Category Archives: Reading for Pleasure

Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire

Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire – Andy Stanton

Although this is the second book in the series, this was the first Mr Gum book I ever read when I was a trainee teacher. I loved it, and have since read it to both of my children and many of the classes I have taught.

It’s the story of a very wealthy gingerbread man with some curious ideas about friendship. The evil Mr Gum and his side-kick Billy William, steal the money and try to escape to France. Fortunately, a little girl called Polly and her friend Friday are on their trail to save the day. Despite a few set backs (and a lot of laughs) along the way, all ends well.

Bella, age 5, says: “I liked that Jake showed up in the end, because Polly was missing him and she was worried. I also liked that Alan Taylor and that he got his money back and threw it in the air.”

THE LAND OF ROAR

The Land of Roar – Jenny McLachlan

We LOVED this book. It’s a magical adventure featuring dragons, a wizard, mermaids and a particularly scaring scarecrow. The journey Arthur and Rose go on is truly epic as they venture through a portal in their Grandfather’s loft into a realm created by their own imaginations.

The adventure they go on in order to save their Grandfather is incredible and full of danger and excitement. However, it is how the relationships between the characters develop that I really enjoyed. The twins at the centre of the story are growing apart at the beginning. This is often the case with siblings, as they mature at different rates and find different interests. It’s lovely to see them grow closer together as they find a new respect for each other and remember how much fun they can have when they believe.

The Land of Roar is a modern classic and I’m sure it will be made into a major feature film at some point soon. The follow up, ‘Return to Roar’, has recently been published, and it’s already in the pile of books next to my bed, waiting to be enjoyed.

Tom, age 7 says, “It was very, very dangerous at times, but I liked it lots.”

The Night Bus Hero

The Night Bus Hero – Onjali Q. Rauf

It’s rare that you don’t like the central character in a book, but in The Night Bus Hero, Hector is particularly unlikeable to the majority of the story. He’s a bully and it’s a really interesting take to tell a story through this lens. Rauf doesn’t really make us try to sympathise with his awful behaviour, but we do get to understand some of his motivations and his thinking.

This would be a fantastic book to read aloud to a class because of the two main central themes of bullying and homelessness. I can imagine it starting interesting conversations within class and certainly giving the children a better understanding of the lives of those less fortunate than themselves.

The Night Bus Hero is a modern classic that I have been thoroughly recommending to many people ever since we finished it.

Tom, age 8, says: “It’s was unusual at the start because Hector was being a bully and I didn’t like him. It’s different when you go from a bullies point of view. I enjoyed the book very because as you get further into the book Hector becomes more of a nice person. The favourite bit was when they broke in and crept through to catch the thief. My favourite character was Thomas because he was interesting and clever and has a good name.”

Scribbleboy

Scribbleboy – Philip Ridley

First published in 1997, Scribbleboy is certainly one of the older books we’ve read together. I was keen to share it with my son because I ‘ve always really enjoyed it myself, as have the children in the classes that I’ve read it with. Given that it’s now a quarter of a century old, some of the cultural references are a little dated, but that is also a great learning point for everyone. I was first introduced to Scribbleboy by Jo Payne and she has written here about why it’s such a great book.

Real life issues of divorce, disability, mental health and more are all touched upon in a way that is appropriate for KS2 children, making Scribbleboy an excellent jumping off point for meaningful conversations with children.

The story centres around a boy called Bailey who moves to a new flat with his dad and brother after his mum leaves them. Bailey is introduced to the world of Scribbleboy by Ziggy and together they develop a fan club in honour of the mysterious graffiti artist who brought colour to an otherwise dull neighbourhood.

While Bailey becomes deeply involved in the fan club, his dad and brother begin to move on with their lives. Bailey doesn’t find it easy to accept this and doesn’t approve of all the changes going on around him. He throws himself into the world of Scribbleboy as a way of forgetting what’s going on at home, but ultimately finds that the two worlds are more closely linked than he had realised.

Tom, age 9, says: “I really enjoyed Scribbleboy because it’s really interesting how they come up with the new scribble language. It’s funny how the letter S on Ziggy’s typewriter is broken, so he has to write them on himself. There are some really good twists in the story and you never know what’s going to happen or who the real Scribbleboy is. I would like to visit Tiffany the Ice Cream Doctor and Monty the Pizza Doctor to see what food they would give me.”

My Parents Cancelled My Birthday

My Parents Cancelled My Birthday – Jo Simmons

My son and I were instantly hooked with this one because the opening chapter is: very funny; sets up an intriguing story; and leaves you really wanting to read on. It left me with the feeling that I had discovered a book I really wanted to tell people about, like the first time I read Mr Gum. I did then spend the next few days recommending the book to loads of people. I really liked the fact that it was funny and a little close to the bone (WARNING: do not read this book to a child who has recently lost a beloved pet, especially a dog).

It’s not the first Jo Simmons book we’ve read (see below for The Dodo Made Me Do It) and we’ve come back to her because I’ve really been enjoying her writing. Particularly that she doesn’t go for the lazy stereotypes that some celebrity children’s authors tend to favour. I enjoyed the relationship between the brother and sister in the book because it’s real. Yes they have their fall outs, but on the whole they really love and care for each other, like most actual siblings do.

The title is great and made me start to guess why the birthday had been cancelled. My assumptions were all wrongs and this book had many more layers to it than I had imagined. Brilliant for children aged 6-11 I would say.

Grk and the Pelotti Gang

Grk and the Pelotti Gang – Joshua Doder

First published in 2006, I have been using this book in class on and off for the last 10 years or so. It’s a great class read for lower KS2 children to go alongside a topic about Brazil or rainforests. The Grk books all take place in different countries and help readers get a good understanding of each countries geography and culture as a backdrop to exciting narrative.

In this particular Grk adventure, the small, white dog and his owner Tim find themselves in Brazil. After being kidnapped by some street children from a favela in Rio de Janeiro, they come across Brazil’s most wanted criminals – the Pelotti Gang. Together Tim, Grk and one of the boys set out to bring the Pelotti’s to justice.

I adore this book because it’s action packed and it’s great to read in class or as a bedtime story because there are so many cliff-hangers that leave the children desperate to find out what happens.

Tom, age 8, says: “It’s really intriguing because you always want to know what happens next. I really like Tim because he’s really confident and brave and doesn’t let anything stop him from catching the Pelotti brothers. I’d like to read other Grk books because I think they’ll be intriguing and exciting like this book.”

Top 10 Books for Children Aged 7-11

I’ve been keeping a log of the bedtime stories that I’ve read with my children over the last few years. Some are good, some less so and some have been absolutely fantastic. This is a list of our Top 10 Books for Children Aged 7-11.

10 – Grk and the Pelotti Gang – Joshua Doder

9 – My Parents Cancelled My Birthday – Jo Simmons

8 – Scribbleboy – Philip Ridley

7 – The Night Bus Hero – Onjali Q. Rauf

6 – Wild Boy – Rob Lloyd Jones

5 – While the Storm Rages – Phil Earle

4 – When Life Gives You Mangoes – Kereen Getten

3 – The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates – Jenny Pearson

2 – Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire – Andy Stanton

1 – The Land of Roar – Jenny McLachlan

Below you’ll find the reviews we wrote about the books when we read them.

10 – Grk and the Pelotti Gang – Joshua Doder

First published in 2006, I have been using this book in class on and off for the last 10 years or so. It’s a great class read for lower KS2 children to go alongside a topic about Brazil or rainforests. The Grk books all take place in different countries and help readers get a good understanding of each countries geography and culture as a backdrop to exciting narrative.

In this particular Grk adventure, the small, white dog and his owner Tim find themselves in Brazil. After being kidnapped by some street children from a favela in Rio de Janeiro, they come across Brazil’s most wanted criminals – the Pelotti Gang. Together Tim, Grk and one of the boys set out to bring the Pelotti’s to justice.

I adore this book because it’s action packed and it’s great to read in class or as a bedtime story because there are so many cliff-hangers that leave the children desperate to find out what happens.

Tom, age 8, says: “It’s really intriguing because you always want to know what happens next. I really like Tim because he’s really confident and brave and doesn’t let anything stop him from catching the Pelotti brothers. I’d like to read other Grk books because I think they’ll be intriguing and exciting like this book.”

9 – My Parents Cancelled My Birthday – Jo Simmons

My son and I were instantly hooked with this one because the opening chapter is: very funny; sets up an intriguing story; and leaves you really wanting to read on. It left me with the feeling that I had discovered a book I really wanted to tell people about, like the first time I read Mr Gum. I did then spend the next few days recommending the book to loads of people. I really liked the fact that it was funny and a little close to the bone (WARNING: do not read this book to a child who has recently lost a beloved pet, especially a dog).

It’s not the first Jo Simmons book we’ve read (see below for The Dodo Made Me Do It) and we’ve come back to her because I’ve really been enjoying her writing. Particularly that she doesn’t go for the lazy stereotypes that some celebrity children’s authors tend to favour. I enjoyed the relationship between the brother and sister in the book because it’s real. Yes they have their fall outs, but on the whole they really love and care for each other, like most actual siblings do.

The title is great and made me start to guess why the birthday had been cancelled. My assumptions were all wrongs and this book had many more layers to it than I had imagined. Brilliant for children aged 6-11 I would say.

8 – Scribbleboy – Philip Ridley

First published in 1997, Scribbleboy is certainly one of the older books we’ve read together. I was keen to share it with my son because I ‘ve always really enjoyed it myself, as have the children in the classes that I’ve read it with. Given that it’s now a quarter of a century old, some of the cultural references are a little dated, but that is also a great learning point for everyone. I was first introduced to Scribbleboy by Jo Payne and she has written here about why it’s such a great book.

Real life issues of divorce, disability, mental health and more are all touched upon in a way that is appropriate for KS2 children, making Scribbleboy an excellent jumping off point for meaningful conversations with children.

The story centres around a boy called Bailey who moves to a new flat with his dad and brother after his mum leaves them. Bailey is introduced to the world of Scribbleboy by Ziggy and together they develop a fan club in honour of the mysterious graffiti artist who brought colour to an otherwise dull neighbourhood.

While Bailey becomes deeply involved in the fan club, his dad and brother begin to move on with their lives. Bailey doesn’t find it easy to accept this and doesn’t approve of all the changes going on around him. He throws himself into the world of Scribbleboy as a way of forgetting what’s going on at home, but ultimately finds that the two worlds are more closely linked than he had realised.

Tom, age 9, says: “I really enjoyed Scribbleboy because it’s really interesting how they come up with the new scribble language. It’s funny how the letter S on Ziggy’s typewriter is broken, so he has to write them on himself. There are some really good twists in the story and you never know what’s going to happen or who the real Scribbleboy is. I would like to visit Tiffany the Ice Cream Doctor and Monty the Pizza Doctor to see what food they would give me.”

7 – The Night Bus Hero – Onjali Q. Rauf

It’s rare that you don’t like the central character in a book, but in The Night Bus Hero, Hector is particularly unlikeable to the majority of the story. He’s a bully and it’s a really interesting take to tell a story through this lens. Rauf doesn’t really make us try to sympathise with his awful behaviour, but we do get to understand some of his motivations and his thinking.

This would be a fantastic book to read aloud to a class because of the two main central themes of bullying and homelessness. I can imagine it starting interesting conversations within class and certainly giving the children a better understanding of the lives of those less fortunate than themselves.

The Night Bus Hero is a modern classic that I have been thoroughly recommending to many people ever since we finished it.

Tom, age 8, says: “It’s was unusual at the start because Hector was being a bully and I didn’t like him. It’s different when you go from a bullies point of view. I enjoyed the book very because as you get further into the book Hector becomes more of a nice person. The favourite bit was when they broke in and crept through to catch the thief. My favourite character was Thomas because he was interesting and clever and has a good name.”

6 – Wild Boy – Rob Lloyd Jones

This book is special. It’s one of those that I spent weeks asking friends and colleagues who are also into children’s literature whether or not they had read it.

It begins in a Victorian workhouse where we meet Wild Boy and learn about his incredibly hard life. From there he enters into world of the freakshow where he is treated horrendously. He longs to escape the freakshow and his master, but doesn’t have anywhere to go and doesn’t believe has can do anything else.

He is forced to go on the run when he accused of murder. The book p is brilliantly constructed as Wild Boy and his partner in crime detection, Clarissa, try to clear their names and uncover the truth.

There are many twists and turns along the way that keep you guessing who the real killer is and what their motives might be. This is an exactly book to read with upper key stage 2 and would especially great if you have a topic of the Victorians.

Tom, age 9, says: “It’s a really interesting book because they add more clues to the mystery as they go along. It’s like puzzle pieces finally fitting together to complete the jigsaw.”

5 – While the Storm Rages – Phil Earle

While the Storm Rages came highly recommended by a number of other children’s book reviewers, so Tom and I had to give it a go.

The story begins in London just before the outbreak of World War II. Noah’s dad is heading off to fight the Nazi’s and he is left at home with his mum and dog, Winn.

The declaration of war means big changes in everyone’s lives and for Noah it means evacuation and tragically that (like all other pets in London) Winn must be put down. In fact, in one week, 750,000 pets were put down in the UK. I had no idea. This horrific insight into living in a war-torn country allows the children hearing or reading the story to really empathise with some of the heart-breaking decisions being made by people.

Noah can’t stand the idea of having his beloved dog put down, so forges a plan (or the start of one) to save Winn and a few other animals that live in his neighbourhood as well. Noah is more about acting on impulse than considering the finer details of things, so the adventure takes many twists and turns. Fortunately for him, he has Clem (his best friend) as a companion and she is the brains of the operation.

The journey they go on is a struggle from start to finish with not too many happy points along the way. The story is epic and enthralling and offers a real glimpse of what children in London would have been thinking and feeling during those uncertain times. While the Storm Rages would be a perfect class read for any KS2 class that is studying World War II and, while desperately sad in places, is a completely compelling and generally excellent book.

Tom, age 9, says: “I really like the adventure they went on and how brave they were. Noah is my favourite character because of his courage to go through everything and because of his plans and ideas. I really like that you learn things about history in the story as well, I didn’t know that all the animals got put down in the war.”

4 – When Life Gives You Mangoes – Kereen Getten

When Life Gives You Mangoes is different to our usual bedtime stories. It’s a little more serious, but certainly not boring or without humour. It’s the story of a 12-year-old girl called Clara with lives with her mum and dad in a Jamaican coastal village. Clara seems to be quite a normal 12 year old, except something happened to her last summer that she can’t remember and this story is her journey to get those memories back and understand what’s really going on.

I adored this book. The characters are all relatable and wonderfully written and developed. I don’t really want go into too much detail because there is an awesome twist that stayed with us for a good few days after reading. All I will say is, read this book.

Tom, age 8, says: “It’s really good because there are surprises along the way. I really like how Clara faces her fears and went back in the water. I liked Rudy because she was fun and positive and supported Clara. I’ve never read a book with a big twist like this and I really recommend it.”

3 – The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates – Jenny Pearson

This book has more twists and turns than a Super G event. It came highly recommended and it did not disappoint one bit. Jenny Pearson’s writing is very funny, that much is clear, but I also loved the fact that serious issues were covered in a very relatable and empathetic way. Although the main character in the book (Freddie) is dealing with loss and trying to understand it, it’s never dark or particularly sad, it’s more comically poignant.

The story centres around the journey Freddie and his two best friends make at the start of their Summer holiday. It takes them along the south coast of Wales. As they meet an interesting range of diverse Welsh characters, it gives those of use who enjoy ‘doing the voices’ while reading aloud, the perfect opportunity to experiment with a glorious range of hearty Welsh accents.

The Miraculous Journey that the boys go on is absolutely brilliant. It gets better and better with many a jaw-dropping laugh along the way. I can’t recommend this book enough and it will doubtlessly a birthday or Christmas present for years to come.

An added bonus is that the illustrator is, lockdown hero, Rob Biddulph. If you’ve not yet spent time with your children, at home or in school, following a #DrawWithRob video, then you really must.

If you and your children enjoy the books of Jo Simmons, then this one should be next on your list.

Tom, age 7, says: “I really like it because it’s really funny and you can learn facts from it as well. My favourite fact was that pigs can’t look up, so they’ve probably never seen the stars.”

2 – Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire – Andy Stanton

Although this is the second book in the series, this was the first Mr Gum book I ever read when I was a trainee teacher. I loved it, and have since read it to both of my children and many of the classes I have taught.

It’s the story of a very wealthy gingerbread man with some curious ideas about friendship. The evil Mr Gum and his side-kick Billy William, steal the money and try to escape to France. Fortunately, a little girl called Polly and her friend Friday are on their trail to save the day. Despite a few set backs (and a lot of laughs) along the way, all ends well.

Bella, age 5, says: “I liked that Jake showed up in the end, because Polly was missing him and she was worried. I also liked that Alan Taylor and that he got his money back and threw it in the air.”

1 – The Land of Roar – Jenny McLachlan

We LOVED this book. It’s a magical adventure featuring dragons, a wizard, mermaids and a particularly scaring scarecrow. The journey Arthur and Rose go on is truly epic as they venture through a portal in their Grandfather’s loft into a realm created by their own imaginations.

The adventure they go on in order to save their Grandfather is incredible and full of danger and excitement. However, it is how the relationships between the characters develop that I really enjoyed. The twins at the centre of the story are growing apart at the beginning. This is often the case with siblings, as they mature at different rates and find different interests. It’s lovely to see them grow closer together as they find a new respect for each other and remember how much fun they can have when they believe.

The Land of Roar is a modern classic and I’m sure it will be made into a major feature film at some point soon. The follow up, ‘Return to Roar’, has recently been published, and it’s already in the pile of books next to my bed, waiting to be enjoyed.

Tom, age 7 says, “It was very, very dangerous at times, but I liked it lots.”

Brilliant Books By Jenny Pearson

Jenny Pearson books are properly funny but also manage to tackle some serious issues in a child-friendly and relatable way. Issues like bereavement, depression and Alzheimer’s (amongst others) all crop up and are handled with compassion and just the right balance of good humour. It’s almost like Jenny Pearson is a primary school teacher or something. Her books are a great way to introduce discussions around these serious subjects with children, or you can completely ignore them and just have a good laugh at the brilliant stories.

The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates – Jenny Pearson

This book has more twists and turns than a Super G event. It came highly recommended and it did not disappoint one bit. Jenny Pearson’s writing is very funny, that much is clear, but I also loved the fact that serious issues were covered in a very relatable and empathetic way. Although the main character in the book (Freddie) is dealing with loss and trying to understand it, it’s never dark or particularly sad, it’s more comically poignant.

The story centres around the journey Freddie and his two best friends make at the start of their Summer holiday. It takes them along the south coast of Wales. As they meet an interesting range of diverse Welsh characters, it gives those of use who enjoy ‘doing the voices’ while reading aloud, the perfect opportunity to experiment with a glorious range of hearty Welsh accents.

The Miraculous Journey that the boys go on is absolutely brilliant. It gets better and better with many a jaw-dropping laugh along the way. I can’t recommend this book enough and it will doubtlessly a birthday or Christmas present for years to come.

An added bonus is that the illustrator is, lockdown hero, Rob Biddulph. If you’ve not yet spent time with your children, at home or in school, following a #DrawWithRob video, then you really must.

If you and your children enjoy the books of Jo Simmons, then this one should be next on your list.

Tom, age 7, says: “I really like it because it’s really funny and you can learn facts from it as well. My favourite fact was that pigs can’t look up, so they’ve probably never seen the stars.”

The Incredible Record Smashers – Jenny Pearson

Having enjoyed Jenny Pearson’s first book (Freddie Yates – see below) so much, we’ve had The Incredible Record Smashers on pre-order for months. In both books Pearson manages to take the central character on epic adventures with hilarious consequences while also addressing some very sensitive issues in a child appropriate way. In Record Smashers, the main character (Lucy) has a mother who suffers with depression and the child’s perspective of this is handled brilliantly.

The central premise is that Lucy desperately wants to make her mum happy again and she believes that she can do this by reconnecting her with an old friend. Along the way she attempts a range of world records, with varying degrees of success, gets embroiled with a criminal family, befriends a watermelon and learns an awful lot about herself.

Record Smashers is a heart-warming story of friendship and family and would make an excellent class read across KS2. It’s capable of making you laugh and cry and may even inspire you to break a world record of your own.

Tom, age 8, says: “It was really funny, especially when Lucy made Sandesh wear the gold costume. I really enjoyed the bit where Sandesh played the piano with all of his body parts, it was really fun. My favourite character was Lucy because she kept persevering when she was trying to make her mum happy.”

Grandpa Frank’s Great Big Bucket List – Jenny Pearson

Frank Davenport’s son, Frank, finds out that he has a Grandpa (Frank) that he knew nothing about, as well as a sizable inheritance that he is meant to use to look after him. Grandpa Frank isn’t keen on his Grandson’s ideas about looking after him to begin with, but they end up having a wonderful time filled with remarkable experiences.

Frank Junior’s parents aren’t so keen on the adventures, though, and don’t think he should be the one who is entrusted with the money at all. They rather need the money for themselves to help solve their own problems.

The lovely thing about enjoying Jenny Pearson books with my son is that we both chuckle along throughout. There are many laugh out loud moments and some ridiculous situations they find themselves in. Ridiculous, but not beyond the realms of possibility – and it’s this plausibility that helps to keep the story relatable.

As with her other stories, Grandpa Frank’s Great Big Bucket List touches upon some serious themes amongst all the hilarity. Pearson sensitively opens the door for conversations with children who maybe experiencing these things in their own lives. Grandpa Frank’s memory is declining and he has a tricky relationship with his son. Children experiencing these things at home will relate to the story but it’s also great for developing empathy in others.

Davenport men might not cry, but I’m not ashamed to admit there was a tear in my eye as we read the last couple of pages. It was poignant and written with real care. I do so love Jenny Pearson books and heartily recommend them to you.

Tom, age 8, says: “It’s really fun to hear about all of the adventures that they go on to spend all of the money. It was really funny when they went swimming with ‘dolphins’. If I had loads of money I’d like to take my Grandad to see Arsenal play because we both love them. My favourite character is Frank (the boy) because he really wants his Grandad to have a good time and he always tries to do the right thing, even when his parents try to stop him.”

Operation Nativity – Jenny Pearson

We are already Jenny Pearson fans as this is the 4th book of hers that we’ve read. We’ve enjoyed them all because they all centre around children going on ridiculously exciting adventures. Operation Nativity is no different.

Oscar and Molly are visiting their family in Hampshire this Christmas, which means they must be part of the famous family nativity play that Grandma puts on at the church every year. It’s a big deal, especially for Grandma, but one night, the children discover a rather lost Angel Gabriel outside the house who they agree to help to save Christmas.

Gabriel has accidently transported Mary, Joseph, a Wise-Man, a shepherd and Donald THE Donkey from Bethlehem 2000 years ago to the modern day village of Chipping Bottom, Hampshire, England. The mission is to round them all up, keep them hidden from the rest of the family and then help to get them back to where they are meant to be all in time for the 25th of December.

Much hilarity ensues as the children and their growing team of helpers set about their task while trying to keep the whole thing a secret from the rest of the family. All of this happens while rehearsing a play which includes a heavily pregnant aunty playing Mary. What could possibly go wrong?

Pearson has a wonderful knack of intertwining very funny stories with poignancy, covering delicate issues in a really sensitive, child-friendly way. I got a little misty-eyed towards the end when the family return to Chipping Bottom a year after their fateful Christmas, just in time to say goodbye to a loved one. This chapter led to a lovely conversation with my daughter about remembering all the things that we love about people when they are gone.

One quirk of the book that we particularly enjoyed was the fact that each chapter title takes the lyrics from a famous Christmas carol or song and adapts them comically to loosely describe what is about to happen. We found ourselves really looking forward to discovering what the next chapter would be and singing the title out. It was great fun.

At the end of the book Jenny Pearson has added a great range of additional resources – a quiz, some crafts, some jokes, some nativity facts and interesting information from Christmas around the world. It’s like she’s planned the last day of term before the Christmas holiday for a KS2 teacher.

This book would make an excellent Christmas movie and it’s perfect for children aged 8-12.

Bella, age 7, says: “I like the book because it’s funny and it’s a clever twist on the nativity story. My favourite characters are Grandma the Turkey, Steve the shepherd and Molly because they are all funny. Molly is funny because she tells people what’s really going on but no one believes her because she’s just a little girl. She also always dresses in fancy dress and sometimes it’s different parts of different costumes. My favourite part of the story is when Grandma Turkey goes running around the house and attacks Hugo and Fenella.”

Harley Hitch – Vashti Hardy

Harley Hitch and the Iron Forest – Vashti Hardy

The Iron Forest is the first in a series of Harley Hitch books by Vashti Hardy. Hardy’s previous books include Brightstorm and Wildspark and I would say that the Harley Hitch series are aimed at slightly younger readers – maybe around 7-9 year olds.

Harley lives with her two Grandads and is a keen problem solving inventor who goes to Cogworks School in Forgetown. When a mysterious fungus is discovered in the Iron Forest, Harley is keen to help find a solution to the destruction of this important eco-system, almost too keen. She is desperate to solve the mystery in order to win Pupil of the Term and beat her nemesis, Fenelda Spiggot.

Harley is a likeable central character, but she does have a tendency to rush into things and not take advice from those around her. By the end, she does learn this lesson and, with the support of her friends and family, is able to make everything right.

My boy really enjoyed this one and he’s keen to read the next in the series. As it’s well within his ready capability, I’ll leave it for him to enjoy on his own though. It’s great for an 8 year old, but it doesn’t have enough depth for his 40 year old dad to be desperate to find out what happens next.

Tom, age 8, says: “I liked it because you don’t get many books about inventing and I’m interested in inventing. I really liked the fish that helped Harley understand how to solve the problem in the Iron Forest. I liked Cosmo because he was good at coming up with ideas after going to the library. I also liked the Grampas because they were good at supporting Harley even when she made mistakes.”

Cracking Christmas Books

Christmas is a magical time of year and that magic is only enhanced by sharing festive books with those children in your life at home or in school. Below, in no particular order, are some short reviews of Christmassy recommended reads to share.

  1. How Winston Came Home For Christmas – Alex T. Smith
  2. Operation Nativity – Jenny Pearson
  3. Christmas Dinner of Souls – Ross Montgomery
  4. The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland – Carys Bexington
  5. Father Christmas – The Truth – Gregoire Solotareff
  6. A Boy Called Christmas – Matt Haig
  7. Pick a Pine Tree – Patricia Toht
  8. The Girl Who Saved Christmas – Matt Haig
  9. Dasher – Matt Tavares
  10. Farther Christmas and Me – Matt Haig
  11. A Mouse Called Miika – Matt Haig
  12. The Empty Stocking – Richard Curtis
  13. Alfie’s Christmas – Shirley Hughes

How Winston Came Home For Christmas – Alex T. Smith

Written in 24 and a half chapters, this book is designed to be read over the period of advent and I can see it becoming a Christmas tradition in our house. It is also good to read with any primary aged classes as well. If you follow Alex T. Smith on Twitter, I’m sure you’ll be kept informed of which day to start reading, depending on when you break up for Christmas.

Throughout the story Winston visits a number of European countries on his quest understand a vision he has had and his heritage. In each country he encounters a variety of indigenous creatures who are all exceptionally helpful and aid Winston in piecing together the clues he needs to complete his journey. We also learn about Christmas traditions from all over the continent.

As well as daily chapters during advent, there are also craft and recipe ideas for each day. These are all lovely and add to the magic of the book. The only downside is the pressure I put on myself to read a chapter with the children everyday. I find it hard enough to remember to always light the advent candle. Weekends are pretty good for catching up on a chapter or two though, and it really doesn’t detract from the overall loveliness of the story.

Operation Nativity – Jenny Pearson

We are already Jenny Pearson fans as this is the 4th book of hers that we’ve read. We’ve enjoyed them all because they all centre around children going on ridiculously exciting adventures. Operation Nativity is no different.

Oscar and Molly are visiting their family in Hampshire this Christmas, which means they must be part of the famous family nativity play that Grandma puts on at the church every year. It’s a big deal, especially for Grandma, but one night, the children discover a rather lost Angel Gabriel outside the house who they agree to help to save Christmas.

Gabriel has accidently transported Mary, Joseph, a Wise-Man, a shepherd and Donald THE Donkey from Bethlehem 2000 years ago to the modern day village of Chipping Bottom, Hampshire, England. The mission is to round them all up, keep them hidden from the rest of the family and then help to get them back to where they are meant to be all in time for the 25th of December.

Much hilarity ensues as the children and their growing team of helpers set about their task while trying to keep the whole thing a secret from the rest of the family. All of this happens while rehearsing a play which includes a heavily pregnant aunty playing Mary. What could possibly go wrong?

Pearson has a wonderful knack of intertwining very funny stories with poignancy, covering delicate issues in a really sensitive, child-friendly way. I got a little misty-eyed towards the end when the family return to Chipping Bottom a year after their fateful Christmas, just in time to say goodbye to a loved one. This chapter led to a lovely conversation with my daughter about remembering all the things that we love about people when they are gone.

One quirk of the book that we particularly enjoyed was the fact that each chapter title takes the lyrics from a famous Christmas carol or song and adapts them comically to loosely describe what is about to happen. We found ourselves really looking forward to discovering what the next chapter would be and singing the title out. It was great fun.

At the end of the book Jenny Pearson has added a great range of additional resources – a quiz, some crafts, some jokes, some nativity facts and interesting information from Christmas around the world. It’s like she’s planned the last day of term before the Christmas holiday for a KS2 teacher.

This book would make an excellent Christmas movie and it’s perfect for children aged 8-12.

Bella, age 7, says: “I like the book because it’s funny and it’s a clever twist on the nativity story. My favourite characters are Grandma the Turkey, Steve the shepherd and Molly because they are all funny. Molly is funny because she tells people what’s really going on but no one believes her because she’s just a little girl. She also always dresses in fancy dress and sometimes it’s different parts of different costumes. My favourite part of the story is when Grandma Turkey goes running around the house and attacks Hugo and Fenella.”

Christmas Dinner of Souls – Ross Montgomery

This is far from a traditional Christmas story. It’s set at Christmas and has the word Christmas in the title, but that’s about it. It’s more of a anti-Christmas book.

Monstrous characters who despise Christmas meet up at Soul’s College at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve every year. The tradition involves guests competing to tell the most terrifying, gruesome tales and dates back centuries.

Montgomery’s writing is fantastic. Each sentence is expertly crafted and my children wriggled, squealed and jumped with fear and delight as we read.

Tom, age 9, says: “I really enjoyed this book because it’s spooky and I really enjoyed listening to the different stories within the story. It makes a change to hear lots of different stories as part of the same book. The scariest story was probably Drybone Creathe’s because it was a good mystery.

It had a crazy twist that the author saved right to the end and I thought that was a great way to finish a book.”

The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland – by Cerys Bexington

This one is pretty clever. It’s a mash-up of The Night Before Christmas and Alice in Wonderland with the added festive message of, ‘be good or you’ll not get any presents.’ Children who are unfamiliar with the source material will still thoroughly enjoy this book, but those who know the Clement Clarke Moore poem and, particularly, the characters from the Lewis Carroll classic, will really appreciate the skill of Carys Bexington in crafting this updated version.

Father Christmas – The Truth – by Gregoire Solotareff

I love this book. Mostly because it’s really rather silly, but it also has many other qualities. It is a collection of ‘facts’ and stories about Father Christmas which are organised alphabetically. The book can be read in order, but you also can dip in and out of it, if you prefer. We’ve found it great for getting our young children to practice reading because there aren’t too many words on each page so they enjoy taking turns and making each other giggle.

So it’s a light-hearted, fun book that you can return to time and again, year after year. A perfect Christmas book really. Well worth adding to your collection.

A Boy Called Christmas – Matt Haig

Matt Haig is a master of his craft. He constructs stories brilliantly and each word is carefully chosen to induce a range of emotions in the reader. A Boy Called Christmas is the true origins story of Father Christmas (it really is, don’t argue) and it’s absolutely pack with festive magic and drimwickery.

While all does end well for Nikolas, the boy at the centre of the story, the book also has moments of real sadness and darkness. Like, at one point, when the boy unwittingly eats his only toy. Or when Nikolas is sent to the tower. To balance the darkness, there are also many warm and humorous moments.

A Boy Called Christmas is the first time Matt Haig introduces the characters of Miika the Mouse and the Truth Pixie, Both characters have gone on to be the central characters in others books, with the straight-talking Truth Pixie being a particular favourite of mine.

As well as a lovely story about Christmas, Haig also manages to mix in some social commentary about the media and how it controls and manipulates the world around us at time.

A Boy Called Christmas is my favourite Christmas book and it will take something very special to change that. I can’t wait to see the film.

Pick a Pine Tree – by Patricia Toht

The start of December, means it’s the start of Christmas books in assembly. Pick a Pine Tree is beautifully illustrated by Jarvis and charts the journey of selecting, decorating and enjoying the perfect Christmas tree.

By using this book we started conversations about why we bring trees into our homes and decorate at Christmas time generally. It was also great to discuss how we all have family traditions. Some are the same as everyone else, others unique to our families, all are special and help make Christmas a magical time of year.

The Girl Who Saved Christmas – Matt Haig

The is Matt Haig’s follow-up to ‘A Boy Called Christmas’, and it is filled with plenty more magic (or rather drimwickery). The first is an origins story for Father Christmas, and it’s good. Really good. And believable. It all makes sense and keeps to magic of Christmas very much alive for all children who read it.

In ‘The Girl Who Saved Christmas’ the big man goes in search of a girl who has the most hope, to help restore the magic which makes Christmas possible. Unfortunately, the girl in question (Amelia) has had an extremely tough couple of years and proves difficult to track down and has also lost a lot of hope.

Haig skilfully and sensitively handles themes of loss, trust, love and hope and includes cameos from Charles Dickins and Queen Victoria, but it all works. We hoped and assumed it would all turn out alright in the end, but didn’t really know how it was going to get there until very near the end. It is a gloriously happy ending, but with another adventure to look forward to in the shape of ‘Father Christmas and Me’. Also, rather excitingly, ‘A Boy Called Christmas’ is being made into a film which will be released in December 2020. Can’t wait.

Dasher – Matt Tavares

This is the story of how Father Christmas began to use reindeer to help him deliver his presents instead of horses. Dasher and his family are stuck working for a travelling circus but he longs to escape and head north to the beautiful place his mother has often spoken of. When Dasher’s opportunity arises he quickly grasps his freedom. One thing leads to another and he ends up finding a better life for himself, his family and children all over the world.

Farther Christmas and Me – Matt Haig

This is the final instalment of Matt Haig’s Christmas trilogy and the festive magic is very much still alive in Elfhelm. We’ve read each of the books, in order, over the last 3 Decembers, and it’s been a lovely Christmas tradition we’re sad has come to an end.

On the surface, Father Christmas and Me, is another epic adventure for Amelia, who we met in the second book. She struggles to feel accepted in Elfhelm and find her place living amongst the elves. She thinks about leaving, but ends up trying to become a journalist, an honest one. For a timeless Christmas classic, this book is also pretty topical, exploring themes of immigration, fake-news, Trumpism (Vodalism) and nationalism.

Above all, Matt Haig is just a bloomin’ good writer. The arc of all three books are beautifully created and always leave the reader guessing how the loose ends will be tied up. The loose ends are tied up and although there are a lot of worrying moments throughout, hope always wins. What I particularly enjoy are the moments throughout the book that bring a wry or knowing smile.

Throughout the truth is important. The perceived truth and the actual truth are not always the same thing. But the Truth Pixie is on hand to make the distinction and, as with other Matt Haig books, she steals the show.

The first book, A Boy Called Christmas, has been made into a movie and will be released in November 2021. This means that our Christmas Matt Haig tradition can continued for one more year at least, but I very much hope that the other books will be made in to films as well.

Tom, age 7, says: “It was sometimes scary, but mostly fun. I liked that Amelia went back to London in the end and told the stories to the children in the orphanage that she had built. Father Christmas is my favourite character because he always tries to help everyone.”

A Mouse Called Miika – Matt Haig

We first came across Miika in ‘A Boy Called Christmas’ where he acts as a curious supporting character who narrates occasional thoughts about the extraordinary goings on that he witnesses. Released around the same time as the film of that book, A Mouse Called Miika gives a little more detail to the background of the mouse, but mostly focuses on events that happen shortly after the conclusion of the first book.

Miika is a friendly mouse with human, elf and pixie friends but only knows one other mouse – Bridget the Brave. Through the book, Miika tries to please Bridget and be a good mouse-friend but at the end realises that actually Bridget hasn’t ever really been a good friend to him. He realises, with the help of the ever-wonderful Truth Pixie, that he’s better off being disliked for who he is rather than being liked for who he isn’t.

As ever, Matt Haig writes fabulously constructed books for children with fantastic nuggets of wisdom interwoven for readers of all ages. I particularly liked the quote below which comes towards the end of the book. I can see myself using in when talking to Year 6 children before they move up to secondary school.

Tom, age 8, says: “I thought it was really interesting to listen to. He meets Bridget the Brave and to start off with it was a good relationship, then it wasn’t, then it was again, then it wasn’t again. Relationships can be like that sometimes. It was really courageous of Miika when he said that he was the cheese thief but sadly he got flattened by the troll’s foot. In the end he learned that it’s ok to be who you are and not try to be someone else. It’s a good message for children who read the book.

The Empty Stocking – by Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis, yes that Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings, Blackadder, Comic Relief, etc) is the author of this week’s Christmas book.

I’ll admit I was a little dubious when this book was recommended to me as I’m not overly keen on the whole, ‘if you’re naughty you won’t get any presents,’ thing. But it’s handled really well. The ‘naughty’ girl in the story often misbehaves for innocent, misguided or misunderstood reasons and in the end she is able to make the right choice and receive a stocking full of gifts.

Alfie’s Christmas – Shirley Hughes

Shirley Hughes does heart-warming, nostalgic books, and if Christmas isn’t a time for heart-warming nostalgia, I don’t know when is. Dogger is an all-time favourite children’s book of mine (and my mum for that matter) and Alfie’s Christmas is another beaut.

It’s the countdown to Christmas and Alfie and his sister are preparing for the big day. They experience an exceptionally traditional English Christmas with all it’s chocolate-box awe and wonder.