2016’s best books for children...
At the time that Emma Cox wrote Malkin Moonlight, it is unlikely that she anticipated a reviewer describing it as “popping”. It is even less likely that she thought it might be reviewed for a mainstream publication by a nine-year-old child.
Children’s books do not get much attention from newspapers and magazines. Even when a children’s book does inveigle its way into the review pages, it is usually read and reviewed by an adult.
It was probably with some surprise, then, that Ms Cox – also head of English and drama at Exeter Cathedral School – turned to a review in TES and found her book described by nine-year-old Shreyas as “very popping”.
Many of the authors of children’s and young-adult books published this year have had a similar surprise. In February, a group of children’s authors, led by SF Said, set up a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #CoverKidsBooks. The aim was to encourage newspapers to increase and improve their review coverage of children’s books.
TES responded almost immediately. We’d been talking about setting up a children’s book-review page on our website for a long time, and this was the incentive that we needed to do something about it.
We didn’t simply want adults to give their opinions, though; this seemed to miss the point. Surely it would be far more effective to ask children to review books that were intended for their eyes. So that’s what we did.
We also found a place for reviews from their teachers, too. They would be able to relate the books to the curriculum, or to discuss whether they thought the books had any educational value. Even more fun, sometimes the teachers and their pupils disagreed over the quality of the books.
We began with no books and one early years teacher who was willing to write a review. Nine months later, there is an ever-growing community of student, teacher and school-librarian reviewers.
But the real delight is the pupils’ opinions: unfailingly enthusiastic, they approach their task with astuteness and quirky insight.
Over the following pages, we have selected 10 of our reviewers’ favourite books from the past 10 months.
If you or your class would like to write a review for TES, please contact Adi Bloom at firstname.lastname@example.org
One to make you laugh
The Accidental Secret Agent
by Tom McLaughlin
A book about…a clumsy 13-year-old boy called Kevin, who is mistaken for a secret agent and ends up getting armed with an arsenal of James Bond-style gadgets to tackle a supervillain.
“This book is amazing. Full of humour and laughs, with the epic adventure of a boy whose life changes when he meets a shady character.
“When I read this book, it lured me in like magic. I could not wait for the next page, and when my mum told me to go to sleep I was really annoyed, as I was extremely wrapped up in the story. I would really recommend this book to my friends.”
“This book was so funny that my cheeks started hurting two pages before chapter one (there was a hilarious note at the beginning). If you ever wished James Bond would be funnier, you will love this.”
“This book is about a normal schoolboy who is always daydreaming and then accidentally becomes an adventurous secret agent who has lots of futuristic gadgets and gizmos. The book is extremely funny and hard to put down. In fact, I read it in one go! I hope there will be another book of new adventures.”
These pupils are from Years 3 and 4 at Whitchurch Church of England Primary, Hampshire
One to make you think
by Sarah Cohen-Scali
A book about…a young German boy living in Nazi Germany between 1936 and 1945, and how a Polish boy challenges his dedication to the Hitler Youth.
“Max was possibly one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read.
“It was a great insight into a topic that has had countless books written about it, and yet it still managed to be fresh, new and original.
“From the perspective of a young child, Max – a prototype for Hitler’s ‘Lebensborn’ project – it presents the Nazis’ twisted view of the world.
“Max is initially often delighted by the things that Hitler did that we now view as barbaric and insane, at times making the book difficult to process, but also making it gripping and mesmerising.
“It covers a lot of important, controversial topics – racial and sexual prejudice, mental health issues and death – and is bold and confrontational.
“I think it’s an amazing book and I would definitely recommend it, but probably not to younger readers, as it is disturbing and unsettling at times.
“Heart-wrenching, devastating and groundbreaking – it’s impossible not to fall in love with this book.”
Edith Reavley, Year 9 pupil at Fortismere School, North London
One to make you cry
Anna and the Swallow Man
by Gavriel Savit
A book about…a young Polish girl who is led away from the danger of the Second World War by a mysterious man, who is known as the Swallow Man
“The story is set in wartime Poland, back in 1939. It features a girl named Anna, daughter of a professor, who knows many languages and is a sensible girl. But one day her father has to go away for a few hours and he never comes back.
“This innocent girl has to survive in a world of war and all seems lost until the Swallow Man comes to rescue her. He takes her name away from her and swears he will protect her, only if she will obey his simple rules. One of them is that she will not let anyone know who he is. For Anna, he is a great man, always sensible and careful.
“Gavriel presents their relationship as an honest one. Anna can ask anything she wants from her Swallow Man and he will answer, normally.
“The innocence of a child in this story is presented quite perfectly. In their journey towards safety, they have to dodge German and Russian soldiers, often fleeing from bullets. Things change as Anna grows and she begins to question her hero. Who is the Swallow Man and why is he here helping Anna?
“This is a perfect novel from the undoubtedly talented Gavriel Savit. It makes you want to read more and more. It is very well structured and beautifully and carefully written. I would have rated it 15 stars if it was possible, but really I would rate it five stars.”
Fuhaira Chaudhary, Year 10 pupil at Central Lancaster High School
One for animal lovers
by Emma Cox, with illustrations by Rohan Eason
A book about…a small black cat who falls in love and then battles to bring peace to a recycling centre full of other cats.
“I liked that Malkin the cat was named by the moon, after being thrown in the river with his siblings. Malkin and Roux were my favourite characters because I liked that they got married. It reminded me of Varjak Paw and I would recommend it to young readers.”
“I really enjoyed this book and it was very ‘popping’. My favourite part was when Malkin and Roux travelled to the recycling centre. I would recommend this to a confident reader.”
“The book is very well written and good, but the beginning is a bit depressing. (It gets a lot better though!) I would recommend this for all ages.”
These pupils are from Chalk Ridge Primary School, Hampshire
One for fans of action-adventure
Steven Seagull, Action Hero
by Elys Dolan
A book about…a bird, closely modelled on the actor of a similar name, who saves Beach City from all sorts of miscreants.
“The children of Butterfly Class were excited to see a new book and thought it fitted into our ‘Superhero’ topic. They had initial visions of a seagull saving the day and, although Steven doesn’t turn out to be an actual superhero, he comes pretty close. While Martina suggested he might ‘save the whole world’, Sam hit the nail on the head, suggesting ‘he might save the beach’.
“I did think some of the vocabulary might be a bit over the foundation-stage children’s heads, but Archie explained that retired is ‘when you’re over-tired’.
“Rosie expanded: ‘It’s when you can’t do your job because you’re getting too old.’
“I was beginning to think that perhaps I, too, was due to retire soon.
“Steven Seagull steps back into the working world owing to mysterious sand holes popping up all over the beach. The children had oodles of suggestions as to how Steven might solve this mystery.
“‘He’s got to try to look for clues!’ said Reuben. ‘Or spy on people!’ exclaimed Martina, while Toby thought he should just ‘hop into the sea’.
“The book poses interesting questions, such as ‘Who on Earth would need so much sand?’ At this point, it would be interesting to cover up some of the illustrations, as while Ellie quickly suggested ‘a queen’ and Alexander thought it could be someone who ‘has a crown like a king’, Samip realised it must be ‘a crab’ from the crab emblems on the sand castle.
“When I asked the children if they enjoyed the story, Leon called out: ‘Ding! It’s a tick!’
“Across the board, the children scored this 10/10 on their hands.
“Well done, Steven Seagull. You have made it onto the Butterfly Class’ favourites shelf. And you made this teacher laugh a lot, too.”
Alice Edgington is deputy headteacher at St Stephen’s Infant School, Canterbury, Kent
One for the inquisitive
Ada Twist, Scientist
by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
A book about…the power of curiosity and a child who opts to use science to understand the world around her.
“I recommend Ada Twist, Scientist because it encourages people to believe that anything is possible, as long as they try hard and have self-belief.
“It makes you think about the world we live in and promotes people asking questions to satisfy their curiosity.
“Ada Twist, Scientist is a good book for children, because you start to think closely about life; it question how scientists use their time and effort to find cures for diseases and illnesses, as well as understanding how the human body works.
“I enjoyed this book, because it made me appreciate all of the scientists’ hard work.
“It also shows you how even young children can love and nurture their interest in science and the world around them. This is why you should check this book out – it will inspire you to do something you love.”
Abbi, 13, from Linton Village College, Cambridge
One for bookworms
Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice
by Natasha Farrant
A book about…Lydia, a girl who falls for a soldier and follows him to Brighton where she tries to find out what she really wants from life.
“When a red-coated garrison arrives in Meryton, Lydia Bennet’s life is turned upside-down. Beneath your typical country-girl personality lies the real Lydia Bennet: boisterous, outgoing, maybe even crazy. She needs to find who she is and what she really wants. Before she realises this for herself, she falls head over heels for the dashing Wickham, a soldier she loves. But is he what he seems?
“Her love lands her in Brighton, where her intentions were to follow her love and dreams. Twists and turns will be hidden along the way – will she reach her dreams in time?
“In a fresh take on the fabulous Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Lydia finds herself in a whirlwind of social drama. Natasha Farrant conjures up a romantic atmosphere that might melt your heart. It is a must for all major bookworms out there.”
Teagan McClymont-Dodd, Year 6 pupil at The District CE Primary School, Merseyside
One for comedy fans
by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman
A book about…a girl who suddenly starts creating doubles of herself, and the ensuing chaos that it brings.
“Alison Hubble is the hilarious tale of a little girl who has the unusual habit of doubling. She goes to bed as one person and wakes up as two – what a conundrum for her parents! They send her to school with a note that, as a teacher myself, made me laugh out loud: “Dear Mrs Mott…PS, her extra dinner money is enclosed.”
“Alison then doubles again, making her the school’s best-ever goalkeeper, given that no ball could get past four girls covering the goal line. Her poor parents are shocked to discover that they now have four identical Alisons. The group of children I read the book to felt sorry for the Alisons’ mum, who ended up making four dinners.
“The next morning, with Alison having doubled again in the night, her dad struggles to count the girls and get them off to school. And the poor teacher has no luck calling the register – thanks to some cheeky children who add to the number of Alisons by shouting ‘Here, Miss!’ – driving Mrs Mott to distraction.
“The news crews, local council, professors and experts all step in to help with the ‘Alison problem’. But nothing seems to stop this girl doubling. The end of the book is ambiguous, and the children and I were left wondering what more adventures the many Alisons might get up to next.”
My students gave the following views:
“I liked the book because it was brain-bogglingly weird and cool!”
“I think that it was double the double the double the fun! It was funny and silly.”
“I thought the book was really weird and the best rhyming book I have heard.”
Kim Duffy is Primary 3 teacher at Auchtermuchty Primary School, Fife
One for the season
by Tom Fletcher, with illustrations by Shane Devries
A book about…a boy and a baby dinosaur and their adventures at Christmas.
“The book is about Father Christmas’ elves when they dig up a dinosaur egg, which belongs to the last dinosaur in the world.
“It’s also about a boy named William Trundle, who loves dinosaurs. He wishes for a dinosaur for Christmas. He gets the surprise of his life on Christmas Day!
“My favourite character was the Christmasaurus, because he was cute and from the pictures he looked quite cuddly.
“My favourite part in the book is when the Hunter and his dog, Growler, get involved. I love action parts. When I was reading, I thought to myself, ‘I’ll read one more page’, but I ended up reading six more chapters.
“The part I didn’t like so much was at the end of the book, where it isn’t clear whether Miss Payne and Mr Trundle stay together. Other than that, the book was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G.
“If I had to rate the book out of 10, it would be 9.5. It will sell millions of copies.”
Romy, Year 5 pupil at Crondall Primary School, Hampshire
One for fans of fantasy adventure
Knights of the Borrowed Dark
by Dave Rudden
A book about…an orphan who is drawn into a world of monsters and knights, one in which the true story of where he comes from is buried under half-truths.
“This is exactly the kind of book, with the cover and the blurb to match, that I would not bother to pick up. So thank you, for proving that my silly apprehension of modern teenage fiction is only 99 per cent – not 100 per cent – right.
“This book represents the 1 per cent of teenage fiction that is not overwhelmingly preoccupied with death and inappropriate love affairs.
“The book is based on an old fantasy theme, dressed up for the modern day: light versus dark. The book’s central character, Denizen Hardwick, is satisfyingly imperfect, allowing the difficult relation of fantasy character to audience to flourish.
“Character development is not in excess, to say the least. But it will come with time. Dave Rudden’s own character will change, and much good will come with practice.
“The book glows with flair and humour – clever and different, with no hint of stating the obvious. This is what makes me breathe a sigh of relief. Not at the end of the book – the ‘I’m glad that’s over’ sigh. No. The ‘Yes! Finally a real writer who isn’t dead’ sigh.
“This book was good, and I don’t say that very often.”
Eleanor, 13, from Exeter Cathedral School