Chapter book review: Magic Faces by Esi Merleh, illustrated by Abeeha Tariq

Cover image by Abeeha Tariq, published by Uclan Publishing,
2nd March 2023

A fun-filled, full-colour, magical adventure, Magic Faces Heroes of the Pirate Ship is a super short chapter book for children of 5+ to enjoy reading for pleasure.

Twins Austin and Alanna are spending time in their Aunty Kessie’s art studio when they discover a box of face paints labelled ‘magic faces’. Imagine their surprise when the paint brush springs to life and offers a choice between pirate ship and robot world! Opting for the pirate ship, Austin and Alanna’s faces are rapidly painted and a magical hunt for a treasure chest on the unusual pirate ship, New Leaf, commences.

This story explodes with colour and imagination and I am sure that young children will enjoy the race against a painted wristwatch, the pooping parrot and the idea of biscuits which put squashed fly biscuits to shame! With short chapters, multicultural characters and a lovely message about following your heart and doing the right thing, Magic Faces Heroes of the Pirate Ship will be a great addition to reading choices in Key Stage 1 classrooms. Author Esi Merleh and illustrator Abeeha Tariq have produced a story which is entertaining and encourages creativity.

My thanks to Uclan Publishing and Antonia Wilkinson PR for a review copy in return for my honest opinion.

Chapter Book Review: Nell and the Cave Bear – The Journey Home by Martin Brown

Cover image by Martin Brown, Published by Piccadilly Press, March 2023

Newly published by Piccadilly Press, Nell and the Cave Bear The Journey Home is a gentle adventure for children who are gaining confidence in reading independently, written and illustrated by Martin Brown. The short chapters are printed in a large, easily readable font and blocks of text are broken up regularly by delicately drawn images coloured in shades of green which works beautifully with the story.

The story itself is set in a pre-historic land of wooly mammoths, hunter-gatherers and fisher-folk and begins with Nell and her Cave Clan reaching the end of a visit with their distant cousins the Sea Clan. When Mayv, the leader of the Casve Clan decides that it is time to move on to the summer hunting grounds, Nell decides that she would like to stay longer with the Sea Clan because she wants to consult with the wise woman Saira who lives at the edge of their village. Little does she suspect that Kevun, the mean leader of the Woodland Clan, is still determined to capture her beloved Cave Bear. When his band of rather incompetent hunters manage to ambush Cave Bear (who has been distracted by a wild strawberry patch) the adventure begins. Nell, Saira and an injured tortoise named Tolomy set of in pursuit of the hunters and a quest begins in which love of the natural world is mixed with a charming sense of humour.

I am certain that children of 5-7 years old will thoroughly enjoy exploring an unspoilt natural environment populated with woolly mammoths, a shaggy rhinoceros, wolves and a tribe of hunters who will raise giggles throughout! The bond between Nell and her Cave Bear will be instantly familiar to any child who has a pet and the theme of families coming together increases my desire to recommend this as a lovely early reading choice.

I am grateful to Piccadilly Press and Antonia Wilkinson PR for my review copy of Nell and the Cave Bear The Journey Home which was published on 16th March 2023.

Chapter Book Review: Kate on the Case written and illustrated by Hannah Peck

Cover illustration by Hannah Peck, published by Piccadilly Press

Kate on the Case is a book which I missed when it was published in 2020, but having recently read and reviewed the newly published third book in the series, The Headline Hoax, I was delighted to see this one on the shelves of my local public library. I loved this book which I would summarise as Ratatouille meets Adventures on Trains for children of 7-9!

The main character Kate is an aspiring special correspondent, who is never without her trusty guide, The Special Correspondent Manual written by her one true idol, legendary investigative reporter, Catherine Rodriguez. Her other constant companion is her erudite pet rat, Rupert. The story starts with Kate, Rupert and her lovely Dad embarking on a luxury train journey to visit Mum, a famous scientist who is working at the International Polar Association based in the Arctic. The train is populated by a fascinating cast of fellow travellers who include: haughty Madame Maude and her very stupid cat Master Mimkins; Simon an accident prone conductor-in-training; a Russian priest with a litany of droll one-liners; a world famous gymnast Miss Bonbon and an alarming stowaway!

Shortly after the journey begins the guests start to notice that precious possessions are going missing. It’s time for Kate to put her journalistic skills into practice and use interviews, logic and a large dollop of courage to crack the case! Kate on the Case brilliantly introduces newly confident readers to the tropes of classic locked room mystery fiction through a plot infused with charming wordplay in a perfectly paced short chapter book. Hannah Peck’s distinctive illustrations add to the enjoyment of this beautifully crafted story, the orange palette perfectly in keeping with the unexpected mystery passenger.

Anyone who is looking for a book to encourage youngsters to get hooked on reading for pleasure should check out the Kate on the Case series. Fifteen years ago in my family it was Lauren Child’s picture books and short chapter books which hooked one of mine and I rate Hannah Peck’s unique blend of stylish illustration and writing equally highly.

MG Review: Quiet Storm by Kimberly Whittam

Cover image by Bex Glendining, due for publication by Usborne Publishing, 8th June 2023

An empowering, contemporary, middle grade novel featuring a main protagonist who suffers from extreme shyness, Quiet Storm will have readers cheering at full volume for Storm Williams.

I absolutely loved this debut title from teacher Kimberly Whittam, who writes with compassion, wit and authenticity about tweens and teens, school life and the everyday challenges that need to be faced as young people find their true selves. I have not seen an introvert feature as a main protagonist in fiction for this age-group previously and a high bar has been set here. My heart went out to eleven year old Storm as she struggled through each day in Year 7, afraid to speak to any of the children in her form, none of whom are from her primary school, and reliant on meeting Zarrish, her former best friend from primary during every break and lunchtime. Although she is from a perfectly lovely family, with a gregarious and kind older brother who “is on a one-boy mission to save the world”, Storm has not managed to find the ability to express herself and would rather cower in silence than be the focus of any attention at all. Life becomes increasingly difficult for her when the family have to move in with her Grandma when their home is flooded, pitching Storm into close contact with the troublemaker in her form, at the same time as mean-girl Melissa arrives on the scene to disrupt her friendship with Zarrish.

The unexpected discovery of her huge talent on the athletics track where running is “exhilarating but calming at the same time” is the catalyst for change in Storm’s interaction with those around her. The sudden plunge into the spotlight, with the pressure of a regional athletics competition as well as a school house championship to compete for, push Storm to the limits of her confidence. Will she retreat into her shell, or find her voice, embrace her talents and find acceptance for who she truly is? The secondary plot revealing trouble-maker Ryan’s real personality, life circumstances and qualities adds an additional motivation for Storm to express herself.

Quiet Storm is a celebration of all the qualities that make each individual unique, it is a book which encourages readers to develop understanding for the behaviours of others and to respect those children who may not be outgoing but who have strengths which are not always immediately obvious in the bustle of a classroom. The positive portrayal of a girls’ athletics squad was refreshing too; the teamwork, kindness and fun of working together for a successful outcome was a strong feature of the story. The sibling relationship between Storm and Isaiah was believable and touching, in particular Isaiah’s revelation that he had been bullied for being a swot but had decided to be his own person and had grown into the adored head boy that everyone in the school respected. Finally, I enjoyed the teacher and teaching assistant characters, each of whom had a distinctive personality and all of whom were positive and nurturing towards the students in their care.

I would highly recommend Quiet Storm to children of 11+, it is due to be published on 8th June 2023 and would be a perfect read for Year 6 children as they reach the end of their primary school journeys, as well as Year 7 and 8 readers.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and Usborne Publishing for sending me a proof copy of Quiet Storm ahead of publication in exchange for my honest opinion.

YA Review: HappyHead by Josh Silver

Published by Rock the Boat, 16 March 2023

Having read HappyHead cover to cover in one sitting, I can confirm that it is indeed, compelling, dark and thrilling. For a debut novelist, Josh Silver has written a remarkably assured story, which combines a rawly emotional romance with a dystopian take on the wellness industry.

The voice of seventeen year old Sebastian who is struggling to be his authentic self, in a family and an environment where his sexual orientation has been met with hostility, cries out for understanding and validation. There is not a single false note as Seb fights for approval, love and ultimately survival in an experimental treatment facility for emotionally damaged teens. The cover makes reference to The Hunger Games and the comparison holds true in that we are plunged into a nightmarish scenario where teens are subjected to manipulation by adults with nefarious intent, are forced to compete with each other and have to rely on their instincts as to whom they can trust when the challenges become increasingly dangerous.

The author’s own experience as a mental health nurse has fed into his brilliantly imagined scenario of an isolated wellness facility, situated in the Scottish wilderness where stressed and damaged teenagers can escape the pressures imposed upon them by schools, parents, peers and even themselves, in the relentless pursuit of perfection. The oppressive atmosphere of the story starts to build from page one, with Seb crammed in the back of the family car with his scheming younger sister while his parents become increasingly tense at the SatNav’s inability to navigate the rural Scottish landscape. By the time the car is met on the road by an employee of HappyHead whom Seb nicknames Antiseptic, you are already silently screaming “just get back in the car and go home to Woking!” Then, as Seb shuffles into the lecture theatre with all eyes on him, the last arrival of the first cohort of 100 students, we experience his insecurity through his inner monologue. Burning with humiliation, becoming the object of snarky comments, he is already mentally rehearsing advice that he’s no doubt heard many times from his mum about finding his inner confidence…and then he spots Ice Eyes. A chiselled, manga-like apparition with tattoos emerging from under his tatty jumper. And the tension ratchets up another notch!

I so enjoyed the unfolding of the plot that I don’t wish to discuss any details that might provide spoilers but will just say that the suspense builds brilliantly, from an initial sense of unease to eventual extreme anxiety as the challenges faced by the protagonists become increasingly unhinged. Like all the best dystopian fiction this story work because it is based on real truths; teenagers are facing too many societal pressures, homophobic bullying does still exist and there are sadly individuals who exploit the vulnerability of others. The characters’ back stories are revealed in carefully timed and often heart-breaking recollections and reveals, demonstrating the real life experiences which resulted in mental health issues for these unfortunate young people. The survival dilemma faced by Seb, of whether to reveal his true self or play to please the adults running the experiment, is nail-biting for it is soon clear that this is a competition not a retreat! And layered on top of this struggle is the beautifully observed blossoming of first love. The tender romance between Seb and Finn at the heart of HappyHead is described in searingly honest language and I found it very affecting. It adds another seam of emotional depth, demanding the reader’s compassion for the teen protagonists as they seek to escape their dystopian nightmare whilst continuing to add to your fears for their survival. The ending is sufficiently ambiguous to leave you desperate for a sequel, which I certainly hope that Josh Silver will be writing. I highly recommend HappyHead for a readership of 14+.

I wish to thank Liz Scott and Rock the Boat Books for providing me with a review copy of HappyHead prior to publication on 16th March 2023.

Review: Call the Puffins! by Cathy Howe, illustrated by Ella Okstad

Cover image by Ella Okstad, published by Welbeck Publishing, 2nd March 2023

It is time for Muffin the Puffin to leave the safety of the underground burrow she has shared with mum and dad and fly with them to the Island of Egg to join the puffin training colony. On the one wing she is excited to begin her training but on the other wing, worried about passing the training challenges required to be recruited into “the Unflappables” the elite corps of rescue puffins!

This gentle and fun tale of teamwork, hard work and purpose, which reflects children’s experiences of being in new surroundings or joining a new class or a club, models the behaviour that enables friendship development, wrapped in a flapping good story. Cath Howe brings all the skill that I have admired in her books for a middle grade audience, this time delivering drama, humour and the cutest bundles of feathers imaginable. The greyscale illustrations by Ella Okstad are full of life and joy and I am sure will make young readers want to discover more about these beautiful seabirds. Fortunately this can start in the non-fiction section at the end of the book, providing some fun facts about puffins.

Call the Puffins! has been carefully designed to appeal to children who are gaining confidence as independent readers. The font is clear and nicely sized, with plenty of white space. The short chapters, 120 page length and liberal use of illustrations ensure that youngsters can gain that sense of achievement that results from being able to read a whole book and I am sure that this is a book that children will be queueing to borrow from the classroom or library shelves. An ideal choice for children of 6-8 years old.

My thanks to Welbeck Publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for my review copy of Call the Puffins! which was published on 2nd March 2023 and is available from book sellers now.

Review: Otter-ly Cute Illustrated Fiction for Young Readers

I am firmly of the belief that children cannot be offered too many choices when it comes to engaging them in independent reading for pleasure. Today I am happy to recommend three books which I am certain will appeal to young readers. They all feature short chapters, are approximately 100-120 pages in length, are an ideal size for small hands, have clear fonts, engaging stories, beautiful illustrations to break up the text…and OTTERS! Who doesn’t love an otter?

Well actually, the AdventureMice might have something to say about that last question! The star of AdventureMice Otter Chaos is an adventurous young mouse called Pedro who disregards his Dad’s advice that mice do not need anything so ‘scary, dangerous and uncomfortable’ as adventures. As soon as he is old enough, he packs his suitcase and sets off in search of excitement, getting more than he bargained for when a gust of wind blows him out to sea! This entertaining story by Philip Reeve features an unusual villain and plenty of action to keep young readers engrossed from start to finish. The full colour illustrations by Sarah McIntyre are fantastic, I especially loved the detailed cross-section of the Mousebase, the map of the mouse islands and the ‘how to’ guide which will enable any reader (young or old) to draw their own version of Pedro.

I lack any artistic talent and therefore can provide evidence that the instructions will give anyone the confidence to draw!

Big Sky Mountain The Beach Otters is written and illustrated by Alex Milway and is a gentle adventure which cleverly blends environmental messages into a story which explores geography, weather and the natural world.

Rosa and her Grandma Nan live in a cute cabin on the shore of Lake Jewell, with Albert the Moose, Little Pig the pygmy owl and Stick a wolf cub. However, they drop their daily chores as soon as they spot a distress signal coming from the direction of the coast. Setting off in Grandma Nan’s canoe, they travel across a range of landscapes before reaching the coast where they find a family of sea otters who live in an abandoned lighthouse. The problem of plastic pollution of the oceans is hugely apparent in the mess that washes up on the otters’ beach every morning. Rosa and Nan help with the clean up and fashion a raft from many discarded plastic barrels which they use to carry out a daring rescue mission from Jagged Rock Island!

As well as a thoroughly satisfying story, young readers are treated to fascinating facts about ocean dwellers; I can imagine many will enjoy learning about hermit crabs and some interesting information about blue whale poo!

Another story with an environmental theme, the third book in the Woodland Magic series The Stranded Otter finds Cora, Trix, Jax and Nis working on a handmade raft, in preparation for the moonlight raft race which will be held in honour of Grandmother Sky’s birthday. Within the first few pages of the story Cora demonstrates her credentials as a Nature Keeper, risking a dunking in the lake in order to rescue a drowning caddisfly.

In each story of this series the young Nature Keepers are sent out into the Big Outside early each morning to perform a task intended to repair some of the environmental damage caused by the Ruffins (humans). This time Cora and Jax are sent to build a bug hotel outside a newly constructed supermarket – a narrative that would be lovely to share with Key Stage One children perhaps in a science or Forest School lesson. There is a non-fiction section at the end of the story which provides additional details on different natural materials which can be used to attract a range of invertebrate species.

Despite designing an excellent bug hotel, Cora and Jax risk failing their assigned task when they are diverted by an otter cub who is trapped by a discarded shopping trolley and risks being drowned in the fiercely rushing river. A daring rescue which relies on impressive teamwork and the sacrifice of their racing raft will have young readers turning the pages until the final resolution. Julie Sykes blends magical characters with perfectly pitched environmental issues, wonderfully illustrated by Katy Riddell in this adorable story for young readers of 6-8 years of age.

My thanks to Piccadilly Press for review copies of Big Sky Mountain The Beach Otters which was published in autumn 2022 and Woodland Magic The Stranded Otter which will be published on 9th March 2023, and to David Fickling Books for AdventureMice Otter Chaos which will be published on 2nd March 2023.

Review: Maggie Blue and the White Crow by Anna Goodall

Cover art by Sandra Dieckmann, published by Guppy Books, 2nd March 2023

This second book in the Maggie Blue trilogy soars with imagination, transporting the reader as seamlessly as the title character between two contrasting worlds . Anna Goodall’s construction of the story is masterful, encouraging the reader to read between the lines and try to piece together the puzzle of Maggie’s purpose and fate. It is labelled as a middle grade book but I would suggest that it is likely to be most enjoyed by children towards the end of Year 6, during the summer between primary and secondary school and during Key Stage 3, when they are of similar age to the child protagonists.

The story begins with Maggie and her school friends languidly passing the summer holidays in the woods or in Aunt Esme’s garden, enduring a stifling heatwave. Despite the intense heat and light, both Maggie and her friend Ida intermittently feel their blood chill when they experience flashbacks to the time spent in the Dark World. Maggie seems blissfully unaware that her every move is being watched by warrior shifters, people from the Dark World who can take on the shape of birds…but what is their intent? And can Maggie’s heightened senses really be unaware that she is needed for a further purpose in a fantasy land that she would rather not revisit?

In the real world, she now feels less of an outsider, having friends to hang out with. However, she is still insecure about her odd family circumstances; living with eccentric Aunt Esme while her mum Cynthia, is incarcerated in a mental hospital and her dad is overseas with his new young girlfriend. Regular tween discussions about holiday plans cause her discomfort and distress because she is not in a position to enjoy overseas vacations. These everyday events become immaterial when a pure white crow arrives in West Minchen, followed soon after by Cynthia who despite being in a distressed state wants to tell Maggie about her background. Without wishing to give away any plot spoilers I will simply say that Maggie is reluctantly hurtled back into the Dark World and the reader is immersed into a land of ruthless ambition, ongoing war, witches and the chillingly ferocious Terrible Ones. The seven ruling families have built a citadel in the Magic Mountains:

a bizarre glittering structure. It shone like madness in the clear light


and somehow Maggie’s fate is dependent on restoring the balance between their urge to destroy and the Great O’s mission to preserve the natural world.

This is an immersive, exciting novel with moments of violent peril balanced with some wryly humorous passages, usually featuring Hoagy the one-eyed cat! With underlying themes of mental health issues and the exploitation of the natural world it is a sophisticated tale which will leave readers desperate to find out whether Maggie will have the ability to reconcile her two worlds in the final instalment. Before I finish this review, I must encourage you to take a close look at the stunning cover art by Sandra Dieckmann which so beautifully depicts the protagonists with whom you will glide through this story.

I am very grateful to Guppy Books and to Liz Scott for sending me a copy of Maggie Blue and the White Crow in advance of publication on 2nd March 2023.

Picture Book Review: Madeline Finn and the Rescue Dog by Lisa Papp

Cover art by Lisa Papp, published by Old Barn Books, 9th March 2023

The second book in the Madeline Finn series from American illustrator and author Lisa Papp is like a warm hug in book form. It is a perfect book to share with young children and I simply cannot wait to snuggle up and read it to the youngest relative.

Madeline’s dreams come true when she finally persuades her mum to let her have a dog and she is allowed to choose a puppy from the litter of Bonnie, the library dog. Truth be told, the puppy, Star, chooses Madeline rather than the other way round! Lovely librarian, Mrs Dimple, explains to Madeline that there are other ways of finding pets such as rescue dogs and cats, and she inspires Madeline and her mum to visit the local animal shelter. Reflecting on her visit, Madeline realises that the sadness of the animals who await new homes might be explained by a lack of love and being the kind-hearted child that she is, she makes a plan to ensure that every dog and cat feels as loved as Star,

Every page of this story deserves to be lingered over. The illustrations in warm, pastel shades radiate gentleness and care, you can feel the unconditional love that Madeline has for her puppy in every adoring glance and cuddle. The contrast in the expressions and body language of the caged animals on Madeline’s first visit to the shelter compared to the day when the shelter fills with children and books and blankets is heart-meltingly glorious. The story was apparently inspired by a “read to dogs” project at the author’s local library and this incredible, non-judgemental bond between animals and children is certainly reflected in this beautiful book. Quite honestly, the highest praise that I can bestow is that reading it gave me the same feeling as I had when sharing the “Alfie” books by the late, great Shirley Hughes with my children many years ago. The characters and storytelling resonate with the same kindness, wisdom and observation of the joyful details of everyday life. I highly recommend Madeline Finn and the Rescue Dog as a gift for any young child of your acquaintance, for every nursery and early years and Key Stage 1 classroom.

I am most grateful to Old Barn Books for my gifted copy ahead of publication, which will be passed on to my great-niece, who I am sure will adore it.

MG Review: I, Spy A Bletchley Park Mystery by Rhian Tracey

Cover art by David Dean, published by Piccadilly Press,
2 March 2023

This enjoyable debut by Rhian Tracey combines a fascinating WWII setting with an intriguing mystery adventure, resourceful children and brave birds; and ideal mix for an engrossing middle grade title.

The main protagonist, Robyn, has grown up at Bletchley Park, living in a cottage in the grounds of the stately home where her father works as the chauffeur. It is clear that she has had a carefree existence, roaming the grounds, swimming and rowing on the lake and observing the varied wildlife. However, the onset of war has restricted her previous freedoms. She has been told to stay away from the lake, she can no longer visit her dad in the garages which are now filled with military vehicles and her mother is now employed; running the coffee shop for the multitude of new arrivals who are housed in temporary huts on the site. Worst of all, when Robyn breaks the rules and sneaks out of the grounds to visit her best friend Mary in the village, she is hauled in front of a harsh, humourless authority figure whom she labels “The Heron” and is made to sign the Official Secrets act.

No longer permitted to leave the site, even to attend school, Robyn is put to work in the attics of the stately home where she meets kindly Mr Samuels and becomes his apprentice in the National Pigeon Service. I am sure that animal-loving children will be as fascinated as I was to learn about the vital role that these incredible birds played during WWII. The bond that Mr Samuels and Robyn form with the pigeons is heartwarmingly relatable to any child who has cared for a pet. Being based in the attics gives Robyn ample opportunities to observe the activity taking place in the Park, and she becomes increasingly suspicious of The Heron’s movements, particularly his involvement with the undertaker’s hearse which visits the Park daily. She teams up with the undertaker’s son, Ned, and Mary who is now working as a post-girl delivering messages to the inhabitants of the huts, and together they begin to investigate The Heron’s nefarious dealings. Secret codes, hidden tunnels and unexpected villains keep the plot entertaining whilst readers of 10+ also learn about the changes, particularly to women’s lives, that occurred during WWII. I think that I, Spy A Bletchley Park Mystery gives a fresh perspective on the second world war and will be a welcome addition to primary school classrooms and libraries.

In my former role in a school I used to deliver a lesson about Bletchley Park as part of the computing curriculum for Year 6, the children really enjoyed making their own Enigma Machines from old Pringles (or non-branded equivalents) tubes. (You can find resources and instructions for this activity, designed by Franklin Health Ltd and available free here). If any primary school teachers or librarians investigate cryptography or the history of computing with Year 5 or Year 6, I would highly recommend using this book as a class reader to coincide with that unit of work.

I am grateful to Piccadilly Press and Antonia Wilkinson for sending me a review copy of I, Spy A Bletchley Park Mystery prior to publication on 2nd March 2023.