#MGTakesOnThursday: Scoop McLaren: Waves of Mystery by Helen Castles

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
Cover image by Beatriz Castro, published by New Frontier Publishing UK

This week, as we shiver in our northern-hemisphere open-doored classrooms, I thought we could all escape down under to the sunny, seaside town of Higgity Harbour, where the surf’s up and mystery lurks below the surface! Just look at that glorious, sunshine-yellow cover illustrated by Beatriz Castro and imagine the sound of the waves hitting the shore.

Author: Helen Castles 

Illustrator: Beatriz Castro

Publisher: New Frontier Publishing UK

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“I’ve got a funny feeling and my funny feelings are rarely wrong.”

This book in three words: Sunny – Surfing – Mystery

This is the second mystery for Scoop McLaren, the editor of her own online newspaper, Click! and, along with best friend Evie Andrews a formidable problem-solving detective. Her instincts for suspicious behaviour are aroused by a series of events befalling surfing ace Fletcher Stein as he prepares for the semi-final of the Monster Wave Supreme Grommet Title on Higgity Harbour’s Five Mile Beach.

As Scoop and Evie launch their investigation they are confronted by the uber-competitive parents of Fletch’s rivals, sabotage attempts, shady competition judges, sinister strangers hanging around the normally peaceful coastal town…and even the long-forgotten curse of a pirate who used to ply his trade along the coast! The plot moves along at a great pace, peppered with text messages and secret coded communications between the two young detectives. The supporting cast of characters throw plenty of red-herrings into the story and the quaint small town, suffused with a sense of nostalgia, is almost a character in its own right.

One of the aspects of the Scoop McLaren books that I have enjoyed most as an adult is the very positive portrayal of father-daughter relationships by author Helen Castles, I think this is quite rare amongst the many MG books that I have read. Scoop’s mum lives in Spain where she trains animals to appear in movies, so Scoop lives with her dad, Ted McLaren who edits the town’s traditional newspaper and clearly acts as a wonderful role model and mentor to his daughter. Evie’s dad is the town policeman, and his love for his daughter is palpable, especially as the plot takes a perilous turn.

I am sure that young readers will enjoy the action-packed mystery, picking up some surfing terminology and inspiration ready for the next time they are able to hit the beaches. If publication had not been delayed by Covid-19, Waves of Mystery would have been my perfect summertime read, but as it arrives on our shores with the chilly north wind I suggest snuggling up on the sofa with it and dreaming of next summer! Highly recommended for boys and girls of 8+.

Do also read the first book in the series, reviewed here: Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing UK for sending me a review copy of this ray of sunshine!

#MGTakesOnThursday: Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
cover design by Mick Wiggins, published by Faber & Faber

I thought that this week it would be appropriate to feature an MG book which helps us to remember those who have lost their lives in wars. There have been many wonderful books on this theme published recently, but I am going to go back to 2014 and a book which I read with my youngest child when she was still at primary school.

Author: Kate Saunders

Cover illustration: Mick Wiggins

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This is the point at which the sand-fairy reappears in the gravel pit at the Pemberton family home and is discovered by the two youngest children in the family:

“Edie and the Lamb stared at his peculiar pucker of a mouth, his sprawling arms and legs and swivelling eyes, and felt a strange stirring in their deepest memories “

This book in three words: Poignant Magical Love

This is the heart-wrenching sequel to the Edwardian classic, Five Children and It. Kate Saunders has captured E Nesbit’s voice perfectly, setting the start of her book at the moment of the outbreak of the First World War. She brilliantly combines fantasy with the story of a family’s experience of war and the loss of a generation of young men. The Pemberton children from the original novel have grown up and been joined by a younger sibling Edie, who at nine years old is utterly enchanted by the Psammead or sand-fairy and is immensely forgiving of his more tyrannical outbursts. The Lamb (Hilary) and Edie are both delighted to find out that the magical adventures that their older siblings used to talk about were actually real and not imaginary.

Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane are equally delighted to see their old friend “Sammy” although the ancient sand fairy has lost his magical powers and will not divulge the reason why he has reappeared at this precise time. As Cyril heads off to fight in France the rest of the children try to discover the Psammead’s dark secret whilst experiencing the war from their very different perspectives.

There is so much packed into this wonderful story but you don’t ever feel that the author is trying to teach you something or being dogmatic. Rather, you just absorb her messages by osmosis as they unfold organically through the Pemberton children’s experiences. Feminism is covered as Jane battles with her mother to be allowed to attend medical school. The class system is explored through Anthea’s relationship with Ernie, a brilliant young writer who is from a poor cockney family. Courage, bravery and loyalty are embodied by neighbour, Lilian who selflessly nurses a childhood friend.

As the children face the realities of war in their individual lives, the Psammead tries to gain redemption from the heartless crimes he perpetrated many centuries earlier when he ruled a desert kingdom. His former tyranny runs in parallel with the tyranny of war, and through Cyril’s story the waste, heartbreak and destruction of war is personified. In a heart-rending letter home, Cyril laments the number of friends that he has lost in the three years of war – almost too many to remember.

Wonderful stories such as Five Children on the Western Front help to ensure that we will never forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the tragedy of war.

Halloween Treats for #MG Readers

With trick or treating cancelled this year, what better way to use that spare time than curling up with a hot chocolate overflowing with marshmallows and a thoroughly entertaining book to send shivers down your spine?

There are an enormous collection of Halloween themed stories to suit every middle grade reader, so I’ve selected some of my favourite new releases plus a couple of old favourites as sometimes these are overlooked in the tide of new publications.

Click cover to link to review and chapter sample
Click cover to link to review

For newly confident readers who are looking for entertaining stories where the text is interspersed with wonderful illustrations, I highly recommend Midnight Magic by Michelle Harrison, a heart-warming tale of a magical black cat, and Leo’s Map of Monsters by Kris Humphrey, an exciting story of courage and ingenuity. You can read my full reviews by clicking on the book covers.

As children move on to reading longer books in lower Key Stage 2, pictures throughout the story are still important to make the reading process enjoyable. These readers are in for a treat with Harriet Muncaster’s recent book Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering, an enchanting gothic story set in a wonderfully rendered magical woodland world. The Maker of Monsters by Lorraine Gregory certainly reveals a range of gruesome and blood-thirsty creatures to make you quiver in your boots alongside a message of acceptance and the power of self-belief. Please click the book covers for my full reviews.

Meanwhile, Grimm by Mike Nicholson turns a spooky tale of dreadful occurrences at a haunted hotel into a very modern expose of the “fake news” phenomenon. The Scottish town of Aberfintry is blighted by the presence of crumbling Hotel Grimm, perched on the side of Scrab Hill and seeming to cause the untimely demise of anyone foolish enough to spend the night. Needless to say the town’s teenaged marketing sensation, Rory McKenna is less than delighted when he is commissioned by Granville Grimm to design a marketing campaign for the spooky eyesore! Can he uncover the mystery surrounding the hotel and fight the local prejudice whipped up by the editor of a small town newspaper? This is an enjoyable and entertaining story which is very timely as we highlight the impact of fake news in information literacy lessons. At the moment you can actually purchase signed copies directly from the author Mike Nicholson at his website here.

Click book cover to link to review

The Apprentice Witch trilogy by James Nicol are all thoroughly entertaining stories, combining a wonderfully realised magical world with the most kind-hearted and accident prone young witch you could hope to meet. Read all three to immerse yourself in Arianwyn’s quest to vanquish the dark magic which threatens her world.

For those children in upper Key Stage 2, I have picked a selection to provide a substantial read and plenty to think about.

Click cover to link to review

Gargantis by Thomas Taylor is the second in his Eerie-on-Sea series and has enough perilous episodes and wickedly sarcastic humour to keep you engrossed through a long winter evening.

Click cover to link to review

The Hungry Ghost by HS Norup does a marvellous job of combining SE Asian tradition with a modern day story of blended families and loss. It is one of my favourite new releases of 2020 and educated me in a culture and tradition which I had not encountered before. The juxtaposition of the ancient Hungry Ghost festival with a bustling, modern setting in which a displaced teenager encounters a ghostly presence is perfectly crafted by a brilliant writer.

Click cover to link to review

Finally, one of my all time favourite books – I have probably purchased more than 10 copies of this to give away since it was published in 2016, the one pictured is my own signed copy, that’s how much I love it! Strange Star is Emma Carroll’s brilliant imagining of the story behind the writing of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. It is a perfect gothic novel, ideally pitched for Year 6 and 7 readers who are very likely to be studying Frankenstein in Year 7 or 8 at secondary school.

Draw the curtains, put some logs on the fire and enjoy … if you dare!

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Book of Hopes edited by Katherine Rundell

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
cover image by Axel Scheffler, published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

This week I am highlighting the pinnacle of #MG writing, a collection of short stories and illustrations featuring more than one hundred children’s writers and illustrators, the brainchild of Katherine Rundell. NHS Charities together will benefit from sales of this book.

Editor: Katherine Rundell 

Illustrator: This book features illustrations from many of the most popular illustrators of children’s books

Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: The short story on which starts on page 11 just happens to be written by one of my absolute favourite writers, Frank Cottrell Boyce. It is a wonderful allegory about finding the light in the midst of the gloom.

“Once, Sunny asked her mum, ‘My name – Sunny – what does it even mean?’ “

This book in three words: Endlessly Hopeful Possibilities

This book is the brainchild of Katherine Rundell and was first published online during lockdown. It is now available in a glorious hardback edition, with beautiful gold foiling on the cover and endpapers designed by former Children’s Laureate, Lauren Child. It is the perfect gift for any child and a joy to share in school classrooms and libraries.

It begins with a very short essay about hope and the power of stories and books to help rekindle and nurture hope in all of us, written in her usual elegant, wise and precise style by Katherine Rundell. Following this there are contributions from over 100 children’s book authors and illustrators, divided into themed categories. You can quite happily sit and read the entire book cover-to-cover, or just dip in and out of the section headings or alternatively seek out the contributions from your favourite authors first. There is genuinely something to appeal to everyone, no matter what their taste, mood or circumstances.

It is a perfect book for every teacher or librarian to have on their desk; each reading is at most 500 words long, so could be read in those changeover moments, or these days, the hand washing or wiping down the equipment stages of each day. There are true stories, poems, wild flights of imagination, beautifully illustrated quotes on the theme of hope, fascinating facts about the natural world and some pieces specifically reflecting on the period of lockdown. I found the item by Jackie Morris to be extremely evocative of the early weeks of lockdown when the treadmill of everyday routine was paused and there was actually time to observe the natural world.

Of the items I have read aloud, highlights include:

Anthony Horowitz’s poem, Hope, which has delighted boys who until now saw him solely as a writer of action-packed spy adventures.

M.G. Leonard’s reflections on the dung beetle, always a topic of interest to many primary school children. This piece is packed with scientific and ecological knowledge perfectly explained to satisfy an inquisitive young audience.

Isabel Thomas’ true story of the hungriest caterpillar and the importance of taking the time to observe and ask questions. This is a lovely item to read to Children in Years 5 and 6, before or after a science lesson.

Finally, if you want to hear a room-full of youngsters in fits of giggles, read them Lockdown Cat Haircut by Sharon Davey.

Whenever I get a chance to browse, I find myself constantly drawn to the picture by Alex T Smith, illustrating Audrey Hepburn’s quote: To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

This is a book which will plant a seed of hope in anyone who wishes to spend time with it.

I am grateful to Toppsta and Bloomsbury Children’s Books for sending me a review copy of this beautiful book.

#BlogTour: Midnight Magic by Michelle Harrison, illustrated by Elissa Elwick

cover image by Elissa Elwick, published by Little Tiger Press

A magically mischievous kitten, a kind young girl and a purposeful broomstick make Midnight Magic a story that young readers will joyously pounce upon! 

I am delighted to join the blog tour for this enchanting tale today, and honoured to share these beautiful images from Chapter One with you, with many thanks to Little Tiger Press. Enjoy!

Review

Michelle Harrison’s first book for younger readers displays all of her enchanting storytelling skills, wrapped up in rhythmically rhyming text and encased in a package that will grace any bookshelf. I am not judging a book by its cover, but oh my goodness, the sumptuous purple and gold detail is supremely beguiling, as you can clearly see from the images above! Elissa Elwick’s illustrations are charming and expressive and fully encapsulate the fun and warmth of the story.

Before you begin reading, make sure that you have a hot beverage and tempting snack on hand because you won’t want to put this down once you start.

A cat gives birth to two cute and cuddly kittens,  followed, on the stroke of midnight by a third, jet-black sibling. Appropriately-named Midnight is unlike her brother and sister, Foxy and Snowdrop, having a tendency to breathe purple smoke, cause inanimate objects to move and generally cause chaos. For this, she is not popular with her family and in an ultimate act of betrayal she is abandoned and must seek out a new home…

Friendship and joyous adventure abound when she is taken in by Trixie, her rather apprehensive father and incorrigibly adventurous Nan. Weaving bedtime story imagery with a twitch of Midnight’s magical tail the story whisks readers away on an enchanted night time journey.

This is the ultimate magical Halloween read for children in the 6-9 bracket, a heart warming and rib-tickling tale of friendship and fun. It is perfect for newly confident readers to read alone and will also be a lovely bedtime story for younger children. If you are using the story in school, you can access teaching resources created by Scott Evans @MrEPrimary, here.

I am most grateful to Charlie Morris at Little Tiger Press for an invitation to join the blog tour and a review copy of Midnight Magic. Do check out the other stops on the tour for interviews, features and further chapter extracts.

#BlogTour Review: The Hungry Ghost by H S Norup

I am delighted that today is my stop on the blog tour for The Hungry Ghost, a book which has stayed in my heart since reading it, courtesy of NetGalley and Pushkin Press, in August. This moving and complex story by H S Norup weaves an incredible number of threads into a relatively short book, pulling them all into alignment at the end to create a perfect picture.

The story takes off with 12-year-old Freja being handed over like a package at the airport to change continents and families due to her mother’s unspecified illness. She leaves behind her small town life in Denmark to be plunged into the steamy,  international melting-pot of life in Singapore. Her sense of alienation is compounded by the unwelcome addition of a stepmother and half-brothers and a landscape that bears no resemblance to the forests of Sweden where she has previously enjoyed outdoor pursuits with her father on his paternal visits. Freja is a dedicated scout and has come to Singapore prepared for an outdoor culture; she has her Swiss  Army knife, compass, combat trousers and many other survival accessories. She is not prepared for a life of frilly dresses, parties and social media which seems to be the milieu of Clementine, her glamorous step-mother. She also disdains contact with her twin half-brothers.

H S Norup’s writing captures Freja’s sense of displacement perfectly, emphasised further by the fact that her beloved father seems to be more interested in his high pressure, deal-making career, with his unexpected business trips to the financial hotspots of southeast Asia and inability to speak to her without constantly checking his phone screen.

Unable to sleep due to her unhappiness combined with jet-lag and wishing to pursue her natural instinct to be outside,  Freja steps out into the garden on her first night and is surprised to see a tall, silent Chinese girl there. When the girl reappears in daylight and beckons Freja to follow her, she is surprised to be led to an overgrown tropical wilderness not far from the manicured street where she lives. On her way back home she learns that the wilderness is Bukit  Brown, an old Chinese cemetery and that August is the month of the Hungry Ghost festival, when unhappy spirits roam the streets eating the offerings left for them by grieving relatives. 

Despite being warned by Clementine to stay away from the cemetery with its dangers ranging from snakes to unstable ground, Freja is compelled to follow her ghost and help her in her quest to unravel snippets of memories and discover her identity. It appears that the overwhelming fear that her mother will forget her is the catalyst for Freja to assist this unhappy ghost. As the mystery of Ling’s past and connections with Freja’s own ancestors begins to emerge, small clues that Freja has a significant part of her own identity locked away are dropped into the narrative. Aspects of traditional Chinese folklore are blended with modern-day life at international school and the role of domestic servants now and in recent history are also examined. 

The crafting of the narrative is so deftly handled that the reader never loses sight of the central quest despite the lure of dangled hints just on the edge of your peripheral vision. As you desperately reach for these missing threads to complete the tapestry you have to take a moment to admire the author’s skill. The denouement as the Hungry Ghost festival closes is brimming with tension as Freja battles with mythical creatures and poignantly realises that she has made true friends in Singapore.

The weaving and contrasting of Western and Eastern attitudes to death and grieving are wonderfully combined and as the narrative gaps are closed, the importance of remembering the dead, treasuring their memories and being grateful for those who love us is brought to the fore. 

This book has clearly been written for the upper end of the MG readership with its ultimately hopeful conclusion, but in my opinion it is a satisfying read for anyone over the age of 10. I was deeply impressed at the construction of the plot and fascinated to learn a little about an aspect of Chinese culture and Buddhist and Taoist tradition. I was also left curious to find out more about the transition of Singapore to the global powerhouse that it is today from the society described during Ling’s childhood. I am particularly pleased to have read this book during a summer when I haven’t been able to travel; it highlights the power of a great story to transport the reader beyond their physical reality.

I am grateful to #NetGalley and Pushkin Press for allowing me to read an eARC of The Hungry Ghost and to Poppy Stimpson for inviting me to join this tour. Do check out the other stops on the blog tour and read the views of an incredible selection of book bloggers.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Q Raúf

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
Published by Hachette Children’s Group

Author: Onjali Q Raúf

Illustrator: I have this as an eARC from Netgalley and cannot find an illustrator’s name

Publisher: Orion/Hachette Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: (The story is told in the voice of ten-year-old Hector, who at the beginning is revelling in his role of school bully and family outcast)

“After class, I headed straight to detention, and sat in my usual chair in the corner of the classroom “

This book in three words: Homelessness – Bullying – Redemption

How many of us rush to judgement based on the behaviour of the people we meet rather than stopping to think about the reason for their behaviour and spending time to try to understand and help them? In her third MG novel, Onjali Raúf shines her compassionate light on homelessness, showing the true humanity of individual lives and gently encouraging her readers to see the person rather than a social problem defined by a collective noun “the homeless”. As with her previous two novels, her message is suffused through a thoroughly engaging story, which I read deep into the night as I was compelled to finish it in one sitting.

In a clever contrast the two main characters Hector and Thomas represent two forms of homelessness. Thomas, the archetypal picture that we think of; unwashed, shabby clothes, sleeping on a park bench in an old sleeping bag, against Hector who is from an affluent family but with parents largely absent on international jobs. He feels that he is a disappointment to his high-achieving family and with the nanny largely preoccupied with his younger brother, his life consists of cheese toasties, late-night video games and travelling into central London, unsupervised, to skateboard. If home is the place where we are nurtured by people who love us and who we love in return, then at the start of this story I would consider Hector to be homeless.

As the story opens, Hector, the ten-year-old school bully is in the middle of his latest cry for attention, dropping toy snakes into the school lunch soup pan. He is part of a toxic trio of friends, with Will and Katie constantly encouraging him to acts of increasingly poor behaviour, which he performs to gain their approval. This culminates with him starting to harass Thomas, an old, homeless gentleman who lives in the town park, eventually destroying his meagre belongings. 

His final act of vandalism is witnessed by Mei-Li, a classmate who he despises for being their “teacher’s pet” and a “brainiac”. Whilst the other school children cower in terror or bribe Hector with their sweets or pocket money, she is unafraid to stand up to him and forces him to apologise to Thomas and eventually to help out at the soup kitchen where she volunteers alongside her father.

Meanwhile the news headlines are gripped by a series of thefts of valuable public statues from central London, including the famous Paddington Bear from the mainline train terminus. The thief leaves behind coded signs in yellow paint, these symbols are known only to the homeless community and thus suspicion falls upon an entire group of innocent people. When Hector witnesses a theft in Piccadilly Circus one evening and casts suspicion on the wrong man, he finds himself in the midst of a race against time to uncover the true villains.

This story is thoroughly entertaining as a detective mystery puzzle, with the ingenuity and teamwork of Thomas, Hector, Mei-Li and Catwoman combining to an exciting denouement at a major London landmark. In the accepted way of MG fiction the thread of redemption and hope is woven through the tale, leaving readers with the ambition to look for the good inside everyone and the belief that transformation can take place in the everyday events of life. Once again Onjali Raúf has written a beautiful story which makes us think again at the over-looked in our society. Highly recommended for all readers of 9+.

I am grateful to #NetGalley and Hachette Children’s Books for granting me access to an eARC of this wonderful story.

Review: The Miracle on Ebenezer Street by Catherine Doyle

Cover image by Pedro Riquelme, published by Penguin Random House/Puffin Books

This is the book that everyone should find in their stocking this Christmas! Catherine Doyle’s reworking of A Christmas Carol sparkles with Yuletide magic and is served with a dusting of her trademark lyricism and charm.

This story overflows with magical and mysterious characters as it recounts the tale of George Bishop, a ten year-old whose world was drained of colour three years previously when his mother died in a car accident on Christmas Eve. Since then, his father Hugo has immersed himself in his work running the family property empire and has banned all references to Christmas. As they approach their third monochrome Christmas without beautiful, kind, artistic Greta, the prospects look grim. Or so it would appear, until George’s grandmother takes him on a clandestine trip to the Winter Wonderland and leaves him to explore Marley’s Christmas Curiosities at the end of a row of wooden huts. In this enchanted space, with its myriad attractions, George is drawn to the shelf labelled “last minute miracles” and discovers a snow globe which inexplicably contains a heart-breakingly familiar snowman.

As anyone familiar with A Christmas Carol would expect, visits to Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future follow, as the snow globe grants George his three miracles. Without wishing to give away any plot spoilers I will just note that these wondrous journeys in the company of fellow travellers such as oil portraits and purple reindeers will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. Moments of great hilarity such as Elf-on-the-shelf Tricksie halting mid-miracle to perform an audit segue seamlessly into Aunt Alice whispering to her late sister in a scene that will cause eyes to leak.

The characters are all beautifully realised, from six year-old cousin Clementine with her loudly joyful ability to see magic around her; Hugo whose grief has caused him to shut all colour from his and his son’s lives and George whose longing for family and home drives the narrative. My favourite of all was Nana Flo, the perfect grandmother; warm and wise with an Irish twinkle in her eye, she wears “mystery like a cloak” and is always “happy to conspire at short notice”.

In summary, I absolutely love The Miracle on Ebenezer Street and wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone, independent readers from 9+, and parents, carers, grandparents, teachers and librarians to read aloud to younger children. Teenagers studying A Christmas Carol for GCSE are also likely to enjoy this thoroughly modern reworking of the story and can amuse themselves finding the clever references sprinkled throughout. Catherine Doyle has written a remarkable story which celebrates the colour, beauty, hope and love of Christmas.

I read somewhere that this book had been commissioned to mark the publisher Puffin’s 80th anniversary and Charles Dickens’ 150th anniversary and feel that it’s timing this year is perfect. With many families facing this Christmas grieving for a loved one, this tender, poignant story might just help children to feel that they are not alone in processing the memories of Christmas past whilst trying to rekindle the hope that we all wish for at this time of year.

Let your heart be your compass, it will show you the way”.

I am most grateful to #NetGalley and Penguin Children’s Books for allowing me access to an electronic copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. The hardback version was published on 1st October 2020 and I hope that the image above gives some idea of the beautiful cover artwork created by Pedro Riquelme.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Leo’s Map of Monsters: The Armoured Goretusk by Kris Humphrey

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read.

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Author: Kris Humphrey

Illustrator: Pete Williamson

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“Then, there came a knock at the door “

This book in three words: Monsters – Mystery – Ingenuity

This week I thought I would focus on a book aimed at the younger end of the MG readership, the first in a new series published by Oxford University Press: Leo’s Map of Monsters. In this first episode The Armoured Goretusk we are introduced to Leo on the morning of his ninth birthday. Like all the children of his Medieval-looking village he will be given an envelope with his Assignment for the next two years, and fully expects to join his friend Jacob at the Records Office.

However, he is surprised to find a page labelled Top Secret inside the envelope and even more astonished by the visit of the village chief, Gilda, to the small house he shares with his mother and sister. Gilda leads him through a secret passage to the Guardian’s Hut, where he learns that the Wall surrounding his village is not to protect villagers from wolves and bears… but monsters!

The Guardian, Henrick,  is nursing a badly injured leg and therefore sends Leo out into the forest armed with a slingshot, a bag of stones and an enchanted map. Assisted by a small flying Leatherwing named Starla and relying on his own ingenuity, Leo must track the Armoured Goretusk and return it to its herd in the marshland of the Festian Swamps before it attacks the village Wall. 

Kris Humphrey has created an utterly believable world and a relatable main protagonist in Leo, who requires trial and error to get things right which is a great piece of modelling for children who are learning to be resilient. I also liked the way that the story raises questions about what might be going on beneath the narrative. The beautifully expressive illustrations by Pete Williamson add another layer of meaning and I certainly have questions about the shifty look in Henrick’s eyes as he obscures Leo’s view of the collection of Hawkupine quills in his hut! There is a map at the start of the book (always a plus for me) where readers can track Leo’s adventure as it unfolds. Additionally, the illustrations give the impression that they have been drawn in charcoal which ties in neatly with Leo’s birthday present.

 I think that this book will be very appealing to the legions of Beast Quest fans. It has an ideally-sized font for newly confident readers and at 141 pages is the perfect length for those readers that I have seen a blogger I greatly respect refer to as “dormant” – this could be a book to spark the fire of reading for pleasure. Top Trumps-style fact files at the end will, I think, appeal to readers who tend to opt for non-fiction over fiction. There is also a sneak peek at the beginning of the next book in the series, The Spit Fang Lizard which will be eagerly anticipated by those who enjoy this story.

I am most grateful to Oxford University Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Perfect Picture Books August -September 2020

I have received some delightful picture books to review recently. Here are three which make perfect back-to-school treats for home, classroom or library enjoyment.

What’s In My Lunchbox? written by Peter Carnavas, illustrated by Kat Chadwick

Cover illustration by Kat Chadwick, published by New Frontier Publishing

I would imagine that every school child is familiar with the concept of opening their lunchbox in eager anticipation of the delights and surprises it might contain. From this everyday experience Peter Carnavas, an award-winning Australian author, invites children to let their imaginations soar as the young boy in his story finds an increasingly unusual collection of treats contained within his mischievous-looking lunchbox.

The simple rhythm of a repeated line leading to a revelation on the subsequent page makes this a hugely enjoyable book to read aloud and builds the audience’s anticipation of the next bizarre lunchtime snack! The illustrations by Kat Chadwick are bold, bright and wonderfully expressive as the young boy approaches his lunchbox with greater apprehension on each page.

Kat Chadwick’s lunchbox appears to be totally aware of the surprises it contains!

I highly recommend this book for pre-school and Reception Class children for whom it will turn a routine experience into a feast for the imagination!

Yellow Dress Day written by Michelle Worthington, illustrated by Sophie Norsa

Cover illustration by Sophie Norsa, published by New Frontier Publishing

This sumptuously illustrated picture book tells the tale of Ava, a young girl whose rainbow-coloured selection of dresses provides the perfect dress to match the atmospheric conditions; red for sunshine, purple for rain, blue for snow. On “whistling, whirly, windy days Ava’s heart tells her that she must wear yellow – but disaster strikes one morning when the yellow dress cannot be found!

Michelle Worthington’s text presents the sensory world of Ava in simple and sympathetic sentences, illustrated with great warmth by Sophie Norsa and printed with beautiful typographic effects. This is a lovely book which I am sure will be greatly enjoyed by all young children who have very determined ideas about their clothing choices. A percentage of the proceeds from Yellow Dress Day are donated to the International Rett Syndrome Foundation.

Ruby and Graham written and illustrated by Lucy Barnard

Cover illustration by Lucy Barnard, published by New Frontier Publishing

In Acorn Wood, two great friends, Ruby red squirrel and Graham grey squirrel have very different personalities. Ruby is the fun party girl who loves to have a good time and is much-loved by everyone. Graham, on the other hand, is rarely seen without his clipboard as he tries to keep the wood under control. When his fellow woodland creatures stop listening to him, he decides that he will behave more like Ruby in an attempt to become as popular as her. The results are wonderfully portrayed by author/illustrator Lucy Barnard; on every page the chaos and disruption to the woodland habitat becomes more apparent.

This book makes clear to young readers the importance of staying true to yourself, working as a team and the need for all types of personalities to make the world a beautiful place. It also emphasises the need to take responsibility and could be used as a prompt for conversations about looking after the environment and learning about woodland animals. A delightful story for children in the 3-6 age range and I would imagine that it would work well in Forest School settings with Key Stage 1 learners.

I am very grateful to New Frontier Publishing UK for sending me copies of these beautiful picture books in exchange for my honest opinion.