a pinch of magic, aru shah and the end of time, Book Reviews, books of the year, brightstorm, can you see me, children's books, deeplight, heartstopper, jemima small versus the universe, keeper of the lost cities, magnus chase, not my fault, on the come up, orphan monster spy, roller girl, starfell, the deathless girls, the gifted the talented and me, the girl who speaks bear, the star outside my window, the vanishing stair, two can keep a secret, YA books
We are truly in a golden age of children’s fiction and there are so many amazing new children’s books that I still want to read, but here are some of the best ones I have read this year:
Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day (Starfell #1) by Dominique Valente
One of my favourites: the delightful and charming story of Willow Moss, the youngest and least impressive witch in her family. Willow’s gift is for finding lost things, which doesn’t seem very exciting, until the day that the most powerful witch in Starfell comes to Willow for help in locating last Tuesday – which has mysteriously gone missing. Willow sets off to find last Tuesday with the monster under her bed (who is definitely NOT a cat and will get very angry and explode if you call him that). I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it’s full of funny, inventive detail, great characters, and is beautifully illustrated throughout by Sarah Warburton. Absolutely enchanting!
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
With more and more kids reading ebooks these days, a graphic novel is a perfect Christmas book gift. (I’ve gifted one copy of this book already.) Astrid has always done everything with her best friend Nicole. So when Astrid falls in love with roller derby and signs up for a summer camp, she’s sure Nicole will come too, until Nicole signs up for ballet camp instead. Astrid sets off for roller derby camp alone and discovers that it’s a lot more difficult that she thought it would be. I loved this funny empowering story about friendship, bravery and resilience set in the crazy world of roller derby.
The Star Outside my Window by Onjali Q. Rauf
From the author of The Boy at the Back of the Class, Onjali Rauf tackles another tricky and topical subject in her latest book, The Star Outside My Window: domestic violence and in particular the impact this has on children. If this sounds like a bit much for a young audience (I was slightly horrified when I realised I’d given this book as a prize for a nine-year-old), be reassured that the issue is treated with sensitivity and there are helpful warnings and advice at the beginning and the end of the book. Ten-year-old Aniyah has just arrived at a new foster home with her five-year-old brother. She is struggling to understand what has happened to her family but when she sees a news story about a competition to name a new star she realises that the star must be her Mum and she makes a daring plan to travel to Greenwich to tell the astronomers what the star should be called. In the process she finds out what really happened to her Mum and she finds a new family. It’s a devastating, heartbreaking story (even writing the review is making me cry) but somehow the author manages to finish on a hopeful note. The Star Outside my Window is a powerful story with the potential to help those who have experienced violence at home, but also to inspire kindness and empathy in those who haven’t. Highly recommended.
The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson
Yanka was found in a bear cave as a child and has always been a little different to everyone else in her village – taller and stronger than all the other children, who call her ‘Yanka the Bear’. After an accident leaves Yanka changed, she goes in search of the bear who raised her to find answers about who and what she is. As Yanka journeys through the forest she meets some other characters and they share stories with each other (including another house with chicken legs) and eventually Yanka must team up with all her new friends to defeat a dragon, break a curse and discover who her family really is. This is an enchanting, lyrical adventure, based on Russian folklore, full of wonderful characters, stories, and a heartfelt message about friendship and family. I particularly enjoyed Mousetrap the house weasel who has an inflated idea of himself but, as it turns out, does actually have some bizarre and useful skills.
Brightstorm: A Sky-Ship Adventure (Sky-Ship Adventure #1) by Vashti Hardy
Maudie and Arthur are twins left alone when their father doesn’t return from an airship expedition, but there are suspicious circumstances surrounding his disappearance and their father stands accused of breaking the explorer’s code. The twins must find a way to join another airship expedition to see if they can find their father and clear their family name. A thrilling steampunk-style adventure full of brilliant characters, magical creatures and exciting technology. I thoroughly enjoyed this – highly recommended.
Can You See Me? by Libby Scott, Rebecca Westcott
11-year-old Tally is starting secondary school but she has a secret that only her close friends and family know – Tally is autistic and she spends a lot of time and energy trying to act like everyone else so she will fit in. Tally’s narrative is interspersed with diary excerpts written by 11-year-old Libby Scott inspired by her own experience of autism. Autism, at the milder end of the spectrum, does tend to be portrayed in books and films as a fun personality quirk but this story reveals the struggles and anxiety that many autistic people hide. Can You See Me resonates with warmth and authenticity – a thoughtful, informative and moving book.
Not My Fault by Cath Howe
Maya and Rose are sisters, but that’s about all they have in common. Rose is neat, diligent, and a star gymnast, but is also secretly eaten up with guilt about Maya’s accident. Maya is charismatic, chaotic, and driven to self-destructive behaviour by physical pain and anger about her accident. Maya and Rose are not talking to each other, but a school residential trip to Wales will be the catalyst that makes or breaks their relationship. The story is told from both of their perspectives and beautifully illustrates the ways that siblings can know each other so well, but also completely misunderstand each other. Sometimes it’s harder to forgive your family than anyone else, but Not My Fault is a prescription for sibling empathy. Highly recommended.
A Pinch of Magic (A Pinch of Magic #1) by Michelle Harrison
A Pinch of Magic is the story of the three Widdershins sisters, three magical objects and a terrible curse that has been passed down through generations of Widdershins women. Betty has always longed to escape from Crowstone and find adventure out beyond the confines of the The Poacher’s Pocket, but when she discovers the truth about the curse Betty finds herself thrust into an situation that could break the curse forever but it could also be the death of her and her sisters. This story has all the elements you could possibly want from a magical middle-grade adventure – an atmospheric setting, a thrilling plot and a brilliant protagonist. Loved it.
Legacy (Keeper of the Lost Cities #8) by Shannon Messenger
One of the girls at school turned me on to this series and I have to agree that it is thoroughly addictive. In book 1, Keeper of the Lost Cities, 12-year-old Sophie discovers she’s a telepathic elf and is whisked off to Elf-Hogwarts to start her education. It sounds slightly derivative but it is a page turner and by book 2 Sophie’s world is well established and her adventures are off to solid start. This is book 8 in the series and supposedly book 9 will be the final book. Keeper of the Lost Cities is a fantasy adventure with a very mild hint of romance (team Foster-Keefe forever) and highly recommended for series binge-readers in particular.
Magnus Chase and the Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #3) by Rick Riordan
This is the third instalment in the Magnus Chase series based on Norse mythology, in which Magnus and his friends must defeat Loki in order to prevent Ragnarok. This series is longer and raises some more complex issues that Percy Jackson, and as such I think it is intended for a slightly older child or as the next level up for those die-hard Percy Jackson fans. I read this one aloud to the kids, it’s a very long book with some extremely hard-to-pronounce Norse vocabulary, but as always it is a hilarious, action-packed adventure. (Our favourite part is always the chapter headings.) The story of Percy Jackson began as a way for Rick Riordan to give his son a dyslexic, ADHD character role model, and Rick continues this tradition of inclusivity in the Magnus Chase series. What is particularly great in this series, is that the inclusive characters are not token figureheads – they are very deliberately and purposefully used. No one ever forgets to speak to Hearthstone in sign language, however awkward that is to the scene, Alex Fierro, Magnus’s crush is gender-fluid, and Magnus always has to be aware which pronouns to use, and of course Muslim Valkyrie Samira has to pray, wear her hijab and fast for Ramadan – in between saving the world.
Aru Shah and the End of Time (Pandava Quintet #1) by Roshani Chokshi
I also love the fact that Rick Riordan uses his platform to support other writers through his Rick Riordan Presents series. Which brings us to Aru Shah. Aru Shah and the End of Time features two kickass protagonists, Aru and Mini, a disgruntled pigeon, and huge cast of gods and monsters who help and hinder Aru and Mini in their quest to stop the sinister Sleeper. This is a funny, fast-paced adventure story based on Hindu Mythology, perfect for fans of Rick Riordan as it follows the same kind of pattern. I read this one aloud to the kids too and we thoroughly enjoyed it. A second book in this series, Aru Shah and the Song of Death, was published this year and I’m looking forward to reading it.
Books for Teens:
It’s hard to draw a definitive boundary but the following books are more suited to a secondary-school audience…
Orphan, Monster, Spy (Orphan Monster Spy #1) by Matt Killeen
This is my favourite teen book of the year. Sarah is a Jewish girl living in Nazi Germany, her mother sacrificed everything to get her out of the country – but instead of running away Sarah fights back against the regime by becoming a spy and going undercover in an elite Nazi boarding school. A thoroughly gripping WW2-based spy thriller, with a super-smart, fiercely brave protagonist – I couldn’t put it down. The sequel, Devil, Darling, Spy is due out in 2020.
Deeplight by Frances Hardinge
Thirty years ago the gods of the Undersea destroyed each other and now the islanders of the Myriad live on stories of the gods and scavenge ‘godware’ – relics brought up from the seabed. When Hark and his friend Jelt find a relic that seems to have healing powers they are inadvertently sucked into an adventure that endangers their lives and the future of the Myriad. As always, Frances Hardinge’s fantasy world is brimming with life and her characters, delightfully and authentically flawed. Hark and Jelt’s dysfunctional relationship is particularly poignant, as is the inclusion of the ‘sea-kissed’ characters – divers who have lost their hearing due to accidents at sea. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this story – brilliantly done.
Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus
A thoroughly engrossing teen murder mystery, perfect for fans of Veronica Mars and Pretty Little Liars. (In fact I imagined the whole story with a geographically-inaccurate grimy, sun-bleached style and a cynical, wisecracking teen-PI narrator.) Twins, Ellery and Ezra are sent to live with their grandmother in Echo Falls when their mother is checked into rehab, but it’s a town with a dark history. Five years earlier the homecoming queen was murdered and her body dumped in ‘Murderland’ – the local horror-based theme park. And there’s a dark event in Ellery and Ezra’s own family history too. The action starts up immediately – there’s a hit-and-run on the night they arrive in town, soon someone starts posting anonymous threats aimed at the next homecoming queen, and when a girl disappears it starts to look like history will repeat itself. True-crime obsessed Ellery must team up with Malcolm, brother of the prime suspect from the previous case, to unravel the mystery. I enjoyed One of Us if Lying but I found this book to be more atmospheric and more unpredictable – I loved it and couldn’t put it down.
The Vanishing Stair (Truly Devious #2) by Maureen Johnson
Thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in this series. True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is accepted into the prestigious Ellingham Academy, scene of a notorious unsolved case from the 1930s. Stevie is determined to solve the cold case but there’s a mystery afoot in the present as well. Book 1 ends with a murder and a fiendish cliffhanger so I downloaded book 2 immediately. Stevie has been pulled out of school, for her own safety, but she’ll do anything to get back there to be with her friends and continue her investigation. The final book in the trilogy is due out in January 2020.
Jemima Small Versus the Universe by Tamsin Winter
From the award-winning author of Being Miss Nobody, Jemima Small Versus the Universe is a wonderfully life-affirming story about learning to love yourself. Jemima Small just wants to be like other girls. She hates being forced to join the school health group, AKA Fat Club, and that she can’t apply for her favourite TV show without worrying everyone will laugh at her. But perhaps Jemima can do more than just stand out, perhaps it’s her time to shine. A funny, moving story about bullying, body confidence and learning how to be happy with who you are. All hail the new Judy Blume!
The Gifted, the Talented and Me by William Sutcliffe
When Sam’s family come into some money unexpectedly, they move from Stevenage to Hampstead in London, and Sam and his brother and sister are enrolled in a special arts school for the gifted and talented. This suits Sam’s siblings just fine but Sam doesn’t feel particularly gifted or talented, he just wants to be normal, play football and hang out with his mates. But football is taboo at his new school. Sam is a wonderfully relatable character and there are some great laugh-out-loud moments, I thoroughly enjoyed this story of trying to fit in when fitting in means standing out.
The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
An evocative, gothic story of the Brides of Dracula. Lil and her twin sister Kizzy are travellers who are captured and enslaved by a local Boyar but this is just the beginning of their journey. Will Lil and Kizzy have the courage to do what it takes to survive. This is no Twilight, it is a lyrical, beautifully imagined alternative version of a classic story, perfect for anyone who loved Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks. Highly recommended.
Heartstopper: Volume Two (Heartstopper #2) by Alice Oseman
Based on a popular webcomic series, Heartstopper is an LGBTQ+ graphic novel and this is the second volume in the series. Charlie has had a rough year, he came out and was bullied but he has good friends and he hopes that things might be looking up. When he meets Nick he starts falling for him, but he’s sure Nick is straight and that he won’t have a chance. But love works in surprising ways, and sometimes good things are waiting just around the corner. Heartstopper is about friendship, loyalty and mental illness. This is a very sweet, heartwarming story, perfect for fans of Love, Simon.
On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
I’m sure you will have heard of Angie Thomas’ breakout hit The Hate U Give. On the Come Up is her second novel, it is not a sequel but is set in the same neighbourhood as her first book. Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be a rapper to fulfil her father’s legacy, but also to save her family from poverty. The Hate U Give was always going to be a tough act to follow but Angie Thomas has risen to the challenge – On the Come Up has many of the same elements that made THUG so successful but it surpasses it in depth and nuance. Bri is a grittier, more complex character than Starr and her compelling rap lyrics add an extra layer. It’s also a thoroughly gripping story. I loved it and was privileged to hear Angie Thomas perform Bri’s battle rap at the Southbank Centre earlier this year.