The Best Books for Budding Readers: Kinderling Kids Radio Interview

My interview with Shevonne Hunt on Kinderling Kids Radio discussed some tips for parents with young school-aged children learning to read and some great titles to get children passionate about reading?

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Book review: Hunter's Moon

Hunter’s Moon by Sophie Masson (Random House)

PB RRP $19.99
ISBN 9780857986030
Reviewed by Jaquelyn Muller

Reproduced with the permission of Buzz Words. 

Sophie Masson’s retelling of the Snow White mythology in Hunter’s Moon was one I longed to immerse myself in. It sat patiently ready for my holiday north and as soon as we left the freezing tarmac, I unsociably planted my nose in it (husband, kids - go entertain yourselves). 

I eagerly consumed the opulent then perilous tale of Bianca Dalmatin, heir to the Ladies Fair department store empire and stepdaughter to the beautiful but sinister Lady Belladonna. Presented into society at the Duke’s ball by her controlling stepmother, shy and lonely Bianca soon finds herself the subject of a murderous plot involving herself and her much loved father.  The fleeting kindness of Belladonna’s faithful servant that spares Bianca, catapults her on a quest to find out the truth behind her father’s death and her stepmother’s treacherous plans. 

The mythical European inspired Faustine Empire creates scenes of rich architecture, tactile landscapes and mystical creatures. The majesty of the first few chapters illuminates a grand stage reminiscent of the late 1800’s, but then extremes of a sophisticated society and mystical backdrops, forced me to release my expectations and let the imagery unravel naturally. 

It is these extremities of setting that force young Bianca out of her protected life to find the inner strength to navigate betrayal and look beyond her upbringing to learn the true sense of trust, loyalty, sacrifice, determination, family and self. 

Uncovering the references to the well-told Snow White tale was an entertaining addition to the reading experience. The huntsman, magic mirror, poisoned apple, glass coffin and seven dwarfs have all been cleverly intertwined through the story in unexpected ways that will give the younger reader a spark with each discovery.

Hunter’s Moon has all the appeal of romance, action, magic and a fabulous frock or two which has been brilliantly constructed to not overwhelm or confuse readers in the early teens.  It is the fourth book in the series by Masson that retells famous fables. Moonlight and Ashes, Scarlet in the Snow and The Crystal Heart, take the skeletons of Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty to a new and wondrous level. The trick is to work out which one is which?

Book review: Samurai vs Ninja

Samurai vs Ninja The Battle for the Golden Egg by Nick Falk, illustrated by Tony Flowers (Random House)
PB RRP $9.00
ISBN 9780857986054
Reviewed by Jaquelyn Muller 

Reproduced with the permission of Buzz Words

If only the Samurai vs Ninja book series was around 30 years ago, then my brother may have spent more time reading about clumsy, fighting, farting ancient Japanese warriors and less time pretending to be one, and practicing the aforementioned unsavory behaviour on me. 

Nick Falk and Tony Flowers have created a striking, fast-paced, snort-inducing book series for early readers, six and up. Beginning with The Battle for the Golden Egg, readers are introduced to samurai leader, Kingyo-Sama and the head of the ninja, Buta-Sama, who are constantly battling each other in the most ridiculous and smelliest of ways. They also happen to be brothers, which will have an instant appeal to young readers who have spent many a day dueling with siblings over the last piece of pizza or the front seat of the car. 

With a highly visual tone, Nick Falk has cleverly downplayed the battle sequences using unusual and hilarious ways to convey the frustration and competition between the two main characters. Paths of wasabi planted in underpants, stinky seafood careering over walls in moments of attack and tickling feet as a form of torture go hand in hand with nonsense name calling. 

What this over-exaggerated phrasing creates is a wonderful procession of alliteration and tongue-twisters which is such a valuable reading tool for younger audiences. The use of Japanese terms and glossary at the back of the book also enrich the variety of the text and opportunities for learning. 

Descriptions of the era, costumes, architecture and armour are cleverly enhanced by Tony Flowers’ comic styled illustrations that maintain the interest of the reader, in the way I remember The Adventures of Asterix.  

Nick Falk is the author of the Saurus Street and Billy is a Dragon book series’ and the picture book, Troggle the Troll. As a specialist in Japanese influenced illustration, Tony Flowers was awarded a prize from the Oshima Picture Book Museum in Toyama, Japan, for his hand made pop-up book Gaijin Holiday. He has also illustrated six books in the Nick Falk Saurus Street series. 

The series continues with The Race for the Shogun’s Treasure and two more installments are due for release in July 2015. 

Book review: Stories for Simon

by Lisa Miranda Sarzin, illustrated by Lauren Briggs (Random House)
HB RRP $24.99
ISBN 9780857987440
Reviewed by Jaquelyn Muller

Published with permission from Buzz Words

Stories for Simon represents more than just a beautifully conceptualised picture book, but a foray to discuss social and cultural issues, mutual respect and the importance of reconciliation and positivity in looking forward.  

Lisa Miranda Sarzin and Lauren Biggs have created a respectful contemporary reflection on Australia’s Stolen Generations that balances delicately between fiction and non-fiction.

Written under the mentorship of Bidjigal Elder, Vic Simms, Sarzin and Biggs skilfully explain the story of Simon who through a gift of a boomerang, comes to understand the history of the Stolen Generations, the significance of reconciliation and the lessons that all future Australian children can learn in order to pave a harmonious, meaningful society.

Simon’s passage is told in a contemplative, well-researched tone that sees him interacting with his family, school and a boy named Vic who is able to introduce Simon to his own family’s history as part of the Stolen Generations. Each relationship reinforces Simon’s understanding of reconciliation and the significance of Kevin Rudd’s apology on behalf of Australia in 2008.  

Despite the delicate nature of the text, Stories for Simon is united with the evocative illustrations by Lauren Biggs. The use of strong primary colours is unexpected and presents a new way of documenting Australian stories which are typically reliant on warm hues. The pages related to the telling of Aboriginal Dreamtime and Simon’s own dreams are whimsical but graphically strong.

Stories for Simon is the first picture book for both Sarzin and Biggs yet all their royalties will be donated to the GO Foundation, an educational initiative to support Indigenous Australian children founded by 2014 Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes and his cousin Michael O’Loughlin.

School libraries will find this an essential part of their collection. The prospects for discussion and project work around reconciliation themes are extensive, while inspiring children to contemplate what Australia they wish to create.  

Book review: Paper Magic

Paper Magic by Jeffery E Doherty (IFWG Publishing)
PB RRP $15.99
ISBN 978-0-9923020-1-6
Reviewed by Jaquelyn Muller 

Paper Magic is a fiction chapter book from author/illustrator, Jeffery E Doherty. It tells the story of Marina who is a young girl of approximately 12 or 13, who like most girls her age, harbours insecurities and feelings of self-consciousness. What makes Marina’s case different is that for a reason unknown to the reader (but not integral to the plot), Marina is confined to a wheelchair. 

The author states that the book is suited to secondary school readers, however I feel that grade five and six students would follow and identify with the themes of friendships and family while being intrigued by the mysticism of the ‘paper magic’. Jeffery’s simple but textual black and white illustrations support the text also making it accessible for primary readers. 

The mood of the story starts somewhat solemnly with Marina observing the bright and jovial landscape of the park from the distance of her room as she contemplates starting a new school. Marina’s frustration is made clear and it encourages the reader to continue so as to understand why she can’t go outside herself. It is not evident at first that Marina has a handicap. 

Marina’s family are represented by her mother and grandmother and they follow a typical mother/daughter dynamic with tensions between each of the generations, leading the reader to think this may be a serious story.  However the grandmother’s introduction of enchanted paper surprises, quickly transforms the plot to a lively, engaging pace. 

The magic paper along with Marina’s grandmother, lead her on to an adventure in the park where she meets Toby, Amelia and Sam. Together they unlock the true potential of ‘paper magic’ and along the way discover aspects of themselves which are conveyed via light-hearted mini-plots. The descriptive used by Doherty is original without being overworked. 

Marina’s disability is not the focus of the story, but a vehicle for her insecurities. The idea of making new friends, starting a new school and navigating family will be familiar to most readers making Marina easily identifiable. 

The origin of the magic paper and how Marina’s grandmother came to possess it is not ratified which could be explored in a follow up story or as prequel.

I found Paper Magic thought provoking while captivating and younger readers will have opportunities to draw conclusions and predict outcomes.

Book review: Meet Banjo Paterson

Reproduced with the permission of Buzz Words.

Meet Banjo Paterson by Kristin Weidenbach, illustrated by James Gulliver Hancock (Random House)
HB RRP $24.99
ISBN 978-0-85798-008-3
Reviewed by Jaquelyn Muller

While lurching at a copy of Meet Banjo Paterson, I was immediately reminded of my grade 4 public speaking performance of Clancy of the Overflow, (that and Jack Thompson’s blonde mustache). As our English teacher’s comb over floated celestially above his head during enthusiastic rehearsals, we were blithely unaware of the man behind the poem; the boy then the man who was to become Banjo Paterson.

Meet Banjo Paterson is the seventh book in the Meet… series from Random House, a collection of non-fiction picture books aimed at uncovering the people behind Australia’s most well-loved and infamous icons including Ned Kelly, Mary MacKillop, Captain Cook and Douglas Mawson. 

Kristin Weidenbach and illustrator James Gulliver Hancock, set the scene for a young Andrew Barton Paterson (Banjo), a boy who lived and loved the Australian bush, particularly horses and bush life. Weidenbach’s evocative tone creates a clear description of what life was like in the second half of the 19th century. 

This is contrasted beautifully with the backdrop of the industrial revolution and the cities where Banjo worked as lawyer in later in life. His love of the Australian outback and fascination with Bushmen is translated as a lasting vehicle of Australia’s heritage.  

James Gulliver Hancock’s illustrations enrich the palate of colonial Australia with muted hues and the use of black chalk to portray a coal and campfire society. The colours including deep reds and purples are indicative of those naturally found in banksias and wild lavender. While the stylized art is a rich collage of Australian bush imagery, the typeface is clean and easy to read, so as not to detract from the overflowing pictures. The font reinforces the non-fiction nature of the book and is interwoven with excerpts from Paterson’s poems and stories such as Waltzing Matilda and Mulga Bill’s Bicycle.

I love that Weidenbach’s retelling of Banjo Paterson’s life creates a vibrant and engaging experience while the timeline of his life at the back of the book gifts insights about the man rarely known. The Man from Snowy River is part of Australia’s DNA, however I was unaware that when it was released it sold out within a week and broke Australian publishing records (without the aid of that internet thing). As an educational tool teachers will love the way it can inspire further research on the life and times of the man but as an example of writers impacting their community.

Kristin Weidenbach’s previously published non-fiction book Tom the Outback Mailman won the 2013 CBCA Eve Pownall Award. James Gulliver Hancock has an extensive background in advertising, animation and technical drawing. Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers is his compilation of profiles detailing interesting facts about famous historical figures presented as highly stylized infographics. 

Book review: My Life and other Massive Mistakes by Tristan Bancks

Reproduced with the permission of Buzz Words
My Life and other Massive Mistakes by Tristan Bancks, illustrated by Gus Gordon (Random House)
HB RRP $15.99
ISBN 978-0-85798-529-3
Reviewed by Jaquelyn Muller

Warning: Do not attempt to read this book in church, during a board meeting or if you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome; and you’re kidding yourself if you expect to be able to sneak in a few pages while waiting in a doctor’s surgery; you are likely to be politely redirected to the psychologist down the hall!

Because it is not just the laughing, giggles and chortles that are likely to draw odd glances from onlookers, but your contorted facial expressions that may also breed concern for your mental state. Yes, thanks to Tristan Bancks’ latest book in the My Life series, you are likely to find yourself alone on bus seats and in elevators (oh hang on; I see what he did there)!
My Life and other Massive Mistakes is a chapter book, however when teamed with illustrations from the brilliant Gus Gordon it transforms into a vivid out of control billy cart ride (and we all know how those end).  The short story nature of the chapters will appeal to 8 – 12 year olds and those who find longer form stories more painful than picking a broken nose.

Each chapter is its own hilarious tale recounted by Tom Weekly, a primary school revolutionary hell bent on mischief and taking down any administration within a 15 minute recess, but in a disarming lovable, larrikin kind of way.

Similar to the appeal of the Wimpy Kid or Treehouse books, the My Life series contains many fun ponderings along the way, including Nine Reasons Why Sloppy Food Should Be Banned and 15 Things You Won’t Hear Your Mum Say Anytime Soon.

Essentially the book conveys a sense of living life to the fullest and embracing creativity, which is what childhood should be. I remember a time when my younger brother embraced his creativity when he decided to make money by selling statues of dead cane toads, but not before storing them in the freezer and giving my mother a nasty surprise when she took out the frozen chook for a Sunday roast! I think we all know someone like Tom Weekly.

In addition to the My Life Series, Tristan Bancks has also released the Mac Slater, Coolhunterbooks. His YA novel Two Wolves was recently shortlisted for the 2015 CBCA Book of the Year Awards for Younger Readers.

Book review: Caesar the War Dog, Operation Green Parrot

Republished with the permission of Buzz Words

Caesar the War Dog: Operation Green Parrot by Stephen Dando-Collins (Random House)

PB RRP $16.99

ISBN 978-0-85798-471-5

Award winning history writer Stephen Dando-Collins has appealed to my love of action stories in this latest instalment about Caesar the War Dog in Operation Green Parrot.

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landing and our lives are constantly overrun with modern war imagery, communicating to kids about the realities of military operations is a complex balance. Dando-Collins uses his experience in historical and military writing to reveal a story that is honest yet sensitive to a 9 – 12 year old age group.

The fourth book in the series takes the reader on location in Mexico, on a thrilling ride with Caesar and his army handler Sergeant Ben Fulton, the Australian contingent of the UN Global Rapid Reaction Responders (GRRR) unit.

The rattling action of the opening few chapters quickly introduces the main characters and the storyline involving bomb attacks, Mexican crime cartels and anti-terrorism manoeuvres. The explanatory nature of the text negates the reader to have read all previous books in the series, but its high sensory feel will leave younger readers wanting to discover Caesar’s other adventures.

The use of Caesar as the central character softens and allows for light-hearted moments in an otherwise harsh topic. The relationship between Caesar and his handler Ben and his family, not only illustrates a relationship that readers of this age may relate to, but also documents the sacrifice that defence personnel and their family’s make to allow them to perform active duty. Through this we see loyalty, bravery, humanity and respect between people and animals.

The pace Dando-Collins creates gives us the feeling we are along for the ride and his informed clear explanations of military terms, projects a ‘news broadcast’ feel during the action sequences.

This series is going to appeal to more boys than girls no doubt, but any young reader with an interest in action stories and animals will find this more than fits the bill. There are some fascinating stories about real life army dogs at the back of the book, which further illustrate how these animals have become such a valued and respected icon of our military history.

In addition to the three other Caesar books, Stephen Dando-Collins has written a similarly war themed book Tank Boys, for slightly older 12 – 16 year old readers. Other titles in this genre for consideration are the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis, which places young fictional characters in significant war events from history. 

Book review: The Pause by John Larkin

Republished with the Permission of Buzz Words

The Pause by John Larkin (Random House)

PB RRP $19.99

ISBN 978-0-85798-170-7



At the end of the first paragraph in John Larkin’s new YA novel, The Pause, the central character Declan O’Malley declares he is going to kill himself in five hours’ time!  My immediate reaction is to run for the tissues! However, I say this to anyone who finds the subject of suicide confronting, (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) PLEASE don’t let it scare you off.

What quickly develops is a personally narrated account from a seventeen-year-old boy, who could be anyone we know; complete with a smart mouth, individual styling challenges, raging hormones and an aversion to verbal communication.

The ‘now-that-I-have-your-attention’ introduction gives Declan a platform to weave his story of inner torment, repressed family secrets and the loss of love. Larkin’s clever use of time specific chapters help pace the story that commands your attention to the very end in unexpected ways.

While it is easy to assume this book is one of misery and lost hope, Declan’s seventeen year old voice and sense of irony pepper many funny, light-hearted moments that ultimately illustrate life is worth stuffing up every now and then. In the tradition of It’s a Wonderful LifeA Christmas Carol, or more recently Sliding Doors, The Pause merely asks you to do just that, stop and consider this world without you, (I know in my case my husband’s sense of humour would be non-existent and quinoa sales would not be what they are). 

Through the humour and warmth developed for the characters over the story’s 20 year span, Larkin makes this otherwise difficult topic consumable for the YA reader and with the added reading group questions at the back of the book, promotes a well overdue dialogue that will hopefully be explored in schools.  The Pause is set to follow on from the success of Larkin’s 2011 novel, The Shadow Girl which won the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Writing for Young Adults. 


Christmas book reviews

Jennifer Douglas gave me quite a lovely Christmas gift when I found out how Elizabeth Rose on Parade was received in her house. She is doing a series of book reviews for the festive season, and any time your book makes any kind of list you get a kick out of it (unless it's the naughty list of course).

It's easy to see why Jennifer does what she does, she has so much passion for Australian authors and it shows! Thanks for spreading the Christmas spirit Jennifer!