Which new books should you look forward to over the next few months? We've been previewing new middle-grade (ages 8-12) books publishing soon and have picked out seven top recommendations to watch out for from April to July 2020.
1. The Strangeworlds Travel Agency
Pack your bags and get ready to hop into a world of adventures - or more like an adventure of worlds. I was drawn to the simple and exciting concept of this middle-grade fantasy from the start; a travel agency where you jump into a suitcase to be transported to hundreds of other worlds.
12-year-old Flick accidentally stumbles into the Strangeworlds Travel Agency shortly after moving to a new town. Quick to discover there’s something unusual here, curiosity gets the better of Flick and before long she ends up on a flash-bang-crash of an adventure through weird and wonderful new worlds. Along the way, Flick explores unchartered aspects of her own identity in a clever parallel to her physical world-hopping.
This sparky new fantasy for middle-grade readers introduces a vivid and varied host of magical settings and nuanced characters. The whole narrative is shrewdly written - with nothing being quite as one might expect. Wonder and peril mix in all the right measures to make an edge-of-your-seat expedition into the deepest imagination, with themes that will resonate well with modern readers aged 9-12.
Publication date: 30th April 2020
2. The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates
Jenny Pearson & Rob Biddolph
This is a must-read for children who love funny books - or in fact for anyone who loves to laugh. Mates on a mission, mistaken identities, raw onion eating contests, taxi-driving-criminals-busting-through-the-rolling-Welsh-landscape and sheep aplenty are all thrown into a melting pot of gaff-a-minute adventuring and stirred through a warm-hearted narrative that focusses on themes of friendship, identity, family and experiencing grief.
Eleven-year-old Fred is heartbroken when his grandmother dies. When he finds a letter from her that reveals details of his own biological father, Alan Froggley (who abandoned his mother before Fred was born), Fred ups and leaves on a mission to seek out Alan for himself. With his two best friends in tow (both of whom have their own reasons for wanting to escape home for a few days), Fred heads to Wales on an adventure of a lifetime.
It’s not clear what Fred is expecting to happen when - or if - he finds his dad. Perhaps he wants an explanation, or simply a connection. Maybe it’s curiosity - or maybe his answer to the sense of loss he feels over his grandmother is to complete this particular part of his family puzzle. Either way, Fred is certain of one thing; he absolutely must find Alan Froggley. What follows is a slapstick romp across Wales, where a wild goose chase powered by a series of incredible co-incidences leads Fred and his friends to re-assess the things that really matter in life.
The narrative is full of fun - from humorous insights into the quirky characters (including the aspects of family life that drive them nuts) to the endless run of blunders by the trio of friends, like accidentally cooking their clothes and ending up on the news wearing superhero costumes. Jenny Pearson’s brand of observational humour is perfectly pitched for the 8-11 readership. But what gives the story a real edge for me is its heartfelt warmth - shown through the authenticity of the boys’ relationship and the value the story places on family life.
A frolic-filled laugh-a-minute tale that will no doubt be in high demand among KS2 readers.
Publication date: 30th April 2020
3. The Shark Caller
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Zillah Bethell’s books (see our reviews of The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare and A Whisper of Horses), 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.
Publication date: 6 July 2020
Our community members in schools tell us time and again how popular Abi Elphinstone's stories have been among pupils and teachers in schools. Not so long ago, Sky Song whisked readers in upper KS2 away on a magical fantasy adventure through frozen landscapes and last year, Rumblestar landed to introduce the Unmapped Chronicle series with a bang. The latest book, Jungledrop, follows in the Unmapped Chronicle series but also reads well as a standalone adventure for those who missed Rumblestar.
Jungledrop tells the story of a set of obnoxious and self-assured twins called Fox and Fibber Petty-Squabble. The pair are fiercely competitive with each other, desperate to prove their worth to the family businesses at any cost. They've got a lot to learn and the narrator assures the reader early on that they will learn to be brave and kind if we stick with them for a while - in fact, they are even on a path to save the world from the power-hungry antagonist Morg the Harpy.
Quickly hurled into an adventure they never meant to be part of, the twins find themselves in the glow-in-the dark rainforest kingdom of Jungledrop. Abi Elphinstone excels at fleshing out her fantasy worlds with thrilling and entertaining characters; in Jungledrop the twins meet a host of fantastical creatures, including their dry-humoured companion Heckle the parrot, Doogie Herbalsneeze (the jungle apothecary) and Iggy Blether, the unicycle-riding unmapper. The exotic landscape is also populated with imaginative plants like the gobblequick trees and a treetop highway for easy jungle commuting.
There's a real sense of adventure in the story, with danger never being far away, and the fantasy elements are well- balanced against a voyage of empathy. The narrative offers the reader insights into the way in which the twins' backgrounds, experiences and upbringing have contributed to their unpleasant behaviour and tendency towards dishonesty, selfish ambition and distrust of others' intentions of kindness. Through their adventure, Fox and Fibber learn a lot about what it really means to be strong and how working together with courage and kindness is what makes kingdoms thrive. In the background to the story, there's a gentle stirring of themes of environmental conservatism, as characters must act communally to preserve their kingdoms from threats of destruction.
A must-read for lovers of fantasy adventures and those who love a story that stirs the imagination.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's UK
Publication date: 14th May 2020
5. The Vanishing Trick
Jenni Spengler & Chris Mould
An exciting adventure story set in the Victorian era that plays on prevalent superstitions and social issues of the time.
The story begins with twelve-year-old Leander, a penniless orphan being chased through the streets after stealing some food. Along the way, he is seemingly 'rescued' by the mysterious and exotic Madame Pinchbeck, who convinces him to become her travelling companion. Unsurprisingly, the offer is too good to be true, and as soon as Leander agrees to the position, he finds out that he has been tricked into giving up part of his soul to the mysterious woman. Upon meeting two other children in Madame Pinchbeck’s ‘care’, Leander discovers that all three of them are trapped in her service, captured inside a personal item that each has agreed to give her to seal the deal. For the children, these items (called 'cabinets') possess magic that enables them to disappear, either by choice or on an order from their mistress. For Leander it's his mother’s locket, for Charlotte a lantern and for Felix a violin case. The children are free to leave their cabinets as long as they are open. If closed, they have to wait to be released - or be trapped for eternity. The children cannot venture far from the woman without risking evaporating and Pinchbeck’s death would also result in their own. Entirely in the hands of Madame Pinchbeck, the children find themselves in a position that is as unenviable as it is intriguing for the reader. Madame Pinchbeck advertises herself as a ‘medium’, secretly using the appearing and disappearing children to fool customers into believing that they are being visited by spirits. She is determined to become famous, using photographs as evidence of her connections to the spirit world. As time passes, it becomes clear that her powers cannot support all three children at once and, knowing that time is running out, they realise that they must act together to save themselves and find the solution to their captivity before it is too late.
This is an evocative and suspenseful story with thrills, twists and turns. Darkness and magic weave through the narrative and the antagonist Madame Pinchbeck is a scary character, bringing together elements of other child-snatcher figures in literature and also inspired by the real charlatan 'spiritualist' movement from the time. There's plenty of Victorian history to explore in the background to the story (in particular child poverty and the invention of the camera), and themes of friendship, belonging and hope provide nuance to the darker elements, making this an original and enjoyable middle grade read recommended for fans of Michelle Harrison and Lemony Snickett.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's UK
Publication date: 30th April 2020
6. The Ghost Garden
Emma Carroll & Kaja Kajfez
The queen of historical fiction has done it again! Emma Carroll’s short story about an unlikely friendship and a ghostly garden set in the days before World War One is a mysterious tale that fans of hers will thoroughly enjoy.
Fran lives and works in the grounds of Longbarrow House, where she makes a discovery that deeply unsettles her. The opening line of the book, ‘Fran found the bone in the potato patch’ is a sign of the intriguing story to come.
When Leo, grandson of the owner of Longbarrow House, breaks his leg minutes after Fran’s garden fork breaks the bone in the potato patch, Fran is worried that the two incidents are connected. Further strange coincidences occur and Fran becomes increasingly concerned.
When Leo returns from hospital, Fran is tasked with keeping him company and the two children become friends. Leo is worried about the threat of impending war in Europe and Fran is concerned about the strange coincidences. Together, they explore Longbarrow House and discover the secrets the estate has been hiding. The story edges the reader along and brings tension and suspense with it.
The Ghost Garden is an insight into the lives of children on the eve of World War One. The story reveals details about the daily lives of both the privileged and not so privileged in 1914. We discover their anxieties about (and hopes for) the future and realise that the two children have more similarities than differences when it comes to facing the prospect of war. A short read with dyslexia-friendly text, this is another treat for those readers who enjoyed Letters from the Lighthouse and When We Were Warriors.
Publisher: Barrington Stoke
Publication date: 15th July 2020
7. The Wild Way Home
A wildly heartfelt timeslip adventure that takes readers back to the Stone Age to explore themes of family, courage, loss and what it means to be human.
Charlie Merriam knows every inch of the forest that sits at the edge of town. Growing up playing in the woods with best friends Lamont and Beaky, the forest provides the children with innocent adventures, freedom to play and inspiration for their young imaginations. Meanwhile, Charlie’s family is on the verge of big changes at home. Mum heads to hospital to deliver Charlie’s long-awaited baby brother. It’s a moment that Charlie has been longing for - for years now, Charlie has imagined the scene of becoming an older sibling for the first time, almost like a perfect family photograph. Charlie arrives at the hospital to be hit with the devastating news that the new baby, Dara, has a poorly heart and urgently needs a life-saving operation. With nothing feeling quite as expected, Charlie is unable to cope with so many big emotions and flees to the forest.
Something strange happens and, without quite understanding why, Charlie seems to have been transported back to prehistoric times. Aspects of Charlie's beloved forest look familiar still, but other parts look altogether wilder and uncultivated. When a Stone Age child appears face down in the stream, Charlie soon rescues and then befriends the prehistoric boy, who is called Harby. Meanwhile, a coming-of-age journey of self-discovery into Charlie’s own wildest parts begins, exploring the internal mix of raw, primitive feelings stirred up by Dara’s birth. The two children connect over unexpected family difficulties, powerful emotions that they have been running away from and their innate desire to ‘make safe’ their nearest and dearest.
It’s a gripping read with a narrative that is raw, honest and brave; the story is heavy in pathos at times and explores some emotionally difficult - but sadly not uncommon - circumstances that will pull on readers' heartstrings, although it concludes with a good sense of hope too. The landscape of the forest is beautifully evoked - both the liberating effect that playing outside in nature has on the modern children as well as the ancient fauna and flora of prehistoric Britain (complete with lynx, eagles and wolf packs) that provides comfort and jeopardy in equal measure. Nature - just like the natural cycles of life and death - connects us all as humans and this is felt intensely as the forest takes centre stage in Charlie’s journey of accepting the serious health problems of a family member.
With nods to Skellig and Stig of the Dump, this is an exciting and unique narrative that will be lapped up by mature readers who are ready for a roller coaster of adrenaline, a solid measure of empathy and a cause to reflect on the very essence of what it is to be human.
Publication date: 9th July 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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