Friday, 28 February 2014

A Cyclone is Coming!

A Cyclone is Coming! by Darlene Oxenham (Fremantle Press)
PB RRP $9.99
ISBN 9-781-922-893-342
Reviewed by Neridah McMullin

The Waarda Series are wonderful little books. In Waarda, Nyungar is the word(s), for talking and sharing stories. Initiated by renowned Aboriginal artist and writer, Sally Morgan, the series is designed to support the literacy needs of Indigenous children in primary school by making books available to them written by Indigenous authors. Of course, at the same time, it will introduce non-Indigenous children to the richness of Indigenous storytelling.

Annie lives with her family in a small coastal town in Western Australia, called Useless Loop. Her aunt, uncles and grandparents all live next door and everyone in town knows everybody. Annie’s grandfather is in charge of bringing drinking water for everyone and when he returns with his truck, Annie visits him along with her dog, Patches. As Pop observes the sky and the sea he tells her a cyclone is coming. They’re not unusual at Useless Loop and everyone knows what to do. But Annie has never been through one before and she’s about to find out how to prepare for it.

Annie’s father explains the damage cyclones can cause, but reassures Annie that all will be okay if they prepare for it and think of it as an adventure. They tie their caravan to a scraper so that is doesn’t blow away. They also tape up the windows and gather up any loose items left lying around. Together, Annie and her family carefully prepare for what’s to come. Then there is nothing left to do but wait.

When the cyclone, finally hits Useless Loop, the family gathers in the kitchen, which is the safest place in their caravan home. The sky darkens and the rain gets stronger and louder. Although Annie is scared, her family help her stay calm. They eat, read and watch movies while the wind howls and the caravan sways. Patches and Annie eventually fall asleep – and when she wakes up - it’s all over. The wind and rain have stopped. Together with her family, they explore the damage caused by the cyclone. Back at school the next day, the children all recount the events of the great cyclone adventure.

I found this little book to be quite scary at times, and my young one wanted to know if this was really a true story. Yes! I told him. But was scary as it was, Annie’s people knew just how to get through it and there was some very practical and re-assuring advice in this story.

Beautifully told, I highly recommend ‘A Cyclone is Coming!’ The Waarda series are ideal first chapter books for new readers.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

10 Funny Sheep

10 Funny Sheep by Ed Allen, illustrated by Andrea Edmonds (Scholastic Australia)
PB RRP $13.99
ISBN 978-1-74283-637-9
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Some people count sheep to go to sleep but not the sheep in this book! Counting backwards – to the tune of 10 green bottles – these sheep start by singing silly songs which get sillier as one sheep at a time disappears until they are all gone.

This is fun to read aloud:
Four funny sheep trying to win the game.
Four funny sheep trying to win the game.
And if one funny sheep should get all the blame, 
There’ll be three funny sheep trying to win the game.

The accompanying picture shows four sheep playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey who happily munches apples, oblivious to their game. But when one sheep pins the tail on the donkey’s forehead, the donkey looks up and the other three sheep run. The illustrations are entertaining. All the sheep are individuals and it’s fun to guess which one will be next to leave the pages. Hidden in each scene is a number to find as well.

10 Funny Sheep joins other titles in this series including 10 Silly Wombats also by this author/illustrator team and is a light, amusing and entertaining way for young children to practise their counting – forwards and backwards.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

5 Minute Marvel Stories

5 Minute Marvel Stories (Scholastic Australia)
HB RRP $19.99
ISBN 978-1-74362-221-6
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

This story book captures all the Marvel Superheroes in one big book - Spiderman, Iron Man, the Avenger, the X-Men, Thor, the Hulk and Captain America. In twelve short stories (each can be read in 5 minutes) these superheroes battle Super Villains and save the world one mission at a time.

Can Spiderman defeat Kraven the Hunter? What can Captain America do when confronted by Red Skull with a weapon that is capable of removing the Captain’s powers? And how will The Hulk put a stop to the Abomination?

All these stories and more make up 5 Minute Marvel Stories. This edition is full of colourful glossy illustrations, with heroes and villains looming larger than they do in the original comics. This, and the short simple stories will attract young superhero fans.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Night Monsters

Night Monsters by Nina Poulos, illustrated by Cheryl Westenberg (National Library of Australia)
PB RRP $17.99
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

The animals in the bush are afraid of the sounds they hear at night. Cackle the Kookaburra calls them together to hear their stories and try to find a way to calm them. She hears about noises that come from what they imagine to be monsters. They describe sounds like clack, hiss, snarl, snore, screech and roar, grunt and growl. There is also the beat of wings. But who is really making these noises?

Night Monsters is another terrific book from the NLA which features images from the library’s collection. Written in verse, it addresses the fears children experience at night caused by sounds they can’t identify, and which are often magnified by the silence, darkness, and their imagination. But most of the time an explanation for what they hear will alleviate their fears. So it is for the animals in the story.

All of the scary sounds that are mentioned are presented in large red letters. These can be a point of focus and discussion between parents and children. The thick laminated pages are practical and durable. Full page illustrations depict the frightened animals with facial expressions that speak louder than words, and complement the clever rhyming text.

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Two and Only Kelly Twins

The Two and Only Kelly Twins by Johanna Hurwitz, illustrated by Tuesday Mourning (Walker Books)
HC RRP 19.95
ISBN 9780763656027
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Arlene and Ilene are seven year old identical twins. The only difference is their birthday. Arlene was born just before midnight and Ilene eight minutes later. They dress alike, and no one except their parents can tell the difference. They sometimes play tricks and pretend to be one another, and love the attention they get at school.

When a set of triplets arrives with the new school year, the twins are no longer the centre of attention. When Arlene gets sick and has her appendix out, the two girls realize that they can be alike but different. Even doing things apart and having your own friends can be fun.

The theme of identity and freedom of choice is woven into an entertaining chapter book of cheeky deception, sister fights about which pet to choose and Halloween trick and treat. The excellent black and white illustrations by Tuesday Mourning (great name!) beautifully complement  and visually stimulate the text.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Tales from the Waterhole

Tales from the Waterhole by Bob Graham (Candlewick)
PB RRP $11.95
ISBN 9780763668761
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Tales from the Waterhole comes from fantastic Candlewick Sparks series for those just beginning to read. There are 27 books in the series written and illustrated by popular authors, using loved and known characters.

This four chapter book offers short stories with Morris and his animal friends that live around the waterhole of the African savannah.

Bob Graham’s easily identifiable watercolours bring to life the animals’ antics, their fun-loving characters, and the theme of friendship within a perfect blend of illustration and simple prose.

This series is produced in a new edition which is smaller than the normal sized picture book, and will fit neatly on any child’s book case.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Puppy Pie

Puppy Pie by Sam Jasper (Palmer Higgs)
PB RRP $19.95
ISBN – 978-192502777-8
Reviewed by Emma Cameron

The story opens as nine year old city girl Gull joins country cousins one school holidays during hemp harvest time. Someone has just dumped another lot of puppies off to the Hepplewhite’s. That’s what every neighbour does with offspring that are the result of the Hepplewhite’s dog, Useless, impregnating the area's dogs. Gull is horrified at Uncle Harry’s joke about turning them into puppy pie.

The farm’s relying on this hemp crop to clear a huge overdraft. When the hemp lies down, mid-harvest, Uncle Harry thinks it’s his fault that the district’s farmers might lose their crops too. Harry’s wife Helen’s psychic powers seem to be draining her more than usual and she keeps falling asleep. With the help of Shirley, a CWA neighbour, Gull and cousins hide Helen’s ‘sleeping sickness’ from Harry because he has enough to worry about.

They send her to stay with relatives. But minus her psychic help, how can they work out why the hemp keeps falling over? Filled with many mysteries and scenes of constant chores, meal breaks, and neighbours helping one another the tale’s unusual characters include a flea named Ma. While a family prophecy says a girl named Gull will save the farm, Ma and her flea family play a vital role.

Ma’s large family, who readers are all introduced to, need lots of attention. And Ma’s worried about what’s happening to the hemp too. When she takes action it puts Gull and company on track to work out what evil forces are at work to destroy the community. Once they know, Gull steps up to the mark. Fortunately, Shirley is working at the local bank, which means she can let Gull gain access to the computers in order to copy some vital evidence.

Just as the bank announces that land owners must sell up, Gull and Shirley manage to get what they need to expose the evil force and his accomplice. All is saved and the town can rest easy. Crammed with facts about farming, food, insects, dogs and cats, the story’s multiple viewpoints let readers see how a farmer on the brink of failure is reduced to grief as well as how a flea thinks. Fortunately, all ends well and, despite the worries they all face, there is still much rib-poking and joking going on.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Spirit Animals Book 1: Wild Born

Spirit Animals Book 1: Wild Born by Brandon Mull (Scholastic Inc)
PB RRP $6.50
ISBN 978-1-74283-997-4
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Wild Born is the first book in a new series Spirit Animals. Much like The 39 Clues or Infinity Ring series, each book in this engrossing series will be written by a different author with Brandon Mull kicking off the series. In Eras, having a rare bond with a spirit animal means great power, for both human and beast. And, as Connor, Abeke, Meilin and Rollan discover, with this power comes great responsibility. These four have summoned the animals of legend and their path is set – only they have the power to stop the dark force which is rising in the land. The fate of the world rests on their young shoulders.

Wild Born is an exciting ride. It is action packed all the way and ends on a cliff hanger which leaves the reader wanting more. Although I found the writing a little strained at times, the premise of the storyline and the exciting action scenes easily kept me involved. The world Mull has created is fabulous, the fantasy plot intriguing, and the characters make me care about what is happening to them and the world the live in.

For fantasy or animal lovers, this is a series well worth investing some time in. Popular fantasy author Maggie Stiefvater has written the second book and I can’t wait for that one. The Spirit Animals Series will suit middle school readers mostly, between grades five and eight and is Scholastics’ new multiplatform release. Read the book, and then discover the action role-playing game online, complete with a spirit animal of your own, at

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Clumsy Duck

Clumsy Duck by Britta Teckentrup (Koala Books)
PB RRP $14.99
ISBN 978-1-74276-035-3
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Clumsy Duck has trouble staying on his feet. Hills make him trip, mud makes him slip and he cannot get a good grip to perch on a branch. It is very frustrating for him. But his friend Chick is sure there is a good reason for his big feet. It is just a matter of finding it.

Clumsy Duck is a sweet story about friendship, embracing differences and perseverance. Young children will be charmed by Duck, Chick and the small band of followers they pick up along their travels. They will also be reassured by the notion that everyone is different and it is just a matter of finding your own special talent.

The illustrations are charming and bright and match the upbeat positive feel of the story. This is a delightful picture book for toddlers to six year olds.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Simple Things

The Simple Things by Bill Condon, illustrated by Beth Norling (Allen and Unwin)
Price: AUD $12.99
ISBN: 9781743317242
Reviewed by Jenny Mounfield

Reading age: 8-108

The Simple Things is possibly the simplest, yet most deceptively deep book I have read in a long time, which makes it incredibly difficult to review. Norling’s beautiful cover art and internal illustrations add an extra layer of contrast to the emotional impact of this book. As a whole, I is a magical mix of simplicity and complexity.

It is with the greatest pleasure I introduce Stephen: (Excerpt page 3.)

“Ever since I can remember, at Christmas and on my birthday, Aunty Lola has sent  me her love and ten dollars.  She’s really my great-aunt, but her Christmas and birthday cards always say ‘Love from Aunty Lola’. I’ve never met her before because she lives a long way from my home in the city. To me, the most real thing about her is that ten dollars.” 

Ten-year old Stephen is spending three weeks with his cantankerous Aunt Lola. He is certain it will be the longest and most boring three weeks of his life. But as he is about to discover there is more to life than TV and electronic games. During his stay he learns about life—and death—and everything in between, finds friends where he least expects to, and reminds an old woman how it feels to be alive.

Stephen’s refreshingly frank view of the world is a balm for hearts young and old—as is the banter between him and his aunt: (Excerpt page 45—After Stephen plays a trick on Aunt Lola.)

“Now my bottom lip trembles. I bite down on it but I can’t make it stop.
‘I’m really, really sorry.’
‘Only one really per sentence. I told you about that. Have you forgotten?’
‘And I’ve had quite enough of this sorry business, too.’
‘Sorr—’ I stop myself, just in time.
‘It’s over now.’ Aunty Lola’s voice is still sharp and pointy like a cactus., but not quite as much as before. ‘We all make mistakes.’
‘Even you, Aunty Lola?’
‘Not as many as you.’”

Condon’s gift is that he doesn’t write stories so much as he writes characters who then share their lives with the world.  If he were to announce tomorrow that he is some sort of New Age medium who channels the souls of real people, I would have no trouble believing him.  Stephen, his parents, Aunt Lola, Allie and her pop are all so alive that I feel I’ve met them in person.

The Simple Things is a lesson in life for readers of all ages. I strongly urge parents and teachers buying this title for their kids to take a moment to read it first. I guarantee you’ll be richer for the experience.

Jenny Mounfield is the author of four books and several short stories for young people. She lives in Brisbane with her husband and two of her three grown children.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Stories for Boys

Stories for Boys a selection of stories by Australian authors, illustrated by Tony Flowers (Random House Australia Children’s)
PB RRP $14.95
ISBN 9780857980885
Ebook ISBN: 9780857980892
Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

Keeping up the pace and excitement, but this time for six to eight year old boys, is this fine and funny anthology from another twelve fabulous Aussie authors. And they know the stuff that will engage our boys with fabulous adventures featuring: ghosts, robots, jellyfish, lice and terror-dactyls.

As well as some of the authors from the ‘girls’ series, there are offerings from: Bill Condon, Tristan Bancks, Nick Falk, Aleesah Darlison, Celeste Walters and Sophie Masson.

Some stories are written in past tense, some present tense. There are short, accessible sentences with simple words, others with doozies thrown in for good measure, like ‘follicle’ and ‘realm’. There are great similes, ‘rain hammers on the roof like bullets’ and ear-wrenching onomatopoeia where ‘lightning crackles … doors creeeeak and thunder rumbles’. Each story uses a wealth of literary techniques to subliminally encourage readers to create and colour their own stories.

Plot and character are the main focus and there are plenty to choose from. There’s Tom who visits his pop in a nursing home. The thing is, his pop hates kids. Tom has a problem.

What happens when Jack wishes that his mum were an octopus – a riotous romp of tentacle fun ensues. Or perhaps you’d prefer the story set on a space station where giant jellyfish roam, or something closer to home, Sophie Masson’s romp in the Possum in the Roof.

And then there’s the hilarious story of Ferdie the frog who goes to market in a box of lettuces. Celeste Walters delights with her rhythmic and imagery-filled writing when ‘fat hands and thin hands and bodies with trolleys were pushing and shoving and pawing and pouncing’ as Ferdie goes on his adventure around the supermarket. The end result is that all readers will want a frog like Ferdie.

With the animated, boyish illustrations by internationally acclaimed artist, Tony Flowers (illustrator of the Saurus Street series), along with the perfect-sized font and plenty of white space in format, Stories for Boys, is a great addition to the bedside table.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Tom Gates Extra Special Treats (not)

Tom Gates Extra Special Treats (not) by L.Pichon (Scholastic Australia)
PB RRP $12.99
ISBN 978-1-74362-203-2
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Tom Gates Extra Special Treats (not) is the next instalment of the very funny series starring Tom Gates. In this story Tom really wants to be given the Star Pupil badge. Even though this means actually doing his homework, being on time and paying attention in class. High on Tom’s list of reasons for wanting the badge is that teachers will smile at him. Also, Marcus Meldrew has one, and the badge is permission to stay in the warm library at play time.

But as usual there are many distractions to lead Tom off course. The new neighbours move in and it is the girl who pulls faces. The Fossils – Granny Mavis and Granddad – are having their 50th Anniversary. Then the schools heating breaks down and everyone gets a day off school. Unfortunately so does Uncle Kevin’s so he, Auntie Alice and the cousins all come to stay.

Tom’s life is busy, always tilting on the edge of disaster, and so very funny. I laugh out loud when I’m reading these books. The humour is dry, sarcastic and not mean. It is full of all the little things in life, like throwing a snowball at your best friend who ducks so it hits a teacher, or games of rock, paper, scissors which do not go to plan.

I really love Tom’s family which includes Mum, Dad and Delia - Tom’s older sister; a grumpy teenager. The characters are realistic and relatable and could be living next door. And his best friend Derek and worst friend Marcus are well fleshed characters too, staying true from one book to the next. I think in future books Tom and Derek may start to hang out with new neighbour June, even though the relationship is a bit rocky at the moment – June, like Amy, hates Dude3, Tom’s favourite band.

With its great pictures - as much a part of the story as the text, short chapters, big and ever-changing font, and young characters, Tom Gates is targeted at the beginner reader market, 8 years plus. But I know many older readers who get a great giggle from it. I am one of them. Buy it for the young reader in your life, but read it quickly first before you pass it on. It’s short, light and very, very fun.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Impossible Knife of Memory

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson (Text Publishing)
PB RRP $19.99
ISBN 9781922182227
Reviewed by Wendy Fitzgerald 

Laurie Halse Anderson lives in New York. She has written several novels for Young Adults. In 2008 she was awarded the prestigious ALAN award which honours authors who have made outstanding contributions to adolescent literature.

The Impossible Knife of Memory was inspired by Anderson’s own father who was a World War 2 veteran. This novel is based on a very real problem. What happens to war veterans when they return to civilian life and how does their behaviour affect their families and the people who love them?

Anderson’s main character, 17 year old Hayley Kincain has been on the road with her truck driver father, Andy for the past five years. In this book they settle in her grandmother’s house in a quiet town so Hayley can finish school.

Hayley’s father is a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. He’s plagued by addiction and haunted by dark memories of his time at war. Hayley has to fit into a new school while at home she has to juggle her father’s fits of rage, depression, drug and alcohol abuse and his inability to keep a job.

All the while Hayley wants to protect her father. She tries to fake a ‘normal’ home life. To the outside world Hayley puts up a tough and somewhat angry exterior. But as often happens, this tough exterior hides deep hurt, fragility and fear.

I think it’s good for kids to read stories that show how different people make sense of the world and how they cope with the circumstances of their lives. For example I liked the way Hayley divides people into Zombies or Freaks. I liked her friendships with Gracie and Finn. I admired her resilience, her bravado, her vulnerability and her strong love for her father.

The story is mainly told through Hayley’s point of view, but there are also small snippets and flash backs from her father’s perspective. I liked the theme of memory that is woven through the story. Hayley’s childhood memories blended with her father’s memories of war. The pacing was good and it held my interest.

I would recommend The Impossible Knife of Memory to mature readers 15 years and up. It does contain language and strong adult themes.

Laurie Halse Anderson tackles very hard subjects in her novels. Her book, Speak was a New York Times best selling novel about a young girl who was raped at a party while her very popular Wintergirls deals with anorexia and depression.                                                                                                                                                      

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Kill Order

The Kill Order by James Dashner (Chicken House)
PB RRP $16.99
ISBN 978-1-908435-59-0
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Mark and Trina are fighting for their lives.

Most of the human race has been wiped out by sun flares and the intense heat, toxic radiation and flooding that followed these. Those surviving, including Mark, Trina and their band of friends, have set up small communities and are concentrating on rebuilding their lives as best they can. But when a Berg (huge airships) arrives bringing darts filled with a virus instead of supplies, Mark finds himself on the run again. As the virus mutates and people get even more desperate, Mark and Trina rely on friends, two ex-soldiers, and their own survival instincts.

The Kill Order is action packed and addictive. As the intensity builds, it becomes impossible to put down and I had to read it in one sitting. The action starts with the survivors. The sun flares and Marks’s subsequent flight to the mountains is told in dreams and this works surprisingly well. Part of the suspense of the story is in the conflict between Mark’s sleep deprived present and his reliving the horror of his past when he does reluctantly succumb to sleep and dreams.

Tagged as a ‘must for fans of The Hunger Games’, the storyline is completely different but the theme and atmosphere is reminiscent - the dystopian setting, the desperation and the bleak disregard - of those in charge - for the general population.

The Kill Order is for teens. There is violence, death, destruction and some disturbing scenes once the virus takes hold and begins to mutate. But like all dystopian and apocalyptic tales, it will question what you would do to survive, how far would you go to save the ones you love. And fans of the genre will be totally engrossed in the story, cheering Mark and Trina on to the sad but inevitable ending.

The Kill Order is the prequel to the popular Maze Runner series by James Dashner. The first in the series The Maze Runner is currently in production and a movie is expected sometime towards the end of 2014.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Stories for Girls

Stories for Girls a selection of stories by Australian authors, illustrated by J. Yi (Random House Australia Children’s)
PB RRP $14.95
ISBN 9780857980861
Ebook ISBN: 9780857980878
Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

Who’s up for a story, or 12? This anthology of short stories is perfect for so many people. Young readers aged six to eight will laugh out loud, parents will rejoice at bedtime with the witty selection they can share with their children and teachers will be pestered by their students to read another story.

Jacqueline Harvey, Dianne Bates, Janeen Brian, Tania Cox, Claire Saxby – it’s a galaxy of writers presenting a stellar smorgasbord of stories about ghosts, glamour and games.

In Jess Black’s A Pony for Alice, there’s a wonderful unicorn connection. Maisie Dubosarsky’s short story tells of young Grace who wished so hard for long hair that it grew out the window. Just as well Mrs Finn, the violin teacher, had a great solution.

George Ivanoff is up to his usual funny stuff in his story of Ug the troll who wants to make a fairy pie as he ‘really, really liked eating … even people, when he could catch them.’

For dance enthusiasts, there’s Grace Atwood’s story of Arabella the ballet-dancing giraffe. Her perfect manners forbade her to show her long, blue tongue in company … ‘If she couldn’t reach the leaf with her lips, it was not the leaf for her.’

Challenges abound in David Harding’s Monkey Man. It’s the day of the Dad and Daughter school picnic and the permission note sternly states ‘No animals!’

In Deborah Kelly’s story about a pet rat, secrets abound– with a delightful twist on the theme of sibling rivalry.

There’s even a twist on fairy tales, as Martin Chatterton weaves his magic in The Tale of Handle and Kettle.

There’s so much to recommend this collection of short stories for girls. The stories are a great segue into chapter books with plenty of white space, large type and scatterings of illustrations by the quirky J. Yi (illustrator of the Alice-Miranda, Clementine Rose and Ghost Club series). There’s even a bio on each author at the end of the book with plenty of author goss.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Year of the Jungle

Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins, illustrated by James Proimos (Scholastic Australia)
HB RRP $24.99
ISBN 978-0-545-42516-2
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Suzy’s dad has to go to something called a war in Vietnam for a year. She is not really sure what that means but she imagines the jungle like a favourite cartoon, looks forward to his post cards and keeps an eye on Mum (just in case she is thinking of going to the jungle too). But Mum and the rest of Suzy’s family stay home as first grade starts. Halloween, Christmas, birthdays and all the other landmarks of the year pass. Until one day, Dad is home again.

Sometimes it’s the simply told stories which are felt deeply and this is one that does that so well. It is a personal story, an autobiographical picture book about the author’s childhood, but it is also a story about growth, change and missing a loved one.

Told from the point of view of a six year old, the simple, clear and very clever text pulls on the heart strings.

“It’s snowing and I get a birthday card. My birthday isn’t until summer. The card should be for Joanie. My mom says my dad’s busy and just got confused. The jungle must be a confusing place for him to make such a serious mistake.”

Suzy’s slow awakening during the year, through news snippets and Dad’s postcards, to what is happening is interpreted wonderfully by the illustrator. The bright friendly pictures contrast with ones which show how Suzy is imagining the jungle and they get darker and scarier as her awareness grows. It has great impact.

The story starts and ends with the same paragraph about her dad reading Suzy poems by a man named Ogden Nash. But after experiencing the story in-between, that one paragraph means so much more.

Year of the Jungle is subtitled Memories from the Home Front and that is what the story is about, those at home, not those at war. This picture book sensitively explores the impact war has on families and the very young. However it is probably for school aged children, not preschoolers.

I love this book and each time I read it I love it a little bit more.

Suzanne Collins is the bestselling author of The Hunger Games trilogy.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Simple Gift

The Simple Gift by Steven Herrick (University of Queensland Press)
PB RRP $19.95
ISBN 978 0 7022 3133 9
Reviewed by Jo Antareau

On Steven Herrick’s blog, he stated that his inspiration for The Simple Gift was Bruce Springsteen’s song The Ghost of Tom Joad. As I was reading it, I wondered if Steinbeck was Herrick’s touchstone as he was crafting the narrative. Although set in modern Australia, Herrick covers similar territory to Steinbeck, such as the honour of poverty, the humanity of the most humble and that those who give the most often have nothing themselves.

Told in verse by three different voices, it tells the story of Billy Luckett, a young adult who has drawn life’s short straw. Abused by his father with an absent mother, friendless and failing at school, he chooses to try his luck as a street kid. What might then spiral into a tragedy of substance abuse and crime, Herrick instead takes the story into the unexpected direction of hope and redemption.

Billy ends up living in a disused railway carriage in the town of Bendarat, a thinly disguised Ballarat. He subsists by scavenging on scraps and what he earns for some itinerant work, and revels in his freedom and solitude – days spent between the creek and library. Yet he allows two other souls to enter his life.

Caitlin is a private schoolgirl who annoys her status-conscious parents by mopping floors at Macdonald’s and dreams of the day she turns eighteen and can leave her family. Old Billy, another person who takes advantage of the free accommodation in the disused railway carriages, is an angry man broken by his own tragic past. Yet both are touched by Billy. To Old Bill, he gives the simple gift of a packet of cigarettes, to Caitlin he gives the simple gift of courtesy and a note with the etymology of her name. And with these humble offerings, he starts to reconnect with his fellow humans as each takes tentative steps away from their demons. This is ultimately a story of the healing power of relationships, as the trio all take control of their lives and help Billy in unexpected ways.

Written with sparse language and a light touch, this is YA novel is an uplifting read which I recommend to those who feel disconnected or otherwise alienated from society, and I suggest they read and enjoy it voluntarily before it is imposed on them as a text on the HSC syllabus.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Australian and World Records 2014

Australian and World Records 2014 by Jenifer Corr Morse (Scholastic Australia)
PB RRP $14.99
ISBN 978-1-74362-209-4
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Have you ever wondered what Australia’s worst natural disaster was? Which soccer team is the most valuable? Or what is the world’s most downloaded song? Well then, Australian and World Records 2014 is for you.

Broken down into sections such as Australian Records, Internet, Music, Movies and Animals, this book is easy to navigate. Each section has different coloured page borders for quick reference and the book is a great size and weight for flicking through.

With an attractive and bright layout, photographs on every page, colourful bar graphs and subjects teens will be interested in, this is a book to spark many ‘Did you know..’ conversations with friends.

Suitable for all ages, it would make a great gift for the teen who has everything. With its explosive cover – bright and sparkling – it should jump quickly off the shelves.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Coaltown Jesus

Coaltown Jesus by Ron Koertge (Walker Books)
HC RRP $ 24.95
ISBN 9780763662288
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Deeply moving and often funny, this sparse verse is clever, philosophical and reflective. Writing a verse novel is an art and gifted poet Ron Koertge has created something significant that should not be overlooked.

Walker’s brother Noah has recently suicided. Walker can’t understand why with his mother’s nursing home full of people waiting to ‘check out’, Noah gets taken. His mother is broken, and Walker calls for divine intervention to put her together again.

Jesus appears, but only the boy can see and speak to him. The casual and friendly conversations between Jesus and Walker expose Noah’s life, the trauma his passing has left behind, and the growing detachment between mother and surviving son. The use of the Jesus figure is a unique device which complements and soothes this immensely interesting novel about grief and loss.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

All That’s Missing

All That’s Missing by Sarah Sullivan (Walker Books)
HC RRP $24.95
ISBN 9780763661021
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Arlo is in the sixth grade. His world is made up of his grandfather Poppo, his best friend Sam, and his running. Poppo is slipping in and out of time in his mind and Arlo is covering up about his life at home, and for the things that Poppo does. How long can Arlo keep their secret?

When Poppo has a stroke, everything goes haywire in Arlo’s life. Facing foster care, he sets out to find his ostracized paternal grandmother Ida whom he didn’t know existed, who lives hundreds of miles away. What he discovers changes his life completely, when a series of events forces the unknown story of his parents’ love for one another and their life together.

Evocative, filled with metaphor, and with a ghostly tale filtering through it, this book won’t be put down till the last word. It’s themes of loss and grief, and the importance of identity and belonging, meld together to form a moving tale about family love and loyalty. It also exposes the desolation of keeping secrets till death, and their effects on the living. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

How To Build A Human Body

How To Build A Human Body by Tom Jackson (Scholastic UK)
HB RRP $29.99
ISBN 978-1-407137-37-7
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

How to Build a Human Body is subtitled A Mind-Bogglingly Brilliant Body Book, and it is. Attractively laid out, with thick glossy pages built to withstand numerous page turnings, this book clearly and amusingly describes the body - how and why it works.

It is split into four sections, The Basics, The Organs, The Senses and Systems and has a helpful glossary –Cool Words – and index – both of which cover the book well without being overwhelming. This all helps to facilitate easy navigation of pages and subject matter. The index includes stuff kids love to look up such as Poo, Yuk! and Try This and the contents page is equally as enticing with headings to explore such as:

  • Confined to the cells, p.12
  • Take a Breath, p38
  • Hormone Soup, p76
  • Getting Sniffy, p64

The book has a chatty feel about it, as if the author is having a conversation with the reader. Its bright colourful illustrations bring out the humour and enhance the understanding of each body part being discussed. Fangs a Bunch heads a page filled with a giant set of teeth surrounding facts, explanations of the different types of teeth and a diagram of a tooth’s root system. Some of the information seems random – pirates biting gold in all the pirate movies – but these interesting facts always swing back to the point – the stuff in teeth that makes them so hard.

These great pictures and diagrams are also joined by boxes of information:

  • Superhuman – all about people who helped discover how the body works - for example James Watson and Francis Crick who found the double helix structure which helps with our understanding of DNA. 
  • Under the Skin – which looks at what is going on inside you - for example Feel the Burn explains why muscles feel tired after working out. 
  • Try This – things kids can do to get a concrete understanding of their body - such as A Bit of Cheek which shows readers how to look at their own cells under the microscope.

There is much to learn about the body and this book is a fun way to learn the facts. It would be   enjoyable to read from cover to cover, or to dip in and out of whenever the mood takes you. Aimed at upper primary level readers, I think older readers and adults will gain much information and enjoyment from this book as well.

Check out the Find Out More booklist and website list at the back for further information.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Losing Reuben

Losing Reuben by Leonie Norrington, illustrated by Beth Norling (Omnibus Books)
PB RRP $12.99
ISBN 978-1-74299-022-4
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Reuben is part of a large family. In fact, his family is so large that his mum has to count them all when they go out so no-one gets lost or left behind. Reuben loves his mum’s counting, it makes him feel safe. And this is good as there are many things that Reuben worries about – waves, mud, crabs.
One day, on the family’s regular Saturday trip to One Mile Beach, Reuben has to face his biggest fear of all. Is he big enough and brave enough to face it?

I really like Omnibus’s Mates series. They are perfect junior novels for beginner readers with fully coloured illustrations which break up the short chapters and enhance the story. Some words are highlighted by bigger or bolder font to emphasise meaning and all the text is easy to read.

All the books in the Mates series are ‘Great Australian Yarns’ and many, like Losing Reuben, feature indigenous families or cultures.

Losing Reuben touches on very common themes for children, such as the ocean and being left behind, but also explores the concept of teetering between being a little kid and being a big kid. I think children beginning to read will relate to this book on many levels.

This is really a joyful book about growing up, being part of a happy family, and a fun day out at the beach.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Racing the Moon

Racing the Moon by Michelle Morgan (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $15.99
ISBN 978-1-74331-635-1
Reviewed by Ann Harth (

Joe Riley rigs billy cart races and sells eggs in the streets of Sydney during the Depression. His techniques for making a few shillings, although not strictly legal, are a matter of survival. His parents want something better for Joe and he is sent to a boarding school across the harbour. Joe is miserable. He misses his family, his home and especially his freedom. St Bartholomew feels like a prison – the food is terrible, the uniform scratchy and the boys, superior. But these are nothing compared to his interactions with Brother Felix. After a final life-changing altercation, Joe is sent to The Farm, a reform school south of Sydney.

At The Farm, Joe grows to feel as though he belongs – something he never did at St Bartholomew’s. He makes close friends, gains valuable skills and finds fulfilment in hard work and productivity. The year is almost over and Joe is ready to go home but before leaving The Farm, he has one final and dangerous challenge. Joe Riley must Race the Moon.

This historical novel for children aged 12-14 will transport young readers into New South Wales during the 1930s. Rich with sensory images, and accurate historical details, Racing the Moon offers a taste of life during the depression in three distinct settings: the streets of Sydney, a Catholic boarding school and a tough, but fair, reform school. 13-year-old Joe tells his story in the realistic voice of a young boy and the reader is invited to grow close to him as they watch him experience a painful, but beneficial year away from home.

I would recommend this story for young people who enjoy character-driven historical fiction. Clear and compelling, this book will leave its audience with a genuine feel for life during the Depression. Michelle Morgan lives in the Southern Highlands with her family and the local wildlife. She has written many plays, some of which have been performed during short play festivals in NSW. She also writes songs with her husband. This is her first novel. For more information about Michelle, visit 

Ann Harth is a published children's author, freelance editor, ghostwriter and writing teacher 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 & Noble. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Great Explorers: Journeys into the unknown by land, sea and air

Great Explorers: Journeys into the unknown by land, sea and air by Stewart Ross, illustrated by Stephen Biesty (Walker Books)
PB RRP $19.95
ISBN 9781406348668
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Great Explorers begins with Pytheas the Greek, who travelled to the Arctic in a coracle; also called a currach. He is one of the earliest explorers to record his travels and his methods in On the Ocean, and leads the list of explorers of land, sea and air presented in chronological order in this magnificent production. The ships and other methods of transport, type of exploration and equipment used, are all represented in illustrations of extraordinary detail. These include: air balloons, airship, bathyscaphe, mountaineer’s clothing and climbing and camping equipment, and space rockets. Each component is labelled, and the fitting together is explained along with how they work.

Viking Lief Eriksson reached the Americas 500 years before Christopher Columbus. How do we know this? The answer is in the Mystery of Vinland. When Marco travelled with the other Polos along the Silk Road in camel caravans, they stopped over in a caravanserai, an inn for caravans. An illustration of this, too, is reproduced in minute detail. Every entry between the covers is food for the mind.

A great deal of research and preparation has gone into this amazing book. It has 11 sections and unfolding cross-sections that open up onto a complete picture or map. It is definitely a collector’s must have, due to the rich narrative combined with Stephen Biesty’s stunning work. It educates and informs and is an ideal reference book for the private bookshelf, Council, and school libraries.

Children, lovers of history, ships and exploration will treasure this incredible book’s beauty and valuable content.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

International Book Giving Day

Join Jackie French, the Australian Children's Laureate, in sharing the joy of books on International Book Giving Day:

February 14 is International Book Giving Day. It’s not recognised by the United Nations, but it is an idea that is catching on around the world since it was begun by American book blogger, Amy Broadmore, in 2012.

Why give a book on what’s also St Valentine’s Day?
A book lasts longer than a box of chocolates or a bunch of roses. It is calorie free, cholesterol free, guilt free and does not provoke allergic reactions. But it can also be so powerful that tyrants like Pol Pot felt they had to massacre book readers.  A book can lead you to paradise or rebellion.

What do you give someone who has everything? 
A book.

What do you give someone who has nothing?
A book. A  book can give them hope, the power to dream of what life might be.

Give your best friend a book you’ve enjoyed. Give your local school a book you think will inspire kids, or just make them laugh. If you want your kids to be intelligent, give them books: reading creates new neural connections in a child’s brain, by stimulating the growth of new neurons as they imagine the world the writer has put on paper. If you want your kids to be more intelligent, give them more books. 

A book is a small, transportable, delightful universe you can keep in your pocket, handbag, glove box or desk drawer, and take out to vanish into when the world is not as you would like it to be.

But mostly, a book is shared. Give a new book. Share an old book. (I love the ones with crabby comments in the margins and chocolate stains – or maybe they are bloodstains – on the pages.)

This Valentine’s Day, give books.

Australian Children’s Laureate

The Australian Children’s Laureate is an initiative developed by the Australian Children’s Literature Alliance (ACLA), founded in 2008. Every two years a children’s author or illustrator is awarded this prestigious role for their outstanding contribution to children’s literature. The Laureate acts as a national and international ambassador for Australian children’s literature to promote the transformational power of reading and story in the lives of young Australians.

Ava Anne Appleton: Accidental Adventurer

Ava Anne Appleton: Accidental Adventurer by Wendy Harmer, illustrated by Andrea Edmonds (Scholastic Australia)
PB RRP $9.99
ISBN 978-1-74283-875-5
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Ava Anne Appleton is at the beginning of the alphabet and that is just how she likes it. Life is ordered and predictable. She lives with her mother, father and dog Angus at 3A Australia Avenue. Then one day her life is turned upside down.

Her parents buy a motor home. They plan to travel around Australia for a year, to have a grand adventure. Ava is sure she’ll hate adventures. On their travels, Ava meets Zander, who prefers being on the end of the alphabet (it gives her time to think before her name is called). Through Zander, Ava gains a new perspective on her travels.

Wendy Harmer’s dry humour is perfectly at home in this delightful story about change:

“But where will we go?” asked Ava.
“Anywhere we want!” declared her Dad. “We’ll just look on the map, point a finger and that’s where we’ll drive. Everything we need is here inside the Adventurer. The world is our oyster.”
Oyster? Ava didn’t like oysters, or any other strange, smelly foods come to that.

The black and white illustrations are an important part of the story. Like in picture books, these charming, soft paintings add so much character to the people and emotions. These pictures accompany twelve short chapters, with large print, making it great for extending beginner readers in the 7-8 year old age reader range.

Ava Anne Appleton is not a story about the alphabet. It is about family and friendships and explores how people live different lives, have different views, outlooks and personalities. Change may be scary, but adventure can open your eyes to much more than you anticipate. This is the start of a new series which will be loved by many young girls.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Paruku The Desert Brumby

Paruku The Desert Brumby by Jesse Blackadder (HarperCollins)
PB RRP $14.99 
ISBN: 9780733331794 
Reviewed by Hazel Edwards
Jesse Blackadder's books have well researched settings, whether Antarctica or historical Scotland. Her audience has now extended to younger readers with the animal series which started with 'STAY, the Last Dog in Antarctica'.These are 'faction', involving stories, dramatised around fact. The realistic detail of seeking the outback brumbies to fulfil the Sheik's contract, from a young girl's perspective, especially when accompanied by her vet father, is credible in 'Paruka:The Desert Brumby'

Family relationships are well drawn but it's the horse details which will make 'Paruka The Desert Brumby' the kind of novel, 10-15 year old horse-mad girls will recommend to each other. And even the ones who are not horse-mad. Authentic outback detail and a subtle way of opening up some broader issues of ownership of natural resources.

The inserts written from the viewpoint of the brumbies are beautifully written. Poetic and sustained.
Hazel Edwards OAM  is a National Reading Ambassador.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Last Thirteen Book 2: 12

The Last Thirteen Book 2: 12 by James Phelan (Scholastic Australia)
PB RRP $14.99
ISBN 978-1-74283-185-9
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

13 books. 13 nightmares. 1 destiny.

This is the second instalment of an exciting new series for young teenagers.

After the cliff-hanger ending in 13, 12 continues by jumping straight back into the action. With his friends scattered, Sam must trust his instincts and dreams to lead him on in the quest. He now knows that as the last of the thirteen, it is up to him to find the other twelve. To do this he needs help, and knowing who to trust is not easy. This time, his search takes him from New York to Cairo and Rome.

12 does not back down from the dramatic pace of the previous book. The nightmares get scarier and a little more shadowy, while at the same time the evil Solaris becomes very real. As the characters become more fleshed out, more is invested in seeing Sam and his friends win.

In this book the issue of parents looms larger as Alex is ‘captured’ by Enterprise – in the same way that the Academy took the kids in the first place. His mother works for Enterprise and Alex battles with the notion that maybe Enterprise is not evil; it just has a different approach to the Academy. There is an even bigger evil out there and maybe Enterprise’s approach is valid too. This introduces the idea that not all is black and white; the lines can often become blurred.

This series has a serialised single storyline which will continue at the rate of one book a month until the conclusion is reached in the thirteenth book. Also check out, an on-line companion page with VIP Access. There are 13 prizes to win with each book release, e-newsletters, access code breakers and many more features.

James Phelan is an Australian author who has written adult thrillers as well as the Lachlan Fox series and the Alone trilogy for older teenagers.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Last Thirteen Book 1: 13

The Last Thirteen Book 1: 13 by James Phelan (Scholastic Australia)
PB RRP $7.50
ISBN 978-1-74283-184-8
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

The Last Thirteen is a new series for young teenaged readers. Fast-paced and gripping, the reader is instantly inserted into the action of a ‘true’ dream Small details are revealed throughout the story, increasing the intrigue and tension until the final cliff-hanger moment at the end of the book.

13 is the first book of this series. Sam’s nightmares have always been bad but his latest dream seems even more real than most. Then, he is whisked away in a hair-raising helicopter ride with two other teens and taken to an Academy in Switzerland for ‘Dreamers’ where he is to be taught how to control his dreams. Here he discovers the race between good and evil has begun and he is one of the last thirteen. And Sam has a pivotal role to play in this race.

This is a great series for younger teens. It is a classic good versus evil (Academy versus Enterprise) story with a shadowy evil figure Solaris, a world-wide hunt for clues, and a search for the teenagers with special abilities, destined to be heroes in a battle to save the world.

Sam is a likeable character, as are the secondary characters and the dilemma the author creates with the two competing agencies and their reasons for being fighting the ‘good’ fight  is interesting. Even without the constant threat of death – the battling agencies tend to use dart guns not bullets – the tension is constantly heightened. The puzzle is often made more complex, not easier, and even though they are following events they have already dreamed about, you never know where the action may take a turn and change paths. 13 is wonderfully dramatic, exciting and addictive.

Instalments of these short, fast-reading books are scheduled to come out each month until the conclusion in December 2014. This will be a popular thriller series for teens. As with many series now, there is an on-line companion page with VIP Access. There are 13 prizes to win with each book release, e-newsletters, access code breakers and many more features. Check it out at

James Phelan is an Australian author who has written adult thrillers as well as the Lachlan Fox series and the Alone trilogy for older teenagers.