July 2021 - Books of the Month
The BooksForTopics July Top Picks
We've picked five of our favourite new children's books this month.
Polly Ho-Yen & George Ermos
Brave and gripping, this is an edge-of-your-seat tale of survival that will delight fans of The Boy in the Tower, Orphans of the Tide and Crater Lake. Filled with all of the chills and thrills that you’d expect of Polly Ho-Yen’s dystopian middle-grade stories, the story is also served with a generous helping of emotional poignancy that explores themes of family bonds, mental health, learning to trust and never giving up on those you love.
Sylvia has always taught her son Billy the basic rules of survival; always be prepared, pay attention, trust no-one, master your fears and never stop trying. Sylvia loves taking Billy on outdoor adventures and ensuring that he is as ready as possible for surviving whatever may come their way. But Billy knows that his mum’s behaviour is different from other parents. Her actions become increasingly erratic, and she soon removes Billy from school altogether to prioritise survival lessons. After a crisis weekend when one of their survival lessons goes awry, Sylvia is admitted to hospital for mental health help, and Billy is sent away to live with his Dad in Bristol. Billy knows more than anything how much Sylvia loves him, but now he feels alone, confused, and cross with the grown-ups who do not seem to think that Sylvia is able to look after him well. Among the strangeness of living in a new place, Billy notices other unexpected things starting to happen. Before long, a mysterious virus seems to take hold in the local area, turning people into zombie-like creatures called ‘Greys’. Suddenly, the world appears to change in the blink of an eye, and Billy and his new family embark on a race against time when his survival instincts will be more important than ever.
Like the very best dystopias, Polly Ho-Yen’s sci-fi worlds always feel just the smallest step away from our own and after the past year, reading a virus-themed story feels both daunting and relatable. The fast-paced virus escape scenes are quite frightening in places, but the zombie-esque appearances of the victims helps to maintain a fictional edge that stops the tale becoming too close to home. There’s a well-crafted mirroring between the physical virus taking hold of the community and the mental health crisis that has been gaining a grip on Sylvia’s mind over a number of years. Billy’s character development in the story is beautiful, and by the end of the narrative, he has formed a good set of real-world survival skills of his own that will help him to navigate the ups and downs of growing up and making trusting relationships with others.
This is an exciting thriller that packs an emotional punch and leaves you rooting for the main character. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but is sure to thrill mature readers in KS2 who love a page-turning plot with a rollercoaster of emotions and a few truly nail-biting scenes to get stuck into.
See How I Saved the World in a Week featured on our Summer 2021 Ones to Watch selection.
Listified: Britannica’s 300 lists that will blow your mind.Har
Andrew Pettie & Andrés Lozano
This month sees another impressively comprehensive non-fiction offering from Britannica and What On Earth Books, following from Christopher’s Lloyd’s Children’s Encyclopedia and Kate Hale’s Factopia. Listified is a robust, 400-page hardback compendium brimming with intriguing information on a range of topics - each presented in list form. This is an absolute treasure trove for readers who love dipping in and out of information books and impressing their friends and family with a host of unusual trivia.
Divided into eight chapters on various themes – from space and nature to inventions and the body - the book is bursting with pocket-sized facts and snippets all grouped into lists. It’s easy to get lost in the list of animals that have visited space (although I’m sure I’m not the only one who was grateful for the footnote explaining what a Tardigrade is) or in the list of five things that scientists would need to do in order to clone a T-Rex. Many readers will be intrigued to learn that a bolt of lightning is the same width as a human thumb and five times hotter than the sun, or that on Liechtenstein’s National Day (15th August), the monarch invites the whole population for a party and funfair at the castle.
Many of the lists are just as humorous as they are informative (it's easy to imagine that some readers will jump straight to ’10 Sounds the Body Makes and Why They Happen’ or guffaw at the section about smart underpants that can automatically measure how much your buttock muscles move in order to tell you if you need to exercise more). Coupled with Andrés Lorenzo’s appealing illustration as well as photographs, diagrams and prompts to move to other pages to find out further related information, the book takes on a playful nature without ever compromising on the density of content.
Suitable for KS2 and beyond, this is a cornucopia of information that would make a great gift for inquisitive individuals or a worthy investment for school libraries.
Mystery of the Night Watchers
A M Howell & Saara Soderlund
A.M. Howell (author of The Garden of Lost Secrets and The House of One Hundred Clocks) returns with a gripping new historical adventure, set during the Edwardian era.
Nancy and her sister Violet live in Leeds in 1910. Halley’s Comet is coming, and many people wrongly believe the comet means destruction and impending doom. Without warning their mother takes them off to Suffolk to stay with their grandfather they did not know existed. Something very strange is happening and Nancy discovers that her mother has not been honest with her about their past.
Their grandfather lives in a beautiful house with an observatory at the top and an apothecary shop below. But something is not right, and Nancy is determined to find out what is going on and why her mother has apparently lied to her for most of her life.
From the very first page there is tension, and the themes of secrets and lies are continued throughout the book. A M Howell manages to convincingly portray the finer details of the period and deep sense of mystery in what makes a beautifully written, exciting and atmospheric adventure story. It is easy to imagine both the time and the setting (which is based on a real place in East Anglia) and the whole book is vivid with detail. Each chapter is headed with a small picture related to the story, illustrated by Saara Katariina Soderlund, and these are a lovely addition that contribute well to the overall atmosphere of mystery and adventure in the book.
Nancy is an excellent role model as a girl standing up for herself and wanting more for herself than girls from that era were expected to achieve. Over-arching the entire book is the story of Halley’s comet itself; its portrayed brightness and the awe people experience watching it seem to linger through the story like the light from its tail.
Read author A.M. Howell's guest blog post about favourite historical fiction for children over on our Reading For Pleasure blog.
The Puffin Keeper
Michael Morpurgo & Benji Davies
Originally published in November 2020, this month sees the gorgeous new paperback edition of The Puffin Keeper by Michael Morpurgo and Benji Davies.
The Puffin Keeper is a beautiful story of friendship, love, family, hope and new beginnings, which pays homage to memories of family holidays to the Scilly Isles and is set alongside Benji Davies' colour illustrations that evoke the untamed coastal setting, the character's passion for painting and the value of passing time in bringing relationships to blossom through life's differing seasons. The story was also a tribute to Puffin Books on their 80th birthday and is inspired by the founder of Puffin Books, Allen Page. Interestingly, Morpurgo's wife Claire is one of Allen Page's daughters and the real-life family connection gives an added element of depth and breath to the story.
The book tells the story of a young boy named Allen and the friendship he forges with solitary Benjamin Postlethwaite, the lighthouse keeper who saves his life. The ship that Allen and 30 others are sailing on becomes washed up on some rocks near the lighthouse, Benjamin saves them all and give them shelter until help can come. Although he doesn’t have much to say, Benjamin and Allen sow the seeds of a friendship that will last a lifetime.
As years go by, Allen grows up and seeks out Benjamin. He returns to Puffin Island and rekindles his friendship with Benjamin, who is feeling unwanted as he no longer has the job of keeping the lighthouse going. Together, they rescue an injured puffin and nurse it back to health. Over time, the puffin returns and brings more puffins to the island. Thus Benjamin becomes known as the puffin keeper.
This story is so beautiful and heart-warming and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It will appeal to readers of all ages, although at just over 100 pages it sits well among Morpurgo's much-treasured shorter illustrated stories like The Rainbow Bear and Dolphin Boy, which are well loved for capturing hearts in KS1 and lower KS2 classrooms before readers progress onto the author's lengthier chapter books. There is also an accompanying Resource Pack available to download.
The House on the Edge
A thrilling story from former bookseller Alex Cotter, brimming with cliff-hangers (literal and metaphorical!), adventure, ghosts, shipwrecks, plot twists and heart-warming characters with real-life problems to navigate.
Faith has been successful in keeping others away from her house, because if somebody comes in, they’ll know. They’ll know that ever since her Dad disappeared, Mum has been spending all day in bed. They’ll know that Faith is the one who is caring for her little brother. They’ll know about the crack in the garden that seems to be getting bigger every day. And if they know, they’ll be forced to leave.
When her brother’s obsession with the sea ghosts that apparently live in their basement gets out of hand, adults start to take notice - so Faith has no choice but to lie. However, all lies have consequences and everything seems to be going wrong. Will Faith be able to keep her family and their home together before everything she knows goes over the crumbling cliff-edge?
Full of mystery and with a dose of the supernatural, The House on the Edge is perfect for Key Stage 2 readers who enjoy a spooky read without it being too frightening. Alex Cotter’s close narrative style makes the reader feel as though they are in the head of the main character Faith and gives them a real sense of who she is as a person, including her sense of humour and the ups and downs of a turbulent family situation. The background to the story enables parental mental health issues and the experiences of young carers to be considered empathetically by readers. The story is accessible for children at different stages of their reading journey, including those less confident, and the promise of shipwrecks, smugglers and thrilling adventures near the sea is likely to pull in a wide audience of children.
This story would be a great addition to KS2 classrooms and libraries – its links to coastlines and the erosion occurring will make the issue real and relatable to children, providing lots of opportunities for discussion and cross-curricular learning too.
See The House on the Edge featured on our Summer 2021 Ones to Watch selection.
Reviewers: Alison Leach, Christine Ivory, Jacqueline Harris, Tami Wylie