The Invasion of Crooked Oak by Dan Smith

Readers of all ages and abilities should be able to find a good spooky story to read. Dan Smith’s new story, The Invasion of Crooked Oak, has just been published by Barrington Stoke, and it’s the perfect spooky story for reluctant, struggling or dyslexic readers.

Pete and Krish love reading about weird things happening around the world on their favourite website, The Mystery Shed. They never thought that something weird would happen in their boring town though. When their friend Nancy’s parents start acting strangely (dead eyes, talking with no emotion and keeping the curtains closed) Pete and Krish think it’s nothing at first. Then others in their town start acting strangely too and the whole town just seems too quiet. The friends follow Nancy’s parents to Carpenter’s Field and the fracking site that operated there until recently. It’s here that the friends make a disturbing discovery. If they don’t get to their families in time they too will be transformed and life will never be the same again.

The Invasion of Crooked Oak is a fast-paced, creepy supernatural thriller that is absolutely brilliant. Dan brings in all those aspects of horror and sci-fi and creates an accessible story for dyslexic readers that will hook in the most reluctant or struggling reader too. Avid readers will love the story too as it is short but really engaging. It will especially appeal to those older primary kids and teens who are fans of Stranger Things as it has a similar vibe.

Although the thrills and chills are the main appeal of the story there is an environmental aspect too. Carpenter’s Field, where the main characters played together when they were younger has become a fracking site (a controversial issue around the world and certainly in their small town). Pumping chemicals into the ground will have long term effects on the area but it has also unleashed an unknown entity.

The Invasion of Crooked Oak is a book to hunt down and recommend to kids, especially with Halloween just around the corner.

Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie

Both myself and the kids at my school love a genuinely scary read, one that will send shivers down your spine. The thing that can notch up the scare factor is if the story ties in real life events. I feel like it adds some authenticity to the scares because the events took place or the people existed. Lindsay Currie has set her new story, Scritch Scratch, in modern day Chicago but she links in historical events, making for a super creepy ghost story that will haunt you long after you reach the end.

Claire has absolutely no interest in the paranormal. She is a scientist who knows there is no evidence that ghosts exist. Her dad runs a ghost-tour business, showing tourists around the most haunted parts of Chicago on his bus. When she gets asked to help her dad with one of his tours she begrudgingly goes along. At the end of the tour she sees a dripping wet boy with a sad face sitting in the back of the bus, but nobody else seems to notice him. Claire thinks that she was imagining things and that maybe it was just her dad’s ghost stories playing on her mind. But then the scratching starts. Claire hears voices whispering to her and scary things start happening at home and at school. Claire is being haunted and she needs to find out who her ghost is before he drives her crazy.

Scritch Scratch is a super creepy, spine-tingly story that keeps you turning the pages. It is one of the best ghost stories for kids that I’ve read. Lindsay takes readers on their own ghost tour of Chicago, introducing you to some of the places around the city that have seen great tragedies. I knew very little about Chicago when I first picked the book up but became really interested in the history of the city. After I finished the story and discovered the truth of the ghost boy I had to find out more about some of the events of the story. Connecting the story to real events made the story have more of an emotional impact and made the story even creepier because the ghost could have been someone who existed in real life. I remember becoming completely obsessed about the Titanic after watching the movie when I was younger, reading everything I could about the disaster. I think Scritch Scratch will do the same for kids, leaving them wanting to find out more about the real places and events from this story.

It is more than just a ghost story though. It’s also a story about navigating friendships. Claire’s best friend Casley has started to hang out with another girl, Emily, and Claire strongly dislikes Emily. Claire thinks Emily is stealing her best friend away and changing her. When Claire needs Casley the most though she has to push through her jealousy. Claire needs her friends’ help to discover the truth about the ghost boy and stop her haunting.

The cover artist, Jana Heiderdorf, and cover designer, Nicole Hower, have done a brilliant job of capturing the tone of the story in the cover. It is a cover that tells kids straight away that this is a spooky story and they’re going to be scared.

Get a copy of Scritch Scratch and be prepared to be up all night with the lights on.

Amazing Aotearoa Activity Book by Gavin Bishop

Gavin Bishop’s Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story and Wildlife of Aotearoa have been some of the best New Zealand nonfiction books for kids in recent years. They are books that myself and the kids at school come back to again and again, finding new bits of information every time. I was very excited to see a new activity book based on these books pop through my mailbox yesterday and I couldn’t wait to share it.

The Amazing Aotearoa Activity Book is bursting with Gavin Bishop’s fantastic illustrations and activities for all ages, based on the information found inside the nonfiction books. The book starts with activities that get kids to introduce themselves and their whānau. They can fill in their pepeha and draw their whānau. From here kids can travel back to the time of the gods or the dinosaurs, meet famous animals, create their own country and treaty, write stories, decipher secret codes, and colour in to their heart’s content.

The Amazing Aotearoa Activity Book will get kids (and adults) designing, creating, and imagining. It is an activity book so beautiful you almost don’t want to write and draw in it. It has been designed and produced with the same care and attention as Gavin’s previous Aotearoa books. There is something in this book for the whole family. Parents could work on the activities with younger children or older children could complete the activities themselves.

Like Gavin Bishop’s other Aotearoa books, te reo Māori and te ao Māori are incorporated into the information and activities throughout the book. This is one of my favourite aspects of the book as it exposes kids to Māori language and culture.

The Amazing Aotearoa Activity Book is released on 29 September, just in time for the school holidays. This would certainly make a great gift. It will give kids hours of entertainment.

Crabapple Trouble by Kaeti Vandorn

Crabapple Trouble is the graphic novel about an anxious apple girl that you didn’t know you needed. At first glance, this book looks like a super cute story but it’s actually so much more, and I totally love it!

Callaway is a girl who also happens to be an apple. She lives in a place with lots of other fruit and vegetable people and fairies. Everyone is responsible for growing their own crop and Callaway worries that her crabapples aren’t good enough. With the Produce Competition coming up at the Summertime Fair Callaway really starts to worry, so much so that she literally loses her head. It pops off and rolls away, bumping into a fairy called Thistle. Callaway and Thistle work together to help sort out not only Callaway’s problem but those of others around them too. Thistle just needs to take a nap first.

Crabapple Trouble is a bright, cheerful story about friendship, worries and figuring out who you are. It is such a relatable story for kids and adults alike, who will see themselves in Callaway and Clementine. Kaeti Vandorn has brought her experiences as a kid to the story and shows kids that they don’t have to be exactly the same as everyone else. I especially love the end of the story as I can totally relate to it. I’d never heard of the term ‘awfulizing’ (to imagine something to be as bad as it can possibly be) but I’m sure we’ve all done it at some stage (either as kids or adults).

Kaeti’s illustrations are so vibrant and full of joy. Some pages are an explosion of colour! They will certainly appeal to younger readers. I loved looking at the illustrations with all the characters, trying to pick out the different fruits and vegetables. Kaeti’s characters are quite simple but very expressive. As a bonus at the back of the book you can learn how to draw Callaway and create your own fruit and vegetable characters.

Crabapple Trouble is one of my favourite graphic novels for younger readers of 2020. This is Kaeti’s first printed graphic novel and I certainly hope we see more of her stories. I know Crabapple Trouble will be a hit with the kids at my school.

Pacey Packer Unicorn Tracker by J.C. Phillipps

Most books and movies would have us believe that unicorns are cute and colourful but not J.C. Phillipps’ new graphic novel. Dive into Pacey Packer Unicorn Tracker and discover what unicorns are really like.

Pacey Packer is a girl with a big imagination but she could never have imagined she would find herself in Rundalyn, the secret land of the unicorns. Pacey’s little sister Mina gets sick of waiting for Pacey to play with her. When Pacey goes looking for Mina she finds her about to leap out of her window on the back of a unicorn. Pacey thinks Mina is being kidnapped and tries to grab the unicorn. Pacey, and Mina’s plushie unicorn, Slasher, fall from the sky and find themselves lost in Rundalyn. Pacey and Slasher set off to find Mina but also discover what unicorns are really like. Pacey will have to become the brave hero from her imagination in order to save her sister.

This is a super cool graphic novel for kids! It’s a story full of nasty unicorns, weird plants, magical seeds and sassy characters. J.C. Phillipps’ illustration style is unique and will certainly appeal to kids. She has used a limited colour palette, with just black, white and purple. I really like how J.C. uses different perspectives throughout the story (like Pacey being up in a tree) and the movement between panels, like the example below:

J.C. has even made chapter headings cool by incorporating them into the illustrations.

Pacey herself is a great character but my favourite is Slasher. He’s full of attitude but looks super cute. He’s a soft toy but he’s clearly not happy about it. He’s always cursing his lousy plushie grip. I’m sure most kids won’t see this but Slasher reminds me of Brian, the dog from Family Guy.

Thank goodness this is just the start of the Pacey Packer series! Kids are going to love Pacey and Slasher and, like me, will eagerly await their next adventure.

Two wonderful new bilingual books to celebrate Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori

As someone who wants to use more te reo Māori in my everyday life books are a great way to do this. I read lots of books to the classes who visit my library each week and I try (especially during Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori) to include books in te reo as read alouds. Bilingual books are especially great as I can read in both te reo Māori and English. Oratia Publishers have just released two wonderful new bilingual picture books – 12 Huia Birds/12 Manu Huia by Julian Stokoe and Stacy Eyles and Rona Moon by Tim Tipene and Theresa Reihana.

12 Huia Birds/12 Manu Huia is a bilingual version of the picture book originally published in English in 2016. It tells the story of one of our most beautiful birds and the circumstances that lead to its extinction. The author and illustrator convey an environmental message that highlights our impact on the world. This book has been particularly popular with the teachers at my school, both for the environmental message and the counting down from 12. The text in te reo Māori is a lovely addition to this book.

Rona Moon, written by Tim Tipene (translated by Stephanie Huriana Fong) and illustrated by Theresa Reihana is a modern version of the Rona and the Moon myth. While Peter Gossage’s retelling of the myth is ideal for younger children, Tim Tipene’s Rona Moon makes the story more relatable for today’s children. Rona is a young girl who gets angry with everyone – her brother, her Nana and her Papa. One day she gets so angry that she calls the moon stupid and she finds herself on the moon. She meets Whaea Rona and Whaea teaches her to use her anger to create change, not to attack others. Rona returns home with a new outlook.

Simple te reo Māori is used in the story and te ao Māori is woven into the story. Even those with very basic te reo Māori knowledge will be able to read the story in English, while more confident speakers could read the story fully in te reo Māori. I really love having both options in one book because it helps me to feel confident about giving the te reo Māori a go. I love how Theresa’s illustrations really show readers how angry and frustrated Rona Moon is, while also showing her transformation at the end of the story. The cover is fantastic and is sure to grab the attention of kids and adults alike.

Both of these books are must-have books for classrooms and school libraries. They will be regularly read by teachers and kids will pick them up to read the stories and learn some new te reo Māori words at the same time.

Sherlock Bones and the Sea-Creature Feature by Renée Treml

Everyone has wondered what happens in a museum at night. There have been books written and movies made about it. In Sherlock Bones and the Natural History Mystery, Renée Treml introduced us to the great detective known as Sherlock Bones. The always sharp and super-observant tawny frogmouth skeleton is back on the case again in his latest mystery, Sherlock Bones and the Sea-Creature Feature.

Sherlock Bones lives in the State Natural History Museum with his pals Grace the raccoon and Watts the stuffed parrot. When the sun goes down and the humans leave, Sherlock and his friends come alive. A new wing of the museum has just opened, with new exhibits, but Sherlock has heard of a swamp monster that is scaring the visitors and the octopus is missing. Where there is a mystery Sherlock Bones isn’t far away.

Sherlock Bones and the Sea-Creature Feature is a pun-tastic read that is both laugh-out-loud funny and chock-full of facts. Sherlock not only thinks he is an amazing detective (he’s really not), he also thinks he’s the funniest bird around (he just ends up making himself laugh). He has plenty of bad puns up his sleeve that will make readers young and old crack up. Unlike Sherlock and Grace, Watts never says anything out loud but he still communicates with Sherlock and his wings can be extended to help Sherlock fly around the museum. Sherlock and his pals are always on the lookout for clues but the reader sees things that they completely miss. Grace spends a good part of the story distracted with a Rubix cube and isn’t aware of what is going on around her.

The story is told in a graphic novel format, with black and white illustrations. Sherlock is a skeleton but Renée has given him so much personality. I think the star of the show has to be Nivlac though, as he is able to turn invisible and disguise himself. You can tell that Renée has had a lot of fun hiding Nivlac in the illustrations.

The thing I love the most about this book is the way that Renée incorporates information into the story. There are facts about the exhibits in the illustrations that help to explain what is happening in the story. The exhibit about the octopus says that octopus do not have a skeleton which means they can squeeze into tight spaces. This explains why the octopus goes missing. It’s one of those books that is really entertaining but you don’t realise you’re learning something at the same time.

I highly recommend both Sherlock Bones books, especially for kids who struggle to find something to read. They’ll be hooked straight away. They’re also great for kids who have read all of the Bad Guys books by Aaron Blabey as they’re a similar format and sense of humour.

Agent Moose by Mo O’Hara and Jess Bradley

Kids everywhere are obsessed with Dogman, so it’s always great when I come across a new series that I can recommend to Dogman fans. Agent Moose is the new series by Mo O’Hara and Jess Bradley and it has everything that kids love about Dogman – laughs galore, bold illustrations, and characters that they’ll love coming back to.

Whenever there is trouble in Big Forest there is only one team for the job – Anonymoose and Owlfred. With Anonymoose’s astounding skills of disguise and Owlfred’s calm attitude and patience in a crisis these two catch the criminals…eventually. Something strange is going on at South Shore. Terence Turtle, a witness in a high-profile robbery case, has disappeared and its up to Anonymoose and Owlfred to find him. Unfortunately for Anonymoose that means a run-in with his competition, Camo Chameleon. Camo has just solved his 100th case, making him the best agent at Woodland HQ. That title was supposed to be Anonymoose’s and he’s still bitter about it. Anonymoose and Owlfred are going to have to go undercover and discover what is happening to the animals of Big Forest.

Agent Moose is absolutely brilliant! Mo and Jess have created characters that kids are going to go wild for. The story is super funny and full of gags that readers of all ages will love. I’m a huge fan of Jess’ art, from reading her Squid Bits comics in The Phoenix Comic, so it’s really great to see a whole book full of her art. I love that her illustrations are so simple but all of the characters have a personality. The simple illustrations and the sparse text make this book perfect for younger readers and it’s a great introduction to graphic novels.

Anonymoose and Owlfred are complete opposites but they make the perfect team. Anonymoose is sauve and fantastic at disguise, but not very smart. Owlfred is the brains of the operation and is the one who is calm and rational. Every time Anonymoose was in disguise he made me laugh, because he is so obviously a moose dressed as a turtle or a palm tree. The other characters don’t see this though and often get startled when he talks.

This is just the first book in a series that I hope with have many more books to come. I know that kids are going to gobble this one up and be desperate for book 2 (coming in March 2021). Check out the fantastic book trailer below (this will be great to hook kids in).

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

‘Grandma Anna had left me her books. It was as though she wanted me to find this, to read it at this exact moment in my life. It felt like she had written it precisely for me.’

Imani lives with her adopted family. She loves her family and her Jewish community but has always wondered where she came from, especially as she is the only black person in her mostly white community. Imani’s bat mitzvah is coming up, and while her friends are asking for extravagant gifts, Imani wants one thing she isn’t sure her parents are prepared for. She wants to know about her birth parents. When her great-grandma dies Imani inherits her books and amongst these she discovers Anna’s journal from when she was Imani’s age. Imani finds herself engrossed in Anna’s story. It’s a story of a girl who left her only family behind in Nazi occupied Luxembourg to start a new life with a new family in New York. Anna writes to her sister in her journal, telling her about life in New York, not knowing what is happening to her family back home. The more that Imani reads about Anna the more she feels connected to her. When Anna’s journal ends abruptly Imani knows she has to discover the truth. Imani also wants to know where she came from and why her birth parents gave her up, but it will mean hurting the family who raised her.

The Length of a String is a story of family, identity and connections that takes you on an emotional journey. Like Imani, who reads her great-grandma’s journal every chance she gets, you want to keep coming back to the story to learn more about the characters. The story highlights the plight of Jews during the Second World War while not explicitly giving details. We know what happens to Anna’s family while Anna can’t get any news about what is happening back home. Jewish culture is an important part of the story and I certainly know more about it from reading this story. I did have to look up the difference between bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah (the former is the coming of age ritual for girls and the later for boys).

This is a story about connections and Elissa makes you feel intimately connected to her characters. Both Anna and Imani talk about the strings that connect them, whether this is the feeling of a string connecting Anna and Belle (the twins who are thousands of miles away) or the strings of DNA that intertwine and connect Imani to her birth parents. It is also a story of identity as Imani is trying to figure out who she is and where she comes from.

I loved the way that Elissa pulled all of the threads of the story together at the end. Anna and Imani’s lives become intertwined throughout the story and Imani’s research leads to a discovery that strengthens her connection to her adopted family.

The Length of a String is a great read for ages 11+, especially those who like family stories or stories with strong characters. I was really interested in the Holocaust when I was about 14 and this is a book I would have devoured.

Armadillo and Hare series by Jeremy Strong and Rebecca Bagley

I love it when I discover a hidden gem on my library shelves. Armadillo and Hare by Jeremy Strong had been sitting on my shelves for ages. Then the second book, Armadillo and Hare and the Very Noisy Bear, came along and it caught my attention. I took it home to read and my 5 year old daughter asked me to read it one night. We both fell in love with Armadillo and Hare and their friends from the Big Forest.

Armadillo and Hare are completely different but are the best of friends. They live in a little log cabin in Big Forest. Hare loves dancing, Armadillo loves cheese sandwiches. Hare loves playing the tuba, Armadillo loves cheese sandwiches. Hare is full of energy and loves to move, Armadillo is grumpy and prefers to keep still. They both like to laugh though and they do lots of it together. Their life is never boring. They make lots of friends and help them when they can, their house gets washed away in a flood, they hold birthday parties, have an art exhibition in their cabin, learn how to swim and just generally enjoy each other’s company.

I absolutely love Armadillo and Hare! The stories are incredibly funny, witty and filled with the most marvellous characters. Jeremy really knows his audience and tells stories that both make you laugh and appreciate the small things in life, like having breakfast in the sunshine or reading in a comfy chair. Armadillo is obsessed with cheese sandwiches and when he isn’t eating one he is dreaming of one or painting one. There are paintings of cheese sandwiches all through their house. In one story he even has a whole exhibition focusing on his paintings of cheese. Armadillo is a bit grumpy but he also has a good sense of humour. He knows that he is fat but he doesn’t see the point of exercise. Hare is quite full of energy and he is the positive one of the two friends. He loves playing the tuba and every time that he plays it things pop out of the top. It could be butterflies, puppies, glow-worms or neon signs. You never quite know what will pop out next.

It’s not just Armadillo and Hare themselves that are entertaining but the other animals that live in Big Forest. There’s Invisible Stick Insect who really wants some friends who can see her, Wombat who can do incredible tricks on her bike (but can also mend fridge lights) and Bear who is fantastic on the drums and almost a doctor. You can’t help smiling while reading these stories of Armadillo and Hare and their interactions with the other animals.

Another reason that I love this series so much is Rebecca Bagley’s delightful illustrations. Rebecca really brings out the personality of Armadillo and Hare, from Armadillo’s grumpiness to Hare’s flair and the way his ears twist together when he’s afraid. I also like the way she has drawn Bear with his sunglasses and colourful shirt.

There are several stories in each book, with each story taking about ten to fifteen minutes to read. The short length and the humour makes the stories perfect to read aloud at bedtime or to a class. I’ve also enjoyed Armadillo and Hare and the Very Noisy Bear as an audiobook from my public library. I hope Jeremy and Rebecca have some more Armadillo and Hare stories up their sleeves because I need more of these two in my life.