Chapter book review: Magic Faces by Esi Merleh, illustrated by Abeeha Tariq

Cover image by Abeeha Tariq, published by Uclan Publishing,
2nd March 2023

A fun-filled, full-colour, magical adventure, Magic Faces Heroes of the Pirate Ship is a super short chapter book for children of 5+ to enjoy reading for pleasure.

Twins Austin and Alanna are spending time in their Aunty Kessie’s art studio when they discover a box of face paints labelled ‘magic faces’. Imagine their surprise when the paint brush springs to life and offers a choice between pirate ship and robot world! Opting for the pirate ship, Austin and Alanna’s faces are rapidly painted and a magical hunt for a treasure chest on the unusual pirate ship, New Leaf, commences.

This story explodes with colour and imagination and I am sure that young children will enjoy the race against a painted wristwatch, the pooping parrot and the idea of biscuits which put squashed fly biscuits to shame! With short chapters, multicultural characters and a lovely message about following your heart and doing the right thing, Magic Faces Heroes of the Pirate Ship will be a great addition to reading choices in Key Stage 1 classrooms. Author Esi Merleh and illustrator Abeeha Tariq have produced a story which is entertaining and encourages creativity.

My thanks to Uclan Publishing and Antonia Wilkinson PR for a review copy in return for my honest opinion.

Chapter Book Review: Nell and the Cave Bear – The Journey Home by Martin Brown

Cover image by Martin Brown, Published by Piccadilly Press, March 2023

Newly published by Piccadilly Press, Nell and the Cave Bear The Journey Home is a gentle adventure for children who are gaining confidence in reading independently, written and illustrated by Martin Brown. The short chapters are printed in a large, easily readable font and blocks of text are broken up regularly by delicately drawn images coloured in shades of green which works beautifully with the story.

The story itself is set in a pre-historic land of wooly mammoths, hunter-gatherers and fisher-folk and begins with Nell and her Cave Clan reaching the end of a visit with their distant cousins the Sea Clan. When Mayv, the leader of the Casve Clan decides that it is time to move on to the summer hunting grounds, Nell decides that she would like to stay longer with the Sea Clan because she wants to consult with the wise woman Saira who lives at the edge of their village. Little does she suspect that Kevun, the mean leader of the Woodland Clan, is still determined to capture her beloved Cave Bear. When his band of rather incompetent hunters manage to ambush Cave Bear (who has been distracted by a wild strawberry patch) the adventure begins. Nell, Saira and an injured tortoise named Tolomy set of in pursuit of the hunters and a quest begins in which love of the natural world is mixed with a charming sense of humour.

I am certain that children of 5-7 years old will thoroughly enjoy exploring an unspoilt natural environment populated with woolly mammoths, a shaggy rhinoceros, wolves and a tribe of hunters who will raise giggles throughout! The bond between Nell and her Cave Bear will be instantly familiar to any child who has a pet and the theme of families coming together increases my desire to recommend this as a lovely early reading choice.

I am grateful to Piccadilly Press and Antonia Wilkinson PR for my review copy of Nell and the Cave Bear The Journey Home which was published on 16th March 2023.

Chapter Book Review: Kate on the Case written and illustrated by Hannah Peck

Cover illustration by Hannah Peck, published by Piccadilly Press

Kate on the Case is a book which I missed when it was published in 2020, but having recently read and reviewed the newly published third book in the series, The Headline Hoax, I was delighted to see this one on the shelves of my local public library. I loved this book which I would summarise as Ratatouille meets Adventures on Trains for children of 7-9!

The main character Kate is an aspiring special correspondent, who is never without her trusty guide, The Special Correspondent Manual written by her one true idol, legendary investigative reporter, Catherine Rodriguez. Her other constant companion is her erudite pet rat, Rupert. The story starts with Kate, Rupert and her lovely Dad embarking on a luxury train journey to visit Mum, a famous scientist who is working at the International Polar Association based in the Arctic. The train is populated by a fascinating cast of fellow travellers who include: haughty Madame Maude and her very stupid cat Master Mimkins; Simon an accident prone conductor-in-training; a Russian priest with a litany of droll one-liners; a world famous gymnast Miss Bonbon and an alarming stowaway!

Shortly after the journey begins the guests start to notice that precious possessions are going missing. It’s time for Kate to put her journalistic skills into practice and use interviews, logic and a large dollop of courage to crack the case! Kate on the Case brilliantly introduces newly confident readers to the tropes of classic locked room mystery fiction through a plot infused with charming wordplay in a perfectly paced short chapter book. Hannah Peck’s distinctive illustrations add to the enjoyment of this beautifully crafted story, the orange palette perfectly in keeping with the unexpected mystery passenger.

Anyone who is looking for a book to encourage youngsters to get hooked on reading for pleasure should check out the Kate on the Case series. Fifteen years ago in my family it was Lauren Child’s picture books and short chapter books which hooked one of mine and I rate Hannah Peck’s unique blend of stylish illustration and writing equally highly.

Review: Call the Puffins! by Cathy Howe, illustrated by Ella Okstad

Cover image by Ella Okstad, published by Welbeck Publishing, 2nd March 2023

It is time for Muffin the Puffin to leave the safety of the underground burrow she has shared with mum and dad and fly with them to the Island of Egg to join the puffin training colony. On the one wing she is excited to begin her training but on the other wing, worried about passing the training challenges required to be recruited into “the Unflappables” the elite corps of rescue puffins!

This gentle and fun tale of teamwork, hard work and purpose, which reflects children’s experiences of being in new surroundings or joining a new class or a club, models the behaviour that enables friendship development, wrapped in a flapping good story. Cath Howe brings all the skill that I have admired in her books for a middle grade audience, this time delivering drama, humour and the cutest bundles of feathers imaginable. The greyscale illustrations by Ella Okstad are full of life and joy and I am sure will make young readers want to discover more about these beautiful seabirds. Fortunately this can start in the non-fiction section at the end of the book, providing some fun facts about puffins.

Call the Puffins! has been carefully designed to appeal to children who are gaining confidence as independent readers. The font is clear and nicely sized, with plenty of white space. The short chapters, 120 page length and liberal use of illustrations ensure that youngsters can gain that sense of achievement that results from being able to read a whole book and I am sure that this is a book that children will be queueing to borrow from the classroom or library shelves. An ideal choice for children of 6-8 years old.

My thanks to Welbeck Publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for my review copy of Call the Puffins! which was published on 2nd March 2023 and is available from book sellers now.

Review: Otter-ly Cute Illustrated Fiction for Young Readers

I am firmly of the belief that children cannot be offered too many choices when it comes to engaging them in independent reading for pleasure. Today I am happy to recommend three books which I am certain will appeal to young readers. They all feature short chapters, are approximately 100-120 pages in length, are an ideal size for small hands, have clear fonts, engaging stories, beautiful illustrations to break up the text…and OTTERS! Who doesn’t love an otter?

Well actually, the AdventureMice might have something to say about that last question! The star of AdventureMice Otter Chaos is an adventurous young mouse called Pedro who disregards his Dad’s advice that mice do not need anything so ‘scary, dangerous and uncomfortable’ as adventures. As soon as he is old enough, he packs his suitcase and sets off in search of excitement, getting more than he bargained for when a gust of wind blows him out to sea! This entertaining story by Philip Reeve features an unusual villain and plenty of action to keep young readers engrossed from start to finish. The full colour illustrations by Sarah McIntyre are fantastic, I especially loved the detailed cross-section of the Mousebase, the map of the mouse islands and the ‘how to’ guide which will enable any reader (young or old) to draw their own version of Pedro.

I lack any artistic talent and therefore can provide evidence that the instructions will give anyone the confidence to draw!

Big Sky Mountain The Beach Otters is written and illustrated by Alex Milway and is a gentle adventure which cleverly blends environmental messages into a story which explores geography, weather and the natural world.

Rosa and her Grandma Nan live in a cute cabin on the shore of Lake Jewell, with Albert the Moose, Little Pig the pygmy owl and Stick a wolf cub. However, they drop their daily chores as soon as they spot a distress signal coming from the direction of the coast. Setting off in Grandma Nan’s canoe, they travel across a range of landscapes before reaching the coast where they find a family of sea otters who live in an abandoned lighthouse. The problem of plastic pollution of the oceans is hugely apparent in the mess that washes up on the otters’ beach every morning. Rosa and Nan help with the clean up and fashion a raft from many discarded plastic barrels which they use to carry out a daring rescue mission from Jagged Rock Island!

As well as a thoroughly satisfying story, young readers are treated to fascinating facts about ocean dwellers; I can imagine many will enjoy learning about hermit crabs and some interesting information about blue whale poo!

Another story with an environmental theme, the third book in the Woodland Magic series The Stranded Otter finds Cora, Trix, Jax and Nis working on a handmade raft, in preparation for the moonlight raft race which will be held in honour of Grandmother Sky’s birthday. Within the first few pages of the story Cora demonstrates her credentials as a Nature Keeper, risking a dunking in the lake in order to rescue a drowning caddisfly.

In each story of this series the young Nature Keepers are sent out into the Big Outside early each morning to perform a task intended to repair some of the environmental damage caused by the Ruffins (humans). This time Cora and Jax are sent to build a bug hotel outside a newly constructed supermarket – a narrative that would be lovely to share with Key Stage One children perhaps in a science or Forest School lesson. There is a non-fiction section at the end of the story which provides additional details on different natural materials which can be used to attract a range of invertebrate species.

Despite designing an excellent bug hotel, Cora and Jax risk failing their assigned task when they are diverted by an otter cub who is trapped by a discarded shopping trolley and risks being drowned in the fiercely rushing river. A daring rescue which relies on impressive teamwork and the sacrifice of their racing raft will have young readers turning the pages until the final resolution. Julie Sykes blends magical characters with perfectly pitched environmental issues, wonderfully illustrated by Katy Riddell in this adorable story for young readers of 6-8 years of age.

My thanks to Piccadilly Press for review copies of Big Sky Mountain The Beach Otters which was published in autumn 2022 and Woodland Magic The Stranded Otter which will be published on 9th March 2023, and to David Fickling Books for AdventureMice Otter Chaos which will be published on 2nd March 2023.

MG Review: Rainbow Grey Battle for the Skies written and illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson

Cover illustration by Laura Ellen Anderson, published by Farshore, 2nd February 2023.

The third and final book in the Rainbow Grey series is an epic final showdown between the good rainbow magic of Ray Grey and the dark, monotone forces of Weather Rogue, Tornadia Twist. Readers will be swept up in the story as easily as a leaf in a hurricane, there is destruction and peril to leave you clinging to the arms of your reading chair, but tempered with the humour, hope and honour that make a perfect read for children of 8 years and above.

Laura Ellen Anderson has written the perfect ending to Ray Grey’s journey from outsider to fully-fledged heroine in a series which introduces readers who are growing in confidence to the delights of following a character through a story arc across multiple books. However, knowing that purchasing books is likely to become a luxury for many families, I particularly applaud the succinct review of previous storylines in the opening chapter. This is so important when children are relying on library or classroom book collections and cannot always obtain books from a series in the correct order. Another great joy of all the Rainbow Grey books is the magnificent artwork on every single page, whether the borders decorated with weather symbols or the half- and full-page pencil illustrations which perfectly complement the energy of the text. The map of Celestia on the opening pages along with the magical descriptions of the setting brings the fantasy setting to life to such an extent that it becomes another character in the story.

Battle for the Skies begins with Ray and her two best friends, Snowden Everfreeze and Droplett Dewbells celebrating Pitter Patter Pancake Day in the canteen of Sky Academy where all the young Weatherlings are educated. Despite the festivities and utterly delicious pancakes, Ray is totally pre-occupied with the threat of Tornadia Twist. However, in an early illustration of her character, she doesn’t hesitate to show kindness to outcast twins Frazzle and Fump, demonstrating empathy in action to young readers, as she recalls her own recent “outsider” status. When the light is suddenly cut accompanied by purple lightning flashes and the destruction of the great sunflower and Sun Citadel, Ray realises that her worst fears have been realised. But even in the darkness there is hope, as the increasingly visible bright star, which embodies her former teacher La Blaze Delight, reminds Ray that she should never give up.

With the unfailing loyalty of her great friends, plus Nim the cloud cat, Coo La La the haughty pigeon who formerly belonged to La Blaze and new-found allies, Ray Grey embarks on her mission to end Tornadia’s quest for ultimate power over the weather. The page-turning action, hilarious meteorological wordplay, weather events which include snot-nados and relentless onslaught of Tornadia’s destructive powers make this a book that young readers will not want to put down. For those who care to examine the deeper layers of meaning, there is a supremely well-crafted message of the power of the natural world and the destructive forces that can be unleashed by the actions of the greedy and power-hungry. As I read of the razing of the sunflower fields and severing of the Cloudimulus Suburbs, I couldn’t help my mind turning to the images we are presented with daily from Ukraine. This is the superpower of great children’s literature, the ability to create empathy by engaging the imagination in an age-appropriate manner.

If you wish to put an immersive, satisfying adventure story into the hands of a reader of 8+, get hold of a copy of Rainbow Grey Battle for the Skies, it will be published on 2nd February 2023 and is available for pre-order from all good bookshops and hopefully can be borrowed from a public library near you!

I am most grateful to Farshore Books and Liz Scott for sending me a review copy ahead of publication.

My review of Rainbow Grey Eye of the Storm can be read here.

Review: The Lost Diaries of Charlie Small Vols. 1 & 2 by Nick Ward

Cover images by Nick Ward, published by Guppy Books
2nd February 2023

The Lost Diaries of Charlie Small, discovered by author and illustrator Nick Ward, are due for release in paperback by Guppy Books on 2nd February 2023. Aimed at children of 7-9 years old, they will make a great addition to any classroom or primary school library collection. Filled with doodles, maps, technical diagrams and riotous imagination, they are sure to appeal to a wide range of readers, the diary format being particularly accessible and enjoyable to read in those short bursts often encouraged in classrooms between blocks of work.

The first volume of Charlie Small’s lost diaries, Gorilla City, introduces us to twelve year old Charlie, a boy who clearly loves adventure given that he keeps a pre-packed rucksack loaded with all the essentials for a budding explorer. The stripy, ferociously strong humbugs, turning slightly sticky in their paper bag, will prove to be more useful than expected later in the story! Encouraged by his mum to make use of a break in the stormy weather and get some fresh air, Charlie sets out on the home-made raft moored on the brook at the bottom of his garden and is swept away on the rushing water into unknown territory…

As I mentioned in the introduction, the imagination runs wild in this adventure. Charlie encounters crow-sized dragonflies, a ravenous crocodile, an imperious silverback gorilla, a welcoming troupe of younger gorillas and a steam-punk rhinoceros invention designed by Jakeman’s Works, an entity which seems to be a recurring mystery in these books. The detailed schematics which Charlie has pasted into his diary will intrigue children with an interest in STEM subjects and the fast-paced, perilous encounters that Charlie describes will keep young readers turning the pages. At just over 130 pages, Gorilla City is an ideal length to give readers of 7 years old and above the satisfaction of reading a complete book independently. It ends with Charlie being hurled into a new environment and sets readers up to seek out the next set of diary entries…

Pirate Galleon, The Lost Diaries of Charlie Small Vol. 2 takes up at exactly the cliffhanger on which Gorilla City ended, with Charlie in the vice-like clutches of a crew of female pirates!

Escaping their first demand upon his life, he joins them as the captive cabin boy aboard the pirate ship The Betty Mae and is kept constantly exhausted from his duties cleaning and cooking for the motley crew. Despite his disapproval at their lifestyle, Charlie becomes an asset to Captain Cut-throat and her crew, fending off a variety of foe which include: a monstrous sea slug, a giant octopus and most fearsome of all, Thief-taker Craik who puts a huge bounty on Charlie’s life. Another invention from Jakeman’s Works makes a crucial appearance in this story, and once again the book is laced with fabulous illustrations, ingenious inventions and swashbuckling fun.

Will Charlie Small ever manage to free himself from his seafaring shackles? You will have to read his second volume of lost diaries to see where the ocean currents carry him.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and Guppy Books for my gifted copies of these two books ahead of publication on 2nd February 2023.

Chapter Book Review: Kate on the Case – The Headline Hoax by Hannah Peck

Cover image by Hannah Peck, published by Piccadilly Press, 12th January 2023

Anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis will know just how much I love a good whodunnit, give me a novel with a mystery at its centre and I will generally read the book in one sitting. This was certainly my experience on picking up The Headline Hoax, the third mystery in the Kate on the Case series! I adored every single aspect of this book!

Let’s start with the fact that Hannah Peck both writes and illustrates this series and performs both of these tasks with elegance and panache. The beautiful pen and ink artwork which is liberally highlighted in a golden yellow, perfectly combines with the precisely worded text to invite the reader into the offices of The Lookout Post and does not allow you to leave until the mysterious hoaxer has been uncovered. The Lookout Post is a grand old newspaper and the publisher of undercover scoops by famous investigative reporter, Catherine Rodríguez, Kate’s ultimate idol. Visiting as a birthday treat with her Dad and faithful mouse sidekick, Rupert, Kate finds herself invited to the luxurious top floor offices of Figgy Fitzharris III, the CEO of the grand publishing institution. There she is tasked with a mission; to uncover the hoaxer who is sabotaging the newspaper which has resulted in some seriously embarrassing headlines.

As she carries out her investigation from editing suite to printing press, Kate meets an intriguing cast of characters, all of whom are brought to life with subtle wordplay. From Hilda Hoop the fashion editor, through Smarty Jones the sports correspondent to Penny Press the eagle-eyed proofreader, each employee has their own quirks and distinctive personalities which emerge through the narrative and illustrations. Referring frequently to extracts from The Special Correspondent Manual, written by the aforementioned Catherine Rodríguez, Kate demonstrates logic, rigour and single-mindedness to sift the clues and discover the villain, aided by her small but essential friend.

In a week when I have seen and heard reports about the essential need to encourage children to read for pleasure, I can only encourage you to offer Kate on the Case: The Headline Hoax to a child of 7 years+, whether in a home, classroom or library. Although it is the third book in the series it can absolutely be read as a standalone story. I think this is so important as many children in this time of economic difficulty have to rely on libraries or classroom collections to obtain books and very often find that they cannot read a favourite series in the correct order. Independent readers will find this book an utter joy to read, with its short chapters, playful font effects and generous helping of illustrations; if you are an adult sharing the reading of this story with a less confident reader, I hope that you find as much to enjoy on its pages as I did!

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson and Piccadilly Press for my gifted copy. The Headline Hoax was published on 12th January 2023 and is available from all good booksellers.

You can read my review of the opening book in the Kate on the Case series here.

Chapter Book Review: Two Sides by Polly Ho-Yen and Binny Talib

Cover image by Binny Talib, published by Little Tiger, January 2023

This is an absolutely gorgeous book for readers of 5-7 years old, beautifully illustrated in colour throughout with Binny Talib’s distinctive and appealing artwork. Her expressive drawings of Lula and Lenka, with so much emotion portrayed through their eyes, perfectly complement Polly Ho-Yen’s tale of the ups and downs of friendship.

On the surface, Lula and Lenka are polar opposites: Lula is loud, disorganised and a dog-lover; Lenka is introverted, tidy and a cat-lover. Lula loves to talk; Lenka loves to observe and then draw whatever she has seen. Despite their differences, they have literally been best friends forever, as their mothers were in adjacent beds on the day they were born. However, on the day it all goes wrong, their differences lead to the big fall-out. Lenka finally explodes out of her usually reserved persona when Lula, due to her usual last-minute dash out to school, fails to return the precious pencil case that she reluctantly lent her the previous evening. Accusations of selfish behaviour are hurled and despite an immediate sense of regret at hasty words, somehow neither girl can find the courage to apologise. Subsequent pages beautifully and gently show the utter loneliness of a broken friendship in a way that will be perfectly comprehensible to young readers. When the reconciliation comes, as it must in a story for this age group, it joyously bursts from the page!

I cannot recommend Two Sides highly enough. Its subject matter is of great importance to key stage one children, where playground falling out can be frequent and where stories that show the power of an apology and the importance of friendship for general happiness are to be welcomed. The design of the book is wonderful. Firstly it is a perfect size for little hands. The font is clear for early readers, with some interesting text effects. I particularly liked that Lula’s viewpoint was printed in a standard black font, whilst Lenka’s viewpoint was printed in a lighter grey font in sympathy with her quieter character. I have not seen this done in a book before and I thought it worked very well as a device to aid comprehension. There is not too much text on any page which makes it an ideal book to encourage early readers, it would be a perfect shared read with an adult for an emerging reader. I think that this is the third book I have read from the Collectible Stories range from Little Tiger and I know that if these had been available when one of my own children had been in key stage one, this is certainly a series she would have wanted to collect and re-read.

I am most grateful to Little Tiger for my review copy of Two Sides, which was published in this format on 5th January 2023.

Review: Space Blasters ~Suzie and the Moon Bugs by Katie and Kevin Tsang, illustrated by Amy Nguyen

Book cover image by Amy Nguyen, background image copyright free from NASA, book publisher Farshore Books, 05 January 2023

Hold on to your space helmets, Suzie Wen is back for a second action-packed adventure! With foil detailing on the cover, cutely expressive illustrations by Amy Nguyen throughout and fast-paced action, this is the perfect book to encourage 6-8 year olds to read for pleasure.

Although it is the second book in the series, Suzie and the Moon Bugs can easily be read as a standalone thanks to the succinct summary of the backstory provided in chapter one. Readers are plunged straight into the inter-galactic action when TUBS (The Universe’s Best Spaceship) with the Space Blasters crew aboard is forced to crash land on Planet Zorg due to unexplained total systems failure! After hastily evacuating their damaged spaceship Captain Jane, Spaceman Jack, Suzie, Three-headed Tommy and Five-eyed Frank encounter fast growing purple grass and the unsettling replicators as they explore their new surroundings. Thanks to their pre-existing knowledge of the galaxy, the crew realise that they must seek out the knowledge worms who reside in the tunnels deep below the planet’s surface to find out how to repair TUBS. It falls to Suzie and Five-eyed Frank to resume their adventurous partnership, which is nicely balanced between friendly-rivalry and increasing mutual respect, as they venture into the dark tunnels to request assistance from the knowledge worms. The plot includes themes of never being embarrassed to ask questions and admitting and apologising for mistakes which are not dogmatic but enmeshed naturally in the quest.

Katie and Kevin Tsang have written a wonderfully engaging story in which the narrative speeds along at a cracking pace, whilst serving up fascinating science facts and gentle dollops of kind wisdom. The book is perfectly designed for young readers who are building their confidence in independent reading, with short chapters, a clear and large font and plenty of illustrations to break the text into manageable chunks. I highly recommend Suzie and the Moon Bugs as well as the first in the Space Blasters series, Suzie Saves the Universe, as a fantastic choice to offer all readers of 6+. I loved the addition of a new crew member at the end and am looking forward to the next mission, Suzie and the Comet of Chaos!

I am grateful to Farshore Books for sending me a copy of this book in advance of publication on 05 January 2023, in exchange for. my honest opinion.