#MGTakesOnThursday – The Girl of Ink and Stars

#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.

Today I’ve chosen one of the first MG books I read as a grown up (or certainly for a very long time). When I left teaching and stumbled into my job as a bookseller I had a good knowledge of picture books but not as much recent knowledge of older children’s fiction.

This was one of the first MG books I picked up – it was our Children’s Book Prize winner and it wasn’t hard to see why; it is definitely at least partially what got me hooked on MG!

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, cover design by Helen Crawford-White

My favourite sentence from page 11:

“Governor Adori had rebuilt it from stone, twice as big, because if his daughter was going, it had to look grander.”

This is such a gorgeous book – both visually, with its stunning cover, maps and page decor and in its lush, myth-rich island narrative.

I love maps in books, again both visually and in their use, so the main character being a cartographer’s daughter desperate but unable to follow in his footsteps really appealed.

Amidst some dark goings on on their island, Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, disappears. Undeterred by the fact that the majority of the island – and anything beyond it – are out of bounds, she sets off to find her with an old map, myths and the stars as her guide.

A tale of friendship, family, loyalty and love woven with threads of folklore, history, politics and power. Embedded in a rich and mysterious setting, both dark and beautiful in turns, this is an absolute must-read MG book for me and one those of you who know me and my tastes will be utterly unsurprised to hear I love!

Writing this has also made me think it’s time for a re-read…

In three four words (sorry Mary!): maps, magic, myths mystery.

Believathon 2 – Around the World in Eighty Days

For the last week or so of May, I have been trying to read books from the stops on the Believathon 2 journey that I didn’t visit during Believathon itself. This was my choice for Black Ice Bridge: Read a book featuring an expedition or adventure.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, audiobook read by BJ Harrison

This was one of the suggestions given for this prompt and I could think of nothing more fitting! It also fitted into my plan of listening to lots if children’s classics this year, so it seemed like a perfect choice.

And I loved it!

While I’d not read it before, I was familiar with the story thanks to…

Around the World with Willy Fog may be familiar to those of you of a similar age, but for the youngsters among you it was a cartoon adaptation of the story and I loved it. I can’t deny as I was listening to the book I couldn’t help but picture this often!

For anyone unfamiliar with the story at all – Phileas Fog, a solitary creature of habit, makes a bet that sees him trying to circumnavigate the world in eighty days.

Using almost every mode of transport you can think of (and probably a few you can’t!), encountering some truly unusual obstacles and with an unknown thorn in his side in the shape of Inspector Fix this is a gripping journey!

It’s a simply thrilling adventure with much in the way of historical and geographical detail and atmosphere*.

You can’t help but root for Phileas Fog; the excitement of his journey had me breathing sighs of relief as he makes his connection or found his way out of tight spots only to inwardly groan moments later as it became clear misfortune was looming!

There were several audio versions of this, I listened to samples of them before reluctantly plumping for this one (I wasn’t really keen on any) but as it turned out once if got into the first couple of chapters, I found the narration easy to listen to and very enjoyable. Between this and the tensions in the tale, I was snatching a few minutes whenever I could.

Put simply, this is pacy, exciting, varied and tense with an excellent ending and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

*It’s worth pointing out there are a few parts that would be questionable today with some racial/class/gender stereotyping that is very much of its time. I don’t think these should put anyone off reading this or sharing it with younger readers, just to be mindful of when it was written and the norms and views of that time.

Believathon 2 – My Family and Other Animals

For the last week or so of May, I have been trying to read books from the stops on the Believathon 2 journey that I didn’t visit during Believathon itself. This was my choice for Baba Yaga’s house.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, audiobook read by Hugh Bonneville

This is one of those funny books that is both classed as kids and adult, but with a young narrator and a somewhat lively family life, I felt it more than suited the prompt of a book featuring family relationships.

It’s the autobiographical tale of Gerald, age ten and his long-suffering family as he immerses himself in his love for creatures of all kinds.

With scorpions unwittingly set loose at dinner, a bedroom brawl between a gecko and a mantis and a pair of rather curious magpies wreaking havoc in his brother’s room, there is much hilarity and younger readers (particularly those with older siblings) will no doubt be thrilled to see it!

Likewise, Gerry’s reluctance and attempts to avoid his lessons can’t help but appeal and raise a smile. And his family itself has an eccentric charm and is as loyal and loving as they are argumentative and petty!

The escapades beginning with his mother’s swimsuit pursuits are a case in point – from looking on in horror at their mother’s choice of attire to the family’s amateurish nighttime rowing to the dog’s reaction to the swimsuit, there is a lot to laugh about! While our families may not be having quite this sort of caper, there’s a familiarity to the sentiments and behaviours that many will relate to.

Then there is the setting, which feels so real. Both Corfu itself and its animal inhabitants are described brilliantly; a book featuring do many creatures being carefully observed could easily become dull or too factual, but this manages to find a perfect balance as it details the observations with humour, wonder and much anthropomorphism to retain our interest. The scene with the mating tortoises is particularly amusing.

I very much enjoyed this and it will make a brilliant addition to my late UKS2/’tween’ recommendations in work!

Believathon 2 – What Katy Did

Believathon officially ended at the weekend. I (just about – only a day late!) made it to the Book Keeper’s Stronghold with the final prompt to complete my journey, but for the last week of May I’m going to try and read some of the books for the places that I didn’t visit on my quest.

I’ve already listened to two, and today’s review is for The Wonderfalls – Read a book featuring a disability.

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge, audiobook read by Kate Harper

Even though I have been trying to read more children’s classics (and modern classics) this year, this wasn’t one that was on my radar at all. However it came up as a suggestion for the Wonderfalls stop on the Believathon map, so I picked it out to listen to.

It was fine.

I didn’t hate it like I did The Bad Beginning, but I didn’t love it either.

The titular Katy is a lively and high-spirited, rough-and-tumble type girl who one day has an accident and is then bed-ridden for quite some time. Taking inspiration from her Cousin Helen, we see how she comes to terms with this and uses it to her best advantage.

The book reminded me heavily of Little Women in a lot of ways, especially with its group of loving, loyal but very different siblings and their days and play together and the lessons it wants us to learn.

The siblings, including Katy, were all likeable enough and Aunt Izzie was what you’d expect. There were lots of stories of their daily lives which raised a smile and seeing Katy accept her situation and begin to make the best of it was a relief.

But I didn’t love it. It was a quick and enjoyable enough listen, but not one I’d return to or read more of.

Believathon 2 – The Secret of Platform 13

Having set off from the Poacher’s Pocket with Lemony Snicket’s Bad Beginning and travelled along the Yellow Brick Road with Diana Wynne-Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, then through the Hundred Acre Wood with Polly Ho-Yen‘s The Boy in the Tower, I reached The Brolly Rail.

Here the prompt was to read a book with transportation on the cover, so I chose Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13.

Platform 13 is home to a gump; a sort of portal between King’s Cross Station and a lost island inhabited by every kind of mythical, magical, weird and wonderful creature you could imagine.

The gump only opens once every nine years though, so nine years after the baby prince is kidnapped in London, the King and Queen of the Island send an unlikely group of rescuers through to bring him home. However, all does not go quite according to plan…

This was a really enjoyable read and one which would be brilliant for younger or less confident MG readers too – those just moving on from early chapter books for example, especially now there’s a new 25th Anniversary illustrated edition, or those who love a bit of magic and wonder but nothing complex or convoluted.

This has a really timeless feel about it – it feels like a quintessential children’s book (and with much borrowing from JK Rowling for Harry Potter, I’d say that she thought so too), with a classic feel. It’s very much all about the adventure; the cast of characters is a well of imaginative, unique beings, but there’s little depth to them – this is a book driven by plot. It makes use of some classic tropes too – the greedy, spoiled brat and doting mother, the prince and the pauper, the black sheep of a family finding her place, the last minute twist.

It skips along with plenty of humour and action and was an enjoyable read. It’s probably not one I’d rant and rave about, but it is one I’d recommend highly to the right readers in work, and as a quick, light-hearted comfort read it was perfect.

#MGTakesOnThursday – How to Bee

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

It was World Bee Day yesterday, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity to give another shout out too a bee-themed MG book I love.

There have been a fair few MG books recently with environmental messages or themes of nature and climate change, but this is one of the first I remember seeing and it’s still one of my favourites.

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble, cover art by Joanna Hunt, published by Old Barn Books

I’ve cheated a bit with my favourite sentence from page 11, and I’ve chosen a whole favourite passage instead! Oops! Sorry, Mary!

Being first or second doesn’t mean you’re instant bee. Foreman has to like your style. You have to be gentle to the flowers and branches and not clumsy. With four of us done, Foreman blows his whistle and the other pests run up from their rows to hear who has won.

In three words?

Nature. Family. Drama.

You can read my full review of it here.

Have you read this?

Have you joined in with #MGTakesOnThursday?

Believathon 2 – The Boy in the Tower

Having set off from the Poacher’s Pocket with Lemony Snicket’s Bad Beginning and travelled along the Yellow Brick Road with Diana Wynne-Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, I arrived at The Hundred Acre Wood where my prompt was to read a book with yellow on the cover.

The Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen

Amy at Golden Books Girl is a huge fan of this and I’ve been saying I’d read it for ages but never getting to it, so when this prompt came up it seemed the perfect time to actually read it!

That said, as timing goes it was either the best or worst time to read this, depending on your point of view (personally I quite liked the similarities). London has been over taken by Bluchers, plant-like creatures who are destroying the buildings and whose spores kill. No one knows how to deal with them and people are dying. Londoners are leaving their homes in droves as they are no longer able to risk going outside. It’s not exactly a terrifying premonition of what is happening today, but there’s certainly some wry parallels to be drawn.

One of the things I really liked about the book was its slow build up and scene setting. Rather than a dramatic beginning full of tumbling buildings and chaos, we see – again in an eerily familiar way – how the situation sort of crept up on people and caught them off guard and how even when it was underway there was a sense of ‘its probably coincidence’, ‘things will be fine’, ‘it won’t be us though’ before realisation sets in almost too late.

This gradual beginning also gave us chance to really get to know the characters, all of whom I thought were brilliantly written. Ho-Yen gives you just enough information to really form the characters for yourself.

I felt like I knew all of them despite very limited back stories for most, which takes some skilful writing in knowing just how much (and what) to give the reader.

The main character Ade (Add-ee) was incredibly likeable and I really liked his friendship with Gaia too; their quiet support and understanding of each other said so much more than an overly demonstrative friendship would have. This also really strengthens our understanding of both characters and endears them to us.

Alongside the main sci-fi style nature vs man story of the destructive Bluchers, there is the more human story of Ade’s mum.

Frightened by something, she slowly stopped leaving their apartment and gradually lost herself, taking to her bed more and more.

Before the Bluchers take over, we see Ade trying to understand and help his mum, looking after them both for the most part. And, so when everyone begins to pack up and leave and his mum is in bed unaware of what’s going on, Ade too must stay.

We see him trying to cope with and understand all that he sees unfolding – on the news and from his window – until the water and electricity go off and it gets harder and harder to see how the situation will be resolved without resorting to the ridiculous.

Then just as you lose hope, there’s a brilliant twist, just dropped in which not only adds a layer of intrigue but also opens up a world of hope again in a thoroughly believable way.

I thought this was such a well-executed, insightful book and Ade’s voice as narrator was pitched just right and very engaging. The tension and isolation brought by the Bluchers was tangible, and I felt for both Ade and his mum as they struggled with her mental health (I also thought the way we saw other characters’ reactions to this very telling and believable, in particular I thought their neighbour was brilliantly written.)

I have to be honest the ending didn’t do it for me but neither did it spoil my enjoyment of the book and I know younger and/or less cynical readers wouldn’t have a problem with it in the least!

Themes of family, friendship and mental health are cleverly woven into a gripping urban sci-fi that I’ll be recommending heavily when I return to work!