Latest Book Review

The Muddlemoor Mysteries: Peril at the Bake Off by Ruth Quayle, illustrated by Marta Kissi

muddlemoor mysteries
Granny is baking her own grandma’s secret recipe to win the Great Village Bake Off. It’s complicated by the fact that she has her three grandchildren staying: Tom, Pip, and our narrator, Joe Robinson. However, things get even messier when her recipe goes missing, and the children decide to solve the mystery of who has stolen it.

In the annual fiercely competitive bake off, it seems natural that one of the Muddlemoor neighbours may want to stop Granny winning, and seeing as the children have little better to do during their holidays, they set off to find out the culprit. Unfortunately, though, they are better eaters of cake than mystery solvers.

With a winning narrative voice, not unlike that of Izzy’s in Pamela Butchart’s great series of books for younger readers, Joe Robinson sees things from a fairly naïve point of view, sharing his intimate thoughts with the reader, whilst really the reader is one step ahead of him. It’s a nice touch, and leads to the inevitable trouble he and his cousins get themselves into. At the same time, the children do their best to channel their inner Secret Seven, exploring motives and picking up clues, in order to solve the simple mystery.

There is so much to like in this first of a new series, from the map at the beginning of the book, which outlines the village, to the periphery characters, which include a phone-obsessed teenager and a former professional spy. There are also oodles of food descriptions in the text. Quayle excels at pointing out the common misconceptions of children, but also the things that children notice, including the difference in the ways the cousins are being raised, to their very different personalities. The conversational, chatty style of the narration, with occasional use of capitals for hyperbole, makes the story feel intimate and real, and the rambling stories to illustrate their experiences and truisms gives the text enormous relatability.

Joe Robinson is a great protagonist, and even more admirable is the way in which he is depicted as more of a follower than a leader, despite being the main character, and all the more likeable for it. He is flawed and a scamp, but with a heart in the right place.

Illustrated throughout with expressive black and white pictures, this is a particularly adept portrayal of the different characters in a small village, and how their quirks come to make them lovable. A community-feel, diverse characterisation, and a large dollop of humour make this a recipe for success. A lovely addition to younger fiction for fluent readers.

With thanks to Andersen Press for the review copy. 

Explore the World by Anton Hallmann, translated by Ryan Eyers

explore the world
I’ve been working with older children recently, outside of my normal primary school demographic. Of course the further into education you go, the more specialised it becomes.

So, it came as something like relief to receive Explore the World by Anton Hallmann in the bookpost this week. This non-fiction title for primary school children neatly marries geography and history, and allows a peek into each era and place – discoveries that shaped the world – piquing children’s interest in the particular, but giving them a broad scope of the general.

Starting with a colour-coded contents timeline spanning 120,000 years ago to present day, and then an introduction explaining what it is to ‘discover,’ the book neatly begins in Africa with the first traces of human activity. Throughout the book, the reader is guided by two friends, Emma and Louis – first glimpsed in the end papers drawing maps, and then the title pages, inventing and discovering. These two children, illustrated on each page, give vocal contributions in speech bubbles to the general text.

The book begins with human ‘wandering’ and the first discoveries and adventures, looking at tools, voyages and resources, and moves into influential people and the spread of religions. It’s a huge subject, and the text is fairly advanced for primary age (it is translated from the German), but its meatiness and depth is rewarding, explaining how we now know certain information, and why the world opened up the way it did.

Taking in the Vikings, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the search for Australia, Darwin and all the way to the Space Race, the book covers a vast amount of exploration and discovery. Happily, there are references to female discoverers too, such as the archaeologist Jane Dieulafoy, and the explorer Anne Blunt, as well as discoverers who aren’t always covered, including Matthew Henson and Inuit explorer, Nukapinguaq. From land to sea and then space, the book certainly tries to cover the extent to which humans will go to find new things. And children reading the book will find a wealth of new exciting information and discovery, leading them, hopefully to make further digs for information in their environments and libraries.

Colour is used well in the book. Each page representative of the environment being explored, with the ocean pages tinted blue and with portholes displaying different information. Each explorer is illustrated in the outfit of their time, and the two children guides, Emma and Louis, interact within the illustrations on the page – climbing out of the Egyptian tombs, clinging to branches when looking at natural world discoveries, and even shown listening to the sounds of instruments down under.

This intimate and accessible way of delving into each page adds an extra element of welcome and warmth to the book, and juxtaposes with the density of information. A fascinating look at how, and importantly, why, humans explore and discover, with good touches and caveats about treatment of indigenous people, oppression and colonisation, those who aren’t credited with discovery or who have been forgotten, the different roles of women in history, and the importance of respecting the natural world and its people. In this way, it is a book best read and explored with an adult, extrapolating what we’ve learnt and what we’ve destroyed, where humans have adventured, and where humans were misguided.

But it is not negative. This is a book about the wonder of the world. There are new things to discover, according to the final pages, and Elon Musk would agree. The book ends on an optimistic note, with adventures waiting to be had. For those wanting to start their own, they could begin with this book and see where it leads them.

With thanks to Little Gestalten for the review copy. You can buy your own here

We Played with Fire by Catherine Barter

we played with fire
Quite often, when I’m running through the benefits of reading with a group of children, the first answer they come up with is that reading gives you knowledge. And although primarily I don’t read to gain knowledge, so much as for pleasure and immersion in a good story, I do appreciate that much of the time, knowledge is being absorbed anyway. Catherine Barter’s last novel, Troublemakers, was a pleasure to read. The characterisation was strong and the plot compelling, and this second novel plays to both those strengths, whilst also giving an insight into a part of history of which I was unaware.

We Played With Fire toys with the story of the Fox sisters, a trio who inspired the creation of spiritualism in late nineteenth-century America, by holding public seances. The book starts with sisters Maggie and Kate in a remote farmhouse, apparently driven from town by Maggie’s strange tales of ghostly sightings and interference. The sisters play tricks on their parents at night by making strange sounds, but when the house starts to join in, seemingly all on its own, the neighbours believe that someone or something is trying to speak to them from beyond the grave. Before long, the girls are believed to be mediums, and with the help of their elder sister Leah, transport their business to New York.

Barter plays with the reader as much as the sisters toy with their audiences, so that one is ever quite sure how much is fabricated by the sisters and how much might have been truly felt by them to be real. Barter focuses in on Maggie as the protagonist, weaving the story from her point of view, and the character fluctuates ambiguously between naïve and scared child, and all-knowing young woman, with hints of Abigail Williams from The Crucible. She is an innocent young teenager, manipulated by her older sister. In fact, the dynamics of the family are as much at play here as the spirits, and as alliances change and split, Maggie becomes more and more sympathetically seen by the reader.

Barter is brilliant at bringing history to life, making the characters sing from the page, and providing just enough detail of 19th century New York with its food and fashions and décor. She also brings history up to date with her modern interjections that dissect the stifling restrictions of the patriarchal society in which the sisters lived. Maggie’s friendship with a woman called Amy infuses the story with a sense of injustice, as Amy is involved with the underground railroad, smuggling slaves from the Southern States to freedom.  Through this prism, the reader sees Maggie’s conflict with the influences all around her – from those who would change society, decrying even the church and its patriarchal hold over women, to those who would call her a witch for her sacrilegious dalliance with the dead.

But mainly, readers will be spellbound by the spookiness of the telling. The raps and knocks, the falling of a picture frame, the ghostly figures in the dark. Each chapter hinges on a cliffhanger, as the reader waits in suspense to see which plot turns are the girls’ doing and which are the ghosts, and who or what will scupper them. And of course, when does fame turn into notoriety, and what does a girl really want from life anyway, and what is she permitted to want?

A fascinating character and period piece, as well as a gripping little historical ghost story – this is a wonderfully told second novel. As I said with Troublemakers, I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

With thanks to Andersen Press for granting me permission to read a review copy.

What We’re Scared Of by Keren David

what we're scared of
For a very long time, I’ve struggled to find representations of Jewish children in children’s literature who aren’t, as one child I work with puts it “all bundled up with the Holocaust.” And of course, Holocaust literature is extremely important, and for Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow I’ll highlight some recent examples. But I work with children in a Jewish school, and although we stock a breadth of titles and I want them to be able to read about any child anywhere, and empathise with their plight, I do, on the odd occasion want to show them that they too exist in children’s literature. A modern British Jewish child.

There have been periphery characters, side entities who occasionally display some kind of Jewishness. In Tender Earth by Sita Brahmachari, the main character’s friend is planning her bat mitzvah. But they are few and far between. So, it was with great expectations that I waited for my pre-ordered copy of What We’re Scared Of by Keren David, published last week.

Fourteen-year-old twins Evie and Lottie are far from identical. Evie is outgoing and fun and wants to be a comedienne. Lottie attends a different school – is quieter, studious and a dreamer. And religion doesn’t play a role in who they are. Until their mother takes on a new role hosting a radio breakfast show, and not only professes her Jewish heritage to the world, but takes a stance against anti-Semitism too. Before long, both twins are embroiled in their own battles in their own way.

This is an excellent portrayal of modern anti-Semitism in its different guises, and a gentle description of what it means to be a traditional Jewish family in London (as explained to Lottie by her new friend Hannah), but above all this is a book about navigating friendships and family relationships when young teens are on the verge of finding their own identities and breaking free from their childhoods.

Elegantly written, David manages to make this a gripping page turner for any young teen, whilst also grappling with some intense modern issues and problems – addressing the Charlie Hebdo killings, trolling on social media, conspiracy theories about hidden rulers of the world, and the lazy everyday anti-Semitic tropes of ‘rich’ Jews. And all these deep difficult issues are tied into a well-crafted story of twins – and alternating chapters told from their different points of view. There are boys too, a group of mean girls, and a wonderful Muslim best friend.

Particularly impressive is David’s weaving of Hannah’s life into the twins’ story. Lottie makes friends with Hannah at school, and is interested in finding out more about her modern orthodox Jewish life. To that end, she attends a bat mitzvah with her, goes to synagogue at Purim and learns about the festival, and experiences the beauty of a family Friday night meal – a Shabbat dinner. This is all gently introduced, with a wonderful teen perspective by Hannah (who also struggles with some of the gendered aspects of her religion), and very neatly juxtaposed with the things that can turn scary – the very necessary security outside synagogues and Jewish schools, anti-Semitic leaflets that brainwash, and even the small scuffles of violence that can turn serious.

And towards the end, the twins experience the true story of a Holocaust survivor – true because it is the only part of the book that David hasn’t fictionalised. Mala Tribich’s story is kept intact and unembellished – because survivors’ stories are scary and empowering and astounding and essential in their true form. It brings home the idea that Jewish people can’t be separated from such a people-defining event as the Holocaust, and yet it isn’t the only defining factor. Jewish people have a culture, and a religion, and live modern lives, and thrive, assimilated or not, in modern Britain. And this very life-affirming story speaks to that fully and boldly. I can’t wait to give it to my children, and show them that they can be proud of their identity – after all, now it’s even in a book.

For age 11+. Published by Scholastic.

The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll

The Ghost Garden
The Secret Garden
by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a much-loved and yet rather strange children’s book. Although it can be embraced as a paean to gardens and the healing power of nature, and although it remains a favourite of mine for its ability to feature prickly rather than immediately loveable children protagonists, when you come to it as an adult you have to ponder its darker side. After all, the novel starts with Mary’s family all dying quite horribly and the child being forgotten. Then when Mary arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, a father is projecting his grief onto his son and purposefully making him out to be ill – Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Whatever you think of it, its imagery lingers, which is why modern-day books that allude to it hold a special place in my head and heart. Emma Carroll’s newest book, The Ghost Garden, her first with dyslexia-specialists Barrington Stoke, is beautifully atmospheric, historically detailed, but also contains barely contained allusions to the aforementioned Secret Garden. Indeed, even on the cover, a girl pushes around a boy who has become wheelchair-bound.

The Ghost Garden is set in the summer of 1914, and a young girl, Fran, stumbles across a bone whilst digging in the garden of a country house. That same afternoon, coincidence strikes when the young boy of the house breaks his leg. Then more strange happenings in the garden lead to a burgeoning friendship between the two, all set against the very dire backdrop of impending war.

With stylised illustrations from Kaja Kajfez, The Ghost Garden is marginally spooky, but bursting with particular detail. As one would expect from Carroll, the characters are swiftly yet beautifully drawn, so that the reader feels as if Fran exists far beyond the pages of the book, and the tale is well-executed and rather fun. Its final message is that, despite the world’s sometime devastating bigger picture, things are best faced as a community rather than alone. And that we should create and embrace positive moments and memories during the good times, making the most of the time we have. At the end of 2020, what better message could there be? A sumptuous little feast, to be devoured in one go.

With thanks to Barrington Stoke for the review copy. The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll is published in January 2021 but is available to pre-order now for a post-Christmas treat.

Friend Me by Sheila M Averbuch

friend me
Do you have children with phones? Silly question really, as Ofcom’s 2019 survey found that 83% of 12 to 15 year olds in the UK owned a smartphone. So, it’s only fitting that some of the contemporary literature for this age group features interaction with a digital device. Yet, writers of fiction have argued for some time that phones get in the way of plots. It’s harder to go missing and have an adventure if your parents can text you every two minutes. It’s easier to solve mystery clues if you can just ‘Google’ the answers. And far less interesting for the reader.

But Averbuch has discovered a cruelly satisfying way to lend interest to the digital device. It can, as she says in the book, become an easy way for a loner to look busy or popular – they can just look down at their phone.

Friend me is a cautionary tale. Roisin, recently moved from Ireland to America, and struggling to fit in, is bullied in school by Zara. Happening in person, but exacerbated online, Roisin finds herself unable to confide in her parents (her mother is a workaholic, her father back in Ireland), or her older brother. However, she finds a true friend in Hayley, online. Someone who lives at an inaccessible distance in real life, but who online, not only sympathises with Roisin’s experiences, but has shared similar, and completely agrees with Roisin on pretty much everything.

But then Zara, busy taking selfies, has a dreadful and shocking accident, and when Roisin thinks about it, it’s not that shocking in regards to private conversations she has had with Hayley.

The book almost pivots at this point, from a contemporary tale about a new girl, into a scintillating, positively filmic thriller, in which Roisin must race against time to discover who Hayley really is, what impact she may have had on Zara, and perhaps while Roisin’s doing her detective work, discover a bit more about who she is herself and what true friendship means.

What could seem unrealistic towards the end, never quite reaches implausible limits, simply because the premise is so simple – when we get sucked into our phones, it can have an effect on our real lives, and friendship can be a messy business.

Grippingly tense in the second half, and nicely built in the first, this is an exciting new read for tweens and young teens, and an excellent warning about phone over-reliance. As we know in our Covid times, there really is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, and friendship in person.

Roisin is a well-rounded character, with identifiable weaknesses and immaturity, and yet possesses a good moral compass and firm grounding. She is easy to know and like, and the reader is rooting for her all along, even when perhaps wincing at some of her text messages.

The prose-style lends itself well to the subject matter – this is an easy, absorbing read, with enough incident and drama to keep readers fully engaged, and most thrillingly it doesn’t dictate the rights and wrongs of the situation, but lets the reader find their own way through the dilemmas and trials so common to this age-group. The author clearly has a great grip on tech, and young people’s use of it, and the story feels authentic and apposite.

A good read, highly recommended. Put one in the teen’s Christmas stocking!

(An American text, this was sent to me by the publicist in exchange for an honest review). Published by Scholastic, and  currently available in hardback and kindle.)

The Wolf Road by Richard Lambert

wolf road
Fifteen-year-old Lucas survives the car accident that kills his parents, but amid the horror and devastation, the image that floods his memory is of the wolf on the road, the wolf that he believes caused the accident. Uprooted, and moved to the Lake District to live with his estranged Nan, he discovers that there too roams a wolf, killing sheep in the hills and, now, coming for him.

Lambert’s poetic prose skips between the lyrically descriptive and the pace of an action thriller in his boldly imagined tale of loss and grief, with just a hint of magical realism. He possesses the mind of a teenager with lithe agility, fully empathetic of Lucas’s mood swings, his reticence, his taciturn manner, and his truculence, enhanced even more by the dreadful grief from which he suffers. Yet this protagonist is unfailingly easy to sympathise with, even when he makes his glaring teenage errors.

Lucas grows ever more maniacal in his obsession with the wolf, but this is set against his growing affinity with nature and the hills that surround his Nan’s cottage. As time passes, the characters in his peripheral vision – the bullies at school, a girl and her father on the neighbouring farm, all grow more familiar, and set the scene for a dramatic climax.

In the end, though, Lucas’s restraint spills over into the plot, and the denouement is less visceral than one might imagine – the ending more inclined towards the realism of grief rather than the neat winding up of the storyteller. This is grief both profound and buried, like lost wildlife under the snow-clad mountain. The book’s quiet and intense main thread is both powerful and eerie, lingering in the mind long after the turning of the final page. A filmic book with a poetic undercurrent.

For ages 14+. The Wolf Road is published by Everything With Words and is available from all book stores.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: A Retelling by Tanya Landman

jane eyreI first came to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte as a naïve impressionable teenager, and like many before me, read the book as an exciting gothic coming-of-age, willing Jane on, admiring of her ability to use her intellect and shrewd judgement to succeed, and feeling desperately that I wanted her to have a happy ending. ‘Reader, I married him,’ was a pivotal and satisfying point in the novel.

It was only a few years later, when I realised Jane Eyre was simply the first stepping stone on a reading footpath that led to the literary exploration of giving the madwoman in the attic a voice.  An understanding that the shut-away first wife, Bertha, was in fact representative of both the treatment of women, and a symbol of colonialism, and from there it was a swift leaping across the stones to The Yellow Wallpaper, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and of course Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. But above all, it was Bronte’s hauntingly dark gothic draw, the story of Jane’s development, the appealing beginning with Helen’s tragic death, and the consequent love for a dark dangerous brooding man that pulled me in and made the biggest impression.

Unfortunately, the Victorian prose of Charlotte Bronte can be a barrier to some, particularly those who are reluctant readers or struggle with dyslexia. Not usually one for abbreviations, adaptations or deviations from the original, with this retelling I sensed that Tanya Landman is actually opening up the text to a group of readers who otherwise wouldn’t have seen it through.

What’s more, the reader and purist is in safe hands with Landman. She understands how to condense the prose of the original, whilst staying true to the plot, although of course picking the key elements and components and having to lose others. But images of import remain: Jane reading on the window seat behind the curtain, the fire at night in Rochester’s room, the laughter emanating from the attic, the fortune teller, the desperate ruins of Thornfield across the moors.

And despite the brevity of this new text, the characters shine through. Helen is good and true, Adele frivolous and actually slightly more endearing than in the original, Mr Rochester cool and aloof, yet prone to mood swings. Landman also captures the vanity and privilege of Miss Ingram, seen through Jane’s eyes, and cleverly gives clues of plot and character to the reader through use of repeating images (the window seat), and the understanding of how people present differently depending on who they are with.

What Landman does particularly well though is convey the character and emotions of Jane herself. Jane Eyre has an impeccable self-awareness, and it’s this sense of self that comes through and reaches a modern audience. Jane is ever-aware of her own identity, her shortcomings, her desires, and Landman keeps all this within the text in her first person narration, with tiny inflections of simile and metaphor to guide the reader through.

Virginia Woolf expressed Jane’s sense of self as: “some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently.”

Jane is a character of unflinching agency, moving with passion through the novel, seeking newness and adventure, acting upon her curiosities – and Landman captures this sparky energy, this spirit, and makes her seem historically accurate yet presciently modern too.

Of course not everything can be transplanted to this retelling, but an essence of wisdom remains – Jane recalls the wise words of Helen Burns as she visits her Aunt’s deathbed, albeit in a different way from the original, and some of the maturity of Jane’s perspective of looking at her childhood through adult eyes does surface. Landman keeps to the same pace as the original – in interrupting Jane’s love infatuation with Rochester by taking her away to her childhood home, and thus creating the same suspense, and also introducing the idea of a closure of her childhood and an advent into adulthood.

For greater depth, the original must be studied – the darkness of the slave trade, the evocation of Thornfield, the gothic genre, and the idea of religious forgiveness, but overall this is a smart and endearing version, eliciting the same emotions as the original, in all the same places. The prose sits well in its historical time period, and the story is as immersive as ever.

Jane Eyre is a novel that may have brought about a trail of other stories that gave voice to the madwoman in the attic, but it first and foremost gave a voice to that other visible and yet invisible woman – the plain woman, the orphan, the disinherited, the mere member of staff. And Landman does the original full credit by capturing much of the passion and understanding that Bronte gifted her heroine.

Reader, I enjoyed it.

With thanks to dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stoke for my super-readable advance copy. You can buy yours here.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith

small in the cityPicture books are often banded together as if they were a simple genre. But even in one quick thirty-minute book club session at school, I can show my Year 6 cohort that picture books come in all shapes and sizes, are aimed at all different ages, can be about a multitude of topics, and really shouldn’t be all lumped together in a kinderbox. And really great picture books manage to traverse these different categories all in one book.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith (winner of the Kate Greenaway in 2018 for Town is by the Sea, and winner of many awards for Sidewalk Flowers) is ostensibly the travails of a small child in a big city. But delve within, and it’s a picture book about loss.

A small child, first seen on a bus, as on the front cover, travels into a large city, depicted with large steel skyscrapers, traffic, and many people. Wordless at first, the text begins a few pages in with Small’s voice, and at first the reader may believe that Small is talking to them, explaining the noise of the city and the busyness. But it very gradually becomes apparent that this internal monologue is not to you, the reader, but to a missing cat.

The text is observational but also advisory – explaining that the child feels empathy for the lost pet, and wants to guide them home with hope and clarity. The text initially feels as if it is advising the navigation of a big city, but it also merges with advice on life itself; beware of big dogs, look for friendly faces.

After a time, the reader sees that the child is putting up pink posters all over the city for the missing cat (readers will have to look back through the book to see where they missed this first time round), the cleverness of the child apparent in where the posters are placed – a fishmonger, for example.

But it is the cleverness of the illustrator that really shines through here. The child is an everychild – anonymous and gender-less, mainly seen from behind, or when straight on, with a body wrapped up against the cold, head-down. The city too is faceless – this could be any global metropolis.

The illustrations show Smith’s astuteness at perspective – the smallness of Small against the backdrop of skyscrapers, traffic, other people, construction works and telephone poles, even pointing towards the fact that taller adults might feel small against the enormity of the anonymous busy city. And with the search for something, there is an added dimension to the smallness, as if the loss of another can diminish a person and make them feel smaller anyway.

There are close ups, use of a wider lens, all capturing the intimidating nature of the city. This is not claustrophobic, but rather atmospheric. Dangers are implied rather than seen in desolate dark alleys. All angles are covered – looking up, looking down, looking out from a bus. Darkness is all around, and ever approaching as the day draws in – there are black shadows that dominate a vignette, stark plant shapes against a criss-cross window, an extreme close up of a traffic signal, mainly black in its squareness.

But conversely there’s an interesting growing familiarity with the city. Initially, the reader may feel as if the child might be lost – their smallness an indicator of their lack of direction, but this child demonstrates a knowledge of the city – as if they have been searching a long time or repeatedly, or perhaps it is their home town. Yet, the feeling of smallness persists – the city is held at a distance, the child is shut out. The church in which the choir practises is seen only from outside, the person who always plays the piano in the blue house is also anonymous, seen from behind, glimpsed blurrily through the window.

Even the reader is kept at a slight distance – there’s an amazing illustration of the child reflected in a series of mirrored glass panels on a building, the pastel traffic reflected behind, and a slight distortion of the image in the mirrors, the slight wobble that feels both real and haunting. More brilliance in the picture of the child on the bus; the close-up of a woman’s hand on the rail near the child, too close for comfort; the reflection of the city in the window of the bus, as well as the view through the bus to the city the other side, and the silhouettes of adults standing on the bus.

The day may start cold and sunny, but as the child moves through the pages, snow begins to fall. Now the picture blurs again as the streets are seen through increasing snow, red taillights standing out, sleet tyre marks on the road.

So then the illustrator’s detailed knowledge of the city appears – the child is shown positioning their back against the warmth exhalation of a dryer vent.

The text is shut off from the pictures – Small in the city is also alone in the city. Text appears only in the white gaps between the pictures, the illustrations themselves separate within hard black ink frames, locked apart from each other. There’s isolation here, and acute poignancy.

And yet there’s a juxtaposition between the griminess of the city, the urbanity of it, and the child’s calm pace and advice, and the peaceful hush as the snow falls. The lack of panic and anxiety, and the gentle determination of Small. As the blizzard blurs and the darkness increases, the heartfelt loss of the child is what’s felt, until towards the end there’s a glorious illustration of the child walking towards a female adult, with matching bobble hat signifying their kinship, and then Small’s confident resignation in the arms of a comforting adult.

The brilliance of course, is that although the book is about a missing pet, a child in a city, it’s also about the devastation of loss, the moments of waiting, the anticipation of return. Adults will see the emotional depth, young children will look for the pink posters, the hint of a cat, the draw of the city, and those in between will marvel at the detail in the artworks, the intelligence of the text. Most will notice the packaging of this tall book – a skyscraper itself.

Reassured, the final page gives a resolution, but the heartfelt haunting of this wintry book never quite dissipates. Exceptional. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Walker Books for the review copy

Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

sofia valdezI have a soft spot for the Questioneers, the series of picture books that includes Rosie Revere, Iggy Peck and Ada Twist. They started a STEM revolution all of their own, and their now distinctive look, complete with graph paper background, is a constant presence in any good library or children’s bookcase.

With the latest in the series though, Beaty has captured the zeitgeist, deviating slightly from science and focussing on politics. Here, she points to the hope that children can provide, especially in the face of poor management and inept leadership by adults. With a nod to inclusivity and equal rights by both author and illustrator, Sofia Valdez’s first policies focus on the environment, namely waste management and green spaces.

Sofia is quite rightly disturbed by the landfill site in her neighbourhood, especially when she sees its dangers. She decides it’s time to replace it with a park for her community, but finds that facing city hall is harder than she thought. It takes determination and the support of her neighbours to see it through.

Of course there are repeating themes here from the former picture books on Rosie Revere and crew, including determination and putting in the hours, but there are new themes springing up all the time. Sofia walks to school with her Abuelo, and this cross-generational relationship is of the utmost importance. Moreover, bureaucracy reigns large at City Hall, and author Beaty and illustrator Roberts have both had great fun exploring the humour and ridiculousness of sprawling officialdom and red tape. Of course, the book rhymes, as per the rest of the series, and Beaty plays on the idea of having different departments in different rooms, with silly names and fun numbers.

The most galling aspect for Sofia is the clerk’s quick dismissal of her as ‘only a kid’. In our current times of Greta Thunberg, this is clearly highly ironic. Sofia doesn’t turn away from this, and in an insightful way asks the clerk what she would do if she were in Sofia’s shoes.

After a daunting presentation, a plethora of ideas, a march and a petition, surveys and budgets and more, Sofia’s dreams become a reality. Her diverse community receives a much-wanted green space.

This is a feel-good picture book. It demonstrates the power of the individual to make a difference, but also the power and meaning of a community. And it pulls together the strands of science and creativity – change is brought about only after an individual has a vision.

Beaty impressively keeps the tight rhythm and rhyme that gave her such success with her other picture books, and Roberts’ expressive illustrations add humour and bite to each scene. As well as the blatant message, and the plot-driven text, it’s worth a longer linger over the illustrations. Sofia’s bedroom betrays her character, the mountain of trash is telling in itself, but most of all the community is portrayed in all its glorious differences and similarities. Children will love spotting Rosie, Iggy and Ada. Definitely one to add to your collection. Who knows, books such as these may inspire a better calibre of leader in the future.

With thanks to Abrams books for the review copy.

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