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.

Marshmallow Pie the Cat Superstar by Clara Vulliamy

Move over Grumpy Cat and Pusheen, there’s a new cat set for stardom – Marshmallow Marmaduke Vanilla-Bean Sugar-Pie Fluffington-Fitz-Noodle (or Marshmallow Pie for short). He’s the star of Clara Vulliamy’s wonderful new series, a series so adorable you’ll want to pick it up and cuddle it.

Marshmallow Pie is one spoiled cat (just look at his name). After spending his early years in a huge house in the country he now lives in an apartment in the city with Amelia Lime and her dad. He spends his days sitting in the sunshine on the balcony and tormenting Buster, the dog who lives in the flat below. When Amelia brings home a leaflet about an acting opportunity for Pie, his training and preparation begins. Amelia wants to get Pie fit so they have a special training regime that he is so not interested in. The day of the audition arrives and Pie is unfazed by the competition until Buster arrives and chaos ensues. All hope of fame looks lost unless Pie can get a second chance.

I love absolutely everything about this series, from the gorgeous design and covers, to the spot-on voice and personality of Marshmallow Pie, and the joyful illustrations. The first two books in the series, The Cat Superstar and The Cat Superstar on TV, have been released at the same time, which is fantastic because readers don’t have to wait for book 2. I read the first book aloud to my 5 year old daughter and we loved it so much that we read the second book the next night. The stories are narrated by Pie, whose voice is exactly how you think a snooty, spoiled, slightly vain cat would sound. The first couple of sentences set the story up perfectly and lets you know who you’re dealing with:

‘Oh, hello. Yes, you can come in, but you can’t sit down because there’s only room for me on this sofa.’

Pie may act nonchalant but don’t let that fool you because he can be quite sweet too.

Marshmallow Pie’s stunning good looks and star quality shine through in Clara’s illustrations. She shows us his cute side, his tricky side and his I’m-not-impressed side. I especially love the illustrations of Pie ‘working out’ and his large secret stash behind the sofa. I also really like the maps that Clara has drawn at the front of the books, showing Pie’s flat and the TV studio.

Credit needs to be given to the team at HarperCollins for the thought that has gone in to the design of this series. They are incredibly attractive books with huge appeal to kids. I need to buy my own copies, not only to read them again, but also just to have them on my bookshelf side by side.

Get this series for the young reader in your life. They are the perfect books for independent readers but I highly recommend them as a read aloud. They are the sort of books that adults will love as much as kids.

Hotel Flamingo: Fabulous Feast by Alex Milway

Anna and the team at Hotel Flamingo are back again in the latest book in the series, Fabulous Feast. This is one of my favourite series for younger readers so I always love returning to Hotel Flamingo. If you haven’t discovered this series yet here’s the gist of the series. A human girl, Anna, inherits the run-down Hotel Flamingo, and with a lot of hard work from her and her animal team, they turn it into one of the best hotels on Animal Boulevard.

In Fabulous Feast, Anna is trying to encourage more guests to come and stay at Hotel Flamingo after a long, quiet winter. Anna comes up with the idea of having a cooking contest at the hotel to find the best chef on Animal Boulevard. Anna and her team go out in search of chefs to enter the contest. Three chefs enter – Peston Crumbletart from The Fat Cat Restaurant, Toot-Toot from the Glitz Hotel and Le Pig from Hotel Flamingo. The competition is fierce but only one chef can come out on top.

Fabulous Feast is full of everything I love about the series – the chaos of a hotel, wonderful characters and animals of all sorts. As well as the busyness of preparing for the contest, Anna and her team have to deal with a crashed carrier pigeon, a couple of highland cows with a love of gourmet grass, and a coconut octopus with an urgent need for super-salty water.

Anna has a brilliant team who help the hotel to run smoothly. Lemmy the lemur manages the front desk, Stella the giraffe does the repairs and building work, T. Bear is the doorman, and Le Pig is the chef. They all go above and beyond the call of duty for the job they love and Anna can always rely on them.

One of my favourite aspects of the series is the way that Alex introduces readers to different types of animals and includes their unique characteristics. Anna and her team go out of their way to make sure the animals have what they need to make their stay comfortable. If otters come to stay the pool is specially prepared for them. If penguins come to stay ice is specially brought in. In this story the coconut octopus needs very briny water and Lemmy hunts down all the salt he can to add to the bath.

Book your stay at the 5-star Hotel Flamingo now.

Monty’s Island series by Emily Rodda and Lucinda Gifford

After publishing dozens of books it is safe to say that Emily Rodda knows her audience. She has written for all ages and across different genres. Her latest series, Monty’s Island, is aimed at younger readers and it is so much fun. It will have kids wishing they lived on the island with Monty and his friends.

There are two books in the series so far with more to come. Scary Mary and the Stripe Spell introduces us to Monty and the cast of characters who live on Monty’s Island. There is Tawny the lion, Bunchy the elephant who likes magic, Sir Wise the owl, Clink the pirate parrot, Marigold the human and owner of the Island Cafe, and of course Monty. Their life on the island is peaceful. Monty’s days are filled with scavenging treasures from the beach and joining his friends at the Cafe. One day The Laughing Traveller warns Monty that the terrible pirate Scary Mary is on her way to their island. Bunchy’s magic and a mysterious magic wand combine to cause some trouble so it’s up to Monty and his friends to put things right and try and trick Scary Mary.

The second book in the series, Beady Bold and the Yum-Yams, has just been released, and it’s another brilliantly funny adventure. It’s Bring-and-Buy Day, that exciting time when Monty and his friends meet Trader Jolly to get the supplies they need. However, it’s not Jolly that arrives, but Beady Bold. Beady is tricky and sneaky and suddenly Bring-and-Buy Day is no fun anymore. Beady brings the Yum-Yams, a mysterious plant that creates havoc. Luckily Monty and his friends come up with a plan to deal with the Yum-Yams and Beady Bold.

With the Monty’s Island series Emily Rodda and Lucinda Gifford have created stories that hook readers with adventure, humour and a wonderful cast of characters. They’re stories that are perfect for newly independent readers to read themselves or to read aloud to 5-8 year olds. I’ll be recommending them as a read aloud for my Year 1-3 teachers as they’ll grab the kids straight away and have them begging for the next chapter. Kids will have favourite characters (I really love Bunchy) and will want to read more of their adventures throughout the series. The stories are illustrated inside and out by Lucinda Gifford whose illustrations are the perfect match for Emily’s stories and make the characters come to life. A lot of thought has gone in to the design of the series too, with bright, fun covers that will jump off the shelves.

The Allen and Unwin website also features some cool printable activities to tie in with the book, including some colouring sheets, and there are videos of both Emily Rodda and Lucinda Gifford reading the books.

Monty’s Island is my favourite new series for younger readers and I can’t wait for more adventures with Monty and his friends.

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.

Illustrated fiction for newly independent readers

Illustrated fiction is perfect for newly independent readers because there are still pictures that help to bring the characters alive and show what is happening in the story. There are so many wonderful illustrated stories out there that are perfect for young readers to read themselves or to read aloud. Friendship, magic and animals are all common themes for books for this age group (roughly ages 5-7).

The books below are all ones that I have read for my own enjoyment or read aloud to my 5 year old daughter so they come highly recommended.

From the bright, sparkly cover to the story of a magical colouring book transporting Maya to another world, The Magical Kingdom of Birds series (written by Anne Booth and illustrated by Rosie Butcher) is sure to be a winner with young readers. It’s perfect for fans of Zanna Davidson’s Fairy Ponies series or readers who have loved the Rainbow Magic books and want something meatier to read.

Maya receives a magic colouring book that once belonged to her mother and it transports her to the Magical Kingdom of the Birds. Here she meets a fairy named Willow and a Magpie named Patch, who tell her she is destined to save the kingdom. This first book in the series focuses on the hummingbirds and a spell that has been placed on them. It is up to Maya, Willow and Patch to find an antidote and stop the villainous Lord Astor.

One of the things I loved about this book is the way that the author adds extra special details at the end of the story. There is a Bird Fact File with lots of hummingbird facts, and instructions for making a bird feeder and bird biscuits.

The Pearl the Unicorn series by Sally Odgers and illustrated by Adele K Thomas is a series that I will gladly read over and over again. They are super fun stories with perfectly matched illustrations. I’ve read all the books in the series so far with my daughter and they’re all great. Essentially, Pearl is a unicorn whose magic always goes wrong. A ‘toss, toss, wiggle, flick’ can end with hilarious results like yogurt falling from the sky. Pearl spends the days with her friends Tweet the fire bird and Olive the troll, getting up to all sorts of adventures. The nasty gobble-uns are never far away but Pearl’s misfiring magic saves the day.

What isn’t to like about the Kitty series by Paula Harrison and illustrated by Jenny Lovlie? It’s about a girl called Kitty who turns into a cat superhero at night, with cat superpowers like super hearing. Kitty and her feline friends, Pumpkin and Pixie, go on daring missions at night, like saving a secret Sky Garden from being ruined by bad cats. This is the perfect series for kids who have loved watching PJ Masks and are interested in superheroes. Jenny Lovlie’s illustrations are super cute, especially Kitty’s feline friends.

The Evie and Pog series by Tania McCartney has been one of my favourites to read aloud with my daughter. They’re funny and silly with characters that kids will want to keep coming back to.

Evie is six years old. She likes reading and baking and rolling on the daisy-spot grass. Pog is a pug. He is two and likes to drink tea and read the newspaper.

There are three books in the series so far – Party Perfect, Take Off and Puppy Playtime. Each book has three stories, that take about ten minutes to read aloud, making them perfect for bedtime. Pog reminds me of Gromit (from Wallace and Gromit) because he doesn’t talk but has very human-like qualities, like reading the newspaper or entering an art competition.

I’m a huge fan of the Miniwings series by Sally Sutton and illustrated by Kirsten Richards. Every single book in the series is totally fabo, from the silly antics of the Clara, Sophia and the Miniwings to Kirsten Richards hilarious illustrations. The Miniwings are small horse toys that come alive when adults aren’t around. They are always getting sisters Clara and Sophia in to trouble and getting up to lots of mischief, including destroying a delicious high-tea that the sisters get invited to.

The latest book in the series, Moonlight the Unicorn’s High Tea Hiccup is a finalist in the junior fiction category of 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It’s one of the best junior fiction series for young readers in New Zealand so it’s great to see it get that recognition.

Donovan Bixley’s Flying Furballs series is another brilliant junior fiction series from NZ that has just come to an end with the ninth book in the series. Flying Furballs is pussycats in planes in Paris. Donovan reimagines the First World War, with the CATS as the good guys and the DOGZ as the bad guys. There are daring missions, dramatic rescues, and action and laughs galore. They are such fun books to read and you can tell that Donovan had a lot of fun creating them. The Flying Furballs series is sure to hook young readers who are just starting on their reading journey.

Stripes Publishing

In my opinion Stripes Publishing are publishing the best illustrated fiction for newly independent readers. Their authors are some of the best children’s authors around, their illustrators are superb and they are gorgeous books to hold and enjoy. Here are some of the best from Stripes.

I love this adorable odd couple. Jasper is a cat who is neat and tidy and a snappy dresser and Scruff is a scruffy dog who’s a little messy. They’re complete opposites but the best of friends.

In the first book, Jasper is desperate to join the Sophisticats and he does all he can to gain their favour. They finally accept his dinner invitation when Scruff comes in to his life and throws it in to disarray. In The Treasure Hunt (the second book) they open a bookshop together and find a treasure map in one of the books which leads them on a treasure hunt.

Both of the stories in the series are perfect for reading aloud or for newly independent readers to read themselves. There are illustrations on every page that make the story come alive. Nicola Colton writes and illustrates the stories and she really knows her audience. I hope to read more adventures of Jasper and Scruff.

Midge & Mo by Lara Williamson and illustrated by Becky Cameron is the perfect book about friendship for newly independent readers. Midge is starting at a new school. His parents have split up so he has moved. He misses his old school and his friends. A girl in his new class, Mo, becomes his buddy and tries everything she can think of to cheer him up and become his friend, but it takes a special present to bring Midge out of his shell.

The story is engaging and attractive, with sparse text and colour illustrations on every page. As well as being perfect for newly independent readers to read themselves Midge and Mo would make a great read aloud for 6-8 year olds.

I picked up Little Rabbit’s Big Surprise by Swapna Haddow and illustrated by Alison Friend from the library to read to my daughter (who was 4 at the time). She loved this adorable story so much that we read it all in one go and read it 3 more times in the next few days. That, for me, is the sign of a great book! I’ve recommended it to lots of kids since and they’ve all enjoyed it.

Little Rabbit’s Big Surprise tells the story of a little rabbit who joins her grandfather on an outing one day and ends up helping out the animals that they meet. Alison Friend’s illustrations to Swapna Haddow’s story make this a super cute read. Like all of the Stripes junior fiction with colour illustrations there are no chapters so the story reads like a picture book in a chapter book format.

A Sea of Stories by Sylvia Bishop and illustrated by Paddy Donnelly is a story about Roo and her grandfather. Roo loves exploring the cove by her grandfather’s house but when he can’t get down the steep path any more Roo asks him about the treasures in his house. Each treasure has a story attached to it and through these stories Roo learns more about her grandfather. This is a lovely story about family and the stories our elders have to tell.

I hope you’ve found some new books to read or share in this post. If you’ve got favourite books for young readers I’d love to hear about them.

Unipiggle: Unicorn Muddle by Hannah Shaw

This is a truly magnificent book for young readers! It’s full of fun, it’s witty and it explodes with colour on every page. I read Unipiggle to my 5 year old daughter and we loved every minute of it. I love that it’s about two characters, who are different from everyone else, finding each other.

Princess Peony Peachykins Primrose Pollyanna Posh (or Princess Pea for short) lives in Twinkleland Kingdom and gets made to perform her princess duties by her parents, Queen Bee and King Barry. She would rather be climbing trees and getting dirty. Her parents decide to throw her a Unicorn Parade so that she can choose her favourite unicorn to have as the Royal Unicorn. Princess Pea finds the unicorns to be snooty and vain until she meets a unicorn pig. Although there are those who don’t believe a pig can enter the parade Princess Pea chooses Unipiggle and they become the best of friends. After all, who wouldn’t want a unicorn pig with very surprising magic powers.

This is the perfect book for parents and teachers to read aloud as I guarantee they’ll enjoy it just as much as the kids. I love that there are pixies for every possible situation (like the Marshmallow Clearance Pixie), that the king is called Barry, and that most unicorns are actually self-absorbed. Hannah Shaw is a brilliant storyteller and her illustrations fill you with joy. You can’t help smiling and having a bit of a giggle as soon as you pick the book up.

I can not wait for more Unipiggle books!

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

I fell in love with Brian Selznick’s stories when I first opened The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  Brian’s style of storytelling, alternating between text and illustration, really appeals to me.  His black and white illustrations are stunning and ‘reading’ them is like watching a movie.  I have been eagerly awaiting Brian’s new book, The Marvels, and I was completely captivated by it.

marvels_standingshot

The journey begins on a ship at sea in 1766, with a boy named Billy Marvel. After surviving a shipwreck, he finds work in a London theatre. There, his family flourishes for generations as brilliant actors until 1900, when young Leontes Marvel is banished from the stage. Nearly a century later, Joseph Jervis runs away from school and seeks refuge with an uncle in London. Albert Nightingale’s strange, beautiful house, with its mysterious portraits and ghostly presences, captivates Joseph and leads him on a search for clues about the house, his family, and the past.

The Marvels really is marvellous!  Brian Selznick has given us another incredible, unforgettable story and a beautiful work of art.  It’s difficult to know where to start when talking about The Marvels as there is just so much that I love about this book! I want to carry it around with me wherever I go.

The story is in two parts.  The first part is completely told through illustration and takes up the first 390 pages.  This tells the story of the Marvel family, starting with Billy and Marcus in 1766, who became a famous acting family.  Through Brian’s amazing illustrations we follow the many generations of the Marvel family until the story ends abruptly.  The story then jumps forward to 1990 and follows Joseph, a boy who loves stories, and his quest to find his uncle.  Joseph has run away from his school to find his uncle, Albert Nightingale. However, Uncle Albert isn’t quite who Joseph pictured.  Why is Albert’s house in such disarray, where are those mysterious sounds coming from, and why won’t Albert give Joseph any answers? Joseph knows that Albert is hiding a huge secret and it’s up to him to discover what it is.

Brian had me gripped from the very first page.  The way that Brian tells the story of the Marvel family, through illustration alone, makes the reader piece the story together themselves, rather than telling you with words.  It is almost like watching a silent movie.  Brian gives you different views of the action, from huge, sweeping shots of the Kraken being tossed on the waves, to close-up shots of character’s faces (like the one of Marcus below).  These close-up shots show so much detail and emotion.  It amazes me what Brian can do with a few strokes of a pencil!

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Image from The Marvels by Brian Selznick.

There are lots of twists and turns in the story that keep you guessing.  I certainly didn’t expect the secrets that were revealed, and to me that is a sign of a really good story.  The ending of the story is perfect too and left me smiling.

The Marvels is one of my top reads of the year.  It’s the perfect gift for any book-lover (just look at that lovely hard cover and gold edging!).  This is a must-read book and I guarantee you will fall in love with it.