Review: Secrets and Spies written by Anita Ganeri and illustrated by Luke Brookes

Cover art by Luke Brookes, published by Little Tiger Press

This colourful exploration of the undercover world of espionage is an exciting non-fiction book aimed at middle grade readers, published today by Little Tiger Press.

The artwork by Luke Brooks perfectly complements the subject, with its cinematic, comic book style. The cover image absolutely encapsulates the spy’s life in the shadows! The text by Anita Ganeri, a well-known author of children’s non-fiction is presented in small block paragraphs on the full colour pages in a very clear font, perfect for children’s to read and comprehend in small chunks.

The book begins with the early chapters covering the history of spying, dating right back to the ancient civilizations of China, Egypt and India. Prominent personalities in the history of spying are discussed. Some widely read children might have already heard of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s famous spymaster and will be interested to find out about the coding genius behind much of his success, a brilliant linguist called Thomas Phelippes. As the chronology progresses to World War II you will learn about prominent female spies such as Noor Inayat Khan (code-named Madeleine) the first female radio operator sent into occupied France and Violette Szabo who also carried out secret and dangerous missions in France. I think that children will appreciate the mixtures of styles, with purely factual pages sometimes giving way to imaginary newspaper stories reporting a case of the spy’s dark arts or the graphic novel-like biography of Harriet Tubman. I was particularly enthralled by the descriptions of different codes and ciphers as well as the modern cryptography on which we increasingly rely.

This comprehensive book will delight the most inquisitive child (as well as teens and adults) and could be used in so many curriculum activities (history, maths, geography, computing) that I would highly recommend it to primary school libraries and upper key stage 2 classrooms. I know from my own experience that a large number of primary school children are fans of MG spy fiction and I am sure that they would love to discover more about the world of covert operations and classified information. For children who love the adventures of Agent Zaiba, Mickey and the Animal Spies, Taylor & Rose Secret Agents, Ruby Redfort, The Mysterious Benedict Society or Alex Rider, this book is sure to be a mesmerising read.

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.

Review: What it’s Like to be a Bird written by Tim Birkhead, illustrated by Catherine Rayner

Cover illustration by Catherine Rayner, published by Bloomsbury, 19-08-2021

A fantastic example of non-fiction aimed at children, What it’s Like to be a Bird is written by renowned ornithologist and Professor of Zoology, Tim Birkhead and illustrated by CILIP Greenaway Medal-winning artist Catherine Rayner. The combination of real science presented in colourful, eye-catching large format is as engaging as it is educational. The cover gives a clear example of the delightful illustrations, brimming with personality, to be found within, and every detail of this book from its size, hardcover and beautiful endpapers painted with speckled bird’s eggs speaks to its quality.

After an introduction which taps into the desire to fly that most of us have experienced at some time, each double page focuses on one aspect of bird behaviour as illustrated by a particular species. After initially pointing out that there are some similarities between birds and humans, the rest of the book highlights the diversity to be found in the class of birds and the range of adaptations displayed by birds which have enabled them to inhabit all the continents of the globe. The spreads are fully illustrated in Catherine Rayner’s sumptuous muted watercolours, with the text arranged in paragraphs blended with playful font effects.

As each bird is examined, its extraordinary skills and behavioural patterns are recounted in story-like prose which is easily understandable but does not talk down to young readers. Scientific vocabulary is used and explained precisely. The sections have titles that might be found in a chapter book; The Hunter Who Listens, Falling from the Skies and Sledging for Beginners are some examples. The book is therefore equally suited to being read aloud by an adult to share with children, or read and understood independently by Key Stage 2 or even advanced Key Stage 1 readers. Within the pages you will learn which bird has the most light-sensitive eyes of any animal species; which bird loses half of its body weight whilst waiting for its egg to hatch and which bird flies non-stop for eight days on its migratory journey between Alaska and New Zealand. Tim Birkhead shares his expertise with a light touch, comparing the incredible skills exhibited by the birds with everyday objects and phenomena with which children can easily relate. In my opinion, this is a marvellous gift to present to children; first rate information in a format that they can easily comprehend.

I absolutely love this book and know that I would have loved it as a child; I can still remember my primary school Year 3 teacher who signed our whole class up to be young ornithologists, constructed a bird table outside our classroom window and instilled a life-long love of birds. Whilst my knowledge and interest back then was based on observation of the natives of Hampshire (I clearly remember the excitement when a nuthatch clambered up the bird table) I would have been fascinated to learn about the symbiotic relationship between honey guides and humans, the local accents of macaw parrots and the carrying-pouches hidden under a male sungrebe’s wings. As with all the best children’s books, I learned something new from reading it, an amazing fact about the robin which I will leave you to discover for yourself. I highly recommend this book as an addition for all school libraries and classroom bookshelves. It would also make a beautiful gift for any primary school aged child, a fountain of knowledge that they will enjoy referring to time and again.

I am most grateful to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: The Crackledawn Dragon by Abi Elphinstone

Cover image by George Ermos, published by Simon & Schuster UK

Devoted readers of the Unmapped Chronicles, of whom I am one, have become accustomed to the detailed and whimsical introduction to each new book in the series. Its presence at the start of The Crackledawn Dragon, means that this book can be read and enjoyed as a standalone although it is the conclusion to the series. Fortunately, Abi Elphinstone is not one of the grown-ups who she tells us are “far too busy to believe in magic.” She doesn’t just believe in it, she creates it with abandon, infuses it with wisdom and wonder and spins it into gloriously enchanting stories which leave a glow of pure delight when read.

Zebedee Bolt is the hero of this plot, a boy with three remarkable talents; running away from foster families, succumbing to spectacularly drenching outbursts of sobbing and a natural flair for music! Although he would like to emulate his hero, a TV survival expert known as The Tank, it seems unlikely that this dream will be realised. As we meet him at the start of the story he has run away from his latest foster parents, the Orderly-Queues (yes, the witty names are here in abundance) and is hiding out in an abandoned New York theatre when a kind social worker ( who fans will recognise from Jungledrop) finds him and reassures him that: “One day you will realise that you matter.”

Unfortunately, Morg the evil harpy is also hiding out under the theatre and uses her wily cunning to manipulate Zeb into bringing her the remaining Phoenix tears which will supply the magic she needs to break into the kingdom of Crackledawn. The insidious power of false promises and the deals that individuals can make with themselves to justify their actions or even inaction in the face of wrongdoing is very subtly explored through the interaction of Morg and Zeb during the first part of the story. 

Once they burst into Crackledawn, readers are propelled through the sparkling blue waters on the deck of Darktongue, Morg’s ship of shadows. Zeb discovers that his mission is to ride on Morg’s bone dragon all the way to the sun, protected only by the Stargold Wings, to retrieve the lost Ember Scroll so that Morg can write herself into permanent power over the Unmapped Kingdoms. When this plan goes awry, Zeb is rescued by a young Sunraider called Oonie, whose blindness has made her fearsomely independent as she sails the waters of Crackledawn aboard the enchanted dhow, The Kerfuffle. I will not give away any more plot details as readers will want to discover the story for themselves. Suffice to say that the twists and turns leave you breathless as you marvel at the array of magical creatures; in this case I was most taken with a hurtle turtle, which I would love to employ to do my own housework! As always the names sparkle with invention, my favourites in this book being an exuberantly maternal chameleon named Mrs Fickletint, closely followed by the merglimmer, Perpetual Faff! Oh, and there is humour in abundance, with laugh out loud moments to lighten the tension, such as Mrs Fickletint scolding Dollop the goblin for his suggestion of treetop yoga when the end of the world is imminent!

Abi is such a brilliant writer. You can tell that she totally understands children’s yearning for fantastical adventures, and this she conjures with great panache. On top of this she layers validation, reassurance and love; her characters exhibit flaws and doubts but learn the power of trust and friendship throughout the arc of the story. Then into this already heady mix she stirs in contemporary themes; most obviously the environmental crisis and more subtly, the way in which those with disappointed hopes can be taken in by the empty promises of individuals who wish to use them for their own nefarious purposes. Most of all, it is a story, like an unopenable purse… filled with hope.

I am grateful to Simon & Schuster for allowing me access to an electronic version of the book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I have subsequently purchased a physical copy and highly recommend this book to everyone of 9+.

If you have not already read them, I do encourage you to read the other books in the series:

Everdark, which I have reviewed here and here the second review is for the dyslexia-friendly version, Rumblestar and Jungledrop.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Trailblazers Lin-Manuel Miranda by Kurtis Scaletta

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.
Cover art by Luisa Uribe, published by Little Tiger Press

Author: Kurtis Scaletta

Illustrator: Cover image Luisa Uribe, internal images David Shephard

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“Overall the show won eleven Tonys, including best musical.”

This book in three words: “Meet me inside”

I can give this book no higher recommendation than to tell you that as soon as it arrived through my letterbox it was read in one sitting by the teenage uber-Hamilfan in my household and given her seal of approval!

This latest biography from Little Tiger’s Trailblazers series is aimed at a Middle Grade readership with an engaging blend of illustrations, short chapters and fact-filled illustrated panels, but the evidence here suggests that it will also appeal to the huge number of Hamilton fans amongst the YA readership. Author Kurtis Scaletta presents the details of Lin-Manuel’s non-stop rise to the top of his profession in an engaging and entertaining manner. Throughout the book you learn about Lin-Manuel’s important influences, the stories behind his musical productions and his key collaborators as he has turned the world of musical theatre upside down. It certainly gives the impression of a man who writes as if he is running out of time and leaves you wondering “what comes next?”

As well as exploring Lin-Manuel’s unique musical and creative talent, this biography is careful to explain that a lifetime of hard work is behind the phenomenal success that he enjoys today. I also love that it outlines his continuing involvement with the Puerto Rican community, inspired by his father’s political work, and his determination to portray his culture in a positive light. His hugely generous charitable activities and his dedication to his family are further details which contribute to the picture of an individual who combines great talent with humility.

History certainly has its eyes on Lin-Manuel Miranda and this book fizzes with the energy apparent to anyone who has had the good fortune to see the live performance of Hamilton. I hope that it will inspire young readers to believe in their talents, follow their hearts and dedicate themselves to using their skills to make the world a better place. It is lovely to see a book which promotes the arts and their place in society as budgets for the arts seem to be constantly under threat both in schools and society as a whole. Highly recommended for all existing fans of Hamilton and all children who have an interest in music and drama.

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Blog Tour: The Way to Impossible Island by Sophie Kirtley

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 8th July 2021

I am thrilled to be joining Sophie Kirtley at the top of the East Lighthouse on Lathrin, for the blog tour for The Way to Impossible Island. From the moment I picked up this book, I was utterly captivated by the combination of characters, setting, theme and Sophie’s lyrical writing. Although I couldn’t finish it in one sitting – pesky chores; I wanted to! I predict that this is a book many children will lose themselves in during the school summer holiday. I love this book as an adult reader and can tell you that 10 year-old me would have been transfixed.

The themes of self-esteem and a child’s self-empowerment are seamlessly woven together with an immersion in the natural landscape. Oh, and there’s a time-slip adventure here too! If you loved Sophie’s previous MG novel, The Wild Way Home, you will enjoy revisiting some of the characters here. Research shows that both reading and an immersion in nature have positive benefits on mental wellbeing in adults and children. In my non-scientific study with a cohort of one subject, I conclude that the feel-good effects of this book are beyond doubt!

So as we gaze out over the island landscape, Sophie has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the impact of the natural world on wellbeing.

Firstly, can I just thank you for allowing me to ask you some questions, based on your new MG novel The Way to Impossible Island, I’m grateful that you are taking the time for this, and I look forward to sharing your answers.

Thank you so much, Veronica, for having me on your blog and for all the support you give to books and authors (not just me!!) I think a lot of people can under-estimate the vital work children’s librarians do to matchmake books and young readers; so many children do struggle to make choices which fit their needs and tastes, so are reliant upon the expertise of others to help them make these choices. I love libraries and I’m delighted that initiatives like Cressida Cowell’s Life-Changing Libraries campaign seem to be gathering such momentum @CressidaCowell Life-Changing Libraries | BookTrust

As I am an ex-school librarian, now working in an NHS library, an area that particularly interests me is the effects of reading on mental health. I am struck by the sensory descriptions of the natural world in The Way to Impossible Island and would like to explore this with you.

That must be a fascinating change in direction for you. What an interesting setting!

To begin with, there is a tangible sense of place in the setting of the story, Lathrin Island. I suspect that it might be based on Rathlin Island, a place that I only heard about when I started a distance-learning course with the University of Ulster. Can you tell us whether Lathrin is based on an island that you have visited and your motivation for using it as the focus of the story?

Yes, you’re absolutely right – Lathrin Island is indeed based on Rathlin Island! I was born in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland and both The Wild Way Home and The Way to Impossible Island draw on settings which are warmly familiar to me from my own childhood. From an early age I was fascinated with Rathlin Island and I longed to go there, but even though we didn’t live that far away, for some reason we never did. It wasn’t until I was forty-two-and-a-half that I actually visited Rathlin for the first time! (see pic)

Sophie Kirtley on the way to Impossible Island, photo credit Andrew Kirtley

So perhaps that sense of longing and mystery which Dara gets from the island in the book is a bit like my own longing for that unreachable place! The more I researched Rathlin the more there was to draw upon for The Way to Impossible Island: the wildlife; the heritage; the myths.

I was a wee bit cheeky though as by calling it ‘Lathrin’ it gives me some licence to play around with the geography and not be utterly true to real life Rathlin. In real life, for example, Rathlin is the largest inhabited island off the coast of Ireland – there’s a whole community of people who live there; my ‘Lathrin’ island is only populated by cows and wild creatures! (see pic)

Rathlin Cows, photo credit James Logan

You include a variety of animals which impact key moments in the narrative for example the golden hare and the porpoises, have you always been a lover of nature and what is the appeal of the natural world to you?

Yes, wildness and the natural world are right at the heart of my books. It’s important to me not to just make animals seem cute or funny but to show how we all share a world together and ought to respect one another. Even when I was a girl I loved being outside – swimming in the sea, playing in the forest, running in the fields. The natural world felt, and still feels, boundless and unlimited; freeing somehow.

I am also intrigued by Mothgirl’s adoption of a wolf cub and utterly adored ByMySide’s character and narrative arc. Did you study wolves and their behaviour during the writing process, and could you tell us something about this?

Thank you. I love ByMySide too! Yes, I read a lot about wolves and wolf behaviour. Plus I was lucky enough to visit and observe an wolf pack at a conservation centre called the Wild Place Project in Bristol and to chat with, Zoe Greenhill, the specialist keeper there. Just watching these incredible animals and quizzing Zoe about their habits and behaviours really helped give me a deeper understanding which in turn helped me create ByMySide convincingly and respectfully too. @wild_place  Wild Place Project – Home – Wild Place 

Wild Place Wolf, photo credit Sophie Kirtley

Do you have any thoughts on the impact that taking care of a pet can have on children?

We have two cats, Dizzy and Dude, and my own children love them deeply. I think having a pet helps children learn empathy – they know when their pet is frightened or at ease and the deceptively simple act of reading the emotions of others and responding kindly is a hugely important life lesson.

Dizzy in a plant pot, photo credit Sophie Kirtley

It is not only your descriptions of wildlife that spoke to me, but there is also a particular passage quite near the end of the book when Mothgirl chases her wolf and the golden hare through a wheatfield and your description of the sights, sounds and smells was completely evocative of my walk to primary school, many, many years ago. How important do you think it is for children to be physically active outside and did you deliberately include these descriptions for children who might have only known city life?

I didn’t especially think of city children when writing these descriptions, but it’s really lovely to imagine my stories transporting readers to unfamiliar places, or as in your case, Veronica, to familiar places within their own memories.

I do think that time spent outdoors is very important for children’s (and adults’!) wellbeing and I’m delighted that the whole Forest School and Outdoor Learning movements seem to be gaining such momentum in the education world. I love reading about what educators like Mike Watson @WatsEd and Chartham Forest School @CharthamForest get up to on their wild adventures. I’m always especially thrilled when teachers get in touch with me to share the amazing learning beyond the classroom which has been inspired by my books; have a look on my website gallery page The Gallery – YOUR work | Sophie Kirtley to see the Stone Age settlements created by Leanne Moses’s class at Synchdyn Primary (@MosesLeanne @SychdynSchool) and the wild cooking around Langdale Primary’s campfire (@langdaleprimary).

I can only describe some passages in the story as poetic. Did you structure your writing this way to encourage some mindful reflection at these moments?

I’ve always written poetry, even before I turned my mind to fiction. So I think when my characters experience especially high or low moments in a story the poetry just pops out! I love being playful with structure and form in my writing, the passages which appear differently on the page are there to try to capture the extreme nature of the characters’ experiences in shape as well as in words. Sorry if I’m being a bit cryptic; I’m trying to avoid giving tooooo much away!

Both of your books, The Wild Way Home and The Way to Impossible Island seem to have the natural world and long-term environmental changes to a landscape as overarching themes. Did you consciously set out to bring these factors to the attention of your readers?

It’s funny because I didn’t consciously set out with this, or any, agenda – I just set out to tell an exciting and tender story. However, I find that as a story unfolds I’m often struck by how the themes I really care about do seem to come sneaking in at the edges. Appreciating and protecting the wildlife around us is something I care about deeply and never has there been a more essential moment to unlock conversations with children about the natural world and their role within it. Perhaps books are a way to spark these important conversations and open up the possibilities of change.

Several mental health charities for children, such as Place2Be and the Anna Freud Centre have encouraged young people to spend time in the fresh air to de-stress. Do you hope that reading about children adventuring in the natural world might encourage your readers to step away from their screen-based devices and spend some time connecting with nature?

I would never claim to be an expert in children’s mental health, but I do think there’s enormous power in connecting with the natural world – for children, for adults, for everyone – and perhaps reading adventurously, reading wildly, can go some of the way towards unlocking that power. Saying that, I do think there is value in screen-based activities too (building communities; learning collaborative skills; finding a sense of belonging) and I certainly don’t see time spent outdoors as a panacea. But, for me, I simply love being out in the natural world and I can definitely see why mental health charities are exploring these possibilities.

The chapter heading images throughout the story seemed to suggest the circularity of life, how reassuring do you think this aspect of nature might be for your readership?

A lot of what I write is about acceptance. In the Wild Way Home Charlie and Harby learn to accept that dreadful things can happen, but if we stick together and help each other then we’ll be OK. In The Way to Impossible Island Dara and Mothgirl have to each accept that they are different from the mould that their respective worlds have shaped for them and that they can celebrate themselves and each other for who they actually are. It was important for me to convey a message beyond a simple ‘happy ending’ – although my stories are fantastical in lots of ways they are grounded in our real world and I feel that in life it’s more helpful to accept than to seek to ‘fix’ things (like death or illness) which are difficult and inherently ‘unfixable’ and out of our control.

Thank you again Sophie. I was absolutely captivated by this book, and I am sure it is going to be hugely enjoyed by many, many readers; hopefully whilst sitting under the shade of a tree during the last few weeks of the summer term or the long summer holidays.

Thank you so much, Veronica. It’s been lovely to answer your interesting questions. I wish you best of luck with your job and with your University course. Have a lovely summer!

Sophie x

I am hugely grateful to Beatrice at Bloomsbury Children’s Books for my review copy of The Way to Impossible Island and for inviting me aboard the blog tour for this truly amazing book. Highly recommended for confident readers of 9+, for parents or carers to read aloud and share with children of 8/9+ and for Key Stage 2 classrooms who might be studying UK landscapes in their geography curriculum. Do stop at all the other blog posts on the tour!

Blog Tour image courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Mysterious Benedict Society Series by Trenton Lee Stewart

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.
Cover art by Ross Collins, published by Chicken House Books

Author: Trenton Lee Stewart

Illustrators: Carson Ellis, Ross Collins, Diana Sudyka

Publisher: Chicken House Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

After a few more pages of questions, all of which Reynie felt confident he had answered correctly, he arrived at the test’s final question: ‘Are you brave?’

This book in three words: Complex – Mystery – Friendship

I was prompted to retrieve these books from the bookcase when I saw that The Mysterious Benedict Society had been released as a series on the Disney channel recently. I originally bought these three books about seven or eight years ago, based entirely on the name, with absolutely no reading of reviews or recommendations…and what a supreme piece of judgement!

I read them as bedtime stories to my youngest who was in Year 5 or 6 at the time, and a huge fan of MG Mystery/Spy books such as Ruby Redfort, The Sinclair Mysteries and the MMU series. We were both utterly hooked by the complex plotting, brilliant characterisation, and sense of foreboding combined with whimsy. You can probably tell from the battered covers that they have been re-read on more than one occasion! They centre around a team of four orphans who are recruited through a bank of tests, by the eponymous Mr Benedict, initially to infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened and uncover the identity of “the Sender”, a shadowy individual who is broadcasting subliminal disinformation and controlling the behaviour of the inhabitants of Stonetown through “The Emergency”. The plot seems strangely prescient in the light of the events of the past few years.

The four child protagonists , Reynie, Sticky, Constance and Kate, all possess extraordinary talents which they must find a way of combining in order to outwit their fearsome foe. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the first book is the interactive element of solving the coded problems alongside the team of undercover child spies. The magnificent writing draws you in to Reynie’s utterly loveable and quirky character from page one, and once hooked you are unlikely to want to do anything else until you have completed the third book. These stories are perfect for class read-alouds or bedtime stories, with their compelling, page-turning, plots and are fantastic independent reads for confident readers of 9+. I would highly recommend them to fans of Malamander, The Series of Unfortunate Events, Alex Rider or the books I mentioned earlier in the review.

#20 Books of Summer 2021: Mickey and the Trouble with Moles by Anne Miller

I’m kicking off my #20BooksofSummer Challenge hosted by Cathy who writes the marvellous blog, with a smart, entertaining and funny book aimed at the Middle Grade market: Mickey and the Trouble with Moles written by Anne Miller and illustrated by Becka Moor.


I was delighted to discover that a second Mickey adventure, written with wit and whimsy by Anne Miller and wonderfully illustrated by Becka Moor, had been published last month as I adored the first in the series, Mickey and the Animal Spies. This book starts with a recap of the essential facts and can therefore be read as a standalone…although I would strongly urge you to read both!

Michaela Rose Thompson (Mickey) might appear to be an ordinary girl who dutifully attends school and gymnastics lessons and reliably takes responsibility for herself when her parents are working late on their scientific experiments. However, Mickey has an unusual aptitude for code-cracking and her undercover activities as human liaison officer to COBRA, a secret organisation of animal spies, set her apart from the crowd. This time she and her animal colleagues must delve into the rogue activities of the moles, dig into their motivation for tunnelling into the United Bank’s ‘Impossible Vault’ and try to unearth the brains behind the plan. Will Mickey’s obsession with the writings of Hildegarde L. McTavish help her crack the triple encryption and rescue a comrade before the ticking clock runs down?

If you like your spy mysteries to be filled with humour, quirky wordplay and an innovative use of seagulls as anti-surveillance accessories, this is the book for you! I would imagine that Anne Miller had enormous fun playing with the tropes of classic spy fiction to create this brilliantly amusing, engaging and satisfying story. It is the perfect length for newly confident readers to finish independently, has a great balance of whole and half-page illustrations by Becka Moor and as an added bonus contains an interactive element as readers are encouraged to crack different ciphers throughout the narrative. I enjoyed reading it enormously and know that it would have been devoured by my youngest had it been around when she was in primary school. As if things couldn’t get any better, it ends on a cliff-hanger, leaving this reader and I’m sure many others, hungry for book three!

This will be an excellent addition to classrooms, school libraries and home bookshelves for anyone of 8+, the blend of animals, spy mystery, humour and illustrations wrapped in a cracking plot making it one of those perfect books to read for pleasure.

I am very grateful to Liz Scott and Oxford Children’s Books for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

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

One summer, three months, 10 books! Thank you Cathy for hosting!

#MGTakesOnThursday: Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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: Nicola Penfold

Illustrator: Kate Forrester

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“It predates not only the floods and the Hunger Years, but the Decline, and even the Greedy Years before that. It’s from when the land was still healthy enough to farm, before the poisons and the saltwater got in.”

Cover art by Kate Forrester, to be published by
Little Tiger on 8 July 2021

This book in three words: Environment – Family – Metamorphosis

This is an incredibly beautiful and powerful story set in a near future coastal community on the east coast of England. The extract that I have quoted from page 11, locates the reader in the space with great economy, as it describes Crier’s Windmill which will become a pivotal location in the story. As the book opens, you join Nat and his two best friends Tally and Lucas as they set off on their bicycles for summer holiday pranks and dares amongst the sterile landscape of the solar fields and Edible Uplands factory farm. It cleverly positions young readers in a recognisable activity before the clues about this dystopian future lead to the realisation of how society could be changed following ecological disaster.

Meanwhile, sisters Pearl and Clover, live with their father and their collective grief on an oyster farm; a ramshackle structure of narrowboats and the remnants of an offshore oil rig, held together as precariously as their family, with bindings that require constant re-knotting to stop the construction coming apart. We quickly learn that siblings are not allowed in the district of Blackwater Bay, where the feared Peacekeepers remove illegal second children, issue civil disobedience points and regularly send unlucky trespassers to the prison ship which is anchored further out in the bay. A visible reminder to all that resisting the state rule will be punished.

The two existences come together when Nat’s mum, Sora, a senior scientist, is sent by the District Controller to study the farming methods pioneered on the Oyster Farm to try to enhance food production for the district. When the “landlubbers” relocate to the feared world of the water, Nat brings some uninvited guests – jars of caterpillars that he has collected from the wild thistles in the solar fields. This act of rebellion (all pollinators are claimed by Central District) sets a metamorphosis in motion that will affect more than just the lepidoptera.

Nicola Penfold has written an exquisite story which brilliantly captures some of the pressing concerns of our age, she has crafted memorable characters and a plot that simmers with tension and edginess as the storm brews in the background. Her love of the natural world shines through the narrative which is peppered with a feast of Easter eggs in the form of the names of both human and non-human characters. She acknowledges the fact that children show far more awareness and concern about the environment and the plight of migrants than many adults; this is perfectly encapsulated by Pearl:

“You’re missing all of it because you’re not bothering to look! None of you are!”

I am sure that this book will prove to be extremely popular with upper Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 children, I can imagine it becoming a favourite whole class read, perhaps to accompany topics on global warming or food production. It is also a book that many adults would benefit from reading; a perfectly assembled plot with a thoughtful and valuable message. I loved it.

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press and NetGalley for allowing me early access to an electronic version of this book which will be published on 8th July 2021.

Review: Skyborn by Sinéad O’Hart

Cover art by Sara Mulvanny, published by Little Tiger Press

If you want an MG story to grab you by your emotional lapels and hurl you back and forth like a trapeze artist’s swing, then buy your ticket to Cyrus Quinn’s circus, take your seat in the big top and enjoy the show!

From the opening line of the prologue I was absolutely enthralled as Ester defied her mother’s instructions and began her perilous journey upwards. As her dreams of flight segue into her son Bastjan’s story, I couldn’t tear myself away from his quest to investigate his mother’s past and return an ancient treasure to its rightful owner.

Sinéad O’Hart’s writing is lyrical, big-hearted and utterly compelling. She effortlessly brings Bastjan’s character to life on the page, the reader feels the warmth and love with which Crake, the circus strongman, provides protection and support for the young, orphaned tumbler. This is brilliantly contrasted with the cold tyranny with which Quinn treats his stepson as he tries to reverse the fortunes of his foundering business. Since the death of his star performer, Ester, who held the crowds enraptured with her Dance of the Snowflakes trapeze routine, the crowds have dwindled and Quinn will seemingly stop at nothing to replace her. But what was the secret of her aerial ability, and has her son inherited her fearless talent?

The arrival of an upper-class runaway, Alice Patten, proves the catalyst for twists and turns in the plot that build to a crescendo of explosive action. I will not go into any details for fear of ruining your enjoyment of a story with more thrills and spills than a tent full of acrobats. Suffice to say that the immaculate world-building combined with wonderfully drawn characters make this a book to be savoured, it is a hugely enjoyable work of speculative fiction combining a brilliant blend of circus, steampunk and fantasy. It will be massively enjoyed by confident readers of 9+ and would make an excellent whole class or bedtime story which I am sure that adults will enjoy as much as their young audience; just be prepared for constant pleas for “one more chapter”!

Skyborn will be published on 10th June 2021 and I am most grateful to Little Tiger Press for providing me with a pre-publication copy in exchange for my honest opinion.