Junkyard Jack and the Horse That Talked by Adrian Edmondson illustrated by Danny Noble

Jack is the proverbial Harry Potter who lives in the airing cupboard at his aunt and uncle’s house where he is bullied by his cousin Kelly. His mother is in prison for a crime she didn’t commit and he has never met his father. At least that is until the day he inherits a junkyard, rescues a Shetland pony, meets his gambler father and enters the Grand National. This is a fun romp through timeless countryside where the animals talk ( the Shetland is particularly amusing with a dry sarcastic sense of humour) and the baddies are predictable and redeemable. Ideal for newly independent readers looking for a little adventure and crime solving with a little bit of toilet humour and some cute animal characters included.

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The Porridge Plot by Che Golden

Maya has a hearing problem (it’s never named outright but references suggest glue ear) and so her family move from the city to the country. While her mum goes on a health food kick and her dad is a passive observer it is left to Maya and her older brother to explore the old dilapidated house and choose a room each to be their own. Despite mum decorating a room especially for Maya, she instead chooses to sleep in the attic room which she discovers during her exploration. But like all old houses there are animal noises at night, and creaking pipes and shadows that keep Maya awake. To make matters worse, Liam covets Maya’s bedroom in the attic and threatens to make mum and dad give it to her. When she discovers that a strange shy creature is sharing her bedroom she is determined to make friends with it. But Maya’s family do not believe her and think she has invented an imaginary friend to help her adjust to the change. The imaginary friend is a brownie, and like all brownies is sworn to keep house for the family that live there as long as he is not seen. The only reward he asks is a little pot of porridge. Maya has worked this out for herself but unfortunately her parents think she has been feeding a rat and chaos and distress ensues.

This is a beautiful little tale of the courage of a little girl who is struggling to gain some independence. Her world is peopled by others making all the decisions for her and suddenly she finds the strength to work things out for herself and defend herself. The growth of Maya’s character as the story draws to a conclusion is very evident. The character of the brownie is well drawn and it is easy to empathise with the magical little creature, turned out of his bed and home with no food and no thanks. Although Maya’s brother and parents are minor characters in comparison they are equally believable and relatable. The story is by turns funny and tragic, told with great economy yet every word matters. A great read for curling up on the sofa to enjoy, it would also make a perfect little story to read aloud to a class of 7 year olds.

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

Roz the robot is shipwrecked on the shore of an island and unwittingly activated by some curious otters. She soon learns to navigate her way around the island but at first finds it difficult to make friends with the wildlife who all perceive her as a “monster”. However when she rescues a gosling at birth and finds herself playing mother to the bird, the rest of the island inhabitants warm to her and she soon becomes an essential part of daily island life. But can this rural idyll last forever? What will happen when her manufacturer tracks her down?

This is a beautiful tale of acceptance of differences, working together and compromise. All the characters however minor are believable and the reader will find themselves wishing for all the work out well for the little robot.  A heart-warming, entertaining and thought provoking read for 9+ year olds. There is a sequel :The Wild Robot Escapes, due out in August 2018.

Belle and Sébastien by Cécile Aubry; The Goat by Anne Fleming; A Different Dog by Paul Jennings

I recently obtained three short chapter books from various publishers which I feel compelled to review as they are unusual in their style, content and originality. Unlike many short chapter books in the current publishing climate, these do not fall neatly into genres or categories. They do however contain quality language, great storytelling and appealing and relatable characters. It would be a great pity for these  three books, one of which is an English translation, to be overlooked.

Belle and Sébastien by Cécile Aubry translated by Gregory Norminton

The language and style in Belle and Sébastien is more traditional and sophisticated than your average short chapter book  but this need not be discouraging for a confident emergent reader. The familiarity of the family setting and the dialogue between characters will carry a fluent reader along with the French setting and simple plot. Sébastien is a child of the mountains, rescued at birth by a local man and adopted into his family. Belle is a Pyrenean mountain dog, roaming free in the mountains after 6 years of neglect, carelessness and circumstances by a variety of different owners. This is the tale of an unlikely friendship between boy and dog sustaining them both through their adventures in the mountains and the prejudices of the local villagers.

The Goat by Anne Fleming

Kid and her parents have moved into a New York apartment where there are an assortment of unusual characters. Kid’s home life has been a little unconventional and she struggles with her shyness. However, on discovering that there may be a goat on the roof of the apartment she finds the courage to investigate further. In doing so she becomes familiar with all the other residents and even makes some new friends.

This is a charming, amusing tale with very simple little plot and some great characterisation. The setting provides the ideal, atmospheric backdrop to this quirky little tale and gives a flavour of the diverse mix that makes up any inner city community.

A Different Dog by Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings is, I think, more famously known for his wacky humorous middle grade fiction and collaborations with authors such as Morris Gleitzman. So this was a refreshing and thought provoking departure for him. Of the three books reviewed, this is the easiest read with black and white illustrations introducing each chapter, clear spacing between lines and economy of descriptions and dialogue. However, of the content this is probably the most challenging tale to tell.

A boy walks up the mountain to run a race in the hope of winning the prize money to help his mother to feed and clothe the two of them. He is taunted and bullied by school children as he ascends and the reader discovers that the boy is an elective mute. He observes the driver of a truck coming down the mountain at speed, with a dog in the passenger seat. When the van passes him he realises it is going to skid out of control on the bend. He races after the van into the undergrowth to see if he can help, thereby passing up his chance to participate in the race.

There is depth to the plot and character development in this story despite the very simple premise and which cannot be told in a brief précis. As in Belle and Sébastien this is a tale of two misfits, boy and dog.  By the qualities of the boy’s temperament, courage and resilience he saves the dog and in turn the dog saves him, against all the odds.

my thanks go to Alma Classics; Pushkin Press and Old Barn Books for copies of these books to review.

Running on empty by S E Durrant

AJ loves running. Grieving for his grandad who recently died, AJ is having difficulty coming to terms with his loss especially as his grandad was a runner too and supported AJ with his training. His parents have learning difficulties so grandad made sure the family kept going financially as well as emotionally. But now there is no-one to pay the bills and deal with the adult things that his parents struggle to understand. AJ is afraid that he will be taken into care if he tells another adult about the situation so he tries to manage on his own.

This is a moving, heartwarming story that shows how important it is that extended families talk to each other and share their worries as well as their successes. AJ is surrounded by people who could help but is afraid to ask in case there are negative consequences.  I appreciated the characterisation of his mum and dad with their big hearts and childlike approach to life and the fierce, loyal and funny younger cousin Aisha. AJ also learns that people at school aren’t always as mean as he thinks they are, and this enables him to form valuable friendships. Overall this book is an easy read with some thoughtful issues. The serious topic of life as a young carer is dealt with sensitively and there is a lot of humour which plays off nicely against the tense, more challenging events in AJ’s life. AJ idolises Usain Bolt and the story is set in London near the Olympic park which is referenced throughout the book. Reading level 9+

Skeleton Tree by Kim Ventrella

skeletontreeStanley finds a bone growing in the garden which he plans to film for a National Geographic online competition with a prize which he is sure will persuade his absent father to return home. The bone soon becomes a full body skeleton and Stanley tries to keep it secret from his stressed mother and sickly younger sister while he and friend Jaxon photograph it on Jaxon’s ipad.  Stanley’s sister Miren discovers his secret and soon there is a struggle to keep the evidence from the adults and prevent Miren blabbing to their mum. As Miren’s illness becomes worse and the animated skeleton becomes the only thing to keep Miren entertained and happy, events begin to spiral out of control.  Will Stanley ever be able to convince his father to come home? Will Ms Francine stop feeding them borscht and telling them to eat up their hot chocolate? Will Stanley and Miren’s mum ever stop working, pay more attention to Stanley and see what is right in front of her eyes?

This is a marvellous tale of gothic humour and joyous imagination with a more serious underlying theme of family, bereavement and acceptance. The chapters are short and pacy and the characters are richly faceted including a Kyrgyzstan childminder who has a significant part to play in keeping this dysfunctional family together. An emotionally challenging read for 9-12 year olds, the effortless style and light-hearted 3rd person narrative belies the serious message in the tale. More than one tear will be shed by the end!

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

Peony is kidnapped by her mother and dragged away from her family home where she is happy helping on the farm which collects pollen from the fruit trees . Her mother has a job in a big house and dates a violent man who Peony doesn’t like. Peony is forced to live and work in the house in the city with her mother when she really wants to become a “Bee” on the farm.

The author describes the life Peony leads with her sister and Grampa so clearly and makes the agricultural lifestyle they live in (sometime in the near future ) very  real. The transitory nature of the plot and the fate of Peony and her friends and family compels the reader to read on.   This is a thought provoking yet easy read ideal to support a class topic on diversity and environmental change yet also an emotionally challenging read with regards to complex family relationships and friendships for the reflective year 6/7+reader.

My thanks to Oldbarnbooks for a copy of How to Bee