Book reviews: A dictator rabbit, a naughty schoolboy and a hungry pigeon

Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans
Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans
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January just got better with a sparkling selection of new books for children looking to fill the long, dark evenings.

There’s a spectacular novel starring a toy rabbit who turns into a despot, a trip back in time to learn about the Ancient Egyptians and Romans, a mischievous schoolboy who can’t see truth for lies, and the quirky tale of a space-loving girl with an unusual pet.

Age 8 plus:

Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

First of all a word to adults… this book is seriously funny and seriously clever, and definitely not just for just the kids to enjoy!

Shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book award 2017, Wed Wabbit is a brilliant and inventive piece of satirical sleight of hand starring a bottled-up 10-year-old girl coming to terms with the death of her father, and entering a fanatical fantasy world of sinister toys.

But Wed Wabbit is so much more than your average middle grade fiction; it’s a story about the power of the imagination and the uncertainties of childhood, a funny, rip-roaring, heartbreaking adventure with echoes of classics as diverse as Alice in Wonderland and Animal Farm, but with a truly original and spellbinding character of its own.

Its creator is Lissa Evans, a comedy producer for radio and TV, whose first book for children, Small Change for Stuart, was shortlisted for both the Carnegie Medal and Costa award, and who can’t put a foot wrong when it comes to writing stories that capture the hearts and minds of young – and old – readers.

Ten-year-old Fidge likes to be sensible and in control, just like her dad used to be. But he died two years ago and now she has taken on his role as the organised family member for her disorganised mum and her cutesy but clingy four-year-old sister Minnie who charms everybody by not being able to pronounce her r’s.

It was only a week after dad died that Minnie became obsessively attached to her new toy… a very large ‘wed wabbit’ who, Fidge considers, has ‘a horribly smug expression’ and whose gaze she avoids whenever possible.

Minnie’s other great love is a book, The Land of Wimbley Woos, a saccharine picture story featuring Wimblies shaped like dustbins which Fidge reckons she has read to Minnie at least ‘eight million times.’

But on a shopping trip with mum and Minnie, something truly shocking happens and Fidge is sent off to stay with her aunt and uncle and her ridiculously spoilt and pampered cousin Graham. Even worse, she and Graham find themselves falling down the cellar steps and into a bizarre land of three thousand Wimbley Woos run by – of all things – a tyrannical Wed Wabbit.

But the worst thing of all for Fidge is that this terrible situation – in fact, this whole, entire thing – is completely her fault.

There is so much to love here… an adorable heroine, a cast just as curious as anything found in Wonderland, an adventure jam-packed with clever allusions and motifs, and all delivered with the effortless fluency and inventiveness of a master storyteller.

To miss Wed Wabbit would be to miss out on one of the best children’s books on the market. Evans brings us a beautiful, acutely observant and hilariously funny tale of friendship, danger and the terror of never being able to get back home again.

If there is only one children’s book you buy this year, make it this one!

(David Fickling Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age 7 plus:

The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas

And there is another girl grieving her dead father in a beautiful, bittersweet novel from US author Michelle Cuevas.

Cuevas, author of Confessions of an Imaginary Friend, brings us a new, wonderfully original, laugh-out-loud funny adventure with a heart as big as the imaginary black hole which is the quirky star of a story about love, loss and life.

When eleven-year-old space mad Stella Rodriguez shows up at NASA to request that her recording be included in Carl Sagan’s famous Golden Record of natural sounds and images, something unexpected happens… a black hole follows her home and sets out to live in her house as a pet.

The black hole, which she names Larry, swallows everything he touches, which is challenging to say the least – but it also turns out to be a convenient way to get rid of all those things that Stella doesn’t want around.

Soon the ugly sweaters her aunt has made for her all disappear inside the black hole, as does Stinky Stu, the smelly class hamster she is taking care of and, most important, all the reminders of her dead father that are just too painful to have around.

It’s not until Stella, her younger brother, Cosmo, the family puppy and even the bath all get swallowed up by the black hole that Stella realises she has been letting her own grief consume her. And that’s not the only thing she realises as she attempts to get back home…

With charming black and white illustrations to add extra life and vigour to the story, and brimming with subtle metaphors that speak loudly of Stella’s troubled mind, this is a beautiful, offbeat story with a powerful message for children of all ages.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age 8 plus:

Beaky Malone: Weirdest Show on Earth by Barry Hutchison and Katie Abey

Get ready to laugh out loud with the new book in the brilliantly comic adventure series from Barry Hutchison, an award-winning children’s author and screenwriter who has his finger firmly on the pulse of children’s humour.

The star of these irresistible stories is Dylan Malone, aka Beaky, a naughty but nice schoolboy who has a hilarious habit of telling porkies… yes, every time he opens his mouth, out pops a whopper, and it’s all because he took a spin in Madame Shirley’s truth-telling machine!

The Beaky Malone books – a joy for naughty schoolboys everywhere – feature suitably anarchic illustrations from the pen of illustrator Katie Abey and come courtesy of Stripes Publishing, a ‘small-but-mighty’ imprint of the Little Tiger Press stable which prides itself on creating books that children want to read.

And there is certainly plenty of fun to be found in the latest outrageous adventure starring everyone’s favourite school pals!

Fame is calling! Beaky can’t believe that Miss Brannan has somehow given him a lead part in the school play, Romeo and Juliet… but with Aliens! Beaky is now firmly in the spotlight but playing Alien Romeo to Evie’s Alien Juliet, and making his crush on her even harder to disguise.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Beaky’s old lying ways are coming back to haunt him. His dog Destructo has been chosen to appear on TV’s Most Talented Pets because he can ride a bike. Only problem is … he can’t.

As everything starts to unravel and Madame Shirley, the culprit for Beaky's truth-telling condition, is nowhere to be found, Beaky is faced with some difficult decisions. Maybe just telling the truth about a few things wouldn’t be so bad…

Expect chaos, calamity and daft dogs as Hutchison’s imagination moves into overdrive in this hilarious knockabout tale filled with crazy capers, madcap moments and frantic antics. Beaky is back and the fun doesn’t stop until the last page has turned!

(Stripes, paperback, £5.99)

Age 7 plus:

Meet the Ancient Egyptians and Meet the Ancient Romans by James Davies

Take an exciting trip back in time to learn about the Ancient Egyptians and Romans with two fabulously illustrated, fun and informative books from talented Welsh author and illustrator James Davies.

Designed as short, eye-catching introductions to history for younger readers, these busy but funny and easy-to-read explorations of ancient history make learning facts seem like an extension of playtime.

When it comes to history, there is so much to digest that it is difficult to know where to begin but Davies fills the pages with facts and figures that will amaze and interest the youngest children. Discover how the Ancient Egyptians invented toothpaste and used monkeys to catch criminals, and how the Romans gave us canals, baths and shopping centres!

There are hours of discovery in the pages… get to know the basics on Ancient Egypt from gods and worship to mummification, and learn the fascinating basics on Ancient Rome from gladiators to day-to-day life.

Davies’ stunning artwork and playful infographics in a limited palette provide a fresh, non-fiction approach that is sure to captivate young readers. Combined with a vibrant, snappy text, these brilliant books blow away the cobwebs from three thousand years of history!

(Big Picture Press, hardback, £9.99 each)

Age 6 plus:

The Unwanted Puppy by Holly Webb and Sophy Williams

Much-loved author Holly Webb conjures up more animal magic in the 38th book in her adorable Animal Stories series for young readers.

Webb, who has written over 100 books for children, brings us the cute and cuddly story of an energetic puppy in desperate need of care and exercise.

Zoe loves dogs but hasn’t had one of her own since her beloved Golden Retriever Honey died. Then Zoe spies Scout, a gorgeous Bernese Mountain puppy, in the park after school. Scout belongs to four-year-old Jack and his family who are new to the neighbourhood.

Zoe offers to walk Scout in the park as she is worried that the large, lively puppy isn’t getting enough exercise or attention. Gradually she falls in love with Scout but she knows that Scout belongs to Jack, even if his family don’t have the time to give Scout the care he needs. How can she help Scout when he isn’t even her dog?

Sophy Williams provides the gorgeous black and white illustrations for an enchanting story that is sure to capture the hearts of every animal-loving child. And fans can also discover the free Puppies and Kittens app on App Store and Google Play. It’s full of exciting activities from fantastic games and puzzles to creative colouring and sticker fun.

Perfect for children just starting to read alone, youngsters who love to share a book with mum and dad, and any child who can’t resist the powerful magic of animals.

(Stripes, paperback, £5.99)

Age 6-12

Tamsin and The Dark by Neill Cameron and Kate Brown

There can’t be many children (or their parents!) who haven’t looked forward to their fun-packed The Phoenix comic dropping on to their doormat.

Launched in 2012 by David Fickling Comics, The Phoenix – which celebrates its landmark 300th issue in September – is published weekly and features full-colour humour strips, jokes, puzzles and serialised stories, including the heart-thumping adventures of magical girl Tamsin.

And as part of The Phoenix Presents series, youngsters get the chance to enjoy this brilliant story strips series starring Tamsin Thomas who has discovered that she is the Last Pellar, the ancestral protector of Cornwall and the holder of a magical staff which gives her the power to fly.

When her class visits a disused old mine in Cornwall, Tamsin soon realises that there are mysterious creatures hiding underground. But something else stirs deep beneath the earth... there is a dark, ancient evil down there, one that has been trapped for a very long time.

Tamsin will need all her wits about her if she is going to confront it, and keep everyone she cares about safe...

Inspired by English folklore, Neill Cameron’s superb all-action thriller features a fearless, feisty heroine who springs to amazing life through Kate Brown’s sophisticated and atmospheric illustration panels.

So take a deep breath, dive into the deep, dark mine with Tamsin and don’t come back until it’s mission accomplished!

(David Fickling Books, paperback, £9.99)

Age 6-12:

Mega Robo Bros 2: Mega Robo Rumble by Neill Cameron

And brace yourself for a rocket-powered adventure from the very talented Neill Cameron in another highly popular The Phoenix Presents series.

These exciting, high-energy Mega Robo Bros books feature high quality, full-colour story strips packed with action, fun and comedy.

And the latest in the series, a supercharged tale of two robot brothers facing a terrifying giant drill-bot, will delight young readers and help to encourage a love of books and good storytelling.

Alex and Freddy are just like any other brothers. They are always squabbling and forever finding new ways to drive their adopted parents crazy. There’s only one difference... they are also the most powerful robots on earth.

But when duty calls, they are agents of R.A.I.D., an elite government unit that protects the world from robotic attacks. Now they are facing new and terrifying threats… a giant drill-bot is destroying London, Freddy gets famous, and even worse, a mysterious robot twisted with rage is intent on ruthlessly exacting his revenge on R.A.I.D.

With big explosions, family drama and two madcap brothers saving the day again, this fantastic robo thriller is the perfect read for your own young techno wizards!

(David Fickling Books, paperback, £9.99)

Age 2 plus:

The Last Chip by Duncan Beedie

Author and illustrator Duncan Beedie takes to the streets for this cute but clever, entertaining but educational, story about a little pigeon with a big hunger.

Set in Beedie’s home town of Bristol, The Last Chip is a charming and beautifully illustrated picture book that teaches us – in the most beguiling way – an important lesson about the power of kindness in the face of adversity.

And to reinforce that message, Beedie is giving ten per cent of profits from the sale of the this moving and uplifting book to homeless charity, The Trussell Trust, supporting a network of 425 food banks across the UK.

Life on the streets is tough, especially for a peckish, pint-sized pigeon called Percy. He’s hungry and he’s trying everything he can to get something to eat but today nothing is going his way. Every time he tries to get hold of a scrap of food, bigger, beefier birds, like ducks and seagulls, bat him away. Percy is just about to give up when someone offers him her very last chip…

With humour, the lightest of touches and a gallery of enchanting illustrations, Beedie’s story reminds us never to give up, however hard the going, and to trust in the kindness of strangers.

The wise, whimsical tale of little Percy will set everyone’s heart aflutter as we join him on his increasingly desperate hunt for food. A tough love tale with a heartwarming message tucked under its wing…

(Templar, hardback, £11.99)

Age 2 plus:

Words and Your Heart by Kate Jane Neal

Explaining emotions to little ones is never easy, but this clever, warm-hearted picture book – now in a beautifully produced hardback gift edition – provides answers in the most endearing and effective way.

Words and Your Heart, by talented author and illustrator Kate Jane Neal, is a simple story told through words and pictures but it carries a universal message of love for a world that always needs a little more kindness.

Basic words, gentle illustrations and two adorable characters, Pip and Cat, demonstrate in the most appealing way the importance of what we say – both positive and negative – and its impact on those around us.

Thoughtful, warm-hearted and reassuring, this is a book that proves the power of words and has already resonated with large numbers of children as teachers report a sea-change in the culture of their classroom after reading the story.

A clever teaching aid for home, schools and nurseries which speaks powerfully to readers of every age.

(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £6.99)