The Griffin Gate by Vashti Hardy, illustrated by Natalie Smillie

Cover art by Natalie Smillie

One of my greatest joys in life, as a parent and more recently as a teacher, is sharing books with children and this absolute belter from Vashti Hardy is one which surely is destined to be shared a great many times over – not just initially after it is published on October 1st – but for many years to come as today’s children grow up and, remembering it fondly, share it with their own offspring.

13-year old Grace Griffin yearns to be a warden like older brother Bren and their mother Ann so that she too can take part in ‘missions’ to assist the people of Moreland. Despite not being old enough to see active service yet, a reluctant Grace accompanies Bren and Ann to visit Mayor Pick using a portal, or ‘gate’, included in a special, technological map so that the mayor can present Bren with a magnificent spyglass as a reward for a recent deed well done. The family’s unique map, of which they have been wardens since it was invented by Great Grandma Griffin, allows them to travel throughout Moreland in order to maintain law and order and assist those in need.

After embarrassing her family in the Mayor’s office, Ann decides that Grace is in need of further training which she delegates to mechanical raven Watson. A short while later, Ann and Bren both leave the map unsupervised and Grace decides to attend an emergency which crops up and together with Watson transports herself to the small village of Mudford. There, she speaks with several villagers who all alert her to the presence of a monster in the local forest – a monster which Grace will have to deal with if she is to prove herself capable of taking on the responsibilities of warden.

As she investigates, she discovers that there is both more to the problem than she originally thought and that she is unable to return to the map, leaving her vulnerable to the sinister plot she has uncovered. Will Grace be able to rid the village of the monster? Will she prove herself capable to her family? And, most importantly, will she be able to find a way to return home?

As with the characters that the author has crafted in her other books, Grace is a well-described and entirely credible heroine who is utterly likeable because the reader can so easily put themselves in her shoes. Each of us has at some point been ‘too young’ for something, even though we believe passionately that we are victim of a terrible injustice. When things inevitably start to go wrong for Grace, not one of us would say, ‘I told you so!’ to her because we can empathise with her situation entirely.

In her previous books, Vashti Hardy has created a very strong STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) feel and that continues here with the inclusion of the map, Watson and other technological marvels. As my primary school’s science Subject Lead, I have tried over the past few years to get our girls to see that STEM is as relevant to them as it is to the boys and in this book all children but especially girls are presented with a crystal-clear role model who shines out from the pages as someone they could aspire to be. This presentation of a female protagonist is not written in a tokenistic or forced way at all as other characters, such as the village smith, are also woven into the plot in such a subtle way that many readers will barely notice the breaking of stereotypes.

As with other titles from the publisher, this book is very much designed as one to be enjoyed by those who are often labelled as ‘reluctant readers’ or who find reading more conventionally produced books more challenging because of issues such as dyslexia or visual stress. I have seen a great many books in my teaching career that have claimed to meet these needs but sometimes what is gained in ease of access is lost in the quality of the story and that is very much not the case here – many readers will be unaware of Barrington Stokes’s mission to get children reading; they will simply enjoy the story.

Much credit should also be given to illustrator Natalie Smillie’s role in creating this book. Her black-and-white pictures have such a vibrancy to them that they complement the text perfectly and will appeal to both children and adult readers alike.

I absolutely loved this book and hope that we will see many more stories of Grace’s further adventures. Huge thanks must go to Barrington Stokes for allowing me to read this ahead of publication and to both Vashti Hardy and Natalie Smillie in their wonderful debut together. A very definite 5 out of 5 stars.

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