Timeslip: ‘Running with Ivan’ by Suzanne Leal
How do you explain to youngsters an event as unimaginable as the Holocaust in a way that elicits empathy and understanding rather than trauma?
Australian author Suzanne Leal has chosen a timeslip novel that allows readers to imagine themselves in the midst of such horror, while relating it to modern-day concerns of children and teens. In the author’s words:
The enormity of the Holocaust makes it almost impossible to comprehend. Mindful of this, I wanted to bring an immediacy to wartime Europe when writing Running with Ivan. That is why Leo – a boy from the twenty-first century with little understanding of the war and its impact – needed to find himself dropped right in the middle of it. Only then could he begin to understand what actually happened.Author’s Note, Running with Ivan p 308
Leo is thirteen, unhappy at having to share a bedroom in his new home with his detestable stepbrother Cooper. He still misses his mum who died two years ago. Now his dad has remarried: to a nice woman with horrible sons. There is nowhere Leo can go to get away from Cooper and his older brother Troy. Until he discovers a corner of the unused garage, and his mother’s old wind-up music box.
The music box proves to be a portal into the past, and Leo is transported to various times and places before, during and after World War II. He meets Ivan, who grows from a small child to a teenager as Leo appears and disappears. Ivan is Czech, and Jewish, and on each of Leo’s visits to his world, things are getting darker and more dangerous for Ivan and his family.
On a later visit, Leo finds himself in Theresienstadt, a walled ghetto used by the Nazis as a concentration camp, from where they transported trainloads of people to Auschwitz. He takes a terrible risk to save his friends, Ivan and Olinda, from being put on a transport.
The motif of running is used throughout the novel, as Leo discovers he has a talent for speed and finds that it soothes and distracts him from his problems at home and his worries about his Czech friends. There is a lovely link between his elderly coach, Mr Livingstone, and Leo’s wartime experiences, which is revealed at the end of the story.
Throughout the novel, Leo learns more about the experiences of people during WWII; the grim realities of life in Europe at that time; and his own struggles with his family. He also learns that he can overcome difficulties:
“Take it from me, Leo, at thirteen, you can do almost anything. Never forget this. Difficult things, courageous things: they are all possible, even at thirteen. No, especially at thirteen.”Running with Ivan, p39
Running with Ivan is a terrific example of how timeslip stories can immerse a reader in the past (or future) while remaining connected to their own present. I was especially moved to read that the idea for the story came from the author’s friendship with a Czech man who had himself experienced the horrors of Theresienstadt.
The book is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
Trio of new picture books: ‘Grannysaurus’, ‘The Easter Bum Book’ & ‘Dorrie’
Three new picture books for young children celebrate family, dinosaurs, Easter fun and Australian literature.
Grannysaurus by UK best-selling David Walliams riffs on the enduring fascination of littlies for all things dinosaur, with a big dollop of Grandma love. (Whatever did youngsters get obsessed about before dinosaurs became a thing?)
Spike is on a sleepover with his Granny (who is a ‘cool’ grandma with spiky grey hair, big hoop earrings and fashionably round glasses.) He is reluctant to go to sleep but is finally in bed, when he hears the sounds of a party from downstairs. Creeping down to peek, he sees Granny turned into a big blue dinosaur, a spin-osaurus, spinning tunes on the deck, while an assortment of other dinosaurs dance all over the loungeroom. He encounters a tetchy triceratops on the loo, a plesiosaurus in the bath, and brachiosauruses bouncing on the bed. But when a huge T-Rex arrives, dapper in a bowler hat and carrying a walking cane, who flicks Spike out to the moon with his tail, he decides to take himself off to bed at last.
It’s a fun bedtime story with big, colourful illustrations and interesting vocabulary (exploded, lumbering, exclaimed, flicked, surfed, stomped…)
Grannysaurus is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2023.
The Easter Bum Book is a follow-up to Kate Mayers and Andrew Joyner’s Christmas Bum Book, published in 2022. Now, I said in my piece about the first ‘Bum Book’ that I do feel a little bit jaded by the plethora of bums in children’s books. That still stands; however as with its earlier cousin, this new book offers a playfulness about common Easter themes in its text and illustrations, with some sly references to popular culture thrown in (who remembers Tiny Tim’s ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips?) Very young children will enjoy the pictures of all things Easter, cleverly morphed into all things bums.
The Easter Bum Book is also published by HarperCollins Children’s Books and arrives just in time for Easter 2023.
The third of my trio today is another Australian offering, this one about an iconic Australian children’s book author and illustrator. Written and illustrated by Tania McCartney, Dorrie tells the story of Dorothy Wall, the creator of the classic Blinky Bill stories. Overseas readers may not know of the cuddly Australian koala, whose mischievous nature takes him on all sorts of adventures. He has been a much-loved character of Australian children’s literature since he first appeared in the 1930’s; in the 1990’s he starred in a movie and TV series.
Dorothy Wall is one of those well-known Australians claimed by both New Zealand and Australia – a bit like the pavlova! In Dorrie we read about her childhood in New Zealand where she wrote stories, created all sorts of lovely things on her sewing machine, played music and danced.
Her creativity came with her to Australia, which is where she first met Blinky and the stories about him took shape.
Dorrie is a gentle and imaginative telling of the story of Blinky and his creator, beautifully illustrated by the author in soft colours that capture the tints of the Australian landscape in which Blinky lives.
It’s published by HarperCollins in February 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for copies of these books to review.
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…Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom p 271-272
‘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.’
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.
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.Waiting for the Storks p76
‘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.
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.
From stormy to calm: 4 new picture books for frazzled kids (and parents)
In what is perhaps a response to the alarming rise of diagnosed anxiety conditions in young children, here are four new picture books to assist parents and kids find moments of calm and peace.
Two are especially aimed at soothing bedtime dramas and creating a quiet space conducive to sleep.
From ABC Kids and HarperCollins, these sweet little books are all about sleep.
Tjitji Lullaby, by Michael Ross and Zaachariaha Fielding, brings to a board book the lyrics and illustrations of the lullaby story, set in Central Australia. Meaning ‘child’ in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) languages, in Tjitji we have a mother kangaroo guiding her joey (baby kangaroo) to sleep – ‘sleep is a present after a day that was gorgeous.’
Here is the lullaby as seen on ABC TV. Lovely, isn’t it? And so simple – a perfect addition to parents’ repertoire of lullabies. The board book format is robust enough to withstand chewing, sticky fingers, and anything else a baby can throw at it.
The second sleep-themed book is by Byll & Beth Stephen: the Teeny Tiny Stevies, back again with their wry humour and charm, hitting the mark for sleep-deprived parents. In Sleep Through the Night, we explore the world of sleep – how other creatures (like dolphins, albatross, walruses, bats…) sleep in different ways – but always coming back to what we humans need. There is a touch of wishful thinking which adds to the humour:
Some species can sleep standing up straight,
but human beings need to be in a lying-down shape.
Some species can sleep
with their eyes open,
but most human beings
need to close them.
The illustrations by Simon Howe are just gorgeous and add to the fantastical feel of this sleepy world: it’s a sweetly funny hymn to a good night’s sleep.
Now that sleep has been dealt with, how about those stormy feelings? The next two new releases are here to help.
The new Play School ‘Mindfully Me’ series helps to soothe troubled emotions in the very young, by exploring how friends – and taking a moment to Breathe In and Out – can make things right again. Written by Jan Stradling and illustrated by Jedda Robaard, we see Big Ted trying to deal with troublesome emotions. His friends come to visit, but Big Ted just doesn’t feel like playing. One by one, Jemima, Little Ted, Kiya and Humpty show Big Ted the different ways they calm their own stormy feelings. The beloved Play School characters will be instantly recognisable for small Aussie kids and the book uses simple text and gentle pictures to tell the story of how Big Ted learns to relax and enjoy his day.
Finally, we come to Sarah Ayoub’s new picture book, Nice and Slow. It’s all about how a family rediscovers the joys of a slow day:
Let’s take today nice and slow,
have a break from the go-go-go.
Spend some extra time in bed,
release the worries in our head.
Let’s make our breakfast a special treat,
banana pancakes cannot be beat!
Hopefully most parents can remember those days as children, in school holidays or on a weekend, when we didn’t have ‘be somewhere’ or ‘do something’ – school, dance class, Saturday sport, music lesson. When we could hang about in our PJs until lunch, chatting to our family, playing a card game or riding our bike, making something or baking a cake. Just – because. That’s what this book is about. Recapturing that wonderful sense of freedom, connection and quietness, for ourselves and our younger generation. The illustrations by Mimi Purnell show a family doing just that. Nothing special or out of the ordinary: but actually, in contrast to the sometimes-frenetic pace of life, quite extraordinary.
So, four picture books to suit youngsters from babies to early primary age. And three of them just in time for Christmas – published by HarperCollins in late November 2022. Breathe In and Out will be released in January 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for copies to read and review.
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.Be Careful, Xiao Xin!
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.
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,Be Careful, Xiao Xin!
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.