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.

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.

The Wolves of Greycoat Hall by Lucinda Gifford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

A boy spends every day looking out his window. He sees the people in his street going about their business; leaving for work, watering their gardens, and chatting over the fence. One day though, the neighbour’s grandson goes missing and this boy is the last person to see him. Soon the police turn up and they need to know anything that would help their investigation. The reason this boy watches everything from his window is that he has crippling OCD. This boy is Matthew in Lisa Thompson’s amazing new book The Goldfish Boy.

9781407170992Matthew Corbin suffers from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. He hasn’t been to school in weeks. His hands are cracked and bleeding from cleaning. He refuses to leave his bedroom. To pass the time, he observes his neighbors from his bedroom window, making mundane notes about their habits as they bustle about the cul-de-sac.

When a toddler staying next door goes missing, it becomes apparent that Matthew was the last person to see him alive. Suddenly, Matthew finds himself at the center of a high-stakes mystery, and every one of his neighbors is a suspect. Matthew is the key to figuring out what happened and potentially saving a child’s life… but is he able to do so if it means exposing his own secrets, and stepping out from the safety of his home?

The Goldfish Boy is an absolutely gripping mystery with an incredible young boy at its heart. I knew from reading the blurb that this book was going to be unlike anything I had read before and I wasn’t disappointed. Lisa Thompson grips you from the first page and doesn’t let you go until the last sentence. She keeps you in suspense trying to figure out what has happened. There are so many questions that pop up as you read (What is wrong with Matthew and what is the connection to the death of his brother? What has happened to Teddy?) but Lisa ties up all the loose ends.

I loved this book not just because of the gripping mystery but also because of the intriguing character of Matthew. At the start of the book he hasn’t been out of the house in several weeks, he washes constantly and stares out of his window at the people in his street.  The story is narrated by Matthew and as the story progresses we get to know more about him and his crippling fears.  Lisa Thompson takes you inside the head of a boy suffering from OCD and you really get a sense of how terrifying it must be for him.  There are times that you think Matthew makes some progress and starts to get better, only for him to break down and need to clean himself furiously.  I loved that this story wasn’t just about the mystery of Teddy going missing and who did it, but about how Matthew manages to overcome his condition to find the answers.

The Goldfish Boy is one of my favourite middle grade reads so far this year.  It is a perfect read aloud for Years 6-8, the only problem being that the kids won’t want you to stop reading until you’ve reached the end.  I can’t wait to read whatever Lisa Thompson writes next!

The Trouble with Mummies by F.R. Hitchcock

Hot Key Books are a UK based publisher who publish ‘stand out, quality fiction’ for 9-19 year olds.  Every time I go and check out their website to see what they’ve got coming up I add most of their books to my TBR pile.  They have introduced me to some wonderful new authors and some really original stories, including the marvelous Fleur Hitchcock.  Last year I loved her debut book, Shrunk, so when I heard she had a new book coming out I had to grab it.   The Trouble with Mummies is her latest book and it’s sure to have kids roaring with laughter.

Sam comes home one day to find his family turning strange – his mum is redecorating using hieroglyphics and his dad is building a pyramid in the back garden. He hopes it’s just a weird new fashion… but then the strangeness starts to spread. With the help of his friends Ursula, Henry and Lucy the Goat, Sam must save his town from rampaging Roman rugby players, hairdressers turned cavewomen, and a teacher who used to be a ‘basket of kittens’ but now wants to sacrifice the Year Ones to the Aztec sun god. As history invades Sam’s world, will he be able to keep the Greeks away from the Egyptians and discover the cause of the Mummy madness?

The Trouble with Mummies is a crazy adventure, where history comes alive and the kids have to solve the mystery before it’s too late.  When Sam’s parents start acting weirdly he gets the feeling something strange is going on.  Then his teacher dresses up in a wetsuit covered in feathers, and his PE teacher lines his class up in ranks and throws a javelin at them, so Sam knows that things aren’t right.  The people in his town get weirder and weirder and it’s up to Sam and his friends to figure out what is causing them to act so strangely.  Is it something they ate or drunk or have they all just lost their minds?

Fleur brings her love of history into the story with the different ancient peoples.  Sam’s parents become Egyptians, painting the house with hieroglyphics and building a pyramid, Miss Primrose becomes an Aztec and plans to sacrifice Sam’s friend Henry, and Ursula’s parents become Trojans.  It’s the perfect book for those kids who are really interested in history and ancient civilizations in particular.  If you know a Horrible Histories fan, you need to get them this book.  If your kids don’t already love history, then this book might just get them hooked.  You’ll certainly never look at your museum the same way again!

The thing I love the most about Fleur’s books is that they are unique stories full of imagination that are aimed at younger readers.  Forget Zac Power and Beast Quest, get your boys reading Shrunk and The Trouble with Mummies and they’ll be hooked on books.  Both of Fleur’s books also make great read alouds and they’re bound to have both you and your children laughing out loud.

What better way to hook readers in than show them the Hot Key Books ‘What’s in it?’ book key – Cavemen, Pyramids, Romans and Beards.  Who wouldn’t want to read a book with all that in it?

Check out this video of Fleur Hitchcock reading the first chapter of The Trouble with Mummies:

Picture Book Nook: That’s Mine! by Michel Van Zeveren

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the little frog finds an egg.

“That’s mine!” he says.

But the snake wants his egg, and so does the eagle, and so does the lizard…But what does the angry elephant want?

 

 

 

That’s Mine! by Michel Van Zeveren is a gem of a picture book that’s simple, yet surprising.  You start off thinking you know where the story is going, but it veers off in a completely different direction (these are the best sorts of stories).  The illustrations are bold and I love the expressions on the animals faces, especially right at the end.

 

The thing I like most about this book though is the text and the design.  As each of the animals appears the sound they make turns into a word, like the eagle who flies in saying “Ack…ack…ack..actually it’s mine.”  Children can follow the direction that each animal appears from by following the direction of the words (the hsss of the snake drops down from the top to the bottom of the page).  I love the way that the text changes size depending on how loud the animal is talking and in relation to their size.  On a page featuring all the animals, the text is largest for the elephant and smallest for the frog, so it’s clear that each of the animals has a different voice.

That’s Mine! is the perfect picture book for reading aloud.  You can do different voices for all the animals and make it really silly.  It could even be acted out in the classroom, with each child being a different animal.

4 out of 5 stars

My Top 5 Read Alouds for 5-8 Years

Last week I posted my Top 5 Read Alouds for 2-5 Years.  This week I’ve posted my Top 5 Read Alouds for 5-8 Years.  I’ve also included some of my other favourite read-aloud picture books (that I couldn’t fit into my top 5) that deserve honourable mentions.

1. Morris the Mankiest Monster by Giles Andreae, illustrated by Sarah McIntyre

This is my absolute favourite picture book!  I always use it to hook kids – a monster who stinks and does disgusting things, what more could you ask for.  It’s gross, funny, and the language is great!  It’s one of those picture books where the text and illustrations match perfectly and I couldn’t imagine one without the other.  Every time I read it there are refrains of ‘Ooooo!’ and ‘Gross!’ but kids absolutely love it, especially the very last page.  I’d love to see Giles and Sarah create more picture books together.

2. What’s in the Witch’s Kitchen, written and illustrated by Nick Sharratt

Kids love this book because they think it’s magic (and it’s slightly disgusting).  There are lots of things to find in the witch’s kitchen, some of them nice and some of them revolting.  Depending on which way you open each flap you could find Strawberry Tea or Goblin’s Wee, some crunch hot toast or a grumpy burnt ghost.  I read this book almost every week for a whole school year to different groups of children and I never got tired of it.  You can really build the sense of anticipation with each turn of the flap and kids can end up rolling around on the floor laughing.

3. Wild Boars Cook by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Meg Rosoff’s story about four wild boars (Horris, Morris, Borris and Doris) who decide to cook a Massive Pudding, is absolutely hilarious.  They’re bossy, selfish, stinky and hungry, so when you put them all together to make a pudding you know it’s not going to end well.  They put all sorts of stuff into their pudding, including broccoli and a squid, and I love seeing the kids’ faces when you show them the finished product.  Their hunger is never satisfied and they get very whiny, so it’s a great book for doing different voices.   Sophie Blackall’s illustrations are great and add to the hilarity of the story.

4. Poo Bum! written and illustrated by Stephanie Blake

I can’t go past a picture book with some good toilet humour.  Boys especially love books like this.  You can’t read this book without children joining in saying ‘Poo bum!’  It’s about a little rabbit who only says one thing – Poo bum.  However, one day he’s eaten by a wolf and then rescued by his father.  You start to think that maybe he has changed and learnt some manners, only to be sadly mistaken.  I love reading this book aloud to groups of school children, and most of the teachers and parents who have heard me read it loved it as well.  Be prepared – children will walk around saying ‘poo bum’ for hours afterwards.  This is one of my favourite picture books from New Zealand publishers/translators, Gecko Press.  If you haven’t heard of them, check them out.

5. Oh No, George! written and illustrated by Chris Haughton

This book is great for sharing because the illustrations are bright and bold and the kids help you tell the story.  They can anticipate what George is going to do and will join in the refrain of ‘Oh No, George!’  It’s a great book for the adults to enjoy too because they’ll get the subtle humour in the story and notice George’s guilty expressions.  Some kids that I’ve read this to don’t quite get the ending, especially younger children.  They want the story to have an end and don’t want to have to make their own mind up about the story.  I think it’s extremely clever and a great way to get readers to use their imagination.

 

Honourable Mentions