MG Book review: The Wondrous Prune by Ellie Clements

To be published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books 12th May 2022

I was intrigued by the title of this magical middle grade book when I spotted it on NetGalley and thus delighted when I was approved to read an early e-ARC. It is a heart-warming tale of an ordinary Year 6 girl with an extraordinary gift!

Prune’s mother has inherited her late parents’ house, the home she grew up in as a child, and takes the opportunity to move the family away from their former home in a block of flats. We soon discover that Prune’s teenage brother Jesse had been hanging out with a friend called Bryce whom his mother and Prune both consider to be a bad influence, they hope that the move will break the connection and get Jesse’s life back on track. However, Prune misses her old life, her best friend Connie and the wonderful connection she had with Grandma Jean and Poppa B when they were alive. Although their former home holds many happy memories for her, she can’t help the sadness washing over her now that they are no longer around. And so the fantasy aspect to this contemporary story arrives, because every time that Prune begins to experience intense sadness or anxiety, her world suddenly fills with vivid colours which she cannot explain.

This phenomenon does not confine itself to the house. As Prune walks into her new classroom the following day she again finds her surroundings awash with colour and by standing open-mouthed with astonishment she opens herself up to the cruel barbs of a pack of bullies nicknamed the Vile-lets. These three girls are vicious in the way they target their victims and Prune is only saved from utter despair by the kindness of classmate Doug who was their previous main target. A temporary replacement teacher alongside the fact that Prune doesn’t want to worry her mother, means that she has to put up with the bullying for far too long before the combination of Doug and Jesse persuade her to do the right thing and tell an adult.

Prune’s relationship with older brother Jesse was one of my favourite aspects of this book because it was so realistically portrayed. They clearly had a very close bond, with Jesse demonstrating great kindness and care for his younger sister when they were alone together, whilst also dismissing her in front of Bryce when trying to present a cool image. In turn, Prune is buoyed up by Jesse’s attention and clearly worries that he is throwing away his life chances by hanging out with someone who is leading him into trouble.

Can Prune and Jesse resolve their differences; will Prune be able to shake off the bullies; and will she be able to help her brother escape from a toxic friendship? How will the legend of the “Delmere Magic” and Prune’s amazing artistic ability interact and can eleven year old girls become superheroes? You will have to read this middle grade contemporary fantasy to discover the answers.

The Wondrous Prune is a story of family love, finding your inner strength and focussing on the positive, which is ideally pitched for an upper key stage 2 readership. I’m sure that there will be many who would love to possess Prune’s superpower! The electronic proof that I read did not contain any artwork although I believe that the finished paperback will have illustrated chapter headings which I imagine will bring to life Prune’s artistic abilities.

Publication is due on 12th May 2022 and I am most grateful to Bloomsbury Children’s Books and NetGalley for access to an e-ARC.

MG Fiction Review: Escape to the River Sea by Emma Carroll

When you pick up an Emma Carroll novel, you know what to expect. Feisty heroines, unlikely friendships and breath-taking adventure, set in a perfectly rendered historical timescape and written at precisely the right level to engage, educate and entertain middle grade readers. I am happy to report that Escape to the River Sea, her latest novel due in June 2022, will not disappoint her legions of loyal fans. In fact, it is likely to have even more upper Key Stage 2 children flocking to it like tropical moths to torchlight. This quest which takes its main protagonist from a bleak, run-down manor in the West Country to the exotic dangers and delights of the Amazon rainforest will appeal to all children of 9+. Having followed Emma’s career since meeting her nearly 10 years ago on her debut book tour, I am delighted that she has shown the confidence to write this book in her own unique style, rather than trying to produce a pastiche of Journey to the River Sea, the book which inspired it. For fans of that classic work, you will find links to the original characters, location and birthplace of the author, but Escape to the River Sea can be read and enjoyed on its own merit, as a standalone novel. 

This story centres around Rosa Sweetman, a child who has been serially displaced in her first twelve years. As a kindertransport child she arrived in England, from Vienna, only to find that her sponsor was too ill to collect her and was subsequently rescued by an elderly gentleman from a London station. She has spent the war years at the dilapidated West Country mansion house owned by Sir Clovis and Lady Prue, surrounded by the girls from an evacuated London school and the animals from the local zoo. The return to peacetime has rendered Rosa’s life lonely and empty, leaving her yearning for news of her mother and older sister who were supposed to follow her from Vienna. The school girls have returned to their city homes and on the day that the zoo owners arrive to reclaim their animals and the black Jaguar, Opal, escapes to the nearby moors, Rosa’s predicament seems more hopeless than ever. With the zoo owner demanding compensation from Sir Clovis, Rosa is torn between guilt at her carelessness and joy at seeing the majestic beast run free.

The arrival of a young female scientist, Dr Yara Fielding, is the catalyst which sparks a chance to escape her loneliness and open new horizons of discovery. After a shared exploration of Yara’s grandfather’s writings in the library and the discovery of his notebook detailing his expeditions to track down the mapinguary or giant sloth, Rosa accompanies Yara to her family home in Manaus to become reborn in the company of a found family who reside in a home named Renascida. 

As the adventure unfolds in the steamy jungle setting, Rosa learns that not all monsters are eight feet tall with fearsome claws and teeth, and begins to understand the fate that might have befallen her family. She faces her fears, forms relationships based on respect, shared responsibility and courage with twins Vita and  Enzo and their cousin Orinti, and realises the power of hope in propelling life forward. 

I am sure that Escape to the River Sea is going to be a huge hit in primary school classrooms and libraries. Children will be swept along by the thrill and spirit of adventure, the exotic location and the exploits of the child protagonists. Teachers are likely to find so many topic links from this narrative too, from the ecological themes of land exploitation in both the UK and the Amazon basin; the geography of South America; the study of rivers; the ethics of keeping animals in captivity; or the fate of child refugees whether during WWII or in the present time. A shoutout must also be made to the stunning cover artwork by Katie Hickey which in my opinion will make the hardback version of this book a hugely desirable addition to bookshelves everywhere. I have only read the electronic ARC, thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan Children’s Books, but I will certainly want to add the hardback to my own Emma Carroll collection when it becomes available in June 2022.

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

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

Saturday 29th January

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

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

Sunday 30th January

4:00pm

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

Monday 31st January

9:00pm

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

Saturday 5th February

10:00am

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

#MGTakesOnThursday: Otherland by Louie Stowell, illustrated by George Ermos

Graphic by @MarySimms72, Cover image by George Ermos, published by Nosy Crow 2021

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: Louie Stowell

Illustrator: George Ermos

Publisher: Nosy Crow

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

Myra’s mum honked her red nose, which meant she was indeed interested in some chai, and the adults filed off into the kitchen.

page 11

This book in three words: subversive fairy tale

I missed reading this book when it was first published last year, although I do remember it getting rave reviews at the time. Therefore I was extremely pleased when Otherland was chosen as the Primary School Book Club read for January 2022 and this time around I am thrilled that I had the time to enjoy it. Louie Stowell has created a playfully subversive fairy tale that can be enjoyed by middle grade readers and older (in my case, very much older) readers alike. She plunges you into a fully realised fantasy world, where your expectations are turned on their head in a whirlwind of dark humour and relentless action!

Myra and Rohan are connected by a strange coincidence. They were born on the same day, in the same hospital, and both had to be resuscitated after birth. That is where their similarities cease. Wild and impulsive Myra lives with her larger-than-life mother at the poorer end of town and seems to actively attract trouble, whilst cautious, well-behaved Rohan lives with his perfect family in a quiet, leafy neighbourhood in a well-ordered, predictable style. This doesn’t stop the two families getting together every year to celebrate their joint birthday. As Myra reluctantly accompanies her mother across town to spend her eleventh birthday afternoon with Rohan she considers that:

Standing next to him felt like turning up to school in your dirty pyjamas when everyone else is wearing perfectly ironed white clothes.

page 3

This is such a clever analogy, conjuring up the anxiety dream that so many children experience on the last night of the holidays and giving such an early insight into Myra’s feelings of discomfort and unworthiness. Her feelings of rejection are compounded when she overhears her mother talking to the other adults about the difficulties of starting a business whilst caring for a child.

However, life is about to get exponentially more complicated for Myra. In the chaos generated by the secret stash of fireworks she has brought to the party, Rohan’s adored baby sister, Shilpa, is stolen through a portal to Otherland, a vividly imagined, mildly terrifying fairy kingdom! Here, the wicked fairy queen Gloriana wishes to change Shilpa into a green-skinned, vicious fairy. Rohan and Myra are guided by an exiled fairy, Mab, into the presence of Gloriana where they are inducted into the Knight Game; three fiendishly difficult tasks to accomplish in order to free Shilpa and escape back to the real world. These challenges take place against a backdrop of kaleidoscopic landscapes inhabited by a cast of sharp-toothed, sharp-clawed and poisonous foes.

I don’t want to reveal any more plot details for fear of spoiling the fun for anyone who has yet to read Otherland. However, the clever weaving of aspects of myth and folklore with an entirely original, almost surreal depiction of the fairy kingdom, allied with one character who does not necessarily wish to escape from the evil queen’s clutches, make this story a unique reading experience. The characters, both good and evil, spring from the page fully-formed. Their dialogue drips with wry humour and every chapter abounds with labyrinthine plot twists. I enjoyed the way that Myra and Rohan’s distaste for each others’ personalities gradually turned to self-reflection and eventual mutual support and friendship. I have a huge soft spot for Rohan and his big-brotherly love for little Shilpa and I hope that the final chapter of Otherland leaves the possibility of further adventures to come!

#MGTakesOnThursday: Villains in Venice by Katherine Woodfine

Image design by @marysimms72 and used with permission, cover image by Karl James Mountford

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: Katherine Woodfine

Illustrator: Karl James Mountford

Publisher: Egmont (now Farshore)

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

I read this book on my Kindle, where page 11 is an illustration showing the front page of a fictional newspaper, The Daily Picture, with the headline: GREAT BRITAIN IN PERIL!

This book in three words: Elegant Pre-WWI Espionage

Over the Christmas break I tried to make a dent in the ridiculously large number of books which I have bought over the past 18 months and due to part-time studying or starting a new job, have just not had the time to read! One such is this third book in the Taylor and Rose Secret Agents series. Villains in Venice, a historical espionage story, is set in 1912, three months after the previous mission, Secrets in St Petersburg ended. It starts with a classic “dead letter drop” scene in a bookshop in Charing Cross Road, setting up another perfectly plotted story in this excellent and elegant middle grade spy series.

Sophie Taylor and Lilian Rose are back in London and on the surface working at their ladies’ detective agency based in Sinclair’s Department Store on Piccadilly. However, their equilibrium has been thrown by the disappearance of Joe, of whom nothing has been seen but his bloodstained cap, found in an East End alley after he pursued a lead in their hunt for a mole inside the secret service! Lil, who was becoming romantically attached to Joe before his disappearance, is steadfast in her belief that he is alive and that their priority should be to find him. Sophie however, is convinced that the secret society known as the Fraternitas Draconum are behind many of the unsettling events taking place around Europe as well as Joe’s disappearance, and is determined to play her part for the Secret Service Bureau and disrupt their plans to spark a war. When the Bureau chief asks her to go on an undercover mission to Venice, loyalties are put to the test. She embarks on her mission without Lil, but accompanied by two art student friends to provide her cover, and the adventure commences.

This is a thoroughly satisfying mystery, combining classic spy tropes and wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the wintry, mysterious, disorienting atmosphere of Venice during Carnivale. The evocation of a city and its inhabitants all cloaked in secrets is perfectly rendered by Katherine Woodfine’s precise prose. She builds a level of tension that will send shivers down readers’ spines as reliably as a February plunge in the Grand Canal! I loved the way that she wove the historical emblems and traditions of Venice into the fictional lore of the evil Fraternitas Draconum and played out this latest cat-and-mouse episode in the otherworldly locations on the Venetian lagoon. Once again her key characters display bravery, companionship and a sense of duty and even when their friendships become strained the reader can empathise with all viewpoints.

A pacy spy mystery, peopled with interesting characters, Villains in Venice will delight confident readers of 10+ who are looking for intrigue, intelligence and immersive storytelling. The quality of the Taylor and Rose stories continues to be of the highest order and I am looking forward to travelling onto New York for the next instalment!

If you haven’t read the previous stories in this series, I suggest that you start with The Sinclair’s Mysteries, then move on to Peril in Paris and Spies in St Petersburg which precede this adventure.

MG Book Review: Sabotage on the Solar Express by M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli

Cover image by Elisa Paganelli, published by Macmillan Children’s Books 17th February 2022

If you are looking for  a middle-grade adventure to make your pulse race and time appear to stand still, then look no further than Sabotage on the Solar Express! The vivid writing style of dual authors M G Leonard and Sam Sedgman, combined with the almost graphic novel-like images by Elisa Paganelli, make this, the fifth Adventures on Trains Mystery, the most cinematic of the series so far. The clever choice of chapter titles only adds to the filmic credentials of this story.

For those who have not read any of the previous books, they centre around Harrison, known as Hal, a boy blessed with fantastic observational and drawing skills and his Uncle Nat, a famous travel writer, as they embark on a series of fabulous rail journeys. You could read this book independently of the others, however characters reappear from the second book Kidnap on the California Comet and I think you would find most enjoyment if you read the entire series in order.

This outing takes the uncle and nephew partnership “down under” to the deep Mars-red landscape of the Australian Outback. They have been invited by billionaire August Reza to join the inaugural journey of the Solar Express, the locomotive which has won Reza’s competition to design an environmentally friendly train for the future.

Hal and Uncle Nat are amazed to discover that the designer of the winning locomotive is actually a 14 year old boy, Boaz, who lives with his indigenous, First Nations family on a farmstead just outside Alice Springs. On visiting him in his workshop he explains the technology that he has designed, which uses solar energy to drive his regenerative hydrogen powered fuel cells and explains how his passion for environmentalism stems from his belief in the sanctity of the land. He is guided throughout the story by the Aboriginal belief that,

“We don’t own the land. The land owns us.“

Aboriginal belief

Boarding his futuristic locomotive for the journey from Alice Springs to Darwin are an entertaining cast of characters including Reza’s teenage daughter Marianne, a ruthless and ambitious politician, a shipping tycoon, a couple of competition winners, a retired locomotive driver, members of Boaz’s family, a PR executive and a film crew. Ominously, the chief engineer of the project is found to be missing shortly after the journey begins. This puts paid to Hal’s dream of an uneventful journey where he can for once just enjoy the unique landscape, sketching the harsh but beautiful desert and enjoying the experience of travelling in luxurious conditions. He soon realises that he should have taken the suspicions of Marianne seriously when she alerted him to the mysterious stranger posing as a hotel employee, who delivered a valuable model of Stephenson’s rocket to her father‘s hotel room the previous evening. From the moment that the eponymous sabotage of the computer controlled driving system is discovered,  the book hurtles the reader on a thrill ride during which the dramatic attention cranks up by the chapter, leaving you clinging to the sides of your chair whilst your eyes race over the pages faster than a runaway train.

This is an absolute corker of an adventure story and once you have regained your breath and calmed your heart rate it also provides interesting themes to ponder. Obviously the environmental theme is much to the fore and I thought that looking at it through the lens of First Nations people’s beliefs was a fascinating way of providing young readers with a way to explore the issues of industrialisation and exploitation of the world’s resources. Secondly, female empowerment is beautifully highlighted here, through the characters of Marianne and Michelle. At the start of the story we are reminded of Hal’s discomfort with Marianne who he finds overbearing and some would describe as bossy. However, as the sabotage threatens disaster to her father’s plans and the billionaire tech giant begins to fall apart, his teenage daughter displays the true leadership required to deal with a crisis. Similarly, Michelle’s desire to use her physics degree to join the engineering rather than the PR side of Reza Enterprises is only taken seriously once she proves her credentials in the absence of chief engineer Francisco Silva. There are positive messages for children about trusting in your own abilities and not being swayed by the opinions of others.

I highly recommend Sabotage on the Solar Express as an independent read for anyone of 9+, as a class reader or as a bedtime story; although teachers, librarians, parents and carers should be prepared for cries of “one more chapter”!

I am most grateful to Macmillan Children’s Books and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic copy of this book prior to publication on 17 February 2022.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor

Cover image by George Ermos, published by Walker Books UK

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: Thomas Taylor

Illustrator: Cover – George Ermos, internal – Thomas Taylor

Publisher: Walker Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

Do you remember your first Ghastly Night?

p11

This book in three words: Thrilling Shadowy Mystery

This is the third adventure in the Eerie-on-Sea mysteries, and like the two previous books it will take your breathe away as you race through the pages. Thomas Taylor’s storytelling definitely has that sprinkling of magic that compels the reader to “drop everything and read” … and not let go of the book until it is finished. I love the fact that each new book in this series adds another layer to the hinterland of folklore associated with the tourist-free, winter months of the storm-lashed holiday resort.

It is All Hallows’ Eve, which in Eerie-on-Sea, the sinister seaside town steeped in mysterious secrets, is known as Ghastly Night. Long term residents Dr Thalassi and Mrs Fossil usually perform an idiosyncratic re-enactment of the legend of Mayor Bigley, The Puppet Master and the Shadowghast, but this year a troupe of professional magicians have rolled into town to perform the story in the town’s crumbling theatre which clings to the end of the pier. Unsettlingly, the glamorous magician Caliastra claims to have knowledge of Herbert Lemon’s background and might be offering him the chance of a new life outside the Lost-and-Foundery of The Grand Nautilus Hotel.

With best friend Violet Parma casting doubts on the veracity of Caliastra’s claims; the mysterious disappearance of Jenny Hanniver, Vi’s guardian and the owner of The Book Dispensary; and glimpses of the Shadowghast in the misty alleyways, this story plunges readers into The Netherways beneath the town in search of answers. Herbie and Vi agree that:

A problem shared isn’t a problem at all. It’s an adventure.

p46

Join the two young protagonists, along with talking cat Erwin and clockwork companion Clermit on this thrilling adventure to reveal the truth amongst the shadows and uncover the real Puppet Master. This is genuinely one of those books that will appeal to all readers of 8/9+ to either read independently, or enjoy as a class or bedtime story, for the pure thrill of a supremely entertaining mystery story.

You can read my reviews of the first two books in the series, Malamander and Gargantis. Whilst it is not necessary to read all three books in order, I would suggest that it will increase your enjoyment of the series to do so. The fourth book, Festergrim, is due for publication in September 2022 and a short extract is available at the end of Shadowghast.

MG Fiction Review: The Secret of the Treasure Keepers by A.M. Howell

Cover image by Rachel Corcoran, to be published by Usborne 31st March 2022

A story that starts with a scene at The British Museum, one of my favourite places to visit, was always likely to be a hit with me, and this is a beautifully written middle grade adventure from one of the best current authors of children’s historical fiction. Set in 1948, it provides children with an insight into the post-war period of hardship and rationing, within the context of a gripping page-turner.

When Ruth Goodspeed and her mother, Harriett, embark on an archaeological investigation at a remote farm set in the bleak landscape of The Fens, little do they realise that they will not just be scraping away layers of earth covering ancient artefacts; family and personal secrets and mysteries will also be laid bare. Mirroring the meticulously patient art of the archaeologists, the author slowly brushes away at the surface of her characters, gradually revealing the emotions, anxieties and pain buried deep within. The characters that emerge are so believable, with flaws and mis-steps combined with good intentions that you just can’t help rooting for them. 

A.M. Howell’s writing style is wonderful in its ability to lure you in and propel you through the story. You rapidly lose yourself in the mystery, making it very difficult to put the book down or cease to think about the characters and their plight even when you have to break away and return to everyday reality! She conjures the flat, mist covered, dank, ditch drilled Fen landscape with its sudden explosions of birdlife magnificently. I love the image of this landscape providing farseeing horizontal viewpoints for those who wish to spy on their neighbours as well as a vertical view down to our history, buried and preserved in the damp earth. The comparisons between life in the bombed out ruins of cities such as London and Norwich and the hardships of rural life during and immediately after the Second World War are sympathetically portrayed through Ruth’s reflections on her experiences and the tales that she hears from farmer’s son Joe. The realisation that similarities can be found in what initially appear to be drastically different circumstances are thoughtfully uncovered, increasing that empathy that children can develop through reading great literature.

The story is perfectly pitched to entertain a middle-grade readership of 9+, featuring a race against time to uncover buried treasure, save a family’s livelihood and home, and unravel hidden mysteries. The evolving friendship between Ruth and Joe after a resentful beginning is developed believably and the mutual support between two children adapting to different family circumstances is portrayed with great positivity. I can also imagine this book being a valuable addition to primary school classrooms with its factually-based portrayal of the post WWII years, the actual hiding away of national treasures from the great museums during the War, as well as the way that ancient historical finds are handled and investigated to shed light on our past. At the end of the story the author provides factual details on some of the real treasure hoards that provided inspiration for this book. I understand that publishers Usborne will be providing additional online resources to accompany publication of this book.

I am most grateful to Usborne and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic copy of The Secrets of the Treasure Keepers in advance of publication.

If you want to read more of A.M. Howell’s magnificent MG Historical Fiction, I highly recommend The House of One Hundred Clocks

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Annabelle Sami

Illustrator: Daniela Sosa

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

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

p11

This book in three words: Inclusive Spy Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-Fiction Review: Breaking News by Nick Sheridan

To be published by Simon & Schuster on 23rd December 2021

This super-readable exploration of the “News” will appeal to all aspiring journalists and young consumers of information alike. Although humorously written, Nick Sheridan’s guide to the world of journalism covers a range of important topics such as how to check the veracity of facts, the ethics of posting consumer generated news content and how to determine whether a story is newsworthy.

The book is divided into short chapters, each wittily illustrated and utilising a range of fonts and shout-outs to highlight key points. As you would expect from a successful journalist, Nick Sheridan’s writing is thoroughly engaging, he presents information concisely and in language that KS2 and KS3 readers will relate to and be entertained by. In fact, I can envisage so many ways in which this book could be used in schools. From History lessons, to Careers Guidance by way of Literacy ( journalistic writing) and Digital Literacy; there is content here that teachers could very easily incorporate into lessons and that children could read to expand their knowledge.

I really liked the author’s use of practical examples which encourage his audience to interact with the book rather than just being a passive consumer of the information he presents. Hopefully they will then put these skills into use when reading “news” items, especially on social media but even within the mainstream media to check for bias and misinformation or fake news. If this generation of children and young people can be educated to see through media manipulation and bias, hopefully they can make decisions based on facts rather than falsehoods. 

If you want to know the difference between top lines and headlines, the meaning of MoJo and UCG, how to write a news item using the inverted pyramid or some sensible advice about how to deal with online trolls, you will find the answers in Breaking News. There is a useful glossary at the end of the book and web addresses for a list of excellent fact – checking sites. I would recommend that all primary and secondary schools purchase this useful and engaging book for their libraries and classrooms.

I am grateful to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for early access to an electronic copy prior to publication on 23rd December 2021.