• Children's & Young Adult Books

    “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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    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.

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

    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.

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

    Gentle introduction to dementia for kids: ‘Dancing with Memories’ by Sally Yule & Cheryl Orsini

    If you’ve followed by blog for a bit you’d be familiar with the series of posts I wrote called Travels with my Mother, all about my journey with my Mum’s dementia. Mum passed away last year but the memories of her experiences, and the family’s with her, are still quite fresh. So I was keen to read Dancing with Memories, a unique picture book by Australian dementia care worker Sally Yule and illustrator Cheryl Orsini.

    I love the idea of introducing this often misunderstood condition to kids, in an age-appropriate and gentle way. I also applaud the themes of respect, dignity and agency for the person with dementia. Another special thing about the book is that it contributes to understanding of brain health through a little Q&A at the end of the book (by Professor Ralph Martins) and some healthy recipes from Maggie Beer. In this way, the authors plant the idea that brain health starts young!

    Best of all, the book tells a story, all about Lucy, who is excited about going to her granddaughter’s wedding.

    I am Lucy and I dance with memories.
    Sometimes I remember.
    Sometimes I forget.
    Sometimes I remember that I forget.
    Sometimes I forget that I remember…
    My doctor says I have dementia.
    I wish I didn’t but I do.
    ‘Your brain has changed’, she says, ‘but you are still Lucy.’
    She knows that I have a brain AND a heart.

    Dancing with Memories

    Young readers will go with Lucy on her adventure: she gets lost on her way to the wedding, but a supportive community and local friends set all to rights again and by the end of the story, Lucy is dancing with her granddaughter, along with her memories.

    The illustrations are gentle, joyful and colourful and they help to centre the person with dementia within their family, home, and neighbourhood – which is as it should be.

    I would suggest that every doctor’s waiting room should have a copy of this book, as well as public and school libraries and places offering services to people with dementia and their families. It will go a long way to demystify the illness and allow kids to continue to love their family member or friend with dementia without feeling frightened or confused.

    An interview with the team behind the book can be found here, if you’d like to know more about the project.

    Dancing with Memories is published by HarperCollins in July 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

    ‘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

    The gift of vision: ‘Eyes That Speak to the Stars’ by Joanna Ho

    This gloriously illustrated picture book by American author Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho, celebrates difference, heritage and love. It’s a follow up to the beautifully titled Eyes That Kiss in the Corners.

    A little boy of Asian heritage is unhappy about the difference between his eyes and those of his school friends, and confides in his father:

    The other day,
    when Baba picked me up from school,
    I didn’t run in for a hug
    the way I usually do;
    I stared at my toes
    where it was safe.
    “What’s wrong?” Baba asked,
    and all my hurt tumbled out.

    Eyes That Speak to the Stars

    His father explains to him that the little boy’s eyes come from his father, his grandfather Agong, and all their ancestors – and that his little brother Di-Di has the same eyes.

    Agong has an answer
    for every question I ask
    on our early morning walks,
    but when I hug him goodnight,
    he cups my face in his hands
    and looks at me
    like I am the only answer that matters.

    Eyes That Speak to the Stars

    This is a story about heritage, and family love in all its forms. I recently reviewed The Love that Grew, which tells of the love a mother feels for her children. Eyes That Speak to the Stars is a celebration of boys and their fathers, grandfathers, and the links that bind generations together. It’s a big story for little people, but the lyrical text and rich illustrations tell it well.

    Eyes That Speak to the Stars is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Hopeful alternatives: ‘Into the Sideways World’ by Ross Welford

    The whole world was heading for war when Manny Weaver and I went through a ‘grey hole’ to another world.
    Till then, I didn’t believe in magic. Fairies, witches, magic spells, strange lands with talking animals, monsters with three heads and potions to turn you into a giant?
    …Then I encountered Manny, and the strange animal we called a ‘cog’, and the brother who I’d never met because he died before I was born. I rode through a lightning storm on a flying jet ski, and lived in a World Without War.
    And so now, if you ask me if I believe in magic? Let’s just say I’m not so sure.

    Into the Sideways World p3

    One of my favourite childhood books was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis – actually, I adored the whole Narnia series. It was something about the possibility of entering another world, parallel with, but completely different to, our own.

    Into the Sideways World by British author Ross Welford offers middle grade readers that opportunity to imagine another world. In this case, though, the Sideways World is not populated by magical creatures, but by the same people in Willa and Manny’s world – their families, friends, teachers – just different versions of the same people.

    This new world is very different in all other ways from their normal one. It’s an alternative world, in that its people have figured out how to stop warfare, avoid climate change and pollution, feed and house everyone – and they love wearing bright colours.

    Manny and Willa are both delightful characters, each with their own challenges and problems, whose friendship forms the basis of the novel. Together they try to figure out how to return to their own world, but also to bring home with them the messages of hope and positivity – a different way of doing things – from the Sideways World.

    I enjoyed the little snippets of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Doctor Who, J F Kennedy, and genetic experimentation, among others. I also love that it’s set in the Tyneside area of northeast England (home of the Geordie accent). There are occasional echoes of Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 novel, A Wrinkle in Time (also a novel I loved), with its exploration of the concepts of time and space travel.

    Into the Sideways World is a story of hope and possibility – something youngsters very much need just now. It will be enjoyed by readers who like to imagine, explore, and wonder.

    Into the Sideways World is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in February 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    World Between Blinks #2: ‘Rebellion of the Lost’ by Amie Kaufman & Ryan Graudin

    Yes! Another instalment in the World Between Blinks, what I hope will become a long series for middle-grade readers. I loved Book 1 (here’s my review) so this sequel was very welcome.

    Book 2 continues the magical, sometimes chaotic, occasionally scary but always fun world of the Lost. Every item, person, geographical feature and building in the world that has been ‘lost’ to history, ends up in this world. The problem is that the Administrator, in charge of the team of Curators who log and document all the comings and goings of things, has decided it is all way too chaotic for his liking.

    So, he implements strict new controls designed to restore order. The unintended consequences of these rules are separated families, bored inhabitants, and a sterile, humourless World. Enter the rebels: all those who want to see their World returned to the creative, beautiful place it had been.

    Cousins Marisol and Jake, along with Marisol’s older, teenaged brother Victor, are drawn back to try to assist the rebels. What follows is a rollicking adventure with some fearful moments, new friendships and old ones rediscovered.

    On the way, Marisol and Victor learn some new things about each other and get to see their sibling in a new light. This insight stretches to others in the World: a beautiful metaphor for how, if we only stop to look, we can realise that people are not all ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – even individuals like the Administrator has an inner life that guides what he does, even if somewhat misguidedly.

    ‘That’s the thing the Administrator doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand. Put everyone back in their zones, and they’ll be exactly the same forever. But everything changes. I’m not the same person I was back home. I used to think some things, say some things that – well, I’ve learned a lot. That’s what happens when you’re always exploring. You learn new lessons.’

    Rebellion of the Lost p139

    The Administrator has the power to ‘flip’ the hourglasses of every person in the World, thus erasing their memories. The process and its result is rather like an accelerated version of what happens to a person who suffers from a dementia illness such as Alzheimer’s. This could be a good analogy to explain what that disease is, for youngsters who have a family member diagnosed with it.

    On a personal note, I was intrigued that the ‘lost mountain tops’ in the World includes Mt St Helens, the volcano in America’s Washington State that literally blew off its peak in 1980. I’d spent a year in Washington State in 1979 and was very familiar with how that particular mountain top had looked before it became ‘lost.’

    I’m looking forward to Book 3 in the World Between Blinks series!

    The World Between Blinks: Rebellion of the Lost is published by Harper Collins in February 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.