Marvellous midgrade reads – Reviewing Aussie Talent

Midgrade readers have to fulfil a variety of whims. They should appeal to the increasingly insatiable literary appetites of confident mid-primary aged readers. They must soar with excitement and be able to crack readers up at the mere mention of impending doom for any adults foolhardy enough to wander through the storyline. And they should be wickedly close enough to real life to qualify the use of magic and make believe. Here are three new titles that tick all the ‘midgrade must have’ boxes.

Marge in Charge with Isla FisherMarge in Charge by Isla Fisher Illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemus

This new novel spills from the pen of noted actor, writer and comedian, Isla Fisher. Words flow with funny fluidity and the help of some very entertaining illustrations. Rather than being told in chapters, there are three separate Marge orientated stories all hinging on the premise of Marge babysitting Jemima and Jake.  None of their previously bland babysitters can match the zany ingenuity of marvellous Marge. Marge is not your average babysitter; she makes mess and turns the rules inside out and upside down.

Young readers will love the out of control antics Jemima and younger brother,Jake are coaxed into by the indiscernibly aged Marge. It is enough to make any parent cringe with terror but will raise whoops of delight for those under ten years old. Fisher’s style is comforting and chortle worthy with injections of humour only the experiences of a mother of three could have inspired.

Riotous hilarity tempered by sound parenting advice (mostly from the worrying mind of 7-year-old Jemima), all mixed up with a plucky mucky 4-year-old and lots and lots of lovely rainbow coloured hair. Marge is the complete package. Fresh fun entertainment (at least for six + year olds).

Piccadilly Press imprint Allen & Unwin July 2016

The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling BeeThe Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee by Deborah Abela

India Wimple is a girl with a dream and like many of us these days, that dream stems from reality TV. Every week, she and her family glue themselves in front of The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee TV show and as we are currently deep into the latest series of The Great Australian Spelling Bee (of which I am also hooked) the telling of India’s tale could not have come at a better time!

Unlike 11-year-old India, my spelling abilities have diminished drastically over the years. India however is in the prime of her time and yearns to be the next spelling bee champion. All she has to do is sign up for the show and spell. But of course there are many ‘precarious’ and ‘calamitous’ situations she and her family have to contend with before she gets close to standing behind the spelling podium; a cantankerous old van, a haughty little spoilt girl intent on winning, concerns for an ailing brother and an inherent shyness that threatens to choke her each time she gets up on stage to name but a few.

Deb AbelaAbela deftly weaves a contemporary idea into a topical story line with enough quirky characters with admirable whims to have readers on the edge of their seats by the time India eventually makes it in front of the TV cameras. And like those mini spelling marvels on the real life reality show, she handles it with modest aplomb and true integrity.

It is impossible not to love all of Abela’s characters in this tale even the snarky ones.  And while young readers are hanging on every syllable uttered, they are unwittingly enhancing their vocabulary thanks to each chapter heading introducing a new word and definition relating to that chapter. Ingenious!

The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee may be a mouthful and a half to master but is invigorating and enlightening reading for anyone who adores words, competitions and fifth grade spelling (which I still struggle with). It’s a fun family indulgence without the need to go anywhere near the tellie.

Penguin Random House Australia July 2016

Princess ParsleyPrincess Parsley by Pamela Rushby

I had the unique pleasure of hearing the birth of this story a couple of years ago when accomplished author, Pamela Rushby pitched it for the first time to a panel of publishers at the SCBWI Sydney Conference. Now, like the growth of Parsley Patterson’s family country market, it has evolved into a book worthy of a place high on the bookshelf.

Following bouts of political kerfuffle, Mullumbimby farming resident, Kevin Patterson decides to withdraw from Australia and set up his own (Possum Creek) principality within the Northern Rivers hinterland. This way he can avoid the one-sided malevolent machinations of the local council and run his popular farmers’ market in peace. Sounds straightforward enough albeit a little left field; it’s a stance the surrounding residents applaud for his daring and pluck. His family revel in their collective newly acquired regal status, all that is except Parsley.

Being a princess is the last thing on Parsley’s list of things to be in her new high school. With her ‘not strictly hippy’ parents always in the limelight, the most popular boy in school tagging along and a cackle of hard-nosed A Group girls (The Blondes) to contend with, life under a tiara becomes increasingly embarrassing and more hilarious with each page turn.

Dim's Day 2 14th July (34)I am a bona fide fan of Rushby’s sharp satirical wit. Although somewhat toned down here for a slightly younger audience, it still transports readers along on a heady and spirited adventure echoing the same verve and heart of the 1997 movie, The Castle. Like the Kerrigans, the Pattersons are a family for which you feel an instant affection. However, can poor Parsley’s princely plight and newfound calling as a comedian be enough for her to realise the true cost of popularity?

I was amazed to learn that there are around 12 actual real micronations based on the principality idea here in Australia alone.  Stories like Princess Parsley, which engage on multiple levels, are not only a boon to read but also marvellous gateways to more of life’s delightful discoveries. Ripper stuff. Ideal for 9-year-olds and beyond.

Omnibus Books July 2016

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

 

 

 

 

Qld Literary Awards vs Prime Minister’s Literary Awards

Coal CreekThe winners of the Qld Literary Awards and the PM Literary Awards are being announced on the same evening – Monday 8th December. You can follow the PM announcements live at ‪#PMLitAwards  or tune into [email protected]_ch648  at 7:15pm ‪http://on.fb.me/1pPELkt .

It is fantastic that both these awards exist. They include outstanding Australian books and their shortlists promote these titles as well as our valuable book industry. Their prize money is very different, with the PM winners receiving $80,000 each and the shortlisted authors receiving $5,000 – the amount the winners of the QLA receive.

These two awards also have some shortlisted books in common (keep in mind that the awards have different eligible voting periods, causing some books to be shortlisted in different years).

The books shortlisted in both awards are:

Fiction

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Vintage Australia)

Coal Creek, Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)

Children’s Fiction ROS

Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan (Hachette)

 

Young Adult Fiction

The Incredible Here and Now, Felicity Castagna (Giramondo)

History

Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Joan Beaumont (Allen & Unwin)

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Clare Wright (Text Publishing)

There are no overlaps in the non-fiction and poetry categories, with strong, diverse contenders in both.

The Qld Literary Awards has some extra categories:

University of Southern Queensland Australian Short Story Collection – Steele Rudd Award

Letters to George Clooney, Debra Adelaide (Pan Macmillan Australia)

The Promise, Tony Birch (UQP)

An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman (Giramondo Publishing)

Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin Australia)

Holiday in Cambodia, Laura Jean McKay (Black Inc. Books)

Letter to George Clooney

Unpublished Indigenous Writer – David Unaipon Award

There is no shortlist for this category; the winner of the award will be announced at the Awards Ceremony on Monday 8 December.

Emerging Queensland Writer – Manuscript Award

3 for a Wedding, Julie Kearney

We Come From Saltwater People, Cathy McLennan

Open Cut, Leanne Nolan

And the People’s Choice Awards …

As a judge of the Griffith University Children’s Book Award, I would like to particularly mention our shortlist

Big Red KangarooRefuge, Jackie French (Harper Collins Publishers)

The Ratcatcher’s Daughter, Pamela Rushby (Harper Collins Publishers)

Nature Storybooks: The Big Red Kangaroo, Claire Saxby and Graham Byrne (Walker Books Australia)

Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan (Hachette Australia)

Smooch and Rose, Samantha Wheeler (UQP)

As it turned out, our top books are a combination of novels and illustrated works; from Qld, national, established and emerging creators; and include a non-fiction book, The Big Red Kangaroo, which is also a work of art.

The YA judges have also produced an excellent list

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award

Zac & Mia, A.J Betts (Text Publishing)

The Incredible Here and Now, Felicity Castagna (Giramondo Publishing)

The Accident, Kate Hendrick (Text Publishing)

Tigerfish, David Metzenthen (Penguin Australia)

The Cracks in the Kingdom, Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan Australia)

The 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists in full are at http://arts.gov.au/shortlists

And I’ve previously written more about the PM awards at http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/more-about-the-2014-prime-ministers-literary-awards/2014/10

Staff from the State Library of Queensland (also the venue hub of the BWF)  have taken over the administration of the QLA awards for the first time this year and have done a brilliant job. The awards had been coordinated by an extraordinary committee of volunteers for the past few years since the Qld Premier’s Literary Awards were axed by Campbell Newman’s government. The SLQ has also sponsored the poetry award and some Qld Universities such as the University of Queensland, Griffith University and the University of Southern Queensland, have also stepped in to sponsor awards. Enormous thanks to them all.

Congratulations to all of the shortlisted authors and to the winners of both these awards. We will know the outcome soon!

Incredible Here and Now

Brisbane Writers Festival Dazzles

Analogue MenThe  2014 Brisbane Writers Festival had an inspiring launch on Thursday night when author/publisher Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What is the What – about the lost boys of Sudan) told a full tent  about the genesis of McSweeney’s publishing company and its 826 Valencia Writing Centres. The tutoring behind these pirate, superhero and other themed storefronts has helped countless children with their writing. Groups doing similar work in Australia are Sydney’s Story Factory with its Martian Embassy, Melbourne’s 100 Story Building, and Book Links in Queensland is working towards its own centre.

My next session was ‘Dangerous Allies’ where Robert Manne interviewed Malcolm Fraser in front of a capacity crowd. The insights about Australia’s alliance with the US were provocative and chilling.

‘Zen and the Art of Tea’ was a light-hearted exploration of tea by Morris Gleitzman and Josephine Moon. Josephine’s tip about brewing lavender, garlic or basil to make teas sounds worth trying and Morris – a literary Geoffrey Rush – was hilarious. He personified coffee as a bully, and tea as a whispering lover.

David Hunt was in fine form discussing his Indies Book winner, Girt which is a retelling of Australian history with a comedic eye.

It was fun to cross paths with David Malouf (for the second time in two weeks), Jennifer Byrne, Will Kostakis, Pamela Rushby and Tristan Bancks. If only there was more time for more sessions … I would have loved to see YA writers such as A.J. Betts, Isobelle Carmody and Jackie French but they were either offsite or clashed with my events. Andy Griffiths was so popular he had his own signing area after the other children’s writers’ part of the program had finished. Chairing Andy and John Boyne (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) a few years ago was one of the funniest times of my life.

Forgotten Rebels of EurekaThis year I was privileged to moderate sessions with Clare Wright on The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text) and Nick Earls on Analogue Men (Vintage). Clare must be the world’s most informed person in her field of women at Eureka. Her book deservedly won the Stella Prize this year. It is compulsive, engaging reading, notwithstanding its 500+ pages.

Nick was as funny as expected and revealed a secret about Analogue Men. We learned that his favourite Dr Who is Jon Pertwee and his favourite tech device Bluetooth. I explained how I laughed out loud repeatedly over one scene that I read on instant replay and Nick implied that my brain is like that of a goldfish. But no – it really was the skilful writing. It was wonderful to hear the laughing throughout this session and see the animated audiences in both these events.

Many thanks to the authors involved in the Festival, particularly Clare and Nick, and to the incredible BWF staff and volunteers led by Kate Eltham.

What Were Girls Like?

I am JulietThree recent YA historical fiction novels by Australian women (all published by HarperCollins/ABC Books) inhabit times when girls had to bend to the influence of men and were comparatively powerless.

The Raven’s Wing is Frances Watts’s first novel for teens. It is set in Ancient Rome where fifteen year-old Claudia is strategically offered in marriage several times. Making an alliance which can best help her family is paramount. Primarily a romance, the book addresses Claudia’s growing awareness of human rights (here through the fate of slaves) which interferes with her sense of duty and makes her a much more interesting character than the docile cipher she is expected to be.

I am Juliet by Australian Children’s Laureate, Jackie French, is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. French’s Juliet is a fleshed-out focal character. Superficially she shares some of Claudia’s privileged lifestyle features: attended by maids who wash and dress her and apply her makeup; elaborate meals; and protection behind high walls. Medicinal and other herbs and plants are a feature of their times; and Juliet and Claudia both face imminent arranged marriage, but are aware of a dark man in shadows. Their stories, also, contain a story within a story.

Jackie French has reinterpreted Shakespeare previously – in her excellent Macbeth and Son which grapples with the nature of truth. She has also addressed the role of women in history, perhaps most notably in A Rose for the ANZAC Boys

Ratcatcher's Daughter Issy, the thirteen-year-old protagonist of Pamela Rushby’s The Ratcatcher’s Daughter, doesn’t share Claudia and Juliet’s privileged backgrounds. Set in a well-drawn Brisbane of 1900, Issy’s father is a ratcatcher during the bubonic plague. Issy is offered a scholarship to become a teacher but her family refuse it due to lack of money. The issue of the poor’s inability to take up opportunities that the rich assume is reiterated throughout the novel.

The Ratcatcher’s Daughter and I am Juliet include background notes about the historical period and other points of interest.

 These three books unite in their exploration of girls who are prepared to defy tradition to control their own lives, where possible, in spite of general lack of female empowerment. I hope that this really was possible and is not just a revisionist interpretation.

It is interesting that this crop of YA historical novels has appeared now. Are these authors finding a story-niche or reflecting current concern? Although surely girls today, particularly in a country such as Australia, are more fortunate in their freedom and choice. The Raven's Wing

 

Review – Aussie Day Reads

With only a few more sleeps till another day of flag flying and fly swatting, it’s time to dig out the meat pies, ice the lamingtons and chill the beers. Australia Day means different things to different Aussies but the sense of camaraderie is an underlying similarity in us all.

Midnight There are dozens of Australian based books to cheer about this week, but these two, whilst equally at home on ANZAC reading lists, deserve mention now because of their strong patriotic appeal.

The horses didnt' come home Midnight, The Story of a Light Horse by picture book duo, Mark Greenwood and Frane Lessac and The Horses Didn’t Come Home by faction YA writer, Pamela Rushby, both tell the tale of the Australian Light Horse regiments that took part in ‘one of the last great cavalry charges in history’.

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.

Midnight is based on the true accounts of Lieutenant Guy Haydon and his jet black mare, Midnight. It begins with Midnight’s birth by the riverside at Bloomfield Station in the Hunter Valley, to the mare, Moonlight. All is cool and dark and yielding as reflected in the soft prose and passive illustrations.

Midnight enjoys a close bond with Guy as the two of them work the cattle in their high country home. But it’s the season of unrest, and overseas the first of the Great Wars intensifies. Guy and Midnight heed the call and ‘ride to join the Light Horse’ along with thousands of others.

Frane LessacThey enter a strange new world, hot, dry and aggressive; the deserts of the Middle East so beautifully rendered by Lessac’s gouache painted illustrations, and set course for a seemingly do-or-die finale at the ancient town of Beersheba. The 4th and 12th Regiments of the Australian Light Horse are rallied in a last desperate attempt to smash Turkish lines fiercely guarding the precious wells of Beersheba. Success seems unlikely; 800 riders against three thousand well-entrenched soldiers, but miraculously, after the order to charge is given, Beersheba is taken and the Turkish line of defence is broken, thus changing the history of WWI in the Sinai Desert forever.

Light Horse Cavalry charge Frane Lessac's Midnight

Mark GreenwoodI enjoyed Greenwood’s sparse yet expressive text. We are given just enough information to allow us to feel the full awful force of battle and share the heart wrenching bond between horse and rider. Young readers should not be frightened or disturbed by all the action-orientated facts and words however, because they are never delivered brutally or aimlessly.

The depiction of Australia’s historic war past has been visited by Greenwood and Lessac before with titles including Simpson and His Donkey, for example. Lessac’s humble yet honest, full page illustrations work well when coupled with the stark realisms of WWI history. I found the illustrations of the closing pages of Midnight particularly endearing. Although steeped in sadness, they transport us gently home to a place of starlit skies and moonlight.

Pam Rushby Pamela Rushby’s The Horses Didn’t Come Home treats this same slice of our past with equal sensitivity and respect. I was in tears by the end of the prologue and completely entranced by the tale of Harry and his campaign overseas, this time with a horse named, Bunty.

Bunty is another Australia Waler, hailing from the rugged Australian bush who actually belongs to Harry’s sister, Laura. Their story is told in alternating points of view through the use of letters home from Harry to his family, Laura and interestingly, letters from Bunty (courtesy of Harry for his sister).

You may know the history behind the poignant story. We all know the amazing outcome. The horses won the day. But Rushby tells it in such an absorbing way that the sting of the sun, the smell of horse sweat, the buzz of the flies and the tension of the parching patrols keeps you tethered to the desert long after the battle is over and the book is done. It is nothing short of superlative.

I especially enjoyed Rushby’s author notes at the end, sharing her discovery of Beersheba and highlighting the background to the story. Older aged primary school readers will find this an easily digestible, intriguing and deeply stirring read which in all likelihood will stimulate their appetite to explore our bold past further.

Both books highly recommended as classic Aussie reads.

Midnight, The story of a light horse Walker Books Australia February 2014. Available now here! Suitable for primary school aged.

The Horses Didn’t Come Home Angus & Robertson, Harper Collins Publishers Australia March 2012. Suitable for older primary aged readers and up.

Park of the Australian Solider in Beersheba monument
Park of the Australian Solider monument
Beersheba