Book review: A wonderful world of reading with Macmillan Children’s Books

Stories featuring life past and present take centre stage in an exciting new round-up of children’s books from Macmillan.

By Pam Norfolk
Wednesday, 28th May 2014, 10:00 am
A wonderful world of reading with Macmillan Childrens Books
A wonderful world of reading with Macmillan Childrens Books

The 150-year-old publishers, who pride themselves on producing award-winning children’s books to suit all ages, have some sunshine sparklers in their spring and summer reading selection.

Top teen author Frances Hardinge whisks us back to the dark days after the First World War, four young women discover the glamour and grit of 1960s New York and an Ethiopian boy dreams of becoming a world-class athlete.


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Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

‘All was perhaps. Nothing was certain. And that, that was wonderful…’

Sometimes it’s best to begin at the end… the final words of Frances Hardinge’s masterly new novel provide the perfect summary to a magical, mysterious tale of a world in the aftermath of war and a family in crisis.

Hardinge’s beautiful, breathtaking teenage novels have a huge following and it’s easy to see why. Cuckoo Song is an ambitious and powerful story which blends dark elements of fairy tale with dangerous suspense, the sorrows of wartime and a haunting mystery.

‘The first things to shift were the doll’s eyes, the beautiful grey-green glass eyes. Slowly they swivelled, until their gaze was resting on Triss’s face. Then the tiny mouth moved, opened to speak. “What are you doing here?” It was uttered in tones of outrage and surprise, and in a voice as cold and musical as the clinking of cups. “Who do you think you are? This is my family”.’

It’s 1923 and the Crescent family is still struggling to come to terms with the devastating effects of the First World War but when 11-year-old Triss wakes up after an accident, she knows that something is terribly wrong.

She is insatiably hungry, her sister Pen seems scared of her, her dolls make threats to her, she cries cobweb tears and her parents whisper behind closed doors. She looks through her diary to try to remember what happened to her, but the pages have been ripped out.

Soon Triss discovers that what happened to her is more strange and terrible than she could ever have imagined, and that she is quite literally not herself. In a quest find the truth she must travel into the terrifying underbelly of the city to meet a twisted architect who has dark designs on her family… before it’s too late.

Cuckoo Song is a superb achievement, an intriguing, psychologically gripping exploration of family relationships, the impact of a new age and the fall-out from secrecy, lies and repressed emotions.

With its creepy undertones, authentic backdrop and arresting storyline, Cuckoo Song is the ideal book to get teenagers reading … and thinking.

(Macmillan, paperback, £7.99)

Gloss: Summer Scandal by Marilyn Kaye

Were the Swinging Sixties as good as they are cracked up to be?

Teenage girls will love getting a taste of an exciting bygone era in the second book of this vibrant and romantic teen series which sees four girls living out their wildest dreams of romance, secrets and glamour in 1960s New York where fashion, music and attitudes are rapidly changing.

It’s the summer of 1964 and the four Gloss magazine interns, Sherry, Donna, Allison and Pamela, are reunited and ready to step back into the glamorous and fast-paced world of fashion, celebrity, music and dating in the Big Apple.

Sherry is working at Gloss when she gets involved in the civil rights movement and finds herself falling in love with someone she never expected to, Donna is caught up in the world of high fashion and Upper East Side rich kids, Pamela is desperate to become an actress, no matter what it takes, and Allison is finding out that going steady with a teen heart-throb isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

New jobs and new relationships mean new adventures but in the big city you never know what is round the corner. Soon they all start to realise that life in New York might not be quite what they had hoped and that following your heart sometimes means that you can’t follow your dreams…

A new generation of feminists will have their eyes opened to what seems like a parallel universe as Marilyn Kaye takes them back to an age of thwarted ambition and rampant chauvinism in the male-dominated world of publishing. Thrills and spills, romance and glitz are played out alongside the realities of life and love in the Sixties.

(Macmillan, paperback, £6.99)

Age 11 plus:

Smart by Kim Slater

Debut novels don’t come much smarter than Smart, Kim Slater’s contemporary tale of a boy battling bullying, prejudice, fear… and crime.

Kieran Woods from Nottingham lives with his mum, stepdad Tony and step brother Ryan and his home life is far from happy. Ryan and Tony are bullies, his mother is cowed by their presence and his beloved Grandma doesn’t come to stay with them any more.

The world outside home isn’t much better. All around him he sees people ‘with cracked hearts’ and eyes that look sad when you look at them closely.

Now he has found a man dead in the river. His name was Colin Kirk. ‘He was a homeless man, but he still wanted to live.’ Kieran and his friend Jean are convinced he was murdered but the police don’t care, saying he was only a homeless old man after all. But Kieran cares and he’s going to find out what really happened.

He made a promise and when you say something out loud, that means you’re going to do it. He’s going to find out what really happened not just to Colin but to his Grandma who suddenly stopped coming round one day.

It’s a good job that Kieran is a master of observation and knows all the detective tricks of the trade but being a detective is difficult when you’re Kieran, amazing at drawing but terrible at fitting in.

And when there are dangerous secrets everywhere, not just outside but under your own roof, being able to ‘think like Albert Einstein’ might not be enough…

Beautifully observed, and written straight from a child’s mind and heart, Smart is an evocative, compelling story from a new and talented author.

(Macmillan, hardback, £8.99)

Age 9 plus:

Brilliant by Roddy Doyle

Always expect the unexpected from best-selling Irish writer Roddy Doyle…

Much of his work is set in his home city of Dublin and explores the lives of ordinary Irish people and the challenges they often face in everyday life.

Here he tackles the emotive topic of depression, turning this dark illness, nicknamed ‘Black Dog’ by Winston Churchill who was a sufferer, into a magical adventure story for children.

When Uncle Ben’s Dublin business fails, it’s clear to Gloria and Raymond Kelly that something is wrong. He just isn’t his usual cheerful self. So when the children overhear their granny saying that the Black Dog has settled on Ben’s back and he won’t be OK until it’s gone, they decide they’re going to get rid of it.

Gathering all their courage, the children set out on a midnight quest to hunt down the Black Dog and chase it away. But they aren’t the only kids on the mission. Loads of other children are searching for it too because the Black Dog is hounding lots of Dublin’s adults.

With the help of a collection of strange animals, birds and rodents, some from Dublin’s zoo, the children manage to corner the Black Dog…but will they have the courage and guile to destroy the frightening creature?

A quirky, clever story which uncovers the debilitation and angst of depression whilst delivering a delightful, heartwarming adventure story.

(Macmillan, hardback, £10.99)

Age 7 plus:

The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird

How can you not lose your heart to Solomon from Ethiopia, an enchanting boy who thinks he’s about eleven years old and lives in a one-roomed house deep in the African countryside?

Solomon doesn’t have many material possessions but in his dreams he’s always running. ‘My feet fly over the ground and I’m sure that if I could just go a little bit faster I’d take off and fly like an eagle.’

The Fastest Boy in the World, inspired by the 2012 London Olympics, is an affectionate and life-affirming story from award-winning British author Elizabeth Laird, known for her folk tales collected from the regions of Ethiopia.

In spite of his ragged shorts and bare feet, Solomon dreams that one day he will be a gold-medal-winning runner like the great athletes of the Ethiopian national team who are his heroes. When his grandfather announces that he is going to take Solomon to Addis Ababa, Solomon cannot believe his ears. A trip to the capital? It all seems unbelievable.

Solomon’s joy is complete when he learns that the Ethiopian running team will be doing a victory parade through the city that day. He may even get a glimpse of Haile Gebrselassie or Derartu Tulu. But Solomon’s grandfather has other plans. As Solomon follows him through the big, overwhelming streets, he learns something he cannot believe. The strict old man is a war hero who once risked his life to save a friend and has been in hiding ever since.

When grandfather collapses, Solomon knows that getting help from his village is up to him. It’s a 20-mile run from the city to home, and grandfather’s life hangs in the balance. Can the small bare-footed runner with the big heart do it?

An endearing, eye-opening story about a brave boy whose dream to succeed will resonate with young readers from every walk of life.

(Macmillan, paperback, £6.99)

Can You? by Rod Campbell

Rod Campbell, creator of the much-loved Dear Zoo books, has been a trusted name in early learning for over 30 years and he’s back with Can You?, part of an adorable new Early Starters series for toddlers.

Every book in the series supports the learning and discovery of a key theme and uses carefully selected novelty elements to encourage participation and fun. Can You? is a touch-and-feel book which invites active participation from babies and toddlers. By looking, touching and feeling, they can copy the actions of the baby and cat in the colourful pictures.

Youngsters can lift the towel and find baby, open the present and see what’s inside, look in the mirror, stroke the cat and peer through the window. Anything baby can do, they can do too!

The Early Starters series is the ideal way to teach little ones how to interact with the world around them, and an entertaining way to introduce them to the ‘feel’ of books and reading.

(Macmillan, hardback, £6.99)