Reluctant Heroes – Junior Novels That Conquer Doubt

Being the leader of the pack is not a role everyone relishes, especially if you are that shy kid who never kicks a goal or that odd sounding, looking kid whose school lunches never quite fit the norm. However it is often the most reluctant heroes that make the biggest impact and save the day. Being at odds with yourself and your perceived persona is the theme of these books, so beautifully summarised in their paradoxical titles. What I love about these two authors is their inherent ability to commentate messages of significant social weight with supreme wit and humor. It’s like feeding kids sausage rolls made of brussel sprouts.

Natural Born Leader Loser by Oliver Phommavanh

Raymond is stuck in a school with a reputation grubbier than a two-year-old’s left hand and choked with bullies. The best way he knows of fighting these realities is not to fight at all. Raymond is king of fading into the background especially when it comes to his friendship with best mate, Zain Afrani.

Zain is a soccer nut and self-confessed extrovert whom has a deep affinity for Raymond. He likes to flash his brash approach to bullying about much to the consternation of Raymond who happily gives up the spotlight to Zain whenever he’s around. Constant self-depreciation just about convinces Raymond that he’ll never amount to anything of much significance, which he is sort of all right with until their new principal blows his social-circumvention cover by appointing him as one of the new school prefects.

Raymond is as shocked as the rest of the school but reluctantly assumes the role along with a kooky cast of radically differing kids. Under the calm, consistent leadership of Raymond, this eclectic team not only manages to drag Barryjong Primary School out of its bad-rep quagmire by winning the hearts and minds of the students and faculty alike but while doing so, raises enough money for new air conditioners for every classroom.

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School in Focus – Picture Book Reviews

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

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

University of Queensland Press, January 2018.

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

Lothian Children’s Books, February 2017.

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

Lothian Children’s Books, July 2017.

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Leaving the Nest – Back to School Picture Books

Reaching a new milestone is one that comes with excitement, pride, aspirations and sometimes, trepidation. We’ve already been through the first year of school experience (with another waiting in the wings), but even so, starting afresh has its own set of rewards and challenges. From learning a whole new routine, to meeting new friends and setting new goals. Here are a few picture books that are sure to help your kidlets relate (and ease their minds) to what’s in store for their year/s ahead.

imageMy First Day at School, Rosie Smith (author), Bruce Whatley (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2016.

“To all the mums and dads. It will be OK!”

Aptly dedicated to those nerve-racked, first-time school parents, experts Rosie Smith and Bruce Whatley send a most encouraging message from the outset. Then, warmly greeted by a little yellow duckling the first day routine begins.

Each turn of the page introduces us to another adorable creature as s/he embarks on an independent journey to life as a student. And no matter how complex the task might seem, such as a caterpillar dressing each of its many, many legs or a pig attempting to eat from an upturned bowl on its head, they are all completely doable.

Written in first person and with minimal text, both words and illustrations work beautifully together to showcase the variety of experiences yet keeping it simple and focussed at the same time. Soothing pastel coloured backgrounds allow the characters’ personalities and humorous antics to pop and burst in this utterly joyous and memorable occasion.

‘My First Day at School’ is the perfect companion that works in partnership with parents and children to successfully accomplish what may feel like a daunting experience. Children between 3 and 6 will fall head over heels in love with this fun, exuberant and relatable story about a typical school day.

imageBe Brave, Pink Piglet!, Phil Cummings (author), Sarah Davis (illus.), Lothian Children’s Books, 2015.

Setting off into unfamiliar territory, so to speak, definitely takes a lot of courage. For Pink Piglet, this is certainly true. When mother pig gives her babe the all-clear to expand on his horizons, he is less than confident. Poor Pink Piglet encounters some frighteningly large and noisy animals on his way around the farmyard. But his resilience and frolicsome nature prevail. Covered in brown worms in muck, red squished berries and green squelchy pond weed, the bedraggled-looking piglet is the scariest sight for sore eyes as he heads back home. Well, all the farm animals think so… except for his mum, of course.

The illustrations are beautifully textured and layered with a mix of oils on canvas and digital media in soft, pastel-coloured hues. The expressions and energy emanating from the pictures perfectly compliment the jolly onomatopoeia and animal sound effects.

‘Be Brave, Pink Piglet’ is a spirited read aloud story wonderfully capturing a serendipitous moment of bravery and playfulness. Another relevant read for your little school starter – your own ‘brave explorer’.

Watch Phil Cumming’s special video message to school starters here.

imageWhen I Grow Up, Andrew Daddo (author), Jonathan Bentley (illus.), ABC Books, 2015.

Capturing our attention from first glance is ‘When I Grow Up’ by much-loved duo, Andrew Daddo and Jonathan Bentley (Check on Me and First Day). With its scattered assortment of occupational items on the cover and bright neon colours upon entering the book, you know this story will be full of diversity and effervescence.

It’s not only children with aspirations for a glowing future. Adults, too can take inspiration to making their dreams come true. The teacher, as the role model, opens the story with the projection that she’d like to be the school principal. Then she facilitates open minds with the question, “What do you want to be?” Throughout the story, several children stand up and with the most imaginative and optimistic of responses as they proclaim their future desires. From a hair-raising hairdresser to a whizz-bang, supersonic-robotic inventor, an alien-photographing astronaut, writer of the most epic of stories, and an all-round stage performer. But in a tidy conclusion we learn, yes, we can be a multitude of things, but most importantly we should just be ourselves.

Whether realistic or far-fetched, the concepts and language are age-appropriate with an element of humour that kids will enjoy. Visually this book is captivating as the text weaves in and around the bold and colourful illustrations. Each spread captures that enthusiasm with its pictures that fill the page and extra hidden details to explore.

‘When I Grow Up’ will take children (and adults) from age four to big places, and all it takes is the power of imagination to turn dreams into realities. It is also a useful resource for learning about different jobs and their roles.

Show Books

Very Hungry CaterpillarIt’s holiday time so some shows based on outstanding children’s books are currently being performed in Sydney and surrounds, as well as in other cities around Australia.

A highlight is The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Penguin), a production created around four books by Eric Carle: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, of course, The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse – my new favourite, The Very Lonely Firefly and Mister Seahorse. Literature is celebrated in the performance and the backdrop is an actual book with turning pages. The show will also be playing in Melbourne and Brisbane and will tour in 2016 if successful. Judging by the sell-out Sydney season, this will not be an issue.Blue Horse

Along with a couple of others, I am writing teacher notes about the play which will be available via a website linked to the show soon. This is a great opportunity to read and re-read Eric Carle’s stunning picture books. The production is excellent. The children (and adults) in the audience were besotted.

A second book-related show is The Gruffalo. This loved picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler about a mouse in the woods has been playing around Australia.

GruffaloAs well as reading the book itself, this is an opportune time to read other books by this creative team, including The Gruffalo’s Child, Tiddler, The Snail and the Whale, Stick Man, Superworm and their most recent collaboration, The Scarecrows’ Wedding (Scholastic).

The Scarecrow’s Wedding is quite a sophisticated tale about a scarecrow couple, Betty O’Barley and Harry O’Hay who wish to marry but suave Reginald Rake interrupts their plans. It will also be enjoyed by Aaron Blabey’s legion of fans.Scarecrows Wedding

Another production inspired by a picture book is Kit Williams’ Masquerade. Unfortunately this 1978 book is only available second-hand. An enterprising publisher should re-publish it. Playwright Kate Mulvany was enthralled and comforted by this book when she was a child suffering from cancer. It is playing now at the Sydney Opera House and will be in Adelaide for the Festival and elsewhere, no doubt. I can’t wait to see it soon.

RabbitsGood luck getting tickets for The Rabbits Opera, based on the book by John Marsden and Shaun Tan (Lothian/Hachette Australia), with music composed by the brilliant Kate Miller-Heidke and libretto by Lally Katz. The Rabbits will play in Perth and Melbourne this year. Hopefully it travels further.

Where is Rusty? by Dutch author-illustrator, Sieb Postuma (Gecko Press) is about a curious young dog lost in a department store. It has aired overseas as theatre and television and is currently available as a picture book. Its themes of hiding, searching and safety are ideal for young explorers.

Another book recently published by exciting Gecko Press, although we perhaps don’t want to think about this subject quite yet, is I don’t want to go to school! by Stephanie Blake.I Don't Want to go to School

Boldly illustrated in bright colours and with some comic panels, this is a quirky, heart-warming story about starting school. And this diverts us to the many wonderful Australian and other books on this important topic, beginning with Starting School by Jane Godwin and Anna Walker (Viking/Penguin), the classic Starting School by the Ahlbergs and my evergreen favourite, First Day by Margaret Wild and Kim Gamble (Allen & Unwin).

First Day

School. What Is It Good For?

Animal FarmWhile I was one of those studious types who, for the most part, enjoyed her time at school, I have in recent years come to realise an extra school bonus. That is that school potentially offers us that key, almost once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to read some of the great books of our time.

I’m talking about the 1984s, The Great Gatsbys, the Brave New Worlds, the Animal Farms, the Pride and Prejudices, the Catcher in the Ryes, the To Kill A Mockingbirds, the A Clockwork Oranges, The Princess Brides, and The Crucibles. The books that are cultural touchstones and that are bywords for capturing or interpreting events or experiences.

These days we describe a perceived as intrusive use of technology as ‘very 1984’, bleak, dog-eat-dog situations as ‘lord of the flies’ in style, and many women hope to meet their very own dashing ‘Mr Darcy’. There are lines of dialogue that are regularly quoted—‘Two legs good. Four legs bad.’ and ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’ And who could forget the characters whose names—Boo Radley or Atticus Finch or Holden Caulfield—conjure up very distinct memories and meanings?

The Princess BrideOf course, when you’re forced to write critical essays under exam conditions or give oral presentations about a character or particular theme from one of these books, it’s understandable that you don’t necessarily appreciate you’re on to a good thing. But while the memories of the specific assessment tasks that surround them fade away (I mean, I can’t remember which assessment I completed for which book), the overall memory of that book doesn’t.

Some of us revisit those texts as adults, with many swearing by the grown-up pass. It’s a way of both returning to a happy reading time and of appreciating the writers’ subtleties and sophistication that may have gone over one’s younger reading head. What I’ve realised is that although revisiting is excellent, if school didn’t give you that initial reading introduction, it is very, very difficult to get round to reading these modern classics as an adult.

I’m puzzled why this is so. My guess is that adulthood brings with it greater time pressures, more distractions, and less reading time, and that reading the modern classics is, much like housework, something you know you should do but you keep putting off until later. Me? I’m also distracted by the bright, shiny new releases and am less likely to get back to the classics—they’ve always been around and will always be, but this brand, spanking new title with an uncracked spine? That’s cutting edge and uber tempting.

A Clockwork OrangeIt’s in this blog that I should probably fess up that I only recently managed to read 1984 (although I loved, loved, loved Animal Farm when I read it at school). I’ve never read The Catcher in the Rye (and I can’t right now, because, like, everyone’s reading it after his death and I don’t want to seem like a mainstreaming groupie). Nor have I read The Lord of The Flies, A Clockwork Orange, or Brave New World. I bought a shiny new copy of the latter about a year ago with the determination to gain insight into our near future and to catch myself up on the Aldus Huxley references, but even that new copy keeps gathering dust on the shelf as it gets prioritised as a book ‘for later’.

Bizarrely, it was an attempt to read Fahrenheit 451 because I hadn’t been made to read it at school that saw the freshly purchased copy disappear from my bookshelf before I’d even cracked the spine. My family would argue that all the accusations and mystery could have been avoided were it a set text during high school. And they have a point.

The Catcher in the RyeAlthough I read some fantastic books during school, there are so many I also missed out on. I would give anything now to have read Fahrenheit 451, as well as Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and The Catcher in the Rye, because I’m not sure when or how I’ll find the time to now. Which books did you miss during that first pass stage at school? Have you managed to read them now? If so, how?