Activity Book · Non-Fiction

Review: Toca Life Holiday Super Sticker Book

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What would you like to do on Holiday? Go sightseeing? Laze around on the beach? With the Toca Life Holiday sticker book, children can explore and build different locations. 

Toca Life, I am reliably informed, is an app which has been described as a virtual dolls house. I can imagine this will be wildly popular. Do you remember loading the Sims, using the money cheat until your Sims had unlimited finances and building the house of all houses? I was that kid. Toca Life satisfies children’s curiosity about different surroundings and gives them free reign to develop their perfect settings. 

img_6922Different settings are represented as double-page spreads and the main focus of the book is on filling those settings with stickers. What a selection of stickers! People and pets, food and pot-plants and signs and every object imaginable. This would be perfect for slightly older children, who might have outgrown the simple activities and chunky stickers of other books. It would certainly keep kids occupied on a long journey – when they are long past interest in anything else, just making their own worlds would provide a perfect distraction. 

There are a couple of puzzles here too – a memory game, a spot the difference and a ‘hunt the rainbow poo’ game which runs throughout the book. These add an extra dimension to the book and gives it extra keep-them-occupied power.

The stickers are super cute and could be used to decorate things outside of the book. This makes the book a great present – if the kids aren’t interested in the activities, they’ve still got a fab range of stickers. 

The Holidays may be over, but there are hours of fun here. 

 

Thanks to Ladybird Books for my sticker book. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

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Extract:

‘Rib tooth thumb shin dust skull home,’ I whispered to myself. How grand those words sounded. Like a prayer. 

‘Tooth is my next task, and challenging it will be. But I am more optimistic, now that I have a boy who can climb.’ He slipped the book into his robes. ‘The first task I’ve already accomplished. Do you know the story of St Peter, Boy?’ 

‘Of St Peter?’ Indeed I did, from Father Petrus. ‘Peter was a simple fisherman, but he because the very first pope of Rome, and now he minds the gates of heaven.’

The pilgrim nodded. ‘You’ve been taught well. Guard that pack, Boy. Guard it as you would your life. For in that pack rests one of Saint Peter’s ribs.’ 

(From The Book Of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. P31.) 

birdSynopsis:

The year is 1350. Boy looks after the goats which belonged to the lady of the manor. He knows he is different because of his hump, and wishes people would stop calling him a monster.

One day a stranger arrives. Secundus is on a quest and he takes Boy as his servant. Seven relics are waiting to be found and the person to unite them will gain entry to heaven.

A quest begins from France to Italy, Church to Church, as Boy and Secundus find the bones of St Peter.

birdReview:

A brilliant middle-grade quest set in 1300s Europe. This story takes characters from religion but throws in a whole new fantasy. What if the one to unite a set of relics could gain entry to Heaven? What might that mean in the 1300s, when people were terrified of being condemned to an eternity in hell?

Boy is a wonderful character. He has a special connection with animals – he is able to communicate with them without using words. Throughout the quest he is followed and found by different animal friends. Boy’s biggest wish is that people will stop seeing him as a monster. He continues on the quest because he wants St Peter to make him a real boy. Although I knew what Boy had essentially to learn, there is a wonderful twist. No spoilers here.

Secundus is fabulous too. He reeks of hell and he shows no obvious affection for Boy, plucking him from the manor because he sees that Boy might be able to help him. Slowly we learn more about Secundus and his remarkable history. I love it when an author makes me think deeper about a character.  

The setting takes in a period of history which isn’t particularly common in children’s fiction. The depth in which the time-period is explored is fantastic – Secundus’s explanations to Boy about different situations and locations act as information to the reader and the result is that I finished the novel wanting to know more about Europe in this period.

 It is great to find a strong stand-alone novel and I would recommend this to both children and big kids. This will be a hit with fans of Penelope Lively – it has just the same balance of history, action and remarkable situation as Lively’s best novels.

 

Thanks to Chicken House Books for my copy of The Book Of Boy. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

Chat · Days Out · Round-Up

Event Round-Up: Abi Elphinstone at the Edinburgh festival.

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Her books are bestsellers, she’s sledded through the arctic in search of eagle hunters and her ancestor (according to the fun facts ahead of the event) plotted with Guy Fawkes. Abi Elphinstone writes middle-grade fantasy full of magic and animals and vast, untameable landscapes. I loved her writing from the word go and was delighted to see her at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 24.08.2018.

Elphinstone says her dream job – aside from being a writer – is to be a Blue Peter Presenter. I reckon they’d have her in a second. Her enthusiasm for her audience and her spirit of adventure made me think of Blue Peter long before she was asked her dream job by a member of the audience.

Her resounding message was you don’t have to be the cleverest person to be a writer. At the age of seven, Elphinstone’s life-ambition was to become a unicorn and it wasn’t until she was older that she found her way into writing through the places visited and things she saw in the natural world.

A slide-show of places which had inspired Elphinstone’s writing proved that adventures can be found closer to home as well as further away – from Tromso to some water off the M25, the outdoors has been a starting point for different aspects of Elphinstone’s writing.

I have never seen children so excited about reading. From pop-quizzes about arctic animals (with signed bookmark prizes) to the chance to try on a fox-fur hat, Elphinstone grabbed the attention of each and every child in her audience. This is what a book event should look like – excitement and chatter and children bouncing on their seats because they are so desperate to ask the next question.

Elphinstone’s final message was that she wrote four novels had had 96 rejections before publication. The people who get there, she says, are the ones who keep going no matter how many times they appear to fail. Failure is not finite. It is a stumble along the way. The audience (young and not so young) were left with more confidence in themselves and their eyes open for adventure. 

Following the event there was a signing. Having books signed and meeting authors is one of the most special and inspiring things about being a bookworm. Thank you very much to Abi Elphinstone for signing my books and for a memorable and uplifting talk. 

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Rise Of Wolves by Kerr Thomson

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Extract:

The next Laird of Nin couldn’t just be any man. He had to be brave and noble and strong. He had to prove himself worthy. And so a challenge was set. If any man, and it was the eighteenth century so it was only men, no women allowed, if any man could successfully re-enact The Bonnie Laddie’s Leap and jump the gap from one side to the other, he would win the prize. And what a prize! There was even a castle.

(The Rise Of Wolves by Kerr Thompson. P40.)

birdSynopsis:

Innis Munro is walking home across the wilderness of Nin Island when he hears a wolf. There are no wolves in Scotland. Wolves were hunted to extinction three-hundred years ago. And who is the strange boy, Lachlan, and why is he so cagey?

When an energy company decide to build turbines on Nin Island, it seems the wilderness will be destroyed. Then Innis finds out about the old legend which says anyone who jumps across a huge chasm becomes the Laird of Nin. If he completes the challenge, he will own the land the energy company plan to build on. And he might even be famous.

All that stands in his way is a surly boy and a gap so wide men have died in the attempt.

birdReview:

 This is a classic coming-of-age story. The strong local setting and the protagonist who is determined to transform themselves into something more. For Innis, it is about being a champion. About being noticed. This story has all the joys and pains of being young.

Anybody who knows my reading tastes knows how much I like stories centered around a local legend or myth. This story centres around a contest which has been open so long it is part of local folklore. It all began when Bonnie Prince Charlie jumped the impossibly-wide chasm to escape a band of soldiers. The first man to perform the leap would be made Laird of Nin. There is a second legend at play – the wolves of Nin are supposed to be extinct. They too are a story from history. I love how these two strands build until they come together, and I love how we feel connected to the island’s past.

The book has a strong trio – Innis, who wants to be noticed. Lachlan who wants to go unnoticed. Kat who wants to be noticed one day but is happy to wait. I loved Innis because he was so determined to try to the point that he was sometimes impulsive. Lachlan has a good heart but doesn’t want people to know it. I finished the book not only feeling I knew the main characters but knowing I had empathised with them. Empathy is surely the most important reason to read.

Although I have never visited the Scottish Islands, I felt familiar with them by the end of the story. There is a clever balance between showing tradition and history which tells us about the island and things which are universally familiar – the kitchen table, the dance hall and the trio of friends heading to school.

This was a book I meant to read last year, and I am pleased to finally have it on my shelves. I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you like stories centered around old legends.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Picture Book Review: Where In TheWild by Jonny Lambert.

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Review – Where In The Wild by Jonny Lambert. 

From Savannah to the Arctic Tundra. Where In The Wild provides a first look at different habitats. A meerkat has curved claws to dig through the Savannah sands. Blue-Tits peck insects off the woodland trees. This book introduces the concept that animals are adapted to their habitats to survive.

img_6769This book is a visual treat. Each double-page spread illustrates a habitat. There isn’t a single bit of white space. The effect is something like looking through a window at the different habitats. The animals are beautiful. Fur, feathers and horns are illustrated with different textures and the pictures give a sense of their different movements.

The design is stunning. Some animals live in more than one habitat. Peek-through holes are used to show that they might be found in more than one habitat. The reader questions where else the animal might live. This works on different levels. For the youngest readers, it is a game. For slightly older readers it will first stimulate curiosity, then act as a memory test. (Where else does the African Elephant live?)

Butterflies are found in many habitats. This is turned into an I-Spy game. I have spokenimg_6772 before of the importance of such games – these create a positive experience around books without the need for reading skills. The importance of these games can’t be stressed enough. If you haven’t had positive experiences around books, why would you struggle through learning to read?

The final page talks about environmental damage and encourages children to speak out in defense of the natural world. Empathising with nature early is crucial. Children need to care about the damage which is being caused to the natural world before they pick up on other attitudes (eg that human progress is more important).

Overall this is a stunning book. It could be used to educate children about the natural world or it could be an entertaining bedtime read. It is a work of art and I hope readers will fall in love with the natural world and speak out in its defence.  

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of Where In The Wild. Opinions my own. 

 

Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Firebird by Elizabeth Wein

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Extract:

I wondered what would happen to my friends. I wondered how long it would be before they were armed and fighting – protecting the blue skies of Motherland from the enemy invaders. 

(The Firebird by Elizabeth Wein. P37.)birdSynopsis:

I am not a traitor. Let me tell you why I landed my plane behind enemy lines …

Nastia is the daughter of revolutionaries and a life-long Communist. As Russia enters the Second World War, Nastia is determined to fly a fighter-plane. Instead she is sent to train new pilots alongside Chief. As war takes over, Nastia uncovers secrets which have been buried since the fall of the Romanovs.

birdReview:

 A short and compelling narrative about a Soviet woman during the second world war. This pulls together two strands of history – the fall of the Romanovs in 1917 and the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

The greatest difficulty about learning history as a young person is understanding that time-periods didn’t happen in isolation. The events of one time-period were shaped by or in reaction to the time which preceded it. The brilliance of this story is it shows how the past twenty-five years have built-up to the time-period of the story. Nastia is also very aware of the wars in her country. She has been raised to revere and fight for her country.

This is an exceptionally well-written story. Its format makes it accessible to a wider audience – Barrington Stoke produce books which are friendly to people with lower reading levels – but the story itself is as well-told as anything Elizabeth Wein has written. I felt as if I knew Nastia and enjoyed the strand about the Romanovs. It is interwoven in a way which allows the reader to guess at things before they are revealed.

Both Nastia and Chief are strong female role-models. Nastia is a captain at her rowing-club and is the person in her friendship group who goes first. Both Nastia and Chief are looked up to and respected. It is wonderful for young readers to see female characters in these roles.

Reading this felt like a window into a different life. The level of research which has gone into this was apparent from the text but also detailed in the back of the book. This would be a wonderful introduction to study of the Romanovs, the Second World War or the history of aviation. Empathising with people from very different times or places is the first step to understanding their history.

There are many books set during the second world war but I felt this did something new. Maybe it was that sense of history as a complex web of events, or maybe it was the strong female voices from this particular time and place. All I know is Nastia’s voice will stay with me and I hope to learn more about the history behind the book.

 

Thanks to Barrington Stoke and Kirstin Lamb for my copy of The Firebird. Opinions my own.

blogging advice

Chat: Scroll-Free September

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Scroll-Free September: Are you downing your devices this September? 

The Royal Public Health Society is targeting users of social media, asking them to put their devices down this September. And I’m backing them.

Wait a second. A blogger telling people to switch off? Isn’t that kinda like a writer standing up in the middle of a conference and suggesting everyone puts their pens down?

Yes and no.

I’m not suggesting all bloggers will suddenly pick up their guitars and skip around the Alps like Maria Von Trapp to live a happier and more wholesome life. The question isn’t whether you support Scroll-Free September. The question is to what extent will you apply the principle.

Hear me out.

I use Twitter in two different ways. Sometimes there is a purpose – to attend a chat, to advertise a blog-post or to actively engage with the blogging community. I might make a window of 20 minutes to respond to other people’s tweets. During that time, although I am on Social Media, there is some purpose. Interaction is part of being a blogger. I not only need to engage with my audience. I love talking to people online. 

Links between social media and stress. 

Then there are the times I’m just … scrolling through. You know. Liking random stuff. Adding my voice to conversations when in reality I don’t have much to say. Those times when I look at the clock and realise precious life, precious writing and editing time has been spent doing nothing much at all.

On Friday evenings I make dedicated blog time. Most weeks, this is when I get the bulk of my blog-writing done. This system works well. It would work even better if I didn’t flick on to Twitter and Instagram every six minutes. Have you been there? Have you turned the computer on to do a job and found yourself mid-conversation talking about cat pictures or who your wingman would be during a zombie apocalypse, or whether custard-creams are better than bourbons? (The answer, folks, is no. No, they are not.) Cutting down social media makes our work more efficient. I see the difference in my writing. I know when my mind was wholly engaged in the blog post and when it was 80% taken-up with the Twittersphere.

There is another reason to cut down on social media usage. A better reason.

Social media is essentially a stream of opinions, adverts, causes, and information. Imagine six-hundred people shouting their opinions and feelings at you, all at the same time. It’s a lot of information to take in a short space. 

Is this an anti-social media thread? Not at all. I have formed friendships online and learned things I didn’t know and empathised with people from all over the world. There is a lot of good in social media. That’s why I won’t be going Scroll-Free this September. However, I am thinking about the principle.

This September I will: 

  • Not use social media when I am doing other jobs. This includes blogging.
  • Only scroll for set periods of time, and use that time to engage with people in my network.
  • Mute conversations when I need some head-space. We need to listen to other voices, but in real life we have the option to enter or leave a conversation. It is OK to use the mute-button to manage anxiety.
  • Turn off my social media for one day every weekend.

At the start of this piece, I asked whether turning off social media was any different to asking other people to down their hobbies. I think the difference is the constant stream of information we are subjected to online. Imagine trying to write a novel with 600 voices vying for your attention. That’s the difference.

Since I started blogging, social media has had a special place in my life and I don’t think it is going anywhere. However, the Scroll-Free September campaign has raised some valid points and I want to apply the principle to benefit my mental health and get the most out of my social media time.

 

Will you change the way you use social media? What do you find hardest about life online? What are the high points? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Great Sea Dragon Discovery by Pippa Goodheart

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Extract:

With his bad foot, Dad found carrying hard. He spent much of his time standing still at the benches in the greenhouses, planting and dividing his dahlia plants. He even talked to them. As if the plants were babies in the nursery. Bill supposed that was why the job was called being a ‘nurseryman’. Dad sometimes sang while he worked. I wish I could be a gardener like Dad, thought Bill, except maybe one who travels to collect new plants from foreign places.

(The Great Sea Dragon Discovery by Pippa Goodhart. PP. 18 – 19.)bird

Synopsis:

Bill’s Mum is unwell but all she wants in the world is for Bill to stay in school. Bill would rather be outside working with plants like his Dad. When one of Bill’s tricks causes Dad to lose his job, Bill reckons it is up to him to provide for the family.

He takes a job at the coprolite diggings and it is there he learns about fossils, and the money people will pay for them. Then Bill makes a discovery – a huge sea dragon buried beneath the earth for millions of years. Could this be the answer to Bill’s problems?

birdReview:

A coming-of-age story about a boy desperate to prove himself and find his own place in the world. Bill has a lot on his mind. He doesn’t want to become a banker or a clerk but he wants to please his mother. His estranged family has returned to town which upsets Bill’s mother. Dad isn’t able to find another job and Bill just wants to be a good son and find an occupation which suits him. I loved Bill as a character. So many readers will relate to his frustration and his curiosity.

This is a wonderful time-setting. The story of Mary Anning has gained more coverage in recent years and is often studied by children in primary school. I’ve always thought it is a story which makes people curious about the past. It is about a person with no special education, who had an instinctive understanding of one particular field. I like how Bill’s story has echoes of Anning’s but is a new and fictional account of the era.

The discovery of fossils challenged many religious beliefs about creation and this is explored in the story. People were forced to reevaluate their beliefs in light of the discovery, and this proves too much for some of the characters. This would make an interesting discussion point about religion – can we reshape our beliefs in light of new knowledge and still believe in God? Is it up to an organised body to decide the truth? Although this book is aimed at middle-grade readers, it would make a wonderful introduction to these discussions with teenagers and young adults.

Bill uncovers more than one secret and I love how all the strands come together. Saying more would risk spoilers but the ending was touching and enabled the reader to empathise with more than one character.

A historical middle-grade title which explores the concerns of one era with the hindsight of the modern-day. The specific focus on fossil-discovery was fascinating and I would love to read more historical fiction which looks at scientific discovery and debate.

 

The Great Sea Dragon Discovery by Pippa Goodhart out now in paperback (£6.99, Catnip)

Thanks to Laura Smythe PR and Catnip Books for my copy of The Great Sea Dragon Discovery. Opinions my own.

Lists · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

9 Picturebooks about individuality and self-expression

 

Nine Picturebooks about individuality and self-expression.

 

Mr Tiger Goes Wild – Peter Brown

Mr Tiger lives in a grey place where everybody looks and acts the same way. One day, Mr Tiger has an idea. He changes the way he walks, then the way he dresses. Then Mr Tiger goes WILD.

This book looks at freedom of expression and it also looks at boundaries. The world becomes a brighter place when everyone is free to express themselves. Mr Tiger learns about boundaries. Dressing and walking differently is one thing. Leaping across the rooftops is another.

Key Messages –

  • Individuality makes the world a brighter place
  • Pushing the boundaries of individuality can result in behaviour outside the social norm. There are limits to what other people will accept.

 

 

Elmer – David McKee

All of the elephants are grey. All except Elmer. It never matters that Elmer is a patchwork elephant because his jokes keep the other elephants happy. One day, Elmer hears someone say patchwork elephants are silly, so he finds a way to hide his colours until he realises the other elephants miss their friend.

This is one of the best-known picture books of the past 30 years. It is a story about celebrating individuality and looking beyond appearance.

Key messages –

  • Appearance doesn’t define us.
  • The things that are unique about us are a cause for celebration.

 

 

Up and Down – Oliver Jeffers

There are two friends who always do things together until Penguin decides there is something important he wants to do all by himself. Fly. At first, it seems impossible. Then Penguin signs up as a living cannonball.

The most important point of this story is that Boy doesn’t judge Penguin. He is there when Penguin wants to fly and he supports Penguin when flying turns out not to be the right thing. The best people in our lives are the ones who stand by us and support us whatever stage we are at. 

Key Message:

  • Although nobody can tell us who we are, the people we trust can guide and support us on our journey of self-discovery.

 

Tacky The Penguin – Helen Lester And Lyn Munsinger

Whatever the other penguins do, Tacky does it differently. Tacky is an odd bird. One day the hunters come. The other penguins run away but Tacky confront them straight on.

Tacky may seem like an oddball, but he has qualities and abilities which the other penguins admire. It takes time for them to look past the strange shirt and loud behaviour, but when they do they realise Tacky is a good penguin to have around. 

Key Message:

  • Don’t judge others on superficial grounds.

 

 

Spork – Kyo Mclear 

Forks are forks and spoons and spoons, but where does Spork fit in? One day he decides it is time to choose what he is – a spoon or a fork.

Key Message:

  • Everybody finds their place regardless of labels. This would also be lovely for discussion what we inherit from our parents. Children can feel pressured to live up to one parent or another and need to learn that we will be defined by our own actions and achievements.

 

 

Giraffes Can’t Dance – Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees

Every year, the jungle dance is held, but Gerald feels because he can’t dance like the other animals. The other animals make fun of him when he hits the dance-floor. Away from the other animals, a kindly cricket plays music for Gerald to sway to.

Key Message:

  • The other animals have a narrow definition of dancing, but with a little encouragement, Gerald finds his own rhythm. When we make fun of other people it is often our own prejudice and preconceptions at fault.

 

 

Perfectly Norman – Tom Percival 

Norman has always been perfectly normal until one day he grows a pair of new wings. Should he embrace his wings and fly free or hide them away? Hiding the wings makes all his favourite things difficult and everybody notices that Norman is not himself.

Key Message:

  • Hiding our individuality can draw more attention to ourselves than embracing our differences.

 

The Lion Inside – Rachel Bright And Jim Field

Nobody ever notices Mouse. He is so impossibly small. Meanwhile, Lion has made himself head of the pack with his loud roar. Mouse decides he needs a loud voice. The only animal who can teach him to roar might eat him up. Is Mouse brave enough to approach Lion?

Key Messages:

  • Bravery and confidence aren’t about having the loudest voice. We can speak up for ourselves without changing who we are.

 

 

Petra  – Marianne Coppo

Petra is a rock and this is how she rolls. Everybody tells her she is just a rock but there are so many things she could be. Every time she receives a knock – being thrown across the garden, or taken into a bird-nest – Petra reinvents herself. However many times she transforms herself, Petra remains her happy self.

I love this story. No matter how many times Petra is told she can’t be anything other than a rock she reinvents herself. This is a story about resilience. It is also about not letting other people define you.

Key message:

  • You can decide who you want to be. Don’t let other people’s opinions define you.
Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Peril In Paris (Taylor& Rose Secret Agents) by Katherine Woodfine

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Extract:

For a moment, she saw Carruthers’s sneering face again, then heard the Chief say, ‘your friend is a very courageous woman’. Was the implication that she herself was not? But surely that wasn’t fair: her mind flashed at once through scenes of underground passageways and rooftops and standing in an empty Office, face to face with the Baron himself. But that had been different, she realised. Then she’d always had Lil by her side.

(Peril In Paris by Katherine Woodfine. P40.) 

birdSynopsis:

Taylor and Rose detective society is turning its hand to espionage.

Sophie and Lil are sent abroad on top-secret missions. Lil must play an undercover governess, while Sophie is posing as the niece of a recently dead professor. Although both girls have solved many mysteries, Sophie is uncertain how she will fare without Lil by her side.

Can the girls get to the bottom of the murder and intrigue before international security is threatened?

bird

Review:

The gang from Taylor and Rose are back and now they are having adventures on an international scale. I am a long-time fan of Katherine Woodfine’s mysteries and am pleased to see the same characters back in a different guise. By shifting the focus of the series, Woodfine has maintained the same characters but broadened the setting. Their adventures could now take them anywhere in the world.

The Taylor &  Rose series follows on from The Sinclair’s Mysteries. You could certainly read this first, but if you haven’t read the earlier books I can’t recommend them enough. They are set in an Edwardian department store and follow a group of young detectives.

Katherine Woodfine is the master of the overarching plot. I’ve said it before but this series confirms my conviction. Without giving too much away, things we learned as the Sinclair’s series came to an end have become the first plot-point in a new storyline. While every book has a standalone plot, there is also a larger story. Something which needs to be solved across the series. Peril in Paris not only sets up a new story, it follows neatly on from The Sinclair’s Mysteries.

Peril In Paris takes a fascinating look at European history. Although the countries in the book are made up, their politics and geography situate them in the middle of very real events. This would make a fascinating introduction to the political events which lead to World War 2 because it takes in a complex web of relationships and conflicts.

There are also some beautiful moments which pay homage to made-up European countries in past children’s literature. It was a delight to see those countries from a different angle.

I’ll make no secret that these are some of my favourite mystery-books of all time. They are complex, intelligent and have just the right mix of history and legend. Without any spoilers, it is difficult to say more. I know readers of these books aged between 8 and 70-something and the big kids wait as eagerly as the real ones for the next installment.

 

Thanks to Egmont UK for my copy of Peril In Paris. Opinions my own.