The Dog Who Lost His Bark by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by P.J. Lynch

Patrick has longed for a dog forever but his dad, a touring musician, is allergic to animal hair so he is puzzled but pleased when his mum agrees to take him to a rescue centre during the summer to choose a dog of his own. Oz is a rescue dog who doesn’t trust people. His previous owners treated him cruelly and he has lost his bark. But Patrick knows as soon as he sees him that Oz is the dog for him. They take him back to grandfather’s apartment where they are staying for the summer holidays, and where his mother tutors and his grandfather runs a music school. Patrick texts his dad in Australia to tell him about Oz’s progress. So we learn how Patrick helps Oz to get his bark back when he howls along to the music from the violin players practising downstairs. But when Patrick learns sad news can Oz return the favour and help Patrick find his bark?

This is a beautifully told tale of love and loyalty and hope, which caused me to shed a tear towards the end. The story is told from both the perspective of the boy and the dog with sensitivity and without sentimentality. The choice of vocabulary and different perspectives portrayed ensure that this is a quality yet easy read. The text is presented in double spacing and with a simple larger font which makes this a very accessible story for those with reading difficulties. Great for thoughtful newly independent readers.

 

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Once Upon a Snowstorm by Richard Johnson

This is a beautifully illustrated wordless picture book about a father and son who live cosy and warm in a cabin in the snowy woods. While there are pictures on the wall of the living room showing mum, dad and son there is no evidence of the mother. There is no food in the house so father and son prepare to go hunting in the snow. Father carries a rifle and the son dons hat coat and scarf and up the hill into the pine woods they go. The snow falls all around them, depicted as ethereal white deer, fox, stoat and squirrel like creatures. The boy closes his eyes to feel the snow against his face, and when he opens them again his father is nowhere to be found. Eventually he lies down under a constellation of stars depicting wild forest animals and falls asleep.He awakes surrounded by forest animals wide eyed with curiosity. The animals teach him many things including the safe food to forage and cave painting. A drawing he creates of him and his father reminds of the purpose of his journey into the woods. Luckily a bear leads him home where his father raises his rifle to shoot the bear and is stopped by the boy.the boy then introduces him to the other animals friends he made while lost in the forest. The last page shows the father and son in summer, sat on a grassy slope surrounded by woodland creatures while the boy’s friend bear lumbers off back to the woods.

This is a sensitive portrayal of a father and son’s relationship, where the woman in the photograph is has no relevance to the story at all except to explain perhaps why a small boy is out in a thunderstorm with his father instead of safe and warm at home. The surreal experience of making friends with the woodland wildlife begins with the boy offering the bear a humbug. The setting is obviously not the UK as there are raccoons and chipmunks in evidence but to me there are echoes of Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman in the portrayal of the woodland jamboree. The story has a soothing allegorical feel to it and with only illustrations to rely on is open to interpretation making it ideal for encouraging inference from perceptive children. The artistic end papers with pictures and symbols ostensibly painted by the boy and the bear on the cave wall could inspire lots of creative art work at home and in the classroom.

 

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

The book of boy is, on the surface, the tale of a medieval pilgrim and a hunchback boy who are travelling together to the tomb of St Peter in the City of Rome. So far so good. The hunchback boy is a servant in a household where, after pestilence has killed off her ladyship and the local priest, the cook is now lady of the manor and the lord is a dribbling infant paralysed by a blow to the head. The cook’s son torments the boy who’s only joy in life are the goats he minds for his living. Even so, when the sinister pilgrim Secundus pays the cook to take the boy off her hands as he requires a servant to carry his pack containing the relic of St. Peter, the boy pleads with the cook to let him stay.    Though the two travellers begin their journey in mutual fear and dislike, slowly they learn more about each other and begin to trust a little. But there is much more to this pilgrimage than the pilgrim lets on and boy has a secret of his own which he aptly hides under his hunchedback.

Boy is often mistaken for a girl perhaps because of his blonde curls. Towards the end of the story the lairy Roman girl with the brigands warns him to beware of the monks. When he asks why she says it is because they will cut off his hand for stealing, but she hesitates before answering which suggests to me that that is not the reason at all. The book itself is so simply written and the text font is large and the chapters brief and always moving the characters forward..it would be easy to mistake this for a tale suitable for year 3 or 4…but don’t be fooled..there are big ideas in the telling of this tale and subtle underlying themes that require a maturity even a year 6 might struggle to perceive or deal with. I surprised myself by assuming that this was a gender bending book much like Gene Kemp’s Tyke Tyler…where the reader begins by thinking the narrator is male and discovers half way through that he is female…this is not that kind of book..not even close. Boy is a compelling character who carries you along with his tenacity and determination, and even a little bit of laughter amongst his struggles. The reader finds themselves routing for his survival in whatever form that might be, and is heart in mouth when all seems lost.

A compelling, suspenseful yet uplifting tale. Definitely worth reading and superb, not just in the storytelling but in that there are very few other children’s books currently that I can think of which leave me thinking long after I have read them…Geraldine McCaughrean’s Carnegie award winning “Where the World Ends” is the only one that immediately springs to mind…I can hear you all protesting but if you knock off the list all those middle grade and YA books which are so superb you’ll see what I’m getting at here. It’s the reason why I think we struggle to select the right winners for the Carnegie year after year…but that’s an argument for another time. For the right reader this is a perfect richly referenced historical allegorical novel to be drawn into. To be handled carefully if recommending to younger KS2 readers.

 

A Far Away Magic by Amy Wilson

this is a fantastically  magical story of love, friendship and tenacity. Angel is having trouble adjusting to her new life with foster parents in a new town and going to a new school. She feels traumatised by her experiences witnessing when her parents were killed in their home. But worse than that, she believes it was magic and monsters that killed them and not burglars as the police said, but she has stopped trying to convince anyone because no one believes her. Bavar has also lost his parents but in what he believes are vastly different circumstances. Bavar comes from  long ancestry of monster fighters and his parents died while fighting to keep the Raksasa from breaching the rift and attacking more humans. Little does he know that the last humans to lose their life were new girl Angel’s parents.

Angel’s struggles to come to terms with her new situation and learn to live with the eccentricities of her foster parents. The author cleverly pinpoints the ordinary everyday things and routines that remind her of her parents and how very different they feel when her foster parents are the ones doing them. Bavar is a large lad trying to hide his height and strength. The author portrays this very well, and the ‘monster’ lurking beneath the surface, in her description of him with the shadows around him, navigating  enclosed spaces and tripping over his own feet. The plot and the characters remind me a little of A F Harrold’s The Song from Somewhere Else and some YA  fiction in the way it successfully creates a dark menacing atmosphere without much actually happening. All the suspense is built in the suggestion of what could happen rather than in any gory live action scenes and so make this monster thriller ideal for 10+

 

Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eager

Fedelia is the daughter of the famous marine biologists Dr and Dr Quail. Sadly her parents tragically die at the very beginning of the story in a fierce storm while studying underwater life near where they live. The submarine they were in at the time the storm hit was a unique invention created by Fidelia and she therefore harbours a lot of guilt. Aunt Julia, the island librarian, takes on duty of care for Fidelia but it is a bad fit and Fidelia yearns for the sea and her own studies. Both she and aunt Julia miss her parents tremendously, each in their own way.

Then she is kidnapped by the monstrous pirate Merrick, most feared pirate of the high seas. In the ensuing adventure she learns that nothing is what it seems and that even pirates with the blackest hearts have redeeming qualities.

This is an engrossing tale of adventure, love, loss and creativity. I loved the character of Fidelia with her passion for sharks, her religious record keeping and David Attenborough style observations and her ingenius inventions. I loved how the author portrays her rather neglectful parents without censorship and with all points of view, allowing the reader to see how the three fit together as a family. I am sure there are many families who look a bit dysfunctional from the outside but it works for them. I loved the loyalty of Merrick’s two shipmates (tho I wish mention of any romantic feelings between them had been left out as I thought it added nothing to the plot) and I adored the disreputable Merrick who begins the story as a murderous psychopath and becomes more and more human as we reach the denouement of the story.

if you’re looking for a nail biting sea faring pirating and marine research adventure with lots of character and brim full of ideas and inventions, this is the one. Interest level 8+ reading ability probably 10+

The Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis

it takes a lot to bring a tear to my eye, but page 264 of the paperback edition of this book did just that. I’ve read the first in this series and it certainly helps to know a bit of background to some of the characters but it’s not essential to enjoying the sequel in its own right.

Essentially, Silke and Aventurine are two very unusual girls who work in the most famous chocolatiers of Drachenburg. Silke is a refugee and market stall girl who supplements her income as a waitress at The Chocolate Heart cafe. Aventurine is a young dragon who, in the previous book ‘The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart’, became enchanted by a food mage into appearing as a human girl with a taste for chocolate. In this story, we learn of Silke’s life on the streets and how she came to be there. We follow her on her new adventure when she is recruited by the crown princess to become a spy in the palace during the much feared visit of the Fairy King and Queen of Elvenden. Unlike the previous book which was told from Aventurine’s viewpoint, this story comes completely from Silke’s perspective and as such is a roller coaster of emotions, fierce protectivenesss, bravery and denial. Determined to discover what happened to her parents 6 years ago, trying to patch up the broken relationship with her older brother and struggling to prevent the dragons and fairies from beginning all out war, this plot carries the reader along with Silke and her stubborn determination that stories will fix everything. Silke’s brittle shiny exterior disguises her longing to be loved and accepted by the people she cares about and all her decisions are affected by this desire. Not only does the story help us empathise with the challenges refugees face but it also gives some insight into the mental turmoil a looked after child might be under when they have been without a stable family environment for so long.

An easy read for those who love fantasy, this could be enjoyed as a continuation of the saga of Drachenburg and the dragon and humans alliance. However, for more thoughtful immersive readers it is an emotionally challenging and heartwarming tale of love in all its guises.

 

The Boy Who Hit Play by Chloe Daykin

The premise for this story is the hunt for the missing parents of Elvis Crampton Lucas. Abandoned as a baby and discovered in a Stetson hat in the local zoo by George Arthur Lucas, Elvis has always wanted to know why his parents left him. And so his adopted dad and his dad’s best mate Lloyd take Elvis on a hunt with just a newspaper from Norway as a clue. This is the most unusual story, full of bizarre characters and strange twists and turns. The reader must suspend their disbelief a little given the outrageous events which occur to Elvis in his search for his birth parents. But the story draws to a very satisfactory ending with almost a hint of a sequel to come. At the very least the characters are so strongly drawn and alive on the page that one feels as if their lives and adventures must continue long after the reader has closed the book. For the reader looking for something a little off the wall with some wry humour and a plot that keeps you guessing and laughing and heartbreaking and cringing all at once, this is the book.

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.

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.