#MGTakesOnThursday: The Children of Swallow Fell by Julia Green

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.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
Cover image by Helen Crawford-White, published by Oxford University Press

Author: Julia Green

Illustrator: Helen Crawford-White

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: The narrator of the story, Isabella rushes to the phone early in the morning, hoping that there is news from her Mamma who has not returned home since the previous day’s bombings…

” There’s a hissing sound, then silence, then her voice again, fainter”

This book in three words: Breakdown – Rebuilding – Hope

This is one of those perfectly composed books that swept me along in its enthralling narrative until I actually had to force myself to put it down and let the story percolate a little before continuing.

Narrated by Isabella in a breathless, present-tense stream of consciousness mixed with dialogue, the story immediately plunges you into a world turned on its head. From bidding “Ciao” to her best friend Marta at the school gates on page one, isabella’s leisurely journey home turns to nightmare as explosions rip through her un-named Italian city by page three. Short sentences punctuated with frantic text messages immerse the reader into the panicked crowd as it surges across narrow bridges under a sky darkening with smoke and Isabella rushes home to her anxious, artist father. The tension mounts as they await messages from older sister Gabriella, away at university in another city and mum, stuck at work in the danger zone. News and internet blackouts add to the feeling of helplessness and it becomes clear to the reader that political forces are at play of which Isabella in her schoolgirl innocence, has not been aware.

A hurried phone call from Mum, who it appears is the dynamic force of the family, orders Dad and Isabella to flee to Dad’s old family home in the north of England, where she and Gabriella will join them when they can. Their subsequent train journey had resonances of one of my favourite chapters in all children’s fiction – the escape from Berlin of Anna and her mother and brother in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. However, in this book, the roles are reversed and Isabella must take charge of the situation as her Dad sinks deeper into confusion, depression and helplessness. 

When they eventually arrive in the empty, musty house, situated in an abandoned village in a remote northern corner of a near-future England broken by political and economic catastrophe (read into this what you will) all hope seems lost. While Dad remains shut in his bedroom, trying to draw, it is Isabella who must explore her new surroundings and try to start rebuilding their lives. When he eventually rouses himself to seek fresh supplies leaving Isabella alone, she has to rely on a pair of wild children to ensure her survival. As she adjusts to a new reality without electricity, shops and running water, Isabella’s longing for her entire family to return as the swallows do, to their ancestral home, is palpable.

I won’t go into any more details about the plot as I strongly urge you to read this book yourself and enjoy Julia Green’s supremely skilled revelation of the story. I love the spareness of her writing, with the space she allows for her readers to interpret the meaning of hints and suggestions in the text. I can see this book becoming a future classic, a vivid imagining of the results of selfish governance and the hope for a better, simpler future driven by the idealism and energy of the younger generation. I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone of 10+.

I am most grateful to Oxford University Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Recently Published Delicious Treats for Young Readers

I don’t know if it is just a coincidence, but since lockdown happened in March I have received a number of books to review which feature baking as a main theme, an activity which many children have had the opportunity to practise during the months at home. I thought I would round up these tasty titles here.

Freddie’s Amazing Bakery: Dancing With Doughnuts, written by Harriet Whitehorn, illustrated by Alex G Griffiths

Cover image by Alex G Griffiths, published by OUP Children’s Books

I especially love this short chapter book for its portrayal of the title character Freddie Bonbon as not just a star baker but also the kindest and most thoughtful individual you could hope to meet. When we first encounter Freddie he is removing one last batch of cinnamon buns from the oven before shutting up his bakery for the day. The buns are to be a gift for the folk of Belville who are auditioning for the town’s final Summer Talent Show before local impresarios Max and Margie Motion retire. Freddie, who suffers terrible stage-fright himself, is going along to support his many friends, especially his ballroom-dancing bakery manager Amira.

A humorous, warm and accident-strewn plot ensues in a book ideally suited to newly confident readers to read alone. The text is in an easily readable font size, broken up by hilariously expressive illustrations drawn by Alex G Griffiths featuring a multi-ethnic cast of characters, as well as interesting typography effects. With cakes, dancing and a deliciously scheming villain in the character of rival baker Bernard this is a book which will be equally enjoyed by boys and girls of age 6+.

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes, written by Brenda Gurr, illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff

Cover image by Nancy Leschnikoff, published by New Frontier Publishing

Zinnia Jakes is an undercover baker! Her cakes are famous in her hometown for their fabulous intricacy, but nobody knows that they are baked by a nine-year-old girl based in a secret kitchen in her Auntie Jam’s house. This delightful story mixes magic, mystery and baking in a recipe that will delight young readers of 6+. You can read a more detailed review from an earlier blog post here.

Sage Cookson’s Great Escape and Sage Cookson’s Snow Day, written by Sally Murphy and illustrated by Celeste Hulme

Cover image by Celeste Hulme, published by New Frontier Publishing
Cover image by Celeste Hulme, published by New Frontier Publishing

Sage Cookson is the daughter of two famous TV cooks and food experts. She is used to a lifestyle that blends school with jetting off to accompany them on broadcasting assignments, which lead to exciting adventures.

These books contain a tempting mix of food-related content with perfectly presented peril and excitement, enticingly packaged for a readership of 6/7+. You can read an earlier blog post with a more detailed review here.

Polly Profiterole’s Little Town written by Maggie May Gordon and illustrated by Margarita Levina

Cover image by Margarita Levina, published by New Frontier Publishing

The youngest children are also catered for in this banquet of baking-based books by this quirky tale of extreme baker Polly Profiterole who decides to cook up the buildings required to breathe life into her sleepy little town! An absolute feast for the youngest imaginations, you can read my more detailed review in a former post here.

Review: Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering by Harriet Muncaster

Cover illustration by Harriet Muncaster, published by OUP Children’s Books

Meet sparklingly wicked Victoria Stitch!

I predict that I will need more than one copy of this book when it is published in September; it is glorious in all respects and I’m sure will be in great demand. Harriet Muncaster’s brand of sumptuous illustration combined with brilliant storytelling is familiar to children who have enjoyed Isadora Moon as they became independent readers, and now as MG readers there is a darker, gothic story to enjoy!

Once you finish gazing adoringly at the cover art with its deep purple palette you fall into the realm of Wiskling Wood, home of the Wisklings; beautiful insect-sized creatures who hatch from gemstones in the Crystal Cave, possess antenna, dress with unique style and appear to display all the foibles of human behaviour! Only wisklings hatched from diamonds can ascend to the throne and this should have been Victoria’s and her twin-sister Celestine’s destiny. However, their diamond contained a flaw or “stitch” resulting in Lord Astrophel denying them the opportunity of growing up in Queen Cassiopeia’s palace. They have had to grow up together with only a series of state-appointed nannies to supervise them rather than being brought up in a loving family home.

This has built a supreme level of righteous indignation in Victoria Stitch, which she does not hesitate to display in outwardly hostile behaviour. Dressing like a princess, but all in black she insists on never leaving the tree house without her crown and petitions Lord Astrophel to be reinstated at the palace. Meanwhile Celestine accepts her destiny as a non-royal although she deeply regrets having been deprived of a loving family. She makes the most of what she has, gaining close friends and working towards her ambition of becoming a jeweller’s apprentice.

When Victoria flies off to the distant boundaries of “her kingdom” one day and meets the mysterious Ursuline she thinks that she has found a sympathetic friend; suddenly gaining access to the forbidden magic in the Book of Wiskling seems to provide the solution to her ambition and the plot takes off on a path which threatens to consume the last vestiges of sibling love. The dangers of accepting someone at face-value because they flatter you, without questioning their motives become very apparent!

I loved the complex world-building in this story; the wisklings’ homes in tree trunks; travelling on flying blooms and the society structured almost like a beehive were utterly compelling. The tension ratchets up with betrayals, suspicion and mystery which will have young readers gripped. Victoria Stitch is a fantastic new character and the reader is absolutely able to understand the motives for her demanding, diva-ish behaviour whilst recognising that her methods of achieving her dreams are less than ideal. Her twin appears to be in total contrast, the light to her dark, but as the story progresses you are given a glimpse into Celestine’s own inner turmoil. 

This is a delightful exploration of the bonds of love and loyalty, the importance of nurturing and fairness all wrapped up in a fast-paced MG mystery. The text is punctuated throughout with  beautifully intricate illustrations from multi-talented Harriet Muncaster which make the book an object of beauty and a joy to read for children of 9+ .

I am most grateful to OUP Children’s Books for sending me a proof copy of this book in return for an honest review.

#20BooksofSummer Book 2: Super Stan by Elaine Wickson, illustrated by Chris Judge

This is the second of my #10BooksofSummer reviews, as I am attempting the cut-down version of #20BooksofSummer hosted by Cathy at 746books.com.

What do you get if you mix a five-year-old eco-warrior, a space-obsessed ten-year-old, a school full of kids dressed as sea creatures and enough fart jokes to make their own contribution to global warming? Yes, it can only be the latest utterly hilarious outing for Stan and Fred Fox. In their third book they are on a mission to save the world, one crisp packet at a time. I absolutely adore the series of Stan books. Author Elaine Wickson has conjured a dazzling concoction of brilliantly comic tales, which feature wonderfully original data representation, illustrated by Chris Judge. This time she has blended an important ecological theme into the story, presented in such a way that it is guaranteed to encourage primary school children to continue their own contribution to showing adults the error of their ways.

Stan wants nothing more than to read his space magazines in the peaceful surroundings of his room and prepare himself for the approaching full solar eclipse. Unfortunately his is side-tracked by permanently-sticky, little brother Fred, who has had his imagination captured by Dr Alice Fielding (or as he calls her, Dr Feddup). Her Plastic Planet TV series has awakened his inner eco-warrior. Fred’s first reaction to hearing about the waste plastic being swallowed by whales and other sea creatures is to empty the multi-packs of crisps into the supermarket aisles thereby allowing customers to purchase their crisps without the unnecessary packaging! At home things are not much better as he constantly replaces his family’s toothbrushes with twiggy sticks, often with the caterpillars still attached!

Fortunately he initiates a more positive campaign to resurrect the town’s central drinking fountain, aiming to provide free water for all residents and eliminate the need for plastic water bottles. With backing from headteacher Mrs Riley and big brother Stan’s presentation skills, Fred starts the “School of Fish” initiative to raise awareness and funds. Dressed as a giant pink prawn to highlight the plight of the crustaceans contaminated with plastic micro-particles, Fred inspire his entire school, and will likely inspire young readers to take their own small actions to save the planet.

I really don’t want to give away too many plot details, but this story is incredibly clever in its co-ordination of the dance of the celestial bodies, the side-plot of Gran’s forthcoming marriage to her Salsa teacher, the filial love between Fred and Stan and the momentum that one young King Prawn Supermarket Vandal can create. Throw into the mix a hideously ignorant radio DJ and his “toadally awesome” competition; a celebrity eclipse-chaser on a book tour; relatives with an addiction to conspicuous consumption and you have a story that twists through so many laugh-out-loud scenes that your cheeks will be aching with laughter before you reach the marvellously satisfying conclusion.

I highly recommend that you add this to your #SillySquad2020 reading list for the summer reading challenge. Beyond this, add it to the Stan collection on your library, classroom or home bookshelves to both read for pleasure and to generate data representation ideas.

Thank you to OUP Children’s Publishing for my review copy.

Review: Winnie and Wilbur books by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

Winnie Bug Safari

In The Bug Safari Winnie the Witch and her big black cat Wilbur are enjoying the most magnificent picnic in the garden when fallen scone crumbs cause a rustling in the undergrowth and an organised column of ants arrived to claim their prize. A host of other insects fascinate Winnie, who impetuously decides that in order to get a better look she should shrink herself and Wilbur to insect proportions.

The resulting perilous adventure will entrance young readers and listeners, as Winnie and Wilbur dodge multiple hazards in their quest to return to their normal size! The vibrant illustrations overflow with detail about the insect kingdom, the bugs almost rivalling Winnie in their multi-coloured costumes.

This is a book to be opened flat on the carpet and surrounded by young children who will find almost countless wonders to marvel at – oh for the days before social distancing. I recently used the book as a prompt to going on a garden bug hunt for a videoed Google classroom segment, and there are many other counting and sorting activities which could stem from this beautiful book.

Screenshot 2020-05-19 at 19.54.56

Delightfully, the wonderful folk at OUP Children’s have issued Winnie and Wilbur Stay at Home as a free e-book for anyone to download during lockdown. You can access it from the link here.

This book is an absolute hoot, with Winnie’s attempts at joining in with an online exercise session being my highlight (probably because it’s rather similar to certain attempts in my house)!

Children will recognise all the adjustments to activities that they have had to make, reflected in Winnie and Wilbur’s household. This book shows them how to find the joy in singing songs whilst hand-washing, covering the house in rainbows and simply enjoying stories. Winnie really is an utterly joyous character with her multi-coloured fashion choices and accessories and this book is overflowing with good humour to put a smile on the faces of children and adults staying inside to keep the country safe.

With thanks to OUP Children’s Books for my copy of Winnie and Wilbur: The Bug Safari in exchange for an honest review.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Mickey and the Animal Spies by Anne Miller

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

MG TakesonThursday
Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.

 

mickey and animal spies

 

Author: Anne Miller

Illustrator: Becka Moor

Publisher: OUP Children’s

Favourite sentence from Page 11: “Mickey was craning her neck as she tried to read (and answer) Rachel’s homework over her shoulder as they bumped their way through the city’s winding roads.”

This book in three words: ciphers, animals, humour

I’m highlighting Mickey and the Animal Spies this week because I don’t think it has had the attention it deserves as a thoroughly engaging introduction to the spy – mystery genre for MG readers. My full review can be read here: Mickey and the Animals Spies by Anne Miller

#MGTakesOnThursday Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe by Martin Howard

MG TakesonThursday
Image created by Mary Simms and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started by Mary Simms on the 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.

IMG_3508

Author: Martin Howard

Illustrator: Chris Mould

Publisher: OUP Children’s Publishing

 

Favourite sentence from Page 11: “You’re all bird-people here on Winspan. Very interesting,” said the Professor.”

This book in three words: Hilarious, Cosmic, Adventure

There is nothing like humour to encourage young readers to enjoy a book, and this one from Martin Howard offers more laughs per page than anything I’ve read since …The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet. Read it, but just make sure you’re not drinking at the time, unless you enjoy the prospect of tea exploding from your nostrils!

My full review can be read here. Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe

Review: Kitty and the Sky Garden Adventure by Paula Harrison, illustrated by Jenny Løvlie

Kitty skygarden

 

This is the third magical Adventure for Kitty, a little girl who has inherited her mum’s cat-like superpowers and one day aims to follow in her mum’s paw prints to become a superhero!

For the time being she is happy to pull on her supercat costume, with its billowing, black cape, and skip over the night-time rooftops with her many feline friends, enjoying gentle adventures from which they all learn essential life lessons.

At the start of this story, Kitty and her rescue-cat Pumpkin are visited by their friend Pixie, who arrives to tell them about a magical rooftop garden she has heard about. Kitty is seeking inspiration for a school project so the three of them set out on a night time expedition across the town, with Kitty using her enhanced sense of smell to locate the plant-filled wonderland of the Sky Garden. When they arrive her two cat companions go crazy in a capnip plant until they are scolded by an old tortoiseshell cat named Diggory. He is the guardian of the Sky Garden who explains the number of years of work that his owner, Mrs Lovell, has invested into creating this living paradise. After suitable apologies the three explorers are allowed to investigate the wonders of the garden and Kitty finds inspiration for her school garden design.

However, Pixie cannot keep the news of this incredibly beautiful space to herself, and by spreading the news far and wide causes unexpected trouble. Kitty will require all her reserves of skill and intelligence to try to rectify the damage!

This is a wonderful book for newly confident readers, and would equally make a lovely shared experience for younger, emerging readers. The story is beautifully crafted by Paula Harrison, nurturing a sense of respect for the hard work and property of others and encouraging thoughtfulness, all wrapped in an exciting adventure. The illustrations by Jenny Løvlie are wondrously striking in a palette of black, white and orange. There is so much intricate detail to explore and talk about that this book will invite hours of exploration. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone aged 4+, I am looking forward to sharing it through the school library and imagine that many children will be tempted to collect the entire series for their own bookshelves.

For my review of the first Kitty adventure please click here: Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue

 

Thank you to OUP Children’s Publishing for my copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Review: Ballet Bunnies The New Class by Swapna Reddy

ballet bunnies

 

Ballet Bunnies is a new series starring Millie a young ballerina and the magical, miniature bunny rabbits who live at the ballet school she attends. The New Class is the first in a series of six books being published by Oxford Children’s Books with this and Book 2, Let’s Dance, coming out in June 2020.

I was delighted to be sent an ARC of Ballet Bunnies The New Class, an absolute must-read for all young dancers! It is the perfect size and length for newly confident readers in Key Stage One, with gorgeous full-colour illustrations in a pastel palette throughout. The pictures of the ballerinas are immensely cute with slightly oversized heads and huge expressive eyes, perfectly designed to appeal to young readers. The series has been written by Swapna Reddy and illustrated by Binny Talib and wonderfully, it features a multi-ethnic cast of characters at the ballet school and to complete its appeal to a broad readership, a boy ballerina is featured too.  It is so important for all children to be able to see themselves in the books that they read and I’m sure that these books will find a wide, appreciative audience. I can certainly imagine a large number of children at my own school who will be pirouetting in delight after reading about Millie’s adventures. 

Six-year-old, ballet-obsessed Millie is about to fulfil her dreams by starting lessons at Miss Luisa’s School of Dance. She skips into the class with her spirits soaring, only to encounter an unfriendly comment and mean looks from another member of the class, star pupil, Amber.

Feeling despondent at her inability to perfect the pliés with the same grace as Amber, Will and Samira, Millie is left waiting for her mum to collect her at the end of the lesson. Startled by a movement behind the stage curtain she investigates and finds Dolly, Fifi, Pod and Trixie, the magical, talking and dancing miniature bunnies! What impact will her new friends have on Millie’s future at the ballet school? You will have to read this book to find out.

The story is delightfully written by Swapna Reddy (a firm favourite with me and my library users due to the hilarious Dave Pigeon series she writes as Swapna Haddow). In Ballet Bunnies her style is one of gentle encouragement as she helps young readers experience the effects that mean behaviour can have on someone’s confidence, and contrasts this with the powerful force of kindness and support. A perfect book for any child who might be feeling discouraged by a challenging task, and a wonderful addition to the bookshelves of all young dancers.

Thanks to OUP Children’s Publishing for my review copy.

For my reviews of the Dave Pigeon series, please follow this link.

Review: The Island that Didn’t Exist by Joe Wilson

 

 

 

Island

The Island That Didn’t Exist is the debut MG novel by BBC sports journalist Joe Wilson. Inspired by a coastal sign pointing to an uninhabited island, it has taken him fifteen years to write this thrilling adventure. The beautiful cover art, which has been digitally animated for the online marketing campaign is by George Ermos.

I was delighted to receive a proof copy as it is exactly the sort of book that I love to recommend to young readers – an exciting and imaginative tale, featuring resilient children, written in accessible language, and, at 272 pages appealing to reluctant readers who can be daunted by a 400 page novel. It is pitched as a contemporary Lord of the Flies meets The Famous Five. In my opinion it also had a touch of Alex Rider too; a winning combination.

Twelve-year-old Rixon Webster’s life is turned upside down when his mother takes him to the London law offices of Arnold Crump for the reading of her eccentric and mysterious Uncle Silvester’s will. This elusive individual has left his £2.5 million fortune to an obscure seagull sanctuary and his private island to Rixon! Also included in Rixon’s inheritance is an envelope stuffed with five-year-old newspaper clippings about a group of scientists who disappeared, with a world-changing invention, in unexplained circumstances and a memory stick holding unintelligible mathematical equations and diagrams.

Undaunted by the fact that the island has not appeared on any map since 1792, Rixon persuades his mum to drive him to the coastal location shown to him by Arnold Crump, and in the most daring act of his short life, he sets out to seek his inheritance in a “borrowed” motorboat ferry.

I do not wish to give away any plot spoilers, so apart from telling you that Rixon’s Splinter Island turns out to be occupied by four semi-wild, spear-throwing children I won’t provide any more details.

The story is perfectly paced to encourage readers of 9+ to keep turning the pages, and would also make an excellent class read-aloud, with the cliff-hanging chapter endings likely to make children plead for “just one more chapter.” It contains just the right degree of peril for a Key Stage 2 readership; it certainly does not descend to the same darkness as Lord of the Flies. The plotting is deftly handled with the steady revelation of details about Uncle Silvester, the reason for the children’s presence on Splinter Island and the tensions within Rixon’s family. Brilliantly woven into the plot is a message about power, in its many forms. The effect it has on individuals, the lengths that some will go to in pursuit of it, the responsibility inherent with the wielding of power and its impact on the way the world is run.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and think that it will be extremely popular with boys and girls of 9 years and above when it is published in May 2020. I certainly hope that we don’t have to wait another fifteen years for the next book from Joe Wilson!

I am most grateful to OUP Children’s for my review copy.