fiction

Spring Picture Book Round-Up

mole in a black and white hole
Seldom has a picture book quite embraced how I feel right now as
Mole in a Black and White Hole by Tereza Sediva. With a die-cut hole on the cover into the mole’s black and white house, it feels like the perfect lockdown book. Mole is first seen deep underground in his hole with a television and a book for comfort. He’s clearly been in lockdown for as long as I have. His consolation is a bright pink chandelier – represented here by a vivid neon orange blob – representative in fact of a root vegetable, plugging the gap between the outside world and Mole’s hole.

During the course of the book, the ‘chandelier’ tells Mole of all the wondrous (neon and brightly colourful) happenings above ground, until one day, the ‘chandelier’ disappears. Initially, it leaves a hole in Mole’s heart too, as he misses his friend and the world is blacker than ever, despite the sunbeam reaching through the gap. But then Mole ventures forth, and life becomes not so black and white.

This is a beautifully executed picture book – with Mole as the expressive centrepiece to a world that proves to be full of fascination, friendship, and of course colour. Readers will take enormous pleasure from the contrast between the world below and that above – cleverly using the centrefold horizontally to draw the difference – but also from the careful layering of colour images, which interweave and seem almost transparent in their rendering. A wonderful spring awakening, and a cheerful reminder for the light at the end of every tunnel. Available for pre-order here but not published until June, I hope I can leave my black hole before then. In the meantime…

what about me said the flea
Children have found plenty of inspiration for writing during lockdowns, despite the world essentially shrinking on them, and What About Me? Said the Flea by Lily Murray and Richard Merritt is a great antidote to the idea that stories have to be about huge, powerful forces. Sometimes, the most exquisite inspiration is in the small everyday things.

This really is one of the most exciting and endearing picture books I’ve seen in some time. It happily marries text and pictures, with the pictures expressing beyond the story most eloquently. Sophia is trying to write a story, and looking for inspiration. All sorts of things present themselves as perfect protagonists: a bear (all good books have one apparently), a lion, a unicorn, a dinosaur, but there is also one who is jumping and squeaking to make itself heard and Sophia just can’t see it. Working on both a literal and metaphorical level, this is a great idea for a picture book , allowing readers to explore the ideas of inspiration, creativity, inclusion and so much more, but it is also just extraordinarily fun.

The pictures give the game away – at first the flea is fairly well hidden, but eventually the illustrator illuminates the flea with flashing lights and arrows. And Sophia still misses it! A clever reader will also see where the flea originated!

But the pictures do more than point out the flea – they give a real testament to each animal and its personality. The animals are shown in a whole helter-skelter of scenes, from a comedy stage to a swimming pool, the ocean, a boxing ring and more. Each is also imbued with a raft of humorous elements, including a bears’ picnic, and even Sophia’s desk itself (which gives more than a clue as to where inspiration comes from…anywhere!)

The ending is great fun. Poor flea. Although you’ll be delighted to hear that this author/illustrator pairing aren’t the first to focus on a flea. Samson the Mighty Flea by Angela McAllister and Nathan Reed would make a delightful companion book. There is a use to fleas after all. And What About Me? Said the Flea, available here, is a triumph.

luna loves art
Perhaps when children do go back to school, they’ll once again go on school trips. If not, then at least they can relive one in Luna Loves Art by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers. We first met Luna in Luna Loves Library Day but this picture book nicely captures a school trip to an art gallery with our exuberant, enthusiastic protagonist.

Luna is joyful to be in the art gallery, but classmate Finn doesn’t seem sure. In fact, he seems sad. Can Luna have an excellent day out, but also make Finn smile?

The illustrations here are observational and meticulously crafted – each child with their own unique personality, each person reacting differently to each painting in the art gallery, and cleverly, the paintings are all neat picture book reproductions of real art from Malevich’s Black Square to Moore’s sculpture to Henri Rousseau. Luna feels as if the sunflowers in the Van Gogh painting are alive because the painting is so thick – and the flowers burst out of the frame in Lumbers’ rendering. Luna warns Finn not to touch, and this is a wonderful evocation of the visceral quality of the paintings, as well as the very human reaction of Luna – wanting to do no wrong.

Not only is this a wonderful introduction to the power and beauty of art, and the excitement of a school trip (although both I and my test audience were very worried that the children in the story didn’t stop for lunch or a toilet break, key features of our own school trips), but it is also a lovely story of both family and friend dynamics.

The art installation page is glorious, but full marks to Luna’s teacher, who lets the class loose in the gift shop! You can buy your own gift here.

the perfect fit
Lastly, and by no means least – all four of these picture books are worth purchasing immediately – is The Perfect Fit by Naomi and James Jones. For the youngest children, beginning to make sense of the world and their place within it, and also beginning to recognise first shapes, colours and patterns, this is a pleasing story about a winsome triangle attempting to fit in with others.

Triangle has fun with the circles, but she doesn’t roll with them. She likes the squares but stacking is hard. So, she sets off to find others more like her. By the end, of course, she realises that being in a diverse group of shapes is actually the most fun.

The Jones pairing make a fabulous fit in this book, consolidating the ideas in both text and image, placing single sentences in a variety of spaces, slanting up and down or centred in the middle of the page, to fit with the images that tell the story too. And the images are simple – shapes coloured in primary and secondary colours, either coming together, or leaving white spaces between to explore what fits and what doesn’t.

Just as children make images from geometric shapes, so does the illustrator here. My children and I used to do this with felt shapes. Here, a boat is made from two squares, a simple black line, and a triangle sail. An ice cream is formed from a hexagon on top of an upside-down triangle, the flake drawn in simple black lines.

Of course, there are various underlying messages. We might be individual shapes, but we all want to come together as a group – it’s more fun. (From lockdown, we now know how much we are missing other people in all their shapes and sizes). But also, this is about inclusion. An array of shapes makes for a more diverse and interesting set of patterns. Four yellow triangles aren’t nearly as fun to play with as a green hexagon, a blue circle, a red square and a yellow triangle. Looking and acting the same aren’t always necessary.

But also, and more subliminally, is the message of a shared sense of purpose. The different shapes need to work together to collectively create a new shape, to form an image, to play.

This is a simply executed, yet positive and clever book. A narrative story running through, personifying a shape who’s lost their tribe, but then the welcoming spirit of other tribes, and the coming together of all. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Thames and Hudson, Buster Books, OUP, and Andersen Press for the review copies. 

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. 

Sylvia Bishop on Writing Settings

I’m delighted to host author Sylvia Bishop (The Bookshop Girl, The Secret of the Night Train) on the blog today. Bishop has been hosting writing workshops, and her session on Saturday is about settings, why some are captivating and transporting in those crucial childhood years.

44 tiny acrobats

Bishop certainly puts her teaching to practise. Her current junior fiction series, 44 Tiny, illustrated by Ashley King, focuses on the exquisitely quirky and captivating Betsy Bow-Linnet as she navigates life with her 44 tiny secrets. The second in the series, 44 Tiny Acrobats, published at the beginning of this month, takes its protagonist to the circus, a wondrous backdrop for a story, with scope for magic, stagecraft, animal antics, colourful costumes and so much more. But it is in exploring this from a child’s angle that one can begin to see what matters within each setting. 

Sylvia Bishop is excellent at climbing inside the mind of a child and expressing how they feel in the way they would express it. This is not necessarily a definable or known emotion to that child, but rather a series of sensations and gradual understandings. When Betsy has a particular experience at the circus, she wants to commit it to memory, but doesn’t quite know how to express herself. So she takes in the specifics: “the flag fluttered like that. The lights twinkled like that.” It is at once totally expressive and completely beautiful.

Here, Bishop explains how she writes her settings: 

I write for children because children are the best readers. I vividly remember the utter immersion, how perfectly content I could be to stay in bed all day with a book once it had hooked me; an experience of reading which is now rare and precious. And then, of course, there were the daydreams afterwards about the world of the book, long after it was finished. 

This is the power of a good setting in children’s literature. It becomes a world that feels very real, and takes on a life of its own. But what gives some settings this power? 

Of course, every child is different. But there are certain overwhelming commonalities in how we relate to the space around us at different ages, and learning to remember and tap into this is hugely useful for successful children’s settings. There is a reason for the cupboard under the stairs and the Wardrobe; the wood between the worlds and the Place Inbetween; Sara’s attic and the little house in its wide-open prairie. I think it is a myth that children don’t want to read descriptions of setting. We just need to remember what’s interesting. 

And this doesn’t only apply when you’re writing Narnia. Some stories must take place at home, or at school; but the most ordinary house is a world full of worlds. The many corners of home are a whole kingdom in early middle childhood, and we can tap into the agency and ownership children have in that space. 

44 tiny secrets

The first book in my series 44 Tiny…, 44 Tiny Secrets, is mostly set at home, with Betsy Bow Linnet and her 44 African pygmy mice. But she has her own spaces within it… 

Betsy picked up the letter, and was about to open it, but it felt wrong to tear it open in the hall. This was clearly a special sort of letter. So she ran up the stairs to the top floor and noodled her legs through the spindles of the banister. Here, in her favourite spot, she opened the envelope. 

We return to her home in 44 Tiny Acrobats. She knows her house with the thoroughness of someone who has spent hours playing games in it, in the years when hours still feel like eons. She has paid attention to its sounds… 

The Bow-Linnet’s house was full of creaks and groans and surprising thuds 

… and has her own routes through it… 

She tore down the alley behind the gardens of her road, climbed the tree outside her own garden, dropped on to the top of Grandad’s shed and down via another tree on to the grass, and raced over to the kitchen window.  

She had learned as a small girl how to lever this open from the outside. It occurred to her halfway through the window that she was not as small any more, but it was too late for that now; she shoved and pushed and wriggled, and at last landed in the kitchen sink. 

In Acrobats, however, Betsy has to choose between home and the circus. For this to work, the circus has to have the right kind of allure – something that could convincingly tug at her heart strings. It doesn’t take much description to put across the feeling of a performer’s trailer: 

Around her was a semi-circle of trailers. They had brightly lit windows with checked curtains, and doors painted with beautiful pictures. These were the performers’ homes. 

… and then: 

Betsy said goodbye and hurried out of the trailer. The rain had begun again, and the brightly lit trailers looked cosy; you could hear talk and laughter coming from inside them, snug and content.  

Being cosy and being on the road and having your own small, personal kingdom? I know I would have gone to sleep that night dreaming of circus trailers. And it’s not just me: those are three important aspects of game-playing and fantasies in middle childhood, across cultures. Writing settings well for junior fiction is less about stunning people with the poetic quality of your writing, and more about knowing which settings will work – what will prompt your child reader to willingly and delightedly do all the imaginative filling-in for you, from the sketchiest description. 

And to know that, we have some remembering to do. 

Sylvia’s workshop on ‘Junior Fiction: Settings that Stick’ has sold out, but do hit the wait list button: she’ll run another if there’s interest. And you can always sign up for the rerun of her sold-out Character workshop, on 27th February. Details for all workshops can be found at www.speakeasy.com/speaker/sylvia-bishop 

44 Tiny Acrobats, along with the prequel, 44 Tiny Secrets! are available here, and at all other bookshops. 

44 Tiny Acrobats tells the story of when Fry’s Circus pitches its tent opposite Betsy’s house, and despite her Grandad’s reluctance because of his memories of Grandma’s circus days, Betsy can’t resist the lure of the circus. 

But when Betsy’s 44 pygmy mice escape from their box during the show, she has no choice but to join them on stage. And suddenly, running away with the circus seems like the only thing left to do. 

Illustrated in two-tone colour, this sequel beautifully encompasses all the fun of the circus, whilst also exploring how the past has a habit of catching up with you. Captivating and delightful. 

With thanks to Sylvia Bishop and Little Tiger Press. 

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.

Holocaust Memorial Day: Fiction for children

How do you teach primary school children about the Holocaust? Many years ago, I edited a large non-fiction title about the Holocaust for children aged eight and over, and each page carried an angst-ridden decision. Which photograph captures the truth and yet is appropriate for learning at that age? Which statistics to include? Which real-life stories? How to describe something so evil to children so young?

Recently, children’s authors have stepped up to this daunting task and produced some amazing titles that give context to the genocide, show truths without resorting to horror, and illuminate the very real emotions and scars of Holocaust survivors.

after the war
In the middle of last year, Tom Palmer, known for his books on football and history, published After the War with dyslexia specialist and reluctant reader publisher Barrington Stoke. Based on the true story of the Windemere Boys, it is a heartfelt and engaging piece of fiction that explores the emotions of survivors, whilst still carrying the boyishness and wonder that is a child’s exploration of the world.

Yossi and friends, Mordecai and Leo, arrive on the Calgarth Estate next to Lake Windermere after being liberated from Auschwitz. With the help of a multitude of kind adults, they try to rediscover joy for life and hope for the future. Palmer gently extricates the intricacies of their friendships, whilst also referencing Yossi’s past in Nazi-occupied Europe, and the terrible scars the boys carry with them. Palmer does a superb job of linking moments in the present to memories of an horrific past, be it the innocence of feathers falling from split pillows invoking memories of ash, to a synagogue service bringing up the scars of the Nazi terrors of book burning and desecration. But there is also the boyhood delight in simple present pleasures – a bicycle, a late summer storm, a bowl of tomato soup.  

And it is all written in an age-appropriate way. The emotions run deep whilst the language remains easy and accessible.

A few hundred children who survived the concentration camps were indeed brought to the Lake District after the war to ‘rehabilitate’ their lives, and Palmer uses their real stories to create a novel of his own. This is a phenomenally sensitive telling of events after the war, and the exploration of what it’s like to be a child in a strange country, without family or sometimes language, with a terrible loss and grief lying as an undercurrent to all the new things to which the child is exposed.  

It honours the memories of the survivors, whilst also showing that in the face of inhumanity, there is hope for the future. Friendship, courage, and goodness prevail. You can find teaching resources to go alongside the novel here and my interview with Tom Palmer about After the War here. For age 8+.

saving hanno

Saving Hanno by Miriam Halahmy, illustrations by Karin Littlewood
This gentle, yet occasionally heart-breaking book, is a welcome addition to Holocaust literature, as it is aimed at fairly young children and describes a child’s world disintegrating from their own perspective, with detail and emotion, and yet without resorting to shock tactics or hyperbole. It is also a gripping and pacey read.

Nine-year-old Rudi lives a typical German childhood, enjoying his mother’s cinnamon cookies, his close friendships, and school, until the Nazis start making rules prohibiting many facets of his life. As things become more dangerous, he is given the opportunity to go on the Kindertransport to England with his big sister Lotte, but has to leave his parents behind, and devastatingly, his dog Hanno. Amazingly, his parents arrange for Hanno to be smuggled to London too, but London is very different from what Rudi is used to. He is separated from his sister, and although reunited with Hanno, discovers that in London too, pets are in danger as the war intensifies. Halahmy has addressed this theme before in her book Emergency Zoo, but in the shorter Saving Hanno, Halahmy focuses in on the Kindertransport and the emotions facing a Jewish German boy during the war, and it is all the more effective for it. Halahmy explores Rudi’s loss and grief for his old life, as well as his new life experiences, and the small specific sadnesses and joys that accompany both.

The mix of Rudi’s gratefulness for his new circumstance, and yet uncertainty in the face of new customs, and warfare, are intense and yet delicately written, and entirely age-appropriate. A special book that will teach empathy and allow current readers to understand the devastation of Jewish children’s lives during the war.

An age isn’t specified by the publisher, but I would recommend for age seven plus. There is a glossary and note from the author at the end.

when the world was ours
A fantastic new addition to Holocaust literature for children is the newly published When the World Was Ours by Liz Kessler. My review of this book is featured in this month’s Books for Keeps, and you can read it here. The book is for children aged 11+.

With all Holocaust fiction, it’s worth making sure that parents and carers have a conversation around the context of the fiction.

With thanks to Otter-Barry books for the review copy of Saving Hanno, and thanks to Tom Palmer, who kindly let me read an early copy of After the War and voice my opinion.

27 January is #HolocaustMemorialDay, when we remember all those murdered during the Holocaust and more recent genocides. #HMD2021 #LightTheDarkness

Lockdown Home-School Reading

There’s a wonderful wealth of activities and online resources opening up for children who are, once again, home-schooling and remote learning. I’m not going to list all of them here, as others have brilliantly done this already, including A Library Lady, whose blog handily lists almost everything you will need for encouraging reading at home. Click here.

There’s also, of course, the national efforts from the BBC starting next week, and Joe Wicks, as well as normally subscription only services opening up for primary school pupils during lockdown, and Jane Considine who’s offering live writing lessons here, as well as science for under 14s here.

Of course, the issue, is that even looking through these and finding what’s right for your child or composing some kind of timetable of events and activities for them is highly time-consuming and what with work continuing for most parents, and/or juggling more than one child at home, elderly parents to care for etc time can be really tight.

So my advice is to prioritise reading. (And exercise). Take time to read each day – and this can be in several ways. Each household member could read independently for ten minutes a day before bedtime or during the day. Try a family read-a-long, in which you all read the same book together, perhaps taking turns to read aloud, depending on age of children.

We’ve found immense joy in creating individual accents and ways of speaking for characters in our read alouds – from the deep resonant tones of Hagrid in Harry Potter to the piratey ‘rrr’s’ when reading Treasure Island.

We’ve also explored picture books again – even though children may ‘seem’ too old for them, they aren’t. Picture books can work in two ways – there are those that are specifically aimed at younger children, and these can be fun to revisit with an older child – reliving memories and also letting them take the lead in reading to you – and also older picture books with difficult themes or issues that are well worth exploring in conversation while reading.

There’s also benefit in comics. We subscribe to The Beano, and it’s good for tracking narrative, learning to be concise in expression, and understanding the visual effects. To remain hopeful in light of the news, The Week Junior continues to excel in presenting the facts but balancing the doom with light, insight and interest.


There is also delight to be found in structure, and reading A Poem for Every Winter Day edited by Alli Esiri, hands out that on a plate, seeing as each poem is given a date. Today’s is Journey of the Magi by TS Eliot, and although this is one I personally studied for A-level, it’s surprising and wonderful what an eleven year old can bring to the table upon hearing it!

The rewards of reading can’t be stressed enough. Whether it’s diffusing family arguments in a tight space by just switching off and letting everyone’s imaginations take them to desert islands or deep forests or unexplored planets, or whether it’s sharing in the nostalgia of the past, I highly recommend that even if you eschew Joe Wicks and endless multiple choice maths questions, you buckle down to a good read.


Natasha Farrant’s Voyage of the Sparrowhawk picked up the Costa Children’s Book Award this week, and is an uplifting tale promoting a future full of hope, so may be just what you need. Set just after the First World War, it tells of the adventures of two orphans as they cross the channel to find long-lost relatives, and is perfect for 9+ readers.


Also for this age group, and by debut author Lesley Parr is The Valley of Lost Secrets, set during the Second World War and featuring evacuee Jimmy, who finds life very different in a small village in Wales as compared to his home life in London. However, the discovery of a skull in a tree makes even a docile village seem scary.


More history in Cat Weldon’s How to be a Hero, publishing later this month and featuring a trainee Valkyrie, this is the first in a new trilogy about being heroic, and exploring the confusing world of Norse Gods. Filled with illustrations and a couple of maps, this is hugely fun, and also fascinatingly informative.


For laughs, and also large dollops of pathos, you’ll want to read The Perfect Parent Project by Stewart Foster. Unfortunately, it didn’t show me how to be a perfect parent, but it did make me laugh, and kept me gripped. My review is being published in Books for Keeps later this month, and I highly recommend the novel – it’s terrific for building empathy, showing insight, and portrays a great child perspective on the world.

silent stars go by
If you missed The Silent Stars Go By by Sally Nicholls in December, I recommend you read it now, even if it builds to a pivotal Christmas scene. Nicholls is a sublime writer, and this book – for young teens – is a comfort read, a beautiful historical romance that I read in one sitting, feeling both transported and charmed. Set in 1919, Margot’s fiancé Harry has been reported missing, leaving her at home with a devastating secret. When Harry returns, she has to build up the courage to tell him the secret and see how he responds. Will it change the course of their lives forever? The characters are so real that the reader feels as if they are friends, and the only fault I could find was that the book was too short – I wanted more.


The Violin Players
by Eileen Bluestone Sherman is a quick romance read for teens, which aims to highlight prejudices that can be held and acted upon, and yet not challenged for years. Featuring a Jewish teenager in America, Melissa, who moves with her parents from New York to a small town, she confronts anti-Semitism whilst also finding romance. The writing and characterisation feel a little clunky and contrived, but the novel warms as the plot thickens, and was more enjoyed by my teen than by me.


Lastly, a book I’ve been using for younger readers, and published last year, is The B on your Thumb by Colette Hiller and Tor Freeman. A fascinating and fun book of 60 poems, these aim to use the letters of the alphabet to show how words are pronounced and spelled. It’s clever and funny, and excellent for reading aloud, and will make phonics learning that little bit more exciting.

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.

Prescient Publications

“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.”
Orwell 1984

My last blog listed some children’s books that described a future dystopia of some kind. Today’s books are so acutely in tune with what’s happening right now that you might find them kind of spooky. However, as Orwell wrote, it is indeed the best books that tell us what we already know, and so below are two that feel weirdly prescient.

astounding broccoli boy
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Steven Lenton
Cottrell-Boyce has been reading this book in extracts on his Instagram feed during the lockdown from his grand storytelling chair – it’s worth it just to see the chair – and his voice is calm and soothing, but die-hard readers will want to read the book for themselves too.

Rory Rooney is locked up in isolation as a medical mystery after he unexpectedly turns broccoli-green on a Y7 school trip. Then, the school bully, Tommy-Lee, also turns green, and the pair are locked up under observation together. Rather than admit they may be medical guinea pigs or in throes to a horrid disease, Rory decides that he must be a superhero (after all the Incredible Hulk was green).

Before long, the pair are escaping into night-time London, which itself is under threat from a weird feline flu virus, known as Killer Kittens.

As with many children’s books, and ideal societies, it isn’t a far stretch in the story before the unlikely heroes decide that they could do a better job of running the country than the incumbent prime minister, and the climax feels typically Cottrell-Boyce as it makes the most of a wonderful London setting to stage its extreme denouement.

Brimming with humour and likeable characters, this is a gripping read told in short digestible chapters. As one would expect from Cottrell-Boyce, the scenes are filmic, the storytelling dripping with adventure, pathos and excellently-timed humour. With Steven Lenton’s impeccably comic illustrations, this is a great children’s adventure story that deserves to go viral! You can order the book for delivery here.

where the world turns wild
Where the World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold

Published earlier this year, Nicola Penfold’s characters were in isolation long before our lockdown. The majority of people in Penfold’s book are forced into lockdown under strict regimes in order to protect themselves from a nasty disease that is spread by ticks. This future dystopia is set in a world in which most of the Earth has been destroyed, and a group of ‘ReWilders’ create a tick-borne disease to enable nature to claw back some of its wildness.

Following protagonists Juniper and Bear, two children who are immune to the disease, the book tracks their adventure from closed city to wild nature in order to find their mother.

Part paean to nature, part thrilling dystopia, the book picks up on so many dystopian traits, including the banning of books (this time those to do with nature), the fierce importance of immediate family, the role of the outsider and the acceptance of the ‘new normal’ despite its negative and dangerous undertones.

A lush description of the natural world, and a good old-fashioned chase make this a good book, but the relationship between Juniper and Bear, and the authenticity of their emotions from fear to hope and back again is what separates this from the crowd.

A truly hopeful book, and in some way a call to arms. Thoughtful, wise and perfect for lockdown. You can order it for delivery here.

With thanks to Stripes publishers and Macmillan for the review copies.