Children's & Young Adult Books
Conquering fears: ‘Be Careful, Xiao Xin!’ by Alice Pung & Sher Rill Ng
Beloved and award-winning Aussie writer Alice Pung has created a beautiful picture book, with lush illustrations by Sher Rill Ng. It’s all about family, how your own fears and others can hold you back, and about conquering those fears.
Little Xiao Xin (which means ‘be careful’ in Chinese) is a red fire warrior in his imagination; but the desire of his family to keep him safe means that he is not allowed to do things on his own or take risks.
The author recalls her own childhood and that of her small son, when parents and grandparents insisted on bundling them into layers of warm clothes to prevent illness, avoiding many sports and physical activities in case of injury.
These impulses come from a place of deep love and care. Their downside is that children can be prevented from exploring, trying new things, and gaining independence.
In this story, little Xiao Xin feels frustrated at the restrictions imposed by his family in their efforts to keep him safe. He thinks:
If I fall, I know how to land on my feet.Be Careful, Xiao Xin!
If I land on my feet, I can run.
If I run, I know where to hide.
If I hide, I know where they can’t find me.
When he sees the same happening to his little sister, he takes action. And the result is that his family come to understand, just a little, that:
When Little Sister takes her first steps,Be Careful, Xiao Xin!
Mum and Dad tell me
‘Don’t let her fall or else she’ll be too scared to try again!’
But I think if she is scared of falling, she’ll never walk.
This is a gorgeous tribute to families and to the (sometimes difficult) process of letting go enough, to allow children space to grow into their own lives and futures. Another lovely feature of the book is that the text is written in both English and Chinese scripts: perfect for multi-lingual youngsters.
Be Careful, Xiao Xin! is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in September 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Out of this world: ‘Meanwhile Back on Earth’ by Oliver Jeffers
Oliver Jeffers’ is back in his inimitable style, this time exploring time, space and human history for young readers. This colourful picture book has such a clever premise: Dad takes his two kids, prone to squabbling as humans do, on a car trip. Suddenly they are space bound, heading for the moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto…while looking into the ‘year-view mirror’ to see what was happening on Earth in each time period.
Sadly, of course, in every one, humans are still squabbling, warring, building huge walls to keep other humans out, travelling to new places to find other people to fight…
The story combines a gallop through the history of humanity and its conflicts, with a guide to the universe, and a plea for all people to consider the fragility of our existence in the vastness of our universe and join together rather than continue to battle each other.
It’s not a ‘downer’ of a story, because of the kind and witty way in which it is told, the deceptively simple illustrations, and because at the end, the children are invited to return home and after all, as Neil Armstrong apparently said:
No matter where you travel, it’s always nice to get home.
Here is Oliver Jeffers talking about where the idea for the book came from.
Meanwhile Back on Earth is another of Jeffers’ surprising, quirky and beautiful picture books for young readers, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Teenage troubles & own voices: ‘Sabiha’s Dilemma’ & ‘Alma’s Loyalty’ by Amra Pajalić
Perhaps YA (Young Adult) fiction should come with a trigger warning for any older adult reader. It can prompt memories of steering one’s own teens through that fraught period and offer a glimpse of what young people get up to when the adults are not watching. At its best, YA fiction can also invoke empathy in the reader, since most of us can remember some things about our youthful lives that we might prefer to keep quiet about.
With Amra Pajalić’s Sabiha’s Dilemma and Alma’s Loyalty, readers get an added bonus. She draws on her Bosnian cultural heritage to write ‘own voices’ stories that will resonate with young people navigating the spaces between culture, religion, tradition, family and friends.
Sabiah and Alma’s stories are narrated in first person, so we experience events and people through their eyes, while also seeing the interconnections between the characters. They are both teenagers from Bosnian Muslim families, and the novels allow readers to learn more about their cultural and political backgrounds.
For example, when members of the adult Bosnian community get together, they talk about the war in the Balkans, and their expectations as to how their children should behave. Sabiha is sent to weekend Islamic classes to learn about proper behaviour for a Bosnian Muslim girl. She also learns about Bosnia’s past from her grandfather. Alma’s parents cannot accept her friendship with a gay boy, a fellow student at her new school. And they would certainly not condone her sneaking out to attend parties or be with her secret boyfriend.
Layered in with these teen troubles is the fact that Sabiha and Alma are half-sisters, and Alma has only just learnt of Sabiha’s existence. The shock news threatens to tear her close family apart. Sabiha’s mother struggles with mental illness and wants desperately to be accepted back into the Bosnian community – with implications for her daughter’s freedom.
Both girls experience the awfulness of broken friendships and betrayal, which can be devastating at a time of life when friendships and peers are so important.
And of course, there is the age-old tension between boys and girls, who are trying to work out how to behave as the young men and women they are rapidly becoming.
The novels explore the ways in which teens find and use ways to avoid, erase, or deal with the challenges of growing up:
I wanted to be someone else and forget about all the things that were bringing me down, and Alex did that. He made me feel good… He’d become my port in the storm, the one place I didn’t have to worry about secret subtexts or hidden agendas.Alma’s Loyalty p186
If the novels were movies, there would certainly be moments where I’d want to cover my eyes as potential disasters loom. Thankfully, both Sabiha and Alma are characters with grit, determination and agency mixed in with the teenage angst and confusion. The love and support of important people in their lives certainly helps, too.
These are Books 1 and 2 in the Sassy Saints Series, which together will explore the experiences of six young people in Sabiah and Alma’s world. YA readers will find much to recognise in their stories.
Sabiha’s Dilemma and Alma’s Loyalty are published by Pishukin Press in 2022.
My thanks to the author and publisher for review copies.
Picture books for Christmas: ‘A Very Play School Christmas’ & ‘The Christmas Bum Book’
I love giving books at Christmas and these two new picture books arrive at a perfect time for people wanting to squirrel away a few gifts in readiness for the big day.
For little fans of the long-running ABC series ‘Play School,’ A Very Play School Christmas takes readers on holiday with Jemima, the Teds (Big and Little), Kiya, Humpty and Joey. There are all the delights of a Christmas holiday: a gift treasure hunt, decorating a tree, crackers and Christmas hats, Christmas crafts and a Lucky Dip.
It’s a gentle tale of fun with friends; the soft illustrations by Jedda Robaard add to the sweetness of the story by Jan Stradling (who was an Executive Producer for the TV show.) Littlies will love spending time with their Play School friends at Christmas time.
The Christmas Bum Book by Kate Mayes is described as ‘a book for anyone who has a bum or anyone who likes Christmas or anyone who has a bum AND likes Christmas.’ Okay, so that likely includes most preschoolers – bums and toilet jokes are a mainstay of this age group. I must confess, though, that this adult is a little bit tired of the trope.
What saves this one from being tiresome are the clever illustrations by Andrew Joyner, which creatively take Christmas motifs (a chimney, a manger, turkeys and nuts, glitter and carols, for example) and incorporate a charmingly depicted ‘bum’ somewhere in the mix. Kids will probably love this book for the opportunity to say ‘bum’ multiple times (or even better, to hear adults say it.)
These two picture books are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for review copies.
‘In-betweenness’: ‘The Cult of Romance’ by Sarah Ayoub
In a classic case of judging a book by its cover, my first thought on picking up The Cult of Romance was ‘Oh no, another YA novel drenched in teenage angst about boys!’
Well, I am here to admit that in that, I was wrong: thoroughly, comprehensively wrong.
What Australian journalist and author Sarah Ayoub has written is a funny, wise and very relevant portrayal of growing up in multicultural Australia. All about identity, culture and belonging, it explores what it means to be a young Lebanese-Australian women – and a feminist – while trying to be supportive as your best friend heads towards a ridiculously young marriage.
The novel is full of amusing asides such as: 5 things you expect your best friend to bring back from a Lebanese holiday (the list does not include an engagement ring), that highlight the sometimes difficult, often funny, aspects of contemporary life for the children and grandchildren of immigrants.
Crucially, it explores the ‘in-betweenness’ of these young people : there is the traditional culture of the homeland as it was when the parent / grandparent left that remains real to that family member; the contemporary society that has developed there since they left; and the world inhabited by the young person who was born into a different country and culture.
The protagonist, Natalie, comes face to face with this when she travels to Lebanon for her friend’s wedding, as she is confronted with all that she doesn’t know or understand about the country that her grandmother, her Tayta, had left so many years before.
That night as I lie in bed, I think about my inheritance. Not a house or money or family heirlooms, but that very feeling of straddling two separate identities, crystallised in small moments, like that one on the train today. Lebanese stories on Australian trains, being told to sit like a girl, judgement for my otherness in my own homeland. ‘Your mother made such an effort to teach you Arabic,’ Tayta had said.The Cult of Romance p115
Natalie is an engaging and believable character and I admired her strenuous efforts to understand and to learn. There is a romantic thread (which is in itself interesting as Natalie is a self-proclaimed ‘anti-romantic’) but the true arc of the story is her journey to more understanding and acceptance of herself and others.
The Cult of Romance is a terrific book for young people to enjoy and to reflect on the differences and similarities that make us human.
It was published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
“Gus and the Starlight’ by Victoria Carless
It’s rare for a novel aimed at middle grade readers to deal openly with issues of family instability and broken or difficult parental relationships. Aussie author Victoria Carless has achieved this, while imbuing her story with a sense of hope (and a smidgen of the supernatural).
Gus is twelve. At the novel’s opening she is in a car with her mum, older sister Alice and little brother Artie. They are driving through the day and night – actually, several days and nights – heading north to Queensland. Her mother, Delphine, is escaping another difficult boyfriend, looking for a fresh start with her kids, somewhere where Troy won’t find them. Equally importantly, she wants to find a place to live where the locals won’t know about her work as a spiritual medium, which she’s keen to leave behind because of all the sadness it brings.
So, not entirely a ‘regular’ family then, especially as it becomes clear that the girls of the family tend to inherit ‘the gift’ (connecting with the dead) at puberty. Will the gift – or curse, depending on your viewpoint – manifest itself in Gus and her sister?
The family lands in the small township of Calvary, surrounded by sugarcane fields, where Delphine plans to restore and run the long-neglected drive-in cinema, the Starlight.
Gus has learnt long ago not to put down roots, make friends, or get used to the places that her family stay in, because it’s too painful when the inevitable happens and they have to leave. Despite herself though, she becomes fascinated by the workings of the old-fashioned film projection equipment and learns to operate it, with the help of Henry, who may or may not be a ghost.
The descriptions of the drive-in and the surrounding Queensland countryside are vivid and will resonate with anyone who remembers drive-ins of yesteryear, or who has driven through such semi-tropical parts of Australia. The novel is, in a way, a homage to some of the terrific films of the 1980’s and 90’s, such as ET, Strictly Ballroom, Ghostbusters, and The Princess Bride. Each film has something to say to Gus and to the locals, who eventually flock back to the drive-in.
Their landlady, Deidre, proves to be problematic, but by the time of the showdown, Gus and her family have developed a degree of self awareness and confidence and prove to be more than a match for their bullying landlady.
Gus and the Starlight is part coming-of-age story, part magical realism, and all heart.
It was published by HarperCollins Children’s books in May 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Another celebration of diversity: ‘How Do You Say I Love You?’ by Ashleigh Barton & Martina Heiduczek
How Do You Say I Love You? is a new picture book in a gorgeous series by author Ashleigh Barton and illustrator Martina Heiduczek, celebrating languages and cultures from around the world. Previous titles are What Do You Call Your Grandpa?, What Do You Call Your Grandma?, and What Do You Do To Celebrate? (links are to my reviews.)
As well as the focus on the beauty of human expression, something all the books have in common is celebrating connection: through family, friends, community.
Each double page spread shows a child saying ‘I love you’ in their language to someone special in their life. We see children from places as diverse as Peru, Iran, Canada, Tonga, West and Central Africa, Egypt, and more, with grandparents, pets, parents, friends. Languages include Auslan (the Sign Language used in Australia) along with Farsi, French, Arabic, Korean, Filipino, Mandarin, Spanish and Italian.
The beautiful illustrations invite close examination and convey the message of commonality and diversity which all these books so skillfully portray.
How Do You Say I Love You? is a perfect read-aloud book, a beautiful way for youngsters to be introduced to the wonderful world of languages.
It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Touchy-feely: ‘That’s Not My Turtle!’ by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells
If you have ever had anything to do with sharing a book with a very young baby or child, chances are you’ll have come across one or more of the Usbourne ‘Touchy-feely’ series of board books.
Title include That’s Not My Kitten, That’s Not my T-Rex, That’s Not My Teddy, That’s Not My Tractor, That’s Not My Elephant… you get the idea.
Each sturdy little book features aspects of the creature or object in question, with tactile cutouts on each page allowing small fingers to experience the various parts that don’t measure up.
In this case, it’s the turtle’s flippers that are too scaly, the tail too rough, the eggs too smooth…until on the last page, the correct turtle is identified by its shiny tummy.
Along with the tactile features, the repetition of the format in the series, and within each book, allows little ones to anticipate and participate in the story.
This new title will sit happily alongside its Touchy-feely brothers and sisters in the book basket or on the shelf. They are cute, affordable and (almost) indestructible little books that tiny people will love.
That’s Not My Turtle is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Terrific new children’s fantasy: ‘The Callers’ by Kiah Thomas
The Callers is a fabulous new book for middle-grade readers, particularly those who enjoy immersion in a skillfully drawn fantasy world that prompts consideration of the challenges facing our own.
Quin is the son of Adriana, the powerful head of the Council of Callers who rule the continent of Elipsom. ‘Calling’, the ability to conjure anything out of thin air, is in the DNA of his family and has been for generations.
But Quin is different. He cannot Call, which puts him at odds with his mother and his talented sister Davinia, and also with the expectations of his world.
When he discovers that the objects Callers bring into Elipsom are actually taken from another place where people also live, he decides to do something to change this.
He meets Allie, a girl who is also on the path to correct this long-standing injustice, and together they embark on a quest to preserve the future of Allie’s land. But Quin is now heading for a headlong collision with his own family.
This novel can be read as a sustained and sensitive metaphor for the risks of the environmental degradation facing our own planet, and also for the injustices perpetrated by centuries of colonialism. Is it fair that some should benefit from other’s loss?
The story is deeply engrossing and I loved that there was no need for pitched battles or physical violence in Quin’s and Allie’s efforts to change their world. The two work together, using their existing skills – and some previously undiscovered talents – to overcome the obstacles in their way.
Quin is uncertain, confused about his place in his family and society. Allie, on the other hand, is passionate and courageous and she shows Quin the reality of their two worlds, and how he can live in line with his own beliefs and feelings. There are many profound questions addressed in this slim novel, but it is such a great story that it’s never a lecture. I really cared about Quin and Allie and their quest.
It’s also, in a way, a coming-of-age story, about growing up and seeing your world, and the adults in your life, through a different lens:
His head was throbbing. How would he ever know what he believed anymore? Half of him wanted to simply dismiss what Allie was telling him. It would be easier to go on believing what he’d always known to be true. And who was this girl to tell him that every single thing about his life was a lie? What could she know?The Callers p86
I loved this book right away and I hope Kiah Thomas writes more stories like this.
The Callers was published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in May 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Beloved Aussie star & children’s books: ‘Little Ash’ series
Ash Barty, three-times Grand Slam tennis champion and much-admired young Australian First Nations woman, has excelled at tennis (obviously!) and also cricket. I suspect she would shine in any sport she chose to try.
Apart from her amazing sports success, Ash has earned admiration for her positivity and kindness, both on and off the court and playing field. She has become a role model and her example is a shining light for aspiring sports players of all ages.
Who can forget the look of unalloyed surprise and joy when Ash was presented the 2022 Australian Open winner’s trophy by none other than her own role model and Australian tennis legend, Wiradjuri woman Evonne Goolagong-Cawley?
After her retirement from professional tennis this year, Ash has moved on to other endeavours, including collaboration in a new series of books for young readers called Little Ash, featuring her own younger self in various adventures that children will relate to. The settings are at school, and various children’s sports activities.
The little books are perfect for early readers, light and easy to hold in little hands with very short chapters and lots of black and white illustrations throughout.
Co-authored with Jasmin McGaughey (a young author with Torres Strait Islander and African American heritage) and illustrated by Jade Goodwin (who has Gamilaraay heritage), this book series is a welcome addition to books for children and young adults by First Nations authors and illustrators.
The first four books in the Little Ash series are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in July 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for review copies.