#MGTakesOnThursday: Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold

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. 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: Nicola Penfold

Illustrator: Kate Forrester

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“It predates not only the floods and the Hunger Years, but the Decline, and even the Greedy Years before that. It’s from when the land was still healthy enough to farm, before the poisons and the saltwater got in.”

Cover art by Kate Forrester, to be published by
Little Tiger on 8 July 2021

This book in three words: Environment – Family – Metamorphosis

This is an incredibly beautiful and powerful story set in a near future coastal community on the east coast of England. The extract that I have quoted from page 11, locates the reader in the space with great economy, as it describes Crier’s Windmill which will become a pivotal location in the story. As the book opens, you join Nat and his two best friends Tally and Lucas as they set off on their bicycles for summer holiday pranks and dares amongst the sterile landscape of the solar fields and Edible Uplands factory farm. It cleverly positions young readers in a recognisable activity before the clues about this dystopian future lead to the realisation of how society could be changed following ecological disaster.

Meanwhile, sisters Pearl and Clover, live with their father and their collective grief on an oyster farm; a ramshackle structure of narrowboats and the remnants of an offshore oil rig, held together as precariously as their family, with bindings that require constant re-knotting to stop the construction coming apart. We quickly learn that siblings are not allowed in the district of Blackwater Bay, where the feared Peacekeepers remove illegal second children, issue civil disobedience points and regularly send unlucky trespassers to the prison ship which is anchored further out in the bay. A visible reminder to all that resisting the state rule will be punished.

The two existences come together when Nat’s mum, Sora, a senior scientist, is sent by the District Controller to study the farming methods pioneered on the Oyster Farm to try to enhance food production for the district. When the “landlubbers” relocate to the feared world of the water, Nat brings some uninvited guests – jars of caterpillars that he has collected from the wild thistles in the solar fields. This act of rebellion (all pollinators are claimed by Central District) sets a metamorphosis in motion that will affect more than just the lepidoptera.

Nicola Penfold has written an exquisite story which brilliantly captures some of the pressing concerns of our age, she has crafted memorable characters and a plot that simmers with tension and edginess as the storm brews in the background. Her love of the natural world shines through the narrative which is peppered with a feast of Easter eggs in the form of the names of both human and non-human characters. She acknowledges the fact that children show far more awareness and concern about the environment and the plight of migrants than many adults; this is perfectly encapsulated by Pearl:

“You’re missing all of it because you’re not bothering to look! None of you are!”

I am sure that this book will prove to be extremely popular with upper Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 children, I can imagine it becoming a favourite whole class read, perhaps to accompany topics on global warming or food production. It is also a book that many adults would benefit from reading; a perfectly assembled plot with a thoughtful and valuable message. I loved it.

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press and NetGalley for allowing me early access to an electronic version of this book which will be published on 8th July 2021.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Perfect Parent Project by Stewart Foster

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. 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: Stewart Foster

Illustrator: Unfortunately this information is not available on my electronic copy

Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ It’s good to have a friend. They make you feel like you belong, and they understand how you feel “.

This book in three words: Family – Friendship – Belonging

This week I have chosen a book which was published on the day that this year’s #ReadForEmpathy booklists were published by the wonderful organisation Empathy Lab. The Perfect Parent Project is a book full of warmth and insight which made me stop and think deeply about the emotions and experiences of foster children. I have read that author Stewart Foster has drawn on his own experience as a foster parent to write this story which I think deserves to be on everyone’s reading list to promote empathy.

Sam “small c, big c” McCann yearns for perfect parents. Parents who will give him real hugs, drive him to school in a BMW M5 and take him on holiday to Disneyland! You see, Sam is a foster child and has lived with eleven different foster families since he was handed over to the agency by his mother when she was no longer able to cope with looking after him. 

In this first person narrative, Stewart Foster gives readers a heart-breaking and heart-warming insight into the lives of foster children and foster families through the immensely loveable character of Sam. The protagonists are written with such authority and authenticity that you are entirely swept up in Sam’s quest to find a family and a home in which he will belong; a home where his photo will be included amongst the family portraits, where he will be given a door key, and he won’t be sent to a respite centre whilst the foster family have a holiday. 

Unfortunately his experiences to date have left him with no desire to make friends or get involved with school activities and a reluctance to trust adults, as he lives with the expectation of moving homes and schools just as he starts to feel settled anywhere. He currently has one close friend, Leah, who has remembered him from his brief attendance at her primary school and together they devise a scheme to find Sam a new home – the Perfect Parent Project! This involves the delivery of hundreds of printed leaflets to sufficiently up-market houses, based on Sam’s rather materialistic criteria for the ideal parents!

As the quest develops, Sam becomes more deeply entangled in a web of deceit which drives a wedge between him and his caring foster family, threatens his friendship with Leah and puts his involvement in the school production of Bugsy Malone in jeopardy. 

This is a deeply moving and thought-provoking book and the story is told with such balance and nuance that you empathise with all parties: Sam; Leah having to deal with her own family break-up; as well as with Sam’s foster parents; and Reilly his adorable six-year-old foster brother. The author skilfully takes young readers on Sam’s journey of realisation that perfect families are those who care for each other, spend time together, encourage each other, and create a sense of belonging. 

After Sam is returned home by a police officer at one point in the story, he explains:

“ She didn’t know what it’s like to want something so much that you ache forever inside”.

This is one of many memorable moments in The Perfect Parent Project that I know will remain in my heart. Others include the image of Reilly, leaning down from the top bunk bed to chat every evening causing Sam to nick-name him “the jellyfish” and the point when Sam stops referring to his foster parents as Reilly’s mum and dad. I often feel that we can learn so much about acceptance from young children and in the character of Reilly we are given a true lesson in what it means to accept someone for who they are – I am determined to “be more Reilly” after reading this wonderful story.

I am most grateful to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster for allowing me access to an eARC of The Perfect Parent Project. It is now available to purchase and I highly recommend it to anyone of 9+.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Q Raúf

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. 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.
Published by Hachette Children’s Group

Author: Onjali Q Raúf

Illustrator: I have this as an eARC from Netgalley and cannot find an illustrator’s name

Publisher: Orion/Hachette Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: (The story is told in the voice of ten-year-old Hector, who at the beginning is revelling in his role of school bully and family outcast)

“After class, I headed straight to detention, and sat in my usual chair in the corner of the classroom “

This book in three words: Homelessness – Bullying – Redemption

How many of us rush to judgement based on the behaviour of the people we meet rather than stopping to think about the reason for their behaviour and spending time to try to understand and help them? In her third MG novel, Onjali Raúf shines her compassionate light on homelessness, showing the true humanity of individual lives and gently encouraging her readers to see the person rather than a social problem defined by a collective noun “the homeless”. As with her previous two novels, her message is suffused through a thoroughly engaging story, which I read deep into the night as I was compelled to finish it in one sitting.

In a clever contrast the two main characters Hector and Thomas represent two forms of homelessness. Thomas, the archetypal picture that we think of; unwashed, shabby clothes, sleeping on a park bench in an old sleeping bag, against Hector who is from an affluent family but with parents largely absent on international jobs. He feels that he is a disappointment to his high-achieving family and with the nanny largely preoccupied with his younger brother, his life consists of cheese toasties, late-night video games and travelling into central London, unsupervised, to skateboard. If home is the place where we are nurtured by people who love us and who we love in return, then at the start of this story I would consider Hector to be homeless.

As the story opens, Hector, the ten-year-old school bully is in the middle of his latest cry for attention, dropping toy snakes into the school lunch soup pan. He is part of a toxic trio of friends, with Will and Katie constantly encouraging him to acts of increasingly poor behaviour, which he performs to gain their approval. This culminates with him starting to harass Thomas, an old, homeless gentleman who lives in the town park, eventually destroying his meagre belongings. 

His final act of vandalism is witnessed by Mei-Li, a classmate who he despises for being their “teacher’s pet” and a “brainiac”. Whilst the other school children cower in terror or bribe Hector with their sweets or pocket money, she is unafraid to stand up to him and forces him to apologise to Thomas and eventually to help out at the soup kitchen where she volunteers alongside her father.

Meanwhile the news headlines are gripped by a series of thefts of valuable public statues from central London, including the famous Paddington Bear from the mainline train terminus. The thief leaves behind coded signs in yellow paint, these symbols are known only to the homeless community and thus suspicion falls upon an entire group of innocent people. When Hector witnesses a theft in Piccadilly Circus one evening and casts suspicion on the wrong man, he finds himself in the midst of a race against time to uncover the true villains.

This story is thoroughly entertaining as a detective mystery puzzle, with the ingenuity and teamwork of Thomas, Hector, Mei-Li and Catwoman combining to an exciting denouement at a major London landmark. In the accepted way of MG fiction the thread of redemption and hope is woven through the tale, leaving readers with the ambition to look for the good inside everyone and the belief that transformation can take place in the everyday events of life. Once again Onjali Raúf has written a beautiful story which makes us think again at the over-looked in our society. Highly recommended for all readers of 9+.

I am grateful to #NetGalley and Hachette Children’s Books for granting me access to an eARC of this wonderful story.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Tilly and the Map of Stories by Anna James

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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.
Cover image by Paola Escobar, published by Harper Collins Children’s Books
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Author: Anna James

Illustrator: Paola Escobar

Publisher: Harper Collins Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

” I’m looking for a book.”

This book in three words: Magic – Imagination – Stories

A couple of weeks ago I used this meme to highlight my love for Tilly and the Bookwanderers, yesterday I finished reading an eARC of Tilly and the Map of Stories, due for publication on 17th September. It’s my favourite of the series so far, although it is going to cause me nightmares the next time I have to do some book-weeding in the library! Here is my review:

The third book in the Pages & Co series is a magnificent celebration of the magic of stories and an ode to the bookshops, libraries and imaginations from which they are dispensed. The love of story erupts from this novel and inflames your heart with a desire to revisit old favourites and examine their links to the newly published. Combining 21st century London tweens with a fantasy plot that includes encounters with the Great Library of Alexandria, the Library of Congress and a jaded William Shakespeare, this book takes you on an enchanted journey through literature!

Tilly and the Map of Stories begins exactly where book two, Tilly and the Lost Fairy Tales ended, with the scheming Underwood twins, Melville and Decima, continuing their dictatorial reign at the British Underlibrary; pursuing their own ends whilst deceiving their followers that they are working for the benefit of all. They have begun binding the source editions of books to prevent book wandering in them…but only a small minority of independent thinkers have the courage to question why. These dissenters of course include Archibald and Elizabeth Pages (Tilly’s grandparents), her mother Bea and a group of their close friends.

I have loved this series from the moment I began reading about Tilly and her grandparents’ bookshop Pages & Co in book one. The idea of being able to wander into the pages of favourite books and share afternoon tea with Lizzie Bennet enraptured me. The addition of librarian in-jokes about cardigans and the Dewey Decimal System just made it all the more engaging. Now with this installment, author Anna James takes us on a metaphysical adventure into the heart of Story itself, conjuring an immersive literary world in which Tilly and her best friend Oskar have to delve right to the origins of Story in their attempt to thwart the plans of the Underwoods. It opens with a customer in the bookshop finding himself unable to remember anything about the book which he intended to purchase and this grasping for memories of books is repeated with other characters. Relying on Tilly’s instinct that the curious assortment of objects she has gathered during her previous adventures are clues to the whereabouts of the legendary Archivists who guard the bookwandering world, her mother Bea despatches Tilly and Oskar to Washington DC to track them down.

I really do not want to go into too much description of the plot because it unfurls so perfectly that I cannot bear to ruin your enjoyment. The labyrinthine quest leads our heroes and thus the reader into the chain of stories where it seems only natural that after travelling on a train constructed of an eclectic mix of carriages, aptly named the Sesquipedalian, you might encounter Shakespeare arguing with Scott Fitzgerald!

Tilly and Oskar are two wonderful protagonists whose relationship has developed over the series to an acceptance of each other’s moods and almost telepathic understanding of each other’s reactions at crisis points in the narrative. Their friendship and partnership drives the narrative on as they seek the truth of the Underwoods’ abuse of book magic. As always, Tilly’s grandparents demonstrate steely determination to stand up against wrong-doing and in this novel Tilly’s mother Bea has snapped out of her dreamlike state and takes agency too.  The locations, real, historical and imaginary are brought splendidly into focus by Paola Escobar’s wondrous illustrations; I would love to spend many hours browsing Orlando’s bookstore Shakespeare’s Sisters situated in a former theatre! I also love the use of typography techniques to throw the reader off-balance at times in the story.

It is obvious that I adore Tilly and the Map of Stories and I think it is a book that many adults will relish reading to their own children or to a class of children. Confident readers of 10+ will love immersing themselves in the adventure on which Tilly and Oskar embark and hopefully will engage with some of the philosophical themes: the importance of imagination and collective memory, the need to share stories for the benefit of all and the necessity to question authority when it designs rules that only enhance the experience of a few.

I am most grateful to NetGalley and Harper Collins Children’s Books for allowing me access to an eARC in exchange for an honest review. I will certainly be purchasing a physical copy as soon as the book is published later this month as this is one of my MG highlights of the year so far.

The Key to Finding Jack by Ewa Jozefkowicz

Cover image by Katy Ridell, published by Head of Zeus

This is the second book that I have read by Ewa Jozefkowicz and I have to say that she has rapidly joined my list of favourite writers. This beautifully written and structured story within a story goes straight to the heart of identity, with its theme of unlocking the barriers that we put up to hide our true selves, even from those closest to us.

As regular readers of my blog will know, mystery novels are my genre of choice, and this contemporary tale of a twelve-year-old girl desperately seeking clues to unlock the location of her beloved elder brother had me hooked from page one. The story opens with Flick ( the narrator) trying to solve one of the complex puzzles that her older brother Jack habitually sets for her. The author has cleverly planted clues to the narrative within this opening puzzle, and this is just one of the details of Ewa Jozefowicz’s writing which I loved. 

Jack has just completed his A levels, in which he has astonished his parents by performing very well given their perception of him as a practical joker who has not applied himself to his studies in the way they would have wished. His father expects Jack to follow him into a career as a barrister and a law degree beckons once Jack returns from his gap year in South America. Flick is determined to treasure the remaining moments with Jack, realising that not only will she miss him while he travels, but she will see far less of him once he starts at university. Their relationship is cemented in the reader’s mind as one of love and mutual respect and encouragement.

Jack departs and Flick’s life continues as before, with her school days allowing us a glimpse of her hidden talent as a writer. Her class are set the task of writing a detective story and as Flick reads the opening of her composition aloud to her classmates you feel their incredulity at the quality of her historical story “The Case of the Beret and the Bell.” As she reaches the cliffhanger at which the young heroine Margot has disappeared in a huge London crowd she is summoned to the head teacher’s office to hear that Jack has been reported missing following an earthquake in Peru. The writing aches with the devastation and helplessness felt by Flick’s family. 

What follows is a tightly plotted and compelling unfolding of clues as Flick, assisted by her best friend Keira, seeks information about her brother’s location and in so doing uncovers the hidden details of his life. Starting from the key that he has always worn around his neck and which he has left in his room addressed to S.F., they track down all of his acquaintances who share those initials. At every turn Flick is able to unlock details of his personality from the heroic tales that each person recounts. In Flick’s words, “even the people you know well can be a cryptic puzzle.” In tandem with seeking her brother, Flick continues to write her historical story. The dual narratives of being true to your own desires and talents and having the courage to be honest about your identity in the face of the expectations of those closest to you are explored sensitively and movingly. Flick lives up to her brother’s childhood nickname for her, and Jack’s actions demonstrate that there is great importance in their grandmother’s elegant motto, “Don’t forget to live.”

In summary, this heartwarming tale of unfolding identity is equally enjoyable for adult and child readers of 9+. I read it as an eARC thanks to #NetGalley and Head of Zeus Publishing but I will definitely want to obtain a physical copy as soon as one is available. This book is due to be published on 3rd September 2020.

My review of Girl 38: Finding a Friend by the same author is here.

Review: The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski

IMG_1579

I had seen a lot of praise for this book on Twitter and was delighted to be approved by NetGalley and Hachette Children’s for an eARC to review.

Without delay, I have to say that I loved L.D. Lapinski’s world-building, protagonists and ability to combine an important message within a fast-paced contemporary fantasy for MG readers (thanks to blogger Lily Fae for the genre description).

The two main protagonists, Jonathan and Flick, are fully realised characters who fully engage your interest and sympathy from the moment you meet them. The progression of their relationship throughout the arc of the story is entirely believable and emotionally involving. Both characters are old before their time, with the weight of responsibility on their young shoulders. Jonathan, an eighteen year-old who dresses like a Victorian has been left as the sole custodian of The Strangeworlds Travel Agency since the death of his mother and the disappearance of his father. He is lonely, bewildered and mourning the loss of family. Meanwhile, Flick has been the archetypal latch-key-kid on an inner city housing estate whilst both parents worked long hours to keep the family afloat. The arrival of a baby brother, Freddy and a move to a house in the village of Little Wyverns has made Flick feel even more alienated and resentful that she has to take responsibility for many household chores.

Flick longs to travel and when she stumbles into the shabby, old-fashioned Strangeworlds Travel Agency with its curiously stacked multitude of suitcases, her dreams come true, albeit in an unexpected fashion! Once she overcomes Jonathan’s passive-aggressive sarcasm and proves her previously undiscovered magical abilities she joins him on a quest to discover the whereabouts of Daniel Mercator, his missing father.

From the moment that Flick takes a leap of faith into one of the suitcases in which Jonathan’s great-great-great-grandmother Elara trapped magical schisms between worlds in the Multiverse, the adventure takes off. Each suitcase has an individual destination and the author’s imagination conjures deserted beaches where you can taste the salty air; a forest world populated with forever-children; Coral City with its candy coloured landscape and extraordinary gravity, and the multiversal hub, the fragile City of Five Lights. 

I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers, but the tension ratchets up as the plot races to its conclusion, with valuable messages about the devastating impact on a world greedily exploiting its irreplaceable resources, and the power of “ resolve, wrapped in righteous ferocity and fear “ to achieve the seemingly impossible. I loved the way that the story ended on a cliff-hanger, and cannot wait to read the next instalment.

I will certainly be adding this book to my library shopping list when it is published in April, when I am sure it is going to be extremely popular with fans of Harry Potter, The Train to Impossible Places, Rumblestar and The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet.

 

Review: The Wild Way Home by Sophie Kirtley

The Wild Way Home

This book is an extraordinary feast for the senses. A story about the power of family, it also feels like a celebration of the ancient woodland of the British Isles, with a deep love of nature permeating every description of a majestic tree or the instinctive behaviour of a forest animal. The language resonates with nature-related similes;  examples include the description of footprints in the sandy riverbank: “bird prints, like little letters in another language.” ancient flowers are “massive and speckled and wrong, like tongue-out faces with wavering tentacles.” Meat cooked in the smoke of a fire is “so tender I hardly have to chew and it’s delicious, like ham would be if ham was less pink and more wild.”

 Charlie Merriam loves Mandel Forest which stands at the edge of his home and town, and knows every inch of it, having played there with his two best friends, Lamont and Beaky since their early childhoods. On the eve of his twelfth birthday Charlie finds a deer’s tooth on the forest floor which he picks up to add to his “Mandel Museum”. The following day Charlie goes to visit his much longed-for, newborn baby brother Dara only to find that his parents are devastated as Dara faces a life-saving heart operation. Unable to cope with the anguish, Charlie runs to the forest, from where he glimpses the multiple windows of the distant hospital looking like a fly’s compound eye, each seeing things from a slightly different perspective. 

This is appropriate to Charlie’s sense of disorientation, when, after squeezing the deer tooth tightly in his hand he finds himself in altered surroundings. Although the familiar landmarks are recognisable, the forest seems wilder and the colours and sounds have taken on a greater intensity. Then he spots the body, face down in the stream…

Somehow, Charlie has time-slipped back to the stone-age! As he forges a relationship with Harby, the stone-age boy he rescues from the stream, he begins to realise that both of them are running from emotions too powerful to deal with. The primitive instincts for survival, for companionship, home and family are all explored.

The sense of a landscape linking the distant past with the present day is beautifully imagined in this emotional story, with the ancient Spirit Stone standing as the totemic link between past and present. The tale also conjured for me an evocation of a more carefree past when children spent their summers playing outside and roaming independently rather than being glued to a screen or tracked by worried parents through their digital devices. 

This is an exciting and thought-provoking tale, with some deeply emotional moments and some episodes of heart-stopping, adrenaline-pumping, jeopardy. I would recommend it for readers in Year 6 and beyond, perfect for readers who have loved The Last Wild trilogy by Piers Torday, The Explorer by Katherine Rundell  or Stig of the Dump by Clive King.

I am grateful to Bloomsbury Kids UK for approving me to read an e-ARC of this story on #NetGalley