#MGTakesOnThursday: Tilly and the Bookwanderers by Anna James

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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.
Cover image by Paola Escobar, published by Harper Collins Children’s Books.

Author: Anna James

Illustrator: Paola Escobar

Publisher: Harper Collins Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“Tilly had never been very far outside London, but she felt like a seasoned traveller within the pages of books: she had raced across the rooftops of Paris, learned to ride a broomstick and seen the Northern Lights from the deck of a ship. “

I just love the way that this quote encapsulates one of the joys of reading as well as referencing three of my favourite books published for children. It sets up the themes of this fantastic bookish adventure perfectly.

This book in three words: Books – Fantasy – Adventure

I am prompted to celebrate the first of the Pages & Co adventures by Anna James this week as I am overjoyed to have been approved for an eARC of the third book in the series, Tilly and the Map of Stories. For anyone immersed in the world of children’s literature this is a must-read; haven’t we all dreamt of being able to enter the world of our favourite books and speak to the characters who formed our early love of literature?

I think that Anna James’ writing is utterly wonderful and she absolutely captures the joy of becoming lost in a book, I highly recommend Tilly and the Bookwanderers to all confident readers, young and old, and encourage adults to read it aloud as a class reader or bedtime story to anyone of 9+.

My reviews of Tilly and the Bookwanderers and Tilly and the Lost Fairy Tales by Anna James can be read here.

Review: Trailblazers Stephen Hawking written by Alex Woolf

Cover image by Lisa Uribe, published by Little Tiger UK

This is the second biography from the Trailblazers series that I have been fortunate to read and once again it delivers on the series’ goal to inspire middle-grade readers with a story of a remarkable individual. Stephen Hawking’s life story is recounted by Alex Woolf in clear language, filled with everyday analogies which enable young readers to understand his revolutionary theories.

There is sufficient detail in this book to arm young scientists with an overall understanding of some of the key questions that cosmologists have tried to answer, and inspire them to formulate new questions of their own. If you will forgive the pun, the book starts with a brief history of the theory of black holes, presenting the key breakthroughs in understanding and naming the physicists and mathematicians involved. Alongside the chronological story of Stephen Hawking’s life this book is filled with information about new theories and discoveries in the fields of cosmology and theoretical physics. For example, the reader will learn that the term “black holes” was popularized in 1967 as the young Stephen Hawking was working as a post-doctoral researcher at Cambridge University.

Many fascinating details of Stephen Hawking’s life are included, I can imagine a multitude of young readers will identify with his childhood fascination with model trains and exploring The Science Museum in London. I was very surprised to read that he had not worked particularly hard for his undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences at Oxford, putting more emphasis on his rowing activities and socialising than on studying Physics! However, his diagnosis with the incurable disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) propelled him to focus his intelligence in a way that is inspiring to any reader.

The author Alex Woolf has addressed Stephen Hawking’s life challenges and scientific discoveries in language that confident readers at the upper end of primary school can understand, assisted by excellent diagrams and illustrations created by David Shepard. I would also recommend this book to any secondary school children studying GCSE Physics as excellent background reading to their syllabus. The use of panels throughout the narrative, summarising theories or describing key contributors to the understanding of the universe, certainly aide the comprehension of some complex scientific concepts.

Aside from its value as an educational science book, this biography presents Professor Hawking as an incredibly inspiring individual who refused to let his illness define him or hold him back from pursuing his intellectual dreams. The subtitle “A life beyond limits” encompasses his phenomenal cerebral achievements despite his physical restrictions and his 1983 theory of a “no-boundary” universe. His compulsion to ask questions, propose new theories and not be afraid of making mistakes is a great example to all of us. The fact that he became a best-selling author and cultural icon, even featuring in “The Simpsons” provides empowering knowledge for any young person who might be suffering with an illness or disability. At the end of the book one of his most famous quotes is printed, finishing with the words:

Be curious.

If all readers are inspired to follow this advice then who knows what new theories could emerge to solve the many unanswered questions that still exist about our universe.

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Publishing for my copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Dragon Mountain by Katie and Kevin Tsang

Dragon Mountain Book Cover, published by Simon and Schuster Children’s UK

This first step into older MG fiction by the talented husband and wife team who write the hugely popular Sam Wu books is a thrilling adventure set in the mountainous landscape of China.

It opens with a teenage Californian surfing champion, Billy Chan, reluctantly arriving in China to attend a Mandarin culture and language summer camp. He finds that he is in the company of a group of talented teenagers who have all been nominated by their teachers or coaches to attend this unique camp and anxiety creeps in that his patchy Mandarin skills will leave him performing badly compared to the other kids. After a bone-rattling and stomach-churning drive up into the mountainous camp, Billy is pretty convinced that he would rather be back home surfing in the warm sea. However, he starts to form a bond with Irish lad, Dylan O’Donnell and is pleased that he is placed in the same cabin as him by the ancient Chinese camp leader Lao-Jin (Old Gold). On the first night, in the light of the campfire, Old Gold recounts the ancient myth of Dragon Mountain: the battle for supremacy between good and evil dragons and the source of the “River of Blood”.

The next morning the students are divided into teams of four. Billy and Dylan are placed together. Their additional team members are the outrageously confident Charlotte Bell, not just the holder of the Little Miss of the South title for four years, but also two-time ju-jitsu under-14 world champion, and the quiet, shy, dreamer Ling-Fei the adopted granddaughter of Old Gold. Each team of four is given a challenge to retrieve a specific item on the first morning and informed that the winning team will earn extra privileges throughout their time at camp. This is all the incentive that highly competitive Charlotte needs and she leaves her team in no doubt that they must win!

However, when they are confronted by a fierce tiger as well as an earthquake after taking a forbidden shortcut through a bamboo plantation, they find themselves caught up in a magical adventure that they could not have imagined.

The combination of contemporary teenagers bound up into a mythical fantasy is deftly handled, with the teens reacting in believable ways to the incredible scenario of bonding with dragons in a battle to save both the human and dragon realms from devastation caused by the evil dragon “The Great One” whose ambition is to rule over both kingdoms. This malicious dragon is aided by his followers, The Noxious or Nox-wings, an army of dark dragons.

Bravery, loyalty, strength and truth are the values in the hearts of the four teenage protagonists which have bound them to their dragons and alongside their dragon-bestowed powers, arm them for a battle with a fearsome enemy. 

I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I won’t go into any further details about the plot. This is a fast-paced fantasy adventure, likely to be devoured in a couple of days by confident upper key stage 2 readers; the plot grips you more tightly than a dragon’s claws. Equally it would be a great story for a teacher or librarian to read aloud…but be prepared for demands from the children for “one more chapter!” The book ends on an absolute cliff-hanger and I certainly hope I don’t have to wait too long to find out what happens next!

Highly recommended for fans of Harry Potter, Septimus Heap and  Percy Jackson.

I am most grateful to #NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Children’s Books for allowing me access to an e-ARC of Dragon Mountain. The book will be published on 3 September 2020.

The Key to Finding Jack by Ewa Jozefkowicz

Cover image by Katy Ridell, published by Head of Zeus

This is the second book that I have read by Ewa Jozefkowicz and I have to say that she has rapidly joined my list of favourite writers. This beautifully written and structured story within a story goes straight to the heart of identity, with its theme of unlocking the barriers that we put up to hide our true selves, even from those closest to us.

As regular readers of my blog will know, mystery novels are my genre of choice, and this contemporary tale of a twelve-year-old girl desperately seeking clues to unlock the location of her beloved elder brother had me hooked from page one. The story opens with Flick ( the narrator) trying to solve one of the complex puzzles that her older brother Jack habitually sets for her. The author has cleverly planted clues to the narrative within this opening puzzle, and this is just one of the details of Ewa Jozefowicz’s writing which I loved. 

Jack has just completed his A levels, in which he has astonished his parents by performing very well given their perception of him as a practical joker who has not applied himself to his studies in the way they would have wished. His father expects Jack to follow him into a career as a barrister and a law degree beckons once Jack returns from his gap year in South America. Flick is determined to treasure the remaining moments with Jack, realising that not only will she miss him while he travels, but she will see far less of him once he starts at university. Their relationship is cemented in the reader’s mind as one of love and mutual respect and encouragement.

Jack departs and Flick’s life continues as before, with her school days allowing us a glimpse of her hidden talent as a writer. Her class are set the task of writing a detective story and as Flick reads the opening of her composition aloud to her classmates you feel their incredulity at the quality of her historical story “The Case of the Beret and the Bell.” As she reaches the cliffhanger at which the young heroine Margot has disappeared in a huge London crowd she is summoned to the head teacher’s office to hear that Jack has been reported missing following an earthquake in Peru. The writing aches with the devastation and helplessness felt by Flick’s family. 

What follows is a tightly plotted and compelling unfolding of clues as Flick, assisted by her best friend Keira, seeks information about her brother’s location and in so doing uncovers the hidden details of his life. Starting from the key that he has always worn around his neck and which he has left in his room addressed to S.F., they track down all of his acquaintances who share those initials. At every turn Flick is able to unlock details of his personality from the heroic tales that each person recounts. In Flick’s words, “even the people you know well can be a cryptic puzzle.” In tandem with seeking her brother, Flick continues to write her historical story. The dual narratives of being true to your own desires and talents and having the courage to be honest about your identity in the face of the expectations of those closest to you are explored sensitively and movingly. Flick lives up to her brother’s childhood nickname for her, and Jack’s actions demonstrate that there is great importance in their grandmother’s elegant motto, “Don’t forget to live.”

In summary, this heartwarming tale of unfolding identity is equally enjoyable for adult and child readers of 9+. I read it as an eARC thanks to #NetGalley and Head of Zeus Publishing but I will definitely want to obtain a physical copy as soon as one is available. This book is due to be published on 3rd September 2020.

My review of Girl 38: Finding a Friend by the same author is here.

Review: Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering by Harriet Muncaster

Cover illustration by Harriet Muncaster, published by OUP Children’s Books

Meet sparklingly wicked Victoria Stitch!

I predict that I will need more than one copy of this book when it is published in September; it is glorious in all respects and I’m sure will be in great demand. Harriet Muncaster’s brand of sumptuous illustration combined with brilliant storytelling is familiar to children who have enjoyed Isadora Moon as they became independent readers, and now as MG readers there is a darker, gothic story to enjoy!

Once you finish gazing adoringly at the cover art with its deep purple palette you fall into the realm of Wiskling Wood, home of the Wisklings; beautiful insect-sized creatures who hatch from gemstones in the Crystal Cave, possess antenna, dress with unique style and appear to display all the foibles of human behaviour! Only wisklings hatched from diamonds can ascend to the throne and this should have been Victoria’s and her twin-sister Celestine’s destiny. However, their diamond contained a flaw or “stitch” resulting in Lord Astrophel denying them the opportunity of growing up in Queen Cassiopeia’s palace. They have had to grow up together with only a series of state-appointed nannies to supervise them rather than being brought up in a loving family home.

This has built a supreme level of righteous indignation in Victoria Stitch, which she does not hesitate to display in outwardly hostile behaviour. Dressing like a princess, but all in black she insists on never leaving the tree house without her crown and petitions Lord Astrophel to be reinstated at the palace. Meanwhile Celestine accepts her destiny as a non-royal although she deeply regrets having been deprived of a loving family. She makes the most of what she has, gaining close friends and working towards her ambition of becoming a jeweller’s apprentice.

When Victoria flies off to the distant boundaries of “her kingdom” one day and meets the mysterious Ursuline she thinks that she has found a sympathetic friend; suddenly gaining access to the forbidden magic in the Book of Wiskling seems to provide the solution to her ambition and the plot takes off on a path which threatens to consume the last vestiges of sibling love. The dangers of accepting someone at face-value because they flatter you, without questioning their motives become very apparent!

I loved the complex world-building in this story; the wisklings’ homes in tree trunks; travelling on flying blooms and the society structured almost like a beehive were utterly compelling. The tension ratchets up with betrayals, suspicion and mystery which will have young readers gripped. Victoria Stitch is a fantastic new character and the reader is absolutely able to understand the motives for her demanding, diva-ish behaviour whilst recognising that her methods of achieving her dreams are less than ideal. Her twin appears to be in total contrast, the light to her dark, but as the story progresses you are given a glimpse into Celestine’s own inner turmoil. 

This is a delightful exploration of the bonds of love and loyalty, the importance of nurturing and fairness all wrapped up in a fast-paced MG mystery. The text is punctuated throughout with  beautifully intricate illustrations from multi-talented Harriet Muncaster which make the book an object of beauty and a joy to read for children of 9+ .

I am most grateful to OUP Children’s Books for sending me a proof copy of this book in return for an honest review.

#20BooksOfSummer: Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens

Well, I’ve only reached #Book5 of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com, mainly because I’ve prioritised new books sent by publishers rather than those which were on my original TBR list. However NOTHING was going to stop me reading Death Sets Sail as soon as it was published, this final book in a much loved series had a huge emotional pull for me.

As a brief introduction for anyone who is not familiar with the Murder Most Unladylike series, the first book appeared in 2014, written by debut author Robin Stevens and described as a cross between Malory Towers and Agatha Christie. I read the first couple as bedtime stories to my youngest, took her to several hugely entertaining book festival events where she became a loyal fan of Robin Stevens and a fully-fledged #DetectiveSociety devotee. I have not met a single child who has not become a fan of the series after reading any one of the books.

Fast forward to August 2020 and Death Sets Sail is launched in an extravaganza of gold foil, sprayed blue edges and excitement combined with slight apprehension from long term fans. I imagine that it must have been quite a daunting challenge to complete the series in a manner which would allow the characters of Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong to continue to mature but also bring their adventures to a satisfying conclusion. In this reviewer’s opinion, Robin Stevens has achieved this goal in tremendous style and I thoroughly enjoyed this murder mystery despite finding something in my eye towards the end!

I do not want to discuss the plot in too much detail for fear of giving away spoilers therefore I will just give a brief outline. Daisy and Hazel have been invited to spend the 1936 Christmas holidays in Egypt by their school friend Amina El Maghrabi. Hazel’s wealthy father has agreed to travel from Hong Kong with Hazel’s two younger sisters May and Rose to join the girls on a Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan. To complete the young detective contingent on the cruise The Junior Pinkertons, George and Alexander, long term allies and rivals of The Detective Society, have also contrived to join the cruise. Fellow travellers include Amina’s former tutor Miss Beauvais, George and Alexander’s tutor Mr Young and The Breath of Life Society, a cohort of wealthy British eccentrics who believe themselves to be re-incarnations of Ancient Egyptian deities. Hence the stage is set for an exquisitely plotted MG homage to Death on the Nile.

Robin Stevens has honed her craft brilliantly over the last six years and has constructed an entertaining murder mystery which you just can’t put down once you’ve embarked. I love the way that she doesn’t gloss over the unacceptable attitudes to race that were prevalent in the 1930s. Issues of cultural appropriation and white privilege are highlighted and the need to remove these attitudes from society is made plain. Hazel, who started the series as a shy and insecure arrival from Hong Kong has blossomed into a confident young woman who is proud of her talent for logical deduction, able to stand up to her father and is no longer prepared to defer to Daisy on everything. The Honourable Daisy Wells is still inclined to be “Daisy-ish” meaning that she single-mindedly pursues her own agenda, dismissing the suggestions or feelings of others at times, but is ultimately the courageous best friend that we would all wish for in a crisis. She has the ability to strengthen Hazel’s nerve when required with a muttered “Buck up, Watson!” and their unbreakable friendship is one of the joys of this series.

Many of the earliest fans of the MMU books will now be aged 15/16, the same age as Daisy and Hazel appear in this book, and will identify with the girls maturing and experiencing their first loves. I have a favourite quote by Farrah Serroukh, Learning Programme Leader at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) in the Reflecting Realities (2018) report “The space between what is written and what is read is often a safe space in which we can make sense of our lives and the world around us.” Robin Stevens has presented Daisy’s sexuality as a natural part of the story and kept the content entirely suitable for an MG readership. I would imagine that presenting a lesbian character as a strong confident protagonist rather than a victim of bullying will help everyone to feel accepted for who they are and encourage acceptance of others. At one point in the book Hazel reflects that “there is no one way for a heroine to look or be.” which for me perfectly encapsulates the core message of the Detective Society.

Finally, it should be said that Robin Stevens has thoroughly researched the Ancient Egyptian content of the story and as this is a period covered by the primary school history curriculum there will be many cross curricular opportunities for using this book on top of the obvious ReadforPleasure! With its shining golden cover and beautiful design and artwork by Nina Tara this truly is a book to treasure and a perfect ending to a series that has accompanied many young bookworms through childhood.

You can read my reviews of the first seven books in the MMU series here.

You can read my review of Book 8: Top Marks for Murder here.

You can read my review of the World Book Day 2020 title The Case of the Drowned Pearl here.

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

#MGTakesOnThursday: Hope Jones Saves the World by Josh Lacey

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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.
Cover image by Beatriz Castro, published by Andersen Press

Author: Josh Lacey

Illustrator: Beatriz Castro

Publisher: Andersen Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This book is written in the form of a blog and fortunately for me Page 11 just happens to be January 1st, so from a page with very little text we get straight to the core of the story:

“So here is my New Year’s resolution: I am giving up plastic”

This book in three words: Environment – Activism – Blogging

This week I am again reviewing a recently published book, which I was lucky enough to receive from Toppsta.com and Andersen Press in a giveaway.

Ten year old Hope Jones is appalled to read about the harmful effects of waste plastic on the world’s oceans and the creatures that live within and therefore decides that she will give up plastic and encourage her family to join her. She very quickly realises that this will be very much harder than she initially thought and starts to chart her progress in the form of a blog: hopejonessavestheworld.com

One of the most realistic things about this book is the organic process by which Hope’s mission evolves. She visits her school friend Harry’s house so that he can use his computing talents to set up the blog for her and whilst there is inspired by learning about the Greenham Common protesters from his mum. This leads to Hope setting up a protest outside the supermarket where her parents find it almost impossible to purchase the essentials required for family life without excess plastic packaging. Over time the protest grows, angering Mr Schnitzel the manager but inspiring some customers to change their shopping habits.

The difficulties of cutting out the use of plastic are not glossed over and there are certainly times when Hope feels that her quest is pointless, however supportive family members, friends and community all engage in a constant learning process. The hopeful message presented by the book is that by working together everyone can take “small steps to make big changes.” The scenarios faced will be recognisable to all children and hopefully will encourage them not to give up on their ideals but to make whatever small changes they can. At the back of the book there are ten suggestions of practical steps that everyone can try to make a contribution to cutting down on waste.

I think that this is a great book for any school collection on so many levels. Firstly it is an enjoyable read and the use of blog format with illustrations by Beatriz Castro make it very accessible to all KS2 pupils. The themes and ideas are great for prompting discussion about the environment and recycling and finally I see it as an incredibly useful resource for the primary school computing curriculum. It fits perfectly with lessons in using technology to communicate for a purpose, which includes learning about blogging and I’m sure in many schools, contributing to a school blog. I was also impressed that digital citizenship was covered, with a friend, Tariq, taking photos of the supermarket protest and asking for Hope’s approval and permission before posting it on social media. Overall I highly recommend Hope Jones Saves the World for children of 8+.

I am grateful to Toppsta.com and Andersen Press for my gifted copy of this book.

Perfect Picture Books July 2020

I have been very fortunate in recent weeks to receive an amazing selection of picture books from New Frontier Publishing, who have made it their goal to produce great quality books with powerful messages and informative content. Here are a selection of their July publications.

Polly Profiterole’s Little Town written by Maggie May Gordon and illustrated by Margarita Levina

Cover image by Margarita Levina, published by New Frontier Publishing

This deliciously imaginative story from Maggie May Gordon, who is a well-known poet and lyricist in Australia, is likely to inspire all kinds of creativity in children with whom it is shared. Polly Profiterole is a very hard-working cook who is completely exhausted from making pancakes for the inhabitants of her little town every day.

Her little town, which is beautifully captured in retro colours by illustrator Margarita Levina, seems to be lost in a time-warp in an out of the way corner of Australia. The verandah of Polly’s bungalow serves as the Pancake Parlour…and is the ONLY shop in a town so neglected that it doesn’t have a school, church, shops or even a pub! In a flash of inspiration one night Polly decides that she will bake the institutions required to bring her town to life, and her builder husband Percy can then construct her vision. From her imagination pours a series of buildings created from some highly unusual but very tasty materials; my favourite joke was the Hot Bread Bank, which required a huge amount of dough!

This quirky tale would be perfect to share with pre-school and Early Years children and could stimulate all kinds of construction, baking and other imaginative and creative activities.

My Grandma is 100, written by Aimee Chan and illustrated by Angela Perrini

Cover image by Angela Perrini, published by New Frontier Publishing

This heart-warming story is told from a young child’s point of view as he ponders the one hundredth birthday of his Grandma Edna. The charming text by Aimee Chan and playful illustrations by Angela Perrini fully capture a child’s sense of awe at the magical number 100. I found myself chuckling with amusement as the little boy asks Grandma whether she will have fairy bread and crisps and wonders whether the fire brigade will be required if Grandma cannot blow out one hundred candles! Aimee Chan has brilliantly highlighted the differences in the way that the younger and older generations think whilst conveying the absolute determination of the child to find the perfect present for his beloved Grandma.

The inspiration for the story, I believe, was the author’s own grandmother-in-law and the sense of intergenerational family celebration and love flows from every page. I love the use of different fonts, sizes and colours to emphasise certain words and I am sure that this book will delight all pre-school and Early Years children and provide an excellent basis for discussions about family and growing old.

Amazing Animal Earth, written by Alessandra Yap and illustrated by Anastasia Popp

Cover image by Anastasia Popp, published by New Frontier Publishing

This book takes young readers on a whistle-stop tour of the world’s seven continents in an entertaining and educational look at the diverse range of wildlife that we are lucky enough to enjoy on our planet. The story is told in simple rhyming text by teacher Alessandra Yap, and from the positioning of the young girl on the far right hand side of the first spread you know that you are about to join her on a journey.

First to Africa, which the text explains is made of many countries and a descriptive selection of the amazing animals to be found on that great continent. From the hot colours of Africa the narrative progresses to snowy Europe, exotic Asia, vast North America, fascinating South America, amazing Australia and icy Antarctica. At each stop a small selection of interesting animals are highlighted so that despite this being a slim book the spark is lit in a child’s quest for knowledge about the incredible animals that we should treasure. The illustrations by Anastasia Popp entertainingly place the young girl in the centre of the animal action on each spread which I am sure will encourage young readers to study the pictures with great attention.

The Sloth and the Dinglewot, written by Nicole Prust and illustrated by Amanda Enright

Cover illustration by Amanda Enright, Published by New Frontier Publishing

This debut picture book from Sri Lankan-born Nicole Prust who now works as a teacher in the UK quite wonderfully aims to encourage young children to find the inner strength to try something new. From its glittering front cover onwards this book literally sparkles with the joy of exploration and adventure!

Samuel Sloth’s family hang out on the banks of the lazy lagoon, but while the rest of his family lie in the trees with their eyes closed Samuel has one eye open for adventure. He is encouraged to follow his instincts by the mysterious Dinglewot, a bird whose feathers explode with colour, leaving a trail of multi-coloured sparkles behind her flight path. She leads Samuel beyond the edge of the trees to frolic with baboons, be entertained by musical bats and eventually to feast in Dinglewotville. At every new stage when Samuel’s inner fears threaten to hold him back the Dinglewot gently encourages him to find his determination and relish a new experience.

I enjoyed this book hugely. The text written as rhyming couplets is perfectly complemented by the beautifully detailed and brightly coloured illustrations so that Samuel’s journey, from sleepy sloth longing for adventure to bold explorer who has conquered his inner fears, flows gloriously through the story. I can imagine that this book will be hugely popular as a read-aloud story in Early Years classrooms or as a bedtime story and I am sure that young children will love joining in with the Dinglewot’s rhyme as they learn to embrace new experiences. I am looking forward to sharing it with Reception class children when term begins in September.

There are teaching resources available for this book on the New Frontier website, available here.

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing and Little Steps Publishing for sending me these books in exchange for my honest opinion.

44 Tiny Secrets by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King

44 Tiny Secrets, cover image by Ashley King, published by Little Tiger

Betsy Bow-Linnet is not a coward! Unfortunately for her, she carries the knowledge that her mother considers her “A Terrible Disappointment” and regardless of the number of times that Grandad says it doesn’t matter, it is a cloud that hovers over her whenever she sits at the piano. You see, Betsy’s parents are Bella and Bertie Bow-Linnet, world-famous concert pianists and Betsy lives with them and Grandad in a grand London townhouse filled with grand pianos and ferns. Sounds very grand, doesn’t it?

Well, not for Betsy. She has had piano lessons since early childhood but her playing does not meet the levels of brilliance expected  by her parents. Even more tragically the malicious journalist Vera Brick, gossip columnist at the London Natter, broadcasts Betsy’s lack of talent after hearing her play at one of her parents’ famously glamorous and musical parties. As Betsy gloomily reflects on being a Terrible Disappointment, she receives a letter from a mysterious well-wisher, Gloria Sprightly, who claims to have heard her performance at the party and offers her a fail-safe “Method” to improve her interpretation of classical pieces. This Method involves daily practise with the eponymous 44 Tiny Secrets and builds to a crescendo of hilarity at The Royal Albert Hall!

This book is an absolute delight, Sylvia Bishop’s elegant writing is wonderfully complemented by the coloured illustrations throughout created by Ashley King (I particularly loved the diagram of the inner mechanism of a piano and the ferns which occasionally appear in the gutters of pages). The interactions of the characters and the layering of family secrets are combined with the precision of a symphony; it entertains at surface level and then you can dig deep into the themes of  expectation, honesty and acceptance. The way that the text is broken up and the addition of green into the illustrations will make this an immensely enjoyable reading experience for readers of 8+. I cannot wait to recommend it to the many young musicians at school in September.

Thank you to Little Tiger for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

#MGTakesOnThursday: A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

To take part, the steps to follow are:

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

Author: Elle McNicoll

Illustrator: Kay Wilson

Publisher: Knights Of

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This sentence is how the main protagonist Addie introduces us to one of her older sisters, Keedie:

“Her voice is all one colour, a beautiful molten gold”

This book in three words: Autism – Bullying – Solidarity

This week, instead of my usual policy of looking back to a book or series that I shared with one of my own children, I am reviewing a book which I only read last week as it was the #PrimarySchoolBookClub choice for July.

A Kind of Spark is an important #OwnVoices book about autism, highlighting the value of being true to yourself and also of standing in solidarity with those who are persecuted just because they are perceived as “different” in some way. The author Elle McNicoll is autistic and parts of the book are based on her own experiences – both good and bad – at school. I was delighted to see the publisher, Knights Of, winning awards last week because they are giving us all a huge empathy boost by bringing diverse voices to our attention and encouraging us to re-evaluate our attitudes and behaviour.

The main protagonist, Addie, is in her final year at primary school and feeling very lonely as her best friend has deserted her for spiteful Emily who delights in bullying her and horrifyingly the class teacher Miss Murphy contributes to, and it would appear, encourages the bullying behaviour of certain pupils. Fortunately Addie has two allies at school, the librarian Mr Allison who is kindness and patience personified, and Audrey who has recently arrived from London and therefore seen as an outsider by the close-knit community of a small village outside Edinburgh.

The “outsider” theme is expanded as Addie becomes intrigued by the stories of women from the village who were tried and executed as witches several hundred years earlier. At a subconscious level Addie feels some kinship with these women and the theme of her determination to have a memorial plaque erected for them in the village is cleverly interwoven with her daily battle to “mask” her behaviours and fit in at school.

The third strand of the story is based around the dynamics of Addie’s family. Her mother and father are both working long hours and are incredibly supportive of her needs. She is also cared for in contrasting styles, by her older, twin sisters Keedie and Nina. I thought that Keedie was the absolute heroine of this story, autistic herself, she had obviously experienced an even harsher time at school than Addie and does her best throughout to protect her younger sister from the slings and arrows of ignorant bullies. despite being exhausted by trying to cope with her university challenges. Nina is not neuro-diverse and as such sometimes feels left-out in the family unit. Although at times she is less patient and less considerate of Addie’s needs, there is no doubt about her love for her two sisters.

One of the most striking things for me about the writing was Addie’s description of the sensory assaults that everyday situations caused for her. So for example the school bell is described as “screeching loudly” and other loud noises “feel like a drill against a sensitive nerve.” The power of this kind of writing to help you walk in someone else’s shoes for a while and understand just how differently they experience and therefore react to external stimuli is so valuable for us all and I am immensely grateful to Elle McNicoll for inviting us into her world. Additionally, the story makes clear that autism should not be seen as a disability, rather that the ability to experience the world differently provides unique opportunities for creativity and should be celebrated.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone of 9/10+, children and adults alike.