Friday, 31 January 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – The Official Illustrated Movie Companion

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – The Official Illustrated Movie Companion by Kate Egan (Scholastic Inc)
PB RRP $22.99
ISBN 978-0-545-59933-7
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

The Hunger Games trilogy is a popular Young Adult fantasy trilogy. The movies created from them are equally as well loved. This companion is for the second of the trilogy Catching Fire and I found it a fascinating read. Even though it would be great to dip in and out of, I was riveted and read it cover to cover. I was interested not only in how the film was made, but also why and what the producers/director were trying to achieve. This was explored in interviews with the director, author, actors and others.

Catching Fire – The Official Illustrated Movie Guide is a large format book stuffed full of glossy photographs of everything related to the making of the movie – behind scenes, on set, film stills, posters, promos, sketched designs. It gives a little of the back story and what’s in the future, but mostly concentrates on just the making of Catching Fire.

This is a dystopian fantasy, set in a world created very strongly by author Suzanne Collins, and being a very visual concept with incredibly extravagant costuming, the designers of the film had to often think outside of the box. The details about casting, design, costuming, how the actors trained and building the sets are interesting, but also the companion has been well written making it fun and easy to read. And all without giving away much of the plot.

Being a visual film, it translates well into this highly visual companion and I would highly recommend it to those who love the books/movies or for anyone interested in how movies are made. As with the books and movies, this release is for teenagers, not primary aged children.

Now I’m off to see the movie.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Burning the Bails – The Story of the Ashes

Burning the Bails – The Story of the Ashes by Krista Bell, illustrated by Ainsley Walters (One Day Hill)
PB RRP $19.99
ISBN 978-0-9873139-8-0
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Have you ever wondered about the story behind the Ashes trophy? This delightful picture book is a fictionalised account of the events leading up to the burning of the bails after a social game of cricket between the visiting England team and some of the local lads in Sunbury.

Burning the Bails is told from the point of view of six year old Russell Clarke whose father was Sir William Clarke, president of the Melbourne Cricket Club in 1882 when these events took place. Having a young perspective makes this historic tale easily understandable and accessible to young children and older alike.

There are many words to each page, but it is written wonderfully and in keeping with the era, and really nice to read: ‘Everyone was keen and that afternoon the oval resounded with much merriment.’

The illustrations are beautiful. Each page is a painted scene, not always sticking to the illustration side of the page, but sometimes slipping over a little as if to take over the words. Some of these paintings would look as much at home hung in an exhibition. They fit beautifully with the historic tone of the story.

In the back is a very informative run-down of all the facts which the author has drawn from to create this book. There are also photographs from the Clarke family’s collections reproduced in both the front and back.

Books like this one are a great way for children to learn about historical events. The role of Russell Clarke, the narrator, would be the sort of thing most young boys dream of. Burning the Bails is for lovers of cricket, lovers of Australian History, and lovers of good picture books everywhere.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Boy On The Page

The Boy On The Page written and illustrated by Peter Carnavas (New Frontier Publishing)
HB RRP $24.95
ISBN – 9781921928468
Reviewed by Emma Cameron

‘One quiet morning, a small boy landed on the page.’  This story’s opening is as captivating as the image of that small boy landing all alone in all that white space. Instantly drawn into this unnamed character’s world I travelled alongside him as pages turned and black pencil combined with watercolour, unfolding his life. His time is filled with the mundane as well as the magical and, because of this, that small boy represents every one of us.

Carnavas has created a perfect balance between the whimsy and humour found in the visual and the written deep life question of why we are here and what life is all about. At first, being so young, the boy observes what is around him. As he grows he embraces life all the more. He gardens, rides horses, paddles canoes, catches fish, plays in a band. He grows up to climb mountains, fall in love, make a family, build a home, care for pets. He provides so much for so many others. Yet he’s still puzzled by one thought.

Trying to work out why he is here he jumps off the page! If you think kids won’t get the deeper aspects of this work, you’ll see that they do as the power of this moment hits home. Readers become immersed in stillness when they see the man’s two ever-present companions, a little bird and a piglet, confused and deflated in the far corner of a wordless double page white spread once he’s jumped off the page. Turning to the next page, however, satisfies readers and the man, as it answers his question.

How so? I’m glad you asked. The next spread shows the man has tumbled straight back, finding himself surrounded by ‘everything he had ever made, every animal he had ever cared for and every person he had ever loved.’ The realisation that we are all here to be loved and to love others right back is clear and this work is a masterpiece to be enjoyed at any and every age.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Wombatman and the Veggie Patch Vandals

Wombatman and the Veggie Patch Vandals by Mike Ferguson, illustrated by Steph Ryan (Little Steps Publishing)
PB RRP $14.95
ISBN – 9781921928628
Reviewed by Emma Cameron

Herbert Wilfred Arnold Tinkleton and his wife Rhonda, who he calls Wonda, live on the grounds of Noseville Public School. Herbert considers it his job to keep the grounds tidy because “This is the North Shore of Sydney … and we do have certain standards.”  He is therefore horrified to discover that not only is someone stealing from the school vegie patch, but that he is considered a suspect.

In a ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’ style often used on t.v shows, this tale jumps from scene to scene telling readers what each player is discovering as they learn it. Principal Wingebottom orders Mr Wagstaff the janitor to get rid of Herbert and Rhonda. Rhonda keeps an eye on the local paper to learn that someone is selling fresh vegies twice a week at the market. And Herbert spies the true culprits in the act. But Wingebottom is determined he must go.

The school’s Enviro Kids are also on the case. They place a tomato on a stump and watch Herbert reject it, which they believe proves he is innocent. Later, when finding a capital ‘K’ drawn in a circle on the ground beside an advertisement for fresh vegetables from the paper, the Enviro Kids take action. Camera in hand they spy on the thieves. It’s school canteen lady, Mrs Kranski, and hubby.

At the same time, Herbert (AKA Wombatman), sporting cloak and goggles, accidently steps on a skateboard which sends him streaming down hill, barreling into the thieves and setting off the school alarm system. The police haul the culprits off. At assembly the next day Wingebottom awards the Enviro Kids, acknowledging Herbert’s help. Pleased that his contribution was valued, Herbert heads home for “Rhonda’s roots shoots and onion surprise”.

Told in sixteen short chapters of large font, the book also includes at least one colour illustration on every double page spread. This helps break up the text so that most of the time the book does not appear at all overwhelming for early readers.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Greek Myths: Stories of Sun, Stone and Sea

Greek Myths: Stories of Sun, Stone and Sea by Sally Pomme Clayton, illustrated by Jane Ray (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books)
HC RRP $ 32.95
ISBN 9781847802279
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Here again are wonderful tales of Ancient Greece, eternal myths and legends used throughout time to enrich many writings. Told in a warm and simple way, the stories are supported by the stunning artistry of acclaimed illustrator, Jane Ray. This exciting new production in a deluxe edition with jacket cover is the ideal introduction to Greek Myths for children.

Tales of Creation, told and retold tales about gods, giants, great feats and challenges, include the greed of Midas, the defeat of Medusa and Chimera. Each is inspired by the Greek sky, sea, sun and stone.

At the end of each chapter there is a fact on the still existing places that can be visited and explored. These are not only informative, historical and educational facts, but they give birth to a longing to be there, and see what has been described; to experience the invisible aura that surrounds these places.

There is an Index of Gods and heroes, and a list of sources for further reading.

The author, Sally Pomme Clayton, founded the Company of Storytellers and tours Britain performing.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Fright in the Night

Fright in the Night by Michelle McTiernan, illustrated by Emma Stuart (Little Steps Publishing)
PB RRP $17.95
ISBN – 9781921928864
Reviewed by Emma Cameron

‘I jumped into bed and lay down my head, and within no time at all there was a scratch at the door.’ So begins a tale told in rhyme, about a young boy who takes forever to get to sleep. Like many children, he finds it difficult to settle and must address a myriad of distractions. These distractions are, in fact, him remembering every single thing he needs in bed with him to keep him feeling comfortable and safe enough to fall asleep.

The first time he jumps out of bed he finds his teddy and he does snuggle back down, actually dozing off, but is woken … ‘during my nap I heard a tapa-tap-tap.’  Of course, this time it’s a different toy he’s forgotten. Each time he settles back down he believes he hears something and this sees him jump up out of bed once again, turning on the light to discover another of his toys.

Every time he remembers another special toy, the text repeats the refrain where the boy jumps out of bed ‘and turned on the light to see what it was that gave me a fright.’ He invites every toy into bed with him and when he finally drifts to sleep again he’s wedged in with his teddy, bumblebee, crocodile, giraffe and yellow duck. The story then ends with the boy waking and feeling that the night must have passed in no time at all as it is now daylight.

Bright illustrations show exactly what is happening as it is told in the story and the text, which is lovely and big, will mean early readers may well be able to read it themselves after having heard it a few times. Aimed at ages 4-6 the story is a light end of day read that will help signal that it is, in fact, time to put yourself in the head space you need so you too can dose off.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Ghetto Cowboy

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson (Candlewick Press)
PB RRP $ 16.95
ISBN 9780763664534
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

This highly interesting book brings into focus the obscure subject of black American cowboys.  It sent me straight to the computer to learn about the history of black cowboys which stems from prior to the Civil War.

Unable to cope with her recalcitrant son’s truancy, and living in fear of a pending juvenile facility for reform, Cole’s mother drives him thousands of miles to a father he’s never seen. The cowboy ghetto where the boy is dumped houses horses saved from the slaughterhouse, and is run by Cole’s father Harper as an initiative for young boys to stay out of trouble. 

Harper is a gifted horse whisperer and looked up to in the ghetto. Cole’s built up resentment slowly dissipates when he befriends and learns to ride the old hack, Boo. But their white Council moves to take over their land for development. What will become of the confiscated horses and the boys whose lives were saved from delinquency? Will the Cowboy Way defeat the scheme?

This is a moving story of fighting for what you believe in and finding your place in the world, wherever it may be. Written in authentic language, it addresses themes of broken lives, poverty, community and survival.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Clementine’s Walk

Clementine’s Walk by Annie White, illustrated by Annie White (New Frontier Publishing)
HB RRP $24.95
ISBN – 9781921928475
Reviewed by Emma Cameron

The opening spread shows Clementine atop a jumbled pile of items; book, bag, blanket, puzzle pieces and toy – some that seem rather chewed. The text says “Clementine was very bored”  and readers see her eyes fixed on her lead, which they’re told she’s spotted and that it “gave her a clue”. Lead in her mouth she’s then off to coax someone to take her walking. But everyone’s busy.

Nostalgic colour illustrations show varied reactions to her intrusive behavior. James is frustrated she’s messed up his jigsaw, Nana is perplexed at her knitting unravelling, Dad is frightened into waking from under his newspaper, Mum is shocked as paint squirts across her art work and baby does nothing but cry. Even the chooks squawk at Clementine. Dejected, she slinks away.

Satisfied that each of their projects have reached a satisfactory point, the family is ready to play but Clementine is nowhere to be found. Everyone searches high and low, eventually finding her “fast asleep, sprawled on the washing”. It’s then that they decide it’s too nice a day to miss the chance of a walk and a delighted Clementine takes front position as they head off.

Suitable for 3-6 year olds and told in rhyme the story’s simplicity is in each situation and in characters’ reactions. Everything comes forth in illustrations that pull readers into the ups and downs of being the energetic dog in the house of people who are occupied with their own concerns. Young readers will be able to access all they need to in the visual story without referring to the text at all.

I’m a sucker for great endpapers and these ones are beautiful. The first immediately draws readers in with a trail that includes a long strand of wool, a bone, a puzzle piece, a ball, a book, a teddy and a shoe. The final double page spread is a map showing the route the family take on their walk from Clementine’s home, past shops that sell Nana’s wool, Dad’s paper, Clementine’s bones and Mum’s art supplies. An enjoyable book.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Say Hello Like This

Say Hello Like This by Mary Murphy (Walker Books)
HC RRP $24.95
ISBN 9781406347463
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

How do dogs, cats, frogs, chickens, beetles or donkeys say hello? What happens when they all say it at the same time? Find out in this humorous book with its clever text and stunning illustrations beginning with the outstanding end pages.

The bold black outline of the animals and thick brush strokes accentuate the joyful mood of every animal in the book. A wonderful choice of vibrant colour and subtle pastel shades adds to the book’s atmosphere of fun and enjoyment which the animals seem to share. This will make playtime perfect for children experimenting with the sounds.

There are flaps to lift for surprises and hidden extensions to the text. This is a hugely entertaining book, full of noise to be made, and laughter to be shared with little ones.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Waiting for Hugo

Waiting for Hugo by Amanda Niland, illustrated by Claire Richards (Windy Hollow Books)
HC RRP $ 25.95
ISBN 9781922081216
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Amanda Niland has chosen an interesting subject for her book. Delicately handled and presented, this book shows that being different isn’t always a bad thing.

Hugo is four. But he knows that the neighbour’s wall has 392 bricks; that the trolley bay holds 52 trolleys, and the store’s refrigerator holds 487 bottles of milk. Hugo loves to count.

But it’s hard for his sister to wait while Hugo finishes counting. Nothing can make him hurry. So she waits and waits. She wishes he didn’t count all the time.

In rainbow watercolour illustrations and pen, and in carefully chosen text, we view the two sides of Autism Spectrum Disorder: the gifted side that belongs to Hugo, and the view of his behaviour by his sister, who loves Hugo dearly, but finds understanding his habits difficult. This is a title that should be found in all libraries and schools. It reflects on how some children are different and it’s this difference that makes them unique.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Hey Baby!

Hey Baby! by Corinne Fenton (black dog books)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN 9781922179180
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Hey Baby! celebrates the uniqueness of every living being with the focus on babies -animal and human.  Using photographed images and beginning from the cover depicting a racoon and her baby, every picture is a testimony to the singularity of new life and its precious worth.

The impressive images include a baby duck standing upright in her shell with the head and legs sticking out; the profoundly gentle and moving image of a baby gorilla lying on its mother’s back with its eyes closed in utter peace and contentment, and the delightful picture of a baby seal. There are twenty-eight pictures in all, not including the ones on the covers.

Coloured text in large font accents the important words such as ‘unique’ and ‘precious’, and the facial and body features that mothers delight in and gush about. This is a book children and adults will love and take pleasure in sharing. It will be reopened time and time again.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Mrs Twinkle Takes Simon To Yellowstone National Park

Mrs Twinkle Takes Simon To Yellowstone National Park by Annabelle Wadsworth (Little Steps Publishing)
PB RRP $15.95
ISBN – 9781921928673
Reviewed by Emma Cameron

Like the previous two stories in this series, this tale about young Simon and Mrs Twinkle begins by telling readers that Simon is sad and feels sick again. And, true to form, the reliable Mrs Twinkle taps on his bedroom window and urges him to wake up so she can take him on an adventure. This time they head for Yellowstone National Park. When they arrive, it’s Mrs Twinkle who is tired so she has a nap while Simon explores.

Simon meets a squirrel who talks. He welcomes Simon to his world, dropping a pine cone at his feet before heading up the tree. When Simon says ‘See you, mate’ the squirrel queries him about where and when he’ll see him again. Simon explains this is a farewell expression in Australia, which all the squirrels find amusing. Simon sees if Mrs Twinkle is awake now and ready to go exploring.

Together they stroll about the forest where they see deer, bison and a bear. Mrs Twinkle scares the bear away and, as he flees, she and Simon see a mother bear and two cubs also fleeing. Mrs Twinkle tells Simon they were lucky that all four bears ran away, because “at that moment, they are hungry after hibernating in caves”. Simon is tired and Mrs Twinkle says she’ll take him home.

When Mrs Twinkle drops Simon home and he thanks her she says it was her pleasure and tells him to “Trully believe you can become healthy and you will become well. You are a healthy boy, Simon.” When Mum comes in and asks how he feels, he says “I feel great, Mum. Can I go to school please?” As he jumps out of bed a pine cone falls onto his carpet.

The size and colour of the text’s font and its background varies constantly, breaking up the look of pages. Illustrations are vivid and sparkly, showing what is happening as the text tells it. As Mrs Twinkle has promised that it won’t be long till their next adventure, readers aged three to six will know there is more to come.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Elephant Jam

Elephant Jam by Sam Jasper (Palmer Higgs)
PB RRP $19.95
ISBN – 978-192502778-5
Reviewed by Emma Cameron

Eleven-year-old twins Demi and Semmy, whose grandparents and great-grandmother live with them, miss their parents who have been travelling the world for the past year in search of the original beat. When the twins become haunted by a different yet familiar sound, as well as strange dreams, they have a mystery to solve.

Demi’s brother asks his school mates at the Con, who belong to a band named the Elephants, to help track down what the sound is. At the same time, Demi finds the new girl Pixie, who she’s been paired up with to practice a music duet, very annoying. Pixie believes “Everything is my business” and Demi doesn’t want her to know anything about the noise she hears, or her dreams.

As the mystery unfolds, readers are treated to many mini-lessons about music, instruments, artists, science, animals, gardening and food. Descriptions give readers a clear picture of each scene, including in-depth details about what is on the menu each meal. The cast of quirky characters all add their own flavor to the story. Grandma even chooses musical backdrops to accompany dinner!

The author has used omniscient viewpoint and, to ensure readers can follow what each character is thinking, placed their thoughts in italics. I think young readers may well enjoy this. They are also likely to take pleasure in the varied use of adverbs and adjectives which align with what they are learning in school, as well as the occasional puns that appear in the text.

Solving the mystery sees Demi and Semmy having to harness all their bravery. They are also fortunate to have a caring great-grandmother who helps them along the way, ensuring their safety. The story reaches a wonderful climax that sees all issues that arise along the way being solved, including Mum and Dad being drawn back home as they are lured by the original beat. I won’t tell you what that is, as that would spoil it for you, but they should have known that what they were searching for was at home all along!

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Chasing Shadows

Chasing Shadows by Corinne Fenton, illustrated by Hannah Sommerville (Ford Street Publishing)
HB RRP $26.95 (ISBN 9781925000153)
PB RRP $16.95 (ISBN 9781925000146)
Reviewed by Francine Sculli

Chasing Shadows is a number of things – soft, beautiful, touching, silent, open, heart wrenching and honest. It’s a picture book worthy of discussion and multiple reads, to truly soak up the meaning, purpose and unspoken pull of its pages.

It’s not a tale easily told, the story of a young girl who could be anyone’s daughter, suffering with a depression so heavy in its weight that all she can see is shadows. It’s a topic often left untouched, too painful or misunderstood to truly  confront. But this book speaks it, almost without saying a word. With her beautiful nuance language, Corinne Fenton weaves more in the silence and the contrast.

The young girl’s father buys her a puppy. Like any parent, he wants to see his child happy again, not lost in the shadows. The puppy is jubilant, playful, frolicking and looking for attention. The young girl gives none, preferring the shadows to the love of a puppy.

As the poetic contrasts move the reader from page to page, as we watch the dog leaping across the pages, we see the girl retreat at first, then watch from a distance and finally we see her slowly start to move out of the shadows, slowly reaching out to both her father and the puppy.

Hannah Sommerville’s illustrations cement the soft complexities of this picture book. Her whimsical and expressive illustrations create as much poetry as Fenton’s words, and her choice of colour palettes are telling and indicative or what is left unspoken. She plays on the shadows so beautifully that the reader cannot be anything but engulfed.

Chasing Shadows is perfect for older picture book readers, but also perfect as an education tool for teachers, librarians, parents and psychologists. The story is so wonderfully told, so soft and delicate in its handling of this complex theme, that it could be an excellent vehicle for important discussions – not just about depression, but emotions and being able to open up to our loved ones. On a simpler side, this could also be a story about the love shared between animals and humans. However you choose to read it, it will be a beautiful journey.  

Friday, 17 January 2014

Billie B Brown – The Missing Tooth

Billie B Brown – The Missing Tooth by Sally Rippin, illustrated by Aki Fukuoka (Hardie Grant Egmont)
PB RRP $7.95
ISBN 978-174297310-4
Reviewed by Emma Cameron

Billie B Brown is the only one in her class who has never lost a tooth. But one of hers is now wiggly! Mum tells her to stop playing with it and that it will come out when it’s ready. Dad offers to pull it out for her but Billie declines, because that would hurt. As it turns out, it’s only a few hours before the tooth does fall out. It leaves Billie’s mouth when she trips over during a game of chasey at recess, hitting her chin on the ground.

Her teacher gives her a tissue to wrap the tooth in to keep it safe and Billie is excited that the tooth fairy will visit soon. When Billie arrives home she unwraps the tissue to show Mum, but the tooth is missing. Though Billie is at first sad about this she quickly comes up with a solution. She decides to try leaving a note for the tooth fairy to explain what happened and ask for money anyway.

Her letter is displayed on a page that gives readers a great example of this text type as well as demonstrating what funny thoughts Billie has. My favourites were ’PS If you don’t believe me, check my mouth’ followed by ‘PPS I will try to sleep with my mouth open, but if it’s closed, could you come back in a little while?” Her note does the trick and in the morning she wakes to find a coin under her pillow.

Four short chapters in large font are spread over forty-two pages and they skillfully include many of the worries and concerns that young readers can identify with, as well as a few simple but sweet illustrations to break up the text. It’s the perfect type of story for those embarking on the earliest chapter books.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Grasshopper Jungle

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (Hardie Grant Egmont)
PB  RRP $19.95
ISBN 978 174297880 2
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

There are two clues that indicate Grasshopper Jungle is not your average coming of age novel. One is the fluorescent green cover adorned with a pair of large antennae. The other is on the first page where the words 'insects as big as refrigerators' appear. This story is about relationships, identity and sexuality but it is also about two teenage boys who inadvertently bring about the end of the world.

Austin Szerba is a sixteen year old boy from Ealing, Iowa who is in love with his both of his best friends — Robby Brees (a boy) and Shanna Collins (a girl). He is confused. Following a bizarre series of events, Austin and Robby accidentally let loose a scientific experiment from 1969 called Plague Strain 412E. Like Robby says, 'Nothing good is ever called Plague'. And he's right. The experiment hatches into enormous praying mantises who eat people, starting with their heads. Then Austin, Robby and Shanna find an underground bunker called Eden created by the same scientist responsible for the bugs. The end of the world seems almost certain but can they do something before it's too late?  

Written from Austin's point of view, the narrative spirals around jumping from thoughts about sex (lots of these!) and smoking, to stories about Austin's Polish ancestors, to his brother fighting in Afghanistan. Amongst all of this, the story unfolds of the 'Unstoppable Soldiers' (as the huge insects are called), moving towards its inevitable conclusion. There are short  chapters with lots of headings to allow for all the subject changes. There's also lots of action towards the end (chasing giant bugs and spraying them with blood!) which boys particularly will enjoy. 

Austin's voice is authentic and very funny. There is a lot of swearing, violence and sexual references so this book may be a bit controversial. Readers, who would need to be at least fourteen, will find Grasshopper Jungle a clever, original story, not easily forgotten.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Rules of Summer

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan (Lothian/Hachette)
HB RRP $24.99
ISBN 9780734410672
Reviewed by Hilary Smillie
Shaun Tan's magnificently illustrated picture books are in a class of their own.

Rules of Summer, Tan shows the interaction between two young boys, one older, one younger, possibly brothers, in his illustrations rather than a storyline. Each picture is preceded by a rule, e.g., Never leave a red sock on the clothesline, and it is up to the reader to imagine what is reflected or meant in the artwork. Tan suggests each illustration is a particular kind of childhood experience which centres around the activities of these two boys. In his own words, "It is a relationship that is both friendly and caring but also antagonistic, and towards the end of the book begins to disintegrate before finding some kind of redemption and coming together again."
Tan is obviously excited about the concept of the readers using their own imagination to decide upon what is happening, and his enthusiasm is contagious. The book can be opened at any page as there is no actual linear plot, and the reader can ponder and interpret the meaning for as long or short a time as is found to be necessary to enjoy each experience.
The richly painted illustrations are indeed a mysterious puzzle, some offering more clues than others. When the rule is Never step on a snail, the older boy's fear of retribution as the younger ones prepares to carry out this action is mirrored by the looming tornado. Does the reader empathise with the older boy or enjoy a little black humour? The freedom to make one's own judgement is refreshing.
Shaun Tan drew upon his own personal experiences such as fishing with his older brother, and buildings inspired by Brunswick and greater Melbourne to create this evocative picture book which will be appreciated by the thoughtful, both adult and young.

Jumping Fences

Jumping Fences by Karen Wood (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $15.99
ISBN 978-1-74331-639-9
Reviewed by Ann Harth

Pieces of the puzzle are missing.

Zoe wakes up in a hospital bed after falling from her horse and can’t remember what happened. She had been mustering cattle with her boyfriend and best friend but, since her fall, neither of them will answer her calls. Adding to her confusion is the sudden interest of Josh, a “super serial nerd” and definitely not Zoe’s type.

Zoe’s problems are compounded by the fact that her family’s farm is in jeopardy. Cattle are disappearing and the missing stock from the day of Zoe’s fall is the last straw. If they can’t recover their livestock and find the culprit, they will have to sell. Zoe’s recent actions are causing her father to lose faith in her and he is threatening to send her to live with her mother in town. The solid existence she took for granted is threatened.

As snippets of her memory return, Zoe is faced with some painful truths about friendship, family and her own priorities.

Jumping Fences is a spirited novel aimed at 13-16 year olds. Many will be able to identify with Zoe as she struggles to make decisions about what – and who – is important to her. Loyalty and honesty play a large part in this story and the strength and wisdom that Zoe eventually finds will go a long way toward empowering the reader. Her realistic character growth drives the story toward a satisfying ending.

The writing in this book is clear and concise, flowing smoothly as it moves between the current situation and Zoe’s recovering memories. Mystery and romance is woven throughout the book as well as some surprising twists that will keep the reader riveted until the end.

Karen Wood is the mother of two and author of the popular Diamond Spirit books. She is mad about horses but is also a qualified horticulturalist with a degree in Communications. When not aiming for the teenaged audience, Karen writes bushwalking and gardening articles for various magazines and newspapers. She has a menagerie of animals on her small acreage in New South Wales and spends her free time with her children and horses.

Ann Harth is a published children's author, freelance editor, ghostwriter and writing tutor at Australian College of Journalism. She loves to read and is committed to creating children's literature that inspires, entertains and triggers a tiny twist in the mind. Her latest middle-grade novel, The Art of Magic, is now available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Scent of Blood

The Scent of Blood by Tanya Landman (Walker Books)
PB RRP $ 13.95
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

The Scent of Blood is another sensational murder mystery by Tanya Landman for the 12+ age group which revolves around the circus.

The narrator Poppy Fields is always accompanied by her best friend and walking encyclopaedia Graham. His brilliant mind is able to draw on unlimited information whenever it’s needed while Poppy’s extraordinary powers of observation serve to collect and retain data. These amateur sleuths love solving murders and their incredible tenacity and questioning minds assist police in catching criminals.

Poppy’s mum has just won first prize in a charity raffle. This sees Poppy and Graham experiencing the pleasure of a long weekend at Farleigh Manor Zoo. Formerly a stately home, the heir to the property has turned it into a New Age retreat combined with a zoo. As usual, they seem to be a magnet to murder.

After the death of several keepers, the two young sleuths move into action. ‘We’re going to find out what happened’ is their motto. What secrets is the new owner hiding and why are these deaths occurring?

This series of excellent dramas have all the excitement and activity of an adult book without the excessive blood and gore. The leading characters are intelligent, resourceful and observant youngsters. The stories are enriched with a wonderful flow of information about the chosen subject. This creates a terrific background setting and serves well in engaging the reader from the first page to the last.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Certain Death

Certain Death by Tanya Landman (Walker Books)
PB RRP $13.95
ISBN 9781406347432
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

The posters advertising that Brady Sparkle’s circus was coming to town ‘promised that the first performance would end in Certain Death.’ Someone had blacked out the word almost.

Studying human behaviour is a hobby of Poppy Fields. As soon as she read the posters, she became suspicious. Nobody else had noticed the wording. Poppy, with Graham her best friend and companion sleuth, decide to look into the matter.

There is a death as predicted at the first performance but not of the intended victim Irena, the aerial acrobat. But was Irena the intended victim? The bullet ricocheted and hit the lady sitting next to Poppy. Who fired the shot?  It certainly wasn’t Yuri the sharpshooter. Another performer is arrested and the case is closed. Poppy and Graham have a different opinion on who the culprit might be.

There are too many people who want to dispose of Irena. Spying, eavesdropping, searching and analysing, uncovers a plethora of clues. The investigative would put Sherlock Holmes in the shadows. Their persistence and intelligence uncovers a motive that even they wouldn’t have considered.

Certain Death is a fantastic read, fast-paced with a clever complex storyline. The characters are exceptional, even the bad ones. Readers of all ages will enjoy these riveting murder mysteries by Tanya Landman. They’ll keep you in suspense till the last page.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Ella Bella Ballerina and The Nutcracker

Ella Bella Ballerina and The Nutcracker by James Mayhew (Orchard/Hachette)
PB RRP $14.99
ISBN: 9781408314081
Reviewed by Hilary Smillie
James Mayhew has created and beautifully illustrated a charming story inspired by the famous Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker. Ella Bella Ballerina is once again central to this third ballet-themed story which willl undoubtedly delight all small girls who love to dance. Previous picture books are Ella Bella Ballerina and The Sleeping Beauty and Ella Bella and Cinderella.
The snowy winter setting of the story features the old theatre where Ella Bella's classes are taught by Madame Rosa. The stage is dominated by a shimmering Christmas Tree and Madame Rosa's special music box has the dancers twirling around like snowflakes. The children become enthralled by the Christmas Eve story of Clara and the enchanted Nutcracker and the nasty Mouse King who has cast the spell.
While the other children are led into a room with tables groaning with delicious sweets, Ella Bella dances alone to the musical box and suddenly finds herself with Clara as her partner dancing in the Nutcracker story. When Clara defeats the Mouse King, the spell over the Nutcracker is broken to reveal a handsome young prince who whisks Clara and Ella Bella off to his kingdom on a magic sleigh. Dancing with snowflakes, meeting the Sugar Plum Fairy and attending an extraordinary party at the Marzipan Palace all happen before suddenly Ella Bella is once again alone on the stage.
Madame Rosa takes Ella Bella into the party room where great plates of sugary treats await her, including one very special item for readers to discover.
Facts about The Nutcracker ballet are told on the last page which complete this dazzling picture book text. The retro art-style is perfect for creating the atmosphere of a classic ballet theatre and its dancers, and will inspire and delight many a would-be prima ballerina.

This picture book may be themed around Christmas but it is perfect for any ballet enthusiast to begin the New Year.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Wombat's Birthday Surprise

Wombat's Birthday Surprise by Lachlan Creagh (Lothian/Hachette)
PB RRP $14.99
ISBN: 9780734413932
Reviewed by Hilary Smillie
Picture books about birthday parties are a popular theme for young readers, and this fourth offering by Lachlan Creagh is a colourful romp from beginning to end.
Told in rhyming verse with plenty of humour and action, Wombat's Birthday Surprise buzzes with bold colours and lively illustrations. While Wombat's friends make preparations for the party, Wombat sleeps in his hollow log, and the recurring image of Wombat snoring away in all kinds of amusing sleep positions emphasises the question: Will Wombat wake up in time for his party?
Koala's berry pavlova, goanna's fairy bread, echidna's party pies are just a few of the items the familiar native animals and birds are making for Wombat's surprise birthday party in the bush. To see Echidna rolling out his dough on a rustic table, and old stoves parked under gum trees are other kinds of surprises waiting to be discovered. When all is ready, Wombat's friends can't wake him up. Fortunately, Kangaroo comes up with the solution, and the party begins to swing.

Creagh's use of highlighted nouns and adverbs e.g. birthday, games, party, tizzy, snoring, yawning, adds strength and focus to the storyline and balance between text and pictures. An added bonus is a sheet of birthday wrapping featuring the balloon cluster illustrations of the inside cover pages. Wombat's Birthday Surprise is a fresh and happy little book which is sure to be read over and over again.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Brumbies in the Mist

Brumbies in the Mist by Paula Boer, illustrated by Rowena Evans (IFWG Publishing Australia)
PB RRP $16.99
ISBN: 9780992302023
Reviewed by Hilary Smillie
This is the third book in the 5-book series about brumbies by gifted horsewoman/writer, Paula Boer, and follows the adventures of city-bred Louise and Ben, a country boy through and through. A lot has happened since the two young teenagers captured Louise's buck-skin mare, Honey, and Ben's colt, Brandy, when they staged their own muster.
Brandy had grown into a feisty stallion and one of the problems Ben is facing is how to persuade his father not to geld him. He wants to put him to stud and see what type of progeny he sires. Louise is worried her mum won't let her keep Honey because of the expensive upkeep and riding lessons Louise hopes to have.
Once again, Paula unfolds a story which will keep young horse-lovers glued to each page. They will easily relate to the several dilemmas presented and anxiously read on to see how each solution is reached. The majority of horse-related terms are included in a Glossary at the front, and it is most satisfying to be able to quickly turn to this information as unfamiliar words arise.
The text and illustrations which include maps of the areas where the children live and ride combine to give a great "feel" to the book and bring the reader right into the situation. Paula is a sympathetic writer and Rowena's effective sketches makes reading Brumbies in the Mist a most pleasurable experience. Young horse lovers will be eager to obtain the whole series.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Cybertricks: 2043

Cybertricks: 2043 by Goldie Alexander (Five Senses Publishing)
PB RRP 16.95
ISBN 9781741308884
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

This terrific futuristic fantasy novel is set in the Great Southern Continent, Terra, in 14,043. Pya, one of four Hatchlings that survived the Great Disaster, exists in a Cell as do the other three Hatchlings, mascs Jafet and Trist and Zumie, the only other fem. All are nourished via food tubes and educated by ComCen, a super computer, while communication is conducted via their avatars.

Their Tutor-Holo is trying to teach the Hatchlings to work together cooperatively and independently. With this crucial end in view, and forced to face Reality, they are sent back to 2043 to exercise all they have learnt and to focus on working as a team.

Returning to the past where families existed, they meet twins Charlie and Rio, and the six children set out on a journey that will change them forever. While experiencing Reality, they must overcome great challenges, learn sustainability within many lifestyles, and slowly come together to understand the words of their tutor ‘only through great effort and understanding can another Great Disaster be averted’.

All of Goldie Alexander’s novels have positive themes of self worth, personal improvement, environmental issues and sharing the world’s resources flowing through them in subtle waves in one form or another. In this highly imaginative and well-crafted novel, many similar life sustaining themes appear. The leading characters are strong and powerful, and the weaker ones always evolve and improve by the end of the story.

What Now Baby Bears?

What Now Baby Bears? by Toni Brisland, illustrated by Emma Stuart (Little Steps Publishing)
PB RRP $14.95
ISBN 9781921928697
Reviewed by Donna Austin

What Now Baby Bears? follows a mother bear and her two cubs. Initially their life is idyllic, spent frolicking through their pristine environment. However, they wake from hibernation to find humans have come to their paradise. An accident befalls Mother Bear and the bears and the humans must learn to co-exist.

The first half of the book is devoted to the bears' unspoilt wilderness. The accident to Mother Bear is dealt with sensitively though it could come as a bit of a shock to younger readers. To allay any concerns, the recovery of Mother Bear is quick and she is reunited with her cubs. Importantly, though, the book ends with the understanding that life for the bears has changed forever.

Emma Stuart's illustrations complement the story and, in particular, her depictions of the bears enjoying their freedom and pristine environment are heart-warming.

What Now Baby Bears? would be a useful book to discuss with younger children about how humans effect wildlife and how we must all care for the environment.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Bloodhound Boys Book 1: The Great Blood Bank Robbery

The Bloodhound Boys Book 1: The Great Blood Bank Robbery by Andrew Cranna (Walker Books)
PB RRP $19.95
ISBN 9781922179302
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Deep beneath the earth’s crust, the Skull River Blood Banks have been robbed. The vampire monsters lives depend on their daily supply of blood, particularly Gretel who suffers from plasmic anaemia and needs frequent supplies throughout the day.

The Blood Detectives have been unable to find any trace of evidence so mates Vince and Rocky decide to investigate. Facing a most dangerous security system and the unknown, the two heroes set out to find who, how, and why the blood was stolen and get it back.

The skills learnt in the monster transformation class turn out to be their saving grace when they discover the Frankenstein army that is being prepared to rule the world.

This is terrific comic strip fiction for readers who love graphic style novels and have a preference for ghouls, ghoulish happenings, the undead and other underworld characters.

The novel has other little stories running through it that adds to the tension and suspense. This is the first book in a series therefore we’ll be interested to learn what other adventures the boys and the other ghoulish characters get up to.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

See You at Harry’s

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles (Walker Books)
PB RRP $ 16.95
ISBN 9781406346077
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Fern at twelve years old feels invisible to her family, especially since the arrival of her brother Charlie, three years ago. When Charlie dies after a fall whilst in Fern’s care, guilt and anguish swallow her up. How does one cope with grief when they are invisible and unable to get the comfort they need?

Fern’s brother Holden is bullied mercilessly on the bus and at school because of his sexual orientation. Sara her older sister, shields herself behind a bad attitude while searching for her place in life. Dad is filled with dreams and plans to expand the restaurant he inherited from his father, while mum has a room she escapes into to find her inner peace.

All these singularly interesting family members are drawn together by their grief. This grief gives birth to hope when they realize that life continues through the desolation of loss, and that love is the only answer.

Beautifully written and held together by fantastic characters, this novel places emphasis on the conflict and issues that confront most families, and their resolution. It simultaneously concentrates on what it is that holds a family unit together.

Often alternately humorous and tragic, this novel has much to say. But it’s what’s left unsaid that gives it a delicate and deeply moving touch.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto

Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto by Paul B. Janeczko (Candlewick Press/Walker Books)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN 9780763664657
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

‘I saw many of the poems in it as solemn songs to the memory of the people who died within the walls of Theresienstadt’.

This powerful and profoundly moving collection of 35 poems has been informed by the writer’s research. Based on historical events and facts, the poems concentrate on the Czech village of Terezin (or Theresienstadt), which was used by the Germans as a way station to house the Jews of Prague on their way to the gas chambers.

The poems cover amongst other subjects: last goodbyes, letters from lovers, suicides, words of love, partings, the unbearable act of sorting the collected bundles, and several that describe the feelings of guards towards their prisoners. Included to accent the poetry are 9 historical illustrations by the inmates, three of which are double spreads.

This book is a valuable documentation on the tragic lives of the people at Terezin concentration camp. Readers interested in the subject can also refer to the extensive online information about this time in history, the area and its people.

A bibliography is listed with website information, foreign words and phrases and other resource references.

Sunday, 5 January 2014


Neptunia by Goldie Alexander (Five Senses)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN 97891741308716
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Cassie is a strong swimmer capable of competing in the State Championships. But her parents’ break-up puts a stop to her dream of going to Norris Park College with its outstanding sports facilities and pool. Cassie and her little brother Timmy are sent to Ithaca, a country town with no pool, to stay with distant relatives till the storm passes.

The children find a metal box in an abandoned silo. It is one of many things stolen from Iris Laertes, a world champion swimmer who lives on the property Neptunia. The box is ‘a magic entry into a mythical land’.  Cassie is swept into the greatest adventure and challenge of her life - to swim to the mythical Neptunia with a message of an environmental disaster that could destroy its many species of marine life.

The story loosely incorporates myths and legends attached to Homer’s Odyssey while weaving environmental issues into the magical fabric of the story. The many themes contained in this well crafted and imaginative story include overcoming obstacles through strategy, strength and spirit, self belief, and courage to triumph over difficulties.

Saturday, 4 January 2014


Dunger by Joy Cowley (Gecko Press)
PB RRP $16.99
ISBN 9781877579462
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Themes of generational differences and sibling relationships are covered in this brilliant book by the talented New Zealand author, Joy Cowley. The story has a character driven plot and is told in alternate chapters from the point of view of eleven year old William, and his fourteen year old sister Melissa.

With money as an incentive, the siblings agree to spend their vacation helping their grandparents repair their home. Home is an old wood hut. But this lack of modernity is nothing compared to the strangeness of the two old hippies. Between them they have seeing, hearing and mobility problems. There is no mobile reception, an old wood stove is used for cooking, and the water pipe frequently gets flooded out by rain. What have they gotten themselves into?

Will and Melissa are forced to stay the ten days or forfeit the money. They find that country living can become an adventure as they learn practical and valuable life skills, initiative and resourcefulness. Discovering unknown things about their father’s childhood, both realize the importance of knowing about their family’s past.

This is a fantastic read, realistic and clever. The characters are outstanding and readers will come away satisfied that they have learned a great deal about life from the contents of this excellent novel.

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Big Book of Australian History

The Big Book of Australian History by Peter Macinnis (National Library of Australia Publishing)
HB RRP $39.99
ISBN 9780642278326
Reviewed by Vicki Stanton

What a fantastic book! And it is indeed a big book encompassing the history of a big country from its very formation to contemporary times.

Written largely in a chronological fashion, Macinnis' informative and child-friendly text charts the course of Australia's pre-history and history. Beginning with the formation of our island continent and mega-fauna, chapters then explore the coming of the first people to Australia and Indigenous culture, early explorers and the founding of the colonies, exploration by Europeans, the gold rushes and the resultant growth of the cities, federation, the Great War and the ANZACs, the Great Depression, World War Two and post-war Australia. There are also thematic chapters on modern times, sport (of course - this is a book about Australia!), disasters, multiculturalism, the arts and controversies, some of which are still lingering and unresolved.

NLA Publishing always draws on the vast archives of the Library and this visual aspect adds so much. Maps, photographs, paintings and objects illustrate Australia's history as much as the text and combines to offer a sumptuous insight to our nation in the past, present and future. Importantly, the book ends with the reminder that everyone contributes to history and there is a call to all of us to make Australia a better place through our actions.

While it was written specifically for young people, all of us will find something in this comprehensive coverage of every aspect of Australian history - the good, the bad and the ugly - and the often conflicting perspectives held. Every home in Australia deserves a copy of this outstanding book. I leave ours on the coffee table and without fail everyone picks it up to peruse the gorgeous glossy pages chock full of Australia's heritage.

Thursday, 2 January 2014


Kate by Kevin Burgemeestre (Morris Publishing Australia)
PB RRP $22.00
ISBN 9780987543448
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

All the four main characters in this story have lost something significant which has changed their lives. Kate has lost her mother to illness, her obscurity due to her changing body, and her best friend Jess to Canada. Jess lost all that was familiar and her sense of belonging. Wilde the dog had his faith in humans and his freedom snatched from him by the brutality of his owner. Mal lost his sister to drugs and his life to crime. These four broken beings are brought together by a strange serendipity.

Kate, Mal, Wilde and later Jess who returns from Canada, are drawn into a mystifying, suspenseful and life-threatening adventure that stems from Mal’s secret past. Who is the complex Mal really? What is he hiding?

Kevin Burgemeetre’s first novel with themes of loss, grief and renewal, and complicated human relationships is fast-paced and impressive. It holds the reader’s attention from start to finish by keeping its mysteries undisclosed, allowing only tiny particles of information to float into view at specific times. This generates a sense of urgency; a need to discover what is being hidden and why.

The story is sharp and witty with excellent main characters, a strong story line and lots of humour flowing in and out. The excellent art work in black and white accentuates the characters and adds elegance to a surprising debut novel.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Little Fairy Sister

The Little Fairy Sister by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and Grenby Outhwaite (NLA Publishing)
HB RRP $29.99
ISBN 9780642277725
Reviewed by Vicki Stanton

The Little Fairy Sister is a story to delight girls and lovers of Australia's literary heritage. Bridget longs to visit the land of the fairies where her sister Nancy now lives. When given the opportunity she jumps at the chance. Her adventures take her many places and she meets many fairy creatures and native Australian animals. She must learn how to fly and discovers that she can talk with the animals. Most of all, she longs to see Nancy once again though she knows this is not possible.

This reproduction of The Little Fairy Sister is a facsimile of the 1929 edition. Ida Rentoul Outhwaite is known as one of Australia's earliest children's book illustrators and was famous for her fairy illustrations. In a twist on the usual process, Ida drew the pictures first and then Grenby fashioned the story around them. While the text may read as a little old-fashioned for modern tastes, I am sure little girls will love the tale of Bridget's adventures. Undoubtedly, the pictures are the highlight of this book and it is easy to see why Ida's fairies were so popular. The fairies are exquisite creatures and the depiction of native flora and fauna brings an Australian feel to the story.