#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+.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent Review: The Snow Dragon written by Abi Elphinstone, illustrated by Fiona Woodcock

Cover image by Fiona Woodcock, published by Simon & Schuster UK

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am an enormous fan of anything written by Abi Elphinstone, so it should come as no surprise that this is a story I love to read as we approach Christmas! I first read a version of it in an anthology of Christmas stories owned by my daughter entitled Winter Magic, and last Christmas a hardback edition of this picture book was published. This year the paperback has been released which has prompted me to write a long overdue review.

Phoebe lives in Griselda Bone’s Home for Strays which is the very epitome of a miserable orphanage. Daydreaming, skipping and hide-and-seek are forbidden as Griselda wages her private war on childishness. As the last unclaimed child left at the orphanage it appears that Phoebe faces a bleak future of grammar and punishment with only her dancing dog Herb for company…until her snow dragon magically appears.

Urging her to “never keep an adventure waiting” he transports Phoebe on an enchanted journey during which the combination of Abi’s glorious writing and the beautifully delicate artwork by Fiona Woodcock remind us all to look at the world around us in awe and wonder. This wonderful story about hope, believing in the miraculous and never losing a sense of playfulness and joy is a perfect story to share at bedtime or with a class of primary school children. A highly recommended Advent book which you will enjoy year after year.

Review: Dragon Mountain by Katie and Kevin Tsang

Dragon Mountain Book Cover, published by Simon and Schuster Children’s UK

This first step into older MG fiction by the talented husband and wife team who write the hugely popular Sam Wu books is a thrilling adventure set in the mountainous landscape of China.

It opens with a teenage Californian surfing champion, Billy Chan, reluctantly arriving in China to attend a Mandarin culture and language summer camp. He finds that he is in the company of a group of talented teenagers who have all been nominated by their teachers or coaches to attend this unique camp and anxiety creeps in that his patchy Mandarin skills will leave him performing badly compared to the other kids. After a bone-rattling and stomach-churning drive up into the mountainous camp, Billy is pretty convinced that he would rather be back home surfing in the warm sea. However, he starts to form a bond with Irish lad, Dylan O’Donnell and is pleased that he is placed in the same cabin as him by the ancient Chinese camp leader Lao-Jin (Old Gold). On the first night, in the light of the campfire, Old Gold recounts the ancient myth of Dragon Mountain: the battle for supremacy between good and evil dragons and the source of the “River of Blood”.

The next morning the students are divided into teams of four. Billy and Dylan are placed together. Their additional team members are the outrageously confident Charlotte Bell, not just the holder of the Little Miss of the South title for four years, but also two-time ju-jitsu under-14 world champion, and the quiet, shy, dreamer Ling-Fei the adopted granddaughter of Old Gold. Each team of four is given a challenge to retrieve a specific item on the first morning and informed that the winning team will earn extra privileges throughout their time at camp. This is all the incentive that highly competitive Charlotte needs and she leaves her team in no doubt that they must win!

However, when they are confronted by a fierce tiger as well as an earthquake after taking a forbidden shortcut through a bamboo plantation, they find themselves caught up in a magical adventure that they could not have imagined.

The combination of contemporary teenagers bound up into a mythical fantasy is deftly handled, with the teens reacting in believable ways to the incredible scenario of bonding with dragons in a battle to save both the human and dragon realms from devastation caused by the evil dragon “The Great One” whose ambition is to rule over both kingdoms. This malicious dragon is aided by his followers, The Noxious or Nox-wings, an army of dark dragons.

Bravery, loyalty, strength and truth are the values in the hearts of the four teenage protagonists which have bound them to their dragons and alongside their dragon-bestowed powers, arm them for a battle with a fearsome enemy. 

I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I won’t go into any further details about the plot. This is a fast-paced fantasy adventure, likely to be devoured in a couple of days by confident upper key stage 2 readers; the plot grips you more tightly than a dragon’s claws. Equally it would be a great story for a teacher or librarian to read aloud…but be prepared for demands from the children for “one more chapter!” The book ends on an absolute cliff-hanger and I certainly hope I don’t have to wait too long to find out what happens next!

Highly recommended for fans of Harry Potter, Septimus Heap and  Percy Jackson.

I am most grateful to #NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Children’s Books for allowing me access to an e-ARC of Dragon Mountain. The book will be published on 3 September 2020.

Review: Jungledrop by Abi Elphinstone

jungledrop-9781471173684_lg

I was ecstatic to be approved for an e-ARC of Jungledrop on #Netgalley and believe me, I will be buying more than one physical copy of this amazing book as soon as it hits the shops. It has totally fizzled my brain with its imaginative brilliance and left my heart quivering with joy. It is a beautiful and necessary book which will delight and entertain all readers, young and old. 

Whilst you could easily enjoy reading this book as a stand-alone adventure, you will be fully immersed in the lore of the Unmapped Chronicles if you have previously read Everdark and Rumblestar. In the latter case, you will know that ancient Phoenix magic dictates that the weather on Earth ( The Faraway ) is controlled by events in the four Unmapped Kingdoms. However, the harmonious functioning of this system is under threat from an evil harpy named Morg who wishes to control the kingdoms for her own wickedly greedy ends.

In this third instalment the future of the Faraway ( which is suffering from a year-long drought ) and Jungledrop are placed in the hands of a very unlikely pair of heroes, eleven-year-old twins Fox and Fibber Petty-Squabble. They are descended from a wealthy German family and live in the ancestral mansion in Munich, Bickery Towers. Their repulsive parents run a business empire built on lies, the family motto is:

“Do not be afraid.

To stamp all over other people’s feelings.”

Their avaricious upbringing has resulted in two children who behave like monsters but deep down feel unloved and lonely. Somehow the ancient phoenix magic has unaccountably chosen them to change the course of history! As they dash into an antiques shop, owned by Casper Tock, the fizz of magic from a long-hidden phoenix tear propels them on a journey of the heart which will determine the destiny of two worlds.

“When magic sets it’s sights on someone, it’s remarkably hard to wriggle free”

There are countless things to love about this story.

  • The brilliantly imagined land of Jungledrop, a glow-in-the-dark rainforest filled with exotically named flora and fauna. This lush landscape is cruelly scarred by burnt and barren enclaves where the greed of Morg has inflicted dark magic, and the descriptions are redolent of familiar scenes from documentaries about the devastation being caused to rainforests all over our planet. 
  • The unique, funny and inspired naming of characters: Tedious Niggle, the ghostly ticket inspectre; Heckle the “emotionally intrusive” yellow parrot; Total Shambles, the slow, ungainly but heroic swiftwing; Doogie Herbalsneeze the jungle apothecary and unicycle-riding unmapper Iggy Blether.
  • The exciting plot with its quest to discover the Forbidden Fern, the suspense and uncertainty over each of the twins’ true intent during the adventure and the perfectly described, complex emotional undercurrents.

Abi Elphinstone has an incredible talent for taking her readers on a heart-stopping journey through gloriously immersive worlds and dropping profoundly moving passages into the middle of jaw-dropping action. Her combination of playfulness, visual storytelling, obvious respect for her readership and genuine ability to include a positive message in her stories make them an essential addition to every bookshelf.

I shall finish with a quote which had me welling up, and which I will be putting on permanent display in the school library:

“To be kind is to be strong. And, if you’re strong enough to pull down a wall around your heart, you can fight with the strength of a warrior because then you will have learnt to love!”

 

Thank you #NetGalley and S&S Children’s UK for allowing me early access to JungleDrop

Review: Check Mates by Stewart Foster

Check Mates

Once again, I have to thank the members of #PrimarySchoolBookClub for introducing me to the work of an amazing author, Stewart Foster. I loved this book and found its storyline and central relationship utterly compelling.

Felix Schopp is in his first year at secondary school,  we are introduced to him in the isolation room, or as Felix terms it, “the staring at the wall club”. Felix is a regular visitor to this room as his ADHD means that he cannot help himself from getting into trouble for being disruptive in class. He cannot concentrate on anything for even a short time, he is unable to sit still, he asks inappropriate questions and becomes frustrated with himself when he cannot read a passage or answer questions.

The story is recounted in the first person by Felix so that we are offered an insight into the thoughts and frustrations of a child with ADHD. Felix is an immensely sympathetic character and he is aware that “People think I don’t care, but I do, it’s just that I can’t help what I say or the funny expression they say I have on my face.”

His teachers are exasperated, his over-worked parents are annoyed with him and his grandfather embarrasses him daily by collecting him from school in a pink car! When his mother suggests that he should spend more time with his granddad, it seems that Felix’s life could not get any worse.   

Granddad is another perfectly realised character. He seems to have sunk into depression since the death of his wife the previous year, which to Felix manifests as sitting grumpily on the sofa, hardly ever leaving the house, keeping the curtains drawn all day, preserving the memory of his late wife by holding onto all the pink objects she owned but never actually discussing his emotional turmoil caused by her loss. It is clear that Felix adored his emotionally available grandma and misses her hugely and feels sympathy for his granddad whilst being confused at his reluctance to mention the “d” word.

The book takes flight when Granddad decides that he will teach Felix how to play chess, in the hope that it will improve Felix’s powers of concentration and additionally to share his great love of the game with his grandson. The slow change in their relationship is acutely observed and absolutely grips at your heartstrings. On top of this the two school friends Jake and Rebecca are completely authentic and their often conflicting influences on Felix add another level of brilliance to this book.

I don’t want to discuss the plot in any more detail for fear of spoilers; it does contain descriptions of chess games but I don’t think this would detract from your enjoyment of the story even if you had never played chess yourself. Throughout the story you feel that an unexpected twist is building, but when it comes I think you will be surprised.

I was greatly impressed with Stewart Foster’s writing style. Short chapters, full of short sentences and lots of dialogue, reflecting Felix’s short attention span. This makes the book a fast-paced read, and is likely to add to its appeal to those readers who don’t enjoy struggling through long, complex sentences. It also manages to weave a great deal of humour in amongst all the emotion. One line I particularly loved was Felix’s observation after playing a very irritating opponent: “I bet the Mechanical Turk never ate Doritos.” I was genuinely moved by the powerful, emotional bond between Felix and Granddad and by this story’s message that we all need someone to really believe in us, to spur us on to succeed. Highly recommended for readers of 10+.

If you loved the central theme of this book, then try The Cardturner by Louis Sachar, if you are fascinated by chess and developments in AI, try Deep Thinking  By Gary Kasparov.

the cardturnerDeep Thinking

 

 

 

 

This is #Book6 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge, hosted by Cathy at 746Books.