Middle Grade Reviews

Review: A Sprinkle Of Sorcery by Michelle Harrison.

Review: A Sprinkle Of Sorcery by Michelle Harrison.

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Extract:

Betty took it, her heart beginning to beat fast again, but this time it was with excitement rather than with fear. She unfolded the paper carefully, but even as she did so she knew it was a map. Hand-drawn in black ink, with a decorative nautical star in the corner. 

(A Sprinkle Of Sorcery by Michelle Harrison. P72.) 

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Synopsis:

The Poachers Pocket is on the market and Betty Widdershins is desperate for her family to leave Crowstone. Then, one night, the prison bell tolls, and a mysterious girl arrives on the doorstep, accompanied by marsh wisp.

Willow escaped the prison island with her mother. Her father has been imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Then Charlie is kidnapped in Willow’s place, and the people who have her aren’t even who they claim to be.

The clue to freeing her, and saving Willow’s family, lies in an old map, a secret island, and a folk tale about three brothers.

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Review:

The Widdershins are back. Their pinch of magic this time is matched by a folk tale about three brothers who were faced with a sprinkle of sorcery. With escaped prisoners, pirates and a magical island, this has all the ingredients of a fantastic tale.

Betty Widdershins takes Willow in at a great cost. Her own sister, Charlie, is kidnapped, and their granny is endangered by the same people who take Charlie. This constantly challenges Betty, as she battles with her consciene and the ultimate question – should she give up one child to guarantee the security of another? It is impossible to stop turning the pages as the stakes for everyone get higher and higher.

This exceptionally popular series introduces some new characters. There’s the ethereal Willow herself, who washes up in the night like a Dickensian waif. She’s tougher than she first appears, though, and this is what offers hope that the injustice that sees her father in desperate trouble will be reversed. Then there is Sniff. Sniff is introduced halfway through the book. He’s a pirate, right, tough as they get … except there’s more to Sniff’s story, too, than it first seems. There are also cats. Cats in all their glory.

Alongside the main story runs a folk tale about three brothers: Fortune, Luck, and Hope. Initially, it builds like any moralistic narrative. Fortune blunders his choices, valuing wealth over the right things. Luck has kinder values, but the wrong approach. Then things get interesting – because fairytales, as every reader knows, have at least some basis in real events, and real events are tied to specific locations.

This understanding of the relationship between place, narrative and real events underpins the series. Harrison’s Essex marshes begin with the real Essex marshes and a real folktale. Where that story originated from, of course, is left to speculation. The tales of the Widdershins sisters read exactly like that imaginative narrative. That if three magical sisters once lived on an island in the Essex marshes, then maybe they owned three magical objects … and with Harrison’s confident storytelling, it is possible to believe that those sisters are real people.

Michelle Harrison’s adventures promote a sense of wonder in the world. They are not only excellent narratives, but they leave the reader ready to embrace life and all the adventures it holds. A Sprinkle Of Sorcery is a triumph, and the Widdershins sisters are already listed among the greatest families of children’s literature.

 

Thanks to Simon and Schuster UK LTD for sending a proof copy ahead of publication. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu

Review: The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu

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Extract:

The applause builds anyway until the benches are shaking. I can’t help myself; I turn to look. 

The silks flap emptily and Belle’s nowhere to be seen. 

(The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu. P29 -30.)BBD35E74-4B7A-46CA-8F8F-0E29FC08A586Synopsis:

Sisters Tansey and Belle are the stars of the Butterfly Circus. Their trapeze act turns them into human butterflies. Then a bad accident leaves Tansey on the ground. Afraid to get back on the trapeze, she is certain her career is over, so she doesn’t see what happens the night Belle disappears.

The best lead is an invitation from a rival circus. Determined to find Belle, Tansey sets out on a search which takes her across the isle of Gala. Tansey’s shadow comes to life and drives her on in the quest to find out what happened.

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Review:

A story about bravery, confidence, friendship and rivalry. Tansey is certain she will never be brave enough to fly through the air again, but she doesn’t know just how many wonderful things are hidden inside her.

Stories set in performance spaces are always a treat and The Butterfly Circus is no exception. Drawing on the golden age of the British seaside holiday, Francesca Armour-Chelu has created a world of piers and promenades and fairgrounds and music halls. It is also a world of poor health and hard grind. The people on the mainland are worked to the bone, and they are only permitted to enter the holiday island of Gala if they are scrubbed down. Candyfloss and sideshows may seem light, but they came from a time which was difficult in many ways. In a world where so many things glitter and shine, it is easy to see the dirt.

Tansey has always looked to her big sister Belle for confidence. Belle is quite literally the person who catches her when they are performing, and in life she is the person who stops the pair falling flat. However, when Tansey is on her own and her shadow Rosa comes to life, Tansey finds a whole new personality to admire.

The challenges Tansey faces during her quest come in different forms. At times the story is almost Dickensian, with the threat of the orphanage looming large and disgusting characters with equally odious names prepared to kidnap children and work them to the bone. The idea of ‘freak’ shows is also explored, and it is clear from the story that it doesn’t take much for someone to be labelled as different.

A strong protagonist whose story teaches us that there are different ways to be brave. This is a story which is all about the internal struggles of the protagonist, but those are brought to life in a beautiful and visual way. Although there are plenty of circus stories for children, this one adds to the canon with its darker edge and brilliant characters.  

 

Thanks to Walker Books Ltd for my gifted copy of The Butterfly Circus. Opinions my own.

 

Early Reader Reviews · Picture Books · Young Middle Grade

Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown and Rob Biddulph

Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown and Rob Biddulph

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Flat Stanley is back, and this time he is in picture book format.

When a pinboard falls on Stanley, it squashes him flat. Flat as a pancake. Changing shape has advantages and disadvantages. Stanley’s brother can fly him like a kite, but Stanley also gets stuck up a tree.

When the local museum reports trouble with sneak thieves, Stanley comes up with a cunning plan to help. A plan which only someone who is flat can enact.

A humorous adventure from the author of the original Flat Stanley titles. This is a very similar story to one in the original book, but the words have changed to bring it to a new audience.

img_9403Changing shape and doing things which nobody else can is a big dream at a certain age. The Flat Stanley stories play on this to great effect, but they also explore the downside of feeling different. Stanley faces physical obstacles and he is also on the receiving ends of unkind comments and thoughtless behaviour from other people. This more than anything makes him wish to be the same as everybody else.

Stanley is lucky to have a big brother, Arthur, who is always there to help him. The sibling relationship in this story is as memorable as that in the Horrid Henry series. It is difficult to imagine Stanley without Arthur.

Rob Biddulph’s illustrations have brought the stories to life. Both in the picture book and the new collection of the Flat Stanley stories, Biddulph’s work adds energy and freshness which was missing before. Given that the stories are over 50 years old, it makes sense for the illustrations to be updated for the current generation.

Seeing the same brand in different formats is an encouraging new trend in children’s fiction. There is nothing more powerful at an early age than a familiar character. Think how small children are drawn like magnets to their favourite television characters. (For me it was Postman Pat. Everyone can name theirs.) Transitioning to chapter books can feel like a big jump, but knowing the character already takes away part of the work and makes it feel more like an adventure. For a great post about picture book/early reader pairings see this post by mother of small children and blogger Lilyfae. 

A bright and beautiful new edition of an old classic which will be a hit with a new generation. 

 

Thanks to Egmont UK LTD for my gifted books. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Fire Maker by Guy Jones

Review: The Fire Maker by Guy Jones

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Extract:

Alex looked down at the jinn. It was as if there was a thread strung between them now, invisible but real. The connection they’d almost made before was complete now. Real. 

(The Fire Maker by Guy Jones. P61.) 

 

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Synopsis:

Alex is invited to compete in the Young Magician Of The Year contest but he is certain that he isn’t good enough. These feelings aren’t helped by the bullies, and especially not by the fact one of them used to be his best friend. Then Alex is drawn to Mr Olmos’s garden by the magical fire.

Mr Olmos knows about a whole other world of fire spirits, genies and Jinn, and the people who would control their power.

Mr Olmos isn’t the only person who spots Alex’s potential. As Alex progresses through the contest, his need to feel special becomes overpowering.

A lyrical tale about friendship and responsibility.

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 Review:

A short and lyrical story with big themes.

We first see Alex as the victim of bullying, but the situation is more complex than that. He is on the end of bullying behaviour, and some of the children involved only bully him for the sport, but while he doesn’t deserve what is happening, he isn’t a blameless person. He needs to face up to things he has done and said. Bullying in fiction is too often black-and-white. Victim and persecutors. This story examines different behaviours from different people and its themes are all about how behaviour can be used to exert power and control.

The story about the fire spirits picks up on the same themes. Mr Olmos tells Alex that wherever there is power, there is someone willing to use it for their own gain, and the fire spirits have historically suffered as people have sought to control their magic. Alex pushes the spirits too far at times, wanting to know what they are capable of, but ultimately he becomes their protector and friend.

There’s a moment in the story, a revelation about one of the characters, which makes us question our own prejudices and assumptions. I don’t want to spoil this for the reader but I love it when books ask us to question why we came to a certain conclusion or viewpoint.

 I loved this book, from the magical realism which lives just out of sight from most people’s everyday lives to the themes of bullying and oppression. This is cleverly told and masterfully written. It brings a touch of magic and hope to a world in desperate need of both.

 

Thanks to Laura Smythe PR and Chicken House Books for my gifted copy of The Fire Maker. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: A Darkness Of Dragons by S.A. Patrick

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Extract:

When the Hamelyn Piper was finally caught, he refused to reveal what had become of the children. Many wanted to see him die for what he had done, convinced he would never reveal the children’s fate, but the council kept him alive and gave him the cruelest punishment they could devise. The Iron Mask: fastened around the head of Hamelyn Piper, it prevented him ever using his abilities again, as no magic could escape it. 

(From A Darkness Of Dragons by S.A. Patrick. P94.)

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Synopsis:

After a song on his magical pipe goes terribly wrong, Patch is sentenced to life in jail. That’s where he meets Wren, the girl turned into a rat by enchantment,. It is also where he first encounters the Hamelyn Piper. 

The Hamelyn Piper is a notorious criminal. He was locked in the dungeons at Tiviscan after his attack on the children of Hamelyn and the dragon children.

Then Patch learns something terrible. The Hamelyn Piper is on the loose. Can he uncover the secret around the Hamelyn Piper before something catastrophic happens? Alongside Wren and a dracogriff called Braver, Patch sets out to prevent the biggest battle of all time.

birdbreakReview:

Welcome to a world of dragons and griffins and magical pipes. A world where magical piping is overseen and policed by a council of elders. The story about the Piper of Hamelyn is not as you know it, and that story was just the beginning …

I adore books which put a twist on myths and fairytales but this story has been told particularly well. At its core, it is the narrative we all know about dark power and corruption, but it is told in such a way that you won’t figure out what is going on until exactly the right moment. The climax will take your breath away.

Patch, Wren and Braver may be my new favourite team. Patch is the archetypal underdog. After failing to win a place to train as an elite piper, Patch ran away from his magical academy. Remember Harry Potter realising that Hogwarts was his true home? Tiviscan is the opposite of that. It is delightfully creepy and authoritarian and we’re rooting for Patch from the get-go because although he breaks the rules, his intentions are better than the people in charge.

I loved the worldbuilding, from the magical pipes to the politics between humans and dragons. Every culture within this world has a separate history and political stance. I love how important these histories are to the plot and how they make the setting feel real.

An unmissable fantasy from a talented voice. I loved the characters, the plot and the setting. I’m certain Patch and his friends will remain with me even now I’ve closed the book.