Updated: May 7, 2019
Looking for something new to read over the summer term? Here I preview seven children's stories to watch out for over the next few months.
Fans of Brightstorm will be delighted to see a new middle-grade offering from Vasthi Hardy. I was thrilled to receive an early copy of this book and I just loved being immersed in the world of Wildspark. Vashti Hardy is a clever storyteller whose imaginary worlds are as inventive as they are thrilling.
Prue Haywood is an inventive and curious girl who lives on a remote farm. Her aptitude for engineering gains her entry into the exciting world of Medlock and its secretive guild of inventors - but only because she poses as her brother, who really passed away not too long before. I loved following Prue’s journey on the Gigantrak train into the great metal city of Medlock and I read on with wide eyes, as Prue - a farm girl - acclimatises to the bright amber lights and towering structures of the city and the advanced systems and technologies waiting for her at the guild. With the brightest minds developing ways of placing human spirits into animal-like machines, the work of the guild is completely alluring for budding young inventors like Prue.
Prue is driven by a desire to bring her brother to life again, but it's her warm nature, natural creativity and loyalty to friends and family that really help her the most as she navigates the complex issues of using technology responsibly. The narrative provides plenty to think about; many of the issues raised will resonate with readers growing up in the current generation that's used to the pace of technologies advancing faster than the Gigantrak itself. I’m sure the book will raise fascinating discussions in many classrooms. Ambitious in length and vocabulary, this is a suitable choice of book for upper KS2 and lower KS3.
Wildspark is absorbing, thoroughly exciting and sparkling with that extra something that only the very best stories possess.
Publication date: 2nd May 2019
2. No Ballet Shoes in Syria
A superb read. This is a gripping and thought-provoking story exploring the experience of an eleven-year-old girl fleeing conflict in Syria.
Having just arrived in the UK, eleven-year-old Aya attempts to help her mother and baby brother navigate their new life as asylum seekers. With the trauma of the war back home, the long and difficult journey across land and sea and the heart-wrenching separation from her father during the crossing still fresh in Aya's mind, nothing feels easy.
Aya finds joy in the discovery of a local ballet class, reminding her of her deep-seated love for dance. When the dance teacher identifies Aya's talent, she encourages Aya to apply for a scholarship at a prestigious ballet school. Not only might this open opportunities for Aya to secure a permanent home in the UK, her audition preparation also provides means for her to process and express some of her most difficult experiences.
Aya’s tale is told with such compassion that takes the reader on a real empathy journey. The story left me with plenty to think about and I confess to shedding tears more than once while reading it! No Ballet Shoes in Syria is an important story that is beautifully told with warmth and compassion.
Publisher: Nosy Crow
Publication date: 25th April 2019
3. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon
Atmospheric, intelligent and thought-provoking, this is the kind of story that loves to surprise you every time you feel sure you have a handle on it. At less than 200 pages, it is a quick but intriguing read in a similar format to Edge's other recent science-themed books like The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day and The Jamie Drake Equation.
The initial premise of the plot is a basic one; three children get lost in the woods and desperately try to help each other to find their way home before the legendary Old Crony - who they say eats children - makes an appearance.
Tapping into the natural world around them and putting their code-cracking know how to good use, the children find clues in the rhythm of birdsong and shapes of the sticks on the floor. As the story unfolds, so do a series of surprises and layers of philosophical depth as metaphysics are questioned and explored in a child-friendly manner.
Suspense builds with every page and the usual rules of time seem to become increasingly distorted as the story progresses. True to form, Christopher Edge weaves science and philosophy into a gripping child-centred story that keeps the reader guessing and puzzling until the very end.
The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is highly recommendable to KS2 readers who like their stories served with plenty of intrigue, puzzles to solve and a good dose of metaphysics thrown in.
Publisher: Nosy Crow
Publication date: 6th Jun 2019
4. The Dragon in the Library
Louie Stowell & Davide Ortu
The Dragon In The Library is a thoroughly enjoyable story that combines libraries, dragons, wizards and aliens with some very pertinent messages of friendship, inclusion and diversity. The story focuses on three friends (Kit, Josh & Alita) and their quest to stop evil businessman Mr Salt from expanding his property empire.
With a thoroughly engaging plot and a likeable and diverse set of characters, this book would sit perfectly in a lower KS2 classroom. The book contains a broad range of characters from a mix of ethnic backgrounds. With a short haired female protagonist who loves getting muddy, Stowell has shown readers that they can be whatever and whoever they want to be and provided a wonderful role model in Kit to highlight just this.
There is a heavy emphasis on the magic of books and the wonderful (and often crazy) places they can take you, an important message to portray to readers. With library closures aplenty across the UK, this book serves to highlight just what wonderful places they can be and adds a little intrigue into just what might be found if you pay them a visit!
A strong mention must go to Davide Ortu, illustrator of The Dragon In The Library. His wonderful illustrations are showered throughout the book and really bring the characters and settings to life.
Publisher: Nosy Crow
Publication date: 6th June 2019
Reviewer: David Keyte
5. Evie and the Animals
Matt Haig & Emily Gravett
Evie and the Animals is a delightful book with a high appeal to readers who love animals as well as fans of mystery. Matt Haig weaves a plot that explores family dynamics, the importance of friendship and listening to the feelings of others, including animals.
Evie Trench is not a normal girl. She has the 'talent' of being able to hear animals and talk to them through mind-chat. While she loves talking to all sorts of animals and helping them whenever she can, she has to do it in secret. Her dad, a hard-working but reserved man, does not want anyone knowing about her talent. He is still too traumatised by the death of Evie’s mum, who also had the talent, and wants to keep Evie safe.
As the tale develops, we learn more about Evie and the people in her life and her friendships, good and bad. We also meet the menacing Mortimer J Mortimer – the villain of the story. Mortimer also shares the talent for communicating with animals, but unlike Evie he does not use it for good. What follows is a thrilling adventure as Evie attempts to escape from Mortimer’s control and rescue both her family and all the animals he is using to gain power.
This is an enjoyable story that is able to open discussions around emotions, bereavement, conservation and animal cruelty. The illustrations by Emily Gravett are interspersed throughout and beautifully bring the various animals and their emotions to life. A winner of a book for fans of The Truth Pixie and The Boy Called Christmas series who enjoy Haig's brand of gently humorous, poignant and child-centred prose.
Publication date: 6th June 2019
Reviewer: Kathryn Gilbert
6. Check Mates
Check Mates weaves together the stories of 11-year-old Felix and his lonely grandad in a heartwarming read full of empathy, humour and an encouragement to look beyond the unusual behaviour of others in order to connect with the human stories that lie beneath.
Readers of Stewart Foster’s previous books (like The Bubble Boy and All the Things That Could Go Wrong) will have come to expect gritty real-life issues to be unpacked in a hugely compassionate and accessible way through the eyes of a likeable young narrator. This story is narrated by Felix, who struggles to concentrate at school and home because of his ADHD. The early chapters offer stirring insights into Felix’s thought processes and the sense of hopelessness that he feels at his own failure to stay out of trouble at school, ending up in an isolation room time and time again.
Mum organises for Felix to spend more time with his grandad, whose own eccentric behaviour has been increasingly concerning since Grandma died. Felix wonders whether he will ever connect with Grandad, who is often grumpy and likes to sit in the dark at home with the curtains closed. As they spend time together, Grandad teaches Felix how to play chess and the pair forms a bond that brings blessings to each of them in surprising ways.
Stewart Foster is skilled at bringing just the right amount of warmth and humour to his narratives in order to draw the reader to the heart of the issues explored without taking away their serious nature. Young readers will easily identify with Felix and his friend Jake, whose interests and mannerisms are typical of many young people their age. I liked the way in which digital technology was a very natural part of Felix’s lifestyle and was present throughout the story in a very relatable way. A less familiar historical element is also woven in too, with interesting threads about Cold War history that bring with them a number of pleasing plot twists and turns along the way.
Check Mates is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking read that will strike a chord with readers in the 9-12 age bracket.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's UK
Publication date: 27th June 2019
7. The Maker of Monsters
A wild, romping adventure with nods to Frankenstein, The Maker of Monster is a joyfully imaginative children’s story with very human themes of friendship and acceptance at its heart.
Young Brat lives as a servant in Lord Macawber’s castle. Having been on the castle's remote island ever since he was washed ashore as an orphaned baby, Brat is quite used to his master’s strange experiments. Without human friends around, Brat’s only company is Lord Macawber’s army of ’creations’; stitched-together creatures brought to life through the act of necromancy. Most of the monsters are terrifyingly dangerous and locked in cages on the various floors of the castle, but Brat forms loyal friendships with a couple of the more placid mini monsters.
When Lord Macawber brings to life his most fearsome monster ever and intends to send his army on a vengeful attack of a nearby city, it falls to Brat to find a way to warn and save the inhabitants. What follows is a fast-paced adventure as Brat races against the clock (and against a whole heap of other obstacles, including prejudice, imprisonment and a city that creates outcasts at every opportunity) to stop the monsters wreaking havoc.
I enjoyed the mix of magic and mayhem, the harmless humour and the breadth of imagination poured into the characters and setting. But the real heart of the story is Brat’s own journey to face the metaphorical monsters within himself. Never having been met with true acceptance or kindness before, Brat’s story demonstrates the transformative power of positive human connection for both individuals and wider society.
A fun, gothic adventure filled with thrills and imagination, The Maker of Monsters will surely be a winner for readers in Years 3-6.
Publication date: 2nd May 2019
Thank you to the publishers for kindly sending me advanced copies of these books and to the review panel members who contributed to the reviews.