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Back to School First Readers

It’s September. Back to school time in the UK, and a new school year. Sometimes that means a new school, sometimes a new teacher, and sometimes a new book series. Three new finds for newly independent readers:

isadora moon

Isadora Moon Goes to School by Harriet Muncaster


This utterly charming and totally irresistible new series follows the adventures of Isadora, half vampire, half fairy. Illustrated throughout in pink (for fairy) and black (for vampire), the book is a delightful twist on the current crop of first readers, which often feature fairies, but not like this one, which comes with extra bite (a fairy with fangs!).

Isadora is both cute and quirky, and struggles to decide whether she would rather attend fairy school, in the daytime, like her fairy mother did, or vampire school, at night, just like her vampire father did when he was young.

Despite being a combination of fantastical characters, Isadora is hugely relatable for her feelings of being ‘different’ to everyone else, and her attempt to make sense of the world. Of course the experiences at the two different schools dominate the book, but it’s the little touches that make the story stand out – mentions of Isadora’s favourite food (peanut butter on toast), the mistake of taking along one’s soft toy on the first day of school, managing parents on different time schedules and trying to please them both.

The illustrations of Isadora and her peers make this truly exquisite. The page dedicated to Isadora trying to dance at fairy school is hilarious, with tiny vignettes of her moves – it turns out colour does matter for Isadora! With plentiful wit throughout, and mischief and magic, this is a wonderfully unique and sparkly new series. My test readers already want the rest in the series (Isadore Moon Has a Birthday, Goes to the Ballet and Goes Camping), and in my opinion this is definitely a series to rival Claude. Well-conceived, well executed. A triumph. For ages 5-7 years (and fun adults too!) Find Isadora here.

the new teacher

The New Teacher by Dominique Demers, illustrated by Tony Ross, translated from the French by Sander Berg

Newly available in English, although first published in French in 1994, this is an adorable tale of what a good teacher – one who doesn’t necessarily follow the rules – can do for a class.

Mademoiselle Charlotte, who doesn’t even walk or look like the other teachers, talks to a rock. She doesn’t write her name on the board, and she asks the class what they want to do. And so begins the class’s foray into a new type of learning. Narrated by one of the children in the class, this is a delightfully subversive, humorous and endearing story, wonderfully illustrated by Tony Ross (of Horrid Henry fame).

It’s always cheering to see books for young children with exemplary vocabulary, and this oozes it with abundance – I’m sure it is there in the original French too, for there is the odd quirky phrase that might be more familiar in the original language, but retaining it still makes sense, and gives the book its own distinct flavour:

“And as far as schools are concerned, let’s just say I know my onions. My dad and I have moved house loads and I’ve been to tons of schools!”

Embedded within Miss Charlotte’s teaching is daily storytelling, and this love for storytelling shines out from the story. Added to this is the children’s growing attachment to their teacher, so much so that they put on a performance to illustrate the fact. However, like all great fictional teachers and Mary Poppins figures – they go where they are needed most, and so by the end of the story, our protagonist is left to get used to another new teacher. A gentle persuasive story for age six plus (confident reading alone, or shared with parent). Buy it here.

grandma bendy

Grandma Bendy and the Great Snake Escape by Izy Penguin

One of the most popular and talked about elements of primary school education in the UK today has to be ‘show and tell’. Stories of ‘who showed what’ and ‘what was said’ roll from the tongues of little ones on the walk home from school.

So it’s no great surprise that with the launch of publisher Maverick Children’s Books Junior Fiction titles, comes a tale about what can go wrong with show and tell. When Lucy reaches to extract her show and tell item from her schoolbag, she pulls out a snake instead. Bully Mike Grimace has put it there, but when it escapes and everyone blames Lucy, she must find it and reveal the real culprit.

With a cast of zany characters, and exuberant dizzy text, this story zooms along with pace. Grandma Bendy implausibly zigzags and twizzles her super stretchy twisty limbs around the town, getting Lucy and her brother into all manner of places, and mischief, but in doing so helps them search for the snake. There is an inept policeman, a nosy journalist and some other typical characters, but the author has added some nice modern touches, such as Grandma adding broccoli to the children’s ice cream floats so that she doesn’t get told off by their mother for not giving them enough veggies.

The illustrations match the text – a lovely map at the beginning displays the layout of the town with the same crazy aplomb – random sheep, a tree that looks a bit like a sheep etc, which is all the sort of thing that makes a child chuckle. The characters too look like their personalities, and there’s plenty of chaos to behold.

Other titles launching in the junior fiction range include Letter to Pluto by Lou Treleaven and Rickety Rocket by Alice Hemming. They’re not short at 128 pages each, but highly illustrated with different text formats, and might be a good stepping stone from learning to read to reading chapter books alone. You can find Grandma Bendy’s snake escape here.

Book of the Week

Shadowsmith by Ross MacKenzie

shadowsmith

The author of The Nowhere Emporium, which won the Blue Peter Book Award early this year, is back with a new tale for brave children. Spooky and deliciously dark in places, this is a fabulously gripping story about the power of love, friendship and overcoming scary situations.

Kirby is having a hard time. His mum is in hospital in a coma after an abnormal summer storm, and he can’t communicate with his dad. He doesn’t have many friends, and there’s a spider in his room, who seems to be watching him.

When Amelia Pigeon, a girl in a yellow raincoat, turns up on his doorstep, she leads him into a world few others can see – a world in which witches can be resurrected, spiders can grow large, and weather can be dictated by malevolent spirits.

With just the right balance of normality – in which Kirby goes fishing with his Dad in his sleepy seaside village, eats burnt toast, and is babysat by a kindly elderly neighbour next door, juxtaposed with the extreme fantasy world in which he finds himself with Amelia (a girl who seems to have wisdom beyond her years, visits crazily scary haunted houses, and confronts forces of evil in long black coats) – this is a great spookily fun read from beginning to end.

MacKenzie has a talent for not only writing pacey exciting stories, but sprinkling them with a magic touch of a few concise descriptions that don’t interrupt the flow, so that the reader can visualise events without sinking in paragraphs of descriptive writing. In fact, the whole plot is rather filmic. The structure is also extremely clear and obvious – the characters have tasks to solve to move on with the story – and this sort of writing is magical for the age group, meeting the needs of keen readers with vivid imaginations, and helping reluctant readers, who may need prompts that help to drive forward the story.

In fact, just as in Harry Potter, (which is even mentioned within the text), reality meets fantasy; there is pain set against hope – in the end the strength of love and friendship overcomes evil.

I particularly enjoyed MacKenzie’s playfulness with commonplace childhood fears – darkness, spiders, loss of a mother…each is given its role and plays a part in scaring Kirby – and then forcing him to be brave. The author also recognises what makes Kirby such an appealing young protagonist – his love for skimming stones, his embarrassment about being seen with a girl, his anger at his father, and his descriptions of food – ice cream and breakfasts in particular.

There are small Illustrations throughout, casting an eerie web over the book, and black pages splitting the sections so that the whole book appears rather stylish. The double front cover is both sinister and alluring, and the depiction at the start of the villains – tall, thin and wearing long black coats – sets the scene immediately. A fun read, thrilling and compelling, from a talented story writer. An easy read for ages 9-12 years. You can buy it here.