Books for Christmas Gifts 2021

It’s that time of year when I start shopping for the books that increasingly form the backbone of my Christmas shopping list. There has been another fantastic roster of new books emerging this year and we are actually spoilt for choice when entering a bookshop, so I thought I would share some of the books that have stood out for me during the past 12 months and which I will be buying and giving this festive season.

Christmas/Festive Themed

Christmas/Festive themed books 2021

Once Upon A Silent Night by Dawn Casey and Katie Hickey is a beautiful retelling of the Nativity story inspired by a medieval carol, which would make a delightful gift for any pre-school child.

The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent and Selom Sunu is a huge-hearted festive story which absolutely brims over with Christmas cheer, warmth and humour.

The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer is an enchanting picture book which sparkles with the magic of the Northern Lights; in the author’s own words “a miracle of winter”.

Non-fiction

Non-fiction published in 2021 by David Fickling Books and Bloomsbury

Roar Like a Lion by Carlie Sorosiak: a wellbeing book with a different twist, looking at what we can learn from the animal kingdom to help us navigate some of life’s uncertainties. If you know a tween or teen who has struggled with some of the challenges of the past two years, put a copy of this compassionate and life-affirming book into their hands.

How Was That Built? by Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey is quite simply a towering work of non-fiction which will make a fantastic present for curious minds of any age.

Translated Fiction

Interestingly, both of my choices in this category come from Scandinavian writers and feature unconventional stories brimming with wit and wisdom. Firstly we have the classic children’s story Pippi Lockstocking by Astrid Lindgren which has just been re-released in a glorious hardback format with new illustrations in her trademark collage-style, by Lauren Child. A beautifully designed gift for any child to treasure. Recommended for age 7+.

Newly translated into English this year, Me and the Robbersons by Finnish author Siri Kolu (translated by Ruth Urbom) was one of my most joyous middle-grade reads of the summer. An anarchic tale of sweet-toothed, highway bandits on the roads of Sweden, the humour envelopes a beautiful story of acceptance. Recommended for age 9+.

MG Fiction

The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife by Maz Evans and Chris Jevons is a riot of jokes, warmth and love, fully illustrated and perfect for readers who are gaining independence and don’t mind stopping every few minutes to wipe away the tears of laughter.

Mickey and the Trouble with Moles by Anne Miller and Becka Moor is their second hugely entertaining, illustrated, spy mystery in this series, which will test the brainpower of junior cryptographers. An excellent introduction to the world of espionage fiction.

The Crackledawn Dragon by Abbie Elphinstone is the conclusion to her Unmapped Kingdoms trilogy. It is a story brimming with kindness, playfulness and sheer, unbound imaginative brilliance which will delight readers of 9+

The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay is a deeply moving story set during WWII and told from the perspective of both English and German characters. The elegant imagery of swallows flits through this story of the importance of seemingly small acts of kindness. A thoughtful read for anyone of 11+.

Island Adventures

Three books, all set on islands situated off the Irish coast were amongst my favourite MG titles this year, so I’ve given them a category of their own!

Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a treasure chest of heart, humour and hope; a wonderful story which will entertain all the family. Perfect for reading aloud when the generations are gathered together over the festive period.

The Stormkeepers’ Battle by Catherine Doyle concludes the thrilling and lyrical trilogy of the battle for the soul of wild Arranmore Island.

The Way to Impossible Island by Sophie Kirtley is a life-affirming, time-slip novel about overcoming fears and challenging expectations.

Young Adult Fiction

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller is unlike anything I have ever read in all my (many) years as a reader. I actually haven’t written my full review yet as I am still trying to process the insight that author Lisa Fuller has generously provided into her cultural beliefs. I did find some aspects quite frightening, so would certainly say that this is a book for over 16s and not those of a nervous disposition but I’m sure it will also be of great interest to adults who wish to gain some understanding of the culture and spiritual beliefs of First Nations Australians.

I am Winter by Denise Brown is a beautifully written, gritty, and compelling whodunnit perfect for readers of 15+ .

Blog Tour: Bob the Bear’s Adventures by Alice Chambers

Today I am delighted to be joining the blog tour for Bob the Bear’s Adventures a sweet photographic story aimed at pre-school children. The author and photographer, Alice Chambers certainly knows her audience well after a long career teaching in kindergarten and primary school settings, followed by grand-parenthood!

Bob is a very dapper knitted bear who sports a smart waistcoat and wire-framed glasses and loves to climb and try to hide in Alice’s verdant garden. On the evidence of the photos, I would say that Bob is rather better at climbing than hiding! The text is very simple, a running conversation with Bob about his current hiding place, pitched at exactly the right level for toddlers and I can imagine that the chatty style and recognisable settings will be very engaging for young children. There is so much in this book to prompt interesting conversations with young children, awakening their knowledge of the garden habitat and sense of exploration.

It reminded me very clearly of an activity that my children took part in during their first year in Primary School, where a class bear was sent home with a different child each week and through the school holidays. The idea was to take the bear (in this case he was called Barnaby) along to any activities and photograph or draw him joining in with your football match or trip to the beach or Sunday lunch and write a sentence to take back to school. Bob the Bear’s Adventures would, I think, inspire children to want to recreate some of his antics with their own soft toys. Listening to the story multiple times will help with language development and I particularly like the use of prepositions to describe Bob’s locations as these can be a tricky concept for some children to grasp. The Primary School computing curriculum encourages children in Early Years classes to use digital cameras and I could see this book being a useful model for four/five year-olds to try to replicate in the school wildlife area.

In summary, I think that Bob the Bear’s Adventures will be a lovely story to add to home reading collections, pre-school bookshelves and even Reception Class bookshelves.

I am grateful to Helen at LiterallyPR for supplying a copy of the book and inviting me to join the blog tour for Bob the Bear’s Adventures and I encourage you to check out the other reviews written by my fellow book bloggers.

Review: The Lights That Dance in the Night written and illustrated by Yuval Zommer

Cover image Yuval Zommer, published by OUP Books

A perfect picture book to share with young children, especially this autumn/winter when the Northern Lights have been visible to many in the north of the UK, Yuval Zommer’s latest work is an absolute essential for home and school bookshelves. He consistently produces the most amazing books which capture the awesome spectacle of nature through his distinctive artwork and careful choice of simple text.

Giving a sentient voice to the tiny specks of dust that have travelled through the stormy atmosphere to perform the awe-inspiring light display known as the Northern Lights, Yuval Zommer inspires all readers – adults and children to embrace their potential to spread joy. His wondrously rendered artwork shows the radiance, happiness and pleasure that this natural phenomenon brings to a range of creatures; making whales sing, wolves howl…and my favourite, foxes sashay! Every page sparkles with the mystery of the lights and the marvels of the natural world. The human storytelling inspired by the lights is encompassed as:

People stopped to stand and stare, to feel the magic in the air.

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I think that his description of the Northern Lights as “a miracle of winter” can be applied to this book as well as to the festive season and this will be high on my gift-giving list to young relatives this winter and, I suspect for many years to come. An absolutely perfect picture book which I highly recommend to everyone to share with a young child.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott for organising my gift copy of The Lights That Dance in the Night from Oxford University Press in exchange for my honest opinion.

Other books from Yuval Zommer which you might want to share as Christmas gifts include A Thing Called Snow and The Tree That’s Meant to Be.

Review: Once Upon A Silent Night written by Dawn Casey, illustrated by Katie Hickey

Cover illustration by Katie Hickey, to be published by Bloomsbury on 11th November 2021

This beautiful retelling of the Nativity story is inspired by the medieval Christmas carol ‘The Friendly Beasts’ in which the stable animals recount their parts in the story of Jesus’ birth.

In this picturebook, the extraordinarily gorgeous artwork by Katie Hickey accompanies Dawn Casey’s simple, rhyming text. The combination draws you into the story from the opening spread. Here, woodland creatures look across a snow covered landscape rendered in a palette of warm blues and pinks. Their gaze is focussed on a small wooden stable, from which a golden glow shines above the half-door.

Once upon a silent night,

a stable stood.

A star shone bright.

As the heavily pregnant woman and her husband arrive, followed by a donkey, they are dressed in contemporary winter clothing; you can almost feel the texture of the woman’s Scandi-style, woollen jumper. She wonders who will welcome her baby, and is answered over the subsequent pages of the book by each of the stable animals, their faces shining with joy.

I love the way that the natural world and the supernatural, in the form of angels, have been seamlessly combined in this addition to the Nativity canon. Although I have read this as an e-book, I believe that it will be published in hardback and it will make a treasured gift for young children, even the end papers have been produced with great care and attention. I think that it will be a very popular addition to the Christmas story collections of nurseries, preschools, Early Years and Key Stage 1 classrooms where the rhythmic text will be memorised and the illustrations pored over repeatedly.

I am grateful to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic proof copy of Once Upon A Silent Night, which will be published on 11th November 2021.

Picture Book Review: So You Want to Build a Library by Lindsay Leslie, illustrated by Aviel Basil

Cover image by Aviel Basil, to be published by Raintree Publishers,
3rd February 2022

I am always attracted to a book with “library” in its title and therefore requested this picture book as soon as I saw it on NetGalley. Having spent some time looking at library design as part of my professional librarian course, I give So You Want to Build a Library a big thumbs up; author Lindsay Leslie and illustrator Aviel Basil have totally captured the playful, interactive aspects that attract youngsters to the library and keep them returning!

The story follows the vivid imagination, obviously fed by her reading habit, of a young girl who believes that:

There is no better place on Earth than where stacks and stacks of books are kept – the LIBRARY

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…and who wishes to build her own, with an impressive number of extravagant features. As she chooses her location, gathers materials and  friends, including a helpful giant, and begins to build, her whimsical design cannot fail to delight. The simple text is colourfully brought to life by fantastic, full page illustrations in an ice-cream palette and I found myself longing to curl up in the “biggest, cushiest, floofiest chair” with a chilled treat from the sundae bar and a book! Everyone is catered for in this inclusive temple of books, from dragons to teeny, tiny fairies and I’m certain that young readers if not older librarians will be enthralled by the idea of zip lines and water slides!

A charming picture book for children of 3-6 which presents a lovely image of the joy and adventure to be found inside the library and the books within.

So You Want to Build a Library  is due to be published on 3rd February 2022. I am very grateful to Raintree Publishers and NetGalley for allowing me access to an advanced electronic edition in exchange for an honest review.

Review: How Was That Built? written by Roma Agrawal, illustrated by Katie Hickey

Cover illustration by Katie Hickey, published by Bloomsbury 16 September 2021

Today I bring you a review of a stunning non-fiction title, due to be published on 16th September, and I can already say that this will be one of my top five books of 2021! It continues Bloomsbury Publishing’s recent trend of re-working adult non-fiction into a format suitable for both children and also adults who might not have the time to read the heavier text content of the adult version. The author, Roma Agrawal, is a structural engineer who is well known for her contribution to the promotion of the engineering profession and her communication skills make this book soar as high as the skyscrapers she constructs. Her engaging explanations of engineering and construction techniques are perfectly complemented by Katie Hickey’s beautifully precise illustrations. This allows the text to be formatted into bite sized chunks which are easily digestible for younger readers as they are able to read and easily refer to the relevant diagrams.

The language is technical, Roma never patronises her young readers, but explanations are given relating complex engineering principles to scenarios which are easily understood. For example the stresses on a supporting beam are compared to trying to bend a carrot, just one example of suggested activities that can be carried out at home or in the classroom. The book fully explores the multi-disciplinary nature of engineering and construction, within its covers you will learn about architecture, chemistry, computing, geography, geology, mathematics and physics, and their relationship to engineering.

Structurally, the book demonstrates different engineering techniques in the context of a specific building. The challenges of the construction, the materials and equipment used, the geological or geographical hurdles are all examined and a human face is put on the stories with mini biographies of engineering pioneers. For example, The Shard on which Roma worked is used to talk about the challenges of building very tall buildings. The Thames tunnel demonstrates tunnelling techniques; the Sapporo dome is used to talk about constructions with moving parts and the culturally-sensitive Te Matau Ā Pohe bridge shows how to design in an earthquake zone. I have always been fascinated by arches and domes in ancient buildings that I have visited on city breaks and therefore appreciated the explanation of how to build a dome, as illustrated by The Pantheon, a breathtaking building constructed nearly 2000 years ago.

Additionally, there are fascinating pages about construction materials, their evolution and some of the prominent names in their development. Who could have imagined that cement, glass or bricks could be so interesting? The horizon scanning in the section about future building materials also provides interesting facts about biomimicry and robotics.

Text by Roma Agrawal, illustrations by Katie Hickey, published by Bloomsbury Publishing

The challenges of building on ice or under the sea provide two of my favourite sections in the book. The British Antarctic Survey’s Halley VI research station looks like something my children would have constructed from Lego, but has had to factor in so many different elements to cope with the harsh climate of the ice shelf. The undersea Ithaa Restaurant in the Maldives looks utterly fantastic in Katie Hickey’s artwork. Finally, the book ends with an Engineers’ Gallery in which female engineers and engineers from multi-cultural backgrounds are featured, continuing the author’s mission to promote her discipline more widely.

Roma Agrawal is likely to encourage many more young people to consider a career in engineering through this wonderful book. Additionally, she enlightens many more of us in the complexities behind our built environment. I know that I will look with more educated eyes the next time I find myself sightseeing or in a city surrounded by high rise buildings.

I would urge all schools to get hold of a copy of this book. It answers so many of the questions that curious children ask and I can imagine it being hugely popular with the group of children who prefer non-fiction to fiction. It will be a brilliant resource for DT projects, especially the annual bridge building construction sessions. Although it is primarily aimed at Key Stage 2, I wish it had been available when one of my own children worked on an engineering project in Key Stage 4 as it would have provided excellent background information on which to build! If you want to buy a book as a gift for an inquisitive child, make it this one!

I am very grateful to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me a copy of How Was That Built? in exchange for my honest opinion.

PictureBook Review: The Happy Mask written by Aimee Chan, illustrated by Angela Perrini

Cover art by Angela Perrini, published by Little Steps Publishing

This beautifully written and illustrated book explores the issues caused by mask-wearing for the youngest members of society. It is very hard to imagine the emotional impact that having to wear a mask, or being surrounded by mask-wearing grown-ups has had on children who have spent the majority of their lives living under Covid-19 restrictions. I am sure that many will relate to Maggie, the protagonist of this story. She is bored at home, wishes that she could be at school with her friends instead of being “shushed” by her dad when he is on a business call and most of all, does not want to wear her mask. It makes her face itchy and she thinks that people in masks look mean! Fortunately, Maggie’s dad comes up with a simple solution, he draws a huge smile onto Maggie’s mask and from that moment, Maggie walks around the town spreading happiness.

Aimee Chan has a wonderful talent for capturing a child’s perspective and pinning it to the page in carefully chosen description and dialogue. Her simple but impactful text is brilliantly accompanied by Angela Perrini’s glorious artwork. The full-page spreads in this book depict a multi-ethnic and multi-age cast of characters going about their daily tasks wearing the ubiquitous medical masks. I love the blend of facial close-ups, bird’s-eye-view and semi-deserted streetscapes in her illustrations.

This is another essential book for school and nursery classrooms, one in which children can identify their own experiences and begin to discuss and make sense of them.

If you enjoy The Happy Mask, do look out for My Grandma is 100, by the same author-illustrator partnership, which cleverly shows up in an advertisement in one of the illustrations and is an equally lovely story to share with pre-school and early years children.

My thanks to Little Steps Publishing for sending me a copy of The Happy Mask to review.

Review: Harriet’s Expanding Heart written by Rachel Brace, illustrated by Angela Perrini

Cover art by Angela Perrini, published by Little Steps Publishing

The importance of giving children the vocabulary they need to express their feelings has been recognised in this wonderful book authored by Rachel Brace. As a psychologist, Rachel works with families experiencing the pain of divorce and she has brought her expertise to this story. It tells the tale of Harriet, who has “two homes, two parents, two different bedrooms, one school and a pet cat named Ginger.”

Although her parents have split up, Harriet leads a contented and calm life, understanding the different routines in her two different homes but equally comfortable in both. However, when her Dad sits down to tell her that his special friend Emily and her son Cooper will be moving into his house Harriet sees her orderly life being turned upside-down. Suddenly the words that describe her become negative: “worried, uncertain, apprehensive and anxious.” The accompanying illustration on this page starkly emphasises the sudden change in Harriet’s outlook; the change from a palette of warm colours to an entire page which looks as if it has been scribbled all over with a black pencil, with Harriet huddled in a defensive and miserable pose in one corner leaves the reader in no doubt about the impact this news has on the young protagonist.

Angela Perrini’s ability to portray Harriet’s emotions through her artwork is breath-taking. The other image in the book which will stick in my mind is one of Harriet, again huddled in the lower left of the frame, as she sits inside her Dad’s house, towered over by her step-mum’s possessions.

In gentle, clear language the story proceeds to acknowledge that these feelings are perfectly natural in this situation and offers reassurance that Harriet’s parents still love her as much as ever and that she can take her time to adjust to being part of a step-family. This is a great resource for step-families with young children and even has a selection of clear and practical tips for parents at the end of the book. I highly recommend this book as a useful addition to school and nursery well-being collections for children of 4-7 years old.

I am grateful to Little Steps Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: The Rainbow Connection written by Vanessa Parsons, illustrated by Angela Perrini

Cover illustration by Angela Perrini, published by Little Steps Publishing

This beautiful picture book looks at the creativity displayed by so many people throughout 2020 and the first half of 2021 as we were forced to find novel ways to connect with each other.

Focussing on an ordinary family in an ordinary suburban street, the story is told through the eyes of the middle child in a family as “ life as we knew it suddenly stopped.” Each page contains minimal text through which Vanessa Parsons gently unrolls the story of lockdown, which will be utterly familiar to young readers. From the initial weeks of acclimatising to no school and family movies in the evening, to boredom, the home-schooling/parental home-working balancing act and the evening walks, each stage brings back the memories of the first period of lockdown. Overarching these recollections is the theme of the rainbow and the way that its colourful symbol was used to create a feeling of positivity around the world.

The glorious illustrations by Angela Perrini complement the tone of the text perfectly as they are rendered in a slightly muted rainbow palette, perfectly in keeping with the reflective nature of the story. The looks of delight on the children’s faces when they discover the rainbow trail that the neighbours have drawn on the footpath are infectious and young James grinning and waving in the background of his Dad’s video conference made me snort with laughter!

I think that this will be a lovely book for parents and school staff to share with preschool and early years children, to help them reflect and make sense of the strange start that they have had to their lives and education. The final message of making the most of all the small pleasures in life is an important one for us all. If you need any further incentives to purchase a copy: 10% of author royalties are being donated to NHS Charities together AND there is a recipe for rainbow cake at the end of the story!

I am very grateful to Little Steps Publishing for sending me a copy of The Rainbow Connection in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Everybody Has Feelings by Jon Burgerman

Cover art by Jon Burgerman, published by Oxford Children’s Books

This larger-than-life, vibrant picture book, illustrated in the cartoonish style pioneered by Jon Burgerman is a wonderful resource for helping young children identify and talk about their feelings.

Starting with the premise that ‘Everybody has feelings. That’s okay.’ the book continues with each page naming a feeling and providing an example to which a child would easily relate. To aid comprehension every page contains full colour illustrations, with the cartoon characters displaying the facial characteristics which demonstrate their feelings, alongside lots of extra details that will absorb the attention of young children. What’s more, there is a bouncy rhythm to the rhyming text which is likely to encourage young listeners to join in with repeated readings of this enjoyable book. I’m sure my own children would have spent hours looking at the double-page spread of a playground where there is a wealth of activity portrayed, accompanied by the text:

‘I feel EXCITED. There’s so much to do.

I feel FRUSTRATED. I can’t tie my shoe.’

At a time when it is being recognised that children are feeling anxious at increasingly younger ages, this is an excellent book for helping pre-school and early years children to start conversations about the way that they are feeling by giving them the language to express themselves. The cartoon-style illustrations not only make the book fun, they also deliver the message with great clarity to the intended audience.

Everybody Worries by Jon Burgerman

Cover art by Jon Burgerman, published by Oxford Children’s Books

In a very similar format and for the same audience, Jon Burgerman has also written Everybody Worries. This book points out that no matter how tough, smart or brave an individual might be, we all have worries and everybody worries about different things and that it is important to talk about whatever is worrying you. It helps youngsters identify what worrying feels like:

‘Your head might ache and your heart beat quickly, as worries rise like a wave…

…and make you feel sickly.’

As well as identifying worries, practical tips such as drawing your worries, taking deep breaths and sharing your worries with someone are also provided.

I would highly recommend Everybody Has Feelings and Everybody Worries to homes, nurseries, pre-schools and Reception classes to be shared with children aged 3-5. I am most grateful to Oxford Children’s Books for sending me a review copies in exchange for my honest opinion.