• Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    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…
    ‘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.’

    Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom p 271-272

    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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    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.
    ‘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.

    Waiting for the Storks p76

    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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Love to share: ‘Family, All That You Dream it To Be’ by Byll & Beth Stephen

    Serendipity. That magical process by which a seeming coincidence brings a gift and places it in your lap.

    My recent serendipitous moment was having this lovely picture book sent to me for review. It’s the new ABC Kids’ book by the musical duo (and published authors) known as the ‘Teeny Tiny Stevies’.

    Why is this serendipitous? Because just a month ago, I was sitting in a concert at the National Folk Festival in Canberra, listening to the music of the ‘Little Stevies’ – Byll & Beth Stephen. They were describing their entry into childrens’ music and even treated the audience to a gorgeous song for kids written during Covid lockdowns – all about the Covid lockdowns! Lovely stuff.

    Family: All that you dream it to be is (as you might guess) all about family – all types of families. We follow a little girl and her mum as they enjoy a bike ride together around their neighbourhood, stopping to chat with people they know.

    The families they talk to are all different: a family with single mum, one with two mums, one where their mum had died, one where dad stays home to look after the baby while mum goes out to work, among others.

    The thing that all the families have in common is that there is love, and lots of it.

    The warm and colourful illustrations by Simon Howe add much to the depictions of the children and their homes.

    It’s a tender story, beautifully told, celebrating families everywhere.

    The girl and her mum finish their ride,
    the sun sets as they arrive home
    and they go inside.
    Her dad sets the table, her brother feeds the dog,
    and she looks around at the people she most loves.
    She thinks of all the families who live nearby,
    how they’re all a bit different but also really alike.
    Because they love each other as much as she loves
    her people, that’s obvious to her, in fact it’s quite simple.
    You just love who you love, and you build a great team,
    because family’s all that you dream it to be.

    Family: All that you dream it to be

    Family: All you dream it to be is published by ABC Kids’ Books and Harper Collins Children’s Books in June 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    ‘Bored! Milo Finds $105’ by Matt Stanton

    An engaging start to a new series by best-selling children’s author Matt Stanton, Bored! Milo Finds $105 is a tale of friendship, neighbours and lost property.

    Milo is a typical youngster, riding his BMX bike around his street and practicing his jumps, while feeling pretty bored, when he spots money on the road. One hundred and five dollars, to be precise.

    Milo is an honest lad, so rather than pocket the money, he decides to try and find out who it belongs to.

    What follows is a series of escapades that have him making a new friend (the surprisingly named Frog, who has just moved into the street), investigating possible criminals, and learning to stand up for himself and others.

    There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments along with some food for thought:

    Some kids just have power and other kids don’t, and I don’t understand it. Where do you get power from? Because if I knew, I’d happily spend a hundred and five dollars to buy some.

    Bored! p68

    Matt Stanton knows how to hit the funny bones of his young readers but also that spark of recognition; Milo is a suburban kid just like most Australian suburban kids. He does have two mums, but that’s his ordinary life and nothing special. He has to deal with the everyday challenges of youngsters everywhere – including feeling bored sometimes. I’m sure youngsters will relate to Milo and look forward to each new book in the series.

    Bored! Milo Finds $105 is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Girls can change the world: ‘Ming and Flo Fight for the Future’ by Jackie French

    One of the (many) things I love about Jackie French’s historical fiction is that she effortlessly shines a light on frequently overlooked people and events from history, without veering into tokenistic territory. Her characters represent people who really were there, but who are so often hidden from view in traditional histories and stories. Her new Girls Who Changed the World series for middle grade readers is a good example.

    In Book One, Ming and Flo Fight for the Future, we meet Ming, a twelve year old schoolgirl whose family has Chinese-Vietnamese and European heritage. Ming loves learning about history, but not the way it is taught at her school. She asks a question in class one day: ‘Sir, why don’t we ever learn about girls who changed history?… Where were all the girls at all the important times in the past?’

    Good question, right? Sadly, her teacher and classmates have no answer for her. Ming is exasperated, until Herstory appears, to offer her a chance to return to the past – as an observer. Ming agrees, but in the process she manages to become a person living in the past. She is now Florence, and the year is 1898.

    She is plunged into a drought-stricken farm in the middle of nowhere, grinding poverty, and the sudden death of Flo’s mother, until Aunt McTavish arrives to take Flo to share her well-heeled life in Sydney. Aunt McTavish is a friend of Louisa Lawson, a committed Suffragist, but determinedly ‘British to the core’ – despite her obvious mixed Chinese and Scottish heritage.

    So Ming/Flo experiences some of the challenges for girls and women at a time when girls’ education was considered unimportant, women could not vote, and the White Australia policy loomed. As Herstory had warned her: ‘The past is – uncomfortable.’

    In the process, Ming learns that it is not just the big, obvious actions that can lead to profound social or political change. More often, it is the small, unnoticed actions by committed people who never give up, that set the scene for change. As Herstory tells Ming:

    Men like Henry Parkes get the credit for uniting Australia, but it would never have happened without the speeches, petitions and passion of women. When social forces come to a head, it’s usually been a man who got the credit, not the hundreds, the thousands, the millions of women who made it happen too, like Mrs Lawson.

    Ming and Flo Flight for the Future p256-257

    Book Two of Girls who Changed the World will see Ming in Belgium during WWI. I look forward to reading it! This series will be enjoyed by those who are interested in stories from Australian history told from the viewpoint of those who are usually forgotten.

    Ming and Flo Fight for the Future is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    ‘Mim and the Woeful Wedding’: The Travelling Bookshop #2

    In book two of Katrina Nannestad’s Travelling Bookshop series, we meet up with old friends Mim, her little brother Nat and their Dad, as they wander from place to place in their bookshop-in-a-caravan, guided by Flossy the horse. As in book one, Flossy takes them to where their books are most needed. This time, it’s to a small Greek island.

    Here they meet Anjelica and her husband-to-be, Stavros, whose wedding is just days away. The whole village is happy and can talk of nothing else. But Mim sees a problem: neither the bride nor the groom appear to be excited about the wedding.

    The bookshop caravan works its magic, finding the perfect book for each of its visitors – that is, the book they need, not the book they want. By the end of the story, answers to everyone’s problems have been found and the Cohen family leave behind happy villagers when Flossy leads them to their next destination.

    Did you love Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books when you were a child? One of the most entrancing features of these stories for me was the independence of the children – especially when they’d set off on a horse-drawn caravan adventure. There is a thrill for youngsters of tiny places to call home – caravans, cubby houses, tree houses.

    The Travelling Bookshop stories tap into that, and add a dash of magic, resulting in a great read for kids. They are madcap tributes to words, books, family, making new friends and exploring new places. There is also a theme of accepting and celebrating difference, and the important roles that imagination and playfulness have in our lives.

    The line drawings by Cheryl Orsini add to the text and help to bring the story alive.

    ‘I love words,’ I say. ‘I have a whole collection of them that I keep in a special box.’
    ‘What sorts of words?’ asks Xander.
    ‘Happy words. Gentle words. Scrambled, rambling words. Words that pop and fizz. Words that paint pictures and sing songs. Words stuffed with memories. Any kinds of words, as long as they make my heart soar. I’ll show you next time you visit the bookshop.’

    Mim and the Woeful Wedding p48

    Mim and the Woeful Wedding is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    All about family: ‘The Love That Grew’ by Sarah Ayoub

    The Love that Grew is a sort of picture book / pre-schooler take on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ which begins How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

    An ode to a mother’s love and to families, it explores different ways to describe the indescribable, with sweet illustrations by debut picture book illustrator Mimi Purnell.

    I thought I could not love another,
    not a sister, nor a brother.
    But just like magic, my love then grew
    when I was blessed with more of you.
    It stretched as high as the beanstalk climbed by Jack:
    impossible to measure, and hard to track.
    A feeling that was both fierce and strong
    and the-longest-noodle-you-can-think-of-long.

    The Love that Grew

    This would be perfect picture book for a little one expecting a new brother or sister. Mums and Dads find that, while time can be difficult to share around with a new baby, love is different – there is usually plenty to go around no matter how many new siblings arrive. The rhyming couplets lend themselves well to read-aloud sessions – just right for snuggling; baby, toddler, book and parent together.

    The Love that Grew is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Words & numbers for sharp-eyed youngsters: ‘Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour’ by Catherine Jinks and Tania McCartney

    Mrs Koala’s beauty parlour is so busy, with a succession of alliterative critters lining up to receive the feel-good ministrations of a skilled beauty therapist.

    Each double page spread features different services offered by Mrs Koala, with fun for little ones who can join in the countdown, alliterative text and searching for the beauty parlour key, cleverly hidden in each scene.

    There are 10 fancy frogs getting facials, 9 pampered porcupines getting perms, 8 trendy tigers getting trims, and so on, right down to 1 ‘kaput koala’ on the final page – Mrs Koala is tired after all that work!

    The attractive colour illustrations by Tania McCartney invite close examination of each busy scene – and of course little ones will love to find the key on each page.

    This is a sweet book that simply begs to be read aloud and I’m sure will be a favourite at story time.

    Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour is published by Working Title Press (an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books in February 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.