Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Wearing of the Green – Claire Saxby

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Walker Books

April 2022

ISBN: 9781760653583
Imprint: Walker Books Australia
Australian RRP: $18.99
New Zealand RRP: $21.99

It is certainly no secret that I love historical fiction, and colonial Australian history is a particular favourite of mine. I loved this exciting new narrative from Claire Saxby – whose prowess with picture books is already so well established. Set just two years before my first ancestors arrived in this country, this recounts the importation of young Irish girls to become, essentially, servants and/or wives in a colony that was heavily male dominated. With Ireland in tatters after the Great Famine (also known as the Great Hunger, the Famine or the Potato Famine) and 1 million dead as a result, many young girls ( among others) faced uncertainty without family or home to shelter them. These girls were outfitted with a basic wardrobe and shipped to Australia, among them young Biddy Blackwell whose older brother has been out in the colony for some years.

When Biddy arrives and her brother Ewen is nowhere to be found, she is sent to work on a remote farm with a cruel master, an indifferent and downtrodden wife and finds she is little more than an unpaid slave. Surviving first the conditions in which she finds herself, but then even worse after her master’s first wife dies and he brings home a new one, equally as nasty as himself, Biddy manages a daring escape following the mayhem of a flood, and finds herself back in the city under the protection of the hostel. While she discovers some clues as to Ewen’s possible location, she needs to restrain herself and finds herself working for an eccentric but kind journalist as his ‘eyes and ears’ in the courtrooms of Melbourne.

The prejudices and persecution with which the Irish immigrants are faced is rising fast and when Biddy attends the court sessions and sees one well-known dissenter, Brendan Black, she is elated to find she has finally discovered her missing brother. Naturally, his situation presents some problems but with the help of new friends and supporters, the way is made smoother and Biddy can finally hope for a new start, complete with family.

Claire Saxby’s inspiration for this novel was her own family history and this little known episode in Australia’s history is important to understand as its impact on the rise of concepts such as fair pay and work conditions cannot be under-estimated.

Highly recommended for readers from upper primary to mid-secondary and for students of Australian history, this is certainly a prime candidate for ‘read around your topic’.

Katipo Joe Spycraft – Brian Falkner

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My review of this absolutely fabulous read is now live on Kids Book Review – don’t miss out, especially all of you with those blasé teens who need a good reading rev-up!! I loved this book and now I need to find time to read the earlier ones!

Ming & Flo Fight for the Future: (The Girls Who Changed the World #1) – Jackie French

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Harper Collins

March 2022

  • ISBN: 9781460760208
  • ISBN 10: 1460760204
  • List Price: 16.99 AUD

A brand new series from Jackie French is always cause for great excitement, and this one is going to be a corker, given this fabulous start!

We have all been awed by Jackie’s wealth of historical novels and her indomitable female characters over the years. Now younger readers have the opportunity to examine and reflect upon the past, with its many, often hidden, layers while becoming fully immersed in an exciting and engaging narrative.

Young Ming Qong wonders why so much of history fails to mention girls and women, because surely they also contributed to the events that have shaped both Australia and the world. She imagines what it would be like to step back in time and forge destinies as an intrepid explorer or a wise ruler. When a strange purple-robed character appears and introduces herself as “Herstory”, Ming’s chance to see and experience the past is at hand, though not at all as she might have pictured it.

Instead of some grand setting, Ming is transported back to a drought-stricken, barren farm in the late 19th century where young Flo and her mother, try desperately to survive while the man of the family is largely absent – thankfully, as on the rare occasions he is home, it means drunken rages and beatings. When Flo’s mother is killed by snake-bite, Ming/Flo seeks refuge with her mother’s sister, Aunt McTavish, who lives ‘comfortably’ in Sydney. Her stay with her wealthy aunt introduces Ming to many new revelations about the past, especially of pre-Federation Australia: the long fight for both federation and women’s suffrage, the plight of the poor, the lack of education or indeed any other opportunities for betterment, and a far more diverse population than Ming has ever read about.

Can Ming help make a difference? She does her very best by helping Aunt McTavish in her mission to petition for a new referendum on the question of Federation but also, in her work with Louisa Lawson, for the advancement of women. As well, she instigates changes in her own right – teaching at the Raggedy School and rescuing orphaned Emily from dire circumstances.

It’s a cracking read all round. There is, of course, far more than the ‘big picture’ events enhancing this storyline, and Ming’s compassion, insight and empathy make for a terrific, positive example for readers – without any preachiness. The various characters who ably demonstrate that there are multiple aspects to anyone’s personality are memorable, and while we leave most of them behind at the end of the book, we do have the next one to deliciously anticipate, where Ming along with her brother, will be off on another time travel adventure.

This is eminently suited to your readers in Upper Primary up to Year7 or even 8, particularly your Mighty Girls, to whom I heartily recommend it. Congratulations Jackie on yet another fine series, again inspired by your own family “herstory”!

Jacqueline: a soldier’s daugher – Pierre-Jacques Ober/Jules Ober

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Ford St Publishing

October 2021

ISBN: 9781925804911

RRP: $34.99

In a completely remarkable new format comes this exquisite narrative from a remarkable couple of creators who have turned the art of miniatures into something that will enchant, intrigue and inspire young readers.

Jacqueline is an only child and has always dreamed of having a sister. Little does she know she will find one in the most unexpected and, arguably, difficult circumstances ever. When the Second World War breaks out, Jacqueline’s life is turned topsy-turvy. Her father goes away to the front, she and her mother are sent away to the country. France had become a dangerous and troubled country for its people. The times are dark but there are moments of light. When Papa comes home with a puppy for Jacqueline, she is overjoyed but it is not long after that the Germans invade and poor little Chiffon is shot. Papa is imprisoned and Maman and Jacqueline bravely ride to the town where he is locked up and plan an escape. After making it to the French Free Zone, Papa announces that he is going to join the French African Army, so the whole family travel to Algiers where life is strange and confusing, and for Jacqueline quite lonely as she does not fit in. Then the Allied troops arrive and Jacqueline realises that the long war is finally coming to an end. Two years later Jacqueline is back in a bombed, and defeated Germany and her family move into a requisitioned house along with its German owners. Jacqueline and Hildegard, the daughter of the family, are very antagonistic at first but over time the two girls discover they actually have much in common and their life-long friendship is forged. 75 years later their friendship still holds true.

This is a remarkable story made all the more striking because of the highly creative format in which it is told – modelled miniatures, photography and artistic – it is both highly poignant and evocative. It is exactly the type of picture book that demands to be shared with audiences of all ages and there is no doubt in my mind that as a springboard into studies of history this is a front runner of real distinction.

I would strongly recommend adding it to any collection either primary or secondary and will certainly be drawing attention to it with both my students and my Humanities staff.

When the War Came Home – Lesley Parr

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Bloomsbury Australia

March 2022

ISBN: 9781526621009

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing. Imprint: Bloomsbury Children’s Books

RRP: $14.99

A year ago I reviewed my first Lesley Parr historical fiction and absolutely loved it – I book-talked it for weeks afterwards to my kiddos, many of whom also enjoyed it hugely. So I was most excited to receive this new title, about to be published, and equally as fascinating, engaging and emotive.

This new tale is set post The Great War and 12-year-old Natty is a very truculent protagonist who has moved with her mother to the Welsh countryside. Her mother, Ffion, has been sacked from her factory job after sticking up for workers’ rights and, unable to afford the rent on their very humble lodgings, the pair must go and live with family, Natty’s aunt and uncle. For Natty, it’s a combination of everything that makes her so miserable and antagonistic – feeling like a charity case, having to change schools, living in the countryside and, above all, having to share a room with her cousin, Nerys, – the ultimate paragon and insufferable know-it-all. She gets on much better with her older cousin, Huw, but his terrible mental state after returning from the war has reduced his capacity to moderate his moods and to re-connect with his family and friends.

Then Natty encounters some of the convalescing soldiers hosted in the village and her friendship with them, along with her determination to help, especially, Johnny whose amnesia has robbed him of his entire life. Natty becomes more and more sure that not only might she be able to help Johnny solve the mystery of his past, but perhaps, along the way, she can help Huw as well.

If that’s not enough, Natty and Nerys become reconciled through their joint campaign to demand equitable access for all the students at the local school, and in doing so, Natty develops a true understanding of her mother’s passion for equal rights and justice.

It’s a great read for sure and, more than that, explores so many important themes that will provide fodder for much rich discussion with your readers.

I highly recommend it for your readers from around Year 5 upwards, particularly those eternally fascinated with stories of children in difficult circumstances.

Pre-order now here

Night Ride into Danger – Jackie French

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Harper Collins Australia

May 2021

  • ISBN: 9781460758939
  • ISBN 10: 1460758935
  • Imprint: HarperCollins AU
  • RRP: $16.99

Again Jackie has crafted a narrative that combines fact and fiction to take readers back in time to colonial Australia where it was commonplace to meet diverse characters and perhaps even more commonplace not to know everything there is to know about those people. Though set in the 19th century much of the plot will resonate in today’s contemporary classroom as comparisons can be made around immigration, prejudice and race in particular.

Young Jem has been raised ably by his coach-driver father following the sad death of his mother, and has acquired many of the skills necessary to be a competent whip for Cobb & Co, but managing five horses, without help, on roads that are far from level or safe is not for the faint-hearted. The night run from to Goulburn to meet the Sydney train is always a race against time but when bad weather hits – and when your coach-driver is badly injured – it’s an almost impossible ask. Eleven year old Jem must gather up all his strength and courage to complete the journey as the six mysterious passengers each have their own special imperative for reaching the destination on time.

It’s a wild ride through the dark and dangerous country side between Braidwood and Goulburn and the suspenseful story will hold any reader fascinated until the very end. Jackie chooses to authenticate the narrative by using vernacular of the time and while this may challenge some readers, it is well-explained and completes the essential sense of being immersed in the moment.

Both boys and girls from around ten years upwards will relish this adventure from Australia’s past which, as with many of Jackie’s historical novels, is based on actual events. As someone who has read histories of colonial Australia, both factual and fictionalised since I was that same age, I can thoroughly endorse it and I recommend it enthusiastically for your middle primary to lower secondary readers.

I also particularly loved it as we have a strong Braidwood connection – and it was great fun to read of an incident from it’s past.

The Valley of Lost Secrets – Lesley Parr

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Bloomsbury Australia

February 2021

ISBN:9781526620521
Imprint:Bloomsbury Children’s Books

RRP: $14.99

Omg, I can’t tell you how much I loved this read during the week!! It completely reminds me of two much-loved favourites, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden and Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (both of which I own and have re-read many times), but with its whole new take on the situation of evacuee children in WWII.

Jimmy and his little brother have been evacuated from London to a Welsh valley – traditional, coal-mining families and either open welcomes or suspicion of ‘foreigners’. Mr and Mrs Thomas are warm and caring, and little Ronnie is quickly comfortable with both, but Jimmy is both distrustful and resentful. He’s already lost his mum, who took off leaving the brothers with their dad and grandmother, and he’s certainly not ready to treat this temporary stay as ‘home’. The entire London contingent seem different here. Jimmy’s best friend, now lodged with the local minister’s family, has turned into a nasty bully like the Reverend’s son and Florence, uncared for and abused at home, blossoms into a true friend.

Jimmy is to realise that even a temporary family can be a solace but first there are difficulties to overcome and these are complicated when the boy discovers a human skull hidden in the hollow of an old tree. Enough to scare even an adult, this find has Jimmy scrambling for someone to trust and sometimes an ally can be found in the most unlikely quarter. The secrets of the valley are gradually revealed as Jimmy and his little tribe work together to solve a decades old mystery, and bring much needed comfort to a long-held grief.

We do know, of course, that not all the evacuated children had happy experiences and we cannot begin to comprehend how overwhelming or unnerving the whole exercise would have been even for those who did. In those times, many city children had never had any experience of wide open spaces, nature and the reality of rural living – some didn’t even know that milk came from cows!

Young readers, particularly those who are fond of such stories set in wartime, will find much to love about this narrative. The strong themes of family, friendship and bravery are very inspirational and will give many children finding our current circumstances difficult some insight in dealing with similar events.

Highly recommended for your readers from around ten years upwards.

Cuckoo’s Flight – Wendy Orr

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Allen & Unwin

March 2021

ISBN: 9781760524913

RRP: $16.99

Wendy Orr continues her stunning and intriguing sequence of books set in ancient Crete, now focused on Leira’s granddaughter, Clio. In this companion book to Swallow’s Dance and Dragonfly Song, daily life is in turmoil as the ever-increasing threat of invaders pervades the village and its surrounds. Clio struggles often in her day-to-day activities since her horse-riding accident some years earlier. Horses are a rarity in Crete, but Clio’s father comes from a land where they are not only useful but valued and she has inherited her father’s love of the animals, despite the injury which has left her lame. Now the pressure is on to protect the village and its inhabitants and Clio is conflicted between her constant care of her beloved horses and the requirements placed upon all the people by the Lady. Looming over all this is the Lady’s decree that the Great Mother requires a sacrifice – a maiden to serve her in her underworld. Grandmother Leira conceives of the idea of creating a substitute with a beautiful and realistic clay image of the Great Mother and the family vows to protect the statue while praying the Lady will decree this a suitable alternative to one of the handful of village girls who would be the right age for a ritual sacrifice. Sadly Leira, who has reached the end of her days, puts so much of her own life and emotion into the creation of the image that she is spent and while the family mourn their loss, they redouble their vigilance in keeping her final work safe.

Into this mix comes a ragged and abused fisher-girl who secretly loves Clio’s horses, her older brother who is vengeful and seeks retribution after the constant scorn from the townsfolk, the stress when Dada sails away for trade at the order of the Lady and the constant fear of whether the oracle will declare for or against a live sacrifice.

This is another compelling narrative from Wendy Orr, which again spotlights girls of courage and resilience while exploring a culture and history not often described in fiction. Clio’s rollercoaster emotions as she grieves for her much-loved grandmother, misses the security of her father being at home, fear for her best friend and jealousy over young Mika’s natural ability with horses are dramatically woven throughout the story. Readers who enjoy historical adventure will truly love this new novel and become heavily invested in Clio’s world and family.

Highly recommended for readers from around Upper Primary upwards, particularly those keen to pursue a story with a difference. Read more at Allen & Unwin and don’t miss the teaching notes available as well.

Clancy of the Overflow (The Matilda Saga #9) – Jackie French

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Harper Collins

October 2019

ISBN: 9781460754771

ISBN 10: 1460754778

Imprint: HarperCollins – AU

List Price: 29.99 AUD

This little hobby of mine has brought me so much richness. I’m able to read the newest titles from so many fabulous creators. But as you probably have realised I stand in complete awe of our maven of literature for children, teens and adults, Jackie French, and what a privilege for me to have the opportunity to read the last of the Matilda saga well before its release date.

So many of us have followed the travails of Jackie’s characters both historical and fictional, spanning a century, and now the narrative comes full circle encompassing both the past and the contemporary. The characters with which we have engaged and loved have made the past come alive and the present realised in a sweeping story of strong women particularly and vivid history.

Those readers who are familiar with the series (who isn’t?) will expect that this last volume will continue our connection with Jed and Sam, Scarlett and William plus Alex, as well as Nancy so I don’t really feel the need to expand on the plot – because clearly you will want to read it for yourself. What I want to focus on is the scope of this body of work – as Charlotte would say, arguably Jackie’s ‘magnum opus’. By saying that I would not imply that Jackie has reached her peak or we can expect any less in the future but to my mind this series represents and encapsulates so much of what Jackie strives to achieve and bring to her audience as well as embodying so much of herself in so many ways.

Jackie’s unequalled ability to place her readers firmly in the period of which she writes and the skill with which she connects us to the characters is unparalleled. But even more so is her deftness with interweaving so many threads of historical narrative throughout her work: to do so over a series of nine books is to my mind a superb accomplishment. This final volume of the series not only continues the narrative but expertly brings in the references to earlier books and the exquisite blending of fact and fiction is enthralling. Of course, as readers we hang on waiting to know the fate of Jed and Sam, as well as Scarlett, but now we are also privy to the amazing love story of Clancy and Rose – as well as the unfulfilled connection between Clancy and Matilda. As a long time devotee of Banjo Paterson (thanks Dad!) this blending of history and imagination just delights me so much and Jackie has the innate skill of making the events and circumstances so utterly believable.

My regard for Jackie goes well beyond her unerring skill as a storyteller, a diligent researcher and an accurate historian. I know her to be a warm, generous and caring human with a drive that is enviable and a nature that is beautiful. She is truly an admirable Australian whose passion for our history – whether good or bad – and our unique culture is to be celebrated.

In case you haven’t picked up on it – I cannot recommend this highly enough – and all I can say is if you haven’t read the first eight books – shame on you