Saturday, 31 January 2015

Frankie Fox, Girl Spy: READY, SET, SPY

Frankie Fox, Girl Spy: READY, SET, SPY by Yvette Poshoglian
PB RRP $12.99
ISBN: 9780734415684
Reviewed by Hilary Smillie

Eleven-year-old Francesca (Frankie) Fox, motherless but with a millionaire Dad, has a boathouse for her room which she shares with Boss, her West Highland Terrier. It is located on a cliff 178 steps down from the main house called Griffin where Hanna the housekeeper keeps house for her Dad and cooks for the three of them when her Dad is home. He is a brilliant scientist and runs a secret set of labs on Fortress Island which Frankie can see from the boathouse window. Frankie's Dad protects his property with an electric fence, and is concerned that his wealth and scientific knowledge could make him a target of an evil group called the Alliance, a threat to the whole world.

Frankie has always wanted to be a spy. She is studying The Spy's Handbook which belonged to her Dad and pours over it every free moment. There is a code scribbled inside it that she needs to decipher and so far has been stumped. Unusual things have been happening. Frankie thinks she is being watched and her room has definitely been searched. Later, when kayaking, her boat is almost overturned by a woman in a kayak who she recalls later was the stand-in bus driver on the school bus. Also, strange underwater lights are puzzling.

James Jensen (JJ), a new neighbour but previous resident returned from Iceland who attends Frankie's school, arranges to kayak across to Fortress Island with Frankie and Boss. The two kayakers set off one evening and once again Frankie sees the underwater lights. When they land on the island, they come across soldiers and are captured. Their captors are agents for Griffin and are fighting the Alliance. When Frankie is told her father has been kidnapped by the Alliance, she is amazed to discover both JJ and herself have been in training as Griffin spies, and as things fall into place, she knows whatever she has to do to rescue her father, she will do it. It is vital she deciphers the code in her spy handbook and completes Mission Icefall. And Boss and JJ have a role to play, too.

Yvette Poshoglian, a Sydney-based high school teacher involved in creative writing workshops, has created an exciting story with plenty of intrigue and drama. She uses retrospect cleverly to keep the momentum charged and pacey. Each chapter is headed by a quote from The Spy's Handbook which alludes to the content and increases interest.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Fearless Sons and Daughter

Fearless Sons and Daughter written by Colin Thompson, illustrated by Sarah Davis (Harper Collins)
HB RRP $24.99
ISBN 9780733330872
Reviewed by Sharon McGuinness

Ever since Fearless was first published, readers have anticipated the next title in the series. I was no different. Colin Thompson’s original story was beautifully enhanced by the wonderful illustrations of Sarah Davis. We followed Fearless from a pup in a pet shop window and grew to know and understand the breed of the British bulldog through his antics. Fearless was a dog who didn’t live up to his name and Thompson and Davis were adept at showing their readers this through the perfect combination of both text and illustration.

In this third Fearless story, I feel that the text of Thompson has now become the vehicle for the illustrations of Davis for while they take centre stage on each page, the story seems to run second.

Thompson tells us that while people may grow up to become more sensible, on the other hand, although he grew bigger, Fearless’ brain stayed as confused as ever. This didn’t change when Fearless became a father to five pups – four sons and a daughter. Both Fearless and Primrose have no idea where they have come from, yet Fearless somehow knows it’s his job to teach them everything he knew. Dangerous things like vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers and handbags, which could often creep up on you when you least expect it, the garden outside, but especially the pond.

Fearless’ confusion increases when the pups begin to disappear (they have been weaned and are going to new homes) and he fears the orange ‘sharks’ in the pond have eaten them. This is backed up by Eric, the last puppy who claims he ‘saw’ his brother in the pond.

Fearless is too frightened to accompany Eric to the pond to ‘rescue’ the apparently missing pup so it is up to Primrose and Eric.
Seeing her own reflection in the pond, Primrose leans in closer to chase it away from her baby, accidentally falling in, which brings Fearless crashing through the rose bushes to rescue her. Perhaps, he will overcome his fear of the pond after all.
It’s up to Eric, however who doesn’t hesitate and jumps in immediately, while the goldfish ‘sharks’ hide under the water lilies.

The final illustration of a rather fierce looking goldfish with teeth is a great match to Thompson’s (Fearless) perfect closing statement.

Will there be a future story focussing on Eric, who is the antithesis of his father? I suspect readers will remain hungry for Davis’ illustrations which continue to delight both children and adults.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Flywheel

The Flywheel by Erin Gough (Hardie Grant Egmont)
ISBN 9781742978178
PB $19.95 RRP
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

The Flywheel is the second debut novel to be published by Hardie Grant Egmont through their annual Ampersand Project. (The first was Melissa Keil's award winning Life in Outer Space.) The Flywheel is a young adult novel about a girl called Delilah who runs her father's café while he is away overseas. In doing this, Del juggles school, work and relationships and the story is about how difficult and how funny this all becomes.

Delilah (Del for short) is seventeen and in her last year of school when she encourages her depressed father to take a trip, after Del's mother leaves them. Neither of them know the café manager will leave, that the café down the road will try to put them out of business or that Del will be bullied at school because of her sexual preferences. To further complicate things, Del's crush on Rosa, the flamenco dancer across the road, seems to be unrequited and Del's best friend Charlie gets himself on the wrong side of the law and hides out at Del's place.

Written in first person, Del's story is told with a lot of self deprecating humour, particularly when it comes to dancing. Under the humour, she faces many issues, such as what to do when her best friend asks her to lie for him in a court of law, whether to tell her absent father that his business is going down the drain and how to deal with girls who are not completely comfortable with the fact they like girls. Although she makes a few mistakes along the way, with the help of her friends Del works it all out by the end. 

Erin Gough has written a fast-paced novel with lots of realistic dialogue which should appeal to young adult readers. With a very independent and genuine main character, The Flywheel is an enjoyable addition to the Ampersand Project.       

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Our Stories: Australian Writers of Influence

Our Stories: Australian Writers of Influence by Bernadette Kelly (black dog books)
PB RRP $17.95
ISBN 978122179937
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

From the outstanding Our Stories series, come a compilation of influential Australian writers’ lives that left far more for history to relate than their writing. Free thinkers with strong views and at times radical in their approach, these ten people shaped Australian history with their contributions in and outside their writing lives.

Its 32 pages are jam-packed with information, pictures, and little info blocks that cover historical facts bound to, and surrounding the same era as the person profiled.

When Pen and Paper Ruled the World has an info box on Charles Tompson whose 1826 collection of poems, Wild Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel were the first publication of poems by an Australian-born writer.

Introduced is the life of Adam Lindsay Gordon which refers to his battle with depression and sad end that came soon after the publication of his Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes.

Included is Marcus Clarke, famous for his work, For the Term of His Natural Life and the dynamic Louisa Lawson, mother of Henry Lawson who founded The Dawn: A Journal for Australian Women. It was the first magazine edited and printed entirely by women.

William Lane was known as one of Australia’s most radical journalists, a convincing public speaker with powerful ideas on how man should live, and the creator of the Cosme Settlement in Paraguay. Mary Gilmore was a staunch supporter of Lane’s ideas, and she left her teaching career to go to Paraguay where she married William Gilmore. Her life changed design with the failure of the Cosme colony, for Mary returned to Australia. She became the first female member of the Australian Workers’ Union and editor of The Women’s Page in its publication, The Worker.

Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson, May Gibbs, CJ Dennis and Miles Franklin are all included, along with a few miscellaneous chapters. With a rich Glossary and Index, most of the image credits go to the SLV. This is an interesting and valuable reference book and teaching tool for children, aimed at the 8+ years age group. 

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Cars A Complete History

Cars A Complete History by Simon Heptinstall (Walker Books)
PB RRP $ 24.95
ISBN 9781925081855
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

This unique publication is both educational and activity book together for the 9+ age group. With 50 easy-to-make models of cars, this is a model-making and collector’s book in one. It includes production details, and presents basic techniques and instructions on pressing out and folding these iconic car models. As the parts come numbered, at the end of the book, there is a break-down on how to match and stick the pieces correctly by following their correct numerical order.

It lists every model’s features: engine size, top speed, acceleration and power.  After the models have been removed, a brilliant reference book remains.

Cars: A Complete History will appeal to curious minds, children that love to cut, stick and paste, anyone of any age that loves cars and their history, and wants to know all about each model. Produced with a thick paper almost like cardboard, these models will be treasured 3D samples of car history.

Monday, 26 January 2015

The Cardinal and the Crow

The Cardinal and the Crow written and illustrated by Michael Moniz (Simply Read Books)
HB RRP $21.99
ISBN 978 1927018583
Reviewed by Dianne Bates

With a dust-cover, this is a fine-looking picture book for older readers 7 to 10 years, produced by an English publishing house. The story goes that all the birds in the forest torment old Crow for his scraggly feathers and harsh call. He is especially mocked by their ringleader, the proud Cardinal which has ‘brilliant red feathers and a beautiful warbling voice.’  As a result, the Crow is alone and lonely.

However, when Cardinal gets into trouble with a scavenging cat, there is only one creature smart enough to get him out – the Crow, of course. However, will Crow come to the aid of the boastful bird?

Inspired by Aesop’s Fables, this thoughtful picture book reminds the reader that pride and foolishness often go hand in hand. It has a message for the younger reader, too, about bullying and how the bullied and the bully can sometimes find common ground, even friendship.

The watercolour illustrations of the birds and the landscape are set against a pale brown wash. The only bright colour is of the Cardinal, a few other birds and the cat’s green, greedy eyes. My only criticism of the book is that the typeface could have been larger, especially for small eyes.

Michael Moniz is a Canadian working at Artistic Director for a Toronto-based advertising agency.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Flint Heart

The Flint Heart by Katherine Patterson & John Patterson, illustrated by John Rocco (Walker Books)
PB RRP $24.95
ISBN 9781406341492
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabitha, and husband John Paterson Sr. bring to life a ‘freely abridged’ version of Eden Phillpotts’ wonderful fantasy fairy tale, The Flint Heart, written in 1910.

The story begins during the Stone Age when the flint stone was fashioned then discarded because of its ability to make the owner evil. It moves forward to a hundred years ago, to Dartmoor in England.

The owner of Merripit Farm, Billy Jago, offers to help move some stones on a hill. As he digs at a grave with his son Charles, he unearths an unusual stone which he puts in his pocket. In no time, the flint has hardened Billy’s heart. He becomes cruel, abusive and violent to everyone he meets, but mostly to his family.

Charles wants his father back; the kind loving one. He visits the Pixie’s Holt to get his father a present in the hope that he will return to who he was. It takes repeated trips into fairyland before Charles finally manages to take back and dispose of the flint heart. Immediately, life returns to normal.

The flint heart passes through two other hands with the same result until the King of the pixies and fairies, finds a way to be rid of the flint heart forever. During the course of ownership, we meet many amazing characters that achieve great feats. But what stands out is the courage and philosophical approach of the children and the personified characters of Ship the dog, and Bismark, the hot water bottle, made in Germany.

The tales of the flint heart’s ownerships are themes of power, ambition, and jealousy, and the negative outcomes that these emotions bring. Point of view is a pivotal issue, so there are many twists and turns and changes in perception throughout this multi-layered fairy story.

Katherine, a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, has won the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award, along with a string of other awards including the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for writing and the Astrid Lindgren Award for Lifetime Achievement. The Flint Heart, filled with adventure and fantasy, is ideal for the 7+ age group.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Frank Pearl in the Awful Waffle Kerfuffle

Frank Pearl in the Awful Waffle Kerfuffle by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Erwin Madrid (Walker Books)
PB RRP $11.95
ISBN 978076367213
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

This chapter book full of fun, exploration, determination and trial and error, is from the series Judy Moody and Friends for the 6+ age group.

All the children are practising their Yo-Yo skills at the Frozen Yogurt shop. The best player will get to name the new flavour. Frank, unlike his friends, has never won a contest. He longs to have something to boast about as the others do. He is last to show his skills with the Flying Skunk. But things go wrong, for the ‘skunk stunk’ and he ended up breaking his glasses.

Feeling a failure but still optimistic, Frank enters Cookie his parrot in the in the Pets are Family contest. But Cookie chooses the wrong moment to refrain from public performance. Refusing to give up, Frank is determined to try one more time.

The Great Third Grade Breakfast Bash and Waffle-Off will determine who can make the best-dressed waffles. Frank feels the Blue Ribbon he longs for is within reach with his innovative exploding waffle. Unfortunately, his Mount Vesuvius has a meltdown. Just when he expect things to turn out one way, they do a flip and take an unexpected direction.

Frank is a fantastic role model for young readers. He encourages children through his actions to be persistent, give things a go, be in it no matter what, and always try to have fun. It will be your turn to win sometime. Don’t ever give up!

The whole series has familiar faces and names, terrific characters, lots of lessons to be learnt about friendship, and many other positive reinforcements. The illustrations are outstanding and complement the text perfectly.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Annie and Simon

Annie and Simon by Catharine O’Neill (Walker Books)
PB RRP $11.95
ISBN 9780763668778
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Annie is a curious, talkative child, and Simon is her big brother (a lot older than Annie).She talks about what she wants to be when she grows up, about loons, falling stars, bee stings and standing in the rain under an umbrella - even on a sunny day. Simon is kind and patient. He accommodates her interests most of the time, but loves it when he has some quiet time.

This delightful and humorous chapter book for the 5-9 age groups touches on each of Annie’s interests. To train for her adult hairdressing life Annie practises on Hazel the dog, then Simon, then herself - with bizarre results.

In chapter two the siblings decide to go on a loon hunt in their little boat. But no tipping is the precondition Simon sets. They see turtles, a muskrat, water lilies, a heron and an old bird’s nest which Simon tries to get for Annie. Guess what happens?

Annie gets stung by a bee while out in the garden. She still believes it’s going to rain although the sun is out. She wants to use her umbrella so Simon makes sure there’s rain.

Newspaper reports predict a meteor shower. Annie wants to stay up late and see it. They pack a blanket and a drink in the thermos which Annie mixes, and go to the park late. Things don’t always turn out the way Annie wants.

Beautifully illustrated by the author in watercolour, the characters shine. The stories are full of warmth, sharing and companionship. Part of the SPARKS series of books, there are twelve other titles for new readers to enjoy.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up: Tales from Deckawoo Drive Volume 1

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up: Tales from Deckawoo Drive Volume 1 by Kate Dicamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (Walker Books)
HC RRP $19.95
ISBN 9780763663391
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

I’m a great fan of Kate Dicamillo’s work and always get excited when I read something new. This title had me laughing and turning the pages quickly it was so clever and moving. The characters are unique, lovable, and highly entertaining. Even the horse! Accolades go to Chris Van Dusen for his brilliant black and white artwork. It adds life and laughter to the story, and enhances the text significantly if that is possible with such clever word arrangements.

Leroy ‘is a small man with a big dream.’ He wants to be a cowboy. He currently lives in an apartment block and works at the Bijou Drive-in theatre where he pours drinks, butters popcorn and smiles. But he needs to own a horse to realize his dream. Opportunity knocks when Beatrice the ticket seller, shows him an ad in the local paper about a horse for sale.

Leroy has chosen the name Tornado for his dream mount. But old and toothless Maybelline is what he finds. Patty, the owner, wants her horse to go to a loving home to live out her remaining years. She lists the things that Leroy must know about his horse to keep her happy and faithful. Leroy accepts her unconditionally and discovers that life looks better from the top of a horse. But he forgets to consider where he is going to keep her.

This is the story of an unlikely friendship that begins with two beings that need love. It is filled with humour and highly emotive. The message that keeps repeating throughout the story is that all living things just need love regardless of their imperfections.

This novel is ideal for 7+ readers who love the challenge of new words and interesting language. Adults will adore this book. Everyone should read it!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Grandpa’s Guardian Angel

Grandpa’s Guardian Angel by Jutta Bauer (Walker Books)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN 9781406306033
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

From the 2010 winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration comes a poignant story of the close relationship between a boy and his grandfather for the 7+ age group.

Grandfather tells the boy about his life. The stories he relates are ones of hardship, war and lack as a child. Exposed to many dangers, he always came out safe and well. As he grew older his life had always been a relatively happy one. Unbeknown to him, he had a guardian angel always watching over him.

Now, as the sun sets over his life the guardian angel moves from the old man to the boy as his protector.

The illustrations express what words have left unsaid. Jutta Bauer as author and illustrator has used a unique technique where the text and artwork adjust to each other by picking up where the other leaves off.

Soft watercolours with pen and ink on fine quality paper enhance the message of love and protection by the seen and unseen, the things we know about and those we don’t.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Shaun the Sheep: The Flock Factor

Shaun the Sheep: The Flock Factor by Martin Howard, illustrated by Andy Janes (Walker Books)
PB RRP $9.95
ISBN 9781406357332
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

The TV series Shaun the Sheep is from the award winning Aardman studio, creators of Wallace and Gromit. The book series coincides with the movie’s pending release. At the beginning of the book is a double page map of Mossy Bottom Farm in great detail, followed by a brief bio and image of all the sheep characters, the farmer, Bitzer his dog, and Shaun the sheep, leader of a flock with human-like intelligence.

Bitzer is always ready to help Shaun get the mischievous sheep out of trouble, (although they always have a good time). The farmer of Mossy Bottom Farm is oblivious to all the shenanigans that go on around him. That leaves the fun-loving sheep to take advantage of his ignorance.

Mossy Bottom Talent Quest is open to everyone. The farmer is choosing which jacket to wear and is honing his skill of blowing balloon animals through his ears.

Shaun decides that the animals of the farm should have their own talent quest. Sheep verses chickens. Images of fame and the benefits that it will bring start forming in the sheep’s minds.

Timmy’s mum proves to have a hidden talent that surpasses all expectations. But she also has extreme stage fright. Shaun must discover a way to make her get up on stage, and defeat the constantly ridiculing chickens. Can he do it? Lots of things go wrong but there are also many surprise outcomes.

The book carries a strong underlying message of having a go at things, for this can show that you are better than what you imagined.

The text is sharp and clever, and extremely funny. It produces strong visual images equal to the TV show. It has fantastic illustrations with half of them in comic strip form. The six pages of activities at the end relate to the story.

This series is a winner and kids in the 6+ age group (and many adults) will love it! It’s ideal for reluctant readers.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Shaun the Sheep: The Beast of Soggy Moor

Shaun the Sheep: The Beast of Soggy Moor by Martin Howard, illustrated by Andy Janes (Walker Books)
PB RRP $9.95
ISBN 9781406357721
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

In the second book of this terrific series from the TV show Shaun the Sheep, the zany sheep Nuts who is always getting into trouble, is introduced at the beginning amongst the other characters in the story, plus the map of Mossy Bottom Farm in intricate detail. We also learn that the farmer is clumsy and accident- prone and that the sheep are entertained by these short-comings.

A creepy shadow is sighted on Mossy Bottom Farm at night by Bitzer when he goes out to check the chickens. He’s convinced it’s a beast from Soggy Moor. When a cat goes missing soon after, Bitzer believes it is the work of the beast.

Scared senseless and fearing for all their lives, Bitzer ropes Shaun into helping him track down the beast that threatens. The ingenious Shaun designs an elaborate trap out of scraps of junk to catch the shadowy form. Only Nuts is crazy enough to offer himself as bait. This results in chaos, mayhem and misinterpretation.

Some of the story is told in pictures within comic strips without words.  The story addresses important issues frequently experienced by children such as fear of darkness, and false imaginings attached to the unknown. This book can be used to initiate discussion between parents/teachers and children when addressing such concerns. Or, it can simply be read and enjoyed for its clever construction, humour, and witty text. This series is ideal for the 6+ age group. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015


Book by John Agard, illustrated by Neil Packer (Walker Books)
HC RRP $16.95
ISBN 9780744544787
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Every now and then I come across a book that electrifies me because of its uniqueness. This extraordinary book created by John Agard presents the origin and evolution of the book through a light-hearted point of view of Book.

Within its twenty small chapters, we learn about the incredible history of writing and the before and after of Book’s inception. This brilliant feast of words is a treasure trove of facts and thought provoking quotes. It journeys from oral storytelling to markings on clay tablets, hieroglyphics, and onwards. It informs and entertains as it reveals all the types of materials used for writing, and the surrounding history that accompanies each era’s progress.

So much information in such a compact book! This is an extremely well-researched compilation that is historical, informative and highly entertaining all at once. Suitable for 8 to 108 year olds, it is a delight to read, a rich resource, and a valuable addition to any book lover’s shelf. 

Saturday, 17 January 2015

STOP the Bully

STOP the Bully by Karen Tyrrell (Digital Future Press)
PB RRP PBL $13.95, e-Book $2.99
ISBN 97809872740

Reviewed by Dianne Bates

First day at a new school with his younger sister Tara is an unmitigated disaster for eleven year old Brian. For a start, this self proclaimed geek, a stammerer with curly red hair and wearing second-hand clothes, is made to sit alongside a girl (also a geek). Within moments Brian is bullied by a boy he describes as having ‘massive shoulders’ and ‘an enormous body… like an ape.’ As a result water spills on Brian’s shorts and they need to be changed – another embarrassment. His new teacher, Miss Bliss, is in her first year of teaching and has no control of the class. On this first new day Brian’s bag goes missing, his cap is thrown into a toilet and he’s made to stand up in assembly. After school the bully trips him up on the bus and he loses his house key.

Brian’s life is certainly falling apart. To add to his woes, Dad has abandoned his family. Naturally the boy hates his new school with the bully, Cody Fletcher, attacking him every day, and one day his sister, too. Even Brian’s home is a wreck – and an anonymous caller keeps phoning. Brian wants to go into the school’s Super Race, but he doesn’t have runners and his school shoes are falling apart. Mum won’t sign the permission note to race, either. The only positives in Brian’s life are two classmates – Peter and the geek girl Amelia -- both of whom help him with strategies to overcome the bullying.

There are many issues raised in STOP the Bully: as well as those already mentioned there is poverty, self-esteem, friendship, coping with change, and eventually forgiveness and reconciliation. Towards the end of the book there are several unexpected twists and the story ends happily for Brian, especially when Dad makes a surprise appearance.

Often children’s novels are written about bullying and this one suggests preventative strategies that could possibly help. Five percent of sales of STOP the Bully go to Kids Helpline to help Kids in Crisis. Free teacher Notes and free kids’ activities are also available from The author Karen Tyrrell presents interactive story telling sessions, creative writing workshops, seminars and author talks in schools, libraries, festivals and conferences. She speaks out about bullying on TV, radio and writes for magazines.

Friday, 16 January 2015

A Game of Keeps

A Game of Keeps by Dianne Bates (Celapene Press)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN – 978-0-9873677-8-5
Reviewed by Emma Cameron

Eight year old Ashley’s story gives a refreshing, non-judgmental view of one family’s struggles. Though she loves Froggie, her pet guinea pig, Ashley longs for a puppy. When she’s older, she wants to be a dancer. Right now, however, what she wants most is for Mum and Dad to get back together. She knows that Dad is away a lot with his band, and appreciates him visiting when he can, but she dislikes being left home alone when Mum goes out at night.

Fortunately for Ashley, Mum and Dad aren’t the only adults in her life. Nor are they the only ‘family’ she has. Though uncertain when first meeting Daisy and Will, a couple from an ‘Aunts and Uncles’ support program, she soon sees how kind, fun and understanding they are about what she needs. Their support helps her be confident as she manages emotionally unsettling situations.

In the past, kids like Ashley may have been lucky enough to have a supportive neighbour in their life. Nowadays, however, people seem less certain about stepping in and playing a role. Fortunately, ‘Aunts and Uncles’ programs allow people like Daisy and Will to support and nurture children like Ashley. Her story acknowledges some of the reasons that people like Ashley’s family struggle and shows how this need not always be to the detriment of the child.

Though Ashley’s tale doesn’t resolve itself the way she hoped for, Daisy and Will’s guidance and friendship establishes a starting point from which both she and her mum begin turning their lives around. This satisfying, believable ending will delight readers as they see how beautifully and simply people like Daisy and Will embrace making every and any child’s welfare our responsibility.

Pencil drawings illustrating moments within the story add extra charm to the book and the examples of how ‘family’ can be made up of a range of people who provide a sense of belonging are sure to spark conversation about how we can all care for others. The world we live in today needs more books like this one.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Girl from the Great Sandy Desert

The Girl from the Great Sandy Desert by Jukuna Mona Chuguna and Pat Lowe, illustrated by Mervyn Street (Magabala Books)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN 978-1-922142-05-4
Reviewed by Dianne Bates

Known by her white name Mona, Jukuna Chuguna, a Walmajarri woman from the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, worked with a white Englishwoman, Pat Lowe, to relate stories about the life of desert dweller Mana and her Walmajarri family. In the book’s introduction, Lowe tells of her experience with Jukuna who would visit her house, sometimes painting; together they co-wrote this children’s book. Jukuna also wrote her autobiography in Walmajarri language; it was translated in English and published in 2004, alone with the story of her sister, Ngarta, in a single volume titled Two Sisters.

This book, however, is for children aged 8 to 12 years. It is a series of short stories about Mana who was born under a tree and raised in the desert. A child reading this book would learn much about tribal life – how desert families hunted and camped, and about tribal relationships.  They would also learn about spirits such as spirit babies, known as wurrawurra’. Mana’s spirit is jarriny, named after a desert nut tree oozing with gum.

There are stories here about Mana’s extended family, for instance her aunty Lilil and uncles Yinti and Kana. Mana has two mothers; her own mother was her father’s first wife; his second wife was blind; thus the book is a great way of showing young readers how disabled Aborigines are treated by their own people. The stories are episodic and have self-explanatory titles such as ‘Nearly Buried Alive’, ‘The Fight’, ‘Mana the Hunter,’ ‘A Trick’ and ‘Mana Loses her Father.’

There are a number of break-outs throughout the book with headings such as ‘Fire’, ‘Food and Fasting’, ‘Dogs’, ‘Dying in the Desert’ and ‘Digging for Water.’ These mini-articles provide factual information relating to the stories accompanying them. The break-out on ‘Body Scars’ relates to a story wherein Mana and her friends Tili and Kayi and three young boys are cut on their bodies so ‘the bad kukurr spirit’ won’t bother them. ‘Body Scars’ tells how desert people who were cut rubbed ash and ochre into the cuts to raise the scars into ridges.

The Girl from the Great Sandy Desert is a very interesting account based on events in Jukuna’s own life. Elucidating the rich cultural lives of pre-contact Aboriginal Australians, the book is a valuable resource for educators and young readers, and is accompanied by beautiful black and white wash illustrations by Gooniyandi artist Mervyn Street from the Kimberley’s Fitzroy River region.

In the 1950’s Jukuna Mona Chuguna left the desert with her husband to live and work on cattle and sheep stations in the Kimberley’s Fitzroy Valley. In middle age, she became a well-regarded artist, holding exhibitions of her work around Australia and overseas. She was a natural teacher and great storyteller. She died in 2011.

It should be noted that these authentic Indigenous Australian stories include notes that complement main text, glossary and pronunciation guide. There is a set of teachers’ notes linked to the new Australian Curriculum

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Tea and Sugar Christmas

Tea and Sugar Christmas by Jane Jolly, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (National Library of Australia)
HC RRP $24.99
ISBN 9780642278630
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

The tea and sugar has run out. The train that brings the supplies only comes on Thursdays. But the first Thursday of December is the day the children of the Plain wait for. It is when Father Christmas travels the line.

Ingpen’s extraordinary art captures the essence of the outback plains, the indigenous children’s longing and anticipation for the one thing that brings the outside world closer to them - the Tea and Sugar Train.

The art and prose encompasses all life in the outback, which includes the post-war migrants that came from Europe to work on the East- West line, and their lives in railway camps. It comes alive under Ingpen’s masterful strokes like a stage production.

The outstanding pencil portraits of the children and Father Christmas, and the divine double-page fold-out illustrations that magnify the settings, bring wondrous detail and action into focus.

The story of the Tea and Sugar Train that from 1915 to 1996 travelled from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie once a week, is a page taken from our rich history of migration and development. It retraces the forming of the outback, the people’s way of life, and their tremendous contribution to our country. An outstanding production presented in Jane Jolly’s excellent narrative. It’s a priceless addition to any bookcase.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

A Time to Dance

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman (Penguin Random House) 
HB RRP US$17.99                                              
ISBN 9780399257100                                                                    

Reviewed by Dianne Bates

With starred reviews in Kirkus, SLJ, Booklist and other literary magazines, this jacketed YA verse novel comes highly recommended by numerous overseas reviewers.  It tells the story of an Indian girl, Veda, a dance prodigy who lives and breathes dance, specifically the Bharatanatyam which is complex and classical. Sadly, an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, shattering her dreams.  

However, Veda is undeterred and in a first-person story that is believable, inventive and powerful, the reader follows this one-legged girl’s determined journey of major adjustment as she takes beginner classes with young dancers to re-learn the dance with its many different poses and stances.
Then Veda meets a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

During the novel, the spiritual and religious meaning of Bharatanatyam is explored, as well as what that means for Veda and her own relationship with Shiva.

A Time to Dance is sure to provide an inspiration to YA readers who aspire to reaching for a dream, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Believing in oneself, perseverance, love and resilience are some of the themes explored in this strong and well-written novel.

Monday, 12 January 2015

A Duck is Watching Me: Strange and Unusual Phobias

A Duck is Watching Me: Strange and Unusual Phobias, commentary by Bernie Hobbs (National Library of Australia)
PB RRP $19.99
ISBN 9780642278647
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Do you know what Anuptaphobia, Ablutophobia, Scopophobia or Nelophobia means? The NLA never ceases to surprise with its original and diverse range of publications. In this one the approach to phobias is highly entertaining and amusing. Some are repulsive, and others verge on the impossible or incredible. There is even a name given to a phobia for a duck that is watching someone.

Details taken from fantastic photographs and posters, in black and white and colour, present a visual for each subject. (Full images can be found in the NLA online catalogue) The subjects range from phobias connected to animals, activities, nature, objects people, places, and the unbelievable.

It is hard to allocate a readership for this unusual but fascinating book. The content will interest people of all ages especially children that love words or that want to impress others with unusual knowledge. It is a book to flick through or, a unique and collectable item for bibliophiles. The pictures paint a thousand words, and the commentary is priceless! It deserves a look and is definitely different and highly attractive.  Suitable for readers aged 12+ years.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

One Step at a Time

One Step at a Time by Jane Jolly, illustrated by Sally Heinrich (MidnightSun Publishing)
HB RRP $27.99
ISBN 9780987380951

Reviewed by Dianne Bates

The cover of this picture book immediately grabs one’s attention as it is bold and attractive, showing that the artwork is obviously the result of print-making. Opening it, one is amused by the fly pages showing an elephant trudging across the page in line after line. The illustrator, Sally Heinrich, has been recognized through various fellowships and this book, the first picture book from an Australian publishing company which established in late 2014, is pictorially stunning.

Set in Thailand and based on fact, the story is of a boy, Luk, who is keeper of Mali an elephant; together they help Luk’s grandmother drag timber from the forest. However, disaster is moments away when Mali steps on a landmine and is downed. Saffron-robed monks from a temple chant ‘aged-old blessings’ on Mali and the small boy tends her. Happily, a practical solution is found to help the crippled elephant and all ends well.

The publisher claims this is a ‘ground-breaking story’ and portrayed in picture book form, it most likely is as it draws a child reader’s attention to the dreadful problem of more than 110 active mines scattered in over 70 countries around the world – a fact mentioned in a post-script.

That Jolly is a fine writer is evidenced by the fact she has won three CBCA Notable mentions for her picture books. This is a beautifully designed book with illustrations which are dramatic in parts and tender in others. The illustrator makes frequent use of border illustrations that are in keeping with the oriental feel of the book. Jolly and Heinrich and MidnightSun Publishing ought to be well-pleased with this special book for children aged 6 years and up.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Ragnor Trilogy

The Ragnor Trilogy: Irina the Wolf Queen, Irina and the White Wolf,
Irina and the Lost Book by Leah Swann (XUOM Books)
PB RRP $14.99 each
ISBNs: 9781922057112; 9781922057082; 9781922057136 respectively
Reviewed by Anne Hamilton

This fantasy trilogy begins with the abduction of Irina, firstborn child of King Harmon and Queen Chloe of Ragnor. In revenge for a taunt, Chloe once carelessly inflicted on the executioner’s son, Vilmos, he artfully (pun intended!) gains access to the queen’s chamber by posing as a portrait painter. After stealing the baby, his plans quickly go awry when he encounters a savage wolf while fleeing pursuit.

Irina is taken by the wolf and, although she is believed to be dead, she is suckled by the vixen. Growing up with the wild pack, she learns the ways of wolves. One day a bear attacks the wolf cubs and her wolf-brother, Durrel, sacrifices himself to allow Irina to escape. She comes to live with a farmer and his wife, and so at last learns the ways of humans.

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring kingdom of Pavel, Vilmos is fostering war. He’s learned a few dark spells from a sorcerer and he’s insinuated himself into the good graces of King Niklas, best friend of King Harmon. Gradually he’s feeding Seely, King Niklas’ wolf-guardian, magic-dusted meat to muddle the animal’s instincts. The wolf is slowly coming under Vilmos’ sway and bringing the allegiance of the entire wolf-clan with him.

War is imminent and only one person can intervene to stop it—Irina. If she can break the hold Vilmos has over the wolves.

Although this is classed as ‘children’s fantasy’, the storytelling style is much closer to fairytale. It has the omniscient viewpoint, the rapid-fire hopping from one character’s thoughts to another, even the split-second scene changes that are more in keeping with old-fashioned fairy story narration than with the canons of the modern fantasy genre. ‘Point of view’ and ‘show don’t tell’ are not in evidence anywhere.

For all that, this is a steadfast and charming adventure, full of clear-cut black-and-white characters. There is no ambiguity about the villains or the heroes.

The writing becomes increasingly confident in the second book in the series (which had the misfortune to feature one of my least favourite spelling mistakes. I only point it out here because I am on a personal crusade: the electrical bolt that occurs during storms is ‘lightning’ not ‘lightening’.) That irritant aside, I found the storyline in Book II to have increasing focus. It was a delight to see the development of Andor, son of King Niklas.

While Irina has grown up in these books, by contrast Andor has matured.

As the book opens, Irina has spent nearly two years alone with the wolves she is trying to save. As a result of the enchantments they suffered while in the control of Vilmos, they have forgotten how to hunt, how to wrestle and play, and how to bond as a pack. The females are barren. It’s the end of the Wolves of Ragnor.

But then Irina meets Baruch and regains hope for her wolf-kin. If she can travel across the sea to the Valley of Carmine Cliffs and persuade the white wolf, Gunda, to come to Ragnor, then there is the potential for re-building the pack.

But something Irina doesn’t know is that there is a prophecy about a child of a holy woman riding a white beast, a child who will usher in the Age of Peace and defeat the vile magicks of the Venerated Dragon.

So of course there are those who will stop at nothing to ensure Irina does not meet her destiny. These include the increasingly dark-hearted villain, Vilmos, and his masters, the sorcerer Iniko and the monstrous Venerated Dragon.

This book effectively leaves the light, charming touches of the first behind. The black-and-white characters are murkier and more realistic. Vilmos was almost a comic caricature in the first novel but now he’s moved to outright malevolence.

If this trilogy were a triptych of paintings, the first volume would be bright, folksy naïf, the second one of the moody Romanticists. And the third—different again: it’s almost got a baroque complexity to it. Swann has hit her stride in a big way with this book and it’s much more meaty and intricate than its predecessors.

The good guys are no longer lily-white. The bad guys have moments when they deserve pity rather than condemnation. Doubts start to emerge about the motivations of several major characters. The prophecy of the ‘rider on the wild beast white’ might just have been misinterpreted.

All in all, the stark black-and-white of the previous books has greyed up in a serious way. Thus there is a stirring finale to the series which is suitable for teen readers.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Dexter the Courageous Koala

Dexter the Courageous Koala by Jesse Blackadder (ABC Books)   
PB RRP $14.99
ISBN:  9780733331787   

Reviewed by Elaine Harris

There has been many a discussion in Buzz Words and elsewhere about POV or point of view: i.e. should a story be told from the point of view of one protagonist only or can other perspectives be introduced without confusing the reader?

At the risk of introducing a note of heterodoxy, I confess to an inclination to the latter. Different voices, or different perspectives if a story is told in the third person, have always fascinated this reader and from a very young age at that.

Not surprisingly, then, the split chapters in Jesse Blackadder’s powerful new book captured me from the outset. I almost found myself holding my breath, waiting to see how or even if the two main characters would come together.

Ashley is a headstrong, impulsive though not unsympathetic young teenager, Dexter a yearling koala still learning about the world around him. Together they rehabilitate one another, learning and growing along the way as they help to solve each other’s problems as well as their own.
Inadvertently, I found myself approaching this book as the child reader I once was and perhaps still am - revelling in having to look up new words, learn new concepts and gain general knowledge, all neatly camouflaged by a compelling, fast-paced story.

There is enough introspection or what the late John Wyndham called “Behind thinks” for the thoughtful reader. The story is moved along by the skilful use of animated, realistic dialogue while scenes are set as well as the plot advanced with the aid of one of my favourite ploys, plenty of colourful description painting vivid word pictures.

Despite the deliberately misleading opening to chapter one, this book is essentially concerned with wildlife care and rescue, leaving us with no illusions. Any wildlife carer will tell you that the job is messy, time-consuming, exhausting and often heartbreaking, especially when working with nocturnal joeys. Although you learn specifically about the rescue and rehabilitation of koalas, many of the principles apply to other species. There are strict rules to follow about feeding, sterilization of equipment, too much handling, leaf collection, observation and why dogs and wildlife don’t mix. 

There is still plenty to interest dog lovers though and a surprise satisfying ending. Jesse Blackadder presents the story from a koala’s perspective with warmth and conviction while successfully avoiding sentimentality. We learn about fears, predators, territory, feeding, climbing, illness, the vagaries of extreme weather and even aggression among members of the colony. There is a school of thought objecting to this type of anthropomorphism but it has worked as a storytelling tool for generations of both children and adults and probably always will.      

Finally, the pivotal character in Dexter the Courageous Koala is Micky, Ashley’s aunt. She is one of fiction’s true eccentrics, a major asset to the novel and deserves a book in her own right.
It is a joy to be able to recommend this book which should work equally well read aloud to a class or family or devoured alone by any child or adult who loves animals in general and wildlife in particular.

(If you’re not familiar with the mythical drop bears or Thylarctos plummetus you’re in for a treat.)  For readers aged 8-12.