Review: Mickey and the Animal Spies written by Anne Miller


As a lifelong fan of detective/mystery/spy fiction I understand how an exciting, fast-paced, engaging story can turn a child into an enthusiastic reader. This first book in a new MG series, by debut children’s author, Anne Miller combines a smart, code-cracking girl with a secret animal organisation in a plot to solve a spate of diamond thefts! It is a wonderful new addition to the treasury of engaging children’s fiction.

Michaela R Thompson (Mickey) Is determined to follow in the footsteps of her hero, the super spy Hildegarde L McTavish. To this end, she is hanging upside down from the gymnasium balance beam when we first encounter her, in order to “look at the world from an unusual angle!” Mickey loves codes of all types: morse code, ciphers and even naval signalling flags and is always on the lookout for opportunities to practise code-cracking. Encountering a coded message written on a scrap of paper on the bus home from school, Mickey deciphers it and finds herself recruited by a top secret and extremely unusual organisation!

Mickey has stumbled upon COBRA, not the Cabinet Office B that meets in times of national crisis, but a secret animal organisation established many years previously “to protect the country’s animals in ways humans cannot comprehend.” As befits this imaginative book, the head of COBRA is of course an enormous cobra named Coby. Other members of the High Committee include Clarke, the most incredibly aloof, dismissive and sarcastic cat; a nervous giraffe security guard Bertie; Astrid the spider monkey who takes care of international affairs; Rupert the highly intelligent leader of a team of rats and the office temp, Tilda ( a sloth). This intrepid band of animal agents is lacking one thing – opposable thumbs, hence their requirement for a human agent!

A succession of diamond thefts from high profile pet owners has COBRA facing a deadly challenge, can they track down the master criminal behind the heists and protect the pampered pets of the celebrities from coming to harm? And why are these pets so reluctant to provide any information? Will Mickey ever be able to prove her worth to severely unimpressed Clarke?

You will find the answers to these puzzles in this zany adventure, but don’t be fooled by the red herrings!

I loved Mickey’s intelligent and determined character and the intriguing camouflage methods used by the animals to travel incognito around London. I was also highly amused by the concept of COBRA sending messages by b-mail, with robins being the most reliable bird. In my own mind I consider this to be a nod to Robin Stevens, the queen of detective fiction for the MG market.

This book is an utter joy to read, with its fast-paced, imaginative plot, driven along by short snappy chapters. The idea of a secret service agency run by animals seems completely feasible due to the skilful writing of Anne Miller, and the black and white illustrations by Becka Moor (who has worked on many children’s books) are a perfect complement to the text. The explanations of Mickey’s code-breaking techniques will be fascinating to children, and are a nice introduction to cyber security which is touched on in the primary school computing curriculum. 


I think this book will be perfect for early Key Stage 2 readers, who have enjoyed animal-themed stories by Dick King-Smith and Jill Tomlinson, the Daisy stories by Kes Gray, the Clarice Bean chapter books and Scoop McLaren, but are not yet ready for Ruby Redfort, Murder Most Unladylike or Alex Rider. It will introduce young readers to the excitement of young spy/detective stories and give them a new hero to root for. I do hope that there will be further titles in this series as I can’t wait to discover what plots Mickey uncovers next.

Anne Miller is a scriptwriter and researcher for QI and the Head Researcher for Radio 4’s The Museum of Curiosity. Mickey and the Animal Spies is her first book for children.


I am grateful to OUP Children’s Publishing and Liz Scott for sending me a review copy of this book and the artwork posted here, created by experienced children’s book illustrator Becka Moor, in exchange for my honest opinion.

Perfect and Timely Picture Books

Little Puggle’s Song written by Vikki Conley and illustrated by Hélène Magisson



I am ashamed to say that I have had this picture book in my reviewing stack for rather a long time and was prompted to retrieve it by the recent heart-breaking reports of the devastation wreaked by the bush fires in Australia. It goes without saying that I have immense sympathy for all of the people affected, but it is also very upsetting to see so much of the unique flora and fauna of Australia destroyed so rapidly and in such quantity.

This story of one little echidna’s determination to follow his dreams becomes all the more poignant in the light of such a  background. Vikki Conley has written a wonderfully gentle tale of Puggle’s desire to sing like all the other animals. This shy little creature is desperate to join the animal choir to sing for the arrival of the emu chicks. He watches in wonder as animals and birds rehearse for their performance; bluebirds, doves, cockatoos, kangaroos and koalas all conducted by the kookaburra known as Brown Feather. He summons the courage to ask for a place in the choir, but he does not have the ability to make a sound. However, when Brown Feather becomes ill at the last moment, Little Puggle’s dedication might just pay off!

Throughout this story the beautiful artwork of Hélène Magisson imbues the story with life and energy. Native flora and fauna are painted in subdued, earthy tones and will provide hours of wonder as they are explored. A gorgeous tale of the importance of following your heart, for young readers and a reminder for us all of the beauty and fragility of the natural world.


Under the Same Sky written by Robert Vescio, illustrated by Nicky Johnston


Another poignant picture book, with very few carefully constructed sentences by the author Robert Vescio, comparing and contrasting the lives of two children as they endeavour to build a friendship from opposite sides of the world. The astonishing artwork, by Nicky Johnston, in muted watercolour tones cleverly highlights the very different environments in which the two children live. One is clearly in an affluent society while the other child appears to be in a barren place, with barbed wire possibly hinting at a conflict zone. The determination to find a way of communication, and send a message of hope is portrayed with such sensitivity that I am sure this book will provoke deep conversations about cultural differences and long-distance friendships.


I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me copies of these picture books in return for an honest review.

Review: The Great Reindeer Disaster by Kate Saunders


I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of this humorous festive tale during the holiday season, as it would make an excellent bedtime story or present for a newly confident reader.

The Trubshaw family, mum (Judy), dad (David), Jake (10) and Sadie (7) are enjoying the first day of their summer holiday in Devon when Percy, a small reindeer falls from a hijacked sleigh and becomes wedged in their chimney! From this moment events take a surreal turn as the family are accidentally sucked up by Percy’s transporter beam and find themselves relocated to the planet Yule-1 where Santa (or F.C.) runs his year-round Christmas operations.

The magical storytelling of Kate Saunders weaves a funny and exciting tale combining the European folk-tale of Krampus with a modern plot about computer-hacking and its impact on the global operation to deliver Christmas. There are delightful touches such as the all-female reindeer squadron known as the “Janiacs” with their love of Jane Austen and uniforms featuring velvet flying bonnets, alongside the “Jambusters” led by Dasher, the elite reindeer squadron with their large RAF-style moustaches!

When Dasher is kidnapped by the unholy alliance of Krampus and a rogue reindeer known as Nerkins, Jake and Percy set off bravely to mount a rescue. However, the real heroine of the story is Sadie who demonstrates the redemptive power of kindness and forgiveness.

The illustrations throughout by Neal Layton add to the appeal of this entertaining story which is perfectly pitched for anyone aged 5+ and a joy for adults to read aloud.


I am very grateful to and Faber Children’s Books for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: McTavish on the Move by Meg Rosoff


This is the perfect book for anyone who longs for a loyal and super-smart pet dog, or anyone who enjoys realistic family stories or for any child who might be anxious about a house or school move.

In case you have not read any other books in this series, McTavish is a rescue dog, who knows that it is his duty to rescue the Peachey family – Ma, Pa, Ollie, Ava and Betty from danger or harm. He is the perfect pet!

This story starts with Ma and the children being extremely worried by Pa’s unusual behaviour – he is acting happy for the first time that anyone can remember. The author, Meg Rosoff, brilliantly captures the family’s discomfort and confusion at Pa’s change in attitude, caused by the prospect of his new job. This will involve moving to a new house, which most of the family are quite happy about. However, Betty the youngest member of the family is apprehensive about starting at a new school and it is up to the wonderful McTavish to make things right.

From an adult perspective, this is a delightful and humorous family story, produced with Barrington Stoke’s usual care and attention, an enjoyable read for anyone in Key Stage 2 and particularly suitable for dyslexic readers with its off-white paper and clear font. The family members are all fully-developed characters and the family interactions are beautifully observed. There is a gentle message contained within the humour for any child who might be nervous about moving house or joining a new school, with the addition of Betty’s rules for making friends being a lovely touch.

I am very grateful to have been sent a review copy by Toppsta and Barrington Stoke..

Amazing African Storybooks

The Small Five written by Ralph Johnstone, illustrated by Harriet Stanes


Most of us have heard of the Big Five, those five magnificent animals that safari holidaymakers most wish to see; but have you ever heard of the Small Five? No? Neither had I, until I read this hilarious book by Ralph Johnstone, gloriously and riotously illustrated by Harriet Stanes.

Told in humorous rhyming text, the story introduces the big five of lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo; I loved the adorable puns, such as lion being the “mane man”! The Battle of the Bush begins when their tiny namesakes – antlion the doodlebug, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver bird, leopard tortoise and elephant shrew challenge them to a test of survival skills.

This is an entertaining introduction to some amazing African wildlife which I feel sure will be enjoyed again and again by young readers and any adults who have the pleasure of reading it aloud. It also contains the excellent message that being big and tough isn’t everything, no-one should be overlooked just because they are small. I highly recommend it, and don’t forget to look out for the little Colotis butterfly on every page.

My thanks to Little Steps Publishing for my gifted copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.


Africa Day written by Chi Mary Kalu and illustrated by Jelena Jordanovic-Lewis



This is a vibrant and wonderful celebration of the joy of African culture as a little boy accompanies his mother on a trip to the Africa Day Festival. From the glossy illustrations on the front cover of you feel the joy of Emeka as he embarks on his exciting day out. The illustrator Jelena Jordanovic-Lewis has captured the exuberance of the festival on every page with her kinetic artwork in earthy tones.

Readers are introduced to the new vocabulary of Emeka’s culture: Ankara and dashiki shirts, kente shorts, the language Igbo, jollof rice and moi moi and share his exhilaration as he dances through the day.

A marvellous picture book, pulsating with energy,  which I highly recommend for any child of three years and older to explore.

Thank you to Little Steps Publishing for my review copy of this glorious book.

Review: The Tree That’s Meant to Be by Yuval Zommer



A joyous celebration of the natural environment, told through the tale of a tree, this book is a “must” for festive reading lists! Firstly the cover simply shouts “Christmas” with its sparkling, green tree, topped with a glittering star and placed on a rich, red background. However, rather than being surrounded by a festive family, this tree is encircled by forest birds and animals, hinting at its celebration of nature.

Inside, on pages painted in the broadest range of greens, yellows and browns, and populated by sparse paragraphs of text, we learn of the tree, grown from a tiny seed, which never manages to grow tall and straight like the other forest trees. As the seasons roll around the forest suddenly turns white and humans arrive to cut down the trees. In an inversion of the classic “little fir tree” folk tale, our little tree is the one left behind in the forest, whilst all the others are cut down in their prime for a brief seasonal trip indoors.



The following pages are suffused with the beauty of the natural world, as the wonky tree is adorned with decorations of nuts, berries, leaves and cones. It provides a focal point for the woodland creatures’ Christmas celebrations and subsequently becomes a home for birds and beasts. It is surrounded by love. The final, perfect illustration shows it providing shelter for two reading children.

My words simply cannot do justice to the magic of this book. Yuval Zommer’s finely detailed illustrations and lyrical text command hours of attention, the more closely you observe each page the more you are rewarded by the sight of delicate insects, beautifully patterned feathers and a sense of awe at the diversity of life.

As we hear the calls to protect our planet, this book provides a timely reminder of the wonder of the natural world. I hope that this picture book will be shared by adults and children, and that it will encourage the members of my generation to reflect upon the need to act to protect and nurture the glory of our planet. I am sure that The Tree That’s Meant to Be is going to be very popular at school where we are trying to be stewards of creation, and I will certainly be gifting copies to the youngest relatives this Christmas.


I am most grateful to OUP Children’s Publishing for sending me a review copy.

Review: A Home for Luna by Stef Gemmill and Mel Armstrong



New Frontier Publishing are releasing some outstanding picture books into the market this autumn, and this one is sure to melt hearts, as bedraggled Luna searches for a new home.

The author, Stef Gemmill’s words are accompanied by wonderfully detailed illustrations in a muted, natural, colour palette created by Mel Armstrong. I believe that this is the first picture book that she has illustrated – it’s a stunningly impressive debut. In an inspired nod to her target audience there is a small hermit crab to find on every page, an activity that little children will love and that again emphasises the theme of searching for a home.

It is not clear why the little cat Luna has washed up on a strange shore, only that “sounds of danger had made her leave her home.”  She is tired, friendless and hungry, but gradually she finds a trusting friendship with a huddle of penguins and an unlikely partnership develops. The simple, elegant text and characterful pictures convey this poignant story perfectly for a young audience.  The tale can be enjoyed at a surface level as one of developing friendship and finding a new home, and on another level this book could be used as the start of a discussion about displacement and refugees with young children.


I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a review copy which will be added to our school library, and is a lovely addition to our “Read for Empathy” collection.

Review:Who’s Afraid of the Quite Nice Wolf? by Kitty Black

Who’s Afraid of the Quite Nice Wolf? written by Kitty Black and illustrated by Laura Wood



Meet Wilfred, he’s a wolf, but not a scary one! On the front cover of this adorable hardback book he appears, holding a sunflower and a red marker pen, with which he has clearly added the words “quite nice” to a more traditional title. Open to the first page and you will find Wilfred hosting a tea party in his garden, serving delicious looking cakes and biscuits to chickens, sheep and a duck; animals that you would expect to find on his menu! Meanwhile, two mean-looking wolves are glaring at him over his garden fence.

Poor Wilfred, as the story progresses it is very apparent that he does not fit in with the rest of his pack…he’s “even a VEGETARIAN!” The Leader of the pack is determined that Wilfred will learn to be a proper wolf and join an attack on the sheep. However, Wifred has other ideas, and along with his friend Mildred he devises a plan!

This picture book is absolutely wonderful in the way that it subverts the traditional “Big Bad Wolf” fairy-tales. The illustrations by Laura Wood are beautiful in their earthy colour palette, with so much detail to observe and discuss on every page. I love the contrast between Wilfred in his buttoned-up shirt and bow tie, and the rest of the wolf pack with their bandanas, eye-patches and ripped jeans! In very few words the author, Kitty Black, has conjured an incredibly enjoyable story imbued with the message that is ok to be different and to be true to who you are, perfectly pitched for a young audience.

I think this will be a very enjoyable story to share with children aged 4-7, and I am grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a review copy.  


Review: Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue by Paula Harrison


Kitty is an energetic, graceful and adventurous girl. She wishes more than anything to be a superhero like her mum – but there is a slight problem. Kitty is afraid of the dark! While her mum dresses in her black cat superhero outfit each night and uses her abilities to see in the dark, sense danger, climb walls and balance perfectly on rooftops, Kitty wants to feel safe and secure, snuggled up in her bed.

Then, one night a cat called Figaro arrives at her bedroom window, searching for her mother, to help with an emergency in the old clock tower. Amazed to find that she can communicate with a cat and not wishing to disappoint him, Kitty remembers her mother’s words:

Don’t let fear hold you back. You’re braver than you think!”

and takes a leap in the dark!

This story, the first in the Kitty series, is an utter delight and a perfect book for emerging readers. The striking cover design (by Jenny Lovlie) in black, orange and white is continued throughout the book, making this a memorable reading experience. The story itself is perfectly pitched for upper Key Stage 1/lower Key Stage 2 children with an exciting plot and an inspiring message of finding the ability to rise to challenges, especially when someone shows their belief in you. I think that Kitty will be immensely popular with fans of Isadora Moon, Amelia Fang and the Rainbow Fairies books, as well as with all cat-lovers.

One final interesting touch in this already appealing book is the collection of super facts about cats at the end of the story. I am looking forward to adding this to the library shelves at school, and predict that it will jump into the hands of willing readers very rapidly!


My thanks to OUP Children’s Books for sending me a copy of Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue to review.

Review: The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

Good Thieves

I am always slightly worried when I review a new book by Katherine Rundell that I won’t be able to do justice to her talent, but here are my thoughts on The Good Thieves.

Although I bought this book on publication day, I saved reading it until I was actually away on holiday so that I could enjoy it without distractions. It certainly rewarded the wait!

Firstly, it is an absolute page-turner, hooking the reader from the opening line

“Vita set her jaw and nodded at the city in greeting, as a boxer greets an opponent before a fight”

and refusing to let you go until Vita has executed her bold plan. She arrives in 1920s New York, with her mother to discover that her beloved and recently bereaved grandpa has been cheated out of the ancestral home,  Hudson Castle, by Mr Sorrotore – a mafiosi figure. As the opening line suggests, Vita is a fighter and sets out into the unfamiliar city to confront the villain and demand restitution. Of course, such a direct approach from a child has no effect other than to anger Mr Sorrotore, so Vita must employ other means to reclaim the castle and its contents.

 In the course of planning her heist, to steal back the rightful belongings of her family, Vita enlists a team comprising Arkady (a circus performer with a gift for training animals), Sam (a trapeze artist) and Silk (a pick-pocket who has fended for herself since childhood). They combine their skills with Vita’s deadly aim and gift for planning, to take on the villainous gang.

The author effortlessly portrays the contrast between the glamorous, brightly-lit, night-life of the wealthy inhabitants of the city and the dark, dangerous underside where some of the wealth is generated. The writing fizzes and sparkles with wit and energy, and as usual there is no hint of a cliche anywhere. Instead the unique style rewards the readers with original descriptions. For example, a seagull, “gave the scandalised cry of an angry duchess” when hit by one of Vita’s stones! (If you are a long-time fan of Katherine Rundell, you will find the statutory “Belgium joke” on page 63).

I love the way that Katherine Rundell is able to capture a child’s sense of outrage at injustice, and their determination to take agency to put right a wrong. I think that many young readers will recognise this aspect of themselves as they enjoy this hugely entertaining adventure, which for me brought back memories of the classic Emil and The Detectives. The descriptions of Vita’s refusal to allow her physical disability to hold her back are inspirational and the overall feeling of love and hope make this story a rewarding one. Finally, I should mention the gloriously stylish cover and interior illustrations by Matt Saunders, which further enhance the quality of this book.

Overall, a wonderful MG adventure which I will be recommending to all upper KS2 pupils. For adults wishing to read aloud in class or as a bedtime story, be prepared for pleas of “one more chapter”!
This #Book13 of my #20BooksofSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746Books. I have enjoyed taking part in the challenge for the first time this year as it has encouraged me to blog more regularly and has introduced me to a new community of fantastic book bloggers. I am sorry that I won’t meet my target of 20 reviews, but this is partly due to the fact that I’ve read a number of “grown-up” books and even a rare YA novel this summer, but limit my blog to MG and Early Years reviews.