January 2021 - Books of the Month
The BooksForTopics January Top Picks
We've picked five of our favourite new children's books this month.
Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything
Sam Copeland & Sarah Horne
A laugh-out-loud rumpus woven through a touching story of family and friendship, from the duo behind the popular Charlie Changes into a Chicken series.
If you've ever heard a young child asking Siri their questions or scrolled through your family's Alexa history (from Are you alive? to What's the best way to get rid of earwax?), you'll quickly understand the premise for the humour in this story.
This book tells the story of Uma, whose father has barely spoken a word since her mother passed away. Uma's only real company is next-door neighbour Alan Alan Carrington. One day, after an unlikely alpaca-related incident, Uma comes across a strange earpiece that seems to be able to give the answer to absolutely everything. Or at least, almost everything. What follows is a laugh-out-loud adventure that sees Uma digging deep into her soul to search for answers to questions about her life that she has barely dared to ask before.
Sam Copeland's writing is characteristically brimming with humour - from bonkers situations and slapstick to puns and witty asides in the footnotes. We loved the characters - particularly the dynamics between Uma and Alan Alan, who are a super duo, and the villainess Stella Daw who is a Cruella De Vil for modern times. The story is also deeply poignant in parts as it explores the themes of family, grief and community. The plot culminates in a riddle to solve deep within a village crypt, and Uma's intrepid venturing in the underground tunnels beautifully mirrors her own soul-searching as she explores her emotions about her family situation.
This is an absolute winner of a story that has all the right ingredients to be an instant hit with readers in Key Stage 2.
Kelly Yang & Maike Plenzke
I read this back in 2018 as an American import and was thrilled to hear that UK publisher Knights Of are bringing the paperback and its sequel to the UK market this year. This is a deeply moving story that has left an impact long after reading it and I'm over the moon to see it being brought to a new audience of UK readers this year.
Inspired by the author's own childhood, the story charts the experiences of a Chinese girl called Mia living in America with her parents, and explores the themes of immigration, prejudice, poverty, institutionalised racism and what it looks like to hold onto hope in turbulent times.
Having immigrated to California from China, Mia's family run a motel. Life is hard work, money is short, the American people are unpredictable and the motel owner, Mr Yao, is not somebody to be crossed. Yet Mia observes life around her with heart and humour, seeing the best in people and following her parents lead to offer compassion and help in all circumstances. Full of concern for the plight of immigrants in America, Mia's parents use the empty motel rooms as a place of refuge. The racial injustice and sheer cruelty that Mia witnesses in the treatment of fellow human beings is deeply unsettling. Throughout the story, Mia becomes a beacon of light for many, as she works to navigate the challenging circumstances around her with integrity and hope.
Mia's account of the difficulties her family faces as immigrants in modern-day America is moving and powerful. Mia is a thoroughly likeable main character who shows courage, determination and kindness even in the most difficult of circumstances and - on top of all of life's difficulties - never gives up on pursuing her own dreams and reaching for the stars.
This is a beautiful story that gently stirs the soul and is recommended for upper KS2.
Jo Loring Fisher
The first page of Wolf Girl shows a sad face staring from a window of a tower block. Browns and greys surround her, the sky is clouded and the roads are twisted like the knots in her stomach. Behind Sophy’s forlorn face is a square of colour which stands out: a picture of a wolf.
Away from the outside world, Sophy finds happiness in her den - the place where she can be herself, or anyone else for that matter. Sophy’s face wears a smile when she is in her wolf costume, the skin she wears when being Sophy just isn’t enough. As a wolf, Sophy finds the strength and courage to be loud and fast. Sophy is a worrier and Sophy is shy, but wolves are brave and wolves are adventurous - so Sophy decides that she will be a wolf. Sadly, wolves in school isn’t to everyone’s liking and Sophy’s plan doesn’t gain her the friends that she longs for.
The illustrations in this beautiful book allow the reader, old or young, to feel Sophy’s anguish. We see how the children’s laughter causes her distress and how alone and bleak she feels. There is great depth and empathy within every page. When Sophy finds herself face-to-face with a bear, she has to confront the threat and she finds her voice. The reader might then be forgiven for predicting that the story would end with Sophy being a braver, less anxious child. But no, there is far more to learn from her experience. You see, Sophy looks at the bear and makes a very wise realisation. It is the lesson that Sophy learns from her encounter with the bear that then helps her to smile and for the subsequent pages to become lighter and brighter. The ending of Sophy’s story is a good one; it carries a message of hope to those children who feel that they don’t quite ‘fit in’ and it tells us that sometimes the things that we fear are not quite as big or as scary as we had once thought.
As the parent of a shy little girl who doesn’t think she fits in, this story struck a chord with me. We all can do with our own secret wolf sometimes, but we also need to know that bears need hugs too.
A beautiful book with wolf-like wisdom and bear-sized warmth.
Reviewer: Jo Clarke.
The Boy Who Sang With Dragons
Andy Shepherd & Sara Ogilvie
Here at BooksForTopics HQ, we've been fans of this super series since we were first charmed by Tomas and his dragon-tree in the first book. Now, in book 5, the series draws to a close, but we're happy to say that this final instalment provides the perfect ending to Tomas' adventures.
Five books into the series, Tomas is quite the expert when it comes to dealing with dragons. Having nursed the baby dragons in secret, learned to deal with exploding poo, figured out top tips to hide scorch marks and worked out what to do with friends that want their own dragons too, you'd think that Tomas has everything sussed by now. There's just one last piece of the dragon-shaped puzzle to fall into place - this time involving a new friend with long-standing links to the dragons. As ever, Tomas' beloved Grandad is never far away with some toffee, a listening ear and a few words of wisdom to steer Tomas on the right path.
There's so much to love about this series. The stories are filled with humour and heart in equal measure, making for a warm and enjoyable read with plenty to think about but nothing to scare young readers. I've always enjoyed the pleasure that the relationship with the baby dragon brings to Tomas, and any reader who has ever nurtured a plant, pet or person will find Tomas’s sense of joy relatable and comforting. Also heart-warming are the family dynamics between Tomas and his younger sister Lolli as well as with his Grandad, who first inspires him to engage in gardening. Tomas is a great model for showing how young people can apply curiosity and creativity to the process of growing and nurturing plants and see ‘magic’ in the endeavour.
Coupled with charming illustrations by Sara Ogilvie, this early chapter book series makes a fantastic choice for newly confident readers just taking off with independent reading and it will also go down a storm as an entertaining read-aloud in Years 2-4.
Chocolate Milk, X-Ray Specs & Me!
Bethany Walker & Jack Noel
Freddy Spicer is at home while his parents, international sprout farmers, are away in Outer Costanga (which is so far away Freddy can’t even find it on a map). Freddy is with his grandfather and at a new school where he has trouble making friends and is also secretly in love with Samira. A strange lady has moved in next door and captivated Grandpa; it looks like a wedding is on the cards. Freddy has also accidentally blown up the shed with a blast gun he thinks his parents left for his birthday. All he really wants to do is go to Blast Yourself Bonkers and hopefully gain friends; but his parents have not returned in time.
This story is told in the form of letters, from Freddy and his parents and also some of the other characters. What the reader knows, but Freddy remains clueless about, is that his parents are not actually sprout farmers but secret agents on the tail of the mastermind criminal Dr Alpha Bett. This is the joke of the book, that Freddy never realises what is going on and yet somehow manages to save the day by accident.
I generally do not find books for children particularly funny, though I can see why children like them. This is one of the exceptions because it is very cleverly written; I laughed my way through this book, because the reader can see what is going to happen and Freddy remains engagingly unaware.
The book is delightfully doodled and illustrated by Jack Noel in much the same way as Freddy would have done and this adds to the joy of the letters and postcards he sends.
I am hoping this book gets into the Lollies awards as it really deserves that accolade, a real laugh-out-loud sort of book by a debut author.
Reviewer: Jacqueline Harris.
Reviewers: Alison Leach, Jo Clarke & Jacqueline Harris