A Trip to the Bookshop at the Back of Beyond (by Amy Sparkes)

It’s time for another visit to and with the House at the Edge of Magic! And this time, we’re off to the Back of Beyond. I absolutely adore these books; each filled with mystery, magic and hilarious mayhem with some of the most unforgettable characters you’ll find anywhere. This is the third book in The House at the Edge of Magic series, each one a good as the last. And it’s simply amazing…

THE BOOKSHOP AT THE BACK OF BEYOND

author: Amy Sparkes

Walker Books (5 January 2023)

ISBN: 9781529505665

Nine and her friends have cured the house’s hiccups, but there are still a few leftovers from the curse and Flabbergast is still without his magic. Now, they are off to the strange and utterly unpredictable Beyond in search of Professor Dish – Spoon’s best friend and partner in all things alchemy; together they are seeking the formula for gold. When they find Dish trapped by the greedy witch Ophidia in the basement of a particularly marvelous shop, it soon becomes clear they’re going to need something more than dicey magic and Nine’s quick thinking to triumph this time. And Nine has found a curious message involving her mother that sends her to the Bookshop at the Back of Beyond, where more mysteries, secrets and lies begin to unravel. With Ophidia hot on their trail, they need something unique; something powerful…what they really need is a rather clever witch – one particularly good at curses… There will be CONSEQUENCES!

This book is fabulous! And, it must be said…hysterical. And it features a bookshop, so….There are surprises round every corner as this troupe of imaginative, unlikely characters wing their way (in their flying, magical house!) to Beyond in their quest to save Professor Dish…with a lot of shopping involved. (Due to an old community requirement, they have to purchase or trade something from every shop.) The heart of this story is secrets…everyone has secrets. And secrets have a habit of coming to light, usually when it is least expected or wanted. Each character seems to be protecting something dark, maybe even sinister. Even from their closest friends. Of course, there is one witch who thinks it will be hilarious when the secrets are unveiled. (Not just yet, though…there’s more of the story to tell.) Clever, impatient, former-pickpocket Nine weaves her way through secrets of her own as she bands the group together to find Dish…and secretly uncover what happened to her mother; what actually happened in her past that lead her here, to the House at the Edge of Magic. Of course, she’s going to need help…from the most untrustworthy source possible, as it turns out. Flabbergast tries desperately to keep things on an even keel (well…as even as possible) while ducking and diving to protect his own unpleasant secrets…and to figure out how to get his magic back. All the time, he has to cope with Eric; a housekeeping Troll who is not doubt the worst cook in existence; dear old friend, Bones; who Flabbergast owes BIG TIME; irascible Spoon…and the Sometimes Dead are a constant threat. And then there’s his family; especially his sister…highly overrated, if you ask him.

A cast of quirky, wickedly funny characters work their way through an imaginative, vivid landscape on adventures that you couldn’t even dream of. A brilliant, magical adventure that will keep you laughing from page to page while simultaneously touching your heart. Just as hilarious; just as heartwarming; just as brilliant as the first two installments…just read it! In fact, just read them all…but be warned. There will be CONSEQUENCES. https://www.walker.co.uk/The-Bookshop-at-the-Back-of-Beyond-9781529505665.aspx

Speaking of Time: Our Time On Earth…A Look At Animal Lifespans

A little while ago, I had the opportunity to review a unique and wondrous book for Childrens Books Irelands’ Inis Magazine that looks at animal lifespans…and it is fascinating. This is a topic that intrigues all of us, so I want to share it here now, as we head into Spring; the season of new beginnings..

OUR TIME ON EARTH: Animal Lifespans From the Mayfly to the Immortal Jellyfish

author: Lily Murray

illustrator: Jesse Hodgson

Big Picture Press (June 2022)

ISBN: 9781787417083

We are all fascinated by time and animals; how do they spend their time, what do they do with it? And how much time on Earth do they actually have? In this intriguing book, we are given a glimpse into the lifespans of a variety of animals. While some animals have all to brief a lifetime and are rushing for survival, others have seemingly all the time in the world, but how and why? 

Starting with the Mayfly, the shortest lifespan of all, and ending with a creature that has the possibility of living forever, the Immortal Jellyfish, the author takes us on a journey across the globe and into the lives of some fascinating creatures that share our planet. Meeting such animals as the glorious Monarch Butterfly, the Giant Pacific Octopus, the illusive and flightless Kakapo, the human-like Orangutan…and many more, we gain understanding into the patterns of their lives as well as important information on how to protect and nurture them. And perhaps, how to help them come back from the brink of extinction.

The beautifully written text pulls us through page after page of remarkable, vivid illustration to bring endless fascination and delight. Perfect for classrooms or home, you’ll want to spend hours pouring through the pages, gaining insight into the lifespans of these incredible animals. It will fan the flames of investigation, curiosity and in-depth consideration of the natural world at a time when it is needed most. This is a book for everyone to be inspired by and enjoy.

For many more reviews of incredible books for children of all ages, and information on all the goings-on in the world of childrens’ literature, head over to the Childrens Books Ireland website. Better still, join CBI and support their incredible work. https://childrensbooksireland.ie/

Ahhh…February: Brigids’ Day; Imbolc; Groundhog Day and Spring…

Hello! January has passed and February is with us now with its’ promises of Spring and other delights. Yesterday was St Brigids’ Day…always under-celebrated, in my opinion. But Ireland has stepped up the celebration quota by giving us another Bank Holiday to honour this most Irish of Saints/Goddesses. This is a very good thing.

Brigids’ Day/Imbolc signals the first day of Spring; regardless of the weather (which is always a bit “iffy” here) and in absence of an overly-large rodent telling us whether or not Spring has actually sprung. (But more on that later. You can see Spring happening…the daffodils are peeking their heads out of the soil; snowdrops are up and, in the farmers’ fields, the ewes are nearly bursting with their bellies full of new lambs. The light is coming back into the sky. So…we celebrate Brigid. On St Brigids’ Eve, I gently placed my little strip of cloth outside on the rosemary for Brigid to bless as she passed by. Friends spent part of the day making Brigids’ Crosses to bless and protect our houses…these and other time-honoured traditions are important. They form part of our psyche; part of who we actually are. It is a blessing to begin our journey through this new year with them.

I have looked around to find some good childrens’ books about Brigid. There aren’t that many, to be honest. Poolbeg Press published a lovely small book as part of their Nutshell Library collection: St Brigid the Fearless by Ann Carroll with illustrations by Derry Dillon (ISBN: 9781781999271) This charming book recounts the story of Brigids’ life; how she stood against powerful rulers and social convention to choose her own destiny. There are even instructions for making your own Brigids’ Crosses. Then there’s the charming picture book: The Song of Brigids’ Cloak by Catherine Anne Cullen, illustrated by Katya Swan (Veritas Press; ISBN: 9781800970380); which regales us with one of the best-known stories of Brigid. Here a miserly king seeks to get the better of this gentle, yet upstart woman by telling her she may have all the land her cloak could cover. He doesn’t realise that Brigids’ cloak is something of a miracle. Those are the two most easily found. You can also find tales of Brigid in any number of the books on Irish Saints or collections of Ancient Gods and Goddesses of Ireland.

Now I did sort of mention the other harbinger of Spring; that great prognosticator of prognosticators…yes. Today is Groundhog Day! And while I have long left behind the vast majority of American traditions, this was always my favourite “holiday.” So, along with quite a number of (somewhat bizarre) folks in the US, I travel (via the web) to Punxsatawney, Pennsylvanis to await the emergence of Punxsatawney Phil. This has its’ roots in indigenous traditions…roughly. And is quite an…unusual event. A marvelous bit of fun and anticipation after a long, dark winter. Today at dawn, Phil will be coaxed out of his burrow to let us good folk know if Spring is happening now or will we have to wait 6 weeks. I admit, it’s a strange fascination. But I love it. So come on, Phil! What’s it going to be?

I’m off now to relax and enjoy the day…a bit of weaving, a bit of groundhog watching, etc. Blessed Brigids’ Day; joyous Imbolc and Happy Groundhog Day.

Traveling With The Time Tider (by Sinead O’Hart)

I’m so excited about the newest novel by Sinead O’Hart; The Time Tider. I have loved her previous books, but this one is something truly unique.

Even more exciting (for me) is the upcoming Blog Tour! From Monday 6 February through Friday 10 February, I will join other bloggers to celebrate the publication of The Time Tider. Sinead will be making guest appearances with Q and As, guest articles and more…and of course there will be insightful reviews of the book. I’m going to get my review in ahead of time, as Sinead will be here, on FallenStar Stories on Tuesday the 7th. Here’s (part of ) what I think of The Time Tider.

THE TIME TIDER

author: Sinead O’Hart

Little Tiger Press (2 February 2023)

ISBN: 9781788953306

Mara and her Dad have lived in their van for as long as she can remember, traveling from place to place while her Dad scrapes out a living doing…something. Mara doesn’t know. She’s never questioned it. That is until she uncovers a photo of her mother who died long ago, a curious handbook and a collection of notes addressed to ‘the Tider’, an individual responsible for harvesting lost time from people whose lives were cut short; who died before their time. But before Mara can get answers from her father, he is taken by a dangerous group who want to use his power for evil. Mara takes off in the van, determined to find someone who knows what her Dad was up to and then…find her father. With the very fabric of time and space at stake, it’s down to Mara and her new friend Jan to find him before it’s too late…

Wow! What a story! This is a thrilling,. Mara, who lives an off-grid type with her father traveling around in their van; . She has a set of life-skills that allow her to navigate the cellular world her father has built for them. This is steeped in his own paranoia and deeply-held fears. No, he is not a great father…in fact he’s quite bad at it. It is not okay; it’s not fair. But in their relationship, there is obviously a deep love hidden within his carefully guarded secrets. For her, this is just normal. Never exposed to relationships with others, Mara doesn’t know who she can trust; she has no friends, no back-up when things go wrong; and has to demonstrate incredible bravery and wit when she is left totally on her own. Developing the friendships; the network she needs to find her Dad and solve the mystery of his work that lead them into danger. It seems the level of distrust is contagious and embedded in every turn of the plot. It is indeed a rocky road. But one that leads her to uncover the mystery that has driven her Dad for so long and cause her to rethink everything she has believed all her young life.

“Time and Tide May Wait for None; But They Will Wait for You.”

Is this a tale about time-travel? Well…yes, but mostly no. Time-travel certainly does occur, albeit in brief instances and for a very specific and unsettling reason…to gather lost time before it forms warps that threaten to cause extreme disruption and peril. Rather, Time exists as a main character in this novel (hence the capital “T”.) We see the possibilities of Time; its’ nature and “personality.” Was Time always as we know it to be, or has how we weigh and measure Time had more to do with its’ being? What was Time like before we started noticing it? It is the actions of the Time Tider and those who want to buy or steal Time from him, to learn his secrets and possess Time as their own that bring everything to the fore. Not only does this cause many questions, but it creates an absolutely brilliant story.

A novel of family, trust, courage, discovery and Time; thrilling, fast-paced, nuanced with complex ideas that grow and bloom to reveal themselves throughout its’ pages; The Time Tider is absolutely wonderful!

Many, many thanks to Little Tiger Press (especially you, Dannie) and special time-filled thanks and hugs to Sinead for sending along this incredible gift of a book. https://littletiger.co.uk/product/the-time-tider

The Night Animals by Sarah Ann Juckes

Here’s one that was gifted to me by an incredible bookselling friend….and I awfully glad she sent it. A moving, poignant and glorious tale of kindness, acceptance, family and nature.

THE NIGHT ANIMALS

author: Sarah Ann Juckes

illustrator: Sharon King-Chai

Simon & Schuster (5 January 2023)

ISBN: 9781398510920

For years now it’s always been just Nora and her mother. Her father is out in the world chasing animals; her parents are divorced and Nora and her Mum are enough. Noras’ mum works as a paramedic, but she’s had to take some time off…quite a bit of time. PTSD got the better of her and now, she has good days and bad days. But Nora understands; she’s able to help and take care of the things that need to be done. Only now, the bad days are getting worse. And more frequent. And Nora needs to do more. When rainbow-shimmering ghost animals start to appear, Nora is certain they hold they answer. She can fix things, with the help of the ghost animals. Along with her new friend Kwame, Nora follows a shimmering fox, hare, raven and otter on an incredible adventure through darkness and danger to a place vaguely familiar. Will the Night Animals give Nora the strength she needs to help her family?

This is a beautiful, but rather sad story. It is also touching and hopeful, dealing with issues that many children may find difficult. But sadly, these are issues that a huge number of children live with every day and this book gives voice to their struggle and feelings. It is a story of finding hope, allowing friendship, having the strength and courage to ask for help when you need it…and of facing the fear of change. The Night Animals also contains a subtle, yet stirring ode to nature; the characteristics of animals and how different ones behave; the healing power that lies in being in the natural world; the importance of preserving it.

Nora is a wonderfully typical 10-year-old girl coping with her mothers’ situation. But PTSD is taking its’ toll, not just on her mothers’ health, but on Nora as well. Repeatedly, we see Nora doggedly go through her days, determined not to need anyone; determined that her life is fine. Everything is fine. But of course, everything is not fine no matter how much Nora protests. The Night Animals come and Nora knows that nobody sees them but her…they have come to help her figure this all out. At this time, Kwame also appears in her life; Kwame, the new friend that Nora absolutely does not want. Kwame is not easily deterred, however. He keeps following her; helping her though she doesn’t want it. He pulls Nora into his family; is positive and upbeat; has an artistic talent that allows him to draw the Night Animals and most of all, he believes Nora…and believes in her. Kwame drags her into taking a chance on believing what the Night Animals are showing her, stays by her side and ultimately, it is his belief in her that allows Nora to follow the ghost animals, take a chance and open up to the possibility of help and hope…to find courage and help her family. And to understand the importance of friendship.

There are so many aspects about this book that I could talk about. The storytelling flows smoothly and makes it easy to read and follow. It can be a difficult read for some. But it is an important read, I feel. Covering mental health issues, children as carers, a sensitive and genuine approach to bullying and arriving at understanding and courage, The Night Animals is hopeful. It is exciting, adventurous and true. I feel it would be a great classroom novel, as it opens up a place of communication, compassion and kindness, allowing us to really feel how much we need to show consideration to others; how to face difficult situations with courage and empathy. Touching, timely, well-expressed, imaginative and heartfelt. Simply lovely. Don’t let this one pass you by. It’s something we all need. https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Night-Animals/Sarah-Ann-Juckes/9781398510944

Two New Picture Books from The O’Brien Press!

A little package came through my door the other day. When I opened it and discovered it held new picture books from The O’Brien Press, my heart sang a little song of joy…both from favourite authors and illustrators; both filled with the imaginative life of intriguing animals; both entering the world and I hope bringing as much happiness to children as they bring to me.

You may remember my review of the first when it came out in hardback from Yeehoo Press in the US. But now, it will be widely available as a paperback and able to reach more children here! Dodos Are (NOT) Extinct! (They’re just in disguise) by Paddy Donnelly (ISBN: 9781788493963; 23 January) This book is absolutely hilarious!!! Here, we touch on the fascinating lives of many extinct animals who have simply disguised themselves to blend in with the contemporary world and escape the fame and attention of prying eyes; woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers, moas…even dinosaurs. (Apparently, one of our top surgeons is a velociraptor. Who knew?!?) This most entertaining tale invites the reader to look carefully, use your imagination and laugh long and hard. A guide to the (actually and sadly) extinct creatures is in the back of the book and explains how and why they died out. With bright colours, lively and creative scenarios and real consideration given to Life on planet Earth; full of laughs, knowledge and imagination. One not to miss!

Book number two in the package was the joyous Puifín Beag agus an Ubh by Erika McGann and Gerry Daly, translated by Muireann Ní Chíobháin (ISBN: 9781788493628; 23 January) That’s right! Puffling and the Egg as Gaeilge! No translation was necessary, because I have the original in English (seeing as how my Irish language is still quite fundamental.) A rolling egg leads dear little Puffling on a merry chase across Skellig Michael. A host of native Irish wildlife features, seeking to help Puffling in her efforts to save the egg and with a happy surprise at the end, this story is simply wonderful. Hearing and reading it in lyrical as Gaeilge is a thing of magic. I adore sweet Puffling in all her adventures. Adorable, expressive, colourful illustrations combine to tell a story that every child will long remember and enjoy. Full of joy and charm…and a great story!

Thank you to those brilliant folk at The O’Brien Press for sharing these great picture books with me! I love them both! https://obrien.ie/dodos-are-not-extinct https://obrien.ie/puifin-beag-agus-an-ubh

The Moon of Kyiv by Gianni Rodari

I have mentioned this picture book previously and I think it’s a good place to start my 2023 book journey. It was published in July 2022. When I wrote about it then, I hadn’t held the book in my hands. Over the holiday season, a hard copy came to me as a gift from Walker Books. The war in Ukraine was fresher in our minds then. Sitting here six months later, the war is still with us; peoples’ lives are still being torn and children are still at huge risk.

The Moon of Kyiv is a poem by Gianni Rodari (1946-1980); an award-winning Italian author of note who penned these simple, clear words over 70 years ago to remind us of the humanity we share; of the simple day-to-day things we have in common, regardless of where we live or who we are. We all exist under the same moon. It travels across our skies freely without need of a passport or border control. It is a call to peace; a call back to our essential human-ness. It is also a stunning and gentle bedtime story to ease little hearts and busy minds.

This edition is beautifully illustrated by the incredible Beatrice Alemagna; she of A Magical Do-Nothing Day (simply outstanding!), The Marvellous Fluffy Squishy Itty-Bitty and A Lion in Paris, to name a few. Free, chalky pastel-rendered pictures dance across the pages as the Moon herself travels from place to place, evoking the feel of her journey with a child-like accessibility, riveting their images in our imaginations. Moving, wondrous, full of heart and cheer; this is a book that calls us to remember what connects us, not what divides us. It is simply a glorious thing.

This picture book was published in an effort to help support the children whose lives are impacted by the war in Ukraine, with 100% of the profits going to the Save the Children fund. It is a small thing, yes. But an important one. Thank you, Walker Books.

The Moon of Kyiv; author Gianni Rodari, illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna, ISBN: 9781529513233) https://www.walker.co.uk/The-Moon-of-Kyiv-9781529513233.aspx

The Year Turns…Time Moves On…Welcome 2023

Well hello there! Christmas and New Years celebrations are over for another year. The year has turned; time has moved on and we’re in 2023. I am pleased with this. Last year was a very grumpy bear…for a lot of us. While I don’t think much of “New Years resolutions”, I do think it’s a good time to refocus. To consider and be thankful for what we have and think about what we want; what we need. In and of itself, this can be a pretty stress-filled thing. So I have made a conscious decision to ease myself into 2023. There is no need to rush. Time may wait for no one, but it is actually on my side. Set intentions, not resolutions.And then go about them with intention, purpose…and be willing and able to shift my expectations to get the intended result. This may take some time…

Over the holiday period, I intended to relax and enjoy it. And I did! I spent some time in Limerick with my sons, made eggnog, and read a rake of old favourites without the over-hanging obligation to think about them and review them. In other words, I read for personal enjoyment. A few of the books I read two or three times, just because I wanted to. The value of this cannot be underestimated. It made me very happy. It made me smile while reading. To dip into some picture books (they aren’t just for children); One Snowy Night by Nick Butterworth, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Nell and the Circus of Dreams by Nell Gifford with it’s magnificent illustrations by Briony May Smith…on the joy! And let’s not forget The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (Do yourself a favour. The film is okay, but just read the book…it’s magic of the best kind.) Along with these was a fair amount of chicklit (intelligently written by Jenny Colgan…who tells a great story and doesn’t require much critical thinking.)

I have also been reading a good few childrens’ books, due out soon, which I will review soon on this blog. There’s also an upcoming blog tour for brand new and shiny The Time Tiders by Sinead O’Hart (Little Tiger Press, 2 February.) I am utterly excited about this…great book! And for me, timely!

Today, I mostly just wanted to say hello; to wish you all a happy and gentle 2023. I hope you take your time entering this new year…and passing through it. Don’t pressure yourselves. Don’t rush. You miss too much that way. And when those things crop up that need to be taken care of right now, before flinging yourself into the task, stop. Take a breath…or two or three. Everything will become clearer, less panic-ridden. Be gentle with yourselves and with others. It will be fine.

I’m going to say farewell for now…and leave you with this image of Eyre Square at night just a few days ago before all the lights came down. Doesn’t it look lovely? Happy New Year.

Seasonal Wishes…see you on the flip side!

illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

Well, that’s it from me for 2022. I now need to step aside for a couple of weeks and undertake some seasonal rest and relaxation; hopefully recovering from the past week/10 days of having whatever nameless, faceless cold, virus or plague that brought my plans to a halt and step into Christmas…. I have just a few days to pull myself together. And I refuse to step into the typical craziness and stress. This is a time to be enjoyed, to surround ourselves with family and friends, to feel the warmth and love. If we have that, we have everything we could ever want.

And this is what I wish for you all. We are about to step out of the long, dark nights and walk toward the growing light. Celebrate it! Feel the season! Wrap the warmth of peace, joy and love around you and carry it forth….and read books. So to everyone out there….

A huge heap of Winter Solstice Blessings;

The most beautiful, warm Christmas imaginable;

And a joyous Jolabokaflod.

See you in 2023…. (Happy New Year)

Everyone else is, so why not? Mary & LBs’ Best Childrens’ Books 2022

Last weekend, the newspapers were awash with columns highlighting the Best Childrens’ Books of the Year, and rightly so. There have been so many fantastic books for young people this year. So I thought I would add my voice to those of my learned childrens literature colleagues. Without further ado and in no particular order…Mary & LBs’ Best Childrens’ Books 2022….

THE PICTURE BOOKS

I must start this part of our offering with something quite stunning…It Fell From The Sky by The Fan Brothers (Frances Lincoln Childrens Books, February 2021.) An up-close, imaginative look at the insect world; the insects are left confused and filled with wonder when something unusual falls from the sky on a Thursday. The intricate beauty of the illustration and world-building; the clarity and word choice of the text is extraordinary;crafted with humour and intelligence; an absolute thing of beauty. From bizarre events to the steadfast and reliable, Mum, Me and the Mulberry Tree by Tanya Rose and Chuck Groenink illustrating (Walker Books, March 2022); we enter a world of tradition, commonplace ritual, family ties and love. The annual trip to the mulberry tree is about far more than harvesting fruit to make pies. It’s about honouring the familiar and the everyday. It’s about knowing that some things can still be counted on in an ever changing world. Tender, moving, engaging, quietly happy. Another gift comes in the form of musical discovery; Piano Fingers by Caroline Magerl (Walker Books, April 2022) Coming from an uber-musical family, young Bea has yet to find her music. The excitement, small frustrations, sense of longing, delight and joy ebb dance as she moves with determination towards her goal; to play the piano like an angel…to reach out to the whole world in her own way. Splashed with fascinating details that you could look at for hours; delightful, filled with feeling, and simply beautiful.

No list of yearly “best books” from me would be complete without a visit to our old friends; Mouse and Mole: Clink, Clank, Clunk by Joyce Dunbar, illustrated by James Mayhew (Graffeg Ltd, September 2022) This is a book of stories meant to be enjoyed and make you think. Is it really necessary to fix something that isn’t broken? Do you really have to worry about things that probably won’t happen? Is everything what you think it is? Reassurance, gentle humour and keeping its’ theme of friendship and curiosity. Charming, witty, comforting…and very funny! I also have to shout about Molly and the Dolphins by Malachy Doyle and Andrew Whitson, illustrator (Graffeg Ltd, August 2022) We return to life on the little fishing island and visit Molly as she learns to sail on her own (with her Dad always watching in the distance.)We learn more about community; how it includes more than just the people around us. And how, in a dramatic twist of the wind, you never know where help will come from. With beautiful illustrations echoing the atmosphere of the text and highlighting the tale to perfection. It is wondrous! Full of adventure, excitement, heart and happiness.

Now, let’s talk about two (very different) books that take us to the world of the mythological and the extinct. First, Dodos Are (NOT) Extinct! by Paddy Donnelly (YeeHoo Press, February 2022) A view of a unique, very silly world where extinct creatures from all eras are still among us…just in disguise. By doing this, Paddy introduces some pretty complex concepts…extinction, evolution, the impact of human action on the natural world. This is absolutely marvelous and hilarious! While Paddy has published six books this year; all fantastic by the way; this is by far my favourite. From extinct creatures to the fae world on a mystical island, The Fog Catchers Daughter by Marianne McShane, Alan Marks illustrator (Walker Books, July 2022) In a beautifully woven new legend told in the style of ancient Irish myth, Eily embarks on a perilous journey to rescue her father and uncover her destiny. It takes us to a timeless time; long ago, but not so long; far away, but just “over there.” Could it still happen today? Maybe; maybe not.  Enchanting, mystical, warm and loving, bold, quietly adventurous and brave.

MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS

This is the “Golden Age of Reading”; the 8 to 12 age range where you can find a myriad of different type of stories that children consume at an alarming rate, creating perhaps the most indelible memories. And the range that I probably read most. Authors writing middle-grade books really know how to tell a story.

Personally, I love a great witch story. Hedgewitch by Skye McKenna (Welbeck Publishing, April 2022) hits the mark perfectly. The 1st of a five-book series, it has been seven years since Cassie Morgan last saw her mother. But Cassie is certain that she is still alive and she is determined to find her, whatever the dangers. A carefully constructed world loaded with drama and peril; brilliant twists and turns; and a considered look at the magical creatures and people that inhabit the world of Faerie…just marvelous! Magic of a different kind abounds in The Thief Who Sang Storms by Sophie Anderson (Usborne, March 2022) The Island of Morovia is shaped like a broken heart. Linnet has been banished with her father to the deepest swamps, leaving behind her best friends, Hero and Silver. When her father is captured, Linnet must be brave and embark on a treacherous rescue mission. It is a tale of loss, unity, diversity; finding your strength and hope to carry you through impossibly difficult times. Altogether extraordinary. Another strange, magical world with a twisty bit of steampunk and humour is found in The Strange Tale of Barnabus Kwerk by Erika McGann, illustrations by Philip Cullen (O’Brien Press, September 2022) Barnabus Kwerks’ family are stinking rich and they’re also completely dreadful people. Barnabus doesn’t want to be like the rest of the Kwerks. But that isn’t possible as long as he remains trapped in the attic bedroom of the Big House. But one night a stranger appears’ Aunt Jemima is like no-one he has ever met before. She knows secrets – about the Kwerks’ dark past, about Barnabus’s mother, and about a glorious golden machine at the centre of the Earth. And she offers Barnabus a life of adventure…a pure delight; funny, heartfelt, fast-paced and very intriguing.

How about a bit of historical fiction with, yes, a mystical edge to it? The Chestnut Roaster by Eve McDonnell (Everything With Words, October 2022) take us back to Paris, 1888…both above and below ground. Piaf, age 12, can remember everything that has happened since the day she was born. When she discovers everyone in Paris has forgotten the entire last year, 1887,Piaf and her twin brother Luc embark on a dangerous journey that brings them to the depths of Paris’s underground twin, the Catacombs, to capture the memory thief and find the lost children—but are the two connected? This is a story of an extraordinary adventure…and an extraordinary girl. Beautifully written; gripping, dramatic with little bursts of humour, completely magical. More historical drama awaits in The Secret of the Treasure Keepers by A.M.Howell (Usborne, March 2022) February, 1948: Ruth has been whisked off to the lonely Rook Farm to investigate the discovery of long-buried treasure with her mother. But at the farmhouse, she finds secrets lurk around every corner. Joe, the farmer’s son, is hiding something about the treasure. But before Ruth can find out more, the treasure is stolen… With a storm coming, Ruth must race to uncover the secrets of the treasure keepers before all of their lives are changed forever. No magic, but intelligent and compelling; a tale with both truth and imagination at its’ heart. 

I’m going to wrap up this section with a most extraordinary, beautiful book. The Light In Everything by Katya Balen (Bloomsbury, April 2022) tells the story of the emotions and pitfalls of becoming a blended family, of the chipped and crocked path to understanding and of learning how to trust again when past experience speaks of fear, unreliability and hurt. Sensitively drawn, both Tom and Zofia, very different characters now expected to become brother and sister, are shown by an entire community that you can rely on others; they will come through for you and believe in you. You just have to open up a little bit and let them. Evocative, moving, uplifting, affirming and full of spark. It’s just stunning.

TEEN and YA BOOKS

Not much magic in these books at all. But what we have is reality, frequently gritty and shocking. And some truly incredible stories and heroes who are quite a bit like you and me.

Irish authors of YA books have really blown me away this year. I have to start with this one; it’s just…WOW! The Shark and the Scar by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Orion, June 2022) tells the intriguing story of 13-year-old Jay, who survived a shark attack. He doesn’t remember exactly what happened, but he knows his estranged mum didn’t survive the horrific accident,Then Jay discovers something that makes him realise his dad has been lying to him. This is a tale of lies, secrets; how keeping them spins everything out of control…and how they won’t stay hidden forever. It is about trust; trust broken and learning to rust again. And it is phenomenal. Another brilliant, gritty novel touching on secrets, broken trust and mental health issues, Things I Know by Helena Close (Little Island, May 2022), Saoirse is at a moment in her life where she is longing to just get on with it, trying to make decisions about her life with a constant vibration in her head. She seeks humour, joy and escape, but is pulled back because of all the unresolved issues that build up, one after another, after another until she reaches a point where she doesn’t know what’s real anymore…or what matters. This is a story of family upheaval, trauma, the nature of loneliness; all told with empathy and peppered with humour which gives a pause of relief. Glittering hope runs across every page, even in it’s darkest moments. And then we have Run For Your Life by Jane Mitchell (Little Island, April 2022.) A first in exploring Irelands’ asylum-seeker accommodation system, we meet Azari, whose life has been split in two halves; her life before, her life after. Running links the two: sometimes she runs because she wants to. But sometimes it is because she has no other choice. When Azari and her mother flee for their lives to Ireland they are put in a Direct Provision Centre. Azari’s life has secrets; she must tell them so she can stop running and live a life where she can make her own decisions. Extraordinary, moving, consuming and very, very real. A story that must be read.

Something a bit different here. The Last Whale by Chris Vick (Zephyr, August 2022) We travel from the present day, as fiery eco-activist Abby is with her grandmother on an island off the Norwegian coast, learning to translate whale songs, while befriending an AI computer; into the future where she and her daughter, Tonje attempt to locate the vanished whales and struggle against the raw reality of severe climate change. Written with intelligence and clarity, an incredible inter-generational adventure unfolds that allows the reader to see and, more importantly, to feel the passion and urgency of the story and to understand the impact of the past on the present, while it also urges us to keep an eye on the future. Tenacious, heart-felt, gloriously fast-paced; this is quite a read!

I hope you’ve enjoyed my contribution to the Best Childrens Books of 2022. Of course, I could add many more, but there are loads of reviews on FallenStar Stories if you need more information on these or any others. If you are still looking for books to gift the young people in your life, please, please! check out your local bookshops, wherever you are. They need your support and nothing beats a good bricks-and-mortar shop…buy local and contribute to your own home economy.