Reviews

Pony by R.J. Palacio

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Pony is an extraordinary story by the American author of Wonder. The central voice is a 12-year-old boy called Silas Bird. It begins in a small town called Boneville, Ohio, in 1860. Silas’ beloved only parent, Pa, is kidnapped by a bunch of outlaws. Against Pa’s wishes Silas chooses to risk his life and follow them, riding a mysterious pony which seemingly returns for him.  He faces personal fears in the woods and fortunately convinces a Marshal to take him on his quest to hunt down the kidnappers. Pa has been targeted because of his ability to take photographs using new scientific techniques. Their intention is to use his skills for counterfeiting money. Fortunately, Silas has an imaginary friend only he can see called Mittenwool. Mittenwool guides Silas on his perilous adventure. Silas likens Mittenwool to a ghost/spirit and Silas realizes he can communicate with other such spirits.

There are many great characters in Pony. Silas is a philosophical principled boy who grows stronger and wiser as he faces violent and nail-biting challenges. Sherriff Chalfont’s and the gruff Deputy’s relationship with Silas add humour and kindness. The spirit/ghosts are not light weight and silly but feel real. There are interesting seeds sewn in the plot, such as the violin case Silas inexplicably takes with him. Historical and scientific tidbits also enrich the story.

I particularly enjoyed the authentic language and unfamiliar words and phrases like “I don’t cotton to folderol like that”. As an Australian who is not so familiar with US children’s literature, I found myself drawing on films like True Grit by the Coen Brothers to understand the time and place. Also, Little Women since it is set in the times of the Civil War. This book is gutsy with shoot-outs and deaths but also has emotional impact and strong themes of goodness and love. Each chapter has a quote to ponder and an old photograph of a person whose image inspired Palacio. It was refreshing to read such a unique story and I believe it will be appreciated by both young adults and adults alike.

Themes Love, Kindness, Courage, Goodness.

Jo Marshall

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The curse of the vampire robot by Graeme Base

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Deep in the Scottish Highlands, many years from now ...Gertie Gif, a lowly cleaning droid from the village of Loch Lan, sets out on an heroic quest to liberate her fellow robo-folk from the curse of a legendary, battery-draining laptop who lives in the castle on the hill.

And with this introduction, Graeme Base creates a story that will appeal to all readers, the computer obsessed and the art lovers, the children who adore rhyming stories and the parents who are looking for something a little different to amuse and engage both themselves and their children.  This is not a book that will scare children but it will keep them on the edges of their seats until the end. 

The curse of the Vampire Robot is set in the future where robots have replaced humans to the point of sharing all of our emotions and idiosyncrasies.  The main character is a brave cleaning drone who travels to the castle on the hill to battle the “vampire” laptop – an energy draining beast.  Along the way she meets many characters including a (soft)ware-wolf and policeman PC Web and witnesses the aftermath of an attack by Voltoid.  The text is full of references to computers with some amazing rhymes set in a format that would be familiar to readers of Graeme Base’s other books. Unlike his other books, all the illustrations are black and white and this adds to the story and the ominous nature of the story without making it too scary for young children. The added details that are synonymous with the authors style, such as a desk-top mouse that looks similar to the real animal and a bat-like lap-top flying above the castle will ensure that even the youngest readers can find something to giggle about and love about this book.

I loved this book and would recommend it highly, it is a book that would fit in any bookshelf and would be brilliant for the classroom to use for story telling, art lessons and book studies. 

This book has many links to classics tales that older readers could use for a book study; an ordinary person who becomes a hero, a journey of danger and a battle between good and evil, all set in a computer-centric world, although they would also enjoy the story on its own too. 

Themes Vampires, Heroes, Computers, Rhyming, Journey, Crime, Robots, Future.

Mhairi Alcorn

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How was that built? by Roma Agrawal. Illus. by Katie Hickey

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How Was That Built? written engineer Roma Agrawal and illustrated by Katie Hickey is a beautifully presented non-fiction book which focuses on stories behind awesome structures from all over the world. The Contents page contains fourteen “How to build…” chapters which includes ideas of how to build long, clean, a dome, across, stable, in outer space, in the sea, as well as others. Each chapter explains the technology behind a famous construction related to each individual topic with an explanation of how it was built, other interesting fact-related material and ideas for trying things at home.

In the How to Build Tall chapter The Shard in London is described in great depth. The author, who worked on the design of this building, includes information about what makes a building stand and introduces the reader to several technical terms. The How to Build Stable chapter provides a comprehensive look at the Te Matau A Pohe, a bridge in earthquake prone New Zealand. To resist earthquakes the engineers left a small gap between the moving and fixed parts so during an earthquake, they are unable to damage each other. The final chapter looks at Building into the Future and is followed by an extensive glossary and finally a snapshot of some very talented engineers.

The detailed and softly coloured illustrations by Katie Hickey include large scale cross sections and drawings of each structure as well as examples of the engineering techniques shown to the reader. The drawings are clearly labelled when necessary and provide an important visual display to accompany the text.  

This book will be a valuable resource for STEM when looking at man-made structures. There are many ideas for budding engineers or builders and so much to learn. A worthwhile purchase for home, school or public libraries.

There is a teaser for the book on Youtube: How Was That Built? The Teaser.... - YouTube plus other promotional videos.

Themes Engineering, Built Structures, Construction, Technology.

Kathryn Beilby

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The adventures of Mittens by Silvio Bruinsma. Illus. by Phoebe Morris

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Sub-titled Wellington's Famous Purr-sonality, this is based on the real-life adventures of Mittens the cat, who is a well-known cat about town in Wellington, New Zealand. The story recounts a week in the life of Mittens, who leaves his brother Latte at home and heads out on an adventures. Children will love watching as he visits some of his favourite spots: trying on hats in the clothing store, hiding amongst the flowers in the florist and stopping at his favourite drinking spot. He meets many people along the way as he stops in at the hairdresser, the police station and an office building and on Saturday is presented with the keys to the city. Sunday is family time and he spends it curled up at home with his brother.

This is a very short, rhyming text perfect for young cat lovers, particularly those who might have a visiting or roaming cat of their own. There is a small write-up at the back of the book about the real Mittens and Latte and the back cover has a helpful list of tips to help family cats co-exist with local wildlife (an important consideration at a time when many areas are clamping down on free-roaming cats). Soft illustrations perfectly complement the gentle flow of the story and showcase the diversity of the Wellington community.

Themes Cats, Rhyming Stories.

Nicole Nelson

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The magical bookshop by Katja Frixe

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Mrs Owl owns the magical bookshop where Clara and her friend Lottie spend their free time until Lottie and her mum move away to put some distance between Lottie’s dad and “Smelly Toes” his girlfriend. 

Clara finds comfort in the book shop and the characters that inhabit it, but when an antique dealer claims that the talking mirror, Mr King, is actually his and plays dirty tricks to get the mirror, Clara must join forces with her new friend and find a way to save the bookshop and ensure that Mr King stays with Mrs Owl. 

This book focuses on Clara and the feeling of loss that comes from a friend moving away, she finds comfort in the bookshop and spend more time there especially once school starts and she discovers that her new teacher, Sophie Rose, is the one person she blames for all her unhappiness, and then there is the new boy who is sitting in Lottie’s seat. Leo helps to make things better and slowly a friendship develops and they join forces to work out a solution to help save all her bookshop friends. 

This book is a lovely read with the characters showing real emotions and what happens when we allow ourselves to accept change and be open to new friendship opportunities.  The story feels real, dealing with loss and bullies and new friends and the unsavory elements of any community and learning to move through anger and betrayal to find the positives in a situation and working together for the greater good.  All of these are included in this book without being too overt or feeling like a lecture.

This is a beautifully told story that has been translated from the original German version, that is the first in a series.  I hope that they translate the other stories as I loved this book and can see it being used in a classroom or family home with equal enjoyment from its readers.

Themes Friendship, Divorce, Magic, Books, Bullying, Community, Change.

Mhairi Alcorn

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The school for talking pets by Kelli Anne Hawkins

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Rusty Mulligan is a reserved Aussie boy who is regularly laughed at by his classmates. His best friend is a blue-tongued lizard named Bongo. He does have one supportive classmate in the person of accident-prone Charlotte, but she is not always able to protect him from the local bullies. Rusty would love to be able to communicate with Bongo and so enters a competition, advertised by a talking cat, to attend The School For Talking Pets – but will a blue-tongued lizard be able to learn to speak? The school enables Rusty and Bongo to meet many animals with amazing skills, but then it seems that the school is under threat. Will Rusty and Bongo be needed to save the school?

This is a gentle fantasy, with elements of humour, mystery and anguish as the young boy addresses his own feelings of inferiority in the face of the successes of others. This will be a story that resonates on many levels, but the delight of discovering the conversation and talents of many animals has a joyful quality that children aged 8-12 will love. I will be recommending this book to capable independent readers who enjoy a longer story, but who are still wanting a story that is fun and not too complex.

Themes Animals, Competitions, Adventure, Language.

Carolyn Hull

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All about Ella by Meredith Appleyard

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Ella has led a supportive life, being wife of a successful builder and mother of three now adult children. She has nursed her husband through a terminal illness enabling him to die at home as was his last wish. Now, at 70 she finds herself exhausted and bereft and unable to clearly articulate her wishes. The children quickly persuade Ella to sell the leafy eastern suburbs family home in Adelaide and move in with son Anthony, wife Kirsten and grandchildren Sophie and Stefan while they build her a granny flat on their property. When the relationship breaks down Ella leaves and drives north, ending up in Cutlers Bay a small seaside town on the Yorke Peninsula near her best friend's property. There she befriends drifter Angie Daniels who has left a failed relationship in Cairns and is making her way towards Perth where her mother lives. She also meets, in the course of his duties, local police sergeant Zach Cooper when Ella’s family reports her missing suggesting she is not in her right mind. Zach too is recently single and is determined to protect his emotions even though he is attracted to Angie. As the relationship with Ella’s family deteriorates further she finds support and friendship in the small country town and begins to rebuild her life and her determination to fight for her rights. After supressing her own wants and desires for so long Ella needs time and space to regain her emotional balance but her family have invoked their Power of Attorney claiming she is mentally incapable of making decisions and thwarting her plans to buy a run-down property in Cutlers Bay.

Ella’s first person narrative is alternated with the third person parallel narratives of Angie and Zach as they each negotiate challenges and gradually build their own relationships with each other, their families and the community. Like domestic violence, elder abuse can occur in the most unlikely of places and this subtle exploration of the importance of self-determination and the right to choose whilst still acknowledging the importance of family and friends is worth reflection. Ella’s relationship with 14 year old grandson Stefan is delightfully written but his mother, Kristen, is a less believable character.

Appleyard has created a well written, entertaining story set in a charming country town about courageous individuals that will appeal especially to older adults.

Themes Relationships, Ageism, Family.

Sue Speck

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Ten delicious teachers by Ross Montgomery and Sarah Warburton

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For little ones who would delight in the idea of their teachers being eaten by monsters, comes this rhyming picture book about just that. 'Ten tired teachers are finished for the day, The kids have gone, the homework's marked, the chairs are tucked away' and they're off home. Too bad they've missed the last bus...would they brave the shortcut through the dark forest? And so begins the countdown from ten to one as each teacher is cornered, tricked or trapped into the jaws of a monster. Miss Hunter, the nursery teacher, is the last one standing. But being a feast for a monster is not something she will tolerate. 'Stop that at once!', she shouts at the hungry horde, before declaring their need for a proper education. 'Ten uneasy monsters at their brand-new monster school, Learning how to be polite and follow all the rules'.  

The illustrations in this are perfection and the text is wonderfully paced and fun to read aloud. There is plenty of discussion to be had with children about what is going to happen next, particularly on the front cover that features ten monsters rather than ten teachers. They will also love the naivety of the teachers, who trust the sign that declares 'no monsters here!' and don't notice the monsters lurking in the trees. The hairy, colourful monsters are not scary and while the teacher feast is implied it is in no way evident within the pictures. This is a fun, nonsensical read aloud with wonderful illustrations (and particularly great endpaper artwork).

Themes Teachers, Counting Book, Monsters, Rhyming Story.

Nicole Nelson

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Stars in their eyes by Jessica Walton and Aska

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This is a graphic novel with a 14-year-old central character, Maisie, who is not defined by her disability as a post-cancer amputee, but who lives with the adjustments that this brings to her life. She has also recently identified as queer. Her single mother has bought tickets to a Fancon event which includes a feisty character from her favourite show, and Maisie is excited to see another high-profile amputee. When she arrives, she meets 15-year-old Ollie and instantly connects. Ollie’s pronouns of preference are they/them and they both bond over a mutual love of Comic-Con favourites. Long conversations and a first kiss follow, but there is no immediate happily-ever-after for them, as they live in different states.

With clever commentary from the perspective of someone with a visible disability and who also identifies as queer as well as battling with pain and anxiety, this graphic novel is a quick insight and journey of empathy. The world of the Comic-con community is also entertaining. The author has cleverly woven some well-known Fan favourites with some tweaked references (eg ‘Bader’ reveals he’s ‘Duke’s’ father, and the Time Doctor). If the intention of the author (who is also a queer amputee) was to see representation in literature of young people with disabilities or who are queer, she has succeeded. This could be added to a library’s LGBTIQ collection. There are also some lovely moments with Maisie and her mother, revealing the dilemmas of teenage life and the humour of their relationship. Illustrations are complementary to the text and display slightly comedic aspects.

Recommended for readers, aged 13+. Teacher's notes are available.

Themes LGBTIQ, Disability, Comic-Con/Fancon, Friendship, Discrimination, Anxiety, Graphic novel.

Carolyn Hull

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Made by Morgan by Morgan Hipworth

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Made by Morgan is an entertaining and attractively presented cookbook by young Australian chef Morgan Hipworth. His journey is quite a story and well worth reading. Only just now in his early twenties, to read of Morgan’s continuing achievements is extremely inspiring. He readily admits to being a fussy eater as a young child but through experimenting with food and sharing experiences with his family, he developed a passion for creating dishes to entice his clientele. His earliest signature dish and where he became known as 'that doughnut kid from Melbourne' led him on a remarkable journey. Morgan has a huge presence on both television and social media.

The recipes in this book range from easy to complex and are Morgan’s own versions of food he has tasted around the world. The book begins with a Contents page which includes four food chapters under the headings of Breakfast, Mains, Sweet Treats and Anytime, each colour-coded for easy recognition. Following the contents page is a reader-friendly account of Morgan’s journey so far and a page about his own cooking style.  Each recipe, which may be spread over two-four pages, has a worthwhile guide at the top highlighting total prep time and cook time, serves and difficulty. There are beautiful photos of each dish as well as extra tips from Morgan on many of the pages. The book ends with a very detailed and handy glossary, an index and acknowledgments.

This first cookbook by Morgan has a personal feel to it as he prefaces each recipe with his honest thoughts and comments. For example, when reading the recipe of Massaman Curry with Roti Canal, he openly admits, 'it’s far from quick and easy, but I promise it’s worth it' or with his Steak Quesadillas, 'you’ll find these on my dinner table at least once a week.'

This is a cookbook that will challenge budding cooks at times but is so welcoming in its presentation and style that it will be a hit with those who have followed Morgan’s journey or may aspire to achieve their own great heights in the area of cooking.

Themes Cooking, Recipes, Life Journey.

Kathryn Beilby

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Star by Artelle Lenthall and Margaret Dewar

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The Nativity story is well known, but this book tells the story of the star’s role at the time of the birth of Jesus.  Star is initially just an unspectacular ‘twinkler’, but an Angel reveals that Star has a starring role that will come. Star’s compassion for Mary as she travels to Bethlehem causes Star to grow and burn more brightly and to have a guiding role in the Nativity story.

This re-telling of an exceptionally well-known story with a slightly different perspective has a gentle, understated feel. The usual emphasis of the story (the infant Jesus) is revealed, but the Star’s transformation and importance while shining with compassion, is the empowering quality and focus. Margaret Dewar’s illustrations for this story are delightful and their clarity shines on every page. This can comfortably be added to a library or family collection and read to young children prior to Christmas.

Themes Christmas nativity, Stars, Compassion.

Carolyn Hull

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Nelson Eggplants and dinosaurs by Andrew Levins. Illus. by Katie Kear

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This is the third instalment in the action-packed series about Nelson and his vegetable-enabled superpowers. Previous titles (Pumpkins and AliensBroccoli and Spies) have already seen Nelson discover that pumpkin makes him super strong and broccoli turns him invisible...the only problem is he HATES eating them! But being a superhero calls for desparate measures, so in his trusty bumbag Nelson carries around an assortment of the very things he despises the most. He also has on hand a feather so that he can vomit and get back to his normal self. Children in this target age group will love the vomiting (it's even featured on the front cover) and the high-action fight scenes, which are described in great detail.

In this story, somebody is stealing every book about dinosaurs from every library and bookshop in the country and the only one left is in Nelson's school library. Can he protect the book and find out who is behind this crime? In an almighty coincidence a taste of unwanted eggplant sees Nelson turn into a giant purple dinosaur and that might be just the superpower he needs to defeat the awful robot villain who is trying to erase all evidence of dinosaurs. 

Black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the story, with pops of purple in homage to the featured aubergine. This is quite a long chapter book with extended blocks of text, so suited to more advanced readers in the target age group or as a readaloud. This will be of most interest to children who enjoy funny stories about ordinary kids with superheroes and epic battles with evil villains.

Themes Superpowers, Action Stories.

Nicole Nelson

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Moose's book bus by Inga Moore

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When Moose tells a story to his family each night, they are transfixed. But one night he runs out of stories. He visits his neighbours, Bear, Badger and Fox but not one of them has a book he could use. And neither does Hare, Mole, the Wild Pigs and even the Beavers. No one has a book to lend him, so he goes into town and visits the library. The librarian offers him a stack of books: Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, and Puss in Boots. He takes them eagerly and that night reads a story to his family. Bear’s family has come in to listen as well, and the next day Mrs Bear tells Badger and so each night more of their neighbours knock at the door to listen to a story. Mrs Moose is rushed off her feet keeping up with mugs of cocoa and the sitting room is beginning to resemble a sardine can.

Moose buys an old bus from the caryard and fits it out like a library which the librarian fills with books. Everyone is happy but when Moose suggests that the others read stories to their families in their own homes he is dismayed to find that none of them can read. So Moose teaches them. Another problem solved.

After that the animals can borrow their own books from the library and take them home to read with their families, but some still go along to the Moose household to listen to Moose, as sharing reading is wonderful.

This celebration of reading reinforces the value of reading to a younger audience.  They will be thrilled to hear the titles, Red Riding Hood and Cinderella amongst those mentioned, and sure to ask for them to be read to them after this book is finished. The value of learning to read is encouraged through the book, and all is wrapped up tightly with family and friends, sharing and hospitality.

The understated illustrations are full of life, and eager eyes will dart around the pages recognising the variety of English animals which can be spotted. I love the depiction of the animals in human poses: Moose’s crossed legs made me laugh out loud, while
the image of a cluster of offspring and a parent on the couch is priceless. Readers will love counting all those offspring, working out the names for each, working out which story is being read and enjoy the importance given to reading and books, libraries and librarians.

Themes Animals, Books, Libraries, Problem solving, Librarians, Humour, Family.

Fran Knight

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Kate in waiting by Becky Albertalli

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Contrary to popular belief, best friends Kate Garfield and Anderson Walker are not co-dependent. Carpooling to and from theatre rehearsals? Environmentally sound and efficient. Consulting each other on every single life decision? Basic good judgment. Pining for the same guys from afar? Shared crushes are more fun anyway.

But when Kate and Andy’s latest long-distance crush shows up at their school, everything goes off script. Matt Olsson is talented and sweet, and Kate likes him. She really likes him. The only problem? So does Anderson.

Turns out, communal crushes aren’t so fun when real feelings are involved. This one might even bring the curtains down on Kate and Anderson’s friendship.

Kate in waiting is a charming, funny and wholesome story, exactly what one would expect from Becky Albertalli. The emphasis on friendship and platonic relationships was very refreshing and showed that it is very much just as important, if not more, than romance.

The characters were realistic and represented teenagers in a way that was respectful and accurate. There was no unnecessary drama and each of the characters worked their way through their emotions in a way that was a true representation to teenagers in today’s society. 

The representation in this book is fantastic and executed perfectly. The inclusivity wasn't used as a main plot or storyline, it was just a character trait they had. They existed within the story without being used as the token gay/black/disabled etc. character, just for the sake of it.

Overall, a sweet read and one for Becky Albertalli fans to sink their teeth into.

Themes Bullying, Homosexuality, Friendship, Relationships.

Emily Feetham

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Harry Potter - Magical creatures: A Movie Scrapbook

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Harry Potter fans will relish the opportunity to collect and read another movie scrapbook based on the Harry Potter films. Titled Harry Potter MAGICAL CREATURES this latest scrapbook is a treasure trove of information on the beings, beasts and creatures from the movie. This beautifully presented publication provides a closer look at the well-known and in some cases lesser-known creatures of Hogwarts as well as the Fantastic Beasts. It includes bonus art prints, stickers and collectible inserts. Prefect for all readers of Harry Potter.

The Contents page is separated into headings of Companions, In the Classroom and Forest, Dragons, Under the Lake and Castle, Unexpected and Unwanted Visitors under the main heading of Creatures of Hogwarts. The first companion mentioned is Hedwig, the well-known snowy white owl gifted to Harry Potter by Hagrid, and who becomes his trusted ally throughout the series. Another companion is Scabbers, Ron Weasley’s rat, that joins the two friends in the first movie. Under the Fantastic Beasts main heading are five names which may be unfamiliar to some readers. These include the Bowtruckles, which are small woody creatures that resemble stick insects and saplings which nest in wand-quality wood and the Nifflers who are born with an instinctive desire for shiny things.

Each page of information is presented in different coloured sections surrounded by distinct, glossy photos. There are brief and interesting facts presented throughout informing the reader of special effects and how the creatures were created, interacted and cared for in the making of the movies. Did you know that Trevor, Neville Longbottom’s pet toad, was played by a quartet of toads housed in a large, heated moss-based aquarium?

This is a wonderful book to gift to those adults and children who are already fans of the book and movie series or who are just beginning their journey.

Themes Harry Potter, Magic, Beasts, Creatures, Film Effects, Collectibles.

Kathryn Beilby

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