I had so much fun with Betsy and her 44 highly-trained mice in their first adventure, 44 Tiny Secrets (review here!), that I couldn’t resist the chance to review their second!
Book: 44 Tiny Acrobats by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King
Read before: No
Release date: 4th February 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Little Tiger. All opinions my own.
Content warning: Discussion of grief (not recent, but still may be too much for kids who have lost a grandparent)
Things are a lot more relaxed in Betsy’s house after book one saw her finally come clean (with the help of 44 highly-trained mice) to her parents that she didn’t really enjoy being a piano prodigy. Now, her parents are much more fun – but Grandad seems sad. When a circus rolls up outside their house, Betsy realises that it’s the same one her grandmother left Grandad to join, and resolves to ignore it and help distract him from it… but it’s just so tempting, and she can’t resist a visit! But the mice cause disaster, and Betsy becomes embroiled in the machinations of the evil circus owner, Mr Fry – can she save her mice AND find out out the grandmother she never knew?
Enough is explained in the story about the mice that you could go into this book without having read the first, but they also work really well as a series. I particularly love how much development there’s been in the family relationships since the first book! The main driving theme of this book is Betsy’s desire to know more about her grandmother, whom her family never talk about, and while this leads to plenty of fun action at the circus, it’s also a sensitive depiction of the different ways people deal with grief, both about death and about broken relationships. The backstory we get about Betsy’s grandmother is really interesting in rounding out the facts about the family, but it’s her emotional impact on them that felt most impressively written to me.
Similarly, in 44 Tiny Secrets, there was a lot of distance between Betsy and her parents, both physically since they were rarely present, and emotionally, because Betsy felt she wasn’t living up to their expectations. But in this book, they are much more part of the family unit, and it’s really wonderful to see the warmth that’s grown between them. This is really noticeable in the way they’re drawn compared to book one – they’re fully in scenes now, rather than at the edges, and seen from the same angles as Betsy and Grandad, not just the tops of their heads! I like seeing this subtle progression from book to book – it doesn’t take anything away from being able to pick each book up as a standalone, but it is rewarding for those who read in order.
Speaking of the art, just like book one, this is a beautiful book to read – it’s filled with charming two-colour illustrations on almost every page! Where 44 Tiny Secrets was green, 44 Tiny Acrobats is red, which really suits the circus setting. I love the way Ashley King can capture expression and character in his artwork, and he’s in fine form here, from the adorable mice, to the dramatic magician Enoch the Splendid, to shouty, slimy ringmaster Mr Fry. There is quite a lot of text on the pages, so it’s definitely one for fairly confident readers, but the interwoven artwork should really hold the attention through those longer stretches.
This is a wonderful series for those who are slightly too young for middle grade fiction, but ready to tackle something slightly chunkier and more mature than a lot of chapter books. Five out of five cats!