Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Jazz Dog by Marie Voigt.

Review: Jazz Dog by Marie Voigt.

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Cats and dogs are divided. Dogs are powerful and play one music. There is one dog who doesn’t fit in anywhere, until one night he is called by the siren song of the jazz cat band. This is his music. This is where he belongs. Then the cats at the club shut the door in his face.

Undeterred, the dog goes about teaching himself everything he can about jazz music. He ignores all the bad comments and practices every hour of the day and dreams of the day when cats and dogs will stand united.

A charming story about diversity, individuality and respecting everyone regardless of their music style.

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Jazz Dog recognises what cats have to offer. Cats have a whole style of music that dogs barely know about. Cats have cool rhythms and sounds that dogs need to learn. Although the focus is on Jazz Dog, really this is about two separate communities and the need for one to accept the other. This would tie in beautifully with the history of the jazz era. Jazz didn’t heal all the atrocities of segregation in America but it did bring some communities together. And recognising common ground is a very important first step in breaking down other barriers. Jazz music helped to fuel the civil rights movements and some very important musicians broke new ground by refusing to play to segregated audiences.

Jazz Dog is a gentle story that allows young readers to discuss some of the issues involved in this history. Why are the dogs and cats separate in the first place? Is Jazz Dog a hero or is he just the first to listen to a whole group of cats? How might music and other art help to break divisions? Thinking about this in the boundaries of a fictional story can help readers to think more deeply when they approach the real history.

The illustrations shine with Voigt’s usual attention to detail. Her cityscapes contrast the bleak and dingy spaces with life and sparkle. Think the reflection of neon lights in a puddle or the stars behind a block of highrises. 

Another great hit from Voigt with a message for everyone to listen to. 

 

Thanks to OUP Children’s Books for my copy of Jazz Dog. Opinions my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Beyond Platform 13 by Sibéal Pounder. (Eva Ibbotson).

Review: Beyond Platform 13 by Sibéal Pounder. (Eva Ibbotson).

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Extract:

Lina dragged her feet along the platform, and then she saw her, just up ahead – a teenager in bright blue boots. Lina watched as a man rudely barged into her. But then the most peculiar thing happened: he bounced off her as if she were nothing but bones and magic. The teenager turned and mouthed something at the man. Something that looked a lot like –

‘HAG!’ Lina shouted.

And then everything went black.

(Beyond Platform 13 by Sibéal Pounder. (Eva Ibbotson). P7.)

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Synopsis:

Lina wishes her parents would see magic as something more than a fairy tale which their daughter will soon outgrow. Lina just knows there are magical creatures in the world – like Odge, the hag who finds Lina at Vienna Central Station.

Odge is on a mission. Mist has been taken over by harpies. Many of the magical creatures have been expelled and the royal family have been forced into hiding. The gump – the portal which allows people from the ordinary world into magical one – is about to close, and if the harpies are not defeated before then it will be years before the citizens of Mist have another chance to return.

Meanwhile, the little furry creatures known as mistmakers are not well and it is their magic which protects the island.

Can  Lina help Odge and her friends to heal the mistmakers and defeat the harpies before the gump closes? A whole new adventure in the world created by Eva Ibbotson in The Secret Of Platform 13 begins.

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Review:

When I was nine my school librarian placed a book into my hands. ‘You’ll really enjoy this one’ she told me. It was The Secret Of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson. I enjoyed it so much that, when a certain Platform 9 and ¾ started to gain more attention later in the same year I told everyone smartly that Platform 13 was already quite magical enough thank you very much. I remember dreaming about Eva Ibbotson’s world in the playground and sneaking the book outside to read it during my lunch break.

The original book is the story of a missing prince who disappeared into the human world nine years ago. It is about a rescue party, led by a wizard and a certain ogre called Odge, sent to find him before the gump closes for another period. In Beyond Platform 13 Odge returns older and wiser as a key player in a rebellion group whose aim is to overthrow the usurping harpies. Except, instead of finding the person she is sent out into the human world to discover, Odge brings back Lina – a young girl with a big imagination and a suspiciously fluffy backpack.

With high stakes and an impossibly short about of time to oust the harpies, Lina and Odge have their work cut out. Luckily they are helped on all sides – by Prince Ben, and a ghost rat named Magdelena and Netty Pruddle the hag who is prepared to risk her life going undercover as a handmaid to the harpy Queen herself.

Lina is a lovely character. She is the child with such a big imagination that the ordinary world simply doesn’t feel good enough. She doesn’t think she can possibly belong in a world of school and work and nine-to-fives and tax returns and absolutely no witches or warlocks at all. Anyone who has ever banged hopefully on the back of an old wardrobe or checked the doormat on their eleventh birthday can relate to her. As much as she wants to remain with her parents, her heart belongs in a more magical place altogether. This theme carries through the book and the conclusion Lina comes to is beautiful. Belonging and being in a physical place can be two very separate things. This is not only relevant to the modern-day, but it pays tribute to Ibbotson who came to Britain as a child refugee from Austria.

Sibéal Pounder was the perfect choice to write the next story in Ibbotson’s world. Pounder too develops rich and complex worlds, and like Ibbotson, her magic has something of a lighthearted touch. Pounder’s stories, like Ibbotson’s, deal with serious subjects like war and revolution while maintaining a kind of playfulness and an awareness of the line which a seven or eight-year-old would be too afraid to cross. They never underestimate the reader- quite the opposite, in fact – but they narrate the tale in a way which is entertaining and exciting to young readers. Pounder is the perfect successor to Ibbotson and she has done the world justice in this new tale.

A magical story for readers of all ages. Whether this is your return to Mist or an introduction, it will capture your imagination in the same way that Ibbotson’s work held mine almost twenty years ago.

 

 Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books UK for my copy of Beyond Platform 13. Opinions my own. 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Pages & Co – Tilly And The Lost Fairytales by Anna James.

Review: Pages & Co – Tilly And The Lost Fairytales by Anna James.

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Extract:

She looked around, searching for the source of the smell, and was surprised to see, through the window, that the train was running through a deep, dark forest. Tilly was sure there weren’t any forests of this size within a twenty-minute train ride of north London, and yet there it was. The trees seemed to crowd in on every side, as if they were trying to reach inside the train with their spindly branches. 

(Pages & Co – Tilly And The Lost Fairy Tales by Anna James. PP. 99 – 100.)

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Synopsis:

Following the disappearance of Enoch Chalk, whose antics caused Tilly and her friends no end of trouble, a new Head Librarian is appointed at the Underlibrary. Melville Underwood’s policies restrict the movements of adult Book Wanderers, and ban children from the practice altogether.

Tilly is alarmed by this appointment but she has other things on her mind. Her Grandmother has forbidden her from book wandering altogether, but strange things are happening with fairy tales and Tilly wants to explore. Should she listen to her Grandmother, or to Gretchen – a lady she meets in Paris whose view is that book wandering should be completely unrestricted.

Feeling the pressure to pick a side, Tilly must figure out the best way forward to protect the beloved stories from the mysterious changes.

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Review:

The sequel to Pages & CO – Tilly and The Book Wanderers is here, and it lives up to the first story. This series turns the magic of reading into a literal world where people can wander in and out of stories and a hidden library monitors their movements and the security of the texts. It is also a brilliant fantasy and the second book sees a new antagonist and a sense of sides building and action brewing.

What is the same? The same sense of a secret bookish community, the references to sweet treats (which adds to the book nostalgia because some of the best children’s classics contain heavy references to food) and the same world of book wandering and underlibraries. We meet some new characters, including the ambiguous Gretchen, and visit some new places (both real and in the bookscape, so to speak).

The story was more complex in that it didn’t move exactly as I predicted. First we were introduced to the new Head Librarian and then the action moved away to Paris and to the fairy tales which Tilly first read and later explored as a book wanderer. I loved how the threads came together and especially the growing sense that something wasn’t quite right within the fairy tales.

Oskar comes out of himself too and claims a bit more of the spotlight. We meet his family in Paris which gives us a deeper insight into Oskar’s life. He’s a wonderful role model as a boy character because he is arty and gentle as well as practical and kind. It is clear that he doesn’t want to let Tilly take all the credit for their adventures, and quite right too.

Tilly is on her own mission too. She wants to know more about the Archivists, god-like beings who most book wanderers stopped believing in long ago.

Pages & Co has gained fans of all ages. It is the perfect nostalgia-fest for adult readers, who want to recapture that sense of being lost in the world of stories for hours on end. Child readers have taken to the series too, and I can’t imagine a more magical way to get acquainted with the classics. It is like an invitation to young people to join the world of reading and stories.

Tilly And The Lost Fairy Tales is a treat to read and it has made me excited about where the series is going.

 

 

blog tour · Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: The International Yeti Collective by Paul Mason. Illustrated by Katy Riddell.

Blog Tour: The International Yeti Collective by Paul Mason. Illustrated by Katy Riddell.

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Extract:

‘But now there were only nineteen left and the story behind that was drummed into every youngling. How one of Earth Mother’s children abandoned her slabs – the one called human. And now, many cycles later, she didn’t even look like a yeti at all.’ 

(The International Yeti Collective by Paul Mason. P16.) 

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Synopsis:

Ella is on an expedition in the Himalayas with her Uncle Jack, a television explorer. When they set out, Ella thought the goal was to shoot a nature documentary, but it soon becomes clear that the trip is centered around the question of whether or not yeti exist – and it seems Uncle Jack’s intentions are not entirely honorable. 

Tick is a young Yeti whose questions keep leading him to trouble. When he leads the documentary party to the door of the cave, his sett is forced to abandon their home, leaving the ancient Yeti slabs behind. 

If the slabs are deciphered, it could endanger Yeti all over the world, which would be a disaster for the ecosystem, of which Yeti are the guardians. Can Tick and Ella overcome their fears of one another and work together to recover the slabs before it is too late? 

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Review:

Imagine if the ecosystem had a network of secret guardians, whose role was pivotal for the survival of the planet. Welcome to The International Yeti Collective – the fantasy story of the year, and an idea which you will wish could be true. In this story, those guardians are under threat, and with them the wellbeing of our planet. 

Enter Tick – a hapless but loveable Yeti, and Ella. Like the very real children who give up their spare time to raise awareness of the issues faced by our planet, Ella is a small person with shedloads of determination. She doesn’t always realise this, but just by being decent and having the right ideas she is well ahead of many of the grown-ups around her. 

Environmental themes are long overdue in children’s fiction. Teaching children the science is important so that they understand the stark choice humanity must face, but teaching them a love for the planet and a determination to help is even more important. Their generation may be the very last with a say in this issue because if we don’t act in the next few years, it will simply be too late to make any meaningful change. What I love about The International Yeti Collective is its heart. It is a great, entertaining story, but it also shows how much empathy with our fellow creatures means. 

This is also a story with tribes – and we all love a good tribe, faction, house or another fictional sorting. The different Yeti tribes live around the world and care for different aspects of the eco-system. I am torn between four or five tribes, based on places and creatures I love, and activities I might be good at. In this instance there is no ‘better’ tribe because the key here is balance – every one of these natural places needs help, and the more we can do the better. 

As part of the blog tour, I was given a beautiful map that shows the locations of the different Yeti tribes. It also comes with a handy guide explaining real-world issues these tribes are facing today. 

 

Lou Nettleton - Yeti Map

Lou Nettleton - Yeti Tribes 1

Lou Nettleton - Yeti Tribes 2

Lou Nettleton - Yeti Tribes 3

Lou Nettleton - Yeti Tribes 4

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for inviting me to take part in this promotional blog tour, and for my copy of the book. Opinions my own.

blog tour · Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: The Ghouls Of Howlfair by Nick Tomlinson.

Blog Tour: The Ghouls Of Howlfair by Nick Tomlinson.

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Extract:

‘The town motto?’ said Molly. ‘I think so. It’s only a short motto, but it’s in code, and to crack the code you need to understand about five different mythologies. I had to read about fifty books.’

‘So what does it mean?’

‘It means If Howlfair falls, the whole world falls.

(The Ghouls Of Howlfair by Nick Tomlinson. P29.)

 

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Synopsis:

The Howlfair tourist board would like everyone to believe it is the spookiest place around, and nobody is buying it, but behind the painted boards and the funny costumes, something seriously creepy is lurking.

Molly Thompson is forever in trouble. The last thing she needs on her hands is another investigation. Then an elderly lady dies at the guest home where Molly lives, and her ghost leaves a message which Molly can’t ignore. Howlfair is in trouble from an evil which is set to rise.

Together with her friend Lowry, Molly sets out to uncover the mysteries of her local town against the backdrop of a Mayoral election. The only trouble is everyone and everything is starting to look suspicious.

A seriously spooky mystery adventure.

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Review:

Imagine a sleepy little tourist town where trouble is brewing. This setting had me hooked because it reminded me straight away of Penelope Lively’s middle-grade novels. Little places which are easy to forget, mind-numbingly boring to grow up in … and crammed with history and stories. That is what I love most about The Ghouls Of Howlfair. As well as uncovering something spooky, the main character Molly realises how rich Howlfair is in hidden legends.

I love it when mystery stories include fantasy or supernatural elements. In the past couple of years, there have been two or three stories that have done this well, and I am always excited to see a merge of genres. In Howlfair, most people think the spooky stories are past their sell-by date, but Molly is a budding historian and she knows there is truth in some of the old records.

Molly investigates everything, but she isn’t classically brave. She’s bookish and awkward and loves her cat Gabriel more than anyone in the world. I loved having a character who wasn’t an obvious hero. In real life, we all have different traits and personalities, but we are all capable of making different choices and rising to the occasion. All the characters in this story felt realistic, and this made them more memorable.

With Halloween coming up, lots of people will be looking for a scary story. This was honestly more frightening than I thought, with seriously creepy ghouls and very casual references to death and the macabre. The storyline itself is hilariously fun, and the backdrop of the sleepy town balances out the scary to make for a brilliant tale. I can see this being popular with humans, ghouls, ghosts, and monsters as Halloween approaches. Just be warned – read this with the light on!

 

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Thanks to Walker Books UK for inviting me to take part in this promotional blog tour. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Trouble In New York by Sylvia Bishop. Illustrated by Marco Guadalupi.

Review: Trouble In New York by Sylvia Bishop. Illustrated by Marco Guadalupi.

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Extract:

His first scoop. He carefully folded the note and placed it back on the desk, before putting his fingers on the keys of the typewriter and hammering out

By Jamie Creeden

It looked just as good as he had always imagined it would. 

(Trouble In New York by Sylvia Bishop. P42.)

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Synopsis:

Paperboy Jamie Creeden loves the news. His biggest dream is to be a reporter for the Morning Yorker. He is given a chance to visit the paper’s offices, and on the same day the paper reports an actress missing. Jamie sees his chance to investigate and is drawn into a world of underground criminals and strange events.

Together with Eve, whose family owns the Morning Yorker, and Rose, whose father has been affected by recent events, Jamie tries to solve the mystery before another journalist takes his scoop.

Will Jamie still want to be a reporter when he uncovers the truth?

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Review:

I recently read The Secret Of The Night Train, Sylvia Bishop’s middle-grade mystery published in 2018, and fell in love with her playful yet intelligent style. It was a pleasure to have her latest novel to hand, and I am impressed with how she has built a mystery around a topic issue. Set in the 1960s, at a time when television news is causing a threat to print journalism for the first time, Trouble In New York is a mystery with themes that are relevant in the present day.

Jamie is a great character – he is driven so much by his interests and ambition to become a reporter that at times he forgets all else. He wants to be a good friend, and his morals are in the right place, but getting to a story before adult journalists and winning a competition for young reporters is the central focus of his life. He has read The Morning Yorker every day for practically as long as he can remember. He would trust every word it says.

A trip to the offices suggests things aren’t as rosy and brilliant as they first seem. The workers in the office are male, white and from the same privelleged backgrounds. They think it is a good joke that a paperboy can imagine himself in the same role, and their interest in journalistic values only reaches as far as their next pay packet. It is one of these slacking journalists who gives Jamie his chance to investigate a real story. Except doing so puts Jamie into a whole lot of danger – and also puts him on the scent of a real story.

The trio of main characters has a wonderful dynamic as a group. They each have strengths and flaws in their personalities, and it feels as though the writer has had huge fun writing the different characters’ responses to the same situations. All three are faced with questions about their futures – Eve is expected to live up to family values and expectations, Rose wants to be a firefighter to prove she can be brave, and Jamie reckons he would do anything to become a reporter. Their learning and growth are wonderful, and they make a great team.

This will feed the appetite of mystery readers, while the deeper questions the book explores make it a good choice for readers who are less familiar with the genre. The trio of memorable characters would make this a fabulous first in a series, although Sylvia Bishop has written so well in different settings that I look forward to finding out where her next story is set.  

 

Thanks to Scholastic LTD for my copy of Trouble In New York. Opinions my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Under Earth by Ellen Renner

Review: Under Earth by Ellen Renner

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Extract:

‘He’ll try to dazzle you with riches and promises! Keep your wits about you, Niece, and meet me in the Merry Whale in a five-day when the sun is six hands risen above the sea.’ (Under Earth by Ellen Renner. P29.)

 

Synopsis:

Storm’s duties as a Weather witch are getting real. She must give up her identity as a female, sail with the fleet and remain loyal to Yanlin. Her first big test turns out to be the trading island of Bellum. Bellum’s wealth is tightly controlled by a collective called the Pact, who shower Storm with gifts and attention, but it is apparent that the Pact want something of Storm’s powers in return.

The more Storm sees of Bellum Town, the more questions she has. Why are there children in poverty when there is so much wealth on the island? Why are there no local artisans? And what does the Salamander – the great, god-like spirit of fire which wants her dead – have in store for Storm?

As Storm pieces together the evidence, she learns more about her own magic. About the reason she was chosen by the other three Elementals.

 

Review:

Under Earth follows on from Storm Witch, a middle-grade fantasy which won my love in 2018. Storm lives in a world where great god-like beings rule over earth, air, water and fire. Three of these Elementals have chosen storm for a mission. The fourth, the Salamander of Fire, has tried to kill her – and will try again as it tries to upset the balance of the world and gain power. Storm knows she has been chosen as a Weather witch but not why. This story follows her as she comes to terms with what she must accept and sacrifice in order to fulfill her role.

It also introduces a new part of the world. Bellum Island is one of the wealthiest nations, yet the majority of its money is hoarded by an elite group of families. Other citizens are barely recognised as such. They are treated as second-rate people. As scavengers and slackers and a complete drain on the island’s resources. What is more, traditional skills are at an all-time low. The island no longer produces things of its own. All of its wealth is in trade. Bellum may be beautiful on the surface, especially to a guest of the Pact, but at its heart, its values are rotten to the core.

Similarities between Bellum and current-day Britain are striking. This book explores political crisis from the angle of trade and international relations, both concepts which too many adults ignore when talking about Brexit and austerity.  While these are deep subjects, they are woven into the story in such a way to provide rich details without slowing the pace. The main question for the readers is will Storm be tempted away from her home in Yanlin? Or forced?

There’s also her ongoing fight with the Salamander. This is something I loved about the series from the start. Think Moana. Think of a sea-based world where knowledge of the Gods remains to varying extents, but where everyone knows the origin stories. That’s Storm’s world too. Fire has always been held in check by Earth, Air and Water, but now it is making a bid for greater power. The consequences, if it breaks free, could destroy the world.

The ending has left me desperate for the next installment. It also linked back to those themes of austerity in a touching way. There is something about Storm which makes her different from every ‘chosen one’ you can think of. I can’t say more without spoilers, but I found this side of the story touching and brilliant.

Under Earth moves the story along while living up to the magic of Storm Witch. I am already waiting to get my hands on the third volume. Great stuff.

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow LTD for my copy of Under Earth. Opinions my own.