Review: Mickey and the Animal Spies written by Anne Miller

 

As a lifelong fan of detective/mystery/spy fiction I understand how an exciting, fast-paced, engaging story can turn a child into an enthusiastic reader. This first book in a new MG series, by debut children’s author, Anne Miller combines a smart, code-cracking girl with a secret animal organisation in a plot to solve a spate of diamond thefts! It is a wonderful new addition to the treasury of engaging children’s fiction.

Michaela R Thompson (Mickey) Is determined to follow in the footsteps of her hero, the super spy Hildegarde L McTavish. To this end, she is hanging upside down from the gymnasium balance beam when we first encounter her, in order to “look at the world from an unusual angle!” Mickey loves codes of all types: morse code, ciphers and even naval signalling flags and is always on the lookout for opportunities to practise code-cracking. Encountering a coded message written on a scrap of paper on the bus home from school, Mickey deciphers it and finds herself recruited by a top secret and extremely unusual organisation!

Mickey has stumbled upon COBRA, not the Cabinet Office B that meets in times of national crisis, but a secret animal organisation established many years previously “to protect the country’s animals in ways humans cannot comprehend.” As befits this imaginative book, the head of COBRA is of course an enormous cobra named Coby. Other members of the High Committee include Clarke, the most incredibly aloof, dismissive and sarcastic cat; a nervous giraffe security guard Bertie; Astrid the spider monkey who takes care of international affairs; Rupert the highly intelligent leader of a team of rats and the office temp, Tilda ( a sloth). This intrepid band of animal agents is lacking one thing – opposable thumbs, hence their requirement for a human agent!

A succession of diamond thefts from high profile pet owners has COBRA facing a deadly challenge, can they track down the master criminal behind the heists and protect the pampered pets of the celebrities from coming to harm? And why are these pets so reluctant to provide any information? Will Mickey ever be able to prove her worth to severely unimpressed Clarke?

You will find the answers to these puzzles in this zany adventure, but don’t be fooled by the red herrings!

I loved Mickey’s intelligent and determined character and the intriguing camouflage methods used by the animals to travel incognito around London. I was also highly amused by the concept of COBRA sending messages by b-mail, with robins being the most reliable bird. In my own mind I consider this to be a nod to Robin Stevens, the queen of detective fiction for the MG market.

This book is an utter joy to read, with its fast-paced, imaginative plot, driven along by short snappy chapters. The idea of a secret service agency run by animals seems completely feasible due to the skilful writing of Anne Miller, and the black and white illustrations by Becka Moor (who has worked on many children’s books) are a perfect complement to the text. The explanations of Mickey’s code-breaking techniques will be fascinating to children, and are a nice introduction to cyber security which is touched on in the primary school computing curriculum. 

 

I think this book will be perfect for early Key Stage 2 readers, who have enjoyed animal-themed stories by Dick King-Smith and Jill Tomlinson, the Daisy stories by Kes Gray, the Clarice Bean chapter books and Scoop McLaren, but are not yet ready for Ruby Redfort, Murder Most Unladylike or Alex Rider. It will introduce young readers to the excitement of young spy/detective stories and give them a new hero to root for. I do hope that there will be further titles in this series as I can’t wait to discover what plots Mickey uncovers next.

Anne Miller is a scriptwriter and researcher for QI and the Head Researcher for Radio 4’s The Museum of Curiosity. Mickey and the Animal Spies is her first book for children.

 

I am grateful to OUP Children’s Publishing and Liz Scott for sending me a review copy of this book and the artwork posted here, created by experienced children’s book illustrator Becka Moor, in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Awesomely Austen, Pride and Prejudice rewritten by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans

IMG_3248

I was a little apprehensive when I heard that Jane Austen’s novels were being rewritten for a younger audience, but Katherine Woodfine has totally honoured the original and this is an utterly glorious addition to any school library, classroom or home bookshelf, I will certainly be buying many copies as gifts! To see one of my all time favourite novels made accessible for an MG audience gladdens my heart.

Firstly, the beautifully produced hardback edition with lovely orange-coloured endpapers featuring the main characters tells you that this is a book to be treasured. The “delightful doodles” drawn by Églantine Ceulemans perfectly illustrate and add to the understanding of the story, with Elizabeth Bennet’s “fine eyes” directing the reader towards the action wherever she appears.

Katherine Woodfine has managed to capture the charm and vivacity of Jane Austen’s masterpiece; has preserved many of the most famous original lines; and maintained the personalities of the characters whilst rewriting to make this accessible to a younger audience. The extremely long and complex sentences of the original have been simplified and Elizabeth’s motivations and thoughts are made explicit to aid comprehension. I have been reading it with a group of Year 5 pupils (aged 9 and 10) in a library club, and they have been spellbound. It is interesting to see their reaction to the reality of the lives that were expected of females in the Regency period and their recognition of Elizabeth’s single-mindedness. 

For children who are reading this alone, there are explanatory notes about Regency England and portraits of the main characters accompanied by short biographies at the front of the book. Additionally the end notes by Katherine and Églantine, the short biography of Jane Austen and historical notes on 1813 will all help to contextualise the story.

The lightness of touch demonstrated in Katherine Woodfine’s writing brings the characters alive with their original personalities intact, despite the uncomplicated language. So you are left in no doubt of Jane’s sweetness, Elizabeth’s intelligence, Mary’s misguided pride in her accomplishments, Kitty and Lydia’s silliness, Mrs Bennet ’s obsessions and Mr Bennet’s sarcasm. I could go on, because there is little doubt that every character in Pride and Prejudice has an important part to play in the plot. The complexities of the social class structure and etiquette of the age are portrayed wonderfully and Lizzie’s mortification at her family’s behaviour whilst attending the Netherfield Ball gives a glimpse into the consequences of ignoring the social mores. I was delighted to find that my favourite scenes from the original were rendered with wit and verve and I congratulate the author and everyone concerned for turning a much beloved classic into such an enjoyable MG book.

Highly recommended for readers of 9+, who will hopefully have their appetite whetted to read the original when they reach secondary school.

 

I am most grateful to toppsta.com and Hachette Children’s Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Perfect and Timely Picture Books

Little Puggle’s Song written by Vikki Conley and illustrated by Hélène Magisson

lpsong_cvr-rgb

 

I am ashamed to say that I have had this picture book in my reviewing stack for rather a long time and was prompted to retrieve it by the recent heart-breaking reports of the devastation wreaked by the bush fires in Australia. It goes without saying that I have immense sympathy for all of the people affected, but it is also very upsetting to see so much of the unique flora and fauna of Australia destroyed so rapidly and in such quantity.

This story of one little echidna’s determination to follow his dreams becomes all the more poignant in the light of such a  background. Vikki Conley has written a wonderfully gentle tale of Puggle’s desire to sing like all the other animals. This shy little creature is desperate to join the animal choir to sing for the arrival of the emu chicks. He watches in wonder as animals and birds rehearse for their performance; bluebirds, doves, cockatoos, kangaroos and koalas all conducted by the kookaburra known as Brown Feather. He summons the courage to ask for a place in the choir, but he does not have the ability to make a sound. However, when Brown Feather becomes ill at the last moment, Little Puggle’s dedication might just pay off!

Throughout this story the beautiful artwork of Hélène Magisson imbues the story with life and energy. Native flora and fauna are painted in subdued, earthy tones and will provide hours of wonder as they are explored. A gorgeous tale of the importance of following your heart, for young readers and a reminder for us all of the beauty and fragility of the natural world.

 

Under the Same Sky written by Robert Vescio, illustrated by Nicky Johnston

utssky_hb_cvr-rgb

Another poignant picture book, with very few carefully constructed sentences by the author Robert Vescio, comparing and contrasting the lives of two children as they endeavour to build a friendship from opposite sides of the world. The astonishing artwork, by Nicky Johnston, in muted watercolour tones cleverly highlights the very different environments in which the two children live. One is clearly in an affluent society while the other child appears to be in a barren place, with barbed wire possibly hinting at a conflict zone. The determination to find a way of communication, and send a message of hope is portrayed with such sensitivity that I am sure this book will provoke deep conversations about cultural differences and long-distance friendships.

 

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me copies of these picture books in return for an honest review.

Review: Malamander by Thomas Taylor

IMG_3187

Welcome to the mysterious seaside town of Eerie-on-Sea, a desolate place in the winter months where the sea mist hides a multitude of secrets! 

This book sinks its fangs and claws into you and will not release you until the final page. It is populated by a cast of wonderfully inventive characters, the descriptions of the town alongside the perfect map mean that you can picture every wind-battered location and the story has more twists and turns than an eel racing through the brine. On top of the mystery, the book is written in a playful style, breaking the fourth wall in a manner that reminded me of Lemony Snicket. The author, Thomas Taylor, has obviously had great fun with the names he has used for his cast and the buildings which feature heavily in the plot, all of which add to the enjoyment of reading.

The action begins in the Grand Nautilus Hotel where the town’s adopted son, Herbert Lemon, found as a boy in a crate of lemons, works as the hotel’s “Lost-and-Founder”. He has a small cubbyhole in the hotel’s Reception and a large basement room full of one hundred year’s worth of lost property. He is a steady, honest, reliable twelve year-old, described in his own words thus:

.“ Now, you’ve probably worked out by now that I’m not a Quick, Herbie, jump kind of guy. I mean, it’s not as if there’s much need for jumping and exclamation marks in the daily life of a lost property attendant.”

In contrast, bedraggled Violet Parma, bursts through Herbie’s basement window in the middle of a storm, swiftly pursued by the monstrous Boathook Man. She is on a quest to search for her lost parents who left her at the hotel twelve years previously and disappeared, leaving only their shoes on the pier and their luggage in the room with their infant. Fearless and determined in pursuit of clues to her past, Violet is reckless, spontaneous and perceptive.

As the partnership of these two protagonists develops throughout the adventure Herbie’s character exhibits hidden courage, he finds his inner strength and their loyalty to each other is heartwarming. On their mission they encounter Lady Kraken, the ancient hotel proprietor with her fantastic cameraluna; Jenny Hanniver owner of the Eerie Book Dispensary and a Mermonkey; Mrs Fossil of the Flotsamporium; Dr Thalassi who keeps his surgery in the ancient fort-museum; slimy Mr Mollusc; terrifying Boathook Man and famed local writer Sebastian Eels. As hints are dropped and confidences prised from the town’s inhabitants it becomes increasingly difficult to know who can be trusted.

It appears that each of the town’s inhabitants has some connection to the legend of the Malamander, a mythical sea creature said to haunt the wreck of the HMS Leviathan, which reveals itself in the mouth of the bay at low tide. As secrets are uncovered the veil of suspicion as to who might have been responsible for the disappearance of Violet’s parents shifts as unpredictably as the rolling sea mist. The tension is almost unbearable and drives the reader to pursue clues as intently as Violet and Herbie. 

I cannot say any more about the plot as I fear I will give away spoilers, but I can honestly say that this is a hugely entertaining and gripping story which I highly recommend to anyone from 10 years-old and upwards. As an added bonus, you will learn the technical terms for creatures which become dormant in the summer and for fossilised dinosaur poo! I believe that the second book in the series is due to be published in May 2020, and I certainly will not be leaving it lost in the middle of a TBR stack as I did with this one!

Brilliant Board Books!

This post concentrates on vibrant new arrivals for the very youngest book “readers” which will provide perfect material for book sharing opportunities and are produced with such quality and care, by the Little Stars imprint, that they will be enjoyed repeatedly by the toddler in your life.

Let’s Go! On a Ferry and Let’s Go! On a Rocket, written by Rosalyn Albert, illustrated by Natalia Moore.

Firstly, two books from the “Let’s Go” series written by Rosalyn Albert and illustrated by Natalia Moore. These two books reflect the author’s obvious passion for travel in engaging tales featuring different forms of transport. The stories are written in rhyming text, introducing technical vocabulary in a fun and gentle way. The quality of the writing is glorious, so as the children travel in the ferry they describe it thus “We skim like pebbles over waves.” Natalia Moore’s lively illustrations perfectly complement the text. You can almost feel the sea-spray on your face as you travel “On a Ferry” and who wouldn’t want to travel “On a Rocket” to meet the friendly, bug-eyed aliens.

GREGORY GOOSE is on the loose! In the Jungle and GREGORY GOOSE is on the loose! On the Moon written by Hilary Robinson and illustrated by Mandy Stanley

 

 

 

In this series of travel-related books, Hilary Robinson’s creation Gregory Goose ventures to far-flung destinations where he loves to hide himself amongst the local inhabitants, providing young children with the challenge to find him on each page. The bright and bold illustrations by Mandy Stanley invite hours of observation as they bring the quest to life. The jungle creatures have such expressive faces, whilst the vegetation seems to burst from the page with life. As intrepid Gregory ventures beyond earth’s atmosphere in a colourful space craft there are multi-hued planets and cute aliens to gaze upon as young readers search for Gregory. I love the way that these books introduce the youngest children to different habitats hopefully setting them on a life-long quest for knowledge.

 

I am very grateful to New Frontier and Little Steps Publishing for sending me copies of these titles in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Cure for a Crime by Roopa Farooki

IMG_3178

This fast-paced new entry into the MG detective fiction world certainly provides a story to wake you from your post-Christmas snooze and propel you headlong into the New Year.

Featuring super-bright, sassy twin sisters, Ali and Tulip, a grandmother (Nan-Nan) with hidden depths and a pair of frenemy twin brothers, Jay and Zac, the story takes off at a relentless pace and never lets up.

Ali and Tulip’s mother is a junior doctor, and as such, the twins expect her to be exhausted. However, since the instalment of her new boyfriend Brian Sturgeon into their home, mum’s zombie like state is so uncharacteristic that the girls decide to investigate. When their school teacher Mr Ofu exhibits the same symptoms as Mum, and they spot Brian Sturgeon on the school site, the two sets of twins team up to find out what the sneaky Professor, who describes himself as “Britain’s top brain surgeon” is up to.

As they navigate their way around London, the hospital where their mum works, and through school these sisters are never short of a smart reply, excuse or action to smooth their way. A unique aspect of this adventure is that the author, Roopa Farooki, herself a doctor, has infused the story with medical knowledge. The girls exhibit their life-saving skills and the appendix (very appropriate!) contains extracts from their Mini-Medix blog to further add detail. This is completely in character with Tulip’s personality and feels like an intrinsic part of her story.

As for Nan-Nan, she is a force of nature, who does not let her use of an electric wheelchair ( embellished with go-faster stripes) hinder her activities. She is the only character who can anticipate the off-grid activities of her grandchildren, always arrives at the perfect moment and has as many whip-smart replies as any teenager! She also shares the twin’s dislike of Sturgeon the Surgeon but initially tells Ali and Tulip that their mum is depressed rather than having been infected by some diabolical scheme run by the slimy boyfriend. However, once her hidden depths are revealed she puts her former “skills” to work in assisting them uncover the mystery.

This book is perfect for fans of Ruby Redford, Murder Most Unladylike and Alex Rider. Equally appealing to boys and girls, featuring a multi-ethnic cast of characters and strongly showcasing the practical applications of science as well as overflowing with useful facts it is a joy to read. I certainly hope that there will be further MG adventures from the talented Roopa Farooki to come.

I would recommend it for upper KS2 children because one plot twist featuring reproductive medicine will possibly require some discussion which younger children probably will not understand.

 

I am grateful to Kate Scott and OUP Children’s Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book.

Atlas of Ocean Adventures by Emily Hawkins and Lucy Letherland

 

IMG_3167

 

This stunning, oversized book is the perfect addition for any classroom or school library with a phenomenal quantity of information for children of 7+ to pore over.

You are invited to take a guided tour of the world’s five oceans, to meet their inhabitants and discover their behaviours. The book is divided into five sections, one for each ocean arranged in order of size. Each double page spread is fully illustrated by Lucy Letherland. Her style is packed with playfulness and humour, perfect for children’s non-fiction, clearly seen on the faces of the North American sea otters and the dance moves of the blue-footed boobies of the Galapagos Islands. Apart from multiple pictures demonstrating different characteristic behaviours, each page also contains a map clearly showing the location and an annotated diagram of the creature’s most significant facts.  

The text, by Emily Hawkins comprises a main summary paragraph on each page, with wave-shaped sentences arranged around the pictures, which add to the overall feel of movement within the book. The level of detail will keep even the most enthusiastic wannabe oceanographers entranced for many hours. I spend two hours mesmerised, and could easily imagine spending many more studying the astonishing variety of life that our oceans sustain..

At the end of the book you will find a section about the dangers to our oceans and some practical ideas about actions that might help protect these essential habitats. Finally, there is a “seek-and-find” challenge, which I know that many children find extremely appealing.

This is a book that I am sure will provide hours’ worth of entertainment and education for primary school children, and I expect that this particular copy will be out on permanent loan as soon as I add it to the library. I will certainly be looking for further titles in the series by this talented author and illustrator partnership.

When Are You Reading?

This is a prompt hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words, which challenges bloggers to read 12 books from different time periods – the book can have been written in, or set in the time period. I don’t usually have the time to join in with weekly memes, but as I love historical fiction and this is spread over a year, I have decided to take on the challenge. I will be trying to meet the time periods with MG fiction, but if I have to resort to my adult books, I will link to my Goodreads reviews as I really want to keep my blog focussed on children’s books.

Here is the awesome artwork that Sam had designed for her blog:

Screenshot 2020-01-06 at 15.09.26

 

My Books:

Pre 1300  I have a book in mind, which I have intended reading for ages, for this spot.

1300 – 1499  I am going to have to research MG fiction for some of these time periods, but I do have adult novels to fill the spaces if absolutely necessary!

1500 – 1699

1700 – 1799

1800 – 1899

1900 – 1919

1920 – 1939

1940 – 1959  Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Although this book begins in 1939 the story continues into 1940, with Britain firmly in the grip of World War 2 and Petra’s family facing their own battles, with hidden secrets, local folklore and personal courage interwoven in this powerful and beautifully written story. You can read my full review by clicking here.

IMG_3166

 

 

1960 – 1979   I know that one of my absolutely favourite MG authors is due to publish a book set in this time period later in the year, so I’m reserving this spot.

1980 – 1999  This could be difficult, but I might review a book enjoyed by my sons, written during this time period.

2000 – present  I have something near the top of my TBR stack for this spot.

The Future

 

I shall update this landing page each time I read and review a book from one of the time periods.

 

 

Review: Codebusters by Dan Metcalf

IMG_3165

This book is an entertaining, easy read which opens a door to cryptography for a Key Stage 2 readership. It is produced by Bloomsbury’s Black Cats imprint, a set of fast-paced stories with illustrations throughout, designed to appeal to even reluctant readers.

Jackson Hilbert has to move schools, to Bletchley Grange, mid-term and decides to re-invent himself as “Jax” a popular footballer rather than the maths geek he was viewed as at his last school. However, he just can’t stop his competitive edge getting the better of him in a prime number challenge in his first maths class, and following a little code-cracking he is recruited by the “codebusters”!

Before his first week at Bletchley Grange is over, he is embroiled in deciphering a trail of clues alongside Jasper Newton, Michelle Chang and Charlie Babbage, to discover the whereabouts of a stolen school trophy. With guidance from the super-intelligent Captain Sir Alastair Horacio Turing PhD, this team of smart kids pool their talents to take on the challenges that the mysterious ”Elgar” has set for them.

I love the way that the author, Dan Metcalf, has played with the names of his characters and introduced ideas such as the Caesar cipher, which could spark an interest in the discipline of cyber-security in young readers. For those intrigued by secret codes, more information and some fun worksheets can be found on the author’s website: danmetcalf.co.uk I would certainly recommend this book as an entertaining read for children of 8+ and a great cross-curricular resource for accompanying aspects of the Key Stage 2 computing curriculum.

Review: Little Leaders Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison

IMG_3155

This book is a collection of short biographies of 40 inspiring women which the author began as a project during Black History Month. It celebrates the incredible achievements of a diversely talented group of women who had to overcome the dual disadvantages of being both female and black in order to fulfil their dreams. Vashti Harrison states in the introduction that she hopes “readers from every background find these stories compelling and inspiring” whilst recognising from her own childhood experience how important it is for children to see that people who look like them can be role models in any profession.

Each profile is a single page in length and written for a Key Stage 2 audience, with an accompanying full-page illustration exhibiting Vashti Harrison’s artistic talent. They are arranged in chronological order, starting with Mary Prince the author and abolitionist, born circa 1788, and finishing with Lorna Simpson, American photographer born in 1960. Readers will probably be familiar with some of the women featured in these profiles: Oprah Winfrey, Katherine Johnson, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks and Ella Fitzgerald for example. Others will be entirely new discoveries for many readers, but all share the ability to inspire and amaze with their achievements. I was particularly astonished by the story of Mary Bowser, a spy for the North during the American Civil War, who worked undercover as a slave in the home of the Confederate President.

At the end of the book there are short paragraphs about a further twelve women, with the challenge to link their stories to the women who paved the way for them in the previous profiles.

Overall, this is a wonderfully inspiring collection of stories of brave and talented women who would not be defined by convention, but act as role models for future generations. An essential addition to any classroom or school library to be enjoyed by all.