Review: The Language Of Thorns By Leigh Barudgo

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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!

Dim’s Christmas Crackers Lists – Bag the Best Kids’ Books

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.

Magabala Books August 2017

Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines by Prue & Kerry Mason and Tom Jellet

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.

Read Romi’s full review, here.

Walker Books Australia 2017

Fierce Fighters Predators by Paul Beck and Lee Martin

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.

Becker & Mayer! Kids July 2017

All Aboard the Discovery Express by Emily Hawkins, Tom Adams and Tom Clohoshy-Cole

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+.

Quarto Group September 2017

Continue reading Dim’s Christmas Crackers Lists – Bag the Best Kids’ Books

Kids Will be Rapt to Find these Wrapped this Christmas – Part 1

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, The Discovery Globe is a marvellous cultural, scientific and geographical package that will have young curious minds enthralled for hours. For ages six and up.

Quarto Children’s Books and Walker Books, October 2017.

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.

Walker Books Australia, October 2017.

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.

Quarto Children’s Books and Walker Books Australia, November 2017.

Stay tuned for more Christmas gift ideas! 🙂

Review: All The Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

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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.

Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

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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.”

Exchange of Heart by Darren Groth

Darren Groth‘s new novel is Exchange of Heart (Penguin Random House Australia). This is the second of Darren’s wonderful YA novels I’ve read.

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).   

I reviewed your excellent previous novel, Are You Seeing Me? for the Weekend Australian http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/misfits-and-misadventures-abound-in-latest-young-adult-fiction-books/news-story/12de0e5706bdc33fc03255e5660b2231. Could you briefly describe the two major characters and reveal who appears in your new novel?

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.

Why the quote from Leo Tolstoy and why did you incorporate the novel Picnic at Hanging Rock into the novel?

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. 

What have you been reading recently?

I’ve got a number of books on the slow-go. Will Kostakis’ The Sidekicks (great guy, marvellous book), Strange Magic by Syd Moore, who just happens to be my quite brilliant sister-in-law; George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo; Justin Cronin’s City of Mirrors; and, as a nod to my recent trip back to Bris-Vegas after seven years, I just finished Three Crooked Kings by the mighty Matt Condon.

Thanks very much, Darren, and all the best with Exchange of Heart and your next book.

Thank you, Joy! 

Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

28360759-A6FC-4731-9977-F2F754AB932E-1796-000004F318CEF7C2The 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 The Martian 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!

Buy the book here…

Picture Books Steeped in History

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.

Ten Pound Pom, Carole Wilkinson (author), Liz Anelli (illus.), Walker Books, October 2017.

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.

Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines, Prue & Kerry Mason (authors), Tom Jellett (illus.), Walker Books, April 2017.

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.

Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover, Markus Motum (author, illus.), Walker Books, October 2017.

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.

Mighty Magabala Books

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’s by 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.

Free Diving

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. 

Art and Music in Picture Books

Art and music feature in some recommended picture books and Christmas gifts.

Wonderlands: The Illustration Art of Robert Ingpen published by the National Library of Australia

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. 

Dance to Dream in Picture books

Four picture books I’ve enjoyed and admired this year range in subject from dance to dreams. Interestingly, they all feature a limited colour palette.

Swan Lake by Anne Spudvilas

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.

Drawn Onward by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Andrew Frazer

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.

Danny Blue’s Really Excellent Dream by Max Landra

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.

The Full ‘I Need to Buy and Post Books’ Panic

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.

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Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

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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!