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Trouble Next Door

Chris Higgins

​Trouble Next Door by Chris Higgins, illustrated by Emily MacKenzie. Bloomsbury. 128pp, 978-1408868836, 5-8 Infant/Junior, 8-10 Junior/Middle, RRP £4.99, Paperback.

This review is available on the Books for Keeps website. First published in January 2017. Thank you to Books for Keeps for permission to reproduce their review.

Chris Higgins writes with a relaxed, friendly style that is wonderfully easy to read, and really difficult to master. Her stories are rooted in children’s ordinary lives and, while completely contemporary, share those characteristics that have long been favourites in children’s fiction.

Bella, the central character in this new series is feeling a bit lost and lonely. Her family have just moved to a new house in the country and Bella is surprised both at how old this ‘new’ house is, and how quiet it is in the country. She cheers up when she discovers that there’s a girl her own age living in the house next door and soon she and Magda are spending lots of time together. Magda is exciting, full of ideas and great fun to be with and Bella is delighted when Magda declares they are best friends. But Magda has a knack for causing trouble too and young readers, particularly those that like Bella are generally quiet and well behaved, will be fascinated by the things she gets up to. They’ll also be amazed, and probably a bit outraged on Bella’s behalf, at the way Magda cannily avoids any of the blame for the chaos she causes, most of which is attributed to Bella. Fortunately all ends on a happy and peaceful note, as Mum realises that Magda is the kind of girl who attracts trouble wherever she goes: just as well she’s got Bella to look after her. Lively, funny and full of insight into people and the nature of our friendships this will thoroughly entertain its readers who will be delighted to hear that Bella and Magda will be back in the summer for a new adventure. Emily MacKenzie’s black and white illustrations are full of life too, the perfect accompaniment to the story.

​Ideas for teachers

This story will be enjoyed by children in Key Stage One. It first appears to be a gentle account of a girl moving to a new house and making friends with the girl next door. The difference however is that Bella’s new friend Magda is quite happy to cause chaos and allow Bella to take the blame for it. This gives rise to the question – how much should you stick up for a friend? Should it mean covering up their actions and telling lies for them? Friendship is very important for everyone whatever their age, but children who are about to start a new school may feel a greater need for the security of a friend and put themselves in a place they don’t want to be. How far would you go to help a friend?

​Themes raised by the book

This book explores the important issue of building friendship, especially

  • the importance of accommodating differences between friends
  • the importance of friendships in a new environment.

The setting of Trouble Next Door is an apparently conventional tale of friendship, however the issues of loneliness, fear of the unknown, and sharing experiences with someone else are central issues to children of all ages. The following books also focus on the theme of friendship and highlight this issue as one of the most important achievements for all the characters in the stories and the children reading them, whatever their situation.

​Other books that explore these themes

Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Corgi.

The main character August, is born with extreme facial disfigurement that involves him in multiple surgery and isolation from other children. His family members including his older sister are fiercely protective of him, whenever he is subjected to children or adults reacting to his looks with horror. He says “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking it’s probably worse”.

This story involves August entering a state school at the age of ten, and coping with the hostility and rejection of other children as a result of his facial features. He is shown to be able academically, and having the same interests as the other pupils, yet is victimised and rejected cruelly by the majority of them. Friendship with first one and then another pupil is the pivotal point for August and his success in school life. This is a powerful story that will be enjoyed by children in …. It raises many issues for children with disabilities and how others perceive them, but friendship is at the heart of the happy ending.

Frog and Toad are Friends. Arnold Lobel. Harper Collins.

Frog and Toad are quite different from each other yet the best of friends. The book consists of five easy to read short stories that establish the different characters of Frog and Toad while relating the activities of going for a swim, looking for a lost button or waiting for the mail. Their differences of character and temperament are testament to the strength of their friendship and add to the charm of these stories that will be enjoyed by children as they begin to read with independence.

Pumpkin Soup. Helen Cooper. Doubleday UK.

The three friends in this story are different animals who all like to play different instruments. The cat plays the bagpipes, the squirrel plays the banjo and the duck sings. When it comes to making soup they each have their own specific jobs of slicing vegetables, stirring the soup or adding salt. When the duck decides he wants to change what he does there is a great argument and the duck leaves home. This situation gives a great opportunity to discuss compromise and cooperation between friends and how far it can be expected to go. What is fair? Should the duck be allowed to choose a different job or play a different instrument?

Imaginary Fred. Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers. Harper Collins.

The pain of loneliness is the starting point of this story. It is poignant and quirky because Fred appears only in physical form if someone needs him to be their friend. The illustrations create the character of Fred, who starts to fade when the child finds a real friend in the real world. He exists on a cloud waiting for someone to wish for him, and he wishes for the child to like the same things that he does. It is a good all round view of what friends are to each other and how both need to balance their own and the other’s needs. It is produced with beautiful drawings of the real and imaginary friends.

Charlotte’s Web. E.B.White. Harper Collins.

Wilbur the pig, is a piglet who is sold to a farmer to fatten up and provide meat. He finds he has an amazing friend in the spider Charlotte, who can answer some of his questions and reassure him when he hears that he is to be killed at Christmas from the old sheep. She spins messages that praise him and this leads to him becoming a celebrity pig. Their friendship is perpetuated by the birth of Charlotte’s five hundred and twelve children. Wilbur’s reflections about true friendship are a fitting tribute to his relationship with Charlotte. 

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