May-June 2016 : New Books for children and Teenagers. Reviewer: Janet

May-June: New Books for children and Teenagers. Reviewer: Janet Croft.  

 *The more stars the better the read…

 Picture Books

 ****Circle, by Jeannie Baker. HB from Walker Books. RRP $27.99

 Jeannie Baker is renowned for the quality and style of her picture books. She is an expert with collage, and uses her expertise and love of the technique to present her stories in a way which appeal to children both because of the content and because there is so much to talk about on every double page spread. Many children do not believe that the illustrations are not either photos or painted, so they love trying to work out how the author has developed each collage.   Baker present the life story and yearly cycle of the bar-tailed Godwit, a bird which migrates annually betwseen Australia or New Zealand and Alaska. Baker remarks that “The challenge we face now is now to live our lives without destroying the places that are crucial to the shorebirds ancient, wondrous Circle of Life”. There are illustrations and comments about other animals and birds which migrate in the book as well as the godwits, and the final double page contains a map, and outline of how and where the birds migrate, and where they feed en route. This is a wonderful book, and I hope it will earn an award when the Children’s Book   Council awards are made later this year. Suitable for children from 5-12 years, with supervision from adults as appropriate.

Reflection, by Rebecka Sharpe Shelberg and Robin Cowcher. HB from Walker Books. RRP $24.99

 This is a story told through evocative watercolour illustrations. The written text is minimal, and for many families who take their children to ceremonies on Anzac Day, the pictures will be the important memory prop. The author has linked themes, such as marching with the dawn service, and cold rainy trenches with empty city streets. There is also a lot of symbolism—in particular poppies, crosses, and candles, and the ways in which we use these symbols to remember Australian and New Zealand service personnel who have died, or served in any of ten major world conflicts from the Boer war to the present. There is a double page spread with information about each of these conflicts at the back of the book. This is a thought-provoking book, suitable for children of about 4-12 years.

*Desert Lake: The Story of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, by Pamela Freeman, and illustrated by Liz Anelli. HB from Walker Books. RRP $24.99

Lake Eyre is at the lowest point below sea level in Australia, and this is the reason that it is our largest surviving remnant of an ancient inland sea. Kati Thanda is the local name, and Lake Eyre is named for the explorer who was the first European to visit the area. The lake is fed by rivers which feed in from northern Queensland and the Northern Territory, and is the home of numerous animals and birds, many of whose habitat is now threatened by climate change, or by non-native predators. Many of the birds only appear when the lake is full, and there is a magnificent spectacle from on land, but also from the air. This is a superb presentation of facts and pictures for children of al ages to look at, read, and remember. The double page at the end provides an index, and a simple map which shows the location of Lake Eyre, and of the rivers which feed it. This story is part of a collection called Nature Storybooks, and will be an asset to all school libraries, and many homes. It will be enjoyed by children of about 6-12 years. There is one small fault on the back page, where ‘word’ is used, when probably the choice should have been ‘font’ or “print’.

*Beth, the Story of a Child Convict, by Mark Wilson. HB from Lothian and Hachette.   RRP $24.99

When Beth, who is very young, and being transported form England to the Colony of New South Wales by herself, meets Molly on the ship, Beth becomes much happier because Molly is older and able to help Beth cope with all the strangeness of arriving in a rough new settlement, as a convict. The two girls become good friends are placed in work together. The readers will learn of the difficulties with work, the weather, and the diseases which ravaged both the new settlers and the indigenous people. Molly eventually dies from smallpox, but Beth survives. The story is based on the life of the youngest convict to come to Australia—Elizabeth Hayward. This book makes interesting, thought-provoking reading, and will appeal to readers, probably mainly girls of 7-12 years.

Take Ted Instead, by Cassandra Webb and illustrated by Amanda Francey. HB from Scholastic. RRP $24.99

 One small un-named boy tries to avoid going to bed when everyone else is still up—he suggests a variety of creatures, some with made up names-should go to bed instead of him—until he realizes that if Ted goes to bed as well as the others, HE is the one who will be lonely downstairs. Bright and amusing pictures, and a simple story with appeal to readers of 2- 5 years.

Supermum, by Leah Russack. HB from Scholastic. RRP $16.99

 This is a story about mums, and how marvelous they can be. The illustrations reveal that mums have superhuman strength, sometimes wear a cloak a bit like Superman, and can defeat or scare lots of imaginary creatures as well as do many superhuman tasks. This is a fun book which praises mothers—released just prior to Mother’s Day, but really appropriate for every day of the year. Suitable for young people of 3-6 years.

The Whole Caboodle, by Lisa Shanahan and illustrations by Leila Rudge. HB from Scholastic. RRP $$24.99

There are lots of word pictures in this story as we read about the pup that goes for a walk to the park, and finds lots of weird but wonderful new friends. The book combines counting the dogs on each page with interesting and novelty names for the dogs, such as Irish Toodles and Goldendoodles. Confusing? I don’t think so because it is obvious that the names are made up, and these names provide lots of alliteration and assonance which children of about 6 years will enjoy. The story is simple, and the illustrations are attractive and easy to ponder and to count the dogs.

***My Mum’s Special Secret, by Sally Morgan with Ambelin Kwaymullina. HB from Scholastic. RRP $24.99

 The pictures in this book are the highlight—but the simple prose and bold font are also clear and predictable as the mother kookaburra and her baby share the day’s activities. I am confident that this book will appeal mightily to children of about 2-4 years, and that they will look at the book by themselves, and demand that the story be read to them time and again. Excellent value.

The Midnight Possum, by Sally Morgan and Jess Racklyeft. HB from Scholastic RRP $24.99

 Another story from this eminent indigenous author —but just so different from The Whole Caboodle! Here we follow the adventures of the small possum that becomes stuck in a dirty dusty chimney one night, and how, with the help of some of the other animals, he is rescued without falling into the clutches of the dog or the cat. Another appealing story for children of 3-6 years.

*Blue and Bertie, by Kristyna Litten. PB from Scholastic. RRP $14.99

 When Bertie the giraffe oversleeps, he wakes to find that he has lost his herd, and that in fact he is lost. As Bertie looks for his family he finds another small giraffe, who shows Bertie just what an exciting place the world is. There is just one thing different about this new friend, but Bertie is sure that the difference will not be important when the two small giraffes both find and join Bertie’s herd. A fun book to read and the illustrations are a joy as well, especially the eyes of the animals. Fun for readers of 3-7 years.

Origami Heart by Binny. HB from Lothian and Hachette. RRP $24.99, PB $14.99

Kabuki is in a big city, and he is very lonely. His friend Yoko is supposed to be coming for lunch and Kabuki makes an origami paper heart for Yoko and prepares carefully for the meal. Sadly, when he returns home from the shops, there is a note to say that Yoko cannot come. Kabuki makes a paper plane out of the heart model, and flies it out the window. Another dainty girl rabbit catches the note, and comes to meet Kabuki, so all ends well. The design of the paper plane is at the back of the book (and that of the heart at the start) and it should appeal to children of 4-7 years, maybe with help from adults to learn to make the models. A delicate, but engaging story.

Gary, by Leila Rudge. HB from Walker Books. RRP $24.99

Gary is a racing pigeon, but for some reason or other, he was unable to fly. He learned however to keep a scrap book of everything the racing pigeons told him about where they went, and when one day Gary overbalanced in the coop, and fell to earth, he ended up, still clutching his scrapbook, in a rubbish skip, and was taken a long way from home. How he uses his scrapbook to find his way home again is a delightful, plausible story for young readers of about 3-6 years. They will also learn that there is more than one way to travel, and that brains can be just as important as the ability to fly—for pigeons of course.


***Our Home is Dirt by Sea, ed. by Diane Bates. PB from Walker Books. RRP $16.99

 The sub title of this anthology is “ “Australian Poems for Australian Kids” and I have been excited to read it—for several reasons. Many of the poems have been favourites of mine since I was introduced to them as a kid—and because all the poems are Australian, they will have a better chance to make sense to other young people. The categories for the rest of the book are appropriate for children – for example, “Mostly me”, “Families”, “people”, “sports,” “school”,” Australian animals”.

There is a fresh and almost face-to-face but written introduction from the editor, and the title, taken from Elizabeth Honey’s fun version of the National Anthem is delightfully quirky. There are notes about each poet at the end, so that kids and teachers can look up other poems. A few of the poems are ageless classics—for example The Last of his Tribe, by Henry Kendall, and The Circus by C.J Dennis, but most are from contemporary Australians, some already known as authors –including Sophie Masson, Bill Condon and Robin Klein. The book is small and the content well spread out—it is a great small book and I hope it is really successful. A great book for school libraries, teachers and kids of 7-14 years.

****Life Hacks, from Girlfriend Magazine. PB from Hachette. RRP about $16

This book is designed for teenage girls. It is a collection taken from the questions which readers of Girlfriend have posed to the advice panel of the magazine. The introduction says that many are the “cringe questions…. and topics that …. are even more awkward than your dad’s dance steps”. The answers to said questions are honest, quite detailed and in no frills language. For some of the answers about serious conditions such as eating disorders and anxiety the editorial panel has turned to experts in each field. Because of the nature of the content, some sections such as those about contraception and rape have a little warning balloon above them so that readers can choose not to read the material if it is distressing to them. It is a sensible, comprehensive and clear manual for girls as they hit puberty and the middle teenage years; Girlfriend and Hachette are to be applauded for its publication.

Junior Fiction.

Stuff Happens-Dale, by Adrian Beck. PB from Penguin. RRP $9.99

 This series has been prepared as a special interest series for young boys. It presents a variety of reasons why boys can feel bullied—at school, at home, or in sporting teams. Here, Dale has been selected to take part in the school play, called The School yard Jungle. Dale is to be a monkey, but with his red hair, the orange monkey suit made him look rather weird and there is a lot of amusement at Dale’s expense. How Dale comes to terms with his role, changes it, and ends up a star, is fun and reassuring reading for any redhead. For boys of 6-8 years.

Sporty Kids: Basketball, by Felice Arena, and illustrated by Tom Jellett. PB from Penguin. RRP $9.99

 A very easy to read book about basketball for readers and game enthusiasts of 5-8 years. The story tells how Jessica does not require lucky shoes to play well, although she was not confident of her own ability to start with. At the end of the story there are hints about the sport, jokes and some facts about the game as well.

Chook Doolan, The Newest Pet, and Rules are Rules—both by James Roy, with illustrations by Lucinda Gifford. PBs from Walker Books. RRP $7.99 each

Chook Doolan’s name is Simon, but because he is a bit of a chicken—that is, not very brave– he has been nicknamed Chook. Here we have two short books about events in Chook’s life which show that he is really quite an ordinary kid, and not a chicken at all. In the Newest Pet Chook takes his pet to school, and everyone discovers that Bruce the fish is really a very interesting an surprising pet—and this way Joe gets to have a pet as well. In Rules are Rules, Chook learns two ways to honour his dad’s rule about not talking to strangers on the way to and from school, whilst still helping others feel good about themselves, and Chook about himself too. These are simple but pleasant stories for newly independent readers of 5-7 years.

Within these Walls by Robin Bavarti, PB from Scholastic. RRP $16.99

 This is a novel, but there is lots of factual material about life in a Polish ghetto and the traumas experienced in such places by Jewish adults and children during World War 2. During the story Miri finds that one by one, her family and friends either die, or are removed from the ghettos, until she finds herself very much alone. It is only when the war ends and Miri is looked after by the Welfare Society, that she is reunited with one of her cousins, and the girlfriend of another cousin so that she no longer feels so alone. Although the story is fiction, it is a very sobering story about suffering in wartime, with factual information at the end about the Holocaust, and life in ghettos. The story is well written, but in small, dense font. I feel that it is suitable for junior secondary readers.

*Star of Deltora, the Towers of Illica, by Emily Rodda. PB from Scholastic. RRP $16.99

 This is the third in the adventures of Britta, and her quest to be selected as the apprentice for the trader Mab, captain of the Rosalyn. The Star of Deltora is heading toward Illica which is the home of the famous Collectors and the base of the Rosalyn Fleet,.. Britta is not sure which of her companions on the voyage are to be trusted—is it Sky, or Jewel, or is it the weird, but comforting goozli? Certainly it does not appear to be Crow. This is an intriguing and well-crafted story—a tad predicable in that we know that Britta will triumph but nevertheless interesting and enjoyable reading for 8-13 year olds, and at least one more volume to come.

***Weirdo 6, Crazy Weird, by Anh Do. PB from Scholastic. RRP $14.99

These stories have been sooooo successful with young readers of about 6-9 years—and mainly boys! The illustrations by Jules Faber are appealing, and the story line—so simple but with so many amusing aspects to it really has boys of this age engrossed and waiting for more. Here Weir has had braces put on his teeth, so much of the content is about the tribulations of having braces, and what can go wrong. There is nothing nasty, or scary; it is just good fun, and the author is to be complimented on his skill and ingenuity with such simple plots and content.

Pine Valley Ponies, The Pony Show, by Kate Welshman. PB from Scholastic. RRP $9.99

Maddy and Snowy have never previously taken part in a gymkhana, so this is their chance. It is a story about girls and ponies, and about that most delightful of horse events-the gymkhana. The story is quite simple, and the book is designed for girls of about 6-8 years who are horse mad and just beginning to read stories for themselves. The hard words are in different font and there is a simple glossary at the end of the story. One thing that is not explained in this glossary is that the word gymkhana comes from a Hindi word, and its use in English dates back to British colonial days in India.

The Double Axe, by Philip Womack. PB from Alma and Bloomsbury. RRP $19.99

This book is the first in what is to be a series called Blood And Fire. Stephan, or, to give him his full name Prince Deucalion Stephanos is the second son of the King of Crete. When his older brother is killed, Stephan becomes the heir to the throne. There is another brother too- Asterius, but he has characteristics which might be called abnormal, or at least special, and is the subject of a lot of attention by the priestess Myrrah. Surrounded by forebodings of evil and treachery, Stephan has to work out how best to support his father, reveal the truth about the Minotaur, and uncover the treachery of Myrrah, whilst saving his own skin and that of Aster. It is a readable story, and should appeal to children who like to read tales based on the legends of Ancient Greece. For kids of 10-14 years.

Teenage Books

***Fenn Halflin and the FearZero, by Francesca Armour-Chelu. PB from Walker Books. RRP $19.99

This is the first of what is to be a series about Fenn, and his search for both identity and purpose in life. Fenn only learns a little about his past, and his family when he is thirteen and he is forced to flee from the invaders Terra Firma and their cold blooded leader Chilstone, who has killed almost all of Fenn’s family and most of the other settlements along the now flooded coast. There are a few echoes of historical fact in this story— for example the shanties are based on the old Maunsell Sea Forts which still stand in the Thames in London, and FearZero is a fictional version of the German Dreadnought submarines from World War 1. This is an exciting story as Fenn meets up with Gulper and Amber, and they are able to steal a derelict old boat and return to the area where Fenn had been raised. Fenn now realizes that he has a pivotal role to play against Chilstone, but we will have to wait for the next volume in the series to continue the story. The publishers’ blurb sees similarities in the nature of the hero in the exploits of Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl—It is up to you to see if you agree, but it is excellent, gripping reading for readers of 11 –14 years.

The Turners, by Mick Elliott. PB from Hachette. RRP $14.99

This is an amusing fantasy. When Leo grows a tail on his thirteenth birthday he is shocked, horrified and embarrassed. When he learns that other members of his family all have the ability to turn into an animal, often at will, he is not happy, because it is obvious that he will be weird for his entire life. Moreover Leo is different from most of his family because he changes during the day rather than at night! Leo learns to fly, and to turn into a dog—and gradually he starts to refine and control his turning, so that he does not alarm so-called ‘normal people.   This is the first of what will be a trilogy about Leo and his family, and their unfortunate talents. I look forward to the next installment. Entertaining reading for 11-14 year olds.

*Stormwalker, by Mike Revell. PB from Quercus and Hachette. RRP about $16

 Owen Wright has had a tough year. His mother died from leukemia, and his father is still not working, and is deep in depression and grief. Owen suggests that his father might try some counseling, and rather to Owen’s surprise, his father agrees. What happens next is unexpected, as Owen finds that suddenly he has entered a time warp, and is now Jack, fighting the Darkness with some other teenagers in a refugee community after the apparent collapse of London. Owen becomes very confused as he switches personalities between himself, and his role as Jack in the other scenes. He also loses faces with his best mate, and his soccer team when he is unexpectedly absent.   When he sees that in fact his father, now feeling quite a deal more positive, is writing easily again, Owen realizes that in fact he is in his father’s story—so can he control what happens so that both he and his father benefit—plus the people in the stories? It all makes for a complicated but fast moving and interesting story. The issue of grief for both Owen and his father, is handled well within the bigger story.   For readers of 11 plus.

Special, by Georgia Blain. PB from Penguin/Random house. RRP $19.99

The book begins as being about the life of Delia Greene, a seventeen-year-old refuse sifter, in a community sometime in the future. Most of the story however is about Fern Marlow, theoretically a special girl, developed with certain genetic characteristics chosen by her parents. It outlines the life Fern lives when she attends a school for specially chosen girls, called Halston. Fern wins a place at Halston in a lottery, and believes she has special talents which are to be developed further at the school. What happens when another student Ivy, does not achieve at the required levels for success at Halston, and then what happens to Fern as well, with the involvement of her house mother Margaret and non-recommended interactions with other students, notably Chimo, makes for interesting reading to begin with. I found however that the complexity of the story, and the haziness of links between one scenario and the next became too much for me, and I was unable to follow events in a manner which left me feeling satisfied by the book. Suitable for girls of 14-17 years.

***In the Dark, in the Woods, by Eliza Wass. PB from Quercus and Hachette. RRP $16.99

This is an intense and at times disturbing story about Castley Cresswell and her five surviving siblings. Their mother is disabled and their father is totally dominated by his extreme religious outlook on life, and his actions to block his children from as much contact with normal society as possible. The narrator Castley is torn between obedience to her father’s wishes, and the ways in which she has been reared, and her wish to be a normal teenager. There is considerable and severe abuse of several of the children, some of which is self-inflicted because of guilt feelings, and it is only when the father claims that the time has come for all to pass from this life, that matters come to a head, and reprieve is at hand. This is an engrossing, but disturbing read. It raises issues which sadly are experienced by some who live on the outer of mainstream society; I recommend this book only for teenagers of 14 years and older, to adult.

***Theodore Boone 6, The Scandal, by John Grisham. PB from Hachette. RRP about $15

 I have read a couple of the earlier books about Theodore Boone, by well-known author of adult thrillers, American John Grisham. It is excellent to see a talented and experienced author release a story for teenagers which has a sound plot, integrated and balanced action, and some humour as well. Most of the humour comes because of the very teenager-ish attitudes of Theodore, who is thirteen, but who has two experienced and notable lawyers for parents. Here Theo is approached at school by one of his friends, April, who is a bit of an outsider at school but really wants to become an artist. The action is sparked when both Theo and April fail to earn a place in the honours class for their senior high school years. There are several issues involved in the story. Is state- based academic testing a reliable or desirable way to screen adolescents for their senior high school education? Both Theo and April miss out by one mark, and this becomes a pivotal issue in the story. Is cheating a criminal offence—firstly if committed at school by a child, and secondly, if committed, albeit to help a student, by teachers? At the end of the book there are questions for discussion. I found this to be an easy story to read, and will recommend it to all my students of 12-15 years, both because it is easy to read, but also because it informs about some legal issues, ( albeit in American life) and raises so many issues which are relevant to school students of 12 and over.






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One Response to May-June 2016 : New Books for children and Teenagers. Reviewer: Janet

  1. Francesca Armour-Chelu says:

    Hi Janet, Just wanted to say thanks for your great review of Fenn Halflin! I’m now hard at work on the sequel – due out next Summer. Best wishes, Francesca

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