Book of the Week

The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Broccoli Boy

An amusing tale involving superheroes, food and school bullies. Rory Rooney is locked up as a medical mystery when he unexpectedly turns broccoli green on a school trip. The scientists aren’t sure if he’s carrying a contagious disease or if his colour is the result of something he ate. When Rory discovers another boy has also turned green, and not only that, but he’s the school bully and they’ve been locked up in isolation together, he realises they will have to work as a team to prove to the world that they are superheroes and must escape – after all, the Incredible Hulk and the Green Goblin were green. Cottrell Boyce manages to make ordinary London extraordinary as the hero and his classmate roam around a vibrant night-time London, having weird and wonderful adventures, their friendship developing and cementing the further into the book you delve. Brimming with humour and likeable characters, this was a gripping read from start to finish. Giggles a-plenty and great visual scenes that almost beg to be made into a movie. Add in some girl power, a penguin and a friendly prime minister and you have an immensely lovable story. Frank Cottrell Boyce has an easy-going natural storytelling voice that manages to weave humour, great adventure and pathos into a book all at the same time. Modern London is adroitly depicted in the book, with the climax reaching the dizzying heights of the Shard. Not to be missed by your children of eight years and over. Publishes 26th March 2015.

Illustrated by the incredibly talented Steven Lenton (unfortunately for me I reviewed this from a very early proof, so didn’t get to see the illustrations – that’s why I’m going to buy my own copy through the link below!)

To buy The Astounding Broccoli Boy, click here

Robot Girl by Malorie Blackman, illustrated by Matthew Griffin

Robot Girl

Of course, I have nothing but praise for Malorie Blackman. She’s the children’s laureate, and clearly a wonderful writer. She was also given a gold Blue Peter badge earlier this year in recognition for inspiring children. Her latest book for Barrington Stoke is for those with a reading age of eight, but interest level stretches to 12 years. Actually, I’d argue with the publishers here – the novel works as a brilliant short story for adults too! Claire’s Dad works long hours in his lab, perfecting a project he has been working on for a long time. Claire feels neglected and confides her feelings by email with her friend, Maisie, who seems to be the only one who understands her. However, when Claire’s Dad reveals the project, it’s only the first of many surprises to come Claire’s way. This is a fantastic futuristic little tale full of twists and surprises, with fabulous clues dropped in, and beautiful illustrations to accompany the text – all set out in a dyslexia-friendly way. It asks powerful questions about who we are, what life would be like without feelings, and what it means to be truly alive. I hesitate to describe it more for want of giving away the suspenseful punchline. Masterly crafted, this would work as good fodder for classroom discussion on storytelling and questions of philosophy in secondary schools too. Fabulous.

Click here to buy this book.

How To Fly With Broken Wings by Jane Elson

how to fly with broken wings

Author Jane Elson has worked with young offenders and children with special needs, and she brings some of her experiences into her latest novel, How to Fly With Broken Wings. Told from alternating points of view, first 12 year old Willem who has Aspergers Syndrome, and then Sasha, a girl mixed up with boys from the gangs on the estate where she lives. Their tales collide as they make friends in a desperate attempt to overcome the bullishness of the gangs around them, and to escape the riots on their London estate. The voices are deeply authentic, reminiscent of Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Willem’s voice holds no prisoners, giving literal accounts of his thoughts and observations, from watching the looting of the sports shops during the riots when his attention shifts to the untouched library:
“I do not think the riot people wanted to read books.”
His unflinching honesty is touching to read and beautifully juxtaposed with the extreme emotions of Sasha, as the reader sees her relationship with her father, teachers and peers through her adolescent eyes. Jane Elson also manages to draw into the story the tale of war-flying spitfires, as a man arrives on the estate who tries to give the rioting youth a sense of purpose, history and pride. She cleverly weaves together the bullying of Willem as he is goaded to jump from a too-high wall: “If Finn Madison shouts jump you jump or you are dead” with Willem’s ambitions to fly, and involves Sasha with the history of the women who flew the spitfires. It’s a fascinating and refreshing contemporary story, which will certainly teach many of its target readership what life is like for other children. It also works beautifully to bridge any gender divide in book sales and readership – hence my book of the week this week.
For age 10+

With thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for the review copy.

A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey, illustrated by Chellie Carroll

A Whisper of Wolves
A new fantasy series of the ilk of Michelle Paver, but in a much simpler vein for a younger reader. Set in a time of castles and kings, forests and earthy magic, the book focuses on the whisperers – guardians of the wild, people who have been chosen for their ability to communicate with an animal and protect the landscape and villages in which they live. This first book in the series focuses on two whisperers – Alice and Dawn, and their respective animal companions, Storm a wolf, and Ebony a raven. They have to fight against the evil presence of the Narlaw – dangerous entities who suck the life from human beings and leave them in a sleep-like trance. The book explores the natural landscape, with long adventurous journeys through woods and streams, in deep ravines and up high cliffs. A group of feisty females dominate the novel, from the whisperers who teach their new apprentices, to the princess in the castle, and the past Queen who won the previous Narlaw war.  For a more experienced reader there are clear echoes of the Dementors from Harry Potter in the guise of the Narlaw, and other devices pulled from children’s literature – but this is a good starting point for a young reader wanting to access fantasy novels. An easy-to-follow plot, intertwined with some excellent vocabulary and great imagery. Looking forward to reading more in the series. Published 2nd March, 2015.

The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone

The Dreamsnatcher cover FINAL

Lightly straddling the realms of adventure and fantasy, Abi Elphinstone’s debut novel teases out memories of a canon of beautiful children’s literature that has gone before her, as she builds a world of gypsies and dark magic set entirely in woods in a mystery land. Our likeable protagonist Moll is a 12 year old gypsy, raised entirely in a wagon-filled clearing in the woods, unknowing of the world outside (she has never seen the sea or imagined other countries). This landscape allows Abi Elphinstone to explore the wild elements of Moll’s upbringing, filled with animals and birds, and herbs and potions. The oracle foretells that Moll, along with Gryff, her wildcat, will be the sole defenders against the power of the dark magic of the Dreamsnatcher. The author’s energy enthuses throughout the book; she manages to pack action into the story – Moll never seems to sit still for a minute, the book is crammed with some extraordinarily restless vocabulary; Moll is forever springing forward or leaping or unfurling, with her heart hammering. It’s a whirlwhind of an adventure, and pulls the reader along. The scenes of the dark side of magic – Skull and the dreamsnatch – are chillingly portrayed, the imagery is dark and scary, but Moll and her friends are so beguiling that the book balances beautifully between the dark and the light. The author employs devices borrowed from Pullman, Barrie and Rowling in her use of imagery, relationships and evil. This book is highly engrossing, with a dark imagination. I would recommend it for an advanced middle grade reader. Once read, you won’t be able to wait for the next in the series; it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve read since the His Dark Materials trilogy. Published 26th February 2015.
Cover illustration by Thomas Flintham

Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: Supermarket Sweep by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad

Squishy McFluff Supermarket Sweep

Never having met Squishy McFluff before, this was my first foray into this invisible cat’s world. Supermarket Sweep is the second book, about Ava’s trip to the supermarket with her mum and her invisible companion cat. A third book called Squishy McFluff Meets Mad Nana Dot was published this week. Squishy McFluff is narrated entirely in rhyme and I was captured from the rhyming introduction, which asks the reader to imagine Squishy.
“Can you see him? My kitten? He has eyes big and round
His miaow is so sweet (but it makes not a sound!)
Imagine him quick! Have you imagined enough?
Oh, good, you can see him! It’s Squishy McFluff!”
It turns out Squishy is a very naughty cat, who leads his owner, Ava, into all kinds of scrapes and trouble, with a mischievous glance at the reader. I loved the relationship between Ava and her mother, I loved the modern references to objects such as mobile phones, and also the fact that Pip Jones certainly knows her audience as she understands what’s appealing to children – Ava will visit the supermarket on the premise that she can ride in the trolley. It is reminiscent of The Cat in the Hat – but only the more pleasing for being so. This is also perfect material for a child looking to start reading independently – the rhyming helps a young child to figure out which word is coming next, and the vocabulary is not too taxing. The book is also split into small chapters, which is helpful if you’re a struggling reader. It’s funny and endearing with superbly fitting illustrations from Ella Okstad. More please.

Stonebird by Mike Revell

stonebird
This is a stunningly impressive debut novel. Mike Revell tells the story of 11 year old Liam who moves to a new area so that his mum can be near his grandma, who is suffering from dementia. Liam struggles with the consequences of the move – a new school, his mum’s new friend, as well as with his elder sister’s advance into adulthood. Liam stumbles across an old stone gargoyle in the abandoned church behind his house, and after finding his grandmother’s old teenage diary, discovers that the gargoyle is magic and can make stories come true. Liam harnesses this power of storytelling to right the perceived wrongs in his life, from fixing his grandmother to dealing with the bullies at school, but before long the storytelling becomes more dangerous and powerful than Liam had imagined.

The novel is told in the present tense, giving immediacy and tension to the story, and sweeps the reader along. At the same time, Mike Revell conveys an 11 year old’s feelings and emotions sensitively as Liam witnesses the deterioration of his grandma from dementia, and the frightening fallout effects on the whole family. At no point is the story too bleak though, as Liam is an intensely realistic and likeable protagonist, with an inspirational teacher, a loveable dog and enough support to carry him through. This is a well crafted and deftly written book. Definitely one of the highlights of 2015.

Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty

Darkmouth

One of the most exciting children’s books to be published in recent years, Shane Hegarty bursts onto the scene with this super quintessential tale of good versus evil – or in this case Legend Hunters versus monsters (the Legends). Finn is being trained up to become the next Legend Hunter in his small town of Darkmouth, the one remaining Blighted Village on earth where gateways open between the human world and the world of the Legends. The problem is, Finn is a bit rubbish, and it seems as if the Legends are plotting a big evil invasion. It’s a gripping read from start to finish with tremendous fighting scenes, and subtle cliffhangers, which give the whole book a feel of suspense. The standout feature for me is Finn’s generational burden, as all Finn’s ancestors were Hunters, and he must fulfill his destiny of becoming one himself, despite his misgivings. His father is insistent that Finn will rise to the challenge, and the scenes in which Finn is attempting not to disappoint his dad are heart-breaking and thrilling at the same time. The ongoing struggle to please parents is inherent in so many children, and Hegarty picks up and brilliantly describes this emotion for his readership. There’s a feisty female sidekick too, and a glut of repulsive and dangerous monsters. The descriptions of the village, the monsters and the fighting scenes are terrific, but massively enhanced by James de la Rue’s phenomenally detailed pictures. It is a highly visual read. I read the proof without illustrations, but was bowled over when I finally saw the finished product. More than worthy of book of the week, this is set to be a big series for Harpercollins, and rumour has it, a movie too!

Darkmouth2 Darkmouth1

The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley

The Wickford Doom
Not usually one for ghost stories, this little tale of the supernatural set during the Second World War and aimed at eight year olds gave me a few shivers! It’s a beautifully compact story of Harry and his mother, who discover that they have inherited an old eerie mansion, Wickford Hall. However, it becomes apparent that this is a cruel joke, and as the story unfolds Harry is led further and further into the creepy past and supernatural evils of long ago. Chris Priestley is a master of suspense and tight plotting, and this is his first title for the dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stokes. At nearly 140 pages, it’s slightly longer than some titles for this age group in their range, but rattles along at a grand pace – the anticipation building, and the emotions wonderfully crafted. Chris Priestley manages to convey Harry’s thoughts and feelings perceptively, yet with sparse words. The language is both simple and yet highly evocative:
“The cliffs were high, and they were cracking and crumbling like a huge, half-eaten loaf of bread that was shedding crumbs.”
Published on dyslexia-friendly paper, and appealing to both avid and reluctant readers, with easy chapters and good spacing, this is an excellent starting point for leaping into longer novels. Highly recommended and spooky – the banging door is still haunting me!

The Wickford Doom was kindly sent to me for review by Barrington Stoke publishers. Click here to purchase

How the World Works by Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young

how the world works
Nothing makes me want to read a non-fiction book more than this sort of quote on the back cover “Gross! We’re all descended from green slime. Find out all about it inside.” Actually, this is a much more sophisticated book than the strapline implies. Covering basic earth information, such as how the world came about, how the seasons work, planets, gravity, day and night, evolution, the beginning of life, earth’s plates, the water cycle, weather, carbon, the sea…the list goes on. Yet unlike typical encyclopedias this book sets out the information in graphic and interactive illustrations so that for example, you can open a cheeseburger to see where all the constituent ingredients come from. The water cycle pops out the page, a carbon footprint is a footprint, and the food chain reveals itself in a pop up diagram. Not only is the text clear and simple, but also poses many questions to the inquisitive reader…how do you think our actions affect the natural water cycle? A joy to look at, read, and a fabulous start to explaining the ‘big picture’ of our world. This won the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize in 2011, and Christiane Dorion has since published How the Weather Works, How We Make Stuff, How Animals Live, and in September 2014, How the World Began, which is an exploration of history from the big bang (covered in greater detail than in How the World Works) through ancient civilizations to the future of the earth. Good visual reference for ages seven and up.

how the world works2