MG Review: Albi the Glowing Cow Boy by Georgia Byng, illustrated by Angela Cogo

Cover image by Levi Pinfold, published by Uclan Publishing,
5th January 2023

This novel written for a middle grade readership defies categorisation, encompassing themes which encourage all readers to think about the way we treat our planet and the life forms on it. The unusual dual narrative takes readers on a year long journey in the company of Albi, the glowing cow boy of the title and Rufus, a twelve year old human boy with a heart-breaking back story. Georgia Byng has written a beautiful tale which transported me into the minds of two very different protagonists, leaving me with much food for thought. 

The story begins with magical snowflakes descending from a cold January night sky and infusing the earth with a glittering of magical energy, some of which is absorbed by an albino new-born calf, Albi. In the opening chapter we are given an introduction to Albi’s herd of cows and through their voices learn about the sadness of cows and calves when they are separated as a routine part of the food industry. In contrast to the close maternal relationships exhibited by the cows, a human family living just a few miles away demonstrates the awful situation that arises from rejection and neglect of a child by his parents. Rufus Chumley is a twelve year old hunter who has learnt to survive independently since early childhood. He has been rejected by his affluent parents, his teachers and the other children at school because a metabolic disorder has caused him to grow far larger than his peers, resulting in complicated expectations and misunderstandings of his abilities. He lives an isolated life, shooting and cooking small mammals and dreaming of winning the Worldwide Hunting Association’s hunting competition in America to prove his worth to his parents.

These two narratives are intertwined when Albi responds to a magical sixth sense after eating milky white mushrooms, and leads the young bullocks in a breakout from the slaughterhouse owned by Mr Chumley. Rufus spies the glowing albino calf crossing a field in the moonlight and decides to run away from home, track the otherworldly animal and turn it into his hunting competition trophy. Thus begins an epic journey which takes the hunter and his prey on a journey across Europe and Asia, encompassing encounters with aurochs; visits to ancient sites and caves; and encounters with people who both love and exploit animals. The brutality of the traditional running of the bulls in Pamplona is shown in marked contrast to the treatment of cows in India. 

The interconnectedness between all life on earth is represented in this story by the milky white mushrooms which infuse Albi with his luminescence and his intelligence and fill Rufus with self-esteem for the first time in his life, gradually changing the way he thinks about other creatures. The tendrils which connect all life forms and create ecological balance are surfaced in this magical tale which encourages readers to think about the way that industrial scale farming damages the environment. The power of kindness is shown as a superpower in the words of one of the mother cows:

The more you care about others, the stronger you get.

Page 244

Publishing in January, a time when we are often encouraged to think about reducing the amount of meat in our diets, I think this story will encourage debate around animal welfare and meat consumption in upper key stage 2 and key stage 3 classrooms and I would highly recommend it to all school librarians. Aside from this, it is a story that I am sure will be enjoyed by many children who love animal stories and for whom it can sometimes be difficult to find books in this genre once they move beyond the early chapter books.

I am grateful to Uclan Publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for my review copy received in advance of publication on 5th January 2023.

#PublicationDayReview: PAWS by Kate Foster

Cover illustration by Ayesha L. Rubio, published by Walker Books

A search for friendship, an amazing bond between a boy and his pet cockapoo and the power of kindness are key themes of this huge-hearted story written for children of 8-12. I’m sure that PAWS will be massively popular with pet-owning children and those who long for a pet of their own, the two main canine characters, Kevin and Vinnie, have personalities that bound off the page and the short chapters in this book of just under 250 pages make it an ideal story for newly independent readers! On top of that, I would thoroughly recommend PAWS to all adults likely to come into contact with children who are autistic, for its insightful portrayal of the impact that everyday occurrences can have on the emotional wellbeing of autistic children.

The story is told in the voice of eleven-year-old Alex as he counts down the five days until PAWS, the best Dog Show on Australian TV is due to visit his town, Jessops Lake. Alex is desperate to make a friend before he leaves primary school and his strategies for achieving this goal are to win a trophy in the Obedience or Tricks categories at the dog show; to help Jared’s relay team qualify for the district competition; or to complete the Level 5 challenge, Tunnels of Disaster and Doom, on the OrbsWorld video game. He thinks that any one of these achievements will guarantee friendship with cool kid Jared and thus protect him from bullying when he gets to secondary school.

As the narrative unfolds, readers experience the daily challenges faced by neurodiverse individuals and the small acts of kindness that can make life so much more bearable. At the core of the story the utterly trusting bond between a boy and his dog reaches directly for your heart and a dog-directed new friendship will leave you with a smile on your face long after you read the final page. As added interest, this story is set in an Australian school and I think that children will enjoy discovering the differences and similarities between schools on either side of the world.

I thoroughly recommend this story to parents and carers, schools and librarians for all readers of 8+.

I am most grateful to author Kate Foster for arranging my gifted copy of PAWS from Walker Books, in exchange for my honest opinion.

#Blog Tour Review: Poppy Loves Devon by Gillian Young

Poppy Loves Devon is the second book in the Crazy Cream Adventures featuring the magnificently friendly golden retriever, Poppy and her “hooman” family. A deliciously sweet tale about friendship, perceived rejection and finding one’s strengths, with a heart as warm as a sunny day on a Devon beach. This book drips empathy which is cleverly anthropomorphised in the character of Poppy and the animals she encounters, opening up recognition of a range of emotions in middle grade readers. For children who love animals and who can sometimes relate to a non-threatening family pet more readily than to their peers, this story could provide valuable insights into behaviour such as sibling jealousy. Other children may not see the deeper subtext but simply thoroughly enjoy a summer holiday read filled with lovable animal characters (and some lovely “hoomans” too)!

Poppy, an adored and adorable retriever sets off for a week of bliss at a farm cottage in Devon with her family; Mum, Dad, Jack and Evie. She cannot wait to have unlimited time to play fetch, be spoiled with doggie ice-creams and explore the exciting new surroundings of the farmyard and neighbouring woods. Her boisterous enthusiasm bounds from the page and her encounters with the farmyard pigs will definitely raise a smile. However, she is stopped in her tracks by the sight of working sheepdog Samson who appears superior and sleek compared to her clumsiness and over-enthusiasm. As the story unfolds, these two canines both learn lessons from each other as their very different strengths bring each of them to realise that they are capable of stepping outside their normal boundaries.

Each of them fear rejection by their owners. Samson is helping to train a younger sheepdog who he feels might replace him on the farm and Poppy thinks that she will be replaced in her family’s affections by a retriever pup that she has discovered abandoned in the woods. As the idyllic week’s holiday draws to a close the reader is gently led through the emotional highs and lows as decisions have to be made. This book will make a lovely summer term or summer holiday read for fans of Michael Morpurgo or Dick King-Smith; it is a gentle story with just a small edge of jeopardy, suitable for children of 8+ who love animals and animal stories. There are beautiful pencil sketches of the animal and human characters decorating the chapter headings. The beach holiday setting will be familiar to many children, and whether you are heading away on holiday or not this summer, Poppy Loves Devon will give readers a relaxing break in the company of a perfect pet.

I am most grateful to the team at LiterallyPR for sending me a copy of the book to review and inviting me to participate in the blog tour. Do read the reviews posted by other book bloggers on the tour!

Review: The Animal Lighthouse by Anthony Burt, illustrated by Ciara Flood

Cover art by Ciara Flood, published by Guppy Books,
May 2022

Ahoy landlubbers! Here’s an adventure to gladden the hearts of animal-lovers and pirate-fans in equal measure. Featuring talking, inventive animals and a dastardly pirate crew this story is like a hybrid of Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and a cartoon series called Noah’s Island that my kids used to love! It is illustrated throughout with gorgeous black and white drawings by Ciara Flood which present a classic feel to the story.

Twelve-year-old Jim lives a charmed life on a desert island surrounded by a menagerie of fabulous animals who have raised him since he washed up on the shore as a baby, in a rum barrel. The extensive cast of animals who live with him in the island’s lighthouse are wonderful, each has a distinctive personality and I’m sure that all readers will find their own personal favourite. I was torn between Oskar, the paternal, spectacle-wearing, orangutang with his blend of kindness and inventive engineering skills, and the consistently “hangry” raccoon, Ravi, who adds a dash of humour when situations get hairy!

Despite his harmonious existence, Jim betrays a sense of curiosity for the world beyond the island and at twelve years old is desperate to know more about his human family. There is a slight edge of tension between him and Oskar, whom he suspects, knows more than he has revealed. With a pirate ship spied on the horizon and the tungsten filaments stolen from the three lightbulbs which keep passing ships away from lethal rock formations, as well as disguising the island’s existence, Jim has to embark on a race against time to restore the lighthouse beam before dark. Accompanied by Ravi, three rigging rats, a millipede and a parrot, Jim sets off on an action-packed quest across the less hospitable parts of the island, encountering an intriguing selection of wildlife. Without wishing to give away any spoilers I will just say that the cut and thrust of the action will leave readers as breathless as a pair of sword-fighting pirates.

The Animal Lighthouse is a thrilling work of imagination with elements that are sure to be popular with children of 8+. The underlying themes of what constitutes family and the lengths that family members will take to protect one another, along with the ecological harmony of animal and human existence, are deftly woven into the narrative. There is one note of caution that I would sound to librarians and teachers: one of the pirate crew repeatedly uses the word “bleedin'” as an intensifier in his dialogue, which I believe is more commonly used in Ireland than in England. I think it might cause some comments from parents of children at the younger end of the age range for whom this story would appeal, so it’s worth knowing about in advance. That said, this is a swashbuckling yarn which ends on a note which leaves me hungrily anticipating a sequel.

I am grateful to Liz Scott and Guppy Books for my gifted copy of The Animal Lighthouse in exchange for my honest review.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Star by Holly Webb, illustrated by Jo Anne Davies

Image created by Mary Simms, book cover illustration by Britta Teckentrup, published by Little Tiger Press

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: Holly Webb

Illustrator: cover Britta Teckentrup, internal Jo Anne Davies

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

If it doesn’t start before you go to bed tonight, you will wake up to a white world tomorrow, I’m certain.

Baba talking about expected snowfall, on p11

This book in three words: Tiger – Snow – Determination

This book contains all the elements of a perfect tale to enrapture a middle grade readership; bravery, determination and adventure in a wintry landscape with a sprinkling of magic and huge downfalls of snow! The black and white illustrations throughout give children at the younger end of the MG readership a chance to linger over details and contribute to the satisfaction of independent reading.

Anna is staying the night at her Russian grandmother’s (Baba’s) flat in London, excitedly anticipating the snowfall that the heavy clouds have been promising all afternoon. When her Baba promises Anna that she will wake to a snowy landscape, Anna does not realise quite how different her world will look in the morning!

Shortly before going to bed she watches a news report about a tiger on the loose, close to where her cousins live in Russia. She falls asleep clutching a small wooden tiger which her uncle has carved for Baba and when she awakes the following morning, she has magically inhabited the body of her cousin Annushka and shares breakfast with her cousins, aunt and uncle in their snowbound Russian house! The talk of the village is the sighting of a tiger which seems to have strayed towards the human settlement from the neighbouring forest. Children are warned to stick close together on their way to and from school, but during a game Anna/Annushka is separated from her cousins and has a close encounter with the tiger, which she realises is a young and frightened, underfed cub.

The sensation of locking eyes with a scared, wild, creature makes Anna determined to help it, despite the sensible and kind wisdom presented by her father about the dangers of feeding a wild predator. Can she rely on his advice to wait for the people from the wildlife sanctuary to come and take the apparently orphaned cub away for re-wilding, or will she need to act to prevent the village hunters or even poachers seal the cub’s fate? You will have to read this exciting, heart-warming adventure, set in a frozen, snow-covered landscape to find out. Holly Webb has an incredible talent for weaving beautiful stories around animals and pitching them with the perfect level of peril and tension for young MG readers. I highly recommend Star for animal-loving children of 8+.

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Press for my review copy of Star in exchange for my honest opinion.

If you enjoy this story and wish to read another wintry, sparkling and magical adventure by Holly Webb, why not try Frost, a time-slip adventure set in London?

#BlogTour: Midnight Magic by Michelle Harrison, illustrated by Elissa Elwick

cover image by Elissa Elwick, published by Little Tiger Press

A magically mischievous kitten, a kind young girl and a purposeful broomstick make Midnight Magic a story that young readers will joyously pounce upon! 

I am delighted to join the blog tour for this enchanting tale today, and honoured to share these beautiful images from Chapter One with you, with many thanks to Little Tiger Press. Enjoy!

Review

Michelle Harrison’s first book for younger readers displays all of her enchanting storytelling skills, wrapped up in rhythmically rhyming text and encased in a package that will grace any bookshelf. I am not judging a book by its cover, but oh my goodness, the sumptuous purple and gold detail is supremely beguiling, as you can clearly see from the images above! Elissa Elwick’s illustrations are charming and expressive and fully encapsulate the fun and warmth of the story.

Before you begin reading, make sure that you have a hot beverage and tempting snack on hand because you won’t want to put this down once you start.

A cat gives birth to two cute and cuddly kittens,  followed, on the stroke of midnight by a third, jet-black sibling. Appropriately-named Midnight is unlike her brother and sister, Foxy and Snowdrop, having a tendency to breathe purple smoke, cause inanimate objects to move and generally cause chaos. For this, she is not popular with her family and in an ultimate act of betrayal she is abandoned and must seek out a new home…

Friendship and joyous adventure abound when she is taken in by Trixie, her rather apprehensive father and incorrigibly adventurous Nan. Weaving bedtime story imagery with a twitch of Midnight’s magical tail the story whisks readers away on an enchanted night time journey.

This is the ultimate magical Halloween read for children in the 6-9 bracket, a heart warming and rib-tickling tale of friendship and fun. It is perfect for newly confident readers to read alone and will also be a lovely bedtime story for younger children. If you are using the story in school, you can access teaching resources created by Scott Evans @MrEPrimary, here.

I am most grateful to Charlie Morris at Little Tiger Press for an invitation to join the blog tour and a review copy of Midnight Magic. Do check out the other stops on the tour for interviews, features and further chapter extracts.

Review: Frost by Holly Webb

As the nights draw in and the temperature starts to drop, Frost is the perfect book to warm the depths of your heart; a magical time-slip adventure featuring a journey to the London Frost Fair of 1683. Holly Webb’s storytelling sparkles and gleams like the reflected winter sunshine on a frosty path.

Young south Londoner, Cassie, leads a solitary existence with a constant feeling of being left behind. Mum is pre-occupied with baby brother Lucas and she is considered too much of a baby to be allowed to join big brother William and his friends in their football games. One summer afternoon, whilst examining the foxgloves growing in the scrubby wasteland outside her apartment block she senses a movement and spots an inquisitive fox cub. His glorious red coat, white tipped tail and cute face enrapture her and she soon becomes bewitched by the family of four cubs, although Frost as she has named the first one to appear, is always  her favourite. Dismissing the accepted wisdom that urban foxes are dangerous pests, Cassie spends her summer holiday observing and feeding the cubs. When her school-term commences she feeds them the leftovers from her lunchbox, not realising that her secret is being observed by elderly neighbour Mrs Morris!

Cassie is shown to be a generous, warm-hearted girl. She continues to feed the hungry cubs as the seasons change and the weather turns wintry, despite being told off for doing so after Mrs Morris reports on her for encouraging vermin. Additionally, she assists Mrs Morris after finding her in distress due to the broken down elevator, leading to an unlikely friendship and an education about the history of Southwark. Her relationship with Frost develops to such an extent that when she is roused from her bed by howling on the night of the first heavy snowfall, she follows her vulpine friend into a magical adventure!

I am sure that this story will be very popular with a wide range of children of age 7 and upwards; fans of animal stories as well as fans of historical fiction ( I will be highly recommending it to all the Emma Carroll and Michael Morpurgo fans of my acquaintance). The wonderfully detailed illustrations throughout add to its charm and give newly independent readers regular resting places. It is such a heart-warming tale of kindness and friendship that I urge you to buy a copy when it is released in paperback format on 1 October and perhaps gift it to a child you love as a half-term treat or a Christmas present. As an added bonus you are able to read a sample chapter of Luna, another magical animal adventure from Holly Webb at the end of this book!

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Press for sending me a copy of this book to review in exchange for an honest opinion.