Books for Christmas Gifts 2021

It’s that time of year when I start shopping for the books that increasingly form the backbone of my Christmas shopping list. There has been another fantastic roster of new books emerging this year and we are actually spoilt for choice when entering a bookshop, so I thought I would share some of the books that have stood out for me during the past 12 months and which I will be buying and giving this festive season.

Christmas/Festive Themed

Christmas/Festive themed books 2021

Once Upon A Silent Night by Dawn Casey and Katie Hickey is a beautiful retelling of the Nativity story inspired by a medieval carol, which would make a delightful gift for any pre-school child.

The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent and Selom Sunu is a huge-hearted festive story which absolutely brims over with Christmas cheer, warmth and humour.

The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer is an enchanting picture book which sparkles with the magic of the Northern Lights; in the author’s own words “a miracle of winter”.

Non-fiction

Non-fiction published in 2021 by David Fickling Books and Bloomsbury

Roar Like a Lion by Carlie Sorosiak: a wellbeing book with a different twist, looking at what we can learn from the animal kingdom to help us navigate some of life’s uncertainties. If you know a tween or teen who has struggled with some of the challenges of the past two years, put a copy of this compassionate and life-affirming book into their hands.

How Was That Built? by Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey is quite simply a towering work of non-fiction which will make a fantastic present for curious minds of any age.

Translated Fiction

Interestingly, both of my choices in this category come from Scandinavian writers and feature unconventional stories brimming with wit and wisdom. Firstly we have the classic children’s story Pippi Lockstocking by Astrid Lindgren which has just been re-released in a glorious hardback format with new illustrations in her trademark collage-style, by Lauren Child. A beautifully designed gift for any child to treasure. Recommended for age 7+.

Newly translated into English this year, Me and the Robbersons by Finnish author Siri Kolu (translated by Ruth Urbom) was one of my most joyous middle-grade reads of the summer. An anarchic tale of sweet-toothed, highway bandits on the roads of Sweden, the humour envelopes a beautiful story of acceptance. Recommended for age 9+.

MG Fiction

The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife by Maz Evans and Chris Jevons is a riot of jokes, warmth and love, fully illustrated and perfect for readers who are gaining independence and don’t mind stopping every few minutes to wipe away the tears of laughter.

Mickey and the Trouble with Moles by Anne Miller and Becka Moor is their second hugely entertaining, illustrated, spy mystery in this series, which will test the brainpower of junior cryptographers. An excellent introduction to the world of espionage fiction.

The Crackledawn Dragon by Abbie Elphinstone is the conclusion to her Unmapped Kingdoms trilogy. It is a story brimming with kindness, playfulness and sheer, unbound imaginative brilliance which will delight readers of 9+

The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay is a deeply moving story set during WWII and told from the perspective of both English and German characters. The elegant imagery of swallows flits through this story of the importance of seemingly small acts of kindness. A thoughtful read for anyone of 11+.

Island Adventures

Three books, all set on islands situated off the Irish coast were amongst my favourite MG titles this year, so I’ve given them a category of their own!

Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a treasure chest of heart, humour and hope; a wonderful story which will entertain all the family. Perfect for reading aloud when the generations are gathered together over the festive period.

The Stormkeepers’ Battle by Catherine Doyle concludes the thrilling and lyrical trilogy of the battle for the soul of wild Arranmore Island.

The Way to Impossible Island by Sophie Kirtley is a life-affirming, time-slip novel about overcoming fears and challenging expectations.

Young Adult Fiction

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller is unlike anything I have ever read in all my (many) years as a reader. I actually haven’t written my full review yet as I am still trying to process the insight that author Lisa Fuller has generously provided into her cultural beliefs. I did find some aspects quite frightening, so would certainly say that this is a book for over 16s and not those of a nervous disposition but I’m sure it will also be of great interest to adults who wish to gain some understanding of the culture and spiritual beliefs of First Nations Australians.

I am Winter by Denise Brown is a beautifully written, gritty, and compelling whodunnit perfect for readers of 15+ .

Non-fiction November Review: Split Survival Kit by Ruth Fitzgerald & Angharad Rudkin

Cover image by Stef Murphy, to be published by Wren & Rook / Hachette Children’s Group
17th February 2022

This engaging, down to earth guide has been designed with great care to provide a practical road map to assist children and teenagers through the emotional journey encountered when parents decide to separate. One of the authors, Dr Angharad Rudkin is a Clinical Psychologist, specialising in children and family issues while Ruth Fitzgerald has written a hugely popular fiction series for the tween readership. The combination of clinical knowledge and skill at writing for the 10/11+ audience, combined with Stef Murphy’s artwork make this a book that youngsters will want to pick up and learn from, if they sadly find themselves facing this circumstance.

Starting from the premise that parental separation is a journey on which most people would not wish to embark, the book proposes to set out ten steps to help children navigate the emotional path, discussing all the steps along the way and giving young people the vocabulary they need to articulate their feelings. The ten chapters are broken into sections which include real life stories of young people who have already experienced these issues; advice on ways to think differently and empathetically about a situation; practical exercises to help manage emotions and journal writing or drawing hints to help youngsters track their feelings through the process.

The design and layout of the chapters has been done with great skill to ensure that the advice is accessible to all. The images convey information clearly and sympathetically; text is broken into chunks, often contained in panels which resemble pages ripped from a notebook or in bullet journal-style layout, with arrows and bullet points highlighting summaries or key points. Readers are guided through the process from the initial thought that perhaps they can encourage their parents to change track and stay together, to acceptance, to dealing with their own feelings, managing anxieties and finding the answers to questions that cause anxiety, learning how to talk about their family situation to others without embarrassment, how to cope when parents behave badly, how to deal with life split between two houses and the introduction of new family members and how to manage the impact on their own future emotional life.

Throughout the book there is a tone of positivity and calmness, readers are encouraged to look for the positives in their situation, advice is given on how to take control of those aspects which they can manage, and to accept that some things cannot be changed. It is made clear from the start that children are in no way to blame for parental separation and that their feelings are important and need to be discussed with the adults in their life. At the end of the book there are contact details for organisations which can supply further advice and help if needed, there is also a very helpful glossary of terms which children might hear during the family court process. While no book can take the place of personal discussion with responsible adults or even clinicians, this title is likely to be a very valuable addition to the wellbeing collections in school, public and even healthcare libraries, with its expert writing for children of 10+, presenting reassurance and practical guidance at a time of family break-up.

I am grateful to NetGalley and to Wren & Rook/Hachette Children’s Group for allowing me access to a pre-publication. electronic version of Split Survival Kit in exchange for my honest opinion.

Non-Fiction November Review: My Period. Find your flow and feel proud of your period! by Milli Hill

Illustrations by Sarah Eichert, published by Wren & Rook

One of the things that I have learnt since becoming a health librarian is the importance of presenting health information in a way that can be easily understood by the target audience and can thus enable individuals to play an active role in maintaining their own own health.

This book, written by Milli Hill and illustrated by Sarah Eichert, is designed to give girls reaching puberty all the information required to ensure that they are well prepared for the start of their period and to dispel the fear, embarrassment and anxiety that is often associated with a perfectly normal aspect of human biology. In the opening chapter, author Milli Hill, clearly outlines the book’s remit to highlight the positive, overcome embarrassment and instil a sense of pride, by presenting facts and advice in an open and honest manner. Her journalistic talents are put to good use, the text is written in a chatty, engaging manner with fonts that have been carefully chosen to appeal to the target audience.

Chapters include coverage of the changes which the body experiences during puberty, period products, what to expect from one’s first period, the menstrual cycle and how to chart the changes in one’s body as well as how to look after one’s body and hygiene. Everything is explained in a straightforward and friendly manner, with a dash of humour and loads of practical advice. The illustrations are clear and aid comprehension; alongside the organisation of the chapters into chunks of information in answer to questions, information messages are easy to understand and internalise. There is a constant refrain to talk to your grown up which I think is great advice and I would actually recommend that the significant adult reads this book first before handing it over to a child, so that they can answer any questions or talk about any issues that crop up.

Another aspect of the book that I really liked is the feature called “Cycle Superstars” which occurs at regular intervals. Each panel provides a brief biography of an individual who has made a positive contribution to the menstrual experience, for example Ella Dash who launched the campaign #EndPeriodPlastic which has already persuaded some manufacturers in the UK to stop producing plastic tampon applicators. On the final page, there is a list of further resources, both websites and books, which supply reliable further advice.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to families, school nurses, and school as well as public libraries, with the proviso that I’ve already mentioned, of encouraging the significant adult to read either before or with their child. This book provides a great service by dispelling the shame that some girls have been made to feel about menstruation, replacing it with positive feelings about the human body and trying to help remove the taboo around speaking openly about periods.

You can also find a downloadable resources suitable for KS2 and KS3 children to accompany the book here.

I am grateful to Toppsta and Wren & Rook for supplying me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

#MGTakesOnThursday: A Girl Called Justice The Ghost in the Garden by Elly Griffiths

Cover image by Nan Lawson, published by Quercus/Hachette Children’s Group 2021
#MGTakesOnThursday image designed by Mary Rees

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: Elly Griffiths

Illustrator: Nan Lawson

Publisher: Quercus/Hachette Children’s UK

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

She had tried to be brave (she remembered repeating an old saying of mum’s to herself: ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’) but, deep down, she’d been terrified.

p11

This book in three words: school – kidnap – mystery

This is the third of the Justice Jones mysteries, a wonderful MG mystery series set in a 1930s girl’s boarding school, written by renowned crime writer, Elly Griffiths. The sentence I have chosen demonstrates Elly’s skill at conveying an impressive quantity of information with an economy of words. Firstly, even if you haven’t read the two preceding books, you can pick this one up and immediately catch up with the protagonist’s back story. Secondly, you gain an insight into Justice’s character; she is not only a keen observer of her school mates and the staff at Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk but she also demonstrates an empathetic personality as she tries to put herself into the shoes of a new classmate.

As she returns to school to begin the third form, Justice is pleased to catch up with her dorm-mates and Dorothy, the maid that she has befriended. However, relationships are put under strain by the arrival of the Hon Letitia Blackstock who imposes herself between Justice and her former best friends, Stella and Dorothy, leading to resentment and jealousy. Letitia’s apparent fearlessness and reckless behaviour leads Justice into deeper and deeper trouble with Miss de Vere, the headmistress and expulsion looms large on the horizon. When one of the third form goes missing following a midnight feast, Justice has to use all of her ingenuity to uncover the kidnappers, restore her own standing and save the school from closure.

There are many enjoyable aspects to The Ghost in the Garden. Firstly, the plot cracks along at a good pace, chapters are short, often ending on cliff-hangers which propel you through the story. Justice’s character is very well drawn, showing her independence and intelligence but mixed with a healthy dollop of self-doubt, which makes her a very believable and relatable character for young readers. The author’s use of her journal and notes home to her father, to record reflections and feelings, are clever devices for personality insights. The strained relationships with friends when a newcomer has to be accommodated are scenarios that many youngsters will experience in school and seeing these dilemmas played out in the story can provide comfort and a degree of guidance. The world of Highbury House is beautifully portrayed, from the disgusting school meals, to the entertaining cast of teachers and pupils and the atmospheric construction of the school ghost legend; all add greatly to the entertaining plot.

I have blogged many times about books which fall into the “read for the pure pleasure of reading” category, which are so essential if we want to instil a life-long love of reading in primary school children. At just under 200 pages, the Justice Jones series is perfect for readers of 8+ who are building their independent reading stamina. They are ideal for children who enjoy the Scoop McLaren Books by Helen Castles, the Clifftoppers books by Fleur Hitchcock, the Agent Zaiba books by Annabelle Sami and are an excellent precursor to the Sinclair’s Mysteries by Katherine Woodfine, the Jane Austen Mysteries by Julia Golding or the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens.

The other Justice Jones books are:

A Girl Called Justice

A Girl Called Justice: The Smugglers’ Secret

Halloween 2021

Books featuring ghosts, magic, monsters, vampires and witches for readers of 4 -14

For anyone heading out to a bookshop or the library this weekend, here’s a brief guide to a range of books for primary and early secondary school children to enjoy on these dark autumn evenings! There are many others out there, but these are all stories that I have read over the past year, although some might have been published prior to 2021.

Winnie and Wilbur and the Bug Safari – Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

The Winnie and Wilbur series is laugh-out-loud funny as Winnie constantly gets herself into a fix when her magic goes wrong! This story will transport youngsters back to warm summer days as Winnie finds herself in the middle of insect mayhem! Suitable for age 4+

Midnight Magic – Michelle Harrison and Elissa Elwick

Fun, rhyming adventure with a magical kitten. An early reading book with delightful illustrations, short chapters, warmth and humour. The first in a series that will captivate youngsters of 5+

Isadora Moon Goes to a Wedding – Harriet Muncaster

Isadora Moon, half fairy-half vampire, is bursting with excitement at the prospect of being a bridesmaid at Aunt Crystal’s wedding, but will the day survive naughty cousin Mirabelle’s magical interventions? This gorgeously illustrated, short-chapter story is engaging and entertaining and additionally contains recipes and craft activity ideas. Perfect for ages 6-8.

Sam Wu is NOT Afraid of the Dark – Katie and Kevin Tsang, ills Nathan Reed

With comic book style graphics throughout by Nathan Reed, lovely characters and sharp plotting, the Sam Wu series totally fulfils the “read for pleasure” criteria that encourage a love of reading. As Sam embarks on a camping trip, he is not sure what to be most afraid of…aliens, werewolves, vampire bats, bears or just THE DARK! Recommended for ages 7+

Leo’s Map of Monsters – Kris Humphrey and Pete Williamson

Nine year old Leo learns that his Assignment for the next two years is to become a Guardian and protect his fenced, medieval-style village from the monsters that roam the land beyond TheWall! An exciting, illustrated, short-chapter series that will appeal to Beast Quest fans of 7+

A Girl Called Justice: The Ghost in the Garden – Elly Griffiths

The third adventure in this MG Mystery Series sees Justice Jones investigating the disappearance of a classmate against a backdrop of the ghostly presence of Grace Highbury haunting the corridors and grounds of Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk. Cracking mystery adventure for readers of 8+

The Monster in the Lake – Louie Stowell and Davide Ortu

The second adventure of young wizard Kit, brilliantly illustrated by Davide Ortu, sees her and her friends investigating the strangely disrupted magic in the local town. All clues point to the lake…but what is lurking in its depths and can the three friends put things right? Packed with fun for readers of 8+

Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire – Anna Wilson and Kathryn Durst

Vlad’s mother, Mortemia, constantly tells him that he is a disgrace to the Impaler family name…what will she do if she finds out that he has been secretly attending human school and has even made a best friend there? A funny and charming story that shows young readers that being an excellent best friend is more important than being a perfect vampire! Suitable for readers of 8+

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Haunted House – Annabelle Sami and Daniela Sosa

The third outing for Agent Zaiba and her young detectives from the Snow Leopard Detective Agency finds the team investigating mysterious and ghostly occurrences at Oakwood Manor. Can Zaiba’s team uncover the real culprit and dispel the rumours of ghostly Jinn? Readers of 9+ will enjoy this “cosy crime” investigation.

Lightning Falls – Amy Wilson, ills Rachel Vale and Helen Crawford-White

A glittering and magical tale featuring life-like and friendly ghost characters, making it suitable for readers of 9+. Superb plotting, immersive descriptions and a lovely tale about family in all its forms.

Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering – Harriet Muncaster

Sumptuously illustrated and brilliant storytelling from multi-talented Harriet Muncaster are sure to engage readers of 9+ in this tale of magical “Wiskling” twin sisters, Celestine and Victoria Stitch. A story of forbidden magic, envy, betrayal and ultimately the bonds of sibling love.

Everdark – Abi Elphinstone

The introductory book to the Unmapped Chronicles series sets up an immersive world run by magic, controlled by an imaginative range of magical creatures which has come under threat from the corrupting dark magic of Morg, an evil harpy. A series that will absorb and delight readers of 9+

Gargantis – Thomas Taylor, ills George Ermos

“When Gargantis wakes, Eerie quakes” Eerie-on-Sea is literally cracking apart in the second instalment of this brilliant series and it’s up to Herbert Lemon and his loyal friend Violet Parma to investigate the fearsome monster, Gargantis, who is stirring out in the bay! Fast moving, ferocious plotting fro anyone of 9+

The Ghost Garden – Emma Carroll, ills Kaja Kajfež

Spookily atmospheric story set in a country manor house in the summer of 1914, this novella from Emma Carroll is published in dyslexia-friendly format by specialist publisher Barrington Stoke. Perfect for readers from 10 through to secondary school age.

The Hungry Ghost – HS Norup

An incredible story that blends Chinese tradition with modern day sensibilities. Set in the cosmopolitan city of Singapore, this beautiful story weaves Western and Eastern attitudes to grieving and treasuring memories of the dead and is a powerfully moving read for anyone of 10/11+

Strange Star – Emma Carroll

An imagined tale of the creation of the Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley in 1816. The plot moves between Somerset village life and the grand surroundings of the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva; epic storytelling, fabulous characters and a feminist slant make this my all-time favourite Emma Carroll title, recommended for anyone of 10+

Frost Hollow Hall – Emma Carroll

Yes, I know this is the third Emma Carroll book on my list, but as well as being labelled “The Queen of Historical Fiction” Emma really does have a talent for gothic atmosphere. In her debut novel she produced a ghost story, which at one point in the tale, genuinely made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! I would not give this to anyone of a nervous disposition, but for KS3 readers of 11+ it is guaranteed to send shivers down the spine.

Dracula – retold by Fiona MacDonald, ills by Penko Gelev

Finding myself pushed for time to complete a reading of the original novel by Bram Stoker for one of my book groups, I reached for this graphic novel version from one of my children’s bookcases. It is an accessible introduction to the Dracula story, which certainly remains faithful to the major plot points and atmosphere of the source text. Perfect for teens, dyslexic readers and adults who leave insufficient time to fully read classic novels!

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife by Maz Evans, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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

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

Author: Maz Evans

Illustrator: Chris Jevons

Publisher: Hachette Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“Then Miss Hugg went very quiet and William U got Mr Nibbles and I got some BIG FEELINGS about it”

This book in three words: Fun – Feelings – Family

I know that we have not yet reached the end of March but I already feel sure that this will be one of my books of the year when December arrives. Anyone who has spent any time reading with children will know that a funny book will keep them engaged, entertained and contribute to a love of reading and stories.  When that book is written with such skill that it delivers a laugh in practically every paragraph and, underneath the laughter, contains some powerful life lessons, it becomes a treasure in every classroom, library and home.

Scarlett Fife is instantly relatable, an almost-ten-year-old girl with the sorts of worries that any school child will recognise, including wanting to win sufficient “positivity points” to gain the ultimate classroom reward, fending off one particular classmate’s unpleasant behaviour and worrying about losing her best friend to the popular “new girl”. On top of that, her engineer mother is exhausted from working extra hours “to make ends meet” because her stepdad Jakub has been dismissed by his racist boss. This results in the sort of oversights which are huge to a school child like forgetting to send in Scarlett’s spending money and lunch order for a school trip.

However, Scarlett’s biggest worry is her tendency to experience BIG FEELINGS and subsequent temper loss. She describes the way the anger bubbles up inside her tummy until it explodes out of her in language that will ring a bell of recognition with many. We are led to understand that this trait has frequently landed her in trouble, and now Mum has laid down the ultimate Mumishment! If Scarlett loses her temper again she will have her long anticipated trip to Super Mega Awesome Sicky Fun World theme park cancelled. Thus Scarlett must try to contain her anger throughout the provoking situations she faces…with hilariously explosive consequences.

She can rely on her best friend Maisie for sensible words at crucial moments, although Maisie’s use of Latin expressions was the cause of much merriment from this reader. The level of humour in this book is outstanding, with jokes and asides which will have adults and children in fits of giggles. William U, the source of many of Scarlett’s enraged moments is blessed with the Chinook of helicopter parents, who constantly excuses his bad behaviour with an imaginative list of syndromes and Scarlett’s definition of an executive head teacher made me snort with laughter!

I do not want to give away too many plot details for fear of ruining your enjoyment of this story but instead will say that I loved it on so many levels. Firstly the uproarious humour. I honestly laughed out loud at many situations, word plays and misunderstandings scattered throughout the plot. This really is a book which will be enjoyed as much by adults who might read it aloud as the children who are listening or reading it independently. Which brings me to my second point; it is another wonderful example of illustrated fiction which makes the reading process relaxing and enjoyable for those children who are still on their way to mastering the process of reading independently. 

Then there is the representation which flows so naturally throughout the book and ensures that many children will see their own experience or that of their classmates on display. Scarlett’s parents have an amicable divorce ensuring that Scarlett feels loved and valued, but she herself compares this to a classmate whose parents do not have this mature relationship. Scarlett’s stepdad Jakub is Polish and her real Dad has only one arm and hardly ever uses his “Prosecco” arm. Much of the plot is built around the upcoming wedding of Scarlett’s Auntie Rosa, a high-powered lawyer to Auntie Amara, a creative therapist. As prejudices to some of these characters are mulled over by the childlike fair-mindedness of Scarlett’s voice, readers can see the obvious message that everyone should be valued for who they are.

Finally, through the different voices of wise adults, Scarlett comes to understand that anger is natural, can in some cases be used to positive effect and that there are strategies she can use to deal with her feelings rather than having to bottle them up inside.

This is a marvellous book, bursting with joy and good sense and celebrating love in its many forms. I am sure that it will become a much-loved addition to your classroom, library or home and I certainly hope that there will be more books featuring Scarlett Fife.

I am grateful to NetGalley and Hachette Children’s Books for access to an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Q Raúf

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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

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

Author: Onjali Q Raúf

Illustrator: I have this as an eARC from Netgalley and cannot find an illustrator’s name

Publisher: Orion/Hachette Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: (The story is told in the voice of ten-year-old Hector, who at the beginning is revelling in his role of school bully and family outcast)

“After class, I headed straight to detention, and sat in my usual chair in the corner of the classroom “

This book in three words: Homelessness – Bullying – Redemption

How many of us rush to judgement based on the behaviour of the people we meet rather than stopping to think about the reason for their behaviour and spending time to try to understand and help them? In her third MG novel, Onjali Raúf shines her compassionate light on homelessness, showing the true humanity of individual lives and gently encouraging her readers to see the person rather than a social problem defined by a collective noun “the homeless”. As with her previous two novels, her message is suffused through a thoroughly engaging story, which I read deep into the night as I was compelled to finish it in one sitting.

In a clever contrast the two main characters Hector and Thomas represent two forms of homelessness. Thomas, the archetypal picture that we think of; unwashed, shabby clothes, sleeping on a park bench in an old sleeping bag, against Hector who is from an affluent family but with parents largely absent on international jobs. He feels that he is a disappointment to his high-achieving family and with the nanny largely preoccupied with his younger brother, his life consists of cheese toasties, late-night video games and travelling into central London, unsupervised, to skateboard. If home is the place where we are nurtured by people who love us and who we love in return, then at the start of this story I would consider Hector to be homeless.

As the story opens, Hector, the ten-year-old school bully is in the middle of his latest cry for attention, dropping toy snakes into the school lunch soup pan. He is part of a toxic trio of friends, with Will and Katie constantly encouraging him to acts of increasingly poor behaviour, which he performs to gain their approval. This culminates with him starting to harass Thomas, an old, homeless gentleman who lives in the town park, eventually destroying his meagre belongings. 

His final act of vandalism is witnessed by Mei-Li, a classmate who he despises for being their “teacher’s pet” and a “brainiac”. Whilst the other school children cower in terror or bribe Hector with their sweets or pocket money, she is unafraid to stand up to him and forces him to apologise to Thomas and eventually to help out at the soup kitchen where she volunteers alongside her father.

Meanwhile the news headlines are gripped by a series of thefts of valuable public statues from central London, including the famous Paddington Bear from the mainline train terminus. The thief leaves behind coded signs in yellow paint, these symbols are known only to the homeless community and thus suspicion falls upon an entire group of innocent people. When Hector witnesses a theft in Piccadilly Circus one evening and casts suspicion on the wrong man, he finds himself in the midst of a race against time to uncover the true villains.

This story is thoroughly entertaining as a detective mystery puzzle, with the ingenuity and teamwork of Thomas, Hector, Mei-Li and Catwoman combining to an exciting denouement at a major London landmark. In the accepted way of MG fiction the thread of redemption and hope is woven through the tale, leaving readers with the ambition to look for the good inside everyone and the belief that transformation can take place in the everyday events of life. Once again Onjali Raúf has written a beautiful story which makes us think again at the over-looked in our society. Highly recommended for all readers of 9+.

I am grateful to #NetGalley and Hachette Children’s Books for granting me access to an eARC of this wonderful story.

Alphabetty Botty Blog Tour Review: Oi Aardvark! by Kes Gray and Jim Field

Cover image by Jim Field, published by Hachette Children’s Books

To quote a phrase from my early childhood…Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

The latest in the hilarious series of Oi! books in which animals are seated on objects which rhyme with their name was published on 3rd September 2020 and I am delighted to bring you this review courtesy of the letter V on its launch blog tour.

Our favourite animal trio – forceful Frog, condescending Cat and delightful Dog are back and this time Frog is on a mission to seat an A to Z of animals on objects ranging from the ambitious to the zany! With brilliantly witty combinations Frog works his way through his alphabetical encyclopaedia of animals with increasingly outrageous seating arrangements. My personal favourite, of course, is contained within the pull-out section at the end – vipers sit (very uncomfortably it would appear) on wipers! By the end of the book it is safe to say that Frog emerges veritably victorious from his quest!

I completely love this book which I am sure will delight parents, grandparents, carers, teachers, librarians and the small people with whom they share it. It not only entertains in grand style, it introduces phonics and rhyme and with its imaginative list of animals it helps to start building the hinterland of knowledge that is a welcome side-effect of reading for pleasure. The blend of Kes Gray’s imaginative rhyming pairs and Jim Field’s playful and expressive illustrations makes this a picture book that will provide hours and hours of laughter and enjoyment; the expression on the face of the “piggy porker” who provides an unwilling cushion for an orca made me hoot with laughter.

Thank you to Lucy Clayton at Hachette Children’s Books for inviting me to join the blog tour; do check out the other brilliant bloggers who have contributed to this Alphabetty Botty blog tour.

Review: The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski

IMG_1579

I had seen a lot of praise for this book on Twitter and was delighted to be approved by NetGalley and Hachette Children’s for an eARC to review.

Without delay, I have to say that I loved L.D. Lapinski’s world-building, protagonists and ability to combine an important message within a fast-paced contemporary fantasy for MG readers (thanks to blogger Lily Fae for the genre description).

The two main protagonists, Jonathan and Flick, are fully realised characters who fully engage your interest and sympathy from the moment you meet them. The progression of their relationship throughout the arc of the story is entirely believable and emotionally involving. Both characters are old before their time, with the weight of responsibility on their young shoulders. Jonathan, an eighteen year-old who dresses like a Victorian has been left as the sole custodian of The Strangeworlds Travel Agency since the death of his mother and the disappearance of his father. He is lonely, bewildered and mourning the loss of family. Meanwhile, Flick has been the archetypal latch-key-kid on an inner city housing estate whilst both parents worked long hours to keep the family afloat. The arrival of a baby brother, Freddy and a move to a house in the village of Little Wyverns has made Flick feel even more alienated and resentful that she has to take responsibility for many household chores.

Flick longs to travel and when she stumbles into the shabby, old-fashioned Strangeworlds Travel Agency with its curiously stacked multitude of suitcases, her dreams come true, albeit in an unexpected fashion! Once she overcomes Jonathan’s passive-aggressive sarcasm and proves her previously undiscovered magical abilities she joins him on a quest to discover the whereabouts of Daniel Mercator, his missing father.

From the moment that Flick takes a leap of faith into one of the suitcases in which Jonathan’s great-great-great-grandmother Elara trapped magical schisms between worlds in the Multiverse, the adventure takes off. Each suitcase has an individual destination and the author’s imagination conjures deserted beaches where you can taste the salty air; a forest world populated with forever-children; Coral City with its candy coloured landscape and extraordinary gravity, and the multiversal hub, the fragile City of Five Lights. 

I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers, but the tension ratchets up as the plot races to its conclusion, with valuable messages about the devastating impact on a world greedily exploiting its irreplaceable resources, and the power of “ resolve, wrapped in righteous ferocity and fear “ to achieve the seemingly impossible. I loved the way that the story ended on a cliff-hanger, and cannot wait to read the next instalment.

I will certainly be adding this book to my library shopping list when it is published in April, when I am sure it is going to be extremely popular with fans of Harry Potter, The Train to Impossible Places, Rumblestar and The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet.

 

Review: Planet Omar Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian

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 In his second adventure Omar once again puts his beaming “hypnosis smile” and “pester-power puppy dog” eyes to good use in a charming story about putting others first. 

After emptying his money box in an irreversible fashion, Omar decides to spend the £42-53 he has amassed on a Laser Nerf Blaster, much to the delight of his two best friends Charlie and Daniel. However, when mum tells him that their mosque needs to raise funds quickly for vital repairs, kind-hearted Omar not only donates his Nerf money but also embarks on a fundraising mission.

Omar is the most delightful character and the interactions with his friends, his lovely family and his neighbours are relatable and heart-warming. His attempt to give his tired mum a five-senses spa is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and his secret hiding place for his cash is ingenious as well as giggle-inducing!

The fun element of the book is enhanced by Nasaya Mafaridik’s illustrations and the interesting use of fonts throughout the book. Omar, Charlie and Daniel embark on organising a talent show with the support of their perfect teacher, Mrs Hutchinson, and usually grumpy headteacher and the evening is a runaway success. Then disaster! The money they collect goes missing and suddenly their spying talents are called into action as they set a series of rib-tickling traps for their suspects. 

This book has already proved very popular with children with whom I’ve shared it. Firstly the humour is perfectly pitched for children of 7+. Secondly they were very interested in the way that details of Omar’s religious practice is incorporated into the story, and how many similarities there are between this and the Christian practices we are familiar with. I think this is a huge strength of the book, giving children (and adults) an insight into a kind, fun and loving Muslim family and breaking down barriers. I imagine that Muslim and British-Pakistani children will enjoy seeing themselves reflected so positively by Omar, Maryam and Esa.

 

I received my copy of this book from Toppsta and Hachette Children’s Publishing in exchange for an honest review.