Shark calls, swan songs and a show penguin by various authors - book reviews -

The wonders of wildlife spring to glorious life in a super selection of children’s books that are perfect for half-term reading.

Wednesday, 17th February 2021, 12:30 pm
The Shark Caller
The Shark Caller

Age 9 plus:

The Shark Caller

Zillah Bethell

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Holidays might still be off limits but there’s no stopping youngsters setting sail for the far side of the world and an adventure in the shimmering seas of beautiful Papua New Guinea.

The Shark Caller is the fantastic middle-grade novel from Zillah Bethell who was born in the shadow of the volcano Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea and has used her amazing childhood experiences for a moving tale of friendship, forgiveness and bravery.

Bethell grew up without shoes, toys or technology and, as a result, spent a lot of time swimming in the sea and sailing in canoes, occasionally earning money by taking tourists gold-panning in the highlands of Wau and Bulolo.

Her family returned to the UK and this stunning adventure story – which vividly captures the sights, sounds and smells of island life and stars two girls struggling with grief, guilt, a culture clash and friendship issues – was written from her home in South Wales.

Blue Wing’s guardian Siringen is the village shark-caller but he will not let her follow in his footsteps. The skill of shark calling is rooted in tradition and should only be passed down from uncle to nephew.

Siringen also knows the reason for Blue Wing’s desperation to call sharks… to gain revenge on the shark that caused the death of her parents two years ago.

Blue Wing’s simple life is turned upside down with the arrival of two American tourists, Atlas Hamelin and his daughter Maple. Siringen is entrusted with accompanying Atlas, who wants to search for coral on the island while Blue Wing is left with Maple.

Maple is rude, obnoxious and is unimpressed with what the island has to offer and Blue Wing is full of resentment that the tourists are staying the home she used to live in with her parents.

But as the two girls learn more about each other they come to realise that they share much in common and together they might just be able to get what they both want from the island.

Set against a dazzling backdrop of forests, mountain, the bluest of blue seas and the deadliest of sharks, Bethell’s remarkable story is brimming with emotional angst and wisdom as traditions and cultures clash, and an unlikely friendship is forged despite mistrust and misunderstandings.

Along the way, Bethell explores some big themes like life, death, grief, acceptance and change, and the juxtaposition of island traditions and western influences, whilst celebrating the shark, one of the most feared creatures on our planet.

With a map of the location of the story, and a fascinating glossary of pidgin English terms used in the story, The Shark Caller is beautifully written, deeply immersive, and one of the most emotional and spellbinding adventures you will read this year.

(Usborne, paperback, £7.99)

Age 9 plus:

Vi Spy: Licence to Chill

Maz Evans

I spy with my little eye… a daring girl who might have to save the world!

Welcome back into the fertile imagination of Maz Evans, author of the bestselling Who Let the Gods Out? books, and a hilarious new adventure series which stars a pint-sized super spy and a supporting cast of characters who are going to win the hearts of readers young and old.

Valentine (Vi) Day’s mum, Easter Day, is an ex- spy… Vi knows that because, like all spies, her mum is rubbish at keeping it a secret. They now live in a backwater town called Norton-on-Sea Divorce, hopefully far away from evil.

But now Vi’s mum is planning to marry Vi’s teacher, George Sprout but if that was shock enough, her dad, Robert Ford, the man she was told had died years ago, turns up definitely not dead and definitely one of the world’s (now retired!) most evil men.

Now divorce is tough for any kid but when – like Vi's parents – your mum is ex-secret service and your dad is a (former) bad guy, ‘till death do us part’ takes on a whole new meaning.

And with her parents’ focus firmly on each other, the real super-villains are having a field day. To save her family – and the planet – from evil domination, Vi must turn spy...

Expect giggles and gasps galore as youngsters dive into this full-on, comedy-laden story which includes lots of memorable moments, gripping twists, and Eighties nostalgia for older readers, whilst gently tackling emotive and important issues like parental divorce, friendship and bullying.

With the queen of middle-grade comedy orchestrating the action and penning the lines, Vi Spy is on a mission to success!

(Chicken House, paperback, £6.99)

Age 8 plus:

Swan Song

Gill Lewis

The past year has inevitably brought high rates of anxiety and depression in children who have been confined to home and starved of certainty, companionship, and the joy of playtime and the great outdoors.

Inspired by her own childhood in a city school, award-winning author Gill Lewis brings us a moving and profoundly insightful story of a troubled boy discovering the redemptive and healing power of nature.

Dylan is struggling. Since he started high school, everything has become too much to handle. Now he has been expelled for hitting another pupil and has been forced to move to the tiny village in Wales where his grandad lives.

But when Grandad invites Dylan out on his boat to watch the whooper swans return to their winter feeding ground, things begin to change. Grandad doesn’t judge or question… he just lets Dylan be who he is.

And out on the water, with no distractions or pressure, Dylan begins to feel like himself again. But when the swans and their home are threatened, and tragedy strikes at home, can Dylan keep going when it feels like everything is slipping out of control again?

Weaving together themes of the natural world and mental upheaval, Lewis – who worked as a vet before becoming an acclaimed author – explores sensitive issues with the lightest of touches and in a gentle and accessible way.

Beautifully written, full of hope, help and wisdom, and published in Barrington Stoke’s trademark dyslexia-friendly format, this is the perfect, uplifting read for both regular and reluctant readers.

(Barrington Stoke, paperback, £6.99)

Age 12 plus:

Animal Farm

Written by George Orwell and illustrated by Chris Mould

‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’

Animal Farm, George Orwell’s tale of propaganda, power, greed and revolution, is as relevant today as when it was first published at the end of the Second World War in 1945.

And now the classic allegorical novella, which sealed Orwell’s reputation as one of the world’s most influential writers, has been brought to life by the stunning illustrations of award-winning artist Chris Mould in a brilliant new series for young adults from Faber & Faber.

The book tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer, hoping to create a society where the animals can be equal, free, and happy. Ultimately, however, the rebellion is betrayed, and the farm ends up in a state as bad as it was before, under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon.

Mould’s atmospheric and deliciously macabre black-and-white illustrations bring out the humour and darkness of this unforgettable story with energy, thrilling drama, and a deeply evocative resonance.

Published in luxury hardback with a striking cover, Animal Farm is a dazzling opener to Faber’s new illustrated collection of classics for teens, and the perfect gift for discerning readers.

(Faber & Faber, hardback, £14.99)

Age 4 plus:

Get Up, Elizabeth!

Shirin Yim Bridges and Alea Marley

There are some right royal knots in a princess’s wild hair in a bold, comical and colourful picture book illustrated by Preston-based artist Alea Marley.

If your child hates getting out of bed in the mornings, then Get Up, Elizabeth! will convince them that rising and shining in Tudor times was a much more painful process than anything they may have to face!

Get Up, Elizabeth! – a riot of fun and fabulous hair – is a rip-roaring, rhyming romp from award-winning author Shirin Yim Bridges and illustrator Marley, and offers young readers a glimpse into the surprising and intriguing grooming habits of the 16th century.

It’s time for the noble young Princess Elizabeth to get out of bed and even a young royal has to scrub her face with almond paste, brush her teeth with soot, comb the tangles out of her unruly red hair while it’s set with glittering gems, get dressed, and then sit still while her ruff is sewn on and her sleeves are pinned. It’s tough rising and shining every day… even for the future Queen Elizabeth I.

This playful picture book, filled with Bridges’ jolly verse and illustrated in Marley’s rich and royal Tudor colours, helps children keep a-head in real history as well as delivering entertainment on every page.

(Cameron Kids, hardback, £11.99)

Age 3 plus:

No! Said Rabbit

Marjoke Henrichs

And here’s another picture book star who doesn’t want to get up!

Meet an adorable little rabbit for whom some everyday activities are an absolute no-no in a playful and exquisitely illustrated story from Marjoke Henrichs which is guaranteed to strike a chord with harassed parents everywhere.

Henrichs, an artist and theatre designer, brings a winning brand of ironic humour to both her words and a gallery of lively and gorgeously colourful illustrations in this sparkling debut picture book.

Rabbit is happy doing his own thing, and he doesn’t want to listen to his mum telling him to get up, get dressed, have breakfast, play outside, go on his potty, come inside and least of all... have a bath! No, No, No! he says. But at last his tired mum hits on something they both love doing together… sharing cuddles!

Mums, dads and carers are all in the ‘no’ when it comes to awkward toddlers and this cleverly empathetic tale of tears and tantrums comes loaded with charm, drama… and lots of love.

(Scallywag Press, hardback, £12.99)

Age 3 plus:

Dig! Dig! Dig!

Wenda Shurety and Andrea Stegmaier

Wellbeing has become one of today’s most imperative issues for young people so here’s a new publisher determined to inspire hope, wonder, kindness… and a love of reading.

Storyhouse Publishing, founded by Rachel Lawrence, is dedicated to producing beautiful picture books to inspire positivity and care for a bright future, including ideas about friendship, collaborative play and conservation. And with sustainability in mind, they are committed to reducing waste and printing all their books on FSC approved paper.

In one of Storyhouse’s first publications, little ones are invited to imagine what it would be like to live on the other side of the world. It’s something that is very important to Jake who wants to find the answer to this burning question. But what will happen when he starts digging to make his discoveries… and where will the hole he is digging end?

Working as a team pays off in this enchanting and playful tale as Jake and his gang of new-found friends dig deeper than they could ever have imagined.

With Andrea Stegmaier’s richly detailed illustrations to pore over, plenty of talking points to share, all the delights of friendship and discovery to enjoy, and an upside-down ending that will delight your own little adventurers, Dig! Dig! Dig! proves to be a hole lot of fun!

(Storyhouse Publishing, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

Got to Dance

Josette Reeves and Annabel Tempest

Put on your dancing shoes and join a little monkey who loves to shimmy and shake!

In a second bright and colourful picture book from Storyhouse Publishing, we waltz into the life of Magnus the monkey who finds joy not just in dancing but being admired as the best dancer in the forest.

So when Betty the bear comes to town and everyone thinks her dancing is even better, Magnus decides to give up altogether. Can Betty help him to see that you don’t have to be the best to enjoy doing the things you love?

Little ones will love boogying their way through this funny, cautionary tale about finding your confidence, never giving up, and learning to love the things you do for their own sake… and not just to win.

Annabel Tempest’s rainbow palette of bold and colourful illustrations are the perfect match for Josette Reeves’ touching, heartwarming tale that ends on a note of triumph and a conga party that will have everyone wiggling, giggling and dancing the night away!

(Storyhouse Publishing, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

What About The Tooth Fairy?

Elys Dolan

Have you ever wondered why the Tooth Fairy doesn’t have a special day of her own?

There will be toothy smiles all round when youngsters get their hands on this super funny picture book from Elys Dolan, one of the best author/illustrators currently working in children’s books.

Here she sets her sights on that mysterious anomaly… the lack of a designated day for the overworked and under-celebrated Tooth Fairy.

Santa has Christmas, Cupid has Valentine’s Day and the Easter Bunny has… well, Easter! So why doesn’t the Tooth Fairy have a special day? Everybody knows the Tooth Fairy is the best in the business but although she loves her job, sometimes she can’t help but wonder why she doesn’t have a day of her own, like all her very famous friends.

With some expert advice from Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny, Cupid and Jack O’Lantern, Toothy tries to start her own Tooth Day! But no matter how hard she tries, their ideas for Tooth Day just don’t feel right. Soon the Tooth Fairy learns that for her day to be really special, she’s got to do it her own way!

Dolan has fun extracting all the humour she can out of this playful, big, bold story which stars everyone’s favourite magical characters and teaches important lessons about being yourself and making your own choices.

Bursting with action, colour, comedy and spectacular illustrative detail, this is a story destined to be a classic favourite with all the family.

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

Age 3 plus:

The Greatest Show Penguin

Lucy Freegard

A little circus penguin steals the show in a warm and wonderful picture book from multi-talented author and illustrator Lucy Freegard.

The magic of sawdust, sequins and spectacle of circus life spring to vivid life in this super, showstopping celebration of trusting your instincts, speaking up for yourself, discovering your unique talents, and finding a way to shine.

Poppy the Penguin comes from a long line of circus performers. Amazing skills have been passed down from penguin to penguin but Poppy soon decides that performing in the family circus is just not for her. She much prefers to feel calm and in control, but the hardest thing is not juggling, or riding a unicycle… it’s telling her mum that she doesn’t want to perform any more. Fortunately, her bravery is worth it when Poppy discovers a better role… talent hunting and organising the whole show. And what a show it turns out to be!

Watch your little ones smile as they get caught up in the buzz and bustle of the big top and follow the trail of Poppy on her girl powered, action-packed journey from circus performer to high-flying impresario.

Vibrant storytelling and watercolour illustration skills make this a show to remember!

(Pavilion Children’s Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

Bears Don't Wear Shoes

Sharon Davey

Moving house is a big deal for children… and finding new friends can be the hardest part.

Calm fears about a new home with a gentle, funny and fabulously illustrated picture book from Sharon Davey, a children’s illustrator and author who uses her past in theatre design to produce a book buzzing with love, life and vigour.

Suzy’s family has moved house and everyone is just too busy to play with her. Eager for someone to play with, preferably someone who likes like biscuits, colouring in and dressing up, Suzy puts up a ‘Friend Wanted’ advert. And when Bear shows up, he seems perfect for the job... until he refuses to wear shoes! Can Suzy and Bear still be best friends if Suzy loves shoes but Bear absolutely won’t wear them?

The unusual but adorable friendship at the heart of this story provides subtle lessons about understanding and appreciating differences, and accepting that even the very best of friends don’t always need to like the same things.

With its bold, colourful and child-friendly illustrations, brimming with rich and fascinating detail, Bears Don’t Wear Shoes is the perfect gift for any child who treasures friendship… and bears!

(New Frontier Publishing, hardback, £11.99)