Perfect Picture Books July 2020

I have been very fortunate in recent weeks to receive an amazing selection of picture books from New Frontier Publishing, who have made it their goal to produce great quality books with powerful messages and informative content. Here are a selection of their July publications.

Polly Profiterole’s Little Town written by Maggie May Gordon and illustrated by Margarita Levina

Cover image by Margarita Levina, published by New Frontier Publishing

This deliciously imaginative story from Maggie May Gordon, who is a well-known poet and lyricist in Australia, is likely to inspire all kinds of creativity in children with whom it is shared. Polly Profiterole is a very hard-working cook who is completely exhausted from making pancakes for the inhabitants of her little town every day.

Her little town, which is beautifully captured in retro colours by illustrator Margarita Levina, seems to be lost in a time-warp in an out of the way corner of Australia. The verandah of Polly’s bungalow serves as the Pancake Parlour…and is the ONLY shop in a town so neglected that it doesn’t have a school, church, shops or even a pub! In a flash of inspiration one night Polly decides that she will bake the institutions required to bring her town to life, and her builder husband Percy can then construct her vision. From her imagination pours a series of buildings created from some highly unusual but very tasty materials; my favourite joke was the Hot Bread Bank, which required a huge amount of dough!

This quirky tale would be perfect to share with pre-school and Early Years children and could stimulate all kinds of construction, baking and other imaginative and creative activities.

My Grandma is 100, written by Aimee Chan and illustrated by Angela Perrini

Cover image by Angela Perrini, published by New Frontier Publishing

This heart-warming story is told from a young child’s point of view as he ponders the one hundredth birthday of his Grandma Edna. The charming text by Aimee Chan and playful illustrations by Angela Perrini fully capture a child’s sense of awe at the magical number 100. I found myself chuckling with amusement as the little boy asks Grandma whether she will have fairy bread and crisps and wonders whether the fire brigade will be required if Grandma cannot blow out one hundred candles! Aimee Chan has brilliantly highlighted the differences in the way that the younger and older generations think whilst conveying the absolute determination of the child to find the perfect present for his beloved Grandma.

The inspiration for the story, I believe, was the author’s own grandmother-in-law and the sense of intergenerational family celebration and love flows from every page. I love the use of different fonts, sizes and colours to emphasise certain words and I am sure that this book will delight all pre-school and Early Years children and provide an excellent basis for discussions about family and growing old.

Amazing Animal Earth, written by Alessandra Yap and illustrated by Anastasia Popp

Cover image by Anastasia Popp, published by New Frontier Publishing

This book takes young readers on a whistle-stop tour of the world’s seven continents in an entertaining and educational look at the diverse range of wildlife that we are lucky enough to enjoy on our planet. The story is told in simple rhyming text by teacher Alessandra Yap, and from the positioning of the young girl on the far right hand side of the first spread you know that you are about to join her on a journey.

First to Africa, which the text explains is made of many countries and a descriptive selection of the amazing animals to be found on that great continent. From the hot colours of Africa the narrative progresses to snowy Europe, exotic Asia, vast North America, fascinating South America, amazing Australia and icy Antarctica. At each stop a small selection of interesting animals are highlighted so that despite this being a slim book the spark is lit in a child’s quest for knowledge about the incredible animals that we should treasure. The illustrations by Anastasia Popp entertainingly place the young girl in the centre of the animal action on each spread which I am sure will encourage young readers to study the pictures with great attention.

The Sloth and the Dinglewot, written by Nicole Prust and illustrated by Amanda Enright

Cover illustration by Amanda Enright, Published by New Frontier Publishing

This debut picture book from Sri Lankan-born Nicole Prust who now works as a teacher in the UK quite wonderfully aims to encourage young children to find the inner strength to try something new. From its glittering front cover onwards this book literally sparkles with the joy of exploration and adventure!

Samuel Sloth’s family hang out on the banks of the lazy lagoon, but while the rest of his family lie in the trees with their eyes closed Samuel has one eye open for adventure. He is encouraged to follow his instincts by the mysterious Dinglewot, a bird whose feathers explode with colour, leaving a trail of multi-coloured sparkles behind her flight path. She leads Samuel beyond the edge of the trees to frolic with baboons, be entertained by musical bats and eventually to feast in Dinglewotville. At every new stage when Samuel’s inner fears threaten to hold him back the Dinglewot gently encourages him to find his determination and relish a new experience.

I enjoyed this book hugely. The text written as rhyming couplets is perfectly complemented by the beautifully detailed and brightly coloured illustrations so that Samuel’s journey, from sleepy sloth longing for adventure to bold explorer who has conquered his inner fears, flows gloriously through the story. I can imagine that this book will be hugely popular as a read-aloud story in Early Years classrooms or as a bedtime story and I am sure that young children will love joining in with the Dinglewot’s rhyme as they learn to embrace new experiences. I am looking forward to sharing it with Reception class children when term begins in September.

There are teaching resources available for this book on the New Frontier website, available here.

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing and Little Steps Publishing for sending me these books in exchange for my honest opinion.

#MGTakesOnThursday: A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

To take part, the steps to follow are:

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

Author: Elle McNicoll

Illustrator: Kay Wilson

Publisher: Knights Of

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This sentence is how the main protagonist Addie introduces us to one of her older sisters, Keedie:

“Her voice is all one colour, a beautiful molten gold”

This book in three words: Autism – Bullying – Solidarity

This week, instead of my usual policy of looking back to a book or series that I shared with one of my own children, I am reviewing a book which I only read last week as it was the #PrimarySchoolBookClub choice for July.

A Kind of Spark is an important #OwnVoices book about autism, highlighting the value of being true to yourself and also of standing in solidarity with those who are persecuted just because they are perceived as “different” in some way. The author Elle McNicoll is autistic and parts of the book are based on her own experiences – both good and bad – at school. I was delighted to see the publisher, Knights Of, winning awards last week because they are giving us all a huge empathy boost by bringing diverse voices to our attention and encouraging us to re-evaluate our attitudes and behaviour.

The main protagonist, Addie, is in her final year at primary school and feeling very lonely as her best friend has deserted her for spiteful Emily who delights in bullying her and horrifyingly the class teacher Miss Murphy contributes to, and it would appear, encourages the bullying behaviour of certain pupils. Fortunately Addie has two allies at school, the librarian Mr Allison who is kindness and patience personified, and Audrey who has recently arrived from London and therefore seen as an outsider by the close-knit community of a small village outside Edinburgh.

The “outsider” theme is expanded as Addie becomes intrigued by the stories of women from the village who were tried and executed as witches several hundred years earlier. At a subconscious level Addie feels some kinship with these women and the theme of her determination to have a memorial plaque erected for them in the village is cleverly interwoven with her daily battle to “mask” her behaviours and fit in at school.

The third strand of the story is based around the dynamics of Addie’s family. Her mother and father are both working long hours and are incredibly supportive of her needs. She is also cared for in contrasting styles, by her older, twin sisters Keedie and Nina. I thought that Keedie was the absolute heroine of this story, autistic herself, she had obviously experienced an even harsher time at school than Addie and does her best throughout to protect her younger sister from the slings and arrows of ignorant bullies. despite being exhausted by trying to cope with her university challenges. Nina is not neuro-diverse and as such sometimes feels left-out in the family unit. Although at times she is less patient and less considerate of Addie’s needs, there is no doubt about her love for her two sisters.

One of the most striking things for me about the writing was Addie’s description of the sensory assaults that everyday situations caused for her. So for example the school bell is described as “screeching loudly” and other loud noises “feel like a drill against a sensitive nerve.” The power of this kind of writing to help you walk in someone else’s shoes for a while and understand just how differently they experience and therefore react to external stimuli is so valuable for us all and I am immensely grateful to Elle McNicoll for inviting us into her world. Additionally, the story makes clear that autism should not be seen as a disability, rather that the ability to experience the world differently provides unique opportunities for creativity and should be celebrated.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone of 9/10+, children and adults alike.

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

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

To take part, the steps to follow are:

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

Author: Victoria Williamson

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

Publisher: Kelpies, an imprint of Floris Books

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

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

This book in three words: Alienation – Empathy – Friendship

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

Review: Boo Loves Books by Kaye Baillie, illustrated by Tracie Grimwood

Front cover of Boo Loves Books, illustration by Tracie Grimwood, Published by New Frontier Publishing

As we mark #EmpathyDay2020 today, it seemed the perfect time to post a review of this gorgeous picture book which demonstrates empathy throughout. Firstly there is the kind teacher, Miss Spinelli, who recognises Phoebe’s anxiety about reading and decides to take the class on a trip away from the classroom to read to a non-judgemental audience in an unusual location. Then we see Phoebe’s mum recognising her reluctance to participate in the trip and reassuring her that she is going to have a wonderful time. Next, the small but significant action of her best friend giving her hand a squeeze; showing children that sometimes even the tiniest gesture can mean so much to someone. Finally, Phoebe’s recognition that Big Boo, despite his enormous size is every bit as anxious as she is and her recognition of a kindred spirit helping her through her difficulties.

Kaye Baillie’s story has a heart-warming outcome, showing young children the positive impact of empathy. The charming illustrations by Tracie Grimwood give the impression that they have been created with colouring pencils, the muted shades perfectly matched to the tone of the story. The transformation of Phoebe’s nervous facial expressions and body language to a face suffused with smiles is deeply touching. At a time when even the youngest children display anxieties at the strange conditions we are all operating under, stories such as Boo Loves Books, with a message of quiet reassurance are invaluable.

I highly recommend this book for any pre-school or Key Stage One’s collection of books to read for empathy and if you are looking for a book to share at home with a child of 3-6 years old, then add this to your shopping list!

My thanks to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of Boo Loves Books in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Kitty and the Sky Garden Adventure by Paula Harrison, illustrated by Jenny Løvlie

Kitty skygarden

 

This is the third magical Adventure for Kitty, a little girl who has inherited her mum’s cat-like superpowers and one day aims to follow in her mum’s paw prints to become a superhero!

For the time being she is happy to pull on her supercat costume, with its billowing, black cape, and skip over the night-time rooftops with her many feline friends, enjoying gentle adventures from which they all learn essential life lessons.

At the start of this story, Kitty and her rescue-cat Pumpkin are visited by their friend Pixie, who arrives to tell them about a magical rooftop garden she has heard about. Kitty is seeking inspiration for a school project so the three of them set out on a night time expedition across the town, with Kitty using her enhanced sense of smell to locate the plant-filled wonderland of the Sky Garden. When they arrive her two cat companions go crazy in a capnip plant until they are scolded by an old tortoiseshell cat named Diggory. He is the guardian of the Sky Garden who explains the number of years of work that his owner, Mrs Lovell, has invested into creating this living paradise. After suitable apologies the three explorers are allowed to investigate the wonders of the garden and Kitty finds inspiration for her school garden design.

However, Pixie cannot keep the news of this incredibly beautiful space to herself, and by spreading the news far and wide causes unexpected trouble. Kitty will require all her reserves of skill and intelligence to try to rectify the damage!

This is a wonderful book for newly confident readers, and would equally make a lovely shared experience for younger, emerging readers. The story is beautifully crafted by Paula Harrison, nurturing a sense of respect for the hard work and property of others and encouraging thoughtfulness, all wrapped in an exciting adventure. The illustrations by Jenny Løvlie are wondrously striking in a palette of black, white and orange. There is so much intricate detail to explore and talk about that this book will invite hours of exploration. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone aged 4+, I am looking forward to sharing it through the school library and imagine that many children will be tempted to collect the entire series for their own bookshelves.

For my review of the first Kitty adventure please click here: Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue

 

Thank you to OUP Children’s Publishing for my copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Review: Ballet Bunnies The New Class by Swapna Reddy

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Ballet Bunnies is a new series starring Millie a young ballerina and the magical, miniature bunny rabbits who live at the ballet school she attends. The New Class is the first in a series of six books being published by Oxford Children’s Books with this and Book 2, Let’s Dance, coming out in June 2020.

I was delighted to be sent an ARC of Ballet Bunnies The New Class, an absolute must-read for all young dancers! It is the perfect size and length for newly confident readers in Key Stage One, with gorgeous full-colour illustrations in a pastel palette throughout. The pictures of the ballerinas are immensely cute with slightly oversized heads and huge expressive eyes, perfectly designed to appeal to young readers. The series has been written by Swapna Reddy and illustrated by Binny Talib and wonderfully, it features a multi-ethnic cast of characters at the ballet school and to complete its appeal to a broad readership, a boy ballerina is featured too.  It is so important for all children to be able to see themselves in the books that they read and I’m sure that these books will find a wide, appreciative audience. I can certainly imagine a large number of children at my own school who will be pirouetting in delight after reading about Millie’s adventures. 

Six-year-old, ballet-obsessed Millie is about to fulfil her dreams by starting lessons at Miss Luisa’s School of Dance. She skips into the class with her spirits soaring, only to encounter an unfriendly comment and mean looks from another member of the class, star pupil, Amber.

Feeling despondent at her inability to perfect the pliés with the same grace as Amber, Will and Samira, Millie is left waiting for her mum to collect her at the end of the lesson. Startled by a movement behind the stage curtain she investigates and finds Dolly, Fifi, Pod and Trixie, the magical, talking and dancing miniature bunnies! What impact will her new friends have on Millie’s future at the ballet school? You will have to read this book to find out.

The story is delightfully written by Swapna Reddy (a firm favourite with me and my library users due to the hilarious Dave Pigeon series she writes as Swapna Haddow). In Ballet Bunnies her style is one of gentle encouragement as she helps young readers experience the effects that mean behaviour can have on someone’s confidence, and contrasts this with the powerful force of kindness and support. A perfect book for any child who might be feeling discouraged by a challenging task, and a wonderful addition to the bookshelves of all young dancers.

Thanks to OUP Children’s Publishing for my review copy.

For my reviews of the Dave Pigeon series, please follow this link.

Review: Patina written by Jason Reynolds

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The second book in the “Run” series by Jason Reynolds is in my opinion, even better than the first book, Ghost, which I also loved.. 

This time the story focuses on Patina (Patty) who projects a surface sheen of cool coping to conceal the boiling anguish inside. Patty is the fastest 800m runner on  the track team, needing to win at all costs as she pushes through life with an almost unimaginable weight on her young shoulders. As her tragic family history is revealed I found my heart breaking at the thought of this teenager trying to contain the unimaginable pain of losing her beloved father to an early death followed by watching her mother develop “the sugar” (diabetes), necessitating radical amputations. Patty’s care for Maddy, her younger sister, and the guardianship provided by her exhausted aunt and uncle are described with gentle domestic details making you realise that this family is held together by self-sacrificing love. 

Before I give the impression that this is a misery-fest, I ought to say that such is the power of Jason Reynolds’ writing, he can combine heartfelt emotion with zinging humour and contemporary teenage put-downs. His style segues from trackside banter to poetic descriptions like an elite athlete moving up through the gears. The short chapters and kinetic writing, power you through the story at a pace The Defenders track team would be proud of!

Patty has had to move schools, joining the elite Chester Academy which is closer to her aunt’s house, where she feels like an imposter amongst the rich kid “hair-flippers”. The description of her doing laps of the cafeteria whilst eating her lunch because she has nobody to sit with will tug at your heart strings. 

The athletics track is the venue for Patty to release her anguish, and where she has to win. Here she pushes her legs until they are screaming with pain, feeling that she is running with four legs: her own and her mum’s missing ones. The scenes where she develops teamwork and understanding with her new relay team are both hilarious and touching; the reliance on everyone performing their role reflecting Patty’s domestic situation. Imagery of the baton of care and responsibility being passed from one family member to another permeates the story, so that we see the extended family unit functioning like a well-coached team of athletes, each member stepping up as another exhausts their role. 

This is a book which will live long in my heart and I don’t mind admitting that at one point I “cried me a flood”. I cannot recommend it highly enough as a thoroughly gripping story to add to your “read-for-empathy” collections for anyone of 10+.

 

Animal-themed Picture Books

Scruffle-Nut by Corinne Fenton

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“As winter leaves tumble and twirl a wisp of memory wraps itself about me and whispers me back to long ago…”

Thus begins this poetic story which gently explores the subject of bullying through the tale of a young girl and a squirrel she befriends in a city park. When Olivia notices the little squirrel with the stumpy tail, whom she feeds with biscuit crumbs from her pocket, she realises that he is able to outsmart the faster, greedier squirrels she labels the Bully-Bunch. The wonderfully evocative artwork implies that she uses this lesson to deal with the bullies in her own life, and many years later she still remembers Scruffle-Nut as she sits in the park.

This is an incredibly beautiful book with which to start a conversation about bullying with young children; I would highly recommend it for schools and families alike. Corinne Fenton’s powerful writing will reward repeated reading and the artwork by Owen Swan absolutely compels your attention.

 

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review. 

Pip Finds a Home by Elena Topouzoglou

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Well here’s a picture book that likes to play with your preconceptions, a penguin at the north pole, a hooded explorer who is female, a penguin that isn’t a penguin … and ultimately turns out to be extinct!

 When Pip the penguin is transported from the Arctic to the Antarctic on an exploration ship, he tries to find his place amongst the different species of penguin which inhabit that hostile landscape. As the beautiful, watercolour, artwork by writer and illustrator Elena Topouzoglou shows us, Pip has similarities to, but is not exactly the same as any of the penguins he encounters. Despite their recognised differences, the penguins welcome Pip as their new friend and he joins in with their snowy games.

Finally he sees a bird that shares his striped beak, flippers that resemble wings and grey feet. It turns out that Pip belongs to the northern hemisphere after all, and in fact his species has been extinct for a long time. Can you guess which species Pip belongs to? Get your hands on a copy of this gorgeous book to find out! At the end of the story there is a non-fiction section packed with fascinating facts about these incredible birds which have adapted to live in some of the harshest conditions on earth. This book is sure to be a hit with readers of 3 and above, with its message of inclusivity, atmospheric artwork and educational content.

 

Thank you to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Review: Twelve Days of Kindness by Cori Brooke

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This boldly colourful picture book is perfect for sharing with Early Years and Key Stage 1 children at any time, but its arrival is particularly well-timed during anti-bullying week. Written by Cori Brooke and illustrated by Fiona Burrows it demonstrates how one little girl’s careful observation, kindness and determination can make a huge difference to the happiness of another.

On the first page we are introduced to Nabila, the new girl at school, as she stands alone at playtime surrounded by small groups of children who are quite obviously whispering and giggling about her. Only one girl, Holly, stands apart from the others, looking sad and uncomfortable at the behaviour of her peers. She wonders if Nabila is lonely and devises a 12-day training plan, helped by the school football coach. Can her scheme to promote acts of kindness bring the football team together and integrate Nabila into the friendship group?

This inspiring and hopeful book, with its vibrant and expressive illustrations, makes a glorious addition to a school library or Key Stage 1 classroom as children will recognise situations that occur in the playground reflected in the book. The messages of welcome for a newly arrived pupil and advancement of teamwork to the benefit of everyone are great for starting conversations with young children. The level of detail in the pictures will be enjoyed each time the book is re-read.

 

My thanks to New Frontier Publishing for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Boy with the Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

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This new book from Victoria Williamson brims over with emotion as it flits between the alternate voices of Elin and Jamie, two very different children who are pulled together into a new blended family.

Elin is an eleven year-old, struggling to come to terms with her parents’ broken marriage and hoping that if she lives up to her dad’s “ perfect princess” label he will return to the family. When her dad left she felt “ like he’d taken my wings and the blue summer sky with him.” She clings to her precious memories of life in their previous fairy tale home and bottles up her anger at her new circumstances, only revealing how she truly feels in the fantasy story that she adds to during her lonely, friendless break times at school. 

Meanwhile, Jamie is ignored by his mum’s new boyfriend Chris, but hopes that when the three of them move to California the American doctors will be able to fix his broken brain. He wants an alternative reality to his current one of being “the boy who can’t concentrate for more than half a second before his mind’s fluttering off somewhere else like a butterfly.

When Jamie’s mum delivers the devastating news that Chris does not want him to accompany them to America, but instead he is to move in with his Dad’s new girlfriend and her daughter in Glasgow, Jamie’s violent and destructive reaction is absolutely heart-wrenching. His reflections on his anger-management issues show his struggles and his self-awareness at the same time as his utter inability to control his behaviour when the chaos in his brain becomes unbearable.

Elin is furious at this messy arrival into her home and even more enraged when Jamie joins her class at school, causing disruption to the one area where she feels in control. She labels him “the enemy” and decides that she will have to get rid of him and his dad Paul if she is to have any hope of getting her own dad back to live “happily ever after with just me and Mum.” 

The clever story structure lets you inside the minds of the two young protagonists, and seeing the tale play out through their perceived realities gives the reader an incredible empathy with the contrasting viewpoints. Elin is a difficult character to warm to, her dismissiveness of kind, gentle Paige, her absolute refusal to meet her Dad’s new daughter or girlfriend and her desire to put her fairytale family back together all begin to make sense when seen through the prism of her desolation at losing her father. Meanwhile Jamie is a hugely sympathetic character with a kind heart and a continual struggle with ADHD. In one incredibly moving paragraph he sums up his reality in these words:

It’s funny how just four letters can mean the difference between being normal and being the kind of monster whose own mother moves to a different country to get away from him.

The extreme and deceitful measures that Elin takes to remove Jamie from her home appear to be unforgivable, but the reader has to take Jaimie’s big-hearted lead and believe that redemption is possible. 

In addition to the sensitively written characters of Jamie and Elin, I think that the character of Jamie’s dad Paul is wonderfully realised especially as kind, sensitive Dads are largely missing from MG fiction. Right from the start it is clear that he goes out of his way to respect Elin’s space and to show her understanding despite her coldness towards him, and his devotion to helping his son is all-encompassing. The quietly diplomatic Paige, a lonely character who blossoms as her friendship with Jamie develops is another key element in this story.

I loved the book’s structure, progressing through the different stages of a butterfly’s development and the way that this device was included in the children’s science project. The emotional journey of Elin and Jamie’s metamorphosis into a new blended family is handled with such sensitivity by Victoria Williamson that it teaches us all a valuable lesson in empathy – both for children living with ADHD and those suffering emotionally following divorce. This is one of those books that I know will stay in my heart long after I finished reading it. 

 

I absolutely recommend this book to everyone of age 10+, and I cannot wait to see what Victoria Williamson writes next.

It is heart-warming to see that 20% of the author royalties are being donated to Children 1st, a Scottish charity helping families and children.

If you love this book, make sure you read The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by the same author.