Historical fiction is my favourite genre, so I thought I’d share 4 great historical fiction novels I read in 2017.
Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir In this series (Six Tudor Queens, Six Novels, Six Years), author Alison Weir takes us through Anne Boleyn’s upbringing in 16th Century French court and the powerful women she served, including Margaret of Austria, Henry VIII’s sister in France Queen Mary and later Queen Claude.
Anne Boleyn’s relationship with King Henry VIII, marriage and subsequent fate is well known, but Alison Weir puts a fresh new spin on the well trodden story and I loved it. Highly recommended for fans of Philippa Gregory.
A Column of Fire by Ken Follett A Column of Fire is the third in the ThePillars of the Earth series by Ken Follett, and we pick up the story 250 years after World Without End. This time, the story takes us through the reign of Elizabeth I and the political and religious turmoil between the Protestants and the Catholics. Rather than staying primarily within the town of Kingsbridge (as in the first two books in the series), Follett extends the plot as far as France and Spain and in doing so has provided a great insight into the era. A Column of Fire can be read as a stand-alone.
The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory The Last Tudor is essentially the story of the three Grey sisters: Jane Grey, Katherine Grey and Mary Grey. The Grey sisters were cousins to Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor and this blood connection would prove to haunt them their entire lives. Commencing in 1550, the story unfolds from each sister’s point of view in three separate sections, giving us uninterrupted access to their lives. Each story is as compelling as the next and has been pieced together from the content of real letters and impeccable research into the period.
The Last Hours by Minette Walters
The release of The Last Hours by Minette Walters caused a stir a few months ago, being the first novel the author had released in a decade. Set in Dorsetshire in the 1300s, this is the story of Lady Anne of Develish and her attempts to protect her serfs from the deadly plague. She employs new sanitation methods for her household and cares for her serfs in a fashion that makes her ahead of her time.
Lady Anne’s approach to the threat of the plague is in direct conflict with the idea that the plague is God’s punishment, and with food and supplies running out, The Last Hours is a suspenseful and compelling read.
Each of the novels above can be read as a stand-alone or part of their respective series. Let me know in the comments if you’ve discovered some great historical fiction novels this year.
There’s nothing like an Aussie Christmas than the fresh scent of Summer mixed with a fragrance of fond memories and the savour of new ones. That’s how the following picture books will entice their readers, both young and old – with peace, unity and joy as we pleasure in the warmth of the festive and summery holiday season in Australia.
Corinne Fenton and Robin Cowcher return with another stunning ‘Little Dog’ story. From the iconic Melbourne in the previous, magical Christmas tale, Little Dog and the Summer Holiday takes Jonathan, Annie and their precious Westie, with caravan in tow, on holiday to the idyllic sites of Sydney. Immediately, Fenton paints a gloriously detailed adventure full of evocative language that is sure to bring about that nostalgic cue of wonderful family trips of yesteryear. Passing legendary landmarks such as the Dog on the Tuckerbox and Sydney Harbour Bridge, paddling at Bondi Beach and rattling “down the mountainside on the steepest scenic railway in the world” all make for an exciting, memorable holiday with family, friends, and of course, beloved pets.
Cowcher’s whimsical illustrations add a pleasurable sense of romanticism that capture the beauty and evocation of holidays like this. Parents and children will equally delight in Little Dog and the Summer Holiday, either reminding of the good old days, or enthusing a predilection for future family vacations. A beautiful book.
Summer – peaceful, tranquil, cheerful and contentment. Words that describe that special feeling of rest, fun and togetherness during the sunny season. And words that describe the special feeling emanating from this book by June Factor and sublime creator Alison Lester. Thirty years in print and Summer still feels as good as a homemade steamin’ puddin’ on a balmy Christmas Day.
Factor’s simple, silky and smooth Aussie voice shines through with robust rhyming character as we are swept up in a temperamental mix of family antics, Summer nuances and changing weather during the hot festive season. Lester’s legendary scenic art and winsome characters keep us occupied throughout with all the glorious combinations of farmyard outlooks and high-spirited busyness, respectively. From flies a gatherin’ to early morning rises, kin gatherin’ and present opening, pork a cracklin’ and raising glasses, clouds gatherin’ and making a bolt for cover, and finally napping and playing ‘til the stars are gatherin’ in the night sky.
Summer is a book of leisure, affection and ambience that will remain a classic to treasure and indulge in all the year round.
The tinsel is hung, the carols are sung. Tchaikovsky’s, The Nutcracker courses merrily in the background and hope hovers amidst every batch of gingerbread cookies. There’s no doubt, Christmas is well and truly upon us. However, if you are still in search of a meaningful Christmas tale to share with your young ones, consider these. They are all full of heart and soul and more than just a little good old-fashioned Christmas magic.
If you are ever in need of a little magic, if you ever find yourself questioning reason, if your festive spirit is ever waning, hope is here, with Matt Haig. This is superb storytelling for midgrade readers all the way through to 99-year-olds. Following on from Haig and Mould’s first collaboration, A Boy Called Christmas, this tale works so well at suspending belief and infusing hope, you’d be forgiven for feeling you’ve already met Father Christmas. Maybe you have. Haig takes what we have already been led to believe and crystallizes it into one big fat tangible beautiful believable Christmas miracle. Mould’s illustrations enhance an already magical tale with strokes of Dickenson brilliance. A Christmas must read – every year. Sublime to read aloud to little people or to cherish alone as you would the last fruit mince pie. Read, A Boy Called Christmas first to truly fortify your Christmas spirit, then Father Christmas and Me.
Baubles and bunting, twinkling lights, wrapping of presents and fresh pudding delights… no doubt your homes are tingling and shimmering with the scent of Christmas looming in the air. With bursting wish lists at the ready, don’t forget to add some more bookish treats under your Christmas tree. Following the joyous suggestions for kids in part 1 and part 2, here are a few more gorgeous picture books to share and spread the holiday cheer.
Marvin and Marigold: A Christmas Surprise is a friendly, thoughtful and evocative story about sharing the joy of Christmas with loved ones. Mark Carthew’s rhyming verses flow smoothly like warm egg nog over a Christmas pudding. His tale emits strong feelings of tenderness overcoming loneliness, as well as sentimental memories and bonds between family and friends. Simon Prescott’s gentle illustrations provide a sense of generosity, cosyness and pure magic that beautifully match that festive warmth.
Marvin is devastated at the thought of spending Christmas alone with no tree or presents to give. However, best friend Marigold Mouse has just received a gift, this first day in December, and she is insistent that her mate spend the coming days helping her to prepare it for the season. What follows is a gorgeous celebration of fond memories, creating new ones and sharing the Christmas, ‘decorative’ spirit with a friend. There’s plenty to treasure in A Christmas Surprise for young and old. See Dimity’s review in her Cracker List.
Adorned with sparkling red embellishments on the cover, this book is wrapped in beauty and glamour to mark the beginning of the festive season. Pick a Pine Tree is an exquisite tale of the frivolity and togetherness one tree can bring as it transforms into a marvellous creation of lights, ornaments and a central piece of love.
The rollicking rhythm by Patricia Toht, supported by the cartoonesque, mixed media illustrations by Jarvis both emanate joy, innocence, sparkle and awe. The pine tree’s journey from the lot, to being sturdily assembled and then abundantly decorated with friends is a delightfully instructive process that ends in pure happiness.
Pick a Pine Tree is a simple story for young children to appreciate the tree-selection and preparation exercise, all the while setting a tone for the importance of unity and intimacy in a most jolly and ebullient manner.
Everything is oversized and over-the-top in this next picture book. Is there ever such a thing as too much Christmas? There is for one 7 year old. The sound of the greeting, ‘Merry Christmas, Mary Christmas!’ is not a very festive one as all her family care about is being the biggest and brashest in the neighbourhood. As good as their Christmas-loving intentions, Mary’s family are simply an embarrassment. Too many lights, too many presents, an oversized tree and a dog with a deafening singing voice. Charity, inclusion and a big heart prevail in a joyous and bright finale that embodies just the perfect fit.
American Street by Ibi Zoboi was so good and also a little bit like running face-first into a brick wall of emotions. I’n not even sure what to do with myself right now. It’s a really powerful story of immigration and poverty and family. It’s brutal and messy and the ending left me reeling.
It follows the story of Fabiola who’s immigrated from Haiti to be with her cousins in America. Her mother gets detained at customs and then sent to a detention centre while Fabiola, born in America, is allowed to proceed. She’s absolutely freaked out for her mother, but slowly has to make a life for herself with her extended family. She attends school and ends up caught up with a boy who truly wants to make her happy. However the street they live on isn’t the clean and safe haven Fabiola always imagined. She quickly gets caught up in drug rings and loan sharks and maybe will have to compromise her own safety to work with the police so they’ll help get her mother back. But if that means betraying people she loves, would she do it?
The emphasis on family was the best. This is not a “nice” family particularly, but I loved how complex they all were! Fabiola is basically just THROWN into American culture and I felt for her so much. Her three cousins are all around her age, and they immediately just adopt her as their 4th sister. But they do live in a poor part of town and they’re mixed up in a lot of stuff. Donna’s boyfriend is like Such Bad News and hits her and Pri is closet queer and Chantal has stuff going on and like their aunt is usually “sick” or hidden away in her room. Fabiola is attending school and trying to figure out how the American life works, plus find a way to help get her mother free.
Fabiola is also really precious and sweet! I was worried she’d be a passive character because of that but she’s not. I also loved how she really wanted to make America her home, But she didn’t give up her Haitian heritage. There’s a bit of magic in the book, because she firmly believes in Vodou and her culture is woven into everything she does. It’s so good!! (Also the author’s note says this is all out of her own experiences too! It makes a book so special and true when you know the experiences behind it are woven with an #ownvoices narrative.) I really loved that Fabiola wasn’t going to be pushed around, but at the same time voiced her insecurities and definitely didn’t always make good decisions.
I basically couldn’t stop reading! And the story just got more brutal and twisted as it went along. Like the plot is really tight and I loved how it woven things together at the end. It’s definitely the kind of book you’re going to want to put aside a full afternoon to just devour…constantly. Until it’s done and you’re a bit of a wide-eyed mess.
American Streetis purely excellent #ownvoices story that doesn’t shy away from showing how complicated and brutal life can be. It’s not an “easy” read (although it is quite fast!) and there were so many times I was raging with Fabiola. Her situation is often a trainwreck but I loved her character arc and also her love of her culture. Definite recommend!
You’d be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed at this time of year by all the demands of the Festive Season, with end of school and social obligations too numerous to count. Time out is as important for your children as it is for you, so why not take a precious moment or two to sit down, relax and share some of these sublime (new) picture books with them to rekindle your Christmas spirit. Some of these are so good, they feature in Romi’s roundup of Christmas must reads, too!
McCartney’s matchless ability to appeal to little readers all over the world is reaching legendary status. Merry Everything epitomises this in the most deliriously dreamy way using evocative language, occasional merry rhyme and lashings of relatable love as readers reflect on animal families from all over the world hunkering down on Christmas Eve to wait for, you-know-who. It’s the focus on ‘cuddles and kisses’ and all the extraordinary departures from normal at this time of year that I love and young children will recognise and appreciate – fun and games with relatives, gorging on Christmas goodies, and falling into a seasonal stupor afterwards. Racklyeft’s illustrations are sweeter than a plate of choc cherry balls and just as enticing. Love Love Love this.
Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody was dark and murderous and magical. So basically everything a good book should be. I’m in absolute awe of the world building, the dynamic characters, and the finale plot twist that totally caught me off guard! This was just incredible and I highly recommend it!
Why aren’t all books full of murder and magic. I ask.
The story is set in a moving carnival called the Gomorrah Festival. It features Sorina who is an illusionist and “freak” because she was born with no eyes but instead has magical powers. Her illusions are so real that they can basically have lives of their own and she calls them her family. Then one gets murdered which, as you can imagine, shouldn’t be possible for a person who isn’t even real. Sorina teams up with the local charming but cocky gossip-worker named Luca to try and solve the mystery, that might be more deeply imbedded in the festival’s history than she originally thought.
The setting was so exquisitely described and detailed! I totally felt I could see and taste and smell Gomorrah. It explodes off the page with kettle corn and liquorice cherries and smoke from the permanently burning and walking city. It’s definitely the kind of setting I’d love to visit.
The plot was deliciously twisty and rich. There are conspiracy theories and murder mysteries! I loved the sort of genre mash-up of having an epic fantasy setting, but mixed with mysteries and whodunnit vibes, not to mention there’s religious tension in the background and people with wicked magical skills. And of course you have all the carnival and performance shenanigans and dramas. Exciting.
But the characters absolutely stole the show. (Har har, excuse the pun.) I adored them all. Sorina was amazing! She’s an illusionist, adopted by the proprietor of the carnival, and she is so incredibly powerful. Imagine making people up and then having them come to life and actually function as people. She loved her little made up “freak” family so much. I also loved how relatable Sorina was with her dedication to her family, her want to please her father and become Gomorrah’s next master, and her panic attacks and tears that made her so human.
And Luca was equally magnificent. He was entirely snarky and wore horrendous waistcoats that Sorina never let him live down and he trades in gossip and mysteries. He also asexual which was so refreshing to see on page! I loved how devious and cunning he was, and their relationship was slow burn and fraught with uncertainty.
The writing was also a piece of marvel. I couldn’t put the book down! Plus it really utilised the five-senses to make visually stunning words and paragraphs.
Basically if you are looking for a deliciously wicked story of magic, mystery, and mayhem…Daughter Of The Burning City is for you. It’ll totally capture your heart and your imagination and probably make you crave popcorn, but where exactly is the downside in that.
I dare say that few of us truly understand why our work and welfare systems are the way they are, and that many of us have thought, in at least in passing, that things seem a little back to front.
Dutchman Rutger Bregman has done more than think about the this-system-seems-broken concept. He’s researched and penned a case for universal basic income (UBI)—a foundational amount of no-strings-attached money for everyone—and other similarly counterintuitive concepts such as opening up international borders. (The latter warrants a post all of its own.) In the pragmatic, evidence-based Utopia for Realists, Bregman shows how these things could be not far-fetched idealism but economically viable realities.
‘The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones’ is one of economist John Maynard Keynes’ famed quotes, which Bregman employs to emphasise his point. (Forewarning: Bregman quotes quite a few economists in this book.) And while many of the theories discussed in the Utopia for Realists have in truth been around for donkeys’ years, Bregman reintroduces us to them via fresh, illustrative case studies and wider historical contexts. Iconic popular culture cartoon The Jetsons even rates a mention.
A historian by trade, Bregman conveys traditionally fairly dense, dry subject matter in an accessible, engaging, storytelling- and context-based manner. That is, I actually kind of understood some of these concepts and their potential once Bregman had parsed their data. (Bregman’s Conversations with Richard Fidler interview also provides an audio overview of the book’s theories, and is fantastic to listen to to boot. I highly recommend queuing it up in your podcast rotation, stat.) Take the case studies for addressing poverty and, by happy proxy, a host of other issues.
One London-based 2009 study involved providing 13 men who had been sleeping rough long term with a modest, no-strings-attached sum of money. These were men who had spent decades on the streets and on whom the government inadvertently spent swathes of money through things like policing.
It turns out that, instead of frittering away the money as anticipated, the men were incredibly frugal and thoughtful in the way they spent it. Some even had some cash left over at the experiment’s close. This free-money experiment also saved the government a bunch of money as the need for policing and its ilk decreased.
Similar case studies, such as ones where entire poverty-wracked towns in Kenya, Uganda, and Namibia were provided a UBI, demonstrate equivalent results: people spent the money not on frivolous items but on things such as repairing homes and starting businesses. Although in the case of a Canadian experiment from decades ago, it’s only recently that they determined these results.
That’s because of a change in political climate mid-trial and a resultant nervousness about spending money analysing a ‘mincome’ (minimum income) experiment to give an entire town a UBI. It was one thing to have given away free money in the past, the powers that be surmised. It would be another to continue throwing money after it. So the analysis was shelved. Until recently.
It’s a sliding-doors moment because things might have been very different today if those decision-makers had had the courage to see the analysis through. It turns out the UBI was a resounding success and, rather than making people lazy, it improved life and society on a range of fronts. Truancy and teen pregnancy rates decreased, students stayed in school longer, and mental health issues and domestic violence rates improved too.
Similarly, a study of American First Peoples who benefited from the opening of a casino, of all things, reported similarly positive results. Bregman included this study to demonstrate that being poor affects your IQ and something as simple as having access to money improves it. Bregman cites economist Charles Kenny’s wise, if slightly circular, observation: ‘The big reason people are poor is because they don’t have enough money.’ He also cites, what is possibly my favourite quote of the book, which is from economist Joseph Hanlon: ‘Poverty is fundamentally about a lack of cash. It’s not about stupidity. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.’
To reinforce these quotes, Bregman points to findings consistent across these studies that giving money to people is more effective in addressing poverty than creating complicated bureaucratic and punitive-in-nature systems for them to navigate. Especially when their decision-making abilities are crippled by what’s termed a poverty-induced ‘scarcity mentality’.
Bregman cites George Orwell’s quote that poverty ‘annihilates the future’. It’s a statement Orwell was qualified to make having experienced poverty firsthand. UBI is, Bregman argues, an idea whose time has come, and I’m inclined to whole-heartedly agree.
Does Utopia for Realists contain all the answers to all the world’s problems? Obviously not. But it’s commendably at least trying to spark a rethink of how we’re rather unsuccessfully approaching wicked problems. The question is whether the people who have the power to introduce UBI and other similarly innovative concepts—to un-annihilate the future, if you’d like—are paying attention.
‘A man cannot despair if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility.’
ClientEarth’s* epigraph (above) is, fittingly, American novelist, poet, and environmental activist Wendell Berry’s famous quote. I say fittingly because environmental lawyer James Thornton’s career and, by proxy, non-fiction book ClientEarth embodies that sentiment.
An American lawyer currently living in London, Thornton has practised environmental law, which is a relatively new concept, since its early days. He’s been instrumental in shaping and shifting the law to better protect the environment. This includes helping remove some of the onerous costs that prevent people suing companies running roughshod over environmental protections.
Thornton cut his teeth doing things like suing a businessman negligently running a pig factory farm. The businessman had nothing but contempt for complying with legislation designed to prevent environmental degradation resulting from the farm’s waste. That contempt and cockiness cost him a substantial amount of money.
With litigation like this, Thornton developed a reputation for cleverly using the law as a stick when necessary, but more readily as a tool for tackling injustice and as an antidote to despair. ‘Irresponsible businesses and governments need to be faced by two realities,’ Thornton writes: ‘that people object to them so strongly that they stop buying their projects or voting for them; that the law makes life so difficult for them that they have to change their behaviour.’ The pig farmer experienced the latter.
‘ClientEarth’ is two things. It’s the name of the environmental law organisation Thornton founded and still runs. It’s also the name of the book he and his partner of 25 years, writer and academic Martin Goodman, have penned to document the tale of the ground-breaking legal organisation that leverages legal mechanisms to change or enforce environmental law. (As Paul Steinberg says in the book: ‘If you want to change the world, change the rules. A rule is just an idea with an anchor attached to it.’)
As the primary storyteller in this book, Goodman explores the tale from a biographer’s perspective. Thornton’s thoughts intersperse Goodman’s chapters. Although less sophisticated in storytelling capacity, Thornton’s chapters give voice to his thinking around particular issues or key moments.
ClientEarth is an important book for a variety of reasons, not least because with climate change accelerating and few world leaders even attempting to apply the handbrake through good environmental policy and outcomes (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump), people are looking for information about what non-politician-led mechanisms might be available. (Illustrating the hopelessness and incredulity people currently feel, ClientEarth points to the Tom Toro cartoon with a family sitting around a campfire. ‘Yes,’ the father says, ‘the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.’)
Environmental law is fewer than 50 years old, so its parameters and power are still being determined. Regardless, it is, according to Thornton, the answer to the what-can-we-possibly-do question with which people are grappling. But Thornton alone cannot create or enforce all the environmental laws we need, which is why a book outlining and analysing how he’s achieved what he has, what hasn’t worked, and what environmental law’s potential might be, is crucial.
One issue that’s plagued action is, he notes, that the environmental lawyers who tend to help NGOs—and I realise I’m making sweeping generalisations here—are young, activist lawyers with lots of enthusiasm but, due to their relative inexperience, little heft.
Another observation is that there’s room for a range of activist approaches, and ClientEarth’s approach is designed to complement rather than compete with approaches like that of Greenpeace. The thinking is, as it’s put more memorably, that: ‘Each superhero has their superhero skill, but you need a bunch of them.’
ClientEarth is well told—an experienced writer at the tiller draws out the key stories and keeps it the right side of being dry textbook-y. That said, it’s a book that’s more gripping in some chapters than others, and its niche audience is undoubtedly one that has an interest in the law and its levers.
Which I do. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve headed back to uni to study Law with the express purpose of incorporating environmental law into my existing career. But I’ve since recommended ClientEarth to—read: thrust the book at—various friends and family who haven’t got legal backgrounds, all of whom have been able to take away plenty of invaluable information from it.
ClientEarth is comprehensively researched, with chapter-by-chapter endnotes for further reading or fact checking if you have the energy for it. And even if you don’t, ClientEarth’s chapter content alone imparts a hope-imbued sense of what’s possible if we can strategically shift society’s legal levers in the environment’s favour.
*Yes, it is one word. Yes, it’s troubling me and I am itching to uncouple the two words logically.
Back again with yet another wonderful collection of gift suggestions for the festive season (see Part 1 here). This time, a few picture books perfectly gorgeous for preschool children who will love the buzz, love and tingle that feels like Christmas.
Merry Everything! is an utterly joyous celebration packaged in a magical wrapping of scrumptious words and pictures to create all kinds of warm and fuzzies. Naturally! It’s by one of my favourite creative combinations; Tania McCartney and Jess Racklyeft!
A book about inclusion and togetherness at Christmas time – what better way to introduce this global jollification than with the endpapers adorned with addressed letters to different animal families around the world. The story continues with sentiments so lovingly expressed through Tania’s kind of lyrical prose about all the preparations pertained to the common link that is Christmas. Bees buzz with busy, pandas wrap surprises, monkeys hang lashings, whilst penguins string songs on the starry sky. Appropriate atmospheric and seasonal scenes and habitats are beautifully thought out in Jess’s sugary sweet watercolour illustrations. Her paintings dazzlingly feature a medley of winsome critters and creatures so busily assembling the festivities with their families. And “on Christmas Day, the world tingles with happy.” Tania’s text continues to bring joy with her mix of cheerful verbs and rhyming elements, humour and bursts of emotion, just like full tummies at the end of a jubilantly hectic day.
A universally appealing book that is brimming with love and intimacy, warmth and unconditional happiness, Merry Everything! is everything a young reader could wish for this Christmas.
But how do you define ‘that Christmas feeling’? Is it baking the Christmas pudding, decorating the tree as a family, singing carols or visiting ‘Santa’? Dottie, Jem and their pup Shortbread reminisce about their special moments last year as they await the arrival of Mum and Dad at their grandparents’ house. This year is not quite the same, and for some children this may be a reality where compromises and adapting to change need to be made. In a bid to find the feeling they so long for, Jem shows Dottie a tree with twinkling lights and they sing songs together. Then Mum and Dad join them with a delivery that qualifies as the most precious ‘Christmas feeling’. It will literally give you shivers!
Touching and packed with emotion, and detailed illustrations that are equally full of life, reflection and charm, That Christmas Feeling is a tribute to the significance of family love and balancing expectations in times of uncertainty or change. Preschoolers will be overcome with hearts filled with joy after sharing this gorgeous book.
What a joyous story brimming with sunshine and optimism, friendship and generosity! A Very Quacky Christmas by Frances Watts is delightfully cheerful with stunning illustrations by Ann James, perfect for reflecting on the true spirit of a bright Christmas.
Samantha Duck gloriously sings, “We wish you a quacky Christmas” whilst winding tinsel around reeds, hanging baubles and stockings on branches, and writing wish lists for all her friends. In the meantime, by her side is the pessimistic tortoise, Sebastian, certain that Christmas is not for animals. But, despite his scepticism he agrees to help his friend collect precious items from animals around the farm – sharing in a Christmas for animals is a delightful idea, after all. A cart full of presents and a bumpy ride later, who else shows his support, encouragement and nobility but Sebastian himself!
A Very Quacky Christmas is an absolutely feel-good book about giving and sharing, with its provocative text and effortless, dreamy illustrations that allow the golden effervescence to wash over the pages and into your heart. Love.
Follow your journey through the long wavy grass, deep cold river, oozy mud, dark forest, and into a swirling whirling snowstorm as you shake and swish the book to create a ‘cool’ whooshing, kinaesthetic experience. What a blast! Continue on your suspenseful way to the narrow gloomy cave, and rush back home again with bear-on-tail, right into the comfort of your bed.
A masterful gift idea from the people at Walker Books to allow us oldies to relive the drama and excitement, and for the youngsters to be inspired to engage in all the songs, actions, role plays and good old cuddles that accompany this favourite treasure. Designed to captivate our hearts with some interactive fun, We’re Going on Bear Hunt Snowglobe Gift Book will be a winner for preschoolers this Christmas.
Do you have an emerging confident reader keen to fill their newly acquired ravenous literary appetite? Youngsters between 5 – 9 years are discovering at this age that stories can occur in the most wildly absurd wonderful places and that junior novels, like these, are their invitations to new words and new adventures. By feeding them regular healthy doses of junior fiction, you will nourish their love for reading and keep them satisfied well into the holidays. Here are some suggestions:
Bold, bright and busting with high-action adventure, this series is brilliant for early readers. Controlled use of vocabulary, illustrations and diagrams all contribute to wicked reads with Books 1 – 6 released this year and more to follow in 2018. Kids will love following Hunter Marks on his dino hunting missions after he wins a computer game and becomes a member of D-Bot Squad. High-energy fun.
This whacky series is decidedly visual with full colour illustrations dominating each page. Text is minimal but enhanced with varying font sizes for emphasis and wow factor. Each book examines a particular Mooper character of Moopertown, the first being Dramatic Dom. The stories encourage kids to get to know each individual better and appreciate their strengths and weaknesses. The notion that everyone is special in his or her own special way is the theme that meanders throughout this collection.
This jolly attractive little hardcover book is part of the Read & Bloom Books series, which invite youngsters on wondrous adventures with lovable wily characters, like Stinky Spike, using mindfully sparse narrative and beguiling illustrations. Colourful and merry, these are the type of stories that really do plant the love of reading!
Who could resist a golden puffball of fluff with a tail? This heart-warming series is about puppies that train to become Guide Dogs. Each story is about a puppy, like Harley in the first book, and the families that train them. Lightly illustrated with Evan’s charming drawings and full of puppy pranks and incidents, this series is sure to sate your cuteness quota. Buying these books also helps puppies like Harley become fully fledged Guide Dogs. Win win!
I love this quirky cooking orientated series about 10-year-old Sage, daughter of celebrity chef parents with an insatiable passion for…wait for it…food! Together they travel the globe encountering more than their fair share of not so nice-tasting situations and characters. Murphy cleverly combines every day normal with generous dollops of extraordinary. The latest titles include a sojourn to Singapore and a Literary Launch for this delectable character. Delicious fun for girls and culinary creators alike. And the best bit? A recipe in each book. Winner winner, chicken dinner!
Squishy is the instantly likeable, utterly loveable heroine of this spirited series about dysfunctional blended families and all the glorious ‘normal’ zany events that occur within their orbits. Fast paced, age-clinching narrative is interspersed with illustrations that induce drama and humour. The first book, Bonus Sisters, introduces us to Squishy’s family members and her unquenchable need to question – everything! Creative, curious, charmingly optimistic and just a touch naive, Squishy is just the type of hero little girls will love to emulate.
I’m not sure what the scientific explanation is for the fascination kids of this age possess for all things dinosaurs but my little miss did, too. Palaeophiliacs (lovers of dinosaurs and pre-historic thingies) will revel in this series, a few years old now but young in comparison to a Diplodocus, when you think about it. Stomping-mad fun made all the more believable by Flowers’ hilarious illustrations. Pletosaurauses in the bathtub, Diplodocuses in the tepees – Jack and Toby have all these and heaps more dino dilemmas to cope with on Saurus Street. It’s like the age of the dinosaurs never ended.
Definitely one for the girls, this series is Tom Gates meets Dork Diariesfor young girls. Interwoven with themes of friendship, teamwork, ponies, dancing, fashion, bullies and a whole year of diaries’ worth more, these stories will appeal to girls and their BFFs. Ella is utterly addictive thanks McDonald’s fantastic illustrations, just the sort of wiggles and pics and notations young girls are wont to scribble alongside their deepest most inner thoughts. Fun, airy and tots on the money. Highly recommended.
Stunning spacey foil covers give way to equally scintillating storylines centring on space probing, Jake and his whacky team of mates and robots.
This series features galaxies of intergalactic fun sporting space-aged adventures mid-primary school kids can really get carried away with – providing they have their space suits on. There are six in the series, which gives young readers plenty of time and incentive to explore the entire universe! Did I mention the covers are truly out of this world!
I LOVE an exciting pick-a-path-you-choose-the-path story! Having written one myself, I know how tricky it can be producing a convincing multi-ending story. It can also be colossal fun! Heath’s series adds a new dimension to 30 possible adventure storylines – a countdown. YOU the reader only have 30 minutes to choose the right path to survive. These stories are humming with danger, ethical decisions, survival dilemmas and plenty of problem solving, ideal for the inquisitive, questing mind. Written in second person, as most choose your own adventure stories are, this series plants you smack bang in the middle of the action and you only have yourself to blame if things go horribly wrong. What’s not to love! Highly recommended for grip-the-edge-of-your-seat reading.
This expansive series is another choose your own adventure styled collection, which I just can’t get enough of. Ivanoff has created an amazing array of stories, each pulsing with high levels of interactivity. Again, YOU the reader must decide which options to take when faced with a dizzying selection of alternatives. Despite the choice, each chapter is concise enough to follow and complete within a relatively short timeframe, or even, to read aloud without confusion. Coupled with Hart’s explosive illustrations, it’s all very brilliant and, at times, just a little on the dark scary side. Pack some in your Christmas stockings this season – there’s a new release nearly every month!
Christmas is a great time for plum pudding and tinsel and muted panic about trying to find the right gift for everyone. So the best and most logical option is obviously to just buy everyone you know a book. And what could be better than an Aussie book!? It goes really well with plum pudding. Total guarantee.
Today I want to list some really great Aussie Young Adult books that have been published in 2017 and might suit someone in your family’s fancy. Or just, you know, gift it to yourself. Christmas is a time for giving after all. (Even to yourself, shh, this is fine.)
BEAUTIFUL MESS BY CLAIRE CHRISTIAN
This is definitely one of my new all time favourite books and it’s about two teens struggling with depression. It involves slam-poetry and a kebab shop and healing and learning to accept you’re not broken, but rather love yourself and let other people help you on your journey. Gideon is an absolute sweetheart and you’ll adore Ava’s determination not to collapse under her grief.
THIS MORTAL COIL BY EMILY SUVADA
This is a brand new book that’s just hit the shelves and it’ll hit all your sci-fi cravings SO well. It’s about a dystopian world where a virus is wiping everyone out, and a genius scientist’s daughter is suddenly left alone after her dad is kidnapped by a dark organisation. Catarina has to crack the code to release the antidote to the world, with the help of a super-soldier named Cole and her own intelligence in science and technology. Definitely features lots of guns and running and small explosions.
GAP YEAR IN GHOST TOWN BY MICHAEL PRYOR
This book is just downright hilarious, so if you’re looking for something that captures Australian wit and humour — like just drop everything and buy this book. Probably buy it for yourself too. It’s just so so funny. It’s about Anton who’s family is a long-line of ghost hunters. They help them move onto the afterlife as quietly and calmly as possible…until a girl from the “elite” British branch comes over and tries to shake things up with her sword and more violent but effective way of controlling ghosts. Mysteries unravel about the different ghost-hunting groups and there’s an extra spiteful rise in malevolent spirits. Except swords and bucket loads of coffee and quips in the face of death and a lot of ghosts.
NIGHT SWIMMING BY STEPH BOWE
This is such a sweet and lovely contemporary set in a small outback Australian town where Kirby is set for a boring existence until the most beautiful new girl moves into town. Kirby’s best friend, Clancy, immediately is ALL eyes for this new girl (options are limited okay) and Kirby promises to help play matchmaker…but the problem is she’s falling for Iris too. The book is the actual cutest thing and features quirky writing and goat soap and delicious Indian food and a protagonist who adores books which is, quite frankly, relatable.
QUEENS OF GEEK BY JEN WILDE
Now this book is set in the USA, but it features 3 Australian teens who travel to a supercon to embrace all their nerdy glory. It swaps points-of-view between Taylor, who is an anxious booknerd with autism, and Charlie, who is a bisexual indie movie star trying to ditch a horrible ex-boyfriend (also, unfortunately, a costar) while she crushes hard on a local youtuber. The book takes place over 3 days and it’s full of action and amazing character devleopment and tons of pop-culture references. It’s super fun and you’ll root for Taylor and Charlie to get their dreams and speak up to their crushes. Definite must-read for all nerds and geeks!
Books about sisters are absolutely fantastic things! Especially if they manage to capture the complexities of having a sister…AKA you love them and also sometimes want to strangle them. It’s all incredibly good times. I particularly like it when books dive into the complexities of family and siblings, so today I want to list a few YA books that feature sister relationships.
THREE DARK CROWNS
This is a very twisty and dark story about three triplet sisters who have to fight for the throne. These aren’t the kind of sisters you should probably model your life on…but they are super interesting to read about! One is a poisoner, one is an elementalist, and one controls animals. The story follows their journey after their 16th birthday when the time comes to start the battle to claim the throne. Except maybe they’re not what each other expects.
This story not only features two sisters, but it’s also a Little Red Riding Hood retelling! Except instead of little girls skipping through the woods to find Grandma’s house…these sisters are actually hunters of werewolves. So be prepared for axes and blood.
And some super loving girls who dearly adore each other but are so intent on protecting each other they end up causing some catastrophic riffs.
Ramona feels pretty stifled by her small town and her life that seems way out of her control. She really loves her older sister who’s also pregnant with a dead-beat teen husband and…honestly Ramona struggles to support her sister. She feels she can’t leave to have her own life when her sister and the soon-to-be-born baby are going to need her. This is definitely a loving but messy sisterly-bond, but full of support and girls who are there for each other!
Now this one is a little different because Em’s little sister isn’t present for a lot of the book, BUT Em’s #1 goal in life is to get her sister out of prison! It’s set in a fantasy world were two warring people are trying to wipe each other out. Em disguises as one of the enemy in order to “marry” the enemy prince and sabotage them from the inside. This book is so so amazing, clever, plot twisty, and also downright hilarious. You know you’re going to love the “evil” prince when it turns out he only trusts people who love cheese bread as much as he does. #Relatable Also the sequel, Avenged, features sisters Em and Olivia in full catastrophic glory.
THINGS I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN
This story features Chloe, who is a the local Popular And Perfect girl at school and who also has an autistic older sister named, Ivy. The girls are super close and lovely together and Chloe realises that Ivy is pretty lonely and would love a boyfriend but her disability leaves her unsure how to actually go about doing this. So Chloe decides to help out. She ends up setting Ivy up with another autistic boy from Ivy’s school…which means Chloe ends up spending a lot of time with the boy’s older brother — also Chloe’s enemy. Except he’s not so bad the more they hang out and maybe Chloe’s matchmaking is going to take a different turn.
Felice Arena and Tristan Bancks have both written extremely exciting, atmospheric books for boys this year (and girls like them too).
I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Felice’s replies. (Tristan features in the next post)
You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?
I was named after my grandfather – a longstanding tradition for many first-born sons in Italian families. Felice is pronounced Feh-LEE-che. Imagine growing up with that name in Country Victoria! Felice actually means ‘happy’ in Italian. And it pretty much reflects who I am – happy by name, happy by nature. My family and friends these days just call me ‘Fleech’ for short. Occasionally I get Felix, which is the English version of Felice (but that just makes me think of the cartoon cat).
Where are you based at the moment?
You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles?
I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Felice about The Boy and the Spy and Tristan about The Fall (in the next post)?
The Boy and the Spy is a fast-paced WW2 adventure set in Sicily. A twelve year-old Antonio, an orphaned boy, has a chance meeting with an injured American spy hiding out in a grotto, the story launches into a heart-stopping story with action aplenty. Readers are kept in suspense as Antonio helps the spy evade German soldiers and gangsters, make contact with the Allies, and try to find a way to escape the island alive. An important theme carried throughout the story is the notion of family and how we define it.
What genre are they?
Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?
Wartime Sicily. My mother comes from that Italian isle and I still have relatives there. I’ve been to Sicily several times so I have a real sense of the terrain, which helped when writing the story. As far as the specific time period goes, that took a little more research, but I was able to consult with some family members to help authenticate the tone and settings in the book, and to capture 1943 in the dialogue, details from everyday life, and conditions related to the war.
How do you hook readers quickly into your story?
I love writing movement and action in my stories. A fast pace from the outset can engage some young reader who might not have the patience or attention span to read a slower unfolding plotline weighted down in meandering development. Adding a little movement with a sense of jeopardy or obstacles to overcome early on in the story is a good way to hook young readers quickly. Once they’ve connected with the characters in this way they’re more willing to pay attention to the deeper undercurrents of the story as they emerge farther along in the narrative.
Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?
There’s Antonio, an orphaned boy who is frowned upon and pretty much invisible in his seaside town. WW2 is the backdrop to his story, but for Antonio his daily battle is with prejudice. So when he meets a man who has literally dropped from the sky and talks to him as an equal and is desperate for his help, Antonio’s sees a chance to prove himself and deepen his own sense of self-worth. But with this unlikely alliance comes danger – the man is technically the enemy and Antonio is putting his life at risk to help him.
How is the writing style different from some of your other work?
This book heralds a new writing path for me. I’m known for writing contemporary sports-themed stories, and usually in third person. This book and my next book are written in first person and play out in a specific historical time and setting. I’ve wanted to write in this style for a long time, and I’m happy that it’s resonating with readers.
What do you think about each other’s book?
I loved it. And I’m not just saying that because I know Tristan. What I admire about Tristan’s writing in this story, The Fall, (and Two Wolves) is that he never talks down to his reader. He doesn’t dumb it down. It’s smart and sharp writing, and it’s visual. I think Tristan and I share a love of cinematic storytelling. We both come from TV/film backgrounds, and I think this definitely comes through in our writing.
These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?
We don’t share editors or go to the same meetings but we’ve attended the same events and festivals – and have also shared the stage. Last year for PRH we gave a reading performance of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox at Federation Square in Melbourne. We’ve talked about doing more events together.
What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?
Anything written by Michael Morpurgo, Neil Gaiman, Frank Cottrell Boyce, John Flanagan, David Almond, Gary Paulsen, Brian Selznick, Morris Gleitzman, Robert Newton, Adrian Beck, and… Tristan Bancks.
What are you writing about now or next?
I’m putting the final touches to another historical action story set in Paris in 1910 called Fearless Frederic. It’s about friendship, adventure, and what it means to have courage. It’s due to be published by Penguin Random House Australia April 2nd 2018.
What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?
It’s incredibly significant. There’s no other joy like watching young readers hang onto every word you say as you read aloud to them. I would never pass up the opportunity to help jumpstart a love of reading in our next generation of book lovers. It’s also a chance for me to garner feedback and test out ideas – kids are brutally honest and will let you know if they like something or not.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to say thanks to those who have read any of my books and have reached out to me to say how much they’ve enjoyed them. This means a great deal to me. And if you’re just discovering my books for the first time, I hope you’ll also enjoy them. Oh, and feel free to let me know over at instagram.com/fleech or www.felicearena.com
Thanks Felice, and all the best with The Boy and the Spyand your other books.
I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Tristan’s replies. (Felice features in the next post)
You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?
Tristan was one of the knights of the round table. It can mean ‘noise’ or ‘boldness’ or ‘sorrow’. Certainly, there are notes of boldness and sorrow in my novels and my teachers always told me I was unnecessarily noisy.
Where are you based at the moment?
You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles?
I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Tristan about The Fall and Felice (in the next post) about The Boy and the Spy
THE FALL is inspired by a crime scene I visited doing work experience with a news crew when I was in high school. A man had stolen a woman’s handbag, run through a park, jumped over a fence at the back of the park and didn’t realise that the park was built on top of a multi-storey carpark which was built into the hillside. This and my love of the Hitchcock thriller REAR WINDOW collided to inspire the story.
What genre are they?
THE FALL is a kind of crime, mystery, suspense, thriller. But it’s not just characters servicing plot. I try to write characters that you care about and I want to explore big ideas that are relevant to middle-grade readers. THE FALL touches on mortality, rites of passage for kids and what it means to be a good human and family member, to make good choices.
Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?
Most of the book is set in a single apartment building over the space of twenty-four hours. I set myself that challenge and it makes the book quite intense. The building is in Sydney, very much like a building a friend of mine lives in, which is only about 100 metres from the crime scene that I visited back when I was sixteen years-old. It’s also influenced by the apartments I stayed in while travelling in England and Europe for four months during the writing of the second draft.
How do you hook readers quickly into your story?
THE FALL begins at 2.08am in a fifth-floor apartment with Sam waking to hear two men arguing in the apartment overhead. Moments later he witnesses a crime. The perpetrator of that crime realises that Sam is the sole witness and comes after him. This sets the drama in motion, with Sam becoming increasingly entwined in the crime as the story progresses.
Books need to start with a bang but, when they do, as an author you need to ensure that the rest of the story lives up to the opening and that the end is even better.
Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?
Sam Garner is twelve-going-on-thirteen. He has never met his father before this week. He grew up in the Blue Mountains (not unlike myself) and his father left before he was born. His mother has never wanted him to see his father and his dad hasn’t exactly been breaking his neck to get in touch either. But, after having an operation on his knee (as I did when I was thirteen), Sam’s Mum has to work and she finally allows Sam to go and stay with his father, Harry, a newspaper crime reporter, for a week while he recuperates. On his second-last night, he witnesses the crime.
How is the writing style different from some of your other work?
It’s very different to my younger, funnier illustrated short stories in the Tom Weekly books. There is humour in THE FALL but it’s darker, more thrilling and it explores bigger ideas. It’s more in the vein of TWO WOLVES.
What do you think about each other’s book?
I hate Fleech’s book. Kidding. It’s actually my favourite book he’s written. I really like SPECKY MAGEE but I think ‘THE BOY AND THE SPY’ is another step up. It has a thrilling opening scene but the book isn’t just about action. The characters are rich and believable and it’s told against the backdrop of an important and exciting historical moment. My fourteen year-old son just devoured it a few days ago, too.
These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?
We see each other a few times a year at dinners and festivals and when I’m in Melbourne I’ll see if Fleech is around for a catch-up. We have a shared history in that we both started out as TV actors, both lived in the U.K. for a few years. In fact I interviewed Felice when I was presenting a TV series in the U.K. and he was performing in a musical. He is a super-energetic entertainer and we both like the idea of using video and performance to bring books to life for kids.
What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?
Hatchet – Gary Paulsen
Runner – Robert Newton
Okay For Now – Gary D Schmidt
Joey Pigza Loses Control – Jack Gantos
Once series – Morris Gleitzman
What are you writing about now or next?
I’ve just finished the next book of short stories in the TOM WEEKLY series and Gus Gordon is illustrating it now. It’s out in 2018 and features stories in which Tom tries to eat a car, his guinea pig is taken hostage, his grandmother involves him in a plot to steal a prize fruitcake, he is attacked by a gang of killer possums and he believes that he and his bum have the potential to save the world.
I’m also writing a new crime-thriller called DETENTION about a kid involved in a school lockdown who comes face-to-face with the threat. I imagine it’ll be out either 2019 or 2020. I like to let the novels breathe so they take a few years to evolve.
What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?
It’s a great complement to the writing work. Writing is intensely personal and sometimes lonely. I love going out and trying new stories and ideas on readers. I love visualising the stories and bringing them to life with anecdotes and images and video and music. It’s fun mucking around with ideas, hearing what readers respond to and hopefully inspiring kids to pick up a book or create their own stories.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks Joy. Hi Fleech. Fun chatting to you. And don’t forget to put a book into your child / grandchild / niece or nephew / brother / sister / friend / random kid in the street’s Santa sack this Crimbo. 😉
Thanks Tristan and all the best with The Fall and your other books.
I confess, I am not impressive with a bat or ball. Playing sports has never really been my thing. What I have discovered however, is that reading about sports is far more satisfying for me and if even if you don’t have a footy-mad under nine-year-old or even a book-crazy child, the following sports books may be just the ticket to igniting an appreciation for both, this Christmas.
This is an alphabet picture book with a lovely difference – it appeals to footy fanatical boys and girls who love AFL but also enjoy the thrill and anticipation of team play. Superb alliteration and spirited illustrations take readers from A to Z, through a wet and wonderful day on the field. I love the exaggerated use of letter repetition used to reinforce and introduce new word sounds. Sensational squelchy fun.
This is a gorgeous pretty in pink story about prima ballerina, Michaela DePrince. Abandoned in a Sierra Leone orphanage, then adopted by the DePrinces, it tells of Michaela’s rise from poverty and despair to attaining her dream of dancing on her toes and flying through the air after seeing a picture of a woman with pink shoes on her feet on a magazine cover. Poignant and gently inspirational. Highly recommended for those with a dancing dream of their own.
Uncomplicated text and a sizzling storyline make these tales of friendship perfect for early primary readers. There are a few titles in this series about twin brothers, Thomas and Cooper, which will claim the attention of little lads but the premise of these identical troublemakers pulling pranks wherever and whenever they can has universal appeal.
The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo is a collection of reimagined fairy tales. And can I just say it’s the best fairy tale collection I’ve ever read?! It was beautiful beautiful and clever and feminist. This aren’t stories where the princess is just waiting for a prince! They’re full of plot twists but with a darkness that nods to traditional Grimm tales. You might recognise threads of traditional fairy tales (like the Nutcracker and The Little Mermaid) but they’re so different and unique I didn’t want it to end!
There are six tales! They do fit into the Grishaverse, which is a fantasy world created by Leigh Bardugo that began with the Shadow & Bone trilogy and continued in the spin-off duology Six of Crows. However if you haven’t ever read a Grisha book, you would still love these six fairy tales and they’d make perfect sense. The only thing that doesn’t make sense is why you haven’t read them yet. Come on now.
Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns.
I honestly felt like I fell into the dark witch’s wood of magic! I am literally bursting with love and appreciation for the clever writing, the beautiful characters, and the magical depths. It feels like a midnight snack of fairy tales, the kind you can’t possibly put down. And often the characters in the stories also told stories, so the book-within-a-book feeling was strong here.
I did love picking out the threads of the traditional fairy tales amongst these reimagined ones! I could see Little Mermaid influences and the Nutcracker and Hansel and Gretel. But these are actually very different and quite dark. I really enjoyed the darker twists with monsters under castles and mermaids doing magic and evil men getting comeuppance for their horrible ways. And the best part? They were full of plot twists. No irritating or tedious fairy tale tropes here with damsels or falling for the first prince you meet or every step-mother being evil. Beauty isn’t everything. Princes suck. The beast is actually kind. Here is the sea witch’s origin story. The dark woods are not the only problem here. And on it goes!
It captivated me on every page with how amazing it was. The writing was detailed and clever too.
The actual physical book itself is also a pure delight to look at. The pages are illustrated and they add such depth to the story. There are some panels in the borders that change as the book goes on, so if you flip the pages really fast, it’s a stop-motion image of darkness covering a princess! Some of the double-page spreads were just so amazing and the style is simple but so emotional and lovely.
The Language of Thorns is full of fairy tales as they should be. They’re dark and feminist and empowering and filled with women who can be good or evil or morally grey or just seriously complex. There are monsters and wooden dolls with identity crises and queer girls and endless endless magic that just inspires me. You’ll fill so full of magic when you finish this!
If you are like me, knowing there are only 41 days left until Christmas fills you with silent terror. You know it’s not about the presents. You know you’ll want (have) to give some, anyway. You’ve heard books tick all the enduring, educational, entertaining boxes as far as kids’ gifts go, but how do you choose without going crackers? During the next 41 days, I’ll share a cluster of the best kids’ books of 2017. Hunt them down for your Christmas stockings. Hold on tight though, we’ll be going faster than a turbo-charged reindeer over black ice.
List # 1 Non-fiction Picture Books
At the Beach I See by Kamsani Bin Salleh
Striking board book series featuring elegant artwork and lyrical text. This one is useful for forging connections between our beautiful seashores and new creatures. Ideal for 2+ year-olds.
Jellett’s character-filled illustrations bring this fascinating assortment of historic aviators to spectacular life. From Lawrence Hargrave to John Flynn, ‘Smithy’ to Nancy Bird, numerous significant figures in the history of flight and aviation in Australia are described using first person narrative and fact-based prose. Amazing facts are included along with modern day updates. Perfect for aeroplane enthusiasts from 8 years upwards.
If you love Deadly 60, you’ll be mad for this beefy full-colour collection of some of the world’s most formidable predators. Ridiculously fearsome and astounding photographs accompany an incredible list of hunters from apex predators such as lions and sharks to the less ubiquitous platypus. Scientific facts and stats provide just enough information without obscuring the teeth baring drama and are paired in side-by-side showdowns – anglerfish vs. pelican eel, for example. An awesome addition (with stickers and poster!) for the would-be marine biologists and nature lovers aged 6 – 14.
Move over Orient Express, the Discovery Express has arrived, platform one. This is a glorious pop-up, pull, and flap creation allowing readers to embark on a thrilling journey back in time with Nancy Delaney, geographer, explorer and all-round adventurer. Choco-block with puzzles and fascinating facts, Nancy escorts you from Paris to England, the US and beyond on a spellbinding journey of discovery about trains, planes and yes, automobiles. Even submarines are included in this book, which is more of a code-busting adventure romp through history. Highly recommended and ideal for sleuths and transport spotters from 10 years+.
It’s time to get organised for the festive season so I’ll be beginning with Part 1 of my Christmas gift suggestions today! These selections are for the busy, hands-on builders in your life. For worldly explorers, air travellers, and magical realm inquisitors, there’s an interactive gift here for you.
The Discovery Globe Build-Your-Own Globe Kit is the perfect choice for an action adventure into exploring the world. Kitted up in a neat fold-out box with World Explorer’s Guide on the left and spinning globe pieces packaged on the right, you can study the world to your heart’s content…and even make your own!
The Guide consists of easy-to-follow instructions on building your globe, which then acts as the prop for all the amazing facts, natural wonders, famous faces and topics that you’ll be finding out about. Each piece fits together to represent an Earth consisting of different types of land (ie. oceans, freshwater, tropical rainforest, etc), and icons of the animal world and human life. The completed construction measures 47cm tall, and actually spins like any other globe!
Leon Gray and Sarah Edmonds cleverly designed the book with content divided into manageable parts and informative, colourful illustrations representing graphics, keys, diagrams and maps. Sections include The Earth in Space, the Sun, Land and Water, Biomes, Natural Wonders, Endangered Animals, Travelling the World, people, arts, food, plus more.
With fascinating information, glossary, interactive questions and things to find on your spinning model, TheDiscovery Globe is a marvellous cultural, scientific and geographical package that will have young curious minds enthralled for hours. For ages six and up.
Next to fly into your Christmas stockings is the Busy Builders Airport kit. Build your own 92cm airport play set with punch-out models to put together, and fold out runways and puzzle pieces. You can construct everything from a jumbo jet to propellor plane, helicopter and ground controllers, the terminal, baggage truck and control towers. What fun!
The Awesome Airport Action guide, written by Timothy Knapman, includes everything you need to know about life around aeroplanes. It is a child-friendly introduction to airports and what to expect when travelling. The text is energetic and engaging, but also informative enough to provide children from age five a clear concept of the different facets of air travel. The booklet begins with checking in to the terminal and handling baggage and security, moving through to planes, vehicles, their parts and preparation, the roles of ground crew, take off and the in-flight adventure, and finally landing. Cute cartoon characters with their little speech bubbles and solid graphics with the various details to peruse give the feel of a fun advertisement that entices your interest.
Gorgeously packaged with a velcro tab, Busy Builders Airport encourages young pilot enthusiasts and world travelling wannabes, or even those yet to embark on any flying adventure, with plenty of knowledge and role play action that will have them soaring to great heights.
Build the Dragon is a very cool gift to give a 7+ year-old fanatical about fantasy, myths and legends. Eye-catching from any bookstore shelf, this book and model kit will certainly spark a flame amongst dragon lovers.
Dugald Steer, fanatic himself on the subject of myths and legends with numerous books in his ‘Ology’ series, presents this spectacular world into dragons. In fourteen parts over 32 pages, learn about these beasts’ anatomy, their history, their worlds and their supernatural powers. A suitably archaic-type text is interwoven between the captivating multi-media illustrations by Jonathan Woodward and Douglas Carrel. This unique combination of artists brings this book to life with their mix of exotic drawings and realistic images.
And to add even more sensation to this already captivating non-fiction/fantasy resource is the 46-piece, 3D moving model of a Western dragon that you can build yourself! Kids will fall head over heels for this magnificent addition that includes 40cm of dragon goodness with its motorised flapping wings and gnashing jaws.
Build the Dragon is a highly appealing, interactive guide to living out one’s dragon obsessions. Primary school children will surely be able to show off their expertise in all things magical realms, and engagement with their miniature dragon replica will certainly enliven their imaginations even further.
All The Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater is about magic, darkness, and fighting your inner demons. I’m a huge fan of all of Stiefvater’s work, so I went in with excited expectations and wasn’t disappointed! It’s incredibly heartfelt and written in such a whimsical style that you can’t help being addicted to every page.
The story follows three cousins who live on a ranch, Bicho Raro, in Colorado, where their family gives out miracles. The trouble with miracles is that you have to accept your darkness to deal with it, and it often comes out in strange ways. Their world is populated by the weird and wonderful and magical, on a backdrop of deserts in the 1960s. The three teens are: Beatriz, who claim she has no feelings. Then Daniel, who is the resident saint, at 19, and used to be a pure child brat. And then Joaquin is the youngest and he runs an illegal radio station under the name Diablo Diablo (um, don’t tell his family, he’ll be in super big trouble). They watch pilgrims get their miracles all the time, but what happens when Daniel, the only saint who can help them, goes missing?
I loved how magical it was! The miracles are portrayed so interestingly. The Sorias family saints give the miracle and the trick is you have to deal with it yourself. If they help — everything will get dark and worse. Often pilgrims get stuck and are just living on the ranch for months trying to put themselves back together. It’s just accepted that everyone is freaking weird and magical here. Like there are girls entwined with snakes, a giant, someone who gets rained on all the time etc. etc. And everyone is chill with that.
It is written in an omnipresent style, which isn’t typically my favourite, but I loved how it transformed this book into a mythological fairy tale sort of vibe! Weget dozens of POVs and perspectives, from the Sorias to the pilgrims. I really loved how beautiful, whimsical, and melodic the writing was. It felt so rich and extravagantly magical and the extra perspectives actually made it feel juicy and deep. The story is about miracles, not just the Saints and not just the Pilgrims.
The setting was gorgeous too. I could totally see the ranch and the desert and the box truck. You could taste the dust and see the owls and tumbleweeds!
The characters are just so amazing and complex and different. They are odd little tumble weeds and I loved them. I adored the three Soria cousins and their illegal radio station and their inner darkness. I loved Beatriz who was very firmly convinced she had no feelings and Joaquin who loved his hair and Daniel, the childhood-devil-turned-saint. I loved Pete who loved to work (what the heck is wrong with him though) and was so earnest and pure. And I loved the dogs who wanted to eat everyone alive. #relatable
All The Crooked Saints the kind of story that definitely leaves you wanting more, which is amazing. It’s whimsical and bizarre and addictive. This book is a bit like being told wild dusty folklore stories with black roses and owls with strange eyes and strange box trucks and girls who like boys’ elbows. It’s unusual and it’s slow and it’s pretty and there are SAINTS. It’s every scoop of magic you need in your life.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a poignant pocket of powerful writing that tackles racism and coming-of-age in a way that’s so needed! It’s a brutal narrative and it’s written with such care and love and emotion — you can feel the emotion so deeply on every page of the narrative it’s just incredible. This is both a #BlackLivesMatter and #OwnVoices novel, so you know you’re going into a story told by the viewpoint of someone who knows. It’s also a really small book, so it’s a powerpacket of strong words and feeling and plot twists.
The story follows Justyce McAllister who’s a straight A student at a prestigious school and he’s on his way to Yale and life of achieving what he sets out to achieve. His single-mother has sacrificed a lot to get him into the good school, and he hardly ever sees her, so he often feels really alone. His best-friend Manny is his only black friend in the school and while they get on famously, Manny’s choice of friends all dish out microagressive racism and challenge Justyce for being too “sensitive” if he has had enough of it. When he tries to help his girlfriend get home one night because she’s super drunk yet trying to drive, he’s attacked by police officers and put in cuffs without explanation. Justyce writes letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about his life and confusions and wanting to be a great person, but how in a world that’s so set against you?
I love the quote in the author’s note says the book is: “…an attempt to examine current affairs through the lens of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings.” Which is such a good summary.
The story also is told in an interesting style, feature letters to Martin (of course! Title reference!) and the normal book-style-prose you’d expect, and also script-style scenes so you just get the meat of the dialogue without distractions. I liked how it switched things up constantly because it kept the attention riveted and also made the book really unique on the page!
Justyce was such an amazing protagonist! He’s super smart and facing a lot of struggles most teens can relate to: including what to do about his on-again-off-again girlfriend, grades, school bullies, and what his future holds. On top of that, after his arrest, he has PTSD from the experience and feels really lost. He’s on the brink of graduating highschool but he feels like his world is coming apart. He also has a crush on his long-time debate partner, SJ, but their racial differences are an obstacle.
The book, of course, is not an “easy” story. It’s meant to be eye-opening and make you think, and it tackles difficulties head on. As an Australian, some of the culture and slang was lost on me and while racism is prevalent in all countries, it looks a little different from place to place. (Australia doesn’t have shootings, for starters.) So it was good, confronting, and important to learn about what it’s like to be black in America.
I also loved how intelligent the writing and plot are! There’s a court scene that just had me go WOW WOAH WAIT while the dialogue turned you on your head. And the story is very complexly weaved in a way you don’t even realise until that scene! So full applause to the author for her writing style! It’s such an intelligent book with a lot of heart.
Dear Martin is an important narrative that can’t be talked about enough. This is powerful and full of emotion and also weaves messages of strength and hope.
“You ever consider that maybe you not supposed to ‘fit’? People who make history rarely do.”
Where are you based and what is your current role, Darren?
I live in Vancouver. My current role is husband, father, provider and fiction scribbler.
How involved are you in the YA community?
Not as much as I used to be when I was a teacher. My 16 year old twins keep me connected to today’s kids, though.
Could you tell us a little about your early books?
Well, they’ve all disappeared, sad to say. However, I’m proud of them and each one was notable in its own way. My first novel, The Procrastinator, got my first personal, positive rejection (still one of the very best feelings I’ve ever had in my career); my second novel, Most Valuable Potential, was shortlisted in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards; my third novel, The Umbilical Word, secured my wonderful literary agent; and my fourth novel, Kindling, picked up my first contract with a major trade publishing house (Hachette).
Thank you for your kind words, Joy. The protagonists of AYSM are twins, Justine and Perry Richter. Justine is smart, well read, neurotypical and the sole carer of her brother. Perry is smart, sensitive, neurodiverse and hopeful of “freeing” his sister. Perry makes three appearances in the new novel, Exchange of Heart. It was a real treat to connect with him again.
What is the significance of the clever title of your powerful new novel Exchange of Heart?
Exchange of Heart captures what this novel is all about, both literally and thematically. There’s a lot to unpack; it makes sense at a surface level then becomes deeper and richer the further you delve into the story.
Why is this book important?
Like all good fiction, I need to have told a good tale in order for the work to be assigned any importance. If readers feel I’ve told a good tale then there is some food-for-thought that can be discussed. PTSD in young adults, treatment of the intellectually disabled, use of the R-word, mental health of refugees, among others. In some ways, Exchange of Heart is a political YA novel. I embrace that label.
Could you tell us about your complex major character, Munro Maddux?
I love Munro. I think he’s the best character I’ve ever put down on the page. So many qualities about him that I admire – his honour, his tenacity, his nuance, his care. I love his wounded heart. Unlike many other characters I’ve written, he’s not an open book. He’s not ‘all the feels’. That’s very commendable in this day and age.
Who is the Coyote?
The Coyote is less a ‘who’ and more a ‘what’. It’s a voice in Munro’s head that’s constantly at him and it’s the most debilitating symptom of his PTSD-infused grief over the loss of his younger sister, Evie. Why Coyote? In North American First Nations/Aboriginal lore, Coyote represents ‘trickster’ medicine; it is a deceiver, not to be trusted. It was the perfect motif for Munro’s nemesis.
What is the significance of the “-er” words?
I was actually looking to create something self help-ish that was a bit cheesy. And the students of Sussex High, Rowan in particular, see it that way. In Munro’s case, though, his ‘er’ word – ‘better’ – was right on the money.
You have a cast of minor characters who help create the assisted-living community setting. Who most pulls at your heart and why?
It changes every day! Today, I’ll say Bernie because she seeks to protect her fellow Fair Go residents from discrimination and oppression. We need more Bernies in the world!
What would you like to see change or improve for those in assisted-living communities in the near future?
The programs that served as inspiration for my fictional Fair Go – Youngcare in Australia and Bittersweet Farms in the US – are wonderful examples of what is possible with assisted living. If there is one thing I would like to see in all situations of supported care, it is residents having a say in their work, their play, their passion, their collaboration. Generally, having agency in their lives.
Having lived and been flooded in Brisbane myself, your descriptions of place such as Walter Taylor Bridge and South Bank resonated strongly. Where is a significant place in Brisbane for you?
There’s a few. Mum and Dad’s house in Mitchelton. Milpera State High, where I taught for almost ten years. Lang Park (I still can’t call it Suncorp Stadium). My grandmother’s house in Hawthorne which, sadly, no longer exists.
The Tolstoy quote, I felt, summed up Exchange of Heart perfectly. The love of others is the catalyst for Munro to forgive himself and heal. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fascinating story for me, not the least of which for its commentary about the treatment of the intellectually disabled.
The Martian was one of the funnest and funniest reading experiences I have ever had. So there was a little trepidation when I picked up his next novel. It had been pitched as a crime novel set on the moon which left me not really knowing what to expect. Would this book be as funny? Would there be the same level of scientific explanation? Would I be completely hooked again? The answer is yes, yes and YES.
Right from the opening sentence I was in. The smart-ass, slightly sarcastic tone that permeated through TheMartian was there from the get go. And as with Mark Watney in TheMartian I fell quickly and easily into step with Jazz Bashara, the heroine of this new novel. Once again Andy Weir puts the SCIENCE into Science Fiction. Brilliantly creating the first city on the moon: Artemis, population 2000. As with The Martian Weir talks you through the science of how and why Artemis exists making everything sound plausible and authentic to this scientific layman’s ears. Andy Weir then adds the economics of how and why Artemis exists and that is where Jazz fits in.
Jazz Bashara has grown up on The Moon and has no desire to return to Earth. Most residents of Artemis are there to serve its economy; the tourist trade of the rich and wealthy or the construction and smelting trade. But Jazz has found her own niche: smuggling. There are a number of contraband items on The Moon and Jazz is the person that can get them for you. When she is offered the score of a lifetime she jumps at the opportunity only realising too late that this time she may have gotten herself in way over her head.
I couldn’t get enough of this book. I was completely fascinated by the way the city on the moon operated and all its various residences and was constantly laughing out loud at the same. The story rolicks along at a cracking pace and will have you literally have you holding your breath towards the end. This is everything that made The Martian so brilliant and then some. I can’t wait to see where Andy Weir is going to take me next!
From sea to air and up into space. A substantial ship voyage. Amazing aeroplane feats. And a rousing rover exploring the red planet. Three different modes of transport literally transport us back in time with their historical significance, teaching us so much about how we got to where we are today. All inspiring, all empowering. Here are a few prodigious picture book stories steeped in history.
The true story of an almost thirteen-year-old Carole Wilkinson, Ten Pound Pom tells of the auspicious journey of a young girl and her family immigrating from England to Australia in the early 1960s.
Post World War II, under The White Australia Policy, a scheme called The United Kingdom-Australia Free and Assisted Passage Agreement promised emigrating British sunshine, plentiful food, higher wages and space to live. Ex-servicemen and children could travel for free, and other adults paid only £10, dubbing these migrants as ‘Ten Pound Poms’. The inclusion of facts explaining The £10 Migration Scheme, glossary, and the ship Arcadia, in which Carole’s family travelled, gives the book a depth and validity that is so neatly etched into this fascinating and personal story.
With a few packed boxes of furniture and precious belongings, and a small amount of knowledge about this foreign land, the dream of a new life for the Wilkinsons in Australia was to become a reality. A whole season and 11,397 miles sailed on the SS Arcadia later, the family had ventured into uncharted waters across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, along the Red Sea, through the Indian Ocean and the roughs of the Great Australian Bight to their Adelaide destination. All the while, a young Carole learns of different cultures, experiences new sights and even makes a new friend.
Wilkinson re-lives her time on the “huge floating hotel” in her own childlike voice, and her impressions of life as a new resident in Australia clearly come from a place of fond memories. The illustrations by Liz Anelli superbly capture the elements of the era and the snippets of Carole’s diverse experiences. The pictorial features add energy and information, including maps, scenery and items of interest, breaking up the text to allow readers to absorb each part in manageable chunks.
As a part of the ‘Our Stories’ series, Ten Pound Pom is a valuable, appealing non-fiction/narrative resource for studying history and sharing migration stories. Capturing the hearts and minds of readers in middle to upper primary, and beyond, this book is perfect to pore over for the purposes of research and for pleasure.
This time we travel by air as we explore the fascinating history of the development of aviation in Australia. In Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines, we are indulged with the stories of ten brave pilots beginning in 1851 through to 1935.
Ex-convict Dr William Bland patented an idea in the 1850s for an Atmotic Ship to journey from England to Australia in a mere few days, as opposed to the norm of the exhausting three month sea voyage. The balloon flight was dubbed as dangerous, and so literally never took off.
We then discover the invention of the cellular box kites that Lawrence Hargrave believed could give the stability needed for flight in 1894. Following that came the glider of George Taylor in 1909, the first heavier-than-air flying machine successfully airborne over Narrabeen Beach. The narrated and factual absorbing text and images continue to delight us with stories from the brilliant air skills of Commanding Officer of the Australian Flying Corps, Richard Williams in 1917, Ross Macpherson Smith’s winning success in the 1919 Great Race from London to Darwin, plus more inspiring heroes including Nancy Bird, the youngest woman pilot in Australia to gain her commercial pilot’s licence at the age of nineteen.
Each double page spread is littered with interesting historical aviation information, speculative personal recounts, and amazing pilot and general knowledge facts. Tom Jellett’s retro-style cartoons interwoven throughout the army-themed coloured pages add the elements of character, humour and verve to support the material and collection of photos.
The authors, Prue and Kerry Mason, inspired to research Australian aviation history after purchasing their own vintage aeroplane, have provided a sterling non-fiction volume of interest for aeroplane enthusiasts and keen history buffs. Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines carries its weight in gold (or air) as an empowering and uplifting primary school vehicle.
This is the story of Curiosity; a Mars rover sent to far-off places, and I mean far-off places, to discover whether there has been, or ever will be, life on Mars. Here is another out-worldly experience steeped in history that will not only fascinate, but enrich our imaginations and ‘curiosity’ with many unanswered mysteries of the universe.
With its illustriously large landscape orientation, varied text sizes and pictorial layouts, Curiosity certainly lives up to its space-themed nature. The spreads are generously ‘spread out’, leaving plenty of ‘space’ to digest and conceptualise the given information and images. Markus Motum’s diagrammatical, clean and aerodynamic style of graphics suitably provide the book its authenticity, effectiveness and allure.
So why the desire to explore The Red Planet? Scientists believed there was once life on Mars, but for humans to travel in a rocket would take 350,000,000 miles, and the possibility of not returning. That’s where the Mars Rover comes in. With NASA’s ongoing trials and tribulations of previous missions, a more advanced rover was designed and developed in California – the process of equipment and technology inventions are explained in the book. Curiosity, as she was named, was transported across the U.S to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where she was launched into space in November 2011. 253 days later the rover carefully landed with precision. “Touchdown confirmed. We’re safe on Mars!”
With the well-considered inclusion of a timeline of Mars missions from 1964-5 to present to complete the book, the study into climate and geology and the preparation of human exploration shows there is hope still of answering those curious questions of microbial life. Motum’s celebratory book of Curiosity’s fifth year of exploration on Mars is targeted towards kids and adults alike, using a first-person voice from the rover’s perspective. The inclusion of facts is so comprehensive and never compromised, making this a valuable resource to study and treasure.
Magabala is a Broome-based Indigenous publisher. It publishes Bruce Pascoe, the award-winning author of Black Emu (for adults) and Fog a Dox, Seahorse and Mrs Whitlam for children. Magabala’s Greg Dreise’s Mad Magpie has just won the Indigenous category of the national Speech Pathology awards. Deadly D and Justice Jones by David Hartley and Scott Prince is an appealing series which I’ve reviewed for the blog previously and Brenton McKenna’s graphic novels, Ubby’s Underdogs are full of appeal.
And one of the most beautiful picture books I’ve ever seen is published by Magabala – Once There Was a Boy by Dub Leffler.
Big Fella Rain
A suburb new picture book is Big Fella Rain by Beryl Webber. It traces the natural world’s wait for rain in northern Australia. The illustrations by Fern Martins are impressive and one appears above as the feature image for this post. They are lovely, evocative works of art.
Mrs White and the Red Desert
The red cover of Mrs White and the Red Desert by Josie Boyle, illustrated by Maggie Prewett, represents the overshadowing power of the desert sand to explain in an amusing way why the children’s homework is always smudged with red. This is a highlight in Magabala’s list.
On the Way to Nana’s
Red ochre colour also sets the scene of On the Way to Nana’sby Frances and Lindsay Haji-Ali, illustrated by animator David Hardy. This is an accomplished, extremely appealing, tale of travelling to Nana’s house. Things the family see on the way, from flowers to anthills, goannas, brumbies and boabs, are counted backwards from 15 to 1, which is very useful for children who are learning to count. The numbers are shown as numerals and in words. Some of the text is repetitive, “I’m on the way to Nana’s house. What will I see?”
Molly the Pirate
The first picture book from Magabala’s Indigenous Creator Scholarship is Molly the Pirate by Lorraine Teece, illustrated by Paul Seden. Molly lives far from the sea but imagines she is a pirate. Paul Seden takes the challenge modelled by the lively text to create vibrant, gloriously-coloured illustrations. He also does a great job with camera angles, particularly from above and below the hills hoist clothes lines.
Based on the song by Lorrae Coffin, Free Diving looks at the role of Indigenous free divers. It is a poignant insight into history, illustrated by Bronwyn Houston.
At the Zoo I See
At the Beach I See
Two board books for the very young from the new “Young Art” series are At the Zoo I See by Joshua Button and Robyn Wells (the team behind Steve Goes to Carnival) and At the Beach I See by Kamsani Bin Salleh, who uses black linework with wash backgrounds.
Robert Ingpen was born in 1936 and is the only Australian illustrator to have won the prestigious international Hans Christian Andersen award. He is a virtuoso of painterly artwork and has illustrated Australian stories such as Storm Boy by Colin Thiele, Mustara by Rosanne Hawke, Ziba Came on a Boat written by Liz Lofthouse, The Poppykettle series and The Afternoon Treehouse and a long list of children’s classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (hence the title of this tribute to his work), Peter Pan and Wendy, The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. The Nutcracker, The Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol will be perfect books for Christmas. Ingpen has also designed Australian postage stamps.
His most recent books include the awarded outback-based Tea and Sugar Christmas and Radio Rescue! (both written by Jane Jolly). Wonderlands gives a generous insight into these books and others. It is a must-have celebration of children’s literature through the lens of our maestro, Robert Ingpen.
The School of Music by Meurig and Rachel Bowen, illustrated by Daniel Frost (Wide Eyed Editions, Allen & Unwin)
Music is important for the pleasure it gives and because it’s good for the brain and can lead to unexpected friendships and opportunities. Enjoyable and useful to use in homes, schools and music schools, The School of Music is a lavish compendium of music, musicians and instruments in picture book form.
Musician characters (such as Diva Venus, a star singer, Ronny ‘Beethoven’ O’Reilly, a composer and Roxy Mojo, a percussion specialist) are introduced at the beginning of the book and feature strategically throughout to explain concepts. Section 1 looks at different types of music and instruments and how music connects with film, maths, architecture and other disciplines. Section 2 offers a musical toolbox, which enables children to write music, beginning with fun graphic scores using pictures and symbols. Section 3 is about children making music themselves. The book suggests diverse ways such as making a kitchen orchestra as well as playing a conventional instrument or singing. It concludes with tips on performing and composing.
There are bonus music samples accessed by the QR code at the end of the book and children could dip in and out of this book or use it as a Christmas holiday music appreciation and education course, ideally even alongside learning a musical instrument.
Illustrator-icon Anne Spudvilas is known for The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin (my teacher notes are on the Reading Australia site), Woolvs in the Sitee (written by Margaret Wild) and her first book The Race by Christobel Mattingley which won the Crichton Award for Illustration and was a CBCA Honour Book. Her new interpretation of Swan Lake (Allen & Unwin) is a sumptuous gift book. It is a retelling of Tchaikovsky’s ballet set on the Murray-Darling. The lavish illustrations are textured and allusive. Spudvilas features black and white with occasional limited shades of yellow, and red for a few sparse dramatic and accentuated moments.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr
Stepping Stones (UQP) was published earlier in the year but remains timely with the ongoing issues in caring for and resettling refugees. Margriet Ruurs saw Syrian, Nizar Ali Badr’s stone and pebble artwork online and worked hard and inventively to contact him and gain permission to use his art to highlight the plight of those escaping the horrors of war. The text is written in Arabic and English.
Another unusual and fascinating picture book is Drawn Onward (Fremantle Press), a palindromic text which can be read forwards and backwards . Meg McKinlay, who is most well-known for her multiple awarded dystopian novel, A Single Stone, uses the palindrome form to rephrase negative phrases and thoughts into positive. She calls it “optimism training for our kids”. The design is appropriately subtle and enigmatic.
Like the other books reviewed here, colour is used efficaciously in Danny Blue’s Really Excellent Dream (Lothian Children’s Books, Hachette). The story begins “Once in a blue moon, everyone has a really, really excellent dream.” Danny’s world is coloured blue and his father’s factory makes every hue of blue paint. After Danny’s dessert of blueberries one night, he dreams, not in blue, but of a red whale. Blue continues to dominate his life until he decides to create his dream colour in paint. It takes until Day 99 when “Not – Blue” appears and, even though people are suspicious, Not-Blue starts showing up where it’s not expected. This is a wonderful book about being different, dreaming and persistence in creativity.
It’s November, which means I’ve hit the full ‘I need to buy and post book presents to my overseas friends’ panic. This panic will, of course, subside temporarily and I’ll procrastinate about buying and posting said books until, oh, 1 December. At which time the panic will return with a vengeance.
It happens every. single. year.
In an effort to get out ahead of it this time around, I’m trying to publicly hold myself accountable. Also, I need some help.
One particular set of friends who are Dutch and Irish, who live in London, have an 18-month-year-old Dutch–Irish child. Their child is about as adorable as any child could be, but I know nothing about kids, much less their reading habits. I’m wondering if anyone can recommend some awesome, modern Australian-authored books for young avid readers?
I’m particularly less after slightly dated and slightly inappropriately racist Gumnut Babies, less books like Alison Lester’s Magic Beach that have been around for decades, and more modern Australian books ala Aaron Blabey’s Pig the Pug, Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas, and Thelma the Unicorn. (Side note: How awesome is Blabey’s work?! I stumbled across the three aforementioned books a few months back and loved them so much I could barely bring myself to gift them when I headed to visit my Dutch and Irish friends in London. Their child loved the books, and I actually enjoyed reading the books to them, so it was win–win, really.)
Basically, I’m after books that showcase contemporary Australian authors and tales my friends may not have otherwise encountered. Which is a big ask given the flattening of the world thanks to the internets making everything available everywhere all the time. Think witty storylines that double as cultural critiques about ponies who stick carrots on their heads and reinvent themselves as unicorns. Think piranhas who demonstrate veganism as something interesting and fun. Think a pug with the name of another animal species whose outrageous selfishness contains abundant lessons for us all.
If you have any recommendations, I’m all ears until the 1 December freak out kicks in.
Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman is a beautiful book about art and anxiety and dealing with poisonous people in your life. I found it equal parts brutal and brilliant, so packed with emotion and heart that I couldn’t help falling in love by the end. It also has an incredible ending that just filled my heart so much (you know…right after it finished smashing my heart into little pieces). Definitely all signs of an incredible book!
The story follows Kiko who is an artist with severe social anxiety. She’s trapped in a home where her mother is openly racist and basically psychologically torments her, all under the guise of just being a “caring parent”. Kiko feels like she doesn’t and will never belong as a biracial Japanese-American. All she can dream about is getting into a specific art school after graduation, where she get away from her mother’s torment and start a new life for herself. But what if she doesn’t get in?
It had the simple best and most brutally accurate representation of social anxiety I’ve ever read. It made my heart ache for Kiko as she battled the deeply rooted feelings of being a burden, being unwanted, being a problem to everyone. She couldn’t just “go an hang out” at a party. The anxiety levels were so intense she sometimes couldn’t even leave her car. It’s also uplifting to see her journey through it. This isn’t a story that uses mental illness as just a tragedy. It shows the dark cruel side, of course, but it also talks about recovery and finding yourself and learning to feel loved. (But there’s also no messages of “love cures all” which is refreshing!)
Kiko’s family life breaks my heart. Her mother was an utter psychopath and it was unbelievable how racist she was towards her own kids. Kiko never felt loved, pretty, validated, or cared about. Reading about it made me burn with righteous fury. Kiko just wanted her mother to acknowledge her art but her mother refused unless it gained her power. I rooted for Kiko to get her dream of being an artist and get out so so bad.
I loved the super sweet friendship between her and Jamie. They’re childhood friends who lost each other when they were 11 and now he’s back! Their lack of communication really grated on me, but they’re teens and this is just realistic. I love how slowly and tentatively they explored their feelings. And it was literally the sweetest thing how Jamie was there for her.
I loved the discussions about being biracial from an #ownvoices author. The author wrote her perspective so fluently and beautifully that it was an amazing insight to read. I felt so connected to Kiko and I loved watching her start to feel empowered by here Japanese roots, not ashamed.
The art aspect was also glorious! Every chapter ended with a little snippet of what Kiko was drawing that day and the imagination was stunning. My only wish was that the book had included some sketches! (I need fan art for this wow.) And the book really reminded me of I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson. Total recommend for them both obviously. It explores a bit of the tortured-artist feelings, but also the empowerment of releasing your emotions through visual displays and turning something ugly into something beautiful.
Starfish was a beautiful and poignant story that really digs into your heart! It’s seriously sad and hard to read at times as you watch Kiko’s life spin out of control. But the point is, she wants to get the control back. She is an anxious character, but not a passive one. I thought this book was brilliant!
Getting to know oneself and understanding the world that shapes us is one of the first steps to feeling good about oneself and the world in which we live. This handful of books addresses the art of awesomeness and why it’s important to live it.
Langley’s little books of BIG messages about self-help and self-esteem are house favourites. Neither overtly moralistic nor sermonic, they present beautiful messages of love, understanding and hope, accompanied with novel, cartoon-esque illustrations.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love or feel like Jane Goodall influenced their lives, so I don’t pretend to be a bigger Goodall fan than the next person. ‘At least one person at every book signing tells me that In the Shadow of Man [hereafter referred to as Shadow] was instrumental in their deciding on a career with animals,’ Goodall writes in the book’s preface. ‘Usually there are several people in the same line who want to thank me for influencing their lives in some way or other.’
Her work had, for instance, an undoubtable impact on, and was a precursor to, one of my favourite books, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. That award-winning book concentrates on Canadian primatologist turned writer Andrew Westoll’s time working in a sanctuary for chimps rescued and retired from medical research.
Like the people who queue up at Goodall’s book signings, I too would like to say that I’m ever so grateful that she has done what she’s done in this world. Because for me, as for so many others, Goodall’s been a particularly powerful role model. That is, one who did what no one thought could be done and most thought was outright crazy. I’m particularly impressed that she wasn’t contained by the traditions of the time that expected her as a woman to focus not on obtaining knowledge and sharing it, but on settling down in suburbia and raising a family.
As someone who has spent their entire life feeling round-peg-square-hole about their desire to have an animals- and environment-focused career, there are few women to I’ve been able to look up to and—in my own feeble way—attempt to learn from or emulate.
It seems I’m not alone after all, as Goodall notes this a few pars later in her preface: ‘Shadow, I think, has been especially significant for women. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—have been inspired to attempt things that they had only dreamed about.’
Shadow, which documents Goodall’s first and ground-breaking forays into chimpanzee observations, has been around for quite a while. I hadn’t read it for complex reasons even I don’t entirely understand: I doubted it could tell me much more about Goodall that wider popular culture and articles, which highlighted key elements, already had. I simultaneously worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my altogether-too-high expectations.
I’m glad I did finally get round to reading it. It’s given me a more holistic understanding of Goodall and her successes, as well as her stumblings on the way to them. Those include that the chimps were terrified and wary of her for months and months and months, and that she contracted malaria and did not have any medication to treat it because a doctor had misadvised her that there was no malaria in the region. Then there are the wrenching moments, such as when the chimps contracted polio. That’s not something I’ve heard a lot of pop culture discussion about.
The book also helped me marvel at the intelligence of the chimps, not least at Figan cunningly leading other chimps away from food so he could double back and score himself an unshared feast. Or how a juvenile chimp kidnapping a younger sibling was an ingenious way of getting their mother to leave a termites nest at which they had otherwise decided to stay.
Goodall quotes her then husband Hugo as describing observing chimps in remote wilderness in Africa as ‘…like being spectators of life in some village. Endless fascination, endless enjoyment, endless work.’ For me, it sums up perfectly what a career involved in studying and caring for animals entails. But I’m sure most other people knew that. I just wish I’d stumped up and read Shadow earlier. Suffice to say, I’ll be delving into Goodall’s subsequent books soon.
Raising awareness about mental health through books is an absolutely excellent thing! It gives you a personal perspective about conditions that are on a hugely varied spectrum. Plus you get a fantastic story that will probably make you feel all the things.
Today I’m going to list some books that are about characters on the OCD spectrum. OCD is different for a lot of people and it’s super interesting how these books portray it. So if you’re looking for book recommendations, just sit down a second and prepare yourself for incoming fantasticness.
TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN BY JOHN GREEN
Of course John Green is super famous and you’ve probably heard of his latest novel (just released this October!). I really loved the portrayal of OCD because it came directly from John Green’s experiences, which I think gives it a super personal touch…and you also know it’s accurate. The label “OCD” isn’t mentioned in the book but John Green talks about it extensively in his vlogs (which you should 500% go check out. Immediately.)
The book follows the story of Aza Holmes who reunites with a long-lost best friend after his father goes missing. She’s battling though-spirals that control her life and the portrayal of anxiety is so spot on.
HISTORY IS ALL YOU LEFT ME BY ADAM SILVERA
This is another #ownvoices portrayal of OCD and the story is equal parts beautiful and brutal. So basically, read it if you want to feel your heart being squished and also rebuilt.
The story follows Griffin whose ex-boyfriend and ex-best-friend just died in a tragic accident. Despite being separated, this rocks Griffin completely and he ends up following a journey of healing with his ex’s new boyfriend. It dives back through their history to see how things went wrong and it was completely heartbreaking and just perfectly written.
THE UNLIKELY HERO OF ROOM 13B BY TERESA TOTEN
I was completely caught up by this incredibly written book about Adam who’s going to therapy for his OCD. He meets a girl called Robyn and immediately decides he needs to get to know her better (is this love?!) and even though his home life is complicated and messy and his mum has habits that worry him, he’s determined to help himself and find a way to fall in love.
It’s so heartwarming and sweet, featuring a 14-year-old protagonist which was really nice as YA usually focuses on the older teens. It’s told with a lovely voice and it’s equal parts bittersweet and fantastic.
SAY WHAT YOU WILL BY CAMMIE MCGOVERN
This follows the story of a boy with OCD and a girl with cerebral palsy as he ends up being an aid assistant to her during school. They both feel like misfits and they struggle with things that hold them back. Amy can’t walk or talk without a voice box and she feels alienated and overlooked by people she desperately wants to befriend. Matthew is caught up in so many rituals he can feel it crushing his world. When the two decide to help each other, their friendship turns to more and it’s super sweet.
Thank you, Joy! And many thanks for having me on the blog.
But first, where are you based and what is your background?
I live in Sydney, with my husband and our three sons, not far from where I grew up as a kid. I initially studied Communications straight out of high school at UTS, where I majored in writing and media theory, before then going on to train as an actor at Theatre Nepean, UWS. Towards the end of my acting training, I taught drama to a group of kids out at Mount Pleasant and I wrote them a play. It was then that it finally dawned on me that I didn’t want to be an actor after all, that in fact I wanted to be a writer but for young people, rather than adults. So not long after, I enrolled in a writing course with the acclaimed children’s author Libby Gleeson. That course felt both like a complete revelation and a homecoming. It was there that I workshopped a picture text I had written on my honeymoon of all places, about a little boy and his ice cream van driving dad. Libby Gleeson was a wonderful teacher and she instinctively knew how to draw out the possibilities of both a writer and a text and because of that early encouragement, here I am sixteen books later.
Do you give many presentations to children? How do you make them interesting? Have there been any particularly memorable responses?
I’ve spoken to thousands of kids over the years, presenting talks and writing workshops. In my general talks, I’ll often share funny stories about my life, what kind of kid I was growing up and especially some of the funny stories about bringing up my boys. There’s lots of acting and hilarity, especially when I share the inspiration behind stories like Sleep Tight, My Honey or My Mum Tarzan. I always bring along some of my writing journals and I usually explore the growth of at least one book in detail, from first seed to final story. I’m keen for kids to hear about the writing process but I’m also especially passionate for them to grasp how curiosity about ordinary moments can lead to the creation of juicy stories.
Funnily enough, some of the loveliest moments happen when I’m not speaking at all, when little clusters of kids sidle up at the end of a session to confide about a book they’ve been writing, or how they’re going to go out and buy their own writing journal that very afternoon, so they can write about the idea they have for a funny story about their own crazy mum, grandpa or dog. Because just as much as I want kids to love my books, at the end of the day, I want to inspire them even more so to discover the beauty and worth of their own stories.
I adore your laugh-out-loud YA novel My Big Birkett (it’s one of my all-time favourites) and love reciting parts about the animals that mate for life, The Tempest and gorgeous Raven and the meals he makes using mince; as well as your wonderful picture books. Could you tell us about some of these books?
Thanks Joy! It makes me especially happy to know that you are a Raven fan!
I’m often asked what I prefer to write most and I always say I love writing both picture books and novels and that I couldn’t choose between them. The best part of writing picture books for me is the absolute thrill of collaboration. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so many brilliant illustrators over the years and each one has taught me so much about the power of the visual text. Some of my picture books that have been especially well-received include the Bear and Chook books, illustrated by Emma Quay, Gordon’s got a Snookie, illustrated by Wayne Harris and Big Pet Day, illustrated by Gus Gordon, who was also on the QLA shortlist too, for his gorgeous picture book, Somewhere Else. My most recent picture book is Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee! illustrated by Binny Talib. This was such a tough text to illustrate, mainly because of the fairly swift juxtaposition of the scenes of school life, with Ruby Lee’s fervent imagination. I’m just so delighted at what a marvellously beautiful job Binny has done.
I will say that one of the unforeseen joys of my writing life has been the steady, heartfelt emails I have received over the years from teen readers regarding My Big Birkett. These emails about Gemma and Raven and the De Head family have been incredibly sincere and poignant and they have often left me with a huge lump in my throat.
I know this is a tricky question but how do you incorporate humour into your writing?
This is a tricky question! As a kid, I looked into books like they were real windows. The books that spoke to me most were always the ones that captured acutely the laugh-out-loud jumbly nature of life, alongside the bittersweet ache. In terms of writing humour, I always keep an ear out for those little things that will make kids laugh. Not so long ago, my sister told me a story about how her four-year old son crept into her bed in the middle of the night and snuggled up tight to her, saying, ‘I love you so much Mummy, I want to shoot you out of a cannon!’ When I tell that story to kids, they roll around on the floor, laughing their heads off. But at the same time I know they recognise the vehemence of that kind of love, because they’ve felt it rocketing around in their own chests. I think humour has this remarkable capacity to encourage true connection and I’m always keen to incorporate it in my work, because it radically paves the way for readers to engage more fully and tenderly not only with a character’s dreams, fears, hopes and sorrows but also perhaps, with their own.
The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler (A&U) has just won the QLA Griffith University Children’s Book award. The judge report says:
“The Grand Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler is structured as a quintessential Australian beach camping holiday but the exceptional storytelling soars to welcome the reader into both the setting and young Henry Hoobler’s rites of passage. We are given a heart-warming insight into introspective Henry. He is a genius at noticing things, surprising his fellow campers with his success in board and card games. He is also ‘Mr Worst-Case Scenario’, dreading the bugs, stingers and sharks of the beach but, most of all, dreading learning to ride his new silver bike. The bike is a symbol of fear, but its significance changes as Henry discovers courage and freedom. Courage can be found when friends are ‘straight-up and true’, embodied by free-spirit Cassie. This tale reminds us that everyone is different and everyone has gifts. Some, like Henry, prefer to learn quietly but even extroverts can be fearful.
The writing is literary and metaphorical, encompassing a vast emotional range whilst being utterly engaging for children. It is rare to encounter a novel for mid-primary children characterised by such perception and cadence.”
What was your reaction when you realised you had won?
I was astonished and delighted. It took quite a few days for it to truly sink in. Then I was just overcome with immense gratitude that the judges had seen something special in Henry.
It was wonderful to meet your young son, Rohan, at the awards presentation in Brisbane (and others there loved seeing him reading The Hobbit as the night wore on). Why was he there and what was your dual experience of the awards evening?
One of the initial nudges for writing Henry Hoobler was watching Rohie develop as a reader. After a slow start, he had a very sudden and rapid acceleration over a single year and I knew he was in this slippery in-between stage, where the books he was capable of reading were still quite a huge stretch for him emotionally. I began to wonder if I could write something that would speak directly to his life. As I wrote Henry, I read chapter after chapter out loud to Rohie. When I had finished the book and before it had been published, he persuaded his class teacher that I should come to school and read some chapters to his whole class as well. I dedicated the novel to Rohan because I wanted to acknowledge just what an incredible gift it was to have his enthusiastic encouragement along the way.
Rohie is an avid bookworm and so hanging out at the QLA awards ceremony for him was suddenly like meeting all of his people, all at once. He was especially touched that I mentioned him in my speech and I was especially touched when Rebe Taylor, the winner of the QLA History Book Award asked him to sign her copy of Henry. I can safely say that if Rohie’s class teacher had seen that handwriting, he would have been granted his official pen licence on the spot!
What is the significance of the title The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler?
Early in the novel, Henry discovers that his rather unique talent for noticing things, makes him almost unbeatable when it comes to playing cards and board games. After Henry convincingly and unexpectedly smashes all the men and the older boys at games, Patch, his rather begrudging older brother finally acknowledges that Henry might be bit of a grand genius. It’s the beginning of a radical shift in the way Henry sees himself. Although Henry has replayed every worst case scenario in vivid detail regarding his camping holiday, what he has never considered is all the ways this summer might turn out to be the best one yet, the grand, genius summer of all summers.
Could you tell us about your protagonist Henry and some other characters?
Henry is a sensitive, imaginative and thoughtful nine-year old boy. He is the middle child, slotted right in between his athletically gifted, funny, know-it-all fifteen-year old brother Patch and his rambunctious, My Little Pony obsessed younger sister Lulu. Both Henry and his mum share some anxious traits and tend towards self-reflection and to feeling things deeply. Henry is very keen to please his exuberant dad, who is a real enthusiast for life. But Henry is filled with dread at the idea of learning how to ride his new bike without training wheels, especially in front of prickly Reed Barone, another boy who is close to Henry’s age and who is prone to sneering. Eventually, Henry meets ten-year old Cassie, who lives onsite in a caravan with her Pop. Cassie is a free spirit and alive to the world in ways that astonish Henry. Finally, Cassie’s straight up and true courage rubs off and with an unexpected Lulu intervention, Henry learns how to summon up his own courage and to do a whole series of adventurous things that he never imagined.
For what age-group is this novel intended?
Henry is intended for 7-11 year olds. I’ve been really pleased though by the numbers of reviewers that have also recommended it as a read-aloud for the whole family or the school classroom too.
How did you balance fine literary writing with the other elements of the narrative?
I was keen to write in a way that was hospitable to all kinds of middle grade readers, those that were confidently independent and those newly finding their feet. As a result, the story contains lots of snappy dialogue, which helps to give the text an easy, engaging flow. In terms of metaphoric imagery, I kept in mind some feedback given to me around another novel, regarding the importance of restraint. I was conscious that any poetic moment really had to serve the story and forward the action. At the same time, I wanted the novel to contain a certain richness of vocabulary because something the American writer Madeleine L’Engle once said has stayed with me for years, ‘We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually.’ So balancing all of these elements was challenging, a little like prancing across a highwire tightrope.
As well as being good fun to read, Henry Hoobler has some important underpinning themes. Could you share some of these?
I’m always a little cautious when discussing themes because I know the writer is sometimes the least insightful person on that subject! With Henry though, I was keen to explore the nature of courage, the way one young boy discovers how to be brave over the summer, by learning how to make a tiny bit of room for the worry in his life, without giving it the whole house. The novel examines the transformative nature of unexpected friendship, the contagiousness of courage, the way we need one another in order to learn how to become brave and the way courage always arrives through the actual taking of considered risks. The novel celebrates the importance of family and community and the value of perseverance, forgiveness and kindness. I was keen to write about the beauty of the natural world and how to recognise and treasure the true significance of small ordinary moments.
Which awards have had particular significance for you?
Whenever a book of mine is either shortlisted or receives an award, I’m always extraordinarily surprised and grateful. I know it’s such a hard job to make those kinds of choices, especially when there are so many equally deserving and beautiful books out in the world. Writing a book does take a significant investment of energy and time and winning an award always means that a book will have a much greater chance of being widely read. I was particularly thrilled in 2010 when Bear and Chook by the Sea won the CBCA’s Book of the Year for Early Childhood, not just because it was a moment I got to share with my good friend the illustrator Emma Quay but also because as a kid, I drew a poster every single year for Oatley Library’s celebrations of the Children’s Book Council’s Book of the Year Awards. I was desperate to win a book prize in that poster competition, never dreaming that I would one day write a book that would win an award from such a long-established and hallowed institution.
What are you writing next?
I’ve been writing a series of picture book texts and I’m just returning now to a novel for teenagers that has been patiently waiting it’s turn.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
I’ve loved Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible, Karen Foxlee’s A Most Magical Girl, James Rebanks The Shepherd’s Life, Brian Doyle’s collection of essays Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies and the picture books Oi, Frog by Kez Gray and Jim Field and Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge.
Thanks so much for having me on the blog and for asking such astonishingly good, stretching questions. It was lovely to take the time to reflect and ponder.
Thanks for your very thoughtful and insightful responses, Lisa and all the very best with your excellent novel, The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler, and your other works. We greatly look forward to what your imaginative mind will bring us next.
If the prospect of bored minds and restless spirits daunts you, consider these literary excursions for your middle grade and YA readers. Not only are they mind provoking and incisive, they offer experiences for the venturesome reader to revere and ruminate over long after they’ve read the last page.
This is a brave story set in Australia in the not-too-distant future with global implications. Peony lives with her sister and aging grandfather on a fruit farm. Her chief aspiration is to be a Bee – the bravest, most nimble of farm workers who flit from tree to tree pollinating flowers by hand. If this concept sounds slightly askew, it’ll be one you are thoroughly comfortable with by the time you’ve experienced MacDibble’s palpably natural, narrative. Could this be the end of the world as we know it or, as I’d rather believe, just another notable chapter in the history of humans being humans – badly.
Whatever your take on climate change and the way we treat the planet, How to Bee, never wallows in despair or hindsight and neither does Peony who positively radiates tenacity, kindness and sass so loudly, her voice really will be resounding long after you read the last page. When Peony is taken from her home by a mother who aspires for more than just the meagre country existence the rest of her family and friends endure, her brassy drive and cast-iron determination draw her right back to the home she loves, like a bee to its hive. But not before she spreads a little hope and good sense in the big scary city.
This story will make you grin, cheer, cry just a bit and want to fly with Peony as she Bees. It’s about being true to yourself, to those who love you, about living your dreams wildly and the profound power of friendship. It could also quite possibly change your whole outlook of and appreciation for fruit. More highly recommended than an apple a day for middle grade readers from eight upwards.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green is such a highly anticipated novel of 2017 and it absolutely astounds with it’s incredible story. It’s so John Green-esque with the metaphors, quirky characters, and copious amounts of existential crises. I also appreciated the raw and personal approach to OCD that definitely makes this book a standout. Turtles All The Way Down is about mental health and missing persons and sad rich boys and friendship. I couldn’t be happier with it!
The plot was really amazing! I found it on the slow side, but still thoroughly excellent. I loved that it wasn’t rife with cliches or annoying tropes, which was refreshing and just made the book more heartfelt. It was real and that makes all the difference. It’s not really a “detective” story as such, but Aza is curious about the mission millionaire because she used to know his son, Davis. She does a bit of digging…although to be honest most of her “investigative work” is on Davis. How adorable.
Aza was an amazing protagonist! She is extremely quiet. She hardly ever talks and she’s very much locked in her own head. I appreciated that spoke little and listened a lot, and the diving into her complex and messy thought process that’s coloured by her mental illness was interesting and so respectfully portrayed. She’s obviously extremely intelligent. All John Green’s characters always are?! I love how “pretentious” they are because I was like that as a kid…hello #relatable. Let’s talk about the stars and metaphors and what poetry means and the infinite possibilities of death and life. The sheer amount of knowledge these kids spew out is just refreshing and perfect to me.
The anxiety/OCD was really brutally and honestly talked about. I do wish the term “OCD” had been used because labels aren’t things to be scared of and it would’ve honestly helped smash more stereotypes. A lot of people won’t know that Aza has OCD because it’s not on page (but John Green talks about it a lot in his vlogs and such). This isn’t the cliche portrayal of OCD either. It’s more about the anxiety of thought-spirals, the repetition to the point of endangering yourself, and the fixation on things you know aren’t a problem but you can’t stop thinking they are. You are not watching someone with OCD, you are experiencing what it’s like to have OCD while reading this book. And that’s so important.
The romance was absolutely super adorable! I loved Davis immediately. He’s rich and always thinks everyone pays attention to him solely because of his money. He’s not good at small talk either and will dive straight into complex conversation (he’s amazing) and he is the sweetest big brother. His dad is missing and so his life is tangled and sad and complicated. I loved how he and Aza slowly rekindled their childhood friendship. It’s the cutest romance, but slow and cautious and fraught with indecision and the complications of Aza’s OCD and Davis’s grief.
I loved how deep the story was too. It just wants to talk about huge matters, and some of the metaphors were extremely intense. The book feels layered and I think you could get more out of it each time you reread.
And since it is, in fact, a John Green novel…I was gut-punched with severe emotions at the end! I hated (in the best way!) and loved it simultaneously and think it was written perfectly.
I think Turtles All the Way Down is an absolutely deep and existential book that really discusses minds and who we are. It’s sad and it’s not sugar coated. There’s no messages that you need to be fixed to have a good life. Your mental illness isn’t ALL of you, but it is some of you. I really appreciated this book and its messages and its beautiful prose.
Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you do.
RAMONA BLUE by Julie Murphy is a heartfelt and beautiful coming-of-age story. It’s about growing up, discovering your sexuality, and swimming and eating a lot of delicious food. (Particularly different ways to eat your eggs, which is quality content.) I think it touched on a lot of applicable and poignant themes that a lot of teens will struggle with or relate to. And the character cast was so excellent it just took the story from being on a flat 2D page to exploding into real life.
The story follows Ramona Laroux, who is quite poor and quite unusual. She has blue hair and is super tall and she lives in a trailer park and she honestly can’t see her life ever going anywhere. Her older teen sister is pregnant and Ramona has no money for college. She wants to leave town but…she doesn’t. She has some great friends here and she honestly is too scared to want more. Then her old childhood friend, Freddie, returns to town. Ramona is still exploring a label for her sexuality, unsure if she’s lesbian or bi or pan, and as chemistry sparks between her and Freddie it opens up a lot of discussions about the fluidity of sexuality. But ultimately: is Ramona going to take charge of her own life or just let it take her?
The characters are definitely the shining glory of the book! It’s very very character driven and has quite a huge cast that all leap off the page with diversity and personality. Most of the secondary characters are queer too and the love interest, Freddie, is black. At first I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of secondary characters but they quickly became real and solid people in my mind and I enjoyed the banter and the escapades. (They literally steal into someone’s backyard to swim at some stage.) I must admit I love Saul who’s favourite audience to his shenanigans was….himself.
I think the discussion on sexuality was very important! Ramona identifies as queer but not quite sure what label she has. She kisses and loves girls but she also is fiercely attracted to Freddie. I loved their romance and also the fact that Ramona isn’t going to stop loving girls or “straighten out” because of Freddie. I think it’s an important thing to discuss fluidity and I feel the book does it respectfully.
I also highly appreciated all the food in the book since wow do these characters have excellent taste buds and enjoy their delicious snacks.
The book also takes us to a large variety of settings which was exciting and fun! Ramona and Freddie start swimming at the local pool and there’s plenty of visiting houses and cities and delicious diners. I think it’s important in contemporaries to showcase a variety of settings to keep the plot moving. And the pacing was a bit on the slow side, but still captivating, with how strongly the characters lead the plot.
RAMONA BLUE is a summery story that deals with a lot of deep issues. It has real and honest conversations and it’s poignant and well written with characters you can root for and no black-and-white answers to all of life’s questions. You have to discover them for yourself!
London-based writer Katherine Rundell has sprung into prominence with her children’s novels in recent times. She has just written two more books and one is a sumptuous Christmas picture book, One Christmas Wish, illustrated by Emily Sutton (Bloomsbury). It draws on many nostalgic and loved Christmas images, such as being with family and decorating the tree.
One Christmas Wish begins on Christmas Eve with Theo sorting out the Christmas decorations. He finds four unexpected and dilapidated pieces: a rocking horse, a robin, a tin soldier and an angel. His parents are out working and his new babysitter has fallen asleep with her phone but Theo sees a shooting star and wishes to not be alone. The four decorations seem to come to life and offer to help Theo with whatever he needs. However, the decorations all need something themselves, such as the robin remembering how to sing and the soldier needing someone to love and protect. The heart of Christmas is reached when they find a nativity scene in the town square and Theo’s Christmas wish comes true soon after.
The illustrations invite you into the scenes, particularly those with full bleeds to the pages’ edges such as in Mrs Goodyere’s cosy room where she teaches the robin to sing Away in a Manger and the snowy wood where Theo and the others search for feathers to replenish the angel’s wings.
The Explorer (illustrated by Hannah Horn; published by Bloomsbury) is Katherine Rundell’s other new book and it is a rollicking adventure for primary children set in the Amazon after Fred’s small plane crashes. Two girls about his age, Con and Lila, and five-year-old Max also survive. They rescue a baby sloth, raid a bee-hive, make a raft and find a map. They resolve to venture to where the X on the map is located. Disconcertingly, there are signs that someone else has lived in the jungle too.
There is some depth in the narrative, particularly as the children undergo rites of passage. Even though their existence is difficult, at times Fred seems pleased not to be living a humdrum life: “At school, it’s the same thing, every day. I liked that it might be all right to believe in large, mad, wild things.”
The Explorer is inspired by Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, and these two novels do share a similar sense of adventure and freedom.
Cameron Macintosh’s debut children’s fantasy sci-fi series for middle graders, Max Booth Future Sleuth, is a mind-bending, time-warping fun adventure about a boy and his robo-dog sidekick on a mission to uncover the truths about ‘ancient’ artefacts (Are the ‘80s really that ancient?!). The first book to send us looping back and forth between time zones is Tape Escape. Set in 2424, it is a comically suspenseful story that sees Max and Oscar in all sorts of strife, following the theft of the valuable, all-encompassing, legendary David Snowie-archived cassette tape from the hands of a maniacal musicology nutter. Certainly one to goggle over (or google if you’re under 20), for its fascinating reflections into technological history and advancements.
With a background in editing and writing educational texts, Cameron coolly strode his way into the world of children’s fiction. Thanks for sharing your writing journey and Max Booth insights with us, Cameron!
Firstly, please tell us a bit about your writing journey and how you came to write for children. What’s the best part of this career choice?
My writing journey has been very long and slow, but worth every twist and detour. Like a lot of writers, my journey started as a primary school kid. In my case it was writing rambling rhyming stories that weren’t nearly as clever as I thought they were at the time! I didn’t seriously think writing could be a career option until I enrolled in the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing course and found work as an editor out of that – in educational publishing. It took a few years, but I eventually used my contacts as an editor to leapfrog into writing educational texts. I’ve been happily doing that since 2008, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I made the much longed-for leap into mainstream trade publishing when Big Sky Publishing offered to take on the first Max Booth book.
For me, the best part of writing for kids is that it’s a licence to let your imagination run wild, and to revisit ideas that added extra levels of magic to your own childhood. I also get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that, in a small way, I’m part of an incredible community of writers, teachers, librarians and parents who are passionate about encouraging kids to develop a love for reading.
Congratulations on the releases of your latest books in the exciting Max Booth Future Sleuth series, Tape Escape and Selfie Search! What was the experience of writing this series like for you? What themes are at the heart of these stories?
Thank you! It was a very different experience writing each of them. I started the first book, Tape Escape, about four years ago as an attempt to branch out from educational writing. It was three years before the wonderful people at Big Sky offered to take it on, so I’d been living with it for quite a while. That was probably a good thing, because the story had time to find its feet and go through several drafts and workshops with my wonderful writing group.
The second book, Selfie Search, was a very different experience – I’d pitched Max Booth as a potential series, and Big Sky wanted another book to follow it up fairly quickly. I’d already written four or five mini-synopses for future titles, so much of the plot was already in place. And obviously, the characters and world of the story had already been set up in Tape Escape, so it wasn’t too hard to put it together in the space of a few months.
The themes of the books include technology, family, friendship and historical discovery – a strange mix but somehow they seem to work together!
I loved the whirlwind time warp of recollecting the past and imagining the future. Where did the inspiration for these books come from? Were you a hard core sci-fi / fantasy fan as a child? Is there something about time travel that steered you towards this angle? How much research went into plotting accurate facts in technological history?
The initial inspiration came from a visit to Naples and Pompeii, where I encountered all sorts of objects that had survived the devastating eruption nearly 2000 years ago – mostly everyday, domestic items like crockery and hair combs. My fascination for these objects started me wondering whether similarly mundane objects from our own lives would be so interesting to future generations. All I needed was a character with that very fascination (hello Max!) and I was off and running.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t a huge sci-fi or fantasy fan as a kid, apart from Star Wars and Monkey Magic (if they count!), and a few one-off books. But over the last few years I’ve found that speculating about the shape of the world over the coming centuries seems to unleash lots of sparks for story ideas.
In terms of research, the main thing I need to be sure of is that the dates line up correctly for the 20th and 21st century objects Max investigates in each book. I also need to scratch a little deeper for some of the objects because each book ends with a factual spread about the main item Max investigates, giving basic information about its history and how it works.
How have you found the feedback from your readers so far? What have they loved the most about Max Booth? Is this what you had hoped to achieve?
It’s been very encouraging so far. Most importantly for me, they’ve enjoyed the humour, and have liked Max’s robo-dog, Oscar. I’ve also had feedback that readers have liked the future gadgetry, and that parents have found the stories a useful springboard for conversations with their kids about the technologies they grew up with. That’s really pleasing too.
Dave Atze’s illustrations are humorous, energetic and befittingly shrewd. What was it like collaborating with him? Were there any surprises along the way?
You’ve really summed up Dave’s work perfectly. It’s such a treat to work with an artist who has such an intuitive feel for characters and sci-fi settings. His illustrations are really funny too. In terms of the collaboration, I’d included lots of suggestions in the manuscripts. Between Dave, the publisher and myself, we whittled them down to the most important ones, and Dave pretty much took the reigns from there. He nailed the ideas really quickly and we really didn’t need to do a lot of to-and-fro.
The biggest surprise for me was seeing these characters come to life so closely to how I’d imagined them. There was definitely some kind of telepathy going on!
What is your favourite technological device from the past, and what do you think it might be in the future?
My favourite device from the past would have to be my Nintendo Game and Watch game (Popeye!) from the 80s. For the uninitiated, Game and Watch was a series of simple hand-held LED games that were seriously addictive, and are now quite collectible.
My favourite future device will be a scalp-massaging bike helmet – can someone please invent one soon?
What would be your dream time zone for writing be?
It’s not very romantic, but I sometimes wish it was the early 90s again – where we had the benefit of decent word processors without the distraction of the internet! Failing that, an attic in a French castle in the 1880s would be okay too – as long as I can bring a heater and a massage chair.
What projects are you currently working on? What can your fans expect to see from you in the ‘not-too-distant’ future?
I’m currently working hard on the third Max Booth book, and having a lot of fun with it. I won’t say too much about the plot, except that in this one, it’s a very low-tech item that Max is investigating.
There’s also an almost-finished YA novel that I’ll get back to when Max is off the desk, and I’ve recently started plotting a book for adults – I think it’s a crime story, but who knows, it’ll probably end up morphing into sci-fi!
If you haven’t already consumed your friends or scared the pants off yourself after reading Romi’s recommended Halloween reads, then whip out your witch’s hat and strap on your bat wings; here are a few more scary reads guaranteed to bring out the ghoul in your little monsters.
This is a seriously spooky series of stories for middle grade readers. All types of whacky scary and wonderful; youngsters will devour these offbeat tales beginning with The Human Flytrap, progressing to The Spider Army, The Haunted Book and finally slithering to The Squid Slayer. This series gets better and better the more involved you get. Spine chilling tension focuses on a different member of a team of four young sleuths and erstwhile mystery magnets who live in the creepy town of Axe Falls, a place teeming with unusual, nightmarish realties and reoccurring reasons to scream, often.
Josh, his sister and their friends encounter weird creatures and endless dubious going-ons, which they have to battle violently against in order to survive. This series promises un-put-downable excitement and thrills guaranteed to increase the heart rate of 8 – 14-year-olds. The first book will have you screaming well into the night! Highly recommended.
I have a terrible habit of carefully selecting a new book—often one that’s been sitting on my bedside table for some time—to read on longhaul flights, only to be distracted by a shiny new book at the airport while waiting to board. I invariably end up rather guiltily but compulsively buying said distracting book and squishing it into my backpack.
Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor was one such impulse airport purchase. I was loitering in a bookshop in Heathrow airport waiting for the airline to announce from which gate the first of my interminably long flights to get back to Australia would depart. (Why they couldn’t announce it more than 30 minutes before the plane left, I don’t know. Surely they knew where an A380 was going park. But I digress.)
I get to call myself a doctor these days, but I’m of the non-medical variety because my family is genetically, pathologically squeamish. That doesn’t stop me gravitating toward books that are about not so much gruesome medical details as the experience of what it’s like to work a medical doctor’s job.
This Is Going To Hurt features, as the subtitle suggests, excerpts from diaries Kay kept during his years navigating the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) junior and slightly more senior doctor positions. (He’s long departed the medical world to be a writer and comedian—presumably much more fun jobs that still manage to leverage all that hard-learnt knowledge.)
And it is, to be concise: achingly insightful and funny. I read the book non-stop during my flights, foregoing sleep and new-release movies for it, closing it up only briefly to ingest airline food, and only then because space and awkwardness temporarily prevented me wielding both a book and cutlery. The book is ab-clenchingly hilarious, although the best bits—of which there are many—are probably not entirely suitable to discuss on this family friendly blog, or simply require a little more context than I can provide.
Essentially, the book provides a glimpse into the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed junior doctor experience. Specifically, how nothing could quite prepare (Adam) Kay for the NHS’ bureaucratic efficiency slash inefficiency: ‘Day one. H [his then-girlfriend whose identity has been protected] has made me a packed lunch. I have a new stethoscope, a new shirt, and a new email address: [email protected]. It’s good to know that no matter what happens today, nobody could accuse me of being the most incompetent person in the hospital,’ Kay writes. ‘And even if I am, I can blame it on Atom.’
But his email address is trumped by that of his friend Amanda Saunders-Vest, whose hyphen they spelt out: [email protected].
This Is Going To Hurt also outlines the kinds of truth-is-stranger than fiction moments Kay frequently experienced, such as receiving an all-staff email about ensuring all samples were sent to the lab, stat. What prompted the broadcast was a psych patient who had been transferred to the respiratory ward with pneumonia. He’d been discovered scavenging and ingesting sputum samples the previous day.
There are some slightly more serious undertones to the book too.
The book blurb says: ‘Welcome to 97-hour weeks. Welcome to life-and-death decisions. Welcome to a constant tsunami of bodily fluids. Welcome to earning less than the hospital parking meter. Wave goodbye to your friends and relationships…’
This Is Going To Hurt shows the slow unravelling of Kay’s relationship and documents myriad missed family or generally fun occasions through unending work commitments and last-minute emergencies. Also, I learnt from this book that (in the UK, at least) all junior doctors change hospitals on precisely the same day every six or 12 months—on what is known as ‘Black Wednesday’. I *think* this happens in Australia every January. ‘You might think it would be a terrible idea to exchange all your Scrabble tiles in one go and expect the hospital to run exactly as it did the day before,’ Kay writes. ‘And you’d be quite right.’
One review I read of This Is Going To Hurt (or rather Kay’s related show, which draws on much of the same material), mentions that the reviewer spent the first 40 minutes laughing and the next 10 crying. That’s an accurate summation of what I experienced.
Kay’s penned an open letter (in what could possibly be considered a rethink of the equivalent of an epilogue) to the Secretary of State for Health at the book’s end. Its opening sentence discusses how a Harvard Law professor once suggested we should seal the nuclear codes in a live human’s heart. The thinking was that if the president wanted to wipe out a bunch of people from a distance, he first had to cut open and likely kill one person up close and personal. Likewise, Kay argues, the Secretary of State for Health should truly comprehend what junior doctors are subjected to in terms of punishingly gruelling hours, comparably low pay, and terrifyingly enormous responsibility.
Apart from wondering how Kay found the time or energy to keep these diaries along the way, but eternally grateful that he did, I wholly recommend reading This Is Going To Hurt. It’s relevant even to those of us based outside the UK because the experience—and the pressures—is undoubtedly transferable.