Roughly once a month I visit BBC Radio Berkshire and spend a happy hour talking books with Bill Buckley where I always fly the flag for children's books. Anything from picture books to YA, mostly fiction but occasionally poetry or non-fiction
There is usually time for me to chat about three books for children but my biggest problem is picking which to take with me each month.
You can see reviews for my recent recommendations below or to listen to the latest book club click on the BBC Berkshire and choose Bill's show recorded on the date you're interested in.
8th November 2018
A very special book review to mark 100 years since the end of WW1
Poppy Field - By Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman
To commemorate the end of WW1 and to remember all those who fell in battle and those whose lives were turned upside down by the events of that remarkable time in history, Michael Morpurgo has teamed up with the Royal British Legion to bring us this treasure of a book.
It tells the story of a little boy who is growing up in a modern day Flanders. His family run a farm on what was once no-mans-land and now holds a field that is flooded with poppies during the summer months. His grandfather tells him stories that were passed down by his own parents who were living in Flanders during the war. Stories of a little girl who sold eggs to the troops and tried to cheer then with her poppies. And of one man who she met there busy writing a poem to help him make sense of the loss of a dear friend who had fallen in front of him.
That man, of course was John McCrae, writer of In Flanders Field, the poem that speaks to us as poignantly today as it did all those years ago. And the poem that brought the poppies back from the war and into the hearts and memories of all who lived through it, and of future generations who learn from the sacrifices made.
The book ends with an afterword by Nigel McCulloch, former National Chaplain of The Royal British Legion. Here we learn about the history of the poppy. Who first thought of using it to remember our armed forces and the journey it took to become the recognised symbol of peace and remembrance we know today.
I read this book with such mixed feelings, pain at a brief glimpse into the terrible suffering, joy at the kindness shown throughout and hope that by remembering the past we can guard the future.
9th October 2018
Your Turn to Die - By Sue Wallman
Leah has been looking forward to her annual new year holiday with her cousins and family friend pretty much since the last one. This year though things are not the same, partly due to the fact that there is a new girl in their midst and partly because earlier that year a body was found in the grounds of the house they always stay in.
This story is rammed with plot twists and unexpected turns that keep the pulse racing and the teeth grinding. It includes real issues such as getting to know a new step parent, childhood illness, bereavement and first romance but there is a lot to take this story a long way from the normal experiences of most children, (I hope!)
Atmospheric, spooky, and with an ending that will not let you go until the very last page this book is truly deserving of the status GRIPPING. Age 13+
Natboff - By Andy Stanton, illustrated by David Tazzyman
Mr Gum craziness is back in this spin off which tells us the checkered history of Lamonic Bibber. For those of you who have never picked up a Mr Gum book then firstly why ever not....they should be a staple of all book shelves and I'm not just talking about the ones in children's rooms either! The unabridged humour that seems so utterly effortless but I am pretty sure takes a lot of hard work to put together is completely bonkers ad tickles the funny bone in just the right place.
Natboff is almost as though the Horrible Histories team have collided with Andy Stanton and produced a zany alternative history that includes cavemen, Kings and Queens, hallowed saints and mere mortals as we are taken through a journey of time from the first dwellers of the town of Lamonic Bibber right through to a sneaky peak at the future of the funniest land in children's fiction.
Sit back and enjoy! Age 8+
14th August 2018
The Truth About Lies - Tracy Darnton
Jess has a photographic memory. She can remember every tiny detail of every day since the age of 11. The only day that she cannot bring into focus is the day her mother died.
In this book we pick up Jess' story at boarding school. Her so-called best friend has just committed suicide and strange messages alert Jess to the fact that things are not quite as they seem and that her past is trying hard to catch up with her. She turns to Dan, new boy in school and the only person she feels she has any real connection with.
This is a story about memory, the scope of the human mind and the lengths some people are prepared to go to in the name of science. It is quite dark and thought provoking and it thunders along at a phenomenal pace. I spent much of it with my heart inside my mouth. Age 13+
The Secret Deep - Lindsay Galvin
Two sisters lose their mother to cancer and move to New Zealand to begin a new life with their aunt. When they arrive they expect to be taken to Aunt Iona's house but instead find themselves living in an eco-village hidden away from society in the thickness of a forest.
Things in the village don't feel right to the girls but become even stranger when a boat trip ends with them becoming separated and marooned on a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean.
This is unbelievably good debut story writing with so many layers to it. It's main theme addresses the ethical boundaries of medical science and how far these can be stretched. How far should research and testing go to find cures for diseases such as cancer?
Accomplished contemporary realism with some elements of sci-fi woven in. Description of place that is so clear it was almost as though I was watching the story unfold as a film. Age 11+
Max and the Millions - Ross Montgomery
Max doesn't exactly love school and he hasn't managed to make many friends along the way. He does however love to visit the care taker Mr Darrow and watch as he creates tiny models from wood that are accurate to the minutest detail. Max also enjoys making miniatures so this is something they enjoy sharing.
When Mr Darrow mysteriously disappears over the summer holidays Max goes to his room to investigate and discovers the mini world Mr Darrow built in his room has become occupied by tiny little people. Split into three warring tribes, reds, greens and blues, Max has to try and bring Peace to them whilst also trying to work out what happened to Mr Darrow AND dealing with the awful head teacher who is using the school for his own gains and is risking the lives of all the tiny people living in Mr Darrow's room.
It is such an unusual and fresh story told in a charming, often funny but also poignant way. Expect high adventure and more than a little good old fashioned fairy tale quality.
I should mention that the main character and hero of the book is deaf. It's not a book about being deaf, it just so happens that Max has hearing difficulties, and I like that character diversity a lot. Age 9+
26th June 2018
The Boy Who Grew Dragons - Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
A fantastic debut and opening book in what promises to be a wonderful series for younger readers who want to get lost in a place where dragons can hatch from the fruit of a tree in your Grandpa's garden. For me this story felt very grounded on a base of important relationships. Our hero, Tomas, and his grandfather share a lot of time together and clearly adore being with each other which I found very warming . When they are gardening and discover a strange tree, Tomas picks a fruit and takes it home where it begins to do strange things and finally explodes as a tiny dragon is born.
Flicker, the dragon, very quickly becomes embedded in Tomas' life but he finds things not as idyllic as he had hoped when keeping a baby dragon a secret from his parents and the class busybody proves rather tricky. How do you explain shredded curtains and singed carpets on a daily basis?!
There is plenty of humour, heart and general dragony gorgeousness in this story and I am already looking forward to the next in the series, out in the autumn. Age 8+
Bad Nana - Sophy Henn
From the queen of contemporary picture books comes this wonderful first dip into a book for growing readers. Nana is not a lady to be messed with, she knows her own mind and she knows how to use it, often with hilarious consequences.
This book contains three short stories about Nana's exploits and so is absolutely perfect for an emerging reader ready to tackle something longer in a manageable way. Littered with sharp illustrations that complement the stories fantastically this is one of those books that children (and adults) will find something different to enjoy each time they read it. I am a particular fan of the way Sophy Henn uses very few lines to create huge amounts of emotion or humour in her characters' facial expressions. A very clever talent.
And there's no getting away from the fact that the fuchsia pink and lime green cover will look FAB on any book shelf! Age 6+
The Waiting For Callback trilogy - Perdita and Honor Cargill
This trilogy is written, rather unusually, by the pairing of a mother and teenaged daughter. Unlike other books that have been written by two authors, this one reads as though only one voice is present and it works incredibly well.
Elektra is an aspiring young actress who, early in the first book, is discovered and signed by an agent. The trilogy then explores her path through countless rejections and bit parts in adverts through the making of a feature film and other successes. Along the way she makes many mistakes and seems to be constantly on the brink of utter embarrassment which brings with it a naivety and charm to her character and a realism to the stories.
As well as following her through her acting career we also watch as she struggles through everything that a teenaged life throws at her. School, exams, friendships and romances are all going on, sometimes well and at other times painfully awful. Humour runs throughout the books and there are some brilliant secondary characters to look our for, none more so than step grandmother, Eulalie, who deserves a book of her own. Age 12+
Footnote : It has only just occurred to me that all three of my chosen books this month contain brilliant and strong grandparent characters. Hooray for the older generation appearing so positively in children's books!
22nd May 2018
Mold and the Poison Plot - Lorraine Gregory
Dumped in a bin as a baby, Mold is taken in by kind-hearted apothecary Aunt Aggy. With his rather whopping nose Mold is perfect for helping her search out ingredients for her potions and for a while they live a happy life together. But then disaster strikes as Aggy is locked up on suspicion of poisoning the king. It is down to Mold to investigate what really happened in order to secure Aunt Aggy's release and cure the king. His excellent sense of smell turns out to be very useful indeed and on his journey he finds out a little more about his own background as well.
Lorraine Gregory's gorgeously strange world is full of weird and endearing characters and her world building is equally stong. The voice is very unusual which I found captivating and can imagine is a lot of fun to read aloud. This book is full of adventure and action with plenty of heart. Age 9+
The House With Chicken Legs - Sophie Anderson
A stunning debut based on the Baba Yaga folk tales of Eastern Europe. Marinka lives with her grandmother (Baba Yaga) in a very unusual house indeed. The house is a character in its own right with feelings, sense and chicken legs! It is home to a gate leading into the next world which all dead souls must pass through after one last meal with Baba Yaga and Marinka. It is Marika's destiny to become the next Yaga but she longs for freedom and friends who aren't about to pass through the gate.
Compelling story telling and a beautiful fable quality make this the sort of book that is very difficult to leave on the bedside table. The world drew me in completely and I felt such sympathy for Marinka and her quest to belong. I even wept which doesn't often happen! Age 10+
Max The Detective Cat - Sarah Todd Taylor, illustrated by Nicola Kinnear
Max is a very pampered cat who lives the life of luxury with his wealthy owner. That is until the day he misbehaves and is thrown out on the street. He finds his way to the theatre where he befriends a city cat called Oscar and is adopted by the folk of the theatre. Whilst he is there he gets caught up in a mystery involving an opera singer and some stolen jewels. What is a cat to do when he stumbles across clues but fit them together and solve the crime!
A lovely mystery for younger readers, gorgeously illustrated throughout. It is told in a way that delivers just enough clues for young readers to piece together but still making them work a little for answers. Age 7+
17th April 2018
Brightstorm - Vashti Hardy
I absolutely adored reading this book, in fact I sat in my armchair in front of the fire when the snow was on the ground and I didn't move until I had finished it. A steampunk adventure set in a world of air ships and expeditions, this book is absolutely stuffed with moments of brilliance. Twins, Arty and Maudie, refuse to believe their father perished under a dark cloud on an expedition and so they decide to follow in his footsteps to try and uncover the truth. They team up with epic explorer Harriet Culpepper (arguably one of my favourite adult characters in a children's book of all time,) and set off towards the uncharted territory of South Polaris. Along the way they come across gay kings, thought wolves and a heap of other wonderful characters.
With gripping moments of trepidation, genuine moments of 'I did NOT see that coming' and more than a little foul play at work this is a gold star book and I cannot wait for the sequel to come my way! Age 9+
Instructions For A Second-Hand Heart - Tamsyn Murray
Four years of work and research went into this poignant book and it really shows. The writing is polished, the story-telling compelling and the characters so real that I felt sure I would find them on Facebook if I searched for them.
Written as a dual-narrative in first person, this book tells the story of Jonny, a boy in need of a heart transplant, and Niamh, the twin sister of a boy destined to be the donor. The set up of the story is swift and in just a few chapters we meet the main characters and realise that for Jonny to live, Leo cannot. The bulk of the story centers around the relationship that builds between Jonny and Niamh as they learn to live with the changes, grief and complications in their lives. It is such a stunning account of what it might be like to feel inadequate, freakish, wrong-footed and scared. It is also a celebration of the endurance of relationships and friendships and of how humans can help each other to fix broken hearts. Age 13+
A Storm of Strawberries - Jo Cotterill
This story centers around Darby, a girl with Downs Syndrome. And yet it is not an issues book about living with Downs. Darby's story contains themes and problems familiar to lots of children her age. She feels she is losing her sister, Kaydee, to her new best friend. Her parents are fretting so much about their livelihood as a storm threatens to ruin the farm's strawberry crop that they don't have as much time for her and have slightly strained tempers. This felt like a very real depiction of family life with every member coping with, or even trying to hide, their own differences. It is also about learning to appreciate the differences in others and looking beyond them at the wholeperson.
It is so beautifully told and refreshing to read a story that is full of normal, everyday problems but told in an exceptional and page-turning way. A really great follow up to 'Library or Lemons,' that is also high on my recommendation list. Age 9+
The importance of inclusion and diversity in children's books.
Noughts and Crosses By Malorie Blackman - This novel by a previous children's Laureate turns the race and class tables upside down. It tells the story of Sephy, a Cross, and Callum, a Nought. Crosses are dark-skinned, wealthy and powerful. Noughts are 'colourless,' and ruled by the superior race who historically kept them as slaves. Sephy and Callum were childhood friends but as they grow up in a world full of prejudice and inequality their relationship is thought unsuitable and they must part ways. The dystopian world Malorie Blackman has built is full of terrorism, segregation and sadness but also romance and hope. It is clear that there are many parallels between this world and ours and by showing young adults how destructive thoughts and actions can be perhaps she is setting them up to choose their own paths with care. Age 14+
Wonder By R J Palacio - This phenomenal story of courage and kindness should, in my opinion, be on the curriculum of every school in the country. It shows us a year in the life of Auggie, a child born with facial abnormalities so impactful that he spent a lot of his early years in hospital. His parents chose to home school him for health reasons but also to try and protect him from a mean world. We join his story as he begins his first year at middle school. Although the story is Auggie's, the book is split into sections written from the points of view of different characters. By doing this R J Palacio gives us an insight into how one person can impact hugely on the lives of so many others. I defy anyone to read this book and not need to buy more tissues at the end of it. It is full of warmth and heart and teaches all who read it how important it is to always CHOOSE KIND. Age 9+
Beyond Clueless By Linas Alsenas - Marty and her best friend Jimmy are starting high school. The trouble is they are not going to the same schools and Marty finds this very difficult. When Jimmy tells her that he is gay she isn't at all surprised but when he introduces his new boyfriend to her she finds it hard to accept that she is going to have to share her best friend with someone else. I love Beyond Clueless because it is not a book about LGBT issues but rather a coming of age story about teenagers dealing with changing friendships, new schools, relationships and everything else that comes with that time of a life. It just happens that one of the main characters is gay. Surely this is inclusion at its very best. The story is witty, painful in places and overall very real. Told in first person I really believed I was listening to Marty and not someone writing in the style of her, a knack very difficult to master as a writer! Age 12+
The Goldfish Boy By Lisa Thompson - A poignant and unexpected story about a boy with OCD who uses his keen observational skills to unravel the mystery of a missing toddler. Age 9+
Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone - A gripping adventure with fantastic characters and a very pacy plot. Set in the snowy land of Erkenwald where the adults have been captured by an evil ice queen, it is down to three children to save the world. Age 9+
Swashbuckle Lil and the Jewel Thief by Elli Woollard, illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson - Told in rhyme, this book contains two very funny and brilliantly illustrated stories about a little girl who is secretly a pirate. These stories are easy to pick up, but difficult to put down again! Age 5+
Christmas Dinner of Souls By Ross Montgomery - Not the usual Christmas story for certain, this is middle grade horror at its best. 7 stories told by guests at a very spooky Christmas party that will make your hair stand on end. 9+
Santa Claude By Alex T Smith - Absolutely bonkers humour about a dog with a beret who has to save Christmas after accidentally handcuffing Santa to a chair! Full or little hidden jokes for the adults as well the Claude series is one foe everyone. Age 5+
The Snow Sister By Emma Carroll - A lovely insight into Victorian life at Christmas, heart-warming and utterly gorgeous. This is a novella that asks the question 'What brings true happiness?' Age 9+
The Best of the Books I Reviewed in 2017
Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink By Jennifer Killick - An ear that farts and might just save the day? What more could you want from a story. Fabulously bonkers with bags of clever humour. Age 7+
The Apprentice Witch By James Nicol - A refreshing take on the story of witches. Arianwyn doesn't fledge as a real witch and has to earn her place by taking on some pretty tough work. A fantastic whirlwind and luckily book 2 is on its way! Age 10+
Noah Can't Even By Simon James Green - A coming of age story with a LGBT thread. Poor Noah struggles to make his way through his teenaged years when life throws so much in his way. Ridiculous, funny, heart breaking and thoughtful. A real treat. Age 12+
The Great Chocoplot By Chris Callaghan - One of the funniest books of the year. What would you do if the world ran out of chocolate? This is the problem that Jelly faces in this brilliantly clever and utterly unique story that is a firm favourite of my daughter. Age 8+
Cowgirl By G R Gemin - The unusual story of a girl who tried to save a herd of cows by hiding them in a council estate. Although the plot might sound madcap, the story telling is absorbing and totally believable. Warm and family centred and perfect for sharing. Age 9+
A Girl Called Owl By Amy Wilson - A tale of magic and mystery set in the world of Jack Frost. What would you do if you found out your father was in fact the prince of ice and that you had inherited some of his power? The fable-like quality of this story is beautiful and woven with absolute perfection. Age 10+
Dave Pigeon By Swapna Haddow illustrated by Sheena Dempsey - Brilliant humour accompanied by superb illustrations. This is the first of three books about two wacky and slightly daft pigeons (but don't tell Dave I said that!) So many laughs between the pages of this gem. Age 6+
Who Let the Gods Out By Maz Evans - Maybe my favourite book of 2017... So much is stuffed into this book and indeed its sequel. Some scenes had me reaching for my tissues and then a few pages on and I'd be needing new socks because I'd laughed the old ones off. Greek Gods meet a modern boy who is caring for his sick mum. Genius at work. Age 9+
Just Call Me Spaghetti Hoop Boy By Lara Williamson - A book full of heart and emotion. Adam wants to fix the world, or at least make his Mum happy, and do that he has to try and be a super hero. This is such a beautifully written story that tugs at the heart and makes us realise what is important. Age 9+
The Jamie Drake Equation By Christopher Edge - On the surface having an astronaut as a Dad would be pretty fantastic. But what about when the cool job starts impacting on home life? It is difficult to patch up a family when one of you is orbiting the Earth in a space station. Touching, informative and full of adventure, this is a great brush with science fiction for children new to the genre. Age 9+
The Fairytale Hairdresse series by Abie Longstaff, illustrated by Lauren Beard - This series of picture book stories feature a strong, clever, problem solving hairdresser at the heart of a fairytale world. Full of familiar characters but in new and exciting adventures with great twists. These books are finished beautifully with fun illustrations and a touch of glitter! Age 4+
Strange Star By Emma Carroll - Another stonking good book by the queen of historical fiction. This story weaves together the idea of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with a girl struck by lightening. Mostly brilliantly weird fiction but with elements of what history knows about Mary Shelley this is a completely unique story that is tricky to put down. Age 10+
Mango and Bambang by Polly Faber illustrated by Clara Vulliamy - The first in a charming series from a brilliant pairing of sweet story telling and nostalgic illustrations, these feel a bit like jumping into an old fashioned sweet shop. There is something so very comforting about the stripy cover and I adore the friendship between small girl and tapir. Absolutely gorgeous! Age 5+
Stunt Double by Tamsin Cooke - Adrenaline-fuelled adventure as the name suggests! What starts out as a book about filming a movie soon turns into something much darker and seriously gripping. This is definitely a book to capture readers across the generations. Age 10+
Cogheart by Peter Bunzl - Set in a steampunk, Victorian London, Cogheart is full of adventure, peril and heart-stopping moments of brilliance and unexpected twists. When Lily's father is killed in an airship crash she realises he took secrets with him. With the help of her mechanimal (mechanical fox) Malkin, she needs to find answers. Age 10+
Beetle Queen by M G Leonard - The second in the Beetle Boy series, I think this is even better than its predecessor. Following the story of a boy called Darkus, his beetle friend, Baxter and their friends as they try and save the world from Lucretia Cutter, the evil Beetle Queen. Age 10+
Wizards of Once By Cressida Cowell - Brilliant fantasy from the author of the How To Train Your Dragon series. A story of Xar, a wizard, and Wish, a warrior princess, who are meant to hate each other but have to work together to save their world from the most evil of somethings. Age 9+
A Boy Called Christmas By Matt Haig - Sometimes funny, sometimes moving, always gripping. This is the true story of how Father Christmas came about. Where his hat came from, how he was given his name and how he came to live in a hidden world of snow with Elves and Reindeer. A real Christmas jewel. Age 8+
The Secret Of Nightingale Wood By Lucy Strange - Haunting, beautiful and unmissable. This is a story jammed with secrets, mystery and ghostly happenings. Set in post WW1 England there is a sense of bleakness and yet also of hope and I could not put this one down. Age 10+
The Graveyard Book By Neil Gaiman - Nobody Owens (or Bod for short) is brought up in a graveyard by ghosts on account of a terrible act of evil that killed his family when he was a baby. Surprisingly this scenario leads to a warm story of belonging, friendship and some of the best characters in contemporary children's fiction. Age 10+
Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam By Tracey Corderoy, illustrated by Steven Lenton - The first of a gorgeous series of picture books featuring these naughty robber dogs turned bakers. Tracey Corderoy's clever rhyming stories are matched perfectly with the fun and colourful illustrations by Steven Lenton. Age 4+
One By Sarah Croassan - Written completely in verse, this is the story of conjoined twins living adolescent lives and finding the highs and lows not always easy. An astonishing feat, it is no surprise that One has topped charts and won an array of prizes. This is a powerful novel told poetically and sensitively with real heart and empathy. Age 13+
Werewolf Club Rules By Joseph Coelho - A poetry collection full of lighthearted humour and clever observation. The poems within these pages play with language in a really engaging way and are a real joy to read aloud. It reminded me of a book I loved as a child called 'Please Mrs Butler,' and I can see today's children holding Joseph's poems in their hearts into adulthood as I did with Allan Ahlberg's poems. Age 7+
Girl With a White Dog By Anne Booth - Anne Booth has executed the tricky business of time slip superbly in this story of a modern girl who learns about Nazi Germany at school and uncovers a family war story very close to home. Utterly enthralling and achingly moving. Age 9+