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 link below. Book club starts around an hour into Bill's show.
I Am Thunder By Muhammad Khan 14+
This is a very accomplished debut book that tackles enormous issues and does it brilliantly.
Muzna is a Muslim girl living with her very strict Pakistani parents. When something happens at school and they aren't impressed with the friendships she's formed they decide to move and find a new school for Muzna. Here she meets Arif, a very attractive boy who lavishes her with attention and makes her feel wonderful. Before long an obsession has begun and she becomes so caught up in her passion for Arif that she changes herself to please him and better fit with his ideals. They attend religious meetings together and, although Muzna feels uneasy, she does all she can to become a better Muslim in order to impress Arif.
When she uncovers some disturbing secrets about Arif's brother that indirectly involve Arif, Muzna has some very difficult decisions to make. Decisions that are about more than just two people.
Telling a story like this takes an enormous amount of sensitivity and care and Muhammad Khan has both in great quantities. His Muzna is such an innocent narrator and so very vulnerable that it's impossible not to be swept up in her life and understand her choices, even the bad ones. His powers of observation, helped I'm sure by his background in secondary school teaching, have led to a deeply moving, sometimes uncomfortable story that sheds a spotlight on the difficulties of being a Muslim teenager living in a big UK city. Incredible writing and incredible story telling.
Summer of No Regrets By Kate Mallinder 11+
A lovely warm and sunny read perfect for the summer holidays.
Four girls begin their summer school break with a pact that they will live it with no regrets. Each one has different personal goals and things that will stretch them right out of their zone of ease forcing them to confront fears. For Hetal this means signing up for a science camp, overprotected Nell will cut the apron strings and find a job, Sasha will visit her estranged father in Geneva and adopted Cam will try and trace her birth father.
Of course things never quite work out as we plan them as the four girls soon discover. There are plenty of things to trip them up and knock them onto different paths until something happens to pull them all together and make them reassess their resolutions.
Cleverly split by chapters into four characters' stories that are brilliantly jigsawed together, this book has so very much to offer. There are moments of pure hilarity and also poignant, thoughtful threads that made me want to jump into the pages and give the girls a big hug.
Return to Wonderland, A compilation by Macmillan 8+
Published by Macmillan who, over 150 years ago published the original book by Lewis Carroll, this is a brand new compilation of stories from Wonderland. Eleven contemporary children's writers have combined their wit, skill and bonkers imaginations to come up with tales about some of the most recognisable book characters of all time.
Peter Bunzl opens the book with a wonderful tale about the Duchess' boy 'Pig'. Then Pamela Butchart takes the reigns with a ridiculous romp alongside the Queen of Hearts. Maz Evans' look at what might have happened if the Hatter decided not to be quite so Mad and Swapna Haddow gives a look into the Mock Turtle's library. In her story about the Queen's penchant for croquet, Patrice Lawrence invites us to think of the hedgehogs whilst Chris Smith plays with the Tweedles. There's a story about Alice's sister, Ina, from Robin Stevens and one about the Dormouse from Lauren St John. Lisa Thompson brilliantly tells the story of the Knave of Hearts after his trial, Piers Torday explains how the Cheshire Cat got his smile and we finish with perhaps my favourite story of all, Amy Wilson's fantastic tale of a caterpillar pushing against his natural destiny.
So that's it - eleven stories in a nutshell! The only thing left to do is decide which one is your favourite!
11th June 2019
The Last Spell Breather By Julie Pike - 10+
This is a debut book I have known about for a while and was quite impatient to get my hands on. I was not disappointed in the slightest as it delivered all the intrigue, magic and adventure that I had been hoping for and a bucket load more besides.
It is a fantasy novel about a young girl, Rayne, and her mother who are the last of a dying magical people able to breath spells into books. Rayne is not what you might call dedicated to the job. She isn't all that fabulous at it and she'd be much happier being out with her friends and enjoying her childhood. But when her mother disappears with a sinister stranger, Rayne realises she must embrace her role as the last spell breather to keep the village safe until her mother returns. Things get a little stickier though when Rayne drops the spell book and the spells themselves lose some of their breathed words. With parts missing the spells are changed and things in the village go from bad to worse.
Rayne knows she has no choice but to travel to a distant enchanted library to find the Master Spellbook and her mother. She hopes to fix the broken spells and restore the village but along the way she comes across twisted villains, grotesque guards and a talking fox. Misplaced loyalty and a desire for the truth land her in a very tricky situation and she must try to untangle the mess and put everything back on track.
Such an accomplished debut, funny in places and incredibly dark in others. Characters that stick with you and a fabulous and completely believable fantasy world that you can lose yourself in. What more could you ask of a book?
Mo, Lottie and the Junkers By Jennifer Killick - 8+
This cleverly thought out story begins with a video blog (Vlog) transcript, set up to throw us straight into the action and excitement. And what an action/excitement stuffed book this is! Quiet-natured, organised Mo is moving to the house across the road to live with his new step father and sisters Sadie (who only speaks cat) and Lottie who is the same age as Mo but as loud and invasive as he is quiet and shy.
That's when all the weird things begin to happen. It's not just the incredibly nosy and very strange Lorelai who has moved into Mo's old house that seems odd but also the crazy lollipop man with a secret message and a dubious ice-cream seller with addictive ice-cream. And what about the Junkers themselves? I'll let you discover the truths about their dark existence for yourselves when you read about them.
This story is the kind of mystery that can totally ensnare the reader as we try to piece together the clues to work out what is going on before the characters themselves realise. Mo and Lottie are like sausages and strawberry jam - they shouldn't go together and yet they work really well as a team. If you've never tried sausages and jam, give it a go!! There are lots of moments of complete hilarity as well as drama and energy in this original, unusual, beaut of a book. And if you've read Jennifer's Alex Sparrow stories then you'll already know what I'm talking about!
The Tzar's Curious Runaways By Robin Scott-Elliot - 11+
This brilliant debut novel begins in the court of 18th century Tzar, Peter the Great who had a fascination with the unusual. The story centres around a ballet dancer with a hunched back called Katinka, or Kat. She fears for her life when the Tzar dies as the Tzarina, now in charge, hates Kat and all the 'freaks' the Tzar employed in his Circus of Curiosities. Kat decides to escape the palace and is joined by two of the other performers, a giant and a dwarf.
Kate believes that if she can only return to her family's hometown all will be well, something she keeps reminding herself whilst on the treacherous journey away from St Petersburg. A swarm of misfortune follows the escapees and when the finally arrive at their destination the welcome they receive is not exactly as the three companions had hoped.
I am not a fan of book review cliches but if I were I'd applaud this as a nail-biting, fast-paced, page turner! As I'm not, I will say that it captured my attention from the day it popped through my door and I picked it up. I felt completely placed in historic Russia and that the characters were so real that I felt they might walk past me at any moment. The writing is vibrant and emotive and I loved the folk tale to feel to it.
21st May 2019
A Witch Come True By James Nicol - Age 10+
This is the final in an amazing trilogy that has become a real favourite in our house. In the first book we meet Arianwyn, an apprentice witch and we follow her journey through the series as she becomes a fully fledged witch trying to figure out how to use her magic and fix problems as she goes. In this story she'd been doing a pretty good job but things are not all as they should be. A hex has invaded the woodland and infected a fellow witch making her behave in a very peculiar way. On top of this the celebration of Yule is approaching and Arianwyn learns that a lot is expected of her at this time of year.
With so much to be thinking about she needs her friends around her and happily there are plenty of those. My absolute favourite being a moon hare called Bob and a magical faeling called Estar. Both so beautifully written that I forget they are fictional beings!
Arianwyn is one of those characters who make a lasting impression and my daughter and I have waited excitedly each time a new book is due. Imagine the excitement then when we found out that the series has been optioned for a television series!! No wonder as the adventure, characters, world and magic all combine to give a fantastic treat that I'm sure will transfer brilliantly to the screen.
Wildspark By Vashti Hardy - Age 10+
On a farm where spanners play tricks and horses need to be oiled rather than fed, Prue is chief engineer and fixer. Along with her older brother, Francis, she built most of the machines on the farm and now that he is dead she misses him terribly. When a stranger from the city pays the family a visit and asks if they might consider letting Francis join him as an apprentice at the Guild, Prue decides to jump at the chance and take the place of her lost brother. In the the city she discovers a world filled with personifates, mechanical animals with the souls of past people. She believes that if she could only find her brother's soul and put it into a new creature she could have more time with him.
But, as with all good stories, things don't happen quite as she planned them. There's peril, trickery and some pretty unusual baddies to get past as well as dealing with some very very hard decisions.
Prue is joined in this story by a host of amazing characters that almost fall from the page they're so real. It is a fabulous tale of friendship and grieving but also of wanting the impossible and striving to make it happen.
The Maker of Monsters By Lorraine Gregory - Age 10+
Brat washed up on a small island when he was very young and was taken in by the sole inhabitant - a man with a penchant for creating monsters by stitching together animal parts and giving them life. Brat's master goes a step too far when he creates the biggest, meanest of all the monsters who begins his new life by eating his creator and unleashing the rest of the monsters on the world. Brat narrowly escapes by heading out to sea where he is rescued by a girl called Molly. With the monsters hot on their heals it is down to Brat and Molly to warn everyone on the mainland of the looming threat but also to find the Master's daughter as they believe she is the only key to stopping that magic that gives the monsters life.
This is the best kind of scary when it comes to children's books. Just the right amount to have us all hiding under the bed covers but not so gory as to give us nightmares. It is also really warm in places, especially when Tingle and Sherman are involved. Two early prototypes, these lovable misfits are less monsters and more pets that I'd love to have in my pown life!
23rd April 2019
We Are Blood and Thunder By Kesia Lupo - Age 14+
A storm cloud forged by magic is causing havoc as it spreads pestilence across the Duke's Forest in this whomper of a read from debut YA writer Kesia Lupo.
Lena, a cryptling within the city walls needs to flee when she is accused of witchcraft. Constance is trying to return there for reasons that unfold as the story progresses. The two meet briefly in the forest before carving out their own paths, little knowing how intrinsically linked they are to one another. This is a very clever dual narrative with two separate stories entwining together to make one of those books that will have you craving an extra ten minutes here and there to read a little more.
The plotting is gritty, fast moving and complex but told in such a fantastic way that at no point did I lose track of what was happening or feel I needed to flick back to earlier pages to check something out. And the twist near the end....wow!! I did NOT see that coming!
Scavengers By Darren Simpson - Age 10+
A boy called Landfill (how cool is that name?!) lives an unconventional life in a home built shack with a man named Babagoo. They scavenge what they can and life is pretty good for Landfill. Babagoo looks after him well, as long as doesn't try and do anything silly like attempt to find out what lies beyond the wall that surrounds their patch of land.
Landfill's life is made up of rules and secrets, something he has just accepted as he grew up with Babagoo. But as he gets older and starts to question things he realises that his guardian has been lying to him. He begins to take risks, push boundaries and uncover some of the truth about what else is out there in the bigger world.
This is another really strong debut book with a real freshness about it. I like reading things that feel completely different and this one certainly falls into this category. The world building is brilliant as is the relationship created between Landfill and Babagoo - essentially loving but kind of twisted too!
Great storytelling and a gripping read.
Bruised By Donna David - Age 14+ (with reading age 9+)
This short book really packs a punch and is a really important filler for a gap on the bookshelves. The story, along with others in this series from Badger Books, is aimed at a teenage reader who perhaps struggles with meatier tomes, too many pages or too much to get through.
Although short in length it doesn't lose anything when it comes to content. So much plot has been stuffed into a manageable sized story which is not an easy thing to carry out.
Finn starts acting strange in school, ignoring his friends and withdrawing into himself. He has moved in with his Gran down by the canal and everyone knows that's where the rich people live. Or at least that what his mates think. In reality Finn was forced to leave an abusive house and is living on a houseboat with few creature comforts and definitely no wifi. Life is difficult and he's just gone and alienated his friends as well.
This story has been told carefully and empathetically and is the perfect thing to fill such an important hole in the YA list. Good job very well done!
12th March 2019
The Day I Was Erased By Lisa Thompson - Age 11+
This is a modern 'It's a Wonderful Life' story about Maxwell, a boy who behaves badly without always meaning to and ends up inadvertently causing chaos. After a particularly awful ending to the school disco Maxwell feels as though her has no friends left except for Reg, his elderly neighbour. When he goes to see Reg to get away from his life, he ends up erasing his life altogether. Nobody knows who he is and everything he knows has changed.
A really touching story about family dynamics, friendships and the hardships of growing up. Lisa really knows how to build characters and relationships and this book has some real gems. My particular favourite is Reg, a man with a history and a mind that is beginning to muddle the present. It is brilliant to see characters like Reg not just feature in children's books but playing a positive and important role.
This is a book that will demand pages to be turned so when you pick it up I suggest you clear your day and get stuck in!
The Girl With The Shark's Teeth By Cerrie Burnell - Age 10+
I adore the note from the author that forewords this book. Cerrie grew up with doctors trying to 'fix' her missing arm by attaching various hooks, something that made life trickier rather than easier for her. Her daughter is of mixed heritage and finds it a struggle to find children like her in books. So The Girl With the Shark's Teeth was born. A story about Minnow, a girl with mixed heritage and her mother, who just so happens to have a hook.
Despite the history behind the story, this is not an inclusion book per say. It is a gripping adventure about mermaids, underwater worlds and a journey across seas that just happens to be about under represented groups. Minnow lives on a boat with her Mum until the day she is taken by mysterious men and Minnow must undergo a rescue mission to find her and bring her home. First she sails across to Iceland to find her Grandmother. There she meets Raife, a boy with plenty of fairy tales to share. Fairy tales that turn out to be more than just stories.
Told in an unusual, poetic and captivating voice this was a bedtime story that I shared with my own daughter who managed to get herself ready for bed in double time every night with the promise of a chapter or four from this story.
Letter To Pluto By Lou Treleaven - Age 7+
In a future where humans have spilled out of Earth and are inhabiting other planets, a boy called Jon is pen-pal-paired with Straxi - a girl who lives on Pluto. As they begin to find out about each other's lives and home planets they start to become long distance friends and share their worlds through the power of good old fashioned letters.
As well as being a super story to enjoy, it also holds a very important and current message as the future of Pluto is threatened by the inhabitants who tinker with nature to get rid of the stinking vomblefruit, thus upsetting the whole eco-balance of the planet. Jon and Straxi's correspondence maps the downward spiral and what they try to do to help save the planet.
This is a brilliant story for children to tackle as a first dip into reading chapter books. The simple layout, short letter chapters and great illustrations all make for a book easy for emerging readers to attack. The story is more than strong enough to keep them entertained from the first to the last page and the good news is that the sequel is already out in the world for Pluto fans.
22nd January 2019
Snowglobe By Amy Wilson - Age 10+
Clem struggles at school. She feels different from the other children somehow and she's not the only one to have noticed. Even Dylan, the only person to have any time for her at school, changes his tune when anyone else is around. When Clem is drawn to a strange house that seems to have appeared from nowhere things get even weirder. She and Dylan are pulled into a journey of adventure, danger and escape.
With each chapter stuffed with excitement, nerve, courage and peril it is very difficult to put back on the shelf once opened.
Amy Wilson is truly talented when it comes to creating worlds and characters full of mystique as was evident in her first two books. Snowglobe, her third, takes this skill up another notch as she intricately weaves together several surreal threads of magic into a world of school, family and peers that the reader will relate to.
Clever writing and an un-put-downable plot. What more could you ask.
The Way Past Winter By Kiran Millwood Hargrave - Age 10+
The opening paragraph of this book is enough to reassure us we are in the hands of a real story teller, and it just gets better and better as the tale gains momentum.
A fable-like story set in a snowy land that hasn't seen spring for many years, we are taken on a nail and frost biting journey north.
When Mila's brother disappears she refuses to believe he has run away and decides to solve the mystery of his departure and bring him home. With the help and companionship of her younger sister, their two dogs and a strange and magical boy named Rune, Mila battles the elements and a lot more besides as she undertakes this seemingly impossible task.
I love being whisked into new worlds and bold stories when I read a book and this one certainly makes thi happen. So beautifully crafted and gorgeously written that I forgot I was sitting at home in my chair. I suggest pulling out your cosiest blanket, grabbing a hot mug of milk and snuggling down with this book next time the weather outside makes you want to stay in.
There's a Yeti In The Playground By Pamela Butchart, Illustrated By Thomas Flintham - Age 7+
If you've not come across this series of books before then this is a super place to start! Inspired by last year's Beast from the East this is the story of a group of children trapped at school during a blizzard. A playground full of snow, a troop of would be explorers and a whole heap of misunderstandings sets us up for a brilliantly funny winter romp.
Previous titles in this series have been short-listed for and won several awards including the FCBG CBA (hooray!!) Lollies and the Blue Peter Award. It's not hard to see why as the easy to read texts and hilarious illustrations make them a super gateway for reluctant readers. Add in crazy stories and clever plotting and you have the magic mix for books that are loved by children and the adults who read them aloud.
And if you love the yeti the good news is that there are 7 others in the series to get stuck into!
18th December 2018
The Accidental Father Christmas by Tom McLaughlin
A brilliantly funny alternative Christmas story about Ben - a boy who accidentally knocks Father Christmas out causing him to lose his memory halfway through his Christmas deliveries. Ben has no choice but to take the reigns of the sleigh and try to rescue the situation if the children of the world are going to get their stockings filled before the sun comes up on Christmas morning. As if this isn't enough to be thinking about the sleigh is being followed by a UFO busting squad, hell bent on tracking down the mysterious flying object and it is hot on their heels.
This story takes the reader from England to the North Pole via Buckingham Palace and is filled with ludicrous humour and fantastically funny characters - watch out for my personal favourite, Big Tony, think Ray Winston in an elf costume! Age 8+
The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher
This wonderfully atmospheric book won the Blue Peter Book Award earlier this year and it is easy to see why. It has the feel and tone of a classic story with elements of Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters.
Set in Victorian Wales it is the story of Seren, a young orphan who is sent to live with her distant relatives in an old country house. Whilst waiting at the station and dreaming of a Christmas filled with the warmth of a new family, a stranger thrusts a mystery package into her care.
The story takes many turns as Seren reaches her new home and finds the family are absent and the house not all she had been expecting. The clockwork crow she discovers in the stranger's package accompanies Seren through a dark and fairly creepy house and into other worldly places. A mystery that began in the grounds of the house on the previous Christmas Eve must be resolved a year and a day later meaning Seren has an important and dangerous role to play and it has to happen on Christmas day.
Chilling, intriguing, captivating and with an ending full of Christmas heart. Age 10+
Sammy Claws by Lucy Rowland, illustrated by Paula Bowles
With so many picture books published for Christmas it is tricky to pick just one to review. I chose Sammy Claws because when I read it I felt it had everything I would hope to find in a great festive book.
Lucy Rowland is a true master of rhyme and scansion, something that can (and does) go very wrong in lots of picture books. When done well a rhyming story can be a joy to read aloud and this is certainly one of those treasures. It runs beautifully and skips through the very Christmassy story of a little cat who is a bit chaotic and clumsy but desperate to help. He trips through Santa's work shop and accidentally ends up as a stowaway on the sleigh but ends up saving the night in a most unexpected way.
Along with the fantastic story telling, the illustrations are just gorgeous. Full of expression and added detail that bring an extra layer to the book. I'd suggest that this book needs reading twice. Once to gallop through and enjoy the rhythm of the words and a second look to wallow in the pictures and take in all the extra treats they have to offer. Age 4+
20th November 2018
Peril In Paris By Katherine Woodfine
If you are already familiar with the Sinclair mystery series then you will know that Lilian and Sophie are fantastic detectives and that Katherine Woodfine is a master of weaving together a super mystery story.
Peril in Paris is the first in the latest series that follows on from her previous books about Sophie Taylor and Lilian Rose. Think Agatha Christie with younger Marples at the helm, set in Edwardian London and Paris. The books are so evocative of the era and the settings and characters are beautifully described so that the reader is fully immersed in the world they are reading about.
This books entwines two mysteries and takes us on a crazy journey through Europe, sharing the world of the Edwardian elite. Superbly crafted and a true treasure to fall into. Age 10+
How Winston Delivered Christmas By Alex T Smith
Such a clever idea. This book is set out in twenty four and a half chapters, one for each day of Advent and an extra happy ending for Christmas day. It tells the warming story of a little mouse who has to deliver a lost letter to Father Christmas against the clock and against all odds. The story itself is a warm and cosy tale of little people doing big things and it is enhanced massively by illustrations that really deserve to be mounted and displayed. Each one a piece of art in its own right.
I can see families settling down to December bedtimes enjoying the feel good Christmas story. And during the day there are 24 Christmassy activity ideas to keep everyone busy.
This book is a keeper, one set to be dusted off year after year and I'm sure will quickly become many families' annual tradition. Age 5+
Danny and the Dream Dog By Fiona Barker, illustrated by Howard Gray
This is one of those books that makes me wonder why I don't review more picture books on BBC Berks. It is a lovely story of a little boy who, like so many others, is desperate for his own pet. His mother explains that it just isn't possible but that doesn't stop the pleading. When his elderly neighbour needs a dog walker it seems like the perfect solution....until he meets the dog he has promised to care for. Messy, unruly and more than a little bit cheeky he is more or an embarrassment than a dream dog.
The story gently teaches children to look beyond initial impressions and prejudices. It is also very funny, something that is brought out beautifully in the illustrations which are full of extra details and amusing touches... look out for the fluffy slippers!!
A brilliant one for reading aloud either at home or in the classroom and plenty of scope for discussion. Age 5+
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+