Worst. Holiday. Ever. – Charlie Higson

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Penguin AustraliaISBN: 9780241414781

May 2021

  • ISBN: 9780241414781

Imprint: Puffin

RRP: $14.99

See, I associate Charlie Higson’s name with Young Bond, thrilling spy adventures, evil villains – you know the sort of thing so this absolutely hilarious book took me completely by surprise.

Stan is the only child of pretty ordinary parents and lives in a pretty ordinary suburban house and, in fact, lives a pretty ordinary life. He’s not what you would call an extrovert – or confident – or actually, not very interesting and certainly not brave, but he is a nice kid. So when he is invited to go with a school friend, Felix and his family on a holiday to Italy, he finds himself packed and at the airport with Felix’ uncle and aunt, whom he’s never met, going to a foreign country to stay with an entire villa full of strangers with only Felix – and a very tenuous friendship to bolster himself.

Stan’s list of things that could go wrong on the holiday is even funnier than the one his mum gives him ‘in case of emergency’ and readers will be continually amused throughout as Stan’s lists are added to – but also subtracted from – as he encounters new experiences from food to girls, from moody or just downright batty adults to haughty Italians.

While he is away Stan’s dad takes ill, which causes him great anxiety, but at the same time, as he observes the interactions of the families in the villa with acute perception, he develops a greater understanding of what he’s always taken to be his father’s dissatisfaction with his only son. As the holiday progresses and Stan’s small steps towards confidence increase, so does his insight into what family means and that sometimes, being anxious is OK and being even just a little brave can take you a long way.

I find it quite difficult at times to find humorous novels that will be enjoyed by lower secondary as much as primary children but I think this one might just fit the bill. I’m certainly going to give it a red-hot go with some of my Year 7s – especially some of the more reluctant readers.

Highly recommended for kiddos from around 10 years upwards – especially those who like a good laugh-out-loud read.

Pax, Journey Home – Sara Pennypacker

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Harper Collins

September 2021

  • ISBN: 9780008470289
  • ISBN 10: 0008470286
  • Imprint: HarperCollins GB
  • List Price: 19.99 AUD
So many readers have been waiting for a sequel to the book that captured thousands of hearts with its tender story of a boy and his orphaned fox. Now a year has gone by since Peter and Pax were separated (oh the tissues required!) and each has followed their own path. Pax has a mate and a new litter of kits to protect as they wander the wasteland to find a safe haven. Peter, now orphaned himself, has been taken in by the warm and generous Vola far away from his home but he cannot settle, despite the sanctuary she offers.

When Peter joins the Water Warriors, a group determined to repair the ravages of the war, his primary intention it to work his way back to his old home, although he knows there is nothing left for him there. He desperately tries to put Pax out of his mind but still there’s a part of him that yearns to know his fox is safe. At the same time as Peter draws nearer to his old house, Pax is trekking across the dangerous landscape with his youngest kit, the feisty the little girl pup, who is becoming weaker and weaker. Despite the fox’s sharp senses he has no way of knowing that the water the little vixen drinks so thirstily is slowly poisoning her. When their paths finally intersect again, the pair’s reunion is bitter-sweet but as they part once more, both have experienced a healing transformation.

Again Sara Pennypacker has crafted a book that is full of exquisite tenderness and real emotions, with no trace of cloying over-sentimentality. The beautiful re-defining of ‘family’ and the transcedent power of pure love will linger with readers well after they turn the last page.

An absolutely magical book which was one-sitting read for me as I once again dipped into the world of Peter and Pax.

My highest recommendation for readers from around 10 years upwards.

What Zola Did on Sunday – Melina Marchetta

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Penguin

  • September 2021
  • ISBN: 9781760895228
  • Imprint: Puffin
  • RRP: $12.99

This series has just been pure joy from the very first word with each new story building on the warmth, friendship and community of Zola’s neighbourhood. Now that we have finished the entire week with Zola I feel quite sad but I’m hopeful that Melina might take Zola and her friends, not to mention her mishaps, on a longer journey for us. I’m going to sit back and wait for What Zola Did in January now *grin*.


The climax of the entire series is the St Odo’s fete where so much that has featured along the way all comes together: the knitting, gardening, pets, music and baking as well as the entire cast of charming characters.

Of course, it was to be expected that Zola would once again be in the middle of a muddle and when she doesn’t quite manage to hold onto Tim Tam the cat in the face of excitable dogs before the Pet Parade starts, there is quite the calamity. But, despite the kerfuffle, the fete still manages to be a huge success and the funds raised by this caring community give everyone much satisfaction – particularly as their efforts will support the homeless, which gives the reader pause for reflection when one thinks about these happy families in their homes. Throughout the entire series, the opportunities for meaningful discussion and action learning have been plentiful, all the while without being ‘preachy’.

I feel sure you must have caught onto these sweet books for your newly independent readers by now – but just in case somehow you have overlooked them, do yourself and your little peeps a big favour and put them on your order list.

Highly recommended for readers from around 6 upwards.

Kensy and Max #8: High Voltage – Jacqueline Harvey

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Penguin Australia

September 2021

  • ISBN: 9781760898557
  • Imprint: Puffin
  • RRP: $16.99

Get ready for your kiddos to clamour to be the first – and then the next – to borrow Jacqueline Harvey’s newest book in the dynamite Kensy and Max series! This is another knock-out episode in the thrilling adventures of the twins and their family and friends – though, ostensibly, in this book everyone is meant to be on a happy relaxing family holiday.

After some tense action over the school term, Granny Cordelia decrees a holiday for the entire family in a picturesque Portuguese villa with loads of sunshine, beach, delicious food, time to chill and absolutely no phones, devices or espionage! Their holiday villa just happens right next door to the epicentre of all the action surrounding the E-Prix Championships, Wolf Motors, and an innovative new vehicle called the Wolf Electra. Soon it seems that everyone in the family is secretively investigating something as strange and disturbing incidents start to rapidly escalate. Of course, the twins and their buddies, Curtis and Autumn, are right in the thick of things and doing their very best to unravel the intricacies of kidnapping, sabotage and family secrets.

This newest mission takes the family spy business a step further as the twins’ mother, who had declared herself to be no longer interested in being an active agent, revises her position and takes an active guiding role in their investigations. Also adding more depth to characters, who have been somewhat on the periphery, readers will enjoy finding out more about Mim, and her past relationship with James Wolf – not to mention his former association with the family.

High-powered race cars and the glamour of the sport combined with the spy antics of Pharos are an intoxicating combination, and the tension and threats around the championships, the reveal of a game-changing new SUV and the evolving status of family and friends certainly will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

My readers eagerly anticipate each new title so I know this one will most definitely be in high demand as soon as it hits our shelves, particularly as we approach the holidays. No doubt many of you will already have it on pre-order but if not, then add it to your shopping list at high speed or suffer the consequences (that will be strident nagging most likely I predict).

It’s not often that an author manages to keep her dedicated fan base once they move on past the intended audience, in my experience – they often seem to ‘grow out’ of certain favourites but that is most definitely not the case with Jacqueline’s works.

My highest recommendation goes without saying for this new cracker in a highly successful series – the joy her creativity brings to readers is inspiring.

Grace’s Escape – Louise Park

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Simon & Schuster

September 2021

  • Publisher: Berbay
  • ISBN13: 9780645069631

RRP: AU$ 16.99 / NZ$ 19.99

Middle school readers fell in love with Grace’s adventures in her first book, Grace’s Secrets, and they will love this next instalment as Grace and her friend, Millie, continue to slip between past and present investigating mysteries and becoming acquainted with literary greats of the past.

Grace and her mother are settling beautifully into Faerie Castle, with the fun of Victorian-themed weekends, their guests, and, certainly, the added excitement of the girls setting up their beautiful olde-worlde style stationery shop is bringing much joy.

Once again the enchanted map leads the girls into a strange adventure in which they are mistaken for sisters, Georgiana and Theodora, who were meant to arrive at the castle of the past but did not. It’s up to Grace and Ellie to rescue these sisters it seems, along with Grace’s precious pup Coco, who is dog-napped by the same villain who has captured the girls.

As they dip in and out of the castle’s history, the girls become firm friends with Mamie – perhaps better known to some as May Gibbs, creator of the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie stories – as well as J. M. Barrie – playwright and storyteller who gave the world Peter Pan and the wonderful Beatrix Potter. Fortunately, they are able to outwit the villains, rescue the missing girls and, along the way, provide inspiration to these legendary creators.

This is such a delightful adventure that will enchant your readers who love to hear of historical people, particularly ‘bookish’ folk, and who relish the thought of living an almost double life – enjoying the wonders of modern life as well as savouring some of the beauty and elegance of times past.

My own thrill comes with the my own little mention – as Grace’s much missed teacher-librarian back in Broome – thank you Louise for such an honour !

Highly recommended for your readers from around Year 3/4 upwards. It is a must have for your collection!

Today’s Sun – Gregg Dreise

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Penguin Australia

  • Published: 31 August 2021
  • ISBN: 9781760898335
  • Imprint: Picture Puffin
  • RRP: $14.99

Gregg‘s name has been bandied around quite a bit in the past week in our library after I suggested engaging him for next year’s Book Week visiting author for our younger students. He is the most marvellously warm and engaging speaker who elicits such a fabulous response from his audience as well as being such a hugely talented creator. How fortunate we are that he’s a wonderful Queenslander and a proud Kamilaroi and Euahlayi man, who passes on culture, unity, healing and knowledge through his music, storytelling and performances.

Anyone who has seen Gregg’s books will know what a talented artist and writer he is and they are all well loved but I almost think that this new board book with it’s black and white line illustrations, has stolen my heart even more than the others. Perhaps its because I’ve watched Gregg sit in our library and create one of his remarkable drawings but more likely, I think, because I love that children will be able to imagine their own colour choices for each scene.

Gregg, please we need some activity sheets because our kiddos are definitely going to want and make these illustrations their own!! Of course, if you buy these beautiful board book for a child in your circle they will be able to colour the book itself and possibly, with some medium, that can then be wiped clean for a different take on the scene.

Take your little jarjums on a sunny day excursion and watch them bounce like a kangaroo or play hide-and-seek like a camouflaged tawny until they are ready to snuggle like a little, fuzzy koala.

I cannot recommend Gregg’s work highly enough and this little book will not only be a perfect gift for a new little babe in your family or circle of friends but a beautiful addition for an early childhood collection.

Poppy, the Punk Turtle [Endangered Animals #2]- Aleesah Darlison. Illustrated by Mel Matthews

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Penguin Australia

  • Published: 31 August 2021
  • ISBN: 9781760899233
  • Imprint: Puffin
  • RRP: $19.99

The battle to save the Mary River has been building momentum for years now and the residents of the Mary Valley are resolute in their determination to save the river, the environment and the wildlife. Paramount in that wildlife is the incredible and utterly adorable Mary River turtle, and thankfully, awareness of this species and its tenuous grasp on continued existence has become far more of a focus.

Aleesah Darlison is passionate about conservation and environmental issues, and her dedication to bringing information to the attention of children, in an entertaining and engaging way, is always impressive. With this second in the Endangered Animals series – Coco, the Fish with Hands being the first – Aleesah demonstrates, yet again, her skill in blending fact with fiction into endearing stories which children just love.

The Mary River turtle is a marvel for many reasons. Many children know, and of course LOVE, the fact that Mary River turtles breathe through their bottoms – I have often enjoyed sharing that snippet with many – but reading Poppy’s story will increase their knowledge of the other amazing aspects of this unique creature’s attributes. For an animal whose family history reaches back millions of years to be so critically endangered, due to the thoughtlessness of humans, will spur children to their own indignation and, no doubt, in many instances, act as a call to arms for their own campaign to help the turtles.

Aleesah’s delightful text about this little punk rocker and her search for a suitable new waterhole in which to nest,accompanied by Mel Matthews’ bold and colourful illustrations, will once again delight the readers.

This really is a must-have series for your collection and I, for one, am eagerly anticipating the next instalment in what is going to be a highly valued resource for units of work, raising social consciousness and, just as importantly, joy in nature. If I were still in a classroom I could see a whole river scene mural happening with the lifecycle of Poppy and her friends and the whole splendid wilderness of the Mary valley pictured. What a learning experience that could be!

Highly recommended for readers from around 5 years upwards – easily shared with older readers as a springboard to environmental studies.

It’s Not You, It’s Me – Gabrielle Williams

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Allen & Unwin

August 2021

ISBN: 9781760526078P

Imprint: A & U Children

RRP: $19.99

Yes, that tag line – Freaky Friday meets Pretty Little Liars – really hits the mark. This is one helluva time-travel that not just the life-swap but the cities/continents/decades swap as well! And what a ride it is, especially when there’s a serial killer thrown into the mix.

Holly Fitzgerald, of Melbourne, has just finished celebrating her 40th birthday lunch with friends when she wakes up on a footpath – make that, sidewalk – in LA in the body of a 16-year-old girl named Trinity. Literally, what the……? Holly stumbles her way through meeting a neighbour (cute boy – Australian, coincidentally), going to her ‘home’ and then adjusting to a ‘family’ whilst feverishly trying to piece together what on earth has happened to her, and how – and most of all, where then is Trinity?

The one resonant fact shared between her actual life and this strange 1980s faux life in LA is an orange Brother typewriter – second-hand and vintage in Melbourne but shiny and new here in Los Angeles. Of course, the odd synchronicity of a Holly Hobbie doll, identical to one she was given as a newborn, being on Trinity’s bed does strike her as a little strange as well.

When Brother Orange, the typewriter, starts delivering furious messages from Trinity, trapped in what she scornfully refers to as Holly’s boring, middle-aged existence and demanding the situation be fixed, Holly needs to work through a lot of unanswered questions about her past, her life and the connections between herself and Trinity’s family. – and at the same time, save both their lives from the Mariposa Murderer.

This is, by turns, hilarious and clever, fascinating and frightening, but above all a real page-turner as the reader demands to know what on earth is going on and why. There is a smattering of swearing which may bother you for your younger secondary readers but mature readers from 13 or 14 upwards who enjoy a thrilling narrative will relish this one as it explores the eternal questions of ‘what if’ in a very original and engaging manner. Oh, and absolutely stunning cover art!

Highly recommended for Year 8 upwards – it will be on my list for my next ChocLit meeting for sure!

Sofa Surfer – Malcolm Duffy

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Harper Collins Australia

May 2021

  • ISBN: 9781786697684
  • ISBN 10: 1786697688
  • Imprint: Head Of Zeus – Zehpyr GB
  • RRP $16.99

On any given night in Australia 116,427 Australians are homeless. 27,680 of these are young people aged 12-24 years. Most of the homeless youth aged 12–18 years in 2016 were living in ‘severely’ crowded dwellings (61%) or in supported accommodation for the homeless (26%).

Youth HomelessnessSalvation Army

121,000 16-24 year olds were homeless or at risk of homelessness in the UK in 2020 Centrepoint UK

Over the past year I’ve read some cracking teen books from the UK, and this is right up there with the very best. It’s engaging, often funny, extremely poignant and tackles a social issue of the gravest concern not only in the UK but also here in Australia.

When Tyler’s family moves from London to live in the spa town of Ilkley, West Yorkshire, the 15-year-old is well ticked off and prepared to resent absolutely everything about their new lives. He misses their old house and his friends, and he hates the ‘small town-ness’ of Ilkley. The fact that his parents have opted for renovations to their new house rather than their usual summer holiday somewhere exciting is, as far as Tyler is concerned, the nail in the coffin. His resentment continues to build, and his only outlet is taking his dog Dexter for long walks where he can vent his feelings on a blissfully unaware canine.

Desperate for something to fill the empty days, Tyler goes to the local lido (that’s the local public pool to us!) where at least he can enjoy his swimming prowess. To his great surprise he’s approached by an awkward gangly girl, whom he estimates to be around 18, with an almost unintelligible Geordie accent, long skinny limbs, baggy swimmers and gawky specs who asks him to teach her to swim. Of all the things he might have expected to happen this was certainly not one of them but ‘Spider’ as she is known is surprisingly persuasive and, being keen to earn himself some money for headphones, Tyler takes on the challenge.

And challenge it is – Spider is not the most confident of pupils and certainly not the most physically adept but she does make progress even though she’s not always reliable with Tyler’s payment for lessons. As the lessons progress, Tyler begins to realise that Spider’s life is one fraught with anxiety and difficulties as she ‘sofa surfs’ at a resentful cousin’s place, tries desperately to find some work and sense of self-worth. Tyler faces the opposition of his parents who are not at all keen on him becoming embroiled in any way with such a person and when local girl Michelle fixes her sights on him in a very possessive way, his life becomes even more complicated.

What starts out as simple swimming lessons, becomes a friendship marked by true empathy and compassion and as Tyler works his way through helping Spider, he also works his way through his own (relatively inconsequential) family problems and begins to realise how fragile family relationships can sometimes be. It is such a relief that at the end of some harrowing moments there is a good outcome for Spider but sadly, the statistics reveal that this is not always the case especially for young women. Tyler’s shock when he learns Spider is only 16 – so a year older than himself – is very confronting and will certainly give teen readers some pause for thought.

It is a sobering thought that in so many affluent Western countries the incidence of youth homelessness is on the increase and not only can support agencies find themselves overwhelmed but can also be perceived as contributing to some of the problems. You can read more about youth homeless in Australia here and check out agencies such as the Salvation Army, Mission Australia or Homelessness Australia. The novel concludes with the contact for Centrelink in the UK – the leading youth charity in that country.

I know my readers who love the work of writers such as Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan are going to love this book and it will certainly be top of my book talking list at our next ChocLit meeting.

My highest recommendation for teens from Year 7 upwards.

Pumpkin – Julie Murphy

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Harper Collins Australia

July 2021

  • ISBN: 9780063134867
  • ISBN 10: 0063134861
  • Imprint: HarperCollins US
  • List Price: 19.99 AUD

Seriously, you could hardly get a better book to read during (another) lockdown than this deliciously funny and heart-warming companion novel to Dumplin’. I can guarantee your readers will fall in love with Waylon Brewer and the accompanying cast of characters in this romp through senior years in West Texas.

Waylon has been ‘out’ since 9th grade so he’s pretty used to being viewed as the fat, gay kid and feels he has survived pretty well. He feels confident about himself (but not really), he can out-sass the taunters (though it gets tedious) and he is looking forward to finishing school and heading off to Austin for college with his twin, Clementine. As it happens, Clem is also gay – as Waylon says, their parents won the queer lottery – and is in a steady relationship with Hannah, quirky and a little bit bolshie. Their parents are totally at ease with their children’s sexuality – Mom: the ‘wokest middle-aged woman in Clover City’, Dad: ‘small-town guy but not small-town minded’ and their eccentric Grammy is every bit as flamboyant as Waylon, whom she calls Pumpkin.

Things start to go a little awry for Waylon though. The little ‘thing’ he’s been having secretly with a guy in town and hoped might turn into a relationship goes down the gurgler, he finds out that Clem is not going to college in Austin but intends to go to Georgia, leaving him in the lurch according to his reckoning and then to top it off his preferred drag queen misses out on the season finale title of his favourite TV show. In a fit of pique more than anything, Waylon attempts his own home-made drag video and when it suddenly goes very public all over town there is a whole lot more to deal with.

Part of the fall-out from the video is that Waylon/Pumpkin, as well as Hannah, is nominated for Prom Queen and King respectively, in a move intended to be a cruel joke. But with absolutely splendid gumption the pair decide they are going to go for it and along the way impress their school, their families and their community with their utter grit and integrity. Oh! and during the course of all this, Pumpkin finds the boy of his dreams, although of course, not without some dramas.

I repeat this is just a joyful read. It is so heart-warming to see the growing friendships and relationships, to watch these characters grow throughout the plot, and to revel in the positive interactions and, of course, the successes.

I was anxious about whether we would be able to include it in our general collection (if you are a church school you will also have constraints) but it is neither offensive nor crass, there is very little swearing and that quite low level, and the obvious positives more than justify me including it. I will restrict it to our Year 8s upwards but that will be my only move in that regard (and of course, if my 7s have parental permission they can access these in any case).

I can highly recommend this for your teen readers and I suspect it will be in very high demand when we get back to school this week (yayyy for lockdown being finished!) and I can book talk it to my Choc Lit kids. It gets a very glittery 5-star rating from me – along with as many other sparkly bits as Pumpkin would enjoy!!