There’s one thing that Max really wants to do, and that’s to become a wizard. He’s pretty sure he has what it takes, but first he has to convince his father. If Sir Bertram has his way, Max will become a sword-yielding knight instead.
Frogspell, a fun little read by C.J. Busby, takes young readers into the world of Camelot. The plot starts rolling right away, as Max plans to show his father that he’s meant to be a wizard. He’s going to come up with a brilliant spell and win the Young Novice’s Spell-Making Competition; and then his father will realize his true calling. But when Max accidentally turns himself, his sister and his pet rat into frogs, he’s not sure how it’s going to turn out.
If this isn’t entertaining enough, things get even more complicated when Max and his sister Olivia stumble into a villainous scheme to kidnap the prince and to topple King Arthur from power. Can Max help Merlin fight an evil sorceress and save the kingdom?
Frogspell is a lively potion of adventure, misadventure and humour. The characters are immensely likeable, the spells gone awry are funny, and who doesn’t love the satisfaction of foiling an evil plot?
We added Frogspell to our home library when my daughter was in second grade. She had been devouring the Rainbow Magic fairy books, and this was a perfect transition into a magic-filled series with a more complex story. There are three other books after the first installment, as Max commences his wizardry training and Olivia trains to be a squire. This was a favourite on our bookshelf for years.
My daughter discovered Jessica Day George’s magical world of dragons while on vacation one summer. We were driving through Portland, and stopped at Powell’s Books to pick up reading material for our road trip.
Kate chose George's novel Dragon Slippers, and by the time we’d made it to the Oregon coast, she was mesmerized by the story of young Creel and her dragon friends.
This middle-grade novel is brimming with all the good stuff: a brave heroine, really cool dragons, an evil villain, and a kingdom that needs saving.
The story begins when Creel’s aunt comes up with an unusual plan to improve their family’s fortunes. What if Creel is rescued by a knight in shining armour, who will whisk their family away to live in a castle? Thus, Creel finds herself abandoned in front of a dragon’s lair, as her aunt fervently hopes that a hero will save her niece from the fierce creature’s clutches.
From the moment that the dragon awakes with a rumble and a plume of smoke, it’s impossible to put the book down. Creel ends up befriending the dragon, who has no interest in her aunt's silly plot. “I am old and tired and bored with all the foolishness that humans cause,” he moans.
Clever young Creel uses the situation to her own benefit. She convinces the dragon to give her some treasure that she can use to escape into the city and start her own life. She's sent on her way with a pair of slippers, but little does she know she's about to stumble into an evil quest for power. As she fights to save her dragon friends and restore peace to the kingdom, we find out just how much foolishness humans can cause.
The adventure is made all the more enticing by the lovable characters. You can’t help but cheer on Creel as she heads to the city to pursue her dreams of being a seamstress. There’s also the unforgettable dragons—Theodradus, Shardas, Feniul, Amacarin, Niva and Velika—all beautiful, majestic, thinking and feeling creatures with their own personalities.
When Kate finished the book, I picked it up myself and immediately saw why she was so charmed. Dragon Slippers blends fantasy, adventure, humour, and romance, all into a well-woven page-turner. There was no question of what we would read on the trip home—we stopped at the same bookshop to get the sequels, Dragon Flight and Dragon Spear.
And, we negotiated who got to read them first.
I’ve always loved picture books with smart, strong heroines, so when I discovered Cornelia Funke’s A Princess, A Pirate and One Wild Brother at our local bookshop, I had to add it to our personal library. My daughter adored Funke’s lively collection of stories as much as I did, and it was a staple for us to read together when she was younger.
There’s no shortage of gorgeous picture books to share with your kids, but this one in particular, brings together the prose and illustrations to perfection. Funke whisks readers immediately into a world of adventure filled with funny, lovable, and spirited characters. Meanwhile, Kerstin Meyer’s exquisite illustrations draw your eyes to the page, and her details are as much fun to savour as the stories.
The collection opens with The Princess Knight. Little Princess Violetta has three older brothers, and the king decides to bring his daughter up the same way as the boys have been raised. She learns to ride, joust, and fight with swords. Unfortunately, being the youngest and the smallest in the family, Princess Vi struggles to keep up with her brothers. You can’t help but cheer on this determined little girl as she tries to master the same skills as the boys. When the time comes for her to get married, and she’s promised to the winner of a jousting competition, she outwits everyone. Go, Princess Vi!
Equally as inspiring is Molly, the main character in Pirate Girl. One day, as she’s sailing alone to visit her grandmother, she’s kidnapped by a band of pirates. Captain Firebeard thinks he can get a handsome ransom for Molly, but she refuses to tell him who her parents are. He sentences her to work on his ship, scrubbing and cleaning and polishing, but not to worry: she has a plan. There’s a surprise twist as to who her mother is—and she’s more fierce than Firebeard and his pirates. This is a family of women to be reckoned with.
In the last story, The Wildest Brother is a young boy named Ben. Thanks to his vivid imagination, he spends his days taking care of slime-burping monsters, green ghosts, and the other dangerous creatures lurking about his house. The lovely part of this story is his relationship with his big sister, Anna. Here’s where the illustrations truly enhance the story: the prose tells us Ben is bravely protecting Anna, but the drawings show that she's barely batting an eyelash and is humouring her little brother. At the end of the story, as darkness settles on the house, it’s Anna that lovingly protects this brave boy. As a mother, I loved the sense of family that shines through.
Funke's stories unfold with humour and warmth. This collection is perfect for reading with your child anytime, but especially at bedtime, when it will ensure your little one goes to bed with a smile. When Kate grew older, and we had to make room on her shelves for other books, A Princess, A Pirate, and One Wild Brother was a treasured book that we couldn't part with.
Princess Knight, Pirate Girl, and The Wildest Brother are also available individually as stand-alone books.
One of the sweetest parts of childhood is the belief that magic exists—whether in the form of fairies, sorcerers, unicorns, or dragons. Kate adored these whimsical worlds when she was little, and ever since, her favourite genre has been fantasy.
Tuesdays at the Castle, a middle-grade novel by Jessica Day George, is one book that Kate returned to time and time again.
The magic in this story is embodied in Castle Glower, home to Princess Celie and her family. Castles can be old, lonely and draughty places, but not this particular palace. “Whenever Castle Glower became bored, it would grow a new room or two,” the book begins enticingly.
This sets the scene perfectly for enchantment and adventure, as Castle Glower adds rooms or takes them away, moves passageways, creates staircases, and reveals hidden chambers, seemingly randomly. But there’s a method to the madness. The castle acts as a royal adviser and protector, and Celie, in particular, has learned to interpret the meaning of the castle's transformations.
One day, the King and Queen are assumed dead during an ambush by bandits. A group of ambassadors from a nearby kingdom invite themselves to stay at Castle Glower. They claim to be there to help Celie and her siblings during this tragic time, but when the castle expresses displeasure by shrinking one gentleman's bedroom to the size of a prison cell, Celie knows which of the visitors not to trust.
Kate loved this novel. Celie is a smart, brave and resourceful heroine, and the castle is brimming with personality. It's helpful, mischievous, and wise, and a fantastic ally as the children work to save their kingdom.
There are as many twists in the story as there are in the castle's everchanging floorplan, and the adventure is delivered with a light-hearted touch. For example, the children’s attempt to remove the unwanted visitors involves a series of pranks which will have young readers smiling.
Tuesdays at the Castle is followed by the sequels Wednesdays in the Tower, Thursdays with The Crown, Fridays with the Wizards, and Saturdays at Sea. Jessica Day George has created a spellbinding world that will remind kids—and grown-ups—to imagine that anything is possible.
Books in series: 5
Tuesdays at the Castle
Wednesdays in the Tower
Thursdays with the Crown
Fridays with the Wizards
Saturdays at Sea
For many tourists, the most challenging thing about a vacation in Paris might be long queues at the Eiffel Tower or stumbling through a conversation in French. It's certainly not being thrown into an international espionage plot, like the characters in the fast-paced and hilarious middle-grade novel, The Family Hitchcock.
Written by Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, this light-hearted spy caper centres around 13-year-old Maddy and her younger brother, Benji. They know how they want to spend the summer, and it's not a house-swap with a family in Paris.
We found a copy of The Family Hitchcock just before our own family vacation in Paris, so it was a fun read for my son, Dylan. But a vacation in the famous City of Lights is where the similarities between our family and the Hitchcocks end.
In the book, mistaken identities lead to stakeouts, kidnappings, and rooftop chases with bad guys. The Hitchcocks just wanted a family holiday, and now they must risk their lives to ensure a mysterious stolen vial doesn't end up in the wrong hands.
The plot moves at lightning pace, with one suspenseful moment after another. Humorous lines such as, “Daddy! You’re the Terminator!” or a character’s apology after crashing through a skylight—“Sorry to drop in like this!”—keep the mood light.
At the very heart of this madcap tale is the notion of family; in particular, the realities and tensions of being part of one. It’s not always easy to get along with your siblings or parents, but the Hitchcocks give hope that it's possible to develop a newfound respect for and understanding of each other.
And, they saved the world, too!
My husband and I once travelled the Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada. Notorious for UFO sightings and a top secret military facility, it's not a typical tourist destination, but occasionally, we like to add something quirky into our holiday plans.
Maybe that’s why I couldn’t resist Travels with My Family, a chapter book about one family’s offbeat vacation adventures. Written and illustrated by the husband and wife team of Marie-Louise Gay and David Homel, the stories are told from the point of view of Charlie, a young boy who just wants a normal family vacation. To him, this means “beaches and warm water, nice hotels with swimming pools…giant waterslides and amusement parks.”
However, Charlie’s parents prefer the road less-travelled. “No tourist traps. No line-ups. No wonder! Nobody wants to go there!” our narrator complains.
There's no Grand Canyon for Charlie, as his dad instead heads to the lesser-known Canyon de Chelly. They skip Disney World in Florida for the Okefenokee Swamp. And, they bypass Carlsbad Caverns, with its welcome centre and souvenir shop, for Slaughter Canyon Cave, which doesn’t even have a bathroom.
This lively collection of stories is inspired by Gay and Homel’s own travels through North America with their sons. The bite-sized tales blend adventure (and misadventure) with humour. One chapter tells of a sneaker wave that almost sweeps Max out to sea in California. There's also a close call with an alligator in Florida, a skirmish with sheep on Salt Spring Island, and an accidental encounter with what turns out to be a revolution in Mexico.
The stories are perfect to read as a family, or for young readers to tackle on their own. Kate enjoyed the hijinks of Travels with My Family so much, she went on to read the sequels, On the Road Again!, in which the family heads to France, and Summer in the City, about a staycation in their hometown of Montreal. There's also a fourth book, The Traveling Circus, set in Croatia.
Travels with My Family will entertain children and strike a familiar chord with parents. Things don’t always go perfectly on family vacations, but the memories will last for years to come.
Books in series: 4
Travels with My Family
On the Road Again!
Summer in the City
The Traveling Circus
A couple of years ago, our family visited Washington, D.C. There were a few things the kids really wanted to see: the Washington Monument, the Spy Museum, and The National Museum of American History. How did these iconic American sights end up on the radar of two Canadian kids from the other side of the continent?
When my son outgrew Dan Gutman’s uber-popular My Weird School series, I was thrilled to find The Genius Files for middle-graders. It was the perfect blend of Gutman’s trademark humour and silliness, combined with a more challenging plotline. Dylan devoured the first book in a few days, and then his sister gladly picked it up too.
The Genius Files is a five-part, action-packed series about 13-year-old twins being chased across the United States by villains. They have some close calls: almost being pulverized in a shredder, nearly drowned in a vat of liquified SPAM, and being kidnapped on a high-speed roller coaster. I skimmed the beginning of the first installment, Mission Unstoppable, to get a sense of the writing. The opening line was irresistible: "There were ten items on Coke McDonald's to-do list on June 17, but JUMP OFF A CLIFF was not one of them." This was followed by the hilarious explanation of why the twins are named Coke and Pepsi.
It’s an appealing read. Gutman weaves together history and geography as the McDonald family's epic road trip takes them to real-life places and tourist sights. He interacts with readers, asking them to look up random facts, follow along on Google Maps, and to check the cover of the book (“Go ahead, I’ll wait.”). It’s fundangutman.com/dans-books/the-genius-files/ to have the author speak directly to readers. “That’s all you need to know right now…let’s move on to the good part,” he says. We purchased the entire series, and based on how many times it's been read and re-read by the kids, it was a worthwhile investment.
Back to our visit to Washington. Our experience at the National Museum of American History was enhanced by the fact that our children were the ones excitedly leading us through the exhibits. The museum is one of the stops in the second book, Never Say Genius, and the kids wanted to see everything Coke and Pepsi did: the Star Spangled Banner, the Greensboro Lunch Counter, John Bull, and Dorothy’s Ruby Red Slippers. Dylan even knew that Dumbo the Flying Elephant was on the third floor because he remembered that's where the twins found it in the story.
The Genius Files is a fantastic choice for young readers who enjoy fast-paced suspense with lots of humour. Parents will love that they are learning something too.
Books in Series: 5
The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable
The Genius Files: Never Say Genius
The Genius Files: You Only Die Twice
The Genius Files: From Texas With Love
The Genius Files: License to Thrill
Two kids, two cats, and a house full of books. We share our favourite picks for young readers.