Review: Sweet Adversity

Assimilating history into a palatable, meaningful tale for today’s children is no easy thing. Get it wrong and you risk children shunning not only a potentially great read, but learning about periods of our past that explain the character of our future as a people and a nation. A situation of unquestionable adversity, yet adversity has many advantages – ‘sweet are the uses of adversity’ after all. Get it right, and children will embrace history with gusto and every ounce of the here and now vigour that defines childhood.

Sheryl Gwyther’s ability to immerse young readers into worlds of yesteryear with such a clear strong presence of today is exemplary. Her narrative slides along as alluringly as a sweet mountain brook, mesmerizing readers with plenty of action and emotion. Sweet Adversity is exactly the type of book my 12-year-old-self would have lapped up with unbridled zeal, especially as it acquaints children with the wondrous words of Shakespeare, some of which adult readers will connect with of course, but which provide a beautiful rich new seam of learning for tweens.

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Keeping the Faith – Junior Novel to YA reviews

Believing in yourself when all else around you is in a state of upset and confusion is an emotion children are more than capable of recognising. Keeping the faith when adrift in turbulent seas is not only testing and difficult at times, it also determines your future perspectives on life. These next few books that touch on the importance of keeping the faith in dire times provide intense and touching lifelines to children (and adults) of all ages.

Leave Taking by Lorraine Marwood

Marwood is more than adept at distilling emotions into moving verse novels. Attaching emotion and memories to physical things is something humans are adept at, as well. This story deftly portrays a young boy’s heart-felt attempt to retain and simultaneously farewell everything he holds dear in his life as he and his family prepare to sell up and leave their family farm.

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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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Applauding Individuality – Picture Books that Celebrate Being Different

Young children don’t always notice differences in people, at least not in the passively aggressive way some adults are inclined to do. Sadly, the recognition of characteristics dissimilar to their own either physical or behavioural is largely a mindset learned from their environment. Picture books like these do a tremendous job of challenging erroneous mindsets and applauding individuality. They are charming and direct, yet subtle and entertaining enough to read repeatedly.

Along Came A Different by Tom McLaughlin

Dramatically different (pardon the pun) from anything else McLaughlin has produced before, this avant-garde picture book cleverly combines colour recognition (with emphasis on the primary colours), geometry and social acceptance all in one neat entertaining package. Several groups of differents converge into one community space but despise one another because reds, blues and yellows just don’t match. Rules are established and boundaries are enforced. Life is tense and restrictive. Until one day, quite unexpectedly, a really different different comes along, radically altering their perceptions and igniting a massive appreciation of how being different is actually better. Friendship prevails and happiness blooms.

This story told in few words and bold striking characters, relays a simple premise of live and let love. It suggests to children that you can be any shape, size, or colour and still have a voice. You can like any type of music and have friends who love oranges even if you do not. You are unique and therefore amazing. It’s that simple. A modern day classic that welcomes differences and embraces change. Magnificent. Timely. Recommended.

Bloomsbury Children’s Books May 2018

My Storee by Paul Russell and Aska

Australian NAPLAN advocates turn away now for this tremendous picture book blithely ignores language conventions and unapologetically dismisses sticklers for rules. I love how it also challenges every spell check on the planet.

Derived from the author’s own experience with dyslexia, My Storee is a beautifully refreshing expose of encouraging creativity for creativity’s sake by forsaking the bounds of perfect spelling and correctness; paradigms that can severely road block learning and advancement for a person afflicted with dyslexia.

A young boy is a master storyteller but is afraid to let his dragons loose at school for fear of grammatical reprimand. That is until a teacher with extreme foresight, long hair and very loud shirts breezes into his life and gives him permission to be who he is and shine. Thank you Mr Watson.

Full marks for this book, which screams thinking outside of the box, applauds alternative teaching approaches and champions creative verve to the nth degree. I love it, every word and every ridiculously bold bright illustration. Viva la Mr Watsons, wherever you are out there. We need more like you. My Storee is concrete reinforcement of embracing who you are and all that you have, or have not, with verve and positivity.

EK Books August 2018

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Be Brave – Picture Books that Celebrate Overcoming Doubts

Being brave, is less about being courageous and more about ignoring your fear because you simply cannot afford to waste any more time on it. Overcoming doubts and anxieties is something children face every day. Picture books like these encourage a heightened awareness of one’s own feelings and capabilities and in doing so banish fears and promote determination.

Where’s Bear? by Sarah Elliott Smyth and Nicky Johnston

Sophie represents a whole playground of children who spiral into anguish after they lose a precious toy, or in their eyes, a stalwart playmate. When Bear goes missing, Sophie embarks on an apprehension-filled journey in search of him that will have little ones perched on the edge of their seats. Thankfully, the cute ending reunites and delights. Johnston’s winsome illustrations elevate this heart-warming story of facing your fears and tenacity to the next level. Utterly endearing, this story will warm the cockles of your heart and encourage very young children to ‘never stop hoping’.

Empowering Resources February 2018

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Lest We Forget – New Picture Books

The amount of empathetic, engaging titles that surface each year to commemorate ANZAC Day never fails to impress me. Touching, sympathetic stories like those below permit young children to open their hearts and minds to the true essence of courage and sacrifice, allowing them to connect with a history that for the sake of humanity, we should never forget. There is a huge number of praise-worthy picture books to share with your youngsters this ANZAC Day. Here are a few newer titles that are also excellent for classroom inclusive discussion.

Message In A Sock by Kaye Ballie and Narelda Joy

Thousands of care packages were sent to our Aussie Diggers during the Great War of 1914. Dozens upon dozens of hand-knitted socks made up a part of these packs not only providing warmth and comfort for ‘war-weary feet inside heavy boots’ but reminding our troops that their loved ones at home were thinking of them.

Tammy learns how to knit socks to send overseas. She tucks special messages into the toe of each sock for the soldiers to find. One message, written especially for her Daddy serving at the warfront, returns with a reply from Lance Corporal A McDougall who was the recipient of her heartfelt gift. His reply connects her with her father, fills her with pride and instills a hope that someday soon he will return safely to her.

This story highlights the female wartime effort in the most glorious and tender way. Baillie’s narrative is affectionate and informative; addressing younger audiences in a way that is both direct and appealing given that many of them might struggle to understand the concept of caring for others in such an express, person-to-person way. Joy’s collage inspired illustrations are a mosaic of love and charm, layered with texture and colour so persuasive and rich, you’ll want to reach out and stroke each golden strand of Tammy’s hair. It’s this depth of sensory allure that draws you back to this story again and again, making it the perfect book to honour the centenary of the end of WWI. A must share.

MidnightSun Publishing 25 April 2018

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Turn Back Time – Middle Grade Magic

If you could turn back time, erase your mistakes, remember what you did with your car keys or even better, find those missing precious memories and loved ones, would you? These two middle grade novels explore the premise of losing someone inexplicably and the emotions produced through relentless searching for those missing loved ones.

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

The IBBY International Children’s Book Day logo, ‘The small is big in a book’ certainly chimes true for A Wrinkle in Time. That it has stood the test of time is testament to this tale (first published in 1963), which I had never read as a child. If I had, I might not have recognised it as a bewitching hybrid of sci-fi, adventure, fantasy, and dystopia. For those living in another dimension like me or have not seen the movie yet, A Wrinkle in Time is a story of discovery and tenacity. It also (re)defines the power of friendship and love.

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Secrets and Small Places – Sensational MG and YA reads

Being a Piscean, secrets and small spaces do not faze me much. I’m one of those little fishes who loves a bit of enigmatic seclusion and the stimulation of guesswork, which is why I absolutely, nuts and crackers enjoyed the following titles. Each possesses a fluidity of story and cast of characters so cleverly crafted, I felt like I was sharing their experience as if it were my own. These books take you in deep, which for me makes them terrifically satisfying and just a little be frightening – in a can’t-get-enough-of-way.

Middle Grade Fiction

The Secrets We Keep and The Secrets We Share by Nova Weetman

Fire – both compelling and repelling. Catastrophic and cleansing. This sums up the sweep of emotions and characters Weetman explores with Clem Timmins. Clem’s secret begins with a flicker but soon ignites into something she struggles to contain upon losing everything after her house burns down – her clothes, her treasures and her mum. Timmins and her pre-pubescent peers totter on the edge of change with remarkable poise and a raw, heart-wrenching genuineness that will bring the sting of tears to your eyes and a smile to your lips. They clutch at various emotional straws, each wanting happy outcomes but in Clem’s case, too frightened of losing even more, thus retreating into secrecy. This is good old honest storytelling, where enigmatic poignancy tempers robust reality.

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Toot Toot! Picture Books that make you Hoot!

It’s been bubbling within me for a couple of years now…the need to express a story about – yes, wait for it…flatulence. Undeniable perennial favourites with kids, stories the make you hoot and toot are not only fun to write but as it turns out, more prevalent than I first thought. There is an intoxicating number of farting picture books blowing about now. Here are a couple of fresh offerings too funny to pass up. I’ve included a couple of non-farting titles too for the more musically, less peristaltically motivated.

No One Likes a Fart by Zoe Foster Blake and Adam Nickel

Fart slipped out one day, unnoticed and unseen, but super keen to absorb everything about his new home. Trouble is, wherever he wafts, he encounters people reacting badly to some very reprehensible odours. Fart floats on, anxious to get as far away as possible from those dreadful smells, blissfully unaware that it might be him causing those noxious stinks. As Fart wafts around the neighbourhood, he is overjoyed by his surroundings and grateful to be alive. Just one thing would make him happier, a friend. All hope of finding a new best friend is shattered though, just like Fart’s heart, when he realises with a shock that the disgusting, horrible, terrible smell is him.  Alone and crestfallen, Fart finally chances upon the friend he’s always wanted, someone who appreciates him for exactly what he is.

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Mind Provoking Prose – MG and YA Reads for the Venturesome

If the prospect of bored minds and restless spirits daunts you, consider these literary excursions for your middle grade and YA readers. Not only are they mind provoking and incisive, they offer experiences for the venturesome reader to revere and ruminate over long after they’ve read the last page.

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

This is a brave story set in Australia in the not-too-distant future with global implications. Peony lives with her sister and aging grandfather on a fruit farm. Her chief aspiration is to be a Bee – the bravest, most nimble of farm workers who flit from tree to tree pollinating flowers by hand. If this concept sounds slightly askew, it’ll be one you are thoroughly comfortable with by the time you’ve experienced MacDibble’s palpably natural, narrative. Could this be the end of the world as we know it or, as I’d rather believe, just another notable chapter in the history of humans being humans – badly.

Whatever your take on climate change and the way we treat the planet, How to Bee, never wallows in despair or hindsight and neither does Peony who positively radiates tenacity, kindness and sass so loudly, her voice really will be resounding long after you read the last page. When  Peony is taken from her home by a mother who aspires for more than just the meagre country existence the rest of her family and friends endure, her brassy drive and cast-iron determination draw her right back to the home she loves, like a bee to its hive. But not before she spreads a little hope and good sense in the big scary city.

This story will make you grin, cheer, cry just a bit and want to fly with Peony as she Bees. It’s about being true to yourself, to those who love you, about living your dreams wildly and the profound power of friendship. It could also quite possibly change your whole outlook of and appreciation for fruit. More highly recommended than an apple a day for middle grade readers from eight upwards.

Allen and Unwin April 2017

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Meaningful Moments in Picture Books

Nearly every single picture book I read holds meaningful moments for me, some sliver of specialness or hug-full of hope that can empower and illuminate. These next few examples exhibit strong messages using memorable characters in ways young children can easily interpret and appreciate. A few words about each hardly do them justice, so please look these ones up to enjoy them for yourself.

Reena’s Rainbow by Dee White and Tracie Grimwood

Subtle, sweet and oozing with that sort of sophisticated simplicity that makes you love a story when you are not even sure why. Reena and Brown Dog feel a little outside of normal, not quite the same as everyone else. Reena is deaf but not oblivious to the world around her. Brown Dog is homeless but not without a need to love and protect. Together they find their true worth and meaning and along the way, lasting friendship. Gracefully told and delicately illustrated, Reena’s Rainbow will fill your heart with colour. Highly recommended.

EK Books September 2017

La La La A Story of Hope by Kate DiCamillo and Jamie Kim

An eloquently told, almost wordless symphony of colour, light and sound reverberating the liberating quality of hope. It’s about making a call, daring to speak out, and enduring the quiet moments in between waiting for a response with grace and patience. As Kate proclaims, ‘it is a story about singing your song and the world answering you back…a story that needs intimate reflection’. I encourage you to do so.

Walker Books Australia October 2017

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