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

    Growing empathy: ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’ by Katrina Nannestad

    Once again, Australian children’s book author Katrina Nannestad brings us a story of children at war. As with her 2020 book We Were Wolves, this one features the experiences of kids caught up in the turmoil and tragedy of WWII in Europe.

    This time, the protagonist is a small Russian boy, Sasha, who at the age of six sees his village and his family destroyed by invading German soldiers. He faces starvation and other dangers until he is adopted by a passing company of Red Army troops. The Author’s Note tells us that Sasha is based loosely on the story of a real Russian child who joined with a troop of Russian soldiers as a bid for survival. He was about six to eight years old. Apparently there were many such children for whom the dubious ‘safety’ of the front line with troops was preferable to almost certain death from hunger or exposure on their own.

    It’s a shocking concept and the author acknowledges that this is confronting territory, especially for children. What she has created, though, is a story of love and hope; of how people need each other not only to survive, but to grow.

    The opening plunges us into a Russian military hospital with Sasha, who is recovering from numerous injuries, though we don’t learn why until towards the end. Sasha is ten and has spent four years with his company of Red Army soldiers. Trauma has robbed him of his ability to speak. Each night he roams the ward, stealing an odd assortment of items from staff and other patients. He has a collection of these pilfered things under his bed.

    Over the course of the book, these items become triggers for Sasha to gradually remember all the events that led up to this point: his flight from home; finding the Red Army company; the characters and personalities of the individuals there; and the way Sasha brings joy and comfort to these battle-weary soldiers in his childish, trusting innocence. He accompanies the troop as it makes its slow way to Stalingrad, and then westward to Berlin as the tide of war turns in their favour. They are protective of Sasha and care for him, in part because he reminds them of their own loved ones back home.

    As his memories return, he finds speech and so, bit by bit, he recounts his experiences to the hospital doctors, nurses and patients.

    Sasha’s story turns full circle as the novel concludes; by which time he has learned the truth of his shared humanity with the people he has regarded as the enemy.

    There are hints of the atrocities committed on both sides in this war. They are not explicit, though an adult reading alongside a child will understand the references. They are here to point out the basic truth that people are people (good and bad) no matter which army they fight with. Sasha learns a bitter lesson in Berlin, that hatred and revenge achieve nothing. The major in charge of his unit says:

    Returning cruelty for cruelty makes the hatred and misery grow. Their misery. Our misery. Surely we have had enough sorrow to last a lifetime. To last a thousand lifetimes. We must choose a better way.

    Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief p279

    Ultimately, it is our children and grandchildren who can make our world a more peaceful one. Empathy is an essential ingredient in this quest. Books such as this one, which combine plenty of wartime drama and adventure in a context of understanding war’s futility and cruelties, can help young readers to see the world from different perspectives and experiences than their own. This is how empathy is grown.

    Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2021.
    It would be suitable for readers 10 years and older.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Talking pets? Yes please! ‘The School for Talking Pets’ by Kelli Anne Hawkins

    This book ticks many boxes for lots of children: pets (of all kinds), a school that is actually fun, making new friends, and two baddies who want to rule the world.

    The main character, Rusty, is a very ordinary boy who suffers from low confidence and has not had much go right in his young life. He wins a competition that takes him and his best friend, his pet blue tongue lizard Bongo, to a secret island, where he hopes Bongo will learn to talk at the School for Talking Pets.

    There are other youngsters who arrive with him, from Japan, Germany, England and the USA, all hopeful that their pets will also talk.

    Things don’t go quite as smoothly as they might have wanted, though, because there are two secret spies sent to the island by people who plan to use the animals for their own nefarious purposes. By the end, Rusty and Bongo are the unlikely heroes.

    I loved that the school is the brainwave of Miss Alice Einstein, the great-granddaughter of the famous scientist Albert. I also enjoyed the nod to the principles of effective education: Believe in learners. Listen to them. Lead by example. Make learning interesting. Give learners time and freedom to learn at their own pace.

    Hmmm… wouldn’t it be great if all teaching could be like that?

    The School for Talking Pets combines friendly animals, some madcap adventure, and a mystery to solve, in a package that will be sure to please middle-grade readers who love their pets.

    The School for Talking Pets is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Nerdy fun: ‘The Curse of the Vampire Robot’ by Graeme Base

    Who can go past a Graeme Base book, with their clever play-on-words humour and illustrations that you can simply fall into? This new one is especially fun and will bring a smile to parents and teachers, too, chock full as it is with references to all things tech.

    In the Scottish Highlands, a modern-day take on an old folk story plays out. There’s a vampire in a grim castle atop a hill, fearful valley-dwellers, a humble cleaner. Littered throughout are tech references: there is a ‘baby ware-wolf’, a corrupted hard drive, range anxiety, a packet of ‘juicy little USBs’… you get the idea. It’s a playful mash-up of vampire tropes and the world of computers.

    We think you had a virus’, said the ware-wolf.
    “Or a worm.
    We ware-wolves often get them –
    you can feel the malware squirm.’

    The Curse of the Vampire Robot

    It’s a lovely addition to kids’ bookshelves for fans of Graeme Base and those new to his work.

    The Curse of the Vampire Robot is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins, in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Blend of mystery and historical fiction for younger readers: ‘The Fire Star: A Maven and Reeve Mystery’ by A.L.Tait

    A.L.Tait is an Australian author well known for her adventure stories for middle-grade readers, including the MapMaker Chronicles series. The Fire Star is the first of a new series featuring two very likeable characters, Maven and Reeve.

    Set in a kind of fictional mediaeval world, it is a mystery and adventure story involving the disappearance of a valuable gemstone (the Fire Star of the title). In the kingdom of Cartreff, Reeve has just arrived at Rennart Castle to begin his duties as newly made squire to Sir Garrick. He meets Maven, whose nondescript appearance as a humble maid to the Lady Cassandra belies her intelligent and quick mind – and hides her secret.

    The two young people are thrown together when the Fire Start disappears. In the uproar that follows, the hopes and plans of them both are thrown into jeopardy, unless they can solve the mystery of its disappearance – and do so quickly.

    There are knights, jousting, witches and a hiding place deep in the forest – all elements of a good fantasy or historical fiction.

    What shines in the novel are the two young characters, whose different skills complement each other perfectly. From reluctant beginnings and distrust, they must work together to avert disaster.

    There are some pithy comments throughout on the perils of being an outsider in any society:

    To them, we are outsiders, Reeve, and nobody is more vulnerable than a person who is other.’

    The Fire Star p120

    My favourite revelation in the story is the ‘Beech Circle’ , about which (in the interests of avoiding a spoiler), I won’t say more, other than to agree that every girl and woman needs their own Beech Circle.

    I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the Maven and Reeve series.

    The Fire Star: A Maven & Reeve Mystery was published by Penguin Random House in 2020.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Books and Magic: ‘The Travelling Bookshop’ by Katrina Nannestad

    A new book for younger readers that illustrates the role books can play in our lives, this delightful offering by Australian author Katrina Nannestad (author of We Were Wolves) also includes magic and travel. Perfect to encourage dreaming, especially in this time of Covid when for many families, travel is just that – a dream.

    Ten year old Mim lives with her dad and her little brother in a wooden caravan that is both their home and a bookshop. Flossy the horse pulls the caravan to where it is most needed – in this story, they arrive in The Netherlands where they meet a little Dutch girl called Willemina.

    Mim’s dad has the task of figuring out what the perfect book is for each person who visits their magical bookshop. That is not always the book the person most wants. It is, however, always the book they most need.

    At first, Mim tries to figure out the perfect book for Willemina, who is sad because of the bullying she receives at school from her classmate Gerta. With Dad’s help, she realises that perhaps it is not just Willemina who needs the perfect book this time…

    As well as spending time in the bookshop, the family loves to explore each new place they come to, enjoying wild days of fun and fantasy. Sometimes, Dad gets confused between things they have done and things they have read in books.

    ‘Huh,’ says Dad. ‘Just like that cow we saw jumping over the moon.’
    ‘Dad,’ I moan. ‘That didn’t really happen. It was something we read in my nursery rhyme book.’
    Dad narrows his eyes. ‘Are you sure about that, Mim?’
    I think about it for a moment.
    I look at Daisy.
    No. I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell with books and real life. The line is not as clear as you think.’

    The Travelling Bookshop p185

    The Travelling Bookshop is about family, friends, the magic of books and being kind. Illustrated by Cheryl Orsini, it’s a sweet story perfect for reading aloud or for younger children starting out on chapter books.

    The Travelling Bookshop is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in July 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for an advance reading copy to review.

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

    Magic of buttons: ‘Eliza Vanda’s Button Box’ by Emily Rodda

    When I was a little girl, I loved looking through my Nanna’s button collection. At one point she began to give my mother assorted buttons each time we visited; much later on I realised that Nanna knew she was dying of cancer and had begun divesting herself of objects. Perhaps they were special buttons, treasured for some memory they evoked of happier times. I’ll never know. Now I have my own modest button collection and I sometimes think of Nanna when I search through them to replace a missing shirt button.

    The new story from award-winning Australian author Emily Rodda is all about buttons and the mysterious but kind woman who appears in Milly Dynes’ small village with her magical button collection.

    Milly is in the midst of a spate of difficulties in her life, and meeting Eliza Vanda (or EV as she is known) and her companion Victor, takes her into a magical world in which she encounters witches, black jellybeans, a princess, a bewitched frog and a beautiful wedding dress.

    It’s a gentle story with humour and compassion in equal parts, and allows younger readers to explore emotions such as sadness or anger in a safe context. Milly is a sweet and clever girl and EV and Victor quite complex characters; Milly quickly realises that things (and people) are not always entirely as they appear.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box endows the humble button with a significance which I think is fully deserved, as I recall the pleasure I had in sorting through my Nanna’s button box all those years ago.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • 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.