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.

#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?

Scrumptious Stories Blog Tour: The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent

Graphic created by Erin Hamilton

I could not have been happier when Erin and Kate proposed a blog tour for a group of children’s books bloggers to talk about the delicious treats found within the covers of MG Fiction, and invited me to take part. I had, that very evening, started writing a review of this year’s must-read festive publication: The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent which you can read here.

For me, one of the loveliest aspects of Christmas is preparing and sharing food with friends and family; the Carroll family in Mel Taylor-Bessent’s fabulously festive book certainly appear to have the same mindset! There are mouth-watering descriptions of mince pies, hot chocolate, Christmas cake, snowball sundaes, candy canes and turkey sandwiches, you can practically taste the warmth of the mixed spice and smell the astringent sage as you read. I have to draw the line at gravy on chocolate cake, however! I asked Mel about her own favourite Christmas food and this was her reply:

Quote from Mel Taylor-Bessent

Inspired by Holly’s mum presenting Archer with a box of mince pies and a recipe for the Carroll family’s famous hot chocolate as a thank you for taking care of Holly on her first day at school, I decided to try to recreate these enticing treats. So, here are my recipes for Christmas Carroll Chocolat Chaud and Mum’s Mince Pies!

Christmas Carroll Chocolat Chaud

Ingredients

1 cup of milk

2-3 heaped teaspoons hot chocolate powder

Squirty cream/whipped cream

Optional

Cinnamon

Candy Canes

Sprinkles/grated chocolate/mini marshmallows

Method

Heat the milk in a saucepan, the microwave or an electric milk frother so that it is hot but not boiling.

Use a little of the hot milk to dissolve the hot chocolate powder and then stir in the rest of the milk.

Add whipped cream or squirty cream and any combination of toppings; sprinkles, grated chocolate, cinnamon, mini marshmallows or candy canes according to taste.

Enjoy!

Perfect as a warming treat after a hard day at school or a brisk walk in the autumn/winter frost and snow.

Mum’s Mince Pies

Ingredients

1 pack ready-made puff pastry (you can, of course make your own puff pastry. I learnt the technique in school Home Economics lessons and it’s fun but very time-consuming!)

400g jar mincemeat

A little milk

A sprinkle of icing sugar

Method

Cut block of pastry into two and roll out one of the pieces to a thickness of 3mm

Cut 12 discs with a round cookie cutter and place in a well-buttered patty tin

Prickle the bases with a fork, then pile a heaped teaspoon of mincemeat into each of the pastry bases

Roll out the second half of the pastry and use any shaped cookie cutter to make the lids of your mince pies, I like to use a star

Place on top of the mincemeat and brush the tops with a little milk

Bake in a pre-heated oven, 200°C (gas 6) for approx 15 mins, until golden

Serve warm with a dusting of icing sugar

Here are some mince pies and hot chocolate I made earlier!

If you wish to attempt other seasonal recipes inspired by Nick, Snow, Holly and Ivy Carroll, head to the resources page on Mel’s website, where amongst a host of activities, you will find downloadable recipe cards for Grotto Cakes, Ice Cakes and Christmallows. These would make a wonderful end of term activity at school or Christmas holiday activity at home for young bakers.

I hope that this post has given you some yuletide inspiration and that you will enjoy the festive season in whichever way you choose to celebrate, hopefully accompanied by family, friends, a great book and something tasty to eat.

Cover art by Selom Sunu

Do check out the other stops on the tour for more foodie fun from the wide world of children’s literature!

#MGTakesOnThursday: A Girl Called Justice The Ghost in the Garden by Elly Griffiths

Cover image by Nan Lawson, published by Quercus/Hachette Children’s Group 2021
#MGTakesOnThursday image designed by Mary Rees

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: Elly Griffiths

Illustrator: Nan Lawson

Publisher: Quercus/Hachette Children’s UK

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

She had tried to be brave (she remembered repeating an old saying of mum’s to herself: ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’) but, deep down, she’d been terrified.

p11

This book in three words: school – kidnap – mystery

This is the third of the Justice Jones mysteries, a wonderful MG mystery series set in a 1930s girl’s boarding school, written by renowned crime writer, Elly Griffiths. The sentence I have chosen demonstrates Elly’s skill at conveying an impressive quantity of information with an economy of words. Firstly, even if you haven’t read the two preceding books, you can pick this one up and immediately catch up with the protagonist’s back story. Secondly, you gain an insight into Justice’s character; she is not only a keen observer of her school mates and the staff at Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk but she also demonstrates an empathetic personality as she tries to put herself into the shoes of a new classmate.

As she returns to school to begin the third form, Justice is pleased to catch up with her dorm-mates and Dorothy, the maid that she has befriended. However, relationships are put under strain by the arrival of the Hon Letitia Blackstock who imposes herself between Justice and her former best friends, Stella and Dorothy, leading to resentment and jealousy. Letitia’s apparent fearlessness and reckless behaviour leads Justice into deeper and deeper trouble with Miss de Vere, the headmistress and expulsion looms large on the horizon. When one of the third form goes missing following a midnight feast, Justice has to use all of her ingenuity to uncover the kidnappers, restore her own standing and save the school from closure.

There are many enjoyable aspects to The Ghost in the Garden. Firstly, the plot cracks along at a good pace, chapters are short, often ending on cliff-hangers which propel you through the story. Justice’s character is very well drawn, showing her independence and intelligence but mixed with a healthy dollop of self-doubt, which makes her a very believable and relatable character for young readers. The author’s use of her journal and notes home to her father, to record reflections and feelings, are clever devices for personality insights. The strained relationships with friends when a newcomer has to be accommodated are scenarios that many youngsters will experience in school and seeing these dilemmas played out in the story can provide comfort and a degree of guidance. The world of Highbury House is beautifully portrayed, from the disgusting school meals, to the entertaining cast of teachers and pupils and the atmospheric construction of the school ghost legend; all add greatly to the entertaining plot.

I have blogged many times about books which fall into the “read for the pure pleasure of reading” category, which are so essential if we want to instil a life-long love of reading in primary school children. At just under 200 pages, the Justice Jones series is perfect for readers of 8+ who are building their independent reading stamina. They are ideal for children who enjoy the Scoop McLaren Books by Helen Castles, the Clifftoppers books by Fleur Hitchcock, the Agent Zaiba books by Annabelle Sami and are an excellent precursor to the Sinclair’s Mysteries by Katherine Woodfine, the Jane Austen Mysteries by Julia Golding or the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens.

The other Justice Jones books are:

A Girl Called Justice

A Girl Called Justice: The Smugglers’ Secret

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!

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent, illustrated by Selom Sunu

Cover illustration by Selom Sunu, published by Farshore an imprint of Harper Collins, October 2021.
MG Takes On Thursday graphic by Mary Simms.

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: Mel Taylor-Bessent

Illustrator: Selom Sunu

Publisher: Farshore

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

A world filled with snowfall and sunshine, flashing fairy lights, and constant jingling bells.

p11

This book in three words: Christmas Every Day!

Imagine being part of a family who celebrate every day as if it were Christmas, and see it as their mission in life to spread festive cheer to everyone they encounter! This is exactly the life that Holly and her family, the Carrolls, enjoy, at their home in the countryside. Her Dad, Nick, has never let go of the joyous feeling that arriving from Jamaica in the middle of a snowstorm brought him, and now spends his time inventing merrynifiscent Christmas creations. Mum, Snow, designs a fabulous range of Christmas aprons and homeschools Holly with festive fervour; symmetry lessons using lights and decorations on a tree sounds like a magnificent maths lesson to me! Meanwhile, we await baby Ivy’s first word to see if it will be one of her big sister’s concatenations.

However, when the Carrolls leap at the opportunity to buy a house on the third most Christmassy road in the world, Sleigh Ride Avenue, their lives are upturned quicker than a six-year-old’s stocking on Christmas morning! Firstly, their exuberant arrival is frowned upon by miserable neighbour Hugh Berg, referred to as Mr Bleurgh by Holly. Then there is the small matter of a lack of fireplace to contend with. However, the biggest challenge for Holly is her adjustment to the social and cultural norms of a Year 5 classroom.

Author, Mel Taylor-Bessent, captures the comedic potential of Holly’s enthusiastic embrace of anything festive brilliantly and descriptions of her arrival in the classroom, throwing handfuls of snowflake confetti, offering to sing a carol to her classmates and inability to refrain from shouting out her approval for the class book, will have readers giggling with appreciation. Her enthusiasm is so infectious that even the quiet loner of the class, Archer, seems to be warming to the task of making a joint presentation for the roles of class representatives with her.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares Holly’s zeal. Her yuletide accessorising of school uniform is frowned upon by the head teacher, some of her class cohort are less than complimentary about her “backpack of cheer” and apparently Mr Bleurgh is raising a petition to have the Carrolls removed from Sleigh Ride Avenue. When Archer appears to turn his back on their burgeoning friendship, Holly loses her Christmas cheer and has to reassess her behaviour as she ponders what to do in order to fit in with her new surroundings and whether she can bring cheer to the person who needs it the most. Will she follow her muse, Reggie the donkey-who-thinks-he’s-a-reindeer, and continue to spread goodwill? You will have to read The Christmas Carrolls to find out!

This is such a big-hearted story that it will make a wonderful addition to anyone’s festive story collection. It would be a wonderful whole class read to enjoy during December, likely to instil the Christmas Eve feeling of “everyone still and listening…and magic in the air”. Additionally, the joyfully expressive illustrations throughout, by Selom Sunu, make it a perfect independent read for anyone of 8/9+. It is really no surprise that Mel Taylor-Bessent, who has done so much to promote the love of reading for primary school children should have authored such an exhilarating and inclusive story. It really doesn’t matter how you celebrate the festive season, the underlying messages of gratitude, enjoying the moment and doing your best to make someone else feel happy are universal, and packaged in this beautiful book are bound to spread cheer. The sense of bonhomie seems to burst from the pages and as for the descriptions of festively fragranced food, I am reaching for my 30 year-old copy of Delia Smith’s Christmas a month earlier than usual! This is a Christmas cracker that does not disappoint.

Review: Jane Austen Investigates The Burglar’s Ball, written by Julia Golding

Publishing on 22nd October 2021, Lion Hudson plc

The second book in the Jane Austen Investigates series, The Burglar’s Ball, is every bit as exciting and entertaining as the first, The Abbey Mystery. This is MG historical/detective fiction at its finest, an intelligent heroine, a mystery to solve, a cracking cast of memorable characters and a plot that will keep young readers intrigued.

Jane reluctantly accompanies her beautiful, older sister Cassandra to a Summer Ball at their old boarding school in Reading, a place filled with unhappy memories for Jane who was not a favoured pupil, unlike Cassandra. On arrival, it is apparent that Madame La Tournelle has organised the ball to rescue her school from its perilous financial position. She is doing whatever she can to attract new boarders from families who have the new-found wealth of The East India Company to pay for their daughters’ education. In preparation for the social occasion of the summer a dashingly handsome dance master, Mr Willoughby, has been hired and accompanying him is a freed slave, named Brandon who has natural musical talent. While Cassandra, the wealthy young Warren sisters and their orphaned cousin Lucy swoon over Willoughby, Jane is far more interested and compassionate about Brandon’s situation, and catching up with her friend Deepti who is now running a bakery in town with her father. Additionally, Jane’s sharp, inquisitive mind gets to work thinking about Madame’s lack of French vocabulary and the London accent that slips out when her guard is down! When a valuable diamond necklace is stolen on the night of the Ball it is up to Jane and her new friends to prove the innocence of an unjustly accused individual and discover the real culprit.

Julia Golding’s writing reflects that of the real Jane Austen in its perceptive examination of the social structure of the 18th century and particularly the role of females and wealth or lack of it, within society. She is also, with the privilege of hindsight, able to include some discussion of the exploitation of the people and resources of the colonised lands which generated much of the wealth enjoyed by those holding prominent positions. She does so through the eyes of the young Jane, so that this insight is provided as an integral part of the story and doesn’t slow the plot.

I am sure that The Burglar’s Ball will be a particular hit with readers of 9-14 who enjoyed The Abbey Mystery, and the historical detective and spy fiction written by Robin Stevens and Katherine Woodfine. Once again, there are cleverly constructed letters to decode and the narrative of characters from the first book are continued. The story also provides an enjoyable reading experience for those adults who might be reading aloud to children, or even for their own pleasure. If, like me, you are a massive Jane Austen devotee you will thoroughly enjoy the Easter eggs that author, Julia Golding, has scattered throughout the story; a knowledge of the original character names will certainly provide a head start in solving the mystery! This particular mystery draws on Sense and Sensibility for inspiration and one of the loveliest aspects for me was the portrayal of the sisterly bonds between Jane and her older sister Cassandra as well as Marianne and Elinor Warren, reflecting the narrative arcs of the Dashwoods in the original novel. Sharp-eyed readers will also spot plot points which reflect some of those in Pride and Prejudice. Overall, I rate this as a thoroughly enjoyable historical detective mystery, perfectly pitched at the upper KS2 and KS3 readership; a great read for pleasure in its own right and also a gentle introduction to the novels of Jane Austen.

I am most grateful to the publisher Lion Hudson for sending me a review copy, prior to publication on 22nd October 2021, in exchange for my honest opinion.

If you enjoy this book, why not try the Murder Most Unladylike series, the Sinclair’s Mystery series or the Ruby Redfort series.

For younger readers looking for a great introduction to spy and detective fiction, I recommend Mickey and the Trouble With Moles or Scoop Mclaren: Detective Editor.

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes: The Super Spy by Brenda Gurr, illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff

Cover image by Nancy Leschnikoff, published by New Frontier Books UK

Regular readers of my blog will know how much value I place on books which give young readers the chance to become confident with their independent reading and at the same time discover the pure enjoyment to be found within the covers of a book. 

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes is a series of early chapter books, written by Brenda Gurr with lovely illustrated chapter headers created by Nancy Leschnikoff, perfect for children of 7-9 years-of-age. This third book in the series, The Super Spy is my favourite yet, the enticing cover image providing a perfect illustration of the combination of delights to be found inside.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Zoe Jones appears to be an ordinary nine-year old schoolgirl…but she harbours a secret identity, for she is in fact none other than legendary baker Zinnia Jakes! Helping her to conceal her undercover baking persona are Aunt Jam, with whom she lives when her father is away on overseas food critic duties, best friend Addie and magical cat Coco! (I have my own theory about Coco and wonder if Brenda Gurr will reveal more about this fabulous feline in future books).

Zoe and Addie along with all their classmates are hugely excited about the class sleepover in the school library:

They were going to sleep in the library, surrounded by hundreds of books and stories galore…Zoe was certain she would have sweet dreams that night!

Additionally, Zinnia Jakes has been tasked with baking one of her fabulous creations for the Parents’ Association spy-themed party which will be held in the school hall on the same night! As Zoe and Addie research the history of spying at the local museum and work on the cake design their own espionage skills lead to the discovery that there will be spy-traps to outwit if they are to continue their modus operandi of mysterious Zinnia Jakes’ deliveries!

This story packs many mouth-watering ingredients into its 100 pages. There is an exciting and fast-moving plot; an enjoyable sense of peril; a friendship based on thoughtfulness and kindness; a lovely exploration of research, planning and creativity; a celebration of museums; the best range of cooking-based metaphors and similes I’ve ever seen and the sprinkling of magic and humour supplied by Coco’s antics. What’s more, once you’ve enjoyed the story there is a recipe so that you can try baking your own Super Spy cake!

I absolutely recommend Zinnia Jakes The Superspy as an addition to home and school bookshelves for independent readers of 7-9 and think that it would also work well as a class or group read, perhaps linked to a DT or cooking project. Publisher New Frontier has provided teacher notes which include the hidden picture cake recipe on this link. Check out the other books in the Zinnia Jakes series too; you can read my review of The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes Book 1 here.

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing UK for sending me a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Swop the Satsuma-Sized Secret by Lucy Noguera, illustrated by Laura Ireland

cover illustration by Fabio Gois, published by Brilliant Monsters Books

I absolutely love this gently humorous and endearing adventure written by debut author Lucy Noguera! It features a Key Stage 2 boy Ernie, who is facing some major upheavals in his young life. He is mourning the loss of his father and faces further change with a move from the countryside to London so that his mum can start working again as a doctor and the family can live closer to their gran. Whilst his mum and teenage sister Ivy are excited about the relocation, Ernie is having a much harder time adjusting.

Imagine his surprise and delight when he investigates the scuffling noises emerging from the battered leather suitcase that serves as his memory box, whilst he is unpacking in his new bedroom, and finds a tiny, satsuma-sized dog! Before his father’s death they had been planning to buy a puppy, so Ernie is understandably overjoyed with his pocket-sized companion. However, there are stresses involved too. The landlord has a strict “no pets” policy, and when Swop sneaks into Ernie’s lunchbox and accompanies him to school there are a multitude of embarrassing and awkward situations to be faced!

This book is special for a number of reasons. (At risk of sounding like Mrs Merton)…I was first attracted by its dyslexia-friendly format, clear font, off-white high-quality paper so that text does not confusingly bleed through and illustrations by Laura Ireland which give a young reader reflection time. As well as being accessible to children with dyslexic difficulties, the short chapters and fast paced plot make this an ideal book for newly emerging readers.

The story itself highlights many aspects of the need to ally with those individuals who might otherwise feel excluded, incorporated perfectly into the context of the story so that readers will not feel they are being preached at. Ernie’s teenage sister, Ivy, is deaf and communicates with sign language and lip reading. She is portrayed as a lively, outgoing character, always in the centre of things due to the necessity to clearly see people’s faces as they are speaking to her. This is such a positive example of an individual turning what might be seen as a disability into a positive factor in her life. Just as importantly, there are two characters in Ernie’s new class who demonstrate the kind, empathetic behaviour that all of us would like to encounter in our daily lives. Rafa, who befriends Ernie during his first calamitous lunch break and Clemmie who senses Ernie’s discomfort on his first day and positively intervenes to stop the unthinking sniggers of other classmates. Both are wonderful and age-appropriate examples of kindness for this story’s readership.

In case that all makes the book sound very “worthy” please be assured that it is also a humorous, entertaining and enjoyable story of a boy and his unbelievably cute dog. There are many laugh out loud moments as Swop causes chaos at school, some containing the delights of tiny dog accidents, which are guaranteed to appeal to the sense of humour of many young readers! I think that this story will be very popular for children of 6-9 years of age and I am certainly looking forward to the sequel which will be set at The Natural History Museum!