Upper MG Review: The Lorikeet Tree by Paul Jennings

Cover art by Joy Laforme, published by Old Barn Books 27 April 2023

In the centre of a 60 acre former farm situated on the Great Ocean Road, some distance from the rural town of Warrnambool, stands a magnificent manna gum tree. Housed within its branches are hundreds of lorikeets and a beautifully crafted treehouse which provides a sanctuary for 15-year-old Alex when life threatens to overwhelm him. The refuge provided by this ancient tree sits literally and metaphorically at the heart of this beautiful story, in which the interdependence of all life is sensitively explored.

The story is told through a literature assignment written by Alex’s twin sister Emily. Well-known Australian author, Paul Jennings, has captured the authentic voice of a smart teenage girl as she recounts a traumatic year in her family’s history with searing honesty. In so-doing, he makes the writing accessible to an upper middle grade through to young adult readership, the prose is totally relatable to the intended audience. I loved the device of including the teachers’ comments at the end of each seasonal account.

Alex and Emily’s dad has made it his life’s work to return what was once barren farmland back into an indigenous forest. providing a habitat for native species from blue-tongued lizards, to koalas, fairy wrens and of course the lorikeets. In addition to this, he has raised his twins alone since their mum was killed in a car crash in their early childhood. Emily shares both his passion for wildlife and for writing, whilst sensitive Alex who has a natural flair for building has helped with the treehouse construction. However, the teenagers now have to face their greatest challenge as their once strong and vital father grows weaker from an untreatable brain tumour. Emily’s incredible reflective writing details the emotional journey that her family are on; with honest admission of the struggle of being the “strong” one; her conflicted feelings when Dad appears to go against all his principles to allow Alex to keep a feral kitten and her unspoken feelings towards Matthew, the forest and wildlife officer, who helps them out.

This is a book with a huge heart; compassionately dealing with the impending death of a parent; showing the power of family love and empathy; and reflecting on the oneness of the natural world. I loved the Australian bushland setting and the vivid descriptions of the local ecology and don’t mind admitting that a few tissues were required. I would suggest that this book is best suited for readers of 11+ with no upper age limit, as a middle-aged librarian, I found the writing profound and enriching. I highly recommend to all secondary school librarians and classroom book collections and to anyone working in the field of teenage mental health.

I am very grateful to Old Barn Books and Liz Scott PR for providing me with a review copy of The Lorikeet Tree in return for my honest opinion.

Graphic Novel Review: Surprisingly Sarah by Terri Libenson

Cover illustration by Terri Libenson, published by Harper 360 UK, 11th May 2023

The seventh in the Emmie & Friends graphic novel series, Surprisingly Sarah is a wonderful addition to this series of books for a middle grade readership. For anyone who has read the earlier novels, it will be a joy to recognise many of the protagonists, but this book can certainly be read as a standalone. Part of the reason is that author and cartoonist, Terri Liberman, has innovated with this book in making Surprisingly Sarah a split narrative, with two separate stories unfolding, based on which decision Sarah makes in the opening chapter. This is very cleverly achieved by telling the story from two viewpoints, Sarah’s and her lifelong best friend and next-door-neighbour, Leo’s. To avoid any confusion, the narratives are each presented in a different style; Sarah’s story is depicted as blocks of text broken up with illustrations and speech bubbles whilst Leo’s narrative is presented as a classic cartoon strip. I thought that this hybrid of illustrated fiction and graphic novel was a very effective method for telling the two alternative arcs of the story and one which might encourage readers to try books of a different style to their current preferred format.

And what a warm and insightful story it is! Sarah and Leo’s close friendship is clear to see, from their daily interactions to their shared childhood memories. Although from contrasting backgrounds, Sarah lives with her hardworking single-mother and has a lot of freedom and independence whereas Leo’s more affluent two dads take more of a helicopter approach to parenting and have sent him to private school, they have many shared values and are both surrounded with loving adults. Now aged thirteen, the first wave of adolescent emotions are stirring and when Sarah admits that she has a crush on Leo’s best friend Ben and wants to ask him to the school dance, their friendship becomes dramatically altered. Sarah’s story follows the narrative on the basis that she plucks up the courage to ask Ben to the dance. Leo’s story pursues the narrative that she “chickens out” but the fact of her crush and his knowledge of Ben’s attitude towards Sarah weighs heavy on his side of the friendship.

An interesting, honest, humorous portrayal of young teens with all their conflicting emotions as they navigate friendships, school and the onset of adolescence, I am sure that Surprisingly Sarah will be hugely popular with readers of 10+. It presents a clear message of recognising inner feelings and being honest to yourself; being the best person that you can be; and in the wise words of Sarah’s Mamá “surrounding ourselves with people who choose to love us back.” Highly recommended to primary and secondary school librarians, you’ll have a long reservation list for this one!

I am most grateful to Harper 360UK and Antonia Wilkinson for my review copy in return for my honest opinion.

You can read my review of Remarkably Ruby from the same series here.

Blog Tour: The Pawnshop of Stolen Dreams by Victoria Williamson, illustrated by James Brown

Cover image by James Brown, published by Tiny Tree an imprint of Andrews UK, 11 May 2023

The publication of a new book by Victoria Williamson is always a reason to celebrate, and I am honoured to join the blog tour for her latest MG novel, The Pawnshop of Stolen Dreams. I was entranced by this illustrated, fantasy novel, which I would summarise as Pinocchio meets Sweeney Todd via Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, blended with the author’s trademark sense of social justice. The quirky illustrations by James Brown are the icing on a delectable treat.

The story is set in the little village of Witchetty Hollow in a land where adults have to rent children from Storkhouse Services as no babies have been born for many years due to the pollution caused by the notorious Gobbelino Corporation. The main protagonist, Florizel, has been rented by poor widow Gammer Oakenshaw for the past eleven years and despite the privations of life in their small cottage, it is clearly a loving home. Sadly, the rent charged for children is dependent on many factors, including their academic performance, and when a family can no longer afford the rent payments the child can be coldly reclaimed by the child collectors from Storkhouse Services and redeployed to another family. Florizel, against all her instincts, has to hide her intelligence at school and deliberately fail every test to ensure that she is not on the list for re-collection. Her presumed lack of intellect combined with impoverishment make her a target for the bullies at school. However when the Gobbelino siblings expand their rapacious empire into Witchetty Hollow, she will need every spark of her bright mind to outwit their cut-throat enterprise.

Florizel is the first of the villagers to spot the arrival of Grimalkin, Griselda and Grendel Gobbelino, as well as an escapee from a recycling trailer that is being towed behind their luxurious carriage. Burble is a sack boy, manufactured by the Gobbelinos for families who cannot afford to rent real children. As Florizel is the only child in the village who shows him any kindness, he tells her about “the strangeness” that occurs whenever the Gobbelinos establish their dastardly three-pronged business model in any town or village. As the stakes rise, these two outsiders need to pool their resources to bring down an exploitative conglomerate. I will not reveal any further plot details as I do not with to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of this beautifully crafted fable. It is a delicious feast of a story, with so many layers to savour.

Victoria Williamson is a writer who can transport the reader into an alternative reality with her perfectly constructed characters and settings, lighten the darkness with moments of levity and elicit an understanding of important issues without ever verging into dogma. In this book, Florizel captures your heart immediately with her curiosity, her kindness and her clear-sighted appreciation of her situation and desire to make the most of it. Burble the sack boy absolutely comes alive in your imagination and the Gobbelino siblings are rendered as unscrupulous predators, profiting from the misery of others:

Griselda had her younger brother dangled by the scruff of his neck and was battering him round the head with a lace fan for good measure, when the carriage door opened and a third figure stepped out. At the appearance of their elder brother, the younger Gobbelinos seemed to grow very silent and still.

Despite the stooped shoulders that were so skeletal they threatened to burst through the mottled skin of his dark-green overcoat, Grimalkin Gobbelino towered over them. He was made taller still by the stovepipe hat drawn low over his pale eyes, wisps of white hair escaping from underneath to frame his withered face. The cavernous nostrils in his long hooked nose flared menacingly as he growled, “What seems to be the problem?”

page 17

I thought that the ease with which individuals can be swept up into consumerism, distracted from important human and existential concerns, and descend into addiction was brilliantly imagined for a young readership. The narrative also makes the reader think deeply about the fate of the children of addicts. Additionally, the reminder that unlike Griselda, we should respect and value life in all its diversity rather than rejecting those who do not meet a judgemental “norm” was gently but meaningfully delivered. I strongly encourage you to buy this book for anyone of 9 years and over, it is beautifully illustrated by James Brown and at less than 250 pages, a length that is an achievable independent read for the majority of Year 5 and Year 6 pupils. I was pleased to see that the book is printed on a light cream paper, which I know can be kinder to dyslexic readers. What’s more, 20% of the author’s royalties will be donated to a children’s literacy charity, CharCharLiteracy, in Malawi.

I am most grateful to author Victoria Williamson and publishers Andrews UK for providing me with a review copy of The Pawnshop of Stolen Dreams in exchange for my honest opinion. Do check out the other stops on the Blog Tour by some fabulous children’s books reviewers.

MG Review: The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere by Jaclyn Moriarty, illustrated by Karl James Mountford

Front cover of a middle grade paperback, The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere by Jaclyn Moriarty.
Cover image by Karl James Mountford, published by Guppy Books
2nd March 2023

This quirky upper middle-grade fantasy is the recount, co-written by 12 year old Oscar Banetti, of the five days that he was absent from school without permission. Having been set this task by school deputy principal Mrs Kugelhopf, wise-cracking, skateboarder, Oscar relives his adventures from the moment on a sunny Monday morning that he stepped through a portal in the skatepark and found himself in the Elven kingdom of Dun-sorey-lo-vay-lo-hey! Fortunately, the first person that he meets in this strange land is Imogen Mettlestone-Staranise, who narrates half of the chapters. I loved the style of this novel. Imogen explains that she does not go in for descriptive writing and Oscar has already made it clear that he is not studious, so the story is told predominantly in dialogue, with brisk, snappy sentences and short chapters, ensuring that it cracks along at an ideal pace to keep 11 year olds hooked.

Oscar’s entrance into the magical kingdom precipitates a tsunami of silver which blankets the elves, trapping them in their homes. After a brief loss of consciousness, Oscar is told about the shadow spell cast by the Doom Lantern Witches which necessitates a quest by any elf who escapes the silver, to find nine key holders and re-create the key which will unlock the curse. The only elf who appears to be left standing this time is a young boy, Gruffud, who is joined on his quest by Oscar, Imogen and her two younger sisters, Esther and Astrid, as well as their cousin Bronte and Alejandro (prince and former pirate who now lives with Bronte’s family). The key must be constructed from its nine fragments by 10am on Friday or all the elves will die and Oscar will not be able to cross the portal back to his own world, so the story has a great sense of urgency as the questers race against time. With puzzles to solve, magical creatures ranging from fearsome Radish Gnomes to gentle Crystal Faeries, and a constant nagging tension about who can be trusted, this is a gripping tale. Each of the Mettlestones has their own magical talent, Alejandro’s useful survival skills picked up from his days with the pirates, and Oscar’s quick wits combine to meet the challenges of the quest.

Jaclyn Moriarty writes the dialogue between the child and tween characters with great panache; the witty banter, laced with jokes, cranky exchanges during “hangry” moments as well as pride in each other’s skills and abilities is very convincing. As Imogen reflects:

Father often says that our passionate arguments are a sign of our great love for one another and incidentally could we cut it out at once.

page 293

Added to this is the humour arising from misunderstandings between Oscar, with his high-tech, contemporary Sydney background, and the Mettlestones with their lived experience of a world where witches, faeries and trolls are commonplace and the notion of a boy wanting to carry a wheeled plank of wood is quite incomprehensible! Although handled with such a light touch, this theme of listening to another person’s lived experience and having empathy with it, was a real strength of the book for me. I also enjoyed the conceit of either Oscar or Imogen occasionally reading and commenting on each other’s chapters and I imagine this layer of sophistication will be appreciated by many readers. Amongst the other set pieces that I greatly enjoyed was a lesson in solving cryptic crossword clues prior to a very funny piece of courtroom drama.

At approximately 440 pages, with some gorgeous illustrations by Karl James Mountfield, this book would suit mature middle grade readers who enjoy complex fantasy world building and intricate storytelling. There are three previous books featuring various members of the Mettlestone family which you might want to read to fill in some of the backstories, although this book can be read and enjoyed as a standalone. I would certainly recommend The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere to primary schools for readers in Year 5 and Year 6 and also to secondary school librarians as I think this story would be enjoyed by many children in Key Stage 3. It would be an excellent summer holiday present for children making the transition from primary to secondary school.

I am most grateful to Guppy Books and Catherine Alport for my review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Beat the Backlist Review: Twitch by M.G. Leonard

Front cover of a paperback book, Twitch by M.G. Leonard, standing on a bookshelf.
Cover image by Paddy Donnelly, published by Walker Books,
3 June 2021

A long Bank Holiday weekend provided the opportunity to read and review another book from my #BeatTheBacklist challenge which is hosted by Austine Decker on her brilliant blog.

I bought Twitch as soon as it was published, being a huge fan of detective fiction and previous middle grade novels written by M.G. Leonard, the Beetle Boy Trilogy, and the Adventures on Trains series written in partnership with Sam Sedgman. I am embarrassed at how long it has taken for Twitch to climb to the top of the TBR and can only plead that the number of books I have received from publishers has buried many of my own purchases in the reviewing trolley!

Anyway, having finally picked it up, I devoured the novel almost as rapidly as the blue tits empty the sunflower seed container hanging in my garden! This is an astonishingly good middle grade novel, not only is it a perfectly plotted detective mystery, but the carefully researched and organically interwoven ornithological content makes it uniquely educational. I was incredibly lucky at my primary school in a little Hampshire village (many, many years ago) to have a teacher who was a member of the RSPB and taught my entire class to love the UK’s bird life and I think this book will do the same for today’s children. The idea of using the observational skills of a bird-watcher to turn him into a child detective is brilliant and delivered with all the aplomb that I have come to expect from this author.

Main protagonist, Twitch real name Corvus Featherstone, is an outsider and the target of bullies at his secondary school. He has no friends, but is dedicated to “birding” a passion that was passed on to him by his now deceased grandfather. He spends all of his free time at Aves Wood, which he knows like the back of his hand, and in which he has constructed a living “hide” from which he can observe kingfishers, woodpeckers, geese and the other avian inhabitants of the woodland. As term ends, Twitch is rescued from the attentions of Jack and his gang of bullies by Billy, a newcomer to the town, whom he befriends. The tension then ratchets up another notch when Twitch finds that Aves Wood is full of police officers who are on the trail of an escaped prisoner “Robber Ryan”. Soon the town is full of rumours that £5 million cash stolen from an armed raid on a security van is buried in the woods, and more than one party seems to be interested in getting their hands on the loot.

The plot has more twists and turns than a rabbit track through the undergrowth, with new-found friendships, manipulated betrayals, comic moments and heart-in-the-mouth action. Twitch is an immensely likeable character, his relationships with his mother and his elderly neighbour Amita are full of love and respect, and his journey through the intricacies of human friendships generates a great deal of empathy. The narrative practically flutters with reverence for our feathered friends, as Twitch educates Jack in the behaviour of his local birds and shows him the training routine of his pigeon squabs, Frazzle and Squeaker, so he educates the reader too. In the same way that the Beetle Boy books educated their readers on the wonders of entomology, Twitch and I suspect the subsequent books in the series, will do the same for ornithology. As many before me have said, Twitch is an essential book for school libraries, I would suggest for both primary and secondary schools, and I would also recommend it as a perfect summer holiday present for any child of 9-14 (it would be a brilliant shared read with adults too). I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did and now I am off to track down a copy of Spark!

This review is for a book purchased by me.

MG Book Review: Euro Spies by Lindsay Littleson

Published by Cranachan Publishing, 20 April 2023

Think inter-railing blended with the Da Vinci Code, written for a middle grade readership and you will have some idea of the content of this super-enjoyable, espionage adventure! Lindsay Littleson has written a (code) cracking mystery which follows three tween protagonists and their “teacher” on a whistle-stop tour of European cities, tracking down clues left behind by a missing MI6 operative. At just under 200 pages, this will enthral readers of 9+ who can participate in code-cracking to solve clues, thanks to a short guide to ciphers on the opening pages.

Samia, Ava and Francis (Frankie) have won their places on a tour of Europe through their entries to an essay writing competition and the story begins with them meeting up with their chaperone, Miss Watson, in Glasgow. Frankie and Samia immediately begin to suspect that something is amiss with the trip when they find themselves boarding a mysterious metro train which will take them to Paris, via London. Miss Watson’s odd behaviour, an outburst from train waitress Gabrielle and a scuffle in the corridor out side their bunk rooms during the night, heighten the sense that this is no ordinary school trip! When Miss Watson admits that she is in fact a spy and they are on the trail of cryptic clues left behind by a missing agent, Griff Fletcher, the children pool their skills to crack the clues and evade the neo-Nazi villains who trail them to each new city.

I found this book thoroughly enjoyable for many reasons. The child characters are fleshed out with distinctive personalities and all show character growth as they progress through the adventure. I particularly loved Frankie, a young carer to a mum with MS, who demonstrated the most chivalrous behaviour throughout; brave, kind and supportive to everyone. The fast-paced action is liberally sprinkled with geographic and historical details about the cities visited which would make this a lovely summer holiday read for children whose families might not be able to travel abroad this summer. As the famous Mason Cooley quote tells us:

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.

Mason Cooley

Each time the young agents are en route to a new country, a short quiz appears before the chapter title, adding to the engagement with the story. Teachers, librarians and parents/carers might like to know that there are some fabulous resources available to download from the publisher Cranachan Books’ website, which include a spy’s guide to Europe and some reflective reading ideas. Finally, the action is thrilling, compelling and has some spine-tingling moments but at a level that is perfect for readers of 9 and above.

Euro Spies is a book which I know one of my own children would have loved and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves a captivating mystery.

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson and Cranachan Publishing for my review copy of Euro Spies which I will be passing on to a young reader to enjoy.

Graphic Novel Review: School Trip by Jerry Craft

Cover image by Jerry Craft, published by Quill Tree an imprint of Harper360UK
on 27 April 2023

School Trip is the third of author and illustrator Jerry Craft’s full colour graphic novels featuring the entirely lovable character Jordan Banks. You can read my review of the multiple prize-winning New Kid which detailed Jordan’s life as a scholarship boy at the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School here.

School Trip begins with Jordan receiving the news that he has been offered a place at The High School of Music, Art and Mime; a huge deal for a boy who loves to draw comic books. Before he has a chance to process this news, the school trip allocations are posted and Jordan is delighted to learn that he’s heading to Paris with best friends Drew and Liam. Also on the trip will be Ramon, Maury, Alexandra (Girl Alex), Ashley, Samira (all of whom are likely to be great travel companions) and Andy (who acts in an ignorant, arrogant and insensitive way to anyone who does not share his privileged, white background). Some mischievous interference with the teacher schedules means that the trip is accompanied by Coach Roche and Mr Garner, neither of whom speak French and who are not in possession of the correct school credit card. It looks as if this trip of a lifetime is about to go terribly wrong…until Maury steps up and becomes the lead character in this novel.

I will state right now that School Trip will be one of my books of the year. It is an absolute pleasure to read and being a graphic novel, it is a book which you can finish reading very quickly as you are unlikely to want to put it down once you immerse yourself in Jerry Craft’s brilliant combination of art and narrative. His characters are totally believable, the expressive graphics and natural conversations bring the story alive in your mind and for me the novel certainly played out like a movie in my brain. I love the clever design switch into black and white graphics whenever we are treated to one of Jordan’s life lessons and are able to see his wise reflections on the situations he experiences. There is humour, warmth, and real character growth as students and teachers learn lessons about themselves and each other as they navigate a foreign city.

And then you can dig deeper and realise that this is so much more than an entirely enjoyable quick comic book read, for there are so many lessons that can be taken from this masterpiece. Jerry Craft is very clear about the fact that he has created books that he would have wanted to read when he was younger, featuring African American children at the centre of the story in positive, inspiring, empowering situations. At one point in the story Jordan reflects on the fact that his friends from Washington Heights do not dream of going to Paris because they have never read a book or watched a movie where a black kid travels on a European vacation. There’s an incredibly touching moment near the end where he hands his friend Kirk a gift to inspire him to travel.

There are many examples of racism and micro-aggressions portrayed throughout the story, many of which concern Andy, but I will mention a couple of non-Andy situations that caught my eye. Liam, who is from a very affluent white family, has Jordan and Drew to stay at his house the night before they head to France. His grandparents are sitting on the sofa when the boys arrive and there is the most exquisitely subtle illustration of Grammy pulling her handbag closer to her when she sees that Liam has two black friends in the house. Prior to this, there is a scene in a shopping mall when Drew realises that the shop assistant has not removed the security tag from a shirt that he has bought, but he daren’t go back to the shop to point out the mistake because he is sure he will be accused of stealing. These moments really hit home to me, a white middle-aged reader, the unfairness of being pre-judged because of skin colour and the effect that this must have as soon as children become aware of it.

Inequalities and misconceptions are explored in interesting ways and I was intrigued that even Jordan and Drew were shown to be astonished to find that Maury’s father had formerly been the boss of Liam’s father, the disbelief that a black man could be even more rich and powerful than a white man had presumably not been something they had experienced before. Fortunately for all the characters in this story, Maury’s experience of regular Parisian holidays, his fluency in French and his credit card with its generous credit limit ensures that the trip is a great success; especially when each character finds the strength to talk about their challenges and their desires. The ability to learn from previous misconceptions, to own mistakes and to make the effort to listen to others’ experiences and change as a result is best embodied (for this librarian reader) by school librarian Miss Brickner! In the same way that she starts to stack the library shelves with graphic novels and stories which feature positive representation of minoritised characters, I urge all school librarians and upper key stage 2/key stage 3 class teachers to purchase a copy of School Trip, it’s an essential read for anyone of 9 and above.

I am very grateful to publisher Quill Tree Books (an imprint of Harper 360 UK) and publicist Antonia Wilkinson for sending me a copy of School Trip to review ahead of publication on 27th April 2023.

Blog Tour: Interview with Blackbeard & Other Vicious Villains by Andy Seed, illustrated by Gareth Conway

Cover image by Gareth Conway, Published by Welbeck, April 2023

I am honoured to invite author Andy Seed to my blog today to celebrate the launch of his brilliant new book Interview with Blackbeard and other Vicious Villains. To give you a flavour of the crazy cross-examinations, here is Andy’s interview with himself…

An Interview with Andy Seed

A booky blog post by Andy Seed

As a yakky children’s author I visit loads of schools around the UK and kids ask me loads of questions, especially about my new book. So I’ve made some of them into an interview, right here.

Q: Why did you write Interview with Blackbeard and Other Vicious Villains?

A: Well, I like history for a start. The past is full of amazing people, and great true stories, and shocking events, and wacky ways of doing things. It’s just so different from how we live today. And there were just so many REALLY BAD baddies about that I thought it would be good to meet them and find out why (and how) they were so, er, villainous.

Q: How did you interview these people? Aren’t they all dead?

A: Yes, good question. Death does tend to make people go quiet – it’s not ideal to try and chat to a pile of bones or a smelly corpse. No, I am the very proud owner of a TIME MACHINE called a tranimalator. It handily translates languages too. So, I went back in time and met these dudes while they were still alive.

Q: Ha, you expect us to believe that?

A: Yes. I mean no. But how else would I have been able to get all these interviews? The publishers went ahead with the book, so they had faith in me. My mum believes it. You’ll just have to trust me.

Q: Hmmm, so who did you interview for the book?

A: Right, OK, some of my favourites were: Blackbeard the pirate himself (did you know he never actually killed anyone -he just scared people by looking ferocious); the Roman Emperor Nero (the one who threw people to hungry lions for fun); a con man called Victor Lustig (he sold someone the Eiffel Tower, ha!); and an amazingly powerful Chinese pirate called Zheng (she really didn’t like me).

Q: How do you know Zheng didn’t like you?

A: She cut my arm off.

Q: So how come you have two arms now?

A: Easy. I went back in time with the tranimalator and altered the future so that it never happened! If you read the interview, you’ll see how I did it.

Q: I thought that time-travellers were meant to never interfere with the past or there could be terrible consequences?

A: Whatever. Ha, just kidding. Yes, you have to be very careful about altering history. I mean, I interviewed Guy Fawkes in 1605, the night before he was captured hiding under the Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder. Imagine if I had told him how he was going to be discovered and he somehow avoided that, and he went ahead with the explosion and killed King James I. Britain’s history would be totally different. I think.

Q: Was it fun writing the book?

A: Yes, lots of fun. Dangerous, but fun. I found out so many amazing things. For example did you know that Vlad the Impaler (nasty ruler of Transylvania in the 1400s, famous for skewering his enemies on sharp poles) was sometimes known as Dracula, meaning dragon or devil, and was the inspiration for the famous story about vampires? He said he wasn’t a real vampire, by the way.

Q: Does the book have any pictures?

A: Yes, it has excellent illustrations by Gareth Conway, including a picture of me with my arm chopped off.

Q: Who might enjoy the book?

A: It’s ideal for anyone over the age of nine who likes facts, fun, history, villains, time travel, cheeky questions, shocking crimes and surprising true stories. Right, must dash, I’m going back to 1987 so I can see the last time Rotherham won a football match. Bye!


Thank you Andy for that insight into your efforts to meet ten of the baddest baddies the world has ever known and for asking the questions that are not covered in the majority of school history lessons! I, for one, am grateful that the tranimalator, enabled you to quiz such a fearsome collection of villains with your insightful and impertinent questions and return to 2023 before your timbers were shivered, or you were forced to marry a horse!

I greatly enjoyed the flair, humour and illustrations with which this book provides insights into some familiar and no-so-familiar individuals from the past. I certainly think it will appeal to children throughout Key Stage 2 in primary schools as well as Key Stage 3 in secondary schools and would highly recommend it to school librarians as well as teachers, parents & carers. It’s a fabulous example of enjoyment and education rolled up into one perfectly portable package.

Do check out the other stops on the blog tour this week, hosted by an incredible collection of children’s book bloggers.

MG Review: The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries Portraits and Poison by J.T. Williams, illustrated by Simone Douglas

Cover illustration by Simone Douglas, published by Farshore, 30 March 2023

A thrilling mystery plot, a Georgian London setting and Black history; there is a fabulous blend of entertainment and education contained within the gorgeous covers of this book! Featuring real historical characters but in a fictionalised story, the adventures of Belle (or Dido Elizabeth Belle) and her best friend Lizzie Sancho will grip the attention of fans of historical mystery fiction.

Bell’s voice lights up the pages as she swiftly recounts her backstory in the opening chapter. Born “out-of-wedlock” to Sir John Lindsay, a Royal Navy Captain, and Maria Belle, a young African woman, she has been entrusted to the care of her aristocratic Aunt Betty and Uncle William. She lives with them in the luxurious surroundings of Kenwood House, where Uncle William is the Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice, and has recently been responsible for the “Somerset Ruling” which states that no individual can be forced to leave England and be sent to work on as a slave on a sugar plantation. She has had the privileged upbringing of an upper class young lady and is clearly a valued member of the family, despite the malicious London gossip. This element of the story is based on historical fact.

Belle’s best friend Lizzie is the daughter of the owners of Sancho’s Tea Shop, a popular café and literary salon in Westminster, again another historical figure. She has been brought up amongst the revolutionary thinkers who are fighting for the emancipation of African people, she is fearless, compulsive and rather more direct than Belle. Despite their different domestic circumstances, together they make a formidable team. Their complementary skills are put to good use in piecing together the clues to solve the dual mysteries of the audacious theft of the Mansfield-Sancho portrait and an insidious case of poisoning. As readers race through the short, pacy chapters, they are provided with a wealth of historical detail on the famous artists of the day, the origins of the Royal Academy and the outrageous trend for “power” portraits. One plot line involves greedy politicians, doing whatever they can to ensure that their access to wealth is not put at risk by individuals who wish to promote equality and dignity for all; I suspect that many bright youngsters will be able to spot some parallels with modern day politics.

I admire the way that J.T. Williams has shown that Black history in England did not start with the Windrush generation, and that she has featured individuals of African descent as the main protagonists in a cleverly crafted historical mystery. The illustrations by Simone Douglas are wonderful and very apt in an MG novel in which art features so heavily. I highly recommend Portraits and Poison to anyone of 9+ who might have previously enjoyed The Sinclairs Mysteries, the Jane Austen Investigates books or the Murder Most Unladylike series.

FCBG Children’s Book Award Blog Tour: The Light in Everything by Katya Balen

Welcome to my stop on the Children’s Book Award Blog Tour! 

I am delighted to share a blog from Katya Balen all about her shortlisted title The Light in Everything.

The Children’s Book Award is the only national award for children’s books that is voted for entirely by children. It is owned and coordinated by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups and is highly respected by teachers, parents and librarians. It has brought acclaim and strong sales to past winners such as J.K. Rowling, Patrick Ness, Andy Stanton, Malorie Blackman, Anthony Horowitz and Michael Morpurgo, who has won a record four times. The award has often been the first to recognise the future stars of children’s fiction and has the ability to turn popular authors into bestsellers.

Who will win? Children nationwide are now invited to vote for their favourite of the ten shortlisted books. The deadline for online voting is 12 noon on Friday 12th May.  The category winners and the author of the best children’s book published in the 2022 nomination period will be announced at a glittering awards ceremony which takes place in Central London on Saturday 10th June, and will be live-streamed.

Vote online here – www.fcbg.org.uk/childrens-book-award-2023/

Over to Katya Balen who has kindly written the following about The Light in Everything.

Sometimes I worry that we’re living in a world where empathy for others is dwindling. We speak about being kind, about understanding, about listening to different ideas and opinions. But all too often, the reality is the opposite. If we think someone is difficult or if their views don’t match our own enough, we dismiss them without trying any of the above. It feels like we can have empathy and kindness and understanding, but only if we fundamentally like and agree with the people we’re offering it to.

I wrote THE LIGHT IN EVERYTHING partly as a response to this. Whilst I can’t claim to be tackling hugely divisive issues, the core is the same: two people who cannot for the life of them see what they have in common, and as a result, don’t really extend much understanding or thought for the other’s position. Tom and Zofia are very different, and they really don’t like each other. They respond to this dislike in different ways, as you’d expect. Zofia is brash and rude and loud. Tom folds in on himself – literally, in some respects, as he makes origami cranes to cope with his anxiety. But their fundamental differences stem from the same place. They are afraid. They don’t have control over their lives. They want things to be different.

In writing a dual narrative exploring their opinions, ideas and reactions, I was hoping to show the reader how two people can view the same event very differently and how neither is wrong. I wanted to show how we don’t always have to agree and react in the same ways, and how that’s okay. We can find common ground, we can work to understand. Understanding why someone behaves or thinks in a certain way is the key to empathy, and it doesn’t mean you have to agree with how that person reacts or thinks. But if we continue to reject difference of opinion, we can hardly claim to be an open, inclusive and tolerant society. When Tom and Zofia stop to listen to each other and try to understand, change happens. That’s why I love writing for children – you have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. Children are growing up in this increasingly divided world, but I hope and know that they are the key to change. That’s why being on this shortlist, voted for entirely by children, feels so special. They listen. They care. They want to understand each other. Long may it continue.

My thanks to Katya for taking over my blog today and don’t forget to check out all the other CBA blogposts which have been shared during March on a wonderful selection of children’s books blogs.