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Island of Shadows | Noah's emotionally detached mother insists on an adventurous trip to the remote Scottish island of Inchtinn. She's hoping for some inspiration to write her next bestselling children's book. Yet adventure isn't the only thing that awaits their arrival ... Sinister beings are stirring and when things take a turn for the worse, Noah is forced to face the most unimaginable fears.
Told in narrator Newt’s distinctive phonetic English, this dark debut dazzles with originality and delivers a potent case for combatting inequality. Bearmouth is home to a grim mining business, where men and children labour under inhumane conditions to make their Master wealthy. They work under the earth, under the omniscient Mayker who - so workers are told - “sen us down into the dark Earf/To atone for the sins o our forefarvers an muvvers”. Naïve Newt hasn’t seen daylight in years, but takes pride in being taught to read and write by fatherly Thomas, blithely accepting this lot until the arrival of new boy Devlin. Devlin’s talk of “revolushun” makes Newt feel that things are “unravellin slowly slowly lyke a bootlayce comin all undun.” Life in Bearmouth is beyond bleak, but the sparks of Devlin’s revolutionary spirit catch light and drive Thomas to ask the Master for “more coinage” for the workers, to question why they must pay for essential clothes, to demand to know when the promised safety lamps are coming. Then when tragedy strikes, Newt too realises that things “ent bloody well ryte” and takes on Devlin’s insurgent tendencies, with explosive effects. Emotionally engaging, this searingly original novel about standing up to abuses of power and fighting for freedom is radiant with story-telling excellence.
September 2019 Debut of the Month | Jo is the kind of open, honest, amusing character readers immediately care about. Told through her wittily illustrated diary, Jo’s tale begins with a(nother) upheaval. She and her family have just moved to their new Chinese takeaway, but her hopes for a fresh start are immediately dashed when she sees there’s no living room, and she has to share a room with little sister Bonny while big brother Simon lives with their grandparents. Jo’s experience of feeling “doubly different” is poignantly portrayed – she’s an outsider at school because she’s Chinese, and an outsider among her wider Chinese family because her own family is dysfunctional, and because she doesn’t speak the same language. Thank goodness, then, that she forms a friendship with fellow outcast, Tina the Goth, who stands up to racist school bullies. But while Jo begins to feel hopeful about her future and takes steps towards realising her dream of working in fashion, she and Bonny are increasingly neglected by their parents, and then there’s Dad’s aggressive outbursts. The mid-1980s setting prompts many amusing references, from ra-ra skirts and Gary Kemp’s perm, to sending drawings to Take Hart and going to Wimpy for a Knickerbocker Glory - but above all this is a highly readable, highly empathetic, impactful novel about familial abuse and neglect, trying to fit in, and finding your way in the world. Based on her own experiences, author Sue Cheung’s big-hearted story will chime with readers of 12+ who know how it feels to fall between cracks and dream of a different life.
September 2019 Book of the Month | Hitting rock bottom, hanging on, and coming back from the edge. Brian Conaghan has an incredible talent for telling it like it is. His characters are authentic and absorbing; flawed underdogs with serious troubles, like 17-year-old Maggie whose dad “drank his liver into a spreadable pâté”, and whose laid-off dinner lady mum is “gifted in the art of attracting pure dickheads”. And Maggie? Maggie’s “an island: the way I dress; the music I listen to; the patter my brain discharges; everything”. Maggie’s struggling to deal with the tragic loss of her best friend Moya whose death she feels excruciatingly guilty about. Moya was a “mad riot” of a girl, but as Maggie “couldn’t be arsed with all the love-struck vom” Moya was spewing, because she didn’t speak out against the Internet trolls, she believes she was a “failure friend”. Alongside her grief, guilt and self-harm, Maggie struggles with her mother’s severe depression, but also tingles with the hope that comes from starting art college: “now’s the time to make something of myself.” Indeed, she soon forms a band with new friends. Throughout, Maggie’s love of bands like The Smiths looms large, as does her relationship with her depressed mother. Maggie’s rage at her mother’s condition derives entirely from her primal love for her. She’s desperate for Mum to be happy, and her scheme to help her find happiness is heart-achingly poignant. Grief, depression, self-harm, online abuse, this novel is no walk in the park, yet it never drags the reader down. On the contrary. It’s sensitive, insightful, funny (Maggie is a master of biting one-liners), and genuinely uplifting as Maggie and Mum begin to find their way back to the world, with glinting prospects of love and new life.
This is the third in Simon Mason’s award-winning Garvie Smith crime series and you won’t find a better, more entertaining or more stylishly written whodunnit. His hero Garvie Smith is very smart – indeed, he’s a virtual maths genius – but very lazy, whether it comes to housework, schoolwork or his new job as a fencer (delivered courtesy of his friend Smudge). The disappearance of the teenage daughter of the house behind the fences they are fixing is something that exercises Garvie and he’s much better placed to solve the mystery than the police, of whom he has a very low opinion. The story he untangles is full of double-dealing and deceit and Mason creates a world of dark cynicism that Chandler would recognise and envy. Garvie solves the crime but is definitely left with cracks in his hard-boiled exterior. A brilliant page-turner for all readers, and a sharply observed and often very funny bit of YA.
Ash’s story is “probably the same as anyone else’s, more or less, just perhaps with more gas masks and a goat.” The goat is a Tennessee Fainting Goat named Socrates who lives with the isolated Canary community deep in the Arizona desert. The gas masks Ash mentions are needed by the Canaries on account of them suffering from debilitating environmental illnesses that doctors deny the existence of. And so begins a thoroughly thought-provoking novel that tackles huge health and environmental issues. Ash journeyed to the community in search of his missing stepbrother, Bly. The folk here cannot live in towns or cities due to all the chemicals and smells and electrical fields that trigger incapacitating Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. When Ash gets sick himself he discovers firsthand how it feels to have your symptoms rebuffed by medics who decide, “This is all in your head”, and pretty much declare, “I can’t cure you so you must be mad.” His frustration and pain is tangible. Indeed, Ash’s narrative is brilliantly compelling throughout. He’s a born storyteller whose voice chimes with authentic cadences and detours. Ash and Bly’s poignant family story is intertwined with much food for thought about a diverse spread of subjects - genetics, bacteria, antibiotics and human shortsightedness and greed. As former scientist Finch comments, “We are filling the world full of chemicals that we have precisely no idea about, and one not-so-fine day the chickens will come home to roost. With the canaries.” Ash comes to some sharp realisations too. Under the warm, wise tutelage of Mona, he furiously states that, “one day, doctors are gonna finally realize that there ain’t no god-dang difference between the body and the mind anyhow”. This remarkable novel is underpinned by its acute portrait of fractured folk forging an existence in a fractured world that seems on the brink of end times. But “maybe there’s time for one final chance,” Ash wonders, which will leave readers with a glint of hope and plenty to ponder.
At once fierce and otherworldly, this impeccably produced full-colour reinvention of Moby Dick sees multi-award-winning Patrick Ness display a talent for writing that transcends age barriers. It reimagines Moby Dick from the viewpoint of a pod of whales led by Bathsheba who, “like all whales, [I] hated men, and with good reason: their bloody killings, their sloppy, wasteful harvesting proving that they killed as much for sport as for need”. And so fulfilling her grandmother’s prophecy, Bathsheba and her pod live for the hunt. Led by Captain Alexandra they find themselves in pursuit of the notorious Toby Wick, whom no one has seen, but who’s reputed to be “a devil.” As fierce battles are fought and blood is shed, questions are raised about the dangers of power and rumour to create a strange and elemental allegory that’s exquisitely enhanced by Rovina Cai’s arresting full-page illustrations.
A new novel from a Carnegie Medal winning Kevin Brooks is always an event. As an author he has never been afraid of challenging concepts and this is no exception. Kenzi is a typical fifteen-year-old girl and at first sight her problems are familiar tropes- the unexplained death of her mother, a distant and uncaring father and a beloved brother with a serious life-threatening health condition, unwise friendship choices and severe bullying at school. Then illness strikes her, and her skin becomes completely transparent. But the reader can feel completely respected in Brooks’ hands – the scientific background is filled in with sufficient authority to make the incredible entirely possible so that we can concentrate completely on the main character’s internal feelings. Brooks captures brilliantly the horror and revulsion and what it would mean to be so alienated from your own body. How much of your sense of self is bound up with how you look and appear to the world? This is also a deeply thought provoking look at how the media and big business would react to someone with her condition and into the moral and emotional dilemmas she is faced with. Just how far would Kenzie go to protect those she loves? The characters are beautifully drawn, and you can feel nothing but admiration for Kenzie. As the action builds, we fear that nothing can be saved from the situation. There is no easy happy ending but perhaps some peace. An unforgettable novel that will provoke a lot of discussion.
In English teacher Louise Reid’s first venture into the verse novel, she uses the form magnificently using layout and different font sizes and styles to show as well as tell Lily’s story. We meet her in the opening poem, Roadkill at her lowest ebb. Bullied at school and battered and abused outside it, betrayed by childhood ‘friends’ and mentally trapped in a self-critical prison. This is an unflinching portrait of a girl who does not fit in and who hates herself. But it is also a picture of a family in poverty and the link between poverty and obesity is well known, but not often acknowledged and ‘fat shaming” is a particularly insidious and dangerous form of bullying where the victims are often blamed. The author also gives a voice to Bernadette, the loving mother equally trapped in her own misery, overweight and virtually housebound and to Lily’s feelings for her which veer back and forth from love to shame and blame. The layers of characterisation and backstory are subtly and delicately revealed in this beautifully paced narrative. Equally touching is the depiction of her father, quiet, loyal and desperate to help. It is at his suggestion that Lily takes up his old hobby of boxing. With training and the gym comes fitness, but more importantly other support structures and tentative friendships and Lily’s bravery helps Bernadette take some positive steps too. Their journey is not easy but never anything other than utterly convincing and psychologically authentic. This important novel has home truths for both sexes to ponder and a cleverly neutral cover and the highly accessible verse format means that it can be promoted to even the most reluctant of readers.
Recent research has highlighted the lack of diverse representation in central characters in books and films and more particularly that when they exist, they are there to highlight an ‘issue’ or social problem. So, this book is doubly important – not only do we have an Asian central character but the main issue at the heart of the book is the power of social media and the challenge to behave in an ethically responsible way- to do the right thing. The issue would have been the same with a white narrator. Added to that we have a joyous cast of characters reflecting the genuinely multiracial context in which real young people live. We have white, mixed race, Asian and Afro Caribbean best friends each humorously riffing on the foibles of their families’ culture and expectations. These are very real characters, high achievers who are not afraid to have fun. The author runs her own teenage reading group and her ear for dialogue is impeccable. Of course, there is a darker, thought provoking side too. Jeevan knows his female English teacher has it in for him and suspects this derives from an innate racism and when the opportunity to record an in flagrante liaison presents itself, this proves irresistible but is almost immediately regretted. Nothing is simplistically handled; all the moral nuances are thoroughly explored through Jeevan’s interactions with his friends and family. Even the implied sexism of exposing a female while protecting a more favoured male teacher becomes a very real issue. Research has demonstrated that low expectations of pupils of colour can be a real barrier to their achievement and it can be all too easy for schools to fall into this sort of systemic racism. But this is a school that, like Jeevan, can come good in the end. A book to confound and challenge expectations as well as to genuinely entertain.
August 2019 Debut of the Month | Uplifting and dazzlingly unique, this coming-of-age treasure explores identity and sexuality with an emboldening message to remember that “you have the right to be you”. As a young Barbie-loving boy, mixed race Michael wonders if he’s “only half” of everything, to which his mother poignantly replies: “Don’t let anyone tell you/that you are half-black/and half-white. Half-Cypriot/ and half-Jamaican./ You are a full human being.” But he doesn’t feel like a whole human being. Dubbed a “queerdo and weirdo” by bullies and subjected to “batty bwoy” taunts through his teenage years, he leaves London for Brighton University with hope in his heart. But even here Michael feels “like Goldilocks; trying to find a group of people/the perfect fit for me”. He doesn’t feel black enough for the Caribbean Society, or Greek enough for Hellenic Society, or queer enough for the LBGT Society. Then Michael finally finds a fit at Drag Society where he becomes The Black Flamingo, “someone fabulous, wild and strong. With or without a costume on.” Michael’s journey is complex, moving and told with a raw vitality that makes the soul soar and the heart sing, with Anshika Khullar’s magnificent illustrations and the smart design adding further depth, prompting the reader to pause for thought as his story requires.
A Julia Eccleshare Pick of the Month August 2019 | Award winning author Katherine Rundell is as passionate about reading children’s books as she is about writing them. In this brief but and perfectly structured handbook she encourages all readers to think about the particular qualities of children’s books and about the special experience of reading as a child – which she remembers clearly. Drawing on her deep knowledge of children’s stories and supporting her arguments with endorsing quotes from writers of all kinds she sets out her defence of the book’s title in brief sections. She is as much at home in the factual – ‘On how children’s fiction came to be’ and ‘On children’s fiction today’ as the more personal which reflect her own views including ‘On wild hunger and heroic optimism’ and ‘The galvanic kick of children’s books’.