Christmas Crackers – Picture Book Reviews

As we mark the first day of December, the Christmas countdown has officially begun. A time for snuggles, a time for giggles, a time for togetherness, a time for giving, a time for remembering and making new memories. Here are a few glorious picture books that have all the joy, laughter and magic of Christmas covered.

imageThere is Something Weird in Santa’s Beard, Chrissie Krebs (author, illus.), Random House Australia, October 2016.

Argh! It’s like The Dreadful Fluff in disguise! Yes, there is a dreadful, terrorising mutant refusing to depart the comfort of Santa’s beard. Created by tired and grotty Santa’s leftover crumbs of bubble gum, candy canes, French fries and mince pies, the hideous, squatting blob threatens to ruin Christmas. It devours toys from the workshop and snaps up the elves’ trap. Santa attempts to remove it but to no avail. At last, it is the skilled, king fu-fighting reindeer that save the day. All is well with Santa until he treats himself after a training session with a sticky ice cream.

Chrissie Krebs has written this story with the great gusto and rollicking rhyme that it deserves. I love the depiction of Mrs Claus, too – homely and caring, but let’s face it, everyone’s patience has its limits! With its slapstick comedy, unfaltering rhyming couplets and vibrantly bright and energetic illustrations, this book makes for a highly engaging and fun read-aloud experience.

There is Something Weird in Santa’s Beard will take your preschoolers on a belly-rolling, chin-tickling journey as Santa overcomes the most terrible experience imaginable. But you can count on poor, messy Santa reliving it over and over again, as he did in our household!

imageI Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas, John Rox (author), Simon Williams (illus.), Scholastic Australia, October 2016.

Here lies the renewal of the classic 1950 song originally written by John Rox, and performed by a young Gayla Peevey in 1953, which resulted in the Oklahoma City zoo acquiring a baby hippo named Matilda.

The story subtly portrays a sweet innocence, yet the narrator is firm with complete conviction on why s/he should have a hippopotamus for Christmas. Written in first person with its irregular upper and lower case handwriting as the main text, this is a fun, lyrical narrative (with bonus CD by Indigenous singer Miranda Tapsell) perfectly capturing the magic of childhood and Christmas for its preschool listeners.

Simon Williams gorgeously ties in this magical essence with his own interpretation of the humour and playfulness through his whimsical illustrations. Pairing a ginger kitten as narrator with its ‘Hippo Hero’ is an inspiring move portraying a wonderful unlikely friendship. The kitten makes promises to feed and care for it, and is excited by the hope of being surprised by its presence on Christmas morning. No crocodile or rhino would do, “I only like hippopotamuses. And hippopotamuses like me too!”

Adorably energetic, bouncy and joyful, children from age three will be adamant that they want I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas for Christmas.

imageThe Night Before Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore (text), Helene Magisson (illus.), New Frontier Publishing, November 2016.

With illustrations that are soft with warmth, deep with texture and rich with love, this newest edition of The Night Before Christmas is truly one to treasure.

With the timeless poem by Clement Clarke Moore, talented illustrator Helene Magisson works her magic to create a stunning gift for any family celebrating Christmas. As Santa and his eight reindeer journey through the snow-speckled sky to below the snow-crested rooftop, we are soothed by the pale watercolour tones that beautifully contrast the outdoor shades of blues with the indoor hues of reds. I also love the little whimsical subtleties like Santa’s cheeky expressions, the playful cat and the koala toy for our Australian readers.

With a special story and exquisite illustrations that represent togetherness, comfort and the undeniable joy that is Christmas, The Night Before Christmas is a beautiful keepsake for children between four and six years old.

You can find more fantastic gifts in the Kids Reading Guide 2016.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review – The Pause

The PauseThis book is remarkable. John Larkin cleaves a mighty wedge into our suspension of belief with the consummate precision and delicacy of a brain surgeon. The Pause doesn’t just tell the story of emotionally damaged Declan O’Malley poised to leap in front of a train and end it all; it entertains the reader in a way that allows you to spontaneously laugh aloud whilst weeping.

Declan is about to leave his teenage-hood behind and as it turns out, his life too. With everything to live for he makes a fatal unplanned decision set to change his path and all those his life (and death) affects. However, before Declan suicides, he pauses. What follows is a fascinating narrative of Declan’s before and after and the parallel consequences of his decision. The Pause has a strong ‘sliding doors’ quality; essentially  it’s an alloy of two versions of one life that invites readers to think hard about the multitude of tiny insignificant decisions we make with every breath and how they define and dictate the direction our lives take.

John LarkinThis novel is absorbing. Larkin’s structure elevates empathy and firmly imbues us into Declan’s emotional quandaries. The pace is never frantic but it is unrelenting nevertheless. It is a story that is difficult to step away from. You will not want clean the kitty litter tray or answer the front door once you step onto that station platform with Declan.

Larkin’s characters cut with knife-edge deftness. Declan is a complex mixture of teenage swagger and self-doubt. He is both grounded and deeply disturbed, harbouring a hurt so painful, it threatens to derail him for good.  He is acutely aware of his shortcomings and that hormones have as much to do with his rational thought destruction as anything else as a teenager. Yet in spite of his chemical and emotional acknowledgement, he is still side-blinded by the actuality of life and his mental frailty. Like many adults and young people, he has very little idea of just how mentally sick he is until it is literally too late. However throughout all this tenderly rendered turmoil, Declan possess a sarcasm and comical observation on life so clean and unrestrained it will make your heart bubble. If I had a son, I would want a version of this boy.

Declan’s support crew: his faithful school mates, his wickedly wonderful family, his gorgeous girlfriend and her estranged demon mother are equally as colourful and mosaic, all layered with such incredible meticulousness that you will want to either hug or slap them accordingly. Through them, we visit the impacts of mental disease, ADHC syndrome, family relationships, regret, sexuality, self-acceptance, and suicide as well as the cry for universal understanding.

Larkin’s prose is beautiful. Apart from being a story of teenage angst and depression, The Pause is a crushing love story. It swells with hope and the desire to live. It resounds with a fervent realisation that life is not always straightforward and simple but if we take time to acknowledge our own self-worth, if we simply pause for thought to see life through, the possibilities are endless.

Confronting, elegant, and accountably decisive, The Pause is an astonishing masterpiece of torn emotions and triumphant spirit that is essential YA (and beyond) reading.

Random House Australia April 2016

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

 

Forces of Nature – Picture Book Reviews

The scent of Spring is in the air. But that’s not all that’s lifting us up. From the tiny details to the wider world, our environment has so much to offer. For different reasons, these following picture books discover beauty and how the elements of nature can capture our hearts and strengthen our human kindness.  

imageHow the Sun Got to Coco’s House, Bob Graham (author, illus.), Walker Books, 2015.  

I patiently awaited its arrival. Now I’ve had my fix, and… it was worth the wait. This one effectively enlightened all my senses. With Bob Graham‘s natural poetic writing style, philosophical touch and emotive images, ‘How the Sun Got to Coco’s House’ is another classic to soothe the soul.  

In a consecutive movement, similar to the styles of ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’ and ‘Silver Buttons’, the story takes us on a journey with the sun around the globe. Starting from behind a snow-capped mountain, the sun begins to rise, giddily skidding across waters, catching glimpses in eyes, footsteps, aeroplane wings and over cities. In and out of proximity, the sun’s rays meet a vast array, from individuals, to small villages, and whole countries. Until, it barges in through Coco’s window. The sun becomes one with her family and friends, bringing with it a sense of togetherness, comfort and warmth.  

A gentle story of life, responsibility and peace, this book is adorned with Bob Graham’s characteristically whimsical and magical illustrative style, with a beautiful lolloping pace. ‘How the Sun Got to Coco’s House’ is a valuable asset aimed to inspire young readers to explore global environmental and social issues, as well as one that will simply light up their world! Once again, Bob Graham…brilliant!  

imageSeagull, Danny Snell (author, illus.), Working Title Press, 2015.  

Danny Snell brings us a heartwarming story of humanity and freedom, making clear our responsibility for appreciating the natural world around us.  

Beautifully descriptive yet simple language and serene backdrops allow its readers an intimate experience as a seagull tries to free herself from a tangled fishing line. Unable to loosen it herself, Seagull initiates help from the other creatures around the beach, but to no avail. The further she tarries, the heavier her load becomes as she catches a manner of litter in the line. Finally, it is the silent observer that enables Seagull’s wings to spread, and her heart to sing once more.  

Snell has cleverly and effectively used mixed media to differentiate between the elements of natural versus man-made / fragile versus harmful with paint for the scenery and animals, and colourless scanned images for the items of rubbish. His artwork is stunningly textured with varying sky hues to represent the passing of the day and the exhaustion, and eventual freedom, of the defenceless bird.  

‘Seagull’ is a gentle and significant story for primary school aged children to be aware of environmental issues and aims to empower control, kindness and compassion for our planet and our future. Definitely one that will pull on your heartstrings.  

imageOllie and the Wind, Ronojoy Ghosh (author, illus.), Random House Australia, 2015.  

Here’s a cheeky story of one force of nature; the wind. Treating the gust as an anthropomorphic, invisible being, young Ollie interacts with it in creative ways, hoping to be reunited with the hat and scarf that were snatched from him. Upon discovering that the wind is not naughty, but in fact playful, Ollie gestures some of his favourite toys. A nighttime kite-flying romp sees Ollie and the wind form a special bond, which, by the looks of the final image, seemed to put the wind in high spirits.  

The text is full with depth and life, and is accompanied by vibrant, textured and jovial illustrations. Ghosh‘s fine line drawings, minimal colour palette of bold greens and golds with statements of red, and cartoonesque style qualify for a unique and captivating reading experience.  

‘Ollie and the Wind’ will capture more than just your heart. It will encourage preschoolers to look at the world with a fresh perspective, investigate studies of meteorology, and explore friendships on another level.

Risk, Meet Fleur Ferris

Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books Blog, Fleur.

Thanks you for having me on the blog Joy.

RiskYour new YA novel, Risk (Random House Australia) is creating a buzz in Australian YA circles. I believe that it has a very important message, told as an engaging story. Is it your first published work? Have you met any other YA authors?

Risk is my first novel to be published. I’ve met a few YA writers in person, and many more online. It is great to be a part of the Australian YA community, everyone is very friendly and supportive. I hope to catch up with a few YA authors (in person) at the Bendigo Writers’ Festival in August.

Why did you write Risk?

A number of incidents involving predators meeting and grooming girls online and then luring them away occurred in my local area. I’m a family friend to one of the girls and was shocked that she was almost a victim to this type of predator. This girl (then 14 years old) is a smart, well-adjusted girl who doesn’t go looking for trouble. It frightened me that trouble found her. I started looking into cases and researching how predators use social media to find victims. I found out that anyone can use a proxy box to hide their identity, even from the police. During the process an idea for a book came to me.

Your character Taylor comments that the guy she meets online doesn’t seem like a stalker. What does an online stalker seem like?

Great question! I wish I had a great answer. Taylor, the fifteen-year-old character in Risk, thought that an online stalker would be outwardly creepy, or have other obvious, indicative traits. But once Taylor got chatting to one particular guy online she didn’t question him because he was so nice. It is impossible to know if people you meet online really are as they seem.Fleur Ferris

Apart from encouraging young people to read Risk how can we protect them?

I believe education is the key. Discussing online dangers and possible strategies to adopt will help people (of any age) avoid falling victim to online predators. Increasing awareness of online dangers will hopefully lead to a person making better, and more cautious, decisions about information they give out as well as meeting online friends in the real world. As long as there are online places to meet people, online predators will exist and education about this needs to start early.

Who have you modelled the two protagonists, Taylor and Sierra on?

Initially, Taylor and Sierra were modelled on my nieces who were fifteen and sixteen years of age at the time Risk was written.

Sierra likes Taylor Swift. Do you like her too or have you featured her for another reason?

I do like Taylor Swift and her music. Over the years I have enjoyed learning about her journey to stardom and I admire her. She is strong, intelligent, funny and artistic. Taylor (and her music) inspires me.

Pieces of SkyWhat have you enjoyed reading recently or in the past?

The neighbour by Julie Proudfoot is incredible. The pause by John Larkin, Cooper Bartholomew is dead by Rebecca James, Pieces of sky by Trinity Doyle and All the bright places (audiobook) by Jennifer Niven are all brilliant YA books. I’m also reading Jacqueline Harvey’s Clementine Rose Series with my kids and I am enjoying these books as much as my kids are.

Are you writing something else at the moment? If so, could you tell us about it?

I have just signed a contract with Random House for my next YA novel. The title is unconfirmed at this stage, but I can say it is another contemporary stand-alone and sits well alongside Risk. It will be out mid next year.

Neighbour

That’s fantastic news. All the very best with it, Fleur.

Guess who came to dinner: James Patterson in Australia

Rafe's Aussie AdventureThere is a media and reader buzz about James Patterson, the world’s biggest selling author, who is in Australia at the moment.

It was announced on Tuesday that Patterson is giving grants of $500 to $5000 to independent bookshops in Australia and New Zealand, to a total of $100,000. This is an extremely generous gift from this philanthropic author and is part of Patterson’s mission to stimulate children’s reading. The bookshops that receive the grants must have a designated children’s section. There is a simple application form to complete by 5pm Tuesday, 30th June at .

Patterson said, ‘Bookshops guard against a future in which far too many children are illiterate. So many bookstores are already making a difference in their communities and I’m looking to help bookstores who want to do more… This initiative shines a light on literacy. It prompts us to ask: what do we want our future to be and how do we get there?’

Indie bookshops in the US and UK who have received grants  have created a Hogwart’s Hut, a scary children’s book club, a story-telling tent and have carpeted the children’s section of a store in a different colour. Patterson is keen to get the word out about his Australian and NZ grants. He genuinely wants to make a difference to children and teens’ reading.

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I was very fortunate to have lunch with James Patterson in Melbourne yesterday. On my way there I passed bookshops overflowing with his titles. James is on a mission to get and keep kids reading. He believes that reading is the key to literacy and that kids who get to secondary school with low literacy will have trouble surviving. James was also at a cocktail party in Sydney on Tuesday night and the stunning harbour views from the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House were straight out of his just released children’s book Middle School: Rafe’s Aussie Adventure, co-authored by Martin Chatterton.

This Middle School series is packed full of fast paced adventure, humour and illustrations. Each story also has an element of depth through characterisation and issues such as bullying.

Maximum RideMy favourite of his series is Maximum Ride, which begins with The Angel Experiment. The young characters have wings and are advocates of good over evil. When I asked James if he wanted to fly when he was a boy and if he had tried it, his eyes glinted and he told me the story of trying to fly off the second-storey of his barn. He was obviously unsuccessful because he doesn’t remember anything about what happened so it seems he may have had a rather hard landing (or was just too young to remember). His mother had to tell him about it later.

Some of his other series are Middle School: Treasure HuntersI Funny and House of Robots.

James Patterson will be speaking tomorrow night, Friday 8th May, at 8pm as part of the SWF at Sydney Town Hall Swf.org.au/jamespatterson.

Sincere thanks to Random House Australia for giving me the opportunity to meet James. It was a lunch I will always remember.

House of Robots

 

Doodles and Drafts – Under the magnifying glass with R. A. Spratt

rachel sprattR. A. Spratt and I share a dubious childhood secret. We were both mad for Trixie Belden. I’m busting another secret; there’s a new super-youth-sleuth in town and she goes by the name of Friday Barnes. And now, I’m going a bit mad for her.

Friday Barnes Under SuspicianSpratt’s latest series of detective stories exploded onto the shelves of this generation’s mystery-hungry youth last July with, Friday Barnes Girl Detective. Friday continues to dazzle, in her trademark non-conspicuous way in the second of the series, Under Suspicion, released last month.

Friday Barnes is a complex high thinking, self-assured, crime-solving obsessed eleven-year-old whose powers of observation and logic are nothing short of mind blogging.

She assumes an almost orphan-like persona hailing from a large family of over-achieving scientists, but does not allow her intellectual lineage to hinder her career ambitions; to become an ace detective.

I adore the winning marriage of tongue-in-cheek comedy with surprise packed, interlinking mini mysteries. Spratt never shies away from using occasional highbrow language and concepts; instead, she flatters the reading prowess of her tween / teen audience and rewards them with intelligent character driven dialogue and seriously funny storylines.

You need not be a girl, a Trixie Belden nut, or even a ten-year-old to enjoy these books. I can’t wait to read the next one, Big Trouble. Friday Barnes has everything; snooty boarding school bullies, romance, crime and more intriguing characters and plot twists than you can focus a magnifying glass on.

Today I uncover some scintillating snippets about the award-winning author and comedy writer behind the Girl Detective, R. A. Spratt.

Welcome to the draft table R. A.Who is R. A. Spratt? Describe your writerly self.

I am the author of the ‘Friday Barnes’ and ‘Nanny Piggins’ series. I’m pretty much the cliché of what you would imagine an author to be like. I’m scruffy, I don’t get out much, I’m forgetful, and I spend a lot of time scowling at the floor while my brain is lost in thought. I can also get suddenly very enthusiastic about an idea and I use lots of dramatic hand gestures when I talk.

Tell us one thing about yourself we are not likely to find on a web site.

I don’t like wearing proper shoes. I’m more comfortable in ugg boots or crocs. Sometimes when I do school visits and I have to wear proper grown-up shoes, my feet get all claustrophobic and I can’t bear it, so I have to ask the audience if it’s alright if I take my shoes off.

What’s the most appealing aspect of writing for kids for you?

I can be sillier. I don’t have to deal with ‘adult themes’ most of which are horrible (violent) or icky (involve kissing, or worse).

Your work is filled with hilarious one-liners and sassy word play. How important is it for you to include comedy in your writing? Does it come naturally or is it something you consciously strive hard to achieve?

It’s not something I think about much. It’s just the way my brain works. I would certainly hate to write a serious book, or one of those heart-breakingly tragic ones. There is enough seriousness and heartbreak in real life. I like to focus on more important things – making readers giggle.

Friday BarnesWith her intellectual wit and dysfunctional academia background, Friday Barnes is an 11-year-old to be reckoned with. What was your motivation for creating such a memorable, vividly unique sleuthing character?

Friday is influenced by a lot of different fictional characters and real life people. I went to a selective high school and when I was eleven I knew a lot of super-bright dysfunctional eleven year olds.

I love the cliffhanger endings in each book. How do you conjure up so many complex mysteries and determine how they will fit into each book? Do you ever lose track and wish Friday was there to help you?

I get a sheet of cardboard, lay it on the coffee table in my office and draw a circle to represent the arc of the entire book. Next I draw a line across the top quarter to represent the act breaks, and then I start filling in plot points. I will often have a lot of plot points already worked out and written down on post-it notes. So the circle gets filled in with hand written notes and post-its until the whole sheet of cardboard is a dense mass of spidery hand writing. I don’t lose track of things but as the plot evolves, there are a lot of red herrings and clues that get woven through during the editing process. It can get complicated, especially if I cut a chapter out, I have to make sure that any clues or red herrings in that chapter are put in somewhere else.

Are we likely to see Friday remain at Highcrest Academy and progress to even higher realms of detective distinction in the same way Harry Potter grew and matured with his readers?

I’m not sure. I’m thinking she will go up into year 8 at the beginning of the 5th book, if there is a fifth book. I’ve got a lot of ideas for books 4 and 5 I guess we’ll have to wait and see how things pan out. Often times the characters seem to decide these things for themselves while you’re writing.Nancy Piggins

What’s on the draft table for R. A. Spratt?

I start writing Friday Barnes 4 next week. I’m finishing up writing a spec film script based on ‘The Adventures of Nanny Piggins’.

Just for fun question (there’s always one), if you were 11 again and had a choice of which school (fictional or otherwise) you could attend, where would you go and why?

I did not enjoy high school much at all. I’d rather not go back there. So if I were eleven again, I’d like to go right back in time to 1895 and be educated by a governess. Specifically Miss Prism, the governess from ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. She was a silly woman who napped a lot and enjoyed romance novels. So she was much like me.

Thanks R. A. It’s been fun discovering you.

Dozens of lucky Queensland children will get a chance to meet Friday’s creator this month when she appears at one of SE Queensland’s biggest school literary festivals, the Somerset Celebration of Literature Festival. Be sure to bring along your silly sleuthing hats.

Random House Australia 2014 and 2015

 

Books of Summer – For Kids

In Australia we’re in the midst of Summer, although here in Melbourne we’ve already had all four seasons in one, sometimes even in one day! A great way to familiarise children with all that the season encompasses is through engaging language experiences. That means providing children opportunities to see, do, touch, listen, read and think about different activities (going to outdoor places like the beach, pool, etc), and then talk, write and create about them.   
I’ll suggest a few fantastic picture books to get stuck into following your outdoor Summer adventures, as well as some fun learning tasks to enrich and reinforce what your child has discovered.  

rules-of-summerRules of Summer, Shaun Tan (author / illustrator), Lothian, 2013. CBCA Winner 2014, Queensland Literary Awards Winner 2014.

Wow. Just wow! Shaun Tan has brought a truly fantastical, mysterious and somewhat dark version of what Summer means to a pair of young brothers. Amazingly thought-provoking and surreal, with spectacular, Van-Gogh-like paintings, this book promotes analytical skills in deciphering its’ content; both the text and the images.
Exploring the complicated relationship between the boys, each spread states a new rule to obide by. But failing to comply results in harsh consequences, particularly for the younger brother. In the end the pair join forces in an imaginatively delightful celebration of summer fruits and a beautiful sunset. And after all the emotion, conflict, darkness and out-of-this-world imagery, there’s still room for a little chuckle as seen in the endpaper.
Suited to primary school aged children who will enjoy adding their own interpretation to the depth and meaning that Shaun Tan has conveyed.  

2015-01-07-15-06-02--1990215886Granny Grommet and Me, Dianne Wolfer (author), Karen Blair (illustrator), Walker Books, 2013, CBCA Shortlist 2014.

An enchanting book about a boy narrator who delights at the sea’s wonders, with his Granny and her elderly, grommet friends (a grommet is a young or beginner surfer). There is much humour in watching old ladies twisting, turning, zooming through dumpers and riding a curler wave to the shore! However, the boy feels nervous about what he doesn’t know, but Granny reassures and shows him safe and friendly things in the sea.
Lovely, gentle text by Wolfer, from the perspective of a child, beach safety tips, and fun, colourful paint and pencil drawings by Blair, make Granny Grommet and Me an engaging and reassuring story to be read many times over.  

noni-the-pony-goes-to-the-beachNoni the Pony Goes to the Beach, Alison Lester (author / illustrator), Allen & Unwin, 2014.

Following the original Noni the Pony, the loveable pony is back and ready to set off to the beach with her companions; Coco the cat and Dave the dog. As far as cats go, Coco prefers to be nonchalant and stay dry. But like any typical energetic dog, Dave bounds off through the waves to find a whale, only to become stranded in the middle of the ocean. In her true heroic, caring manner, Noni is there to fish him out and return to the safety of the shore.
With Alison Lester’s characteristically gorgeous, endearing illustrations, and gentle, rhythmic wording, Noni the Pony Goes to the Beach is a fun, positive tale of friendship and all things magical about visiting the beach.  

a-swim-in-the-sea-1A Swim in the Sea, Sue Whiting (author), Meredith Thomas (illustrator), Walker Books, 2013. Speech Pathology Australia Winner 2014.

A gorgeous story of an excitable young Bruno who can’t wait to experience the big blue sea for the first time. Wildly eager to dive right in, Bruno suddenly halters at the loud, thumping, pounding waves, which frighten him. As his family introduce him to other fun beach activities, like rockpools and sand cities, Bruno eventually discovers that the big blue sea is far from scary.
Sue Whiting’s text is beautifully descriptive and engaging. I love the way she talks about the sea; ”wobbling like a sparkly blue jelly”. And Meredith Thomas’ illustrations are equally expressive, bold and moving with bright, complimentary colours that almost literally wash over the pages.
A delightfully sunny story about first-time experiences at the beach, and facing one’s fears.  

seadogSeadog, Claire Saxby (author), Tom Jellett (illustrator), Random House Australia, 2013. Speech Pathology Australia Winner 2013.

An adorably funny story about a dog who is not like other working, well-trained dogs that fetch sticks, sit still then roll over and stay clean. Their dog is a Seadog, a run-and-scatter-gulls, crunch-and-munch, jump-and-chase Seadog. And although he is not a bath dog, there comes a time to sit-still-till-it’s-done, until…
With Jellett’s characteristically boisterous and comical illustrations, Seadog is a great read-aloud book perfect for little ones who enjoy romping with their dogs at the beach.  

9781925161168_ONASMALLISLAND_WEBOn a Small Island, Kyle Hughes-Odgers (author / illustrator), Fremantle Press, 2014.

‘On a small island, in a gigantic sea, lives Ari.’ Ari lives alone, collecting objects and watching the large ships pass by. One day a captain visits and tells Ari of the wonderful and intriguing people, buildings and exceptional artefacts of a great land on the horizon. Ari longs for a place like this and feels alone on his island. Until he has a brilliant, creative idea which eventually attracts the footsteps of many, and he is finally able to appreciate his surroundings and frequenting company.
Exotic, Mediterranean-style paintings, packed with mosaics, pattern and texture, artist and author Kyle Hughes-Odgers has created a magnificent flowing story exploring isolation, friendship, creativity and recycling that is both sophisticated and unique.  

With a few more weeks of Summer school holidays left, there’s plenty of time to head outdoors and enjoy the sunshine with your little ones (and furry ones, too!). Then find a cool, shady spot like Coco the cat for some relaxing summertime reading!  
And for some fun teaching and learning activities related to the Summer theme, head to www.pinterest.com/mylilstorycrner.
www.romisharp.wordpress.com
www.facebook.com/mylittlestorycorner

Renée Treml Reveals Answers About Her Picture Book, ‘The Great Garden Mystery’

meRenée Treml is a talented artist and author, originally from the States, now residing in Melbourne. She creates her stunning illustrations primarily using the scratchboard technique, setting her work apart with its unique qualities. Her artwork can also be seen at design markets and art exhibits through a range of gorgeous products. Renée has three equally delightful picture books published with Random House Australia; One Very Tired Wombat, Colour for Curlews, and her most recent, The Great Garden Mystery.  

Review – The Great Garden Mystery
thegreatgardenmystery9780857984166Those curious curlews are back, and already set on the trail to solving a most mysterious problem. A menagerie of suspects are called to order. Who is stealing all the beetroots? What a conundrum!

In playful rhyming prose, Renée Treml and her exquisitely drawn animals take us on a journey to decipher each clue as they add up to solve the case.

First, hare finds a sign. It’s a poo that is square. Clearly, he is not guilty. As they discover a hole under the fence, some snagged fur, a wide trail, and a dislike to beetroots, each animal gleefully asserts their innocence. But when the roo bounds away, humorously, those suspicious creatures believe the puzzle has been pieced together.

And when all is calm and quiet, in the dark of night, who emerges to fill his belly once more? Who could have guessed? Think back to the first clue and you will have your culprit!

I love the playfulness and adventure of The Great Garden Mystery, as well as Renée’s black and white scratchboard drawings against the soft, pastel background colours. Kids from aged three will delight in this curiously intriguing animal tale, too.  

I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn about Renée Treml’s fascinating journey to creating her books, including her joys and challenges with illustrating The Great Garden Mystery.  

Your books all include a common theme featuring the adorable, sleepy wombat, a range of native birds and other creatures. What is the appeal of these Australian animals?  
I grew up in the States where I commonly saw little songbirds, woodpeckers, squirrels and deer – animals which probably sound very interesting to someone who is not from North America.  When we moved to Australia at the end of 2007, I was immediately smitten with the wildlife – here we have huge noisy parrots, sleepy koalas hiding in gum trees, teeny little pademelons and big bouncy kangaroos.    
The wombat that is featured in all of my stories is based on the very first wombat I ever encountered.  He was at a wildlife sanctuary in Brisbane and managed to sleep soundly despite being surrounded by noisy children, adults, cockatoos and kookaburras. Every time I went to visit the sanctuary, that wombat was having a good snooze.  I only wish I could sleep like that too.    

What do you love about creating children’s books?  
For many years I was unknowingly creating characters through my artwork – I kept drawing the same animals over and over and discovering their unique personalities.  When I wrote my first story it felt like I was rewarding my favourite characters.  It was so much fun.  I still maintain a sketchbook full of (mostly) patient characters that are waiting for their turn in a story.  

You have a unique, beautiful style of illustrating. How did you develop your style?  
Thank you, but I think it is fair to say that my style found me.  My style developed from practicing, experimenting and attempting to master new mediums and subjects. Over the years my style has evolved into what it is now, but I am always looking out for new ideas, subjects and materials so I can continue growing and changing.    

What is your favourite medium to use?  
I love working with inks and paint on clayboard, although lately I have been trying to bring mixed media and collage into my illustrations.      

Who is your favourite artist/s?
Sorry – I can’t just pick one and if I tried to make a list I would worry and fret for ages trying to narrow down the list.    

the great garden mystery koalaWhat was your favourite part of The Great Garden Mystery to illustrate?  
My favourite scene to illustrate is where koala accuses the fox of stealing the beetroots.  I loved that koala – he was so sassy and never once thought he could be a suspect.  Trying to capture his brashness, the fox’s slyness and the roo’s discomfort was just good fun.  

What was the hardest part?  
To be honest, this book was a hard one to illustrate. This is the first time I have worked digitally to create my illustrations.  I had to teach myself how to make my digital artwork look indistinguishable from my scratchboard illustrations – that was so hard!  Also, drawing the garden without cluttering up the compositions and illustrations, proved to be a very big challenge for me.  Thankfully, I have wonderful editors, publishers and very honest friends who had excellent suggestions all along the way.  

What was the reason for the change in your process from the last two books?  
I created all of the illustrations for my first two books using clayboard. Clayboard is a masonite board that has been coated with a thin layer of clay. They are beautiful to work on, but only come in limited sizes, are a lot more expensive than paper or canvas, and aren’t really reusable (unless you paint over them completely). I squeezed as many drawings as I could onto each board, then sent the very heavy box to my publisher for scanning. A month later I received the digital images, which then required cutting and pasting each illustration back into my page spread. Working on clayboard added at least 2 months to our timeline and in the end was not the most environmentally friendly process.
I still prefer to work on clayboard when I’m creating art for galleries or shows, but for books digital scratchboard has its benefits:
(1) I can create artwork that looks very similar to my scratchboard drawings; (2) we skip the shipping, scanning and editing phase, which saves 1-2 months; and (3) I can add or change things quite easily, even after we are theoretically finished the book.  

How long did the process take you to complete all the illustrations for The Great Garden Mystery?  
Working part-time, the illustration part probably added up to about 3 months. I had a huge learning curve trying to master the software and we also experimented a lot with different styles. I am so happy with how it turned out that I have almost forgotten how hard it was to illustrate!  

renee treml owlWhich animal is your favourite to draw? Why?  
I am totally obsessed with owls – they have so much personality.  I am just waiting for the inspiration to strike for an owl story…    

What special message do you want your readers to take away from The Great Garden Mystery?  
As a scientist and wildlife lover, I would love kids (and adults) to become aware of all the clues animals leave behind.  Take the time to look at the ground for broken eggshells, scat or footprints – you might find yourself a little mystery (even in the city).      

What was the highlight for you in 2014?  
The highlights for me this year were the TGGM-events where everyone got to try their hand at scratchboard and we got to talk a lot about wombat poo.    

Are there any special milestones or events that you are looking forward to in 2015?
This year I am really looking forward to organizing a few primary school-visits. I love teaching and interacting with children and have some fun writing and illustrating workshops to present.  

Thank you so much for answering my questions for Boomerang Books, Renée!
Thank you for the opportunity!

Enjoy Renée’s stunning website at:
http://www.reneesartwork.com
http://www.facebook.com/ReneeTremlAuthorIllustrator

Interview by Romi Sharp
http://www.romisharp.wordpress.com
http://www.facebook.com/mylittlestorycorner
http://www.twitter.com/mylilstorycrner

Meet N.J. Gemmell, author of The Icicle Illuminarium

Nikki_Gemmell_authorphoto_2013SmThanks for talking to Boomerang Books, Nikki Gemmell,  about The Icicle Illuminarium (Random House Australia) and your other books.

It would be fascinating to look inside your brain. Your stories are bursting with interesting, unusual and unexpected ideas, such as the room of a thousand glow worms and the zipping ladders on rails in the Reptilarium. How do you develop your creativity?

Well, I guess my mind never stops whirring. I’m constantly seeking inspiration from everything around me, and jotting it down in a journal that’s always close to hand. I’ve been keeping my notebooks since I was 14. They’re more like scrapbooks, actually; full of clippings, title ideas, character descriptions, quotes, overheard conversations and various nuggety enchantments. It might be a decade or two before an idea in there is actually mined for a book, but I’m constantly dipping into my seventeen (and counting) journals. The aim with all my writing: to enchant, in some way. I have four kids and they’re a good sounding board as to whether I’ve succeeded or not. They’ll tell me quick smart (quite bluntly, actually, the little buggers)if something doesn’t work.   Icicle Illuminarium

Boys and girls, particularly in mid to upper primary school and junior secondary, will  love The Icicle Illuminarium. What bait have you used to get them (and keep them) reading?

I need a story to gallop along. I live in fear of boring the reader. Kids are the most exacting critics and I find kid’s fiction much harder to write than adult’s. The aim, constantly, is to get your reader to turn the page – and children are much quicker with putting a book down if they’re not interested. I remember the books I loved as a kid – Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, the Silver Brumby series, Little House on the Prairie etc. They’d moved me. Make me cry as well as laugh. I aim to do that with my own books, too. Lure readers by moving them, enchanting them, and keeping them obsessed with the story. I love it when I hear kids have stayed up really late, or finished my book in one or two feverish reading sessions.

There are references to war, which add intrigue as well as depth to the story. When are the books set?

The Kensington Reptilarium and The Icicle Illuminarium are set immediately after World War II, in December 1945 and January 1946. It was a time when the world was finding its feet again; a changed world, a dazed, broken world, working out how to get itself back into normality again.

Kensington Reptilarium

Your two children’s books are set in the UK, as well as in Australia. What are some differences between these places and what sort of children do they breed?

So many differences! Which is what this series is all about. It basically transplants four loud, sparky, resourceful Aussie bush scamps from the outback into the genteel world of upper crust England – where children are meant to be seen and not heard. Imagine four Ginger Meggs types ending up in a Downton Abbey world. What results is a huge culture clash, but I do have to say that I think that the Aussies have the upper hand in it (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?) The differences of climate, convention and attitude are enormous and a lot of fun to write – there are lots of laughs along the way. A few tears as well.

And, are your books selling equally well in both places?

I sell more kids books in Oz and more adult books in the UK – but weirdly, one of my strongest markets is France.

Your writing is superb, combining fast-paced plot with strong characterisation and well-placed insights and descriptions to create literary merit. How carefully do you craft the writing?

Thank you so much! I work really hard at it. I want my sentences to sing, and craft them carefully. This involves draft after draft after draft; and I welcome a rigorous edit. I love beautiful writing and use poetry as a tuning fork. I don’t think kids should be denied beauty in their writing – as long as the prose is clear and simple to understand.

I do love your weekly column in the Weekend Australian  Magazine. How invested in people do you feel yourself to be?

My weekly column feels so different to my fiction, but once again I aim for beauty in my writing, and to move readers. To complete 700 newspaper words about life, the universe, and everything else week after week, means you have to be passionately invested in people and the world around you, in all its minutiae. I live by Edna St Vincent Millay’s lines: “O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!” I feel that so strongly. There’s so much to be wondrous and grateful about. At this very moment I’m typing under a tree laden with ripe mulberries in the front garden – working under a gloriously nodding, bowing umbrella of green. Tasty, too!  It’ll be in a column on Aussie nostalgia sometime soon, no doubt.

You must be incredibly organised to achieve so much – you’re on the Today program also. Do you have a tip?

Tip: there is no social life. I dream of this one day changing, but am too exhausted by the evenings for anything but a glass of wine and a good lie down. With me, something has to give in that great female triumverate of family/work/social life – and it was the latter in my case. My other tip: when something comes in (like this blog request, for instance) jump onto it immediately and just get it done, or else – sigh – it will never be done (I live in horror of vast piles of to-do stuff cluttering up the place.) You should see the dormant volcano that’s our washing basket of clean clothes in the main bedroom. Just can’t face it – would much prefer to be writing.

Some of our readers will know you for your books for adults. Could you give us a quick run-down on these?Book of Rapture

I seem to write in trilogies. First of all there was the trilogy of coming of age stories about young Aussie women in different landscapes: Shiver (set in Antarctica), Cleave (Central Australian desert) and Lovesong (England’s Cornwall.) Then there was the trilogy exploring female sexuality – The Bride Stripped Bare, With my Body, and I Take You. A one off novel dealing with religion in a post 9/11 world, The Book of Rapture. And a few non fiction books made up of columns and essays: Pleasure, Honestly and Personally. Phew. I feel exhausted just typing all that.

Will we see the characters of The Kensington Reptilarium and The Icicle Illuminarium again soon?

Yes! I’m working on a third book, bringing my four sparky, scampy Caddy kids home to central Australia – all in search of their missing mum. A few of their English friends will be in tow, too, along with Bucket the dog of course. This family will not let me go!

Thanks for you incredibly generous – and speedy – answers, Nikki.

Bride Stripped Bare

 

 

Bancks and Bongers

Two authors from the creative arc which encompasses northern NSW and SE Qld have had YA novels published recently.

two wolves

Tristan Bancks’ Two Wolves (Random House Australia) and Christine Bongers’ Intruder (Woolshed Press, Random House) both look at teens who have family problems and are struggling because of their parents and yet are able to work through these issues and strengthen their own characters.

Thirteen-year-old Ben Silver in Two Wolves has parents who are culpable. They have allowed him to grow up spending hours watching screens and to eat so poorly he is overweight. Their business dealings are suspect and the novel begins with Ben and his seven-year-old sister Olive being thrust into their car and on a ‘holiday’. Ben wants to be a detective and he is dubious about what’s going on, especially when he finds a bag of money in the cabin where they are staying.

While keeping the narrative exciting and fast-paced, Bancks poses moral dilemmas and choices which increase the depth and literary worth of the novel. Should Ben be a detective or thief? Should he warn his family when they are at risk? Should he run or surrender? Should he capitulate to the bad wolf of pride, jealousy and greed or follow the good wolf of kindness, hope and truth?

 intruder

Set in a Queenslander (Qld’s quintessential timber house) in Brisbane, Intruder explores a difficult situation where Kat’s musician father must leave her alone at night so that he can work. Her mother has died from cancer and neighbour, Edwina (who Kat seems to despise) looks out for her. Like Two Wolves, Intruder opens with a bang – Kat is awakened by an intruder. Whilst remaining in the same geographical location, this novel embarks on a literary journey as Kat makes friends at the dog-park and untangles and resolves the secrets of her past.

Both books refer to other literature: Kat has her selection of Roald Dahl books Matilda, The BFG and James and the Giant Peach. The protagonists in these books seem to resemble Kat because their parents are either not present or uncaring. Ben’s adventures remind him of Sam Gribley, the protagonist of Jean Craighead-George’s My Side of the Mountainbut he feels inadequate about his survival skills, especially when compared with Sam’s achievements.

In spite of traumatic situations, Ben and Kat make good decisions which will place them positively for the future. They are flawed, realistic but positive role-models for their teen readers.

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

 

Magical Moments for Mum – Mother’s Day Reviews

Dear Mums, whether you begin it with burnt offerings and flowers in bed or embark on a 24 respite from the usual onslaught of bickering and demands, you are celebrating Mothers’ Day because you are part of one of the most magical clubs in the world. The following assortment of picture books, all out now, encapsulates that magic. They are in equal parts cute, absorbing, whimsical and funny.

 

How I love youYoung children under five are well catered for. How I Love You by Anna Pignataro (Scholastic Press, March 2014) oozes tenderness and charm. What it lacks in narrative depth is more than compensated for by the understated beauty of Pignataro’s glorious illustrations. Children will enjoy mimicking the high-lighted prose as they visit a diverse collection of Aussie animals at bedtime, each revealing by their actions just how they love their mummies. Sweet and perfect for bedtime togetherness.
Mummy You're Special to MeSimilar in design and content is Laine Mitchell’s and Kim Fleming’s, Mummy, You’re Special To Me. (Scholastic Australia, April 2014). Again this is less of a story and more of an exploration of the divine diversity and uniqueness of mummies all over the planet.
Little Giraffe thinks his mummy is super special because she’s ‘kind’ and ‘strong as a knight’. As he navigates through life, he discovers a universe of other mummies each with their own special qualities. My favourite encounter was sipping tea with Little Camel’s hip and groovy Gran.
Some of Mitchell’s rhyming verse felt a little off key at times but Fleming’s adorable, multi-technique illustrations were special enough to send me right back to the beginning to enjoy it all over again.

Hootie the CutieHootie the Cutie (New Frontier Publishing, April 2014) by Michelle Worthington and fresh newcomer to the children’s book scene, illustrator Giuseppe Poli, could as easily be enjoyed by dads and grandparents but deserves special mention here, because what mum does not welcome a little dragon magic in her day?
Worthington weaves a winsome, whimsical woodland tale about an owl, small in stature but large in heart and spirit, and brave beyond all measure as it turns out. Poli completes the very pleasing tapestry with illustrations that will enchant the pants off you.
Hootie the Cutie reminds us that sometimes loving (our children) is about allowing for growth and letting go while simultaneously showing pre-primary aged children that independent thought and actions are qualities that can shape and strengthen who you really are. Highly commendable.
Jam for NanaNanas are high-profiling a lot these days and little wonder when grandparents make up the highest proportion of informal childcare in Australia according to (AIFS)* statistics; so Deborah Kelly’s and Lisa Stewart’s, Jam for Nana (Random House Australia, April 2014) is destined to be a generational crowd pleaser.

This picture book delights on many levels; from its dustcover-covered, recipe-book shape and size to its comforting unrushed rhythm and wholesome narrative. It is a book you’ll want to treasure, or at least share with your little one and their significant grandparent. Told from a little girl’s point of view, it highlights the special bond between her and her grandmother and centres on her desire to recreate ‘real jam’ for her nana.
It reminded me of a time in my childhood when backyard apricots tasted like ‘the warmth of a hundred summers’ too and life was full of substance so pure and thick and wonderful, you could ‘hold it upside down and shake it’. Stewart’s divine illustrations and Kelly’s shared pancake ritual make this one very special picture book.
Nurturing and snuggling are all well and good but bringing a smile to mum’s face is perhaps the best thing you can give her. My Mum says the Strangest Things, (Black Dog Books, April 2014), is guaranteed to have her LOL in no time flat. In fact, I can barely get through it (with my Miss 8) without crippling waves of laughter washing over me.
ThMy Says the Strangest Thingse 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: ‘when mum’s tired she says everyone needs an early night.’ Love, love, love it! There is something here for every member of the family. Older primary aged kids will be rolling their eyes and trying not to laugh. You’ll be taking stock of the next ‘strange thing’ that falls out of your mouth.

 

So, however you end up spending Mothers’ Day, make sure you take a moment or two to share it with the little people who gave you the reason to read picture books again in the first place (and linger longer in bed for at least one day of the year). Happy Mothers’ Day!

* AIFS.gov.au viewed Feb 2014.

 

Review – Lulu Bell and the Moon Dragon

Memories of school holidays for me involved curling up in a cool corner somewhere in the backyard with my friends. I was pretty tight with Trixie Beldon in those days but always had more of an affiliation with animals than solving mysteries. If Lulu Bell had been around some 38 years ago, she would have definitely been in my inner circle of companions.

She’s extremely likeable, has long plaitable hair, a smile wider than a banana and best of all adores animals. She’s also the central character in the enchanting Lulu Bell series by Belinda Murrell and Serena Geddes. And now, finally, my seven year old past-self is able to befriend her.

Lulu Bell Cubby and Moon Dragon Lulu Bell and the Cubby Fort and Lulu Bell and the Moon Dragon are the third and fourth books in this series about the Bell family and their menagerie of friends, many of them of the furred or feathered kind. Each generously illustrated book centres on a new adventure or incident young Lulu encounters, often arising from her experiences at home and around her father’s work as a vet.

These books are ideal to read in succession or as stand-alone chapter books and are perfect fodder for the insatiable new reader.

L Bell Cubby Fort The Cubby Fort invites us to spend the Easter holidays with Lulu on her Uncle’s farm. The Bell family load up kids, dogs and tents and experience an eventful weekend surrounded by country, cows, cousins and mud. Lots and lots of mud. But when baby brother, Gus, goes missing, fun turns to fear and Lulu is forced to assume the role of Trixie Beldon to solve his disappearance.

L Bell Moon Dragon The Moon Dragon is an illuminating look at friendships and celebrating shared passions and different cultures. Lulu’s best friend, Molly, welcomes her to help with preparations for the Moon Festival. Together, they make dragon costumes, paper lanterns and mouth-watering moon cakes. Excitement grows faster than a full moon, swelling into a colourful parade involving the whole community and the two girls of course.

The language used throughout these books is bouncy and basic enough for young readers to digest whilst cleverly touching on gentle, non-invasive sub-themes such as Molly overcoming her social shyness. I also appreciated Murrell’s lovely sensitivity regarding ‘alternative’ views and thinking depicted by Molly’s mum who fills this year’s moon cakes with jam instead of the traditional red bean paste and salty eggs.

Belinda Murrell Belinda Murrell is a respected author for children with an impressive and solid stable of books including the Sun Sword fantasies and her fascinating historic time-slip tales, like The River Charm. Her convincing narratives draw discerning readers in from the start and in the case of Lulu Bell, have upbeat satisfying conclusions.

The Lulu Bell series draws on Murrell’s own experiences from growing up in a vet hospital and is wickedly good, old-fashioned fun for younger kids, whilst also tapping directly into one of the most keenly pursued topics of vocational interest for girls aged between 6 and 9.

Serena Geddes Serena Geddes’s lively black and white line drawings reflect each adventure perfectly, prompting readers as young as 5 and 6 to keep page flicking.

So I may not have fulfilled my dream of becoming a vet. At least I have made a new friend in Lulu Bell and am happy to see how her dreams pan out.

Fill up your child’s memories these school holidays with Lulu too. Two new enticing titles are due out early January 2014: Lulu Bell and the Circus Pup and Lulu Bell and the Sea Turtle, both available hereL Bell Circus Pup

Random House for Children 2013

 

Doodles and Drafts – Charmed with Belinda Murrell

BinnyashakissWhen bestselling, award-winning children’s author Belinda Murrell requested a chat, I was delighted to oblige. And with the dual release of The River Charm and the new Lulu Bell series this month, she has much to talk about. So froth up your café au lait, sit back and discover why squishy bananas, suits of chain-mail and not quite becoming a vet make Belinda smile.

Lulu Bell Unicorn.jpg 2 And don’t forget to read on for my review of The River Charm and details of Belinda’s latest book launch this weekend.

Q Who is Belinda Murrell? Describe your writerly-self for us and the thing that sets you apart from other Aussie children’s authors.

I am a children’s author currently writing my eighteenth book! My books range from picture books, a series of three fantasy adventure books for boys and girls aged 8-12, called The Sun Sword Trilogy and a series of time-slip historical adventure books for older girls called The Locket of Dreams, The Ruby Talisman, The Ivory Rose and The Forgotten Pearl. My latest books include The River Charm and a series of six books called Lulu Bell for younger readers.

I love to write for children because I love their whole hearted passion and enthusiasm for books. I am also very inspired by the incredible talent we have here in Australia. There are so many wonderful authors, illustrators, and publishers who are committed to creating exceptional books for our children. I like to think that my books are joyful, thought provoking and vivid.

Sun Sword TrilogyQ Describe your 10 year old self. Did you have any concept then of what you wanted to do or be when you grew up? If so, what was it?

I was a tomboy, with long golden plaits, who loved climbing trees, riding horses, reading books, looking after my animals and sword fighting! I loved writing, and ‘self-published’ novels, poems, plays and stories from about the age of eight in hand illustrated exercise books. However at that age I dreamed of being a vet when I grew up, just like my dad. I didn’t realise that you could have a career as a writer.

Q You write for a wide selection of age groups and children’s genres. Which one do you enjoy the most and why?

My favourite age to write for is probably between 10 and 15. At that age, readers are still young enough to be totally entranced by a story and to love it passionately. However they are also old enough to want to read about more complex issues – history, tragedy, love, loss and redemption. However it has been so much fun to write the much shorter Lulu Bell books for readers aged about 6 to 9.

The River CharmQ Who / what inspired the characters in The River Charm?

The River Charm is a very special book to me, because it is based on the true life adventures of my great-great-great grandmother, Charlotte Atkinson. Set in Australia, during the 1840s, it is the story of a family who lost everything but fought against almost insurmountable odds to regain their independence and their right to be together as a family. Charlotte was born into a wealthy family at Oldbury, a grand estate in the bush. But after her father dies, her mother is left to raise four young children on her own. A young widow was a tempting target – from murderous convicts, violent bushrangers and worst of all, a cruel new stepfather. Fearing for their lives, the family flees on horseback to a remote hut in the wilderness. The Atkinson family must fight to save everything they hold dear.

Q If you could time slip back to the era of the 1840’s, would you? Why?

Yes! I’d love to visit Oldbury (the house that my great-great-great-great grandparents built) and meet the Atkinson family to see how they compare with my imaginings about them. I feel that I know these characters intimately after spending a year researching their lives and adventures. It would be amazing to meet them in real life.

Q What was the most despised thing you’ve ever found in your school lunchbox?

Squished banana and soggy celery.

Lulu PenguinQ Do you think childhood happenings shape your adult writing voice and style? Have yours? Share one moment from your past which has direct bearing on your present.

Yes absolutely. I had a wonderful childhood – full of books, animals and adventures. My mother encouraged us to be creative and imaginative whether it was reading lots of books, writing our own stories, playing imaginative games or just having the time to daydream. She always encouraged us to aim high and be the best we could possibly be. On the other hand, my father was very adventurous – travelling the world and disappearing for months at a time. He used to take us off on amazing trips – sailing the ocean, horse-riding and camping out on remote cattle stations. As a result I have always loved to travel and have had some incredible adventures. Many of these childhood experiences have made their way into my writing. My new Lulu Bell series is very inspired by my childhood, as it is about a girl called Lulu growing up in a vet hospital, just like I did as a child. We had so many animals, including a pony called Rosie who lived in our back garden in suburban Sydney. If anyone left the back door ajar – she was straight into the kitchen searching for snacks. This particular incident inspired a key scene in Lulu Bell and the Birthday Unicorn.

Q Do you have favourites? If so list your favourite read of all time, holiday spot and most memorable breakfast and why.

Favourite book (so hard to pick only one) but I’ll say Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I discovered Jane Austen’s novels when I was a teenager and immediately loved them. I particularly enjoyed the satirical humour of her novels, the witty dialogue and the insight into late eighteenth century English society. I’m enjoying sharing Jane Austen with my own daughter now.

Favourite Holiday Spot – my brother’s farm at Dungog which we visit as often as we can. This is where I keep my horse Nutmeg. We go up there and work with the cattle, get filthy dirty and ride for hours!

Most memorable breakfast – croissants, omelette and café au lait at our apartment in Paris!! For two years, my family and I travelled while I home schooled my three children. One of my favourite places was staying in an apartment in the Marais district of Paris.

Q Did you have a favourite book character or hero as a child? If you could incorporate that character into one of your own stories, which would it be and why?

When I was growing up, I loved Lucie Pevensie from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I loved the book’s enticing mixture of adventure, action and fantasy. My sister and I would dress up in silver chain mail, with swords and bows and arrows, and play Narnia. I was enraptured by the idea that it might be possible to pass through a secret door into a magical world, full of talking animals and adventure.

In a way, my heroine Tilly in The Ruby Talisman was like Lucie. With an old family heirloom, she found her way into another world. It was the colourful, dangerous and vibrant world of France in 1789 during the French Revolution. However Tilly was a more modern, feisty heroine than Lucie – and yes, she could fight with a sword!!

Kate and BelindaQ What other Aussie children’s book author(s) do you admire the most and why? (sisters allowed!)

Of course I adore my sister Kate Forsyth. She is an amazing writer and has an incredible knowledge of the publishing industry. We are also very good friends and walk together regularly along the beach, talking about writing, books and our latest plot tangles!

Q Do you write every day? Do you have a special spot or routine to make the magic happen or can you write anywhere, any time?

Yes – I try to write every day, unless I am out visiting schools and festivals. I work in my beautiful office, which is lined with hundreds of books, has a fireplace and looks out over my gorgeous garden. My dog Asha keeps me company, sleeping in front of the fire. I usually get all my kids organised for school, take my dog for a walk along the beach, come home make a coffee, sit down and start writing!

Q Name one ‘I’ll never forget that’ moment in your writing career thus far.

Definitely the moment when my agent, Pippa Masson, rang to tell me that Random House wanted to publish not just my first book, but a three book deal for The Sun Sword Trilogy! We cracked bottles of the finest French champagne and my feet didn’t touch the ground for days!

Q Name one non-writing goal you’d like to achieve in this lifetime.

To see my three beautiful children grow up to be warm, funny, loving, joyful and inspiring adults. Luckily they are all well on the way!

Q What is on the draft table for Belinda?

I am now writing book 6 in my Lulu Bell series, for junior readers, which is called Lulu Bell and the Sea Turtle. However it is a bit of a struggle to concentrate at the moment with all the launch activities. The book is due to my publisher, Zoe Walton, next week so I’d better get cracking with it!!

A Mother's Offering to her ChildrenReview – The River Charm

Until I’d meet Belinda and immersed myself into the absorbing world of The River Charm, I had not given much thought to the first Australian children’s book; what it was about, who wrote it or when it first appeared. The River Charm introduces us to this fascinating period of colonial artistic and literary history with the help of a much cherished river pebble charm which unlocks modern-day Millie’s astonishing 19th century ancestry.

Many aspects of early Australian society may intrigue young readers but probably receive as much serious consideration as the first ever Australian published children’s book does. Murrell successfully weaves fact and fiction together in a mesmerising time-slip historical tale based on her own great-great-great-great-grandmother, Charlotte Waring Atkinson who penned, A Mother’s Offering To Her Children in 1841. For me, as much as for Millie, this is an awe-inspiring discovery.

Murrell’s admirable female heroines including the fearless Mamma and her daughter Charlotte, represent the face of human tenacity, and true pioneering spirit surviving amidst the striking yet harsh and unforgiving Australia bush.

It’s a story about endurance and the right to fight for what you believe in. Tween (10-14) girls and lovers of evocative, historical Australian bush themed sagas (the likes of The Silver Brumby that delighted me as a child) will adore The River Charm.

Discover more of Belinda’s enchanting time-slip adventures and books here. Or join her on Friday June 7 for High Tea at Berkelouw Books, shop 24, 215 Condamine St, Stockland Centre, Balgowlah at 6pm for the launch of The River Charm and Lulu Bell. (I’ll be reviewing this fab new series for junior readers later this year.)

Random House Australia Children’s June 2013

 

 

Review – Seadog

SeaDogIn his youth, my shaggy-coated border collie had a fondness for rolling in guano, preferably just after bath time. The maturity and inability age brings to pursue such endearing past-times means I have not had to deal with that glorious dead-fish-wet-dog-poo smell for some years – until now.

Thanks to the jolly new picture book Seadog, by Claire Saxby and Tom Jellet, there’s a new canine character in my life. And I love him.

Who couldn’t adore the larger than life, guiltless, messy charm of this floppy-eared mutt? There are many things Seadog is not. He is not a clean, shiny dog. He is not a trick dog or a fetch dog. But his devotion to his young family and all things maritime knows no bounds. Even if he is permanently on the nose, wilfully disobedient and partial to rolling in piles of rotten fish, Seadog embodies the immense spirit of the sea with an unparalleled verve for life, and terrifying seagulls.

His devil-may-care personality races across each page and through the briny waves until he develops some serious grooming issues. But Seadogs ‘don’t like baths’ either.

Tom JelletTom Jellet’s super-groovy illustrations depict our scruffy hero in rough and ready style. Jellet’s line drawings boldly ignore the sticking-within-the-line rule giving Seadog the perfect unkempt, woofy appearance. Until he concedes to ‘a few short minutes’ of pampering and preening so that every hair lies neatly in place, within the lines of conformity, ‘until someone opens the door…’

From the navel flag bedecked end pages (which I took some minutes to try to translate hoping for a secret message there in – a la SEADOG!) to Claire Saxby’s easy verse-style text that reads like a rousing sea shanty, Seadog is a boisterous, enchanting read about a dog with more heart than the largest ocean and infinitely more appeal than a pile of rotten fish.Claire Saxby

In your face fun for pre-schoolers and beginner readers.

Andy Griffiths will officially launch Seadog at the Williamstown Literary Festival on June 2nd at 2.00pm. All are welcome to join Claire Saxby, however energetic canines unfortunately cannot attend!

Random House Australia Released May 2013