Reviews

Lily Halfmoon: The magic gems by Xavier Bonet

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Turning nine should be a time of celebration and excitement but for Lily Halfmoon she wasn’t expecting her birthday cake to explode or for other magical happening to start.  She doesn’t know how to control what is happening until she starts at magic school with two girls who help her negotiate this new chapter in her life. 

When the three girls are assigned to find out who is eating their teachers’ magic flowers, they must work together to solve the mystery.  With each girl having a crystal that holds their power, a familiar that is assigned to them and learning about their powers and what being a witch really means it is a lot to expect of young children, but the girls realise that their greatest power is friendship and trusting each other and this is why the story will be loved by adults and children alike.

This graphic novel is so well written and has excellent explanations about how things work and why things do what they do. For anyone who loves spells, witches, or mysteries this a great book. The illustrations are beautiful, and the story grabs the interest of the reader. 

Although graphic novels are not great read aloud or class novels, this book will become a favourite on any library shelf, especially for those students who are interested in Harry Potter or the fantasy genre in general but don’t want to or have the capacity to read a long book.

This is the first book in a series and will be shared and loved by any reader.

Themes Magic, Friendship.

Mhairi Alcorn

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Giovanni by Crystal Corocher. Illus. by Margeaux Davis

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In 1881, four-year-old Giovanni and his family and local villagers leave the Veneto region of Italy bound for Australia having been promised 'paradise' only to find that they are in the hands of a people smuggler with a rickety boat, little food and no real concern for their safety, let alone comfort. Eventually stranded on a beach in Noumea, they were in despair of ever reaching Australia dying in huge numbers from bad food, mosquitoes, undrinkable water and back-breaking work in the monsoon season.

But hearing of their plight, Sire Henry Parkes, the 'father of Federation' but then colonial secretary of NSW sent a boat to rescue them and 22 families eventually settled on the NSW north coast in what was to become known as New Italy and the start of the Italian migration to Australia that continues today.

Told by the great-granddaughter of Giovanni, with a concurrent Italian translation by Jada Valpato, this is a story meticulously researched that tells of an almost-forgotten part of Australia's migration history, making it one for both younger and older readers, particularly those of Italian heritage. Coupled with links to resources such as the New Italy Museum, this is definitely one for the collection for both your Italian families as well as any study of Australia's immigration history.

Themes Immigration, Italians in Australia.

Barbara Braxton

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A disappearance in Fiji by Nilima Rao

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As a fan of the detective genre, I was thrilled to read A disappearance in Fiji, discovering a debut author who I will want to follow as well as an unfamiliar setting. Akal Singh has been demoted from his promising police post in Hong Kong and sent to Fiji, where he is given lowly tasks and not trusted. It is 1914 and the British oversee the government in Fiji. Sugarcane plantations are an important source of income, and indentured workers from India provide the labour, planting and harvesting, while living in appalling conditions. When an Indian woman goes missing, the authorities ignore it until the local newspaper headlines that she has been kidnapped. Akal is given the job of investigating and he finds that it is not a simple missing person’s case.

The historical examination of the way indentured Indian workers were exploited, the descriptions of their living quarters and the arduous work that they perform form a fascinating background to the investigation. This is an unfamiliar part of history for me and it is dealt very well by the author, who is a descendant of Indian Fijians. Witty banter between Akal and his Fijian offsider lighten the story, while the police procedures revolving around the mystery were well crafted with some twists, turns, and surprises. Akal is an appealing main character and the reason he was sent from Hong Kong is a secondary mystery that kept me engaged.

This was a very enjoyable read and I look forward to reading more books by Nilima Rao. Readers may also like The paper bark mystery by Ovidia Yu and Murder at Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey.

Themes Murder, Detectives, Indians in Fiji.

Pat Pledger

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The bother with the Bonkillyknock Beast by Karen Foxlee

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Miss Mary-Kate is back but this time she is off on holidays with her Granny and her Granny’s old friends to the Scottish Highlands or so she thinks.  Mary-Kate is longing for a quiet holiday, drinking tea and eating scones while her mum is away but instead finds herself included in the World Society of Monster Hunters’ conference. 

As shy Mary-Kate and the two other novice monster hunters are about to discover all is not well at the castle they are staying in and a beast is causing havoc.  The village of Bonkillyknock is well known for the Loch Morgavie Monster who is silent and does not leave the water.  However, this beast is breaking into the kitchen, howling at night and wrecking the cushions.

As Mary-Kate and her new friends start to investigate they uncover an old tragedy and a missing fortune that could be attributed to the howling.   While they are investigating they are delayed by the castle owner who seems more interested in destroying the beast rather than solving the problem and this is not what the Monster Hunters code allows.  One of her new friends must decide between family and his new friends and they must all work together to prove that children can sometimes achieve great things even when the adults around them think they are too young.

This book is a brilliant stand-alone read, however, readers who enjoy this book will love the first two in the series.  Mary-Kate is an extremely likable character, especially as she talks herself into being brave and discovers the monster in each story. 

The Bother with the Bonkillyknock Beast is a fabulous book for young readers and will keep them reading long after they should have been asleep, and although this is a book about monsters it isn’t scary, the reader will be sympathising with the monster and wanting Mary-Kate to solve the mystery. 

This book and the other two in the series would be perfect for a class read aloud, a read alone or even as a class novel.  It is a fabulous book and one that I can see become a favourite that is read more than once.

Themes Monsters (not-scary), Mystery, Friendships, Famiy.

Mhairi Alcorn

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Leaves by Stephen Hogtun

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Leaves is a gentle story that tells of the strong relationship between a wise old tree and a young sapling. They form a strong bond as the older tree shares poignant life’s lessons across the seasons.

They walked above a peaceful valley,

and she saw some of his leaves had fallen.

“Do not worry,” he told her. “Some moments you must let go.

But remember to keep the dear ones near-

for good memories will shelter you from the storm.

And great ones will keep you warm.

The older tree eventually fades away but the memories and life lessons will live on. The thoughtful prose used throughout this story will resonate with adults sharing this story with younger readers. There is plenty of opportunity for discussion about how we can learn from the older generation.

The striking illustrations showcasing the changing landscapes through the seasons create an emotive mood and enhance the written text.

Themes Trees, Life Cycle, Emotions, Seasons, Relationships, Memories.

Kathryn Beilby

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Wear a purple poppy by Fiona White. Illus. by Kathleen O'Hagan

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Wear a Purple Poppy is an informative picture book that provides a comprehensive yet easily accessible text to introduce primary school-aged children to the role animals played during two world wars and later conflicts. In 2019, the Australian Parliament declared 24 February the National Day for War Animals and this book clearly explains the idea of wearing the purple poppy and what it is recognition for.

The striking front cover displays animals in a field of purple poppies with an embossed purple title as well as a purple spine, that will immediately draw the reader’s attention to the book.  Beginning with a poem written as a tribute to the animals that served during war, the book then goes onto explain the types of work undertaken by these animals. Animals discussed in the story include donkeys, horses, mules, dogs, elephants, pigeons, cats and camels. The role horses, donkeys, camels and mules played in carrying personnel, belongings, artillery and supplies will be familiar to many. Dogs and pigeons helped to carry messages, elephants in Burma were used to build bridges and carry rations and belongings for refugees, and even cats had a vital role in keeping the rat population in check! During the war many of the animals were killed or injured but their loyalty was indisputable. Throughout the book are detailed full page illustrations which perfectly complement and add depth to the text.

Teacher notes are available. Included in the excellent teacher notes are extensive lists of further resources for picture books, graphic novels, junior fiction, junior & YA non-fiction, and websites. A treasure trove of resources to support planning, teaching and learning.

Themes War, Animals, Remembrance, Poppies.

Kathryn Beilby

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Finding Bear by Hannah Gold

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For those readers who loved Hannah Gold’s first novel The Last Bear, you will be thrilled to learn her sequel Finding Bear is just as exciting and engaging. Along with all of the main characters from the first book: April, Dad, Tor, Lise and of course Bear, there are also four new important characters introduced to April and Bear’s story: Maria, Hedda, Jurgen and baby Peanut.

It is seventeen long months since April and Bear said goodbye. April is back home but unsettled, unhappy and bereft from being away from Bear. Dad is in the beginning of a new relationship with Maria, April is bullied at school and struggles to fit in, and more worryingly has a constant niggling fear that something is not right with Bear. In her dreams she hears his roar and during daylight hours she feels his need for her.

News comes from Svalbard that a polar bear has been shot and April is certain it is Bear. She begs her dad to take her back to the Arctic to search for the injured bear and he reluctantly agrees. Their trip to the Arctic in the winter is one of renewed friendships, unbelievably cold weather, anxiety, misunderstandings, survival, and terrible danger. But the startling discovery of Bear and his incredible reason for calling April back to the Arctic will leave the reader full of anticipation of how the situation April finds herself in will be resolved.

Throughout this beautifully written and heartwarming story, the author shares the emotion of the unbreakable bond shared by April and Bear and the serious damage climate change is doing to the Arctic environment and the animals that inhabit the area. There is hope expressed though, that one small caring step by each and every person may help save the planet.

The striking hardcover of Finding Bear is in tonal shades reminiscent of the Northern Lights and has bold gold lettering. Coupled with the stunning black and white images, illustrator Levi Pinfold has added to the engagement of the reader by providing a greater understanding of the both the bleakness and beauty of the Arctic environment. In the final pages there is an important author’s note to read as well as a valuable resource list and further readings suggestions.

The Last Bear and Finding Bear would be wonderful class novels to share with students.

Themes Climate change, Polar bears, Arctic Life, Relationships, Adventure, Danger, Connection, Determination, Survival.

Kathryn Beilby

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Crushing by Genieve Novak

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Post-lockdown Melbourne and 28-year-old Marnie has had enough of the dating scene, resigned to remaining single after five failed relationships in 10 years. By turns she supports and seeks support from her lonely older sister, new mum Nicola and her new housemate, serial dater Claud as she works in the local café and wonders if this is all life has to offer. As she routinely turns down the relentless requests for a date from a co-worker, Sam, she exchanges flirty texts with Isaac even though he already has a girlfriend. Through much of the novel, Marnie keeps busy and falls into quite inappropriate relationships, as she tries to fight off ‘the lonelies’. However she eventually realises that she had been seeking validation through being loved, and had lost her identity as she twisted herself into what she thought her partners wanted.

Interspersed with the traditional text are numerous blocks of phone messages and records of missed calls which give the novel a contemporary feel. The time stamps on them are a clever way of indicating who is playing hard-to-get and refusing to answer, as Marnie’s various relationships, with both friends and family, progress and stall. 

Billed as a rom-com, Crushing nevertheless delivers some insightful commentary on what women often give up in order to maintain a relationship and questions how easy it is for them to maintain their individuality. It is a light-hearted, humorous take on contemporary dating, but given the age of the main characters, and the regular use of alcohol, numerous sexual references and sex scenes, Crushing would be best suited to a more adult audience.

Themes Romance, Dating, Friendship, Personal growth.

Margaret Crohn

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Feel the flame by Lochana Radaliyagoda. Illus. by Juliette Dudley

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Seventeen year old author Lochana Radaliyagoda has written a thoughtful story encouraging young girls to dream big. Her story advocates a strong belief that girls can aspire to do what ever they want and once that flame is fuelled there is no stopping them.

This narrative is told through the eyes of Princess Lana who discovers in her extensive castle library that boys are prominently featured in positions of power and held in high regard in her kingdom, whereas girls are not considered in the same way. She begins to question whether this is the way across all countries and decides to travel the world.

Princess Lana travels through Pakistan and hears the voice of Malala Yousufzai who fought for the right for girls in her country to go to school. In Sweden, the passionate voice of Greta Thunberg is heard encouraging people to act for climate change. In Australia, Princess Lana hears the words of Julia Gillard: ‘Nuture your sense of self, who you are in your own eyes, and not who you are in others.’ Finally in the US, she hears Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s important words which began as spark from her own mother.

On returning home, Princess Lana’s new ideas are not welcomed by her parents but she continues to share her beliefs that girls can do anything with as many as possible in her kingdom. Her fire from within will hopefully spark a fire in others.

This story is an engaging read with a strong and important message to be shared in a gentle yet powerful way. The illustrations in a soft palette beautifully capture the mood and emotions of the story. There is additional information about each of the four role models mentioned and a suggestion for further reading.

Themes Girls, Stories, Perseverance, Achievements.

Kathryn Beilby

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The Battle by Ashling Kwok. Illus. by Cara King

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It is Edward's first day at knight school and to protect himself from the battles he expects to face, he puts on his full suit of armour. Sitting in the back of the Great Hall surrounded by unfriendly creatures, he is mortified when the king asks him to tell the others about himself. Even though at home he likes to fight giants and ogres, here at knight school he seems to be surrounded by them and he is not so brave. And when one sits beside him on the bench as he starts to eat his lunch, things are r-e-a-l-l-y scary...

It is that time of the year again when the prospect of Big School is looming closer and closer and some of our little ones are getting really apprehensive. There is a mixture of nerves that can become overwhelming. So stories like these that not only show that fears are shared but they can be overcome are welcome as they offer such reassurance. Cleverly illustrated showing the ogres and dragons as ordinary boys and girls and the concept of the physical armour holding him back in the same way that mental armour does, Edward comes to some new understandings and discovers this school-thing isn't as frightening after all.

This is one to add to your collection to share to give an added dose of confidence and show that even the bravest can feel nervous.

Themes Starting school, Fear.

Barbara Braxton

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Penny Platypus lends a hand by Chelsea Schar-Grant. Illus. by Aaron Pocock

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A number of well-known Australian animals show how they help out either in their community or home. Penny Platypus plants trees, Sam Snake helps out in the surf, Collin Cockatoo is a coach, Kristina Koala helps at home, Dan the Dingo leads at dancing, Kevin Kangaroo jumps for fundraising, Emma Emu tidies up her home and her neighbourhood, Billy Bilby is a volunteer, Chris Crocodile looks after his neighbour, Andy the Australian Sheepdog joins in a fundraising walk, Ed the Echidna helps his mate and Kate Kookaburra helps herself by having a bath!

The full page illustrations are bright, colourful and full of detail. There is quite a lot to see on each page and children will enjoy the visual images throughout the book. This book lends itself to promoting discussion with young children about how they might be able to help and show kindness to others.

Themes Australian Animals, Helping, Community, Making A Difference.

Kathryn Beilby

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The Agency for Scandal by Laura Wood

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As a fan of historical fiction, Georgette Heyer and detective novels, I was thrilled to read the blurb of The Agency for Scandal, promising a story about an all-female detective agency, a feisty young heroine who has a crush on a Duke and missing jewels. Then I read that it had been nominated for the 2024 Yoto Carnegie Medal and I knew that I was in for a treat.

Isobel Stanhope looks like the perfect wallflower. She hovers in alcoves at balls, and wears nondescript clothes, making it easy to overlook her. But she is hiding a lot of secrets. She has a crush on the Duke of Roxton but he can never remember her name. Her family has lost its wealth and she has had to find a job to support her ailing mother and brother who is away at school. At night she has another persona, masquerading as Kes, a youth who is an expert pick lock, working for the Aviary, where Mrs Finch operates an all-female agency that investigates cases where women desperately need help. When she becomes involved in stealing a mysterious brooch, she and the Duke pair up together, donning various disguises to unravel the secrets it is harbouring. As they work together the duo get to know each other and the Duke is forced to examine a society where women have no rights and are dominated by husbands and brothers.

With a deft hand, Wood describes the role of women in the late 19th century as the women from the Aviary help those in distress from husbands who gamble away their money or threaten their sanity. This serious theme is cleverly brought to light in the Aviary’s cases and Izzy’s thoughts about marriage.

I finished this charming book in two sittings, and although it was over 500 pages long, it had wide margins and attractive illustrations as chapter headings, making it an easy read. And of course, the fast-paced plot and budding romance made it difficult to put down. Fans of the Enola Holmes books by Nancy Springer, the Bridgerton series as well as books by Georgette Heyer are likely to enjoy The Agency for Scandal, and those who like espionage in a modern setting could turn to Stars and Smoke by Marie Lu.

Themes Detectives, Women, Upper classes, Great Britain - 19th century.

Pat Pledger

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A kind of spark by Elle McNicoll

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A kind of spark is the debut novel by Elle McNicoll. It was published in 2023 and was closely followed by Like a charmA kind of spark is a warm and well-constructed novel. This reader recommends the latter Like a charm more strongly than A kind of spark as the growth in McNicholl's authorial skill such as the increased depth of skill in creating setting and historical background makes the second book of more value to children as a piece of literature. However, A Kind of spark is an enchanting, funny and heartbreaking novel and recommended too.

Elle McNicholl offers more than many current writers, who it seems, espouse the neurodiversity or disability or genderdiversity agendas with a thin narrative woven around the cause that they wish to promote. McNicholl, by contrast, does not allow the issue to eclipse the story. She offers rich settings and interesting characters who are able to time travel or at least tap into periods of history. This creates multi layers to her stories that make her books a worthwhile contribution to the literature that our children are exposed to that goes far beyond agenda-driven offerings.

In A kind of spark, we see the world directly through the first person authorial voice of Addie. Addie comes from a very warm, funny and interesting family. She and her sister are both autistic and McNicholl describes the autistic view of the world as being supercharged, supersensitive to particular stimuli and a special and valuable thing. Through Addie's clear descriptions we see the good and the bad in people and a very clear sense of justice. Addie is a fighter. When she discovers that her village was a centre of witch trials and witch hunts in previous times, she fights to have a memorial built to recognise those poor hunted women and girls who suffered because, like Addie, they were a little different. Modern day cruelty to the child who is different is demonstrated in the character of Miss Murphy, Addie's school teacher. Nasty classroom and playground incidents raise uncomfortable questions about the treatment of autistic children, especially those who have meltdowns, in mainstream classrooms today.

Addie has a visceral connection with a tree in Juniper Woods where witches were tortured and hung in the past. After a school excursion to this tree awakens her understanding, she researches and campaigns to raise funds for a public apology in the form of a memorial in her village that had previously and still did prefer to close its eyes to the facts of the past.

Through the  lively, feisty, strongly sensitive and clear-eyed intelligence of Addie, the reader is invited into a lived view and experience of autism. McNicholl has cleverly linked the outsider/ difference experience of autism with the possibility that the "witches" of the past were simply poor girls and women who could have been autistic or at least just a little different to the mainstream. The hunting and killing of witches in the past and the bullying of autistic children by their peers, some adults and ostracism within communities today may be ignorant behaviours and prejudices that have not improved much over the years. Further ostracism of difference is exemplified by the enigmatic Mrs Miriam Jensen who lives on the periphery of the village (really within the woods) who is treated by the villagers as something of a strange old woman. At the culmination of the story Addie tries to push through a crowd of people to thank Mrs Jensen..."But she seemed to vanish." McNicholl knows how to create ambiguity... 

A kind of spark would be  a great book to read to classes aged 10+ especially if the aim is to help children accept and understand difference in their peers or even in themselves. The delightful Addie is a character who children will relate to and the other characters are far from flat. The  storyline  and authorial voice are captivating.

A kind of spark is warmly recommended along with other books by Elle McNicholl.

Themes Courage, Friendship, Difference (autism), Witches.

Wendy Jeffrey

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Abundance is all around you by Lauren McLeish. Illus. by Aleksandra Szmidt

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Abundance is All Around You is a bright and colourful picture book that shares the joy of all the things nature provides. With clever rhyming couplets, the book explores various different habitats from land, sea and sky and what familiar things can be found there.

See the layers of petals on the flowers,

and clusters of leaves on the trees.

The family of ants marching along,

and swarms of buzzing bees. 

This is an enjoyable read to share with early years students and with an explanation of some of the more unfamiliar words such as abundance, awe and droves, it will be one to read time and time again. The full page illustrations are full of creatures to find and identify and beautifully complement the text.

Themes Nature, Rhyme.

Kathryn Beilby

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The very big sum by Adrian Dudek. Illus. by Naya Lazareva

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The Very Big Sum is a surprise read. The text is quite lengthy but it cleverly rhymes and tells the story of two siblings who try to get out of doing chores by solving a huge mathematical problem set by their mum. They have to add up all the numbers from 1 – 100!

They begin by adding each individual number starting at 1 + 2 = 3, 1 + 2 + 3 = 6 and so on. BUT they realise this will take ages and they will never get outside to play.  They sneakily grab a calculator but mum is one step ahead and has removed the batteries. They then begin to think harder about the problem and look at other strategies for adding up so many numbers. In the end they come to a very clever solution and solve the problem in no time, impressing their mum.

This is an entertaining read and will encourage children to see if the children in the story calculated correctly.  The illustrations are delightful with bright colour and full of expression and definitely add to the busyness of the story, and the huge effort to solve the maths problem!

Themes Rhyme, Mathematics, Addition, Multiplication, Family, Siblings.

Kathryn Beilby

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