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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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 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.

Days Out

Day Out: Seven Stories – The National Centre For Children’s Books. (Newcastle Upon Tyne).

Day Out: Seven Stories – The National Centre For Children’s Books. (Newcastle Upon Tyne).

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Material from David Almond’s notebooks

About Seven Stories

Imagine a place which celebrates children’s literature, illustration and all forms of creativity.

Seven Stories in Newcastle is home to the biggest archive of material related to children’s literature in the UK. It also has a visitor centre which host exhibitions, author visits and creative activity of all kinds.

Exhibitions 

My reason for visiting was to see the exhibition about David Almond’s work, Where Your Wings Were. I’ve loved Almond’s work since childhood, and every time I return to one of his stories I gain something new about creativity and humankind. His talks on art and the creative process have also influenced my writing and encouraged me to think deeper about the role writing plays in my life.

The exhibition explored different elements of Almond’s work, including the magic which exists alongside the everyday and the different settings around Newcastle.

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Artwork by David McKee

I was delighted to find that an exhibition of David McKee’s artwork was on display at the same time. Elmer is another childhood favourite. My mum, sister and I read the stories together at bedtime. Seeing so many of the original illustrations on display made me think about McKee’s use of colour and space. The exhibition explored this, and also looked at McKee’s recurring themes of tolerance and letting everyone be free to be themselves.

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A further gallery was dedicated to Aliens Love Underpants. This was very much a play space and we were impressed by the different elements of the book which had been picked out and recreated for visitors to explore and reenact. 

Thoughts after visiting 

Seven Stories is also a place where everybody is welcome. Sensory trails run alongside ordinary exhibitions. Adult dressing-up clothes hang alongside those for children. Quiet spaces are clearly signposted. Most especially, this is a space where families of all shapes and sizes are welcome. Seven Stories is the one place I have visited where it feels like nobody needs to explain themselves. Everyone can join in and everyone is welcome.

The centre understands how writing, drawing, dressing-up and play are connected. How one form of creativity leads to another. It is special to be in a place which encourages all kinds of art and expression.

I came away feeling as if my batteries had been recharged. Not only was I excited to return to my writing projects, but I also wanted to play with different types of art.

Look forward to a return visit at the first opportunity.

 

Louise Nettleton

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum

Review: The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum

The Middler

Extract:

I knew all the kids in our town. Been at school with them since I was knee-high. None of us had hair that colour. And none of us would hide on the wrong side of a town boundary. Not ever. 

She was a wanderer. 

(The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum. P23.) 

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Synopsis: 

Eldest go to camp to fight for their countries. Everyone knows they deserve all the glory. All the attention. Everyone knows never to leave the town boundaries and everyone despises the wanderers, who live outside the town and refuse to give their eldest up.

Maggie is a middler. She’s fed up of being overlooked to her eldest brother Jed. When she meets Una, a wanderer girl who lives beyond her town’s boundaries, Maggie sees an opportunity to finally get some attention. The trouble is she makes friends with Una before she can hand her in.

Una and her father force Maggie to question everything she ever believed to be true.

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Review:

Anyone who came of age through the height of YA dystopia knows about the special kids – the ones sent off to camp or the Capitol. The ones join a new faction. The Middler focuses on the younger siblings who are left behind and it tells the same story of corruption and bravery from a new and wonderful angle.

Maggie is a wonderful character with a distinctive worldview. She’s convinced that the elders have it all. Fame, glory and special attention. It isn’t until her brother Jed and his friend Lindi are sent away that Maggie begins to question this stance. I loved this realistic child’s eye view. Kids Maggie’s age often have a strong sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair. Equal or nothing. Seeing this in a dystopian setting was particularly effective because when Maggie’s eyes are opened her personal beliefs are shattered in a big way.

Dystopia isn’t the first genre I think of when I talk about Middle-Grade (books marketed at roughly 8 – 12 year-olds) but Kirsty Applebaum shows how effectively it can be done. By keeping the action away from the worst of the conflict, and focusing on the friendship between Maggie and Una, Applebaum proves that dystopia can be written for pre-teens.

As an adult reader, I loved the tone. The children in Maggie’s world sing childish rhymes which are loaded with propaganda and darkness and the story was like that. So gentle and innocent on the surface but with so much depth in every chapter.

An exceptional work which left me with the same feeling I get when I read our greatest children’s writers. Kirsty Applebaum is clearly a talent and she’s one to watch out for.

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Books for my gifted copy of The Middler. Opinions my own.