Reviews

The deed by Susannah Begbie

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Susannah Begbie’s The deed is such fun to read. It is no surprise that the original manuscript ‘When trees fall without warning’ was winner of the 2022 Richell Prize. Now the published novel brings together laughs and ludicrous situations whilst illuminating the personal frailties of four siblings reluctantly brought together by the death of their father.

Early on we read the rather repellent details of Tom’s death as discovered by his daughter Jenny, and the old man’s bitter challenge to his alienated children with a new revised will requiring them all to work together to build a coffin within four days or forfeit any claim to his huge pastoral estate. It’s a multi-million dollar inheritance that will instead go to the only too eager lawyer who drafted the will.

Each of the four siblings, Jenny, Christine, Dave and Sophie, is a flawed character, each scarred in some way by their upbringing. They have to overcome long-term fears and resentments to actually focus on delivering the coffin on time, in spite of the obstacles the shifty lawyer is only too keen to put in their way. Along the way their misadventures will have you laughing out loud.

The chapters are short, alternating between the viewpoints of the characters, and will have you racing to read each scenario. It is a particular skill on the part of the author that while you may laugh at the situations, you also warm to the personalities and their problems. It is a not only funny but heartwarming account of a dysfunctional family that gets there in the end. Easy to recommend, the book can’t fail to be a hit.

Themes Humour, Family dysfunction, Parenting, Sibling rivalry, Greed.

Helen Eddy

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The Whisperwicks: The labyrinth of lost and found by Jordan Lees

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Benjamiah’s mother is wired with an investigative brain and his father seems keener on the world of mystery and fiction, and they don’t seem to be able to walk a smooth path together. Benjamiah is a little lost and alone. His family seems to be falling apart and there is nothing that his investigative and reasoning brain can fathom to solve the dilemma. And then he is thrust from his life in his family’s bookshop into another world, Wreathenwold, and into a new bookshop and a labyrinthine world which does not seem to behave logically. Each new person he meets has a poppet doll at their side, ready to be summoned, and there is no rhyme, reason or map to explain the new world he is in. He is lost again. An accidental rescue places him in the home of Elizabella, and Benjamiah becomes embroiled in a rescue plan for Elizabella’s lost twin, Edwin. The magical mystery world is complex and occasionally unhinged, but Benjamiah proves to be a trustworthy friend in the most awful of circumstances. The quest to find Edwin and explain his disappearance thrusts the young children into a world of danger and eccentricity with the need to solve mysteries and ply their own magic. Friendship may be the greatest magic of all.

This is a breathtakingly original and convoluted story. The magical world is eccentric and unique and will challenge those who prefer a logical route in life. The winding pathways and unusual fantasy ‘rules’ are pre-empted with chapter introductions quoted from a ‘History of Wreathenwold’ book, a book that gives titbits of explanation of the fantasy world where Elizabella and Edwin, and now Benjamiah, are located. The Whisperwicks is charming and full of magical delight. The complexities and occasionally menacing characters mean that this book is best for readers aged 10-14 who are prepared for some dark and confusing plot details. It is not lighthearted, but the growth of friendship between Elizabella and Benjamiah is a candle in the fantasy darkness. I enjoyed this journey into a twisted (mapless) world, where getting lost is the norm, and was delighted to see that there will be a sequel to look forward to. Jordan Lees has created a storyland that is like no other, and yet there are hints of ancient mythology and fantasy stories where a character moves between reality and fantasy. This will be a much-loved book for young readers who enjoy a challenge and a twist in the fantasy they read.

Themes Fantasy, Family, Friendship, Magic, Transformation, Quest.

Carolyn Hull

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Jeff Giraffe: The great escape by Amelia McInerney and Alexandra Colombo

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Jeff has a plan to escape the zoo and get to the playground he can see. But Jan is not so sure.. Jan recalls similar plans and reminds Jeff, but he dismisses all concerns. All the cliches of tactics and escapes are used in this very funny escape story. They communicate via walkie talkies, saying 'Roger and out', '10-4', 'Code three' and 'Mayday' to give the story a nod to all those escape films and TV shows we have seen. In the hands of a giraffe and a seal, the words add another level of humour.

Told in stanzas, a new one appearing as each page is turned, the rhythm will delight kids as they predict some of the rhyming words, and make some of the noises in the text. It is a wonderful read aloud, with a strong rhyming sequences which sometimes stops you in your tracks at the cleverness of the rhyming words.

Jeff’s friend Jan always brings up negative things: about other plans that have failed, last time he was videotaped, or the night is too dark. But each is dismissed by Jeff who wants to stick to his plan. A friend, Roger the seal, becomes stuck in the wire, while Jeff puts his foot on the accelerator causing the jeep to make a bigger hole in the fence.

Surrounded by cliches of detective stories, searchlights, men in grey coats and hats and videotaping the suspect, the escape does not go to plan of course, bringing a clever twist at the end of the story.

Bright, vivacious illustrations set the scene.  Colour and movement will grab the eyes of the reader, dragging them into every detail and splash of humour. Jeff takes some beating, not only does he draw up plans for himself and his friend, but he can also drive a jeep, use a walkie talkie, fly high on a swing, and read a map. All done with wonderful aplomb, sitting sometimes gracelessly with his head in his hands.

Readers will not look at a zoo in quite the same way again, and the seals and giraffes will certainly be looked at with greater understanding. A wonderful read and read aloud, I would have different kids reading the text highlighted out loud to make a funny book reading of the story.

The possibilities are endless.

Themes Zoos, Giraffe, Seals, Escape, Zoo keepers.

Fran Knight

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Oceans at night by Vanessa Pirotta. Illus. by Cindy Lane

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Oceans at Night is a gentle story set from dusk to dawn describing the diversity of sea creatures that live and move above and below the ocean depths, to those that live purely in the darkness and safety of deep water.

With dolphins, penguins, sharks, rays, plankton, whales and more, each double page spread shares fragments of information about the marine life, complemented by glorious watercolour illustrations by Cindy Lane. These images were created with seawater, sand and natural pigments from around Australia, as well digital drawing and collage. The striking and varying hues of blues and greens used for the backgrounds allow the marine life to shine on their own watery stage. The stunning endpapers showcase a fluorescent jellyfish floating across the pages.

The poetic words used to describe each of the diverse animals is perfectly pitched at a young audience. The movement of each creature is felt, as is the swell and rise of the ocean.

Rising up out of the deep,
a giant sunfish swishes her fins from side to side.
She is the biggest bony fish in the sea.
Gracefully, she sucks up floating jellyfish, one by one.
The sunfish turns her massive body flat, resting at the surface.
She remains still, welcoming the new day.

This is a beautiful story that will be enjoyed by all readers. The bonus pages at the end sharing further information about the marine life explored in the book will encourage further learning and research. Teacher notes are available.

Themes Marine Life, Nocturnal Animals, Animal Diversity.

Kathryn Beilby

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This is MY book by Tim Harris & Heidi McKinnon

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The eyes on the front cover tell it all. They are glaring, daring eyes, and along with the title, This is MY book readers will know that they are in for a treat, exploring the selfish person who says such a thing. And the bold colours of the endpapers, signals the colours that are used through the book.

There is a continuous debate between the recto (left hand page) and verso (right hand page) and the looks as denoted by the shapes of the mouths, the eyebrows, the frown on the forehead and the looks in the eyes are startling giveaways to what each is thinking.

The story begins with recto welcoming us to his book. Verso disagrees saying the he may open the book but it is his page that begins the story. Isn’t ‘Once upon a time’, always on the right?'

Recto then says that he can prove the recto page is the best. And recto asks the illustrator to draw something that will impose a weight upon verso. The weight drags verso down which recto says proves that he is at the top, while the other is the bottom of the page. Not to be outdone verso calls upon the author to script a page for recto that puts him in his place. And what Tim Harris does causes a reversal of the position from the page before.

But recto says he has access to the paper supplies and blocks verso out from the page. But verso comes back with white ink.

On it goes making a point and then a counterpoint, the expression on the faces matching their determination and frustration. Just hilarious as the search goes on about which page is the best.

I can imagine kids acting out this book, using their faces to express themselves clearly to all concerned.

A wonderful treatise on ownership, as the two argue over who has the rights to the book, and argument as the debate continues, each finding a different point to pursue which furthers their own case.

Themes Ownership, Debate, Argument, Word play, Humour.

Fran Knight

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12 rules for strife by Jeff Sparrow & Sam Wallman

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The 12 rules for strife canvas the ways in which workers can stand against oppression. Some are not much more than 'motherhood' statements, like ‘together we are strong' and some need explanation like ‘reject smug politics'. Number six, 'choose strife' seems to contradict number ten, “practise persuasion'. However, the attractive little book (categorised 'gift/politics') is all about the graphics. The bold black and red of the cover echoes the idea of Mao’s 'little red book' and the iconic red raised fist graphic used to represent the struggle of workers since early last century. There is no narrative, just panels of graphics varying in style from comics to some reminiscent of linocuts, echoing the posters and handbills of past workers solidarity movements, with a bit of quirky Mambo like style thrown in. The content echoes historical aspects of the recognition of workers rights, but one of the only concrete examples is that of the 1973 'Pink Bans' striking against discrimination and anti-gay laws. There are contradictions like the page where the text says 'it is important to reject slurs and stereotypes and to use respectful language’ with a graphic of someone spraying poison from a backpack emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, and later feeding dogs with chocolate, clearly marked ‘do not feed to dogs'. Earlier (there are no page numbers) a boss is depicted as white man in a suit, gold wrist watch, top hat and clutching a wine glass; a stereotype if ever there was one. Towards the second half of the book where it tries to comment on the issues around social media and the not-for-profit industries the message gets a bit confused, and it may have been better to separate the historical side of the struggle of the workers from the modern issues confronting our workforce, where the distinction between the employer and employee has become more complex. However, many of the images will prompt readers to think about how their actions and the actions of groups can create change in our society for the better and tracking down some of the influences in the graphic styles could be an interesting exercise for design students. The authors, Jeff Sparrow and Sam Wallman are well placed to put together this book and have provided a guide to further reading.

Themes Workers and unions, Political activism.

Sue Speck

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Brittany & Co. take on Paris by John Larkin. Illus. by Rebecca Timmis

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Brittany and Co Take on Paris by John Larkin is a quirky and engaging tale. Filled with an abundance of wit that will have its audience in raptures, while capturing the amusing outlook of 11 year olds girls, it is filled with something to excite everyone.

Brittany has just acquired a much loved pony, which was transported home on the roof of their car by her mum! Not the most conventional idea, but it sets the scene beautifully for the laughter that will ensue. This story is fun, outlandish and has more jokes than any dad could ever dream of telling but is also so relatable you will be nodding and laughing as you go.

The close-knit group of friends embark on a mission to start a pony club. However, their dreams face an early obstacle when they learn they cannot bring their real horses to school, despite three of the girls doing so before being informed of this rule. This unexpected twist sets the stage for a series of humorous and entertaining adventures.

Undeterred, the girls discover an alternative: a hobby horse competition in Paris. Determined to participate, they must raise a whopping $20,000 to cover their expenses. The journey to achieve this goal is filled with a creative fundraising effort which has some unexpected outcomes.

Larkin masterfully blends the light heartedness of the girls' escapades with the underlying theme of perseverance. It is complemented beautifully by Timmis's fun black-and-white illustrations to enhance the reading experience and entertainment level for the audience. This novel will appeal to many.

Brittany and Co take on Paris is a delightful narrative about friendship, creativity and the joy of pursuing one's passions against all odds. The storyline’s crazy capers will have readers of all ages laughing out loud; making this a highly enjoyable read for all ages.

If you enjoy a good laugh with a fun and heart warming adventure, this novel is not to be missed!

Themes Horses, Friendship, Perseverance, Relationships, Kindness, School, Competitions, Paris.

Michelle O'Connell

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Smoke & mirrors by Barry Jonsberg

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Grace isn’t much of a people-person but she’s a whizz at magic, and her new friend Simon has a scheme planned that will make them both some money from her talents.

However, Grace’s energy is divided between fighting her PTSD nightmares and trying to avoid confrontation with her alcoholic mother. In addition, she takes on the care of her terminally ill grandmother, but this is a labour of love, and the sharp wit and repartee they share is a joy to read.

This is a wonderfully multi-faceted and contemporary novel; Grace is easily recognisable as a slightly eccentric loner, the school and home settings are very familiar, and TikTok plays a big role. What sets this book apart are the descriptions and explanations of numerous magic tricks, and the information about the steps required to apply for voluntary assisted dying in the face of a terminal illness. While the latter might not seem immediately relevant or compelling to young teens, Jonsberg makes it so for Grace and so by extension, to his readers.

Smoke and Mirrors portrays a young girl dealing with the death of family members, an absent mother and her own grief and guilt. Supportive family and friends and regular therapy help see her through, to the extent that long-term misunderstandings are cleared up and she can begin to open up and trust others.

Although Jonsberg’s characters have been battered by trauma, their stories are not depressing; Grace is resilient and eventually open to change, Gran all the more endearing for her crotchetiness. Jonsberg writes with a lightness of touch and cleverly ties up many loose ends in just a few sentences that it would be easy to miss; the reason for Grace’s nightmares, her relationship with her brother, her uncle’s true intentions.

This is a delightful book, that deals with potentially heavy subjects in an engaging way. Highly recommended for 14-16 year olds, especially those who are dealing with any of these issues. Teaching notes are available.

Themes Magic, Death, Cancer, VAD, Guilt, Trust, Friendship, Family, Mental health.

Margaret Crohn

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Happy all over by Emma Quay

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There is happiness everyday in the smallest of things, this book is a celebration of the everyday things that make us happy. Readers will love seeing the characters act out the things that make them happy, and from the cover, we are exposed to a myriad of happiness inviting activities to start the smiles happening.    

From being happy on the inside to splashing the happiness all around, little things happen all day long to top up that inner happiness. It can be as small as a drip, or come like a gush, or after a dive, a spin or a flutter. It can be a star, or a space on the floor, or someone unexpected at the door, or finding there are five to the expected four.

It can be a huff and a puff blowing out candles, to the joy of finding some leftovers after others have left some. It could come out of the games being played with others, racing to the bottom, or playing piggy in the middle, or splashing in the pool,  getting a warm hug, or seeing the new moon. Lots of wonderful things are mentioned, which will make every reader stop and think. Happiness can be a splash or a dash, it can be once in a while, a blanket, a hollow.

All of these and more make us feel happy, and the readers will identify with many of them and will love adding their own things that make them feel happy.

The happy illustrations are infectious, full of laughter and humour and colour and movement, and will engage the readers as they peruse each page and laugh along with the characters depicted.

Themes Happiness, Cooperation, Activities, Humour.

Fran Knight

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Cora seen and heard by Zanni Louise

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Cora is a shy girl who is happier hiding in the library at lunch times than interacting with her classmates at school.  Cora is unhappy with herself and thinks everyone is so much cooler than she could ever be.  So, when her family moves from Brisbane to Tasmania she takes the opportunity to do a little personality renovation while her dad renovates the old theatre they live in.  Cora, her sister Bekah, her mum and her dad move into a derelict theatre that was once host to a famous singer called Clair de Lune.  Cora discovers a letter written by the singer hidden in a book they find about her in the Ticket box.  The letter says she was not as happy with her life as everyone thought, so Cora starts to write her feelings down to this imaginary pen pal and hide them in the book under her bed. Unfortunately, the letters go missing.  Someone starts to send the letters, one by one to the Tribune newspaper and everyone thinks they were written by Clair de Lune. 

A lot happens in this story and the characters, even the minor ones, all contribute to making this a story that could show young girls that being the cool one in the crowd is not necessary as long as you are true to yourself.  Family interactions, juggling friends and dealing with misunderstandings make this a book that will resonate with many young teenagers and provide a great springboard for discussions about identity and self-confidence. 

Teacher notes are available on the Walker books website. 

Themes Adolescents, Self acceptance, Girls, Friendship, Relationships, Courage.

Gabrielle Anderson

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The garden of broken things by Freya Blackwood

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The house in Ardent Street has sad eyes. Children walk past quickly as if afraid of the old house, but not Sadie. She stops to talk to the cat and follows it into the undergrowth. Here she finds things from the past, in their final resting places, rusted and twisted with age. But the cat finds a lap, and Sadie sees a weary old woman sitting there. Sadie is not scared, she is intrigued and curious and sits next to the old woman and tells her all about her day at school. She brushes cobwebs from the woman’s face and tells her of her baby brother. She reads her home reader to her. And falls asleep on her lap. It becomes dark and the night air is cool and the bigger kids rush off home, remembering their chores and homework.

But the old woman remembers things from the past. She remembers the curiosity of children. She takes Sadie into the street, knowing her parents will be looking for her. But from then on the sad house in Ardent Street becomes a happy, joy filled place, one where the children are no longer scared, the house and garden now welcomes them. Sadie tells them abut the garden full of broken things just waiting for the children to enter and breath life into it.

The pencil and water colour illustrations give a romantic edge to the garden of broken things. It feels like a place where time has stopped, where the old woman is sitting waiting for Sadie to break the spell of loneliness and tell her of the modern world of a child.

The opening double page showing Ardent Street is enticing, encouraging children to recognise the features of a suburban street while developing stories of those who live there. And I love the images of the broken things littering the garden, ominous at the start, but a wonderful playground at the end. The images of the overgrown garden with tis tendrils of weeds and vines are mesmerising.

A wondrous tale of being curious, of listening to the stories of the elderly, readers will be able to tell their own stories of places in their suburb that give some feeling of unease, and of older people in their community who have a good story to tell and conversely, listen to theirs.

From award-winning creator Freya Blackwood this is a beautifully tender story about curiosity and the joy of listening between generations. Find out more about Freya and the wonderful books she has written and illustrated here.

Themes Curiosity, Suburban life, Loneliness, Sharing.

Fran Knight

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The Vanquishers by Kalynn Bayron

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Young adult fantasy author Kalynn Bayron has turned her hand to pre-teen fiction with the fun and spooky The Vanquishers. Set in an alternate San Antonio, Texas, Malika “Boog” Wilson and her best friends and neighbours Jules and Cedrick are just normal kids who spend their evenings after school riding their bikes along their street and eating too much junk food before dinner. In their world, it is normal to talk about store brand vampire repellent, silver spiked water and garlic wreaths.

Because years ago, way before they were born, an elite group of hunters called the Vanquishers carried out the Reaping, an attack on the last and largest hive of vampires left in the city. No one has seen a vampire for twenty years and for most people, they are starting to fade into myth. So are the Vanquishers, no matter how Boog wishes they were still around so she could meet them. That is, until one day, a new friend vanishes without a trace and Boog and her friends suspect they know why - vampires are back.

The Vanquishers is a funny and entertaining read, perfect for pre-teens and younger teenagers. Boog and her friends are fantastic examples of loving and supportive friends. The characters are kind, brave and resilient and the novel is packed with plenty of action and mystery. Be aware however that some scenes may be a little scary for some younger readers.

Themes Fantasy, Adventure, Horror, Mystery, Vampires, Friendship, Family.

Rose Tabeni

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May I hug you? by Oleta Blunt and Katherine Appleby

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May I Hug You?, written by Oleta Blunt and illustrated by Katherine Appleby, is completely engaging and cleverly educational; making complex emotional concepts accessible to children.

Young puppy, Basil, has moved into a new home with a little girl named Isla. As he adjusts to his new surroundings, both he and Isla learn valuable lessons about understanding and respecting each other's feelings, navigating friendships, and the importance of consent in physical affection. 

Basil is feeling some uncertain emotions as he settles into his new environment. Through his experiences, young readers are introduced to the concept of empathy and the significance of recognizing and respecting personal boundaries. Isla, on the other hand, is excited and she is learning about patience and the importance of building trust and understanding.

Appleby’s artwork delightfully complements the text. The vibrant and colourful illustrations capture the attention of the audience and provides a visually stimulating experience that enhances the story’s emotional depth. The simplicity and brightness of the illustrations make the book appealing and approachable, drawing readers into Basil and Isla’s world.

May I Hug You? is more than just a charming tale of a puppy and a little girl. It’s a thoughtful resource for teaching children crucial social skills, such as listening to others, reading body language, and seeking permission before initiating physical contact. This beautifully crafted picture book is a valuable addition to any child’s library, offering lessons that are essential for developing healthy and respectful relationships.

Themes Empathy, Friendship, Relationship building, Trust, Respect.

Michelle O'Connell

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What happened to Nina? by Dervla McTiernan

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A departure from the narratives featuring Detective Cormac Reilly and set in Ireland The Ruin, The scholar, and The good turn, What Happened to Nina? is set in Vermont and is the story of two families and their conflicting interests. Nina and Simon appear to be in love, but after a weekend away, Simon has returned home declaring that Nina broke up with him. She cannot be found. Nina’s mother, LeeAnne, is convinced that Simon knows what has happened to her and goes to the police, while Simon’s parents, Jamie and Rory, are quick to defend him. As the police led by Detective Matthew Wright are unsuccessful in their search, Simon’s father begins a vicious online campaign against Nina’s parents and rumours and negative comments abound.

The story is told in alternative first person voices of Nina’s parents, LeeAnne and Andy and of Simon’s parents Jamie and Rory. Occasionally the detective’s voice appears giving an alternative viewpoint. This strategy keeps the readers engaged as they get to know each of the parents and are left wondering how far they would go to protect a child.

There are many twists and turns as McTiernan explores the lives of the two families. Did Simon kill Nina? If so, will he be brought to justice? Meanwhile the viciousness of the media campaign and the nasty conjectures about Nina’s family highlights the power of the rich to manipulate society’s views about individuals.

This is a gripping page turner and fans of the author will not be disappointed. Readers interested in the solving of cases of missing persons may like Has Anyone Seen Charlotte Salter? by Nicci French.

Themes Murder, Parental love, Missing persons.

Pat Pledger

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Where is the green sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek

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The 20th anniversary edition of Where is the green sheep? is sure to be a big hit with young children who have not yet encountered it. It will bring  back fond memories for parents and grandparents who first read and loved it 20 years ago.

This edition is very handsome with a beautiful eye-catching gold embossed cover. Turning the pages, the reader will meet a blue sheep, a red sheep turning cartwheels, a bath sheep and a bed sheep, but where is the green sheep? The book carries on in this vein until finally the green sheep is found. With the use of rhyme, rhythm and repetition, the narrative by Fox flows beautifully and young children will learn about colours, opposites and alliteration along the way. The illustrations by Judy Horacek are delightful and complement the text with their bright colours and the wonderful expressions on the faces of the sheep.

This deservedly won the Children's Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year: Early Childhood in 2005 and is sure to remain a favourite gift to buy babies in the future. The repetition, clear black print and matching pictures would make this an excellent book for young children to use as a beginning reader, easing the way to predicting the text.

A firm favourite in many households, Where is the green sheep? is a book to treasure and to hand down to the next generation.

Themes Sheep, Colours, Repetition, Read aloud.

Pat Pledger

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