#20BooksofSummer Book 3: Kidnap on the California Comet by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrator Elisa Paganelli

This is the third of my #10BooksofSummer reviews, an event hosted by Cathy on her 746Books.com blog, do read her posts and those of all the other wonderful book bloggers joining the challenge this year.

Having loved the first Adventures on Trains book, I was delighted to be approved by NetGalley to read an eARC of Kidnap on the California Comet. Once again a rollicking adventure unfolds as Hal and his Uncle Nat rattle and clatter their way across an iconic train route.

Travel journalist, Nathaniel Bradshaw, has been personally invited to cover a press conference at which billionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur, August Reza, will unveil his latest innovation. Mr Reza shares Nat’s love of trains and has his own luxuriously refurbished 1940s observation car, Silver Scout, hitched to the California Comet. The press conference is due to be staged at the Durham Museum, once one of the country’s busiest train hubs but now a train museum, in Omaha.

Hal is delighted to accompany Uncle Nat on this rail trip of a lifetime,  a three-day adventure from Chicago to San Francisco and despite his jet-lag he doesn’t hesitate to start recording his journey in his sketchbook as he waits in the grand surroundings of Union Station, Chicago to board the train. He soon makes friends with a brother and sister, Mason and Hadley, who are roughly his age, not realising that their special talents for magic and impersonation will be of great use in unravelling another mystery.

As the train picks up pace across the broad expanse of the American plains, Hal feels a growing sense of unease, sensing an undercurrent of subterfuge. Why does Ryan, the teenager with elaborate dental brace-work appear so terrified of his gym-coach father that he tries to pass on a coded message? Why is Vanessa Rodriguez in the roomette opposite so brusque? Is glamorous journalist Zola trying to steal his uncle’s story? Are there really spies from Reza’s rival company Zircona on board the train, and would they stoop low enough to kidnap Marianne, his twelve-year-old daughter? Is Seymour Hart, the businessman with a metal suitcase clamped to his side at all times, training in stolen secrets?

Like its predecessor, this book is infused with a love of rail travel and trains. The story glides through technical details and descriptions as smoothly as service in a first class carriage, leaving the reader satiated with knowledge.  This time there is also a palpable sense of the conflict between nostalgia for old technologies, such as Uncle Nat’s fountain pen and the glamorous 1940s style train carriages, and the desire to embrace new technologies whilst thinking about their impact on the environment.

The illustrations by Elisa Paganelli throughout are an absolutely integral part of the story as they represent Hal’s finely detailed observations. His insightful sketches are the method through which he details the world around him and the basis for his crime-solving conclusions. 

This book will be devoured by young readers looking for an engrossing adventure to read for pleasure. However, I can also see many ways in which it could be used as a class reader to sit alongside curriculum project work: the Americas geography unit, DT/STEM work on design of transport and as a basis for discussions on clean energy and environmental concerns. In summary I highly recommend Kidnap on the California Comet to anyone of 8/9+.

Thank you to #NetGalley and Macmillan Children’s Books for approving my eARC request.

My review of the first book in the series, The Highland Falcon Thief can be found here.

#20BooksofSummer Book 2: Super Stan by Elaine Wickson, illustrated by Chris Judge

This is the second of my #10BooksofSummer reviews, as I am attempting the cut-down version of #20BooksofSummer hosted by Cathy at 746books.com.

What do you get if you mix a five-year-old eco-warrior, a space-obsessed ten-year-old, a school full of kids dressed as sea creatures and enough fart jokes to make their own contribution to global warming? Yes, it can only be the latest utterly hilarious outing for Stan and Fred Fox. In their third book they are on a mission to save the world, one crisp packet at a time. I absolutely adore the series of Stan books. Author Elaine Wickson has conjured a dazzling concoction of brilliantly comic tales, which feature wonderfully original data representation, illustrated by Chris Judge. This time she has blended an important ecological theme into the story, presented in such a way that it is guaranteed to encourage primary school children to continue their own contribution to showing adults the error of their ways.

Stan wants nothing more than to read his space magazines in the peaceful surroundings of his room and prepare himself for the approaching full solar eclipse. Unfortunately his is side-tracked by permanently-sticky, little brother Fred, who has had his imagination captured by Dr Alice Fielding (or as he calls her, Dr Feddup). Her Plastic Planet TV series has awakened his inner eco-warrior. Fred’s first reaction to hearing about the waste plastic being swallowed by whales and other sea creatures is to empty the multi-packs of crisps into the supermarket aisles thereby allowing customers to purchase their crisps without the unnecessary packaging! At home things are not much better as he constantly replaces his family’s toothbrushes with twiggy sticks, often with the caterpillars still attached!

Fortunately he initiates a more positive campaign to resurrect the town’s central drinking fountain, aiming to provide free water for all residents and eliminate the need for plastic water bottles. With backing from headteacher Mrs Riley and big brother Stan’s presentation skills, Fred starts the “School of Fish” initiative to raise awareness and funds. Dressed as a giant pink prawn to highlight the plight of the crustaceans contaminated with plastic micro-particles, Fred inspire his entire school, and will likely inspire young readers to take their own small actions to save the planet.

I really don’t want to give away too many plot details, but this story is incredibly clever in its co-ordination of the dance of the celestial bodies, the side-plot of Gran’s forthcoming marriage to her Salsa teacher, the filial love between Fred and Stan and the momentum that one young King Prawn Supermarket Vandal can create. Throw into the mix a hideously ignorant radio DJ and his “toadally awesome” competition; a celebrity eclipse-chaser on a book tour; relatives with an addiction to conspicuous consumption and you have a story that twists through so many laugh-out-loud scenes that your cheeks will be aching with laughter before you reach the marvellously satisfying conclusion.

I highly recommend that you add this to your #SillySquad2020 reading list for the summer reading challenge. Beyond this, add it to the Stan collection on your library, classroom or home bookshelves to both read for pleasure and to generate data representation ideas.

Thank you to OUP Children’s Publishing for my review copy.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Scoop McLaren Detective Editor by Helen Castles

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

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: Helen Castles

Illustrator: Beatriz Castro

Publisher: New Frontier Publishing UK

Favourite sentence from page 11: “I whipped out my phone (that Dad said I’m only supposed to use in emergencies) and googled ‘antigen’.

Three words: Detective – Editor – Mystery

This is a perfect introduction to mystery stories for lower KS2 readers with a feisty lead female protagonist and unusually, manages to combine a technology-driven modern day plot with a nostalgic, small-town feel. My original review, which includes an interview with the author Helen Castles, can be read here.

A second book in the series should appear in October, release has been delayed for obvious reasons. I cannot wait to read it!

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by Victoria Williamson

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

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 recomment this book, or link to your review.

Author: Victoria Williamson

Illustrator: I’m sorry, but my Kindle does not have this information

Publisher: Kelpies, an imprint of Floris Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: Yet again, I am probably bending the rules in this section! I lent my physical copy to someone before lockdown, so I only have my Kindle version to refer to, therefore I will use a quote from 11% as my Kindle will not allow me to search for page numbers! This quote encapsulates the plight of Reema, devastated by the separation from her beloved brother on the journey to the UK, and now bearing a huge weight of responsibility on her young shoulders as her family adapt to life as refugees on a Glasgow housing estate.

“Now that Jamal, with his expensive education and fluent English, is no longer with us, I am the only one who can speak for my family in halting foreign words.”

This book in three words: Alienation – Empathy – Friendship

In the week that we have marked #EmpathyDay I am giving a backlist shoutout to a beautifully written, powerful and moving story which charts the development of a friendship between two very different girls on a housing estate in Glasgow. I have lost count of the number of times that I have recommended this book! You can read my original review here.

Review: Do You Know Me? by Rebecca Westcott and Libby Scott

Do You Know Me? book cover, published by Scholastic

This incredibly moving and thought-provoking novel is a collaboration by Teacher/Author Rebecca Westcott and teenager Libby Scott, who is autistic. The power of Libby’s voice, expressed through the diary entries of protagonist Tally, calls out to all readers to empathise with those who have so much to teach us about neurological difference.

Twelve year-old Tally has suffered from bullying previously in the school year and now faces the prospect of a week-long Year 7 residential trip, which she has only considered attending because Mrs Jarman, her trusted, understanding Drama teacher will be there. In the preceding week’s assembly Mrs Jarman says:

“You’ll be learning to face your fears. You’ll discover that strength and courage come in many forms, and most of all, you’ll learn that your are capable of doing far more than you ever thought you could.”

Unfortunately for Tally she has to start learning these lessons immediately as at the last minute Mrs Jarman cannot attend the camp, and instead of sharing accommodation with her kind best friend Aleksandra, she is allocated a cabin with three of the girls who have bullied her previously and two girls from another school. Of these two strangers, she realises that Skye is the kind of “popular” girl that everyone is afraid to cross despite her appalling behaviour, and the other Jade is an outsider with many similarities to herself.

As the week’s activities and dramas unfold, your eyes are opened to the incredible challenges faced by people with autism as Tally tries to mask some of her behaviours, avoid stimming and read the vocal and facial signals of strangers which are often incomprehensible to her. The bullying plot is crafted beautifully to examine the behaviour of all the teenagers and to show the gradual acceptance and celebration of differences. It is not only Tally who discovers strength and courage during the week.

This is an absolutely essential book for everyone working in schools to help gain empathy for those with autism and also general tween and teenage behaviour. I would highly recommend it as a story for Year 6 pupils in preparation for their transition to secondary school as it would spark many discussion points about what to expect and how to deal with new situations for the entire cohort. I loved the portrayal of Tally’s family, demonstrating the gentle, choice-giving manner with which those with autism need to be treated, whilst also recognising the stresses and frustrations felt by the entire family. The scene where Tally is expected to open her twelfth birthday presents, with its palpable feeling of tension taught me a valuable lesson in empathy which I am determined to remember.

An absolutely essential book to add to any school library. I am most grateful to my fellow members of the Primary School Book Club for voting for Do You Know Me? as May’s book choice!

#20BooksofSummer Book 1 Dragon Detective: School’s Out! by Gareth P Jones

The second dragon detective mystery is every bit as enjoyable as the first in the series (you can read my review here), with a great cast of characters (I loved the portrayal of vain and venal headteacher Principal Palmer), sublime plotting and wry sense of humour. Some characters from Catnapped!, such as evil dragon Vainclaw Grandin and his inept human henchmen Arthur and Reg re-appear, but you could easily read and enjoy School’s Out! as a standalone story. The illustrations throughout by Scott Brown add to its charm, particularly the singed page corners.

After almost derailing her stepmother’s political ambitions following a late night incident involving blazing dragons, Holly Bigsby now finds herself incarcerated at William Scrivener School for children of the ridiculously rich and phenomenally famous. Smart, independent Holly will not rest until she has figured out a way to foil the high tech security systems and return to her best friend in London. Meanwhile Dirk Dilly, her red-backed, green-bellied, urban-based, mountain dragon private eye friend has been hired by a worried wife to investigate her professor husband’s unusual and alarming behaviour.

Dirk’s investigations lead him to a hideout in the thick forest surrounding Holly’s school. The sleuthing friends find themselves caught up in the middle of another of Grandin Vainclaw’s fiendish plots involving secret high-tech weapons, squabbling tree dragons with a hilariously mangled sense of the English language, the prime minister’s delusional son and a school concert of grand drama.

Huge fun for both child and adult readers, this book is a must-read for an audience of 8+. Author Gareth P Jones packs so much into 250 pages, with a wry sense of humour and fabulously imaginative plot, I even spotted a reference to A Little Princess in the early stages. Dragon Detective: School’s Out! is a perfect addition to any school library and one to add to recommended reading lists for this summer’s #SillySquad2020 Reading Challenge. I guarantee that the dialogue between the tree dragons:

I’m sure he’ll comprestand us mistaccidentally schmunching a member of his family.”

will definitely raise a smile if you are lucky enough to read this book aloud to a young audience.

You can register to join the reading challenge at sillysquad.org.uk

My thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This is book 1 of my #10BooksofSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746Books.com, do check out her wonderful blog.

Image created by Cathy at 746books.com and used with permission.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on the brilliant Book Craic blog.

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 recomment this book, or link to your review.

Author: Katherine Rundell

Illustrator: Cover art based on design by Antigone-konstantinidou.com

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This is part of a description of Charles Maxim: “But he had kindness where other people had lungs, and politeness in his fingertips.”

This book in three words: Kindness – Paris – Adventure

Again this week I am using this feature to revisit a book published a few years ago (in 2013) which I absolutely love and consider to be a modern-day classic! My original review of Rooftoppers written last year can be read here.

#20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 246 Books

10 books of summer
Image created by Cathy at 746books.com and used with permission.

I am excited to take part in the #20BooksofSummer Challenge hosted by Cathy  at 246books.com for the second year running.

Learning from my experience of last year, when I managed to read 18 books, but failed miserably to keep up with the reviews, I am going to set myself the modest target of 10 books this summer! I have definitely lost by ability to concentrate since the Covid-19 crisis began and although books offer a great deal of comfort, I definitely cannot read as quickly as I used too. Additionally, I intend reading two long books (The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantelland Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell) this summer which I will not be reviewing as my blog focuses solely on books for primary school-aged children.

So, here it is; one summer, three months, 93 days, 10 books! Thank you Cathy for hosting!

10 books from my TBR stack to be read and reviewed this summer. Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens will be published in August, I will drop everything to read it the day it appears!!

Book Review: The Humble Mayor of Grumble by Hilary Robinson and Steven Johnson

Illustration by Steven Johnson, used with permission.

Since the earliest days humans felt the need to create stories to make sense of the world around them. Hilary Robinson has taken up the baton and written a modern-day fable to help children understand what is going on during this strange period of Covid-19 lockdown. The story, The Humble Mayor of Grumble, beautifully illustrated by Steven Johnson has been made available at no charge for use in classrooms and homes across the world. It downloads in the form of a pdf poster, which is perfect to display on a classroom whiteboard to enable a class discussion of the text.

As with anything written by Hilary Robinson, the story has been produced with great attention to detail, in a style which will reassure children now, but will also be something to look back at from a future time and remind us of this (hopefully) unique period of existence. In keeping with the style, there is no discussion of the science here, just the depiction of the virus as a “silent visitor” which changes the lives of the inhabitants of the town of Grumble.

She encapsulates the gradual realisation, that many have experienced, of gratitude for the natural world and the simpler joys of life that we have been too busy to appreciate for many years. Without the after-school sports, dancing, drama and music activities we have turned to gardening, feeding the birds, appreciating the wildlife and whilst indoors, baking or drawing or being creative in a multitude of ways. Her words express a yearning that we will be able to hold onto these pleasures and maintain the environmental improvements once life returns to an approximation of normal.

I hope that when this fable is read in future years we won’t need to be reminded to be grateful to the selfless essential workers who have kept us going by providing the services we require and I applaud her inclusive list of the workers we clap for on a Thursday evening.

I think The Humble Mayor of Grumble is a wonderful addition to the free resources that are being generously provided for children. I love it and only wish that we had a genuine “humble mayor” running the show; that is the beauty of great children’s literature – it shows us the world as it should and could be.

You can download your FREE copy of The Humble Mayor of Grumble here.

To find out more about Hilary Robinson and her wonderful children’s books, you can visit the Hilary Robinson website here.

You can view some of Steven Johnson’s amazing illustrations for children’s books on his website here.

For previous reviews of Hilary Robinson titles on this blog, click here for Jasper Viking Dog and Space Dog and here for Gregory Goose Board Books.

#MGTakesonThursday – Look into my Eyes by Lauren Child

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on the brilliant Book Craic blog.

MG TakesonThursday
Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

 

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.

Look into my eyes

 

Author: Lauren Child

Illustrator: David Mackintosh

Publisher: Harper Collins

Favourite sentence from Page 11: Well this is interesting, because in this edition of the book, page 11 is a blank between two parts of the prologue …so from Page 12:

“When Ruby Redfort was seven years old she won the Junior Code-Cracker Championships – solving the famous Eisenhauser conundrum in just seventeen days and forty-seven minutes.”

This book in three words: Adventure, Ciphers, Intelligence

This is the first book in the Ruby Redfort series and opens with two year old Ruby observing a suspicious incident across the street and trying to communicate with her glamorous, socialite parents Brant and Sabina through the medium of alphabet blocks. They, not being at all on her intellectual wavelength, think she wants to go out for a walk! This sets the tone so brilliantly for this book and indeed the rest of the series – Ruby is able to carry out her spying adventures under the noses of her parents, without them suspecting a thing!

The sentence I’ve selected above highlights Ruby’s unique code-cracking skills, which lead to her recruitment by Spectrum, a top secret spy agency who operate from a base in her hometown of Twinford. She is a fantastically inspiring character for girls and boys who love maths and enjoy solving puzzles; reading these books certainly encouraged a great deal of reading about ciphers in this house! Her adventures show that being small for your age, needing glasses and having a serious notebook habit are no barriers to tackling a nest of villains.

This book is populated by a great cast of characters. Ruby’s best friend Clancy Crew, the son of a diplomat, who is always ready to pedal over and lend Ruby a helping hand; Mrs Digby the Redfort family’s cook who shares Ruby’s love of mystery thrillers and keeps her supplied with banana milk and cookies; Hitch the suave butler who communicates by toast and just happens to be a Spectrum agent; LB the head of the spectrum office with her air of mystery and of course the villains: Baby Face Marshall and Nine Lives Capaldi!

The story takes place in a fictional American town, set in the 1970s and has a lovely nostalgic vibe, it definitely transported me back to childhood enjoyment of the Nancy Drew mysteries. Ruby is equipped with some spy gadgets, but without smartphones or the internet, the mission is able to maintain a high level of suspense throughout.  The chapters are short, with cliff-hangers a-plenty, and for those readers who are so inclined, there are code-cracking challenges to attempt. The plot centres around the  Jade Buddha of Khotan, a priceless treasure with mythical powers which is due to be unveiled at the Twinford Museum at an event planned by Ruby’s parents.

I completely adore the entire Ruby Redfort series, and was very fortunate that this book was published just as my own daughter had finished reading Clarice Bean by the same author, and wanted to know if the Ruby Redfort books actually existed. The exceptionally high quality plotting and characterisation is maintained throughout, each book focuses on a different sense as reflected in the titles. I so applaud Lauren Child for bringing the series full-circle and returning to the crime that Ruby witnessed as a two-year old in the final book. To fully complete the theme of ciphers, you might be able to see from the photo below that there is a code to crack on the beautifully designed covers. I have lost count of the number of Ruby Redfort books that I have given as gifts, and I have yet to find a child who hasn’t enjoyed them after a recommendation. Ruby Redfort should be an essential fixture on your MG library shelves!

Ruby Redforts