• Children's & Young Adult Books

    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.
    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.

    Be Careful, Xiao Xin!

    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,
    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.

    Be Careful, Xiao Xin!

    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.

  • 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

    “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

    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

    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.

  • 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

    D&D Adventures for middle-grade readers: ‘Dungeon Academy-No Humans Allowed!’ by Madeline Roux

    I’ve not been a Dungeons & Dragons player but I’m certainly aware of its long standing popularity.

    Madeline Roux (with illustrator Tim Probert) have created a fun adventure for primary and early secondary aged readers, featuring locations and characters worthy of the best D&D story.

    Essentially, this novel is about friendship and diversity.

    We meet Zelli, adopted by her two Minotaur mothers, who knows she is different from her classmates at the Dungeon Academy, where the focus is on learning to be fearsome and frightening. One day she stumbles across information in a textbook about Allidora Steelstrike, a skilled and famous adventurer, and Zelli’s world changes. The picture shows a human who looks a lot like Zelli herself. Could she also be of the Steelstrike bloodline – a human, not a monster or creature?

    And if she is, what does that mean for her future at the Academy and within her family? After all, Academy students are being prepared to do battle with humans, to hate them and want to fight them.

    So Zelli sets out on a quest to find Allidora Steelstrike and find out if she is a Steelstrike too.

    But she’s not alone. Joining her are Hugo, a huge Owlbear who (unlike the rest of his kind) loves to eat vegetables and hates meat; Snabla (a juvenile kobold who wants to prove himself worthy of his father’s shield), and Bauble (a shapeshifting mimic of indeterminate gender).

    The foursome are all misfits at the Academy, but together prove to be a force to be reckoned with.

    In the process, Zelli learns that family is where you feel at home, and kindness is what really counts, along with courage.

    All her life, her mothers had been preparing her for this moment – to stand tall and face down whatever adversity came to her. She tried to embody them, tried to feel nine feet tall and made of iron, with horns that could gore and hooves that could stampede. What she actually looked like, she didn’t know, but she felt in her heart like her adopted mothers’ daughter, a mighty minotaur.

    Dungeon Academy p136

    Dungeon Academy 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

    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.