Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Great Sea Dragon Discovery by Pippa Goodheart

img_6464

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

img_6622

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.

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Picture book review: Sleep by Kate Prendergast

img_6688

Animals sleep too … but do they sleep like you? Do they sleep in nests? Do they lie down or stand up? Do they close their eyes? This beautiful picture-book explores different animals and the way they sleep. 

img_6750I fell in love with the illustrations. What a lovely way to teach children about other animals. It is so important for children to learn about the natural world and these detailed pictures will encourage them to develop a vocabulary around animals they may not have encountered. 

The book can be read like a story – a single fact about each animal is shared in continuous prose. This is a lovely way to introduce young children to non-fiction because they can read it in just the same way as their other picture-books. The story ends with a question – do animals dream? This book will certainly encourage children to ask more questions. There is a fact-file at the back which is a lovely resource for readers to begin their investigations. 

Both the colour-pallette and the brush-strokes are soft. This would be a soothing book to read ahead of bedtime. 

Children are very curious about the world about them and this picture book encourages them to ask questions about the natural world. It would be a lovely introduction to discussion about the similarities and differences between humans and other animals. 

This would make a lovely gift for young children. 

 

Thanks to Old Barn Books for my copy of Sleep. Opinions my own.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Island by M.A. Bennett

theisland (2)

Extract:

It was actually John Donne, not my Dad, who said:

‘No man is an island, entire of itself.’ 

I say:

If John Donne said that, then John Donne didn’t know about English schools.

(The Island by M.A. Bennett. P38.)

 

 

Synopsis:

Only one thing matters at Osney School. Sport. New boy Link finds it impossible to settle in after he is ranked lowest in a school-wide challenge. A single aspect of the curriculum defines Link’s place in the school society. He is the bag-carrier. The butt of every joke. Not a single person dares to befriend him.

Link decides he is not going back to school. Then the plane crashes.

Link and six classmates are stranded on a remote island. Will their social roles remain fixed away from Osney?

 

Review:

The Breakfast Club meets Lord Of The Flies in this chilling and intelligent novel. Following on from STAGs was always going to be a challenge but MA Bennett has confirmed herself as a great storyteller. The Island is darker. Those are the last words I expected to say when STAGs was about teenagers chasing each-other as blood sports. However, in STAGs we followed the three good guys. The victims were blameless and heroic. The Island is more complex.

At school, Link is bullied, ostracised and shunned. His experience lasts for years and is traumatic. Does that make him a saint? Does it heck. This novel examines teenage psychology in more depth than any novel I have read. The high school experience of cliques and gangs defines us and destroys many people’s confidence. This is the overriding theme of the novel. To what extent does your place in one society define your character?

It is the sort of intelligent which raises goosebumps.

Aside from the iPhones, the other major difference between Lord Of The Flies and The Island is the presence of girls. MA Bennett gets right under the skin of patriarchal societies and attitudes, looking at how the behaviour of individual males has led to male-dominance.

MA Bennet examines her themes in depth and is the master of character-creation. She is one of the most exciting new voices in YA fiction and I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

 

Thank you to ReadersFirst and Hot Key Books for my copy of The Island. Opinions my own.

 

waiting on wednesday

Waiting On Wednesday: The Midnight Hour by Benjamin Read and Laura Trinder

Synopsis (from Chicken House Books):

midnight-hour-668x1024When Big Ben sounds the stroke of midnight, Emily’s parents vanish.

As an adventurous eleven year old, Emily packs her sandwiches and her hedgehog, Hoggin, and heads into the Midnight Hour. A Victorian London frozen in time, the Midnight Hour is a magical place of sanctuary and of peril dreamt up by children – and inhabited by monsters of legend, creatures of the imagination, and a Postal Service determined to save the day (and night!). To save her mum and dad, Emily must be brave enough to embrace her own inner magic …

bird

Why I can’t wait to read The Midnight Hour:

  • The book began as a comic called Night Post about the postal service which comes to life on the stroke of midnight to deliver post to London’s less human inhabitants. Images from the comic have already sold the novel to me. Not only is it a work about ghosts and witches and monsters, the artwork perfectly captures that magic of the small hours, when anything and everything seems possible. 
  • Victorian London is a wonderful setting. Although it is well-covered there is always another alleyway to explore or building to visit. It is the perfect backdrop to stories with an underworld, stories of political power and class-division and stories about industry. 
  • A hedgehog companion. Enough said. 
  • The protagonist’s story is about self-belief and confidence. This character-arc goes so nicely with magic. Sometimes we find it difficult to recognise the magic inside ourselves. 
  • The Postal Service sounds intriguing. Are they are resistance movement? If so, what is the biggest threat to the world? Is the threat to the monsters or to the fabric of the world itself? 
  • The setting is dreamed up by children. I love stories about temporal worlds and can’t wait to find out how much influence the protagonist might have on her surroundings. Will she be able to change the setting with her own dreams? 

 

The Midnight Hour by Benjamin Read and Laura Trinder

Chicken House Books

 

Round-Up · Young Middle Grade

Young middle-grade round-up – August 2018

 

youngmgaug

The Hounds Of Penhallow Hall by Holly Webb and Jason Cockroft

Penhallow Hall is full of ghostly dogs, waiting to wake up and share their stories. Polly is excited when she wakes up the ghost of a terrier called Patch. Can Polly help Patch remember what happened to his boy Jake? Did Jake run into trouble from the terrible Highwaymen of the 1700s?

This is one of the loveliest quick reads I have encountered in a long time. This series would be brilliant for introducing children to different time periods. We learn so much by empathising with a character. Young readers will turn the pages to find out whether Patch and Jake are reunited, and I adore the canine guardian of all the ghost dogs, Rex.

I recommend this series to people of any age who love time-slip. Think Green-Knowe with dogs. It may only take a couple of hours to read but this is brilliant storytelling. Although this is part of a series it could be read as a stand-alone.

Jason Cockroft’s illustrations bring the historical hall and forest to life. I feel as if I have been there. This is a dream author-illustrator pair.

 

Star Friends – Nightshade by Linda Chapman and Lucy Fleming

Maia and her friends are back for another adventure. Star Friends follows a group of children who have a special bond with magical animals. Together they protect the world from Dark Magic.

The woodland plants are dying because someone is creating potions with dark magic. Meanwhile, the girls are divided by new-girl Essie and her clique, and the grown-ups have all become seriously competitive. Can the girls put aside their differences and find the source of the dark magic?

The story in Star Friends continues from one book to the next so if you are new to the series I would recommend starting at book one. I can see this series being very popular with 7 – 9 year-olds. Tween girls can develop a real interest in friendship groups and life-stages. This story explores current-age friendships while looking at the girls’ future ambitions and goals. This installment looks at popularity and competitiveness.

A series with the magic of Harry Potter and the cute-factor Animal Ark.

 

Shine – Chloe Takes Centre Stage by Holly Webb and Monique Dong 

 Chloe is desperate to go to The Shine School for the Performing Arts. It is only when she gets in that she realises she won’t be the only funny, confident and talented student. How do you stand out at a school where everyone is talented? Chloe goes overboard to make people laugh but her jokes backfire when the teachers complain about her behaviour. Will Chole ever fit in at The Shine?

This would be a lovely story to introduce the subject of secondary school transfer two or three years ahead of time. It would also be a nice book for talking about behaviour and friendships. Secondary school transfer can be difficult and low self-confidence or social skills can quickly turn it into a nightmare.

It was lovely that one of the characters didn’t make it into The Shine but plans to achieve her ambitions via a different path. No child should feel like a failure at eleven. Children need to see that success can come at the end of infinite different paths.

 

Pet Defenders – Invasion Of The Giant Nits by Gareth P. Jones and Steve May

Earth has been invaded. Gadget genius Annascratch and her army of NITS (Nano Inventive Trained Soldiers) have invaded Earth and it is up Pet Defenders Biskit and Mitzy to stop them. Aided by Agent Daley they set out on their mission, but the NITS keep getting bigger. Do they have a weakness? Can the Pet Defenders find it before it is too late?

Animals, aliens, gadgets and burp-jokes combine into a laugh-out-loud funny adventure. The humans are totally unaware that their pets are fighting dangerous invaders so the reader feels as if they have been let in on the secret. I can see lots of children being unable to resist this combination of action, humour and favourite animals. I loved the lead pair and their discussions about animal fiction (Why are cats always cast as the baddies? Why is it never a dog?)

Steve May’s illustrations are brilliant. Any child who likes drawing their own monsters or robots will be inspired by these creations.

Funny books are the way forward.

 

St Grizzle’s School For Girls – Gremlins And Pesky Guests by Karen McCombie and Becka Moor. 

Headteacher Lulu reckons it is time for the pupils at St Grizzle’s to make friends with the children at Twittering primary. When a flood temporarily closes Twittering School, Lulu invites them to stay at St Grizzle’s. Mr Puddock and the pupils at Twittering primary are not so keen to make friends. Their school is as modern-looking as St Grizzle’s is old-fashioned. The pupils at Twittering primary wear uniforms and follow the rules whereas life at St Grizzle’s is just a little chaotic. Can the two schools come to a truce?

This is at the longer end of young-MG and combines humour with a warm-hearted story. It also gets a big thumbs-up in terms of representation. The children are as diverse as children in a modern-day primary. Do you remember wishing you could go to a fictional school? I imagine kids will be tickled by the slightly madcap way of life at St Grizzle’s. 

The illustrations capture the story perfectly. They are the sort of pictures you get lost in, looking for details. I found myself reading the illustrations as much as I did the story. 

The narration is chatty and casual and something happens on every single page. This hit series has already gathered lots of fans who will be delighted to see it back for another story. 

 

legendofkevinThe Legend Of Kevin by Phillip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Max has always wanted a pet but he lives in a top-floor flat. Not having a pet makes Max sad. Then Kevin arrives. Kevin is a flying pony who blows to Bumbleford during a storm. During the same storm, Bumbleford is flooded. All sorts of strange things happen when the sea monkeys and mermaids move in. Can Max and Kevin set things right?

How can anybody resist this book? One look at Kevin’s cute little face and I was sold. Sarah McIntyre’s drawings always make me want to reach for a pencil and I imagine they will have the same effect on young readers. They are so imaginative and sweet and full of energy.

This is imaginative and gentle and would make a lovely bedtime story.

 

Dino Wars – The Trials Of Terror by Dan Metcalf and Aaron Blechadinowars2

Adam Caine and his friends have found two Dilotron Crystals so far, but they need two more to deactivate the deadly Coda Program. One might be at the heart of Pteratopolis, the city of the pterosaurs. Will siblings Adam and Chloe be able to work together to get it?

Dystopia can be suitable for very young readers. Dan Metcalf has proved this with Dino Wars, a series set in a future in which humans and dinosaurs live together and a reactivated bio-weapon threatens to wipe out all dinosaur life. This is the second book in the series. Adam is having issues with leadership. It was his fault the weapon was reactivated so he must be responsible for saving the dinosaurs.. right? His sister Chole doesn’t reckon so and she is going to challenge him all the way.

Like all great dystopia the children see signs of ruined civilization all around them – ruined cars and huge rubbish dumps. It is so important for children to start questioning how they treat the world from an early age and dystopia is way into these issues. The stories are suitable for very young children. While they touch on deep issues the primary goal is to save the good dinosaurs.

These adventures will leave children desperate for the next installment.

 

A big thanks to Stripes Publishing, Maverick Arts Publishing and Oxford University Press for sending copies of the books in this feature. Opinions my own.