middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

The Cake, the Wolf, and the Witch by Maudie Smith

cake wolf witch

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Actually I’m only going to write this review if you promise not to give away any of the spoilers to your children but just give them the book to read as a surprise. Ready? This is a book set in the land of Ever After, and explores the adventures of Max and his step siblings as they attempt to overthrow the wicked witch and make sure that Ever After remains Happy Ever After.

There are of course massive overtures to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The children travel by accident, not through a wardrobe, but through a cake, to the land of Ever After (rather than Narnia) – they encounter a wolf rather than a lion – and the wicked witch is turning everything to greyness and ash rather than whiteness and ice, but rather than draw some Christian allegory, Maudie Smith is simply having fun, and her creativity shines through the story. The inhabitants of Ever After are all familiar characters from fairy stories, and the author depicts them with cheek and flourish. Little Red Riding Hood has attitude, the troll under the bridge is adorably childish with his pinky promises and appetite for a playmate, and there is even a sneaky eighth dwarf. Max’s search for the witch uses a familiar narrative of age-old quests, including an encounter with a knight, inclement weather, a maze, and finally a daunting castle over a seemingly insurmountable mountain, but the journey is exhilarating and fun for the reader. The danger is never too threatening, the familiarity of the characters is comforting, and there is the growing inevitability that Max and Ever After will have their happy ending.

Maudie’s talent for reinvention blazes a trail here, but her characterisation of her ‘ordinary’ children is what really distinguishes this book and makes it my book of the week. Max, despite being in a fairy tale land, is one of the truest children I have read. His grief over the death of his mother pours through, as does his readjustment to life with a step-family, and his fears and worries. Maudie is assured in her ability to incorporate an aspect of his personality that explains his favourite hobby, (marble runs), why it makes him happy, and how it enables him to complete his adventure. She provides the reader with a character who develops beautifully from the start of the book to the finish, growing in self-awareness and empathy. Through all the fantasticalness of the story, the character of Max and his step-siblings remain very much grounded in reality, and this makes this book a complete winner. With illustrations by the wonderful Tony Ross (of Horrid Henry fame), this is the summer’s must-read for children aged 7+. You can buy it here or purchase from the Amazon sidebar.

Do You Have Superpowers?

Bulletcatcher
If ever you thought authors were dull people who sat in front of a computer or notepad all day – think again! Today I have a thrilling guest post from author Chris Bradford, an author who believes in his stories and characters so much that he does such extensive research – he actually becomes his characters. For his latest book, Bulletcatcher, he embarked on an intensive close protection course, including training in combat, firearms, surveillance to name a few. The first in a trilogy, Bulletcatcher is an action-packed, tense and exhilarating read. It tells the story of Troy, a victim of a terror attack in a shopping mall, who discovers that he has a crucial superpower – he is a bulletcatcher – bullets just bounce off him leaving him unharmed. Here, Chris Bradford explains how even the strangest fiction can be based in fact. Please be aware that MinervaReads is not responsible for external links – some of the following youtube links have unsuitable comments/content for children:

by Chris Bradford, author of the Bulletcatcher trilogy

They say you can’t outrun a bullet. What if you could catch one?
You might think that superpowers – being bulletproof for instance – are a matter of pure fiction. A fantasy of novels, movies and comic books. But they’re not… and I’m going to show you the evidence to prove that superpowers are real.

For my new series, Bulletcatcher, I crossed the concept of Bodyguards with X-Men to come up with a team of gifted teenagers who protect the sons and daughters of the rich and famous in Terminus City. Each of these ‘bulletcatchers’ has a superpower, or ‘talent’ as it is called in the story.

Now these talents – bulletproof, reflex, super strength, recall and blindsight – might all sound like Avenger-style super powers, but I wanted to ensure my story was grounded in reality. So I chose these particular powers because people actually possess them in the real world.

For example, my character Lennox has the “Hercules gene”. This means he has muscles 25% larger and 50% stronger than an average human. A phenomenon known as being double-muscled in the real world and such children do exist, like this boy from Anhui Province in China. Watch the video here.

Another bulletcatcher, Joe, possesses the power of instant recall. He can remember vast amounts of information and visualize scenes he has only glimpsed for the blink of an eye. In fact, there’s an incredible lad called Stephen Wiltshire who can draw complete cityscapes after seeing them only for a few moments. These drawings are 100% accurate and to scale. Witness his astonishing ability here:

My next character, Azumi, is totally blind. Yet she can see without her eyes and has the ability to glimpse into the future – a talent I term blindsight. There are many examples of people who have visions of the future, but what I found more amazing in my research is a blind boy called Ben Underwood, who could cycle, rollerskate and even play basketball, all by using echo-location like a dolphin! See here.

And the more I researched into human superpowers, the more unbelievable the examples became. A boy who was like Magneto from X-Men, a baseball player with super-fast reflexes like my bulletcatcher Kasia and the most incredible yet… a man called John Chang who could set fire to objects using his chi (his inner energy). See the video here.

Bulletcatcher Pg29

The most important talent is the one that my hero Troy has: bulletproof skin. This sounds like a step beyond the realms of reality. But scientists have now created a skin made from goat’s milk packed with spider-silk proteins that can actually stop bullets. You can watch here.

Their hope is that one day they can eventually replace the keratin in human skin – the protein which makes it tough – with the spider-silk proteins. Which means, in the near future, there might actually be bulletproof kids, like my hero Troy. Until then you’ll just have to rely on bulletproof clothing! So the next time you watch a superhero movie (or read my Bulletcatcher book), be aware that someone in the world may possess that power… and it could be you!

See more amazing people with superpowers here.

To read more about Chris Bradford’s research, visit the Barrington Stoke website.

Bulletcatcher is published by Barrington Stoke and has a reading age of 8 years and a content level for 8-12 years. Buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

 

Alfie Bloom: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent

alfie bloom

One of the most readable novels I’ve read in some time, Gabrielle Kent has crafted a finely woven mash-up of some of the best known children’s literature and created her own excellent adventure. Alfie Bloom, poor and bullied, receives a peculiar summons from an even stranger solicitor and discovers that he has inherited an extraordinary castle. Added to this, he appears to be the custodian of a potent magic, part of which allows him to ‘timeslip’ back hundreds of years. Once living in his castle, he realises that there is a dangerous force roaming the fields, trying to take his magic from him, and he must fight it to save himself and the local village.

There are numerous hidden references and allusions in this book to the great children’s writers. The headmistresses of the local school to which Alfie is transferred hail from the realms of Dahl. Named Murkle and Snitch, one short, one tall, yet with Trunchbull-like punishments and glee in issuing them. They are superbly imagined. Alfie’s friendship with his cousins, and their tree house, as well as the sumptuous meals described, hark back to Enid Blyton, and the flying bear rug speaks to many a fantasy author’s imagination – it reminded me of Mary Norton’s bedknob.

The darkness and magic are vividly conjured. Although not a wizard, Alfie’s Harry Potter tendencies mean he can feel the intensity of his powers as a physical manifestation; and the castle itself is a wonderful mixture of modern and ancient, with hidden passages, concealed rooms, rich tapestries and a chandelier in the Great Hall – which works with an electric light switch, but the switch doesn’t light bulbs, it causes a mechanical arm with a flame to individually light all the wicks. It’s well described, pitched perfectly at the intended age group, as are the descriptions of the characters:

“Her nose was sharp, her fingernails were sharp but Alfie soon realised that the sharpest thing about her was her voice.”

This was such a captivating read – it flowed so well – and ticked all the boxes of children’s literature – down to descriptions of food wherever possible, an absent parent, a phenomenal Christmas celebration, and a play within the main drama where all is revealed. If I was a child again, I’d hope for at least ten in the series – it would be my mainstay. Gabrielle Kent has really taken all those tropes and reimagined them into a great little book. This start to a new series is fabulously promising.

Buy it here. For a capable age seven and over.

The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan

sword of kuromori shield of kuromori

My mum once told me one of the things she really liked about reading fiction was learning something new. Not just in terms of historical fiction, but in any fiction when the author lets slip insights about a place or a hobby or even something you just didn’t realise existed.
The Sword of Kuromori is not only an Alex Rider-style highly visual adventure with pace and passion and wit, but also a subtle lesson in Japanese language and culture. Teen Kenny Blackwood arrives in Tokyo expecting to spend some time during the school holidays with his father, who is residing there. However, even on the plane to Japan some peculiar events occur, and when he is taken aside at the airport and interrogated, things get even stranger. Before long he finds out that he can see mythical creatures that other people can’t, and that he’s been secretly signed up to a life-changing mission that will save America from catastrophic tragedy.
Jason Rohan’s knowledge of Japan sings from the pages of the book. He paints each scene so vividly, be it the expansive transport terminals, the lush landscapes and temples, or the colourful shopping areas – each setting is pitched so that the reader feels they know Japan despite not having been themselves. Moreover, the action never stops – Kenny seems to attract the attention of more than one type of mythical monster, all of which are strikingly hostile, and he has to use his wits and skills to bat them off. He is accompanied on his adventure by a feisty and attractive female sidekick – who becomes more and more central to his journey. She happily reminded me of Bixa from Phoenix by S F Said.
With strong allusions to other tales of masters and apprentices, from The Karate Kid to Star Wars – this book resonated with me by being familiar and yet totally unfamiliar at the same time; familiar in tone to other adventures of self-discovery and awareness, yet unfamiliar with its Japanese language and mythology. The mixture produces the perfect package. And despite the many monsters, this is also a grounded tale of family and friendship, of good versus evil and our ability to master our minds and conquer our fears.
I was particularly glad of the glossary of Japanese words at the back, the subliminal teaching of Japanese numerals, and being immersed in the food and culture of another region. I’m moving swiftly on to reading the just published book two, The Shield of Kuromori.
A highly recommended read. For age 9+. You can buy both books here or on the Amazon sidebar.

Pink or Blue

There’s been much talk of sexism this week, thanks mainly to Nobel scientist Sir Tim Hunt. Gender issues in children’s books are not a new topic though. Much has been written on this, campaigns have been fought, including Let Books be Books, and various lobbyists have asked publishers to refrain from branding books as being for one gender or the other, such as ‘Adventure Stories for Boys’. They have largely been successful – Usborne and Scholastic have stopped this practice, although someone needs to have a word with Ferrero about their Kinder eggs (currently packaged in either blue or pink).

But looking at the statistics of the type of books borrowed by boys and girls in school libraries, there is definitely a trend that cannot be ignored. Boys read books styled for boys, and girls read pretty much anything. What do I mean by that? Let’s have a look.

Archie Hates Pink

Packaging
This definitely influences children’s choice. I tried to find a book with a pink background cover without a girl’s name on the title, and without featuring a girl protagonist. I found just one! It’s a picture book and it’s all about a male cat who hates pink (although he changes his mind at the end). All the chapter books that had pink covers featured a female protagonist, usually with her name in the title – see the images.

wendy quill Princess Disgrace

These books are very rarely borrowed by boys in my library (if at all!).

Wilf the Mighty WarriorHamish and the Worldstoppers

Books which seem to imply from their colour scheme or image that they are for boys, see images above, have been borrowed by girls (but are favoured by boys). How about completely gender neutral covers – they get borrowed by both genders right? No! These other factors come into play too:

Pippi LongstockingSophie Hits Sixslime squad

Title
The boys wouldn’t choose Pippi Longstocking or the Dick King Smith Sophie books – because the title implied they were about girls. Likewise, The Worst Witch – the boys needed persuading. However, girls quite happily borrow Horrid Henry, Claude, and others. The title doesn’t matter to them. This is really the same as my next criteria, which is lead character. Boys tell me they prefer to read about a boy, whereas girls will read about either gender, although The World of Norm and Slime Squad are more typically borrowed by boys, as is any fiction containing dinosaurs! And the girls do tend to gravitate towards stories about schools, girl friendships, animals, and theatre. Fantasy tends to be a more mixed genre.
How about the gender of the author? I’ve mentioned before how JK Rowling was asked to be JK rather than Joanne for the dual appeal, even though her book is predominantly about a boy. Does it matter to library users? The children are very happy to receive author visits from men and women authors equally, and don’t seem to pay too much attention to the gender of the author. Of course, a separate issue is whether women authors write more female protagonists and male authors more male protagonists.
With non-fiction it is difficult to tell whether publishers package some non-fiction for girls as they perceive it to be a girly subject, or whether they did research on it, and so package the non-fiction girls tend to read with more girly covers. (Chicken and egg!) The girls lean towards non-fiction on gymnastics and horses. The boys: geography and football. This is not exclusive and there is far more overlap in non-fiction than fiction.

Pony Care

Exceptions to the rule. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. There are girls who only want to read Tom Palmer football books. There are boys who are obsessed with fairy tales, in which the protagonist is quite often a girl: Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pea, The Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Goldilocks.

Does it matter?

It matters to me if gender choices preclude children from reading a really great book that they might enjoy. This is why many adults join book clubs – to be introduced to books that they wouldn’t otherwise choose themselves. And this is where school librarians come in – to enable the children’s choices, but also to widen their horizon to include books they otherwise might not have picked up. No matter the cover, title, author, or main character!
What I have noticed is the current trend in middle grade fiction (8-13years) for the main character to be accompanied by a strong sidekick of the opposite sex, so that often the protagonist becomes two or three people with different genders. Eg. Phoenix by SF Said (Lucky and Bixa), The Last Wild Trilogy by Piers Torday (Kester and Polly), The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn (Jinx and Tommy), Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty (Finn and Emmy), my book of the week: The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan (Kenny and Kiyomi), and Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Sophie and Matteo). There are countless other examples.
Is this a shift from what’s gone before? In 2011 Professor McCabe of Florida State University conducted a study of children’s literature published between 1900 and 2000 and found that males are central characters in 57% of the books, compared with only 31% female. Male animals in 23%, and female animals the central star in 7.5%. What’s more they found that it’s the readers’ fault too – gender-neutral animal characters were frequently referred to as male by parents reading to their children. Since 2000 are authors changing who they write about? Are we becoming gradually more inclusive?
I have also found that the female protagonists or accompanying sidekicks portrayed are changing their dynamic to become bolder, braver, feistier, and more independent and often more worldly wise than the male protagonists. In my examples above, it is often the female characters who outshine the boys, even if they don’t start out as the main character. The question remains though – is it because our authors want boys to be equally enamoured by these feisty females as they are by the male leads, and read books that portray females, or is it because our girls are growing up more independent, gutsier and more capable, and our writers are simply reflecting that? I think, a bit of both!
If it matters to you, then one strategy for widening your child’s reading habits, is to probe exactly what it is about the book that they like. They may like The Worst Witch for the fact that it is about friendship, schools and magic, more than that it is about a girl. They may like Football Academy because it is about teams and friendship more than the fact that it is about a boy. More often than not, once they are halfway through the book, the cover itself doesn’t matter. Nor the title, nor the author. It’s about being immersed in the narrative. I recently saw a couple of ten year old boys devour Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, An Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls, and The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff (all featuring female protagonists). The boys also loved Alice in Wonderland. It can be done – sometimes their choices just need a little guidance.

 

The Boys’ School Girls by Lil Chase

taras sister trouble

There’s a type of book that my readers never seem to tire of; a book based in schools, with issues around friendship, family life, and all the bother of finding one’s place in the world. I am delighted to bring you a new series that does the job so diligently with a clear understanding of 12 year olds, and with writing that sparkles with life. This is just the sort of series I wanted to read when I was young. (I confess I hugely enjoyed reading it this past week and I’m well past childhood!).

Lil Chase has created a fictional boys’ school, Hillcrest High, which has decided to admit girls for the first time. In the first title of the series, Tara’s Sister Trouble, Tara is one of these girls and she’s very excited – not least because she has a huge crush on one of the Hillcrest boys – but also because a new school means new friends, new opportunities and her best friend will be attending too. However, when Tara’s sister also joins the school, things start to fall apart for Tara. There is intense rivalry amongst the few girls at the new school, and her sister seems intent on sabotaging any relationships she does have. It’ll take Tara a fair amount of detective work and understanding to find out what’s really going on with her sister and her friends. There are a few little plot twists in the book – and it deals with some larger issues too – break up of a family, gambling, and jealousy, but Lil Chase always deals with them showing a great deal of compassion and humour. The action rolls along at a good steady pace and the reader is compelled to feel great empathy with the main character.

abbys shadow

There are three in the series, and the next two each focus on a different girl in the set of friends. Lil Chase has handled this cleverly by writing from the first person perspective each time – but the voices don’t blend into each other. Each girl in the series has a distinct voice and personality and this shines through. It’s a clever device and very enjoyable. The next two are Abby’s Shadow and Obi’s Secrets (the last published June 4th), but I’m hoping there’ll be many more. A series your 9-12yr old will devour with relish. You can buy the titles here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

obis secrets

Father’s Day

Sometimes the best presents are those that you share. For Father’s Day – and I’m posting this early so that you have time to buy the right gift, here are some books about dads that fathers can share with their children. For me, and many others, the quintessential father in children’s books features in Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World: “My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”

But I’ve found some other marvellous and exciting fathers for you in children’s literature. First, picture books:

superhero dad

Superhero Dad by Timothy Knapman, illustrated by Joe Berger
A simple idea, astutely executed. To the narrator (the small boy) of the picture book the boy’s Dad is a superhero – everything he does is super. Of course to anyone else, he is a normal Dad. Although, clearly an excellent modern Dad who spends a considerable amount of time with his son, cooking for him, telling him jokes, and playing with him. An exuberance pitches the reader headlong into the book and the rhyming text and joyful rhythm continue to the end. The illustrations match perfectly, so that our rather comical fairly skinny ordinary Dad in glasses is seen holding the tiny dog Jumbo above his head in an extraordinary pose:
“His jokes are Super Funny…
…and his laugh is Super Long.
He can pick up our dog Jumbo
so he must be Super Strong.”
Every word is taken tongue-in-cheek, every picture matches. And yet the tone is loveable, warm and enchanting. The punchline is simplistic yet apt – the father denies he is a superhero, insisting instead that he knows of a superhero – his superhero son. There is also playfulness with the layout of the text – using bold and larger letters to convey emphasis and differentiation. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad beard

My Dad’s Beard by Zanib Mian and Laura Ewing
This was published last year by a new publisher, Sweet Apple, which continues to grow their list. Although slightly niche, in that it appeals obviously to those whose fathers have beards, it is both cute and original. For younger children than those I usually cater for, each page draws on an example of why the child loves his Daddy’s beard – and how it defines him. It draws on our sensory perceptions from describing the look of the beard – how it is different from other family members’ beards – to the feel of it in different situations, and finally to what the child imagines lives in it (spoiler: a teeny tiny cat). It also manages to draw in the rest of the family as the child witnesses their perceptions of what the beard means to them. This is clever in that it highlights the important place the father has within this family – as a protector, and a person whom they trust and look up to. It draws on Islam in that it explains why this particular Dad has a beard, and so works as a picture book that reaches out to a diverse audience. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad birdman

My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
Many children’s authors absent one or both parents so that the children of the story can go on an adventure without parental restrictions. What’s beautiful about David Almond’s writing is that so often (as with Roald Dahl), it is the adults themselves who bear the idiosyncrasies that make the story so appealing. Although one parent is absent here – the death of the mother is an overriding concern throughout this short tale – the consequences lead to a strengthening and developing of relationship between the daughter and the father. Lizzie’s Dad wants to enter a Human Bird competition, and believes he needs to adopt the characteristics of a bird to be able to fly. He encourages Lizzie to join him in this mad venture, despite the protestations of her adorable Aunt Dotty. The premise is barmy, the characters eccentric – but illuminated by Polly Dunbar’s flamboyant illustrations, the book manages to soar. Highly original, imaginative and everything a children’s story should be. Wonderfully typical David Almond. Age 6+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

demolition dad

Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Phil Earle’s fictional father comes about as close to Danny the Champion’s Dad as I can find. However, as with much children’s fiction I’ve been reading recently, this is a depiction of a modern Dad who fits right into our current world. Jake and his Dad love to spend every Saturday together pursuing their hobby in common – wrestling. Jake’s Dad George knocks down buildings as a day job, and at the weekend takes part in wrestling matches – knocking down other men – and he’s really good at it. So good, that Jake thinks he should go public, and so secretly enters a video of him in action in a pro-wrestling competition. When George wins, he agrees to travel to America for training and a headline fight, mainly for Jake, but unfortunately things start to unravel, and it’s not quite the dream venture they had all planned.
There were so many things to love about this book. As a refreshing change from much of the ‘humorous’ fiction in the marketplace for this age group – this book wasn’t full of silly jokes and slapstick happenings. It is extremely funny but the humour is carefully woven into the story; there are many wry laughs here, not fart jokes. Also, the wrestling is a major factor but doesn’t dominate. What comes across and leaves quite an impression is Phil’s adeptness at portraying the hidden emotions of parents, the sense of a community in a town, friendships, and most importantly father and son relationships. It’s clever, has emotional depth, and packs quite a punch. Touches I enjoyed – how the mum’s past career influences her behaviour, Phil’s capturing of the small town landscape complete with the ‘house that was stolen’ mid terrace, and Jake’s wonderful innocence and naivety – and his gradual responsive awareness. There are some stunning illustrations from Sara Ogilvie – the cover itself betrays this – but there are even better ones inside (the fight scenes are spectacularly hysterical). Moreover Phil Earle’s self–referential authorial musings are brilliant – see chapter 17. If you buy your Dad just one book this Father’s Day – make it this one. (then keep it for yourself). Age 8+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

a boy called hope

A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson
On the other end of the spectrum from Danny Champion of the World’s Dad is the Dad in A Boy Called Hope. That’s mainly because he’s absent, having left his family and remarried. This is heartbreaking for Jake Hope, the boy in the story, especially when his Dad appears on the television in his role as a journalist – the first time that Jake has seen him in four years. Sadly, this speaks to so many children today. But despite the sadness of the situation, this is a poignant and uplifting story. Jake comes to see that he is surrounded by a loving family – especially as his Mum has met someone new, Big Dave, who actually turns out to be a terrific father to Jake.
Lara Williamson has magic on her side – she imbues the novel with a myriad of symbols and devices from sky lanterns to glow-in-the dark statues and stars that lift Jake’s situation from the humdrum of normality to the wonder of childhood – she lets us see things through Jake’s eyes that we would never normally capture in our vision.
There is humour too – Jake frequently misinterprets situations which leads to some trouble, but in the end, much laughter, and there are some splendid characters too – from his friends Christopher, who has his own troubles, to Jo, who is obsessed with the saints. It was also hugely enjoyable to read about Jake’s teenage sister through his eyes – older siblings can seem so detached from the family until you dig beneath the surface a little.
This is a wonderful book – fantastically true characterisation, and great writing. Be prepared for tears to accompany the laughter though – as in real life – sometimes you have to make the best of what you’ve got. You can buy it here from Waterstones or see the Amazon sidebar.

The Broken King by Philip Womack: The Darkening Path Trilogy

the broken king

Enthralling and all-encompassing, this is a fantasy novel that reaches into the depths of our modernity and triumphantly mixes it with legends of old to create a stunning new adventure. Although I wouldn’t ordinarily offer up as Book of the Week a book that’s the first in a trilogy, and ends on a cliffhanger when book three hasn’t been published yet, I am on this occasion making an exception, because book one is exceptional, and book two ends on a satisfactory note, leaving you wanting more but not disappointing.

Philip Womack takes his extensive classical knowledge and moulds it into a story that features our current world full with modern references of Sainsbury’s, mobile phones, and rock music, but then splices it with a fantasy world of shadows, murderous swans, and golden deer with wings.

Simon’s sister is taken away, kidnapped by a dark force, and with his parents and own world held in a kind of suspended time, he must venture into the kingdom of the Broken King to retrieve his sister. Along with him is sixteen year old Flora, whose brother has also been taken. The plot follows the traditional line of a journey into the unknown, with riddles to solve and dangers to avoid. However, the dark imagery is startling, refreshing and bold – Womack uses the loneliness of teenagers and weaves it into their fears and nightmares of the dark other world, he dips into territory as yet unexplored in children’s fiction – maps made from human skin.

I loved that he imposed physical scars on the two teenagers, so that the pain from their scars reminded them of their quickness to anger at their siblings, and how selfish they had been; how the kidnappings were their own fault. He touches on a subplot of a power struggle in the other world, as well as references to the troubles the teenagers have in their real lives – something that rounds their characters and keeps rooting the fantasy in reality.

There are numerous references to classical literature, the golden bough, Greek gods, Arthurian legends and comparisons of Womack’s writing have been made to Alan Garner, but this is a series firmly planted in our own times – with skyscrapers in the fantasy landscapes, portals in supermarkets, and tourists at the British Museum who aren’t what they seem.

I devoured it in one sitting – your children will doubtless do the same.
9+ years with strong constitutions.

The King's Shadow

You can purchase it here, or buy on the Amazon sidebar. The second in the trilogy, The King’s Shadow is out now and is available here .

The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford

The Imagination Box

This is one of those multi-faceted novels that delivers on every criteria. Our main character, Tim, lives in a hotel and has to create his own entertainment because his parents are busy working and he has no friends and no siblings. Then he meets one of the guests, a professor in a white lab coat, over a tray of forbidden cakes, and before long they are working together on the professor’s project – an imagination box that creates anything from your imagination. Tim seems to be the only one who can help the Professor to actually get the box to work – and before long Tim is conjuring all sorts of scientific magic. However, there are people who are willing to do anything to get their hands on the device, and Tim becomes embroiled in a race against time to keep the box in the right hands.
Throughout his pacey adventure, Tim has to navigate the adult world, determining who is to be trusted and who isn’t, as well as experimenting with the laws of science. Of course the science in the book is completely unrealistic, but there are roots in the imagination of what we could do with science, and Martyn Ford cleverly employs space-age gadgetry and technology, as well as teleporting, to ensure that young readers are excited and motivated by futuristic scientific imaginings. The book also poses some questions. What would you create if you could create anything? What would you create if you were hanging off the edge of a ten-storey building? What would you create from your dreams? Or nightmares?
Beneath all the adventure and excitement, Tim is a lonely little boy, who has to confront his deepest fears. What’s interesting is that at the start of the book we learn that Tim is adopted, and also friendless. There are deep-seated insecurities about himself here, and his relationship with his adoptive parents is barely scratched in this book – although perhaps this is to be explored in the other titles (the book is set to be the first of a trilogy, although this one works fine as a stand-alone title too).
There are also themes of burgeoning friendships, and loyalty, as Tim cultivates the friendship of the professor’s granddaughter, and also befriends a pygmy monkey (although the latter he conjured from his own head). These two characters imbue the novel with laughter, which sits well against the backdrop, so that none of the story is too dark or threatening.
I fully enjoyed it. It’s meaty, well-structured, and contains the right mix of elements for a sciencey adventure with humour and depth. One of those books that shows youngsters that an imagination is for stretching. For readers aged 9+.

Pranking Both Sides of the Pond

prankenstein yankenstein

I’ve never been one for pranks. I did get a fright recently when my son left a plastic spider in my kindle cover, and yes, I did get him back (although somewhat lamely). Then I read Prankenstein vs Yankenstein by Andy Seed, illustrated by Richard Morgan – and although it was snatched off me by the pesky children not long after, I’m now brimming full of new prank ideas. I just hope they don’t enact them first. The first described prank is that of prying apart an oreo biscuit, eating or discarding the cream, then squeezing toothpaste in its place and remaking the sandwich biscuit. For an inexperienced pranker, this sounded great, and made me want to read more! This book is the second in the Prankenstein series by Andy Seed, and it is an extremely funny read. It describes how Pugh, otherwise known as Soapy, wakes up to find himself handcuffed to a toilet seat. A master prankster himself, he decides it must be the work of his visiting cousin, Topazz and therefore he must wreak his revenge. The added twist however, is that both cousins, if they eat the wrong foods, turn, by night, into prank monsters, Prankenstein and Yankenstein, and perform outrageous tricks and inflict chaos and damage throughout their town. The plot races along with tit for tat pranks, mystery and intrigue, before coming to a climactic Butch Cassidy and Sundance ending – both pranksters trapped in a barn and facing their comeuppances. Add to the mix the Estonian ‘twince’ as Soapy calls his twin friends, and you have a hilarious cast of characters in a stupendously silly story. One for kids who like to laugh! Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

tapper twins go to war

Things reached tipping point though when I read The Tapper Twins Go to War (with each other) by Geoff Rodkey. This had me chortling from the get-go – I nearly snorted cornflakes up my nose. My son also massively enjoyed it, although I have the feeling we were laughing at completely different things. This is a realistic situation, as opposed to the fantastical scenarios presented in Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, and is a highly visual read – the twins’ world and their apartment remain fresh in my mind. For an older audience than Prankenstein and by a US author, it tells the story of 12 year old twins, Reese and Claudia, and the pranks they played to get each other back over a missing pastry. Told as a reported ‘history’ by Claudia, using friend’s witness statements, Reese’s arguments, and the parents’ text messages, it documents (with pictures too) the pranks and their consequences. It’s both witty and clever – I particularly liked the parents’ text messages to each other discussing the twins, whereas my son enjoyed reading about the pranks they played as well as the small handwritten comments in the margins, as if added later to amend text and correct mistakes. We both enjoyed Claudia pranking Reese in an online gaming situation as well, and the moral dilemmas it presented to her. It’s well executed, in that both twins do learn something from their experiences without the book descending into morality or preachiness, and Geoff Rodkey has pinned down their separate distinctive voices expertly. The setting is New York, and for children in the UK, it draws a good picture of Manhattan life. It’s modern and relevant, using a wealth of different narrative structures, text devices and points of view. I highly recommend and will be buying the next in the series. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

terrible two

Lastly, for budding or experienced pranksters, there’s The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John, illustrated by Kevin Cornell. A mixture of the above, in that it doesn’t descend too much into farce and the fantastical, as in Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, but it is also not as realistic as The Tapper Twins. It does, however, contain plenty of laughs. Miles Murphy is known for his pranking. But when he moves to a new school in a new town, and realises that the new school already has a master prankster, he has to decide whether to go it alone in the war of the pranksters, or team up in order to pool strengths. The beauty of this book is threefold. The characters Miles meets in his new town are pretty much all caricatures, enhanced hugely by the illustrations, so that his eventual partner in crimes, Niles, gives off the appearance of the quintessential class ‘goody’. The headmaster comes from a long inherited line of headmasters and is struggling to live up to the family reputation. He comes across as an overarching fool. The pranks themselves and their consequences are delightful – from a car parked across the school entrance so that every child must clamber across the backseat to get into the school, to the ‘fake’ birthday party in the town square, resulting in a standoff between Miles and Niles. There are some fun extras, such as facts about cows interspersed throughout the story – they become an essential part – as well as chapter 6, which is written as a list. The chapters are all short and bite sized, sitting comfortably with reluctant readers, and Kevin Cornell’s illustrations truly accentuate the text. Another heartily recommended prankster book. I’m not having you on! Buy it here from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

With thanks to Fat Fox Publishers for the review copy of Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, and to Orion for The Tapper Twins Go To War.