June 2021 - Books of the Month
The BooksForTopics June Top Picks
We've picked five of our favourite new children's books this month.
The Astonishing Future of Alex Nobody
Kate Gilby Smith & Thy Bui
On the day she was born, a coach of tourists appeared at the hospital - was it just a coincidence or is there something special about Alex? To her friends and teachers, Alex is a nobody - but what does the future hold for her?
Alex is a unique, brave and intelligent protagonist who doesn’t feel like she fits in with her peers. That is, until the appearance of Jasper. Jasper arrives just when Alex is feeling extremely alone and most in need of a friend. Alex can’t help wondering where Jasper came from, especially as she knows so little about him. Then Jasper mysteriously disappears and Alex decides she has to find a way to save her friend.
When she discovers that the only logical explanation for the sudden disappearance is time travel, Alex becomes focussed on finding a way to follow Jasper. Alex’s only option is to become a stowaway on the coach of tourists outside her school. With the help of an interesting cast of characters, Alex begins her journey through the future to locate and rescue Jasper, but she is also determined to uncover the truth - why was Jasper sent to watch and protect her?
This is Kate Gilby Smith’s debut novel, and after thoroughly enjoying this thought-provoking read, I am intrigued to see what comes next. Time travelling is a fascinating subject, and this is a gentle enough introduction to excite young readers by the concept without leaving them scratching their brains in confusion at the metaphysics - especially as Alex's back-story is really her future-story. This well-crafted story with its strong female lead celebrates difference, friendship, family and determination. It does also include a number of interesting historical references, through Gerty’s collection of stolen historical items from Martin Luther King to Cleopatra. This would make a fabulous class read, as there are plenty of talking points throughout the story.
See The Astonishing Future of Alex Nobody featured on our Summer 2021 Recommended Reads selection.
Interview with a Shark
Andy Seed & Nick East
Andy Seed’s newest book follows the 'animal interview' format from his previous book Interview With a Tiger - which many BooksForTopics readers will recognise from our Year 3 Recommended Reads Booklist or our Top-Notch Non-Fiction list.
This time, the ‘tranimalator’ machine turns its attention to underwater creatures, from ocean giants like blue whales and orcas to deep-sea dwellers like anglerfish and conger eels. The interviewer quizzes his oceanic guests on life in the deep blue sea - from what they eat and how they swim, to dangers they face and where their names come from.
True to style, Andy packs a lot of humour into the interviews and the creatures' personalities shine through hilariously. The Q&A format breaks the information into bite-size chunks, making it a brilliant choice of book for readers to dip into at their leisure and to find some interesting facts to take away each time they do.
With lively colour illustrations by Nick East, this is a highly enjoyable information book that will be sure to make a splash with readers aged 6-9.
Read author Andy Seed's guest blog post about reading factual books for pleasure over on our Reading For Pleasure blog.
Children of the Quicksands
Children of the Quicksands is the debut novel by Efua Traoré and winner of The Times/ Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition 2019.
Set in Nigeria, the story centres on 13-year-old Simi, sent away from the city by her busy mother to stay with her grandmother in Ajao, whom she has never met and who is not expecting her. There’s no internet, TV or phone; just the sounds of birds and animals. Why has her mother never spoken of her grandmother? Her grandmother readily dispenses advice and healing potions and tinctures to the community yet remains silent on the topic of her own family. Simi only knows that she must keep away from the forbidden lake and jungle-like forest, but soon defies her grandmother and decides to explore. While at the lake, she is pulled under by the dangerous quicksand and her fantastical journey begins; a journey that she can share with no one. Will she uncover the truth? Can the years of rifts be healed?
This is a beautiful story with an evocative setting. The reader is drawn to the rich sights, sounds and smells of the remote setting with its mysteries woven into a story dealing with separation, grief and loss. It is Simi’s personal story, yet the history that she uncovers is also deeply powerful and moving: the story of a family dealing with loss in their own individual ways. It is her grandmother, Iyanla, whose secrets we want to uncover and, when we do, it is via a tale steeped in Yoruba folklore and magic.
This story radiates warmth and colour and deserves a place in a KS2 library. The book itself is a thing of beauty with a stunning cover by Helen Crawford-White. Display this on your classroom shelf and it just begs to be picked up by any middle-grade child in search of a wonderful adventure.
Nen and the Lonely Fisherman
Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew
I grew up in the Disney generation when the story of The Little Mermaid captured my heart. Many years later I visited Copenhagen to see the famous Little Mermaid statue myself - a bronze statue by Edvard Eriksen, depicting an anguished mermaid becoming human, her lonely expression pained with the choice of being stuck between the two worlds of conformity and desire. It's an anguish that most humans tap into at some point in their life, and this is what has given the story such a long-standing sense of fascination over the years. This month, I revisited the story anew, via Nen and the Lonely Fishermen. We’ve seen a run of fairytale retellings in picturebooks in recent years, but Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew’s modern adaptation of The Little Mermaid is highly original in its rendering of that original tale of anguish, identity and the pursuit of dreams.
Nen the merman lives under the sea, exploring the great depths. Sure, his surroundings are filled with treasures to explore, from ancient shipwrecks to shimmering schools of fish - but Nen feels an emptiness that nothing seems to fill. Sensing that the answer to his loneliness may lay outside of the ocean bounds, Nen visits the surface each night, much to the displeasure of his father Pelagios. One day, Nen’s song reaches the ears of a lonely human - a fisherman named Ernest who quickly establishes a special bond with Nen. What follows is a dramatic tempest, a search-and-rescue mission and a special reuniting that fulfils Nen’s life-long yearning for companionship.
This is a beautifully illustrated story with much to reflect on. At its heart, the tale touches on the joy of finding a special connection with another human being. The dramatic tempests and unfathomable depths of the ocean setting give space to reflect the sense of turmoil and soul-searching that can occur when growing up and finding one's true self. Meanwhile, the arrays of multi-coloured sealife, rainbow-hued ocean sunsets and joyous patterns of shells, shimmering scales and starfish washing up on the coastline all point to the many treasures waiting for the characters in their final reunion.
The narrative leaves many questions for readers to ponder, as the best picturebooks do. There are some really clever design touches, including the switch to vertical presentation (which offers a perspective of depth in the ocean and a sense of Nen's disorientation as he searches and yearns), the enticing foil highlighting on the cover and the subtle environmental messages incorporated into the illustrations. This is a beautiful and tender-hearted story that will resonate well with anyone who has every felt a longing for something beyond the confines of their immediate environment.
M. G. Leonard
Twitch is in Year 7, where he is the victim of vicious bullying. Not surprisingly, he would prefer the company of birds to anyone at his school. His plan for the summer holidays, when he finally finishes the first year of secondary, is to spend his time bird watching and also train his pigeons to home. However, his plans are thwarted when a dangerous convict, in prison for murder, escapes. The police believe the escapee will be returning to the area where Twitch is planning to spend his summer- Aves Wood. There are also millions of pounds involved that have yet to be recovered. Twitch makes some unlikely allies and together they end up trying to track down the prisoner and find the lost millions. But with so much at stake, this becomes a highly hazardous pastime.
M G Leonard writes beautifully and knowledgeably about birds and bird-watching. As someone who has never been a bird watcher, I ended up going out with my family and looking for birds and we all got interested. I think this book would do the same for many children. The story is infused with a love of nature in general and birds in particular and it leaves a vivid impression.
Twitch himself is a very likeable hero and his ingenious problem solving is both clever and engaging. He is a fantastic role model, and I was overjoyed to discover he will feature in further books.
This is an exciting adventure, a mystery story and one that also deals with some difficult topics such as bullying and a parent in jail. It is also so full of interesting wildlife facts I felt I had learnt a lot by the end of it. It would also make an excellent read-aloud story that children would really enjoy for the suspense and great storytelling.
See Twitch featured on our Summer 2021 Recommended Reads selection.
Reviewers: Alison Leach, Angela Kent, Jacqueline Harris