Animal Antics – Part 2

Well the animals still have it. This week we encounter more of their anthropomorphic antics between the covers of a veritable zooful of picture books.

Our Dog Benji by Pete Carter and James Henderson

Although cute and compact, this picture book features the large and lovely antics of Benji, a robust Labrador looking pooch whose insatiable appetite for anything and everything becomes a catalyst of encouragement for one fussy eater.

Our Dog Benji is an animated account of a day in the life of Benji as told by his young owner. Henderson’s duotone illustrations rate highly for their detail, style, and humour illustrating Carter’s understanding of dogs well and their avaricious ways. This handy little book subtly supports the notion of eating well and exploring more food options for fussy eaters.

EK Books February 2017

Monsieur Chat by Jedda Robaard

This little picture book is oozing with charm and the exact sort of intimacy that young readers adore; they are privy to the outcome even if the story’s characters are not. Monsieur Chat is a cuter than cute little ginger puss living among the city roof tops of a French city.

Continue reading Animal Antics – Part 2

Reviews – Pickle and Bree’s Guide to Good Deeds Books 3 and 4

The gorgeous Pickle and Bree’s Guide to Good Deeds series (by author Alison Reynolds and illustrator Mikki Butterley) continues from where it left off from The Birthday Party Cake and The Decorating Disaster (see previous interview). With another two exciting books on exploring social etiquette and positive behaviour now available, we can hardly contain ourselves! Here they are:

Gently reinforcing the value of kindness, The Playground Meanies is a delightfully explorative story into managing challenging social situations in the playground. The Reynolds and Butterley team once again draw us in with their engaging script and expressive illustrations that truly allow readers to connect with these relatable characters.

It is a common occurrence for preschoolers to experience some level of bullying, even at their young age. Knowing what is appropriate behaviour, whether the instigator or recipient, can sometimes be confusing and definitely emotionally confronting. Alison Reynolds approaches this concept beautifully with her easy-to-follow and humorous narrative, and empowering ‘guide to good deeds’ notes that tie it all together.

When Pickle and the sensitive Jason are teased about their big feet by two little bears at the playground, it is Bree who shows maturity and wisdom, reminding her friends not to stoop to their ‘mean’ level. But Pickle, being loyal yet impulsive, sympathises with Jason’s sadness, and protests his vexation. And the result of his boisterous actions causes a roll-on effect. Getting along with the meanies may seem like a slippery slide to manoeuvre, but Pickle and Jason do well to compose themselves and be kind, with an effective result.

The Playground Meanies opens doors for plenty of discussion and role play, teaching children about positive actions in a sensitive, safe and playful manner.

In The Big Snow Adventure, Pickle and Bree hit the ski slopes a-sliding with aplomb. In this action-packed escapade of tobogganing-chaos, skiiing-turbulence and snowballing-frenzies, the heedless pair need reminding to respect the rules.

It’s all too easy to be unaware of invading people’s space or neglecting to check their feelings when you’re in your own world of fun and competition. That’s certainly what happened to Pickle and Bree during their trip to the snow. All the excitement of ski lifts and ploughing down the mountain makes them forget about listening to and following instructions and respecting the given boundaries. Disowned by their friends following the path of snow-covered destruction eventually leads Pickle and Bree to realise their foolhardy ways, and an exhiliranting ending to the day is had by all.

I love the consistency between books; the gentle and humorous storylines that play out like a real life scene, the strongly defined characters and the adorable multi-textured illustrations that make these books so full of charm and authenticity.

The Big Snow Adventure and The Playground Meanies are both delightfully engaging ‘lessons’ in friendship, respect, compassion and morality. Admirably empowering children from age four to harness a peaceful world, one step at a time.

Five Mile Press, February 2017.

Alison Reynolds recently completed her blog tour for her Pickle and Bree series. See her post with Dimity here and the books’ development here.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Author Roadshow: Fleur Ferris and Robert Newton

There were too many exciting books from the recent Penguin Random House roadshow in Sydney to outline in one post so here is Part 2. As well as many standout titles, we were privileged to hear from two YA authors, Fleur Ferris and Robert Newton.

Robert Newton spoke from the heart about his new novel Mr Romanov’s Garden in the Sky. It is an outstanding work, exceeding his Prime Minister’s Literary Award winning When We Were Two. It follows the sad and dangerous existence of Lexie in a Housing Commission Tower who lies to protect her drug-addicted mother. She saves old Mr Romanov from death after thugs throw his dog off the building. The story then becomes an original tale of friendship and hope.

Fleur Ferris is one of Australia’s best selling YA novelists and she is also a most delightful person. Her first novel Risk, a cautionary tale about online predators, is essential reading. It is wildly popular with teens and I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here. I’ve also interviewed Fleur about Risk here for Boomerang Blog.

Fleur’s second novel Black was Australia’s best-selling ‘new release’ Oz YA book of the year for 2016. It is another a thriller, and incorporates a cult and unexpected ending. I reviewed it briefly for Boomerang Blog here.

Fleur’s third novel Wreck (note Fleur’s one word, one syllable titles, each ending in the letter ‘k’) will be published in July. It is also a thriller but has dual narrators and is set in two different time periods. It sounds like her best work yet and we will hear much more about it.

Other upcoming YA novels include Geekeralla by Ashley Poston from the U.S. (April), billed as a ‘fandom-fuelled twist on the classic fairytale’. Danielle encounters cos-play and her godmother works in a vegan food truck. I’ve read the beginning and can’t wait for the rest.

One of Us is Lying by debut novelist Karen M. McManus (June) is a U.K. title. There’s an omniscient narrator and one teen is murdered in detention with four others without anyone leaving the room.

Darren Groth returns after his triumph with Are You Seeing Me? in Exchange of Heart. Endearing character, Perry from the first novel returns and Down Syndrome is addressed.

Krystal Sutherland’s second novel appears quickly after Our Chemical Hearts. I’ve interviewed Krystal for the blog here. A Semi-definitive List of Worst Nightmares (September) explores phobias, particularly when Esther’s list of possible phobias is stolen, with strange results.

Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index (July) by U.K. author Julie Israel revolves around Juniper’s file cards of happy and unhappy experiences. But one card goes missing, the one thing that people can’t know about.

What reading extravagances we have in store.

(Author photo at top courtesy Fleur Ferris. From left to right, standing: Fleur Ferris, Belinda Murrell, Felice Arena, Robert Newton)

Author Roadshow: Felice Arena, Belinda Murrell and more

It was a thrill to attend the Penguin Random House Young Readers’ Highlights roadshow in Sydney this week.

As well as being told about upcoming books, four authors (three from Victoria – Fleur Ferris, Felice Arena and Robert Newton, and Belinda Murrell from Sydney) shared their books with us. More from them later…

Picture book highlights for me were Anna Walker’s Florette, full of inviting greenery in the heart of Paris (March), The Catawampus Cat by Jason Carter Eaton and Gus Gordon (April), the retro colour palette of Stephen W. Martin’s Charlotte and the Rock (April), We’re All Wonders (April), an adaptation from R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, Deb Abela’s fractured fairytale, Wolfie: An Unlikely Hero (May), Marc Martin’s stylish design in What’s Up Top (September) and Pamela Allen’s A Bag and a Bird, which is set in Sydney (September).

Middle Fiction looks incredible. Felice Arena, author of popular series ‘Specky Magee’ and ‘Andy Roid’, enthusiastically told us about his stand-alone historical fiction, The Boy and the Spy (April). The Anglicised version of Felice (pronounced Fel-ee-chay) is Felix, meaning ‘happiness’, and Felice certainly demonstrated that.

The Boy and the Spy has family at its core, especially foster families. It is set in Sicily in 1945 and is for 10-12 year-old readers. It can be read at one level or the layers in its text can be uncovered. Felice hopes that it will inspire readers about travel, history and art. He loves writing ‘movement’ and has tried to emulate the stimulating experience given by teachers who read aloud and stop at the end of a chapter. Felice enjoyed researching and talking to relatives and has devised some entertaining Morse Code activities for school visits.

Other titles I can’t wait to read are Skye Melki-Wagner’s ‘Agent Nomad’ series (March) about a magical spy organisation with an Australian feel. I loved Skye’s stand-alone YA fantasy The Hush. Talented Gabrielle Wang has written and illustrated The Beast of Hushing Wood (April), another of Gabrielle’s original magical realist stories. I facilitated a session with Gabrielle at the Brisbane Writers Festival in the past and the children adored her. My favourite of her books are In the Garden of Empress Cassia and The Pearl of Tiger Bay.

Ally Condie returns with Summerlost (May), the irrepressible Oliver Phommavanh with Super Con-Nerd, Morris Gleitzman with Maybe (September) and Tristan Bancks with The Fall (June), a fast-paced thriller with disappearing characters. It will no doubt follow Tristan’s assured debut into literary-awarded fiction, Two Wolves. Tamara Moss’ Lintang and the Pirate Queen (September), a quest on the high seas, looks very appealing.

The charming Belinda Murrell spoke about her popular backlist of the ‘Sun Sword’ trilogy, timeslip tales and ‘Lulu Bell’ and introduced her new series for tweens, ‘Pippa’s Island’ (July), which reminded me of Nikki Gemmell’s ‘Coco Banjo’ but with more sand and sea.

And the wonderful Jacqueline Harvey’s ‘Alice-Miranda’ and ‘Clementine Rose’ series have sold 1 million copies in Australia and worldwide. We celebrated with a special cake. 

I’ll roundup YA at the roadshow in a second post.

Review: Roseblood by AG Howard

PURCHASE HERE

I grew up absolutely in love with the Phantom of the Opera musical, so you can imagine my extreme excitement at finding out Roseblood by AG Howard would be a YA modernised retelling! And it was absolutely beautifully written, with a good dash of creepy and disturbing. A glorious tribute to the original! Except far less singing. And more cats. But I’m not arguing. I’m a big fan of this author and her Splintered series is one of my top favourites of all time, so I’m so glad her new book didn’t disappoint at all!

Roseblood basically follows the tale of Rune, who is possessed with an amazing operatic voice…that she can’t control. It literally forces her to sing and is more than a little disturbing. She’s shipped off to a musical boarding school in Paris (that just so happens to be inside an old abandoned Opera House) where she meets a ghostlike boy in the garden who plays a violin and coaches her singing. But the boy is also the adopted son of the original Phantom…who just happens to want Rune for something decidedly sinister and deadly. It’s absolutely stuffed with aesthetically pleasing scenes and it rekindles theories about the original story and also adds in new and exciting twists! It reads a bit like a “sequel” and a “but what happened next”, which I absolutely loved.

Plus who doesn’t want to go to boarding school in an old opera house, right?!

It’s told in dual point-of-view, with both Rune and Thorn narrating. I loved Rune as she learns to accept her magical abilities, but Thorn absolutely stole my heart. He’s a tortured and haunted sort of boy, hiding in shadows with his brilliant violin playing. He wears a mask as legacy of the Phantom, his adopted father, too. And the two of them together were just the cutest thing of ever.

I’m pleased there was so much music too. As it should be. I’m a complete music fiend and used to play violin myself, so I adored Thorn’s capabilities (lowkey jealous of his Stradivarius) and I love how Rune was a singer.

It also has delightfully creepy elements. There are bleeding roses and ghosts staring at you behind mirrors and weird dreams and dangerous magical powers that may or may not suck all the energy out of those around you when you use it. Rune was very self aware of how creepy the opera house was, too, and I like how she punched typical horror-story cliches by knowing what she was getting into when she walked into abandoned buildings. Very meta. Very nice.

The writing is absolutely lush and detailed and beautiful. Although sometimes the description did get a bit over-the-top and took away from the action of the story. Overall, though, I loved getting swallowed into the vivid and gorgeous scenery. The plot itself wasn’t so face paced, but it kept my attention on every page. I wanted to know about Thorn’s tragic past and I needed more details about the morally grey Phantom’s plans.

Roseblood is a beautifully written retelling that does the original justice! It lacked in the action department, but made up for it with the lush writing and the winning characters and the lovely creepy factor, like roses that bleed all over you and ghostly cats. It may or may not, however, inspire you to run around your house belting out the Phantom of the Opera theme songs. You’ve been warned.

Love-Inspired Books for Kids

With all things ‘love’ on the chart for today, there’s no better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, International Book Giving Day (aka #bookgivingday) and Library Lovers’ Day with some especially special and adorable books with your loved ones. Here are a few to make your heart sing and add a warm smile to your day.

Love Thy Babies

Hello Little Babies, Alison Lester (author, illus.), ABC Books, December 2016.

Welcoming and watching your little one’s as they grow and change in this big, wide world is a truly heartwarming and precious experience. Alison Lester expertly caresses our hearts with her divinely narrated and illustrated glimpse into the developmental stages of six babies’ first year.

With the birth of Alice, Ruby, Mika, Zane, Vikram and Tom, the diversity of cultures, traditions, abilities and behavioural routines are portrayed with a beautiful synchronicity. Sleeping habits are formed with the jiggling of cradles, rubbing of little backs and strolls by the sea. Playing involves rattles, baths, a game of peekaboo and a favourite book. I love the messy food and eating behaviours, and how the babies are beginning to move about at different levels of independence. They are exposed to the beauty of nature through exploration and observation, and then it is time to say goodnight.

With its simple sentences and individualised colour vignettes for each baby, the reader is able to identify the characters and move through the pages with ease. And Lester’s ability to highlight cultural and developmental differences speaks volumes, particularly in today’s society and for new, overly-conscious parents.

Hello Little Babies contains the perfect bundle of love to share with your perfect bundle of joy.

I ❤ Preschoolers

Origami Heart, Binny Talib (author, illus.), Lothian Children’s Books, June 2016.

I love the Asian-infused qualities in this bunny’s tale of striving for perfection, high expectations and overcoming disappointment in the name of friendship. And I also love that the guts and passion addressed in the story shows us that reaching out, sharing your heart can lead to a happy ending.

The quirkiness of Kabuki begins when he is introduced to us from his burrow in the sky. He is the neatest, most organised and pedantic bunny in town, habituated to his strict routines and obsessive behaviours. In preparation for a visit from his friend Yoko, Kabuki picks up ‘perfect’ vegetables, ‘excellent’ snow pea tea, and ‘symmetrical’ flowers from the market. Everything is set in rows and cut to exact heart-shaped proportions. He is ready. However, his scrupulous plans are set to take a nose-dive when he hears of Yoko’s cancellation. But rather than wallow in his own grief, Kabuki literally throws his heart out to the city, and guess who’s there to catch it!

There is a strong character personality and equally meticulous line drawings and simple colour palette to match, but there is also a gentleness and endearing tone with its soft, handwriting text and little details like the displayed photographs of Yoko and the tiny red birdie that stays by Kabuki’s side.

With bonus origami instructions at the back, Origami Heart will have preschoolers pronouncing their love for this book, and for each other, over and over again.

All For Primary Kids

My Brother, Dee Huxley (author, illus.), Oliver Huxley (character, illus.), Tiffany Huxley (design), Working Title Press, July 2016.

Expressing love of a different kind, this story takes us on a heavenly journey of brotherly love. Created as a team, the Huxleys’ exquisitely haunting plot and mesmerising illustrations powerfully stir up the emotions in your heart and the curiosity in your mind.

With the strong opening, “I miss my brother. I’m so lost without him.”, the gentle, horned creature immediately grabs us by the horns and locks us in to his endeavour to find his long-lost sibling. Like black and white photographs in an album, we are treated to landscapes that defy logic and immerse our thoughts in old nursery rhymes and imaginative places as the creature desperately searches far and wide, over here and over there. There is certainly no need for descriptive phrasing when the graphite pieces of art tell it all. An ‘enlightening’ finale brings joy, colour, purity, and a sense of peace when the brothers reunite once more.

This book is amazing for its endless talking point possibilities, such as the meanings of being ‘lost’, the yearning for loved ones, and reality versus the imaginary, mystical or even the spiritual world.

My Brother can be appreciated on many levels, from the simple to the complex, however ultimately it is a book of pure beauty, extraordinary wonderments and undying love.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Valentine’s Quickies – Picture Books that Melt Your Heart

In the name of love and all things sweet and sugary, here are a few picture books that will melt your heart. It is not so much that they honour Valentine’s Day, rather the notion behind the date, of love cherished and shared. Succumb to both.

Guess How Much I Love You – Colouring Book by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram

Children across the globe will have no trouble recognising the iconic figures of Big and Little Nutbrown Hare. Guess How Much I Love You is one of those timeless picture books that somehow manage to enchant readers even as they age. In a heart-warming tale of what may be viewed as one-up-mans-ship (but of course, isn’t!), Little Nutbrown Hare endeavours to prove to Big Nutbrown Hare how fathomless his love  is. Of course, it’s an exercise in wishful thinking for Big Nutbrown Hare is always able to provide a counter example of how he loves his buddy just as much, thus, showing children that the love of an adult towards a child is limitless.

It’s a message that is simply told and beguiling illustrated and is now available as a delightful A 4 sized colouring book. Apart from full spreads, depicting the story to colour-in, and decorate with the included stickers, fans of Guess How Much I Love You can extend their artistic verve with page after page of interesting images to colour, rather like those you would find in a therapeutic colouring in book.

Fun and useful, this is an activity-based book to love and treasure.

Walker Books February 2017 Continue reading Valentine’s Quickies – Picture Books that Melt Your Heart

Nicole Hayes and ‘ A Shadow’s Breath’

A Shadow’s Breath by Nicole Hayes (Penguin Random House Australia) has just been published. Nicole spoke to Boomerang Books.

Where are you based and how are you involved in Australia’s YA lit community?

I am a Melbourne-based YA author and reader. The YA lit community in Melbourne is very open and embracing, and as an Ambassador to the Stella Schools Prize Program and a writing teacher, I get to meet lots of readers and writers at schools and festivals. When I’m not writing or teaching writing, I often work with other authors on their manuscripts.

What sports are you interested in?

A lot of sports, but I love AFL most of all. I used to play footy when I was a kid and became a rabid Hawthorn fan in my teens. My first novel, The Whole of My World, featured a teenage girl obsessed with footy, very loosely based on my experiences, and eventually led to my writing two more books about footy, and introduced me to the rest of the Outer Sanctum team – the all-female AFL podcast I’m involved in. I also watch a lot of soccer and Futsal because both my daughters are keen players.

Can you tell us about your other books?

The Whole of My World is about teenager Shelley Brown who is desperate to escape her grieving father and her own terrible secret. When she changes schools and a new friend introduces her to her footy heroes, Shelley’s passion for the game tips over into obsession, and she loses track of herself and all the things that matter in the process. 

One True Thing is about 16 year old Frankie Mulvaney-Webb whose mum is the Premier of Victoria. But Frankie hates the spotlight. All she wants to do is lay low and focus on her rock band, but her life is turned upside down when photos of her mum in a secret rendezvous with a much younger man go viral.

I’ve also written two other books about footy – one for adults called, From the Outer: Footy Like You’ve Never Heard It, and most recently, A Footy Girl’s Guide to the Stars of 2017, aimed at kids and featuring players from the new women’s Aussie Rules competition.

Could you explain the structure you’ve used in your new novel A Shadow’s Breath?

The novel has two alternating narratives, depicting two different timeframes interwoven throughout until they merge into one near the end. The Now chapters tell of Tessa Gilham’s survival story following a car accident that has left her and her boyfriend Nick stranded in the middle of the Australian bush. The second narrative, the Then chapters, go back over the last days before the accident, uncovering what drove Tessa and Nick into the bush in the first place, revealing why Tessa is afraid to go home.

It’s a fascinating title. Could you give us an insight into it?

Once I decided that Tessa would be a painter, I became particularly interested in finding a title that reflected the many issues around light and colour. My research uncovered a lot about the relativity of colour, which emerged as a powerful theme throughout the novel. I became fascinated by colour and how we see it differently, how it’s a cultural construct as well as an individual one, but also the logistics of how it works – that it’s also about how light is reflected and how our brain processes this information. In the middle of this reading I remembered an Emily Dickinson poem, “A Certain Slant of Light”, and this stanza caught me:

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ’tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

That’s when the shadow made its way into the title. I played around with different phrasings, then stumbled on “a shadow’s breath”, which is also an expression that means the smallest thing, or the tiniest margin. I really liked the idea of that – because these tiny things, even as slight as a shadow’s breath – can change how we see things completely. And so often the difference between life and death is as small as a shadow’s breath – one step the wrong way, or seconds earlier or later… Whole lives can change at a whim. There’s so much power in that almost non-existent thing. I also love that it hints at something vaguely mystical and impossible to hold.

Tell us about the characters Tessa, Yuki and Nick.

Tessa Gilham is mostly a loner and feels like she doesn’t belong. She’s convinced that the town hates her and her mum, and she’s probably right to a point. But Tessa’s life is improving — her mum has kicked out her abusive ex-partner, and is sober again. Tessa wants to believe that life will be different, but she’s so fragile and damaged that she struggles to trust it to last. In the process of trying to heal, she rediscovers her love of painting and, between this therapeutic outlet and the blossoming friendships around her, her new boyfriend, Nick and the ever faithful Yuki, Tessa is beginning to find her feet.

Yuki Fraser is Tessa’s best friend and her one reliable companion. It was often the Fraser home where Tessa sought escape from her abusive home life. Yuki’s dad is the local cop, and an old friend of the Gilhams – he’s determined to protect Tessa and has worked hard to keep Ellen Gilham out of jail. Yuki’s mum and little sister treat Tessa like family. Always have. But Yuki is trying to find her own way too, and tension between the girls increases as Tessa leans more heavily on her boyfriend Nick, neglecting to be there for Yuki in the way Yuki has always been there for Tessa.

Nick Kostas is one of the “new kids” from St Catherine’s which has recently merged with Carrima High. He and Tessa have just started dating but because he’s so popular and successful, and a year ahead at school, Tessa isn’t entirely secure in their relationship, and struggles to understand why he would choose her over more likely girls. The fact that he’s about to move to the city to go to university doesn’t help the situation, despite Nick’s obvious devotion to her.

What is the importance of Tessa’s home life to the story?

Tessa and her mum are trying on this new life, and still finding their way back to each other. Ellen Gilham has only recently sent “the arsehole” packing, and is newly sober, but as it’s been so long since it was just the two of them together, Tessa and Ellen are still working out how to be a family.

Tessa has been responsible for herself for so long that she isn’t sure how to let Ellen mother her, and Ellen is weighed down with guilt and regret that she let things continue for as long as she did. A guilt that Tessa feels is, mostly, deserved. Damaged and hurt, Tessa is struggling to forgive her mother, while the fragile Ellen wants only to earn back her daughter’s trust.

How important is the concept of ‘shouganai’ (surrender) in the narrative?

It was one of the first meaningful phrases I learnt in Japanese when I was living there many years ago, and it always stayed with me. It has different interpretations – positive and negative – but when Yuki’s mum says it, there’s a certain dignity and grace attached to accepting what – or who — can’t be changed. Specifically, accepting those you love for who they are – warts and all. In A Shadow’s Breath, I twisted its use to apply to people and their situation, but I love the bravery inherent in that. The idea of stepping back and letting things play out as they’re intended.

What role does art play?

For Tessa, art is her saving grace. Through her art she is able to find her way back to her childhood and begin to process and understand what happened to her. Her painting offers an outlet but also a means through which she can develop self-belief and start to accept her own worth. It also provides a connection with her new friends, and an opportunity to express herself, to earn these new friendships, particularly with Nick, who admires her work and envies her talent. Through their appreciation and admiration, she begins to look to the future for the first time.

Have any responses from your readers particularly resonated with you?

The story idea emerged at least partly from my encounters with young people whose own homes are not the haven they’re meant to be, and I really wanted their stories to be heard too. Since the novel came out, I’ve had several readers message to congratulate me on how I have depicted the reality of an abusive family and the challenges for those left behind. It’s genuinely humbling to be told that Tessa’s experience feels authentic to those who have had a similar life.

What other books have left a deep impression on you? 

So many! The book that continues to shake me, no matter how many times I read it, is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, McCarthy manages to depict a harrowing and bleak world of post-apocalyptic America in such sparse and beautiful language that I have found myself rereading passages too many times to count. But beyond the writing itself, the story depicts possibly the purist kind of parental love – it is a story about a dying man and his young son attempting to travel south to avoid an almost certainly lethal winter – and yet it never once uses the word love. There’s barely an expression of emotion in the whole novel. And yet it makes me cry like a baby every time I read it. I shiver even now just thinking about it.

Thanks for your generous and insightful responses, Nicole, and all the best with A Shadow’s Breath.

Doodles and Drafts – Blog Tour with Alison Reynolds

Writing a book about bullying or indeed, attempting to instill relevant social life issues into an entertaining format for kids, is always tricky to perfect. Alison Reynolds has managed to pull off this feat of meaningful storytelling with her captivating picture book series, Pickle and Bree’s Guide to Good Deeds. You can read Romi’s review of these two new titles, here.

Today she joins us briefly at the Draft Table to discuss just how she tackled the dicey subject of bullying with The Playground Meanies. This episode with Pickle and Bree is one of my favourites as we are reintroduced to Jason, the big footed, kind-hearted panda whose good deed not only saves the day but opens the pathways to friendship in a way very young children can’t help but connect with. Continue reading Doodles and Drafts – Blog Tour with Alison Reynolds

Collecting Klassen Classics

Whenever I pick up a Jon Klassen book it seems to have that super-power magic that thrusts it into classic-dom. So delectably simple yet surreptitiously clever and charmingly funny, it’s no wonder they are so well-loved around the world. The author-illustrator is the legendary creator of winning books including I Want My Hat Back, This is Not My Hat, and Sam and Dave Dig a Hole (Mac Barnett). Today we’ll explore the third instalment in the ‘hat’ series, We Found a Hat, and a newbie with supreme author Mac Barnett; Triangle.

We Found a Hat carries on the saga with hats brilliantly, this time featuring two principled turtles…and a hat. When stumbling across this abandoned item in the middle of the desert, the high-top headpiece soon becomes the turtles’ object of great desire. However, as there is only one hat, they agree to leave it alone. But for one turtle, the temptation of his new obsession is overbearing and he attempts a sneaky act of pilferage whilst his companion sleeps. Morality and loyalty surface when he hears of the marvellous dream with both turtles enjoying their fortune.

I love that this story is played out in Parts, giving it a movie-quality feel. So clever! Klassen’s ingenuity also strongly emanates through the use of simple narrative and monochromatic, modest images that both say so much. The unspoken words captured through the eyes of the devilish turtle brilliantly evoke humour and clarity into his thoughts. The sparseness and the speckles of the scene beautifully portray the given landscape and the underlying notion of keeping life free of complication.

We Found a Hat certainly explores some complex facets of behaviour, such as enticement and immediate gratification despite ethics, as well as aspects of trust, communication and compassion that are important in relationships. Yet its beauty lies in its simplicity, wit and charm, sure to allure readers of any age many times over.

Walker Books Ltd. UK, Walker Books Australia, October 2016.

With their wry sense of humour, rich messages and unsurpassed storytelling talents, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen enlighten us with the first in a new trilogy and more sneaky characters; it’s Triangle.

This board book style picture book with its stand-alone, wide-eyed triangle on the cover is just sublime. Again, with Klassen’s mesmerisingly textured watercolours in earthy tones and unpretentious landscapes we are immediately drawn in to the action of each scene. Barnett’s narrative is straightforward, perfectly paced and inviting, enrapturing his audience with curiosity, excitement and absolute delight.

Triangle leaves his triangle house with one naughty plan in mind – he is off to play a sneaky trick on Square. His path through a shape-laden environment leads him to Square’s door, where he plays his cruel, snake-impersonating trick. When Square uncovers Triangle’s mean joke, he intends on revenge and chases him back through the shapes and to Triangle’s door. But what happens next comes an unexpected justice for both parties. You get what you deserve!

Stunningly captivating. Brilliantly played-out comedy. Triangle shows us exactly the result of a poorly thought-out and mischievous prank. Including themes of trust and social discrepancies, young readers are also pleasured with the exploration of shape and size, and the playfulness that is childhood. ‘Tri’-mendous fun for kids from age three. Out soon!

Walker Books Ltd. UK, Walker Books Australia, March 2017.

YA at ‘Reading Matters’ and other standout novels

Some of the best YA novels I have read recently span contemporary realism to fantasy, past to future, New York City to Ireland.

Two of the authors I’ve reviewed here will be making appearances at the excellent Reading Matters conference in Melbourne (see more at the end of these reviews). Another is about to arrive in Australia.

The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín (David Fickling Books) is set in an alternate Ireland. Nessa and her cohort know that this is the year when they will be ‘called’ for a life-changing three minutes by the Sidhe, avenging fairies who have been forced ‘under the mounds’ by humans. Nessa has the extra difficulty of a damaged left leg but she throws herself into the physical and psychological training all the young people endure to give them a chance of escaping and returning. Any who return have been damaged in some way. Will Nessa be the exception? The Call is atmospheric, chilling and highly imaginative. Its originality and brilliance are unforgettable.

Peadar is about to make appearances at, at least, one Australian bookshop and the Perth Writers’ Festival this month.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (Corgi, Penguin Random House) is shooting up ‘best of’ lists. Natasha and her family live in New York City but are about to be deported to Jamaica. On her way to a last minute attempt to revert the decision, Natasha meets Daniel, a gorgeous Korean-American with a ponytail who breaks the mould.

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven (Penguin Books) follows the author’s stunning All the Bright Places.

Holding Up the Universe takes us inside the life of Libby Strout, who starts high school after being homeschooled because of her obesity. She encounters beautiful Jack Masselin, who has prosopagnosia (a condition which appears in another recent excellent book which, for ‘spoiler’ reasons I can’t reveal here yet). Jack can’t recognise faces. The narrative explores both Libby and Jack’s universes, and how they intersect.

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King (Little Brown, Hachette) takes us further afield, into the future, as well as the present. Glory and her best friend Ellie, who lives on a commune, drink a petrified bat, which gives them visions of the future. Like Juliet in Bridget Kemmerer’s upcoming Letters to the Lost, Glory has lost her mother and makes sense of her world through photography. Glory O’Brien is a slow-burning and original piece of writing. Exceptional.

A.S. King and Jennifer Niven are both speaking at Reading Matters conference in Melbourne in June. Link here. What an opportunity to hear these brilliant authors.

Review: The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore is a beautiful example of why Magical Realism is the best. It took me a few pages to get into the swing of this magical world where people can grow feathers and curses are very real, but after that? I was hopelessly hooked. The writing was flawlessly gorgeous. It was the kind of writing that absolutely devoured your attention so it was just you + book = everything there is. (Which is a little unfortunate if one has to, like, stop reading and go to work or whatever. Note To Self: read this book when you have a free weekend and can devour it all at once!)9781250058652

This year has only just begun and already I’ve found a few favourite!

The story is basically of two warring performer families: the Spanish Palomas family who wear mermaid tails and put on whimsical shows, and the French Corbeaus family who grow feathers and wear wings and dance in the tree tops. Their rivalry dates back generations and they believe even touching each other will cause death and curses. It has a Romeo & Juliet feel! And of course two teens from each side accidentally end up falling for each other, in a slowburn and entirely magical romance. Lace gets thrown out of the Paloma family and ends up masquerading as a nobody in the Corbeaus family in an effort to get a burned curse lifted off her arm. She doesn’t mean to fall in love with Cluck, the outsider with damaged hands and red feathers in his hair. But bring on performances, burns, terrible storms, and hopeless accidents and here is The Weight of Feathers.

This is magical realism at its finest. It mixes real world settings with dashes of magic and comes across so well written I felt like I got sucked into another land. The story is also mostly set in a small town, and I loved the aching summery vibe of stillness and loneliness. When the setting just leaps off the page, you know you’re in for a good read.

The diversity is also amazing and exceptional. Not only do we have French and Spanish protagonists (dual narrating) who are also people of colour, it also touches on disability representation. Cluck has damaged fingers which complicates his job of making wings for his family’s shows. Lace sustains massive scarring on her face and has to learn to accept herself and not view herself as damaged. It’s really beautiful how all the themes are woven together. I also loved the amount of French and Spanish words! I did have to resort to Google Translate a few times, but mostly you can tell what they’re saying by context. And it gives the cultures a deeper feel to see them using their own tongue.

I absolutely loved the protagonists too. Usually dual point-of-view and I don’t get on well. But both Lace and Cluck’s perspectives were brilliant. Lace is more logical and down-to-earth and will not be pushed around by anyone. Cluck is dreamy and an outsider even with his own family. He’s constantly abused and pushed aside by them and he wears strange clothes and is unknowable — until Lace chooses to know him. The way they ended up relying and being strengthened by each other was so encouraging to read.

I also appreciated that the romance was very slow. No instalove or falling into each other’s arms on page 5 and professing eternal love. It felt realistic! And it was more a journey of trust = friendship = love.

This is definitely a book I’ll come back to for copious re-reads. It was unique and beautifully written, with a storyline that wasn’t particularly new, but was written in such a fresh way that I was addicted to every page. Lace and Cluck are the most adorable and winning couple I’ve read about in a long time. And I rooted for their lives to get better! It features family, magic, and quite a bucketful of suffering. I only wish there were more books.

[buy now]

Review: The Cruelty by Scott Bergstrom

We are barely into 2017 and I am already going to call The Cruelty as one of my top ten kids/young adult books for this year! There is really only one word to describe this novel – Kick-ass! Not the most eloquent description I know but it really is like a kick to the stomach that will leave you breathless.

Ten years ago Gwendolyn’s mother was killed right in front of her eyes. Since then it has been just her and her Dad. But nothing is really as it seems. While he is on a ‘business trip’ to Paris Gwendolyn’s father disappears. She is about to find out her loving diplomat father is actually a spy. The kindly old neighbours who she loves like Grandparents are also spies. The problem is everyone seems more concerned that her father may have defected than in actually finding out what has happened to him.

Now the only person Gwendolyn can rely on is herself. And she isn’t going to let anything or anyone get in the way of getting her Dad back. Diving head-first into the seedy European underworld of drugs, violence and prostitution Gwendolyn must decide who to trust and who to hurt. With moves and counter-moves, double-crossing and the danger escalating there is no place for mistakes.

I couldn’t help comparing The Cruelty to my all-time favourite young adult series, The Hunger Games. Not the story lines because they couldn’t be any more different. The strong female leads of Gwendolyn and Katniss, however struck me because of how confronting I found The Cruelty. In the end it all came down to the fact that Gwendolyn goes where Katniss won’t. Katniss shows a reluctance to harm and when she has to it costs her emotionally. Gwendolyn has no such qualms.

This is a coming of age story like no other. Imagine if Jason Bourne was female and sixteen. That just about sums up The Cruelty. Rocketing along at breakneck speeds it will leave you shocked, thrilled and horrified all at the same time. And with the promise of more to come Gwendolyn may be about to do for self-defence classes what Katniss did for archery.

Smart, dangerous, kick-ass (yes, really) and an absolute page-turner, The Cruelty, is sure to be one of the hits of 2017. Look out Katniss – here comes Gwendolyn and she’s about to kick your butt!

I Don’t Believe it’s a Picture Book! Astonishing reads for all ages Part 1

Picture books are a unique marriage of art and words. Occasionally, not even the words are needed. A picture book can evoke emotions so intense, you’ll wonder how so few images and words managed to resonate such an immense amount of feeling in such a short space of time. This is what I find so utterly attractive and astonishing in well-written picture books. Today, we reveal a few that not only take my breath away, but also astound me with their cleverness, humanity and sheer depth. Enjoy. Continue reading I Don’t Believe it’s a Picture Book! Astonishing reads for all ages Part 1

Review: Reckless by Cornelia Funke

With the new edition of Reckless by Cornelia Funke just having hit the shelves, I decided I had to try this dark fairy tale retelling! I had no idea what to expect since I read Inkheart when I was only a small bookworm and it’d been so long I’d forgotten most of it anyway. But I was intrigued by the idea of a book being edited and rewritten again before being released with a new cover. And, in the author’s note, Cornelia Funke seemed very pleased that she had the opportunity to make a beloved story even better. So I was excited! I dived right in!9781782691242

Reckless was stuffed with dark, twisted fairy tale-seque stories. We have monsters and mayhem and murder and evil fairies and tricks and prisons and animated dark woods. My kind of story basically!

The story follows Jacob Reckless, who discovered a world behind his mirror. He’s spent most of his life in the Mirrorworld, being a treasure hunter and getting tangled up in monsters and faeries and unicorns. He’s made enemies and friends and it’s more home to him than the human realm. Then his little brother crawls into Mirrorworld, survives a vicious attack by monsters, but ends up with his flesh being petrified to jade. Jacob has to reverse it or lose his brother forever. This will require a quest. Probably a deadly quest. Probably everyone will betray them and the cure will be the least easiest thing to achieve.

The best part of this book is obviously the magical world! I had in the back of my mind it would be a whimsical and gentle middle-grade story. BUT NO. It’s very dark, although not graphically written, so it just leaves the mayhem up to your imagination. I also appreciated all the fairy tale references! I adore fairy tales, especially from a more sinister angle where nothing is as it seems in the originals. I particularly like how the whole of Reckless had a Sleeping Beauty theme happening, but instead it was a sleeping/petrified boy who’d need to be woken by the girl’s magical kiss. Genderbent retellings give me life.

Also sibling stories are easily the best thing. I love it when brothers have to risk everything to save each other! It’s always a refreshing change from books focused solely on romance too. And even though Jacob is a rather severe, closed off, and serious type of fellow, there’s absolutely nothing that’d stop him from rescuing his brother in time. But it also has an amazing secondary cast that includes: a shapeshifting fox girl who may or may not be in love with Jacob and he in love with her though they both won’t admit it; a sassy backstabbing dwarf who would sell you for a tube of toothpaste probably; a sweet and loving girl who will give Jacob’s brother the kiss of life if only she doesn’t die before they get there in time.

Basically Reckless is an amazing story and not to be missed! It left me feeling rather inspired and excited and wanting to read more (thank you dear universe that it’s a trilogy) which is exactly the kind of feelings I want to finish a book with. I’m so glad this series got a revamp and I can’t wait to see how Jacob tackles the next volume. Full of adventure, torture, and monsters, this is a tale the Grimm brothers would be proud of.

[buy now]

‘Before You Forget’ and Julia Lawrinson

 

Meet Julia Lawrinson, author of Before You Forget, Penguin Australia

Thanks for talking to Boomerang Books, Julia.

Where are you based and what’s your background in books?

I am based in Western Australia, and I’ve published thirteen novels for children and young adults (lucky thirteen, I hope!)

I really enjoyed your 2006 YA novel, Bye Beautiful . Could you tell us about this and some of your other writing? bye-beautiful

Most of my books are realistic, contemporary novels. Bye, Beautiful is set in the wheatbelt in 1966, and so is a departure from that. It is about a policeman’s family, and what happens when two sisters fall in love with the same boy, who happens to be Aboriginal. Although it is fiction, it is based on my mother’s story: my grandfather was a policeman who became officer in charge of the North West before he retired, and his strong personality and morality has had a lasting effect on his family. I feel I work best as a writer when I have a strong emotional connection to what I’m writing about.

My earliest work was very ‘gritty’: dealing with bogan high schools and adolescent psychiatric hospitals. Those stories resonated a lot with readers, and were stories that needed to be told.

Your new novel Before You Forget has a devastating personal connection for you. Could you tell us about the genesis of this novel?

before-you-forgetThe novel was written in response to seeing the suffering that my daughter went through when her father developed early onset Alzheimer’s disease, which began as she was starting high school. It wasn’t just the loss of memory that was an issue: his whole personality changed, and he went through periods of being anxious and angry by turns, which was difficult for both me and my daughter. He would give money away, invite perfect strangers home, almost cause accidents when he was driving without the slightest awareness of it. He refused to see doctors, and when he finally did, they suspected he had depression, alcoholism and various other things until he saw a specialist. Being there with him when he was diagnosed remains the most awful day of my life.

It was incredibly painful for my daughter to see the father she knew disappear in this way, and nobody really seemed to understand. The only person who truly got it was her friend Gemma, whose mother had the same disease, and who tragically died the week the book was released. I want people to understand the impact of diseases like Alzheimer’s on the kids in the family, to have empathy for the extended grief such conditions create.

What is the most terrifying thing about Alzheimer’s?

That it strips away what defines you as yourself. Annie’s dad’s defining feature was his intelligence. It was so awful to see that disappear. Although he’s retained his sense of humour to the end.

How has the book helped your family?

It’s been cathartic, being able to describe some of the things that happened, and to reclaim some of what we lost through the story. The situations in the novel are common to most families where a parent develops Alzheimer’s or similar neurological diseases, so hopefully it will provide a sort of sense of community.

How can others help families in this situation?

By asking what they need. People often want to come in and take control, or offer what they think is best, but it’s really important to listen to what would make the family’s life easier. It will be different for everyone. Also, to be respectful of people’s emotions: taking care of a loved one with Alzheimer’s is an emotional rollercoaster. I remember someone saying to me early on that Alzheimer’s was a beautiful thing, which felt like being slapped in the face. Teenagers with parents with Alzheimer’s can become very impatient and frustrated, but this doesn’t mean they don’t love their parent. It means they are dealing with the grief of dealing with a parent who is no longer who they used to be.

flyawayWho are your favourite artists?

Visual artists? Monet, Van Gogh, Rene Magritte, Brett Whitely, Frida Kahlo, Jeffrey Smart, Margaret Olley.

The protagonist, Amelia, loves art. How have you used art to reflect Amelia’s experiences?

I tried to have Amelia’s struggle to express herself as an artist parallel her difficulties in expressing her feelings about what is happened to her and her dad. Amelia is quite self-contained, but her art shows what is important to her.

How have you incorporated 9/11 into the story?

Amelia obsessively watches 9/11 footage, reads about it, tries to imagine what it would have been like to be there. To her, it is her personal disaster writ large. Instead of having something slow and invisible up-end your life, there is something fast, immediate and visual. But she also learns that it is not just one story: there are lots of stories out of 9/11, including stories of hope and bravery and fellow-feeling.

Amelia’s best friend Gemma has a problem. Could you tell us about this?

Gemma develops an eating disorder almost by accident: she begins dieting and then finds herself on a path she can’t get off. I’ve seen this happen with a lot of young people, and it happened to me as a teenager. You can’t mess with restricting food: once you start, the problems you may have been using food to deal with get magnified. Amelia can’t understand it, because to her Gemma has everything, and she is also upset that Gemma can’t appreciate Amelia’s serious problems. They can’t help each other, in a sense, because of what’s going on in their own lives, but they do try to find a way back to each other.

I should note that I used my daughter’s best friend’s name with permission in the novel, but the real Gemma bears no resemblance to the fictional one!

1b28f-chessnutscoverAmelia’s neighbour, Will, plays chess and one of your earlier books is called Chess Nuts. Why have you used chess in your YA novel, rather than another pastime or point of contact?

Again, this was part of the autobiographical aspect of the novel: my daughter played chess, and her dad was a chess coach (which is how Chess Nuts came about). It was also one of the first things that alerted me to his mental decline: a man who remembered every move of his year seven chess final to suddenly forget how to move a knight. It was a clear sign something was wrong.

What other books have left a deep impression on you?

I read a lot of books featuring bodily or mental illness when I was a teenager. Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die had a big impact on me, as did The Bell Jar, A Patch of Blue by Elizabeth Kata, and Second Star to the Right by Deborah Hautzig.

Thanks very much, Julia, and all the best with your new book and your family. Your story will no doubt help many others.

All creatures great and small – animal inspired picture books

Animal antics, you can’t beat them. Creatures great and small, they make us laugh, cry, and ponder. As characters in picture books, they are culturally neutral, globally recognisable conduits for expressing a range of emotions that small children (and adults) are readily able to relate to. In short, their appeal is universal. Today we get up close and personal with a few new animal orientated picture books bound to stir up the David Attenborough in you.

mopokeMopoke by Philip Bunting

Hot new author illustrator, Philip Bunting has produced a veritable winner. Mopoke’s cultivated, impossibly restrained colour palette and fierce economy of words positively exudes brilliance. It’s the genius absence of colour and preamble that snaps readers into full alert, squaring their attention on the one and only character, a small southern boobook owl, aka Mopoke (although there is an incongruous cameo appearance by a certain nocturnal marsupial, as well).

Mopoke is quiet and unassuming, clearly one who relishes peace and tranquillity. The Australian bush at night, however is rife with annoyances forcing Mopoke to assume various airs of tolerance until finally, he makes a dramatic move.

Covertly comical and clever, one could interpret this picture book as a subtle poke, pardon the pun, at our social media addictions and the intrusive way they interrupt our daily lives. Of course, none of this will matter to readers under seven or so. They will simply be enthralled by Mopoke’s milk chocolate coloured marvellousness. An experience to be savoured.

Omnibus Books February 2017

my-friend-tertiusMy Friend Tertius by Corinne Fenton and Owen Swan

Until I’d open the sepia hued covers of My Friend Tertius, I had no clue this zoo/war time story even existed. Fenton has, however not just written an historical, fact based picture book. She has encased the true-life story of a British Intelligence covert living in pre-war Hong Kong with that of Tertius, a small-orphaned gibbon into a kind of love story.

Told from Arthur Cooper’s point of view, Tertius soon becomes an inextricable part of Cooper’s life. Together they work and savour the steamy tropical pastimes of Singapore and Hong Kong until the onset of World War II finally forces Cooper to evacuate to Australia. He is loath to leave his best mate behind, though so smuggles him into the country before having to surrender him to the Melbourne Zoo.

This is a story of turbulent times, separation, and unconventional friendships that somehow endure. Despite Tertius’ imperfect circumstances, one cannot help but feel a certain warmth for his relationship with Cooper. A fascinating picture book for older readers revealing yet more amazing wartime alliances thoughtfully illustrated by Swan.

Allen & Unwin February 2017

one-keen-koalaOne Keen Koala by Margaret Wild and Bruce Whatley

Not since One Woolly Wombat have I come across an animal counting book that is so full of bounce and spirit, I thought I might have to a lie down after reading it. Wild’s wondrous way with words is so pleasing to read, you’ll wish this continues beyond the count of 12 happy possums. Light, breezy, and bristling with Australiana, her verse escorts young readers from numbers one to twelve whilst gently stimulating them with the notion that new beginnings are indeed enjoyable. The appeal for new pre-schoolers or primary schoolers is therefore ten out of ten.

Whatley’s illustrations are soft and unobtrusive albeit awfully cute and fun. He even manages to inject new life into an old favourite, the perennial wombat.

One Keen Koala is a counting / back to school book that almost makes me want to troop back off to Kindy. Highly recommended.

Scholastic Press February 2017

Stay posted for another instalment of animal inspired reads, soon.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: Holding Up The Universe by Jennifer Niven

9780385755924I was so incredibly excited to read Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven! One of my most favourite books in the world is her YA Debut, All The Bright Places, which managed to reduce me to a howling mess of adoration, feels, and awareness about mental health matters. I was a bit nervous that Holding Up The Universe would destroy me or not live up to All The Bright Places. And you know what? It was different. And that’s okay! There was still feels, epic dialogue, and some sweet moments that absolutely melted my heart. It featured two teens who were struggling with life, who weren’t perfect, who had a lot to learn, and yet were so relatable I just wanted to squish them with hugs. I am 100% of the opinion that a good book makes you feel things. All stars of approval for Holding Up the Universe!

I feel like a big message of the book was about “being seen”. It’s equal parts about Libby (who was once known as the “fattest teen in America”) and Jack (who has prosopagnosia which is a disability that renders you unable to recognise facial features). I loved the storyline! It was so poignant and beautifully written. Here’s these two teens who have a very rocky meeting (aka they nearly get each other expelled) but slowly learn to stop making assumptions about people and listen. And give second chances. It impressed me so much honestly! I also adored all the messages of self worth and love and acceptance that were woven through the book!

Brief List Of Other Things I Loved:

  • There are so many references to the TV show of Supernatural! Of which I am a ginormous fan so thank you for all that nerdom!
  • There is a lot of dancing. Dancing everywhere! Dancing whether people think you’re good at it or not! Dancing because it makes you happy!
  • There is diverse representation of size and skin colour and disabilities.
  • Jack has a gorgeous afro and has an epic love for it that made my day.
  • There is self-love for one’s body, no matter what the size.

 

And the characters?! I loved them! Jack was my absolutely favourite, but it took me longer to warm up to Libby, as she speaks and thinks all the right things, but when it comes down to it…she body shames herself. She’s still overweight but not dangerously so like she was when they had to lift her out of her house in a crane. She also has a bit of a self-righteous attitude. But you know what?? She’s been through a lot! She lost her mother, she nearly died, and now she’s doing her best to show the world you should love yourself. THE END. No exceptions.

I just felt Jack was a pure and precious cinnamon roll. And yes his decisions in the book often absolutely sucked. He hadn’t been diagnosed with prosopagnosia so he basically felt he was falling apart, that he was crazy or broken. Since he’s “face blind” it really freaks him out that he can’t tell people apart. In a room full of kids, he can’t even pick out his own brother. I could feel his fright and anxiety on every page and I just rooted for him to discover having a disability is not shameful and doesn’t make him broken. The book handled it all so well! I can only applaud!

This is definitely a powerful story with really important themes and messages. I also couldn’t stop reading! The chapters are short and punchy and the characters are relatable and precious. What more can one want?!

[PURCHASE HERE]

2016 – The year that was

2016! What a year! Many people view it as one of the worst in recent history, with the death of numerous influential celebrities and some worldwide political craziness. And in a lot of ways, it certainly was. But, personally, on the book front, it was a pretty awesome year for me. I read some damn fine novels. And I had a few books published. So here is my literary take on the year that was.

READING

It was a good year of reading for me. I read lots of stuff for research, lots of stuff to my daughters and lots of stuff for my own pleasure. So here is my list of favourite 2016 reads…

Favourite children’s book

Wormwood Mire by Judith Rossell (read my review in Words and Pictures)

The second of the Victorian-set Stella Montgomery Intrigues, it follows on from Withering-by-Sea (2014). I loved the first book, but I like this one even better. I can only hope there will be more in this series.

9780733333002 9780733333019

Favourite Young Adult book

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.

This is the second book in the epic, game-changing Illuminae Files series. Using a dossier of documents, rather than the traditional novel narrative, these books are mind-blowingly amazing. Loved the first book (read my review in 2 Awesome YA Books). Dare I say it… I loved this one even more. It maintains the approach of the first, but extends it, adding extracts from an illustrated journal into the mix. There is a whole bunch of new characters, as well as some returning from the first book. There’s not much more I can say, except… Wow! Just… WOW!

9781101916629 9781780749815

Favourite Grown-up Book

Okay, I’ll be honest here… I hardly read any grown-up books in 2016. I mostly read stuff for kids and teens. But there are two books that really stood out.

Not Just a Piece of Cake: Being an Author by Hazel Edwards

This one was actually published in 2015 (I was just a little late in getting around to it). This is a memoir rather than an autobiography, by one of Australia’s best loved and most respected children’s authors. It’s an excellent read for anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes of a writing career. It’s also wonderfully personal and engaging. Loved it!

And then there was this book from 2009 (okay, so I was a lot late with this one)…

Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

A hard-edged, fast-paced techno-thriller with terrorists, bio-weapons, zombies and a special ops government agency called The Department of Military Sciences. It’s the first book in a series, which follows the adventures of Joe Ledger – a cop who goes to work for The Department of Military Sciences. I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the series.

I have mini-review of both these books here.

thumb_cover_not_just_a_piece_of_cake_jpg 9780575086937

9781742378527Favourite comic/graphic novel

Yet another book from 2015 that I didn’t get around to reading until 2016…

KidGlovz, written by Julie Hunt, illustrated by Dale Newman

A clear winner for me. An extraordinary graphic novel about a musical prodigy on a journey of self-discovery. (read my review in Words and Pictures)

sparkFavourite picture book

Another very clear winner…

Spark, written by Adam Wallace, illustrated by Andrew Plant.

A perfect harmony of words and pictures. [Read my review: This picture book is on FIRE!]

Favourite media tie-in book

Spoilt for choice this year. I simply could not make a decision. Go read my post about media tie-in book instead.

Overall Favourite Book

[insert drum roll]

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.

WRITING

2016 was great year for me as a writer. Books 11 and 12 in the YOU CHOOSE series were published – Extreme Machine Challenge and In the Realm of Dragons. There was also a new four-book series about the Royal Flying Doctor Service. And my first picture book ­ Meet… the Flying Doctors. I had stories in several anthologies (which you can read about here), including Dog Stories, Cat Stories and A Toy Christmas. Topping it all off was my fan-boy highlight… a story in THE X-FILES: Secret Agendas.

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Hand in hand with the writing, was speaking about writing – school visits, library talks and festival appearances. I had a total of 116 sessions over the course of 35 school visits, 7 festivals/seminars/conferences and 2 promo tours. You can read about some of my favourite experiences in these blog posts:

Oh, and I won an Honour Award at the KOALAs for You Choose: Alien Invaders From Beyond the Stars. 🙂 Here’s my schlocky alien invasion acceptance vid…

2017 is already shaping up to be an extraordinary year. More reading! More writing! More speaking! I’ll be sure to blog about some of it. Onwards and upwards!

Catch ya later, George

PS. Follow me on Twitter

Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

thedeepLatest Post: DVD Review  — The Deep: Monsters & Myths

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A Little Piece of Australiana – Picture Book Reviews

Paying acknowledgement to our ‘great southern land’ today on Australia Day with a few true blue Aussie picture books, their dinky-di characters and beaut landscapes. There is a lot to love about this unique nation. What does Australia mean to you?

imageRow, Row, Row Your Boat, Scholastic Australia (text), Matt Shanks (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2016.

Putting a spin on the old classic nursery rhyme, with the gorgeous integration of some of our favourite wildlife animals, is the Aussie version ofRow, Row, Row Your Boat. Charmly illustrated by Matthew Shanks, this short and sweet story takes its enthusiastic preschool readers on a river ride adventure full of excitement and surprise.

Life is certainly a dream rowing your boat gently down the serene, native-laced stream. With each stroke, we are greeted by another animal doing their characteristically natural thing in their landscape. A sleeping koala, a squeaking bandicoot, a sword-wielding piratey platypus, and a laughing kookaburra all feature in the fun rhyme. But it is the entertaining illustrations that really tell the story. Look out for the inconspicuous crocodile throughout, as well as the funny story taking place in (and out of) the boat!

Row, Row, Row Your Boat is an endearing and energetic Aussie-flavoured book that will have its audience captured from start to finish, over and over again.

imageDon’t Call Me Bear, Aaron Blabey (author, illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2016.

Here’s a little piece of Australiana that us locals all know about…right?! For poor Warren, it seems like a serious case of mistaken identity. You see, Warren is a koala, not a ‘bear’, and he goes to every length to justify himself.

True to the authentic Blabey-style, here is a sarcastic and cringe-worthy yet surreptitiously loveable rhyming tale that is full of energy and laugh-out-loud moments. Warren explains how it all started with the stupidity of Captain Cook and his pioneers claiming to have found a ‘bear’, but in fact, he is a member of the common marsupial family (see the very scientific chart). Actual bears from around the globe are examined, and when Warren thinks he’s finally broken through, it is his own Aussie counterparts who still don’t quite ‘get it’.

Don’t Call Me Bear is a colourful book of a colourful character, and through its quirkiness and craziness, could be a great opener for studies on history of The First Fleet and the biology of Australian animals. ‘Bear-iffic’ for children from age four.

imageWhy is that Emu Wearing One Red Shoe?, John Field (author and lyrics), David Legge (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2016.

Written and performed on the bonus CD by John Field, and with digitally mastered illustrations by David Legge is the farcical performance of an emu on a mission; Why is that Emu Wearing One Red Shoe?.

Listening to the music certainly makes for a lively experience, but reading the story aloud is just as exuberant. With each rollicking verse, another group of creatures join the parade as they follow and wonder “why was that emu wearing one red shoe?”. Soon enough the media become involved, and after a bustling train ride and some questionable speculations, the answer is finally disclosed, and it’s really not as complicated as made out in this huge hullabaloo.

The textural and life-like quality of the mixed media illustrations perfectly suit the energy and movement of the fast pace and the feel that this is a live, broadcast event. Why is that Emu Wearing One Red Shoe is an action-packed comedy that will have preschoolers hopping and bouncing and jiving from head to shoe.

imageColours of Australia, Bronwyn Bancroft (author, illus.), Little Hare Books, 2016.

Colouring our sensory world with all the shades of the rainbow is the beautifully transcendening Colours of Australia.

Bronwyn Bancroft, member of the Bundjalung Nation, spoils us with her outstanding talents as she leads us through a bright, texturally and lyrically entrancing venture across the land. From white diamonds spilling across the sky, to an explosion of red sunrise and vivid dances, orange ochre shapes protruding from ancient foundations, orbs of sun light and green velvet cloaks of hills, and finally, blue fingers of sky drawing the day to an indigo close.

Bancroft brilliantly incorporates the beauty of trademark landscapes and features of Australia’s stunning earth, with her equally poetic-style narrative and mesmerising Indigenous-quality illustrations, that all literally dance off the pages. Colours of Australia; wonderfully whimsical and evocative to connect readers with our astonishing country, and to reinforce sustainability and the highest respect to the Aboriginal people and their culture.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

See Dimity‘s lists of great Australian books here and here.

Doodles and Drafts – Nick Earls reveals his Top Secrets

word-hunters-and-nick-earlsA few years ago, I had the supreme pleasure of joining a world of word nuts who allowed me to accompany them on hair-raising adventures through time and reason; I discovered the Word Hunters – a trilogy of etymological enigmas by author Nick Earls and illustrator, Terry Whidborne. I carry on a bit about the awesomeness of their series, here. Although Word Hunters is more than satisfying and a dozen other superlatives to boot, I was left wanting more as many exhilarating experiences are wont to make you feel. And so, the trilogy has expanded with the launch of the Top Secret Files.

Top Secret Files is a sort of compendium of loosely connected thoughts and verbal exploration. It’s a journal of notes and taste bud temptations. It’s an explanation of even more philology through brief crisp narrative and pages of eye-catching sketches, drawings, and diagrams. It’s the journal of the great word hunter, Caractacus entrusted to the ancient librarian, Mursili who perhaps a little misguidedly assigns it back to our dauntless duo, Earls and Whidborne.

Today we have the auspicious pleasure of welcoming Nick Earls to the draft table to learn a little more about the custodian of the Word Hunters and how he is dealing with his Top Secret Files.

nick-earls-2017Welcome Nick!

Who is Nick Earls? Describe your writerly self.

Twenty-six books into the job, he’s an unkempt work in progress, growing into the thought lines etched deep into his forehead and still trying to get better each time he writes.

In a former life, your quest was to serve and protect or at least, make people feel better. How does your current occupational goal as a writer compare?

I now wear my underpants on the inside and don’t have a cape. Each job hinges on a connection with people. In medicine, it’s getting to understand them on their terms, so that the story they tell makes as much sense as possible. In writing the kind of fiction I mostly do, it’s about tapping into characters who, when read, feel as though they can’t have been made up. With Word Hunters there are other objectives too – there’s an adventure to be had and a world of mind-blowing words facts to play around with. My goal as the writer of this series is to entertain, but also be part of opening minds to the possibilities of history and the fascinating workings of the language. It’s too easy to fall into the habit of saying that English is a crazy language that makes no sense, but the more you grasp its 1500-year history (plus some back-story) the more sense it ends up making. And the more powerfully you can use it. ‘Night’ and ‘light’, for instance, aren’t spelled that way by chance, or because someone threw darts at a board – there’s a reason for it, and a really interesting one (featuring a now-lost letter), so we wrote about that in the new book.

wisdom-tree-novellasName three titles you have created that you are particularly proud of and why.

It’s not a thing I feel about anything I write. Which doesn’t mean I think it’s all awful – it’s just that ‘pride’ isn’t really the feeling. I love the process of exploring the story and its characters, and how they’ll all work, and then the job of working hard to get the details right and delivering them in a compelling way. If someone gets it, I feel good. It feels as if all that work was worth sharing. Okay, one example: Gotham, the first novella in the Wisdom Tree series. I had two story ideas that I wanted to give to one character, and I thought I could make them work together in an interesting way. So, the first two acts are essentially one of those story ideas, with seeds being sewn for the third, then act three really takes you somewhere, delivers something (I hope) you’re not expecting, and also casts new light on the earlier part of the story. It’s worked just as I hoped it would for quite a lot of people now, and I have to admit that’s gratifying, since I love it when fiction works that way in my head.

top-secret-files-word-huntersIt’s been nearly three and a half years since the Word Hunter series hit our bookshelves. Was a follow up compendium like Top Secret Files always on the cards? If not, what evoked the idea and need for it?

It was Terry’s idea, and he put it to me when we were driving between two schools, doing our live Word Hunters show when the third book came out in 2013. He wanted to do something more visual and less dependent on a big new narrative, and he wanted to explore some of the gadgets we’d included. In that conversation, I realised I’d found some excellent word stuff that I hadn’t been able to include in the other three books, and we came up with the idea of a kind of manual, or ‘a compendium of devices and methods’ as Caractacus rather self-importantly puts it. Living in the Dark Ages and seeing the consequence of knowledge loss, Caractacus puts a premium on knowledge and, unlike the rest of us, has a pipeline to the future. So, this is him trying to keep track of the info future word hunters bring back to him, some of which he adapts for use in his own time. Some of that presented a fascinating challenge. In book three, he’s created lightweight 21st-century ceramic armour for the hunters to fight in, and for Top Secret Files I had to work out how it was made, then work out how to adapt that to processes someone could use on a Dark Ages pig farm. I have to say, that stretched me. Then we paired that with the fun activity of making your own medieval armour from cardboard, using the fascinating terms for each piece.

What can Word Hunter fans expect from Top Secret Files?

Expect the unexpected. You’ll come out of this dressed in armour from the 15th century, making bread from 3000 years ago and able to navigate using the Ancient Phoenician alphabet (or, more correctly, abjad). And who doesn’t want that set of awesome skills? You’ll also understand why we score tennis the way we do, where cricket fielding positions got their names, and how our alphabet found twelve new letters and lost nine of them!

Top Secret Files reads as a combination of loose jaunty exchanges and solid historical fact. At times if feels even more revealing and fantastical than the Word Hunters storylines. (Are all those words that couldn’t be saved as part of the English language real? Sorry had to ask; I’m too lazy to research every groke, fudgel, and curglaff) Why did you choose this style of delivery over straightforward narrative?

Some of the most improbable things in the book are true including, yes, those words that couldn’t be saved (even the one that involves doing a distinctly weird thing to a part of a horse that’s best left alone …). When I was tunnelling around for material, I wanted the facts to be weirder than the fiction, so that the fiction seems all the more plausible.

We had this kind of style in mind from the start, for two reasons. First, not having to build a massive narrative to slip in one brilliant word fact gave us licence to include lots more stuff and focus on it. It would have taken several more of the original books and a lot of complicated storytelling to have created opportunities to use everything we got to use here. Also, Terry was very mindful of creating a different way into the word hunters’ world. This was deliberately compact, really visual and in short sections (with an overarching concept but not an overarching narrative) to provide a way into the world for kids not immediately drawn to 40-60,000 words of narrative.

We wanted to make the original three books accessible by telling the most engrossing time-travel adventure story we could, but this book is designed to increase the accessibility even more. We wanted to create something for, say, 9-10-year-old boys not yet hooked by reading big stories (while at the same time offering fascinating content for people who are). If they get into this, maybe they’ll pick up book one, and then book two and book three. And by the end of that, maybe they’ll have felt that buzz in their head that only books can put there, and they’ll want more. I got into reading as a kid, but Terry didn’t, and this is Terry coming up with the kind of book he thinks might have made a difference to him at that age.

word-hunter-sketchesIllustrator, Terry Whidborne receives equal airplay alongside you, Lexi and Al throughout this journal. What was the dynamic like working with him? How did it influence and or benefit this production?

Terry’s great. We met working on an advertising campaign in 2002. We’re friends and I’m also in awe of his skills as an artist – another reason to do this book: I want publishers and others to see just how talented Terry is.

We each bring very different things to a book like this, and I think that helps make us a great team. We also had a very clear shared vision of what we wanted the end result to be. And it was always clear that we would have the freedom to suggest possible topics to each other, and throw in ideas to get the other one thinking. Terry would say things like, ‘I reckon there would be some kind of portal-sniffing device,’ and I’d have to rummage around for the science to sort-of back it up.

And I’d often say, about something I was working on, ‘I don’t know what this looks like – could you show me?’ and he would. Or I’d say, ‘here’s some great content I want to use, but how do we make it visual?’ and Terry would say, ‘How about a map?’

And he’d hide small things and see if I’d find them. Once you find, say, the ink smudge that’s also a map of Iceland – in context – you realise this book has more Easter eggs than Coles in March. It’s a slim book, but there are about a zillion tiny details in there, and they reveal themselves in different ways.

What inspires you to include or exclude words for discussion in the Word Hunter books? What external forces such as travel for example, influence your writing direction?

This time, I got the chance to use things that had amazed me, but that I wasn’t in a position to devote 20,000 words of narrative to. So, that was fun.

It was very interesting plotting the big story that runs across the first three books, and that create the world that the Top Secret Diary lives in. I needed each of the first three books to be an entire satisfying story, but also part of a whole, and I knew each one would feature three word quests. I also knew I wanted to follow a bunch of different pathways – English is what it is because of that – so I needed a mix of Germanic and Norman French/Latin words and words with very different origins. And I needed to get the characters to certain places at certain times to tell the big story we were telling. That was an awesome puzzle to try to solve. In the case of the last word in book three, I decided I needed something that would take us to the earliest-known book in English, link with an epic Dark Ages battle and get there via Shakespeare and one other interesting step. No easy task. I got there though.

Whose genius was it to include the interactive app, LAYAR for kids to utilise? Do you think this is the way of future storytelling?

That was Terry. The moment he discovered LAYAR, I got fanatical about it. It’s perfect for this book. Perfect. Again, it’s a great way in for someone not rushing to read lots of text, but for whom the idea of using a gadget to reveal hidden content appeals. And no one had more potential hidden content than me. I instantly knew it’d add massively to the reading experience, and I’d get to use a lot more great stuff.

Is it the way of future storytelling? It’s part of it, I’m sure. Technology gives us more tools than we’ve ever had. We just have to be smart enough to use them judiciously. LAYAR would be a gimmick or a distraction for some things, but it’s ideal for this.

On a scale of Never-Do-It-Again to Most-Exhilarating-Audience-To-Write-For-Ever!, how do you rate writing for tween readers? What is most appealing about writing for this age group?

I’m still learning, I think. I’m maybe a more natural writer for adults, but with the right material, time and smart editing, I can end up with something that works for the tween brain, and I’m getting closer to some of the techniques becoming instinctive. Two things are massively appealing about this age group. It’s a huge buzz when a kid comes up to you and raves about their Word Hunters experience and starts sharing some great etymology they’ve dug up. There’s a 9, 10, 11, 12-year-old whose grasp of English, you know, has been altered for the better. I love that. The other thing I really love is going round the schools and doing Word Hunters events. We’ve come up with a show that we can do together or solo that includes loads of visuals, props, games and a lot of noise, and It’s way more fun doing it than I ever thought. Every time I front up to a school with all my Word Hunters’ gear, I’m excited.

word-hunters-the-lost-huntersNow that you and Terry have been entrusted with Caractacus’ archive of Word Huntery (and really really interesting recipes!) thanks to Mursili, and blatantly ignoring all warnings to the contrary, have exposed it to the world, what plans do you and Terry have for the journal? Are more copies likely to appear? In short, what is on the draft table for Nick?

I have a PhD to finish, so no new fiction this year, but in the meantime, I want to make the most of the new material we’ve added to our show and take it around the place. I know that’s technically part of the job, because it might sell some books, but I actually want to do it because of the fun we can have and because of the way it opens a roomful of minds to the prospect of actually looking at our language and how it works, understanding it better and ultimately using it with greater power than most of us grew up being able to. I’ll also be putting in some effort to avoid the wrath of Caractacus. He’s not one to understand that this stuff was just too good to keep hidden.

Just for fun question (there’s always one): Describe a guilty pleasure (of yours) incorporating three words that did not exist before the last century.

Brilliant question. I’ll go as recent as I can. I regularly google (2001, as a verb) idle factoids (1973, invented by Norman Mailer, though the meaning has evolved since) using Bluetooth (1997).

Super! Thanks Nick.

If you reside in Queensland,  you can catch Nick and Terry putting in some effort to avoid Caractacus’ wrath and share their Top Secrets at one of this year’s Book Link QLD’s Romancing the Stars events during March. For details on where they will be appearing (there are Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast venues), and how to book, visit the Book Links site, here.

The Word Hunters Series including the Top Secret Files is available, here.

UQP December 2016

Bugs, Trains and Dragon Tales – Picture Books for Starting School

Starting school for a new year is definitely a big transition for most kids (and parents). Learning new routines, new skills, ways of managing change and making new friendships are all a part of the progression towards a happy and healthy school life. The following few picture books deal with these themes, friendship in particular, and will have your little ones starting the year with fresh and open eyes (and hearts).

imageMolly and Mae, Danny Parker (author), Freya Blackwood (illus.), Little Hare Books, October 2016.

Friendships are not always straightforward. Just like a train journey, there are bumps, bends, fun moments and impatient moments. Divinely structured text by Danny Parker, together with brilliant illustrator, Freya Blackwood, magically represent the adventure of ‘friendship’ via two girls travelling side by side through a countryside train ride.

Beginning on the platform, Molly and Mae giggle and play as they wait for the train to arrive. Beautifully rendered warming and cooling tones perfectly contrast with one another to create the backdrop for the long, scenic landscape pages as we travel through each moment, and emotion, of the trip. From excitement to boredom, frustration to solitary dreariness, forgiveness and absolution, the illustrations perfectly portray the bond between Molly and Mae, which inevitably reaches the distance.

Gorgeously rich and evocative in every sense, Molly and Mae is an enchanting voyage of the ups, downs, ins and outs of relationships; sweet, thought-provoking and heartwarming all at the same time. A wonderful book for children from age four.

imageMy Friend Ernest, Emma Allen (author), Hannah Sommerville (illus.), HarperCollinsPublishers, February 2016.

Another story exploring the complexities of friendship is My Friend Ernest. Oscar tries to be brave when he begins at his new school, with knight helmet and sword in full attire. But he is challenged at every turn when a kid with freckles, dressed as a dragon, bares his teeth and tramples on Oscar’s sandcastle. The battle between knight and dragon is finally surrendered when both boys admit they’re not as brave as they had planned for. Finding common ground is the ultimate solution and the boys share imaginative role play experiences together as new friends.

With gentle narrative written from Oscar’s point of view, and equally soft colours and textures in the illustrations, My Friend Ernest is an encouraging tale of overcoming initial discrepancies and building confidence when forming new friendships. Perfect for early years students in any new situation.

imageTwig, Aura Parker (author, illus.), Scholastic Australia, November 2016.

There is no camouflage when it comes to the gorgeousness of this book. Its messages of teamwork, compassion and friendship are clear, as is the sweetness of the whimsical illustrations in every minute little detail.

Finding the new girl, stick insect Heidi amongst the tall trees and scuttling of hundreds of tiny insect feet is no easy task, but a fun one for its readers, nonetheless. However, for Heidi, being invisible to her classmates makes for a lonely, dispiriting starting-school experience. Finally being discovered by others proves to be equally about self discovery and expression, and a beautifully-weaved gift from her new friends helps Heidi to bloom in full vibrancy.

Twig; an enchanting and gentle book for preschoolers and school starters to explore their own self identity and confidence when approaching new experiences, as well as an engaging and eye-catching story of hidden, ‘creepy-crawly’ gems and counting fun.

imageThe Ballad of Henry Hoplingsea, Julia Hubery (author), Lucia Masciullo (illus.), Little Hare Books, September 2016.

Talk about dedication! This young farmer would do anything for his princess, going as far as the farthest lands to prove he can be the bravest, most heroic knight that his princess desires. But Henry Hoplingsea soon realises that this life of swords and slaying is not what his own heart desires, for his passion still lies in a simple life with his love. And fortunately for Henry, his princess has had a change of heart, too. Maybe there’s still some room for a ‘spark’ of excitement!

The Ballad of Henry Hoplingsea is a sweet and romantic tale of making sacrifices for the ones you care about, following one’s heart and appreciating what you have. Rich and meaningful, full of warmth and energy, both in the text and illustrations, this book is an insightful example for early years children of tenaciousness and relationships.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman was just an incredibly book that I fell absolutely in love with! But the entire story was so so relatable with its themes of teens not knowing what to do with their life, struggling with anxiety, being super stressed over school, and being total geeks and nerds of the internet. This book knows what it is to be a teen! And it sums everything up so beautiful and amazingly I can only clutch the novel and feel so very happy.

9780007559244The story is about Frances who has two interests: (1) be the best of her school and get into Cambridge University, and (2) be absolutely obsessed with a youtube podcast, called Radio Silence, and accidentally met and befriend its secretive creator: Aled. Frances and Aled used to know each other as kids but they drifted apart…and now Frances discovers she’s her ex-friend’s biggest fan?! The world is small. Teeny tiny, basically. The two have an amazing summer of creativity and the best friendship I’ve ever read. But obviously happiness can’t last and this book would rather have your heart broken. There is betrayal, emotional manipulation, missing people, accidents that ruin everything, and teens falling apart as the stresses of pre-uni-entrance mount up.

The characters were definitely a highlight for me. Everything from France’s dorkiness to Aled’s love of the internet. And plus they all wear the most fabulous clothes you have ever heard of. We’re talking about Monsters Inc leggings and unicorn shirts here. And the way the fandom life sneaked into all the pages just made my own fangirl heart continue the rabid flailing it’s been doing since the dawn of time. Plus I found all the characters so relatable and unique and complex!

I’m also a big fan of how the story focused on friendship first and foremost. A non-romantic relationship between a boy and a girl? YES PLEASE.

I’m also so pleased with the amount of diversity diversity representation here. Frances is biracial Ethiopian/caucasian. Aled has anxiety (probably also depression). And most of the characters are queer with bisexual, gay, and asexual characters featuring.

And shout out to Frances’ mum who was actually an awesome parent. Finding epic parents in YA books isn’t like…easy. So it was absolutely lovely to have France’s mum be (A) supporting, (B) geeky too, (C) wear a unicorn onesie, and (D) help out with the kids’ schemes when they needed it.

30628062The whole book was just so realistic. They stopped being characters and just became amazing people you could imagine meeting on the street.

At 500-pages I thought it might not have enough plot to keep me glued to the page. But I was wrong! (Obviously. Everything about this book is perfect.) It’s about being yourself and also discovering what it means to be yourself. It’s also about creating art and being an unapologetic fangirl. There’s also a mystery behind Aled’s disappearing sister (who used to be the crush of Frances’ life) and a subplot of Aled’s emotionally abusive mother. Then there’s like random sleepovers and discussions and midnight math sessions and SNACK BREAKS and everything an epic and beautiful friendship should include. I didn’t want the story to end.

This is a definitely the kind of book anyone facing highschool will relate to. And anyone who likes tumblr and fandom life. And anyone who’s ever felt alone and alienated. Basically: everyone should read it. Probably yesterday.

[PURCHASE HERE]

That’s the Spirit – Aussie books that inform and thrill

With only a week to go before you sling a few more lamb chops onto the barbie, here is swag of ‘must read’ Aussie kids’ titles to put on your reading list, (not the barbie).

theres-a-magpie-in-my-soupThere’s a Magpie in my Soup Sean Farrar & Pat Kan

It’s that time of year when raucous baby magpies scream night and day for food. Seems they are no different when submersed in soup. Sean Farrar takes pre-schoolers on a merry epicurean romp through a menu of Australian critters as they pop up in the most extraordinary of places, (the only one that failed to make the endemic Aussie grade was the porcupine whom I felt could have been replaced by the Echidna). Snakes slither from cakes, cockatoos appear in loos. Possums get stuck in pies and blue tongues pop in for lunch. Kan’s chipper illustrations jockey this ditty merrily along  as rhyme and fauna are introduced to young readers in a fun, relatable way. A jolly little bedtime read.

Big Sky Publishing April 2016

stripes-in-the-forestStripes in the Forest – The Story of the Last Wild Thylacine Aleesah Darlison & Shane McGrath

Demonstrative illustrator, Shane McGrath teams with accomplished author, Aleesah Darlison in this picture book for mid primary readers about the last Tasmanian Tiger. Portrayed in a sweeping epic narrative from a female tiger’s viewpoint, Stripes in the Forest escorts readers through Tasmania’s pre-settlement days to present day, as she recalls a life of cyclical and human influenced changes. Gradually numbers of her kind reduce to the point of assumed extinction however, Stripes ends on a positive note of supposition; what if she is not the last of her kind?

Stripes in the Forest is alluring for its historical references, detailed Thylacine Facts and nod towards the need for environmental awareness and understanding. Full marks for this picture book for making a difference.

Big Sky Publishing July 2016

this-is-banjo-patersonThis is Banjo Paterson Tania McCartney & Christina Booth

Two leather clad gold embossed volumes of verse sit reverently upon my bookshelves: The Singer of the Bush and The Song of the Bush – the collected works of A B Banjo Paterson. Now another, smaller, more modest but equally as treasured title will accompany them; This is Banjo Paterson.

This inspired new picture book by the notable partnership of McCartney and Booth is as entertaining as it is beautiful. It begins in the middle of the Australian bush, at least Andrew Barton ‘Barty’s’ story does but do not be misled by the smooth  informative narrative of McCartney’s for Booth’s illustrations tell another story. Readers are invited into Barty’s urban backyard where they are introduced to his inclinations, desires, friends, and favourite pastimes. He has a hankering for horses and rhyming words but ‘is also a fine sportsman’.

Barty harbours a secret desire to write in verse as he grows and one day one of his anonymously submitted pieces is published. From then on end there is no stopping ‘Banjo’ as his name becomes synonymous with the classic bush inspired, character driven poetry and stories many of us know to this day.

Quiet and unassuming in its delivery, This is Banjo Paterson is visually rich and emotionally satisfying to read.  Many aspects of Banjo’s accomplished life are covered in a way that is both revealing and appreciable for young readers.  McCartney’s knack for conveying facts in a beguiling spirited fashion is put to good use in this picture book that broadens minds and warms hearts. The inspired broadsheet replication at the book’s conclusion includes sepia coloured photographs of Paterson and a more detailed chronological description of his life plus extracts from several of his most well-known poems. Highly recommended for early learners and primary aged readers, This is Banjo Paterson is a marvellous introduction to one of Australia’s literary heroes.

National Library of Australia Publishing (NLA) February 2017

lennie-the-legendLennie the Legend:  Solo to Sydney by Pony Stephanie Owen Reeder

Once upon a time, a nine-year-old boy named Lennie Gwyther took his pony, Ginger Mick for a ride. It was a very long ride, from country Victoria to Sydney, over 1,000 kilometres in fact but in the days of the Great Depression back in the early 1930s, people were accustomed to making such long arduous journeys.

Lennie’s mission was to be at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and his tenacity and determination were recognised and admired by the entire nation. Lennie’s story is adeptly told by Reeder with animated narrative and is interspersed with complementing historical snippets. Occasionally, comparisons are made between present day and last century living. Stunning photographs of this slice of Australia’s past are included along with fascinating statistics and notable people. The result is a feature-rich read, well endowed with fact and good story telling. Ideally suited for primary aged readers and those who love legends.

NLA February 2015

the-dreaming-treeThe Dreaming Tree Jo Oliver

Whilst suffused with the essence of the Australian landscape and renowned poets, let’s take a moment to appreciate the free verse poetic stylings of Jo Oliver whose, The Dreaming Tree reflects the ‘joy and freedom of being a child in Australia’.  Oliver’s poems, many of which are centred on the fierce and dramatic beauty of the Australian countryside, flow and ebb with all the finesse and passion of a verse novel. They are both uplifting and enlightening, and an extreme joy to read. This collection is presented in a picture book format accompanied by Oliver’s own dreamlike illustrations.  Her note at the end stresses that ‘poetry is fun’ and simply ‘feeling and thought playing together in words’. Oliver’s feelings and thought play magnificently together in The Dreaming Tree, for which I can list no favourites for I relished them all.

Highly recommended for primary and lower secondary school students as an excellent illustrative tool for capturing the essence of feeling in verse and injecting an appreciation for the enjoyment of poetry into the young.

New Frontier Publishing February 2016

HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY!

#byAustralianBuyAustralian

 

 

 

 

Review: A List of Cages by Robin Roe

A List of Cages by Robin Roe is an incredibly heartfelt and raw story. The writing was beautiful and emotional, and the characters just sneaked off the page until they became incredibly real and relatable people. I was so invested!

I’m also endlessly impressed at how this is a debut book! This author is already on my auto-buy list and I can’t wait for whatever she writes next. A List of Cages was my first five-star read of the year!

Basically this is a story about friendship and abuse. I will warn you: it’s not easy to read. It heavily features child abuse and emotional and mental manipulation. It was thoroughly heartbreaking, also for the fact that these things happen when they shouldn’t. It had me near to tears several times.9781484763803

The story is dual narrated by Adam, a highschool senior with ADHD, and 14 year old Julian, who is a foster kid living with an abusive uncle. Back when Julian first lost his parents, he lived with Adam’s family for a while and they become like brothers. Then Julian vanished when his abusive uncle got custody of him and no one knows what’s going on. As the two attend the same school again, Adam tries to rekindle friendship with Julian and figure out what happened to the bright bubbly kid he once knew.

I loved the emphasis on friendship! Also how it was “unconventional” friendship because the boys aren’t the same age. And I think this is really important to represent in fiction. Not only does it show us that (A) it is awesome and great to be friends with people who aren’t necessarily your same age, and (B) Adam and Julian had an “adopted big brother / little brother” relationship which was absolutely adorable and precious. I love how Adam just stepped up to protect Julian and look out for him.

Even though it was dual narrated it was so easy to tell between the boys’ chapters because they had such different voices! This is just such excellent writing. Adam’s chapters were bouncy and bright and energetic, while Julian’s were reserved and laced with fear.

I also appreciated the representation of disability here! Although it is hard to read at times, because both boys face hurtful treatment due to people dismissing their disabilities. This is actually a sad and realistic truth about “invisible disabilities” like ADHD and Dyslexia. They both got into a lot of trouble at school and it’s heartbreaking. But what I loved was the support network amongst their family and friends and how the boys weren’t portrayed as broken or in need of curing. So encouraging! So wonderful!

The book is actually quite small, so I flew through it in just a few hours! Although sometimes the shortness did work against the novel, in that a few things were glossed over or rushed. Adam’s romance with Emerald didn’t feel nearly explored enough, nor Emerald really fleshed out. And I would’ve liked to know more about Adam’s personal life and have some other facts cleared up that I can’t talk about because of spoilers. But I still appreciated that the book was to the point and absolutely addictive. I just wanted to know if everyone would be okay!

I definitely recommend this book! It gave me so many emotions and absolutely caught me in the feels (a term here which basically says I’m mildly HEARTBROKEN but also filled with hope at the ending). I think it was realistic, relatable, and poignant. The power of friendship is important and knows no bounds!

[purchase here]

There’s no place like home – Aussie flavoured picture books

During my short sabbatical from all things digital over the festive season, I visited some exotic, mesmerising places, supped on mouth-watering local fare, and immersed myself in numerous colourful cultural experiences. It was invigorating and fun but like always after a hard stint abroad, it is great to be home, because for me, there is no place like home. Therefore, to kick off the New Year and in readiness for our annual Aussie Day celebrations, here are a few picture books to stir up your patriotism.

shearing-timeShearing Time by Allison Paterson & Shane McGrath

Nothing shouts Australia louder than sheep, blowies, and working dogs on bikes. I envy the ability the picture book team of Paterson and McGrath has at capturing the essence of the Aussie outback with such bold open sky appeal.

Colourful and engaging, Shearing Time begins during the school holidays with one farm girl’s exclamation, ‘I love shearing time!’ She goes on to explain why, inviting readers to share her shearing experiences from sunrise to sunset. Every aspect including herding cantankerous sheep, the arrival of the rowdy seasonal shearers, the racket and rumble of shearing time right up to the feeding of workers is ably depicted giving youngsters a realistic, close-up look of how wool is procured from paddock to jumper. The glossary of well-loved shearing terms is especially useful.

A great focus on rural life and one of our most significant primary industries for 4 – 8 year-olds.

Big Sky Publishing March 2017

gus-dog-goes-to-workGus Dog Goes to Work by Rachel Flynn & Craig Smith

Here is another picture book duo whose combination of imaginative images and engaging text I adore. Once again, there are strong visual and verbal connections with regional Australian life. Chock-a-block full of colloquial language and ribald observation, Gus Dog Goes to Work is an excellent read-aloud picture book allowing carers to inject plenty of iconic Aussie swagger in their rendering of it. Gus is your typical sheepdog who exists only to work and please his owner, Tom.  When he awakes one morning to find Tom and his Ute missing however, Gus decides to venture out on his own to work. His meanderings steer him a little off track and into some stinky, hilarious, quintessentially doggy dilemmas until finally he and Tom are reunited.

Dog lovers aged five and above will get a massive kick out of this entertaining expose of country life from a pooch’s point-view. Bursting with more Aussie flavour than a barbie full of beef sangers, Gus comes highly recommended.

Working Title Press February 2017

fabishFabish the horse that braved a bushfire by Neridah McMullin & Andrew McLean

This is a gem of a book that evokes considerable emotion; warm tears spring forth unbidden each time I read it. Based on the true story of the vicious bushfires that ripped through the Victorian bush in February 2009, this picture book introduces us to ex-thoroughbred racer, Fabish and his retired role as mentor to the younger flighty yearlings.

McMullin faithfully recreates the mood and atmosphere of that scorching summer’s day when fire menaced the region. Fabish’s trainer, Alan Evett released the yearlings and Fabish fatalistically to find their own way while he huddled with the remaining stock in the stone stables. Outside a firestorm blazed out of control. He never thought he would see Fabish and the yearlings again.

The next morning dawned charred and desolate. Not a single living thing remained and yet miraculously, through the choking smoky haze Fabish appeared leading his yearlings home. McLean’s raw rustic palette coupled with McMullin’s poignant interpretation of the tale is a beautiful tribute to human resilience, loyalty, the power of nature and a truly unforgettable horse.

Strongly recommended for 6 – 9 year-olds

Allen & Unwin July 2016

sparkSpark by Adam Wallace & Andrew Plant

I grew up in the Adelaide foothills and witnessed the horrors of several summer infernos like Ash Wednesday but never experienced one first hand as author Adam Wallace did. Spark is a fascinating picture book depicting Australia’s most recent and devastating bushfire event, Black Saturday but ostensibly describing the catastrophic destructiveness and formidable beauty of any firestorm. And, along with Plant, he does so indescribably well.

Wallace succeeds with what no other has attempted before, to give fire a voice.  From the uniquely omnipotent point-of-view of a tiny spark, Wallace characterises the burgeoning flame with an almost child-like persona, suggesting a helpless naivety that encourages an instant empathy. Together, with the growing flame, we are borne along with a capricious and irascible wind, intent it seems after at first befriending the flame, to cause as much upset as possible until all control is lost.

Exhilarating and wild, terrifying and violent, Spark rips through your emotions with a mere sprinkling of words but with the force of an atomic bomb. Soul serrating language is not the only draw card. Plant’s monochrome illustrations will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Textural and scented with the acrid bitterness of the aftermath of pure destruction, Spark ends on the same quiet unassuming note as it begins; with teardrops from above, a flash of light and glimmer of green hope, simply brilliant.

A potent and compelling picture book useful for prompting discussions on natural disasters, Australian history,  and looking at things unconventionally for older primary aged readers.

Ford Street Publishing imprint of Hybrid Publishing October 2016

Stick around for the next swag-load of Aussie titles coming soon.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

 

 

Review: Spark by Rachael Craw

9781922179623Spark by Rachael Craw is an amazing superpowers origin story that focuses on friendship and punching things. Two fantastic things to read about honestly. Sure it fell into a few typical superpower themed cliches, but it still managed to be exciting and engaging! It featured a simple magnificent plot twist that is guaranteed to blow your mind and knock your socks off simultaneously.

Evie is basically an average girl, living with her single aunt after her mother died. But turns out she’s actually a Shield — an experiment gone wrong leaving her with DNA that means she’s programmed to protect her best friend from any killers. Her body starts changing until she looks like a superpowered warrior and she starts training for the oncoming surprise threats. Except she gets a little distracted by her best friend’s brother — Jamie. Who, being a Shield too, is out of bounds. Ha.

This concept of DNA modified humans who have compulsively programmed to protect people was extremely awesome. It made them into almost “default heroes” but just to their one charge. There were plenty of sci-fi themed DNA discussions which kind of befuddled me, but a more science-attuned reader would probably adore.

Evie is also a fantastic narrator! She’s deep in grief when the book starts and not sure what her life is going to look like now that she’s without her mother. But as her Shield tendencies start activating and she finds a whole secret organisation is waiting for her — things take on a very different and exciting turn. I only got annoyed at the emphasis on physical beauty. With only a few weeks of combat training, she’s suddenly fit and athletic and super-model level gorgeous. All the superpowered people in this book are very carefully emphasised to be gorgeous and I thought it was a little shallow. But if that was the only drawback in pages of action, great dialogue, and superpowers — then I think we’re still doing well!

The romance was also slow-burn and intriguing. Especially since it’s “forbidden”. And I love how friendship still was a major focus! Evie is destined to protect Kitty and they have a very close bond. Although Evie does gravitate towards Jamie. Of course. Evie and Jamie had a “thing” when they were younger, but it rekindles in the book. I liked Evie and Jamie’s relationship and it was well balanced with training and action scenes, school and family dynamics.

The ending features incredible plot twists of awesome. Intense awesome. I didn’t see any of the twists coming and it opened up so many questions to be explored in the next novel, Stray. I’m desperate for answers and therefore needed the sequel ASAP. Because sure we have people bound by DNA to protect others…but there are also those bound by DNA to kill certain people. The plot just kept getting more interesting and mysterious which is a definite win for me.

Definitely try Spark if you’re looking for… superpowers, fight scenes, friendship, and an awkward heroine who finds out she has Mr. Incredible level strength and isn’t quite sure what to do with it.

[purchase here]

Review: Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton

Tiny Pretty Things by Charaipotra and Clayton was an amazingly and addictive story set in a cutthroat ballet school. There’s nothing like a school of backstabbing ballerinas to make me very grateful I’m an un-athletic potato. I was absolutely glued to the page, however, desperately wondering who was going to survive to the end while my nerves shattered.9780062342393

The story centres around three ballerinas all competing for top of a prestigious ballet school. There can only be one “star” of the show, of course. And they all want it. Gigi is a black dancer and has left everything she’s ever loved and known to attend this dance school. June is a Korean dancer with an eating disorder and a mother who doesn’t believe ballet is worthwhile since June can never land the leading roll. And Bette is living in her older sister’s shadow while trying to dance to the top even though she’s not like her sister. There’s bullying and mental health discussions and the whispered danger of someone taking a prank too far and ballerinas potentially losing the chance to dance. Forever.

loved the writing. The story line was so captivating! It also had a huge cast and yet still managed to flesh everyone out. That is amazing. Most of the characters were completely awful to some degree. But I liked them despite also hating them. I cared about them and I wanted them to succeed even though they were really…horrible to each other.

I loved the three narrators and how their stories were so different yet interwove throughout the plot perfectly.

  • GIGI: She is the best. She’s the “new girl” to the school and an absolutely flawless ballerina. She’s black and the only black ballerina in the older classes, so she often feels ostracized. All the girls are really horrible to her because she’s very very good at dancing and is instantly the teacher’s favourite. She’s also really sweet and nice and kind.
  • BETTE: She’s basically the mean girl. She’s absolutely nasty and vicious and gorgeous and she hates Gigi and woah: please no one leave these girls in a room with a knife, okay? I really didn’t like Bette, but she had such a bad home life I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her.
  • JUNE: Her point-of-view wasn’t so important to the plot, but I still enjoyed it! She’s half Korean and her father was a mystery dancer, and her mother doesn’t want June to dance because of this. She really struggles with her anorexia and wants to be more than an understudy.

I also have much love for the secondary characters! I suspect Henri is a total psychopath. I loved Alec (Gigi’s boyfriend and Bette’s ex) and he was so sweet but yet oblivious to the damage the girls are causing each other. Will is sweet and gay and never gets lead roles and I feel bad for him. Although I’m furious at about 98% of all the kids’ parents. They pushed their children terribly and no wonder everyone was having a breakdown (me included).

The romance is very complicated and never healthy. Gigi is a better dancer than Bette and then Bette’s boyfriend dumped her and went with Gigi. Cue drama and angst and a lot of girl-on-girl hate. There’s lots of “stealing boyfriends” and cheating amongst the other characters and also emotional manipulation and it’s basically a trainwreck and hard to look away from.

BRIEF LIST OF THINGS I LOVED:

  • set entirely in a ballet boarding school
  • it actually talks about the technical parts of ballet and, as someone who knows naught, I thought it was really interesting to learn
  • there’s so much diversity representation!
  • it addresses mental health issues, particularly eating disorders, and disabilities
  • it’s really suspenseful and darkly addictive
  • it leaves you with so many questions and a huge need for the sequel

 

Tiny Pretty Things is definitely the kind of enthralling story you want in your life! It has a huge mystery element of “who is behind the malicious bullying” and it’ll keep you guessing the whole time. The characters were complex, the writing amazing, and I am in such awe of the amazing ability and dedication it’d take to be a ballerina!

 

[BUY HERE]

Words and Pictures

Words and pictures can be so much more powerful together than apart. Comics, graphic novels, picture books, illustrated novels. So many possibilities.

As a writer, I love art. I love handing over my words to see what an illustrator will do with them. I had my first picture book published in October this year – Meet… the Flying Doctors. It was illustrated by Ben Wood, who did such a wonderful job. Each and every double-page spread is a stunning work of art worthy of gallery exhibition. I feel extremely lucky and privileged to have these illustrations inside a book with my name on it.

9780143780687

Books 11 and 12 in my YOU CHOOSE series of interactive stories will hit the shelves on 3 January 2017. The covers and internal illustrations for this series are by the talented James Hart. Even after twelve books he still manages to impress and surprise me with his dynamic covers. The success of these books is in no small part due to the fact that James’s art grabs casual book browsers and screams “PICK ME UP”!

9780143782988 9780143783008

 

As a reader, I love art. There are so many wonderful works out there. Here are a few I’ve read recently…

9781742378527KidGlovz (2015) by Julie Hunt, illustrated by Dale Newman

An extraordinary graphic novel for kids in glorious black and white. A musical prodigy is a prisoner of his talent, until a young thief helps him escape. What follows is a magical journey of discovery. This book won a 2016 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award and was shortlisted for both the CBCA Book of the Year and the Crichton Award for New Illustrators. It certainly deserves all the accolades.

 

9780670078684The Greatest Gatsby: A Visual Book of Grammar (2015) by Tohby Riddle

Who would have thought grammar could be fun? It certainly is with this book. What is remarkable, is how Riddle uses a combination of words and pictures to make even the most complex oddities of grammar quite simple and understandable. This book would be great for kids who are struggling with grammar. But it’s also a pretty wonderful book for grown-ups who want to brush up on their gerunds, reflexive pronouns and superlative adjectives. But is this book GREAT? GREATER? GREATEST?

Withering-by-Sea (2014) and Wormwood Mire (2016) by Judith Rossell

These Victorian-set Stella Montgomery Intrigues are magical! A young orphan girl, raised by her three ghastly aunts (Aunt Temperance, Aunt Condolence and Aunt Deliverance) finds herself caught up in all manner of supernatural events. These books are beautifully written and illustrated with a light, old-fashioned touch. They are hard to put down as they transport you into the past and plunge you into their mysterious intrigues.

9780733333002 9780733333019

 

9780330404365The 13-Story Treehouse (2011) by Andy Griffith, illustrated by Terry Denton

Kids have been going nuts for the Treehouse books ever since they hit the shelves… and I’ve been meaning to get around to reading one of them for ages. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Well, I can certainly see why kids love them so much. This book is so RANDOM. It’s full of MAD, BONKERS FUN! The words and pictures working seamlessly together. Loved it!

 

9781627389877The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2016) by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, illustrated by Robert Hack

The writer behind the rather awesome zombie apocalypse re-imagining of Archie and his fellow Riverdale residents in Afterlife With Archie (see my review) now sets his sights on Sabrina. Set in the 1960s, it takes a rather dark and gruesome approach to the story. Perhaps not as immediately engaging as the Archie graphic novel, this one takes a while to warm up… but once it does, it’s pretty damn good. Another comic book character, Madam Satan, is also re-imagined and woven into the story.

 

9781401245009Injustice: Gods Among Us, Vol.1. (2013) and Vol.2. (2014) by Tom Taylor, with art by Jheremy Raapack, Mike S Miller, Tom Derenick and Bruno Redondo

Wow! This has got to be one of the best superhero comics I’ve read in ages. Bold, dark and relentless, it looks at what might happen if superheros decided that they knew what was best for the human race, and that the ends justified the means. Will have to seek out the rest of this series.

Well, that’s it from me for 2016. See you all in the New Year.

Catch ya later, George

PS. Follow me on Twitter

Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

thedeepLatest Post: DVD Review  — The Deep: Monsters & Myths

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

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

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

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

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

Harper Collins Children’s Books July 2016

twigTwig by Aura Parker

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

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

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

Scholastic Press November 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ford Street Publishing October 2014

Find your elephant within as soon as you possibly can.

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

See you in 2017!

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: Whisper To Me by Nick Lake

Whisper to Me by Nick Lake is an incredibly story about mental health, love and family. I CONFESS: I went into it with very low expectations because the cover didn’t grab me and I was left rather befuddled by the author’s previous book There Will Be Lies. But Whisper To Me was amazing and it’s totally underrated! I think it’s one of the best mental illness books I’ve ever read in a long time.

9781408853863The story is by Cass, who is a quiet reserved girl who’s reeling after losing her mother in an accident. She’s writing this book as a letter to a boy she hurt to try and explain what happened and why she broke his heart. The truth is she is hearing voices and is trying to cope and handle it, along with the anxiety, depression, and PTSD of witnessing her mother’s death. Not only that, but there’s a serial killer in town and Cass gets slightly caught up in finding out who it is.

Cass’ exact diagnosis isn’t given. It’s eluded that it could be bipolar or schizophrenia. But it felt so well written and so real. The author’s note says he briefly actually experienced hearing voices…and I think that really added a lot of relatability to the story because it felt honest, raw, and real.

Cass is also an incredible protagonist to read about. She’s quiet. She thinks a lot and says the wrong things. She’s really self-depreciating which I loved reading. Honestly, it’s quite hard to write about such heavy topics and still perfectly incorporate humour, but this book pulls it off with an A+. Cass does a lot of ridiculous things and you will probably get very frustrated with her at several points. But that made her realistic. The book was so brilliantly written that I felt like I understood Cass’ decisions, because we are so deep in her thought process, that even when I know they’re dumb things to do, I also understood why she made them. Cass was relatable and I so rooted for her.

It has an epic focus on relationships. Cass and her kinda-scary-ex-Navy-dad (who honestly has untreated PTSD) have to do a lot of work on their relationship. And later on Cass makes friends with Paris, a girl she met in hospital who has bipolar disorder. Paris was incredible. The book continually described her was “weird”, but she owned it and was kind and wasn’t afraid to be her wild self. I loved Cass and Paris’ friendship and how they were there for each other.

The romance is a bit of cuteness. There’s a boy (who actually is never named, because the book is written in the “to you” format)  renting the spare flat attached to Cass’ house and he was adorable. This is probably the most awkward romance ever. And to be honest it doesn’t have much chemistry. But I really wanted it to work out for them.

The letter format worked really well. It is quite the long email, honestly. This book is 500+ pages and written as an email to this boy Cass loves. It made me quite desperate to find out why she keeps saying she broke his heart. We know WHAT happened but we don’t know WHY it happened.

The ending isn’t “tidy.” I give this book all the points for being realistic. The ending is very open, be ye warned, but I felt like the story doesn’t end when the pages do and I like that!  Life is not a neat little box. Plus the writing is just a pleasure to devour. And even though the book was a small brick to read, I enjoyed every page.

It is a story that balances darkness and light. The things the Voice tells Cass to do can be brutal and horrifying and I wanted to cry with her several times. I love the character development and the message and the way it all felt so real. Definitely an excellent book about mental health.

 

[BUY HERE]

Renee Price Sings with Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who?

imageI just love sequels that cleverly, though subtly, intertwine with small connections but take you on a whole new, unique adventure. Renee Price, author, educator and entertainer extraordinaire has done just that with her second book in the Digby series – an enthusiastic, lively and inquisitive romp jam-packed with mystery, melody and rhythm. Not to mention its upbeat and dynamic illustrations. Today we are fortunate enough to have the opportunity of a sneak peek into the soon-to-be-released, anticipated Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who?! Doesn’t the title just make you want to get out your maracas and microphones and shimmy to your heart’s content!

Renee is here to tell us more about her book. Welcome, Renee!

Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who? is the fun sequel to the intriguing quest of Digby’s Moon Mission. Please tell us a bit about your latest book.

imageDigby and the Yodelayhee… Who?, much like Digby’s Moon Mission, portrays the joy and innocence of children’s imagination and curiosity. Digby and his friends have solved the mystery of a hungry moon, now it’s up to them (and some useful tools) to solve the mystery of a noisy noise! I’m really excited to release this book as it combines my two writing loves; stories and (spoiler alert!) song. J

How do you hope the concepts addressed in the story will resonate with readers?

I hope they will resonate really well! Digby’s stories celebrate friendship and teamwork, curiosity, creativity and problem-solving. I always write with these concepts in mind, yet rather than driving the messages home, deliver them in an entertaining and humorous way, and kids really engage and become enthused about getting involved, becoming part of the story, and problem-solving too.

What is your favourite part of the book? Why?

imageI have three favourite parts (is that allowed?)! I am once again, in love with Anil Tortop’s visual representation of my words. I swear she has a device that can tap into my brain and extract my exact thoughts on how I see my words looking on a page. I also LOVE the barcode design by Ozan Tortop (wait ‘til you see it, it’s so cool!). My third favourite part, and one I hold close to my heart is the musical element of the story. Combining words, pictures and music completes me! J

You are naturally musical yourself. What do you see as the main benefits of ‘tapping’ into one’s musical side? How have you seen children respond through your entertaining show performances?

I could rattle on all day about this one! Music is a universal language. Not only can we communicate through music, we can immerse ourselves in music to soothe, comfort, inspire, excite, entertain… there are no limits. We are all musical! I love visiting schools and preschools, seeing all kids engage in the story-telling that music offers and how it complements the written word. I can’t wait to launch the live performance for Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who?. Music and story-telling galore!

You worked with the talented design team at Tadaa Book previously on Digby’s Moon Mission. Did Anil and Ozan Tortop meet all your expectations second time round? What did you enjoy most about your collaboration on Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who??

imageI will never be able to properly articulate just how awesome this duo is. Not only are they incredibly professional and easy to work with, but they are so supportive and nothing is ever too much to ask. Their communication is top-notch and their work is utterly awesome. The entire collaboration with them has been enjoyable, from storyboard drafts right through to prepping files for print. I urge anyone contemplating a self-publishing journey to get in contact with them at tadaabook.com.

Being self-published you did quite a lot of work to get both Digby books off the ground and onto the shelves. Were you more confident this time? Did you do anything differently? What have been the advantages of already having the initial book under your belt, both in ways of publishing and marketing?

In some ways, I felt more confident because it was familiar and I knew what to expect, but it was also overwhelming at times because I knew what to expect! It’s a challenging journey, and at times, I wondered why I was putting myself through it all again, especially having two young children and little time to juggle everything. Through my first book, there were many things I missed as well, such as wider distribution channels, timing of publication date to meet Book Awards entry criteria, further research into print-on-demand services versus off-shore/bulk printing. But the advantages of having my first book out there, meeting more and more wonderful industry professionals to chat with and seek advice has been invaluable. One big thing I did differently this time was print offshore with a company who publishes a lot of trade-published titles. I’m really excited about the higher quality of my second book.

Fun Question! If you could be any musical instrument, what would it be and why?

Ooh, now this is a tricky one! I’d have to say a double bass – because then I’d finally be tall! J What would you be?

Hmm… I’d have to think about that!

Please share your book’s release date and what we can look forward to in the lead up to launch day and beyond. What exciting activities and events have you got planned?

Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who? will be released on March 1 2017. A book trailer is now available (see below), previewing a little of the musical element of the book, too, and there will be some more sneak-peeks coming in the lead up to the launch. We’ll also have some giveaways and fun stuff via Digby’s Facebook page and website.

Launch Day is Saturday March 4 2017 at Wallsend Library (Newcastle NSW) and is shaping up to be an exciting morning, featuring a book reading, signing, colouring activities and a special music performance! Follow Digby’s blog for updates at www.digbyfixit.com.

Thanks so much, Renee! Looking forward to jammin’ with Digby and his friends very soon! 🙂

BIG thanks to you, Romi! You’re a superstar. J

Pre-order your copy of Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who? here.

Published by Create It Kids, March 2017.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Anthologies for Christmas

I love anthologies – books collecting together short stories from numerous authors. I love them as a reader. And I love them as a writer. Anthologies have a lot of things going for them…

Anthologies make great tasters. They are a wonderful way of trying out a whole batch of authors without having to commit to an entire novel. Then, when you click with the style of a particular author, you can go on to read their longer works.

Anthologies are great for reluctant readers. Bite-sized chunks are not as daunting as a massive tome. A person can read one story, rather than having to read an entire book. And a short story, finished off quickly, can give a reluctant reader a wonderful feeling of satisfaction… perhaps encouraging her/him to read some more.

Anthologies are great for time-poor readers. You can read individual stories in short bursts as time permits. Dip in and out of the book without losing track.

Anthologies make great presents. (Hey! Isn’t Christmas just around the corner?) Not sure of the recipient’s taste in authors? Then a book with multiple authors is the perfect solution.

I’ve got stories in three kids’ anthologies that have been released in the last few months. Each of these books also has tales from heaps of other great kids’ authors. Check these out…

 9780143780991Cat Stories
For kids who like felines, you can’t do better that this. Ten stories from the likes of Aleesah Darlison, Anne Mangan, Davina Bell, RA Spratt, Patrick Loughlin, Belinda Murrell, Martin Chatterton, Christina Briones and Bruce Dawe. I read this book with my seven-year-old daughter. Her favourite story was Spratt’s “Nanny Piggins and the Problem Cat”. In fact, she loved it so much that she desperately wanted more… and was delighted when I told her that there was a whole series of books about Nanny Piggins. We have now completed The Adventures of Nanny Piggins and are about to move on to Nanny Piggins: The Wicked Plan. See… I told you anthologies were great for discovering new favourite authors!

 

 9780143780977Dog Stories
So, if cats are not your thing there’s a companion volume about dogs. Lots of fun, slobbery stories from Nick Falk, Sofie Laguna, Tristan Bancks, Christina Briones, RA Spratt, Jacqueline Harvey, Martin Chatterton, Bronwyn O’Reilly, Rae Murdie and Aleesah Darlison.

 

 9780994234063A Toy Christmas [edited by Sophie Masson]
Now this is a perfect book for Christmas gift giving. Thirteen stories about the most magical time of year. It’s got everything from Santa Claus to nativity toys, from dragons to Christmas puddings… and even a story about the Jewish celebration of Chanukah. There are stories from Natalie Jane Prior, Kathy Creamer, Fiona McDonald, Michael Grey, Goldie Alexander, Rebecca Fung, Meredith Costain, Anna Bell, Ian Irvine, Juliet Marillier, Beattie Alvarez and David Allan. They are a wonderful bunch of tales, but my two favourites are, without a doubt, Michael Grey’s “An Unexpected Gift”, which defies gender stereotyping in a beautifully heart-felt story; and Goldie Alexander’s “ Avi and the Chanukah Surprise”, which shows how not all people celebrate Christmas.

And finally, I’d like to finish up by mentioning a book that I am looking forward to with much excitement…

 9781460752319Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology
No, I haven’t got a story in this one… but it’s got an amazing list of contributors, including Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Will Kostakis, Ellie Marney, Jaclyn Moriarty, Michael Pryor, Alice Pung, Gabrielle Tozer and Lili Wilkinson. Sounds like it’s going to be a brilliant collection of Young Adult goodness. Can’t wait to get my hands on it. [BTW… check out the #LoveOzYA website.]

Catch ya later, George

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5 Reasons You Should Read Nevernight

9780008179991As a rather rabid fan of epic fantasy, I was very keen to try Nevernight by Jay Kristoff. It’s an adult fantasy that features teen characters and it promised to be dark, gritty, and sassy. It absolutely was. It was brilliant! And not only that, it’s by an Australian author, so obviously it has my pledge of intense fangirling for evermore. (No no, I’m not dramatic at all.)

Today I have a list of 5 reasons why YOU should try Nevernight! It’s a very sensible list and you’re going to want to listen to it. Trust me now.

 

1. IT’S ABOUT A SCHOOL FOR ASSASSINS.

Which I’m sure we’ve all read a lot of, because it’s a very popular trope. But this one just brought a whole new level of DANGER! ALERT! to the page. This school is actually vicious, cutthroat, and unforgiving. The tests the students go through are pretty creative — and also terrifying. There’s also a good helping of magic too. And poisons. And really creepy teachers who might kill you or train you. Either/or.

 

2. IT FEATURES A TOUGH AND SASSY PROTAGONIST.

Mia is 16, which originally made me think the book is YA…but it’s probably a little too dark and graphic with the violence and sex to be strictly considered YA. Still! Mia is a vicious little poppet who wants revenge on her father after he was wrongfully murdered by the most powerful men in the city. She travels across deserts and survives rigoursous initiation tests to get into the Red Church assassin school. And she still manages to find time to throw around some barbed quips that made me snicker.

 

3. SPEAKING OF SASS…THERE IS AN INCREDIBLE NON-CAT.

When I say “non-cat” I mean the cat is made entirely out of shadows. Because…SURPRISE. Mia can also manipulate shadows because she’s a Darkin. Not sure what this means? Be calm, my friend, neither does Mia. She really really wants to learn more about her powers which is another reason she’s at the Red Church. But she has an adorable animal companion, named Mister Kindly, (hey no judgment, she found him when she was only 10) who can talk and they have the most epic banter sessions. Mister Kindly is always there for Mia. Let’s just look past the fact he’s made of shadows. He is too precious, too pure.

9781250073020

4. THE BOOK HAS UNIQUE FORMATTING.

I really love this because it helps keep my attention! It has 2 gorgeously designed maps that made my map-loving heart sing. And it also features footnotes! The book is told by an “unknown narrator” who has a little running commentary on Mia’s life, put on the page via footnotes. Sometimes the footnotes add in extra details to the world building, and sometimes they just snarkily make fun of how terrible Mia’s luck is.

 

5. IT HAS SO MANY PLOT TWISTS!

Obviously I won’t share what, because you want the surprises. TRUST ME. But I was so thrilled with the finale plot twists, where people aren’t who they seem and surprises leap out of every corner to stab the characters, and also stab my feels. But who needs calmness while reading epic fantasy?! Not I. The plot of Nevernight will keep you glued to the page and entirely alert!

 

[buy here] 

Review – Sage Cookson’s Ring of Truth by Sally Murphy

Sometimes, you just need some good food, good spirit, or a good book to make your day, or week, or holiday season. Well, how about all three rolled into one? Sally Murphy’s Sage Cookson early reader series certainly satisfies. Here’s the latest book, ‘Ring of Truth’.

imageA bright, eager to please young Sage is the luckiest daughter of world famous TV star chefs, enjoying an exciting life of adventure, travel and delicious culinary delights. Content to take a back seat from the limelight, Sage Cookson is off on another enlightening trip with her parents to watch the filming in the beautiful Harmon Island. There they meet two sisters who will feature on the show; pastry chefs of the most scrumptious pastries, pies and bread. But the success of the segment, and Sage’s good-natured reputation, hang in the balance when one of the sister’s treasured emerald ring goes missing. Can Sage clear her name? Will they go on with the show? There is one ‘pie’-ticular piece of evidence that will reveal the truth.

Within the ten short chapters is a plot that is straightforward and easy for early readers to grasp. Charmingly, the peppering of feeling and warmth throughout adds that extra flavour of drama and emotive goodness. Murphy cleverly integrates themes of friendship, sincerity and modesty within the exhilaration that unfolds in the final scenes. And decorated at each chapter heading are the rich, black and white pencil shadings of illustrator Celeste Hulme, tantalising our senses for what’s ahead.

imageInfused with zest and a sense of refreshment, Ring of Truth satisfies its readers with honesty, passion and aplomb. This series is a treat for all chefs in the making from age seven.

Check out Sage Cookson’s Sweet Escape, and Sage Cookson’s Fishy Surprise, out January 2017.

New Frontier Publishing, September 2016.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Mini-reviews

As the end of the year approaches and I desperately attempt to catch up on telling you about what I’ve been reading, may I present another bunch of mini-reviews…

Grimsdon (2010) and New City (2014) by Deborah Abila
9780857983220   9781742758558
Is it possible for a book to be both a dystopian sci-fi and a charming kids’ story? These two tales certainly manage it. Plus they throw in some environmental messages. A captivating read about kids in a flooded city after an environmental disaster, and their subsequent move to a new city as refugees.
thriveThrive (2015) by Mary Borsellino

An intriguing YA dystopian novel. Interesting characters and world, but the story is a bit disjointed and oddly paced. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t quite gel for me. It’s one of those books that I really wanted to love more than I actually did.

9781760154035300 Minutes of Danger (2015) by Jack Heath

Ten linked short stories that are fast-paced and EXCITING! Suspense, danger and action are the driving forces here. I love the concept of linked story collections like this. You get the immediacy of short fiction with the bigger picture of longer fiction, all in one book.

9780575086937Patient Zero (2009) by Jonathan Maberry

This is the first book in the popular Joe Ledger series, about a cop who goes to work for a special ops government agency, The Department of Military Sciences. This is a hard-edged, fast-paced techno-thriller about terrorists using a bio-weapon that turns people into zombies. Ledger is a wonderfully engaging character and Maberry is a master of this genre. The rest of the series is lined up on my to-be-read pile.

51gqzolrwll-_sx354_bo1204203200_Just Plain Cat (1981) by Nancy K Robinson

A nice story about a young boy and his newly acquired pet cat. Below this surface story are family relationships and the experiences of starting at a new school. All handled with quite a lovely old fashioned touch.

9780994469335Zombie Inspiration (2016) by Adam Wallace, illustrated by James Hart

Mad, bonkers fun! During a zombie apocalypse, with much brain-eating, Adam, James and Stacey run, hide, dispatch zombies and learn a little about themselves. A unique and innovative idea, this book is linked to an online course about using zombies as inspiration to be all you can be. Check it out!

9781741663099The Laws of Magic: Moment of Truth (2010) by Michael Pryor

This is the second-last book in Pryor’s wonderful, magical, engaging and totally awesome series set in an alternative history Edwardian period, where magic and science co-exist. I love then so much, I’ve been reading one book a year in order to try and make them last. I’ll read the final one next year.

thumb_cover_not_just_a_piece_of_cake_jpgNot Just a Piece of Cake: Being an Author (2015) by Hazel Edwards

Hazel Edwards, author of the famed picture book, There’s A Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, has dipped into her own life story for this engaging memoir. It has a lovely conversational tone that makes you feel like you’re privy to a private chat rather than reading a book. Edwards doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, presenting a warts and all story. Loved it!

9780994358356Hijabi Girl (2016) by Hazel Edwards and Ozge Alkan, illustrated by Serena Geddes

Fiction, especially children’s fiction, can do extraordinary things. It can often achieve outcomes that no amount of lecturing or shouting from rooftops can. It can be enlightening while also being entertaining. It can promote understanding while also telling a good story. And this is what Hijabi Girl does. It’s a good story about kids in a school. Like all kids they have their friendships and difficulties; they deal with teachers and teasing; they have their likes and dislikes. They are ordinary kids doing ordinary things. But one of them happens to be Vietnamese. And another is a Muslim girl who wears a hijab. The cultural differences among these kids are simply part of everyday life, along with all the other little differences between them. One character likes soccer, another likes drawing; one character is into princesses, another likes Aussie Rules footy; one character eats rice paper rolls, another eats only halal food; one character has a pet rat, the others don’t; one character wears a hijab, the others don’t. In the end, difference is not only accepted, but celebrated. As it should be in real life. More kids books like this please!

Catch ya later, George

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Under the Christmas Tree Part 4

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

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

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

The Five Mile Press November 2016

pig-the-elfPig the Elf by Aaron Blabey

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

Scholastic November 2016

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

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

Allen & Unwin September 2016

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

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

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

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

New Frontier Publishing November 2016

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

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

 

Christmas Crackers – Picture Book Reviews

As we mark the first day of December, the Christmas countdown has officially begun. A time for snuggles, a time for giggles, a time for togetherness, a time for giving, a time for remembering and making new memories. Here are a few glorious picture books that have all the joy, laughter and magic of Christmas covered.

imageThere is Something Weird in Santa’s Beard, Chrissie Krebs (author, illus.), Random House Australia, October 2016.

Argh! It’s like The Dreadful Fluff in disguise! Yes, there is a dreadful, terrorising mutant refusing to depart the comfort of Santa’s beard. Created by tired and grotty Santa’s leftover crumbs of bubble gum, candy canes, French fries and mince pies, the hideous, squatting blob threatens to ruin Christmas. It devours toys from the workshop and snaps up the elves’ trap. Santa attempts to remove it but to no avail. At last, it is the skilled, king fu-fighting reindeer that save the day. All is well with Santa until he treats himself after a training session with a sticky ice cream.

Chrissie Krebs has written this story with the great gusto and rollicking rhyme that it deserves. I love the depiction of Mrs Claus, too – homely and caring, but let’s face it, everyone’s patience has its limits! With its slapstick comedy, unfaltering rhyming couplets and vibrantly bright and energetic illustrations, this book makes for a highly engaging and fun read-aloud experience.

There is Something Weird in Santa’s Beard will take your preschoolers on a belly-rolling, chin-tickling journey as Santa overcomes the most terrible experience imaginable. But you can count on poor, messy Santa reliving it over and over again, as he did in our household!

imageI Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas, John Rox (author), Simon Williams (illus.), Scholastic Australia, October 2016.

Here lies the renewal of the classic 1950 song originally written by John Rox, and performed by a young Gayla Peevey in 1953, which resulted in the Oklahoma City zoo acquiring a baby hippo named Matilda.

The story subtly portrays a sweet innocence, yet the narrator is firm with complete conviction on why s/he should have a hippopotamus for Christmas. Written in first person with its irregular upper and lower case handwriting as the main text, this is a fun, lyrical narrative (with bonus CD by Indigenous singer Miranda Tapsell) perfectly capturing the magic of childhood and Christmas for its preschool listeners.

Simon Williams gorgeously ties in this magical essence with his own interpretation of the humour and playfulness through his whimsical illustrations. Pairing a ginger kitten as narrator with its ‘Hippo Hero’ is an inspiring move portraying a wonderful unlikely friendship. The kitten makes promises to feed and care for it, and is excited by the hope of being surprised by its presence on Christmas morning. No crocodile or rhino would do, “I only like hippopotamuses. And hippopotamuses like me too!”

Adorably energetic, bouncy and joyful, children from age three will be adamant that they want I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas for Christmas.

imageThe Night Before Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore (text), Helene Magisson (illus.), New Frontier Publishing, November 2016.

With illustrations that are soft with warmth, deep with texture and rich with love, this newest edition of The Night Before Christmas is truly one to treasure.

With the timeless poem by Clement Clarke Moore, talented illustrator Helene Magisson works her magic to create a stunning gift for any family celebrating Christmas. As Santa and his eight reindeer journey through the snow-speckled sky to below the snow-crested rooftop, we are soothed by the pale watercolour tones that beautifully contrast the outdoor shades of blues with the indoor hues of reds. I also love the little whimsical subtleties like Santa’s cheeky expressions, the playful cat and the koala toy for our Australian readers.

With a special story and exquisite illustrations that represent togetherness, comfort and the undeniable joy that is Christmas, The Night Before Christmas is a beautiful keepsake for children between four and six years old.

You can find more fantastic gifts in the Kids Reading Guide 2016.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Glorious Gift Books

annualExceptional children’s gift books for Christmas this year include Annual, edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (Gecko Press). It’s a treasure book in the vein of an old-style yearly annual, here packaged in the highest quality hardback form as a sumptuous possible Christmas present and absorbing holiday read.

The editors have excelled in their commissioned works, which range from short stories to non-fiction, poems, comics, art pieces, a song with sheet music included (Always on Your Phone) and activities such as a board game called Naked Grandmother and This is not a bottle – instructions on how to make a minaret, a spaceship or a hound with a bottle.

Contributors include Bernard Beckett, Barbara Else and Steve Braunias who has written a satire about various celebrities turning up to work at your house. Lorde and Taylor Swift turn up to wash the dishes but not much work actually takes place.

classicClassic Nursery Rhymes (Bloomsbury) is for younger children and showcases exquisite artwork by Dorothy M. Wheeler, who illustrated Enid Blyton’s books. Each nursery rhyme is generously illustrated with a full-page colour picture inside an elaborately sketched black and white border, which spills over to surround the printed rhyme on the opposite page.

There are too many favourite rhymes to name but they include Hickory, Dickory Dock and Jack and Jill as well as lesser-known gems such as A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go and Cock-A-Doodle-Doo. Little Jack Horner is ideal to read for Christmas.

The sheet music is provided for a number of the rhymes such as Polly Put the Kettle On and Baa, Baa! Black Sheep.

Studies show that children who know nursery rhymes have a higher success rate in early literacy. Mem Fox has also been sharing this belief: ‘If a borrowed story book or nursery-rhyme book becomes favourite, do your utmost to purchase it for your child. Children who have lived in book-filled homes prior to going to school are known to be scholastically advantaged for the rest of their lives. And children who have memorised eight nursery rhymes by the age of three, so I have been told, are always the best readers by the age of eight.’ (quote from Mem Fox’s website)

oddThere is a foreword in Classic Nursery Rhymes by Chris Riddell, who has also been busy illustrating a reissue of Neil Gaiman’s interpretation of a Norse myth, Odd and the Frost Giants (Bloomsbury). This is a very classy publication, extravagantly produced with illustrations throughout, touches of silver ink and cut-away icicles on the front cover. It is sophisticated, creative writing for older primary or gifted younger readers.

It is always worth exposing young readers to folktales, whether in original or reinterpreted form. Here a Viking boy with the unusual name of Odd suffers a terrible injury to his foot and encounters beasts in the woods that are actually Norse gods. As well as the often-argumentative male gods we also meet that most lovely and capable goddess, Freya.

Dinosaurs and Cheeky Animals in Australia

dinosaursImagine if dinosaurs lived today in Australia. As we know, dinosaurs did live in Australia, some on the Kimberley coast of northwest Australia, and their footprints are still visible there. In Return of the Dinosaurs (Magabala Books) Nyiyaparli and Yindijibarndi descendant Bronwyn Houston wonders what it would be like if dinosaurs roamed around Broome today.

As a girl the author-illustrator played at the beach with her brother and found footprints that turned out to be those of sauropods. In this picture book, she has created the surrounds of Broome in vibrant, inviting illustrations. Her characters – human and dinosaur – visit the rocks at high tide, play with humpback whales, meet their prehistoric crocodile cousins in the mangroves, feast on salmon, hunt for bush tucker, play at Cable Beach and enjoy the outdoor movie screen at Sun Pictures.

Brachiosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Megalosauropus, Broomensis, Parasaurolophus and Stegosaurus are included in the narrative and humans are sometimes shown in the illustrations to provide scale. Young readers will find this well conceived and executed book captivating.

animals_in_my_garden_high_res_Bronwyn Houston’s other new book is a board book for very young children, Animals in My Garden (Magabala Books). It is a simple counting book, “1 one snake … 2 two kookaburras … 3 three lizards” and so on up to “10 ten mosquitoes”. Each numeral and accompanying creature is showcased on one page.

The animals can be found in Australian backyards and the illustrations are extremely appealing: bright, textured and inviting children into nature.

cheekyAnother new Magabala Books’ publication for young readers is a second board book, Cheeky Animals by Shane Morgan. This book is inspired by Shane Morgan’s book Look and See, which was first published in 1999 and is still in print. This is testament to the synergy between the clear, often ochre-coloured illustrations and the simple appealing written text, “Look at the lizard, he’s up in the tree. See the big lizard. He’s looking down at me … Look at the turtle walking so slow. See the turtle, he stood on my toe.”

Shane Morgan is a descendant of the Yorta Yorta peoples of Victoria. Cheeky Animals’ appeal as a board book for the very young culminates in its ‘bedtime’ ending, “Look at the dingo howling with might. See the dingo, he’s saying goodnight.”

 

boySome of my other favourite picture books published by Broome-based Indigenous publisher, Magabala Books are Once There Was a Boy by Dub Leffler (simply beautiful), Mad Magpie by Gregg Dreise and Our World Bardi Jaawi by One Arm Point Remote Community School.