Dystopian drama, circus capers and offbeat beasts - book reviews

As the Easter school holidays get into full swing, enjoy a sparkling collection of children’s books… all perfectly created to keep boredom at bay.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 9th April 2019, 11:39 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th April 2019, 11:54 am
The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum
The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum

Age 9 plus:

The Middler

Kirsty Applebaum

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What is it like to be the middle child of a family?

Prepare to be blown away by Kirsty Applebaum’s extraordinary debut thriller which explores the trials of being the ‘forgotten’ middle child… the in-between sibling who is neither precious first born nor favourite youngest.

The Middler, a captivating dystopian page-turner, stars the memorable Maggie, a girl who feels she has no voice, even in her own family, and whose young, fresh and funny voice speaks loudly to other youngsters who might feel some of her frustrations and resentments.

Eleven-year-old Maggie lives in Fennis Wick, enclosed and protected from the outside world by a boundary, beyond which the Quiet War rages and the dirty, dangerous wanderers roam. Her brother Jed is a hero… the eldest child, revered and regarded as special.

Her younger brother is Trig and everyone loves Trig. But Maggie is just a middler… invisible and left behind. Then, one hot September day, she meets Una, a hungry wanderer girl in need of help, and everything Maggie has ever known gets turned on its head.

In a hideous moment at Jed’s 14th birthday party, another elder tells Maggie what the fear of being an eldest and being sent off to camp is REALLY like… it’s a camp where you are trained to fight in the Quiet War, a camp from where no one ever returns.

With the irrepressible Maggie as our funny, feisty narrator, The Middler delivers a gripping and quietly menacing story of forbidden friendship, loyalty and betrayal whilst asking intriguing questions about how much birth order really matters to us, whether we are children or adults.

Many youngsters will also identify with Applebaum’s concepts of belonging, isolation and being an outsider, and be inspired by Maggie’s determination, resourcefulness and increasing courage in her battle to unearth the truth behind the creepy town of Fennis Wick.

Sinister, intensely exciting and beautifully written, The Middler is an impressive first novel.

(Nosy Crow, paperback, £6.99)

Age 8 plus:

The Case of the Vanishing Granny

Alexander McCall Smith and Sam Usher

Roll up, roll up for a dazzling new ‘stars and sawdust’ adventure series from the dream team pairing of Alexander McCall Smith and Sam Usher.

The Case of the Vanishing Granny is the first exciting book in a Big-Top Mysteries series from multi-award-winning author McCall Smith, one of the world’s most prolific and popular writers, and star illustrator Usher who has won accolades for his technical drawing skill and prowess with watercolour.

The quirky stars of this funny, high-energy series are the Shortbread family and their spectacular circus as they travel the country performing gravity-defying tricks while still finding time to solve intriguing mysteries.

Billy, Fern and Joe Shortbread are the stars of their family circus, but they also have another talent ... they are experts at solving mysteries. When their circus moves into a new town they soon make friends with a sad-looking young boy from the audience named Tom.

But Tom can’t enjoy the circus because his much-loved granny has vanished into thin air and he’s worried he will never see her again. With the help of their astonishing circus skills, can the Shortbread circus stars crack the clues and find Tom’s granny?

Brimming with McCall Smith’s trademark wit, wisdom and larger-than-life characters, this is an exhilarating and clever story for youngsters as well as a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the realities of being part of a circus family… living in a caravan, travelling around the country, putting up a giant tent in every town and rehearsing all the amazing acts.

Throw in a few hilarious animal stars – including Leo the cat who thinks he’s a lion but can only mew rather than roar – all the thrills and spills of performing for an audience, and a baffling mystery, and you have the perfect big top adventure story.

(Barrington Stoke, paperback, £6.99)

Age 8 plus:

First Names: Harry (Houdini) and Amelia (Earhart)

The world is – and has been – home to some amazing people… so what fun it would be to get up close and personal with them!

This exhilarating and quirky non-fiction series from David Fickling Books invites young readers to get on first name terms with some of our planet’s cleverest and most inspirational personalities through the lens of fun, lively and highly illustrated biographies.

The spotlight in First Names focuses on famous people from history like Emmeline Pankhurst, Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln and Harry Houdini as well as more modern names like Elon Musk, the billionaire, mega-brain entrepreneur, that some readers may not know.

The aim is to let children discover who, for example, Albert Einstein really was and not just what he achieved, and to see these famous names as ordinary people who grew up to do extraordinary things.

In the two latest books in the series, we meet Harry Houdini, the brilliant escape artist who thrilled the world with his death-defying stunts and awesome showmanship, and Amelia Earhart, the world-famous daredevil pilot who was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

In Harry Houdini, written by Kjartan Poskitt and illustrated by Geraint Ford, we find out how Harry –who was born in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, but moved to New York with his family as a boy – was inspired by a man with no head, why he kept asking to be put in jail (and how he got out again) and why he dangled upside down from a crane 120 feet up in the air.

And in the second book – written by Andrew Prentice and illustrated by Mike Smith – youngsters delve into the riveting life and times of daring pilot Amelia (Earhart). Find out how she tricked her dad into letting her fly, what she had in common with a sack of potatoes, and how she became a fashion icon and all-time legend.

All the titles in this brilliant series aim to be entertaining and factually accurate, and are designed to educate and inspire. Lively black and white illustrations, provided by a range of excellent comic artists throughout each book, help to tell the story, with each personality featured chipping in to add their own comments.

So forget all those stuffy, dull history books and get up close with the people who made (and, in some cases, are still making) things happen. High energy, informative and entertaining, these books make learning fun and are the perfect addition to every inquisitive child’s shelf.

(David Fickling Books, paperback, £6.99 each)

Age 8 plus:

Hamish and the Monster Patrol

Danny Wallace and Jamie Littler

Strange things are afoot in the town of Starkley... and only glorious anarchy can ensue!

The latest madcap 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 to once more save the Earth.

Wallace, an award-winning writer and presenter who by his own admission has done lots of silly things, can’t put a foot wrong in this irresistibly laugh-out-loud children’s series – starring a boy fated to save the Earth time and time again – which goes from strength to strength.

Starkley used to be one of the most boring towns in Britain but thanks to the efforts of ten-year-old Hamish Ellerby and his friends, the place has been well and truly put on the map.

Hamish and his gang, the Pause Defence Force (PDF), have become local celebrities after constantly saving the town from evil alien enemies.

And danger is never far away! Out in the ocean something is on the move... something big, something that might change everything.

While most of Starkley’s inhabitants have fled or gone into lockdown, Hamish and his pals in the PDF are coming up with a plan, because if they don’t save the world, then who will?

But this time they are not alone. Luckily, the top-secret Monster Patrol is on hand to help… even if that ‘help’ is in the form of a strange new kid, a bizarre-looking fish monster and a bonkers old lady!

Filled with Wallace’s trademark humour, natural warmth and imagination, and the talented Jamie Littler’s quirky and suitably anarchic illustrations, these pitch-perfect books, which offer non-stop laugh-a-minute adventures, are just the job for reluctant readers who like their stories to be funny, visually exciting and brimming with mischief.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age 7 plus:

Lesser Spotted Animals 2

Martin Brown

We all love animals… but whoever heard of a dingiso, the black and rufous sengi, and a tamandua?

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Lesser Spotted Animals 2, the second coruscating compendium of amazing unknown animals from Martin Brown, the illustrious illustrator of the ever popular Horrible Histories.

This fantastic new book, featuring brilliantly offbeat beasts you never knew you needed to know about, is a treasure trove of facts, humour and enchanting illustrations, and a timely reminder of the threat to wildlife from eco hazards like the use of palm oil and single-use plastics.

Jam-packed with wonderful colour illustrations, bite-sized sections, fun facts and a quirky text, this is the perfect gift book for animal lovers of any age.

Stars of the show are a menagerie of wonderful wildlife creatures that we never normally get to see, usually because they are eclipsed by the big names of the natural world or because they are rare to the point of extinction.

There are hundreds of different animals in the world – some big, some small, some common and some very rare – but most books show only a handful of them. So this book is different! Say goodbye to the usual wild animal suspects and instead meet some unknown underdogs, whether that’s an altai argali or a yellow-throated marten.

From the Blainville’s beaked whale (a marine mammal with a beak and tusks!) to gerenuks and dibatags (long-legged, long-necked antelopes that can nibble leaves on taller trees like griaffes), these are some of the quirkiest creatures on the planet and Brown’s warm and witty writing, teamed with his fabulous illustrations and tummy-tickling jokes, is a winning combination.

This a beautifully produced book, packed with facts and arresting home truths about conservation and the importance of saving some incredible creatures from extinction, but also irreverent , fun and a joy to share with all the family.

(David Fickling Books, hardback, £12.99)

Age 7 plus:

Revenge of the Living Ted

Barry Hutchison and Lee Cosgrove

If you thought teddy bears were all cute and cuddly, then you’re in for a big surprise!

A scary bear called Grizz, who wants to rule the world, is back with an alien army and they have plans to wreak dastardly destruction in the second hilarious instalment of comedy master Barry Hutchison’s zany series.

Belly laughs and lethal teddies are the order of the day as Hutchison, an award-winning children’s author and screenwriter, gives free rein to another rip-roaring romp starring a cast of grizzly, gangster-style bears and a plot stuffed full of fast-paced action and adventure.

Just when Lisa Marie and Vernon thought they had seen the last of Grizz and his terrifying army of Halloween teddy bears, they are kidnapped by megalomaniac Ursine Kodiak who has an army of evil bears of his own.

But there’s worse to come… Ursine has created an AI version of Grizz who is now on the loose, has control of Ursine’s teddy bear army and is intent on revenge! Can Lisa Marie and Vernon save the day – and the world – again? Hold on to your hats ... fur is about to fly!

The versatile Hutchison is ably aided and abetted on his mission to make kids giggle by the wonderfully zany illustrations of Lee Cosgrove as together they pack their outrageous teddy drama with an exhilarating brand of visual and verbal virtuosity.

Once again, leading lady Lisa Marie steals the show with her endearing (and secretly educational) penchant for ‘big words’ which opens up a fascinating new vocabulary for young readers.

Discombobulatingly good!

(Stripes, paperback, £5.99)

Age 7 plus:

Dennis in Jurassic Bark

As told by the writer and illustrator Nigel Auchterlounie

Spring is here… and it’s time to make mischief!

Nigel Auchterlounie is on his best Beano behaviour for an epic interactive adventure starring those shining comic stars – Dennis, Gnasher, Minnie and Walter – as they discover a secret island that is infested with… dinosaurs!

Auchterlounie, a writer and comic book artist who pens the scripts for the weekly Dennis and Gnasher strip in the Beano, certainly goes to town in this madcap adventure story which is brimming with epic fun, from raptors and an enormous Gnashersaurus-Rex to Vikings and Victorians, and includes a series of interactive puzzles for readers to complete.

Beanotown is in trouble again and this time the threat is Jurassic! The Mayor is determined to capture some of the prehistoric inhabitants of Duck Island for display in the zoo and will stop at nothing to get his way. Together, Dennis and Gnasher set out to thwart the Mayor’s horrible plan and save the day.

Minnie, on hearing the news that an island of dinosaurs is situated so close to home, sees an opportunity that cannot be missed. She wants a pet and what could be more awesome than a raptor? But it soon becomes clear that no one’s plans are going the way they expect.

Enraged, the Mayor decides to wreck the alien do-hicky thingy-ma-bob that stops the island expanding and now the whole town is in trouble. Strange meat-eating plants flop through the streets, there are dinosaurs in the supermarket, swimming pool and cinema, and raptors are riding the subway.

The only way to get things back to ‘normal’ is to put the do-hicky thingy-ma-bob back together. But for that, they will need Gran’s help!

With interactive puzzles and dinosaurs at every turn, can you too help Dennis and Gnasher save Beanotown from the jaws of danger?

Fun and laughter all the way for your own mischief-makers!

(Studio Press, paperback, £6.99)

Age 6 plus:

The Puppy Who Couldn’t Sleep

Holly Webb and Sophy Williams

Much-loved author Holly Webb is back to enchant her young readers with the amazing 42nd story adventure in her adorable and hugely popular Animal Stories series which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since the first story hit the shelves in 2006.

Webb is one of the UK’s best-loved children’s authors and has written over 100 books for children, including the Animal Stories, My Naughty Little Puppy and a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic 1911 book, The Secret Garden.

In this gorgeous new adventure, we meet Lara who discovers a scared black puppy in an alleyway while walking the family dog, Oliver, with her dad. Lara desperately wants to take him home and look after him but her dad isn’t so sure.

Lara can’t stop thinking about the poor puppy and soon goes to find him again. She convinces her dad to let him stay and names him Jet. But when Jet spends all night howling, Lara’s dad isn’t impressed.

Night after night, the wailing continues, until it begins to look like Jet may need to go to the animal shelter. Is there anything Lara can do to help Jet sleep?

Sophy Williams provides the gorgeous black and white illustrations for this beautifully created and gentle series which has captured the hearts of every animal-loving child. And don’t forget to look out for the free app on App Store and Google Play. It’s jam-packed with exciting activities from fantastic games and puzzles to creative colouring and sticker fun.

Perfect for children just starting to read alone, youngsters who love to share a book with mum or dad, and any child who can’t resist the magical allure of animals.

(Stripes, paperback, £5.99)

Age 5 plus:

The Big Beyond: The Story of Space Travel

James Carter and Aaron Cushley

We have blast off!

Enjoy a thrill-filled rhyming and illustrated journey into the history of space travel with James Carter, an award-winning poet and educational writer, and adventure-loving illustrator Aaron Cushley.

The Big Beyond, a bold and imaginative picture book, takes space travel back to its very beginning though engaging and informative poetry, and imaginative illustrations which together bring to vivid life the story of our planet’s cosmic curiosity.

The mysteries of space have intrigued people since ancient times. Early observers named the constellations as a way to keep track of the starry patterns in the night sky. Through the years, astronomers discovered planets, moons, and many other objects. As technology improved, the dream of physically exploring space became reality, and space shuttles blasted into the world above our heads.

So let the rocket a countdown begin… from 10, 9, 8 to 7 and 6 to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, this fast-paced poem follows the early humans who dreamt of wings, Galileo’s discoveries, the excitement of the Moon landing, spacecraft exploring Mars, and on into the future beyond.

Carter’s narrative verse takes readers across star-filled skies via space missions, distant probes and dusty footprints while Cushley’s vivid illustrations add colour and visual energy to the history of space exploration.

The perfect book for reading aloud, and an ideal companion to discussions with children about the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing.

(Caterpillar Books, hardback, £11.99)

Age 5 plus:

The Climbers (Colour Fiction)

Ali Standish and Alette Straathof

When picture books are too babyish and middle grade books too hard, just what can a young in-betweenie read?

The answer is a wonderfully illustrated, full-colour fiction series from the ever-inventive book boffins at Little Tiger Press.

These beautifully produced books, with their sturdy hardbacks, enchanting stories and highly illustrated, glossy pages, are ideal for bridging the gap between picture books and chapter books for newly independent young readers.

Following on from the first two books in the series, Two Sides and Little Rabbit’s Big Surprise, is a charming new story about friendship and acceptance from the top team of author Ali Standish and illustrator Alette Straathof.

Lonely Alma longs to explore the lush forest beyond her narrow town, but her uncle has told her it’s full of fearsome beasts. One night, she ventures into the trees and finds a frightened bear cub. The two become friends but the rest of the town is not so welcoming. Soon, Alma and Star Bear are forced to set off in search of a place to call home.

Standish’s atmospheric tale, featuring an unusual but tender friendship which defies all odds and teaches lessons about keeping an open heart and allowing loyalty and kindness to triumph over fear, has a lyrical, dreamlike quality which will appeal to both children and their parents.

And the story is given added life, heart and vigour by Straathof’s use of vivid colours and her richly detailed illustrations, creating a beautiful, beguiling book for all the family to enjoy.

(Stripes, hardback, £7.99)

Age 4 plus:

Me and My Sister

Rose Robbins

Most children have experienced the highs and lows of growing up with brothers and sisters… but what if one of your siblings is autistic?

Debut author and illustrator Rose Robbins, who has an autistic brother and teaches autistic young people, delivers some sweet and subtle messages about family life with a ‘differently abled’ child in Me and My Sister, a moving and beautifully created picture book.

It is published by London-based Scallywag Press, a new children’s book company which is aiming to bring entertaining and memorable books to a worldwide audience.

A little boy and his sister spend a lot of their day together, eating meals, going to school and playing. But life with an autistic sister is not always easy… sometimes she is rude to people, sometimes she just needs to be alone and sometimes she upsets strangers. But at other times, she knows how to make her brother laugh and sometimes they do things together.

Through the eyes of the brother, we find out how they are both very different, but also very similar in other ways and come what may, they have lots of fun together and love each other just the same.

This poignant and moving story – enhanced by simple but eye-catching artwork – explores a child’s eye view of what it is like to be the responsible child to a sibling with autism, and how family members understand the challenges around autism whereas strangers might not always be so sympathetic.

Written with a light and sensitive touch, Robbins’ story will strike a chord with every family which has an autistic child, and inform and entertain children from families of every kind.

(Scallywag Press, hardback, £11.99)

Age 3 plus:

I Saw a Bee

Rob Ramsden

Also from Scallywag Press is I Saw a Bee, a beautiful, buzzing and carefully created picture book with important messages about our fragile ecosystem.

Written and illustrated by Rob Ramsden, who teaches graphic illustration and animation to both children and adults, this deceptively simple but appealing book is the first in a series of stories which encourage young children to enjoy and appreciate the natural world.

When a little boy discovers a bee in a box, he is so frightened that he reacts aggressively, chasing the bee and hitting out at it. But gradually, he realises that the bee won’t harm him and that they can be friends.

Ramsden’s short, rhythmic text is perfect to learn by heart and recite as a poem, and has the addictive repetition factor which little children love. Filled with bright, characterful and eye-catching illustrations, this is the perfect bedtime story and an ideal way to teach children about the importance of bees in our ecosystem.

(Scallywag Press, hardback, £11.99)

Age 3 plus:

When the Bees Buzzed Off!

Lula Bell and Stephen Bennett

Little ones are going to get a buzz out of this beautiful picture book which turns readers into busy little bees!

When the Bees Buzzed Off! is so much more than just a tale of adventure… the clever and appealing lift-the-flaps story gently encourages children to get interested in conservation and the idea of protecting our natural world.

Uh-oh! The bees have buzzed off and now the mini-beasts are in a pickle. Who will pollinate the fruit and flowers? It’s up to three brave bugs – and one very grumpy snail – to bring those buzzy bees back as they follow wandering worms, scaredy-cat snails and bossy beetles.

This energetic romp through the wild outdoors is an exciting hive of activity and comes packed with large fun flaps to lift, fascinating bee facts, hilarious asides, quirky characters and an interactive story in which children can play a leading role.

When the Bees Buzzed Off! is the perfect book to explore the natural world and encourage little ones to think about important environmental issues. The imaginative picture book formula blends Lula Bell’s funny but educational story with Stephen Bennett’s bright and engaging illustrations and large, easy-to-lift flaps hiding witty wisecracks and some surprising facts.

A playful but powerful reminder of the fragility of our ecosystem…

(Little Tiger, paperback, £7.99)

Age 3 plus:

Wilfred and Olbert’s Epic Prehistoric Adventure


Enjoy an all-action journey back through time this spring with famous animal explorers Wilfred Wiseman and Olbert Oddbottom!

The daring duo, who starred in Wilfred and Olbert’s Totally Wild Chase, are back for another epic, fun-filled adventure that comes packed with puzzles and creatures to spot.

Wilfred and Olbert have found a time-travel machine and are heading back to prehistoric history. What follows is an interactive adventure in which the intrepid pair walk across the world as it was over 360 million years ago, moving forward through time into some of the most amazing prehistoric periods where they will meet scary creatures like dinosaurs, mammoths and sabre-toothed cats.

Author and illustrator, the German-born Lomp, serves up a treat for fans of dinosaurs in this brilliant, super-sized book which allows youngsters to discover a variety of different species on every big, busy page.

No stone, whether under the sea or on the earth, is left unturned in this fantastic journey of discovery with the two budding adventurers as they lead youngsters on an interactive hunt to identify a menagerie of prehistoric creatures, and along the way, youngsters can enjoy lots to spot, learn fascinating facts, and solve puzzles.

With plenty of action and discovery on every page, this riotous story’s use of interactive quests and Lomp’s energetic, colourful and humorous illustrations provide a truly exhilarating reading experience.

A visually exciting and fascinating exploration of the prehistoric world…

(Little Tiger Press, hardback, £12.99)

Age 3 plus:

Big Cat

Emma Lazell

Enjoy laughs and very large ‘cats’ in a clever and gloriously offbeat picture book from debut author and illustrator Emma Lazell.

Isobel’s grandma has lost her glasses and she can’t see a thing without them. While Isobel and Gran are in the garden searching for the specs, they come across a cat… a very big cat but, fortunately, a very big and friendly cat. The big cat moves in with them, much to the disgust of all Gran’s other cats. He might be good fun, but he takes up lots of space and eats every scrap of food.

Eventually the new cat’s mum and dad turn up, looking for their missing son. And they just happen to have found Gran’s glasses too. The tiger family are delighted to be reunited, and Gran now sees that she has been sharing her house with... a tiger!

Lazell packs her warm and friendly story with comical detail and as the feline chaos gets more and more riotous so the gallery of vivid illustrations gets bigger, bolder and extravagantly busy. And little ones will love sharing the joke as Gran discovers her cat is actually a tiger.

With its Seventies retro feel, lavish illustration, surreal charm and subtle messages about the importance of acceptance, Big Cat will appeal to readers both young and old.

(Pavilion Books, paperback, £6.99)