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).

Avis and the Promise of Dragons by Heather McQuillan

Dragons are creatures of myth, but imagine if there was a dragon in your neighbourhood. This is exactly what Avis discovers when she takes a job as a pet-sitter for the local ‘witch.’ Heather McQuillan introduces us to Avis and Humbert the dragon in her latest book, Avis and the Promise of Dragons.

Avis is having a hard time at home and school. The school bully, Drake, is making her miserable and her dad and brother have changed since her mum left and shacked up with an ex-All Black. A ray of light appears in her life just when she needs it – Dr Malinda Childe. Avis dreams of working with animals and Dr Malinda offers her a job as her pet-sitter. These are no ordinary pets though. These pets are special and unusual and Avis makes a promise to keep them a secret. This isn’t the only promise that she will make over the course of a weekend and soon Avis finds herself bonded to mythical creature. A mythical creature that just happens to love chocolate. If Avis is to keep her promises she will need to shake her brother and father out of their funk because she is going to need their help.

Avis and the Promise of Dragons is a magical adventure that you want to gobble down, like a dragon with a block of chocolate. Heather takes a story of a family who have fallen apart and throws a mischievous dragon into the mix. There is lots packed into the story, from family issues and bullying to conservation and the impact of the media. Avis’ Dad is a broken man after Avis’ Mum walked out on her family to start a new life with ex-All Black Aaron Miller. He takes little notice of what is happening with his kids, instead wallowing in his self-pity. Avis’ brother Bruno hides away in his room constantly, eating rubbish food and just generally being unpleasant. Avis is the only one in the family who is showing any responsibility, but she is also bearing the brunt of Drake the bully’s torment. The pet-sitting job for Dr Malinda gives her something positive in her life. The dragon coming in to her life helps to mend her family too.

Heather will make you wish you had a dragon all of your own. I really liked Heather’s take on the dragon myth and how her little dragon evolved. This dragon may love chocolate but but he’s certainly not sweet. Humbert is a wild creature who could burn you if you don’t keep your promises. He needs more food than just chocolate and will gobble up a dove or twenty when he’s hungry.

I loved Avis and the Promise of Dragons. It would make a fantastic read aloud for Years 5/6 as it will have the kids hanging on every word.

Heather McQuillian has just been announced as the University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer in Residence Fellow for 2021. Congratulations Heather! I look forward to reading what you create during your time in Dunedin.

Mr. Wolf’s Class: Field Trip by Aron Nels Steinke

Aron Nels Steinke’s Mr Wolf’s Class series of graphic novels have been hugely popular with the kids at my school. With their quirky cast of characters, relatable storylines and awesome art, it’s not hard to see why kids love them. I always look forward to another story of loveable Mr. Wolf and the antics of his class. The latest book in the series, Field Trip, has just been released by Scholastic’s Graphix imprint and I think this is the best book yet.

Mr. Wolf’s class are going on an overnight field trip in the mountains. They get to sleep in log cabins, come up with camp names, build huts and see things they’ve never seen before. Before they even get to camp though, Randy and Aziza have a falling out, which leads to some awkward moments on camp. Competition with another class staying at the camp leads to new friends, but Randy and Aziza must learn to work through their argument too. There is so much to do, see and learn outside the classroom.

In Field Trip, Aron throws his characters into a completely different environment and we see them thriving in the outdoors. There is plenty for both kids and adults to enjoy in this story. Kids will bring their own experiences of field trips to the story and relate to the good and bad that happens. There are plenty of laughs too, like the kids staying up late talking and farting just when everything is quiet. As an adult I really love seeing how Mr Wolf copes with everything that comes his way. His thought bubbles are especially hilarious as he’s often thinking something different than what he’s saying to the kids.

I really like the way that Aron uses lots of visual storytelling. There are several parts of the story where there is little or no text, letting the reader interpret what is happening in the story through the illustrations. I especially like the parts where Aron shows the kids all doing different camp activities, almost like a little montage.

There are a few cool references dotted through the story for readers to pick up too. Randy and Aziza are obsessed with Hazelton the Musical (a nod to Hamilton). The other reference I really liked was Fawn reading the Sky World series, a series of books that she says are all being adapted into graphic novels (a nod to Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series).

If you’re new to Mr. Wolf’s Class this is a great introduction to the series. You’ll want to go back and read all of the others in the series.

Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm

I read Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm way back in Level 4 Lockdown but I’ve been reminded of it a couple of times lately. It was just what I needed to help me get away from pandemics. Alastair rocketed me into deep space with this mystery that had me on the edge of my seat.

Orion Lost is a twisty, nail-biting space adventure that will hook kids on sci-fi. I loved every minute of it!

The ship Orion is travelling from Earth to a new home on Eos Five. The ship has to make a series of Jumps through space time to shorten their travel time and when these jumps happen everyone is put to Sleep and woken after the Jump. The human crew aren’t the only ones in the depths of space – there are the mysterious alien race, the Videshi, and the vicious Scrapers, space pirates who will rip a ship apart to scrap it. When danger lurks the ship’s crew and passengers are all sent to Sleep, but when Beth and her classmates are the only ones woken it is up to the kids to run the ship and try to figure out what went wrong. As they look for answers they discover that someone has been lying to them.

I hope Alastair Chisholm has more adventures planned for the Orion crew because I’m eager for more.

Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep by Victoria Cleal and Isobel Joy Te Aho-White

The Colossal Squid has long been one of Te Papa’s main attractions, especially for young children. Now, thanks to Victoria Cleal, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White and Te Papa Press we now have a wonderful children’s nonfiction book all about this creature.

Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep takes us on a journey with Whiti, from an ant-sized egg under the ice of Antarctica to the dark depths of the ocean, from the hunted to the hunter, finding a mate and having babies of its own, and finally to a carcass that feeds the wildlife of the Antarctic. Along the way we learn about the colossal squid’s bioluminescent karu (eyes), its hooked tentacles, its beak and its doughnut brain. We also learn about other creatures in the Ross Sea, including the parāoa (sperm whale), the dumbo octopus, the snailfish, and Kākahi (killer whales). New Zealand’s role as kaitiaki (guardians) of Antaractica is also explained.

Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep is a fantastic exploration of this incredible creature that has fascinated so many people. The format of the book, with small chunks of information, a conversational text and stunning illustrations make this a nonfiction book for readers of all ages. Readers can follow the story of Whiti’s life, learning about the squid’s life cycle and the environment in which it lives, while also discovering more about how the squid came to be on display in Te Papa. The double page spreads that fold out in several places in the book make this book feel extra special. I know that children are going to love discovering these and taking in the scenes. Isobel’s illustrations bring Whiti to life, with detailed diagrams showing us the various parts of the squid. I especially love the image of Whiti’s waru shining out in the depths of the ocean.

One of my favourite aspects of this book is the way that te reo Māori and te ao Māori have been woven into both the text and illustrations. Victoria explains that ika means fish at the start of the book and continues to just use ‘ika’ throughout the book. She does the same with ngū (squid), wheke (octopus) and other te reo Māori words. I love this because it helps those words to become part of your vocabulary. The importance of us being kaitiaki of the moana shines through in this book too. A koru motif follows Whiti as it travels through the book, having a similar appearance to Whiti’s arms and tentacles.

Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep is a must-have for all school libraries and would make a wonderful gift for any children who are fascinated with wildlife. It is one of the best New Zealand nonfiction books for children this year.

Pea, Bee and Jay series by Brian “Smitty” Smith

Three unlikely friends become besties in Brian “Smitty” Smith’s new graphic novel series for younger readers, Pea, Bee and Jay.

The first two books in the series have been released simultaneously (I love it when publishers do this, so thanks Harper Alley!) so we get a double dose of this funny team. In Pea, Bee and Jay: Stuck Together these three first meet. Pea lives on his farm and he loves to roll. When a mean strawberry dares him to roll all the way to the big tree, Pea knows that he can do it. Unfortunately it’s a lot further away than he thought and then a storm strikes, bouncing him off course. He bounces right into a bee named Bee, who is hiding from her responsibilities, and a bird called Jay, who doesn’t know how to fly. These three unlikely friends band together to help Pea find his way home.

In the second book, Pea, Bee and Jay: Wannabees, Bee would rather play with her new friends than perform her queenly duties. When she leaves the hive to see her friends a coup takes place and Lenny declares himself Queen of the hive. Pea and Jay must disguise themselves as bees and help Bee infiltrate the hive and get back what is rightly hers. Add in some daring acrobatics and a vegetable dispute and you have a seriously funny adventure.

Pea, Bee and Jay is a series that constantly cracks me up. Each book is full of laughs and super-silly puns. The argument between the corn and the potatoes in Wannabees had me cackling with laughter (it’s a graphic novel that adults will appreciate as much as the kids). Coming in at just over 60 pages each, they’re short and snappy, and I just know that kids (especially boys) are going to read them over and over again. I’m sure it won’t be long until I’ll be hearing fruit and vegetable puns in my school library. The illustrations are super cute and not highly detailed which makes them especially great for younger readers.

These first two books are the start of a series that is just going to keep getting better and better. I know my kids will be begging me to get the next ones as soon as they’re released. These are a must-buy for school library collections as I guarantee they will fly off the shelves. They’re a great read-alike for James Burke’s Bird and Squirrel series.

Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea by Tania Roxborogh

Kids love reading about myths and legends. Greek myths and legends are always popular with kids and authors like Rick Riordan have hooked kids on mythology. Tamariki in Aotearoa grow up reading and hearing stories of Māori mythology, but you’ve never seen them like this before. T. K. Roxborogh has just released her latest book with Huia, Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea, that brings the Māori gods to life. I’m certain that this book will do the same for Māori mythology as Percy Jackson did for Greek mythology. You’ll want to clear a few hours though because once you start Charlie Tangaroa you won’t want to stop.

Charlie has grown up not knowing much about his father who disappeared at sea when he was younger. He does know that he feels at home in water though. He lives with his mum, his brother and his grandfather in Tolaga Bay. While exploring the beach one day Charlie and Robbie find what they believe is a mermaid. They rescue her and take her home, and Charlie discovers that he can communicate with her. Pō-nuia is a ponaturi, a sea goblin, who is trying to flee from Tangaroa’s domain, the sea. Pō-nuia tells Charlie that he is special and that his missing leg is a sign. Tangaroa doesn’t care about this though. He just wants revenge on Tāne for the careless actions of humans who pollute his domain. He will send Rūaumoko with earthquakes and Tāwhirimātea with winds, rain and hail to punish Tāne and his people. It’s up to Charlie, with the help of Robbie and Jenny, to make the gods see sense and end their squabble before it’s too late.

Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea is an action-packed adventure story that had me hooked from the first page. This is quite simply one of the best Kiwi children’s stories set in New Zealand. Personally, this is now my favourite New Zealand fiction book for kids. It is such a fantastic read that I read the whole thing in a day and was reluctant to put it down to spend time with my family.

Tania’s writing is superb and she sweeps you up in the story straight away. You can feel the tension in the air and the sense of impending doom, so you just need to keep reading to find out what happens. Charlie’s voice is so authentic. He feels like your best friend talking to you and telling you the story. Charlie has a disability but he doesn’t let this rule his life. He is thrown into the middle of this fight between the gods but is determined to make things right. All of the characters are nicely developed, from Charlie’s brother, Robbie, to their new friend Jenny, and their grandfather. Tania has also woven an environmental theme through the story, with Tangaroa being angry because of the way humans pollute his domain. Charlie and Robbie regularly try to clean up the beach but there’s also mention of whales being washed up and dying because of the plastic inside them. Jenny’s father is over from America checking up on the new port that is being built and the characters talk about the affect on the oceans being just as much from logging and transporting the logs as an oil spill.

The book has a real New Zealand feel to it, from the landscape of Tolaga Bay that Tania conjures up in your head, to the wildlife that inhabit the domains of Tāne and Tangaroa, and the Te Reo Māori and Te Ao Māori that is an integral part of the story. Te Reo Māori is used throughout the story in such a way that those with a basic knowledge of the language will recognise some words but also learn new words. Waiata play an important role in the story and Charlie’s grandfather has taught them to him since he was very young. Māori gods wreak havoc in the story, with Tāne, Tangaroa and Tāwhirimātea going head to head. I really liked the way that the gods manifest in the story, using the aspects of their domains (birds or the ocean) to show their physical form.

Phoebe Morris’ cover is stunning and really draws you in. I’m a huge fan of Phoebe’s illustrations and they are such a perfect fit with the story. I have to admit to not even noticing Charlie’s leg until it was mentioned part way into the story.

I implore everyone to read this book! I will be recommending it to everyone and encouraging both kids and teachers to read it. It would be a perfect read aloud for Years 6-8 because it would hook every kid. Thank you Tania for writing this story and to Huia for publishing it. We need more stories like this for our tamariki.

Ballet Bunnies by Swapna Reddy and Binny Talib

What do you get when you combine one little beginner ballerina and bunnies in tutus? You get the most adorable chapter book series for young readers ever! Swapna Haddow (author of the Dave Pigeon series writing as Swapna Reddy) and Binny Talib have joined forces to give readers a series full of friendship, mischief and tutus.

The first three books in the series have been released together, which is fantastic as young readers can really fall in love with Millie and her bunny friends. In The New Class we meet Millie, who has dreamed of going to Miss Luisa’s School of Dance for months. On her sixth birthday her Mum surprises her with lessons and she’s so excited to go. Unfortunately things don’t start smoothly. Perfect Amber is mean to Millie and she just can’t get the moves right. When she most needs a friend she discovers the Ballet Bunnies – Dolly, Fifi, Pod and Trixie. With the help of the Ballet Bunnies and her new friend Samira, Millie starts to improve her ballet skills and have fun while doing it.

In the second book, Let’s Dance, Millie is preparing to perform for the first time in her ballet school’s gala show. While Millie is excited at first to perform, once she sees the stage she becomes very nervous and worried. Luckily Millie has her Ballet Bunnies to give her some tips and help her prepare.

In the third book, Millie’s Birthday, Millie is getting ready for her birthday. All her friends and family are going to be there but Millie gets a funny feeling in her tummy when she thinks about all those people. The bunnies decide to sneak home in Millie’s bag so that they can be there for Millie’s party. They will have a lot of fun together, but they’ll have to keep hidden from Millie’s mum and the party guests.

I love absolutely everything about The Ballet Bunnies series! From the moment young readers see these books glittering on the shelf they are going to be smitten with the Ballet Bunnies. I read all three books to my 5 year old daughter and we giggled our way through each book. As soon as she saw the books she squealed with excitement and we had to read them one after another over three nights. She couldn’t pick a favourite bunny but I love Trixie because she keeps falling asleep. We both love Millie though and we had some good discussions about what happened to her in the stories.

The covers are loaded with glitter and Binny’s illustrations make your heart melt. The bunnies are absolutely adorable (I totally wanted to cuddle them all) but they all have a different personality. There are illustrations on almost every page.

I really love that each of the stories is quite different and doesn’t feel formulaic. So often with series for younger readers the stories can feel the same in each book. In each Ballet Bunnies book Millie is dealing with different emotions, whether it is sadness and frustration about not knowing the ballet moves, nervousness and worry about performing, or feeling anxious at her party. I love the way that Swapna includes strategies to help Millie cope with her emotions. These are all situations that kids find themselves in so kids will be able to relate easily to Millie and these strategies will maybe even help them in a similar situation.

If you have a young reader in your life, especially a girl, you must get them The Ballet Bunnies series. They are perfect for newly independent readers to read themselves or to read aloud to 5-7 year olds. There are more books to come in the series next year and my daughter and I can’t wait!