Never Mind the Bestsellers…

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…Here’s the Alternative Kids’ Lit Reading List!

The Lesser Known Movers and Shakers of Children’s Literature

Summer holidays and book recommendation posts go together. To be read piles usually consist of the most recent bestsellers to come to your particular genre of choice. I could tell you about these books but the chances are you already know.

So here’s something different. A few forgotten (and free) Victorian children’s books that will rock your world because:

  • Out of the five authors featured, four are women.
  • One could arguably be described as the first author writing in a YA LGBT genre.
  • One is a comic genius whose stories are as fresh and funny as anything you’ll pick up today.
  • One defied all odds: was blinded as a child and escaped Ireland’s Great Hunger before going on to write many children’s books.
  • One was the childhood favourite of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, with both ‘using’ it to influence major parts of their most famous books.

If you’re an adult who likes children’s literature, you need to know these books. If there was a family tree for children’s literature, these guys would be the movers and shakers, there just as it was all getting going. If they’d been late 20th Century musicians, they would have been in the audience for the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in the summer of ’76. Legends and influencers the lot of them and well worth your time.

A Sweet Girl Graduate by L.T Meade (1891)

“You are a clever girl, Prissie, and I’m going to be proud of you. I don’t hold with the present craze about women’s education. But I feel somehow that I shall be proud of you.”

Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith: feminist and original YA author. She wrote many books in her lifetime and can be seen as a forerunner in LGBT fiction. She was a bit of a marvel.

A Sweet Girl Graduate is right there at the start of women in higher education, sharing it as a fiction and encouraging its readers to think about this world. It’s diverse too. Protagonist Priscilla, unlike the other girls at her college, is poor and struggles to make ends meet. She is quiet, hard-working, has a “careworn” face older than her years and a “too serious mouth”. For anyone out there who rolls their eyes each time they are told yet another  YA female protagonist is extraordinarily beautiful (without knowing it of course), I give you the reassuringly normal Priscilla and her true depth of character as a square peg in a round hole.

Priscilla expects life at her all-girls’ college to be all about study, but soon discovers that forming and maintaining relationships with the other young women there is equally as time-consuming. There is a spirit of intimacy between the girls that’s been described as an early depiction of lesbian relationships. This is a brilliant read and a much-needed insight into late Victorian social history from a woman’s perspective.

Free online text with illustrations 

Holiday House by Catherine Sinclair  (1839)

If you read just one of these books, make it Holiday House.

Sinclair introduces us to Harry and Laura, the Victorian answer to Horrid Henry. They live comfortably in Edinburgh with their doting uncle and grandmother. They are stringently policed by the formidable Mrs Crabtree whose old-fashioned methods of  ruling with an iron fist hold no truck with the children or their guardians. Like Blyton’s hopeless village policemen, she doesn’t have a chance against her young opponents and goes off regularly, like a kettle left too long on the heat.

The first half of Holiday House is a chronicle of Harry and Laura’s amazingly naughty escapades that they happily never learn from. Sinclair’s voice is everything: she writes with a humour similar to the much later PG Wodehouse. Socks will be laughed off. These adventures would go down well in any Key Stage Two classroom today.

Be warned though: the second half of the book drops off into the more usual moral tale and leaves behind the pioneering style of the first half. Sinclair later spoke of regretting this move and wished she could rewrite it. My advice is read up to chapter ten and stop. Even so, this is a classic that should be more widely enjoyed today.

Free online text here.

The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs Molesworth (1877)


Griselda and the Cuckoo Inside the Clock

Mrs Molesworth was using inanimate objects to travel to magical lands long before Enid Blyton ever wrote about her wishing chair. A wonderful story from the start in which a young girl (Griselda) comes to live with elderly relatives and senses something unusual about the house. It turns out she is right in this first impression as there is magic in the air. Young Griselda finds that the cuckoo in the cuckoo clock can come to life and the clock has the power to take her to fantastic lands. A story of magic and finding new friends mixed with a nice bit of Victorian didacticism, as you would expect.

Link to free online text with illustrations

Granny’s Wonderful Chair by Frances Browne (1857)

Talking of magical chairs, here’s another. Back in 1857 Frances Browne was using this as the key form of transport in her latest book Granny’s Wonderful Chair. In it, Snowflower leaves home to travel to a fine palace where she tells her fairy stories to the lords and ladies present.

It’s a sweet book that will touch your heart and gets even more poignant when put into context. Frances Browne was a remarkable woman who was born in Donegal with no benefit of family wealth. She was blinded by smallpox as a young child but wouldn’t let this hold her back. She loved writing and particularly enjoyed the fairy stories her mother told her. Browne was forced to leave Ireland because of The Great Hunger in 1847 and when you read Granny’s Wonderful Chair you’ll most likely notice references to morality in relation to greed and hunger. This is a beautiful piece of story telling that rings through so clearly that the author might well be reading it aloud to you.

Free online text with illustrations

 The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (1872)

Princess Irene Explores the Castle

Young Princess Irene lives a lonely life in a castle in the mountains with only her nursemaid for company. One rainy day she is forced to play inside and stumbles upon a series of strange rooms and a beautiful woman who says she is Irene’s great great grandmother. Irene’s world takes a magical turn from here as her adventures take her under the mountains and into the world of goblins, although always under the protective gaze of her newly found relative that no one else believes exists.

Ring any bells? It should do. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien were heavily influenced by it. Both authors cited The Princess and the Goblin as a favourite childhood book and a big influence on their own stories. You’ll spot even more things in common as you read. A fascinating book with the pleasing extra of having an extremely old lady in a position of agency and central to the plot. Best mentally visualised in Japanese Anime style, because it’s that wildly imaginative and distinctive.

Free online text with illustrations

Top image credited  to The National Library of Scotland, with thanks.

Jolly Foul Play by Robin Stevens: Totally Killing It for UKMG

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jolly foul play done

“We were all looking up, and so we missed the murder. 

I have never seen Daisy so furious. She has been grinding her teeth (so hard that my teeth ache in sympathy) and saying ‘Oh, Hazel! How could we not notice it? We were on the spot!'”

Oh, I Say!

The superb series of Wells and Wong mysteries continues with Jolly Foul Play, suitable for readers aged nine plus, and we’re back for autumn term at Deepdean boarding school with Daisy and Hazel. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this book series, we are joining the girls at the tail end of 1935. And guess what? That’s right, there’s been a murder, and this time right under their noses!

Deepdean’s not so beloved head girl Elizabeth (scores highly on the Bad-Egg-O-Meter) has been bumped off by some ne’er-do-well. There are plenty of girls motivated to commit the crime, but who could have actually done it?

Daisy and Hazel are joined by a select band of fellow fourth formers in their Detective Society, as they attempt to solve the murder. Things are unsettled this year though: Elizabeth’s death has caused disparity and unrest amongst the girls. The atmosphere around school has changed. Also, it seems that Daisy and Hazel are not quite as close as they once were. How will The Detective Society be affected and will the girls pull together for the greater good and expose the killer in time?


This is the fourth Murder Most Unladylike Mystery, but new readers may rest assured that they will need no great knowledge of previous events in order to enjoy Jolly Foul Play. My advice however, would be to read the lot as this is a cracking series with plenty of really satisfying character development running throughout. If you’ve enjoyed one, you’ll certainly love the rest.

The mysteries are riveting to read and challenging to solve. Actually, I have to admit that with Jolly Foul Play, this is the first time I’ve managed to identify the murderer. (I say identify, but it would be more accurate to tell you that I changed my mind many, many times before lucking out and stumbling on guilty party in the nick of time. I know. Daisy would be ashamed of me and my haphazard methods.)

The fun is in the trying though, and I was helped along by the glorious maps at the start of the book and also the list of Deepdean players. This list is especially useful as there are quite a lot of characters, many of whom will be new to even the most dedicated Wells and Wong fan. It’s good to be able to check up on who’s who when you need to.


Jolly Foul Play has further established Robin Stevens to be a treasure amongst children’s authors. Whilst fans of Blyton will be delighted to note the inclusion of midnight feasts and an entertaining Mamzelle, make no mistake, this is no retro rehash. Stevens, as I’ve said in previous reviews, is a brilliant mystery writer who understands her time frame inside out and makes it work for modern mini-sleuths. I love that she brings murder into a Blytonesque boarding school; it makes me think how long poor old Gwendoline Mary Lacey would have lasted at Malory Towers under such circumstances…

Given that this is my third review of the Wells and Wong mystery series, you’re safe to assume that I’m a fan. They’re all quite different in premise and execution, no pun intended, so it’s no wonder young readers keep returning for more.

Another wonderful book from Robin Stevens: Jolly Foul Play is the perfect way to kill a few hours.

You can check out Robin Stevens’ glorious website here.

And my previous reviews of other books in the series here (Arsenic for Tea) and here (First Class Murder).


Old School: The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr

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The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr

glass bird


Boarding Schools Are Back!

I was less of a fan of Enid Blyton’s boarding school series, more of an obsessive. There was a significant part of my childhood spent reading the St Clare’s and Malory Towers books straight through from start to finish, panic about it all ending and immediately have to start straight over. It was marginally less stressful than it sounds. Oh, I just couldn’t leave Bill to gallop over the fields towards school with her brothers and Clarissa (on horses- not like Miranda Hart does it) unseen, nor not enjoy Darrell’s ‘glint’ one more time. And that awful spoilt Gwendoline Lacy! What a frightful little beast! I have very fond memories.

I grew up with not even the slightest desire to go to boarding school, but loved these books. It saddened me a bit to see Enid Blyton go out of fashion quite to the extent she did, so am now delighted to see really great authors proud to be associated with her brand of fiction. Esme Kerr is almost certainly one of these writers: The Glass Bird Girl is full of sneaky references to the Malory Towers series. We have a Sally, an Alice, even a head girl called Helen Greyling and I’m sure there must be more. This will mean something to the more Blyton’d amongst you.

Best of Both Worlds

The Glass Bird Girl isn’t set in the forties or fifties, but Kerr cleverly gets the spirit of this time by making certain adjustments. Edie is our Darrell to all intents and purposes, but comes to Knight’s Hadden Boarding School in quite a different way. We meet Edie a month in to living with her aunt, uncle and awful cousins. Previous to this, she lived with her beloved Grandmother who sadly went blind and was no longer allowed to care for her, hence the new arrangements. Life is miserable with her cousins, to say the least, and Edie decides to leave…

Another chapter opens with Edie’s cousin Charles, an art dealer, talking to his client (a Russian prince) in opulent Mayfair surroundings. Charles learns that the prince’s daughter Anastasia (also his god daughter) is having a tricky time at school. Something is not right: her belongings are going missing and her father is concerned about it. Anastasia is obviously unhappy. What is needed is someone, another girl, to go in and watch over her, and the prince is prepared to pay for the right girl to do the job should Charles know of anyone…

Charles and Edie’s paths cross, of course Edie takes on the role of secret school girl spy and her advetures begin. Why do Anastasia’s things keep going missing and how can Edie guarantee staying at the school long enough to find out? It’s all rather thrilling in a gloriously traditional British way. Attending Knight’s Hadden is like going back in time. No one is allowed to use mobile phones and there are turrets, which seems pretty conclusively old-fashioned to me. When Mrs Fotheringay (head teacher and owner of extremely forties surname) makes notes on pupils, it’s in a book rather than on a computer. The girls go to tea rooms, not Starbucks. When cars are mentioned, I can’t have been alone in picturing an Austin saloon rather than a Volkswagen Passat. Don’t be mistaken though in thinking this has all been done before though: the story is original and full of mystery and intrigue. Children (probably girls) from nine up* who read Robin Steven’s mystery books will definitely love it, and adults who enjoyed Enid Blyton’s school books probably will too.

GGGG A ripping, wizard and gorgeous read!

*Be aware if you are buying for sensitive children, there is a rather unpleasant incident in the first chapter where Edie’s vile cousins kill her pet fish. Might be worth skimming this first and seeing what you think, but if necessary it can be skipped without too much trouble so don’t let this put you off.



Searching for the Locomotive: First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

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First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

1st class

Back for More

In February I read a wonderful book called Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens and duly reviewed it here. It’s a great review. You really should read it. Both witty and informative. I loved the book so couldn’t wait to get my hands on the author’s latest Wells and Wong mystery, and not just for the good of this site, but because her books are fantastic and I’d read them regardless of posting a review at the end of it. This one was even better than the last.

Here’s the low down:

This time Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells, our thirteen year old detectives, are taking a well-earned break. After solving a most unsavoury murder committed at Daisy’s house earlier on in the year, they are being treated to a holiday by Hazel’s father. He has a tour of Europe in store for them and they will be travelling in style, aboard the Orient Express. It’s the 1930s, a golden age of sophistication (as well as murder writing) and what could be more exciting than a journey on the most luxurious train ever built?

Train of Thought

Almost straight away, Daisy and Hazel are intrigued by their fellow travellers and sense that something is not quite right. There’s the unpleasant Mr Daunt, who fawns over his wife whilst snapping at everyone else; Mrs Daunt’s maid Sarah who certainly doesn’t know her place and is horribly rude to her employers; Mrs Daunt’s estranged brother, there by coincidence to research his latest crime novel, and Madame Melinda Fox, a medium who has been contacting Mrs Daunt’s dead mother and passing on messages from beyond the grave. Also aboard is Il Mysterioso, a gloriously caped and, well, mysterious magician; Countess De Midovskoy, a debunked Russian aristo and her grandson, young Alexander. There’s Mrs Vitellius who looks somewhat familiar to the girls, and of course their own party of Hetty Lessing from Arsenic for Tea, Hazel’s dad and his assistant. One of them gets bunked off. You should read it to find out who. It’s a good job Daisy and Hazel are aboard to put the pieces together, but how will they accomplish this when no one wants them to get involved? Never underestimate the creativity of the thirteen year old mind!

This series gets better and better. Robin Stevens is brilliant at constructing her mysteries and had me guessing until the end. And in the end, actually I wasn’t quite right, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The author is obviously inspired by Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and uses this inspiration seamlessly to create something quite different and entirely fitting to the Wells and Wong series. And as for the girls, Daisy is still a bit of a handful whilst Hazel continues to be sweet and adorable and should ever be admired for expressing bafflement when the other guests fail to eat much when upset. I am absolutely with Hazel here and find my sense of hunger to be happily unbothered by difficult times. With food in mind, I must mention the howlingly tempting dishes that are served up during the book. An afternoon tea with Mrs Vitellius nearly sent me drooling with its tiny fruit tarts, fondant fancies, hot chocolate and plump cream cakes… Let’s hope Ms Stevens continues to write books where extensive descriptions of foods are required.

Oh, if only more teachers would read books like these to their class. How exciting to work on the clues and solve the mystery together, draw maps and gather evidence. Tell your teacher friends to check it out. This would be an amazing class reader.

GGGG Another dazzling mystery for anyone 9 years upwards and bound to appeal to the Enid Blyton set (and pretty much anyone in their right mind). Can’t wait for book four!


Scary Fairy: One Wish by Michelle Harrison

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One Wish by Michelle Harrison

one wish



Moonface Don’t Live Here Anymore.

As a continuation of my obsession with all things fairy, I was drawn to One Wish by Michelle Harrison. Initially after a nice, soft read to balance recent reviews I’ve written, this seemed like a no-brainer of a choice. Billed by Waterstones as a recommended read for those who enjoyed Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series- perfect. All, as often is the way with fairies though, was not as it seemed…

Being compared to Enid Blyton for a start off is something of a poisoned chalice. Not because of the elements of Blyton’s work that, ahem, ‘worked better’ in the olden times, but because she’s HUGE, an absolute titan of children’s literature and a master story-teller. Who wants to be saddled with that comparison? Plus, this book is nothing like Enid’s stuff. This is proper scary. Scarier, I might say, even than Madame Slap and her boarding school for naughty children; scarier than meeting the Angry Pixie on washing day. More devastating than the Saucepan Man, and I’ve got to say he always came across as a bit dodgy. No, don’t be fooled by these placid comparisons, nor the sparkly, friendly cover art- it really doesn’t fit the content of the book. So, not for younger kids who prefer a gentler read- got it? Let’s move on then.

Make a Wish…

Tanya has been able to see fairies all her life, but by the time we meet her she could really do without it. These fairies are frankly sinister, big on retribution and have a list of stringent rules Tanya is expected to follow that’s as long as your arm. And that’s just the ones who are looking out for her, her guardians. So when she discovers a notably cantankerous one living in the holiday cottage her mum and she are staying at, her reaction isn’t terribly ‘Cottingley’ or whimsical. Plus, it’s not the best time for Tanya anyway. It’s her first holiday since her mum and dad split up so she’s having to adjust to changes in her life left, right and centre. The last thing she needs is an evil gnome whispering insults to her from under the floorboards. Harrison makes it clear from the first chapter that we will be edging towards the darker end of the spectrum and that no one’s going to be laughing and lightly cupping delicately dancing sprites any time soon.

Understandably keen to get out of the house, Tanya heads out with her dog Oberon (You’ll love him. A book simply isn’t a proper one without a good dog) to explore. Adventure beckons and she discovers a Wishing Tree with an excellent side line in spouting poetry, a kindred spirit who can also see fairies, and a whole big fat bunch of trouble. As Tanya summons her courage to help save her new pal from dark forces, you’ll also have to prepare for a quest that will lead you out of our ordinary, predictable world and towards the possibility of imminent peril. Sometimes, it’s true, my attention drifted from the plot a little and occasionally I felt it wasn’t moving fast enough, but then I’d be pulled up as Harrison would utterly nail it with an irresistible description of events that would leave me reeling and often chilled to the bones!


Hold Your Breath…

The best scary films build up to their thrills over time and would lose their impact if we just carved out the parts that make you jump. Like them, One Wish cannot be effectively split into handy chunks for your enjoyment, so no quotes today I’m afraid. What I can offer you however, is the information that since reading the book, if I catch a smell of earth after it’s freshly rained, I get the distinct feeling that fairies may be around…and I love it when a book can do that to you. You’ll know by now whether this is something you or someone you know might enjoy. Honestly, I’m not a fan of scary books in the slightest, but I really enjoyed it and if I could handle it then most kids 11+ will have no problem!

GGG Enticing, alluring and deliciously frightening at times. In a good way.


After a second opinion? I love this site- check out their review:


Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman: A Classic Confection

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Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman


“This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. Back then, we all lived on the edge of a great forest. There was a woodcutter. He cut down trees. He chopped the branches off the trees, and he cut the trunks and the branches into logs for firewood, which he would haul on a handcart to the nearest path into the town. It was hungry work, cutting trees.”


For those giving up sugary pleasures this January, Neil Gaiman’s version of Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel might be just the thing to steer you on the path to righteousness. After all, there are few things more effective than the thought of a cannibalistic OAP to keep you off the cake.

The tale is familiar, as you would hope and presents a truly dark but accurate version of the traditional favourite accompanied by  Lorenzo Mattotti’s inky illustrations.


It’s as fearsome as you remember, but all the sharp edges here are gathered in the right places. As with Grimm’s original hearing, we have a mother rather than a step mother. Later versions preferred to disassociate issues of child abandonment with birth mothers, and all including this telling show the father as largely without blame and under some sort of coercive control.

The real challenge with this story, as with all other versions, is hunger. Famine was well-known to early storytellers and is at the heart of this tale. Food continues to be an obsession in children’s literature, especially those delicacies we eat purely for pleasure.

Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house can be seen in Blyton’s feasts, written in the time of rationing where food ruled the pages if not the pantries. Roald Dahl’s chocolate factory and particularly The Chocolate Room with its mint grass and creamy chocolate river continued our obsession with eye-popping excess. More recently, Chris Callaghan’s excellent The Great Chocoplot takes our favourite snack and makes it the victim of crop failure; something that threatens its very existence. The nation’s response in the book is one of panic and hullabaloo of the highest order, which seems about accurate to me. Poverty makes people selfish, but if Dahl is to be believed, so it seems do wealth, power and success.

Grow Up

Hansel and Gretel is my favourite fairy tale as it symbolises the transition from dependence to independence and the tools needed to make this move. At the beginning, Hansel and Gretel are entirely dependent on their parents; their only means of survival is to return to the family home. When this is removed, they become resourceful, working together to do what they must do in order to survive.

When they eventually return home, it is they who bring the means to live comfortably, they who save the day. Gaiman’s retelling conveys this extremely effectively, as do the uncompromising, unpatronising illustrations of Mattotti. Let’s not forget we’re dealing with famine, abandonment and death here.

In a world where fairy tales are associated with Walt Disney, I think it’s important for great writers and artists to remind us how they were originally recorded, as these stories are the building blocks for not only modern fiction, but also for understanding our cultural heritage, stimulating young imaginations, recognising difficulties and deciding on solutions and receiving a moral education that’s spanned centuries.

Mysteries of Ravenstorm Island- Ginger Beer Not Provided.

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Mysteries of Ravenstorm Island: The Lost Children by Gillian Philip

ravenstorm 1

What Ho, It’s the Hols!

Kids love stories which begin at the onset of the big summer holiday- weeks stretching out ahead and untold potential for adventures. Mysteries of Ravenstorm Island: The Lost Children is one of those books,starting (how unusual) in a sea plane taking siblings Molly and Jack to the island where they’ll be spending the summer with a rich aunt, uncle and a cousin they don’t know. In a fully gargoyled manor house surrounded by micro climates of instantaneous mists and dodgy looking adults acting shiftily, there is more than a nod to Blyton here; in fact what you can’t see from the snipped out section of book cover above is the large gold disc proclaiming FOR FANS OF ENID BLYTON just to make its affiliation crystal clear.

Lashings and Lashings of Adventure!

And we’re into it quickly with the children’s obligatory exploration of the island (almost as fatal as being a lone female at the start of a horror film) and naturally making straight for the one place they’ve been warned away from….der-der-derrrr…the cliffs! In come those pesky mists and before you can say “who’s up for a midnight feast?”, young Jack has disappeared. But the really strange thing is, apart from Molly and her cousin Art, no one remembers him. It’s as if he never existed. And so begins the challenge: will Molly and Art solve the mystery and recover Jack? And what’s the deal with the extremely realistic stone statues of children that are dotted around the island? Seemingly frozen in time, do they have anything to do with the strange goings on? Primary aged children will be hooked!

Blasts From the Past

Anyone who’s read Enid Blyton, or indeed any books released around the time of rationing will be well familiar with the eternal references to food: hunks of crusty bread, hard boiled eggs, jam tarts and ginger beer. Supposedly the perfect austerity diet and rather splendid too. Philip does her bit for the food in fiction cause (which I’ve just started, please join) by adding hot milk with nutmeg to the mix. Not saying it’s had a massive effect on me or anything, but I’ve made myself one of these every evening since I read it and this hasn’t happened since The Posset Incident of ’86.

In the spirit of Blyton, you may also notice a spot of mild gender stereotyping going on, so be aware that you might also find this to be the case. I’m not going to go into any detail however as although that I believe there was an opportunity here to write an old fashioned adventure story which entirely challenged gender roles, this is still a good story and you’ll need to draw your own conclusions. I’d be really interested to know what you think.

Catering for Today’s Kids

What sets it apart from Blyton’s era is the scary factor that kids love nowadays and which adults have recognised they can handle. The author uses distinctly unseasonal and unpredictable weather to spice up the plot and although it’s not a new technique, it’s always thrilling for a midnight bolt of lightning to illuminate a sinister silhouette!

Ravenstorm Island is a seriously good stage for children’s fiction and in this book we only explore one facet of its potential. As the series continues, more of the island’s secrets will no doubt be revealed. Philip is an expert in tantalising her audience with hints of lake monsters and gargoyles that might just come to life. For less dedicated readers or those new to ‘free reading’, there’s enough magic in this book for children to simply enjoy this story, but for those who are enthralled there’s the opportunity to continue the series with The Ship of Ghosts -already in the pipeline.

GGG- Gogogo- I’m not emotional but I liked it.

You can get your hands on The Lost Children from September 4th.