#20BooksofSummer Book 3: Kidnap on the California Comet by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrator Elisa Paganelli

This is the third of my #10BooksofSummer reviews, an event hosted by Cathy on her 746Books.com blog, do read her posts and those of all the other wonderful book bloggers joining the challenge this year.

Having loved the first Adventures on Trains book, I was delighted to be approved by NetGalley to read an eARC of Kidnap on the California Comet. Once again a rollicking adventure unfolds as Hal and his Uncle Nat rattle and clatter their way across an iconic train route.

Travel journalist, Nathaniel Bradshaw, has been personally invited to cover a press conference at which billionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur, August Reza, will unveil his latest innovation. Mr Reza shares Nat’s love of trains and has his own luxuriously refurbished 1940s observation car, Silver Scout, hitched to the California Comet. The press conference is due to be staged at the Durham Museum, once one of the country’s busiest train hubs but now a train museum, in Omaha.

Hal is delighted to accompany Uncle Nat on this rail trip of a lifetime,  a three-day adventure from Chicago to San Francisco and despite his jet-lag he doesn’t hesitate to start recording his journey in his sketchbook as he waits in the grand surroundings of Union Station, Chicago to board the train. He soon makes friends with a brother and sister, Mason and Hadley, who are roughly his age, not realising that their special talents for magic and impersonation will be of great use in unravelling another mystery.

As the train picks up pace across the broad expanse of the American plains, Hal feels a growing sense of unease, sensing an undercurrent of subterfuge. Why does Ryan, the teenager with elaborate dental brace-work appear so terrified of his gym-coach father that he tries to pass on a coded message? Why is Vanessa Rodriguez in the roomette opposite so brusque? Is glamorous journalist Zola trying to steal his uncle’s story? Are there really spies from Reza’s rival company Zircona on board the train, and would they stoop low enough to kidnap Marianne, his twelve-year-old daughter? Is Seymour Hart, the businessman with a metal suitcase clamped to his side at all times, training in stolen secrets?

Like its predecessor, this book is infused with a love of rail travel and trains. The story glides through technical details and descriptions as smoothly as service in a first class carriage, leaving the reader satiated with knowledge.  This time there is also a palpable sense of the conflict between nostalgia for old technologies, such as Uncle Nat’s fountain pen and the glamorous 1940s style train carriages, and the desire to embrace new technologies whilst thinking about their impact on the environment.

The illustrations by Elisa Paganelli throughout are an absolutely integral part of the story as they represent Hal’s finely detailed observations. His insightful sketches are the method through which he details the world around him and the basis for his crime-solving conclusions. 

This book will be devoured by young readers looking for an engrossing adventure to read for pleasure. However, I can also see many ways in which it could be used as a class reader to sit alongside curriculum project work: the Americas geography unit, DT/STEM work on design of transport and as a basis for discussions on clean energy and environmental concerns. In summary I highly recommend Kidnap on the California Comet to anyone of 8/9+.

Thank you to #NetGalley and Macmillan Children’s Books for approving my eARC request.

My review of the first book in the series, The Highland Falcon Thief can be found here.

#20BooksofSummer Book 2: Super Stan by Elaine Wickson, illustrated by Chris Judge

This is the second of my #10BooksofSummer reviews, as I am attempting the cut-down version of #20BooksofSummer hosted by Cathy at 746books.com.

What do you get if you mix a five-year-old eco-warrior, a space-obsessed ten-year-old, a school full of kids dressed as sea creatures and enough fart jokes to make their own contribution to global warming? Yes, it can only be the latest utterly hilarious outing for Stan and Fred Fox. In their third book they are on a mission to save the world, one crisp packet at a time. I absolutely adore the series of Stan books. Author Elaine Wickson has conjured a dazzling concoction of brilliantly comic tales, which feature wonderfully original data representation, illustrated by Chris Judge. This time she has blended an important ecological theme into the story, presented in such a way that it is guaranteed to encourage primary school children to continue their own contribution to showing adults the error of their ways.

Stan wants nothing more than to read his space magazines in the peaceful surroundings of his room and prepare himself for the approaching full solar eclipse. Unfortunately his is side-tracked by permanently-sticky, little brother Fred, who has had his imagination captured by Dr Alice Fielding (or as he calls her, Dr Feddup). Her Plastic Planet TV series has awakened his inner eco-warrior. Fred’s first reaction to hearing about the waste plastic being swallowed by whales and other sea creatures is to empty the multi-packs of crisps into the supermarket aisles thereby allowing customers to purchase their crisps without the unnecessary packaging! At home things are not much better as he constantly replaces his family’s toothbrushes with twiggy sticks, often with the caterpillars still attached!

Fortunately he initiates a more positive campaign to resurrect the town’s central drinking fountain, aiming to provide free water for all residents and eliminate the need for plastic water bottles. With backing from headteacher Mrs Riley and big brother Stan’s presentation skills, Fred starts the “School of Fish” initiative to raise awareness and funds. Dressed as a giant pink prawn to highlight the plight of the crustaceans contaminated with plastic micro-particles, Fred inspire his entire school, and will likely inspire young readers to take their own small actions to save the planet.

I really don’t want to give away too many plot details, but this story is incredibly clever in its co-ordination of the dance of the celestial bodies, the side-plot of Gran’s forthcoming marriage to her Salsa teacher, the filial love between Fred and Stan and the momentum that one young King Prawn Supermarket Vandal can create. Throw into the mix a hideously ignorant radio DJ and his “toadally awesome” competition; a celebrity eclipse-chaser on a book tour; relatives with an addiction to conspicuous consumption and you have a story that twists through so many laugh-out-loud scenes that your cheeks will be aching with laughter before you reach the marvellously satisfying conclusion.

I highly recommend that you add this to your #SillySquad2020 reading list for the summer reading challenge. Beyond this, add it to the Stan collection on your library, classroom or home bookshelves to both read for pleasure and to generate data representation ideas.

Thank you to OUP Children’s Publishing for my review copy.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Scoop McLaren Detective Editor by Helen Castles

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

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: Helen Castles

Illustrator: Beatriz Castro

Publisher: New Frontier Publishing UK

Favourite sentence from page 11: “I whipped out my phone (that Dad said I’m only supposed to use in emergencies) and googled ‘antigen’.

Three words: Detective – Editor – Mystery

This is a perfect introduction to mystery stories for lower KS2 readers with a feisty lead female protagonist and unusually, manages to combine a technology-driven modern day plot with a nostalgic, small-town feel. My original review, which includes an interview with the author Helen Castles, can be read here.

A second book in the series should appear in October, release has been delayed for obvious reasons. I cannot wait to read it!

Enticing Early Readers: Zinnia Jakes and Sage Cookson Book Reviews

It is so important for newly emerging readers to have books available which instil a love of reading by combining enjoyable stories with great design; making books desirable objects. These two new series from New Frontier Publishing deliver on both counts: hugely enjoyable stories in books which have been created with extraordinary care, the covers and pages are top quality, with buff-coloured paper (which, as a parent of a dyslexic child I always value highly) and are the perfect dimensions for 6/7 year-olds to hold.

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes written by Brenda Gurr, illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff

Front Cover: Zinnia Jakes The Crumbling Castle illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff, published by New Frontier Publishing

Take out your tea set and cake stand and feast on The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes! The cover, with its lively illustrations and silver foil highlights certainly ticks the shelf-appeal boxes. Inside newly confident readers will find a story blending baking, mystery and a sprinkle of magic. It’s a perfect recipe for an entertaining and enjoyable read!

The identity of Zinnia Jakes is known only to her Auntie Jam, best friend Addie and international food critic father. Who could possibly guess that the fabulous creations baked by Zinnia Jakes are actually the work of nine-year-old Zoe Jones? She seems to have inherited her late mother’s talent for baking and produces delectable cakes from a secret kitchen in Auntie Jam’s home, assisted by a mysteriously magical cat and occasional help from Addie.

In this, her first adventure, she is tasked with producing a medieval castle cake to act a s a show stopper at a Professor’s book launch. But with only 48 hours to conceptualise and create a structure, and a best friend and aunt who are also preparing for their own events at the Medieval Fair, not to mention transportation problems, will Zinnia be able to deliver the goods?

This is an absolutely charming story, which I can imagine being very popular with the cohort of children who flock to the Rainbow Fairies and Isadora Moon early chapter books. The chapter headings throughout are stylishly illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff. With a delicious sounding recipe for medieval gingerbread at the back it is a perfect book to enjoy during the lockdown period and beyond!

Sage Cookson’s Sweet Escape, written by Sally Murphy, illustrated by Celeste Hulme

Sage Cookson is the globe-trotting, 10 year-old daughter of Basil and Ginger Cookson, the famous TV cooks and gastronomes. It is second nature to her to pack her suitcase, say goodbye to best friend Lucy and accompany her parents to the next location to film an episode of The Cooksons Cook On!

This time she is extra excited because she and Lucy have just been given their first mobile phones; they will be able to keep in touch regularly during her week away from school. The excitement builds up further when Sage discovers that the location, Newhaven Resort in Western Australia, is home to a chocolate plantation!

However, arrival at Marco’s Chocolates brings a less than sugary welcome, in fact Marco and his assistant Nancy appear positively hostile to their famous visitors. Adventure is thrown into the mix when Marco drives the family into the bush to visit his secret plantation!

This is a super introduction to adventure stories for newly confident readers, with an exciting but not too threatening plot, great pacing and a relateable young protagonist. Stylish black and white illustrations throughout the book are by Celeste Hulme. There is also a divine-looking chocolate fondant recipe at the end of the book.

Sage Cookson’s Snow Day, written by Sally Murphy, illustrated by Celeste Hulme

Ten year-old Sage Cookson is off on her travels again, this time to Snowy Village in the Australian Alps. An old friend of her mother has just opened a patisserie from where her parents plan to film the next episode of The Cooksons Cook On.

Sage is equally excited by the prospect of improving her skiing technique and spending time with Julia’s teenage son Kyle, with whom she has been friends throughout her childhood. However, on arrival she is shocked by the change in Kyle’s personality, and hurt by his sullen and uncommunicative attitude. This was not the sort of frosty she had been hoping for on this trip!

When Kyle disappears with his snowboard early the next morning, Sage’s capacity for friendship will be tested in this pacy adventure. At the end of the book you will find a very tempting recipe for easy mille-feuille!

All three of these books would be lovely additions to a school or classroom library to be enjoyed by newly independent readers, and I can equally imagine young readers wanting to collect their own sets to read at home. Perfect adventures for 6/7 year-olds.

I am very grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me these books in exchange for my honest opinion.

In My Dreams by Stef Gemmill and Tanja Stephani – Blog Tour

In My Dreams front cover, published by New Frontier Publishing June 2020

I was fortunate to get an advanced glimpse at this beautiful book at a bloggers event hosted by New Frontier Publishing back in February. The glorious jewel-coloured cover, with its gold foil highlights marks it out as a book to treasure; it is crammed with happy imagination, brought to life in Tanja Stephani’s tender and joyous illustrations.

I am delighted to be able to bring you a Q&A with illustrator Tanja, conducted via email, with the help of Henry at New Frontier.

Firstly, Tanja, can I congratulate you on the beautiful illustrations you have created for In My Dreams. I was lucky enough to be invited to a bloggers event in February and everyone there was drawn to this book, almost like bees to a particularly attractive flower!

Thank you so much for that, I received the book today in the mail and I’m really totally happy with the result!

How did you collaborate with author Stef Gemmill to communicate her vision for the story and how long did it take you to illustrate this book?

I actually didn’t speak with Stef Gemmill, I was invited to collaborate with a lovely Agency called Plum Pudding, and after 3 weeks I had this wonderful opportunity to sign the contract for this lovely story.

As I read the book, I found that some of the illustrations sparked memories of books that I had read as bedtime stories to my children, was this your intention? 

I’m sure I am inspired by a lot of children’s memories! But when I was reading the text for the first time, most of the pictures came immediately to my mind.

I absolutely love the picture of the boy riding his dragon over the dancing elephants; do you have a favourite picture in the book?

Oh yes, I love the cover very much. And now with the glitter it’s amazing – the art director did a wonderful job as well. 

How did you produce the illustrations for this book, do you start on paper and transfer to digital illustration?

First I started with the marshmallow page and worked only by hand, but then my sister got very ill and I had to work in the hospital sometimes too, so I decided to create the whole book on the iPad.

Do you have a favourite medium for creating your artwork, and has it changed over your career?

I’m an art supply “junky”. I love to try new things out, but mostly I end up using pastel, water colours, colour pencils and then I finish things off with the iPad.

How did you become a children’s book illustrator and was this always your ambition?

Yes it was always a dream for sure, but I started with a graphic design career and then moved on to art stuff like creating giant dragons for playgrounds or lamps for children’s rooms, paper objects, fine art etc… finally after 30 years I became a children’s illustrator.  

Do you have a favourite artist or illustrator and was there anyone who particularly encouraged your development as an artist when you were younger?

I think I’ve always had an artist’s soul…creating small worlds and trying out every kind of material. The teachers didn’t like me very much at this time. I always changed the assignment and had a better idea as an example. They wanted us to make a little dwarf made of felt, but I decided to create a big, big dragon. I worked on it over the whole weekend. 

My favourite children’s book artists in my childhood were Tomi Ungerer, Tatjana Hauptmann, Hans Fischer, Jean de Brunhoff, Maurice Sendak and of course Alois Carigiet.

What advice would you give to a child (and I would have been in this group) who struggles to get started when they are asked to draw something at school?

Oh that’s a good question… I worked a lot with children in schools and I never asked them to start drawing with something. We always started with kind of traces on paper, backgrounds of brushes that danced over the paper and other different ways to create backgrounds, so every child was able to see something coming out from that background and the question was answered.

Thank you for answering my questions and I wish you much success with In My Dreams; I can’t wait to share this wonderful book with children in my library.

Thank you so much for asking me, it was pleasure!

And here is my review:

The story begins (and ends) in a young boy’s bedroom, stuffed with toys and shaded in muted blue tones with his bed suffused in moonlight as he sleeps with his dog snuggled up on the covers. Each fully-illustrated double page spread takes you on a fantastical journey through the boy’s dreams, with simple sentences meandering across the pages. We accompany the boy and his faithful dog across rainbow-dappled marshmallow clouds, through rain and puddles made of sweet treats,, to the ocean floor and through jungles. My favourite page shows them gathering treasure…but no, it is not the gold coins or jewels we might expect, but rather “kisses and kindness from the island of Love”

This would make a wonderful bedtime story; Stef Gemmill’s sentences are filled with assonance and gentle rhythm, lulling any child to whom you read this into a tranquil state. I can think of no higher praise than to say that as I read it aloud (to an empty room) I was transported back 23 years to reading “Goodnight Moon” to my own children. In a preschool or Reception class this book would be a wonderful prompt for a discussion about dreams, it would be interesting to find out if children find that some of the pictures are redolent of bedtime stories that they already know. Some of the pictures certainly set me wondering whether the boy’s dreams were being influenced by some well-known bedtime story books.

You can watch a trailer of Tanja Stephani creating her artwork here

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of In My Dreams to review.

Do check out the other stops on the blog tour this week, with reviews and interviews from an amazing list of children’s book bloggers.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by Victoria Williamson

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

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 recomment this book, or link to your review.

Author: Victoria Williamson

Illustrator: I’m sorry, but my Kindle does not have this information

Publisher: Kelpies, an imprint of Floris Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: Yet again, I am probably bending the rules in this section! I lent my physical copy to someone before lockdown, so I only have my Kindle version to refer to, therefore I will use a quote from 11% as my Kindle will not allow me to search for page numbers! This quote encapsulates the plight of Reema, devastated by the separation from her beloved brother on the journey to the UK, and now bearing a huge weight of responsibility on her young shoulders as her family adapt to life as refugees on a Glasgow housing estate.

“Now that Jamal, with his expensive education and fluent English, is no longer with us, I am the only one who can speak for my family in halting foreign words.”

This book in three words: Alienation – Empathy – Friendship

In the week that we have marked #EmpathyDay I am giving a backlist shoutout to a beautifully written, powerful and moving story which charts the development of a friendship between two very different girls on a housing estate in Glasgow. I have lost count of the number of times that I have recommended this book! You can read my original review here.

Review: Boo Loves Books by Kaye Baillie, illustrated by Tracie Grimwood

Front cover of Boo Loves Books, illustration by Tracie Grimwood, Published by New Frontier Publishing

As we mark #EmpathyDay2020 today, it seemed the perfect time to post a review of this gorgeous picture book which demonstrates empathy throughout. Firstly there is the kind teacher, Miss Spinelli, who recognises Phoebe’s anxiety about reading and decides to take the class on a trip away from the classroom to read to a non-judgemental audience in an unusual location. Then we see Phoebe’s mum recognising her reluctance to participate in the trip and reassuring her that she is going to have a wonderful time. Next, the small but significant action of her best friend giving her hand a squeeze; showing children that sometimes even the tiniest gesture can mean so much to someone. Finally, Phoebe’s recognition that Big Boo, despite his enormous size is every bit as anxious as she is and her recognition of a kindred spirit helping her through her difficulties.

Kaye Baillie’s story has a heart-warming outcome, showing young children the positive impact of empathy. The charming illustrations by Tracie Grimwood give the impression that they have been created with colouring pencils, the muted shades perfectly matched to the tone of the story. The transformation of Phoebe’s nervous facial expressions and body language to a face suffused with smiles is deeply touching. At a time when even the youngest children display anxieties at the strange conditions we are all operating under, stories such as Boo Loves Books, with a message of quiet reassurance are invaluable.

I highly recommend this book for any pre-school or Key Stage One’s collection of books to read for empathy and if you are looking for a book to share at home with a child of 3-6 years old, then add this to your shopping list!

My thanks to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of Boo Loves Books in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Do You Know Me? by Rebecca Westcott and Libby Scott

Do You Know Me? book cover, published by Scholastic

This incredibly moving and thought-provoking novel is a collaboration by Teacher/Author Rebecca Westcott and teenager Libby Scott, who is autistic. The power of Libby’s voice, expressed through the diary entries of protagonist Tally, calls out to all readers to empathise with those who have so much to teach us about neurological difference.

Twelve year-old Tally has suffered from bullying previously in the school year and now faces the prospect of a week-long Year 7 residential trip, which she has only considered attending because Mrs Jarman, her trusted, understanding Drama teacher will be there. In the preceding week’s assembly Mrs Jarman says:

“You’ll be learning to face your fears. You’ll discover that strength and courage come in many forms, and most of all, you’ll learn that your are capable of doing far more than you ever thought you could.”

Unfortunately for Tally she has to start learning these lessons immediately as at the last minute Mrs Jarman cannot attend the camp, and instead of sharing accommodation with her kind best friend Aleksandra, she is allocated a cabin with three of the girls who have bullied her previously and two girls from another school. Of these two strangers, she realises that Skye is the kind of “popular” girl that everyone is afraid to cross despite her appalling behaviour, and the other Jade is an outsider with many similarities to herself.

As the week’s activities and dramas unfold, your eyes are opened to the incredible challenges faced by people with autism as Tally tries to mask some of her behaviours, avoid stimming and read the vocal and facial signals of strangers which are often incomprehensible to her. The bullying plot is crafted beautifully to examine the behaviour of all the teenagers and to show the gradual acceptance and celebration of differences. It is not only Tally who discovers strength and courage during the week.

This is an absolutely essential book for everyone working in schools to help gain empathy for those with autism and also general tween and teenage behaviour. I would highly recommend it as a story for Year 6 pupils in preparation for their transition to secondary school as it would spark many discussion points about what to expect and how to deal with new situations for the entire cohort. I loved the portrayal of Tally’s family, demonstrating the gentle, choice-giving manner with which those with autism need to be treated, whilst also recognising the stresses and frustrations felt by the entire family. The scene where Tally is expected to open her twelfth birthday presents, with its palpable feeling of tension taught me a valuable lesson in empathy which I am determined to remember.

An absolutely essential book to add to any school library. I am most grateful to my fellow members of the Primary School Book Club for voting for Do You Know Me? as May’s book choice!

#20BooksofSummer Book 1 Dragon Detective: School’s Out! by Gareth P Jones

The second dragon detective mystery is every bit as enjoyable as the first in the series (you can read my review here), with a great cast of characters (I loved the portrayal of vain and venal headteacher Principal Palmer), sublime plotting and wry sense of humour. Some characters from Catnapped!, such as evil dragon Vainclaw Grandin and his inept human henchmen Arthur and Reg re-appear, but you could easily read and enjoy School’s Out! as a standalone story. The illustrations throughout by Scott Brown add to its charm, particularly the singed page corners.

After almost derailing her stepmother’s political ambitions following a late night incident involving blazing dragons, Holly Bigsby now finds herself incarcerated at William Scrivener School for children of the ridiculously rich and phenomenally famous. Smart, independent Holly will not rest until she has figured out a way to foil the high tech security systems and return to her best friend in London. Meanwhile Dirk Dilly, her red-backed, green-bellied, urban-based, mountain dragon private eye friend has been hired by a worried wife to investigate her professor husband’s unusual and alarming behaviour.

Dirk’s investigations lead him to a hideout in the thick forest surrounding Holly’s school. The sleuthing friends find themselves caught up in the middle of another of Grandin Vainclaw’s fiendish plots involving secret high-tech weapons, squabbling tree dragons with a hilariously mangled sense of the English language, the prime minister’s delusional son and a school concert of grand drama.

Huge fun for both child and adult readers, this book is a must-read for an audience of 8+. Author Gareth P Jones packs so much into 250 pages, with a wry sense of humour and fabulously imaginative plot, I even spotted a reference to A Little Princess in the early stages. Dragon Detective: School’s Out! is a perfect addition to any school library and one to add to recommended reading lists for this summer’s #SillySquad2020 Reading Challenge. I guarantee that the dialogue between the tree dragons:

I’m sure he’ll comprestand us mistaccidentally schmunching a member of his family.”

will definitely raise a smile if you are lucky enough to read this book aloud to a young audience.

You can register to join the reading challenge at sillysquad.org.uk

My thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This is book 1 of my #10BooksofSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746Books.com, do check out her wonderful blog.

Image created by Cathy at 746books.com and used with permission.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on the brilliant Book Craic blog.

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 recomment this book, or link to your review.

Author: Katherine Rundell

Illustrator: Cover art based on design by Antigone-konstantinidou.com

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This is part of a description of Charles Maxim: “But he had kindness where other people had lungs, and politeness in his fingertips.”

This book in three words: Kindness – Paris – Adventure

Again this week I am using this feature to revisit a book published a few years ago (in 2013) which I absolutely love and consider to be a modern-day classic! My original review of Rooftoppers written last year can be read here.