Back to School

The autumn always sees a mega haul of children’s nonfiction – the back to school collections, lists for National Non Fiction November, and of course the Christmas gift treasure troves. This year, unlike the wet harvest, has yielded a bumper crop.

We start the day with maths. Always a slog after the long summer holidays, this book aims to reverse that groan with a rather wonderful premise – from the front cover, the reader is a genius: This Book Thinks You’re a Maths Genius, by Dr Mike Goldsmith, illustrated by Harriet Russell. It aims to prove that if the reader likes patterns, colouring and puzzles, then actually they’re good at maths. Taking basic mathematical concepts, such as geometry, measurements, statistics, and number patterns, it gives the reader activities and games to enhance their knowledge. Most pages have a ‘Where’s the Math’s box’ at the bottom to explain the ‘science’ behind the activity. It feels more heavily weighted towards shapes and patterns than basic numbers, but it was certainly fun to fill in.

Geography next, with two books to explore. The first, Animazes, illustrated by Melissa Castrillon also combines the territory of activity book with non-fiction, as readers can trace the mazes on each page to learn about the migration patterns of different animals. There’s a vibrancy and exuberance to this book – set by the vivid colour palate, which lifts the knowledge from the page. Christmas Island red crabs, wildebeest of the Serengeti, Monarch butterflies, Mali elephants…There’s a wealth of phenomenal facts about these wonderful animals – for general use or project use. Maze answers are given at the back of the book.

For those wanting a more straightforward factual book, Starters: Rainforests by Nick Pierce and illustrated by Jean Claude ticks the box for little ones. Basic layouts and colourful simple illustrations lend this a modern textbook look, and it reads plainly, but overall gives information in a neat concise visual way, with glossary, and index. Great for Key Stage One, and will bring a dazzling intensity of colour to the topic.

After break, it’s biology, using Bugs by Simon Tyler for budding entomologists. With the first 32 pages devoted to dissecting insect life – from anatomy to taxonomy, life cycle to senses, and the rest given to large colourful illustrations of individual species with accompanying small details about size and habitat, this is a comprehensive look at the subject. However, it stands apart with its impressive use of blank space on the page, clean lines, and coloured backgrounds, which all give the book both a vivacity and a clinical feel. Rarely have insects looked quite so engaging, it could almost double as a coffee-table splendour. Inspirational for children, a minibeast triumph.

You can’t beat a good historical narrative for history lessons. Philip Ardagh’s new series sets out to dominate the market here with his ‘faction’ books, illustrated by Jamie Littler. The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge explores the life of a medieval knight with as much tongue-in-cheek humour as sword-in-hand fighting. Written in day-by-day diary form, with footnotes giving factual information or terminology, the next in the series is The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny, Victorian Housemaid.

The Histronauts series aims to mash activity, story and non-fiction in its first two titles, An Egyptian Adventure and A Roman Adventure by Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke. A group of children dive back in time, and through the means of a comic strip, they illuminate facets of historical life. There are activities alongside the narrative, such as learning Roman numerals and how to play merellus, as well as mazes, recipes and a host of other factual information. Packed with detail, these are fun and educational.

For a more visual look, try Unfolding Journeys: Secrets of the Nile by Stewart Ross and Vanina Starkoff. More cross-curricula than anything, this geography/history hybrid aims to explore this part of the world with a fold-out, vividly yellow map of the Nile (not to scale), highly captioned with number points, which are then extrapolated on the reverse of the fold-out. A mixture of ancient and modern facts and points of information make this a tricky landscape for a child to navigate – a few more dates might have helped, (and I’m unsure about the James Bond reference inside) but it’s certainly an intriguing way to look at a place of interest.

After lunch, younger primary school children will be delighted to get their hands on Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System by Dr Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman. A new title in this series, but firmly aimed at a younger age group, this is another gem from publishers Flying Eye. Fantastic, familiar cartoons, accompanied by Professor Astro Cat’s chatty and informative dialogue, this would be my go-to book for teaching KS1 children about space for the first time.

With our first day at school completed, we look forward to a trip out. The National Gallery have two phenomenal companion books to touring – Get Colouring with Katie by James Mayhew, and Picture This! By Paul Thurlby. The Katie books by James Mayhew have long been favourites for introducing the youngest children to art, and this is a great companion title that picks out paintings within the gallery and gives children space on the page to colour a detail in their own way. Katie gives hints and explanations along the way. Paul Thurlby’s spiral bound book explores more of the paintings by featuring a picture of them, and then a small explanation, with occasional questions to the readers. The paintings are grouped in different ways – both historical, but also those featuring children, times of day, fashions etc. It might be frustrating without a knowledge of which room each painting is in (which the book doesn’t give). But the questions it poses are pertinent and thoughtful. You can buy all these books from good local bookshops, or click the Waterstones link on the top left of the page.


An Animal Round Up: Spring 2017

Wild Animals of the South by Dieter Braun
Braun made a huge splash with his first book, Wild Animals of the North, because of its gloriously large full-page imagery – and the fact that it was lovingly produced in a cloth-bound luscious hardback with images on uncoated paper. It felt and smelled worthy. This book serves to do the same with animals from the southern half of the globe: from the hot tropical rainforests of Brazil to the cold depths of Antarctica. The portraits dominate the information – so this is a visual treat rather than an information overload. In fact the text is pocket-sized against the largesse of the illustrations, which gives the animals themselves even more emphasis.

The illustrations look tactile, and are highly textured and highly coloured. The artistry is stunning to behold – my favourite a troop of elephants headed directly in the reader’s direction – a backdrop of brown tones, blending with the grey to tea-coloured elephants – with just a suggestion of the dust flying up from their hooves in curvy waves.

The colour is stunning – some animals blended into the background, such as the mantis, others, such as the little egret, standing out proud against its blue watery background. The scratchy illustration and reflections imply a watery feel.

Information is scant, as in the first volume – for example, there is just a picture of the little egret with a naming caption, but text does accompany some – such as the Indian rhinoceros.

Split into regions, there is also a thumbnail index at the rear. A book to inspire and delight for budding illustrators and graphic designers, and a must-buy for those stunned by the beauty of the natural world and who would appreciate that beauty mirrored in a book. You can buy it here.

Safe and Sound by Jean Roussen, pictures by Loris Lora
A book about baby animals for near babes, this is another visual treat from publisher Flying Eye. What’s stunning about these far more simplistic illustrations than those by Dieter Braun above, is that the eyes from each animal stare out of the illustration and pull the reader inside – almost like looking longingly into baby eyes yourself.

The idea is that the baby animals need some protection before they’re ready to face the world, from chipmunks burrowing underground, to kangaroo joeys in comfy pouches. There’s nothing new here, but the information is given in rhyming couplets (some work better than others), and will surprise new readers who will not be aware that baby crocodiles hide inside their mothers’ mouths – not somewhere you’d expect to be that safe.

A delightful start to learning about non-fiction, this is exactly the sort of book schools and parents want more of for their little ones who want stories, but also want facts. You can buy it here.

Neon Leon by Jane Clarke, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup
How ironic! A chameleon who stands out. All the other chameleons change colour to match their surroundings of course, in this book that explains camouflage for the very young. Neon Leon, sadly, can’t turn off his neon glare to blend in. In fact, his fluorescent brilliant orange shows up even in the dark, and Leon soon feels sad and ostracised from the other chameleons. He searches for other animals who might also be bright orange, but as soon as he finds them, they fly away. Will Leon ever find his own happy place?

This book works beautifully. Not only are the colours vivid and glowing, and the illustrations endearing and sympathetic, but the text speaks directly to the reader, provoking interactivity – helping Leon to choose the right colours, or what to do next. As with Safe and Sound, the book works wonderfully for young readers, giving non-fiction a new spin, but it also encourages massive affinity with the book, and the characters within. A great fluid read, bright and engaging. Purchase Leon here.

Bee and Me by Alison Jay
Lastly, and by no means least, a wordless picture book that encompasses a tale of friendship with an environmental message, through fascinating and busy illustrations, telling the story in an almost comic book sequence, but with traditional drawings.

A little girl in a bustling city is disturbed by a bee who accidentally flies in through her window. A natural reaction would be to swat the bee perhaps, or to capture it in a vessel so that it can be safely released. The girl does succumb to the latter, but when she sees it has drooped in its glass cage, she reads a book to work out what to do. What a clever girl! She revives the bee, and lets it go, but when bad weather drives it to her window again, a friendship is struck. Before long, the bee grows, and eventually teaches the little girl all about bees.

The pictures are captivating – both in their execution and in what they’re saying. This is a wonderful way to engage young readers to get them to ‘say what they see’ – telling the story as the narrator, engaging their analytical and storytelling capacities, as well as their empathy. And the book also holds an environmental message about the importance of bees, and pollination. By the end, a kaleidoscope of new butterflies and flowers have emerged in the city.

The book isn’t preachy though, but rather imbued with a grand sense of humour. From looking bedraggled to being pouffed with a hairdryer, our bee is full of personality. And the little girl too – she takes the bee out in her bike basket and gives it an ice-cream lolly, she measures it on a height chart, but best of all the bee enjoys a visit to the florist, and finally a day break from the city. A mellifluous read. Buy it here.

Animal Non-Fiction

I have been wondering about the ratio of children’s non-fiction books about animals, to children’s books about anything else. So many seem to feature animals – in the same way that picture books often use animals as a way of exploring human foibles, or pointing out the differences between humans and animals in a subconscious way. For children, animals can be the way into various topics – geography about where they live, how the food cycle works, our emotions and behaviour (through the differences and similarities with animals), the way we portray animals in art and photography, and the environment and how human behaviour affects it. Animals are an excellent frame of reference. After watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 with children, it’s easy to see how exciting animal life can be.


Martin Brown’s Lesser Spotted Animals
From the illustrator of Horrible Histories comes this adorable non-fiction approbation to all the brilliant beasts that never quite make it into your average animal encyclopedia. Who needs further facts about flamingos or information about iguanas when you can read about the Lesser Fairy Armadillo, the Dagger-Toothed Flower Bat or the Yellow-Footed Rock-Wallaby? The latter is not a pop star wannabe, just a wallaby.

Funny from the book’s dedication onwards, Brown separates the ‘celebrity animals’ we all know and love, such as the koala, from the animals featured in his book. Each creature receives a double page spread, with a large illustration and accompanying text and facts – size, eating, habitat, status etc. The text is informative, but also a cry for help – as some of them are endangered.

Brown gives each illustration its own animal personality – with rolled eyes, or sneaky smiles or in the Gaur’s case, a death stare. This makes the book wonderfully amusing at the same time as hugely memorable and informative. I can definitely picture many eight year old children entertaining me with their facts about creatures who may sound made up, but actually exist. It’s telling that this was one of my review copy books that was appropriated by a child almost immediately. I learnt that a male lesser fairy armadillo is called a lister. (if you follow me on Facebook, you’ll see why that tickled me). Buy a copy here and have a good giggle.


Wilderness: An Interactive Atlas of Animals by Hannah Pang, illustrated by Jenny Wren
Although not purporting to do anything particularly new in the realms of children’s non-fiction, this is a particularly appealing book for the young non-fiction readership. It firmly places animals within their geography, teaching chosen facts about specific animals, as well as placing them within their habitats so that everything from common animals to more exotic, surprising species are highlighted.

Each page is a different environment, from Desert to Fresh Water, for example, and species within the latter include the common frog and the kingfisher as well as the diving bell spider, which spends its whole life underwater. What’s particularly appealing is the 3D visual interactive features of each page – in Fresh Water, the common frog is bullet-pointed with facts about the tadpole-to-frog-story, but enhanced by the visual spinning wheel which illustrates each stage, complete with matching bulleted-numbers for easy reference.

The page on the Hot Savannah features such beauties as the African thorn tree and the sociable weaver bird, but also encourages the reader to go on safari themselves, as hiding beneath the camouflaging grass illustration is information about the grass itself and the lion and zebra. One ostrich egg opens to reveal the number of hen eggs to which it is equivalent in size. Read the book to find out!

Few readers will forget which pole is where, as the Arctic sits firmly on top of the Antarctic -the latter being portrayed upside down.

The first page gives a quick guide introduction – explaining the definition of habitat, giving a key to the different types, and explaining the hemispheres, but all in very simple basic language that is easy to understand.

Each page is a hardy cardboard, allowing for the 3D visual elements – such as the pop-up mountain, but also lending a longevity to this colourful, and thoughtfully put-together animal book. You can buy a copy here.


Secrets of the Sea: Discover a Hidden World by Kate Baker, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor
The sort of children’s book that doubles as a coffee table manual, or a tome that could be smuggled under the duvet and inspire future generations of marine biologists. From the publishers of Botanicum, Animalium and Historium, comes a new scientific study in illustration – life beneath water.

From rockpools along the shore, to the deepest depths of the ocean, Eleanor Taylor zooms in on fascinating sea dwellers to show the reader the intense beauty and incredible detail of a rarely photographed or illustrated world.

Each page is given over to a different species, from the wondrous pygmy seahorse, ordinarily only 2 cm in size, here magnified to over 20 times, and in a glorious illustration that shows it clinging to its host sea fan by its tail. Text details are given alongside – from its size to Latin name, behaviour, habitat and other facts. The reader can look at even more minute creatures though, such as the 2 mm in size sea butterfly – a marine snail that uses its heart-shaped muscular foot as a pair of wings.

Or perhaps, look at something larger, but under a microscope. Taylor illustrates fish gills as seen under a microscope – they look like feathers, or leaves from an exquisite tree.

The book is split into sections – swimming from the Shallows, through Sea Forests, Coral Gardens and finally into the Deep. The use of background colour throughout the book reflects this, so that by the time the reader is studying creatures in the deepest part of the ocean, the book has turned almost black, yet with a grainy bubbles feeling, a swooshy watery sensation so that the pages almost look as if they are floating in water.

The artworks are a combination of various forms including ink and charcoal, although coloured digitally, and the effect is quite mesmerising. Seeing images in such microscopic detail does make the reader think twice about what exactly it is they are looking at – zooming in at such an intensity magnifies the beauty.

The text is informative, but also fairly descriptive – definitely aimed at a confident and learned reader. However, even the youngest sibling may be enamoured by the description and picture of ‘sea sparkle’, a single-celled organism that lights up the sea at night – otherwise known as ‘sea fire’ or ‘sea ghost’. Who wouldn’t be won over? This is very stunning-looking non-fiction book to inspire future generations and delight older ones. Age 8+ years. Buy your copy here.

Supersearch Adventures: On the Trail of the Whale by Camilla de la Bedoyere and illustrated by Richard Watson, and Where is the Bear? By Camilla de la Bedoyere and illustrated by Emma Levey
Doubling as an activity book and fact book, this is another non-fiction book in which the reader learns through play and fiction narrative.

The fold out glossy cover flaps show panoramic artwork and creature spotting tick boxes to work through as the reader goes through the book. On the Trail of the Whale follows Otto the Octopus as he tries to find his best friend Hula the humpback whale, whilst Where is the Bear? follows Suki the hare looking to deliver a present to a bear called Ping.

Both books allow the reader to traverse through particular landscapes spotting animals that live there, and finding out facts about them.

The drawings are cartoon-like and colourful, appealing well to the target readership, children aged five and over. The instructions are rhyming, but the facts written clearly, as speech bubbles from the various creatures. The story nicely splits up the facts, so that there is plenty of movement on each page – the adventure doesn’t stop.

There are even some maths problems lineated inside the book, asking the reader to work out numbers of legs and suchlike. Fun, bright, and following a simple narrative. Buy On the Trail of the Whale here and Where is the Bear? here.


Knowledge Encyclopedia Animal
It may not feature the lesser fairy armadillo, but this is a fairly comprehensive look at the animals of the world, using computer-generated artworks to capture the variety of the animal world, and the details of each individual animal.

Starting with the basic question of what is an animal, the book then breaks it down into classification and explores types of animals with sections on invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals – colour-coded for ease. Fully comprehensive, there is a scale for sizing, glossary, and a section on general animal science, including parenting and migration.

As this is a DK encyclopedia, the text is accessible without being patronising. It’s not chatty but not too dry either. It feels like a hefty purchase, with a myriad of different ways of putting across information including factfiles, closeups, skeletons and diagrams.

There is lots of white space, illustrations that are sharply annotated and labelled with captions that give oodles of information. The text is concisely edited, giving the maximum amount of information in the fewest words.

The Galapagos tortoise double spread includes fact titbits such as the age it lives to, but also close up of growth rings, the armour plate, information on its bony carapace, its beak and rivalry, as well as the difference between its front and hind feet.

Fully checked by the Smithsonian Institute, the book has also been rigorously looked at to suit the national curriculum up to Key Stage 3, covering components such as habitats and ecosystems as well as senses and respiration. What an incredible way to learn. You can purchase your copy here.


The Book of Bees by Piotr Socha, text by Wojciech Grajkowski, translated by Agnes Monod-Gayraud

book of bees

In the summer, on the Slate website, Daniel Hahn bemoaned the lack of translated children’s literature; very little foreign literature makes it across the seas and into our children’s hands. Well, thank goodness Thames and Hudson commissioned the translation of The Book of Bees from the Polish. This is quite the most sumptuous and exquisite non-fiction book to have buzzed in from Europe for a while.

Although concentrating on a small insect, this is an over-sized book, standing at 37 cm height, with a comprehensive encyclopaedic amount of information contained within, discussing not only scientific data about the bee, but also the history of this loveable insect, quirky facts and more.

But it’s not dry in any way. Piotr Socha’s drawings take up the majority of each page – the text runs only seven lines deep at the bottom of the page – and the illustrations are huge, and yet beautifully detailed, funny, extensively researched and splendid to behold.


Socha has a way with facial expressions (he is a famous cartoonist) – the section beginning with ‘When Humans Met Bees’ illustrates a caveman and woman, part cartoon, part portrait in a startlingly funny way; eating honeycomb, but also with a palette of cave paints.


The text underneath is hugely informative though: evidence of cave paintings showing how the first peoples gathered honey, as well as their motivation, and how they ate bee larvae too, which is a valuable source of protein and fat.

From the Ancient Egyptians to the legend of St Ambrose and the swarm of bees, from Napolean and Josephine’s bee-embroidered capes to traditional beekeeping techniques in Ethiopia and Cameroon, Socha covers the subject comprehensively.

There’s plenty of nature information too – not only anatomy, but also how bees pollinate, how they make honey, as well as why bees are now in danger. Socha is the son of a beekeeper, and knows his facts.


Fascinating facts include locations of beehives on famous buildings, all the food that bees help to grow, biomimicry and the waggle dance. Socha also features The Daily Buzz, a newspaper type double page spread in black and white with hilarious cartoons to highlight other interesting tidbits, such as bees protecting crops from elephants, Virgil and the bees, and honey as medicine.

The endpapers are beautiful too – just endless bees, giving the book a luxurious feel. Designed like a coffee table book, yet containing the knowledge of an encyclopaedia, and reading like a fun newspaper, this is stunningly executed – my top non-fiction book of the year. For ages 7+ years. You can buy it here.


A Nature Story: Bees, Fish and Foxes

Some environmental good news last week when scientists declared that thinning in the ozone layer is starting to heal. But it’s not all good. Whilst the Friends of the Earth are now calculating our bee population for 2015-2016, there has been a serious decline in bee populations over the last few years.

Bees are essential to our way of life. They pollinate plants and are a crucial part of our food cycle. In fact, 85 per cent of the UK’s apple crop relies on bees.

But how to explain this to children? Britta Teckentrup takes on the challenge in this beautifully colourful, highly visual exploration of the journey of a bee.


Bee by Britta Teckentrup focuses on one bee, seen through a die cut hole on the cover, and revealed on a flower half way through, before being seen in another die cut hole, finally revealed atop a field brimming with plants and flowers.

Each spread is lovingly drawn with bursts of colour, from the poppies at dawn to the bright daisies, roses and foxgloves showing the bee alighting on different flowers. The text accentuates the bee’s journey explaining her intelligence – how she knows her route, how she navigates using the sun – but all in lush rhyming couplets. These hints about bee behaviour will inevitably lead to questions from readers afterwards, but during the reading they will be immersed and won over by the text, with lines such as:

“As she travels here and there,
A gentle thrumming fills the air.”

The vocabulary is startlingly effective in that it drops clues about the bee, but also takes on a soothing rhythm, as if the reader were lulled by the gentleness of a breeze in summer. Scientific facts are dropped like raindrops into the rhyme – including pollen carrying, and how bees leave a trace, and of course the most important denouement – that bees give life to all the plants and flowers. The double page spread shows a field teeming with colour – it’s really beautiful.

The die cut is hexagonal-shaped of course, which is just another question that the reader may want answered; reading this aloud to a group of children will demand some knowledge on behalf of the reader.

But in essence the book explores the symbiosis of bees and plants with a symphony of colour, and that’s good enough to provoke thought in any reader. You can buy it here.

the river

Look out too for The River by Hanako Clulow, with more rhyming text couplets by Patrica Hegarty. Working on a similar principle of a die cut hole with a magical swimming fish appearing throughout the book (via a hologram), the book explores the different fauna and flora that appear in the changing seasons in, and next to, a river. As the river flows through different landscapes and different times, the river follows the fish on a journey to the sea (complete with a sparkly shoal of fish). The readers who sampled this book with me were spellbound at the hologram and the glitter, and wanted re-reads for this purpose, but beneath the gloss is a nature tale worth telling, and sumptuous illustrations of wildlife scenes. You can buy it here.

the fox and the wild

Another environmental message is contained in a new picture book, The Fox and the Wild by Clive McFarland. Although experts cite that the number of urban foxes isn’t actually rising, there does appear to be a prevalence. However, this is more to do with behaviour than it is increasing populations. Foxes are becoming more used to humans, and braver. In my case, brazen, as they frolic in my garden in broad daylight. Also, of course, and more to the point of Clive’s picture book, our urban sprawl is becoming larger, so more foxes are ‘urban’ rather than dwelling in the wild.

Fred is a city fox in the book, but there are dangers and annoyances in the city. It’s polluted with smoke, there is noisy and dangerous traffic, and humans are unhappy with them. When Fred loses his pack, he longs for the freedom of the birds who can fly to the wild. But, after searching in vain, Fred wonders if ‘the wild’ truly exists.

Children will love the bold graphics of this book – the familiar city scenes, the camaraderie and conversation between different animals, and the juxtaposition of town and country. The depiction of the digger is particularly effective. McFarland cleverly plays on the different senses as he compares the noise of the city with its metal monsters to the sound of scurrying animals in the undergrowth; as well as polluted versus fresh air, and even the feel of the ground beneath the fox’s feet.

With a style reminiscent of Chris Haughton – those eyes – this is a new picture book to be cherished for content and style. You can buy it here.

Explore other websites looking at Bee on it’s blogtour.

bee blog tour


The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen

the nest

(contains spoilers)

“Scritch, scratch, scritch”

This wasn’t planned as a book of the week. In fact, it wasn’t even in my ‘to be reviewed’ pile of books that teeters on the edge of my desk like some tower of Pisa, threatening to, and yet never quite pitching to the floor. I found it whilst rummaging through some books at a colleague’s on Wednesday night, and, the narrative and the voice enticed me from the outset, like a bee to nectar.

Except this is no friendly honeybee tale.

I don’t often come across ‘horror’ in children’s books. There is the Goosebumps series of course, and various other chilling tales that weave a web of menace in the mind, and Coraline, which I still think is one of the most haunting tales I’ve ever read. The Nest by Kenneth Oppel isn’t genre fiction, in that it isn’t just horror – it’s literary children’s fiction at its finest, and yet with a latent horror that rises closer to the surface the further you read.

Of course there’s horror in the very youngest children’s narratives – ‘Ring a Ring of Roses’ hasn’t a pretty fairy tale ending, and even ‘Row row row your boat’ holds a threat – ‘life is but a dream’ – what meaning does life really contain?

Kenneth Oppel plays with the distinction, or lack of, between dream and reality as a hook for his narrative, as well as cramming in a host of other themes and issues into his slight novella about a boy and some wasps:

Steve has always worried about stuff. Now he has new things to worry about – his newborn baby brother is sick, his parents are struggling to cope, and there is a wasps’ nest hanging in the eaves of their house. When Steve dreams about some angels who can ‘fix’ the baby, Steve thinks his worries may be assuaged. But the angels don’t stay in his dreams, and they aren’t what they first appear to be: they are wasps, and the ‘fixes’ they can provide, don’t turn out to be the ‘fixes’ that Steve had in mind. Before long Steve must do everything he can to protect himself and the newborn baby from the swarming wasps.

The Queen of the wasps, at first a soothing, fluttery angel with a mellifluous voice, soon turns out to be a coercive villain – the worst kind – one who seems nice but is far from it. Who offers what one wants, be it Turkish delight or to fix your newborn baby brother – and yet who is manipulating you in the worst possible way.

The ‘fix’ to the baby turns out to be ‘replacement’, which is a far cry from what Steve had envisaged. His guilt at being sucked into the wasps’ plan is ever present, almost tangible with its force, and his worries mutate from small insignificant worries into huge worries with wings.

Kenneth Oppel uses all the traits of classic horror to tell his tale – from unknown shadows at the bottom of the bed, to a figure no one else can see, to knives, the attic, a ringing telephone with a disembodied voice at the end of the line – and superbly juxtaposes Steve’s growing nightmare with his sunny little sister’s carefree existence.

The themes abound, from whether naming things gives a person power and control over a situation: If Steve could pinpoint exactly what was wrong with the baby, he might feel better:

“It made me feel better to have the words. As if knowing the names of things meant I had some power over them.”

to the exploration of villain and hero. By the end of the story not everyone is at the same end of the spectrum from where they were first cast – so that the roles aren’t obvious – no one is all hero or all villain, everyone has good and bad within – which leads onto Oppel’s main theme – that of perfection and normality. If the baby is made ‘perfect’ by the wasps, what does this mean? Do we want perfection? Are a person’s defects what makes them themselves, and is there such a thing as normality anyway:

“It was so perfect that it wouldn’t even understand what is was like not to be perfect. It could never know weakness or fear.”

The idea of a collective workforce, the worker wasps working their entire short lives for the Queen’s plan, sacrificing themselves for the greater good – is this a good thing?

And throughout, Oppel’s writing is masterful. His imagery light and fluttering:

“the threads of DNA that tell everything what to do. And with the baby I pictured them like strings of Christmas tree lights, only some bulbs were missing, and others were winking, and some had blinked out for good.”

Oppel has written his novel so that the reader feels so deeply burrowed within Steve’s mind that we can see all his thoughts, worries, anxieties laid bare before us, and they are particularly powerful when he worries about his parents’ concern for himself. He overhears snatched conversations, he ‘reads’ his parents’ expressions: his fearfulness is expertly portrayed.

And Oppel stings the text with insect references, from our houses being our own nests, to cocooning ourselves under the bedclothes, to cocooning thoughts in our head.

Even the cover of the book is clever – the jacket the outside of the nest, whereas the hard cover underneath shows the hexagons of the interior nest. Inside, Klassen’s images are equally menacing – showing half people with a lack of facial features, depicting the shadows instead of the real image, and wasps, so many wasps. And the endpapers are ingenious – showing the same image, and yet with slight but distinct differences so that the opening image looks threatening, the final image more homely.

Obviously many reviewers have pointed out the parallels with Skellig by David Almond – a sick new baby, angel references, a hidden space within the home, and yet this is powerful in a very different way. It makes you scared, and it makes you think.

At what point do we introduce such deep questions, such horror to our children? Because actually children do have anxieties from quite an early age – “will I fit in at school, am I wearing the right sneakers, why are my parents getting divorced?” There are so many questions, so many worries, that it’s only right that our fiction reflects some of these back to us. And this one does this with absolute perfection. It’s not a book that will cocoon you with warmth, but it’s a book that made it to the top of my pile of books – a book to dissect, and treasure, and nest with. You can purchase it here.

The book is marketed for age 10+. Please note that there are scenes of horror that sensitive children might find disturbing.

Beetle Boy by MG Leonard

Beetle Boy

It may only be February, but so far this qualifies as my book of the year. A meaty old-fashioned adventure story that is modern in tone, has memorable characters, a scintillating plot, clever communication of scientific knowledge, and oodles of emotional depth. It’s also extraordinarily well written, and looks on the outside as good as it is on the inside, with beautifully colourful insect illustrations sprayed on the pages’ outside edges.

With his mother dead, and his scientist father having mysteriously disappeared whilst working at the Natural History Museum, 13 year old Darkus is left no other choice but to move in with his kindly Uncle Max. But Darkus is determined to discover the truth behind his father’s continuing absence. When a rhinoceros beetle with intelligent communication skills seeks him out, Darkus realises that there is a hive’s worth of mystery to be solved.

The villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter, has elements of Mrs Coulter and Cruella De Ville, but manages to be a perfectly contemporary villain in that she is a mash up of fashion designer/mad scientist. To keep her real, she has a daughter, Novak, who is starved of attention and affection, and who plays a key role in helping Darkus.

But the overwhelming theme, which infuses the characters and the settings is beetles. M G Leonard has woven this fascinating element into all areas of the novel – they permeate the building into which Darkus moves – swarms of them live in the flat next door, which again, is not all it seems. But the beetles also intrude into the main settings – from the Natural History Museum to the cavernous den that Darkus and his friends make in the yard out of discarded furniture (it not only uses insects in its make up, but represents their habitats in its layout), to the hybrid villain of Lucretia Cutter who is more insect-like than she first appears.

These elements all combine to make a hugely visual novel – the tea cup tower habitat of the beetles is kaleidoscopically depicted, Lucretia’s house and entrance is graphically described, and even the small description of Darkus’ room in Uncle Max’s house smacks of insect imagery – from the canvas which “cocoons” Darkus to the “hard-backed” books in the room – like a beetle’s exoskeleton – to the dusty places where insects might scuttle. There are also hard facts carefully dripped throughout the adventure – giving the reader knowledge about beetle behaviour, ecology, habitats, species etc.

But it doesn’t matter if you don’t find beetles agreeable – they just lend an extra layer of knowledge and depth to a fascinating adventure story. Darkus is an intensely likeable protagonist – with wit, depth of feeling, determination, and masses of emotional empathy – displayed through his feelings for Novak and his loyalty to his father. Uncle Max displays plenty of pathos too. The rounded characterisations zing off the page. Darkus is also one of those fantastic characters you’d happily invite round for tea – a character with whom you want to spend all your time.

The book was reminiscent of the best of today’s children’s storytellers – such as Piers Torday – with his dastardly villain Fenella Clancy-Clay and the cockroach in The Last Wild trilogy.

Beetle Boy is exclusive to Waterstones for the month of February, and published generally on March 3rd. I would use your antennae to seek out a copy as quickly as possible – with such original, rich storytelling you’ll want to burrow right through it. You can buy it here from Waterstones.