Packing it on – Dog titles with a Difference

I can’t help it, but my shelves seemed littered (pardon the pun) with delightful doggie-inspired titles lately. Just what makes animal tales, namely those featuring cute and courageous canines so attractive for young readers? Is it that dogs and cats are real, free of pretension and judgement and brimming with pure joie de vivre? Is it because their will to live for the here and now surpasses all others, just like a young child’s? Whatever the magnetic force behind the love of dog stories, this small pack merely reinforces the bond.

Picture Books

The Whole CaboodleThe Whole Caboodle by Lisa Shanahan Illustrated by Leila Rudge

Lisa Shanahan brought us the irrepressible Bear and Chook and has a knack of capturing the thrill of story within singsong narrative. The Whole Caboodle is no exception and offers ‘oodles’ of imaginative linguistic word play with the added bonus of walking 3 – 5 year-olds through some fun counting rhymes. It’s more of a stroll-through-the-park-spot-the-hidden-dog-breed than a full-blown doggie tale, but Rudge’s expressive illustrations will keep you tugging at the leash for more. Great for kids who are into dogs and all their varied shapes and sizes.

Scholastic Press April 2016

My Dog DashMy Dog Dash by Nicki Greenberg

The memories of my not-so-distant puppy schooling experience with our border collie leapt back to prominence as I read Greenberg’s cute account of one little girl’s adventures with her new pet. If you were to read the text aloud without the pictures, you’d swear her pet, the fiend of puppy school, is the worst dog you’d ever laid eyes on. Look again though and you’ll see that not all dogs are created equal. After one agonising night of anguish, this pet turns out to be the best companion ever. Greenberg rarely disappoints. Her jolly illustrations, beguiling contradicting narrative, lovable characters, and utterly adorable ending are assured winners. Go Dash, Go!

Allen & Unwin April 2016

Mrs DogMrs Dog by Janeen Brian Illustrated by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall

As a child, I once read a story about a cat told from the cat’s point-of-view. The cat knew his owner as Fur-on-The-Face. I can’t recall the title or author but have never forgotten the magic of living in the head of that cat and seeing the world as he saw it. Mrs Dog reignites that magic in the most alluring and compelling way. Mrs Dog is too old to round up the Woolly-Heads anymore but that doesn’t stop her from adopting an orphaned baby Woolly-Head, whom she calls, Baa-rah. She takes Baa-rah under her paw, teaching her all there is to know about the farm except how to bark properly. Little Baa-rah is unable to communicate this way until he is forced to find his inner-dog and save his best friend

  Brian’s exquisite use of language is the beating heart of this gorgeous picture book and conveys a story that will bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your heart. Crosby-Fairall’s illustrations are equally divine. The alternating use of perspective shifts the reader seamlessly from merely being an observer to Mrs Dog’s, the Tall-Ones’ and of course adorable little Baa-rah’s point-of-view. A simple tale of devotion, love and loyalty possessing all the best bits of Babe but stunning and memorable in its own right. Highly recommended and not just because Mrs Dog is a beautiful Collie.

The Five Mile Press May 2016

Mid-grade Reader

Regal BeagleRegal Beagle by Vijay Khurana Illustrated by Simon Greiner

This is an enjoyable little mix up of a book attractively presented as a hard soft cover just right for post preschool hands to master. Combining imagination with fantasy, Regal Beagle tells the tale of Lucy, the deceased Queen’s best friend and only living beneficiary to the throne. Lucy is brave and clever, caring and loyal but is in danger of losing her crown to the diabolical Lord Runcible who craves the title of ruler of the kingdom as his own. His obsession to rid the kingdom of Queen Lucy causes an infestation of plague proportions and provides plenty of witty hustle to this easy to read story. Khurana’s writing style is chatty and carefree and is ably supported by Greiner’s jazzy graphic illustrations. A fun, flowing read perfect for kids who understand that anything is possible.

Random House Australia 2014

Junior Fiction

The Dog, Ray by Linda Coggin

The Dog RayThis blue ribbon read strikes with pinpoint accuracy at dog-loving 7 – 12 year-olds. Hefty subject matter is served up as a heart-warming tale about a girl who dies tragically and returns to life as a dog following a Pearly Gates blunder. As pedestrian as that sounds, this sweet little story lopes along at a satisfying pace that will keep children page turning until the very end. Daisy aka Ray’s spiritual, emotional and canine journey is just as likely to make you grin as it is to move you to sadness, however one thing is for sure, it will captivate young readers enough to make them want to wag their tails (if they had them). Funny, spirited and stirring, The Dog, Ray embodies much more than just Daisy’s afterlife as a dog. Homelessness, friendship, animal cruelty, tragedy, and family relationships are incorporated throughout this story, which is big on heart and suffused with hope. It does have a happy ever after ending, however perhaps not the one you were hoping for. Concise, captivating and creative.

Hot Key Books first published 2010 Bonnier  April 2016

 

DOODLES AND DRAFTS – Carrying on with Sam Wheeler and Mister Cassowary

Australia is home to some exceptionally strange flora and fauna. The ubiquitous tropical heat of Far North Queensland seems to accentuate oddities and none typifies unique peculiarities more vividly than Australia’s heaviest flightless bird, the Cassowary.

Sam Wheeler 2Beautiful yet deadly, the Cassowary is a natural magnet of mystery and misinterpretation so naturally is a prime candidate as the main character in Samantha’s Wheeler’s latest children’s adventure, Mister Cassowary. Wheeler meshes misinterpretation of our native fauna extremely well with action packed, character driven, and emotionally sensitive adventures for readers seven and above.

City bred Flynn, is on a mission to Mission Beach in North Queensland with his dad to ready his deceased Grandad’s decrepit banana farm for sale. He’d rather be anywhere else than stuck in this sweltering sultry backwater with a father he seldom sees and barely knows.

Then he meets Abby and two baby cassowaries that slowly help him peel back the layers of mystery surrounding Grandad Barney’s death and his relationship with Big Blue, the meanest, largest, scariest Cassowary in the district.

Mister CassowaryJammed with intrigue, adventure and more cassowaries than you will find in Australia Zoo, Mister Cassowary is an exhilarating and absorbing read for primary schoolers and animal lovers. I’m rating it as high as or higher than her debut novel, Smooch and Rose, on my got-to-read-animal-story list, and Smooch and Rose was sterling.

Today we trek down its creator, Sam Wheeler and discover even more about the enigmatic Cassowary.

After growing up rescuing animals, Samantha studied Agriculture, worked with farmers, and taught science. Writing children’s books inspired by nature, she hopes to prove that ‘anyone can make a difference’.

Welcome to the draft table, Sam!

Who is Sam Wheeler? Describe your writerly self.

I’m an animal lover and crave the outdoors, green spaces and nature. Given a choice of shopping in New York or trekking Blue Mountains, I’d choose the Blue Mountains any day.

Your books for children centre on animals endemic to Australia. Why is this element important in your writing?

My background is in biology and science, which gives me a strong interest in the environment, and when I hear about what’s in store for our precious wildlife, I feel driven to write about them. They say write what you love, and writing books about animals gives me an excuse to spend more time with the things I love. It’s all about the story I want to tell.

How did Mister Cassowary’s tale evolve?

Smooch and RoseWhen I was writing Smooch & Rose, I was working as a tutor with the Ronald McDonald Learning Program. One of my students had to give a PowerPoint presentation on an endangered Australian animal, and having chosen the cassowary, he asked me for help. But I didn’t know anything about cassowaries! As soon as I found out that the males raise the chicks, the story started swirling in my head.

Mister Cassowary addresses various sub themes such as the FIFO father son relationship. Why do you think this holds significant relevance amongst your young readership?

I loved the parallel: the way the male cassowaries are so close to their young chicks versus human fathers who, because of work and other reasons, can sometimes be absent and distant towards their sons. I think many children whose parents work a lot, or travel away, have felt like Flynn. They may relate to his feeling that his dad doesn’t know who he is, and what he’s capable of.

Do you actively research each of your stories before you write them? What is the most mind-boggling thing you have learnt during the writing of Mister Cassowary?

Yes, I love the research! I travelled up to Mission Beach (North Queensland) twice to research Mister Cassowary, and would go again in a heartbeat. The people up there are so passionate about this beautiful bird, and are trying so hard to save it. I learnt so many interesting things: cassowaries don’t have a tongue, they can swim really well, they can run up to 50km/hour (which is why you shouldn’t run if you see one) they were the most treasured gift an emperor or a king could receive. I also think they can tell the time. Up at Mission Beach, a local cassowary turns up at the local dump at one minute to 10 every morning. The dump opens at 10!

What is the hardest part about giving life and soul to stories like yours?

Making sure they aren’t too preachy and the characters are believable. I have to make sure they’re real people, not just tools to push the issue.

What is on the draft table for Sam?

Exciting times! Two more ‘animal’ books are in the making, plus another special story about a girl who can’t talk.

Just for fun question (there’s always one): If you could be any Aussie animal, which would you be and why?

I wouldn’t mind being a willy wagtail! They always look happy and cheeky, and imagine being able to fly!

spud and CharliOh I can, Sam, I can! Thanks for today. May your flightless bird take off for you, as well!

Mister Cassowary is out now and features in Boomerang’s Kids’ Reading Guide 2015-2016. A perfect stocking filler solution!

University of Queensland Press October 2015

 

Review – Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars

Molly and PimSometimes, it takes a little while for things to change from what they were to something different. Imagine a new seedling nudging its head up through the earth for the first time, no longer a seed, not yet a tree. This miraculous transformation of being represents the way I felt reading Martine Murray’s new mid-grade fiction, Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars. It took a little while for me to see the light emerge within this tale but when it did, it shone. I mean, who doesn’t love climbing trees? Aren’t we all a little attracted to the enigmatic silent types? And who hasn’t wanted to give it to their overbearing neighbours once and a while? These are some of the conundrums that claim Molly’s consideration, too.

Molly is an ordinary girl living a strange existence. She shares her strange life with a border collie named, Maude, an indifferent feline known as, Claudine and her Mama, who’s penchant for potions and picking herbs makes Molly cringe. She wishes for a life more run-of-the mill like her best friend, Ellen’s. Ellen’s mum puts food in packets in Ellen’s lunchbox and never picks herbs barefooted before breakfast. Ellen lives in a normal suburban brick home that in no way resembles the gypsy caravan that is Molly’s abode, at least that’s how she perceives the house she lives in.

Molly and Pim Claude collie illoThen there’s, Pim, the slightly left of field boy at school, whose aloofness and indifference intrigues Molly to the point of distraction. Molly is a little frightened and yet, truth be told, oddly compelled by his abstract ways but is unable to decide if he is friend or foe.

There is no time to find out because Molly and her mama are preparing for battle against ‘the world’s nastiest neighbours’, the ghastly Grimshaws from next door. In an effort to restore harmony, Molly’s mama suggests they grow a tree, a magnificent towering oak tree that will block out the beastly Grimshaws with its beauty. How does one grow an oak tree overnight, though? With the help of mama’s magic potions of course. Shockingly mama’s potion has devastating outcomes. A tree appears but is it all that it appears?

Following the loss of her mama, Molly must not only fend and feed herself and her small menagerie, often with hilarious results, but she must also come to terms with her own jagged dance of life. Through the pain of separation, the vacuum of loneliness, and the desperation of time running out, Molly discovers the beauty in the way her stars align and lets unfurl an inner power she barely knew existed.

This story is a series of beautiful realisations and discoveries as Molly climbs ever higher through her tree of life. You feel her mama’s presence fiercely in every inch of this story, which is both heartbreaking and reassuring. As Molly’s resources and resolve are tested, she finds solace in what was always her normal. Bolstered by Pim’s alliance and Ellen’s unyielding friendship, Ellen learns how it feels being part of the millions of stars that make up the world, her world and what power can issue forth from such awareness. With realisation comes heart and from within heart, courage is forged; ‘imagine if you were never scared of falling, how much higher you might climb’.

Martine Murray Murray uses generous doses of whimsy and magic to tell Molly’s tale of self-discovery and acceptance. The results are spellbinding. Weird but very wonderful, Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars will sweep young readers away. The line-drawn illustrations and inclusion of Molly’s notebook on herbs are the end are fetching additions to a book that grows with you and allows you to reflect on its fantasticalness long after the last page is turned. Molly certainly lit up my world.

Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars can be found in Boomerang’s exciting Kids’ Reading Guide 2015-2016.

The Text Publishing Company June 2015

Review – Nightmares!

NightmaresNothing beats the morbid delight begot from a good old-fashioned bad dream. It’s the stuff memorable horror movies are made of. There’s no denying, being tantalised and terrified go hand in hand. But what about those bad dreams that leave you thrashing in a bed of sweat-soaked sheets and screaming for salvation? Nightmares can plague a kid’s sleep and wreck their waking world. Fortunately, there is a thrilling new series available to primary aged kids to help keep the bedtime beJason Segelasts at bay.

Nightmares!, by writing partners, Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller is the substantial first book in a new series, which dares you to go to sleep. Good luck with that. There’s way too much skittish action, adventure and horror to bore even the most critical mid-grade reader.Kirsten Miller

Eleven-year-old Charlie Laird is in the middle of his own real-life nightmare. Still dealing with the loss of his mother three years ago, he now also has to contend with living in a purple house that he is not keen on with a step mum he believes is a witch and a father he feels has forgotten him. Feeling alone and vulnerable, Charlie goes to extreme measures every night to stay awake. He is terrified of falling into slumber because each time he does, he enters the Netherworld, a place where his most terrifying nightmares torture him with sadistic regularity.

Living in constNightmares Charlie illo spreadant fear jeopardises Charlie’s schoolwork, blurs his logic, and transforms him into a person that scares even him. Then one afternoon, an opportunity to discover more about his dubious step monster leads to a nail-biting adventure in the Netherworld, one Charlie is not sure he’ll ever be able to emerge from.

Nightmares is thrilling on every level. I was curious to see how well comedic actor and star of films like Despicable Me, Gulliver’s Travels, and The Muppets Movie could write. I was far from disappointed. Segel executes his penmanship (along with Kirsten Miller) with exquisite strength and accuracy, slicing through the mundane to reveal a voice of tremendous depth and humour and expose worlds that readers are instantly familiar, if not one hundred per cent comfortable with.

Nightmares Charlotte illo spreadTheir characters, including those who frequent the Netherworld, possess a mixture of Chucky-style surreal horror and emphatic warmth, which keeps readers engaged whilst never quite certain of who to trust. It’s spellbinding stuff.

Nightmares propels us into those creepy, fearful places we are always relieved to wake from but simultaneously suggests to young readers that in order to truly surrender your fears and leave them behind once and for all, we must face them. If we can be as brave as Charlie can, we may just be able to learn that nightmares are really just the stuff of dreams.

I love the slightly psychotic sense of satire, the horror, and the comedic parody in Nightmares. The notion that ‘what can’t kill us and what we fear can make us stronger’ is just one of the many reasons to read this story. I can’t wait for the next nightmare to begin – due out in August 2015!

Meanwhile give yourself a delicious fright with Nightmares, available here.

Random House Children’s

First published by Corgi Children’s September 2014

 

Dim’s Top 25 Cracking Christmas Reads for Kids

All righty, you’ve noted what others are reading this Christmas. You are possibly getting a little woozy from a department store diet of flashy titles and quick fixes but you still haven’t managed to locate that special literary treasure for the younger person or young at heart person in your life.

The following list is by no means definitive or complete but it includes some of the past year’s most inspiring, evocative and memorable reads for me. It’s a composition of glorious, emotion packed picture books, laugh-out-loud midgrade readers, and heart stopping YA thrillers. In short, a real mixed bag of goodies, mostly Australian, many of which I’ve been fortunate enough to review this year. Use it as a reminder of some of the more notable releases of 2014 (and beyond) and a springboard into the vast, ever expanding reservoir of Kids’ Lit. Here we go:

Top 25 Cracking Reads (in no particular order)

  1. The Art of Racing in the Rain The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein –  An extraordinary uniquely told story of good versus evil, the essence of power and knowledge and the meaning of true conviction. It’s ultimately also a tale about the strength of love at  every level; portrayed through the eyes and thoughts of Enzo, the family dog, with exceptional reality and heart. Written with uncompromising warmth and wit, this is a novel I could easily pick up and start all over again for the sheer sense of freedom it stirred up and the wonderful realities it forced me, as a mere human, to take stock of.
  2. Figgy in the World by Tamsin JanuGorgeous tale of courage, tenacity and humility and an outstanding example of simplicity that truly impacts, set in Africa’s heartland. Ideal for idealistic 7 + year olds.
  3. The Duck and the Darklings by Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King – A whimsical journey of despair, discovery, renewal and hope that is indeed a little bit strange, a little bit dark and a little bit different. It is also a lot of wonderful. Click on the title for full review of this devastatingly brilliant picture book.
  4. Are You Seeing Me Are You Seeing Me? by Darren Groth – Utterly utterly utterly deserving of the investment of your time and heart. Searingly beautiful and funny and sad and real. Like life itself.
  5. Smooch and Rose by Samantha Wheeler – A tale of one girl’s courageous and staunch attempt to stand up to the big guns of development in hope of keeping at least part of a local koalas’ habitat intact told with moving conviction.
  6. Weir Do series by Anh Do – A heavily illustrated cartoon-like, side-splittingly humorous series of novels that will cause kids to smash open their piggy banks. A real rib tickling and surprisingly tender look at today’s social diversity, family make-up, and how little kids with unfortunate names fit into the mix.
  7. Oliver by Judith Rossell – Superb. Clear, clever clarity. Oliver is everyone’s younger brother, kid next door, beguiling 6 year old, and he is perfect. I wanna go jet packing with him for ever. Because every one wants to fly.
  8. Word Hunters Word Hunters Trilogy by Nick Earls and Terry Whidborne – Ingenious, action packed trilogy oddly but most effectively centering on the etymology of English. A tour of history clothed in modern day witticism. Loved it.  Exhilarating and gripping. Lovers of words, history and adventure will revere this series.
  9. Eric Vale Series by Michael Gerard Bauer – Mr Bauer’s books are never ever short on style, wit or substance. A definite epic WIN for Eric. Kids can prolong their enjoyment with the spinoff series, Derek Danger Dale.
  10. Once a Creepy Crocodile by Peter Taylor and Nina Rycroft – An entertaining Aussie mash-up of The Gruffalo meets the best of billabong bush lore. Absolutely adored this easy to sing-a-long with picture book rendition of Walting Matilda.
  11. The Croc and the Platypus by Jackie Hosking and Marjorie Crosby-Fairall – An ingenious retelling of a childhood classic, The Owl and the Pussycat however, much more loose and flowing and bizarrely, even easier to read than the original. A great picture book to include on your classics shelf with heavy accent on Australiana.
  12. My Mum Says the Strangest Things My Mum Says the Strangest Things by Katrina Germein – The Katrina Germein and Tom Jellet team that gave us My Dad Thinks he’s Funny and My Dad Still Thinks he’s Funny, train their humorous cross-hairs on mum’s idiosyncratic refrains this time, with deadly accuracy. For adult readers, the sweet irony of mum’s idiomatic expressions is difficult to ignore and impossible not to relate to. This books cracks me up every single time.
  13. Awesome Aussie Things to Do with Mum by Ed Allen and Simon Williams – A lovely little (hardcover) book full of lovely little things to share with mum, especially if you are in need of a creative, recreational past-time other than looming. Some old fashioned fun favourites to share with your kids (like Knuckle Bones!) with the underlying message that the most awesome thing of all that you can do for mum is…’to let her do absolutely nothing at all.’ There’s a Dads’ version too.
  14. 12 10 front cover PS Who Stole Santa’s Mail? by Dimity Powell (How did that get in here?) Quite possibly the dinkiest little Christmas mystery you’ll find this side of the Christmas tree packed with more laughs than you’ll find raisons in your fruit mince pies. A must for your stockings!
  15. Jake in Space Series banner Jake in Space Series by Candice Lemon-Scott and Celeste Hulme – Galaxies of intergalactic fun. Space-aged adventures mid-primary school kids can really get carried away with – providing they have their space suits on. And there’s six in the series which gives young readers plenty of time and incentive to explore the entire universe!  The covers are truly out of this world.
  16. monster chef Monster Chef by Nick Bland – Nick Bland has moved on from bears to monsters in this spicy little offering about challenging ones fears and striving to stand out with delicious rhyming verse and illustrations. A kind of Master Chef meets master storyteller.
  17. The Nights before Christmas illustrated by Tony Ross – The penultimate Advent Calendar for bibliophiles and true lovers of Christmas. Click on title for full review. My Christmas pick of the season.
  18. Edward and the Great Discovery by Rebecca McRitchie and Celeste Hulme – A picture book tale about hope and daring gently exposing young readers to the wonders of natural history.  Both exciting and touching and a wondrous introduction to scientific discovery whilst fostering a deeper understanding of true friendship.
  19. Vanilla Icecream by Bob Graham – Any list would be incomplete without a Bob Graham offering. Click on title for full review. You will be hard pressed to find a better way to introduce the complex ideals of human rights, fate, and immigration to young ones where a lightness of touch is more readily comprehended than harsh dry facts than with this beautiful picture book.
  20. Violet Mackerel Series by Anna Branford and Sarah Davis Impossibly brilliant seven book series, exquisitely illustrated and divinely humorous and touching. My primary schooler soaks up Violets’ stories with infinite delight. Highly recommended.
  21. Bully on the Bus Bully on the Bus by Kathryn Apel / Roses are Blue by Sally Murphy Simply must include two in this verse novel listing. Both incredibly poignant and beautifully crafted novels dealing with bullying and loss respectively from two of the best verse authors in the biz. Sustained, moving storytelling that will leave you with wet eyes and an overflowing heart.
  22. Little Chef Big Curse by Tilney Cotton – Possibly one of the most exuberant reads I’ve enjoyed in ages. I’m not sure if it’s because of the foodie in me or the zealous, ribaldry with which Cotton writes but Little Chef, BIG Curse is utterly delectable and insanely moreish. Click on title for full review.
  23. The Boy on the Page by Peter Carnavas – An exceptionally good picture book about a small boy’s life journey as he attempts to fathom that most ponderous of human dilemmas: the meaning of life. Existentialism stripped bare and very beautiful.
  24. Midnight by Mark Greenwood and Frane Lessac / The Horses Didn’t Come Home by Pamela Rushby – Again I must include two titles, one a picture book, one a YA novel, that each focus on the the great First World War campaigns involving the Australian light horse regiments. Each of these books deals with the campaign in the Sinai desert in a way that young readers will resonate with even though the story is over 90 years old. Heart-wrenchingly evocative with strong patriotic and historic appeal.
  25. The Simple Things The Simple Things by Bill Condon In a world that I find increasingly more and more complicated, The Simple Things is a refreshing and realistic breath of fresh air. Click on title for full review. Easy to read and easy to like, it’s ‘smiley face perfect’.

There you have it. Agree or disagree, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the beauty these words and sounds and images create for our children’s worlds. Nurture their imaginations, enrich their knowledge, and embolden their dreams with as many books as you can get your hands on for them this Christmas!

 

Review – Spud and Charli

spud and CharliDoes your imagination ever run wild? I bet kids will have no difficulty answering this one and for me that answer is still an empathic, yes! Horse-obsessed Charli finds it difficult to rein in her run-away imagination too in Samantha Wheeler’s new novel for primary-aged readers, Spud and Charli.

This story gallops full speed from the first page to the last and reminds me of my intense desire to own a horse of my own at Charli’s age. Being short on grass, (our backyard was a dustbowl) and unable to persuade my parents to invest in anything equine, I rigged up the dog’s lead to my bicycle handlebars as reins and rode for hours around an imaginary gymkhana in our backyard. It was an engineering and imaginary success, which thankfully Charli does not have to resort to because she is allowed to attend horse-camp and realise a dream come true; ‘to learn to ride a real, live horse!’

Nevertheless, dreams rarely come true easily and when camp show-off, Mikaela, snaffles the palomino Charli has her heart set on, she is crestfallen. Charli is relegated to Spud, an over-sized, unattractive ex-racehorse. It’s not the start of the stellar riding career she’d hoped for however Spud’s soft nature soon insinuates itself in Charli.

Not only does Charli have to adapt to the rigours and routines of horse care and the chequered, challenging personalities of her riding mates, she also has to contend with a newfound fear – bats.

Fruit bats surround the property filling Charli’s nights with disquieting noise and her heart with fear. She’s heard they spread disease and can kill horses and with her imagination galloping straight out of the paddock, she is convinced that Spud is in grave danger because of them. Not only are lives threatened, but Mrs Bacton, the camp organiser wants to cancel the gymkhana.

Are bats as deadly as Charli believes and if not, how will she persuade Mrs Bacton that she really does deserve a place at the riding comp?

Sam Wheeler 2What I loved about Wheeler’s debut novel, Smooch and Rose, was the bright and breezy way Wheeler portrayed a story big on heart and moral understanding. Spud and Charli is similar in its delivery with a little less eye-prickling emotion but just as much raw reality and enthusiastic narrative fluttering with enough funny and shocking moments to rein young readers in.

Charli is a character many young girls in particular will catch glimpses of themselves in whether they are horse mad or not. Her journey of self-awareness and gradual understanding of the truth about bats is neither too predictable nor obtuse. I am confident young readers will get Charli and admire her overall spunk and drive. It would be fantastic if more members of our society were as well informed (about the fruit bat / Hendra Virus situation) as Charli eventually becomes.

Spud and Charli is as entertaining as it is significant and for this reader who grew up in FNQ (far north Queensland) amongst thousands of flying foxes feasting nightly on our backyard pawpaws, it is a positive, feel-good story about two of my favourite mammals.

FruitbatsExtra golden horseshoes awarded to Charli who revisits after the story’s end to take us through some excellent info pages on interesting bat facts with no nonsense advice and useful online links; beautifully dispelling ugly myths while at the same time carefully educating our next generation of nature lovers. A joy to read in its own right, this book will serve well as a valuable prompt for classroom projects and discussion.

For those residing in SE Queensland, be sure to trot into Riverbend Books and Teahouse this Friday the 12th September for the launch of Spud and Charli. Plenty of room to tie up dobbin at the door. 6 pm. Or you can secure your copy of Spud and Charli right now here.

UQP September 2014

Reviews – Ripping Mid-Grade Reads Two Wolves & Little Chef, BIG Curse

Mid-grade readers, tween fiction, early YA; call themLittle Chef Big Curse what you will, but books for 8 -13 year-olds must satisfy vital criteria. They require substance, humour be it belly-busting or cloaked as parody, and a completely honest rendering of imagination, no matter how fantastical the premise. Little Chef, BIG Curse and Two Wolves fulfil on all counts. Both are heftier reads for mid to upper primary aged kids (in excess of 200 pages). And ones I could have gleefully gobbled up again immediately I reached the end.

 Little Chef, BIG Curse is the debut work of Tilney Cotton and possibly one of the most exuberant reads I’ve enjoyed in ages. I’m not sure if it’s because of the foodie in me or the zealous, ribaldry with which Cotton writes but Little Chef, BIG Curse is utterly delectable and insanely moreish.

It’s an off-beat taTilney Cottonle about hapless 11 year-old, Matty Swink who dreams of being a famous chef. He is practically enslaved by the foul-tempered, mean-spirited Fenella as her live-in dishwasher. With no means, family or support, Matty’s future seems confined to sleeping under the sink in Fenella’s diner. But dreams as big as Matty’s cannot be suppressed forever and when the King of Yurp announces a grand Cook-Off and the chance to break a 500 year-old curse on his only daughter, Matty finally forges his way to fame and freedom.

This is a zinger of a tale tickling with intrigue, bubbling with soul and simmering with an underlying sinisterness that kids will find electrifying. Cotton’s brilliant mix of colourful characterisation and original one-liners like, ‘roll with pumpkins’ produces a story that is full of punch, flavour and fun. Peppered with a generous helping of comical metaphors (‘breath like dog poo’ is a favourite), sprinkled with danger and seasoned with revenge, Little Chef, BIG Curse has all the humorous and gross ingredients of a Morris Gleitzman adventure and some. Top notch nosh! That gets 10 out of 10 from me.Tristan Bancks RH

Scholastic Press February 2014

Tristan Bancks’ junior adventure books including the My Life, Nit Boy, Mac Slater Cool Hunter and the Galactic Adventures series rival those of Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman and Michael Gerard Bauer. Like kids 8 – 13 years-old, I can’t get enough of his quirky, comedy-loaded, layback style. Two Wolves however is a decisive departure from previous offerings aimed at the slightly older reader, demonstrating more drama, stronger conflicts and more thought-provoking themes. It blew my breath away.

Using the Cherokee Indian allegory that we all have good and bad (wolves) dwelling within us as the catalyst for conflict, Two Wolves explores moral dilemmas, innocence versus experience and family blood being thicker than water. Which wolf ultimately wins the internal battle depends on which one we feed, as thirteen year-old Ben Silver discovers.

Ben aspires to be a detective but naively lives in a world of limited resources and shaky real-life experience. He re-lives much of his life through the lens of an internal camera, ‘playing on the cinema screen at the back of his eyelids’.

This movie-making processing of events allows him to deal reflectively and safely with some pretty confronting issues, the most recent being the inexplicable, unplanned retreat into wildness with his parents.

Life on the run with them and his young sister, Olive, soon deteriorates into a painful battle of survival and family ethics. Ben is desperate to figure out what his parents are fleeing from and why but is uncertain of what to do with the truths he may uncover.

Ben’s most daunting concerns, apart from remaining alive with Olive, are the choices he is confronted with; right vs. wrong, family loyalty vs. honourable action. How Ben decides to end his movie makes for a gripping novel heaving with adventure and mystery.

Bancks’ delivery of Two Wolves is tight and crisp. Fragmented internal thought and observation are favoured over rambling descriptive narrative which keeps the reader firmly in Ben’s moments of extreme agitation. Ben is a believable hero. His naïve, almost tongue-in-cheek humour works beautifully against the darker aspects of this story resulting in a novel tweens can and will relate to even if they have never been in Ben’s situation.

Can money buy happiness? What scruples do you possess when it comes to family, or having to confess to a crime? Does deceit ever pay dividends? Two Wolves is destined to keep kids pondering over questions like these for months. Sensational stuff.

Random House Australia March 2014

 

Double Dipping – Two ‘Small but Special’ Reviews

This month’s double whammy review is courtesy of UQP. From their impressive collection for younger readers comes two new titles certain to cause a stir for primary aged girls in particular; Smooch and Rose by Queensland author Samantha Wheeler and Chook Chook Little and Lo in the City by Wai Chim.

Smooch and RoseA rose by any other name would smell as sweet as…strawberries.

Like many other SE Queenslanders, I live in a fairly koala sensitive area. Over the last decade or so, the bushland the koalas call home has been more and more frequently indiscriminately removed to accommodate our urban sprawl; a subject you can’t help but be a part of. We all desire to live in this beautiful part of the world as much as they, the koalas, need to.

Smooch and Rose is the tale of one girl’s courageous and staunch attempt to stand up to the big guns of development in hope of keeping at least part of the koalas’ habitat intact.

Orphaned school girl, Rose, may be awkward and less than dazzling at school but in the presence of animals, she shines. Being a wildlife carer is her greatest desire and after rescuing a baby koala and accepting the guidance of wildlife carer, Carol, Rose inches one step closer to her dream.

KoalaSmooch, the baby koala so named because he loves to snuggle, soon invades everyone’s affections. Even after he is released back into the bushland fringing Rose and her Gran’s strawberry farm, he continues to supply Rose with friendship and happiness.

However her contentment is shattered by the news from her real estate uncle, Malcolm, that she and Gran must sell their beloved farm. Sadly, no amount of delays and setbacks can stem the tide of progress and Rose is devastated to hear that it’s not only her home at stake but Smooch’s as well.

The bulldozers soon move in heightening Rose’s desperation and resolve. It becomes a tense fight against time and the developers for Rose but she perseveres in her pursuit to save everything she loves.

Samantha Wheeler Samantha Wheeler has a natural, fluid narrative style, used effectively to weave a tale rich in inspiration, hope, drama and, strawberries. Animal lovers, conservationists and plucky eight year olds alike will adore this feel good, do good story with its gentle but firm undercurrents about the virtues of tenacity especially in matters concerning the future of our environments. Generously endorsed by Deborah Tabart OAM, CEO Australian Koala Foundation and including thoughtful guidelines and useful websites for helping koalas and native animals, Smooch and Rose should be compulsory reading for 7 + year olds and featured on all classroom bookshelves.

Chook alert!

Chook Chook Little and Lo in the CityAddressing the same age group but set in a vastly different land and culture is the second instalment to Chook Chook Mei’s Secret Pets, Chook Chook Little and Lo in the City. This time Mei’s two beloved chooks, sweet hen, Little and larrikin cockerel, Lo, accompany young Mei to the city of Guangzhou, China, in the wake of her older brother, Guo’s departure from their village farm.

Mei’s sense of stability is challenged when her widowed mother decides to marry the one-eyed butcher. The reality of a new Dad, brother and their accompanying menagerie of pets is too much for Mei, who flees with her chooks in search of Guo.

Mei’s unfamiliarity with the big city soon sours her plans of independence and reunion. By chance, she teams up with a young runaway named Cap. Together they navigate their way around Guangzhou’s questionable characters and complicated metro system until finally, Guo is located in the University at which he studies.

Wai ChimBut travelling with chooks and someone you hardly know is not as easy as Mei imagined. Can Mei salvage Guo’s grades, Cap’s sense of security and her own diminishing inner peace from this tumultuous experience? Fortunately, Wai Chim manages to find a miracle for Mei and her feathered friends. Chim’s astute use of cultural authenticities, drawn from her own Chinese-American background, gives the Chook Chook books a pleasing depth and sincerity. Heart strings are genuinely pulled when Mei struggles against mounting odds and with her brother’s love. Funny bones are seriously tickled by the incredulous antics of Little and Lo.

I love chooks and am very partial to noodle soup with barbequed pork, so it was not hard for me to enjoy Chook Chook. Feed your curiosity and enjoy it too.

Both books ideal for confident 7 + year old readers.

Available for purchase here – Rose / Chook

UQP out now.