You can read my second review for KBR now…….. Turtle Boy – M Evan Wolkenstein – don’t miss it because this is a truly wonderful book for middle schoolers!
In over eighty books Gus Gordon has demonstrated time and again his talent at producing the type of quality books we love to share with our young readers.
This beautiful picture book is heart-warming and endearing as two little characters, both lonely and longing for real friendship, discover each other through the whimsical method of sending messages in a bottle.
Alice lives with her grandmother, who is the best creme brulee maker in the world, and while she loves her dearly is often lonely and wishes she had someone of her own age to play with and for a friend. Her message in a bottle washes up and is found by Francois, who lives with his father in an isolated lighthouse, also lonely and longing for companionship.
Their unusual friendship develops with the exchange of the bottled notes but when Alice’s grandmother dies, her heart feels too full to continue with the letters. When her new guardian comes across the message bottle, she encourages Alice to renew contact with Francois and the previously sea-borne friendship becomes a real one.
This is just a lovely and gentle look at friendship, loneliness and the pain of saying goodbye to someone well-loved and special which young readers will love.
I predict that like so many of Gus’ books this will be recognised as being an award-nominee, if not winner in the next short-list. In the meantime, I highly recommend it for young readers from around six years upwards.
APR 28, 2020 | 9780734419712 | RRP $17.99
What a glorious book with so much richness as it reveals not only a tragic episode in recent history but explores the pain but beautiful bonding in a family and community.
1999 in Sorrento is a difficult time for Fred (Winifred). Her mother died when she was very little and since then she’s lived with her adoptive dad Luca and her Pop but now everything is changing and not for the best. Pop has had to go away for a while into a rehab/nursing home and Luca’s new girlfriend and her son, slightly younger than Fred, move in. To add to that distress, and her ever-present grief, as Fred struggles to re-adjust to the changing dynamic, Luca and Annika announce that they are having a baby.
For Fred it seems like the end of everything and not even her life-long friends can help to make her feel better about the whole situation. Then a major upheaval for their small community brings unexpected connections, dramas and emotional situations which ultimately bring not only Fred’s family back into focus and closeness but forces the entire country to re-evaluate their beliefs and values.
A group of Kosovar-Albanian refugees fleeing the deadly warfare in their splintered country are brought to a centre near Sorrento in an humanitarian exercise that the then government referred to as “Operation Safe Haven”. While there are many whose compassion is extended to these displaced persons there is division within the community. Fatefully the lives of the refugees, a few in particular, become entwined with Fred and her family testing the boundaries of family trust but ultimately bringing this very different blended family into a stronger bond.
Beautifully – indeed, exquisitely- written Danielle Binks provides the reader with not only an understanding of the largest humanitarian effort provided by Australia and it’s less than humanitarian outcome but also an insight into a family’s own personal tragedy and their journey to becoming a whole.
This is a coming-of-age story that will appeal greatly to readers from around 12 years upwards as Fred deals with the immense changes in her life. These same readers will also be exercised in their own compassion and empathy which, in light of recent events, can only be a good thing.
Highly recommended for your readers in upper primary to secondary.
Harper Collins Australia
ISBN 10: 146075106X
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU
List Price: 19.99 AUD
Here is what happens when your mother dies.
My timing for reading this could have been better really. It was the 5th anniversary of losing my girl this past week, a scant fortnight before Miss K’s 10th birthday. So at times it completely undid me reading Tiger’s story but trust me despite the heart-breaking poignancy there is also light and hope in this narrative.
Tiger and her mother have always been a team – just the two of them – in a little house with not much money but lots of love. There are often times when Tiger is completely fed up however: no money, no new clothes (her mother eclectically selects throw-outs from other people for her daughter) and above all her mother’s almost obsessive over-protectiveness.
Like most teenagers, Tiger is ready to rebel and does so spectacularly with a massive show-down with her mum about her plans to attend the upcoming big dance with one of her best friends, Kai – the boy she’s always really liked. As the mother-daughter conflict escalates during a day of constant texts and missed calls with Tiger refusing to countenance either her mother’s attitude or the hideous dress she’s found in a conciliatory gesture, the unimaginable happens. Tiger’s mother suffers a fatal aneurism and is dead within seconds – alone and as Tiger well knows, with her daughter’s last horrible words as the last exchange between them.
With no family to take her on, Tiger is immediately thrown into the maw of children’s services and foster homes and her ‘Grief Life’ consumes her and comes close to completely overwhelming the little resilience she might muster. And then, the most unexpected development turns everything on its head. Tiger has a half-sister and indeed, a father (who happens to be in jail) – something for which Tiger has never been prepared, given her mother’s refusal to even discuss the past. But the trauma isn’t over for Tiger. The journey of her adjustment to her new life, new family, new emptiness, new dark is at times harrowing and heartbreaking but ultimately some hope surfaces and perhaps – just maybe- Grief Life will ease, at least partly.
This is beautifully written and Tiger’s voice is compelling throughout. Make no mistake, it’s not an easy read emotionally but very much worth it. Our individual ability to process and then live with grief is unique to each – I know this only too well – but for anyone who has been in this aching abyss of blackness this could well be a book that will prove both cathartic and affirming.
I recommend it most wholeheartedly… but for mature readers from around 14 years upwards – there is some profanity and certainly some confronting situations/incidents as well. For your school library it’s definitely for your Middle to Upper secondary students.
Find teaching notes here.
What an absolutely stunning debut novel from Katya Balen! Simultaneously heart-breaking and uplifting Balen examines the difficulties faced by a child living with a special needs sibling.
Frank is ten years old. He loves soccer and space, he loves secret codes and playing in the ‘Wilderness’ with his two best friends. He loves living in his funny dilapidated house with his loving mother and father and he sort of loves his 5 year old brother Max who is severely autistic. Really Frank is struggling with his relationship with Max and often resents the way his little brother’s condition monopolises his mother’s attention and creates general havoc in the home and anywhere else. He knows that his mother and father love him dearly but there are times he wishes that they were in the same place they were before Max arrived.
We are her world and her universe and her space and her stars and her sky and her galaxy and her cosmos too
His mum’s constant affirmation of her love for them all is the lodestone to which Max clings and the rare moments they spend together just the two of them are infinitely precious to him.
When unspeakable tragedy strikes Frank is even more at odds with his brother but gradually through the support and intervention of understanding people such as neighbour Mark as well as his friends, Frank begins to piece together a new cosmos for his family – one that is different and not always easy but one in which Max is no longer light years apart from him.
Tissues are needed for this as there was a great deal that hit a little too close to home for me and it would be best that readers of a sensitive nature should be cautioned about the often very emotional content but it is a truly fabulous read. Often the voice of a sibling who finds themselves in this situation is glossed over or idealised or even just ignored. This book addresses the very real conflict that such children can experience and shows that there can be a way forward.
Highly recommended for readers from around 12 years upwards.
ISBN 10: 1460757866
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU
The inaugural Banjo Prize competition attracted 320 entries but it was Taking Tom Murray Home that took out the first prize with its truly authentic Australian voice. Tim Slee’s novel bristles with laconic wit, quirky characters and bitter-sweet emotions and underlines with eloquence the dilemmas faced by so many of our rural Aussies who are doing it tough.
When the bank forecloses on Tom Murray’s dairy farm he is determined to go down in a blaze – literally. He sells off his stock, empties the house of his family’s possessions and burns it down. Unfortunately Tom is trapped in the fire probably due to his weak heart problem and loses his life. His widow Dawn refuses to allow his death be in vain and decides to take his body to Melbourne for burial thinking the several hundred kilometre ‘funeral procession’ from their small rural town will offer people pause for thought on the plight of so many struggling country folk. She is persuaded to take the coffin on the back of a neighbour’s vintage horse-drawn milk cart for even more impact and so begins a poignant, fraught and dramatic passive protest.
Told from the viewpoint of Jack, son of Tom and Dawn and twin of Jenny, the journey begins with a local drama when the town bank burns down. Immediately, the whole protest/procession takes on a new and controversial aspect. As the travellers move slowly towards Melbourne they are joined by supporters of all types, thwart the frustrated police who try to find ways to stop them and alerted to a wave of fires that are erupting around the country targeting banks and supermarkets – who are seen as the corporate buddies threatening the livelihoods and lives of the farmers. Rallied by stirring words and the community spirit the grief and loss and frustration are eased and bolstered by hope and possibilities.
The twist in the end is both a surprise and a damning indictment of the pressures put upon the families who are fighting for their survival and will give many readers cause to reflect on actions that could make a difference to those who are the ‘backbone’ of our country.
While essentially a novel that would be equally enjoyed and appreciated by readers both young and old, there is a liberal sprinkling of swearing which might preclude younger readers if you were to put this in your school library.
Highly recommended for readers from around 14 years upwards.
JUL 23, 2019 | 9780733641169 | RRP $29.99
If you missed The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club which was a runaway success a couple of years ago you must make certain not to neglect this new novel from Sophie Green!
Once again readers become heavily invested in the lives of the main characters; Marie, Theresa, Elaine and Leanne, as they form a strong bond of supportive friendship. Each of these women are facing their own challenges and when they unexpectedly meet up on Shelly Beach for a dawn swim they gradually and tentatively begin to connect despite their differing ages and circumstances.
Marie still mourns the loss of her husband five years previously and more so since her oldest friend moved away to a retirement village. With her terrier Charlie Brown her only real companion she often finds herself falling into melancholy. But she’s swum every morning almost her whole life and is determined to keep it up.
Then there is Theresa, young mother of two lively children, married to an insensitive, lazy and philandering husband. Despite the support of her Nonna who lives with them, Theresa is struggling to keep her emotions under control as her marriage disintegrates.
Elaine has recently migrated to Shelly Beach with her Australian-born surgeon husband leaving two grown up sons behind in England, as well as her own successful business. Essentially she is grieving for her past life and is resistant to embracing the new one on offer. Her solace becomes habitual and increasing gin and tonics until she reaches a crisis point.
The youngest of the group is quiet reserved Leanne who is hiding a dark secret which has left her emotionally scarred and wary of everyone, particularly men.
Each has their own personal reason for the early morning swim but soon discovers that in numbers, especially a close circle of women friends, is strength. That strength becomes even more important when each of them face significant changes in their lives.
Again this is a marvellous reflection of the impact our own personal circles have on our mental and physical wellbeing. Like its predecessor it is an insightful exploration of the power of friendship, trust and genuine love.
I highly recommend it to you and if you should be looking for a title for a book club this would be a perfect fit.
ISBN 10: 0062881787
Imprint: HarperCollins – US
List Price: 16.99 AUD
Now in her 90s award-winning American author Betsy Byars first published The Pinballs in 1977. As I re-read this new edition I wondered if she thought that perhaps the fate of some children might improve over time. It seems that the plight of so many is far worse than the children in her novel, a sad and terrible indictment of our human society.
Three foster children are placed with a warm and loving couple, the Masons, who have successfully changed the lives of 17 other children.
Carlie is the first to arrive, having been removed from the reach of a violent stepfather by children’s services. She is brash and sarcastic but hides an unbearable longing to be with her mother and siblings.
Next is Harvey who is confined to a wheelchair after his father ‘accidentally’ running him over and breaking both his legs. Since Harvey’s mother left when he was small, he has had to basically fend for himself and his greatest desire is to find his mother on the commune/farm she calls her new home.
Thomas J was a mere toddler when he wandered up the driveway of the aged Benson twins’ farm, apparently abandoned. The spinster sisters took him in and always meant to contact the authorities but somehow never did. With both of them in the hospital after bad falls there is no one else to care for the small boy who doesn’t even know his real name or birthday.
At first it seems the disparate personalities of the three kids will cause friction but as time goes by and circumstances change for all of them, their friendship deepens. They cease to be ‘pinballs’ bouncing around from bad situation to worse and start to become a bonded family. The patience and kindness of the Masons has much to do with this and they gradually build the self-esteem of each child.
It’s not a long book, more a novella really, but it is packed with emotions: poignancy, grief, humour, self-awareness and more.
Despite its age and references to 70s contemporary pop culture such as TV shows or toys, this is a book that truly stands the test of time and is just as, if not more, relevant in these times.
If you are looking for a different read-aloud for your middle school kiddos this would be a wonderful choice and an introduction to the other great works by Byars. I know that my year 5s once upon a time also loved The Great Gilly Hopkins but there are many others from which to choose. You will also find plenty of teaching notes etc for this book which is often used in US schools.
Highly recommended for readers from around ten years upwards.
Now that the pile of review novels is finally getting to a stage that could be described as semi-tamed, it’s time to get stuck into plethora picture books. So here are some animal-focused ones to get into – because we all know that our little readers just love a great animal story and we love them because so often they send such positive messages.
Flat Cat – Hiawyn Oram/Gwen Millard
Walker Books Australia
Australian RRP: $24.99
New Zealand RRP: $27.99
“If you love something, set it free” – that was my first thought on reading this book. My second thought was the memory of buying my beloved Burmese cat, Possum, many years ago. I was determined that he would be an ‘inside’ cat but after two weeks of completely shredded flyscreens, I realised that was not in his nature and so he became an inside/outside cat and was my best friend for the eight years of his life.
Sophie loves Jimi-My-Jim and gives him everything you might think a cat could desire – toys, special food, sparkly collars, beds and even clothes. The one thing that Jimi-My-Jim is missing is freedom. He is never allowed outside and gradually he becomes ‘Flat Cat’ because he so morose at seeing the outside world only through a window. When one day by accident, Flat Cat manages to get hold of the front door keys, he is off and away and discovers a world full of other cats, life, excitement, joy and another very special cat – Blanche. While at first the consequences prove to be difficult for both Flat Cat and Sophie, they are overcome and Flat Cat is able to pursue his new life – with the joy of the freedom plus the joy of being Sophie’s special friend.
This offers a serious point of discussion about when, if ever, it’s acceptable to reject the rules in place and certainly gives ‘helicopter’ parents an opportunity to examine their practices.
I certainly recommend it for young readers from around six years upwards – but would suggest that it could also be a valuable addition to parent information nights!
Good Rosie! – Kate de Camillo. Pictures by Harry Bliss
Walker Books Australia
Australian RRP: $24.99
New Zealand RRP: $27.99
I really meant to get to this one sooner rather than later because I truly adore Kate di Camillo’s work. This is such a departure from her novels but is truly enchanting and endearing.
We all need friends and Rosie is no exception. She has a good life with her human, George, but is lonely without doggy companions. Sometimes it seems that she and George don’t have much in common, for example, an intense interest in squirrels. When George takes Rosie to the dog park for the first time, she is somewhat overwhelmed. She has never seen so many dogs before and she feels confronted and scared. She is even more so when Maurice, a very large St Bernard approaches shaking his toy bunny with such vigour it’s a wonder the toy’s extremities still exist. But then the tiny Fifi with her sparkly collar doesn’t seem a kindred spirit either.
It takes an unfortunate incident between Maurice and Fifi to help Rosie realise that sometimes friends come in different shapes and sizes and that we don’t all ‘click’ at first sight.
Formatted in a graphic novel style, this is a lovely reminder about unlikely friendships but moreover about overcoming prejudices and feeling anxious.
A fabulous book for sharing with young readers to kick-start conversations about acceptance and building relationships.
Saying Goodbye to Barkley – Devon Sillett/Nicky Johnston
Losing our furbabies is difficult. For children who have grown up with a special pet it is arguably even moreso. Super Olivia and her trusty sidekick, Barkley, have always been a team. As Olivia carries out her amazing super-hero deeds, Barkley is always right by her giving his all. When Barkley is no longer there, Olivia feels her zest for super-sleuthing and action-heroism has also gone. But after her grieving she realises that Barkley would not want her to give up her passion in life, nor forget his extraordinary assistance. Olivia knows what she must do as a true super-hero for whom rescues are a daily event. She must rescue a new sidekick.
Spud is white, fluffy and adorable – and absolutely useless at fighting crime and uncovering dastardly plots but Olivia loves her anyway.
This is not a story about replacing one pet for another but a beautiful way of describing that eventually we can heal from our losses and find joy in other ways, events and companions.
Highly recommended for readers from around six years upwards.
Imprint: Walker Books Australia
Australian RRP: $17.99
New Zealand RRP: $19.99
It’s 1979 and Frankie is just finishing primary school. Her dad has been dead, after a light plane crash over the ocean, for six years and Frankie, her little brother Newt and her mum have been struggling along ever since. With their Mum working long hours as a nurse in the local hospital, Frankie and Newt have had to become very self-reliant which can be difficult as Newt, only seven years old, is very Newtish – a serious little boy with definite indications of being on the spectrum.
Frankie has been coping but only just with looking after Newt, has mastered baked beans or spaghetti on toast and even fish fingers, makes lunches, cleans out school bags and tries to get on with her homework projects. But when the news about the re-entry of Skylab, the first space station, pushes even Sunday night’s Disneyland off the TV, her grief resurfaces with intensity. The last time she saw her amateur astronomer father alive they had been sitting with two year old Newt watching Skylab launch and it seems to Frankie that those memories which have been pushed to one side are becoming just too much with which to deal, on top of everything else.
Most worrying is Newt’s increasingly strange and obsessive infatuation with the whole Skylab event and it seems that his normally purely scientific interests are becoming clouded by something else.
As Frankie tries her hardest not to feel neglected by her mother, watch out for Newt and salvage her increasingly fragile friendship with her best friend, it is her school project on Storm Boy that helps her to realise and face much of her distress and additionally enables her to see Newt’s dilemma with more clarity.
This is a beautiful, sometimes humorous and often poignant tale about grief and loss, love and family, bravery and self-belief.
I would highly recommend it for readers from around ten years upwards.
Check out the teaching notes here.