May 9

A Game of Keeps by Dianne Bates

A-Game-of-Keeps-194x300Books for children with a ‘message’. Why do authors feel they need to ‘teach a lesson’ when they write for kids? As a child I remember hating preachy books, and as an adult, I think I am only worse. So it is little wonder that I have issues with this book.

Ashley is a little girl with a lot of problems. Her mum leaves her alone a lot, and always has. When hungry or lonely she visits an elderly lady living downstairs, but she isn’t very well. What Ashley really wants is her family all together again, but instead she has to put up with Eddie, her mother’s latest. Generally life for Ashley is grim, but when she meets Daisy and Will – a couple from ‘Aunts and Uncles’ – there is a promise of respite. But will they help her fix things?

As an adult I have real issues with this book. Not only is it preaching – stay positive and all will work out in the end – but the ‘solution’ to the child neglect problem is for mum to have a second baby. If she can’t manage her life with one child, how is she going to go with two? And yet that is presented as the ‘happy ever after ending’.

I know many children face these challenges, and I hope this book helps them understand that they are not unique. But really – Bates is better than this.

May 9

Boys are Dogs by Leslie Margolis

9781599906089Changing schools, changing families and changing lives – these are common themes in books written for children. Every changing relationship presents a challenge, and learning to deal with this is an important part of growing up. Margolis has written a book that looks at these problems with an positive attitude and a gentle humour.

With her mother’s changing relationship, Annabelle finds that she is moved from her all-girl school to a co-ed Middle School. Suddenly she has to spend the day with boys! And as the blurb says ‘Middle School boys act like wild animals.’ How does Annabelle cope? Obviously, just like you manage a new puppy, you train them. So begins the challenge.

I have been reading a lot of heavy, dark adult fiction (reviews to follow) and this was a lovely change.  Maybe I don’t read enough younger readers books.

March 10

The Afghanistan Pup by Mark Wilson

the_afghanistan_pup_INTERNALS_2Everybody loves picture story books. We learned as little children that the story is much more than the words, and it is important to read the pictures as well. Mark Wilson is a local author who has created a book for all ages in this touching story of war, destruction, and hope.

A pup is born in a village in Afghanistan, but he is born into a life of hardship. Mum goes off to look for food, and never returns. He finds a young girl to love him, but her schoolhouse is bombed. Imagine – daring to teach girls. Rescued by an Australian soldier, he finds a new home, but then one day the soldier doesn’t return from patrol. So where is the hope? A school is rebuilt and a young girl returns to finish her education. Guess who is waiting for her.

This books is much more than this simple plot. Wilson’s impressionistic illustrations add a great deal to the story. Even his use of colour changes the mood as quickly as you can turn the page.

This is not a book for the very young. In fact, I suspect some primary schools will refuse to offer it shelf space because of the confronting nature of the story. But it is a story that needs to be told, for the sake of the soldiers overseas and for the people surviving in the war zone.

January 15

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

edb300c77826cc8791e44ebc2c3131caAnother book for younger readers. This time it is a whimsical historical adventure about chasing dreams and finding the truth.

Sophie has always been told that she was orphaned in a shipwreck while she and her musician mother were travelling across the channel to England. But Sophie is convinced that her mother also survived and is currently living in Paris. So she runs away to look for her mother.

In Paris Sophie soon makes friends with other homeless children who escape the authorities by living on rooftops. Together they gradually gather information that may lead to finding out the truth about what happened to Sophie’s mother.

This is an easy comforting read targeted very nicely for the 9-11 age group. A little bit of suspense, a lot of resilient children, and a wonderful setting to fill the imagination. The serious themes are woven into the fabric of the story subtly, making the whole reading and learning experience a lot of fun.

January 11

Waiting for it by Chrissie Keighery

Review #9 – 95 to go

Hardie Grant have created for themselves a wonderful little market. Their Zac Power and Go Girl series are fantastic early chapter books for young readers. Now it looks like they are developing a new market with their ‘Girl V the World’ series about 13 year old girls dealing with ‘normal’ life. These are well written basic school and family life books, short and to the point.

Waiting for it is just exactly that. Tween Hazel feels like she really doesn’t belong anywhere. There is nothing special about her life. She is even in the middle of the boys ‘hot list’. Better than being at the bottom, but still nothing special. She is sick of being stuck in the middle, and it is time for things to change. The question is – Is change always an improvement?

This was a quick, one-sitting read. The characters are well developed for this tiny book, and there aren’t too many to keep track of. Without spoiling, I’ll just say that as you would expect, Hazel discovers that it isn’t so bad being in the middle and she is very special – so a positive outcome.

I have only read one from the series, but I suspect that it will fill a niche market very well.

December 12

Shark Wars by EJ Altbacker

How would you survive as a shark? Does anybody know if they have a social structure, pack behaviour or anything else about them? Certainly all the docos on Discovery focus on the shark attacks and other dangerous shark-human contact. Altbacker takes a very different view, treating sharks far more like wolves that live and hunt in packs.

Gray is the largest shark in his clan and he is still only a pup. His huge hunger seems to get him into trouble all the time, and early in this book it happens again. This time, he is exiled from the clan, and he and his friends eventually find another small group of exiles. They find another group of exiles and together they form the Rogue Clan. All is well until another clan shows up and ‘adopts’ the rogue group. But is this new group as good as they seem to be?

Many would call this an animal story simply because all the main characters are different varieties of fish. As in many animal stories for kids, the animals all talk and carry on just like humans. That is fine, once you get used to the idea. But maybe I’m too old, or I know too much about animal behavior. I had some problems with the fact that sharks were friends with other fish species. Anyway it made a good story.

This will be a good series for those 8-12 year old boys who like getting into an adventure series that will go on. Certainly Puffin is already promoting book two in the series, so I can only assume that it is going to continue for a while. Good news.

December 12

A Penny in Time by Anna Bartlett

At a first glance I would expect this book to have very limited appeal. The cover art is very plain and almost looks like the hundreds of ‘readers’ primary students are expected to read. Cheap and boring!. But it was short, and at this time of the year I really don’t want to get caught up in massive amounts of reading for kids. I am far more interested in reading for myself.

But once opened, this turned out to be a charming read. Bartlett has constructed a tale about a lonely child building a relationship with his grandmother. At first they are complete strangers who really don’t like each other very much. Eventually Yared is caught snooping in his nanna’s room and in his surprise, spills her box of treasures all over the floor. Among the treasures are some old coins that he does not recognise and these become the basis for a series of bedtime stories centred around an old penny.

The stories are simple and each builds an understanding of a single event in Australian history from federation to the introduction of decimal currency. At one level, the ‘reader’ level, this is what the book is about. But each story also involves Yared coming to understand his nanna a little more and her growing patience with the little boy. And this is the story I found most heartening.

No this is not great literature. It may not even be good literature, but I don’t resent the hour or so it took to read. There was nothing annoying and I am confident that many 8-12 year olds would enjoy this little book.

May 5

Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool by Odo Hirsch

resized_9781741757163_224_297_FitSquareAnother book I read ages ago. Over Christmas actually, and it was shortlisted for the CBCA Younger Readers last year. Generally I try to get all the shortlisted books read before August, but last year – well – lots of stuff got in the way.

As with many of Hirsch’s books, this one is pure childhood fantasy. The Bell family is cash poor and asset wealthy and they are existing via a very complicated barter system. But every generation the family must produce a give for the town. In the past this gift has been magnificent, a bell tower, statues, or some other landmark. This year there is literally no money so the gift is going to be very, very different. When Darius, the young boy, find a cave and beautiful pool on the estate, he thinks he has found the answer to the problem of the gift. But as always, life doesn’t always go to plan.

This is a gentle, whimsical book. No danger, no thrills, just people being people trying to manage a difficult life. Positivity and generosity is the theme and virtually everybody who appears possesses these qualities in vast amounts. Problems arise, but then are solved with just a little help from friends.

It must be nice to live in Hirsch’s world.

January 30

Then by Morris Gleitzmann

9780670072781This has been out for absolutely ages. I know that it spent over a year on my ‘must read’ pile and then I returned it last year when life went crazy. But now its sequel is raising to the top of the review pile, so I needed to get it read. So after Terminal World, it was a good choice.

The book Once saw Felix and his friend Zelda escape from the Nazis.  In Then Felix, a young Jew is aware of the danger, but little Zelda at only 6 still feels invincible, making rude gestures at soldiers and making noise when it is important to hide in silence. Somehow Felix has to find a place for the two of them to hide. The book opens with them looking for a family to adopt them for the remainder of the war. Instead they stumble onto a mass grave where the Nazis recently slaughtered children because they wanted their orphanage as a hostel for the Hitler Youth. After days without food, they are found by a farmer who takes them into her home. It is hard to change their names and pretend to be someone else, but all seems to be going well. But then comes Felix’s ‘birthday’…

This is a book written for younger children, but it is not one of those nice happy stories. I remember the public furore when Rowlings killed Cedric. Well everyone who thinks that children must be protected from any mention of death will be absolutely livid at this book. But as an introduction to the Holocaust and the many civilians who tried to help the Jews, this book is a treasure.

An important book for the collection.

January 22

Sebastian Darke : Prince of Pirates by Phillip Caveney

9781407020501One of the things I like about my job is that every now and then I get asked to read a little bit of nonsense that is simply fun to read. No deep and meaningful symbolism, no literary pretensions, just an action packed adventure that is meant to remind the reader that reading is fun.

There is apparently a whole series of adventures about Sebastian, but this is the only one I have read. In this book our hero is heading out to find a lost pirate treasure, but of course all kinds of things get in the way. And therein lies the fun.

This is a traditional page turner with a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. It is nearly 400 pages long, and that might be a little daunting for some young readers, but once they get started they will find that the story flies by.

Hopefully there will be an ebook edition available.