12 Days of Christmas Blog Tour: Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher

Cover illustration by Sam Usher, published by Nosy Crow

I was delighted to be invited to join the 12 Days of Christmas blog tour as it was such an enjoyable experience last year and I do urge you to read the recommendations by my fantastic fellow bloggers on the tour.

This time around I am revisiting one of my all-time favourite picture books, Refuge. It was first published in 2015 and resonates as powerfully now as it did then. The marriage of Anne Booth’s thoughtful retelling of the Nativity story with Sam Usher’s artwork is utter perfection, drawing parallels between the ancient story and the plight of so many in the present day.

Before the title page, the clue to the narrator is given in a spread depicting a small donkey tethered outside a small dwelling, set against a huge golden sky. The book begins with a stark sentence on a spread which shows three small figures travelling across a vast landscape:

The man led me, and I carried the woman all the way to Bethlehem…

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Subsequent pages reveal the traditional story of the birth of a baby, and visitations by shepherds and kings. However, the story is extended beyond that normally enacted in a school nativity, with the new family fleeing from a dream of danger, under cover of darkness. The flight into Egypt is recounted with simple words and compelling illustrations which encourage you to pause and reflect on the whole picture; a universal, poignant tale of love and hope. The descriptions of the parents kissing their new baby before wrapping him up for a journey into the unknown to flee the danger that threatens them is quite heartbreaking when you appreciate that this situation faces so many families in the world today. The washed out greys and blues of Sam Usher’s art invoke a sense of exhaustion but every time I open this book I am moved by the use of gold and deep yellows to express hope and kindness and love.

The repeated phrase “the kindness of strangers” reminds us of the essence of Christmas and I feel that Anne Booth, in writing this book without specifically naming Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, must have intended to make us consider the many families who need our love and kindness. I think that it is a wonderful book that could be shared with children of any age within a primary school setting or amongst families at home. It is a book to prompt valuable discussion and quiet reflection and I think that its universal theme makes it appropriate for everyone. I love this book and I hope that you will too.

Make sure that you check out the remainder of the recommendations by following the blog schedule, there’s something for everyone. Merry Christmas!

Image created by Kate Heap @kateheap1

Review: Wildsmith into the Dark Forest by Liz Flanagan, illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton

Cover illustration by Joe Todd-Stanton, published by Uclan,
2nd February 2023

This fantasy story is a clever and satisfying blend of fairy tale and ecology. A short read with fast paced chapters and illustrated throughout, it is a perfect choice for children who are emerging as independent readers. It is so important to be able to give children a wide source of reading material at this age and I feel sure that the combination of strong child protagonists, mythical animals at risk from poachers and an exciting plot will entice many readers of 7+.

From the opening line

In the morning her life turned upside down, all Rowan could think about was the race against her best friend Bella

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I was gripped by the narrative and literally did not put the book down until I had finished it. I think this is a reflection on the beautiful plotting which gives children enough detail but allows the space for their imaginations to picture the setting, aided by the charming black and while illustrations by Joe Todd-Stanton. My mind conjured up a sort of mediaeval fairytale landscape, of a palace enclosed by city walls with a dark, mysterious forest wilderness beyond.

When we first meet Rowan she is living a happy carefree life inside the city walls where her father works in the royal stables and she enjoys playful days running around the city and clambering up its walls and towers with her best friend. However a war is raging with the neighbouring kingdom of Estriaand as the threat of invasion comes ever closer, her father sends Rowan and her mother away to the care of a grandfather that she has never met before. Initially Rowan is unsettled by this dislocation into the depths of the forest, but her natural affinity with her grandfather’s wolf Arto means that she soon settles in to the snug wooden house where grandfather uses his healing powers, tending to a succession of injured animals and humans.

On her first exploration in the forest beyond Grandad‘s fence, Rowan soon discovers the source of the strange rumbling sounds that disturb the peace of the forest. A patch of smouldering grass, a broken eggshell which seems much larger and thicker than any she has seen before, lead her to a small, frightened, injured dragon which has been left behind after poachers have dragged away its mother. From this point in the story the unconditional love and care of animals, both real and mythical drives the actions of Rowan her two new friends, Will and Cam.

I do not want to give away any plot spoilers but will say that the level of peril and tension is perfectly pitched for a readership of 7+. The ecological message of the threat of extinction caused by poachers who kill magnificent animals believing that their horns contain mythical powers written with a light touch, but the parallels with real life will not be lost on the intended readership. I think that this element of the story will appeal to the great sense of justice and concern for wild animals displayed by many children. In addition to being a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, I think that this book could be used in primary schools as part of class discussions around animal welfare and protection. I am delighted to see that a second book in the series is due to be published later next year.

I am most grateful to Uclan Publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for my review copy of Wildsmith into the Dark Forest in advance of publication on 2nd February 2023.

Review: Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door and the Mermaid’s Treasure by Lola Morayo, illustrated by Cory Reid

Cover image by Lola Morayo, published by Macmillan

This lovely magical adventure is written by the creative partnership of Tólá Okogwu and Jasmine Richards, who create inclusive stories under the pen name Lola Morayo. It is illustrated throughout the story in cute black and white graphics by Cory Reid; the first thing I admired was his gorgeous map of Shimmerton, just inside the front cover. I loved the style of this drawing and can imagine that it would encourage readers to create their own enchanting town maps.

Shimmerton is the setting for Aziza’s magical adventures when she steps through her fairy door. She is transported from the slightly chaotic setting of her family home, where Dad is packing the car for a family camping trip in less than promising weather! After shrinking to fairy size and growing her wings, Aziza finds herself on Shimmerton’s sunny beach. The mischievous Gigglers are noisily excavating sand for a super-sized sandcastle construction much to the annoyance of those in close proximity. Aziza skips past them to join her two close friends Peri and Tiko at the edge of the waves and there she is introduced to super-confident mermaid, Sirena and listens in awe to her stories of bravery and adventure under the ocean waves.

When the Gigglers’ antics wake a sleeping shell-seeker who has been hibernating under the sand, the very stability of all Shimmerton is under threat. Aziza and Peri are transformed into mermaids, Tiko transforms himself into an angler fish and the four friends embark on a quest to find a magical conch shell which will put the shell-seeker back to sleep and return the town to its peaceful existence. The ensuing adventure is filled with positive messages such as the importance of resilience, being your authentic self and the power of teamwork to overcome difficulties. Readers will also gain a knowledge of an incredible range of sea creatures as the quest plays out. At the end of the story there is a short “myths and legends” summary which explains the derivation of many of the character names from the myths and legends of a variety of countries. I found this utterly fascinating and I am certain that it would inspire many young readers to investigate further. It could also spark classroom discussions or projects around the beliefs or stories and legends of different cultural groups.

The length, illustrated style and short chapters in this book make it a perfect choice for children of 6 to 8 who are finding their independent reading confidence and want to get lost in a charming, enjoyable and heart-warming adventure.

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson and Macmillan Children’s Books for my review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. I will be donating the book to my former primary school library, where I am sure it will be a popular choice.

Review: Breakfast Club Adventures: The Beast Beyond the Fence by Marcus Rashford and Alex Falase-Koya, illustrated by Marta Kissi

Cover image by Marta Kissi, published by Macmillan, 2022

With the football World Cup fast approaching I thought it was about time to extract the first Breakfast Club Adventure from my TBR stack and explore this new twist on the child detective genre. I have to say that I have great admiration for the efforts that Marcus Rashford has gone to in order to improve the life chances of young people, and this latest initiative supported by the National Literacy Trust, is thoughtfully designed to encourage reading for pleasure. It is clear that children who might not naturally be drawn to reading have been considered carefully; the text is in a large, bold font with extra line-spacing; the language is straightforward and the illustrations throughout the book by Marta Kissi are full of humour and warmth.

The story itself, which is co-written by Alex Falase-Koya is one to which many young readers will relate. The school setting will be familiar and the characters that our main protagonist Marcus hangs out with at breakfast club present the opportunity for many children to see themselves reflected in a book. Marcus is a thoroughly likeable character, clearly popular amongst his peers, polite to adults and with a sense of adventure which is demonstrated in his response to the mysterious invitation to join the secret society of Breakfast Club Investigators. Their subsequent amateur detective work to solve the mystery of the monster beyond the school fence balances tension with humour and reaches a satisfying denouement. The sub-plot around Marcus worrying about his “lost touch” on the football field and missing his cousin who is away in the US on a football scholarship fleshes out his character, making him someone that readers will empathise with and root for, in this and hopefully subsequent adventures.

I very rarely review books written by celebrities as I feel that they already receive sufficient publicity and do not require the recommendation of an amateur blogger. I have made an exception in this case because not only has Marcus Rashford fully credited his co-writer but he is also trying to make a difference. In my current day job as a health librarian, it is plain to me that literacy levels have a considerable impact on an individual’s health outcomes and I am happy to promote this initiative, seeking to enhance literacy levels. I highly recommend this book with its positive messages of friendship, family and teamwork as a great choice for boys and girls of 8+. I will be donating my copy to my former primary school library where I am sure that it will appeal to many children in Key Stage 2.

Review: The Mummy’s Curse by M.A. Bennett, illustrated by David Dean

Cover illustration by David Dean, published by Welbeck Flame

A time-travel adventure so enthralling that the hours will appear to stand still as you read; this second Butterfly Club adventure is not to be missed!

I must start this review by admitting that I have not read the first Butterfly Club adventure, The Ship of Doom (which I plan to remedy very soon) but this in no way impacted on my enjoyment of The Mummy’s Curse, which contained all the elements that I have sought in stories since I was in the readership age for this new MG novel. The blend of actual historical details with a brilliantly imagined time travel scenario and writing that flows like the River Nile, carrying the reader along effortlessly, conspired to ensure that this book was an absolute pleasure to read.

The three child protagonists, Luna, Konstantin and Aidan are all children in the Victorian era and members of The Butterfly Club, a secret organisation which meets weekly in a hidden chamber at the Greenwich Royal Observatory. There, they use a time train invented by H G Wells to travel forward in time and collect artefacts which will speed up the progress of human invention, hence their label as “the time thieves”. In The Mummy’s Curse, the time thieves are sent from 1894 to November 1922, in the company of medical doctor turned detective novelist, Arthur Conan Doyle. Their mission is to ensure that of the multitude of archaeologists seeking the tomb of Tutankhamen, the British team led by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter is successful, and to ensure that whatever is discovered is claimed for The British Museum.

The way that M.A. Bennett combines the actual historical facts and fleshes out real personalities from history is astonishingly skilful. As a reader I was utterly transported to the dry, gritty heat of The Valley of the Kings and could sense the delight of the famous writer as he uses his skill with the written word to instigate the rumour of the curse of King Tut and achieve his goal. The fictional children are totally believable, each acting in ways which appear totally natural given their backgrounds. I particularly loved the elegant and honourable Prussian character Konstantin who arrives in 1922 with no knowledge of the role of many of his countrymen in WWI. He is horribly insulted and ostracised by Lord Carnarvon but uses this experience to empathise with and build a supportive friendship with the Egyptian tea boy, Abdel, who plays a heroic role in the fictional and real story. Another aspect of this story that I adored was the dash of humour injected by the constant enquiries about the author’s motive in killing off Sherlock Holmes; no matter which era Arthur Conan Doyle happened to find himself in. I found this to be both amusing but also interesting given the nature of Ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife.

I will not discuss any more plot details as I would not wish to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the way this story unfolds. Suffice to say that I found it utterly satisfying and I know that I would have loved to read this at the age of nine or ten. The juxtaposition of Victorian attitudes to plundering the cultural and economic capital of other nations, with the determination of a newly independent nation to retain their own cultural artefacts is presented in a way that will encourage young readers to debate these issues and could lead to some interesting classroom discussions. I whole-heartedly recommend The Mummy’s Curse to all primary school and secondary school librarians, I think this is a book that will engage readers from nine to early teens. I should also mention that there are some lovely greyscale illustrations by David Dean, within the chapters. I especially appreciated the hieroglyphics during a brilliantly tense escape room episode!

If you enjoy The Mummy’s Curse as much as I did, there is a third book in the series due in April 2023, The Mona Lisa Mystery, and you will find a short extract at the end of this book!

I would like to thank Antonia Wilkinson and Welbeck Flame for sending me a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: The Little Match Girl Strikes Back written by Emma Carroll, illustrated by Lauren Child

Cover image by Lauren Child, published by Simon & Schuster,
October 2022

Anyone who has followed my blog, or followed me on Twitter for any length of time will know that I am a huge fan of Emma Carroll’s writing. I also spent many hours reading Lauren Child’s picture books, chapter books and MG series with my youngest, so I was obviously going to purchase a copy of The Little Match Girl Strikes Back with the greatest expectation of enjoyment. It genuinely exceeded my expectations! I literally could not put it down until I had devoured the entire story, this is one of the finest collaborations between writer and illustrator that I have seen and I am so delighted that it renders Emma Carroll’s extraordinary brand of historical fiction into a format enjoyable for a slightly younger age group. This re-imagining of the classic fairy tale is perfectly pitched for readers of 7/8+ with short, pacey chapters; lots of white space between the text and those “striking” illustrations!

As you would expect from this author, the story is recounted in the first person by Bridie Sweeney, a young girl living in poverty with her mother and younger brother Fergal in the East End of London in the Victorian era. From her opening statement you immediately get the impression that Bridie has a spark of rebellion and a desire to improve the situation in which her family exists. She is fully aware of the injustice in the dangerous and exploitative working conditions that her mam and the other female workers at the Bryant & May match factory have to toil under. It does not shy away from the direct impact that working with white phosphorus had on the workers’ health and the way that this inconvenient fact was ignored by the factory owners. The research that has gone into this narrative is worn lightly, the tale lays out the stark contrast between rich and poor and the daily grind for survival in an environment where the poorest appear to have very little agency to improve their lives.

Based on actual historical events, this story combines elements of fairytale into Bridie’s story with stunning effect. The contribution of Lauren Child’s distinctive illustrations beautifully highlights the power of one bright spark to illuminate a dark world. Bridie’s flaming red hair stands out on every black and white spread, and scattered throughout the text are red-tipped matches or red flames as the smouldering embers of resentment flare into protests and strikes. I don’t want to give away the ending or too much of the plot, but will simply say that this would make a fantastically inspiring present for any child of 7 and above. I can imagine that it will be greatly loved in primary schools and I hope that it will be received by many children in their Christmas stockings and perhaps shared as a family story. As we appear to be plunging back into glaring economic inequality, its empowering message will perhaps bring some hope for better times.

2022 Halloween Recommendations

image created using Canva

As in previous years I have put together a shortlist of books that I have read this year which would make excellent treats for young readers this half-term holiday as we approach Halloween 2022.

Winnie and Wilbur: Winnie’s Best Friend by Valerie Thomas, illustrated by Korky Paul

Always a delight for children of 5-7, the Winnie and Wilbur series are wonderful books to share with a young child. The stories are fun, Winnie is probably the most colourful and accident-prone witch in children’s fiction and there is so much to see and talk about in every one of Korky Paul’s brilliant colour spreads.

Midnight Magic: The Witch Trap by Michelle Harrison, illustrated by Elissa Elwick

Bursting with autumn colour, the latest rhyming adventure of magical black cat, Midnight, is perfect for newly independent readers of 6+.

Diary of an Accidental Witch: Ghostly Getaway by Perdita and Honor Cargill, illustrated by Katie Saunders

In the latest outing for Bea Black, she and her friends take off from Little Spellshire’s School of Extraordinary Arts to participate in a school trip to Cadabra Castle, allegedly haunted by the ghost of High Master Maggitty Crawe! This wonderfully funny story has been designed with extra care to increase accessibility for dyslexic readers.

The October Witches by Jennifer Claessen

Magical, feminist refashioning of the Arthurian legend. A pacy story of witchy family feuds, perfect for readers of 9+.

Ghost Scouts series written and illustrated by Taylor Dolan

A funny, fully illustrated series of books set in a fabulously spooky summer camp, deep in the swamps of the southern states of America. A certain Halloween treat for readers of 9+.

The Mummy’s Curse by M.A. Bennett

Ever wondered about the origins of the curse of King Tut? Well this rollicking time-travel adventure will take you back to the discovery of his tomb, 100 years ago and reveal all. A spine-tingling adventure, perfect for confident readers of 9+

Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor, illustrated by George Ermos

Experience your first Halloween in Eerie-on-Sea with Herbert Lemon and Violet Parma as they uncover the secrets of the spooky seaside town’s Ghastly Night! Fantastically paced and plotted adventure for readers of 9+.

The Haunted Hills by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

The wild landscape of the Peak District is the setting for this tale of grief, loss and guilt. As a family’s attempts to recover from a fatal accident is interwoven with the legend of a local ghost. A sensitive, beautifully written story for readers of 11+.

The Billow Maiden by James Dixon, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

Another sensitively crafted tale, this is set on a remote Scottish island where a young teen is being sheltered by her uncle and aunt while her mother recovers from what appears to be a mental health crisis. This story is interwoven with the discovery of a terrifying mythical creature in one of the island’s caves. The Norse legend combined with modern setting are perfect for readers of 11+.

Ghostlight by Kenneth Oppel

Boy meets ghost in this brilliantly written and imagined coming of age story, set in and around Toronto. This is a book which will absolutely transport readers of 11+ into an alternative reality where ghosts battle for dominance over humans in a setting which will be unusual and educational for many UK based readers.

Illustrated Halloween Fiction: Ghost Scouts written and illustrated by Taylor Dolan

Cover illustrations by Taylor Dolan, published by Guppy Books

The three books published to date in the Ghost Scouts series by author and illustrator Taylor Dolan are an exciting new choice to offer children of 9+ looking for a spooky treat this Halloween. They range in length from 120-150 pages, every one of which features coloured illustrations in this talented artist’s distinctive style. The exuberant stories bring an American slant to Halloween and the zany humour combined with wildly imaginative plots makes for an enjoyable reading experience.

In the first book, Welcome to Camp Croak, we are introduced to Lexie Wild, by whom all the stories are narrated. Her Grams was supposed to drop her off to summer camp at the Happy Hollow Camp for Joyful Boys and Girls. However, a glitch in her navigating skills leads Grams instead to Camp Croak where Lexie is greeted by a three-headed witch, who already knows her name! Lexie’s new roommates are a werewolf called Emmy LouLou, a skeleton called Bébé, a ghost called Sweet Boo and a zombie called Mary Shelley! Despite the swampy surroundings and unusual fellow campers, Lexie earns plenty of scout badges under the supervision of witch sisters Miss Parsleigh, Miss Sage and Miss Rosemarie, until the arrival of new scoutmaster Euphemia Vile changes everything! Read Welcome to Camp Croak to discover whether Lexie and friends can defeat Vile’s evil plans.

You’ll then want to rush straight onto Hullabaloo at Camp Croak where you’ll find Lexie and her fellow campers buzzing around preparing the camp for visitors’ weekend. However, when Lexie’s Grams does not arrive with the other visiting relatives, but is instead replaced by a mysterious stranger claiming to be her long lost mother, Lexie smells more than a swamp rat! Fortunately, her Grams has taught her some excellent code-cracking skills in the past and it seems that the time has come to decode the hidden message in a letter that “mother” has brought from Grams. More outrageously fast-paced and fun action in the bayou and a useful glossary of American terms awaits!

Halloween preparations are underway at Camp Croak in the third instalment of this series, Chaos at Camp Croak. Lexie fully expects that this year will be her best Halloween ever, but fake scoutmaster Euphemia Vile is back and this time she has not bothered with a disguise such is her determination to close the Camp! Chaos ensues when Lexie is tricked into performing a spell and it will take help from all her friends to put things right and enable the festivities to proceed on All Hallows Eve. Another madcap, creepy adventure awaits those who dare to venture into the realm of Camp Croak!

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and Guppy Books for sending me these three Ghost Scouts books to review in time for Halloween 2022.

Review: The Haunted Hills by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

Cover illustration Tamsin Rosewell, published by UCLan Publishing, October 2022

This story of grief, guilt and loss set against the wildness of the Peak District is a book to read slowly in order to savour the atmosphere created by award-winning author Berlie Doherty. I sat down to read it as the rain hammered down outside, appropriately harmonising with the emotion that pours from the narrative, and couldn’t tear myself away.

Thirteen year-old Carl is staying in a remote holiday cottage with his photographer mother and teacher father, high in a Peak District landscape dominated by the bleating of sheep and cries of birds. However, this is not the carefree family holiday that many will have enjoyed in this wild, natural setting; it is apparent from the start that the family have travelled to enable Carl to recover from the fatal accident in which his childhood best friend, Jack, has died. Unsurprisingly, for such a gifted writer, Berlie Doherty conveys the sense of a family struggling to come to terms with grief with immense insight and sympathy. This is a realistic and three-dimensional portrayal, with both parents depicted trying everything they can to bring their son back from the edge of despair, and Carl understanding and appreciating his parents’ efforts but unable to tear himself out of the deep well of loss into which he has been plunged.

The landscape is integral to the atmosphere of the story and the incorporation of folklore in the form of a ghost story about the Lost Lad, Joseph, and his dog who haunt the area, watching over lost souls in the hills gives depth to Carl’s disorientation and dissociation from the life that he has known before. With voices in the wind, elusive figures in the corners of his eye and a house that creaks and breathes with former lives, we explore Carl’s sense of unreality. I found that the descriptions of his mother’s artistic landscape photography, utilising changes of light to create shadowy images, beautifully depicted the way that Carl is struggling to emerge from the gloom of bereavement and the part that he feels he might have contributed to his friend’s death. For as the story develops, we are given a glimpse into the gradual loss that changing friendships can cause during the teenage years when children moved on from shared childhood interests and perhaps forge new friendship groups. Juxtaposed against Carl’s loss is that of peripatetic shepherdess April, who is working on the neighbouring farm and has her own reasons for wandering the hills and feeling the presence of the Lost Lad. As they begin to understand each other’s need to be lifted from their despair, hope glimmers for acceptance and recovery.

Photo across the Peak District taken from Ramshaw Rocks by V Price, July 2022

This is not a “spooky” ghost story but rather a breath-taking exploration of the ambiguous nature of grief, suffused with understanding and imagination. Although this book is written for a readership of 11+, I think that its sensitive portrayal of a family overcoming a devastating loss holds valuable messages for all readers. The imagery of the crows, used so powerfully here, has prompted me to re-read a book which was given to me by a dear friend following a family bereavement, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, which I would also recommend to older readers.

I am most grateful to UCLan publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for sending me a proof copy of The Haunted Hills in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: The Missing Bookshop by Katie Clapham, illustrated by Kirsti Beautyman

Cover illustration by Kirsti Beautyman, published by Little Tiger Press, October 2022

This gentle tale about the importance of stories is a perfect choice for Year 2 and 3 classrooms and primary school libraries, offering newly independent readers a book which is enjoyable and satisfying to read. The 84 pages are illustrated in full colour, pages are not too text heavy and an interesting range of font effects are used to help young readers recognise where emphasis should be placed.

I love the distinctive illustrations by Kirsti Beautyman, which along with the muted colour palette, convey the thoughtful nature of Katie Clapham’s story. And oh my goodness, what a gorgeous story this is! A heartwarming paean to the joys of shared stories, it tells of a young child’s distress at finding that her favourite bookshop has closed down and her attempt, taken up by the wider community, to revive a place which holds a multitude of fond memories. It fully captures that magical space where stories are shared between adults and children and the importance of that experience that remains embedded deep in our consciousness. It is a positive, hopeful tale that a new reader would enjoy reading alone, or even better, reading aloud to an adult.

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Press for sending me a copy of The Missing Bookshop in exchange for an honest review.