Book review: An epic journey, dark fantasy and comedy capers

The real-life story of an extraordinary elephant, a battle to save the Earth and an ingenious pop-up book take starring roles in a new collection of children's books.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 24th February 2017, 4:44 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st March 2017, 9:08 am
The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr
The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr

Age 9 plus:

The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr

One hundred and forty five years ago, an elephant called Maharajah famously walked over 200 miles from Edinburgh to Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoo in just ten days.

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It was an epic journey that caught the imagination of the country and even Queen Victoria herself eagerly followed the elephant’s progress as he trekked to his new home in the heart of the north-west city.

Maharajah, who had been part of a travelling circus before being sold at auction in Edinburgh in 1872, went on to live at Belle Vue for ten years, dying at the age of 18, and his skeleton can still be seen by visitors to Manchester Museum where it takes pride of place.

And now Maharajah’s incredible story has been taken up with relish by BBC producer Jane Kerr, who lives in Manchester, in her thrilling, original and immensely moving debut novel The Elephant Thief, which blends fact and fiction into a compelling adventure.

In a glorious flight of imagination and invention, Kerr’s all-action historical odyssey stars a damaged young street boy forming a touching friendship with the elephant as they share the long and dangerous journey south… a boy who must overcome ruthless enemies and his troubled past if he is to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Young pickpocket Danny is mute… inside him there are an army of words but hard as he tries, they refuse to be heard. When the wily urchin is dispatched to an Edinburgh auction on a nefarious mission, he accidentally bids for Maharajah the elephant. Maharajah was part of a menagerie of zoological animals in a famous travelling circus whose owner has recently died.

Before he knows it, Danny is swept up on an unforgettable journey. Offered a job by a zoo owner, all he has to do is ride Maharajah from Edinburgh to Manchester in one week. His new employer transforms Danny into a bejewelled Indian prince and as he rides Maharajah from Scotland to his new home in England, the rich and famous, including Queen Victoria, take an interest in their journey. But a rival zookeeper has wagered on their failure, and soon Danny’s shady connections threaten to overturn the mission...

This beautifully written and intelligent middle grade novel is a classic tale of hope, a life-affirming and yet gripping adventure that will move, inform and entertain young readers as they join Danny and Maharajah on their amazing trek.

The plight of street children in the Victorian period is starkly portrayed in a story brimming with suspense, skulduggery and the transforming power of love, friendship and hope.

And with a thrilling final showdown in the famous courtroom at Lancaster Castle, this is a tale to savour right through to journey’s end…

(Chicken House, paperback, £6.99)

Age 9 plus:

The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone

Wild and wonderful… Abi Elphinstone makes a welcome return with the final book in her thrilling nature-inspired Dreamsnatcher trilogy.

Star of the show is 12-year-old Molly Pecksniff who, along with her wild cat Gryff, lives in an ancient forest in the northern wilderness, an exciting but scary place of witches, goblins, giants and fantastic adventures.

In a ruined monastery in the northern wilderness, a Shadowmask called Wormhook sits in front of a spinning wheel. He is spinning a quilt of darkness known as the Veil. A masked figure then carries the Veil across the lands, slipping it through the windows of children’s bedrooms to poison their minds...

Meanwhile, deep within Tanglefern Forest, Moll and Gryff are waiting for a sign from the Old Magic before they continue their quest to find the last Amulet of Truth and free their world from the Shadowmasks’ terrible magic. Still missing fellow Tribe member, Alfie, and armed only with a mysterious set of clues, Moll sets out on an adventure across the northern wilderness with Gryff and her friend Siddy at her side.

They must brave the Lost Isles, scale the Barbed Peaks and face witches, goblins and giants who lurk at every turn. And all the time, the Shadowmasks are drawing ever closer. Can Moll, Siddy and Gryff find the friend they think they have lost? And do the Tribe have what it takes to defeat the Dark magic once and for all?

Elphinstone’s own addictive spirit of adventure shines through in a stunning and atmospheric series that serves up all the essential ingredients of fabulous children’s stories… action, danger, dark magic, humour, mystery, lovable heroes and lots of make-you-want-to-boo baddies.

A gripping final chapter to a daring, breathtaking and memorable story…

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age 9 plus:

A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell

The experiences of real Syrian families are the inspiration behind a moving novel of bravery and solidarity, family and friendship from Irish author Jane Mitchell.

Mitchell, who has written several books for children and young people, works in disability provision in Ireland and travels widely, including a visit to the refugee camp in Calais where she researched extensively for A Dangerous Crossing.

The book, which has been endorsed by Amnesty International, brings to life for younger readers the terrible plight of ordinary families caught up in the Syrian conflict, informing them and encouraging sympathy and understanding.

Running with his cousin through the blown-out shops and bombed stalls of Kobani’s old souq, 13-year-old Syrian Ghalib Shenu feels invincible until the two of them are caught in a barrel-bomb explosion. Ghalib escapes serious injury but the city has become too dangerous, and his family has no choice but to flee.

They make their way through Syria to the Turkish border where Ghalib gets separated from his family. Stricken with grief and fear, fighting cold, pain and hunger, he manages to make it to a refugee camp in Turkey. Ghalib is safe for now, but life in a refugee camp is wretched and hopeless, and the boy’s journey in search of safety is far from over…

Based on true accounts and the testimonies of real Syrian children, A Dangerous Crossing is the emotional and revealing story of one boy’s search for refuge, his sorrow, his anger, his tears and his frustration as he is torn apart from his home, his family and all that he knows.

A difficult story handled with sensitivity and insight…

(Little Island Books, paperback, £7.99)

Age 8 plus:

Hamish and the Gravity Burp by Danny Wallace

The third brilliant adventure in Danny Wallace’s much-loved Hamish series dishes up the same irresistible mix of comedy, capers and chaos as our madcap hero sets out – once again – to save the Earth.

Filled with award-winning writer Danny Wallace’s trademark humour and imagination and Jamie Littler’s quirky and suitably anarchic illustrations, these pitch-perfect books are just the job for reluctant readers who like their stories to be funny, visually exciting and brimming with mischief.

When Hamish Ellerby arrives home to find his mum and his brother lying flat on their backs on the ceiling, he knows there’s something seriously wrong (again) in the town of Starkley. What is the strange burping noise he keeps hearing? Why are weird seeds suddenly falling from the sky? And should he be worried about the odd woman with a cone around her neck?

It seems gravity ‘has gone funny’ and Starkley, a once boring town, is in an absolute ding-dong yet again. All Hamish, his best friend Alice and the other members of his gang the PDF (Pause Defence Force) can be sure of is that an adventure is coming. And that means two things… you have to be prepared, and you have to prepare a sandwich!

Wallace and Littler are on top form as Hamish and the gang take us on a merry goose chase through their own inimitable brand of outrageous escapades in a funny fantasy series guaranteed to fire young imaginations… and make the whole family laugh!

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age: 8 plus

Violet and the Smugglers by Harriet Whitehorn

Some books are the complete package… an alluring, gold-foiled cover, irresistible illustrations and stories so funny, clever and appealing that they become instant favourites.

Harriet Whitehorn has certainly struck reading gold with the madcap adventures of Violet Remy-Robinson, a deliciously adorable 10-year-old Sherlock Holmes in the making who dares to venture where many would fear to tread.

The only child of wealthy eccentric parents, Violet’s intrepid sleuthing and her rich cast of friends, foes and family spring to glorious life through the amazing and unique two-colour illustrations of gifted up-and-coming artist Becka Moor.

And now Violet is on her third outrageous outing after solving the case of the stolen Pearl of the Orient and bravely preventing the bird-napping of the Maharajah’s cockatoo.

Uncle Johnny has invited Violet and her best friends Rose and Art to spend the summer with him on a sailing adventure around Europe and Violet couldn’t be more excited. But when she suspects that the captain of a boat nearby might be up to no good, Violet needs to put her detective skills into action. Could he be the head of a smuggling ring, or is he working for someone more dangerous? It’s up to Violet to solve the crime and catch the culprit!

Whitehorn certainly knows how to grab the attention of her young audience… a quirky ‘who’s who’ picture gallery, maps and an ‘extra-helpful’ word glossary help to make Violet’s all-action detective work an exciting and entertaining reading experience.

With their magical combination of subtle but child-accessible humour, sparkling adventures that will charm fun and mystery fans, and a gallery of lively illustrations, Violet and her exotic world are perfect escapist reading for all young adventurers.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age two plus:

I Love You (Nearly Always) by Anna Llenas

Pop-up books are always an open-and-shut success story, but here’s one that will have everyone’s eyes popping out!

Author, illustrator and paper engineer Anna Llenas takes the concept of pop-up to dizzy new heights in an ingenious and extraordinary new book that will keep little ones enthralled and entertained time after time after time.

Llenas’ remarkable paper engineering skills are a work of art, each page packed with colourful surprises, quirky collages, mesmerising, giant pop-ups and a deceptively simple message about difference, love and friendship.

Roly is a woodlouse and Rita is a firefly. They are very different, but this is why they like each other. Roly is a king of camouflage and Rita is the brightest light in the sky. Then, one day, Rita thinks Roly’s suit is too hard and Roly thinks Rita shines too brightly. All the things they used to like about each other have started to annoy. Suddenly being different seems very difficult…

Every page of Llenas’ amazing and warm-hearted book features wonderful pop-ups and hands-on surprises. Marvel as spectacular scenes make the night sky come to life, take us to the bottom of the ocean, send us soaring into the sky in a hot air balloon and on a blindfold journey through a real string of flags and other delights at the funfair.

A whole world of learning, discovery and entertainment in one ingenious pop-up book…

(Templar, hardback, £14.99)

Age 2 plus:

Some Birds by Matt Spink

Take flight with a brilliant book of bejewelled birds from a soaraway new talent in the world of picture books.

Matt Spink, an author and illustrator who likes nothing more than great design and doodling, celebrates the joys of freedom in a stunning and seductive picture story brimming with life, colour, humour… and the most amazing flock of charismatic birds you are ever likely to see.

Some birds are big, some birds are small and some are just incredibly tall... but what about all the others? Discover birds that swim, birds that hop, birds that squawk, birds that swoop. Swooping and squawking, flapping and fluttering, there are many different kinds of birds in the world, all with their own special traits and abilities, and most are free to fly.

A rollicking, rhyming text adds to all the fun and art lovers of every age will marvel at Spinks’ glorious multi-coloured bird illustrations created in a mosaic-like finish and brimming with freshness and vitality.

The perfect gift for your own little chicks!

(David Fickling Books, paperback, £6.99)