Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Year my Voice my Life Broke - John Marsden

Tarrawagga is not only a hole, but the hole that the other holes fell into – the kind of town that gave holes a bad name. And not only has Josh ended up living here, he’s ended up living in the most boring street in this boring town. That’s what happens when the firm your parents work for goes belly-up and your family loses all their money and you have to live in your Grandfather’s crappy rental house. Things couldn’t get much worse for Josh; he wants to be back in Abernathy where he was popular among his peers, a leader, a stand-out sportsman – not here in this dump. So it’s not surprising that when he tries a different way of making friends at school by being one of the losers in the playground – both as an unplanned experiment and through abject lack of motivation – his situation doesn’t improve. Especially when Mr Surrey, the PE teacher, decides to have it in for him.
But life has a habit of throwing up surprises and Josh is in for his fair share of them. His boring street turns out to be not so boring after all. With the discovery of Harriet who lives next door with her policemen father and uncle, and a pair of eyes staring out from behind the closed blinds of the mysterious house on the other side, Josh ends up with a whole lot to think about, including why there might be a strange man lurking about in the back garden in the middle of the night.
If anyone is positioned to lure primary school boys into the pages of a book, it’s John Marsden; he has the ingredients down pat: mystery; adventure – of the bullets-flying-past-your-head kind; a tough time at school; annoying siblings; a fledgling romance; and sport – especially when the whole town’s reputation hangs on the results of a cricket match. Oh, and did I say humour? Lots of wry humour that will go down a treat with this target audience. The Year my Life Broke is about a boy whose ordinary world has shattered and who is thrust into one that is alien in every respect. All that is familiar to him is stripped away, even the seemingly rock-solid identity that has always served to ensure his popularity amongst his peers. Josh is forced to dig deep in order to honour his own integrity, and he does so in the way he knows best, channelling his natural athletic ability into the sportsmanship and team spirit of a climactic cricket match. Another Marsden knock-out. Recommended.
Pan McMillan, 2013
 (A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 5, November 2013)

Romping Monsters Stomping Monsters - Jane Yolen and Kelly Murphy

Yolen and Murphy are back with another romp for toddlers. After the success of Creepy Monsters, Sleepy Monsters, how could they resist more monster mayhem? This entertaining book about a couple of monsters who set out with their mum on a romping, stomping, escapade in the park will delight its target audience with a sequence of unframed double-page spreads choc-a-block with frolicsome fun. Skylarkery, merriment and boisterous exuberance abound in this book, whose monsters are the sort to have young tots giggling and chuckling rather than worrying about who’s hiding in the cupboard when it’s time for bed. The monsters that populate this story are so fun-loving and waggish the child reader will not mind in the least about their multiple eyes and arms, or their horns or gaping-mouths. Kelly Murphy has imbued her characters with warmth and humour; the slightly muted, colourful illustrations and detail on the page invite the young reader back for a closer look on subsequent returns. (It may take a few returns for the very young child to work out who the main protagonists are – in their orange and yellow – amidst the general monster jollity of each double-page spread.)

The text of Romping Monsters, Stomping Monsters is simple and spare. Rhyming couplets throughout, until the last few pages, Jane Yolen focusses on movement: ‘Monsters stretch. Monsters twirl. Monsters catch. Monsters hurl.’ The emphasis on monster sport and the all-important food scene where the monsters eat giant ice-creams will hold appeal for the target audience. The story ends with the monster siblings having a barney about who gets to go first at the drinking fountain, but all ends well when Mum elicits a ‘sorry’ and the text finishes with, ‘All better now’.
A delightfully whimsical read-aloud story about gambolling monsters and their gleeful shenanigans.

Walker Books, 2013

 (A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 5, November 2013)

The Nanny Piggins Guide to Conquering Christmas - R.A. Spratt

Nanny Piggins fans will be delighted to hear this rambunctious flying pig is back again, ready to wreak havoc on Christmas. She begins by causing a disruption at the local shopping centre, drawing all their customers away by going into competition in the car park with her Nanny Piggins’ Santa Photography Business. If the photo-shoot itself is not entertaining enough – with options for children to wrestle Nanny Piggins dressed as Santa in her specially designed bright red, fur-trimmed wrestling leotard, or read their present list out to her while being attacked by ninjas – she provides unlimited cake and hot chocolate to those in the line that extends all the way around the block. Next she trounces everyone at the Carols by Candlelight concert by going into competition with Nanny Anne and her choir, modifying the lyrics of the carols to include plenty of references to chocolate cake; tries to save Christmas by taking it upon herself to deliver toys to all the children in the world; has a disappointment with Boxing Day when she turns out in black silk shorts and boxing gloves; and gives the story of Christmas a run for its money when recounting her ancester Yudith Piggins’ priceless version of events when she claims to be midwife at the birth. All this plus Nanny Piggins’ Christmas recipes and tips, holiday fashion advice, games, and letters from Boris the Bear, Mrs Claus and Nanny Piggins herself.

From the moment you open this book you begin chuckling; there is a laugh-out-loud moment on every page. Nanny Piggins is such an outrageously incorrigible character it is impossible not to be drawn in by her impertinence and forthright lack of tact. R A Spratt has come up with a winning cast of characters: the human children in Nanny Piggins’ care, Samantha, Derrick and Michael, who ground the storyline and temper Nanny Piggins’ predilection to hazard-fraught eccentricity; the children’s irresponsible father, who is conveniently absent for much of the time; Nanny Piggins’ brother, a large, sensitive bear, prone to bursting into tears; and the various other Piggins family members prone to bursting through windows to announce their arrival.

It’s a winner. I haven’t enjoyed such an entertaining read in ages. Children will love it. Highly recommended.

Random House  2013
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 5, November 2013)

Mordrid - Lucienne Noontil

When Yvonne Cowling received a phone call on the 9th of December 1989, little did she know that that date would mark the beginning of an extraordinary journey, that she would form a remarkable relationship which would last for almost twenty-three years – and that she and a whole community would be heart-broken when that exceptional sojourn came to an end. The phone call was from the Melbourne Zoo and the culprit who stole Yvonne’s heart was a Tawny Frogmouth. Mordrid – as she would come to be known – wormed her way into the hearts of all who met her, including those of the children in and around the Knox Council, where she would accompany Yvonne – affectionately known as Boronia’s ‘Possum Lady’ – on her Wildlife Education Program school visits.

Lucienne Noontil has created a moving account of Mordrid’s life with Yvonne at the Boronia Wildlife Shelter. Written in rhyming verse in a gambit to appeal to the young child, the book recounts the demise of Mordrid’s life in the wild after an accident leaves her without sight and the remarkable way in which she adapts to her disability. The story relates the incorrigible way in which Mordrid insinuates herself into the life of her new family, watching television with them in the evenings and enjoying cuddles and pats from anyone who would oblige.

The illustrations in this book, watercolours – unframed and presented from a variety of perspectives – are spacious and uncluttered; they undergird the text, advancing the story and enhancing characterisation, positioning the child reader to care for Mordrid and to gain an appreciation for the affection of her expanding family unit. The double-page spread of Mordrid with her ‘surrogate’ chicks is especially striking. The closure is handled well with appropriate sensitivity for the young target audience.

Mordrid is a gentle book that commemorates the life of a very special bird.

Sunrise Reflections, 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Scarlett and the Winter Faeries - Gordon Thompson & Anne Galbraith

What a delight to loll on my couch on a Saturday afternoon, iPad mini in hand and be transported into the world of all things faerie. Just like Scarlett, I was whisked away in a blaze of faerie light into the marvellous realms of make-believe. And most content to stay there; I read this enchanting ebook in one sitting, not wanting to put it down until the final finger swipe. Gordon Thompson’s adroit craft comes to the fore in the creation of the enchanting ‘Coastland’ microcosm of faeries, dwarves, elves and three children as he spins these refreshingly whimsical tales. Anne Galbraith’s striking watercolour illustrations underscore both the gentleness and winsomeness of the text.
Scarlett is visited by Emerald, Acacia and Wystie, faeries who convince her to leave her ordinary world for a series of mini adventures in their Coastland home. There, Scarlett Bell from Thornbury meets up with the characters that populate the kingdom along with two other children who are visiting their faerie friends. The faeries are keen to enjoy Scarlett’s company – she learns to fly with her new faerie wings and to avoid the tricks of the naughty Mischievites – but they also need her help. For instance when the story-teller faeries come down with colds and sore throats in the deep winter of Coastland; the characters from the books she brings from home, in a moment of magical playfulness, when Scarlett is unsure she can read all the words, step out of the book and act their parts. On another occasion, Scarlett’s wisdom is needed when a dragon comes to the Coastland and sets fire to half the hillside and Scarlett’s ingenious ideas prove a boon in more ways than one.
The voice in these captivating stories is pert and waggish; some of the humour perhaps aimed at the more knowing child or adult who might be reading the stories out. (When, for example, the members of Scarlett’s ABBA CD morph into two bearded trolls and two lute and skin drum-toting elf-maidens; the song lyric adaptation is priceless!)
Scarlett and the Winter Faeries is warm-hearted, witty and fun; a celebration of imagination.
Clouds of Magellan, 2013
ISBN 0987403753, 9780987403759


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Fetch the Treasure Hunter:The Debt Instalment Four - Phillip Gwynne

If you found The Debt books one, two and three difficult to put down, then Fetch the Treasure Hunter will be impossible to close. Dom’s world spins out of control at tornado pace in book four of this fabulous series. Think death-defying moments. A lot of death-defying moments: heart-in-the mouth wall-scaling – including a climb over the Colosseum mid Rolling Stones concert; heart-pumping stunts in underground drains and tunnels; heart-stopping, truck-skitching skateboard rides down treacherous mountains; and heart-hammering brushes with knife-toting youths to name a few. Be prepared to suspend disbelief in this gratifying adventure as the Debt intervene once again in Dom’s life to land him in Rome to run in the World Youth Games – but more importantly, to track down the treasure hunter E Lee Marx. Like the others in the series, this book is superbly crafted and plotted; it’s funny and smart; the jigsaw’s coming together but clues aplenty remain to keep the reader guessing. Roll on September!

Allen & Unwin  2013
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 3, July 2013)

Holiday of a Lifetime: Disaster Diary - Megan De Kantzow

Anna is a worry wart. Her world is so full of worry that even ‘the holiday of a lifetime' – that her parents decide will be a far better use of the funds set aside for a new kitchen and bedroom for Anna – is packed with anxious moments. Well, from Anna's perspective it is. What can you expect if your parents book a flight to Europe that leaves on Halloween? Gran comes to the rescue, though. When Anna looks in the package Gran gave the family to open on the plane, she finds the silver seahorse necklace Gran had as a girl, and which Dad says is a lucky charm. It doesn't save Anna from having arguments with Francine, her ballet-maniac older sister, or keeping the annoying Mr Cadwalder away (hgna, hgna, hgna), and it doesn't prevent Anna's suitcase from becoming lost during the flight or five-year-old brother, Timmy, falling out of a row boat in the Grand Canal at Versailles or getting lost at The Louvre. But it does keep Anna's fears at bay. Mainly. Until disaster strikes after the charm is lost and Anna must come to terms with her dependence on luck; she must pull out all her resources – her inner strength and ingenuity – as well as the emergency supplies in her backpack to perform a heroic task.

Holiday of a Lifetime: Disaster Diary is well-crafted and hard to put down. Aimed at primary school-aged girls and written in diary form, it will appeal because of the strong first-person voice, witty humour and themes of adventure, dealing with anxiety and negotiating family relationships. Based on author Megan de Kantzow's own experience of holidays in Europe and Finland, the text is interesting and educational, positioning the reader to explore outside the confines of their immediate locale.
A book that tackles the challenges of pushing through fear and superstition in a light-hearted, entertaining and engaging read.

Omnibus Books 2013
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 3, July 2013)

Johnny and the Pelican - Melva Ouliaris & Meredith Thomas

Johnny arrives at the beach with his mother to watch the pelicans being fed. They stand on the promenade where Johnny positions himself on the stone wall in anticipation of the event. They are gradually joined by others who have come to take part in the daily ritual. A bucketful of fish sits on the sand but no pelicans come to enjoy it – seagull scavengers the only interested customers. Eventually, one by one, people give up waiting and go home – except for Johnny and his mother. And an old man. He’s been coming here to watch the pelicans feed for sixty years. Together they wait, even as the sun begins to dip, eyes to the horizon …

Meredith Thomas’s stunning illustrations shore up the text in this gentle picture book about patience. The movement and energy of the full-page spreads is a feast for the eye with their vibrant colour and strength of purpose. The lushness and warmth of each painterly illustration, evocative and captivating, draws the reader/viewer further into the story and creates a subtext that transports it to another level. The simplicity of the sketches that break up the text complements the overarching design of the book and adds further interest and balance.

The illustrations in this book add depth and perspective, which compensates for the text’s omniscient point of view and external narration, which tends to lock the reader out of Johnny’s internal world. The text on the back cover reminds the reader that ‘beautiful things come to those who wait’ and as the mother in the story is depicted wearing a head-scarf, the text could be interpreted as a metaphor for the wait of the refugee to come to Australia. A child reader would need to have this pointed out, however, which could provide a valuable springboard for discussion.

Jo Jo Publishing 2013
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 3, July 2013)

Where are you Banana? - Sofie Laguna & Craig Smith

Roddy and Banana have been together forever. They’re best friends. When Dad brought a puppy home, Roddy looked at him and said his first word – banana – and since then, Roddy and Banana have been inseparable. Banana pulls Roddy up and down the side of the house on his scooter; when it rains they sit in the shed and Roddy brushes his fur; and at night Banana sleeps on Roddy’s bed. Banana goes everywhere with Roddy – except to Aunt Celia’s house – on account of Penelope, Aunt Celia’s big red hen – who Banana likes to chase. But one day, when the family comes back from a visit to Aunt Celia, something terrible happens. Banana doesn’t come rushing up to greet them like he always does. Roddy can’t find Banana anywhere. No one can find Banana. But what they do find is a hole under the back fence.

Where are you, Banana? is a delightful story about a boy and his dog. Sofie Laguna has created a heart-warming tale that will appeal equally to children and their adults. Smith’s idiosyncratic illustrations combine splendidly with the text to draw the reader straight into the book and keep them absorbed until the last page. This lost dog story is a vibrant and beautifully crafted example of how ingenuity and the love of an animal come together in a small boy. Laguna artfully evokes a swathe of emotion in her storytelling – compassion, whimsy, familiarity, injustice, anxiety, desperation, hope, relief and love. Smith’s spirited illustrations, as always, support the verisimilitude and warmth of the text, joining forces to create full-bodied characters that children will remember and be eager to revisit.

Allen & Unwin 2013
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 3, July 2013)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sir Mouse to the Rescue - Dirk Nielandt & Marjolein Pottie

Everything about this book is delightfully unexpected. Marjolein Pottie’s illustrations, using collage and paper cutting techniques, are immediately captivating and draw you into the world of the story. Even the floral patterned end-papers attract attention. The result is a stunning marriage of simplicity and detail, capturing the essence of the characters with vibrant colour and movement.

One surprise follows another. For the adult reading this story, expectation is turned on its head. Not only is this a book about a mouse who likes to wear armour because she believes she’s a knight, it’s a story about a knight and a dragon who don’t fight. And where the mouse with pluck has it all over the dragon. (Or so she thinks!) For the younger reader who may or may not appreciate the subtleties of the intertextual references to fairy-tales, the literary experience will, at the very least, be a refreshing mix of the unpredictable and unanticipated.

Wonderfully postmodern, Sir Mouse to the Rescue is a laugh-out-loud parodical poke in the paunch to tradition and patriarchy. When someone calls for help from the high tower, it’s the prince who needs rescuing. And when he later asks Mouse to marry him so they can live happily ever after, Mouse says no, because she doesn’t want to become a princess and wear a dress – she’d rather be bold Sir Mouse and wear her suit of armour. Dragon is relieved too, as she’d rather have a knight as a friend than a princess. The characterisation in this book is fresh and original; unsurprising that Dirk Nielandt is a scriptwriter for Belgium television and wrote some of the scripts for the Dutch version of Sesame Street; the strength of his craft comes through in the text, which is sharp, witty and packed with irony. When Dragon dresses up as a knight for her fancy dress party and Mouse objects, having no concept of ‘dressing up’, ‘Dragon thinks something’s not quite right. It’s a fancy dress party, but no one is wearing a costume’. The hint of narcissism in Mouse’s character works well against the easy-going character of Dragon, who can be authoritative when she needs to. When Mouse decides to leave and go on a long journey, because that’s what knights do, even though Dragon cries and says she’ll be lost without her, Mouse remains adamant until ‘Dragon glares at her. “You’re abandoning me,” she says. “That’s not nice. That’s not what friends do – especially not knights.”’

Set out in five short stories with bite-size paragraphs, this text is ideally suited to the target audience of beginner readers – and would work a treat read aloud.

An entertaining and gratifying read.

Book Island 2012
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 2, May 2013)

In the Wings - Elsbeth Edgar

When Ella sees the auditions notice up for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at school her heart lifts – then sinks. Longing to be part of the cast she puts her name down, instead, to help backstage. As she always does. Mr Paterson’s suggestion to attend rehearsals so that she can implement her creative ideas for set design becomes a blessing and a curse. It’s great to work with Lou, the efficient but friendless year seven Mr Paterson has assigned as her assistant, but to watch the members of the cast being put through their paces, reciting the lines Ella knows by heart, is torturous. She would give anything to be rid of her stage fright, to trade backstage for the stage itself.

Life takes a twist when Mum returns from a visit to England with Ella’s estranged grandfather – a retired actor – who is to stay with the family after suffering a heart attack. And then another couple of twists when the year nines are late back from an excursion and Mr Paterson unexpectedly instructs Ella and Lou to fill in during an important rehearsal; Ella does such a stellar job being the fairy that, when Tricia is suspended from school for stealing, he offers her the part. Ella rises to the challenge, not only of facing her fear of stage fright, but of playing against the conceited Sam Hennessy as Puck – and what unfolds as a result brings more than a few surprises for all involved.

In the Wings is a story that is unafraid to plumb the depths of the human condition as it plays out in the lives of Ella and her friends and family. The young teenage or pre-teen reader, as the story unravels, is positioned to observe and experience – alongside Ella – a gamut of life situations: the fragility of the body when illness strikes and the tenuous balance between life and death; the challenge to tolerance in the face of difference; the longevity of grief around a lost relationship; the impact of shame as a consequence of poor judgement and a bad decision; the renewal that comes with loyalty, trust and resilience; and the thrill and hope of first love. Elsbeth Edgar expertly situates her characters in a school setting that will be familiar to her target audience and raises issues close to the heart of teenagers. She invokes empathy for Ella, allowing readers to engage with Ella’s thoughts and feelings and challenges.

This book is engaging from first page to last. It is well crafted, buoyed by conflict, tension and mystery with believable, three-dimensional characters. The references to Shakespeare and the world of the theatre add vibrancy and depth. A rewarding read that stays close on your heels well after you’ve closed the covers.

Walker Books 2013

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 2, May 2013)

The Light - Jo Oliver

The Light is the story of a lighthouse keeper’s family living on Montague Island off the coast of NSW early last century. Narrated by the youngest child, Louisa, it documents a day in their life: tending the animals, fetching firewood, milking the cow and collecting eggs, baking bread, churning the butter and cleaning the lighthouse. Even though the chores must be done, there is always time afterwards for Louisa to take her tin whistle down to where the seals bask in the sun. As she plays for them, her music carries over the wind and waves and across the island. Music weaves a vital thread through the narrative: Louisa hears her father playing his fiddle alone in the night as he tends the light, and in the evening the family gather around the piano as her mother plays and the others join in. And it is the sound of their music in the midst of a raging storm that welcomes the four shipwrecked men and ‘wraps around them like a blessing’.

This is a beautiful picture book, the third by Jo Oliver. The text has a straight-forward old-world feel to it, uncomplicated, in keeping with the theme. Its simplicity is reflective of the times: ‘Mother and Father play some jigs and then the soft songs of Ireland and Scotland, of wind and moor and sea. The boys whittle and Johanna stitches clothes’. The illustrations, too, work well with the theme, the colours subdued and derived from the original plans for the lighthouse and keepers quarters. This excerpt from the New Frontier Teachers Notes describes the technique used by Oliver: ‘…solar plate etchings, a medium in which drawings are transferred to a metal plate using light exposure. The plate is then inked and rubbed back before printing. Ink left on the surface of the plate, or print tone, gives gradations of light and dark in addition to the etched lines. The prints are then hand coloured in watercolour.’

To highlight the importance of music both to the story and as a comfort and connection to the families who lived on the island, a watermarked music stave has been used as a backdrop to the illustrations on relevant pages.

Readers will find The Light both engaging and educational. It is a gentle book that holds great appeal.

New Frontier 2013

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 2, May 2013)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bring Back Cerberus:The Debt Instalment Three - Phillip Gwynne

In this third instalment of the series, the plot becomes even more tangled and enigmatic; if falling into line with the requirements of The Debt was making things complicated for Dom before, life becomes interlaced with perplexing convolutions this time around. Sworn to secrecy by The Debt means secrets and lies become part of the fabric of Dom’s existence. After playing a nerve-racking waiting game, Dom is finally given the third assignment – to find Cerberus, the prototype of a new device before it hits the market and hand it over to the mysterious Anna Russo at her birthday party. And considering no one even knows what the device is – a new mobile phone, tracking device, whatever – Dom’s task seems impossibly difficult. To make things even more complicated, as well as hacking into people’s email accounts, Dom must learn how to break cryptic codes and find the answers to questions even Google won’t supply. The Dom Silvagni in this book is not the Dom the reader is introduced to in the beginning, before The Debt put its stamp on his life. Tech geek, school-wagger, private investigator, spy – resourcefulness, pluck and courage have become second nature.

This book is Janet Evanovich meets Ian Flemming meets Matthew Reilly. Packed with adventure, humour – often involving bodily functions of the smelly kind – computer tech-speak, facts about sport – running and the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) – intrigue, suspense, conflict and first love, the target audience will LOVE this series. The prose is intelligent and superbly crafted, the characters three-dimensional and believable; the irony of being a rich kid with a debt that money can’t pay is played out deftly throughout the text. And Gwynne slips backstory from the first two books seamlessly into the story. Do I really have to wait until June for Instalment Four? A totally engaging read.

Allen & Unwin 2013

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 1, March 2013)

Turn off the Lights:The Debt Instalment Two - Phillip Gwynne

The Debt – Instalment Two raises more questions than answers. Dom’s next task is to turn off all of the Gold Coast’s lights during Earth Hour. How can a fifteen-year-old boy manage that? He has ClamTop – the mysterious laptop computer supplied to him by The Debt, that opens on voice-command – but he’s going to need a heck of a lot of resourcefulness to pull this one off. And it’s complicated. Not only does Dom have to race against the clock to put a strategy in place, he has to beat Fiends of the Earth at their own game, to stop someone being maimed, or worse.

And how is Dom going to prevent Tristan from taking advantage of Imogen – when he’s discovered they plan to meet when the lights go off? Then there’s Dad acting weirdly. What did he mean when he said The Debt didn’t necessarily impose an imposition and ‘to turn adversity into advantage’? Why has he lied all these years saying he doesn’t ‘speakka the wog’ when Dom overhears him having a conversation in perfect Calabrian? And what of that comment, ‘my hands are bloody but unbowed’?

If all this is not baffling enough, why is taxi driver Luiz Antonio following Dom? And why did Seb, Dom’s running mate, set him up to run through Preacher’s Forest – which the kids at school say is littered with mutilated and mouldering bodies – and where Dom is shot with a tranquiliser dart that knocks him out cold? What of the kidnapping incident with Zoe – the Zolt’s sister? And the men in the balaclavas with baseball bats so desperate to retrieve the Double Eagle coin? And for that matter, the Zolt. Where is he?

This next instalment in The Debt series is peppered with intrigue as the plot becomes more and more clue-laden, making it impossible to stop at book two.

Allen & Unwin 3013

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 1, March 2013)

Catch the Zolt: The Debt Instalment One - Phillip Gwynne

All up, Dom Silvagni doesn’t have much to complain about. If you took out of the equation Tristan Jazzy’s annoying habit of leaving his sister’s bike lying about for Dom to almost trip over on his early morning run – made all the more annoying when it happens right in front of Imogen Havilland’s bedroom window – then life is pretty good. Dom lives in luxury with his parents and younger brother and sister, and one-legged grandfather, Gus, in Halcyon Grove on the Gold Coast. Gus is also Dom’s coach and there is not much that takes priority over running in Dom’s world.

However, on Dom’s fifteenth birthday everything changes. First he is stalked by a mysterious white van on his morning run, and after hearing a whooshing sound, wakes up on the pavement, unable to account for four minutes of his life, with only a mosquito-bite-like mark on his hand to show for it. Then, after discussing secret men’s business with his father and Gus, Dom finds out that he is responsible for clearing an ancient family debt by performing six formidably difficult tasks. The first instalment is to catch the Zolt, a seventeen-year-old who has stolen cars, boats and even light planes from nearby Reverie Island. If he fails to deliver, The Debt will take their pound of flesh. As they did with Gus.

This leads Dom on a thrilling adventure, where he must befriend his arch-enemy, the self-centred Tristan, and watch him try to seduce Imogen, Dom’s friend since childhood. As the race to find the Zolt moves to Reverie Island, it is impossible to discern the difference between allies and enemies; Dom must use every ounce of courage and resourcefulness he can muster, not only to preserve his family’s honour, but to preserve his life.

This adventure series, targeted unashamedly at upper primary school (and I would say teenage) boys, is Phillip Gwynne’s first foray into writing for this demographic. It is a ripper of a yarn – suspenseful, cleverly plotted, well-crafted and funny. The text works hand-in-glove with the reader’s intelligence and assumed general knowledge which creates both the effect of rounding out the central character, Dom, through whose voice we hear the events of the story unfold, and aligning the reader to empathise with him in his quest. The target audience will identify with Dom’s strength of character as he negotiates his various predicaments, and be drawn into the story not only because of its page-turning quality but by the authenticity of the characterisation – well supported by voice, setting and subtext.

Some adroit foreshadowing in the first book sets down clues and sets the reader up to unravel the larger mystery as the series progresses.

Allen & Unwin 2013

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 1, March 2013)

The Windy Farm - Doug McLeod and Craig Smith

When your family lives on the windiest farm on Windy Hill, because it’s all they can afford, life can be tricky. Everyone except Grandpa is in constant danger of blowing away. Even the pigs. But inventor Mum comes up with a solution that sees everybody– chooks and all – fitted out with heavy metal shoes. But on the day that half the house blows away – even though Grandpa says, ‘Never mind’ – something must be done. When rich Uncle Jeff, who has an oil well in his back yard next to the clothes line, says, ‘it’s your silly fault for buying such a windy farm’ and refuses to help, a bit of ingenuity and Grandpa’s power tools save the day. Until the power bill arrives. It’s a sad day when the family must sell off Big Betty, Grandpa’s favourite pig. But Mum has an environmentally inspired idea that turns the tide on the family’s fortunes – by turning plenty of windmill blades. Big Betty comes home and everyone lives happily ever after. Except for Uncle Jeff, who gets blown away. ‘Never mind,’ says Grandpa.

It is always a thrill to open a new Doug MacLeod and Craig Smith collaboration and The Windy Farm provides no exception. Let’s hope they keep them coming. The text and spirited illustrations are immediately appealing; the simple storyline, infused with whimsy and humour, effectively sets the stage for Smith’s illustrations, which – as always – breathe vitality, pith and energy into the story. The title is clever and the story about how a family harnesses the power of the wind employs a gentle subtextual teaching element for its young audience without being prescriptive. There is plenty of detail in the illustrations – crafted in gouache and acrylic, and gloriously waggish – to provide a child new discoveries on subsequent returns. They will love, for instance, the page where the house nearly blows away: a bra and underpants go sailing past; the photos fly off the fridge; the moon shines from inside the window while bats are shaken from their sleep in the roof; then Grandpa’s look of surprise as the door swings open to reveal him sitting on the dunny. A delightfully playful book with an environmental edge.
Penguin 2013

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 1, March 2013)

My Superhero - Chris Owen and Moira Court

This first picture book from Chris Owen and Moira Court has all the right ingredients to make it irresistible to its young target audience: it’s visually striking with bold, colourful and endearing illustrations; the rhymed text is perfect for reading aloud; it’s about animals with human qualities; it features repetition that invites the reader join in (KABOOM! KAPOW! KABAM! KASPLAT! My superhero’s not like that.); and it has suspense – the storyline is a riddle, keeping the reader guessing who the superhero might be. The book is a series of lush double-page spreads, each featuring one of a variety of mask-clad animals enacting their superhero role with the accompanying text in four lines of rhyming verse. Every so often the mysterious narrator reminds the reader with a reprise of KABOOM etc to keep guessing. This page then opens out to a majestic quadruple spread with more visual and textual clues supplied to egg the reader on. At the end of the book is an information page detailing facts about each of the animals featured in the story.

My Superhero is an adorable book that small children will be drawn to because of its simplicity, clean design, vibrancy of colour and warmth of characterisation – which comes through in both text and illustrations. Adding to the impact of the book as a whole is the clever use of point of view. The narrator is not seen until the last page, and the superhero animals are presented from a variety of angles: the bear from close-up and front-on; the armadillo, cheetah and chameleon from the side; the goat and the eagle from underneath and so on. On the quadruple-page spreads we see the scene – and clues – through the eyes of the narrator.

Asking to be read aloud, this is a book that will provide many pleasurable reading experiences for child and adult alike. There are opportunities, too, for discussion about the interesting range of animals presented in the story. Most engaging and entertaining.

Freemantle Press 2013

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 1, March 2013)