Mel and Shell by Julia Lawrinson

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Heads up Year 5 teachers! Here's a fresh approach for ACARA History curriculum students learning about the settlement and colonisation of Australia. Julia Lawrinson has set her latest book Mel and Shell in WA.This is refreshing in itself because the majority of young readers' fiction currently available that could be matched to the History curriculum, is set in NSW and Vic. Mel and Shell follows Lawrinson's Maddie in the Middle which was a popular 2020 CBCA Notable book. 

When reading Mel and Shell, contemporary students have to travel to two different time periods. The book is structured as a series of letters from Shell to Mary which span the first half of 1979. With 1979 being the sesquicentenary of WA, Shell's class project was to write letters as pretend penpals to one of the original settlers who had arrived in Perth 150 years previously, in 1829. Shell was allotted Mary Ann Swift who sailed on HMS Sulphur captained by Robert Dance.

These letters turn out to be a release valve for Shell who is negotiating the usual shifting friendships and other issues faced by tweens. Interspersed between the unfolding drama of 1979 tweenage issues shared with her long dead predecessor Mary (who becomes something like an agony aunt) Shell shares details of life in the 1970s. She tells Mary of washing machines, electronic games (dated indeed by today's standards) and especially of LP records and her favourite band ABBA. 

The letters are naturally in the first person and thus the reader has access to the inner thoughts of Shell. She is an energetic and sensitive girl, wracked by friendship allegiances, loyalty and behaviour choices. The drama in her life - the words and behaviours of people in class, her teachers and parents, which she can only perceive and negotiate as a year 5 girl, culminate in a dramatic way on school camp where the two worlds, past and present, briefly collide. The resultant shifts in perception make this a coming-of-age story and indeed a "...conversation-starter for parents." Reading Time  

In it's structure, this is quite a clever book. Julia Lawrinson understands the patter and concerns of tweenage girls. This is a book for girls. Those who enjoyed Maddie in the Middle will likewise enjoy Mel and Shell. Teacher's notes are available.

Themes: Friendship, The 70's, WA sesquicentenary, Commemoration, Colonisation.

Wendy Jeffrey