Cosplay & Cinderella in Geekerella

Geekerella by Ashley Poston (Penguin Random House) is a contemporary Cinderella story told by both Danielle (Elle) as the Cinderella character and 18-year-old actor, Darien Freeman as her potential love interest.

Elle’s father had established ExcelsiCon cosplay before he died. Elle now lives with her stepmother, a wedding planner, and stepsister twins Chloe (who is nasty) and Calliope (whose attitude towards Elle may be softening). Elle works part-time at the Magic Pumpkin food truck with Sage, who also makes costumes.

Darien is a former soap actor who is now starring as Prince Carmindor in Starfield, the new movie version of a cult sci-fi show. He is actually a fan of the show and wants to ‘do the fandom justice’ even though Jessica, his female co-star is really only using it for publicity and as a stepping stone to an academy award career. Jess thinks that Daren is cute, ‘equal parts dorky and sexy’. They are supposed to be dating.

Darien wants to do his own stunts, is a ‘pretty boy’ swamped by fans, but is actually vulnerable and a bit shy. His overbearing but distant father is his manager; Gail, is his slightly older, inept but caring minder; and Lonny his new bodyguard.

Without having met him, Elle despises Darien. She doesn’t realise that he is the person who contacted her through the phone she inherited from her father and is now texting constantly. At the same time, her blog posts against Darien playing the role of Carmindor go viral. When they meet in person they despise each other.

The plot builds to the cosplay convention and ExcelsiCon ball. Elle’s parents had been the king and queen of cosplay – her father dressed as the Federation Prince, Carmindor, and her mother as beautiful Amara. Elle decides to attend the ball and Sage alters her father’s costume for her. But Chloe, as ugly-natured stepsister, steps in and steals the Amara silk dress and glass shoes for Cal to wear to the ball and ruins Carmindor’s coat.

Subplots about leaked details about the Starfield movie, Darien’s stalker and interference in Darien and Elle’s texts add intrigue.

This reimagined fairy tale about hidden and mistaken identities is great fun. Its premise of the famous guy yearning for an unknown girl is also explored in the equally engaging Unrequited by Sydney writer Emma Grey about a girl pursued by the famous lead singer in boy band.

Review: Batman Nightwalker (DC Icons #2) by Marie Lu

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Batman Nightwalker by Marie Lu is the second in the DC Icon superhero series! I really love what these authors are doing with this books…they’re all famous and amazing YA authors who are each taking a turn writing a teenage-centric story about our favourite DC superheroes origins stories. And since Batman is one of my favourite ever heroes, I was really excited to see what Marie Lu would do! I was a bit surprised it wasn’t more focused on Batman himself, but this is about the world’s most famous teenage billionaire: Bruce Wayne.

The story basically begins with Bruce accidentally getting involved in a highspeed car chase to catch a criminal. Only problem is: he’s a civilian and absolutely not supposed to do that. He’s charged with preventing justice and has to serve community service. Bruce is a little disenchanted with life at the moment, feeling lost now that he’s officially 18 and has come into his fortune and misses his parents a lot. He wants the world they envisioned but he doesn’t know how to get there. (Basically he has a total heart of gold.) Then he gets stuffed into Arkham Asylum to serve his community service…as a janitor. But it’s there that he meets Madeline, member of the infamous Nightwalker murderer gang. They target billionaires and Bruce could very well be next on their list.

The story is definitely pre-Batman, so it wasn’t a nod to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy — but more a story woven all it’s own. It has references to everyone you love from the originals, of course, but it’s also a very sold standalone.

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It also features a bit of a mystery plot, with Bruce trying to figure out what the Nightwalker gang are up to. Madeline, refusing to talk and constantly locked in a cell in the asylum, gradually warms up to Bruce and they begin having a conversation. She was a stunning antihero, full of complex values and a good dash of danger. You can’t tell if she’s manipulating Bruce or she really cares about him. He ends up caring quite fiercely about her, despite knowing she’s part of a murder-gang. Because is she everything she appears to be?

Bruce himself was was a winning character that you definitely want to root for. Although, I’ll be honest, he’s basically a textbook Gryffindor, full of reckless bravery and a hunger for justice and fairness. He’s completely in love with the idea that the world can be better, but he goes about doing it in usually the wrong way. Which is great! Because that’s the teenage life! He like sees a person and he just gotta save ’em. He’s obviously extremely privileged and rich but he also was keen to not let that have him lead a spoiled or blinded life.

I liked seeing familiar names appear. Like Harvey Dent is in there and Gorden is mentioned. And then there’s Alfred, the light of the world. He’s the perfect mix of father, butler, and teacher with a side-dish of tea and British disapproval. He tells Bruce to slow down while driving and makes him breakfast and says he has 0% sympathy when Bruce does something stupid. Alfred is amazing!

Batman Nightwalker is definitely a fun addition to this DC Icon series! It’s not super dark, but it has a lot of twists and it’s great seeing how Bruce would grow up to be the man bat he is today.

A Taste of Australia – Picture Book Reviews

Summer holidays in Australia is a time to explore, discover and engage in the recreation of all the wonderful features, landscapes, flora and fauna that this country has to offer. And with Australia Day just around the corner, it is also a time to reflect on the past and show appreciation and respect for the way our nation has been shaped. The following picture books include an ode to the sacred sites and traditions of the Indigenous people, as well as some humorous and unique nuances.

Beginning with the multi award-winning title that has the nation on its feet, A is for Australia (a factastic tour) by Frané Lessac is literally a national treasure, with this current edition printed in a beautiful paperback format.
Explore this geographical wealth of gems from A to Z as you travel and learn exciting facts about sights, people and animals around Australia. Each page gloriously illustrated in vibrant, scene-appropriate colours and a perfectly naive style that makes this pictorial encyclopaedia so accessible to all its readers. The text is congruously dispersed and proportioned around the spreads for easy readability.
Amazing and studiously researched facts that will entice international newcomers and excite local citizens to race towards a most pleasurable tour and cultural education of our fascinating land, Australia.

Walker Books, January 2018.

I love the ironically oblivious know-it-all in A Walk in the Bush; an interesting yet remarkably witty bushwalk through nature whilst appreciating the ones we love.
Gwyn Perkins writes this tale with an interactive dialogue spoken by Grandad to cat Iggy that so clearly imitates a typical grandparent (or parent) lovingly and knowingly sharing an experience with his little one. Her illustrations also expressively characterise these personalities and add plenty of humour with their facial expressions and body language and funny little surprises to look out for.
Who will spot the wildlife first? Can Grandad distinguish between the songs of magpies and kookaburras? What will he teach Iggy about trees, eucalyptus leaves and scribbly marks made by a caterpillar in the bark?
A Walk in the Bush is a fun, and funny, way to encourage togetherness and appreciate the enchanting facets of the Australian outdoors.

Affirm Press, July 2017.

Colour Me by Ezekiel Kwaymullina, illustrated by Moira Court, is a beautiful representation of the amazingly colourful world we live in and what makes us diversely human. Forging a love and respect for the differences in people, creatures and scenery around us is an important message emanating from this story.
Told in a playful manner readers can also be encouraged to imagine their own creatively colourful world by brainstorming what they would be if they were a particular colour. For example, “If I was orange I’d be as wild as the flickering fire. And I’d dash through the bush with daring dingos.” These lyrically whimsical phrases continue with each hue in the shape of a rainbow, illustrated with vibrant silkscreen prints from hand cut stencils.
Tolerance and diversity are at the heart of this tale, with a wonderful Aussie flavour including some of our unique fauna and landscapes. A beautiful read for preschool-aged children.

Fremantle Press, July 2017.

Here’s a gorgeous story of a little girl with a brimful of excuses as to why she can’t go to the park, and a Grandpa with a bucket load of creative problem solving solutions. Sally Morgan expresses The Perfect Thing in the most authentic and evocative language, whilst illustrator Ambelin Kwaymullina perfectly captures this lively spirit through her bold and dynamic varied layouts.
When the dog ate her sneakers, Grandpa finds the ‘perfect thing’ for Lily girl with his thongs that can act as whale flippers. When the cat shredded her raincoat, Grandpa suggests that Lily pretend to puff up a plastic bag like a balloon and float to the park. Finally at the park, Lily contributes her own innovative resourcefulness for a ‘perfect’ day out together.
Featuring Australian animals and characteristically artistic Indigenous traits, The Perfect Thing is a refreshing and wonderfully imaginative story for early childhood readers to share with their elders.

Scholastic Australia, July 2017.

This hilarious rhyming romp sets straight any misunderstandings about the official specification of our beloved national icon; the koala. Jackie French, legendary laureate behind the Diary of a Wombat series, together with talented illustrator Matt Shanks, present this clarifying tale of Koala Bare.
There’s no denying, this koala is unapologetically dead set against being called a bear. And he’s not afraid to express his view. He is not a picnic-loving teddy, nor a bamboo-eating panda, a fish-gnawing polar bear or a honey-sucking bear from a fairy tale. He certainly doesn’t wear clothes. He is BARE, and he is an individual, and that’s the way he likes it.
Koala Bare exposes the most energetically adorable watercolour illustrations and such a headstrong attitude. It is so loveable and persuasive that its young readers will be readily spreading the message to all of their friends.

Angus & Robertson, September 2017.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Funny Holiday Reads for Kids

Whether relaxing at home, on the road or in the air, or sitting by the side of the pool at a fancy resort, your kids will need some great reads to keep them chilled and entertained all summer. Here are a few funny books from popular series for middle graders that will have them enthralled from start to end.

Logie-award-winning television series by Danny Katz and Mitch Vane, Little Lunch is the perfect school-based comedy to read when school is out. Triple the Laughs, fourth in the illustrated book series, contains three immersing stories that will have kids snorting and chortling all the way through.
In ‘The Ya-Ya’, Atticus learns to appreciate his grandmother’s cooking after a long episode of avoiding the small, brown, smelly things in his lunchbox that look and smell like something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe.
The Dress-Up Day’ is about Battie using the alias of superhero, Stretcho, to hide the fact that he is really scared of a lot of things, including moths, crabs, knees, and especially dogs.
The third episode involves Melanie being punished and unable to eat her piece of ultra-choco-happiness cake because Tamara has put ‘The Germblock’ on her following a visit to the toilets. But did Melanie really not wash her hands? Rory seems to know the answer!
Hilarious, authentically appropriate (and sometimes perfectly inappropriate) antics that readers from age seven will relate to or simply have a good old chuckle about, Little Lunch Triple the Laughs is a winner.

Walker Books, August 2017.

Number six in this comedic Timmy Failure series by Stephan Pastis is ‘The Cat Stole My Pants’. The injudicious boy detective is back with another mission to achieve Greatness, this time on an island in Key West, Florida, apparently NOT on holiday / honeymoon with his mum and new step-dad, Doorman Dave.
The graphic novel for tweens sets sail with a pair of missing (or stolen) pants whilst touring the house of famous author, Ernest Hemingway. It then takes us through a sea of laughter as Timmy’s scepticism and hypochondria are a consistent source of his ‘failures’. His social and relationship building skills are tested via interactions with Dave, and Dave’s nephew Emilio, which of course Timmy exploits, I mean, recruits as an ‘unpaid’ intern in his detective agency. Their mission is to solve the mystery of the mysterious note-dropper and a hidden treasure somewhere in the town, leading to a gloriously unexpected and emotionally imposing resolve. All the while, Timmy’s elusively illusive polar bear agent is apparently, according to Timmy, extorting money for a book report required for his summer school homework. But someone else more reliable is there to save Timmy from his unscholarly ways.
With its sarcastic and dry wit, quirkiness, unbelievable yet somewhat uncannily familiar circumstances, and comical illustrations, The Cat Stole My Pants delivers an unputdownable read packed with action, mystery and lessons in (perhaps how to not) handle new and estranged relationships. Set to steal the attention of children from age eight.

Walker Books UK, April 2017.

Laugh Your Head Off Again and Again! is the third in the super-charged, action-packed comedy series blessed with an unbelievably talented array of popular Australian authors. Featuring stories from the Treehouse’s Andy Griffiths, R.A. Spratt, John Marsden, Tony Wilson, Meredith Costain, Alex Ratt, Tristan Bancks, Deborah Abela and Alan Brough, plus fantastically funny sketches by Andrea Innocent.
Again, another ‘brilliantly coloured’ book; literally so eye-blindingly bright you can’t miss it on a bookshelf, but also contextually vibrant in nature to keep its readers totally entranced from neon-green chapter to neon-green chapter.
Nine stories cleverly unfold within the blood-orange cover containing a mix of the unexpected, frightening, enlightening and ridiculous. From a life-threatening shower ordeal, to three greedy pigs and a wolf pie, a psychotic childhood clown come back to life, a high-flying ‘Bum’, to an abandoned girl forging a life of cake and Royalty. Each one different, each with its own voice and level of intensity.
Recommended for middle graders, however make note, this edition is not for the faint-hearted! The authors have definitely turned it up a notch compared to the prequels in terms of ‘scare factor’ and complexity. Some truly nightmarishly frightening with others making you question who you can trust. But all in all, Laugh Your Head Off Again and Again! is a ludicrously entertaining collection of stories to thrill every sense of humour.

Pan Macmillan Australia, October 2017.

Now here’s a raucously Roman romp of colossal proportions! Julius Zebra: Bundle with the Britons! by Gary Northfield is the second hysterically historical book in the series, brilliantly mixing fictional absurdity with non-fictional goodness. It is charged with a chariot-load of droll, and senseless, humour, and insanely wacky black and white illustrations neatly slotting into the storyline throughout. There is also the inclusion of authentically pertinent details of the ancient era with its Roman numeral numbered pages and facts on what the Romans brought to Britain at the closing.
This is the story of The People’s Champion, gladiator Julius Zebra, and his animal cronies on a mission for granted freedom. Emperor Hadrian, the villain in this tale, has promised this outcome on the grounds that Julius defeats the Britons, to win governance of the Roman Empire. Led by Septimus, the boss of the gladiator school, the animals are taken unwillingly to the far-off land of Britannia for a final shot at victory, only to realise their perpetuated slavery will remain unless they stand up for themselves. This does not come without a series of daft and imprudently courageous attempts to outsmart Septimus, their opponents and the Emperor.
Teamwork, friendship and loyalty are at the heart of this fast-paced scramble to freedom. Bundle with the Britons is zany, zesty and zebra-tastic, seizing its middle grade audience with every rip-roaring joke and clanging bangs of energy.

Walker Books UK, May 2017.

Animals Behaving Badly – Playful Picture Books

Holiday time is playtime and what better way to indulge in the joy of life than with a playful picture book or two. I could wax lyrical about all of these titles all year long, so if you love animals behaving badly in picture books that crack you up, check out these recent releases before summer is through.

Stanley’s Playing the Trumpet by John Field and Tull Suwannakit

It’s not mandatory, but pop on the bonus CD of this cheerful tale about a determined musical maestro as you read this picture book, and you’ll soon be jazzing around the lounge room. Catchy verse by Field and the most sublime illustrations by Suwannakit bring Stanley, his sister, Fran and the entire crazy band alive with pulsing alliteration and an underlying message of when at first you don’t succeed, look for an alternative. Fulfilling your potential and finding your true talent are old themes drummed into exuberant new life with Stanley. Little musicians from four upwards will love jiggling to this.

Scholastic Press September 2017

What the Ladybird Heard on Holiday by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks

Keep your ears and eyes tuned on reliable rhyming verse as you escort ladybird on another action-packed holiday. Yes, she’s off again, full of glorious glitter (on every page, as promised), this time to the London Zoo. There’s the usual cacophony of interesting sounds to experience until she spies two old foes and overhears their dastardly wicked plan to kidnap a monkey and coerce him into stealing the Queen’s crown. In her quietly indomitable way, ladybird alerts the zoo’s menagerie and cleverly foils the crime. Who says being small and quiet would never amount to anything! This is a longish but lavishly illustrated and executed picture book to share with 3 – 5-year-olds.

Macmillan Children’s Books July 2017

Rodney Loses It! by Michael Gerard Bauer and Chrissie Krebs

Chaotic unfortunate, Rodney has but one overriding desire, to draw. He lives and breathes it, even does it in his sleep. There is only one thing Rodney loves more, Penny Pen, his penultimate writing companion and perhaps the most treasured thing in his universe. So imagine the immense, blood-draining, trauma he endures when Penny goes missing! We’ve all been there; that frantic, irrational, world’s-end place we find ourselves in when we can’t find … a pen, never mind a favourite pen. When Penny disappears, Rodney loses it – big time. Thankfully, as with most cases of gross- oversightednesstitis, Rodney and Penny are eventually reunited, enabling Rodney to carry on with his life’s vocation. Written with Bauer’s usual witty observation and playfully illustrated by Krebs this is a supremely silly and joyful story encapsulating a common creative crisis that pre-schoolers and anyone who ‘loves nothing more than drawing‘ will appreciate.

Omnibus Books September 2017

Pig the Star by Aaron Blabey

Most of us are well acquainted with the recalcitrant pug, Pig. He is nothing if not one to ever shy away from the lime light. In fact, he obstinately refuses to give it up in this instalment of pug-mania after he and Trevor are invited on a big photo shoot. Fame and adulation transform the repugnant pug to even greater (or lower) levels of nasty until a talent scout recognises the true star of the show. Thus begins Trevor, the sausage dog’s prima ballerina career. Will Pig allow Trevor his moment to shine? That is the question for future Pig tales and one I bet Pig fans can’t wait to find out.

Scholastic September 2017

The Wolf The Duck & The Mouse by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

I adore this picture book team. They collaborate without preamble and with pure comic purpose. This tale exemplifies the sublimely ridiculous situation of a mouse swallowed by a wolf only to discover he is not alone inside the wolf. Duck resides there with all the contentment of one whose life is now without woes and worries, like being eaten by wolves. Duck and Mouse enjoy an indulgent lifestyle within the wolf’s belly until one day a hunter threatens their existence. Together they work to restore calm although, for Wolf, his debt to them subjects him to nightly anguish, thus the howling wolf. Subtle, hilarious and as ever, ingenious, this tale of making the best of your situation and living with others is destined as another Barnett Klassen classic.

Walker Books 2017

Koalas eat gum leaves. by Laura and Philip Bunting

Another classic in the making is by the talented Bunting husband and wife team. Superbly sparse and blunt to the point of overwhelming shortness and sweetness, I absolutely adore this tale of one errant koala’s quest to find something more palatable to eat than boring old gum leaves. While it’s true koalas are notoriously hard to please, eating only a specific few species of gum leaves, this rebellious marsupial bunks that idea after a gluttonous episode of ice cream guzzling. And, like all young kids who have had too much of a good thing, soon lives to regret it. Delectable linear drawings and bold contemporary text make this one hard to resist. Highly recommended for pre-schoolers and nature lovers everywhere.

Omnibus Books October 2017

There’s a Big Green Frog in the Toilet by Anh Do and Heath McKenzie

Anh Do does silly with remarkable sincerity. Along with McKenzie’s action-crammed slapstick illustrations, this latest zany title epitomises the crushing need to pee and not being able to. A bonus CD lets you sing-a-long to little bear’s demise when a big green frog lands in his toilet making this a nutty take on the red-back-on-the-toilet-seat situation. Frivolous fun sure to win a seat for three-year-olds and above and people with frog fetishes.

Scholastic Press October 2017

 

 

Review: The Falconer by Elizabeth May

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THE FALCONER by Elizabeth May was a pure delight to read, full of stabbing, dark faeries and murderous girls and the occasional explosion. I was absolutely in love the whole time and totally infatuated with this steampunk Scottish series. I definitely want more books ASAP. It also featured sass and engineering inventions and beautiful and dangerous faerie powers that were so intriguing.

The story follows Aileana who is part time lord’s daughter and part time faerie slayer. She has to keep both lives seperate and it’s exhausting, but she’ll do anything to avenge her mother who was slain by a horrifying faerie. Aileana teams up with a rogue fey boy, Kiaran, and together they train and hunt to avenge Aileana’s mother…but complications are thrown in when strange faeries start crawling out of the ground and Kiaran reveals he has more secrets than Aileana could ever have imagined.

Although I have to admit the ending really got me!! It was the wildest and worst cliffhanger in the world and I immediately want book 2.

I really loved Aileana, our badass faerie killer. I loved how Aileana chaffed at her “proper” life as a lord’s daughter and doing the balls and dresses etc etc…but she didn’t diss them. Makes such a difference. And she was elegant and also badass and she was an engineer with all these murderous inventions to kill faeries. I mean, can she get any more awesome?! This is the kind of female heroine I love reading about!

Also I appreciated how heavily this book features PTSD. I often find with fantasy we like skip over the “effects” and just focus on the battle. But this goes into the actual mental health side!! Aileana’s mother was murdered in front of her (when she was little) and that absolutely messes with her all the time and the book really delves into the “cause and effect” reactions fo war.

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Dark feral faeries are also my favourite. Kiaran was very mysterious and also extremely powerful, but he and Aileana train to kill faeries. Aka Kairan is killing his own kind. But why? He has so many dark secrets and we only catch snippets and honestly it just makes the book ridiculously hard to put down.

I just really like how dangerous and wild all the faeries are. Everyone gets stabbed and bitten and poisoned. It’s exciting and exhilarating to read a book that so grabs you!

I also loved the writing! It was really detailed and the added layer of describing all the smells made it really leap off the page. I thought the pacing was excellent and it interspersed things like balls and tea with lords and earls with huge action scenes, sassy faerie quips, and inventions of explosions and unravellings of mysteries that could end with the whole world in trouble.

THE FALCONER is a fantastic surprise and one I’ll not be forgetting. It’s full of dark faeries in a steampunk Scottish setting with a badass, engineering, and emotional heroine I absolutely want to read more about. It totally captured my imagination!

Review: Kids Like Us by Hilary Reyl

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Kids Like Us by Hilary Reyl is a gorgeous story set in France about bookworms, French bakeries, and autism. There was so much to love while reading it and it was super easy to be immersed in the detailed setting, so it wasn’t like reading a book — more like living in it. Plus the narrator, Martin, is an utter book lover and how relatable is that?!

The story is about Martin who’s living abroad in France for a while as his mother directs a film. He’s supposed to go to school and just enjoy the culture and life there, but things are complicated since change is very hard for him. Martin’s on the autism spectrum and his greatest focus in life is a super old book that he’s obsessed with. Even when he attends the local high school, he meets a girl who he thinks is straight out of his novel…although of course she isn’t so this is a bit of a problem. It’s a story of accepting differences and realising there’s no “one way” to exist and lead a good life.

I really enjoyed the French setting! I’ve always wanted to see France (Paris specifically) for no really good reason, just shh, I’d like to go. The book totally captures the magic of a small French town, with bakeries and gardens and little cottages. I also believe the author has lived in France, so you could really see the authenticity shining through in the writing. Plus it actually delved into talking about the differences in learning to speak “classroom French” to actually being out and about with local people and discovering the slang and mannerisms.

Martin is a fantastically admirable and relatable character. He’s adorable and winning and extremely thoughtful, and, bonus! He loves to cook! He enjoyed preparing complex meals with lots of different ingredients and one of his top favourite things was staring into the bakery windows at the delicately made madeleine cakes. So so with you there, Martin. I would like 1 or 9 of them too. And the foodie descriptions?! There was all this rhubarb jam and croissants! Actually I take it all back. This is a huge problem. I ended the book so hungry!

I did love his infatuation with this old French book, In Search of Lost Time, although when he started to make references to it, I got a bit lost since I hadn’t read the book. But the bookworm love really shines through, and what’s more relatable to us readers, right?!

I also appreciated the autism representation! It was really accurately written and lovingly done. Stereotypes weren’t misused and Martin was complex and deep and really leapt off the page. Plus I loved the inclusion of echolalia, which is a common autism trait but not one I’ve ever seen in books until now. This book wasn’t interested in writing a caricature or making fun of any aspects of autism — it was so respectfully done.

Kids Like Us is a fantastic and beautifully told story that explores autism and what it is to accept yourself. Definite must read!

 

Review: Words On Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton

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Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton is a beautiful and heartbreaking story about schizophrenia. It’s brutally honest and so so good. It does hesitate to show you a realistic portrayal of mental illness, and skips romanticising it at all. An absolute emotional roller coaster too! Plus there’s a lot of baking in here, so I suggest settling down to read with a packet of biscuits. You’ve been warned.

It follows the story of Adam who’s just been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He’s participating in a drug trial to try and help him and he’s writing his experiences in a journal for his therapist. He knows his delusions aren’t real, but they still follow him everywhere — everything from weird mob bosses and naked guys to a beautiful and timid girl. They seem real to him and they’re nearly his friends. But now he’s starting a new school where no one knows about his illness and he’s desperate to make it work, especially when he meets a very fierce and smart girl that he likes. But it’ll only work out if the trial drug doesn’t fail.

I loved the open discussions about mental health and schizophrenia. Schizophrenia (like any mental health condition) is a huge spectrum and I really enjoyed reading about this portrayal. Adam was very brutally honest about his condition. He’s also scared of it, but is doing his best not to be. And his hallucinations were really varied and he knew they weren’t real but he wasn’t always convinced. There was a lot of singing and some mafia guys with guns and a naked man, and Adam’s really fond of his hallucination named Rebecca who is quiet and sweet and warns him of danger.

Adams thinking isn’t always correct or good. He often calls himself “crazy”. But I think it was realistic…he’s 16 and just wants to handle school and make things work with his mother and stepdad and also maybe get a girlfriend. He’s honest, but his view of the world can be problematic. You’re with him on this roller coaster of a drug trial and falling in love for the first time and growing up.

It’s told in letter-format. It reminded me a bit of Perks of Being a Wallflower and Adam’s voice is so clear and strong. I did wish there’d been more description instead of Adam just relaying what had happened, but I still thought the format was very fitting for the book.

Maya and Dwight are two of the friends Adam makes and they are amazing. Definitely secondary-characters that shine! Maya is like logical and not squishy and will eat your cookies and study hard and be a very cute and friendly robot. I LOVED HER. (She’s also Filipino.) And Dwight was like this intense super-nerd who was super-pale and super-talkative and basically adorable. I also loved the inclusion of supportive and epic parents, particularly for Adam.

This is the kind of story that will definitely play with your emotions and leave you thinking. Adam’s viewpoint is so raw and obviously life is not going to go perfectly and the drug might not be the miracle they’re all counting on. You’re heart will probably be thundering at times and it might rain on your face.

 

Dim’s Christmas Crackers List # 6 – Just For Fun

It’s so exciting – being on the cusp of Christmas. If you are still anxious about the book-sized gaps left in your children’s Christmas stockings though, worry no more. Here is my final list of cracking good Chrissy reads for the year. We’ve covered meaningful and moving, so here are some just for fun titles, to fill you with all the merriment the season entails. If they don’t quite make it to you in time, save them for next year; there’s nothing like getting ahead with Santa! I hope you’ve enjoyed our Kids’ Book Bests this year and can’t wait to share even more fabulous titles from the world of children’s books with you in 2018.

Junior Novels

Sage Cookson’s Christmas Ghost by Sally Murphy and Celeste Hulme

We’ve met Sage and her sassy cooking-based series before but this one takes the cake, or rather Pavlova! Frolicsome fun ensues after Sage and her celeb chef parents arrive in Western Australia to record a world-record attempt by Chef Myra to make the world’s largest ever pavlova. In spite of the fiercely debated origins of this quintessentially Christmassy summertime dessert and some irksome ghostly going ons, Sage eventually wades through gallons of meringue to save the day – and the record attempt. Best bit, of course – the delicious pav recipe in the back. A jolly addition to any Christmas stocking.

New Frontier Publishing November 2017

PS Who Stole Santa’s Mail? by Dimity Powell

Well it wouldn’t be Christmas without mentioning this little ripper now, would it. Can Sam and Tobii save Santa’s reputation and Sam’s kidnapped little sister before the Delivery Book is closed for the year? This light-hearted Christmas mystery, chockers with elves, weird smells, stolen Christmas wishes, nasty rashes and disappearing mailboxes is a spirited stocking filler ideal for 7 – 10 year-olds that is guaranteed to sustain the magic of believing. Just ask the author if you don’t believe me!

Morris Publishing Australia October 2012

Fun Picture Books

I Went to See Santa by Paul Howard

This picture book is positively exploding with festive fun. Based on the popular memory game and akin to the Twelve Days of Christmas, this story begins with a young boy who, with his new glasses, spies an outlandish assortment of Christmassy things including penguins, reindeers and snowballs. With a faint acknowledgement of beloved Christmas pantomimes, this is a jolly crowd pleaser great for 4 – 7 year-olds.

Bloomsbury November 2017

Santa’s Gone Surfing by P. Crumble and Thomas Fitzpatrick

It’s gratifying see good old Santa in his boardies catching waves albeit a little unconventional. This is, after all, the way many Aussie kids picture Christmas. Crumble’s bonzer rhyming ditty starts with one hot grumpy Santa throwing a major wobbly. He abandons his red suit and boots for boardies and zinc cream leaving poor, barely qualified, emergency Santa, Trevor to recruit a new sleigh-pulling team (a flock of beady-eyed Emus if you don’t mind) and commission a new sleigh (obligatory rusty ute) with which to complete the Southern Hemisphere deliveries, which he does, brilliantly. It’s a jovial win win situation freeing up more surfing time for Santa every year. Littlies and surfers alike will warm to this chipper tale.

Koala Books imprint of Scholastic October 2017

The Naughtiest Reindeer Takes a Bow by Nicki Greenberg

Ruby is back in all her glorious glittery naughtiness. It’s not that she deliberately tries to derail Christmas; it’s just that Ruby’s intentions always end up a little askew. This year, she is determined to get a head start with the deliveries but inadvertently gets horribly, hilariously sidetracked. It’s not until she is centre stage in a school musical that she remembers there was something important left undone. Delightful mayhem for fans of this ruby red-nosed reindeer.

Allen & Unwin October 2017

Pig the Elf by Aaron Blabey

Pig the pugnacious Pug is back, this time competing with his little mate Trevor for Santa’s affections. Actually is not affection Pig is after at all, but rather sackfuls of presents. His greed and overt excessive selfishness is what makes Pig so utterly unlikeable and yet so fantastically addictive. I have used this book in early childcare centres and Kindergartens where it has huge crowd appeal. An excellent example of naughty and nice and how you may only end up with ‘just desserts’ if you are too greedy. Obnoxious hilarity in the highest degree, recommended for pre-schoolers and above.

Scholastic September 2017

Anthology

A Christmas Menagerie Edited by Beattie Alvarez

This cheerful collection of predominantly animal inspired Christmas tales will make a gay addition under any Christmas tree. Popular children’s authors and illustrators have created stories that neighbour tales from not so well known writers yet are all redolent of that delicious Christmas spirit. From wombats to pudding making bears, turtles to curious sausage dogs, this anthology of short stories is lusciously illustrated and ideal to read aloud with younger readers or as a meaningful gift for more confident readers. Heartedly recommended reading.

Christmas Press November 2017

Activity Book

Create Your Own Christmas by Isabel Thomas and Katie Abey

This book declares that Christmas is far too important to leave in the hands of Santa and a bunch of elves. It urges you to ‘take control of your festive destiny’, and what better way to do so than to cut, colour and construct your OWN CHRISTMAS! I love the premise of this definitely-not-boring activity book. Every single colour-saturated page is packed with things to make and do. Advent calendars, decorations, Chrissy cards, Christmas crackers, party hats, gift tags, Santa launchers – it’s all here in with instructions to make mess and have FUN! Just what you need to keep them occupied for longer than it takes to baste a turkey. Have fun with it, this Christmas.

Bloomsbury November 2017

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY READING!

 

Review: Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

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UNEARTHED by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner is a completely fun space adventure, featuring codes, puzzles, aliens, ancient tombs, and some epic gun fights! I’ve heard it pitched as “Indiana Jones in space” and you know what? That is not wrong. It could also be called a YA book version of the iPhone game Temple Run. So that’s exciting. It’s such a fun story, not super deep or scary but with plenty of twists and booby traps and the occasional burst of witty snark.

The story follows two dual narrators, Jules and Amelia, who end up stuck together on a wild adventure to find an alien temple even though they kind of hate each other. They have very very different goals. Amelia needs to steal some alien tech to sell so she can rescue her sister. And Jules is a studious genius scholar child who needs to prove his father wasn’t wrong about the aliens and get him out of prison. They’re such opposites, but after running for their lives from bloodthirsty raiders, they end up tangled in the complex puzzles of the alien temple. Are the puzzles here to save them or kill them?

I loved the raiders and scavengers in space story line! It was really different for me, ergo exciting. We totally have that moment where the geeks are like: “OH AN ANCIENT AMAZING TEMPLE.” And the raiders follow up with: “wow sorry ok but I just blew it up.” This is so true to the heart of Indiana Jones. See something precious and archeological? Ruin it. Such a human thing to do.

There was also that “learning how to survive” curve since Jules is a nerdy academic and tries to go on an action adventure and bring everything (including the kitchen stove) and also probably irons his pants. Amelia has a lot to sort out with him.

Both our narrators were super winning. It was really easy to root for them, even though their goals clashed so much. There’s a lot of lies and sneaking about as each tries to manipulate the other. I particularly loved Jules who was the kind of guy who knew how to spice up boring ration food because, yes, he brought spices with him. He kept his clothes neat and was forever scribbling in his notebook while trying to solve alien puzzles. He’s a super genius and super dork.

Amelia was hilarious and clever. She was kickass but also had emotion and wry humour and even though we never meet the little sister she’s trying to save in this volume, I really cared about both these sisters and the fact that Amelia will literally go to a strange planet with dubious amounts of air to breathe to get money to save her family?! Amelia is best.

The dialogue and banter were fantastic! I do wish there’d been more because there was quite a lot of monologuing and description, but it was still great to get into both characters’ thought processes.

The entire plot was pretty wild. We get everything from gun battles to running-for-your-life-through-an-uncharted-temple to booby trapped rooms where if you don’t think fast, you’ll end up dead. Not to mention add in spaceships and forgotten civilisations. I loved that old musty vibe of the tomb-like temple. The plot was forever pushed forward too by the enemy raiders who would almost definitely not hesitate to dump a couple of kids down a ravine. It’s a highstakes adrenaline race!

UNEARTHED is a really fantastic start to a new sci-fi series that’ll make you foam at the mouth a little in anticipation for the sequel. It’s from the same duo who gave us the These Broken Stars duology too!

Review: Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

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Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore is the most magical and richly lush story ever! The gorgeousness of the cover does not lie I tell you, absolutely not. This book is aesthetically stunning inside and out and it’s a story of magical gardens and families of women with curses and a dirt and dark secrets and missing people. I was absolutely swallowed whole by the magical and ethereal tones and honestly it’s the kind of book you do not want to miss.

The story is about the Nomeolvides women who live in a garden they can never leave. Or basically they’ll hack up a lung. It’s not great. The five girl cousins are all in love with the unattainable granddaughter of the estate, but they try to be careful about showing it because there seems to be a curse that whoever a Nomeolvides women loves — they’ll go missing. Sure enough, the girls’ beloved Bee disappears and in her place, they dig a mysterious boy out of the soil. He has no memory and no idea what’s going on. The gardens are under threat, dark secrets are rising, and they need to solve the mystery of this strange boy’s past and what it means. It might be their saving or their tragedy.

I can’t even sum up all the things I loved about this tale! It’s complicated and interesting, the plot never letting you down for a second. There are secrets fairly popping up like daisies. It features a cast of completely complex and strong women who you just admire from the first page. The gardens are MAGICAL and, I mean, they dug a boy out of the soil. What more do you want from a book?

Honestly the writing is what absolutely captured my heart. It really hones in on the details. It’s not going to say “she grew a flower”. It will say “she grew a midnight blue rose” or similar, and it just absolutely captivated me with luscious description and carefully designed details. Everything leapt off the pages. I felt like I fell into this magical fairy tale garden of mystery and sadness and utter beauty. The style is thick and luscious. This isn’t the kind of book you skim because it’s like a very rich chocolate cake.

Actually speaking of food: the food descriptions in here are fantastic. Plus the boy they pull out of the garden sees all the women are sad so he cooks food for them. Quality lad.

It’s absolutely FULL of complex and interesting women! The Nomeolvides women all live in this garden that the can never leave (or they die; super fun times) and they grow flowers and tend it etc. etc. Most people think they are witches. 3 generations of women live in the house, 5 grandmas, 5 mothers, and 5 daughters. The 5 cousins basically function as sisters and this pleases me so so much! The girls all love pretty things and they love being feminine, whcih was so refreshing. I loved the Latina culture and how most of the characters fit onto the lgbtqia+ spectrum too.

The book is mainly from the pov of Estrella and Fel. Fel is the boy they dig out of the garden who is quiet and tragic and somewhat confused at everything. Estrella falls in love with him. They are so beautiful, both of them.

Ultimately? Wild Beauty is, in a word: GORGEOUS. It is a celebration of magic and flowers and how beautiful things can often cover up deep suffering.

Nostalgic about Aussie Summer – Picture Book Reviews

There’s nothing like an Aussie Christmas than the fresh scent of Summer mixed with a fragrance of fond memories and the savour of new ones. That’s how the following picture books will entice their readers, both young and old – with peace, unity and joy as we pleasure in the warmth of the festive and summery holiday season in Australia.

Corinne Fenton and Robin Cowcher return with another stunning ‘Little Dog’ story. From the iconic Melbourne in the previous, magical Christmas tale, Little Dog and the Summer Holiday takes Jonathan, Annie and their precious Westie, with caravan in tow, on holiday to the idyllic sites of Sydney. Immediately, Fenton paints a gloriously detailed adventure full of evocative language that is sure to bring about that nostalgic cue of wonderful family trips of yesteryear. Passing legendary landmarks such as the Dog on the Tuckerbox and Sydney Harbour Bridge, paddling at Bondi Beach and rattling “down the mountainside on the steepest scenic railway in the world” all make for an exciting, memorable holiday with family, friends, and of course, beloved pets.

Cowcher’s whimsical illustrations add a pleasurable sense of romanticism that capture the beauty and evocation of holidays like this. Parents and children will equally delight in Little Dog and the Summer Holiday, either reminding of the good old days, or enthusing a predilection for future family vacations. A beautiful book.

Black Dog Books, Walker Books, November 2017.

Summer – peaceful, tranquil, cheerful and contentment. Words that describe that special feeling of rest, fun and togetherness during the sunny season. And words that describe the special feeling emanating from this book by June Factor and sublime creator Alison Lester. Thirty years in print and Summer still feels as good as a homemade steamin’ puddin’ on a balmy Christmas Day.

Factor’s simple, silky and smooth Aussie voice shines through with robust rhyming character as we are swept up in a temperamental mix of family antics, Summer nuances and changing weather during the hot festive season. Lester’s legendary scenic art and winsome characters keep us occupied throughout with all the glorious combinations of farmyard outlooks and high-spirited busyness, respectively. From flies a gatherin’ to early morning rises, kin gatherin’ and present opening, pork a cracklin’ and raising glasses, clouds gatherin’ and making a bolt for cover, and finally napping and playing ‘til the stars are gatherin’ in the night sky.

Summer is a book of leisure, affection and ambience that will remain a classic to treasure and indulge in all the year round.

Viking Penguin Random House, November 2016. First edition 1987.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Dim’s Christmas Cracker List # 5 – Meaningful Christmas Tales

The tinsel is hung, the carols are sung. Tchaikovsky’s, The Nutcracker courses merrily in the background and hope hovers amidst every batch of gingerbread cookies. There’s no doubt, Christmas is well and truly upon us. However, if you are still in search of a meaningful Christmas tale to share with your young ones, consider these. They are all full of heart and soul and more than just a little good old-fashioned Christmas magic.

Dim’s Pick of the Season

The Girl Who Saved Christmas by Matt Haig and Chris Mould

If you are ever in need of a little magic, if you ever find yourself questioning reason, if your festive spirit is ever waning, hope is here, with Matt Haig. This is superb storytelling for midgrade readers all the way through to 99-year-olds. Following on from Haig and Mould’s first collaboration, A Boy Called Christmas, this tale works so well at suspending belief and infusing hope, you’d be forgiven for feeling you’ve already met Father Christmas. Maybe you have. Haig takes what we have already been led to believe and crystallizes it into one big fat tangible beautiful believable Christmas miracle. Mould’s illustrations enhance an already magical tale with strokes of Dickenson brilliance. A Christmas must read – every year. Sublime to read aloud to little people or to cherish alone as you would the last fruit mince pie. Read, A Boy Called Christmas first to truly fortify your Christmas spirit, then Father Christmas and Me.

A & U Canongate November 2016

Continue reading Dim’s Christmas Cracker List # 5 – Meaningful Christmas Tales

Kids Will be Rapt to Find Even More Wrapped this Christmas – Part 3

Baubles and bunting, twinkling lights, wrapping of presents and fresh pudding delights… no doubt your homes are tingling and shimmering with the scent of Christmas looming in the air. With bursting wish lists at the ready, don’t forget to add some more bookish treats under your Christmas tree. Following the joyous suggestions for kids in part 1 and part 2, here are a few more gorgeous picture books to share and spread the holiday cheer.

Marvin and Marigold: A Christmas Surprise is a friendly, thoughtful and evocative story about sharing the joy of Christmas with loved ones. Mark Carthew’s rhyming verses flow smoothly like warm egg nog over a Christmas pudding. His tale emits strong feelings of tenderness overcoming loneliness, as well as sentimental memories and bonds between family and friends. Simon Prescott’s gentle illustrations provide a sense of generosity, cosyness and pure magic that beautifully match that festive warmth.

Marvin is devastated at the thought of spending Christmas alone with no tree or presents to give. However, best friend Marigold Mouse has just received a gift, this first day in December, and she is insistent that her mate spend the coming days helping her to prepare it for the season. What follows is a gorgeous celebration of fond memories, creating new ones and sharing the Christmas, ‘decorative’ spirit with a friend. There’s plenty to treasure in A Christmas Surprise for young and old. See Dimity’s review in her Cracker List.

New Frontier Publishing, November 2017.

Adorned with sparkling red embellishments on the cover, this book is wrapped in beauty and glamour to mark the beginning of the festive season. Pick a Pine Tree is an exquisite tale of the frivolity and togetherness one tree can bring as it transforms into a marvellous creation of lights, ornaments and a central piece of love.

The rollicking rhythm by Patricia Toht, supported by the cartoonesque, mixed media illustrations by Jarvis both emanate joy, innocence, sparkle and awe. The pine tree’s journey from the lot, to being sturdily assembled and then abundantly decorated with friends is a delightfully instructive process that ends in pure happiness.

Pick a Pine Tree is a simple story for young children to appreciate the tree-selection and preparation exercise, all the while setting a tone for the importance of unity and intimacy in a most jolly and ebullient manner.

Walker Books UK, October 2017.

Everything is oversized and over-the-top in this next picture book. Is there ever such a thing as too much Christmas? There is for one 7 year old. The sound of the greeting, ‘Merry Christmas, Mary Christmas!’ is not a very festive one as all her family care about is being the biggest and brashest in the neighbourhood. As good as their Christmas-loving intentions, Mary’s family are simply an embarrassment. Too many lights, too many presents, an oversized tree and a dog with a deafening singing voice. Charity, inclusion and a big heart prevail in a joyous and bright finale that embodies just the perfect fit.

Well-considered and humorous text by Laurie Friedman and energetic and vivid illustrations by Kathryn Durst make Merry Christmas, Mary Christmas! a story of benevolence and spirit that is sure to ‘over-stimulate’ young readers this season.

Carolrhoda Books, Lerner Books, September 2017.

Review: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

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American Street by Ibi Zoboi was so good and also a little bit like running face-first into a brick wall of emotions. I’n not even sure what to do with myself right now. It’s a really powerful story of immigration and poverty and family. It’s brutal and messy and the ending left me reeling.

It follows the story of Fabiola who’s immigrated from Haiti to be with her cousins in America. Her mother gets detained at customs and then sent to a detention centre while Fabiola, born in America, is allowed to proceed. She’s absolutely freaked out for her mother, but slowly has to make a life for herself with her extended family. She attends school and ends up caught up with a boy who truly wants to make her happy. However the street they live on isn’t the clean and safe haven Fabiola always imagined. She quickly gets caught up in drug rings and loan sharks and maybe will have to compromise her own safety to work with the police so they’ll help get her mother back. But if that means betraying people she loves, would she do it?

The emphasis on family was the best. This is not a “nice” family particularly, but I loved how complex they all were! Fabiola is basically just THROWN into American culture and I felt for her so much. Her three cousins are all around her age, and they immediately just adopt her as their 4th sister. But they do live in a poor part of town and they’re mixed up in a lot of stuff. Donna’s boyfriend is like Such Bad News and hits her and Pri is closet queer and Chantal has stuff going on and like their aunt is usually “sick” or hidden away in her room. Fabiola is attending school and trying to figure out how the American life works, plus find a way to help get her mother free.

Fabiola is also really precious and sweet! I was worried she’d be a passive character because of that but she’s not. I also loved how she really wanted to make America her home, But she didn’t give up her Haitian heritage. There’s a bit of magic in the book, because she firmly believes in Vodou and her culture is woven into everything she does. It’s so good!! (Also the author’s note says this is all out of her own experiences too! It makes a book so special and true when you know the experiences behind it are woven with an #ownvoices narrative.) I really loved that Fabiola wasn’t going to be pushed around, but at the same time voiced her insecurities and definitely didn’t always make good decisions.

I basically couldn’t stop reading! And the story just got more brutal and twisted as it went along. Like the plot is really tight and I loved how it woven things together at the end. It’s definitely the kind of book you’re going to want to put aside a full afternoon to just devour…constantly. Until it’s done and you’re a bit of a wide-eyed mess.

American Street is purely excellent #ownvoices story that doesn’t shy away from showing how complicated and brutal life can be. It’s not an “easy” read (although it is quite fast!) and there were so many times I was raging with Fabiola. Her situation is often a trainwreck but I loved her character arc and also her love of her culture. Definite recommend!

Dim’s Christmas Cracker List # 4 – Picture Books

You’d be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed at this time of year by all the demands of the Festive Season, with end of school and social obligations too numerous to count. Time out is as important for your children as it is for you, so why not take a precious moment or two to sit down, relax and share some of these sublime (new) picture books with them to rekindle your Christmas spirit. Some of these are so good, they feature in Romi’s roundup of Christmas must reads, too!

Fostering Festive Cheer

Merry Everything by Tania McCartney and Jess Racklyeft

McCartney’s matchless ability to appeal to little readers all over the world is reaching legendary status. Merry Everything epitomises this in the most deliriously dreamy way using evocative language, occasional merry rhyme and lashings of relatable love as readers reflect on animal families from all over the world hunkering down on Christmas Eve to wait for, you-know-who. It’s the focus on ‘cuddles and kisses’ and all the extraordinary departures from normal at this time of year that I love and young children will recognise and appreciate – fun and games with relatives, gorging on Christmas goodies, and falling into a seasonal stupor afterwards. Racklyeft’s illustrations are sweeter than a plate of choc cherry balls and just as enticing. Love Love Love this.

Windy Hollow Books October 2017

Continue reading Dim’s Christmas Cracker List # 4 – Picture Books

Review: Daughter of The Burning City by Amanda Foody

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Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody was dark and murderous and magical. So basically everything a good book should be. I’m in absolute awe of the world building, the dynamic characters, and the finale plot twist that totally caught me off guard! This was just incredible and I highly recommend it!
Why aren’t all books full of murder and magic. I ask.

The story is set in a moving carnival called the Gomorrah Festival. It features Sorina who is an illusionist and “freak” because she was born with no eyes but instead has magical powers. Her illusions are so real that they can basically have lives of their own and she calls them her family. Then one gets murdered which, as you can imagine, shouldn’t be possible for a person who isn’t even real. Sorina teams up with the local charming but cocky gossip-worker named Luca to try and solve the mystery, that might be more deeply imbedded in the festival’s history than she originally thought.

The setting was so exquisitely described and detailed! I totally felt I could see and taste and smell Gomorrah. It explodes off the page with kettle corn and liquorice cherries and smoke from the permanently burning and walking city. It’s definitely the kind of setting I’d love to visit.

The plot was deliciously twisty and rich. There are conspiracy theories and murder mysteries! I loved the sort of genre mash-up of having an epic fantasy setting, but mixed with mysteries and whodunnit vibes, not to mention there’s religious tension in the background and people with wicked magical skills. And of course you have all the carnival and performance shenanigans and dramas. Exciting.

BUY HERE

But the characters absolutely stole the show. (Har har, excuse the pun.) I adored them all. Sorina was amazing! She’s an illusionist, adopted by the proprietor of the carnival, and she is so incredibly powerful. Imagine making people up and then having them come to life and actually function as people. She loved her little made up “freak” family so much. I also loved how relatable Sorina was with her dedication to her family, her want to please her father and become Gomorrah’s next master, and her panic attacks and tears that made her so human.

And Luca was equally magnificent. He was entirely snarky and wore horrendous waistcoats that Sorina never let him live down and he trades in gossip and mysteries. He also asexual which was so refreshing to see on page! I loved how devious and cunning he was, and their relationship was slow burn and fraught with uncertainty.

The writing was also a piece of marvel. I couldn’t put the book down! Plus it really utilised the five-senses to make visually stunning words and paragraphs.

Basically if you are looking for a deliciously wicked story of magic, mystery, and mayhem…Daughter Of The Burning City is for you. It’ll totally capture your heart and your imagination and probably make you crave popcorn, but where exactly is the downside in that.

Kids Will be Rapt to Find More Wrapped this Christmas – Part 2

Back again with yet another wonderful collection of gift suggestions for the festive season (see Part 1 here). This time, a few picture books perfectly gorgeous for preschool children who will love the buzz, love and tingle that feels like Christmas.

Merry Everything! is an utterly joyous celebration packaged in a magical wrapping of scrumptious words and pictures to create all kinds of warm and fuzzies. Naturally! It’s by one of my favourite creative combinations; Tania McCartney and Jess Racklyeft!

A book about inclusion and togetherness at Christmas time – what better way to introduce this global jollification than with the endpapers adorned with addressed letters to different animal families around the world. The story continues with sentiments so lovingly expressed through Tania’s kind of lyrical prose about all the preparations pertained to the common link that is Christmas. Bees buzz with busy, pandas wrap surprises, monkeys hang lashings, whilst penguins string songs on the starry sky. Appropriate atmospheric and seasonal scenes and habitats are beautifully thought out in Jess’s sugary sweet watercolour illustrations. Her paintings dazzlingly feature a medley of winsome critters and creatures so busily assembling the festivities with their families. And “on Christmas Day, the world tingles with happy.” Tania’s text continues to bring joy with her mix of cheerful verbs and rhyming elements, humour and bursts of emotion, just like full tummies at the end of a jubilantly hectic day.

A universally appealing book that is brimming with love and intimacy, warmth and unconditional happiness, Merry Everything! is everything a young reader could wish for this Christmas.

Windy Hollow Books, October 2017.

That Christmas Feeling is another heartwarming tale by Lili Wilkinson and Amanda Francey that has us craving that aura of magic and excitement in the lead up to the big day.

But how do you define ‘that Christmas feeling’? Is it baking the Christmas pudding, decorating the tree as a family, singing carols or visiting ‘Santa’? Dottie, Jem and their pup Shortbread reminisce about their special moments last year as they await the arrival of Mum and Dad at their grandparents’ house. This year is not quite the same, and for some children this may be a reality where compromises and adapting to change need to be made. In a bid to find the feeling they so long for, Jem shows Dottie a tree with twinkling lights and they sing songs together. Then Mum and Dad join them with a delivery that qualifies as the most precious ‘Christmas feeling’. It will literally give you shivers!

Touching and packed with emotion, and detailed illustrations that are equally full of life, reflection and charm, That Christmas Feeling is a tribute to the significance of family love and balancing expectations in times of uncertainty or change. Preschoolers will be overcome with hearts filled with joy after sharing this gorgeous book.

Allen & Unwin, September 2017.

What a joyous story brimming with sunshine and optimism, friendship and generosity! A Very Quacky Christmas by Frances Watts is delightfully cheerful with stunning illustrations by Ann James, perfect for reflecting on the true spirit of a bright Christmas.

Samantha Duck gloriously sings, “We wish you a quacky Christmas” whilst winding tinsel around reeds, hanging baubles and stockings on branches, and writing wish lists for all her friends. In the meantime, by her side is the pessimistic tortoise, Sebastian, certain that Christmas is not for animals. But, despite his scepticism he agrees to help his friend collect precious items from animals around the farm – sharing in a Christmas for animals is a delightful idea, after all. A cart full of presents and a bumpy ride later, who else shows his support, encouragement and nobility but Sebastian himself!

A Very Quacky Christmas is an absolutely feel-good book about giving and sharing, with its provocative text and effortless, dreamy illustrations that allow the golden effervescence to wash over the pages and into your heart. Love.

ABC Books, HarperCollins, October 2017.

Here’s a gift that keeps on giving – the legendary classic, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury), specifically designed as a gift book with an all-encompassing snowglobe inset into the cover.

Follow your journey through the long wavy grass, deep cold river, oozy mud, dark forest, and into a swirling whirling snowstorm as you shake and swish the book to create a ‘cool’ whooshing, kinaesthetic experience. What a blast! Continue on your suspenseful way to the narrow gloomy cave, and rush back home again with bear-on-tail, right into the comfort of your bed.

A masterful gift idea from the people at Walker Books to allow us oldies to relive the drama and excitement, and for the youngsters to be inspired to engage in all the songs, actions, role plays and good old cuddles that accompany this favourite treasure. Designed to captivate our hearts with some interactive fun, We’re Going on Bear Hunt Snowglobe Gift Book will be a winner for preschoolers this Christmas.

Walker Books, October 2017.

Dim’s Christmas Crackers List # 3 – Junior Novels

Do you have an emerging confident reader keen to fill their newly acquired ravenous literary appetite? Youngsters between 5 – 9 years are discovering at this age that stories can occur in the most wildly absurd wonderful places and that junior novels, like these, are their invitations to new words and new adventures. By feeding them regular healthy doses of junior fiction, you will nourish their love for reading and keep them satisfied well into the holidays. Here are some suggestions:

Younger Junior Novels 5 – 7 years

D-Bot Squad Series by Mac Park and James Hunt

Bold, bright and busting with high-action adventure, this series is brilliant for early readers. Controlled use of vocabulary, illustrations and diagrams all contribute to wicked reads with Books 1 – 6 released this year and more to follow in 2018. Kids will love following Hunter Marks on his dino hunting missions after he wins a computer game and becomes a member of D-Bot Squad. High-energy fun.

Allen & Unwin July 2107

Sally Rippin presents…Super Moopers Series by Fiona Harris and Scott Edgar

This whacky series is decidedly visual with full colour illustrations dominating each page. Text is minimal but enhanced with varying font sizes for emphasis and wow factor. Each book examines a particular Mooper character of Moopertown, the first being Dramatic Dom. The stories encourage kids to get to know each individual better and appreciate their strengths and weaknesses. The notion that everyone is special in his or her own special way is the theme that meanders throughout this collection.

Five Mile Bonnier Publishing 2017

Stinky Spike the Pirate Dog by Peter Meisel and Paul Meisel

This jolly attractive little hardcover book is part of the Read & Bloom Books series, which invite youngsters on wondrous adventures with lovable wily characters, like Stinky Spike, using mindfully sparse narrative and beguiling illustrations. Colourful and merry, these are the type of stories that really do plant the love of reading!

Bloomsbury Children’s Books March 2017

Junior Novels 6 – 9 years

Little Paws Series by Jess Black and Gabriel Evans

Who could resist a golden puffball of fluff with a tail? This heart-warming series is about puppies that train to become Guide Dogs. Each story is about a puppy, like Harley in the first book, and the families that train them. Lightly illustrated with Evan’s charming drawings and full of puppy pranks and incidents, this series is sure to sate your cuteness quota.  Buying these books also helps puppies like Harley become fully fledged Guide Dogs. Win win!

Penguin Random House 2017

Sage Cookson’s Series by Sally Murphy and Celeste Hulme

I love this quirky cooking orientated series about 10-year-old Sage, daughter of celebrity chef parents with an insatiable passion for…wait for it…food! Together they travel the globe encountering more than their fair share of not so nice-tasting situations and characters. Murphy cleverly combines every day normal with generous dollops of extraordinary. The latest titles include a sojourn to Singapore and a Literary Launch for this delectable character.  Delicious fun for girls and culinary creators alike. And the best bit? A recipe in each book. Winner winner, chicken dinner!

New Frontier Publishing 2016 – 2017

Squishy Taylor Series by Ailsa Wild and Ben Wood

Squishy is the instantly likeable, utterly loveable heroine of this spirited series about dysfunctional blended families and all the glorious ‘normal’ zany events that occur within their orbits. Fast paced, age-clinching narrative is interspersed with illustrations that induce drama and humour.  The first book, Bonus Sisters, introduces us to Squishy’s family members and her unquenchable need to question – everything! Creative, curious, charmingly optimistic and just a touch naive, Squishy is just the type of hero little girls will love to emulate.

HGE February 2016

Saurus Street Series by Nick Falk and Tony Flowers

I’m not sure what the scientific explanation is for the fascination kids of this age possess for all things dinosaurs but my little miss did, too. Palaeophiliacs (lovers of dinosaurs and pre-historic thingies) will revel in this series, a few years old now but young in comparison to a Diplodocus, when you think about it. Stomping-mad fun made all the more believable by Flowers’ hilarious illustrations. Pletosaurauses in the bathtub, Diplodocuses in the tepees – Jack and Toby have all these and heaps more dino dilemmas to cope with on Saurus Street. It’s like the age of the dinosaurs never ended.

Random House September 2013

Ella Diaries Series by Meredith Costain and Danielle McDonald

Definitely one for the girls, this series is Tom Gates meets Dork Diaries for young girls. Interwoven with themes of friendship, teamwork, ponies, dancing, fashion, bullies and a whole year of diaries’ worth more, these stories will appeal to girls and their BFFs. Ella is utterly addictive thanks McDonald’s fantastic illustrations, just the sort of wiggles and pics and notations young girls are wont to scribble alongside their deepest most inner thoughts.  Fun, airy and tots on the money. Highly recommended.

Scholastic Australia 2015

Jake in Space Series by Candice Lemon-Scott and Celeste Hulme

Stunning spacey foil covers give way to equally scintillating storylines centring on space probing, Jake and his whacky team of mates and robots.

This series features galaxies of intergalactic fun sporting space-aged adventures mid-primary school kids can really get carried away with – providing they have their space suits on. There are six in the series, which gives young readers plenty of time and incentive to explore the entire universe! Did I mention the covers are truly out of this world!

New Frontier Publishing September 2014

Junior Novels Advanced Readers 8 years +

Countdown to Danger You Choose the Path To Survive! Series by Jack Heath

I LOVE an exciting pick-a-path-you-choose-the-path story! Having written one myself, I know how tricky it can be producing a convincing multi-ending story. It can also be colossal fun! Heath’s series adds a new dimension to 30 possible adventure storylines – a countdown. YOU the reader only have 30 minutes to choose the right path to survive. These stories are humming with danger, ethical decisions, survival dilemmas and plenty of problem solving, ideal for the inquisitive, questing mind.  Written in second person, as most choose your own adventure stories are, this series plants you smack bang in the middle of the action and you only have yourself to blame if things go horribly wrong. What’s not to love! Highly recommended for grip-the-edge-of-your-seat reading.

Scholastic Australia February 2016

You Choose… Series by George Ivanoff and James Hart

This expansive series is another choose your own adventure styled collection, which I just can’t get enough of. Ivanoff has created an amazing array of stories, each pulsing with high levels of interactivity. Again, YOU the reader must decide which options to take when faced with a dizzying selection of alternatives. Despite the choice, each chapter is concise enough to follow and complete within a relatively short timeframe, or even, to read aloud without confusion. Coupled with Hart’s explosive illustrations, it’s all very brilliant and, at times, just a little on the dark scary side. Pack some in your Christmas stockings this season – there’s a new release nearly every month!

Random House May 2014 – 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Books for Boys with Felice Arena & Tristan Bancks

Felice Arena and Tristan Bancks have both written extremely exciting, atmospheric books for boys this year (and girls like them too).

I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Felice’s replies. (Tristan features in the next post)

You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?

I was named after my grandfather – a longstanding tradition for many first-born sons in Italian families. Felice is pronounced Feh-LEE-che. Imagine growing up with that name in Country Victoria! Felice actually means ‘happy’ in Italian. And it pretty much reflects who I am – happy by name, happy by nature. My family and friends these days just call me ‘Fleech’ for short. Occasionally I get Felix, which is the English version of Felice (but that just makes me think of the cartoon cat).

Where are you based at the moment?

Melbourne.

You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles? 

The Specky Magee series, Sporty Kids, the Andy Roid series, Whippersnapper, and The Boy and the Spy.

I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Felice about The Boy and the Spy and Tristan about The Fall (in the next post)?

The Boy and the Spy is a fast-paced WW2 adventure set in Sicily. A twelve year-old Antonio, an orphaned boy, has a chance meeting with an injured American spy hiding out in a grotto, the story launches into a heart-stopping story with action aplenty. Readers are kept in suspense as Antonio helps the spy evade German soldiers and gangsters, make contact with the Allies, and try to find a way to escape the island alive. An important theme carried throughout the story is the notion of family and how we define it.

What genre are they?

Historical-action novel.

Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?

Wartime Sicily. My mother comes from that Italian isle and I still have relatives there. I’ve been to Sicily several times so I have a real sense of the terrain, which helped when writing the story. As far as the specific time period goes, that took a little more research, but I was able to consult with some family members to help authenticate the tone and settings in the book, and to capture 1943 in the dialogue, details from everyday life, and conditions related to the war.

How do you hook readers quickly into your story?

I love writing movement and action in my stories. A fast pace from the outset can engage some young reader who might not have the patience or attention span to read a slower unfolding plotline weighted down in meandering development. Adding a little movement with a sense of jeopardy or obstacles to overcome early on in the story is a good way to hook young readers quickly. Once they’ve connected with the characters in this way they’re more willing to pay attention to the deeper undercurrents of the story as they emerge farther along in the narrative.

Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?

There’s Antonio, an orphaned boy who is frowned upon and pretty much invisible in his seaside town. WW2 is the backdrop to his story, but for Antonio his daily battle is with prejudice. So when he meets a man who has literally dropped from the sky and talks to him as an equal and is desperate for his help, Antonio’s sees a chance to prove himself and deepen his own sense of self-worth. But with this unlikely alliance comes danger – the man is technically the enemy and Antonio is putting his life at risk to help him.

How is the writing style different from some of your other work?

This book heralds a new writing path for me. I’m known for writing contemporary sports-themed stories, and usually in third person. This book and my next book are written in first person and play out in a specific historical time and setting. I’ve wanted to write in this style for a long time, and I’m happy that it’s resonating with readers.

What do you think about each other’s book?

 I loved it. And I’m not just saying that because I know Tristan. What I admire about Tristan’s writing in this story, The Fall, (and Two Wolves) is that he never talks down to his reader. He doesn’t dumb it down. It’s smart and sharp writing, and it’s visual. I think Tristan and I share a love of cinematic storytelling. We both come from TV/film backgrounds, and I think this definitely comes through in our writing.

These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?

We don’t share editors or go to the same meetings but we’ve attended the same events and festivals  – and have also shared the stage. Last year for PRH we gave a reading performance of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox at Federation Square in Melbourne. We’ve talked about doing more events together. 

What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?

Anything written by Michael Morpurgo, Neil Gaiman, Frank Cottrell Boyce, John Flanagan, David Almond, Gary Paulsen, Brian Selznick, Morris Gleitzman, Robert Newton, Adrian Beck, and… Tristan Bancks.

What are you writing about now or next?

I’m putting the final touches to another historical action story set in Paris in 1910 called Fearless Frederic. It’s about friendship, adventure, and what it means to have courage. It’s due to be published by Penguin Random House Australia April 2nd 2018.

What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?

It’s incredibly significant. There’s no other joy like watching young readers hang onto every word you say as you read aloud to them. I would never pass up the opportunity to help jumpstart a love of reading in our next generation of book lovers. It’s also a chance for me to garner feedback and test out ideas – kids are brutally honest and will let you know if they like something or not.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to say thanks to those who have read any of my books and have reached out to me to say how much they’ve enjoyed them. This means a great deal to me. And if you’re just discovering my books for the first time, I hope you’ll also enjoy them.  Oh, and feel free to let me know over at instagram.com/fleech or www.felicearena.com

Thanks Felice, and all the best with The Boy and the Spy and your other books.

Books for Boys with Tristan Bancks & Felice Arena

Tristan Bancks and Felice Arena have both written extremely exciting, atmospheric books for boys this year (girls like them too).

I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Tristan’s replies. (Felice features in the next post)

You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?

Tristan was one of the knights of the round table. It can mean ‘noise’ or ‘boldness’ or ‘sorrow’. Certainly, there are notes of boldness and sorrow in my novels and my teachers always told me I was unnecessarily noisy.

 Where are you based at the moment?

Northern NSW.

You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles? 

My first book in stores was MAC SLATER, COOLHUNTER in 2008. The MY LIFE / TOM WEEKLY series of funny semi-autobiographical short stories has been released from 2012 till now. And I have two crime-mystery novels for late primary / early high-schoolers TWO WOLVES and THE FALL

I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Tristan about The Fall and Felice (in the next post) about The Boy and the Spy

THE FALL is inspired by a crime scene I visited doing work experience with a news crew when I was in high school. A man had stolen a woman’s handbag, run through a park, jumped over a fence at the back of the park and didn’t realise that the park was built on top of a multi-storey carpark which was built into the hillside. This and my love of the Hitchcock thriller REAR WINDOW collided to inspire the story.

What genre are they?

THE FALL is a kind of crime, mystery, suspense, thriller. But it’s not just characters servicing plot. I try to write characters that you care about and I want to explore big ideas that are relevant to middle-grade readers. THE FALL touches on mortality, rites of passage for kids and what it means to be a good human and family member, to make good choices.

Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?

Most of the book is set in a single apartment building over the space of twenty-four hours. I set myself that challenge and it makes the book quite intense. The building is in Sydney, very much like a building a friend of mine lives in, which is only about 100 metres from the crime scene that I visited back when I was sixteen years-old. It’s also influenced by the apartments I stayed in while travelling in England and Europe for four months during the writing of the second draft.

How do you hook readers quickly into your story?

THE FALL begins at 2.08am in a fifth-floor apartment with Sam waking to hear two men arguing in the apartment overhead. Moments later he witnesses a crime. The perpetrator of that crime realises that Sam is the sole witness and comes after him. This sets the drama in motion, with Sam becoming increasingly entwined in the crime as the story progresses.

Books need to start with a bang but, when they do, as an author you need to ensure that the rest of the story lives up to the opening and that the end is even better.

Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?

Sam Garner is twelve-going-on-thirteen. He has never met his father before this week. He grew up in the Blue Mountains (not unlike myself) and his father left before he was born. His mother has never wanted him to see his father and his dad hasn’t exactly been breaking his neck to get in touch either. But, after having an operation on his knee (as I did when I was thirteen), Sam’s Mum has to work and she finally allows Sam to go and stay with his father, Harry, a newspaper crime reporter, for a week while he recuperates. On his second-last night, he witnesses the crime.

How is the writing style different from some of your other work?

It’s very different to my younger, funnier illustrated short stories in the Tom Weekly books. There is humour in THE FALL but it’s darker, more thrilling and it explores bigger ideas. It’s more in the vein of TWO WOLVES.

What do you think about each other’s book?

I hate Fleech’s book. Kidding. It’s actually my favourite book he’s written. I really like SPECKY MAGEE but I think ‘THE BOY AND THE SPY’ is another step up. It has a thrilling opening scene but the book isn’t just about action. The characters are rich and believable and it’s told against the backdrop of an important and exciting historical moment. My fourteen year-old son just devoured it a few days ago, too.

These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?

We see each other a few times a year at dinners and festivals and when I’m in Melbourne I’ll see if Fleech is around for a catch-up. We have a shared history in that we both started out as TV actors, both lived in the U.K. for a few years. In fact I interviewed Felice when I was presenting a TV series in the U.K. and he was performing in a musical. He is a super-energetic entertainer and we both like the idea of using video and performance to bring books to life for kids.

What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?

Hatchet – Gary Paulsen

Runner – Robert Newton

Okay For Now – Gary D Schmidt

Joey Pigza Loses Control – Jack Gantos

Once series – Morris Gleitzman

What are you writing about now or next?

I’ve just finished the next book of short stories in the TOM WEEKLY series and Gus Gordon is illustrating it now. It’s out in 2018 and features stories in which Tom tries to eat a car, his guinea pig is taken hostage, his grandmother involves him in a plot to steal a prize fruitcake, he is attacked by a gang of killer possums and he believes that he and his bum have the potential to save the world.

I’m also writing a new crime-thriller called DETENTION about a kid involved in a school lockdown who comes face-to-face with the threat. I imagine it’ll be out either 2019 or 2020. I like to let the novels breathe so they take a few years to evolve.

What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?

It’s a great complement to the writing work. Writing is intensely personal and sometimes lonely. I love going out and trying new stories and ideas on readers. I love visualising the stories and bringing them to life with anecdotes and images and video and music. It’s fun mucking around with ideas, hearing what readers respond to and hopefully inspiring kids to pick up a book or create their own stories.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks Joy. Hi Fleech. Fun chatting to you. And don’t forget to put a book into your child / grandchild / niece or nephew / brother / sister / friend / random kid in the street’s Santa sack this Crimbo. 😉

Thanks Tristan and all the best with The Fall and your other books.

Dim’s Christmas Crackers List # 2 – Sports Books

I confess, I am not impressive with a bat or ball. Playing sports has never really been my thing. What I have discovered however, is that reading about sports is far more satisfying for me and if even if you don’t have a footy-mad under nine-year-old or even a book-crazy child, the following sports books may be just the ticket to igniting an appreciation for both, this Christmas.

3 – 7 years

Great Goal! Marvellous Mark! by Katrina Germein and Janine Dawson

This is an alphabet picture book with a lovely difference – it appeals to footy fanatical boys and girls who love AFL but also enjoy the thrill and anticipation of team play. Superb alliteration and spirited illustrations take readers from A to Z, through a wet and wonderful day on the field. I love the exaggerated use of letter repetition used to reinforce and introduce new word sounds. Sensational squelchy fun.

Ford Street Publishing 2017

6 – 9 years Junior novels for younger readers

Ballerina Dreams: A True Story by Michaela & Elaine DePrince and Ella Okstad

This is a gorgeous pretty in pink story about prima ballerina, Michaela DePrince. Abandoned in a Sierra Leone orphanage, then adopted by the DePrinces, it tells of Michaela’s rise from poverty and despair to attaining her dream of dancing on her toes and flying through the air after seeing a picture of a woman with pink shoes on her feet on a magazine cover. Poignant and gently inspirational. Highly recommended for those with a dancing dream of their own.

Random House for Children first published, Faber & Faber UK May 2017

Double Trouble Skateboard Stars by Felicity Carter and Louis Shea

Uncomplicated text and a sizzling storyline make these tales of friendship perfect for early primary readers. There are a few titles in this series about twin brothers, Thomas and Cooper, which will claim the attention of little lads but the premise of these identical troublemakers pulling pranks wherever and whenever they can has universal appeal.

Scholastic Australia February 2014

Continue reading Dim’s Christmas Crackers List # 2 – Sports Books

Review: The Language Of Thorns By Leigh Barudgo

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The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo is a collection of reimagined fairy tales. And can I just say it’s the best fairy tale collection I’ve ever read?! It was beautiful beautiful and clever and feminist. This aren’t stories where the princess is just waiting for a prince! They’re full of plot twists but with a darkness that nods to traditional Grimm tales. You might recognise threads of traditional fairy tales (like the Nutcracker and The Little Mermaid) but they’re so different and unique I didn’t want it to end!

There are six tales! They do fit into the Grishaverse, which is a fantasy world created by Leigh Bardugo that began with the Shadow & Bone trilogy and continued in the spin-off duology Six of Crows. However if you haven’t ever read a Grisha book, you would still love these six fairy tales and they’d make perfect sense. The only thing that doesn’t make sense is why you haven’t read them yet. Come on now.

Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns.

I honestly felt like I fell into the dark witch’s wood of magic! I am literally bursting with love and appreciation for the clever writing, the beautiful characters, and the magical depths. It feels like a midnight snack of fairy tales, the kind you can’t possibly put down. And often the characters in the stories also told stories, so the book-within-a-book feeling was strong here.

I did love picking out the threads of the traditional fairy tales amongst these reimagined ones! I could see Little Mermaid influences and the Nutcracker and Hansel and Gretel. But these are actually very different and quite dark. I really enjoyed the darker twists with monsters under castles and mermaids doing magic and evil men getting comeuppance for their horrible ways. And the best part? They were full of plot twists. No irritating or tedious fairy tale tropes here with damsels or falling for the first prince you meet or every step-mother being evil. Beauty isn’t everything. Princes suck. The beast is actually kind. Here is the sea witch’s origin story. The dark woods are not the only problem here. And on it goes!

It captivated me on every page with how amazing it was. The writing was detailed and clever too.

The actual physical book itself is also a pure delight to look at. The pages are illustrated and they add such depth to the story. There are some panels in the borders that change as the book goes on, so if you flip the pages really fast, it’s a stop-motion image of darkness covering a princess! Some of the double-page spreads were just so amazing and the style is simple but so emotional and lovely.

The Language of Thorns is full of fairy tales as they should be. They’re dark and feminist and empowering and filled with women who can be good or evil or morally grey or just seriously complex. There are monsters and wooden dolls with identity crises and queer girls and endless endless magic that just inspires me. You’ll fill so full of magic when you finish this!

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

If you are like me, knowing there are only 41 days left until Christmas fills you with silent terror. You know it’s not about the presents. You know you’ll want (have) to give some, anyway. You’ve heard books tick all the enduring, educational, entertaining boxes as far as kids’ gifts go, but how do you choose without going crackers? During the next 41 days, I’ll share a cluster of the best kids’ books of 2017. Hunt them down for your Christmas stockings.  Hold on tight though, we’ll be going faster than a turbo-charged reindeer over black ice.

List # 1 Non-fiction Picture Books

At the Beach I See by Kamsani Bin Salleh

Striking board book series featuring elegant artwork and lyrical text. This one is useful for forging connections between our beautiful seashores and new creatures. Ideal for 2+ year-olds.

Magabala Books August 2017

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

Jellett’s character-filled illustrations bring this fascinating assortment of historic aviators to spectacular life. From Lawrence Hargrave to John Flynn, ‘Smithy’ to Nancy Bird, numerous significant figures in the history of flight and aviation in Australia are described using first person narrative and fact-based prose. Amazing facts are included along with modern day updates. Perfect for aeroplane enthusiasts from 8 years upwards.

Read Romi’s full review, here.

Walker Books Australia 2017

Fierce Fighters Predators by Paul Beck and Lee Martin

If you love Deadly 60, you’ll be mad for this beefy full-colour collection of some of the world’s most formidable predators. Ridiculously fearsome and astounding photographs accompany an incredible list of hunters from apex predators such as lions and sharks to the less ubiquitous platypus. Scientific facts and stats provide just enough information without obscuring the teeth baring drama and are paired in side-by-side showdowns – anglerfish vs. pelican eel, for example. An awesome addition (with stickers and poster!) for the would-be marine biologists and nature lovers aged 6 – 14.

Becker & Mayer! Kids July 2017

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

Move over Orient Express, the Discovery Express has arrived, platform one. This is a glorious pop-up, pull, and flap creation allowing readers to embark on a thrilling journey back in time with Nancy Delaney, geographer, explorer and all-round adventurer. Choco-block with puzzles and fascinating facts, Nancy escorts you from Paris to England, the US and beyond on a spellbinding journey of discovery about trains, planes and yes, automobiles. Even submarines are included in this book, which is more of a code-busting adventure romp through history. Highly recommended and ideal for sleuths and transport spotters from 10 years+.

Quarto Group September 2017

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

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

It’s time to get organised for the festive season so I’ll be beginning with Part 1 of my Christmas gift suggestions today! These selections are for the busy, hands-on builders in your life. For worldly explorers, air travellers, and magical realm inquisitors, there’s an interactive gift here for you.

The Discovery Globe Build-Your-Own Globe Kit is the perfect choice for an action adventure into exploring the world. Kitted up in a neat fold-out box with World Explorer’s Guide on the left and spinning globe pieces packaged on the right, you can study the world to your heart’s content…and even make your own!

The Guide consists of easy-to-follow instructions on building your globe, which then acts as the prop for all the amazing facts, natural wonders, famous faces and topics that you’ll be finding out about. Each piece fits together to represent an Earth consisting of different types of land (ie. oceans, freshwater, tropical rainforest, etc), and icons of the animal world and human life. The completed construction measures 47cm tall, and actually spins like any other globe!

Leon Gray and Sarah Edmonds cleverly designed the book with content divided into manageable parts and informative, colourful illustrations representing graphics, keys, diagrams and maps. Sections include The Earth in Space, the Sun, Land and Water, Biomes, Natural Wonders, Endangered Animals, Travelling the World, people, arts, food, plus more.

With fascinating information, glossary, interactive questions and things to find on your spinning model, The Discovery Globe is a marvellous cultural, scientific and geographical package that will have young curious minds enthralled for hours. For ages six and up.

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

Next to fly into your Christmas stockings is the Busy Builders Airport kit. Build your own 92cm airport play set with punch-out models to put together, and fold out runways and puzzle pieces. You can construct everything from a jumbo jet to propellor plane, helicopter and ground controllers, the terminal, baggage truck and control towers. What fun!

The Awesome Airport Action guide, written by Timothy Knapman, includes everything you need to know about life around aeroplanes. It is a child-friendly introduction to airports and what to expect when travelling. The text is energetic and engaging, but also informative enough to provide children from age five a clear concept of the different facets of air travel. The booklet begins with checking in to the terminal and handling baggage and security, moving through to planes, vehicles, their parts and preparation, the roles of ground crew, take off and the in-flight adventure, and finally landing. Cute cartoon characters with their little speech bubbles and solid graphics with the various details to peruse give the feel of a fun advertisement that entices your interest.

Gorgeously packaged with a velcro tab, Busy Builders Airport encourages young pilot enthusiasts and world travelling wannabes, or even those yet to embark on any flying adventure, with plenty of knowledge and role play action that will have them soaring to great heights.

Walker Books Australia, October 2017.

Build the Dragon is a very cool gift to give a 7+ year-old fanatical about fantasy, myths and legends. Eye-catching from any bookstore shelf, this book and model kit will certainly spark a flame amongst dragon lovers.

Dugald Steer, fanatic himself on the subject of myths and legends with numerous books in his ‘Ology’ series, presents this spectacular world into dragons. In fourteen parts over 32 pages, learn about these beasts’ anatomy, their history, their worlds and their supernatural powers. A suitably archaic-type text is interwoven between the captivating multi-media illustrations by Jonathan Woodward and Douglas Carrel. This unique combination of artists brings this book to life with their mix of exotic drawings and realistic images.

And to add even more sensation to this already captivating non-fiction/fantasy resource is the 46-piece, 3D moving model of a Western dragon that you can build yourself! Kids will fall head over heels for this magnificent addition that includes 40cm of dragon goodness with its motorised flapping wings and gnashing jaws.

Build the Dragon is a highly appealing, interactive guide to living out one’s dragon obsessions. Primary school children will surely be able to show off their expertise in all things magical realms, and engagement with their miniature dragon replica will certainly enliven their imaginations even further.

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

Stay tuned for more Christmas gift ideas! 🙂

Review: All The Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

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All The Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater is about magic, darkness, and fighting your inner demons. I’m a huge fan of all of Stiefvater’s work, so I went in with excited expectations and wasn’t disappointed! It’s incredibly heartfelt and written in such a whimsical style that you can’t help being addicted to every page.

The story follows three cousins who live on a ranch, Bicho Raro, in Colorado, where their family gives out miracles. The trouble with miracles is that you have to accept your darkness to deal with it, and it often comes out in strange ways. Their world is populated by the weird and wonderful and magical, on a backdrop of deserts in the 1960s. The three teens are: Beatriz, who claim she has no feelings. Then Daniel, who is the resident saint, at 19, and used to be a pure child brat. And then Joaquin is the youngest and he runs an illegal radio station under the name Diablo Diablo (um, don’t tell his family, he’ll be in super big trouble). They watch pilgrims get their miracles all the time, but what happens when Daniel, the only saint who can help them, goes missing?

I loved how magical it was! The miracles are portrayed so interestingly. The Sorias family saints give the miracle and the trick is you have to deal with it yourself. If they help — everything will get dark and worse. Often pilgrims get stuck and are just living on the ranch for months trying to put themselves back together. It’s just accepted that everyone is freaking weird and magical here. Like there are girls entwined with snakes, a giant, someone who gets rained on all the time etc. etc. And everyone is chill with that.

It is written in an omnipresent style, which isn’t typically my favourite, but I loved how it transformed this book into a mythological fairy tale sort of vibe! Weget dozens of POVs and perspectives, from the Sorias to the pilgrims.  I really loved how beautiful, whimsical, and melodic the writing was. It felt so rich and extravagantly magical and the extra perspectives actually made it feel juicy and deep. The story is about miracles, not just the Saints and not just the Pilgrims.

The setting was gorgeous too. I could totally see the ranch and the desert and the box truck. You could taste the dust and see the owls and tumbleweeds!

The characters are just so amazing and complex and different. They are odd little tumble weeds and I loved them. I adored the three Soria cousins and their illegal radio station and their inner darkness. I loved Beatriz who was very firmly convinced she had no feelings and Joaquin who loved his hair and Daniel, the childhood-devil-turned-saint. I loved Pete who loved to work (what the heck is wrong with him though) and was so earnest and pure. And I loved the dogs who wanted to eat everyone alive. #relatable

All The Crooked Saints the kind of story that definitely leaves you wanting more, which is amazing. It’s whimsical and bizarre and addictive. This book is a bit like being told wild dusty folklore stories with black roses and owls with strange eyes and strange box trucks and girls who like boys’ elbows. It’s unusual and it’s slow and it’s pretty and there are SAINTS. It’s every scoop of magic you need in your life.

Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

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Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a poignant pocket of powerful writing that tackles racism and coming-of-age in a way that’s so needed! It’s a brutal narrative and it’s written with such care and love and emotion — you can feel the emotion so deeply on every page of the narrative it’s just incredible. This is both a #BlackLivesMatter and #OwnVoices novel, so you know you’re going into a story told by the viewpoint of someone who knows. It’s also a really small book, so it’s a powerpacket of strong words and feeling and plot twists.

The story follows Justyce McAllister who’s a straight A student at a prestigious school and he’s on his way to Yale and life of achieving what he sets out to achieve. His single-mother has sacrificed a lot to get him into the good school, and he hardly ever sees her, so he often feels really alone. His best-friend Manny is his only black friend in the school and while they get on famously, Manny’s choice of friends all dish out microagressive racism and challenge Justyce for being too “sensitive” if he has had enough of it. When he tries to help his girlfriend get home one night because she’s super drunk yet trying to drive, he’s attacked by police officers and put in cuffs without explanation. Justyce writes letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about his life and confusions and wanting to be a great person, but how in a world that’s so set against you?

I love the quote in the author’s note says the book is“…an attempt to examine current affairs through the lens of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings.” Which is such a good summary.

The story also is told in an interesting style, feature letters to Martin (of course! Title reference!) and the normal book-style-prose you’d expect, and also script-style scenes so you just get the meat of the dialogue without distractions. I liked how it switched things up constantly because it kept the attention riveted and also made the book really unique on the page!

Justyce was such an amazing protagonist! He’s super smart and facing a lot of struggles most teens can relate to: including what to do about his on-again-off-again girlfriend, grades, school bullies, and what his future holds. On top of that, after his arrest, he has PTSD from the experience and feels really lost. He’s on the brink of graduating highschool but he feels like his world is coming apart. He also has a crush on his long-time debate partner, SJ, but their racial differences are an obstacle.

The book, of course, is not an “easy” story. It’s meant to be eye-opening and make you think, and it tackles difficulties head on. As an Australian, some of the culture and slang was lost on me and while racism is prevalent in all countries, it looks a little different from place to place. (Australia doesn’t have shootings, for starters.) So it was good, confronting, and important to learn about what it’s like to be black in America.

I also loved how intelligent the writing and plot are! There’s a court scene that just had me go WOW WOAH WAIT while the dialogue turned you on your head. And the story is very complexly weaved in a way you don’t even realise until that scene! So full applause to the author for her writing style! It’s such an intelligent book with a lot of heart.

Dear Martin is an important narrative that can’t be talked about enough. This is powerful and full of emotion and also weaves messages of strength and hope.

“You ever consider that maybe you not supposed to ‘fit’? People who make history rarely do.”

Exchange of Heart by Darren Groth

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

Where are you based and what is your current role, Darren?

I live in Vancouver. My current role is husband, father, provider and fiction scribbler.

How involved are you in the YA community?

Not as much as I used to be when I was a teacher. My 16 year old twins keep me connected to today’s kids, though.

Could you tell us a little about your early books?

Well, they’ve all disappeared, sad to say. However, I’m proud of them and each one was notable in its own way. My first novel, The Procrastinator, got my first personal, positive rejection (still one of the very best feelings I’ve ever had in my career); my second novel, Most Valuable Potential, was shortlisted in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards; my third novel, The Umbilical Word, secured my wonderful literary agent; and my fourth novel, Kindling, picked up my first contract with a major trade publishing house (Hachette).   

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

Thank you for your kind words, Joy. The protagonists of AYSM are twins, Justine and Perry Richter. Justine is smart, well read, neurotypical and the sole carer of her brother. Perry is smart, sensitive, neurodiverse and hopeful of “freeing” his sister. Perry makes three appearances in the new novel, Exchange of Heart. It was a real treat to connect with him again.  

What is the significance of the clever title of your powerful new novel Exchange of Heart?

Exchange of Heart captures what this novel is all about, both literally and thematically. There’s a lot to unpack; it makes sense at a surface level then becomes deeper and richer the further you delve into the story.

Why is this book important?

Like all good fiction, I need to have told a good tale in order for the work to be assigned any importance. If readers feel I’ve told a good tale then there is some food-for-thought that can be discussed. PTSD in young adults, treatment of the intellectually disabled, use of the R-word, mental health of refugees, among others. In some ways, Exchange of Heart is a political YA novel. I embrace that label.   

Could you tell us about your complex major character, Munro Maddux?

I love Munro. I think he’s the best character I’ve ever put down on the page. So many qualities about him that I admire – his honour, his tenacity, his nuance, his care. I love his wounded heart. Unlike many other characters I’ve written, he’s not an open book. He’s not ‘all the feels’. That’s very commendable in this day and age.

Who is the Coyote?

The Coyote is less a ‘who’ and more a ‘what’. It’s a voice in Munro’s head that’s constantly at him and it’s the most debilitating symptom of his PTSD-infused grief over the loss of his younger sister, Evie. Why Coyote? In North American First Nations/Aboriginal lore, Coyote represents ‘trickster’ medicine; it is a deceiver, not to be trusted. It was the perfect motif for Munro’s nemesis.     

What is the significance of the “-er” words?

I was actually looking to create something self help-ish that was a bit cheesy. And the students of Sussex High, Rowan in particular, see it that way. In Munro’s case, though, his ‘er’ word – ‘better’ – was right on the money.   

You have a cast of minor characters who help create the assisted-living community setting. Who most pulls at your heart and why?

It changes every day! Today, I’ll say Bernie because she seeks to protect her fellow Fair Go residents from discrimination and oppression. We need more Bernies in the world!    

What would you like to see change or improve for those in assisted-living communities in the near future?

The programs that served as inspiration for my fictional Fair Go – Youngcare in Australia and Bittersweet Farms in the US – are wonderful examples of what is possible with assisted living. If there is one thing I would like to see in all situations of supported care, it is residents having a say in their work, their play, their passion, their collaboration. Generally, having agency in their lives. 

Having lived and been flooded in Brisbane myself, your descriptions of place such as Walter Taylor Bridge and South Bank resonated strongly. Where is a significant place in Brisbane for you?

There’s a few. Mum and Dad’s house in Mitchelton. Milpera State High, where I taught for almost ten years. Lang Park (I still can’t call it Suncorp Stadium). My grandmother’s house in Hawthorne which, sadly, no longer exists.

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

The Tolstoy quote, I felt, summed up Exchange of Heart perfectly. The love of others is the catalyst for Munro to forgive himself and heal. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fascinating story for me, not the least of which for its commentary about the treatment of the intellectually disabled. 

What have you been reading recently?

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

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

Thank you, Joy! 

Picture Books Steeped in History

From sea to air and up into space. A substantial ship voyage. Amazing aeroplane feats. And a rousing rover exploring the red planet. Three different modes of transport literally transport us back in time with their historical significance, teaching us so much about how we got to where we are today. All inspiring, all empowering. Here are a few prodigious picture book stories steeped in history.

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

The true story of an almost thirteen-year-old Carole Wilkinson, Ten Pound Pom tells of the auspicious journey of a young girl and her family immigrating from England to Australia in the early 1960s.

Post World War II, under The White Australia Policy, a scheme called The United Kingdom-Australia Free and Assisted Passage Agreement promised emigrating British sunshine, plentiful food, higher wages and space to live. Ex-servicemen and children could travel for free, and other adults paid only £10, dubbing these migrants as ‘Ten Pound Poms’. The inclusion of facts explaining The £10 Migration Scheme, glossary, and the ship Arcadia, in which Carole’s family travelled, gives the book a depth and validity that is so neatly etched into this fascinating and personal story.

With a few packed boxes of furniture and precious belongings, and a small amount of knowledge about this foreign land, the dream of a new life for the Wilkinsons in Australia was to become a reality. A whole season and 11,397 miles sailed on the SS Arcadia later, the family had ventured into uncharted waters across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, along the Red Sea, through the Indian Ocean and the roughs of the Great Australian Bight to their Adelaide destination. All the while, a young Carole learns of different cultures, experiences new sights and even makes a new friend.

Wilkinson re-lives her time on the “huge floating hotel” in her own childlike voice, and her impressions of life as a new resident in Australia clearly come from a place of fond memories. The illustrations by Liz Anelli superbly capture the elements of the era and the snippets of Carole’s diverse experiences. The pictorial features add energy and information, including maps, scenery and items of interest, breaking up the text to allow readers to absorb each part in manageable chunks.

As a part of the ‘Our Stories’ series, Ten Pound Pom is a valuable, appealing non-fiction/narrative resource for studying history and sharing migration stories. Capturing the hearts and minds of readers in middle to upper primary, and beyond, this book is perfect to pore over for the purposes of research and for pleasure.

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

This time we travel by air as we explore the fascinating history of the development of aviation in Australia. In Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines, we are indulged with the stories of ten brave pilots beginning in 1851 through to 1935.

Ex-convict Dr William Bland patented an idea in the 1850s for an Atmotic Ship to journey from England to Australia in a mere few days, as opposed to the norm of the exhausting three month sea voyage. The balloon flight was dubbed as dangerous, and so literally never took off.

We then discover the invention of the cellular box kites that Lawrence Hargrave believed could give the stability needed for flight in 1894. Following that came the glider of George Taylor in 1909, the first heavier-than-air flying machine successfully airborne over Narrabeen Beach. The narrated and factual absorbing text and images continue to delight us with stories from the brilliant air skills of Commanding Officer of the Australian Flying Corps, Richard Williams in 1917, Ross Macpherson Smith’s winning success in the 1919 Great Race from London to Darwin, plus more inspiring heroes including Nancy Bird, the youngest woman pilot in Australia to gain her commercial pilot’s licence at the age of nineteen.

Each double page spread is littered with interesting historical aviation information, speculative personal recounts, and amazing pilot and general knowledge facts. Tom Jellett’s retro-style cartoons interwoven throughout the army-themed coloured pages add the elements of character, humour and verve to support the material and collection of photos.

The authors, Prue and Kerry Mason, inspired to research Australian aviation history after purchasing their own vintage aeroplane, have provided a sterling non-fiction volume of interest for aeroplane enthusiasts and keen history buffs. Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines carries its weight in gold (or air) as an empowering and uplifting primary school vehicle.

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

This is the story of Curiosity; a Mars rover sent to far-off places, and I mean far-off places, to discover whether there has been, or ever will be, life on Mars. Here is another out-worldly experience steeped in history that will not only fascinate, but enrich our imaginations and ‘curiosity’ with many unanswered mysteries of the universe.

With its illustriously large landscape orientation, varied text sizes and pictorial layouts, Curiosity certainly lives up to its space-themed nature. The spreads are generously ‘spread out’, leaving plenty of ‘space’ to digest and conceptualise the given information and images. Markus Motum’s diagrammatical, clean and aerodynamic style of graphics suitably provide the book its authenticity, effectiveness and allure.

So why the desire to explore The Red Planet? Scientists believed there was once life on Mars, but for humans to travel in a rocket would take 350,000,000 miles, and the possibility of not returning. That’s where the Mars Rover comes in. With NASA’s ongoing trials and tribulations of previous missions, a more advanced rover was designed and developed in California – the process of equipment and technology inventions are explained in the book. Curiosity, as she was named, was transported across the U.S to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where she was launched into space in November 2011. 253 days later the rover carefully landed with precision. “Touchdown confirmed. We’re safe on Mars!”

With the well-considered inclusion of a timeline of Mars missions from 1964-5 to present to complete the book, the study into climate and geology and the preparation of human exploration shows there is hope still of answering those curious questions of microbial life. Motum’s celebratory book of Curiosity’s fifth year of exploration on Mars is targeted towards kids and adults alike, using a first-person voice from the rover’s perspective. The inclusion of facts is so comprehensive and never compromised, making this a valuable resource to study and treasure.

Mighty Magabala Books

Magabala is a Broome-based Indigenous publisher. It publishes Bruce Pascoe, the award-winning author of Black Emu (for adults) and Fog a Dox, Seahorse and Mrs Whitlam for children. Magabala’s Greg Dreise’s Mad Magpie has just won the Indigenous category of the national Speech Pathology awards. Deadly D and Justice Jones by David Hartley and Scott Prince is an appealing series which I’ve reviewed for the blog previously and Brenton McKenna’s graphic novels, Ubby’s Underdogs are full of appeal.

And one of the most beautiful picture books I’ve ever seen is published by Magabala – Once There Was a Boy by Dub Leffler.

Big Fella Rain 

A suburb new picture book is Big Fella Rain by Beryl Webber. It traces the natural world’s wait for rain in northern Australia. The illustrations by Fern Martins are impressive and one appears above as the feature image for this post. They are lovely, evocative works of art.

Mrs White and the Red Desert 

The red cover of Mrs White and the Red Desert by Josie Boyle, illustrated by Maggie Prewett, represents the overshadowing power of the desert sand to explain in an amusing way why the children’s homework is always smudged with red. This is a highlight in Magabala’s list.

On the Way to Nana’s

Red ochre colour also sets the scene of On the Way to Nana’s by Frances and Lindsay Haji-Ali, illustrated by animator David Hardy. This is an accomplished, extremely appealing, tale of travelling to Nana’s house. Things the family see on the way, from flowers to anthills, goannas, brumbies and boabs, are counted backwards from 15 to 1, which is very useful for children who are learning to count. The numbers are shown as numerals and in words. Some of the text is repetitive, “I’m on the way to Nana’s house. What will I see?”

Molly the Pirate 

The first picture book from Magabala’s Indigenous Creator Scholarship is Molly the Pirate by Lorraine Teece, illustrated by Paul Seden. Molly lives far from the sea but imagines she is a pirate. Paul Seden takes the challenge modelled by the lively text to create vibrant, gloriously-coloured illustrations. He also does a great job with camera angles, particularly from above and below the hills hoist clothes lines.

Free Diving

Based on the song by Lorrae Coffin, Free Diving looks at the role of Indigenous free divers. It is a poignant insight into history, illustrated by Bronwyn Houston.

At the Zoo I See 

At the Beach I See

 Two board books for the very young from the new “Young Art” series are At the Zoo I See by Joshua Button and Robyn Wells (the team behind Steve Goes to Carnival) and At the Beach I See by Kamsani Bin Salleh, who uses black linework with wash backgrounds. 

Art and Music in Picture Books

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

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

Robert Ingpen was born in 1936 and is the only Australian illustrator to have won the prestigious international Hans Christian Andersen award. He is a virtuoso of painterly artwork and has illustrated Australian stories such as Storm Boy by Colin Thiele, Mustara by Rosanne Hawke, Ziba Came on a Boat written by Liz Lofthouse, The Poppykettle series and The Afternoon Treehouse and a long list of children’s classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (hence the title of this tribute to his work), Peter Pan and Wendy, The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. The Nutcracker, The Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol will be perfect books for Christmas. Ingpen has also designed Australian postage stamps.

His most recent books include the awarded outback-based Tea and Sugar Christmas and Radio Rescue! (both written by Jane Jolly). Wonderlands gives a generous insight into these books and others. It is a must-have celebration of children’s literature through the lens of our maestro, Robert Ingpen.

The School of Music by Meurig and Rachel Bowen, illustrated by Daniel Frost (Wide Eyed Editions, Allen & Unwin)

Music is important for the pleasure it gives and because it’s good for the brain and can lead to unexpected friendships and opportunities. Enjoyable and useful to use in homes, schools and music schools, The School of Music is a lavish compendium of music, musicians and instruments in picture book form.

Musician characters (such as Diva Venus, a star singer, Ronny ‘Beethoven’ O’Reilly, a composer and Roxy Mojo, a percussion specialist) are introduced at the beginning of the book and feature strategically throughout to explain concepts. Section 1 looks at different types of music and instruments and how music connects with film, maths, architecture and other disciplines. Section 2 offers a musical toolbox, which enables children to write music, beginning with fun graphic scores using pictures and symbols. Section 3 is about children making music themselves. The book suggests diverse ways such as making a kitchen orchestra as well as playing a conventional instrument or singing. It concludes with tips on performing and composing.

There are bonus music samples accessed by the QR code at the end of the book and children could dip in and out of this book or use it as a Christmas holiday music appreciation and education course, ideally even alongside learning a musical instrument. 

Dance to Dream in Picture books

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

Swan Lake by Anne Spudvilas

Illustrator-icon Anne Spudvilas is known for The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin (my teacher notes are on the Reading Australia site), Woolvs in the Sitee (written by Margaret Wild) and her first book The Race by Christobel Mattingley which won the Crichton Award for Illustration and was a CBCA Honour Book. Her new interpretation of Swan Lake (Allen & Unwin) is a sumptuous gift book. It is a retelling of Tchaikovsky’s ballet set on the Murray-Darling. The lavish illustrations are textured and allusive. Spudvilas features black and white with occasional  limited shades of yellow, and red for a few sparse dramatic and accentuated moments.

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr

Stepping Stones (UQP) was published earlier in the year but remains timely with the ongoing issues in caring for and resettling refugees. Margriet Ruurs saw Syrian, Nizar Ali Badr’s stone and pebble artwork online and worked hard and inventively to contact him and gain permission to use his art to highlight the plight of those escaping the horrors of war. The text is written in Arabic and English.

Drawn Onward by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Andrew Frazer

Another unusual and fascinating picture book is Drawn Onward (Fremantle Press), a palindromic text which can be read forwards and backwards . Meg McKinlay, who is most well-known for her multiple awarded dystopian novel, A Single Stone, uses the palindrome form to rephrase negative phrases and thoughts into positive. She calls it “optimism training for our kids”. The design is appropriately subtle and enigmatic.

Danny Blue’s Really Excellent Dream by Max Landra

Like the other books reviewed here, colour is used efficaciously in Danny Blue’s Really Excellent Dream (Lothian Children’s Books, Hachette). The story begins “Once in a blue moon, everyone has a really, really excellent dream.” Danny’s world is coloured blue and his father’s factory makes every hue of blue paint. After Danny’s dessert of blueberries one night, he dreams, not in blue, but of a red whale. Blue continues to dominate his life until he decides to create his dream colour in paint. It takes until Day 99 when “Not – Blue” appears and, even though people are suspicious, Not-Blue starts showing up where it’s not expected. This is a wonderful book about being different, dreaming and persistence in creativity.

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

It’s November, which means I’ve hit the full ‘I need to buy and post book presents to my overseas friends’ panic. This panic will, of course, subside temporarily and I’ll procrastinate about buying and posting said books until, oh, 1 December. At which time the panic will return with a vengeance.

It happens every. single. year.

In an effort to get out ahead of it this time around, I’m trying to publicly hold myself accountable. Also, I need some help.

One particular set of friends who are Dutch and Irish, who live in London, have an 18-month-year-old Dutch–Irish child. Their child is about as adorable as any child could be, but I know nothing about kids, much less their reading habits. I’m wondering if anyone can recommend some awesome, modern Australian-authored books for young avid readers?

I’m particularly less after slightly dated and slightly inappropriately racist Gumnut Babies, less books like Alison Lester’s Magic Beach that have been around for decades, and more modern Australian books ala Aaron Blabey’s Pig the Pug, Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas, and Thelma the Unicorn. (Side note: How awesome is Blabey’s work?! I stumbled across the three aforementioned books a few months back and loved them so much I could barely bring myself to gift them when I headed to visit my Dutch and Irish friends in London. Their child loved the books, and I actually enjoyed reading the books to them, so it was win–win, really.)

Basically, I’m after books that showcase contemporary Australian authors and tales my friends may not have otherwise encountered. Which is a big ask given the flattening of the world thanks to the internets making everything available everywhere all the time. Think witty storylines that double as cultural critiques about ponies who stick carrots on their heads and reinvent themselves as unicorns. Think piranhas who demonstrate veganism as something interesting and fun. Think a pug with the name of another animal species whose outrageous selfishness contains abundant lessons for us all.

If you have any recommendations, I’m all ears until the 1 December freak out kicks in.

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Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

BUY HERE

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman is a beautiful book about art and anxiety and dealing with poisonous people in your life. I found it equal parts brutal and brilliant, so packed with emotion and heart that I couldn’t help falling in love by the end. It also has an incredible ending that just filled my heart so much (you know…right after it finished smashing my heart into little pieces). Definitely all signs of an incredible book!

The story follows Kiko who is an artist with severe social anxiety. She’s trapped in a home where her mother is openly racist and basically psychologically torments her, all under the guise of just being a “caring parent”. Kiko feels like she doesn’t and will never belong as a biracial Japanese-American. All she can dream about is getting into a specific art school after graduation, where she get away from her mother’s torment and start a new life for herself. But what if she doesn’t get in?

It had the simple best and most brutally accurate representation of social anxiety I’ve ever read. It made my heart ache for Kiko as she battled the deeply rooted feelings of being a burden, being unwanted, being a problem to everyone. She couldn’t just “go an hang out” at a party. The anxiety levels were so intense she sometimes couldn’t even leave her car. It’s also uplifting to see her journey through it. This isn’t a story that uses mental illness as just a tragedy. It shows the dark cruel side, of course, but it also talks about recovery and finding yourself and learning to feel loved. (But there’s also no messages of “love cures all” which is refreshing!)

Kiko’s family life breaks my heart. Her mother was an utter psychopath and it was unbelievable how racist she was towards her own kids. Kiko never felt loved, pretty, validated, or cared about. Reading about it made me burn with righteous fury. Kiko just wanted her mother to acknowledge her art but her mother refused unless it gained her power. I rooted for Kiko to get her dream of being an artist and get out so so bad.

I loved the super sweet friendship between her and Jamie. They’re childhood friends who lost each other when they were 11 and now he’s back! Their lack of communication really grated on me, but they’re teens and this is just realistic. I love how slowly and tentatively they explored their feelings. And it was literally the sweetest thing how Jamie was there for her.

I loved the discussions about being biracial from an #ownvoices author. The author wrote her perspective so fluently and beautifully that it was an amazing insight to read. I felt so connected to Kiko and I loved watching her start to feel empowered by here Japanese roots, not ashamed.

The art aspect was also glorious! Every chapter ended with a little snippet of what Kiko was drawing that day and the imagination was stunning. My only wish was that the book had included some sketches! (I need fan art for this wow.) And the book really reminded me of I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson. Total recommend for them both obviously. It explores a bit of the tortured-artist feelings, but also the empowerment of releasing your emotions through visual displays and turning something ugly into something beautiful.

Starfish was a beautiful and poignant story that really digs into your heart! It’s seriously sad and hard to read at times as you watch Kiko’s life spin out of control. But the point is, she wants to get the control back. She is an anxious character, but not a passive one. I thought this book was brilliant!

Feeling Good – Books to Increase Awareness

Getting to know oneself and understanding the world that shapes us is one of the first steps to feeling good about oneself and the world in which we live. This handful of books addresses the art of awesomeness and why it’s important to live it.

It’s OK To Feel The Way You Do by Josh Langley

Langley’s little books of BIG messages about self-help and self-esteem are house favourites. Neither overtly moralistic nor sermonic, they present beautiful messages of love, understanding and hope, accompanied with novel, cartoon-esque illustrations.

Continue reading Feeling Good – Books to Increase Awareness

The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler & Lisa Shanahan

Thank you for speaking to Boomerang Blog, Lisa and congratulations on your recent win for The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler at the Queensland Literary Awards. We’ll talk more about that soon.

Thank you, Joy! And many thanks for having me on the blog.

But first, where are you based and what is your background?

I live in Sydney, with my husband and our three sons, not far from where I grew up as a kid. I initially studied Communications straight out of high school at UTS, where I majored in writing and media theory, before then going on to train as an actor at Theatre Nepean, UWS. Towards the end of my acting training, I taught drama to a group of kids out at Mount Pleasant and I wrote them a play. It was then that it finally dawned on me that I didn’t want to be an actor after all, that in fact I wanted to be a writer but for young people, rather than adults. So not long after, I enrolled in a writing course with the acclaimed children’s author Libby Gleeson. That course felt both like a complete revelation and a homecoming. It was there that I workshopped a picture text I had written on my honeymoon of all places, about a little boy and his ice cream van driving dad. Libby Gleeson was a wonderful teacher and she instinctively knew how to draw out the possibilities of both a writer and a text and because of that early encouragement, here I am sixteen books later.

Do you give many presentations to children? How do you make them interesting?  Have there been any particularly memorable responses?

I’ve spoken to thousands of kids over the years, presenting talks and writing workshops. In my general talks, I’ll often share funny stories about my life, what kind of kid I was growing up and especially some of the funny stories about bringing up my boys. There’s lots of acting and hilarity, especially when I share the inspiration behind stories like Sleep Tight, My Honey or My Mum Tarzan. I always bring along some of my writing journals and I usually explore the growth of at least one book in detail, from first seed to final story. I’m keen for kids to hear about the writing process but I’m also especially passionate for them to grasp how curiosity about ordinary moments can lead to the creation of juicy stories.

Funnily enough, some of the loveliest moments happen when I’m not speaking at all, when little clusters of kids sidle up at the end of a session to confide about a book they’ve been writing, or how they’re going to go out and buy their own writing journal that very afternoon, so they can write about the idea they have for a funny story about their own crazy mum, grandpa or dog. Because just as much as I want kids to love my books, at the end of the day, I want to inspire them even more so to discover the beauty and worth of their own stories.

I adore your laugh-out-loud YA novel My Big Birkett (it’s one of my all-time favourites) and love reciting parts about the animals that mate for life, The Tempest and gorgeous Raven and the meals he makes using mince; as well as your wonderful picture books. Could you tell us about some of these books?

Thanks Joy! It makes me especially happy to know that you are a Raven fan!

I’m often asked what I prefer to write most and I always say I love writing both picture books and novels and that I couldn’t choose between them. The best part of writing picture books for me is the absolute thrill of collaboration. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so many brilliant illustrators over the years and each one has taught me so much about the power of the visual text. Some of my picture books that have been especially well-received include the Bear and Chook books, illustrated by Emma Quay, Gordon’s got a Snookie, illustrated by Wayne Harris and Big Pet Day, illustrated by Gus Gordon, who was also on the QLA shortlist too, for his gorgeous picture book, Somewhere Else. My most recent picture book is  Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee! illustrated by Binny Talib. This was such a tough text to illustrate, mainly because of the fairly swift juxtaposition of the scenes of school life, with Ruby Lee’s fervent imagination. I’m just so delighted at what a marvellously beautiful job Binny has done.

I will say that one of the unforeseen joys of my writing life has been the steady, heartfelt emails I have received over the years from teen readers regarding My Big Birkett. These emails about Gemma and Raven and the De Head family have been incredibly sincere and poignant and they have often left me with a huge lump in my throat.

I know this is a tricky question but how do you incorporate humour into your writing?

This is a tricky question! As a kid, I looked into books like they were real windows. The books that spoke to me most were always the ones that captured acutely the laugh-out-loud jumbly nature of life, alongside the bittersweet ache. In terms of writing humour, I always keep an ear out for those little things that will make kids laugh. Not so long ago, my sister told me a story about how her four-year old son crept into her bed in the middle of the night and snuggled up tight to her, saying, ‘I love you so much Mummy, I want to shoot you out of a cannon!’ When I tell that story to kids, they roll around on the floor, laughing their heads off. But at the same time I know they recognise the vehemence of that kind of love, because they’ve felt it rocketing around in their own chests. I think humour has this remarkable capacity to encourage true connection and I’m always keen to incorporate it in my work, because it radically paves the way for readers to engage more fully and tenderly not only with a character’s dreams, fears, hopes and sorrows but also perhaps, with their own.

The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler (A&U) has just won the QLA Griffith University Children’s Book award. The judge report says:

“The Grand Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler is structured as a quintessential Australian beach camping holiday but the exceptional storytelling soars to welcome the reader into both the setting and young Henry Hoobler’s rites of passage. We are given a heart-warming insight into introspective Henry. He is a genius at noticing things, surprising his fellow campers with his success in board and card games. He is also ‘Mr Worst-Case Scenario’, dreading the bugs, stingers and sharks of the beach but, most of all, dreading learning to ride his new silver bike. The bike is a symbol of fear, but its significance changes as Henry discovers courage and freedom. Courage can be found when friends are ‘straight-up and true’, embodied by free-spirit Cassie. This tale reminds us that everyone is different and everyone has gifts. Some, like Henry, prefer to learn quietly but even extroverts can be fearful.

The writing is literary and metaphorical, encompassing a vast emotional range whilst being utterly engaging for children. It is rare to encounter a novel for mid-primary children characterised by such perception and cadence.”

What was your reaction when you realised you had won? 

Lisa Shanahan, second from right, with judges

I was astonished and delighted. It took quite a few days for it to truly sink in. Then I was just overcome with immense gratitude that the judges had seen something special in Henry.

It was wonderful to meet your young son, Rohan, at the awards presentation in Brisbane (and others there loved seeing him reading The Hobbit as the night wore on). Why was he there and what was your dual experience of the awards evening?

One of the initial nudges for writing Henry Hoobler was watching Rohie develop as a reader. After a slow start, he had a very sudden and rapid acceleration over a single year and I knew he was in this slippery in-between stage, where the books he was capable of reading were still quite a huge stretch for him emotionally. I began to wonder if I could write something that would speak directly to his life. As I wrote Henry, I read chapter after chapter out loud to Rohie. When I had finished the book and before it had been published, he persuaded his class teacher that I should come to school and read some chapters to his whole class as well. I dedicated the novel to Rohan because I wanted to acknowledge just what an incredible gift it was to have his enthusiastic encouragement along the way.

Rohie is an avid bookworm and so hanging out at the QLA awards ceremony for him was suddenly like meeting all of his people, all at once. He was especially touched that I mentioned him in my speech and I was especially touched when Rebe Taylor, the winner of the QLA History Book Award asked him to sign her copy of Henry. I can safely say that if Rohie’s class teacher had seen that handwriting, he would have been granted his official pen licence on the spot!

What is the significance of the title The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler?

Early in the novel, Henry discovers that his rather unique talent for noticing things, makes him almost unbeatable when it comes to playing cards and board games. After Henry convincingly and unexpectedly smashes all the men and the older boys at games, Patch, his rather begrudging older brother finally acknowledges that Henry might be bit of a grand genius. It’s the beginning of a radical shift in the way Henry sees himself. Although Henry has replayed every worst case scenario in vivid detail regarding his camping holiday, what he has never considered is all the ways this summer might turn out to be the best one yet, the grand, genius summer of all summers.

Could you tell us about your protagonist Henry and some other characters?

Henry is a sensitive, imaginative and thoughtful nine-year old boy. He is the middle child, slotted right in between his athletically gifted, funny, know-it-all fifteen-year old brother Patch and his rambunctious, My Little Pony obsessed younger sister Lulu. Both Henry and his mum share some anxious traits and tend towards self-reflection and to feeling things deeply. Henry is very keen to please his exuberant dad, who is a real enthusiast for life. But Henry is filled with dread at the idea of learning how to ride his new bike without training wheels, especially in front of prickly Reed Barone, another boy who is close to Henry’s age and who is prone to sneering. Eventually, Henry meets ten-year old Cassie, who lives onsite in a caravan with her Pop. Cassie is a free spirit and alive to the world in ways that astonish Henry. Finally, Cassie’s straight up and true courage rubs off and with an unexpected Lulu intervention, Henry learns how to summon up his own courage and to do a whole series of adventurous things that he never imagined.

For what age-group is this novel intended?

Henry is intended for 7-11 year olds. I’ve been really pleased though by the numbers of reviewers that have also recommended it as a read-aloud for the whole family or the school classroom too.

How did you balance fine literary writing with the other elements of the narrative?

I was keen to write in a way that was hospitable to all kinds of middle grade readers, those that were confidently independent and those newly finding their feet. As a result, the story contains lots of snappy dialogue, which helps to give the text an easy, engaging flow. In terms of metaphoric imagery, I kept in mind some feedback given to me around another novel, regarding the importance of restraint. I was conscious that any poetic moment really had to serve the story and forward the action. At the same time, I wanted the novel to contain a certain richness of vocabulary because something the American writer Madeleine L’Engle once said has stayed with me for years, ‘We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually.’ So balancing all of these elements was challenging, a little like prancing across a highwire tightrope.

As well as being good fun to read, Henry Hoobler has some important underpinning themes. Could you share some of these?

I’m always a little cautious when discussing themes because I know the writer is sometimes the least insightful person on that subject! With Henry though, I was keen to explore the nature of courage, the way one young boy discovers how to be brave over the summer, by learning how to make a tiny bit of room for the worry in his life, without giving it the whole house. The novel examines the transformative nature of unexpected friendship, the contagiousness of courage, the way we need one another in order to learn how to become brave and the way courage always arrives through the actual taking of considered risks. The novel celebrates the importance of family and community and the value of perseverance, forgiveness and kindness. I was keen to write about the beauty of the natural world and how to recognise and treasure the true significance of small ordinary moments.

Which awards have had particular significance for you? 

Whenever a book of mine is either shortlisted or receives an award, I’m always extraordinarily surprised and grateful. I know it’s such a hard job to make those kinds of choices, especially when there are so many equally deserving and beautiful books out in the world. Writing a book does take a significant investment of energy and time and winning an award always means that a book will have a much greater chance of being widely read. I was particularly thrilled in 2010 when Bear and Chook by the Sea won the CBCA’s Book of the Year for Early Childhood, not just because it was a moment I got to share with my good friend the illustrator Emma Quay but also because as a kid, I drew a poster every single year for Oatley Library’s celebrations of the Children’s Book Council’s Book of the Year Awards. I was desperate to win a book prize in that poster competition, never dreaming that I would one day write a book that would win an award from such a long-established and hallowed institution.

What are you writing next?

I’ve been writing a series of picture book texts and I’m just returning now to a novel for teenagers that has been patiently waiting it’s turn.

What have you enjoyed reading recently?

I’ve loved Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible, Karen Foxlee’s A Most Magical Girl, James Rebanks The Shepherd’s Life, Brian Doyle’s collection of essays Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies and the picture books Oi, Frog by Kez Gray and Jim Field and Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge.

Do you have a website?

www.lisashanahan.com

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks so much for having me on the blog and for asking such astonishingly good, stretching questions. It was lovely to take the time to reflect and ponder.

Thanks for your very thoughtful and insightful responses, Lisa and all the very best with your excellent novel, The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler, and your other works. We greatly look forward to what your imaginative mind will bring us next.

Mind Provoking Prose – MG and YA Reads for the Venturesome

If the prospect of bored minds and restless spirits daunts you, consider these literary excursions for your middle grade and YA readers. Not only are they mind provoking and incisive, they offer experiences for the venturesome reader to revere and ruminate over long after they’ve read the last page.

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

This is a brave story set in Australia in the not-too-distant future with global implications. Peony lives with her sister and aging grandfather on a fruit farm. Her chief aspiration is to be a Bee – the bravest, most nimble of farm workers who flit from tree to tree pollinating flowers by hand. If this concept sounds slightly askew, it’ll be one you are thoroughly comfortable with by the time you’ve experienced MacDibble’s palpably natural, narrative. Could this be the end of the world as we know it or, as I’d rather believe, just another notable chapter in the history of humans being humans – badly.

Whatever your take on climate change and the way we treat the planet, How to Bee, never wallows in despair or hindsight and neither does Peony who positively radiates tenacity, kindness and sass so loudly, her voice really will be resounding long after you read the last page. When  Peony is taken from her home by a mother who aspires for more than just the meagre country existence the rest of her family and friends endure, her brassy drive and cast-iron determination draw her right back to the home she loves, like a bee to its hive. But not before she spreads a little hope and good sense in the big scary city.

This story will make you grin, cheer, cry just a bit and want to fly with Peony as she Bees. It’s about being true to yourself, to those who love you, about living your dreams wildly and the profound power of friendship. It could also quite possibly change your whole outlook of and appreciation for fruit. More highly recommended than an apple a day for middle grade readers from eight upwards.

Allen and Unwin April 2017

Continue reading Mind Provoking Prose – MG and YA Reads for the Venturesome

Review: Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green is such a highly anticipated novel of 2017 and it absolutely astounds with it’s incredible story. It’s so John Green-esque with the metaphors, quirky characters, and copious amounts of existential crises. I also appreciated the raw and personal approach to OCD that definitely makes this book a standout.  Turtles All The Way Down is about mental health and missing persons and sad rich boys and friendship. I couldn’t be happier with it!

 

The plot was really amazing! I found it on the slow side, but still thoroughly excellent. I loved that it wasn’t rife with cliches or annoying tropes, which was refreshing and just made the book more heartfelt. It was real and that makes all the difference. It’s not really a “detective” story as such, but Aza is curious about the mission millionaire because she used to know his son, Davis. She does a bit of digging…although to be honest most of her “investigative work” is on Davis. How adorable.

Aza was an amazing protagonist! She is extremely quiet. She hardly ever talks and she’s very much locked in her own head. I appreciated that spoke little and listened a lot, and the diving into her complex and messy thought process that’s coloured by her mental illness was interesting and so respectfully portrayed.  She’s obviously extremely intelligent. All John Green’s characters always are?! I love how “pretentious” they are because I was like that as a kid…hello #relatable. Let’s talk about the stars and metaphors and what poetry means and the infinite possibilities of death and life. The sheer amount of knowledge these kids spew out is just refreshing and perfect to me.

The anxiety/OCD was really brutally and honestly talked about. I do wish the term “OCD” had been used because labels aren’t things to be scared of and it would’ve honestly helped smash more stereotypes. A lot of people won’t know that Aza has OCD because it’s not on page (but John Green talks about it a lot in his vlogs and such). This isn’t the cliche portrayal of OCD either. It’s more about the anxiety of thought-spirals, the repetition to the point of endangering yourself, and the fixation on things you know aren’t a problem but you can’t stop thinking they are. You are not watching someone with OCD, you are experiencing what it’s like to have OCD while reading this book. And that’s so important.

The romance was absolutely super adorable! I loved Davis immediately. He’s rich and always thinks everyone pays attention to him solely because of his money. He’s not good at small talk either and will dive straight into complex conversation (he’s amazing) and he is the sweetest big brother. His dad is missing and so his life is tangled and sad and complicated. I loved how he and Aza slowly rekindled their childhood friendship. It’s the cutest romance, but slow and cautious and fraught with indecision and the complications of Aza’s OCD and Davis’s grief.

I loved how deep the story was too. It just wants to talk about huge matters, and some of the metaphors were extremely intense. The book feels layered and I think you could get more out of it each time you reread.

And since it is, in fact, a John Green novel…I was gut-punched with severe emotions at the end! I hated (in the best way!) and loved it simultaneously and think it was written perfectly.

I think Turtles All the Way Down is an absolutely deep and existential book that really discusses minds and who we are. It’s sad and it’s not sugar coated. There’s no messages that you need to be fixed to have a good life. Your mental illness isn’t ALL of you, but it is some of you. I really appreciated this book and its messages and its beautiful prose.

Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you do.

Review: Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

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RAMONA BLUE by Julie Murphy is a heartfelt and beautiful coming-of-age story. It’s about growing up, discovering your sexuality, and swimming and eating a lot of delicious food. (Particularly different ways to eat your eggs, which is quality content.) I think it touched on a lot of applicable and poignant themes that a lot of teens will struggle with or relate to. And the character cast was so excellent it just took the story from being on a flat 2D page to exploding into real life.

The story follows Ramona Laroux, who is quite poor and quite unusual. She has blue hair and is super tall and she lives in a trailer park and she honestly can’t see her life ever going anywhere. Her older teen sister is pregnant and Ramona has no money for college. She wants to leave town but…she doesn’t. She has some great friends here and she honestly is too scared to want more. Then her old childhood friend, Freddie, returns to town. Ramona is still exploring a label for her sexuality, unsure if she’s lesbian or bi or pan, and as chemistry sparks between her and Freddie it opens up a lot of discussions about the fluidity of sexuality. But ultimately: is Ramona going to take charge of her own life or just let it take her?

The characters are definitely the shining glory of the book! It’s very very character driven and has quite a huge cast that all leap off the page with diversity and personality. Most of the secondary characters are queer too and the love interest, Freddie, is black. At first I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of secondary characters but they quickly became real and solid people in my mind and I enjoyed the banter and the escapades. (They literally steal into someone’s backyard to swim at some stage.) I must admit I love Saul who’s favourite audience to his shenanigans was….himself.

I think the discussion on sexuality was very important! Ramona identifies as queer but not quite sure what label she has. She kisses and loves girls but she also is fiercely attracted to Freddie. I loved their romance and also the fact that Ramona isn’t going to stop loving girls or “straighten out” because of Freddie. I think it’s an important thing to discuss fluidity and I feel the book does it respectfully.

I also highly appreciated all the food in the book since wow do these characters have excellent taste buds and enjoy their delicious snacks.

The book also takes us to a large variety of settings which was exciting and fun! Ramona and Freddie start swimming at the local pool and there’s plenty of visiting houses and cities and delicious diners. I think it’s important in contemporaries to showcase a variety of settings to keep the plot moving. And the pacing was a bit on the slow side, but still captivating, with how strongly the characters lead the plot.

RAMONA BLUE is a summery story that deals with a lot of deep issues. It has real and honest conversations and it’s poignant and well written with characters you can root for and no black-and-white answers to all of life’s questions. You have to discover them for yourself!

Katherine Rundell, Wisher & Explorer

London-based writer Katherine Rundell has sprung into prominence with her children’s novels in recent times. She has just written two more books and one is a sumptuous Christmas picture book, One Christmas Wish, illustrated by Emily Sutton (Bloomsbury). It draws on many nostalgic and loved Christmas images, such as being with family and decorating the tree.

One Christmas Wish begins on Christmas Eve with Theo sorting out the Christmas decorations. He finds four unexpected and dilapidated pieces: a rocking horse, a robin, a tin soldier and an angel. His parents are out working and his new babysitter has fallen asleep with her phone but Theo sees a shooting star and wishes to not be alone. The four decorations seem to come to life and offer to help Theo with whatever he needs. However, the decorations all need something themselves, such as the robin remembering how to sing and the soldier needing someone to love and protect. The heart of Christmas is reached when they find a nativity scene in the town square and Theo’s Christmas wish comes true soon after.

The illustrations invite you into the scenes, particularly those with full bleeds to the pages’ edges such as in Mrs Goodyere’s cosy room where she teaches the robin to sing Away in a Manger and the snowy wood where Theo and the others search for feathers to replenish the angel’s wings.

The Explorer (illustrated by Hannah Horn; published by Bloomsbury) is Katherine Rundell’s other new book and it is a rollicking adventure for primary children set in the Amazon after Fred’s small plane crashes. Two girls about his age, Con and Lila, and five-year-old Max also survive. They rescue a baby sloth, raid a bee-hive, make a raft and find a map. They resolve to venture to where the X on the map is located. Disconcertingly, there are signs that someone else has lived in the jungle too.

There is some depth in the narrative, particularly as the children undergo rites of passage. Even though their existence is difficult, at times Fred seems pleased not to be living a humdrum life: “At school, it’s the same thing, every day. I liked that it might be all right to believe in large, mad, wild things.”

The Explorer is inspired by Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, and these two novels do share a similar sense of adventure and freedom.

Katherine Rundell also wrote Rooftoppers, which was one of my top novels for children in 2013 (along with Kirsty Murray’s The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie). Rundell has published a couple of other junior novels, including the acclaimed The Wolf Wilder (Bloomsbury, 2015).