#MGTakesOnThursday – The Valley of Lost Secrets

#MGTakesOnThursday was created by Mary over at Book Craic and is a brilliant way to shout about some brilliant MG books!

To join in, all you need to do is:

  • Post a picture of the front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book.
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

I’m so glad to be joining in with #MGTakesOnThursday again. It’s ages since I’ve managed to do it, but I’m determined to join in more regularly again this year.

My choice today seemed like a good one, as its the first book I’ve read this year out of choice. It should also have been Children’s Book of the Month at work…well, it technically is CBOTM at work but I’m not there to rave about it, so this seems like a good place to do that instead!

The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr, audiobook read by Iestyn Arwel/physical copy illustrated by David Dean, published by Bloomsbury

I love a wartime children’s book and this has shot into my favourites.

We join brothers Jimmy and Ronnie as they are evacuated from Islington in London to Llanbryn, a small village in the Welsh valleys.

Jimmy is set on protecting, comforting and reassuring his little brother, but as they settle into life in the valley, it’s Jimmy who struggles with homesickness and his sense of loyalty and belonging.

The story is centred on the mysterious discovery Jimmy makes when he finds a skull in the hollow of a tree, but it’s really about so much more than that – bullying, belonging, friendship and family; home and change and growth; the ways in which we judge, treat and label others as well as the ways we can show patience and care and offer chances for them to bloom.

There’s some absolutely fantastic characters in this – Ronnie is joyous, Jimmy complex, the Evanses utterly hateful (honestly they had my blood boiling!). I loved Florence (and by extension Phyllis and Ieuan) and I think maybe Alun Thomas was my favourite of all.

The way the mystery of the skull is underpinned by a bigger mystery closer to home in the Thomas household was so well done – the way it built subtly then wove seamlessly in.

The richness of the setting and the history and culture of it were gorgeous to read, utterly transporting me. Lesley Parr mentions David Almond as a favourite author at the back of this and that really shows through – there are unmistakable echoes of his talent for capturing a place and its community in this.

I listened to the majority of this on audiobook and the narration was perfect – exactly how being read aloud to should be; I too was taken straight to the heart of this little village.

I loved that the president of the Mining Institute was Mr Bevan and that one of the most important, yet seemingly minor, characters was Aneurin, or Nye. Surely a tip of the hat to the NHS legend Nye Bevan who came from a Welsh mining village himsrlf. I’d love to know for certain if this was intentional, but I feel it must have been, surely?

I also loved the details and small extras in the illustrations – the way the chapter headers developed through the book and the secret message too.

Everything about this book has been beautifully crafted and carefully considered. It’s a stunning piece of storytelling set off beautifully by its illustration, design and/or audiobook narration.

I’m so, so excited already to see Lesley Parr has a new book, also set in Wales, this time post-WW1. I absolutely cannot wait. Til then, I’m off to listen to Every Valley by Public Service Broadcasting on repeat.

My favourite sentence from page 11:

I can feel the place swallowing is up – my little brother, all the others and me.

This book in three words:

Family. Home. History.

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this from the publishers. All views and opinions are my own.

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Fahrook, cover art by David Dean

This is a book I would have read at some point, but probably one which would have joined the pile in my shelf for a while in favour of others had it not been for the fact it’s the Children’s Book of the Month in work! So it jumped to the top of said pile, and I’m really glad it did!

In many ways it’s got everything you’d expect from a great MG adventure – friendship, danger, a feisty, female main character and a beautiful and unusual but often inhospitable setting – but it’s also got plenty to make it stand out.

For starters, our main character Chaya is a thief. The book opens with her stealing the Queen’s jewels and the tension doesn’t let up from there.

From the fear of being caught to realising the implications of her actions to examining the reasons behind them and ways to put things right, this is not only a gripping adventure but also a book which subtly explores feelings and actions, right and wrong in a completely non-judgmental way.

When Chaya’s beat friend Neelan is arrested for stealing the jewels, the adventure really begins with a jail break and an escape on an elephant with newcomer Nour in tow (much to Chaya’s annoyance).

The relationship between Nour and Chaya is really well drawn as we see them getting the measure of each other, with Chaya hard and unwelcoming and Nour alternating between being cool and unbothrted and keen to join in. It’s lovely to see this friendship take shape tentatively and to see the feelings behind their actions so well understood.

The escape is a dangerous trip through the jungle to who-knows-where. I loved the off-the-cuff nature of their escape – tension is high and the action is pacy. And, while I partially figured out how they’d resolve things, there was a great twist at the end that I didn’t see coming til right before it happened.

I really liked Chaya as a character – she has that strong-willed, determined self-belief common in female leads, but combined with an absolute heart of gold and a wish to do what’s right (morally if not legally). She’s utterly believable and loveable.

This was a quick but utterly gripping read. The setting was vivid and easy to picture, the characters were likeable and the plot fast-paced.

With a royal robbery, a prison break, a jungle escape on the King’s stolen elephant, bandits and a coup, not to mention opportunities galore to explore questions of morality, justice right and wrong – there’s a lot packed into this relatively short book! I look forward to seeing what Nizrana does next!