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.

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!

The Wolves of Greycoat Hall by Lucinda Gifford

Wolves have a pretty bad rap in stories so I’m sure you’ve never met wolves who are sophisticated and have impeccable manners. In her new book, The Wolves of Greycoat Hall, Lucinda Gifford introduces us to the Greycoat family who return to their Scottish roots.

Boris Greycoat lives with his mother and father, Leonora and Randall, in Greycoat Hall in Morovia, a popular place for respectable wolves to live. When Randall reads that wolves are being reintroduced to Scotland the family decides to travel to their ancestral home. However, not everyone is used to seeing wolves walking around, so they get their fair share of dirty looks and accusations sent their way as they travel to Scotland. Most people in the seaside town of Portlessie are welcoming. Mr Vorstad on the other hand is a nasty, money-grabbing man who doesn’t like the wolves interfering in his plans to get rid of Drommuir Castle. Boris is a very smart wolf whose research into his family history just might save the day.

The Wolves of Greycoat Hall is a wild romp of a story that will leave you howling with delight. You’ll wish you were a part of the Greycoat family as they travel back to Scotland to discover their roots, tasting all the cakes and treats that they can and enjoying a fun-filled family holiday.

Interspersed with the story are extracts from A Guide to Morovia which gives you little details about life for wolves in Morovia, fashion for wolves and what is required for a successful wolf walk (lots of refreshments). Boris brings along his book, The History of the Scottish Greycoats which teaches him about his family history. We learn about his ancestors and the battles and feuds that took place.

Lucinda tells a great story and her illustrations are fabulous. The book is chock-full of her illustrations of the Greycoat family, their ancestors and the other characters they meet on their journey. I especially like Mr Vorslad who looks particularly vile. I also really love the production and design of the book. The hardcover and design make it look like an old-fashioned book, similar to the History of Scottish Greycoats that Boris carries around.

The Wolves of Greycoat Hall would be a fantastic read aloud. I hope that there are more adventures of the Greycoats to follow.

For activities that link to The Wolves of Greycoat Hall and Lucinda’s other books check out her website. There is a fantastic printable mini-book on Lucinda’s website that you can create.

The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

I love trains and I love stories set on trains. I love mystery stories and I love books by M.G. Leonard (author of the wonderful Beetle Boy Trilogy). All of these things are smooshed together in the latest series by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman – Adventures on Trains. I’ve had the first book in the series, The Highland Falcon Thief, sitting on my shelf for a while now and keep meaning to read it. The second book has just been released so what better time to start the series. I was immediately swept up in this journey that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Hal’s Mum is due to have a baby so he gets whisked away on a special train journey with his Uncle Nat. They are taking the final journey of the Highland Falcon, Britain’s most famous steam train. Uncle Nat is a travel writer who has been on some of the most interesting train journeys in the world, but nothing will compare to the drama that unfolds on this journey. Hal, at first, thinks the journey will be kind of boring but he couldn’t be more wrong. An item of jewellery goes missing and the accusations start flying. This is just the beginning of a string of thefts that include a large jewel belonging to the royal family. Hal and his new friend Lenny start to investigate the thefts and try to discover who the thief is. They’ll need to pay attention to the little details and find the culprit before they reach the end of their journey.

The Highland Falcon Thief is a captivating mystery that has you guessing right up to the end. There are shifty characters, a stowaway, stunning scenery, delicious meals, and some very clever kids who put the police to shame. The story is action-packed, with plenty of sneaking around, and a particularly nail-biting scene on the outside of the train. The descriptions are so fantastic that you can hear the rush of steam through the engine’s whistle and smell the soot. You can clearly picture the lavish details of the carriages. Every detail of this story made me desperate for a train journey like this, with my own compartment. You can tell that both M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman have had a lot of fun writing this book and have both brought their interests and knowledge of trains to the story.

One of the things that I love about M.G. Leonard’s books is the depth of her adult characters, especially those related to the main characters. I especially loved Uncle Nat as he clearly wants to share this unique and wonderful experience with his nephew. He always listens to Hal and tries to help him work through his problems or theories. You’re never really sure who the thief is until it’s revealed at the end, so the authors do a really great job of making you believe it could be nearly anyone. Uncle Nat himself even suggests that it could be him as he has no alibi.

Elisa Paganelli adds extra class to the story with her superb illustrations. Her cover makes the book jump off the shelf and her interior illustrations really bring the characters alive. Elisa’s illustrations also show us the interior and exterior of the Highland Falcon. Hal is an artist who loves to draw so Elisa puts herself into Hal’s shoes by drawing what he sees.

I can’t wait for more Adventures on Trains with Hal, Lenny and Uncle Nat! The second book in the series, Kidnap on the California Comet, has just been released so I won’t have to wait long to board the next adventure.

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.

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.

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.