Review: Woodland Magic – Fox Club Rescue by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Katy Riddell

Cover art by Katy Riddell, published by Piccadilly Press in March 2022

This absolutely delightful first book in the Woodland Magic series had me smiling throughout as I anticipated how warmly it will be welcomed by children of 5-8 years of age. The combination of fast-paced adventure, conservation and illustration topped with a dash of magic will totally engage young readers. I can imagine the forest school leader at my old school reading this to groups in the nature area where it would provide so many talking points and ideas for activities; there is advice on creating a wild flower corner or wild flower plant pot at the end of the story.

The Nature Keepers are a tribe of small fairy/pixie-like creatures who live in The Hidden Middle of Whispering Woods. They emerge from their compound very early each morning to tidy the mess left by humans (who they call Ruffins), collect useful natural products and re-wild by sowing wild plant seeds wherever nature has been scraped away. Their ingenious storage warehouse in a maze of old tunnels in an abandoned badger sett is described as “a huge natural museum of the ages” and set this librarian’s heart a-flutter (as did the idea of a strong, expanding bag made from cobwebs).

The tale starts with a pair of mischievous youngsters, Cora and Jax, who are about to embark on their first foray into the Big Outside to prove that they are worthy of becoming Keepers. They are handed their task, their want and their warning by Scarlet Busybee. They must sow wild flower seeds in the bulldozed meadow next to a new children’s play park; try to find some old eggshells and “stay out of sight and not get caught by the Ruffins”. However, the appeal of a super high and fast slide proves too much temptation for these two, and when the Horn of Tyr sounds to warn all Keepers to return to base before the Bramble Door is locked for the day they haven’t even begun their work.

With the threat of being sent back to school hanging over their pointy-eared heads, will Cora and Jax complete their tasks on day two in the Big Outside; and how will they respond to the plight of an injured fox cub when they have so much to accomplish in such a short time? I strongly encourage you to read Fox Cub Rescue to find out. In just over one hundred pages, Julie Sykes has crafted a gentle, enjoyable story which presents its ecological message in a wonderfully subtle manner. Our two main protagonists also demonstrate to young readers the importance of owning up to mistakes, of working hard to put things right, the benefits of teamwork and the importance of acknowledging the contributions of others. None of this is done in a preachy way, rather the themes unfold within the story as naturally as an untamed woodland path. I must also give a shout-out to Katy Riddell’s gorgeous black and white illustrations which appear at regular intervals through the story and the adorable fox cub chapter headers.

I cannot wait to read the next book in the Woodland Magic series; Deer in Danger. There is a short extract provided at the end of the book. I whole-heartedly recommend Fox Cub Rescue to Key Stage One teachers, school librarians and parents and carers of any children aged 5-8; it would make a lovely Easter present – cheaper and more nourishing than a chocolate egg!

I am most grateful to Piccadilly Press and Antonia Wilkinson for sending me a review copy of this book in return for my honest review.

Reviews: Marv and the Mega Robot & Marv and the Dino Attack by Alex Falase-Koya, illustrated by Paula Bowles

Cover art by Paula Bowles, published by OUP, February 2022

Meet Marv, the latest, coolest young superhero in town! In his “origin story” we meet Marvin as an ordinary schoolboy, probably at the top end of primary school, who is hugely excited to be working on a project for the school science fair with his best friend Joe. They are clearly two very bright boys as they have created a robot that can read aloud and it is very apparent that they make a great team. They also share a love of superhero comics and Marvin is excited to see a black superhero character in one of the vintage comic books that Joe has brought into school. He is astounded later that evening when his kind and empathetic grandad sends him to explore an old trunk in the attic; there is the outfit he spotted in the comic…and when he tries it on, it shrinks to fit! Even more astonishing is the fact that it comes equipped with a robot sidekick! Pixel is the cutest robot I have seen since R2D2, and I greatly applaud that she is a female robot character which I have not seen in a children’s book before.

When supervillain “Mastermind” crashes the science fair, Marv needs to put his new superhero powers to the test. I won’t spoil the plot for anyone, suffice to say that there is enough exciting action here to blow any young readers’ circuit boards! I greatly enjoyed the inclusion of a child supervillian, it gave this story a genuinely playful element in tune with the intended readership.

There are many aspects to this book that I loved. The idea of a superhero suit powered by kindness and imagination is top of the list; what a brilliant message to pass on to young readers. In the foreword, author Alex Falase-Koya, explains his desire to create a young black superhero based on his own reverence for a cartoon called Static Shock that he watched as a child. I think that he has created a wonderful character that will be enjoyed by readers of all ethnic backgrounds. The overall design of the book is perfect for readers of 6-8 years old; cartoon style illustrations with a blue palette by Paula Bowles throughout help to break the story into small readable chunks; a large, bold font is used; chapters are short and fast-paced; the book itself is a smaller size that younger children can hold comfortably and the cover art with its blue foil highlights is hugely appealing. Highly recommended for Years 1, 2 and 3 classrooms, school libraries and home bookshelves.

Cover art by Paula Bowles, published by OUP,
February 2022

In Marv’s second adventure we find our young superhero and his class setting off on a coach trip to The Natural History Museum, a scenario that many young readers at the present time may not find so familiar, due to the restrictions on school trips during the periods of lockdown. Consequently, I loved the description of the awe and wonder that Marvin experiences as he steps into the great reception hall for the first time. It is so easy to take for granted our great museums when we have made multiple visits over the years, but the opening chapter actually sparked a memory from my own first childhood visit as a 10 year old and I am sure will inspire young readers to request a visit.

Fortunately, Marvin has packed his Marv superhero suit and his sidekick robot Pixel in his backpack, so when the dinosaur skeletons are suddenly sparked into life by another child supervillain, this time named Rex, he is ready to suit-up and spring into action. As with the first book, Marv is inspired by kindness and imagination. He outsmarts Rex with strategic thinking and is motivated by the desire to keep his friends and the other museum visitors safe.

Author, Alex Falase-Koya, again shows all young readers a positive message as even without his superhero suit on, Marv demonstrates his kindness by befriending new pupil Eva and welcoming her into his friendship group. There is also a sprinkle of smart humour throughout, often provided by Pixel. I really do think that the combination of inclusivity and superhero action make Marv and the Dino Attack an essential addition to Key Stage 1 and Year 3 classroom and library book choices. I look forward to further challenges between Marv and juvenile supervillains in the future!

I am most grateful to Oxford University Press for sending me copies of these two books in exchange for my honest reviews.

Review: Kitty and the Woodland Wildcat by Paula Harrison, illustrated by Jenny Løvlie

Cover image by Jenny Løvlie, published by OUP

The ninth adventure for Kitty, the girl with cat-like superpowers, has leapt onto the bookshelves! It takes our young superhero-in-training out of her usual urban surroundings and into the countryside for a fresh challenge. As always, the new book in the series is a joy to behold, the cover with its trademark black, orange and grey colour scheme with foil highlights, gives a clear indication of the delights to be found within. Jenny Løvlie’s unique illustrations appear throughout the story, allowing young readers the chance to pause and examine the exquisite details, as they take their early steps on the journey of becoming readers.

The story opens with Kitty and her best friend Ozzy using their super senses to explore a woodland as they seek the perfect spot for their families to pitch their tents for a camping holiday. Ozzy, like Kitty, is a young superhero and his owl-like superpowers of long distance vision and the ability to glide silently between the trees with his feathered cape are the perfect complement to Kitty’s cat-senses and agility. Their excitement in discovering the natural delights of the woodland will be familiar to all young readers who have had the opportunity to play in a natural environment. I loved the touch of humour introduced by Kitty’s pet, Pumpkin, showing some discomfort at being in a natural environment rather than the familiar cityscape that she is used to.

The children’s super-senses and desire to help animals in need are called into action when Kitty discovers an injured wildcat who has lost her kittens. This leads to a thrilling night time adventure which will entertain a readership of 6+, featuring just the right level of peril to make the story exciting without being too scary. Themes of kindness, gentleness, acceptance of difference and appreciation of nature run lightly through the narrative. I am in awe of the way that Paula Harrison has managed to keep this series so fresh, producing a selection of stories which always surprise and delight, and which I am sure many children must treasure on their bookshelves.

It is so important to be able to offer children enticing book choices to encourage reading for pleasure and Kitty and the Woodland Wildcat, with its perfect sizing for small hands, ideal length, nicely sized font and thoroughly enjoyable storyline is an essential for Key Stage 1 and lower Key Stage 2 classrooms.

If you enjoy this book and would like to read others from the series, I have reviewed some of the others previously on the blog:

Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue

Kitty and the Sky Garden

Kitty and the Starlight Song

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher, illustrated by Sam Usher

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

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

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

Author: Anna Fargher

Illustrator: Sam Usher

Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2019

Favourite sentence: 

Without mistakes, your life will never know adventure

As I was listening to the audiobook, I’m afraid that I do not know the page number, but this quote leap out at me as I listened.

This book in three words: Bravery – Loyalty – Resistance

I like to use the #MGTakesOnThursday meme to review books which are not newly published, but, for various reasons, I missed reviewing when they were new to the shelves. This week I am opting to review a book that has been on my radar to read since seeing it highly praised by many bloggers I admire, including Mary who created the #MGTakesOnThursday meme. I’ve had a mini reading slump due to the workload of the day job and working on my professional chartership, so took the opportunity to listen to the audiobook of The Umbrella Mouse when I spotted it on the marvellous BorrowBox app from my local library. The plight of Pip Hanway, the eponymous heroine, completely resonated with the current dreadful situation unfolding in Ukraine and I am sure that many school librarians and teachers of children aged 10 – 13 will be using this story to help young people understand and empathise with those who have lost homes and family due to war.

Pip’s life of comfort, living inside a historic umbrella in the Bloomsbury-based store of James Smith & Sons is shattered by a doodle-bug bomb, which leaves her homeless and orphaned. The only thing she has left to cling onto is the Hanway Umbrella, the first umbrella to have been used in England, and she decides that she must return this artefact to the Umbrella Museum in Gignese, Italy. Quite a task for a small mouse kitten in wartime! She persuades Dickin, a search and rescue dog to help her in this quest. After some hair-raising narrow escapes in the underground pipelines of London, Dickin introduces her to representatives of Churchill’s Secret Animal Army and she overhears a plan to send a coded message to animals working for the resistance effort in France. The impetuous mouse finds a way of using this plan to make her way across the English channel, during which time she puts her own life and that of a German rat, Hans, in peril.

Although Pip is the main character in the story, I have to admit that my favourite was Hans. I loved his story arc as a German rat who had at first been enticed by the Goliath rats working for the Nazis, and who had subsequently turned his back on them after seeing their wicked deeds and escaped to join the resistance in France. This portrayal of redemption and his noble bravery throughout the story are likely to leave a lasting impression on anyone who reads this book. I was also impressed at the change in Pip’s character; at the outset her goals are to protect her history and heritage by returning the Hanway umbrella to its rightful place in the Umbrella Museum and to seek the last surviving members of her family in Gignese. However, her adventures, camaraderie and narrow escapes with the heroes of the resistance have an impact on her outlook and we see her mature and encompass their attitudes and values as the story progresses.

The author Anna Fargher has very cleverly anthropomorphised the story of the resistance fighters in WWII so that brutal facts of war can be presented at the right level for a middle grade readership. The admirable qualities of duty, loyalty and courage in the face of extreme adversity as well as betrayal from a saboteur, are brilliantly portrayed in her animal characters; the plot unfolds at a rapid pace; and the tension builds so impressively that I was tempted to speed up the playback on the audiobook! I must mention one final touch that made me fall in love with this book: very early in the story a teenage girl comes into the umbrella shop to buy a birthday present for her father and I was delighted that my assumption that she was based on Judith Kerr was confirmed in the author’s notes at the end of the story. I thought that this was an utterly lovely touch in a hugely impressive WWII story. I highly recommend The Umbrella Mouse for all readers of 10+.

At the current time, when we are again witnessing the dreadful plight of refugees fleeing across Europe, I will once again recommend When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr to everyone of 10+.

Science Week Review: Beetles for Breakfast by Madeleine Finlay and Jisu Choi

Cover art by Jisu Choi, published by Flying Eye Books 2021

To mark this year’s #ScienceWeek I thought I would write a long-overdue review of this feast for the brain: Beetles for Breakfast, written by Madeleine Finlay, illustrated by Jisu Choi and published at the end of 2021 by Flying Eye Books. This exploration of the application of biological technology to our planet’s future was first brought to my attention in a review written by Anne Thompson, published on her blog A Library Lady which prompted me to order a copy.

This fabulous book is packed with facts and possibilities, encouraging young readers to consider everyday situations and the application of biological sciences to make life on earth sustainable in the future. The science is so compelling that although the book has been written at a level accessible to primary school children, it has engaged a teen studying biology at A level and this health librarian who studied biological sciences many years previously! The short panels of text explain the scientific principles in clear, straightforward language and specific scientific vocabulary is presented in bold font and defined in a glossary. Thus children gain valuable knowledge without being bamboozled by jargon.

I really enjoyed the structure of this book, each chapter takes on a familiar location, for example: At School, At the Beach, On the Farm and has an explainer spread, followed by spreads which delve into the future technologies which could be applied to each topic in increasing depth. The ecological problems that we currently face are explained with great clarity, and creative solutions that have been investigated or postulated by scientists are explored. Every page is fully illustrated in the quirky, retro style of Jisu Choi and there are so many details on every spread that children are likely to return to this book very often to spot new details in every chapter. I would like to congratulate the designer because the text is absolutely readable on every panel of every page, which I have not always found to be the case in highly-coloured non-fiction books.

The opening chapter which discusses the “beetles for breakfast” concept is absolutely fascinating in its examination of future sustainable food sources. I can imagine this topic along with many others (including the many prospective uses of poo) proving to be utterly compelling for curious young minds. Hopefully some young readers will contribute their energies and skills to making the ideas in the “future thinking” chapter at the end of the book become a reality.

Beetles for Breakfast definitely needs to be in every primary school library and Key Stage 2 classroom and not just for Science Week!

MG Book review: The Wondrous Prune by Ellie Clements

To be published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books 12th May 2022

I was intrigued by the title of this magical middle grade book when I spotted it on NetGalley and thus delighted when I was approved to read an early e-ARC. It is a heart-warming tale of an ordinary Year 6 girl with an extraordinary gift!

Prune’s mother has inherited her late parents’ house, the home she grew up in as a child, and takes the opportunity to move the family away from their former home in a block of flats. We soon discover that Prune’s teenage brother Jesse had been hanging out with a friend called Bryce whom his mother and Prune both consider to be a bad influence, they hope that the move will break the connection and get Jesse’s life back on track. However, Prune misses her old life, her best friend Connie and the wonderful connection she had with Grandma Jean and Poppa B when they were alive. Although their former home holds many happy memories for her, she can’t help the sadness washing over her now that they are no longer around. And so the fantasy aspect to this contemporary story arrives, because every time that Prune begins to experience intense sadness or anxiety, her world suddenly fills with vivid colours which she cannot explain.

This phenomenon does not confine itself to the house. As Prune walks into her new classroom the following day she again finds her surroundings awash with colour and by standing open-mouthed with astonishment she opens herself up to the cruel barbs of a pack of bullies nicknamed the Vile-lets. These three girls are vicious in the way they target their victims and Prune is only saved from utter despair by the kindness of classmate Doug who was their previous main target. A temporary replacement teacher alongside the fact that Prune doesn’t want to worry her mother, means that she has to put up with the bullying for far too long before the combination of Doug and Jesse persuade her to do the right thing and tell an adult.

Prune’s relationship with older brother Jesse was one of my favourite aspects of this book because it was so realistically portrayed. They clearly had a very close bond, with Jesse demonstrating great kindness and care for his younger sister when they were alone together, whilst also dismissing her in front of Bryce when trying to present a cool image. In turn, Prune is buoyed up by Jesse’s attention and clearly worries that he is throwing away his life chances by hanging out with someone who is leading him into trouble.

Can Prune and Jesse resolve their differences; will Prune be able to shake off the bullies; and will she be able to help her brother escape from a toxic friendship? How will the legend of the “Delmere Magic” and Prune’s amazing artistic ability interact and can eleven year old girls become superheroes? You will have to read this middle grade contemporary fantasy to discover the answers.

The Wondrous Prune is a story of family love, finding your inner strength and focussing on the positive, which is ideally pitched for an upper key stage 2 readership. I’m sure that there will be many who would love to possess Prune’s superpower! The electronic proof that I read did not contain any artwork although I believe that the finished paperback will have illustrated chapter headings which I imagine will bring to life Prune’s artistic abilities.

Publication is due on 12th May 2022 and I am most grateful to Bloomsbury Children’s Books and NetGalley for access to an e-ARC.

#MG Review: Rainbow Grey – Eye of the Storm by Laura Ellen Anderson

Cover image by Laura Ellen Anderson, published by Farshore

Banish the gloom and journey to The Weatherlands to join Ray Grey and her friends on their second whirlwind adventure! I couldn’t have wished for a more appropriate book to read on the weekend that the UK was battered by winter storms. This story erupts with vivid world building, meteorological characters and excitement of hurricane proportions.

Ray Gray is the only Rainbow Weatherling to have lived in The Weatherlands for the last one thousand years, and is still trying to get to grips with her magnificent magical powers. In addition, she is made to feel “othered” as her magic stands out from that of the Cloud, Rain, Sun and Snow Weatherlings amongst whom she lives. The importance of her loyal friends, Snowden Everfreeze and Droplett Dewbells, the reformed Rogue Weatherling LaBlaze Delight, as well as her explosive cloud cat Nim is central to her wellbeing and self-belief; a theme which will be relatable to many young readers.

When Ray’s fledgling grasp on her magic is blamed for the disappearance of the baby cloud creatures from their puff pods, a cloud detective, Agent Nephia Weatherwart arrives on the scene. However, Ray’s suspicions are heightened when she begins to see a glowing eye symbol at the site of every cloud creature disappearance. As the City of Celestia begins to fragment, it appears that legendary Rogue Weatherling, Tornadia Twist has returned and is threatening the very existence of The Weatherlands, with ominous knock-on consequences for the weather on Earth. The future of the kingdom depends on the bravery of Ray, Snow and Droplett, ably assisted by LaBlaze. They must travel to the eye of the storm and hope that Ray can summon and master the magic of the entire tribe of Rainbow Weatherlings to break Tornadia’s dark spell. As the tension rises the reader finds the pages turning as quickly as if blown by a hurricane-force wind and then there is a powerful moment where time almost stands still. The eye of the storm! Ray’s  bravery rises in relation to the threat to those whom she loves most, as well as the very future of cloud magic and the weather on Earth. This is a fantastic story of determination, bravery and friendship set in a perfectly imagined fantasy kingdom with relatable and inspirational characters, brim full of humour and action.

There are many elements which I loved; the imaginative character names, the world building complete with illustrated map, the pacing of the plot and the underlying ecological theme which is carefully threaded through the plot, just enough to spark thoughts about the causes of extreme weather. It it touches the full spectrum of emotions from Ray’s feelings of being “othered” at the opening family party; her deep feelings of gratitude for the friendship displayed by Snow and Droplett; her fear, anxiety and ultimate bravery in the face of dark magic; and the explosive relief offered by humorous situations usually centred around the antics of Nim her adored cloud cat.

I can imagine Rainbow Grey – Eye of the Storm, being hugely appealing to readers of 8+ from the moment they see the gorgeous rainbow coloured cover and the bright orange sprayed edges! Laura Ellen Anderson’s expressive and delightful illustrations appear throughout the story, sometimes as full pages, sometimes panels and sometimes just on page edges or chapter titles. I applaud this attention to design which makes the story accessible to readers of any ability, which is so wonderful for inclusivity in the classroom. I highly recommend this to every school library, Key Stage Two classroom and for anyone who wants to buy a child of 8+ a book which will which they will thoroughly enjoy reading. With the UK celebrating World Book Day, the event which promotes reading for pleasure, next week, I recommend adding Rainbow Grey – Eye of the Storm to your reading choices!

I am most grateful to Hannah Penny and Farshore for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

MG Fiction Review: Escape to the River Sea by Emma Carroll

When you pick up an Emma Carroll novel, you know what to expect. Feisty heroines, unlikely friendships and breath-taking adventure, set in a perfectly rendered historical timescape and written at precisely the right level to engage, educate and entertain middle grade readers. I am happy to report that Escape to the River Sea, her latest novel due in June 2022, will not disappoint her legions of loyal fans. In fact, it is likely to have even more upper Key Stage 2 children flocking to it like tropical moths to torchlight. This quest which takes its main protagonist from a bleak, run-down manor in the West Country to the exotic dangers and delights of the Amazon rainforest will appeal to all children of 9+. Having followed Emma’s career since meeting her nearly 10 years ago on her debut book tour, I am delighted that she has shown the confidence to write this book in her own unique style, rather than trying to produce a pastiche of Journey to the River Sea, the book which inspired it. For fans of that classic work, you will find links to the original characters, location and birthplace of the author, but Escape to the River Sea can be read and enjoyed on its own merit, as a standalone novel. 

This story centres around Rosa Sweetman, a child who has been serially displaced in her first twelve years. As a kindertransport child she arrived in England, from Vienna, only to find that her sponsor was too ill to collect her and was subsequently rescued by an elderly gentleman from a London station. She has spent the war years at the dilapidated West Country mansion house owned by Sir Clovis and Lady Prue, surrounded by the girls from an evacuated London school and the animals from the local zoo. The return to peacetime has rendered Rosa’s life lonely and empty, leaving her yearning for news of her mother and older sister who were supposed to follow her from Vienna. The school girls have returned to their city homes and on the day that the zoo owners arrive to reclaim their animals and the black Jaguar, Opal, escapes to the nearby moors, Rosa’s predicament seems more hopeless than ever. With the zoo owner demanding compensation from Sir Clovis, Rosa is torn between guilt at her carelessness and joy at seeing the majestic beast run free.

The arrival of a young female scientist, Dr Yara Fielding, is the catalyst which sparks a chance to escape her loneliness and open new horizons of discovery. After a shared exploration of Yara’s grandfather’s writings in the library and the discovery of his notebook detailing his expeditions to track down the mapinguary or giant sloth, Rosa accompanies Yara to her family home in Manaus to become reborn in the company of a found family who reside in a home named Renascida. 

As the adventure unfolds in the steamy jungle setting, Rosa learns that not all monsters are eight feet tall with fearsome claws and teeth, and begins to understand the fate that might have befallen her family. She faces her fears, forms relationships based on respect, shared responsibility and courage with twins Vita and  Enzo and their cousin Orinti, and realises the power of hope in propelling life forward. 

I am sure that Escape to the River Sea is going to be a huge hit in primary school classrooms and libraries. Children will be swept along by the thrill and spirit of adventure, the exotic location and the exploits of the child protagonists. Teachers are likely to find so many topic links from this narrative too, from the ecological themes of land exploitation in both the UK and the Amazon basin; the geography of South America; the study of rivers; the ethics of keeping animals in captivity; or the fate of child refugees whether during WWII or in the present time. A shoutout must also be made to the stunning cover artwork by Katie Hickey which in my opinion will make the hardback version of this book a hugely desirable addition to bookshelves everywhere. I have only read the electronic ARC, thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan Children’s Books, but I will certainly want to add the hardback to my own Emma Carroll collection when it becomes available in June 2022.

MG Review: Diary of an Accidental Witch – Flying High by Perdita & Honor Cargill, illustrated by Katie Saunders

Cover art Katie Saunders, published by Little Tiger Press February 2022

Saturday 29th January

10:30am: Ripped open freshly delivered package to find the second book in the Diary of an Accidental Witch series written by mother and daughter partnership Perdita and Honor Cargill. Admired glorious cover artwork by Katie Saunders, loving the froggy-cabbagy-green colour scheme, and rushed through first quarter of the book. Note to self – remember to include in review just how perfectly the balance between: diary entries, to do lists, school notices, broomstick skills instruction sheets and pen-and-ink artwork works as a device to move the story forward and make reading a pleasurable process.

4:00pm: Returned to book after a day of family stuff, and decidedly non-magical household chores, desperate to find out how accidental witch, Bea Black, will get on in the Winter Solstice Grand Tournament and what costume she will choose for Little Spellshire’s Winter Solstice Tournament.

Sunday 30th January

4:00pm

Peace and quiet, at last! Time to delve back into my book. Well, the quiet bit didn’t last long as I laughed out loud at the “Extraordinaries” (witches) trying to master the arts of “Ordinary” sports in preparation for the inter-school Sports Day. Katie Saunders’ distinctive illustrations of Bea trying to teach her friends, Winnie, Amara, Fabi and Puck how to hurdle, sprint and compete in an egg and spoon race, adding to the joy on every page. Beginning to feel at little queasy at the ingredients being added to the Motion Potion.

Monday 31st January

9:00pm

Time to wrap up the final pages of the story. Greatly impressed at the conclusive events at the Sports Day and resolution of conflicting friendship priorities in Bea’s life. If you ask me, this book is a brilliant addition to the choices available for children of 8+. The illustrated diary format makes it a pleasurable and manageable read for children who are gaining reading stamina, or for anyone with dyslexia, as the text is nicely broken into chunks and uses a lovely clear font. I do appreciate the thought that has gone into producing a book which makes reading enjoyable for children for whom it is not always an easy process. The combination of magic, real life and humour is perfectly pitched to entertain Key Stage 2 children and the message of inclusion and celebrating difference is perfectly wrapped into the plot. I would definitely recommend adding Diary of an Accidental Witch to school, KS2 classroom and home reading choices.

Saturday 5th February

10:00am

Actually found time to sit at the laptop and type up my diary review! Must remember to say a big thank you to Little Tiger Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Review: Aftershocks by Anne Fine

I have read, or listened to my children reading, many of Anne Fine’s books over the past 20 years, so I was fully aware of her prowess as a creator of absorbing and thoughtful stories. I am certain that Aftershocks, due for publication on 10th February 2022, will only add to her reputation as one of the finest contemporary writers of fiction for young people. This story deals primarily with grief, and Anne Fine has crafted a story which is gripping, atmospheric, deeply moving and full of wisdom which, at the moment they need it, could be a comforting and enlightening read for anyone of 10 years and above. It is often through fiction that individuals recognise their own or others’ deepest emotions and the publication of Aftershocks could not be better timed, given the dreadful individual and collective loss of lives experienced in the past two years.

The story is set in the fictional Federation, a land quite recognisable in its similarities to our own, with familiar technology and societal structure and is told as a first person narrative by Louie, a boy in his early teens dealing with the loss of his older brother, Toby, and parental separation. When a mix-up in his parents’ diaries results in him accompanying his engineer father to inspect a water pumping station in the remote Endlands, his family’s microcosm of grief becomes absorbed into a far larger trauma. The pumping station lies inland of a high ridge which separates it from the coastal community of the Endlands, populated by a minority group who have been broken and conquered by The Federation years earlier. In the middle of their first night at the industrial building, Louie and the engineering team are lucky to escape with their lives as an earth-splitting earthquake completely destroys the complex. Far worse is to befall the Endlanders, as a tidal wave wreaks destruction on their community. This scenario is brilliantly envisioned from Louie’s mind’s eye as he and the engineers hear the roar of destruction taking place on the far side of the ridge, which protects them from the in-rushing currents.

Events are portrayed with such immediacy and lucidity by Louie’s narrative that the story is utterly gripping and pulls the reader through all of the emotions felt by the protagonist and the characters surrounding him. The aftermath of a community’s collective loss and grief opens up an analysis of his own and his parents’ different ways of dealing with Toby’s sudden death under the wheels of a tearaway teenage driver. Such is the quality of the narrative that we are able to see the protagonists experiencing different stages or manifestations of grief without ever losing the pace and flow of the absorbing story. Thus we feel the mother’s visceral anger, Louie’s aching loneliness and the father’s denial and immersion into work to distract him from his thoughts. So loss and its aftermath have caused a breakup in the family and this is then brilliantly interwoven into the macroscopic bereavement of an entire community.

In creating the Endlanders as an imagined group with a unique set of beliefs, the author is able to examine collective rituals and different understandings of ghosts and lost souls. Louie’s Dad has remained on the coast with engineers and volunteers to help rebuild the infrastructure and Louie rejoins him during his school holiday. There have been reports on the internet of ghostly apparitions and the strange behaviour of the bereft survivors of the tsunami and it doesn’t take long before Louie encounters his first ghost, a young boy drenched in muddy water, leaving a trail of wet footprints before vanishing. The sense of a haunted landscape, crowded with lost souls is vividly rendered and there are scenes set at the pumping station ruins which sent shivers down my spine. As Louie begins to learn of the tradition of Malouy, the necessity of the bereaved to repeatedly tell the story of their lost loved ones to appease their unsettled spirits he finds the courage to talk to his father about the loss of Toby. There are some incredibly moving passages as the logical, scientific, engineer who has always had the ability to fix things, begins to understand that the more spiritual beliefs of others which he had previously dismissed as irrational, are in fact worthy of respect. Further, as Louie completes his understanding of the haunted community he is driven to an ultimate act of courage.

I am astounded by the power of this book. The imagery of loss as an earthquake, shattering all that had been complete and alive; the aftershocks of grief in all its forms; and the tsunami as a flood of emotions and tears which can be as devastating as the initial shock are all perfectly realised. Anne Fine’s writing style is very straightforward but packs a huge emotional punch, so perfectly does she express the inner lives of her characters and highlight the extreme difficulty experienced by some people of talking about bereavement. There is much wisdom packed into this dramatic work of fiction which could open up discussion, and I highly recommend it to all secondary school librarians and Year 6 classroom libraries as well as to anyone working their way through the loss of a loved one. I am certain that this will be a book that I recommend repeatedly in the years to come.

I am most grateful to the publishers Old Barn Books and to publicist Liz Scott for sending me a review copy of Aftershocks in exchange for an honest review.