Friday, 13 July 2018

The Last Wolf by Mini Grey - reviewed by Damian Harvey

Mini Grey has a style all of her own and it's one that makes her books instantly recognisable. Each one is a delight - from her very first - "Egg Drop", to the Kate Greenaway award winning "Adventures of Dish and Spoon" and the popular "Traction Man". The Last Wolf is the latest book to be written and illustrated by Mini, and it doesn't disappoint.

The story starts with Little Red putting on her hunting hat and boots then, armed with her trusty 'popgun' and a packed lunch, she sets off to catch a wolf. Safe in the knowledge that there hasn't been a wolf around 'for at least a hundred years' Mum wishes her good luck and tells her not to be late for tea.

Little Red sets off on her adventure through the forest, lurking behind trees and slithering through the bracken. She sees shapes that could easily be a wolf or other wild animal and jumps out on them, only to but disappointed in finding a tree stump and an old bin bag that someone has dumped. Deeper into the forest, Red gets frightened by strange noises 'and grabby twigs' and runs until she comes across a door in a tree trunk. When the door is opened by the last wolf, Little Red is invited in for tea with the Last Lynx and the Last Bear who tell her stories on the 'good old days'

Little Red learns that there used to be 'endless miles of forest to run through and a thousand grazing beasts to bite. In the good old days, the 'world was awash with flowers and bees and dripping with honey. Suddenly the wild animals look hungrily at Little Red who quickly takes out her lunch box... Then, as the wolf runs after a hard boiled egg, the bear catches a sausage roll and the lynx chases the sandwich 'around the cave until it was wounded', Little Red eats her apple and wonders how she can help.
It's getting dark so the Last Wolf, the Last Lynx and the Last Bear walk Little Red home through the Last Woods. Here we get to see just how small the Last Woods are. Instead of the huge forest that Little Red has imagined, the Last Woods is really just a small clump of trees surrounded by houses.    
Back at home, Little Red has realised what needs to be done to help the animals and with Mum's help she plants three little acorns. She knows that the trees will take a long time to grown but she also knows that one day they will be amazing.

The Last Wolf is a fun story that children will thoroughly enjoy and as always, there's lots to look at in Mini's artwork which will make it. The words and pictures also carry a strong environmental message (without ever being preachy) which will make it additionally valuable for use in schools.

Reviewed by Damian Harvey

Twitter @damianjharvey


Monday, 9 July 2018

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

I have to confess that I did not know a lot about graphic novels until recently. I also knew next to nothing about roller derbies. But Roller Girl piqued my interest — it was a New York Times bestseller, a Newbery Honor book, and graphic novels are earning themselves special places in bookshops these days. The book did not disappoint. 

Twelve year old Astrid’s world is changing. It is the summer before she starts junior high. She is enthralled by a roller derby league game that she attends with her mother and her best friend, Nicole. However, Nicole does not share Astrid's enthusiasm, pulling away from her, spending time with an arch enemy (Rachel) and chooses ballet camp over joining Astrid in roller camp. When a new friend asks Astrid ‘What's your thing?’ (hers is theatre and musicals), she cannot really answer. 

Yet, roller camp does more than teach Astrid how to roller skate. It empowers her. Its fierce, energetic skaters give her new mantras: “Tough! Strong! Fearless!” And the more involved Astrid becomes in this new world, the more she comes to terms with the changes in her life, from girl to teenager, to reforging her relationships with friends and her mother, and also to learning what her ‘thing’ is. Clue: she gives herself a new name for the skate track, Asteroid. 

Things I loved about this book:

— the energetic story line that moves apace. 
— we are plunged into the little-known world of roller skating, warts and all. Astrid falls. Again. And again. She aches. She almost gives up. ‘Thunk.’ ‘Ow.’ ‘Aaaaaaghhhhhh.’ Humour, determination, heartbreak and dreams blend in her journey to master the new sport. Plus the reader learns too; I now understand what jammers, blockers, and bouts are, and perhaps more importantly, why the skaters are exhilarated by the demanding, often painful, boisterous game.
— the story is realistic. Astrid is not perfect. She makes mistakes. She is out of her depth at the camp to begin with and does not become a star ‘jammer’ overnight. But she does improve. And she does develop skills that rescue her team and her friendships. 
— Astrid’s flights of fancy made me chuckle. Her long walk home, aching and exhausted, after her first class becomes a stumbling desperate stagger through a parched, scorching desert. When she finds the courage to apologize to a friend, we see her fantasy of a teary, heartfelt reunion, quickly followed by the real life muted mumbled friend’s response. Astrid’s enforced clothes shopping trip with her mother is portrayed as a tortured trip through hell... 
— we understand the complexities of becoming a teenager. Things are not black and white anymore. The ‘emojis’ that Astrid’s elementary school teacher used to explain emotions are no longer so easy to apply. Now Astrid creates new expressions: happy + sad = shad. Nervous + sick = nersick. 
—  girl power is on fire in this story. Sisterly camaraderie and fierce, empowered role-models abound. 
A fresh take on the timeless transition-to-teen theme with expressive, humorous illustrations, a rollicking pace and a loveable protagonist, this is a novel worth reading.


Thursday, 5 July 2018

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert - review by Kelly McKain

The Hazel Wood is a dark and intriguing fairy tale in itself, with an obscure book of bleak and unrelenting fairy tales at its heart. It’s beautiful and deftly written by Melissa Albert, also the founding editor of the Barnes and Noble Teen Blog. It’s compelling, like walking into a mysterious wood full of treasures and horrors. You know you should really go back - it's getting dark, after all - but you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and soon you’re lost in this astonishing read. As the path twists and turns before you, your sense of unease and foreboding grows as shocking truths unfold, in ways that make you feel you should have, could have, seen it coming – but you didn’t.

So, where does this walk in the woods begin? To quote the back cover copy, Alice has spent most of her life on the road, always one step ahead of the strange bad luck biting at her heels. But when her grandmother, the reclusive author of a book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her isolated estate – the Hazel Wood – Alice discovers how bad her luck can really get. Her own mother is stolen away, by a figure who claims to come from the supernatural world where the fairy tales are set. Alice’s only clue is the message left behind: Stay away from the Hazel Wood.

Of course, that’s exactly where Alice heads for, with obsessive fan of her grandmother’s Finch in tow, who acts as her guide as he knows Althea’s fairy stories, featuring the likes of Twice-Killed Katherine and Alice-Three-Times, inside out. I don’t want to ruin it for you by saying too much about what happens when they get there - just prepare to be shocked, surprised and completely spellbound. And I will tell you that characters from the stories are on the loose in this world too, and they seem to be on Alice's trail as much as she's on theirs. 

Will Alice stay alive and on the right track long enough to find The Hinterland, where Althea's story characters live? Will she be reunited with Ella, her beloved, missing mother? Will she find her true self, and the key to her strange nomadic childhood? Will she, even, find a place to call home?

Don’t stay away from the Hazel Wood – take a deep breath and walk right in.

The Woollies, Kelly McKain's new picture book series with Oxford University Press, are out now.

The Woollies: Join the Parade!The Woollies: Flying HighThe Woollies: Pirates Ahoy!


Sunday, 1 July 2018

Aunt Amelia by Rebecca Cobb review by Lynda Waterhouse

A few years ago I had really enjoyed reviewing Rebecca’s picture book, ‘The Something’. A heart-warming story about looking, thinking and asking questions. A book about being happy with not knowing all the answers but keeping watch anyway in the hope that something surprising will appear.
So imagine my delight when I picked up ‘Aunt Amelia’ from a bookshop located a very posh part of South London.
As soon as I walked in the shop I was greeted by the sight of a four year old who was demanding to be read a story from her parent and who was racing round the shop beside themselves with excitement. Aforementioned parent was in the phonics section selecting dreary educational books to be bought and kept for when they were on holiday.
If only I could have placed ‘Aunt Amelia’ in the little girls hands or at least read it aloud to her.
The story begins with two children who are in a bad mood because their parents are going away for a day and a night and leaving Aunt Amelia in charge. To add to their grumpiness they are told to be good. Mum and Dad leave a long list of instructions which Aunt Amelia thinks will be very useful.
 ‘Please tell the children to be careful if you go to the park.’

The rules and Aunt Amelia’s interpretation of them form the heart of the story. The list of instructions make up the text whilst the illustrations show Aunt Amelia’s anarchic response to them as she encourages the children to experiment , explore make a mess and be creative. Aunt Amelia even turns tidying up a fun game!

In a classroom context you could read the rules out without showing the children the illustrations asking them to describe what they think is happening before showing them what Aunt Amelia and the children get up to.
This is a joyful story about the importance of sometimes not playing by the rules. Definitely a must purchase for all those aunts out there.
And no-one seems to care or comment on the fact that Aunt Amelia is a crocodile!

ISBN 978 1-4472-4236-9
Macmillan Children’s Books


Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Girl Out Of Water by Nat Luurtsema, Reviewed by Kelly McCaughrain

This is a light-hearted comedy and a fun read. The author is also a professional comedian and that really comes across in the writing, which is packed full of jokes.

Lou Brown is a likeable, hare-brained narrator who has just failed to qualify for a fancy swimming school for Olympic hopefuls. Her best friend did qualify and has left Lou behind. With her life’s ambition thwarted, she’s devastated, friendless and at a loose end, until presented with a very bizarre request from some popular boys in her school to coach them for a talent show.

I liked the unusual family set up in this book (the parents are divorced but live together because the dad is unemployed) and the minor characters were entertaining, and I enjoyed the relationship Lou had with her older sister. Lou’s voice is very contemporary, it felt like reading the Twitter feeds of teenage girls, but in a good way, and there were lots of contemporary references to things like Britain’s Got Talent etc.

There are some serious issues in the book, including pushy parents, dealing with stress and eating disorders, but they happen mostly offstage and are presented with humour so it never gets heavy. I particularly liked that it showed what happens when your dreams don’t come true, how failure isn’t the end, and how new dreams can come along.

I think younger teens would really enjoy this, but the 16 year olds in my teen writing group also found it a fun read.

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 



Thursday, 14 June 2018

THE WHITE GIRAFFE by Lauren St John REVIEWED by Sharon Tregenza

Title:  The White Giraffe
Author: Lauren St John
Publisher: Orion Children's Books

When 11 year old Martine's house burns down, killing her parents, her life changes forever. Sent to a game reserve in South Africa to live with her strange grandmother, Martine must deal with her grief and learn how to survive in a very different culture.
     She befriends an albino giraffe and her adventure begins. Along the way Martine discovers secrets and mysteries go hand in hand in her family. This is magical adventure of myth and discovery set against the searing backdrop of the African Savannah.
       The sights, sounds and smells of Africa seep through every page and it's no surprise to learn that St John spent her childhood in Zimbabwe.

      I'd recommend this book to children 8 and up and to quite a few adults too. An exciting story with intriguing threads of mystery and mythology throughout.

      'The White Giraffe' is part of a series by Lauren St John which includes 'The Dolphin Song' and 'The Elephant's Tale'.

Sharon Tregenza writes MG mysteries. Check her website here: Sharon Tregenza


Monday, 11 June 2018

Finding Hope, by Marie-Louise Jensen. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Title: Finding Hope
Author: Marie-Louise Jensen
Publisher Fiction Express

Jake, an only boy, lives an idyllic life in the UK. His main passion in life is horse riding and he is looking forward to riding Thunder, his trusted horse, at the next showjumping event.

But when Jake's parents adopt a refugee called Faly, he finds that having a new sister is probably more than a cool kid can handle. Faly speaks no English. In fact she doesn't speak at all. Jake is resentful that he now has to share his parents' attention with a newcomer and that the new arrival is eating into his training time for the imminent showjumping event.  But gradually Jake and Faly bond and when it seems that the refugee has been kidnapped by two men in a black van, Jake proves to be a real hero and brother.

The 'hope' of the title is the name given to a rescued horse that is taken in by the stables where Jake trains. The horse's story mirrors that of Faly, who must start seeing hope in what she considers a desperate situation.

Originally written for the Fiction Express platform, this is a fast-paced story that deals with the topic of migrants in a sensitive but entertaining away. Told from the two points of view - Faly and Jakes's - it really lets you in on what the main characters are thinking and feeling. Faly's story includes her nightmare journey across the Sahara desert and the loss of her parents in the Med.  Jake's journey towards accepting his new sister is no less interesting. Absorbing stuff!

Saviour Pirotta's latest books are the Ancient Greek Mysteries series from Bloomsbury. Pirates of Poseidon is out now. Follow him on twitter @spirotta.