Sunday, 17 May 2020

Middle Grade Novels full of Magical History and Mystery

During this difficult time, reading has become more important than ever for me. I've always mostly read for escape, with fantasy, adventure and mystery being my favourite genres, and this has now increased tenfold. Having three children running around all day, everyday has been a brilliant opportunity for us to share all kinds of books as a family but I would be lying if I didn't admit to relishing that precious ten minutes (if I'm lucky) with my own book over a cup of tea.
As well as craving captivating tales which escape reality, I've also been opting for books that are slightly shorter in length. Right now I just don't fancy getting bogged down in a thick volume that will take me weeks to get through. Something I can gobble up in a week is perfect and this is allowing me to benefit from a wide, range of enthralling adventures.

Below are two of my latest reads, which I highly recommend for both competent child readers and adults alike. These tales, although very different, are full of intrigue and heart and transported me instantly out of my world. From Victorian Britain to 1960's Paris, the time, geography and strength of character all come together to weave two compelling and emotional stories.

The Vanishing Trick by Jenni Spangler
Link to Goodreads

Published by: Simon Schuster Children's UK, 2020


Captivating, compelling, dark and eerie. This is an intense, spine-tingling read from debut novelist, Jenni Spangler. Jenni sets her novel in the fascinating period that is Victorian Britain but twists it into a highly original story by adding a magical element.
Leander's life as a street urchin is desperate and tough. So when he meets the beautiful but commanding Augustina Pinchbeck, who offers shelter and a job in exchange for his mother's necklace, he jumps at the chance. But Leander soon realises he has made a big mistake when he meets Charlotte and Felix, fellow children who have been captured and enchanted by Pinchbeck. Trapped in a magical cabinet, Leander has no choice but to help Pinchbeck and the others pull off a sinister sΓ©ance. But as pieces of Pinchbeck's plan start falling into place, Leander and his friends must race against time to save themselves from the magic that binds them to their villainous captor.
There is so much to love about this tale. The mood and setting transports you into a world which oozes threat and mystery, shrouded in a gothic darkness. The trio of children are enchanting next to Pinchbeck's formidable form, whilst the mystery of the magical cabinets compel you to read on.
The whole book is superbly plotted. The pieces of the puzzle slot perfectly into place at the right time before the story rushes towards a fast-paced, all action ending. The burst of emotion at the end caught me off guard and some tears were shed.
Pinchbeck is a phenomenal character, deliciously dark but drenched in sinister charm. I loved her complexity as an antagonist and the way the children were desperate for her approval and love. She worked brilliantly as a woman and rivals villains such as Fagin, Bill Sykes and the White Witch. I also loved how Jenni based the whole story on a fairytale, which added real depth and intrigue to the book. I would have loved the story of 'The Rat King' to have been fully encompassed somewhere in the novel, as I was enthralled by this tale and was hungry to know it from beginning to end. Because only snippets of the story were told, however, I didn't wholly understand Pinchbeck's motivation for capturing children and how the magic actually affected her. The layer of magical enchantment did take this historical novel to a whole new level for me though.
For history fans like me, The Vanishing Trick also offers a fascinating insight into the changes and trends which emerged during Victorian Britain. The introduction of photography and the thirst for seances and ghostly sightings all play a part in the plot of this story. In fact, I'm not sure there was anything this novel did not deliver on. Fantastic characters, a fiendish plot and devilish deception and sorcery make this a winning read.

The Pear Affair by Judith Eagle

Published: Faber Faber, 2020


With echoes of Katherine Rundell's brilliant novel, 'Rooftoppers' and some parallels to 'Alice in Wonderland', this fantastic, heart-warming novel is a must read if you want to escape to 1960's Paris.
Penelope Magnificent, or Nell as she likes to be called, is named after her mother's designer, glitzy handbag and loved no where near as much. Invisible to her money-grabbing parents, she hankers after her old Au Pair, Pear. But Pear seems to have disappeared and so, discovering her Mum and Dad are taking a trip to Paris, she tags along with one, clear mission; to escape her nightmare life by tracking down her beloved friend. However, Nell gets more than she bargained for when she stumbles on evidence that suggests both Pear and her parents are mixed up in an alarming French mystery. Boulangeries are being contaminated and a new chain of bakeries are taking over. But what has this to do with her family? And will her new friends, leading her through the catacombs of the city, also lead her to the answers.
This book is bursting with glamorous French charm. From fabulously chic dress designers to the appetising scent of the boulangeries to the comfort of hotel laundry rooms and underground caverns, this is a delight of an adventure which will tug at the hardest of hearts. The characters shine, the plot sings and the tight friendship of the children reign supreme in the same way the gangs of The Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons did. I loved the ever so slight echo of 'Alice in Wonderland' with Nell endlessly disappearing into holes and doorways underground and Paul and Paulette paralleling the humour of Tweedledum and Tweedledee and also Nell's endless resolve to find the truth. The freedom the children were afforded was refreshing and their strength of character and determination in leading the story made the whole book a delight. The parent's felt original but as monstrous as villainous parents can be and Judith Eagle makes the city of Paris come alive around you with her in depth descriptions.
In comparison to The Vanishing Trick's dark, sinister tones, this novel feels light and frothy and joyous, but no less compelling. It enchants you with charm rather than magic and took me back to some of my favourite childhood novels. The Pear Affair is a classic in the making.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

NEW AND UPCOMING RELEASE: Superheroes Don't Get Scared by Kate Thompson and Clare Elsom

Link to Trigger Publishing and Ebook

Published by: Upside Down Books, an imprint of Trigger Publishing.

Superheroes don't get scared...oh yes they do!

Last night, my daughter sat on the bed with a wobbly tooth that has been troubling her for days.
"Why don't you let me pull it out?" I asked gently. "It's only hanging by a thread!"
Her eyes lit up only to cloud over seconds later.
"But I'm scared!" she said.
"Never fear, let's read this!" I jumped at the chance to share this new, brilliantly crafted and superbly illustrated picture book with her. "It's okay to be scared. Even Superheroes get scared!"

Dazzled by the front cover and eager to find answers within that she could relate to, she dived in.

Superheroes Don't Get Scared, written in simple but catchy rhyme, has a clear message told in a fun and modern way. Forget Spiderman, Superman and Wonder Woman! These Superheroes are far more up to date and they are about to show Maisie Brown that it's okay to have fears- she just needs to find the strength to face them.
Bursting with phobias that children (and adults) can easily relate to, this book will lead readers on an epic journey through the ocean, the jungle and deep, dingy caves with loveable, larger -than-life characters and unique and vibrant villains.
As Maisie watches her idols overcome the creatures they are most afraid of, she comes to a simple conclusion... if they can face their fears, she can. And an act of bravery is an act of bravery, no matter how big or small.

This picture book is an empowering treat! The characters and settings are vividly brought to life with outstanding illustrations from Clare Elsom and, although the topic is a serious and super-important one, debut author Kate Thompson tells it in a highly engaging and unthreatening way. Both girls and boys alike will be so busy being wowed by the Superheroes' antics that they are very likely to be distracted from the things troubling them. And, when they remember, they will hopefully have absorbed enough power to face it.

Safe to say, we got that tooth out with a nervous squeeze, bags of bravery and a big smile!

So if your little ones love superheroes, are feeling anxious or are struggling to find their feet this is the perfect, uplifting read. It even gave me the boost and positivity to face another day in isolation head-on!

SUPERHEROES DON'T GET SCARED is available now as an ebook and available to pre-order from online retailers for release in September.  Link to ebook and pre-order

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Funny Investigations with Kes Grey and Jim Field

As our house descends into pretty much 'anything goes' (my daughter is at this very minute covering my husband in paint),  books and the weather continue to be my salvation. This week my son went rooting through the bookshelves and rediscovered some brilliantly funny picture books by Kes Gray. Not only have they given us a much needed laugh but they gave me some ideas for silly investigations in Science, English and Maths.
If you're not familiar with Kes Gray, he is a well established children's author, well-known for his Daisy chapter books and Oi! picture book series; Oi Frog! Oi Cat! Oi Dog! Oi Platypus!, Oi Puppies! and soon to be released, Oi Aardvark! These, brilliantly illustrated by Jim Field, can in themselves spark off some fun with rhyme. But there are a few, maybe lesser known, stories that he's written which are fantastic for inducing both giggles and creative learning.

You're called What?!

Ever heard of a Blue-footed Booby, a Fried Egg Jellyfish or a Aha ha wasp? Well, not only do they make exceptionally humorous book characters but they also actually exist in real life.
Yes! This book features a collection of the strangest-named animals on the planet and on the back pages you will find actual pictures of them. Which leads me to the question:
Can you find or name any more hilarious creatures?
This story is great for sparking up a naming game. Can kids re-name well known animals with a more humorous title? Can they make up their own weird and wonderful creature? Can they research more about these weird and wonderful creatures? And can they find more that actually exist? For those really wanting to go all out - can you work out why the creatures evolved this way and how it helps them to survive?
Whether you do all or none of the activities, this is a really funny read, which always brings me to my own curious question: What is it with the name, Dave?

Quick Quack Quentin

Quentin has a problem! He's lost the 'A' from his Quack and a Quck will never do. In order to sound like a duck again, Quentin must visit the farm and the zoo and find an animal who can lend him an 'A'. Easier said than done when everyone needs to hang on to them...or do they?
This book is genius. Simple but funny and brilliant for a phonics investigation. Who has an 'A' in their name? What would happen if you lost it? Who could you borrow one from?
Of course, it doesn't have to be an 'A' you lose? What about another letter? What if some animals lost the first letter of their name? What would their new name be?
This is also great for word building and lateral thinking. What is 'crow' without the 'c'? What is 'cow' without the 'c'? What is 'hat' with a 'w' in front of it?
Let's get some silly word play going on!!!

How Many Legs?

Moving on to Maths, this rhyming picture book asks readers to add up the number of legs of the party guests. Problem is, they just keep coming...
Once you've worked out the total number on the page, how about working out the number of legs in your house? Or fingers, toes, feet, eyes...? Can you include your pets? Maybe even the table (as the book suggests?) Is the answer going to be even or odd?

Whilst reading Planet Stan by Elaine Wickson this week, I also stumbled on another maths idea which the Gran in the story uses to entertain her very lively grandson. On your daily walk, why not work out how many hands high the gate is or how many feet wide the stream is? How many bums wide is the bench or the bridge or anything else that might keep them occupied for a few minutes. This one I trialled immediately and it worked! It didn't work the following day but, hey, I was winning for a little bit. And, right now, every tiny victory counts right?

The good thing is, many books can trigger curiosity and investigations whether they are fiction or non-fiction. There is a currently a huge demand for children's non-fiction and narrative non-fiction books (this is non-fiction told in a story format, rather like 'You're Called What?). We particularly like these ones because they are so much fun to read but look out for How to be Extraordinary by Rashmi Sirdeshpande or Nosy Crow's HerStory by Katherine Halligan and Wildlives by Ben Lerwill for more serious but interesting research projects. And if you come across a good one, please let us know. Anything that gets us through the morning in a relatively fun and enjoyable way is in serious demand over here ;)

Saturday, 25 April 2020

The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke

Link to Goodreads

Published by: Puffin, July 2020


Oh my heart! πŸ’” I'm not sure I have the words for this beautiful, gut-wrenching but gripping tale, exquisitely told by Hana Took. It is a future classic - a tale of hope, sorrow and joy that will evoke flowing tears, a fierce attachment to characters that you just want to bring home and a roiling hatred for villains so vile, you'll want to finish them off yourself.

Welcome to 'Little Tulips' - the bleakest orphanage in the city of Amsterdam- where in 1880, five babies were abandoned in the most unusual manner. Here starts the journey of Milou, Sem, Egg, Lotta and Fenna - the 'unadoptables' unable to find a home.

When cruel matron, Gassbeck, decides to sell the  orphans off to sinister sailor, Rotman, the five inseparables have no choice but to run for their lives, to the outskirts of the city where Milou believes her real family awaits her. Following the clues from her past, she leads them to an abandoned windmill where a puppet-maker once lived. Convinced that the windmill holds the key to her identity, Milou convinces the others to stay and forge a home. But curious eyes are watching, Rotman is lurking and the Kinderbureau are smelling a rat. Will Milou ever uncover who her true family are and find her happy end?

Although predominantly Milou's story, this book would be nothing without the unity of the five adorables who you will want to adopt by the end of chapter one. Bursting with heart and soul, this book weaves a tale of gothic intrigue - puppets, nightmares and clock-makers- with the cruel reality of life as destitute orphans. Milou's flawed but desperate tenacity will gouge claw-marks into your heart and the orphans' unbreakable bond is beyond endearing. Gassbeck and Rotman are villains to rival Cruella de Vil and Fagin and the role of the puppets is truly captivating.

Not all the adults are rotters, however. Edda the curious clock-maker, although somewhat unfathomable, brings a sense of stability and safety to the story and plays a key role in the ending. As far as endings go, this one will not disappoint. It keeps you guessing until the end and is one of the most satisfying and moving conclusions  that I have read.

For me, this novel, although fresh and original, had echoes of 'The Sound of Music', 'Oliver Twist' and 'A Little Princess.' The storytelling felt traditional, the setting was gritty and the plot intoxicating. It is a love story, a gothic nightmare and a tale of friendship, the tendrils of which will entwine around every heartstring you own and stay there.

‘The Unadoptables’ is available to pre-order via online retailers.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Hotels are closed, right? Nope, not these ones!

Just because hotels are closed for business, doesn't mean you have to forego your holiday completely. Why not escape but stay safe? Go on a thrilling journey without moving a muscle? Chase adventure whilst sat on the sofa?
Sound good? Great! Because these two fantastic books offer the perfect place to visit.

Link to Goodreads
Hotel Flamingo by Alex Milway

Published: 2019, Piccadilly Press


Hotel Flamingo is a charming, feel-good chapter book about a hotel full of colourful and loveable animals. From flamboyant flamingos to otter lifeguards to cockroach guests, this heartwarming tale will make you feel cosy right down to your toes.
When Anna inherits the Hotel Flamingo, things seem hopeless. After being overshadowed by the glamour of The Glitz, the rundown wreck doesn't stand a chance of getting back on it's feet. Yet, with Anna's endless optimism and some loyal members of staff, a wind of change is in the air. Before long, Hotel Flamingo is bursting with a new lease life - a cacophony of chaos and joy! But challenges are waiting in the shadows. Can Anna and her team overcome a fierce competitor and a ruthless critic in order to stay in business?
The story is truely enchanting and  full of vibrant and cuddly characters you'll want to meet again and again. Anna is a strong-willed, determined lead who champions teamwork and inclusivity and has a clear idea of what she stands for. The cockroach family are a genius touch, the flamingos add a fabulous flair and even the trickier characters remain unthreatening. This is a must read for any animal lover and perfect for more sensitive readers who relish a safe and comforting read. Put your slippers on and curl up with a cup of cocoa or put on some overalls and get stuck in!

The Nothing to see Here Hotel by Steven Butler (Illustrated by Steven Lenton

Published: February 22nd 2018 by Simon Schuster Children's UK


WOW! This has to be the most high octane chapter book I have ever read. Packed with magical creatures and non-stop action, I read this book in a single sitting and came away breathless.
Frankie Banister and his family are from troll descent. Now they run a hotel for all kinds of magical creatures. With a terrifying grandmother in the attic, a scatty spider cook, a gardener married to a Venus Fly Trap and guests ranging from mermaids to tooth fairies, Frankie is kept incredibly busy. But when Prince Grobah from the 'dark and dooky deep' announces his arrival, the hotel descends into total chaos. Overrun by greedy goblins, Frankie and his parents have no chance of maintaining control. That is, until the goblin pirates arrive and battle commences...
The imagination and fast-pace of this story blew me away. Whereas Hotel Flamingo provides a rather more chilled getaway, this is a hurricane of a holiday. There is no down time or lull in the plot. Instead, expect page after page of high-action adventure bursting with characters so zany, they'll leave your head spinning. The story itself is funny, well-plotted and original. There were times when I felt I needed to catch my breath and that the main character, Frankie, felt more of a spectator than a participant in the story. The goblins of the 'dark and dooky deep' were rather condemned as a race and there possibly could have been more redemption here. However, the ending was spectacular, the ghost pirate was phenomenal and the moving lawn was genius. There is no doubt whatsoever that we will be reading the whole series in our house.

More in the series: You ain't seen nothing, Yeti!
                               Sea-ing is believing!
                               The Fiend of the Seven Sewers - released on September 3rd 2020

Sunday, 12 April 2020

When children self-initiate...go with it!

With the Easter holidays ending, the blurry prospect of home-schooling is back on the horizon. After long days of playing in the garden and allowing the kids to lead the action, the thought of re-introducing 'learning', however play or outdoor based it is, is making me nervous. Yet, we don't always have to initiate an activity to feel we are fulfilling our role.
Today, on our annual Easter egg hunt around the garden the children unearthed three eggs hidden in a small Peter Rabbit suitcase which had arrived by Easter Bunny post (thanks Nan!). After the chocolate had been eaten and the excitement had passed, I found my little boy playing happily with the suitcase.
"Look Mum!" he said, marching past me with it clutched in his hand. "I'm like the BFG!"
Link to Goodreads
Okay, didn't see that one coming but I jumped on it.
"Yeah, you do! Why don't you go and catch some dreams?" I picked up an empty chocolate wrapper. "Could this be a chocolate dream?"
Enough said! With a big smile on his face he put the wrapper in the case and went off on a search. Within five minutes he had a petal for flower dreams and his toy soldiers for 'bad dreams' and so on and so on. He kept the case by his side all evening.
So tomorrow, if he's still keen, then we can take the suitcase on our daily walk to collect more dreams. We can combine two or three items together to create a more complex dream. We can storyboard that dream, make potions of dreams and label the jars. We can Skype family members and ask them to tell us stories about their dreams. What is the science of dreams? What causes dreams? What will we dream about this week? Can we use our fitbit to track our sleep? How many hours have we slept? What time did we go to bed? Can we walk like a giant? Suddenly we have covered literacy, maths, science, PE, art and bags of creativity. All from one story.
This is the fundamental power of stories. Although we haven't read the BFG from beginning to end yet, the kids know it is one of my favourites, they have seen the film, we've read parts of it and listening to it on audio in the car. Stories throw children into new worlds, trigger the imagination and help them to relate to our own world. They explore new perspectives, viewpoints and empathy. And they stick in the memory.
I would never have made that connection from the suitcase to the BFG but my son did all on his own. With a little enthusiasm and encouragement we suddenly have a whole array of activities to get stuck into this week, including reading some of the book again. Yet, he could have easily made a similar connection to Paddington or Narnia (evacuees) or any other stories that involve a suitcase.  (For older children I really recommend the new 'Strangeworlds Travel Agency' by L.D. Lapinski).
Stories are usually a great way for an adult to initiate and kickstart activities and get a child onboard.  Yet, if it feels forced then don't push it. For every success, ten will probably flop and end in frustration. Just enjoying books and stories together and leaving it there is fine. Children will sit on it, process it and then, possibly, act on it, just like my little one did today. If they do then support it but don't take over. Allow them to lead and…who knows where you'll end up.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Super Happy Magic Forest and the Humongous Fungus by Matty Long

Link to Goodreads

Published: April 2020, Oxford University Press


A victory pose is definitely in order. We have finished the first, long anticipated, Super Happy Magic Forest chapter book and it is a fizzing frolic of fun!

For those that are not familiar with Super Magic Happy Forest, it is a picture book bursting to the brim with super settings, hapless (or not so hapless) heroes and an epic quest to save the 'Magic Crystals of Life'. Told in a comic-style format, this 'Lord of the Ring' spoof is imaginative, hilarious and sparkles like sunbeams on the sea. Thank goodness the incredibly talented Matty Long added to the collection with Salty DogsSuper Happy Frozen Forest and Super Happy Magic Forest: Slug of Doom. My son has requested them all.

The chapter book format didn't disappoint and is the perfect next step for those wanting more. The plot is deliciously fiendish yet drenched with a happy light-heartedness. The five heroes are loveable yet totally madcap. Trevor the Mushroom is a wonderful champion for disability, Blossom blasts apart gender stereotype and Herbert is a whizz at finding sprite jam. Who'd have thought?

To save the Rainbow Dragon and the whole of Super Happy Magic Forest from the festering, filth of the Humongous Fungus and his spores, the five heroes are entrusted by Gnomedalf and Shroomsworth to find five key ingredients for an antidote. But when the medicine fails to work, will they ever be able to stop the toxic spread of Fungellus' evil?

The story offers entertainment for the whole family. Aged from 4-40, we giggled, frolicked and quested with the heroes until we could quest no more and we found that the book does offer an antidote that works! It is a much needed dose of silliness to counteract these serious times.

We thought there were a few too many characters - some a bit similar to others - and weren't sure whether the 'Happiness Committee' were all needed. However, they offered some fun parodies to real life which added an extra layer for adult readers. The ice-cream tree, candyfloss cave and hugberry island were massive hits with my little ones and got them imagining other delicious places which they could add to the map. My four year old enjoyed the story so much, he is still delightfully carrying the book around with him whilst my autistic daughter, aged 9, is still giggling over the unicorn poop.

So to round things up: This is a slapstick sizzler of a story full of smiles, spores and 'fun guys'! We can't wait for the release of Happy Magic Forest and the Portals of Panic - coming October 1st 2020.
Pre-order available

Middle Grade Novels full of Magical History and Mystery

During this difficult time, reading has become more important than ever for me. I've always mostly read for escape, with fantasy, advent...