Jackie French magic: ‘Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom’ Book #2 in Girls Who Changed the World
Jackie French is back with another historical story mixed with a touch of speculative fiction: Book #2 in the ‘Girls Who Changed the World’ series for middle grade readers.
Book #1 introduced Ming Qong, a twelve-year-old Australian girl who wants more from her school history lessons than the stories of men who won wars or invented things. Where were all the girls and women? Didn’t they do important things too, things that changed the world? Why aren’t their stories told?
In Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom, Ming is thrown back to the time of World War I, to Belgium in 1916. This time, her brother Tuan is with her.
They meet Marie, a youngster like them. Marie’s parents were killed, and her village and home destroyed by the German army, early in the war. Gradually Ming realises that Marie is working with the resistance group called ‘La Dame Blanche’ (The White Lady.) These women, men, girls and boys work locally, observing German troop movements, counting ammunition deliveries at the local railway station, passing food and supplies to those in need, hiding Belgians or Allied soldiers wanted by the Germans. They work in great secrecy: Ming and Tuan learn to guard what they say.
Ming even learns to knit in order to create coded messages in a scarf or quilt square that communicates important information via signals in the number or type of stitches: movements of troop trains, numbers of soldiers, trains carrying ordnance, dates and times. This was a technique actually used in Belgium by women during the war – one thing you can always count on in a Jackie French novel is the accuracy of historical details she includes.
The other type of work Ming experiences is foraging for firewood and food to feed and warm the orphans cared for in an unofficial ‘home’ by local women. Keeping civilians alive during wartime is also a form of resistance, usually performed by women and girls.
The clue to how Ming’s presence helps to change the trajectory of the war is revealed at the end. But the underlying message is threaded right throughout the story: the often overlooked and hidden role that women have always played in world history.
World War I was – big. A million stories or a million million, the story of every person who was there, or was affected by it across the world, for generations after it happened. Women’s stories had been lost in its vastness…Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom p 271-272
‘Hundreds of thousands of women, possibly millions, all through that war,’ said Herstory quietly. ‘The women of World War I are remembered as nurses or mothers, sisters, wives or sweethearts waiting for the men they loved, not as resistance workers, intelligence agents, soldiers and others who fought too. So much work, and sacrifice and courage, all deleted. Tell their stories, because even now the world seems intent on forgetting.’
There are some difficult scenes, including an explosion of a trainload of mustard gas, the diabolical new German weapon to be unleashed at the front. Readers are not spared the suffering of those in the path of war.
Importantly, there is also hope for the future, and an emphasis that it can be small actions by unseen or overlooked people, that can result in big changes to make the world a better place.
Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2022.
Final 2022 Reading Challenge Results
I’m happy to say that my final two reading challenges for 2022 are complete.
For the #AussieAuthor22 challenge, I aimed for the ‘Kangaroo’ level, which meant 12 books by Aussie authors, of which at least 3 had to be by female writers, 3 by male, 3 by an author new to me, and across at least 3 genres.
I showed my (usual) clear bias towards female authors by reading 24 books. 4 books were by male authors, and 16 by authors new to me (which I’m pleased about as I like to expand my choice of authors.) And finally, 12 were from various different genres, including contemporary fiction, middle grade and young adult fiction, historical fiction (of course!), history, biography, fantasy and crime. As always, being part of a book group contributes to a wider range of titles and authors than I might otherwise choose (and a big thanks to my book group members for great reading and discussions this year.)
My stand-out reads from Australian writers?
After Story by Larissa Behrendt
27 Letters to My Daughter by Ella Ward
Tongerlongeter by Henry Reynolds & Nicholas
Tiny Uncertain Miracles by Michelle Johnson
Now to the #histficreadingchallenge:
In 2022 I aimed for the ‘Mediaeval’ level, committing to reading 15 books of historical fiction, which I achieved. Just over 2/3 of those were by female authors. I guess that means that I’m more attracted to historical stories by women – perhaps because of the focus on the lives of women in the past that are so often obscured in both fiction and non-fiction?
My favourite historical fiction reads for 2022?
The Secret World of Connie Starr by Robbi Neal
The Silence of Water by Sharron Booth
The Brightest Star by Emma Harcourt
And now for 2023:
I’ll be participating in all three challenges from this year again.
For the Historical Fiction Challenge, once again I’ll be going for the ‘Mediaeval’ reader with 15 books.
In the Aussie Author Challenge, my goal will be ‘Kangaroo’ – 12 books.
And for the Non-fiction challenge I’ll again be a ‘Nibbler’ – 6 books from any of the 12 categories.
What have been your reading favourites or achievements this year? What are you aiming for in 2023?
Do let me know in the comments – I always love hearing about other people’s highlights. And happy reading!
All about empathy: ‘Waiting for the Storks’ by Katrina Nannestad
Australian author Katrina Nannestad is back with another in her series for middle-grade readers, about children in WWII Europe. This one is about Polish youngsters stolen by the Nazis to further their hideous Lebensborn program, during which children and babies who looked ‘Aryan’ were taken to be Germanised and adopted into German families.
The earlier books in this series, We Are Wolves and Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief dealt with the experiences of some German and Russian children.
All of the stories are about empathy: understanding that there are always many ‘sides’ in warfare, and that children and non-combatants are always the victims, regardless of which side they come from.
In Waiting for the Storks, Zofia is eight years old when she is kidnapped and taken away to become a ‘good German girl.’ The story accurately and sympathetically captures the ways in which brainwashing techniques such as punishment and reward, isolation and repetition are used to achieve the desired outcome – in this case, a complete obliteration of Zofia’s memories of her loving Polish family and home, and adoption of her new German identity.
There are small acts of resistance. A lovely scene is in the camp as the children are forced to learn German, where they use the meaningless phrases they are being taught in a way that expresses their defiance:
The nurse nods, satisfied. She walks away, but we keep speaking in German, because nurses have stethoscope ears and pinchy fingers and slappy hands and bad tempers.Waiting for the Storks p76
‘Hello’, says Kat, ‘I am a boy.’
‘Hello, says Jadwiga, rubbing her bald head. ‘I am a potato.’
‘Goodbye,’ says Maria. ‘I must go to the bathroom.’
We’re giggling now, sniggering into our soup. Even little Ewa. It’s brilliant, because we’re obeying the rules with our words, but not in our hearts.
A family game (‘Make a choice!) is used effectively as a motif throughout the story. So, where the choices with her parents were fun and light-hearted (Cream on your salami or gravy on your poppyseed cake? Make a choice!) they now become a survival strategy (Polish or German? Make a choice! and Orphan or beloved daughter? Make a choice!)
The descriptions of the ‘Germanisation’ process are quite realistic and troubling. This is a book for mature younger readers who can deal with themes of sadness, loss, cruelty. The rewards are many, though, including a deeper understanding of the best and worst in humans. There is light and hope at the end which I believe is important for readers of this age group.
Waiting for the Storks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
From stormy to calm: 4 new picture books for frazzled kids (and parents)
In what is perhaps a response to the alarming rise of diagnosed anxiety conditions in young children, here are four new picture books to assist parents and kids find moments of calm and peace.
Two are especially aimed at soothing bedtime dramas and creating a quiet space conducive to sleep.
From ABC Kids and HarperCollins, these sweet little books are all about sleep.
Tjitji Lullaby, by Michael Ross and Zaachariaha Fielding, brings to a board book the lyrics and illustrations of the lullaby story, set in Central Australia. Meaning ‘child’ in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) languages, in Tjitji we have a mother kangaroo guiding her joey (baby kangaroo) to sleep – ‘sleep is a present after a day that was gorgeous.’
Here is the lullaby as seen on ABC TV. Lovely, isn’t it? And so simple – a perfect addition to parents’ repertoire of lullabies. The board book format is robust enough to withstand chewing, sticky fingers, and anything else a baby can throw at it.
The second sleep-themed book is by Byll & Beth Stephen: the Teeny Tiny Stevies, back again with their wry humour and charm, hitting the mark for sleep-deprived parents. In Sleep Through the Night, we explore the world of sleep – how other creatures (like dolphins, albatross, walruses, bats…) sleep in different ways – but always coming back to what we humans need. There is a touch of wishful thinking which adds to the humour:
Some species can sleep standing up straight,
but human beings need to be in a lying-down shape.
Some species can sleep
with their eyes open,
but most human beings
need to close them.
The illustrations by Simon Howe are just gorgeous and add to the fantastical feel of this sleepy world: it’s a sweetly funny hymn to a good night’s sleep.
Now that sleep has been dealt with, how about those stormy feelings? The next two new releases are here to help.
The new Play School ‘Mindfully Me’ series helps to soothe troubled emotions in the very young, by exploring how friends – and taking a moment to Breathe In and Out – can make things right again. Written by Jan Stradling and illustrated by Jedda Robaard, we see Big Ted trying to deal with troublesome emotions. His friends come to visit, but Big Ted just doesn’t feel like playing. One by one, Jemima, Little Ted, Kiya and Humpty show Big Ted the different ways they calm their own stormy feelings. The beloved Play School characters will be instantly recognisable for small Aussie kids and the book uses simple text and gentle pictures to tell the story of how Big Ted learns to relax and enjoy his day.
Finally, we come to Sarah Ayoub’s new picture book, Nice and Slow. It’s all about how a family rediscovers the joys of a slow day:
Let’s take today nice and slow,
have a break from the go-go-go.
Spend some extra time in bed,
release the worries in our head.
Let’s make our breakfast a special treat,
banana pancakes cannot be beat!
Hopefully most parents can remember those days as children, in school holidays or on a weekend, when we didn’t have ‘be somewhere’ or ‘do something’ – school, dance class, Saturday sport, music lesson. When we could hang about in our PJs until lunch, chatting to our family, playing a card game or riding our bike, making something or baking a cake. Just – because. That’s what this book is about. Recapturing that wonderful sense of freedom, connection and quietness, for ourselves and our younger generation. The illustrations by Mimi Purnell show a family doing just that. Nothing special or out of the ordinary: but actually, in contrast to the sometimes-frenetic pace of life, quite extraordinary.
So, four picture books to suit youngsters from babies to early primary age. And three of them just in time for Christmas – published by HarperCollins in late November 2022. Breathe In and Out will be released in January 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for copies to read and review.
Evocative: ‘The Butterfly Collector’ by Tea Cooper
On the same day in 1922 when Verity Binks loses her job at a Sydney newspaper (to make way for struggling WWI veterans), she receives a mysterious parcel in the mail. Inside is an invitation to attend the Sydney Masquerade Ball, along with a mask and costume designed to transform her into the guise of a beautiful orange and black butterfly.
She decides to accept the invitation and attend the ball when her former boss, the Editor at the Sydney Arrow, suggests that she write a profile story about the Treadwell Foundation, a charity for ‘young women in trouble’ (that is, women pregnant outside of marriage.) She hopes to meet Mr Treadwell at the Ball – and also to find out the source of her mysterious invitation and costume.
Not satisfied with the result, she travels to the little river town of Morpeth, in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, on a quest to find out more about the origins of the Treadwells and the Foundation. This is also where her beloved grandparents, Sid and Clarrie, lived in their younger days and where her father, Charlie, was born. Gradually, Verity learns that there is much more to the Treadwell story than first meets the eye. Together with Arlo, who has lived all his life in the town, she uncovers dark secrets about some of Morpeth’s past residents.
The Butterfly Collector is another of Tea Cooper’s successful dual-timeline historical mysteries. Woven in with Verity’s story is an earlier thread which relates the events of 1868 in the town of Morpeth, featuring Sid, Clarrie, Charlie and Arlo’s parents. Arlo’s mother, Theodora, is the butterfly collector of the novel’s title; a young woman fascinated by a spectacular new species of butterfly she encounters: the same orange and black of Verity’s costume.
Theodora’s and Verity’s stories are intertwined with the Treadwell’s and Verity’s investigations gradually uncover why. It’s cleverly plotted and well-paced, bringing the reader along with Verity and Theodora as they deal with the challenges and questions of their explorations.
A strength of Tea Cooper’s novels is the historical authenticity which comes from thorough research, but which never intrudes. Rather, we learn about the real-life places in past times incidentally, through vivid and evocative descriptions. I was especially drawn to this story because of its Hunter Valley setting: my father was born and grew up in West Maitland and one side of his family were early settlers around Morpeth.
Another aspect I enjoyed is that the protagonists are women with intelligence, agency and courage, not content to comply with social expectations for women at the time in which they live. They are not ‘damsels in distress’ waiting to be rescued by their hero. There is romance, but it is never the main point of Cooper’s stories.
The Butterfly Collector will be enjoyed by those who like well-researched historical fiction with a mystery to solve.
The Butterfly Collector is published by HQ Fiction in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Non-fiction challenge 2022: Completed – now for the 2023 Challenge!
This year my Non-fiction reading challenge goal was ‘Nipper’: I undertook to read six non-fiction books from six different listed categories.
The challenge is hosted at Book’d Out (https://bookdout.wordpress.com/2022-nonfiction-reader-challenge/)
I exceeded my goal for number of books read (ten) though fell short in the number of categories. I read four biographies, three memoir, two books on Australian history. This year I hadn’t planned my challenge reading, rather ‘nibbling’ on books of interest or ones that were part of my book group reading.
Regardless, I was pleased to incorporate non-fiction titles into my reading during the year. With reading, as with diet and exercise (and, indeed, life!) balance is a good thing.
There was one big standout book in my list this year: Tongerlongeter by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements. If you are interested in Australian history, this one is must-read. I guarantee you will learn things about this country, and the small island of Tasmania, that you didn’t know.
Thank you to Shelleyrae for the challenge. I am signing up for the 2023 Challenge, again as a ‘Nibbler’, and I’ll try to cover a few more categories next year.
‘Mothball’ turns twenty! ‘Diary of a Rescued Wombat’ by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley
Australian children born in the past twenty years (and their parents) will be very familiar with the series of Wombat books, written by Jackie French and beautifully illustrated by Bruce Whately.
They are all about the simple life and loves of Mothball; a round, cuddly wombat who loves sleeping, digging, eating grass and carrots (not necessarily in that order.)
These hugely popular picture books introduce youngsters to one of Australia’s most loved marsupials. The text and story lines invite recognition, while the illustrations evoke an emotional response despite the books’ apparent simplicity.
The latest book tells the story of how Mothball first came into Jackie French’s life (and books.) She was a ‘rescued’ wombat, one of many native animals given a second chance at life after a disaster kills the parent. Sometimes that is bushfire, frequently it is roadkill. Many Australians volunteer with WIRES or other animal rescue services to raise and nurture orphaned young until they are independent. Here’s a short video from the ABC, showing volunteers doing their thing.
So, Mothball was a rescue wombat before she became a literary star!
Fans of the Wombat series will love hearing Mothball’s ‘back story’; the book is also a perfect way to introduce her to new readers. It is, as well, a beautiful tribute to those many volunteers who give so much to preserve Australia’s unique fauna.
Diary of a Rescued Wombat: The Untold Story is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Raw honesty: ‘Cells’ by Gavin McCrea
The cells in Irish author Gavin McCrea’s memoir are the spaces in which major scenes of his life played out. There are the rooms of his childhood home, in which he grew up with his clinically depressed father, mentally ill older brother, complicated mother, and other siblings. Other spaces play their part: his schools; single rooms or shared apartments with friends or lovers in the UK, Ireland, or abroad; university campuses where he studied and worked.
The book begins in the tiny flat where Gavin moved to live with his eighty-year-old mother who was exhibiting signs of encroaching dementia. His plan was to continue his writing while providing care for his mother. Then Covid struck and Dublin, as with much of the world, was in lockdown. Living with an elderly relative with whom he had experienced a complicated relationship, closed in by four walls and dealing with the inevitable repetitious interruptions of someone with dementia: it is easy to see how the description ‘cell’ fits this space.
Then we move back in time, to a childhood dominated by the emotional distance of his exhausted father, the mental illness and drug addiction of his brother, and by the bullying Gavin experienced at school, primary and secondary. Gavin had, in early childhood, regarded himself as his mother’s favourite, her prince, but she did not protect him from the torment of his school experiences.
He explores his growing awareness of his difference, later identified as homosexuality, and the reactions of others – dismissive, abusive, or violent – to this difference. Woven through the narrative is his excavation of the complexity of the primary relationship of any child – that with their mother. He draws on Freudian and Jungian theories of dreams, relationships, emotions, and examines his own role in the events of his life with excoriating honesty.
By this point, I was already making my concrete plans to leave Ireland. I did not deny to myself or others that my planned leave-taking was anything other than the rage of rejection taken out on my surrounding environment: the place I was born, its culture and its people, especially my family, most of all my mother. My rejection, my rage, when it was not spewing over all of this, was aimed at her, or rather at the idea that this particular mother was the only one I would or could ever have.Cells p214-215
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. We, the readers, understand that the author is writing about parents, family, and lovers, as a way of revealing something about himself. He does not hold back: the rawness is at times, almost too much, leading to a sensation of voyeurism. There is the universal difficulty of choosing what to put in and what to leave out of a memoir which references people who are still living.
The writing is also infused with love, and humour, and beautiful prose about often difficult subjects. I finished this book with a greater understanding of the range of human experiences and the ways in which family relationships contribute to an individual’s life trajectory.
Cells is published in Australia by Scribe in October 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
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.
Family & books: ‘The Book Haters’ Book Club’ by Gretchen Anthony
Irma is grief stricken after the sudden death of her best friend and longtime business partner, Elliott, with whom she ran the ‘Over the Rainbow Bookshop’ for years. Elliott prided himself on his fun approach and his ability to find the exact book for a professed book hater. Now that he is gone, Irma has agreed to sell the business to a local group of property developers who plan to build condominiums on the site.
The problem is, the price Irma has agreed to is a pittance. Added to that, her daughter Bree, who has grown up at the Rainbow and assumed she would work there forever, is suddenly left high and dry – and Irma won’t even discuss it.
Faced with this crisis, the family gathers: Irma, her two daughters Bree and Laney, and Thom, Elliott’s romantic partner, who is just as bewildered by Irma’s sudden, rash decisions. Thom and the two younger women decide to take matters into their own hands… with several unexpected results. In the process, long-held secrets are revealed and there is heartbreak and anger along with some deep self-examination by all the parties.
Ultimately though, The Book Haters’ Book Club is about the deep bonds of family and friendships, and a celebration of how, even in the mayhem of a family argument, love can prevail.
“I’m talking about your people. Your loved ones. We have a homing device, and when we’re hurting, we turn towards love. Sometimes we turn before we even know we’re in pain.”The Book Haters’ Book Club p195
It’s also a homage to books and the people who love and sell them.
Let’s keep spreading book magic to the world. Do this for me, won’t you? Tell me, what librarian or bookseller changed your life by placing the right novel in your hands? Where were you? What title did they recommend? What treasures did you find within its pages?The Book Haters’ Book Club p328
The Book Haters’ Book Club is a light romp of a read with genuine laugh-out-loud moments and will be enjoyed by anyone who has a family and also loves books.
It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in October 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.