The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski

At a time when countries have their borders shut and travel has pretty much been shut down, thankfully we still have books to transport us to different places. The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski is a book bursting with worlds for readers to explore. In the first book in L.D. Lapinski’s new series we meet Flick and Jonathan Mercator and discover the wonders of the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, where you travel to different worlds through suitcases.

Felicity (or Flick as she prefers) has just moved houses and towns. Sure, she has her own bedroom now, but her parents are still as busy as ever and she gets dumped with her baby brother when she would rather have time to herself. While exploring her new town she discovers a dusty and dilapidated shop with a tired sign saying ‘The Strangeworlds Travel Agency.’ When she steps inside she discovers a dusty space filled with dozens of suitcases, stacked in slots on the walls. While exploring the shop she meets Jonathan Mercator, the custodian of The Strangeworlds Travel Agency. After Flick displays a special magical ability, Jonathan invites her to join The Strangeworlds Travel Agency. Flick soon discovers the joys and dangers of travelling to other worlds through the suitcases at Strangeworlds, and Jonathan asks for her help. Jonathan’s parents were also custodians of Strangeworlds, but after his mother died, Jonathan’s father was distant. Jonathan’s father has been missing for a couple of months and Jonathan has been looking for him, with no luck. Jonathan and Flick set off for the City of Five Lights, where they hope to find some answers to the disappearance of Jonathan’s father. When they get to the City of Five Lights though, something is wrong with this world. People and places are disappearing and The Order of Thieves have set a plan in motion that could not only destroy Five Lights but also put all of the worlds in the multiverse in danger. Jonathan and Flick get split up and must do everything they can to navigate the dangers of this world and save their own.

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency is an action-packed, multi-dimensional adventure, filled with magic and tinged with a hint of darkness. I love the idea of travelling to other worlds through suitcases and the complexities of this (having to make sure you pull the suitcase into the world with you so you can get home). L.D. Lapinski has made the idea of multi-dimensional travel feel fresh and exhilarating. Much like time travel, travelling to different dimensions is never as straight-forward as you at first think, and L.D. Lapinski has explored this well. The story becomes quite twisty as it progresses and the mix of the travelling between worlds and Flick’s abilities make the story quite complex. You get to the end of the story feeling like you have just scraped the surface of multi-dimensional travel and there are quite a few questions for L.D. Lapinski to answer in further books. We don’t really know what has happened to Jonathan’s father or what Flick can do with her abilities. There are so many possible worlds for L.D. Lapinski to explore in future books and we’ve only seen a handful in this book.

L.D. Lapinski’s characters are complex and relatable. Different aspects of Jonathan and Flick’s personalities have been explored in this book, but there is more to uncover. While we know what Flick’s life has been like before she stepped into the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, she is quite a different person by the end of the story. She used to be unsatisfied with her quiet life but now it is full of magic and adventure that she couldn’t have imagined. By the end of the story Flick is just starting to understand her abilities, so there is more for her to explore about herself. Jonathan is quite a mystery at the start of the story, and while we get to know more about him, I don’t feel like we have the full story. He has obviously been affected by losing his mother and then being abandoned by his father, leaving him not very trusting of people. He keeps secrets from Flick and this affects their relationship. I’m looking forward to seeing how their relationship develops in further books.

Natalie Smillie’s phenomenal cover draws you in and invites you to jump into a Strangeworlds suitcase. Natalie shows readers that they’ll experience an out-of-this-world adventure, filled with treasure, strange creatures and unusual lands. Kids are sure to be drawn to this book on the shelves.

I’m desperate to get back to The Strangeworlds Travel Agency and dive into some more suitcases! Luckily I don’t have to wait too long as the second book in the series, The Strangeworlds Travel Agency: The Edge of the Ocean, is due out in April.

The House at the Edge of Magic by Amy Sparkes

Occasionally you come across a book that makes other people give you funny looks. This is because you are grinning madly or chuckling to yourself while you read and those around you, whether they be family or strangers, think you are a little bit mad. Sometimes a book is just so funny and clever that you can’t help but grin and chuckle while you read it. Amy Sparkes’ The House at the Edge of Magic is one of these books and I had a smile on my face from start to finish.

Nine is an orphan pick-pocket whose home is The Nest, a hideaway in the city run by the nasty Pockets. Nine and the other children steal valuables and bring them back to Pockets, who allows them to live in his stinking Nest. Nine’s only glimmer of happiness comes from her regular trips to the dilapidated library, run by the librarian Mr Downes, who lets her take books to read. Nine’s life changes dramatically one day when she steals a house-shaped ornament. When Nine has escaped those chasing her she inspects the ornament and lifts the tiny door-knocker, causing the tiny house to become life-size. When she steps inside she meets a group of unusual characters who desperately need her help. There is Flabberghast (High Wizard, Chair of the Tea Tasters Committee, and World Hopscotch Champion, 1835), Eric (the troll housekeeper) and Dr Spoon (the kilt-wearing, scientist spoon). A curse has been put on the house by a witch and none of them (apart from Nine) can leave the house. If that wasn’t bad enough, the toilet is never in the same place (and sometimes has teeth), the library won’t stay ordered and when they try to make tea they get transformed into strange creatures. Only Nine can help them break the curse, and in doing so, she will get a way out of her horrible life on the streets. They must all work together to solve the clues and break the curse.

The House at the Edge of Magic is an incredibly enjoyable story, that is brimming with magic and imagination. I knew from the stunning cover (by Ben Mantle) and the blurb that I was going to love this book and Amy Sparkes cast a delightful spell over me as I read. I laughed so much reading it, whether it was the conversations between the characters or the many hilarious ways that the house has been cursed. My favourite part (and the bit that had me laughing hardest) is when Nine goes to make tea for the first time. Every time they try to touch the handle to the tea cupboard, each of the characters get transformed in some ridiculous way, like their skin turning blue, their legs turning into springs or becoming an oversized yellow spotty teapot. There seemed to be no end to the different cursed rooms in the house, from the library with its vicious flying books to the cellar containing the ‘Sometimes Dead.’

Amy’s characters are wonderful and their personalities bounce off each other in hilarious ways. I don’t think I could pick a favourite character because they’re all so delightfully odd. Flabberghast is quite eccentric and is the one who is most frustrated by the curse on the house. He is dying for a cup of tea and would really like the library to just stay tidy and ordered. Eric is a sweet troll who just wants to make sure everyone is OK. He loves his feather duster and cooks what he can for his friends. Dr Spoon is a bit mysterious as you never quite know what he is creating in his room with all the explosions. Nine has had a hard life and hasn’t known friendship, so when she discovers the house and the wizard, troll and spoon inside, she can’t believe that magic is real and that this house exists. If she helps this band of oddballs she will be able to escape her miserable life and have riches beyond her wildest dreams. I love the decision that she makes at the end of the story, leaving it open for more adventures in The House at the End of Magic.

The House at the End of Magic would be an amazing read aloud for Years 4-6 and it is sure to have them all laughing and begging for ‘just one more chapter!’ There is something in the story to entice all sorts of readers, whether you like magic, laughs, mystery or great characters. I certainly can’t wait for more adventures with Nine, Flabberghast, Eric and Dr Spoon.

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

I’ve had Elle McNicoll’s debut middle grade book, A Kind of Spark, on my TBR pile for a while. I know that when I see lots of reviewers, whose opinions I trust, raving about a book, I need to read it. I finally had a chance to read it and it is every bit as wonderful as I hoped.

Elle puts you in the shoes of Addie, a girl who sees the world as brighter and louder than those around her. Addie is autistic (or neurodiverse) but often finds herself ‘masking’ or pretending to be neurotypical to fit in. When she gets overwhelmed her hands fizz and flap and her limbs become restless, which she calls stimming. Addie has twin older sisters, Keedie and Nina, and Keedie is autistic too. Keedie and Addie understand each other but Nina doesn’t understand them. Addie’s friend, Jenna is now friends with Emily and doesn’t want to hang out with Addie anymore. Addie finds a new friend in Audrey, the new girl at school, who has come to their quiet little Scottish village from London. Audrey understands Addie in a way that Jenna never did. She asks questions about the things that Addie is interested in and tries to understand what it’s like to be autistic. Addie is fascinated by sharks and her school librarian, Mr Allison, is always finding books for her to read. One day in class Addie’s teacher tells them about the historic witch trials that took place in and around their village of Juniper. Addie is fascinated and horrified that something so terrible could happen and she sets out to find out as much as possible about the witch trials and the women who were killed during this time. Addie decides that these women need to be remembered and she makes it her mission to get a plaque placed in her village to commemorate them. The village council try to stop her idea from coming to fruition but the more Addie learns about the so-called ‘witches’ the more determined she becomes to make sure they are remembered.

I absolutely love A Kind of Spark! It is a stunning story that reminds you how important kindness and empathy are. Elle McNicoll takes you inside the head of Addie so that you not only walk in her shoes but also understand how she thinks and feels. We see what makes Addie different but also unique. We see how horrible and intolerant adults and other kids can be to someone that they can see is different. This is a story that will make you smile, laugh, shout and cry. I read this book in a day and I wanted to go right back to the start and read it again.

The things that make this story so great are Elle’s characters and their interactions. Addie is such an interesting character and you gain a real insight in to what it is like to be autistic. Some people, like Audrey and Mr Allison, take the time to get to know Addie and understand what she needs, while others, like Miss Murphy, just write her off as not being worth their time. I love the relationship between Addie and Keedie, as they understand each other. They can talk about how they’re feeling and the frustrations of being autistic (like not being able to easily read facial expressions) because they both understand what it feels like. One of my favourite characters is the school librarian, Mr Allison, because he knows what kind of things Addie is interested in and keeps books aside for her. He also comes to Addie’s aide when she needs him.

As with many kids who are seen to be different, Addie is bullied, both by a girl in her class and her teacher. Emily, the girl that is now friends with Addie’s ex-best friend, is nasty to Addie at any given opportunity. It gets so bad that there is a horrible thing that happens in the classroom that leads Addie to have a meltdown. Miss Murphy also bullies Addie, by doing things like ripping up her writing. Miss Murphy is intolerant of Addie and her differences and has a grudge against her from the start. Seeing the way Emily and Miss Murphy treat Addie make you feel horrible and want to shout at them.

A Kind of Spark is a perfect read aloud for Years 6-9 and makes a great alternative to Wonder. The themes are similar and the story will grab the whole class. This is also a great book for a class set for the same ages as there are some good themes to discuss and relatable characters. Elle McNicoll’s next book, Show Us Who You Are, is due out in March and it sounds AMAZING, so I can’t wait to read it!

Black Sand Beach: Are You Afraid of the Light? by Richard Fairgray

If you like your graphic novels a little on the creepy or weird side then you need to grab the first book in Richard Fairgray’s Black Sand Beach series, Are You Afraid of the Light?

Dash and his family are off to their holiday house at Black Sand Beach, along with Dash’s friend Lily. Dash tries to explain to Lily that it’s not like any other holiday destination – ‘there’s no ice-cream stand or stores, there’s just giant mosquitoes, scary woods, weird animals and a shaky old house that my dad built himself.’ You think Dash is exaggerating, but then you turn the page to see giant mosquitoes flying past the car. When they get to the house they’re greeted by Dash’s Aunt Lynne riding what looks like a green ram, and things just get weirder from there. Dash’s cousin Andy tries to capture bees to make him fly, Uncle Trevor looks grey and creepy, the sand on the beach is magnetic, and the abandoned lighthouse is suddenly shining its light. As Dash, Lily and Andy investigate the mysterious lighthouse they are attacked by ghosts and there are signs that something really strange is going on at Black Sand Beach. Then Dash’s family get given a heap of purple potatoes from the neighbours, which everyone but Lily eats, and things get really bizarre. Scary, green creatures, with mouths in their stomachs appear but only Lily can see their natural form. It’s up to Lily to save Dash and his family.

Are You Afraid of the Light? is one of the weirdest, creepiest graphic novels for kids that I’ve read but it left me intrigued. When I finished the book I felt like I was waking from a bad dream, but one that I wanted to go back to. I was unsettled but I want to know more about what is going on at Black Sand Beach. There are plenty of weird things going on that Richard Fairgray will hopefully elaborate on in future books. I want to know why Dash doesn’t remember coming to Black Sand Beach last summer. Who or what is the ghostly presence calling out to Dash? Why is Uncle Trevor so creepy? Most of the adults are pretty weird actually, like Dash’s mum, who hardly says anything and spends most of the time looking bored.

Richard Fairgray’s illustrations certainly match the tone of the story, with lots of dark green and purple being used to give it a creepy vibe. I like the way that the eerie light from the lighthouse shines on the characters too. My favourite aspect of the illustrations are the pages that mark the next part of the story, where Richard has used a negative exposure kind of effect.

I’m eagerly awaiting the next part of the story, which is due this year. Hopefully we’ll get some answers to some of the weirdness in Black Sand Beach. This is definitely a graphic novel for those kids who like a bit of creepy or weird in their stories. I’m sure this will be gobbled up by the older kids at my primary school.

Crater Lake: Evolution by Jennifer Killick

I love a good sci-fi book for kids and Jennifer Killick’s Crater Lake is one of the best. I read it during lockdown here in NZ last year and it was the perfect book to get lost in during that time. It was a book that gripped me right from the start and I didn’t notice time passing around me while I read it. If you haven’t read it already you absolutely should and you can read about it here in my review. It is such a great book that I was super excited to hear there was going to be a sequel. Crater Lake: Evolution is coming in May and I was lucky enough to read it early through NetGalley, thanks to Firefly Books. You need to add this book to your TBR pile (along with the first book) because you’re not going to want to miss it!

Crater Lake: Evolution follows on several months after the events of the first book. Lance and his friends have started at different high schools and they have drifted apart. Lance has become friends with Karim and Chets is jealous of their friendship. Karim’s mum works at the university for XGen, which is giving their town renewable energy and super-fast Wi-Fi. Their town is the first SMARTtown in the country. Just when Lance thinks that life is back to normal, an explosion at the university sees the forces from Crater Lake taking hold in his town. These aren’t the same forces as before though. They have evolved into something more dangerous. Lance has to try and get the gang back together again, to work through their differences and save their families themselves. If they don’t stop the evil force’s plans in their town, the rest of the world will be next.

Crater Lake: Evolution is a thrilling, nail-biting sequel that I devoured. I thought Crater Lake was an amazing story but Evolution is even better! The action is fast-paced and there were times I found myself holding my breath as I wasn’t sure how the characters were going to get through. Chapter 13 is one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve read in a children’s book! I can’t spoil what happens but it sent chills down my spine. It is incredibly creepy but such fantastic writing, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s the sort of book that I guarantee would capture a whole class of Year 7/8 students because it’s so gripping.

Many of the characters from the first book are back in this book but there is a completely different dynamic. The characters have made new friends but some have also felt the pressure to be a different person at high school. I really liked the way that Jennifer developed the characters but also how she threw them together so that they had to deal with their issues and talk about their emotions. The interactions between the characters adds some comic relief into the story, with some good jokes at the expense of some of the least likeable characters.

The ending is particularly satisfying and it feels like things are wrapped up nicely. But are they? If I know anything from reading Crater Lake it’s that there is always the possibility that there are loose ends that haven’t been completely dealt with. I would certainly like more adventures with the Crater Lake Crew.

If you’re looking for a perfect read aloud to start the school year for Years 6-8, I highly recommend the first book in the series, Crater Lake. It’s a nice alternative to Holes but with a similar sense of mystery and great character development.

Kidnap on the California Comet by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman are back with another rip-roaring Adventures on Trains book. In the second book in the series we jump onboard a train journey across America in Kidnap on the California Comet.

Hal once again joins his Uncle Nat on a train journey to remember. Uncle Nat is covering a press conference on board the California Comet, travelling from Chicago to Emeryville, and he asks Hal to accompany him. After his last holiday with Uncle Nat, foiling the plans of a jewel thief, Hal is eager to go to America. What starts off as a fun holiday, with new friends and magic tricks, soon turns into another mystery, with a billionaire’s daughter being kidnapped. There is no shortage of suspects, as Hal has met some unusual characters on board the California Comet. Using his sharp observation skills and working with his new friends, Mason and Hadley, Hal will need to solve the case before the train reaches the end of the line.

This series is so much fun! Packed full of action, adventure, mystery and new friends, this is the perfect book for any reader. You can’t help getting caught up in the story and whisked away on the adventure with Hal, Uncle Nat and their friends. Reading this book made me once again want to go on this train journey.

Mason and Hadley are great new characters who bring a different dynamic to the story and special skills that become important to the story. All of the characters are nicely fleshed out so there are plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing. Like the first book, one of my favourite aspects of this story is the relationship between Hal and Uncle Nat. I love the trust that Nat has in Hal, even if Hal is a little reluctant to share all of his findings with Nat.

Elisa Paganelli’s illustrations are once again superb. I love the way that Elissa captures the characteristics and features of each character and makes them look like they are suspects. My favourite illustration in this book is the one of Hal sitting in their roomette with Uncle Nat, telling him everything. You can tell that Hal has his uncle’s complete attention.

I can’t wait for more Adventures on trains! Luckily we only have to wait until February for Murder on the Safari Star.

Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: On With The Show! By Pip Jones and Ella Okstad

I love it when you find the perfect book just when you need it. Pip Jones and Ella Okstad’s wonderful Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat is one of those books for me. I discovered them last year when looking for some chapter books to share with my 5 year old daughter. The first book in the series was released in 2014 and five more chapter books followed, and one picture book. Told in rhyming verse, each book is a new adventure for Ava and her invisible cat, Squishy McFluff. Ava and Squishy get in to all sorts of mischief and the stories are so perfect for sharing with young readers who are ready for a longer story or are starting to read chapter books. I’ve loved every Squishy McFluff book and there is a new book in the series which has just been released. In Squishy McFluff: On with the Show! the circus is in town and Ava and Squishy get to enjoy the show.

The weekend looks like it is going to be super boring when Ava’s Mum announces that they’ll be tidying the shed. An advertisement for a travelling circus catches Ava’s eye and she convinces her parents to go. Ava has to help her parents tidy the shed first but Ava and Squishy spend the time finding things for their circus act. When the star clown doesn’t show up though, Ava and Squishy step in to take his place. It’s not long before Ava’s invisible cat becomes not-so-invisible and steals the show.

On with the Show is another great addition to this wonderful series. Like the other books in the series this is an absolute joy to read! The rhyming text flows so nicely and just rolls off your tongue. I’ve always thought authors who can write a picture book that rhymes while also flowing nicely have quite a skill, but to be able to do this for a 72 page chapter book makes Pip Jones a true wordsmith. Ella Okstad’s illustrations adorable illustrations adorn every page and she perfectly captures this magical friendship between Ava and Squishy.

The thing that I love the most about this series is the rich language that Pip uses. The language is perfectly aimed at her audience but the text is full of fantastic words like ‘apprehensive,’ ‘clout,’ and ‘stupendous.’ It’s the language and the rhythm of the text that makes these books so much fun to read aloud.

The Squishy McFluff books are great for newly independent readers to read themselves, for an adult to read aloud to a 4-6 year old, or for a New Entrant or Year 1 or 2 teacher to share with their class. The chapters are short (and so is each book), making them ideal for sharing at bedtime or in class. They are a great addition to a primary school library as I recommend them to the Year 1 and 2 children all the time. If you have a young reader in your life get them the Squishy McFluff books from your library or bookshop now.

Visit the Squishy McFluff website for more information about the series, the author and illustrator, and to find fun activities. Check out the book trailer for Squishy McFluff: Supermarket Sweep:

The Greatest Inventor by Ben Brooks

Ben Brooks, the author of Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different, proved that he was an author to watch last year when he released his debut children’s fiction title, The Impossible Boy. I loved the idea of an invented classmate becoming real and the sinister secret organisation that came to try and restore order. It was just the right mixture of whimsical and darkness, with a good dash of humour. Ben Brooks is back again with his latest book, The Greatest Inventor. In this story, Ben transports us to a land that is caught in the grip of a mysterious organisation and whose people become addicted to new technologies.

This is a story within a story. The prologue introduces us to the author, who is having trouble finding his next story. While walking in the snow he stumbles on a cottage and is greeted by the young boy who lives there. The boy offers to tell him and story, and so the main story begins. The boy tells the story of Victor, a boy who lives on a farm with his parents and his pet giant tortoise, Saint Oswold, in the village of Rainwater. One day, an inventor trundles in to Rainwater, offering the people his marvelous inventions. The people of Rainwater refuse to buy his inventions and the inventor puts a curse on them, poisoning their drinking water. Everyone but Victor and Saint Oswold are doubled over, with horrible pain, so Victor knows that it is up to him to follow the inventor and demand that he cures them. The further that Victor gets from Rainwater the more villages he passes through. Each of the villages has a different purpose – hunting, mining and inventing. Each of these villages is affected by one of the inventions that the inventor has sold them. One village can do nothing but stare at themselves in their Mirrors of Emit Tsol, another one spends all their time inside, looking after their own tiny model farm. Victor meets other children along the way who are also unaffected by the inventions like him. They all band together to try and find the inventor and make him put things right. The more children that Victor meets the more he learns of the organisation known as the collectors. Each village is deep in debt to the collectors, who give them the things that they need to live, in return for the things that their village gathers (rubies from the miners, skins and meat from the hunters). It is not long before Victor and his friends find themselves in the middle of the army of the collectors and the army of the inventor. Can they save themselves and their villages?

The Greatest Inventor is a fable about technology, wrapped up in a story that is brimming with imagination. Ben touches on the addictive nature of technology and the way that it can take over our lives. The adults in the villages become completely useless and forget about everything else that they should be doing. The children can see the effect that the inventions are having on them, so they are the ones who try to save their families. The story-within-a-story format completely hooked me in and Ben’s storytelling made the world around me disappear. I really liked how Ben gave you little pieces of the whole picture as you go on the journey with Victor, until you finally figure everything out. I have to admit to not fully realising the significance of the three different inventions until right near the end, but when it clicked I could see the parallels between our world and the world of the story. I also loved how the ‘Greatest Inventor’ of the title kept changing. Just when you think the title belongs to one particular person you’re proven wrong.

The characters are all interesting and complex, and many of them are different from what they first appear. Each of the children are quite different and bring their own skills and knowledge to the group. Most of them have not left their villages before, but are determined to find the inventor and free their families from the grip of the collectors. I loved the character of the inventor as he is quite eccentric, but he’s also not who he first appears to be. I loved that he just took over an abandoned castle and put in his golden bathroom, with its golden bathtub and toilet.

Not only is it a great story but it also has a fantastic cover. The golden bathroom of the inventor bursts off the cover, making it a book that is hard to miss on the shelf. Victor and his friends are all there on the cover, along with the inventor in his bath-cap. George Ermos has brought Ben’s characters to life and his illustrations show us some of the funniest parts of the story. I’m a huge fan of his illustrations and I would have liked to see more of them in the book.

I can’t recommend The Greatest Inventor and The Impossible Boy highly enough. They are especially great for those readers who like an adventure story that’s a little bit different. I think they would be a great next-step for those kids who have enjoyed David Walliams, Roald Dahl, or David Baddiel but want something with a bit more bite. They would both be great for read alouds or novel sets for Years 5-8.

The Beast and the Bethany by Jack Meggitt-Phillips

‘Ebenezer Tweezer was a terrible man with a wonderful life’

From this first line Jack Meggitt-Phillips had me hook, line and sinker. I knew straight away that I was going to love this book! I was pretty convinced I would love it just from the amazing cover. Those sharp, dripping teeth and the surly looking girl on the cover really draw you in and make you curious about what the book is about. This is one of my top middle grade books of 2020.

Ebenezer Tweezer is 511 years old but he doesn’t look a day over 20. His youthful good looks come courtesy of the beast that he keeps in the attic of his fifteen-storey home. As long as he feeds this grotesque beast he will continue to get a special formula that keeps him from ageing. Ebenezer feeds the beast all manner of things and the beast vomits out items in return. Birds and even Ebenezer’s favourite cat have been devoured by the beast. So when the beast requests to eat a child Ebenezer must find one for it. Ebenezer decides that the beast needs to eat a horrible child, one that really deserves to be eaten. Along comes Bethany. However Bethany is not quite what he expected, and soon Ebenezer starts to have second thoughts. The beast demands to be fed and he wants to eat Bethany, whether she likes it or not.

The Beast and the Bethany is a deliciously dark tale that made me chuckle with glee. It is a story that is a bucketload of fun but also has a whole lot of heart. I loved the gory details but I also loved seeing how Ebenezer and Bethany’s relationship developed throughout the story. I found myself smiling every time I read more and I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Everything about the story is brilliant, from the storytelling and dialogue to the characters.

I love both Bethany and Ebenezer. Bethany has a surly, confronting exterior but she’s an orphan who’s had a pretty rubbish life. She treats others as the world has treated her. Ebenezer has led a long, privileged life, with all of the money and things he could want, but he’s also trapped serving a horrible beast. Bethany is the horrible child that Ebenezer needs to keep the beast satisfied and Ebenezer is a way out of the orphanage for Bethany (but she’s still not happy about it). This is certainly not rich-man-adopts-adorable-orphan like Annie, but their relationship is kind of cute. The beast himself is quite entertaining and some of its lines made me laugh, especially when its describing the type of child it wants to eat.

Isabelle Follath’s illustrations are the perfect match for Jack’s story. She perfectly captures Ebenezer and Bethany’s personalities and the tone of the story. I love the way that she has captured Ebenezer ageing throughout the story. The cover, designed by Matt Jones, is my favourite cover of 2020. I love the way that the beast’s teeth shine, as well as the globs of drool that drip out of its mouth. You can tell from looking at Bethany on the front cover that she is not just going to sit back and get eaten.

The Beast and the Bethany would be an amazing read aloud for Years 5-8 and a great class set for the same level. I would love to have the chance to read it aloud as the language is so rich and the characters have such clear voices in my head. It would be a fantastic audiobook. I was very excited to see that there is a sequel coming next year and I can’t wait to read it.

Dragon Mountain by Katie and Kevin Tsang

Dragons are so hot right now. Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series is one of the most popular series in my school library and they get spread by word of mouth. Dragons are fascinating so it’s no wonder that authors write stories about them and kids want to read stories about them. One of the things that I love about dragon stories is the weaving of the mythology with fiction. Katie and Kevin Tsang do this so well in their new book, Dragon Mountain. They take the mythology of dragons and weave it in to a fresh story that is exciting and magical.

Billy Chan isn’t excited about going to summer camp in the mountains of China. He’s been given the chance to attend Camp Dragon to help improve his Mandarin and learn more about his Chinese heritage but he’d rather be back in California enjoying the waves. At Camp Dragon he meets Dylan, Charlotte, and Ling-Fei. They’re four very different kids who will become part of something bigger than any of them could have imagined. On a camp activity they discover an entrance in to the imposing mountain that stands over the camp. It’s in the mountain that they discover that dragons aren’t just mythical creatures. They are real and they need Billy and his new friends to help save both the human and dragon world. The kids agree to help the dragons and become bonded with them. They must travel to the dragon world and stop the Dragon of Death from being freed and bringing destruction to the world.

Dragon Mountain is an action-packed adventure, filled with magic, superpowers and dragons. It’s a fantastical start to a series that had me hooked and needing to know what would happen next. It ends on a real cliff-hanger that made me so thankful that we only have to wait until March next year for the next instalment. Like the bond between the kids and their dragons you feel connected to the characters and are right there beside them.

The cover (illustrated by Petur Antonsson and design by Tom Sanderson) is an absolute stunner! It screams ‘PICK ME UP!’ I love the contrasting colours of the dragons against the orangey-red background. I also love that it shows how different each of the four dragons are. I keep switching between which one I would like to be bonded with but I think it would be Buttons.

Dragon Mountain would be a great read aloud for Year 5/6 because it will keep everyone engaged and begging their teacher to keep reading. I know that this is going to be such a great series and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.