Review: Space Blasters – Suzie Saves the Universe by Katie and Kevin Tsang, illustrated by Amy Nguyen

Cover image by Amy Nguyen, published by Farshore, 4th August 2022

With a cover as shiny and enticing as the latest high-tech gadget to emerge from Silicone Valley, this first book in a new series by husband and wife writing duo Katie and Kevin Tsang is simply irresistible!

Suzie Wen loves gadgets and when not watching her favourite TV show, Space Blasters in which the Universe is saved on a weekly basis, she can often be found tinkering with her latest creation. Unfortunately her inventions have a tendency to cause chaos. Two weeks after the great Automatic Dumpling Maker explosion, and despite being banned from inventing, Suzie decides that creating her own 3-D Space Blasters experience will liven-up the school holidays. Little does she realise just how hair-raising her adventures will be once she plugs in her Super 3DTV Gizmo…

I won’t give away any more of the plot but instead will outline the aspects that I particularly enjoyed about Space Blasters. The authors know their readership so well and have created another series which draws young readers in and presents them with entertainment and enjoyment from cover to cover. The appealing illustrations by Vietnamese animator and illustrator Amy Nguyen add to the enjoyment of the reading process, allowing opportunities for young readers to pause and explore the characters in graphic form. Publisher Farshore has made a fantastic contribution by printing the book in a lovely clear font with extra line spacing, which is so important for children who are dyslexic or have visual impairment as well as making the reading process more relaxing for children who are emerging as independent readers. I loved the hybrid blend of fiction and non-fiction, with fun-fact boxes inserted at key points in the story. This worked extremely well in a narrative based on STEM themes. There is a nice range of representation in the main human characters blended with an imaginative range of cute, funny and off-beat alien creations.

As someone with a scientific background myself, I loved the inclusion of the scientific method as an explicit plot point and I think that many Key Stage 2 teachers will appreciate the clarity with which this concept is explained in the story as it fits so perfectly with the primary science curriculum. The seamless blending of humour, science, intuition, loneliness and friendship make this an essential book to add to reading collections for all children of 7+; purchase your copy now.

“For the Universe!”

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson PR and Farshore for sending me a review copy of Space Blasters – Suzie Saves the Universe in exchange for my honest opinion.

Books I’ve read from the Gadgeteers Summer Reading Challenge 2022 List

A selection of books from the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge 2022

One of my favourite activities when my children were young was to visit the public library during the summer holidays to take part in the annual summer reading challenge. I love the way that this initiative has grown over the intervening years and with my science head on, I was delighted to see the Gadgeteers theme for summer 2022. Noticing a number of books that I’ve previously read and reviewed on the list, I thought that I’d post a summary of my reviews in case they help anyone to make their first choices.

Picture Books: here is the official list

One More Try written by Naomi Jones and illustrated by James Jones. Cute shapes demonstrate the principles of perseverance, resilience and tessellation.

The Little Pirate Queen written by Sally Anne Garland. An inspiring tale of a little girl who has learnt to create something from the resources she has at hand, can be read on a literal or metaphorical level and I think therefore appropriate for any class within a primary school.

Early Reader Books: here is the official list

Marv and the Dino Attack by Alex Falase-Koya, illustrated by Paula Bowles. A superhero powered by kindness and imagination saves the day at the Natural History Museum.

Middle Grade Books: here is the official list

Beetles for Breakfast written by Madeleine Finlay and illustrated by Jisu Choi. A stylishly illustrated exploration of the application of biology to solve some of the problems our planet will face over the coming decades. An absolute feast for the brain!

Sabotage on the Solar Express written by MG Leonard and Samuel Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli. Futuristic fuel cells, scientific sabotage and a runaway train in the red heart of Australia all contribute to an edge-of-the-seat, runaway train detective adventure.

Harley Hitch and the Iron Forest written by Vashti Hardy, illustrated by George Ermos. A thoroughly engaging and entertaining mystery for readers aged 8+, with scientific exploration and discovery at its core. Illustrations throughout make this a great choice for children who are emerging readers.

Escape Room written by Christopher Edge and illustrated by David Dean. A fast-paced, immersive adventure with mathematics and artificial intelligence driving the plot.

I hope that you all enjoy these marvellous stories which introduce STEM principles, and find many more books at your local public library, to entertain and engage you in new ideas over the summer holiday.

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

Early Chapter Book Review: Mike Falls Up by Candy Gourlay, illustrated by Carles Ballesteros

Cover illustration by Carles Ballesteros, published by Little Tiger Press 6th January 2022

Mike Falls Up is one of a series of simple, early chapter books for new readers aged 5-7, published by Little Tiger Press. Award winning author Candy Gourlay has written a story which reflects the exuberant imaginations of young children and promotes multicultural friendships, it is colourfully illustrated throughout in what I would describe as video-game-style images by Carles Ballesteros.

When we first meet Mike and his dog Bowow, they are complaining about the heat and it is clear from Mike’s attire of T-shirt, shorts, baseball cap and flip-flops, as well as his home decor and the glimpse of garden seen through the window, that he lives in a tropical or semi-tropical location. When Mama sends him out to play in the fresh air of the sun-scorched Chocolate Hills a sudden earthquake leaves a zig-zagged crack in the ground, from which emerges a mysterious note inviting Mike to “fall up” to a birthday party! Jumping into the hole in the ground grants Mike’s wish for a drop in temperature…as he emerges into a house in snowy London, much to the surprise of Kaneisha! It turns out that Kaneisha has received a similar invitation and when the two children “fall up” her chimney a topsy-turvy adventure with an awesome new friend begins.

I think that Mike Falls Up will be a welcome addition to Key Stage 1 classrooms and primary school library collections to broaden the choices on offer to children who are beginning to read independently. At 85 pages of clear print in short, simple paragraphs broken up with colourful illustrations, it is perfect to allow children the satisfaction of finishing a book on their own. Furthermore, the contrast between Mike’s exotic home and Kaneisha’s London home will, I think, resonate with many youngsters who were born overseas or frequently visit family overseas. The illustrations provide plenty of opportunities for discussion of homes and family in different parts of the world and will allow many children in our schools to see their experience represented in a book. Finally, I loved the way that this story tapped into that childhood desire to dig a hole deep enough to travel to Australia or China or wherever else in the world grabs a 5 year-old’s imagination; as I read it, a long buried memory of my brother’s deep hole under our childhood climbing frame sprang into my mind!

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Press for sending me a review copy of Mike Falls Up in exchange for my honest opinion.

Books for Christmas Gifts 2021

It’s that time of year when I start shopping for the books that increasingly form the backbone of my Christmas shopping list. There has been another fantastic roster of new books emerging this year and we are actually spoilt for choice when entering a bookshop, so I thought I would share some of the books that have stood out for me during the past 12 months and which I will be buying and giving this festive season.

Christmas/Festive Themed

Christmas/Festive themed books 2021

Once Upon A Silent Night by Dawn Casey and Katie Hickey is a beautiful retelling of the Nativity story inspired by a medieval carol, which would make a delightful gift for any pre-school child.

The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent and Selom Sunu is a huge-hearted festive story which absolutely brims over with Christmas cheer, warmth and humour.

The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer is an enchanting picture book which sparkles with the magic of the Northern Lights; in the author’s own words “a miracle of winter”.

Non-fiction

Non-fiction published in 2021 by David Fickling Books and Bloomsbury

Roar Like a Lion by Carlie Sorosiak: a wellbeing book with a different twist, looking at what we can learn from the animal kingdom to help us navigate some of life’s uncertainties. If you know a tween or teen who has struggled with some of the challenges of the past two years, put a copy of this compassionate and life-affirming book into their hands.

How Was That Built? by Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey is quite simply a towering work of non-fiction which will make a fantastic present for curious minds of any age.

Translated Fiction

Interestingly, both of my choices in this category come from Scandinavian writers and feature unconventional stories brimming with wit and wisdom. Firstly we have the classic children’s story Pippi Lockstocking by Astrid Lindgren which has just been re-released in a glorious hardback format with new illustrations in her trademark collage-style, by Lauren Child. A beautifully designed gift for any child to treasure. Recommended for age 7+.

Newly translated into English this year, Me and the Robbersons by Finnish author Siri Kolu (translated by Ruth Urbom) was one of my most joyous middle-grade reads of the summer. An anarchic tale of sweet-toothed, highway bandits on the roads of Sweden, the humour envelopes a beautiful story of acceptance. Recommended for age 9+.

MG Fiction

The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife by Maz Evans and Chris Jevons is a riot of jokes, warmth and love, fully illustrated and perfect for readers who are gaining independence and don’t mind stopping every few minutes to wipe away the tears of laughter.

Mickey and the Trouble with Moles by Anne Miller and Becka Moor is their second hugely entertaining, illustrated, spy mystery in this series, which will test the brainpower of junior cryptographers. An excellent introduction to the world of espionage fiction.

The Crackledawn Dragon by Abbie Elphinstone is the conclusion to her Unmapped Kingdoms trilogy. It is a story brimming with kindness, playfulness and sheer, unbound imaginative brilliance which will delight readers of 9+

The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay is a deeply moving story set during WWII and told from the perspective of both English and German characters. The elegant imagery of swallows flits through this story of the importance of seemingly small acts of kindness. A thoughtful read for anyone of 11+.

Island Adventures

Three books, all set on islands situated off the Irish coast were amongst my favourite MG titles this year, so I’ve given them a category of their own!

Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a treasure chest of heart, humour and hope; a wonderful story which will entertain all the family. Perfect for reading aloud when the generations are gathered together over the festive period.

The Stormkeepers’ Battle by Catherine Doyle concludes the thrilling and lyrical trilogy of the battle for the soul of wild Arranmore Island.

The Way to Impossible Island by Sophie Kirtley is a life-affirming, time-slip novel about overcoming fears and challenging expectations.

Young Adult Fiction

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller is unlike anything I have ever read in all my (many) years as a reader. I actually haven’t written my full review yet as I am still trying to process the insight that author Lisa Fuller has generously provided into her cultural beliefs. I did find some aspects quite frightening, so would certainly say that this is a book for over 16s and not those of a nervous disposition but I’m sure it will also be of great interest to adults who wish to gain some understanding of the culture and spiritual beliefs of First Nations Australians.

I am Winter by Denise Brown is a beautifully written, gritty, and compelling whodunnit perfect for readers of 15+ .

Halloween 2021

Books featuring ghosts, magic, monsters, vampires and witches for readers of 4 -14

For anyone heading out to a bookshop or the library this weekend, here’s a brief guide to a range of books for primary and early secondary school children to enjoy on these dark autumn evenings! There are many others out there, but these are all stories that I have read over the past year, although some might have been published prior to 2021.

Winnie and Wilbur and the Bug Safari – Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

The Winnie and Wilbur series is laugh-out-loud funny as Winnie constantly gets herself into a fix when her magic goes wrong! This story will transport youngsters back to warm summer days as Winnie finds herself in the middle of insect mayhem! Suitable for age 4+

Midnight Magic – Michelle Harrison and Elissa Elwick

Fun, rhyming adventure with a magical kitten. An early reading book with delightful illustrations, short chapters, warmth and humour. The first in a series that will captivate youngsters of 5+

Isadora Moon Goes to a Wedding – Harriet Muncaster

Isadora Moon, half fairy-half vampire, is bursting with excitement at the prospect of being a bridesmaid at Aunt Crystal’s wedding, but will the day survive naughty cousin Mirabelle’s magical interventions? This gorgeously illustrated, short-chapter story is engaging and entertaining and additionally contains recipes and craft activity ideas. Perfect for ages 6-8.

Sam Wu is NOT Afraid of the Dark – Katie and Kevin Tsang, ills Nathan Reed

With comic book style graphics throughout by Nathan Reed, lovely characters and sharp plotting, the Sam Wu series totally fulfils the “read for pleasure” criteria that encourage a love of reading. As Sam embarks on a camping trip, he is not sure what to be most afraid of…aliens, werewolves, vampire bats, bears or just THE DARK! Recommended for ages 7+

Leo’s Map of Monsters – Kris Humphrey and Pete Williamson

Nine year old Leo learns that his Assignment for the next two years is to become a Guardian and protect his fenced, medieval-style village from the monsters that roam the land beyond TheWall! An exciting, illustrated, short-chapter series that will appeal to Beast Quest fans of 7+

A Girl Called Justice: The Ghost in the Garden – Elly Griffiths

The third adventure in this MG Mystery Series sees Justice Jones investigating the disappearance of a classmate against a backdrop of the ghostly presence of Grace Highbury haunting the corridors and grounds of Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk. Cracking mystery adventure for readers of 8+

The Monster in the Lake – Louie Stowell and Davide Ortu

The second adventure of young wizard Kit, brilliantly illustrated by Davide Ortu, sees her and her friends investigating the strangely disrupted magic in the local town. All clues point to the lake…but what is lurking in its depths and can the three friends put things right? Packed with fun for readers of 8+

Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire – Anna Wilson and Kathryn Durst

Vlad’s mother, Mortemia, constantly tells him that he is a disgrace to the Impaler family name…what will she do if she finds out that he has been secretly attending human school and has even made a best friend there? A funny and charming story that shows young readers that being an excellent best friend is more important than being a perfect vampire! Suitable for readers of 8+

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Haunted House – Annabelle Sami and Daniela Sosa

The third outing for Agent Zaiba and her young detectives from the Snow Leopard Detective Agency finds the team investigating mysterious and ghostly occurrences at Oakwood Manor. Can Zaiba’s team uncover the real culprit and dispel the rumours of ghostly Jinn? Readers of 9+ will enjoy this “cosy crime” investigation.

Lightning Falls – Amy Wilson, ills Rachel Vale and Helen Crawford-White

A glittering and magical tale featuring life-like and friendly ghost characters, making it suitable for readers of 9+. Superb plotting, immersive descriptions and a lovely tale about family in all its forms.

Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering – Harriet Muncaster

Sumptuously illustrated and brilliant storytelling from multi-talented Harriet Muncaster are sure to engage readers of 9+ in this tale of magical “Wiskling” twin sisters, Celestine and Victoria Stitch. A story of forbidden magic, envy, betrayal and ultimately the bonds of sibling love.

Everdark – Abi Elphinstone

The introductory book to the Unmapped Chronicles series sets up an immersive world run by magic, controlled by an imaginative range of magical creatures which has come under threat from the corrupting dark magic of Morg, an evil harpy. A series that will absorb and delight readers of 9+

Gargantis – Thomas Taylor, ills George Ermos

“When Gargantis wakes, Eerie quakes” Eerie-on-Sea is literally cracking apart in the second instalment of this brilliant series and it’s up to Herbert Lemon and his loyal friend Violet Parma to investigate the fearsome monster, Gargantis, who is stirring out in the bay! Fast moving, ferocious plotting fro anyone of 9+

The Ghost Garden – Emma Carroll, ills Kaja Kajfež

Spookily atmospheric story set in a country manor house in the summer of 1914, this novella from Emma Carroll is published in dyslexia-friendly format by specialist publisher Barrington Stoke. Perfect for readers from 10 through to secondary school age.

The Hungry Ghost – HS Norup

An incredible story that blends Chinese tradition with modern day sensibilities. Set in the cosmopolitan city of Singapore, this beautiful story weaves Western and Eastern attitudes to grieving and treasuring memories of the dead and is a powerfully moving read for anyone of 10/11+

Strange Star – Emma Carroll

An imagined tale of the creation of the Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley in 1816. The plot moves between Somerset village life and the grand surroundings of the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva; epic storytelling, fabulous characters and a feminist slant make this my all-time favourite Emma Carroll title, recommended for anyone of 10+

Frost Hollow Hall – Emma Carroll

Yes, I know this is the third Emma Carroll book on my list, but as well as being labelled “The Queen of Historical Fiction” Emma really does have a talent for gothic atmosphere. In her debut novel she produced a ghost story, which at one point in the tale, genuinely made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! I would not give this to anyone of a nervous disposition, but for KS3 readers of 11+ it is guaranteed to send shivers down the spine.

Dracula – retold by Fiona MacDonald, ills by Penko Gelev

Finding myself pushed for time to complete a reading of the original novel by Bram Stoker for one of my book groups, I reached for this graphic novel version from one of my children’s bookcases. It is an accessible introduction to the Dracula story, which certainly remains faithful to the major plot points and atmosphere of the source text. Perfect for teens, dyslexic readers and adults who leave insufficient time to fully read classic novels!

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes: The Super Spy by Brenda Gurr, illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff

Cover image by Nancy Leschnikoff, published by New Frontier Books UK

Regular readers of my blog will know how much value I place on books which give young readers the chance to become confident with their independent reading and at the same time discover the pure enjoyment to be found within the covers of a book. 

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes is a series of early chapter books, written by Brenda Gurr with lovely illustrated chapter headers created by Nancy Leschnikoff, perfect for children of 7-9 years-of-age. This third book in the series, The Super Spy is my favourite yet, the enticing cover image providing a perfect illustration of the combination of delights to be found inside.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Zoe Jones appears to be an ordinary nine-year old schoolgirl…but she harbours a secret identity, for she is in fact none other than legendary baker Zinnia Jakes! Helping her to conceal her undercover baking persona are Aunt Jam, with whom she lives when her father is away on overseas food critic duties, best friend Addie and magical cat Coco! (I have my own theory about Coco and wonder if Brenda Gurr will reveal more about this fabulous feline in future books).

Zoe and Addie along with all their classmates are hugely excited about the class sleepover in the school library:

They were going to sleep in the library, surrounded by hundreds of books and stories galore…Zoe was certain she would have sweet dreams that night!

Additionally, Zinnia Jakes has been tasked with baking one of her fabulous creations for the Parents’ Association spy-themed party which will be held in the school hall on the same night! As Zoe and Addie research the history of spying at the local museum and work on the cake design their own espionage skills lead to the discovery that there will be spy-traps to outwit if they are to continue their modus operandi of mysterious Zinnia Jakes’ deliveries!

This story packs many mouth-watering ingredients into its 100 pages. There is an exciting and fast-moving plot; an enjoyable sense of peril; a friendship based on thoughtfulness and kindness; a lovely exploration of research, planning and creativity; a celebration of museums; the best range of cooking-based metaphors and similes I’ve ever seen and the sprinkling of magic and humour supplied by Coco’s antics. What’s more, once you’ve enjoyed the story there is a recipe so that you can try baking your own Super Spy cake!

I absolutely recommend Zinnia Jakes The Superspy as an addition to home and school bookshelves for independent readers of 7-9 and think that it would also work well as a class or group read, perhaps linked to a DT or cooking project. Publisher New Frontier has provided teacher notes which include the hidden picture cake recipe on this link. Check out the other books in the Zinnia Jakes series too; you can read my review of The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes Book 1 here.

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing UK for sending me a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Midnight Magic – Mirror Mischief by Michelle Harrison, illustrated by Elissa Elwick

Cover image by Elissa Elwick, published by Little Tiger Press

Prepare for mischief and mayhem as a very special magical cat makes a second appearance on a bookshelf near you!

Midnight made her debut appearance in October 2020 and she leaps back into action just in time for this year’s Halloween celebrations. Once more Michelle Harrison has written a sparkling, delightful story in rhyming text which bounces along with an enchanting rhythm. Young readers will be captivated with the combination of short, easy to read, blocks of text interspersed with Elissa Elwick’s charming illustrations. It is so important for children who are just discovering independent reading to be presented with appealing, enticing books that invite them to read for enjoyment, and this book does exactly that with its endearing characters, hilarious story and short illustrated chapters.

Midnight’s sense of fun results in her conjuring up a “copycat” reflection of herself in the bathroom mirror, an impish doppelgänger who can cause all kinds of havoc in the reflected world without causing any trouble in the real world. It looks like a case of “mischief perfection” until the combination of excitable dog Doodle and enchanted broom Twiggy manage to send the mirror crashing to the floor! Once the copycat escapes into the real world there is nothing that Midnight, Trixie, Dad or Gran can do to stop the escalating chaos!

Young children will love the increasingly anarchic behaviour of the copycat and the extreme measures that Trixie and Midnight deploy as they try to catch the troublesome terror. In scenes which are reminiscent of children’s classic The Cat in the Hat, it appears that every part of Trixie’s home will be reduced to disorder! As for my favourite part of the book – it can only be the sight of Dad ironing the white school shirt at breakfast time; that’s true magic!

I highly recommend Mirror Mischief as an addition to your home and school bookshelves, it is a hugely enjoyable story for 6-9 year olds and would make a much better Halloween present than much of the orange plastic currently filling the supermarket shelves!

If you enjoy Mirror Mischief, do look out for the first Midnight Magic story too.

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press for sending me a review copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.