Namaste is a Greeting / Balloon to the Moon

Namaste is a Greeting
Suma Subramaniam and Sandhya Prabhat
Walker Books

When I first started visiting India many years ago ‘namaste’ was explained to me as ‘my heart to your heart’ – a lovely summary I thought. Now the author and illustrator of this delightful book explore the meaning of the word namaste, used by Hindi speakers as a greeting. Herein a little girl discovers that in fact ‘namaste’ is all around her and can be expressed by a smile, through friendship, celebration, a yoga asana, silence and much more.

I love Sandhya Prabhat’s bright storytelling illustrations showing the interactions between the child and the grandmother character and how the former nurtures a plant for the latter.

This seemingly simple book has considerable depth and is one to share over and over with young children; it’s a delight.

Balloon to the Moon
Becky Davies and Jennica Lounsbury
Little Tiger

Drawing on mindfulness and meditation techniques, Becky Davies’ dreamy lilting rhyming text and Jennica Lounsbury’s soft lyrical illustrations encourage young children, safely tucked up in bed to let go, relax completely and gradually drift off into dreamland.

An adult switches out the light and we watch as the moonlight calls through a small girl’s window, causing her bed to lift and balloon-like, drift gently out into the star-filled, moonlit sky, guided by firefies. Silver songbirds and sheep-shaped clouds accompany the moving bed over land and sea to the accompaniment of dolphins’ songs, shushing water and chorusing whales

as it continues its journey through the velvety night sky towards the smiling, welcoming face of the moon and sleep’s loving embrace.

If you’re looking for a sleep-inducing picture book to share with young children, try this gentle, reassuring story just before bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Red Sledge / We’re Going on a Sleigh Ride

The Red Sledge
Mick Jackson and Victoria Ball
Walker Books

Mabel Taylor is thrilled with her shiny new red sledge. She dresses herself warmly and opens her front door only to find – no snow. Back indoors she sits in her sledge and starts to imagine …
She visualises herself as a bobsleigh champion and next morning, quite excited, she races to open the curtains. But what does she see; no snow at all. Back in her sledge she gets and this time she imagines herself as a polar explorer dragging her laden sledge and trudging through the deep snow. ‘Tomorrow it might just snow, she thinks. 

The following morning, a little bit excited she opens the door and peeps out only to find – you’ve guessed it – not a single snowflake has fallen. Again she sits in that sledge and takes on the Father Christmas persona, with her sledge being drawn by four reindeer. Next morning convinced there won’t be any snow she almost fails to notice what is happening through her window: heavy snow is falling – whoopee!
Warmly wrapped up, she crosses the field, climbs the steep hill and pausing to take in the view, gets into that sledge, breathes deeply and Wheeeeeeeeee! She’s off at last.

Although it’s not mentioned, in the words, young children will likely deduce from the excited look on the child’s face in the first illustration, that Mabel’s sledge is a Christmas present. I love the way she copes with the disappointments of no snow, turning them into opportunities for imagined indoor adventures.

We’re Going on a Sleigh Ride
Martha Mumford and Cherie Zamazing
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Having chased elves, hunted for eggs and treasure in previous books, it’s now Christmas Eve, time for Martha Mumford’s bunnies to wrap up warm, load the presents and take off on a round the world sleigh ride with Santa and his reindeer. Much of the rhyming text comprises the refrain “We’re going on a sleigh ride./ HO! HO! HO!” along with some onomatopoeia (‘Honk! Honk!’ ‘Ding-a-ling-aling!’) and more. Readers and listeners meanwhile can have fun hunting alternate spreads for the hidden gifts and watching their tally mount and they reveal them.

The narrative zips along merrily and Cherie Zamazing’s jolly watercolour illustrations show the varied locations visited with all kinds of animals enjoying the spectacle of the sleigh whooshing by. I suspect little ones will relish the sight of Santa with his feet waving from a chimney top, down which, aided by one of the four reindeer, he’s attempting to enter a house.

With lots of flaps to explore, this is a perfect Christmas Eve read together and equally, the simple text makes it ideal for those in the early stages of reading for themselves.

The Christmas Doll

The Christmas Doll
Amy Sparkes and Katie Hickey
Walker Entertainment

I have a lot of admiration for Jay Blades having heard him share some of his back story on the radio recently so was especially excited too see him as one of the characters in this seasonal Repair Shop story.

Evie and her great granny Sue, have come to the Repair Shop with a very special doll named Lizzy, who’s in need of some TLC from Jay’s Teddy Bear Ladies. “That is a very beautiful doll. Can you tell me something about her?” he asks Granny Sue. His inquiry transports Sue back to her childhood. She then recounts the story of how she was evacuated as a young girl from London at the beginning of the war in 1939. Sent to stay with the Russells, a husband and wife who treated her with such loving kindness, that by Christmas Eve, the little girl is feeling much more at home. On Christmas Day she can hardly believe her eyes when she discovers a beautifully wrapped present at the end of her bed. Inside is the doll and she names her Lizzy, taking the doll everywhere but thinking that at the end of the day she will have to return her. Imagine her joy when she’s told Lizzy is hers to keep for ever. What a truly magical Christmas.

Eventually however, it’s time for Sue to bid farewell to Mr and Mrs Russell and return to London. Even now, Granny Sue recalls the couple with fondness, going on to explain that Lizzy’s damaged state is on account of all the love and cuddles she’s been given over the years. Enter Amanda and Julie. Lizzy is left in their safe hands while for the next week they work on the precious doll

and Granny Sue is overjoyed with the result of their creative work. But that’s not quite the end of the story: a new chapter in Lizzy’s life is about to begin …

Amy Sparkes has worked her own magic by fashioning the ‘true story of the Christmas doll’ related at the end of the book, into an utterly charming, heartwarming new tale wherein past and present come together seamlessly. The Repair Shop team are immediately recognisable in Katie Hickey’s portrayal and she infuses the scenes of Granny Sue’s childhood memories with a warm glow. Don’t miss the gorgeous endpapers – the front one captures that wonderful community spirit of Jay’s team.

This is a book I see being shared in countless families and classrooms over and over, as part and parcel of the Christmas season.

The Red Red Dragon

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

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

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

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

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

Penguin Huddle

Penguin Huddle
Ross Montgomery and Sarah Warburton
Walker Books

Meet the penguin pack, a playful lot that spend their days having fun, then at sundown they come together under the starry skies and form a huddle. Thus they keep snug and warm throughout the nights; till one night a particularly fierce gale blows up and the following morning the penguins awake to discover they’re stuck fast together. No amount of pulling and puffing, shuffling and scuffling can unfreeze the ginormous ‘penguin ice pop’.

Acting on tiny Pipsqueak’s suggestion they call on their friends to help; but neither the heaving and hugging of the snow hares, nor the prising and puffing of the walruses made the slightest difference. Can Pipsqueak’s clever idea diffuse the panic that now besets those huddling, muddling penguins?

By means of various modes of transport the penguins journey over land and sea until they eventually reach a shining city, the streets of which are full of animals from all parts of the world.
Several of the creatures are ready to try defrosting the huddle but they meet with no success. Just when the other penguins are on the point of abandoning their search, Pipsqueak has another idea. Can they reach the establishment of Doctopus before the surgery closes? Happily their new friends are there to assist.

What happens when they reach their destination though …

This is a cracking tale of friendship, community and helping those in trouble that will surely melt the hearts of young audiences and the readers aloud who share it with them, be they huddled, cuddled or snuggled. Sarah’s portrayal of all those penguins is absolutely wonderful, especially Pipsqueak.

Ella and the Useless Day

Ella and the Useless Day
Meg McKinlay and Karen Blair
Walker Books

Having had a good look around their house, Dad and Ella decide it’s time for a serious clear out and so they get to work right away. Together, they search, scramble, sort, poke, pick and pile all the useless stuff they find into the trailer to take to the rubbish tip, where useless things go. However, before they’ve even set off, their neighbour delightedly relieves them of the tricycle, calling it “Absolutely perfect!” and so it goes on until by the time they reach the dump, their trailer is almost empty,

even the holey blanket has been given a new lease of life. Then Ella realises that the final item is one they can make use of back in her own bedroom.

Meg McKinlay tells a subtle, gently humorous tale of recycling and reusing, creativity and community, that is highly pertinent in our throwaway society, where we all ought to be giving serious thought to living more sustainably. One wonders what on earth can be done with the “fashion disaster” of a suit,

the leaky goldfish bowl, the broken crockery and other things but young listeners/readers could have fun thinking of possibilities before turning to the final wordless spread where in a series of vignettes, Karen Blair shows just what their new owners did with them. Throughout the story, her watercolour and pencil illustrations provide lots of delightful details and underscore the wry humour of the words.

How To Make A Picture Book

How To Make A Picture Book
Elys Dolan
Walker Books

If you’ve ever considered the possibility of making your own picture book, then look no further. Elys Dolan, aided and abetted by her annelid assistant, Bert, shows you how in this humorous, step by step guide. First make sure you have all your favourite pens, pencils, crayons, brushes etc to hand.

Of course, inspiration is key and according to our trusty tutor it’s time to visit your gallery of muses – in other words, your very special things; these can be used to generate a ‘story idea’. Then there’s the creation of credible characters, the first being the main protagonist and you need to get to know them very well.There’s lots of advice from Doc Dolan on how to do so.

Setting is another consideration – where is your story going to unfold and hugely important is what is going to happen throughout the story and how the events will be structured.

The use of building blocks is suggested – not the things young children love to play with – but sequences of words.

Two other vital elements in the creation of a picture book are also discussed. The placement of words and pictures on each spread means the creator needs to decide what the pictures should look like and how they and the words will use the space on each page. This allows the pace of the telling to be changed at different times: for example zooming in on a particular moment in the story heightens the dramatic impact,

whereas framing a picture creates distance between the action and the reader of the book. Moreover in the best picture books, the illustrations show things not said in the text and the text should say things not shown in the illustrations: not always easy this.

Our pro has one last tip to make the book a winner and it concerns colour: that means the author/illustrator putting themselves into the shoes or maybe that should be head, of the reader and then choosing appropriate colour(s) to generate the feeling wanted.

With a sequence of activities, tips aplenty and jokes too, Elys’ guide is highly entertaining and very informative. (Bert has even sneaked in step-by-step instructions on how to make your own blank book.) It’s a brilliant tool to use in the primary classroom or at home.

The Dream Train

The Dream Train
Sean Taylor and Anuska Allepuz
Walker Books

Rather than sharing a story with your little one(s) before bed why not try some poems for a change. From popular picture book author Sean Taylor comes this collection of thirty poems that are perfect bedtime reading. The book has three sections: Night Arrives, Shut-Your-Eyes Time and Dream Wheels Turning. No matter if you want something magical or musical, something to give you a good giggle or to snuggle up warm with, then you will surely find it herein. Offering something snuggly and warm is The Blanket: ‘Dad says there’s a little bit / of love in every stitch. // … I’m sure it sometimes whispers “Good night, love. Sleep tight.”

From the first section, Story Time provides something musical, which is confirmed in the final verse: ‘Right round the world, / you will always hear it. / Wherever there are children, / you will always hear it … / the soft music of story time.’ If only that were so for all children everywhere.

Magical for me are the words of Once There Was: ‘The day is done. / Darkness comes. // Once there was a lake. / Now there’s a mirror of stars.’ Making this one even more magical is Anuska Allepuz’s watery twilight scene.

To induce a giggle or two you could turn to The Middle of the Night, tell your child to close eyes and imagine as you read of knives and forks asleep in the kitchen, towels asleep in the bathroom, flowers asleep in the gardens. Can they suggest what those things might be dreaming of when ‘the stars are awake in the sky.’ ?

Anuska Allepuz’s illustrations are a visual treat: their subtle, muted shades and soft focus pastels give a dreamlike quality as befits the overall theme of the book.

Add to family bookshelves if you have a young child.

On the Move: Poems About Migration

On the Move: Poems About Migration
Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake
Walker Books

This is a subject very close to the poet’s heart as is evident right from the start when he explores his roots. We read of the experiences of Michael Rosen’s Family and Friends in the first of the book’s four thematic sections. We read too of when he was just a boy and he writes about growing up in London after the end of WW11, and his Polish-Jewish heritage.

The poems in the second and shortest section, The War, are equally poignant comprising parental reminiscences of World War II and incidents during family travels in various parts of postwar Europe

Enormously potent is The Migrants in Me. In this third part, Michael considers missing family members. So says his father: “I had two French uncles. / They were in France / at the beginning of the war. / They weren’t there at the end.”
In the next poem ‘Finding Out,’ Rosen purposefully searches out information about these uncles—Oscar and Martin, learning of old photos of them in a long-hidden box labelled Family Photos.
Then come heart-wrenching poems directly addressing Oscar and Rachel, his wife; these imagine their feelings during escape, discovery by Nazis, and being sent to Auschwitz.

In On the Move Again we read of the poet’s thoughts about migration today, in particular the plight of refugees who flee their homelands in the face of war, famine or other adversity, to start life afresh. It ends with the compelling ‘Today’ – ‘What you did yesterday / can help you choose what to do now. / What you did yesterday and what you do now / can help you plan what to do tomorrow. / But you can only do something now.’

At once commemorative, historical, political and celebratory, Michael’s poems herein have a straightforward power that is echoed in Quentin Blake’s black and white illustrations that have a haunting quality of their own.

The book opens with an explanation of the difference between refugees and migrants and concludes with suggestions of organisations that support refugees.

Ballet Kids

Ballet Kids
Holly Sterling
Walker Books

Before the title page we meet a small boy holding up a doll dressed in ballet attire, who introduces himself thus, ‘I’m Thomas, and I want to be a ballet kid.’

He then goes on to share with readers in a straightforward manner, the events of a ballet class day. Having dressed up warm as befits the snowy day and packed his ballet shoes, off he goes to the dance studio clutching mum’s hand. He introduces us to each of the friends he meets on the way, all of whom are heading to the class too.

Once there, with their ballet shoes on, the children start their lesson. Thomas takes readers through the warm up, and the various moves, describing the exercises,

defining ballet terms, while speech bubbles provide comments from the young participants. Mr Elliot, their teacher is enormously encouraging as are the children one to another and then with Christmas approaching, the pupils choose outfits and thus, roles for the winter show, a performance of The Nutcracker. Thomas picks out what he thinks is the most wonderful costume he’s ever seen. “You’re the Sugar Plum Fairy”, Mr Elliot tells him and puts on the music for him to dance. When it’s time to leave Thomas has started feeling butterflies in his tummy but they’re soon allayed by his teacher’s words, “Just listen and move with the music, the magic will come from within.” And it most certainly does …

In her inclusive illustrations, Holly Sterling captures that magic and the sheer joy of the young dancers both in their class and as they perform the winter show. Young audiences will surely be swept up in that enchantment, especially the aspiring dancers among them.

The Book That No One Wanted To Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cloud Babies

Cloud Babies
Eoin Colfer and Chris Judge
Walker Books

This story is inspired by events in the family life of Chris Judge, the book’s illustrator.
Young Erin’s favourite game is spotting animals in the clouds with her mum and dad and friends. She sees all kinds from cats to crocodiles and snowball polar bears to puff-less dragons. She calls them her cloud babies.

One day, Erin is very ill and has to spend a considerable length of time in the children’s hospital. She’s made to feel very welcome, is looked after with loving care by doctors and nurses and makes lots of friends. Even in hospital Erin takes delight in playing cloud babies with her new friends and either personally or remotely, with her dad. 

Eventually Erin is thrilled to be discharged from hospital but learns from the doctor that she will still need to have further “Hospital days”

Rather apprehensively she returns to school but things have changed considerably and Erin, now six, is sad to find that people there don’t share her imaginative interpretations of clouds. Indeed that comforting world she’d built and become used to in hospital feels distant and unfamiliar; moreover she decides that cloud babies aren’t for her any longer. It’s SO difficult to feel a part of either her hospital friends’ or her school friends’ group.

However her loving, empathetic parents don’t give up on those cloud babies and with their guidance and support from her class teacher and classmates, Erin comes to understand that through sharing her world and her cloud babies, she will find joy in being her true self again.

This story is written with great warmth and sensitivity by Eoin Colfer who has also included a special letter to readers at the front of the book. Chris Judge’s art is a skilful fusion of photographic images and vibrant illustration that blend children’s unlimited imaginative powers with the day to day world of a children’s hospital. No mean feat and the end result is an upllifting book that offers great help and comfort both to children faced with illness and to the adults who share their lives.

I would love to see Cloud Babies in all children’s hospital wards and doctors’ surgeries.

Well Done, Mummy Penguin

Well Done, Mummy Penguin
Chris Haughton
Walker Books

I’m a big fan of Chris Haughton’s animal picture books and immediately fell for the penguin family, especially Little Penguin.

As the story opens Daddy Penguin is explaining that Mummy is off searching for yummy fishy dinner for them all in the chilly waters of the Southern Ocean. She needs to swim very fast and dart at great speed – swoosh swish swoosh

and while she is so doing Little Penguin seeks reassurance that she will return safely. And so she does but to do so she has to jump, climb a slippery slope – cu-crunch cu-crunch cu-crunch and then tip-toe carefully past some slumbering seals – shh! – in case she wakes them.

Little Penguin is concerned to see that Mummy Penguin finds herself face to face with one now wide awake seal

and as a result has to perform an amazing leap. Fear not though for Mummy is unstoppable and Woo-hoo! she lands safe and sound with a tasty offering for her little one. Can you guess what he says having consumed his dinner with relish?

With beautiful Antarctic landscapes, this is a gorgeous celebration of mothers, be they penguins or other; I’m sure little humans will love following Mummy’s progress and joining in with the onomatopoeic words sprinkled throughout the telling.

Planet Football

Planet Football
Michelle Robinson and Chris Mould
Walker Books

Jackson is football mad; everywhere he goes and everything he does involves football: he lives and breathes it.

One dull wet day he decides to play outdoors no matter the thunder, and making a run up to his ball he wonders just how high he can kick it. WHAM! Off it soars skywards, narrowly missing a plane and a space vehicle. This stupendous kick catches the attention of a passing reporter and the following day a huge crowd awaits Jackson all demanding he attempts even more. What follows is a tour of cities and towns the world over and each time his massive kick sends a ball sailing up but it never returns to earth.

Where can all those balls have gone? The answer is, they’re all up on the moon where the moon-folk are becoming football crazy. However the lack of a single ball on Planet Earth means disaster: the world Cup is cancelled. Now what?

Jackson knows he must fix things forthwith but can he do it? Perhaps with the help of all his pals: let operation moon mission commence.

This totally bonkers tale is told in Michelle’s rollicking rhyming narrative and Chris Mould’s highly comical, inclusive scenes of soccer mania. With the countless young soccer fans out there I have no doubt this will be a resounding success

The Mouse Who Carried A House On His Back

The Mouse Who Carried A House On His Back
Jonathan Stutzman and Isabelle Arsenault
Walker Books

Vincent is a mouse ‘with boots on his feet, a hat on his head, and a house in his back.’ He also has an enormous heart and a special skill of knowing just where to stop and put down his house. Said house is no ordinary house however: it expands to accommodate whomsoever needs shelter. On this occasion he puts it down upon a hill and almost immediately along comes a weary bullfrog. Straightway Vincent offers him a roof over his head and in goes the frog, surprised that he can fit within. It’s not long before the house has expanded to welcome in also a hungry cat, a family of wet hedgehogs, a fox, badgers and a herd of deer and Vincent serves them all with dinner.

Just as they’re all seated around the table an enormous bear knocks saying he’s lost. The other animals are terrified. insisting, “there is no room for a bear.”

Vincent however thinks otherwise. “This is my house … all animals are welcome, “ he insists. And so it is on that night all the animals sleep safely and comfortably, ‘full of honeycomb and warm milk under a sky that stretched for miles.”

Jonathan Stutzman adopts a formal tone for his telling using repetition to good effect in this fable-like story of unconditional acceptance and inclusion. Isabelle Arsenault’s playful gouache, ink and cut-paper illustrations bring these themes to life: on the opening spread, she shows Vincent’s house as a simple cut-out pentagon and each time a new visitor appears at Vincent’s doorstep, a new house in a different style appears on the hillside adjacent to the pentagon, gradually creating a conglomeration of homes; then a gatefold spread captures the final proliferation.

A timely message of open hearts making for open doors in these troubled times of ours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creeping Beauty: Fairy Tales Gone Bad

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

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

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

Moreover she will require the help of others …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

India Incredible India

India Incredible India
Jasbinder Bilan, illustrated by Nina Chakrabarti
Walker Books

As a frequent visitor to India I know that to be there is an onslaught on the senses. You almost experience that when you read Jasbinder Bilan and Nina Chakrabarti’s book and as the author implies in her ‘welcome’ introduction, to visit any of the states is like visiting a different country. I totally agree when she says this vast country has a ‘huge welcoming heart’. Indeed it has many, for I have formed some very close friendships over the years with people in various states from Rajasthan to Kerala.

The book is narrated by Thara whose nanijee has a very special old trunk full of precious objects collected over the years as mementos of her travels all over the country. Every Friday night the two sit together and nanijee takes out one object and tells her granddaughter all about it – the state of its origin, what makes it unique and why it’s so special to her.

The first item is a book entitled Ganga and we learn the story of the goddess Ganga and the origin of the holy river Ganges that starts its journey in the Himalayas in the state of Uttarakhand. I was excited to see that second object was an envelope with a stamp showing sculptures from a place I once visited – Chandigarh’s sculpture garden – where everything is made from recycled waste.

As the journey continues, readers will discover something of the history of Delhi, where ancient and modern sit side by side; see some of India’s amazing and diverse wildlife, be astonished by the beauty of some of the architecture, notably the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple in Amritsar – the holiest city for members of the Sikh religion and Udaipur’s Lake Palace. Rajasthan and in particular Udaipur is like my second home.

If you take a trip on a boat along Kerala’s backwaters, you may well encounter elephants taking their morning bath.

But no matter where you go, there will be markets, some selling good things to eat, others, richly patterned clothing, wonderfully crafted jewellery or perhaps dhokra (metal statues like those in Odisha and West Bengal.)

I could continue enthusing about the multitude of wonders India has to offer, and this book with its splendid illustrations, gives a real taste of those wonders, so I suggest you get a copy, read it and start planning your visit.

The Search for the Giant Arctic Jellyfish

The Search for the Giant Arctic Jellyfish
Chloe Savage
Walker Books

Dr Morley is passionate about jellyfish; she’s even more passionate about finding the giant Arctic jellyfish, a creature nobody has ever seen. Having spent years researching and planning with the aid of her dedicated crew, she’s ready to start out on an adventure, bound for the icy waters of the Arctic Circle.

Their first animal sighting is of narwhals; perhaps they can lead the ship to that elusive jellyfish: or could it be the scientific data and samples members of her team collect as they dive hopefully into the chill beneath the ice? Days pass, blizzards howl but still the search continues. The days turn to weeks and then months but even then that hope remains strong. Eventually crew members start to think of home: maybe that giant Arctic jellyfish doesn’t really exist.

However, driven by their loyalty to their leader they don’t give up. At last thanks to the sunshine, comes hope in the form of a massive patch of algae. Convinced this is the opportunity she’s been waiting for, Dr Morley dives down.

Can you imagine how she feels on seeing nothing? Time to head home, she decides.

The words tell the story of the expedition from Dr Morley and the crews’ point of view but Chloe Savage’s stunning, action-packed illustrations documenting the search show that the creature is never far away but always, tantalisingly, just out of sight of the exploring party; or is it?

Cat Problems

Cat Problems
Jory John and Lane Smith
Walker Books

Following a Giraffe and a Penguin with problems, this is the third hilarious title in the Animal Problems series. It features a perturbed moggy who shares its inner feelings about a far from purr-fect existence as a confined creature that’s not been outside for eight whole years.

First it’s “I’m awake, and I only got nineteen hours of sleep.” Then it’s a meagre dry meal, followed by another (ginger) cat that insists on curling up exactly where Cat wants to curl. Oh my goodness, now there’s monster.

Further tirades ensue and eventually a slightly sanctimonious squirrel that has been watching the continuous grumbling through the window holds forth with a powerful lecture on being thankful – most certainly it’s food for thought for our moaning moggy – in more ways than one. Will our grumbler ever cease from grumbling?
Using a muted colour palette Lane Smith brings out the hilarity of the protagonist’s tirade

and the design of every spread further amplifies the visual impact of the book. Providing plenty of food for thought, this droll offering is definitely one young listeners will lap up and likely ask for second helpings.

Cress Watercress

Cress Watercress
Gregory Maguire, illustrated by David Litchfield
Walker Books

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

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

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

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

The Season of the Giraffes / Wild Animals of the World

The Season of Giraffes
Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton
Walker Books

This the first of the publishers new Protecting the Planet series looks at the effects of climate change on the much loved giraffes of Niger; its inspiration was the work of climate activist and film maker, Kisilu Musya.

Once some time back giraffes were very much a part of everyday life in Niger: and considered a blessing in the same way as the birds, the trees and the rain. The children saw them browsing the trees on their morning walk to school or when they brought home the cattle at night; the giraffes had a strange fighting regime and communicated in a language of grunts and snorts.

However the number of these graceful animals sadly started to decline as more and more buildings, roads and farms filled the land and then on account of climate change the rains began to fail too. The result was terrible droughts that parched the land causing much suffering to both animals and humans.

Soon very few giraffes were left in Africa but in the country of Niger, there was still time to save the few that remained. The humans stopped hunting, protected the trees giraffes fed on as well as the creatures’ favoured places and gradually, then more rapidly, the giraffe population increased. So much so that some have been transported by truck to other parts where they live under the watchful eye and care of wildlife rangers and scientists. The hope is that one day these beautiful animals might be able to return to the places they once roamed.

Nicola’s story of optimism shows how with resolve, we humans can change things for the better; it’s gorgeously illustrated by Emily Sutton who captures both the grace of the animals and their homeland, and the lifestyle of some of the people of Niger.
(There’s additional information about giraffes, climate change and what we can all do to help both causes.)

Wild Animals of the World
Dieter Braun
Flying Eye Books

This sumptuous volume brings together Braun’s Wild Animals of the North and Wild Animals of the South taking us on a world tour that begins in North America, moving in turn to South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and finally, Antarctica.

Magnificent art takes the forefront in an awe-inspiring introduction to an array of creatures great

and small of the land, sea and air. Sadly some – the Asian elephant, the Emperor penguin for instance – are on the endangered list, others are threatened, though this isn’t stated in the book.

Dieter Braun manages to encapsulate the very essence and spirit of every one of the hundred and thirty plus animals portrayed. Some have an accompanying factual paragraph, others leave the labelled illustration to speak for itself. (Both scientific and common names are given.) A great gift for young wildlife lovers.

A Practical Present for Philippa Pheasant

A Practical Present for Philippa Pheasant
Briony May Smith
Walker Books

Philippa Pheasant lives in the forest close to Fairhurst village. Whenever she tries to cross the Old Oak Road in search of juicy blackberries, she’s almost knocked ‘pancake-flat’ by the cars that speed past seemingly out of nowhere. One day she decides that enough is enough; her friend hedgehog suggests writing to the Mayor, which Philippa does but her letter receives no reply.

The following day as she wanders along the lane near the school Philippa notices something that interests her greatly. A woman wearing a bright yellow uniform is standing in the middle of the road stopping the traffic so that the children can cross safely outside their school. This gives Philippa an idea; right away she sets about making something

and the next morning there’s a large gathering of woodland creatures waiting to hear what their pheasant friend has to say. Why is she wearing that strange attire?

Suddenly Philippa is thrust into the local limelight.

And the rest, shall we say, is full of surprises.

With her wonderful portrayal of rural life by day and by night, and a brave, determined avian protagonist, Briony May Smith has created another winner. I love the autumnal tones of the scenes, the wealth of amusing and interesting details, and the way Briony has used light and shadow to give her illustrations extra depth, all of which make the story even more of a delight.

The Mooncatcher’s Rescue / The View from the Very Best House in Town

There are two fiction titles for older primary age readers from Walker Books – thanks to the publisher for sending them for review.

The Mooncatcher’s Rescue
Karen Lamb, illustrated by Lia Visirin

Something of a loner, River is a boy who likes going mooncatching, skimming his net over the reflections of the night sky in the Bigdeepby village pond. One night while so doing he accidentally awakens the ghost of Mona Brightly and learns that she drowned in that spot and is now searching for her lost treasure so she can go and join her erstwhile husband Raphty. She suggests River dip his net again and what does he pull out but a badger. Not the toy he first thinks it is but a real one that Mona says is an old friend of hers called Boot and that River should take it home with him.

Next morning there’s lots of talk outside class about ghosts in the pond, but then in the classroom is a new girl Kaleisha, who serves as a temporary distraction from the ghosty discussion and gives River hope that he might finally have found a friend in this new girl.
Next time River meets Mona, she talks of a dastardly pirate, one Dashbuckle Fearless, also on the hunt for her treasure and the lad becomes determined to find Mona’s lost treasure before the pirate.

Absolutely full of heart, this magical, sometimes funny adventure is superbly imagined and shows that sometimes friendship can be found in the most unlikely places. Lia Visirin’s splendid black and white illustrations add an additional sprinkling of enchantment to the telling.

The View from the Very Best House in Town
Meera Trehan

Sam and Asha have been best friends for years; they both have an autism diagnosis and each has a special, intense interest. Sam’s is in killing Screech-Leeches in his favourite Househaunt game, Asha’s obsession is with architecture, in particular that of Donneybrooke, the mansion that overlooks the town where she lives. Said mansion is home to Prestyn who is Asha’s arch enemy. (Asha has been banned from visiting since an incident at a party some years before).The story is told from three viewpoints, those of Sam, Asha and the mansion, Donneybrooke.

When Sam is accepted at the prestigious Castleton Academy, everything starts to fall apart between the two friends. After they work together on a school project, Prestyn appears to be befriending Sam but has she a hidden motive in inviting him to her home? Sam feels conflicted: he’s not telling his mother where he really goes instead of football and he knows he’s starting to ignore Asha, but finds Prestyn’s invitations to Donneybrooke hard to resist; she’s certainly very manipulative. It’s when her mind games put Sam in real danger that he realises there’s only one person he can really trust. That person is Asha and he calls out to her.

I felt myself growing increasingly angry at the unkind way some pupils, and adults too, treated both neurodivergent youngsters, but sadly this does reflect real life and this story – a friendship tale with a thriller element is definitely one that will make readers ponder upon what makes a true friend, as well as what is a real home. Powerful indeed.

Leila The Perfect Witch / Winnie and Wilbur: The Festival of Witches

Leila The Perfect Witch
Flavia Z.Drago
Walker Books

Young Leila is a multi-talented little witch with awards for fast flying, cunning conjuring, sneaky shape-shifting and crafty carving. However, there’s one trophy she longs to add to the display cabinet – her dream is to win the Magnificent Witchy Cake-Off. Leila comes from a long line of baking experts and this year she’s at last old enough to enter the contest and has high hopes of claiming the prize. Then comes a big shock: in contrast to her other endeavours, Leila finds that the requisite skills for becoming an expert in the Dark Arts of Patisserie elude her. Not so her determination however. She eschews having fun with her siblings and devotes her time to creating that perfect recipe – with disheartening results. What will her family think? It’s not what she anticipated.

Instead, her sisters offer to help. Leila accepts, learns a lot and thoroughly enjoys the time they spend together.

When the night of the event arrives, she overcomes her nerves and does her best.
Leila doesn’t win that trophy but she does learn something very important: there’s more than one way to feel like a winner and sharing an experience and being supported by a loving family are wins for her.

Take one little witch, a supportive family, a froggy friend, a bowlful of whimsy, lashings of visual humour, spoon in a visitor from another picture book, mix them all together and the result is a very sweet, satisfying story with an agreeable message.

Winnie and Wilbur: The Festival of Witches
Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul
Oxford Children’s Books

Winnie and Wilbur have been enchanting children for about thirty-five years and still the magic holds good. Now it’s time for the two of them to have a holiday – a very special one on an island in the middle of the ocean. So, with suitcase packed off they fly to the Festival of Witches. It’s an amazing event attended by witches from all over the world and a considerable number of cats too.

There are opportunities to learn new spells, dance, sing, eat lots and generally have a great time. When she’s about to depart, Winnie receives lots of invitations from other witches to come and pay them a visit; these Winnie stashes in her suitcase. Now this had happened on previous occasions but Winnie had never responded to any such invitations. However after a few days in her own home, Winnie begins to miss the company of the other witches. Out come those invitations and she goes through them.

Selecting four places to visit, Winnie and Wilbur go first to a tree house, then to a mountain top residence, a seashore castle owned by three witches and finally, a lighthouse.

Once again though, the peace and quiet of home on their return is a tad underwhelming; but then …

Korky Paul’s vibrant, richly detailed illustrations of the diverse witch community and their interactions will keep youngsters entertained for hours, long after they’ve heard this thoroughly enjoyable story read aloud.

Sona Sharma: A Friend Indeed / Barry Loser Worst School Trip Ever

Sona Sharma: A Friend Indeed
Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Jen Khatun
Walker Books

Sona is in a state of emotional turmoil. Her family is busy planning a first birthday celebration for her little sister Minmini causing Sona to feel left out and her class teacher has just announced an election for their class leader. Sona puts herself forward to stand as she wants to prevent Pradeep from becoming their leader but this has caused her to be at odds with both of her best friends. Joy has also put herself up as a candidate and Renu seems to be taking her side. This is one of those instances when Sona has acted before thinking things through and now she must face fighting against her best friend whom she knows would be a great class leader.

Can her beloved stuffed toy Elephant and the President (Sona’s other grandmother) help her decide what to do so that the rift between the three girls can be healed allowing them all to enjoy doing something special for Minmini’s birthday?

Set in Tamil Nadu, as always with these stories warmth, loving relationships and gentle humour are key ingredients, and readers also learn something of the traditions and foods of Sona’s Hindu family. A delightful addition to this series of illustrated chapter books for younger readers.

Barry Loser Worst School Trip Ever
Jim Smith

The Barry Loser series reaches its stupendously silly ninth book with this one. Now with baby brother Desmond most decidedly ruling the household at breakfast time, Barry sets out for school anticipating a dreadfully boring visit to a museum with his classmates; the aim being to find out about the history of television.

It seems as though Barry’s worst fears about the trip will be realised unless he and his mates can pull off their plan; the intention being to sneak out of the museum and onto the set of Future Ratboy

What unfolds is not quite what Barry hopes but there’s a plethora of daft pranks, one involving a gathering of grannies in a loo queue, a grossness of egg and cress sandwiches of the minuscule kind and a large spattering of jokes about bodily functions, as well as a crazy cartoonish drawing on each page, all of which fans of the stories will love.

The Circles in the Sky

The Circles in the Sky
Karl James Mountford
Walker Books

After reading this intensely powerful fable-like picture book I needed to sit quietly and just be for a while.

Having spent a night hunting, Fox is reluctant to leave his den, despite the disturbing chorus of birds outside; but follow the sound he must so strange and different does it sound. He follows the birds across the rushing river, past the forgotten house and through the old woodlands to a place where many kinds of flowers grow: an entirely new place for Fox. He also misses the birds huddled in a circle on the ground till they suddenly take to the air, but one is left there, lying quite still. Nothing Fox tries can make this broken Bird move but unbeknown to him his attempts have been watched by Moth.

Moth starts to talk to Fox; she talks of the moon reflecting the sun’s rays, even long after sundown. Fox remains puzzled until Moth explains that the bird is dead. “I was trying to be kind,” she tells Fox. “Sad things are hard to hear. They are pretty hard to say, too. They should be told in little pieces. Bird isn’t here any more … because … Bird is dead.” As the realisation dawns for Fox, Moth offers him comfort and the two sit and share their sadness for a while. Further understanding follows for Fox – like the moon always remembering the sun, he can remember Bird.

Yes, death is a confusing time for those left, as Mountford shows, but equally he offers through Moth a model of being there for the grievers, a simple ritual for saying goodbye and most important of all, hope.

Using earthy hues of the natural world that starkly contrast with the black of sinewy Fox, Moth and Bird, geometric shapes including circles aplenty, straight lines and angles, James’ art captures so wonderfully both the stillness of things gone and the movement of living things.

Not a single hint of talking down to children is there in this awesome book, just a beautiful message beautifully presented.

My First Baking Book / Kids Can Cook Vegetarian

My First Baking Book
David Atherton, illustrated by Harry Woodgate
Walker Books

Great British Bake Off winner David Atherton has a new cookery book for young cooks and it’s bursting with exciting recipes, each with a healthy twist. It’s divided into five sections – breads, cakes, sweet biscuits and bites, pastries and finally, some extra special ‘showstoppers’ but first of all David offers users some helpful tips, ‘tricks’, a few facts and an equipment list.

I’ve certainly never thought of baking a loaf in a flowerpot but this is one of the ideas in the bread section and it was interesting to find chocolate chip buns in the same section – a recipe to try when I have young relations staying; that’s if I can tempt them way from all the alluring cakes in this book. The chocolate garden cups remind me of when we visit Udaipur, Rajasthan where the owner of our favourite cafe would quickly rustle up chocolate cup cakes (sans gummy worms) for us when they’d run out of the pre-baked ones. I think those were cooked actually in the cups rather than a baking tin like they are in David’s recipe.

My very favourite idea is the show stopping focaccia sunflower picture. This is actually a flatbread that looks like a work of art in Harry Woodgate’s illustrations. It’s the perfect thing to offer any Ukranian guests you might be hosting, or to bake with a primary school class where there are Ukranian children.

As with his previous books David puts exciting, creative twists on baked goodies that might otherwise seem relatively ordinary and there are plenty of those in this book, each one clearly and alluringly illustrated by Harry Woodgate.

Kids Can Cook Vegetarian
illustrated by Esther Coombs
Button Books

Comprising an introduction giving information on safety, equipment and basic techniques and more than thirty recipes divided into three sections, this is for a vegan like myself, a very welcome addition to the Kids Can cooking series.

First come the ‘snacks and sides’ – savoury treats and three dips. Main meals is the largest part and includes breakfast burritos, falafels – my mouth is already watering at the prospect of making these, a yummy sounding roasted vegetable bowl, bean burgers and carrot hot dogs – now there’s another great idea. 

For those with a penchant for pasta, several of the recipes in this section include some kind of pasta, though I rather like the thought of courgetti, which looks like a noodle dish but uses long thin strips of courgette. This is definitely going on my list to try.

There are six ‘sweet treats’, two of which are for pancakes (blueberry and banana) but the recipe that is top of my must make treat list is the courgette brownies.

With easy to follow, step by step instructions for each recipe, illustrated by Esther Coombs, this book offers hours of fun in the kitchen (under the watchful eye of an adult) and an assortment of goodies to look forward to consuming. Wash those hands, put on your apron and off you go.

Greek Heroes: Top Ten Myths and Legends

Greek Heroes: Top Ten Myths and Legends
Marcia Williams
Walker Books

Well-known for her adaptations of classic tales into comic strip format for younger readers, Marcia Williams has chosen ten heroes almost all of whom are male to present in this collection and all having the requisite characteristics – strength, looks, charm and brains. Marcia lists ten heroic essentials on the opening spread then goes on to introduce the gods of Olympus, they who hold in their hands the fate of every would-be hero, most importantly those we meet in this book.

I love the way a cheeky Pan puts down his musical pipes and moves around the beautiful borders augmenting Marcia’s comic strips with his interjections, as readers meet first Perseus, slayer of the gorgon Medusa; Bellerophon destroyer of the Chimera, who loses his winged horse Pegasus in so-doing, and then Atlanta – she who uses her spear to kill a monstrous boar.

The remaining encounters are with Jason, Achilles – he of the vulnerable heel; daring Heracles who spent ten years undertaking the ten labours set by King Eurystheus; Theseus, the stunningly beautiful Psyche, tragic lovers Orpheus and Eurydice and finally, Odysseus of Trojan horse fame who blinds the Cyclops, resists the song of the Sirens is captured and kept for seven years by a nymph, Calypso and finally returns home to his wife Penelope who has trouble recognising him after so long apart.

This is enormous fun for individual readers and a terrific primary classroom resource.

Together With You

Together With You
Patricia Toht and Jarvis
Walker Books

No matter the weather or the season, the small child in this absolutely gorgeous book enjoys every moment with his beloved grandmother. In spring suitably clad and wearing wellies, a sudden
shower doesn’t wet the two as they dash side by side beneath a large umbrella.

Summer is a time for shorts, sprinkler hosing and sucking sweet ice-lollies together then cooling down under a shady tree. Come autumn it’s time for warmer clothes – a sweater and cosy hat for gran and a fleece and snuggly scarf for the boy narrator as they take advantage of the strong winds for some kite flying fun.

Winter’s chilly days are for wrapping up in soft thick quilts, pulling on furry slippers and sharing a story together especially when it’s followed by delicious hot drinks – peppermint tea for gran and cocoa topped with marshmallows for her grandson. It’s definitely a cuddle right up close season.
Having said all that, it matters not what the weather is, as Patricia Toht’s rhyming narrative confirms, ‘every day spent with you is the very best thing.’ Memories are created from the everyday events they turn into adventures.

Come rain or shine, sweltering heat or frost and snow, Jarvis’ illustrations exude warmth and love at every turn of the page. The jewel-like colours are simply beautiful and the details in every scene, sheer delight.

Grandmothers in particular will love spending time sharing this treasure of a book with their young grandchildren over and over again.

Tell Me a Lion Story

Tell Me a Lion Story
Kara Kramer
Walker Books

Gently opening one of his eyes, a little girl wakes her snoozing dad and demands he tells her a story – not one of the familiar ‘Once upon a time’ kind but a NEW story about a lion. However it matters not what dad says or how exciting it sounds, the little girl isn’t happy with what’s said: the lion need not be bigger than the sofa, nor smaller than a button 

and that ‘not-so-big-not-so-little lion’ is definitely not called Fred. 

Somewhat nonplussed by his daughter’s constant naysaying Dad suggests they compose the story together with him providing the structural elements and the girl filling in the gaps with details of her choosing (this is where the reader of the book comes in with their own ideas.) Where the lion lives ‘The buildings are made of ——-, gardens that grow singing ——— , shops that sell ———-, and fountains filled with delicious ————- .’ The lion invents a flying ———- . ‘ ROAR! Off he flies into space

destination an unknown planet that he names ———– and sets out to explore.
Inevitably all this is tiring work and eventually the hero returns home, dons his pyjamas and thus the book turns into a bedtime tale. Y-A-W-N.

Kara Kramer’s mixed media illustrations are huge fun and observant readers/listeners will notice details such as the headlines on Dad’s newspaper and that his daughter’s toy lion morphs into the protagonist of the story they co-create. Hugely (dare I say it without fear of interruption from a little girl) imaginative and full of interactive possibilities: a great book to share with one child, several or perhaps even a class.

Snakes on the Job / Ebb and Flo and the Greedy Gulls

Snakes on the Job
Kathryn Dennis
Walker Books

The Snakes on a Train have become construction vehicle operators in charge of a variety of vehicles – bulldozers, diggers, dump trucks, loaders, cranes and more. ‘They slide into trucks and roll out slow. Hisssssssssssss goes the sound of the brakes.’

Midway through the operation, up rolls a food truck to provide lunch for the workers then it’s back to work once again.
The fruits of their labours is a wonderful surprise revealed just before the end of the story and it looks such a terrific endeavour that some friendly hamsters want to join the fun. What will the response of the snakes be? …
With that repeat sibilant sound and other wordplay, this is an enjoyable read aloud for little ones. They’ll love the bright digital art and the simple tale wherein teamwork is paramount. One to add to your nursery collection or home shelves if you have very young children,

Ebb and Flo and the Greedy Gulls
Jane Simmons

Jane Simmons is a brilliant illustrator and it’s really good to see Graffeg gradually bringing this series with its hugely likeable Ebb and Flo characters back into print. As always there are small disasters – in this instance Ebb gets wrongly blamed for consuming all the sandwiches during the beach picnic. Inevitably the dog is upset and goes off to sulk in her favourite place. Eventually Mum and Flo realise who the real sandwich snatchers are but by this time Ebb has drifted out to sea in the boat. Sulking certainly hasn’t paid off, but will Ebb reach the shore safely? Let’s just say, all’s well that ends well: three characters have learned a lesson but not so the marauding picnic pinchers.

Batpig: When Pigs Fly

Batpig: When Pigs Fly
Rob Harrell
Walker Books

Look skywards and what do you see? It’s porcine hero Batpig hurtling by. Back in the day he was Gary Yorkshire – just a borin’ old pink pig living with his parents in an apartment in Big City, USA who spent his time chomping through tasty sandwiches, reading comics, playing video games and playing cards with his pals. Brooklyn the bat and Carl the fish.

Having been accidentally bitten on the snout by Brooklyn, Gary develops super hunger, super sight, and strength, and the ability to float. Unbeknown to Gary, his friend the bat was radioactive at the time, something he only fesses up to when questioned by the pig. That night comes a revelation, with his superhero powers Gary is now Batpig. Gary tells Brooklyn of this development but keeps it from Carl who soon gets the feeling that his friends are hiding something.

Gary meanwhile is receiving flying lessons from Brooklyn who remains firmly on the ground.

Although Carl realises the current situation could well be on account of his inability to keep a secret, understandably his hurt feelings develop into anger and he decides to become the super-villain of the saga. Will he prove to be the instrument of Batpig’s undoing as the superhero goes about apprehending litter scatterers and preventing robberies? Or maybe Carl and Brooklyn could agree to work together and save the day for our superhero and that includes finding a means of covering up the ‘pimple’ on Gary’s rear end. All this is revealed through a superb blend of narration with puns aplenty, dialogue, illustrations, comic asides, and flash-backs – that’s the rocket part.

In the second episode the friends face off against a heinous human foe, the Butcher, a woman who is determined to use the power of the world’s meat for her own ends and has a robotic dough-dispensing machine that makes pigs in blankets.

Yes this might all seem totally silly but there are themes of the importance of maintaining your own identity, friendship and the issues of three-way camaraderie; and all three characters are relatable to human readers. If you know readers who enjoy graphic novels such as The Investigators, they’ll love this, as will all those who prefer stories with the emphasis on the visual.

The Story Shop Anchors Away! / There’s a Dog in my Brain: Dog Show Disaster

The Story Shop Anchors Away!
Tracey Corderoy, illustrated by Tony Neal
Little Tiger

I loved the idea of The Story Shop, the place selling real adventures that its customers can actually be in, when it blasted off during the spring this year. So it’s a delight to be back in the company of shopkeeper Wilbur and Fred Ferret his assistant, with their plethora of props and plot possibilities for three more episodes.

The first begins when explorer Pearl practically tumbles in just when Wilbur and Fred are about to shut for the day demanding they find her an adventure she’s not experienced before. Thus this fearless woman becomes Captain Pearl and after a bit of persuasion, she agrees to take Fred aboard her ship as her pirate assistant, along with pirate, Edie. But what are scarf knitting pirates and other crafters doing already below deck when she wants a PROPER piratical adventure? Yo Ho Ho! Let operation retrieve their priceless black pearl commence.

Having bobbed about in barrels for ages after their successful mission, Pearl and Fred wash up on shore only to be confronted by a bunch of scary-looking pirates led by Long Jane Silver who is convinced the two are spies sent by Blunderbuss Bob, her rival in the up-coming annual raft race.
Stinky Socks!

Can the two come up with a placatory plan to help their captor win the entire event?

The third episode finds Pearl and Fred sans ship, knocking on the door of a guesthouse belonging to Meg O’Cuttlefish. Once within, they accept an attic room and soon find themselves swapping pirating stories with Meg before bedtime. However something decidedly ghostly disturbs their slumbers; what could be the cause of that mysterious wailing sound?

Full of swashbuckling fun, a scattering of puns and Tony Neal’s comical illustrations, this is a treat for story lovers of the land-lubbing kind taking their early voyages as independent readers.

There’s a Dog in my Brain: Dog Show Disaster
Caroline Green, illustrated by Rikin Parekh
Walker Books

Here’s a crazy chaotic canine caper if ever there was one: actually it’s the second canine body switch episode. It all begins when Dudley the dog consumes almost every single one of the cakes Danny’s dad has so lovingly baked and Mum decides there’s no other choice but to send the pooch to Doggy Boot Camp. Needless to say ten-year old Danny is horrified but shortly after he realises that he’s swapped bodies with Dudley, something his parents fail to notice even though the ill-fated creature is absolutely useless at being a human.

However after the incident at the fancy farm shop that ends up costing in excess of four hundred pounds, the hose escapade

and Danny’s feats at canine classes, there’s no option but to reveal to the parents that a body swap has taken place again. But that means Danny as his alter-ego Dudley has to perform at the dog show and take on dog trainer Rex Power’s perfect pooch, Princess Fenella. nothing can possibly go wrong, surely.

Those with a penchant for pooches, slapstick and perhaps cake will relish Caroline Green’s romp, that’s if it doesn’t render them barking mad. Rikin Parekh’s black and white illustrations add to
the hilarity

The Magic of Magnolia Moon / Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door and the Mermaid’s Treasure

The Magic of Magnolia Moon
Edwina Wyatt, illustrated by Katherine Quinn
Walker Books

If you take time you will find magic in the everyday things of life – that’s how it is for ten year old Magnolia Moon who returns in this her second book. Her kind of magic is found in many different places – in puddles and boots, in umbrellas and hats, bubbles and fairytale books, even in a tree. It’s that rare, quiet sort that’s easily missed if you don’t know how to look and more important, where. I’ve not read the previous one The Secrets of Magnolia Moon but it made no difference to my enjoyment of this story.
Magnolia faces many challenges in this year of being ten: she has a new teacher – could she be a witch, Miss Mackerel has a broom and a black cat? She has to come to terms with the fact that her best friend Imogen May, who has now moved, will form new friendships as will Magnolia herself, but how many best friends can you have? However there’s still plenty of magic for Magnolia – she’s creative, independent and imaginative, she’s quirky, kind and lots of fun; a very special girl, the person you’d love as your best friend.

Cleverly structured – each chapter presents its own scenario that seques neatly into the next and into the whole narrative, with Magnolia always keeping her eyes and ears open to magical possibilities be they mind magic, green magic or perhaps most important of all, the magic that could help her friend Reuben smile again after his parents’ divorce. True magic is found in kindness, bravery, second chances and real love. Creativity, imagination, and magic of course, have power, and this book is a wonderful celebration of all these. I love too the talking grandfather clock – or is it? The author leaves it to the reader to decide about that, and whether Magnolia’s magic is real or imagined – another wonderful feature of the book. 

Add to all this the scattering of Katherine Quinn’s gorgeous black and white illustrations and you have an enchanting, immersive story that invites readers to look at the world around them in a different way and to be open to possibilities at any time.

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

This is the fourth in the magical series of adventures inspired by world mythology and it begins as Aziza and her family are preparing for a camping holiday but the weather conditions are let’s say disappointing. As Aziza half-heartedly finishes her packing she notices tiny seashells guiding her towards something: her fairy door is shining again – it’s time to return to Shimmerton.

Almost the next moment Aziza finds herself on the crowded sandy beach where amidst the masses she sees first the Gigglers creating a drama as always, then at the edge of the shore Peri and Tiko and sitting close by on the rocks, a mermaid. The mermaid introduces herself as Sirena and Aziza is hugely impressed when she hears of some of Sirena’s adventures. Suddenly as they chat the ground begins to shake; Aziza fears it’s an earthquake but her new friend assures her it’s a shell-walker sneezing in its sleep deep underground. But when ice-creams and picnic baskets start flying around, the possibility is that the creature is not asleep but about to emerge, grow huge and endanger the whole of Shimmerton. Fortunately Sirena knows of a magic conch shell that plays a song which could just be the answer to their problem.
With no time to lose and with Sirena’s help, the friends embark on an underwater adventure. 

It’s one filled with challenges for Aziza but with her reassuring, empowering friends, can she and they avert disaster?

There are new mythological creatures (details of their origins in folklore are given after the adventure) in this exciting, inclusive, summery seaside story that is perfect for young fantasy lovers just taking off as independent readers.

Nura and the Immortal Palace

Nura and the Immortal Palace
Walker Books

Clever, ambitious Nura lives in the fictional Pakistan town of Meerabagh. Since her father died she has worked mining mica to help support her family – her mother, her three younger siblings and herself. In the mine too, toils her best friend Faisal, often teased for his stutter by other child workers. Nura’s mother dreams of sending her to school, but Nura is more interested in treating herself to gulab jamun from her wages and more important saving up to send her younger siblings to school so they can break free of the family’s cycle of poverty. She also wants to find the legendary Demon’s Tongue buried deep within the mines; so doing would certainly solve all the family’s money issues.

When a terrible accident happens burying among others Faisal, Nura goes to the rescue and in so doing she digs too deep causing the earth to collapse over her friend. Digging even deeper, even further to save him, lands Nula in the realm of the jinn, at the opulent Sijj Palace, a jinn hotel. There she finds Faisal, and the two face trickery from the evil jinn, who offer luxuries untold and attempt to manipulate human children into labouring for the hotel; indeed nothing is as it seems. Can Nura outsmart the jinn, thus saving herself and her friends?

Into her wonderful storyworld building, in addition to friendship and magic the author skilfully weaves observations on child labour and poverty, and systems that maintain inequality that are relevant today. The narrative is fast paced and full of action, and with a wealth of lyrical imagery, this superb fantasy shines like the mica glistening in the sunlight that Nura mentions as the story starts. The cover illustration by Hazem Asif is fabulous too. I can’t wait to see what this debut author writes next.

(In her note at the end of the thought-provoking book, she talks of both child poverty in today’s world and of the importance of education as a way of escape from poverty, discrimination and war.)

Too Small Tola Gets Tough / The Princess in Black and the Mermaid Princess

Popular characters return in two early chapter books for new solo readers: thanks to Walker Books for sending them for review.

Too Small Tola Gets Tough
Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

These three stories of the wonderful Tola, who lives with her siblings and Grandmummy in a flat in Lagos, show her as more determined than ever. 

In the first she makes an exciting mathematical discovery and this in turn leads her to a realisation about life itself. However her excitement about these is quickly overtaken by news of a virus and the word ‘lockdown’ is spoken in the family residence. But it’s only in places like London where that happens surely. However the following day comes an announcement: Lagos is in lockdown. Now important decisions have to be made: will Lola’s family stay together or will her studious sister Moji, and brother Dapo now employed mending cars, go their separate ways?

In the second episode the question of lack of money becomes a huge issue: food is scare and Tola and Grandmummy, like countless other folk, keep going on one meal a day. Even Tola’s Papa, earning money far away driving his taxi is unable to help as his business too is out of action. Then comes a chance for Lola to contribute some much needed cash; reluctantly she decides to take it 

finding herself working for a super-rich family. 

However she soon discovers that rich people too now have problems, especially when they’re being cheated. Hurrah for Tola’s mathematical skills, and of course her kindness, cleverness, resourcefulness and mighty determination.

If you’ve not met Lola before, this third book offers a wonderful chance to introduce her to new solo readers. Those already familiar with her will welcome this new book with its lively drawings by Onyinye Iwu.

The Princess in Black and the Mermaid Princess
Shannon & Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Now in her ninth adventure, the ever popular young Princess in Black is plunged into an underwater mission involving a mermaid princess (along with of course those elements her fans love: heroes in disguise, hungry monsters, imperiled goats, and ninja skills). 

As the story begins the three heroes are sailing in Princess Sneezewort’s ship. The Princess in Blankets wants to battle sea monsters, whereas the Princess in Black hopes to see a mermaid. It’s the Princess in Black who gets her wish for they soon encounter the beautiful mermaid Princess Posy and the creatures of her realm.

The three offer to help her protect the capricorns from the hungry kraken. However they quickly realise that monster-fighting moves aren’t much use underwater. 

The Princess in Black sends her new friend a message about assertiveness and helping others. Perhaps Princess Posy knows some new ninja moves that will help.

With appealing new characters, a totally different setting, teamwork, the wonders of the power of the imagination, links with previous episodes and a wealth of lively undersea filmic style scenes by LeUyen Pham, this is certain to be winner.

Princesses Break Free

Princesses Break Free
Timothy Knapman and Jenny Lovlie
Walker Books

Timothy Knapman does a splendid job of stirring things up when it comes to princesses. Princess Tilly in this wonderful story – or rather the second part of same – not only challenges the stereotypical inactive damsel in distress ‘wait for a handsome prince to come and rescue me, then we’ll both live happily ever after’ princess image, but knocks it clean out of the court.

When this young princess is seized by a dragon she rescues herself by the creative use of some rather large knickers. But then she’s apprehended by her Fairy Godmother who admonishes Tilly and puts her in Princess Prison to learn proper princessy behaviour. That of course, Tilly is not prepared to tolerate and once again she rescues herself.

This mightily impresses another princess, one of the waiting to be rescued kind, or make that formerly of that kind. For, empowered by Tilly she makes a break for it and the two flap to freedom courtesy of two passing swans.

Before long new princess stories are spreading across the kingdom featuring mountain climbing princesses, jungle explorers and those who sailed the seven seas – the very things they’d always wanted to do. Left with nothing else to do all the dragons, witches and evil queens find alternative ways of occupying themselves and to their surprise have fun so doing, so much so that the now redundant princess-rescuing princes join them.

Indeed nothing is as before in this particular fairytale realm but taking one’s fate into one’s own hands doesn’t preclude the possibility of a ‘happily ever after’ ending, rather it does the complete opposite. Really truly it does.

With its deliciously divergent Princess Tilly showing the way, Timothy’s tale is a real winner in my book, Equally winning are Jenny Lovlie’s action-packed scenes of fairytale characters coming into their own as they decide to follow Tilly’s example and think outside their various boxes.

Wishes Come in Threes

Wishes Come in Threes
Andy Jones
Walker Books

Phyll has recently moved from London to the coast with her mum, which Dad hopes, will help with Mum find her Happy again as our soon to be twelve year old narrator tells us. Mum is a writer and has been suffering from depression for a while and so is unable to provide the emotional support her daughter needs at this challenging time.

Now Phyll has just started attending summer camp near her new home and Camp Sunshine is providing yet another challenge in the form of Hilda and her two pals, who Phyll thinks of as Hilda and the Horribles. On the positive side though, at the camp too is a friendly boy, Clark, with a seashell bracelet and he says he is going to the same high school as Phyll come the autumn.

When rain curtails outside activities, the camp leader offers the opportunity to visit an old folks home, which both Phyll and Clark accept. There she meets the rather mysterious Mr Djinn who talks of pirates, loves to play cribbage, tells her that magic is real and that he’s a genie – an idea she decides to go along with. Phyll also sets up a free dog walking service, helps a woman with a lost dog, longs for a dog of her own and is instrumental in the arrest of a dog-napper.

A lot more happens too but I urge you to get your own copy to discover what. I have to admit to having tears in my eyes as I finished this wonderful story of friendship, self belief, wishes and the possibility of magic. The characterisation is superb: Mr Djinn especially has some powerful things to say, in relation for instance, to the slave trade – ‘the greed of men is a terrible evil.’

My wish having put the book aside is that Andy Jones writes another story as beautiful and moving as this, his first for children.

The Fog Catcher’s Daughter

The Fog Catcher’s Daughter
Marianne McShane and Alan Marks
Walker Books

Somewhere on the Irish coast (three fields away from the sea to be precise) near the enchanted isle of Lisnashee where the Good People, or fairy folk, dwell, live young Eily and her fog catcher father.
The villagers stay well away from the island, fearing the consequences, should they anger the sinister sprites known for spoiling livestock, wrecking ships, and stealing people away in the night.
However members of Eily’s family have for generations, journeyed to the island once a year in their role as fog-catchers. Their task is to collect magical beads of mist that will help grow herbs Annie uses for protection charms, and to make potions, and healing ointments in her apothecary.

With the fairy wind on the rise, Eily knows that this year her father faces a treacherous crossing to Lisnashee. So she heads down to Annie’s apothecary to choose him a journey treasure and when she leaves Annie gives the child a blessing, “A smooth way before you, child.”

By the time she reaches the shore her Papa has already loaded his boat so she bids him a safe journey, gives him a farewell hug and puts the stone into his hand. Returning home she discovers that Papa’s charm has been snatched from his grasp by the fairy wind and fears for his safety. She does as she’s bid, leaves butter on the doorstep and curls up holding the charm.

However soon after, what she finds on the doorstep prompts her to undertake a perilous journey in Lapwing, rowing out on the storm tossed sea to rescue her beloved Papa.

Suffused with folklore of the Emerald Isle, Marianne McShane’s elegantly told, powerfully atmospheric story is both haunting and timeless, made all the more so by Alan Marks’ delicate, almost ethereal, watercolour scenes. How perfectly he captures the white-capped, rolling waves, the ghostly, menacing faeries, and the determination of Eily.

Child listeners and anybody with an interest in folklore will surely love this magical tale. In a final note, the author explains what inspired her to write it.

Jigsaw: A Puzzle in the Post

Jigsaw: A Puzzle in the Post
Bob Graham
Walker Books

Such is the excitement at the arrival of a parcel containing a jigsaw puzzle of a beautiful African sunrise that the entire Kelly family is eager to get started on it right away. Dad declares, “I’ve got time on my hands …” and setting his watch to Late Autumn, they begin sorting the pieces. Unbeknown to them however is the fact that in Dad’s haste to get out all the pieces, he’s sent one flying;. it’s landed on the dog’s back and … 

As Winter comes, with Kitty and Katie’s help (and perhaps a bit from Lucy the dog), they finished the edges. Through Spring and Summer Dad is the only person working on the jigsaw: the girls preferring to play outside, but come the approach of Autumn, Dad makes an announcement: “The hippo’s swim shorts …” Disaster that piece is missing.

A thorough search ensues and then Mum has an idea about what might have happened to the vital piece. Unwilling to give up, off they go to the rubbish tip … 

where a near exhaustive search yields all kinds of interesting items but not that which they seek and eventually they make a wish and sadly return home.

That though is not quite the end of this wonderful story, but story spoiler I won’t be; it’s well worth getting hold of a copy of any book that Bob Graham creates in his signature style and this one demonstrating the power of positive thinking is absolutely enchanting.

Me, My Brother and the Monster Meltdown / Dirty Bertie: A Collection of Chaos

Me, My Brother and the Monster Meltdown
Rob Lloyd Jones, illustrated by Alex Patrick
Walker Books

The author of this crazy, laugh-out-loud book was aided and abetted by his two sons who came up with the initial idea and some of the bonkers situations in the story. The setting is the unassuming Sussex coastal town of Rottingdean that has a lot of supermarkets and nothing else much apart from a library and a ‘Home for Ancient People’. The key characters are Otis (the narrator), his younger brother Jago (a doodler of weird images) and their four pals, Daisy, Suzie (she who attempts to burp the entire alphabet), Hardeep and Ben. Chaos reigns pretty much sums up this adventure.

When the story opens the local Tesco has just been under attack from a six-headed gingerbread man with a vicious grin or rather several. But there have been other supermarket onslaughts too and because of all this Otis and Jago’s Dad has turned the basement of their home into a survival bunker, such is his panic at the monstrous situation. Even the prime minster is involved, (not panicking in his bunker and giving daily speeches of the (un)reassuring kind); he’s amassed a team of elite scientists called the Bureau of Investigation of Giant Beasts and Unexplained Monsters. Said group have put posters around the town proclaiming DON’T PANIC! and EVERYTHING IS FINE!

Suddenly the penny drops: the Tesco trasher bears an uncanny resemblance to what Jago had drawn two days earlier on his bed frame using his clicker pen of many colours. Strangely enough some of the other giant monsters look familiar too, but none of the grown ups wants to listen to what Otis tries to tell them

so now it’s left to him and his friends to sort out this monstrous mess. On the more serious side, I love the dig at the government about libraries being shut down.

With a fair phew rear end explosions and a liberal scattering of suitably silly illustrations by Alex Patrick (shame Mr Khan appears to be wearing a Sikh pagri), this is a madcap romp if ever there was one.

Dirty Bertie: A Collection of Chaos
Alan MacDonald and David Roberts
Little Tiger

Young readers who have missed the redoubtable Dirty Bertie in his three separate books Worms!, Fetch! and Trouble! will be pleased to know that they can now find them in one bumper volume of mischief.

Any small boy who wants to avoid going to a ‘wear something pink’ party might be tempted to emulate Bertie in the first episode when he receives an invitation from the adoring Angela. Then comes the occasion when Bertie tries – unsuccessfully as you might expect – to be polite for a whole day.
Next we join Bertie as he accidentally adds his mum’s floral arrangement to the rubbish for collection; after all they did look practically dead. Serious trouble looms large so perhaps a substitute entry for the competition could save the day …

In Fetch! Bertie has a robot dog, Tiny, in tow, poor Whiffer’s status is relegated and both end up getting into all kinds of scrapes as a result. You’d expect nothing less. Then there comes an invitation to attend a garden party hosted by none other than Her Majesty the Queen. Now Bertie has to be on his very best behaviour but guess who the dogs that he offers to give their daily walks belongs to: it definitely isn’t the maid. After such an exclusive outing he’s sure to be on form for his cousin’s wedding where he’s to be a pageboy and even worse, wear a kilt …

Finally Trouble! – there’s a plethora of that for sure. First Bertie forgets he has a maths test and tries using a magic potion to make Miss Boot forget all about it; this of course doesn’t quite go to plan. Next he goes to a sleepover at Know-All Nick’s home: he’d rather sleep in a cave with vampire bats but nonetheless he is made to go. Is there perhaps a way Bertie could make this work for both boys? Finally in this hilarious collection, Bertie manages to teach Masher the school bully a lesson.

Scrapes galore, bad habits – of course – and emotions that all children will relate to; plus plethora of pricelessly funny illustrations: what more can a fun loving reader of a certain age possibly want?

The Girl Who Noticed Everything

The Girl Who Noticed Everything
Jane Porter and Maisie Paradise Shearring
Walker Books

Little Stella is a wonderfully imaginative child who notices everything around her – clouds shaped like horses, a lonely glove waving from some railings, dustbins with faces, birds so cold they need blankets to keep them warm,

a man with upside down hair and another wearing a cat on his head. She excitedly shares her observations about all of these with her Dad as they walk to the park to meet their friends. He though is concerned that Stella’s forthright comments might hurt people’s feelings, so after a while she stops talking about what she sees.

However once they reach the park, she just has to draw her Dad’s attention to the colourfully dressed but sad looking woman walking very slowly calling, “Frankie! Frankie! Frankie?” His response is that they should play not noticing things for a while but that doesn’t stop Stella spotting a beautiful blue feather, which she picks up and tucks in her pocket.

Once at the park, Stella’s cross feelings disappear as she joins her friends in the sandpit. Even there though her eyes are busy looking everywhere especially at the nearby tree with its ‘pleated paper’ bark and toffee coloured leaves. Suddenly she spies a bright flash among the branches and shortly after comes a squawk. It’s this sound that makes her recall where she’d seen those bright colours before.

Now she knows that she really needs to speak out. What she says results in a joyful reunion, followed by a walk home during which both Dad and Stella both notice all manner of exciting things and Stella gives Dad a very special present. What he says in return should ensure that his daughter continues to speak out, and to use her observation skills and her imagination wherever she goes.

Jane Porter’s wonderfully empowering story is a must to share with young children at home and in nursery or school. Maisie Paradise Shearring’s brightly coloured scenes, expand the telling with a wealth of detail, not spoken of – small animals, birds, flowers, patterns, textures, and more. Having read the story in its entirety first, I’d like to think an adult and young child would spend ages looking at and discussing each spread.

Lifesize: Baby Animals / My First Book of Minibeasts

Lifesize: Baby Animals
Sophy Henn

This is the third of Sophy Henn’s ingenious Lifesize series and right from the cover image, this slightly oversize book draws you in. The focus is on some of the world’s most amazing baby animals. We start by staring right into the eye of a baby blue whale, the world’s biggest baby, that when born is astonishingly about the same size as an ambulance and grows to be as long as two buses.

That’s just one of the wow moments Sophy provides along with the interesting facts and fun questions. Here’s an example relating to the baby flamingo: “What colour would you be if you turned the same colour as your favourite food?’ (not that humans are born grey like baby flamingoes)

Such questions are one of the interactive features of the book.

I had to look twice to spot the baby zebra seashores that at first glance looked like musical notes emanating from the adult’s pouch. Did you know it’s the male seahorses that give birth and there can be as many as 2000 born at one time. Alongside a wealth of other marine fauna including green turtles, these creatures live on Australia’s coral reefs.

An adorable-looking baby black bear stares straight at readers from another spread. Imagine a human baby growing to three times its birth size in three months – that’s something to consider. These bears are mostly found in the mountain forests of North America, a terrain they occupy along with wolves and raccoons.

Readers will also meet red panda cubs with their super-long tails, clouded leopards, golden snub-nosed monkey babies and then when they open a double spread showing an African waterhole and turn the book through 90% they’ll meet a baby African elephant that is likely to be taller than some younger child readers.

The final interactive element involves measurement: you can see, when measured in Lifesize books how large some of the babies are at birth and when fully grown. Readers are then invited to do the same kind of measurement with their own family members.

Cleverly designed, with stunning images at every page turn, this is a book to read and delight in over and over.

My First Book of Minibeasts
illustrated by Zoë Ingram
Walker Books

This new addition to the My First Book of series is, like its predecessors, a great place to start exploring the topic. Herein Zoē Ingram strikingly portrays twenty minibeasts, one per double spread. Each illustration is accompanied by a fact box containing its scientific name, lifespan, diet and habitat, another presents its size in silhouette form and in millimetres; there’s also a ‘did you know’ feature and a main paragraph giving basic facts.

Youngsters will meet the shade-loving garden snail and the gorgeous glow worm – did you know it’s only the females that have bioluminescent tail lights? There are among others, bluebottles, black garden ants that live in colonies,

the emperor dragonfly and the Red-tailed bumblebee. (0nce called a dumbledore, interestingly.)

An ideal book to share with young children before going out exploring be that in the garden, the park or further afield.


Olaf Falafel
Walker Books

Way, way, way down at the bottom of the sea lives sad, lonely Blobfish. Without any friends, he tells jokes to himself and when he’s not doing that he searches for somebody to play with.

One day. while humans are busy enjoying themselves on land, and Blobfish is in the depths of despair, a carelessly discarded plastic bag comes sailing through the air, splashes down on the sea’s surface and starts to sink. It catches the eye of Blobfish. Oh Joy! Finally a friend for Blobfish.

Things starts well, albeit sans conversation but then – disaster.

Could this lead to the tragic demise of our blobby pal? Happily not thanks to the human rubbish collectors: and what about a friend for Blobfish? Well, it’s a ‘blobbily ever after’ ending, so you decide.

With plenty of fun dialogue in the form of speech and thinks bubbles, this highly amusing, occasionally ridiculous, strikingly illustrated story about looking for friendship has at its heart a vitally important message about plastic pollution and its impact on ocean life.

Share with little humans at home and in school. They will love it; so will you.

The Wizards’ Banquet

The Wizards’ Banquet
Vivian French, illustrated by Marta Kissi
Walker Books

Readers will delight in the abundance of magic and mayhem in this latest of Vivian French’s fantasies; there’s a degree of mischief and wickedness too. From her opening paragraph, we know we’ll be swept away, unable to stop reading until the final page.

One morning early, Pippin Potts is told in no uncertain terms by his aunt, to leave and not return until he’s found a job. Determined to succeed he heads off towards town eventually coming upon a gate from which hangs a sign on which is written ‘Helpful Boy Wanted! Must be good with puzzles! Green door, top of Grabbling Hill.’

He duly arrives at the green-doored cottage and is welcomed by ancient wizard (second level) Abacus Peridot. Almost immediately the lad discovers that said wizard is both an amazing cook and exceedingly forgetful. The wizard wants Pippin to help him get to the Wizards’ Banquet where he hopes to win the centenary golden trophy and prize that goes with it. He definitely wants to avoid being the 99th arrival.

Pippin quickly realises that the task he faces will be challenging. On the journey they (that includes the talking cooking pot, Ms Latterly).

encounter the dastardly wizard Boldways Grime accompanied by half elf half girl, Kitty Scarper. With their eyes on the main prize, they are secretly plotting against Abacus.

Pippin however is a determined boy; but can he discover the way over the Nine Hen Hills, across the Rambling Rocks and through the Neverending Forest to reach the competition venue first? He’ll likely have to outsmart the equally determined Kitty. Perhaps Mavis the bat can help.

Put together Vivian French’s wonderful way with words, and wizardry at world building and character creating

and Marta Kissi’s enchanting black and white illustrations: the result is sheer enchantment.

Rex: Dinosaur in Disguise

Rex: Dinosaur in Disguise
Elys Dolan
Walker Books

Elys Dolan triumphs again, this time in the form of Rex, an out-of-time dinosaur. By that I mean
that one moment, King of the dinosaurs, he’s happily roaming the swamps of yore and then along comes the Ice Age, he becomes frozen in an ice block, which eventually defrosts and there he is 65 million years later, in New York City, with humans very much in charge. Even worse is the dinosaur exhibition at the museum he comes upon. How on earth will a T.Rex cope?

With considerable difficulty, though fortunately a yeti, Bigfoot, finds him and takes him back to his abode. Bigfoot, who has found his own way to blend in, starts teaching Rex all he needs to know to survive in this world; there are a few basic rules he has to get his head around and most importantly, he needs to find a job. He’s also introduced to Bigfoot’s friends including Nessy and the only remaining dodo family. Nessy is now a lifeguard and the Dodo is “a very successful local businessman.”

With an interfering nine-year-old neighbour to cope with,

and the constant risk of discovery, Rex has a number of near misses before, thanks to some help from a couple of eagle-eyed children, he lands the perfect job.

Crazy, thoughtful comedy reigns. Elys’ writing is brilliantly funny, full of absurd situations and Rex is a captivating character; oh! there’s a super subplot too. The story also has subtle messages about tolerance, letting people live how they wish, and the vital importance of thinking for yourself. Full of giggle worthy details, the subtly coloured cartoon style illustrations are hilarious and there are occasional plans, maps and speech bubbles to keep readers engaged, further adding to the humour.
KS2 readers will devour this.

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.