Updated: Jan 6
New books for a new year! We've been previewing new middle-grade (ages 8-12) books publishing this term and have picked out seven top recommendations to watch out for from January to March 2020.
1. Orphans of the Tide
Struan Murray & Manuel Šumberac
Original and enticing, this is one of the best fantasy stories I have read for a long time. There’s a mix of peril and intrigue in all the right proportions, a strong female lead and a well-constructed fantasy world with its own haunting mythology that really does immerse the reader from the start.
Ellie Lancaster is a feisty young inventor who lives in the last city to survive in a world that has been almost entirely drowned by a fear-inducing god known as the Enemy. The city sits upon a steep mountain that juts out above sea level, and one day washed up on one of its rooftops appears a whale, out of which emerges a mysterious boy whose origins are unknown. It doesn’t take long for rumours to accrue - rumours that suggest the boy is the Enemy himself returning to the city to cause destruction. Only Ellie seems convinced of his innocence and when the boy is caught and sentenced to death by the city's Inquisitors, Ellie finds herself on a whirlwind of an adventure to keep the boy from being wrongly harmed.
The story is full of edge-of-your-seat danger and has its fair share of scary parts while also tenderly exploring themes of friendship, loyalty, forgiveness and grief. The twists and turns in the plot are delightful, with secrets, surprises and delicious ‘penny drop’ moments that kept me turning pages late into the night.
There’s already a buzz around Orphans of the Tide and it’s easy to see it finding a lot of fans in the coming year, especially readers who have enjoyed Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins and Vashti Hardy. For me, it’s a gripping middle-grade fantasy that ticks all the right boxes as a simply exceptional read.
Publication date: 20th February 2020
2. The Highland Falcon Thief
M. G. Leonard, Sam Sedgman & Elisa Paganelli
A full-steam-ahead adventure that had me hooked from the get-go. The Highland Falcon Thief is a middle-grade mystery story set on a steam train. With a high spirit of adventuring and a good-and-proper mystery that unfolds with clues and red-herrings along the course, this is a brilliantly fun story that is sure to be on track to find itself set among the very best in the children’s mystery genre.
Harrison Beck (Hal) ends up aboard the last ever journey of a famous royal steam train ‘The Highland Falcon’, unwillingly accompanying his travel-writer uncle while his parents are occupied in hospital having a new baby. Hal doesn’t think much of steam trains - and he is even less impressed when he finds there are no other child passengers on board and no electricity to charge his devices. Before long, Hal finds himself caught up with entertainment of a more old-fashioned kind. A mystery begins to unravel among the passengers - with valuable items disappearing including the princess’s diamond necklace - and Hal begins to record what he notices in his sketch book. What’s more, Hal befriends a secret stowaway girl called Lenny and the pair set to work to solve the mystery before The Highland Falcon reaches the end of its last ever journey.
It’s a full-throttle mystery with likeable characters and a well-paced plot that is especially full of treasures for anyone who loves trains. I’m not particularly a locomotive lover myself but really the joy of being on board one came across with such a passion that I think I may have gained a new-found appreciation!
Publication date: 30 Jan 2020
3. Demelza and the Spectre Detectors
A humorous and quirky new series about a STEM-loving female inventor, written by debut author Holly Rivers who was a lead actress in ITV’s original Worst Witch series.
Demelza Clock, child inventor, is as logical and scientific as they come. Her preferred pastime is staying up past bedtime working on her latest contraption. Past favourites include the Fantastic Fortune-Telling Toaster (100% accuracy not guaranteed) and the Remarkable Robotic Hand for Homework Haters. Demelza believes in reason and the evidence of her eyes. Until, that is, she discovers that her Grandma Maeve is a ‘Spectre Detector’, able to commune with the dead, and that Demelza herself has inherited the ability. Soon she is embroiled in the Spectre Detecting world, proud owner of her own ghoulbox and Talking Head (hilariously grumpy Lord Balthazar).
That would be quite enough for any 11-year-old girl to cope with, but more is to come – there is a Snatcher on the loose, on the hunt for a young Spectre Detector to perform the Conjuring of Resurrection and forfeit their own life in the process. And it appears the Snatcher has young Demelza in their sights...
With a cast of colourful characters, a breezy humour that lightens the darker themes and a well-paced plot with satisfying conclusion, Demelza and the Spectre Detectors is an intriguing start to a new lower middle grade series. It will appeal to fans of spooky yet funny stories, bridging the gap nicely for those preparing to move on from the Worst Witch (in which the author once starred!) and Amelia Fang but not quite ready for Skullduggery Pleasant.
Publisher: Chicken House
Publication date: 6th February 2020
Reviewer: Carol Carter
4. Where the World Turns Wild
Where the World turns Wild is a stunning and thought-provoking new dystopian novel with a message for our times.
Juniper and her younger brother, Bear, live in a city like a prison - grey, tightly regimented and rationed in material goods and accepted thought, where nature is banished and no-one can ever think of leaving. Since the ReWilders released a deadly tick-borne disease that decimated the human population in an attempt to prevent global ecosystem collapse, each city must stand alone and entering the world outside means almost certain death. Juniper and Bear are different though - they are one of a small percentage of the population with natural immunity to the disease. When they discover the city leader, Portia Steel, wants their blood to develop a vaccine, they have no choice but to set out alone into the Wild in search of their long-lost mother.
Once the children have entered the Wild, the adventure truly begins. With references to other stories such as Hansel and Gretel, and with repeated references to The Secret Garden, nature is arrestingly celebrated in tooth and claw. Juniper and Bear’s development from children who have never seen a real bird before to ones who can catch and kill their own food is beautifully captured. The oscillating sibling relationship between Juniper and Bear is particularly well-written as they grow and support each other, especially when Juniper is injured and 6-year-old Bear must step up to keep them both alive.
By the end of the book, I was fully invested in the children’s story (several tissues were needed). Happily, the ending, while satisfying, leaves plenty of scope for another adventure and I hope this is just the beginning of our travels with Juniper and Bear.
Publication date: 6th Feb 2020
Reviewer: Carol Carter
5. The Girl Who Stole an Elephant
An exciting new middle-grade adventure from Nizrana Farook filled with atmosphere, suspense and adventure with elements of Robin Hood and Arabian Nights.
Set in the dazzling landscapes of Sri Lanka, The Girl Who Stole an Elephant is the story of a girl called Chaya and her friends Neel and Nour. Quick-fingered Chaya is a young version of Robin Hood; she steals from the rich to help the poor in her village. However, when she steals the Queen’s jewels, things begin to go horribly wrong. Not only does she put herself in grave danger, but her actions also bring harm to her best friend Neel and the people of her village.
Loyally, Neel takes the blame for Chaya's actions and is sentenced to death. Chaya knows that she must act quickly if she is going to save him and a gripping and adventurous escape begins. Along the way, they meet Nour, a young girl from a wealthy background who opts to join their cause.
Before long, everyone they know seems to have come under threat as a result of their actions. The King will stop at nothing to capture them, especially as they have stolen his prize elephant as well. Will these young protagonists be able to save the ones that they love and escape death? Or will it mean the end for all of them?
This is a must-read for anyone who loves adventure stories.
Publisher: Nosy Crow
Publication date: 2nd Jan 2020
Reviewer: Tami Wylie
6. Crater Lake
Popular author Jennifer Killick (well known in schools for the Alex Sparrow books and Mo, Lottie and the Junkers) ventures into a new horror-inspired genre without departing from her trademark style of easy-going humour.
The Year Six class at Lance's school are heading off for a residential trip that is supposed to create memories that will stay with them forever. Lance is happy to be alongside his friends Chet, Maksym and Katja and remains optimistic that they can ignore the mean taunts nemesis Trent. Excitement bubbles during the journey, but as soon as the coach draws near to Crater Lake, something feels amiss.
It's never a good sign to run into a blood-stained figure who looks like a zombie just outside the gates of your destination. Nor does it bode well to find the activity centre spookily low on staff or to discover that despite the sweltering heat the only meal on offer is tomato soup, which appears disconcertingly similar to the blood covering the man at the entrance. Matters quickly spiral from bad to worse when a number of classmates and teachers transform into bug-eyed zombies and seem as though they have been hypnotised into working on a secret project out in the woods. Lance and the few remaining classmates must pull together to save the day, but their only chance of success relies on one catch; they must not fall asleep!
The horror-humour balance in the narrative is skilfully manufactured to give the chill factor without leaving anybody traumatised; it has just the right amount of scare to quicken your heartbeat and make you double-check under the bed before you climb in but is not likely to give you nightmares (unless you happen to be reading it while you are on a Year 6 residential). Crater Lake is a super-fast read that will satisfy fans of Goosebumps or Point Horror as well as being likely to please Killick's already loyal fanbase who expect easy humour, sharp dialogue, relatable themes and a turbo-paced plot.
Publisher: Firefly Press
Publication date: 19th March 2020
7. Scribble Witch: Notes In Class
A joyfully fun concoction of doodles, notes passed in class and a sprinkling of magic, Scribble Witch is an imaginative new illustrated series by author-illustrator Inky Willis.
Nine-year-old Molly Mills is perfectly happy at school, despite having to put up with spelling tests set by grumpy Mr Stilton and the occasional leaky yoghurt at lunch time. But when the Worst Wednesday Ever strikes and Molly's best friend Chloe announces that she is going to move to a new school, Molly accidentally lands herself in trouble with the teacher and things no longer seem so cheerful. That's when Notes appears - a secret paper witch-doodle that magically springs to life. Notes is a bundle of fun who lives inside Molly's pen pot. She travels around by flying on a pencil as a broomstick and communicates with Molly via doodles and scrap-paper notes (although to understand what she means you'll have to decipher her quirky syntax, which reminded me a little of a scribbled-down version of how Roald Dahl's BFG speaks). Notes is exactly what Molly needs to brighten up her day, but Molly hasn't quite counted on the size of the chaos that one tiny witch can conjure!
This is a really promising series that made me smile a lot and it will strike a chord with fans of Liz Pichon and Konnie Huq. The stories are pitched for readers aged 7-9 but I think it will happily sweep along a lot of older readers too, especially reluctant readers in Upper KS2 or those who are drawn to a more informal style and a higher ratio of visual elements. The fact that the author has many years of experience working in a classroom shows through the authenticity of the main character's easy stream-of-consciousness, which muses humorously on the everyday ups-and-downs of primary school life.
Scribble Witch is fun, original and quirky and I enjoyed its vibrant design and harmless hilarity, which is bound to be a winning combination in KS2 classrooms.
Publication date: 10th March 2020
Thank you to the publishers for sending me advanced copies of these books and to the review panel members who contributed to the reviews.
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