A misfit witch, a riotous robot and football heroes - book reviews

Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Dayby Dominique Valente and Sarah Warburton
Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Dayby Dominique Valente and Sarah Warburton
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Meet a witch desperately trying to save the day, a robot with one leg in the past, some fleet-footed female football stars, and a mouse who likes to think big in a super, sparkling collection of May children’s books.

Age 8 plus:

Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day

Dominique Valente and Sarah Warburton

If magic holds you spellbound then step into the amazing and mesmerising world conjured up by South-African born author Dominique Valente in the first book of a fabulous new fantasy series.

Illustrated throughout with the vibrant and atmospheric illustrations of Sarah Warburton, Starfell is a must-read for young fantasy fans as they follow the thrilling adventures of misfit witch Willow who suddenly finds the fate of her remarkable land in her rather unremarkable hands.

‘Whatever happened to last Tuesday may affect the very fabric of Starfell, causing it to unravel slowly, thread by thread.’

Willow Moss is the youngest and least powerful sister in a family of witches. Her sister Camille can move things with her mind and their mother can speak to the dead, but Willow’s power is a little more ordinary. She has a magical ability for finding lost things – like keys, or socks, or wooden teeth. Her magic might be useful, but it’s not exactly exciting.

But then Moreg Vaine, the most powerful and feared witch in the world of Starfell, turns up at Willow’s door and asks for her help.

A whole day – last Tuesday to be precise – has gone missing, completely and utterly missing, just mysteriously vanished right off the calendar. And without it, the whole universe could unravel in the most devastating way. Now Willow holds the fate of Starfell in her hands. Can she save the day – by finding the lost one?

Children will love joining Willow on her action-packed adventure in a world that has been exquisitely imagined and created by Valente. Expect to meet incredible creatures like trolls, kobolds, witches, dragons, and Willow’s monstrously funny, adorably grumpy friend Oswin who looks like a cat (but is actually a ‘monster’) and lives under her bed.

Starfell is a sparkling, star-dusted adventure with lashings of warmth, humour and magic, and some serious messages about the importance of using our abilities whatever they might be, the strength that is found in friendship and team work, and the power of good to overcome evil.

A bewitching start to a brilliant new series…

(HarperCollins Children’s Books, hardback, £12.99)

Age 10 plus:

The Wild Folk Rising

Sylvia V. Linsteadt

A beautiful, fantastical world in danger of destruction… if that seems to be a parallel of the dangers facing planet Earth, then it’s meant to.

The second and final book in US author’s Sylvia V. Linsteadt’s magical and timely Stargold Chronicles continues the enchanting, timeless adventure that began with The Wild Folk and delivers the same important environmental messages.

The Wild Folk of Farallone are in desperate trouble. The City Brothers have discovered that the Country they thought a barren place is actually teeming with stargold and so they have invaded, hell-bent on destruction.

Country girl Comfrey and City boy Tin are the only humans the Wild Folk trust and they must save these people from the evil clutches of the City Brothers. On a journey from the deadly Underworld to the highest mountain, they will need all their courage and ingenuity to stop the devastation of the land they love.

This is another fabulous, wonder-filled story, steeped in the lush beauty of the natural world and played out against a beguiling, atmospheric landscape full of the mystery, myth and folklore of the best-loved classics.

Linsteadt’s descriptive powers add extra poignancy and ecological urgency to an exciting, epic tale of daring and impossible challenges and starring two intrepid youngsters battling to save their world as well as the ingrained distrust of the Wild Folk and a ruthless enemy.

Carefully researched and brimming with imaginative potency, this is a tale of our times set in a thrilling fantasy world.

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)

Age 9 plus:

Runaway Robot

Frank Cottrell Boyce and Steven Lenton

After a two-year gap, award-winning storyteller extraordinaire and comic genius Frank Cottrell Boyce is bouncing back with a full-throttle, rip-roaring adventure starring a boy whose best friend is… an irrepressibly rambunctious robot!

The inventive funny man behind the 21st century return of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and one of the masterminds behind the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, has exhilarated and entertained thousands of youngsters with his series of laugh-out-loud books which began with the perennial favourite The Astounding Broccoli Boy and has included Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth and Cosmic.

Full of heart and humour, this new standalone novel – featuring the glorious illustrations of Cottrell Boyce’s talented illustration team-mate Steven Lenton – is set in a futuristic world and was inspired by the author’s trip to the robot exhibition at London’s Science Museum. After discovering Eric, the first ‘robot’ ever created, and how one day Eric miraculously escaped and never returned, Frank’s imagination ran away with the story!

Alfie has had a terrible accident in which he lost both his hands and his confidence and now he hides himself away at the Limb Lab where they teach you New Limb, New Life lessons which encourage you not to think too much about how your accident happened.

But he also likes going to the airport where he can enjoy imagining himself flying off to exciting destinations instead of going to lessons at the Limb Lab, and it’s on the shelves at the airport Lost Property counter that Alfie finds Eric, a giant, one-legged robot who is desperate for a friend.

But has Alfie taken on more than he bargained for? Eric has lost half his memory as well as a leg and he’s super strong, but super clumsy. And Eric is convinced that he is the very latest technology when he is actually nearly one hundred years old and ready for the scrapheap.

What’s worse is that a ban on humanoid robots has just been passed which means Alfie is breaking the law by sheltering Eric. Can he find a way to save Eric from destruction… before Eric destroys everything around him?

This funny and heartwarming adventure starring two unlikely best friends, who help put themselves back together again in more ways than one, is full of Cottrell Boyce’s wisdom, compassion and understanding of what it means to be outside what is viewed as the ‘norm.’

The world he imagines is cleverly conceived and the spirit of fun and adventure is pure Cottrell Boyce, but there are also messages about acceptance and diversity, tucked away between the madcap antics, which will resonate with readers of every age.

Expect plenty of laughs, some unexpected twists and turns, and a big smile as the last page turns.

(Macmillan, hardback, £12.99)

Age 9 plus:

Lily and the Rockets

Rebecca Stevens

As the best women football players from around the globe prepare for the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer, travel back in time to meet a bunch of girls who set the standard for today’s female football stars.

Rebecca Stevens, acclaimed author of the moving, war-themed novels Valentine Joe and Rose in the Blitz, brings young readers a timeless story of football, friendship and determination set against the backdrop of the First World War when women’s teams often drew in large crowds eager to watch a game of football.

‘Oh, I remember that day. Me and Amy May, Amy May and me, lying in the grass on Plumstead Marshes, the sun on our faces and the world at our feet. We’d left school that afternoon, finished for ever, and we felt that anything was possible. We were fourteen and we’d been best friends since time began.’

‘What would you do, Lily Dodd,’ Amy May was saying, ‘if you could have any job in the world?’

‘That was easy. Goalkeeper,’ I said.

In 1917, Lily Dodd spends her days working in a munitions factory at Woolwich in London, her nights picking metal out of her hair, and her lunchtimes kicking a ball with her workmates. Lily is good at playing football and she knows it, but finding a women’s team is another matter.

Determined to play the game they love, the girls form a football team, the Rockets, and a league soon follows. But when the war ends, the girls lose both their jobs and their football. But Lily won’t accept that. If her only chance of being a goalie is to play with the men, then that is what she’ll do…

Lily and the Rockets was inspired by the Woolwich Arsenal Rocket Ladies FC, one of the female-only teams that thrived while the men were away during the Great War, some commanding stadium-sized audiences.

However, once the war ended, the FA placed a ban on women playing, a ban that lasted for fifty years. But with women’s football back in the spotlight, and the Women’s World Cup set to fire up the months of June and July, Lily and her friends are set to inspire a new generation of female footballers.

(Chicken House, paperback, £6.99)

Age 7 plus:

Ultimate Football Heroes: Kirby, Marta, Morgan and Smith

Charlotte Browne

And if young football fans want to check out some of the top talent appearing at the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer, here are four super books exploring the stories of world-class women footballers both on and off the pitch.

Ultimate Football Heroes features biographies telling the life stories of the best footballers in the world, and has sold over 382,000 copies over the last four years. From Beckham, Messi and Salah to Mbappé, Kane and Ronaldo – and now with four female players added to the list – children can read all about their favourite players’ journeys from the playground to the pitch.

This inspirational and informative series evokes all the excitement and passion of the game of football. Written in a fast-paced, action-packed style, which is easily accessible for young readers, the stories bring each player’s unique journey to life… from their first footballing experiences as children, what led them to play for their country, and on to their greatest moments playing for club and country.

As well as their individual stories, each book also features fantastic additional material including player profiles, statistics and timelines.

In Kirby, we meet Fran Kirby, the dynamic striker who carries the future of English football on her shoulders. Having been hailed ‘mini Messi’ by one former manager of England, Kirby’s powerful runs and clinical finishing have made her a deadly goal scorer. Read the story of how the girl from Reading earned a big move to Chelsea and took on the world with a ball at her feet..

And discover the life of Marta Vieira da Silva, commonly known as Marta, the best footballer in the history of the women’s game. The Brazilian has jaw-dropping flair and skill, and has scored more World Cup goals than any other player, winning FIFA World Player of the Year six times. But pure talent alone was never enough… this book tells the story of how Marta chased her dreams with determination and a never-give-up attitude to earn the right to be called the best player ever.

Morgan focuses on Alex Morgan who is co-captain of Team USA and the face of women’s football right across the world. As the star who leads the American attacking line, her height, speed and skill make her impossible to defend, and have helped drive USA to World Cup and Olympic glory. Morgan is football's real life ‘Captain America.’

And finally, we meet Kelly Smith who was already so good at just nine years old that she was running rings around the boys at her local club and scoring goals for fun. But angry parents complained she was making their sons look silly, and Kelly had to move to a girls’ team. From that day, she knew she had to be twice as skilful and brave as any boy to succeed in the game she loved. Smith is the story of how the girl from Watford refused to be held back, and became an Arsenal superstar and the England women’s national team’s top scorer.

With incredible journeys from childhood fan to superstar professional player, these books are perfect for all the family to read, collect and share.

(Dino Books, paperback, £5.99 each)

Age 6 plus:

Al’s Awesome Science: Busy Bodies!

Jane Clarke and James Brown

Science isn’t just fascinating… it’s positively awesome!

Join a pair of madcap, science-mad twins in this inventive and entertaining children’s fiction series which makes learning an adventure full of knockabout fun and comes from Five Quills, a small independent publisher with big ideas on books for younger readers.

Five Quills is on a mission to fill its books with lively illustrations and carefully written stories, making them perfect for reading aloud and sharing with both new and experienced readers.

Al’s Awesome Experiments is written by Jane Clarke, the talented author of over 80 books for young children who has mastered the science of fun-filled storytelling, while James Brown’s charismatic black and white illustrations add extra comedy and energy to this inspirational series.

Be prepared to laugh out loud but also share a few poignant moments as twins Al and Lottie continue their quest to make a time travel machine so they can go back in time to meet their Great Grandpa Boffin, and their father who died a few years ago, leaving their mum sad.

The energetic twins are always one step away from trouble… eight-year-old Al is fascinated by science. He spends his time experimenting to test his theories and create his favourite inventions while his twin sister Lottie is crazy about biology, geology and the natural world. Their antics often have unexpected – and very messy – consequences!

And in this new all-action story, Al, along with Lottie and their friends Mia and Flip, are researching the effects on his body of travelling in a time machine. Trouble is it’s hard to experiment without any mess, especially when your neighbour’s cat Precious is in the same house with Al's naughty dog Einstein. Experiments about the effects of space travel, including digestion, nutrition, motion sickness, magnetic fields, vision and balance, are all explored in in a fun and entertaining way.

Al is an inspirational young scientist who never gives up and curious kids will love trying out their own experiments at the back of the book.

Al’s Awesome Science is ideal for children who are becoming confident readers and ready to move on to chapter books. With step-by-step experiments to try at home, all taken from Al’s own notebook, this is an entertaining and accessible introduction to scientific principles.

The science of having fun while learning!

(Five Quills, paperback, £6.99)

Age 6 plus:

Aladdin: Disney Animated Classics

Adapted by Lily Murray

Enjoy a classic fairy tale as you have never before seen it!

Aladdin is the stunning new title in Disney Animated Classics, a sparkling series from Studio Press with each book presenting an enchanting retelling of Walt Disney’s eternally popular films as seen through the animator’s eye.

These beautiful hardback books with their premium cloth binding, ribbon marker to match the cover, gold foil stamping and illustrated endpapers, make the perfect gifts for all those who have been spellbound by the magic of Disney’s famous animated classic films.

The series includes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Dumbo and now Aladdin, some of the best-loved films of all time and family favourites for over eighty years.

Relive the star-dusted magic through Lily Murray’s retelling of the classic animated film, accompanied by paintings, story sketches and concept art from the original Disney Studio artists. Also featured is a foreword by Yasser Hamed, Crowds Supervisor at the Walt Disney Animation Studios.

And when the story is finished, youngsters can turn to the back of the book to learn more about the artists who worked on the memorable animated film.

These sumptuous books, full of atmospheric retellings and fascinating illustrations, are perfect for both Disney fans and young collectors.

(Studio Press, hardback, £12.99)

Age 5 plus:

The Unlucky Eleven

Phil Earle and Steve May

Award-winning author Phil Earle invites us to join a comical and calamity-prone football team in the latest brilliantly readable book for Barrington Stoke’s much-loved Little Gems series.

The Little Gem books bring together leading authors and illustrators, and a host of clever design and finishing techniques, to create super readable books in a chunky format ideal for little hands, and with some extra reading, jokes and activity fun hiding inside the jacket flaps.

Featuring a larger-than-life cast of footie fanatics and a colourful gallery of Steve May’s distinctively wacky and wonderful illustrations, this crazy new caper is the perfect match for all young soccer fans.

Ridiculous injuries, strange illnesses, cancelled games... everything is going wrong for the previously successful Saints football team this season, and Stanley’s team-mates believe they finally know why. Their football kit is under the control of a terrible curse! But the team’s madcap attempts to break the curse lead to injury, embarrassment and further humiliation. And by the last game of the season, they are ready to call it quits. However, Stanley has still got some tricks up his sleeve… will his curse-cracking ideas save the team in time for that last important game?

Whether your child is a new, struggling, reluctant or dyslexic reader, this laughter-packed Little Gem could be just what they are looking for. Add on the football factor and everyone will be cheering until the final whistle blows!

(Barrington Stoke, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

The Tide

Clare Helen Welsh and Ashling Lindsay

Being old and confused can be troubling for little children so here’s a warm and sensitive book that puts dementia in a new and enlightening picture.

With an increasingly ageing population, and dementia diagnoses expected to double in the next decade, it is vital that youngsters are equipped with the understanding and empathy to help a loved one with dementia to live well.

Author Clare Helen Welsh was inspired to write this moving book by the experiences of her husband’s grandmother who suffered from dementia. Even when the illness had taken a firm grip, Welsh observed that she loved to be around children, especially her grandchildren.

The result is a simple but extraordinarily emotive story, suffused with warmth and empathy, perfectly capturing a child’s perspective on understanding a family member’s memory loss, and brought to life by Ashling Lindsay’s gentle but joyful illustrations.

Grandad doesn’t remember things like he used to and when the family go to the beach for the day, he does strange things like burying his sandwiches in the sand. But his granddaughter still loves him as much as she always has and they can still share adventures like searching for starfish and jumping from rock pool to rock pool. And the little girl knows know that her Grandad loves her very much.

The words dementia and Alzheimer’s are avoided but at its heart is a clear-eyed, straightforward story about the love between a grandparent and grandchild with imagery of memory ebbing like the tide… a gentle metaphor to open conversations with children.

Lindsay’s stunning use of colour and texture encapsulates the magic of the seaside and her characters are portrayed with a warmth and charm which will appeal to younger readers.

This beautiful, sensitive picture book is a visual feast of ideas, family love and understanding differences in age groups, and will touch the hearts of readers of every generation, providing comfort and enlightenment.

(Little Tiger Press, hardback, £11.99)

Age 3 plus:

It’s Your World Now!

Barry Falls

The world is full of marvellous things!

Belfast author and illustrator Barry Falls puts the powers of possibility at centre stage in a beautiful and thoughtfully created debut picture book that will inspire little ones to embrace life and relish the world around them.

This gorgeous, rhyming story – packed with Falls’ vibrant, colour-soaked illustrations – celebrates every child’s potential and a parent’s unconditional love, but also explains some of the setbacks that life inevitably throws up.

‘So go and play and live and learn.

It’s your world now, this is your turn to think and ask and make and do.

The world is magic, just like you!’

From cats that purr, birds that sing and ships that sail the ocean to brightly coloured butterflies, autumn leaves and ice-cream sundaes, the world has so much to offer and it is there for the taking. Perhaps a child will be an astronaut, an athlete, a film director, a deep sea diver, a nurse, a doctor or a judge.

But every child should also be aware that you can’t always be the best, finish first, live the dream, claim the prize for every game and hear people chant your name. However, it’s important to go in your own direction and discover on your own who you are and why you’re here.

A beautiful and funny celebration of the world and the potential of each and every child. This is the perfect book to read out loud – helping children to appreciate the wonderful things that exist in the world, and the great things that they can do, as well as allowing them to understand some of the setbacks that may happen. And whatever happens, the child is reassured that their parents will always love them.

(Pavilion Children’s Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age 2 plus:

I am a Tiger

Karl Newson and Ross Collins

Some books make you sigh, some books make you cry, and some books make you scared… but here’s a book that will make you laugh out loud!

I am a Tiger is a super-clever, fun-filled picture book from the dynamic new author and illustrator team of rising star Karl Newson and award-winning illustrator Ross Collins, noted for his distinctive bold and vibrant artwork.

Here, they set their talents to the witty and wonderful story of a little mouse with very big ideas and no shortage of confidence.

The shining star of this adorable tale is a charismatic little mouse who boldly declares ‘I am a tiger’ and manages to convince a raccoon, a fox, a snake and a bird not only that this is true, but that they are not what they think they are. But when a real tiger turns up, can the persuasive and fearless little rodent manage to persuade the tiger that he is a mouse?

I am a Tiger is the first of a trio of picture books from the exciting Newson-Collins team and it’s a miles of smiles and cheese-filled cracker with an irrepressible sense of fun and playful exuberance that will appeal to readers young and old.

(Macmillan Children’s Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age 2 plus:

Barry the Fish with Fingers

Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet

He’s back with those fishy fingers… a ten-year reminder of why children – and their parents! – all fell in love with the inimitable and lovable Barry!

Grab a copy of this anniversary edition of the eternally popular story of a very special sea creature written by the award-winning duo Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet, and discover why the tale of Barry and his fishy friends has sold over 1.35 million copies in the last decade.

We’ve all seen fish that can blow bubbles, but what about a fish with fingers?

Fish come from all over the ocean to see Puffy the Puffer Fish’s amazing bubbles. Big bubbles, small bubbles, square bubbles… they have never seen anything quite so amazing. That is until Barry arrives on the scene. Barry is a fish with fingers and he’s going to put them to good use. The fish are amazed. Life under the sea will never be the same again…

The new confetti-filled, foiled cover, which features other favourite Hendra and Linnet characters like Norman the Slug, No-Bat, Doug the Bug and Supertato, is the perfect celebration of Barry’s ten fin-tastic years as a picture book hero!

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)