April 2

Esty’s Gold by Mary Arrigan

jacketThis book came to me as one of the best 50 books published for teens last year. With an English publisher and and Irish author, I was lead to believe it was going to be something incredible. Hmmm…

Esty is a young and privileged Irish girl. Her father manages an estate for an absent English landlord, and as such she never knows hardship or even discomfort. That is until her father is killed in a peasant uprising. Suddenly Esty has to leave home and work as a domestic. But she hears stories of gold in a town called Ballarat, and is determined to get there and find her share. But Ballarat is on the verge of rebellion.

This book covers all the highlights and will certainly give some kids an idea of why so many people from all over the world arrived in Victoria in the mid 1800s. Arrigan has done her research and all the correct events around the Eureka uprising are faithfully documented. But clearly she has never set food in Ballarat, especially in the summer. The setting doesn’t live, it is just a place for her cast to perform.

Sorry, this might be a good book for Ireland or England, but fortunately Australian kids have much better fictional literature about this subject. Personally I would start with Kirsty Murray’s Bridie’s Fire, almost the same story, but one that jumps off the page.

January 21

Time Riders by Alex Scarrow

9780141326924I have encountered Alex Scarrow before, well it might be the same Alex Scarrow. But then he was writing a historical horror for adults. Here he has turned his hand to a scifi adventure novel for kids.

Scarrow picked a topic well known to scifi readers – time travel. In this case he has proposed a group of kids rescued from various disasters through history and recruited to travel through time putting things right again after others change history for their own gain. But things never go as smoothly as they appear.

Book 1 in the series is mostly set in Washington 1956, but not the way we know it. In their world, Germany won the Second World War. But two of the team are stuck in an endlessly repeating loop of 10 and 11 September 2001, guess where.

This book serves to remind everyone that major world events are often changed by the decisions made by only one or two people. And that is the charm. Yes there is loads of adventure, and twists that will keep you guessing. But the best science fiction will make you think – what if? This book has that quality in spades.

March 21

Secrets: three stories from Dawn McMillan

9780143503811How often do I get asked to review picture story books? Not often. But they are fun.

This book is actually a collection of three stories, each illustrated by different artists. The first story Sea Secrets has been published as an individual title, but the others are new stories. Each of these stories is linked by the idea of sharing secrets with those that you love.

This is an ideal read-aloud book. There is a great deal of text, and it would be overwhelming for novice readers. But these stories are meant to be shared. There are lots of opportunities for discussion and relating the experiences of the children in these stories to the real life experiences of an audience. But not necessarily a large audience. These secrets are meant for individual reflection.

This is a book that would probably be bypassed in a shop with it’s simple cover and subdued tones. But I believe that it could easily become a family favourite.

October 3

Creature abc by Andrew Zukerman

c9780733624247I rarely get the opportunity to review children’s books for Buzz, but I snatched at this one as soon as it was unpacked. Everything about it said, read me, now!

This book is exactly what you expect it to be, the letters of the alphabet illustrated using animals. One word on each page, and the associated letter. You have all seen the sort of thing on Sesame Street.

But this book has some wonderful illustrations. Andrew Zukerman is an excellent animal photographer. His photos demand attention. At first I assumed that the illustrations were drawn in a photorealistic style, but upon closer inspection, this level of detail could only come from the animal itself.

But a picture book is more than the illustrations. The text is placed carefully to suit each photo and the whole effect is to demand reading.

Thinking about Christmas presents for a youngster? This would jump to the top of my list.

April 25

Tom Tom by Rosemary Sullivan

This is a beautiful book for young children. The illustrations are amazing and the very simple story of Tom Tom’s average day is somehow ideal.

Tom Tom is a very young boy who spends every day with his mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grannys and cousins. He visits Grannie Annie every day, goes to school, then down to Lemonade Springs to swim with his brothers and sisters and cousins, and then home to sleep with Granny May and Grandfather Joe. This is a simple story of an average day. No drama, no disaster, just a warm caring story.

The simple story accompanied by Dee Huxley’s illustrations express to even the youngest child the life of an Aboriginal boy living in Australia’s Top End. This story for an audience of children at about the same age, is sure to improve understanding between the two races that share this country.

April 25

Leaves by David Ezra Stein

Where I grew up, the leaves fell from all the trees in autumn and we had to watch for bears as we wandered through the woods. For me this book speaks volumes about the changing seasons.

The story is about a young bear in his first year. After playing all summer, he notices that one day the leaves are turning strange colours and falling. He tries to put the leaves back on the tree, but eventually gathers them up to pack into a cave. And so begins this beautiful tale about the changing seasons.

I have been asked to approve this for Australian children though. And I wonder how relevant this story could possibly be. It is designed for very small children, but in this country concepts like hibernation and even falling leaves can mean something quite different.

But from what I can discover this is a first book from Stein. I adored it, and I hope he continues writing. Possibly next time a book for a more international audience.

April 25

Donald Loves Drumming by Nick Bland

Every time a Nick Bland book crosses my desk, I have to stop, make a coffee and read it. With titles like ‘A Monster Wrote me a Letter’ and ‘The Very Cranky Bear’ it is simply not an option to leave the cover closed. ‘Donald Loves Drumming’ is no different. 

On the surface, this is a simple family story about a very normal energetic and noisy boy. Donald loves to drum, and the family find it very difficult. But it is no easier when Donald takes up another pastime like painting or even walking the dog. The difference in this story is the illustrations. They carry the humor of the story even more than the words. 

This is never going to be an award winning book, but I certainly enjoyed this simple family story.

April 25

The Pocket Dogs Go on Holiday by Margaret Wild

Everyone loved The Pocket Dogs, Wild’s first book about the two tiny dogs that loved to be carried in Mr Pockets’ big coat. And this story about their seaside holiday is simply delightful.

Biff and Buff and Mr Pockets travel together to the beach where they have great fun playing in the surf and building sand castles (kennels). But then the big coat disappears…

I am continually amazed that authors can pack so much drama into so few words. But those words would be no where near as powerful without Stephen Michael King’s whimsical drawings that make Biff and Buff so endearing.

This book is wonderful. Maybe not original, but small children don’t care. This is far more like a visit with old friends.

March 27

Disney Fairies Series

Some regular readers may think I like every book I have ever read. Well today I am going to review several bad books, just for a change.

The first of these are two books from the Disney Fairy Series. Before I start I will own up to never liking fairy stories. Folklore is fine, but stories written about sweet little fairies for sweet little girls never interested me. Give me a good adventure or mystery anytime, even when I was a kid. However, the VPRC committee had sent me 2 Disney Fairy books to read and evaluate for inclusion on the approved literature list.

My second bias is against Disney books. To me they reek of cheap advertising. When I found out that Disney is preparing an animated film about the Disney fairies for the home DVD market for release in 2008, suddenly the reason they were submitted to the VPRC became clear.

Anyway, I knew I had to read them, put my prejudices aside, and make a recommendation about their suitability for inclusion on the approved list.

The two samples I read were Beck and the Great Berry Battle and Vidia and the Fairy Crown. Of the two Beck was by far the better it dealt with the theme of the importance of finding a peaceful resolution to conflict. Except for the fact that the story took ages to come to the point (is there a mandatory word count?) the story was quite good. With that in mind I started Vidia. This book was every fantasy reader’s nightmare, an obnoxious hero, dozens of superfluous and silly side characters and no sensible solution to the problem. I am sorry, but the whole idea of a team of fairies that have laundry-talent gives me chills. Are fairies so stupid that they can’t learn to do washing?

Can you tell I won’t be recommending this series for every child in Victoria to read?

February 3

Kestrel by Mark Svendsen, Steven Woolman and Laura Peterson

A simple picture book, and three authors credited. This is usually a guarantee of disaster. However, this book was partially completed when Steven Woolman died leaving only pencil sketches. Laura Peterson took up the challenge of finishing Woolman’s work and the result is stunning.

The story is simple. A father has refused to allow a young boy to have his own rowboat, claiming that it is too dangerous. The boy’s grandfather invites the young boy to help him build a boat for another boy. Together the two build what will become a generous gift.

As it has always been with Steven Woolman’s books, the artwork enhances the story adding layers of complexity to the tale. This time there seems to be a poignant beauty as well, perhaps because as a reader we know that we will never see illustrations like this again.

This is a lovely publication, and I would fork out the money to get the hardcover edition. The print quality is usually much better.