Under the Christmas Tree Part 6 – Tis better to give than receive

It’s almost time to step away from the desk and wrap up the year. What a year it’s been, brimful of incredible stories and pictures, all of which have been a delight to share with you. It is, as they say; better to give than receive, so here are some final last minute helpful hints for something worth tucking under the Christmas tree.

was-not-me Was Not Me! by Shannon Horsfall

This fits the Naught but Nice list. Perfect for the school holidays, this picture book by talented newcomer, Shannon Horsfall will have kids swinging from the chandeliers and surging through the high seas with her calamitous Not Me character. He is cheeky and illusive and always hangs the blame for the mess on the carpet or the floods in the bathroom on his twin brother, Me. Mum suspects foul play and is not so easily fooled.

was-not-me-illos-spreadKids and mischief is a mix that portends all sorts of hilarious possibilities. Horsfall has managed to bottle that common go-to-get-out-of-jail card-catch-cry that kids so frequently use, ‘Was not me!’ with lightly rhyming humour and very likeable illustrations. Something fun for bored would-be house wreckers these holidays aged four to eight.

Harper Collins Children’s Books July 2016

twigTwig by Aura Parker

Another author illustrator production this time by Aura Parker whose unique organically inspired illustrations turn this gentle story about making friends and starting school into an obvious holiday choice for four to six-year-olds.

Heidi is a stick insect. She is tall and slender and blends in incredibly well with her surroundings so much so that she goes virtually unnoticed by all those around her. Such anonymity does not bode well for a creature as unassuming as Heidi and she fails to make an impact on her new classmates or even her energetic teacher, Mrs Orb. Dejected and miserable, it is not until Scarlett inadvertently unearths Heidi’s indignation that the rest see Heidi for who and what she is for the first time. From then on, the webs of friendship begin to spin.

twig-and-aura-parkerTwig is a sweet tale about finding the confidence to embark on new adventures. It is also a glorious detailed experience of visual discovery. Each of the end papers is crawling with critters and bugs of every description with prompts to seek them out. Twig is a marvellous way of getting real with bugs with a captivating nod to counting, species classification, biology, and colour. A picture book to truly pour over.

Scholastic Press November 2016

elephants-have-wingsElephants Have Wings by Susanne Gervay and Anna Pignataro

We have reviewed this one before (read Julie Fison’s encounter with Susanne Gervay, here) but it’s worth special mention and a prime place under the Christmas tree.

At a time in our history when there should be no child that suffers comes this powerful picture book by the accomplished team of Susanne Gervay and Anna Pignataro. Based partly on the ancient parable the Blind Men and the Elephant, this outstanding work is suffused with elegance, immense spirit and a beauty that young children will recognise and draw from even if they are not able to comprehend the complexities that lie within each page.

My daughter was nine when she first read it and stated, ‘It is great out of the box thinking isn’t it? I mean, who would have thought that elephants could fly.’ Indeed, capturing the essence of the blind men and the elephant in a picture book is one thing. Exhibiting it with such exquisite heart and sensitivity as the team of Gervay and Pignataro do is higher than commendable.

The journey of discovery begins one night as two young siblings beg their father for a bedtime tale. This particular night he tells their grandfather’s story, thus spanning the generations. From his recount, we learn of a group of children from varying cultural backgrounds intent on going out one dark night in search of a secret. They each find part of something, each certain they are right in their assumption of what it is, each unwilling to accept that their interpretation of their discovery whilst subjectively correct in one instance could also be part some bigger picture. They ‘argued until everyone was angry’ – my favourite line in the book, also one of the most disparagingly accurate of observations. It is not until grandfather appears with his candlelight that the children discover that each of them ‘was right, but also wrong’ and the magnificent elephant is revealed.

But what of the secret? As brother and sister embark upon the elephant’s sturdy back and soar with him over the many glorious fabrics of their world, they come to appreciate not only the beauty that surrounds them but also the cracks that threaten that beauty, until finally they arrive home, conscious now of their differences and sameness.

elephants-have-wings-illos-spreadThe subtle nuances so intricately and delicately woven into this creation are numerous. Pignataro’s textured, collaged illustrations, lift and transport, defying gravity and borders. They convey a rich tapestry of multiculturalism, religion, and ultimately, Nirvana – a divine realisation of self and the ability to see past fear, a call to reach out for harmony. The use of the colours of the Chakra, of pages drained of any pigment and then restored, provide reasons to clutch tightly to life, ride out derision, to hope – to forge forward.

Gervay’s impossibly expressive narrative articulates confusion, disaccord, reconciliation, and understanding, prompting young readers to ponder and question all that which they see (and hear) around them. To paraphrase the words of George R R Martin ‘Just open your eyes… is all that is needing. The eyes see true…then comes the thinking and in that knowing the truth.’

Supremely brave, eloquent and masterful, Elephants Have Wings will initiate discussion over many shared readings; it is one to treasure and grow with.

Ford Street Publishing October 2014

Find your elephant within as soon as you possibly can.

Cherish your Christmas moments. Give a Book. Read lots!

See you in 2017!

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Under the Christmas Tree Part 5 – Festive boredom busters

For most of us, it is now officially school holiday time, the season of fraught mothers, constant interruptions, drained purses, and frazzled tempers. Or, if you’re clever, blissful moments spent with your darlings in between extended periods of boredom busting activity. Festive harmony is easy to achieve, you just need the right materials.  Here are a handful of books that entertain and instil serenity.

the-anti-boredom-christmas-bookThe Anti-Boredom Christmas Book by Andy Seed and Scott Garrett

The title speaks for itself but does this book hold the eggnog? Ecstatic to report, it does and some! If you love trivia, jokes, silliness, and just good old-fashioned fun quizzes this is the boredom-busting book for you (and your kids). Perfect for slipping into your carry-on luggage if you happen to be going away or tucking into the backpack for those incurably long family lunches, we force our children to endure over the holiday season, The Anti-Boredom Christmas Book is stuffed with things to do, think about and act out – no pencils required!  (Although there are plenty of arty / crafty options to get creative with.)

Seed’s zany laugh-out-loud facts and games challenge the curious reader: would you rather wear frozen undies or sleep in a bed of snow? You can even learn how to say snow in 18 languages – always good to know. Wacky and wonderful insanity to fill the holidays with whilst simultaneously inspiring sanity.

Bloomsbury Publishing December 2016

wonderful-world-colouring-bookWonderful World Colouring book by Alison Lester

For a more Australian flavoured boredom buster, sample Alison Lester’s Wonderful World kids’ colouring-in book. Whether you are a fan of colour-the- drawings type productions or not, this one is sure to please and entrance the budding artists in your home. Focusing on the art of illustration, Lester ingeniously includes dozens of helpful illustrative snippets and hints to nudge would be artists on their way. Suggestions like: ‘try drawing with your left hand’, ‘always leave a little bit of white in the eyes’, and ‘don’t try to make everything perfect’, are secreted away among her own iconic images on the end pages and in an introductory ‘Drawing Tips’ prologue.

wonderful-world-illo-spreadInside, there is a treasure trove of thick sturdy pages of assorted images and scenes just begging for colour and personalisation.  Exceedingly so much more than just a colouring in book, Wonderful World will inspire, occupy, and educate for days.

Allen & Unwin 2016

my-lovely-christmas-bookMy Lovely Christmas Book

While their creative juices are still flowing, consider this as a sweeter than sweet stocking filler. My Lovely Christmas Book is a quaint diary sized festive book, brimming with blank pages and cheery prompts that allows readers to fill it with their own lists, notes, poems, and wishes, in short, to create a lovely Christmas book for them by them. It ostensibly covers the 12 days of Christmas so could be substituted as a tooth-friendly form of advent calendar, as well.

There is space for photos, favourite listings, and recordings of all the best bits of Christmas a kid can have. Sublimely illustrated, this is an exquisite combination of meditative colouring in book, crafty hang out and personal journal, which subtly encourages youngsters to observe and cherish this most magical time of the year.

Bloomsbury Publishing November 2016

the-kids-survival-guideThe Kids’ Survival Guide – Avoiding ‘When I was young…’ and other brain-exploding lectures by Susan Berran

I’m not sure I should be recommending this but it is insidiously brilliant no matter how potentially detrimental it may prove for we struggling parental types just trying to do our jobs. The Kids’ Survival Guide, is a crafty (not in the arty sense) cheeky, wickedly funny and devilishly useful hand book for kids who’ve had a gutful of the lectures, rules and dumb sayings adults dole out to them day after day of their young lives.

Thoughtfully sectioned into handy parts, the Guide escorts and educates readers on how to remain calm and cope with brain exploding stupidities like ‘You can have a motorbike when you’re older’ -how much older? A day, a month, a minute? Or, what about, ‘You should know, I’ve told you a hundred times’. Berran could be right or at least her character Sam could be right; parents do say the lamest things. Apparently, it’s all in the manual Sam and his mate, Jared found. I just hope they don’t strike back too hard as he shares some of his ‘brain-blowing close encounters’ and teaches fellow sufferers how to ‘twist, flip and turn’ the rules around. Heaven help us. Essential and absorbing reading that is sure to occupy young minds for precious minutes this Silly Season. Warning: Adults should read first to allow time to come up with some witty counter-attacks. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Big Sky Publishing October 2016

 

 

Under the Christmas Tree Part 4

It’s time for some fun fiction for kids. This little cluster of Christmas inspired picture books is sure to generate a smile or two and plenty of sage head nodding, perfect for slipping under the Christmas tree.

christmas-at-homeChristmas at Home by Claire Saxby and Janine Dawson

I adore the homegrown simplicity juxtaposed with the bustling busy detail Dawson’s illustrations project in this seasonal picture book. Saxby’s narrative is snugly woven to fit the meter of O Tannenbaum however instead of endless verses about pine branches, it’s the lines applauding classic Aussie Christmas lunching and community Christmas light displays that demand your cheery attention. From decorating the tree and touring the neighbourhood streets in search of the most  razzle dazzle to squeezing around the table and forcing down a feast, Christmas at Home is a jazzed up observation of a typical Aussie silly season enjoyed with those you love… at home.

The Five Mile Press November 2016

pig-the-elfPig the Elf by Aaron Blabey

Oh dear, he’s back and behaving badly as per usual. Resounding full marks for this festive episode of the world’s most self-centred pooch. Pig the Elf is a hilarious cautionary tale of greed and arrogance vs compassion and gratefulness. Blabey’s lilting and often times, cutting verse is almost of sing song quality, the carolling type no less (I had to hold myself back) and puts readers nicely in a ‘night before Christmas’ mood. Pig wants stuff for Christmas, lots of stuff and is not shy about slugging old Santa up for it. He does get his just desserts in the end although I’m not sure if he requested them as part of his kilometre long Wish List and I’m not altogether convinced he will mend his gluttonous ways; which I guess bodes well for future puggish adventures. Unbridled fun for pre-schoolers, pug lovers, and kids with Christmas lists that may warrant a hefty bout of structural editing.

Scholastic November 2016

the-naughtiest-reindeer-goes-southThe Naughtiest Reindeer Goes South by Nicki Greenberg

How can you not love a picture book with real snow and ice on the cover? Well at least that’s what the cover of the latest joyful instalment from Greenberg feels like. This type of tactile teasing instantly puts readers in the mood for some frisky frolicking about with Ruby, the naughtiest reindeer on Santa’s team. She and brother, Rudolf are bickering over sleigh-lead-pulling rights until Mrs S steps in and awards both of them poll position in the sleigh line up. Ruby however is having none of it. She swoops and swerves rebelliously, eventually causing sever upset and capsizes the sleigh. Stranded in Antarctica, Ruby has to overcome chilling reality and hostile penguins to make amends and deliver Santa’s presents on time. Greenberg’s rippling verse and super jolly illustrations transport young pre and primary school readers on a glorious special-delivery ride.

Allen & Unwin September 2016

all-i-want-for-christmas-is-rainAll I want for Christmas is Rain by Cori Brooke and Megan Forward

Two front teeth. A hippopotamus. A visit from Old St Nick. Not a lot to ask for, so why not some relief from the crucifying clutches of drought? Jane’s Christmas wish is about to take on a dramatic realisation. She lives with her farmer parents in Australia’s drought stricken Outback.  One day she makes the long trek into town to see Santa to place an extra special order with him. It’s not toys and presents that she yearns for as she counts the sun shot days down to Christmas morning. When it dawns, magic rains forth.

Brooke’s soulful text expresses the exact type of childlike innocence that allows such magic to spill into our lives. Believe, hope, and wish hard enough for something and it will eventually come to pass. If only that were true for our farmers.  Still, this picture book sings hope. Forward’s stunning watercolour illustrations drag us from bone dry dusty paddocks into mud-splattered pastures. Her end pages depict the stark before and after contrasts that epitomises our harsh Australian climate with such eloquent beauty, it will make your heart dance for joy, too.

At a time of year where in many parts of Australia, holiday cheer withers under the savage heat of summer, All I Want for Christmas is Rain is a timely reminder of the spirit of Christmas with a stout-hearted nod to those amazing Australians who feed us, the farmers. Evocative and poignant.

New Frontier Publishing November 2016

kids-reading-guide-2016-2017For more cool gifts for kids this Christmas check out Romi Sharp’s recommendations and Cait Drew’s list for older readers, or visit the Kids Reading Guide, here.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

 

Under the Christmas Tree Part 3 – Self-help for kids

Self-help titles are normally in high demand following the glut of Christmas overindulgence we adults tend to experience at this time of year. Children, thankfully do not time their greed or any other dilemmas for that matter so predictably. Therefore, it’s comforting to know there is an ever-available selection of fantastic kids’ books allowing little ones to explore their emotions, temper their fears, and make themselves feel a whole lot better about themselves and the world they live in. Here a few in picture book form.

Pickle & Bree Guide to Good Deeds by Alison Reynolds and Mikki Butterley

This is a divine picture book series featuring two unlikely companions, Pickle and Bree that centres around sound values and the importance of friendship. Romi Sharp discusses thethe-decortating-disaster various nuances and inspirations behind these demonstrative tales with author, Alison Reynolds, here. Visually exuberant, each title is crammed with subtle etiquette, positive attitude and enough storyline to keep kids tuned in and listening to the messages behind Bree and Pickle’s occasional the-big-snow-adventuredisagreements. How this delicious sounding pair work their way through The Decorating Disaster and decorating The Birthday Party Cake are the first two in the series and reviewed, here. The Playground Meanies and The Big Snow Adventure follow early next year. Supportive, fun learning for 5 – 8-year-olds.

The Five Mile Press October 2015

dingo-in-the-darkDingo in the Dark by Sally Morgan and Tania Erzinger

I adore Erzinger’s playful organically hued illustrations in Morgan’s timeless tale of overcoming your fears, in this case, of the dark. It’s impossible for Dingo to sleep because of his aversion to nigdingo-in-the-dark-illos-dingoht. In desperation, he believes that if he can catch the Sun who watches over him by day and keep it with him by night, he will be safe. His nocturnal bushland friends are quick to come to his aid, gently helping him discover another guardian angel, one who watches over him each night. The value of listening to your friends in times of trouble and doubt are gingerly brought home in this simple and enjoyable tale. Great for frightened pre-schoolers.

Omnibus Books November 2016

agatha-in-the-darkAgatha and the dark by Anna Pignataro

Agatha is one little lassie who also finds it hard to face her dread of the dark. When her fellow pre-schoolers tease and taunt her about it, her imagination threatens to spill into her real world until she realises with a little bit of help from the adults around her, that everyone has doubts and fears about something and that it is all right to admit this. Once Agatha allows her fear of monsters a bit of free reign, she discovers they are something she actually enjoys spending time with, sharing tea parties and sprinkle biscuits with them. Pignataro’s delicate narrative and soft, welcoming illustrations invite calm and help alleviate those pesky fears that follow us about. Highly recommended for shared pre-school reading.

The Five Mile Press 2016

the-fabulous-friend-machineThe Fabulous Friend Machine by Nick Bland

Move over Cranky Bear, there’s a new gal in town and her name is Popcorn. Popcorn is ‘quite simply, the friendliest chicken at Fiddlesticks Farm’. She’s your consummate over-sharer, adjective exploiter, and spreader of good cheer tonic, whose heart of gold is bigger than the henhouse. Every circle of friends has a Popcorn.

One day, Popcorn happens upon a fabulous friend machine, known in human circles as the cursed smart mobile phone. Popcorn is so enamoured by its captive glow and entreating way of connecting to others, that she becomes  obsessed with messaging and soon completely forgets about all her old friends. It turns out her new cyber friends are chicken lovers too but for reasons more sinister than friendship. Will Popcorn’s true friends stand by her and save the day? Or is Popcorn’s goose cooked?

This is my pick of the bunch cautionary tale. Bland deals with cyber-safety and social media mindfulness in a comical yet completely relatable way that is sure to make little kids squirt with laughter and understanding. Highly recommended as an engaging read for 4-year-olds and above and primary schoolers who may be toting their own fabulous friend machines about.

Scholastic Press October 2016

Find more fab reads for your kids this Christmas, here.

kids-reading-guide-2016-2017

 

 

 

Doodles and Drafts – All of Us Together with Bill Condon

 bill-condonBill Condon is a man of modest expectations that do not match his considerable abilities. He writes with charm, wit, sincerity and affection. His novels for young people, of which there are many resonate a genuineness that fascinates newcomers and for many older readers, transports them back to the idle days of their childhood, warts and all. We are fortunate to have Bill at the drafts table today to reveal some of the mental conflicts he still encounters prior to penning a new story (a predicament faced by nearly every author) and some insights behind the inspiration for his latest junior novel, All of Us Together.

All of Us Together is a tale of warmth, heartache, tragedy and hope all rolled up in one very threadbare blanket that was the Great Depression in the early 1930s. The heroes of this tale are ordinary folk trying to etch out a life during an extraordinary period of Australia’s pre-World War II history. Poverty and having to grow up sooner than you ought to thankfully are not issues many modern day Australian youngsters have to deal with on a day to day basis (although unfortunately they are never completely absent from any society). Condon manages to infuse enough hope into what appears an untenable and inevitable situation for Daniel and his family when they are forced to leave their family home and begin afresh, without being morose. All of Us Together is a realistic and unapologetic view of life with an emphasis on the positive power of sticking together through thick and thin.

Here’s what Bill has to say:

On Writing

Recently I started to watch a movie called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I didn’t care for it very much and turned it off after a short while. The thing that struck me most about it were the very first words spoken. A teenage boy says: ‘I have no idea how tall-of-us-together-front-covero tell this story’. This is exactly how I feel every time I go into battle with the blank page. One of the problems I have is that usually my mind is blanker than the page.

Although I have been at this game for a long time and have published many books, writing doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it often feels like I’ve never written anything, and have no idea how to go about it.

As gloomy as it may sound, one of the great motivators for me has long been the prospect of death. From the early 80s I wrote children’s poems and plays, short stories, and non-fiction. This was my comfort zone, and I was fairly successful at it. However, I felt that a novel was beyond me.

One night I was talking to one of my two wonderful sisters, and she hinted very tactfully, that perhaps I should try to push myself a little with my writing. I think she even put it more delicately than that, but it was enough to stir me into action. When I was 50, I at long last took the plunge and attempted a young adult novel. I was afraid that I’d fail, but I was even more afraid that I’d die without having tried. The book was called Dogs and it won an Honour Award in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards. Awards are such a lottery, but I was lucky. Perhaps if it hadn’t done well I might have gone back to doing what came easier to me. Even so, it was another five years before my next young adult novel appeared. I’ve now written eight novels, and each one has been a huge struggle.

the-simple-thingsIn 2014 I had a junior novel called The Simple Things published. I thought writing for younger kids would be easier than writing for teenagers, but I was so wrong. It seems any kind of writing is just plain hard for me. I’d written that book and had it accepted in 2012, but it took two years to get published. Then another two years went by, in which I was unable to write anything. So for four years the blank page won out. The one thing that finally got me going again was my old friend Death, or the fear of it.

At the start of this year I had a lot of medical tests done and I’d convinced myself that the results wouldn’t be good. ‘Just one more book’, I told myself. So I went back to a story I’d tried to write the year before, only to give up on. This time I attacked it as if I had a very pressing deadline. From the outset I had a title, All Of Us Together. I knew it was a junior novel set in the Great Depression in Australia, but like the boy I mentioned at the start of this piece, I had no idea how to write it. Then memories kicked in.

When I was young my parents told me of their Depression experiences. If only I’d known that I’d need their help in writing a book one day I would have listened much more closely than I did. But as young people often do, I took them and their stories for granted. I’m sorry to say that it was pretty much a case of in one ear and out the other.

Luckily, some things stuck. I remembered my dad talking about Happy Valley, a ramshackle unemployment camp near Sydney. There were similar camps all over Australia, set up to cater for people who had lost their jobs and homes and had nowhere else to go. I remembered my mum telling me about the tramps who would regularly turn up at her parent’s door to ask for a handout. She said they were always given something to eat.  Both of these memories – Happy Valley, and the tramp asking for food – made it into my book. And too, I borrowed from my own life, as I usually do. When Daniel, the main character in the story, gets into strife, his misdeeds are ones that I got up to when I was a child.

Slowly I got to know and understand Daniel and his sisters, Adelaide and Lydia, as well as their parents, and instead of dreading the thought of going to my computer, I actually wanted to spend as much time as I could with my fictional family.  They had become almost real to me, and I hope readers will feel the same way.

Once I’d found my way into the story and the words were starting to flow, I received my test results. All is fine.  This leaves me free to get on with life, and keep on hoping, for one more book.

We hope so too, Bill!

Thanks for visiting. Discover more bookish revelations about Bill as he continues his Blog Tour around Australia.

About Kids Books November 2016

BLOG TOUR DATES

17 November Di Bates http://www.diannedibates.blogspot.com.au

18 November Clancy Tucker http://clancytucker.blogspot.com.au

19 November Sally Odgers http://promotemeplease.blogspot.com.au

20 November Sandy Fussell www.sandyfussell.com/blog

21 November Dee White http://deescribewriting.wordpress.com
22 November Dimity Powell http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/author/dpowell

23 November Elaine Ousten http://elaineoustonauthor.com/
24 November Melissa Wray http://www.melissawray.blogspot.com.au
25 November Susan Whelan http://www.kids-bookreview.com
26 November Romi Sharp http://www.justkidslit.com

#ByAustralinaBuyAustralian

 

 

Under the Christmas Tree – Part 2

It’s important to keep the little ones pleased and preoccupied at Christmas time. Getting this mix right, ultimately frees up more ‘adult time’. In keeping with our non-fiction gift ideas theme, here are a few more picture books to soothe those savage beasts…ironically, all about savage beasts!

gigantosaurusGigantosaurus by Jonny Duddle

Gigantosaurus is more of a fun romp through the Late Cretaceous Period than a dry non-fictional expose about dinosaurs. Duddle’s full page colour extravaganzas and infectious story line introduces readers (and four tiny baby dinosaurs) to a clutch of stomping, crunching, munching giants in way that’ll have them perched at the end of their seats. An engaging and light-hearted cautionary tale well suited to pre-schoolers and amateur palaeontologists.

Koala Books Scholastic February 2014

big-book-of-aussie-dinosaursBig Book of Aussie Dinosaurs by Kel Richards and Glen Singleton

Slightly older lovers of those terrible lizards will appreciate this alphabeticalised collection of dinosaurs specifically focusing on those unique to prehistoric Australia. Most of them are represented from biggest to smallest, slowest to fastest and oldest and to youngest; some well know like Allosaurus and Muttaburrasaurus, others less so (meet Minmi – Minmi paravertebral for example!) You’ll find them all in the excellent Aussie Dinosaur Gallery at the end of the book, after becoming better acquainted with Richard’s interesting fun facts and Singleton’s vibrant, comical stylisations of Winston, Matilda, and Kakuru. This big robust book of Aussie Dinosaurs is engaging, informative and a welcome addition to any palaeontologist’s bookshelf because of its antipodean appeal. Highly recommended for 5-year-olds and above.

Scholastic Australia June 2014

discovering-dinosaursDiscovering Dinosaurs by Simon Chapman, illustrated by Rudolf Farkus and Mike Love

For prehistoric enthusiasts who fancy themselves as a bit of an Indiana Jones, you can’t go past Simon Chapman’s Discovering Dinosaurs. Impeccably presented with thick glossy pages that mimic an adventurer’s journal and feature dozens of statistics, diagrams, fold out maps and pop up surprises, this is the penultimate compendium for any dino addict. Chapman journeys with us from where it all began at the start of the Triassic Period across the supercontinent, through polar forests and swampy valleys, then into the lives of ‘real life’ explorers and even the internal workings of a dinosaur itself. Utterly captivating and in equal parts entertaining and thrilling, Discovering Dinosaurs delivers everything it promises on the front cover and would be a wicked gift for 8-olds and above.

Bloomsbury Children’s November 2016

animasaurusAnimasaurus by Tracey Turner and Harriet Russell

Animasaurus Incredible Animals that Roamed the Earth is a big beast of a book that reveals a host of prehistoric creatures that once roamed, swam and hunted across this planet. It unearths facts and figures about the plant eaters, sea creatures, predators and the smaller creep-crawlies who were precursors to their modern day relatives. Past and present species are depicted through illustration (the prehistoric versions) and real photographs (their modern day equivalents) across colourful full-page spreads. Each animal’s description allows for their backstory, specifications, and pinpoints where they lived on the planet millions of years ago. Once you accustom yourself to the layout of the information, it is a breeze to assimilate and provides a strong reference source for upper primary and secondary students to draw from. Happily, every corner of the earth is covered including Australia, which makes Animasaurus comprehensive and well-conceived.  Incredibly useful, informative, and highly recommended for 10-year-olds, plus.

Bloomsbury Children’s December 2016

a-miscellany-of-magical-beastsA Miscellany of Magical Beasts by Simon Holland

If creatures long extinct don’t tickle your archaeological interests, what about fantastically beautiful birds, fearsome giants, vengeful spirits, or mystical unicorns? These are just a few of the magical beasts and beauties featured in Holland’s astounding collection of mythological creatures from around the world. Resplendent in detail and richly presented, Magical Beasts invites readers to discover the legends and facts behind a menagerie of strange and wonderful creatures ranging from trolls, harpies, mermaids and winged wonders. Discover how to outwit a werewolf, what makes the claws of a Griffin so magical, and learn the differences between unicorns. This is a fantasy lover’s dream guide to all that is spectral and spirited. Magical Beasts would make a glorious keepsake to treasure and refer to whenever evil elves come knocking at your door. Superb for 12-year-olds and anyone who has ever believed in the power of the Phoenix.

Bloomsbury Children’s November 2016

Learn morekids-reading-guide-2016-2017 each title or purchase any of them by clicking on the title link.

Find more reads that are fascinating for kids this Christmas here.

 

Under the Christmas Tree – Part 1

Okay, with just over a month and a half to go, it’s time to get serious about Christmas. For the next 42 days or so,  I’ll attempt to fill your Christmas lists with some nifty literary ideas for kids to go under the Christmas tree this year. Today we look at some terrific non-fiction titles guaranteed to raise a few oohs and aahs on Christmas Day.

cheeky-animalsCheeky Animals – Shane Morgan

The classic 20-year-old picture book, Look & See, inspired Shane Morgan’s hard cover board book, Cheeky Animals. Clean, smile-inducing text compliments simple yet strong illustrations of some of our most cheeky cherished Aussie animals.  A great stocking stuffer for 2 + year olds.

Magabala Books October 2016

funny-facesFunny Faces – Dr Mark Norman

Just as funny but using expressive real life images of a variety of animals and their amazing anatomy to accompany concise, information-laden narrative is Dr Mark Norman’s, Funny Faces. This soft cover version is a close up, informative, extraordinary (did you know a Dragonfish has teeth on its tongue!)  look at the funny face bits of a planet of animals, birds, invertebrates and reptiles. The fact file and images are sure to keep budding biologists absorbed for years. Super handy and an easy to reference guide book for early primary project makers. Check out other titles in this funny series, here.

Black Dog Books June 2014

animaliumAnimalium – Katie Scott and Jenny Broom

Curated by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom, Animalium is a cloth bound, pocket-sized gem of a book that invites fledging Attenboroughs to enter a literary museum of the animal kingdom. I felt as though I was wondering through the astonishing exhibits of the London Natural History Museum, exploring the world of mammals, invertebrates, fish and more. This is a biologist’s nirvana: insightful, knowledgeable text, and clear, detailed illustrated plates. Excellent go to book that is a work of art unto itself for mid to upper primary.

The Five Mile Press October 2016

amazing-animals-of-australian-national-parksAmazing Animals of Australian’s National Parks – Gina M. Newton

Gina M. Newton’s Amazing Animals is an environmental triumph. This large, soft cover book leaves no leaf or stone unturned as Newton guides inquisitive minds through a plethora of our national parks and their fascinating individual habitats. From the Tropical Rainforests in the north to the Mallee Woodlands of the arid south, Amazing Animals focuses on the species that inhabit these places with detailed Q & A, fast facts, and a ‘did you know’ kind of narrative. Diagrams and close up photos completes this brilliant compendium of who what and where along with a comprehensive ‘how to use this book’ guide that even includes a Conservation Status indicator. Young readers may be familiar with some of the species highlighted; they may have even spotted a few of them in their own neighbourhoods. What is nifty about this guidebook is that they can now actively get out and explore more of the native parklands in their locale and become more wildlife aware by doing so. Superb. Highly recommended for classroom to bedroom bookshelves of primary and above readers.

NLA Publishing October 2016

awesome-animals-horse-fun-factsAwesome Animals – Horses Fun Facts and Amazing Stories – Dianne Bates and Sophie Scahill

I was your typical horsey-obsessed little girl. That kind of passion never real dissipates, merely dims with neglect. Dianne Bates and Sophie Scahill have produced a handy, bookshelf friendly series of Awesome Animal books that present eager young readers with a mindboggling array of facts, figures, trivia, and fun stories for a menagerie of animals. This one, about Horses is incredible. Layered with more information about horses than I have ever encountered, Horse Fun Facts is comprehensive, breezy, easy to navigate and utterly captivating. I guarantee readers will learn something new each time they delve into these books. Horses is an awesome mix of entertainment and information that will fuel those pony club passions forever more. A brilliant, value-laden gift idea if ever there was one.

Big Sky Publishing September 2016

fantastically-great-women-who-changed-the-worldFantastically Great Women Who Changed the World – Kate Pankhurst

History, whilst fascinating can be a tiresome thing to wade through at times. Not so anymore thanks to Kate Pankhurst’s illustrated explorative journey with some of our planets most noted, daring, and incredible women. Great Women Who Changed the World covers such heroines as Jane Austen, Coco Chanel, Marie Curie, and Anne Frank. Others like, Sacagawea and Amelia Earhart are also featured, each with their own two-page spread festooned with detailed trivia type tip bits all gorgeously illustrated to create a visual wonderland of facts and figures. By the time young readers have swam the English Channel with Gertrude Ederle or uncovered the first Pterosaur skeleton with Mary Anning, they will be hundreds of years wiser and no wiser for it! This awesome picture book ends on a note of great inspiration, namely for young misses but the message is universal: never give up, believe in yourself, back yourself, and dare to be different! Truly fantastic and a must have in your Christmas stockings!

Bloomsbury Children’s Publishing October 2016

For more great gift ideas, visit The Kids’ Reading Guide – Information Titles and stay tuned for my next instalment of Under the Christmas Tree.

kids-reading-guide-2016-2017

 

Guest Post with Robert Vescio – Connecting Friends Oceans Apart

robert-vescioToday, dedicated writer for children and father himself, Robert Vescio uncovers the story behind his latest picture book, Jack and Mia. In this special guest post, he reveals how his own family background influenced this story.

But first a little bit about Jack and Mia. I have to say I love the look and feel of this book. Claire Richards’ diversity aware illustrations make me want to reach out and stroke the cover and pages. They are vibrant, childlike and at the same time, visually satisfying, filling up the pages with joyful colour, kind of how I’d imagine kids would view their world. The pages themselves are thick and glossy, a delight to turn through. The generous finger feel somehow makes me want to start reading the story again immediately I get to the end which will put this book in good stead for those repeated read requests.

Vescio’s tale is reminiscent of other classic picture books addressing the friendship separation theme such as Amy and Louis by Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood but flips the concept ijackandmiamedn that Mia does not move away at first, but rather into Jack’s life. By doing so, suddenly ‘his days were full of rainbows’. He experiences a deep, rewarding friendship with Mia, unlike any other he’s ever had. They share everything together even a case of chicken pox and become King and Queen of their kingdom, until suddenly, Mia has to move ‘far, far away’. It’s not exactly clear where Mia’s family are transferred to however Richards’ illustrations suggest that it’s because of her father’s military postings.

Jack’s kingdom is in tatters, his world in ruin as he worries that Mia will no longer remember him being so far away. Little does he suspect that she shares the same despair as him until he happens upon one of Mia’s books, left behind in his toy box. It is this simple keepsake coupled with a bit of modern day technology that reunite the pair once again and allow their kingdom to flourish and grow…across the oceans.

Jack and Mia is an ideal book to share with young readers who may be experiencing their own emotional lows caused by separation of a loved one, either family member away for work or friend who’s had to move even just to a new school. A great class room and bedside book and possibly one of the most sensitive and well penned by Vescio to date. Now, here’s more from Robert:

‘I wrote Jack and Mia to show how friendships (rich in imagination) can survive distance by finding creative ways to stay connected.

Jack and Mia do everything together. They stick together like paper and glue. Then, one day, Mia’s family moves away – not to another suburb but to another country on the other side of the world.

This is a story that will resonate with children who are about to move or have moved and miss their friends. Unlike other picture books about this subject, Jack and Mia illustrates how today kids are finding it easier to keep in touch with friends and loved ones who live far away.

“Growing up, I had friends that moved half the world away – common for working parents and military families – and the only way to connect with them was to write or call,” said Robert. “Today, technology is changing the way we stay connected. Everything you need is in the palm of your hands.”

Skype hangouts have become a common occurrence in today’s society. It’s as easy as grabbing a coffee with your computer screen. In fact, Skype has become so popular that people use ‘Skyping’ as a verb to connect with people.

Of course, social media has also revolutionised how people talk. Facebook connects over 1 billion worldwide every day.

But, of course, not everyone embraces high tech gadgets. Some people prefer the human touch – a hug, for instance. Jack and Mia is all about how kids can use their imaginations to play together, even when they’re an ocean apart.

Jack and Mia (illustrated by Claire Richards and published by Wombat Books) is a warm and entertaining tale about the power of a child’s imagination and to keep a friendship long and strong, regardless of distance.’

Thanks Robert!

Barnaby and the Lost Treasure of BunnyvilleRobert Vescio  picture books include, Barnaby and the Lost Treasure of Bunnyville (Big Sky Publishing), Marlo Can Fly (Wombat Books) listed on the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge for 2015, No Matter Who We’re With (IP Kidz). He has more picture books due out in 2016 and 2017.

Wombat Books October 2016

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Doodles and Drafts – Halloween guest post by Karen Foxlee

a-most-magical-girlHalloween is a time of frights and treats, tricks and magic, guises and remembrance – All Saints’ Day Eve. A fitting time to indulge in a little fantasy and fun. Karen Foxlee’s latest mid grade novel, A Most Magical Girl combines all of these things and will have primary aged readers biting their nails in delicious anticipation. Utterly charming, frightful in places and marvellously magic in others, this is an adventure both girls and boys will find spell binding.

Annabel Grey is a proper little lady of the Victorian times. She devoutly attempts to follow the sermons delivered by Miss Finch’s Little Blue Book, a bible of Victorian social etiquette and expectations but her good intentions derail after she is sent to live with her two aunts in London. They are Shoreditch witches and apart from being Annabel’s new guardians, unlock a heritage Annabel had no idea about, her ability to perform magic.

However, Annabel has no time to dispute their proclamations because her unusual abilities allow her to foresee a terrible future for London and all who dwell there. Mr Angel, evil warlock of the underworld has built a sinister device to use with his black magic to destroy all of the good magic in the world and those who practise it. Only a most magical girl can stop him.

Foxlee’s use of language is bewitching. Annabel’s adventure is fast paced and divinely otherworldly both in spirit and in setting. I thoroughly adored flying along on her desperate quest with Kitty and her strong-willed broomstick. I’m sure children will find A Most Magical Girl just as enchanting.

karen-foxlee2016Today Karen joins us at the draft table to reveal the magical places A Most Magical Girl sprung from.

Welcome Karen! Tell us a bit about kids, authors and story ideas…

The Big Leap

I love to tell my young audiences that kids and authors are pretty much the same when it comes story ideas.  They always look dubious at first.  Authors surely have a special library of previously unused ideas I can see them thinking.  It’s locked away somewhere at the top of a turret beside their quills and their perfect first drafts.

“It’s true,” I assure them.  “You tell me where you get your ideas from and we’ll see if we’re the same.”

Their hands shoot up: from life experiences, from dreams, from things you see! From things you read, things that happened a long time ago, from things you hope for, from television! Story ideas start from things you overhear, from facts, from songs, from comic books, from movies, from computer games, from mixing your own life with the life of book characters that you love! From day-dreaming!

I always love hearing that one.  It validates all my hours spent lying quietly day-dreaming. “Oh my goodness,” I cry, ticking off each one. ‘How weird! My ideas come from all these places too! They come from everywhere!”

Authors let ideas come, we day-dream, we are open to them.  We store them away in our brain machine never knowing when we might need them.  We put an idea from a year ago with an idea from today.  We percolate ideas.  We write them down without knowing what they mean.

But, I tell them, there’s also another way that authors and kids are the same when it comes to story ideas. Their dubious expressions return.  I clamber up onto a table.  Now they start to look down-right worried.

A Most Magical Girl came about as a combination of several ideas I explain.

  1. From an experience (a visit to a museum many years before)
  2. From a life-long love of history and from reading lots books with historical settings
  3. From a love of magic and heaps of little ideas about how magic works

And

  1. A good old-fashioned daydream.

I was lying on my sofa thinking about a museum I’d visited a decade before.  This museum was in London and it contained a recreated Victorian era street, where I wandered for hours.  Years later, on my sofa, I closed my eyes and day-dreamed a carriage arriving on that street.  I imagined a girl stepping down.  She was pretty and a bit posh and also, I knew as I watched her, the owner of a secret.  She stood before a shop window and read the words printed there. Miss E & H Vine’s Magic Shop.  Wow, I thought.  Magic.  I love Magic. This seems good. What’s going to happen here?

“What do you think authors do when they have some ideas that excite them?” I ask from my table top perch.  “What do you do?”

A chorus of replies: Just start! Just start writing! Just start even if you don’t know the answer!

“Do you just LEAP into the story?” I ask.

“Yes!” they shout, because they really want to see an author jump off a table.

And so, because it is the absolute truth about authors and ideas and how they really are not much different to children, I LEAP!

Fastastical, thanks Karen.

kids-reading-guide-2016-2017You’ll find A Most Magical Girl in the new Kids’ Reading Guide, here!

Allen & Unwin September 2016

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Doodles and Drafts – In conversation with Tania McCartney over tea!

Tania McCartney March 2016 cropTania McCartney is no stranger to the world of Kids’ Literature. Her knowledge and ability to produce entertaining, endearing and enduring picture books is nothing short of remarkable and now sitting comfortably in her enviable arsenal of accreditations, is a re-discovered gift – illustration.

Sumptuously rich in detail and stuffed with enough iconic charm to make both Banjo Paterson and Con the Fruiterer feel at home, her first self-illustrated picture book, Australia: Illustrated delivers a (very satisfying) slice of all things Aussie to an audience who might still remember what a frog cake is as well as those young enough to regard the Wheel of Brisbane as their first Ferris wheel ride.

Australia IllustratedIt is a magnificent compendium of facts, landmarks, foods, cultures, flora, fauna, natural wonders, celebrities and attractions playfully illustrated in Tania’s unique, considered hand. Her drawings do more than just tell a story and describe a caption. They fill my visual soul. New South Wales’s Snowy Mountain region is resplendent with wild silver Brumbies (skiiing, horse riding and snowboarding as it were!) for example, revealing Tania’s cheeky take on life and no doubt, her own personal reflections of a land she clearly adores.

Her affection is contagious. From the divinely cloth-bound cover and very first end pages, clean and devoid of the congestion of civilization (a nod to the pre-settlement days of Australia perhaps), to each State and Territories’ four to five page expose of their specific peculiarities, Australia: Illustrated draws the reader in and, sublimely, educates and entertains along the way. The final end pages, a testament to the diversity and wonder that fills this wide brown land (with green bits, girt by sapphire seas) we call, home.

Today, we leave the draft table for a pair of comfy armchairs, a delicious cup of tea and a few precious moments with the gifted creator behind EK Book’s newest non-fiction picture book release, Australia: Illustrated.

Welcome, Tania. It’s great to finally spend some ‘virtual’ time with you.

So lovely to visit, Dim!

Your very first self-illustrated picture book, Australia Illustrated, is out any moment. Has this been a dream come true?

In a word: yes!

Have you been suffering heart palpitations? I know I’d be more anxious that than

Yes. How did you know??

I could hear them all the way up here in Brisbane.

I’m not surprised. They’re pretty thunderous.

Has this book been a bucket-list kind of thing?

Yes and no. It was more of a meant-to-be than a bucket-list-thing, though now it’s been ticked off my bucket-list, I’m happy it got onto that list!

It has actually just been a long-buried seed of an idea but it may not have even grown if the circumstances hadn’t been right. There was a grant I wanted to apply for, I needed a contract to do so, my publisher just happened to think the idea was fabulous at the time (this changes, as you know!) and I got a contract the next day.

You’re kidding?!

I know! If only all contracts were like that! This was a little scary, though, because the idea was quite ethereal at the time. I mean, I knew it would unfold okay… and it did. But I did it all the wrong way.

What do you mean?

I basically winged it. I had an outline, of course, but the content was pretty much an organic process. I was SO lucky to have this kind of opportunity. And I did the cover first. I mean, who does the cover first?

I don’t much about the illustrative process, but that does sound a little dotty.

SO dotty. But it worked because that cover was one of my favourite things to create, and it set the scene for the style and layout of the entire book. I highly recommend up-ending processes!

Are you proud of thi047 qld daintrees book?

I am for the fact that I finished it. It took a year and contains over 1000 hand-drawn images over 96 pages. Half of the finished pages are digitally illustrated, too, so it was a lot of work and I was also in learning mode at the time (re-learning my illustration skills and also learning digital skills—I basically learned as I went).

I’m also proud of it because it’s my first self-illustrated book and I think first self-illustrated books take a lot of courage. Like, a lot. It’s scary because I’ve had years to get used to writing criticism, but illustration criticism is a whole other colour on the palette.

So, my nerves are on standby, for sure—and I have to consistently tell myself I created this book for me, no one else—and that if kids and adults happen to take pleasure in it, that will please me very, very much. In fact, ALL creators should create books for themselves first and foremost. If we created them for other people, we’d never enjoy it as much or do our best work. And once our books are published, they become someone else’s anyway, so it’s nice to hang onto ownership during production!

Oh gosh, Dim, this tea is so good.

Thanks! Isn’t it divine? You’ve written several books about Australia. Will there be more?

Probably not. I do have ideas for books about Australian people (biographic), plants and animals but they won’t be Australia-centric, if that makes sense.

I don’t know why I’ve written so many books on Australia. It’s not a conscious decision. Perhaps it’s because the world is full of so much negativity right now—I fully realise and accept that our country (any country) is far from perfect, but it just feels so nice to celebrate what’s good here sometimes. And there’s so much that’s good. Australia Illustrated is a celebration of w007 au beautifulhat’s good.

Hear hear! What brought you the greatest pleasure when creating Australia Illustrated?

So much. The creative freedom. The ability to play and allow things to unfold. I know it’s not realistic, but it would be incredible if all books could be created in this way! It’s just so much fun. I loved relearning skills and meeting my characters and learning so much about this country that I never knew.

I loved the digital illustration and the layout and design. I also loved doing the finishing art in Photoshop. Creating the fonts was fun.

How did you do that?

With an app called iFontMaker. It’s fabulous. You can get so creative. You can even create fonts for your kids, using their handwriting.

Sounds fascinating, I’d love to give it a go.

You must. I also loved pulling the pages together. It’s so satisfying.

So, hang on, you did quite a bit for this book. Not just writing and illustrating?

027 nsw sydney ferriesI did heaps. I researched, wrote, fact-checked, drew, painted, did digital illustration and mono-printing, scanning, touching up, photography, fonts, layout, design, typography, cover layout and design—all to print-ready PDF. I LOVE doing all this. It’s so satisfying and skills-building. Then I had the wonderful Mark Thacker from Big Cat Design take all the PDFs and whack them in InDesign for the printer.

And my gorgeous publisher Anouska Jones was my editor and second eyes and ears, and I had a group of other eyes and ears, too, and then there was the team at Exisle and our printing coordinator Carol and publicist Alison and all the fabulous book reps and all the wonderful friends and colleagues who helped me authenticate things and help me out with research.

I have an entire page dedicated to thank yous! I also had the backing of the ACT Government—artsACT—for their grant to help produce this book.

So while I did a lot, I certainly didn’t do it alone. No one ever does it alone.

Gosh, we have an amazing bunch of people in this industry.

We do. I feel privileged to be part of it. This really is great tea, Dim.

Of course it is, it’s from Queensland! What’s next for you, Tania?

Well, I’ve just come out of a long rest! I took a lot of winter off, other than ongoing obligations and a little bit of production on some upcoming titles.

 Oooh – can you share them with us?

COVER FINAL smilecryfullcover-smallWell, one is a sequel to Smile Cry with Jess Racklyeft. The other is a follow-up to This is Captain Cook with Christina Booth—and we’re also in the middle of another picture book for the National Library. Tina Snerling and I have been working on books 6 and 7 for the A Kids’ Year series.

I’ve been planning my illustration style for my first illustration commission with the National Library and I’ve been working on a non-fiction pitch for them, too, which I’ll illustrate. And I’ve been finalising a junior fiction manuscript after talks with a gorgeous publisher. Oh—and just like you would, I have several thousand other little bits and ideas floating around.

Yes, something I can relate 100% to! But would you have it any other way?

No! Well, yes—I really needed that time out after Australia Illustrated. It was an enormous amount of work. 96 pages!! So happy to have my energy and mojo back now, though.

Mojo back is good! Tania, thanks so much for stopping by today. I’ve really enjoyed the chat.

Me, too, Dim! And thanks for the tea!

The kettle is always on…

This is more than a picture book, more than a resource; Australia Illustrated is a meaningful, beautiful, thoughtful, piece of art.

Order Tania’s, Australia: Illustrated, here.

Australia Illustrated Launch PosterFollow all the excitement of her Virtual Launch this week with reveals, sneak peeks, more interviews and giveaways, here.

EK Books November 2016

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

 

 

Double Dipping – Friendships lost – picture book reviews

Recently, the world lost one of the Children’s Literary Industry’s most recognised and iconic author illustrators, Narelle Oliver. Among many of the literary legacies she left us (you can read about her marvellous achievements and books in Joy Lawn’s post, here), she was a woman who encouraged and maintained sincere relationships with everyone she met, friendships rich and real. During last week’s reflection about her, two books found their way to me promoting further introspection on friendship, love, and loss.

Molly and MaeMolly & Mae by Danny Parker & Freya Blackwood

Molly and her close friend, Mae are about to embark on an adventure together, a train trip into town. They are filled with bubbly excitement, relishing each other’s company, sharing the passing of time until the train arrives and the telling offs by Mum as they scamper, bounce, hide and ballet the wait-time away. Like all little girls, they are so engrossed with their games and secrets that they are blissfully unaware of the wider world surrounding them on the platform.

Their joie de vivre eventually spills into the carriage, over seats and under foot as the countryside slides away outside, until, after many miles, games become stale and tempers fraught.  Delays halt fun and bad weather smears their vision, turning their friendship murky. A trip by oneself can be lonely, however and the girls miss each other in spite of their falling out or perhaps because of it. Eventually, as they near their destination, they cross bridges of a physical and emotional kind. Their journey takes them over hills, through valleys, sometimes running straight and true, other times navigating bends and tunnels, until together, they arrive, holding hands.

Molly and Mae is a wonderful analogy of friendship brilliantly executed by this talented picture book team. There is an eloquent sparseness about Parker’s narrative that harmonises each and every word on the page with Blackwood’s oil painted illustrations. The combination is intoxicating and terribly alluring.

Blackwood’s visual story contains several signposts that guide readers through this warm and recognisable tale of friendship; transporting them through all the exuberant, boring, testing, dark, and illuminating parts of the friendship journey.

Memorable, visually poetic, and beautifully written, this picture book is not only perfect for little people from four years upwards but also makes a gorgeous gift for those remembering and sharing friendships, past and present.

Little Hare Books HGE October 2016

Ida AlwaysIda, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso

I always feel a little conflicted with the idea of harbouring animals in unnatural habitats far from their original ones, from their norm. This picture book, however questions what is normal, learned and ultimately depended on and loved from a polar bear’s point of view.

Gus lives in New York City’s Central Park Zoo. He is joyously unaware of the bigger city outside of his parkland world where zookeepers and visitors come and go and tall buildings form his boundaries. This is largely because he lives with Ida, his polar bear room mate. She is right there with him, everyday, always. They play ball together, splash in their pond together, chase and race together until it’s time to rest and relax as the city’s heartbeat hums around them. Their days seem repetitive and predictable but for Gus and Ida, they are all that they need. Until one day, Ida isn’t quite there.

The city and zoo’s residents continue to shuffle and hum and rush and squabble but Ida can no longer join the raucous of daily living because she is old and has fallen ill. Gus struggles with this abrupt change, refusing to leave Ida’s side when she is too tired to play, insistent on helping her and making the most of ‘the laughing days’ they have left together, until one day, ‘Ida curls into quiet’ and is no longer there.

In spite of his loss and grief, Gus continues, listening as the city pulses around him. In its rhythm, he feels its life, his own heart beat and Ida, right there with him, always.

Ida Always illos spreadTouching, a little tearful but ultimately inspiring, Ida, Always was inspired by the real life relationship between two polar bears in New York. Apparently, not only Gus mourned the loss of his friend but also the entire city and all who had cared for and come to know them.

Levis’s treatment of their story is heartrending and not overtly sentimental, allowing the reader to observe and understand the bond of friendship and love possessed by these two creatures who knew little else but the world, which their friendship created. By telling their story with subtle fictional flavour, sharing their thoughts, and hearing them speak, we feel an affinity with Gus and Ida that we might not otherwise have felt. The result is poignant and powerful, and enhanced beautifully by Santoso’s illustrations.

Ida, Always is a story about love, loss, friendships and how those we truly cherish remain with us, always.

Koala Books Scholastic September 2016

 

 

 

Doodles and Drafts – Mark Carthew

Mark CarthewQuiet achievers are those I admire most. Mark Carthew is one of those quiet achievers, except when he’s strumming out a tune on his guitar and reading one of his crazy verse orientated picture books aloud. With more projects on the draft table than you can wobble a pencil at, I thought it was high time we got to know one of Australia’s most consistent and talented children’s authors.

His recent release, Marvin and Marigold  The Big Sneeze with Simon Prescott, exemplifies all that we’ve come to expect of a Mark Carthew picture book: clear, engaging story, lyrical text, and kid friendly pictures guaranteed to spark repeated readings. The Big Sneeze is the first in this mouse inspired cute critter series, ably introducing Marigold to her new neighbour, Marvin, who’s in a pretty woeful way with the flu to begin with. Their friendship begins in a rather slow, fractured way until with a dash of empathy and a slathering of kindness, Marigold comes to accept the true mouse behind all the sneezes, snorts and snuffles. A little classic in the making (which are what The Gobbling Tree and The Moose is Loose! are to me). Let’s find out how he does it.

Welcome to the Draft Table, Mark!

Q: Who is Mark Carthew? Describe your writerly-self.

I am passionate about words, pictures and music… and how each of these things resonates in its own special way to make images. The rhythm of language and the power of alliterative words and phrases shared out loud is something reflected in my stories, verse and songs.

MARK-CARTHEW-FOOTER-2-LOWRES-72DPIQ: A hefty percentage of your children’s titles are picture books. What draws you to creating this genre of children’s literature?

Working with and seeing wonderfully talented illustrators bring your ideas to life is one of the great pleasures of being children’s picture book / illustrated text author. Each book is literally a birth; a special creation and much anticipated result of both vision and passion. Illustrator’s weave their own skills and magic into this creative process, making the genre a unique blend of two imaginations. I also enjoy working with editors, publishers and designers — and they need to get due credit; as they can bring significant (emotionally detached) insights and ideas to picture book projects.

Q: What style of writing do you identify most strongly with; children’s, poetry, song writing? Which style excites you the most to create?

Hard question, as many of my works involve combinations of all three! My picture books, anthologies and plays regularly revolve around narratives with a strong sense of the poetic, alliterative and rhythmic; and more often than not they have a musical or song element that dovetails naturally.

Marvin and Marigold_Cover_frontQ: Marvin and Marigold: The Big Sneeze, is the first in a new series of picture books featuring two new fun characters. Please tell us a bit about it. Why mice? Was this your original intention or is it a product of your collaboration with illustrator, Simon Prescott?

At a meeting in Frenchs Forest Sydney, my Publisher at New Frontier Sophia Whitfield, suggested she would be interested in me developing a manuscript around two animal characters. Reflecting on this while returning on the Manly Ferry, some verses started to flow; and the Marvin & Marigold series began that very day. Some of the key alliterative and rhyming stanzas based around their names, ‘mice’ and ‘mouse houses’ were written on the way back to Circular Quay. New Frontier had just set up a UK office in London and it was Sophia who made the UK connection to Simon Prescott, based on his whimsical style and expertise in illustrating mice.

Q: How did the concept of Marvin and Marigold come to being? What do you hope to portray in your stories about them?

Children’s publishers in Australia and around the world have had great success with picture books concerning cute and endearing animal characters; interestingly quite often with titles featuring ‘two names’.  As mentioned, New Frontier was keen to see if I could pen something original and engaging along similar lines with potential for a series.

While still involving word play and strong rhyme; these narratives also explore some deeper thinking around familiar life scenarios, situations and personal challenges — as well as important themes such as family, relationships, kindness and empathy. A series with two next door neighbours and friends, a boy and a girl, provides the perfect vehicle.      

Q: You mentioned that you ‘enjoy making books that encourage play with language, words and images’. Do you find it easier to ‘tell stories in song’ when developing a picture book as opposed to writing in prose? Describe the process for us.

My creativity seems to flow when I write in a lyrical, rhyming style and I think my love of verse texts, poetry and song writing has influenced my desire to share stories in sympathetic mediums. Poetic stanzas often bounce around in my head like a ‘third eye’ or voice. However, I am also very keen to extend my writing into a more prose based, graphic narrative style for the older primary readership and I have a couple of projects on the draft table in that regard.

The Gobbling Tree with awardQ: Your picture books in particular have strong appeal for lower primary and pre-primary aged readers, providing plenty of predictive reading possibilities and moments of fun to crow over again and again. What is the attraction for writing for this age group?

 Younger audiences respond naturally to call and response, alliteration and the use of strong rhyming, onomatopoeic phrases that are part of my writing style. That natural early childhood interest in shared language and interaction excites me as a writer and allows me the privilege and space to enjoy the fun of word play mixed with drama, music, movement and spoken words.

 Q: What’s on the draft table for Mark?

 2017 will be a big year with three picture books as well as various other poetry and writing projects in production or development.

My long long term illustrator friend Mike Spoor (UK) and I will be releasing a speciality art style picture book Six Little Ducks (with song), a project which evolved from our 2013 Australian tour. The second book in the Marvin and Marigold series, Marvin & Marigold: A Christmas Surprise will be released in the lead-up to Christmas 2017 and The Great Zoo Hullabaloo illustrated by Anil Tortop (Qld) will be out in April 2017. That project was developed during my May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust Fellowship and is in essence the sequel to The Moose is Loose!— but with a different publisher, illustrator and a new twist!

The Five Little OwlsWith the assistance of Karen Small from Small but Mighty Productions, I am planning to produce a 10th Anniversary Edition of my CBCA Honour Book and anthology, Can you keep a Secret? Timeless rhymes to share and treasure. I hope to do that in both eBook & hard copy.

I am also working on some new poetry anthologies and a graphic novel / crossover text for older primary readers.

Q: When not scribbling stories for children, who / what do you like to read?

I enjoy magical realism, folkloric and action / fantasy novels… and reading other writer’s illustrated books!

Q: Just for fun question (there’s always one): If you had to choose to be one of your picture book characters for a week, whom would you choose and why?

 The Zoo HullabalooMmmm… most of my current characters are animals, so that is a tricky question! I’d probably be Jack in my upcoming title – The Great Zoo Hullabaloo. He’s a zookeeper who enjoys being around animals, as well as playing the drums!

PS: Mark has lots of information, activities and free material on his wonderful website — www.markcarthew.com.au

Thanks, Mark!

Marvin and Marigold The Big Sneeze is available, here.

New Frontier Publishing

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Review – Sugar and Spice Collection

Sugar and SpiceFairies and ponies, ballerinas and bows; all things nice, may not be what all little girls are made of but this omnibus picture book collection, Sugar and Spice, fresh out of the uber productive creative forge  of EK Books is sure to delight even the fussiest of feminie tastes. Designed with little girls in mind, this three-volume picture book gift set features stories by three different authors, each illustrated by Gwynneth Jones. Enjoy them individually or as a boxed collectors’ set.

The firstPatch and Ruby we devoured was Patch and Ruby by Anouska Jones. My Miss 10 reviewed this one but I’m inclined to agree with her response. Sweet and impossibly alluring, Patch and Ruby is a story full of ponies and chooks and cuter than cute meeces. Jones’s narrative is warm and restrained enough to sustain short attention spans whilst the illustrations excite the tactile senses and illicit quite a bit of cheeky humour. Keep an eye out for the chook in rollers. So clever.

Patch and Ruby is a gentle tale about finding your perfect fit and making friends along the way. The notion of seeing things from another person’s point of view is secreted away in Patch’s longing to find that missing something in his life yet pre-schoolers will be satisfied enough, soaking up the gorgeous equine inspired atmosphere of this tale.

Dance with MeDance with Me is the second slice of sweetness in this set. Penny Harrison has penned another story ostensibly aimed at sweet young ladies under eight but adorable enough to be enjoyed by pre-schoolers, everywhere. Dance with Me is a timely tale of affections and life changes. I can’t help but hear Frank Mill’s, Music Box Dancer in my head when I read about the beautiful pink clad ballerina who ‘lived in a small, wooden box.’ She and her little girl enjoy many joyful dances together until one day the little girl grows up and the ballerina is free to enjoy her own dances far from her box. However, her adventures are cut short when she is relegated to the shelf for many years until one day, someone new calls her to ‘come, dance…’ once more.

Gwynneth Jones’s spectacular use of altering perspectives, subtle colours, and Decalage (the metaphoric visual interpretation of the text to show a different meaning) is spot on and once again cleverly pins readers to their seats.

The Great Sock SecretSusan Whelan is the author of the third spicy instalment, The Great Sock Secret. I love how the fairies rule supreme in this toe-levelled view about one of the first world’s most cryptic mysteries: where do all the odd socks go? Jones’s eye-popping illustrations are phenomenal, revealing to the reader what Sarah already knows about the missing socks in her home. Whelan takes the reader on a whimsical treasure hunt of subterfuge as Sarah tries to preserve the fairies’ secret from her mother.

Fast paced and fun, The Great Sock Secret will make you stop and think next time you are faced with mismatched laundry and reticent children.

All three Sugar and Spice picture books will bring a smile to your face and comfortable warmth to your heart. They are easy to read, diverse in flavour and delivery and beautifully presented; the rich paisley patterned spines are just glorious.

These beautiful tales also stirred up many fond childhood memories; of my own music box dancer, backyard ponies, and the inevitable transitions we all make from childhood to adulthood. Thankfully, stories like these ensure an infinite sense of innocent pleasure and pure magic for generations to come.

Highly recommended for ages 4 and above.

For those lucky enough to reside in NSW, head to the Wallsend District Library this Saturday, 8 October for the official Sugar and Spice Collection Launch.

EK Books October 2016

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Unforgettable YA tales that stick

Live throws up some questionable situations at times, which, for young people especially can result in unforgettable experiences. I love young adult novels that encapsulate such experiences in stories with unreserved candour and humour. Here are some unforgettable examples.

Forgetting Foster by Dianne Touchell

Touchell’s ability to reach deep into the grey sticky bits of both adults and seven-year-old boys and extract meaning from them for us in ways both poetical and moving is awe-inspirForgetting Fostering. This is a powerful and intelligent fiction for young readers written with precision and heart. As Foster’s world of stories and thus reality recedes into a place he can’t identify, he is forced to farewell the other most important thing in his life, his father.

Foster may inhabit a seven-year-old’s body and possess a sweet naivety and omnipresent reverence for his father still, but when his father begins to forget everything including Foster, Foster’s outlook on life, school and relationships is sent akimbo. For the first time in his life, he is adrift in a place where his father can no longer accompany him. To make matters worse, his mother is barely able to cope with their unexpected and irreversible demise let alone Foster’s feelings.

Losing a parent to (early onset), Alzheimer’s disease is no straightforward matter as Foster discovers. How it affects his position in his family is the question Touchell throws at us again and again with poignant force. At times brutally honest and real and at others stoically proud and witty, Forgetting Foster focuses on surviving battles we were not meant to fight.

Forgetting Foster is a sort of grown up version of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice; it is no less intelligent and revealing however translates the angst and ludicrous frustrations and realties of Alzheimer’s from the carers’ point of view instead of the sufferer’s. How Foster comes to deal with these realisations is the resolution for a story that has no real happy ending.

Focusing on a younger character but with buckets of lower secondary school reader appeal.

Allen & Unwin June 2016

Another Night in Mullet Town by Steven Herrick

Poetic, raw and real, I savoured every syllable of this verse-coming-of-age novel by Herrick. Mullet Town is an intelligent narrative about surviving on the peripheral of lAnother Night in Mullet Townife, both emotionally and materialistically.

Mates Jonah and Manx exist in a one mullet town, content to throw a line in the lake every now and then and wade through the treacherous bog of teenage parties and relationships. For Manx, who may aspire to more but is also driven to defend his simple existence from the ‘wealthy blow-ins’ who want to sell the town out, life suddenly becomes more complicated. How he manages to keep his head about water and remain supportive for Jonah plays out in an emotional journey Herrick cleverly wallpapers with gentle, lyrical wit.

The end petered out a little too matter-of-factly for me but life is not always full of neat and tidy endings. As long as the mullet continue to swim, there remains a glimmer of hope for the residents of Mullet Town – this is the departing assurance, which is in itself enough.

Gritty and extremely readable, a highly recommended verse novel for older readers.

UQP June 2016

My Australian Story: Black Sunday by Evan McHugh

Black Sunday is riveting and tactful. I thoroughly enjoyed McHugh’s account of one of the most unexpected and largest mass (beach) rescues in Australia in the late 30s. Ironically, I had come across old newspaper reports about this day in February 1938 whilst researching another topic. I was astounded and shocked by what I uncovered. Black Sunday

McHugh’s use of simple diary entries by 12 year-old David McCutcheon aka Nipper to detail the events leading up to Black Sunday, entreats intimacy and candour whilst painting a vivid picture of Bondi and its surrounds on the eve of WW II. Even those who have never swam in Bondi’s ever changing waters or basked on her golden beaches will gain a strong sense of place and time thanks to McHugh’s thoughtful epistolic prose.

The actual event itself is not over dramatized rather occurring naturally after a nine-month relationship with Nipper whose life ambition is to be a surf lifesaver like his grandpa, his diary, and the colourful cast of characters that people his life. There is a beautiful balance of emotion, history, and humanity in this Australian Story, which pays homage to heroes in every guise not least of which those that serve Surf Lifesaving Australia. Respect in the highest. Well suited for primary and lower secondary readers, Black Sunday is a fitting and vivid unforgettable tribute to Australia’s not so distant past.

Omnibus Books August 2016

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Where do I belong? – Picture books & Place

When penning a narrative or even recording ones past, authors must be aware of a number of aspects that shape a reader’s impression of the story. A sense of place is one such nuance that forms specific reactions and can colour a reader’s entire experience. When fashioned convincingly enough, a sense of place depicts not only where the story’s characters live and interact but can also provide the answer to how they and the reader belong (to the story). Here are a number of picture books that encourage a distinct sense of place.

Hello!Hello! Illustrated by Tony Flowers

‘Hello!’ is an icebreaker most young children are adept at. However, what if a potential friend’s first language is not English? Hello! is a brilliant introduction to 12 other languages commonly used in Australian homes, including three Indigenous languages. Once children learn to say hello, they are then able to share all sorts of things with their new friends, including favourite games, foods and customs, all in that language. Each new introduction includes how to count up to ten, as well.

Hello spreadThis is a fascinating multicultural exploration aimed at pre-school and primary aged youngsters and is nothing short of ingenious. Many children will have already encountered other people in their lives whose backgrounds and languages differ from their own. Hello! is an unobtrusive, inviting way to show differences need not discourage friendships. Flower’s cartoone-sque illustrations gently emphasise meaning whilst a comprehensive pictorial glossary and pronunciation guide at the end aid carers with extended learning. A marvellous go-to book recommended for home and classroom libraries alike.

National Library of Australia April 2016

Granny's PlaceGranny’s Place by Allison Paterson Illustrated by Shane McGrath

As a city girl growing up far away from my grandparents’ Sunshine Coast hinterland property, visits ‘to grandma’s farm’ were always chocka block full of new adventures and sunny memories to treasure. This bewitching sense of belonging echoes throughout Granny’s Place thanks to Paterson’s beautifully unaffected prose and McGrath’s sublime sepia suffused illustrations.

Granny's Place illo spreadA young girl describes her grandparents’ home that is ‘brimming with treasures of the olden days’ and has ‘springy metal beds and shiny hard floors with tasselled mats…’. It’s a place steeped in rich memories and every day opportunities. It is where family gather in large noisy waves and tiny discoveries, too good to share are made every minute. It is quite simply ‘the best place in the world’. A place where children flourish, absolutely. Alas, people and places cannot last forever as our girl learns to accept after the passing of her grandfather. When Granny has to leave the farm and move to a new life in the city, it is hard to appreciate her new place at first. Fortunately, memories are not so easy to forget and Granny’s love prevails.

Granny’s Place is overflowing with gorgeous imagery that will ignite warm recollections for many older readers. It also radiates the spirit of adventure and the changing rhythms of life that most young people will recognise whilst celebrating these childhood memories.

A marvellous homage to Australia’s past identity and a fitting example of creating a special sense of place.

Big Sky Publishing April 2016

Mr Chicken arriva RomaMr Chicken arriva a Roma by Leigh Hobbs

Mr Chicken pays homage to childhood dreams and aspirations personified. It could be argued that the Australian Children’s Laureate for 2016-2017, Leigh Hobbs is living a little vicariously through the rambunctious, irreverent Mr Chook who was a bit different to other boys and girls. As a youngster, ‘instead of playing games’, he dreamt of life abroad.

Fortunately for fans, both grew up, giving us the opportunity to experience an incredibly detailed, hilarious romp through (this time) Italy’s capital city, Rome. It’s a cavort of pure indulgence as the charming and very forgiving city guide, Federica, escorts Mr Chicken aboard her Vespa through Rome’s traffic ensnarled streets, past the Colosseum, to gelatarias, through the Trevi Fountain and even the Vatican. Hobbs leaves no ruin unturned in this whirlwind excursion, revealing stops I had hitherto forgotten about since my European backpacking days.

Mr Chicken Trevi fountainIf you ever consider tackling a trip to the big five European cities with a chicken in tow, Mr Chicken would be the chook to recruit. Unabridged humour told and depicted in the way only Hobbs can. Fantastic fun and insight to lands beyond for pre and early primary schoolers.

Allen & Unwin August 2016

A New York YearTwelve Months in the Life of …A New York Year & A Texas Year by Tania McCartney Illustrated by Tina Snerling

Unlike the other phenomenally successful titles in the Twelve Months in the Life of picture books series, which look at the life of children from other nations including Australia, A New York Year and A Texas Year focus on individual states within the USA.  Even then, the breathtaking diversity of cultures and idiosyncrasies is almost too mind bogging to comprehend. Yet, the McCartney Snerling picture book team convey these elements with aplomb.

Like their forbearers, New York Year and Texas Year kick off with introductions to the five children who will be our guides throughout the year across these states. They are a delightful homogenous mix of Texans and New Yorkers whose obvious differences (in aspirations, cultural ancestry, and appearance) only serve to highlight the sameness they share with kids all around the world. I particularly love Texan Ethan’s ‘when I grow up’ revelation; ‘I want to be a rock star or a palaeontologist’. Classic seven-year-old clarity!

A Texas YearAs the calendar turns, we are taken on a colourful eclectic  parade through each state stopping to observe significant dates, play games endemic to the region, take in the unique flora, fauna and natural wonders, and then, happily, return to the table to feast on local delicacies. It truly is a smorgasbord for the senses.

I love the detail McCartney is able to inject in the meandering text, which is neither excessive nor too sparse. Each fact acts as a signpost that sparks interest and allows children’s eyes to wonder and roam rather than stick to a regimented reading pattern. Snerling’s cute upon cute illustrations offer clean crisp characterisation and support the minutia of facts superbly.

This series is fast becoming a magnificent compendium of fun, fact-fiction picture books, which kiddies from all over the world can use to draw comparisons and conclusions about their international neighbours, supporting tolerance, enhancing awareness and creating as it were, a marvellous sense of place. Highly recommended for 4 – 8 year olds and big people who don’t get out as often as they should.

EK Books August 2016

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Doodles and Drafts – Guest post by Wai Chim – Author of Freedom Swimmer

Wai Chim # 2Today we welcome author, Wai Chim to the draft table. Her motivation to write Freedom Swimmer, stems from the little known history of her father and the need to understand more about the horrific events that took place during the period of China’s Cultural Revolution. Here is her story about his story.

Writing my father’s story

As a child, my father’s journey from a poor farming village near Shenzhen to ultimately living and working in a small Chinese restaurant in Long Island was fascinating to me. But for the most part, he was tight lipped about his past. While I can recount so much detail about my mother’s family and her childhood in Hong Kong (from her primary school friends to how she was always in the trouble with  my grandmother) – I knew very little about my father’s past.

Part of this was because he was pretty much the typical ‘Asian dad’ – quiet, emotionally distant and he didn’t talk about his feelings or say much about his life.

Back then, I could probably tell you three things about his life in China:

  • His parents had passed away when he about sixteen and he only had a younger sister left in China
  • His family had been very, very, very poorFreedom Swimmer
  • As a teenager he had left his village and made the swim to Hong Kong

I was particularly fascinated by ‘the swim’, probably because I was (and still am) such a terrible swimmer. I knew from a very young age that ‘the swim’ was an important part of his life story – and that terrible things must have happened for him to have made that choice.

A large part of my initial inspiration and motivation for writing Freedom Swimmer was to come closer to understanding my father’s history and this important piece of his past. However as I started writing, it became so much more than that.

Mao Tse-tungMy father was a great resource and opened up about a lot of the details of his life, but through my research, I found out there was so much more going on behind the scenes. My father and his family suffered greatly as a direct result of some of the horrible policies that were put in place at the national level. The events that transpired weren’t isolated to my family, a single village or even one particular region. An estimated 45 million deaths occurred as a result of the manmade famine caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward while millions more suffered at hands the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

And like my father, the people who went through it all simply weren’t talking about it.

I was shocked. The loud-mouthed, ‘my first amendment rights are sacred’ American in me was floored that that this had happened and people like my dad were just keeping quiet. As I delved deeper and deeper into the past, I wanted to wrap my arms around the young boy that was my father and cocoon him from some of the tragedies of his past.

My father, of course, is an incredibly strong and amazing man – he couldn’t have made it this far if he wasn’t. And it was because of his dreams of a better life, of finding better opportunity for himself and his future that I can even be sitting here today, writing a book based on his past. That I could be so shocked by some of the things I learned, and that all of his suffering is completely unfathomable compared to the silly #firstworldproblems that I complain about.

And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Thank you Wai.

Read the full review of Freedom Swimmer, here.

Review – Freedom Swimmer

Freedom SwimmerI often have great difficulty reviewing a book I feel a profound affection for. Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim may be one of those books. There is an aura of Amy Tan about Chim’s depiction set in Communist China of two boys and their astounding quest to find a better life. If you think this sounds less than remarkable, read on.

Chim has fashioned a tale base on the true-life events of her father who made an incredible lunge for freedom when at the age of 19, he swam from the Dapeng Peninsula to Tung Ping Chau Island, Hong Kong in hope of finding a better life in the then British colony. I love books that reveal another of history’s amazing episodes, one that I may only have had peripheral knowledge about before, or in this case, no solid previous understanding. Stories like these, shared with today’s children, are priceless. The tales of the real life freedom swimmers are remarkable and chilling in their own right.

Freedom Swimmer chimes with Mao Tse-tung quotes and the fervour of Communist China, just pulling itself up from the so-called ‘Great Leap Forward’. Ming’s village is stricken by famine and poverty throughout this era, as are most in rural China.  He loses his parents but survives and along with dozens of other orphaned village children, he and his closest friend, pseudo brother Tian, scrape together an existence that is both grinding and bereft of any real affection.

One day, the village cadre makes an announcement. As part of the new re-education program initiated by Mao’s self-serving government, city youths are sent to Ming’s village to be ‘taught’ by the peasants. This is of course also an insidious way of injecting more Maoism’s into the population of China, an explicit agenda to control and monopolise thought.

Ming’s fellow villagers are not so easily swayed although few of them express their so-called ‘imperialist’ doubts aloud fearing terrible retribution. Tian is the first to laugh in the farcical face of Communism yet like Ming, begrudgingly accepts the new arrivals, as is the cadre’s directive. To his surprise, Ming quickly befriends one of the city boys named Li. Li is a staunch supporting member of the Red Guards but also warm and intelligent enough to approach his newfound village life with considered respect. He encourages Ming to express his dreams, Ming teaches him to swim. Although worlds of thinking separate them, they form a deep bond and respect for one another. As is often the case when great divides define relationships, those on one side slowly begin to yearn for the opposite.

Then the unthinkable happens; Li’s father is branded a Party traitor. Li immediately falls from favour, plunging into disgrace and unrelenting torment from his erstwhile comrades. Ming too is suffering from his untenable position as a village no-body, and is frequently frustrated at not being able to be with the girl he secretly admires.

Rather than continue their oppressive lives, the teenagers plan to risk the shark-infested waters between their peninsular and Hong Kong and swim to salvation. It is a great measure of the stoicism of humanity that so many, thousands in fact, of Chinese youths braved this desperate escape; spurned by nothing more than their hopes for ‘a better life and greater opportunity.’ Shark attack, illness, dog patrols and armed guards contributed to the immense risk these swimmers took in their bid for freedom.

Wai ChimChim recounts this period with confidence and true affection. Her writing is moving, poetic and substantial with strong character convictions and emotion to maintain a midgrade audience. This is a fascinating if not contemptible, chaotic time in Chinese history that captures the themes of taking chances, striving for a better life and perseverance with authenticity and feeling.

Chook Chook seriesFans of Chim’s previous junior fiction series, Chook Chook will appreciate her relaxed, more grown-up storytelling style and shared family history. I know I did. Stories have the power to unite and enlighten. Freedom Swimmer is auspiciously, one of those stories.

Sydneysiders have the good fortune of being able to meet Wai Chim this Friday at Gleebooks where she will officially launch, Freedom Swimmer.

If you can’t wait, the book is available here, now.

Stick around for the fascinating and touching insight into Wai Chim’s father’s story which inspired this compelling story to be written in the first place.

Allen & Unwin August 2016

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Striking Out – Picture books that challenge

There are times in every small person’s life, when they are faced with taking the plunge, striding into the unknown, and just striking out into that adventure called life. It’s not always easy, sometimes it’s downright wrenching, but who says it can’t be fun. Here are a cluster of recently released picture books that will enlighten and inspire in those darker and daring times.

CrustsCrusts by Danny Parker Illustrated by Matt Ottley

I adore the sinuous artistry of this incredible picture book team. A picture book with their names on the cover promises great subtlety and infinite pleasure. Crusts is no exception. One third graphic, two thirds regular, this picture book grabs the most frustrating habit a maker-of-lunchbox-lunches has to contend with – the uneaten crust and flips it on its head.

Jacob is your typical crust-eating refusal expert. His mum is your typical eat-your-crusts enforcer. Neither is willing to give any ground, which is unfortunate because in a galaxy far far away, a tiny planet is crumbling into nonexistence and has had to jettison three explorers to Earth in an attempt to locate and transport planet-saving crusts back to them. At first, it seems the mission is doomed to fail as Jacob squirrels away crusts by the bin load and scribbles away at plans the explorers feel are useless to their cause. Turns out, there is more to Jacob’s distaste in crumbs and ingenuity than meets the eye.

Parker’s narrative is always spot on, poetic and soulful. Ottley’s fanciful illustrations strike the perfect balance between droll fantasy and tragic normality. Crusts is a crowd pleaser even for those unwilling to swallow one physically. It accentuates the values of tenacity, humanity, selflessness, and kindness and comes highly recommended for lovers of invention and space travel.

Little Hare Books imprint HGE August 2016

Zelda's Big AdventureZelda’s Big Adventure by Marie Alafaci Illustrated by Shane McG0wan

I love the plucky audacity and determination shown by Zelda the chook. Zelda has a dream, ‘to be the first chook in space.’ However, the road to the Milky Way is long and arduous and none of her coop-mates is willing to lift a primary wing feather to help her achieve her ambitions.

Undaunted, she strikes out alone and finally launches herself into chook history. When she eventually comes home, her fickle-feathered friends agree Zelda’s tenacity and drive are by far the best examples of how to get anywhere interesting they’ve ever encountered. With her appetite for space exploration sated, Zelda concedes adventures are always more fun when shared with friends. This is a fun, easy to read, easy to share picture book encouraging perseverance and courage. Great for pre-schoolers and early primary readers and chook lovers like me.

Allen & Unwin 2016

Up up and AwayUp, Up and Away by Tom McLaughlin

Like his previous titles, The Story Machine and The Cloudspotter, Up, Up and Away warms the very cockles of your heart and is guaranteed to cheer you. Unlike Zelda who travelled far into space to find her first planet, Orson, a boy who loves to make things, prefers the challenge of making his own. And he does.

At first, the new planet is slow to find its position in Orson’s universe but slowly with a lot of tending loving care from Orson, his planet grows up and even develops its own gravitational pull. That is when Orson realises, that he must let his beloved planet find its true place among the stars. Under five year olds will relate to this on a number of levels; pets growing up, butterflies dying, outgrown shoes and so on. Adults will be reminded that one day their own tiny planets will eventually have to orbit elsewhere, too.

This whimsical picture book describes the sometimes unavoidable necessity of letting go of things you love the most in order to set them free. McLaughlin elevates this difficult life lesson to a place of beautiful reason and logic in spite of the nonsensical notion of mixing up a planet from scratch from ‘a cup full of rocks and a dash of water’.

Powerful and smart, Up, Up and Away is about accepting and recognising challenges and change.

Bloomsbury August 2016

OutOut by Angela May George Illustrated by Owen Swan

Sometimes taking on new challenges is not always a matter of choice. Out is a stunning debut picture book by George, which tackles the unrelenting struggles of refugees and their emigration attempts. We never learn the real name of the young asylum seeker in this story, but she is recognisable as a girl with much heart and soul and deep pools of courage. Together with her mother, they endure a treacherous journey from their homeland to Australia. Life is very different, and it takes a while for them to assimilate to the music, dancing, and language. Everything is a new challenge for she and her mother and yet throughout their ordeals, she always retains the thinnest, most fragile tendrils of hope, as depicted by a bright yellow ribbon she carries everywhere.

Written with frank solemnity Out resonates with positivity and a belief that good will always prevail. Swan’s gentle muted illustrations convey emotion and compassion and allow the characters of the story to stand out when they are surrounded by so many others that are in exactly the same boat as they, as it were.

Persuasive and compelling, Out will suit readers four and above and help them realise the strength of the human spirit whilst appreciating the various paths they can take (or must make at times) to reach their goals.

Scholastic Press June 2016

 

 

 

Marvellous midgrade reads – Reviewing Aussie Talent

Midgrade readers have to fulfil a variety of whims. They should appeal to the increasingly insatiable literary appetites of confident mid-primary aged readers. They must soar with excitement and be able to crack readers up at the mere mention of impending doom for any adults foolhardy enough to wander through the storyline. And they should be wickedly close enough to real life to qualify the use of magic and make believe. Here are three new titles that tick all the ‘midgrade must have’ boxes.

Marge in Charge with Isla FisherMarge in Charge by Isla Fisher Illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemus

This new novel spills from the pen of noted actor, writer and comedian, Isla Fisher. Words flow with funny fluidity and the help of some very entertaining illustrations. Rather than being told in chapters, there are three separate Marge orientated stories all hinging on the premise of Marge babysitting Jemima and Jake.  None of their previously bland babysitters can match the zany ingenuity of marvellous Marge. Marge is not your average babysitter; she makes mess and turns the rules inside out and upside down.

Young readers will love the out of control antics Jemima and younger brother,Jake are coaxed into by the indiscernibly aged Marge. It is enough to make any parent cringe with terror but will raise whoops of delight for those under ten years old. Fisher’s style is comforting and chortle worthy with injections of humour only the experiences of a mother of three could have inspired.

Riotous hilarity tempered by sound parenting advice (mostly from the worrying mind of 7-year-old Jemima), all mixed up with a plucky mucky 4-year-old and lots and lots of lovely rainbow coloured hair. Marge is the complete package. Fresh fun entertainment (at least for six + year olds).

Piccadilly Press imprint Allen & Unwin July 2016

The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling BeeThe Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee by Deborah Abela

India Wimple is a girl with a dream and like many of us these days, that dream stems from reality TV. Every week, she and her family glue themselves in front of The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee TV show and as we are currently deep into the latest series of The Great Australian Spelling Bee (of which I am also hooked) the telling of India’s tale could not have come at a better time!

Unlike 11-year-old India, my spelling abilities have diminished drastically over the years. India however is in the prime of her time and yearns to be the next spelling bee champion. All she has to do is sign up for the show and spell. But of course there are many ‘precarious’ and ‘calamitous’ situations she and her family have to contend with before she gets close to standing behind the spelling podium; a cantankerous old van, a haughty little spoilt girl intent on winning, concerns for an ailing brother and an inherent shyness that threatens to choke her each time she gets up on stage to name but a few.

Deb AbelaAbela deftly weaves a contemporary idea into a topical story line with enough quirky characters with admirable whims to have readers on the edge of their seats by the time India eventually makes it in front of the TV cameras. And like those mini spelling marvels on the real life reality show, she handles it with modest aplomb and true integrity.

It is impossible not to love all of Abela’s characters in this tale even the snarky ones.  And while young readers are hanging on every syllable uttered, they are unwittingly enhancing their vocabulary thanks to each chapter heading introducing a new word and definition relating to that chapter. Ingenious!

The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee may be a mouthful and a half to master but is invigorating and enlightening reading for anyone who adores words, competitions and fifth grade spelling (which I still struggle with). It’s a fun family indulgence without the need to go anywhere near the tellie.

Penguin Random House Australia July 2016

Princess ParsleyPrincess Parsley by Pamela Rushby

I had the unique pleasure of hearing the birth of this story a couple of years ago when accomplished author, Pamela Rushby pitched it for the first time to a panel of publishers at the SCBWI Sydney Conference. Now, like the growth of Parsley Patterson’s family country market, it has evolved into a book worthy of a place high on the bookshelf.

Following bouts of political kerfuffle, Mullumbimby farming resident, Kevin Patterson decides to withdraw from Australia and set up his own (Possum Creek) principality within the Northern Rivers hinterland. This way he can avoid the one-sided malevolent machinations of the local council and run his popular farmers’ market in peace. Sounds straightforward enough albeit a little left field; it’s a stance the surrounding residents applaud for his daring and pluck. His family revel in their collective newly acquired regal status, all that is except Parsley.

Being a princess is the last thing on Parsley’s list of things to be in her new high school. With her ‘not strictly hippy’ parents always in the limelight, the most popular boy in school tagging along and a cackle of hard-nosed A Group girls (The Blondes) to contend with, life under a tiara becomes increasingly embarrassing and more hilarious with each page turn.

Dim's Day 2 14th July (34)I am a bona fide fan of Rushby’s sharp satirical wit. Although somewhat toned down here for a slightly younger audience, it still transports readers along on a heady and spirited adventure echoing the same verve and heart of the 1997 movie, The Castle. Like the Kerrigans, the Pattersons are a family for which you feel an instant affection. However, can poor Parsley’s princely plight and newfound calling as a comedian be enough for her to realise the true cost of popularity?

I was amazed to learn that there are around 12 actual real micronations based on the principality idea here in Australia alone.  Stories like Princess Parsley, which engage on multiple levels, are not only a boon to read but also marvellous gateways to more of life’s delightful discoveries. Ripper stuff. Ideal for 9-year-olds and beyond.

Omnibus Books July 2016

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Fun for Fathers – Picture books to share with Dad

One of the most joyful pleasures a child can enjoy is Daddy-time. There can never be too much of it. Here’s a new selection of picture books you can share with your special little someones on Father’s Day or indeed, at any time at all.

The Ballad of Henry HoplingseaThe Ballad of Henry Hoplingsea by Julia Hubery Illustrated by Lucia Masciullo

I love the look and feel of this jolly little tale. It is less about dads and more about appreciating what you have rather than agonising over what you do not have but it makes such entertaining reading that it is sure to give dads, daughters and sons sufficient enough excuses to stay snuggled together in reading harmony for many lovely moments.

Humble farmer Henry is besotted with Carmelita and begs her hand in marriage. In spite of their solid and long standing friendship, she refuses succumbing instead to her princess inspired yearnings to live in silks, eat oysters and one day be whisked off her feet by a shiny brave knight. Henry can supply none of these things so forsakes he is farmer origins and sets off for Knight School.

Henry’s proactive tenacity is admirable however; his kind heart is bigger than his knightly ambitions and abilities. Which of these though will be enough to win over Carmelita? Humorous rhyming text and bewitching illustrations full of colour and captivating detail ensure this is one ballad readers will want to relive again and again.

Little Hare Books (HEG imprint) August 2016

Counting on YouCounting on You by Corinne Fenton Illustrated by Robin Cowcher

Part of the You Have my Heart series, this padded hard cover picture book is the ideal size to slide into any Father’s Day gift bag. The text is sublimely simple but saturated with exquisite moving emotion. Readers are taken through a flowing collection of days, many of them recognisable to young children, those: ‘I can’t-find-my-socks days, my tummy-is-too-full days’ until they are reassured of the presence of a loved one who can hug them closer ,squeeze them tighter and ‘make things better’ than anyone else; in other words, the adult they can count on.

Counting on You examines the 6 primary emotions formerly identified under the Parrot’s classification. Cowcher’s restrained colour use is heavenly, truly evoking movement and feeling. Highly recommended.

The Five Mile Press August 2016

I spy Dad JBI Spy Dad! By Janeen Brian Illustrated by Chantal Stewart

No two dads are ever quite the same; they are as diverse and individual as pebbles on a beach. I love how kids love their particular version of dad no matter what he does, what he looks like or how he acts. One little girl wonders which dad belongs specifically to her and searches for him among dashing, splashing dads; sewing, mowing dads; and creeping, leaping dads enjoying the cheeky chase until she finds the one who’s just for her.

Brian’s gifted way with rhyming words ensures every beat of this search is on point while Stewart’s illustrations are playful and bright. A sure favourite for under sixes.

New Frontier Publishing August 2016

Where's Dad HidingWhere’s Dad Hiding? By Ed Allen Illustrated by Anil Tortop

Never a dad around when you need one? Prolong your search and fun with this colour-saturated picture book promoting games and play, Aussie animals and relationships. Where’s Dad Hiding? encourages young pre-school aged readers to carefully examine every one of Tortop’s vibrantly illustrated page spreads for Baby Wombat’s missing dad.

Daddy Wombat is cunningly secreted on each page among a glorious collection of colourful Aussie inspired landscapes and situations. I get the feeling Daddy Wombat enjoys being cheeky and slightly irreverent just like real life human daddies as he leads Baby Wombat on a teasing search. This picture book pulses with verve and character making it a delight for dads to share with their kids.

Scholastic Australia August 2016

Grandpa is GreatGrandpa is Great by Laine Mitchell Illustrated by Alison Edgson

No matter what mantle they fall under grandad, pop, Nonno, opa, gramps, there is no mistaking the greatness of grandpas. This cute rhyming story reinforces the many moments and things grandfathers make memorable for their grandchildren. Whether it is playing games together, making mess, rocketing to the moon or simply watching the tellie together, Mitchell’s engaging text and Edgson’s bold use of baby animals to depict the grandpa-grandchild bond is both entertaining and heart-warming.

Scholastic Australia August 2016

The Greatest Fathers Day of AllThe Greatest Father’s Day of All by Anne Mangan Illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie

It’s the witty parallels I enjoy in this rhyming picture book about a dad eagerly anticipating his Father’s Day but like so many mere males, gets it mixed up a little. His blow-by-blow expectations take readers through some typical and well-loved Father’s Day morning rituals as his excitement mounts then crumbles into disappointment.  Children eager to plan their own Father’s Day surprises for dad will value the familiar similarities and the divine pencil and gauche watercolours used by Ainslie.  Her illustrations are vaguely reminiscent of Anna Pignataro’s; her characters exuding the same sort of charm in their sweet alluring faces. A nice way to mark the occasion of Dad’s Day.

Harper Collins Publishers first published 2013

Happy Father’s Day, Dads!

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Review – Little Wing

Little WingAuthor illustrator, Katherine Battersby has flown many miles in recent times, a bit like her latest picture book character, Little Wing. Little Wing catapults the connotation of taking a leap of faith into glowing picture book form that is a pure delight to read.

Little Wing is the smartest animal in the world. He owes his genius to good old-fashioned book learning, that is to say, he reads – a lot. Nearly everything he knows is attributed to the days he spends between the pages of dozens of books bequeathed to his island home by providence.

Little Wing illos spreadIt appears a satisfying way to spend his days; I mean who hasn’t dreamed of reading under swaying palm trees on a sun soaked faraway island as a full time occupation! I’d call that heaven but for Little Wing whose aspirations and yearnings clearly outclass mine, ‘something was always missing.’ So, he sets out to find it.

Turns out, it’s Little Wing’s sense of self that is absent and no matter how many books or alter egos he assumes, none of them provide the right answer, the perfect fit. Until one radiant morning, realisation dawns and Little Wing’s life transforms forever. His social circles are greatly enhanced, as well.

Little Wing illoThe wait for Battersby’s next picture book has been well worth it. Little Wing exudes all the warmth, charm and wit of her debut picture book character, Squish Rabbit whilst introducing fans and new readers to a wonderfully new winsome critter. He is difficult not to love with his little wings and clacky big blue bit (aka his beak). However, what makes Little Wing universally appealing to young and old is his quiet and unquestioning fortitude. Even when faced with one of life’s most prominent and niggling questions: who am I and why am I here? Little Wing diligently pursues the answer until the answer literally flies right over him.

His tenacity tells young people that being one thing is fine but if you want to try other things, new things, then that’s okay too; you just need to be brave enough to pursue your dreams, to make that first leap into the unknown. Youngsters are no strangers to change. In fact the leaps in their young lives are almost always forced and without negotiation: going to school, moving home, surviving decaying family situations, growing up…So it won’t be hard for them to accept Little Wing as someone they can emulate and learn from.

Little Wing is likely to resonate with adults just as strongly. We all want to learn to fly. How many of us really have the courage to look deep within ourselves, take that first big breath, and then, move forward, though? It’s a daunting prospect but like Battersby herself, Little Wing does it with admirable aplomb.

Battersby’s accompanying artwork for this story is nothing short of fabulous. Bland bookish concepts are captured in bold watercolour and pencil illustrations intoxicatingly combined with fabrics, textiles and scanned vintage books. The resultant collage effect is a cocktail of fun and colour. I love it! So does my Miss 10 who spent many joyful moments with me feverishly examining the end pages in an effort to match feather to friend.

Katherine Battersby & Little WingLittle Wing is a picture book experience that sings on many levels but most importantly gives children license to extend themselves and follow their most ardent callings in order to reach true happiness.

Little Wing is available now, here. For those fortunate enough to live in SE Queensland, Katherine Battersby is touring a number of local schools, accompanying Little Wing as he explores his new home.

Little Wing # 2Little Wing is officially taking off this Saturday August 13th at Riverbend Books in Bulimba, Queensland. Join Katherine, Little Wing, and special guest, Peter Carnavas from 10.30 am for lots of fun and feathers.

UQP August 2016

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Review – Noisy Nights – on tour with Fleur McDonald

Noisy NightsIf you like novels of the rolling outback variety with plenty of page-turning drama, a sprinkle of bucolic romance and a good dose of dust and hardship, then you are likely familiar with one of Australia’s leading rural writers, Fleur McDonald. Her litany of outback, female orientated sagas constitute engrossing adult reads. However, not content with being a bestselling author of adult fiction, McDonald has now set her sights on the fickle world of writing for children. Noisy Nights is the first picture book penned by McDonald and illustrated by Annie White depicting farmyard fun for pre-schoolers.

The premise is simple; Farmer Hayden is desperate for a good night’s sleep. Little wonder after working hard on his property all day long. Tucked under his cosy doona, beneath a darken sky and shining stars, everything appears ideal for sound slumber, except it is ‘so noisy outside his window.’

Apparently, the animals of Farmer Hayden’s farm are very vocal night. Now anyone who has ever spent a night in the country or even just camped in his or her own back yard will agree nights are not so silent. The cold stillness of a night bereft of the noisy pollution of city living seems to magnify each and every sound made by unseen creatures, as is the case for poor old Farmer Hayden.

Night after night, dogs bark, cows moo, horses nicker, and crickets chirp. Frequent pleas for quiet fall on deaf ears until defeated and fatigued, Farmer Hayden submits to his insomnia and spends the next night sitting outside on the veranda. He’d rather watch the noisy choir rather than suffer the torture of listening to them.

As predicted, thFleur McDonalde dogs bark, the cows moo, the crickets chirp and so on but the sheep dance to a different song this night, or rather, they jump to it. Finally, mesmerised by them, something amazing happens. Could this be the beginning of no more noisy nights?

McDonald pulls off her first attempt at writing for children with uncomplicated honesty. Predictive, repetitive text creates many opportune moments for young readers to not only bolster their vocabulary base but for them to indulge in interactive story telling with whomever they are reading with, as well. The narrative is enjoyable and supports common barnyard and animal connections as well as the old familiar maxim that ‘counting sheep to get to sleep’ really does work.NoisyNightsBlog Tour[1]

In addition, White’s well-loved illustrations emphasise the farmyard fun making this common dilemma instantly recognisable for even the most citified child.

Noisy Nights is soft-hued and gentle in its appearance and content making it a beautiful picture book to curl up with when your little one is ready for a good night’s sleep.

For more reviews and information about Fleur McDonald, visit her other Blog Tour stops.

Noisy Nights is available for purchase now, here.

New Frontier Publishing August 2016

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Double Dipping – Save our Trees!

With National Tree Day just around the corner (28th to 31st July) what better way to celebrate the importance of sustaining and enriching our environment than by honouring earth’s life source, the tree.

Here are two picture books that appeal to the younger end of the market. There are many more, that showcase the magnificence of trees and nature: Jeannie Baker’s marvellous works, Tree by Danny Parker and Margaret Wild’s Tanglewood, for instance. Hunt them down and enjoy, but for goodness sake, leave those trees standing!

Barnaby and the Lost Treasure of BunnyvilleBarnaby and the Lost Treasure of Bunnyville by Robert Vescio Illustrated by Cheri Hughes

Barnaby is a gardener who loves to rove and gather. With his assorted stash of seeds, he dreams of transforming his home, Bunnyville into a verdant wonderland of fruit and veg. The major of Bunnyville, however has other ideas. He believes bunnies are designed for one thing and one thing only, to dig. Faced with this opposition, Barnaby devises a way to turn the mayor’s stony greed into positive action.

Barnaby illos spreadWhen a treasure map promising to reveal the lost treasure of Bunnyville turns up, the mayor enlists every paw and claw of Bunnyville to find it. Enthusiastic excavation ensues but the only ‘treasure’ unearthed is an rusty old key by Barnaby. While the rest of the township concedes defeat, Barnaby utilises the myriad of holes created by the hunt and with some luck and patience, Bunnyville is transformed into a lush productive garden.  The townsfolk are delighted, the mayor impressed by what Barnaby reveals is indeed the ‘lost treasure of Bunnyville’. The concept of 2 and 5 a day as never looked so delicious!

Robert VesicoThis ambrosial little tale about bunnies and treasure hunting neatly encapsulates Vescio’s subtle plea for perseverance and preservation in a way that will appeal to under 6-year-olds. It gently emphasises that ‘a tree is a treasure’ and that from little things, big things, important things really do grow – into ‘growing treasures’.  A playful and useful way to introduce young readers into food production and conservation. (I love Hughes pumpkin bright illustrations and amazing seed-studded end pages, too!)Take it with you as you head out to plant something this weekend!

Big Sky Publishing July 2016

The Gobbling TreeThe Gobbling Tree by Mark Carthew Illustrated by Susy Boyer

An oldie but a goodie, this classic picture book by Mark Carthew and Susy Boyer depicts what happens to the seeds we plant and the consequences of our interaction with them.

The gobbling tree situated on a rise in the local park is never named but becomes the focal point of concern for the neighbourhood kids when one by one they lose a precious plaything to its arboreal clutches. Kites, cricket bats, balls, sticks, boots, even Jacob’s ladder (Ha Ha) are gobbled up as each attempt to get their objects back results in more lost items. Soon most of the town’s treasures are stuck within the tree’s grasp including, Simon! It’s not until nature shimmies to her own dance that normality is restored…until the next cricket match that is.

Mark CarthewAnyone who has ever had a Frisbee stuck in a tree and failed to dislodge it with a variety of other thrown items will relate to this hilarious lyrical misadventure. (I’m putting my hand high up, here!) Carthew’s ability to bring song into story is well loved and in this case, worthy of receiving the Speech Pathology Book of the Year 2009 Award. Boyer’s drawings capture the colour and comedy of the situation beautifully. This favourite never grows old and underlines my deep-rooted respect for trees evermore.

New Frontier Publishing first published 2008

So whether you intend to plant a tiny parsley seed or the beginnings of something large and magnificent, encourage your children to honour nature this weekend, indeed every weekend. They can enjoy books like these as they wait for their treasures to grow.

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Feeling Good and Fitting In – Inspiring Picture Books

Self-assuredness, making wise life choices, strong self-esteem, and a kind heart – all positive attributes we wish for our offspring but not always easy to foster. The beautiful subtly of picture books can help reinforce and encourage these traits in children. Here are some inspiring examples.

Stick and StoneStick and Stone by Beth Ferry Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

Simplicity refined. Gorgeous illustrations accompany a rock solid (pardon the pun) rhyming text about the strength and benefits of friendship, sticking together and courage in times of trouble. I loved the elementary message and profound humour. Kids will warm to the humanness of these two non-human characters, Stick and Stone. Highly recommended for primary school aged readers and those trying to understand schoolyard friendships.

Koala Books September 2015

The Truth According to ArthurThe Truth According to Arthur by Tim Hopgood Illustrated by David Tazzyman

This could easily become my new best-go-to favourite resource for dealing with fibbers. Arthur tells porkies, not to hurt but like most young people, to lessen the damage to himself that could arise from his actions, in other words, to avoid getting in trouble. However, Truth follows him about everywhere and no matter how hard Arthur tries to avoid, hide, bend or stretch Truth, Truth remains stalwart staring Arthur down until eventually …he admits The Truth.  Told in a smile-inducing uncomplicated way and matched with super line drawings, The Truth According to Arthur addresses the importance of taking responsibility for ones actions and always, always being honest. A brilliant addition to any parents’ tool kit!

Bloomsbury Publishing July 2016

I don't like KoalaI Don’t Like Koala by Sean Ferrell Illustrated by Charles SantosKoala illos spread

There is something slightly sinister about the non-seeing stare of Koala. Something dark and off-putting that Adam finds unsavoury as well. So much so, he cannot bring himself to like his new toy, Koala one little bit. He tries everything to lose Koala but inexplicably, Koala always returns (good on you Mum and Dad!). Until one terrible night, Adam finally learns to value Koala’s unwavering friendship and worth. Santos’ drawings enhance Ferrell’s beautiful clean narrative, often in a clever parallel way and reinforce the notion of acceptance; of who we are, what we truly love and of our own fears.

Koala Books 2015

The Ricker Racker ClubThe Ricker Racker Club by Patrick Guest Illustrated by Nathaniel Eckstrom

This is a once upon a time type of picture book that grabs kids’ attention from the very first page. Brothers Max and Ollie have invented the Ricker Racker Club, an association with distinct rules and regulations; being a boy for example. Polly is not a boy and secretly yearns to join the club so in an ironically old world way, she cunningly surrenders to the boys’ demands and desires, cleaning their bedroom, giving them her tooth-fairy money and so on whilst they belt around being, well, boys. Weeks pass until one day their pet turtle, Albert finds himself in peril of being consumed by the local wolf. Help comes from an unexpected quarter forcing the boys to rethink their club policies. A delightful comical representation of how friendships, acceptance, and courage are won on your actions.  Suitable for mid to upper primary readers and those who love back yard adventuring.

Little Hare Books HGE  April 2016

KindnessThe Invisible Tree – Kindness by Kirrily Lowe Illustrated by Henry Smith

For those who prefer their tales of moral strength and positive virtue with a more spiritual spin, seek out the Invisible Tree series by Wombat Books. Each picture book in the series describes how a child character learns about a particular attribute or emotion and how that virtue is a kin to a beautiful fruit, one that grows on an invisible tree inside them. The musical stories demonstrate how we can nourish our greatest gifts and capacities and share them with others. Kindness, set in Uganda, is the fifth book following this cultivation of strong healthy spirit and prompts children to grow their own invisible trees for love, joy, and peace. Spectacularly illustrated with found, recycled, and hand-made papers by Smith, these books form a treasure chest of inspired awareness.

Wombat Books 2016

Let's PlayLet’s Play by Herve Tullet

This little gem is amazing. Full of white space and second person interplay, Tullet creates two distinct characters for children to adore; yellow dot narrating straight out of the book and YOU, the child (reader). Yellow dot entices children to play with him with the words, ‘I’m bored…Do you want to play?’ What child could resist! They are led through a series of steps, fine-tuning their attention, questioning their fine motor skills and challenging their focus before plunging together into a dark, messy, FUN adventure. It’s nothing more than a succession of splodges, smudged lines, and colourful dots, yet Let’s Play is a miraculous riot of colour and genius which cleverly unleashes creativity and imagination in kids whilst giving them permission to be themselves, have fun, take risks and oh yes, ‘play again another time’. Brilliant. Ideal for pre-schoolers and older readers who’ll be able  to claim yellow dot as their new best friend. Gleefully recommended

Allen & Unwin March 2016

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Double Dipping – Terrific reads for Tweens & Teens

As children shrug off their tween years and enter the tribulation-ridden terrain of teenage hood, the art of telling stories for them becomes more exact and tenuous. Tales still need to entertain yet they must also strike such firm and resounding accord with their intended audience that for readers to abandon them would be like dissing out on themselves or at least, their friends. Two new titles in town, which address each of these age groups with terrific virtuosity flow from the pens of Michael Gerard Bauer and Tamsin Janu and deserve closer scrutiny.

Figgy and the PresidentFiggy and the President is Tamsin Janu’s second book featuring Figgy, a young African village girl with limited world reference but enormous ambition and tenacity. Figgy is one of the most endearing characters I have ever met. She and her Ghanaian friends and family are so richly portrayed; it is a delight to be part of their adventures. The characters are complete enough that this tale could take place almost anywhere. That it is set in Ghana is merely an enriching added bonus. As with Figgy in the World, this story is full of warmth and originality.

Figgy in the WorldIn this current snap shot of Figgy’s life, she and her best friend, Nana dream about their future careers, speculating on their successes and mapping out the paths for their chosen occupations. Trouble is deciding on a career is not as straightforward as Figgy imagines so when she unexpectedly lands a role as an actress in a locally made film, she immediately fancies this might be the future for her.

However just as she embarks on her newfound career, Figgy’s erstwhile absent, now heavily pregnant mama appears throwing Figgy into even more confusion and uncertainty. Figgy is then forced to abandon her own misgivings when Nana is mercilessly ripped out of their lives causing her to attempt to rescue him.

Figgy and the President is a superb story of tenacity, childhood resourcefulness, and friendship that mid primary readers will cherish. It reads with an innocent fluidity that I imagine tween-aged children influenced and shaped by our (often-trivial) First World dilemmas will find entertaining and fascinating, thereby giving rise to a stronger sense of empathy and humanity. A perfect follow up to Figgy in the World but able to be read alone.

Omnibus Books for Scholastic May 2016

It’s no secret that many of Michael Gerard Bauer’s books leave me quaking at the knees, usually with laughter and emotion. Surprisingly, this one is not at the top of my favourites list of his but I have a feeling it will be a hit among gaggles of school guys and gals nonetheless.

The Pain, My Mother, Sir Tiffy, Cyber Boy and MeThe Pain, My Mother, Sir Tiffy, Cyber Boy & Me is a new YA comedy that I initially found cloying (a bit like attempting to swallow a whole clotted-cream-and-jam-smothered-scone in one go) – not just because the title is so mouth-filling but partly due to the rabid use of capital letter actualisation and metaphoric description; this coming from someone with a pathological obsession to metaphoric-ise practically everything (see afore mentioned scone and cream example).  Nevertheless, like my predilection for scones and clotted cream, I could not give it up either. Discomfort is often  born from self -realisation, and whilst the way Maggie Butt thinks and reacts is a painful reminder of my own metaphoric inadequacies, figuratively speaking (and she does this a lot) her behaviour brilliantly mirrors the  psyches of many a teenager  whom I am certain will find this an outrageous and comforting connection.

‘Me’ is Maggie Butt and her teenage life is messy and mucked-up. Every time she gets close to achieving one of her ‘Three Specific and Realistic (life) Goals’ they are lampooned out of the water. There’s a drama queen quality about Maggie I found slightly unnerving at first however Bauer’s injection of sweet satire and ability to weave a generous amount of heart and soul into his storylines saved not only me, but eventually also Maggie and a few others besides.

Michael G BauerBauer seems well accustomed with the fickle affections and feelings of pre-adult youth having raised a couple, taught dozens more and presumably been one himself portraying Maggie and her school mates with a raw sincerity I found touching . His 15-year-old female voice rings alarmingly loud and true, at times almost too convincingly so it is a relief when we are eventually shown Maggie’s true emotional turmoil, her warring desires, and not-to-much-to-ask-for expectations. Sir Tiffy, Sista Lista and a dude on a motor bike all help us (and Maggie) see what really truly matters whilst completing an intricate tapestry (stolen metaphor) of characters and satellite storylines.

In true Bauer style, The Pain…is more than it initially appears. It is wry and cool. It is funny and sensitive. It is a glorious collection of intelligent and side-splitting word play. It is unquestionably a riotous encounter of the teenage kind which connects solidly with today’s reader and transports older ones (like this one) back to nights with Paul Young (figuratively speaking), controversial casual-ware (see the T-shirt incident pg. 146) and thankfully possesses an ending that I’d cross  an ocean of metaphors to experience again.

Witty, relevant, and snappy, this junior novel will appeal in spades to younger YAers, as well.

Omnibus Books for Scholastic May 2016

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Review – Dragonfly Song

Wendy Orr’s latest novel has the sweeping majesty of an epic novel and the thrill of a mid-grade fantasy that will win leagues of young new fans. Powerful, eloquent and moving, Dragonfly Song is a story you will never want to leave.

Dragonfly SongAt first glance, Dragonfly Song is not for the faint hearted, weighing in at nearly four hundred pages, however do not be disheartened for from the moment Aissa slips into existence, you will be enthralled and the pages will float effortlessly by. Aissa is the first-born daughter of the high priestess of an ancient island nation. She is however, imperfect and so is abandoned, thus determining not only her destiny but the fate of her island home and all its inhabitants, as well.

Aissa’s people are emerging from the time of flint and spears into the mythical Bronze Age. Her world possesses a strong Byzantine period feel for me at least, where hierarchy, occupation, and bloodline dictate survival. Having endured a childhood of servitude and persecution, Aissa is unaware of her own ancestry and link to the goddesses or even her true name until she is twelve years old. Her fellow islanders consider her the bad-luck child, a curse to all who cross her, and abhor her. Yet she is resourceful, curious, and oddly revered by the island’s animals (snakes, cats, bulls) and although mute from the age of four, she slowly begins to grasp the power she has to sing them to her biding.

It is this power that both exalts and alienates her to the Bull King and his Lady wife, the Mother. At the age of thirteen, Aissa finds herself in the land of the great Bull King, interned as a bull dancer, eventually dancing for her life and the freedom of further tributes (aka human sacrifices) against her island home.

Aissa is manOrr Wendy, preferred author photo, credit Roger Gouldy things: of pure blood, a priestess in the making, a talented bull dancer, spirited, obedient, loyal, a privy cleaner, displaced but above all, resilient. It is hard not to fret over her emotional well-being and want to call out encouragement for her. Her story is both bleak and horrifying at times but ultimately her tale of rising out of the quagmire of the downtrodden soars with optimism and promise.

Orr masters this with incredible ease. Her artistry with language is unforced and sublime. Part prose and part verse novel, I was utterly swept away by the beauty and tragedy of Aissa’s plight. The use of verse to relay Aissa’s internal dialogue and inner most dread and desires is genius and executed with such finesse I wished it never ended.

Dragonfly Song is an adventure story, a tale of daring and hope and a quest for love and acceptance that will have you weeping and cheering. Gripping, artful, and exciting, this novel has broad appeal for both male and female readers aged twelve and above.

03To discover the heart and soul behind the writing of this novel, see my Doodles and Drafts post with Wendy Orr, here.

Allen & Unwin June 2016

DOODLES AND DRAFTS with Wendy Orr on the inspiration behind Dragonfly Song

Dragonfly SongHang onto to your bronze daggers as you are in for ‘a riveting, mythic Bronze Age adventure’ –  we have the remarkable Wendy Orr at the draft table today, escorting us on her Blog Tour for her stunning new novel, Dragonfly Song. And like all terrific stories, there is usually an even more fascinating story behind it; how it came to light, what energies and events conspired to motivate its first heartbeat. Today, Wendy shares her inspiration with us.

Orr Wendy, preferred author photo, credit Roger Gould

 

Welcome Wendy! Tell us, what was the inspiration for Dragonfly Song?

Sometimes it’s easy to see where an idea’s inspiration has come from. Sometimes it’s not – and sometimes some of the things that inspire it don’t end up in the story. Dragonfly Song is one of those mysteries.

Certainly one thread comes from childhood and teenage reading of Greek myths and Mary Renault’s retelling of the Theseus myth, The King Must Die. (There are many stories about Theseus, a king of Athens with a typically complicated hero life. However he is best known for being one of seven youths and seven maidens sent as a tribute to King Minos of Crete. Minos sent them into a labyrinth to be devoured by the half-man, half-bull monster, the Minotaur – but luckily, Theseus defeated the Minotaur instead of being eaten.)

04Then, about twenty-five years ago, I dreamed about a white robed priestess leading a long torchlight procession up a steep green volcanic mountain.  As a story grew around the dream, I started reading up on the intriging civilization that flourished in Crete around four thousand years ago.  The Minoans seem to have worshipped a mother goddess and been ruled by a priestess until they were taken over by the warlike Mycenaeans of mainland Greece. Their palaces had grand court02yards and stairways, flushing toilets, lightwells, and painted frescoes on walls, ceilings and floors. They had beautiful art, gold and jewellery; images of priestesses holding snakes and of young men and women leaping over the backs of giant bulls. What if these bull-leaping games had inspired the original myth of Theseus?

Although the rather melodramatic novel I wrote then was, luckily, never published, the images of that world never left me. Eventually I started playing with the idea of a completely new story set in the same era.

It started to take shape on a 2010 visit to New Delhi. Culture shock can be a great inspiration: new sounds and smells; beautiful buildings and overwhelming poverty. Home again, doodling with a fingerpaint app, I sketched a girl with a sad twisted mouth and tangled black curls. This wasn’t the direction I’d expected, but one evening in my tai chi class, the form of the story appeared in a luminescent blue bubble –  and no, I can’t explain it exactly what I mean by that, but it was powerful enough to bring me to tears. The next day I saw a dragonfly, the exact same colour as the bubble.

And dragonflies kept on appearing whenever I made a significant decision or saw something that helped to shape the story:  finding an offcut of chipped flint on a Danish island; visiting the mysterious deep blue source of a French river that would have seemed even more mysterious and holy in ancient timeDragonflySongBlogTourGraphics…

Ah the synchronicity of life…Thank you, Wendy!

Watch Wendy explain more, here. Catch up with her again as she continues her DragonFly Song Adventure and tour.

Stick around for my full review of Dragonfly Song coming soon. Meantime you can get it now, here, if you can’t wait to read it first!

Allen & Uwin June 2016

 

 

 

 

Being You is Best – Picture book reviews about Self

Teddy illo spreadIt is sheer coincidence that the following picture books lie on my desk at a time when the tenets of tolerance, acceptance and being yourself are being so brutally questioned again, (when are they not). However, it is heartening to know that equally powerful positive messages are available and as accessible as picking up one of these books and sharing it with the next generation. The message is clear and simple: being you best.  It’s ok. It’s empowering. It’s beautiful. And it is not wrong. Here are some awesome new publications, which emphasis this conviction.

Being You is Enough Being You is Enough and other important stuff by Josh Langley

Josh Langley produces a number of inspirational, aphorism-infused illustrated books but I especially warmed to this recent release aimed fair and square at primary aged readers. It contains ‘all the important stuff a kid should know…’ conveniently listed from 1 to 11. Loud, bold, and just a little bit irreverent, Langley encourages youngsters to recognise and listen to their own superpower, the voice in their heads.  This voice can mislead you but also be your best friend and guide you to other awesome thoughts.  He goes on to reveal ways to combat angry feelings, bad thoughts, and many other internal conflicts common to young kids.

There is no sugar coating the message here, the advice is simply described and plainly delivered. This honest and straightforward approach will appeal to under 10-year-olds and frankly anyone else who is suffering from a touch of self-doubt. Langley’s line illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to his affirmations, quirky and kid-like, again bursting with appeal.

Being You is Enough is a terrific green light of a book to strengthen kids’ self-awareness, acknowledge their need to ride unicorns and reinforce the understanding that they are loved and never alone. A must read, wonderful bunch of little miracles between two covers.

Big Sky Publishing February 2016

Introducing TeddyIntroducing Teddy A Story about being yourself by Jessica Walton Illustrated by Dougal MacPherson

I could not wait to read this one. Errol and his teddy, Thomas are the best of friends. They do everything together but increasingly, Thomas feels less and less like playing. Something disturbs him so deeply that he is terrified it will destroy his friendship with Errol. A mighty conflict of self is raging within Thomas who eventually reveals to Errol that he wishes his name were Tilly, not Thomas.

Walton’s sensitive narrative escorts young readers through the tricky landscape of gender awareness and acceptance. It is a watershed picture book for it not only exposes children to different family models, equality, and tolerance of others, it gently challenges the paradigms of society whilst highlighting its diversity.  MacPherson’s charm-laden illustrations ably reinforce Thomas aka Tilly’s growing discord and eventual surrender to being herself.

Full of relevance and grace, Introducing Teddy is tastefully rendered and should be on every classroom bookshelf.  Suitable for early to mid-primary readers and anyone fearful of questioning their own sexuality.

Bloomsbury Publishing May 2016

The Mozzie with the Sharp SnozzieThe Mozzie with a Sharp Snozzie by Irina Goundortseva

Resonating the delightful tones of the Ugly Duckling, The Mozzie with the Sharp Snozzie is a delightful visitation of one little mozzie’s sense of self. Our chipper little protagonist lives by the pond in perpetual awe of the beautiful butterflies who flutter about being beautiful all day long. She yearns to join them, to be as beautiful as them but they shun her because of her ugly and boring appearance. Disheartened, Mozzie retreats then embarks on a plan to elevate her popularity by disguising her true self. The shallow butterflies are enamoured by their beautiful new friend until disaster strikes and ‘things go from bad to worse’. Will Mozzie abandon her newfound friends and self-appreciation to save the day?

Vibrant illustrations accompany a lively text and storyline that will have little ones enthusiastically page turning to the very end.  Mozzie… is an invigorating tale about the benefits of being proactive, being yourself, and loving who you are. In addition, it does wonders for the esteem and profile of mozzies everywhere, which I think is reason enough to hunt it down to enjoy.

Big Sky Publishing August 2016

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Review – One Would Think the Deep

One Would Think the DeepIf you thought Claire Zorn’s first two YA novels, The Sky So Heavy and The Protected, were brilliant, you’re going to need double tinted Ray Burns for her latest masterpiece, One Would Think the Deep.

Zorn manages to mould rough edged, grit-encrusted reality into exquisite accomplished prose with the mere flick of her fingers. One Would Think the Deep is a story that surges with emotion, confrontation, and ultimately, hope.

If I were to reflect on Sam’s story too deeply, I’d be overwhelmed with the melancholy of it, of him but this is not a tale of woe and hopelessness, in spite of its gently grim beginning. Its sincerity and swagger from the opening lines swept me along and held me afloat until the very end.

Shortly after one fateful New Year’s Eve, Sam Hudson finds himself suddenly orphaned, teetering on the precipice of shock, grief, graduation and homelessness. My stomach filled with sick ache for him as he called his Aunty Lorraine to inform her of his mother’s premature death.

With nothing more than his skateboard and a collection of 90s something mixed tapes (he listens to Jeff Buckley on his Walkman with the same obsession I did to ABBA), Sam lingers uncomfortably in the small coastal town of Archer Point with his aunty and cousins, Minty and Shane. He is caught in a turbulent no man’s land of past boyhood memories and buried family secrets, incapable of finding his fit. Grief and despair are his most loyal companions, second only to his cousin, Minty with whom he spent a chunk of his childhood.

Minty is the laWavetter day version of Taj Burrows, young, gifted, a surfing legend amongst the local crowds. His laconic life views and ability to work any wave endears Sam to the ocean. But it takes a few months before his newfound surf therapy begins to take effect. Despite the elegant monastic simplicity of ‘a life in the water’, Sam’s life continues its complicated hurtle toward (his) self-destruction. He pines for a past he doesn’t fully understand, yearns for the affections of a girl he can barely speak to and is constantly at crushing odds with most of his family members including, Nana. Sam’s emotional dichotomy of good boy battling the bad within is fascinating and heart wrenching at times. It’s impossible to dislike him because of what you feel for him feeling so much.

Sam’s story of hurt and healing is beautifully rendered. Even the most vicious of emotional situations are depicted with refined tenderness so that I found myself weeping emphatically throughout, not just at the end where you’d expect a need for tissues.

Each character is drawn with knife-edge sharpness. Each speaks with a clarity that never dulls. Every sense is heightened by the wrenching complexity of the lives of this very inconsequential, simple group of ordinary individuals. And it’s not just Sam who is damaged and vunerable. Each is noticeably flawed or at least weighed down by their own limitations to a point of exquisite confusion. I loved them all.

It’s not the surf, time, or chance or even family that ultimately saves Sam in as much as they all conspired to also undo him.  It’s that old chestnut love, which I believe is the true nucleus of One Would Think the Deep (the moments between Gretchen and Sam are incomparable).The ability to surf the ‘glistening wake’ of your leviathan fears and laugh about the results with people who love you is ultimately the key to surviving the ride.

If you are experiencing loss and your soul feels displaced, if you have a passion for the waves or you are still in love with the sounds of the 90s, then you must submerse yourself in this book.  I can almost hear Jeff Buckley crooning Hallelujah

UQP June 2016

Claire ZornStick around…in the coming weeks I’ll be chatting more deeply with Claire about her latest work and how she developed such impressive surfing lingo.  Meantime, you can find all her great reads, here.

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Curious Concepts – Concept picture book reviews

Concept picture books play a huge part in shaping a young person’s perceptions. They are capable of unlocking an inquisitiveness that hopefully sticks around for life and are crucial for developing critical thinking, reasoning, and logic. However, important educational concepts need not be strictly didactic and dull as these entertaining picture books clearly display.

Garden FriendsGarden Friends by Natalie Marshall is a Touch and Feel board book, sturdy and bright in appearance in the same vein as the That’s not my… series. This one directs 0 – 3-year-olds to experience their tactile investigations within a garden setting using short verb orientated phrases – ‘Duck is quacking!’ It’s joyous and sensual and a nice shift from the usual ‘touch and feel’ concept.

The Five Mile Press March 2016

Counting Through the DayCounting Through the Day by Margaret Hamilton and Anna Pignataro escorts pre-schoolers through a typical day from sunrise, to breakfast, to visits with Nanna and finally back off to bed. Along the way, our young protagonist gently encounters many fascinating objects and situations from two sturdy feet to five broody hens and even ‘thousands of raindrops falling from the sky’. And as children are wont to do, they count each and every one of them.

Hamilton’s gently rhyming verse and affecting choice of counting objects harness a child’s every day pleasures, highlighting the world around them: their toys, meals, the weather and so on. Numbers 1 – 11 are shown numerically and in words while Pignataro’s combination of drawn, painted, and collage illustrations are simply marvellous. The end pages alone will provide hours of delight and interest.

Counting Through the Day is as much about story as it is about learning to count. I love that readers are taken past the obligatory ‘10’, and are introduced to 11, 20, hundreds and even millions, exposing young minds to a universe of infinite possibilities. Easy to grasp and absolutely beautiful to enjoy.

Little Hare Books imprint HGE 2016

For someone whose spatial awareness is not as sharp as it could be, the next two picture books are a real boon. They encourage an understanding of the relationship of objects to oneself and in ones world in a clever and entertaining way that ensures high levels of reader investment and interest.

The Shape of My HeartThe Shape of My Heart by Mark Sperring Illustrated by Alys Paterson is a board book sized banquet of colour, shapes, and rhymes; images guaranteed to captivate 0 – 5-year-olds. This is no ordinary ‘this shape is a…’ book. It expands the notion of appearance and form by depicting the most obvious shape to start with – you and me. From there, readers are shown the various shape of parts of our anatomy (eyes, mouth, feet) the environment in which they live (sun, houses) and those shapes that inhabit the world with them (birds, vehicles, creatures in the zoo) and so on. I love how the shape you can hear with (ears for instance) leads to a myriad of other shapes that make up our existence. Sounds confusing to describe but not to behold and read thanks to Paterson’s cheerful and shapely illustrations. Reminiscent of Mem Fox’s Where is the Green Sheep? in parts, The Shape of My Heart combines visual literacy, introduction of sounds, and rousing vocabulary whilst neatly implying that everything that shapes our lives fits within our hearts and you can’t get any more spatial than that. Highly recommended.

Bloomsbury for Children February 2016

What Could it BeWhat Could it Be? by Sally Fawcett is a fascinating picture book initiative combining the best bits of storytelling, creative stimulation, and subliminal learning. Displayed in complementing double page spreads, Fawcett gently introduces young readers to some well-known geometric shapes and colours. Pre-schoolers and early primary schoolers may already be loosely familiar with shapes such as circles, ovals, and even octagons. They are probably discovering the mysteries of an artist’s palette, as well but in What Could it Be?, they are challenged to delve deeper, look more closely and investigate the world of possibilities surrounding them.

With the help of, a young boy named Max, readers are prompted to answer the ‘what if’ inspired notion to think outside of the box and tap into their creative souls. Each page of story is gloriously illustrated by Fawcett who cleverly secretes dozens upon dozens of obviously hidden aspects in each scene to be discovered by roving little eyes. I say obvious because this picture book adventure serves to show that every conceivable form, colour and object in our worlds are there for us to find if we just look hard enough and perhaps use a little imagination.

Children will delight in the seek and find quality of What Could it Be?. In addition, this book has far-reaching usefulness in homes, schools, and early learning centres. I see a future for it in home schooling, too as it fosters a genuine exploration and appreciation of the world around us. At the book’s conclusion, children are invited to go one-step further and are encouraged to think, experiment, create, and share for themselves.

Unleash your child’s creativity with this one!

EK Books June 2016

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Spinning Tales – Cricket inspired Young Fiction

I realise it’s brass-monkey weather already and for many a young sportsperson, rugby jerseys are in preference to baggy greens. However, the warming image of red leather cracking against willow against a burnished summer sky is one I am in dire need of right now. Therefore, here are a few of some recent favourite cricket inspired reviews. I use the term favourite with reserve for if not for this selection of picture books and novels, I might still not know my googlies from my dot balls.

Picture Books

Knockabout CricketKnockabout Cricket by Neridah McMullin Illustrated by Ainsley Walters

Until last year, I had little idea of the exact history of Australian cricket and was unaware that one of our first International cricket stars was an unassuming bloke called Unaarramin, otherwise known as Johnny from Mullagh Station in WA.

Knockabout Cricket is a fictional portrayal about Johnny’s appearance onto the 1860’s cricketing landscape. Through the eyes of a pastoral station’s son, James, readers are introduced to a tall Aboriginal boy whose natural aptitude, ball skills and ability to ‘read’ the ball is nothing short of spectacular. A team of indigenous players is soon formed and admired by all who watch their daring and athletic play.

Johnny MullaghThe subsequent matches played between the Aboriginal 11 and the Melbourne Cricket Club become the catalyst for what is known today as the Boxing Day Test and eventually, the first tour of England by an Australian cricket side in 1886.

McMullin’s narrative is complemented by informative text neatly incorporated into each page of Walters’ illustrations. The overall effect is alluring and maintains interest but perhaps the most fascinating addition for me was the handy field position drawing and photograph of the Aboriginal cricketers alongside the Melbourne Cricket Ground Pavilion in 1867.

A worthy introduction to a sport legend for early primary readers.

One Day Hill Publishers February 2015

Boomerang and BatBoomerang and Bat by Mark Greenwood Illustrated by Terry Denton

This long awaited picture book release does not disappoint. This time the story of the First Real Eleven is told through the eyes of Johnny Mullagh himself thereby evoking a slightly more personal feel. Where before, we knew the names of the indigenous team thanks to a photograph, in Boomerang and Bat, Greenwood involves each of the shearers and station hands by name from the start.  Within pages, we are familiar with Cuzens’ barefoot bowling; Dick-a-Dick’s heroic parrying displays, and Johnny’s exceptional batting prowess.

Under the tutelage and determination of captain-coach, Charles Lawrence, the team eventually makes it to the MCG. However, Lawrence has more far-reaching plans for his team and so covertly smuggles them aboard The Parramatta Clipper bound for England thus initiating the first international tour for an Australian cricket side.

Johnny’s team went on to delight and excite crowds at Lords, whilst proudly donning caps with the emblem of a boomerang and bat. They earned standing ovations and considerable admiration until the demands of touring and occasional discrimination became too strenuous, killing one teammate and eventually sending the others back to Australia. Despite their amazing sporting achievements abroad, there was little fanfare to welcome the Australian 11 home. Johnny continued to play the game he loved with amazing adroitness often scoring a hundred runs, however it would be another ten years before another Australian cricket side would leave the country again to compete. For this reason alone, Johnny and his teammates are Australia’s first true international cricket stars.

Boomerang and Bat illos spreadGreenwood’s balanced narrative is both touching and colourful conveying fact with soul. Denton’s illustrations capture the humour and atmosphere of not only the pastoral settlements and rugged proving grounds of our players but also the refined serenity of the playing fields of the home of cricket.

An awesome historic picture book to share with pre-schoolers and above.

Allen & Unwin April 2016

Meet Don BradmanMeet…Don Bradman by Coral Vass Illustrated by Brad Howe

Being a non-sporty, bookish type of kid who gained much of her Australian contemporary history knowledge from the TV mini-series of the 80s, I had but a peripheral knowledge of last century’s cricketing legend, Don Bradman. Thankfully Random House’s Meet..series is around to fill in some of my sporting history gaps and educate new generations about one of our national heroes.

Vass’s narrative opens with Don as a small boy, completely engrossed with the game of cricket. He practises daily, studies the form of players constantly and one day, in spite of his smallish stature, takes up the bat. Instead of a meteoric rise to cricketing stardom, life pitched a few dot balls of its own and Don had to work and wait his way to his dreams like the rest of us. Thankfully, he never declared them over. His spectacular batting ability was soon signed up by the St George team in Sydney allowing to him compete in the national Sheffield Shield competition for NSW. He debuted by scoring a century. Not bad for ‘the Boy from Bowral’.

Meet Don Bradman illos spreadWith the help of Howe’s cartoonesque illustrations reminiscent of 30s and 40s comic strips, readers follow Bradman through his career as he sets new records, scores new highs and helps Australia win and retain the coveted Ashes (1934 and 1936). Even the controversial Bodyline tactic devised by the English Cricket team in the 1932-1933 Ashes series was not enough to curb the brilliance of one of Australia’s most impressive sportsmen to date.

Captivating end pages and a succinct timeline pay further homage to ‘our Don Bradman’ and ensure another part of our cricketing heritage is not lost to new generations.

Random House Children April 2016

Mid-Grade Novels

Lucky BreakGlen Maxwell Lucky Break by Patrick Loughlin Illustrated by James Hart

If modern T20 cricket is more your thing, cast your beau peeps on this exciting series by Penguin Random House. The first book of this cricket series endorsed by T20 Player of the Year, Glen Maxwell, hit the stands in 2014. Since then Academy All-Stars, World Domination and State Showdown have bowled into bookstores.

Highly recommended for any kid who has a passion for team sports, cricket whites or even just a thirst for exciting dual gender inspired adventure, the Glen Maxwell series penned by sporting enthusiast, Patrick Loughlin rings with solid spotting voice, tween humour and plenty of fast paced action. They are perfect reads for those needing an excuse to read something that thrills rather than bores.

Glen MaxwellI do not know cricket, do not watch cricket, nor even profess to love cricket. However, I thoroughly enjoyed these books thanks to the energetic storylines, bolstering words of encouragement from a real-life sporting icon and (thank goodness) a comprehensive glossary of cricketing terms that means this summer those tedious hours spent in front of the tellie watching seagulls scatter across the pitch will suddenly become much more meaningful.

Random House Children’s Books December 2014 – November 2015

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Australian Story – Stories with a love of Country

Wednesday the 25th May marks the 16th National Simultaneous Storytime event. Aimed at promoting the value of reading and enjoying stories inspired and produced by Australians this campaign sits neatly alongside the 2016 CBCA Book Week Theme – Australia! Story Country. Story telling expeditiously fosters an appreciation and understanding of our unique Australian humour, environment, and its inhabitants so it’s vital that a love of books and reading begins at a young age. This is why I love this selection of picture books relating to Country and those who call it home.

Magabala Books

Crabbing with DadThis publishing house routinely produces books that preserve and promote Indigenous Australian Culture. Paul Seden’s Crabbing with Dad, is chock-a-block with eye popping illustrations and is a feast for the senses as our protagonist and best mate, Sam go crabbing with their Dad up the creek. They encounter several other folk fishing or hunting among the mangroves and waterways and eventually pull up their own crustacean reward. I love the vitality and verve this story promotes and that spending time with the ones you love are life’s best rewards.

April 2016

The Grumpy Lighthouse KeeperFor clever repetitive phrasing and a colourful introduction to yet more of our dubious sea life, The Grumpy Lighthouse Keeper will light up the faces of 3 – 5 year-olds. Inspired by the iconic Broome Lighthouse, author, Terrizita Corpus and illustrator, Maggie Prewett help our indignant lighthouse keeper to survive a stormy wet-season night as the slippery, slimy, wet creatures of the sea take refuge in his warm, dry bed. Loads of fun, if you aren’t the lighthouse keeper!

April 2016

Mad Magpie (high res)Gregg Dreise is a name to remember. Mad Magpie is the third picture book in his morality series based on the sayings and stories of his Elders and possibly the best one yet, although Kookoo Kookaburra was a huge hit in this household, too. Dreise’s picture books embrace and preserve the art of storytelling harnessing fables and wisdoms and making them accessible for today’s new generations.

His line dot authentic illustrations are pure magic and elevate the enjoyment of this tale tenfold. I found myself continuously stroking the pages so enamoured was I by the exquisite patterning and textures throughout. Guluu, the angry magpie’s tale captures the spirit of the landscape and reinforces the turn-the-other-cheek idiom. The Elders encourage Guluu to ignore those who taunt and tease him. They show him how to find ways to still his anger and remain calm so that he is able to stand proud and strong, like the life-giving river. This is an impressive tale promoting positive ways to combat bullying and enhance individuality.

May 2016

Cheeky Critters

Go Home Cheeky AnimalsAnother picture book that successfully captures the essence of place and changing of the seasons is Go Home, Cheeky Animals! by Johanna Bell and Dion Beasley. Simple repeating narrative gears readers up for the next instalment of animals – goats, buffaloes and camels to name a few – to inundate  a small outback community and taunt the dogs that are supposed to be on the lookout for such intruders. Beasley’s paint and pencil illustrations are naïve in style and full on cheek and colour, which results in phenomenal kid appeal. Superb fun and heart.

Allen & Unwin Children’s April 2016

Barnabas the BulllyfrogBarnabas is a Bullfrog who relentlessly teases and belittles the inhabitants of the Macadamia farm in Barnabas the Bullyfrog. When springtime blooms bring on a spate of spluttery sneezing, Barnabas blames it on the bees and is intent on wiping out their busy buzziness. Nosh the Nutmobile rallies his faithful friends, uniting them in a sweet intervention that cures Barnabas’s allergies and unseemly social discrepancies. Barnabas the Bullyfrog is the forth in The Nutmobile Series created by Macadamia House publications and Little Steps Publishing. Rollicking verse (by Em Horsfield) and Glen Singleton’s quintessential Aussie themed illustrations bring Nosh, Arnold and the gang musically to life. You can’t get any more Queensland than Macca nuts and cane toads however, these tales have strong universal appeal as well; this one admirably speaking up against bullies and for the world’s prized pollinators. Well done, Nosh!

Little Steps Publishing 2015

Possums Galore

Possum GamesThey may send us batty at times with their frenetic nocturnal antics but who can deny the perennial appeal of a cute round-eyed Brushtail possum. Michelle Worthington and Sandra Temple have pieced together a delightful picture book, with lilting language and winsome illustrations. Possum Games is the story of Riley, a small possum who is shy and awkward, unsure of himself and frankly, awful at sports. However, in spite of his shortcomings and apparent inability to join in, Riley has big dreams, which thanks to a twist and a dodge of fate, spring into realisation one fateful night. Possum Games is more than a tale of finding your perfect fit. It stimulates tenacity and boosts confidence and more than ably explains the actions behind the ruckus possums make on our rooves at night. A fabulous read for pre-schoolers and young primary readers.

Wombat Books 2014

The Midnight PossumMore midnight antics are revealed in Sally Morgan’s and Jess Racklyeft’s The Midnight Possum, this time in the heart of our bushland. Possum loves the midnight hour, which brings on a tendency in him to roam. As he bounds through the treetops, he encounters an Australian potpourri of animals until he happens upon a distressed mother possum who has lost her baby. Possum’s pluck and courage save the day (and the baby Ringtail). The innate curiosity and diversity for adaption possums possess are gently portrayed in this charming picture book. Racklyeft’s acrylic painted and collage illustrations amplify the allure. A sweet addition to your Australiana collection.

Scholastic Australia 2016

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Packing it on – Dog titles with a Difference

I can’t help it, but my shelves seemed littered (pardon the pun) with delightful doggie-inspired titles lately. Just what makes animal tales, namely those featuring cute and courageous canines so attractive for young readers? Is it that dogs and cats are real, free of pretension and judgement and brimming with pure joie de vivre? Is it because their will to live for the here and now surpasses all others, just like a young child’s? Whatever the magnetic force behind the love of dog stories, this small pack merely reinforces the bond.

Picture Books

The Whole CaboodleThe Whole Caboodle by Lisa Shanahan Illustrated by Leila Rudge

Lisa Shanahan brought us the irrepressible Bear and Chook and has a knack of capturing the thrill of story within singsong narrative. The Whole Caboodle is no exception and offers ‘oodles’ of imaginative linguistic word play with the added bonus of walking 3 – 5 year-olds through some fun counting rhymes. It’s more of a stroll-through-the-park-spot-the-hidden-dog-breed than a full-blown doggie tale, but Rudge’s expressive illustrations will keep you tugging at the leash for more. Great for kids who are into dogs and all their varied shapes and sizes.

Scholastic Press April 2016

My Dog DashMy Dog Dash by Nicki Greenberg

The memories of my not-so-distant puppy schooling experience with our border collie leapt back to prominence as I read Greenberg’s cute account of one little girl’s adventures with her new pet. If you were to read the text aloud without the pictures, you’d swear her pet, the fiend of puppy school, is the worst dog you’d ever laid eyes on. Look again though and you’ll see that not all dogs are created equal. After one agonising night of anguish, this pet turns out to be the best companion ever. Greenberg rarely disappoints. Her jolly illustrations, beguiling contradicting narrative, lovable characters, and utterly adorable ending are assured winners. Go Dash, Go!

Allen & Unwin April 2016

Mrs DogMrs Dog by Janeen Brian Illustrated by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall

As a child, I once read a story about a cat told from the cat’s point-of-view. The cat knew his owner as Fur-on-The-Face. I can’t recall the title or author but have never forgotten the magic of living in the head of that cat and seeing the world as he saw it. Mrs Dog reignites that magic in the most alluring and compelling way. Mrs Dog is too old to round up the Woolly-Heads anymore but that doesn’t stop her from adopting an orphaned baby Woolly-Head, whom she calls, Baa-rah. She takes Baa-rah under her paw, teaching her all there is to know about the farm except how to bark properly. Little Baa-rah is unable to communicate this way until he is forced to find his inner-dog and save his best friend

  Brian’s exquisite use of language is the beating heart of this gorgeous picture book and conveys a story that will bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your heart. Crosby-Fairall’s illustrations are equally divine. The alternating use of perspective shifts the reader seamlessly from merely being an observer to Mrs Dog’s, the Tall-Ones’ and of course adorable little Baa-rah’s point-of-view. A simple tale of devotion, love and loyalty possessing all the best bits of Babe but stunning and memorable in its own right. Highly recommended and not just because Mrs Dog is a beautiful Collie.

The Five Mile Press May 2016

Mid-grade Reader

Regal BeagleRegal Beagle by Vijay Khurana Illustrated by Simon Greiner

This is an enjoyable little mix up of a book attractively presented as a hard soft cover just right for post preschool hands to master. Combining imagination with fantasy, Regal Beagle tells the tale of Lucy, the deceased Queen’s best friend and only living beneficiary to the throne. Lucy is brave and clever, caring and loyal but is in danger of losing her crown to the diabolical Lord Runcible who craves the title of ruler of the kingdom as his own. His obsession to rid the kingdom of Queen Lucy causes an infestation of plague proportions and provides plenty of witty hustle to this easy to read story. Khurana’s writing style is chatty and carefree and is ably supported by Greiner’s jazzy graphic illustrations. A fun, flowing read perfect for kids who understand that anything is possible.

Random House Australia 2014

Junior Fiction

The Dog, Ray by Linda Coggin

The Dog RayThis blue ribbon read strikes with pinpoint accuracy at dog-loving 7 – 12 year-olds. Hefty subject matter is served up as a heart-warming tale about a girl who dies tragically and returns to life as a dog following a Pearly Gates blunder. As pedestrian as that sounds, this sweet little story lopes along at a satisfying pace that will keep children page turning until the very end. Daisy aka Ray’s spiritual, emotional and canine journey is just as likely to make you grin as it is to move you to sadness, however one thing is for sure, it will captivate young readers enough to make them want to wag their tails (if they had them). Funny, spirited and stirring, The Dog, Ray embodies much more than just Daisy’s afterlife as a dog. Homelessness, friendship, animal cruelty, tragedy, and family relationships are incorporated throughout this story, which is big on heart and suffused with hope. It does have a happy ever after ending, however perhaps not the one you were hoping for. Concise, captivating and creative.

Hot Key Books first published 2010 Bonnier  April 2016

 

Review – The Pause

The PauseThis book is remarkable. John Larkin cleaves a mighty wedge into our suspension of belief with the consummate precision and delicacy of a brain surgeon. The Pause doesn’t just tell the story of emotionally damaged Declan O’Malley poised to leap in front of a train and end it all; it entertains the reader in a way that allows you to spontaneously laugh aloud whilst weeping.

Declan is about to leave his teenage-hood behind and as it turns out, his life too. With everything to live for he makes a fatal unplanned decision set to change his path and all those his life (and death) affects. However, before Declan suicides, he pauses. What follows is a fascinating narrative of Declan’s before and after and the parallel consequences of his decision. The Pause has a strong ‘sliding doors’ quality; essentially  it’s an alloy of two versions of one life that invites readers to think hard about the multitude of tiny insignificant decisions we make with every breath and how they define and dictate the direction our lives take.

John LarkinThis novel is absorbing. Larkin’s structure elevates empathy and firmly imbues us into Declan’s emotional quandaries. The pace is never frantic but it is unrelenting nevertheless. It is a story that is difficult to step away from. You will not want clean the kitty litter tray or answer the front door once you step onto that station platform with Declan.

Larkin’s characters cut with knife-edge deftness. Declan is a complex mixture of teenage swagger and self-doubt. He is both grounded and deeply disturbed, harbouring a hurt so painful, it threatens to derail him for good.  He is acutely aware of his shortcomings and that hormones have as much to do with his rational thought destruction as anything else as a teenager. Yet in spite of his chemical and emotional acknowledgement, he is still side-blinded by the actuality of life and his mental frailty. Like many adults and young people, he has very little idea of just how mentally sick he is until it is literally too late. However throughout all this tenderly rendered turmoil, Declan possess a sarcasm and comical observation on life so clean and unrestrained it will make your heart bubble. If I had a son, I would want a version of this boy.

Declan’s support crew: his faithful school mates, his wickedly wonderful family, his gorgeous girlfriend and her estranged demon mother are equally as colourful and mosaic, all layered with such incredible meticulousness that you will want to either hug or slap them accordingly. Through them, we visit the impacts of mental disease, ADHC syndrome, family relationships, regret, sexuality, self-acceptance, and suicide as well as the cry for universal understanding.

Larkin’s prose is beautiful. Apart from being a story of teenage angst and depression, The Pause is a crushing love story. It swells with hope and the desire to live. It resounds with a fervent realisation that life is not always straightforward and simple but if we take time to acknowledge our own self-worth, if we simply pause for thought to see life through, the possibilities are endless.

Confronting, elegant, and accountably decisive, The Pause is an astonishing masterpiece of torn emotions and triumphant spirit that is essential YA (and beyond) reading.

Random House Australia April 2016

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Mums are Super! – Small reads, big on Heart

Mums come in all shapes and sizes and deserve adulations, which match their boundless love, tireless efforts, and quiet achievements. To fit them all into one day – Mother’s Day – is a mission impossible so shower your mother with gratitude (and great reads) year round! Or, if you are like me and prefer to share special literary moments with your reasons for motherhood (aka your brood), then curl up with one or two of these titles, together.

Too Cute 0 – 4 year olds

I love You Carry and Play board bookI Love You

This super dinky, pretty in pink board book forms part of the Carry and Play series, which neatly cover most of the celebratory seasons of the year: Christmas, Halloween, Spring time and so on. I Love You is an excellent fit for Mother’s Day given the mummies and babies theme. Simple assuring text, sweet illustrations and a shape and size that is perfect for little people with tiny hands and big hearts to grab on to will ensure hours of devoted reading; they’ll love toting around their very own copy.

Bloomsbury 2016

You have my Heart by Corrine Fenton and Robin CowcherYou Have my Heart

Another smallish picture book big on heart is You have my Heart. The suggestion that something special lies within begins with the padded cover and rich depth of joy portrayed by the bright red balloons, which float quietly yet purposefully throughout. The balloon belongs to someone who like us all, drifts through life on an ever-changing tide of emotions. There are good days, great days and ‘tears-tumbling-down days.’ This is a delicate exploration of Parrot’s Six primary emotions and all the other in-between days, ultimately uplifting and reassuring young readers of their value and worth and that they are loved and cherished You have my Heart illos spreadunconditionally. Cowcher’s restrained two-tone illustrations are superlative. Guaranteed to melt your heart.

The Five Mile Press April 2016

Pre-school Perfect 3 years +

My Mum's special SecretMy Mum’s Special Secret by Sally Morgan Illustrated by Ambelin Kwaymullina

Every child thinks their mum is special. It probably has a lot to do with the way she selflessly provides and cares for them. How she always has time to play with them, guide and teach them, watch over them and share with them the small wonders of their immense worlds, much like mother Kookaburra does with her chick. Morgan’s simple conversational text sits comfortably alongside Kwaymullina’s jolly colour-filled illustrations. Bold and bright, big on Aussie character but possessing a theme recognisable in any language, this neat little picture book will reinforce the mother-child bond snuggly.

Omnibus Books April 2016

Nannie LovesNannie Loves by Kylie Dunstan

Celebrating a mother’s love spans many generations including a grandmother’s. By examining each and everything and everyone Nannie loves, Dunstan takes us on a vivid holiday to Nannie’s farm, however for the narrator, it’s a much cherished regular visit. We meet her cows and chooks and Grandpa with his assortment of checked shirts. We ride tractors, wander about the farm, help collect eggs and best of all participate in the beautiful sharing of family and food. It’s a love of countrNannie Loves chooks illosy, family, and life that is pure and encompassing and it is superbly rendered  by Dunstan’s use of paper collage and pencil illustrations. I love it. I ‘m sure your Nan will, too. Gorgeous for those shared reading occasions when you both want to feel extra special.

Working Title Press March 2016

Fantastic Fun for 4 – 10 year olds

SupermumSupermum by Leah Russack Illustrated by Anil Tortop

Have you ever notice just how super your mum is? Perhaps not as she dashes about conjuring up meals, making mess disappear and healing all hurts. For one small child however, their mum’s superpowers are sensational secrets they are busting to share, so they do. This picture book is outrageous fun and exploits the perennial favourites – imaginative play and superheroes – with funky new verve and humour thanks to Tortop’s charismatic illustrations. Crackling with wit and colour, each scene smartly supports Russack’s simple statements – with a nifty twist that every child will immediately warm to. Supermum is proof positive that mums can do just about anything, with or without a cape. Superb for reading aloud and jumping off couches with.

Scholastic Australia April 2016

Take Ted InsteadTake Ted Instead by Cassandra Webb Illustrated by Amanda Francey

It’s the uncluttered natural flow of Webb’s narrative that makes Take Ted Instead a delight to read out loud but it’s Francey’s lavish illustrations that will draw readers back to this tale of bedtime procrastination. Yes, familiar theme but fun new approach with plenty of predictive word play that readers under five will appreciate just as fondly as those slightly older. Our little boy is tired but rather than succumb to bed, clings to a rising determination to send his many varied companions off in his place; my favourite bedtime victim is next-door-neighbour Ned but I think Francey’s portrayal of Ed (the goldfish) is gorgeous, too. Will Ted end up in bed, alone or will bedtime end in peace and joy? A delicious bedtime story to wind up Mother’s Day with.

New Frontier Publishing April 2016

Hope yours is wonderful, too. Happy Mother’s Day to all the Supermums out there.

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Marching Forward – Remembering Bravery Reviews

Remembering, honouring, commiserating, – learning. When recently reading ANZAC titles to my maturing primary schooler, she asked, ‘Are there still wars, going on?’ I had to reply that yes, sadly there were. However, by sharing the past and gradually exposing children to the realities of it, hopefully they become better equipped to care enough to avoid and prevent future conflicts. It’s a reality I’d like to hope for. These titles perpetuate that hope while escorting young readers through the historical past.

Forward MarchForward March by Christobel Mattingley Illustrated by David Kennett Picture Book

This is a curious ANZAC picture book, more of a compilation of ANZAC Day emotions, colours and locations commiserating the loss of our war veterans and the sacrifice they made. The opening page appears sombre and cold at first; pre-dawn on ANZAC Day morn. Look closely though and you’ll notice a pale yellow light entreating hope and promise. It represents one of the many war memorials across Australia where keen crowds gather to remember not only our great-grandads, dads, sons and grandsons, but also the grandmas, mothers, daughters and aunties, all those affected by battles they never ever wished for nor properly understood.

Mattingley’s sparse yet rousing statements honour all those who left their families and land to serve abroad whilst also acknowledging those who stayed behind and kept the country ticking over, ending with the rising of the dawn, the Last Post and a pledge to never forget.

What really captivates though are Kennett’s painted and drawn illustrations clustered in muted sepia-coloured vignettes that resemble the type of photo album your grandmother might have kept. Although an eyeful to take in all at once, these spreads tell of life on the battlefields in ways that leave words gasping. Several international conflicts are depicted including the Boer War, both Great Wars and the Vietnam War giving children wider scope and deeper meaning to exactly what we are remembering when standing at the cenotaph on ANZAC Day.

Ideal for prompting discussion of past world commemorative events amongst early primary schoolers presented with respect and restraint.

Omnibus Books March 2016

Socks Sandbags and LeechesSocks, Sandbags & Leeches Letters to my Anzac Dad by Pauline Deeves Illustrated Fiction

This hardcover illustrated tribute to those who served in the First World War is uniquely different to other children’s books drawing on this theme. Significantly, it is told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old child, Ivy whose father has left to fight overseas.

Deeves executes the same breezy epistolary style used in Midnight Burial to inform readers about life back in Australia whilst great chunks of her population were, in many ways, coerced to fight overseas. Through a series of letters written over a period of four years to her father who is first posted to Gallipoli and later France, Ivy describes how she and her mother had to move house, live with their Aunt Hilda and succumb to the restrictions of life during wartime.

Ivy’s voice is delightfully informal and intimate, eliciting strong young reader appeal and interest. She mentions various modernisations and several vagaries of life over 100 years ago that our tech –imbued children of today might well find absurd. I particularly appreciated Ivy’s illustrations included in her letters.

Socks Sandbags and Leeches illos spreadDeeves flourishes fact with fiction in a way that imparts a lot of new and interesting information. Although essentially a story about Socks, Sandbags & Leeches, readers can locate various topics about Conscription, the Retreat from Gallipoli and what school was like for example from the headings listed in the Contents. Scrapbook type pages crammed with authentic sketches, prints and excerpts of the time enhance the appearance of Ivy’s collection of letters and serve to reinforce the information she is relaying to her absent father.

A fascinating storytelling approach and account of the First World War for readers nine to fifteen.

National Library of Australia NLA February 2016

Dreaming the EnemyDreaming the Enemy by David Metzenthen YA novel

I have to include this new novel by master story teller, David Metzenthen, tackling the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress associated with one of our more recent political conflicts. Immersing readers into hot sweating jungle warfare and solider psyche, makes for a challenging read, not for the faint hearted. There’s a possibility it will create lasting impressions but not because of any insensitive gratuitous horror (there isn’t any) rather because it’s narrated in a somewhat disconnected way, from deep inside the head of a returned Vet and his erstwhile Viet Cong nemesis.

If you think you have difficulties getting your head around this psychological battle, spare a thought for the main character, Johnny Shoebridge. His tale of post-Vietnam traumatic anxiety is as wrenching and spellbinding as it is complicated and beautiful. Johnny has left the battlefields but has brought home a dread of living and the ghost-fighter, Khan who relentlessly dogs him. He knows he will remain forever at war if he can’t find a way to lay this phantom to rest.

Metzenthen has woven an elegant web of infinite detail, spinning tragedy and despair with hope and healing, undoable finality with incomplete futures, expanding on the truism that a solider may leave the battlefield behind but that the battle may never truly leave him.

‘Death never ended for the living.’

Wit and plenty of ribald reality checks temper Metzenthen’s breathtaking use of language and meticulous description while characters so real you can literally hear and smell them give you a great sense of tangibility. By the end of it, we come to acknowledge the awful truth we’ve suspected all along just like Khan and Johnny, that war is never really about wanting to kill or having a choice about it. Dreaming the Enemy decries this ultimate tragedy with a force so powerful it leaves your heart heaving.

Older teen readers will gain immeasurably from this stirring read as will the rest of us. Stunning and faultless.

Allen & Unwin 2016

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Getting Serious about Series # 4 – Ripper Reads for Girls

Lola's Toybox Patchwork PicnicI don’t usually like to categorise reads into which gender they might appeal to better. I believe every child is individual and will find a story to fit their unique reading tastes no matter how pink the cover or how boyish the hero. To say that boys should be directed to sports orientated titles and little girls to books about bunnies is pre-historic thinking and infers we (little girls) don’t like puppy dogs’ tails and snails. Simply not true! However, there can be no denying that certain reads will attract certain readers more powerfully than others. This luscious collection of chapter books and mid-graders will undoubtedly appeal to the sweet-toothed predilections of little misses given they are choking with cuteness and gee gees and unicorns.

Lola’s Toy Box by Danny Parker Illustrated by Guy Shield

This is a perfectly placed first-time-chapter-book series for little readers just putting their A B Cs together. These books provide useful stepping-stones in Lola's Toybox On Story Seathe crossover from readers to more exciting chapter books, each with a softly delivered message and each peppered with adventure. Anyone with an animated imagination and insatiable love for their toys will adore Lola’s Toy Box series. Lola and her toy clown Buddy, chance upon a portal – an old toy box, which transports them time after time to the varied lands of The Kingdom where they experience toy-filled adventures beyond their wildest dreams.

The Patchwork Picnic is the first of this series so far. Other exciting toy-land destinations include The Plastic Palace, On the Story Sea, and The Treasure Trove. The Timberfield Talent Show is the very latest release. Wild and whimsical, just what five to seven-year-old emerging readers need.

Hardie Grant Egmont 2015 – February 2016

Pine Valley Ponies The Forbidden TrailPine Valley Ponies by Kate Welshman Illustrated by Heath McKenzie

Pint-sized people from six years of age who love ponies, have ponies, ride ponies or want to ride ponies will fall over themselves with this new pony series. McKenzie’s tummy tickling drawings  (his horse characters are darling!) ably romp alongside short, easy-to-read chapters about Maddy and her pony, Snowy and their induction into the Pine Valley Riding ranch.

It’s not all smooth cantering for Maddy however, as she attempts to fit in amongst the fancy-pantsed, equine experienced girls of her class. However, the call of adventure soon overrides difficulties and cements her love of Pine Valley Ponies The Pony Showhorse riding, as it will for those absorbed in her antics. Start with The Forbidden Trail and move onto The Runaway Foal then prepare yourself for The Pony Show.

There is much for horse-orientated kids to love here, from the bright pastel and foil covers, enticing page layouts, pony profiles, nifty horsey Q & A and loads more besides. Well recommended.

Scholastic Press October 2015 – March 2016

Ruby Wishfingers illoRuby Wishfingers by Deborah Kelly Illustrated by Leigh Hedstrom

Ruby Wishfingers is an absolute crack up of a series. I loved the first instalment, Skydancer’s Escape and can’t wait to get into Toady-ally Magic. Suitable for slightly older primary aged readers, this tantalising new series still features terrific line drawings and easy to digest chapters but it’s the humour infused story line, flavoured with more than a hint of magic that truly makes Ruby irresistible.

Ruby Wishfingers Toadlly MagicShe’s your run of the mill ordinary girl with a peculiar name who one day awakens with a weird tingling sensation in her fingertips. She soon realises it’s a force to be reckoned with and that you should be careful what you wish for.

Loaded with lovable characters, talking pocket-sized unicorns, indignant felines, jellybean rain and magic, Ruby Wishfingers books will not disappoint those who love adventure and fast zany reads. My pick of the crop.

Wombat Books March 2016

Keeper of the Crystals Runaway UnicornKeeper of the Crystals by Jess Black Illustrated by Celeste Hulme

The things you’ll notice first about this adventure fantasy series are the brilliant covers and sparkly titles. Each of this four part series about Eve and her unlikely companion, Oscar lures young readers in like fish to wriggling worms. It begins when the pair unwittingly unleash the power of the crystals after they open a forbidden wooden box in Eve’s Nan’s attic.

The initial crystal is of a small unicorn, which is a portal into a mysterious fantastical far away land, Panthor. Suggestions of environmental instability and political oppression in each of the strange new worlds Eve and Oscar are transported to resonate throughout these tales albeit all disguised with action, myth, and fantasy for the young reader.

Keeper of the Crystal Eve and the Last DragonAn attractive series that would suit readers seven years and above and those with a penchant for the surreal.

New Frontier Publishing June 2015 – March 2016

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Powerfully Poignant – Historical MG reviews

Courage to CareBeing part of the human species is not always a club I’m proud to belong to. We can be pretty awful to each other sometimes even though most of us, most of the time err on the side of kindness. History allows us to mark the good times and the kind people. More frequently however, it serves as a reminder of the inglorious periods of our human existence. We cannot and should not hide from them if we want humanity to evolve, which is why these next three books make for such fundamental reading. All would complement the historical fiction shelves of young readers aged between 11 and 15. All encourage us to recognise discrimination, understand its origins, and be brave enough to fight its ugly consequences. All invite us to care in a powerfully poignant way.

One Thousand HillsOne Thousand Hills by James Roy and Noel Zihabamwe

This book is devastating. Powerful and wrenching yet achingly beautiful. Roy and Zihabamwe have given one ten-year-old boy a voice among an ocean of hundreds of thousands that were silenced without reason or mercy. Written with understated force and crisp, almost child-like clarity, One Thousand Hills traces the tension fraught days leading up to one of the most despicable acts of genocide the world as ever known, the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Pascal lives in Agabande, close to Kigali, in the heart of Rwanda. His life is simple and idyllic despite the taunts of his older brother and annoying traits of his little sister, Nadine. His parents work hard, worship what is good and Godly, and provide for their family as devoutly as the rest of the villagers who reside in the verdant mountainous countryside. They are a mixed family of Hutu and Tutsis, yet they share the same brutality and sheer ‘awfulness’ of this crime against humanity, born of fear and a need to sustain power with over 800,000 other Rwandans.

This novel does not sensationalise the violence nor does it dwell on the political legitimacy and shortcomings of the world’s nations who at first refused to acknowledge the genocide and certainly did nothing to prevent or end it. Instead, readers are shown how Pascal, via his vivid and eloquent narrations to a counsellor in Brussels some five years later, survived the ordeal and how his experiences changed him.

His voice rings loud and pure yet is tragically and irreversibly altered by what he has seen and had to do to save himself and Nadine. The final picture is not a straightforward prediction of how the previously pious and life-loving Pascal will evolve. He is at the endpoint, painfully sad and despondent; we, like the counsellor are incredulous and shocked that he has emerged with any sense of hope at all.

Despairing and gut wrenching, yes, however rather than fuelling hatred and disgust, this poignant tale promotes understanding and hope ‘to prevent children having to hide or run in fear from conflicts that have nothing to do with them.’ (Paraphrased from James Roy’s dedication.)

Powerful, essential reading.

Hanna My Holocaust StoryMy Holocaust Story: Hanna by Goldie Alexander

This is the first title in the Holocaust series aimed at upper primary readers and at first glance, I had mixed feelings about curling up to read this one. On one hand, I find the potency and importance of this subject terribly arresting but on the other, if handled oafishly instils depression and worse, a kind of muted blasé trance – we’ve-heard-and-seen-it-all-before kind of attitude. Happy to report, Hanna exhibits none of the latter and is an excellent introduction of the Holocaust and its impact for young readers.

Peppered with edgy characters, spirited narration, and well-paced drama, Hanna is another title that skilfully addresses the atrocities of ethnic cleansing without bogging young minds previously unexposed to the grim details of WW II.

Hanna Kaminsky is a Polish Jew forced into hiding with her family, then surviving in the Warsaw Ghetto at the onset of WW II. Like Pascal, she can almost taste the rising tension of political unrest but is too absorbed by her love of gymnastics, her best friend, and her warm family life to comprehend the danger it represents.

Pascal’s refuge was an old disused water tank. Hanna’s is reading. Throughout her nerve-destroying confinement she clings to the one novel her mother allowed her to flee with, The Scarlet Pimpernel. She begins to mirror her survival on his character and adopts the mantra ‘pluck and audacity’ to make it through each moment of escalating horror. In spite of her own hardships, Hanna shows spunk and fortitude in the face of adversity, using them to help others in dire need.

Alexander’s historical notes give this story depth and dimension describing the staggering loss of life associated with the Holocaust, millions being children, but again are presented in a balanced, informative way. For there is no need to over-describe the tragedy of these events.

It’s interesting to note this title is endorsed by Courage to Care, an organisation devoted to educating and challenging young people to stand up to injustices rather than just being passive bystanders.

Inspiring and purposeful.

Paper Planes by Allayne L. Webster

This did not pull me as much as the title and cover promised it might owing to continued overzealous exposition however, it is nonetheless a fascinating account of the conflict thPaper Planesat divided a nation and its people for nearly half a decade. Ashamedly, I knew very little about the Civil War that savaged the former Yugoslavia in the early 90s in spite of the fact that I was living and working in Europe at the time.

Paper Planes traces the plight of one family in Sarajevo through the eyes of the quite naive 12-year-old Niko and his eventual escape from the city under siege. Flecked with historic accuracies, this story does prick the emotions and beggars the belief as to how we humans are (still) able to fight our fellow man in such prehistoric ways for so little substantial reason.

Recommended for mid-grade readers, Paper Planes is another story about a terrible war and cultural genocide, the sufferers of which are often the innocents; the children and the people who never wanted it in the first place and like all war-torn tales, it is based on real historical facts and the lives of those who lived them.

Find all books here.

Scholastic Australia March 2015 – March 2016

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Review – Cyclone

CycloneI was but a babe in arms when Cyclone Althea swept across Townsville on the eve of Christmas in 1971 however, I will never forget the noise of it; the warning sirens, the howling winds, the pelting rain. We were hushed into submissive silence by the storm screaming to get through our walls; muted by the all-consuming blackness, the sheer force of it. And then afterwards, struck again with incredulousness; our roof still over our heads whilst every other in the street lay shorn off, twisted and deformed in backyards where they didn’t belong.

Images like these are hard to erase. A few years later, another cyclone, this one by the name of Tracy struck at a similar time of year, blighting a similar town, producing similar indelible memories for the survivors.

Bruce Whatley and Jackie French45 years on, powerful storytelling duo, Jackie French and Bruce Whatley mark this event with their new picture book, Cyclone. It’s hard to ignore the images of this beautiful work, as well.

Following in the same potent spirit of their Flood and Fire collaborations, Cyclone focuses primarily on a single tragic natural disaster, which had cataclysmic consequences for not only the community it affected but also many others across Australia. The results are profound and moving, yet also hopeful.

A storm brewed out at sea on the 24th of December 1974, yet the residents of Darwin hunkered down, unconcerned, too preoccupied with the imminent arrival of Santa Claus to worry about a fairly normal occurrence for them. When Cyclone Tracy unexpectedly swung and hit Darwin full in the face, she did so with such vehemence and force that the township was taken unawares. As the BOM quoted, ‘The entire fabric of life in Darwin was catastrophically disrupted, with the majority of buildings being totally destroyed or badly damaged, and very few escaping unscathed.’

French depicts this wholesale devastation with lilting verse that pays homage to the intensity of the storm as well as infusing the tragedy with a personal touch. The narrator, presumably a small expectant child waiting for Santa but faced instead with a wild beast who consumes their town overnight, is shown huddling with their family in their brick barbecue amidst a sea of destruction.

FloodThe poignancy of the situation and the degree of loss is beautifully rendered by Whatley’s pencil and acrylic wash illustrations. As with its two predecessors, I believe Whatley executed Cyclone’s drawings with his left (non-dominant) hand producing exquisite expressions of infinite detail and fluidity. Streaks, smears and runs feature in every landscape representing the force and chaos of the storm and later the pervading sense of new life, slowly seeping back, where ‘houses grow…day by day’ – my daughter’s favourite spread. The washed-out appearance and toned-down hues do indeed reflect the tone and look of a feature film reel likely to have existed in the 70s. The whole effect is goose bump raising.

Cyclone is an ode of sorts to the man at the end of the phone line French happened to answer one fateful day following the catastrophe of Cyclone Tracy as she manned the Information Section of the Department of Urban and Regional Development. She will never forget his despair, nor his tenacious courage to rebuild and move on.

FireLike Flood and Fire, and Cyclone Tracy itself, Cyclone is a telling testimony to the legacy of good that can emerge from ravaged lives and homes. It cites that humans are ultimately survivors, capable of adapting and ‘inventing ways to live with whatever challenges the planet throws at them.’ We are reminded to respect the forces of nature and learn from our mistakes; a significant observation for those who have endured a natural disaster and for those of our more recent generations who have not. Highly recommended.

Scholastic Press February 2016

Gone to the Dogs – Canine reads to relish

Pig the Winner illoCats v Dogs: me, I’m more of a dog person but there can be little denying the positive impact pets have on small minds and well-being no matter what species they are. The therapeutic effect dogs have on the lives of their humans is well documented. Their cuteness appeal however is much harder to chart. It simply knows no bounds. Here is a smattering of doggy-inspired reads for kids that may lure more of the feline-inclined over to the dog-side.

Cute Appeal

The Pocket DogsThe Pocket Dogs and the Lost Kitten by Margaret Wild and Stephen Michael King is a jolly little new addition to the extremely likeable picture book series, The Pocket Dogs. Mr Pockets’ dogs, Biff and Buff struggle to accommodate a new member into the family in this picture book that pre-schoolers will soak up with glee and older readers can easily tackle on their own. King’s iconic illustrations thrill to the nth degree. Learn more about Biff and Buff’s adventures here, in Romi’s fabulous recent review.

Omnibus Books Scholastic Imprint February 2016

Winner!

Pig the WinnerI have to confess, Pig was not my favourite Aaron Blabey character when he first forced his way into our lives. Bulgy-eyed and ill-tempered with the most pugnacious attitude on four legs, Pig was hard to love. Nevertheless, his irascible nature eventually got under my skin like a coat-full of fleas and by Pig the Fibber, I had to agree with my 9 year-old that this cantankerous canine really was worth trying to love. Pig the Winner is quite possibly my favourite account of this bad-mannered pooch to date. His behaviour has not altered and his agenda remains purely pug-orientated; poor second-best, Trevor is treated with the same distain and disrespect as before for Pig’s greed to be first at everything outweighs any compassion he has for his kennel buddy. He’s a cheat and a gloater who has to learn the hard way that good sportsmanship should be about fun, friendship, and fitness not just coming first all the time. And he does learn eventually, sort of… Pig the Winner is a gloriously gauche and enjoyable mockery of man’s best friend behaving badly. A winning addition for your Pig collection.

Scholastic Press March 2016

Tips and Tricks

Wonderdogs Tips and TrainingIf you need help changing your pooch from a Pig to a well-mannered pup, look no further than Dr Katrina Warren and Kelly Gill’s Wonderdogs Ticks & Training. This doggy training guide isn’t just about extending the mental prowess of one of the world’s smartest dogs, the Border Collie, although it does feature Kelly Gill’s troop of wonder collies. It guides readers through the basics of puppy care, socialisation, initial good manners training and harnessing canine respect and psyche. Moreover, it does all this in a supremely conversational and digestible way, perfect for the young dog owner. Children as young as five will gain much from the clearly laid out explanations and sweeter than cotton candy photos of some very cute collie pups. Part 2 ramps up the training to wonderdog level introducing readers and their dogs to dozens of trainable tricks ranging from basic to advanced, again in step-by-step logical progression. It’s easier than following a recipe and just as rewarding. You don’t have to be a new dog owner either to appreciate this book and transform your dog into something even more wonderful.

HarperCollins Publishers March 2012

Leader of the Pack

Me TeddyChris McKimmie’s creations either make you cringe with discomfort or cheer with exuberance. His picture books brim with artwork that is simultaneously bewildering and bewitching, crowded with observational humour and flushed with detail. I don’t always find them easy to read but immensely interesting to absorb, often across a number of readings.

Me, Teddy echoes much of the iconic McKimmie brilliance we’ve come to associate his tales with however, for me, it represents a significant piece of art and comedy, as well. This is Teddy’s scrapbook, a carefully scraped together collection of memories, anecdotes, pictures, and internal thoughts by the McKimmie’s much-loved black Labrador. Teddy introduces us to his chewed-shoe and soap-eating, puppyhood then invites us to romp with him through his day-to-day adventures including his confusion when his family temporarily depart with their suitcases, leaving him behind. I love Teddy’s dog-eared perspective of life and the subtle intimation that he is the one who really calls the shots. Actual drawings, photos and hand written notes create a delicious sense of authenticity for what could have been a self-indulgent tribute for a (beloved) family pet, which it is but which also elevates it to a heart-warming picture book that any child, person and dog lover will instantly ‘get’ and love, too.

Allen & Unwin Children’s February 2016

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