Blog Tour: The Elephant Squad by Kerry Gibb

Welcome to my spot on the blog tour for the brilliant new read from Kerry Gibb – The Elephant Squad – for which I am sharing my review.

With the pressure on society as a whole to look after those who are less able to look after themselves ever growing, it is easy to focus on certain groups of people in need of care – the elderly, the terminally ill or those with disabilities, for example, but all too often we forget about those giving the care, especially the many children for whom this is a daily reality. Here, in her latest book, the author has explored this issue in a sensitive – and often very humorous – way in a story which will touch the hearts of all who read it.

Our story opens on a very ordinary afternoon in school, where Cleo is reflecting on some of the opportunities she has missed out on that her classmates have enjoyed. At the end of the day, she rushes home to help her mother who has MS, and discovering that in her absence her mum has fallen, vows to call in sick the following day to stay home to look after her. A day stretches into a week, and on returning to school Cleo and the other children file into assembly, where a visitor has come to speak to everyone.

The visitor introduces himself as Darryl, and explains that he is setting up a project to help young carers, inviting those who fall into this category to come to speak to him at break or lunchtime in the school’s yurt and a nervous Cleo decides to find out more. Joined by Tiegan and Ethan, Cleo is relieved to discover that she is not the only one who has come to speak to Darryl, and the three children quickly bond.

As the friends start to support one another, they also start to see there must be others like them and pledge to help them too, but how will they help them when they don’t know who they are?

Cleo and the other children featured in the story are all very credible characters. Caring is a huge burden for a child and takes many forms, as is empathetically described here, and can impact hugely on a young person’s life with school attendance, socialisation and mental health all potentially being enormously affected. Here, those effects are spelled out very clearly and this would make a superb class read in Year 4 upwards to open up some very important discussions and offer children affected the opportunity to talk.

Over the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve taught several young carers. Some have been very candid about their situations, others have only mentioned what is going on occasionally and – very sadly – there must have been those who were carrying their responsibilities in silence: an awful thing for anyone, let alone a child. In this story, those children will see that they are not alone and that by opening up to others, there is support available to them. The children’s charity Honeypot supports young carers aged 5 -12 and 50p from the sale of each copy of this book through Kerry Gibb’s website will be donated to them to help them continue their vital work.

The Elephant Squad publishes May 23rd and is a book which really needs to be on the shelf in every primary school library. I will be delighted to share my gifted review copy in school and am enormously grateful to Kerry Gibb for my gifted review copy, received ahead of publication.

Competition time!
When a safe arrives in the school yurt, the children must think up a code that only they can know! Follow The Elephant Squad blog tour to discover the code! Each blogger will release one number and direct you to the next blog! Once you have the correct combination, email it to to unlock your entry into a competition to win a signed copy of The Elephant Squad with a limited edition bookmark. Good luck! Today’s number is 1.

Don’t forget to check out the next stop tomorrow and to visit the previous stops to find the other numbers you need. Good luck!

Game Over: Rise of the Raid Mob (Game Over 1) by M. J. Sullivan

I’ve always loved science fiction. As a child and then as a teenager, I collected the Dr Who books published by Target and moved onto the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and various other titles but there was a serious shortage, I felt, of books that were aimed directly at teenagers, rather than children or adults. Had this new title from M. J. Sullivan been available then, I would’ve felt I’d died and gone to heaven, because here is an exciting, fast-paced start to a new series featuring aliens, virtual reality and advanced technology that kicks off a four-book series of adventures featuring the Raid Mob – a group of world-class gamers, whose online skills are put into good use when the world becomes threatened by an extra-terrestrial menace.

We are introduced to the Raid Mob while they are online within the game Distant Dawn, carrying out a mission to defend a group of miners against an enemy known as the Nograki. With their positions within the top ten players to maintain, the team go all out to destroy the Nograki and use their individual skills to collaborate perfectly to do so, but are shocked when things appear not to go to plan and the message Game Over appears.

The following day at school, the four teenagers – Jack, Megan, Ayo and Cameron – discuss what has happened but their attention is soon switched to an announcement from the game’s maker promoting a revolutionary kit which will allow players to be more fully immersed in the gaming experience and which will be sent out to the top ten players of Distant Dawn ahead of an elite mission in which they will be invited to play. Sure enough, when the four of them get home, the promised gear has arrived and they eagerly test it out, quickly becoming fully absorbed by the realism of the game.

But the following evening, the realism becomes too much when the Raid Mob are abducted and challenged to play for real to prove the superiority of the Nograkis over the human race. With more to play for than XP and the kudos of a top ten position, can Jack and the others defeat their alien captors and save humanity from the threat of an extra-terrestrial invasion?

I’m not much of a gamer, but my son is and having heard him shouting at his friends while playing with them, am very much aware of just how seriously players take the experience of playing and working together towards a common goal. Here, that close relationship between Jack and the others does not exist solely in the virtual world, but extends to their day-to-day life too and all four of the main characters know one another inside-out, making them ideally placed to tackle the threatening situations in which they find themselves.

While, quite naturally, much of the narrative is the action-packed and exciting recounting of human vs Nograki, the story also shares details of the protagonists’ lives so that we can see how very different they are from one another and empathise with their individual situations – something which makes the book much more credible and helps the reader to feel much closer to the action.

Leaving us on an enormous cliffhanger at the end of the book, this is a series which is sure to engage its target audience of readers aged twelve and over, with its enormous appeal to both gamers and fans of science fiction, and one which I am looking forward to reading the next instalment to find out just what happens next. Until then, huge thanks go to Clock Tower Publishing for my gifted review copy of this title which publishes 14th July.

Alex Neptune, Dragon Thief (Alex Neptune 1) by David Owen, illustrated by George Ermos

Cover illustration © George Ermos

Having converted many of my Year 5s – and their adults – into fans of the Eerie-on-Sea books by Thomas Taylor over the last couple of years, I find I am often asked by parents and carers for recommendations that are similar in tone. When I saw this new title was being marketed as perfect for fans of Malamander and caught sight of the cover by my favourite illustrator George Ermos, whose cover art for Gargantis is similar in its presentation of the two main characters, how could I not want to read it?

Rather than Eerie-on-Sea though, we find ourselves in another coastal town – Haven Bay – where our hero Alex is doing all he can to avoid the ocean, as for all of his short life it has been trying to kill him. Waiting well away from the water, he is joined by his friend Zoey, who has been collecting a jam jar full of seawater to test with her new chemistry set. While she sets up her experiment, Alex gazes across the water only too aware of the blanket of rubbish covering its surface and reflects on the Station – a building constructed by the local mayor, supposedly to monitor the quality of the water which is so unclean that tourists have stopped visiting the town.

Both Zoey and Alex are surprised when the tests she has run reveal an unknown chemical in the sample, and even more surprised when schoolmate Anil turns up to hand over a strange octopus he has found in the hopes that they will know what to do with it, as Alex’s family has taken in some sea creatures from the local aquarium, which has closed down. Taking it home with him, Alex is able to identify the creature and houses it within an old tank but is distracted when through the window he notices a mysterious glow coming from the old aquarium.

Deciding to investigate against his better judgement, Alex’s mind buzzes with thoughts of stories about a local ghostly pirate but this is the least of his worries when he discovers the aquarium is not as deserted as he believed it to be. What is it that is lurking within the old building’s confines? Who is responsible for bringing it here? And just what does it have to do with the polluted seawater and the local legend of a Water Dragon with incredible power?

While the cover and promises of its appeal to Malamander fans will undoubtedly lure many readers in to picking up this title, they will read it from cover to cover on its own merits, which are many. Alex and Zoey make a great pairing and unlike Herbie and Vi are already the best of friends when we meet them, meaning that they already know one another well before the action kicks off. Zoey is a keen inventor whose passion for experimentation has already led to several mishaps and while Alex is happy to support her, he is far more cautious in his own activities. Joining the pair of them are assorted relatives and animals including the aforementioned octopus and a group of sea otters who all contribute enormously to the fun, of which there is plenty.

In sharp contrast with this though is a very strong environmental message to younger readers regarding the way in which we treat our planet, and in particular our seas. While our children are regularly taught about the importance of taking care of the environment in schools, and in many homes too, it is through stories such as this that entertain enormously, that the message is more readily absorbed and – hopefully – acted upon.

Perfect for confident readers in Year 4, and with the promise of more to follow in this new middle grade series, this is certain to be a big hit when it is released on August 4th just in time for many children’s summer breaks. I loved it and will be keeping a close eye out for Book 2. Huge thanks go to Usborne Publishing and to Toppsta for my review copy received ahead of that date. Definitely one to pre-order.

Firesong (Brightstorm 3) by Vashti Hardy

Cover illustration © George Ermos

It’s been such a joy to me over the last couple of years to have been so warmly welcomed into the community of children’s book readers and writers on Twitter. I don’t think a single day goes past where I am not tagged into a recommendation of a new title or I tag others in to share my thoughts on something I’ve read. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but while we all bring our own preferences and opinions to those discussions, there are some writers about whom everybody seems to enthuse and, without a shadow of a doubt, Vashti Hardy features very highly on the list.

Known for her thought-provoking, exciting adventures, often featuring a strong STEM theme and ecological messages, this – the third and final read in the Brightstorm trilogy – is a book which has caused much excitement on Twitter since it was announced a few months ago. Returning us to the world of The Great Wide just over two years since I read the shocking events of Book 2, Darkwhispers, this is a book which I have read over the past few days, and one which has not only given me the most tremendous of book hangovers, but has left me with more questions than answers and will – I’m sure – have the same effect on anyone else picking it up.

Since those shocking events, twins Arthur and Maudie Brightstorm have moved back in to their former family home and, growing older and needing their own dedicated spaces, have started sleeping in separate rooms. When we meet Arthur, he has woken from a dream of his late parents singing to him – something that causes him to reflect on his memories of his loved ones. Putting these thoughts from his mind at breakfast the following morning, he and Maudie look through a catalogue of explorers’ items which are to be auctioned when they spy an old wooden box which belonged to their mother.

Desperate to regain it, the twins and guardian Harriet Culpepper attend the auction but are outbid by a mysterious cloaked stranger. Keen to cheer up her charges when they return home, Harriet suggests a new exploration and tells the twins to consider where they would like to visit. Their destination is decided for them, however, after the stranger pays them a visit, leading them both to choose to journey north to the volcanic north to where the Brightstorm moths after whom the family is named live.

Together with new crewmates Gan and volcanologist Hugo, the crew of the sky-ship Aurora set off both to explore the area and to try to locate an unmapped island the siblings’ father appeared to have discovered and kept secret. But as they get closer, it is clear that there are good reasons for his not sharing its location and that the twins’ adventure has threatened its continued safety. Is it too late for Arthur and Maudie to prevent their father’s secret becoming public knowledge? And if it is, how will they ever put things right?

As is usually the way with siblings, even twins, here Artie and Maudie are growing up and are becoming less reliant on one another – something that is a cause of excitement to them both as they pursue their own interests, but which also brings them pain after all that they have been through together. She is keen for an academic life and the opportunity to progress her engineering skills and inventing talents, while he has the travel bug and wants to explore more of The Wide to follow in their father’s footsteps, and – as is so often the case – there are times when they disagree or jealousy rears its ugly head, making our dual protagonists all the more credible.

Woven through the plot is a very strong environmental message to the book’s readers. While Harriet and the twins are keen to develop greener, cleaner technology and work for the good of the planet and the species it houses, there are those more greedy, selfish individuals and groups within the story who are only out for themselves – echoing perfectly the world in which our children are growing up. In Maudie and Arthur, young readers are given powerful and inspiring role models whose message of taking care of the planet is one that they cannot help but absorb as they read on and I look forward to the day when the scientists, engineers and inventors of the future acknowledge Brightstorm and Vashti Hardy’s influence on their career choices.

Until then, it is a sad farewell to The Great Wide albeit possibly a temporary one. As I said earlier, there are lots of questions left unanswered at the end of the story – even though the book makes a stunning and fitting ending to the series. With the possibility of a spin-off series, there will be a great many of us keenly anticipating whatever the author gifts us next. Until then, the most enormous thank you must go to Publicity Manager Harriet Dunlea and Scholastic Books for my gifted copy of this title perfect for readers in Year 5, received ahead of publication on May 5th.

Wolf Bane (Wolf Brother 9) by Michelle Paver, illustrated by Geoff Taylor

Cover art and design © John Fordham Design

Something I try very hard to get my classes to understand is that there is so much more to writing a story than just thinking about the characters and settings, and the beginning, middle and end. For me, a story should be crafted, rather than just written, so that the reader finds themselves absorbed by the world into which they are stepping and that no matter how far from the reality of life the plot takes them, it should be believable enough for the reader to care about the protagonists.

In this, the last in the incredible Wolf Brother series, Michelle Paver yet again demonstrates why she has earned the epithet Creator of Legends as we travel back to the Stone Age to adventure with Torak, Renn and Wolf for the final time. As with the other books in this series, the painstaking research of the author together with her use of the very richest of language and her refusal to mollycoddle her young audience means that this is a fitting and utterly stunning conclusion, which will leave readers guessing as to how things will be resolved right until the bitter end.

When we meet them for the final time, Torak and Renn are waiting for the overdue spring thaw to come. Torak is concerned that he has found evidence close by of the presence of Naiginn, the demon that is Renn’s half-brother, while Renn is hiding an injury she has sustained and is unable to heal from Torak. At first, Torak cannot work out why Naiginn has returned, but after following a trail which has been left to deceive him realises that his nemesis is after his beloved Wolf’s souls and sets off in hot pursuit.

Things do not go to plan, however, and not only does Naiginn escape but unfortunately for Wolf he finds himself separated from his pack and adrift on a piece of broken ice which carries him to an island occupied by the Kelp Clan. Determined to bring the animal back home, Torak and Renn set off after him on the most dangerous of sea journeys but they have not reckoned on the Kelp Clan who are determined that Wolf now belongs to them.

Can Torak and Renn reclaim Wolf and bring him safely back home with them? Can they prevent Naiginn from stealing Wolf’s souls? And will they have to pay the ultimate price to destroy the demon and his power once and for all?

For fans of the Wolf Brother books – and there are a great many – Torak and Renn are familiar friends about whom they will not only care deeply but whose fate they will need to know. I’m obviously not going to reveal that fate here, but in the previous books that I have read in the series (Books 9 and 10) we witnessed them coping with extraordinary danger and catastrophe and again here Michelle Paver does not sugar-coat how challenging life was for the inhabitants of the Stone Age in any way for a young audience. This incredibly researched attention to detail is what makes this series so very powerful and believable and yet again, even if you have not read the books which precede this, it would work well as a standalone book.

I have no idea what the author plans to write next, but if it is as richly-imagined and powerfully written as this title, I can only imagine that it will be stunning. This time, I will make sure I am in on the action from the off. Wolfbane is out now in hardback but if you are a paperback reader that publishes on November 10th, allowing you plenty of time to read the rest of the series and also in good time to make a brilliant Christmas present. The most enormous thanks go to Toppsta and publisher Head of Zeus for my gifted review copy.

The Underpants of Chaos by Sam Copeland and Jenny Pearson, illustrated by Robin Boyden and Katie Kear

Cover illustrations © Robin Boyden and Katie Kear

Some things are just meant to be together. Strawberries and cream, Morecambe and Wise (showing my age now!) and the fantastic writing and illustrating partnerships of Sam Copeland and Jenny Pearson. and Robin Boyden and Katie Kear. With both authors much loved for their hilarious stories, this really is a match made in heaven for anyone looking for guaranteed laughs blended with their trademark realistic characters, and is a book which is certain to be a smash hit with both its intended audience and their adults on its release.

Kicking off the Tuchus and Topps Investigate series, this opening title hits the ground running, introducing our dynamic duo and following the first of their hilarious adventures in which we encounter military chickens, strangulating underpants and Transylvanian gargoyles as they battle to save their hometown of Little Strangehaven from being utterly destroyed. With its pages including an incredibly broad range of humour, I defy any reader – young or old – not to find something inside this read that will make them laugh out loud.

Our story kicks off through the voice of Agatha Topps, who informs us that she is a detective and a spy – no mean feat at the tender age of nine – having successfully solved several mysteries in school. All of this experience has stood her in good stead, she explains, in her latest case which started with her feeling a shiver rippling through the air while in her classroom – something no one else was aware of. Recounting then becoming aware of some music starting, Agatha describes suddenly feeling the irresistible urge to dance – as did everyone else in the room – but bizarrely, when the dancing stopped, she was the only one aware of what they had been doing.

Shortly afterwards, new kid Lenny Tuchus arrives, carrying with him all of the usual worries that starting a new school brings. Having been seated on Agatha’s table, the two of them soon start to chat only for another shiver to pulse through the room. This time, Agatha is not the only one aware of it as Lenny feels it too and the pair of them start to consider just what it is that is causing it when rather than making everyone dance, it leads to the school’s chickens behaving in a most unexpected fashion.

Our spy-detectives decide to investigate just what is happening and start to suspect that the headteacher is responsible for the strange goings on, and decide to monitor him in the hopes of finding clues. As they do their best to spy and detect, the shivers continue to interrupt their lives and it soon become clear that there is more to fear than spontaneous dancing and military chickens. Can Tuchus and Topps solve the mystery and can they prevent Little Strangehaven being sucked into oblivion?

Agatha and Lenny are a great pairing to whom so many of our children will relate. Her family has been expanded by the addition of twins and when we meet Agatha she is both sleep-deprived and having to fend for herself as her parents are tied up looking after the babies, meaning that when Lenny arrives she is only too pleased to have something in common with him and to be provided with the comfort and support of his friendship. He, on the other hand, is also in need of friendship following the separation of his parents and the continuing absence of his father who repeatedly lets him down by not fulfilling the access arrangements which have been agreed – something I know is sadly an issue for lots of youngsters. As you would expect in both Sam’s and Jenny’s writing, offsetting this is a great deal of humour in the alternating viewpoints of Agatha and Lenny, but I cannot review the book without also mentioning the hilarious Gregor – a wise-cracking gargoyle, whose broad Scottish accent and use of the vernacular I absolutely loved.

Accompanying the dual points of view are the fabulous illustrations of Robin Boyden and Katie Kear so that each character has a dedicated pairing presenting their side of the story. Although the artists’ styles are, obviously, different from one another, the transitions from one partnership to the other are seamless and I really enjoyed studying all of the pictures throughout the book, which add enormously to the fun and will delight young readers. Perfect for confident readers in Year 4, or as a shared read either as a bedtime story or with a class, the illustrations together with the promise of the titular underpants will ensure that this will not remain very long on my shelf when I take my copy in to school to share.

Publishing on June 9th, this is a cracking start to the series and I am very much looking forward to seeing just what Tuchus and Topps (and hopefully, Gregor) get up to next. Until then, the most enormous thanks must go to publisher Puffin Books for my gifted advance copy received ahead of that date. Most definitely one to pre-order.

Wilder than Midnight by Cerrie Burnell

Cover art © Flavia Sorrentino

Within my little library in class, I have split the books into various categories – both to help the children to make independent choices as to what they might like to read and hopefully to help them recommend titles to one another. Some of my books fit very neatly into distinct categories and then there are those, like this new title by Cerrie Burnell, which are far harder to classify.

Described as a bold and evocative new adventure novel, this is so much more than that. With echoes of many favourite fairy tales, magic, inclusive characters and a bold and brilliant protagonist, this is a book so delicious that it will be gobbled up by young readers who will love its rich plot and wonderfully drawn characters as much as I did and who will want to return to its pages time and time again.

Our story opens with the birth of a child – usually a time of great celebration for the parents, but sadly the infant’s mother declares her new-born to be dead. Astonished at this sad news, the reader is able to breathe a sigh of relief when it transpires that the child is alive and well, but has an arm which has not fully formed – supposedly a sign of a witch – leading to her mother’s rejection. Fortunately for the baby, the huntsman to whom she is entrusted has a large heart and he takes her to the forest, placing her in the care of the wolves and the Forest Folk who then bring her up as their own.

Years later, the child – now known as Wild Rose – dreams of leaving the forest to cross into the nearby castle but has not reckoned on the power of the wood and its wolves to keep her hidden and prevent her leaving. Spying a girl in a red cloak, Wild Rose ensures she remains hidden, allowing the girl – Saffy – on her way. Unfortunately for Saffy, she loses her way while running an errand and finds herself lost and confronted by a striking bone-white wolf.

Running away, Saffy finds herself pursued by the wolf and its pack and is saved when she runs into Wild Rose, who asks for her cloak in return for saving her life. Now that she has been seen by an outsider, Wild Rose’s adopted family decide they must try to take further steps to ensure her continued safety but they have not reckoned on her determination to find out what lies beyond her forest home. As Wild Rose’s curiosity gets the better of her, she encounters others and finds herself with more and more questions, but what will she do when she eventually stumbles across the truth…

I love modern fairy tales and I know I am not alone in this. Although by the time they get to me, in Year 5, my charges tend to see traditional tales as too babyish for them to bother with, I know that in fact they love them and they will really enjoy spotting all of the references that have been included here. Where those stories we all remember from our childhoods tended to represent girls as, how shall I put it, week and wet and in need of rescuing or protection in whatever shape or form by a manly man, Wild Rose is a fabulous heroine for a modern audience. Intelligent, curious and most definitely able to hold her own when threatened, she does not need a handsome prince in her life and is a great role model to our girls.

I haven’t read any of Cerrrie Burnell’s other fiction titles, but very much enjoyed her non-fiction book I Am Not a Label, describing the lives of many great disabled individuals, which is what prompted me to request this from Net Galley. With the writer herself having what Wild Rose refers to as a little arm, her experiences of being different give this story that unmistakeable feeling of realism that come from own voices writing; with other inclusive characters within the story, this is the sort of fairy tale that I would want my children to read were they still primary school-aged.

A wonderful read for those in Year 4 upwards, this is a real delight and one which I am sure will be extremely popular with its target audience when it is published on April 28th. Enormous thanks must go to publisher Puffin and to Net Galley for my advance virtual read ahead of this date.

Skulduggery Pleasant: Until the End (SP 15) by Derek Landy

Cover illustration © Tom Percival

There can be few series that have had the same impact on young readers than the Skulduggery Pleasant one. To hold the attention of readers through the fourteen titles preceding this one is no mean feat, particularly given the length of some of them. And yet, we are are quite possibly at the end of the road. Book 15. A book which I imagine those many fans have been longing for and dreading in equal measure, for in few series would you pick up what might well be the conclusion anticipating not only the possibility of an unhappy ever after, but also the very real likelihood that at least one of the series’s main characters, might not make it through until the end.

Picking up after the shocking end to Book 14 –Dead or Alive – when Valkyrie Cain revealed her new role as the Child of the Faceless Ones to Omen Darkly, we catch up with her now working under their influence to allow them into our world. With Skulduggery Pleasant apparently supporting his partner in her new task, Darquesse a prisoner, the resistance and China Sorrows abandoning Roarhaven, and Damocles Creed now Supreme Mage, is there anyone who can stop their invasion and plans to bring about the end of humankind?

Clearly, if you are reading this, you too are a fan and so I am not going to include massive spoilers here. Suffice it to say that you will not be disappointed with the twists and turns in the action-packed storyline and that it is unlikely that you will ever stumble across another series that matches this in its scope and imagination. This is a fitting ending to the current story arc, and one with which I hope most – if not all – fans will be satisfied. Having spread out reading the unfolding adventures over the past 15 years, after being introduced to them by my son, there is so much that I have forgotten about the stories since I first read Book 1 and I am sure I won’t be the only one looking forward to re-reading them all again and seeing how the characters have evolved since that first title. An amazing read.

Hazel Hill is Gonna Win this One by Maggie Horne

Cover image not final cover

Over the great many years since I was at school, there have been huge shifts in the world around me. Some of these have been enormously positive – such as the changes to the law to allow same-sex couples to marry – and some far less so. Some things, however, do not seem to have changed very much, if at all, and one such thing is the way in which some – not all – boys and men treat girls and women.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, gender stereotypes were much stronger than they are now, but it wasn’t until I became a young adult that I really understood what sexual harassment is. Lacking in confidence, I had no idea what to do when I was myself harassed but what I do know is that I never once saw another female stand up for herself when put in this position – it just wasn’t done: we all put up with it. As the mother of a young woman and teacher of girls, how very grateful I am for this new read by Maggie Horne which sends a clear, strong message to all young readers that sexual harassment is unacceptable and how I wish that I had been able to read it 40 years ago.

Sexual harassment is far from the mind of young Hazel when we meet her. Trying her best in her mission to know everything, she kicks off by telling us that the one thing in which she is an expert is classmate Tyler Harris. With no real friends of her own, Hazel acts as Tyler’s confidante as he shares his secrets with her – secrets relating to the most recent girl on whom he currently has a crush, in this case apparently Ella Quinn.

Before Tyler has the chance to share his thoughts with Hazel, teacher Miss A. announces the theme for this year’s public speaking contest – something of great interest to Hazel having been beaten the previous year by Ella. When the class is given the opportunity to discuss their ideas with one another, Tyler is not interested in Hazel’s speech but shares with her the news that Ella Quinn has told him she in not only uninterested in him but has a crush on Hazel – something she instantly dismisses.

Thinking carefully about what Tyler has said, Hazel’s first concern is that Tyler might have guessed that she herself is a lesbian, but she soon comes to realise that rather than accepting Ella’s lack of interest in him, he is out for revenge and worries that he might decide to out the two girls. After school, Ella comes to sit next to Hazel on the bus going home and invites her to go skating that evening with her and best friend Riley, which the usually friendless Hazel finds very odd. At the rink, Ella confides in Hazel that she said what she did to get rid of Tyler and both girls get upset. Despite this, Hazel, Riley and Ella gradually start to start to become firm friends with one another and when Hazel discovers just how Tyler has been treating Ella, the girls decide to put a stop to his behaviour. But how can they end his harassment when they find themselves not being believed by the adults around them…?

There is so much which is good about this story that it is very hard to know where to start in recording my thoughts. Hazel has fully accepted that, for her, a social circle of friends is not going to be a thing and although she does not count Tyler as a friend, she tolerates his confiding in her as his crushes on the other girls do not initially directly affect her. When she realises that he is far from being the sweet and innocent boy that he is believed to be by the adults around them, she is outraged and very soon finds out that not only is she capable of making and having friends of her own, but that she enjoys the experience and wants to support Ella to right the wrong being done to her.

For our girls and young women to feel and, more importantly, be safer, we need to change the behaviours of those boys and men in our society who harass them and using this book in school would be such a powerful tool in educating all of our children with regard not only to sexual harassment, but also to cyber-bullying and would additionally be of great benefit to a huge number of adults who tend to dismiss this type of behaviour as boys being boys, or the fault of girls for being flirty or dressing provocatively. I don’t often wish for books to be dramatised, but such is the importance of this story that I would really love to see it being made into a serial or film so that its message reaches a wider audience.

Perfect for upper KS2 and well into KS3 and 4, this is a book that should not only be in every school library but needs to be shared with students too as a class reader. Only by working together, can we hope to stop the sort of unkind, misogynistic behaviour portrayed so clearly here. My enormous thanks go to publisher Firefly Press and to Net Galley for my advance virtual read ahead of the publication of this title on 18th October.

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman, illustrated by Tracy Nishimura Bishop

Cover illustration © Brandon Dorman

There’s not a day that goes by when I am not tagged into some sort of bookish chat on Twitter – something for which I am extraordinarily grateful. Up until a few days ago, however, I had never been asked for examples of middle grade titles with a pangolin in – something, of which I had no knowledge. Having established that this was a rather niche animal, a few people suggested this title – adding that it was a gorgeous story with the power to bring tears to the reader’s eye, and having spotted it on the shelf of my local indie earlier in the week popped in to pick up a copy to enjoy.

Bumping it straight to the top of my TBR pile, I picked it up later that day and steadily read it into the evening and throughout the following day until it was finished and can report now that not only is this a delightful adventure but is also so much more. With a strong environmental message to younger readers, this is a story that will stay with me for some time and one that I not only really enjoyed, but am delighted to say will be followed up with a sequel.

Before our initial adventure starts though, we are introduced to Kate who is thinking about her Uncle Herbert, about whom she knows only two things: his being both rich and irresponsible. Estranged from his sister, Kate’s mother, Kate reflects on never having met him and wonders how he came to be so wealthy and what it is he does all day. Fed up with her parents working long hours for less financial reward than she believes they are entitled to, Kate longs for the more exciting life she often sees in the books she reads and writes hopefully to her uncle asking for a present for her 11th birthday.

Not really expecting anything to come of it, Kate is stunned when a present arrives in the form of an enormous steam engine, delivered in person by Uncle Herbert – much to the annoyance of her parents. Not only has Uncle Herbert come to deliver the engine but he has had the foresight to install tracks in the back yard secretly overnight and once the engine has been moved Kate and younger brother Tom climb onboard to investigate.

Wishing that the engine could take them on a real adventure, Kate is surprised when it suddenly acts of its own accord and steams out of the garden and through the neighbouring trees before stopping at a small country station where an assortment of animals advise them to pick up some train cars, which they do before returning to collect their unusual passengers. With no idea as to where they are going or what the purpose of the train is, Kate, Tom and the animals set out on an epic adventure travelling to some amazing places and sharing incredible experiences. But just what will they find at end of their journey? And what impact will it have – not only on them, but also on their wondrous guests?

There is something so gentle and romantic about old-fashioned steam trains that lends the adventure a sense of comfort and reassurance at first but it is soon clear that this does not accurately reflect what is happening. Kate and Tom soon start to realise that as well as taking on responsibility for the train, they are responsible for the animals on board – all of which are increasingly rare in their natural habitats. As they journey onwards, Kate starts to understand that it is not just the passengers that her actions affect but that she and the rest of the human race must make the right decisions if their new friends’ species are to survive for the future generations to come.

Kate is a great protagonist who grows in maturity and awareness of the needs of others as the story unfolds – both the animals and younger brother Tom. At first, the adventure seems to be all fun and games and she enjoys her present enormously but when things start to prove more challenging she realises that although Tom has fewer life experiences than her, his different way of looking at the situations in which they find themselves is no less valid than her own. Once she understands this, their relationship is all the stronger and is a beautiful thing to see.

Already hugely tempting to young readers thanks to its gorgeous cover, the glorious illustrations of Tracy Nishimura Bishop inside will help them to picture some of the animals – such as the pangolin – with which they may not be familiar. Perfect as a shared read for Year 3 children upwards, this is a title which I know my train-daft friend and TA loved when she read it when it was published in hardback, and which I am hoping will reach a much wider audience now that it is available in paperback.

For anyone, like me, who does not buy hardbacks, the paperback sequel will sadly not be on sale until May 2023, which is a little disappointing, but for hardback and library readers or those who prefer e-books, the wait will be shorter, with The Golden Swift expected on July 7th again covering environmental themes within its pages and another thrilling ride. I for one am very much looking forward to stepping back on board.

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