Heroic siblings, coastal wonders and monster poems by various authors – children’s book reviews -

Meet two siblings on a mission to save their homeland, enjoy an exciting trip around the coastlines of the world, discover gods and monsters in a sparkling new anthology of mythological poems, share lots of laughs on a final ascent into a multi-storeyed treehouse and marvel at some of the weirdest and most wonderful creatures on Planet Earth in a super September selection of children’s books.
The Secret of the Blood-Red Key by David FarrThe Secret of the Blood-Red Key by David Farr
The Secret of the Blood-Red Key by David Farr

Age 9 plus:

The Secret of the Blood-Red Key

David Farr

Inspired by his own family history which saw his Jewish grandparents escape Germany for England,, David Farr, one of the UK’s leading screenwriters and a film and theatre director, plays a blinder with his second breathtaking children’s book set in Krasnia, a sinister dictatorship where children are banned from playing in public and only allowed outdoors for exercise and education.

In this dazzling follow-up to the phenomenal The Book of Stolen Dreams, this master storyteller whisks us back into the lives of sister and brother Rachel and Robert Klein who have defeated the tyrant Malstain and become the heroes of Krasnia, but all is not how it should be. Robert is swept away with his new friends, leaving Rachel alone to take care of her ailing father who is lost without their beloved mother. From nowhere, a boy appears knowing the secrets of the hidden blood-red key that Rachel received in the public library of Brava at the end of their last adventure. She soon discovers that the key is a way into the Hinterland – the land of the dead – and Rachel must promise that, as a new key keeper, she will answer when it calls. And when a young girl, Elsa Spiegel, is illegally smuggled into the Hinterland, Rachel has no choice but to use her key to save Elsa. But her fate is linked to Krasnia, and Rachel must battle to save her home as she knows it.

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Once again, Farr brings us a fantastically imagined cast of characters – including two brave lead players, an eccentric family of artist ghosts and a pair of sinister siblings – and all set against a rich, gripping and timeless backdrop.

With darkness, danger and mystery at every turn, and a dazzling silver-foiled cover, this exhilarating, page-turning story is guaranteed to send a thrill down the spine of all adventure-loving youngsters.

(Usborne, hardback, £12.99)

Age 11 plus:

Prey Zone: The Serpents Lair

Wilbur Smith, Keith Chapman and Steve Cole

A killer threat, an ancient evil and a lethal adversary! Welcome to the electrifying sequel to Wilbur Smith’s Prey Zone series for the next generation... thrilling adventures starring teen protagonists Ralph and Robyn Ballantyne who live at Crocodile Lodge, their family ranch in South Africa, where they help with wildlife and conservation. But now Ralph and Robyn are on the run from the nefarious hunting enthusiast Josef Gerhard in the wild Lebombo Mountains. His beastly man-made predasaurs have unleashed a deadly virus and only the Ballantynes have the evidence to prove it. They need to regroup and plan their next move if they want to stop him before it’s too late and find a cure for the virus. But deep in the forest, dangers lurk... poachers are circling, and Gerhard has a brand-new creation he wants to show off, if he can lure the Ballantynes to its lair. Can they outrun him in time to expose his monstrous crimes? And more importantly will they make it out of the serpent’s lair alive? Smith, the undisputed Master of Adventure, died in 2021 at the age of 88, but left behind an incredible raft of thrilling action novels, and with the help of some talented co-writers, like Keith Chapman and Steve Cole, Smith’s golden legacy lives on. So prepare for predasaurs, betrayals, thrills, spills and action with an unmissable Wilbur Smith flavour!

(Hot Key Books, paperback, £7.99)

Age 8 plus:

By the Sea: Life Along the Coast

Judith Homoki and Martin Haake

Climb aboard and take an exciting and revealing trip around the coastlines of the world!

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Brimming with illustrations and fascinating information, this coast-to-coast journey through time and across continents introduces young readers to the historical and cultural importance of the world’s seashores.

Coasts have always been the starting point of discovery, whether by explorers searching for new lands or children sifting through the sand for beautiful shells. This trip around the world’s oceans provides hours of fun and learning in a series of highly detailed double-page spreads that look at every aspect of critical coastal habitats, including the ebb and flow of tides, life in a coastal settlement, artistic depictions of seashores, native animals and plants, the whaling industry, tourism, and climate change.

Sail away from the shores of the North Sea to Waikiki, from Brighton to the Barrier Reef, and from the time the first continents came into being to the big port cities of today. On the way, meet legendary pirates, mythical sea creatures, sailors on shore, and the wild animals of the Brazilian rainforest. Then cross the Atlantic on a steamboat, visit fisheries in Dakar, and stroll across the beaches of the French Riviera.

By the Sea also provides a 21st century corrective to Western-centric narratives about exploration and colonialism and interspersed throughout are meticulously detailed maps of the world’s largest oceans highlighting historic events, figures and scientific facts.

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As fun as it is informative, this vibrant book takes youngsters on a trip around the globe whilst fostering an important feeling of connection between their lives and the world’s coastlines.

(Prestel Junior, hardback, £19.99)

Age 7 plus:

Wheels: The Big Fun Book of Vehicles

Tom Schamp

No one knows exactly who invented the wheel... but in the inventive hands of illustrator Tom Schamp young readers will have great fun learning about all the ways that wheels have rolled through history.

Let animal pals, Otto and Brutus, and their friends take you on a thrilling journey through all kinds of vehicles from the historic Trojan Horse and the renowned Harley Davidson motorbike to the once indispensable stagecoach, groundbreaking steam train, famous double-decker bus, and the action lover’s skateboard.

From prehistoric carts to cars of tomorrow, this big, fact-packed book guides youngsters through a world where everything has wheels, whether that’s the simple Vespa scooter or the super-fast Ferrari. Discover why racing cars have spoilers, which bicycle race has a leader who wears a pink jersey, which van was made famous by surfers in California, what different countries’ emergency vehicles look like... and find buses of every imaginable dimension and weight.

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Every spread of this entertaining and educational book is filled with Schamp’s quirky and colourful artwork. His sly, subtle texts will make adults smile while younger readers will return again and again to these playful and crowded pages in which each viewing reveals charming new details that are as absurdly funny as they are educationally rewarding.

So if the engines of your mind are already racing, go full speed ahead on the road to a whole wonderful world of vehicles!

(Prestel Publishing, hardback, £18.99)

Age 7 plus:

Gods and Monsters – Mythological Poems

Ana Sampson and Chris Riddell

Words and pictures combine in memorable lyrical harmony as bestselling anthologist Ana Sampson and renowned illustrator Chris Riddell work their magic on an exquisite pantheon of verse from around the world. Poetry and mythology fans will adore this stunning collection with its rich array of poetry from across the ages, all brought to life by Riddell’s luminous, black and white line illustrations, and with an introduction by writer and classicist Natalie Haynes. People all over the world have always told each other stories from the very earliest times, and many of these stories were told in verse. This breathtaking anthology includes the retellings and reimaginings of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Norse, Celtic, Aztec, Japanese and Inuit mythology. And as you read through the pages, you will meet gods, monsters, tricksters, heroes, magical creatures and objects, and magicians and spirits including Medusa, Icarus, Loki, Osiris, the Minotaur, Pegasus, Bunyip, Kukulcan, Cerberus, Beowolf and Mjolnir. Gods and Monsters includes poems from Neil Gaiman, W B Yeats, Kae Tempest, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, Benjamin Zephaniah, Joseph Coelho, and Siegfried Sassoon, and Sampson also provides intriguing footnotes to shine a light on the stories themselves. A beautifully created gift book for readers of every age!

(Macmillan Children’s Books, hardback, £14.99)

Age 7 plus:

The 169-Storey Treehouse: Monkeys, Mirrors, Mayhem!

Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton

There are lots of laughs at every level in the 169-Storey Treehouse, the last hilarious, all-action book in the worldwide bestselling Treehouse series by author Andy Griffiths and illustrator Terry Denton.

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Yes, the ‘wizards of Oz’ are back with their incredible, ever-expanding treehouse and this time the incredible 169 storeys mark the final chapter of a larger-than-life series!

For over twelve years, and across ten million or more readers, the Australian team of Griffiths and Denton have turned their zany adventure stories, featuring two young would-be publishing sensations (unsurprisingly called Andy and Terry!), into a real-life reading phenomenon. The success of the Treehouse series just grew and grew, and the amazing creators are climbing higher than ever in their last wild and wacky, highly illustrated, laugh-out-loud book which comes packed with hilarious antics, jokes and cartoons.

And the 169-Storey Treehouse proves to be their biggest and most astonishing treehouse yet! It has everything they – and you – could wish for, including an electric pony stable, a NOISY level, a weather dome (where you can have whatever weather you want whenever you want it), and a 100% edible gingerbread house and a potato-powered translation transmitter that allows you to talk to everything everywhere all at the same time. There’s also a hall of funhouse mirrors, which is the perfect place to hide from Mr Bunkoff who is trying to catch Andy, Terry and Jill in order to send them to school. But Anti-Andy, Terrible Terry and Junkyard Jill, their trouble-making opposites, are trapped in one of the mirrors... and they want out. (Oh, and Mr Big Nose wants them to write their book... right now!) Can our heroes escape school, defeat their doppelgängers AND meet their book deadline? Well, what are you waiting for? Come on up and see for yourself!

Easy-to-read, visually exciting and wonderfully entertaining, the pace is fast and the fun never stops. Climb each level in fits of laughter in this glittering, gold-foiled hardback edition and then take a trip back in time and introduce another generation of reluctant readers to a series that will have them begging for more!

(Macmillan Children’s Books, hardback, £12.99)

Age 9 plus:

Maggie Blue and the White Crow

Anna Goodall

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Finding light in a dark world has never been more relevant than it is today and the second book in Anna Goodall’s coruscating middle-grade Maggie Blue trilogy burns brightly for readers young and old.

Inspired by her interest in animals (including talking ones!), other worlds, families and friendship, Goodall’s thrilling, thought-provoking debut series stars a troubled 12-year-old girl thrust into terrifying adventures and discovering the power of friendship, courage and simply being yourself.

Maggie and her beloved, grumpy talking cat companion Hoagy are trying to adjust to a quieter life after the terrors she has encountered in a world she never knew existed. She is once again living with her eccentric aunt Esme and hanging out with friends Ida and Will. Maggie wants to forget about the events of the previous year but the Dark World won’t let them go. Maggie is being watched and one day a small white bird appears. Where has the white crow come from, and why won’t it leave Maggie alone? Little does she know yet that the Dark World has been waiting for her to return... and when her mum Cynthia is kidnapped and taken there, Maggie has no choice but to go back. With the help of Hoagy and some new friends by her side, Maggie must go back to the place that she never wished to see again if she is ever to see her mum... or regain control of her own life. With her sarcastic cat Hoagy by her side, Maggie’s fantastical adventures cannot fail to entertain.

Maggie’s connection to the sinister Dark World lies at the pulsating heart of Goodall’s bizarre and magical adventures...all the action and danger is rooted in the darkness and buried secrets that simmer inside her.

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Tingling with a tangible current of emotion, and with a thrill-a-minute story that follows the lost and melancholic Maggie’s adventure in the chilling, mercenary Dark World, Goodall cleverly explores themes of identity and mental health with a deft and sensitive touch.

Add on the leavening wit and sarcasm of one-eyed Hoagy, and a stunning cover illustration by Sandra Dieckmann, and you have the perfect package for every child that craves an all-round, cracking adventure story!

(Guppy Books, paperback, £7.99)

Age 9 plus:


SF Said and Dave McKean

‘There are three doors that I may show you. You will find a different kind of power behind each one...’ Author SF Said, whose debut novel, Varjak Paw won the Nestlé Smarties Prize, immerses young readers in a strange, alternate world in a thrilling new novel starring a mysterious and mythical animal. Adam has found something incredible in a rubbish dump in London. It’s a creature called a tyger but however magical it is, the animal is in danger, and Adam and his friend Zadie are determined to help. But it isn’t just the tyger's life at stake... their whole world is on the verge of destruction. Can they learn to use their powers before it’s too late? Said’s atmospheric and cautionary tale opens up a gateway to an extraordinary other world and the canvas for a thrilling eco-themed adventure. Fabulously illustrated by artist, photographer, filmmaker and musician Dave McKean, and with a beautiful, gold-foiled cover under the dust jacket, Tyger is a dazzling adventure which inspires and instils hope in its realisation of the sparks and hidden powers that lie within us all. The secret of seeing this hidden power, and learning how to use it, is itself the machine that powers this wonderful story.

(David Fickling Books, paperback, £7.99)

Age 7 plus:

Dreamweavers: Night of the Scary Fairies

Annabelle Sami and Forrest Burdett

Are you looking for a dream read? Well, look no further than this fun, fresh and exciting new series from writer and performer Annabelle Sami, and American illustrator Forrest Burdett. Dreamweavers introduces young adventure fans to the ultimate Dream Team! When Tito becomes friends with the mysterious new girl at school, Neena, she introduces him to the world of Dreamweaving. Soon Tito and Neena are going on adventures every night, exploring dreams where quirky creatures called jinn roam. And when their classmates start acting strangely... it’s like their personalities have swapped! Tito and Neena soon realise that someone else is Dreamweaving too but using it to cause chaos. Can the pair stop them before the dream world takes over the waking world? Sami’s magical story features excitement all the way while Burdett brings the action to life with his enchanting illustrations. Dreaming is believing!

(Little Tiger Press, paperback, £6.99)

Age 5 plus:

Ben Rothery’s Weird and Wonderful Animals

Ben Rothery

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Discover some of the weirdest and most wonderful creatures on Planet Earth, and marvel at an award-winning illustrator who can make his artwork look like photography!

In this curated collection of bizarre and beautiful creatures, Rothery pairs fascinating facts with his stunning illustrations to bring youngsters the most incredible creatures in the animal kingdom.

Our planet is home to more than one million species of animals. All of these creatures have peculiar adaptations and strange behaviours, but what does it take to be ranked among the weirdest and most wonderful of them all? From the bearded vulture, which is the only animal on the planet whose diet consists exclusively of bones, to the microscopic tardigrade that can survive for up to 30 years without food or water, this book focuses on our planet’s most bizarre and extraordinary beasts.

Meet an African savanna elephant whose long tusks grow constantly throughout its life and discover how it uses them to fight and dig for food, marvel at the great hornbill with its large beak and a bright yellow-and-black casque (horn) on top of it which males use to butt each other in flight, like charging rams. And say hello to the small, termite-eating Draco lizard of South East Asia and southern India whose elongated ribs, separated by folds of skin, act like wings, allowing it to glide for up to 60 metres between branches, using its tail to steer.

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Filled with Rothery’s jaw-dropping artwork – achieved by combining multiple processes to create intricate and delicate illustrations and repeating patterns – this is the perfect book to share with a parent, or to read alone and enjoy all the fun and informative facts.

(Ladybird Books, hardback, £14.99)

Age 5 plus:

Peanut, Butter, & Crackers: Doggy School

Paige Braddock

Welcome back to the cute and cuddly pet series that puts animals, nature and fun in the spotlight! Author and illustrator Paige Braddock showcases pets – and particularly rescue pets – in these adorable books which are the ideal first introduction to the world of graphic novels, and are perfect for youngsters who wonder what their pets might be up to when no one is around! So say hello to rescue pets Peanut (a very excited puppy with floppy ears), Butter (a laid-back cat) and Crackers (a slightly nervous dog). With an owner who goes to work every day, they spend their days doing whatever they want but in their third hilarious adventure, Peanut and Crackers are off to doggy school (Butter doesn’t need school because cats are already smart!) However, when the two dogs are separated, Peanut is left to fend for himself against canine bullies. Determined to help him, Butter sneaks in to doggy school and sets off a cat commotion! Can Peanut, Butter and Crackers find a way to make doggy school cool again? Animal-loving children cannot help but fall for Braddock’s exciting and heartwarming visual storytelling which encourages respect for animals and nature, and gently confronts some familiar childhood worries and fears. And with lots of delightful bonus extras, including how to draw, behind the scenes and a short story, there is so much here to enjoy!

(Nosy Crow, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

The Littlest Yak: Home Is Where the Herd Is

Lu Fraser and Kate Hindley

Moving mountains to pastures new poses some BIG problems for Gertie, the littlest yak, in the huggable and lovable new picture book from exciting author Lu Fraser and Kate Hindley, one of the nation’s most talented, contemporary illustrators.

Home Is Where the Herd Is is the follow up to the hugely successful The Littlest Yak and delivers another joyful, playful, rhyming caper starring pint-sized yak Gertie whose trials and tribulations always deliver heartwarming life lessons for little ones.

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In this adorable new adventure, Gertie and her family are moving mountains to pastures new and for the worried little yak that means squeezing all her belongings on to one sledge even though mum tells her that home is about so much more than her precious books, toys, pinecones and hats. And when someone very special to her gets left behind, Gertie finally comes to see that it doesn’t matter what she packs because nowhere is home without the people you love.

Fraser, who has a natural empathy with the fears of foibles of little ones, turns on the magic in this fun, warm and reassuring story about what really makes a home. Brought to colourful and vibrant life through Hindley’s gallery of richly detailed and emotive illustrations, there are plenty of big messages here for your own little readers!

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £7.99)

Age 3 plus:

Wolf and Bear

Kate Rolfe

We all have mood swings... but for a young child, these highs and lows can seem confusing and distressing. So help your little ones understand and express their feelings when they feel low and depressed with exciting debut author and illustrator Kate Rolfe’s wise and heartfelt story about a playful young wolf and her best friend, Bear. The two best friends always play together, whether that’s paddling in the stream, skidding in the snow, or tumbling in the falling leaves. But sometimes Bear feels sad and just wants to be alone... can Wolf find a way to comfort Bear and lift her out of the shadow of loneliness and sadness which engulfs her? This beautiful tale of kindness, empathy and hope explores the topic of depression through gentle words and sensitive illustrations created using the unusual technique of cyanotype, a photographic process using sunlight, crayons and digital drawing to express emotions in the story. The result is a powerfully emotional and stunningly illustrated book which speaks resonantly to youngsters about feeling down, a topic which can often be difficult to discuss with very young children. A stunning debut from an impressive new talent.

(Two Hoots, hardback, £12.99)

Age 3 plus:

The Dodo Who Dreamed She Could Fly

Catherine Emmett and Claire Powell

Never give up on your high-flying dreams... however impossible they might appear to be! That’s the inspirational message that speaks loudly to youngsters in a funny and heartwarming picture book from the top team of award-winning author Catherine Emmett and bestselling illustrator Claire Powell. Delilah the dodo didn’t often talk about her dream in case the others laughed at how daft it might seem. For like all dodos, she knows that there had never been any dodos who can fly. But that doesn’t stop Delilah. She’s on a mission to be the first dodo to take flight... and she won’t let what any of the other dodos say stand in her way! With Emmett’s beautiful, rhyming story full of fun, flying dreams and perseverance, brought to colourful life by Powell’s stunning artwork, The Dodo Who Dreamed She Could Fly will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever dared to dream and teaches youngsters that incredible things CAN happen when you give something a try!

(Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, paperback, £7.99)

Age 3 plus:

Science Words for Little People: Space and Nature

Helen Mortimer and Cristina Trapanese

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You can rely on Oxford University Press to engage and entertain youngsters with brilliant books like this Words for Little People series which makes learning both friendly and inspirational. Science Words for Little People is aims to build children’s confidence with vocabulary and ideas around various topics, and provide a foundation for learning in a way that feels good. Written by Helen Mortimer and illustrated by Cristina Trapanese, the same winning team that brought us Big Words for Little People, the books are special not just because they focus on science subjects in a child-friendly way, but because the Oxford book boffins pack them with educational goodness that helps children develop and grow. In Space, we have lift off with questions like would you like to go into space and do you know why it gets dark outside? This is the ideal way to begin to explore vocabulary about space, the sun, stars, telescopes, bowl-shaped craters, star sailors, planets, and space missions. Perfect for sharing with adults, there is something wonderful to discover and learn about space on every page. And in Nature, little ones can explore where bees live and how plants grow. Filled with colour, animals, plants and habitats, the book shows just how much nature there is to be found all around us and is specially designed to introduce children to the world of science vocabulary, giving them key words to talk about the natural world they live in. Published in sturdy hardback, packed with fun characters, engaging questions and activities, and Trapanese’s playful artwork, the books are the perfect size and shape for reading together whilst exploring and enjoying the different concepts of science.

(Oxford University Press, hardback, £5.99 each)

Age 2 plus:

Paws, Claws, Tails, & Roars: Brian Wildsmith’s Animal Kingdom

Lose yourself in the arresting colour, form and timeless beauty of Brian Wildsmith’s artwork in this stunning gift book which has been teamed up with a lyrical new text. Wildsmith, who died aged 86 in 2016, published over seventy books with Oxford University Press, and earned a worldwide reputation as one of the greatest children’s illustrators. This lavishly produced book – with its foiled cover and gilt-edged pages – shows off Wildsmith’s breathtaking animal illustrations through images digitally remastered by his son, Simon Wildsmith. Each illustration is so richly detailed and evocative that readers, young and old, will want to pause a while and linger over the glorious wild animals, birds, and fishes that fill the pages. With a foreword by author Michael Rosen, this enchanting book will be loved by readers who are already fans of Wildmsith... and a whole new generation of children.

(Oxford University Press, hardback, £20)

Age 2 plus:

A Bad Day for Bear

Duncan Beedie

We all have bad days but how do you cope with life’s ups and downs when you’re a bear with a sore head? Duncan Beedie, the creative author and illustrator whose delightful picture book, The Bear who Stared, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, returns to win ours hearts again with his lovable bear. In this fun and inspirational new adventure, Bear is in charge of the camp fire for the forest party. But as he sets out to collect wood, all sorts of BAD things happen... he gets a splinter in his paw, a big bump on his head and falls into a huge muddy puddle. And to make matters worse, the logs Beaver gives him are now soaking wet! How is Bear EVER going to make the camp fire? It’s a good job Bear’s friend Frog is there to show him that things are never as bad as they seem. Beedie’s playful but educational story, with its big, beautiful illustrations, teaches important lessons about finding power in kindness and comfort in friendship even on the worst of days. Every cloud has a silver lining... even for a bear!

(Templar, paperback, £7.99)

Age one plus:

Noisy Babies (My First Touch and Feel Sound Book)

Lauren Crisp

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Here’s a gorgeous touch-and-feel sound book that will chime with babies... and their parents! Enjoy watching little faces light up when they press the sounds button on every page in this interactive, chunky board book, packed with appealing photographs, tactile textures and the sounds of a baby’s day. Tickle the baby to hear a giggle, tap the drum to hear a rat-a-tat-tat, push the duck to hear it quack, rub the bib to hear a baby say ‘Mmm!’ and touch the mobile to make it chime. And, to add more fun, baby can press the final button to hear all the day’s sounds again! Perfectly created to improve hand-eye co-ordination with exploration of each texture, encourage speech, and inspire a love of reading by sharing and enjoying a book with your little one, this is ideal for helping your child to observe and explore the world around them.

(Little Tiger Press, board book, £14.99)