#MGReview: Seed by Caryl Lewis, illustrated by George Ermos

Cover illustration by George Ermos, published by Macmillan Children’s Books 12th May 2022

When you read as many Middle Grade stories as I do, you learn that one of the aspects that makes them so special is the element of hope that runs through stories for this age group. This new publication from Macmillan Children’s Books contains bucketloads of hope. It also contains bucketloads of less savoury but quite hilarious ingredients, but I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself!

This is a fantastically big-hearted and empathetic story of two children faced with different challenges in life, who through their stores of inner resolve, combined with support from significant adults and a little natural magic, go on a crazy adventure which catalyses genuine changes in their lives. I loved every twist and turn of the narrative. Caryl Lewis has created three-dimensional characters who engage your interest from the moment you meet them. Her writing style creates a perfect balance between quirky humour and compassionate insight into the difficulties faced by those who are “othered” in society, wrapped into a hugely enjoyable modern-day fairytale. The black and white illustrations by George Ermos add to the enchantment of the story, the drawing of Grandad’s allotment shed made me smile every time I greeted a new chapter.

I can’t bear the thought of ruining anyone’s enjoyment of this story, so I am going to avoid describing the plot in any detail. Suffice to say that in true fairytale style, we are presented with characters who initially have to deal with what look to be insurmountable hurdles; Marty who lives in poverty as a young carer for a mother with mental health issues and Gracie who copes impressively well with her cochlear implant but is more challenged by divorced parents who seem to have very little time to devote to her non-material needs. Throw into the mix an irrepressible Grandad, a sympathetic teacher, school bullies and the most marvellous allotment community, and a tale emerges like a seed of hope which infects an entire town.

Seed is one of my favourite books of the year so far. A fantastic fable of self-belief, inner strength and the realisation that small seeds of encouragement can blossom into full-blown hope for the future. This would make an excellent class read for children of 9+ and will be a necessary addition to all upper KS2 classroom and school libraries as well as a fabulous half-term or summer holiday treat for readers of 9-12.

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson PR and Macmillan Children’s Books for sending me a review copy of Seed in exchange for my honest opinion.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher, illustrated by Sam Usher

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: Anna Fargher

Illustrator: Sam Usher

Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2019

Favourite sentence: 

Without mistakes, your life will never know adventure

As I was listening to the audiobook, I’m afraid that I do not know the page number, but this quote leap out at me as I listened.

This book in three words: Bravery – Loyalty – Resistance

I like to use the #MGTakesOnThursday meme to review books which are not newly published, but, for various reasons, I missed reviewing when they were new to the shelves. This week I am opting to review a book that has been on my radar to read since seeing it highly praised by many bloggers I admire, including Mary who created the #MGTakesOnThursday meme. I’ve had a mini reading slump due to the workload of the day job and working on my professional chartership, so took the opportunity to listen to the audiobook of The Umbrella Mouse when I spotted it on the marvellous BorrowBox app from my local library. The plight of Pip Hanway, the eponymous heroine, completely resonated with the current dreadful situation unfolding in Ukraine and I am sure that many school librarians and teachers of children aged 10 – 13 will be using this story to help young people understand and empathise with those who have lost homes and family due to war.

Pip’s life of comfort, living inside a historic umbrella in the Bloomsbury-based store of James Smith & Sons is shattered by a doodle-bug bomb, which leaves her homeless and orphaned. The only thing she has left to cling onto is the Hanway Umbrella, the first umbrella to have been used in England, and she decides that she must return this artefact to the Umbrella Museum in Gignese, Italy. Quite a task for a small mouse kitten in wartime! She persuades Dickin, a search and rescue dog to help her in this quest. After some hair-raising narrow escapes in the underground pipelines of London, Dickin introduces her to representatives of Churchill’s Secret Animal Army and she overhears a plan to send a coded message to animals working for the resistance effort in France. The impetuous mouse finds a way of using this plan to make her way across the English channel, during which time she puts her own life and that of a German rat, Hans, in peril.

Although Pip is the main character in the story, I have to admit that my favourite was Hans. I loved his story arc as a German rat who had at first been enticed by the Goliath rats working for the Nazis, and who had subsequently turned his back on them after seeing their wicked deeds and escaped to join the resistance in France. This portrayal of redemption and his noble bravery throughout the story are likely to leave a lasting impression on anyone who reads this book. I was also impressed at the change in Pip’s character; at the outset her goals are to protect her history and heritage by returning the Hanway umbrella to its rightful place in the Umbrella Museum and to seek the last surviving members of her family in Gignese. However, her adventures, camaraderie and narrow escapes with the heroes of the resistance have an impact on her outlook and we see her mature and encompass their attitudes and values as the story progresses.

The author Anna Fargher has very cleverly anthropomorphised the story of the resistance fighters in WWII so that brutal facts of war can be presented at the right level for a middle grade readership. The admirable qualities of duty, loyalty and courage in the face of extreme adversity as well as betrayal from a saboteur, are brilliantly portrayed in her animal characters; the plot unfolds at a rapid pace; and the tension builds so impressively that I was tempted to speed up the playback on the audiobook! I must mention one final touch that made me fall in love with this book: very early in the story a teenage girl comes into the umbrella shop to buy a birthday present for her father and I was delighted that my assumption that she was based on Judith Kerr was confirmed in the author’s notes at the end of the story. I thought that this was an utterly lovely touch in a hugely impressive WWII story. I highly recommend The Umbrella Mouse for all readers of 10+.

At the current time, when we are again witnessing the dreadful plight of refugees fleeing across Europe, I will once again recommend When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr to everyone of 10+.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aboriginal belief

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

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

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

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

Short Stories for Long Winter Evenings: A Glove Shop in Vienna and Christmas is Murder

A Glove Shop in Vienna published by Macmillan Children’s Books & Christmas is Murder published by Sphere, an imprint of Little Brown

Sometimes there are just too many things going on in real life for me to settle properly into a long novel. The run up to Christmas 2021 was certainly one of those times, thus I was delighted to find a collection of short stories by Eva Ibbotson in my local Public Library and to purchase a collection of short mysteries to read for my Book Club’s December choice.

A Glove Shop in Vienna contains nineteen short stories, many of which are set in Eva Ibbotson’s native Austria. Her delicately emotive writing conjures up snow and frost covered landscapes, lavish villas in the fashionable neighbourhoods of Vienna, illicit love affairs, grand passions and the intricacies of Viennese society in the pre-WWII years. I found it to be the perfect transportive read, whisking me off to an entirely different time and place. I think that the first story, Vicky and the Christmas Angel was my favourite with its insight into the tensions running below the coming together of disparate branches of the family at Christmas. Vicky comes of age following her dramatic and unwelcome realisation of the enormous contribution that “poor relation” cousin Poldi makes to the family’s annual festivities. I also loved the story of a great life-long love which finally flourishes in the headily exotic setting of the city of Manaus, deep in the Amazon rainforest. This has prompted me to seek out our much-read family copy of Journey To The River Sea, which I have wanted to re-read since hearing that Emma Carroll has written a book inspired by this classic.

Christmas is Murder by Val McDermid is another fantastic collection of short stories by a writer of immense dexterity. Her ability to create believable characters and imbue them with a back-story sufficient to make them the victim or perpetrator of a crime; scatter some red herrings; build tension and draw the story to a satisfactory conclusion within the confines of twenty to thirty pages is incredible in and of itself. However, Val McDermid adds another layer to the majesty of this collection, her uniquely beautiful prose. My favourite of the stories, Ghost Writer, had a supernatural rather than crime theme and ironically centered on a struggling writer:

Gavin had no talent for narrative. Story eluded him. Sometimes he sensed it almost within his grasp but whenever he tried to corner it, it slipped away, slithering under his out-stretched arms or between his legs like a nutmegging football.

p172

If we are going to use footballing comparisons, then Val McDermid must surely be the Dennis Bergkamp of crime writing, entertaining her audience with supreme skill and making her craft look effortless. It was such a treat each evening to enjoy these short stories once the day’s chores were done – in all honesty, it was the most pleasurable Book Club choice that I read in 2021.

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+ .

Review: Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, illustrated by Steven Lenton

Cover image by Steven Lenton, published by Macmillan, 2021

I have been a huge fan of Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s writing since discovering Millions and reading it aloud as a bedtime story almost 20 years ago. His children’s stories are as appealing and enjoyable for the adults who might read them aloud as they are for the children who listen to them, or read them independently. He is an entertainer, who hooks you from page one and sets you down gently at the final page where you might think “that was fun” and rush off to play football or you might start to think about the clever way that he has wrapped a modern dilemma in a coating of humour and warmth and passed on some of his gentle brand of wisdom in the process.

Noah’s Gold is told in the form of (unposted) letters home from eleven-year-old Noah, who has inadvertently stowed away in the luggage compartment of the minibus taking his older sister Eve on a school geography trip. The irony of geography teacher Mr Merriman missing the intended destination of the Orinoco Wonder Warehouse “the internet with a roof on” because he has put too much faith in the SatNav is just the start of a series of mishaps associated with modern technology which power the story. The drama and humour increases with every epistle, as the group of children stranded on an uninhabited island after their minibus plunges off a cliff and their teacher vanishes, face a series of challenges whilst learning to live without modern technology. Noah blames himself for breaking the internet and his attempts to find the location of the re-set button for the submarine transatlantic internet cable, whilst convincing the older children that they are on an island treasure hunt, take readers on a joyful journey of discovery.

I am not going to describe any more of the plot because I don’t want to ruin a moment of your enjoyment of the way in which this narrative unfolds. I adored the way that the children’s characters are revealed. They each have their unique personality traits but are fully rounded and believable in their conversation and actions. Noah is small in stature but huge-hearted, always fair and determined to do the right thing. Eve is an individual who exudes inner confidence and natural leadership. Her persuasiveness can be overwhelming at times but when family duty calls, she proves herself to be the big sister that everyone would want in a time of crisis. School Council representative Lola, who wears the school first aid kit like a badge of honour, takes on the responsible adult role. Ryland, the screen-obsessed gamer appears to be rather self-entitled at first but grows into a team player as he realises the value of real friendship compared to his online “tribe”. Dario with his scientific approach to everything likes to establish the “fun fact” in every encounter whilst Ada exhibits awe and wonder, seeing the magic in everything she observes on the island of AranOr.

As the children adjust to life without the internet and are no longer distracted by their screens, they all begin to observe and appreciate the natural beauty of the island. They work together and learn to communicate and collaborate. In one particularly touching scene they all use the old-fashioned handset in the island telephone box to “talk” to their families in order to share their worries. As well as communication, the importance of sharing food runs through the story, from Noah’s realisation at the start that the sandwiches he has made for Eve might be a danger to a nut-allergy sufferer to his knack of cooking up a feast for six famished children from scavenged tins and wild food; a skill honed by his family’s reliance on food banks. Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s use of child-friendly food imagery adds another layer of delicious insight into Noah’s character, so at one point he finds himself “perched on a tiny rock the size of a Colin the Caterpillar chocolate cake” and describes the front end of the wrecked minibus as “concertinaed like a melted Viennetta”.

I loved absolutely everything about this book; the way the plot unfolded, the children’s characters, the villains, the humour, the illustrations by Steven Lenton, the strong sense of family and the discovery by a group of children, from a school named in honour of St Anthony of Padua, of the most valuable treasures in life. I highly recommend for anyone of 9+, to be enjoyed at home, in school or public libraries and in the classroom. Noah’s Gold is without doubt one of my favourite books published during 2021.

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!

Lightning Falls by Amy Wilson, illustrated by Rachel Vale and Helen Crawford-White

Cover image by studiohelen.co.uk, published by Macmillan 19 August 2021

This was the Primary School Book Club choice for September 2021 and I am embarrassed to admit that, although I have been aware of Amy Wilson’s reputation for some time, this is actually the first of her books that I have read. Why did I wait so long? Her description of Lightning Falls or The Ghost House, as it is commonly known, had me hooked from the first page; in fact the house is so central to the story that it is a character in its own right!

Lightning Falls acquired its name from the extraordinary waterfall to which it is adjacent; a former grand manor house which is now a tourist destination for ghost hunters attracted by the “creaks and the squeaks” who often arrive clutching their “fifty-per-cent-off promotional vouchers from the Ghostwatchers’ Express”! Owned by Lord Rory, described as an adventurer, its only other human inhabitants are Mrs Peters the housekeeper, Leon the receptionist and Ted the chef. However, the main attractions are the ghosts of former ancestors of Lord Rory and deceased staff, who together make an extraordinary family for Valerie, the first-person narrator of the tale.

One of the main themes running through the story is Valerie’s search for her identity and origins, her solitary clue being the pendant that she was found with. She lives with the hollow feeling of always wondering who left her behind at the hotel as a toddler. She has been brought up to believe that she is a “hallowed ghost”, she exhibits many human characteristics alongside the abilities to remain invisible to humans and float alongside her ghostly best friend, Meg. The warm family relationships with which Valerie is supported by her ghostly and human companions are beautifully and believably written and greatly add to the enjoyment of this fantasy mystery.

As the story begins, Lightning Falls is being besieged by Star Storms which are having a serious impact on the hotel guests. Then a mysterious boy appears, sitting on the ruined viaduct which runs across the raging river, with threads of lightning appearing from his fingers. Valerie is determined to discover whether he is the cause of the storms, but when she confronts him she finds that he holds the keys to unlock her past.

I won’t give away any spoilers because I don’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of this glittering and magical tale. Lightning Falls is a wonderful story for children of 9+ to add to their fantasy and Halloween reading lists and I appreciated the fact that it is not too scary; I know that 9-year-old me would have enjoyed this very much without the nightmares that accompanied some ghost stories! The themes of family taking many forms and the importance of valuing every individual for themselves independent of labels, appealed to me as I’m sure it will do many others in the light of conversations around allyship and inclusion. Finally, a big thank you to the Primary School Bookclub members who have opened my eyes to the magical writing of Amy Wilson, I now have another collection of books to add to my ever-growing TBR stack!

#20BooksofSummer21: Book #4 The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay

10 books of summer
Image created by Cathy at 746books.com and used with permission.

So, here it is; one summer, three months and a challenge created by Cathy (@cathy746books) at 746books.com to make a dent in the toppling TBR stack. This year, I have opted for the 10 books challenge due to time constraints! Thank you Cathy for hosting!

Published by Macmillan Children’s Books

My fourth book of the summer has been sitting on my TBR stack since I won it in a Twitter giveaway at the end of June. I knew that I would have to wait until I was on annual leave to read it, as I was certain that once I picked it up, I would have to finish it in one sitting. It is the follow up to The Skylarks’ War, one of my favourite books published in the last few years, an exquisite family saga set during the First World War. The Swallows’ Flight continues the story of some of the characters from Skylarks’ over the years 1931 until 1946, as well as introducing fascinating new characters, including Erik and Hans, two young Berliners.

It will be obvious from the dates that this novel is set in the years leading up to, as well as during, WWII. Award-winning writer Hilary McKay tells her story from the perspectives of both German and English characters, showing the legacy of the First World War on the lives of families from both sides and the way in which youngsters, who are only a couple of years older than the readers of the story, were then swept up into the battles of WWII. The elegant imagery of the swallows that flits through the story from the very first page is utter perfection, as they dart like arrows, fly in their colonies and attempt hazardous journeys to return to their old nesting places year after year. Foreshadowing does not come much better than this. The lasting importance of seemingly small acts of kindness is apparent, as is the necessity of remaining true to yourself despite the circumstances in which you find yourself. The book is written sensitively for a KS3 audience but does not shy away from dealing with the heart-breaking realities of war; be prepared to shed a few tears in the latter section.

I love the way that Hilary McKay’s writing allows time and space for character development. She gifts young readers with a gentle unfolding of plot through the most perfectly observed characterisation and dialogue. There is not a line wasted, every incident and description makes its contribution to the final resolution. Her presentation of family dynamics is so precise that you find yourself living alongside her protagonists and utterly believing in their reality. In this novel, the dual narratives of the Second World War seen through teenage experiences in both England and Germany is perfectly judged to help tweens and teens empathise with children caught up in events over which they have no control.

I think that The Swallows’ Flight will be greatly enjoyed by mature readers in Year 6 as well as KS3 readers. It’s actually an ideal book to put into the hands of an 11-14 year old before the summer holidays end, so that they will have the chance to immerse themselves in this thoughtful, poignant and powerful novel and have room to reflect on its themes of loyalty and following your heart. In my opinion, this book and its prequel will be future classics; the perfect crafting of plot and character ensure that they live on in the heart and mind long after you have closed the final page. I cannot praise this book highly enough!

I am most grateful to Macmillan Children’s Books for sending me a proof copy of The Swallows’ Flight after I entered a giveaway competition on Twitter.