Wednesday 30 December 2015

Darren's Favourite Middle Grade Titles of 2015

Every year since 2010 I have posted a list of my favourite books of the year over at my blog, The Book Zone (For Boys). This year, that list is going to appear first here on MGSB, albeit missing a small number of YA books that I loved in 2015.

This originally started out as a Top 10 of 2015 post, although I had a nagging feeling that this might not be as easy as I originally thought as 2015 has been a tremendous year for mg books in the UK. A quick look back through my goodreads account showed a huge list of MG books that I have given 5 stars to in 2015, so I've had to engage my brain even more to decide which among all those A Grade books should be elevated to the equivalent of the GCSE A*.

And so, in no particular order, other than to leave my personal favourite middle grade book of 2015 to the end, these are the books I truly loved in 2015:

Bloodstone by Allan Boroughs

The sequel to the author's 2014 debut, the fabulous Ironheart. It's a hugely enjoyable action/adventure story in a post-apocalyptic setting filled with wonderful characters.

Fire Girl by Matt Ralphs

In Fire Girl, author Matt Ralphs has created a thoroughly entertaining blend of alternative English history and thrilling magical fantasy. Everything about this book is great: the plot, the pace and above all the characters. Special mention should also be given to Bramley the dormouse and one of my favourite lines of the year: "That's it, witch-child, burn it all down!"

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

A thrilling middle grade historical mystery story set in Restoration London. The Blackthorn Key is perfect for lovers of mystery thrillers, and young readers will find the London of 1665 brought completely alive for them as they race through its back streets and alleyways with the young protagonist, Christopher. 

Demolition Dad by Phil Earle

A cracking middle grade British comedy stories, in a similar vein to Walliams and Dahl. It is laugh-out-loud funny and chock full of wonderfully engaging and endearing characters, elements that should make this a guaranteed  hit with young readers.

Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Hall by Gabrielle Kent

The last 18 months has seen a number of children's books featuring magic and adventure. Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Hall is, in my opinion, easily the best so far. It has shapeshifters, mythical creatures, time travel, ancient druidic magic, a rather splendid and mysterious butler, and the wonderful Hexbridge Castle itself - almost a character in its own right.

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

Katherine Rundell did not disappoint with her first book to be published since the multi-award winning Rooftoppers. A future classic is a phrase too often used these days, but rarely has it been more deserved than when applied to this thrilling, humorous and heart-warming story. 

Urban Outlaws by Peter Jay Black

This year has seen the release of two books in Peter Jay Black's thrilling Urban Outlaws series, Blackout and Lockdown. With its blend of heists, action and hi-tech adventure, this exciting, hi-octane series has now become one of my favourite series of the last year or so.

Murder Most Unladylike mysteries by Robin Stevens

This is another current favourite series that has seen the release of two books this year, both of them even better than last year's fabulous Murder Most Unladylike. Arsenic for Tea introduced us to Daisy Well's wonderfully dysfunctional family, and then First Class Murder took the two girls on murder-filled journey on the Orient Express. Jolly Foul Play is one of my most anticipated reads of 2016.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

Middle grade mystery stories are enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, led of course by Robin Stevens. With her debut, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, Katherine Woodfine has leapt into the fray. The setting of a new department store in Edwardian London is wonderfully realised and the perfect location for this thrilling mystery adventure sotry.

Hamish and the Worldstoppers by Danny Wallace (illustrated by Jamie Littler)

The past 18 months have seen a much greater number of middle grade books published with accompanying illustrations. Danny Wallace's debut for kids, Hamish and the Worldstoppers, is my favourite of those published in 2015, both in story and artwork. It is the kind of book that has something for everyone: action, adventure, humour, fantasy and brave kids fighting battles against nasty monsters from another dimension.

The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford

This modern, exciting and very funny take on the classic genie-in-the-lamp tale still has me chuckling now when I think about it, many months later. You see, it has a talking finger monkey called Phillip, and it's worth reading purely for this. However, if you expect more from your books than a talking finger monkey called Phillip, then it is also a thoroughly entertaining, funny mystery adventure story.

And my favourite middle grade book of 2015 is (and this will come as little surprise to some as I have been signing its merits all year):
The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone

I have heaped so much praise on this book over the past year that I am finding it difficult to find any superlatives that I have not already utilised. Simply put, in a year when there have been so many fabulous middle grade books published in the UK, Abi Elphinstone's debut, The Dreamsnatcher, still manages to stand head and shoulders above the rest. The sequel, The Shadow Keeper, would be the book I am most looking forward to reading in 2016 if I hadn't already been incredibly fortunate to be sent an early proof. Needless to say, when it arrived I dropped everything to read it, and hand on heart, I can honestly say it is even more wonderful and magical than The Dreamsnatcher.

Sunday 20 December 2015

MG Strikes Back Rest of the Best of the Year – sorry, no MG AT ALL!

Hello, and Merry Christmas! I’m abusing my position shockingly today, veering away from middle-grade entirely; instead, I’m seizing the opportunity to celebrate some of the picture books and young fiction which got lost from my round-ups because of word-counts and lay-outs.  All would make ideal Christmas presents for littluns, new readers, or anyone who appreciates superb illustration and scant words that pack a punch…There are also *whispers* a couple of YA titles in here too. But I will be back with more brilliant MG in the New Year - it looks like 2016 will be another fantastic year for middle grade and children’s publishing generally. I can’t wait!

Where’s The Elephant? by Barroux (Egmont)
Beautiful seek-and-find picture book, with an affecting conservationist message.
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Super Happy Magic Forest by Matty Long (OUP)
Outrageous, irreverent comic-book spin on the classic fantasy quest – will enthral children and adults alike!
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The Zoomers’ Handbook by Ana and Thiago de Moraes (Andersen)
Have you got what it takes to be a Zoomer-keeper? Splendidly anarchic picture book, full of shigers, dogephants and horsodiles. 

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Refuge by Anne Booth, illus. Sam Usher (Nosy Crow)
Moving retelling of the Christmas story, beautifully illustrated, with a warm, universal feel. (All proceeds go to War Child UK.)
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Pirates in Pyjamas by Caroline Crowe, illus. Tom Knight (Little Tiger)
What do pirates wear to bed? You’d be surprised! Joyous, rhyming, onesie-wearing romp.
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How Many Legs? by Katja Spitzer (Flying Eye)
Ice-creams, unicorns, cowboys – a bold, bright little counting book with a difference, perfect for toddler-sized hands.
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Mango and Bambang: The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber, illus. Clara Vulliamy (Walker)
Mango is lonely in the Very Busy City - but when she meets striped tapir Bambang, she knows she’s
found the perfect friend.  Adorable animal adventure.
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The Official Astronaut’s Handbook by Louie Stowell and Roger Simo (Usborne)
Superb factual how-to about what it takes to be an astronaut, with a foreword by Tim Peake.
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Harper and the Scarlet Umbrella by Cerrie Burnell, illus. Laura Ellen Anderson (Scholastic)
Transporting tale of umbrella-borne flight, disappearing cats, and a very special apartment block, from an outstanding author-illustrator team.
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The Wonder Garden by Jenny Broom, illus. Kristjana S Williams (Wide-Eyed Editions)
Vivid, evocative journey through some of the world’s richest and wildest habitats.
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Timeline by Peter Goes (Gecko)
Subtle, involving illustrated history of the world, from the Big Bang to the iPod and beyond.
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The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew (Hot Key)
In a Britain under Nazi rule, what would contemporary teenagers’ lives look like? Jessika Keller’s father is a high-ranking Reich official, and Jessika has always been a good girl. But her dearest friend, Clementine, has not…Devastating, thought-provoking alternate history.

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One by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)

Only Sarah Crossan (The Weight of Water) could write a verse novel about conjoined twins, and effortlessly break the reader’s heart. Tippi and Grace have never been apart, never been to school, until the money for their tuition runs out. Mainstream education is a challenge. But they adapt – and then Tippi becomes ill…Profoundly moving.