Books

Reformed pickpocket Nine, Eric the troll, wizard Flabbergast et al return for a second wonderful adventure that again mixes wit, magic, some nail-biting moments and occasional chaos.

Now the curse on the magical house has been lifted allowing the friends to travel between worlds, their first destination being The Wizarding Hopscotch Championship. It’s particularly important that Flabbergast attends the championships – he’s missed three years already and his worthiness is at stake. Moreover, the final prize for winning the event is a visit to The Tower at the End of Time, where one question can be asked!

There’s a problem though, for the house, being nervous about travelling again, is beset by an attack of the hiccups, which unsurprisingly upsets plans somewhat as with each HIC they bounce from one world to another till they finally reach those championships. More problems ensue when Flabbergast discovers that the hopscotch grid is aflame and he encounters many obstacles thereon, but negotiating it is the only way he can get the answer to his question.

In the end everything becomes a race against time, or rather gigantic sand-timers, with every contestant desperate to find an answer to their particular question. And what about Nine? She too has questions concerning who she really is and who left her that music box she treasures so much.

Hugely inventive and sparkling with excitement: primary readers with a penchant for high octane fantasy will jump at the chance to read this.

Diary of an Accidental Witch: Flying High
Perdita & Honor Cargill, illustrated by Kate Saunders
Little Tiger (Stripes Publishing)

With her first diary safely hidden away and her first half term at the School of Extraordinary under her belt, Bea Black starts a new one for this second book.
At home she’s still struggling to give sufficient time to her neighbour and close friend Ash who goes to an ordinary school..

With the Winter Solstice fast approaching, the main topic of conversation after the break is the forthcoming Grand Tournament and Bea finds herself a vice-sports captain. With the Go matches coming up, it’s even more important that she polishes up her broomstick skills. And then following a to do involving buns in town, headteacher Ms Sparks announces that in the hope of improving relations between the two schools, she is inviting the pupils from the Academy to participate in the Grand Tournament and that means no magic, no flying and definitely no Go after all. Indeed the event has now been renamed Sports Day.

Can the rift between the two establishments be healed? Then what about that egg or rather Egg, that Professor Age has given her to tend at home?

Honor Cargill’s smashing illustrations are sprinkled throughout and once again this is hugely engaging and lots of fun, with all the pupils having to deal with similar concerns and issues that readers themselves are likely experiencing.

The Midnight Fair

The Midnight Fair
Gideon Sterer and Mariachiara Di Giorgio
Walker Books

Oh WOW! This is such a superb wordess book ( wordless save for the occasional fairground signs) – definitely one of the very best I’ve seen and way too good to restrict to a particular audience.

As the book opens, forest creatures – bears, squirrels, deer, a stoat, racoons, a badger, a fox, rabbits, mice, a wolf – watch from beyond the fence as the fair unloads. From the edge of the woodlands they see the fairground filling up with humans large and small who spend the entire day enjoying the thrills, leaving only as night descends. The keeper switches off the lights.

From the shadows the animals emerge – it’s their turn now for some of that fun. In they come eyes aglow, through a gap in the fence, two racoons reactivate the power and the place becomes theirs. We also feel it’s ours, so immersive are the illustrations. As well as revelling in the rides and other attractions the animals take on the roles of the stall holders using various natural objects – acorns, pinecones, shells, leaves, fungi and wild flowers – as payment and we can almost inhale the scents of popcorn and candy floss.

At daybreak, the keeper wakes; it’s time for the animals to leave. Tired but very happy and a tad messy, they clear up the entire place and hurry away in the nick of time,

leaving only some of their currency on the ticket counter. But, their business is not quite done yet: as the others bed down, wolf carrying the goldfish won at the hoop-la stall, heads down to the lake and releases it into the water.

With clever use of both dark and light, and the natural world and the human one, Mariachiara Di Giorgio’s mixed media spreads, both detailed frames and expansive double page scenes, are a satisfying mix of the whimsical and the wondrous. This is one of those books that the more you read it, the more emerges.

Owls Are Cool

Owls Are Cool
Timothy Knapman and Jason Cockroft
Walker Books

Meet Oscar, a burrowing owl and narrator of this story; he’s a cool creature he tells us, because of his inability to fly. He has no desire to emulate the flying owl species that soar and swoop in the sky. Instead he much prefers to spend his time burrowing and running and ZOOOOOOOOMing around the grassy terrain.

One day he issues a challenge to a watching snowy owl that comes swooping down to watch him strut his stuff. As expected the challenge is accepted and Oscar watches unimpressed at what he calls “showing off”. 

But then disaster: the snowy owl smashes right into a tree and crash lands nearby, injuring both wings. The creature introduces himself as Reggie and Oscar then has a change of heart. Offering his burrow as a temporary haven to Reggie, he discovers that the need for friendship is what really matters.

This is a sweet story showing how friendship can transcend differences and being different is ‘cool’.
I’ve never come across a burrowing owl in the wild; I don’t think they are resident in the UK and it was good to meet this one in Timothy’s tale. Jason Cockcroft captures both the long-legged strigine and the snowy one beautifully in his gently humorous scenes of the countryside shown from a variety of viewpoints.

The Little Things / Maisy’s Chinese New Year

The Little Things
Emma Dodd
Templar Publishing

Snuggled up with her little cub, a mother panda explains the importance of the little things in life and how they are what really matter: ‘It’s the little things that matter./ It’s the little things that count. / It’s not the biggest or the best / or the largest amount.’
She goes on to give examples of the things she’s referring to: morning kisses, time spent together perhaps watching passing clouds, apologising, saying “well done”, hugging a friend or smiling at a stranger; acts of kindness and more.
Through a simple rhyming text and adorable scenes of the actions she writes of (many with copper foil embellishment), Emma Dodd conveys parental devotion and love showing how the ‘little things’ add up to something really big: a contented, happy life with a caregiver.
A small, heartwarming book for adults and their little ones to cuddle up with and enjoy together at any time of day.

Maisy’s Chinese New Year
Lucy Cousins
Walker Books

We join Maisy and her friends as they prepare for the Chinese New Year. The day before the festival Maisy prepares by sweeping her house; we see her visiting the market to buy food, decorations and something red to wear, and generally getting ready for the festivities.
On the day itself, she’s joined by first Tiger, (bringing presents and decorations to wish everybody luck and happiness), shortly followed by Tallulah, Charley and Cyril. After they’ve finished feasting who should come a-visiting bearing lucky red money envelopes but Ostrich and Penguin. They all gather around Tiger to listen to the story of the Chinese Zodiac

and then come midnight they welcome in the new year by watching a firework display.
Next morning everybody participates in a colourful parade and then Maisy leads all her friends in a good luck dragon dance.
The story is followed by a ‘can you find?’ page.
With Lucy Cousins’ bold, bright illustrations containing lots of Chinese touches such as paper lanterns, a blossom branch and a blue and white vase, this is a lovely way to introduce very young children to the traditions associated with the Chinese New Year.

Under the Sea 1,2,3 / Jelly-Boy

These are two picture books with an undersea setting: thanks to the publisher Walker Books for sending them for review

Under the Sea 1,2,3
Frané Lessac

Vibrant illustrations, a counting element, fun fascinating facts and an environmental message are combined in this picture book that takes readers beneath the ocean to meet some of the animal inhabitants living in and around the coral reef.

First we encounter one giant whale shark and discover that some of their kind can grow as long as a bus. Then, in a double spread each, come two dugongs, three playful clownfish … parrotfish (7) which young children will love to discover, use their sharp teeth to ‘crunch up coral’ and later ‘poop out the chomped-up coral as sand.’

After twelve tired seahorses, comes a final scene showing the reef along with a gentle message about their important role in keeping the sea and ultimately the planet, healthy. There’s also a visual summary of all the creatures we’ve met alongside the relevant numerals that may well send little ones back to the beginning to start over again.
A gentle way to learn some marine biology facts relating to habitat and habits of the creatures selected.

Nicole Godwin and Christoper Nielsen

A highly important topical issue lies at the heart of this seemingly simple eco-themed love story.
Assuming that the object of her affections is another jellyfish, Nicole Godwin’s jelly-girl narrator – against the advice of other family members – falls in love with a plastic bag. ‘ “We’ve seen his type before.” “He’s highly dangerous.” ‘ they warn. Nonetheless, the attraction is so strong that she follows the object of her affections into wild and dangerous waters as little by little the dreadful realisation dawns …

You can almost feel the pull both of the narrator’s love and the ocean waters as the narrative moves across the spreads taking readers to the final farewell.

Mixed media illustrations and an unusual telling combine to deliver the crucial message about the pollution of our oceans and its devastating effects in a picture book that will make a different starting point for primary classroom discussions about, and more important action concerning, single use plastics and caring for the environment in general.

Isabelle and the Crooks

Isabelle and the Crooks
Michelle Robinson and Chris Mould
Walker Books

Young Isabelle Crook is something of a misfit in her family of ‘ordinary crooks’. Unlike her sneaky dad, stealthy mum, cunning grandparents or little brother, Isabelle is a law-abiding citizen. In one week she turns down opportunities to participate in a bank robbery, a toy shop burglary, a spot of breaking and entering with her Grandpa and Grandma; she eschews the chance of some super exciting stealing with her parents and on Friday when the entire family set out to the tower to steal the crown jewels, she firmly refuses to accompany them.

On Saturday it’s a rest day and an early night at the Crooks’ residence but Isabelle lies awake worrying about how the Queen might be feeling. So, she embarks on a mission to return those crown jewels to their rightful owner. However, despite using her innate skills to enter the tower, as she’s in the process of replacing the stolen loot Isabelle is apprehended.

Rather than have her entire family imprisoned, the girl spends a night in jail

giving the rest of a family quite a shock next morning when they wake and find her (and much more) missing.

Perhaps now Isabelle might consider breaking her own good behaviour rules just once and if so, even persuade them to emulate the Ahlberg’s Burglar Bill and put it all back.

Michelle’s cleverly constructed narrative coupled with Chris Mould’s outrageously brilliant gothic style illustrations make this a delectably droll, altogether unmissable picture book.

The Think-Ups!

The Think-Ups!
Claire Alexander
Walker Books

When Anna and Kiki are stuck inside on a rainy day they soon become bored with their usual indoor activities. After a short period of staring gloomily through the window at the rain teeming down Kiki has a brainwave. “We could play the Think-Ups!” she suggests. With the only rule being to think up a Think-Up and it will appear, off they go despite Anna’s initial misgivings.

Before long the girls have called into being a whole lot of bouncing bunnies, a very lively moose,

an octet of octopuses have emerged from the loo and a host of hungry koalas are attempting to sate their appetites.

It’s huge fun for a while but then mayhem ensues as the menagerie storms into the kitchen

where the friends start to lose it with one another. However in the nick of time, just as the rain stops, Kiki comes up with a solution Think-Up

– her best so far, decides Anna. Then, the girls head outdoors into the sun, order duly restored. Or is it?

With its animated language and pastel hued scenes showing superbly the descent into chaos, coupled with the author’s portrayal of girls’ irrepressible energy and rapidly changing moods that is so typical of preschoolers, this is a terrific read aloud, made all the more fun by the use of half pages and the wealth of delightful details at every page turn. Long live the power of the imagination, especially when it’s captured as adeptly as in this story.

Baby, Sleepy Baby

Baby, Sleepy Baby
Atinuke and Angela Brooksbank
Walker Books

Exuding warmth and tenderness from every one of Angela Brooksbank’s illustrations is this lullaby.

Author Atinuke introduces the entire family on the title page and thereafter we see mother, father, a girl sibling and a grandmother, each of whom is shown cuddling the baby in the sequence of stunningly beautiful spreads that follow.

Although the narrative doesn’t rhyme it is lyrical: ‘Baby, sweet baby, / I’ll call on the winds // and you’ll sail like a ship / through the sky.’ it begins with infant on mother’s lap and big sister sharing the adult’s embrace.

The babe is then passed to Grandmother who bestows a kiss

then cuddles the little one with a fondness that is palpable.

We assume but it’s not certain who speaks on each spread,

although this reviewer suspects it is the person holding the little one: other readers might think differently but picture books can always open to more than one interpretation.

Once each family member has wrapped the baby in love

as well as allowing in turn, the wind, clouds, stars and moon to do likewise, everybody feels so calm and peaceful that sleep comes easily and they drift off to slumberland, with the little one between its mother and father.

Gentle, soothing and utterly gorgeous: what better book than this to give a family with a new baby.

Winter Lullaby / Wonky Donkey’s Big Surprise

Winter Lullaby
Dianne White and Ramona Kaulitzki
Walker Books

At the approach of winter when the air is crisp and cold, Mama Bear tells her little one that it’s time for bed but Small Bear notices Mouse and Chipmunk are still wide awake and busy; so too are Skunk and Hare.

Patiently acknowledging her offspring’s “But why must I?”, Mama explains that each one is preparing for a long winter sleep: Mouse is rushing to rest in her soft grassy nest and Chipmunk is storing nuts then he too will hibernate; Skunk will soon slumber underground and Hare will spend winter in a hollow log.

However Small Bear also spots Badger and Old Racoon, both still awake too, so he holds firm to his “But I don’t want to go inside … Why must we hide?”

Mama then promises that come the spring, they’ll both wake up and find their world green again, just waiting for them to play together once more. Finally Small Bear accepts that it is time to snuggle up warm with his mother and let the night sing them lullabies until they both fall fast asleep and slumber all winter long.

Told in rhyming couplets and through Ramona Kaulizki’s scenes of the final autumnal days giving way to winter’s bluish-silvery landscapes, this is both a lovely reassuring pre-bedtime tale and a simple explanation of hibernation for adults and little ones to share, snuggled together just like Mama Bear and her cub.

Wonky Donkey’s Big Surprise
Craig Smith and Katz Cowley

One morning wee Dinky Donkey is hugely excited and that’s because her pa Wonky has promised her a very big surprise. Rather than tell his little one what to expect, Wonky turns the whole surprise thing into a guessing game explaining that behind the big green door is where she’ll find her surprise. The guessing begins – “Is it warm?, “Is it washable?” … “is it witty? …

By the time Wonky has acknowledged “Sometimes it’s even whiffier than your dad!” Dinky cannot contain herself any longer. She leaps up and dashes to the door: now what could possibly be wonderful, wrinkly, wiggly, witty, weird, whiskery, washable, warm, whiffy and wise? WOW! What a lot of w’s to describe just one thing. Now what could it possibly be? It’s certainly something that will make Dinky and young listeners feel warm all over.

The story is delivered in Craig Smith’s characteristic playful, spirited rhyming narrative and Katz Cowley’s strokeable illustrations wherein the focus is on, not Wonky, but his endearing offspring.

Walrus Song

Walrus Song
Janet Lawler and Timothy Basil Ering
Walker Books

In this narrative non-fiction picture book with its lyrical rhyming text and brilliant paintings, author Janet Lawler and illustrator Timothy Basil Ering present a superb portrait of a walrus in his icy environment, taking readers right up close to the creature .

He plays on an ice floe, flopping and plopping into the chilly water where he twirls and whirls with swirling flippers, kept warm by the layer of fat beneath his coat. Then, having found some clams on which to feast, he slurps until he’s full when it’s time to tease that playful puffin before, using his powerful tusks, he heaves himself out of the water and onto the ice. 

‘Waddle. Walk. Slap! Slap!’ he lumbers, till he meets up with a pack of fellow walruses, snuggling up among them.

Sometimes however he get involved in a crashing, tusk-bashing fight with another walrus till fight over, he emits a variety of exciting sounding calls and songs that echo across the frozen landscape. 

I imagine young listeners will love to copy these sounds as you read.

Come the spring, baby walruses are born. Noting is said in the main narrative about mating but the author includes information about this in a final double spread of additional walrus facts.
Thanks to his chosen colour palette, you almost feel the chill as Ering’s paintings zoom in on the action documenting every move the creature makes and its every change of mood, holding readers totally captivated throughout.

Super Duper Penguin Slide

Super Duper Penguin Slide
Leonie Lord
Walker Books

There’s a pleasing kind of circularity about this tale of a penguin family’s epic journey, big ones at the front, small ones behind.

From the start it’s evident that this lot are well-organised and polite too, with their tickets at the ready to board the bus when it finally arrives at the stop, and the readiness to let those in great haste get past on the escalator. Such deeds still enable the penguin brigade – mum, dad and five little ones – to board their train in the nick of time as it begins to ‘Chugga chug, choo choo’ its way across the varying terrain until – disaster!. The train pulls to an untimely halt and an announcement is made.

Looks like it’s time to draw on another of those penguin propensities – persistence.

A phone call to a goat soon gets them out of trouble and finally they reach their destination. Now at last, it’s time for some fun and it’s downhill all the way … almost.

Full of fun characters – silent bit part players as well as the main cast and supporting nesting guinea pigs – Leonie Lord’s scenes both large and small contain a wealth of amusing details to giggle at as readers follow the flippered family on their journey with its highs and lows.

Off Limits

Off Limits
Helen Yoon
Walker Books

A father leaves his home-office unattended and who should decide to explore within, despite the ‘OFF-LIMITS sign on the door (shown on the title page) but his small daughter.

Disregarding her own “Hello, I’m just looking’, the first thing she makes use of in this thoroughly neat and tidy room is the sticky tape convincing herself that nobody would miss just ‘one teeny-tiny piece’.

However, it’s not difficult, especially for adults, used to young children making creative use of anything and everything, to understand so well that before long our protagonist has adorned the angle-poise lamp, the stapler and herself, not merely with tape but also with paperclips, bulldog clips and sticky notes: joy oh joy!

Before you can say “La laaa lala da la” the child is totally engulfed in an eddying pastel coloured whirlwind.
Suddenly though a realisation dawns upon our playful young lady. “Uh-oh. I’m in so much trouble” she tells readers as she tiptoes back to the haven of her own bedroom wherein an unexpected surprise awaits …

Simply told with perfect pacing and illustrated with superbly droll mixed media scenes of the escalating chaos unfolding behind closed doors, this book pays tribute to the power of play and the endless possibilities it offers to us all. Young children will absolutely delight in the forbidden deed with its escalating chaos, as well as both the pleasure and the possibility of being caught as the mischief mounts. Most of all though, I suspect they’ll love the final grand reveal and it’s contrast between that and the first wordless spread.

The Runaways of Haddington Hall

The Runaways of Haddington Hall
Vivian French
Walker Books

Poor Minnie O’Sullivan, she means well but seems to be beset by accidents and the result is at the behest of the Reverend Obadiah Marpike, that she is sent away to a supposedly charitable institution, Haddington Hall, a home for wayward girls. 

This in itself is terrible for it means she has to leave her poor hard-working washerwoman mother to cope with all the labours and her little brother Bobby all by herself. But she quickly discovers that it’s a truly ghastly place, founded and run by a stony-hearted woman, Mrs Haddington, aided and abetted by housekeeper Mrs Krick, and parlour maid Nellie, who immediately take a dislike to the girl for her attempts to stand up for herself.

Happily though she has two allies in Edith Lavingley, daughter of Lady Lavingley, and Ernst an errand boy; as well as Grobbler the dog. But can Minnie discover the truth about the person calling himself the Reverend Obadiah Marpike and most importantly, will she ever be able to return to her mother and brother?

With echoes of Dickensian England, Vivian French provides child readers with an insight into what it was like to be poor and live in Victorian times, when conditions for children were to say the least, precarious. Her characterisation is superb and her twisting turning plot serves up several surprises.

Whether read aloud to older primary classes, or enjoyed as a solo read, this is a gripping tale of friendship, loyalty and young people striving for what is right.

The Worst Sleepover in the World

The Worst Sleepover in the World
Sophie Dahl and Luciano Lozano
Walker Books

Seven year old Ramona eagerly anticipates her first ever sleepover when her friend Gracie is coming to stay the night. The plan is Ramona, Gracie and Ramona’s younger sister Ruby would all sleep in the one bedroom and they’d feast at midnight on such goodies as ice-cream sundaes, chocolate buttons, pizza, doughnuts and more. But when Mum gets to hear what the sisters intend, she steps in stipulating crisps, sandwiches and popcorn. Nonetheless the sisters are super-excited and sure they’re about to host ‘the best sleepover in history’.

However when Gracie arrives announcing that she’s ‘quite fussy’, it seems things are not going to go according to plan. Gracie hates all the food she’s offered at tea time, bath time is a damp squib and then when it’s time to pack the lunchboxes for that feast, Gracie again dislikes all the food and turns her nose up at the replacements.

The sleeping arrangements are not to her liking either, and nor is the family’s stinky dog. Is there any possibility that Ramona’s mum can step in, draw on her inner resources and save the day or rather night? Moreover can she do it without upsetting her own elder daughter? And will the girls still be friends in the morning?

Definitely this is a story – a longish one for a picture book – that youngsters can relate to. Sophie Dahl’s first person telling provides lots of details about Ramona and her life, all of which we see through the young narrator’s own eyes while Luciano Lozano’s vibrant illustrations speak volumes too as they show the different events of the evening, night and following morning and both the children’s and Mum’s reactions to them. Indeed there’s lots to explore at every turn of the page.

Vive la difference! is the message that emerges strongly from this fun book.

There’s a Dodo on the Wedding Cake

There’s a Dodo on the Wedding Cake
Wade Bradford and Kevin Hawkes
Walker Books

Hired to play his violin at a wedding, Mr Snore who starred in There’s a Dinosaur on the 13th Floor makes a return visit to the Sharemore Hotel.

His early arrival allows him to take advantage of the wedding planner’s offer of some hot chocolate while he waits. Before he is given said hot drink sans marshmallows as he’s stipulated, the violinist spots a dessert trolley whereon stands a rose-decorated, iced cake close to which is a dodo with its eye on the main chance. But Mr Snore is not quick enough to prevent the creature from sampling a rose; it gobbles one and dashes off.

Having seen the dramatic incident, the wedding planner hastens away to find somebody to fix the icing, leaving Mr Snore standing guard using his violin bow to ward off a couple of beavers and a boa constrictor.

Then, deciding to move to safety – so he thinks, Mr S. pushes the cake into what he assumes is an empty cupboard only to discover it’s anything but …

However, it seems that there’s a never ending array of creatures all trying to get close to the confection.

Eventually the wedding planner has to intervene and it’s revealed that Mr Snore has misjudged all those whom he suspected of being marauders, all but one, that is.

With everything finally ready, the celebration gets under way and all is going beautifully until the bride and groom hand Mr Snore the very first slice of cake, but on account of the icing, there are explosive results …

Full of drama, this crazy romp with its messy finale has plenty to entertain young audiences – Mr Snore’s bow-wielding heroism, his continuing error-making and the denouement, to name just some of the daft constituents. All of which Kevin Hawkes captures brilliantly in his sequence of full page scenes, the occasional double page spread and zoomed -in views of bits of the action, presented in circles or ovals of various sizes. Weirdest of all though, is his portrayal of the protagonist.

Peek-a-boo and Counting Fun Board Book Style

Monsters Play … Peekaboo!
Monsters Play … Counting

Flavia Z. Drago
Walker Books

Flavia Drago introduces a host of mock-scary monsters in the lift-the-flap Peekaboo treat.
In order to play a game of peek-a-boo seven ghoulish creatures – a werewolf skeleton (of the handsome happy kind), a vampire, a medusa looking very modish, a blobby beast, a banshee and finally a wee ghostie take turns to hide behind a sheet, their identity being revealed when each flap in turn is lifted. Little ones will delight in joining in with the repeat ‘Eek-a-peek-a … – – ! who’s hiding under the sheet? and relish the opportunity to make lots of ‘eeek!’, hiss!,

swishy swoosh!’, wah waaah!’, ‘peekaboo!’ sounds.

There are lots of playful beasties too in Counting as little humans encounter in turn, Simone with her hugely long tongue, Rosalind with her two ears ‘to hear the howling wind, Brooke who is endowed with three eyes so she can read her spooky book, four-winged Guy,

and so on till they reach ten- spiked Nicole with an invitation to drum along with her, (any suitable surface will do) which should of course, be monstrously loud.

I’m sure said humans will also take up the invitation to ‘count like a monster all over again’ too and that means lots more licking, swinging (maybe not of ears), fluttering, brushing of teeth, block building, running, spinning and a little bit of chilling as well.

Counting has never been such fun.

Hide-and-Seek Peekaboo
illustrated by Nicola Slater
Chronicle Books

This sweet interactive Beginning Baby board book combines two things babies and toddlers love – playing peekaboo and lift-the-flap books. Herein the jolly characters – Riley the narwhal, Elijah the elephant, giraffe Gabriel, octopus Paisley, Mia the monkey, Matteo the red panda and Layla the llama have all hidden themselves away in various parts of the house – under or behind items of furniture or furnishings – for little ones to find.

All the rooms are alive with vibrant coloured objects, most of which will be familiar to toddlers while others can become part of a ‘show me the …’ game once they’ve been told the names of say ‘the globe’ or ‘harp’ in the illustrations.

This I suspect is a book, little ones will want shared over and over again.

My Pet Goldfish

My Pet Goldfish
Catherine Rayner
Walker Books

The young narrator of this gorgeous book is thrilled to receive when four years old, the gift of a goldfish. Naming it Richard, child and fish gaze at one another, one in its watery world the other without. Then Richard is put into a big tank along with lots of other fish so it has sufficient space to grow and after school our narrator talks to Richard about the day, convinced the fish recognises the speaker.

Little by little the child learns much about Richard, as do we readers. This information comes in part from the narrator’s observations, part from friend and fish expert Sandy, who lives next door and has a pond in his garden; and part from the factual information presented in a smaller font throughout the book. ‘Goldfish can remember things for up to five months’; seeing more colours than humans, they have very good eyesight that they use along with their sense of smell to find food; they breathe by means of gills; they lack eyelids

and the term for a group of goldfish is.a ‘troubling’ – I didn’t know that before.

Sandy shows the narrator his pond with its assortment of goldfishes

and offers the pond as a home for Richard, should he grow too large for his tank. Something that at age four-and-a-half Richard does, but there’s a long way to go for him to reach the age of the oldest ever goldfish – 43 years – wow! Sandy’s pond is then the perfect place for the narrator and Richard to continue their regular meetings.

Catherine Rayner’s narrative nonfiction account is based on her own real goldfish, Richard. Her delicately detailed, mixed-media illustrations are stunning, making every spread a place to linger and delight in the beautiful fishes, the often bubble-surrounded, aquatic plants in their watery world, and Sandy’s tranquil garden.
(There’s a final author’s note that includes some tips for fish care and an index.)

A splendid introduction to the joys of having a goldfish as a pet.

Roxy & Jones: The Curse of the Gingerbread witch

Roxy & Jones: The Curse of the Gingerbread Witch
Angela Woolfe
Walker Books

We’re back in that wonderful world where witches and magic are real, and fairy stories are part of modern history, for another fairytale potpourri featuring Roxy Humperdink and (Cinderella) Jones. I challenge readers to find out how many traditional fairytale elements are found between the covers of this one.

Now Roxy has seen a sign concerning the return for a record launch, of her older half-brother, musician and leader of the band H-Bomb and the Missiles; and she hasn’t set eyes on him for five years.
She also receives the strangest seemingly senseless letter from someone signing it PM but she knows nobody with those initials: a coded message perhaps? 

And so it is, from Jones of course, asking her to meet in a swanky department store wherein she’s currently residing. (It’s also the very same place where Hans Humperdinck’s record launch is to take place.) Thus begins another mission for the two, a search for the Missing, and Jones already has a clue.

Almost the next thing Roxy knows is that she (plus Mirror) is at a party in a nightclub, something at age thirteen she’s never done before; and then she discovers that Gretel is also there. Before you can say ‘awesome magic’ the two girls are whizzing up a giant beanstalk (we know which story that belongs in); but what in the world of fairy-tales is The Law of Sevens? And what is Magiscience?

It turns out that the children who followed the Pied Piper into the mountain some thirty years back are the Missing they seek, now trapped deep in a hidden mountain, completely forgotten thanks to enchantments. 

This madcap adventure also takes the girls into the evil Deadwoods with the possibility that the deadly Gingerbread Witch still lurks somewhere deep therein. Her cottage is certainly there.

With frissons of fear throughout, and humour too, Angela Woolfe’s gripping thriller of a tale will hold readers in its enchantment till the final page, and leave them asking for more.

Fairy Tales Gone Bad: Frankenstiltskin

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

Delectably dark, this is the second classic fairy tale to which, with his rhyming magical touch, poet Joseph Coelho gives a new spin.

Here we meet young animal lover and stuffer of animal skins, taxidermist Bryony, and a King – King of all Mythica who, thanks to her father’s boasting of her supreme skills, carries Bryony away to his palace where he wants her to bring creatures back to life. The first is a wolf brought to her room by one Yeltsin Thorogood who announces himself as the Tongue of the King.

This is the first of three tasks – impossible ones – that the King issues to Bryony. There then appears through a door within a door, a hairy child-sized creature smiling mischievously and offering to help her. However his assistance doesn’t come without cost.

Not then, nor for the next two tasks, the first involving a polar bear,

the second of which is more unthinkable than ever; and guessing the creature’s name is the price demanded for this.

In the meantime though Bryony will achieve much as queen of a realm where animals and humans live side by side harmoniously; but then back comes the little creature, come to collect his happiness …

Totally brilliant, Joseph has seamlessly stitched together this tale with its two elements, Frankenstein and gold-spinning Rumpelstiltskin: I especially love that no matter what, Bryony stands up for what she believes, forcing the King to produce a vegan menu, as well as calling him a monster at one point. Superb too, at every turn of the page, are Freya Hartas’ black and white illustrations.

Lovers of fairytales, fractured and otherwise, will adore this book.

Theodora Hendrix and the Curious Case of the Cursed Beetle

Theodora Hendrix and the Curious Case of the Cursed Beetle
Jordan Kopy, illustrated by Chris Jevons
Walker Books

Ten year old Theodora Hendrix the only human resident of the Monstrous League of Monsters )MLM) mansion returns in a second funny adventure that is surely bound to lead her into deadly danger. At present Theodora loves her life with her fiendish family and is pretty certain she can cope with anything; but can she handle an Egyptian-themed adventure. She thinks so until that is, she encounters the nasty Inspector Shelley and her even nastier pet rat. 

(Mary) Shelley and Ratsputin have come to spy on the Monstrous League of Monsters, and are hell bent on shutting them down for an alleged breaching of the MLM charter – punishable by banishment to one of the darkest, dankest prisons in Transylvania or being sent to live with humans, perhaps.

Having demanded that the temperature of their room doesn’t go above four degrees Celsius, the foul pair prowl through the mansion, examining everything for evidence of rule-breaking. To have any hope of success, and prevent Inspector Shelley from becoming the new head of the London MLM, Theodora must enlist the help of her loyal friend and classmate Dexter Adebola (who has also had some difficulties with school). They have to stop her finding the Mummy’s true name and thus gaining control of her mind and that means tracking all her movements. Then Theodora makes a discovery of her own in The Ancient Curse Breaking Room: a cursed scarab beetle. 

This she must destroy urgently and without attracting the inspector’s attention.

Then comes news that the school has been chosen to host upcoming Halloween celebrations; can they get rid of the inspector by then? With the friendship between Dexter and Theodora strengthening in this story, they form an unlikely alliance with trouble-making, bullying Billy; this they do in what they term S.R.R.T. (Stop Rumple’s Reign of Terror) – Rumple being the ghastly, fun-hating headteacher of Appleton Primary who does her utmost to make the children’s lives a misery.

What do Theodora’s torat cards have to say about all this? Will good triumph over evil? That’s the question throughout.

With their superb characterisation and quirky amalgam of horror and humour, team Jordan Kopy and Chris Jevons have another winner here.

It’s Mine!

It’s Mine!
Emma Yarlett
Walker Books

In Emma’s new book, the ‘thing’ referred to, shown atop a hill is a mystery spherical object. Mouse is first to come upon it and deciding it can be his next meal, carts it away in his wheelbarrow claiming, “That fruit … is mighty fine. … That fruit … is mine, all mine!”

However, Frog, in need of a new wheel for his tricycle, spies the thing,

pays a call on Mouse hoping to procure the object for himself and tells him, ‘That wheel, is mine, all mine!’

Fox sees it as just the perfect new ball for a game of footie

and popping up near Frog, proceeds to claim ownership.

Then there’s Bear in need of a new chair, who decides Fox has the ideal item and says so, taking it off to use as a sit-upon.

So there we have four creatures, each strongly asserting, “It’s MINE!”.

Suddenly the thing gives a wobble, a crack, a crunch and …

Someone else is waiting in the wings to claim ownership but who is it? Well ,that would be to spoil the ending; let’s merely say that Mouse, Frog, Fox and Bear are more than happy to concede.

With its surprise ending, highly effective simple repetitive text, deliciously droll illustrations and die-cut circles ( not the work of Emma’s Nibbles character I hasten to add, they’re too regular for that) on alternate spreads, this is enormous fun to share in a story time session with young children, as well as for beginning readers to try themselves.

My Green Cookbook / Polly Bee Makes Honey

My Green Cookbook
David Atherton, illustrated by Alice Bowsher
Walker Books

Hot on the heels of his excellent My First Cook Book, Great British Bake Off winner David Atherton offers around forty vegetarian recipes. No matter if you’re looking for a tasty meal, snacks, a sweet treat or an attractive cake (several, even), there’s something here.

Like the author, I love walking in the forest and looking up at the trees so was immediately drawn to the yummy-looking Autumn Woodland Cake, though as a vegan, I’d want to make one or two slight tweaks to the ingredients list.

The Curry Korma Bowl too caught my eye right away. Indian food is one of my favourite kinds of cuisine. Having been unable to travel to India since fleeing that country at the start of the pandemic I can’t wait to go back but with all the necessary ingredients for this dish already in my cupboards, this is one of the recipes I’ll try first.

And, having requested a large amount of haldi from an Indian student studying here the last time he returned to the UK, I have lots of turmeric and so next week intend to have a go at making the Bread Crowns – they look really fun and tasty too.

Among the Sweet Treats, I was attracted to the lemon and pear muffins as the young relations who often visit, are fond of muffins of many kinds. We can try making those together. (Maybe we’ll do two batches with me using a vegan egg substitute in one).

David’s enthusiasm shines through in this recipe book wherein he also explains the impact ‘eating green’ can have on health and well-being, and on the environment. With occasional touches of humour, Alice Bowsher’s illustrations add extra allure to the recipes.

Buy to keep and buy to give.

Honey was used in several of David’s recipes, now here’s a book all about that delicious ingredient/food.

Polly Bee Makes Honey
Deborah Chancellor and Julia Groves
Scallywag Press

This is the second book in the Follow My Food series. Here, a girl follows worker bee Polly as she (and her ‘sisters’) work hard first collecting pollen and nectar from various flowers in a meadow

and then taking it back to the hive where the nectar is squirted into the honeycomb and some of the pollen acts as food for the baby bees inside the hive.

During the narration we also meet the drones (Polly’s brothers), the queen (the egg layer) as well as the beekeeper who cares for the hive and harvests the honey,

helped by the girl narrator who is shown happily and appreciatively tucking into a slice of bread spread with delicious honey.

After the main narrative come a ‘pollen trail’ and a factual spread giving further information about bees.

With Deborah’s straightforward narrative and Julia’s bold, bright illustrations, this is a good starting point for youngsters especially if they’re working on a food (or perhaps even minibeast) theme in a foundation stage classroom.

Moose’s Book Bus

Moose’s Book Bus
Inga Moore
Walker Books

With a dearth of storybooks among his friends, Moose who has exhausted his repertoire of new tales to tell his family after supper, sets out to find the town library. he’s fortunate to discover a wealth of exciting books await him and Moose borrows all the librarians’s s suggestions and more.

That same evening, no sooner has he settled down to regale his family with one of the storybooks than Bear brings her cubs along to hear his Little Red Riding Hood rendition.

Word spreads and it’s not long before Moose’s evening story times become exceedingly popular

with his living room rather crowded ‘like being in a sardine tin’. Now what’s a bright creature like Moose to do next …

Ingenious creature that he is, Moose finds a wheeled solution and it’s one that benefits his entire community in more ways than one.

This is a brilliant book, paying homage as it does to the power of story, of books and of libraries (something not every community is fortunate enough to have nowadays). With her somewhat whimsical cast of woodland characters, Inga Moore’s soft-edged, earthy rural scenes with their wealth of detail and gentle humour draw the reader in from the start.

I can’t wait to share this terrific book far and wide; it’s my favourite Inga Moore story so far.