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).

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.

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.

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.

Across the Risen Sea by Bren MacDibble

A new book by Bren MacDibble is a cause for celebration. Each of her books are unique but you always know it is going to be a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. You also know that you are going to meet kids who are trying to get by in an environment that has been dramatically altered by human neglect. Pollution has caused the bees to die off or noxious weeds have spread causing crops to die. In Bren’s latest book, Across the Risen Sea, sea levels have risen hugely, sending cities under water and humans scrambling for hills and mountains that are now islands.

Neoma and Jag live in a small community on what was once the high ground and that is now their island. They live a gentle life, taking little from the land and scavenging what they need from things that remain of the old world. The risen sea provides them with fish and tinned food can be found in the wrecks of skyscrapers. Their peaceful existence is shattered when strangers from the Valley of the Sun arrive one day, installing a strange electrical device on the hill. Soon Neoma and Jag find themselves caught up in secrets and lies and Jag gets taken away as punishment. Neoma knows that it is up to her to rescue Jag and find the truth that will save her village.

Across the Risen Sea is a captivating adventure story set in a version of our world that is scarily possible. It’s a story of survival against the odds, of justice, of friendship and family. It’s also a mystery, as you try to figure out who the Valley of the Sun are and what their technology does.

While not explicitly stating it, Bren shows us what our world could become if global warming carries on its current course. In her story, massive storms have destroyed cities and the sea levels have risen to cover them, leaving only the higher ground for people to live on. Technology still exists but on a much smaller scale, and is often scavenged from what is left of the old world. Neoma’s little corner of the world is relatively peaceful, with small communities living on the surrounding islands, but the existence of the Valley of the Sun shows us that there are other communities that exist.

One of the things I love most about Bren’s stories is that she shows how strong and resilient kids are in the face of terrible circumstances. Neoma sees injustice in what happens to her friends and family so she sets out to make it right. She has grown up on her island so knows how to survive but she is out of her depth when she sets out to rescue Jag. She faces a cranky crocodile, a massive (and very hungry) shark, an angry pirate and the Valley of the Sun. Even after she has faced huge challenges she is still determined to find the truth and save her village.

I have loved each of Bren’s stories and can’t recommend them highly enough. Across the Risen Sea would make both a great read aloud and a novel study for Years 7-9.

Stephen McCranie’s Space Boy series

If you’re looking for a great graphic novel series for Year 6 and up then look no further than Space Boy by Stephen McCranie.

Space Boy follows Amy, a teenage girl who has to get used to life on Earth after years in deep space. After her father loses his job on a mining colony in deep space, Amy and her family must be cryogenically frozen for 30 years and travel back to Earth to start a new life. When she reaches Earth her best friend is now 30 years older, gravity feels different, technology is weird and the other kids seem strange. To Amy, everyone has a flavour – her dad is hot chocolate, her mum is mint – but a quiet boy that she meets at her new school has no flavour and Amy finds herself drawn to him.

This mysterious boy and trying to figure out his story is what frames the series. In each book we learn a little more about him. Is he an alien? Is he a robot? Is he something completely different? I’ve just read Book 7 and I have my theories but I don’t know for sure quite yet. It feels like the answers are not far away though and Book 8 is due out in October. The story started out as a webcomic and I could read ahead at webtoons.com but I prefer to read the physical book.

The characters are teenagers and some of them are in relationships but the content is appropriate for Year 6 and up (ages 10+). The illustrations are simple and the text is sparse so they’re a quick read. Each book has a different character on the front cover as each one focuses a bit more on that character (like their relationships or their back story).

This is a particularly good series to add to your graphic novel collection if your readers don’t like waiting for the next one in the series. There are currently 7 volumes published with more to come.

The Rise of the Remarkables: Brasswitch and Bot by Gareth Ward

This book is AMAZING! There is something for everyone – mystery, adventure, action, magic, ingenious machines, powers being used for good and evil, witty dialogue and curious characters. The fantastic cover (illustrated by Bex Bloomfield) alone is enough to draw you in and from the first page I was hooked on Brasswitch and Bot. Gareth drops you straight in to the action and gives you a taste of his world. Once you get a taste you just want more. This is a world of clockwork, machines and science but also a world tainted by power from another dimension. There are those with powers and abilities who live in the shadows and those who hunt them down.

When The Rupture occurred, monsters tore through into the world from another dimension, leaving many people with altered physical features and strange powers. Wrench is a Brasswitch, an ‘abberation’ who can control machines with her mind. After her parents died in a train crash when she was younger she tried to keep her abilities hidden away. Her abilities are discovered and she is taken by the ruthless Regulator, Flemington. When the mechanoid, Bot, rescues her, Wrench finds herself helping the Regulators to stop the rise of the abberations and the end of the world as they know it.

Brasswitch and Bot has shades of Hellboy and Skulduggery Pleasant. The abberations are being hunted down with the help of abberations, much like Hellboy, Abe Sapien and the B.P.R.D. The relationship between Wrench and Bot reminds me of Skulduggery and Stephanie’s relationship in the early Skulduggery books. The relationship and the banter between Wrench and Bot was one of my favourite aspects of this book. I really want to see more of these two taking on the bad guys together. I would also highly recommend this series for fans of Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series. Like Jessica, Gareth’s world-building and characters draw you in and you don’t want the story to end.

There is so much depth to the characters and you know there is more to discover about them. Bot is quite mysterious and secretive. You learn a little about him in this book but I want to know more about him and his history. Likewise, you get to know Wrench but she has more to learn about her powers and her past.

Gareth’s world-building is masterful. He gives us little details about this steampunk version of York throughout the story and gives us the details of the history of the Rupture. I really loved some of the little details of the world, like the Scotch dog (a mechanical creature that is made up of a giant set of bagpipes on legs) and G-mail (mail that is delivered by greyhounds).

Gareth’s dialogue is witty and there were lots of moments that made me chuckle. There are lots of TLAs (Three Letter Abbreviations) used by the Regulators but my favourite is BBG (the Bloody Big Guns that come out when the situation gets serious).

I need book 2 right now! This is a series that will have me eagerly awaiting the next instalment and lining up like a Harry Potter fan to get my hands on it. Get to your bookstore or library and get The Rise of the Remarkables: Brasswitch and Bot now.

Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

Lauren Wolk’s previous book, Beyond the Bright Sea, is one of my absolute favourite books. When I heard Lauren had a new book coming out I was very eager to get my hands on it and see where she would take me next. The cover alone is one of the best covers of 2020 and would draw any reader in! In Echo Mountain, Lauren Wolk transports readers back to a time that is both simpler and harder. There is no technology so distractions are few and it’s quiet, but the doctor is far away and you must trade for food or grow it yourself. Lauren introduces us to Ellie and her family, making a home on Echo Mountain.

It is 1934 and Ellie’s family have been hit hard by the stock market crash. Her father was a tailor and her mother was a teacher but business for them both had dried up, so the family must move from the city to the wilds of Echo Mountain. They survive by growing food and trading what they can. When Ellie’s father slips in to a coma after an accident on the farm their lives are changed forever. While Ellie’s mother and sister use lullabies to soothe him, Ellie sees that this is doing nothing to help him get better. Ellie determines to do anything she can to wake her father, from pouring ice cold water on him, putting a snake in his bedroom to make her sister scream, and making her own medicine. When Ellie is out collecting ingredients for her medicine a mysterious dog leads her to a hut the top of the mountain, where she discovers a sick, old woman called Cate. As Ellie helps Cate to heal she starts to heal her family. The more that Ellie learns about those around her, the more connections she uncovers

Echo Mountain is an engaging, character-driven story that leaves you feeling like you have just lived Ellie’s life right beside her. Ellie is a person who has strong emotional connection to things around her. She feels the pain of tree roots as she walks through the woods, she feels great sadness when honeybees die trying to sting her. As you read you feel Ellie’s determination to wake her father and the frustration that her sister and mother won’t break out of their slump. Adults in the story keep mentioning that she is ‘only 12’ but she is the one using her commonsense and is willing to do anything she can to help the ones she loves, whether that is her puppy, her father or Cate. She realises that to save her family she is the one to do it. If she doesn’t know how to do something ‘the best way to learn is to do it,’ something she has learnt from her father.

It’s a story about identity. It’s about Ellie trying to figure out who she is, but also realising that people aren’t just the person you see on the outside. Ellie says “For a long time, I’d thought that people simply were who they were and became who they became. But I didn’t think that anymore.” Ellie learns that Cate is not simply ‘the hag’ that everyone believes she is, but a kind, caring person who has been affected by the events in her life. Ellie also realises that her mother isn’t just the sad woman whose husband is sick, that she was a different person before she moved to the mountain and a different person again before she met Ellie’s father.

If you haven’t yet read one of Lauren Wolk’s books read Echo Mountain and fall in love with her writing.

The Inkberg Enigma by Jonathan King

The Inkberg Enigma is a brilliant graphic novel from New Zealand comic creator and film maker, Jonathan King. Reading this made me feel like I was 10 years old again, devouring Tintin and wanting to be him.

Miro is a book-obsessed boy living an adventurous life through the stories of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Real-life adventure finds him though when Zia, a girl from his school, drags him in to a town mystery. Miro is reluctant to get involved but, as Mira says, ‘this is how you have adventures. You find cool things and you do them…you don’t just read books about them!’ Their town of Aurora has been built on the prosperous fishing in their harbour. When Miro and Zia see something that they are not supposed to, they set out to discover the truth behind the legacy of Aurora and the shady characters who run the town.

The Inkberg Enigma is filled with adventure, mystery, and secrets. It’s also just the right amount of spooky and sinister that keeps you turning the pages. I flew through the story the first time and have since read it again to fully appreciate the story and the artwork.

I love all the characters, from the book-loving Miro and the ever-curious Zia to the sinister mayor of Aurora, Mr Hunter. Miro reminds me a lot of myself because he sells artefacts that he finds in his attic just so he can buy more books. His habit gets so bad that he has a whole spare room full of books! He’d also rather read about adventures than have them in real life.

Jonathan’s illustrations are fantastic, from his characters to the images of the town of Aurora. As a Christchurch local I immediately recognised Lyttelton as Aurora, from the town streets to the museum and the harbour. I really like the flow of the illustrations, with the scene on the boat being my favourite. Jonathan doesn’t let the panels limit the story either, with some really clever sections where the illustrations move out of the panels.

The Inkberg Enigma is one of my favourite kids graphic novels of 2020 and I’ll be recommending it to everyone. I really hope there will be more stories with Miro and Zia.

The Inkberg Enigma is released in August from the wonderful Gecko Press. Stay tuned for my interview with Jonathan King.