Quality Australian Novels for Children

Figgy in the WorldThe recent CBCA shortlisted Book of the Year for Younger Readers is an impressive list, not least because of the strength of the books that are Notables but didn’t make the shortlist. Younger Readers is traditionally a category of the awards that receives an enormous number of entries and it is thrilling that the quality is so high this year.

Many of the shortlisted books are aimed at upper primary age children, which is the case most years, although The Cleo Stories: The Necklace and The Present by Libby Gleeson, illustrated by Freya Blackwood (Allen & Unwin) is for much younger readers.Cleo Stories

It is surprisingly difficult to find an outstanding junior novel. Books in series, for example, often cater for the seven to nine year-olds, and picture books and simple chapter books cater for even younger children. Libby Gleeson achieved the feat of creating an excellent junior novel years ago with the brilliant Hannah Plus One (which did become a series). In The Cleo Stories (for even younger readers than Hannah), she acknowledges the situations and feelings of a young girl, firstly when she wants to be like the other girls and then when she needs a present for her mother. The character of Cleo and her concerns reminds me of Anna Branford’s lovely Violet Mackerelone of the titles in the series was a Notable book this year.

BleakboyRealism novels dominate the 2015 short list. Steven Herrick always does an authentic portrayal of relatable primary school kids and the groups they mix in. Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain (UQP), about a new boy who is bullied, works well in prose rather than the verse novel form he often uses. It also looks at environmental issues.

The Simple Things by Bill Condon (Allen & Unwin) is about a gentle, immature ten-year-old who has to stay with his formidable great-aunt, Lola. Lola reminds me of Kirsty Murray’s Aunty ‘Big’ in The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie.Simple Things

Ben in Two Wolves by Tristan Bancks (Random House) tries to deny the trauma in his life but is forced to confront the troubles caused by his parents and use his own initiative.

Figgy in the World by Tamsin Janu (Omnibus Books, Scholastic) is quite different from the other shortlisted books, being set in Ghana. Figgy’s grandmother is ill so Figgy is running away to the United States of America to buy medicine. It gives an excellent insight into another world at an appropriate level for primary-aged Australian children.

Withering-by-Sea: a Stella Montgomery Intrigue by Judith Rossell (ABC Books, HarperCollins) is a gothic mystery but the fact that it is the first in the ‘Stella Montgomery Intrigue’, rather than ‘Mystery’ gives an insight into Judith Rossell’s original and quirky style.

Two WolvesSome of the Notable standouts that missed out are Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy by Karen Foxlee, The Ratcatcher’s Daughter by Pamela Rushby, Paper Planes by Allayne L. Webster, The Crossing by Catherine Norton and Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll by Rosanne Hawke.Withering-by-Sea

Reviews – YA fiction addiction

YA stackAccording to teen author, Charmaine Clancy there are a few issues that rate more highly than others for teen readers of YA fiction. These include problems dealing with: sexuality, freedom, relationships and friendships, social power, anger, fear, risk taking, social responsibility and bullying, to name a few.

The following YA titles represent modern day takes on common reoccurring teenage dilemmas, ticking at least one or more of these boxes. They are all highly recommended reads for young people plummeting into puberty and new belief systems as they navigate the next course of their lives. All riveting, well-crafted stories that will leave your nerves tingling, your heartbeat racing, and your tears well and truly jerked. Enjoy!

Intruder Intruder by Christine Bongers

I ripped through this one like a dog on steroids at an agility trial. Terrific. Gutsy, three-dimensional characters displaying equal parts humility, vulnerability, and bravado while tossing around some cracker one-liners people this teenage angst-y tale about losing and finding.

Kat Jones is left exposed and violated after an intruder invades her home. Feeling alone and isolated after the earlier death of her mother, she must rely on her despised next-door neighbour, Edwina, and Hercules, Edwina’s ugly canine companion to overcome her current dread and face her former demons. Fortunately mutt love and new bloke on the block, Al all help to rebuild Kat’s fragile lines of defence.

Christine Bongers writes with dramatic heart and unabashed confidence. Her reference to devils-on-horseback was a marvellous slingshot back into the 70s for me too. Great that teens can be entertained and educated in one fell swoop of the pen. A pure pleasure to read. Teenage somethings will suck this up.

Woolshed Press imprint of Random House June 2014

Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain by Steven Herrick

Eleven year-old Jessie is a boy with seemingly insurmountable problems not least of which is accommodating his square-fit self into the round-fit ideals of his communal-based school and community. Local bully, Hunter complicates the mix further until enterprising, Kate rallies with Jessie to ‘Save the Whales’ and inadvertently, Jessie’s sense of humanity and place.

Delightfully, Hunter proves that even the most malignly misunderstood antagonists can be real modern day heroes when ‘some things are too big for (one) boy to solve’ alone.

The conclusion was a little soft and spongy however, a sense of optimism as sweet as bubble bath fug hung about long after the end. Slightly eccentric, more than a little funny, warm, tender, and witty. The back cover blurb does not do this story justice; it meandered on a bit but I don’t think that will stop upper primary aged boys and girls thoroughly enjoying this sometimes acerbic, mostly uplifting read. I certainly did.

UQP May 2014

Sinner Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater

This is the fourth book in the immensely popular Shiver series. I can’t comment on the first three having dived into this instalment without preamble or past research, but found it stood proud and solid on its own and at no point whatsoever did I experience any confusion or wonder what had taken place previously in the lives of main protagonists, Cole St Clair and his love interest, Isabel. Like the storyline itself, they and the characters surrounding them are crafted with stinging conviction.

Cole has a secret that only a select few are privy to. He is the epitome of a genius, self-abusing, addictive personality, overachieving rock star whose Achilles heel is Isabel, a girl with a macadamia tough exterior he is desperate to crack. How Cole sheds his former demons and absolves his misdeeds with the help and hindrance of those he meets under the surreal light of California is page-turning material.

Stiefvater masterfully tells Coles and Isabel’s story in a raw and powerful way that often leaves you chuckling at their darkest hours. Thrilling stuff for older teens.

Scholastic Australia August 2014

State of Grace State of Grace by Hilary Badger

‘A utopian rose in a bed of dystopian thorns’ is a fairly accurate description of Hilary Badger’s (aka H.I. Larry of the bestselling Zac Power series) first venture in YA fiction. From the first sentence, an unsettled, creepy air descends upon the reader beautifully obscured by a veil of lush garden-of-Eden idealism. Since her creation, Wren has lived an idyllic life in a perfect paradise with life-loving companions and a deity like no other to worship, Dot.

However, not all is as ‘dotly’ as it seems (per the local non-negative lingo of the inhabitants of Dot’s Paradise). When cracks begin to appear in Wren’s memories and belief system, she and fellow creation, Blaze must decide whether to confront their horrid pasts or succumb to an unreal future.

A disturbing and illuminating combination of our not too distant future lives that rests lightly on friendship, authoritarianism, blind faith, and facing truths. There are zillions of twists, some no bigger or harder to appreciate than a butterfly but most are comfortably homed in a solidly built world thanks to Badger’s bright imagination. 14 + year olds will enjoy the mystifying experience A State of Grace provides.

Hardie Grant Egmont October 2014