Books for kids this Christmas

It’s the second week of December so it must be time for some suggestions for books to buy for the children in your life. I’m almost there with my Christmas shopping, so I’m now on the look-out for the stocking fillers. Books are great for this. My kids are all teenagers so their main gift requests these days are either small or folding (!) so a few books can help to make things look a bit bulkier.

Books for 5-10 year olds

Xmas 19 kids 1The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy £16.99

The much deserved Waterstones’ book of the year and surely the most beautiful book you will come across this Christmas. A wonderful read to enjoy with children of any age. Stunning illustrations. Just gorgeous.

 

 

 

xmas 19 kids 2Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Illustrated edition) by JK Rowling and Jim Kay £32.00

For kids who want to be part of the HP phenomenon, but for whom the books may be a little daunting in their length. This is the fourth book in the series to be illustrated.

 

 

Usborne Politics for Beginners and Usborne Money for Beginners £9.99

If your household is anything like mine, there will have been a lot of focus on politics in the last few years. This can be worrying for younger children when they don’t fully understand what’s going on but pick up on parents’ concerns. This Usborne Politics book will help to demystify some of the issues and the jargon. The sister volume on Money and the financial world introduces foundation concepts which will be important to all children as they grow up. Not for everyone, but there is no doubt these are important topics and some would argue that the earlier we can get kids thinking about them in an unemotional way, the better it is for them long term.

 

Books for 9-13 year olds

xmas 19 kids 5Diary of a Dyslexic School Kid by Alais Winton and Zac Millard £9.99

At last dyslexia is being taken more seriously and I think this is a great book for kids just about to or just starting secondary school. Not just for kids with dyslexia, perhaps your child has a friend with the condition and wants to know what life is like for them. Accessible and fun.

 

Little Leaders: Exceptional Men in Black History & Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison £7.99

Two marvellous books which I hope will redress the balance in some of the coverage of important people in our culture and history and give children of all races some fantastic role models.

The Dog Who Saved the World by Ross Welford, The Lost Tide Warriors by Catherine Doyle, both £6.99

Two wonderful works of fiction here. Ross Welford is a favourite of mine and always delivers a cracking good story – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy are two favourite children’s books of mine. I loved Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island and this is the second novel in the series.

 

Books for 12+ years

xmas 19 kids 10The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pulman £20.00

Needs absolutely no introduction. The stunning BBC television adaptation of the His Dark Materials trilogy will help to ensure this book is the best-seller it deserves to be. This hardback edition would make a wonderful gift. I would love to curl up with this at Christmas!

 

xmas 19 kids 11No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton £6.99

An important story about the reality of life for child refugees who want the same things as children in any other part of the world. A book with a wonderful story that needs to be told and which will help foster understanding about other people’s lives.

 

xmas 19 kids 12My Hidden Chimp by Steve Peters £12.99

The author of the bestselling The Chimp Paradox, a guide to managing your mind, has written a version for young people. The aim is to help children and teenagers develop good mental health habits, deal with people to get the best win-win outcomes and help them manage both their emotions and their behaviour. Worth a try!

 

xmas 19 kids 13Earth Heroes: Twenty Inspiring Stories of People Saving Our World by Lily Dyu £9.99

Climate change is the number one issue at the top of young people’s agendas today so this book will speak to this age group and provide stories about the role models who engage them, such as Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, as well as some of the less famous figures, such as inventors in developing countries changing the lives of people in their communities.

 

I hope my suggestions inspire you. I would love to hear about your great finds too. 

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Book Review – “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

This was November’s book on my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s novel. It has very mature themes and requires a grasp of irony as well as some knowledge of history to fully appreciate, but it renders a difficult and complex subject accessible to a young audience in the same way as The Book Thief, so although it is not recommended for young children, it is entirely appropriate for the early secondary school age group.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgI remember when this book was published in 2006. It was widely acclaimed, but also controversial; there were some questions marks over its historical accuracy (one senior rabbi argued that nine year-old boys were not kept in concentration camps, all were gassed because they could not work and were therefore of no use, though this argument also been disputed) and others have questioned whether such a relationship, between a young inmate and the son of the camp commandant, could have gone on for so long undetected, particularly when Bruno slips under the fence. Whatever its problems, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and was made into a successful film within two years of publication.

 

The central character is Bruno, the nine year-old son of a senior Nazi. He lives happily with his parents, twelve year-old sister, and their maid Maria in a large house in Berlin. Until, that is, “the Fury” comes to visit and shortly afterwards the family is forced to move to a much less nice and isolated house in “Out With”, where Bruno’s father has an important new job. One of the charms of the book is Bruno’s habitual mis-naming and his innocent perspective on events, even though it is clear to the reader what the true facts are. An example of this is Bruno’s observations about changes in his mother’s behaviour, suggesting first her flirtation and possible affair with a young lieutenant, then her depression, and tensions in his parents’ marriage brought about by the family posting.

Bruno’s bedroom window faces the camp, though he has no idea what it is. Arguably, given his curious nature, it is perhaps a little surprising that he is not more questioning about the camp, the fences and the people he sees inside, all of whom wear the same uniform (the striped pyjamas). It must be remembered, however, that Bruno has almost no-one to talk to; his relationship with his parents is remote, he has no friends, he and his sister share a mutual contempt (he calls her the “Hopeless Case”) and the other adults around are involved in a conspiracy of silence that keeps him completely in the dark. The sense of fear, unwillingness to speak up or out, anxiety about the world, and intimidation are palpable.

Lonely and bored, Bruno eventually decides to go exploring and at the boundary of the camp one day he meets another boy of his own age, Shmuel, who is interred at the camp. Bruno is thrilled to at last have someone his own age to talk to and the two boys strike up a friendship. As readers, we are meant to see this friendship as in some ways unlikely, and in others completely obvious – why would two young boys be bothered about such differences as clothing, housing, status? They are just children. The author also comments on the transience of friendship at this age (in Berlin Bruno has three “friends for life”, whom he misses terribly, but after a few months he cannot even remember their names) and I think this helps address some of the credibility difficulties of the plot; friendship between young boys is mainly superficial. Bruno wonders about some aspects of Shmuel’s lifestyle, but Shmuel explains very little, which perhaps would not be surprising if the child was deeply traumatised.

No spoilers here, but there is a brilliant denouement to the story. Although it is a book that has been much discussed, and I have almost watched the film a couple of times, I had managed to avoid knowing the ending as I was determined to read it one day. I am so glad because there is a brilliant inevitability to it – there is a point where you just know what is going to happen and the author places you in this incredible state of suspense and dread, despite Bruno’s innocence. I have said enough!

It’s a short book, and the writing carries you along at a pace that feels like the mind of a child – no real sense of time. I think it’s also a book where you have to suspend the sorts of (adult) questions that would make the events improbable, in favour of the bigger picture, which is a fundamental questioning of the forces that create fascism, terror and discrimination; if only we could see all these things through the eyes of a child they could not exist.

A powerful and engaging novel which pulls off the trick of being both important and highly readable. Recommended for grown-ups and kids of 12+ alike.

How did you feel reading this book?

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#KeepKidsReading week – Building your children’s library #2

It was back in the summer that I published my first post in what was intended as an occasional series on building a library of books for your children. Last time I focussed on the 2-5 age group, mainly picture books and mainly classics. This time I am moving on a little to the 4-7 age group, ie Key Stage 1. This is the age when children are just learning to read, but they still value and need to be read to – the phonics and early reading books are much better than they used to be (I loved reading the Oxford Reading Tree Biff, Chip and Kipper books that my kids brought home from school), but they are designed to expose your children to vocabulary, word order and sentence construction – they are tools designed specifically to aid learning; good children’s literature, on the other hand, fosters joy, builds a bond between child and reader and should inspire.

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Image by saralcassidy from Pixabay

There are some good chapter books now for six and seven year olds: precocious readers who benefit from the challenge of something more complex, but still need age-appropriate themes and subject-matter. I would argue, however, that at this age pictures are still vitally important. Pictures help to build vocabulary organically, they give the child something to look at and focus on whilst listening, as they may not be able to read all of the words themselves, and they help the child develop their imaginative skills as they look at the visions created for them by authors and illustrators. For this age group, the quality of the illustration is just as important as the text; can you imagine AA without EH, or Julia without Axel?

So, for those of you looking to build a library for the child or children in your lives, here are my top ten suggestions. The list is (absolutely!) not exhaustive of course, but these ten will provide the foundation for something wonderful. Nearly all of the books below are just one in a series or the same authors have written similar titles that you can add to the collection.

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  1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (plus the other 22 books in her classic collection!)
  2. The Mr Men and Little Miss series by Roger Hargreaves
  3. Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne
  4. The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
  5. The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
  6. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
  7. Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  8. Look Inside – Things That Go by Rob Lloyd Jones and Stefano Tognetti
  9. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  10. The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

I would love to hear your suggestions of books for this age group, particularly any that you have enjoyed sharing with the little people in your life.

I would love to hear your suggestions of indispensable titles for 4-7 year olds.

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “The Umbrella Mouse” by Anna Fargher

I’m finally getting back into my blogging groove after a fairly difficult few months and feel it’s time to revive my occasional #Keep Kids Reading series. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s books and about making sure our young people don’t neglect reading in favour of seemingly more “exciting” (but ultimately less satisfying) pursuits – you know what I’m talking about don’t you?! Every writer and keen reader I know remembers childhood reading with joy – the torch under the bedclothes, a favourite book read over and over, sitting on a parent or grandparent’s lap enjoying time shared. There is a relatively short window in which to foster a love of reading, a love which brings lifelong benefits, and I fear that many youngsters today are missing out on something precious. #KeepKidsReading is all about trying to keep books high up on our childrens’ agendas. Plus I love an excuse to sit down with something from the amazing world of contemporary literature for kids!

The Umbrella Mouse imgI’ve just finished a lovely little book The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher. When I was browsing in my local bookshop a few months ago, one of the assistants recommended it to me and said it had had her in tears. I knew then it was a ‘must-read’! I got my copy secondhand online and it’s signed!

The story is set in 1944 in World War Two and the author says she wrote it because she felt there were not enough books about this period aimed at children. The story is set amongst an animal community that is affected by the war and plays its part in defeating the Nazis. Pip Hanway is a mouse who lives with her parents in an umbrella shop in London. Their nest is inside the prized antique umbrella that sits in the window of the shop. When the shop is destroyed by bombing Pip finds herself alone, her parents and the shop owners seemingly having been killed. All that is left of the life she has known is the umbrella. She decides that her only hope is to go to Gignese in Italy, to the umbrella museum there that her parents have told her about and where she knows she still has family.

She is befriended by a rescue dog, Dickin, who takes her to St Giles, an underground hub for all the London animals, domestic and wild, made homeless by the war, and thence to the Secret Underground Animal Army, an intelligence outfit helping Churchill by mobilising animals across Europe. Dickin believes they will help Pip get to Italy with her umbrella. They agree that she can participate in a mission to get a secret message to the (animal) Resistance in France, and from there will be directed to Italy.

After a perilous journey through a storm, down the Thames and across the Channel, Pip arrives in France with her companions, Hans, a German rat fighting on the Allied side, and GI Joe, a messenger pigeon. She is welcomed by the Resistance animals there and takes part in a further dangerous mission to sabotage a German camp, at which Pip displays bravery she did not know she was capable of. Her commitment to the cause helps her to deal with the grief at the loss of her family and her old life, as she finds new friends, and exposes a traitor in the midst of the Resistance force.

The book did not have me in tears, which is perhaps a good thing! It was a nice little tale that had plenty of action, good characters, a nice solid story and gently introduced ideas about the war, the brutality of the Nazis, the bravery of those who fought against them and the impact the war had on civilians. The standard of writing makes it quite mature but the story and characters (talking animals) suggests a younger age group, so I would recommend it for 8-11 year olds, with the caveat that younger kids will need to be quite accomplished readers, while it would not suit those at the upper end of the age range who have moved on to more mature texts. So, for example, anyone who is on to the Diary of Anne Frank (which I think all my kids did at school in year 6) may find this book a little childish. I hope that helps. This is apparently the first in a planned series about the adventures of Pip the umbrella mouse, so look out for more.

A nice one for me – read on a day when I was ill in bed, and needed something not too taxing!

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “What not to do if you turn invisible” by Ross Welford

This is my third Ross Welford novel. I loved the two others that I have read – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy – and have recommended them widely. What not to do if you turn invisible explores some similar themes to the other books – a child who has lost a parent and who feels slightly set apart from their peers, childhood fears and worries, dealing with bullies, and choosing to be brave. It is also set in the same north east England neighbourhoods of Whitley Bay and Tynemouth (an area I know well as I lived there for a few years) and the made-up town on Culvercot (sounds rather like real-life Cullercoats to me!).

What not to do if you turn invisible imgThe main character in the book is a girl this time – 12 year-old Ethel Leatherhead; yes, it is an unusually old-fashioned name, but that is significant. Ethel lives with her ‘Gram’, a very conservative, very proper lady who has strong views about things that are ‘common’ or undesirable. We learn that Ethel’s mother died when she was young, and that she is not aware of her father. Ethel also has a great-grandmother, who turns 100 in the course of the novel. Great-gram lives in a nursing home and speaks very little until one day, after Ethel visits her, she grabs her by the arm and says to Ethel, rather mysteriously, “Tiger. Pussycat.”

Something else we learn about Ethel from the outset is that she suffers from severe acne. That fact is key to the story as it is her search for a cure that leads her to try a mysterious Chinese medicine she buys from the internet and an old sunbed. It is the combination of these two potent remedies that causes her to experience bouts of temporary invisibility. Once she discovers this, and comes to terms with it, she and her friend Elliot Boyd (another school outsider, who is teased because he is from the South and because he is overweight) seek to use the invisibility, firstly, to help Elliot in the school talent competition and, secondly, as a means of exposing the bad behaviour of school bullies Jarrow and Jesmond Knight, boy and girl twins who have been kidnapping local dogs and demanding ransoms for their return.

The scene is set for a number of interwoven plot threads – how will Ethel cope with her invisibility and will it have any long term physical effects? Will Ethel and Elliot succeed in getting the incriminating video evidence back from the Knight twins, who become aware of Ethel’s ‘power’? What did Great-gram mean when she said “Tiger. Pussycat.” to Ethel? And who is Great-gram’s mysterious visitor? Finally, what has the late pop-singer Felina, who apparently died from the pressures of fame, the paparazzi and alcohol problems, to do with Ethel?

There is a great deal going on in this novel, and some of it does not seem relevant at the beginning, but things start to come together towards the end, so it rewards patience. There are some brilliantly tense moments of adventure and peril, for example, when invisible Ethel breaks into the home of the Knight twins while they and their father are there, in order to wipe their computer hard drives and mobile phones (to destroy the video), but I found this book a much slower burn than the other two I have read. For that reason, I would recommend it more for the older end of the target age group (11-12 years) rather than say 9-10 year-olds. Also, the themes are quite mature – the problems of growing up, the loss of a parent (there is no miraculous ‘happy ending’ like in Hamster, but there is acceptance and reconciliation, and discovery of her Dad), the nature of true friendship and possible romance.

This is quite a long book, but a relatively quick read, thanks to the shortish chapters. A nice one for travelling with, I would say.

Recommended for 11-12 year olds.

I love having an excuse to read kids’ books – what about you?

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Keep Kids Reading Week – new books for children

Last week I posted a blog with suggestions for new books out this Spring that have caught my eye. This week, since it’s my Keep Kids Reading week for March, I’m doing the same for the children in your life. I’ve been scouring the publishing magazines, websites and newspapers for the new books that are around. The Easter holidays are coming up and with the best will in the world, and I speak from experience, budgetary and time constraints do not allow parents to fill every waking minute of their kids’ days. You probably wouldn’t want to either, frankly! Letting them have some down time away from their devices, getting lost in the pages of a book is an option. Better still, have some family reading time, model the behaviour you would like from your kids and get some reading down time yourself.

I tend to focus my suggestions on the 9-15 age group as I think this is the trickiest. Under 9s are usually a bit easier to please and you can guide their book access easily by reading with them. You also generally have a bit more control over screen time with this age group! Ages 10-13, I think, present the most challenging period in terms of keeping them reading, so here are my suggestions.

Scavengers by Darren Simpson

Spring 19 kids 2This sounds slightly like an up-to-date Stig of the Dump to me. Central character Landfill lives the life of a wild creature. He has contact only with animals and one other human, Babagoo, who says he has brought him up from a seed. Babagoo wants to protect Landfill from ‘Outside’ and from the unpredictable other humans about whom he paints a fearful picture. Landfill goes along with this until one day he spies a she-wolf giving birth to her cubs. He realises that animals do not come from seeds and wonders what else Babagoo may have lied to him about.

 

 

Spring 19 kids 1Kid Normal and the Shadow Machine by Greg James and Chris Smith

I have mixed feelings about recommending books by celebrities, fearing that more talented authors are being pushed out. I also accept, however, that a famous name may get a child reading a book they might not otherwise have done. At least in this, the third book in the Kid Normal series, the co-author gets equal billing on the front cover. With fun illustrations this might be a good choice for the more reluctant young reader.

 

Spring 19 kids 3Work It Girl: Boss the bestseller list like J K Rowling by Caroline Moss and Sinem Erkas

A non-fiction option with some fantastic female role models for young girls. Lots of inspirational quotes and tips from high achieving women to motivate and encourage young girls to aspire to success. Easy to dip in and out of, again, another one for those who might find a full-length novel is not quite their cup of tea.

 

 

When young people start secondary school they can go off reading. There are so many distractions, homework, friendship issues, devices and hormones going on in their lives that reading, when it’s not as structured as in primary school, often drops off their radars. Keep the faith, they often come back, but you might have to keep putting books under their noses in the meantime. Here are some that have caught my eye for the 12-15 age group.

Spring 19 kids 6Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean

There is a growing selection of graphic novels available for this age group, in recognition of the fact that many young people just find pages and pages of text daunting and unappealing. Some also find it difficult to maintain concentration. And, let’s face it, their world is very visual. If that sounds like a young person you know, try them on this. It’s David Almond, so we know it’s quality writing and from what I have seen, the illustrations are vivid and stunning.

Spring 19 kids 5The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James

Described as a dystopian love story this one will suit younger teens who are looking for something more mature but are not quite ready for the YA genre yet, which can sometimes be a little too grown-up. A terrible virus has caused global infertility (climate change themes, Handmaid’s Tale-ish). Lowrie and Shen are the youngest people on the planet. They live in a small ageing community in London, living a largely feral life, until they discover a secret which will force them into making a choice between saving or potentially destroying what remains of the human race.

Spring 19 kids 4How Not to Lose It: Mental Health Sorted by Anna Williamson and Sophie Beer

Any bit of support that our young people can get to help them with the challenges of growing up in the 21st century should be grabbed with both hands. Teaching our children to look after their mental as well as their physical health is vital if we are to head off the epidemic of anxiety, stress and depression that seems to be afflicting the younger population, sometimes with devastating consequences. I like the look of this book and it seems to hit just the right note for the 11-14 age group.

 

I hope there is something here which appeals. Let me know how you get on.

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Book review – “The Storm Keeper’s Island” by Catherine Doyle

Regular followers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and that I frequently post reviews of great kids’ books I have read. I have decided to make this a more regular feature and will devote one week a month to reviewing children’s books and discussing issues about kids reading habits, an issue which I know is of concern to many of you, parents or otherwise. After all, most keen adult readers would, I think, say that their love of reading was fostered in childhood. Just the other day, I recommended Lucy Mangan’s new book Bookworm: A memoir of childhood reading, one of the books on my TBR list this spring which I feel sure will take me back to my own childhood and the many nights I spent reading under the covers, not with a torch, worse, by the light from the landing. It’s a wonder my eyesight wasn’t ruined!

The Storm Keeper's Island imgThis month, I would like to recommend Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island, published last year by Bloomsbury, as a fantastic choice for any young people you know who like modern adventure stories where the good guy wins. Catherine Doyle is a young writer (just 29 years old) and has published several YA novels already; The Storm Keeper’s Island is her first novel for what is called the “middle grade”, ie about 9-12 years, and it was a barn-storming debut, winning several prizes and accolades from established authors in this genre. A second novel, following the further adventures of the main character Fionn Boyle, is planned for this summer and I would expect it to feature heavily in recommended holiday reading lists in advance of the Summer Reading Challenge.

Fionn Boyle and his twin sister Tara are to spend the summer with their grandfather, Malachy Boyle, on the real-life island of Arranmore, just off the coast of Donegal in north-west Ireland. It is a sparsely-populated island where most of the inhabitants are native Irish speakers, but many tourists visit. It is an island the author knows well, her own grandparents having lived there, and her love of the place comes across strongly. The two children don’t seem to know their grandfather well; he is their paternal grandfather, and their own father died at sea before they were born. The children have been sent to their grandfather because their mother has had some sort of mental breakdown. We learn that she has never really recovered from her husband’s death.

Malachy Boyle soon proves to be a quirky character, about whom there is an air of mystery. His cottage is full of home-made candles with mysterious names, like “The Whispering Tree”, “Low Tide” and “Unexpected Tornado”. Malachy Boyle is in fact Arranmore’s ‘Storm Keeper’, a chosen one whose role is to preserve the memories and legends of the island and protect it from its ancient mythical enemy, Morrigan, and her foe, the good spirit, Dagda. Inevitably, Fionn, gets drawn into an adventure involving these mythical spirits; Tara’s island boyfriend (whom she met on a previous visit), the ghastly Bartley Beasley, a vain, self-centred, full-of-himself bully, is the grandson of Elizabeth Beasley, who wants her family to be the next in line for the storm-keeper role and hopes Bartley will be anointed when it becomes time for Malachy to pass the baton. The undercurrent of conflict between the Boyles and the Beasleys is a metaphor for the Morrigan/Dagda feud.

Led by Bartley, the children (ie him, Tara, and Bartley’s sister Shelby, but excluding Fionn) plan to search out the long-lost and mysterious Sea Cave, where it is said a wish can be made. Obviously, Bartley wants to use the wish to make himself the storm-keeper. They are warned away from it as it is said to be highly dangerous. Fionn wants to find it first, to prevent Bartley having his wish, but he is afraid. As time passes, his grandfather passes on to him the knowledge of the candles and how lighting one enables a kind of time travel, where those present can see, even be a part of, events of the past that have been captured in the candle. Using the candles, Fionn will eventually triumph and (spoiler alert!) become the new storm-keeper.

I am not normally a lover of fantasy fiction, and I fear the above makes it sound as if there is a lot of myth and legend here. There is, but there are also actually a lot of real-life issues, modern concerns that children will identify with – loneliness, bullying, sibling rivalry, grief and loss, emotional vulnerability, what is meant by fear and courage, and perseverance. Ultimately, the good triumphs over the bad, the bullies don’t win and they are be exposed and punished. All the kinds of messages we want kids to get from their reading. The island legends do underpin the novel but it is by no means the heart of the novel. Most of all the child characters are credible and human, and many kids will be able to identify with them.

There is excitement, adventure and mild peril here, but also a kind of escapism – the children are on their summer holidays in a remote island community, with freedom to roam and where candles are more useful than mobile phones. The book would suit a variety of young readers in the 9-12 year-old age group. Recommended.

What recently-published books would you recommend for the 9-12 age group?

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