Venetian adventures, a wild Wonderland, and a moonlit menagerie by various authors - book reviews -

The Mask of Aribella
The Mask of Aribella
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Discover good and evil in a thriller novel set in Venice, enjoy a graphic version of Alice in Wonderland, journey to a moonlight zoo, and join two bears on an epic journey in a super selection of January children’s books.

Discover good and evil in a thriller novel set in Venice, enjoy a graphic version of Alice in Wonderland, journey to a moonlight zoo, and join two bears on an epic journey in a super selection of January children’s books.

Age 9 plus:

The Mask of Aribella

Anna Hoghton

Set sail for the ancient city of Venice and enjoy a soaraway fantasy adventure full of magic and danger as award-winning young poet and film-maker Anna Hoghton launches her thrilling debut novel.

Hoghton, who lives in Bristol, is certainly making waves with her lyrical, atmospheric depiction of the famous Italian floating city in a middle-grade story that sweeps young readers away to mysterious canals, busy Piazza San Marco with its towering campanile, and the glittering lagoon.

Set in the age of the Venetian Republic, when the Doges ruled the city state, The Mask of Aribella conjures up a richly detailed historical landscape where power corrupts, evil comes from both the real and supernatural worlds, and friendship and bravery must win the day.

Aribella lives in Venice, the daughter of an impoverished lace-maker who has never recovered from the death of Aribella’s mother ten years ago. But on the eve of her thirteenth birthday, Aribella discovers she has a secret and deadly power… when angered, flames shoot from her fingertips.

Frightened, and unable to keep her fiery weapon hidden, she flees, but when dark spectres rise from the lagoon, the fire in her hands saves her life. A stranger witnesses the attack and, through him, Aribella leaves her old life behind and discovers the world of the Cannovacci, the masked, magical warriors sworn to defend Venice.

Now Aribella and her new friends must battle the strange spectres menacing the city, but can they defeat the evil rising from the Island of the Dead?

Hoghton’s experiences as a film-maker and wordsmith shine through in this visually exciting and action-packed evocation of medieval Venice which stars a cast of superbly drawn characters, some enthralling adventures, and breathtaking fantasy scenes.

Brimming with darkness and light, The Mask of Aribella delivers resonant messages about trust, empathy, compassion, and being true to yourself… but there are also lashings of accessible friendship and fun, making this the real deal when it comes to all-round middle-grade entertainment.

(Chicken House, paperback, £6.99)

Age 7 plus:

Alice in Wonderland Graphic Novel

Russell Punter and Simona Bursi

Watch Alice fall down that famous rabbit hole in a fantastic, eye-catching graphic version of Lewis Carroll’s 19th century masterpiece.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, originally published in 1865, has been a much-loved classic for over 150 years and now a new digital-age audience of young readers can engage both visually and verbally with Alice’s journey through this exciting comic-strip format.

According to recent reports, sales of graphic novels, especially those aimed at younger readers, are overtaking those of monthly superhero comics for the first time ever. They are attracting a devoted army of young readers who find traditional novels a hard slog by allowing them to get straight to the action without wading through pages of wordy description.

Author Russell Punter, who has written a series of graphic novels for children’s publisher Usborne, reckons that Carroll’s quirky characters – the frantic White Rabbit, the terrifying Queen of Hearts and the intriguing Mad Hatter ­– were simply made for graphic novels.

Simona Bursi’s fabulous illustrations bring Alice’s strange and magical world – including that invisible Cheshire cat and a crazy caterpillar – to vibrant life in this beautifully produced and presented book which aims to introduce a whole new generation to the mad, mad world of Wonderland.

A thoroughly modern twist on a timeless fantasy tale…

(Usborne, paperback, £9.99)

Age 6 plus:

All the Dear Little Animals

Ulf Nilsson and Eva Eriksson

The cycle of life and death is one of the most difficult lessons a child must learn…

So here’s a beautiful, sensitively written and gently funny story, useful as an introduction to the subject, and to help them understand the concept of death in an everyday, unsentimental, child’s view context of play.

All the Dear Little Animals is the work of Swedish team, celebrated children’s author Ulf Nilsson and award-winning illustrator Eva Eriksson, and comes from Gecko Press, a New Zealand-based independent publisher of ‘curiously good’ children’s books whose mission to translate works by some of the world’s best writers and illustrators.

Translated by Julia Marshall, All the Dear Little Animals was first published as a picture book but is now available in this chapter book format, and tells the story of three children who decide someone must bury all the world’s poor dead animals.

‘The whole world is full of dead things,’ says Esther. ‘In every bush there is a bird, a butterfly, a mouse. Someone must be kind and look after them. Someone must make a sacrifice and see that all these things are buried.’

So one summer’s day, Esther and two other children start a business called Funerals Ltd to help all the dead little creatures that they find, whether it’s a bee on a windowsill, a hedgehog killed on the road, or a neighbour’s hamster. Esther is brave and does the digging, another child writes the poems, and Esther’s little brother, Puttie, cries, but they bury the animals with kindness and care.

Early readers will love the dry humour and simple but powerful story which answers many of the questions children might ask about death in the familiar and comforting context of outdoor playtime.

The ideal way to explore and explain death to younger children …

(Gecko Press, paperback, £7.99)

Age 3 plus:

The Moonlight Zoo

Maudie Powell-Tuck and Karl James Mountford

The hunt for a lost cat is the sparkling launch pad for a dreamy bedtime picture book starring a mesmerising moonlit menagerie.

Peep-through pages and breathtaking illustrations from top-notch illustrator Karl James Mountford help to turn an animal-packed adventure into a magical odyssey in this lush and lovely amalgam of words and pictures.

Eva has looked everywhere for her missing cat, Luna, and worries she is cold, scared and all alone in the night. Then, under her bed, she discovers the Moonlight Zoo, a magical place for all lost or departed animals. There, amongst lions and elephants, she sees parrots, dogs, wolves, guinea pigs and even a polar bear... but can Eva find Luna before the zoo fades at dawn?

Maudie Powell-Tuck’s gentle story speaks loudly and reassuringly to children who have lost a beloved pet, while Mountford’s illustrations, featuring carefully blended pastel shades, bring a comforting brand of warmth to the action.

With its intricately detailed and blue-foiled, peep-through cover, this is an ideal gift and the perfect wind-down book for bedtime reading.

(Little Tiger Press, hardback, £12.99)

Age 3 plus:

Two Bears: An epic journey of hope

Patricia Hegarty and Rotem Teplow

Join two bears who live on opposite sides of the world as they set out on epic journeys that will prove that, sometimes, differences are only skin-deep.

This moving, inspirational tale of climate change, survival and togetherness comes from children’s author Patricia Hegarty in a heartwarming picture book filled with the colourful and atmospheric illustrations of Israeli artist Rotem Teplow.

Polar Bear lives in the frozen lands of the Arctic while Grizzly Bear lives in the heart of the northern forests. Polar enjoys swimming in the icy blue ocean while Grizzly’s hunting ground stretches through pine woods and sparkling rivers. When changes to the climate means the two bears must flee their habitats, they begin to despair until a miracle happens and they find each other. Can they make a new home together and make their lives complete again?

With an informative fact guide to the plight of bears as they lose their habitats and become threatened with extinction, and tips for young readers on how we can help them survive through the simplest of ways, this is both an endearing and enlightening story and an inspiration to help save the planet.

An easy-to-read and beautifully illustrated story with a powerful message…

(Caterpillar Books, hardback, £11.99)

Age 3 plus:

Three Classic Adventures of Supertato

Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet

Enjoy a tasty triple helping of Supertato… the most a-peeling veg in the supermarket!

Always there when the chips are down, Supertato is a picture book superhero with his eyes firmly fixed on the bad guys and always ready to play out of his skin. His wacky, calorie-consuming adventures amongst fridges, friends and foes have been cooked up by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet, the award-winning duo who created Barry the Fish with Fingers.

And if you haven’t already met this swashbuckling spud, then here’s the chance to tuck into three Supertato adventures in one brilliant book.

In Veggies Assemble, Supertato is rooting for the root vegetables! One evil pea was bad enough, but now there are bags of them on a roll in the supermarket. The Evil Pea is on the loose and there is anarchy in the aisles. He has switched off all the freezers which means that all the peas have turned bad… really bad! Can our supermarket superhero avert disaster? Or is he going to need backup?

In Run, Veggies, Run! the veggies end up in hot water when a giant interloper hijacks fun time. It’s Sports Day in the supermarket and all the veggies are in training. Everyone has been practising hard and is ready and raring to go. However, a mysterious new competitor has joined the event, accompanied by the Evil Pea, and is determined to win all the prizes. Things don’t seem quite right… but will Supertato be able to foil yet another evil plan by his green nemesis?

And in Evil Pea Rules! Supertato once more pitted against the Evil Pea. It’s all very well being a superhero and saving the day, but what if there was no one there to cause the chaos, to provide these heroes with their chances to shine? Would we even need superheroes? Fortunately, this isn’t something we will have to worry about any time soon because the Evil Pea is back and this time he has his biggest, most dastardly plan yet to take over the supermarket…

Big, bold and bright illustrations help these funny, fast-moving vegetable adventures boil over as the spud with superpowers makes mincemeat of the perfidious Evil Pea.

One taste of Supertato, and little ones will be begging for more!

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £9.99)

Age 3 plus:

The (Ferocious) Chocolate Wolf

Lizzie Finlay

The traditional tale of a big bad wolf gets a gentle kick in its big sharp teeth in a heart-melting, chocolate-filled picture book from award-winning author and illustrator Lizzie Finlay.

The (Ferocious) Chocolate Wolf is clever and beautifully imagined alternative fairy tale starring a wolf called Ferocious who must convince the frightened townsfolk that he doesn’t want to eat them… he just wants THEM to eat his home-made chocolates!

Ferocious is an unusual sort of wolf. He loves chocolates and dreams of making the finest ones in the land. Now, he’s perfected his craft and can’t wait to share it with the animals in town. But when he opens his new chocolate shop, nobody dares to even come near. ‘He surely has a dastardly plan to eat them all,’ clucks Mrs Chicken. Lonely and outcast, Ferocious’ dreams are dashed. Then, one brave Piggy bucks the trend and is richly rewarded with delicious chocolates and a new friendship that turns tables on everyone’s expectations and prejudices.

Finlay’s endearing story of love, acceptance and friendship is brimming with wonderfully vibrant and expressive illustrations, inspirational messages about rejecting prejudice, and a cast of animal characters that will delight both children and adults.

Three cheers for the wolf in chocolatier’s clothing!

(Five Quills, paperback, £6.99)