Every month, our panel of reviewers reads a selection of children’s books and tells us what they think. Our Review Panel includes teachers, librarians, education consultants, headteachers, teaching assistants and education lecturers, and this week they have been telling us about the newly published chapter books that have caught their attention over the last few months…
by Tim Tilley
Reviewer: Suzanne Booth
Wick is an orphan boy, who has spent his life (as far as he can remember), working at the Harklights match factory and orphanage. The opening chapter paints this as a dark and depressing place in which your mind is filled with the images of wretched Dickensian workhouses. To make it worse, it is run by a menacing character, reminiscent of the formidable ‘Child Catcher’, and to whom the children refer to as Old Ma Bogey.
The story begins somewhat steeped in darkness, cruelty and the grimness of an era we might rather forget – until we are intrigued by the miniature man that Old Ma Bogey keeps in a glass dome on her desk. With this, there is a sudden spark of intrigue and magic that then continues to build with Wick’s discovery of a tiny acorn, which is in fact a beautifully made cradle with a tiny live baby inside. From here the story begins to lead us away from the darkness towards a tale of warmth and wonder, as Wick is faced with the opportunity of a lifetime – a way to escape from Harklights.
Although the idea of a new life fills Wick with hope, knowing this is a real chance of a family, he is torn with the dilemma of leaving everyone else behind. But with the realisation that magic is real, he knows that this is a moment he must seize. Leaving Harklights behind him, Wick discovers the miniature world of the Hobs – a civilisation of tiny people living in the forest, who protect their habitat as well the animals and nature within it. But there is a deep secret that Papa Herne of the Hobs is keeping, and all the creatures of the woods are not as they seem. It is up to Wick to help the Hobs and the creatures of the forest, as well as his friends left behind in his old life.
This heart-warming and enchanting story was a pleasure to lose myself in, with charming illustrations that depict a world of imagination and wonder. Tim Tilley’s writing is cleverly crafted, moving the narrative beyond a fanciful miniature world to reveal an underlying message of the importance of protection and conservation – an intimation that is conveyed for children in a delightfully captivating and hopeful way.
Publication date: May 2021
By Ally Sherrick
Reviewers: Anna Sterling & Alison Leach
The Queen’s Fool is Ally Sherrick’s third middle-grade novel set in a familiar period of British history – this time the Tudors, at the time of Henry VIII and his wife, Catherine.
Cat Sparrow lives in Tudor England during the reign of King Henry VIII. When her sister Meg is taken away by a strange figure, Cat sets out on a quest to find her. Living with a learning difficulty in a Tudor world means that Cat is often perceived by others as a ‘half-wit’. With the help of a young actor, called Jacques, who has his own quest to complete, Cat embarks upon her journey and ends up joining a travelling troupe before joining Katherine of Aragon’s court as the queen’s fool.
Just like in Sherrick’s previous books, the main character is a survivor, essentially alone with a quest to find or save those that they love. The difference this time is the dual narrative – although the story starts from the main character Cat’s perspective, a young boy called Jaques is soon introduced to us and then the story is told from either of their perspectives. The characters are both passionate and determined, but Cat is a girl with developmental difficulties and while part of the story is told through her innocent and simple view of dangerous and complex events, Jaques’ point of view provides the reader with the additional detail they need.
But Cat’s innocence also draws the reader in – one minute smiling at her unintended errors, the next, rooting for her survival as her fate is firmly placed in unscrupulous characters who have little reason to invest in her. Jacques sees her kindness and love too, and is drawn to her as they travel to London with a group of unsavoury entertainers and their bear. Because Cat has the ability to play her flute like a bird, she catches the eye of the Queen at a public event, who then employs her as a fool. This is just the start of the adventure that Jaques and Cat share, as the journey takes them to France and to a magnificent event, the ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’ in France (a meeting of two kings in order to establish peace between two nations). A dangerous channel crossing, traitors, murderers and the ferocious personality of King Henry himself are just some of the dangers the friends both need to overcome in order to succeed on their quests and to save the peace between France and England. Of course, Sherrick keeps the reader wondering how the pair will ever manage to triumph until the very end.
With plenty of historical details as well as everything you’d hope for in a Tudor adventure, from plots and perils to tournaments and feasts, this story offers fresh perspectives into life during the Tudor period. Free chapter-by-chapter reading resources are also available to download from thepublisher. You can also see this book on our Tudor Topic Booklist.
Publisher: Chicken House
Publication date: February 2021
by Maz Evans & Chris Jevons
Reviewer: Jacqueline Harris
Scarlett Fife finds many things in life unfair. It is unfair that William U has managed to beat Scarlett’s number of positivity points and so gets to take the class pet hamster, Mr Nibbles, home for the weekend. It is unfair that the new girl has got the part in the school play that she wanted. It is unfair that Mum is so busy working that she sometimes forgets things. The trouble is, that when Scarlett tries to keep her anger inside, other things start to explode, like her teacher’s smoothie. What is going to explode next – and how can Scarlett try to prevent it from happening again?
This is an extremely funny book, and I laughed my way through it. The jokes are great and work on two levels both for adults and children. Scarlett is a wonderful character and Maz Evans completely captures her point of view and her misreading of some situations. The other characters are delightful and amusing too; Scarlett’s parents, her stepfather, the friends in her class all beautifully created and then brought to life with the illustrations by Chris Jevons.
I really liked to see the representations of children with glasses being the central characters, a parent with a disability, blended families and a diverse cast of characters. It is also good to have a book that deals with big emotions and how they can take over your life and it gives excellent suggestions for how to manage them. Children do get angry and this book helps them recognise the validity of that anger, in a very engaging way.
I am very pleased to learn that there are more Scarlett Fife books coming. I’m quite selective in the sort of books I find funny and this is one of only a handful that has made me guffaw with laughter. I’m passing it onto my daughter, who bears a strong resemblance to Scarlett and the sort of things that make her angry!
Publication date: May 2021
By: Jennifer Killick
Reviewer: Anna Sterling
Crater Lake Evolution follows on from the first popular Crater Lake novel by Jennifer Killick. Although the story is a continuation of the previous, this book can be read as a story in its own right as a high-action thriller.
The action starts with an explosion in the town’s university and the main character, Lance, soon starts to realise there is more to it than the authorities claim – particularly as his previous adventure involved defeating aliens which, he now thinks, may not have been properly eradicated. His first major clue is his mum, whose manner suddenly changes but with no obvious indication that she has been body-snatched. Nevertheless, Lance enlists old and new friends to investigate further – which means walking through a town that is being gradually taken over by a silent enemy and breaking into the university, before escaping from near capture. It also means mending relationships that have eroded since the move to high school.
With a common enemy and a short time limit, Lance and his group gather, but not before fooling those around them that they are not up to anything at all. The covert operation pushes Lance to his limit as he needs to remain calm and ‘normal’ as mum crawls over the ceiling above him to check that he is going to sleep. Although experience counts for something, the friends need to use all of the strength, wit, intelligence and resources they have if they are going to free themselves and the town from a species that has now evolved and is intent on winning ‘at all costs’.
The relationships between the characters drive the story but the level of action, the amount of danger and the level of suspense make this a real page-turner. How the gang will defeat such a strong coordinated enemy is not clear for most of the book – there is very little alternative but to read on. A super thriller for KS2+.
Publisher: Firefly Press
Publication date: May 2021
By Charlie Higson
Reviewer: Lisa Davies
A hilarious new book from bestselling children’s author Charlie Higson, which explores themes of dealing with worries, facing fear and learning what it means to be brave.
Stan is shy, Stan is very shy, you could even go so far as to say that Stan is very apprehensive about just about everything. He is so worried about displaying his incredibly skinny legs that he wears two pairs of trousers, in Italy, on the beach. He has a list that is the opposite of a bucket list – it is called a duck-it list and it is a list of the eleven things that Stan absolutely never, ever wants to do. However, Stan finds himself on holiday in Italy with his fifth best friend from school and is faced with some of his biggest fears and anxieties. This is a laugh-out-loud story of dealing with catastrophe and how it is OK to be anxious, shy or timid in the face of life.
This was a great read. It sums up what it feels like to be a shy child and, as someone who was shy themselves, I related to Stan and all of his worries. This is a good choice for slightly older children (upper KS2+) and would be prefect for more reluctant readers. It is a straightforward read and I would recommend it for older primary children simply because it deals with the slightly more mature content of a first kiss, adult illness and parental relationships.
Publication date: April 2021
By Cath Howe
Reviewer: Carol Carter
Lucas is a rich kid. But while he may have a ballroom, exciting foreign holidays and the money to buy pretty much anything he wants, he is missing the fundamental things we all need deep down – friendship, understanding and acceptance. He’s also got more everyday worries, such as not wanting to join the drama group his dad is forcing him to and not knowing who to tell that he has nits. Luckily for Lucas, and our story, the drama group doesn’t turn out as bad as anticipated, and before too long he is well on his way to not only accepting himself but also building strong relationships with new friends and old family.
How to be Me is a deceptively easy read, with short chapters, uncomplicated vocabulary and wide-spaced text. It explores important themes with a lightness of touch that belies its empathetic approach and depth of feeling, and Cath Howe’s deft touch with relatable characters reels you in and the book will, I imagine, be passed from hand to hand by Year 4-6 eagerly. As such, it will make an excellent bridge for those readers moving on from early chapter books to chunkier middle-grade fare, while never being too simplistic for more advanced readers.
Publisher: Nosy Crow
Publication date: April 2021
By Nicola Skinner & Flavia Sorrentino
Reviewer: Louise Buisson
An original and through-provoking new middle grade novel from the acclaimed author of Bloom.
Kirsten Bramble is living every young girl’s dream- or so she would like the world to think. Catapulted to fame at the age of eight, after posting a video online appealing for a girlfriend for her widowed father, she is now the star of a reality TV show. However, after several years in the limelight, Kirsten is coming to realise that fame is rather exhausting; her life is tightly scheduled, her diet restricted and her daily interactions with her (paid) best friend are scripted. Even worse: there is an up-and-coming eight-year-old girl on the reality TV scene who is threatening to eclipse Kirsten. Desperate to hang onto her fame, Kirsten is hanging her hopes on a scoop TV chat show appearance.
Then, on really quite an ordinary school trip, everything changes.
Kirsten’s class (the majority of whom consider her too snobbish to talk to nowadays) are visiting the dry-docked SS Great Britain – the first iron ocean liner – when suddenly the ship starts to talk to her. Not just on an emotional level but on an actual voice-appearing-in-her-head level. Needless to say, Kirsten assumes that she is imagining things, right up to the point that the ship breaks its own moorings and smashes through the barrier that keeps it from the sea with, Kirsten and her ex-best friend Olive being the only humans on board. Having decided that Kirsten is the captain, the ship demands that she accompanies her on a journey to recapture the magic of the glory days when the ship was celebrated wherever she went and to face the people who eventually left her to rust. So, the two girls (barely speaking to each other) and the magically bought-to-life mannequin passengers set off across the Atlantic – taking Kirsten further and further away from her career-rescuing interview.
The girls’ epic voyage features excitement, danger, redemption, adventures into the 3D dreams of a sleeping ship and even a power struggle with a ghostly whaler. Most important of all though is the journey of self-discovery for Kirsten and the realisation that, maybe, fame isn’t worth desperately holding onto after all.
This is a wonderful story with the perfect mixture of fantasy, real-life history and a message that social media fame isn’t necessarily all it seems.
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication date: April 2021
By Lucy Ivison & Catharine Collingridge
Reviewer: Tami Wylie
The House of Serendipity: Sequins & Secrets is such a fun book! I haven’t read a book so refreshing in a long time. Set in 1920s London, fashion and friendship are at the heart of this story, which is filled with period detail and full-page costume illustrations.
This is the story of Sylvia and Myrtle, two girls from opposite backgrounds who discover that they’re not so different. When Myrtle goes to work as a maid at Serendipity House, she meets Lady Sylvia Cartwright, whose parents own the house. Myrtle has had to leave all that she knows and take this position in hopes that she can earn enough money to buy her mother a Tailor shop as they have had to sell theirs. Sylvia is a bit eccentric and dramatic. When Sylvia’s sister Delphine becomes distraught over her dress for her debutante ball, Sylvia and Myrtle join forces to fix it; Sylvia designs a new one and Myrtle makes it. Delphine’s dress is a huge success, so the two girls decide to team up.
When they are approached by Lady Agapantha Portland-Prince to make her a wardrobe to help her achieve her dream, the adventure of their young lives begins. Will all three of the girls achieve their dreams? Or will they get into trouble by helping each other?
This story focuses a lot on friendship, loyalty and striving to make your dreams come true. It is a truly uplifting story.
Publication date: June 2021
By Phil Earle & Elisa Paganelli
Reviewer: Jo Clarke
The Dog That Saved the World (Cup) is a thoroughly enjoyable story of a dog and his family. Inspired by events of 1966, Phil Earle brings the legend of the Jules Rimet trophy theft up to date by placing his tale in a contemporary setting with contemporary problems. Being narrated by Pickles the dog, difficult – but real – issues of unemployment, single-parenting, poverty and homelessness are explored with an innocent honesty that makes them accessible and appropriate for younger readers. Despite the underlying struggles and heartaches, this is not a story of sadness, but it is a quick, positive read that is fun and uplifting.
Pickles lives with Elsie and her Dad in a tiny, cold flat that rattles and shakes as the train hurtles by. Pickles, like most dogs, has boundless enthusiasm and energy. Pickles tells it as it is – Dad is tired, bills are piling up, there’s not much food, but every night there is a bedtime story and every afternoon there is football. Even though there could be much to feel sad about, Phil Earle has ensured that the reader doesn’t pity Elsie or feel depressed by her circumstance as we feel the warmth of love that radiates within her family.
Pickles and Elsie live for football and they are both very good at it. Their combined talents and enthusiasm result in them winning the chance to play in a halftime match at the World Cup – a dream come true. However, their excitement is short-lived when the tournament is cancelled following the theft of the cup itself. Not only are Elsie’s football dreams in tatters but her heart is broken when the family has to move to temporary (and squalid) accommodation following the loss of Dad’s job. Pickles is on a mission to see that justice is done and he vows to find the stolen trophy so that Elsie can fulfil her dream. And that is exactly what he does: the cup is recovered, and Pickles saves the day.
It is at this point that the main strength of the book shines through. There is no life-changing reward money or fairy tale ending which sees the family in a luxury home, because real life isn’t like that. What there is, however, is an abundance of optimism, the hope that the game of football can bring when life feels relentless and realistic dreams for a better family future reliant on determination, faith and loyalty to one another.
After the ending of the story, there is an author’s note explaining the real-life inspiration behind the book. Fara Williams, England’s most capped women’s footballer, has shown that dreams can come true as she herself was homeless but never without hope because she had football in her life. Elsie is a reflection of Fara – full of hope, determination and undefeated by life’s challenges.
Printed on a dyslexia-friendly font on cream paper, the story is delightfully illustrated by Elisa Paganelli. The drawings are predominantly joyful. showing happy faces and the bond between a family who have lots of love even when they have little else.
A fun, super-readable story of football with much, much more besides.
Publisher: Barrington Stoke
Publication date: March 2021
By Benjamin Zephaniah
Reviewer: Emma Hughes
This masterpiece is written by Benjamin Zephaniah, and it delivers a powerful story about what it was like to be part of the Windrush Generation. Based on real events of the time, this fictional story features Leonard – a boy who was born in Jamaica and grew up in England.
We first meet Leonard when he is a child in his native Jamaica, living with his mother and grandmother, surrounded by the sea. The women in his life have instilled a deep sense of his Carribean heritage and history, teaching him the stories that have verbally been handed down through generations… not the history and songs that have been taught in his school.
Looking for a brighter future for them all, his family respond to the post-war plea from Great Britain, for workers from the Empire to relocate to rebuild a broken country. His father travels first, and Leonard and his mother follow later in 1958. On a cold April morning they arrive in Southampton – the reception they receive is frosty, in more ways than one. And so begins Leonard’s life in England, and we see how he is treated at school, at work, socially and in his later years too. It is a striking account of how the Windrush Generation were treated throughout the 60s to modern day atrocities.
At times, this is a difficult read. How can society continually undervalue people who have given it so much? But it is also an important and powerful read, endorsed by Amnesty International, and would be well-placed in the hands of readers in Upper KS2 and Lower KS3.
Publication date: November 2020
Thank you to the publishers of these titles for sending us review copies and to our review panel members for reading and reviewing.
> Visit our Reading for Pleasure Hub
> Browse our Topic Booklists
> See our Books of the Month.
> Preview our NEWLY UPDATED Year Group booklists