Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Milton The Megastar by Emma Read.

Review: Milton The Megastar by Emma Read.

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Extract:

Zoe danced around the garden with Milton, jumping for joy, in her hand. She looked so happy it melted Milton’s heart, and he felt a sense of peace flow through him. This would be the break he needed and he would get to see his Dad again. Everything was falling into place. It was all going to be OK. 

(Milton The Megastar by Emma Read. P36.) 

 

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Synopsis:

Being the star of the #NotScaredOfSpiders campaign has stressed Milton out. His friends are supporting him, but secretly they think he’s become a real diva. Milton is on the edge of a breakdown, and he’s also concerned about his Dad who was last spotted in Hawaii.

Zoe’s new life should be easier. Since Dad got together with Greta, there’s been more comfort, less stress, and a whole lot more laughter in the house. Yet it doesn’t feel entirely right.

When Dad and Greta announce a trip to Hawaii, Zoe invites Milton along for the ride. After all, this could be the only opportunity for him to find his Dad. But Milton’s Dad is in more trouble than they know, living on the site of entrepreneur Bradley O’Hair’s latest project. Oh, and there’s also a volcano showing more signs of life than it has done for years …

Can Milton and Zoe trust other people – and spiders – to help them rescue Milton’s Dad?

 

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Review:

Zoe and the spider gang are back. Following their escapades in Milton The Mighty, the group is now suffering under the pressure of having a social media presence. Zoe has troubles of her own. As much as she likes Greta, and feels happy for her Dad, the relationship between them has moved so quickly. Where does Zoe herself fit into this new family unit? And why does everybody keep acting as if Greta is her Mum?

A holiday in Hawaii should be exactly what everybody needs, but it only makes things harder. Firstly there’s all the single-use plastic and environmentally awful activities offered by Bradley O’Hair and his mega hotel. Secondly, the man himself is clearly up to something big, and whatever it is, it appears to be bad news for Milton’s Dad and the colony of endangered spiders. Then Zoe herself is struggling – Dad used to tell her everything, but all of a sudden he and Greta are hiding things.

It is lovely to see a book about environmental action that is sensitive to the complexities. Is travelling to Hawaii wrong? Does the spider campaign justify the trip? And then what about Bradley O’Hair’s son Dillon? Dillon has only ever been taught that environmentalism is an extreme view and that there are heaps of trees to go around. Does that make him a bad person? Does it mean he will never listen? His Dad is certainly doing a lot of damage, but when Dillon listens to Zoe, he starts to think about spiders and rainforests in entirely new ways.

The story also proves that struggling with anxiety and stress doesn’t make someone any less of a hero. It is so important for readers to see positive representations of mental health struggles. Feeling overloaded, or talking about feelings, doesn’t make a person any less capable, and seeing favourite characters struggling can help to counter the stigma around anxiety and asking for support.  

Emma Read’s books fit into the growing market for stories younger than Harry Potter but older than the early reader chapter books. This is currently known as Lower Middle Grade, although I would question whether middle grade (traditionally for 8 – 12-year-olds) got so skewed towards the top that we are now seeing a resurgence of books aimed at younger primary aged children. Labels aside, this reminds me of the wonderful stories by Dick King-Smith that I read and reread as a child.

When we aren’t capable of doing something alone, reaching out to other people helps us to get things done. A triumphant return for Zoe and Milton – a story with a massive heart and absolutely loads of spiders.

 

Thanks to Chicken House Books and Laura Smythe PR for my copy of Milton The Megastar. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Pests by Emer Stamp.

Blog Tour: Pests by Emer Stamp.

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About Pests

Stix lives with his saftey-conscious Grandma behind the washing machine in Flat 3 Peewit Mansions. Although Stix knows that not being seeing is the golden rule – a seen mouse is a dead mouse after all – he wishes life could be a little bit more fun.

Then a rat intrudes and makes a mess, and the terrible Nuke-A-Pest are called. Grandma’s act of bravery goes wrong when she is flushed down a toilet and into a septic tank. Stix is left all alone … until he discovers the school for animals branded as pests down in the basement. Suddenly, he is encouraged to make a nuisance of himself, but what is the limit when there is so high a cost?

Pests had me hooked from the start. The strong character and voice was one reason I couldn’t stop reading. Think of Ratatouille, where a brilliant but vulnerable small creature is forced out into the wider world. Add some strong side characters and an evil non-human villain (no spoilers) with a terrible plan.

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Throughout the story, the illustrations heighten both the comedy and the emotional narrative. From the all-knowing dog in Flat 3, who is so much wiser than his humans, to Stix’s wide-eyed facial expressions, the story is made richer by the wonderful sketches.

There is also a healthy dose of humour. There are toilet jokes, although these are kept to a total minimum and done with such skill that even as a very grown-up person it is impossible not to giggle. This is in the suspense – certain things are planted earlier, and we just know … almost … that they will return in all their poo-based glory later on in the narrative.

I was delighted to be offered a guest post Emer Stamp, and even more so when she agreed to write about character creation. Stix and the gang are so believable that I can still imagine them even though I’ve finished reading the book. Thank you so much to Emer for your time, and to Lucy Clayton for organising this blog tour.

 

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Guest Post: Creating Believable Characters by Emer Stamp 

I believe the key to a good book, or film, for that matter, are the characters. You can have the best story in the world, but if the key players populating it aren’t believable, or likeable, or perhaps even dislikeable – if that’s your skit – then I can guarantee that pretty soon your audience is going to wander off and have a cup of tea or, in my case, a glass of squash.  This is why I spend a lot of time considering who my characters are and what makes them appealing or, in the case of the baddies, unappealing.

Both Pig, the protagonist in The Diary of Pig series, and Stix (a small mouse), the lead character in PESTS, possess the same quality – a childlike naivety about life. Pig is almost entirely clueless about the world beyond the farm and is quite often boggled by the everyday things inside it too. Stix is smarter than Pig but, thanks to his sheltered upbringing, is clueless about life outside the flat in which he lives. He openly admits to the reader that he has no idea what, if any, life exists beyond the front door.

I think the reason this naïve character trait works so well is that is it reflects the way children themselves so often feel – though they may not be able to give it such a sophisticated label. They see a bit of themselves in the character, which helps them invest more in its wellbeing. To be honest, even I see bits of myself in both Pig and Stix – the world still boggles me on a pretty frequent basis.

It also allows the child to feel smart.  I’ve been told by numerous parents that their child loved Pig because they felt cleverer than him. For once the child is the wise one. They know the answers to Pig’s silly questions, they know what is outside Stix’s front door.

Now, of course, not all my characters work in this way. Pig’s best friend Duck, and Stix’s best friend Batz, are more worldly-wise. They are the ones who help my protagonists make sense of everything. But, I am very careful to make sure they do this in an endearing way – no one likes a show-off or a big-head. Nobody wants a sidekick who makes the beloved hero look a fool. So, in both cases, I gave each a loveable foible, one to which I believe children can relate. Duck is the super-smart, sensible friend who needs a bit of lightening up; Batz is the over-eager friend who has a tendency to leap before she looks. In both cases my lead offers the antidote – Pig helps Duck see the funny side of life, whilst Stix’s in-built caution helps temper Batz’s dangerous gung-ho attitude.

No story is complete without a horribly bad villain. So, the thought I give to these is just as rigorous. It’s important a baddie is as bad as they can be. I want my readers to really despise them. Which is why I always imbue them with a hearty helping of sociopathic tendencies. This, I find, is always a solid base from which to build. My favourite baddies from the Dairy of Pig series are the Evil Chickens. These avian aggressors who care for no one but themselves. In fact, to be correct, the Super Evil Chicken cares for no one but itself. All the other chickens are just collateral – to be disposed of in whatever way needed to facilitate the ultimate goal – taking over the farm (for completely nefarious purposes of course). A plan which, for obvious reasons, they do their level best to keep a lid on  – secrecy being another great baddie trait. No one likes secretive characters.

And there is no one more infused with secrecy than the aptly-named Professor Armageddon, the despotic cockroach whose grand plan is to destroy the block of flats the pests live in. Not only is he keeping schtum about what he’s up to, but he’s also lying and manipulating others in order to get the job done. Again, both nasty traits that engender instant dislike.

Good or bad, naughty or nice, the most important thing is that your reader feels something towards the characters you create, be it positive or negative. If they don’t, the chances are, they’ll be reaching for the kettle or a bottle of squash.

Check out the other stops along the tour –

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Thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for my copy of Pests which was sent as part of a promotional blog tour. Opinions my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peirce.

Review: Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peirce.

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Extract:

Yep, we’re talking fourteenth century. That means a lot of important stuff hasn’t been invented yet. Like paved roads, the toothbrush, and a little convenience called indoor plumbing. It’s a tough life, and – sorry Uncle Budrick – I can’t see how a few songs or some lame magic tricks will make it any easier.

(Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peire. P3.) 

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Synopsis:

Max’s uncle Budrick is a troubadour. Not a very good one. He and Max roam the countryside, living off the vegetables that people throw to chase them away. According to tradition, all children follow in the footsteps of their parents or guardians, but Max doesn’t want to be a troubadour. Max wants to be a knight.

When uncle Budrick is taken prisoner by the evil King Gastley, Max has an opportunity to be a hero. Furthermore, it appears that King Gastley shouldn’t even be on the throne. Together with a group of new friends, dubbed the Midknights, and the aid of a retiredish wizard, Max sets out to save the realm of Byjovia. 

 

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Review:

Swords and sorcery and snorting with laughter. Lincoln Peirce, author of the Big Nate series, has returned with a brand new adventure set in a world of castles and dragons and really, really, awful singers. Presented in his trademark style – with a mixture of comics and short sections of text – this is the ultimate funny book for readers of fantasy adventure. 

Essentially it is the story of a realm suffering under the cruelty of an imposter King, and the kids who band together in defence of all things good. What makes it unique is the hilarious wit, the iconic cartoons, and the relevance to today’s society. Take Max’s friend Simon, who is desperately sad because his parents appear to be held under some kind of terrible spell that makes adults worship powerful figures regardless of the hate and suffering their reign causes. While the book doesn’t condone what Simon’s parents have done, it offers the readers hope that their parents will, eventually, come to reason and stand for a more loving society. 

And there are dragons. And witches. And there is a cameo from zombies. 

The balance of serious themes with humour is perfect. This is entirely readable, and the ideas about equality and kindness remain with the reader after finishing the book, even while they want to go back to specific pages to laugh again at the illustrations. 

With high stakes and a range of humour – from Max’s deadpan declarations to the wonderfully self-deprecating wizard Mumblin – this reminds me strongly of Merlin. Max And The Midknights is the perfect story for escapism and reassurance – the world isn’t always perfect but a good band of friends can make it easier to cope. 

Highly recommend. 

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books and Clare Hall-Craggs for my copy of Max & The Midknights. Opinions my own. 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Troofriend by Kirsty Applebaum.

Review: Troofriend by Kirsty Applebaum.

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Extract:

We are the Jensen & Jenson Troofriend 560 Mark IV. We are The Better Choice For Your Child. She no longer needs to play with other human children, who might bully or harm or lie or covet or steal or envy. We are programmed only for fun and goodness. 

(Troofriend by Kirsty Applebaum. P2.)

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Synopsis:

Imagine having a friend who never disagreed with a word you said? A friend who did everything that you wanted. A friend, like a TrooFriend 560 Mark IV, who wasn’t even human.

Sarah’s parents are often absent, and her friend’s complicated family situation means that she is regularly out of town. Sarah has another friend, but the complicated rules of High School popularity mean that they can no longer hang out together. As a result, Sarah is lonely.

Her mother is convinced that android Ivy is the solution, but Sarah isn’t so sure. At first, she turns the android off when nobody is looking, but over time evidence convinces her that Ivy is something more than other technology. That she is almost human.

As Sarah uses Ivy in a bid to win popularity at school, a factory recall puts Ivy’s existence into danger. There are people out there who reckon Ivy shouldn’t exist, and if they track her down, she will be destroyed.

A complex and philosophical story about popularity, taking account for our own actions, and what it means to be human.

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Review:

Technology is taking over our lives. It is now the norm, where is wouldn’t have been several years ago, to look at smartphones and tablets during conversations with other people. Increasingly we consult search engines about our problems before we talk to an expert. The story demonstrates the effect all this technology has on our social skills and imagines things one step further, where children are actively encouraged to replace human friendships with technology.

Sarah is a relatable character. Transitioning to secondary school can be painfully hard. What makes someone popular, and what makes a person likeable, isn’t often taught in a way that is obvious to all children. Being treated as unpopular – being shunned, for example, for some imperceptible flaw -isn’t always treated as bullying by adults in the same way it might have been in a primary school. Sarah, the protagonist in the story, is desperate not to be labelled as unpopular, but her quest to be liked by the ‘right people’ leads her to behave in unkind ways to her old friends.

What I loved about Sarah was that her behaviour wasn’t perfect. She was like so many kids, struggling with day-to-day life, and the story shows her moving from selfish and desperate behaviours to an acceptance that she has to take ownership of her actions. The quest to be popular is no justification for behaving unkindly.

Ivy’s quest to prove that she is unique is also touching. It reminded me in many ways of the characters in Never Let Me Go, using art to communicate their inner selves. Troofriend is a great adventure, but everybody I have spoken to who has read the book is especially moved by the themes.

The reader is constantly challenged to think about their own stances. When the androids are recalled it seems obvious that Ivy should be helped … except that some very real children are being hurt by the android’s actions. This conflict makes for a real page-turner. How can such a conundrum possibly be resolved?

A moving and philosophical story told in such a way that it is impossible to put down. I had high hopes for this after reading The Middler, and I wasn’t disappointed. Kirsty Applebaum is a skilled literary writer and Troofriend confirms her as a real talent.

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Ltd and Clare Hall-Craggs for my copy of Troofriend. Opinions my own.

 

 

blog tour · Guest Post · Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe by Martin Howard. Illustrated by Chris Mould.

Blog Tour: Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe by Martin Howard. Illustrated by Chris Mould.

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About Alfie’s Fleet’s Guide To The Universe. 

A good funny book is gold. A great one is invaluable. Last year, I especially enjoyed The Cosmic Atlas Of Alfie Fleet where Alfie’s determination to buy his Mum a birthday present saw him embark on an adventure across the universe alongside his new friend the Professor. Its humour was woven so cleverly into the story that it was impossible to join in the adventure without laughter. Now Alfie is back, and this time he and the Professor are offering holidays to the most wonderful planets in the universe. 

As they embark on one final tour, putting everything in order before they open for buisness, Alfie and the Professor run into trouble. For starters, some of the beings on other planets are reluctant to accept that humans aren’t … well … aliens. Then there is the motely pack of cartographers, the UCC, that they meet on Planet Bewarye, led by the terrible Sir Willikin Nanbiter, that sets about trying to destroy the Unusual Travel Agency. 

A quest ensues to discover the long-lost other members of the UCC, who have the power to outvote Sir Nanbiter before his damage destroys Alfie’s dreams. 

As with the first book, the new worlds that Martin Howard and Chris Mould have created are super-imaginative. I am delighted to welcome Martin Howard (AKA Mart) back to my blog with a wonderful piece about creating new worlds. 

Thanks to Mart for your time and efforts. 

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Creating Worlds for Alfie Fleet – a guest post by author Martin Howard. 

Hullo, hullo, hullo and a big thank you to Louise for another invitation. Book Murmuration is starting to feel like a second home. For this visit, she asked me to jot down some thoughts on building magical worlds, a fascinating subject and no one’s ever asked me about it before, so hurrah and here we go …

I’ve said before that I’m wary about dishing out writing advice, because every writer finds their own way of working, so I can only describe my own methods. For me, creating a world is a key part of the process. Settings play a big part in the plot, create atmosphere and can be as fun and funny as the characters. In fact, the worlds writers create are very much characters in their own right. And sometimes, like any other character, they just materialise in that strange, mystical idea process – an integral part of the tale and the obvious background for the story and the characters. It’s great when that happens because you can dive straight in, perhaps making a few tweaks as the book develops. Other times – such as for the new Alfie Fleet – magical worlds are born in the fiery crucible of a brainstorm. My notebooks are full of half-formed worlds that never made it and I even have a few finished chapters that took place on worlds that never made it into the book. (If anyone’s interested, I’d be happy to share one or two in a future visit.)

Inspiration can come from anywhere: half-remembered movies and books from my childhood or artwork I’ve spotted online, for example, or straight from the depths of my own imagination. Then, I’ll mix and match trying to build something original. Obviously, with some worlds – Outlandish from The Cosmic Atlas in particular – it’s fun to play with magical features and themes that are clichés of the sci-fi or fantasy genres. That’s something Terry Pratchett was famous for and it’s essential to come up with a new twist rather than just repeat the same ideas. I imagine that’s just as true for serious writers as for funny authors.

For worlds where the whole story takes place, it’s wonderful to have the luxury of introducing detail: history, cultures, languages all create textures that help hook the reader in, but the new book – Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe – simplicity was key. In this book Alfie, Derek and the Professor putter through many worlds on Betsy the moped. As they spent so much time on Outlandish in their last adventure I wanted to expand their universe and give a sense of the multitude of wonders that could be found by popping through a stone circle at the Unusual Travel Agency. That meant each world had to have amazing features but couldn’t be too complicated. There was no space to properly explore cultures, societies, etc, so each planet had to be painted in broad brush strokes and bright, popping colours. They also needed to be very different from each other and – for the most part – be somewhere readers would enjoy visiting. After all, Alfie and the Professor are running a travel agency. That cut down the options. There was no point having our heroes explore icy wastelands (unless good skiing was available), or radioactive fog planets where ravenous maggot-things roam, or anywhere too bizarre because the Unusual Travel Agency wouldn’t want to run tours there. Alfie has actually worked out a scale for this. He calls it the Fleet Unusuality Scale. Worlds so unusual they score more than five are too bonkers and tend to give people a headache. Less than three and they’re so dull people might as well stay on Earth.

Getting back to my point. What was my point? Oh yes, broad brushstrokes. The planet of Nomefolch, for example, has one memorable feature: everything grows massive there, except for the people (who are rather stubby). It’s possible to climb trees all the way into space. Winspan, on the other hand, is a broken world – a hollow, half-tennis ball of a planet. This means it doesn’t have much gravity and people can fly there by strapping wings to their arms. Solstice, meanwhile, is a planet of ten-thousand islands, so it has a nautical theme. With the plot and characters also needing breathing room and a limited number of words I tried to bring a few of these worlds to vivid life while giving fly-bys of a few others. I hope this helps create the impression of a vast universe without describing each planet in minute detail. That was the plan, anyway!  

In fact, the sheer number of worlds in Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe caused a fair amount of heartbreak as there are one or two – especially Winspan and Nomefolch – where I’d have liked Alfie and the Professor to have stayed longer. Creating fun, distinctive worlds and then leaving them behind after a few paragraphs was a real wrench. On the plus side, I hope the fact that I didn’t want to leave some of the world’s behind means readers will feel the same. The one bit of writing advice I will share, and which I think applies to all writers of magical, fantastic tales is that your readers should always feel homesick for your world when the story ends.

 

Catch the other posts along the blog tour: 

 

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Thanks to Martin Howard for your wonderful blog post and to Martin and Emma Howard for arranging this blog tour. Thanks to Oxford University Press for providing me with a copy of Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

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Extract:

As sunset bloomed in the west like coloured ink spreading in water, Arthur and Maudie stood with Felicity and Gilly at the aft end of the sky-ship taking in the view of hills, rising and falling like gentle waves, criss-crossed with farm fields and woodland patches will full, blousy trees. It felt good to be under the wide sky again.

(Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy. P86.)

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Synopsis:

The Brightstorm twins are back for another adventure. Arthur and Maudie witness a burglary by their nemesis Eudora Vane. The very next day, Eudora announces a search for the missing explorer Ermitage Wigglesworth – the person whose house she has burgled.

Arthur, Maudie, and Harriet Culpepper are convinced that the search is a cover for something else. What could Eudora Vane want in the legendary Eastern Isles?

The Eastern Isles are almost impossible to find and hold many secrets of their own. The twins are separated for the first time in their lives in a territory which they hardly know. Will they be reunited? Will they work out what Eudora is up to in time?

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Review:

A spectacular, high-flying sequel to hit adventure novel Brightstorm. This is perfect for readers who dream of big, daring adventures. With skyships and jungles and magical continents, Darkwhispers builds on the legacy of the first book as an exciting and intelligent story about exploration.

Arthur and Maudie are separated for the first time and this allows us to know them better as individuals. We see Maudie’s vulnerabilities and Arthur’s desperation to live up to his brilliant sister. Grief for his father causes him difficulties, and at times people write off his reactions as being grief based. Arthur’s emotional narrative plays a strong part in the story and he grows as a character. 

The new settings are as memorable as the old, and there are some new creatures, not least the Darkwhispers of the title.

There is not only a love for geography in these books but complete and heartfelt respect. The worlds are brought to life with care and detail. It feels as if Vashti Hardy must have visited them to give the reader such a clear picture. Her worldbuilding offers questions about our own world – could we invent power sources that do no harm to the environment? Are the other animals around us more intelligent than we give them credit for?

Vashti Hardy has confirmed herself as an exceptionally strong storyteller. Her narrative is told with a confidence that allows her imaginative ideas to soar. I look forward to reading whatever she writes next and hope that there will be a return to Arthur and Maudie’s world.

 

Thanks to Scholastic UK for my copy of Darkwhispers. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman. Illustrated by Elisa Paganelli.

Review: The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman. Illustrated by Elisa Paganelli.

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Extract:

The locomotive puffed out a sigh of steam, as if it were alive – a dragon, ancient, powerful, and ready to fly. 

(The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman. P14.) 

 

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Synopsis:

As Harrison Beck waits for his new sibling to enter the world, he is sent off to spend time with journalist and train enthusiast Uncle Nat. The pair board the Highland Falcon for its final journey before it is sent to a museum. They are in the company of well-known society figures – from actress Sierra Knight to a Countess, a Baron and important railway officials.

Then a notorious jewel thief strikes.

Can Harrison and his friend, the not-so-secret stowaway Lenny, solve the mystery and catch the culprit before the wrong person takes the blame?

 

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Review:

All aboard for the first mystery adventure in a series dedicated entirely to trains. Imagine that Michael Portillo had taken an 11-year-old boy along as he filmed Great British Railway Journeys. And that the boy in question had met a girl with a wealth of knowledge about railways. The train isn’t just a pretty backdrop in this series. It is the living, beating heart of the story. At last! A mystery series for readers who care about the ins and outs of railways.

This first story sees a notorious jewel thief strike on the first night of the journey. The Magpie has a reputation for stealing high-value pieces. The trouble is, nobody knows the Magpie’s true identity. As the blame shifts from one person to another, Harrison and his friend Lenny set to work figuring the case out.

Harrison is an artist and the illustrations tie in with the story as his casebook. This breaks from the recent tradition of detectives with notebooks. This detective has a sketchbook. It also gives the reader very visual reminders of the events and allows them to flick backwards and forwards through the pages as each piece of new information is revealed and notice new details in the illustrations.

Lenny is the resident train geek. Her father drives the train and Lenny has followed him along the rail tracks since she was very small. I was impressed with the level of knowledge and railway vocabulary woven into the story. This series acknowledges that when children have hobbies and interests, they gather huge amounts of knowledge and trivia. It is great to see a series built around this. Recent conversations about whether middle grade has become too adult have failed to discuss this aspect of childhood, but the pure love that young people have for their favourite subjects needs to be reflected in their fiction.  

This story will be a hit with fans of middle-grade mystery and its fictional trains should be a hit with young railway enthusiasts. A roaring start.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Booksfor my copy of The Highland Falcon Thief. Opinions my own.