#MGTakesOnThursday: Agent Zaiba Investigates The Haunted House written by Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Daniela Sosa

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Additionally, 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.
Cover art by Daniela Sosa, Published by Little Tiger Press

Author: Annabelle Sami

Illustrator: Daniela Sosa

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: ‘But even if these events aren’t caused by a ghost, we simply have to investigate’.

This book in three words: Inclusive – Detective – Mystery

Agent Zaiba and her team of young detectives from the Snow Leopard Detective Agency are back for their third adventure and this time there may be supernatural forces at work!

Who or what is behind the spooky events at Oakwood Manor, where vases crash to the floor splintering into thousands of shards, plates fly from the kitchen shelves and expensive jewellery vanishes into thin air? With talk in the village of ghostly hauntings or wicked jinn persecuting the new owners of the ancient manor house, it is up to Zaiba and her cool-headed team of junior investigators to discover the true culprit.

In a gripping plot filled with strange disappearances, secret passages and a cast of suspicious grown-ups, young readers will be engrossed in trying to sift the clues from the red herrings. This story fits all the conventions of the “cosy crime” genre, from the setting in a grand manor house surrounded by ancient woodland, to a house party taking place on a storm-ruffled evening attended by a collection of guests exhibiting perplexing behaviour. The short, dialogue-filled chapters generate excitement and tension but in a style and tone perfectly suited to readers of 9+. The addition of Daniela Sousa’s lovely artwork highlights key points in the story and gives young readers a chance to break from the text and mull over their deductions and theories.

Middle grade readers have an amazing range of detective mysteries to choose from these days, I find myself quite envious! (In my childhood the choice was Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and then Agatha Christie). The Agent Zaiba books have hugely broad appeal because they are so effortlessly inclusive of everyone. This inclusivity is embodied in the main protagonist Zaiba, who, in each story welcomes new recruits into her detective agency with appreciation for the unique talents that they bring to her team. In Zaiba’s character Annabelle Sami has created a wonderful role model for young readers; demonstrating the benefit of teamwork, openness to all possibilities, positive encouragement and leading by example. All of these empowering messages are encased in an entertaining mystery story – what more could you ask for?

Agent Zaiba Investigates The Haunted House will be published on 1st April 2021. If you can’t wait until then to join Zaiba’s team of investigators, check out the first two books in the series:

Agent Zaiba Investigates The Missing Diamonds

and

Agent Zaiba Investigates The Poison Plot

I am grateful to Little Tiger Press for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Mina Mistry (sort of) Investigates written by Angie Lake, illustrated by Ellie O’Shea

Cover art by Ellie O’Shea, published by Sweet Cherry Publishing

Mina Mistry (sort of) Investigates: The Mystery of the Disgusting School Dinners

The first book in  this exciting new series for emerging readers is called The Case of the Disgusting School Dinners and is perfectly written and designed to appeal to readers ranging from confident 7 year olds to those older KS2 readers who are still looking for the perfect book to set them off on a lifetime of reading pleasure. Printed on buff-coloured paper with playful use of different fonts and fully illustrated throughout, this is a book which makes reading an enjoyable experience for those children who might find densely-formatted text rather off-putting. I applaud the publisher Sweet Cherry Press for producing these books which can act as a gateway for emergent readers.

Of course, all the clever formatting in the world won’t keep a child engaged unless the characterisation and story are equally enticing…and in Mina Mistry we have a bright new star earning her shiny detective badge! Mina Snotbridge is a smart, observant and ingenious mixed-race child, with a caucasian father and Indian mother. She tells us that she chooses to use her mum’s maiden name as her secret, undercover detective name because it sounds like mystery and it’s just a whole lot better than her dad’s surname! I love the way that the story has been organised as Mina’s case notes and log entries so that the information is condensed in a style entirely consistent with a detective story, keeping the plot moving at a good pace.

Mina’s best friend, Holly Loafer, is obsessed with planning her future career as a pop star and chasing after the only boy at school with a sense of style, Gareth Trumpshaw! They might seem like complete opposites personality-wise, but they prove that complementary skills lead to great teamwork. Granny Meera is another larger-than-life character, running her catering business Cooking con Fusion, with recipes such as onion-bahjis-in-the-hole and full English breakfast samosas. As Mina helps Granny Meera to prepare some fusion snacks to sell at the school fun run the realisation dawns that the sugar and fat-laden school lunches do not reflect the healthy eating messages that the school is trumpeting. With her detective antenna on full alert Mina enters investigation mode and formulates a plan to discover why the school cook Mrs Mudge is serving up meals designed to rot teeth and pile on the pounds!

Author Angie Lake has created an excellent story to introduce young readers to the delights of the detective mystery genre and the story has been wonderfully illustrated throughout by Ellie O’Shea. Mina is an engaging character, the plot is entirely recognisable and relatable to its intended audience and the story contains a perfect blend of intrigue and humour. Much thought has gone into the design of this book, from the glossy cover, to the sprayed edge pages and the easy-to-read content. This is exactly the sort of book to give children the positive experience of finishing and enjoying a story and introducing them to the tropes of a genre of which they can find many more examples, once their reading motivation has been engaged.

The great news is that book 2 in the series has already been published and there are hopefully more to come!

Mina Mistry (sort of) Investigates: The Case of the Disappearing Pets

Cover art by Ellie O’Shea, published by Sweet Cherry Publishing

The second book in the Mina Mistry series has the same playful tone and great design as the first story, this time packaged in a glossy lilac cover with matching sprayed edges. This time the investigation takes place during Showcase Your Pets Week at Mina’s school, a hilarious set up with children bringing in such delights as shoe-boxes full of garden snails and over-accessorised hamsters! However, it doesn’t take long before a spate of pet-thefts breaks out. Holly’s hamster, Harriet; Danny’s toad, Superdog and the entire animal population of the town’s pet shop. When Mina decides that PC McApple needs assistance to crack the case she enrols her classmates to track down the pet thieves.

With a plot full of model train sets, night-time expeditions through the town’s sewers, cosmetics research and an animal sanctuary, this is an entertaining story presented in an easy-to-read format. Alongside the fun of the investigation the story gives young readers the chance to think about the way that pets are treated and basic ethical questions about business. I recommend to anyone of 7+.

The publishers have produced a wonderful pack of engaging activities for each of the Mina Mistry books. You can find the resources for Book 1 here and the resources for Book 2 here.

I am most grateful to Sweet Cherry Publishing for my review copies of the Mina Mistry books in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Everdark written by Abi Elphinstone – Dyslexia-friendly format

Cover image by Carrie May, published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

As the mother of a dyslexic child and having met many dyslexic children throughout my employment in a primary school, I fully appreciate the value of being able to show children positive role models as well as books which are enjoyable for them to read. In this newly formatted edition of Everdark we have one of the most brilliantly imaginative current children’s authors, Abi Elphinstone who is dyslexic, creating a marvellous dyslexic character, presented in an easy-to-read format. Add to that her own inspirational note at the end of the book encouraging children to believe that they are capable of extraordinary things and you realise that this is a volume you will want to offer to every dyslexic child of your acquaintance.

When I first read Everdark in its original World Book Day format I was overjoyed to find in the character of Smudge, a protagonist who used her dyslexic strengths to battle the evil harpy Morg who threatened the existence of the Unmapped Kingdoms, but was concerned that the tiny format and print would make the book inaccessible to the very readership who would benefit most from this empowering story. My original review can be read here: Everdark by Abi Elphinstone.

I am not going to review the story again but I stated at the end of my original review:

“I would like to make a plea to the publishers to please, please, please re-print this book with a bigger font, ideally open dyslexic, so that it can be easily read by an audience for whom its message will be immensely inspiring.”

You can therefore imagine my delight when I read that Simon & Schuster UK would be publishing a new edition of Everdark in a dyslexia-friendly format, and I was equally thrilled to be sent a review copy.

Although dyslexia presents in many different ways, visual stress is common in many who share this learning difference and books which reduce the stress of reading by using clear fonts, larger text, increased spacing and off-white pages are greatly valued by those who wish to encourage all youngsters to discover enjoyment of books. Additionally, what is good for dyslexic children is good for all children, and there will be many children who perhaps have not yet become voracious readers, who will find that the clear layout of this edition makes the process of reading as splendid as the immersion in a brilliantly imagined adventure.

Many children who have been enraptured by the subsequent stories in the Unmapped Chronicles series, Rumblestar and Jungledrop might have missed the original edition of Everdark, so when this second edition becomes available on 7th January 2021, I urge you to buy copies for your home, classroom or school libraries – it could be the spark that turns a dormant reader into a bookworm and opens their eyes to a world of possibilities.

I am most grateful to Eve Wersocki Morris, Publicity Manager at Simon & Schuster UK for providing me with a review copy of this new edition of Everdark. You can be assured that I will be purchasing multiple copies of this book to give to young relatives.

#MGTakesOnThursday: A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

To take part, the steps to follow are:

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

Author: Elle McNicoll

Illustrator: Kay Wilson

Publisher: Knights Of

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This sentence is how the main protagonist Addie introduces us to one of her older sisters, Keedie:

“Her voice is all one colour, a beautiful molten gold”

This book in three words: Autism – Bullying – Solidarity

This week, instead of my usual policy of looking back to a book or series that I shared with one of my own children, I am reviewing a book which I only read last week as it was the #PrimarySchoolBookClub choice for July.

A Kind of Spark is an important #OwnVoices book about autism, highlighting the value of being true to yourself and also of standing in solidarity with those who are persecuted just because they are perceived as “different” in some way. The author Elle McNicoll is autistic and parts of the book are based on her own experiences – both good and bad – at school. I was delighted to see the publisher, Knights Of, winning awards last week because they are giving us all a huge empathy boost by bringing diverse voices to our attention and encouraging us to re-evaluate our attitudes and behaviour.

The main protagonist, Addie, is in her final year at primary school and feeling very lonely as her best friend has deserted her for spiteful Emily who delights in bullying her and horrifyingly the class teacher Miss Murphy contributes to, and it would appear, encourages the bullying behaviour of certain pupils. Fortunately Addie has two allies at school, the librarian Mr Allison who is kindness and patience personified, and Audrey who has recently arrived from London and therefore seen as an outsider by the close-knit community of a small village outside Edinburgh.

The “outsider” theme is expanded as Addie becomes intrigued by the stories of women from the village who were tried and executed as witches several hundred years earlier. At a subconscious level Addie feels some kinship with these women and the theme of her determination to have a memorial plaque erected for them in the village is cleverly interwoven with her daily battle to “mask” her behaviours and fit in at school.

The third strand of the story is based around the dynamics of Addie’s family. Her mother and father are both working long hours and are incredibly supportive of her needs. She is also cared for in contrasting styles, by her older, twin sisters Keedie and Nina. I thought that Keedie was the absolute heroine of this story, autistic herself, she had obviously experienced an even harsher time at school than Addie and does her best throughout to protect her younger sister from the slings and arrows of ignorant bullies. despite being exhausted by trying to cope with her university challenges. Nina is not neuro-diverse and as such sometimes feels left-out in the family unit. Although at times she is less patient and less considerate of Addie’s needs, there is no doubt about her love for her two sisters.

One of the most striking things for me about the writing was Addie’s description of the sensory assaults that everyday situations caused for her. So for example the school bell is described as “screeching loudly” and other loud noises “feel like a drill against a sensitive nerve.” The power of this kind of writing to help you walk in someone else’s shoes for a while and understand just how differently they experience and therefore react to external stimuli is so valuable for us all and I am immensely grateful to Elle McNicoll for inviting us into her world. Additionally, the story makes clear that autism should not be seen as a disability, rather that the ability to experience the world differently provides unique opportunities for creativity and should be celebrated.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone of 9/10+, children and adults alike.

#MGTakesOnThursday: New Kid by Jerry Craft

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

To take part, the steps to follow are:

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

Author: Jerry Craft

Illustrator: Jerry Craft

Publisher: Harper Audio Productions/ Harper Collins

Favourite sentence from Page 11: I listened to the audio production, so I have estimated the position of this quote and have chosen it to highlight Jordan’s sense of displacement early in the story.

“It was great not to be the only black kid in class but after being fooled by the chauffeur and then the whole Mory/Oreo thing , I turned my head when Drew tried to make eye-contact and I have no idea why”

This book in three words: Comics – Friendship – Diversity

As we reach the end of another school year and many children are moving on from Year 6 to their secondary schools, it seemed the perfect time to review New Kid by Jerry Craft. I don’t listen to many audio books as I often find the narration irritating – but this full-cast audio production is exceptionally good and I have listened to it three times during the loan period from my local library.

Here is my review:

 I had seen this book recommended in several lists compiled to increase the diversity of book collections and was delighted to spot that it was available as an audiobook on the Borrow Box app from my local public library. I have been swept away by the  full cast performance of this beautifully crafted and thought-provoking story which highlights the issue of racism and the need for everyone to have the courage to speak out when it is encountered. I believe that the physical book is actually a graphic novel which fits perfectly with the main protagonist Jordan being a 12-year-old obsessed with drawing comic strips.

Jordan Banks is a charming and bright boy who has won a place at prestigious elite,  Riverdale Academy Day School or RAD for short. His mum works in publishing and has high aspirations for her son and wants him to learn the unwritten rules which will help him, as an African American, succeed in whatever he chooses to do. His father on the other hand has opted out of corporate life and now runs the local community centre and coaches the local kids’ baseball team in his spare time. He is less certain about Jordan joining the privileged, predominantly white cohort of students at his new school and has promised that if things don’t work out he can move to art school in ninth-grade. This conflicting views of the parents and their concerns for their talented son are deftly explored throughout the story.

On the first morning of term Jordan is collected from his home in an apartment block in Washington Heights by his “guide“ Liam Landers and his father, a successful and wealthy businessman. Liam is the third generation of his family to attend RAD and on first contact the two boys seem to have very little in common. However as the story progresses it is clear that Liam is an extraordinarily kind and considerate boy who is quite uncomfortable with his family’s vast wealth and his father’s constant absence on business trips, and despite their social differences he and Jordan develop a close friendship

The lack of diversity in the school is made very clear from Jordan’s first arrival, where the only people who look like him are the “drivers” of his affluent classmates. There are only a handful of African American students and the innate racist behaviour of some students and even staff members is made clear. By lunchtime on his first day Jordan feels “lost and alone” and despite being rescued by Liam in the cafeteria he is bewildered by the continued racism displayed by the swaggering, white-priviledge behaviour personified by Andy Petersen. This character’s bad behaviour and the fact that nobody surrounding him has the courage to call him out on it gives readers/listeners an opportunity to reflect on their own behaviour. Jordan’s fellow African American classmate, Drew, expresses more overt anger, in particular to the form teacher who constantly refers to him by the name of a former pupil with whom she clearly had a bad relationship in a previous year.

The story is punctuated by Jordan’s “sketchbook breaks” where he articulates his feelings in the form of comic strips. He is a compellingly engaging character, trying his best to fit in and ultimately unafraid to stand up and do the right thing. He is driven by the wise words of his grandfather, “you don’t have to like everybody, but you don’t have to be a jerk about it” and by applying his good sense and natural charm has a positive effect on those around him.

There are very many things to enjoy in this story, from the quirky chapter titles which play with the names of famous books and films, to the perfectly drawn characters and Jordan’s skilled navigation of the race and wealth differences between himself and his class-mates. Jerry Craft has constructed a wonderful story which promotes kindness, tolerance, courage and friendship. A wonderful read for Year 6 pupils as they move on to secondary schools and I think that it is likely to appeal to teens who will love spotting the Hamilton references- my favourite was the echoes of the Ten Duel Commandments in Chuck Banks’ rules for handshakes! Having listened to the audio-book I will certainly be buying a copy of the graphic novel for the school library where I imagine it will be greatly enjoyed and I would recommend this audio production to any school or home collection.