• Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Mystery & history for kids: ‘The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle’ by Jackie French

    Is Jackie French among Australia’s most productive – perhaps I should say prolific – author? From her busy mind and creative genius pour picture books, fiction and non fiction for older children and adults, and book series to please all ages and tastes. The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is book two in the Butter O’Bryan Mystery series for middle-grade readers.

    Set in the 1930’s during the Depression, the series follows the adventures of Butter who lives with his friends Gil, Olive and Tish, their dog Woofer, and three Aunts with unusual nicknames – Elephant, Cake and Peculiar. The Very Small Castle is just what it’s name suggests – a mini castle built on the shore of Howler’s Beach, and it is complete with battlements and a dungeon as all good castles should be.

    A ‘talking movie’ is being filmed on the beach and the children are asked to join the action, when the beautiful star Delilah Divine vanishes without leaving a trace. Has she been been kidnapped? Lost to the sea? Butter is determined to solve the mystery.

    Ms French incorporates a great many historical references in these books, from the ‘Susso camp’ nearby (a shanty town of the kind found outside many Australian towns during the Depression) to Australia’s early film industry. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is about to be opened, characters speak using early 20th century Australianisms, and food on the menu ranges from the then very new fad of pavlova, to ‘bread and dripping’.

    There’s a wonderful section in the back of the book which explains many of these aspects of Australian history, and includes recipes for traditional treats like Victoria Sponge, Bubble and Squeak and Boiled Fruit Cake. There’s also instructions on how to play games like Knucklebones or Blue Murder (which I knew as ‘Murder in the Dark’ when I was a kid.)

    All of the history is embedded naturally in a rollicking tale of a disappearing actress, a circus performer and a monster, and a crime to be solved.

    Most of all, the story is about friendship, sharing, and embracing difference:

    His family. Not a normal family, maybe. But normal was much less fun…Butter grinned. There were many ways to make a family.

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle p233

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle and the Butter O’Bryan series will be enjoyed by middle-grade readers who like mystery and history together in a story.

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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

    What can be put right? ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ by Susanne Gervay

    This new historical fantasy / timeslip novel by Australian author Susanne Gervay is aimed at middle grade or younger ‘young adult'(YA) readers. I do love a good timeslip story – I still remember the pleasure I had reading Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow and the way it brought Sydney’s past to life. This one moves between 2000 in Sydney, to the winter of 1944 in Budapest, Hungary- perhaps Hungary’s darkest period during WWII. The novel is inspired by the author’s own family’s experiences in Budapest during the Holocaust and I particularly love that Ms Gervay honours her family story in this way.

    I think it it always hard, when deciding how much and what to tell youngsters about such awful events, to find that balance between honesty, not minimising the horrors, and respect for the sensitivities of younger readers. In my view this novel strikes the right note, visiting some of the crimes and atrocities committed by Nazis without becoming gratuitous. As always when I read historical fiction that includes events or people about whom I previously knew little, I looked for information on Hungary during WWII, and sure enough found references to the youth underground, the children’s houses in Budapest, the fascist Arrow Cross regime and the war crimes that took place along the banks of the river Danube. There is a terrific section at the back of the book that gives the historical facts of events and people included, in bite sized offerings just right for younger readers.

    I found the present tense narrative style, and short, almost staccato sentences, didn’t work for me, but that is just a matter of taste. The main characters (Louie, Bert, Teddy, Grandma and Pa) are believable and likeable and the fantasy elements flow well. I loved the motifs throughout: music, shoes and magnolias connect the past to the present in a natural and evocative way.

    The theme of the novel is perhaps summed up well in this quote:

    ‘Terrible secrets.’ Louie catches her breath.
    “Terrible secrets,’ Naomi repeats quietly. ‘We have to know the past, otherwise everything’s just a maze. We’re buried in lies and dead ends. It’s hard to find the way out then.’

    Heroes of the Secret Underground p137

    The three children at the centre of the story travel unwillingly back to a time when terrible deeds were done that became terrible secrets. They find that many things can’t be put right, but that there are some things that can.

    Heroes of the Secret Underground will suit middle grade and younger YA readers who enjoy fantasy elements in historical stories that explore some darker moments in history, but also show how unity, friendship and courage can help restore a balance.

    Heroes of the Secret Underground is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    A fun mix of history and fantasy for middle grade readers: ‘The World Between Blinks’ by Amie Kaufman & Ryan Graudin

    Amie Kaufman is a much-loved writer of fantasy and adventure for middle grade and young adult readers. She has teamed up with another best-selling author, Ryan Graudin, for a new middle grade series, of which The World Between Blinks is Book One.

    First of all, this is such a cool title reflecting an equally cool premise: that there is another world that exists in parallel with our own, that some people (especially youngsters) can occasionally get a fleeting glimpse or sense of it – in between blinks.

    The book lives up to its promise of terrific world-building by the authors, some adventure, a treasure map and lots of magic, and engaging characters, especially the two protagonists, cousins Jake and Marisol, who arrive in the world by accident and must find the one person who can help them return home.

    Being a history nut, I especially enjoyed the way the story is peppered with figures and events from the past. The World between Blinks is the place where lost things are found, so the cousins come across many ‘lost’ people and things: aviatrix Amelia Earhart; former Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt; a thylacine (the extinct Tasmanian Tiger); brown M&M’s; London’s Crystal Palace; a Viking; the Ninth Roman Legion are just some examples.

    My feeling is that this would be a great springboard for some ferreting in a library or the internet by youngsters keen to discover who and what and when and why. I confess to doing a bit of ‘Googling’ of some of the references with which I was less familiar.

    The historical gems are dropped in with humour and a light touch and they add much to the story.

    At a deeper level, The World between Blinks explores memories, what it means to leave friends and places behind, and what makes family special.

    But what Marisol was really trying to hold on to was her family’s togetherness, and you couldn’t keep that in your hand any more than you could catch a puff of smoke…You couldn’t use a particular thing or a certain place to make your life just the way you wanted.
    But you could hold onto love…
    You could hold onto the things that made you you.

    The World Between Blinks p255

    An added bonus is the way in which so many cross cultural references are included, including American, Australian, Bolivian. Marisol and her parents speak both Spanish and English so Spanish expressions are effortlessly woven into the dialogue without losing the meaning and flow of the narrative.

    The World Between Blinks is a wonderful beginning to a new middle grade fantasy series. It will be enjoyed by readers who like adventure, magic, and a little history, all rolled into a satisfying package.

    The World Between Blinks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Sweet celebration of friends: ‘Super Cute – The Sleepover Surprise’ by Pip Bird

    Things cute and cuddly have an undeniable appeal for children, so Pip Bird’s Super Cute series of early chapter books are well aimed. The stories feature kittens, unicorns, bunnies, and mice, as well as muffins, milkshakes and sloths. Everything is sparkly, multicoloured and magical.

    In The Sleepover Surprise, Sammy can’t wait for all his friends to arrive for his special sleepover night. He’s planned a spaghetti dinner and a treasure hunt. Everyone turns up, as instructed, in dress-up onesies, ready to have fun at the Museum of Most Important Items (MOMII).

    What Sammy hasn’t counted on is that his party will be gatecrashed by Clive, a particularly nasty and selfish little chihuahua. Even wearing a tutu, Clive is an unwelcome guest, but the friends try their best to include him in the fun.

    They also look after each other, especially when little Pip the Pineapple (who has never been to a sleepover before) has a moment of the collywobbles.

    All is well as the party group find the treasure hunt clues and work out ways to make MOMII an exciting and fun place to visit. But Clive the Chihuahua has one last trick up his onesie sleeve that threatens to turn the party into chaos…

    While I find too much ‘cute’ a bit cloying, I enjoyed the playfulness of the story and language, such as poking fun at oh-so-serious museums, and the rhyming and alliterative jokes.

    I had a chuckle that the ‘baddie’ in this story is a chihuahua, as it one breed of dog that I actually loathe. Don’t get me started on them – you either love or hate chihuahuas, it seems to me!

    Super Cute – The Sleepover Surprise will appeal to young readers starting on chapter books, and the illustrations throughout support the story. Kids who love unicorns, sparkles and cupcakes will love this series.

    Super Cute – The Sleepover Surprise was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2021.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.