• Children's & Young Adult Books

    Fabulous world-building: ‘Fireborn: Twelve and the Frozen Forest’ by Aisling Fowler

    Opening this book, I was plunged headfirst into the frozen fantasy world of Ember. It’s a land a little reminiscent of Game of Thrones (but much more suitable for younger readers!)

    Twelve, the main protagonist, is a ‘Huntling’ – she has taken the Pledge to defend the land and all its Clans against dark creatures and is training at the Lodge, under the watchful eyes of the Elders.

    Twelve is a feisty, bright and skilled young heroine who keeps to herself as much as possible because she harbours a secret that, if known, will end her dreams of becoming a fully-fledged Hunter. That doesn’t stop her from getting into altercations with other Huntlings – in this, the trainees are typical of your average human teens.

    When another young Huntling is kidnapped by goblins, everything changes for Twelve, as she sets out on a quest to rescue Seven. Soon, she discovers she is not alone, but has been joined by two others, with their own reasons for being on the quest. The three must challenge their long-held assumptions and beliefs, before they can work together to defeat the dark creatures.

    The world-building in this, a debut novel for British author Aisling Fowler, is terrific. Some of the creatures the Huntlings must contend with are familiar from classic fantasy stories such as the Lord of the Rings or the Narnia series (goblins, witches, ogres and wolves). But the cast includes ones created by the author, such as Grims, Moxies, Heart Trees, Cliffcrawlers, Snagglefeet and Firesprites: all brought to life with distinctive motivations, personalities and dangers.

    The character development of the Huntlings is just as skillfully done. I found myself absorbed in the adventure, hoping that the three Huntlings and their guardian being, Dog, will succeed.

    This is a promising beginning to a new fantasy series aimed at middle-grade readers. I’ll be watching out for book number two.

    Fireborn: Twelve and the Frozen Forest was published by Harper Collins in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    A Jackie French lovely: ‘Christmas Always Comes’

    In her historical fiction books for kids, Australian author Jackie French creates enthralling tales that subtly weave important themes of our history into the narrative – history at its best, all about people and their stories. Christmas Always Comes is no exception.

    In this picture book, beautifully illustrated by the talented Bruce Whatley, we meet Joey, Ellie and their parents, droving cattle in drought-and-Depression time, on the ‘Long Paddock’. This was the name given to the stock routes where farmers sent their cattle to graze during times of sparse feed for their animals.

    It’s Christmas Eve and the family have nothing except their milking cow, Blossom, some clothes, a billy and their horse and dray. They are travelling the dusty roads between fast-drying waterholes in search of food and water for the cattle. The hard times brought about by the combination of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and drought, is referenced in a way that children will understand: Joey wonders if there will be Christmas tree and presents this year?

    His parents are worried and Ellie doesn’t expect that Christmas will happen for them. Joey has faith in the magic of Christmas, though:

    It was dark when they finished watering all the cattle.
    The stars shone like Christmas candles.

    ‘Christmas pudding tomorrow!’ said Joey,
    eating his cold meat and damper. ‘And presents!’

    ‘Shhh! Don’t let Mum or Dad hear,’ whispered Ellie.
    ‘There’s no shops or money to buy presents or
    sultanas for a pudding.’

    ‘Silly. There are always presents at Christmas!’ said Joey.
    He had already hung up his and Ellie’s stockings for Santa to fill.

    Christmas Always Comes

    Joey’s belief is not misplaced, thanks to a chance meeting with a local farmer, an apricot tree and the kindness of strangers.

    The story also serves as a gentle hint that sometimes, kids can be happy with the smallest of gifts and the most rudimentary of Christmas trees.

    Christmas Always Comes is an ode to the magic of Christmas, the value of families, and the way Australians have weathered hard times.

    It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021, making it a perfect Christmas gift for the little ones in your life.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Silliness kids will love: ‘When Pigs Fly’ by Rob Harrell

    The first in a new graphic novel series by Rob Harrell, When Pigs Fly features Gary, a normal pig whose best friends are Carl (a fish) and Brooklyn (a bat).

    Silliness prevails when Gary discovers new powers as a flying superhero, out to save the world from baddies.

    It’s the kind of silliness that kids will love, with sly references to all the usual tropes of superhero comics: capes, evil-doers, secret identities, and citizens in thrall with the mystery of the new saviour on the scene.

    Laced with tongue-in-cheek jokes (does a spandex costume really suit Gary? Why didn’t the toilet paper cross the road?), the irrepressible trio do save the day in the end, but not before they have plenty of close shaves along the way.

    A fun graphic read that middle grade and early readers will enjoy.

    BatPig: When Pigs Fly is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    The joy of being yourself: ‘Rosie the Rhinoceros’ by Jimmy Barnes

    Most Australians will know Jimmy Barnes as the lead singer of the rock band Cold Chisel, belting out songs in his powerful voice. Perhaps you have read one or both of his best-selling memoirs, Working Class Boy or Working Class Man. You might be surprised, as I was, to discover that this Aussie legend has now turned his story-telling skills to writing a children’s picture book.

    The author’s note (in the form of a pink postcard) tells us that the idea for this book came from his granddaughter, Rosie, a big, strong girl for two and a half years old. In her mind, Rosie was a unicorn, delicate and colourful, and nothing could change her mind on this.

    So Rosie’s granddad wrote a story about a rhinoceros called Rosie, who believed she was a unicorn, with a pretty horn and dainty hooves. Rosie could never understand why everyone else thought she was a rhinoceros, so one day she decides to make an announcement to all her animal friends and neighbours that she was a unicorn.

    Now, don’t get me wrong,’ Rosie continued. ‘Rhinoceroses are some of the nicest animals in the savannah, but I am clearly a unicorn.’
    ‘If you don’t believe me, look at my beautiful horn and my delicate hooves, which allow me to walk so quietly.’
    The animals all looked and smiled.

    Rosie the Rhinoceros

    Luckily for Rosie, the other animals allow her to believe in being a unicorn and Rosie continues to live happily, waking up each day eager to explore the marvels of her world. Imagine if they had insisted that she was not a unicorn or, worse, made fun of her belief?

    This lovely story is about self-belief and also about acceptance of difference by others. It is beautifully illustrated by Matt Shanks, and the pink theme throughout will appeal to many younger readers, especially those who love all things pink and sparkly.

    Rosie the Rhinoceros is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    We’re not scared: ‘There’s a Ghost in this House’ by Oliver Jeffers

    Oliver Jeffers’ new picture book, like an earlier one of his I reviewed on this blog (What We’ll Build), is an ode to the rich creative and imaginative world of childhood. It takes what could be a bit scary for some youngsters (the idea of ghosts) and turns it into a fun hide-and-seek game where kids play ‘spot the ghost’ as pages are turned.

    Each double page spread is a scene from a grand old house. We go with the heroine, a small girl, as she wanders from room to room, upstairs and down, seeking out the ghost she is sure inhabits the place – it’s just that she has never seen it! Over each page fits another, translucent one, on which the ghost (and friends) can be seen, playing their own hide-and-seek with our little girl.

    Children will quickly be in on the joke as they spot the ghosts, behaving in mischievous ways – but not at all scary. The ghosts are portrayed in the stereotypical ‘white sheet’ variety which adds to the humour.

    The book is gorgeously presented – a tall hardback cover with the old house on the front. Jeffers has used sepia photography of the house and added his own signature quirky characters. Simple text makes it an accessible story for very young readers, while others can enjoy the pictures which invite engagement and fun.

    There’s a Ghost in this House is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Growing empathy: ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’ by Katrina Nannestad

    Once again, Australian children’s book author Katrina Nannestad brings us a story of children at war. As with her 2020 book We Were Wolves, this one features the experiences of kids caught up in the turmoil and tragedy of WWII in Europe.

    This time, the protagonist is a small Russian boy, Sasha, who at the age of six sees his village and his family destroyed by invading German soldiers. He faces starvation and other dangers until he is adopted by a passing company of Red Army troops. The Author’s Note tells us that Sasha is based loosely on the story of a real Russian child who joined with a troop of Russian soldiers as a bid for survival. He was about six to eight years old. Apparently there were many such children for whom the dubious ‘safety’ of the front line with troops was preferable to almost certain death from hunger or exposure on their own.

    It’s a shocking concept and the author acknowledges that this is confronting territory, especially for children. What she has created, though, is a story of love and hope; of how people need each other not only to survive, but to grow.

    The opening plunges us into a Russian military hospital with Sasha, who is recovering from numerous injuries, though we don’t learn why until towards the end. Sasha is ten and has spent four years with his company of Red Army soldiers. Trauma has robbed him of his ability to speak. Each night he roams the ward, stealing an odd assortment of items from staff and other patients. He has a collection of these pilfered things under his bed.

    Over the course of the book, these items become triggers for Sasha to gradually remember all the events that led up to this point: his flight from home; finding the Red Army company; the characters and personalities of the individuals there; and the way Sasha brings joy and comfort to these battle-weary soldiers in his childish, trusting innocence. He accompanies the troop as it makes its slow way to Stalingrad, and then westward to Berlin as the tide of war turns in their favour. They are protective of Sasha and care for him, in part because he reminds them of their own loved ones back home.

    As his memories return, he finds speech and so, bit by bit, he recounts his experiences to the hospital doctors, nurses and patients.

    Sasha’s story turns full circle as the novel concludes; by which time he has learned the truth of his shared humanity with the people he has regarded as the enemy.

    There are hints of the atrocities committed on both sides in this war. They are not explicit, though an adult reading alongside a child will understand the references. They are here to point out the basic truth that people are people (good and bad) no matter which army they fight with. Sasha learns a bitter lesson in Berlin, that hatred and revenge achieve nothing. The major in charge of his unit says:

    Returning cruelty for cruelty makes the hatred and misery grow. Their misery. Our misery. Surely we have had enough sorrow to last a lifetime. To last a thousand lifetimes. We must choose a better way.

    Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief p279

    Ultimately, it is our children and grandchildren who can make our world a more peaceful one. Empathy is an essential ingredient in this quest. Books such as this one, which combine plenty of wartime drama and adventure in a context of understanding war’s futility and cruelties, can help young readers to see the world from different perspectives and experiences than their own. This is how empathy is grown.

    Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2021.
    It would be suitable for readers 10 years and older.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    An ode to family traditions: ‘What Do You Do To Celebrate?’ by Ashleigh Barton & Martina Heiduczek

    This is the third in the What do you… series of picture books (I have previously reviewed What Do You Call Your Grandma? and What Do You Call Your Grandpa? on this blog).

    Each one of these delightful picture books invites readers to think about what we all share, as well as to enjoy the colourful and creative differences that make humans so interesting.

    In What Do You Do To Celebrate? we explore some of the many ways in which families around the world mark special times of the year together: Christmas, New Year, Lunar New Year, Hanukkah, just to mention a few. We see family celebrations in Israel, New Zealand, the Phillipines, South Africa, China, and many other parts of the globe, coming together to enjoy special foods, lantern festivals, big family gatherings, festive music and parades.

    Each double page spread is devoted to one type of celebration, explained in simple and lovely rhyme by Ashleigh Barton and Martina Heiduczek’s vibrant, mixed media illustrations.

    The final page invites children to think about their own family traditions:

    So many traditions to mark the year.
    What about you – what brings you cheer?
    Presents, dancing or is it cake?
    What do you do to celebrate?

    This beautiful book is an ode to families, love, and celebratory traditions. It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Making history: ‘The Story of Us’ by Michael Wagner & Beck Feiner

    This new book for kids is set to warm every family historian’s heart (and I am sure, their children’s). It’s designed to encourage kids to talk to various members of their family: mum, dad, grandparents, cousins, aunties, siblings, and anyone else considered ‘family’. Each double page spread offers an idea for discussion and a way to record the stories that make up the rich tapestry that is a family’s history.

    During the 2021 long winter Covid lockdown in my area, I have found solace and interest in a deep dive into family history, investigating hitherto unexplored parts of my family tree and finding the stories of the people there. It is, for me, always the stories behind the facts, dates and names, that turn a basic family tree into a world peopled by families, with all their ups and downs. Stories are what make family history so engrossing.

    The Story of Us is a wonderful way to introduce this idea to children, and to create a beautiful keepsake that family members can look through in years to come.

    The questions up for discussion include topics like: One of my earliest memories… One of the strangest things that ever happened to me… The best decision I ever made… One of the most precious things I own… My favourite and least favourite parts of school were…

    Each topic has illustrations that invite inclusion and diversity, with bold, colourful block prints by Beck Feiner, plus plenty of space for various family members’ comments and memories to be recorded.

    This book is sure to be a favourite way for families to explore ideas and memories and while they are at it, to write their own history.

    The Story of Us is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2021: my Aussie reading year

    This year I signed up to read at least 10 books by Australian women writers and review at least 6. On this score at least, I am an over-achiever! As at the beginning of September, I had read (and posted reviews for) 30 books by Aussie women. I think next year I’ll need to aim for the top level of AWW Challenge. It is not hard for me to read plenty of books by the wonderful and talented authors we have here in this country.

    My 2021 reading ranged across multiple genres, from historical fiction (always a favourite, especially Australian history and stories featuring women in WWII, which is a theme that has become very popular in recent years); memoir, history, quite a few children’s books, true crime and crime fiction.

    My standout reads by Aussie women so far for 2021?

    These four spoke to me the loudest (the links are to my reviews):

    People of the River by Grace Karskens (non-fiction, history) This one, by the way, recently won the Australian history prize as part of the NSW Premier’s History Awards.

    The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer (historical fiction)

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom

    Of the children’s books, Night Ride into Danger by the marvellous Jackie French

    Thank you to the wonderful Australian Women Writers’ Challenge for another year of fabulous reading. If you haven’t checked out the AWW website, be sure to have a look. You will find so many recommendations for new authors and books to discover.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Talking pets? Yes please! ‘The School for Talking Pets’ by Kelli Anne Hawkins

    This book ticks many boxes for lots of children: pets (of all kinds), a school that is actually fun, making new friends, and two baddies who want to rule the world.

    The main character, Rusty, is a very ordinary boy who suffers from low confidence and has not had much go right in his young life. He wins a competition that takes him and his best friend, his pet blue tongue lizard Bongo, to a secret island, where he hopes Bongo will learn to talk at the School for Talking Pets.

    There are other youngsters who arrive with him, from Japan, Germany, England and the USA, all hopeful that their pets will also talk.

    Things don’t go quite as smoothly as they might have wanted, though, because there are two secret spies sent to the island by people who plan to use the animals for their own nefarious purposes. By the end, Rusty and Bongo are the unlikely heroes.

    I loved that the school is the brainwave of Miss Alice Einstein, the great-granddaughter of the famous scientist Albert. I also enjoyed the nod to the principles of effective education: Believe in learners. Listen to them. Lead by example. Make learning interesting. Give learners time and freedom to learn at their own pace.

    Hmmm… wouldn’t it be great if all teaching could be like that?

    The School for Talking Pets combines friendly animals, some madcap adventure, and a mystery to solve, in a package that will be sure to please middle-grade readers who love their pets.

    The School for Talking Pets is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.