Middle Grade Reviews · teen · Young Adult Reviews

Blog tour: Earth Swarm by Tim Hall.

Blog tour: Earth Swarm by Tim Hall.

earth swarm by tim hall

Extract:

Each one was about the size of a small car. And they were clearly metallic – all hard edges and dull gleaming surfaces. Yet at the same time – these machines – they were so lifelike. They flew with an undulating motion, like that of a fly. Their wings were a greenish blur at their sides. Each had a pair of reddish orbs, like compound eyes. 

(Earth Swarm by Tim Hall. P82.) 

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Synopsis:

A swarm of killer drones has descended on London.

Hal Strider wishes his Dad had a little bit more family time. Like any time. But there’s been a lot going on at Starr-Strider Biomimetics, especially since Tony Daeger turned up. That’s when the secret plans began. When the drones attack London, leading to mass evacuation and widespread panic, Hal realises they were built by his father’s company. And now his Dad is nowhere to be found.

Hal and his sister Jess are determined to prove their father’s innocence and to save the city, but they are up against machines which never stop, police officers who don’t want to listen and seven million people in panic. They also have something which the person responsible really wants. Perhaps Hall can figure out the truth with the help of the incredible, free-flying girl Sky, but they are up against a deadly enemy and time is running out.

A spectacular new Sci-Fi series suited to fans of Mortal Engines. 

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Review:

Everyone remembers where they were the day the drones struck.

Although the drones themselves are the stuff of Sci-Fi, the story is made relatable by the atmosphere. A historical news story is breaking, like 9/11 or days after Princess Diana died. The drone attack marks a transition in recent human history. The mass exodus, too, feels very much news footage from recent years although the setting is changed. Now it is Londoners whose homes are under siege. Earth Swarm is the sort of story which asks the reader to face big questions. What would it take to provoke such movement of people in the West? Should Capitalism and the quest for money put humanity at risk?

It is also a compelling adventure.

Even at the start, before we see the drones, Hal Strider’s life seems pretty exciting. He’s a trained pilot whose flying skills would be the envy of most adults. The range of aircraft and gadgets made me think of Thunderbirds. This story begins with a wealthy boy and his techy toys. Hal’s character goes far deeper than that, and his desperate longing to spend more time with his Dad will be relatable to young readers whose parents have no choice but to work overtime.

The drones themselves are like something from a horror film. There are masses of them and nobody knows who is at the controls or what their agenda is. Short passages at the end of some chapters offer the reader a drones-eye view of the action and drip feed information about what the drones are capable of. This increased my anticipation as I was reading the main action because my knowledge of what the drones could do felt incomplete, but I was given enough each time to feel that they were hiding some pretty mega technology.

And it turns out the clue is in the name. SWARM. Emphasis on the WAR.

This is a fast-paced adventure with high stakes, and I am delighted to see a children’s book centered around drone technology. Not so long ago, drones brought UK airports to a halt and raised big questions about how such basic air technology was able to invade the airspace. In my opinion, there are so many grey areas about drones which have yet to be explored, and these grey areas are the perfect place to find stories.

While this is aimed at a teen or older middle-grade audience, it has crossover appeal and huge potential to evolve into a series. The story explores the lengths to which people will go for personal gain, and how increasingly-sophisticated technology is putting us at risk from these individuals. It is also a fast-paced and convincing adventure.

The drones have arrived. Could they be our downfall?

 

Thanks to David Fickling Books for my copy of Earth Swarm. Opinions my own.

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Young Adult Reviews

Review: Alex In Wonderland by Simon James Green

Review: Alex In Wonderland by Simon James Green

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Extract:

I could have bought another bag of candyfloss with my last pound instead of wasting it on this massive disappointment. I shook my head, beating myself up about how Wonderland gets you every single time, like everyone who walks in has ‘sucker’ written on their foreheads.

(Alex in Wonderland by Simon James Green. P51.) 

 

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Synopsis:

Socially awkward teenager Alex is used to life being disappointing and he’s resigned himself to another summer of total nothing. Then he gets a job at the local amusement arcade, Wonderland, and makes friends with the kids who work there. He even develops a crush on a boy with the perfect dimples – a boy who is horribly in love with a girl.

Mysterious and threatening notes start appearing around Wonderland, a park which is already under the shadow of debtors. Alex and his friends Ben and Efia start vow to save Wonderland and to bring it into the 21st Century.

Who could be guilty of the notes? Will Alex ever get a boyfriend or is he a lost cause? A hilarious contemporary novel which follows one summer in the life of a teenager.

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Review:

Roll up, roll up for another summer of boredom in a run-down seaside town. At least, that’s what Alex is expecting, but putting himself out there and making friends leads him into an adventure. Albeit an adventure which involves a tatty flamingo suit, a banged head and chasing after another hopelessly unavailable boy.

Alex is the socially awkward kid most bookworms relate to – or remember being. He’s painfully aware of his every mistake, every blunder, and he lives in fear of the next social slip-up. It was lovely to see a book which really explored how it feels to navigate the world in this constant state of fret. Too many YA characters appear impossibly sorted. We’re rooting for Alex to have his moment, but more than that we want him to find the right guy.

The arcade mystery was great fun, with a wide cast of characters who could have been responsible. As equally as I wanted Alex to get his guy, I hoped Wonderland would be saved. Wonderland is very much like Alex. Quirky, mildly embarrassing, and sometimes perceived as ridiculous but a place which has brought many people great happiness. Why would anybody want another identical development, even if it is sleek and attractive?

It is difficult to talk about the mystery solution without too many spoilers, except that it fits too perfectly with the rest of the story. There’s more too it than that, though, and Alex comes away happier and more confident which seemed like the most important thing.

A wonderful summer read which shows how friendship and excitement can be found in the least wonderous of places. Add this to your reading pile and prepare for a wave of nostalgia. Being a teen sucked, but wasn’t it magical? Another hit from talented writer Simon James Green.

 

Thanks to Scholastic UK for my gifted copy of Alex In Wonderland. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Milton The Mighty by Emma Read

Review: Milton The Mighty by Emma Read

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Extract:

‘You and me, Mr Macey. Together we’ll clear this house of invaders.’ 

‘So, you’ll kill them?’

Felicity smoothed down her corduroy skirt.

‘Every. Last. One.’ 

At this point, Milton stopped having thoughts altogether. He went cross-eyed, eight different ways, and fainted.

(Milton The Mighty by Emma Read. P30.)

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Synopsis:

When spider Milton discovers he has been branded deadly by a popular internet story, he realises his life is in peril. His house human has a phobia of spiders and will go to any length to destroy them, which makes him an easy target for Felicity Thrubwell whose pest control business thrives on fear.

Milton’s only hope is to prove he is not a deadly spider. Luckily he has help. Milton’s eight-legged friends are on board, and so is the younger human Zoe. Together they set out to straighten out the facts.

But will that be enough to stop Felicity Thrubwell?

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Review:

A story about a little spider with a big heart. Milton’s quest to clear his name and save spider-kind is the sort of animal tale I loved when I was small. Dick King-Smith was one of my favourite childhood authors, and this reminds me of his work. It has the same mix of charm and resilient characters, with up to date technology.

Milton’s campaign for justice is balanced with a whole load of creepy crawly fun.

The theme couldn’t be more relevant to our times. Milton has always had trouble from some humans, but a piece of viral internet content turns the whole world against him. And it’s just not true. Milton isn’t a killer spider. Emma Read resists an anti-internet stance. Instead the book shows that the internet can be used for good or bad and that we must trust our own judgement and knowledge.

Zoe is a wonderful character. She’s having trouble at school because she just refuses to cave into the anti-spider hype. She knows better. It is good to see a role model who sticks to her principles and is determined to make a change. Like Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist who has turned heads and opinions, Zoe knows that making a change isn’t about being big or special. It’s about being unafraid to get your message out.

This is also a book about friendship and the power of changing our habits. Fears and actions can be ingrained. It takes kindness and understanding – not anger – to help people change their ways.

A fantastic story with two heroes (a spider and a girl) whose resilience, determination and kindness make them perfect role-models to us all.

 

Thanks to Chicken House Books for my gifted copy. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Longest Night Of Charlie Noon by Christopher Edge

Review: The Longest Night Of Charlie Noon by Christopher Edge

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Extract:

‘Old Crony lives in the woods. Deep in the heart of the woods. He’s been there for years. He’ll be the one that’s left the message, not some stupid spy.’ 

Beneath the dark line of his close-cropped hair, Johnny’s eyes stare with a strange fascination.

‘Old Crony eats children, you know.’ 

(The Longest Night Of Charlie Noon by Christoper Edge. P13.) 

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Synopsis: 

There could be anything in the woods. Even Old Crony, the legendary monster. They say he eats children. Charlie, Dizzy and Johnny set out in search of the truth.

First the trio get lost among the trees. Then they get lost in time. Faced with puzzles and questions and all kinds of revelations, Charlie fears they will never leave.

What if they remain lost?

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Review:

An intelligent middle-grade novel which demands a second reading. It begins with three children who get lost on the trail of a legendary figure. Events get stranger, puzzles deeper and the children are forced to question where they stand in time. And whether time exists at all.

The mystery of Old Crony builds tension throughout the story. Are the children in danger of being eaten? What kind of creature is it that lives in the woods?

As the puzzles are solved, the characters are faced with big questions. What is time? Are we ever in one moment?  

Science and Philosophy aside, this is a great story. It has a strong cast of characters – friends and frenemies. The fact that Johnny doesn’t begin the story as one of the gang makes it stronger, both at points of conflict and when they all manage to work together.

The reader, like Johnny, is forced to face their own prejudices as information about the characters is spelt out. Details we didn’t know are made clear. Reviewers often talk about these moments as big character revelations but we need to think a little deeper. Have we learned anything new? Or have we learned plenty about the character, about the person’s traits and interests, already? What difference does this new information make?

This is not only a story about time. It is also about nature. The two are inextricably intertwined, especially at this moment when our world is facing a climate crisis. Time (as the old riddle goes) eats men, women, children, animals and trees … and this time it might not only take individuals away. It might take every species. Towards the end of the story, our protagonist Charlie asks the question which must plague today’s children: what can I do when I am so young? The answer is encouraging and powerful. ‘You will change the world. All you need is time.’

A book which proves that stories for children can be both gentle and intelligent.

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Books and Clare Hall-Craggs for my gifted copy of the book. Opinions my own.

 

 

Young Middle Grade

Young Fiction and Younger MG roundup: May 2019

Young Fiction and Younger MG roundup: May 2019

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The Missing Bookshop by Katie Clapham and Kirsti Beautyman 

Mrs Minty’s bookshop is the most important place in Milly’s world. It is run by Mrs Minty, who is a walking, talking encyclopedia of stories. She’s also getting a bit slower. A bit creaky.

One day the bookshop is closed and a woman packs all the storytime rugs and cushions into a van. Milly can’t imagine the bookshop vanishing, and she wants Mrs Minty to know how much it means to the community. Unable to contact Mrs Minty, Milly sticks a picture on the bookshop window. Then a strange thing happens. All kinds of pictures and messages appear.

A  heartwarming story about the role of independent bookshops.

Nothing replaces the knowledge of a good librarian or bookseller … and there is nothing more magical than the moment a young customer looks at you with an open mouth and says ‘have you read every book in the world‘? I know because I played that role for eighteen months. It was special every time.

No algorithm can replace the knowledge a bookish person has of themes or settings or character development.

The illustrations show the contrast between the warmth and colour of a bookshop and the dull cold of other shops. Although bookselling is a retail job … it just isn’t. Because while shifting books is important, the conversations between bookseller and customer mean so much more.

Another fabulous title from the new Colour range from Stripes Publishing.

 

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Little Dolphin Rescue by Rachel Delahaye

One minute Fliss is in a swimming lesson, admiring the artwork at the bottom of the pool. The next minute she is on a tropical island. 

While she is out swimming in the coral, Fliss meets a little dolphin. Then she meets some fishers who explain how much care take to remain a fair distance from the corals and to free any animals caught up in their nets.

When Spinner gets trapped in some netting which has been left on the ocean floor, Fliss must use all her Future Vet determination and bravery to free him before he becomes a meal for a shark. 

The second book in Little Rescue series. 

Sometimes I get a book I know I would have loved as a child, and these stories are exactly the sort of thing I would have stuffed down the side of my bunk bed and read early in the morning. Fliss’s love of other animals goes beyond toys and posters. She truly wants to learn about them.

There is also a bit of magic in the way Fliss is transported to another setting. It is the superpower lots of small children would pick, and it enables Fliss to see new parts of the world. 

Too often stories about animals put humans in a dominant role. Even rescue books can fall foul of this. If the human’s only interaction with the animals is as a rescuer, and no time is given to spending time alongside or learning about other species, it reinforces the idea of humans in control. Rachel Delahaye’s stories introduce the idea that we share interactions with creatures other than humans. That we should respect them equally to ourselves. If the current climate catastrophe is to be reversed, we need people to adopt this worldview fast. 

A great addition to the series. 

 

Star Friends – Moonlight Mischief by Linda Chapman. Illustrated by Lucy Fleming

A cloud of dark magic is hanging over the village of Westcombe. 

Luckily the girls and their Star Friends are alert for any trouble. When the village is entered for the Best Kept Competiton, strange things begin to happen. At the same time, an elderly resident takes against the local schoolchildren and demands that they keep away from his house. Could he have something to do with the dark shades? 

Another great installment in the Star Friends series. 

I love the magic in the Star Friends books. It starts with a bond between a human and an animal, and every person has a different magical talent. These talents reflect the girls’ personalities. The dark magic, while creepy, is written with its young readership in mind. It keeps the reader hooked but there is nothing to induce nightmares. 

The books always have great contemporary storylines mixed in with the fantasy. As a result, the friendship group has grown stronger over the series. 

The illustrations show wonderful observations of animal behaviour and the girls remind me of the Lego Friends. (There is *huge* potential for reenacting this series with Lego Friends and some Lego animals). 

 

The Hideaway Deer by Holly Webb 

When Lola moves house she misses her old life. That is until she finds the huge garden and the deer who come to visit. When she finds a little foal stuck in some netting, Lola is determined to help. 

Looking after the fawn causes some friction at school. A group of girls is jealous about the attention Lola receives from her teacher. Lola doesn’t mind though, not when it brings her closer to her new friend Paige. 

When Lola’s Uncle asks her to keep a secret about the fawn, Lola agrees not to tell anyone. Will keeping secrets from Paige spoil their friendship for good?

A beautiful story about animals, friendship and how wild spaces can help us through times of change and hurt. Paige and Lola come together because of their shared respect for animals, but sometimes sticking to our own principles can mean upsetting other people

Holly Webb creates some beautiful settings. Lola’s garden is no exception. The deer come through the fence early in the morning. It is a real wildlife haven. 

 

Shine – Lily’s Secret Audition by Holly Webb

Lily has never felt like she belongs at stage school. Even though her parents both have connections to the industry, and everyone expects her to do well, Lily has never been certain it is the place for her. She’s always worried that she only got the place because of her mother’s reputation. 

When Lily asks to be put forward for an audition for a television adaptation of her favourite book, her teachers are doubtful. If Lily can’t put the effort in during regular classes, how will she pull it out for the dramatisation? They put her name forward, but the pressure is on for Lily to perform during school time. 

Can Lily get to the bottom of her issues about stage school in time to pull off the audition?

A lovely story which encourages us to empathise with people no matter how perfect their lives seem. Lily appears to have it all. A big house, wealthy parents, connections in the industry … and yet she’s been under immense pressure since she was a small child. Her Mum can’t understand that Lily might want other things. That it might be tough to live up to a big name. And sometimes Lily wants her parents to step back and allow her to achieve things on her own. 

From the day she auditioned at stage school, Lily has felt certain she only got in because of a name. That she hasn’t got the same talent as her friends. 

This series is brilliant at showing the flip-side of the coin. After following Sara, whose parents don’t want stage work to get in the way of normal education, we meet Lily whose mother would have seen her with acting credits from an early age. Neither girl is badly off. Both girls have issues to overcome.

Shine is a wonderful series. It has a wide cast, emotionally involved storylines and encouraging messages to everyone who ever had a dream. 

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Level Up! By Tom Nicoll. Illustrated by Anjan Sarkar

Flo and Max can’t believe their luck when they are taken inside a video game. How many other children land directly on the moon? Then the Emperor’s son Gary captures them, mistaking them for the infamous player known as the Red Ghost.

The children will have to win to escape the game, but how will they do that when the Red Ghost has hacks and cheats at his fingertips?

A wonderful story which is true to all the best gaming experiences.

There are some brilliant themes, especially the attitude Flo experiences as a female player. Other characters question how a ‘little girl’ can win the game. With female technology journalists opening up about the discrimination they have faced in a male-dominated world, it is important that the next generation grow up confident that gaming is for anybody with the skill.

The illustrations show the children in a realistic world which has gaming-inspired touches (such as electricity bursting out from the weapons).

The next story in the series looks set to be in a Minecraft style building game. Looking forward to seeing this series grow.

 

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 The Naughtiest Unicorn by Pip Bird. Illustrated by David O’Connell

Mira has always dreamed of going to Unicorn School. When her dreams come true, she vows to be a good student and gets lots of medals. Then she is paired with her unicorn, Dave. Dave has other plans. Most of them involve eating, and none of them involve being Mira’s best friend. How will she ever win lots of medals if Dave doesn’t cooperate? And what use will he be on a magical quest if he can’t behave?

A fun story filled with friendship, sparkles and lots of droughts.

The Naughtiest Unicorn didn’t feel like a typical unicorn book. Certainly, there were rainbows and magical quests, but there was a healthy dose of dung and doughnuts and everyday school pressures to counter the fluff.

After all, why should every unicorn be handsome and brave? How boring would it be if we were all the same? Even so, Mira puts herself under a lot of pressure to achieve results and she needs to connect with Bob to get through the year.

The illustrations are a must. Think grumpy unicorns pulling faces while Bob misbehaves. These stories will be popular for the pictures alone.

A fresh take on unicorns brings a whole lot of fun to these stories.

 

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Dennis In Jurassic Bark by Nigel Auchterlounie [A Beano Adventure]

The Mayor of Beanotown is determined to bring some of the dinosaurs from Duck Island to the Beanotown zoo, and nothing will stop him. Due to an asteroid which hit many years ago, everything on Duck Island is small, but if the asteroid were tampered with the dinosaurs would grow to a normal size and spread out across Beanotown.

Dennis and Gnasher set off to stop the Mayor from spoiling Duck Island and unleashing the dinosaurs.

A story of fun, action and interactive puzzles.

Favourite Beano characters come together for a novel sized adventure. Minnie the Minx wants a pet dinosaur, Walter is a walking fact file and Gnasher has fangs to challenge the biggest prehistoric beasts. I read the Beano aged six or seven and considered myself a loyal fan. It offered an escape from the rules made up by adults and showed me a world where children ruled.

The mixture of puzzles and games in the book offers incentives to reluctant readers while proving that stories can take any number of forms.

A fun-filled adventure which sees Beanotown go Jurassic.

 

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Ada Twist And The Perilous Pantaloons by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts

Ada Twist has an inquiring mind. Every question leads to two more questions, and every answer leads to a better understanding of how the world works.

She’s the perfect problem to help Rosie Revere with a problem. Her Uncle Ned is wearing a pair of helium pantaloons, and the rope which is supposed to keep him anchored to the ground came loose. Now it is caught on the top branch of a tree. How can Rosie and Ada get him down?

With her friends the Questioneers, their combined brainpower and a bit of help from her brother’s tennis racquet, Ada Twist saves the day.

A brilliant story which centres around scientific problem-solving.

This story looks at the air pressure, air currents and how the behaviour of molecules changes at different temperatures. I am delighted to find a story built around scientific problems. Fiction and illustration can make a problem memorable and make readers excited about learning more.

Thumbs up for Ada Twist and the Questioneers. I am seriously late to the party but this series is popular for a good reason.

 

Thanks to Stripes Books, Egmont UK, Bonnier Books, Abrams And Chronicle Books and Laura Smythe PR for gifting the titles in this feature. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Maker Of Monsters by Lorraine Gregory

Review: The Maker Of Monsters by Lorraine Gregory

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Review:

The creature clutches at his head with his huge hands and lets out a blood-freezing cry, showing off the many rows of enormous serrated white teeth which fill his massive jaws. 

‘You will follow my orders or suffer the consequences!’ Lord Macawber insists, holding the locket with one hand and extending his other palm out towards his creation. 

(The Maker Of Monsters by Lorraine Gregory. P37.) 

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Synopsis:

Brat has lived in the castle since he was small, caring for all the monsters that his master has created. Some of the monsters are kind, but recently they’ve become scary and dangerous. Lord Macawber’s plan is to build a monster army and rescue his daughter, but one day the monsters get out of control and turn on their creator.

Only Brat can escape into the city and warn the other people of the danger but do this he must overcome the feeling that he is hopeless.

The world outside the castle may be as brutal as the one inside.

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Review:

A fantasy story which explores the definition of the word monster.

Like Dr Frankenstein, Lord Macawber creates monsters from body parts. His reasoning is that his daughter was taken from him and he is entitled to revenge. And certainly the man he is seeking to harm has done some terrible things. The novel explores whether Lord Macawber’s reaction is justified when other people who have been harmed are looking to find their own place in the world without endangering others.

Lord Macawber shows no respect for the creatures he creates. His early creatures, whose personalities were too kind for the job, are treated as scrap. Brat, whose life Macawber sees as worthless compared to that of his daughter, is treated as a slave whose life is disposable. However, it is Brat who acts with humanity, warning the other people of the danger. The theme of prejudice recurs throughout the book. Brat and his monster friends have learned that they are worthless, but eventually they question what they have always been told and find new ways to define themselves.

The setting is spook-tacular. A crumbling castle over the sea. A community of outcasts. A walled city with hidden tunnels. This is a wonderful landscape to adventure through and all the large buildings serve to make Brat appear smaller and even less significant than he feels.

Although this is short it has real depth and an extraordinary narrative which balances various subplots and settings. It would be wonderful for older readers after something shorter.

A wonderful fantasy which pays tribute to Frankenstein but brings something new and entirely magical of its own.

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my gifted copy of The Maker Of Monsters. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Lamb Who Came For Dinner and The Wolves Who Came For Dinner by Steve Smallman and Joélle Dreidemy

Review: The Lamb Who Came For Dinner and The Wolves Who Came For Dinner by Steve Smallman and Joélle Dreidemy

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One night a wolf is hungry and he fancies a nice hotpot. Just at that moment, a lamb knocks at the door. 

img_8611So begins the tale of Wolf and his friend, who wins over his heart and takes the name Hotpot. It is a story of unexpected friendship, and Wolf finds himself overcome with the same love and affection of any new parent. At times he looks baffled by his own feelings. 

The second story sees a group of forest creatures ganging up on the wolves when they are certain Hotpot must be in danger. Their preconceived ideas about how wolves behave turn them into vigilantes who are eventually faced down and invited in for a hot drink and storytime. 

The books turn the fairytale obvious on its head and challenge the reader to think a bit harder about how we expect certain characters to behave. 

Hotpot is a ridiculously irresistible character with her big round eyes and fluffy fleece. Like many tiny people, she is filled with a big determination and is unafraid to face down adults who have it all wrong. 

The characters’ expressions are very realistic and at times theatrical, making this a fun read as we know their feelings first and predict how they might act next.

Hotpot and Wolf are as memorable as Mouse and Gruffalo. They are one of those picturebook duos whose contrast makes them brilliant in a story. Looking forward to more from this world. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my gifted books. Opinions my own.