Reviews

The opal dinosaur by Yvonne Mes. Illus. by Sylvia Morris

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The Opal Dinosaur is the true story of the discovery of a smallish dinosaur called an iguanodontid, scientific name Fostoria dhimbangunmal. The dinosaur was named after Bob Foster, who first discovered the bones at Lightning Ridge NSW in 1984, and the Traditional Owners of the lands where the bones were found. It took until 2019 for the dinosaur to be officially named. 

This incredible story began over 100 million years ago when a tiny dinosaur and its herd were chased by a larger dinosaur. The herd were split up and a few were trapped on the crumbling riverbank and ended up in the water where they could not out-swim the fast torrent and perished. As they lay on the riverbank their bones were buried beneath the sand.

Millions of years pass. Humans now walk the land, the Gamilaraay people first and then others who settle in the area. The bone fragments have over the years turned into opals. Fortunately for this little dinosaur Bob Foster realised he had found something special and took them to the Australian Museum in Sydney where they were identified as dinosaur fossils.  Years passed and it is palaeontologist Dr Phil Bell who realises the significance of Bob Foster’s discovery.

This is an absorbing story that will appeal to many young readers as their fascination with dinosaurs, fossils, rocks and minerals, often leads them to seek new books on these topics. The endpapers are particularly stunning with the front displaying a view of Earth showing Gondwana and a timeline starting with the Triassic period, and the back showing Australia from the time of the First Peoples 65000 years ago and the timeline of the important events in the small dinosaur’s journey. In the final pages are comprehensive facts and a detailed glossary. Teacher notes are available.

Themes Dinosaurs, Opals, Extinct animals, Fossils, Australia, Prehistoric Earth.

Kathryn Beilby

Taken by Dinuka McKenzie

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After enjoying the award winning The torrent I immediately picked up the second in the series featuring Detective Kate Miles. Back from parental leave and struggling with her job, Kate is faced with pressure from home as her husband has lost his part-time job and a scandal is hovering over her father’s activities when he was in the police force. When baby Sienna goes missing, Kate is faced with a media circus about the case while desperately searching through clues to what has happened. Is the husband to blame or has an abductor stolen the baby? Is the violent ex-husband to blame?

McKenzie brings to life the pressure that a young woman has trying to juggle a complex job and the demands of being a mother of a baby and a four-year-old, a situation not often seen in mystery novels. Kate is competitive and her offsider Josh is keen to take over the case, and the struggle that she has to convince her boss that she can do the job is one that women will relate to.

The police procedures that are undertaken to try and find a missing child are vividly described and the reader is left feeling emotionally invested in the feelings of the mother who lost a child. Kate too is emotionally invested as Baby Sienna is the same age as her daughter Amy and she knows how she would be feeling if that had happened to her.

Kate Miles is a detective whose investigative skill at turning up clues will keep the reader rivetted while the many twists and turns ramp up the tension. I immediately went on to find Tipping Point, the next in the series. Readers who enjoy books by Chris Hammer and Jane Harper may like this series.

Themes Detectives, Missing persons.

Pat Pledger

Eleanor Jones can't keep a secret by Amy Doak

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Fans of the highly recommended Eleanor Jones is not a murderer will be thrilled to read the second in the series, another thrilling mystery that begs to be read in one sitting. Things have settled down in the small country town of Cooinda for Eleanor and her friends. Eleanor is helping at an aged care home making friends with Nance an elderly patient who admits to witnessing a murder. Although Nance swears her to secrecy Eleanor cannot contain her curiosity. She enlists the help of Jem a volunteer at the local library who is interested in genealogy and they investigate past events and people who have gone missing from the district. The investigation distracts her from her worry about Troy’s glamorous ex who has returned to town, but also leads her into danger as secrets from the past gradually unfold. Can someone with dementia be relied on to remember what has happened many years ago? Is there a murderer hiding among the townspeople?

Eleanor Jones Can’t Keep a Secret is a gripping mystery that I couldn’t put down, finishing it in one afternoon. I loved returning to the small country town and reading about Eleanor and her friends once again. Eleanor is still coming to grips with the idea that she is settled in one place and has friends who care for her. However, she is very uncertain about her relationship with Troy and worries about his glamorous ex, while starting a tentative friendship with Jem at the library. She has been warned off looking into a spate of robberies that have occurred in the district and focuses her attention on investigating Nance’s witness account. But the past and present collide in unexpected and dangerous ways, and she must rely on her ingenuity to overcome the peril that she and her friends face. She also learns some key facts about what a healthy relationship looks like as she navigates the path of friendship.

With its engaging characters and a riveting murder mystery Eleanor Jones Can’t Keep a Secret is a winner. I look forward to the next in the series.

Themes Mystery, Murder, Friendship, Aged care.

Pat Pledger

Numbskull and Nincompoop: Science Fair shenanigans by Adam Wallace and Dave Atze

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Lovers of highly-illustrated series such as WeirDo and Fart Boy (by the same author) will adore the ludicrous, madcap adventures of best friends Mandy and Monty (aka Numbskull and Nincompoop). Their ridiculous names are almost as ridiculous as the things they get up to (including, but not limited to, burning down the neighbours house and drawing with chalk on an airplane runway). One particular chapter that will tickle the funny bone of all readers is when Monty pulls the covers over his head but then has cold feet, so he pulls the covers over his feet and has a cold head. This sequence continues for the entire chapter. Their excuses for being late for school are 'I like banana smoothies' and 'Flies are scary when they yell at you'.

The first half of the book is basically nonsense followed by nonsense, but it's witty and hillarious and the black and white illustrations are perfect and comical. The second half of the book is the battle to win the science fair. But going up against a boy named Samson (his father's name is Montgomery), the self-proclaimed smartest boy in the school, is destined to be difficult. Especially for two kids who think the contest is about 'signs' and 'being fair'. 'I'll see you both in hospital', says their concerned science teacher.' The other half of the fun is witnessing the pure frustration and desparation of Mandy's mother and the complete ignorance of Monty's mum who calls Monty things like 'my squiggly little worm' and is forever trying to shower him with love and affection. And of course, there is toilet humour. This is sure to be a hit for those who have read Fart Boy and are looking for something similar. 

Themes Humorous stories, Friendship, Graphic Novels.

Nicole Nelson

Marvellous Miles by Sarah Watts. Illus. by Aleksandra Szmidt

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Marvellous Miles is a thoughtful look at a medical condition that is often misunderstood in its early stages before diagnosis. Miles has friends he attends school with and while he participates in all activities often he seems to be staring blankly or his body does not move how he wants it to. His parents seek support from the medical profession and after some tests Miles is diagnosed with epilepsy. He is given medication to take regularly and he now finds he can keep up with his classmates. He does get tired though and quiet places are set up for him.

This book has been sponsored by Epilepsy ACT who feel it will raise awareness and offer support especially for children. The illustrations are engaging with an array of colourful animals creatively drawn. Marvellous Miles allows a gentle introduction to further understanding the condition of epilepsy, and will offer adult a supportive text when sharing this information with children.

Themes Epilepsy, Animals, Inclusivity, Education, Medical Intervention.

Kathryn Beilby

Some families change by Jess Galatola Jenni Barrand

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For most children, their family is their safe haven and they expect it to be the same format/structure. arrangement that they know for ever and ever. And, in the past, that was usually the case with perhaps the addition of a baby or the death of an elderly relative the only changes to their world. In the 50s, the term 'nuclear family' was coined and it commonly consisted of two adults, a male and female, who were married, had 2.4 children of their own making with the adult male being the patriarch. And sadly, for many, this remains the 'norm' embedded in their social, cultural or religious value systems meaning that those who choose or have to live outside of that model can be ostracised if not condemned and the casualties are many.

Today's lifestyles mean that this is very different from even the time when I was a child and to some kids, change can be confusing and challenging, and if the change is not a positive one, they can shoulder the responsibility and begin the 'If only I...' tail-chasing blame game. And so this book which covers scenarios including single-parent families, blended families, and the loss of a loved one, can be a reassuring guide for children experiencing such transitions using gentle verse and illustrations that clearly show a photo of any family in the class will be different to the photo of any other. As Ms Molly said, so wisely in Heather has Two Mummies, 'It doesn't matter who makes up a family, the most important thing is that all the people in it love one another very much.'

The core Foundation Year unit of the Humanities and Social Sciences strand of the Australian Curriculum calls for children to know and understand 'the people in their family, where they were born and raised, and how they are related to each other' and thus this book is an essential part of that understanding as they learn that not only are families different but also that theirs might change.

Themes Families, Change.

Barbara Braxton

Milly's parent airport by Rachel Brace. Illus. by Angela Perrini

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Author Rachel Brace is a psychologist who has written two earlier picture books, Max's Divorce Earthquake and Harriet's Expanding Heart. Her latest picture book looks at a young child Milly who transitions between two homes as her parents are divorced. In order to ease the anxiety of the changeover, Milly likens it to an airport. She is packed ready to go, family to say goodbye to, suffering slight anxiety over the journey and what to expect on arrival, and finally arrives at her destination with even more family members to welcome her.  It takes a little bit of time to settle in but soon Milly feels relaxed in her thoughts and ready to feel comfortable.

This is a gentle story thoughtfully constructed and complemented by delightful full colour illustrations. For those young children who struggle with the change in regular living arrangements, this will be a valuable book to share and talk through with a trusted adult.  In the final pages are some worthwhile tips for parents and carers.

Themes Family, Divorce, Separation, Transition, Two Homes.

Kathryn Beilby

The dragon on the train by Ben Brooks

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Elliot is ten years old when his beloved Grandma Ellen passes away. She was Elliot’s best (and only) friend and he doesn’t understand how everyone just expects him to keep going through the motions of daily life without her.  Elliot and Grandma Ellen had always shared a love of music, but now music just makes Elliot sad, so he avoids it.

One morning he finds a mystery ticket under his pillow and that night Kimorin, a small, well-dressed talking dragon, appears in his room. This leads to a twisty, fantasy, time-travel train adventure which sees Elliot visit important people and events from his past and future. Elliot learns how everything and everyone are connected and how important music, family and love are in keeping the ‘Spark’ inside him alive.

The story does dwell on the loss of the grandparent – Elliot repeatedly returns to his grief. But Kimorin, and the others Elliot meets along the way, lighten the mood, focusing on what’s important and enabling Elliot to see a positive future. The steps in working through the grief are gentle, with a touch of humour, and will undoubtedly resonate with children who are dealing with grief in their own lives.

Kimorin is the real star of this book. He is fabulous, funny, and wise – from calling Elliot ‘Olio’, to his warm and informal style of speaking, and his dry humour and sage advice. At one point Elliot despairs at the thought of everyone dying and not being able to do anything to save them. Kimorin says 'Everyone dies, Olio … this chapter don’t go on for ever, not for anyone. The trick is just findin’ ways to cram as many lives and feelin’s and experiences into it as possible'.

Ben Brooks is the well-known author of the Dare to Be Different stories. In this new book he appeals to both reluctant and avid readers, weaving together loss, humour and hope in a clever adventure story with heart.

Themes Grief, Fantasy, Adventure, Time travel, Music.

Kylie Grant

The worm book: Nature's recycler by Karen Tayleur & Guy Holt

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This wonderfully enticing book will show kids just what worms are and what they do. They are certainly Nature’s recyclers (sub title of the book). Published by Wild Dog, the book has a slightly larger than usual format, with a strong well bound cover and heavier pages. Holding it is a treat, and the front cover illustration will encourage further exploration.

After an informative introduction are seven chapters about a variety of worms: segmented worms (2 chapters), roundworms, ribbon worms, flatworms and then weird and wonderful worms. These chapters held me spellbound. Information is given in a breezy manner, holding the readers’ interest with wonderful facts : the earthworm has no legs or feet, and moves using the muscles in its body, worms produce cocoons which may contain up to 20 eggs. I can imagine a load of kids reading this together and being amazed.

The illustrations by Guy Holt will also attract any reader’s attention. He uses photographs and diagrams to accompany the text, and what photos! Check out the Ragworm on page 12, or the carnivorous flatworm on page 19.

All of this is followed by several pages of wonderful and weird facts: the human body is made up of 70% water, while a worm has 90% water, worms existed at the same time as dinosaurs which became extinct 230 million years ago.

Towards the end of this fascinating read is a section on making your own composting system and making your own worm farm. A glossary and index complete this fascinating, wonderfully visual and informative book. Teacher's notes are available.

Themes Worms, Worm farms, Composting, Environment.

Fran Knight

The Birdcage by Eve Chase

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Half-sisters, Lauren, Kat and Flossie, receive a summons from their artist father to visit Rock Point, the old Cornish house where they stayed in summer when young and where their father’s most famous painting 'Girls with Birdcage' was created. They have led very different lives as adults but a terrible secret has always overshadowed their relationship and their return to the house stirs up the past. Is someone watching from the shadows ready to expose what happened?

The birdcage is a gripping read. Chase builds up tension and suspense as the sisters reunite with their father. Rock Point, isolated and sitting on a cliff overlooking a wild sea almost takes on a character of its own. What secrets does it hide?

Told in alternating chapters from each of the sisters’ points of view, the reader is given a glimpse of what happened in the past when they were children and how they are faring as adults in the present. The author leaves the reader guessing and very slowly reveals the secret that has dominated their lives.

This is a slow burning mystery with enough twists and turns to keep the reader trying to work out what happened and whether the dysfunctional family will survive. It is likely to appeal to readers who enjoy stories with a gothic theme and set in Cornwall.

Themes Gothic mystery, Secrets, Dysfunctional families, Sisters.

Pat Pledger

Two sides to every murder by Danielle Valentine

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Danielle Valentine’s How to survive your murder was an ALA Best books for young adults 2023, so I was happy to pick up Two sides to every murder. Set in Camp Lost Lake, which was a murder scene seventeen years earlier, it features two young women, Olivia and Reagan. Olivia was born during the infamous murders and has returned seeking answers about her biological father. Reagan is the daughter of the woman accused of the murders and the pair have been on the run ever since. Convinced her mother is innocent, Reagan returns determined to uncover the culprit. But is the real murderer lurking in the campsite, determined to keep the past a secret?

Two sides to every murder is gripping and I quickly finished it in a couple of sittings, trying to work out who committed the murders. Both girls face danger when they start investigating and neither can be sure of who they can trust. There are clues and red herrings scattered throughout the story, with some information gradually being revealed about both Olivia and Reagan. Then there are wild chases through the dark trees, the sound of twigs snapping as the hooded murderer pursues the girls, a bear trap, and deadly arrows, all to keep the reader glued to the page. What more can be asked of a terrifying mystery set in a forested lakeside campsite?

This is an exciting story, one to enjoy while relaxing in the holidays. The characters are likeable, there is a touch of romance and the setting is terrific. Fans who enjoy danger set in campsites might like to pick up The Lake by Natasha Preston or the thriller The fear by Natasha Preston.

Themes Murder, Thriller.

Pat Pledger

Now for the good news by Planet Ark

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To the future generations of our beautiful planet,
may you remember us not for what we didn’t do,
but what we did, as you set out to do even better.

Planet Ark Environmental Foundation is a not-for-profit Australian organisation renowned for leading environmental change and educating individual, communities, businesses and governments. In their newly published book, Now for the Good News, they are thoughtfully providing positive moments to be shared with children aged from eight years old but may be highly beneficial for upper primary/early secondary.

Now for the Good News is divided into the five clearly defined chapters with the problems occurring in each followed by a blue section that shares the good things that are happening.

Chapter 1: Blue Planet. This chapter mentions oceans, the water cycle, the greenhouse effect and how our oceans are suffering from human abuse. In the blue section it mentions the Seabin, ocean clean up, how Australian schools are taking action plus other innovative ideas including 11 year old Ned Heaton who set up a company called The Turtle Tribe to erase plastic from oceans.

Chapter 2 The Power of Nature. This chapter looks at nature’s cycles: rock, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. It looks at the earth and the importance of soils and how is being mismanaged. In the good news section, we hear about regenerative farming, seed banks and the importance of trees and the habitats they provide.

Chapter 3 The Human Cycle. This chapter is more complex and considers the now overuse of resources by humans. There is an excellent diagram in this chapter, simple in its design using the words; Take / Make / Waste (p71). The good news section looks at solar energy, poo power and innovations in schools, councils and businesses to reduce waste

Chapter 4 Social Innovation. Further develops the circular economy discussed in Chapter 3 and the desire to make money at the expanse of the environment i.e. the coal industry in Australia. The good news section features a small school in Manyallaluk that is doing amazing things in recycling, wildlife monitoring and the planting of trees. This is a remote community working together to make change.  

Chapter 5 The Future. The message is out. We need to take action. The good news section gives further information on plastics, electric cars plus social media influencers who are advocating for change.

This is a positive book to share with children who do worry about the world they are living in. For younger middle grade children sharing the information with adults may be of benefit as some of the ideas and facts mentioned may need further explanation.  Now for the Good News contains clearly labelled diagrams, infographics and illustrations that will add to understanding many of the issues discussed. Teaching notes are available.

Themes Environmental Issues, Solutions, Global Community.

Kathryn Beilby

Test Trouble by Serena Patel and Louise Forshaw

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When his teacher announces that there will be a timed maths test the following Monday, Arun goes into meltdown. Even though he is bright and attentive, tests, especially timed ones, make him feel extremely anxious as he feels the pressure to perform. And so he is determined to get out of it by any means possible staging a protest about tests altogether (which only gets him into more trouble) and even pretending to be sick. But then a conversation with his neighbour helps him see things in a different light....

This is a story that nearly every reader will relate to. The anxiety that comes with the expectation of being tested, and being expected to do well, no matter how often teachers and other adults try to reassure you that it is 'just a test' to let them know how you're coping and that they can know where you need support. The fact is that the fear of not living up to expectations, particularly your own, can become bigger than the test itself and that is what distorts the results, not your lack of knowledge and understanding.

But even though we, as teachers, know this and that there are better ways of assessing a student's progress and program, boffins wanting to protect their positions insist on imposing tests to measure achievement as though a score on a paper on a particular day indicates anything other than that, and using the results to make all sorts of high-stakes claims and decisions. So until there is enlightened leadership, such as the implementation of the ACT Senior Secondary Certificate, which does not require a final exam, our students are going to find themselves in Arun's position, sadly from their Kindergarten year. And so this is a worthwhile addition to every teacher's toolkit, especially those who teach that middle primary area where the fear and anxiety really start to take hold, so it can be shared over and over, especially the conversation that Arun has with Mr Patel on pp 48-49. Sometimes just turning up for something that we are afraid to do is the biggest achievement, and, having done that, the rest is not so hard.

This is a little book that has the potential to have the most enormous impact.

Themes Minority groups, Examinations, Protests.

Barbara Braxton

The promise by Vicki Bennett and Tull Suwannakit

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Maiogaru loved to fish in the waters near her home in Papua New Guinea. She and her sisters caught sailfish, tuna, trout and shark, then took them home for mother to cook. She had been trained as nurse at the mission. Huge noises alerted her to the fact that the Japanese forces were close by. One night a Royal Air Force crash boat was leaving Milne Bay when it was sunk by a Japanese warship. Five survivors clutched pieces of the boat as they drifted away. The next day,  Kidilon pulled an injured airman from the sea where he was fishing. He gave him a coconut to drink and them turned the man over to Maioragu who hid him in a deep cave. Here she dressed his wounds, waiting until he was better able to be moved.

Unusually understated illustrations reveal the story on each page, reflecting the text and its equally unusual story. We rarely hear stories about Papua New Guinea and this one links Australia and our closest neighbour with fortitude and courage associated with links made during World War Two.

Maioragu knows she must get the airman to hospitals and to cross Milne Bay; she covers John with banana leaves and fruit and vegetables. Her perilous trip across Milne Bay between Japanese warships ended when she was able to deliver John to help. She had epitomised her nurse’s promise.

At the end of the war she was awarded the Loyal Service Medal.

This neatly told story of one woman’s courage, will encourage students to ponder how they might cope in similar circumstances. They will be encouraged to look at other stories of selfless courage, and particularly the stories of the Kokoda Track. And of course the story gives teachers the opportunity to look at a map and pinpoint the scene of this action.

Themes Courage, World War Two, Papua New Guinea.

Fran Knight

The Spellshop by Sarah Beth Durst

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The Spellshop is a lovely feel-good cosy cottage fantasy, perfect to read on a cold winter’s day, or when the reader is feeling down. Kiela is a librarian at the Great Library of Alyssium, content to live in a small cubicle with her sentient spider plant, Caz. She rarely speaks to anyone, happy to catalogue the spellbooks in her collection. When rebels set fire to the Library, she and Caz, with crates of precious books, set sail for the distant island where she was born. Arriving there, she realises that she will have to make a living for herself. The nobles of the city have been draining the island’s magic for years and using the spells from the stolen spellbooks she quietly sets up a jam shop and tries to improve the islanders’ lives. With nosy and helpful neighbours like the good looking Larran, she discovers that self-imposed isolation is not always possible.

The Spellshop initially reads like a slow burning romance, but once I become immersed in the story the fantastic setting and fabulous creatures took over. I loved Caz the sentient spider plant, who makes funny and helpful comments and is the best of friends. The merhorses that frolic in the bay are delightful and the idea of cute, winged cats lounging on rooftops brought a smile to my face. It was easy to understand why Keila decided to research her stolen spellbooks to help the island’s inhabitants. The portrayal of the shop, with Keila’s delicious raspberry jam and Bryn’s baked goods, was mouth watering and it was delightful to see Keila gradually emerge from a solitary young woman to a helpful, kind neighbour.

Keila knows that sharing magic with common people is punishable with death, but their need is so great that she does so under the guise of selling herbal remedies that heal trees and make plants grow. When danger comes from the imperial capital the islanders’ ingenuity will be tested as they try to keep their home safe.

Perfect for fans of Travis Baldree’s Legends & lattes, fans may also like to read Durst’s Queens of Renthia fantasy series, starting with The queen of blood.

Themes Cosy Fantasy, Adventure, Friendship, Romance, Mythical creatures, Books, Jam.

Pat Pledger