Reviews

When the sakura bloom by Narisa Togo

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Beautifully translated from the Japanese, When the Sakura Bloom is a gentle insight into the sensibilities of the Japanese way of life and the cultural significance of cherry blossom season. It's a busy morning on a busy street and everyone is rushing: to work, to school to the station. The days following are the same and as the people walk they are staring at phones, at the ground or straight ahead, focussed on where they are headed. But as the weather warms, up above them something is happening. The Sakura, (or cherry blossom) trees are preparing for spring. Exquisite and detailed illustrations show the progression of the pale pink petals emerging from the buds until the flowers are in full bloom and birds flock to the branches. Now people are starting to notice, phones are being pointed up to take photographs and excitement is in the air; it is Festival time! And so, the city stops to pause, to be together under the trees and to appreciate the changing season and the beauty of the moment. In apprecation of cyclical nature we then see as the blossoms fade, the leaves grow and the fruit appears and the people are back to rushing past the trees again.

This is a beautiful timeless tale that while distinctely Japanese, is universal in its relatability and message. At heart, it is about accepting that while busy lives don't allow us to be mindful in every moment, nature's constant and predictable patterns give us the perfect opportunity to pause, reflect and rejuvenate. There is also a lovely metaphor of the fleeting nature of the cherry blossoms (there one minute and gone the next) and of life itself. This could be used with many age groups on many levels and with a wide variety of focus areas. 

Themes Cherry blossoms (Sakura), Seasons.

Nicole Nelson

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The secret explorers and the smoking volcano by S. J. King

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The Secret Explorers series will continue to hold the interest of younger readers especially those that enjoy learning new facts while reading a fiction story. Once again the eight highly gifted children, Ollie, Cheng, Gustavo, Leah, Kiki, Roshni, Tamiko and Connor are responsible for a mission to rescue animals or humans and encourage readers to learn about a natural environment. In Book 6 The Secret Explorers and the Smoking Volcano, Cheng the geology expert with a passion for volcanoes and Leah the biology expert, are on a mission to Vanuatu to experience a volcanic eruption and save some new friends. Throughout the rescue mission Cheng shares with the reader many new and interesting facts related to volcanoes. Will this exciting action-packed story have a successful ending?

In every mission, a vehicle aptly named the Beagle, transforms itself into an all-terrain machine suitable for the environment the secret explorers are visiting. Each book contains mission notes, a quiz and a glossary of new and important words. All books in the series introduce younger readers to natural environments around the world that need to be cared for. There are illustrations throughout providing visual links for the reader. Any of the six books would be a great read-aloud in the classroom related to an environmental topic or shared as small group read. A welcome addition to a home, school or public library.

Themes Friends, Climate Change, Environmental Issues, Gifted Children, Volcanoes, Rescues, Danger, Problem Solving.

Kathryn Beilby

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Hat-trick Teddy by James Tedesco. Illus. by Heath McKenzie

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First off, I will confess my very limited knowledge or interest in NRL football. I researched James Tedesco who is the author of this novel and learnt he is a very successful player who has won the Jack Gibson medal, or player of the year, for the Roosters three times. This book is inspired by his own childhood and NRL journey.

In Hat-Trick Teddy, Teddy is a 12-year-old footy lover and with his tight group of friends, a die-hard Menangle Meerkats Rugby League Club supporter and player. Crisis occurs when the Menangle Meerkat's footy ground sinks due to a freak weather incident. Teddy is then offered a place on the Camden Rams, the Meerkats arch rival team. He feels conflicted about joining the team as he loves to play footy but feels he has betrayed the Meerkats. He keeps his decision a secret from his friends, who ignore him when they eventually learn the truth.

Set in country Australia, this story is going to be a great read for footy loving kids. My only hesitation in the book is about the typecast portrayal of the character Percy Kelly, a selector for the Great Southern Regional Team, as he first meets Teddy in a contrived situation, while playing a didgeridoo and mysteriously talks about Teddy having a gift.

Overall, this is a very positive book, that encourages children to strive for their goals. There are tips at the end of every chapter encouraging kids to be successful in both footy and life. It is illustrated with cartoon style drawings and the chapters are short and easy to read. There is a little extra piece of fun in the book with a flip the page moving picture of Teddy kicking a ball in the bottom corner of each page.

A new book in the series Red vs Blue will be available in July 2020.

This book will have the biggest appeal to boys as all of the main characters are male, girls are only mentioned when one of the boys has a crush on whatever unseen girl they dream about. Suitable for NRL loving fans ages 7-10 years old.

Themes Rugby League Football.

Jane Moore

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Coming of age in the war on terror by Randa Abdel-Fattah

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Abdel-Fattah's book collects the voices of Muslim youth born since the 9/11 twin towers attack, young people who have grown up in the climate of Islamophobia and fear of terrorism. Her aim was to compare the impact of 9/11 on Muslim and non-Muslim youth.

Of course, 'Muslim' does not denote a homogenous group, as readers of Abdel-Fattah's previous co-editored publication with Sara Saleh Arab, Australian, other will be well aware. Muslim young people could be migrants or descendants of migrants from 22 different nations with different languages and different cultures. But the impact of 9/11 was shared by them all, with responses ranging from hiding their identity and keeping a low profile, to feeling that they were expected to have the answer to every question about terrorist activity.

The experience of the interviewees was one of racism, regardless of the fact that there is no Muslim race. They felt regarded as 'other' or non-Australian. Abdel-Fattah draws a link between how Muslim people are regarded and how Indigenous Australians are regarded - their identity and experience is not that of the mainstream 'White' culture. And she exposes the failings of our education system to truly be multicultural, from the attitudes of teachers varying between good and bad, and the omission of Muslim culture and history from the Australian curriculum, a huge omission when you consider that 1 in 4 people in the world are Muslim.

The last chapters of this book provide a challenge to teachers and education departments to consider how to truly be more inclusive, how to break down barriers and change the story to one of empowerment. The book as a whole is also a significant record of young people's accounts of their personal experiences, and would resonate with both Muslim and non-Muslim readers.

Themes Muslim youth, War on terror, Racism, Islamophobia.

Helen Eddy

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Off the map by Scot Gardner

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A book of short stories by award winning Gardner is a treat revealing a quirky interest in the ordinary lives of his mainly male protagonists dealing with unusual and sometimes bizarre situations. The opening story, 'Answers' belies its title, giving none! But it sets in train so many questions both by the people in the tale, and then by the readers, that it stays firmly planted in the mind for some time after closing the book, asking that infernal question, 'what if'? The fifteen stories are all as different, compelling and fascinating as the first, asking readers to question.

A group of kids sit on the beach in 'Bad Billy'  trying to outdo each other with stories that scare and frighten. The group reveals a range of kids; brash and confident, unsure and bullied, caring and disinterested, until the quietest one reveals a tale of his imaginary friend. In 'The tunnel', bravado spurs the trio to explore the tunnels beneath their streets, revealing the strength and weaknesses of their friendship as they struggle to find an escape route. Several stories use a wild place called the Magellan Peninsula as the back drop. One involves a school camp and a lad who loves to cook, another is far more poignant  ('Magellan') and chronicles the weekend when mum died. And several more, 'Stray' and 'The Kid' also deal with death.

One that gave me cause to reflect but also made me laugh out loud was 'Karma', the story of two teens going with Mum and her new boyfriend to camp for the weekend. He is a narcissistic drop kick and eventually even Mum sees what her kids see and they leave. But his behaviour is mind bogglingly stupid and irresponsible and will make readers think about what they see. It was galling to realise that I was laughing at his appalling behaviour!

Gardner's books have an underlying motif of masculinity and what makes a man bubbling away and many of the stories will make people stop and digest the ideas presented.Each story is short, pithy and well written, presenting one or two protagonists who are cleverly described in just a few lines.

Any of Scot Gardner's books make for an instant popular class set and teacher notes are available. Teens, particularly boys, will love reading of people their own age in situations not dissimilar to their own, making choices about how they behave.

Themes Short stories, Death, Humour, Bullying, School, Masculinity.

Fran Knight

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Maybe... by Chris Haughton

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This is a clever and unique cautionary tale told entirely through the dialogue of three young monkeys and their adult monkey. A cheeky tone and the wonderful expression that is somehow miraculously conveyed through the very simple illustrations of the monkeys make this a really powerful and visually interesting story. "Ok, monkeys! I'm off", says big monkey. "Whatever you do, do NOT go down to the mango tree. There are tigers down there". Children will love predicting what is going to happen next and will absolutely be able to relate to the 'maybe we could just . . .' reasoning of the little monkeys. Children who stick to the rules and are more risk averse will be screaming at the monkeys: "Noooo! Don't go down there!", whereas risk takers will be eagerly anticipating whether they will be okay and how far they will go before the risk becomes too great. There is fantastic room for discussion here about risk, boundaries and following rules, but ultimately this is a very fun tale of adventure that will leave kids and adults laughing. And perhaps the big monkey is encouraging the risk taking behaviour somewhat, because as all adults know telling a child NOT to do something is definitely going to increase their determination! Indeed, the monkeys have learnt how to CAREFULLY go down to the mango tree as well as how to escape a tiger attack. Was this the plan all along? 

Themes Risk, Cautionary Tales.

Nicole Nelson

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Tish by Edwina Wyatt

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Tish by Edwina Wyatt is a delightful, bitter-sweet story about the qualities of friendship, of searching, finding, saying goodbye and hello and learning to know oneself. The soft and gentle pencil illustrations by French illustrator Odette Barberousse are full page size and accompany the simple and good storyline perfectly. Hard back, slightly taller than a paperback novel, it is perfect for holding on your chest and reading in bed-not so perfect for lining up with paperbacks on the library shelf!

The reader's heart goes out to Tish. Tish is "quick like a mongoose but lazy like a bear...heavy like a mammoth...with a heart like a feather and has...small stumpy wings that can almost-nearly fly." He is a product of the imagination of lonely children. Sadly though, when each of the three children in the story find a real life friend, Tish is sidelined. Wyatt, using the voice of the third person narrator, keeps Tish close at all times and the reader feels his every emotion, every new understanding and observation. As a child I would have cried reading Tish but the story is also a comfort as it aligns with the oft' felt experience and anguish of shifting friendship groups that children experience at this age.

Stories like Tish are important for children as they talk of the universal need to be loved, the process of trying to adapt, trying to please and the development of confidence in what is important to oneself in a friend. Tish represents unrequited friendship, gentleness, hurt and goodness. Puff the magic dragon is an example of this type of tale and it likewise, never failed to make my heart break. My little sister had two important imaginary friends. They certainly exist.

Ultimately, because we know that every child grows up, thank goodness Wyatt has Tish find his own perfect friend. It would be very hard to have him continue on being rejected. A beautiful tale!

Highly recommended.

Themes Imaginary friends, Goodbyes, Finding identity, Courage.

Wendy Jeffrey

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The outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud

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Right from the words on the cover ('Being an account of their daring exploits and audacious crimes') I was drawn into this exciting, dystopian adventure, by one of my favourite authors, Jonathan Stroud. I have always picked up his books from the time I encountered the Bartimaeus trilogy and then went on to be enthralled by the Lockwood & Co. series. What a thrill to see that he had started another series. This story is set in a future England where the country has been broken up into regions, as shown by the map at the beginning of the book. Scarlett McCain is a loner, an outlaw who has no compunction about robbing banks and is adept at fighting off both the law and the monsters that roam the land. When she comes across a wrecked bus, she rescues Albert Browne, a strange, naive boy and agrees to take him to safety. But Albert is hiding secrets and as they travel across the desolate countryside, danger follows the pair.

The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne was very difficult to put down as the exciting action pulled me in while the characters of Scarlett and Browne were so interesting that it was almost impossible to leave the story. I wanted to find out their backgrounds, what had happened to them in the past and whether they would have the skills to survive the perilous chases from their enemies and find sanctuary. The witty dialogue was also a plus.

Gun fights, bank heists, cannibals, the frightening Tainted people, and the truly scary Dr Calloway directing Browne's capture, provide much of the action. Meanwhile themes of what it means to be human, and who should be able to wield power will provide discussion points. The author can be heard talking about his book here, and extensive teaching notes are also available.

This would make a good class novel or literature circle choice and readers will want to read the next in the series.

Themes Dystopian fiction, Outlaws, Theft, Power, Being human.

Pat Pledger

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You've let them in by Lois Murphy

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13-year-old Scott and his family move into a neglected old house on the edge of town. They get to work sorting out the house and garden, while their dog forms an odd attachment to a garden gnome found in the middle of the tangled backyard.

Scott's twin toddler sisters are neurodivergent and live in their own tranquil little world. They rarely speak and then only in solemn meaningfully paired words ('Dog' and 'gone' when the dog runs away). They are referred to as the 'celebrated centre of our household' and are key to saving the family. 

An early chapter builds background - the family was shattered four years ago by the terrible loss of their mother, and there's long detail about how they felt and coped. This awful time is told as Scott remembers it and is raw, honest and tragic.

In the present day, the story quickly turns frightening. Scott starts sensing, seeing and hearing things he can't explain. There is a séance, and several chilling attacks as well as multiple detailed descriptions of awful nightmares that blur Scott's sense of reality, leaving him jittery and exhausted.  

In addition to the spooky/horror aspect of this story, mature content also comes from Scott and his friends. They are full of teenage bravado - there's some swearing and mention of an older brother dumping a girlfriend who's not into orgies.

The plot unfolds cleverly with various relationships within the family and with friends woven throughout, along with constant menacing undertones. There are also touches of humour in the way the family tease each other.

This is the first children's book by author Lois Murphy. The language and content will make this an easy entry to horror for lower secondary readers.

Themes Gnomes, Mystery, Supernatural, Bereavement, Stepfamily, Horror.

Kylie Grant

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The broken raven by Joseph Elliott

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The Broken Raven, sequel to The Good Hawk by Joseph Elliott does not disappoint the iniated readership and in fact calls for a third book to follow up the powerful, operatic ending. Joseph Elliott creates a highly visual setting in the readers' mind and an almost visceral bodily reaction; the books  would lend themselves to screen adaptation.

The reader is taken to the old Norse world of clan survival; of ice, peat bog and savage living. The imagination is excited with cracking pace action and sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal but always harsh imagery. The characterisation is tight. The plot itself requires hard work on behalf of the reader as it is comprised of multiple threads with the story progressing in alternating chapters which switch to track the story of the three main characters. The reader has to mentally jump backwards and forwards to follow these stories and pick up the threads. Each story fragment ends with such cliff hanging situations that it is not difficult to recall previous action but mental leaps on behalf of the reader are required.

It is exciting to find a writer who is bold enough to make serious demands of young readership again. Elliott is not going for the cheap laugh, the easy plot. His readers are going to have to work hard. They will have to overcome difficulties with the strangeness of the Norse elements and the dialects of the Norse people: of Skye, Scotia, Raasay, Ingland and Norveg. Like reading Shakespeare the synapses will be firing. This is good literature. This is what we want our young readers to be exposed to and to wrestle with. These books are not lazy reads.

The Broken Raven is about the politics, alliances and skullduggery of a bygone period in some ways similar to the Vikings. The young protagonists are willing to give their lives in the firece protection of their clans and loved ones in the most ferocious of contexts with fantastic, murderous foes. They are on exceedingly dangerous quests. This is survival. Elliott does not hold back in his descriptions of unspeakable violence and brutality. Like the protagonists, the young reader has to find the strength and resolve to understand that there are nasty realities in the real world and they must learn to cope. The overriding values of loyalty, love and protection of the vulnerable are paramount. 

Highly recommended to a discerning readership. 

Themes Norse fantasy, Clan loyalty,.

Wendy Jeffrey

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Iran rising by Amin Saikal

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The third great revolution of the twentieth century occurred in 1978-79. Like the Russian and Chinese revolutions it changed everything within its sphere of influence. It changed the source of the power and how it was administered, a system change, complete as it was rapid.

Prior to the revolution much of Iran's oil wealth was squandered by the US-backed Shah of Iran on a military build-up and an ineffective modernisation plan, neither of which benefited the vast majority of the population. The Shah's reign, at times brutal, and US policy, and many other factors discussed in the book, created the ideal environment for revolution. Add to this the undoubted charismatic and pragmatic leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini and the events of 1979 became inevitable.

Many of the groups that participated in the overthrow of the Shah's regime did not anticipate the total Islamisation of Iran. Some expected an inclusive method of governing. This did not eventuate; under the leadership of Khomeini his Shia faction dominated. What followed were purges and the elimination of those that were now deemed traitors to the cause.

In the first half of this book, Amin Saikal covers other significant events such as the war with Iraq that took a terrible toll on both countries. The successor to Khomeini as Supreme leader (Khameini) and the various elected presidents of the republic (some of them traditionalist, some reformist) feature here as well.

Any progressive change to the strict Islamic order was going to be difficult. Only with the arrival of the popular Rouhani (president 2013 onwards) did Khameini begin to ease the society's restrictive ways. 

This comprehensive book will be essential reading to those interested in Iran, the region, its politics, people and culture. The country and its people are often portrayed in negative terms by opportunistic politicians in the west. Iran is a complex country with a complex history. Bear in mind that a country's politics do not necessarily reflect its people. I have been fortunate enough to meet many Iranians; they are warm, welcoming and generous.

Half of Iran's 80 million people are under the age of 30 years. Born after the revolution many of them have a desire for greater liberty. It remains to be seen if the republic is able to accommodate their wishes with progressive reforms and greater involvement in the global community.

Amin Saikal has provided a balanced and informative history of the republic that helps explain its past and its possible future. This book would be a great resource for students of global politics.

Robert McNair

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Goodnight, little Monkey

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Similar in concept to the Ten Minutes to Bed... series, Goodnight, Little Monkey is one in a series of simple bedtime stories designed to send little ones off to sleep. The longish text is notable for its predictable storyline and calm tone. As with others in the series, Goodnight, Little Monkey makes use of everyday events, so will be relatable for young children without causing too much bedtime excitment. Sweet, earthy, watercolour art is punctuated with photographic illustrations of a baby monkey playing with his friends before bed. Whatever game Little Monkey is playing he always wants to be the best: "Look at me, look at me!", he keeps saying. But Little Monkey is so busy showing off and boasting about what he can do that he falls from a high branch. Luckily, his friends are there to catch him and Little Monkey feels very silly. "I was trying to be the best at everything. But I wasn't the best at being a good friend", he says.

This is a gentle and soothing story that ends with Little Monkey settling down for a lovely long snooze. This peaceful ending and simple, flowing language make it perfect for bedtime or nap time. 

Themes Monkeys, Friendship, Winning.

Nicole Nelson

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Courageous Lucy: the girl who liked to worry by Paul Russell and Cara King

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Lucy is a child who worries constantly, and because she has such a vivid imagination she worries about the most incredible things such as one day her shadow turning into an enormous black hole and swallowing her up or that she might be the person who discovers Bigfoot on the day he stubs his toe. She didn't like going first because she worried that she would mess things up, but she didn't want to go last either in case she missed out.

But when her teacher Mrs Hunt starts auditions for the cast of the school musical, Lucy is either going to have to speak up or there will be no parts left. Does she have the courage?

Many of our students are like Lucy, full of worry and anxiety about getting things right, not messing up and being laughed at and it is becoming a huge concern as not only does it impact their mental health, it also reduces their willingness to take those risks that allow us to learn. Sometime, somewhere, somehow, someone has instilled in them that they are meant to be perfect first time and all the time, and thus their lack of faith in their own ability hampers their freedom to do something as simple as predicting what will happen in a story - an essential element of early reading. This is a situation that needs more than a "Don't worry" and so this book could be really useful in opening up discussions about fear of failure and all that's associated with that. Because Lucy's fears are so extreme and unlikely, readers will feel safer because it puts them at arm's length, but they will relate to missing out on something they really want because they didn't speak up. Providing students with strategies to cope if they do have to face their fears, or even a more general one when those uncalled for clouds start to loom in their heads are the ultimate goal but if sharing this so others understand that worry is natural and common, but it shouldn't be overwhelming may lead to less anxiety and thus the book has done its job.

Themes Worry, Courage.

Barbara Braxton

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My favorite memories by Sepdeh Sarihi. Illus. by Julie Voelk

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When her parents tell her that the family is moving to another country, the little girl is quite excited particularly as she is allowed to take her favorite things. But she changes her mind when she discovers that she cannot fit her aquarium, her wooden chair that her grandpa made, the pear tree that was the exact same age as she is, her bus driver and her best friend into the small suitcase her parents give her.

"In that case, I cannot come," she tells her mother and wanders down to the ocean, another of her favourite things. But there, she has an idea and discovers a way that perhaps she can go with her family and have her favourite things. And it takes sharp eyes to see her solution!

Moving to a new place, even if it is not a new country, can be a tough time for children as they don't yet have the knowledge and wisdom to understand that while it may mean leaving the old and familiar, it is also an opportunity to explore the new and unknown so this touching story, translated from the original German is one that will resonate with many of our students. It will also help them understand that while we may have to leave some things behind physically, there is always the memory that we can revisit when we want to remember them.

With illustrations as gentle as the text and its message, this is something new and different to share and talk about. If they were asked to pack their favourite things, what would they be? what would they do with those things that are too big for the suitcase?

Barbara Braxton

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The secret explorers and the rainforest rangers by S. J. King

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The Secret Explorers series will continue to hold the interest of younger readers especially those that enjoy learning new facts while reading a fiction story. Once again the eight highly gifted children, Ollie, Cheng, Gustavo, Leah, Kiki, Roshni, Tamiko and Connor are responsible for a mission to rescue animals or humans and encourage readers to learn about a natural environment. In Book 5, The Secret Explorers and the Rain Forest Rangers, rainforest expert Ollie and engineering expert Kiki are sent on a mission to rescue a baby orangutan lost in the Borneo rainforest. In this story the readers will learn about selfish plantation owners who are plotting to cut down the rainforest in order to plant more trees to harvest palm oil for commercial production. Will Ollie and Kiki with support from the other children at the Exploration Station help save the rainforest?

In every mission, a vehicle aptly named the Beagle, transforms itself into an all-terrain machine suitable for the environment the secret explorers are visiting. Each book contains mission notes, a quiz and a glossary of new and important words. All books in the series introduce younger readers to natural environments around the world that need to be cared for. There are illustrations throughout providing visual links for the reader. Any of the six books would be a great read-aloud in the classroom related to an environmental topic or shared as small group read. A welcome addition to a home, school or public library.

Themes Friends, Climate Change, Environmental Issues, Gifted Children, Rainforests, Rescues, Danger, Problem Solving.

Kathryn Beilby

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