Reviews

Where's Wally? Santa Spotlight Search by Martin Handford

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A magic ‘torch,’ like a wand that is really a paper spotlight searcher, illuminates the festive season over six scenes abuzz with Santas, elves, people in holiday activities.  Wally’s friends are sure to delight his young fans.

Simple searching games, including a checklist, invite the reader to explore the themes related to Christmas – such as meeting Santa, shopping, a festive ‘bake off’, Santa’s workshop and Christmas Eve.  Children will find searching both engaging and amusing.

Extra wands are available to print online – no batteries required.

Themes Santa Claus.

Cate Telfer

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The warrior in my wardrobe by Simon Farnaby. Illus. by Claire Powell

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‘Magic should have brought joy to their life, instead it had brought trouble and strife.’

This is the second Misadventures of Merdyn the Wild story, following The wizard in my shed published October 2020.

Author Simon Farnaby is a writer and actor who is well-known to anyone who has seen Horrible Histories on TV – he plays Death in the ‘Stupid Deaths’ segment as well as multiple other historical characters. In his first book series he very cleverly manages to educate and impart moral lessons while being thoroughly entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny.

The new instalment starts a year after the events of book one and, for those who haven’t read the first book, contains enough context to easily understand what has happened and who is who.

This fast-paced tale centres on Rose and Kris, siblings who are descendants of wizard Merdyn. Unfortunately, discovering they have magical W-blood has increased the stakes of their sibling rivalry. But suddenly they must go back in time to 521 AD and work together to face Merdyn’s enemies. Along for the ride are Rose’s talking guinea pig, Bubbles (hilariously obsessed with poo), a boy-king called Arthur (who has a fantastic sword) and young Vandal, Vanhessa (who is trying to figure out right from wrong).

The fictional story with twists and turns is liberally supplemented with factual footnotes explaining Olde English terminology as well as customs. It is easy to imagine the Horrible Histories rat popping up at the bottom of the page to deliver these facts!

The morals of the story are neatly woven in without being preachy. Themes of love, family relationships and learning from your elders are explored, while discussion about women’s place in society and what makes a person ‘good’ vs being a ‘baddie’ are also included.

The presentation of this book is very appealing to young readers - a bright neon-orange cover, bold fonts for magic spell wording, rhyming summaries at the end of each chapter, and detailed cartoony illustrations throughout. I absolutely loved this book and, with a to-be-continued feel at the end, am excited to see what the W-bloods might do next!

Themes Magic, Adventure, History, Family, Love, Relationships.

Kylie Grant

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The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco. Illus. by Helene Magisson

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This classic story, first published in 1922, has once more been re-printed, this time featuring the gentle water colours of Helene Magisson to delight a new generation of readers and their parents, who will recall their own beloved toys.

The velveteen rabbit arrives in the nursery as a Christmas present but languishes in the toy cupboard where he made to feel 'very insignificant and commonplace' by other modern and mechanised toys and only befriended by the Skin Horse, a shabby, old, well loved and wiser toy. It is the Skin Horse who tells him about the nursery magic which happens when a toy is very much loved and becomes real in the eyes of the child who loves him.

It is only when Nana, who ruled the nursery, is too busy to find the Boy's favourite toy that the rabbit becomes his bedtime companion and favourite toy enjoying days playing in the garden and nights snuggled together in bed. It is only then that the Boy declares to Nana, 'He isn't a toy. He's REAL!' that the rabbit understands the magic of love. But, later that summer when he meets some real rabbits, he realises that he isn't really real.

When the Boy becomes ill with Scarlet Fever, the rabbit is his constant companion until he is well. On the advice of the Doctor the shabby old rabbit is taken away to be burnt for harbouring germs. It is only then that a miracle occurs and the nursery fairy transforms the rabbit into a live rabbit.

A time honoured story of love is beautifully illustrated with a cool blue/green palette which contrasts with the soft brown spotted rabbit. The toys in the nursery are not the modern variety as would be seen in the Toy Story movies but it would be great to compare the two stories both from a toy variety perspective but also from the emotions expressed by the toys being discarded.

Sue Keane

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What if...? by Lynn Jenkins and Kirrili Lonergan

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Issy's mind was always very busy. She was always wondering "What if..." and then imagining all sorts of situations that scared her. She worried about monsters in her cupboard, aliens taking her in the middle of the night, her bedroom floor turning to quicksand and sucking up both her bed and her.

But her wise mother recognises the anxiety her imagination causes and the power of those two little words, and as she tucks Issy into bed she takes her turn at the "What if..."" But instead of scary things, she takes Issy and her imagination on an amazing and humorous trip of people walking on their hands and wearing their undies on their head; of clouds of different colours that smell of fairy floss and popcorn... Then she invites Issy to try and when she takes her mind in a new direction, her anxiety vanishes.

This is another beautiful offering from the pairing that gave us stories like Tree, and the Little Anxious Children series as the author draws on her expertise and experience as a clinical psychologist to acknowledge children's big feelings and then articulates them in a way that both resonated with the child and helps them develop strategies that empower them to deal with them for themselves. Changing thinking from what if a storm brews, a tree crashes through my window and a vampire bat flies into my bedroom to what if there were hot air balloons that could take me anywhere I wanted to go following a path made by the stars is as powerful as those two words themselves. As Jenkins says, "we are the bosses of our brains" and thus we can choose what we want to think. Lonergan's illustrations in soft pastel colours are as gentle as the story itself, and would be the ideal model for little ones to think of their own what if and then illustrate it, thinking of the way colour can portray mood as much as any other element. A physical reminder to look at whenever their mind starts to wander down dark paths.

There has been much talk about the impact that the last 18-20 months has had on the mental health of our children and so this book, and the others by this couple, are more critical to know about and share than ever.

As well as teachers' notes, Jenkins shares the story herself. 

Themes Worry, Imagination, Happiness.

Barbara Braxton

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The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Father Christmas by Eric Carle

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Even though our children might be fast asleep on Christmas Eve, there is one person who is extremely busy. First he has to dress in his warmest clothes, feed his reindeer so they can manage their long night, and fill the sleigh with presents. And this year there is a special helper. But will he make the journey too, or will he be left behind?

This is a charming story for our youngest readers as they settle down on this night of nights, and they will enjoy looking for that special little helper on each page. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a classic character, integral to the reading development of our children, and to team it up with the iconic Father Christmas has to be a winning partnership that will please parent and child alike.

Themes Board book, Christmas, Father Christmas.

Barbara Braxton

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LEGO Harry Potter Hogwarts at Christmas by Elizabeth Dowsett

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Next year, 2022, celebrates the 25th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and I can still remember receiving a copy and thinking, "Who will read a book with that title." At the time, I was a member of the UK School Libraries Network and suddenly the chatter started, led by someone who generally annoyed me, but this time I was so grateful I read what he had to say! It started a love affair with arguably the most enduring characters to have emerged in recent literature which has included many hours spent reading a genre I'm not in love with, and many dollars on the original merchandise - all of which my grandchildren would like left to them in my will!

So to have new things coming out all these years later is wonderful. In this book, we are introduced to Harry's first Christmas at Hogwarts, exploring and sharing his excitement at what is effectively his first real Christmas ever. Illustrated with figurines and models made from Lego and including a Harry Potter figurine to use, we get to know the main characters and share their Christmas with them. While it is not a building guide, there are lots of opportunities to be inspired by things to make to build new or re-create familiar scenes and objects.

A review is available on youtube.

Barbara Braxton

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Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Big shot by Jeff Kinney

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This is the 16th book in the bestselling Wimpy Kid series, which chronicles the humorous musings of middle-grader Greg. This one is obviously perfect for existing Wimpy Kid fans but particularly for any kid who's ever been a terrible player on a terrible sports team. Greg already knows he's hopeless at sport and his previous experiences with team sport have convinced him that he's just there to make the other players look good. But despite everything, he isn't ready to give up on sports just yet. When he somehow ends up on a basketball team filled with all the kids who weren't picked for the real basketball team he finds himself somehow still the worst of the worst. Is there any hope for a win? The funny twist that comes right at the end is out of left field and will leave readers chuckling. 

The humour in this comes from the naivety of Greg and his attempts to make sense of the madness of the world around him. His outings to the gym and a football game with his father are comical, as are his mum's attempts to teach him about misleading food labels and advertising. As with some of the other books in the series there are some references to physical violence and verbal insults so best suited to a slightly older audience than many other illustrated chapter books. There are, however, some positive messages about extreme perseverance and teamwork. Overall, Big Shot is relatable, fun and super readable: another fantastic addition to the Wimpy Kid series. 

Themes Team Sports, Basketball, Humourous Stories.

Nicole Nelson

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The Great Book-Swapping Machine by Emma Allen and Lisa Coutts

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Late one night, a thing appears in the paddock next to Fabio's house, way out in the outback where people just drove past without stopping.

His dad calls it 'space junk' and rang the Space Agency to come to take it away. But Fabio figures it is more than just junk and when he opens the hatch and climbs inside he discovers books. Books about the galaxy; big, fat books; books full of poems. On the pilot's seat is a book called A Daydreamer's Guide to the Galaxy and he can't resist taking it home, staying up late into the night reading and learning. Next morning he feels he is ready to fly but when he pulls the big red lever, nothing happens and he throws the book out in disgust. The next morning it is gone - but not too far. The girl from next door is reading it and she hands him one of her books. It is the first of many swaps made among all sorts of people, all of whom have to band together to stop the persistent people from the Space Agency from taking the "space junk" away.

This is one of the most enjoyable stories I've read and reviewed this year - but then, given its focus, that's hardly surprising. With its funny, original and imaginative story, whimsical illustrations and an informative fact section, it's a book about the joys of reading and the importance of community, both of which are dear to my heart. While the usual fact pages at the back of any NLA publication give information about the National Library itself ( a familiar, favourite stomping ground for me) and little street libraries it opens the door to investigating the many different libraries in the world such as The Library of Ashurbanipal, the oldest known in the world, to the packhorse librarians of the Appalachians to their local children's library and all stops in between.

I adore stories that send me down rabbit holes of discovery and this one has all the elements to do just that. Listen to the author speaking about the book here.

Themes Books and reading, Community life.

Barbara Braxton

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Ho ho ho! by Kathy Creamer

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This is a festive (almost) wordless graphic picture book with a unique twist at the end. The illustrations follow Santa as he loads up his sleigh and heads up into the skies. 'No chimney', he thinks as he looks at a little house in a snowy winter landscape. So through the front door he goes, finally finding little Lily fast asleep in bed. Or is she asleep? Hearing Santa's 'ho, ho, ho' as he leaves, Lily runs outside to greet him. But then something strange starts happening: a shiny blade is slicing throught the snowy ground. The reader is left a bit confused until all is revealed on the last pages; the story is taking place on a Christmas cake which is being cut into by a happy family. 

This is an interesting tale which will amuse Christmas lovers, simply by the fact that it features Santa and lots of shiny presents. It might require a little explanation for younger readers though, as it is somewhat difficult to understand what is happening and how the two worlds of the story fit together (the world on the cake and the real world). The illustrations are simple but fun and filled with energy. 

Themes Christmas.

Nicole Nelson

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Gustavo, the shy ghost by Flavia Z. Drago

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Gustavo is a ghost. He is good at doing all sorts of paranormal things, like walking through walls, making objects fly and glowing in the dark. And he loves playing beautiful music on his violin. But Gustavo also has a problem. He is SHY. Which means some things are harder for him to do, like getting in a line to buy eye-scream or talking to the other monsters. But Gustavo longs to be a part of something, he longs to be seen. More than anything, he wants to make a friend. So, plucking up all his courage, he sends a very special letter: "Dear Monsters, I would like to invite you to my violin concert at the Day of the Dead party."

But will anybody come?

This is a most delightful, award-winning story that will resonate with so many who find their shyness crippling, to the point that it really impacts their life and stifles their dreams. Based on the creator's own childhood, it offers hope to those who would really like to make a friend by encouraging them to discover their strengths and passions, play to them and share them. Even for those who are not as shy as Gustavo, a lack of confidence in who we are can prevent us from making the most of the situations that present themselves, and this has been quite noticeable after months of having to be at home without the physical contact of our friends. So sharing Gustavo's story, considering the worst that might happen in a situation and then suggesting strategies that could be used if it does can be a starting point to taking that first step. If Gustavo can find a way, our children can.

One to share with all our students as the social season really starts to take off, and even if it's making the first move to make a new friend in the caravan park at the beach, it will open up new horizons.

Barbara Braxton

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Virozone by Sarah Cole

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I am normally a devotee of dystopian drama with strong independent and feisty lead characters (The Hunger Games; Maze Runner or the Divergent series impressed me), but unfortunately Virozone is not in the same league. Sadly, Virozone has potential, but fails to make the mark for me. Set in a world where environmental concerns have divided the community into zones with differing resources – Soil, Air, Fire and Water or the Prestige Zone which seems to have acquired them all with unpleasant power grabs and a sense of entitlement, the setting is uncomfortably unbelievable. The scientific credibility holes are enormous, and this is problematic, even for lovers of dystopian or environmental apocalyptic fiction. (A poisoned water supply that can be solved by boiling the water? Easy for the author, but unlikely!) The central lead character, Lawlie Pearce lives in the AirZone, and she is a strong and spirited female, but the author has plunged her into action without giving her time to grieve after witnessing the death of her mother. Her desire for vengeance leads her to pursue justice but she leaves male friends (or potential love interests) behind with barely a thought or backward glance. Although the action progresses well, the emotional complexities that the author fails to address are also scattered like plot-holes throughout the book. The final dramatic scenes as Lawlie tries to usurp the power of leaders of opposing groups also stumbles because of inappropriate pacing and a struggle with the build-up of tension. Overall, this was like reading a teenage story – promising, but in definite need of a strong hand from an editorial team or an honest friend.

Although I am not willing to recommend this book for its literary merit, there will be some young readers who will look past the strange science, the pace of the plot shifts and the emotional incongruities and read this book and not notice the faults.

Themes Dystopian, Adventure, Privilege and poverty.

Carolyn Hull

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The Odds : Run, Odds, Run by Matt Stanton

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This is book two of The Odds trilogy and follows on immediately from the first instalment. Book one introduced us to quiet Kip and her graphic-novel-writing dad who woke to find ten imaginary characters had come to life in their apartment. 

Now those characters are causing chaos - the apartment is too small and too noisy; the neighbours are complaining, and Kip's dad can't concentrate on his work. And just when things seem bad, they get even worse when a mysterious Woman in a Suit turns up asking questions. 

Kip's dad decides they need a change of scenery and bundles everyone into his car, heading off to a quiet cabin in the woods. As you might expect with so many different personalities all crowded together, there are disagreements and misunderstandings.

The character development and lessons learnt during this book are explicit (there is nothing subtle about them) but are the absolute standout.

All the relationships between characters improve, thanks to discussions about recognising and valuing differences, and about making time for each other. Kip realises that she shares emotions and qualities with all the Odds – bravery, fearfulness, wonder, worry, etc – and that this exact mix is what makes her special and her imagination powerful.

And she realises that to face fears you need to stop running away from them. The book ends ‘to be continued’ as Kip is readying herself and all the Odds to face a new unknown. They all look toward this confidently, holding hands in a row and knowing they can do anything together.

Themes Friendship, Imagination, Adventure, Feelings.

Kylie Grant

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Still by Matt Nable

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Darwin, 1967, is a harsh and unforgiving place. The men are hard, rough, heavy drinkers, while the women wait at home. Still is set before the time of Cyclone Tracy, and Nable provides a vivid description of the stifling heat and the stillness that might come before such a storm, with people living on the edge of violence. It is a story of police corruption, entrenched racism and brutality, and it slowly builds in tension as bodies are discovered, but are too readily dealt with by a disinterested police force.

Ned is a good but flawed man. He is a Senior Constable trained in detective work, and he wants to investigate but finds himself drawn again and again into the heavy drinking culture that pervades the place, until a decisive moment when he has to decide how much he values his relationship with his young wife and baby daughter.

Charlotte, the unhappy wife of a rodeo rider come fire-serviceman, also becomes enmeshed in the mystery. Ned and Charlotte are two characters living separate lives, and with separate problems, but each has a part to play in solving the crimes. It is a slow burning story; the tension is drawn out until the end. The threads are all there, and they all come together neatly at the end, but the real interest lies in the characters of Ned and Charlotte, two very ordinary unheroic people, or people for whom heroism is in the small things.

Complex characters, an extreme environment, and disturbing crimes, all make for an engrossing detective story.

Themes Darwin N.T., Police corruption, Violence, Alcoholism, Racism, Fear, Detective story.

Helen Eddy

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In my mosque by M. O. Yuksel and Hatem Aly

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The mosque as both a place and the way of life it represents plays such a significant role in the lives of so many of our students that this book that explores how it is used by families, friends and communities for worship, learning, eating, helping each other and playing will be welcomed by many. For not only does it reflect the lives of so many - and we know the power of reading about ourselves in books - but it also demystifies the building and what happens within for those who are unfamiliar.

Based on the author's visits to many mosques around the world, it shows both similarities and differences and how through these there is unification overall. Illustrated by the artist behind The Proudest Blue the reader is taken inside a place that radiates peace and love and the simple commentary of what happens explains much.

An important addition to the collection of any library that serves the followers of this faith, as well as others as we try to break down the walls by offering insight and understanding.

Themes Mosques, Muslims, Islam, Spirituality.

Barbara Braxton

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Boss ladies of sport by Phillip Marsden

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Author and illustrator Phillip Marsden begins his latest book with a message as to the story behind its publication. He was watching the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and was amazed at the talent of the female athletes but also their personality and efforts outside their chosen sport. This led him to think more broadly, and this thoughtful compilation is a great reference book for young readers. The athletes are in alphabetical order using their first name and each have a full page of their own. The graphic style image of the athlete is placed in front of their national flag and above this is an inspiring quote from them. Below the image is a paragraph giving more information about them, their life work and their sport. The Australian athletes presented are Ariarne Titmus, Ash Barty, Ellyse Perry, Jess Fox, Kaylee McKeown, Madison De Rozario, Sam Kerr, Stephanie Gilmour, Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho Del Solar. Interspersed amongst the Australians are athletes from around the world including Simone Biles from the USA, Jade Jones from Britain, Elaine Thompson-Herah from Jamaica and Lisa Carrington from New Zealand as well as many others. There are athletes who have represented their countries in the Para Olympics, basketball, tennis, fencing and some of the youngest athletes to compete including 13-year-old Japanese skateboarder Momiji Noshiya. The last athlete is Yusra Mardini who does not have a national flag as she is a voice for refugees all over the world. Her story is quite amazing.

This is a very timely publication with the recent Olympics being fresh in children’s minds. A worthwhile resource for home, school and public library.

Themes Females, Role Models, Sport, Sporting Heroes.

Kathryn Beilby

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