#MGTakesOnThursday: Mickey and the Animal Spies by Anne Miller

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

MG TakesonThursday
Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.

 

mickey and animal spies

 

Author: Anne Miller

Illustrator: Becka Moor

Publisher: OUP Children’s

Favourite sentence from Page 11: “Mickey was craning her neck as she tried to read (and answer) Rachel’s homework over her shoulder as they bumped their way through the city’s winding roads.”

This book in three words: ciphers, animals, humour

I’m highlighting Mickey and the Animal Spies this week because I don’t think it has had the attention it deserves as a thoroughly engaging introduction to the spy – mystery genre for MG readers. My full review can be read here: Mickey and the Animals Spies by Anne Miller

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

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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.

 

#MGTakesOnThursday Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe by Martin Howard

MG TakesonThursday
Image created by Mary Simms and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started by Mary Simms on the 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.

IMG_3508

Author: Martin Howard

Illustrator: Chris Mould

Publisher: OUP Children’s Publishing

 

Favourite sentence from Page 11: “You’re all bird-people here on Winspan. Very interesting,” said the Professor.”

This book in three words: Hilarious, Cosmic, Adventure

There is nothing like humour to encourage young readers to enjoy a book, and this one from Martin Howard offers more laughs per page than anything I’ve read since …The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet. Read it, but just make sure you’re not drinking at the time, unless you enjoy the prospect of tea exploding from your nostrils!

My full review can be read here. Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe

Review: Jungledrop by Abi Elphinstone

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I was ecstatic to be approved for an e-ARC of Jungledrop on #Netgalley and believe me, I will be buying more than one physical copy of this amazing book as soon as it hits the shops. It has totally fizzled my brain with its imaginative brilliance and left my heart quivering with joy. It is a beautiful and necessary book which will delight and entertain all readers, young and old. 

Whilst you could easily enjoy reading this book as a stand-alone adventure, you will be fully immersed in the lore of the Unmapped Chronicles if you have previously read Everdark and Rumblestar. In the latter case, you will know that ancient Phoenix magic dictates that the weather on Earth ( The Faraway ) is controlled by events in the four Unmapped Kingdoms. However, the harmonious functioning of this system is under threat from an evil harpy named Morg who wishes to control the kingdoms for her own wickedly greedy ends.

In this third instalment the future of the Faraway ( which is suffering from a year-long drought ) and Jungledrop are placed in the hands of a very unlikely pair of heroes, eleven-year-old twins Fox and Fibber Petty-Squabble. They are descended from a wealthy German family and live in the ancestral mansion in Munich, Bickery Towers. Their repulsive parents run a business empire built on lies, the family motto is:

“Do not be afraid.

To stamp all over other people’s feelings.”

Their avaricious upbringing has resulted in two children who behave like monsters but deep down feel unloved and lonely. Somehow the ancient phoenix magic has unaccountably chosen them to change the course of history! As they dash into an antiques shop, owned by Casper Tock, the fizz of magic from a long-hidden phoenix tear propels them on a journey of the heart which will determine the destiny of two worlds.

“When magic sets it’s sights on someone, it’s remarkably hard to wriggle free”

There are countless things to love about this story.

  • The brilliantly imagined land of Jungledrop, a glow-in-the-dark rainforest filled with exotically named flora and fauna. This lush landscape is cruelly scarred by burnt and barren enclaves where the greed of Morg has inflicted dark magic, and the descriptions are redolent of familiar scenes from documentaries about the devastation being caused to rainforests all over our planet. 
  • The unique, funny and inspired naming of characters: Tedious Niggle, the ghostly ticket inspectre; Heckle the “emotionally intrusive” yellow parrot; Total Shambles, the slow, ungainly but heroic swiftwing; Doogie Herbalsneeze the jungle apothecary and unicycle-riding unmapper Iggy Blether.
  • The exciting plot with its quest to discover the Forbidden Fern, the suspense and uncertainty over each of the twins’ true intent during the adventure and the perfectly described, complex emotional undercurrents.

Abi Elphinstone has an incredible talent for taking her readers on a heart-stopping journey through gloriously immersive worlds and dropping profoundly moving passages into the middle of jaw-dropping action. Her combination of playfulness, visual storytelling, obvious respect for her readership and genuine ability to include a positive message in her stories make them an essential addition to every bookshelf.

I shall finish with a quote which had me welling up, and which I will be putting on permanent display in the school library:

“To be kind is to be strong. And, if you’re strong enough to pull down a wall around your heart, you can fight with the strength of a warrior because then you will have learnt to love!”

 

Thank you #NetGalley and S&S Children’s UK for allowing me early access to JungleDrop

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.

 

New Picture Books from Little Steps

Little Steps Publishing have released some gorgeous new books for Spring 2020 and I am grateful to Lucy for sending them through for me to review.

 

Brave Adventures, Little Girl by Iresha Herath, illustrated by Oscar Fa

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Four year old Anika loves to visit her grandparents each Sunday afternoon. She knows that she will be welcomed with hugs and laughter and shared food and stories. The gentle, simple text by Iresha Herath and beautiful digital illustration by Oscar Fa perfectly convey a loving bond between the generations of a family.

When Anika tries to demonstrate her newly learned skill of hopscotch to grandfather Seeya and grandmother Achi, she becomes nervous, loses her balance and hurts her arm. She then admits to Seeya that she wishes she could be as brave as he was when he had adventures all over the world in his youth. She gets a funny feeling in her tummy when she tries something new and thinks she has no bravery at all.

In his kindly way, Seeya explains that in each of his youthful adventures he had to face new challenges and that he always had a funny feeling in his tummy at those moments; bravery means recognising the challenge of something new and then doing it. These stories are wide ranging, opening new cultural experiences to young children, and all told with a wonderful sparkle of humour. The illustrated country maps are striking and I particularly loved the painting of Enzo Ferrari!

This is a perfect book to enjoy sharing with young children. The author’s Sri Lankan/Australian heritage provides an awareness of different cultures, the family dynamic is portrayed in a lovingly positive light, children will delight in the humour and it is a great discussion starter for conversations about confronting fears. Highly recommended for everyone of 4+.

Where Do Teachers Go At Night? By Harriet Cuming, illustrated by Sophie Nora

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Written by a teacher with many years’ of experience, this hugely amusing picture book with bouncy rhyming text reveals the secret life of teachers after the classroom door has closed for the day! The illustrations are perfectly designed, resembling a mixture of watercolour and crayon familiar to all who work in primary schools. They portray the activities with great humour and children will love spotting the accessories that highlight each teacher’s personality and speciality. In addition, this book falls into the category of teaching children new facts without them even realising it, with the action taking place all over the world and a summary map at the end. 

I can see this book being extremely popular with young children and providing a creative spark for their own ideas about what their teacher might do out of hours!

Where Else Do Teachers Go At Night? By Harriet Cuming, illustrated by Sophie Nora

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Not content with their many adventures in Book 1, the intrepid and energetic teachers are off around the world on a new set of out-of-hours adventures! Again Harriet Cuming’s amusing, rhyming text is perfectly complemented by Sophie Nora’s colourful and richly detailed artwork. The locations ranging from the Andes, to Cork to Outer Mongolia are rendered with humorous geographical detail which both amuses and educates.

This is a book which will reward repeated readings and provides many fascinating details for young children to explore.

 

Little Steps Publishing provide teacher’s notes which include ideas for artwork and classroom activities based on these two books, you can find them here:

http://d.site-cdn.net/6cd93335c8/a13ed7/5589-where-do-teachers-go-at-night-teaching-notes.pdf

 

Review:Jasper Dog Books by Hilary Robinson

What a joy to discover the utterly charming, funny and informative Jasper series! These books have colourful and engaging covers, are illustrated throughout with delightful black and white drawings, and most wonderfully have been printed on off-white paper using the Open Dyslexic font. I am passionate about finding books which make reading pleasurable for dyslexic readers and firmly believe that what is good for dyslexics is good for all readers. Some young dyslexic readers have told me that they found the spacing between lines to be really helpful in allowing them to read these books easily.

 

Review: Jasper Space Dog by Hilary Robinson

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The first book in the series was published in 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. It is cleverly structured as a series of letters written between eight-and-a-half year old Charlie Tanner, on behalf of his dog Jasper, to a rocket scientist Dr Isabella Starr (girl power ). Jasper would like to become a space dog! He already has his moon boots and enjoys strutting around the local park in them, but he requires Charlie to ask a rib-tickling range of questions on his behalf before he ventures to the moon. This is such an engaging device as Jasper’s questions definitely reflect the hugely imaginative ideas that spring from the minds of young children. As I read the increasingly funny questions with a big smile I was delighted that the eminent scientist’s replies to Charlie acknowledged the humour in the enquiries, especially the suggestion to explore explosive chocolate as rocket fuel.

So much care has been taken in the compilation of this book, right down to the final chapters summarising the information discovered so far and then expanding on factual information about moon expeditions. Books which entertain and educate seamlessly are to be greatly valued and I highly recommend this to all schools and to any family looking for a book to engage a reluctant reader and help them discover the joy of books.

 

Jasper Viking Dog by Hilary Robinson

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The second book in the Jasper series follows the same pattern as book one, this time Charlie’s letters are addressed to Astrid the Curator of the local Viking Museum. Jasper has heard that actors are required for the Viking exhibits and believing that he might have Viking roots would like to volunteer as a Viking dog! The humorous letters from Charlie yet again had me snorting with laughter, in particular Jasper’s rapid increase in age, as he convinces himself that he is indeed a Viking dog, and his theory that his friend Bruce descends from a line of Viking Berserker dogs! Each of Charlie’s outlandish questions are answered with great attention to detail by Astrid, thus presenting a host of fascinating Viking facts in easy to assimilate chunks.

Another highlight of these books is the care taken (by Lewis James, under the mentorship of experienced children’s book illustrator, Mandy Stanley) to design the illustrations.  Throughout the text there are intricately detailed drawings of artefacts or appealing cartoon-ish representations of Charlie and Jasper’s ideas, perfectly placed for children whose eyes need a break from reading at regular intervals. The illustrations in these books are .

I hugely recommend these books to any school classroom or library collection, and only wish they had been available when a certain member of my own family was of primary-school-age.

 

My copies of Jasper Space Dog and Jasper Viking Dog were gifted to me from the publisher, I am planning to order further copies for the library collection.

 

Review: Dragon Detective: Catnapped! by Gareth P Jones

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This is a wonderfully entertaining MG crime caper with a perfectly realised film noir feel and a liberal dose of sly humour. It’s one of those books that adult readers will gain as much enjoyment from as their young audience.

Anyone who has ever watched an old black and white private detective film will immediately recognise the familiar tropes outlined on the first page; a detective with his feet up on the desk of his unkempt office with smoke unfurling from his nostrils. Turn the page and you discover that Dirk Dilly has actually exhaled that smoke because he is a dragon! To be precise: an urban-dwelling, green-bellied, red-backed mountain dragon. 

Business is clearly less than brisk, so, uncharacteristically Dirk agrees to take on a case from 11 year-old Holly Bigsby whose cat Willow has gone missing. As Dirk begins his investigations he realises that the case is far greater than just one missing cat and involves a dastardly plan to wipe out more than just the feline population.

There are so many enjoyable aspects to this story:

 

  • The relationship that develops between friendless Holly Bigsby and outwardly cynical but soft on the inside, Dirk.

 

  • The snortingly-hilarious interaction between crooks Arthur Holt “ the brains” and Reg Norman “the muscle”. The pseudo-intellectual explanatory excuses invented by Arthur of his medical reasons for never being able to help out with the dirty work will have you honking with laughter! “I am unable to participate in any physical activity on account of a rare condition that I concocted in Africa. That is why I am the brains.” being just one example.

 

  • The seamless blending of a dragon detective, who only occassionally disguises himself with a raincoat and hat, with everyday life in modern London. Dirk is able to get around unseen by hopping across the rooftops because Londoners never look up from their screens, and if they do they just end up squabbling with each other rather than focussing on the observation of a mythical creature.

 

  • The sibling rivalry demonstrated by the dragon brothers, Leon and Mali, in the Kinghorns gang mirroring the behaviour of the human crooks.

 

  • Finally, Dirk’s landlady Mrs Klingerflim “blind as a bat. And madder than a badger”,  taking over the mantle of top fictional landlady from Mrs Hudson of 221b Baker Street.

With its short chapters, a plot that crackles with snappy dialogue and fast-moving action, and imaginatively constructed characters I think this book will appeal equally to boys and girls of 8 years plus. Both human and dragon characters come alive in a tale laced with humour and heart and interesting questions are raised about the identity of the real villains; megalomaniac dragons or neglectful, ambitious, political parents!

Attack of the Smart Speakers by Tom McLaughlin

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“Holy guacamole with a side order of Yikes!” 

How can three young supergeeks fight off an army of eight-legged, data-hungry machines?

 

With incredible timing this book hit the top of my TBR stack in the week that Ofcom announced that over a quarter of young children now use a smart speaker in their home. Tom McLaughin’s laugh out loud “Accidental” books are already hugely popular with children, and this latest title is hugely entertaining with a useful reminder about online safety issues. 

Tyler Fitz has recently moved to Happyville, a suspiciously upbeat town where  “cute” rules. In the school social structure of Alphas, Wannabes, Perfectos, Nerds & Teachers, she has teamed up with two fellow geeks; Dylan and Ashley. They spend most of their free time hanging out in their clubhouse, a silver caravan parked in Tyler’s back garden, where they discuss maths problems and watching Antiques Goldmine!

As they watch their favourite TV programme they are constantly interrupted by advertisements for Nova the smart speaker that “no-one should be without.” Ashley admits that she already owns seven of them – purely for research purposes as she tries to exploit their AI potential and even as they sit in the clubhouse a drone delivers one that Tyler‘s father has ordered.

Both Tyler and Dylan are very sceptical about the smart speakers both expressing their views that a computer should not know more about you than you know yourself. When it becomes apparent that the smart speakers know substantial amounts of their personal information, obviously mined from other sources, both Dylan and Tyler decide to investigate. Ashley, in the meantime, has become brainwashed!

This highly illustrated chapter book zips along at a great pace with plenty of comic set pieces and smart dialogue to entertain children of 7 years and above.  Newly confident readers will find it a joy to read alone, but it would also make an interesting class read in conjunction with online safety lessons in the Primary School Computing curriculum. It is a hilarious cautionary tale about the risks of over-sharing personal information and failing to read the Terms & Conditions when using any social media. I will be reading it aloud in my school library this week to tie in with Safer Internet Day. The image of eight-legged smart speakers scuttling about like robot spiders spying on an entire town’s inhabitants and controlling their actions is a great metaphor for the surveillance age.

 

I am most grateful to OUP Children’s Publishing for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

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.