Magical mysteries, amazing explorers and brilliant girls - Book reviews

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson and Kathrin Honesta
The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson and Kathrin Honesta
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Meet a girl with a mysterious past, discover what it takes to be an explorer, get close up to some extraordinary bugs, and peep through the curtains to find out what happens in the world of night time in a super collection of new children’s books.

Age 9 plus:

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson and Kathrin Honesta

Sit back, make yourself comfortable, and get ready for the most fabulous fantastical journey you will take this autumn!

Lake District author Sophie Anderson, who won critical acclaim and a place on the CILIP Carnegie Medal shortlist for her debut novel, The House with Chicken Legs, can’t put a foot wrong in the world of middle grade fiction.

Inspired by Slavic folk tales and the stories of her Prussian grandmother, this exciting writer is bewitching us all with her sublime and lyrical storytelling, a gift which allows her to sweep readers away to soaring, evocative landscapes where magic, folklore and realism blend together in memorable mesmerising adventures.

And her wild and wonderful imagination takes flight once again in The Girl Who Speaks Bear, the epic fantasy tale of a girl raised by a bear in the cave of a faraway land and determined to discover who she is, and where she belongs.

‘They call me Yanka the Bear. Not because of where I was found – only a few people know about that. They call me Yanka the Bear because I am so big and strong.’

Found abandoned near a bear cave when she was just two years old, Yanka was raised by her kindly foster mother Mamochka who said they were meant to be together, but that hasn’t stopped Yanka, now aged 12, wondering where she is from.

Yanka towers above all the other 12-year-olds in her small village and she is stronger than everyone, even the grown-ups. She tries to ignore the strange whispers and looks from the villagers, wishing she was as strong on the inside as she is on the outside.

Only her real parents could explain who she is, why she’s so different, and why she hears the trees ‘whispering secrets’ and the nearby Snow Forest pulling her into its tangled and icy mysteries.

And when she wakes up one morning to find that her legs have become bear legs, Yanka is joined by her house weasel Mousetrap, and her best friend Sasha, as she flees into the Snow Forest looking for answers about who she really is.

What they discover is a journey far beyond one that Yanka had ever imagined… from icy rivers to smouldering mountains, the intrepid adventurers are set to meet an ever-growing band of unforgettable and extraordinary friends.

Anderson’s gorgeous story is littered with the stuff of fairy story dreams… bears, princesses, dragons, wolves and a thrilling parallel world. But it is also grounded in traditional values like compassion, love, identity, family and belonging, and Yanka’s mission speaks loudly about the importance of self-discovery and acceptance.

Multi-layered, beautifully illustrated by Kathrin Honesta, and packed full of powerful emotions, The Girl Who Speaks Bear gives classic folklore a fresh and vivid impetus whilst delivering a gripping modern fairy tale in which the past, present and future all play indispensable roles.

This is a remarkable writer already at the top of her game, and her next tale of magic and adventure can’t come a moment too soon!

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)

Age 7 plus:

Explorers: Amazing Tales of the World’s Greatest Adventures by Nellie Huang and Jessamy Hawke

Take a leap into the great unknown and find out just what it takes to be an explorer!

DK (Dorling Kindersley) has become a byword in beautifully designed and illustrated children’s books and their exciting new non-fiction story book introduces youngsters to some of the world’s most audacious and ambitious explorers.

What child could resist joining big names like Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, James Cook, Vasco de Gama, Gertrude Bell and Marco Polo as they venture into steaming jungles in search of lost temples, fight off frostbite in the Arctic, and blast off into space!

Great explorers have one thing in common… a desire to leap into the unknown, no matter how dangerous that might be. From Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the world 500 years ago to the incredible achievements of Barbara Hillary, the first known African-American woman to reach the North Pole, a mission she accomplished at the age of 75 in 2007, Explorers documents the trials and hardships of the men and women who rewrote our understanding of the world, and showed us what humans are capable of.

Discover the amazing 18th century French botanist and explorer Jeanne Baret who was the first woman to sail around the world but had to go undercover dressed as a man because there was a ‘no women allowed’ rule on naval ships.

And learn about Esteban Dorantes, a shipwrecked slave from Morocco who, in the 16th century, was one of the first great explorers of the southern United States and became the first African to set foot in what is now Texas, and spent years trying to reach Mexico.

From across the globe and including a diverse range of genders, nationalities and abilities, Explorers looks at the towering achievements of more than fifty explorers in great detail, with incredible cross-sections revealing the amazing detail inside Spanish galleons, lost cities, and spaceships.

Hand-drawn maps reveal their intrepid journeys in great detail, and photographs highlight the artefacts and relics they found along the way. The explorers come from all walks of life and parts of the world.

Combining richly detailed illustrations by Jessamy Hawke with fantastic photography, and packed with jaw-dropping facts written by adventure travel blogger Nellie Huang in language that will set young hearts heart racing, Explorers is the perfect book for any budding adventurer.

(DK Children, hardback, £16.99)

Age 7 plus:

Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls Edited by Lesley Sims, designed by Sam Whibley and with a foreword by Kate Pankhurst

Forget princesses waiting patiently to be rescued… because once upon a time, it wasn’t just boys who saved the day!

Boys will marvel and girls will be inspired by this gorgeously produced book featuring eight largely forgotten but wonderfully empowering fairy tales starring fearless heroines who outwit giants, fight evil, awaken sleeping princes and, of course, live happily ever after.

Brought together to inspire a new generation of readers, and brimming with stunning illustrations, these diverse and delightful stories prove that heroines are not quiet and passive, but adventurous, intelligent and daring.

In her foreword, Kate Pankhurst, author of Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World, reminds young readers that ‘stories can enchant our imaginations and shape our view of the world; they can even make us think differently about ourselves.’

And the introduction explains how, over the centuries, the fairy tales that became famous – and more often than not featured male heroes – overshadowed all the others and the tales of brave and brilliant girls were often hidden from view.

So here’s the chance to enjoy some lost fairy tales, which originate from various North European countries, including Spain, Germany, Scotland and England, and introduce us to a sleeping prince rescued by a princess, sisters who fight a goblin to rescue a bear, and a young girl who outwits a giant to save her family.

Inspirational, intriguing, and starring the feisty girls that time forgot, this exciting collection is the perfect gift for all young adventurers.

(Usborne, hardback, £12.99)

Age 9 plus:

The Battle for Perfect by Helena Duggan

It’s the final showdown for the Town that used to be Perfect… but is still not perfect.

There’s a maniacal genius at work in the third and final book of Helena Duggan’s outstandingly entertaining adventure series which included A Place Called Perfect and The Trouble with Perfect, and has become must-reading for middle graders.

A graphic designer and illustrator, Duggan’s inspiration for this offbeat, creepily addictive and excitingly imaginative trilogy was Kilkenny, her medieval, haunted home city in the south of Ireland.

Blending good and evil, spine-chilling thrills, magic and menace, these fantastic fantasy mysteries fulfil every must-have ingredient for a classic adventure story and put the importance of family at the heart of the action.

Star of the show is ten-year-old Violet Brown who moved to a town called Perfect with her scientist father and found it to be anything but! However, having uncovered the secrets and plots that lay behind the spookily pristine town of Perfect (now called Town), Violet, her best friend Boy and the townsfolk are enjoying some much-needed quiet after the arrest of the evil Archer brothers, Boy’s uncles.

But then Violet receives a strange note and she catches the scheming Tom, Boy’s identical twin brother, sneaking about. When stories reach her and Boy about five missing scientists, they soon uncover more trouble is brewing and a terrible plan is being hatched.

The Town is about to be taken over by a huge zombie army. Can Violet and Boy save themselves and their friends? It’s a matter of life or death!

Fearless, feisty Violet has proved inspirational heroine for today’s youngsters, daring to go where others fear to tread, and willing to tackle danger and face up to those who would do us harm through bullying, intimidation or threats.

Set against a perfectly imagined fantasy world and full of Duggan’s now trademark humour, intrigue, danger and thrilling adventures, The Battle for Perfect is the perfect ending to what has been one of the most perfect middle grade reading journeys.

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)

Age 9 plus:

Lori and Max by Catherine O’Flynn

Two misfit girls turn super sleuths in a beautifully observant comic crime mystery from prize-winning author Catherine O’Flynn.

O’Flynn whose adult debut novel, What Was Lost, won the Costa First Novel Award in 2008, delivers a brilliant children’s crime fiction debut which was inspired by her own upbringing in a family with six children in the tough inner-city of Birmingham.

Lori and Max, a crime story which addresses many unsettling, contemporary issues, is a book she says that she ‘was always meant to write.’

Written through alternating perspectives, this is a story with relatable and quirky characters and with a clever, compelling narrative that uses the lightest of touches to explore some challenging family situations.

Orphan Lori Mason wants to be a detective, but so far the most exciting mystery she has solved is the disappearance of her Nan’s specs down the side of the sofa… three identical cases in fact. There is also the unsolved case of Lori’s neighbour’s missing cat, Mr Socks, but that all falls by the wayside when new girl Max joins Class 6B.

Lori is asked to look after her but Max is a bit weird. Her clothes don’t quite fit and her hair is as wild and unkempt as her attitude. She doesn’t fit in but then Lori realises she doesn’t really fit in either and the two outsiders end up becoming loyal friends.

When some class charity collection cash goes missing and Max disappears at the same time, Lori seems to be the only person who doesn’t think Max has stolen it and run away. Even the police don’t want to investigate and suddenly Lori finds she has a real crime to solve, along with some classroom conspiracies.

Can Lori, along with her bobble hat wearing Nan and Mr Meacham from the sweet shop, track down Max and clear her name?

Max and Lori are both youngsters facing serious social issues that affect their daily lives… Lori has lost both her parents and Max is a neglected child and a carer for her dysfunctional family. Both girls seek escape in their vivid imaginations and a sense of bravado, and O’Flynn harnesses their uncertainties, fears and worries for a story filled with mystery, suspense, poignancy and compassion.

The power of friendship shines through in this funny, bittersweet tale which tackles serious issues head-on but also offers the hope of happiness, achievement and a better future.

(Firefly Press, paperback, £6.99)

Age 5 plus:

There Are Bugs Everywhere by Lily Murray and Britta Teckentrup

There are bugs everywhere… some of them live in jungles, some of them underwater, and some certainly live in your house!

Get out your magnifying glass and explore the world of bugs in the second in a series of exciting non-fiction books illustrated by the talented Britta Teckentrup.

Young readers will love discovering where in the world all sorts of insects and bugs can be found, and all the weird and wonderful things about them that they never imagined were true. Venture into rainforests where tarantulas hunt and a single square mile can be home to more than 50,000 different species.

Peek inside hives where bees live incredibly organised lives, working together to produce food, care for their young and protect each other against predators, and learn how parent bugs will go to all sorts of lengths to attract mates, including dancing, bringing gifts, and risking their lives.

Written by Lily Murray, every page is filled with Teckentrup’s vibrant, colourful and detailed illustrations, and is crawling with the fascinating bugs that live everywhere from houses, gardens, deserts, woodlands and wetlands to caves, grasslands, rainforests and freezing Antarctica.

Creep-crawlies with attitude!

(Big Picture Press, hardback, £12.99)

Age 5 plus:

Speedy Monkey (Colour Fiction) by Jeanne Willis and Chantelle and Burgen Thorne

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.

This funny and energetic new story about being yourself comes from the top team of award-winning author Jeanne Willis and South African illustration duo Chantelle and Burgen Thorne who delight in visual storytelling.

Deep in the rainforest all is peaceful, all is calm... until Speedy Monkey comes along! Speedy can't keep still – all day long he whoops and swoops, prances and dances. The other animals are tired of Speedy’s crazy capers and long for some peace and quiet. Then danger strikes and the animals have to act fast. But where is Speedy when they need him?

Willis’ funny, high-octane story starring a chattering, curious and all-action money who learns about the world by asking questions is brought to glorious life by Chantelle and Burgen Thorne’s gallery of vivid, brightly coloured illustrations.

Filled with the spirit of adventure and discovery and perfectly pitched for enthusiastic new readers, this is an eye-catching and exciting book for all the family to enjoy.

(Stripes, hardback, £7.99)

Age 4 plus:

The Usborne Book of Night Time by Laura Cowan and Bonnie Pang

At night when youngsters are fast asleep in bed and dreaming, another world is waking up!

Children will adore exploring the world of night in this gorgeous picture book which features nocturnal animals roaming the countryside, cities that never sleep, and the secrets and wonders of the night sky.

Spend a night in the Australian outback with koalas and rare bilbies, a night in the forest with leopards and bearded pigs, a night in space with shooting stars and the Milky Way, a night beneath the waves with octopus and sharks, and a night in the frozen North with Arctic foxes and reindeer.

Packed with fascinating, bite-sized facts, all perfectly pitched for younger readers, and the busy, vibrant and atmospheric illustrations of Bonnie Pang, this enchanting book offers lots to look at and talk about on every page.

And with links to specially selected websites enabling children to discover more about night life, this is the ideal book to discover what goes on after the sun goes down… from the safety of your warm and cosy armchair!

(Usborne, hardback, £12.99)

Age 3 plus:

I’m not (very) afraid of the dark by Anna Milbourne and Daniel Rieley

And if your little one is scared of the dark, turn the pages of another enchanting book from Usborne… and shine a new light on night time!

In the day, the Dark is small but when the sun goes down, the Dark stretches out. It gets bigger and bigger until it covers everything. The Dark can be scary, with shadows, ‘monster-y’ shapes on the wall and tap-taps on the window, but it can be other things too – it all depends on how you see it.

This beautifully illustrated and imaginative picture book – packed with intriguing light and shade contrasts – tells the story of a little boy’s fear of the dark and helps to promote a more positive attitude to the darkness of night time.

With its reassuring text and hundreds of intricate, laser-cut holes in which shapes and shadows on one page become simple, recognisable objects or vistas on another – including a stunning star-filled sky – this is the perfect antidote to scary dark nights.

(Usborne, hardback, £12.99)

Age 3 plus:

Nibbles: The Monster Hunt by Emma Yarlett

He’s back and he’s crunching his way into danger… Nibbles, the adorable yellow monster who has stolen hearts both young and old with his munching madness, is blasting off on a madcap new adventure in the wonderful world of books!

Multi-talented author and illustrator Emma Yarlett touches the funny bone of readers aged from nought to ninety as she rolls out her irresistible brand of clever, conceptual art and design work, and magical, fun-filled storytelling with her mischievous little book monster.

The Monster Hunt is the third Nibbles adventure and offers the same captivating mix of imaginative storytelling, innovative flaps to lift and intriguing cut-out holes to peep through as youngsters embark on a journey of fun, facts, jokes and crazy capers.

Nibbles can’t help but cause chaos as he meets a dragon, takes a bite out of the moon, chases a cat, sinks a ship, goes for a ride on a rocket and makes a brand new friend...

Innovative, cleverly interactive, brimming with the kind of bright and lively illustrations that children love, and with fascinating facts about subjects as diverse as the sun and moon, cats and dogs, images and words, counting and colours, this a joyful and playful book that amuses, informs and entertains from first page to last.

(Little Tiger, hardback, £12.99)

Age 3 plus:

Once Upon a Wild Wood by Chris Riddell

September is proving to be an extra special treat for young readers with the publication of three magical picture books from Chris Riddell, the acclaimed author, illustrator, cartoonist and former Children’s Laureate.

First off the press is Once Upon a Wild Wood, the shortlisted picture book for last year’s Specsavers’ National Book Awards, which comes packed with Riddell’s signature artistic flair and soaring imaginative skill.

This super-funny story turns the classic fairy tales on their heads as a vibrant cast of familiar characters, from Red Riding Hood, Thumbelina and Rapunzel to Beauty and the Beast, the three bears and Cinderella, join a host of new faces in a story full of warmth, wit and Riddell’s trademark rich and colourful detail.

Little Green Raincape is on her way to Rapunzel’s party, deep in the wild woods. The way is long and dark, but Green is a smart girl. Smart enough to turn down apples offered by kindly old ladies, smart enough to turn down travel advice from helpful wolves, and above all, smart enough to solve a wealth of classic fairy tale problems… not least mend a lovelorn beast’s broken heart!

Once Upon a Wild Wood is a richly imagined adventure starring fairy tale characters as you’ve never before seen them, and with a visual feast of Riddell’s illustrations on every page… picture book perfection!

Also out this month is The Emperor of Absurdia, the reprint of another classic picture book from Riddell, which gives centre stage to a strange and wonderful land where nothing is quite what it seems.

Trees are birds, umbrellas are trees, and the sky is thick with snoring fish. Join one small boy as he tumbles out of bed into a crazy dreamland of wardrobe monsters, fierce dragons… and amazing adventure.

This exquisitely illustrated book is brimming with imaginative power and is sure to enchant readers as they return time and time again to enjoy the timeless story, and pore over the spectacular gallery of illustrations.

A dream read for all the family!

And the same artistic prowess springs to glorious life in Wendel and the Robots, Riddell’s funny robot adventure with a subtle environmental message.

Wendel is a very clever mouse, but he’s not a very tidy one. If his inventions go wrong, Wendel just throws them away and starts again. So when Clunk, his robot assistant, fills the sock drawer with cups and saucers and makes tea in a Wellington boot, Wendel throws him on the scrap heap and makes himself a new assistant… the Wendelbot. But he gets more than he bargained for, and soon Wendel finds himself on the scrap heap. Can he win back his workshop from the mighty Wendelbot? Let the robot battle commence!

Expect madness and mayhem as Riddell employs his characteristic verve on a wonderfully funny, action-packed story full of surprises and extraordinary inventions, and a reminder to all of us about the dangers of a throwaway society.

Ingeniously imagined and illustriously illustrated…

(Macmillan Children’s Books, paperback, £6.99 each)

Age 2 plus:

The Smeds and the Smoos by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Soar into space with this glorious love story starring warring tribes of alien folk… the latest from the celebrated team that created The Gruffalo and Stick Man.

Author Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler work their special magic on a warmhearted and timely story underlining the importance of togetherness. The Smeds and the Smoos is a funny, joyous and cleverly creative story full of Donaldson’s trademark irresistible rhyming and a lexicon of new nonsense words that will delight children.

Add on Scheffler’s vibrant, characterful and colourful gallery of illustrations, capturing the moving message, spirit and humour of two star-crossed aliens finding love against all the odds, and you have the perfect, inspirational story for a troubled world.

The Smeds (who are red) never mix with the Smoos (who are blue). So when young Smed Janet and Bill the Smoo fall in love, their families strongly disapprove. But peace is restored and love conquers all in this happiest of love stories… and there’s even a gorgeous purple baby to celebrate!

With an alien Gruffalo to spot along the way, powerful messages about love and friendship, and adorable characters to win everyone’s hearts, The Smeds and the Smoos is a marriage made… on a distant planet!

(Alison Green Books, hardback, £12.99)