Wednesday 20 March 2024

What's new in lower middle grade?

We've done lots of reviews for chapter books recently - books that are aimed at the 5-8 age group - but there are some cracking 7-9 books around too! These books can also come under the banner of 'chapter books' but are often referred to as lower middle grade. It's a great space to find books of about 30,000 words which are packed full of humour and adventure. Here are three new releases that we think are corkers!

Sammy and the Extra Hot Chilli Powder by Charlie P. Brooks, illustrated by Steve May

Published by: HarperCollins, 15th February 2024

In three words: humorous sniffer dogs

This book was a brilliant read and right up both my street and my son's. Told from the point-of-view of Sammy, himself, it's pacy, funny and totally entertaining...

Sammy the Setterpoo loves her life with her owner. So when she begins her training as a sniffer dog, Sammy struggles with the unfriendliness of the other dogs and the change in lifestyle. That is until she realises that she has such a brilliant nose, she can sniff out anything. 

But when Sammy accidentally takes a whiff of some extra-hot chilli powder, she loses her sense of smell. Sent to live with Beanie while she recovers, Sammy wonders if she'll ever smell anything again. And when she gets wind that someone is planning on stealing a diamond, can she find a way to stop them?

Sammy is an instantly brilliant character with a hugely engaging voice. Although we love a story about an underdog - which is many ways Sammy is - we loved how she became top of her game at sniffing. Who would expect that of a setterpoo? 

Even when the trouble started and things started to go wrong, we were rooting for Sammy all the way through. Charlie P. Brooks has done an incredible job of capturing the bouncy, upbeat nature of a dog, which is reflected perfectly in the illustrations by Steve May. The plot is twisty and fun, the other characters - both four and two-legged - are great. There just wasn't anything not to like. Do I wish I'd thought of writing this story with this character? Absolutely 100% - Sammy is a winner. 

Kevin the Vampire: A Wild and Wicked Witch by Matt Brown, illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino.

Published by: Nosy Crow, 14th March 2024

In three words: carnivals, dragons, witches

Perfect for fans of The Addams Family and Vlad, The World's Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson or those just looking for a spooky story, Kevin the Vampire is a great new series that readers can sink their teeth into. Following on the adventure from Book One, this second story sees Kevin, his family and his new human friend, Susie, arrive at The Festival of Fear...

Arriving in Monstros City, Kevin is determined that his family will win Carnival of the Year. Performing a dangerous and daring dragon display alongside Susie and Gerald - the new member of Carnival Monstromo who is half-dragon and half-griffin - will surely win them the title. 

But in their hurry to get to Monstros City, Carnival Monstromo travelled through the Wild Woods - home to a terribly wicked witch. Unbeknownst to Kevin and Susie, Dog did something to upset the witch and now she has followed them, determined to get her revenge...

This story has loveable characters and a fun, fast-paced plot that is big on world-building and imagination. We enjoyed the mists of time, the evilness of the villain and the spooky, high-stakes atmosphere. The narrator tells the story with a huge amount of humour. This mixes the fear with fun and creates the perfect tone for the age-group. We found Dog particularly hilarious!

If you're looking for action, then there's also a huge amount in this book. From high-speed chases to daring moves, tricks and traps, every chapter is designed to hold the reader's attention. There's also a lovely exploration of some relatable themes - feeling different, alone and out-of-place - and a fun sub-plot which involves wider members of the family. We can't wait to see what happens next. 

Pirate Academy: New Kid On Deck by Justin Somper

Published by: UCLan, 7th March 2024
In three words: pirates, school, swordfighting

If you're after less humour and more serious adventure then this new pirate series is for you. Fast-paced with some cut-throat action, the story-telling is slick and you can tell the author knows this world inside and out...

Step into the future. The year is 2507, seas have risen and pirates rule the waves. 

Jacoby and Jasmine are students at the elite Pirate Academy. Their teachers are pirate legends and they train their students to be the best. But when Jasmine receives news that her pirate parents are missing and new student, Neo Splice, turns up, tensions quickly rise. New students don't just turn up at the academy. Who is Neo really and what alarming news does he bring from the ocean? Suddenly, no one is safe...

I was taken by surprise by the fierceness of this story. The concept is both gripping and believable and the prologue sets the tone for the whole book. Unlike other school stories for this age-group, there is no messing about at pirate academy. Everyone means business and when danger comes a-calling, there's a whole lot of ruthlessness afoot. From kidnaps to swordfights to desperate chases across the ocean, every page is packed with action and adventure and yet it still remained appropriate for the age-group. 

This is the perfect series for adrenaline junkies, pirate fans and those who just want to read a hard-hitting adventure. Although pirate stories are nothing new, this felt fresh, original and something you'd want to see on the big screen. Pirates of the Caribbean for kids - but a serious version. We LOVED it!

A big thanks to NetGalley and the above publishers for allowing us a review copy. 

Tuesday 12 March 2024

New middle grade releases to get excited about...

This month is going to be a treat when it comes to new MG releases. There's a Barrington Stoke book from Katya Balen for those looking for a pint-sized, perfectly-packaged read, a nail-biting Parisien  adventure and a new fantasy from Struan Murray, author of the Orphans of the Tide trilogy. What's not to get excited about?

Little House by Katya Balen, illustrayed by Richard Johnson

Published by: Barrington Stoke, 14th March 2024

In Three Words: Grief, Grandparents, Dolls

As with all Balen's novels, this is a beautiful gentle story which explores grief and abandonment and hope. There's a lovely burgeoning relationship too between the main character and her grandfather as Juno comes to terms with her mum going away. 

Juno is furious when her mum leaves her with her grandfather for the summer to go and help those in desperate need. Now Juno will miss a whole summer with her friends and it's all her mum's fault for choosing to leave. 

But when Juno finds an old doll's house in the attic and decides to restore it, she begins to understand the reasons behind her mum's decisions. Can she find a way to forgive her?

This is a small novella which poses big questions. Is Juno or her mum the selfish one? Written with a huge amount of heart and hope, Katya Balen doesn't shy away from emotional issues, allowing her characters to rage, reflect and restore their sense of hope. 

I loved the pure simplicity of this story, which is captured perfectly in the front cover by Richard Johnson. Aside from the big issues, Katya Balen writes about the everyday in such a unique and fascinating way - with incredible language and a soothing lyrical rhythm. We would absolutely recommend all her of previous novels and novellas. 

Secrets of the Snakestone by Piu DasGupta

Published by: Nosy Crow, 14th March 2024

In three words: Paris, Sewers, Jewels

If you're looking for a gripping, fast-paced fictional adventure that's set in 19th century Paris, has a backstory set in India and is inspired by historical places and events, then Secrets of the Snakestone is a must-read. It's dark and twisty narrative will whisk you away to the streets of Paris, the sewers of Paris and the rooftops of Paris and, if that isn't enough, then add in a circus, a railway and some secret passages for good measure...

Zelie doesn't believe in magic, despite people thinking she is a witch. But when she meets a boy, Jules, who is holding a golden locket which belonged to her missing father, Zelie is plunged into a sinister adventure.

A dangerous and secret society is on a ruthless search for the Snakestone - a powerful and mysterious jewel that was once kept inside the locket. If Zelie finds the stone, she knows she'll find her father. But can Zelie keep herself alive? She's going to need help to find it in time...

This is a novel that means business. The dark and sinister atmosphere hit me smack between the eyes and, right from the off, the pace is like a horse bolting from a starting gate. Zelie, a mistreated maid, is a great character facing overwhelming odds and Jules was the perfect - but very reluctant - sidekick. 

The villains we meet are ruthless. From Madame Malaise to Brother Ombre, the author gives a clear sense of what the poor suffered at the hands of the powerful. There's lies, corruption, deceit as Zelie and Jules navigate an adult world that's as rotten and dank as the sewers. And yet there are lighter moments too with Madame Drusilla and Titicaca the baby sloth, whose wellbeing took up a lot of my thoughts.

 There was a magical layer as well to this tale, with the evil power of the snakestone. Whether the story will develop into a series remains to be seen but there is definitely the potential for us to see the snakestone again. The backstory had been superbly plotted and really added to the story as a whole. It's a fast and furious read that you don't want to miss. 

The Secret of Moonshard by Struan Murray, illustrated by Vivienne To

Published by: Penguin, 29th February 2024

In Three Words: Magic, Science, Deception

Struan Murray won the Bath Children's Novel Award with Orphans of the Tide in 2017 and it went on to become one of the best upper middle-grade trilogies I've ever read - dark, twisty and atmospheric - which then won the Branford Boase Award. Now, his new fantasy is about to hit the shelves and I couldn't resist a sneak peek, courtesy of Netgalley. The length of this novel does mean that it's not for the faint-hearted but if you're after an epic adventure filled with magic, mystery and incredible characters, then it's absolutely worth a read:

Domino has been held in a floating laboratory by scheming Science Barons ever since she was born, believing that a single drop of magic could kill her. But then she discovers everything she's been told is a lie and escapes to a wondrous city filled with magic, thunder lizards and scientific marvels.

But a war is brewing between science and magic and the Barons are after Domino, possibly because she might be the key to saving everyone . . .

This feels very different in tone to the Orphans of the Tide trilogy but the world-building is equally imaginative. Floating laboratories, moving hotels and imaginative creatures - I loved Oshi - are just some of the things you can expect in this meticulously plotted tale. Again, this sits at the upper end of MG and is perfect for more confident readers. There's a large cast of characters and the storytelling is ambitious. 

Domino is a character I immediately found myself rooting for and, for me, there were some gentle echoes of Oliver, although I can't quite put my finger on why. There's high stakes and ruthless baddies but the story overall has a more playful feel than Orphans. Some of the magic is really fun but I'm not going to give away any more spoilers - this is one readers need to explore for themselves. 

A big thanks to NetGalley and the above publishers for allowing us review copies. All of these books are available to buy or pre-order now. 

Friday 8 March 2024

What's new in picture books?

With the youngest reader in our house turning 9 this year, you'd think we were well past the picture book stage. Wrong! In between everything else that we're reading, we love nothing more than curling up with a picture book for five precious minutes and delighting in the words, pictures and characters. From bouncy rhyming texts to stories that are more quiet and gentle - there's so much variety, it's impossible to get bored. Here are some upcoming releases that are really worth looking out for. 

 Brian the Lion who Learned by Frances Stickley and Chris Chatterton

Link to publisher

Published by: Simon and Schuster, April 11th 2024

If it's an upbeat rhyming text you're after, then look no further than Brian the Lion Who Learned by Frances Stickley and Chris Chatterton. Frances Stickley is a hugely versatile picture book author who writes lyrical rhyme, cautionary tales and fun texts that play with the power of illustration. This text, however, is perfect for fans of Lu Fraser 's Mavis the Bravest, illustrated by Sarah Warburton, and Catherine Emmett's The Dodo Who Dreamed She Could Fly, illustrated by Claire Powell - both of which are also published by Simon and Schuster. 

Brian is the king of the jungle and loves spending each day playing with his friends. But when he finds out that his friends don't feel the same way, Brian is confused. As he sets out to learn what he has been doing wrong, he begins to understand how he can consider the feelings of others as well as his own. 

This is a fun text with great characters and a strong message. It centres around themes of appropriateness and consent but is told in a very child-friendly way. Frances Stickley uses animal characters to explore the topic and Brian the lion feels like the perfect choice for an 'in-your-face' main character. The catchiness of the title reflects the exact style of the story within the pages and it is the characters and the language that will make this story memorable, as well as the bold and brilliant illustrations.

As well as being a fantastic book to have on your shelf at home, this is also an excellent story for PSHE lessons. Through the exploration of Brian's behaviour, it encourages self-awareness, empathy and reflection, as well as the skill of speaking out. We've seen lots of picture books about fear and bravery and about overcoming shyness, but a picture book that centres around an overpowering character feels more unique. Brian is wonderfully endearing and loveable but it's great to see the other animals finding their voice too. 

Help! Ralfy Rabbit and the Great Library Rescue by Emily MacKensie

Published by: Bloomsbury, 25th April 2024 

This is the latest in a series of stories about Ralfy Rabbit and although we have to admit to not reading the others, we definitely will now. With a loveable character on a noble mission, this is a gentle story which champions the power and importance of libraries.

Ralfy Rabbit and his brother, Rodney, are horrified to learn that their local library is closing. The librarian tells them that only a magic dragon can save the library now...and so Ralfy and Rodney immediately set out to find one. But there doesn't seem to be a magic dragon anywhere! Is there anything else that can save the library?

The plot of this story is really clever and we really liked how Ralfy's mission stemmed from a humorous misunderstanding and a throwaway comment about a magic dragon. This made the journey of the story more interesting and the resolution more satisfying, as well as adding a lovely touch of humour. We loved the themes of community and were reminded of how important it is to appreciate each other and also the special things we have on our doorstep. 

As well as the library, there's a variety of other settings in the story too. This allows the reader to enjoy a great range of illustrations, which are just as adorable as Ralfy and Rodney. It's a relatable story that encapsulates the small world of a child, promotes a love of reading and will make you want to visit your library straight away...probably for more Ralfy Rabbit books. 

The Hoys by Kes Grey and Mark Chambers

Link to publisher

Published by: Quarto, 2nd April 2024

We love Kes Grey and Jim Field's Oi! series and this picture book is another fun idea based on a play of words. Perfect for pirate fans, it follows the character of Pirate Jake, who is more than a bit confused...

Pirate Jake is desperate to be a proper pirate. But how can he be when he doesn't know what a hoy is? Every pirate he meets talks about 'a hoy' so why he see or understand what they are on about? It's time for Pirate Jake to go on a search for a hoy!

This text, with its bold, bright and brilliant illustrations by Mark Chambers, is fun, fun, fun and takes young readers on an exciting quest. Will Pirate Jake find a hoy or will he realise his mistake? Things may turn out quite differently to what you expect!

As always, Kes Grey's genius use of language not only creates laugh-out-loud comedy but also encourages children to be creative and imaginative. However, there's a lovely tender undercurrent to this book too, which added depth to the narrative and increased our enjoyment of it. If you're looking for something uniquely different, then this is the book to pick. 

Penelope Snoop, Super Sleuth by Pamela Butchart and Christine Roussey

Link to publisher

Published by: Bloomsbury, 9th May 2024

Pamela Butchart is a comedy genius and this picture book series has her trademark humour in bucketloads as well as a brilliantly memorable character. With World Book Day happening on Thursday, we wonder how many Penelope Snoops there'll be skulking around schools and solving mysteries such as who stole the pencil sharpener and which teacher ate all the staffroom biscuits..?

Penelope Snoop has solved mysteries before but this one has her stumped. Sidney the Smelly Sock Snake has disappeared and Penelope wants him back. Can she, along with her pet dog, Carlos, find out what's happened to him?

This character led story is full of imagination and captures the world of a young child perfectly. With clues and suspicious things all around the house and garden, can Penelope work her detective magic - oh and throw in a trip to the moon as well. There's tons of extra humour lurking in the fantastic illustrations by Christine Roussey - just look at Carlos' expression - and the colour palette is incredibly effective. With sock snakes, mud monsters, frog fountains and super transporters, this is a mystery story you do not want to miss. 

Wowzers! by Lou Carter and Magda Brol

Link to publisher

Published by: Bloomsbury, 9th May 2024

Surprisingly, we've not come across many picture books about vehicles and so this text, with its dynamic title, instantly appealed. The front cover successfully delivers a taste of what lies within the pages - a fun rhyming text with bright, action-packed illustrations and lots of different types of transport!

Rabbit has saved up his coins to buy a flashy new car. But as he drives around town, everyone else's vehicle feels more special than his. Rabbit quickly adapts his car so he can show off all its special features. But is showing off more important than helping someone in need? Rabbit needs to decide quickly...

In the first instance, this story feels like its more about the vehicles than Rabbit. Little ones will delight in all the different types of transport and enjoy pointing out their special features. (The fire engine was a particular favourite.) What's even more entertaining is that Rabbit uses his initiative and lots of household items to make his car do what the other vehicles do. This not only adds a layer of humour but also encourages imagination, creativity and role-play.

Secondly, however, comes the story of Rabbit. Rabbit is so pleased with his new purchase that he can't help showing it off and comparing it to what everyone else has got - something that might resonate with both older and younger readers. Yet Rabbit has a lesson to learn, albeit in a gentle and joyful way. What is the point in your car having all these special features if you're not going to use them for good? And are material things more important than helping those who need it? Although these themes might sound quite heavy for a picture book, they are tackled in an engaging, child-friendly way that is light in touch.

 Funny and thought-provoking!

A big thanks to NetGalley and to all the publishers for allowing us a review copy. All the above books are available to pre-order. 

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