Chickensaurus by James Foley

I know when I read a new S.Tinker Inc. book that something is going to go horribly wrong with one of Sally Tinker’s inventions. In James Foley’s latest book, Chickensaurus, though it is not Sally’s (or even Joe’s) fault. In this adventure you’ll meet dinosaurs unlike any you’ve seen before.

Sally, Charli and Joe get invited to Maelstrom Manor, the home of Sally’s arch-enemy, Dexter Maelstrom. Dexter has invited them to a demonstration of his new invention. He has invented a De-Evolving Ray that can zap any living thing and it will morph into one of its primitive ancestors. To prove to his visitors that it works he transforms a chick into a little dinosaur. Dexter then introduces them to his collection of chickensaurs, who are kept under control using special collars. Something causes the chickensaurs to attack and Sally, Charli and Joe must run for their lives. As if things weren’t already bad enough, Charli and Joe get dino-napped, leaving Sally with no choice but to team up with her nemesis and rescue her brother and her friend. Their rescue mission reveals the shocking truth about Dexter’s experiments.

Chickensaurus is an egg-citing adventure, filled with prehistoric poultry and funny situations that will crack you up. The different chickensaurs are hilarious! There’s a Trifeathertops, an Eggosaurus, a Chickensaurus Rex and a Pteroducktyl (they were out of chickens that day). It’s pretty funny seeing someone else’s invention going badly wrong and Sally needing to save the day.

Like the other books in the series it’s James’s illustrations that make me laugh the most. Joe has some great bits that made me laugh, like when he just wanders in to the room wearing a tiny suit of armour and clapping his hands. You see him clanking into the picture with everyone looking awkward or exasperated. I also love the look of joy on Joe’s face towards the end when he’s riding on the Chickensaurus.

Grab a copy of Chickensaurus from your bawk-shop or library now and check out the other wonderful S.Tinker Inc. books. The black and white graphic novel format makes them perfect for fans of The Bad Guys, Super Sidekicks and Sherlock Bones.

The InvestiGators series by John Patrick Green

A question that I get almost every day in my school library is ‘Are there any Dog Man books here?’ 95% of the time the answer to that question is no because they’re always on loan. When I get this question I like to have another book or two up my sleeve to recommend and my go-to books now are the InvestiGators series by John Patrick Green. They’re the same format, about the same length, with appealing illustrations and laughs galore.

The InvestiGators are Mango and Brash, two wise-cracking alligators who work for S.U.I.T. (Special Undercover Investigation Teams). Armed with their V.E.S.T. (Very Important Spy Technology) they fight crime and protect their city from evil-doers. In their first case together they must solve the case of the missing chef, Mustachio, and find out who caused the explosion at the Science Factory. In their second mission, Take the Plunge, Mango and Brash stop a rocket from causing destruction but unwittingly transmit a code that will create havoc all over town. Mango and Brash get sent into the sewers, undercover, to retrieve another S.U.I.T. agent and capture Crackerdile. When things don’t go to plan though, Mango and Brash are relieved of their duty and replaced by the B Team. They must prove that the A team is the best and solve the case of the Robot Genie before it’s too late.

This series is absolutely hilarious and I can’t get enough of Mango and Brash! With their bright illustrations, action-packed story, silly antics and laughs galore these books are perfect for young readers, but also equally entertaining for older kids and adults. The story is bursting with puns that had me laughing out loud and there are some jokes just for the adults (like the reference to the Aisle of Dr Morrow in Take the Plunge).

Kids will love the characters, especially Mango and Brash, and will be desperate to get their hands on their next adventure. As well as Mango and Brash there are other characters who keep popping up in each book, like their nemesis (and former S.U.I.T. agent) Crackerdile. My favourite character though is Doctor Copter. Dr. Jake Hardbones, a mild-mannered brain surgeon, was bitten by a rabid helicopter and now, whenever he sees something newsworthy he transforms into the Action News Now helicopter in the sky. It cracks me up every time I see him!

There’s a fun cameo in Take the Plunge too. If you’ve read John Patrick Green’s Kitten Construction Company (brilliant series!) you’ll spot Marmalade and her crew in the illustrations.

InvestiGators and InvestiGators: Take the Plunge are must-haves for all primary and intermediate school libraries. They are perfect for fans of Dog Man and Bad Guys or kids who just want a really funny book. Book 3 is out early in 2021 and I can’t wait to see what Mango and Brash get up to next.

Catch Me If I Fall by Barry Jonsberg

I love being surprised by a book. The blurb hints at what the story is about but it’s actually surprisingly different. Barry Jonsberg’s latest book, Catch Me If I Fall is one of these books. What at first seems like just a story about twins and an event that changes their relationship is actually much more complex.

Ashleigh and Aiden are identical twins who have always been there for each other. Aiden is protective of his sister and always looking out for her. They live a privileged life in a huge house in Sydney and attend a prestigious school. They are some of the lucky ones, with plenty of money to keep them fed, comfortable and safe. Australia has been ravaged by storms and rapidly rising seas, a result of catastrophic climate change. The majority of the population has been left homeless and clinging on to survival, while the wealthy live in mansions or compounds, protected by security services. When Ashleigh gets in to trouble while kayaking on a school camp Aiden comes to her rescue but suffers head injuries in the process. After the accident Ashleigh notices changes in Aiden. He starts acting and speaking differently, which worries Ashleigh. Little does Ashleigh know that these changes will lead to a shocking discovery that will turn her world upside down.

I was completely gripped by Catch Me If I Fall. It starts off as one kind of story and morphs into something completely different. There’s a lot packed into the story, from family dynamics to white privilege, climate change to ethics. It’s certainly not your average story about twins. Sure, there are family issues and the story does focus on Ashleigh and Aiden’s relationship, but the story is set against a background of climate change. Barry Jonsberg’s vision of a near-future Australia ravaged by climate change feels scarily possible. It’s certainly not far fetched to imagine the constant storms and rising sea levels that have caused the wide-spread destruction in the story.

My thoughts about the twist turned out to be correct but this didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the story. This just added another layer to the story and made me desperate to know how it would end. Wow, it’s really hard to explain what I like about this story without giving out spoilers!

Ashleigh certainly has a lot to deal with in the story. By the end, her idyllic life has been altered forever. Her family will never be the same and neither will she. She has lived most of her life sheltered from the reality of the world, and the truth of how most people live is shocking to her. I was quite tense following Ashleigh throughout the story and I found myself losing track of time as I had to keep reading to know how it would end. Barry certainly didn’t disappoint.

Catch Me If I Fall would make an amazing read aloud for Years 7-9 or as a novel set for this age group. The story is really engaging and lots of interesting discussion could be had about the issues involved. This book reminded me of how much I loved Barry Jonsberg’s earlier books and I now want to read all of his latest books.

The Pōrangi Boy by Shilo Kino

Kids need books that are both mirrors and windows. They need to be able to read books that mirror their own life and experiences but also books that give them a view in to someone else’s life, someone different from them. It is so great to see more stories being published from the perspective of Māori kids, giving Māori kids the chance to see themselves in a story and for Pākēha kids to read a story from a Māori perspective. Shilo Kino’s new book, The Pōrangi Boy, tells the story of Niko, a Māori boy trying to prove he’s not pōrangi by carrying on the legacy of his Koro and standing up for what he believes in.

Like his Koro, many in his small town think Niko is pōrangi (crazy). Tū, Kaore and Hone call him pōrangi boy and bully him relentlessly. Niko loves his Koro and he seems to be the only one who doesn’t think his Koro is pōrangi. Niko’s Koro teaches him how to wield a taiaha to defend rather than attack, and he teaches him about Taukere, the taniwha that protects their town. There are plans for a new prison to be built in Pohe Bay and while many in the town are against the idea it is only Niko’s Koro who is prepared to do what he can to stop it happening. The prison would be built over sacred land, destroying Taukere’s home. When Koro dies the family gathers for the tangi and when Koro’s will is read out many of the family are unhappy. Niko decides that he must carry on his Koro’s legacy and fight for what he believes is right.

The Pōrangi Boy is an incredible story that I devoured in one sitting! The story reminded me of Taika Waititi’s best films (Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople) because Shilo gives you a snapshot of life in Aotearoa, with the gritty reality but also some humour and great characters that you route for. From the first lines Niko’s voice is so clear and you get so completely caught up in his life that you have to keep reading until the end. As a Pākēha I found Niko’s story eye-opening and confronting at times, from Niko’s home life to the horrible bullying that he’s subjected to. The racism that Niko and his Koro experience is pretty shocking too. Niko’s teacher, Mrs Wobberly, is blatantly racist, calling the kids she teaches Mowrees and calling Niko the Mowree Shakespeare. Nico and Koro experience racism when they go to buy Niko a bike and the shop owner calls Niko a ‘dirty little Mowree.’

There is much speculation about the taniwha of the story, Taukere. The reason that Niko’s Koro is against the prison is because he has met Taukere and knows that he protects the town. Niko isn’t so certain that Taukere exists but when he and his cousin Moki end up in the river they encounter something with red eyes that saves them from drowning.

This is a story about community and relationships. Niko’s mother has a drug addiction, so she is often passed out on the sofa, and Niko’s dad isn’t around, so Niko often has to fend for himself. He has a good relationship with his aunties, who look after him, and his Koro. I really loved Niko and Koro’s relationship as they both took care of each other. Niko sometimes doesn’t understand what his Koro is telling him but he always makes him his cup of tea just how he likes it. They may both be called pōrangi but they make it clear that they’re anything but. Niko’s community is divided about having the prison in their town but the wider community come together to support the protest, including family that Niko never knew he had.

Language is such an important part of this story, from the te reo Māori that is woven in to the story to the way that the characters talk. Most of the characters are Māori so te reo Māori is spoken throughout the story, and this was an aspect of the story that I really loved. Some words and their meanings were unfamiliar to me at the start of the story but the more they were used the more familiar they became. The character’s voices sound authentic, with slang like hungus (hungry) and angus (angry) being part of the conversation. There are also some swear words used in a couple of instances but these fit with the situation (although don’t make the story ideal as a read aloud).

The Pōrangi Boy is one of the best Aotearoa children’s books of the year. This should absolutely be on the shortlist for the 2021 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it win. Niko is 12 in the story but I think it is probably more suited to young adults (or mature Year 7/8 readers). I can’t recommend The Pōrangi Boy highly enough.

Pages and Co.: Tilly and the Map of Stories by Anna James

Anna James’ Pages and Co. series is one of my all-time favourite series. It’s a series all about the magic of books, stories and reading and Anna just perfectly captures the feeling of being a book-lover and a reader. Being able to wander within books is something that all readers have wanted to do and Anna makes it sound so magical. I eagerly await each new book in the Pages and Co. series and I’ve been desperate to bookwander into the third book. Tilly and the Map of Stories has just been released and it is bursting with all of the things I love about the series – book character cameos, cosy bookshops, libraries, secret societies and bookwandering.

As Tilly and the Map of Stories opens the sinister Underwoods are still in charge of the British Underlibrary. Tilly and her best friend Oscar have gathered clues which they believe can help them find the legendary Archivists, who they think will be able to save bookwandering. Tilly and Oscar travel to America where they hope to find some answers at the Library of Congress. Their search will lead them further inside the world of story than they have ever been before, and they will meet some of the most famous writers of all time. However, the Underwoods are hatching plans that are more sinister than just binding the Source Editions, and it is up to Tilly and her friends and family to try and halt their plans.

Tilly and the Map of Stories absolutely enchanted me and I wanted to stay inside the story long after I reached the endpapers. Like Tilly you find yourself disappearing into the book and find yourself on adventure with friends old and new. Reading the story feels as if you are bookwandering, experiencing the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the story. I loved being back with Tilly and Oskar, who felt like my best friends after just the first book. Anna James has a brilliant imagination, which conjures up all sorts of bookish delights for the reader. She takes us inside the places that booklovers dream of, from a bookshop inside an old theatre to the Library of Congress. I love the way that Anna describes the marvellous things that book magic and story magic can do.

I absolutely love the train in the story, called the Sesquipedalian (or Quip for short). I can’t really say how it fits into the story (as it may be a bit of a spoiler) but it is a wonderful train that has an important role to play. At one part in the story the characters are all having a meal in the dining car of the Quip and each of the meals are straight out of stories. You can have a picnic with all the trimmings from a Famous Five book or some Turkish delight from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, among other delicious treats. I would love to go to a restaurant or a cafe that served book-themed food!

Like each of the previous books in the series, Tilly and the Map of Stories is a gorgeously designed hardback book. They are books that feel really nice to hold, smell amazing and look just as good with their dust-jacket off as they do with it on.

This book feels like Tilly’s story has come to a conclusion but I really hope this isn’t the last that we see of her and Oskar. I have enjoyed every minute of these Pages and Co. books and I hope to lose myself in another adventure with Tilly soon.

A Day in the Life of a Poo, a Gnu and You by Mike Barfield and Jess Bradley

A Day in the Life of a Poo, a Gnu and You is the kid’s nonfiction book that you need in your life. Not only will you laugh your socks off, you’ll learn some amazing facts while doing it! It is the funniest, most entertaining and totally unique general nonfiction books for kids around. I guarantee that this is going to be the most looked-at nonfiction book in my school library because it screams ‘PICK ME UP!’

It is bursting with short comics that give kids a glimpse in to the life of organs in your body, gross bodily functions, animals of all shapes and sizes, plants, planets, rainbows and much, much more. You’ll learn how farts form, where poo goes when you flush it away, how a sea jelly swims, what a pangolin’s scales are made out of, and how bananas grow. As well as the ‘Day in the Life of a…’ pages there are also ‘The Bigger Picture’ sections which give extra detail, and secret diary sections which show you extracts from the secret diaries of an earthworm, a red blood cell, and a lightning bolt. Each thing, whether it is a hand, a pimple or a worm has a unique personality and a different way to tell its story.

This is a book is super accessible for kids of all ages, with simple text and bright, funny illustrations that anyone. It’s a nonfiction book that parents and teachers especially will love sharing with kids. Between Mike’s text and Jess’s illustrations you will be laughing your head off. They have managed to pack a lot of information into a page or two of comic, with just enough detail to astound you. Jess’s illustrations always make me laugh and she has had plenty of different things to draw in this book. I love the expressions she gives to the characters, even each individual toe on the foot.

Some of my favourite facts from the book include:

  • a single elephant can wee up to 9 litres at a time
  • male platypuses have poisonous foot spurs
  • the amount that a sloth poos once a week is like us doing a poo the size of a small dog
  • there are blue bananas!

A Day in the Life of Poo, a Gnu and You is going to be incredibly popular with kids. The comic format means that my graphic novel fans (of which there are many at my school) will gobble this book up. I just need to buy myself a copy because the library copy will get issued and passed around all of the kids.

The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice by A.F. Harrold and Mini Grey

I’m a huge fan of A.F. Harrold’s stories but I also enjoy his wild and wacky poems too. His latest collection of poems, The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, illustrated with flair by Mini Grey, is one of the coolest poetry collections ever!

The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice is packed full of exactly that – advice of all kinds that may or may not be useful. Did you know, for example, that you should never serve soup to a cat, never put a rock in a roll, don’t put mustard on a dog, don’t kiss anything with a hiss, and don’t use an octopus for a hat? You’ll learn about the general dangers of broccoli, how to help yourself to cheer up, how to dance like a poet, and what makes a bad belt. There is advice to make you laugh, cringe, ponder, or just go ‘huh?’

I absolutely love this book! A.F. Harrold and Mini Grey have created a gorgeous book that begs you to pick it up. The title alone is intriguing and makes you wonder what advice you might find inside. When you open the covers you find a collection of silly, absurd, funny, and thoughtful poems that kids of all ages (and adults) will love. The book is split into different sections, with titles like ‘Advice mainly relating to animals, giants and the natural world,’ and ‘Advice mainly relating to school life, onions and general-knowledge-type stuff.’ The book is illustrated throughout by Mini Grey whose illustrations are bright and full of silliness. I especially love her illustration of mini-A.F. Harrold who keeps popping up in poems throughout the book.

There are so many poems that I loved in this collection. ‘Inside’ perfectly captures the feeling of being lost in a book, ‘Silences’ is about appreciating the silence around us, and ‘Say something nice’ is about taking the time to say something nice to those around us. A.F. Harrold has also created The Advice-a-Tron 216 which is designed to give you some ready-at-hand advice when someone asks you for some. There are three columns, with a beginning, a middle and an end to choose. You just have a to roll a six-sided dice three times to come up with your advice. It might be ‘Always squeeze a banana’ or ‘If lost point at a man called Greg.’ There is even a blank Advice-a-Tron 216 in the back of the book that you can photocopy and fill in with your own suggestions. This would be a really fun activity to do in class.

The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice is a must-have addition to every school library poetry collection but would also make a wonderful gift for children of all ages. It will be a poetry book that will be enjoyed again and again.

The House of Clouds by Lisa Thompson

Lisa Thompson is one of my favourite authors. She is a marvellous storyteller and her characters always stick with me. I often recommend her books, especially The Goldfish Boy, to teachers, either as read alouds or as class sets. Lisa is one of the amazing line-up of authors who write for Barrington Stoke, the specialists in fiction for dyslexic readers. Lisa’s latest book with Barrington Stoke, The House of Clouds, has just been released. The House of Clouds packs the same emotional punch as her longer novels, but is the perfect length for struggling or dyslexic readers.

Tabby is in a bad mood. She is annoyed that her best friend is now hanging out with someone else and that her grandad has come to stay. Grandad is struggling to cope by himself so he has been moved in, taking over the dining room space. Grandad is always telling the same silly and annoying stories and he has brought his smelly dog Buster with him, who Tabby now has to walk every day. Her walks leave her even more annoyed when she sees her ex-best friend having fun with another girl. Then there is Alex, a boy from school, who she seems to keep bumping in to. On one walk around the bay Tabby discovers an unusual hilltop house, called the House of Clouds. The place looks abandoned but something strange catches her eye. When Tabby asks her grandfather about the house she discovers that her grandfather has a connection to the place and the woman who used to live there. Could it be that her grandfather’s magical tale is true? Before Tabby is able to find out more, tragedy strikes and she must return to the House of Clouds to discover the truth.

The House of Clouds is a heart-wrenching, beautiful story about grief and believing in the impossible. It’s a story of family, friendship and magic. At just under 100 pages this is a perfectly-formed story with depth of character and emotion. Not only does this make the book perfect for struggling readers or dyslexic readers, it is also perfect as a read aloud for Years 5-8. Teachers are often looking for short but engaging read alouds and The House of Clouds fits the bill perfectly. Tabby is a really interesting character who is trying to process everything that is happening with her friends and family, but the tragedy in her family and the search for answers changes her perspective. She has changed quite a bit by the end of the story.

The mixture of issues facing her characters and a hint of something magical or mysterious is what I love the most about Lisa’s stories. I really enjoyed the mystery of the House of Clouds and the connection that it provided Tabby with her grandfather. Who hasn’t looked at cloud shapes in the sky and wondered how they became that shape?

The House of Clouds is another brilliant book from Barrington Stoke (and Lisa’s second book with them). All school libraries should have a selection of these books in their collection, to recommend for struggling readers and dyslexic readers, but also to anyone who wants a really great short book.

Nico Bravo and the Cellar Dwellers by Mike Cavallaro

Mike Cavallaro’s Nico Bravo and the Hound of Hades was one of my favourite children’s graphic novels of 2019 and I constantly recommend it to kids. It’s the perfect blend of action, mythology and laughs that makes it one of the most entertaining graphic novels (for both kids and adults). Mike has just unleashed Nico’s second adventure, Nico Bravo and the Cellar Dwellers, and it is just as great as the first book.

Nico lives with his adopted father, Vulcan, the god of fire and the forge, who runs Vulcan’s Celestial Supply Shop. Nico works in the shop with his friends and colleagues, a sphinx named Lula, and a unicorn named Buck. They supply gods and monsters with anything they might need, from potions to weapons. Nico is dreading the annual visit of Abonsam (or Sam for short), the West African God of Misfortune and Pestilence. Sam carries his afflictions around with him in a “pouch of miseries.” Nico’s enemy, Ahriman, God of Evil, is sick of Nico thwarting his plans, so he sends a shapeshifter named Orcus to Vulcan’s Celestial Supply Shop on a mission to take down his enemies. Orcus mistakenly unleashes a Misery from Sam’s pouch and sets a case of nightmares loose. The situation quickly goes from bad to worse and Ahriman unleashes his forces on the island, threatening to destroy the Supply Shop. Nico and his friends will travel through dimensions and to the centre of the earth before their final showdown with Ahriman.

Nico Bravo and the Cellar Dwellers is a hilarious, action-packed adventure, chock-full with mythical creatures and gods. There is alot of story packed into just under 200 pages and different threads of the story to follow that all come crashing together at the end. Nico, Buck, Lula and Eowolf are back again, along with some other familiar characters, but also plenty of new ones. I especially liked the juxtaposition of Sam, being the God of Misfortune and Pestilence but wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt.

One of my favourite things about this series is the humour. There were lots of parts that made me laugh out loud. Mike has got great comedic timing and is really good at visual gags. Ahriman lasering anyone he isn’t pleased with is a running gag that I really enjoyed. Eowolf’s sword, Roger, is one of my favourite characters and has some of the best lines.

Mike’s illustrations are brilliant and the story really gives him a chance to showcase his talent for illustrating all sorts of fantastical creatures and landscapes. The colours are vibrant and really burst off the page. One of the little features of the illustrations in these books that I love is the ‘Vulcan’s Deck of Deities’ profile cards that Mike includes for new and important characters. They give you background information about the gods, with fun facts. I’d love to have these as actual playing cards that you could use for a game.

The Nico Bravo series is perfect for any kids who want a graphic novel with action, adventure or just a really funny story. They’re great to recommend to kids who like stories like Percy Jackson or who are mad on mythology. It’s great to see that there is more Nico Bravo to look forward to.

One Year at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks

I absolutely love Faith Erin Hicks’ art so I will read anything that she has illustrated. When Faith writes the story as well as illustrating it I know that it will be an absolute winner. Her Nameless City Trilogy are some of my favourite children’s graphic novels. One Year at Ellsmere is Faith’s latest graphic novel but also one of her earliest. She has redrawn all of her original illustrations and they look amazing! Open the covers and step inside this boarding school that is hiding a dark past.

Juniper is the first scholarship student to attend the prestigious Ellsmere Academy, a boarding school for girls. As the only student who doesn’t come from a wealthy family Juniper is already on the outside. It’s not long before she finds herself the target of queen bee, Emily. Juniper becomes friends with her roommate, Cassie, who helps her navigate life at Ellsmere. While working on their assignment near the forest they see a strange creature moving through the trees. Cassie tells Juniper the story of the family who originally lived at Ellsmere and the mysterious disappearance of the two brothers. Cassie explains that there is something in the forest ‘that hates bad people.’ Emily continues to harass and intimidate Juniper and when Cassie attempts to help her friend, Emily corners her in the forest and threatens her. However, the creature in the forest is watching.

I absolutely loved One Year at Ellsmere! It’s a story about family, friends, bullies, anger and a mystical creature watching over it all. Told over the course of twelve chapters (or months) we experience the ups and downs of Juniper’s year at Ellsmere. As well as the confrontations with Emily that see Juniper almost expelled there are funny moments, like building a snowman or Juniper trying to paint a self-portrait.

Faith’s artwork is so amazing in this book! The colour palette is dark, with lots of brown and green (their uniforms and the style of the old building) but her characters jump off the page. Faith’s style is so distinctive (it’s changed quite a lot over the years, looking back at the original comic). I especially love the way that Cassie’s big doe eyes shine and sparkle. My favourite spreads in the book are those where Cassie is telling the story of Lord Ellsmere and his family. I love the way that the images are framed and give different perspectives of characters on one spread. Shelli Paroline has done a stellar job of colouring the book too (especially when you consider how many school skirts she’s had to colour!). It was also fascinating to see Faith’s illustration process at the back of the book.

I know my senior kids are going to devour One Year at Ellsmere. It’s a great addition to any intermediate and high school graphic novel collection (but also suitable for keen Year 5/6 readers).