School in Focus – Picture Book Reviews

We’re well and truly in to the school routine now, although some mornings seem to lack that ideal, perfect-world motivation and drive. But with these following picture books at the ready, your kids will be inspired to remember their purpose and excitement for the day ahead.

Time for School, Daddy is a gorgeously humorous role reversal-type situation, in the same as essence as the previous title by Dave Hackett, Time for Bed, Daddy. Most often than not it is in fact us parents struggling to get out of bed, greeted each morning with the bombardment of children eager to get the day started. And here, this is no different. The little girl wakes a dozy, grumbling Daddy so they can get ready for school. She gives him his favourite breakfast, which always ends in a mess. She washes and dresses him in his work clothes, not without a bit of chaos. She packs him a mighty fine lunch, a tad of grooming and then it’s time to walk out the door. But who’s going to school today?
Tonnes of energy emanate from both the text and the images, with an innocently grown-up voice from the girl’s perspective as she guides her father through the hectic routine. The bright and vibrant cartoon illustrations work beautifully in a simplistic, obvious focus on the actions, which are the perfect linchpin for the irony that makes this book so witty. Time for School, Daddy is adorable, motivating fun for children from age four.

University of Queensland Press, January 2018.

The school or public library may just be the best place to get inspired, excited and transported (figuratively) during a normally busy day. So for anyone who loves to read, a chance to dive into books would be plenty of motivation to leave the house in a hurry in the morning. But for one little girl, there is one book in particular that she can’t get enough of. Lucy’s Book, written by Natalie Jane Prior and illustrated by Cheryl Orsini, is one special story that follows one special story on many adventures as it is shared by Lucy to all her friends.
Lucy and her mum visit the library every Saturday. The enchanted red book, of which we speak, is recommended by Mrs Bruce and borrowed a multitude of times from the library. Lucy loves it so much, all her friends are dazzled by its charm and it makes its way into their hands too. The book is escorted on holidays to Honeycomb Bay and China, to the zoo, and even made into a banana sandwich. But what happens when the book is no longer available for borrowing? Do you believe in destiny?
Just like the premise of this story, the lively illustrations pronounce a real community feel; one of shared values, togetherness and spirit. With influences from real people (Mrs Bruce is a friend of the author and also the image of Megan the librarian at the local school), Lucy’s Book feels like a real-life fairytale where everyone gets to be involved in the swirl of magical bookishness and where fate is a reality. Dreamy for book lovers of any age.

Lothian Children’s Books, February 2017.

Ruby Lee is a highly enthusiastic student with a big imagination. But when it comes to being chosen as classroom helper, she’s not always the most efficient. Hark, it’s me, Ruby Lee! is a wild and animated tale of learning patience, working to your skillset and being yourself.
Award-winning author Lisa Shanahan, together with graphic illustrator Binny, provide a linguistic and visual treat with their eccentric blend of humour and design. Shanahan’s quirky names are just the beginning of the literary goodness, with dialogue that perks in all the right places, and a storyline that is so authentically realistic despite all the crazy and creative figments Ruby Lee imagines in her mind. And flawlessly, Binny’s fantastical, detailed illustrations with blocks of colour and line work add that extra depth and meaning to both Ruby Lee’s real and made-up worlds.
Preschool and early years children will adore being taken into Ruby Lee’s school life as messenger as she discovers not how to be like someone else, but where her own strengths lie. Hark, it’s me, Ruby Lee! plays out like a set of comical and whimsical scenes that will be requested to be delivered over and over again.

Lothian Children’s Books, July 2017.


Stealing Pages From Future Readers

Have you ever borrowed a book from the library, only to discover at some horrifying point, that a page has been ripped out? Even worse, multiple pages? This happened to me recently, while reading Snail Mail – Celebrating the Art of Handwritten Correspondence by Michelle Mackintosh. I was nearing the end of this beautiful book and looking forward to seeing her envelope templates, only to find that some selfish reader before me had ripped all the template pages from the book. I was horrified, angry and disappointed.

I couldn’t believe a library user who would borrow a book about snail mail and sending lovely items to their friends and family to treasure, could also be a thief. Ripping out pages of a book is essentially stealing from the future. They are stealing information from future readers and in this case killing craft projects before they’ve even begun.

In this day and age, there’s simply no reason to tear out pages from a book. Every library has a photocopier/scanner, and they  could easily have photocopied or scanned the pages of interest when they returned the library book. They could have scanned it at home, at work or from a friend’s house. They could have taken a photo of the pages with their smart phone. They could even have traced the templates directly from the book.

Libraries generally allow their readers to borrow a book for 2-4 weeks, isn’t that enough time to make a copy of something you can’t bear to live without? Or heaven forbid, make plans to purchase your own copy?

Tearing out pages in a library book is essentially destroying public property. Libraries are funded by the Government and are for the entire community to enjoy. Stealing from one, damaging a book or defacing property robs future patrons of what you yourself have enjoyed.

The scene from Dead Poets Society when Professor Keating (played by the late Robin Williams) encourages his students to rip out pages from their poetry textbooks is inspirational, however we don’t live in a movie.

When a library book is damaged in this way, it is often taken out of circulation. In this case, the copy of Snail Mail I borrowed was the only copy in the Port Phillip Library service, and after I informed staff of the damage, they advised me they would have to take the book out of circulation and wouldn’t be replacing it. What a shame and so unnecessary.

Snail Mail cover Michelle MackintoshBut it’s not just library books that are being vandalised in this way. Earlier this year I saw a woman tear out a page from a magazine in a waiting room and put it in her handbag. Naturally I confronted her about it and told her she was being incredibly selfish. I pointed out that waiting room magazines are a courtesy and there to be enjoyed by all and she was ruining it for everyone. I don’t think she cared much, but when did we become so greedy and selfish? What does this teach our children?

I’d like to hope that readers of this blog would never do such a thing and I encourage this community of booklovers to stand up to this sort of behaviour if you ever see it happening. Make sure you report any damage to your librarian as soon as you see it, and let’s preserve the reading material around us for everyone to enjoy.

Review – Ferret on the Loose

Stand in the kids’ section of any library and you’ll soon discover what under 10 year old readers gravitate towards; pacey, riveting chapter books, starring jump-off-the-page characters with the odd quirky picture thrown in to keep it all real.

Ferret on the LooseThis is precisely what New Frontier Publishing is delivering with their dynamite Little Rocket Series. Like Aussie Mates and the (now ceased) Aussie Nibbles collections, Little Rockets junior fiction is aimed at that Golden Age of reading where kids are still willing and able to suspend belief for action and fun and downright silliness. This series certainly ticks all those boxes. The books have a generous physical feel and look about them which will stand up to many years of being loved. Ferret on the Loose is the latest to hit the shelves.

Take a club-full of feisty ferrets and over-anxious owners, a determined founding father, Mr Olfart, (yes you read correctly) and a best friend who doesn’t mind rodents in the slightest and you’ve got one crazy recipe for fun.

FerretTen year old Lucy and her pet ferret Flash are seasoned competitors in the annual Fastest Fearless Ferret Race. Only trouble is, Flash doesn’t always quite live up to his name. Not that he isn’t fast, he is. But he is unpredictable and given to distraction. No amount of coaxing and cajoling with chocolate can entice him down that clear plastic racing tube to fame and fortune, and the gold trophy that Lucy longs to see her name engraved on sooner than later.

Tragically, Flash’s training goes from bad to worse when he is confined to barracks after nearly concussing himself and then mysteriously disappearing. Lucy is distraught. Her ferret-racing nemesis, Elisha Muggins, is conspicuously smug. And come the day of the big race, Flash is still missing. It is not until the winners are announced that Lucy realises the winner is in fact, her Flash, in disguise!

You’ll have to read this zippy little tale yourself to find out who the real ferret-napping culprit is. Benjamin Johnston’s animated coloured illustrations and Heather Gallagher’s comic use of names and situations will keep you and readers aged 7 and beyond amused along the way.

New Frontier PublishingThings I learnt from Ferret on the Loose: Wanting to win above all else is not wise. And letting a ferret loose on a moving tread-mill is even less wise.

New Frontier Publishing Little Rocket Series May 2013


Browsing the bookshelves of the rich and famous

Ever wandered into someone’s home and made a beeline for their bookshelves? I’m betting you have. Few things are as enticing to the bibliophile as unfamiliar shelves – and few things as revealing as the books that people choose to read. Does your host prefer weighty historical reads or hot romance novels? Glossy biographies or modern poetry? War and Peace or Shane Warne’s biography? Or all of these and then more?

I am informed that browsing the inside of their bathroom cabinet is the best window to average person’s psyche. (I did meet someone who converted their bathroom into a library, possibly with the urge of making the contents of their cabinet less appealing. Bookshelves adorned two of the four walls from skirting board to ceiling, making a quick trip to the loo all but impossible as you kept finding things you wanted to read while you were there.)

But skimming through closed cupboards seems both invasive and unlikely to throw up good recommendations for future reads, so I am going with flicking your eye over their book collection as the window to the soul.
I’ve had a good browse through many of my mate’s books but the homes and libraries of the rich and famous have always been out of bounds – until recently when I stumbled across a site called Beautiful Libraries. It compiles pictures of lush and lavish libraries, from open-to-all public libraries and to the collections of corporations to those kept by royalty and the church, as well as those owned by famous actors, entertainers and politicians.

I’m not normally much interested by celebrities but this is fascinating. Who knew that Karl Largerfeld had one of the world’s largest private libraries, with over 60,000 books, mostly on fashion or art, arranged on steel shelves three stories tall in his photo studio apartment in Central Paris? That Nigella Lawson’s appetite for books would be near prolific as her passion for food?

Or that Keith Richards would devote such a glorious space, a massive octagonal chamber lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, to holding his favourite reads? (I did have a good squint, but couldn’t spot his own book in there. Nor could I find a copy of the hilarious and oddly thoughtful What Would Keith Richards Do, presumably as he doesn’t need to check its pages to find out.)

It begs the question – with unlimited time and dedication to build a reading room, what would you do? Surround yourself with steel and white light like Largerfeld or build a cosy den like Christina Ricci? Would a few shelves content you or, like Keith, do you want a huge room walled with books? Fireplace or airy windowsill?

And would you consider shelving up the smallest room, or do you think it would be simpler to just put a lock on the bathroom cabinet?

As A Retailer, They Made A Good…

It’s been a week and most of us are still reeling over the likely demise of Red Group Retail‑owned Angus & Robertson and Borders.

I wasn’t planning on weighing in on the debate, both because I don’t think I have all the answers and because I think others can say it much more incisively and eloquently than me. But having pored over the flurry of blogs and articles that have emerged over this last 10 or so days, I think there are a couple of things that need to be clarified.

First, while I would love to credit tenacious, community-based, customer service-driven, independent, ‘David’ retailers for toppling this big-box ‘Goliath’ (as some blogs are doing), I can’t. Because I’ve seen the inside of the behemoth and it wasn’t being toppled by independents nipping at its heels—it was already fundamentally going to pieces within.

Time now, for a confession of sorts: I once worked part-time at Borders. I’m not claiming to have been privy to the company’s financial statements, but I’ve had more experience in retail than I care to admit courtesy of a long, long university enrolment and subsequent need to feed myself. I’ve especially had experience in retail in a really competitive, low-margin environment courtesy of having worked for Sanity/Virgin/HMV for the better part of a decade. And it didn’t take a rocket scientist of an employee to know that things weren’t so good at Borders.

Morale was low, stock variety was reducing, prices were increasing, and changes to systems didn’t put the customer first (say, for example, the push to get customers to conduct their own searches and place orders via the online store, typing in their credit card details while other customers hovered nearby).

Staff weren’t being supported to do their jobs (the database we had to ‘use’ to find books was an absolute clunker and the customer order system nightmarishly random and manual). Staff’s vast book knowledge and passion wasn’t nurtured or drawn on, senior management was all but invisible, and the company was directionless and had no clear plan for winning customers back from the alluring cheaper online options.

The independents are surviving because they’re doing all the things that Borders didn’t—valuing their customers and working hard to find and then share the books they’ve found. But to say they kneecapped the giant with their above-and-beyond personalised service? No, the giant purely and simply shot itself in the foot in its fumbling.

We talk about mining magnates but not bookselling ones for a reason—there’s money to be made raping and pillaging the land for precious natural resources, but feeding the mind and soul appears to be less fruitful. There’s also a reason why independent bookshops don’t really branch out into multiple sites—the margins are tight, and the exhausting necessity of closing monitoring every dollar and every margin in every book brought in to be sold, as well as fostering personal relationships and subsequent trusted recommendations, is necessary but exhausting. Larger, multi-site operations dilute this.

Arguably, big-box retailers dilute this to the nth degree. Borders, for example, operated on a kind of ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy. And come they did. Even people who you’d least expect to be there would show up. I spotted more card-carrying ‘I support my local independents’ book buyers than you’d believe during my time working at Borders. Some of them bought books (because few book lovers can leave a bookshop without having fallen in love with and had to have some text-based tome-y goodness), but even more of them used Borders as a resource. A library resource.

And that’s perhaps the greatest tragedy of Borders’ demise: as a book retailer, it made a great library. Should it go under (as it’s reported based on the trends of companies that go into administration it has over a 90% chance of doing), we’ll lose an invaluable resource.

I long held reservations about what such a big-box retailer meant environmentally (and I’ve touched on this in a previous blog), with vast quantities of books being produced and shipped and then returned after having served as three-dimensional wallpaper to fill and flatter huge shelf space.

But I haven’t touched on how the vast shelf space and the initially diverse range of books enabled so many of us to see, smell, touch, and maybe even taste what was available on a given topic before purchasing it. It helped us put books side by side and pick the best one for our tastes and needs. It also helped us discover books we didn’t know existed and be swept up in the desire to read.

Sure, many people then took the knowledge they’d gained from picking staff’s brains about the available books, trawling the shelves, and flipping through the books, and then bought their book of choice at a cheaper, often online store. For many others, Borders was the closest they came to stepping into a library and conducting school or university research.

As a side note, I’ve often wondered why, although I’m a big library visitor, bookstores excite me much more. Methinks it’s because the books are shiny and new and merchandised nicely and are emitting the new-book drug/perfume that says buy or read me (or both).

There’s obviously a certain amount of schadenfreude to be had at Borders’ current and likely further demise. But while they might not have been the retailer you supported or wanted to support, as a library they supported us more than we probably realised.

Less Book Burglar, More Robin Hood

Anyone who knows—or knows of—me will vouch that I’m more likely to be commandeering books than giving them away. But I’ve recently become involved with quite possibly the only charitable organisation that would inspire me to do so. The sticklers among you would argue that I’m giving away my family’s books. I’ll admit that that’s largely the case. But no matter whose shelves I’m scooping books from, the reason is entirely above board and valid: the books are for The Benjamin Andrew Footpath Library.

Founded quite organically after Sarah Garnett, who had started volunteering at a food van, noticed a homeless man reading a book under a streetlight and began bringing him books from her home, The Footpath Library gives high-quality books to homeless and marginalised people.

That homeless and marginalised people might enjoy reading is not something many of us have considered, and it’s reflected in the integral (albeit singly-focused) services surrounding food and shelter that are offered to them. But what Garnett—and now thousands of people who’ve heard her story and donated books or volunteered their time with The Footpath Library—realised is that, just like you and me, homeless people too enjoy a good book.

As someone to whom books and reading are so central I’d eat or bathe in books if I could, I can’t imagine a life without the escape and the joy of a good read. For homeless people this impossible-to-comprehend reality is real—until recently, a lack of permanent address or photo ID meant that homeless people couldn’t join libraries, a free gateway to books that most of us take for granted.

A library is such a commonsense service that few of us (me included) realised that homeless people needed it, but is now something I cannot imagine not existing. I was so inspired that I signed on as the National Communication Manager for The Footpath Library, a fairly fancy-sounding name for an entirely voluntary but proudly held position.

My heart swells to be part of an organisation that is helping a homeless person who read their first ever book or have a book to give their child for Christmas. For some, a book is both a way of temporarily escaping their very harsh daily living reality and of opening themselves up to the world—I’ve had some incredible conversations not as someone with a home speaking to someone without one, but as a booklover speaking to a fellow booklover.

2-8 August is National Homeless Persons Week, a time when we consider and celebrate the people who find themselves without adequate, permanent, safe shelter. I’ll be buying some books from this good bookstore before it’s over as well as pillaging some unsuspecting family members’ bookshelves for some books to donate. It’s something I’m simultaneously chuffed to do and that reminds me of grateful for how much access I have to books, whether mine or others’. And it’s got me thinking: seizing books for distribution to others makes me less Book Burglar and more Robin Hood, right?

Does Your Local Library Deserve to Survive?

Come on a hypothetical journey with me. Imagine a future where ebooks are the dominant format of books. It’s a world many people don’t think will ever exist. Boomerang’s own Aimee Burton is one of them (I’ve challenged her to a blargument, but until she picks up the gauntlet I threw down this will just have to be hypothetical). But let’s just imagine dead tree books are now the poor cousin of ebooks. Kind of like CDs already are to MP3s. In this world, there are still rabid collectors out there who buy every antique Stephenie Meyer out there, but for the most part, most people do their book reading electronically. In this world is your local library something you want your tax money spent on?

Before the mouth-breather with the orthopaedic shoes starts throwing the kids’ books around in the quiet corner, just think about it. I love local libraries. I love how empty they are. I love how many books are there. I love the crazy old cat lady who works there two out of every four days. But in the world I’ve just mentioned, what role does a local library have that cannot be fulfilled by every person’s internet connection in their own home?

The answer, at least for now, seems to be free access. Try as they might (read: they are not trying) the publishing industry is yet to come up with a way to make the full range of ebooks that are out there commercially available to government subsidised libraries. John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan US, recently described libraries in the digital age as a “thorny problem”. As the excellent Eric Hellman paraphrases:

In the past, getting a book from libraries has had a tremendous amount of friction. You have to go to the library, maybe the book has been checked out and you have to come back another time. If it’s a popular book, maybe it gets lent ten times, there’s a lot of wear and tear, and the library will then put in a reorder. With ebooks, you sit on your couch in your living room and go to the library website, see if the library has it, maybe you check libraries in three other states. You get the book, read it, return it and get another, all without paying a thing.

It’s hard to see a sound business reason why a publisher would ever want a workable system for library ebooks. And yet, as it stands, it’s up to publishing companies to come up with a solution to this problem. Ultimately, however, when you look at the depth and breadth of knowledge available for free on the internet nowadays, it’s hard to make an argument that every person needs free access to books. Many libraries are already shifting their focus away from merely being repositories of dead trees. Knowledge is no longer contained solely within paper covers. But, of course, knowledge was only one reason I used to go to libraries. Without my local library, there are a number of dodgy fantasy writers I never would have read.

So my questions today are these: Does your local library deserve to be saved? If so, how? If not, will you mourn the passing of the local library? If so, why? Share your library stories in the comments below.

The Book Burglars’ Pin-Up Boy

The Law Of NationsSometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and never more so than this week’s news that former American president and all-round good guy George Washington was also—yes, indeedy—a book burglar. I’m referring, of course, to the fact that a library book he borrowed in 1789 was returned this week, a tardy 221 years after he’d signed it out.

Famous for being America’s first president and widely regarded as a fine, upstanding, and popular citizen (he remains the only president to have received 100% of the votes), Washington is the last guy you’d expect to be slack with his book returns. Which is why it’s all the most schadenfreude-ly gleeful for me, a regularly and unfairly accused book burglar who now has you-couldn’t-have-scripted-it-better ammunition that even the best of us are book thieves.

Sure, you could argue that not returning a book is different from actual, premeditated theft. And you could wonder, as I did, whether the reason that he didn’t return it was excusable because of some awful incident—say, for example, he died. But I can attest to the fact that not only did death not prevent Washington from returning the book, but that he lived some 10 years beyond its due date.

Even better, interest and inflation mean that the overdue fines due for the book are in the vicinity of a cool $US300,000, calculations of which undoubtedly made the executors of his estate break into a cold sweat. But Washington and his estate have apparently been absolved of all financial responsibility and the book in question was presented to the library in what was arguably a burglars-always-prosper little ceremony.

So what was this book that Washington so badly seemed to want to keep? Emer de Vattel’s The Law of Nations, which was an, er, undoubtedly scintillating read. Clearly it’s not a book I, you, or anyone we know would ever want to ‘borrow’, but the man lived in the 1700s and airport fiction hadn’t yet been invented.

No matter. As far as I’m concerned Washington is not only the best thing that’s ever happened to book burglars, he’s our pin-up boy.

I mean, if it’s ok for the ‘father’ of America, I’m pretty sure it’s ok for me.