Chapter Book Review: Nell and the Cave Bear – The Journey Home by Martin Brown

Cover image by Martin Brown, Published by Piccadilly Press, March 2023

Newly published by Piccadilly Press, Nell and the Cave Bear The Journey Home is a gentle adventure for children who are gaining confidence in reading independently, written and illustrated by Martin Brown. The short chapters are printed in a large, easily readable font and blocks of text are broken up regularly by delicately drawn images coloured in shades of green which works beautifully with the story.

The story itself is set in a pre-historic land of wooly mammoths, hunter-gatherers and fisher-folk and begins with Nell and her Cave Clan reaching the end of a visit with their distant cousins the Sea Clan. When Mayv, the leader of the Casve Clan decides that it is time to move on to the summer hunting grounds, Nell decides that she would like to stay longer with the Sea Clan because she wants to consult with the wise woman Saira who lives at the edge of their village. Little does she suspect that Kevun, the mean leader of the Woodland Clan, is still determined to capture her beloved Cave Bear. When his band of rather incompetent hunters manage to ambush Cave Bear (who has been distracted by a wild strawberry patch) the adventure begins. Nell, Saira and an injured tortoise named Tolomy set of in pursuit of the hunters and a quest begins in which love of the natural world is mixed with a charming sense of humour.

I am certain that children of 5-7 years old will thoroughly enjoy exploring an unspoilt natural environment populated with woolly mammoths, a shaggy rhinoceros, wolves and a tribe of hunters who will raise giggles throughout! The bond between Nell and her Cave Bear will be instantly familiar to any child who has a pet and the theme of families coming together increases my desire to recommend this as a lovely early reading choice.

I am grateful to Piccadilly Press and Antonia Wilkinson PR for my review copy of Nell and the Cave Bear The Journey Home which was published on 16th March 2023.

Chapter Book Review: Kate on the Case written and illustrated by Hannah Peck

Cover illustration by Hannah Peck, published by Piccadilly Press

Kate on the Case is a book which I missed when it was published in 2020, but having recently read and reviewed the newly published third book in the series, The Headline Hoax, I was delighted to see this one on the shelves of my local public library. I loved this book which I would summarise as Ratatouille meets Adventures on Trains for children of 7-9!

The main character Kate is an aspiring special correspondent, who is never without her trusty guide, The Special Correspondent Manual written by her one true idol, legendary investigative reporter, Catherine Rodriguez. Her other constant companion is her erudite pet rat, Rupert. The story starts with Kate, Rupert and her lovely Dad embarking on a luxury train journey to visit Mum, a famous scientist who is working at the International Polar Association based in the Arctic. The train is populated by a fascinating cast of fellow travellers who include: haughty Madame Maude and her very stupid cat Master Mimkins; Simon an accident prone conductor-in-training; a Russian priest with a litany of droll one-liners; a world famous gymnast Miss Bonbon and an alarming stowaway!

Shortly after the journey begins the guests start to notice that precious possessions are going missing. It’s time for Kate to put her journalistic skills into practice and use interviews, logic and a large dollop of courage to crack the case! Kate on the Case brilliantly introduces newly confident readers to the tropes of classic locked room mystery fiction through a plot infused with charming wordplay in a perfectly paced short chapter book. Hannah Peck’s distinctive illustrations add to the enjoyment of this beautifully crafted story, the orange palette perfectly in keeping with the unexpected mystery passenger.

Anyone who is looking for a book to encourage youngsters to get hooked on reading for pleasure should check out the Kate on the Case series. Fifteen years ago in my family it was Lauren Child’s picture books and short chapter books which hooked one of mine and I rate Hannah Peck’s unique blend of stylish illustration and writing equally highly.

Review: Otter-ly Cute Illustrated Fiction for Young Readers

I am firmly of the belief that children cannot be offered too many choices when it comes to engaging them in independent reading for pleasure. Today I am happy to recommend three books which I am certain will appeal to young readers. They all feature short chapters, are approximately 100-120 pages in length, are an ideal size for small hands, have clear fonts, engaging stories, beautiful illustrations to break up the text…and OTTERS! Who doesn’t love an otter?

Well actually, the AdventureMice might have something to say about that last question! The star of AdventureMice Otter Chaos is an adventurous young mouse called Pedro who disregards his Dad’s advice that mice do not need anything so ‘scary, dangerous and uncomfortable’ as adventures. As soon as he is old enough, he packs his suitcase and sets off in search of excitement, getting more than he bargained for when a gust of wind blows him out to sea! This entertaining story by Philip Reeve features an unusual villain and plenty of action to keep young readers engrossed from start to finish. The full colour illustrations by Sarah McIntyre are fantastic, I especially loved the detailed cross-section of the Mousebase, the map of the mouse islands and the ‘how to’ guide which will enable any reader (young or old) to draw their own version of Pedro.

I lack any artistic talent and therefore can provide evidence that the instructions will give anyone the confidence to draw!

Big Sky Mountain The Beach Otters is written and illustrated by Alex Milway and is a gentle adventure which cleverly blends environmental messages into a story which explores geography, weather and the natural world.

Rosa and her Grandma Nan live in a cute cabin on the shore of Lake Jewell, with Albert the Moose, Little Pig the pygmy owl and Stick a wolf cub. However, they drop their daily chores as soon as they spot a distress signal coming from the direction of the coast. Setting off in Grandma Nan’s canoe, they travel across a range of landscapes before reaching the coast where they find a family of sea otters who live in an abandoned lighthouse. The problem of plastic pollution of the oceans is hugely apparent in the mess that washes up on the otters’ beach every morning. Rosa and Nan help with the clean up and fashion a raft from many discarded plastic barrels which they use to carry out a daring rescue mission from Jagged Rock Island!

As well as a thoroughly satisfying story, young readers are treated to fascinating facts about ocean dwellers; I can imagine many will enjoy learning about hermit crabs and some interesting information about blue whale poo!

Another story with an environmental theme, the third book in the Woodland Magic series The Stranded Otter finds Cora, Trix, Jax and Nis working on a handmade raft, in preparation for the moonlight raft race which will be held in honour of Grandmother Sky’s birthday. Within the first few pages of the story Cora demonstrates her credentials as a Nature Keeper, risking a dunking in the lake in order to rescue a drowning caddisfly.

In each story of this series the young Nature Keepers are sent out into the Big Outside early each morning to perform a task intended to repair some of the environmental damage caused by the Ruffins (humans). This time Cora and Jax are sent to build a bug hotel outside a newly constructed supermarket – a narrative that would be lovely to share with Key Stage One children perhaps in a science or Forest School lesson. There is a non-fiction section at the end of the story which provides additional details on different natural materials which can be used to attract a range of invertebrate species.

Despite designing an excellent bug hotel, Cora and Jax risk failing their assigned task when they are diverted by an otter cub who is trapped by a discarded shopping trolley and risks being drowned in the fiercely rushing river. A daring rescue which relies on impressive teamwork and the sacrifice of their racing raft will have young readers turning the pages until the final resolution. Julie Sykes blends magical characters with perfectly pitched environmental issues, wonderfully illustrated by Katy Riddell in this adorable story for young readers of 6-8 years of age.

My thanks to Piccadilly Press for review copies of Big Sky Mountain The Beach Otters which was published in autumn 2022 and Woodland Magic The Stranded Otter which will be published on 9th March 2023, and to David Fickling Books for AdventureMice Otter Chaos which will be published on 2nd March 2023.

MG Review: I, Spy A Bletchley Park Mystery by Rhian Tracey

Cover art by David Dean, published by Piccadilly Press,
2 March 2023

This enjoyable debut by Rhian Tracey combines a fascinating WWII setting with an intriguing mystery adventure, resourceful children and brave birds; and ideal mix for an engrossing middle grade title.

The main protagonist, Robyn, has grown up at Bletchley Park, living in a cottage in the grounds of the stately home where her father works as the chauffeur. It is clear that she has had a carefree existence, roaming the grounds, swimming and rowing on the lake and observing the varied wildlife. However, the onset of war has restricted her previous freedoms. She has been told to stay away from the lake, she can no longer visit her dad in the garages which are now filled with military vehicles and her mother is now employed; running the coffee shop for the multitude of new arrivals who are housed in temporary huts on the site. Worst of all, when Robyn breaks the rules and sneaks out of the grounds to visit her best friend Mary in the village, she is hauled in front of a harsh, humourless authority figure whom she labels “The Heron” and is made to sign the Official Secrets act.

No longer permitted to leave the site, even to attend school, Robyn is put to work in the attics of the stately home where she meets kindly Mr Samuels and becomes his apprentice in the National Pigeon Service. I am sure that animal-loving children will be as fascinated as I was to learn about the vital role that these incredible birds played during WWII. The bond that Mr Samuels and Robyn form with the pigeons is heartwarmingly relatable to any child who has cared for a pet. Being based in the attics gives Robyn ample opportunities to observe the activity taking place in the Park, and she becomes increasingly suspicious of The Heron’s movements, particularly his involvement with the undertaker’s hearse which visits the Park daily. She teams up with the undertaker’s son, Ned, and Mary who is now working as a post-girl delivering messages to the inhabitants of the huts, and together they begin to investigate The Heron’s nefarious dealings. Secret codes, hidden tunnels and unexpected villains keep the plot entertaining whilst readers of 10+ also learn about the changes, particularly to women’s lives, that occurred during WWII. I think that I, Spy A Bletchley Park Mystery gives a fresh perspective on the second world war and will be a welcome addition to primary school classrooms and libraries.

In my former role in a school I used to deliver a lesson about Bletchley Park as part of the computing curriculum for Year 6, the children really enjoyed making their own Enigma Machines from old Pringles (or non-branded equivalents) tubes. (You can find resources and instructions for this activity, designed by Franklin Health Ltd and available free here). If any primary school teachers or librarians investigate cryptography or the history of computing with Year 5 or Year 6, I would highly recommend using this book as a class reader to coincide with that unit of work.

I am grateful to Piccadilly Press and Antonia Wilkinson for sending me a review copy of I, Spy A Bletchley Park Mystery prior to publication on 2nd March 2023.

Chapter Book Review: Kate on the Case – The Headline Hoax by Hannah Peck

Cover image by Hannah Peck, published by Piccadilly Press, 12th January 2023

Anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis will know just how much I love a good whodunnit, give me a novel with a mystery at its centre and I will generally read the book in one sitting. This was certainly my experience on picking up The Headline Hoax, the third mystery in the Kate on the Case series! I adored every single aspect of this book!

Let’s start with the fact that Hannah Peck both writes and illustrates this series and performs both of these tasks with elegance and panache. The beautiful pen and ink artwork which is liberally highlighted in a golden yellow, perfectly combines with the precisely worded text to invite the reader into the offices of The Lookout Post and does not allow you to leave until the mysterious hoaxer has been uncovered. The Lookout Post is a grand old newspaper and the publisher of undercover scoops by famous investigative reporter, Catherine Rodríguez, Kate’s ultimate idol. Visiting as a birthday treat with her Dad and faithful mouse sidekick, Rupert, Kate finds herself invited to the luxurious top floor offices of Figgy Fitzharris III, the CEO of the grand publishing institution. There she is tasked with a mission; to uncover the hoaxer who is sabotaging the newspaper which has resulted in some seriously embarrassing headlines.

As she carries out her investigation from editing suite to printing press, Kate meets an intriguing cast of characters, all of whom are brought to life with subtle wordplay. From Hilda Hoop the fashion editor, through Smarty Jones the sports correspondent to Penny Press the eagle-eyed proofreader, each employee has their own quirks and distinctive personalities which emerge through the narrative and illustrations. Referring frequently to extracts from The Special Correspondent Manual, written by the aforementioned Catherine Rodríguez, Kate demonstrates logic, rigour and single-mindedness to sift the clues and discover the villain, aided by her small but essential friend.

In a week when I have seen and heard reports about the essential need to encourage children to read for pleasure, I can only encourage you to offer Kate on the Case: The Headline Hoax to a child of 7 years+, whether in a home, classroom or library. Although it is the third book in the series it can absolutely be read as a standalone story. I think this is so important as many children in this time of economic difficulty have to rely on libraries or classroom collections to obtain books and very often find that they cannot read a favourite series in the correct order. Independent readers will find this book an utter joy to read, with its short chapters, playful font effects and generous helping of illustrations; if you are an adult sharing the reading of this story with a less confident reader, I hope that you find as much to enjoy on its pages as I did!

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson and Piccadilly Press for my gifted copy. The Headline Hoax was published on 12th January 2023 and is available from all good booksellers.

You can read my review of the opening book in the Kate on the Case series here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Woodland Magic Deer in Danger by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Katy Riddell

cover image by Katy Riddell, published by Piccadilly Press, September 2022

This second book in the Woodland Magic series is every bit as delightful as the first, which I previously reviewed here: Woodland Magic Fox Cub Rescue. It again features Cora and Jax as the two main protagonists, with them trying once more to become fully trained Keepers but struggling to stick to the task they have been set!

If you have not read the first book in the series, don’t worry because in the first chapter author Julie Sykes includes a brief recap on the role of the tiny Keepers who live in the centre of Whispering Woods and venture into the Big Outside to tidy up and rewild when the Ruffins are not around. With their cobweb bags full of seeds, they venture out into the human-inhabited world before dawn and after dusk, sprinkling the barren earth with wild seeds and a touch of woodland magic to restore the balance of nature. They are always on the lookout for natural treasures to take back to the head Keeper for use in their community, thereby making young readers stop and observe the beauty of the natural world through their eyes:

They were black and white with a shimmery line of blue.


This is Cora’s observation of the magpie feathers she has found.

When Cora and Jax are tasked with creating a hedgehog highway through the garden fences of a newly built housing estate, the race is on to finish the task before the workmen return to their bulldozers and tractors. What will they do when a young deer bounces out of the woods and gets into trouble in a deep trench?

I love the concept and execution of these stories. Deer in Danger, like its predecessor provides a gentle discovery of the natural environment that can be so easy to take for granted. The Keepers’ veneration of nature makes readers see flower petals, British wildlife and the natural landscape through fresh eyes. Cora and Jax, as well as their friends Trix and Nis are recognisably cheeky, curious and lovable characters who have to fight the urge to mess around in order to complete the important work they are tasked with. They demonstrate great teamwork and support for each other in this engaging and heartwarming story. At just over 100 pages, printed in a slightly enlarged font and illustrated throughout with Katy Riddell’s beautiful greyscale artwork, Woodland Magic Deer in Danger is a perfect book to encourage emerging young readers to complete an independent read and thus gain satisfaction in their new found skill. Highly recommended for children of 7-9 years of age.

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson and Piccadilly Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Woodland Magic – Fox Club Rescue by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Katy Riddell

Cover art by Katy Riddell, published by Piccadilly Press in March 2022

This absolutely delightful first book in the Woodland Magic series had me smiling throughout as I anticipated how warmly it will be welcomed by children of 5-8 years of age. The combination of fast-paced adventure, conservation and illustration topped with a dash of magic will totally engage young readers. I can imagine the forest school leader at my old school reading this to groups in the nature area where it would provide so many talking points and ideas for activities; there is advice on creating a wild flower corner or wild flower plant pot at the end of the story.

The Nature Keepers are a tribe of small fairy/pixie-like creatures who live in The Hidden Middle of Whispering Woods. They emerge from their compound very early each morning to tidy the mess left by humans (who they call Ruffins), collect useful natural products and re-wild by sowing wild plant seeds wherever nature has been scraped away. Their ingenious storage warehouse in a maze of old tunnels in an abandoned badger sett is described as “a huge natural museum of the ages” and set this librarian’s heart a-flutter (as did the idea of a strong, expanding bag made from cobwebs).

The tale starts with a pair of mischievous youngsters, Cora and Jax, who are about to embark on their first foray into the Big Outside to prove that they are worthy of becoming Keepers. They are handed their task, their want and their warning by Scarlet Busybee. They must sow wild flower seeds in the bulldozed meadow next to a new children’s play park; try to find some old eggshells and “stay out of sight and not get caught by the Ruffins”. However, the appeal of a super high and fast slide proves too much temptation for these two, and when the Horn of Tyr sounds to warn all Keepers to return to base before the Bramble Door is locked for the day they haven’t even begun their work.

With the threat of being sent back to school hanging over their pointy-eared heads, will Cora and Jax complete their tasks on day two in the Big Outside; and how will they respond to the plight of an injured fox cub when they have so much to accomplish in such a short time? I strongly encourage you to read Fox Cub Rescue to find out. In just over one hundred pages, Julie Sykes has crafted a gentle, enjoyable story which presents its ecological message in a wonderfully subtle manner. Our two main protagonists also demonstrate to young readers the importance of owning up to mistakes, of working hard to put things right, the benefits of teamwork and the importance of acknowledging the contributions of others. None of this is done in a preachy way, rather the themes unfold within the story as naturally as an untamed woodland path. I must also give a shout-out to Katy Riddell’s gorgeous black and white illustrations which appear at regular intervals through the story and the adorable fox cub chapter headers.

I cannot wait to read the next book in the Woodland Magic series; Deer in Danger. There is a short extract provided at the end of the book. I whole-heartedly recommend Fox Cub Rescue to Key Stage One teachers, school librarians and parents and carers of any children aged 5-8; it would make a lovely Easter present – cheaper and more nourishing than a chocolate egg!

I am most grateful to Piccadilly Press and Antonia Wilkinson for sending me a review copy of this book in return for my honest review.