Enticing Early Readers: Zinnia Jakes and Sage Cookson Book Reviews

It is so important for newly emerging readers to have books available which instil a love of reading by combining enjoyable stories with great design; making books desirable objects. These two new series from New Frontier Publishing deliver on both counts: hugely enjoyable stories in books which have been created with extraordinary care, the covers and pages are top quality, with buff-coloured paper (which, as a parent of a dyslexic child I always value highly) and are the perfect dimensions for 6/7 year-olds to hold.

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes written by Brenda Gurr, illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff

Front Cover: Zinnia Jakes The Crumbling Castle illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff, published by New Frontier Publishing

Take out your tea set and cake stand and feast on The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes! The cover, with its lively illustrations and silver foil highlights certainly ticks the shelf-appeal boxes. Inside newly confident readers will find a story blending baking, mystery and a sprinkle of magic. It’s a perfect recipe for an entertaining and enjoyable read!

The identity of Zinnia Jakes is known only to her Auntie Jam, best friend Addie and international food critic father. Who could possibly guess that the fabulous creations baked by Zinnia Jakes are actually the work of nine-year-old Zoe Jones? She seems to have inherited her late mother’s talent for baking and produces delectable cakes from a secret kitchen in Auntie Jam’s home, assisted by a mysteriously magical cat and occasional help from Addie.

In this, her first adventure, she is tasked with producing a medieval castle cake to act a s a show stopper at a Professor’s book launch. But with only 48 hours to conceptualise and create a structure, and a best friend and aunt who are also preparing for their own events at the Medieval Fair, not to mention transportation problems, will Zinnia be able to deliver the goods?

This is an absolutely charming story, which I can imagine being very popular with the cohort of children who flock to the Rainbow Fairies and Isadora Moon early chapter books. The chapter headings throughout are stylishly illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff. With a delicious sounding recipe for medieval gingerbread at the back it is a perfect book to enjoy during the lockdown period and beyond!

Sage Cookson’s Sweet Escape, written by Sally Murphy, illustrated by Celeste Hulme

Sage Cookson is the globe-trotting, 10 year-old daughter of Basil and Ginger Cookson, the famous TV cooks and gastronomes. It is second nature to her to pack her suitcase, say goodbye to best friend Lucy and accompany her parents to the next location to film an episode of The Cooksons Cook On!

This time she is extra excited because she and Lucy have just been given their first mobile phones; they will be able to keep in touch regularly during her week away from school. The excitement builds up further when Sage discovers that the location, Newhaven Resort in Western Australia, is home to a chocolate plantation!

However, arrival at Marco’s Chocolates brings a less than sugary welcome, in fact Marco and his assistant Nancy appear positively hostile to their famous visitors. Adventure is thrown into the mix when Marco drives the family into the bush to visit his secret plantation!

This is a super introduction to adventure stories for newly confident readers, with an exciting but not too threatening plot, great pacing and a relateable young protagonist. Stylish black and white illustrations throughout the book are by Celeste Hulme. There is also a divine-looking chocolate fondant recipe at the end of the book.

Sage Cookson’s Snow Day, written by Sally Murphy, illustrated by Celeste Hulme

Ten year-old Sage Cookson is off on her travels again, this time to Snowy Village in the Australian Alps. An old friend of her mother has just opened a patisserie from where her parents plan to film the next episode of The Cooksons Cook On.

Sage is equally excited by the prospect of improving her skiing technique and spending time with Julia’s teenage son Kyle, with whom she has been friends throughout her childhood. However, on arrival she is shocked by the change in Kyle’s personality, and hurt by his sullen and uncommunicative attitude. This was not the sort of frosty she had been hoping for on this trip!

When Kyle disappears with his snowboard early the next morning, Sage’s capacity for friendship will be tested in this pacy adventure. At the end of the book you will find a very tempting recipe for easy mille-feuille!

All three of these books would be lovely additions to a school or classroom library to be enjoyed by newly independent readers, and I can equally imagine young readers wanting to collect their own sets to read at home. Perfect adventures for 6/7 year-olds.

I am very grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me these books in exchange for my honest opinion.

Book Review: The Humble Mayor of Grumble by Hilary Robinson and Steven Johnson

Illustration by Steven Johnson, used with permission.

Since the earliest days humans felt the need to create stories to make sense of the world around them. Hilary Robinson has taken up the baton and written a modern-day fable to help children understand what is going on during this strange period of Covid-19 lockdown. The story, The Humble Mayor of Grumble, beautifully illustrated by Steven Johnson has been made available at no charge for use in classrooms and homes across the world. It downloads in the form of a pdf poster, which is perfect to display on a classroom whiteboard to enable a class discussion of the text.

As with anything written by Hilary Robinson, the story has been produced with great attention to detail, in a style which will reassure children now, but will also be something to look back at from a future time and remind us of this (hopefully) unique period of existence. In keeping with the style, there is no discussion of the science here, just the depiction of the virus as a “silent visitor” which changes the lives of the inhabitants of the town of Grumble.

She encapsulates the gradual realisation, that many have experienced, of gratitude for the natural world and the simpler joys of life that we have been too busy to appreciate for many years. Without the after-school sports, dancing, drama and music activities we have turned to gardening, feeding the birds, appreciating the wildlife and whilst indoors, baking or drawing or being creative in a multitude of ways. Her words express a yearning that we will be able to hold onto these pleasures and maintain the environmental improvements once life returns to an approximation of normal.

I hope that when this fable is read in future years we won’t need to be reminded to be grateful to the selfless essential workers who have kept us going by providing the services we require and I applaud her inclusive list of the workers we clap for on a Thursday evening.

I think The Humble Mayor of Grumble is a wonderful addition to the free resources that are being generously provided for children. I love it and only wish that we had a genuine “humble mayor” running the show; that is the beauty of great children’s literature – it shows us the world as it should and could be.

You can download your FREE copy of The Humble Mayor of Grumble here.

To find out more about Hilary Robinson and her wonderful children’s books, you can visit the Hilary Robinson website here.

You can view some of Steven Johnson’s amazing illustrations for children’s books on his website here.

For previous reviews of Hilary Robinson titles on this blog, click here for Jasper Viking Dog and Space Dog and here for Gregory Goose Board Books.

Review: Winnie and Wilbur books by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

Winnie Bug Safari

In The Bug Safari Winnie the Witch and her big black cat Wilbur are enjoying the most magnificent picnic in the garden when fallen scone crumbs cause a rustling in the undergrowth and an organised column of ants arrived to claim their prize. A host of other insects fascinate Winnie, who impetuously decides that in order to get a better look she should shrink herself and Wilbur to insect proportions.

The resulting perilous adventure will entrance young readers and listeners, as Winnie and Wilbur dodge multiple hazards in their quest to return to their normal size! The vibrant illustrations overflow with detail about the insect kingdom, the bugs almost rivalling Winnie in their multi-coloured costumes.

This is a book to be opened flat on the carpet and surrounded by young children who will find almost countless wonders to marvel at – oh for the days before social distancing. I recently used the book as a prompt to going on a garden bug hunt for a videoed Google classroom segment, and there are many other counting and sorting activities which could stem from this beautiful book.

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Delightfully, the wonderful folk at OUP Children’s have issued Winnie and Wilbur Stay at Home as a free e-book for anyone to download during lockdown. You can access it from the link here.

This book is an absolute hoot, with Winnie’s attempts at joining in with an online exercise session being my highlight (probably because it’s rather similar to certain attempts in my house)!

Children will recognise all the adjustments to activities that they have had to make, reflected in Winnie and Wilbur’s household. This book shows them how to find the joy in singing songs whilst hand-washing, covering the house in rainbows and simply enjoying stories. Winnie really is an utterly joyous character with her multi-coloured fashion choices and accessories and this book is overflowing with good humour to put a smile on the faces of children and adults staying inside to keep the country safe.

With thanks to OUP Children’s Books for my copy of Winnie and Wilbur: The Bug Safari in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Kitty and the Sky Garden Adventure by Paula Harrison, illustrated by Jenny Løvlie

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This is the third magical Adventure for Kitty, a little girl who has inherited her mum’s cat-like superpowers and one day aims to follow in her mum’s paw prints to become a superhero!

For the time being she is happy to pull on her supercat costume, with its billowing, black cape, and skip over the night-time rooftops with her many feline friends, enjoying gentle adventures from which they all learn essential life lessons.

At the start of this story, Kitty and her rescue-cat Pumpkin are visited by their friend Pixie, who arrives to tell them about a magical rooftop garden she has heard about. Kitty is seeking inspiration for a school project so the three of them set out on a night time expedition across the town, with Kitty using her enhanced sense of smell to locate the plant-filled wonderland of the Sky Garden. When they arrive her two cat companions go crazy in a capnip plant until they are scolded by an old tortoiseshell cat named Diggory. He is the guardian of the Sky Garden who explains the number of years of work that his owner, Mrs Lovell, has invested into creating this living paradise. After suitable apologies the three explorers are allowed to investigate the wonders of the garden and Kitty finds inspiration for her school garden design.

However, Pixie cannot keep the news of this incredibly beautiful space to herself, and by spreading the news far and wide causes unexpected trouble. Kitty will require all her reserves of skill and intelligence to try to rectify the damage!

This is a wonderful book for newly confident readers, and would equally make a lovely shared experience for younger, emerging readers. The story is beautifully crafted by Paula Harrison, nurturing a sense of respect for the hard work and property of others and encouraging thoughtfulness, all wrapped in an exciting adventure. The illustrations by Jenny Løvlie are wondrously striking in a palette of black, white and orange. There is so much intricate detail to explore and talk about that this book will invite hours of exploration. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone aged 4+, I am looking forward to sharing it through the school library and imagine that many children will be tempted to collect the entire series for their own bookshelves.

For my review of the first Kitty adventure please click here: Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue

 

Thank you to OUP Children’s Publishing for my copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Review: Ballet Bunnies The New Class by Swapna Reddy

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Ballet Bunnies is a new series starring Millie a young ballerina and the magical, miniature bunny rabbits who live at the ballet school she attends. The New Class is the first in a series of six books being published by Oxford Children’s Books with this and Book 2, Let’s Dance, coming out in June 2020.

I was delighted to be sent an ARC of Ballet Bunnies The New Class, an absolute must-read for all young dancers! It is the perfect size and length for newly confident readers in Key Stage One, with gorgeous full-colour illustrations in a pastel palette throughout. The pictures of the ballerinas are immensely cute with slightly oversized heads and huge expressive eyes, perfectly designed to appeal to young readers. The series has been written by Swapna Reddy and illustrated by Binny Talib and wonderfully, it features a multi-ethnic cast of characters at the ballet school and to complete its appeal to a broad readership, a boy ballerina is featured too.  It is so important for all children to be able to see themselves in the books that they read and I’m sure that these books will find a wide, appreciative audience. I can certainly imagine a large number of children at my own school who will be pirouetting in delight after reading about Millie’s adventures. 

Six-year-old, ballet-obsessed Millie is about to fulfil her dreams by starting lessons at Miss Luisa’s School of Dance. She skips into the class with her spirits soaring, only to encounter an unfriendly comment and mean looks from another member of the class, star pupil, Amber.

Feeling despondent at her inability to perfect the pliés with the same grace as Amber, Will and Samira, Millie is left waiting for her mum to collect her at the end of the lesson. Startled by a movement behind the stage curtain she investigates and finds Dolly, Fifi, Pod and Trixie, the magical, talking and dancing miniature bunnies! What impact will her new friends have on Millie’s future at the ballet school? You will have to read this book to find out.

The story is delightfully written by Swapna Reddy (a firm favourite with me and my library users due to the hilarious Dave Pigeon series she writes as Swapna Haddow). In Ballet Bunnies her style is one of gentle encouragement as she helps young readers experience the effects that mean behaviour can have on someone’s confidence, and contrasts this with the powerful force of kindness and support. A perfect book for any child who might be feeling discouraged by a challenging task, and a wonderful addition to the bookshelves of all young dancers.

Thanks to OUP Children’s Publishing for my review copy.

For my reviews of the Dave Pigeon series, please follow this link.

Review:Jasper Dog Books by Hilary Robinson

What a joy to discover the utterly charming, funny and informative Jasper series! These books have colourful and engaging covers, are illustrated throughout with delightful black and white drawings, and most wonderfully have been printed on off-white paper using the Open Dyslexic font. I am passionate about finding books which make reading pleasurable for dyslexic readers and firmly believe that what is good for dyslexics is good for all readers. Some young dyslexic readers have told me that they found the spacing between lines to be really helpful in allowing them to read these books easily.

 

Review: Jasper Space Dog by Hilary Robinson

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The first book in the series was published in 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. It is cleverly structured as a series of letters written between eight-and-a-half year old Charlie Tanner, on behalf of his dog Jasper, to a rocket scientist Dr Isabella Starr (girl power ). Jasper would like to become a space dog! He already has his moon boots and enjoys strutting around the local park in them, but he requires Charlie to ask a rib-tickling range of questions on his behalf before he ventures to the moon. This is such an engaging device as Jasper’s questions definitely reflect the hugely imaginative ideas that spring from the minds of young children. As I read the increasingly funny questions with a big smile I was delighted that the eminent scientist’s replies to Charlie acknowledged the humour in the enquiries, especially the suggestion to explore explosive chocolate as rocket fuel.

So much care has been taken in the compilation of this book, right down to the final chapters summarising the information discovered so far and then expanding on factual information about moon expeditions. Books which entertain and educate seamlessly are to be greatly valued and I highly recommend this to all schools and to any family looking for a book to engage a reluctant reader and help them discover the joy of books.

 

Jasper Viking Dog by Hilary Robinson

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The second book in the Jasper series follows the same pattern as book one, this time Charlie’s letters are addressed to Astrid the Curator of the local Viking Museum. Jasper has heard that actors are required for the Viking exhibits and believing that he might have Viking roots would like to volunteer as a Viking dog! The humorous letters from Charlie yet again had me snorting with laughter, in particular Jasper’s rapid increase in age, as he convinces himself that he is indeed a Viking dog, and his theory that his friend Bruce descends from a line of Viking Berserker dogs! Each of Charlie’s outlandish questions are answered with great attention to detail by Astrid, thus presenting a host of fascinating Viking facts in easy to assimilate chunks.

Another highlight of these books is the care taken (by Lewis James, under the mentorship of experienced children’s book illustrator, Mandy Stanley) to design the illustrations.  Throughout the text there are intricately detailed drawings of artefacts or appealing cartoon-ish representations of Charlie and Jasper’s ideas, perfectly placed for children whose eyes need a break from reading at regular intervals. The illustrations in these books are .

I hugely recommend these books to any school classroom or library collection, and only wish they had been available when a certain member of my own family was of primary-school-age.

 

My copies of Jasper Space Dog and Jasper Viking Dog were gifted to me from the publisher, I am planning to order further copies for the library collection.

 

Amazing African Storybooks

The Small Five written by Ralph Johnstone, illustrated by Harriet Stanes

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Most of us have heard of the Big Five, those five magnificent animals that safari holidaymakers most wish to see; but have you ever heard of the Small Five? No? Neither had I, until I read this hilarious book by Ralph Johnstone, gloriously and riotously illustrated by Harriet Stanes.

Told in humorous rhyming text, the story introduces the big five of lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo; I loved the adorable puns, such as lion being the “mane man”! The Battle of the Bush begins when their tiny namesakes – antlion the doodlebug, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver bird, leopard tortoise and elephant shrew challenge them to a test of survival skills.

This is an entertaining introduction to some amazing African wildlife which I feel sure will be enjoyed again and again by young readers and any adults who have the pleasure of reading it aloud. It also contains the excellent message that being big and tough isn’t everything, no-one should be overlooked just because they are small. I highly recommend it, and don’t forget to look out for the little Colotis butterfly on every page.

My thanks to Little Steps Publishing for my gifted copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

 

Africa Day written by Chi Mary Kalu and illustrated by Jelena Jordanovic-Lewis

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This is a vibrant and wonderful celebration of the joy of African culture as a little boy accompanies his mother on a trip to the Africa Day Festival. From the glossy illustrations on the front cover of you feel the joy of Emeka as he embarks on his exciting day out. The illustrator Jelena Jordanovic-Lewis has captured the exuberance of the festival on every page with her kinetic artwork in earthy tones.

Readers are introduced to the new vocabulary of Emeka’s culture: Ankara and dashiki shirts, kente shorts, the language Igbo, jollof rice and moi moi and share his exhilaration as he dances through the day.

A marvellous picture book, pulsating with energy,  which I highly recommend for any child of three years and older to explore.

Thank you to Little Steps Publishing for my review copy of this glorious book.

Review: Twelve Days of Kindness by Cori Brooke

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This boldly colourful picture book is perfect for sharing with Early Years and Key Stage 1 children at any time, but its arrival is particularly well-timed during anti-bullying week. Written by Cori Brooke and illustrated by Fiona Burrows it demonstrates how one little girl’s careful observation, kindness and determination can make a huge difference to the happiness of another.

On the first page we are introduced to Nabila, the new girl at school, as she stands alone at playtime surrounded by small groups of children who are quite obviously whispering and giggling about her. Only one girl, Holly, stands apart from the others, looking sad and uncomfortable at the behaviour of her peers. She wonders if Nabila is lonely and devises a 12-day training plan, helped by the school football coach. Can her scheme to promote acts of kindness bring the football team together and integrate Nabila into the friendship group?

This inspiring and hopeful book, with its vibrant and expressive illustrations, makes a glorious addition to a school library or Key Stage 1 classroom as children will recognise situations that occur in the playground reflected in the book. The messages of welcome for a newly arrived pupil and advancement of teamwork to the benefit of everyone are great for starting conversations with young children. The level of detail in the pictures will be enjoyed each time the book is re-read.

 

My thanks to New Frontier Publishing for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Caveman Next Door by Tom Tinn-Disbury

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This quirky and original story is the debut book as both author and illustrator for Tom Tinn-Disbury who has previously illustrated children’s books written by others.

A warmly humorous tale, it recounts the difficulties of fitting into the modern world for Ogg, the caveman next door. Fortunately for Ogg he has a willing helper and friend in Penny, who does all she can to help the discombobulated Ogg to adapt to his new surroundings. It is a classic “what if” book which taps in perfectly to the imaginative thoughts of an audience of 3 to 6 year-olds, highlighting exactly the sort of differences that young children seem to notice, for example Ogg doesn’t have TV or wear socks! My favourite part of the book is when Penny decides to commence her mission to help Ogg at the library “it was her favourite place”. Unfortunately the librarian gets very annoyed when Ogg starts eating the books, the illustration of the librarian hopping with annoyance made me snort with laughter (I must try to get a print)!

Ogg s misadventures continue in hilarious style as he travels around the town with Penny, but the next day Penny discovers Ogg s talent for illustration, when she sees his cave paintings. She takes him into school as her “show-and-tell” which turns out to the benefit of everyone.

A funny and engaging book which explores themes of kindness, patience and taking the time to discover someone’s hidden talent. It is a beautifully produced hardback with an attractive font and colourful, quirky illustrations with plenty of detail for young readers to explore. Highly recommended for ages 3-6. 

 

My thanks to New Frontier Publishing for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Magical Kingdom of Birds The Snow Goose byAnne Booth

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This is a wonderfully gentle story, perfect for children from the age of six who love magical, fairy adventures and have an interest in the natural world.

Firstly, the book itself is irresistible with its seasonably scarlet cover featuring the titular snow goose, embellished with just the right amount of glitter to appeal to its intended readership. The 117 pages are beautifully illustrated by Rosie Butcher, which together with the font size make this book ideal for newly confident readers.

The story begins with Maya enjoying the company of her big sister Lauren, who has newly arrived home from university. They are preparing for Christmas, enjoying building a snow goose in the fresh snowfall and looking forward to a visit from two of Lauren’s university friends. When they go inside to warm up, Maya notices that the “Magical Kingdom of Birds” her special colouring book  is open in her bedroom, with a picture of a snow goose waiting to be coloured.

Only Maya is aware that this book, inherited from her mother, transports her to the Magical Kingdom of Birds as she colours the pictures. Once there she helps Princess Willow and a talking magpie named Patch to foil the wicked plans of Willow’s uncle, Lord Astor. This time Maya finds herself sitting beside a lake, in a wintry landscape, which is covered with magnificent white and blue geese. Princess Willow appears and explains to Maya that the geese are waiting for the Silver Snow Goose to arrive, bringing the first snows of winter, and then leading the Winter Festival before guiding the flock in their migration south. However, it appears that Lord Astor has kidnapped the Silver Snow Goose and it will take a great act of bravery to rescue him and ensure that the noisy gaggle of geese are safely lead to their winter feeding grounds.

As the adventure unfolds, the courage and teamwork of the geese is explored and an incredible amount of knowledge about these awesome birds is provided quite seamlessly as a natural part of the story. The loyalty and community spirit of the birds is inspirational to Maya and the lesson “to find your own way and listen to your heart” is presented in a non-preachy way. I loved the fact that Maya’s physical disability does not prevent her showing courage and contributing her skills and ingenuity to the rescue mission.

At the end of the book there is a factual section presenting a great amount of interesting information about snow geese; this is followed by an introductory chapter to another Magical Kingdom of Birds adventure, The Silent Songbirds.

I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful story and highly recommend it to readers of 6+.

 

With thanks to OUP Children’s Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.