MG Review: The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere by Jaclyn Moriarty, illustrated by Karl James Mountford

Front cover of a middle grade paperback, The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere by Jaclyn Moriarty.
Cover image by Karl James Mountford, published by Guppy Books
2nd March 2023

This quirky upper middle-grade fantasy is the recount, co-written by 12 year old Oscar Banetti, of the five days that he was absent from school without permission. Having been set this task by school deputy principal Mrs Kugelhopf, wise-cracking, skateboarder, Oscar relives his adventures from the moment on a sunny Monday morning that he stepped through a portal in the skatepark and found himself in the Elven kingdom of Dun-sorey-lo-vay-lo-hey! Fortunately, the first person that he meets in this strange land is Imogen Mettlestone-Staranise, who narrates half of the chapters. I loved the style of this novel. Imogen explains that she does not go in for descriptive writing and Oscar has already made it clear that he is not studious, so the story is told predominantly in dialogue, with brisk, snappy sentences and short chapters, ensuring that it cracks along at an ideal pace to keep 11 year olds hooked.

Oscar’s entrance into the magical kingdom precipitates a tsunami of silver which blankets the elves, trapping them in their homes. After a brief loss of consciousness, Oscar is told about the shadow spell cast by the Doom Lantern Witches which necessitates a quest by any elf who escapes the silver, to find nine key holders and re-create the key which will unlock the curse. The only elf who appears to be left standing this time is a young boy, Gruffud, who is joined on his quest by Oscar, Imogen and her two younger sisters, Esther and Astrid, as well as their cousin Bronte and Alejandro (prince and former pirate who now lives with Bronte’s family). The key must be constructed from its nine fragments by 10am on Friday or all the elves will die and Oscar will not be able to cross the portal back to his own world, so the story has a great sense of urgency as the questers race against time. With puzzles to solve, magical creatures ranging from fearsome Radish Gnomes to gentle Crystal Faeries, and a constant nagging tension about who can be trusted, this is a gripping tale. Each of the Mettlestones has their own magical talent, Alejandro’s useful survival skills picked up from his days with the pirates, and Oscar’s quick wits combine to meet the challenges of the quest.

Jaclyn Moriarty writes the dialogue between the child and tween characters with great panache; the witty banter, laced with jokes, cranky exchanges during “hangry” moments as well as pride in each other’s skills and abilities is very convincing. As Imogen reflects:

Father often says that our passionate arguments are a sign of our great love for one another and incidentally could we cut it out at once.

page 293

Added to this is the humour arising from misunderstandings between Oscar, with his high-tech, contemporary Sydney background, and the Mettlestones with their lived experience of a world where witches, faeries and trolls are commonplace and the notion of a boy wanting to carry a wheeled plank of wood is quite incomprehensible! Although handled with such a light touch, this theme of listening to another person’s lived experience and having empathy with it, was a real strength of the book for me. I also enjoyed the conceit of either Oscar or Imogen occasionally reading and commenting on each other’s chapters and I imagine this layer of sophistication will be appreciated by many readers. Amongst the other set pieces that I greatly enjoyed was a lesson in solving cryptic crossword clues prior to a very funny piece of courtroom drama.

At approximately 440 pages, with some gorgeous illustrations by Karl James Mountfield, this book would suit mature middle grade readers who enjoy complex fantasy world building and intricate storytelling. There are three previous books featuring various members of the Mettlestone family which you might want to read to fill in some of the backstories, although this book can be read and enjoyed as a standalone. I would certainly recommend The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere to primary schools for readers in Year 5 and Year 6 and also to secondary school librarians as I think this story would be enjoyed by many children in Key Stage 3. It would be an excellent summer holiday present for children making the transition from primary to secondary school.

I am most grateful to Guppy Books and Catherine Alport for my review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

#MGReview: Edie and the Flits in Paris by Kate Wilkinson, illustrated by Joe Berger

cover image by Joe Berger, published by Piccadilly Press,
1st September 2022

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this charming story which captured the excitement and elegance of a first visit to Paris as a backdrop to an intriguing adventure. The very best children’s books, in my opinion, enrapture readers with the story but also leave you with some extra nuggets of knowledge, whether that is insight into a particular problem or situation, or new facts to help build an understanding of the world. In this case, author Kate Wilkinson totally immerses the reader into the Paris setting of the adventure. Appropriately for a story in which noticing the little things is of prime importance, her precise descriptions of the city’s architecture and especially the Metro stations enables her readers to picture themselves in the heart of the city, which I feel is a wonderful gift to children who might not be lucky enough to travel to Paris in person. She really does impart a love for the features that characterise Paris, from the metal café furniture to the fantastic displays in the window of a patisserie.

Edie and her father have been fortunate to receive an invitation from Madame Cloutier, the Directrice of the Paris Metro Lost Property Office for an expenses-paid trip as a result of their adventures in book one, Edie and the Box of Flits. Edie is ecstatic when she discovers that best friend Naz can accompany them, although less happy when Dad extends the invitation to Naz’s incredibly irritating little sister Sami. When the two older girls realise that Sami has smuggled three of the English Flits; Pea, Impy and Nid, through the Channel Tunnel in her backpack, they are furious at her for endangering the little people. Sami’s behaviour is particularly stressful for Edie and causes her to be quite rude to Fabien, the grandson of Madame Cloutier, who it transpires has his own bond with the Volettes, as French Flits are known.

Unfortunately, Fabien is not the only Parisian to be aware of the Volettes. Famous artist, Victor Rottier, with his icy blue eyes, crocodile skin boots and artworks featuring dead animals under glass domes, also seems to be aware of their presence and when the children discover the secret of his planned “Grande Révélation” they must work as a team to disrupt his foul scheme. The tension builds beautifully as children and Flits collaborate in a tale woven through with insight and magic.

I loved the chapter headings with their underground map design and station-related titles. The gray-scale illustrations by Joe Berger appear at key moments in the text adding to the drama of the narrative; Victor Rottier’s depiction is alarmingly villainous! At the end of the story there are fabulous facts about both the London Underground and the Paris Metro. I cannot recommend this story highly enough for anyone of 8+, I am sure that it will be a popular choice in Key Stage 2 classrooms and primary school libraries. With half-term arriving, put this story into the hands of a young reader and let them travel by book this holiday period!

I am most grateful to Piccadilly Press and Antonia Wilkinson for my gifted copy of Edie and the Flits in Paris in exchange for my honest opinion.

#MG Review: Amari and the Great Game by B.B. Alston

Cover image by Brittany Jackson, published by Farshore, 1st September 2022

The second adventure in the Amari series, Amari and the Great Game, is an absolute must-read for anyone of 9+ who loves a thrilling magical adventure. This story crackles with imagination, ripples with plot twists and ultimately delivers an explosive finale which sets up the continuation of the series.

Don’t worry if you have not read the first instalment, Amari and the Night Brothers, the back story is summarised in the opening chapters allowing you to enjoy this book as a standalone. However, I am pretty certain that reading this story will encourage you to seek out and read the opening book in the series if you have not already done so. The imaginative world-building of a contemporary Atlanta, where supernatural creatures live amongst the human population, disguised to all but members of the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, is perfectly constructed. Reading this series has given me the same sense of excitement at entering an alternative universe as I had when reading the Harry Potter books to my children more than 20 years ago.

Here, we join our main protagonist Amari, a 13 year-old black girl from the housing projects, as she adjusts to her new-found fame amongst the supernatural community following her recent defeat of fellow magician, Dylan van Helsing. Dylan had been working for the scourge of the magical world, Moreau Night and had double-crossed his master in a bid for domination of the community of magicians. The supernatural social media platform Eurg is filled with stories and video of Amaria and Dylan’s magical duel, but not all the commentary is in Amari’s favour. There are elements in the supernatural world who do not trust magicians and believe that everyone with this magical power must be evil simply because the Night Brothers who started the Ancient War, were magicians.

The plot of this compelling story revolves around the issue of scapegoating and “othering” certain sections of a community and the way that individuals with tyrannical intentions can manipulate media and thus populations to sow division, create unrest and grab power. With subplots involving the secret League of Magicians; dark magick which enables time to be frozen; friendships put under strain when communication goes awry; and a deadly game from which only one magician can emerge with their magic intact, this is a narrative that will keep readers turning the pages long after bedtime! The time freeze that occurs at the start of the book has left most of the supernatural world’s ruling council inanimate and Amari and her loyal band of friends are determined to investigate and discover who is behind the plot to seize control of their world. I won’t give any more plot details for fear of ruining anyone’s enjoyment.

Amari is a fantastic main protagonist and the friendship portrayed with Elsie is one which many young readers will relate to, with tension and misunderstandings but ultimately loyalty and mutual support. Her love for older brother Quinton is beautifully rendered, as she rises to every challenge to free him from the curse that Dylan cast on him. For this reader, Amari’s most important quality is the ability to believe that there is goodness in everyone, including her nemesis Dylan. Despite his betrayal of her, and the resultant UnWanteds Policy of the new Deputy Prime Minister prompted by the fear of magicians that he has caused, she continues to insist that Dylan retains a kernel of goodness. I think that this is such a hopeful element in a wonderfully entertaining novel for middle grade readers.

Amari and the Great Game was published on 1st September 2022 and I am most grateful to Hannah Penny and Farshore Books for my review copy in return for my honest opinion.

If you are looking for an immersive, magical adventure for children of 9+, this is a book that I highly recommend.

#BlogTour: Jump! by J.G. Nolan, illustrated by Carina Roberts

Cover illustration by Carina Roberts, published by Sergar Creative

A football story with a difference, this almost poetic account of determination and resilience echoes with the sound of past glories, and sets a path for future success. The artwork by Carina Roberts add greatly to the slightly other-worldly atmosphere of the book.

Robbie Blair is an enormously talented young footballer with the ability to beat defenders and defensive midfielders at will, with his tricks and flicks, swerves and dips of the shoulder. The one thing he can’t seem to beat is his own body, and after his femur is broken for the third time, the doctors have told him that at the age of eleven, his footballing career is over. After long weeks in traction and recuperation at home, Robbie is at last able to return to school, although sport is now off the timetable for him. However, a class trip to an old people’s home presents Robbie with the chance to chat to Fred and this old man’s pin-sharp reminiscences of the on-pitch heroics of a Celtic legend spark an otherworldly chain of events.

With a ghostly presence leading him through a training regime to build his strength, the discovery of an old abandoned football ground near his home in Clydebank and a young female footballer as a training partner, Robbie sets his sights on a full return to the pitch. I found this story really gripping, with a unique blend of fast-paced sporting action which reads like a match commentary and poetic passages which resonate with the echoes of Glasgow’s past, whether from the football pitch or the shipyards. I marvelled at Robbie’s resilience and courage in taking on a tough training regime in order to fulfil his dreams; although this book is football based, I think that young readers could apply this example to any endeavour in which they wish to excel. With the summer of fantastic football that we have all enjoyed, I believe that Jump! will appeal equally to girls and boys in upper KS2 and KS3.

As a reader who is well beyond the target range for this book, I was thoroughly invested in the story which brought back memories of my late dad and his often repeated tales of the Lisbon Lions. I think that author J G Nolan has perfectly captured the deeply rooted sense of community that used to be built around football clubs in the days when players were very much a part of that community. I am most grateful to LiterallyPR for my gifted copy of Jump! and the invitation to join the online blog tour. Do check out all the other reviews from a selection of wonderful bloggers.

Jump! Blog Tour. Graphic by LiterallyPR.

Empathy Day Review: Wished written by Lissa Evans

Cover image by Sarah McIntyre, published by David Fickling Books,
May 2022

Every so often I come across a book that captures my heart so powerfully that I bang on about it endlessly to those who know me in real life, and purchase multiple editions to give away. I suspected that I would love the latest MG title from Lissa Evans as I am a huge fan of her writing (for both adults and children) and I had read great reviews by two of the bloggers whose recommendations I always trust. However, I really was not prepared for how much I would love it. The phrase “modern classic” is often bandied around – but this story genuinely has all the ingredients to deserve this accolade in my opinion. Reading it gave me the same sense of utter joy that I first felt when I discovered Five Children and It by E Nesbit as a child, one of the characters gave me Just William vibes and the intricately constructed comical wordplay had me laughing out loud in the same register as the Jeeves and Wooster stories by PG Wodehouse. With the deft touch of a writer who is utterly confident in her craft, Lissa Evans has created a story which is deeply moving, wildly imaginative, perfectly plotted and hilariously funny. I don’t expect to read a finer book this year.

There are five main characters in this story, brother and sister Ed and Roo (Lucy), Ed is about 10 and Roo about eight; a boy called Willard who has just moved into the neighborhood; an elderly neighbour Miss Filey, and the most gloriously imperious cat, Atlee. The plot is based on the fact that the birthday candles from Miss Filey’s abandoned 10th birthday party have lain in a drawer for fifty years until Roo lights one of them for Willard’s birthday cake…and their magical power to grant wishes is unleashed. Suddenly the most boring half-term holiday in the entire history of the universe becomes a thrilling journey through a book of fantastical adventures!

The interplay of the characters is absolutely brilliant and the character development over the course of a 250 page story is quite incredible. Ed is a wheelchair user and is clearly not comfortable with the sympathetic comments of strangers or the fact that he has become the face of a fundraising campaign to raise the money to make his family home more accessible. His character is depicted with great skill so that he actually appears as a real ten year old with a complexity of character traits rather than just a two-dimensional figure to raise an issue. He can be quite abrupt and sarcastic, and actually treats his little sister Roo quite selfishly at times. She clearly looks up to him and will do anything to protect and look after him, while he takes her devotion for granted. It takes their new neighbour Willard with his blunt outspokenness to point out to Ed that he should show some gratitude to Roo for everything that she does for him.

Willard is a self-labelled “class clown”. As the son of a vicar he has moved frequently and clearly uses humour to settle into new school environments. Initially, Ed resents this newcomer who might take his position as the boy who amuses the class but they develop a mutual respect and friendship as the story progresses. I really enjoyed Willard’s character; big-hearted, kind and always finding enjoyment in any situation.

Miss Filey is a spinster in her 60s, who has cared for her parents all her life, putting her own dreams on hold for many years. The children consider her to be terribly boring when they discover that she is going to be looking after them for half term, but as they find out about her background and begin to see the girl she once was, they form a wonderful bond with her. The tacit understanding and poignant conversation between Ed and Miss Filey towards the end of the story, where the roles of adult and child are touchingly reversed, is liable to have you reaching for a box of tissues.

Finally, a great deal of the comedy is generated by Atlee an extremely smelly cat of advanced years who exhibits the most acerbic sarcasm that I have encountered in a middle-grade novel. I marvelled at the way his character generated moments of utter hilarity, whilst delivering withering one-liners and simultaneously trying to conceal his genuine affection for Roo in particular. I am not and have never been a cat person, but Atlee is one of the greatest animal characters I have discovered in fiction.

I don’t want to describe any of the magical adventures for fear of ruining anyone’s enjoyment of the perfectly crafted plot. However, I will say that along with the perfectly crafted adventures, I loved the emphasis in the narrative of choosing your words carefully to ensure that there is no ambiguity in what you might say, or wish for. In a novel in which it appears that every single word has been selected with care, I thought this was wonderful.

I have chosen to review Wished for Empathy Day 2022 because this is one of those stories where you get a real insight into the characters’ motivations for the way they behave as the story unfolds, and you also witness the characters developing an understanding of each other, followed positive actions to improve each others’ lives. The utter joy of the book is that it is so astonishingly well written that you absorb these messages by some kind of magical literary osmosis whilst revelling in the outrageously funny story. There is an increasing amount of academic research into the positive benefits of reading fiction for developing our ability to experience empathy; this year’s theme is “Empathy is our Superpower”. Read Wished and you will certainly become an Empathy superhero! I think this would be an absolutely brilliant book to read aloud with children, whether you are a teacher, librarian or parent/carer, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

BlogTourReview: A Head Full of Magic by Sarah Morrell

Published by Hashtag Press April 2022, cover art by Helen Braid

Ten-year-old Fleur Marie Bottom is dealing with a lot of problematic issues as she approaches the final weeks of primary school. Her Dad mysteriously left home following the death of Grandpa Willie and hasn’t been heard from since; Nan has moved into the attic accompanied by her African Grey parrot, Sir Barclay; and mum is intent on trying out West Indian recipes to make Nan feel at home – with disastrous effects! The arrival of a new girl named Celeste in her class has only compounded Fleur’s problems. Her long-standing best friends, Anais and Ruby, have declared that they now find chess and books and hanging out in the library “boring” and have gravitated into Celeste’s sphere of after-school pizza and play dates. She has inexplicably been attacked by a swarm of birds in the local park and her ankles are the constant targets of Celeste’s underhand tactics on the hockey pitch.

As her emotions ricochet between despair, sadness and worry, Fleur discovers that she has been “blessed with a head full of magic”, as her powers are awoken by the changes taking place in her life. Navigating the bullying at school and concern for the increasing frailty of Nan becomes a lot more complicated when fledgling magical talents as a “Hexter” become part of the mix. Fortunately, when she finally plucks up the courage to talk honestly to Nan, guidance is forthcoming. Deploying her “animalator” talent for talking to animals, to outsmart Celeste during the hockey tournament gives rise to scenes which resemble a humorous hybrid of Dr Dolittle and Malory Towers!

This debut Middle Grade novel from Sarah Morrell is a fun and satisfying story of a caring multi-generational and multi-cultural family bound together with love and secrets. The underlying message of embracing difference, being proud of who you are and realising that sharing worries is the strong and brave course of action emerges gently from the narrative. I think that this story will be very popular amongst children in years 5 and 6 who will find parallels with the characters and predicaments, and might yearn for their own Sir Barclay-style ally!

I am most grateful to Helen Lewis at Literally PR and Hashtag Press for sending me a copy of A Head Full of Magic to review and for inviting me aboard the blog tour.

Do check out the other stops by these fantastic reviewers on the blog tour!

MG Book review: The Wondrous Prune by Ellie Clements

To be published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books 12th May 2022

I was intrigued by the title of this magical middle grade book when I spotted it on NetGalley and thus delighted when I was approved to read an early e-ARC. It is a heart-warming tale of an ordinary Year 6 girl with an extraordinary gift!

Prune’s mother has inherited her late parents’ house, the home she grew up in as a child, and takes the opportunity to move the family away from their former home in a block of flats. We soon discover that Prune’s teenage brother Jesse had been hanging out with a friend called Bryce whom his mother and Prune both consider to be a bad influence, they hope that the move will break the connection and get Jesse’s life back on track. However, Prune misses her old life, her best friend Connie and the wonderful connection she had with Grandma Jean and Poppa B when they were alive. Although their former home holds many happy memories for her, she can’t help the sadness washing over her now that they are no longer around. And so the fantasy aspect to this contemporary story arrives, because every time that Prune begins to experience intense sadness or anxiety, her world suddenly fills with vivid colours which she cannot explain.

This phenomenon does not confine itself to the house. As Prune walks into her new classroom the following day she again finds her surroundings awash with colour and by standing open-mouthed with astonishment she opens herself up to the cruel barbs of a pack of bullies nicknamed the Vile-lets. These three girls are vicious in the way they target their victims and Prune is only saved from utter despair by the kindness of classmate Doug who was their previous main target. A temporary replacement teacher alongside the fact that Prune doesn’t want to worry her mother, means that she has to put up with the bullying for far too long before the combination of Doug and Jesse persuade her to do the right thing and tell an adult.

Prune’s relationship with older brother Jesse was one of my favourite aspects of this book because it was so realistically portrayed. They clearly had a very close bond, with Jesse demonstrating great kindness and care for his younger sister when they were alone together, whilst also dismissing her in front of Bryce when trying to present a cool image. In turn, Prune is buoyed up by Jesse’s attention and clearly worries that he is throwing away his life chances by hanging out with someone who is leading him into trouble.

Can Prune and Jesse resolve their differences; will Prune be able to shake off the bullies; and will she be able to help her brother escape from a toxic friendship? How will the legend of the “Delmere Magic” and Prune’s amazing artistic ability interact and can eleven year old girls become superheroes? You will have to read this middle grade contemporary fantasy to discover the answers.

The Wondrous Prune is a story of family love, finding your inner strength and focussing on the positive, which is ideally pitched for an upper key stage 2 readership. I’m sure that there will be many who would love to possess Prune’s superpower! The electronic proof that I read did not contain any artwork although I believe that the finished paperback will have illustrated chapter headings which I imagine will bring to life Prune’s artistic abilities.

Publication is due on 12th May 2022 and I am most grateful to Bloomsbury Children’s Books and NetGalley for access to an e-ARC.

Blog Tour: The Way to Impossible Island by Sophie Kirtley

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 8th July 2021

I am thrilled to be joining Sophie Kirtley at the top of the East Lighthouse on Lathrin, for the blog tour for The Way to Impossible Island. From the moment I picked up this book, I was utterly captivated by the combination of characters, setting, theme and Sophie’s lyrical writing. Although I couldn’t finish it in one sitting – pesky chores; I wanted to! I predict that this is a book many children will lose themselves in during the school summer holiday. I love this book as an adult reader and can tell you that 10 year-old me would have been transfixed.

The themes of self-esteem and a child’s self-empowerment are seamlessly woven together with an immersion in the natural landscape. Oh, and there’s a time-slip adventure here too! If you loved Sophie’s previous MG novel, The Wild Way Home, you will enjoy revisiting some of the characters here. Research shows that both reading and an immersion in nature have positive benefits on mental wellbeing in adults and children. In my non-scientific study with a cohort of one subject, I conclude that the feel-good effects of this book are beyond doubt!

So as we gaze out over the island landscape, Sophie has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the impact of the natural world on wellbeing.

Firstly, can I just thank you for allowing me to ask you some questions, based on your new MG novel The Way to Impossible Island, I’m grateful that you are taking the time for this, and I look forward to sharing your answers.

Thank you so much, Veronica, for having me on your blog and for all the support you give to books and authors (not just me!!) I think a lot of people can under-estimate the vital work children’s librarians do to matchmake books and young readers; so many children do struggle to make choices which fit their needs and tastes, so are reliant upon the expertise of others to help them make these choices. I love libraries and I’m delighted that initiatives like Cressida Cowell’s Life-Changing Libraries campaign seem to be gathering such momentum @CressidaCowell Life-Changing Libraries | BookTrust

As I am an ex-school librarian, now working in an NHS library, an area that particularly interests me is the effects of reading on mental health. I am struck by the sensory descriptions of the natural world in The Way to Impossible Island and would like to explore this with you.

That must be a fascinating change in direction for you. What an interesting setting!

To begin with, there is a tangible sense of place in the setting of the story, Lathrin Island. I suspect that it might be based on Rathlin Island, a place that I only heard about when I started a distance-learning course with the University of Ulster. Can you tell us whether Lathrin is based on an island that you have visited and your motivation for using it as the focus of the story?

Yes, you’re absolutely right – Lathrin Island is indeed based on Rathlin Island! I was born in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland and both The Wild Way Home and The Way to Impossible Island draw on settings which are warmly familiar to me from my own childhood. From an early age I was fascinated with Rathlin Island and I longed to go there, but even though we didn’t live that far away, for some reason we never did. It wasn’t until I was forty-two-and-a-half that I actually visited Rathlin for the first time! (see pic)

Sophie Kirtley on the way to Impossible Island, photo credit Andrew Kirtley

So perhaps that sense of longing and mystery which Dara gets from the island in the book is a bit like my own longing for that unreachable place! The more I researched Rathlin the more there was to draw upon for The Way to Impossible Island: the wildlife; the heritage; the myths.

I was a wee bit cheeky though as by calling it ‘Lathrin’ it gives me some licence to play around with the geography and not be utterly true to real life Rathlin. In real life, for example, Rathlin is the largest inhabited island off the coast of Ireland – there’s a whole community of people who live there; my ‘Lathrin’ island is only populated by cows and wild creatures! (see pic)

Rathlin Cows, photo credit James Logan

You include a variety of animals which impact key moments in the narrative for example the golden hare and the porpoises, have you always been a lover of nature and what is the appeal of the natural world to you?

Yes, wildness and the natural world are right at the heart of my books. It’s important to me not to just make animals seem cute or funny but to show how we all share a world together and ought to respect one another. Even when I was a girl I loved being outside – swimming in the sea, playing in the forest, running in the fields. The natural world felt, and still feels, boundless and unlimited; freeing somehow.

I am also intrigued by Mothgirl’s adoption of a wolf cub and utterly adored ByMySide’s character and narrative arc. Did you study wolves and their behaviour during the writing process, and could you tell us something about this?

Thank you. I love ByMySide too! Yes, I read a lot about wolves and wolf behaviour. Plus I was lucky enough to visit and observe an wolf pack at a conservation centre called the Wild Place Project in Bristol and to chat with, Zoe Greenhill, the specialist keeper there. Just watching these incredible animals and quizzing Zoe about their habits and behaviours really helped give me a deeper understanding which in turn helped me create ByMySide convincingly and respectfully too. @wild_place  Wild Place Project – Home – Wild Place 

Wild Place Wolf, photo credit Sophie Kirtley

Do you have any thoughts on the impact that taking care of a pet can have on children?

We have two cats, Dizzy and Dude, and my own children love them deeply. I think having a pet helps children learn empathy – they know when their pet is frightened or at ease and the deceptively simple act of reading the emotions of others and responding kindly is a hugely important life lesson.

Dizzy in a plant pot, photo credit Sophie Kirtley

It is not only your descriptions of wildlife that spoke to me, but there is also a particular passage quite near the end of the book when Mothgirl chases her wolf and the golden hare through a wheatfield and your description of the sights, sounds and smells was completely evocative of my walk to primary school, many, many years ago. How important do you think it is for children to be physically active outside and did you deliberately include these descriptions for children who might have only known city life?

I didn’t especially think of city children when writing these descriptions, but it’s really lovely to imagine my stories transporting readers to unfamiliar places, or as in your case, Veronica, to familiar places within their own memories.

I do think that time spent outdoors is very important for children’s (and adults’!) wellbeing and I’m delighted that the whole Forest School and Outdoor Learning movements seem to be gaining such momentum in the education world. I love reading about what educators like Mike Watson @WatsEd and Chartham Forest School @CharthamForest get up to on their wild adventures. I’m always especially thrilled when teachers get in touch with me to share the amazing learning beyond the classroom which has been inspired by my books; have a look on my website gallery page The Gallery – YOUR work | Sophie Kirtley to see the Stone Age settlements created by Leanne Moses’s class at Synchdyn Primary (@MosesLeanne @SychdynSchool) and the wild cooking around Langdale Primary’s campfire (@langdaleprimary).

I can only describe some passages in the story as poetic. Did you structure your writing this way to encourage some mindful reflection at these moments?

I’ve always written poetry, even before I turned my mind to fiction. So I think when my characters experience especially high or low moments in a story the poetry just pops out! I love being playful with structure and form in my writing, the passages which appear differently on the page are there to try to capture the extreme nature of the characters’ experiences in shape as well as in words. Sorry if I’m being a bit cryptic; I’m trying to avoid giving tooooo much away!

Both of your books, The Wild Way Home and The Way to Impossible Island seem to have the natural world and long-term environmental changes to a landscape as overarching themes. Did you consciously set out to bring these factors to the attention of your readers?

It’s funny because I didn’t consciously set out with this, or any, agenda – I just set out to tell an exciting and tender story. However, I find that as a story unfolds I’m often struck by how the themes I really care about do seem to come sneaking in at the edges. Appreciating and protecting the wildlife around us is something I care about deeply and never has there been a more essential moment to unlock conversations with children about the natural world and their role within it. Perhaps books are a way to spark these important conversations and open up the possibilities of change.

Several mental health charities for children, such as Place2Be and the Anna Freud Centre have encouraged young people to spend time in the fresh air to de-stress. Do you hope that reading about children adventuring in the natural world might encourage your readers to step away from their screen-based devices and spend some time connecting with nature?

I would never claim to be an expert in children’s mental health, but I do think there’s enormous power in connecting with the natural world – for children, for adults, for everyone – and perhaps reading adventurously, reading wildly, can go some of the way towards unlocking that power. Saying that, I do think there is value in screen-based activities too (building communities; learning collaborative skills; finding a sense of belonging) and I certainly don’t see time spent outdoors as a panacea. But, for me, I simply love being out in the natural world and I can definitely see why mental health charities are exploring these possibilities.

The chapter heading images throughout the story seemed to suggest the circularity of life, how reassuring do you think this aspect of nature might be for your readership?

A lot of what I write is about acceptance. In the Wild Way Home Charlie and Harby learn to accept that dreadful things can happen, but if we stick together and help each other then we’ll be OK. In The Way to Impossible Island Dara and Mothgirl have to each accept that they are different from the mould that their respective worlds have shaped for them and that they can celebrate themselves and each other for who they actually are. It was important for me to convey a message beyond a simple ‘happy ending’ – although my stories are fantastical in lots of ways they are grounded in our real world and I feel that in life it’s more helpful to accept than to seek to ‘fix’ things (like death or illness) which are difficult and inherently ‘unfixable’ and out of our control.

Thank you again Sophie. I was absolutely captivated by this book, and I am sure it is going to be hugely enjoyed by many, many readers; hopefully whilst sitting under the shade of a tree during the last few weeks of the summer term or the long summer holidays.

Thank you so much, Veronica. It’s been lovely to answer your interesting questions. I wish you best of luck with your job and with your University course. Have a lovely summer!

Sophie x

I am hugely grateful to Beatrice at Bloomsbury Children’s Books for my review copy of The Way to Impossible Island and for inviting me aboard the blog tour for this truly amazing book. Highly recommended for confident readers of 9+, for parents or carers to read aloud and share with children of 8/9+ and for Key Stage 2 classrooms who might be studying UK landscapes in their geography curriculum. Do stop at all the other blog posts on the tour!

Blog Tour image courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books

#ReadingIrelandMonth21: The Storm Keepers’ Battle by Catherine Doyle

Published by Bloomsbury 04/03/2021

The wonderful blogger Cathy at is hosting #readingirelandmonth21 and for my first contribution I present a review of The Storm Keepers’ Battle, a brilliant #MiddleGrade fantasy set on a small island off the West Coast of Ireland and written by a hugely talented Irish author, Catherine Doyle. I hope that you enjoy this post and do check out the many others posted under the #readingirelandmonth21 banner.

The final instalment of Catherine Doyle’s Storm Keeper trilogy is one of my most anticipated books of 2021 and I was delighted to be approved to read an eARC on NetGalley.

The story continues days after Fionn Boyle’s confrontation with the dark force that threatens his ancestral island home of Arranmore, a wild, storm-battered and beautiful island off the west coast of Ireland, related in book two, The Lost Tide Warriors. 

‘Fionn Boyle was sure of two things:

One, he was full of an ancient, rippling magic that could explode from him at any moment. Two, he had absolutely no idea how to control it.’

This story is MG Fantasy at its finest. A cast of brave and loyal friends who support Fionn through his doubts and difficulties; a sarcastic older sister who comes through for her brother when it really counts; a terrifyingly evil foe and hugely importantly, the island itself. For me it is the sense of place which makes this book and indeed the entire trilogy stand out. The deep magic which pervades Arranmore, with its hauntingly magical locations such as the Whispering Tree, Cowans Lake and even Morrigan’s lair on Black Point Rock all appear utterly authentic and resonate with bone-deep ancestry and connection to the land. I think this can only be achieved by a masterful author who knows and feels that same connection to place.  On the island of Arranmore…

‘If it sounds impossible, then it’s probably true’

As evil sorceress Morrigan sends out her brothers, Brendon the Brutal and Aldric the Silent to capture new recruits for her army of soul stealers, the inhabitants of Arranmore led by Fionn and his family and friends battle against time to locate their own sorcerer, Dagda, to lead the fight against her. The story captures twelve-year-old Fionn’s battle against his own self-doubt and sense of inadequacy for the role which has been thrust upon him. The humorous teen banter between Fionn, his sister Tara and friends Sam and Shelby, contrasting with their fierce loyalty to each other in the heat of battle is deeply moving. The closing chapters of the story held me enraptured as I sat up far too late into the night to finish the book.

This is a perfect finale to one of the best Middle Grade series that I have read and I highly recommend it to all confident readers of 10+

I am grateful to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for granting me access to an eARC ahead of publication and I will be buying a physical copy, hoping that I can find a signed one on sale, to join the other two in the series on my bookshelf.

Image created by Cathy at 746Books and used with permission

Review: Dragon Detective That’s A Wrap written by Gareth P Jones, illustrated by Scott Brown.

Cover image by Scott Brown, published by Little Tiger Press

That’s A Wrap! is the final instalment of the Dragon Detective series by Gareth P Jones, and appropriately, for a series which has continually conjured images of old black-and-white detective movies, the action plays out in Hollywood. This book is so cleverly written that it can be enjoyed as a standalone mystery surrounding a stolen film reel, a search for dragon treasure and a battle for supremacy, but also perfectly wraps up the centuries-old conflict between factions of dragonkind which has featured in the previous three stories. Many of the human and dragon characters from previous books make welcome reappearances to fulfil their destinies. My advice would be to read the entire four book series in order; you will be royally entertained.

The action opens with billionaire Brant Buchanan preparing a deadly trap for our Dragon Detective hero, Dirk Dilly, in LA. Meanwhile, back in London our human heroine, Holly Bigsby, is practically under house arrest as her stepmother (former politician and employee of Brant) punishes her for the chaos and embarrassment she caused at the end of Dragon Detective Sky High! Dirk is staking out a warehouse formerly used by evil dragon Vainclaw Grandin’s Kinghorn henchmen when he learns that a new dragon organisation, the One-Worlders, have set up as rivals to Vainclaw’s Kinghorns with the same mission of waging war on humanity!

When Holly’s stepmother is summoned by her employer to join him in LA, Holly and her best friend Archie find themselves staying in a luxurious mansion next door to Holly’s former dorm-mate from Dragon Detective School’s Out! Petal Moses. She is at her prima-donna best, starring in the film of her less-than-riveting life story. Her guardian, whilst her mother is away recording another hit album, is none other than music teacher, Miss Gilfeather, a woman with an awesome repertoire of sarcastic put-downs. Other characters and subplots reappear from Dragon Detective School’s Out! and Dragon Detective Catnapped! as the action heats up in LA.

As in all three previous books, the dialogue crackles with wit as dry as the Joshua Tree National Park. Here we meet desert dragons Kitelsky and Putz, whose fighting antics have attracted the attention of more than one camera lens over the years that they have been staging their desert rumbles!

I don’t want to give away any spoilers of this tightly plotted adventure but I can say that Gareth P Jones has done an awesome job of tying up all the strands from the series into a perfectly satisfying final denouement. The loyal friendship portrayed between Holly and Archie is entirely authentic and the deep connection between Holly and Dirk is so heartwarming that you never question the possibility of a dragon going about his business from a London flat. One of my favourite characters throughout the series has been Dirk’s landlady Mrs Klingerflim and I am overjoyed that she steps out into the spotlight in this final instalment.

Overall, I highly recommend Dragon Detective That’s A Wrap! to anyone of 9+ who likes their detective mysteries served with a huge side order of quirky humour and I hope you enjoy the entire series as much as I have.

I am most grateful to Charlie Morris, Publicity Manager at Little Tiger Press for my review copy of this book.