Hi, and welcome! I’m Steph, and I’m a Primary Teacher, mother to one and a huge lover and advocate of reading, with a particular focus on children’s fiction. I hope to use this blog to share that passion with others, reviewing the latest releases in the world of children’s fiction and how books can be used for such a huge variety of purposes so we can learn from them and share them with our children in the most effective way to pass on a love of reading to the next generation.
Castle Mila is home to Olia and her family, descended from onceroyal ancestors, now living their ordinary lives within the unusual castle walls. Olia dreams of exploring the castle with her baby sister and unlocking the hidden secrets within the dazzling tower domes. Filled with stories of spirits and enchantment from her Babusya, Olia seeks out the magic within her home, held within the great domes atop the castle. Humouring her grandmother, she listens to her tales of magic, and her superstitions, often leaving salt offering for the castle “domovoi” to ask for protection of their home. But on the eve of a great feast to celebrate the castle’s 500th birthday, a terrible storm engulfs her precious home and wreaks unimaginable damage, opening up the secret passageways into the domes that Olia has sought all her life. Babusya warns that unless the magic is unlocked, the storms will return and Castle Mila is sure to fall. What Olia finds in the domes propels her into a desperate world being torn apart, whose inhabitants have all but lost hope of ever escaping their imprisonment. Bravery, belief, and a giant’s sword are the only weapons which could save both her home and her new friends. Belief is the only thing more powerful than magic, but can Olia find it within herself before it’s too late?
Sophie has a unique talent for spinning the threads of beautiful stories which weave together folklore, family and friendship, and this is every bit as spell-binding as her previous work. I was utterly bewitched by the breathtaking descriptions of Castle Mila and the land beyond, and the rich, beguiling characters Olia meets along the way, each one sharing their wisdom and power, but each one seeking her help with their own plight. Olia’s journey through the book sees her grow from a fearful “magicless” child to an audacious heroine who learns from her mistakes, and the mistakes of others, but never loses sight of what is truly important. Sophie’s trademark mythological language adds heart and culture to the storytelling and draws the reader further in to her exceptionally detailed world.
During a time when the winds of change are sweeping through our own world, Sophie has beautifully captured the message that we must accept our mistakes, and those of our ancestors but never forget our history, even if it’s difficult, and think about what we can do to help make things right, to put our efforts into moving forwards and building a better future for everyone. I can’t think of a more pertinent or important message to pass on to the next generation.
It’s Christmas 1940 and Col, an evacuee from London, has already suffered the tragic loss of his father, and been sent to stay with his cold Aunt Claire. Leaving behind his sister Rose to help the war effort in London, he has endured the cold and the boredom of Buxton, all the while looking forward to Christmas as a family, but when Christmas Eve arrives, and there is no sign of Rose, Col decides to take matters into his own hands and runs away. Fleeing to a nearby cottage which holds precious memories of his father, Col expects to be all alone, but is confronted by his imaginary childhood friends and thrust into a quest to save not only Rose, but all of London and the Spirit World from the grasps of The Midwinter King. Together, they are unlikely band of heroes: Col, Pendlebury (a Bengal tiger who can grow and shrink at will, but has questionable comic timing), Mr Noakes (a dusty waistcoat-clad badger, with an incredible nose to sniff out food) and the King of Rogues (a brave and fearless, but rather argumentative knight in shining armour). On their way, they meet Ruth, a mysterious loner with an unfamiliar accent who wants to join them on their journey. Despite the doubts of his guardians, Col is powerless to resist Ruth’s feisty and stubborn demands. Despite having different motives and missions, they make a formidable team and set about righting the wrongs of the Midwinter King.
Their race across the country is fast-paced and full of imaginative and original characters, some of whom are a help in their quest, and some of whom intend to hand them over to the ruthless Midwinter King in order to win his favour. I particularly enjoyed their stay with Leonard and the triumph of Gog! The guardians themselves are beautiful creations, and as the story progresses, I loved learning about their creation and where each of their quirks and qualities came from. The wartime backdrop adds danger and detail to the story, and is almost a character itself. There are poignant descriptions of London, the war effort, evacuation, and even a war hospital, perfect for those with an interest in this period, or those who are studying World War II in greater depth. But despite the deep roots of real-life events, the plot is so strong, and the writing is so good that the reader doesn’t feel like they are reading a list of facts at any point.
I have absolutely no doubt that this enchanting tale of determination, imagination and friendship will become a future classic. It is magic itself, gift-wrapped in imagination and fantasy. The perfect blend of fantasy and reality in a classic yet original tale of light vs darkness, where hope is the beacon that shines through the darkest night.
I was lucky enough to be gifted an early access copy of Jungle Drop by Abi Elphinstone, after enjoying her other books so much. This is the second in her “Unmapped Chrinocles” series, the first being Rumblestar, which I absolutely loved. There is, of course, also the short WBD story, Everdark.
Jungle Drop tells the story of Fox and Fibber Petty-Squabble, twins who have been rivals all of their lives, who believe that the way to be successful is to stamp on others and only look out for yourself. Fox and Fibber are swept into the glow-in-the-dark rainforest of Jungle Drop and become the unlikely heroes battling the harpy Morg and her Midnights to save Jungle Drop and The Faraway. It’s a fast-paced adventure story with lashings of magic and truly beautiful setting descriptions. Elphinstone is just in a league of her own when it comes to creating fantasmagorical worlds and characters. The characters are so well written, I love the lofty husks, but my favourite character is Heckle (a talking parrot who repeats what people think rather than what they say).
I’d recommend this for fans of magic and adventure—you don’t need to have read Rumblestar but it’s worth exploring Rumblestar before you are swept into Jungle Drop.
The thing I loved most about Jungle Drop is the message of teamwork, kindness and taking care of others and the environment. Great things are done “by being kind—and by believing full tilt in magic”.
Wonderscape opens with potentially the greatest opening line that has ever been written: “It was early morning and Arthur was already running late for school when the gnomes exploded”. Bam. Hooked! When Arthur and his friends investigate the seemingly abandoned house where the explosion came from in order to rescue a runaway dog, they’re transported through time and space to the Wonderscape, an IRAG—In reality adventure game, where they must travel from realm to realm and complete a challenge set by the realm’s “hero” – a famous figure from History! Each realm brings it’s own quirks, and its own dangers, and is filled with mimics—robots made in the image of the game’s creators, three siblings who formed Hxperion and built the Wonderscape. But one of the creators is nowhere to be seen, and Arthur, Ren and Cecily desperately need his help to return to their own time— he is the “key” to their escape—but will they find him in the short time they have before they’re all turned to protoplasm?
I absolutely loved the concept of Wonderscape, I’m not a gamer, but I can see how this will massively appeal to a middle grade audience, a classic “other worlds” tale with the added twist of the gaming element. As a teacher, I’m always looking to find texts that will prise my learners away from their screens, but engage and interest them and Jennifer has struck the perfect balance of gaming and adventure in this middle grade fantasy—her world-building is simply incredible—I was immersed in the sounds, smells and challenges of each realm. The inclusion of historical figures gives a genuine educational element, while children may be familiar with Isaac Newton, some heroes are less well-known (I had to Google them!) and deserve to have their stories told and achievements celebrated. My absolute favourite feature of Wonderscape was the Wondercloaks—love this concept, as well as being able to buy anything at all from a vending machine and taking on wonderskills!
I was totally immersed in the Wonderscape and engrossed by solving each riddle and challenge using the clever clues and breadcrumbs Jennifer leaves. A fantastic MG adventure with messages about teamwork, conservation, greed, and the ethical use of technology. Absolutely perfect for the modern tween/teen, fans of time travel, sci-fi, or Strangeworlds. I do hope there’s a return to the Wonderscape so I can “travel with wonder” once again!
I’m always drawn to those books which contain magic. The constant search for a sprinkle of magic to enlighten my world led me to be intrigued by The Vanishing Trick, and I was lucky enough to be granted early access. Right from the off, Leander captured my attention and my heart, a young orphan stealing to get by but fighting his conscience every step of the way—a character with heart, just fighting to stay alive in an “Oliver Twist” Victorian-style setting, a character the reader is immediately rooting for. His last hope for a few coins is a stranger, a traveller staying in a nearby inn who has taken a peculiar interest in his only possession—his mother’s locket.
But this stranger cannot be trusted, and soon Leander finds himself part of Madame Pinchbeck’s travelling crew, along with a talented violinist, Felix, who is searching for his missing brother, and a well-to-do young girl, Charlotte, clearly from a wealthy family. This band of misfits must earn the approval of their keeper by assisting in staging her elaborate séances, where she claims to be able to conjure the dead.
Madame Pinchbeck absolutely makes this book. A seemingly-kind woman who persuades children to part with precious possessions, and in turn, their souls, is the most sinister of villains. The strained relationship between the children, flung together through their sheer misfortune, changes and evolves throughout the story with more than a few twist, turns and shocks. And the relationship each of the children has with Madame Pinchbeck is so heart-wrenching and alarming as they seek a mother and a guardian, but wrestle with knowing how controlling and evil that guardian is. But is there even a way out for the children? Will Pinchbeck’s past misdeeds come back to haunt her? Or will her unfortunate wards be trapped under her spell forever?
My favourite book of the year so far, this enticing debut from Jenni Spangler kept me hooked from start to finish. I loved the fairy-tale link, the eerie historical setting, and most of all the well-written characters. Perfect for magic lovers, fans of Michelle Harrison or historical fiction. Sinister magic lurks on every page, and not everything is as it seems in this thrilling page-turner. I can’t wait to see what else Jenni has up her sleeve!
Twelve-year-old Will is approaching his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish “coming of age” ritual for boys, and as he faces this great milestone in his life, he also faces another change: vital surgery to alter a facial difference which has earned Will the dreadful nickname “Turtle Boy”. If anything Will’s love of turtles and his incredible knowledge of how to care for them should have earned him such a nickname, but Will is relentlessly bullied for the shape of his chin. For his Bar Mitzvah community service, Will is asked to visit RJ, a boy struggling with his own incurable illness, but his own anxiety around hospitals holds him back. Although Will dreads the experience and the boys don’t get along at first, it’s not long before they realise that their very different personalities can help one another at a time when both boys desperately need a friend. As RJ gradually opens up to Will about his illness, he shares his bucket list of things he’s never done and Will promises to help RJ achieve his dreams in the short time he has left… Starting with a pet turtle!
Writing from his own experiences, Wolkenstein captures the gut-wrenching anxiety that Will experiences as he begins to push himself out of his comfort zone in order to help his dying friend. The incredibly mature topics which are discussed in this book feel like they should have been impossible to pitch to a middle-grade audience: terminal illness, death, loss, grief to name but a few. But Wolkenstein writes about these hardships in such an accessible way for his audience, allowing Will to feel the confusion and conflicting emotions that we all feel in difficult times, and presenting different outlets for Will’s grief and heartache. It’s so vitally important that books cover these difficult topics so those who experience them feel represented and these emotions are normalised and those who don’t experience them develop empathy and have the opportunity to feel these big emotions through characters like Will and RJ. I also appreciated a Jewish protagonist and the inclusion of so much Jewish culture—I learned so much about another faith and community and I knew very little about.
Although this is a book full of grief and heartache, it’s also full of friendship, connection, love, bravery and hope. I’d have a box of tissues at the ready for the sadder moments, and be ready to have big discussions around grief and loss if shared with a young audience. Perfect for fans of Wonder and The Goldfish Boy.
Aveline Jones loves stories of ghouls and ghosts; fascinated by the idea of the dead returning to life. Ghosts are everywhere, so Aveline always keeps an eye out, just in case, her morbid fascination bordering on obsession. But her Summer is stretching out in front of her, dreary and uneventful, as she is taken to stay with her cold and strict Aunt Lilian in the less-than-exciting town of Malmouth. Though in the Summer this seaside town may be filled with the buzz of tourists and beachgoers, in October all Aveline is greeted by are empty, desolate streets and the menacing child-like scarecrows put out by locals in time for Halloween. There are odd goings-on all around her, scratching on windows, footsteps on floorboards, and shadows everywhere. All the right ingredients for a haunting.
As Aveline explores the local town, she visits an eccentric bookshop and purchases a second hand book of ghost stories from local folklore, but the very last story has been scratched out, removed from existence by the previous owner. Why would anyone want to do such a thing? Frustrated, Aveline sets out to find out what happened to the story, and indeed the previous owner, and is led down a sinister path of malevolent long-forgotten spirits. The closer she gets to finding out the truth, the closer she comes to danger herself. A storm is coming, and when Aveline finds herself face to face with the past, will she escape from the clutches of Malmouth’s most tormented and vengeful spirit?
Hickes has hit the perfect note for a chilling ghost story for middle grade readers. There is a sense of foreboding from the moment Aveline arrives in Malmouth, and the reader is swept up in uncovering the truth about the eerie happenings there. Hickes creates the perfect blend of tension, suspense and atmosphere with storms, crackling fires, unexplained shadows and a rich, supernatural plot. There are themes of loss, lonliness, and injustice. I devoured this in one sitting—there were chilling moments when I felt a shiver down my spine, and a truly heart-pounding climax. The stories of local spirits feel so real I could picture them perfectly, and I felt that a protagonist who isn’t afraid of them played a part in comforting the reader. As Autumn approaches, this is a story that 9+ horror fans will relish, just in time for Halloween! Perfect for fans of Crater Lake or Goosebumps. Both adults and children will be staying up late to finish this one under the duvet with a torch! Deliciously terrifying.
In a world where using technology is second nature to us, and we constantly have the world at our fingertips, we use technology to tackle a whole range of human issues. From medical intervention to five minutes peace, there is a piece of technology to assist humans, but what about social issues such as stealing, lying and bullying? Meet the Troofriend 560. Produced by Jensen and Jensen, the Troofriend 560 Mark IV promises to be the perfect friend for every child. And when Sarah receives her new best friend Ivy, her contempt for an android friend quickly turns into a plan to help her fit in with the cool kids at school.
With the story being skilfully written in first person through the eyes of Ivy, I loved Ivy’s voice, her meticulous attention to detail, her innocent misunderstandings of human speech and her observations of human behaviour. As she begins to break the rules she was built and programmed to obey, will Sarah notice? Will Sarah be put in danger, or be harmed by her Troofriend? News reports suggest that Mark IV models should be immediately returned, but what will happen to the androids when they are?
Kirsty Applebaum has delivered another brilliantly pitched science-fiction dystopian novel for a 9+ audience. What a brilliant idea to explore—the idea that if we take away lying, stealing and bullying from our world, children will be happier than ever before. As Applebaum delves into the issue of artificial intelligence, all sorts of questions are raised about whether androids could ever truly develop human feelings and whether it’s right for humans to use technology in this way in the first place. A short but gripping novel perfect for middle grade readers, reluctant readers, STEM fans, technology fans, and of course, fans of The Middler. Could be used for P4C in schools, and to engage children in debates, producing persuasive arguments or discussion texts.
Leni lives with her parents and her echo parakeet Popcorn on the island of Mauritius. Leni LOVES birds. Bird of every kind: big and small; wide-winged and web-footed. She loves to draw birds in her notebook, learn about their characteristics and care, and aspires to be a vet when she grows up, taking care of all of the birds and animals on the island. But there is one Mauritian bird which Leni can never take care of, because sadly it’s already extinct: The Dodo. Images of the dodo are everywhere on the island, but Leni knows all too well how humans drove it to extinction.
Until one day, the arrival of two very different scientists creates the possibility that perhaps they could “de-extinct” the infamous bird! Professor Flowers and Professor Scissorson are vastly different characters, from opposite sides of the globe, who work in vastly different ways, but they happen to share a goal in de-extincting the dodo. With Leni’s help, they set about extracting DNA from dodo bones and trying to bring back the magnificent bird, but there’s one person on the island who would rather the dodo stayed extinct—the Sugar King—a wealthy sugar farm owner who curses the blasted birds whose protection stops him from expanding his sugar farms across the island! Will the professors be successful in their bold endeavour or will Benny Shoober, The Sugar King, scupper their plans?
Fiona Sandiford’s children’s debut is a bold, exciting scientific adventure with a easy-to-follow but riveting plot and lots of humour, perfect for lower key stage two children (or to read to upper ks1), with a focus on science, conservation, the protection of birds and wildlife, and ultimately working together on this shared goal. I loved the contrast of the professors and Leni is such a caring character with her hilarious parakeet sidekick! I love the humour the secondary characters bring, from the lovely hut cleaners to Benny’s dim-witted sidekicks and his repulsive self-obsessed wife.
But my favourite part of this title is the message—the condemning of the extinction of the Dodo due to human behaviour in the first place, but more than that, the condemning of the ruthless, callous destruction of habitats by corporations who value profits over the incredible natural world. A message which needs repeating over and over, louder and louder, to ensure future generations grow up to take an active role in caring for their own precious environment and wildlife. Great to see such a strong message encapsulated in a witty, beautifully-illustrated adventure for young children.
While some children collect pokemon cards or stickers, Freddie Yates collects facts. He has a fact on hand for any conversation topic, and loves to share his facts with his best friends, his Dad and his Grams… Until one day he can’t share them with his Grams anymore. As Freddie comes to terms with his loss, he is given a letter from Grams containing a secret which has been kept from him his whole life—the name of his biological dad. With his friends roped in and a very ill-thought-out plan, Freddie heads to Wales to track him down. Along the way, Freddie, Charlie and Ben take part in Barry’s famous onion-eating competition, perform heroic deeds and even witness a miracle or two! With such an early loss in the book, my heart went out to Freddie, and the description of his feelings and grief are real and relatable. It’s so important that readers have the opportunity to experience and practise these emotions through books.
Their enthralling escapade is a laugh a minute, but there are also touching moments of sincerity, including a poignant moment where the issue of body image and self esteem are discussed, and many moments considering the meaning of family and the stresses and strains that families experience. Including these very relevant issues gives readers the opportunity to think about their own experiences. I’ll be whole-heatedly recommending to my Y5 children, but could be shared with all of KS2. Perfect for fans of David Walliams, funny books and fact fans! Grab your superhero costume, pack yourself a pear and potato turnover and buckle up for a summer like no other!