Avis and the Promise of Dragons 

By Heather McQuillan

ISBN 9780995119758

The Cuba Press

 

Love the cool cover with the mysterious eye peeking out from the bush. The first thought is why is it hiding, and what is going to happen? It is an easy well-paced read so won’t take you long to find out the answers.

Avis has a dream to work with animals, so when a scientist with a witchy-looking house offers her a job as a pet-sitter she jumps at the chance. But it turns out Avis is not looking after pets at all – the animals in Dr Malinda Childes’ backyard are as eccentric as she is and Avis has to promise to keep them a secret.

Writer Heather McQuillan provides an entertaining, yet informative read for those who enjoy a mix in their reading. We have fantasy, bullying, secrets, family issues, as well as lots of environmental concerns. Would be a good read aloud in schools as there is much to consider in the story of Avis, a young girl who is left in charge of some very unusual pets.

All begins well for her pet-sitting job until a storm changes everything and Avis is faced with many challenges, including the consequences of keeping secrets. Avis doesn’t always manage to do the right thing but she is prepared to make amends and learn from her mistakes, which is not always an easy thing to do. Avis also learns to accept changes and finds the strength to make some changes herself. Seeing growth in a character is always the sign of a good book. And anyway,  who doesn’t love a story with dragons?

White Bird

By R. J. Palacio

ISBN 9780241397244

Penguin Books

Penguin Random House

I read the book Wonder a number of years ago and loved it. I have it as year six book club title and the children love it too. So it was a no brainer to buy a copy of White Bird which shares with us the backstory of Julian’s grandmother. For those who read Wonder, you will remember that Julian was a bully and very unkind. While there is no excuse for such horrible behaviour, we can see in Whitebird that Julian later regretted his actions. For homework Julian has to write an essay about someone he knows and he chooses his grandmother. At first she is reluctant to share her story but she goes ahead and we are taken back to the 1940’s and a world at war.

Wow! Where to start? I loved this book so much. I cried so much I couldn’t see the words on the page.

Julian’s grandmother Sara Blum, was a young Jewish girl living in occupied France, who believed her life was good and a bit like a fairy tale. Her family had nice things, food, a home, and spent time together as a family in the fields of bluebells. One day the Nazis came to school wanting to collect all the Jewish children. They ran through a forest trying to escape but Sara hid in a room upstairs in the school where a crippled classmate found her and led her to safety. Together, this boy Julien, and his family helped hide Sara in a barn and kept her safe.

Throughout the story we see bullying, kindness, trust, and mistrust, courage, hope, the futility of war and the impact it had long after the war was over. We meet strong, kindhearted people risking their lives, as well as nasty ones, ready to shoot on sight. Throughout the years in hiding, it is the friendship between Sara and Julien that is most moving of all.

This is powerful and at times uncomfortable to read but it’s a must read.
Written and illustrated as a graphic novel by R. J. Palcio you can see that the author knows exactly how her characters respond to situations, she knows their stories, their thoughts and fears and captures them in her illustrations so well, that we also know and can relate to them. We can feel Sara’s sadness and we can feel Julien’s frustration at his disability, especially as he remembers how fast he could run before polio ruined everything.

This is ideal from middle grade right through to secondary. There is so much to consider, so much to unpack and just so much more than a story about a young girl hiding and trying to survive in Occupied France. It is a story of hope.

Julian’s grandmother has a message for us all “Never again”.

 

 

 

You can read White Bird as a stand alone but if you want a little more out of it then read Wonder if you haven’t already.

Nevertell

By Katharine Orton

ISBN 9781406385182

Walker Books

 

A world of magic is only a whisper away…

 

I was hooked from the first page where there is immediate tension. It is followed by more action and suspense. The pace is just right for keeping readers wanting to know what happens next.

Lina has only ever known the prison world she was born in and the harsh, snowy winters of Russia. Lina is only eleven but she is pushed by her mother, who is also a prisoner, to escape and try and find her grandmother in Moscow. Her best friend Bogdan also escapes and the two of them find themselves facing many dangers. Food and warmth are in short supply and what are the noises and creatures that keep following them.

This is a good read. It has heaps of action, and is paced well with lots of new characters along the way. Some good, some not so good. Each chapter heading has mystical illustrations adding to the story.

Trust, forgiveness, friendships, family, freedom, and hope, are all themes throughout the novel for middle grade readers. Throw in survival and courage with a good dose of magic and a whispered voice repeating the phrase “nevertell” and you have a mystery as well as a fantasy story. Fairytales are an important feature here where they offer hope but also fear as they bring warnings of danger. A good read. This is a debut novel but I will certainly be looking out for further reads from author Katharine Orton.

 

 

Wheels

by Sally Sutton

Illustrated by Brian Lovelock

ISBN 9781760651589

Walker Books

Writer Sally Sutton and illustrator Brian Lovelock have teamed up again to create yet another fun picture book for younger children. In the same format as previous collaborations such as Roadworks, Demolition and Construction, this new book Wheels is another winner.

Bright and colourful illustrations accompany delightfully fun language as we explore all things wheels. Big ones, little ones, rumbly, snazzy and even zoomy wheels. Lots of different wheels and lots of cars, trucks and even scooters. There is a page at the back of the book detailing the parts of a wheel, which with the end papers of tyre treads, adds to the overall impact

Rhyme, repetition and a good solid rhythm will make this a favourite and guaranteed to be read over and over again. This is a great book for parents and grandparents to share with young ones. It is also a good choice to have in preschools and kindergartens, not just because it is informative, but because it’s a great interactive read aloud as the reader is encouraged to join in and “shout what’s coming”. 

Look out for this one publishing 1st February 2020.

The night the moon fell down and other poems

by Bill Nagelkerke

ISBN 9780473489212

The CopyPress NZ

 

 

Bill Nagelkerke’s book of poetry is full of poems to delight the reader. His poems appeal to young readers for their cleverness, humour and fun. Many have been published before in the School Journal and various publications and books.

The haiku on the back cover shows us his ability to take an everyday image and give it a fresh new look so that we are caught surprised by its depth and beauty.

 

plane trail

ruling a line beneath the moon

brush-stroking the sky

 

Some poems fit perfectly in the New Zealand landscape and others reach beyond time and space. Each poem is carefully thought out; words have been chosen for their meanings and impact, whether for fun or to leave the reader thinking beyond the end of the poem.

Each poem comes with its own illustration.

My favourite is the poem Rain but I’ll leave that one for you to read when you look for a copy of this book. A good book for teachers to use in class, not just for reading poems aloud, but for encouraging student’s own creative writing. Different styles, different subjects, different poems, all worth reading and sharing.

A great choice for school libraries.

Bill, apart from being a poet and author, also a translates books from Dutch to English, most notably for Gecko Press children’s books. He was awarded the Storylines Margaret Mahy Award for his distinguished contribution to New Zealand children’s literature and literacy in 2013.

 

Ordinary hazards: A memoir

by Nikki Grimes

ISBN 9781629798813

WordSong

I’ve long enjoyed the works of poet/writer Nikki Grimes, especially Bronx Masquerade so the minute I saw her memoir sitting on the local library shelf display of new books, I grabbed it, thrilled that it was a verse novel like many of her works and immediately issued it. Here I am a day later having already finished reading her powerful book.

Nikki’s memoir is raw, honest, but also uplifting. Nikki tells of being caught up in foster care system, her mother’s mental illness, separation from her sister Carol, and a father who was mostly absent. We feel her growing mistrust of her mother’s new husband. We share her fears and loneliness, and are angered by the abuse that is part of her life.

Nikki shares with us her discovery at six years old that she could write and the peace and courage writing gave her to cope in a world most of us will never know or understand. Writing became everything to her and her notebooks kept her secrets, hopes and dreams. Her faith too, kept her strong.

I so badly wanted to reach in to the young Nikki, wrap her in hugs, hold her tight and let her know how brave, strong and loved she is and tell her everything would be okay. I wanted to let her know that there is a place she will one day feel safe enough to call home. Despite the traumas in her life; and some of it quite harrowing, she comes out the other end strong and determined. Her writing may reflect the pain of her childhood but it also shows, strength, hope and joy. 

Loved it.

 

Death coming up the hill

By Chris Crowe

ISBN 9780544302150

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing

It’s summer break on this side of the world at the moment and I’m on a bit of a roll reading verse novels and this one is another one to shout out loud about.

Written in the form of haiku, each syllable in this young adult book represents each “soul”  of the 16,592 American soldiers who died in Vietnam in the year 1968. Apart from the absolute hard work to produce these haiku, and keep the story flowing, the research and historical background is very much evident.

It’s 1968, and war is not foreign to seventeen-year-old Ashe. His dogmatic, racist father married his passionate peace-activist mother when she became pregnant with him, and ever since, the couple—like the situation in Vietnam—has been engaged in a senseless war that could have been prevented.

We are caught up in Ashe’s life, his fears, the impact of the Vietnam War, his parents marriage breakdown, and a time of strong racist actions. Ashe is loyal to his parents but he is soon faced with choices; choices that will change his life forever.  There is much political unrest with the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Throughout it all, Ashe is worried he will be drafted to join the soldiers and fight.  Ashe and his girlfriend connect, both sharing the belief that peace is a far better option than war. A good insight to a different time with good solid characters with real flaws. I was completely drawn to Ashe and his situation. The format is easy to read and has a beauty with its mix of haiku and white space on the page. Very sobering numbers and facts. A powerful read.

We need books like this to remind us of the past and to keep moving forward towards peace, no matter who we are or where we live.

The language of fire: Joan of Arc reimagined

By Stephanie Hemphill

ISBN 9780062490117

Balzer + Bray

 

The Language of Fire is a lyrical, dark, and moving look at the life of Joan of Arc, who as a teen girl in the fifteenth century commanded an army and helped crown a king of France.

Most of us are aware to some extent of the story of Joan of Arc, perhaps we’ve seen movies or were taught about her in school, but here in this novel from Stephanie Hemphill we are inside the head of Joan and are privy to her thoughts.

Joan, or Jehanne as she is known, hears the voice of God who tells her to build an army and lead France to victory. Told as a novel in verse form, it is easier to capture the moments of doubt, dismay, fear and loneliness, but also success, that Joan feels. We feel it all with her, every step of the way.

As a young, illiterate peasant girl Joan struggles at first with the idea that God has spoken to her and commanded her to do his will. In time, she understands it is her destiny, and with grit and determination as a teenage girl in a man’s world, Joan takes up the challenge, knowing the price she will eventually pay.

I don’t tend to read historical novels but this was a very good read and I was right into the story of Joan and loved seeing her mature into the brave leader she became.

We know how things ended for Joan but it still hits you as a reader when you get to there but Joan was very courageous right up until the end. However, her fight was more than physically brandishing a sword. It was a fight to be understood and to be treated with respect; for women back in the 1400’s were easy prey for men with horrid intentions. A great read, if somewhat dark at times, but that is the reality of the life of Joan of Arc.

“I am just a lowly peasant girl.

Who am I to be chosen

to save France?

The idea is surely folly

fueled by my longing

to be more than I am.”

The Rise of the Mythix: The Golden Unicorn

By Anh Do

ISBN 9781760525132

Allen & Unwin

 

The Soul Collector is a nasty man who collects everything he deems beautiful or unique. HIs most prized possession is Lucifer’s ring for the power it holds. He doesn’t care how he gets these artefacts or who gets hurt along the way, as long as he gets them for his collection.

Kelly Swift is an average teenager with a secret. She can outrun anyone and anything. Suddenly things change and she finds new strength and a lump growing in the middle of her forehead and for some strange reason she begins to hear people’s thoughts. The Soul Collector has been watching her and he wants Kelly for his own collection but she is determined not to be caught. So he takes her mother and Kelly will do anything to save her.

This is a quick read with lots of action, a prophecy, mythical creatures and an ending that leaves you hanging out for book two.

Characters are older teens but the reading is aimed at a younger audience who love a good adventurous read. Lots of illustrations give face to the characters but also break up the text. Ideal for reluctant teen readers too.

Thoroughly enjoyed the story and the references to myths and legends from the past. I’ll also be one those waiting in line for book two.

The Magic Place

By Chris Wormell

ISBN 9781788450157

David Fickling Books

 

 

‘And even though she only saw it in her dreams, she felt sure it was real...’

The cover of this chapter book is a real standout. Our eyes are equally drawn to the light and beauty in the distance as they are to the small window where Clementine and the cat Gilbert, stare out from the darkness, to the far-off mountains.

The illustrated end pages take us from the grime and dirt of city life to the contrasting beauty of nature at the close of this book and Clementine’s story.

Clementine is basically imprisoned by her awful and nasty aunt and uncle. They force her to live in a tiny room with nothing but a bed. No chairs, nothing to play with and all the time she must work hard doing everything they command. Clementine never goes outside or sees the outside world. Her life is difficult and lonely but she is determined that there must be something better. Then comes Gilbert, a most wise and clever cat.

Together they face the wicked couple and change their fate. There is adventure, humour and a lovely twist that provides a happy ending, but it is also dark, with nasty characters. It has a Victorian feel to the setting which adds to the suspense and darkness but it is ultimately a story of hope and courage and a belief in dreams. It is also the story of the magic of home, the most wonderful place of all.

Clementine is a strong, capable, believable and likeable character. Delightfully illustrated throughout. Love this story.

Just Because

By Mac Barnett

Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

ISBN 9781406388763

Walker Books

Just Because is one of those special books for curious minds. Children love a good story at bedtime and even more than that, they love prolonging the final lights-out before sleep. The young girl in this book keeps asking her father questions and he gives her the most wonderful answers.  Are they the right answers? You will have to find out for yourself, but they will make you think, and smile. 

She asks “Why is the ocean blue?” 

He answers “Every night, when you go to sleep, the fish take out guitars. They sing sad songs and cry blue tears.”

Great imagination and a beautiful moment for dad and daughter to share.

The illustrations reflect the night until the last double page spread where her dreams and imagination take over while she sleeps and they become alive with colour.

What I think makes this book extra special, is that while it is a lovely picture book to snuggle up and share with a young child at bedtime, it is also a good book to use in class and get students writing. I can see them asking all sorts of questions and coming up with unusual and imaginative answers. They could create their own drawings to accompany their questions too. I have this book in my school library and I will be sharing it with every teacher.

I love this book, just because!

Where’s Kiwi Celebrating?

Written by Lynette Evans

Illustrated by Miles Lawford

ISBN 9781775436157

Scholastic NZ

Our loveable Kiwi is back for another adventure. This time he is wandering in and out of different celebrations. Full-page colour illustrations with quirky cartoon-like characters focus on the many different, yet wonderful celebrations in New Zealand. This is an ideal book to share in classes and libraries in schools, and of course, in home collections. It celebrates different cultures and different occasions that make us special. There is Chinese New Year, Matariki, Waitangi Day, to name just a few.

Kiwi is hiding somewhere on each page and it is up to us, the reader, to find him and his many friends; like Tricky Tuatara, or Mystery Moa and more importantly, Kiwi’s Girlfriend.

There is a double page spread at the back of the book with lists of lots of other things to find. In fact there are over 800 things to spot.

Lots of bright, colourful and busy pictures to keep readers searching for hours.

 

Stink-o-saurus saves Christmas

By Deano Yipadee

Illustrated by Paul Beavis

ISBN 9781775435907

Scholastic NZ

 

 

 

The dinosaurs are back for another funny adventure and this time it is Christmas.

Bright and cheerful with lots of opportunities to use a big loud voice when you come to words like “Toot, Toot, Toot” or “chomp, Chomp, Chomp”. A good story to read aloud.

This picture book comes with a bonus CD so little ones can sing-along and enjoy the fun. Great for car rides or just listening to in the comfort of your own home.

Stormy: a story about finding a forever home

By Guojing

ISBN 9781524771768

A story about patience, kindness, and trust.

I want this dog. I am jealous of the woman in this book who befriends this beautiful lost dog. This absolutely, most beautifully illustrated book is a wordless one BUT you don’t need words in this story. Every page is stunningly detailed with emotion and story. A little dog is lost, maybe abandoned, but certainly hungry and homeless. A young woman sitting in a park notices him and bit by bit, day by day she encourages the dog to trust her. It follows her home one stormy night and in the pouring rain it finds an old box near her home to shelter in. Meantime, the young woman runs out in to the rain searching for the wee dog back in the park where they first met.  My heart aches for this dog, but I know he or she will be loved and totally wanted. What happens next is so heartwarming, tissues may be needed.

This book definitely has that sad, puppy dog eyes, extreme cute factor but the story is ultimately so hopeful and uplifting it leaves you feeling warm all over.  I’ve read it many times and I really love this dog. The artwork is superb. Each and every picture could hang in any art gallery anywhere.

I have never been able to draw even a straight line, so I struggle to comprehend how the illustrator creates such moving, emotive pictures and in colours so realistic I feel as though I am sitting there in the park with the dog and young woman. The story is told in frames on many pages and then full-colour spreads during the storm highlight the tensions and emotion. Gorgeous technique. There is a softness to the artwork that adds so much warmth.  Did I mention, I want this dog for myself.

 

As a family picture book to share, this just beautiful. In a classroom there is so much to discuss. Patience, kindness, trust and love are most important features here, and any chance to remind children of these basic human needs is one we must share.

 

I’m a fan for life. I also loved Guojing’s first book, The Only Child

The Tiny Star

By Mem Fox

Illustrated by Freya Blackwood

ISBN 9780670078127

Penguin Random House

Post dedicated to my dear friend Allison

No doubt making beautiful quilts using the stars in the night sky.

 

 

Once upon a time, although this happens all the time, a tiny star fell to earth . . .  

And so begins a heart-warming story of a journey through life. The full circle is portrayed here just perfectly.

I read this beautiful picture book on the same day I got the news that a lovely friend had died. I was incredibly moved by this book and the beautiful illustrations and yes, there were tears. While I spent the day thinking about my friend, I could, as the book suggests, imagine her up in the heavens watching down on us all. Life comes and goes, memories stay and this book totally understands that idea. My friend loved children’s books and often bought them for her daughter who happens to be a teacher.  We would have discussed its beauty in depth, the story, the journey, the whole thing. She would loved this book.

Stunning. A book for everyone, especially parents for when they may need to try and explain the loss of a grandparent. While the book does deal with loss, it also offer hope.

 

Mem and Freya discuss this stunning picture book. 

The House of Madame M

By Clotilde Perrin

Translated by Daniel Hahn

ISBN 9781776572748

Gecko Press

This large format picture book is top quality and pure delight. Not just for children, but adults too will be entertained by this latest wonder from Clotilde Perrin. I certainly know I have spent ages lifting and pulling every flap to reveal hidden creatures and secret messages.

The House of Madame M is haunted and there are monsters, ghosts and other creatures lurking on every page. We are invited in, told to take our shoes off but we must be quiet and “very, very careful” and we must not “touch a thing”. And of course, that is exactly what we do when we open each cupboard or draw. Even the toilet lid can be lifted, if you dare! Gorgeous, yet scary illustrations completely cover every inch of every page. Every tiny detail has been carefully thought out. A real treasure and a good choice with Christmas just around the corner.

Paper engineering is an art form and Perrin does it perfectly. The last page, with the large monster arms, and the phoenix rising from the ashes is pretty cool.