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Meet our Book Doctor... Jasbinder Bilan, author of Asha & the Spirit Bird

In our Book Doctor feature, we welcome a guest to prescribe just the right read for any mood or occasion.

Jasbinder Bilan – author of the 2019 Costa Children's Book Award-winning and Waterstones Children's Prize-shortlisted Asha & the Spirit Bird – has joined us to prescribe the best reads for young booklovers.

How do I set the scene to get really cosy to engage in a book? Recently I can't quite get hooked even with my favourites! – Grace, age 13

Grace, I love your attention to detail – of course when we want to really get into books, the atmosphere is so important. It's no coincidence that we bookworms dream about our very own reading nooks, with soft cushions, a cool reading lamp and definitely a furry throw to huddle under when we get to the scary bits. So I'd suggest first of all get yourself cosy and make a reading nest by collecting things from around the house – remember fairy lights aren't just for Christmas!

Once you've created your reading haven, I'd gather together some of your old favourites and add to them my suggestions: go back to classics like The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and anything by Sally Gardner, Cathryn Constable or Katherine Rundell. Interwoven with African folklore, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe is a hard-hitting mix of real-life problems as well as a world full of ghosts and magic. Finally I think you’ll enjoy Sophia Thakur's Somebody Give This Heart a Pen. The beauty of poetry is that you can tuck it under your pillow and keep coming back to it – enjoy!

The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I have a very active 5 and 3-year-old. Sometimes I feel beyond reading lots for my children I don't do enough at home to "teach" them. I would love a suggestion for a book that would give simple, easily doable little activities, with both a fun and educational element. One that is child friendly so we could read together would be even better. – Shelaine

It's wonderful to give the gift of reading to your children, so you are already doing a fantastic job. When my boys were younger, these moments of snuggling together and diving into the myriad of worlds offered by books is something they remember with real fondness. If you want to get a little more interactive you could start off with The Lost Book of Adventure: from the notebooks of the Unknown Adventurer – although you'll have to do the reading for this, its whole premise is sure to fire your boys' imaginations. There are suggestions for making things and exploring which you can all enjoy together.

You could also pick up some themed books like The Dawn Chorus by Suzanne Barton –although it doesn't have specific activities, use it as a springboard for recording the birds in the garden, crafting, and even recording and filming them. All of Yuval Zommer's books are glorious to share: you could dip into The Big Book Of Bugs and one of his Big Sticker Books. You can have hours of fun hunting for bugs and creating your own mini books with the stickers. Finally, the Usborne Never Get Bored series has lots of ideas.

The Lost Book of Adventure: from the notebooks of the Unknown Adventurer

Can you recommend a good book for an 11-year-old, preferably a mystery? When buying books, you literally have to go to the bookshop to read blurbs for all the books so you can pick the right one out. But so far there has been no success at finding the perfect one. – Nila

Mystery is also one of my favourite genres and it’s so exciting when you can’t stop turning the pages until you find out who did it – I hope these suggestions can give you some great choices Nila, so here goes!

Kicking off with one of the new voices in children’s literature, Sharna Jackson's High-Rise Mystery's urban setting and fast-paced adventure with sisters Nik and Norva will hook you right in. If you like a twist of magic with your whodunnits, Nicki Thornton’s latest novel The Cut-Throat Café is hot off the press, and part of a trilogy which follows the underdog chef turned detective, Seth Seppi, and his clever cat, Nightshade. Lauren St John is one of my favourite authors and her Kat Wolfe Investigates series transport you to Bluebell Bay where, beneath the idyllic setting, there are some pretty dastardly goings on. If you want a dash of fantasy with your mysteries take a look at Taran Matharu's Contender trilogy. It's an exciting mix of unsolved historical events, like the Marie Celeste, with elements of video gaming. Finally, Katherine Woodfine's Sinclair's Mysteries are set in Edwardian London and are utterly charming.

High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson

How do I help my baby niece become a brilliant little bookworm as she grows older? – Isabelle, age 16

It's so exciting to have a new baby in the family, Isabelle, and how lucky she is to have you thinking about her future. There are some lovely books out there that help babies take their first steps towards becoming readers. So Much by Trish Cooke is very baby-centred and its classic illustrations by Helen Oxenbury are a delight. The atmospheric Owl Babies, written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Patrick Benson, was always a favourite with my boys, as were all the Eric Carle books. Carle's illustrations are particularly eye-catching for babies and their interactive nature makes for a fun story time.

Part of the adventure of first books is that they take you to the edge of your comfort zone but bring you safely home, so I have to include my all time favourite: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, which builds on our natural template for story in this tale of wild imagination. Goodnight Bear by Joshua George is a lovely cosy book to end the night on, and with its magic torch to hunt for and illuminate the animals, it's fun and interactive. On that sleepy note – night night!

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Patrick Benson

My granddaughter will be 9 soon. At her age I was reading books all the time. Enid Blyton was a particular favourite of mine. I want to get her into books but am struggling to wow her with suggestions. Can you help? – Sharon

Sharon, there is so much more competition these days for children's attention but it really is worth persevering – once she finds the book she loves, it will be the start of her reading adventures. Reading together can be a lovely bonding time; hot chocolate and stories might be just what your granddaughter needs! Classic in feel but with a contemporary twist and plenty of page-turning excitement is Natasha Farrant's The Children of Castle Rock. Next up is Viper's Daughter by the wonderful Michelle Paver – part of a series but equally good as a standalone. The vivid setting of the Stone Age follows Renn and Torak to the Arctic Circle. In The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski, your granddaughter can travel through a suitcase to some incredible places. Similarly adventurous is anything by PG Bell or Catherine Fisher. Finally, my magical realist debu, Asha & the Spirit Bird will transport you both to India. Follow Asha and her best friend as they journey through the wilds of the Himalaya on a perilous journey in search of her missing father, guided by the spirit of her beloved grandmother.

The Children of Castle Rock by Natasha Farrant
Asha & the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan

About Asha & the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan

Asha lives in the foothills of the Himalayas. Money is tight and she misses her papa who works in the city. When he suddenly stops sending his wages, a ruthless moneylender ransacks their home and her mother talks of leaving.

From her den in the mango tree, Asha makes a pact with her best friend, Jeevan, to find her father and make things right. But the journey is dangerous: they must cross the world's highest mountains and face hunger, tiredness – even snow leopards. And yet, Asha has the unshakeable sense that the spirit bird of her grandmother – her nanijee – will be watching over her.

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