Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Where The World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold.

Review: Where The World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold.

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Extract:

I know it’s autumn because it’s the end of October and I am eight weeks into Year Eight, but there are no leaves to colour and fall and in our crowded, clean city the cold never really penetrates too much. The breaks go up if it’s windy, the canopies if it rains.

And every morning I’m waking from my dreams of an altogether different kind of canopy of branches and leaves, and I think I can’t stand it anymore. Another day in this city.

(Where The World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold. P32.)

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Synopsis:

Juniper and Bear live in one of the two remaining glasshouses – the only spaces where plants are allowed within their city. Everywhere else is grey and enclosed. Like a prison. This is how it has been ever since a virus was unleashed to kill humans and save the wild. Juniper is afraid that if her little brother Bear doesn’t calm down, he will end up in the institute. A place from which nobody comes out.

When scientists discover that the siblings’ blood holds the secret to surviving in the outdoors, their lives are endangered. They are left with no choice but to run. They set out for Ennerdale, the half-remembered home of their infancy.

The wild is a beautiful place but it is also a brutal one. It is a place where survival plays out on a daily basis and every living thing is in some danger. Not to mention the drones that follow them from the city. With so much up against them, will they ever make their way home?

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Review:

Dystopia is back and it is tackling bigger themes than ever before. It is also reaching out to a younger audience.

Where The World Turns Wild asks one of the deepest and darkest questions of our time: is sacrificing humans the only way to save the world? If, as an individual, you were given a choice between mankind and life itself, which would you choose? Juniper lives in a world where, fifty years before, a group took the fate of the world into their own hands, and the only humans to survive are the ones who live in enclosed spaces with barely any contact with nature. Children are taught to fear the wild and only the ones born with immunity to the virus can go outside. More to the point, Juniper reckons the ReWilders – the group who spread the virus – did the right thing. It is a view that could get her locked up for life.

It is a massive theme for an older middle grade or teen audience. It is also a question they must surely ask themselves in theory. Because if we don’t change the way we live soon – very soon – it will be too late to save the planet. Juniper knows the ReWild was extreme and that terrible things happened because of the virus. She also knows every living being was going to die if it didn’t happen.

Juniper and Bear are wonderful characters. They are children of nature trapped inside an unnatural city. They remind us that nobody who has seen trees and valleys and life would ever choose an artificial world. This is the other big theme in the book. There are people who have grown up inside cities and have barely seen the world outside. They are complacent about wildlife because they do not know it. This is a sad reflection of our own world. Growing up in London, I met people who stuck their fingers in their ears – literally – if anyone told them what was in their fast food milkshake. What had been sacrificed in the world for their beef burger to exist. They simply couldn’t imagine the damage, or the parts of the world that were being damaged, sufficiently to care. Books provide a safe space to face up to such attitudes. Being challenged can be scary, but books like this allow us to challenge ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

Bear and Juniper are also searching for their parents. Their travels across the landscape are inspiring and terrifying in equal measures. As a reader I wanted them to be safe, but I also wanted them to survive in the wild, because the thought of them going back to that city was terrible.

I also felt a personal connection to the story as a born Londoner who now lives in Cumbria. As much as I miss certain aspects of London, I remind myself how I used to feel returning there after visits to Cumbria. I used to miss the wide open skies and birds and green space so badly that it hurt.

With a fantastic premise and strong characters, Where The World Turns Wild has got the book world talking. It is beautifully written and it is up there with the greatest outdoor journeys of children’s literature. Read this.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: What Will You Dream Of Tonight? by Frances Stickley and Anuska Allepuz.

Review: What Will You Dream Of Tonight? by Frances Stickley and Anuska Allepuz.

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One little girl flies in a hot air balloon and floats downriver and rides on the back of a polar bear beneath the Arctic Lights. Tuck up in bed. Close your eyes. Anything is possible, anything at all, inside your dreams. 

This book is a lullaby, but inside of focusing solely on encouraging the reader to sleep it is filled with positive messages about living an active life and believing that anything is possible. In a world filled with uncertainty and chaos, it is helpful to remember that there is one place that belongs entirely to us. Good dreams make us stronger and braver during waking hours. 

Each double-page spread is accompanied by a single stanza. Most lines describe the world’s wonders, from cresting waves to stars and waterfalls, but occasionally this is broken up with empowering statements and questions that are echoed in the end: 

You are safe.

You are lovely. 

You are loved. 

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Books offer young people a space to feel safe. The world can be confusing even at the best of times and rhymes like this mean that readers can always find a kind and reassuring place to escape to for a little while. 

The illustrations magic up a strong sense of adventure. My favourite page is definitely the Polar Bear, which is reminiscent of Lyra from Northern Lights but there are so many pictures that could be used as story or conversation starters. Best of all, they capture that sense of wonder that can only be found in childhood. Those times where a young person is so deep in a story or game that they lose all sense of the world around them. Muted blues and purples, and silhouetted details, support the idea that everything is happening within a dream. 

Children, especially young children, spend about half their lives asleep. Reminding them that sleep is a magical and adventurous place is important and this rhyme is not only reassuring but also empowering. A fabulous text with beautiful illustrations. 

 

Thanks to  Nosy Crow for my copy of What Will You Dream Of Tonight? Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Mask Of Aribella by Anna Houghton.

Review: The Mask Of Aribella by Anna Houghton.

The Mask Of Aribella

Extract:

Something pale was emerging out of the mist behind the boat, behind Theo. Something so strange and so terrifying that it looked as if it had come right out of a nightmare, with two dark eye sockets and a face that gleamed, white as a bone … A human skull floated in the mist, detached from everything.

The dead have risen. 

(The Mask Of Aribella by Anna Houghton. P39.) 

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Synopsis:

On the eve of her thirteenth birthday, Aribella discovers that she has a secret power. She can shoot magical flames out of her fingertips. Venice is not a place to stand out and the strange incident is witnessed by none other than the Doge himself. Afraid for her safety, Aribella runs away.

Then she witnesses a skull-like spectre rising from the Island Of The Dead.

Rescued by a secret organisation that exists to protect Venice, Aribella sets out to learn about her own unique magical skills.

However, Venice is in danger and the attacks must be stopped before the Blood Moon.

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Review:

Venice is a setting beloved by writers of literary fiction and I am delighted to see it appear in a middle grade fantasy. The history of Venice – its art and architecture and gondolas -lend rich material to fiction. Anna Houghton has used this to brilliant effect, weaving in mask makers and the waterways and the infamous Island Of The Dead. She has also created a very secret society of her own.

Aribella’s powers mark her out as a Cannovacci – someone with magical talent whose duty is to protect and guard Venice. Like the best fictional societies it is rich in traditions. Every member wears their own unique mask, messages come in through the mouth of a stone lion and their secret hiding place is known as the Halfway Hotel. I was able to get into both the world and think that it offers younger readers an exciting introduction to Venice.

There are other kinds of secrets too, darker ones, that keep the plot rolling along and the reader guessing.

Aribella is a wonderful character, determined to get past the grief that has overshadowed her family life for so long. Her friends play a big part in the story too, both her non-Cannocacci friend Theo and her new friend Seffie. The conflict between her old and new life, and Theo’s acceptance of Aribella’s new role, all make a rich emotional narrative.

Middle grade fantasy is really having a moment and this will be perfect for readers who love the genre. It is also very much about friendships and family, so it would make a lovely introduction to the genre for readers who prefer contemporary fiction.

An exciting narrative from a new voice in middle grade fantasy.

 

The Mask Of Aribella is available from Chicken House Books now. RRP £6.99

Thanks to Laura Smythe PR and Chicken House Books for my copy.

Blogmas 2019 · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Mimi And The Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Helen Stephens.

Review: Mimi And The Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Helen Stephens.

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A shy girl called Mimi finds a baby dragon asleep in the woodpile. Everyone in the village is afraid of the great Mountain Dragon but Mimi decides that the baby must be returned. As soon as the bells ring and call the other villagers to church, Mimi sneaks out treks up the mountainside to take the baby dragon safely home.

The Mountain Dragon is huge. She breathes fire. She is also relieved to have her baby home. As a gesture of thanks, she keeps watch over Mimi’s village which, being situated under the snowy mountains, is in constant danger from avalanches. 

Get ready for television animation by sharing the story together. 

This story, which has been available in a smaller book format for many years, has been remade as a larger picture book. The form suits it beautifully. Looking at the double-page and full-page illustrations, I felt as if I was a part of the landscape – looking down on the village from the mountains or up the slopes with Mimi as she climbed. It also allows us to look at the smaller pictures in more detail, and the illustrations are so beautiful that this is fully-deserved. 

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The main themes are friendship and fear and the way we judge others. A person who comes across as terrifying – maybe because they shout too much, or maybe because their tone is blunt and to the point – but who is kind and generous and filled with empathy. The dragon in this story may have a reputation for being fierce, but she cares greatly for her child and wants to show thanks for the little dragon’s safe return. 

Sir Michael Morpurgo is one of our best-known storytellers. Reading his stories always feels more like being told the tale of something that happened by a witness. Often this is intentional. In Mimi And The Mountain Dragon, as in some of Morpurgo’s books, we meet the narrator and learn of their connection to the tale before we hear the story itself. This is so rarely done now in children’s literature and yet it reminds us that the narrator is a part of the story and that stories are, after all, about people and places and experiences worth sharing. Putting The Mountain Dragon down, it is hard to believe the story never happened. 

A touching and gentle story that teaches us not to judge other people on their temperaments so readily. Grab your popcorn and enjoy the animation over Christmas, or make some hot chocolate and read the story together. 

 

Thanks to Egmont UK Ltd for my copy of Mimi And The Mountain Dragon. Opinions my own.

 

Blogmas 2019 · fairytales · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Starbird by Sharon King-Chai.

Review: Starbird by Sharon King-Chai.

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The Moon King is delighted when he finds out he is to become a father, and he vows to give his daughter the most beautiful present in all the world. He captures the Starbird, whose legendary voice fills the young Princess’s dreams with magic.

One day, the Princess notices that Starbird’s songs are filled with sadness and longing for the open skies. When the Moon King finds out that the Princess has set Starbird free, he vows to hunt high and low until the bird is recaptured.

The Princess begs and pleads with her father to see reason, for she knows that a living thing can belong to no other being.

A beautiful folktale presented with striking illustrations for a new generation.

Starbird – and variations on the story – is a story of hope for humankind. As equally as it makes us despair for the actions of people who have believed they can enslave and claim ownership of other lives, it brings hope. This story has been passed through the generations so clearly there have been voices speaking against such actions throughout time. It gets to the very core of the attitudes that have caused, among other things, the current Climate Crisis. To make a difference to the world we have to put aside the idea that ownership and profit are important.

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With plenty of great books coming out which have an overt message, is it lovely to see a folktale that happens to be relevant to our times. Readers will be introduced to this tale without expecting a message and so it will be their empathy for Starbird that leads them to think more broadly other issues. Otherwise, it is simply a beautiful tale to read over and over.

The illustration and design of this story is stunning and it stands out as a particularly special book because of it. Striking landscapes in pale colours alternate with patterned pages where animal shapes can be made out it the blank space between different designs. Silver foil detail is used to great effect throughout. There is a particular focus on skies – starry heavens, and swirling Arctic lights and pale sunsets over the mountains. This enhances our emotions around Starbird’s longing for freedom because the skies make a contrast with the metal bars of his cage.

It is always nice to mix Christmas stories with fairytales, folklore and classic stories. Starbird’s stunning illustrations and sparkling silver detail make it the perfect book to read over Winter and it is a story that offers a message hope and love for our times.

 

Thanks to Two Hoots (Macmillan Children’s UK) for my copy of Starbird. Opinions my own.

Blogmas 2019 · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Scruffle-Nut by Corinne Fenton. Illustrated by Owen Swan.

Review: Scruffle-Nut by Corinne Fenton. Illustrated by Owen Swan.

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An elderly lady visits the park every day to remember her childhood. 

She remembers walking through the park with Nanny Clementine. She remembers the carousel and statues, and the bullies who would poke fun at her on her way home. Most of all she remembers Scruffle-Nut – the little squirrel with the stumpy tail. 

In her mind, the elderly lady is a little girl again. She’s coping with bullies of her own, so when she sees the other squirrels ganging up on one who looks more vulnerable, she makes a special point of feeding him. Every day she returns until winter drives the squirrels out of the cold. 

A nostalgic and beautiful story about childhood, bullying and time. 

The idea that we might be elderly is a strange one to young children, as is the idea that elderly people were once small. Understanding that our formative years go a large way to making us the person we are helps young readers to relate to the elder people around them. It also helps to understand that the elderly once experineced the same things we are going through now. Adults can, unintentionally, trivialise the everyday experiences of the young, so it is important for young readers to see that adults understand younger lives on some level. 

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My favourite part of this story was the girl’s bond with Scrufffle-Nut. The bonds we make with animals in childhood are important and teach us so much about life. By watching Scruffle-Nut hold his head up around the stronger squirrels, the protagonist learns new approaches to her own situation. 

The illustrations remind me a little of Raymond Briggs. Not in style so much as in tone. The faint colours of the landscape and buildings make them appear as if they have blown in from the remote past, while the girl herself, and her immediate concerns, are bolder and brighter.

This story is a winner because people of all ages will find something in it and it will grow with readers in the same way as books like The Snowman by Raymond Briggs or Grandpa by John Burningham. A beautiful book to share over the holidays and certainly a story to treasure. 

 

Thanks to New Frontier Publishing for my copy of Scruffle-Nut. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Flip Flap Frozen by Axel Scheffler.

Review: Flip Flap Frozen by Axel Scheffler.

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What kind of creatures will you find today?

Could it be a reindeer with two antlers on its head? Or might it be a narwhal with mottled white skin? Or could it be a reinwhal with antlers and mottled white skin? Flip the flaps to make whole new animals and giggle along to the rhymes. The wonderful series that is Flip Flap is back, and this time it has a frozen theme. 

The premise is simple. Every double-page spread has an illustration, a rhyme, and a name running horizontally down the side of the left-hand page. Each of these is split over two flaps so that they can be changed with other animals. 

Polar Bears and Penguins. Wolverines and Walruses. You never know who you might meet in the snow. 

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I first encountered Flip Flap Farm as a bookseller in 2014. It was a mega-hit with younger children and won a smile from people of all ages. Then Flip Flap Jungle appeared and it got exactly the same reaction. From that experience I can tell you that the books win on several counts – the animals are drawn with Axel Scheffler’s usual attention to expression, the mix-up of names and illustrations causes great amusement and the books are just lovely things to hold. Both the flaps and the book size have been designed with smaller hands in mind. 

It is no wonder this series has had a big success. 

Attention to detail makes this even more user-friendly. The animal illustrations and names down the sides of the page share the same colour background. This means that readers who are looking to find real animals can flip through very easily even if they don’t know the word they are looking for. 

Funny, brilliant to share and a great introduction to new animals, Flip Flap Frozen will be loved by many this Christmas. Just look out for that Wolverfin – he can chase you over water as well as on land. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow for my copy of Flip Flap Frozen. Opinions my own.