Faraway kingdoms, moviemaking magic and a fairy tale farce - book reviews

Rumblestar (The Unmapped Chronicles)by Abi Elphinstone
Rumblestar (The Unmapped Chronicles)by Abi Elphinstone

There’s a sprinkling of stardust over the fantastical collection of children’s books that are winging their way to shelves everywhere this month.

Abi Elphinstone, one of today’s top children’s writers, delivers the first of a thrilling new adventure series, there’s an armchair tour behind the scenes of everyone’s favourite Marvel Studio films, and enjoy magical mayhem in an updated take on the classic tale of Cinderella.

Age 8 plus:

Rumblestar (The Unmapped Chronicles)

Abi Elphinstone

Described by one critic as ‘a worthy successor to CS Lewis,’ Scottish author Abi Elphinstone has made a mind-blowing, magical home for herself in the realms of fantastical children’s fiction.

Elphinstone, author of thrilling middle-grade novels like The Dreamsnatcher, The Shadow Keeper, The Night Spinner and Sky Song – all sweeping, soaring tales set in exquisitely imagined parallel universes – is one of the most exciting writers currently bewitching young readers.

Adventure is what this super-creative writer does best and Rumblestar is the first book in the new and much-anticipated Unmapped Chronicles series, a spectacular venture which began with the World Book Day special short story Everdark and now transports us to faraway lands full of heroes and harpies, giants and ogres, good magic and bad magic… and two children caught in the middle of an epic battle.

‘Adventures are unpredictable and often terribly badly behaved – a bit like pickled onions if you’ve ever tried to fork one on a plate – but they have a way of unlocking people and turning them upside down so that all the astonishing things fizzing around inside them start to tumble out…’

Eleven-year-old Casper Tock, a pupil at Little Wallops Boarding School, hates risks, is allergic to adventures and shudders at the thought of unpredictable events. So it comes as a nasty shock to him when he accidentally stumbles into Rumblestar, an Unmapped Kingdom full of magical beasts.

All Casper wants is to find a way home, but Rumblestar is in trouble. An evil harpy called Morg is sending her followers, the Midnights, into the kingdom to wreak havoc and pave the way for her to steal the Unmapped magic for herself.

But Casper cannot turn a blind eye because the future of his own world, he discovers, is bound up with that of the Unmapped Kingdoms. And so, together with Utterly Thankless, a girl who hates rules and is allergic to behaving, and her miniature dragon, Arlo, Casper embarks upon an adventure full of cloud giants, storm ogres and drizzle hags.

Can he, Utterly and Arlo, the unlikeliest of heroes, save the Unmapped Kingdoms and our world from the clutches of Morg and her Midnights?

Elphinstone is at her best conjuring up wizardry whether that’s with words, humour, incredible characters, or the worlds they inhabit, and Rumblestar, which feels like the start of a modern classic series, sees her imagination on top form.

From a cast list with memorable names like Slumbergrot, Frostbite, Pucklefist and Bristlebeard, to glorious narrative visions of sky-tumbling waterfalls, giants with knuckles the size of bowling balls, and jars of pickled toenails, this first journey into the Unmapped Kingdom is filled amazing magical creations, all playing their parts in a world that seems a million miles away from our own.

The weather – and its sometimes deadly effects – is one of the central themes in this full-throttle story, along with the power of friendship, the corrosive impact of isolation and loneliness, and the sheer, exhilarating joy of adventuring into the unknown.

And orchestrating the action is shy, bullied Casper, the boy afraid of his own shadow who learns to be brave, and the wonderfully prickly Utterly Thankless who must learn to control her anger and face up to the pain of her past.

Creative, clever and compelling, Rumblestar is storytelling at its very best.

(Simon & Schuster Children’s, paperback, £6.99)

Age 10 plus:

The Moviemaking Magic of Marvel Studios: Heroes & Villains

Eleni Roussos

It’s big, it’s mighty, and it’s full of your favourite characters!

Open the pages of this super-sized, amazing book and peep behind the scenes of your favourite Marvel Studios’ films to see how the mightiest heroes and the deadliest villains were brought to life.

When Iron Man exploded into theatres in 2008, it was the first instalment in what would become the biggest and most awe-inspiring collection of Super Hero films ever made.

At the heart of these films are characters that have captured the imaginations of audiences around the world… heroes like Iron Man, Black Widow, Captain America, Thor, and Black Panther, and fearsome villains like Red Skull, Ultron, and Thanos.

Billionaires, super-soldiers, monsters, elite spies, sorcerers, and all manner of alien beings. The Marvel Cinematic Universe – and this fantastic book – are filled with some amazing and colourful characters.

Many of these heroes and villains have been passed from generation to generation. Indeed, the younger generation reading comics and watching Marvel Studios films today could well be making them tomorrow.

But, as producer at Marvel Studios in Burbank, California, Stephen Broussard points out in his Foreword, despite all their incredible abilities, Marvel characters are still ‘regular people with regular problems.’ They still have to balance school, love, marriage, parenthood and growing up… rites of passage we can all relate to.

Marvel characters also experience some radical changes in their lives, whether they are suddenly imbued with new powers or called to some grand adventure, they are forced to reckon with a very new and very frightening set of circumstances.

‘How they choose to respond,’ Broussard reminds readers, ‘can sometimes be the difference between what makes a hero and what makes a villain.’

Now, readers young and old can explore the secrets behind the moviemaking magic that brought these heroes and villains to life. Through diagrams, photographs, lift-the-flap revelations, concept sketches and more, get the exclusive story of how film makers transformed comic book characters into larger-than-life, living, breathing icons of the big screen. And special bonus sections reveal the magic of some of the films’ most memorable moments.

So suit up and get ready to be taken on a thrilling journey through the Marvel Studios.

(Abrams Books for Young Readers, hardback, £21.99)

Age 2 plus:

Marvel Alphablock: The Marvel Cinematic Universe from A to Z

Peskimo

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes… and now the youngest children can get a ‘feel’ for the fascinating and much-loved Marvel characters and creatures in a ‘blockbuster’ alphabetic journey.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is rich with content, from its highly original characters to its stunning locations, and this new title in the Abrams Block Book series features thrilling scenes and fascinating characters from A to Z, perfect for the youngest fan as well as seasoned collectors.

As in previous Block Book titles, Marvel Alphablock includes die-cut pages and the stylish art of Peskimo, a talented husband and wife illustration and design team from Bristol.

Each spread highlights important characters every fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe should know, from Black Panther and Iron Man to Scarlet Witch and Captain America.

As children interact with the pages, they learn all those amazing Marvel characters’ names and also get to grips with the physical outline of each letter of the alphabet. And as a final flourish, a four-page fold-out assembles all the heroes and lets youngsters spot all the Marvel characters they have met as they worked their way through the book.

A fun and entertaining way to teach kids the alphabet and introduce them to some truly Marvel-ous characters!

(Abrams Appleseed, board book, £12.99)

Age 8 plus:

The Secret Dragon

Ed Clarke

Fossil-hunter Mari Jones can’t believe her eyes when she cracks open an ancient rock and out pops… a tiny dragon!

Ed Clarke, film and television executive and producer, was inspired to write this beautiful middle-grade fantasy story from his own adventures exploring the stunning South Wales coastline with his own two daughters.

And The Secret Dragon is a wild and wonderful tale full of all those ingredients that children love… secrets, surprises, comedy, friendship, lots of magic and mischief, and all lovingly imbued with a warm heart and the spirit of adventure.

Would-be palaeontologist Mari Jones has inherited her father’s love for ancient artefacts and is desperate to be a real scientist, even though she's only eleven. So when she discovers a tiny dragon while fossil hunting on a Welsh beach near the farm where she lives with her mother, she’s sure that with some close study of the baby reptile, she can find a good scientific explanation… as long as she can keep it hidden long enough to complete her studies.

Unfortunately for Mari, this is one secret that doesn’t want to be kept, and it could change her life – and science – forever. But this dragon called Gweeb doesn’t want to be studied, it wants to be free. As she starts to form a deeper bond and share very big adventures with the pocket-sized dragon with a giant appetite for mischief, she might have to admit that, when it comes to friendship, science might not have all the answers...

Clarke has created a poignant, enchanting and funny story starring a clever, determined heroine and a lovable dragon. Mari is an outsider at her school… more interested in science and facts than friends or fantasy worlds. But through her experiences with Gweeb, she learns to appreciate and understand the people around her, and to come to terms with a tragedy in her past.

Following your dreams and finding comfort in friendship are all explored as Clarke gives full rein to this imaginative and exciting adventure!

(Puffin, paperback, £6.99)

Age 8 plus:

Cherry Moon

Zaro Weil and Junli Song

Sometimes the shortest poems can impart the biggest ideas…

Always mindful of the endangered natural world around us, Cherry Moon is a wonder-filled new poetry collection for children of all ages from poet Zaro Weil who lives in France. Beautifully illustrated throughout with unique and stylish colour illustrations by Junli Song, this creatively packaged book perfectly brings to life the sheer joy of nature in all its many elements.

The collection includes poems with titles such as Wonderfulness, Flicker and flash, Listen Earth, How does the flower open, Dappling sun, and Wild as the Wind, and offers thought-provoking, sensitive and delightfully original little poems and gatherings of words – carefully grouped, separated and partnered – which encourage children to ask the big questions about life and to find their own answers.

At a time when the natural world is in crisis, and healing its wounds is high on every child’s agenda, there is a genuine need to bring nature back into the lives of children through the stories we tell. And Cherry Moon makes an enormous contribution to this, delivering special and accessible poetry for a new generation of readers.

Weil’s poems capture eye-popping moments, tender observations and a thousand whimsical reflections on the sheer joy of the natural world. Thought-provoking, sensitive and delightfully original, Cherry Moon poses big questions about life with poems and other small gatherings of words, encouraging children of every age to explore the power, enchantment and sheer wonder of nature.

(ZaZaKids Books in association with Troika, hardback, £14)

Age 8 plus:

McTavish Takes the Biscuit

Meg Rosoff and Grace Easton

It’s a dog’s life at the Peachey household… or, to be more precise, it’s family life with a clever dog at head of the pack!

Welcome back to the madcap world of the hilarious Peacheys and their wonderful canny canine McTavish, the rescue dog whose mission now is to save his chaotic but lovable adopted family.

Since young readers first met London-based American writer and award-winning author Meg Rosoff’s charismatic cast of characters in Good Dog McTavish, these laugh-out-loud tales of an eccentric family, who seem constantly to be caught up in hilarious dramas and dilemmas, have been winning hearts and minds.

In this new action-packed adventure, the Peachey family are enjoying fine meals each night now that everyone takes turns cooking. Everyone, that is, except grumbling Pa Peachey… until some unsatisfactory bread pushes him to try baking. Convinced that he has found his true calling, Pa sets his sights on winning the town Bake Off. Unfortunately, his great ideas far surpass his skills, and soon Pa’s ambitions are crumbling under the weight of 3,784 pieces of gingerbread. McTavish smells disaster in the making, and it looks like he’s going to have to save the day… again!

Grace Easton and Dave Shepherd’s adorable and evocative illustrations capture all the quirky originality and offbeat humour of this warm-hearted and captivating story which is brimming with Rosoff’s stylish prose and astute eye for the weird wonders of dog-human dynamics, and the recognisable oddities of family life.

A tasty treat, jam-packed full of baking goodness, McTavish Takes the Biscuit is part of Barrington Stoke’s Conkers collection which features books that celebrate the very special alchemy that weaves between words and pictures.

(Barrington Stoke, paperback, £6.99)

Age 7 plus:

Cinders and Sparks: Magic at Midnight

Lindsey Kelk and Pippa Curnick

Enjoy chaotic capers and magical mayhem in a bewitching twist on the story of Cinderella and her two heartless sisters from much-loved rom-com author Lindsey Kelk.

The Yorkshire-born writer, who now lives in Los Angeles and is best known for her funny, feel-good romances, turns her talents to children’s books in the first of an irresistibly exuberant ‘funked-up’ fairy tale series brought to vivid life for a contemporary audience by superstar illustrator Pippa Curnick.

Cinders is an ordinary girl leading a boring life with her selfish stepsisters and mean stepmother… until her hands start sparkling and her wishes start magically coming true.

Now her life is definitely not boring... in fact, it’s totally chaotic because Cinders has met her fairy godmother. She’s magic, she can fly, and she’s called… Brian! And now she’s setting off on an adventure to the king’s palace and beyond with her talking dog Sparks, fairy godmother Brian, and Prince Joderick Jorenson Picklebottom.

The problem is that Brian is NOT very reliable and Cinders is NOT very good at magic… is it all going to end in tears?

Curnick’s illustrations are sure to cast a spell and Kelk proves she has that important ‘magic’ touch when it comes to storytelling for children. This fresh, funny and fabulous reworking of Cinderella means that everyone is going to have ball as Sparks flies to the rescue and Cinders’ adventures hot up for their next outrageous outing.

(HarperCollins Children’s Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age 6 plus:

A Taste of the World

Illustrated by Beth Walrond

Food, glorious food… everyone loves an excuse for a celebration and what better way to do it than through food?

A Taste of the World – a super-sized, picture book journey across different tables and picnic blankets from China to Canada, and Sweden to Nigeria – is the work of Berlin-based British author and illustrator Beth Walrond, and comes from Gestalten, a German publisher.

Walrond is a long-time volunteer for non-profit organisation Pass the Crayon, where she leads art workshops for child refugees. Her experiences inspired this beautifully creative book, and enabled her to explore different types of food around the world for a young audience in an effort to see what unites us… no matter where we live.

And so we witness how people around the world come together to cook and eat all kinds of meals, from tasty everyday breakfast to a delicious festival feast. Every dish has a special pace in the country to which it belongs and is special to those who make it.

Youngsters learn about fascinating dishes, traditions and myths in 22 countries across the world. Discover Thanksgiving in the USA, Three Kings’ Day in Spain, the Spring Festival in Egypt, Chinese New Year, and the Almond Blossom Festival in Morocco.

What is the importance of cherry blossoms in Japan, and did you know they can be used to flavour cakes and ice cream? Who invented the pizza margherita, and how is chocolate made?

Full of fun facts, each page is stunningly illustrated with Walrond’s warmth and inventiveness, and there is a useful a glossary at the end explaining all the food terms. So feed hungry young imagination and join food festivals across the world!

(Little Gestalten, hardback, £19.95)

Age 5 plus:

I Have an Idea!

Hervé Tullet

Making your way towards a simple but effective idea can sometimes seem a complex process…

If that sounds, well… complex, turn the pages of creative genius Hervé Tullet’s unique picture book celebrating the magic of discovering a ‘great’ idea and enjoy the visual and verbal virtuosity of a master at work.

From one of the true creative geniuses of his generation comes a unique meditation on and celebration of the magic of the birth of a simple idea.

New Yorker Tullet is known for his prodigious versatility, from directing ad campaigns to designing fabric for Hermès, but his real love is working with children, for whom he has published dozens of books, including bestsellers Mix It Up!, Let’s Play!, Say Zoop!, and Press Here.

Sparkling with visual and artistic wit and bubbling with imagination, I Have an Idea! is a unique and surprisingly emotional exploration of the creative process… from an initial tentative inkling and the frustration of chasing the wrong notion, to the exhilaration of the final capturing – and nurturing – of just the right idea.

With its beautiful cloth-spined packaging, inspirational message, and eye-catching use of colour and design, I Have an Idea! would be perfectly at home on a child’s bookshelf, in a undergraduate’s backpack, or in pride of place on a creative person’s desktop.

(Chronicle Books, hardback, £12.99)

Age 3 plus:

Why Are there So Many Books About Bears?

Kristina Stephenson

Every child loves an animal story… but it begs a question. Why are there so many books about bears?

Kristina Stephenson, the talented author and illustrator of the much-loved picture book Sir Charlie Stinky Socks, is back with a quirky, clever and comical picture book just made for animal fans and wordsmiths.

Why are there so many books about bears? That is the Impossible Question that all the other animals just can’t figure out. Thankfully, the most brilliant minds in the animal kingdom have gathered to try to answer it, once and for all in the great hallowed hall of Mollusc College, Oxford.

The likes of William Snakespeare, Albert Swinestein and Mary Shelley, the snail who knows a lot about writing, are doing their very best to come up with a cerebral solution. But someone keeps knockety-knocking on the door, offering tea and cakes and interrupting their train of thought! Maybe the answer they are looking for was right outside all along…

This truly original and funny picture book has a classic feel with its wildly imaginative story and big, bold illustrations featuring the most adorable cast of mind-bending animal characters you will meet this side of Ox-bridge, and an ending that will have everyone giggling.

Little ones will love the visual feast of colours and animal fun, and more worldly wise adults will love the inspired word play and hilarious concept of the story.

The perfect book to share with readers – and bear lovers – of every generation.

(Hodder Children’s Books, hardback, £12.99)