The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd illustrated by Levi Pinfold

December 1941. World War II is raging. Emmaline has been evacuated away from the bombs to Briar Hill Hospital in Shropshire. When she gets there, she discovers a secret. It’s not to be shared with anyone, even her only friend. This is Emmaline’s secret: there are winged horses that live in the mirrors of Briar Hill.

This is a tale of family love, guilt and a passion for life. The story is told from Emmaline’s viewpoint and beautifully illustrated by Levi Pinfold. The reader may want to spend time immersed in this story. This is not a pacy page turning tale but a slow thoughtful read . There are many multi-faceted characters from the bed ridden Anna who takes Emmaline under her wing, the seemingly severe Sister Constance and the one armed farm hand Thomas. Emmaline however is the driving force in this story. We hear snatches of conversation from the nuns and the other children which give the reader clues as to the events leading up to her quarantine in the hospital along with the other tuberculosis patients. However, it is not until the very end of the story after her many attempts to save a winged horse she finds in the gardens that we learn her backstory. The majority of the plot is taken up with her attempts throughout to prove that the wing horses exist and how this affects her relationships with the other children and adults in the hospital. The atmospheric illustrations by Levi Pinfold provide the occasional break in the text and a welcome pause from the intensity of the plot. The lyrical language and immediacy of the first person narrative create an emotional and poetic feel to this historical novel. A challenging read for the thoughtful reader, it will tug at your heart strings and provide an insight to the less well known aspects of this period in history.


Charlie and me by Mark Lowery

Thirteen-year-old Martin and his younger brother Charlie are on a very special journey. They’re going to be travelling 421 miles all the way from Preston to the very tip of Cornwall. They’re hoping to catch a glimpse of the dolphin that regularly visits the harbour there. But is that the only reason they are going?

This is a very funny and yet vaguely disturbing story. The reader knows something isn’t right but doesn’t know what and so the narrative makes for uncomfortable reading. The lead character writes poetry and a poem of his creation relating to the story line begins each chapter, which I think is a nice touch. The relationship between Martin and Charlie is very clearly portrayed and there is an authentic relationship with a teenage girl later in the story which also rings true . However,  I’d definitely question the likelihood of a 13year old convincing the train ticket salesperson that he is 16 especially after failing to buy 2 child tickets from the same person earlier. Having read the previous three books by this author, which are all in a similarly irreverent laddish style, I’d like to read a funny story for younger readers written by him, one that comes across as playful with a light touch where this one seems targeted at 12+ and not the 9-11 age group quoted by the publisher on the back jacket. It is possible to be amusing in dark situations without resorting to toilet humour, as Christopher Edge has successfully demonstrated in “The Many Worlds of Albie Bright”; and to tackle adult and children’s points of view in a story written from the child’s viewpoint such as in “Cosmic” by Frank Cottrell Boyce. I just didn’t warm to any of the characters in this book although I appreciated the sentiment behind the story. Perhaps it’s just not the type of humour that appeals to me, but I’m not the target audience. I expect there are teenagers who will love the humour and some who will appreciate the struggles of the main characters.

Thank you to Toppsta ( for the copy of this title to review.

The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club

Stella Starflake Pearl is determined to accompany her adopted father on his Polar expedition despite the rules refusing girls into the club or the frosty reception she receives from the son of the rival Ocean Squid Explorers’s Club. However, once they arrive in the ice lands, circumstances soon separate the children from the rest of the group and they have a short space in time in order to explore and make it back to the ship before it disembarks for the winter.

This is a rollicking read full of references to the Polar regions interspersed with random fantastical and magical creatures, including a giant yeti and some fairies that give you frostbite. If you can suspend your disbelief then this is a pacy adventure story with lots of twists and turns to keep the reader hooked. The characters all have well rounded personalities with faults and motivations for their behaviour. There are a few didactic explanations why good behaviour is to be encouraged such as when Felix explains to his daughter why it’s important to be kind. These come across as a little contrived but this does not detract from the essence of the story, which is one of bravery, love, loyalty, friendship and curiosity. Ideal for any independent young reader of 9+.

Chapter Books with illustrations

“her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?’” A direct quote from Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland this accurately depicts most young newly independent readers’ opinion of fiction without illustrations. So it’s no surprise that there are many short chapter books being published now with black & white pencil illustration and in some cases full colour pictures on every third or fourth page.

A good example of some of these are:

Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed by Michael Rosen & illustrated by Neal Layton

The Grunts on the Run by Philip Ardagh & illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Moone Boy: the Fish Detective  by Chris O’Dowd & Nick Murphy

Hamish and the World Stoppers by Danny Wallace

Future Ratboy and the Invasion of the Nom Noms by Jim Smith

Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans by Gary Northfield

Pugs of the Frozen North by Philip Reeve & Sarah McIntyre

Shouty Kid: How Harry Riddles Totally Went Wild by Simon Mayle

Badly Drawn Beth: Happy Birthday by Knife & Packer

The 65-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths & illustrated by Terry Denton

Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman & illustrated by Chris Riddell

My Embarrassing Dad’s Gone Viral by Ben Davis & illustrated by Mike Lowery

Eddy Stone and the Epic Holiday Mash-up by Simon Cheshire

The Spy Who Loved School Dinners by Pamela Butchart & illustrated by Thomas Flincham

The Bad Guys: episode 2 by Aaron Blabey

Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection: maidservants, mystery & murder by Julia Lee

Electrigirl and the Deadly Swarm by Jo Cotterill & illustrated by Cathy Brett

Some of these books credit their illustrators on the front cover. This is a growing practice amongst children’s publishers of fiction for older children and no longer just the preserve of picture book illustrators. Others are joint author/illustrator partnerships and some authors both write and illustrate. It’s pleasing to see a growing acknowledgement of the important part illustrators have to play in the creation and complete packaging of children’s books.



High-Low Fiction Spring 2017

If you’re as old as I am you may remember a book promotion leaflet in public libraries called: Can’t Read, Won’t Read. It was aimed at those young reluctant readers who were struggling to finish a book and those who found even choosing a book they were both interested in and able to read was a challenge.
Nowadays we call this type of reader a “High-Low” reader. Primarily this refers to 7-11 year olds with a high interest level and low reading age. Teachers, who select differentiated non-fiction to meet the needs of these pupils in their class topic work, are constantly on the look-out for fiction which will be equally as accessible. There are many ways to reach reluctant readers and not all will apply to all readers, but the five main ones are:
fun non-fiction – these are the fact books which present information in visually appealing and bite sized pieces, often with humour and irreverence at the core. Examples might be: the Animal Science series by Nicola Davies; Greenaway award winning Shackleton’s journey by William Grill,; IF: “a mind bending way of looking at big ideas and numbers” by David J. Smith, and Survivors by David Long.
Poetry – poems are the ideal way to access rich language without the density of narrative text. There have been several excellent collections published recently for children aged 7+ including: Werewolf Club Rules by Joseph Coelho; Language of Cat by Rachel Rooney and Stars in Jars by Chrissie Gittins.
Picture books for older readers – as described these are picture books but with a complex theme, illustrations and subject matter targeted at a Key Stage 2 readership rather than the under 7s. Good examples recently published include: Footpath Flowers by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith; The Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan and I am Henry Finch by Alex Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz. Wordless picture books feature strongly in this genre and are a great way to practise the scaffolding of learning to read, and build confidence with visual literacy by drawing context from the illustrations.
Comic strip/Graphic novels –this type of material is often associated with the lurid illustrations of the Marvel and DC comics for adults, however there are a huge range of more age appropriate titles and themes for children. This format can be ideal for those with dyslexia and other reading difficulties, though beware of stylised fonts and busy illustrations. The glossy, grown up format is appealing to all readers allowing statemented readers to maintain some street cred in the playground. The more well known amongst these are character led fiction such as: Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney, Dork Diaries by Rachel Russell and the “Tom Gates” series by Liz Pichon. However, for a more varied range of storylines and authors try: Sisters by Raina Telgemeier, Electrigirl by Cathy Brett, Lost Tales by Adam Murphy (of The Phoenix presents series) and Hilo by Judd Winick.
Fiction – High-low fiction can include everything from Barrington Stoke publications, which include a huge range of titles and reading levels (see their Barrington Stoke website for more information), to Michael Dahl’s really scary stories published by Raintree and the “You choose” series of choose your own adventure books published by Capstone Press.
With more titles published every day, it is a challenge to keep up with what’s good and what’s not so good. Ideally your local school or public librarian will be on hand to point you in the right direction but if you use these suggested authors & titles as a starting point then you may find the children themselves will proffer some new books to add to the collection. What could be better than using the untapped resources of those at the coal face to help inform and extend your High-low collection.