#Blog Tour Review: Poppy Loves Devon by Gillian Young

Poppy Loves Devon is the second book in the Crazy Cream Adventures featuring the magnificently friendly golden retriever, Poppy and her “hooman” family. A deliciously sweet tale about friendship, perceived rejection and finding one’s strengths, with a heart as warm as a sunny day on a Devon beach. This book drips empathy which is cleverly anthropomorphised in the character of Poppy and the animals she encounters, opening up recognition of a range of emotions in middle grade readers. For children who love animals and who can sometimes relate to a non-threatening family pet more readily than to their peers, this story could provide valuable insights into behaviour such as sibling jealousy. Other children may not see the deeper subtext but simply thoroughly enjoy a summer holiday read filled with lovable animal characters (and some lovely “hoomans” too)!

Poppy, an adored and adorable retriever sets off for a week of bliss at a farm cottage in Devon with her family; Mum, Dad, Jack and Evie. She cannot wait to have unlimited time to play fetch, be spoiled with doggie ice-creams and explore the exciting new surroundings of the farmyard and neighbouring woods. Her boisterous enthusiasm bounds from the page and her encounters with the farmyard pigs will definitely raise a smile. However, she is stopped in her tracks by the sight of working sheepdog Samson who appears superior and sleek compared to her clumsiness and over-enthusiasm. As the story unfolds, these two canines both learn lessons from each other as their very different strengths bring each of them to realise that they are capable of stepping outside their normal boundaries.

Each of them fear rejection by their owners. Samson is helping to train a younger sheepdog who he feels might replace him on the farm and Poppy thinks that she will be replaced in her family’s affections by a retriever pup that she has discovered abandoned in the woods. As the idyllic week’s holiday draws to a close the reader is gently led through the emotional highs and lows as decisions have to be made. This book will make a lovely summer term or summer holiday read for fans of Michael Morpurgo or Dick King-Smith; it is a gentle story with just a small edge of jeopardy, suitable for children of 8+ who love animals and animal stories. There are beautiful pencil sketches of the animal and human characters decorating the chapter headings. The beach holiday setting will be familiar to many children, and whether you are heading away on holiday or not this summer, Poppy Loves Devon will give readers a relaxing break in the company of a perfect pet.

I am most grateful to the team at LiterallyPR for sending me a copy of the book to review and inviting me to participate in the blog tour. Do read the reviews posted by other book bloggers on the tour!

Empathy Day Review: Wished written by Lissa Evans

Cover image by Sarah McIntyre, published by David Fickling Books,
May 2022

Every so often I come across a book that captures my heart so powerfully that I bang on about it endlessly to those who know me in real life, and purchase multiple editions to give away. I suspected that I would love the latest MG title from Lissa Evans as I am a huge fan of her writing (for both adults and children) and I had read great reviews by two of the bloggers whose recommendations I always trust. However, I really was not prepared for how much I would love it. The phrase “modern classic” is often bandied around – but this story genuinely has all the ingredients to deserve this accolade in my opinion. Reading it gave me the same sense of utter joy that I first felt when I discovered Five Children and It by E Nesbit as a child, one of the characters gave me Just William vibes and the intricately constructed comical wordplay had me laughing out loud in the same register as the Jeeves and Wooster stories by PG Wodehouse. With the deft touch of a writer who is utterly confident in her craft, Lissa Evans has created a story which is deeply moving, wildly imaginative, perfectly plotted and hilariously funny. I don’t expect to read a finer book this year.

There are five main characters in this story, brother and sister Ed and Roo (Lucy), Ed is about 10 and Roo about eight; a boy called Willard who has just moved into the neighborhood; an elderly neighbour Miss Filey, and the most gloriously imperious cat, Atlee. The plot is based on the fact that the birthday candles from Miss Filey’s abandoned 10th birthday party have lain in a drawer for fifty years until Roo lights one of them for Willard’s birthday cake…and their magical power to grant wishes is unleashed. Suddenly the most boring half-term holiday in the entire history of the universe becomes a thrilling journey through a book of fantastical adventures!

The interplay of the characters is absolutely brilliant and the character development over the course of a 250 page story is quite incredible. Ed is a wheelchair user and is clearly not comfortable with the sympathetic comments of strangers or the fact that he has become the face of a fundraising campaign to raise the money to make his family home more accessible. His character is depicted with great skill so that he actually appears as a real ten year old with a complexity of character traits rather than just a two-dimensional figure to raise an issue. He can be quite abrupt and sarcastic, and actually treats his little sister Roo quite selfishly at times. She clearly looks up to him and will do anything to protect and look after him, while he takes her devotion for granted. It takes their new neighbour Willard with his blunt outspokenness to point out to Ed that he should show some gratitude to Roo for everything that she does for him.

Willard is a self-labelled “class clown”. As the son of a vicar he has moved frequently and clearly uses humour to settle into new school environments. Initially, Ed resents this newcomer who might take his position as the boy who amuses the class but they develop a mutual respect and friendship as the story progresses. I really enjoyed Willard’s character; big-hearted, kind and always finding enjoyment in any situation.

Miss Filey is a spinster in her 60s, who has cared for her parents all her life, putting her own dreams on hold for many years. The children consider her to be terribly boring when they discover that she is going to be looking after them for half term, but as they find out about her background and begin to see the girl she once was, they form a wonderful bond with her. The tacit understanding and poignant conversation between Ed and Miss Filey towards the end of the story, where the roles of adult and child are touchingly reversed, is liable to have you reaching for a box of tissues.

Finally, a great deal of the comedy is generated by Atlee an extremely smelly cat of advanced years who exhibits the most acerbic sarcasm that I have encountered in a middle-grade novel. I marvelled at the way his character generated moments of utter hilarity, whilst delivering withering one-liners and simultaneously trying to conceal his genuine affection for Roo in particular. I am not and have never been a cat person, but Atlee is one of the greatest animal characters I have discovered in fiction.

I don’t want to describe any of the magical adventures for fear of ruining anyone’s enjoyment of the perfectly crafted plot. However, I will say that along with the perfectly crafted adventures, I loved the emphasis in the narrative of choosing your words carefully to ensure that there is no ambiguity in what you might say, or wish for. In a novel in which it appears that every single word has been selected with care, I thought this was wonderful.

I have chosen to review Wished for Empathy Day 2022 because this is one of those stories where you get a real insight into the characters’ motivations for the way they behave as the story unfolds, and you also witness the characters developing an understanding of each other, followed positive actions to improve each others’ lives. The utter joy of the book is that it is so astonishingly well written that you absorb these messages by some kind of magical literary osmosis whilst revelling in the outrageously funny story. There is an increasing amount of academic research into the positive benefits of reading fiction for developing our ability to experience empathy; this year’s theme is “Empathy is our Superpower”. Read Wished and you will certainly become an Empathy superhero! I think this would be an absolutely brilliant book to read aloud with children, whether you are a teacher, librarian or parent/carer, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

MG Review: Knight Sir Louis and the Sorcerer of Slime by The Brothers McLeod

Cover image by Greg McLeod, published by Guppy Books, June 2022

Saddle-up for a seriously silly story featuring slime-drones, invasive garden gnomes and a gelatinous monster with a desire for world domination! This third book in the Knight Sir Louis series is guaranteed to cause outbreaks of uncontrollable laughter in middle grade classrooms up and down the land, and don’t worry if you haven’t read the earlier books – there is a handy guide to the characters at the start, so this can absolutely be enjoyed as a standalone story.

And what a cast of characters! Knight Sir Louis is the hero and despite still being a boy he exhibits all the skill, bravery and intelligence of a king’s champion, which is the position we find him in at the start. With his trusty mechanical steed, Clunkalot, and his magical sword, Dave, he manages to fight off an invasion of garden gnomes before breakfast! Unfortunately, King Burt the Not Bad is also not too clever and is rather easily duped by the oleaginous stranger, Squire Lyme, who arrives at Sideways Castle and charms the king with obsequious flattery and a bag of green gummies! Squire Lyme is soon knighted to become Sir Lyme, manages to replace Louis as king’s favourite and sets a slimy and fiendish plot in motion. As Knight Sir Louis embarks on a quest to save the kingdom you’ll meet ogres, witches, a two headed dragon, a slime sorcerer’s apprentice and my favourites; a pair of most unusual librarians who inhabit a LIBRARY SHAPED LIKE A BRAIN! This story is an absolute riot of wacky characters, crazy situations and laugh out loud jokes.

The sibling partnership of Miles (writer) and Greg (illustrator) McLeod has created a hugely enjoyable book to entice a middle-grade readership. Their brand of non-stop action adventure packaged in a highly illustrated style, with very distinctive cartoon-style drawings ensures that their stories are accessible to readers who are not necessarily attracted by long text-heavy books. I think that is it wonderful for upper KS2 classrooms and school libraries to be able to offer this book in their collections, to encourage children to read for sheer joy. Knight Sir Louis is a character that everyone can get behind and root for, he embodies chivalry, never flinching from an unpleasant task and is brilliantly supported by loyal allies throughout. I love the illustrative device of always depicting him with his helmet on so that we never get to see what he looks like, thus every child can imagine themselves as the hero of this story. This is very appropriate as one theme that emerges from the sticky plot is that children are heroes, capable of solving problems and should be listened to rather than dismissed just because of their tender years.

I found so many appealing aspects in Knight Sir Louis and the Sorcerer of Slime that I will be donating my gifted review copy to a local Year 4 classroom where I am sure that it is going to provide many hours of reading enjoyment.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and Guppy Books for sending me this copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Graphic Novel Review ~ Barry Loser: Total Winner, written and illustrated by Jim Smith

Cover art by Jim Smith, published by Farshore, May 2022

For the past ten years the Barry Loser series of books have been incredibly popular with primary school children who love the combination of zany humour, illustrations and easy-to -read text. What better fusion could there be to entice youngsters who might not yet have discovered the pure joy of reading for pleasure? Here’s the answer…to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this award-winning series, Farshore have taken the hapless hero into the increasingly popular format of the full-colour, graphic novel! What’s more Barry Loser has decided to transform himself into a winner!

If you are new to Barry’s world, don’t worry, a guide to his family, friends and rivals is included at the start which will bring you up to speed. This is followed by five short stories, loaded with the type of humour that has many 7+ year-olds in uncontrollable fits of giggles; expect jokes and illustrations on themes of snot, poo and uncompromising pets! I think that classroom and school libraries will need to order several copies as there is sure to be a long line of children on the waiting list for this title.

A feature that I loved at the end of the book is Jim Smith’s step-by-step guide to drawing Barry Loser and his aloof pet cat, French Fries. As someone who doesn’t have an artistic bone in my body, I know that I would have loved this guidance as a child, and just to prove that Jim’s instructions are fail-safe I will even offer you a sight of my first attempt to draw French Fries!

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson and Farshore for my review copy of Barry Loser: Total Winner in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Woodland Magic – Fox Club Rescue by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Katy Riddell

Cover art by Katy Riddell, published by Piccadilly Press in March 2022

This absolutely delightful first book in the Woodland Magic series had me smiling throughout as I anticipated how warmly it will be welcomed by children of 5-8 years of age. The combination of fast-paced adventure, conservation and illustration topped with a dash of magic will totally engage young readers. I can imagine the forest school leader at my old school reading this to groups in the nature area where it would provide so many talking points and ideas for activities; there is advice on creating a wild flower corner or wild flower plant pot at the end of the story.

The Nature Keepers are a tribe of small fairy/pixie-like creatures who live in The Hidden Middle of Whispering Woods. They emerge from their compound very early each morning to tidy the mess left by humans (who they call Ruffins), collect useful natural products and re-wild by sowing wild plant seeds wherever nature has been scraped away. Their ingenious storage warehouse in a maze of old tunnels in an abandoned badger sett is described as “a huge natural museum of the ages” and set this librarian’s heart a-flutter (as did the idea of a strong, expanding bag made from cobwebs).

The tale starts with a pair of mischievous youngsters, Cora and Jax, who are about to embark on their first foray into the Big Outside to prove that they are worthy of becoming Keepers. They are handed their task, their want and their warning by Scarlet Busybee. They must sow wild flower seeds in the bulldozed meadow next to a new children’s play park; try to find some old eggshells and “stay out of sight and not get caught by the Ruffins”. However, the appeal of a super high and fast slide proves too much temptation for these two, and when the Horn of Tyr sounds to warn all Keepers to return to base before the Bramble Door is locked for the day they haven’t even begun their work.

With the threat of being sent back to school hanging over their pointy-eared heads, will Cora and Jax complete their tasks on day two in the Big Outside; and how will they respond to the plight of an injured fox cub when they have so much to accomplish in such a short time? I strongly encourage you to read Fox Cub Rescue to find out. In just over one hundred pages, Julie Sykes has crafted a gentle, enjoyable story which presents its ecological message in a wonderfully subtle manner. Our two main protagonists also demonstrate to young readers the importance of owning up to mistakes, of working hard to put things right, the benefits of teamwork and the importance of acknowledging the contributions of others. None of this is done in a preachy way, rather the themes unfold within the story as naturally as an untamed woodland path. I must also give a shout-out to Katy Riddell’s gorgeous black and white illustrations which appear at regular intervals through the story and the adorable fox cub chapter headers.

I cannot wait to read the next book in the Woodland Magic series; Deer in Danger. There is a short extract provided at the end of the book. I whole-heartedly recommend Fox Cub Rescue to Key Stage One teachers, school librarians and parents and carers of any children aged 5-8; it would make a lovely Easter present – cheaper and more nourishing than a chocolate egg!

I am most grateful to Piccadilly Press and Antonia Wilkinson for sending me a review copy of this book in return for my honest review.

Reviews: Marv and the Mega Robot & Marv and the Dino Attack by Alex Falase-Koya, illustrated by Paula Bowles

Cover art by Paula Bowles, published by OUP, February 2022

Meet Marv, the latest, coolest young superhero in town! In his “origin story” we meet Marvin as an ordinary schoolboy, probably at the top end of primary school, who is hugely excited to be working on a project for the school science fair with his best friend Joe. They are clearly two very bright boys as they have created a robot that can read aloud and it is very apparent that they make a great team. They also share a love of superhero comics and Marvin is excited to see a black superhero character in one of the vintage comic books that Joe has brought into school. He is astounded later that evening when his kind and empathetic grandad sends him to explore an old trunk in the attic; there is the outfit he spotted in the comic…and when he tries it on, it shrinks to fit! Even more astonishing is the fact that it comes equipped with a robot sidekick! Pixel is the cutest robot I have seen since R2D2, and I greatly applaud that she is a female robot character which I have not seen in a children’s book before.

When supervillain “Mastermind” crashes the science fair, Marv needs to put his new superhero powers to the test. I won’t spoil the plot for anyone, suffice to say that there is enough exciting action here to blow any young readers’ circuit boards! I greatly enjoyed the inclusion of a child supervillian, it gave this story a genuinely playful element in tune with the intended readership.

There are many aspects to this book that I loved. The idea of a superhero suit powered by kindness and imagination is top of the list; what a brilliant message to pass on to young readers. In the foreword, author Alex Falase-Koya, explains his desire to create a young black superhero based on his own reverence for a cartoon called Static Shock that he watched as a child. I think that he has created a wonderful character that will be enjoyed by readers of all ethnic backgrounds. The overall design of the book is perfect for readers of 6-8 years old; cartoon style illustrations with a blue palette by Paula Bowles throughout help to break the story into small readable chunks; a large, bold font is used; chapters are short and fast-paced; the book itself is a smaller size that younger children can hold comfortably and the cover art with its blue foil highlights is hugely appealing. Highly recommended for Years 1, 2 and 3 classrooms, school libraries and home bookshelves.

Cover art by Paula Bowles, published by OUP,
February 2022

In Marv’s second adventure we find our young superhero and his class setting off on a coach trip to The Natural History Museum, a scenario that many young readers at the present time may not find so familiar, due to the restrictions on school trips during the periods of lockdown. Consequently, I loved the description of the awe and wonder that Marvin experiences as he steps into the great reception hall for the first time. It is so easy to take for granted our great museums when we have made multiple visits over the years, but the opening chapter actually sparked a memory from my own first childhood visit as a 10 year old and I am sure will inspire young readers to request a visit.

Fortunately, Marvin has packed his Marv superhero suit and his sidekick robot Pixel in his backpack, so when the dinosaur skeletons are suddenly sparked into life by another child supervillain, this time named Rex, he is ready to suit-up and spring into action. As with the first book, Marv is inspired by kindness and imagination. He outsmarts Rex with strategic thinking and is motivated by the desire to keep his friends and the other museum visitors safe.

Author, Alex Falase-Koya, again shows all young readers a positive message as even without his superhero suit on, Marv demonstrates his kindness by befriending new pupil Eva and welcoming her into his friendship group. There is also a sprinkle of smart humour throughout, often provided by Pixel. I really do think that the combination of inclusivity and superhero action make Marv and the Dino Attack an essential addition to Key Stage 1 and Year 3 classroom and library book choices. I look forward to further challenges between Marv and juvenile supervillains in the future!

I am most grateful to Oxford University Press for sending me copies of these two books in exchange for my honest reviews.

Review: Kitty and the Woodland Wildcat by Paula Harrison, illustrated by Jenny Løvlie

Cover image by Jenny Løvlie, published by OUP

The ninth adventure for Kitty, the girl with cat-like superpowers, has leapt onto the bookshelves! It takes our young superhero-in-training out of her usual urban surroundings and into the countryside for a fresh challenge. As always, the new book in the series is a joy to behold, the cover with its trademark black, orange and grey colour scheme with foil highlights, gives a clear indication of the delights to be found within. Jenny Løvlie’s unique illustrations appear throughout the story, allowing young readers the chance to pause and examine the exquisite details, as they take their early steps on the journey of becoming readers.

The story opens with Kitty and her best friend Ozzy using their super senses to explore a woodland as they seek the perfect spot for their families to pitch their tents for a camping holiday. Ozzy, like Kitty, is a young superhero and his owl-like superpowers of long distance vision and the ability to glide silently between the trees with his feathered cape are the perfect complement to Kitty’s cat-senses and agility. Their excitement in discovering the natural delights of the woodland will be familiar to all young readers who have had the opportunity to play in a natural environment. I loved the touch of humour introduced by Kitty’s pet, Pumpkin, showing some discomfort at being in a natural environment rather than the familiar cityscape that she is used to.

The children’s super-senses and desire to help animals in need are called into action when Kitty discovers an injured wildcat who has lost her kittens. This leads to a thrilling night time adventure which will entertain a readership of 6+, featuring just the right level of peril to make the story exciting without being too scary. Themes of kindness, gentleness, acceptance of difference and appreciation of nature run lightly through the narrative. I am in awe of the way that Paula Harrison has managed to keep this series so fresh, producing a selection of stories which always surprise and delight, and which I am sure many children must treasure on their bookshelves.

It is so important to be able to offer children enticing book choices to encourage reading for pleasure and Kitty and the Woodland Wildcat, with its perfect sizing for small hands, ideal length, nicely sized font and thoroughly enjoyable storyline is an essential for Key Stage 1 and lower Key Stage 2 classrooms.

If you enjoy this book and would like to read others from the series, I have reviewed some of the others previously on the blog:

Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue

Kitty and the Sky Garden

Kitty and the Starlight Song

Science Week Review: Beetles for Breakfast by Madeleine Finlay and Jisu Choi

Cover art by Jisu Choi, published by Flying Eye Books 2021

To mark this year’s #ScienceWeek I thought I would write a long-overdue review of this feast for the brain: Beetles for Breakfast, written by Madeleine Finlay, illustrated by Jisu Choi and published at the end of 2021 by Flying Eye Books. This exploration of the application of biological technology to our planet’s future was first brought to my attention in a review written by Anne Thompson, published on her blog A Library Lady which prompted me to order a copy.

This fabulous book is packed with facts and possibilities, encouraging young readers to consider everyday situations and the application of biological sciences to make life on earth sustainable in the future. The science is so compelling that although the book has been written at a level accessible to primary school children, it has engaged a teen studying biology at A level and this health librarian who studied biological sciences many years previously! The short panels of text explain the scientific principles in clear, straightforward language and specific scientific vocabulary is presented in bold font and defined in a glossary. Thus children gain valuable knowledge without being bamboozled by jargon.

I really enjoyed the structure of this book, each chapter takes on a familiar location, for example: At School, At the Beach, On the Farm and has an explainer spread, followed by spreads which delve into the future technologies which could be applied to each topic in increasing depth. The ecological problems that we currently face are explained with great clarity, and creative solutions that have been investigated or postulated by scientists are explored. Every page is fully illustrated in the quirky, retro style of Jisu Choi and there are so many details on every spread that children are likely to return to this book very often to spot new details in every chapter. I would like to congratulate the designer because the text is absolutely readable on every panel of every page, which I have not always found to be the case in highly-coloured non-fiction books.

The opening chapter which discusses the “beetles for breakfast” concept is absolutely fascinating in its examination of future sustainable food sources. I can imagine this topic along with many others (including the many prospective uses of poo) proving to be utterly compelling for curious young minds. Hopefully some young readers will contribute their energies and skills to making the ideas in the “future thinking” chapter at the end of the book become a reality.

Beetles for Breakfast definitely needs to be in every primary school library and Key Stage 2 classroom and not just for Science Week!

MG Review: Diary of an Accidental Witch – Flying High by Perdita & Honor Cargill, illustrated by Katie Saunders

Cover art Katie Saunders, published by Little Tiger Press February 2022

Saturday 29th January

10:30am: Ripped open freshly delivered package to find the second book in the Diary of an Accidental Witch series written by mother and daughter partnership Perdita and Honor Cargill. Admired glorious cover artwork by Katie Saunders, loving the froggy-cabbagy-green colour scheme, and rushed through first quarter of the book. Note to self – remember to include in review just how perfectly the balance between: diary entries, to do lists, school notices, broomstick skills instruction sheets and pen-and-ink artwork works as a device to move the story forward and make reading a pleasurable process.

4:00pm: Returned to book after a day of family stuff, and decidedly non-magical household chores, desperate to find out how accidental witch, Bea Black, will get on in the Winter Solstice Grand Tournament and what costume she will choose for Little Spellshire’s Winter Solstice Tournament.

Sunday 30th January

4:00pm

Peace and quiet, at last! Time to delve back into my book. Well, the quiet bit didn’t last long as I laughed out loud at the “Extraordinaries” (witches) trying to master the arts of “Ordinary” sports in preparation for the inter-school Sports Day. Katie Saunders’ distinctive illustrations of Bea trying to teach her friends, Winnie, Amara, Fabi and Puck how to hurdle, sprint and compete in an egg and spoon race, adding to the joy on every page. Beginning to feel at little queasy at the ingredients being added to the Motion Potion.

Monday 31st January

9:00pm

Time to wrap up the final pages of the story. Greatly impressed at the conclusive events at the Sports Day and resolution of conflicting friendship priorities in Bea’s life. If you ask me, this book is a brilliant addition to the choices available for children of 8+. The illustrated diary format makes it a pleasurable and manageable read for children who are gaining reading stamina, or for anyone with dyslexia, as the text is nicely broken into chunks and uses a lovely clear font. I do appreciate the thought that has gone into producing a book which makes reading enjoyable for children for whom it is not always an easy process. The combination of magic, real life and humour is perfectly pitched to entertain Key Stage 2 children and the message of inclusion and celebrating difference is perfectly wrapped into the plot. I would definitely recommend adding Diary of an Accidental Witch to school, KS2 classroom and home reading choices.

Saturday 5th February

10:00am

Actually found time to sit at the laptop and type up my diary review! Must remember to say a big thank you to Little Tiger Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Agent Zaiba Investigates The Smuggler’s Secret by Annabelle Sami

Cover art by Daniela Sosa, published by Little Tiger Press 3rd February 2022

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Author: Annabelle Sami

Illustrator: Daniela Sosa

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

The History Club Outing to Chesil Bay – Conducted by Ms Loretta Talbot – Your child/ren is/are cordially invited to a historical exploration of beautiful Chesil Bay.

p11

This book in three words: Inclusive Spy Mystery

In her fourth mystery adventure Agent Zaiba once again finds herself with a puzzle to solve, an investigative team to manage and a race against the clock to complete her mission! This illustrated fiction series, pitched at a readership of 8+ goes from strength to strength, with Zaiba growing in confidence and the members of her Snow Leopard Detective Agency increasingly providing the collaborative support she needs for her sleuthing endeavours. 

One of the reasons that I love this series is the way that Annabelle Sami has portrayed inclusivity so naturally throughout the stories. Zaiba is part of a blended and very loving family. Her own mother died whilst on a mission for The Snow Leopard Detective Agency when Zaiba was very young; Zaiba remains very close to her Aunt Fouzia who continues to run the detective agency in Karachi and feels a close bond to her mother through the annotated ‘Eden Lockett’ mysteries that she has inherited. However, there is no doubting the warm, loving relationships between stepmother Jessica, half-brother Ali and Dad, Hassan who all play significant roles in all the stories. Additionally, on the theme of inclusivity, I think this is the first middle grade story that I have read where a character is referred to using the pronouns they/their/them. 

Zaiba is determined, patient, methodical and above all kind, demonstrated in the way she welcomes cousin Mariam who has caused much upset in previous volumes, into the junior Snow Leopard team. In return, Mariam proves to be a logical and confident detective. Once again best friend Poppy’s flair for fashion and drama plays a key role in the investigation, as does Ali’s quick-thinking intelligence. There is enough introductory detail in the story that you can read this as a standalone without having to have read the prior books, although I suspect that young readers will want to read the entire series.

All the young detectives have joined the after-school history club and are excited to be taken on a weekend expedition to Chesil Bay. They are to visit an old sunken shipwreck and see the ancient and valuable artefact that has been found within, which is to be displayed in the local museum before being returned to its rightful home in India. Zaiba’s detective instincts are finely tuned and even before they arrive at Chesil Bay she is suspicious of an old gentleman travelling on their train! The setting of Chesil Bay, with its historical tales of smuggling and ancient caves with rumoured secret passages is the perfect location for this ‘closed room’ style mystery which reaches a crescendo during an amateur dramatic re-enactment of the smuggler’s story. I also enjoyed learning a little more about Zaiba’s mum’s story, which is revealed by a character from her past who makes an appearance.

The author has cleverly blended Zaiba’s school history investigation of TheEast India Company with the ancient artefact from Assam, incorporating themes such as slavery and the necessity to return cultural artefacts to their rightful owners. This is woven through a tale packed with twists and turns, plenty of humour and illustrated throughout by Daniela Sosa. It is pitched at just the right level, in both style and content, for children of 8+ who are ready to read independently but still appreciate images to enhance comprehension and to create natural pauses in the text. 

As a bonus at the end of the story, you get an extract from ‘The Cottage on the Cliff’ by Eden Lockett, which Zaiba has been reading throughout the school trip. Additionally there is a brief history of smuggling and a template so that readers can create their own Scrapbook of Legends in the style of the one that Aunt Fouzia has compiled. 

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press and NetGalley for allowing me early access to an electronic proof prior to publication on 3rd February 2022.

If you enjoy this book, you might wish to check out the others in the series: Agent Zaiba Investigates The Missing Diamonds, Agent Zaiba Investigates The Poison Plot and Agent Zaiba Investigates The Haunted House.