Leave Taking by Lorraine Marwood

Author-poet Lorraine Marwood won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction in 2010 for Star Jumps. Her new verse novel Leave Taking (University of Qld Press) is just as good. Both are set on a farm and are for primary-aged readers.

Leave Taking refers to both the title and Toby’s experiences as he and his parents pack up their dairy farm and the belongings of Toby’s younger sister, Leah, who recently died from cancer. Of course, such weighty themes are sobering but grief is recognised and faced through the natural rhythms of Australian rural life, Toby’s steps around the property and loving memories of Leah’s tangible and intangible footprints.

The map of the farm on the front endpaper has changed by the end of the book as Toby revisits and labels special places: the machinery shed where both children scratched their initials in the concrete; the old red truck where Leah wrote pretend bus tickets during their last game there; and Memorial Hill where they buried pets and other animals and birds.

Toby camps at significant places on the property but is always close enough to the farmhouse to help with the cows or have a quick check in with his mother. He is also comforted by the company of his dog Trigger.

Leah was a gentle girl who loved stories and taking photos, shared jobs, delighted in April Fools’ jokes and left so many drawings that some will be taken to the new farm and the rest placed in the heart of the bonfire – which would have made her happy.

The writing is often sensory and poetic, beginning with a contrast between the light of the “faint silver of dawn” and the dark shadows outside Toby’s tent. The author sketches the natural world of magpies and native trees and gumnuts with evocative strokes. She uses figurative language to describe the huge milk vat purring “like a big-stomached cat” and personifies the bonfire as a dragon.

There is a supportive, although laid-back, sense of community and hope of new life with the imminent birth of a new baby as Toby maps his goodbye to his home and much-loved sister.

The cover illustrations and line drawings are by Peter Carnavas, who has just won the Griffith University Children’s Book Award in the Queensland Literary Awards. After creating a number of thoughtful picture books, Peter illustrated his first novel, The Elephant, a brilliantly executed study of a family’s grief and path to healing. I will always remember this outstanding novel when I see jacaranda trees in flower.

Review – Lenny’s Book of Everything

I remember when I was a pre-schooler, the day our World Book Encyclopedia and Childcraft How and Why Library sets arrived. They lived in their own custom-built bookshelf and went with us whenever we moved house. I was contemplating selling them this year to free up space or failing that, surrendering them to the compost heap. Now, after spending time with Lenny and Davey, I’m not so sure. Like their Burrell’s Build-It-At-Home Encyclopedia, each lettered volume holds countless childhood memories anchored in place by facts and figures now hopelessly out of date but somehow still completely valid. How does one discard their former life – a childhood of countless special moments and first-time discoveries – so decidedly?

Moreover, how does one describe Lenny’s story. Wrenching (you will need tissues – preferably 3 ply), soaring (pack your wings), absorbing (allow for a few sleepless nights spent page turning), tragic (get another box of nose-wipes just in case).

Lenny’s Book of Everything is a story with a heart as big as Phar Lap’s and gallops along at a pace that both rips you apart emotionally but is simultaneously restorative and mindful such is Karen Foxlee’s talent for powerful story telling. This story describes the relationship between Lenny, her younger brother who has a rare form of gigantism and their beleaguered mother. Theirs appears a drab ‘moon-rock’ coloured existence yet flashes of brilliance strike everywhere, everyday: their mother’s pink work uniform, the pigeons on their windowsill, Mrs Gaspar’s outrageous beehive, the ubiquitous letters from Martha Brent and of course, her regular dispatch of encyclopedic issues to them. All conspire to create warmth and hope and put the reader at ease while sweeping them ever closer to the inevitable conclusion.

Continue reading Review – Lenny’s Book of Everything

Not So Scary Picture Books for Halloween

Children love a splash of spook, a gash of ghoul and a dash of danger, but only if it’s laced with humour and courage. If you’re looking for some creepy crawlies, menacing monsters and terrifying trolls to give you the shivers this Halloween, then check out these wild picture books… don’t worry, they’re not actually so scary.

A Monster in my House is written by the internationally acclaimed comedians The Umbilical Brothers, so you know you’re in for an amusing feast rather than a nightmarish one. Their undeniably popular wit is clear with their multi-layered twists that pleasingly surprise. The first-person narration warns of the danger associated with having a different monster in each room of the house. However, upon inspecting the images, Berlin artist Johan Potma has done a brilliant job to capture a mix of the classic, old-style horror with a beautiful warmth and humour that just does the opposite of chilling. He neatly infuses newspaper collage with pencil sketching and oil paint in subdued browns, reds and greens with the loopiest of monster characters you’ve ever seen. And take note of the little mouse in each spread… it holds some very important clues! In a charming rhyming text, the suspense is thrilling, leading us to a conclusion that is totally unexpected.

A Monster in my House is a delightfully playful romp abound with some pretty cool characters that will simply warm your soul.

Penguin Random House, October 2018.

With a nod to the legendary We’re Going a Bear Hunt comes this exasperatingly satisfying Beware the Deep Dark Forest by Sue Whiting and Annie White. Sure, there are creepy bits, with carnivorous plants and venomous snakes and all. But that doesn’t stop Rosie from being the heroine in this suspenseful adventure tale. Braving it out through the sublimely detailed and juicy scenes, the young girl sets off to rescue her pup Tinky through terrifying obstacles, including a bristly wolf, a deep ravine, and an enormous hairy-bellied, muddy troll. But rather than shy away and run like the children did with a certain shiny-eyed, wet-nosed Bear in another story, Rosie stands tall and defiant proving her saviour qualities. Then she can squelch back through the deep and dark and muddy forest back home.

Beware the Deep Dark Forest captures just the right amount of creepiness with the rewarding inclusion of excitement and adventure and a strong female character determined to get her hands dirty and tackle the tough stuff. This is how you face your fears for children from age four.

Walker Books, October 2018.

Following the long-lasting success of The Wrong Book, Nick Bland has come out with this latest cracker, The Unscary Book. It follows a boy, Nicholas Ickle, suitably costumed in an alien / skeleton attire, attempting to introduce us to his ‘scary’ book. So, prepare to be frightened! However, each page turn sends readers into fits of giggles rather than a state of alarm. Poor Nicholas is more terrified at the nice-ness and bright-ness of what is revealed behind all his pre-prepared props. ‘But ice-cream isn’t scary, it’s delicious!’, he shouts. ‘I’m trying to scare people, not make them hungry!’. The brilliantly colourful and energetic (non-scary) book continues to amuse our young audience as Nicholas becomes more frustrated with things that are NOT spooky, terrifying, frightening, or horrifying. And just when you think he’s finally won, well, you’ll just have to read it to find out!

The Unscary Book has plenty of animation and visuals to pore over, as well as fantastic language and comprehension elements to explore. Comedic bliss that all went wrong in just the right way. No preschooler will un-love this one!

Scholastic, September 2018.

Not so much scary, but more like stinky! Which is actually helpful for scaring those unwanted pests away. Tohby Riddle has got this story spot-on with his knack for harnessing the powers of philosophy with humour and an understanding of human complexities – although in the form of bugs and critters. Here Comes Stinkbug! is completely captivating with its brilliantly simplistic plot and dry wit about the unpleasantness of a smelly Stinkbug. None of the other crawlies want to be around Stinkbug because, well, he stinks. They try to raise the matter with him, but that makes him worse. Until he tries to charm the others with a lot of effort. However, it seems Stinkbug has attracted the wrong sort… Maybe it’s best to just be yourself.

The aptly hued garden tones and textures combined with a mixture of typed narrative and handwritten speech bubbles elicit a nature that is both endearingly casual and candid. Here Comes Stinkbug! empowers readers to consider embracing who you are, playing to your strengths and being wary of those who might take advantage of you. Children from age four will find this book utterly and proposterously reeking with the sweetest kind of comedy, bugging their parents for more.

Allen and Unwin, September 2018.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

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Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman is the kind of apocalyptic tale that will leave your throat dry and heart beating fast. Because it’s literally about what would happen if there was NO water. And I can’t even say how very terrifying that is and how I genuinely felt so thirsty reading this book I drank about a hundred gallons of water. (Bonus points to the authors for encouraging us to stay hydrated.)

Welcome to a world in the not-so-distant future where suddenly the taps stop working. People get worried but this quickly turns to panic, because there’s no way to survive without water. The world is in severe drought and how far would you go and what would you do to get the water you need to so survive? The story starts out on a simple suburban street where Alyssa and her little brother Garret are facing the water crisis, while their neighbours are super Preppers for this kind of thing and have a fortress style kingdom with provisions intact. The neighbours teen son, Kelton, definitely has a crush on Alyssa though, and they team up when the world starts spinning down a dark path. As their parents go missing and they struggle to survive, the end up on a roadtrip and looped in with Jacqui (who’s totally terrifying and carrying a gun) and Henry (who is very snaky and will con everyone out of their wallets) and the five have to get to a safe place and get water…before it’s too late.

I was particularly excited for this book because I adore Neal Shusterman, and knowing he collabed with his son made the book even more special. Their styles worked seamlessly together, although we get the good trademarked Neal plot of: stressful circumstances and terrifying finales.

Trust me, this book is STRESSFUL. I think what makes it even more vivid is the fact that it starts off in a normal ol’ neighbourhood. You could imagine this happening to your street. And the world so quickly dissolves into chaos in the face of having no water. You can only go 3 days without it, after all, and what do you do when there’s literally none to be had? Weapons come out. Friendships are lost. New bonds are forged.

The plot takes us on a whirlwind roadtrip too, as the teens try to reach Kelton’s family’s safehouse. Which, unfortunately, is no amble down the road. So you know they’re in for a rough time! I loved how the plot never lagged and gave us a ton of new situations and interesting people to meet along the way — all dogged by the ticking time-bomb of get water get water get water.

The amount of characters narrating took me by surprise at first, but I appreciate how this showed the entire scope of how the country was suffering. There’s lots of excerpts from strangers while the main chapters are mostly split between Kelton and Alyssa, but gradually adding in Jacqui and Henry.

Alyssa was a really honest and brave sort of person, very dedicated to keeping her little brother safe, but also keen to keep things fair and help others. Kelton was such a dork and doing his best to have some real friends for the first time. His family is obsessed with the apocalypse so he’s kind of the Survival Guy and saves their lives time and again with his knowledge. Jacqui is terrifying, aka the best thing ever, because she yells at things and has a gun and has been living on her own well before this tragedy started. Henry is who they pick up towards the end, and he’s a sly snake who is using the crisis as a way to gain money. His introduction to the group made everything so fraught with tension that it was epic to read!

I definitely recommend DRY if you want to (a) be really really thirsty while you read, and (b) read a knuckle-whitening social commentary on climate change and humans turning into monsters. It is actually super stressful! (In the best way!) And totally captivating!

Stories for the Soul – Picture Books that Tug at the Heart Part 1

There’s a fair chance that issue-based picture books are going to tug your heartstrings and touch your soul purely because they dare to devote themselves to issues that matter to you, the reader. You should never be frightened of feeling, nor should you be wary of exposing your child to feelings. Even if your child has not yet experienced a similar situation, sharing stories with soul is a key way to introduce them to the myriad of emotions and circumstances that make up their world. These next few picture books are prime examples.

Lily’s Balloon by Katrina Roe and Helene Magisson

Lily is disappointed and overwhelmed by a day out at the fair that is until she finds something that makes her feel ‘quiet on the inside’, an ivory coloured balloon. This balloon calms and heartens her but she accidentally lets it out of her grasp at the park. It soars towards the clouds leaving Lily behind.

Tom, fledging photographer, happens upon the balloon as it drifts across the park’s lake and it becomes one of his favourite shots. However, the balloon dances on until it snags in the branches of Amelia’s garden. After she sets it free, her heart soars with it.

Continue reading Stories for the Soul – Picture Books that Tug at the Heart Part 1

Sensational Spring Kids’ Stories

Spring has sprung and with it a prolific explosion of sublimely divine children’s books. Here is the slimmest selection. Do search the bookshelves for more.

The Perfect Leaf by Andrew Plant

Befittingly released on the tail end of our Southern Hemisphere autumn, The Perfect Leaf is a glorious explosion of colour and joy. Smothered in hues of honey-on-warm-toast, this book oozes the golden splendour of autumn on each page, promoting friendship, imagination and creativity in a way adults often forget about but children naturally embrace.

In a world where imperfections are deemed as failures rather than avenues for alternative thought and being, this book serves as an important reminder for us all to rejoice in the small things in life and look for the unique beauties within them. Plant’s multi perspective illustrations saturate each page, providing the perfect backdrop for his syrupy prose. The Perfect Leaf is a lovely vehicle for discussion about nature, seasons, perception, acceptance and friendship. And, while more autumn hued than spring, worthy of treasuring as the days warm.

Ford Street Publishing October 2018

Big Fella Rain by Beryl Webber and Fern Martins

At a time when children are constantly being reminded of the arid nature of this land, Big Fella Rain is a supremely refreshing, soul-quenching look at life in the Top End of Australia.

Continue reading Sensational Spring Kids’ Stories

Review: The Lady’s Guide To Petticoats And Piracy by Mackenzie Lee

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The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzie Lee contains such a delightful mixture of feminist rage and pastry appreciation. It’s the compantion novel to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (which has to be one of my all time favourite books!) and I’m so glad we get a spin-off focused entirely on Monty’s little sister: Felicity Montague. She is a ferocious and determined want-to-be-doctor and will knock down the doors of the men-centric 1700s to get the chance to study medicine. It features fantastic female friendships, a wild and scattered romp over land and sea, and a good deal of pirates. As one should hope.

The story takes off with Felicity awkwardly bolting from a marriage proposal because what she wants to do is study medicine. She’s so beaten down trying to convince hospitals to train her, though, so when she gets the opportunity to meet her very favourite doctor hero, Alexander Platt, she snatches the opportunity and travels across Europe to hopefully be hired after his wedding. But it just so happens that he’s marrying her old childhood friend, Joanna…and this creates some awkwardness because they had a massive falling out years ago. But Felicity is so desperate for this dream that she teams up with a slightly sketchy girl named Sim (who possibly is a thief?! who can know) and as things turn out to be not what she expected, she gets tossed into a whirlwind journey and adventure of pirates and dragons, heroes and villains, naturalists and famous doctors, thievery and saving.

My very favourite thing was our trio of fantastic leading women. Felicity is all ornery and focused: get to be a doctor. She literally cares about nothing else, and her drive is admirable as well as sad sometimes, because she misses out on a lot of things. Like friendships. Then we have Sim! She’s Muslim and brown skinned and Felicity isn’t quite sure if she’s a thief or not, but the two get bundled together to go on this adventure to find Alexander Platt…which is where Joanna Hoffman comes in! She’s loves parties and lace and frills…and she’s also a naturalist. The dynamics of the trio were thrilling and diverse and complex. Every character felt so incredibly well written, I loved every second getting to know them.

I also liked how it tackled the you’re not like the other girls” trope. Felicity herself was the one perpetuating it, and seeing her called out on it and forced to think about why she scorned women who liked feminine things was so refreshing to read. Felicity thinks being sensible and intelligent means being as far from “girly” as possible and this so isn’t true. I love how she grew and her character arc was amazing.

It has a very travel-centric plot! They romp over a lot of Europe and then end up on the high seas (ooh pirates!). It also focuses a bit on naturalists too…and mapping and exploring. I so could handle a book from Mackenzie Lee about women explorers in history too!

The feministic rants were very therapeutic to read. At times it did feel a bit repetitious and I wanted Felicity to think and feel about more than her single-minded focus to be trained as a doctor and how the arrogant men of the world were blocking her way. It consumed her, which made sense, but it also veered into preachy territory sometimes. But these things were so so topical to talk about, especially today, when women still face horrible sexism as they try to forge new paths and fight for the right to be held equal to men.

Also all the scenes where Monty and Percy came in were perfection. This is the part where we get to crack up and fall into the old banter of Monty and Felicity who love each other…aaand fight all the time.  It was also amazing to have a bit of a “what’s happening to them now” peek at Monty and Percy’s lives. Also their conclusion? So so good.

In fact the book, on the whole, had just such a stunningly winning ending, that I feel very warm and satisfied! Which is a perfect way to finish off reading a fantastic duology about the Montague siblings. The friendships and discussions on being asexual and the pirate adventures and cleverness and huger to learn all made this book an exceptional treat to read.

YA Thrillers: ‘Found’ & ‘After the Lights Go Out’

Fleur Ferris has endorsed Lili Wilkinson’s latest novel After the Lights Go Out (Allen & Unwin) with the words, “A terrifying yet hope-filled story of disaster, deceit, love, sacrifice and survival.” These words could also apply to her new book Found (Penguin Random House Australia). Both Australian YA novels have intriguing titles and are classy examples of thrillers set outside country towns in hidden bunkers. They complement, and could be read alongside, each other.

After the Lights Go Out begins with an absolutely riveting scene where homeschooled Pru and her younger twin sisters Grace and Blythe have to escape from their house on an isolated property on the edge of the desert to a hidden underground bunker. Their father, a mining engineer, built it in secret and named it the Paddock after Winston Churchill’s WWII bunker. We learn quickly that he is paranoid, anticipates secret government conspiracies and that he is a doomsday prepper. This is a training drill.

Later, when the lights go out, the girls know that this is The Big One and they execute their exhaustive training and protocols such as Eat perishables and Exchange worthless currency for supplies. Tension ratchets because Pru is anaphylactic, there has been an explosion at the zinc mine and her father is missing, and the girls aren’t sure whether they should share their supplies with the townspeople of Jubilee.

Bear, Elizabeth’s father in Found is also highly protective and intimidating. He wouldn’t be happy about her kiss with Jonah but he doesn’t witness it – he’s been taken by unknown people in a white van. When her mother realises what has happened she whisks Beth out of town and through a cross-country route along channels across the paddocks to a bunker under a dry dam on their farm. This bunker is made from shipping containers and is as well-equipped as Pru’s. Their flight is also just as original and exciting.

The reason for Beth’s family’s dangerous plight is quickly revealed and the story then steams ahead with help from Jonah (who shares the narration) and Trent, a bad boy who may be trying to reform. The stakes are raised even higher when Beth’s mother is shot.

Both Fleur and Lili describe their very Australian rural settings with authenticity and care. Lili’s diverse characters range from a British Asian church minister to warm-skinned love interest Mateo who has two mums. Found is action-packed and heartbreaking and will be relished by all high school readers who love a fast-paced, filmic read.

Other highly recommended books by these authors include:

Fleur Ferris Risk, Black, Wreck

Lili Wilkinson Green Valentine, The Boundless Sublime, A Pocketful of Eyes

Leaf Stone Beetle

Leaf Stone Beetle is written by Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Gaye Chapman. Its publisher Dirt Lane Press is a ground-breaking new publishing company based in Orange, NSW. They believe in creating quality literature and are publishing books by some of Australia’s best, including Matt Ottley, Ursula Dubosarsky and Gaye Chapman.

http://www.dirtlanepress.com/

 

Leaf Stone Beetle is a deeply-considered, poignant tale telling the interlinked stories of leaf, stone and beetle. The book’s physical small, almost square shape is ideal for small hands and, along with its understated cover and ink and woodcut style illustrations, signals that it belongs outside the usual. Thoughtful, perceptive readers of all ages will find Leaf Stone Beetle resonant.

Little leaf is the smallest and greenest leaf on the tree. When the other leaves change colour and are tussled away by the wind, it stays behind until swept by a gentle breeze to a stream. A stone lies on the bottom of the water and notices the changes in tree, weather and stars without expecting any transformation itself. When a storm moves the stone near the gnarled roots of the tree, it is terrified.

Beetle is different from the other beetles. Without haste she absorbs the minutiae of her world. “She looked at the tiny purple flowers. She looked at a slip of golden pollen that fluttered by in the wind”. The other beetles realise that a storm is coming and scurry away. Beetle then has no one to follow home.

The stories intersect when Beetle is kept safe by leaf and stone in completely natural ways. They are all accepting of their transient safety, recognising their ultimate role in nature’s cycle. With interest and without angst, readers glean that change is an inevitable part of life.

Leaf Stone Beetle is a unique construct of narrative science and story in words and illustrations. It is simple, yet philosophical and profound.

Teacher Notes are available at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/50e75d6de4b0955e45fd2583/t/5b5e56b62b6a28400347ea34/1532909255781/Leaf+Stone+Beetle+Teachers+notes_01.pdf

Other books illustrated by Gaye Chapman include Little Blue, Incredibilia, Precious Little and In the Evening. 

Some books, amongst many, written by Ursula Dubosarsky include Brindabella, The Blue Cat, The Golden Day, The Red Shoe, The Word Spy and The Return of the Word Spy.

Other books published by Dirt Lane Press include The Sorry Tale of Fox & Bear by Margrete Lamond, illustrated by Heather Valence. This wily, nuanced tale was shortlisted for the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary awards. The Dream Peddler by Irena Kobald and Christopher Nielsen is published this month.

Forever Inspiring; Elizabeth Mary Cummings on The Forever Kid

Children’s author and poet, with a background in education and psychology, Elizabeth Mary Cummings is known for her sensitive attention to difficult topics including mental health and anti-bullying issues. Following titles, such as The Disappearing Sister and Dinner on the Doorstep, Elizabeth has recently released her picture book on grief, The Forever Kid. She has paid careful consideration as to celebrate the life of a family’s son and brother in a joyous way, rather than treat this story as a sorrowful tragedy. Johnny, their forever kid, is beautifully and authentically remembered on his birthday – an event they honour every year, despite his absence. Vince, narrator and younger brother, portrays a host of emotions, including sadness, guilt and joy as the family look both back and forward on life with and without their Johnny. A narrative genuinely thought-through via the child’s perspective. Equally, the illustrations by Cheri Hughes add an extra layer of depth with their angelic, water-wash qualities to represent the softness and tenderness of the emotion and the family’s  tradition of telling ‘cloud stories’, as well as the vivacity that reflects their strong memories of their loved one. The Forever Kid is undoubtedly a book that children from age four will strongly remember and gain solace in knowing there are positive ways to cope in difficult situations.

Big Sky Publishing, October 2018.

Elizabeth is here today to talk with us at Boomerang Books!

Congratulations on the release of your heartfelt picture book.

A powerful and beautiful story such as The Forever Kid would grip the hearts of any audience coping with grief or change. What was your motivation for writing it, and what do you hope is gained by readers?

The story came to me one night when my parents were visiting, I woke at about 2a.m. and the story was there and I wrote it down immediately before I lost it. The trigger was probably talking through family times as well as having at that time just lost a dear friend to cancer. The idea of grief was right at the surface of my emotions I guess and being with my parents had made my mind turn to the story of my father losing his younger brother who was a teenager at the time of his death.

What have you found to be effective strategies in dealing with grief? How does your book show the processing of such sadness and mourning in a positive way?

In dealing with grief there is more of an understanding that this is complex and that does not go away once time passes. For those who have suffered loss and grieving, it is a process but it is also a state in which they live after the initial loss.

In The Forever Kid, Vince and his family celebrate and remember Johnny on the day of his birthday. On talking to many families who have suffered the loss of a child I have found that this is common practice. Although sadness is certainly present this can be the day where there is a reflection on the life of the loved one. This celebration of life in itself becomes the positive coming together and of that opportunity to talk about that loved one.

For children it is vital that they have access to the truth as well as have a chance to be involved in the grieving process both around the time of death and after. It is important that [children] have a safe adult or older sibling or child to talk to about how they feel.

What is your involvement in the community regarding help with family and mental health situations?

I have no official role. I obviously write on the topic and am a great believer in narrative therapy.

Your previous titles (the Verityville and Elephant in the Room series) were all published independently. This time you have gone down the trade publishing route with Big Sky Publishing. How have your experiences differed in terms of support and marketing opportunities?

Well, when publishing independently one has all the control and all of the responsibility. It is a double-edged sword. Traditional publishers have bigger budgets, more control and wider reach. The decision as to how to publish (independently or trade) and who to publish (publisher selection) much be made in the light of what one is writing about and what one’s intention is for the story. As I have been working on my own marketing for almost four years now I understood the publisher’s considerations better than a first time author might. Publishing is no easy task and it takes a team to develop a book all the way through. Even when working independently I am working with others – designers, beta readers, editors and other professional services I may need to contract in to help produce a book as best possible.

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

Some of my new projects include: two poetry collections, a new picture book called The Green Striped Hoodie about bullying and resilience, finding a publisher for a project I have been working on to do with trauma and recovery as well as a couple of environmental projects and some more Verityville stories!

That’s all very exciting! Thanks so much, Elizabeth! It’s been a pleasure!

Elizabeth can be found at her website, and on blog tour here.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

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The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tcholke is an exquisitely atmospheric fantasy tale that’s part Beowulf and part witchy glory. It’s the kind of book that you soak in because the world is so large and sprawls well beyond the page. Everything seemed so carefully crafted, from the delicious food descriptions to the scenery and the culture. It’s about girls who kill out of mercy, and sometimes out of vengeance, and it’s about monsters and witches and gentle magic and saving those who can’t save themselves.

I’d only read Wink Poppy Midnight by this author before (which is a treacherous and enthralling magical realism story) and I was so excited to see what she’d do with epic fantasy!

The story follows four girls who are known as Boneless Mercies: Frey, Ovie, Juniper and Runa. Their trade is death: they do mercy killings for those who are dying or sick, and sometimes they kill to save a vulnerable girl trapped in an abusive situation. But that’s rarer. The girls stick to their code and care their dark, dark burden that men won’t even touch. Frey narrates and as the story begins she’s so tired of this life, of being surrounded and permeated with death. So when there’s news of a monster that no one can kill and whoever conquers it will receive an immeasurable reward? She wants in. But she’ll have to travel through witch clans and dark magic to get there…and she’ll have to convince her close Mercies friends to help her. Because she can’t do it alone. Or will she have to?

The setting is very Norse-inspired and I loved this! There are jarls and snowy viking villages, all mixed with the magic of this new created world. We have witch clans and cut-queens and marshes and far off seas. I could feel the snow and the chill seeping from the pages. It’s easy to get absorbed in the setting, harsh and beautiful as it was.

The concept of Mercy Killers was so interesting too. They literally get hired to do this by people who just can’t keep going on. It’s really sad and very dark, and they often cut throats too, so it’s bloody and messy work. But the girls don’t revel in it. And they might be good at it, but they want another life too. Frey in particularly hates the idea of her life not being big enough.

We also get to meet this tight-knit group of five and travel the snowy worlds iwth them. I usually get a bit nervous by big casts and it took them a while to feel fully like individuals, but I loved them all by the end! Frey is our narrator, and a total selfless girl who wants to save all the things and wants to leap into danger. Then there’s Runa, who’s the feisty snarly one, and dreams of running through the forests with the Quicks (who felt like Robin Hood’s merry men!). Ovie is the solid and quiet one, the backbone of the group. Juniper is the actual sweetest of ever. She’s small and does the prayers and cares for the earth and is also a witch. And lastly we have the groups tagalong: Trigve. He’s the sole boy, who they basically scooped off the side of the road before he died. He follows them around loyally although he can never truly be one of them.

The story feels like a peek through a window into a world you only catch the corners of! It makes you desperate for more books, more sequels, to follow what happens next. And I love it when worlds do that. It also weaves in plenty of very apt storylines about women being dismissed and oppressed and how they’re not going to sit back and take it. It’s an empowering story about girls who save people that don’t even trust them. The Boneless Mercies is a heartfelt and strong and deeply magical tale.

Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

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It’s hard to find the words to describe how exquisitely special and gorgeous Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor truly is. It’s so so well written that a mere review doesn’t seem even nearly able to capture the pure beauty of this tale! The marvellously detailed storytelling and the incredible world building will totally entrance you. It’s all gods and monsters and librarians and the most lush and gorgeous dreamscapes. I got to this point reading it and was just like “I never want this book to end thanks.”

The story begins by following Lazlo Strange, a foundling from an orphanage with no name and no future…until he finds himself working for an incredible library and falling in love with the mystical legends of a lost city named: Weep. Lazlo’s life is dedicated to serving, but also to uncovering the mysteries of this city. And when strangers cross the desert to bring news of not only the city’s true existence, but of a magical problem they need solving to save them — Lazlo would do anything to be picked for the journey. But the “problem” is like nothing he could’ve imagined. It turns out the legends of the gods and monsters aren’t fairy tales. They’re real and, even though they’re slain now, they’ve left behind the terror of their past-reign and something unforgivable: their blue skinned children with powers that could ruin the world. Or save it.

Lazlo is such a sweet and pure narrator that you can’t help but love him from page one. I love how his nose got broken by a fairy tale book and that he’ll walk into a wall because he’s reading so much and how his whole life is about fantastical lost cities and how he dreams the most beautiful and gorgeous dreams the world has ever known. He is the perfect embodiment of a bookworm! The world doesn’t deserve the wholesome preciousness of Lazlo Strange.

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It’s also dual-narrated by Sarai, a blue-skinned goddess from the fallen tyrantical gods who used to rule Weep. She’s hiding from the world that wants her dead because of her horrifically cruel goddess mother. But she is so sweet and pure too. I just want to give her a cake. She hasn’t had a cake in years and wow, after all she’s been through? She deserves that. She’s also surrounded by 4 other godspawn: Feral, Ruby, Sparrow, and the vicious Minya. They’re so amazing and I loved them all, even Minya who is permanently trapped as a 6 year old and so caught up on wanting vengeance for the massacres that she’s bitter and cruel.  But all she wants is to protect her family!

What really caught me is the writing. The flowery prose is absolutely breathtaking. It swallows you and totally tosses you into the story so all you know is Weep and magic and fairytales and impossible dreams. I just couldn’t stop thinking “I want to live in this book.” Every word was so perfectly chosen that I was devoured by the story. I’ve never seen a city so clearly as I see Weep.

This is all about magic and gods and monsters which is utterly my kind of story. Also there is: death and destruction and psychotic little girls who catch ghosts and legends inside legends and great monsters and beasts and cruel pasts and terrified warriors and god slayers and quiet librarian boys and falling girls with flowers in their hair and blue skin and despair.

It’s truly the kind of story that you don’t just read, but you fully experience. I want to read more books with sweet boys and nightmare girls. This is the story tha twill melt your soul with the most fantastically marvellous writing in the world. Strange the Dreamer is a book that inspires you to dream.

Review: Blackbird of the Gallows by Meg Kassel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Release by Patrick Ness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dimity Powell Takes Us on a Trip Down Holyrood Lane

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

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

Thank you, Romi!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was my absolute pleasure, Romi!

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Review: Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Goat by Anne Fleming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EK Books, September 2018.

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

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Review: Sweet Adversity

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

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

Continue reading Review: Sweet Adversity

Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloomsbury for Children June 2018

The Daddy Shop by Aleesah Darlison and Kelly O’Gara

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

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

Review: The Emerald Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fatherhood in Picture Books

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

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

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

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

Little Hare Books, August 2018.

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

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

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

Penguin Random House, July 2018.

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

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

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

Walker Books, September 2018.

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

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

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

Walker Books UK, July 2018.

Happy Father’s Day!

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

Keeping the Faith – Junior Novel to YA reviews

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

Leave Taking by Lorraine Marwood

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

Continue reading Keeping the Faith – Junior Novel to YA reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animals at Work – Picture Book Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

Lothian Children’s Books, June 2018.

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

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

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

Scholastic, April 2018.

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

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

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

New Frontier Publishing, July 2018.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, I’m a refugee –

I’m not Australian yet.

But if your country lets me in,

I’d love to be a vet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children could compare the endpapers, which are different.

Rodney loves drawing but loses his favourite pen, Penny.

The illustrations show the pen and other missing items.

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

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

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

ABC Science: The Surfing Scientist

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

Review: More Than We Can Tell by Brigid Kemmerer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the Sea, Under the Sea – Picture Book Reviews

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

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

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

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

Scholastic, March 2018.

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

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

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

Ford Street Publishing, July 2018.

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

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

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

Anne Helen Donnelly, July 2018.

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

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

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

Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, June 2018.

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

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

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

Walker Books UK, June 2018.

Reluctant Heroes – Junior Novels That Conquer Doubt

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

Natural Born Leader Loser by Oliver Phommavanh

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

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

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

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Review: Your Destination Is On The Left by Laura Spieller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applauding Individuality – Picture Books that Celebrate Being Different

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

Along Came A Different by Tom McLaughlin

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

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

Bloomsbury Children’s Books May 2018

My Storee by Paul Russell and Aska

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

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

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

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

EK Books August 2018

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

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

Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Very Noisy Baby by Alison Lester (Affirm Press)

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

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

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

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

Big Cats and Small Cats – Picture Book Reviews

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

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

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

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

Walker Books, August 2018.

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

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

Scholastic, June 2018.

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

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

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

Big Sky Publishing, July 2018.

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

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

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

Walker Books UK, February 2018.

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

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

Pre-order your copy here.

Scholastic, August 2018.

Review: Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond The Backyards – Nature Non-Fiction Picture Books

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

Backyard by Ananda Braxton-Smith & Lizzy Newcomb

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

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

Black Dog Books August 2018

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