Circus magic, forest wonders and a hero dog - book reviews

Nell and the Circus of Dreams by Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith
Nell and the Circus of Dreams by Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith

Step into a circus of dreams, explore the world’s rainforests, enjoy an interactive monster hunt, and join in some barking mad canine capers in a springtime collection of enchanting new children’s books.

Age 2 plus:

Nell and the Circus of Dreams

Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith

Open the pages of this spellbinding book and enjoy all the magic and mystery of the circus!

Nell Gifford, the visionary founder of the real-life Giffords Circus, a touring circus that has delighted and entertained over one million people in London and the Cotswolds since it started in 2000, brings us the unforgettable sparkle and spectacle of the big top in a spellbinding picture book inspired by her own experiences.

Beautifully written by Gifford and featuring the stunning, atmospheric illustrations of Briony May Smith, Nell and the Circus of Dreams is a truly spectacular and heartwarming book, beautifully presented with a linen-feel cover and foil, and packed full of poignancy, adventure and the spirit of kindness.

It’s a sad summer for a little girl called Nell because her mother is so ill that she cannot get out of bed. When Nell finds a tiny lost chick in her dusty farmyard, it is the start of a loving friendship. And soon the chick, who is called Rosebud and carries all Nell’s dreams and fears in her soft, warm feathers, takes the lonely girl on a journey into an enchanting circus world.

There, Nell meets a host of friendly people who speak in musical tones and share their thrilling life in the circus ring. And when the circus finally leaves, Nell must decide if her time there was something real or came from her imagination? She will never be sure… but her heart is uplifted by the wonderland that she found inside.

This wonderful story captures the dreamlike magic of the circus show as well as the authentic daily experiences and camaraderie of the performers’ tight-knit community. There are also subtle messages about finding recovery in the face of illness as Nell’s mother draws strength from the happiness that Nell brings back from her circus adventure.

Moving, magical and memorable, Nell and the Circus of Dreams is a dream gift for young readers…

(Oxford University Press, hardback, £11.99)

Age 9 plus:

Dragon Daughter

Liz Flanagan

Inspired by many of the beautiful places she has visited, Yorkshire author Liz Flanagan takes youngsters on a thrilling fantasy ride in a magic land of dragons and evil deeds.

Teeming with tension, danger, fast-paced action, fiery friendships and dragon riders, this is a thrilling middle grade epic full of heart, hope and themes of migration and tolerance which will strike a chord with youngsters in today’s world.

On the island of Arcosi, a place of dusty stone, orange trees, rotting fish, spice and blossom, dragons and their riders used to rule the skies but now they are only legends, found in bedtime stories, on beautiful murals and ancient jewellery.

When 12-year-old servant girl Milla accidentally witnesses a murder by a mystery assassin, she opens the victim’s pannier and finds herself caring for the last four dragon eggs. Forced to keep them secret amidst the growing tensions in the city, she begins to fear that the island’s ruler, Duke Olvar, isn’t all that he seems.

But how can Milla and her friends keep the eggs safe when it means endangering everything she has ever loved? Friendships, forgotten family and the struggle for power collide as Milla’s fight to save the dragons leads her to discover her own hidden past.

Milla’s extraordinary journey of self-discovery and her epic quest to save both dragons and the people of her land is a thrilling adventure full of conflict, page-turning peril and soaraway fantasy, but it is also a tale of our times which speaks volumes about the importance of peace and unity.

Creative, exciting and beautifully written…

(David Fickling Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age 8 plus:

In Focus: Forests

Draw back the canopy of the world’s rainforests and see for yourself the wonders that lie beneath!

Children will love getting their hands on this innovative, super-sized book which delves into forests and woodlands to explore the creatures, culture, and conservation of our forested areas. Ten talented illustrators prove good things come in tens as they place ten subjects under the microscope to explore the wilderness, wonders and wildlife of forests and woodland.

Lift the giant flaps and enjoy other novelty elements on every spread to begin an illuminating and informative journey which winds through the fir trees, and dives to the depths of the kelp forest to uncover the fascinating facts of forests and their unique ecosystems.

In Focus: Forests is simply jam-packed with fascinating facts about plant life, forest creatures like Amazonian manatees, piranhas and green anacondas, and the customs of people who live in these special areas around the world.

Discover kelp forests which grow underwater, learn about forest mythology, the mangrove forests which grow along tropical coastlines, and find out how forests contain plants that we can use to cure diseases.

This outstanding book is written by Libby Walden and illustrated by Grace Easton, Julie Colombet, Suzanne Washington, Sol Linero, Stephanie Fizer Coleman, Irene Montano, Marc Pattenden, Alessandra Santelli, Aaron Cushley and Jenny Wren.

It comes from 360 Degrees, a non-fiction imprint of the Little Tiger Group which offers a stimulating and creative approach to presenting non-fiction books.

A whole world of learning in one big, beautiful book…

(360 Degrees, hardback, £14.99)

Age 7 plus:

Monsters: A Magic Lens Hunt for Creatures of Myth, Legend, Fairy Tale and Fiction

Céline Potard and Sophie Ledesma

Fascinating or frightening, monsters are everywhere… but who are they, what do they look like, and what do they do?

Budding sleuths will love using the ‘magical detector’ tucked inside this intriguing, interactive book as they set out to comb forests, caves, mountains, castles, and fairy tales to discover the secrets of monsters and then hunt them down with a hand-held coloured lens.

Armed with the monster-revealing magic lens, young detectives must find some of their favourite characters from fiction, film, myth and legend which are all hidden on pages packed with quirky, vivid illustrations and the secret story of each fascinating and sometimes frightening creature.

Investigate haunted castles, spooky forests and outer space, and then find the favourite monsters just waiting to jump out when the magic lens is held over them. Mythological creatures, ghostly spirits and monsters from film and fiction all make an appearance and a brief, lively text reveals all their secrets, from their ghastly origins to their favourite meals. And if that wasn’t enough, children also get the chance to design their very own monster.

Written by Céline Potard and illustrated by Sophie Ledesma, Monsters comes from What on Earth, publisher of non-fiction books that engage children’s natural curiosity and passion for learning.

Monstrously good!

(What on Earth Publishing, hardback, £14.99)

Age 5 plus:

Spot Guevara: Hero Dog

Zaro Weil and Katy Riddell

If your youngsters are barking mad for canine capers, then here’s an action-packed adventure story starring a lovable dog coping with life on the mean streets of New York City.

Spot Guevara: Hero Dog – the first book of an exciting new series that is perfect for young readers – is based on the real-life sheep dog of author Zaro Weil who lives in France and has also written poetry for children.

Spot, a lively puppy with a lovely story to tell, is brought to life by a gorgeous gallery of colour illustrations from Katy Riddell, daughter of the former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell, and an illustration talent in her own right.

Born rough on the streets of Brooklyn, the seventh puppy in his mum’s litter, Spot relates his story in his own inimitable words. Spot loves to roam the city and meet new friends, like the human Perfecto Guevara who brings Spot and his family scraps of food, as well as cuddles and lots of love. Spot also has to learn to fend off danger, and find about other people and other dogs.

But one terrible day, Spot’s entire family are carted off by the Dog police while he is out exploring and he vows never to give up searching for them, even if it means crossing the frighteningly huge Brooklyn Bridge…

Youngsters will love following Spot’s adventures and misadventures in New York City as he confronts tough enemies and becomes the ultimate lovable doggy hero. Written in chapter book format, this is ideal reading for children to enjoy on their own, or to cuddle up and share with an adult.

(ZaZaKids in association with Troika Books, paperback, £8.99)

Age 3 plus:

Sea: A World Beneath the Waves

Patricia Hegarty and Britta Teckentrup

Discover the colourful world beneath the waves in a beautiful picture book from award-winning illustrator Britta Teckentrup.

In a stunningly colourful and vibrant peek-through book, Teckentrup and author Patricia Hegarty take little readers on an enchanting voyage deep into the ocean where a hidden world is teeming with life.

Teckentrup is one of the most innovative contemporary picture book artists working today. Her intricate collage style – layered here to stunning effect with clever peep-through holes – is strikingly original as sea life is explored in all its glorious contrasting shades, lights and colours.

From tiny, graceful seahorses and darting tropical fish to electric eels, humpback whales and manta ray, this colourful array of sea creatures springs to glorious life through Teckentrup’s imaginative and rainbow-coloured illustrations while Hegarty’s lyrical, rhyming text helps little ones to understand the ebb and flow of the sea and its mysteries.

Entertaining and illuminating, Sea is the perfect way to convey subtle environmental messages about the importance of protecting the world’s precious oceans.

(Little Tiger, hardback, £11.99)

Age 3 plus:

Somebody Swallowed Stanley

Sarah Roberts and Hannah Peck

There are some deep down messages hidden between the lines of this thought-provoking picture book from environmental expert Sarah Roberts.

Roberts, a shark specialist and ecology professional, is on a mission to teach the dangers of plastic pollution in the sea and this simple, effective and entertaining story speaks powerfully to a new generation of potential eco warriors.

‘Plastic bags don't belong in the sea!’ Everybody has a taste for Stanley the plastic bag when he is swept – with a splosh and a splish – into the blue sea. He might look like a jellyfish but most jellyfish have dangly-gangly tentacles, and Stanley has two handles instead. Other jellyfish have a magical glow, but Stanley has stripes. It’s only after a succession of creatures get into trouble when they try to swallow Stanley that he finally reaches the shore and finds a safer use, thanks to one caring little boy…

Plastic will certainly be off the menu when youngsters learn just how dangerous it is to living creatures in this salutary picture book which conveys important facts in a fun and relatable manner. Hannah Peck’s fantastic multi-coloured and characterful illustrations blend perfectly with the rhymes and narratives to create a clever, contemporary tale for our times.

(Scholastic, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

The Worry Box

Suzanne Chiew and Sean Julian

We all have our worries… but for a child, those worries can seem confusing and frightening.

So here is a charming picture book from author Suzanne Chiew and illustrator Sean Julian that teaches the very youngest children that sharing our worries makes them feel smaller and less scary. Cleverly titled and packed with wisdom and warmth, The Worry Box has been carefully created at a time when we are engaging in conversations about mental health more than ever before.

Recent research conducted by mental health charity Place2Be revealed that almost two-thirds of children worry all the time making it more important than ever that parents, guardians and carers use the tools available to them to encourage children to open up and share their feelings.

And this gentle, reassuring story is a wonderful companion book for any child who may be dealing with anxiety or feeling nervous.

The story follows Murray Bear who has lots of worries. What if the waterfall he is visiting is too loud? What if he is not very good at climbing? And what if all his friends laugh at him? With the help of his sister, Milly, Murray makes a special box in which to write down and keep all his worries. But can the worry box really help?

With wonderfully atmospheric and endearing illustrations from Julian, and Chiew’s creatively resonant story which encourages children to share their worries and feelings and then go out and have fun, this is the perfect book for children dealing with anxiety or feeling nervous about starting at a new school or nursery.

It is also an ideal book to complement the recent #ReadforEmpathy campaign from Empathy Lab which invites readers to employ the power of books to understand one another and to share feelings, thoughts and perspectives.

(Little Tiger Press, paperback, £7.99)

Age 3 plus:

Chatterbox Bear

Pippa Curnick

Understanding others doesn’t only come through words…

Author and illustrator Pippa Curnick uses an adorable, chatterbox bear to teach little ones that communication can be achieved through signs as well as words in a quirky, colourful picture book full of comedy, capers and common sense.

Gary the bear with big, black eyebrows is a chatterbox but when nobody wants to listen to his raar, raar, raar, he sets sail in search of new friends. Soon Gary arrives on an island full of tropical birds all eager to chat but the problem is they don’t understand a word of Bear. After trial and error and lots of mishaps, Gary has to learn that words are not the only way to communicate and make new friends. And the solution could be a simple twitch and twist of those amazingly expressive eyebrows!

Curnick’s warm and wise picture book is brimming with life, energy and important messages about friendship, patience, understanding and learning new ways of expressing ourselves either through signs or in different languages.

The wide palette of eye-catching colour used in the gallery of pictures adds an extra sparkle to a story that is destined to be a family favourite … and a sure-fire hit with your own little chatterboxes!

(Hodder Children’s Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age one plus:

Busy Boats and Busy Beach

Row, row, row your boat… and push, pull and turn!

Set sail with Busy Boats, the new novelty board book in Campbell Books’ popular Busy Books series which lets youngsters get hands on with a host of different topics from Playtime, Garden and Railway to Farm, Swimming and Zoo.

In Busy Boats, children can push, pull and slide the tabs and turn the wheel mechanisms as they enjoy hoisting a sail, catching some tasty fish and even working the revolving light on a lighthouse.

This bright and colourful board book, with its gentle rhyming text and vibrant illustrations by Louise Forshaw, provides plenty to talk about and there is the added fun of finding things on every page.

Also out now in the series is Busy Beach which invites little ones to share a day out at the beach with a group of excited youngsters.

With lots to see in Busy Beach, little ones can join in the fun of the seaside. Push, pull and turn the tabs and enjoy watching children playing with a beach ball, building an extra tall sandcastle, blowing a windmill and buying a tasty ice-cream cone.

Jo Byatt’s gallery of illustrations bring the scenes to colourful life as children try to spot two crabs, identify the colour of a flag and count how many sandcastles they can see.

The fun of the big wide world at your fingertips…

(Campbell Books, board books, £5.99 each)

Age one plus:

Choo-Choo Peekaboo

Illustrated by Gareth Lucas

There’s nothing little ones like better than being on the go!

So here’s a brilliantly inventive board book that will have them in a flip, flap frenzy as they zoom through a fast-moving adventure with Zebra the artist.

Zebra is trying to spend the day quietly painting his favourite things and favourite scenes but his hilarious animal friends are causing chaos with their speedy antics!

Youngsters will love getting their hands on this all-action book as they lift the flaps on every page to discover bouncing baboons, high-flying pigs, roller-skating rabbits and dirt-biking Dalmatians.

The simple, entertaining text is perfectly paired with the stunning illustrations of talented artist Gareth Lucas and the book features large, sturdy flaps, ideal for little readers.

Perfectly designed for your own little adventurers…

(Little Tiger, board book, £6.99)