Wartime drama, exploding grandparents and sky-high fun by various authors - book reviews -

Enjoy a thrilling follow-up to a Costa award-winning wartime adventure, laugh your socks off with a comedy classic, head to the skies for wit, wonder and magic, and meet a steam-powered rhino with a water tank for its stomach in an eclectic mix of new children’s books.

By Pam Norfolk
Wednesday, 26th May 2021, 12:30 pm
The Swallows’ Flight
The Swallows’ Flight

Age 9 plus:

The Swallows’ Flight

Hilary McKay

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Three years after her moving First World War saga, The Skylarks’ War, won the Costa Children’s Book Award, Hilary McKay is back with a stunning and beautiful companion novel which is set to be another middle-grade classic.

A generation (and another world war) later, we meet the children of Skylarks stars Rupert and Clarry as their lives on either side of the devastating conflict’s divide are set on a Battle of Britain collision course.

Erik and Hans are German boys. They are growing up in Berlin and dreaming up schemes to make money and feeding flies to fledgling swallows on Erik’s windowsill.

Uncle Karl takes them to the aerodrome to make coffee, polish windshields and head up into the sky in gliders. Both become pilots in the Luftwaffe… unwilling participants in the battles in the sky.

Ruby and Kate are English girls. Ruby, with her birth-marked face, is trying to dodge her brother Will’s jibes, avoid evacuation to the country and keep the family shop going with her mum. Kate, who is recording every moment in her diary before it disappears, befriends her grouchy grandfather.

The girls’ mothers Violet and Clarry were such good friends and now the young girls themselves are thrown together in loneliness.

The four youngsters grow up in worlds that would never meet until war tumbles their lives together and they become entwined by a dogfight that takes place in the skies above England one September afternoon.

There are choices to be made. How is courage lost, and found? Who is really the enemy? And what does friendship truly mean in the middle of a war?

Family and friendship are once more at centre stage as McKay plays out her inspirational and thought-provoking story against a backdrop of war, suspicion and division.

In a strife-riven world where some ignored the signs of war, and others pretended they didn’t know what was going on, McKay seamlessly weaves together characters from different sides, different families, and different classes as Erik and Hans, and Ruby and Kate stand as a symbols of hope and a better future.

Written with McKay’s masterful gift for dialogue and storytelling, featuring a cast of vibrant and beautifully drawn characters, and imbued with a sense of hope, poignancy and rapprochement, The Swallows’ Flight will wing its way into every reader’s heart.

(Macmillan Children’s Books, hardback, £12.99)

Age 9 plus:

The Caravan at the Edge of Doom

Jim Beckett and Olia Muza

Surely the vision of a set of grandparents exploding inside their caravan toilet can’t be funny?

Well, it certainly is in the hands of Jim Beckett, one half of acclaimed comedy double act, Bob and Jim, and author of pretty much everything from short stories and poetry to plays and sitcoms… oh, and also an English teacher in a south London secondary school.

This multi-talented educator and entertainer is now turning his creative hand to middle grade comedy novels and the result is The Caravan at the Edge of Doom, a hilarious and heartbreaking debut featuring yes, exploding grandparents, unexpected heroes, and a truly epic adventure.

When her grandparents explode in their caravan toilet late one night, twelve-year-old Harley discovers a surprising truth… their toilet is a gateway to the Land of the Dead, and they are its Guardians.

Well, they were. But there’s no time to mourn their passing because Harley’s baby brother Malcolm has accidentally gone with them to the Land of the Dead. And Harley only has 24 hours to rescue him before he’s trapped there FOREVER!

The perfect summer read for fans of Terry Pratchett, David Walliams and Roald Dahl, this funny, magical, action-packed adventure cleverly combines the mundane with the otherworldly whilst delivering a thrilling high-stakes, high-humour race-against-the clock.

With the atmospheric, richly detailed black and white illustrations of Olia Muza to put extra zest into the zany storyline, and serious issues like life, death and family neatly and sensitively wrapped inside, The Caravan at the Edge of Doom is one rollercoaster ride you wouldn’t want to miss!

(Farshore, paperback, £6.99)

Age 8 plus:

Arctic Star

Tom Palmer and Tom Clohosy Cole

It was a little-known wartime mission which Winston Churchill described as ‘the worst journey in the world.’

The daring and bravery of those who took part in the Second World War Arctic convoys spring to vivid life in a thrilling naval adventure from master storyteller Tom Palmer, the multi-award-winning author of D-Day Dog, and After the War: From Auschwitz to Ambleside, a moving tale inspired by the incredible true story of the Windermere Boys.

In the winter of 1943, teenagers Frank, Joseph and Stephen are Royal Navy recruits on board HMS Forgetmenot on their first mission at sea. Their ship is part of an Arctic convoy sailing to Russia to deliver supplies to the Soviets.

The convoys have to navigate treacherous waters, sailing through a narrow channel between the Arctic ice pack and German bases on the Norwegian coast.

Faced with terrifying enemy attacks from both air and sea, as well as life-threatening cold and storms, will all three boys make it home again?

Illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole, Arctic Star is a wild and gripping adventure which captures the harsh realities of warfare at sea with Palmer’s trademark historical accuracy, brilliant storytelling and amazing atmospherics.

Through the eyes and accounts of three childhood friends, readers become part of the Arctic Star crew in an action-packed story which explores loyalty and loss, and celebrates the astonishing courage of British servicemen.

(Conkers, paperback, £6.99)

Age 7 plus:

Rainbow Grey

Laura Ellen Anderson

Get ready for a rainbow-coloured adventure full of wit, wonder and magic!

There’s sky-high fun all the way to Cloud Nine as creative author and illustrator Laura Ellen Anderson takes us on a flight of vivid imagination into the world of The Weatherlands, a place where one little girl discovers her superpower to control the weather.

Ten-year-old Ray Grey lives in the magical kingdom of Celestia in The Weatherlands, high in the sky. She lives on Cloud Nine to be exact and it really does have a silver lining.

Her mum, Cloudia Grey, is always having to fix it after Ray and her adorable (but prone to exploding) clould cat, Nim, keep getting entangled in the threads. Ray is surrounded by Weatherlings with astounding weather power at their fingertips, which they use to keep the Earth safe and balanced, but poor Ray doesn’t have any magic!

Then, after a forbidden trip to Earth on the back of the flying Nim, Ray’s life changes forever. She is transformed from Ray Grey into Rainbow Grey! With the help of her best friends, Nim, Snowden Everfreeze and Droplett Dewbells, now all Ray has to do is master her powers AND save the world from a mysterious, powerful enemy.

Anderson, whose bestselling Amelia Fang books have enchanted young readers, launches her sparkling new series with a rip-roaring, colour-infused tale of bravery, storm-filled action, kindness and warm-hearted friendships.

Hilarious black and white illustrations add an extra layer of humour, charm and entertainment as one of the most charismatic cast of characters in middle grade fiction strut their stuff… come rain or shine.

So if you fancy a go at puddleporting or want to try a Rumblebun from the Rising Bun Bakery, The Weatherlands is waiting for you at the end of the rainbow!

(Farshore, paperback, £6.99)

Age 6 plus:

Will Jakeman’s Marvellous Mechanimals

Nick Ward

Just imagine it… a hydraulic bison that has a top galloping speed of 50mph and a steam-powered rhinoceros with a water tank for its stomach!

Welcome to the weird and wonderful ‘mechanimal’ world of Will Jakeman, an extraordinary inventor who is himself fuelled by the creative imagination of Nick Ward, author and illustrator of over sixty books for children, from picture books to young fiction.

So meet Will, born in a remote galaxy and now probably the best inventor there has ever been! People come from far and wide to buy his Mechanimals… incredible machines that come to life and perform all sorts of amazing tasks.

For example, there’s Steel-Skull the gorilla, perfect for dealing with bullies, and The Armoured Armadillo, a magnificent machine that can barge through most obstacles and is even armed with a gunge gun.

Learn all about Will’s childhood, the terrible fate of his parents, and discover whether the evil Ida Gripp ever gets her hands on his marvellous mechanimals.

With stunning two-colour, elaborately detailed illustrations, and the chance to invent your very own Marvellous Mechanimal, this marvellously original and ingenious book is packed full of knockabout fun, amazing illustrations… and the strangest menagerie you will see this year!

(Guppy Books, paperback, £8.99)

Age 6 plus:

50 Ways to Score a Goal and Other Football Poems

Brian Bilston

Young footie fans are guaranteed to get a kick out of a brilliant new book of football poems from word magician Brian Bilston.

Described as ‘the Banksy of poetry’ and Twitter’s unofficial Poet Laureate, Bilston is perfectly on goal with this hilarious collection of witty soccer poems that are packed with all the wonder, excitement, glory and heartbreak of the beautiful game.

Each poem is testament to Bilston’s genuine love for football, whether it’s a kick-about in the back garden, a Sunday match in the park, or simply watching your team winning the cup.

There are poems about everything from training to match day and after-match analysis to honest football chants and half-time satsumas.

With a veritable title-winning squad of poems, including puns, acrostics and shape poems, 50 Ways to Score a Goal and Other Football Poems ensures everyone has a ball!

(Macmillan Children’s Books, paperback, £7.99)

Age 4 plus:

Be A Tree!

Maria Gianferrari and Felicita Sala

The beauty and majesty of trees is celebrated in a stunning picture book which inspires youngsters to plant the seeds of a green and pleasant future.

Acclaimed author Maria Gianferrari, who has always loved trees, and self-taught illustrator Felicita Sala convey to a new generation of children the ecological importance and sheer wonder of trees through lyrical writing and gloriously colourful and original artwork.

Stand tall. Stretch your branches to the sun. Be a tree!

We are all like trees… our spines, trunks; our skin, bark; our hearts giving us strength and support, like heartwood. We are fuelled by air and sun. And, like humans, trees are social. They ‘talk’ to spread information and they share food and resources. They shelter and take care of one another. They are stronger together.

Using words, pictures and helpful endnotes which provide information and tips on the anatomy of trees and the various ways we can help save trees and help our communities, Be A Tree! subtly reveals what humans can learn from trees and how they can inspire us to be better people.

Poetic, creative, and filled with warmth and wisdom, Be A Tree! will encourage every parent and child to take a leaf out of this wonderful book and join the fight against deforestation.

(Abrams Books for Young Readers, hardback, £13.99)

Age 3 plus:

Charlie Chooses

Lou Peacock and Nicola Slater

Choices, choices… too many choices!

Making decisions isn’t always easy and no one knows that better than little Charlie, the indecisive (and very lovable!) star of a funny, heartwarming and gently reassuring picture book from dynamic author and illustrator duo Lou Peacock and Nicola Slater.

Charlie does NOT like to choose. He can’t make up his mind between chocolate or vanilla ice cream, stripy or spotty underpants… or whether he wants the lights on or off at bedtime. It’s much too hard!

The trickiest thing of all to choose is a birthday present… how will he ever make up his mind? But when a new friend with a waggy tail chooses HIM, making choices gets a little bit easier.

Charlie Chooses – with its delightful blend of colour, comedy and creative storytelling – is the perfect inspirational story to introduce young children to the concept of making seemingly impossible decisions.

With a cast of cute canine characters, some relatable tricky choices, Peacock’s glorious celebration of the joys of friendship, a hilarious twist in the ‘tail,’ and Slater’s eye-catching gallery of bold, bright and colourful illustrations, this clever picture book will easily be every pre-schooler’s bedtime reading choice!

(Nosy Crow, hardback, £11.99)

Age 3 plus:


Anna Kemp and Adam Beer

Emerging from the ice in a flurry of fur, a woolly mammoth finds the world to be a very different place to the one he knew millions of year ago!

Get ready to fall in love with an ancient beast in a funny and yet moving tale about finding your feet (and your herd!) from bestselling and much-loved author Anna Kemp who makes a welcome return alongside exciting new illustrator Adam Beer.

Big beast. Big city. BIG TROUBLE. When an Ice Age mammoth finds himself in a modern day city, he’s not at all sure what to make of this huge, gleaming forest. Strange ‘birds’ fly about in the sky, strange ‘beetles’ crawl about on the ground and who are these strange, noisy cavemen? Is he the only mammoth in the WORLD and will he ever find someone who understands him?

This woolly wanderer – fresh out of the cold and ice – is guaranteed to melt the hearts of readers young and old as Kemp and Beer work their picture book magic on his hunt for a friendly face in an unrecognisable world.

Stunning, clean-lined artwork brings Kemp’s endearing words to glorious life as the lonely, fish-out-of-water mammoth finally finds his herd… and a place to trumpet wildly!

(Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, paperback, £6.99)