Review: Blackbird of the Gallows by Meg Kassel

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Blackbird of the Gallows by Meg Kassel is a riveting and entrancing story about harbingers, beekeepers, DJing and the kind of romance that’s forbidden because one half might possibly be a mystical monster. This was just addictive, entrancing, and utterly beautifully written, which is all I ask for in a book! The characters manage to win your heart while the folklore of these shapeshifting crow harbingers is as fascinating as it is different. Move over typical paranormal vampires and werewolves…we gotcha death predictors and your heroines who are very anxious and also into EDM.

Angie Dovage is a pretty anxious and quiet kind of girl, just getting through highschool and keeping to herself since her mother died…except her new neighbours might also be harbingers of death who appear just before a monumental tragedy is about to occur in a town. This is bad news because: hello, catastrophe. But also Angie is developing feelings for Reece, who not only won’t be staying after the catastrophe, but who is definitely part monster. And as much as he tries not to be drawn to her…it doesn’t work. But he’s surrounded by chaos, including beekeepers who bring havoc with a single sting and could destroy Angie and her friends’ lives, and not to mention whatever is brewing is going to take out a lot of people. But who’s going to listen to Angie when she tries to warn them? And trusting Reece might be the best thing she can do or the absolute worst and she could doom them all.

I was instantly swept into this world of harbingers in a modern highschool setting. Of course it has a ton of the old paranormal tropes: hot mystery guy arrives in town, has a bit of a weird family, is probably immortal, shapeshifts into something feathery, has otherworldly eyes…etc. etc. But this just took them all from a new angle. Reece was respectful and kind of adorable and he feels the burden of his curse. He’s always tired, always carrying the weight of what horrors he’s seen. His harbinger family is dogged by beekeepers who quite literally sew madness and it’s so hard for him to meet people and not have them end up dead. Reece managed to be a sweetie and mysterious which was a combination I quite enjoyed. Not to mention say goodbye to any whingey paperdoll heroines. We have one who’s not only distrustful of random guys, but totally her own unique person.

Hello Angie Dovage! She was so relatable and just the kind of character you can enjoy spending a few hundred pages with. She doesn’t immediately fall into instalust with Reece (although she knows he’s hot; ok she ain’t blind) and she keeps her friends close. I love her epic friendships and how they were totally involved in the plot! Also Angie is a secret DJ and revels in her “other life” where people respect her and her music, while at school she’s the shy and quiet overlooked girl with a dubious past (her mother is dead but also was an addict) and pretty average in most opinions. Also Angie’s relationship with her dad?! SO nice! It’s great to see really wholesome and loving parent-kid relationships in YA and we sorely need more.

Also having the book feature harbingers and murders of crows was not only new to me, it was really interesting! I loved the lore and backstory of Reece’s family and got totally lost in this reshaped myth. The harbingers are immortal beings who turn into crows and follow around death and destruction. They arrive in town —> a tragedy goes down —> they feed off the energy. It’s a curse though and they hate it.

The book also features plenty of tragedy and catastrophe, grief and loss. It has so much heart with dealing with these topics and also paints its “villains” as more morally grey people. Sometimes they’re just propelled by their curse, other times it’s a choice to choose right vs wrong.

Should you read Blackbird of the Gallows?! ABSOLUTELY. Even if you’re tired of paranormal, this one will freshen up your world. And the heartfelt messages and relatable characters made it such a winning story. Not to mention that sidedish of utter death and destruction. What can I say?! This book has it all.

Review: Release by Patrick Ness

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Release by Patrick Ness is a masterpiece and also a gut-wrenching tale that spreads over just one day. It only takes one day to change your life that’s for sure: for the reader and for our protagonist, Adam Thorn. I’m such a fan of Patrick Ness’ works…everything from The Knife Of Never Letting Go, to The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and his latest book And The Ocean Was Our Sky. His books are always diverse and so unique and varied. Although I have such a soft spot for Release as it has more of a contemporary setting, which is my favourite!

The story is about Adam Thorn’s single Saturday in summer…and how his world just starts crumbling with one massive piece of life changing news after the next. He’s tired of living in this tiny town with an overbearing preacher father, of hiding the fact that he’s gay (this would not be accepted in his house) to the going-away party tonight for his ex-boyfriend (who horribly broken his heart). Everything awful seems to happen in the middle until Adam has no idea where to turn, what he believes, and if he can ever truly be worthy of being loved.

The writing and storyline are truly addictive. And since it’s set over such a short period of time (plus it’s under 300 pages) you kind of just want to keep reading! The characters leapt off the page and I felt for Adam so much.

I was a little confused with the magical realism aspect. There’s a girl who was murdered and her storyline is just a few paragraphs between Adam’s chapters — and it all ties together at the end, but I was never quite sure what was going on for hers. There are fauns and wildness and ghosts in those segments. Definitely didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story though.

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Adam is TRULY having the worst day. This poor guy. He needs to just go to bed (human version of “let’s just turn it off and then on again”) and start over.

Adam is very lost and he feels like he isn’t loved. Worse: he feels like he doesn’t deserve to be loved. Your heart will definitely break for him. And, no, he doesn’t have the worst life ever, but his religious family won’t truly accept him and they believe he’s inherently sinning from just existing. It’s exhausting trying to please them and also being himself. Add onto that heartbreak with the boy, Enzo, who he always loved the most, Adam is just cracking around the edges even though he keeps trying to deal with it alone.

It does explore religion a bit, and it goes from the angle of how oftentimes the church can be exclusive and hypocritical. I read an author’s note that says he based this story off his own life and strict religious family upbringing while also being gay. You can feel the authenticity of Adam’s emotions because of this.

There’s also an epic friendship between Adam and Angela! And a really adorable newly blossoming romance between Adam and his new boyfriend, Linus. I like how it developed the secondary characters and really truly left us with the message of: you can choose your own family too.

Release is one to make you think and also draw you in with its amazing writing. It’s a raw book and full of vulnerable moments, of relationships breaking and also mending and building. With a message of “yes you deserved to be loved” this book will catch your heart.

Dimity Powell Takes Us on a Trip Down Holyrood Lane

 Dimity Powell, author of evocatively and beautifully written (and illustrated by Nicky Johnston) titles including The Fix-It Man (my review and interview) and At the End of Holyrood Lane (my review) is here to discuss the creation of the latter in an insightful interview. Dimity is a well-established presenter in Australia and overseas and a strong advocate for literacy as a workshop leader and Books in Homes Role Model. As you would be aware from her Boomerang Books reviews, Dimity has a flair for exquisite language, and her picture books are conveyed no differently. I’m grateful for this opportunity to talk with you, Dim!

Congratulations, Dim, on your newest, very special picture book, once again collaborating with the gorgeous Nicky Johnston!

Thank you, Romi!

Following your successful partnership on The Fix-It Man, was this second joint venture something you always planned or just a lucky coincidence?

It is something we both secretly always wished for – we adore working together – but was definitely more of a case of fate than design. When EK Books accepted Holyrood Lane, the first person publisher, Anouska Jones and I thought of to illustrate this story was Nicky. Her style was just right for projecting the type of feeling this work required.

Your story deals with a delicate topic on domestic violence and emotional safety through the metaphorical torment of a thunderstorm. We know Nicky has the knack for capturing the deep and true essence of a story. How do you feel she portrayed your intention? Was there much collaboration throughout the process?

She portrayed every intention brilliantly! Nicky has a phenomenal initiative grasp of the story behind my stories. It’s as if she has direct access into my head and is able to see exactly how I’d love the characters and their emotions be displayed. This occurs with little to no consultation at all, which stuns me. I can only paint with words. Nicky’s illustrations do all the rest of the work.

What I really enjoyed about working with her on this project was when I happened to be in Melbourne last year (for the Victorian launch of The Fix-It Man) and was invited into her work studio. Oh, what a sublime experience that was. She had a query about a certain spread of Holyrood Lane and invited me to offer solutions. Together we nutted through the various ways of portraying the message. It was a turning point in the story for the main character, Flick and for me. I have never experienced such joy working so closely with such a divinely talented creator as Nicky. I know this is not everyone’s experience so I feel very blessed.

As mentioned, At the End of Holyrood Lane is an intensely moving and powerful tale that prevalently and superbly brings an awareness to its readers. What was your motivation in writing this story and what do you hope your audience gains from reading it?

I hope first and foremost readers engage with Flick’s story in a way that is meaningful for them and leave it feeling more hopeful and reflective. I was prompted to write this book after a meeting with a prominent children’s charity founder, who proclaimed more mainstream, accessible picture books addressing this subject matter were needed. I rose to the challenge. But in doing so, had to clear tall hurdles. Most mainstream publishers felt this type of story was ‘too hot to handle’. Fortunately, for me, EK Books had the foresight and determination to take it on with me.

Did the story go through many re-writes? How did you perfect the language and level of emotional impact for an audience that may be as young as three or four?

Oh, yes! After several knock backs, I set about restructuring Flick’s story into a more metaphoric one, one that would appeal to children worldwide regardless of their situation and whether or not they were victims of abuse. If it wasn’t for the initial reactions and the feedback received from those publishers, I would not have had the impetus to fight on so determinedly nor explore my story from a different perspective. Reasons to be grateful for rejections!

Each rewrite brought me closer to that sweet spot, where words and emotions sing in perfect harmony. To ensure that the words matched the emotional maturity of my audience I sought the help of my erstwhile writing critique buddy, Candice Lemon-Scott. Normally when we assess each other’s work, it only takes one or two feedback sessions to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular manuscript. Working on this one was like slogging it through the finals of a tennis match; there was much back and forwarding, but finally after about six rewrites and months of massaging, I knew I had a winner.

What is the significance of the title? Is there a hidden meaning behind it?

Yes and no. I love the term Holyrood, having noticed it on my travels and always thought I’d love to incorporate it into one of my books one day. After rewriting Holyrood Lane a few times under the old working title of Holding On, I realised I needed something better, stronger and more meaningful. Holyrood has various religious connections, appropriated to be an ancient Christian relic of the true cross and was the subject of veneration and pilgrimage in the middle ages. It is also the placename of several notable locations throughout Europe. I liked the subtle spiritual connotations and the sense of venturing away from the norm into a potentially better unknown that this title evokes.

The excitement of your book launch in Brisbane is imminent! What do you have planned for the big day?

The launch is taking place at the Brisbane Square Library, which is smack bang in the middle of Brisbane on the 23 September – a Sunday – so hopefully young and old will be able to make it. In addition to the usual cupcake consumption (they’ll look and taste gorgeous I can assure you!), there’ll be kids’ activities, special guest speakers from various domestic violence organisations, book readings, signings and a raffle with over $1,040 worth of terrific book prizes to be won. Kids’ Lit guru, Susanne Gervay is also travelling up from Sydney to launch this book with me for which I’m eternally grateful. This industry thrives on the support from people like her so I look forward to celebrating this with everyone at the launch.

You are hugely active in the literary community with workshops, festivals, school visits and the like. What other kinds of events and presentations have you been involved in recently? What value do you see for authors presenting to children?

I’ve been facilitating and conducting a few school holiday kids’ writing camps this year in addition to bookshop appearances and workshops. I really love these camps because on a personal level they consolidate what it means to write and how to do it well. They are also heaps of fun and put me in touch with tomorrow’s writers in a very real and exciting way. I’m not really teaching them to write; it feels more like a privileged position of mentoring; guiding and nurturing young raw talent is unspeakably satisfying.

One of the camps I facilitate is the Write Like An Author Camps designed by Brian Falkner. The immense value of having published active authors presenting to kids is that validation they gain from linking facts, tips, tricks and methods with real world experience. We (authors) are the living proof of what we do and say!

Anything else of excitement you’d like to add? News? Upcoming projects? TBR pile?

My TBR pile is tall enough to crush an elephant should it ever topple which it has, toppled that is, not killed any elephants, yet. My Christmas wish would be for more time to read AND write. I’m bubbling with new picture book ideas but have been writing in snatches since entering pre-publication mode for Holyrood Lane. There are a couple more publications on the horizon for 2019 and 2020 though, which makes me happier than a bear with a tub of honey ice cream.

Things are also ramping up on the SCBWI front as we prepare for the next Sydney-based Conference taking place in February 2019. Bookings for this immensely popular conference have just opened and are filling fast. I have the enviable task of coordinating a dynamic team of Roving Reporters again next year whose job is to cover every inch of the conference and it share with the world. It’s another time gobbling occupation but a thrilling one nonetheless.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Dimity! And congratulations again on such a special book! 🙂

It was my absolute pleasure, Romi!

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Review: Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry

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I had a suspicion I’d love Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry before I even started and…I was not wrong. It’s such an excellent story, equal parts funny and heartwarming and also a deep exploration of a lot of the double-standards of religious schools. It also features enough gruesome facts about Catholic Saints to remind me of my childhood days reading all the Horrible History books. Good times. What a throwback

The story starts with Michael, a definite atheist, being sent to a Catholic school and woah does he think he’s in for a terrible time. He’s already mad at his parents for constantly moving (his dad keeps taking work promotions and is never home anyway) and Michael is sick of trying to make new friends and go to new schools. A devout Catholic school might be the worst yet…until he meets Lucy, the girl who wants to be a priest, and her tight-knit friend group of religious misfits like Avi who is Jewish and gay and Eden, a Wiccan. Turns out they run a secret club called Heretics Anonymous where they mostly complain about the injustices of the school, the ridiculous uniform regulations, the unfair sexism, and how acceptance should be spread more freely. But what if they didn’t just complain? What if they acted subtly and anonymously on their outrage? It starts small but the Heretics Anonymous club is here to shake up the school. Unless they take it too far…

The book is definitely heavily religious. It’s set in a Catholic school and talks a lot about what Catholics believe, but I didn’t feel it ever went preachy or dry. The book isn’t trying to convert anyone to anything (not Catholicism or atheistic beliefs). It’s simply showing a vast variety of beliefs and calling for acceptance. I liked how this one pointed out hypocrisy within the church rules, but it never condemned or showed any side as being “in the wrong”. The balance was great. I loved all these perspectives.

The characters were a definite highlight too! Even though I picked up the book because the plot sounded good, it was the characters that totally won my heart over. Michael is an easily relatable and wining character. He makes several very bad decisions, but you still understand where he’s coming from. His dad is overly hard and dismissive to him, Michael’s sick of being lonely, and being uprooted and taken all over the country isn’t easy on anyone.

The secondary characters all felt dynamic and complex within just a few chapters! I adored getting to know Lucy, Avi, Eden and Max. The diversity levels were on point and so respectfully done with Lucy being Colombian, Avi being Jewish, and I suspect Max may have been autistic although it’s not stated on the page. Lucy is such an intense Catholic, but not blind to their failings, and it really pains her that she can never really help her church because she’s not allowed to as a girl. Her relationship with Michael is definitely slowburn and adorable. And the friend-group’s banter and loyalty (and also betrayals) were so addictive to read!

It does get intense when it goes into talking about theology a few times, and we get loaded up on religious facts. But I felt I also learned a lot about what people believe.

Overall? Heretics Anonymous excellent story you don’t want to miss out on. It’s full of funny and endearing characters, lines that had me snorting, and a super cute romance that didn’t take over the plot. All the hot-headed moments that ended in dubious decisions had me unable to put the book down, desperate to know what would happen. For like, um, 2hrs. You just have to keep reading!

The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle

The Storm Keeper’s Island draws on wild, Celtic-inspired magic and antagonism between the light and dark to create a dense, darkly atmospheric tale for middle grade.

Eleven-year-old Fionn and his thirteen-year-old sister Tara are sent by their unwell mother to stay with their grandfather on the island of Arranmore. Fionn never met his father, who had strong ties with the island and died in the sea surrounding it. Fionn resembles him physically and wonders if his mother may be rejecting him because of this. He believes that he lacks courage and is afraid of the sea but wants to be his own person.

When they arrive Tara joins her boyfriend, Bartley, and his friendlier sister Shelby in excluding Fionn while they search for the Sea Cave. The Cave is dangerous and is reputed to grant a wish to the one who can enter. Bartley desires to be the next Storm Keeper, the one who controls the elements using the island’s power.

Island lore explains that ancient sorcerers, Dagda and Morrigan, fought for supremacy. After defeating Morrigan, Dagda left magic gifts behind to protect Arranmore: the Sea Cave; the Whispering Tree; the Merrows and Aonbharr, the Winged Horse.

Fionn and Tara’s aging grandfather is the current Storm Keeper and his cottage is crowded with candles. These contain memories of past times and, in an unexpected form of timeslip, can take those who light a candle back to the storms and times enclosed within it. He and Fionn travel into memories together where his grandfather is a strong, powerful man but he often returns aged and forgetful, signalling his descent into Alzheimer’s disease.

Arranmore reveals whispers of magic. The island holds secrets and is restless with layers of ancient, elemental magic peeking through. It behaves differently for Fionn and he wonders if he is meant to inherit the role of Storm Keeper despite his reluctance and fear. He learns that often the most difficult journeys are inside ourselves.

When Fionn is fainthearted his grandfather advises him to “live a life of breathless wonder, so that when it begins to fade from you, you will feel the shadow of its happiness still inside you and the blissful sense that you laughed the loudest, loved the deepest, and lived fearlessly”.

This mystical, original high fantasy is atmospherically reminiscent of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. It is both enticing and reflective.

The Storm Keeper’s Island is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. The sequel will be published in July 2019.

The Goat by Anne Fleming

The Goat will appeal to both thoughtful children and young adults, as well as adults looking for an uplifting read. It could be a great read-aloud across age-groups.

The premise of a mountain goat living on a New York skyscraper near Central Park suggests that this is a fabulist tale, but all is revealed in satisfying mode and time.

Characters living in and near the building span the titular goat as well as a cast of two children and a range of adults. Kid and her parents have arrived from Toronto to look after a dog named Cat. Her mother has written and is about to perform in an Off-Broadway show: Hockey Mom: The Musical. Lisa is a quirky character, with funny ways of showing both her nerves and her love towards her family. Kid is shy and avoids looking at people‘s faces but soon strikes a rapport with Will, who can’t bear windows since his parents were killed in the exploding Twin Towers. His grandmother, retired chemist and writer Dr Lomp, home-schools him and keeps a close eye on him. The two children love exploring museums and there is some thoughtful discussion between them and others about the Towers and Ground Zero.

Doris is an elderly woman who cares for her husband, Jonathan, who has suffered a stroke but doesn’t want his wife to know that he can do more than he shows. He enjoys watching the goat eat Doris’s wheatgrass without her knowing why it doesn’t grow.

The goat traverses the building looking for food but is reluctant to cross the “clangy black cliff … the noisy tree-ish creatures that roamed the ledge … the river of giant moving clumps” to where he can see abundant food. He loves to gambol even though he never feels completely safe.

Kenneth P. Gill is an enigmatic character who leaves hay outside his window. Joff Vanderlinden is a blind skateboarder and famous young writer. He also loves playing chess in Washington Square Park and longs for another encounter with the woman who beat him, called him “buckaroo” and hasn’t returned.

All these strands begin to intersect when Kid and Will knock on every door in search of someone who could confirm that a goat lives on Kid’s building. Backstories about both the goat and human characters are revealed with poignancy and tenderness, leading to an intertwined, heart-lifting finale.

The Goat by Anne Fleming is published by Pushkin Children’s (Faber Factory Plus) Allen & Unwin

Review: At the End of Holyrood Lane by Dimity Powell and Nicky Johnston

If there ever was a story that so finely balances a highly delicate topic with exquisitely gentle language and a resolution that makes your heart swell, it’s At the End of Holyrood Lane written by Dimity Powell and illustrated by Nicky Johnston. So brilliantly does this book combine the rawness of agonising fear and anxiety in a case of domestic and emotional violence with a ray of uplifting hope and courage, depicted amongst the darkness of the metaphorical thunderstorm that causes such torment.

Through Powell’s powerful narrative and Johnston’s visually arresting illustrations, we experience the juxtaposition of a normally vibrant young Flick with this little girl troubled by the daunting uncertainty of her safety. Where a home should be a consistently sheltered environment, Flick has to weather the wrath of fierce storms that “smother sunshine and ransack fun.” They “make Flick feel smaller than she really is.” The rising intensity of the fuming rage accented with looming, dark faceless shadows brings the arc to a screeching crescendo, until the call for help allows the sunshine to glow and spill over a vibrant young Flick once again.

RizeUp Australia and Act for Kids are proud supporting organisations of this book and of families experiencing domestic violence in the home. At the End of Holyrood Lane, in essence, raises a gentle touch to readers in empowering them the ability to seek help in times of suffering.

Highly evocative and dramatically moving, the value of this book to homes and schools is unquestionable. Flick and her toy unicorn are a symbol of hope and sunshine that early years children will quite quickly warm to.

EK Books, September 2018.

Dimity Powell will be joining us in an insightful interview, coming shortly!

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Review: Sweet Adversity

Assimilating history into a palatable, meaningful tale for today’s children is no easy thing. Get it wrong and you risk children shunning not only a potentially great read, but learning about periods of our past that explain the character of our future as a people and a nation. A situation of unquestionable adversity, yet adversity has many advantages – ‘sweet are the uses of adversity’ after all. Get it right, and children will embrace history with gusto and every ounce of the here and now vigour that defines childhood.

Sheryl Gwyther’s ability to immerse young readers into worlds of yesteryear with such a clear strong presence of today is exemplary. Her narrative slides along as alluringly as a sweet mountain brook, mesmerizing readers with plenty of action and emotion. Sweet Adversity is exactly the type of book my 12-year-old-self would have lapped up with unbridled zeal, especially as it acquaints children with the wondrous words of Shakespeare, some of which adult readers will connect with of course, but which provide a beautiful rich new seam of learning for tweens.

Continue reading Review: Sweet Adversity

Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

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SADIE by Courtney Summers is a book that will leave you feeling utterly shaken. It’s intense and really dark and the ending kind of had me like, “mY KINDLE IS BROKEN I NEED ANOTHER CHAPTER.” Which I both love and hate. (Curse you, book.) Seriously though, it’s the kind of book you end up forgetting how to breathe while you read it and it is so so well written.

It feels weird saying “I enjoyed this!” because it’s NOT an enjoyable story. It’s raw and emotional and shows such a darkly vicious side of the world. It’s addictive because you want to unravel this mystery of a missing girl and her murdered sister, but you also, as you keep reading, get this absolute sick feeling about what’s really going on.

I do believe it’s best to go in knowing only a little about it! It’s a mystery and like those are best served without too many details up front. But basically it’s half told as a podcast series by a middle-age man — and also half told in a really raw and aching 1st person narrative by Sadie herself. You get to see this podcaster unravelling the mystery of who Sadie talked to as she went searching for this man named “Darren”. And you get to flip over and see Sadie following her journey towards to take down darkness with a switchblade.

It is a really heavy story (upper YA for sure) and reminded me of Girl in Pieces too. Also it’s very much about being poor, about people risking everything, about this intensely tight love for your sister, about neglect and abuse and trauma. It’s a really important story too. You wish it was fiction, but it’s a story you could also hear on the news. Missing girls and murdered girls and someone who isn’t willing to let it just lie at that.

Sadie was an exceptional heroine, who was hard and sharp around the edges, but also makes you absolutely feel for her and root for her immediately. You don’t know right up front why she’s hunting Darren. She buys a car and goes on this long trail of following up leads and talking to people, all to find this man who used to be her mum’s boyfriend. Sadie is also so so deeply loyal and loving to her little sister, Mattie. She basically raises her and even though Mattie sees Sadie as an annoying overbearing “parent figure”…I LOVE that Sadie never once gave up on her and just kept loving her. The story starts with Mattie’s murder and we see how deeply it’s unravelled Sadie. It’s heartbreaking. She’s a character who’s well crafted and super complex and she draws you into the story instantly with her incredible voice.

Basically? READ THIS. I still feel thrown by all the things Sadie uncovered on her dark and lonely roadtrip to find justice for her little sister. This book is intense and heartbreaking and leaves you with so many furiously buzzing questions at the end. It’s a story you’re not going to stop thinking about for a while.

Review: The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X. R. Pan

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The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X. R. Pan is an emotional and gorgeously written story of grief and healing. I’m still reeling at just how beautiful the writing was! It’s a visual feast and it uses colours to complete paint the story and world around you. It’s also really important to have narratives like this from authors who’ve put part of their own journeys onto the page. This book is a privilege to read as we get to see the life of a biracial Taiwanese girl who is discovering who she is, what she needs, and how to heal in the wake of her mother’s suicide.

Leigh is sixteen when she discovers her mother’s suicide and her life is completely dismantled. She feels lost and alone and with no way to process this…and then she starts seeing a red bird that’s leaving her messages and nudges: go find your estranged Taiwanese grandparents. Leigh believes the bird is her mum and she has to go find answers. Like why her mum cut ties with her grandparents in the first place.

Leigh is an artist so the story is told with vivid and colourful descriptions. It’s like you’re reading a painting at times. The writing draws you in immediately and you just have to savour it too. I’d definitely pick up more by this author in an instant just on the strength of her prose!

The story is also told with plenty of flash backs to Leigh’s childhood. Including her best friend (and boy she has a total crush on) Axel. He was super sweet and watching them grow up together and then clash was heartbreaking and also buoying as the story progressed.

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It’s also very much about being biracial, connecting with your roots, and discussing mental illness. Emotion bleeds on every page and after reading the author’s note and knowing she wrote this to process a suicide within her relations? I’m so thankful she shared this story. It is SO SAD. It also doesn’t demonise or romanticise mental illness, but chooses to discuss it bluntly but with hope too. It is obviously a very dark portrayal and Leigh blames her mother, not the illness, a bit. But overall it talks about how mental illness isn’t a choice and it deserves to be recognised and treated seriously.

I also appreciated that the story was about healing too. For Leigh and her father, but also for her grandparents and even Axel. It will probably make you cry, but it will also give you light.

It’s partially set in Taiwan too, and the descriptions are vivid and gorgeous, so it’s like getting to travel just by reading! There’s the hint of magical realism with Leigh being convinced her mother has changed into a bird, but has she really? I love how the book doesn’t really say.

I definitely recommend THE ASTONISHING COLOUR OF AFTER and will rave forever about how beautiful and important the story is. It’s emotional and poignant and deserves all the hype.

Review: White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig

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White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig was such an intensely stressful story that I felt myself tensing up while reading! Which is exactly what I want from a YA thriller, ok?! It scores all the points. It’s a twisty story of complicated families, messy broken hearts, drug gangs, arson, and (of course) murder. It’s definitely one you need to carve out a block of time to just go ahead and read and read because it’s fast paced and every time you think there’s an answer? BOOM. It takes you on another twist.

The story follows Rufus Holt who receives a strange call for help from his half-sister. He goes, wary of a prank…but instead he finds his sister drugged, covered in blood, holding a knife, and next to her is her murdered boyfriend. So that’s not how Rufus thought his night would go. Between panicking and soliciting begrudging help from his ex-boyfriend (who absolutely broke his heart) he gets pulled into trying to solve the mystery. His sister swears she didn’t do it, but the evidence is grim. They know they can’t put off calling the cops forever, but they have one night and 6 suspects and surely they can piece together this mess. Except it’s complicated by hallucinogenic drugs (called White Rabbits) and kids with guns and no one is telling the full truth….and Sebastian, Rufus’ ex, needs to tell him something important. This night couldn’t get any more intense.

The whole story is set over just ONE NIGHT. Which makes it absolutely super intense and face-paced! There was such a lot to pack in but I thought the pacing caught it all perfectly. And we get to learn so so much about Rufus, our narrator, and his ex-boyfriend Sebastian even in such a short time period. I was very impressed! The secondary-characters are a little more hazy but that’s to be expected, and I think we were left purposefully with gaps to fill in their character sand personalities so we wouldn’t solve the mystery too fast!

Rufus Holt was a complex and heartbroken angry boy. He’s unintentionally good at puzzles, which is why his half-sister begs for his help. But he has a bad record himself, and he’s super scared of getting mixed up in this grisly scene full of drugs, lies and murder. He also has an anger disorder which he takes medication and has therapy for, and I thought it was great the book discussed this! Anger, for some people, can be inevitable, but it’s never and excuse or something that can’t be dealt with. It’s such a good contrast with how Rufus manages his anger issues vs how so many of the other “rich spoiled brat” teens in the book display theirs with super unhealthy behaviours. And look where it’s got them.

Of course, Rufus is also dealing with heartbreak from his ex-boyfriend, Sebastian. They both end up trying to solve this mystery together but Rufus is convinced he will NEVER forgive Sebastian. But maybe there’s more to what happened between them than Rufus is willing to admit? I loved how they unpacked so many heartfelt moments and I honestly was torn between being furious at Sebastian and feeling really really bad for him. He and Rufus had a lot of chemistry, anger, hurt, and intense feelings still. It showed so so well.

White Rabbit is a murder mystery of lies, passion and shames. And it keeps you glued to the page and guessing the WHOLE way through. I devoured it in just one day and couldn’t stop till I had answers. I also am a fan of the author’s debut, Last Seen Leaving, so be sure to check that out too!

Daddy’s Day Delights – Picture Books to Share with Dad

The thing about dads is, they’re just big kids in slightly longer pants. No matter whether your dad, or grandpa, is the bouncy, flouncy type, the serious, steady kind or the biggest kid in the house, this little collection of picture books pay homage to them all and are perfect to share with your dad on Daddy’s Day this year. Enjoy!

I Love You Dino-Daddy by Mark Sperring and Sam Lloyd

This winning picture book team have done it again with a perfectly rhyming, boldly colourful, dino-deluxed romp around the house and park with Dad.  Dino-Daddy packs plenty of playful punch and is a hilarious gallery of the unending personas the average daddy undergoes on a daily basis.  Builder Dad, Sleeping Beauty Dad, Party Dad, Monster Dad, each scenario mirrors the all the rip-snorting, sometimes unexpected qualities of fatherhood that come with the job and cement father child relationships. Ideal for sharing quietly or not so quietly with children from two years and up.

Bloomsbury for Children June 2018

The Daddy Shop by Aleesah Darlison and Kelly O’Gara

Unlike mummies, some daddies can’t be there every minute of every day (she says with tongue in cheek for this story works equally well if the roles were reversed). Unfortunately, little Tai’s daddy is one of those daddies whose work sometimes prevents him from spending time with his son. This makes Tai cross and recalcitrant enough to take matters into his own hands when he learns daddy is unable to make it to the Father and Son Picnic Day.

Continue reading Daddy’s Day Delights – Picture Books to Share with Dad

Review: The Emerald Sea

Needing some escapism after being smashed with a combination of work and uni deadlines, and having come off the back of reading—and still mulling over—Eggshell Skull, I turned to my favourite guilty-pleasure author: Richelle Mead.

Mead has thankfully recently released the third and final book in the Glittering Court trilogy.

In The Emerald Sea, we follow the third of three friends attending what is essentially a live-in intensive deportment school prepping them for travelling to the colonies where they hope to secure themselves rich husbands. Which sounds superficial until you discover the three are actually each harbouring huge secrets and kickass skillsets and courage.

Tamsin, the protagonist of this latest tale, was actually my least favourite character in the previous books. My impression of her was that she was two-dimensional, her hyper-competitiveness and Type A personality overplayed to the point of being unbelievable.

So I had admittedly hesitated to order and then dive into this book in quite the same way as I had the previous two. It turns out it was a rookie mistake because, while I believe Mead could have provided Tamsin with a bit more depth overall, in this book we gain insight into why she’s so uptight. And it’s kind of worth the wait.

With Tamsin’s tale diverging from the other two’s by way of a storm that shipwrecks the boat she’s traveling on, she’s alone, equipped with only her ingenuity to tackle crisis after crisis. It’s here thar Tamsin really comes into her own.

It also provides a fresh take on the overlapping tales, with so much of Tamsin’s story taking place far away from the Glittering Court, instead in a bizarrely religious small colony and in the company of a swag of interesting characters that include a dashing party boy turned trainee priest, a sour spinster, a charismatic but not-so-dashing trader, and a strong lady leader of the local Icori.

Featuring many of Mead’s trademark wit and one-liners, The Emerald Sea is eminently readable and a surprisingly fitting and solid conclusion to the trilogy. Perhaps my greatest marvel of it and its predecessors The Glittering Court and Midnight Jewel is that Mead has managed to write three entirely independent yet interwoven narratives that converge fairly seamlessly. For this reason, I’d definitely recommend reading it and its companions.

Fatherhood in Picture Books

What does fatherhood mean to you? Is it about the shared moments that make you laugh? Or the ones that incite your curiosity about the world? Is it teaching them a new skill? Or bestowing some secrets about life that you learned along the way? Is it simply being present to watch them grow and succeed? Whatever your definition, there is no doubt that gorgeous picture books can draw out and encourage special bonds in a way that is meaningful to you. Here are a few that do just that…

From Him, To Me, To You. This beautiful book is a lyrical dedication to our littlest loved ones. A book to be shared across the generations. And one that will bring a tear to your eye. Things My Pa Told Me is written with a wise and astute hand by Anthony Bertini, told in a gentle and pertinent manner. Illustrator Jonathan Bentley comes in with an interpretation of his own, brilliantly re-imagining the text to another level of wonder, warmth and adventure. His amazing sketch work creates this extraordinary atmosphere of movement, light and shade, colour and energy that perfectly reflects the perspective of a small child in a big world.

The message imparted is one of strength, support, security and love. Of a father reinforcing his little girl’s journey through childhood – all the growth, fears and challenges and power she is to face. The possibilities that await and the wisdom needed to set her own path. But most importantly, to “enjoy this brief time, just you and me.” One day she will be able to reach, and he (father) will remain in her heart, watching along the way.

Things My Pa Told Me accomplishes a profound and timeless tale of embrace and hope in a way that leaves the reader to their own interpretation and meaning. A stunning book for children from age four to share with their own Pa.

Little Hare Books, August 2018.

The title says it all – bonding with Grandpa, adventure, and the wildest of imaginations. Read on and you’ll find plenty of action, fun and play (including a brilliant play with words!). Grandpa’s Space Adventure is created by such a masterful duo following their Grandpa’s Big Adventure; Paul Newman and Tom Jellett hilariously bring this star-filled adventure rocketing into life.

Grandpa tells his grandson about the time he and dog Rover flew to the moon. He took his ‘launch box’, had ‘high tea’… ‘very high tea’ every day, and even split his side on laughing gas instead of oxygen. He played ‘fetch-the-stick’ with Rover, but it never came back. Joke upon space-themed joke float across the pages paired with Jellett’s characteristically comical cartoons that will literally have your own sides splitting with giggles. Grandpa makes the young narrator feel totally safe in the dark. Now, here’s to another ‘wild’ adventure…

Extremely clever, playful and absolutely cracking with humour, Grandpa’s Space Adventure will leave no space for fear of the dark when you’re sharing this planet-tastic book with your loved ones. For space-travellers aged three and up.

Penguin Random House, July 2018.

The oblivious dad. The one that thinks he knows it all. You know the one! What a glorious day out for Sally and Max in Sara Acton’s Dinosaur Day Out. Dad thinks he’s taking his children on a peaceful day trip to the museum, only to find the dinosaur exhibition is closed. Little does he know that, despite his efforts to treat them instead to a day in the park and a spot of ice cream, Sally and Max in fact encounter all the species of dinosaur listed in Dad’s book. How extraordinary! He’s got his head so engrossed in his ‘Did you know’ facts that he misses every trick, glimpse and illusion that only the children, and us readers, so astutely notice.

The little comical elements in the illustrative details give the text even more irony and humour. And Acton’s softly textured paintings and simple colour palette ensure a gentle and playful feel as opposed to some of those slightly scary dinosaur facts that Dad apprises.

Dinosaur lovers everywhere will adore this whimsical and informative story with all its comedy and adventure. Dinosaur Day Out is the ideal book for preschoolers to share with their ‘know-it-all-not-so-know-it-all’ dads.

Walker Books, September 2018.

This is the perfect guide for new arrivals. If you’ve just landed on this earth, you’ll need this handy manual to ensure you have the best stay possible. Totally brilliant – Welcome; A Guide for New Arrivals by Mo Willems – narrated by parents with wit, verve and unconditional love.

The guide begins with a mirror and a fact sheet on how YOU came into being: a unique combination of LOVE + TIME + LUCK. Filled with a range of enlarged headings, diagrams in the form of signposts, and bright, bold colours, the book humorously outlines a myriad of life’s pleasures and complications. For example, a few upcoming highlights include: Music. “Here is an example of a song” (insert printed music). Cats. “We are pleased to inform you there will be cats… And not just cats. There are Mountains + Friends + Bagels + Infinite Remarkable Things.” Stories. “There are True Stories + Made-Up Stories + Silly Stories.” Each identified by an amusing symbol, and completing the page with ‘while we read this book together.’ There is a guide on ‘We Regret to Inform You’, followed by ‘Rest Assured’. But there is a note for parents to absorb, too. And that is to simply ‘stop’ and ‘be’, because we all know this precious time in our little ones’ lives doesn’t last too long, so enjoy it.

Welcome is a must-have book for every first-time father. Thank you for joining us.

Walker Books UK, July 2018.

Happy Father’s Day!

For more amazing Father’s Day Books for kids check back to read Dimity‘s reviews.

Keeping the Faith – Junior Novel to YA reviews

Believing in yourself when all else around you is in a state of upset and confusion is an emotion children are more than capable of recognising. Keeping the faith when adrift in turbulent seas is not only testing and difficult at times, it also determines your future perspectives on life. These next few books that touch on the importance of keeping the faith in dire times provide intense and touching lifelines to children (and adults) of all ages.

Leave Taking by Lorraine Marwood

Marwood is more than adept at distilling emotions into moving verse novels. Attaching emotion and memories to physical things is something humans are adept at, as well. This story deftly portrays a young boy’s heart-felt attempt to retain and simultaneously farewell everything he holds dear in his life as he and his family prepare to sell up and leave their family farm.

Continue reading Keeping the Faith – Junior Novel to YA reviews

Review: Bright We Burn (Conqueror’s Saga #3) by Keirsten White

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Bright We Burn by Keirsten White is the finale of the Conqueror’s Saga and it was was brutal and bloody and so perfectly and epically satisfying. I completely fell in love with this series when we’re introduced to the vicious Lada and soft Radu in the first book, And I Darken. And then we watch them grow into schemers and warriors in Now I Rise. There’s a lot of weight on a finale to both honour the first books and also raise the stakes and develop the characters magnificently and I’m so glad it was handled with such care and cleverness! Definitely a finale not to be missed!

As always the story is told by both siblings, Lada and Radu. They’re still worlds away from each other, with Radu being back at Mehmed’s side (although his childhood unrequited crush has withered now that he’s seen the bitter darkness of Mehmed) and he’s terrified that his fake wife and the boy he secretly is in love with are gone forever. And Lada is back in Wallachia, finally living her dream of ruling her people. Her rule is iron-fisted and terrifying, but she stops at nothing to keep her people safe. But ruling? That’s not going so well for her. It’s possible she’s picking bigger fights than she needs to, scorning help, and pushing herself slowly into a bloody pool of darkness that not even her closest friends can help her with. But Mehmed still loves her…so would he go to battle with her now?

It’s a story of rulers, really, and of what the people in power will do and sacrifice to get where they want to go. It’s such a bloody and vicious look at war, what it does and what it costs and I love that it didn’t shy away from how dark it is. There’s no sugar-coating here, so it felt realistic and terrifying the whole way through. Lada is using her famous impaling and Mehmed would sacrifice thousands of men without a blink. Radu is the only one who seems to realise that this war has to stop before they all destroy themselves.

The battles are grim, the aftermaths are horrifying. It’s very well written and portrayed and it makes you, as the reader, feel both horror and admiration for all the main characters.

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The pacing and plot were were definitely superb. I liked that it was a bit shorter than the first books, because it keep the speed so tight and that’s needed for such a high-action ending! There are wars and betrayals, kidnapping plots and horror, and there are the softest quietest moments that just make my heart so so full. And it balances it with some really quiet and soft chapters, which honestly were some of my favourites.

The characters continue to develop and flourish in this book. Radu definitely has the most incredible and well written arc. He’s gone from whimpering little boy, to strong and capable and loving 18-year-old man and he’s also stopped spending all his time crying over Mehmed. It was such a relief to see him move on and realise he should fall for someone who loves him and not just uses him and his feelings, like Mehmed constantly did. Lada is also just as terrifying and ruthless as ever. But you also get to see her softer side, how often she’s unsure of what she’s doing. She makes some horrible mistakes and people suffer for it, but she also doesn’t let her people be beaten down by the enemy. Lada also bites people still, so like…she’s matured a lot since she was 3 but some things remain the same. I also just love how the author writes Lada being a harsh women, and that’s fine. And Radu being a soft boy, and that’s acceptable. It’s such a love letter at times to the fact that not everyone fits in a gender-stereotyped box.

It balanced the action vs the sweet moments vs the heart shredding moments so well! It’s a different writing style to a typical YA novel, but I just found that refreshing. The story is also set over quite a long period of time, but it keeps the pacing taunt.

And as a series finale?! YES it was both satisfying, gut-punching, twisty and intense. Everything I could possibly have hoped for!

Bright We Burn is a bloody, brutal, and clever end to this epic trilogy! It’s different and it’s full of heart and soul…and also wars and history!

Animals at Work – Picture Book Reviews

Kids are all too quick to grow up these days, but yet to realise the complexities and oftentimes, inequalities, that go with grown-up responsibilities. Sure, life in the playground can be tough, too. No doubt there will be times they feel under-valued, misunderstood or lonely. Whilst these references may seem quite grim, the following ‘adult-work-life’ picture books paint these dark hues to meet a bright and hopeful light at the end of the tunnel.

Ok. It will be called… Next award-winning picture book of the year. Phenomenal artist. Phenomenal storyteller. Shaun Tan wins over the masses with his latest picture book, Cicada. Considering its haunting themes, this book has a definite star-quality appeal that is sure to set a glow in every reader’s heart.

You heard it… ‘Tok Tok Tok!’. Time marches on for hard-working cicada. Seventeen years. Stuck behind his computer desk hidden amongst a concrete jungle of office carrels – hardly noticed, immensely unappreciated. Treated as sub-human, despite the fact he is not human at all. But honestly, his pay is docked for being forced to use the bathroom twelve blocks away! Work life for cicada is dire with no thanks, no living support (he lives in an office wallspace), colleague abuse and eventually a retrenchment with a figurative kick in the butt.

Seventeen years imprisoned in this grey, lifeless cell of despair. There’s nothing left… but to transform. And all you can do is laugh! Tok Tok Tok!

Cicada breathes intense concepts and colourless imagery that is far from dull, mixed together with sharp language spoken in a broken English. However, it embodies a fiery life within that speaks universally to humans about the power of self-worth, about courage and respect. An impressive, evocative picture book for older readers (5-9 years).

Lothian Children’s Books, June 2018.

Work life at Baggage Handlers United is pretty fun for Marvin. He loves the routine of putting things on and taking things off. He has friends that work there, too. But what happens when his ‘friends’ start laughing at his expense? Missing Marvin is a meaningful and sensitive story about the hurtful effects practical jokes can have when taken too far.

Sue deGennaro beautifully captures the heart and soul of this story through her gentle, multi-faceted illustrations and leading language that carefully directs readers to ponder the emotions being explored. When Barry, Shelly and Ivan set up what they think are amusing shenanigans, it is upon closer inspection that we see the heartrenching damage done to Marvin. “… he wonders if a joke is only a joke when everyone is laughing.” All too often, people (at work or at school) go about their day ‘pretending’ they are okay. And all too often, ‘the signs’ go unnoticed. Learning strategies to avoid emotional and physical isolation are nicely handled here when Marvin decides to come out of hiding (after succumbing to his bed) and open up to his friends about his feelings.

All it takes is a conversation. Missing Marvin brings about a light-hearted simplicity on the cusp of complex issues related to bullying and depression. Presented in a sweet and satisfying way, this book will help preschool-aged children find compassion, sensitivity and courage when needed most.

Scholastic, April 2018.

With a gorgeous setting based on the Greek islands of Andros and Mykonos, who wouldn’t love to live and work there? Originally from Greece, author illustrator Elena Topouzoglou paints a charming picture of friendship emerging out of loneliness.

In Mr Pegg’s Post, a little girl, Anna, longs for interaction from the outside world beyond her lighthouse home. The only visitor is Mr Pegg – the pelican postman. One stormy night, from the darkness Mr Pegg comes thumping into her life, serendipitously changing the world as she knows it. The ability to work effectively can be difficult when faced with a crippling injury. However, Anna’s eagerness to help deliver letters by boat serves them well in his recovery and her social connections. Anna receives more than just letters now. She has friendships, and a job!

The soothing blue wash of the water represents a beautiful link between the isolation of the lighthouse and the community spirit of the mainland. Mr Pegg’s Posts delivers a message of support, appreciation and value to the hearts of children from age three.

New Frontier Publishing, July 2018.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

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What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera is basically the ultimate contemporary collaboration I’ve been waiting for! Being a huge fan of both these author’s previous books meant I absolutely couldn’t wait to read their combined project. Albertalli’s Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda and Leah On The Offbeat are hilarious and super cute, while Silvera’s History Is All You Left Me and They Both Die At The End were meaningful and emotional. So what would What If It’s Us bring!? I’m definitely pleased to say that it was full of hope and laughter, devastation and awkwardness, and the kind of banter that has you smiling for days.

The story is about Arthur and Ben who have an unlikely meeting in a post office and…probably will never see each other again, right? They connected, but they’re in New York, so it’s not exactly a place you’ll run into a stranger twice. But they both can’t stop thinking about the interaction and it leads them to seek each other out. After a ton of near-misses while balancing their own hectic lives (Ben is suffering through a lonely summer school after his ex cheated on him and somehow managed to get all their combined friends. While Arthur is doing an internship while thinking his parents might split up). And then — they connect again thanks to a coffee shop, a sign, and a lot of desperate hope. Their dates are super cute and super awkward and nothing about their relationship is going smoothly at all…so does this mean they’re not meant to be? Or are they going to be each other’s everything?

One thing I quite enjoyed was how it explored New York from a touristy perspective because I, as an Aussie, was really interested in “seeing” the sites! Arthur was an adorable tourist and I loved how excited he was about being in this city for the summer.

The boys were definitely the highlight of the book! They both take turns narrating (and if you know the authors, it’s pretty easy to guess who is writing which character). They contrasted in so many ways: Arthur being rich and headed for a fancy college vs Ben being poor and failing school. Arthur being outgoing and bubbly vs Ben being reserved and cautious. Arthur being nervous about his first romance vs Ben being skeptical after just having his heart broken. The combination of them was so fantastic and heartwarming, seeing them open up for each other and learn to love the other’s differences.

It is a bit of a quirky “find a needle in a haystack” story as they meet briefly in a postoffice and then have to refind each other again. I loved all the “near misses” because, as a reader, we’re screaming for them to no no! Wait! Two more seconds and you would’ve met again! It’s definitely a book that keeps you glued to the pages wondering if this is going to work between them.

I also loved the levels of diversity in the story! Obviously it’s a gay teen romance, but also Ben is Puerto Rican and Arthur has ADHD. Ben’s discussions about his family and what it truly means to be Puerto Rican were great and very important.

There are plenty of amazing things to be said about friendship too. About how friendships change and grow over the years and how hard that is. It’s absolutely devastating to lose friends, and I think it’s something that needs to be addressed in YA because most teens go through this!

It’s also so funny! I loved the subtle references from the authors to their older books, and I snorted over the quick-fire banter and the ridiculous dorkiness. The writing is also super addictive and easy to devour. I found myself completely unable to put it down.

WHAT IF IT’S US is such a cute and fun book! It’s the perfect summery read, full of awkward moments and absolutely golden magical moments while two boys fall in love through endless mishaps, mistakes, and messy moments. It’s the kind of story you can’t help but root for and turn every page desperate to find out what happens to Ben and Arthur and their summer in New York.

2018 CBCA Shortlisted Early Childhood Books #2: Boy, I’m Australian Too & Rodney Loses It

Since the CBCA shortlist was announced I have been blogging about the 2018 shortlisted books and am now concluding with the Early Childhood books (in two parts). You may find some of the ideas across the posts helpful for Book Week this month.

Boy by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Shane Devries (Scholastic Australia)

Boy is a morality tale about conflict and misunderstanding; understanding & communicating. It covers issues of deforestation, fighting and living in harmony and peace.

The trees on the mountain are destroyed by a powerful dragon, which illustratively evolves from threatening to cute during the tale.

People are blaming others and fighting. Boy can’t hear the fighting but perhaps he can understand the situation better than anyone because of his hearing loss.

Might the boy be unnamed because the book is aimed at all boys or for all children?

The digital illustrations are an unusual colour palette of mauve, brown and blue tones.

The endpapers could be copied and used for the card game ‘Happy Families’.

The cover is tactile, with the word ‘BOY’ written in sand. Boy communicates by drawing pictures in sand. Children could write an important question in the sand (sandpit or sandtray) e.g. ‘Why are you fighting?’ alongside a picture.

Children could further develop awareness and affirmation of the hearing impaired. This could include learning some Auslan and also saying ‘Thank you’ ‘with dancing hands’ like Boy does.

I’m Australian Too by Mem Fox, illustrated by Ronojoy Ghosh (Scholastic)

Children could look at the endpapers to see how the children at the start become adults by the end. They could draw themselves as a child and then as an adult, imagining a possible future.

Onset and rime in the rhyming text include ‘day/stay’ ‘small/all’ ‘yet/vet’ ‘far/star’ and ‘strife/life’ (others are more difficult for very young children).

Many countries are represented in the book e.g. Syria, China, Afghanistan and Italy.

The refrain, ‘How about you?’ could be answered by readers and they could also suggest which countries are not represented; which Australian capital cities and other places are mentioned and what are some missing Australian places?

Children could show or make flags for countries represented by students in the class or school.

The story settles into a rhythmic security to precede a chilling page:

Sadly, I’m a refugee –

I’m not Australian yet.

But if your country lets me in,

I’d love to be a vet.

Australia’s refugee situation is political, and far more complex that this, but I’m Australian Too will no doubt influence children’s attitudes towards refugees.

 Rodney Loses It! by Michael Gerard Bauer, illustrated by Chrissie Krebs (Omnibus Books)

The title has a double meaning and the book is humorous in words and pictures.

It’s unusual that readers are able to see the missing pen and other objects, a mark of slapstick. Rodney Loses It! is slapstick in book form.

The illustrative style is cartoon-like; lively, bright and shows active body language.

The writing shows good word choice and maintains a successful rhythm.

Children could compare the endpapers, which are different.

Rodney loves drawing but loses his favourite pen, Penny.

The illustrations show the pen and other missing items.

The message or moral is that we can love doing things but not get around to them because of distractions.

In the story, Rodney could have used other colours but he was fixated on one pen and one colour so he missed out on doing what he loved.

 Children could draw pictures like Rodney’s or make Rodney using play dough and LED lights for his eyes or pen.

ABC Science: The Surfing Scientist

http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/05/30/3513709.htm

Review: More Than We Can Tell by Brigid Kemmerer

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More Than We Can Tell by Brigid Kemmerer is such an emotional and heartfelt read! It’s a companion story to Letters To The Lost, but this one spins out about the protagonist in that book’s best friend: Rev Fletcher. You don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy this one either! But I highly recommend it because it’s also incredible and possibly one of my all time favourites. I was so excited to dive into this companion book. Expectations were high and I ended up totally emotionally engaged with my heart beating so fast from that wild ending.

The story follows Rev and Emma as their lives are slowly crumbling to pieces around them. Rev was rescued from his abusive father 10 years ago and adopted by loving parents (who also foster other at-risk children still). But he’s getting letters from his abusive father…and he doesn’t know how to deal. He’s ashamed for being scared and for wanting to possibly meet his father again. But keeping the secret is destroying him and giving him violently terrifying flashbacks. And when his parents foster another vulnerable and wild young teen — it just amps up Rev’s memories of being in such a terrifying place 10 years ago. Then we have Emma, who’s a gamer with parents who pay no attention to her and she’s getting harassed online. She wants to take care of it herself, because her mother doesn’t care and her father (also a game designer) hasn’t got the time of day for her although he pretends to. Then as things between her parents start to get precarious and the cyber-bullying reaches a more terrifying level, Emma meets Rev behind a church and they start to talk. But their lives and friendships are in heartbreaking positions if they refuse to tell what’s really going on.

I loved being back in this world and so enjoyed Rev’s narration! (Finding out his true name was amazing.) Rev’s life is HUGELY stressful and he’s ashamed of how scared he is. AKA, he hides it. It’s heartbreaking that he did this, even when surrounded by people who love and support him unconditionally…but he’s been trained from his abusive father to expect hurt, and hate, and punishment. And even 10 years free of that, he hasn’t shaken the affects. The book really explores and addresses his PTSD and anxiety. I absolutely love how his adoptive-parents were so loving and involved in his life. Even when Rev cut them out, they made sure he knew they were there, ready and waiting and loving, to talk when he was ready. He does a lot of growth in this book too, remembering that he’s loved. Gaining control over himself again. Letting people in and not being ashamed.

Emma’s narration is focused a lot on how girls are treated in the gamer world. She gets harassed and attacked just for her gender and it’s so horrible what she has to go through alone. She also feels she’s probably being “weak” for being so upset about it, so she doesn’t tell anyone. It was hard seeing her lash out irrationally and horribly to her friends, even the ones who were undyingly supportive of her and there when she needed them. But it was also understandable seeing how much she craved positive interaction but her parents gave her none and continually put their needs before hers. My heart definitely ached for her!

Rev’s parents also start fostering a new boy, Matthew, who is pretty messed up and refuses to open up to anyone. He triggers a lot of flashbacks for Rev, which will definitely make you tear up, but discovering Matthew’s backstory and then watching him grow as a character too was amazing.

The book really delves into themes of being wanted, trying to control who you turn out to be and to change it if you don’t like it, and how accepting help is not weakness. All such important things to cover!

More Than We Can Tell is definitely a heartfelt book full of raw emotion and aching themes. It’s very emotional and the ending is so stressful and will leave you clutching the pages and turning so fast to see how it all plays out.

Under the Sea, Under the Sea – Picture Book Reviews

With all the latest talk on plastic pollution and contamination in our oceans and waterways, it seems fitting to bring further awareness and appreciation for our beautiful marine and plant life to light. These following picture books not only give us the colourful scoop on the abundance of amazing life under the sea, but also the incentive and empowerment to protect them in the best ways we can.

Somewhere in the Reef, an ideallic scene of freedom and serenity – just the way it should be. Following the classic rhyme, ‘Over in the Meadow’, Marcello Pennacchio sings up a swirling wave of sea animal counting fun. A host of gorgeous ocean creatures splash vividly about the pages, brought realistically to life by artist Danny Snell.

Starting with a mother dolphin and her little calf one along the Great Barrier Reef, daubs and splashes of movement ‘leap’ from one page to the next. With another verb, ‘wiggle’, we encounter two little sea snakes jiggling amongst the blue. Consistently, action meets numbers as the rhythm of verse and marine life treat us to an underwater spectacle in the crisp and clear waters of the lagoons and reefs.

Somewhere in the Reef is a playful and joyful experience to sing along to and recognise the importance of conservation of these beautiful creatures. Swimmingly good fun for preschool-aged children.

Scholastic, March 2018.

Another underwater counting parade propelled by poetry and learning potential is Jasper Juggles Jellyfish by Ben Long and David Cornish. With a title bound for alliteration activity, text tossed with rhyme and numbers flicked here, there and everywhere, you’re all set for a jovial, educational experience.

Set at the bottom of the ocean with textures reflective of the sun glimpsing through the water on creatures so adorably cute, Jasper the octopus drags himself off to school. A less-than-confident Jasper struggles with his counting abilities, but juggling is no problem. One friendly jellyfish encourages a strategy that Jasper can surely handle – “it’s best to start with one.” And with that, adding jellyfish to tossing tentacles means Jasper’s counting problem is solved with a total of twelve (3 jellyfish per every 2 arms).

Jasper Juggles Jellyfish would be a juggle between a simple adding-on strategy for preschoolers and more advanced problem solving for junior primary aged children. Nevertheless, an exuberant story about confidence and different ways of learning that children will be bouncing to read again.

Ford Street Publishing, July 2018.

In Ori’s Clean-Up, Anne Helen Donnelly provides all the right tools for an entertaining and environmentally-focused reading experience for early years children. Teamwork and meticulous organisation are highlighted in a war on waste, as we know it, where Ori the octopus and his friends find systematic ways to manage the rubbish in their underwater home.

Repetitive language and clear, vivid and friendly cartoons assist in delivering the message of cleanliness and working together. Terms and images specific to recycling, re-using, composting and donating are scattered throughout to reinforce this awareness and utilisation in everyday life.

Ori’s Clean-Up is brilliantly simple, accessible and universal to help affect change for the good of our planet.

Anne Helen Donnelly, July 2018.

Next, we are delving deep into a procedural text of the imaginary kind! But first, note the shiny, shimmering cover that is sure to lure in any young child with a penchant for mermaids. How to Catch a Mermaid is a cool and snappy rhyming tale  from a series written and illustrated by the New York Times bestselling team, Adam Wallace and Andy Elkerton.

With the persistence, creativity and audacity of a young whippersnapper, a little girl and her buddies make several attempts at ensnaring the pretty mermaid at the depths of the ocean. Trap after trap, their scheme fails. But who will help them out when they are themselves trapped by some nasty, yellow-eyed sharks?

Witty, bold and lively, How to Catch a Mermaid is one your little ones will want to snatch up as quick as they can! For ages four and up.

Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, June 2018.

Jarvis is a talanted international author-illustrator with books including Poles Apart, Alan’s Big, Scary Teeth and Mrs Mole, I’m Home! Continuing our underwater theme, Tropical Terry serves up a flashy, fishy tray of mesmerising goodness to feast your eyes on. Eyes, not mouths! 😉

Swishyness and swooshyness of colourful tropical fish swirl in flurries in Coral Reef City. And then there was Terry. Living the simple, plain-coloured life with his best sea friends isn’t enough when the fancy fish constantly parade their fanciful snobbiness. So, Terry transforms himself. And forgets his friends. Until there is danger. How will he escape?

Being yourself always reaps the best rewards. Tropical Terry casts an important net on playing to one’s strengths and embracing your individuality. A plain and simple message in an underwater forest of colour and spirit. Ages 3+.

Walker Books UK, June 2018.

Reluctant Heroes – Junior Novels That Conquer Doubt

Being the leader of the pack is not a role everyone relishes, especially if you are that shy kid who never kicks a goal or that odd sounding, looking kid whose school lunches never quite fit the norm. However it is often the most reluctant heroes that make the biggest impact and save the day. Being at odds with yourself and your perceived persona is the theme of these books, so beautifully summarised in their paradoxical titles. What I love about these two authors is their inherent ability to commentate messages of significant social weight with supreme wit and humor. It’s like feeding kids sausage rolls made of brussel sprouts.

Natural Born Leader Loser by Oliver Phommavanh

Raymond is stuck in a school with a reputation grubbier than a two-year-old’s left hand and choked with bullies. The best way he knows of fighting these realities is not to fight at all. Raymond is king of fading into the background especially when it comes to his friendship with best mate, Zain Afrani.

Zain is a soccer nut and self-confessed extrovert whom has a deep affinity for Raymond. He likes to flash his brash approach to bullying about much to the consternation of Raymond who happily gives up the spotlight to Zain whenever he’s around. Constant self-depreciation just about convinces Raymond that he’ll never amount to anything of much significance, which he is sort of all right with until their new principal blows his social-circumvention cover by appointing him as one of the new school prefects.

Raymond is as shocked as the rest of the school but reluctantly assumes the role along with a kooky cast of radically differing kids. Under the calm, consistent leadership of Raymond, this eclectic team not only manages to drag Barryjong Primary School out of its bad-rep quagmire by winning the hearts and minds of the students and faculty alike but while doing so, raises enough money for new air conditioners for every classroom.

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Review: Your Destination Is On The Left by Laura Spieller

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Your Destination Is On The Left by Laura Spieller was a pretty heartwarming story about artists and the fear of failure. Which I think is SO relatable to any teen (or older!) artist who’s struggling to know if they’re good enough or faking it. I really loved that aspect, especially all the “starving artist woe” storylines were are, let’s be real…big mood at all times.

The story follows Dessa who’s family is part of a nomadic caravan crew and they’re constantly travelling the USA in search of experiences and the chance to feel alive. They hate the idea of being tied down and it’s taboo to talk about…which makes life super awkward for Dessa who absolutely dreams of going to college for art. And staying put. She loves her family and she’s (secretly) madly in love with Cy, a boy in their caravan crew. But she can’t just give up her dream…can she? Then she lands an internship with a successful artist and the nomad crew agree to spend a few weeks in one place while she completes it. And while it’s the opposite of smooth sailing, with Dessa getting super stuck with her work because all the colleges rejected her and now she’s scared she’s a terrible artist, she begins to realise that life is full of cross roads. And she’s going to have to make some huge decisions.

It’s quite a fast book but still manages to touch on deeper things. The family’s aren’t particularly wealthy, which I appreciated since a lot of books feature people with no issues with money. And I liked how it definitely talked about how artists are often super underpaid.

I loved the epic multiple female friendships that were just on point the whole book! Dessa totally connects to her artist mentor who she’s doing the internship with and I love how they go from “prickly” to “valuing each other”. SO good. Also Dessa randomly meets a girl named Taryn on a bus, and after a sneaky night out (which Dessa was so not supposed to go on), they become such solid and epic friends who keep in contact. I love how they clicked and their chemistry was a lot of fun!

The romance is a bumpy ride, with Dessa having a total crush on Cy…but knowing he loves travelling and she hates it. There’s a lot of tension there with two people who feel so deeply for each other, but ultimately have very different goals. Should one of them give up everything?

The art factor was also gorgeous! I LOVED all the visuals and it totally reminded me of Starfish and I’ll Give You The Sun. It was a visual feast.

The book also encouraged artists to work from the heart. To stop panicking about how it’s scary to be vulnerable on page and stay safe. Take risks. Don’t let your fear block you. This is such an important and motivating message and it was brought across so well!

Your Destination Is On The Left is definitely a story about crossroads. It’s about fear of failure and the joy of creating and following your dreams, even though the repercussions might be steep.

Applauding Individuality – Picture Books that Celebrate Being Different

Young children don’t always notice differences in people, at least not in the passively aggressive way some adults are inclined to do. Sadly, the recognition of characteristics dissimilar to their own either physical or behavioural is largely a mindset learned from their environment. Picture books like these do a tremendous job of challenging erroneous mindsets and applauding individuality. They are charming and direct, yet subtle and entertaining enough to read repeatedly.

Along Came A Different by Tom McLaughlin

Dramatically different (pardon the pun) from anything else McLaughlin has produced before, this avant-garde picture book cleverly combines colour recognition (with emphasis on the primary colours), geometry and social acceptance all in one neat entertaining package. Several groups of differents converge into one community space but despise one another because reds, blues and yellows just don’t match. Rules are established and boundaries are enforced. Life is tense and restrictive. Until one day, quite unexpectedly, a really different different comes along, radically altering their perceptions and igniting a massive appreciation of how being different is actually better. Friendship prevails and happiness blooms.

This story told in few words and bold striking characters, relays a simple premise of live and let love. It suggests to children that you can be any shape, size, or colour and still have a voice. You can like any type of music and have friends who love oranges even if you do not. You are unique and therefore amazing. It’s that simple. A modern day classic that welcomes differences and embraces change. Magnificent. Timely. Recommended.

Bloomsbury Children’s Books May 2018

My Storee by Paul Russell and Aska

Australian NAPLAN advocates turn away now for this tremendous picture book blithely ignores language conventions and unapologetically dismisses sticklers for rules. I love how it also challenges every spell check on the planet.

Derived from the author’s own experience with dyslexia, My Storee is a beautifully refreshing expose of encouraging creativity for creativity’s sake by forsaking the bounds of perfect spelling and correctness; paradigms that can severely road block learning and advancement for a person afflicted with dyslexia.

A young boy is a master storyteller but is afraid to let his dragons loose at school for fear of grammatical reprimand. That is until a teacher with extreme foresight, long hair and very loud shirts breezes into his life and gives him permission to be who he is and shine. Thank you Mr Watson.

Full marks for this book, which screams thinking outside of the box, applauds alternative teaching approaches and champions creative verve to the nth degree. I love it, every word and every ridiculously bold bright illustration. Viva la Mr Watsons, wherever you are out there. We need more like you. My Storee is concrete reinforcement of embracing who you are and all that you have, or have not, with verve and positivity.

EK Books August 2018

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2018 CBCA Shortlisted Early Childhood Books #1: Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee!,The Second Sky & The Very Noisy Baby

I have been posting about the CBCA 2018 shortlisted books and am now concluding with the Early Childhood books (in two parts). You may find some of the ideas across the posts helpful for Book Week in August.

Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee!

by Lisa Shanahan, illustrated by Binny (Lothian/Hachette)

This picture book is imaginative and exciting. It is also humorous, for example the teacher’s funny but apt name – “Mrs Majestic-Jones”; Ruby Lee is the best at announcing “Hark, it’s me, Ruby Lee!” – an unusual gift; and tactful George Papadopoulos even suggests that Ruby Lee be quiet and still but then she even loses him.

Ruby Lee loves helping. Young readers could compare and contrast her with helpful Debra-Jo in the Little Lunch TV series and books.

The letters ‘P‘ and ‘H’ could be taught or reinforced. Ruby Lee loves pockets, peaches, puddles and polka dots. (P)

She loves humming and hopping and handstands at night. (H)

Vocabulary is interesting and extending, e.g. hark, intrepid, valiant, ingenious.

The illustrations are in a cartoon manga style where the heads are large in proportion to bodies and the eyes are big and exaggerated. Children could view online how-to-draw tutorials and construct their own characters in this style. They could colour them using the colours in the book.

Children could act out some of the things Ruby Lee does; collect things she loves and invent fictitious creatures like she does.

The Second Sky

by Patrick Guest, illustrated by Jonathon Bentley (Little Hare)

Gilbert the penguin falls into another world (almost like into a rabbit hole) – the ocean. He must find where’s he comfortable, at home and can fly.

It is a fictional narrative but also an accessible information book, particularly about penguins, without being forced. It utilises many verbs and active language: waddled, flapped, waddled and flapped; slipped, tripped, stumbled; slipping Spinning Stumbling Tumbling; tumbled, bubbled and sank.

The book’s message is that everyone is different and everyone must find their own strengths.

Before reading, children could suggest what a second sky might be.

Children could make a model of Gilbert and possibly one that moves using rubber bands.

Or they could animate Gilbert using a resource such as ‘Comic Creator’ http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/student-interactives/comic-creator-30021.html

The Very Noisy Baby by Alison Lester (Affirm Press)

This is a clever, funny book for babies and those who read to them. It is carefully structured in 2 parts: firstly, where the animals are reported lost; and then when they reappear in the park.

The book begins with observations of baby noises, which people mistake for animal noises. There are carefully placed visual clues that prompt the baby to make an appropriate noise e.g. stripy sleep suit, on rocking horse.

Animals and their sounds could be taught and reinforced using the book and also ‘Wild Animal Sounds’ YouTube – useful because the animal name is written https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8OT061uxyM

Other books by Alison Lester could be read, particularly Noni the Pony and My Dog Bigsy (a dog like Bigsy also appears in The Very Noisy Baby).

Big Cats and Small Cats – Picture Book Reviews

No doubt, cats have attitude – aka ‘cattitude’. They may tend to be arrogant, vicious or just plain naughty. But if you really think about it, they are in fact, loveable and soft-at-heart. The following few kitty-inspired picture books take a look at the different personalities of our feline friends.

The gentlest of the lot, Maya and Cat is evocative, heartwarming and heavenly. Caroline Magerl transcends beyond beauty with her poetic language and mesmerisingly enchanting illustrations in amongst a gripping tale of friendship, responsibility and trust.

The fine line and watercolour paintings in a style so charismatic aptly portray the dramatic moodiness and intense atmosphere of a lost cat drenched with rain and anguish. It is with her determination and good will that Maya searches for its rightful owners. Long, yellow scarf blazing behind her, Maya eventually follows Cat’s nose to an unexpected fate; where a long, yellow windsock atop a rocky boat leads Cat home and Maya a treasured reward.

Intriguing, beguiling and warming for the cockles of your heart, this loveable tale between Maya and Cat will be welcomed into your home with an outpouring of love and affection many times over. Beautiful for ages four and up.

Walker Books, August 2018.

Another cat to love, despite its size and demeanour. In It’s Hard to Love a Tiger by Anna Pignataro, a little girl knows all the difficulties associated with owning a tiger for a pet. The rhyming couplets and adorably hilarious illustrations actually make this story so endearing, that it’s hard not to love it at all. So much glorious detail hidden in the pictures demonstrate the very effect a roaring, growling tiger makes on a crowded street, when brushing his teeth, and feeding him sticky treats in a pastry store. The tiger carries on with his inappropriate gestures and anti-social behaviours that would make any small child cringe. But guess what? There’s plenty of love to go around.

I love the premise that renders It’s Hard to Love a Tiger so relatable for young children. The tiger could be a toddler or a kitten, both of which can be frustrating but oh-so charming and forgiveable at the same time. The text includes enlarged, bold words that literally leap out in a fashion to encourage terrific talking points. Deceptively loveable for children from age three.

Scholastic, June 2018.

Here you’ll find a most arrogant cat. A cat with only one thought. A narrow mind and a rumbling stomach. Cat Spies Mouse is a simple yet ingenious tale about the power of lateral thinking, tolerance and, well, copping a comeuppance.

Rina A. Foti writes a humorous dialogue with minimal text facilitating a curiosity for the nuances of our behaviours and encouraging challenge for streams of closed thought. In this case, Cat wants to eat Mouse because “that’s the way it is.” Cat is not open to Mouse’s positive suggestion for a possible friendship, and his stubbornness certainly lands him in a dark place.

The illustrations by Dave Atze create high impact with their bold and animated energy, brilliantly offsetting the wittiness of the tale and the deeper meaning of the underlying philosophy. Cat Spies Mouse would empower its early years readers to question the ‘why’s’ in life and how much of those can or cannot be controlled.

Big Sky Publishing, July 2018.

Another take on the trustworthiness of the stereotypical fierce character is this whimsical story featuring one big cat, a hat and an umbrella. The masterful Polly Dunbar nails the humour, the energy, the interactivity, all with a very important message to preschool-aged children – beware of deceptions and don’t fall for trickery. Trust your gut, and not that of a sneaky lion.

A Lion is a Lion sweeps us up in a rhyming romp of linguistic and aural goodness, questioning the real character of a ferocious lion. “Is a lion still a lion… if he skips down the street singing, “Hoobie-doobie-doo”?” Poshly dressed in hat and coat, the lion visits two young children and delights them with all the charm and savviness in the world. He treats them to a dance in their living room and requests a polite bite to eat… until the fiery redness of the pages emerge, and so does the true nature of the lion. It is pleasing to see that the children have just as much spunk and verve to show him who’s boss!

Splattered with spirit, fast-paced and funny, A Lion is a Lion is a charming delight with a big message (and a big appetite).

Walker Books UK, February 2018.

Did you love The Cat Wants Custard and The Cat Wants Cuddles? Of course you did! To jog your memory you can read my review here. The third instalment in this series with the wonderfully precocious feline fiend is The Cat Wants Kittens. What a surprise! Kevin is back with more grumbling ferocity than ever. He’s super unimpressed with the couple of balls of adorable fluff that invade his space, but we expected that, right?

Yet to be released but most anticipated. I would expect no less than brilliance once again from the dynamic duo, P. Crumble and Lucinda Gifford.

Pre-order your copy here.

Scholastic, August 2018.

Review: Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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Mirage by Somaiya Daud is a gorgeously lush story of rebels and body-doubles, inspired by the author’s Moroccan heritage and set amongst the stars. I actually didn’t realise it was sci-fi when I picked it up, but I was so excited and enthralled when I realised we were not only getting Moroccan-based culture and traditions — but also droids and tech and spaceships! I definitely hope this is the first of many books like this!

The story is told by Amani, who is a dreamer and poet on a small moon in a smaller village. She’s just turned eighteen and is receiving her special tattoo that marks her as an adult, when horror strikes. The traditional ceremony is interrupted by droids who scan all the girls’ faces but only take one: Amani. She’s whisked away into space, kidnapped by the brutal Vathek regime, and brought before their cruel and nasty princess…whose face has a startling resemblance to Amani’s. It turns out Amani is going to be used as a body-double. If there’s some place too dangerous for the princess to be, Amani will step in. Her life will be at constant risk, but failure to comply means her family’s death. She feels hopeless and trapped, tortured by Princess Maram, and lonely so far away from home. But her new life is full of glittering privileged and Amani learns to walk like a queen, be around the gorgeous prince she’s “supposed” to marry, and also accidental stumble on the hint of a rebellion and she could, quite possibly, stoke those flames…

What really stood out to me was the incredible world-building! It was perfect in every way, rich and luscious, weaving in myths and customs along with descriptions of their clothes and food! I loved the brief beginning chapters in Amani’s home village, where she’s preparing for her ceremony. And her respect and admiration for her family, plus her love of all things magical and poetic, was so sweet.

The contrast of going to the viciously lavish imperial courts was also so well done! When Amani gets there, and learns to live as Princess Maram, she has so much change and development. I did want a little more from the girls’ relationship, but it ended up being sparse as Amani would get whisked off to play body-double and didn’t actually spend much time with Maram. The two are such contrast though! Maram is snarky vinegar and Amani has such a sugar soul…although she’s determined, clever, and not about to be walked over. It’s nice to see soft, feminine protagonists, who are still strong and complex!

The plot follows a lot of being whisked around the courts and deception and quiet scheming. I did think there’d be more assassin attempts?! But the ones that were in there were chilling! There’s plenty of politics and pain and betrayal.

Mirage is definitely a story to look out for! It’s absolutely gorgeous world building will sweep you right off your feet, and you’ll soon become entranced in this world of gorgeous gowns and royal balls, while wars and conquering rage in the background, and a girl just tries to stay alive and decide if what she’s willing to risk for her people.

Beyond The Backyards – Nature Non-Fiction Picture Books

Picture books enable children to escape and experience worlds quite unlike their own. Non-fiction narrative picture books enhance those journeys even further. The following collection entices young readers to gaze skyward, creep through leaf litter and explore worlds in and beyond their backyards.

Backyard by Ananda Braxton-Smith & Lizzy Newcomb

Backyard is as it says; a whimsical exploration of a normal suburban backyard, that on closer inspection is anything but normal. ‘Sweet-tooth bats’ flit about the dusky evening sky, tawny frogmouths sit ‘as still as wood’. There is tiny movement everywhere and for one ‘sleep-moony child and star-eyed dog watching’, the world comes alive despite their close proximity to the city.

Visually sumptuous and satisfying, this picture book encourages mindfulness and evokes calm and imaginative thought. Captivating language coupled with sensory illustrations on every page will have youngsters revisiting this celebration of creatures great and small again and again.

Black Dog Books August 2018

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CBCA 2018 Shortlisted Picture Books #2 – Florette, The Great Rabbit Chase, Swan Lake, Ten Pound Pom

Florette written & illustrated by Anna Walker (Penguin Random House Australia)

Mae moves to a new home, an apartment. She is sick of all the packing boxes but draws on many of them, particularly drawing daisies. She misses gathering things for her treasure jar. After going to the park, she finds a forest inside a florist but it is closed. A ‘stalk of green [is] peeping through a gap … a piece of forest’. It becomes a treasure for her jar. She goes on to grow a plant for her new (shared) garden.

Themes include moving home; making new friends; the importance of greenery, trees, gardens; and natural and built environments.

Children could compare and contrast the endpapers (there are different creatures in each).

They could consider the meaning of Florette and related words such as florist and forest.

Garden They could make a terrarium or a green wall – a vertical garden or area covered in ivy or vines, dotted with flowers including daisies, model toadstools, other foliage and small model or toy creatures e.g. rabbit, turtle, bird, ladybird.

Children could do some of what Mae does:

  • Decorate treasure jars and find precious items to fill them, perhaps a plant like Mae’s
  • Chalk drawings on asphalt or cardboard boxes
  • Set up a picnic
  • Use pebbles to make daisies

Mae’s movements could lead to making a story map – on paper, cardboard, or using an app.

Other books by Anna Walker include Today we have no Plans, Go Go & the Silver Shoes, Peggy, Starting School and Mr Huff.

The Great Rabbit Chase by Freya Blackwood (Scholastic Australia)

Mum went to buy gumboots but she returned with a rabbit called Gumboots. His attributes are described positively at the start but the illustrations show otherwise

This is a cumulative tale with people joining in like in Pamela Allen’s Alexander’s Outing. There’s even a nod to the fountain of that book.

Humour Examples of humour include Gumboots who doesn’t stop to chat with anyone while escaping; the mother chasing him in towel; and the illustrations that sometimes tell a different story.

Illustrations Media: watercolour, pencil and oil paint

Freya Blackwood uses her signature spotted clothes and domestic details e.g. an ironing board. Red is used as a ‘splash’ colour and there is a worm’s eye view of the underground tunnel.

Themes community; simple outdoor pleasures; friends (even for rabbits); and how rabbits multiply.

Setting  The creek scene is a peaceful interlude, a moment in time, shown by a bird’s eye view. ‘Mrs Finkel’s forehead uncrinkles’ there. The trees are described as a simile: ‘They are like giants with their long legs stuck in the ground.’

The endpapers of this picture book are like a board game, which children could play on.

Children could look at a doll’s house where the front wall is removed. They could make a cutaway diagram (where some of surface is removed to look inside) showing the inside of the house and tunnel (as in the last double page spread). Or they could make a model inside a shoebox lying on its side.

Swan Lake by Anne Spudvilas (A&U)

This tale is taken from the ballad of Swan Lake, a tragic love story of a princess transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer. The women are swans by day and humans by night. The princess plans to meet the prince at midnight at the ball. The sorcerer’s daughter is disguised as the Swan Queen and the prince chooses her as his bride.

The book is described as passion, betrayal and heartbreak in the Murray-Darling. Children may be able to identify the region from images of the area and the book.

The book is structured/played in III Acts, like the ballet. The written text is followed by pages of illustrations.

Children could listen to some of the ballet music e.g. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Theme; Saint-Saens’ The Dying Swan.

Ballet in pictures They could view some of the ballet.

Visual Literacy  The colours are mainly monochromic, with red as a splash (feature) colour.

Camera angles show some variety:  from underneath – red queen; from above – fleeing girl.

There are close-ups of the swan face and neck; black bird of prey.

Texture Children could emulate the texture through printmaking using leaves and sticks.

They could animate the transformation of swans to women using https://goanimate4schools.com/public_index or other animation programs or apps.

Books by Anne Spudvilas include The Peasant Prince and The Race

Ten Pound Pom written by Carole Wilkinson, illustrated by Liz Anelli (Walker Books)

This picture book is Carole Wilkinson’s memoir of immigrating from Britain to Australia as part of the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, so it could also be regarded as an information book. Detail is shown to give verisimilitude.

Migration Carole Wilkinson packed her 101 glass animals and even tried to pack soil to take to Australia. Imagining they are migrating, children could be asked what treasured possessions they would take.

Compare/contrast Children could compare and contrast migration in the 1950s and 1960s with other ways of migrating to Australia in the past and present. They could use Popplet (a mind mapping tool http://popplet.com/ ) to organise their ideas.

Poem Carole Wilkinson wrote a poem about her empty house. Children could write a similar poem, including their circumstances and their emotions if leaving home.

Illustrator Liz Anelli says: ‘So much of her (Carole Wilkinson’s) tale rung true with my own journey and made it a delight to delve into. I loved researching details for the cruise ship they travelled on and especially enjoyed being able to ‘dress’ the characters in Anelli fabrics, sourced from my grandparents’ photo album.’

Some of her illustrations pay homage to John Brack’s paintings in style & colour and some of her other books are One Photo and Desert Lake.

CBCA 2018 Shortlisted Picture Books #1 – Mopoke & A Walk in the Bush

Mopoke by Philip Bunting (Omnibus Books)

Mopoke is structured using black and white alternating pages. The pages are well composed with the mopoke carefully positioned on each. The style is static, with a picture of mopoke in different poses. This style can also be seen in Sandcastle by the author/illustrator; and the Crichton shortlisted, I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon.

Humour appears throughout Mopoke e.g. ‘This is a wombat.’

The book can also be dark e.g. ‘Nopoke’, where both pages are black.

Children could perform the text as a performance poem (see the work of Sollie Raphael, teen Oz Slam Poetry champion, who has a book, Limelight).

Safe styrofoam printing (like lino cuts) Children could select one of the mopoke pictures or design their own to make a printing tool. They could cut the rim off a styrofoam plate; etch the mopoke shape using a blunt pencil, pen or stick; etch some texture; add paint; place the paper on top and press.

Poster Making The bold, striking illustrations reflect current trends in graphic design so children could make a poster of a mopoke in this style.

‘Educational Technology & Mobile Learning’ –

‘The best 8 tools to make posters for your classroom’ https://www.educatorstechnology.com/2013/02/the-best-10-tools-to-create-postersfor.html or use Glogster.

A Walk in the Bush by Gwyn Perkins (Affirm Press)

There’s an interesting relationship between Grandad and (possum-like but actual cat) Iggy. Iggy doesn’t want to emulate Grandad; he seems more aware, while Grandad often seems oblivious to what they see in the bush.

The author/illustrator has a detailed eye for natural bush sights and sounds such as plants, animals and birds and silhouettes and shadows are executed in a light colour. The style is reminiscent of Roland Harvey.

The bushland setting is an integral part of A Walk in the Bush. To enable children to experience this, teachers or parents could find an area where there is some bush. It may be part of a State Forest, nearby bushland or a bushy area within a local park or the school playground.

Sensory Wheel Students look, listen and use other senses to note the sounds, sights and other features of the bush e.g. eucalyptus leaves to crush and scribbly marks on trees. They could record sights, sounds, smells, feel/touch, taste (where safe) on a sensory wheel.

Children could create literary texts by selecting one of the senses to focus on. They write a brief sensory description of the bush using language generated from their experiences in the bush.

They could write this description onto a piece of paperbark (if accessible without causing damage to trees) or onto recycled paper or wrapping or scrapbooking paper that emulates the colour, content or texture of the description. (NB paperbark is also available from some kitchen suppliers)

Soundscape While in the bush, could listen to and identify bush sounds.

They create then a soundscape by listing five of the sounds and recording these. The free recording tool Audacity could be downloaded to create soundscapes http://www.audacityteam.org/download/.

Review: The Art Of Escaping by Erin Callahan

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The Art of Escaping by Erin Callahan is a captivating and actually super stressful story about a teenage girl who’s obsessed with escapology. Bring out references to Houdini! It’s actually a topic I’ve never read about in YA before, so I was extra keen to try this one out and loved how it wove in everyday highschool angst, friendship group complications, secret keeping, and (of course) a hobby that requires you to be straightjacketed and handcuffed and thrown in a pool.

Lovely hobby.

The story follows Mattie who is determined to find the daughter of a late escape artist and be taught the art of escapology. This is a little complicated by her new mentor being super cranky and barely leaving the house…and also Mattie’s desperate need for no one she knows to EVER see her performing. Until a boy from school comes to one of her shows. Cue horror. But when they talk, the boy, Will, swears he won’t tell and offers a secret to Mattie so they can be sure neither will break. Will, school jock and sweetheart of one of the most popular girls ever…is gay. Will and Mattie soon fall into an easy friendship, where Will helps Mattie with her act, and also discovers things that he loves doing (like costume design) while Mattie thinks of ways to kickstart her brother out of his stalled life. They both want to find ways to be more than just boring and lifeless numbers in the world. And maybe death-defying act will help them escape their troubles — until those troubles catch up.

I did love the strong emphasis on friendship here! The two main characters aren’t a couple and while they both crush on other people irregularly through the book, it’s such a small part of the story. So nearly romance-free. It also ends up with an epic friendship group of a bunch of misfits from Mattie (who literally nearly drowns in chains and lockpicks for fun) and Will (closeted and anxious and lying to his girlfriend and unsure how to fix the messes he’s made) and Stella (super nerd girl who’s an ex-homeschooler) and Frankie (child genius who skipped two grades and literally no one talks to him). They were a great and dynamic group! Plus there were plenty of secondary characters who all felt fleshed out and interesting.

The scenes where Mattie’s learning how to pick locks are definitely amazing. There’s a twist on the “old cranky mentor” trope, with it being a young cranky (possibly agoraphobic) Japanese mentor, whose mother was the famous escape artist, but died in an unrelated accident many years ago. She unwillingly trains Mattie, but I did love their friendship, with the banter and insults flung around. I did not learn how to pick a lock though. Sad for me.

The story itself isn’t long, so the pace is pretty great! We follow Mattie (and the few chapters narrated by Will) as they manage school and college applications and also try to figure out how to keep their messy secrets from their families.

The Art of Escaping is definitely one to look out for! It really focuses on finding your passion and interests in life, trusting your friends, and picking death-defying careers because what’s a little adrenaline rush now and then, hmm?

Eleni Hale & ‘Stone Girl’ – Australian YA

Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Eleni.

You’re most welcome and thanks so much for having me.

What is your background and where are you based?

I’m based in Melbourne. I lived in Greece as a child but came to Australia as a non-English speaking migrant at around eight years old.

My work background is mostly journalism. I was a reporter at various newspapers (five years at the Herald Sun) and then a communications strategist for the union movement for five years. Since having kids I have had to take a step back from that sort of high-octane work.

How involved in the YA literary community are you?

I first became aware of the LoveOZYA community through author Nicole Hayes. I was a member of her writing group and as my manuscript progressed she spoke to me about where she thought it might fit and how wonderful and supportive people were.

I love reading YA, especially Australian YA, and following other writer’s journey on social media. I’ve found the LoveOZYA community inspiring and vibrant. I love being a part of it. There’s a real effort to support each other and this makes the sometimes insecure life of a writer easier. We celebrate each other’s wins and commiserate with difficulties.

Stone Girl (Penguin Random House) is a searing, unforgettable story. Could you tell us about the protagonist Sophie and the symbol of a ‘stone girl’?

As I write my second novel I realize that I’m interested in the triggers and experiences in life that change as. What needs to happen to transform a person from one thing to another? As a journalist, reporting straight news, I would be stunned by the things people did and wonder how they grew from a kid into this adult. What forms their decision making and choices?

Stone Girl follows Sophie’s life from 12 to 16 years old as she becomes someone society typically judges, despises and ultimately dismisses. The persona of Stone Girl is her survival mechanism in a world where there’s no one to rely upon but herself. Sophie soon comprehends her place and makes a number of decisions about who and how she must be in response. It’s about resilience. She toughens up, she becomes Stone Girl, and this is both positive and negative.

Hardening herself, especially against adults, serves to both protect her and isolate her because stony self-preservation cuts both ways. She doesn’t trust anyone. Doesn’t ask for help even though she often desperately needs it. Her Stone Girl persona is what she uses to hide her vulnerability. When she lifts her chin against the world then she can shut out the things that have happened to her. She uses her anger to protect her. But in the end, it’s what she does with the Stone Girl facade that makes this a story of redemption.

Most of us have a mask we wear in order to fit in and protect ourselves. It just happens that Sophie has to wear hers 24 hours a day.

Could you tell us about some significant other characters?

Gwen is one of my favourites. Girlfriends have been the backbone to my life. They’ve saved me many times over, from my sister to the besties I’ve known over the years. I love the closeness and trust that grows between some women. The friendships in the homes Sophie moves through are formed as fast as they must be abandoned but in Gwen, Sophie finds a true ally. It’s a friendship that underscores everything else. It doesn’t just disappear because there’s a love interest.

I think of it like an old western when there’s a shoot-out and friends protect themselves by standing back to back. Gwen and Sophie bond in the knowledge that, despite appearances, adults actually have no idea what they’re doing.

Spiral came to me when I was at the Varuna’s Writer’s House. I knew Sophie needed someone, possibly a love interest, but I couldn’t figure out who would be strong enough break through to her.

Then, as I strolled through Katoomba, Spiral’s form became clear. I saw what he looked like, his motivations and that, like Sophie, in a world of broken promises, he too needed someone to trust.

Writing about Spiral was fun, especially at first. He’s gorgeous! A fiery and enigmatic character that I was drawn to completely – his name serving as prophesy.

I’ve always loved books with gritty honest characters that both shock and charm and I try to write this way.

How did you create such authentic experiences in the homes Sophie had to live in and her spiral into such terrible situations? 

Eleni Hale

This is fictional novel but I have borrowed heavily from my time as a teen growing up in group homes.

I tried to write the real story but felt unable to. Fiction freed me up and images and events appeared quite clearly to me; the rooms, the feelings, the flavor of being of being someone who lived that way. I put myself easily into Sophie’s shoes.

When I lived in the homes there were many younger kids and I’ve thought about them so often since. Sophie is how I imagined one life.

You’ve made drug-taking very appealing at times, e.g. chapter 22? How did you weigh up the risk of including this?

The truth is that before drugs destroy you, they feel good. That’s the trick. That’s why people keep taking them. If I pretended they were terrible all the way though then this would not be the realistic trajectory of addiction. It could be dismissed and then this would not be a true cautionary tale. Protectionism is not helpful for most teens, especially when you consider the type of world we live in right now.

How important is Sophie’s racial background to the story?

Her racial background and her estrangement from her Greek family contribute to her feeling of dislocation. She doesn’t belong there. She has no family here. She must let go of the past and carve her own way through the world.

Like Sophie, I grew up in Greece and left family behind. My Greek heritage and the memories of leaving my first home have significantly contributed to who I am today and I found it quite cathartic to include this in Sophie’s life.

What does she learn about family and others?

When she first goes into the homes Sophie is hopeful that she will once again find family, either with a social worker or with her Baba. However this is not to be. Sophie soon understands that in a world where the only constant is change, she can only rely on herself.

With the kids in the homes there’s a unique bond that makes them a kind of family – albeit temporary.

Could you explain what turned her situation around towards the end of the novel – and why have you chosen this form of redemption?

The fight to survive that carried Sophie through is her saving grace. I actually didn’t know how it was going to end until three or four drafts in. I just kept thinking, this is not the story of a victim. And finally I realized what had to happen.

Kids in care, people with addictions and the homeless are either viewed with pity or fear and I wanted to show how we should never underestimate anyone. People are amazing! They want to survive and many can achieve much given a chance.

You thank God in the Acknowledgements. Why have you done this?

Doing something you love, answering a calling to the self, which is what writing feels like to me, can mean many sacrifices in other areas of life. Financial, physical, mental; you turn yourself inside out. I found myself praying more. Especially after writing I feel quite close to ‘God’. This isn’t in a religious way but more a universal spiritual one.

Who would you particularly like to see read your novel?

Everyone. I need to fund my next novel.

But seriously, I guess if I was choosing readers based on getting the message across then I’d hope people from the world that deals with kids like these. Social workers, kids in care, etc.

I’ve also loved the responses I’ve received from those who are surprised about this world. I would like there to be a common understanding about the fact that hundreds, if not thousands of kids live this way right now in Australia. A public conversation about kids in care could finally bring change to this difficult, misunderstood and largely ignored section of Australian society. That, for me, would be a dream come true. I’d love to know that others wouldn’t feel the way I did when I was living in government care in the early 1990s.

Have you already had any memorable responses from readers to Stone Girl?

A redit post my husband put up went viral and I was shocked and amazed by the response. Social workers, lawyers, ex homes and foster kids from around the world commented and it solidified what I had always suspected. Despite the fact we don’t often acknowledge the plight of kids without parents, the situation matters to many. It’s a private pain. Or a job they really care about. Or they don’t know how to help someone… Some of them contacted me after reading Stone Girl, sending quite heartfelt messages. As an author, this is the best feeling in the world.

Putting aside the issue of kids in care, I wrote this book because gritty subjects, love at ‘the edge of a cliff’, characters living dangerously is what I find interesting to read. I’ve been floored by the generous reviews so far, especially those where people say they couldn’t stop reading. The number one reason for writing a fictional book has to be entertainment, doesn’t it?

This was the first review I received and I remember the relief I felt. Rob at Lamont Books really got what Stone Girl was about.

Wow! This is a must read novel for older teens, but a word of caution – it is definitely a YA title aimed at teens 15 years and older.

It took me back to my school days reading Go Ask Alice, which I found totally confronting, but at the same time an educational and inspirational cautionary tale. Stone Girl is certainly that as it takes us on Sophie’s downhill journey through institutional care as a ward of the state from when she is 12 until she is 16.

It is written with a real understanding and depth of character, as it is inspired by the real life experiences of the debut author, journalist Eleni Hale. Many dark topics are covered including death, poverty, heartbreak and substance dependence. But shining through the story is identity, survival, resilience and ultimately a coming of age empowerment.

I will not give the story away but suffice to say you cannot help but be swept along by the incredible Sophie, as the world continues serving up crap to her. She often stumbles and is so very nearly broken, but we continue to hold out hope for her throughout the story.

Stone Girl will change the way you look at the homeless, and hopefully enlighten young minds as to the plight of wards of the state.

This is a brilliant debut, but as it does contain extreme language, mature themes and substance abuse, it is suited to older teens, 15 years and up.

How can we protect young people and help if we encounter someone in a situation like Sophie’s or someone at risk?

From memory and for reasons I can’t really explain, kids in care seemed to be treated differently, like no-hopers. I don’t know if it was the way we dressed or looked. Maybe we were too loud or other times we seemed too quiet and uncommunicative. I just know that people changed towards you once they knew you were a kid who lived like that. From cops, to teachers, to people on the street, I was often hyper-aware of being a ‘lesser other’.

So in terms of talking to them in an encounter, simply show respect even if you don’t understand them, hold your judgment before you really know them (perhaps after as well) and don’t assume the worst.

Also important is to support the organizations set up to help them such as the ‘Make It 21’ campaign that seeks to extend support from 18 years old to 21. This could lessen the shocking number of government kids who end up homeless, drug addicted and/or mentally ill.

It’s really hard to get through to someone like Sophie once they hardened up. They guard strictly against pity and judgment. The communication channels are nearly closed. Improving their experiences in the ‘system’ is obviously an important way to avoid their slide into the margins of society.

I don’t have all the answers for this – I don’t think anyone does – but talking about it publically is a good start. Don’t let their lives be our society’s dirty secret any longer. Let their issues matter the same way that other’s kid’s problems are discussed regularly in public forums.

What are you writing now?

I’m writing the sequel to Stone Girl. What happens after you leave the home system and your support is cut off? What will Sophie do now that she is out in the world and responsible for herself in every way? She has no family and must scrape together the money she needs to live. Where will this new fight for survival lead her?

It’s as gritty as Stone Girl.

What are you enjoying reading?

I find myself alternating between adult and YA books. I recently read Ballad for a Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield which I loved. Then I read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North which was disturbingly brilliant. But Mirandi Stanton’s The Fish Girl is the best book (novella) I’ve read so far this year.

 Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Thank you

Thanks very much, Eleni.

Review: Fawkes by Nadine Brandes

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Fawkes by Nadine Brandes was one of my highly anticipated release for this! I was absolutely not disappointed! It was full of darkness, magic, assassination plots, and really creative and unique twists on the infamous Guy Fawkes. Because yes! This is a historical retelling. But with magic. I also didn’t know much about the origin of Guy Fawkes, but I know the author did a lot of research (um, except the magic part didn’t happen in London at that time…well, I mean, maybe it did. Who can say for sure). This was such a lusciously detailed reimagining of London and I could wait to see how the story would unfold.

Thomas Fawkes lives in 17th century London, where the world is ruled by two opposing forces of magicians, and if he doesn’t get his mask and join one side…he’ll have no way to cure the plague turning his face to stone. His father, Guy Fawkes, was supposed to turn up to his school’s ceremony and gift his sone a mask, but the man (who Thomas barely knows anyway) never shows up. Thomas isn’t interested in dying of this illness, so he goes in search of his father. And then he discovers Guy Fawkes deep in the midst of organising the assassination of King James. The two opposing magician clans, the Keepers versus the Igniters, are destroying this world with their war, but it’s said if the Keepers kill the Igniters — it’ll stop the plague. Thomas has no choice but to help…right? They need 36 barrels of gunpowder and no betrayals.

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King adn the Parliment;
Threescore barrels of powder below,
Poor old England to overthrow.
By God’s providence he was catch’d,
With a dark lantern and a burning match.

The story is narrated by 16 year old Thomas Fawkes, who is hopelessly honourable. He is like the ultimate beautiful “I shall do my duty!” son and I loved him. All the gentlemanly pledges and goodness! He’s literally dying of the plague, blind in one eye, but he’s still very particular about honour and his sword and being treated like a true man. He’s completely ostracised because of his plague infection, and he does his best to hide it. I liked how it twisted the London Black Plague by making it this magic-infected-illness that slowly turned you to stone.

really felt for Thomas and his confusion about whether to join his father or oppose murder. It was definitely a tug of loyalties and you really feel it as Thomas tries to decide!

The magic system was also awesome! It’s based on masks and colours! Basically you’re either a Keeper (controlling one magic at a time) or an Igniter (balancing multiple and lead by the voice of the White Light) and everyone wears a mask which helps link them to controlling the colours in things. So if your power is Brown, then you’ll control dirt and earth easily. I thought it was pretty clever and original!

There are also plenty of father and son drama issues. But of course. There’s nothing like an assassination plot that’s complicated by awkward fathers and sons who hate not being taken seriously.

I also really enjoyed the secondary cast, but particularly Emma! She’s a badass girl from Thomas’ school who constantly hides behind a mask (why?! Most everyone else takes theirs off sometimes!) and in the end she and Thomas accidentally end up working together — him trying to get information from the lord she’s staying with to use against the king, and her having Thomas as a servant guiding her through London while she tries to get hired as an artist. Their relationship is NOT smooth, which is always a lot of fun! Bring on the slowburn.

I loved the intense array of elements in the story too. From gunpowder and conspiracies, to disguises and miracles and plagues. There’s discussions on race and I felt the opposing magicians were a bit of a twist on the religious unrest in England at that time. Ultimately Fawkes is one you want to be looking out for! It’s available for preorder now and out in August!

Review: The Unpredictability Of Being Human by Linni Ingemundsen

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The Unpredictability Of Being Human by Linni Ingemundsen is beautiful tale told in forthright prose about an undiagnosed autistic girl living in Norway and realising her “normal” family is actually hiding a lot of upside-down secrets. It’s such a bittersweet book that’s definitely here to tug on your heartstrings. The unique perspective of Malin is so heartwarming as it is heartbreaking as she just tries to fit in and…fails. This is definitely the kind of book you want to pick up, as it’s full of heart, complex characters, and some twists that will leave your heart aching.

Malin is 14 years old when the story takes off, and tells her perspective in diary format. She also starts off doing an assignment that asks what she would do if she were God for the day. She chooses fixing the perfect bag of popcorn, because if God hasn’t fixed the world already, then maybe she’s not supposed to either? Her life is pretty normal, in her opinion, with a mum who drinks a lot (but it’s good for her heart) and a dad who never stops yelling and her older brother who ignores her or is super mean. But also probably hiding something, as she soon finds out. And after her mother goes way for a while on a mysterious “business trip”, Malin’s world starts to fall apart. she can’t seem to keep friends at school without making unforgivable social blunders, she keeps getting physically hurt, and her beloved cousin Magnus isn’t always  there to point her in the right direction. And the boy she likes? Well it’s possible she’s done something to make him hate her too. Why is life so utterly and unfathomably impossible?

Malin’s narration was definitely my favourite part of the book! She’s sweet and endearing and narrates in a really straight forward way. She’s so meticulous about the time and in love with her super advanced watch. While it’s not mentioned she’s autistic on the page (although confirmed by sources), she has so many accurate habits of an autistic individual and it’s refreshing to see her exist outside of stereotypes and be dimensional and complex. She’s surrounded by people, but so lonely, and always falls in with the weird kids at school…until they leave her too. Trying to keep up with the popular (probably evil) girl, Frida, is hard enough, but Malin keeps being lured into doing regrettable things while the girls laugh at her. You really ache for Malin and then cheer when she finds people who do care about her: like her amazing cousin Magnus.

The book is definitely about family over romance. Malin doesn’t pick up on the undercurrents happening inside her family, like how her older brother isn’t in school anymore or her mother’s drinking problem. But it affects her hugely and the uncertainty is really hard on her mental health. I did like the little hint of her crush on Reuben and she does a lot of googling about kissing…for “just in case”.

The narration is quite simplistic, but I think it captures the story and heart of it so well! It’s not flowery, so it just pulls you right in and since the book is so short, you end up devouring page after page.

The Unpredictability of Being Human is a fantastic book that will warm and break your heart in equal measures. It doesn’t have a wild plot, and it’s more a little peek through the window into Norway, where Malin is moving from child to teen and trying to understand things that will never make perfect sense: like the unfairness of suffering, of love, of betrayal and loss.

Kate Simpson Shares her Story on Finding Granny

 Finding Granny is a touching and heartwarming story about a young girl dealing with her Granny’s stroke, yet underneath the surface it so much more about the emotional impact it has on every character in the book, and even those behind the scenes. Granny’s convalescence is beautifully captured through the uplifting illustrations and the playful tone in which the story is told. The words were artfully written by debut author, Kate Simpson; mum, writer, engineer and podcaster, who joins us as a part of her blog tour to talk about her journey thus far. Thanks, Kate! 🙂

Thanks for talking with us, Kate, and congratulations on your debut picture book, Finding Granny!
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be a children’s writer?

I didn’t always dream of being a writer. I always loved books and thought it must be amazing to be an author, but it simply didn’t occur to me that this was something I could do. I felt like writing was something for people with ideas, and I didn’t have them.

When my children were born, I took maternity leave with each, and then worked part time. With less happening at work, I started looking for something more to challenge me intellectually and creatively. Because my own children were so young, I was reading mountains of wonderful picture books and somehow, something just clicked and I thought that perhaps writing for children could be the thing I was looking for. And it was.

What does having Finding Granny published mean to you? How do you hope it will touch its readers?

It’s incredibly exciting to have a book published and to be able to see it and touch it and read it to my children. Like many writers, I’ve been chipping away at this over a number of years and it’s such a thrill to see the fruits of my labour in physical form.

In terms of how it might touch its readers, I feel like it’s the type of book that may find a different place in each reader’s heart depending on their own experience. A family touched by stroke or by another illness or disability might get different things out of Finding Granny than a family with different experiences. But I hope that the love between Edie and Granny really shines through for everyone and that the emotion of the story rings true.

Do you have any personal experience with art therapy? How much research did you need to undertake in developing your story, combining the emotional and physical impact a stroke has on a person, and how art therapy can aid in their recovery?

I don’t have any experience of art therapy. In fact, in my first draft of Finding Granny, Granny underwent physiotherapy rather than art therapy. But I just couldn’t find a way to bring out Granny’s playfulness in that setting in the way that I wanted. I don’t remember how the idea of art therapy came to me, but I remember doing a quick Google search and finding a news article from the UK about an art therapy group for stroke survivors that was holding an exhibition. From there, it just clicked.

I did do a little bit more research after that. There’s not a great deal of detail in my book, but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t including any glaring factual errors. It was also interesting to read people’s personal stories of creating art after stroke. Some were already artists, who needed to re-learn their skill with their non-dominant hand after the dominant hand was affected by stroke. Others had never had any experience of art before beginning art therapy after stroke. I came across a few news articles and blog posts that included photos of the art work created, and I was blown away.

As a first time author, how did you find the publishing process with EK Books? Were there any surprises or challenges along the way?

I really didn’t know a huge amount about the process going in. The few things I’d gathered from conferences and friends were that it would be slow and that I would be involved very little. Largely, I suppose that was true. There were certainly gaps of many months where I heard nothing at all. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that my publisher at EK Books did consult me on the choice of illustrator and that I was given the opportunity to comment on the roughs. As for the waiting, it seems like that’s just part of every stage of the publishing journey. It’s excruciating, but it can’t be avoided.

Gwynneth Jones is obviously a talented illustrator, absolutely capturing the heart, joy and love in Finding Granny. What was it like collaborating with her, and what do you love most about the way she has portrayed your sensitive story?

What’s not to love about Gwynne’s illustrations? I remember in the early days, my publisher emailed me some rough pencil sketches that Gwynne had done of Granny and Edie, and I was just over the moon. She has really brought the characters to life and I just can’t imagine them any way other than as she has drawn them. That’s definitely the thing I love most about her work.

In some ways collaboration seems a strange word to use for the process of creating a picture book. Of course, in the end the words and text work together to create the reader’s experience of the book, but as the book is created we really work largely alone. I created the text before Gwynne was involved at all, and most of her work was done independently of me as well. The publisher did give me the opportunity to comment on the roughs, and I made a couple of comments, but I don’t remember asking for any substantial changes (Gwynne may remember it differently!).

Do you have a favourite memory with one of your grandparents?

Many! My maternal grandmother lived with us for much of my childhood, and I remember her fretting over us climbing trees and jumping over rocks. My sister and I took positive delight in terrorising her with our exploits, but now that I have kids of my own, I can absolutely understand where she was coming from!

You’re one of the trio in the popular podcast for kids, One More Page. Has there been a stand out moment, or piece of advice from a guest that changed you or your thinking, or reinforced what you do as a children’s writer/presenter?

I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away from the podcast is how incredibly supportive the children’s book community is. We’ve had organisations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators going out of their way to promote what we’re doing, and established authors and large publishers really getting on board to be part of our interviews and our Kids’ Capers segment. And then of course there’s the constant cheer squad of emerging writers, teachers, librarians and general book lovers who listen to the show and share it on social media, tell their friends and send us messages via our website. It’s such a delight to be a part of such a wonderful community.

Anything else of excitement you’d like to add?

Everything seems a little bit exciting at the moment. I’m doing my best to remember it all so that I can feed off that in the moments when I’m alone in my lounge room tearing my hair out over my latest manuscript. I have another couple of picture books coming out over the next two years, and I also have some ideas for some middle grade novels that I’m keen to get started on. I’m really hoping to build this little spark of success into a career.

Thanks so much for the interview, Kate! Congratulations again on your new release, Finding Granny, and enjoy the rest of your book blog tour!

Join the tour here. 🙂

Find ‘Finding Granny’ in Dimity’s reviews here.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

CBCA 2018 Shortlisted EVE POWNALL Information Books #2

I’ve already blogged about the CBCA shortlisted Younger and Older Reader books.

In two parts, I’ll now look at the Eve Pownall Information Books.

Amazing Australians and their Flying Machines by Prue and Kerry Mason, illustrated by Tom Jellett (Walker Books)

This book is structured chronologically with a focus on inventors and aviators we’ve heard of including Lawrence Hargrave, Nancy Bird, Charles Kingsford Smith, Rev John Flynn of the Flying Dr Service; and those we may not have heard of such as Dr William Bland (who appeared before Hargrave) in the 1850s.

The structure and writing styles provide variety: words in the aviators’ voices; 3 Amazing Facts about most aviators; and ‘Did You Know?’ columns. The book acknowledges difficulties for women in the past who wished to fly.

Some interesting information from the book:

George Taylor In 1909 he flew a glider from Narrabeen, NSW. His wife Florence also flew, tucking her long skirts into her bloomers. At age ten Taylor wrote an essay, ‘The Future of Flying Machines in Australia’. He was a cartoonist and suffered from epilepsy.

Bert Hinkler In 1921 he flew the nine hours from Sydney to Bundaberg wearing a suit and tie. His RAF flying instructor was Cpt W.E. Johns, who wrote the Biggles books.

Like Lawrence Hargrave, children could make box kites. The ‘e-how’ website could be helpful. It suggests using dowel, bendy straws and a plastic/vinyl tablecloth. https://www.ehow.com/how_4882168_make-box-kites.html Alternatively they could make gliders or paper planes.

M is for Mutiny! History by Alphabet by John Dickson, illustrated by Bern Emmerichs (Berbay Publishing)

Structured as an alphabet book, this book is set during British colonisation of Australia but also explores ongoing preoccupations such as L is for land rights.

The M is for Mutiny section could be linked with another book in this series, William Bligh: a stormy story of tempestuous times. Children could discuss why this letter has been selected for the book’s title and suggest alternatives from the book. 

I is for Island could lead to reading the graphic novel, The Mostly True Story of Matthew and Trim by Cassandra Golds and Stephen Axelson.

Decorative Patterning is used for sections such as J is for Jail and N is for Nurture. Children could select an alternative description for one of the letters e.g. C is for Convicts (instead of Cook) and create decorative patterning in Bern Emmerichs’ style.

Left & Right by Lorna Hendry (Wild Dog Books)

Like last year’s shortlisted book by this author, Gigantic Book of Genes, this is a glossy science publication with high quality photos. It includes seamless explanations of left and right with clear examples for children to understand.

It includes a clever idea where children hold their hands out in front and touch their thumbs. Their left hand forms an L shape (helping them remember which hand is left).

The author recognises that it is easy to mix up left and right and looks at situations where right may connote good and left signify weak or bad. For example, in Albania it has been a crime to be left-handed.

It features symmetry, spirals, clockwise and anticlockwise, and the compass.

The author includes incredible information, such as ‘Nearly all kangaroos are left-handed… Parrots use their left feet to pick up food.’ ‘Female cats tend to be right-handed, and male cats … left’. And when driving, island nations tend to drive on the left-hand side of the road.

 

 

CBCA 2018 Shortlisted EVE POWNALL Information Books

I’ve already blogged about the CBCA shortlisted Younger and Older Reader books. In two parts, I’ll now look at the Eve Pownall Information Books.

Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak, illustrated by Julian Frost (Allen & Unwin)

Min is a microbe. She is small. Very small. In fact, so small that you’d need to look through a microscope to see her.

I know from comments by a young family that this tactile, interactive book about microbiology has great appeal. The title is provocative – tempting and almost urging children to lick the book. Min the microbe guides the reader through the informative content, which is well designed with bright comic style illustrations and high-quality photographs. The information is clever, irreverent and quirky. It probably reflects the creators – a team consisting of writer Idan (quiet loud thoughts), Julian (who likes comics and toast) and Linnea, the scientist.

Children could consider, ‘Where will you take Min tomorrow?’ Like the book, they could take Min on a journey using a mix of photographic backgrounds, cartoon characters and written text.

Hygiene is taught and encouraged using reverse psychology. Teachers and parents may use the book to reinforce good hygiene (without losing the text’s inherent appeal).

Koala by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Julie Vivas (Walker Books)

Koala is most appropriate for the very young. It traces the experiences of a young koala achieving independence.

The writing is both literary and factual: providing parallel texts which are particularly useful for children who prefer one style over the other and to expose readers to both forms. The illustrations are distinctive for their rounded lines and shapes.

Children could make finger puppets using the following free template http://www.makefilmplay.com/kids-crafts/how-to-make-this-koala-finger-puppet-with-a-free-template/ or cut rounded shapes from felt (and sew and stuff) to make a koala. They could use these to re-enact the koala’s movements.

Koala is part of Walker Books’ excellent ‘Nature Storybooks’ series. Others include Claire Saxby’s Big Red Kangaroo, Emu and Dingo; and Sue Whiting’s Platypus. This could also be a good opportunity to introduce the classic Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall.

The Big Book of Antarctica by Charles Hope (Wild Dog Books)

This is another big, glossy production from Wild Dog Books. The photos are exceptional. There is minimal written text and key words are shown in large coloured font.

Antarctica is studied in the Australian curriculum and this book covers explorers, scientists, transport, ice, plants (moss, algae, plankton), and much about animals and birds, e.g. giant petrels who vomit on anything they think is a threat (page 37). Climate change and global warming also feature (page 60)

Ice is looked at on page 22. There are many experiments about ice in other books and online to extend this subject.

Children may also be interested in looking at Antarctica in real time via web cams http://www.antarctica.gov.au/webcams

Duck, Duck, Penguin?! Bird Inspired Picture Books

Laughter, mishaps, laughing at mishaps; these are the grist of good picture books. Throw in a few feathered birds, the odd duck and a penguin or two and you have the makings of hours of picture book fun pre-schoolers and avian lovers everywhere are sure to get in a flap about.

The Penguins Are Coming! By Meg McKinlay and Mark Jackson

McKinlay’s predilection for waddling birds works a treat in this re-release paperback about an exciting new addition down at the zoo. Every animal is a-twitter and a-flutter because the penguins are coming only trouble is no one is exactly certain what a penguin is. Supremely illustrated pages depict each animal’s supposition of these new-comers, each description becoming more implausible and exaggerated than the last until even our accepted idea of a penguin is altered from boring little black and white bird to Hawaiian shirt wearing, pizza gobbling, party animal. The Zookeeper tries to set the record straight, supplying his charges and readers with sensible genuine penguin facts only to be ultimately comically upstaged. Oceans of fun and colour with plenty of apt facts and enough animal imagery to fill a real life zoo.

Walker Books Australia 2018

Continue reading Duck, Duck, Penguin?! Bird Inspired Picture Books

Review: Leah On The Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

BUY HERE

Leah On The Offbeat by Becky Albertalli is a complex story featuring messy teens facing the end of highschool and their worlds changing (for the good or bad). It’s a follow-up to the absolutely famous Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda! And you get to be back with the old Simon gang in Creekwood high (although now we know who the infamous “Blue” is that Simon was in love with in the first book). It was bittersweet reading this because this is the end of this little universe Albertalli created. And I’m going to miss this epic friend squad so much.

The story is narrated by Leah this time, and she’s a really introverted and sarcastic girl who keeps everyone at a distance because she’s scared to love too deeply. Simon is her ultimate BFF, but lately things haven’t been the same in their friendship group. Leah hasn’t told anyone she’s bisexual. She’s not ashamed, she just…doesn’t know how to say it. And she has (and has always) a mega crush on one of the girls in their friend group, who’s dating a guy…so that seems doomed. Leah doesn’t want to say goodbye when highschool ends. She doesn’t want her mum to remarry. She doesn’t want to risk putting her self out there, like with her art, or drumming, or emotions. And she always feels on the outside since she’s fat (and loves her body) and isn’t rich like all her friends. As her friend group tenses up with some fights and breakups and secrets, Leah has to figure out whether to fight them — or fight for them.

While it’s super cute and lovely, it’s not a “sweet” book! Leah is a pretty brash person and isn’t afraid to be herself. And she has people take or leave her: unforgiving and hard (totally Slytherin) and it takes a lot to win her trust. She’s pretty relatable though, because moving on is very hard, especially after high school. She’s also super arty and I loved seeing her explore her interests there.

The storyline also explores sexuality and coming out, which is a common theme in Albertalli’s books. Leah’s coming out is very different to Simon’s, which I think is great because it shows there’s no “one way” to be part of the LGBTQIA community, whether you’re closeted (for your choosing or for safety or because you’re not ready) or whether you’re out and how you choose to display that. I think these storylines are super important and can be really empowering! Leah, however, definitely does mess up with how she treats other members of the queer community. It’s sad and hard to read that part, but this book isn’t about perfect characters. It’s flawed and Leah is flawed (although I do firmly think the story needed to have her apologise more than she did).

Leah On The Offbeat is part coming-of-age, part coming-out, and part the end-of-an-era. It’s very character driven with a soft-toned plot, and there are so many moments to absolutely crack up laughing over. It features flawed characters and tough decisions and that terrifying in-between time of finishing high school and looking toward college and wondering if it’s the right time to chase the person you love.

Misconstrued Mishaps – Picture Books about Communication

Language and social cues can often be tricky to identify when the intention or motivation is not clear or masks a double meaning. Assumptions can also very easily lead to misunderstandings, so communication and an open mind are key. These two picture books so astutely point out our human errors in the most hilarious and relatable ways. Must reads!

Duck!, Meg McKinlay (author), Nathaniel Eckstrom (illus.), Walker Books, July 2018.

When small does not mean insignificant. When honesty must not be ignored. When puns should never be misconstrued. Duck! A story of a farmyard disaster in the name of ego…and a bruised one at that!

Masterful duo Meg McKinlay and Nathaniel Eckstrom bring this double entendre to light in their hilarious tale of mindless, obnoxious beasts and a noble Duck. A small green and brown duck heeds a hefty warning to his larger fellow farm mates – with a bold shout, “Duck!” Totally oblivious to his intentions, and the oncoming disaster flying through the air (a clever ploy to get readers joining in on the action!), the animals believe they are being named ‘Duck’, but of course they think they’re better than that. ‘“Duck?” The cow frowned. Dont’ be ridiculous! You are a duck and he is a horse and I am a cow. You see – you have funny webbed feet and I have these fine cloven hooves…”’ Becoming increasingly frustrated at their inability to understand, plus their constant insults, Duck has one final crack but to no avail. And when everyone finally realises their mistake, including Duck, well, it’s too late.

Duck! is a perfect example of the importance of communication, of how easily a simple word can be misunderstood, but also of the impact of character judgement and narcissism. McKinlay’s narrative is lively, haughty and amusing – aptly supported by Eckstrom’s earthy colour palette and smug-looking characters.

A brilliant read aloud for engaging preschool children with plenty of learning and discussion opportunities. This book will definitely get their attention!

Square, Mac Barnett (author), Jon Klassen (illus.), Walker Books, May 2018.

You know you’re in for a treat when it comes to this infallible author – illustrator duo. Plus, with the success of the first in the trilogy, Triangle, there’s no doubt that Square will be equally enticing.

Barnett and Klassen once again hit the nail on the head with their keen eyes of observation for human blunders. Imagine the surprise Square faced when told by Circle that he was a genius! A complicated communication mess of assumption, on Circle’s part, and Square’s withholding of the truth lands him in his own mess of a job trying to perfect a block sculpture of Circle. But he simply pushes blocks, not shapes them. He is not a genius. The universe must work in mysterious ways because somehow, Square pulls it off. Perhaps he might withhold the truth for a little while longer!

This tale of an accidental genius is just genius! The combination of expressive language, slick sepia-toned palette and simplicity of shapes, with the added bonus of thought-provoking humour works so brilliantly to give a reading experience that appeals to all ages. The books in this series are collector’s items that will shape a young generation into well-rounded, level-headed human beings.