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

Dr Boogaloo and the Girl Who Lost Her Laughter

Lisa Nicol’s debut children’s novel is Dr Boogaloo and the Girl Who Lost Her Laughter, a charming, unpredictable story about Blue, a girl who can’t laugh and is trying to remedy this.

Thank you for speaking with Boomerang Blog, Lisa.

And thank you for blogging me. It’s blogging exciting to be here.

Where are you based and what is your background?

I’m in Sydney and have a background in documentary and TV. I also do copywriting and write for an educational publisher.

What sort of music do you like and do you play any instruments?

What sort of music don’t I like might be an easier question to answer. There’s not really any types of music I don’t get into. Well except Opera and music that involves men dancing in long socks with bells attached. Struggle with that a little.

Basically I like good music. And a lot of bad music too come to think of it! I just like music.

A lot.

But I don’t play myself.

I think Dr Boogaloo & The Girl Who Lost Her Laughter is my love letter to music. It expresses all my pent up love which I can’t express by playing an instrument. Kitchen dancing keeps it in check most of the time but sometimes it just needs to come out.

What have you learned about the importance of music?

I believe humans are musical beings. It’s an intrinsic part of who we are. We need music.

What led to you writing a children’s novel?

I started writing for children when I had my own. I kept getting ideas for books and when they slept I would rush upstairs to the attic and try to write. Unfortunately all my children were terrible sleepers so my output is hardly prodigious. Hard to write a book in 45 minutes. But I’m on a roll now!

Could you tell us about ten-year-old Blue, her horrible mother and some other characters?

 Ah the lovely Blue. I’m very fond of Blue. She has a quiet strength and she tries to keep her chin up no matter how hard things get. She’s not one to complain – unlike her awful mother. Blue’s mother is somewhat self-obsessed. She thinks having a daughter who can’t laugh is an absolute bummer! It’s ruining her life and simply must be fixed. If not she plans on shipping her off to a boarding school in Switzerland somewhere. One of those ones where they don’t come home in the holidays. Costs a bit more but well worth it obviously, under the circumstances.

Now, let me introduce you to the wonderful Dr Boogaloo and his glorious wife Bessie. They run The Boogaloo Family Clinic of Musical Cures. You may not have ever thought of music as medicine but according to the Boogaloos, music can cure anything!

Of course, you need the right dose of the right music. No point listening to a jive if you’re in need of some boogie-woogie, and you can’t just substitute a hum for a chant, or an opera for a ballad, or a toot for a blow. Absolutely not! Musical medicine is an exact art. And it’s extraordinarily complicated. The way Dr Boogaloo explains it is this – everyone has their own tune but sometimes, for one reason or other, we get all out of tune. We lose the beat, you might say. Unfortunately, your tune is just like your fingerprint. No two are the same. Which is why fixing tunes is SUCH a tricky business!

Dr Boogaloo describes Bessie as the magic in his wand and it’s true they are a great team. Dr Boogaloo reminds me a bit of a brand new pencil – he’s very straight ahead – which is perhaps not what you would expect for a musical doctor. Bessie on the other hand is a little more eccentric. She reminds me of a rainbow caught up inside a tornado. Bessie looks after the Doctor’s instrument collection which is so enormous they keep it in a shed about as big as an A380 aircraft hanger.

I particularly enjoyed Blue’s introduction to the Snorkel Porkel Crumpety Worpel Laughter Clinic. Could you tell us about how people enter it and about some of the Laughter Detection Tests?

Well entry is via a giant slide with a vertical drop that would make your nose bleed – hence the need for padded pants to avoid a really good buttock burn –followed by the the tickle machine which helps sort out the wheat from the chaff in terms of laughter issues. Then, once you get past the lobby guy who has a seriously good aim when it comes to snot olives, you’re off to the testing rooms. They are very thorough at the Snorkel Porkel. There are not many places they won’t venture to ensure an accurate diagnosis. Can we just say, strange animal farts, blooper reels, hula-hooping cats in bikinis, Youtube videos of epic fails and a gentleman called Gassy Gus who can blow up balloons with his bottom! You did ask!

Music is important in your novel but what about colour?

Well Blue’s mother has a thing for colour. She goes through colour ‘phases’. You can probably guess what ‘phase’ she was in when she named Blue ‘Blue’. At this point in time, she’s in a white phase. Phases generally involve a lot of shopping, redecorating and pouring over paint charts. Blue is finding her mother’s white phase particularly challenging. Absolutely everything in the house is white so even finding the fridge can be quite tricky. There’s a lot of falling over the couch, that sort of thing.

Could you tell us about the role of musical imperfection?

Well I can only tell you what I’ve learnt from my time at The Boogaloo Family Clinic of Musical Cures but according to Dr Boogaloo, imperfection is an essential ingredient in any musical cure. One of the many musicians who work’s regularly at the clinic is a Canadian called Neil. He’s famous for the perfect bum note or loose string and exactly when to drop one in. Quite a skill.

Have you paid homage to any other authors in your plot, setting or characters?

Not authors so much but songwriters and songs seem to be scattered about the place. That’s my silly love thing again. You don’t need to get the musical references to enjoy the story – I’m sure most of the kids won’t – but if you’re a music fan reading to your kids, hopefully they might amuse you. Some are obvious, others not. For example, Blue’s globetrotting, game-hunting father sends her a pair of high heels covered in diamonds. There’s even diamonds on the soles! And of course Bessie would name her pet pygmy pocket possums after some of her favourite singers – Dolly & Makeba. Tupelo trees, weeping songs, I’m wearing my musical heart on my sleeve I’m afraid….

Are you planning anything special for the book launch?

Of course. Blue’s mother’s favourite – bubbles. And my favourite – music. We have Gramophone Man coming along to play some very old tunes on his steam-powered turntables. That should give most people’s musical immune systems a jolly good boost before the silly season begins.

What are you writing about now or next?

My next book is called The Crumples of Shambolstown. It’s about some very crumpled folks who live next to some very Crisp folks. A gang of Crumple kids venture into Cripsville and things go very, very wrong. It’s a crumply thriller!

What have you enjoyed reading recently?

The Midnight Gang by David Walliams.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio.

A lot of Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz.

Anything else you’d like to add?

No, I’m pooped.

Thanks Lisa, and all the best with Dr Boogaloo and the Girl Who Lost Her Laughter.

The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee

spellingWriting an engaging story about a spelling bee could be a daunting task but Deborah Abela has done an excellent job in The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee (Random House Australia). India Wimple lives in the country town of Yungabilla and is able to spell all the words on the televised Spelling Bee. Her family would love her to participate in the competition but she has a problem with nerves, as demonstrated by her mortifying performance in the school play when she had the lead role in Matilda.

Her father tells stories about Ingenious India and Brave Boo but real-life India feels nothing like her brilliant fictitious counterpart with her daring plans and exceptional thinking.

The characters, especially the members of India’s family and community, are warm and kind and Summer Millicent Ernestine Beauregard-Champion, India’s show-off rival at the Spelling Bee, has a reason for her nastiness, which India uncovers. Other well-integrated issues include the effects of drought on rural and small town dwellers, the effect of childhood illness on the whole family and the role of a live-in grandparent. teresa

The book is perfectly paced: India learns to understand and deal with her fears and makes a new friend, Rajish; and the storyline has well crafted peaks, such as the way both the family and the community create practice opportunities for India and the increasingly high-pressured rounds of the competition, culminating in the final of the Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee at the Sydney Opera House. The foreshadowing about Boo’s asthma also ramps up the tension.

And the book is funny as well! India’s father is often paid for his handyman jobs in colourful hand-me-down clothes and Nana Flo brazenly appropriates free food. The town’s rendition of the Spelling Bee is unexpected and hilarious.

Teachers could no doubt adapt some of the book’s content into their classes in a fun, immersive way for children to learn interesting words, particularly by using the competition element along with some of the actual spelling words. Each chapter also begins with a spelling word that relates to India’s experiences (such as endeavour, perspicacious, trepidation, fortuitous, skulduggery), its meaning and how it’s used in a sentence.

jasperDeb Abela has written quite a backlist of books for children such as Teresa: A New Australian and the ‘Max Remy Superspy’ and ‘Jasper Zammit’ series, but I think The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee is her best yet.

This Australian novel for children will be a great Christmas present and holiday read for girls and boys.