Ghost by Jason Reynolds is book one of a four book series called Run. The subtitle: Running FOR his life, or FROM it? encapsulates the theme of the story.
This book needs to go straight into the hands of reluctant teenage readers (especially boys), into the hands of any student who has had a hard upbringing or is suffering from PTSD, or who is feeling angry and getting into trouble at school, or who gets teased and left out of the crowd or whose parents are struggling financially and unable to buy the fanciest running shoes and gymgear. Actually it would be a delight to read to a Middle years class. It would captivate them immediately.
The reader is drawn into the thoughts and the world of Ghost, the main protagonist. Ghost is in about year 7. The story is from his perspective, told in first person in present tense. Ghost is an edgy, excitable, feisty, active and energetic twelve or something year old. His voice captivates. "CHECK THIS OUT," he begins. He is totally informative. He tells the story like he is right there talking with you. The language is informal and one can't help but warm immediately to Ghost. He's interested in World records. Each chapter reflects this as his story proceeds with him winning the world record for the most altercations, for the fastest try-out ever, for the worst day ever, for the most runaways in a single day, for the longest run after the most runaways in a single day, for the best Friday ever after the worst Wednesday and Thursday ever, for having the best secret, for cleaning the dirtiest car and finally race day.
Middle School readers could not help but identify with Ghost as he gets into trouble and more trouble. He is saved by those all important adult mentors in life who one hopes will be there to step in to support, give tough love and show a boy how to fix mistakes, step up in life and develop self esteem. Ghost is given a chance to join a running team and along the way he begins to make some friends. These friends are the main protagonists of the next three books in the series: Patina, Sunny and Lu.
Jason Reynolds writes about real issues that happen to kids. He is a multi-award winning author. As Ghost touches on issues of gun violence, domestic abuse, poverty and has drug references, younger readers would be advised to read it alongside an adult.
Highly recommended, accessible, warm hearted book for Middle Years readers.
Themes Friendship, Coming of age, Running, Finding yourself and your group, Read aloud.
The Wish Sisters: The Christmas wish by Allison Rushby. Illus. by Karen Blair
University of Queensland Press, 2023. ISBN: 9780702266362. (Age:6-8) Recommended.
A charming, festive addition to the comical, illustrated series written for newly independent readers. For Flick and Birdie this is an emotional time as it is their first Christmas without their Granny Aggie, who always made Christmas so special for everyone. Looking at her long, sad face Flick’s mother suggests making Gingerbread houses using Granny’s recipe and soon invitations to help go to their lonely neighbours Mrs Mortlock and Mr Tran. Unfortunately, Mrs Mortlock and Mr Tran don’t know about Birdie’s wishing powers and through the story there are some entertaining, near-miss moments where Flick needs to think quickly to keep it that way. A ginger plant forest, purple ornaments on the Xmas tree thanks to the naughty Imp, a sudden snowstorm and gingerbread people that come alive are just a few of the things that make this book so amusing for these younger readers. A helpful, double page spread at the beginning of the book introduces the Wish sisters and explains the details of how they came to be able to make wishes.
New York based Elizabeth Lim is a successful writer of fantasy stories. Her books have been translated into over twenty languages. Her radiant curse follows her bestselling duology - Six crimson cranes.
In Her radiant curse we have an amalgam of fairytale, myth and fantasy. Fragments reminiscent of European tales such as The frog prince, Beauty and the beast and Hansel and Gretel are mixed into richly depicted tropical and frozen Asian settings as the heroine Channi travels on her quest to save her sister. The story is told in first person through the feisty Channi's eyes. She is fed wisdom and advice (in italics) by the voices of her magical animal and beast companions throughout the story.
The setting in Her radiant curse is at first natural - an Asian village in close proximity to tropical jungle. Channi develops an affinity with the magical creatures of the jungle and strength borne of toxic, magical blood. A failed sacrifice of her life as a child, strengthens her into an indomitable, relentless warrior who fights to protect her beautiful sister from the fate that awaits her on her seventeenth birthday - shades of the prick of a finger on a spinning wheel! As Channi was filled with the power of toxic blood, she was also cursed to wear the face of a snake and so the ying and the yang/ the beauty and the beast dichotomy of the two sisters is the wellspring of all that follows.
Blessed with beauty, Vanna is beset with marriage proposals; Channi develops as her lifelong protector. Magical alliances are formed and broken, violent and monstrous battles are raged, the heavens are split, the seas are fractured, the land smokes as hordes of fantastical creatures attack. Channi pursues her quest to break the curse of the demon witch.
There is romance and there is high cinematic action. There is a spectacular climax and for this reader a disappointing-seemingly hasty and unlikely conclusion. Although the loyalty is unbreakable between the two sisters, forgiveness is not apparent elsewhere. There are weak flutters of sympathy and awareness of suffering but no mercy. The ability to truly love and forgive is limited to the sisterly bond. All other relationships with well developed characters are severed and a bland end follows. This reader is still trying to work this out. Is it that after such dramatic adventure and utter passionate love, life just fades into nothing much?
Recommended for lovers of fantasy, romance and coming of age stories.
For fans who like psychological thrillers, Just like the other girls is sure to appeal. Una is a young woman who believes she has the perfect job as companion to elderly Mrs. Elspeth McKenzie in a beautiful house. She learns that two girls had lived there before her and that Kathryn the daughter of the house bitterly resents her. What has happened to the girls? What are the McKenzies hiding? Is she safe?
The beautiful mansion gives the novel a gothic feel and the personalities of the girls, Elspeth and her daughter Kathryn, are well developed. Told in Part One from the point of view of Una, Part Two introduces another young woman, Willow who takes up the story. Willow looks like the girls who have gone missing and resembles Elspeth’s daughter who had disappeared many years ago. And Willow wants to know where Una has gone.
With plenty of red herrings and enough suspense to ensure that the novel is difficult to put down, Douglas has created an engrossing thriller that has a sense of foreboding throughout. I look forward to reading other books by Douglas.
The title page has a pair of lifesize talons greeting the reader and a brief description of the eagle to which they belong, the most dangerous eagle in the world. So starts this powerful and mesmerising book showing a range of dangerous animals in life size. We are told to look out.
Turning the page, we find the paw of a cheetah, the fastest animal in the world, but not the most successful predator. Why? Turning the page we find just which animals are described in that way and it is certainly not the ones readers will expect. Over the page is an alligator and we are told about its jaws and bite, but it cannot chew. So how does it eat?
Over again, we find electric eels, bullet ants and blue dart frogs, each most successful predators. Turning the book on its side we are introduced to the Bengal Loris, a deadly creature which lives in trees, using a gland in its armpit to produce flesh rotting venom. What a skill!
Chinese Bengal lorises, Malayan porcupines, tigers from South China, a Chinese bird spider, Burmese python, leopards, Malaysian sun bears, and lions are included in this lot of land based animals, the life sized close up of some making readers pull back with surprise. Each is given a place on the earth where they can be found, a name and a few facts about what they live on and how they catch their prey. Kids will love it. Then the book turns its focus to the oceans, and by now, kids will have begun thinking about the nasties that live there. This double page includes a shark, of course, as well as box jellyfish, spotted porcupine fish, and cone snail.
Each page is colourful and informative, the illustrations matching the text to perfection. Some images are life size, some not but still give a little frisson of concern. Younger readers will love scaring each other with the fascinating facts and powerful illustrators.
The book invites readers to assess how they would stand up to these deadly animals, and the last double page shows readers how big some of the animals presented are. An informative introduction by the author, particularly about sharks, and be found here.
There are three others in this Lifesize series, Lifesize Baby Animals, Lifesize creepy crawlies and Lifesize Dinosaurs.
This is an outstanding book - intense and beguiling!For the central character, July Fielding, there is a ‘Now’ and a ‘Once’. She tells the story of her past and her current state, her ‘Now’, as the ‘only girl in town’. Abandoned by all around her, even the ones closest to her, in an enigmatic half-life mystery where everyone has disappeared, she tells the story of her ‘Once’ existence as a popular teenager.Her best friend, running mates, boyfriend and former first-kiss partner, and her family are all extremely important to her, but they are no longer with her – they have disappeared. Only her cat, YOLO, reappears as a support to her in her current painful life. As she reflects on the mystery of her Now and the importance of her past (the ‘Once’ she remembers), there is both an unravelling and a putting back together of her life. Will we as readers understand the mystery and the direction of her life and understand July’s path to a future?
This is brilliantly written, an enigmatic and almost ethereal journey through the agony and discomfort of adolescent mental pain. Written reflectively, July is presented as a much respected, loved and ‘together’ teenager with anything possible for her future. With glimpses of possible struggles scattered through the ‘Once’ chapters, the book mostly paints a picture of abandonment and isolation for the central character in a mysterious crisis. Her revelation of the cause of her struggles happens slowly, revealed in short, sharp chapters, and creating distress for the reader as the unknown continues to play out. This is such a powerfully woven story; it would be worthy of study by senior students, but equally it is an enthralling, entertaining (although serious) story for teenagers aged 15+. The narrative is not in chronological order, the central character is an unreliable narrator, there are baffling clues, the unfolding of the drama is not linear, there are links to other texts and also transcripts from conversations, and consequently this is a book requiring a degree of maturity for YA readers. But it is magnificent! It is the kind of story that makes you want to immediately re-read the book to see how the author has managed to obfuscate the details that are so important. Only in finishing the story can you see where it was leading. It is absolutely worth the journey.
Borderland is an eco-horror focused young adult novel from debut author Graham Akhurst. Akhurst is a writer and academic who is currently Lecturer of Indigenous Australian Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). He is also the first Aboriginal Australian to receive a Fulbright Scholarship. Borderland is an excellent first offering in what is sure to be a successful career in young adult fiction.
The novel follows young First Nations teenager Jono Lane as he graduates from school and tries to decide what he wants to do with his life. Jono attended an elite private school in inner Brisbane where he was lucky enough to receive a scholarship – and where they never let him forget how lucky he was. The only thing Jono wants to continue from his time there is his friendship with Jenny, the only other Aboriginal student at the school.
Both Jono and Jenny become involved with a local Aboriginal Performing Arts Centre and from there they land themselves their first paid gigs with a documentary crew planning to film in rural Queensland. At first, Jono doesn’t care what the documentary is about or about its connection to a proposed mining project, he’s just excited to be getting paid to spend more time with Jenny. But soon, he begins to hear and see things in the shadows. Something or someone is trying to tell him things and it might be time to start listening.
Borderland is the perfect novel for a socially, politically, and environmentally switched on generation of teenagers. It deals with heavy themes such as identity, colonisation, racism and environmentalism in a way that is accessible and realistic for young people. It is a novel that is relevant for our time and for the concerns of this generation of young adults and adults alike. It is highly recommended.
Let's save the Great Barrier Reef by Catherine Barr. Illus. by Jean Claude
Walker Books, 2023. ISBN: 9781529513615.
Australia's Great Barrier Reef is home to a quarter of all ocean life, but it also has many other roles to play in the ecosystems of the region including protecting the Queensland coast from powerful ocean weather and waves, sheltering the communities that are spread along the shoreline.
This, and many other reasons for its protection are presented in this picture book for young readers, each starting with the line, 'Let's save the Great Barrier Reef because... ' followed by a clear but simple explanation and accompanied by stunning illustrations that really drive home the message.
Part of a series which includes other significant at-risk regions of the planet, the underlying, common threat to all is climate change, and while young readers might not fully understand this or perhaps feel they can do little about it, it does include a few tips about the small differences they can make which, if shared broadly, will make a big difference.
While it will serve as an introduction to this unique location for young readers, it could also serve as the springboard for a broader investigation for more mature students. Just starting with the phrase 'Let's save the Great Barrier Reef because... ' could initiate either deeper investigations into the reasons already provided, search for other reasons or even look at the importance and imp[act of coral reefs in general. There are also teachers' notes available to explore other ideas.
A little bit whimsical, a little bit eccentric a little bit adventurous and a little bit sad … this is the story of Kip who is a little bit picked on, and a little bit undervalued by everyone around her. All these bits added together make for a strangely idiosyncratic book. Kip lives in South Africa, and as the child of mixed-race parents knows what it is like to be left out and undervalued. Even her eccentric Dad seems more interested in tinkering in his shed and things with wings than in his own daughter. A bizarre, but furry hatchling (without wings) proves to be just what she needs to feel loved, and a classmate connects at just the right time. Sadly though, someone else sees the potential in her unique new friend and Kip must travel beyond her normal life in her ghostly home to rescue the creature, and her new friend supports her in the venture.
At every turn, and at every stage, it seems that there are serendipitous, odd things happening in Kip’s life. Her schoolteacher is far from normal, hair can come in many different inexplicable styles, animals act strangely, and her new friends are far from mundane. Do not expect anything to represent real life in this exceptionally quirky tale, but there is nothing magical about the story, only eccentricity. Underlying the strange fantasy though are some deeper issues of abandonment, bullying, racial prejudice, but all dealt with in a gentle fly-pass manner that some child readers will miss. This is a book for readers who can cope with ‘odd’, perhaps those who have enjoyed Katrina Nannestad’s quirky Olive of Groves fantasy stories might also connect with this story. Recommended for readers aged 8-11 - but only if they can cope with eccentricity.
Themes Fantasy, Family, Friendship, Pets, Bullying, South Africa.
The Magic Faraway Tree: A Christmas adventure by Jacqueline Wilson
A second offering from Jacqueline Wilson that is inspired by the stories about the Magic Faraway tree written by Enid Blyton. This time the children – Milo, Mia and Birdy - who were introduced in the first book, stay at the cottage beside the Magic Faraway Tree in winter for a Christmas holiday. They soon find all their friends at the top of the tree and are excited to see new lands arrive each time they slip out of the cottage to visit the tree. They enjoy the Land of Sunshine where they play on the beach, swim with mermaids and have a lovely beach picnic. The land of the Frozen North presents some interesting experiences, such as meeting friendly bears, arctic foxes and running away from terrifying wolves, not to mention seeing Santa’s reindeer fly out of danger. Each land they visit presents new experiences and new challenges and the Land of Toys is so appropriate for this story set at Christmas time.
This book is perfect for reading as a bedtime chapter book for younger children as it uses simple language and contains a selection of small illustrations. The font is larger than most books this size making it ideal for young independent readers as well.
If you have read Julian is a mermaid and Julian at the wedding then you will know Jessica Love’s wonderful illustrations. Combined with award winning author, Muon Thi Van’s engrossing story of love, I love you because I love you will give every reader a warm feeling of recognition and desirability. From the front cover children will recognise the emphasis on family, of sharing, of being together.
Each beautiful page turns the words around. The first statement says, ‘I love you because you’re here,’ becomes on the facing page, ‘Because I love you, I am here’. So through the book are such reflective statements which will intrigue the readers.
On one page is a couple with the child, on another, we see grandparents, on another, a Mum, and on others, the child and their friends. Sometimes the single person is a Dad, sometimes a Mum, and children will be pleased to see a wide rage of family styles covered.
The fun filled pages will make readers smile, as we see people doing a lot of things together: looking at the stars, swinging on a swing hung in a tree, being tossed in the air, having afternoon tea, soccer, climbing the tree, painting, being part of an audience at a sports game. Each time we read one of these sentences that is turned around, we are having the idea of family reinforced.
This lovely book will be a treat to read aloud, asking children to see how they can turn the sentence around to reflect the love that exists between member of the extended family.
Wrapped in a dirty cloth, in a battered suitcase hidden under their grandmother’s bed, two young sisters discover a gleaming knife – a discovery that leads to an appalling event that changes their lives forever. The trauma sees 7 year old Bibiana and 6 year old Belonisia linked forever, much like the older twins Crispina and Crispiniana living in their village. In fact the older pair become a kind of moral lesson warning of the consequences if ever there should be discord between them.
The trauma with the knife begins Vieira Junior’s story woven with Brazilian folklore and magic. It is a knife with a history that is only gradually uncovered, and its significance is played out at the very end. It is a story of a family of traditional healers, the girls’ grandmother is a ‘catcher of babies’, and their father is the renowned healer Zeca Chapeu Grande who becomes ritually inhabited by encantados or spirits. The people of their village are all poor, struggling to survive as unpaid labourers on the plantations of the wealthy landowners.
Although slavery was abolished in Brazil in the late 19th century, there was little change for the plantation workers. They were allowed to build temporary mud huts on the land most had inhabited their whole lives, and they were allowed to grow their own vegetables on the one day they had off from working in the fields. But if their little home crops became too bountiful, they were likely to be expropriated by greedy landowners who claimed ownership of everything the land produced. Fear of being driven out left the workers powerless, afraid to protest.
Vieira Junior’s novel draws in the reader with the story of Bibiana and Belonisia and the magical traditions and beliefs, at the same time exposing the harshness of the peasant life on the land, and social inequalities that persist today. Crooked plow’s unique mixture of magical and social realism has won it Brazil’s three biggest literary awards. This translated version by Johnny Lorenz now brings it to an even wider readership.
Themes Brazil, Exploitation, Magical realism, Traditional beliefs, Workers' rights.
Wombats figure largely in many books published in Australia: there is a series of wombat stories by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, a wombat book in the series, Nature’s Storybooks by Christopher Cheng and Liz Guthrie, many stories by Lachlan Creagh, a series called Wombat and Fox by Terry Denton, and some classics reprinted, Men Fox’s Wombat Divine, and Marcia Vaughan’s Wombat Stew.
So to put up a display of wombat books to encourage readership, is not hard, as many fiction and non fiction books will come easily to hand. So a book about the weird things about wombats is one that will sit well alongside all the others. In this book, the strangeness of our beloved wombat is given centre stage.
A non fiction book, this offers maps, diagrams, facts, full pages of information (eg about their cube poo) and lots of humorous illustrations to gather in the readership.
The lovely brown endpapers give a diagram of a wombat burrow and over the page, the snake, a constant in this story, tries to introduce the wary wombat as it scurries off the page. Introduced as a marsupial, that word is explained on the next page with an illustration of the other animals that make up this group of mammals. A diagram over the page fixes the three types living in Australia and where they are found. We learn about the most unusual characteristic of wombats, the back facing pouch.
More wondrous facts about wombats come along; their teeth keep in growing, and they are so tough they can chomp through the hardest of vegetation, even fences. The page the follows offers information about the cube poos, sure to grab readers’ attention. Wombats have sturdy backsides to present to animals that might be tempted to get one for a meal.
At the end of the book the information is give in fact boxes, and on the last page is a list of further resources, and images of things to be found in the book, which will delight young readers as they will have to look through the book again to find them all.
By anyone’s standards, wombats are pretty weird, but each of the weird characteristics is about survival. And this book carefully explains this. Inviting illustrations complete an entertaining and informative book about the wombat.
Themes Wombats, Survival, Australian fauna, Characteristics, Animal behaviour.
Mermedusa is the fifth and final book in the Eerie-on-Sea fantasy series. Herbie and Violet are coopted to help a team creating a podcast called Anomolous Phenomena, which plans to investigate the monstrous creatures and all the strange goings on in the town. Professor Newtiss, from the podcast team, seems to know quite a lot already and wants Herbie and Violet’s help to find the Deepest Secret. This has something to do with the notoriously evil, Sebastian Eels, and Kraken gold. Maybe Herbie and Violet will discover the truth about their own past too. They are compelled to solve these puzzles and go on a chilling adventure out into the stormy harbour and the Dismal Beacon lighthouse. They go on to face scary encounters with the monstrous sea creature, the Malamander and Sebastian Eels. There are even more challenges in the terrifying Netherways of Eerie-on-Sea. Finally, the mysteries from the entire series are revealed in the final chapters.
This series was such a joy to read. Thomas Taylor creates such a fantastic setting with wonderful endearing (plus evil), larger than life characters. The narrative is through Herbie’s point of view and he becomes more self-assured, willing to take risks and witty over the series. He remains kind and empathetic throughout. The repartee between Violet and Herbie deepens their camaraderie and our fondness for them. There are moments which are genuinely scary but the overall tone is optimistic and brave. Taylor’s writing reminded me of the playfulness of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The short chapters with cliff hanging finishes are great audience pleasers. As an adult reader I looked forward to each of the new books in the Eerie-on-Sea series and imagine it would be a great pleasure to read them aloud to a class or child in the middle grades.
Pepper Masala series by Rosanne Hawke. Illus. by Jasmine Berry
Wombat Books, 2023. (Age:6+)
Pepper Masalah and the Flying Carpet. ISBN 9781761111105. Pepper Masalah and the Temple of Cats. ISBN 9781761111143. Pepper Masalah and the Giant Bird. ISBN 9781761111204.
Nine year old Zamir lives with his father and grandmother on an olive farm in Australia with his cat Pepper Masalah (who looks like a mini panther). Although Pepper Masalah prefers to spend her days sleeping in front of the fire on a red and blue carpet, one that Zam's grandmother brought with her from Kashmir and which she believes can fly even though it hasn't done so for many years. But one night during a storm, Sam and his cat discover discovered that the rug does have magical powers and they find themselves flying off on all sorts of adventures that take them to all sorts of places, particularly those in the mysterious Middle East.
Inspired by Hawke's own circumstances, this is a new series for newly independent readers sharpening their skills, particularly those who love cats and adventures and have dreams of flying off on their own magic carpet. But underlying this, the books also introduce the reader to various cultures, stories and beliefs that they may be unfamiliar with and, in an age-appropriate way, some real world issues, particularly those relating to children.
As well as taking the reader to a region that is in the news but of which little is generally known by the target audience, the series offers the opportunity for the reader to think about where they might go if they had their own magic carpet, perhaps even sparking a way to celebrate all the nationalities represented in the classroom. Students could design their own magic carpet and then create a display of the important things about their country of birth or ancestry.
While there are many series written for this age group, this one combines the fantasy of a magic carpet ride, the friendship between a boy and his pet, and the familiarity of the personalities of cats in situations that may offer cause for consideration. Each story has some information pages at the end as well as a glossary of local words and their pronunciation, grounding the stories in reality.
Something out of the ordinary that will open readers' eyes to new places and introduce them to children who live different lives from them.