Book reviews: Secrets, tall stories and animal magic for February

The Secret Keepers
The Secret Keepers

There’s no time to be bored this February as a new season of exciting children’s books get set to banish the winter blues.

Escape with a boy who can make himself invisible, have fun with the new Dork on the block, visit a haunted old hall in Cornwall and meet two lovable mechanical friends.

Age 9 plus:

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

Magic, mystery, chilling danger and thrilling action… Trenton Lee Stewart’s epic new adventure has the lot!

Author of the award-winning Mysterious Benedict Society series, picked as one of Amazon.com’s top 20 children’s books of 2016, Stewart powers his way back on to the middle grade reading scene with an ingenious and inventive story which delights on every level.

When a lonely 11-year-old boy finds a magical old pocket watch, he embarks on an extraordinary journey which will not just capture young imaginations but also challenge them to recognise their own fears, use their brains to unravel the mystery and develop an understanding of our hero’s moral dilemmas.

Reuben Pedley lives a rather solitary life with his widowed mother in Lower Downs, one of the grimmest and most depressing areas of the shabby, down-at-heel city of New Umbra. While his mum works hard at two low-paid jobs to support them, Reuben spends his days exploring, hiding, and practising free running among the neighbourhood’s abandoned buildings.

It’s Reuben’s way of escaping the rough times that have befallen him and his mother since his father was killed in a factory accident. He shins up lamp posts, slips behind broken shutters, climbs through smashed windows and finds his way into cramped places and spots where no one would think to look.

But when he finds an antique pocket watch, it changes everything… not because it might be valuable but because it has the power to turn him invisible for 15 minutes at a time. Using his new weapon, Reuben is determined to solve the mystery of the watch but someone else wants it.

The city is run by a dangerous vigilante group of men called the Directions who in turn work for The Smoke, New Umbra’s ruler and a much-feared man – some say he is a creature – who is prepared to do anything to get his hands on the old watch.

Propelled on to the adventure of a lifetime, Reuben is being mercilessly pursued and with the help of some new-found friends, he must now solve the mystery and protect the city from evil….

Stewart is a master storyteller and this cracking adventure, packed with hidden clues, enigmatic conundrums, mind-boggling surprises and exciting characters – whether good or bad – will keep young minds both engaged and enthralled.

With over 500 pages to read, this is not a story for reluctant readers but the rewards are immense as Stewart draws in his audience with plenty of heart-stopping suspense, some extraordinary plot twists and thrilling, fast-flowing action sequences.

Diana Sudyka provides the atmospheric black-and-white illustrations for a haunting, stylish, true adventure story that will resonate long after the last page has turned.

(Chicken House, paperback, £6.99)

Age 9 plus:

Giant by Kate Scott

Being the smallest person in your family is a tall order for 11-year-old Anzo… particularly when your name means ‘giant’ in ancient German.

Kate Scott, author of the fun-filled Spies in Disguise series, is on another upward journey to success in this warm-hearted, honest and funny story about being short, being tall and learning to be yourself, whatever your size.

It’s hard to measure up in a family with high expectations. But it’s even harder when those people sometimes use you as an arm rest… and call you Peanut. Anzo is very, very short while his mum, dad and two uncles are all extremely tall. They are also high achievers, obsessed with fulfilling their lifelong ambition of opening a restaurant together.

Everyone has a role – from chef and DIY to marketing and accounts – but where does Anzo fit in? If only he could grow a few inches in height, then no one would be able to overlook him. Josh would stop teasing Anzo in school, he wouldn't have to play all seven dwarfs in the school play, and at home he could tell his parents about his drawing and the comedy convention he has been invited to. Then, overnight, Anzo starts to grow. Is life as a giant going to solve all his problems, or should he stop worrying and learn to just be himself?

Giant is a big story with room in its heart for everyone, however short or tall they may be. Scott is a perceptive writer and fields a delightful cast of characters whilst gently persuading youngsters to stop fretting about things they can’t change and to simply enjoy being who or what they are.

(Piccadilly, paperback, £5.99)

Age 8 plus:

The Misadventures of Max Crumbly: Locker Hero by Rachel Renée Russell

If you have any reluctant readers in your house, here’s the perfect series to wean them off the Xbox and into the wonderful world of books.

Written in the style of a journal, packed with eye-catching illustrations and guaranteed to touch all young funny bones, Max Crumbly and his amazing misadventures are the latest creation of the ever-popular Dork Diaries author Rachel Renée Russell, a US lawyer who prefers writing children’s books to legal briefs.

While the Dork Diaries series chronicle the daily dramas of a 14-year-old girl’s life, madcap Max Crumbly is the new male Dork on the block and his zany antics will have children laughing all the way to his next adventure.

Max is about to face the scariest place he’s ever been – South Ridge Middle School. He has been home-schooled by his grandmother until now, and he has begged his parents to finally let him start attending a real school. But he is starting to question that choice, though, with the Doug aka Thug Thurston Problem.

Thug, the school bully, has a new hobby… stuffing Max in his locker. If only Max could be like the hero in all the comics he likes to read – or the ones he draws – and magically escape the locker and defeat Thug. Unfortunately, Max’s uncanny, almost superhuman ability to smell pizza from a block away won’t exactly save any lives or foil bad guys. But that doesn’t mean Max won’t do his best to be the hero his school needs!

Max’s escapades pack a real punch… along with all the knockabout fun and humour, there are superb, suspense-filled cliffhangers and some more serious issues around bullying and anxiety.

A brilliant start to what promises to be another sure-fire winner from the ever-popular Rachel Renée Russell.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age 7 plus:

The Hounds of Penhallow Hall: The Moonlight Statue by Holly Webb

History, adventure and animals… much-loved author Holly Webb weaves her trademark magic in the first of an enchanting and atmospheric new series set in a haunted old hall in Cornwall.

Brought to life by Jason Cockcroft’s beautiful, expressive black-and-white illustrations, Webb whisks us away to a memorable coastal setting, rich in history and legend, for a terrific tale that will seduce dog lovers and young readers hooked on mystery and magic.

For Poppy, moving to Penhallow Hall is the fresh start she’s been longing for since the death of her father. Her mum has got a job managing the stately home and once the last of the visitors leave for the day, the place is all theirs. Now Poppy can’t wait to start unravelling the hall’s mysteries.

One night, Poppy sleepwalks into the garden and wakes to find her hand on the head of one of the stone dogs that guard the steps down to the lawn. Then she feels him lick her cheek! The dog introduces himself as Rex, an Irish Wolfhound who lived at Penhallow many hundreds of years earlier. And he is not the only resident ghost – Poppy has also glimpsed a strange boy around the place. With Rex’s help she unearths the story of his beloved master, William Penhallow, who was killed in the First World War aged only 17.

Webb, who has written over 90 books for children, has conjured up a wonderful mix of ingredients in what promises to be an exciting series packed with irresistible characters – both human and animal – and a thrilling sense of adventure.

(Stripes, paperback, £5.99)

Age 6 plus:

Pet Defenders: Attack of the Alien Dung by Gareth P. Jones and Steve May

Get ready to laugh out loud as award-winning author Gareth P. Jones lets loose his super-funny secret agents with a difference.

This new comic caper, which springs to life with the madcap illustrations of the very talented Steve May, stars two crazy Pet Defenders on a mission to save Earth from alien invasions.

The planet is under attack and it’s up to Pet Defenders, Mitzy the cat and Biskit the dog, to save the world but first they are going to have to stop fighting like cat and dog long enough to do it! Secret agent Biskit is really not happy that his new partner Mitzy is a cat – everyone knows that the two don’t mix. But saving the Earth must come first when the planet is being invaded.

A cluster of cow pats has flown into town and they are whipping up a terrible stink… it’s time for Biskit and Mitzy to put aside their differences and kick some alien butt!

This frantic, funny and action-packed animal adventure features Jones’ trademark fast-paced humour and wacky imagination, and May’s brilliantly comical and playful illustrations.

Ideal reading for young adventurers…

(Stripes, paperback, £5.99)

Age 3 plus:

Norton and Alpha by Kristyna Litten

Life is full of surprises… especially when you are a robot!

Kristyna Litten is in best inventive mode for this endearing picture book extravaganza about two mechanical friends who forgo the thrill of scientific experimentation to enjoy the wonders of nature.

Norton the Robot is a collector of many things… battered wheels, rusty cogs, broken springs. Most of these things, whether big or small, are used to make his amazing inventions. But what Norton likes above all are the things that he doesn’t have a name for. And it’s by using one of these unnamed objects that he invents a little robot called Alpha who becomes his collecting companion. And when Alpha sets out on an adventure, he makes a baffling discovery… a lone flower.

The two friends have never seen a flower before and when they set about trying to care for it, there are some amusing and ultimately poignant results.

Litten’s highly detailed and fascinating artwork is itself a journey of discovery and the perfect backdrop to a winning little story that teaches us about the warmth of friendship and the thrill of finding out that sometimes there is more to life than we had thought.

Perceptive and lively, this is a story to return to time and time again…

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

Tiger Tiger by Jonny Lambert

Little Tiger Press, a dynamic and busy independent publisher of high quality children’s books, is celebrating its 30th anniversary… and here’s a book that gets the party year under way in classic style.

This gentle and beautiful picture book, with its bold artwork and a touching storyline which pays tribute to the relationship between youth and age, is the creation of accomplished author and illustrator Jonny Lambert.

Old Tiger’s world is dull and grey, and all he wants to do is snooze the day away. But little Cub is having none of it… he wants to explore and have fun. Old Tiger reckons he’s too tired to play and that it’s too hot to go exploring in the jungle. Cub has different ideas and he sets off on a journey of discovery. Can Old Tiger keep up with the curious Cub, and can Cub help Tiger to see the jungle in an exciting new light?

Through poignant words and his highly expressive illustrations, Lambert reminds us all of the light and colour that little ones can bring to the world. And with its fantastic array of fascinating animals and an adorably excitable tiger cub, this bright and colourful book is jungle heaven for children who love to play and explore.

(Little Tiger Press, hardback, £10.99)

Age 2 plus:

This Bear, That Bear! by Sian Wheatcroft

Ready, teddy go… the bear parade is heading to town!

Enjoy a fantastic celebration of bears in all shapes, sizes and styles in a colourful, ingeniously simple and high energy picture book from talented new illustrator Sian Wheatcroft.

Little Bear and his dad are enjoying a fun day out with a colourful cavalcade of terrific teddy bears. Who will Little Bear see at the bear parade? Will it be ‘This bear, that bear, likes to wear a hat bear?’ Whether it’s a cheeky bear, a geeky bear, a brown bear, a clown bear, a ready bear or a steady bear, one thing is for sure, the day will be full of surprises!

Wheatcroft’s gorgeous gallery of quirky bears, her use of bold colours and a fun, fast-paced rhyming text capture perfectly the breathless excitement of a street parade and the exuberance of the bears as they each display their individuality.

Little ones will discover both entertainment and learning as they join in the rhythmic flow of the words and feast their eyes on the banquet of fabulous illustrations. Poetry in motion!

(Templar, paperback, £6.99)