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.

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).

Pizazz by Sophy Henn

If you could have a superpower what would you choose? Laser eyes? Invisibility? Ice breath? Pizazz wishes she had a superpower that exciting but hers is just rubbish (or so she thinks). Sophy Henn introduces us to Pizazz and her super family in the first book in her new series.

Pizazz is a superhero in a family of superheroes. You would think that her life would be pretty awesome but, most of the time, Pizazz thinks it is super annoying. She has to wear the same outfit all the time and she has to keep dashing off to save the world, even if she’s in the middle of something important. Her friends used to understand how chaotic her life is but Pizazz has just moved house and schools. Being a superhero and trying to fit in really don’t go together. When she gets assigned as an eco monitor at school Pizazz thinks it is a bit lame until she realises this is her chance to save the world in a different way. If only horrible supervillains would stop trying to take over the world!

Pizazz is the hilarious, action-packed debut of the next superhero franchise you’ll get obsessed with. Pizazz has to deal with normal kid stuff like an annoying family, mean kids and making friends, but she also has to save the world from super-powered lasers and high-tech tank prams.

The book is jam-packed with Sophy’s fantastic black and white illustrations. There are plenty of super stares, super poses and super costumes. The thing I loved most about the illustrations are the parts where Pizazz and her family have to fight a villain. These parts look like a classic superhero comic.

I love Pizazz and all of her crazy family! They all have different superpowers, including Pizazz (although she doesn’t want us to know what it is). Her dog, Wanda, isn’t a normal dog either. She receives and transmits messages and keeps an eye on the family. My favourite character is Gramps, because he farts fireballs if he laughs too much. Sophy’s supervillains are brilliant too. There’s a giant baby called Googoo who fires toys from his tank shaped like a pram, Twerknado who uses his twerk power for destructive purposes, and pukey villain Megavom.

Pizazz is perfect for ages 7+. It’s a guaranteed great read for all kids. If you haven’t read Sophy’s previous series, Bad Nana, I highly recommend this too.

Worse Things by Sally Murphy

The thing I love about verse novels is that they pack so much emotion and imagery in to so few words. Each chapter or poem is like a snapshot of the character’s life. Worse Things is Sally Murphy’s fourth illustrated verse novel and this story is proof of her mastery of this form of storytelling. Sally takes us inside the lives and minds of three very different kids whose stories intertwine.

Jolene is the daughter of two doctors. Her mother is always busy but lives her life vicariously through her daughter. Her mum’s dreams of hockey stardom were shattered when she was younger and she just wants her daughter to excel in the sport. Jolene hates hockey. She also hates that her father is saving lives on the other side of the world rather than being at home with her. Blake is footy-mad but his season is over when he fractures his arm. He doesn’t feel included with his footy mates and doesn’t know who he is without footy. Amed is a refugee who has spent most of his life in a refugee camp. He now lives in Australia with his Aunty but he knows very little English. This leaves him feeling left out and struggling to make friends. There are always worse things than a nagging mum, missing out on footy or not having friends.

I loved each of the characters because they are all dealing with their own issues. My favourite character was Amed because he had been through a lot in his life and he was able to put things in to perspective more than Jolene and Blake. I especially loved this thought from Amed:

‘If I could talk to you
I might explain
just what it’s like
to be an outsider since birth
to be so outside
you wonder if you will ever be safe.

And then
when you finally are
to find yourself kept separate again
by the invisible fence of language.’

Sally’s writing is just so beautiful and her imagery so rich. This is a story that works so well in verse form, and like many stories told in verse, it probably wouldn’t have the same impact as a novel. Sarah Davis’ bright, graffiti-style cover will make the book jump off the shelf too.

Grab yourself a comfy spot and an hour or two to savour this wonderful book.

Starlight Stables by Soraya Nicholas

Starlight Stables is a wonderful new series about three horse-crazy girls from New Zealand author Soraya Nicholas.  Soraya grew up reading the Saddle Club books and dreaming of owning her own pony.  Now Soraya owns her own horses and writes the kind of books she loved when she was a kid.

These books are perfect for those horse-mad girls who are always looking for more books about horses, especially fans of Saddle Club and Stacey Gregg’s books. The stories are set in Australia but NZ girls will really relate to the characters. They don’t just focus on horses though.  There is friendship, competition, rivalry, horse thieves and bush-fires.

The first four books in the Starlight Stables series are all out now, so young readers can get hooked.  They don’t have to read the books in a particular order which is great. Here are the covers and the blurbs for each book.

Pony_Detectives.jpg

Starlight Stables: Pony Detectives

Poppy is thrilled to be back doing the one thing she loves – riding horses at Starlight Stables – especially when her aunt and uncle make all her dreams come true with a gift of her very own horse. But there’s a catch… Poppy must look after the new scholarship girls. Will the bold and troublesome Milly and shy, sensible Katie be the pony-mad friends she’s always hoped for?

When horses go missing from the local farms, Poppy worries about Crystal, her new horse. Will the girls be able to protect their ponies from the horse thief and find the missing horses at the same time?

Gymkhana_Hijinks.jpgStarlight Stables: Gymkhana Hijinks

Horse-mad friends Poppy, Milly and Katie are overjoyed to be back at Starlight Stables and spending every second with their new ponies – riding, training and having fun while preparing for their first big Pony Club competition. But when a rival competitor arrives one day to train with them, trouble seems to seek the girls out at every turn. Is it just coincidence? Or is someone trying to sabotage the three friends’ chances of winning?

Can Poppy, Mily and Katie expose their rival’s risky antics in time to save their chances at the gymkhana?

Bush_BoltsStarlight Stables: Bush Bolts

Poppy is thrilled that her best friend Sarah is finally coming to visit Starlight Stables. She is sure that Sarah will love it as much as she does – especially Poppy’s beautiful pony, Crystal, and her horse-mad friends, fiery Milly and sweet Katie. But it soon becomes clear that Sarah doesn’t share Poppy’s love of horses and riding – in fact, she’s more interested in helping Poppy’s uncle with some bushfire-injured animals.

When a bushfire erupts nearby, Poppy finds herself fighting not only to save her friendship but also to save her beloved Starlight Stables. Will she lose everything she loves?

Saving_StarlightStarlight Stables: Saving Starlight

Poppy’s world is falling apart. Her aunt and uncle have had an ominous visit from the bank because they have lost an important riding sponsor. It means they might have to sell Starlight Stables. Could Poppy lose everything – her beloved Starlight Stables, her beautiful horse Crystal, her friends Milly and Katie, and even her aunt’s Olympic dreams?

Poppy is determined to do everything she can to help. She just has to win the upcoming show-jumping competition so she can give them the prize. But it means she will have to jump higher than she ever has before to save everything she loves.

Win a set of the Starlight Stables books!

Thanks to everyone who entered!  The winner is Carole.

Picture Book Nook: A Hare, A Hound and Shy Mousey Brown by Julia Hubery

The best picture books are those where the text and the illustrations are perfectly matched.  Even though the author and illustrator may have worked in different parts of the world, the book is so perfect that they could have been working side by side.  A Hare, a Hound and Shy Mousey Brown, written by Julia Hubery and illustrated by Jonathan Bentley is one of those rare picture books.

‘There’s a hare in the air, there’s a hound on the ground, and watching them both is shy Mousey Brown.’  On the first page we meet these three very different characters.  The hare is bouncing around, full of joy, while Mousey Brown watches on, hoping the hare will notice him.  But when the fearless hare dances right up to the hound and tries to wake him, Mousey Brown has to be brave and save the hare from the hound’s jaws.

A Hare, a Hound and Shy Mousey Brown is a beautifully illustrated picture book, full of joy, mischief, and three very loveable characters.  Julia Hubery’s rhyming text begs to be read aloud and it simply rolls off your tongue.  It’s the sort of story that’s perfect to act out because of the three different characters and their very different personalities.  The hare has lots of energy and is always bouncing around, the dog is pretending to sleep, and Mousey Brown is just watching from afar and trying to warn the hare.  Jonathan Bentley’s illustrations are absolutely gorgeous and he’s perfectly captured the personalities of the three different characters.  The illustrations are cute but full of character.  I love the way that Jonathan has captured the complete joy and carefree nature of the hare, the irritation of the hound, and the admiration and worry of Mousey Brown.  Even before I opened the book and read the wonderful story inside, Jonathan’s front cover grabbed me and I knew it was going to be special.

Like Mousey Brown, my heart goes pitter-pat-pounding with love for Julia and Jonathan’s book.  I hope that we see more picture books by this amazing duo.

Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur

Elise never really knew her parents.  Her mum died after her birth and her dad got sick and died of cancer a few years later.  Her Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie promised to look after her and she has lived with them ever since.  She’s been best friends with Franklin for years and they’ve always loved playing games like Knights together.  When they start middle school Elise starts to get embarrassed by Franklin and doesn’t want to hang around with him anymore.  Then there’s her locker buddy, Amanda who nicknames her Scabula and squashes her lunch every morning.  Elise starts to hate school and is afraid to go because of Amanda’s bullying.  Just when she needs it a special surprise comes along.  Her father leaves her a mystery to unlock and with each discovery a new key arrives.

Eight Keys is about a girl discovering who she is and learning about the parents she didn’t know.  When Elise is feeling lost and worried, the mystery that her father left for her comes along and helps her choose who she wants to be.  It helps her see who her mum and dad were and how much they loved her, even before she was born.  You see a real change in Elise, from the worried, confused girl at the start to the confident, happy girl at the end.  I really liked the character of Franklin because he’s funny, loyal and will do anything to help his friend.  Eight Keys is the perfect book for girls who like Jacqueline Wilson and Cathy Cassidy.  It will make you laugh and cry, but leave a smile on your face.

Eight Keys would make a great read-aloud for 9-12 year olds, especially as it deals with bullying and friendship.