Picture books enable children to escape and experience worlds quite unlike their own. Non-fiction narrative picture books enhance those journeys even further. The following collection entices young readers to gaze skyward, creep through leaf litter and explore worlds in and beyond their backyards.
Backyard is as it says; a whimsical exploration of a normal suburban backyard, that on closer inspection is anything but normal. ‘Sweet-tooth bats’ flit about the dusky evening sky, tawny frogmouths sit ‘as still as wood’. There is tiny movement everywhere and for one ‘sleep-moony child and star-eyed dog watching’, the world comes alive despite their close proximity to the city.
Visually sumptuous and satisfying, this picture book encourages mindfulness and evokes calm and imaginative thought. Captivating language coupled with sensory illustrations on every page will have youngsters revisiting this celebration of creatures great and small again and again.
Florette written & illustrated by Anna Walker (Penguin Random House Australia)
Mae moves to a new home, an apartment. She is sick of all the packing boxes but draws on many of them, particularly drawing daisies. She misses gathering things for her treasure jar. After going to the park, she finds a forest inside a florist but it is closed. A ‘stalk of green [is] peeping through a gap … a piece of forest’. It becomes a treasure for her jar. She goes on to grow a plant for her new (shared) garden.
Themes include moving home; making new friends; the importance of greenery, trees, gardens; and natural and built environments.
Children could compare and contrast the endpapers (there are different creatures in each).
They could consider the meaning of Florette and related words such as florist and forest.
Garden They could make a terrarium or a green wall – a vertical garden or area covered in ivy or vines, dotted with flowers including daisies, model toadstools, other foliage and small model or toy creatures e.g. rabbit, turtle, bird, ladybird.
Children could do some of what Mae does:
Decorate treasure jars and find precious items to fill them, perhaps a plant like Mae’s
Chalk drawings on asphalt or cardboard boxes
Set up a picnic
Use pebbles to make daisies
Mae’s movements could lead to making a story map – on paper, cardboard, or using an app.
Other books by Anna Walker include Today we have no Plans, Go Go & the Silver Shoes, Peggy, Starting School and Mr Huff.
Mum went to buy gumboots but she returned with a rabbit called Gumboots. His attributes are described positively at the start but the illustrations show otherwise
This is a cumulative tale with people joining in like in Pamela Allen’s Alexander’s Outing. There’s even a nod to the fountain of that book.
Humour Examples of humour include Gumboots who doesn’t stop to chat with anyone while escaping; the mother chasing him in towel; and the illustrations that sometimes tell a different story.
Illustrations Media: watercolour, pencil and oil paint
Freya Blackwood uses her signature spotted clothes and domestic details e.g. an ironing board. Red is used as a ‘splash’ colour and there is a worm’s eye view of the underground tunnel.
Themes community; simple outdoor pleasures; friends (even for rabbits); and how rabbits multiply.
Setting The creek scene is a peaceful interlude, a moment in time, shown by a bird’s eye view. ‘Mrs Finkel’s forehead uncrinkles’ there. The trees are described as a simile: ‘They are like giants with their long legs stuck in the ground.’
The endpapers of this picture book are like a board game, which children could play on.
Children could look at a doll’s house where the front wall is removed. They could make a cutaway diagram (where some of surface is removed to look inside) showing the inside of the house and tunnel (as in the last double page spread). Or they could make a model inside a shoebox lying on its side.
This tale is taken from the ballad of Swan Lake, a tragic love story of a princess transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer. The women are swans by day and humans by night. The princess plans to meet the prince at midnight at the ball. The sorcerer’s daughter is disguised as the Swan Queen and the prince chooses her as his bride.
The book is described as passion, betrayal and heartbreak in the Murray-Darling. Children may be able to identify the region from images of the area and the book.
The book is structured/played in III Acts, like the ballet. The written text is followed by pages of illustrations.
Children could listen to some of the ballet music e.g. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Theme; Saint-Saens’ The Dying Swan.
Ballet in pictures They could view some of the ballet.
Visual Literacy The colours are mainly monochromic, with red as a splash (feature) colour.
Camera angles show some variety: from underneath – red queen; from above – fleeing girl.
There are close-ups of the swan face and neck; black bird of prey.
Texture Children could emulate the texture through printmaking using leaves and sticks.
This picture book is Carole Wilkinson’s memoir of immigrating from Britain to Australia as part of the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, so it could also be regarded as an information book. Detail is shown to give verisimilitude.
Migration Carole Wilkinson packed her 101 glass animals and even tried to pack soil to take to Australia. Imagining they are migrating, children could be asked what treasured possessions they would take.
Compare/contrast Children could compare and contrast migration in the 1950s and 1960s with other ways of migrating to Australia in the past and present. They could use Popplet (a mind mapping tool http://popplet.com/ ) to organise their ideas.
Poem Carole Wilkinson wrote a poem about her empty house. Children could write a similar poem, including their circumstances and their emotions if leaving home.
Illustrator Liz Anelli says: ‘So much of her (Carole Wilkinson’s) tale rung true with my own journey and made it a delight to delve into. I loved researching details for the cruise ship they travelled on and especially enjoyed being able to ‘dress’ the characters in Anelli fabrics, sourced from my grandparents’ photo album.’
Some of her illustrations pay homage to John Brack’s paintings in style & colour and some of her other books are One Photo and Desert Lake.
Mopoke is structured using black and white alternating pages. The pages are well composed with the mopoke carefully positioned on each. The style is static, with a picture of mopoke in different poses. This style can also be seen in Sandcastle by the author/illustrator; and the Crichton shortlisted, I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon.
Humour appears throughout Mopoke e.g. ‘This is a wombat.’
The book can also be dark e.g. ‘Nopoke’, where both pages are black.
Children could perform the text as a performance poem (see the work of Sollie Raphael, teen Oz Slam Poetry champion, who has a book, Limelight).
Safe styrofoam printing (like lino cuts) Children could select one of the mopoke pictures or design their own to make a printing tool. They could cut the rim off a styrofoam plate; etch the mopoke shape using a blunt pencil, pen or stick; etch some texture; add paint; place the paper on top and press.
Poster Making The bold, striking illustrations reflect current trends in graphic design so children could make a poster of a mopoke in this style.
There’s an interesting relationship between Grandad and (possum-like but actual cat) Iggy. Iggy doesn’t want to emulate Grandad; he seems more aware, while Grandad often seems oblivious to what they see in the bush.
The author/illustrator has a detailed eye for natural bush sights and sounds such as plants, animals and birds and silhouettes and shadows are executed in a light colour. The style is reminiscent of Roland Harvey.
The bushland setting is an integral part of A Walk in the Bush. To enable children to experience this, teachers or parents could find an area where there is some bush. It may be part of a State Forest, nearby bushland or a bushy area within a local park or the school playground.
Sensory Wheel Students look, listen and use other senses to note the sounds, sights and other features of the bush e.g. eucalyptus leaves to crush and scribbly marks on trees. They could record sights, sounds, smells, feel/touch, taste (where safe) on a sensory wheel.
Children could create literary texts by selecting one of the senses to focus on. They write a brief sensory description of the bush using language generated from their experiences in the bush.
They could write this description onto a piece of paperbark (if accessible without causing damage to trees) or onto recycled paper or wrapping or scrapbooking paper that emulates the colour, content or texture of the description. (NB paperbark is also available from some kitchen suppliers)
Soundscape While in the bush, could listen to and identify bush sounds.
They create then a soundscape by listing five of the sounds and recording these. The free recording tool Audacity could be downloaded to create soundscapes http://www.audacityteam.org/download/.
The Art of Escaping by Erin Callahan is a captivating and actually super stressful story about a teenage girl who’s obsessed with escapology. Bring out references to Houdini! It’s actually a topic I’ve never read about in YA before, so I was extra keen to try this one out and loved how it wove in everyday highschool angst, friendship group complications, secret keeping, and (of course) a hobby that requires you to be straightjacketed and handcuffed and thrown in a pool.
The story follows Mattie who is determined to find the daughter of a late escape artist and be taught the art of escapology. This is a little complicated by her new mentor being super cranky and barely leaving the house…and also Mattie’s desperate need for no one she knows to EVER see her performing. Until a boy from school comes to one of her shows. Cue horror. But when they talk, the boy, Will, swears he won’t tell and offers a secret to Mattie so they can be sure neither will break. Will, school jock and sweetheart of one of the most popular girls ever…is gay. Will and Mattie soon fall into an easy friendship, where Will helps Mattie with her act, and also discovers things that he loves doing (like costume design) while Mattie thinks of ways to kickstart her brother out of his stalled life. They both want to find ways to be more than just boring and lifeless numbers in the world. And maybe death-defying act will help them escape their troubles — until those troubles catch up.
I did love the strong emphasis on friendship here! The two main characters aren’t a couple and while they both crush on other people irregularly through the book, it’s such a small part of the story. So nearly romance-free. It also ends up with an epic friendship group of a bunch of misfits from Mattie (who literally nearly drowns in chains and lockpicks for fun) and Will (closeted and anxious and lying to his girlfriend and unsure how to fix the messes he’s made) and Stella (super nerd girl who’s an ex-homeschooler) and Frankie (child genius who skipped two grades and literally no one talks to him). They were a great and dynamic group! Plus there were plenty of secondary characters who all felt fleshed out and interesting.
The scenes where Mattie’s learning how to pick locks are definitely amazing. There’s a twist on the “old cranky mentor” trope, with it being a young cranky (possibly agoraphobic) Japanese mentor, whose mother was the famous escape artist, but died in an unrelated accident many years ago. She unwillingly trains Mattie, but I did love their friendship, with the banter and insults flung around. I did not learn how to pick a lock though. Sad for me.
The story itself isn’t long, so the pace is pretty great! We follow Mattie (and the few chapters narrated by Will) as they manage school and college applications and also try to figure out how to keep their messy secrets from their families.
The Art of Escaping is definitely one to look out for! It really focuses on finding your passion and interests in life, trusting your friends, and picking death-defying careers because what’s a little adrenaline rush now and then, hmm?
You’re most welcome and thanks so much for having me.
What is your background and where are you based?
I’m based in Melbourne. I lived in Greece as a child but came to Australia as a non-English speaking migrant at around eight years old.
My work background is mostly journalism. I was a reporter at various newspapers (five years at the Herald Sun) and then a communications strategist for the union movement for five years. Since having kids I have had to take a step back from that sort of high-octane work.
How involved in the YA literary community are you?
I first became aware of the LoveOZYA community through author Nicole Hayes. I was a member of her writing group and as my manuscript progressed she spoke to me about where she thought it might fit and how wonderful and supportive people were.
I love reading YA, especially Australian YA, and following other writer’s journey on social media. I’ve found the LoveOZYA community inspiring and vibrant. I love being a part of it. There’s a real effort to support each other and this makes the sometimes insecure life of a writer easier. We celebrate each other’s wins and commiserate with difficulties.
Stone Girl (Penguin Random House) is a searing, unforgettable story. Could you tell us about the protagonist Sophie and the symbol of a ‘stone girl’?
As I write my second novel I realize that I’m interested in the triggers and experiences in life that change as. What needs to happen to transform a person from one thing to another? As a journalist, reporting straight news, I would be stunned by the things people did and wonder how they grew from a kid into this adult. What forms their decision making and choices?
Stone Girl follows Sophie’s life from 12 to 16 years old as she becomes someone society typically judges, despises and ultimately dismisses. The persona of Stone Girl is her survival mechanism in a world where there’s no one to rely upon but herself. Sophie soon comprehends her place and makes a number of decisions about who and how she must be in response. It’s about resilience. She toughens up, she becomes Stone Girl, and this is both positive and negative.
Hardening herself, especially against adults, serves to both protect her and isolate her because stony self-preservation cuts both ways. She doesn’t trust anyone. Doesn’t ask for help even though she often desperately needs it. Her Stone Girl persona is what she uses to hide her vulnerability. When she lifts her chin against the world then she can shut out the things that have happened to her. She uses her anger to protect her. But in the end, it’s what she does with the Stone Girl facade that makes this a story of redemption.
Most of us have a mask we wear in order to fit in and protect ourselves. It just happens that Sophie has to wear hers 24 hours a day.
Could you tell us about some significant other characters?
Gwen is one of my favourites. Girlfriends have been the backbone to my life. They’ve saved me many times over, from my sister to the besties I’ve known over the years. I love the closeness and trust that grows between some women. The friendships in the homes Sophie moves through are formed as fast as they must be abandoned but in Gwen, Sophie finds a true ally. It’s a friendship that underscores everything else. It doesn’t just disappear because there’s a love interest.
I think of it like an old western when there’s a shoot-out and friends protect themselves by standing back to back. Gwen and Sophie bond in the knowledge that, despite appearances, adults actually have no idea what they’re doing.
Spiral came to me when I was at the Varuna’s Writer’s House. I knew Sophie needed someone, possibly a love interest, but I couldn’t figure out who would be strong enough break through to her.
Then, as I strolled through Katoomba, Spiral’s form became clear. I saw what he looked like, his motivations and that, like Sophie, in a world of broken promises, he too needed someone to trust.
Writing about Spiral was fun, especially at first. He’s gorgeous! A fiery and enigmatic character that I was drawn to completely – his name serving as prophesy.
I’ve always loved books with gritty honest characters that both shock and charm and I try to write this way.
How did you create such authentic experiences in the homes Sophie had to live in and her spiral into such terrible situations?
This is fictional novel but I have borrowed heavily from my time as a teen growing up in group homes.
I tried to write the real story but felt unable to. Fiction freed me up and images and events appeared quite clearly to me; the rooms, the feelings, the flavor of being of being someone who lived that way. I put myself easily into Sophie’s shoes.
When I lived in the homes there were many younger kids and I’ve thought about them so often since. Sophie is how I imagined one life.
You’ve made drug-taking very appealing at times, e.g. chapter 22? How did you weigh up the risk of including this?
The truth is that before drugs destroy you, they feel good. That’s the trick. That’s why people keep taking them. If I pretended they were terrible all the way though then this would not be the realistic trajectory of addiction. It could be dismissed and then this would not be a true cautionary tale. Protectionism is not helpful for most teens, especially when you consider the type of world we live in right now.
How important is Sophie’s racial background to the story?
Her racial background and her estrangement from her Greek family contribute to her feeling of dislocation. She doesn’t belong there. She has no family here. She must let go of the past and carve her own way through the world.
Like Sophie, I grew up in Greece and left family behind. My Greek heritage and the memories of leaving my first home have significantly contributed to who I am today and I found it quite cathartic to include this in Sophie’s life.
What does she learn about family and others?
When she first goes into the homes Sophie is hopeful that she will once again find family, either with a social worker or with her Baba. However this is not to be. Sophie soon understands that in a world where the only constant is change, she can only rely on herself.
With the kids in the homes there’s a unique bond that makes them a kind of family – albeit temporary.
Could you explain what turned her situation around towards the end of the novel – and why have you chosen this form of redemption?
The fight to survive that carried Sophie through is her saving grace. I actually didn’t know how it was going to end until three or four drafts in. I just kept thinking, this is not the story of a victim. And finally I realized what had to happen.
Kids in care, people with addictions and the homeless are either viewed with pity or fear and I wanted to show how we should never underestimate anyone. People are amazing! They want to survive and many can achieve much given a chance.
You thank God in the Acknowledgements. Why have you done this?
Doing something you love, answering a calling to the self, which is what writing feels like to me, can mean many sacrifices in other areas of life. Financial, physical, mental; you turn yourself inside out. I found myself praying more. Especially after writing I feel quite close to ‘God’. This isn’t in a religious way but more a universal spiritual one.
Who would you particularly like to see read your novel?
Everyone. I need to fund my next novel.
But seriously, I guess if I was choosing readers based on getting the message across then I’d hope people from the world that deals with kids like these. Social workers, kids in care, etc.
I’ve also loved the responses I’ve received from those who are surprised about this world. I would like there to be a common understanding about the fact that hundreds, if not thousands of kids live this way right now in Australia. A public conversation about kids in care could finally bring change to this difficult, misunderstood and largely ignored section of Australian society. That, for me, would be a dream come true. I’d love to know that others wouldn’t feel the way I did when I was living in government care in the early 1990s.
Have you already had any memorable responses from readers to Stone Girl?
A redit post my husband put up went viral and I was shocked and amazed by the response. Social workers, lawyers, ex homes and foster kids from around the world commented and it solidified what I had always suspected. Despite the fact we don’t often acknowledge the plight of kids without parents, the situation matters to many. It’s a private pain. Or a job they really care about. Or they don’t know how to help someone… Some of them contacted me after reading Stone Girl, sending quite heartfelt messages. As an author, this is the best feeling in the world.
Putting aside the issue of kids in care, I wrote this book because gritty subjects, love at ‘the edge of a cliff’, characters living dangerously is what I find interesting to read. I’ve been floored by the generous reviews so far, especially those where people say they couldn’t stop reading. The number one reason for writing a fictional book has to be entertainment, doesn’t it?
This was the first review I received and I remember the relief I felt. Rob at Lamont Books really got what Stone Girl was about.
Wow! This is a must read novel for older teens, but a word of caution – it is definitely a YA title aimed at teens 15 years and older.
It took me back to my school days reading Go Ask Alice, which I found totally confronting, but at the same time an educational and inspirational cautionary tale. Stone Girl is certainly that as it takes us on Sophie’s downhill journey through institutional care as a ward of the state from when she is 12 until she is 16.
It is written with a real understanding and depth of character, as it is inspired by the real life experiences of the debut author, journalist Eleni Hale. Many dark topics are covered including death, poverty, heartbreak and substance dependence. But shining through the story is identity, survival, resilience and ultimately a coming of age empowerment.
I will not give the story away but suffice to say you cannot help but be swept along by the incredible Sophie, as the world continues serving up crap to her. She often stumbles and is so very nearly broken, but we continue to hold out hope for her throughout the story.
Stone Girl will change the way you look at the homeless, and hopefully enlighten young minds as to the plight of wards of the state.
This is a brilliant debut, but as it does contain extreme language, mature themes and substance abuse, it is suited to older teens, 15 years and up.
How can we protect young people and help if we encounter someone in a situation like Sophie’s or someone at risk?
From memory and for reasons I can’t really explain, kids in care seemed to be treated differently, like no-hopers. I don’t know if it was the way we dressed or looked. Maybe we were too loud or other times we seemed too quiet and uncommunicative. I just know that people changed towards you once they knew you were a kid who lived like that. From cops, to teachers, to people on the street, I was often hyper-aware of being a ‘lesser other’.
So in terms of talking to them in an encounter, simply show respect even if you don’t understand them, hold your judgment before you really know them (perhaps after as well) and don’t assume the worst.
Also important is to support the organizations set up to help them such as the ‘Make It 21’ campaign that seeks to extend support from 18 years old to 21. This could lessen the shocking number of government kids who end up homeless, drug addicted and/or mentally ill.
It’s really hard to get through to someone like Sophie once they hardened up. They guard strictly against pity and judgment. The communication channels are nearly closed. Improving their experiences in the ‘system’ is obviously an important way to avoid their slide into the margins of society.
I don’t have all the answers for this – I don’t think anyone does – but talking about it publically is a good start. Don’t let their lives be our society’s dirty secret any longer. Let their issues matter the same way that other’s kid’s problems are discussed regularly in public forums.
What are you writing now?
I’m writing the sequel to Stone Girl. What happens after you leave the home system and your support is cut off? What will Sophie do now that she is out in the world and responsible for herself in every way? She has no family and must scrape together the money she needs to live. Where will this new fight for survival lead her?
Fawkes by Nadine Brandes was one of my highly anticipated release for this! I was absolutely not disappointed! It was full of darkness, magic, assassination plots, and really creative and unique twists on the infamous Guy Fawkes. Because yes! This is a historical retelling. But with magic. I also didn’t know much about the origin of Guy Fawkes, but I know the author did a lot of research (um, except the magic part didn’t happen in London at that time…well, I mean, maybe it did. Who can say for sure). This was such a lusciously detailed reimagining of London and I could wait to see how the story would unfold.
Thomas Fawkes lives in 17th century London, where the world is ruled by two opposing forces of magicians, and if he doesn’t get his mask and join one side…he’ll have no way to cure the plague turning his face to stone. His father, Guy Fawkes, was supposed to turn up to his school’s ceremony and gift his sone a mask, but the man (who Thomas barely knows anyway) never shows up. Thomas isn’t interested in dying of this illness, so he goes in search of his father. And then he discovers Guy Fawkes deep in the midst of organising the assassination of King James. The two opposing magician clans, the Keepers versus the Igniters, are destroying this world with their war, but it’s said if the Keepers kill the Igniters — it’ll stop the plague. Thomas has no choice but to help…right? They need 36 barrels of gunpowder and no betrayals.
Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King adn the Parliment;
Threescore barrels of powder below,
Poor old England to overthrow.
By God’s providence he was catch’d,
With a dark lantern and a burning match.
The story is narrated by 16 year old Thomas Fawkes, who is hopelessly honourable. He is like the ultimate beautiful “I shall do my duty!” son and I loved him. All the gentlemanly pledges and goodness! He’s literally dying of the plague, blind in one eye, but he’s still very particular about honour and his sword and being treated like a true man. He’s completely ostracised because of his plague infection, and he does his best to hide it. I liked how it twisted the London Black Plague by making it this magic-infected-illness that slowly turned you to stone.
I really felt for Thomas and his confusion about whether to join his father or oppose murder. It was definitely a tug of loyalties and you really feel it as Thomas tries to decide!
The magic system was also awesome! It’s based on masks and colours! Basically you’re either a Keeper (controlling one magic at a time) or an Igniter (balancing multiple and lead by the voice of the White Light) and everyone wears a mask which helps link them to controlling the colours in things. So if your power is Brown, then you’ll control dirt and earth easily. I thought it was pretty clever and original!
There are also plenty of father and son drama issues. But of course. There’s nothing like an assassination plot that’s complicated by awkward fathers and sons who hate not being taken seriously.
I also really enjoyed the secondary cast, but particularly Emma! She’s a badass girl from Thomas’ school who constantly hides behind a mask (why?! Most everyone else takes theirs off sometimes!) and in the end she and Thomas accidentally end up working together — him trying to get information from the lord she’s staying with to use against the king, and her having Thomas as a servant guiding her through London while she tries to get hired as an artist. Their relationship is NOT smooth, which is always a lot of fun! Bring on the slowburn.
I loved the intense array of elements in the story too. From gunpowder and conspiracies, to disguises and miracles and plagues. There’s discussions on race and I felt the opposing magicians were a bit of a twist on the religious unrest in England at that time. Ultimately Fawkes is one you want to be looking out for! It’s available for preorder now and out in August!
The Unpredictability Of Being Human by Linni Ingemundsen is beautiful tale told in forthright prose about an undiagnosed autistic girl living in Norway and realising her “normal” family is actually hiding a lot of upside-down secrets. It’s such a bittersweet book that’s definitely here to tug on your heartstrings. The unique perspective of Malin is so heartwarming as it is heartbreaking as she just tries to fit in and…fails. This is definitely the kind of book you want to pick up, as it’s full of heart, complex characters, and some twists that will leave your heart aching.
Malin is 14 years old when the story takes off, and tells her perspective in diary format. She also starts off doing an assignment that asks what she would do if she were God for the day. She chooses fixing the perfect bag of popcorn, because if God hasn’t fixed the world already, then maybe she’s not supposed to either? Her life is pretty normal, in her opinion, with a mum who drinks a lot (but it’s good for her heart) and a dad who never stops yelling and her older brother who ignores her or is super mean. But also probably hiding something, as she soon finds out. And after her mother goes way for a while on a mysterious “business trip”, Malin’s world starts to fall apart. she can’t seem to keep friends at school without making unforgivable social blunders, she keeps getting physically hurt, and her beloved cousin Magnus isn’t always there to point her in the right direction. And the boy she likes? Well it’s possible she’s done something to make him hate her too. Why is life so utterly and unfathomably impossible?
Malin’s narration was definitely my favourite part of the book! She’s sweet and endearing and narrates in a really straight forward way. She’s so meticulous about the time and in love with her super advanced watch. While it’s not mentioned she’s autistic on the page (although confirmed by sources), she has so many accurate habits of an autistic individual and it’s refreshing to see her exist outside of stereotypes and be dimensional and complex. She’s surrounded by people, but so lonely, and always falls in with the weird kids at school…until they leave her too. Trying to keep up with the popular (probably evil) girl, Frida, is hard enough, but Malin keeps being lured into doing regrettable things while the girls laugh at her. You really ache for Malin and then cheer when she finds people who do care about her: like her amazing cousin Magnus.
The book is definitely about family over romance. Malin doesn’t pick up on the undercurrents happening inside her family, like how her older brother isn’t in school anymore or her mother’s drinking problem. But it affects her hugely and the uncertainty is really hard on her mental health. I did like the little hint of her crush on Reuben and she does a lot of googling about kissing…for “just in case”.
The narration is quite simplistic, but I think it captures the story and heart of it so well! It’s not flowery, so it just pulls you right in and since the book is so short, you end up devouring page after page.
The Unpredictability of Being Human is a fantastic book that will warm and break your heart in equal measures. It doesn’t have a wild plot, and it’s more a little peek through the window into Norway, where Malin is moving from child to teen and trying to understand things that will never make perfect sense: like the unfairness of suffering, of love, of betrayal and loss.
Finding Granny is a touching and heartwarming story about a young girl dealing with her Granny’s stroke, yet underneath the surface it so much more about the emotional impact it has on every character in the book, and even those behind the scenes. Granny’s convalescence is beautifully captured through the uplifting illustrations and the playful tone in which the story is told. The words were artfully written by debut author, Kate Simpson; mum, writer, engineer and podcaster, who joins us as a part of her blog tour to talk about her journey thus far. Thanks, Kate! 🙂
Thanks for talking with us, Kate, and congratulations on your debut picture book, Finding Granny!
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be a children’s writer?
I didn’t always dream of being a writer. I always loved books and thought it must be amazing to be an author, but it simply didn’t occur to me that this was something I could do. I felt like writing was something for people with ideas, and I didn’t have them.
When my children were born, I took maternity leave with each, and then worked part time. With less happening at work, I started looking for something more to challenge me intellectually and creatively. Because my own children were so young, I was reading mountains of wonderful picture books and somehow, something just clicked and I thought that perhaps writing for children could be the thing I was looking for. And it was.
What does having Finding Granny published mean to you? How do you hope it will touch its readers?
It’s incredibly exciting to have a book published and to be able to see it and touch it and read it to my children. Like many writers, I’ve been chipping away at this over a number of years and it’s such a thrill to see the fruits of my labour in physical form.
In terms of how it might touch its readers, I feel like it’s the type of book that may find a different place in each reader’s heart depending on their own experience. A family touched by stroke or by another illness or disability might get different things out of Finding Granny than a family with different experiences. But I hope that the love between Edie and Granny really shines through for everyone and that the emotion of the story rings true.
Do you have any personal experience with art therapy? How much research did you need to undertake in developing your story, combining the emotional and physical impact a stroke has on a person, and how art therapy can aid in their recovery?
I don’t have any experience of art therapy. In fact, in my first draft of Finding Granny, Granny underwent physiotherapy rather than art therapy. But I just couldn’t find a way to bring out Granny’s playfulness in that setting in the way that I wanted. I don’t remember how the idea of art therapy came to me, but I remember doing a quick Google search and finding a news article from the UK about an art therapy group for stroke survivors that was holding an exhibition. From there, it just clicked.
I did do a little bit more research after that. There’s not a great deal of detail in my book, but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t including any glaring factual errors. It was also interesting to read people’s personal stories of creating art after stroke. Some were already artists, who needed to re-learn their skill with their non-dominant hand after the dominant hand was affected by stroke. Others had never had any experience of art before beginning art therapy after stroke. I came across a few news articles and blog posts that included photos of the art work created, and I was blown away.
As a first time author, how did you find the publishing process with EK Books? Were there any surprises or challenges along the way?
I really didn’t know a huge amount about the process going in. The few things I’d gathered from conferences and friends were that it would be slow and that I would be involved very little. Largely, I suppose that was true. There were certainly gaps of many months where I heard nothing at all. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that my publisher at EK Books did consult me on the choice of illustrator and that I was given the opportunity to comment on the roughs. As for the waiting, it seems like that’s just part of every stage of the publishing journey. It’s excruciating, but it can’t be avoided.
Gwynneth Jones is obviously a talented illustrator, absolutely capturing the heart, joy and love in Finding Granny. What was it like collaborating with her, and what do you love most about the way she has portrayed your sensitive story?
What’s not to love about Gwynne’s illustrations? I remember in the early days, my publisher emailed me some rough pencil sketches that Gwynne had done of Granny and Edie, and I was just over the moon. She has really brought the characters to life and I just can’t imagine them any way other than as she has drawn them. That’s definitely the thing I love most about her work.
In some ways collaboration seems a strange word to use for the process of creating a picture book. Of course, in the end the words and text work together to create the reader’s experience of the book, but as the book is created we really work largely alone. I created the text before Gwynne was involved at all, and most of her work was done independently of me as well. The publisher did give me the opportunity to comment on the roughs, and I made a couple of comments, but I don’t remember asking for any substantial changes (Gwynne may remember it differently!).
Do you have a favourite memory with one of your grandparents?
Many! My maternal grandmother lived with us for much of my childhood, and I remember her fretting over us climbing trees and jumping over rocks. My sister and I took positive delight in terrorising her with our exploits, but now that I have kids of my own, I can absolutely understand where she was coming from!
You’re one of the trio in the popular podcast for kids, One More Page. Has there been a stand out moment, or piece of advice from a guest that changed you or your thinking, or reinforced what you do as a children’s writer/presenter?
I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away from the podcast is how incredibly supportive the children’s book community is. We’ve had organisations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators going out of their way to promote what we’re doing, and established authors and large publishers really getting on board to be part of our interviews and our Kids’ Capers segment. And then of course there’s the constant cheer squad of emerging writers, teachers, librarians and general book lovers who listen to the show and share it on social media, tell their friends and send us messages via our website. It’s such a delight to be a part of such a wonderful community.
Anything else of excitement you’d like to add?
Everything seems a little bit exciting at the moment. I’m doing my best to remember it all so that I can feed off that in the moments when I’m alone in my lounge room tearing my hair out over my latest manuscript. I have another couple of picture books coming out over the next two years, and I also have some ideas for some middle grade novels that I’m keen to get started on. I’m really hoping to build this little spark of success into a career.
Thanks so much for the interview, Kate! Congratulations again on your new release, Finding Granny, and enjoy the rest of your book blog tour!
This book is structured chronologically with a focus on inventors and aviators we’ve heard of including Lawrence Hargrave, Nancy Bird, Charles Kingsford Smith, Rev John Flynn of the Flying Dr Service; and those we may not have heard of such as Dr William Bland (who appeared before Hargrave) in the 1850s.
The structure and writing styles provide variety: words in the aviators’ voices; 3 Amazing Facts about most aviators; and ‘Did You Know?’ columns. The book acknowledges difficulties for women in the past who wished to fly.
Some interesting information from the book:
George Taylor In 1909 he flew a glider from Narrabeen, NSW. His wife Florence also flew, tucking her long skirts into her bloomers. At age ten Taylor wrote an essay, ‘The Future of Flying Machines in Australia’. He was a cartoonist and suffered from epilepsy.
Bert Hinkler In 1921 he flew the nine hours from Sydney to Bundaberg wearing a suit and tie. His RAF flying instructor was Cpt W.E. Johns, who wrote the Biggles books.
Like Lawrence Hargrave, children could make box kites. The ‘e-how’ website could be helpful. It suggests using dowel, bendy straws and a plastic/vinyl tablecloth. https://www.ehow.com/how_4882168_make-box-kites.html Alternatively they could make gliders or paper planes.
Decorative Patterning is used for sections such as J is for Jail and N is for Nurture. Children could select an alternative description for one of the letters e.g. C is for Convicts (instead of Cook) and create decorative patterning in Bern Emmerichs’ style.
Like last year’s shortlisted book by this author, Gigantic Book of Genes, this is a glossy science publication with high quality photos. It includes seamless explanations of left and right with clear examples for children to understand.
It includes a clever idea where children hold their hands out in front and touch their thumbs. Their left hand forms an L shape (helping them remember which hand is left).
The author recognises that it is easy to mix up left and right and looks at situations where right may connote good and left signify weak or bad. For example, in Albania it has been a crime to be left-handed.
It features symmetry, spirals, clockwise and anticlockwise, and the compass.
The author includes incredible information, such as ‘Nearly all kangaroos are left-handed… Parrots use their left feet to pick up food.’ ‘Female cats tend to be right-handed, and male cats … left’. And when driving, island nations tend to drive on the left-hand side of the road.
Min is a microbe. She is small. Very small. In fact, so small that you’d need to look through a microscope to see her.
I know from comments by a young family that this tactile, interactive book about microbiology has great appeal. The title is provocative – tempting and almost urging children to lick the book. Min the microbe guides the reader through the informative content, which is well designed with bright comic style illustrations and high-quality photographs. The information is clever, irreverent and quirky. It probably reflects the creators – a team consisting of writer Idan (quiet loud thoughts), Julian (who likes comics and toast) and Linnea, the scientist.
Children could consider, ‘Where will you take Min tomorrow?’ Like the book, they could take Min on a journey using a mix of photographic backgrounds, cartoon characters and written text.
Hygiene is taught and encouraged using reverse psychology. Teachers and parents may use the book to reinforce good hygiene (without losing the text’s inherent appeal).
Koala by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Julie Vivas (Walker Books)
Koala is most appropriate for the very young. It traces the experiences of a young koala achieving independence.
The writing is both literary and factual: providing parallel texts which are particularly useful for children who prefer one style over the other and to expose readers to both forms. The illustrations are distinctive for their rounded lines and shapes.
Koala is part of Walker Books’ excellent ‘Nature Storybooks’ series. Others include Claire Saxby’s Big Red Kangaroo, Emu and Dingo; and Sue Whiting’s Platypus. This could also be a good opportunity to introduce the classic Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall.
The Big Book of Antarctica by Charles Hope (Wild Dog Books)
This is another big, glossy production from Wild Dog Books. The photos are exceptional. There is minimal written text and key words are shown in large coloured font.
Antarctica is studied in the Australian curriculum and this book covers explorers, scientists, transport, ice, plants (moss, algae, plankton), and much about animals and birds, e.g. giant petrels who vomit on anything they think is a threat (page 37). Climate change and global warming also feature (page 60)
Ice is looked at on page 22. There are many experiments about ice in other books and online to extend this subject.
Laughter, mishaps, laughing at mishaps; these are the grist of good picture books. Throw in a few feathered birds, the odd duck and a penguin or two and you have the makings of hours of picture book fun pre-schoolers and avian lovers everywhere are sure to get in a flap about.
McKinlay’s predilection for waddling birds works a treat in this re-release paperback about an exciting new addition down at the zoo. Every animal is a-twitter and a-flutter because the penguins are coming only trouble is no one is exactly certain what a penguin is. Supremely illustrated pages depict each animal’s supposition of these new-comers, each description becoming more implausible and exaggerated than the last until even our accepted idea of a penguin is altered from boring little black and white bird to Hawaiian shirt wearing, pizza gobbling, party animal. The Zookeeper tries to set the record straight, supplying his charges and readers with sensible genuine penguin facts only to be ultimately comically upstaged. Oceans of fun and colour with plenty of apt facts and enough animal imagery to fill a real life zoo.
Leah On The Offbeat by Becky Albertalli is a complex story featuring messy teens facing the end of highschool and their worlds changing (for the good or bad). It’s a follow-up to the absolutely famous Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda! And you get to be back with the old Simon gang in Creekwood high (although now we know who the infamous “Blue” is that Simon was in love with in the first book). It was bittersweet reading this because this is the end of this little universe Albertalli created. And I’m going to miss this epic friend squad so much.
The story is narrated by Leah this time, and she’s a really introverted and sarcastic girl who keeps everyone at a distance because she’s scared to love too deeply. Simon is her ultimate BFF, but lately things haven’t been the same in their friendship group. Leah hasn’t told anyone she’s bisexual. She’s not ashamed, she just…doesn’t know how to say it. And she has (and has always) a mega crush on one of the girls in their friend group, who’s dating a guy…so that seems doomed. Leah doesn’t want to say goodbye when highschool ends. She doesn’t want her mum to remarry. She doesn’t want to risk putting her self out there, like with her art, or drumming, or emotions. And she always feels on the outside since she’s fat (and loves her body) and isn’t rich like all her friends. As her friend group tenses up with some fights and breakups and secrets, Leah has to figure out whether to fight them — or fight for them.
While it’s super cute and lovely, it’s not a “sweet” book! Leah is a pretty brash person and isn’t afraid to be herself. And she has people take or leave her: unforgiving and hard (totally Slytherin) and it takes a lot to win her trust. She’s pretty relatable though, because moving on is very hard, especially after high school. She’s also super arty and I loved seeing her explore her interests there.
The storyline also explores sexuality and coming out, which is a common theme in Albertalli’s books. Leah’s coming out is very different to Simon’s, which I think is great because it shows there’s no “one way” to be part of the LGBTQIA community, whether you’re closeted (for your choosing or for safety or because you’re not ready) or whether you’re out and how you choose to display that. I think these storylines are super important and can be really empowering! Leah, however, definitely does mess up with how she treats other members of the queer community. It’s sad and hard to read that part, but this book isn’t about perfect characters. It’s flawed and Leah is flawed (although I do firmly think the story needed to have her apologise more than she did).
Leah On The Offbeat is part coming-of-age, part coming-out, and part the end-of-an-era. It’s very character driven with a soft-toned plot, and there are so many moments to absolutely crack up laughing over. It features flawed characters and tough decisions and that terrifying in-between time of finishing high school and looking toward college and wondering if it’s the right time to chase the person you love.
Language and social cues can often be tricky to identify when the intention or motivation is not clear or masks a double meaning. Assumptions can also very easily lead to misunderstandings, so communication and an open mind are key. These two picture books so astutely point out our human errors in the most hilarious and relatable ways. Must reads!
When small does not mean insignificant. When honesty must not be ignored. When puns should never be misconstrued. Duck!A story of a farmyard disaster in the name of ego…and a bruised one at that!
Masterful duo Meg McKinlay and Nathaniel Eckstrom bring this double entendre to light in their hilarious tale of mindless, obnoxious beasts and a noble Duck. A small green and brown duck heeds a hefty warning to his larger fellow farm mates – with a bold shout, “Duck!” Totally oblivious to his intentions, and the oncoming disaster flying through the air (a clever ploy to get readers joining in on the action!), the animals believe they are being named ‘Duck’, but of course they think they’re better than that. ‘“Duck?” The cow frowned. Dont’ be ridiculous! You are a duck and he is a horse and I am a cow. You see – you have funny webbed feet and I have these fine cloven hooves…”’ Becoming increasingly frustrated at their inability to understand, plus their constant insults, Duck has one final crack but to no avail. And when everyone finally realises their mistake, including Duck, well, it’s too late.
Duck!is a perfect example of the importance of communication, of how easily a simple word can be misunderstood, but also of the impact of character judgement and narcissism. McKinlay’s narrative is lively, haughty and amusing – aptly supported by Eckstrom’s earthy colour palette and smug-looking characters.
A brilliant read aloud for engaging preschool children with plenty of learning and discussion opportunities. This book will definitely get their attention!
You know you’re in for a treat when it comes to this infallible author – illustrator duo. Plus, with the success of the first in the trilogy, Triangle, there’s no doubt that Square will be equally enticing.
Barnett and Klassen once again hit the nail on the head with their keen eyes of observation for human blunders. Imagine the surprise Square faced when told by Circle that he was a genius! A complicated communication mess of assumption, on Circle’s part, and Square’s withholding of the truth lands him in his own mess of a job trying to perfect a block sculpture of Circle. But he simply pushes blocks, not shapes them. He is not a genius. The universe must work in mysterious ways because somehow, Square pulls it off. Perhaps he might withhold the truth for a little while longer!
This tale of an accidental genius is just genius! The combination of expressive language, slick sepia-toned palette and simplicity of shapes, with the added bonus of thought-provoking humour works so brilliantly to give a reading experience that appeals to all ages. The books in this series are collector’s items that will shape a young generation into well-rounded, level-headed human beings.
Running With Lions by Julian Winters is a super cute romance that celebrates diversity and gay identities. It’s also super sporty which isn’t something I come across a lot in YA, so it was cool reading about a team learning how to be close and work together like a family, but also still working out how they fit together and relate. The team is about acceptance: no matter how you are or who you love. And it was so nice to read about! There’s tension and there’s mistakes and there’s devastation…but it’s ultimately an actual happy book with plenty of cute moments and some great messages.
The story follows Sebastian Hughes as he sets off for soccer camp and discovers he’s been lumped with his once-childhood-best-friend, Emir Shah. Trouble is, they’re not friends anymore. Emir is cold and indifferent and Sebastian doesn’t really know what went wrong between them. All he knows is that this is his last year of highschool to try and make the Lions team great, possibly land the captain position, and also figure out what comes next for him after he graduations. Pressure is building as everyone expects him to be the “good kid”, the one who keeps them all together and in line. No one even knows Sebastian is bi and he has trouble saying out loud to himself. Sebastian is left to try and fit Emir into the team, make him a better soccer player, and also try to patch things between them…except maybe he doesn’t just want to be friends with Emir this time. Maybe Sebastian wants a lot more.
One of the biggest themes in this book is: acceptance and respect. I love how it talks about both, not just wanting people to approve of your relationship with whoever you love, but also respecting you no matter what. It’s pretty cool that the coach of the Lions built the team to be, almost, a refuge for kids who struggled to fit in other places because of their identities. The team also features teens of different nationalities and religions. Emir, the love interest, is English-Pakistani and religious. (He also seems to have a bit of social anxiety.) Everyone comes from different backgrounds, with different hurdles to face, and they definitely don’t always get along — but they try.
There’s plenty of soccer scenes in the book, but it’s balanced with lots of dialogue and the good ol’ setting of a bunch of teens at summer camp. So wow yes do they get up to some mischief. If you’re not particularly sporty, you’d still enjoy this for the characters!
Sebastian was a bit of a “good guy” but he definitely isn’t bland! He’s struggling so much with wondering what the future holds and also internalised fear that coming out will change what people think of him. His relationship with Emir moves pretty quickly, but since they were childhood friends, you definitely feel the connection fast. I also loved that it explored Emir’s backstory too. How he’s working hard at soccer to please his dad but he isn’t sure this is him. The book has a lot to say on following your heart.
Running With Lions is a really fun, summery read with a powerful message and plenty of banter!
A perfect explosion of fun and colour can be found in this first book for young readers to follow a tiny mouse across a vast array of places, objects and animals. That’s if they can spot it! Red House Blue House Green House Tree House presents its audience with a jolly rhyming lilt about colours whilst also sneakily integrating a range of concepts in counting, sorting, sizes, and science. Godwin cleverly portrays a world that is both new and familiar, exciting readers along the way with her invitations for interaction. The illustrations by Jane Reiseger are brilliantly vibrant, fluid and oh-so child friendly with their wash and loose line technique and cheeky little scuttering mouse! From a number of coloured petals in the garden bed to floppy rabbit ears, a plate of fruit, tiny darting silver fish and one gigantic whale.
So many questions to ponder and giggles to be had, leaving a lasting impression and so many reasons to revisit Red House Blue House Green House Tree House over and over again. Rich, energetic fun and stimulation to engage emotional connections for children from age two.
Another gorgeous collaboration between Jane Godwin and Anna Walker, this time in Go Go and the Silver Shoes. As her name suggests, Go Go is always on the go-go as an active and independent young girl. Destined to be a trail blaizer of the fashion world, Go Go is creative when it comes to re-fashioning her bigger brothers’ hand-me-downs. And it doesn’t matter what anyone, aka Annabelle, thinks! But one day she is allowed to choose the most beautiful silver, sparkly shoes. Naturally, they go-go everywhere on family adventures, until, one of them is swiftly gone-gone. Godwin masterfully tinkers with Go Go’s approaches to her lost-shoe conundrum as she deals with different pieces of advice and opinions. Go Go has both a mature and self confident side to her personality whilst also just being a kid, as perfectly rendered in Anna Walker’s illustrations. The beautifully subdued colour-palette with pops of red, in Walker’s characteristically phenomenal paint, cut and collage style, aptly portrays the sensible, independent yet playful lead character. And those silver, sparkly shoes! Certainly putting a gleam in every little girl’s eye! There is also this clever parallel storyline interwoven between the pages, adding yet another dimension of interest as to the outcome of the missing shoe. Brilliant!
Go Go and the Silver Shoes is a story that is meant to be! The universe may work in mysteriously wonderful ways, but it would certainly be expected that any child from age four will just fall in love with this one.
For children fortunate enough to grow up with grandparents the bonds they create can be intense and everlasting. Should something happen to their beloved grandparent(s), accepting that change whether through loss, illness or disability may be difficult to cope with. This handful of picture books celebrates the many golden moments grandparents provide invariably enriching their grandchildren’s lives whilst also gently exploring ways to cope with the inevitable experience of change.
This is another glorious picture book by the gifted North American duo, Terry and Eric Fan. Ocean Meets Sky is a sumptuously articulated story about a small boy’s way of remembering his grandfather and dealing with his passing. Suffused with heart-hugging illustrations, the simple narration, which centres on a young boy searching for his grandfather aboard a boat he built himself, escorts readers to the moon and back, cultivating hope and collecting wonderment along the way. The hardback version, embossed with gilt images, comes with a gorgeous, eye-catching dust cover which is almost reason enough to open it and venture in. Collectable and memorable, full points for this magical and reassuring reading experience.
Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian is a tale of darkness, oppression, and princesses who won’t be beaten down. It’s more of a political fantasy than a swords-clashing-and-people-screaming one, and I found it very captivating and full of schemers and careful plots. It features a captured country, a princess humiliated and tortured every day by her enemies as a trophy, and the complexities of needing to make a statement by killing a prince…but unfortunately falling for that prince at the same time. And isn’t that cover just stunning?!
The story follows Theodosia, who’s been a captive in her own castle after enemies torn her country apart, killed her mother, and proceeded to being a vicious reign. Theo is mocked at court, whipped for her people’s transgressions if they dare try to rebel, and given a crown of ash during festivities so everyone remembers she’s worth nothing. She’s now sixteen and desperate. And after they force her to kill the rebel who’s also her father…Theo is ready to plan ways to fight back. She is a pawn, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be a weapon in the dark — especially with the help of a childhood friend, pirates, and her downtrodden people.
The world building was the standout! It actually takes time to show us languages and cultures and built this complex world of oppression and lush beauty. I felt really drawn into the world after only a few chapters. Plus it had a lot of fantastic details so everything seemed super vivid!
The contrast of the opulent life vs the horror the conquerors deal out was so well written. Theo’s people are little more than slaves while she is a trophy, tortured daily for the crimes of her people but kept alive despite the horror she has to go through. She’s like lavished in pretty dresses and wears pretty makeup and goes to banquets and has books. Her “best friend” is one the daughter of a very powerful dude and she’s all pretty and light and flippant. To the court, Theo pretends to be satisfied with her life as a caged bird. But then in the background, we see the horror and torment the conquerors throw at their enslaved people. There are murders and brutal labour and anyone who even looks like they might be plotting something is executed. The contrast was vicious and vivid.
The magic is elemental style, but they channel it through gems which I thought was a nice deviation from the norm!
Theo herself was a character you quickly feel sorry for and root for her to get out. She’s scared to plot for her freedom, of course, but desperate to prove herself as still loyal to her people after having to fake being submissive to the enemy for 10 years. She wants to kill the evil king, but what if she has to take down people she cares about who are in the way? Like her flippant friend or the handsome prince who seems just as upset by his father’s horrific rule as Theo is? There’s lots of moral dilemmas and stretched loyalties which makes for a stressful (in a good way!) read.
It is dark, but not super so on page. The darkness is more in the backstory and eluded to, although it’s still powerful.
Ash Princess has such a stunning setting and a lot of potential as a series starter. The ending is loaded with threads to explore and questions to answer, so you’ll be desperate for book 2!
Sometimes curiosity can land you in trouble. But it is the being brave part that will ultimately lead to triumph. These few picture books show children that exploration is a healthy thing to help overcome fear or uncertainty. And they are a ‘hole’ lot of fun, too!
Be sure to also check out Dimity’s great list of Picture Books that Celebrate Overcoming Doubts.
Squirrel starts the line up of dangling animals overly curious about a long-drop hole that lies in the middle of the track. Teetering on the edge of total panic about the presumed formidable, black-holed monster within, Squirrel cries out for help, only to drag Ostrich and three chattering monkeys into the lightly-suspended quandary. A brave and clever field mouse makes the call, ensuing a deep suspension of baited breath amongst characters and readers alike. Luckily, the ‘monster’ isn’t interested in animals for tea.
Brown’s delightful rhyming couplets come with a sensory feast of emotive and visual language to fill you with empathy, wonder, and even a few giggles. The illustrations by Lucia Masciullo are whimsical and witty in the face of perceived danger. The Hole is beautifully alluring, brilliantly enlightening and wonderfully heartwarming for children from age three.
I love the play on reality and literal meanings behind this story of rehoming a lost hole. Charlie doesn’t realise that picking up a hole and putting it in his pocket, and backpack, are the worst places to have a hole. So he boldly sets off to find it a new owner. Young readers will already be amused at the thought, ‘you can’t pick up a hole!’, and now they are left to wonder who would want it and how it could possibly be useful. Well, Charlie greets a whole lot of people who are clearly NOT interested in the hole, such as the arachnid and reptile store owner, the boat builder, the seamstress, gardener, and doughnut maker. So, who is?
Canby’s energetic, sharp and unconventional narrative paired with her cartoonish, fluid illustrations complete the story that allow children to open their minds to the absurd, and also assess some very real and practical concepts. The Hole Story makes for great discussion and learning opportunities, as well as a fun and wacky adventure of finding a place to belong.
Curiosity did not get the cat, in this case, because Scaredy Cat, as the name suggests, is too scared to face even the meekest of things. A little girl’s four-legged friend shies away from sight in every scene, only to reveal its white, fluffy paws and tail in a terrified, obscure stupor. Gallagher’s delectable repetitive rhyme cajoles us along chasing poor Scaredy Cat through bees, towering trees and Granny’s super-duper sneeze. Hoses, wandering noses and costumed kids, striking poses. Each verse beginning with, ‘Have you seen my Scaredy Cat? He’s afraid of this and afraid of that!’, eventually leads us to the climax where a proud, flexing little girl claims her gallantry and saves the day. Now the girl has revealed her true and brave identity, will Scaredy Cat?
With Tortop’s ever-gorgeous, enticing and infectious artwork charging with colour and energy, it would be no surprise if Scaredy Cat is chosen to play his hiding game over and over again. Preschoolers will adore this romping tale of friendship, bravery, pets and love.
The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green is a collision of plots and wars, princesses and thieves. It’s set in a complex world that takes it’s time to set the scene, build the countries, and totally immerse you in this world of Brigant and Calidor. It also features five narrators, all teens, who somehow end up with the fate of the world in their somewhat dubious control. I am a huge fan of Sally Green’s previous Half Bad books so I was wild with excitement to try these. Full warning: This is a very different style and tone, so don’t get in expecting it to be like Half Bad! We’ve left paranormal behind and journeyed into epic fantasy and complex politics. I do think the Half Bad books suited me better, but I can definitely say it’s exciting to see authors exploring and flexing their skills in new genres.
The Smoke Thieves follows 5 people: a princess, a traitor, a soldier, a hunter, and a thief. Their stories all complexly entwine at the end, but in the beginning we’re met with Princess Catherine who’s treated horribly by her father and forced to watch an execution before she’s shunted off to an arranged marriage. But she’s in love with her guard, Ambrose, who’s affection for her will end in his death. In the enemy’s country, a servant named March comes from a forgotten and annihilated country and wants revenge, so he helps kidnap the kleptomaniac Edyon who is also the king’s bastard and estranged son. Unfortunately Edyon is winsome and lovely and March can’t help falling for him. And lastly there is Tash: demon hunter who captures smoke out of demons and sells it on the black market. But is the smoke, supposedly a “cheap thrill”, all that it seems?
The world building is a stand-out of lusciousness and detail. There’s a ton of countries mentioned and everything is woven and connected and so it felt deep, a world of luscious dimension! We don’t often get such detail in worlds in epic fantasy in YA, so this was a treat. I like how it had culture for the different countries too.
The narrators are often the downtrodden underdogs. Which did make them easy to root for! I struggled the most reading Catherine’s chapters, as her heinous father literally thinks women are commodities, and women in court are forced to learn sign-language to communicate because the men don’t like them speaking. But even so, Catherine had a beautiful character arc and ended up in a position of quietly taking power away from her enemies. Go Catherine! And Tash’s chapters of being a grubby demon-thieving orphan were particularly amazing too. I also love how we have everything from escaped soldiers to angry and rebellious slaves.
A quick look at the narrators?! In detail we have:
Catherine: She’s a princess, doomed to an arrange marriage and viewed as property. She’s demurely spicy and I did honest love seeing her arc.
Ambrose: He’s the guard in love with Catherine and very loyal/valiant.
March: He’s a slave to a prince in a different country and so hateful of his captors and jumps at the chance to side with the rebellion and kidnap his king’s lost bastard son.
Edoyn: An actual human wreck on legs, kleptomaniac and smooth little ratbag thing, that you kind of fall in love with even though he would probably hurt himself with a spoon. I loved his chapters and his voice and how he flirts so incessantly with March who has no idea what it is to be loved.
Tash: A 13-year-old demon hunter who is a piece of work and will stab anything and loves pretty shoes.
The Smoke Thieves is a methodical and detailed fantasy adventure that winds so many storylines together at the end. It’s not fast-paced but it is always interesting and I think all the characters being so complex and developed made it addictive to continue reading! Definitely a great read!
Picture books have an incredible ability to not only reflect life but also reveal new and previously unknown aspects of it. For children, nearly everything they are experiencing is new and unknown, which is why these next few picture books are so incredibly useful for showing them the way. This selection features incredible journeys made by humans, animals, spirit and much more. Venture into a journey of enlightenment with them.
This superbly presented hardback picture book features 48 pages of astonishing animal journeys. Complete with easy to use contents page and a world map that depicts the actual trips each animal makes, this stunning collection is a must have on any classroom shelf.
Unwin prompts readers to imagine themselves as a baby swallow who, after just leaving its nest in England now must contemplate a flight over 10 000 kilometres away to Africa. Awarded travel and wildlife writer, Unwin then describes the migratory long-distance journeys of 20 different animals; why they make the effort and how they survive the trek. Some you’ll recognise like the monarch butterfly or the magnificent wandering albatross but did you know that the globe skimmer dragonfly performs a round-the-world trip of over 10 000 kms, as well?
Sumptuously illustrated by Jenni Desmond, Migration takes us across the planet, through its skies and over its oceans in the footsteps, wings and fins of some of the world’s truly greatest travellers. This is one literacy odyssey you and anyone five years and above must experience.
Waves is another visually arresting, historical picture book that presents in similar ways to Rawlins’ well-loved picture book with Nadia Wheatley, My Place. Following a time line commencing some 50 000 years before to the present day, Rawlins takes us across the seas with various children and their families as they embark on journeys of emigration, redemption, hope and escape. Each child shares a brief snapshot of their on board experience through captivating vignettes of narrative, allowing their stories to come alive. Their situations are not always pleasant indeed most are laced with tragedy and hardship, but for those who survive their trip across the waves, the destination is often a kind of salvation.
Rawlins includes descriptions at the end of the book about each of the fictional characters, their cultural origins and suggested reasons for setting off into the unknown in the first place. She points out that if you are not an Indigenous Australian, then members of your family must have made a journey across the waves to arrive at this island called Australia at some point in time. This really does give one pause for thought and invites energetic discussion between young people and their family members about heritage and ancestry, not to mention the issues of immigration and asylum seekers.
Thoughtfully illustrated by Potter and Jackson, Waves acknowledges the journeys of those who come across the sea in search of a better existence in a supremely considered and engaging way. Recommended for readers five years and over.
For those who prefer their travel infused with a bit more levity, cast your eyes on this fanciful non-fiction title. This contemporary A B C picture book dedicates a page to each letter along with accompanying verse and the most eye-stunning illustrations. Transportation has never been portrayed with such enthusiasm or detail. Animals from around the world ride, skate, vroom, sail, drag and float their way through the alphabet with non-stop vigour. I never even knew there were 26 modes of transport. Greene carries us across water, air, through ice and snow, by track and wheels with ease and planeloads of interest. Kirk cleverly includes a zoo-full of animals whose names share the same letter as the letter featured in each popping illustration. Kids from the age of two and above will no doubt have hours of fun hunting these down and matching them up – as I did! Top marks.
Sometimes not every journey takes us where we expect. Things happen, plans change. How do you cope when that happens? This is something very small children often struggle to accept. How they acknowledge these mental explorations of change and resignation is crucial in determining how they develop tolerance and empathy.
Spirit by debut author, Cherri Ryan, imbues a sense of determination within readers through the actions of a small child. This girl constructs a toy ship she names, Spirit and launches her in her backyard pond. Spirit’s maiden voyage is successful and the girl rejoices, dreaming of expeditions further afield or seas, as it were. Before each journey, the girl lovingly tends Spirit, oiling her decks; carefully trimming her sails, certain of her abilities to triumph every watery endeavour, each more challenging than the last, until one day, Spirit encounters rough seas, loses her way and capsizes.
This book tenderly captures the essence of childhood hope and the expectations built around it. It explores the notions of anticipating outcomes beyond our control, but remaining stalwart enough in spirit to find ways around life’s obstacles. The delicate correlative objective between the girl’s boat and her own will to succeed gently pulls readers along an emotional journey of exultation, despair, and finally celebration. Booth’s sensitive depiction of Spirit’s creator is both timely and thought-provoking. Her heart-warming illustrations add another dimension of lucidity and movement to this tale, which nurtures the notion of never giving up and remaining true to your spirit. Symbolic sublimity for 4 – 8 year olds.
No life itinerary would be complete without a journey of love. I reviewed this one earlier this year and recommend it as a rich way of exploring feelings, perceptions and relationships. Here’s a snippet of my former review. You can read the full review, here.
This story, celebrating the immense power of love, possesses an enigmatic quality that hums throughout the book from beginning to end.
Shelberg’s thoughtful poetic narrative balances beautifully with Edmonds’ poignant watercolour vignettes and spreads. The gentle balance of colour and emotion reveal memories and the child’s growing understanding that he need not fear strangers who appear gruff and scruffy, different and intimidating. That beneath the obvious differences of a person, there often dwells a story worth sharing and a reason to love. This is a mighty concept to grasp in our modern day world of stranger danger and our first world tendency to look the other way for fear of becoming too involved. The commendable thing about this tale is that it does not encourage reckless, unchecked interaction with strangers – the child is always within his mother’s supervision – but rather it promotes a phenomenal sense of humanity, of not judging a book by its cover and … of caring.
As Ian MacLaren once said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind. Always.”
I love the message of … connecting with ourselves through others. Of cultivating empathy; a mindset we should all aspire. Visiting You encapsulates this mindset exceptionally well. Full marks.
More information on this and the other shortlisted books will be available soon on an online CBCA platform.
Ideas for the English Classroom
Four types of writing are used in the novel 1. Writing in the voice of each protagonist 2. Wellness Journal entries (italics) (Students could analyse differences in voice from both these types of writing) 3. Wellness Worksheets 4. PSST – the source of cyber bullying
Wellness Journals give further insight into the three protagonists as they describe how they’re feeling; as well as what they think about the other girls. This gives another perspective. Read a selection of these entries.
Students write three journal entries from the point of view of Iris, Clem’s twin sister, or another character.
Wellness Worksheets Complete one of these e.g. self-esteem scale, page 147; Lou Reed’s song Perfect Day page 218; letter to future self, page 428.
Read other novels by these authors.
The Secret Science of Magic by Melissa Keil (Hardie Grant Egmont)
The Secret Science of Magic was longlisted for the Indies awards. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian.
This novel has an equally strong male and female voice.
Ideas for the Classroom or Library
Magic Joshua is a magician who is trying to grain Sophia’s attention. Sleight of hand and, particularly, timing are the magician’s most important tools.
Students could try to replicate some of Joshua’s magic tricks in reality or using technology.
Playing-card optical illusions, pages 30, 40
Igniting a paper rose, page 82
Showing a Doctor Who Christmas special on a vintage movie projector, page 110
These tricks culminate in an illusion at school, where Joshua makes the school disappear.
Use Plotagraph (which creates a moving image from a single still graphic image) in Adobe Photoshop or other tools to demonstrate this or another magic trick.
Drama Sophia is forced to take Drama. The class studies All’s Well that Ends Well, page 74 – a prescient play title for this novel. Read the play.
Read other novels by Melissa Keil: Life in Outer Space and The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl
Several places are mentioned to show that this novel is set in Sydney, including ‘Sydney eats’, page 106, a group that feed the homeless. Meredith also helps them by running a Street Library, pages 69,121,222.
Meredith believes: ‘Books can save anyone. If they’re the right ones.’ page 164
Ideas for the Classroom or Library
Poems for each other Nola gives a poem to Tiny and vice versa. Read Nola’s poem for Tiny, page 97, and Tiny’s poem for Nola, page 133. In pairs, students write poems to give each other.
Writing Group The writing group at the homeless shelter tries the following activities, which students could do also.
Writing a group story using the Dada, Surrealist technique where each person writes a line and passes it on to the next person to write the next line to see where the story goes, page 108.
Use a ‘real-life media story you pick out to start your own story … Write it as a sequel, action adventure, poem, dialogue’, page 110. Only allow 20 minutes max.
Open Mic Night: Eddie performs his poem ‘Clean’ about his father’s death, pages 171,177. Students could write and perform their work, including poems, at an open mic night or similar event. (Read The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo about a girl who writes heartfelt poetry and performs at a poetry slam.)
The fact that all of this year’s CBCA shortlisted Older Reader novels are written by women reflects who is currently writing Australian YA. As a consequence, many of the novels have female protagonists, including Vikki Wakefield’s Ballad for a Mad Girl. However, debut novelist Charlie Archbold (who is female) has written Mallee Boys, a novel that epitomises masculinity.
-about the books and some ideas on sharing them with young readers –
Ballad for a Mad Girl has been longlisted for a Gold Inky Award—(Australian titles) and shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature: Young Adult category and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature in 2018.
It is Vikki Wakefield’s fourth novel, a gothic Australian thriller, a murder ballad and lament in prose. It explores the effect of grief and loss on Grace, who is trying to mask her vulnerability.
It walks a tightrope – literally and psychologically as it balances the genres of contemporary realism with elements from the supernatural ghost tale.
Grace is the “mad girl” of the title but her madness springs perhaps from her struggle with anger and grief rather than mental illness; although the barriers may be permeable.
At times the writing is crystalline to show the shattered mirror-pricks of Grace’s rage; as well as sharp images of birds: living swallows butted against tiny bird sketches. Grace’s elusive childhood “dandelion” dreams as well as echoes from a past generation are sculpted into an aching ballad of melancholy and terror. The past and present also ultimately lay the path to a “bright and unbreakable” future with some signs of hope and grace.
Film An early scene where extreme prankster, Grace Foley, freezes at the pipe challenge crossing over the quarry at night is a pivotal scene in Ballad of a Mad Girl. It sets the confronting, haunting tone.
In small groups, students film a re-enactment of Noah, private school poster boy, breaking Grace’s record as he crosses the pipe over the quarry and then Grace crossing after him and freezing when she is distracted by thoughts of Hannah Holt – rumoured to have been killed by William Dean and buried in the gully below. Headlights are dimmed and stones are thrown.
Film Grace’s friends and the onlookers in their private and public-school factions.
Use different camera angles, particularly to give the illusion of the pipe over a height. NB don’t use a pipe high above the ground.
Film an establishing shot; the camera can scan characters and show close-ups of their facial expressions.
Use filters to create a night-time setting and lights to emulate the headlights. Show them dimming when Grace crosses. Include sound effects.
Ballad Students could write a ballad or murder ballad (lyrics that tell the story of a murder).
Not many readers seemed to be aware of this book until it was CBCA shortlisted. Feedback has since been very favourable.
It is set in the Murray Mallee area of South Australia and told by two brothers. Sandy is fifteen and a good student although dreamy. In an early scene, slapstick and terror merge when he’s almost drowned by a swollen dead cow. His older brother Red has left school and seems suited to life on the farm with his dog, Ringer. He is suffering from guilt, believing he contributed to the death of their mother.
Masculinity is explored with sensitivity and credibility, particularly relationships between father and sons. The author writes with warmth and humour and shows that rural men can be gentle and compassionate.
Mallee men/Mallee wood Mallee men are described as mallee wood. They are ‘men from any time … like stumpy mallee trees: nuggetty and resilient. A heritage of hard work’ (page 100)
Rhopalic Verse After reading about Mallee males, students write rhopalic verse to explore their characteristics of strength and endurance with mallee wood. In rhopalic verse, each word in a line has 1 more syllable than in the prior word e.g. ‘to avert dangerous situations’. The poem could be quite short, perhaps 5 lines, each with 4 words per line. (This is guide only.)
Country & City podcast Differences between life in the country and city are mentioned in the novel: e.g. in the country old and young mix. In the city ‘people stick to their age bracket’, page 119; in the country – people make inventions, page 124.
Students could use a microphone and smart phone to make a 1-episode podcast about the differences between country and city.
Bren MacDibble/Cally Black has blasted onto the Australian literary scene for youth with How to Bee for younger readers and In the Dark Spaces for YA. She is a fresh, authoritative talent; writing outside the mould.
-about the books and some ideas on sharing them with young readers –
by Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin)
How to Bee won the Patricia Wrightson Prize – NSW Premier’s Literary Awards & was shortlisted for the Griffith University Children’s Book Award (Qld) and Children’s Literature Award – Adelaide Festival Awards. Read a synopsis and the NSWPLA judges’ report here.
The novel circles around the importance of bees, children and community. The title is a pun with a double meaning. Some of the characters’ names reflect the almost-idyllic country setting where the story begins: Peony, Magnolia, Applejoy, Pomegranate …
The writing is sensory where it describes white cockatoos, fruit, a ‘face puckered like a burr on a tree trunk’ and Peony’s flawed Ma as a lemon, ‘You think it’s gotta be good coz it’s so big and has perfect skin but when you cut it in half you find out its skin is so thick there’s just a tiny bit of pulp inside and that it just ain’t got enough juice to go around’.
Students could write about other characters or people in their own families, describing them as fruit in lyrical style.
Themes & Issues
Domestic violence, making this novel most appropriate for mature, older children.
Wealth, deriving not from money but from loving people and family and living in community – a concern also of In the Dark Spaces
Hive/bees/pollination – another concern of In the Dark Spaces
Families or schools could investigate setting up a bee hive, particularly with native stingless bees. Compare the taste of commercially and local, unrefined and unheated honey.
Cycles There are a range of cycles within the tale: ‘the farm’s full of circles. Bees, flowers, fruit … all overlapping circles.’; seasons, places (from which characters leave and return); and a death is replaced by a new baby.
Concrete Poetry: Circle Shape Poem Children could write a Circle Shape poem about one of these or another cycle, where each line has an extra word, then decreases to make a circle shape.
In the Dark Spaces by Cally Black (Hardie Grant Egmont)
In the Dark Spaces has been longlisted for the Inkies award, highly commended by the Victorian Premiers Literary Prize, won an Aurealis Award, has been shortlisted for the Ditmars and shortlisted for the Ethel Turner Prize in the NSW Premiers Awards,
It is a sci-fi thriller/ hostage drama set in future space. Tamara lives in hiding on one of the intergalactic freighters. These are named after songs e.g. Lucy in the Sky, Jolene, My Sharona and Delilah. Her freighter is attacked by Crowpeople/Garuwa and she is kidnapped after witnessing mass murder because she is able to communicate with the Crowpeople. Through Tamara, we learn to understand the Crowpeople, who only take the resources they need to nurture the hives in their ships, which in return feed the inhabitants. Unlike humans who sell excess for profit.
Cally Black’s voice here is original – raw, strong and captivating.
Dinkus When I interviewed eminent Australia author Isobelle Carmody recently, I was excited to learn about the ‘dinkus’.
The simplest way to indicate a section break within a chapter is to leave a blank space between paragraphs, but designers often prefer to use a symbol or glyph. These are often three horizontally placed asterisks but asterisks can be replaced with other symbols.
Crowpeople in In the Dark Spaces have three ‘shiny talons’ (page 41) sticking out from their boots. This symbol is used as a dinkus in the novel e.g. on pages 183,270.
Students find the talon dinkus in In the Dark Spaces, and then look for symbols or glyphs in other novels.
Lightgraff Art (or lightgraffiti) is drawing or writing with light. It combines photography and calligraphy. It can be a live performance or recorded on video or time-lapse photographic stills. It is often used to embellish settings by highlighting or enhancing elements of the scene with colour, line, shape or script (using light).
Examples can be seen by searching online for ‘lightgraff images’.
The Elephant has also been shortlisted for the Patricia Wrightson Prize – NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Read a synopsis and the judge’s report here. It is Peter Carnavas’s first novel, after an impressive output of picture books, and he has illustrated it with black and white line drawings.
Tree & Paper Planes Like Martine Murray’s two shortlisted books, a tree is a symbol here. It is Olive’s ‘thinking spot’. Her grandfather cares for her since her mother has died and her father become incapacitated by grief. Grandad makes and flies paper planes with her. Children could make coloured paper planes, write positive messages onto them e.g. ‘You have a wonderful laugh’ and tie them to a jacaranda (or other) tree to emulate some of the events in the story (see pages 125,142).
Other Symbols in the novel are the elephant, tortoise and the dog.
Elephant The elephant is the major symbol. Olive’s mother had made a clay elephant which is now broken.
Soap carving Children could make a soap carving of an elephant: Materials coloured and/or patterned rectangular soaps (note descriptions on page 138), scrapers & peelers can be safe for child use e.g. plastic knife, potato peeler, paper clip, teaspoon, pencil, paper. Method Trace around the soap onto paper. Draw and cut out the elephant on paper. Trace around the shape onto the soap. Cut away excess soap with plastic knife. Cut away more with paperclip. Etch details and texture with pencil. ‘MetKids’ have a useful video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y17RweezGi8
Typewriter (page 38) Grandad typed poems for Olive’s mother. Students choose or write poems and type them using a typewriter.
School Olive’s school is celebrating its 100-year anniversary, so the students are studying old things. Children could show and talk about old things that are important to them
Side by Side song. Grandad and Olive love this song. Children could also listen to it and sing along.
The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler by Lisa Shanahan (Allen & Unwin)
The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler won the Griffith University Children’s Book Award (Qld). I interviewed Lisa Shanahan about the novel for the bog here. Read the QLA judges’ report here.
Drawing Worry Henry is a worrier and describes worry as a ‘big round grey tumbleweed of dust, with skinny black-and-white-striped legs poking out of and red boots’, pages 10-11. Children could draw their own visual interpretation of worry.
The Beach using Green Screen Technology
The beach is the setting of many Australian holidays and is integral to this story.
Children could create freeze frames of characters superimposed over a green screen beach setting.
Students select a character e.g. Henry, his two siblings or his new friend, Cassie. Choose three scenes where they appear in the book.
Green Screen Superimpose students in their freeze frame poses onto virtual backgrounds or animated digital backdrops of the beach.
Equipment: iPad (a 1-stop movie-making device), green screen (could be made of green fabric or paper), lighting, tripod (opt), Veescope, Green Screen Pro or other apps for background videos, iMovie or equivalent. A useful resource is
Parents are important in the novel. Henry’s parents have different personalities. His mother is an introvert – understanding with some anxiety. His father is an extrovert – exuberant (page 47), with a big, wild love (page 141).
If completing the activity about the beach (above) at school, include the children’s parents by giving them the opportunity to upload the beach film using the ‘Seesaw’ app or equivalent.
An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson is an absolutely delightful wild adventure of fae and scheming andart. I admit to being wholly in love with the scheming aspect of this plot and how you never quite know what’s coming. Add that to gorgeous writing, some laugh-out-loud banter, the whimsical and dangerous beauty of a fae world — and you have an incredible book.
The story follows Isobel, an artist hired by vain faeries to paint their portraits. In return, she gets paid in enchantments (like chickens who always lay eggs, or a house that can never be attacked) and her life is quite good with two little sisters and a loving guardian and some amicable, if not still dangerous, fae customers. Then the Autumn Prince turns up for his portrait and Isobel finds herself smitten and does the unthinkable: she paints the human emotion she sees in his eyes. For a fae, who are otherworldly and pride themselves on this, she’s committed and abomination and Rook angrily declares he’ll put her on trial. But as the two tumble headfirst into the fae world, they’re met with rotting magical creatures and courts of decrepit and deceitful beings, and hunters who just won’t stop — and maybe the two can help each other more than they think.
This particular fae world focuses on courts that are based on all the seasons! It was whimsical and gorgeous and we get to explore the Spring court mostly, but the Autumn Court and Summer Court are mentioned too. Isobel’s human world, the town of Whimsy, is caught up in an eternal summer and on her deathly adventure with Rook, she also visitsthe Spring Courts which were rotting from the inside out. I love how this gave us types of faeries who can’t feel human emotions. They’re so vapid and silly, but deeply miserable and complex.
Isobel was a winning narrator from the second she steps onto the page. She was realistic, with very relatable reactions to things! Not to mention the story actually took the time to give us a road-trip that wasn’t all daisies and flowers! Everyone ended up smelling and dirty and hungry, and the realism just made the book more heartwarming. Her love and addiction to art was also amazing to read and she has a knife-sharp sense of humour and refuses to let the faeries play their wily tricks on her.
Rook, the autumn prince, was also a thorough delight. He is actually the vainest thing, which was so hilarious. He’s a warrior, knight and prince and yet completely becomes undone with clothes he doesn’t like or the strange peculiarities of humans. (They need to sleep and eat??? He gets so confused.) Isobel totally messes with him at times too and it’s adorable. I also loved how earnest and sweet he was. Here is a prince who could be so wicked, but he was respectful and kind…and very full of himself. Ha!
The romance was an interesting exploration of lust vs love. When Isobel meets Rook to paint his portrait, she “falls in love with him”. But she doesn’t really. She has a fluttering crush on this otherworldly gorgeous boy…and she realises this. Obviously after they’re thrown into a whirlwind journey together of monsters and the Wild Hunt and rotting castles and evil kings, and they save each other and get to know each other — they do truly fall in love. And they were so winning together, with their snarky banter but inability to let the other suffer.
The artist flair of the book also made the writing just exquisite. Isobel’s love for her craft bleeds from the page. And her perspective of the world turns everything into a gorgeous huge canvas. The writing is so visual and dimensional, you don’t just read faerieland, you fall face-first into it and get entranced by the magic.
An Enchantment Of Ravens is a whimsically gorgeous tale, with vicious undertones and schemes to twist your senses upside down. It’s not to be missed.
Being brave, is less about being courageous and more about ignoring your fear because you simply cannot afford to waste any more time on it. Overcoming doubts and anxieties is something children face every day. Picture books like these encourage a heightened awareness of one’s own feelings and capabilities and in doing so banish fears and promote determination.
Sophie represents a whole playground of children who spiral into anguish after they lose a precious toy, or in their eyes, a stalwart playmate. When Bear goes missing, Sophie embarks on an apprehension-filled journey in search of him that will have little ones perched on the edge of their seats. Thankfully, the cute ending reunites and delights. Johnston’s winsome illustrations elevate this heart-warming story of facing your fears and tenacity to the next level. Utterly endearing, this story will warm the cockles of your heart and encourage very young children to ‘never stop hoping’.
– about the books and some ideas on sharing them with young readers –
Henrietta & the Perfect Night
by Martine Murray(A&U)
Henrietta is a big thinker. She’s a great go-getter, determined, adventurous, endearing and exuberant. She has a strong young voice. Yet she’s shy.
The book is well designed and is illustrated by the author.
It contains short stories – which are quite sequential but stand alone.
In the stories Henrietta’s mother is pregnant; she starts school; has a sleep over; stars in the school play; and awaits the birth of her new sibling. Henrietta pretends to be a spy; does ‘rescues’ e.g. a bee and the other new girl, Olive; and she stands up for ‘small things’.
She is patient; truthful; a good friend; and kind like Joey in Marsh & Me
Henrietta and Olive peg Olive’s brother’s pyjamas in the tree. Children could cut and decorate paper pyjamas, perhaps using a template provided by a teacher or parent, and peg these onto a tree branch standing in a pot.
Seasons are addressed as Henrietta waits for the baby and the tree shows how the seasons change.
The class play is about Noah’s Ark. Read about Noah’s ark from a children’s Bible or other book. The children could then perform a play – a number of scripts are available online if you search for plays, puppet plays or skits about Noah’s Ark. If possible, include a bat in the performance because Henrietta had a role as bat – ‘special and mysterious and different from regular animals. Which is a bit like me.’ (page 66)
Previous Henrietta stories are being republished in a 3 in 1 volume.
Marsh and Me by Martine Murray (Text Publishing)
I’ve not long finished reading Marsh and Me (Text Publishing), and couldn’t wait to write about it. It is a beautifully written, dense and imaginative work brimming with thoughtful and important ideas.
Joey believes that he is a nice, ordinary boy who wants to skip puberty. He doesn’t like the word ‘puberty’, thinking it ‘slightly pushy’ but he does like the word ‘luminous’. He’s shy and sensitive, a ‘noticer of feelings’ and has one friend, Digby, who likes science.
When Joey climbs the hill one day he finds someone occupying the treehouse. Marsh is a ‘wild girl’ and the ‘Queen of Small Things’. She has secrets and tells the story of the Plains of Khazar which may be history, fairy tale or folklore. She sings to Joey and the first note ‘rings like a golden bell’.
Even though Joey doesn’t always like Marsh, he is intrigued and concerned for her and realises that he must reveal more of himself in order to make friends and deepen relationships. The novel soars when they create music together using voice and guitar. Both characters are profoundly drawn.
Poems Joey’s mother sticks poems on the fridge. One is by Rumi.
Children could take excerpts from other Rumi poems or poems by other poets that they like or remind them of Marsh and Me and display them.
An example is from Rumi’s I Am Wind, You are Fire:
Oh, if a tree could wander
and move with foot and wings!
It would not suffer the axe blows
and not the pain of saws!
Nature Play Both Joey and Marsh love spending time in nature, particularly in the treehouse in the peppercorn tree. They listen to bird calls and other sounds and plant an acorn.
It seems that many children today don’t have the time or opportunity to play in natural environments, especially where there are trees. Parents or teachers could provide unstructured (or structured) opportunities for children (including primary aged children for whom this book is written) to improve their emotional, mental and physical health by spending time in the natural world. They could build treehouses, climb trees, watch the clouds and shadows, record natural sounds or plant a seed found in the local habitat.
Reading Both Marsh and Me and Martine Murray’s companion book Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars feature a tree. Another lovely link between the two novels is the character of Pim Wilder. (I reviewed Molly and Pimhere.)
After reading Marsh and Me, it could be worth reading or re-reading Glenda Millard’s ‘Kingdom of Silk’ series, another thought-provoking yet tender and sensory exploration of childhood. All these literary works bring magic into the real world.
The shortlisted books for the CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Readers is a very strong list. Some have already won or been shortlisted for other literary awards. Shortlisting in the CBCA awards is prestigious, increases awareness of each book and dramatically impacts sales.
The long lead time between the announcement of the shortlist and the winners and honour books in August’s Book Week provides a wonderful opportunity to explore these books.
I will look at the 30 shortlisted titles in a series of blog posts.
The Younger Reader books are:
The Elephant by Peter Carnavas (UQP) Also shortlisted for the Patricia Wrightson Prize – NSW Premier’s Literary Awards
How to Bee by Bren MacDibble (A&U) Also winner of the Patricia Wrightson Prize – NSW Premier’s Literary Awards & shortlisted for the Children’s Literature Award – Adelaide Festival Awards
It is interesting to note that Martine Murray has been shortlisted twice in this category. Lisa Shanahan has also been shortlisted twice. Her other book Hark, it’s Me, Ruby Lee! is shortlisted in Book of the Year: Early Childhood.
There are four novels and one book of short stories shortlisted in this category.
The first I’ll look at is
The Shop at Hoopers Bend by Emily Rodda (HarperCollins Australia)
-about the novel and some ideas on sharing it with young readers-
Jonquil’s parents died when she was a baby. She’s now eleven and in the care of Aunt Pam who farms her out to boarding school and camps. She leaves the train unexpectedly at Hoopers Bend and is befriended by Pirate, a white and black dog. Jonquil is drawn to the shop at Hoopers Bend and Bailey, the older lady who has inherited it. Jonquil spins a tale and stays on, helping Bailey rent out the shop to different businesses for a short time. The shop exudes an ‘everyday’ magic.
Jonquils The protagonist’s name is Jonquil (shortened to Quil) and Emily Rodda chose this name deliberately because they’re unobtrusive with a ‘delicate beauty’ to suit a ‘reserved and sensitive’ character.
Plant jonquils. To compare these with other bulbs – daffodils, snowdrops and others could be planted as well.
Match these flowers with different personality and character types.
Stardust Quil invents a game, Stardust. She believes that all things, including people, contain the dust of long-dead stars and thinks that people whose stardust composition match closely have an instant affinity with each other. Conversely, people with very different stardust are unlikely to be friends.
Palaris – are people like Quil & Bailey; Aginoth – practical and confident; Broon – cheery but boring’ Kell – prickly but interesting; Derba – calm and reliable with no sense of humour …
After reading the novel, children could look more closely at the star names and corresponding personalities. They could use these names to categorise book characters from the shortlisted novels or other books (and maybe even themselves). As a group, they could compile results into a Stardust chart.
Bookplate Bookplates are an artform. Show children different bookplates. Examine the designs including space for name and possible date. Children design their own bookplates onto a sticky label (not post-it notes but labels that resemble bookplates from good stationers) to reflect themselves and their reading taste.
To Kill A Kingdom by Alexandra Christo is the swashbuckly and deliciously dark pirate adventure we’ve all been waiting for. It’s got hints of a Little Mermaid retelling, with more nods to the original Hans Christian Anderson tale than Disney ever did. This is full of sirens who eat princes’ hearts and enchantments and runaway royalty and enough snark and banter to have you smirking in your seat.
The story follows two narrators: Lira, a siren who eats princes’ hearts and whose wicked mother is getting between her and the throne. And also Elian, who’s very opposed to his royal heritage and wants to be a pirate, riding the world of the murderous sirens that claim so many innocent lives each year. Their stories entwine when Lira is cursed to wear human legs until she can prove her loyalty to her people…and the perfect way to do that would be to kill Elian. Except Elian is on a quest to find a way to stop the siren queen forever and when he rescues a “mysterious” girl lost at sea — he has no idea who he’s truly making alliances with.
The characters just stole the seawater for this one! The dual narration is perfect balanced, with each character stealing the show as soon as they’re on page. He’s hunting her and she’s hunting him, which is obviously the recipe for a perfect romance. This is enemies-to-lovers at its finest! It wasn’t rushed or awkward. It was seriously such perfect fun to see them go from distrust to distant admiration to snarking at each other to “accidentally” “saving” each other’s lives. Lira’s denial of having feelings for him (hey, she’s a wretched evil siren, remember?!) was completely adorable. I also loved how they both had soft sides, even though they’re warriors here to fight in the seas. Lira is super sweet and protective of her little siren cousin. Elian is quite soft and kind to his crew, despite being a “pirate”. And his sass and banter levels were off the charts.
I also loved how it portrayed the sea! It fully makes you fall in love with it. I mean, yes the sea in this book is full of murderous dangers, like sirens and mermaids and monsters, but the vivid and lust descriptions made me understand why Elian couldn’t leave the sea to claim his birthright of the throne. The lure was there! I could see the gorgeous settings, taste the salty sea, and absolutely lose myself in the world. There’s actually quite a lot of world to explore, and even though the book is small, it takes you a variety of places with excellent world building. There are kingdoms and mountains and palaces with cursed queens. I found the description was perfectly balanced — not info dumps, but enough information to set you up in this diverse and intriguing world.
I particularly appreciated the amount of banter! It kept me smiling the whole time as Elian and Lira sparred words and gradually fell for each other. The secondary characters also had their quips too!
“If the necklace is that precious,” I say, “we should have just killed Tallis to get it.”
“You can’t just kill everyone you don’t like.”
“I know that. Otherwise you’d be dead already.”
To Kill A Kingdom is a lush and vicious book that will lose you in its winsome adventures of death and curses, love and magic. It was perfectly written and exquisitely told, face-paced and entrancing!
In honour of the new Duchess of Sussex’s affection for all things canine, today we snuggle up with four memorable picture books featuring the pooches we love to pamper. These stories focus on dogs as companions and the glorious relationships we share with them.
Author illustrator Lucinda Gifford’s combination of dogs and dinosaurs was never going to fail – both infatuate kids. Dogasaurus is a high giggle scoring story about Molly who lives ‘on a small, peaceful farm’. Life trickles along merrily until the day Molly ventures into the neighbouring Mysterious Ancient Forest and being a typical adventure inspired child, brings home something she ought not to have. When her newfound treasure hatches into Rex, a cute baby dino, she is delighted to have a pet of her own and dotes on him from morning to night. Only trouble is, Rex soon outgrows the farm and develops a mysterious yearning for the Ancient Forest.
Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody was a delightfully twisty tale of murder, magic and mayhem and I couldn’t put it down! I feel like I’ve definitely found a new all-time favourite! This book is an ode to schemes and cons, full of street lords and mysteries and the addictive love of playing a game where the stakes are: win or die. You won’t be able to stop yourself falling in love with these characters or not accidentally toppling into the City of Sin to stay.
It follows the journey of Enne Salta, who’s enter the City of Sin to find her missing mother. She’s a prim girl from a proper finishing school and tumbles head-first into this tumultuous world of casinos and street lords and backalley fights and the kind of magic where you can bet your soul in a card game and play to win or die. She meets a very young street lord named Levi Glaisyer, who’s in deep trouble from a con scheme gone wrong, and together their lives entwine as they look to find Enne’s mother and Levi hopes the reward payout will stop him dying. Except Levi’s enemies are tightening his noose fast, and despite his flashy smile and smooth card skills, they’re not playing around anymore.
It mixes magic and con artists to perfection. I see a lot of comparisons with this to Six of Crows, and yes! It works! But also this isn’t a heist book. It’s about con schemes and card games.
The world building was so detailed and exquisite, utterly flawless. It’s set in city with a 1920s vibe, so it’s all gangsters and casinos and grubby crime kids running around. But with MAGIC. Now it took me a while to get the hang of what the orbs/volts were, but I caught up. But everyone basically has talents, or two, and it’s just super cool how it’s a whole world of magicked people and how they use that. And how it affects everything. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the City of Sin and I couldn’t look away. Plus the writing is so visual and delicious that you can really see the whole thing.
The characters totally stole the show too, with their fantastic and complex personalities, plus detailed and heart-wrenching character arcs. I’m absolutely smitten with both Levi and Enne. Usually with dual-narrating books I have a favourite: but not this time. They were both a fantastically stunning mix of conniving and softhearted sweethearts. Their stories entwine so beautifully, with them using each other but then needing each other…and then a longing for more sparking between them. The book’s set over 10 days and romance is definitely not the focus, and I really loved how their relationship played out.
Levi was an absolutely precious masterpiece, a crime lord who’s gang is failing because he’s neck-deep in debt for a scheme he didn’t even want to run. He’s cursed to work for one of the biggest crime families, but what does he want? He wants to get to the top of his own game. He’s a card dealer and super smooth…but also absolutely adores his gang and is very loyal and sweet.
Enne Salta was also a fantastic delight, and her character development just swept me off my feet. She starts off as a “proper lady” but quickly develops into someone who’s witty, ruthless, and quite cunning (while still being gloriously polite!) and basically, by a few chapters in, she was an accidental badass.
I also just loved the writing and pacing. The writing just sweeps you up and the pacing of the book was also amazing, always luring you in deeper to the complicated plot that unwinds disasters for our favourite narrators. The plot is full of twists and turns, the foreshadowing is excellent, and it sets the scenes so well: murder card games, con schemes gone wrong, cabarets, magic and mayhem and murder, casinos and card games and gangsta hats and cherries and lush hotels and absolutely disastrous curses.
I can’t recommend Ace of Shades enough! It was everything I wanted and more, plus it included mountains of respectful and lovely diversity rep, and balanced characters you can’t help but fall in love with, plus a plot that will turn you inside out. High stakes. Magic. Wicked city schemes. Villains who never stop. And antiheroes leading the way. A fantastic adventure not to be missed!
Perhaps one of the most fulfilling perks of writing for kids is the time spent flitting around in my imagination. It’s a weird, boundless place, which allows me to harness old memories and reinvigorate them into wondrous dreams-come-true. These next few picture books are glorious examples of tapping into imaginative flights of fantasy and exploring the possibilities.
When I was a kid, I trussed up my trusty bicycle with the dog’s lead so that I had my very own ‘horse’ to ride around the backyard. I jumped my Malvern Star-steed in Gymkhanas, rode for days through dusty paddocks and occasionally found a hut high in the Snowy Mountains to hunker down in and ride out a storm. A remarkable amount of miles covered for a 12-year-old.
Young MacDonald, son of the much loved, Old Mac, is no different. We first meet Young Mac after he gets his own little red bike. To the familiar refrain of this well-known nursery rhyme, Young Mac goes a ting-a-linging everywhere on his bike. Encounters with a variety of vibrant characters on the farm, slowly transform his bike into a bike-digger-pirate-ship-chopper-sub-rocket that fills his day with ‘fantastical adventure’ (albeit no ponies but there you go).
TIFFANY SLY LIVES HERE NOW by Dana L. Davis is an incredible book that’s absolutely ladened with complex emotions and a story so filled with tension that it’s impossible to put down. This book made me very angry at times, but also I’m intensely impressed with it. I absolutely loved Tiffany like nothing else!! I raged at the bad and cheered for the good.
The story follows Tiffany Sly who’s going to live with her estranged dad after her mum died. She’s never met him in all her 16 years and, worse, didn’t even know he existed. But to complicate things, a man turns up at her front door also claiming to be her dad…and Tiffany is terribly confused. This other guy seems super nice and he definitely was dating her mum at the right time, but she’s on her way to live with the Stones and change is really eating her up inside. She has 7 days before it all collides. And when her new family turns out to be super strict and somewhat awful, she wonders if maybe the option of a different dad is a good thing?
When Tiffany moves in with the Stones, she doesn’t actually know she also has four new sisters. So it’s like, boom, she gets hit with an instant family. Her dad is an absolute jerk though, hiding in this “holier than thou” attitude but he’s controlling and terrible. He makes me so angry! He’s borderline abusive under the guise of being a “good strict parent” and will definitely have you raging. He hasn’t even met Tiffany for 5 minutes before he’s throwing rules at her and Tiffany is so not having this. My levels of frustration were extremely high and I will say trigger warning for abuse to an autistic toddler under the guise of disciplining her. It was pretty awful but just there to underline how poisonous it can be when you don’t listen or care.
However there is intense levels of character development, and I was really impressed with how it was all handled by the end!
Can I say how much I loved Tiffany!? She has anxiety and OCD and I just so felt for her, and also thought the mental health was written excellently and respectfully. There’s so much heart on every page! Tiffany just bursts off the page with her love of rock ‘n’ roll (she also plays guitar) and her cleverness, complexities, and also wants and wishes. She’s grieving but also trying to make it work with this family that horrifies her a lot. But she also kind of likes her new sisters! Wants a nice dad! She doesn’t get crushed and crumpled by the superstrictness, but it definitely torments her the entire time.
It also discusses religion and beliefs very deeply. There’s a lot of discussion about Jehovah’s Witnesses and also the kind of belief system where you are your own god. Books are about expanding your horizons, so it was interesting.
The writing absolutely kept me captivated! Perfect pacing and I never wanted to look away. Plus it just kept the emotional tension up so high. I felt engaged the whole time.
TIFFANY SLY LIVES HERE NOW is definitely the kind of contemporary that’s going to stay with you! It’s an emotional explosion, always interesting, and with characters you want to know more about!
Mums, Grandmas, Sisters, Aunties or any other special person in your life, all deserve a show of gratitude and love. Mother’s Day is a day to reinforce those bonds, to share memorable moments, or simply just to connect with those who make a difference. Dimity has already covered some ‘marvellous’ picture books here, so I’ll reinforce these beauties, and add more of my own treasures to the list.
The Dream Bird is an absolutely exquisite visual and imaginative treat that takes its readers on a fanciful flight from a state of playful awakening to the cosy slumber of dreamland. Such a memorable and warming story by picture book expert, Aleesah Darlison, mesmerisingly illustrated by talented newcomer, Emma Middleton. I love that it is Gran who, despite the other family members’ efforts, is the comforting soul of this story that helps young George to fall asleep. And the soft shading and infused deep reds and maroons are just the perfect choice to represent a mature and tender sophistication. When Gran begins her tale of the graceful Dream Bird, a snowy scene transports us to a wondrous land of majestic snow leopards, kingdoms made of lollies and treasures hidden amongst magical mermaids. Then a peaceful George conjures his own favourite dream as a loving Gran sings and leaves him with a gentle kiss. The Dream Bird is an idyllic symbol of beauty, warmth, whimsy and unconditional affection that children from age three will need as part of their daily bedtime routine.
A gorgeous book for wonderful mums is Marvellous Mummy, written and illustrated for the first time together by husband and wife team, Katie and Giuseppe Poli. In this tender and playful story, mummy elephant takes on many personas and behaviours that are highly relatable for young children to recognise with their own mums. From sneaky and quiet to noisy and loud, friendly to grumpy, skilful and brave, caring, snuggly and most importantly, perfect (in her sometimes unperfect way). A joyful book shared between mother and daughter of many adventures and everyday routines, with bright and airy, energetic and gentle illustrations. At the same time, Katie’s short phrasing and regular use of absorbing verbs compel interaction and repeat reads. Marvellous Mummy is a marvellous reminder of just how strong, special and versatile our mummies really are.
Another absolutely glorious collaborative creation is The Silver Sea by the young people at The Royal Children’s Hospital, their teachers and the masterful and much-loved Alison Lester and Jane Godwin. This book is such a treasure filled with glimmering magic amidst a palette of silky words and images in a sea of spectacularness. The team, together with the unwell children, have created a marvel of colourful ocean pictures with creatures that make the pages come alive. The poetic narrative leads us with two characters – a mother-like figure and her child – into a shimmering world of waves, splashing with dolphins and seals, flying with sharks and leafy sea dragons, further into the deep with a whole underwater aquarium until they reach the pale morning sky. The Silver Sea, curious, imaginative and enriching, developed out of such inspirational foresight, and with profits returning to the RCH it is a must-have to cherish in any home, school or hospital.
This one’s to share with the wild, spirited granny in your life! You’ll never have to have another ordinary day after you’ve read Grandma Z. Debut picture book author-illustrator Daniel Gray-Barnett brings life to town when Grandma Z rolls in on her motorbike. Albert is celebrating his birthday, except it’s not much of a celebration with his ordinary, boring parents living a life of ho-hum and melancholy blandness. But when his grander-than-life grandmother in her bold, blue coat enters the scene, the pair enjoy a day of adventurous, curious, daring, imaginative and exotic goodness, conjuring up all of Albert’s favourite things. The narrative suitably ties in with the plot with its quirky and unpredictable phrasing. Equally, with a Scribble-flavouring in an Allison Colpoys style, the illustrations make a bold statement with their neon blue and orange and black line tri-colour palette and retro look drawings. Grandma Zencourages a thrilling realisation that life is what you make of it, not only on your birthday, or Mother’s Day, but every day.
Another special lady in your life may be your sister. Perhaps you’d like to send her affirmations of appreciation and love for all the things she does for you. In this adorable picture book by Joanna Young, My Sister represents laughter, teamwork, care and the ultimate friendship. Sisters from age two will adore the sweet, heartwarming illustrations in calming watercolour tones and tidy visual appeal dedicating one image to each question of ‘Who…’ ‘Who is the one who sits next to you… grows up with you… and is always on your side?’ The sisters in the story show a story of their own with their cute, amusing and oh-so-sweet little antics. My Sister is a book of pure joy and love, that surely mums with daughters would delight in sharing together this Mother’s Day.
Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro is an incredibly powerful and neededbook. It’s also so completely applicable for 2018, the kind of book everyone needs to read because these things are happening right now. And I think this book does an excellent job at bringing awareness to #BlackLivesMatter but also encouraging kids who are going through this. It’s also so well written with amazing characters and it just sucks you right in so you’re there, experiencing this horribly unfair and frightening world of police brutality and racism…and also strong friendships and love.
This is Moss’ story, about how his father was murdered by a police officer and Moss has had to live with the anxiety, the grief, and the life-changing fear that comes with that. There was no justice for his father and Moss is just struggling to stay afloat while he battles terrible panic attacks and also a school that’s (quite literally) falling apart around him due to terrible funding. When Moss and his friends decided to do something about their school — starting with a peaceful walk-out protest — things escalate wildly. The kids get hit with unspeakable brutality, like random and rough locker and body searches + a horrible metal detector + and police stalking on campus to intimidate them in the halls. It’s hard enough to get up in the morning let alone fight this, but Moss can’t sit back this time. And even when things turn nightmarish with friends and loved ones getting brutalised, Moss puts his anger to use and fights.
Moss was such an amazing narrator! It’s written from a super personal 3rd person perspective and you really get into Moss’ head for his journey. He starts off this super anxious kid with panic attacks and he shuts down if he sees a cop. He can’t imagine a life where he won’t be ruined like this, but he also has a super supportive mum and friends. He also meets a super-cute-boy on the subway who he might have some serious feelings for. If he can trust himself to express them. But things are spiralling at school and you just ache for Moss as he watches his friends’ brutalised and knows that he could very well be next.
Also just seeing the school falling apart around them was so devastating. These kids just want to learn and do their best, but how do they stand a chance when their textbooks are photocopied and colleges overlook them instantly for submissions. And the police violence on campus was insane and mindblowing.
This book is about horrible things happening to good people and it will make your heart pound with how unfair it is.
I particularly enjoyed the close-knit relationships this book featured! Moss and his mum are so so close! It’s the sweetest thing ever, plus she supports him through his anxiety and has no qualms at all about him being gay. She supports him and Javier immediately (and absolutely teases him too, like good family should when their son catches a cutie’s eye). Moss also has a huge expanse of friends at school, and I loved the diversity of their group. There was representation from nonbinary, immigrant, black and brown kids, and also disabilities and queer kids.
Moss and Javier are also just too cute for words! You’ll absolutely ship them in a matter of seconds. They fit so well together and want to understand each other, not change each other. Plus Javier is a dork and Moss is super anxious and this is the quality kind of couple you want to read about.
It doesn’t hold back from the heartbreak either. Because this book is nothing if not showing you the non-sugar-coated version of parts of the world people often want to overlook. It does balance uplifting hope with devastation and heartbreak, though, but ohhhh if my heart wasn’t in a puddle half the time.
Don’t miss Anger Is A Gift, alright!? It’s an excellently written masterpiece that should sit right alongside books like The Hate U Give and Dear Martin! I’m glad books like this exist and hope it is another spark that will help change the world.
Novelists use the art of suspension of disbelief in an attempt to encourage readers to surrender logic and sacrifice realism for the sake of enjoyment. Children are naturally more susceptible to stories that defy belief purely because their imaginative acceptance is less eroded than ours is. What I admire about these two middle grade novels is their easy ability to captivate the imagination and suspend disbelief, pressuring readers to levels of discomfiture whilst retraining a sense of irrefutable realism. At the end of both, you walk away loving the characters just a little bit more and happily consider risking life, limb and sanity to walk with them all over again.
Words flow like silken cream from Russon’s pen in this entrancing tale of ghosts, family disintegration and returning to ones roots. Told in alternating points of view from each family member and a couple of resident ghosts, this story heaves readers from the gumtree-clad hills of Australia to the history-rich, leafy suburbs of inner London with mysterious charm and grace.
Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles is such a heart-wrenching (and important) read. It definitely hits hard and it’s such a vital book for everyone to be reading, especially in this day and age, where police brutality and racism are huge topics in the USA. It’s the type of story that needs to be told again and again until the world changes. Possibly stock up on some tissues and chocolate before you start though.
The story follows Marvin Johnson, who’s brother Tyler goes missing after a fateful party that neither of them would usually attend. Marvin is ruined with worry for his brother, who’d been pulling away in the weeks earlier and not sharing everything with his twin like he used to. And when the cops aren’t interested in helping much, Marvin takes the search into his own hands. With police brutality being a terrifying theme in his life, Marvin fears for the worst…and then a video is leaked online showing his brother being murdered by a cop. Tyler isn’t missing: he’s dead. And no one cares about justice unless Marvin fights tooth and nail for it.
The book focuses on police brutality, but it also delves into the “everyday” parts of racism in the USA. I cannot comprehend how it would be to live like these black teens have to live. When Marvin is going to a protest his mother literally says don’t have anything in your pockets, not even a phone, so he can’t be mistaken for being armed. And another time, Marvin and his friends are nearly arrested for buying food at a store, just because they’re black and the clerk thought they might shoplift. Being Australian, this is mind-boggling to me and a good eye-opener for what life is like for other people. I felt the devastation on every page of this book about kids who don’t deserve this blatant racism. You can really feel the author’s heart and emotions in the writing.
It does mix hope with the sadness though. I’m glad that’s in there. I can imagine this book will be so important to so many, and it’s important that it has room to cry and be angry and be encouraged. It also features a boy, Marvin, who is not afraid to cry and will be emotional…and that’s such a good dialogue to open up in YA too!
The story features so many other great things! There’s a cast of interesting and complex characters, including Marvin’s friends and a girl he meets, Faith, who helps him try to find Tyler and sticks with him when things grow dark. Marvin is also trying to get into a good college while all this is happening, and there’s a lot of talk about mental health and grief and learning to move through sadness and not lay down and give up.
Tyler Johnson Was Here is definitely the book that will leave you thinking, which is exactly what books are supposed to do. Start discussions and spark fires in people! This is a book with a tumultuous and heartbreaking journey, told in a raw and emotional voice.
For young children, and their parents, keeping calm is an important skill, particularly in noisy, excitable and sometimes stressful situations. Learning new exercises, growing independence and changes in family dynamics are some examples of times where patience and acceptance are absolutely essential. Here are a few picture books that demonstrate the skill in embracing challenges and remaining positive. And this goes for bubs and their mums! These books also highlight the important roles of our engaged, busy, guiding, and patient (!) mums and other special persons. Lovely books to share on Mother’s Day, and everyday to master those routines!
It doesn’t get more relaxing than a yoga session for little bodies and little friends! Yoga Babies by UK’s TV and radio presenter, Fearne Cotton, is a delectably pacifying experience that encourages strong and healthy minds and bodies for all ages. Sheena Dempsey perfectly demonstrates the art of movement, position and vitality when it comes to the illustrations. And the combination of words and pictures beautifully promotes audience participation with their variety of active role modelling guides.
We meet many yoga babies and their diverse families throughout this romping, rhythmic, straightforward text that connect to one another with a series of poses. Each spread is different with a culmination of family-friendly settings and pets, which help to demonstrate the given skill. For example, a dog accompanies Rex as he makes the ‘downward dog’, two mice appear with Tom and Sam’s dormouse pose, and Emily stands tall and straight like a tree in her garden. By having adults feature alongside the babies, the book encourages their initiation for a fun, calming family activity, as written in the forward message.
Colourful, cheeky and soothing, Yoga Babies is a refreshing and engaging delight of a book that children from age two will be pro-’posing’ become an habitual routine.
“In a little pink house on the edge of the town lived a baby who made some unusual sounds.” This is the opening line of Alison Lester’s rollicking, bumptious story, The Very Noisy Baby. A cacophony of sound effects proceed in this lively narrative with a tiny bub and her enormous voice box!
Coco the zoo keeper is looking for her escaped tiger, and when she hears a GROWL! coming from the little pink house she assumes it’s there. “No”, says the mother. “We just have a very noisy baby.” A hilarious string of animal onomatopoeia follows as more people search for their missing pets, only to discover it is in fact the very noisy baby. The layout of illustrations is perfect with vignettes of the house and the scouting people (Alison, as Frances the farmer, and her dog Bigsy, appear in there, too!) on one side, and a dedicated page to the small baby on the next. Lester then showcases her much-adored watercolour and line artwork as full spreads when all the people come together to find the lost creatures. And there they appear, just as our little noisy baby calls them out one by one.
Brimming with lyrical repetition, animal sounds, active encouragement and plenty of jovial humour, little ones from age two will be giggling throughout and getting carried away with the surprises jumping out at them. The Very Noisy Baby is the perfect read aloud that also reinforces the themes of working together, animals and families in the most eye-pleasing, positive and captivating way.
Wittingly taken from the popular song / game, ‘Skip to My Lou’, this title is just as naughty and delightfully fun. Skip to the Loo! A Potty Book is a whimsical play on words that rhyme and a learning skill that all toddlers achieve, all in a lively game to the potty. With bouncy text by Sally Lloyd-Jones, and the iconic style of illustrations by Guess How Much I Love You’s Anita Jeram, this little board book couldn’t get much cuter.
A group of forest friends are attending a party, with Bunny in the lead to find his potty. A subsequent line-up of animal attendees join in, each one with a personable character of its own. We’ve got a lonely dodo, a smiling frog on tiptoe, a ballerina elephant, Lord and Lady Huff-Puff, a naughty big fat monster, plus more. Each line ends in a rhyme to ‘loo’, with some gorgeously inventive terms like ‘Wibbly Woo’ and ‘stinkaroo’ to add to the leisure. Their destination expels a highly amusing tone with everyone on their assortment of different shaped and sized potties (’POO! POO! POO!’), and there’s even another little encouraging surprise on the last page.
Skip to the Loo! is the ideal book for toddlers to hold, sit with and read whilst gracing the little throne in comfort and calmness, reassurance and joy. A life-saver for weary mums!
Monster Baby by Sarah Dyer captures a little piece of a young child’s thoughts and feelings when a new baby enters his or her world. All the trepidation, jealousy and sometimes disappointments that can exist when focused attention and family dynamics change. This young, orange, horned monster has plenty of questions running through his mind as he narrates the story in first person. Dyer cleverly weaves in a child’s perspective as her character attempts to grasp the concepts of Mum’s growing belly, why she rests so much, eats too healthy but doesn’t get any thinner, and can’t pick him up anymore. But there are positive aspects, too, like seeing the baby on the ultrasound and the excited anticipation of its arrival. The confusion continues when monster baby is born, like why the boy needs to be quiet when the newborn can make a lot of noise. Eventually, he adapts and grows to love his baby brother, as most older siblings do.
Dyer’s characters, whilst monsters, are nothing but gentle and friendly creatures, illustrated with uncomplicated line drawings and added textural and collage media for warmth and familiarity.
Highly relatable and witty, Monster Baby is perfect for preschoolers as an encouraging book on being open with their questions and feelings yet seeing the positive side to adapting to change. Perfect also for mums expecting bub number two!
Mother. The person who mothers you, nurtures you, Band-Aids your grazed knees and kisses you to sleep at night; the person who is always there to listen to you, has cuddles to spare, and tugs you back in line when things go askew deserves every ounce of recognition and celebration we can muster. These next few picture books do just that and more. Sit down with your mother, child, or grandchild this Mother’s Day with one of these touching picture books.
Discovering the creative picture book chemistry of a new picture book team is akin to embarking on an exciting new adventure for me. When the team is a husband and wife collaboration, the intrigue doubles. Marvellous Mummy is the first creation of Katie and Giuseppe Poli and manages to tick many of my ideal picture book boxes. It’s bright and breezy in appearance, possesses narrative that is succinct and able to endure the rigors of repeated reading and evokes warmth and identifiable situations that even very small children can recognise and love.
The narrator’s mummy, represented as a capable, caring and sometimes feisty she-elephant, is many things, just like real-life mummies. She is silly and fun and goofy at times. She is not beyond being rambunctious and playful, sneaky and knowing and sometimes grumpy and grouchy, either. However, she is always kind and loving and of course, the best mummy of all because she is yours. Katie’s repeating phraseology and use of strong verbs to emphasise this mummy’s characteristics and engagement with her offspring provide the opportunity for little readers to interact and anticipate her qualities. This prompts them to recognise the same qualities in their own mothers, perhaps encouraging them to search for more.
Giuseppe’s illustrations are playfully exuberant. Each page is awash in pretty pastels creating a soft, gentle mood that is both childlike in appearance yet focuses powerfully on mama elephant and her child. Mummies are not perfect every minute of the day nor are they invincible but they are strong and beautiful and capable in every conceivable way in the eyes of their young children. Marvellous Mummy portrays this simple concept well. A delight to share with pre-schoolers and to remind all those mummies out there how special they are.
I Have Lost My Way is the latest book by the famed Gayle Forman and it definitely doesn’t disappoint! It features her typical “set in 1-day” timeline as well as packing an emotional punch full of angst, change and emotion. It’s the kind of book you chew through in one day but keep thinking about it for a long time after.
The book follows 3 narrators: Freya (a singer who’s lost her voice) and Harun (a closeted quiet boy who’s broken his boyfriend’s heart) and Nathaniel (neglected and disillusioned with the disappointing world after an accident). The book follows them as they all meet in New York City, actually…they meet because Freya tumbles off a foot-bridge and lands on Nathaniel’s head, gives him a concussion, and then ropes a nearby Haran into helping them to hospital. Harun recognises the famed-Freya-singer and wonders if hanging around with her will somehow get him his boyfriend (who loves her music) back. And Nathaniel feels all his paths in life have folded to a close…and then he meets these two strangers who help him and stick with him, even when they could’ve left.
I loved Forman’s previous books,If I Stay and Where She Went, so I was super excited for this new one. I Have Lost My Way tugged at those heart strings and also incorporated such a complex and interesting cast and plot into such a small amount of space!
I really liked how the “told over one day” plot was handled. It was short and powerful and I got so so attached to these characters after just seeing them over one day! However the romance in these 1-day stories always does feel a bit rushed…although I liked that Nathaniel and Freya weren’t spouting any “destiny” lines…they just liked each other and were keen to see where it would go. It was instalove but not cliche! And they were so cute!
It’s written so their backstory comes in 1st person chapters, but the bulk of the book (set in the present day) is written in 3rd. I liked this unique formatting and storytelling style and I think it worked well for the book. I thought Harun’s narrative didn’t slot so easily with the others, but he was still such a winning character and I was just as invested in his life.
A quick glance at the characters?!
FREYA: She’s a rising-star singer who suddenly can’t sing. It could be medical?Or nerves? But she just stops being able to sing and she’s contracted by an austere man she can’t disappoint and she’s scared people will forget about her if she never sings again. Fame only lasts if you’re giving to your audience after all. She feels so lost with all of this and the pressure is crushing her. She’s also biracial/Ethiopian and her culture plays into her music loves a lot.
HARUN: He’s very gay and very closeted being from a strict Muslim family that he loves dearly and doesn’t want to disappoint. A lot of his narrative is wrestling with what he knows to be good and true vs what he knows his parents would do if they found out. He has an amazing black boyfriend, James…but who doesn’t want to be Harun’s shameful secret anymore. Then Harun agrees to do something his family wants that is…not good for him. And things with him and James turn sideways really fast. When the book begins he’s just broken his boyfriend’s heart and is totally lost and alone.
NATHANIEL: He is the most mysterious of the bunch and grew up really secluded and neglected with a father who was very childish and never took proper care of him. As a kid, Nathaniel found that exciting…as an older teen? He feels overlooked, unwanted, and forgotten. He ends up in New York City after a tragic home event and he feels like his world is collapsing around him. He’s very depressed and finding Freya and Harun kick-starts him out of a downward spiral. He’s also so very soft and kind and also starving so they spend a lot of the book feeding him. As they should.
It’s definitely got the emotional edge I’ve come to expect from Forman books! I was super caught up in the story and just wanted to know if something (or anything!) would work out for these characters who were so lost and also stuck in their own mire of aloneness.
I Have Lost My Way is an amazing story that takes a lot of twists you won’t expect. It deals with grief and loneliness and isolation and how important it is to confide your struggles with people you love and trust.