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This category of books is so vital in children’s reading development and yet often doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. There’s such a sense of achievement in reading your first real chapter book by yourself. I remember my children devouring the Rainbow Magic and Beast Quest books in that thrilling early stage of independent reading. So hooray to Spark! for acknowledging this age group. It will, however, be a difficult category to judge as the books in this shortlist bridge the gap between chapter books and shorter ‘junior’ or ‘middle-grade’ fiction. Here are my reviews:

Too Small Tola by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

This short chapter book is made up of three stories about Tola. Tola lives with her older sister Moji, her older brother Dapo, and her grandmother in a run-down block of flats in Lagos. Her brother and sister tease her about being short and call her ‘Too Small Tola’ but Tola proves that even though she is small…she is mighty.

In the first story Tola has to go to the market with her grandmother. She realises that her grandmother is also small but she is strong, and Tola can be strong too. In the second story Tola wakes to find the electricity and the water have gone off. She must collect water from the borehole before she can get ready for school, but when a bully gets in her way, she discovers that she’s not too small to stand up for herself. In the third book Easter and Eid happen to coincide and everyone in Tola’s block of flats is celebrating. Tola is excited about getting a new outfit for Easter, but when their tailor falls off his bike and breaks his leg, Tola steps in to help him fulfil all his orders.

Too Small Tola is a wonderfully uplifting collection of stories that simultaneous feel like folk tales and small portraits of contemporary Nigerian life. These stories create empathy by giving a window on a different way of life, while all children can relate to Tola’s family dynamics – being teased by your siblings, having to do chores around the house, and enjoying a holiday celebration.

Willow Wildthing and the Swamp Monster by Gill Lewis, illustrated by Rebecca Bagley

Willow and her family have moved to a new town to be closer to the hospital where her three-year-old brother is a patient. This means that her parents are often at the hospital, or busy working, or just too tired to spend time with Willow. On the first night in her new house, Willow hears an eerie howling from the Wilderness at the bottom of her garden. When she investigates the next day, she meets the Wild Things—a group of children with animal code names who explore the Wilderness together. But, as they warn Willow, strange things happen in the Wilderness—when you step across the boundary you are changed forever. Willow crosses the bridge and is swept up in an adventure including a missing person, killer plants, a witch and a terrifying swamp monster.

Willow Wildthing and the Swamp Monster is also a chapter book and the first in a series. It’s a wonderfully accessible story, filled with mystery and excitement, that perfectly encapsulates the magic of childhood.  

The Long-Lost Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Samurai by Tim Collins, illustrated by Isobel Lundie

Suki Akiyama is definitely not the world’s worst samurai, though she is not the best either. (The title of this book confused me until realised it was part of a Secret Diary of the World’s Worst… series.) Suki is smart, ambitious and convinced it is her destiny to be a samurai like her father and her brother, despite the fact that she is a girl. She is also over-confident about her own abilities, lacking in discipline and, after she makes some silly mistakes, she gets sent home from samurai school in disgrace. When her father and brother leave to fight in a battle, their village is left unprotected, and some opportunistic bandits scope them out. Suki must rally the women and children to defend their homes from the bandits and prove that she is worthy to be a samurai.

It’s an interesting series concept. The fictional main character gives children an entertaining and relatable insight into living in a particular period, while the ‘Get Real’ inserts present historical facts to add depth to the story. The book was lots of fun, though perhaps not quite as funny as I was hoping for, the samurai facts were fascinating—particularly about female samurai warriors in history, and Suki was an inspiring protagonist. 

Llama Out Loud by Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

It’s Yasmin’s tenth birthday but no one is her family ever listens to her or asks her what she wants, and she’s given up trying to make herself heard. When her birthday dinner ends in disaster and Yasmin gets blamed for her brothers’ prank, she begs the universe: I wish I could stand up for myself. Little does she realise that her wish is about to be granted in the form of a cockney llama plush toy called Levi.

Levi, the small annoying llama, is not what Yasmin was hoping for. Only Yasmin can see and hear Levi, but his ‘helpful’ interventions have real consequences and Yasmin keeps getting blamed. It seems like Levi is only making things worse. When Levi sabotages the one good thing in Yasmin’s life, the checkers tournament at the Octogenarians’ London Daycentre (O.L.D.), Yasmin has had enough. But will she speak up at last? 

Llama Out Loud is a hilarious story, full of wonderfully vivid characters, about finding your voice and learning to stand up for yourself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Once again, a difficult choice as I enjoyed all of these books. I can’t wait to see which one the children vote for but I suspect, like me, they might be won over by a small, raucous and incredibly annoying llama.