reviews 8 – 10 Junior/Middle continued

age of mansions and aristocrats and servants and horses-and-carts. It is set in a time before the age of flight, when the notion of soaring above the clouds was barely conceivable. A few wealthy adventurers are experimenting with hot air, cotton and paper (with sometimes terrifying results!) and are desperate to defeat English competitors in the race to the skies. Into this scene, tumbles (rather

unwittingly) a young, impoverished thief called Magpie. She is a worthy hero

for the any adventure aeronautical family, story:

fearless, fun, funny and accompanied throughout by an extremely sleepy rooster. Magpie enters the household of


Montgolfiers, under commission to steal

secrets. Rather than the

quick employment opportunity she predicts, it becomes an introduction to adventure. Magpie meets the young Pierre Montgolfier, and his pet duck, and the young pair soon realise that Pierre’s father will not be able to succeed in his quest for flight without their help. The pair have an enjoyable chemistry and spur each other on to find solutions that will help get

their inventions

into the air; not even Madame Montgolfier’s undergarments are safe from scientific experiments! Magpie faces a dilemma, as her

life as a thief struggles to give way to her desire to be part of history. It is her friendship with the plucky Pierre and the trust she receives from him, that helps her make the right choices. Their plans draw the attention spies and thieves and even the French king, and their journey, which began in a field clinging desperately to ropes, eventually takes the friends all the way to the royal palace at Versailles. Pierre and Magpie’s

journey is

described with a pace and energy that will ignite young imaginations, but the tale also includes many interesting references to the history of flight, as well as intriguing twists and surprises that are well-concealed. Some of the characters, particularly the villains, are


He puts salt in Jonny’s drinks, burps in his ear and teases him incessantly about his inability to climb trees. It’s a blessed relief for Jonny to rid himself of his tormentor but he soon finds that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the Internet. Jonny is sent

a parade of

replacement siblings. Each seems perfect to begin with, but invariably they have something about them that Jonny just can’t live with. Jonny fails to stipulate that he’d like a human, or even a living sibling, and, as a result, each replacement is more bizarre than the last. Readers are required to suspend their disbelief beyond the merely implausible,


the totally ridiculous, when mermen, ghosts of Tudor monarchs and even human meerkats knock on Jonny’s door. Though the resulting comedy is somewhat hit-and-miss, there is also drama and tension to be enjoyed, as Jonny begins to wonder what might have happened to his real brother, Ted.

Jonny’s misadventures with his

new siblings lead him to question his choice to swap Ted and he begins remembering all

of the things he

enjoyed about spending time with his brother. As a result, an endearing feeling of love and positivity is grown, which is welcome accompaniment to an extremely silly tone overall. Children

colourful similar

will laugh at Jonny’s language

own pesky brothers

sibling swaps for and

(‘Oh sweet

mangoes of heaven!’) and will find the Hanging Pants of Doom hilarious. Though readers will enjoy dreaming of

their sisters,

the concept and the comedy are stretched a little thin by the end. SD

The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club HHHH

Alex Bell, ill. Tomislav Tomic, Faber & Faber, 315pp, 978 0 571 33254 0, £6.99, pbk


somewhat underdeveloped, in a lack of tension or

suspense in places, but a feeling of awe and wonder is maintained throughout, and readers will share the balloonists’ sensation of being swept along into the unknown. SD

I Swapped My Brother on the Internet


Jo Simmons, ill. Nathan Reed, Bloomsbury, 291pp, 978 1 4088 7775 3, £5.99 pbk

In this humorous book, Jo Simmons explores a question that many children will have asked themselves at one time or another: what if I could swap my brother or sister for a better one? Using an exciting new website –

Sibling Swap – Jonny is granted the power to do just that. His older brother, Ted, is, naturally, extremely annoying.

of the most famous and

esteemed members of the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club adorn its entrance hall; ‘They were all men, of course, and they all seemed to have a penchant for monocles and morose moustaches’. Nothing could be more British – indeed, English – including Alex Bell’s good-natured mockery of male self-importance in what feels like a late Victorian or Edwardian setting. In fact, we’re never limited to any real-world locations or dates, which allows Bell’s characters to embark upon perilous adventures in a Frozen North where anything goes – carnivorous cabbages, untrustworthy trolls, ice palaces, yetis, mammoths and unicorns and whatever else Bell thinks might tickle the fancy of young readers. Tomislav Tomic’s enhance the plot’s icy dangers, offering many intriguing details to explore. The book begins with twelve pages

of Rules of each of the world’s four great Explorers’ Clubs. An adult reader

might find the humour of this prelude to the novel repetitious, but this would be to ignore the enjoyment readers of this age group find in re-worked jokes as they grow accustomed to a writer’s tongue-in-cheek verbal games. There is intense rivalry between the Desert Jackal, the Jungle Cat, the Ocean Squid and Polar Bear Explorers’ Clubs, reminiscent of that between Houses in early 20th Century public school stories. All the Clubs are run by elderly chaps untroubled by doubts about their innate superiority and status. One of the very occasional exceptions is Felix, a fairyologist by profession and the adoptive father of our heroine, Stella Starflake Pearl, whom we meet on the eve of her twelfth birthday. Felix found her, just a couple of years old, abandoned in the snowy wastes of the Icelands on one of his expeditions. He has made a home for her which delights them both. Stella has no conscious memories of life before Felix, though she’s

visited by recurring dreams

worthy of one of the Grimms’ most unsettling tales. Stella longs to go on an expedition

herself and, but for the rules of the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club, Felix would gladly take her. To no reader’s surprise, they get around this little difficulty, and soon she finds herself sailing North aboard The Bold Adventurer, joining three boys who have little in common with her or each other. There’s Beanie, who is part elf, which may account for his powers of healing along with his dislike of ‘small talk,

sarcasm, handshakes, hugs

and haircuts’; Shay, who’s a decent fellow, a reliable leader with an inborn talent for handling the wolves one needs to pull a sled in the Icelands; and Ethan, a magician and also an Ocean Squid Explorer with a loathing of all things Polar Bear, whose initial prickliness stems from a troubled family history which unfolds along with the adventure. In the time-honoured tradition of R.M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island, Arthur Ransome, C.S. Lewis et al, the young people are swiftly separated from the adults and must rely upon their own resources. Through their knife-edge adventures they learn loyalty and friendship, revealing their vulnerabilities along the

way. Encounters with

duplicitous frosty fairies with a taste for human fingers and outlaws holed- up in the ramshackle ‘Yak and Yeti’ drinking saloon in the middle of a frozen wilderness prepare them to some degree for their final test. Now Stella must confront temptations linked to her own origins; she is invited to wield powers over others which are both cruel and absolute. The loyalty and friendship between

the children brings them back to safety and re-unites them with ‘the waxed moustaches and fussy beards and puffy sideburns’ of the still-squabbling grown-ups. Finally home, Stella snuggles down in bed with Gruff, her pet polar bear and Buster, the pygmy dinosaur, for comfort and company. But deep inside a suitcase she’s brought

back from the Icelands, Something Nasty stirs, surely promising further desperate adventures. GF

The Light Jar HHHH

Lisa Thompson, Scholastic, 240pp, 978-1407171289, £6.99, pbk

Lisa Thompson’s poignant and

touching new novel tells stories within stories to gradually reveal its truths both to the reader and its central character, eleven-year old Nate. The opening paragraphs take us

through a tunnel to emerge into what could almost be a fairy tale world: Nate and his mum have driven away from their home in the middle of the night to take refuge in a tumbledown cottage that they visited once years ago on holiday. Nate is not sure why his mother has taken them away like this, but

from very early we’re

aware of her new partner Gary as a threatening, dangerous presence in the background. The next day Nate’s mum drives out into the snow to buy food leaving Nate to tend the fire, and she doesn’t return. In the days that follow two children keep Nate company, one is his old imaginary friend, Sam, the other a girl called Kitty who comes from the big house on the estate, and doesn’t seem to be quite of the real world either. It’s through his conversations with the two of them that the reader learns about the misery of Nate’s home life with Gary, a manipulative bully who has, quite literally, taken the light out of the family’s life. Helping Kitty to untangle the clues to an old treasure hunt enables Nate to get back his sense of self-worth, and then to find his mum too.


are echoes of classic

children’s stories in the snowy setting of woods and estate garden and also in Nate’s ghostly/other-worldly companions and both cleverly temper the bleakness of the domestic abuse storyline, though we are left in no doubt as to the horrible impact of Gary’s coercive behaviour. Thompson’s

ambitious, original

and thoroughly absorbing book tells a big story with a light touch. AR

Books for Keeps No.228 January 2018 27

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