July 27

Soon by Morris Gleitzman

9780670078875It has been out nearly a month! And I had to wait to get my hands on the latest in the Felix adventures! But ‘once’ I got my hands on the copy, ‘after’ the other librarians had finished. ‘Then’ I sat down to read with a class, and had to finish it off that night. ‘Now’ I have to work out what I can say to explain to you how wonderful this book is, without spoiling.

If you have read any of the books in the Felix series, you will remember that Felix is a young Jewish boy caught up in the Holocaust of World War II. We have followed Felix through his various captures and escapes, and remember his train ride towards disaster. He has lived with partisans and eventually built a new life in Australia. All the time he somehow maintains a positive outlook and faith in humanity.

Soon covers the period of time immediately after the war. When one government had gone, and nothing was in place. Life was tough, for everyone. And with Poland for the Poles roaming the streets killing indiscriminately, life for Felix is more than a little dangerous. Then he is handed a bundle by a girl running for her life. That bundle happens to be a young baby, and suddenly staying quiet and secure becomes just a little more difficult.

Gleitzman has always been able to view complex world issues through the eyes of children, and he can write for kids with a real sensitivity and understanding. Over the past 20+ years I have read books where he looks at issues of disability, refugees, environmental damage, as well as the Holocaust. Many times I have had discussions with adults that firmly believe that kids should be protected from all such unpleasantness. Personally I have always taken the side that argues that kids need to know and understand so that it never happens again.

Thank you once again Morris for the chance for a wonderful read.

June 17

Moon at Nine by Deborah Ellis

9781760111977Every now and then publishers appear to decide on a ‘theme’ for YA readers. During these times every second book published is about – vampires, teenage pregnancy, or terminally ill teens, etc. Twenty years ago the ‘theme’ was homosexuality in teen boys. This year is the girl’s turn. I think I have read 5 books so far this year with a lesbian relationship at the core, and I have heard of many more recently published, or soon to be released. However many are out there, you can be sure this is one of the best.

Set in Iran during the late 80s, Farrin is attending an exclusive school for the academically gifted. She is lonely and friendless, and very aware of her parents’ political incorrectness. Farrin retreats to an imaginary world of stories where women can be powerful and strong. Then one day Sadira arrives at the school and Farrin’s world is turned upside down. For the first time she has a friend! But in a world where a hug is viewed with suspicion and a kiss is a hanging offence, their friendship quickly becomes the target of criticism. And when the Revolutionary Guard gets involved everything spirals out of control.

As always, Ellis’ research is impeccable. Her writing is authoritative and real, but remains accessible to young readers. The story she tells is confronting, and may be emotionally difficult for some readers. However, just like Parvana, it is a story that needs to be told.

Be warned, the final chapters cover a range of difficult topics – capital punishment, arranged marriages, torture. These are all part of the powerful writing, but discretion is advised for very young readers.

May 9

Nine Open Arms by Benny Lindelauf

resized_9781743315859_224_297_FitSquareIt is always a delight to open a book translated by John Nieuwenhuizen. He has the wonderful skill of translating a book into English that is comfortable for kids to read, but still maintaining the literary quality that made the book worthy of note in the first place. Finding the right word is hard enough in the first place, but taking responsibility for another author’s words is a true challenge.

Nine Open Arms tells the story of a family of nine who are moving again. This time the move is to a small dilapidated house at the far end of the lane. The family is used to moving because ‘The Dad’ is not very good at holding a job. Everything they own can be bundled into a handcart. The house is well away from any neighbours, and looks very strange with doors in the wrong place, stairs leading nowhere, and the rest. Kids being kids, naturally they want to know why.

Raising the family is Oma Mei, their old grandmother. She carries one precious possession with her wherever they move. An old wooden case filled with papers and photos. When she is in the mood, Oma Mei reveals some of the secrets from this case in wild and wonderful stories.

Eleven year old Finn is out to solve these mysteries. She wants to know all the stories from Oma Mei’s case. And she wants to know why the house looks like it does. Little does she know at the start of her search how closely these two stories are linked.

This is a lovely book about family, with all their highs and lows. I have always loved reading stories based on character and narrative, and this one fills the bill.

However, as an adult I read this book feeling the large shadow over the whole story, simply because of the setting. The year is 1937, and the ‘new’ house is near the border between Holland and Germany. What happened to the family just a year later? Will we ever know.

March 17

New Guinea Moon by Kate Constable

resized_9781743315033_224_297_FitSquareIt seems like a long time since I have read a warm fuzzy YA novel. All publishers seem to print now are dark dystopian fantasies, but at least they are a change from all the supernatural romance from a few years before. This book was shoved in my hand last year with the comment ‘you have to read it’. Last weekend I gathered all these together and New Guinea Moon landed on top of the list.

Julie is 16, and like many girls this age, she is permanently fighting with her Mum. In sheer frustration Mum arranges for her to spend her Christmas holiday with her father, who left when she was just 3. Tony (it is impossible to call him Dad) is a pilot flying light planes to the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Over the summer Julie falls in love, not only with the boss’s son, but the whole lifestyle and the magnificent scenery. After tragedy strikes she is forced to leave, promising herself to return as soon as she has some skills to offer this new nation.

Set just before independence in Papua New Guinea, this book takes a serious look at colonialism and the racist attitudes of the expats living in the colony. Some are able to treat the indigenous population with respect and care but most seem afraid of the natives and cover this fear with aggression. Julie manages to get herself into some difficult situations, but she keeps calm and makes a serious effort to understand what is happening, and why.

This is a wonderful entertaining read that leaves the reader with something to think about. Love it!

July 16

Silver People by Margarita Engle

3260This book came across my desk just before I left on a LONG holiday. But even simply flicking through the pages and noting the author and publisher, clearly this was going to be a very special book. One copy went immediately to the top of the review pile, but the pile did not fit into the travel case. Back now – and in only a couple of hours I discovered that first impressions rang very true.

Time – early 20th century. Historical event – the building of the Panama Canal. Two boys from Caribbean islands get jobs on the digging crew, one with slave ancestors and the other descended from Spanish. Both are promised gold, but paid silver – hence the title. The gold was saved for the Americans who ran the machinery and supervised the work. In spite of strict segregation of the races, these boys become friends and help each other survive, and eventually escape to set up new lives in the New Panama.

This is written as a verse novel, not that any of the poetry rhymes. The technique allows the author great freedom to tell her story from many different points of view. Every alternate ‘chapter’ is actually narrated by the rainforest and the animals found within. New characters enter the story, and leave, simply and naturally.

I have read many verse novels over the years, but this one impressed more than most. Engle used visual as well as rhythmic techniques for her poetry. Sometimes I wanted to pause and just read that poem again, or the poem demanded to be read aloud. Someday I really really want to read one of howler monkey poems to a class. And the Tree Viper poem may only be a few words long, but it is very powerful.

As you can probably tell, I loved it.

February 13

Wild Boy by Rob Lloyd Jones

1363038957328Some would call this gothic, others mystery, or even adventure. Me? I just say this is one of those wonderful books that ignores genre boundaries. Even better – it’s fun to read.

Wild Boy is covered in hair and was raised as a monster. He is making a ‘living’ as part of a travelling freak show. But he isn’t as stupid as everyone thinks. He watches the audience every day with great care and quickly becomes a very good observer – Sherlock Holmes good. But then one day he is accused of murder. No one will believe that the Freak is innocent, after all he is a wild monster. His only chance is to run and try to find the real killer.

This book is dripping with atmosphere, literally. You can hear the hawkers in the freak show. The overcrowded streets of 1840s London are dirty, smelly and provide heaps of hiding places. But beware the shadowy figure who always turns up. Or maybe not?

This is a book marketed for upper primary, and experienced readers of that age will certainly enjoy it. But me, I suggest that it will be an excellent alternative for all those lower secondary kids who find it difficult to get into books. This one just could surprise them.

February 13

The Disgrace of Kitty Gray by Mary Hooper

9781408827611Sometimes it is nice to know when you pick up a book exactly what you can expect once you look inside. Mary Hooper is one of those authors that writes consistently gritty realistic historical dramas for young readers. They have strong female characters who are thrust into difficult situations that may be based directly on fact, or at least historically accurate settings. The girls may be more ‘modern’ in personality than is quite accurate, but that simply helps modern readers ‘get into’ the story.

Kitty has a very secure job as a milkmaid for the big house. She is learning all the dairying skills that will keep her in employment for her foreseeable future. She is being courted by the local river man, and all seems safe and comfortable in her world. But one day Will disappears. Kitty is stuck looking after his orphaned little sister, but again the family and other servants support her efforts, so aside from missing Will, not much has changed. But when one of the gentleman’s daughters sends her to London on an errand, suddenly life goes wrong, and gets worse. Imagine, a young woman alone in London with a toddler in tow. Who in 1813 is going to believe that she is an innocent milkmaid?

It is exactly this situation that makes this book so good. Schools can teach kids about changing morality and social customs. On the other hand experiencing the consequences of public scandal through the novel makes it real. Be warned, this is not for those who believe that children must have all happiness, sweetness and light.

 

February 13

The Tunnels of Tarcoola by Jennifer Walsh

resized_9781742376752_224_297_FitSquareThere is something about a mystery that appeals to everyone. I have seen this book compared to classics, like the Famous Five, but placed in a contemporary world. Like these children’s classics, the action starts on page one with the kids arguing and throwing stones on the beach. But then the tide changes…

Four children, all tweens, are led into a world of secret tunnels and mysterious packages. All good fun until grown-ups start watching and following. What is so important? And are the kids safe? Can they keep each other safe? Will they still be friends when it is all over?

In a modern world where most kids are wrapped in cotton wool, these four adventurers have a lot of freedom. But then they need that freedom in order for the plot to work. Realistic? Who cares? I challenge anyone to claim that Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys or the Famous Five were realistic, and kids have been loving them for years.

Jennifer Walsh has written a classic adventure tale for modern times.

February 13

The Skull by Christian Darkin

9781408192979Dinosaurs – the passion of every toddler. But sometimes this interest remains until the child is a confident reader. With the wonderful dinosaur skull on the cover, this book is going to catch the eye of all of these ‘grown up’ kids. But this is no silly time travel adventure that mixes humans with dinosaurs. No this is a scientifically accurate piece of historical fiction that shows a real understanding, not only of the Jurassic¬†world, but also the changing nature of man as he grows to understand his world.

The book opens with the death of a dinosaur about 144 million years ago. The skull is discovered in medieval times by a young man learning to read and write. But in these superstitious times, dragons and demons are all too real and the man suffers for his belief in the reality of this long extinct beast. Over time the Marchant family revisits the skull and interprets it’s importance in line with their culture and scientific understanding. Somehow I have managed to make this sound like a dry treatise. Believe me it is more like Dr Who – you never know when the story will continue, or where the adventure will lead.

I really enjoyed this short little book filled with adventures through time. But now that I am reflecting on the reading experience, I wonder if the average 9-13 kid will have enough historical understanding to pick up on the challenges faced by the various Marchants. But then, maybe this book will trigger interest in different historical periods.

 

February 10

The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie by Kirsty Murray

resized_9781743317020_224_297_FitSquareKirsty Murray is a children’s author of great talent. She can manage the gently whimsy of Walking Home with Marie Claire, the epic history of the Children of the Wind series and dystopian horror in Vulture’s Gate all without losing touch with her ‘tween’ readers. I will admit that it has been a few years since I had the excuse to read one of her books, but I am so glad this one arrived.

To quote the publicity material, ¬†‘Lucy can walk through walls’. Not just any walls, but the four walls of her grandmother’s house each painted with a mural showing a different Australian season. Each wall takes her back in time, to the same farm and the same three children. Lucy becomes firm friends with the kids and looks forward to catching up in each changing season. Together they swim, ride horses and generally enjoy life on a farm about 50 or so years ago. Naturally, life isn’t all fun and games. Lucy also survives fire, flood and bullies. But how do these children relate to her life today? Something seems familiar, but she can’t quite put her finger on it.

Gradually the clues to this mystery are lightly salted through the story. An adult reader may put the clues together earlier, but a younger reader will surely enjoy the reveal, and then will be likely to flip back through the story checking out the important bits. Re-reading is rarely part of kids routine now, so anything that encourages this skill gets my tick of approval.

This is a delightful gentle story that keeps magic alive in children’s imaginations.