Ones to Watch: New Children's Fiction for Spring 2021

A new year brings with it a host of promising new books to dig into!

Our team has been taking a look at some of the brilliant new middle-grade titles (ages 8-12) coming up this term. We've picked out ten top recommendations to watch out for from January to March 2021. Why not pre-order now as a gift to your future self?

1. The Shark Caller

Zillah Bethell

Available here

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Zillah Bethell’s books, so it was delightful to see a copy of her new book arrive from Usborne. The Shark Caller is a stunner of a story - rich with the sights and sounds of its Papua New Guinean setting while also reflecting sagely on universal themes of life and death, family, friendship and time. It’s beautifully written, wise, enticing - haunting at times - but also full of thrills and surprises.

Inspired by the author’s own upbringing in the islands of Papua New Guinea, The Shark Caller tells the story of Blue Wing and her guardian Siringen. As the village’s shark caller, Siringen practices an ancient spiritual tradition of taming sharks out on the ocean in his canoe. It’s a dying tradition and is set at sharp odds with the waves of Westernisation sweeping over the island. Blue Wing wants more than anything to become a Shark Caller too but her reasons are more personal as she wishes to avenge the death of her parents - but tradition does not permit a girl like her to follow the same path as her guardian.

When a visiting professor and his daughter Maple arrive from the US, Siringen and Blue Wing are charged with their care. The professor and his daughter embody the Westernisation that the older generations of islanders fear. The girls’ differences cause immediate obstacles to their relationship and each is quick to dislike the other. Over time, however, they discover they have more in common than they thought and a new friendship develops and each discovers things about themselves that they had never realised before. As Blue Wing finds out more about the professor’s real intentions for his time on the island, she realises that she’s not the only one with a deep longing for something, and begins to see ways that they might help each other to find the treasure they seek.

The author’s love of her native island’s landscape shows through beautifully in the writing and the setting has a real sense of authenticity and depth. Blue Wing’s character development unfolds joyfully too, as she works through her own grudges and prejudices and learns to embrace both past and future. There’s plenty more to say in praise of this book, but I’m wary of spoilers and the story really is astonishing in the best of ways. In short, this is outstanding storytelling that is at once moving, heart-stirring and life-affirming.

Publisher: Usborne

Publication date: 4 Feb 2021

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Reviewer: Alison Leach

2. Front Desk

Kelly Yang & Maike Plenzke

Available here

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.

Publisher: Knights Of

Publication date: 7 Jan 2021

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Reviewer: Alison Leach

3. The Valley of Lost Secrets

Lesley Parr & David Dean

Available here

The Valley of Lost Secrets is a wonderfully warm book about rural life, village communities and how life really was for this community during World War II, as well as for the evacuated children.

Jimmy and his younger brother Ronnie are evacuees. They find themselves with their schoolmates on a train to a small village in a valley in Wales, a world away from home in Islington, London. The country is at war but that’s not all Jimmy is worried about. He would rather be back with Dad and Nan than stuck with strangers in this odd place.

Jimmy feels the separation from home more keenly than his younger brother and is very protective of Ronnie. Jimmy is reluctant to trust his new family even though they are welcoming and kind. When he finds a skull hidden in a tree, he begins to uncover secrets in the valley that had been kept hidden for years. Together with his brother and a new friend, he sets about uncovering the truth.

I was apprehensive about another evacuee book but this is about so much more than the evacuee experience. It is a book about friendships, trust and learning to let people in. It is not as emotionally brutal as Goodnight Mister Tom even though there are sensitive issues concerning the treatment of children within the book. Those issues are handled in a very delicate way. The book is rich in historical detail about everything from food, religion and household routines to the importance of coal mining in the Welsh rural communities.

Jimmy learns that you can find friendship in the most unlikely places and he has his eyes opened to the life of someone he had never given a second thought to. He learns that people can surprise you in different ways and that there is more to friendship than he had realised. It is a lovely book and I would definitely recommend reading it in conjunction with the study of World War Two.

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Publication date: 1st January 2021

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Reviewer: Caroline Relf

4. The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh

Helen Rutter

Available here

This debut novel from Helen Rutter is inspired by her own son who has a stammer, and it delves into the worries and thoughts that Billy has about having a stammer and how he thinks the outside world will see him because of it.

When eleven-year-old Billy starts Bannerdale secondary school, he wants to fit in and be popular. In fact, he hopes to realise his dream of becoming a comedian and being known throughout the school as ‘Billy Plimpton, the Funniest Boy in School’. One thing stands in his way though - he decides he won’t talk until he’s ‘got rid’ of his stammer.

Each chapter begins with one of Billy’s jokes, and although the issues tackled in the book are serious, it’s a warm and funny read. The story shows that we all have differences, and it is important to accept ourselves as we are.

There are lots of opportunities to think about empathy and friendship and to see that people often have things going on in their life that affect how they act towards others. Billy's story explores how important self-acceptance and self-confidence are, and gives insight into ways to achieve these things. Another main thread of this book is how important to Billy his relationship with key adults is, such as his Granny and form teacher, and how these relationships help him to think about what kind of person he wants to be.

This is a lovely book with a positive message, as well as being packed with jokes which will make both children and adults laugh.

Publisher: Scholastic

Publication date: 4th Feb 2021

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Reviewer: Amy Cross-Menzies

5. The Weather Weaver

Tamsin Mori & David Dean

Available here

The Weather Weaver is the first book to be published by Tamsin Mori. A self-declared childhood nomad, Mori’s love of her maternal home of Shetland is evident from the start.

Finding herself dumped on the Isle of Shetland while her parents work away on a research vessel, Stella soon finds that life with her recently bereaved Grandpa does not match the sunny memories of her earlier childhood. As she grapples with her Grandpa’s never-ending anger and disappointment she is befriended by the unlikely figure of Tamar, an eccentric old woman. Afraid to appear rude, Stella sets off on the seemingly unfeasible mission of catching a cloud, little realising how dramatically her life is about to change…

The story tackles the effect of bereavement and separation with sensitivity, without feeling like it has been sugar-coated in any way. Mori delicately weaves the story as Stella faces her own fears and rebuilds the relationship she once had with her Grandpa, gaining strength in her self-belief along the way. Mori also manages to balance the reality of life as we know it, with that little bit of magic spun throughout, leaving the reader (or at least this one!) gazing at the clouds, wishing they could weave the weather too.

In schools, the story would be good as a basis for a discussion on the basis of myth and legend or as a PSHE opener on the possible effects of bereavement or separation on those left behind. This would also make a great book to keep pupils hooked at the end of the day with just enough mounting peril to keep them wanting more without scaring those more sensitive souls.

My only complaint of the book is the number of late nights I succumbed to as I really didn’t want to put it down! I don’t know if Mori plans to write a sequel, but I truly hope so.

Publisher: UCLan Publishing

Publication date: 4th March 2021

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Reviewer: Jane Evans

6. Darwin's Dragons

Lindsey Galvin

Available here

Exciting and original historical fiction charting the discoveries of a cabin boy aboard Charles Darwin's Beagle.

Syms Covington finds himself stranded on an island in the middle of the Galapagos, separated from the crew of the Beagle with whom he had been travelling as a cabin boy before a storm hit. To make things worse, there is a huge beast threatening his survival on the island. Not just any huge beast - but a dragon. A fire-breathing, very real dragon. Syms will need to use everything he can think of to survive, as well as a little help from an unlikely friend.

As I was reading this, it was difficult not to see glimpses of ‘Kensuke’s Kingdom’ by Michael Morpurgo and should definitely be added to the TBR pile of those who enjoyed Morpurgo’s take on finding yourself on a deserted island. Syms is a wonderful character full of grit and as a reader, you are able to gain a real insight into the motivations of the character and his inner battles. Children will really love following his story and will understand some of the trials and tribulations he is faced with.

In the world of children’s literature, there seems to be an ever-growing market for books about dragons, and therefore it is lovely to see a take on dragons that brings them more into real life. Lindsay Galvin has thoroughly researched the real-life dragons and historical context of the story, and this makes this book stand out from other dragon-themed books. It would be a great book for those children that are slightly older and may have previously loved dragon books but wish to find something more mature. It also leaves plenty to think about, in terms of how the complex interrelationship between the humans and the animal kingdom, and about the ethics of dealing with creatures both familiar and unknown as humans go about exploring animal habitats.

With short chapters and being split into parts makes Darwin’s Dragons a great choice for a class text as it is easy to fit into the very busy timetable within the primary school classroom, but also allows readers with less stamina to still access a longer text. There are also so many ways this book could be used to support wider learning, including the evolution topic in Year 6 science, or using it to inspire geography or history learning.

Darwin’s Dragons is a real adventure for readers young and old.

Publisher: Chicken House

Publication date: 7th January 2021

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Reviewer: Christine Ivory

7. Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything

Sam Copeland & Sarah Horne

Available here

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.

Publisher: Puffin

Publication date: 21st January 2021

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Reviewer: Alison Leach

8. The Last Bear

Hannah Gold & Levi Pinfold

Available here

A beautifully heartfelt and moving story with strong environmental themes. This story highlights the topic of global warming but also draws a picture of the wonderful connection that can develop between children and animals.

When April heads to a remote Arctic island with her father, who is there for scientific research, she's not sure exactly what to expect. The trip to 'Bear Island' has the potential to be a very lonely trip - with endless summer Arctic nights, an isolated wilderness and, according to her father, no actual polar bears left on the island for April to spot despite its name.

Surprisingly, April encounters a real polar bear on the island when nobody else is around. Isolated from his family, the bear is starving and alone, with nobody to help him. Over time, a friendship develops and April becomes more determined than ever to save the bear. April knows that she will have to tread carefully in order to nourish the bear in secret and to navigate the issue of making the adults listen at the right moment. Before long, April realises that she is witnessing first-hand the impact of a much bigger global problem. With courage in the face of powerlessness, April embarks upon a quest to get the bear to safety in an adventure that she will never forget.

There's something magical about this story - from the wonderfully evoked Arctic setting to the glorious friendship that develops between April and the bear. There often seems to be a direct connection and a deep instinct to care that exists between children and the natural world, a connection which is highlighted in the story through the way in which April is able to make a difference to the plight of the bear despite her feeling of powerlessness. Many young readers who really do care about climate change will relate to April's frustration at the inaction of many people, to her sadness at the plight of our precious planet and to her desire to make a difference even through the smallest of actions.

This is a powerful and important story that will stir the heart through its gently unfolding message that places hope in the hands of the young to make a difference to the planet's future.

Publisher: Harper Collins

Publication date: 18th Feb 2021

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Reviewer: Alison Leach

9. The Incredible Record Smashers

Jenny Pearson & Erica Salcedo-Saiz

Available here

After the success of The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates last year, primary-teacher-turned-author Jenny Pearson is back with a new and hilarious tale of ordinary children on extra-ordinary adventures.

Life isn't easy for Lucy. Her mum has depression and is difficult to care for, often being unwell for long periods that leave Lucy needing the help of a family friend. Lucy is great at fixing broken objects, but wishes more than anything that she knew how to fix her mum. It becomes clear that mum might need some time to stay at a place that can help her, and Lucy goes to stay with Aunty Sheila for a while.

Aunty Sheila loves car boot sales and is larger than life, always treating Lucy with kindness and a sense of fun, but life there is not the same as being with mum. With the help of friendly neighbour Sandesh, Lucy comes up with a way to make things right again. It's an ambitious plan that involves meeting an 80s pop icon who was once acquainted with Mum, appearing on a TV show and smashing a world record - but as far as Lucy is concerned, no aim is too high when it comes to making her mum happy again. What follows is a humorous romp as Lucy and Sandesh search for a world record to smash with a range of hilarious consequences.

The humour is perfect for Key Stage 2 and the story also explores the subject of parental mental health issues in an age-appropriate way. This is a smasher of a story; the author knows her audience extremely well and pitches both the comic and more serious elements at just the right level. The relationships that Lucy forms with Aunty Sheila and Sandesh are lovely, and demonstrate how - while nothing can replace the closeness that Lucy craves with her mum - the warmth and loyalty of others can make the world of difference during hard times. This strand of the plot may serve as a valuable encouragement to children affected by similar issues that reaching out for or accepting support from others is sometimes the very best course of action.

Publisher: Usborne

Publication date: 4th March 2021

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Reviewer: Alison Leach

10. Beauty and the Bin

Joanne O’Connell

Available here

Beauty and the Bin is a story about a young high school student named Laurie who finds herself torn between her family’s obsessions utilising food waste and living as ecologically as possible, being a good friend to those who understand her (although her family’s way of life is a closely guarded and embarrassing secret), and pleasing the most influential and popular girl at school who happens to have picked her out for her own benefit.

The book is primarily a tale about the pressures a young person feels as self-awareness, other people’s perception of you, and fitting in, becomes all-important. When she is caught by Charley, the most popular and prettiest girl, and the ‘influencer’ in school, rummaging through supermarket bins for perfectly good food, this is the lowest point in Laurie’s life. However, the ensuing conversation leads Charley to learn of Laurie’s ‘Beauty in the kitchen’ profile, where she promotes her natural skin–products she has made from fresh foods. These appear to be the perfect products to win the school’s enterprise competition and so Charley assumes Laurie’s co-operation and partnership, leaving Laurie to abandon her friends, who go it alone. A fortnight of compromising begins, all which places her on an uncomfortable and chaotic journey as she tries to keep pace with Charley and her manipulation, whilst losing out on her relationships with those that matter – her family and friends.

The main theme is eco-life style and food waste, but this story also offers an excellent example of how the influence and pressure of social media on young people can become more important than reality. Charley’s constant promotion of having the next big thing, including a yet-to-be made invention by Laurie, her use of intimidation in order to remain in control and maintain approval ratings, and her carefully crafted image, begins to take a toll on Laurie, as she realises that she has been taken advantage of and she has compromised her own ethics. What will it take for Laurie to be true to herself? The satisfying ending provides the answer and wraps up a good read, all with recipes for natural facial products for readers to try at the end of the book.

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication date: 18th Feb 2021

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Reviewer: Anna Sterling


>>> Order all ten books here.

>>> Download printable Ones to Watch PDF poster here.

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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