Review: Wildsmith into the Dark Forest by Liz Flanagan, illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton

Cover illustration by Joe Todd-Stanton, published by Uclan,
2nd February 2023

This fantasy story is a clever and satisfying blend of fairy tale and ecology. A short read with fast paced chapters and illustrated throughout, it is a perfect choice for children who are emerging as independent readers. It is so important to be able to give children a wide source of reading material at this age and I feel sure that the combination of strong child protagonists, mythical animals at risk from poachers and an exciting plot will entice many readers of 7+.

From the opening line

In the morning her life turned upside down, all Rowan could think about was the race against her best friend Bella

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I was gripped by the narrative and literally did not put the book down until I had finished it. I think this is a reflection on the beautiful plotting which gives children enough detail but allows the space for their imaginations to picture the setting, aided by the charming black and while illustrations by Joe Todd-Stanton. My mind conjured up a sort of mediaeval fairytale landscape, of a palace enclosed by city walls with a dark, mysterious forest wilderness beyond.

When we first meet Rowan she is living a happy carefree life inside the city walls where her father works in the royal stables and she enjoys playful days running around the city and clambering up its walls and towers with her best friend. However a war is raging with the neighbouring kingdom of Estriaand as the threat of invasion comes ever closer, her father sends Rowan and her mother away to the care of a grandfather that she has never met before. Initially Rowan is unsettled by this dislocation into the depths of the forest, but her natural affinity with her grandfather’s wolf Arto means that she soon settles in to the snug wooden house where grandfather uses his healing powers, tending to a succession of injured animals and humans.

On her first exploration in the forest beyond Grandad‘s fence, Rowan soon discovers the source of the strange rumbling sounds that disturb the peace of the forest. A patch of smouldering grass, a broken eggshell which seems much larger and thicker than any she has seen before, lead her to a small, frightened, injured dragon which has been left behind after poachers have dragged away its mother. From this point in the story the unconditional love and care of animals, both real and mythical drives the actions of Rowan her two new friends, Will and Cam.

I do not want to give away any plot spoilers but will say that the level of peril and tension is perfectly pitched for a readership of 7+. The ecological message of the threat of extinction caused by poachers who kill magnificent animals believing that their horns contain mythical powers written with a light touch, but the parallels with real life will not be lost on the intended readership. I think that this element of the story will appeal to the great sense of justice and concern for wild animals displayed by many children. In addition to being a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, I think that this book could be used in primary schools as part of class discussions around animal welfare and protection. I am delighted to see that a second book in the series is due to be published later next year.

I am most grateful to Uclan Publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for my review copy of Wildsmith into the Dark Forest in advance of publication on 2nd February 2023.

Review: Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door and the Mermaid’s Treasure by Lola Morayo, illustrated by Cory Reid

Cover image by Lola Morayo, published by Macmillan

This lovely magical adventure is written by the creative partnership of Tólá Okogwu and Jasmine Richards, who create inclusive stories under the pen name Lola Morayo. It is illustrated throughout the story in cute black and white graphics by Cory Reid; the first thing I admired was his gorgeous map of Shimmerton, just inside the front cover. I loved the style of this drawing and can imagine that it would encourage readers to create their own enchanting town maps.

Shimmerton is the setting for Aziza’s magical adventures when she steps through her fairy door. She is transported from the slightly chaotic setting of her family home, where Dad is packing the car for a family camping trip in less than promising weather! After shrinking to fairy size and growing her wings, Aziza finds herself on Shimmerton’s sunny beach. The mischievous Gigglers are noisily excavating sand for a super-sized sandcastle construction much to the annoyance of those in close proximity. Aziza skips past them to join her two close friends Peri and Tiko at the edge of the waves and there she is introduced to super-confident mermaid, Sirena and listens in awe to her stories of bravery and adventure under the ocean waves.

When the Gigglers’ antics wake a sleeping shell-seeker who has been hibernating under the sand, the very stability of all Shimmerton is under threat. Aziza and Peri are transformed into mermaids, Tiko transforms himself into an angler fish and the four friends embark on a quest to find a magical conch shell which will put the shell-seeker back to sleep and return the town to its peaceful existence. The ensuing adventure is filled with positive messages such as the importance of resilience, being your authentic self and the power of teamwork to overcome difficulties. Readers will also gain a knowledge of an incredible range of sea creatures as the quest plays out. At the end of the story there is a short “myths and legends” summary which explains the derivation of many of the character names from the myths and legends of a variety of countries. I found this utterly fascinating and I am certain that it would inspire many young readers to investigate further. It could also spark classroom discussions or projects around the beliefs or stories and legends of different cultural groups.

The length, illustrated style and short chapters in this book make it a perfect choice for children of 6 to 8 who are finding their independent reading confidence and want to get lost in a charming, enjoyable and heart-warming adventure.

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson and Macmillan Children’s Books for my review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. I will be donating the book to my former primary school library, where I am sure it will be a popular choice.

Review: Breakfast Club Adventures: The Beast Beyond the Fence by Marcus Rashford and Alex Falase-Koya, illustrated by Marta Kissi

Cover image by Marta Kissi, published by Macmillan, 2022

With the football World Cup fast approaching I thought it was about time to extract the first Breakfast Club Adventure from my TBR stack and explore this new twist on the child detective genre. I have to say that I have great admiration for the efforts that Marcus Rashford has gone to in order to improve the life chances of young people, and this latest initiative supported by the National Literacy Trust, is thoughtfully designed to encourage reading for pleasure. It is clear that children who might not naturally be drawn to reading have been considered carefully; the text is in a large, bold font with extra line-spacing; the language is straightforward and the illustrations throughout the book by Marta Kissi are full of humour and warmth.

The story itself, which is co-written by Alex Falase-Koya is one to which many young readers will relate. The school setting will be familiar and the characters that our main protagonist Marcus hangs out with at breakfast club present the opportunity for many children to see themselves reflected in a book. Marcus is a thoroughly likeable character, clearly popular amongst his peers, polite to adults and with a sense of adventure which is demonstrated in his response to the mysterious invitation to join the secret society of Breakfast Club Investigators. Their subsequent amateur detective work to solve the mystery of the monster beyond the school fence balances tension with humour and reaches a satisfying denouement. The sub-plot around Marcus worrying about his “lost touch” on the football field and missing his cousin who is away in the US on a football scholarship fleshes out his character, making him someone that readers will empathise with and root for, in this and hopefully subsequent adventures.

I very rarely review books written by celebrities as I feel that they already receive sufficient publicity and do not require the recommendation of an amateur blogger. I have made an exception in this case because not only has Marcus Rashford fully credited his co-writer but he is also trying to make a difference. In my current day job as a health librarian, it is plain to me that literacy levels have a considerable impact on an individual’s health outcomes and I am happy to promote this initiative, seeking to enhance literacy levels. I highly recommend this book with its positive messages of friendship, family and teamwork as a great choice for boys and girls of 8+. I will be donating my copy to my former primary school library where I am sure that it will appeal to many children in Key Stage 2.

Review: The Little Match Girl Strikes Back written by Emma Carroll, illustrated by Lauren Child

Cover image by Lauren Child, published by Simon & Schuster,
October 2022

Anyone who has followed my blog, or followed me on Twitter for any length of time will know that I am a huge fan of Emma Carroll’s writing. I also spent many hours reading Lauren Child’s picture books, chapter books and MG series with my youngest, so I was obviously going to purchase a copy of The Little Match Girl Strikes Back with the greatest expectation of enjoyment. It genuinely exceeded my expectations! I literally could not put it down until I had devoured the entire story, this is one of the finest collaborations between writer and illustrator that I have seen and I am so delighted that it renders Emma Carroll’s extraordinary brand of historical fiction into a format enjoyable for a slightly younger age group. This re-imagining of the classic fairy tale is perfectly pitched for readers of 7/8+ with short, pacey chapters; lots of white space between the text and those “striking” illustrations!

As you would expect from this author, the story is recounted in the first person by Bridie Sweeney, a young girl living in poverty with her mother and younger brother Fergal in the East End of London in the Victorian era. From her opening statement you immediately get the impression that Bridie has a spark of rebellion and a desire to improve the situation in which her family exists. She is fully aware of the injustice in the dangerous and exploitative working conditions that her mam and the other female workers at the Bryant & May match factory have to toil under. It does not shy away from the direct impact that working with white phosphorus had on the workers’ health and the way that this inconvenient fact was ignored by the factory owners. The research that has gone into this narrative is worn lightly, the tale lays out the stark contrast between rich and poor and the daily grind for survival in an environment where the poorest appear to have very little agency to improve their lives.

Based on actual historical events, this story combines elements of fairytale into Bridie’s story with stunning effect. The contribution of Lauren Child’s distinctive illustrations beautifully highlights the power of one bright spark to illuminate a dark world. Bridie’s flaming red hair stands out on every black and white spread, and scattered throughout the text are red-tipped matches or red flames as the smouldering embers of resentment flare into protests and strikes. I don’t want to give away the ending or too much of the plot, but will simply say that this would make a fantastically inspiring present for any child of 7 and above. I can imagine that it will be greatly loved in primary schools and I hope that it will be received by many children in their Christmas stockings and perhaps shared as a family story. As we appear to be plunging back into glaring economic inequality, its empowering message will perhaps bring some hope for better times.

2022 Halloween Recommendations

image created using Canva

As in previous years I have put together a shortlist of books that I have read this year which would make excellent treats for young readers this half-term holiday as we approach Halloween 2022.

Winnie and Wilbur: Winnie’s Best Friend by Valerie Thomas, illustrated by Korky Paul

Always a delight for children of 5-7, the Winnie and Wilbur series are wonderful books to share with a young child. The stories are fun, Winnie is probably the most colourful and accident-prone witch in children’s fiction and there is so much to see and talk about in every one of Korky Paul’s brilliant colour spreads.

Midnight Magic: The Witch Trap by Michelle Harrison, illustrated by Elissa Elwick

Bursting with autumn colour, the latest rhyming adventure of magical black cat, Midnight, is perfect for newly independent readers of 6+.

Diary of an Accidental Witch: Ghostly Getaway by Perdita and Honor Cargill, illustrated by Katie Saunders

In the latest outing for Bea Black, she and her friends take off from Little Spellshire’s School of Extraordinary Arts to participate in a school trip to Cadabra Castle, allegedly haunted by the ghost of High Master Maggitty Crawe! This wonderfully funny story has been designed with extra care to increase accessibility for dyslexic readers.

The October Witches by Jennifer Claessen

Magical, feminist refashioning of the Arthurian legend. A pacy story of witchy family feuds, perfect for readers of 9+.

Ghost Scouts series written and illustrated by Taylor Dolan

A funny, fully illustrated series of books set in a fabulously spooky summer camp, deep in the swamps of the southern states of America. A certain Halloween treat for readers of 9+.

The Mummy’s Curse by M.A. Bennett

Ever wondered about the origins of the curse of King Tut? Well this rollicking time-travel adventure will take you back to the discovery of his tomb, 100 years ago and reveal all. A spine-tingling adventure, perfect for confident readers of 9+

Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor, illustrated by George Ermos

Experience your first Halloween in Eerie-on-Sea with Herbert Lemon and Violet Parma as they uncover the secrets of the spooky seaside town’s Ghastly Night! Fantastically paced and plotted adventure for readers of 9+.

The Haunted Hills by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

The wild landscape of the Peak District is the setting for this tale of grief, loss and guilt. As a family’s attempts to recover from a fatal accident is interwoven with the legend of a local ghost. A sensitive, beautifully written story for readers of 11+.

The Billow Maiden by James Dixon, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

Another sensitively crafted tale, this is set on a remote Scottish island where a young teen is being sheltered by her uncle and aunt while her mother recovers from what appears to be a mental health crisis. This story is interwoven with the discovery of a terrifying mythical creature in one of the island’s caves. The Norse legend combined with modern setting are perfect for readers of 11+.

Ghostlight by Kenneth Oppel

Boy meets ghost in this brilliantly written and imagined coming of age story, set in and around Toronto. This is a book which will absolutely transport readers of 11+ into an alternative reality where ghosts battle for dominance over humans in a setting which will be unusual and educational for many UK based readers.

Review: The Missing Bookshop by Katie Clapham, illustrated by Kirsti Beautyman

Cover illustration by Kirsti Beautyman, published by Little Tiger Press, October 2022

This gentle tale about the importance of stories is a perfect choice for Year 2 and 3 classrooms and primary school libraries, offering newly independent readers a book which is enjoyable and satisfying to read. The 84 pages are illustrated in full colour, pages are not too text heavy and an interesting range of font effects are used to help young readers recognise where emphasis should be placed.

I love the distinctive illustrations by Kirsti Beautyman, which along with the muted colour palette, convey the thoughtful nature of Katie Clapham’s story. And oh my goodness, what a gorgeous story this is! A heartwarming paean to the joys of shared stories, it tells of a young child’s distress at finding that her favourite bookshop has closed down and her attempt, taken up by the wider community, to revive a place which holds a multitude of fond memories. It fully captures that magical space where stories are shared between adults and children and the importance of that experience that remains embedded deep in our consciousness. It is a positive, hopeful tale that a new reader would enjoy reading alone, or even better, reading aloud to an adult.

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Press for sending me a copy of The Missing Bookshop in exchange for an honest review.

#MGReview: Edie and the Flits in Paris by Kate Wilkinson, illustrated by Joe Berger

cover image by Joe Berger, published by Piccadilly Press,
1st September 2022

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this charming story which captured the excitement and elegance of a first visit to Paris as a backdrop to an intriguing adventure. The very best children’s books, in my opinion, enrapture readers with the story but also leave you with some extra nuggets of knowledge, whether that is insight into a particular problem or situation, or new facts to help build an understanding of the world. In this case, author Kate Wilkinson totally immerses the reader into the Paris setting of the adventure. Appropriately for a story in which noticing the little things is of prime importance, her precise descriptions of the city’s architecture and especially the Metro stations enables her readers to picture themselves in the heart of the city, which I feel is a wonderful gift to children who might not be lucky enough to travel to Paris in person. She really does impart a love for the features that characterise Paris, from the metal café furniture to the fantastic displays in the window of a patisserie.

Edie and her father have been fortunate to receive an invitation from Madame Cloutier, the Directrice of the Paris Metro Lost Property Office for an expenses-paid trip as a result of their adventures in book one, Edie and the Box of Flits. Edie is ecstatic when she discovers that best friend Naz can accompany them, although less happy when Dad extends the invitation to Naz’s incredibly irritating little sister Sami. When the two older girls realise that Sami has smuggled three of the English Flits; Pea, Impy and Nid, through the Channel Tunnel in her backpack, they are furious at her for endangering the little people. Sami’s behaviour is particularly stressful for Edie and causes her to be quite rude to Fabien, the grandson of Madame Cloutier, who it transpires has his own bond with the Volettes, as French Flits are known.

Unfortunately, Fabien is not the only Parisian to be aware of the Volettes. Famous artist, Victor Rottier, with his icy blue eyes, crocodile skin boots and artworks featuring dead animals under glass domes, also seems to be aware of their presence and when the children discover the secret of his planned “Grande Révélation” they must work as a team to disrupt his foul scheme. The tension builds beautifully as children and Flits collaborate in a tale woven through with insight and magic.

I loved the chapter headings with their underground map design and station-related titles. The gray-scale illustrations by Joe Berger appear at key moments in the text adding to the drama of the narrative; Victor Rottier’s depiction is alarmingly villainous! At the end of the story there are fabulous facts about both the London Underground and the Paris Metro. I cannot recommend this story highly enough for anyone of 8+, I am sure that it will be a popular choice in Key Stage 2 classrooms and primary school libraries. With half-term arriving, put this story into the hands of a young reader and let them travel by book this holiday period!

I am most grateful to Piccadilly Press and Antonia Wilkinson for my gifted copy of Edie and the Flits in Paris in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Woodland Magic Deer in Danger by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Katy Riddell

cover image by Katy Riddell, published by Piccadilly Press, September 2022

This second book in the Woodland Magic series is every bit as delightful as the first, which I previously reviewed here: Woodland Magic Fox Cub Rescue. It again features Cora and Jax as the two main protagonists, with them trying once more to become fully trained Keepers but struggling to stick to the task they have been set!

If you have not read the first book in the series, don’t worry because in the first chapter author Julie Sykes includes a brief recap on the role of the tiny Keepers who live in the centre of Whispering Woods and venture into the Big Outside to tidy up and rewild when the Ruffins are not around. With their cobweb bags full of seeds, they venture out into the human-inhabited world before dawn and after dusk, sprinkling the barren earth with wild seeds and a touch of woodland magic to restore the balance of nature. They are always on the lookout for natural treasures to take back to the head Keeper for use in their community, thereby making young readers stop and observe the beauty of the natural world through their eyes:

They were black and white with a shimmery line of blue.

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This is Cora’s observation of the magpie feathers she has found.

When Cora and Jax are tasked with creating a hedgehog highway through the garden fences of a newly built housing estate, the race is on to finish the task before the workmen return to their bulldozers and tractors. What will they do when a young deer bounces out of the woods and gets into trouble in a deep trench?

I love the concept and execution of these stories. Deer in Danger, like its predecessor provides a gentle discovery of the natural environment that can be so easy to take for granted. The Keepers’ veneration of nature makes readers see flower petals, British wildlife and the natural landscape through fresh eyes. Cora and Jax, as well as their friends Trix and Nis are recognisably cheeky, curious and lovable characters who have to fight the urge to mess around in order to complete the important work they are tasked with. They demonstrate great teamwork and support for each other in this engaging and heartwarming story. At just over 100 pages, printed in a slightly enlarged font and illustrated throughout with Katy Riddell’s beautiful greyscale artwork, Woodland Magic Deer in Danger is a perfect book to encourage emerging young readers to complete an independent read and thus gain satisfaction in their new found skill. Highly recommended for children of 7-9 years of age.

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson and Piccadilly Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Diary of an Accidental Witch-Ghostly Getaway by Perdita & Honor Cargill, illustrated by Katie Saunders

Cover image by Katie Saunders, published by Little Tiger Press, August 2022

Bea Black is back and she is no longer feeling like the “new girl” as the new academic year begins at Little Spellshire’s School of Extraordinary Arts! She has managed to integrate her magical friends with non-magical best friend and next-door-neighbour Ash and is still managing to conceal the truly extraordinary arts that she is learning at school from her Dad!

In this, her third adventure, Bea only occasionally betrays her lack of knowledge of the witchy world. For example, she is the only pupil who doesn’t know that the new Geography mistress, Dr Pellicano is famous for flying around the world on a broomstick! However, she becomes just as excited as her classmates about the prospect of the upcoming school trip. When the destination is revealed as Cadabra Castle, she is less worried about the rumour of it being haunted than she is by the prospect of her Dad finishing his book Understanding Little Spellshire’s Most Peculiar Microclimate whilst she is away, and the sudden knowledge that this might initiate a move away from the magical town where she feels so at home.

With Ash prepped to take over author-distraction duties, Bea sets off with her classmates for a week of fun and magical adventure, whilst Headteacher Ms Sparks and “upside down exclamation mark” Dr Pellicano hope that Cadabra Castle’s history as the home of witchy cooperation will have a unifying effect on disorderly Year Seven! Will the prospect of staying in a hexagonal castle room with a four poster bed outweigh the prospect of encountering the ghost of High Master Maggitty Crawe? Will Year Seven ever learn to bond? Will Bea and arch-rival Blair survive a night-time challenge together? Get your hands on a copy of Ghostly Getaway and prepare to be thrilled!

I know that the Diary of an Accidental Witch series is hugely popular in schools and it is not hard to see why. Firstly, they are outstandingly enjoyable to read with beautifully observed storylines which any Key Stage 2 child can relate to, filled with everyday dilemmas and laugh out loud humour. On top of this you have the Witch School setting with just enough peril and tension to keep you turning the pages, but no darkness or deep scares to frighten children who have a nervous disposition. The distinctive black and white illustrations by Katie Saunders add to the charm of the story and alongside the diary format, break up the text into manageable chunks which makes reading an enjoyable experience for children who are emerging as independent readers. Little Tiger Press have gone a step further by using a clear font and extra line spacing which is very helpful for dyslexic readers. The playful text effects also help young readers decide which words to emphasise when reading aloud. In my opinion, Perdita and Honor Cargill have once again written a hugely enjoyable story, filled with heart and a lovely underlying message of discussing your worries, which I would recommend to all readers of 7 and above.

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Press for my gifted copy of Diary of an Accidental Witch-Ghostly Getaway in return for my honest opinion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For the Universe!”

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