'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Review: The Boy and the Toy

Title: The Boy and the Toy

Author: Sonya Hartnett

Illustrator: Lucia Masciullo

Publisher: Penguin, $24.95 RRP

Publication Date: May 2010

Format: Hard cover with dust jacket

ISBN: 9780670073627

For ages: 5+

Type: Picture book

About: When an inventor manages to build the best toy in the world, he gives it to his son. This toy, he promises, will be a companion to the boy while his father is away.

The boy is thrilled. This toy can do everything. It can follow instructions, play games, swim, do puzzles – everything.

Everything except play with other toys, that is. The boy is horrified when he wakes one morning to find this toy has destroyed all his other things, wanting the boy to play with it, and only it. And the toy is so focused on things just being between itself and the boy, it won’t even let him send a note to his father.

The boy must devise a plan to contact his father, and when he arrives home he takes a look at the toy. Something is missing, he discovers. Something important: this toy can never be a great friend. Instead, the boy’s father brings home a real friend.

This is an adorable story with a beautiful message about the importance of friends. Children are shown – and adults are reminded – that toys and gadgets have their place in the world, but that place is limited.

People need more than just toys.

The illustrations have a real classic feel to them, with colours that you feel you could melt into, and a touch of whimsy that is fun and irresistible.

This is a must for all book collections.

This book is available online

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Event: Story Time at the State Library of Victoria

Itsy-bitsy babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers and parents are invited to enjoy rhymes, stories and activities at this special celebration with Margaret Wild and Jan Ormerod, the award-winning author and illustrator of Itsy-Bitsy Babies.

Itsy-Bitsy Babies is the latest book to be distributed as part of the Young Readers Program.

Itsy-Bitsy Babies storytime:

Date: Friday 1 October, 11.00am - 12.00pm
Cost: Free
Bookings required
Email: bookings@slv.vic.gov.au
Telephone: 03 8664 7099
Venue: (Main Entry) State Library of Victoria, 328 Swanston Street, Melbourne

Review: The Song of the Winns

Title: The Song of the Winns

Author: Frances Watts

Publisher: HarperCollins, $14.99 RRP

Publication Date: September 2010

Format: Paperback

ISBN: 9780733327865

For ages: 9 - 12

Type: Novel

About: The first in the new Gerander trilogy, The Song of the Winns is a sweeping adventure of three young mice.

Alistair, Alex and Alice are triplets. Their parents passed away when they were little and their loving grandparents are now raising the three scamps. Life is happy and carefree, until Alistair suddenly and mysteriously disappears overnight.

The only clue Alex, Alice and their grandparents have to work with is a loose thread from Alistair’s scarf caught on a bush outside the bedroom window.

And when their grandparents reach the conclusion that he must have been kidnapped, they must explain their reasons to Alex and Alice. There is a whole side to their nation’s history that the triplets have been unaware of, and it involves their family and a lot of secrets.

Alex and Alice, unhappy with the adults’ approach, decide to begin their own quest to find their brother, heading off over the mountains to rescue him.

Meanwhile, Alistair has landed – literally – on top of another mouse, Tibby Rose, who quickly becomes a friend. The two ginger mice unravel another side to the great mystery, and head on an adventure to get Alistair home.

This is a thrilling tale of adventure, friendship and families. More than that, there are wider issues dealt with here: prejudice, war and a good dose of classic good versus evil.

In Kids Book Review’s recent interview with author Frances Watts, she told us her inspiration for writing The Song of the Winns:

“My partner David and I were on a walking holiday in the Snowy Mountains, and one evening I saw a news story about a powerful country attacking a less powerful one. When I was a kid I used to be fascinated by books set during wartime. They were very dramatic and compelling, but they were very character-driven too — and the questions they posed, the demands they made of their characters, had an urgency and immediacy that spoke to me then and still speaks to me today; questions about justice and integrity and personal responsibility.”

In this trilogy, Watts has shown herself to be a talented Australian novelist, creating what are sure to become classic stories and characters that children will enjoy time after time – and generation after generation.

This book is available online

Read our interview with author Frances Watts

Kids Book Review Facebook Page is for YOU!

Kids Book Review's Facebook page is a place where readers, authors, illustrators, publishers and other industry professionals and book lovers can converge and share. We encourage anyone to post news, views or events on our page to share with the literary world!

Head on over now and start posting! Oh, and don't forget to follow us on twitter. Tweet!

Tania and Megan

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Review: Watch Me Throw the Ball!

Title: Watch Me Throw the Ball!

Author/Illustrator: Mo Willems

Publisher: Walker Books, A$9.95RRP

Publication date: 01/08/2009

Format: Softcover

ISBN: 9781406322194

For ages: 4 - 7

Type: Picture Book

About: Elephant and Piggie are back in this ball-throwing romp, part of the Elephant and Piggie series in which Piggie gallantly undertakes the task of lightening Elephant up a little.

A modern day Dr Seuss, the dry wit and clever use of simple words make this book another hilarious addition to the bookshelf. When Piggie wants to throw Elephant’s ball, Elephant is not so sure Piggie will know how, especially as his philosophy behind ball-throwing is the utterly Draconian “just have fun.”

To our eye-rolling elephant friend, it’s clear Piggie has no idea how to throw a ball and sure enough, when he throws the ball and it ends up BEHIND him, Elephant delights in his ineptitude.

So what does Piggie do? He whoops it up! He has thrown the ball so far, it has encircled the world! Watching Elephant stew with frustration is just precious, as is the way Piggie deals with it and the lesson it teaches Elephant.

The combination of clever, highly-relatable text and hilarious illustrations are what make Willem's books work so very well – perhaps an obvious statement but a true one. This talented literary force once again shows children deeply embedded moral codes that are as subtle as speck of dust on a ballroom floor. His use of humour, fun and emotion makes his books collector’s items, and will for a long time to come.

You can buy this book online

Review: Time to Pee

Title: Time to Pee

Author/Illustrator: Mo Willems

Publisher: Walker Books, A$15.95RRP

Publication date: 01/06/2006

Format: Softcover

ISBN: 9781406301588

For ages: 2 - 5

Type: Picture Book

About: Okay. So you’re having a wee potty problem in your house. What better, then, than a highly instructional, perfectly laid-out, illustrated tome on the wherefores, whys and how-tos of potty-training?

That’s right – there’s no need to fret when ‘that feeling’ comes over you. No need to stress, no need to run. And for goodness sake, don’t ignore it. It’s all good. Everything is ok. You can do it. You can pee.

In Willems’ adorable instructional book, we meet a series of gorgeously-illustrated kids in various states of ‘holding on’ – who show us how big there are, and how clever they are – by marching down the hall to that illustrious bathroom.

And illustrious, it is. The scene of a toilet covered with the cutest gaggle of little mice, playing music, dancing, cavorting and otherwise celebrating the great porcelain potty, is just sensational, complete with a little red carpet and bowing mice, welcoming the peeing child to their throne.

The text is minimal and each word is announced with much fanfare in a series of signs, banners and coloured shapes, making easy-reading for both parents and children. Kids are treated to pictures of kids sitting and standing most confidently to pee (boys should stand and girls should sit).

There are plenty of reminders – don’t forget to use toilet paper and flush (though I take exception to the flush occurring with an open toilet lid! ugh!), wash your hands – and most importantly of all – get back to playing.

The back of this book features a sticker sheet with those super cute mice and lots of encouragement (including a Better Luck Next Time!) for little ones who achieve their bathroom objectives.

You can buy this book online

Review: Kuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Title: Kuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Author/Illustrator: Mo Willems

Publisher: Walker Books, A$15.95RRP

Publication date: 01/06/2008

Format: Softcover

ISBN: 9781406313826

For ages: 2 - 6

Type: Picture Book

About: There’s a reason Mo Willems’ books have done so well. His inherent sense of humour, both in his text and illustrations, is just completely huggable. My first Willems book was the original Knuffle Bunny (A Cautionary Tale) and I was totally addicted.

This second book in the Knuffle series (book three is out soon), sees Trixie a little older now – kindergarten age – and her faithful sidekick, K.Bunny is still firmly attached to her person (and still as cute as ever).

But when another little girl brings a Knuffle Bunny identical twin to school, things start to go pear-shaped. Knuffle Bunny is no longer a one-of-a-kind friend, and when some childlike ego battering ensues, teacher steps in and removes the bunnies altogether.

At the end of the day, the stuffed rabbits are redistributed… but of course, it’s not until the middle of the night, when Trixie is snuggled up with Knuffle in bed, that she… realizes something…

That’s right. It’s not her bunny.

The debacle that follows is truly giggle-worthy, and parents will groan and nod in empathy as a nighttime rendez-vous is organized to facilitate an undercover swap. And when both girls are finally reunited with their respective bunnies, they extend that warm fuzzy relief into a new best-friendship.

The use of photographs and coloured sketches in this book are so gorgeously done. Willems not only has a knack for styling (without over-styling), he also uses each page to heighten the drama and emotion. When Trixie first sees the rival bunny at kinder, for example, the use of separate successive shots zooming in on Rival Rabbit is priceless. You can just hear the ominous music – da da daaaaaaaa…………

Trixie is an adorable character and her dad is glorious, but of course, it’s Knuffle Bunny always steals the show. Bring on Book Three!

Teacher's Notes

You can buy this book online

Monday, 27 September 2010

Review: Leonardo the Terrible Monster

Title: Leonardo the Terrible Monster

Author/Illustrator: Mo Willems

Publisher: Walker Books, A$16.95RRP

Publication date: 01/09/2008

Format: Softcover

ISBN: 9781406312157

For ages: 3 - 7

Type: Picture Book

About: Leonardo isn’t very good at being a monster. In fact, he is a terrible monster. As terrible as they come. He can’t scare anyone to save himself. He doesn’t even look the part.

Keen to live up to his full monstery potential, Leonardo researches how to not only scare people but find the perfect victim, and when he does find one – a trembling, corner-sitting Sam, Leonardo sees his chance.

He sneaks up on Sam and gives him the scaring of his life. And Sam cries. But is he crying because Sam scared him… or is there something more serious afoot?

Leonardo may be a terrible monster, but he’s a great hugger. And a very good friend.

Using the quintessential Willems pastel pages and gorgeous retro-style illustrations, Leonardo the Terrible Monster is another masterpiece in the Willems conglomerate of fun.

You can buy this book online

Review: Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!

Title: Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!

Author/Illustrator: Mo Willems

Publisher: Walker Books, A$15.95RRP

Publication Date: 01/04/07

Format: Softcover

ISBN: 9781406308129

For ages: 3-6

Type: Picture Book

About: After Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late proves that Mo Willems knows when he’s onto a good thing. And good on him.

In this adorable book, Pigeon does a fast con job on the reader about going to bed. Every excuse under the sun is rolled forth for consideration – “Can I have a glass of water?” and “I’ll go to bed early tomorrow night” are only superceded by the borderline hysterical wail of “I’m not tired!!!”

Pigeon is a character unto himself, and Willems once again uses beautifully-balanced kid-style text that is engaging, easy to emote and totally creative. You night notice the appearance of Knuffle Bunny in the book, and the addition of a be-capped man who introduces the story and pleads with the reader to help him get pigeon to sleep, is adorable.

Kids will laugh. Adults will nod their heads in eye-rolling recognition, and here’s hoping against hope the utter sleepyness of our birdie friend by the end of this very tiring book. Tiring in a good way.

You can buy this book online

Review: Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale

Title: Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale

Author/Illustrator: Mo Willems

Publisher: Walker Books, A$15.95RRP

Publication Date: 01/08/05

Format: Softcover

Language: English

ISBN: 9781844280599

For ages: 3-6

Type: Picture Book

About: When little Trixie misplaces her best friend, Knuffle Bunny, at the laundromat, who knew this small crisis would instigate a major, life-changing event in a young toddler’s life?

This delightful book, written and illustrated by the irreverent Mo Willems, is one of our family’s favourites (read: MY favourite). The use of witty text and stunning black and white photos is only rivalled by the hilarity of the emotion in its characters.

Willems' simplistic yet sophisticated signature drawings perfectly complement a blatant sense of humour that hits adults and kids right on the funny bone. An instant classic that will have you flicking for a giggle long after the kids have entered college.

Teacher's Notes

You can buy this book online

Bibliography: Mo Willems

image credit

We are hopping around with glee to feature talented author/illustrator Mo Willems on Kids Book Review's Behind the Books. For the next two days you will be Mo-Fested! We kickstart things with a bibliography from the present to waaaaaay back... Warning: it's long.

Knuffle Bunny Free: an Unexpected Diversion

City Dog, Country Frog (Author)

Cat the Cat, Who is That?

Let’s Say Hi to Friends Who Fly!

What’s Your Sound, Hound the Hound?

Time to Sleep, Sheep the Sheep!

We Are In a Book!

Can I Play, Too?

I Am Going!

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed

Big Frog Can’t Fit In!

Watch Me Throw the Ball!

Elephants Can Not Dance!

Pigs Make Me Sneeze!

The Pigeon Wants A Puppy!

I Love My New Toy!

I Will Surprise My Friend!

Are You Ready To Play Outside?

The Complete Peanuts 1969-1970 (Writer, Introduction)

Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Today I Will Fly!

My Friend is Sad!

There is a Bird on Your Head!

I Am Invited to a Party!

Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!

You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons: The World on One Cartoon a Day (forward by Dave Barry)

Edwina, the Dinosaur That Didn’t Know She Was Extinct

'Honestly', Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road Anthology (Illustrator)

'Eye Poker', Rush Hour: Reckless (Illustrator)

Leonardo, the Terrible Monster

Time To Say ‘Please’!

The Pigeon Loves Things That Go!

The Pigeon Has Feelings, Too!

'The Unbeatable' Every Man For Himself: Stories About Being A Guy

ALA Best Book for Young Adults 2006, NYPL Books for the Teen Age 2006

'Aw, Nuts!', Guys Write for Guys Read

'Machiavelli On The Telly', PEN America (#6) (Author)

'The Wonder of It All', Bizarro World (Author)

Adventures in Cable Television Featuring That Lovable Sap, Mo Willems, Death of Monkeysuit, Monkeysuit Press comix anthology

Knuffle Bunny; a Cautionary Tale

The Pigeon Finds A Hotdog!

'Nuts To You', Marlo Thomas’ Thanks and Giving All Year Round (Illustrator)

Time To Pee!

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

Walking the Williamsburg Bridge to Work, 911: The World’s Finest Comic Book Writers & Artists Tell Stories to Remember, Comics anthology

'Freak Show of the Less Than Bizarre', Viva La Monkeysuit, comix anthology, Monkeysuit Press

'Just Some of the People Who Hate You', Bride of Monkeysuit, comix anthology, Monkeysuit Press

The Mo Willems Sketchbook

More here

Review: Down to Earth, Rusty and the Rainbow

Read below to find out how to WIN both of these books!

Titles: Down to Earth; Rusty and the Rainbow

Author: Karin Cox

Photographer: Steve Parish

Publisher: Steve Parish Publishing, $14.95 RRP each

Publication Date: September 2010

Format: Hard cover

ISBN: 9781741936315 / 9781741936322

For ages: 3+

Type: Picture books

About Down to Earth: Jemima the koala has lived all her life in the tree tops. She’s never before been down to the ground; she hasn’t even stopped to wonder what it’s like down there.

Until her daughter, Mimi, grows up and begins asking questions about what it’s like down there.

Meanwhile, the other animals are planning a party. They think the koalas are snobby, never bothering to come down to talk to them, so they don’t think to invite them. Except for Daisy the glider, that is, who delivers an invitation and urges them to come along.

All the animals could be in for a shock when they realise they have misunderstood each other.

Kids will love so many aspects of this story.

Personally, I love the deeper message contained in words like these: “I have never been down to earth… I have everything I need right here in the tree tops.” Many of us may have our heads stuck in the clouds, but it’s important to know that right here in real life, there are things to be lived.

The use of other pictures with the photographs also works really well. This is a book full of stunning Australian wildlife images, with little extra bits added in here and there, like the pink invitations each animal is holding. This adds a whimsical feel and a real touch of fantasy that complements the story perfectly.

But my favourite part? The photos of cuddly, sleepy koalas – they’re just so cute!

About Rusty and the Rainbow: When Rusty the numbat and his friend Pogo the wallaby spot a kangaroo, they decide to take an adventure to find the pot of gold at the end.

Along the way they meet some animals that match the colours of a rainbow: parrots, rainbow fish, a rainbow bee-eater – all of whom have tried to catch the bright arc in the sky before. Rusty and Pogo are warned that their search will end in failure, but still they persist.

When they finally reach the end, there’s a little surprise in store for this adventurous pair – they may have found a reward for their efforts after all.

The numbat is a fascinating creature and a rare, endangered species that is so important to be aware of. After all, knowledge and familiarity (beginning with childhood stories such as this one) are the first step to protecting our amazing native animals.

This story acts to inform children – in a fun and relatable way – of the animals that live in our midst. What they like to eat, their habitats, other creatures found in the same environment; it’s all here.

Of course, Parish’s photography is the first thing one notices, but look even further and you’ll find a lovely story with a positive message. And an important one at that.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Author Interview - AJ Betts

Talented YA Author AJ Betts joins us with a wonderful interview on why she's obsessed with making up stories. Welcome AJ!

What's your story? I currently live in Perth, by the sea. I work as a secondary English Teacher, so I have to write at nights, on the weekends, and on school holidays. I’ve been here for six years now, after driving across Australia and loving the Indian Ocean. Prior to this, I’d grown up in Far North Queensland, and lived in Brisbane and the UK.

How long have you been writing? I’ve been writing for as long as I remember. My first poem got published at twelve. I was a poet for a long time until I turned to writing novels ten years ago. I remember loving the opportunity to write stories at primary school.

What genre do you write in? I write for older teenagers (15+) but adults enjoy my books too. I write realistic novels that people can identify with.

What other genres have you written in? Sometimes I write non-fiction, including a biographical story I wrote about my grandad, published in the collection ‘Lines of Wisdom’, published by Affirm Press, 2008. As a teenager I was interested in comedy and sci-fi – I was influenced by Douglas Adams. I’d like to try more fantasy and sci-fi in the future.

Why do you write? I write because I’m obsessed with making up stories and if I didn’t get them down, I’d explode! I’m fascinated by people and the strange ways that life works. I love using language to show an aspect of life that readers haven’t considered before. I love the endless possibilities language holds – it’s like weaving magic out of sound and symbol.

What made you decide to do a young adult fiction? I only realised halfway through my first novel that it was young adult. I really like writing teenaged characters because they’re interesting and I never know what they’re going to do. I love working with teenagers (as a high school teacher, I get to do this every day).

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? I think it was called ‘Evil Otto’ and it was heavily influenced by a computer game I’d been playing. Back when I was eight, I didn’t have the confidence to write brand new ideas.

Tell us a little about Wavelength, your new release. It’s a story about Oliver, a 17 year old guy who’s stressed out about his upcoming final exams. For study week he decides to stay with his dad, in Busselton. The novel looks at what happens to Oliver in this new place, and how it changes his view on things: his studies, his exams, and everything that comes after.

Are Oliver and Emma modelled on anyone? They both draw on hundreds of people I’ve met and taught, but they’re also influenced by my own experiences. They share my ambition and perfectionist streak. Emma probably has my sense of humour and biting sarcasm.

Why do you think slice-of-life fiction is so engaging for young adult readers? I think teenage readers identify with the characters because they’re going through similar experiences. There is a place for fantasy and sci-fi, but realism gets that little bit closer to the heart of real life.

What do you hope Wavelength will impart to its readers? I hope readers begin to feel what Oliver does at the end of the novel – that life is good; life is long; and that it helps to go with the flow. The more we try to control every aspect of our lives, the more stressed we become.

What are the greatest obstacles you've experienced on your writing journey? The biggest obstacle was initially my lack of confidence. For years, I was focusing on developing my poetry and prose, without the belief they should be published. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I got to really hone my skills without the embarrassment of putting something out there when it was underdone. I’m still learning and improving and every day, and I hope to continue doing so for the rest of my life.

What do you love most about producing books for young adults? Definitely the feedback I get from readers – it’s so exciting and reassuring!

What advice would you have for anyone wanting to write a book in the young adult genre? I’d say to write because you love to write. Forget you’re writing for teens – write for yourself. And never patronise your reader!

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? A teacher…but frustrated!

Other than writing, what else do you love?

Can you name your top five young adult books of all time?
The Outsiders
Lord of the Flies
The Hunger Games
The 10pm Question
Tomorrow When the War Began

Describe your perfect day. Cycling with friends, swimming at the beach, writing in a café, seeing a film with friends. Bliss!

What five words best sum you up?
Easily excitable

What’s next for AJ Betts? Everything! All at once! But realistically, I’d like to keep writing young adult fiction, and perhaps try my hand at children’s and junior fiction… and maybe adult fiction… one day.

Amanda is thrilled with the overwhelming response she's received over her new YA novel - Wavelength. She says it’s so affirming to get great feedback, after so many years of 'solitude bordering on manic obsession'. Read KBR's review of Wavelength here and learn more about Amanda and her work at her website.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Review: Willy Waggledagger: A Belt Around My Bum

Being a great lover of Shakespeare, I was keen to sample this Willy Waggledagger comedy (yes, yes, Willy Waggledagger is another silly name for The Bard) by Liverpool native and Shakespeare-addict Chatterton (who, by an amazing coincidence, traced his family tree and discovered the world's most famous writer was not his great-great-great-great-great-great uncle!).

Eleven-year-old Willy Waggledagger is on the road with his troupe of players, including the gruff, rotund and hairy Yorick, when the King of the Faeries stops the caravan in its tracks, demanding help to re-capture the famed gold belt supposedly snaffled from the King by Queen Elizabeth. By another amazing coincidence, the King is actually the brother of Yorick (only possibly hairier).

Tricked into helping this wing-wearing nutbag reclaim the golden belt, the King offers them some love potion to help smooth the way, and the troupe enters the palace under the guise of performing their latest play.

But reclaiming the belt doth not goeth smoothly. When the love potion is mistakenly gulped down by the Queen, Yorick, page boys and all manner of hangers-on, you can only imagine the amorous chaos that ensues.

Clever, witty, funny and totally bonkers, this story will attract both boys and girls - and also the odd parent or 678, for its riotous attempt at making sense of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Illustrations by Brisbane native Rogers, beautifully round out this fun series of books. Any excuse to expose kids to Shakespeare, I say - even if it is via the stylings of a bumbling eleven-year-old boy in pantaloons.

Title: Willy Waggledagger: A Belt Around My Bum
Author: Martin Chatterton
Illustrator: Gregory Rogers
Publisher: Little Hare, A$14.99RRP
Publication Date: November 2009
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781921272981
For ages: 7 - 12
Type: Junior Fiction

Also in this series:
By the Picking of My Nose
Coming soon: To Chew or Not to Chew

This book is available online

KBR Recommends: Great Junior Fiction for Boys

Most boys love to read, but they are also very busy and so partial to many other things like sport and hobbies and electronic brain-sappers.

Our boys are reading more and more sophisticated books at a younger age, yet there are just as many who struggle to read, and suffer enormously from it – not only academically and socially, but also for the fact that they’re missing out on the glory of stories – something so vital to a growing brain.

A KBR reader tweeted me some weeks ago about books she could buy for her 4-year-old son who is reading so well and devouring so many books, she would like to extend him to chapter books. Her only issue was finding suitable books, so she asked my advice on great junior fiction for very young readers.

The following line-up of books has such a variety in tone and reading difficulty, they will suit young kids who read well… and also older kids who don’t read so well. Depending on your child, their interest and their reading capabilities, you’re sure to find a series that will encourage your boy to read.

These books are specifically for kids who are extending themselves beyond picture books to text – aged roughly between 4 and 8, though as ‘old’ as 10. If you have a chapter book series your son or students have enjoyed or that you would like to recommend to other parents and teachers, please do leave a comment below.

Aussie Nibbles

The Aussie Nibbles series (Bites and Chomps are for older readers, respectively) has been a best seller for Penguin for many years now, and is still going strong, with books selling in overseas markets, proving there is a large market for great stories that extend children and draw them into other worlds.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Author Interview - Peter Macinnis

Kids Book Review is delighed to welcome award-winning Australian author Peter Macinnis with this insightful interview on the wherewithalls of writing books and attempting to retire...

Tell us a little bit about you. Officially, I'm retired, but don't believe it. I have written all my life, and I have now been a full-time writer for five years. I see no reason to stop, not while I'm having fun and my readers are having fun.

I was born in Ipswich during World War II, but I have lived (and still live) on Sydney's northern beaches for most of my life. I have been a teacher, a bureaucrat, a researcher, a management consultant and fraud investigator, a museum educator and encyclopaedist. My wife and I have three children, a lawyer and two scientists, and we have two grandchildren.

I have always been or wanted to be a writer. I got the writing bug when I was about 10, when I wanted to be the next Ion Idriess. I started on my first book in 1971, though it was only published in about 1982. Since then, I've had about 40 books published.

What genre do you write in? Lots! Most of the time I write about science, but history interests me as well, sometimes I combine the two. I used to (and still do) write serious books for adults, looking at how things like sugar, rockets, poisons and even lawn changed our world, books I call 'histories of things'. The fancy name is 'narrative non-fiction'.

The thing is, I'm restless, and I like looking at the reasons why things happen (or happened the way they did). That's how I cross the border from science to history, because both those areas are about causes. Most of my books for younger readers are also attempts to explore the reasons for something. I like to offer insights.

Mind you, my next book, due out on November 1, is very different because it's about monsters, but these aren't your normal vampires and zombies. And after that, I may be about to switch again—keep reading, because there's a Big Secret later on! [Ed: we can't wait!]

What other genres have you written in? Well, the next book, the monster one is probably best described as comedy (if people like it) and as tragedy if they don't. It's supposed to be about monsters but I'm afraid the larrikin that lives in my head took over. The publishers enjoyed it, so I'm hopeful. See The Monster Maintenance Manual for more.

Your book Australian Backyard Explorer won the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books – how did it feel to win this prestigious award? My wife and I work as a team. She was originally a science teacher as I was, and she is always part of the planning and editing process. We had been visiting the grandchildren in New Zealand and we flew into Brisbane for the awards.

After it was all over and we had shouted 'yippee!', we flew home and headed off to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia to see Wilpena, Lake Eyre and other places, and to get some photos for the next National Library book, which is to be called Australian Backyard Naturalist. This book is about looking at, observing and sometimes catching animals and plants. It's very much a hands-on, how-to book. Except for the Monsters: you can't blame her for that, though she checked every word, even there. It's how we work.

Riley and the Curious Koala Colouring Competition

Kids! To help celebrate the upcoming launch of Tania McCartney's new picture book - Riley and the Curious Koala: A journey around Sydney, you could win a copy of the book!

Just head to Tania's website to enter a fab colouring-in competition for your chance to win! Entries close 30 November and are open to Australian and New Zealand residents only.

You'll also find some wonderful fun and games for kids - mazes, spot-the-difference, even paper dolls to print and play with!

Glorious illustrations by Kieron Pratt.

Don't miss Tania's blog tour for Riley and the Curious Koala - 15 - 21 November 2010. 

Review: Zizzy

Title: Zizzy

Author: Penny Matthews

Illustrator: Danny Snell

Publisher: Ominibus, A$26.99RRP

Publication date: 02/08/2010

Format: Hardcover

ISBN: 9781862917972

For ages: 3 - 6

Type: Picture Book

About: Ah, the simplicity behind the concept of this story. Such a simple, honest tale (are they not the absolute best?), this adorable story about a little sloth will melt your heart.

Zizzy the sloth lives in a deep dark jungle. He doesn’t do much but hang upside down, eat and sleep sleep sleep. And nap. Walking on the ground is difficult, moving agonizingly slow… and adventuring? Almost impossible.

But when Zizzy spots a blue patch through the tree tops one day, he asks a parrot who tells him this patch of blue is the beginning of the rest of the world.

Totally intrigued, and with the bird’s help, Zizzy sets off on his very first adventure, tumbling and stumbling over the forest floor to the sea. The sight of a sloth sittng on the sand looking out to a vast blue ocean with a parrot on his head is not one you will soon forget.

Zizzy is entranced by the vision before him, but very soon, he wants to go home – back to his familiar life, to his everyday, to his own world. And when he returns, Zizzy is perfectly happy to keep on with his napping and dreaming – dreams in which he can go anywhere and be anything he wants to be.

The subtlety of this book is what makes it work so well. Children react so well to subtlety, and the final page in which we learn that Zizzy can be anything in his dreams is so breathtaking, children will be entranced (and adults may need to reach for a tissue).

The illustrations in Zizzy are truly spectacular, making it one of my favourite picture books this year. Rich, lucid, beautifully designed and utterly mood-setting, any author would be ecstatic to have Snell’s work interpreting their storyline.


This book is available online

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Review: Noah's Garden

Title: Noah's Garden

Author: Mo Johnson

Illustrator: Annabelle Josse

Publisher: Walker Books, $27.95 RRP

Publication Date: 01/05/2010

Format: Hard cover

ISBN: 9781921150159

For ages: 3 - 7

Type: Picture Book

About: Little Noah has an imagination as grand as a storybook compendium. When he swings, he can fly. When he roams the sandy hills of the sandpit, he’s riding crazy camels. When he’s scaling the play equipment, he’s navigating the piratey seas.

And all in Noah’s very special garden – the grounds of a children’s hospital where helicopters twirl through the sky and land far too frequently. This garden has everything a little boy could need… a little boy who passes every season here waiting, wondering… for baby Jessica.

With the help of his parents and grandparents, this lovely little boy sends wishes to heaven in the wishing fountain of his garden. But will Jessica finally join him to play with the tigers, fly in the silver seaplanes and sail the seven seas?

Bright watercolour illustrations by Annabelle Josse provide movement (the helicopter page is brilliant), emotion and tenderness that beautifully complement the storyline.
Rhythmic, emotive and imaginative, this book would make a wonderful gift for any child, but most especially those experiencing a hospital environment or illness.

Written in honour of a real life Jessica, the emotion and love the author has poured into this book is palpable. All royalties earned by sales of the Australian edition of Noah’s Garden are being donated to the Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation, Melbourne.

Royal Children’s Hospital

This book is available online

Review: Ready, Steady, Grow!

Title: Ready, Steady, Grow!

Compiled by: The Royal Horticultural Society

Publisher: DK, $29.95 RRP

Publication Date: September 2010

Format: Hard cover

ISBN: 9781740337717

For ages: Primary school

Type: Junior non-fiction

About: Filled to the brim with D.K.’s stunning, modern photography, combined with cute little illustrations, you’ll be in love with this book before you even take a close look at the contents.

Containing fun projects for children to work on in the garden, this is a no-nonsense, straight to the point (and the fun bits) book. It will teach kids about the joy of gardening, and instruct them how to approach it.

Projects include everything from growing flowers in pots to creating garden decorations, and everything in between. Growing edibles will be a favourite inclusion, including herbs and vegetables, pizza topping ingredients, berries, salads and even food for pets to enjoy.

Each section contains easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions and additional tips to ensure success.

My concern with this book was that, being produced in the U.K., it may not transfer well to Australian gardens. However, each project has been carefully selected as non-specific to any particular destination.

This is a book recommended for kids who want to be involved in the garden, but don’t quite know where to begin. Ready, Steady, Grow! will give them horticultural skills for life.

This book is available online

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Guest Post: Rosemary Mastnak

Rosemary cuts her 70th birthday cake just last week,
with joint-birthday-granddaughter Anya

We are just so happy to have the delightful Rosemary Mastnak guest posting on KBR. Rosemary is a 'late bloomer' in the kids lit world but has more than made up for it with her talent and resultant success. We hope you love this look at Rosemary's journey from artist to published author.

At the age of 36, I discovered I should have been an artist. My children were two and four, and I’d been an Early Childhood Teacher for ten years before they had been born.

I’d always been good at art but my mother wanted me to have a profession, hence University and teaching. Not that I minded, the skills came in handy later in life when I taught watercolour to adults.

At the age of 66, after many years of watercolour landscapes en plein air, I discovered I should have been a writer. I’d always written; letters, diaries, the odd little poem, but I hadn’t always been a grandmother.

Somehow, a combination of all these things has resulted in my books. It’s something I wish I’d always done, but I guess it had to evolve. I needed to have all these experiences first.

Dancing with Grandma came about when I had a bout of pneumonia. I’d been visiting Anya, my first grandchild (she’s now 8) frequently - a 6-hour round trip. I also had tutoring and coordinating a group of watercolourists, organising exhibitions (we have a small gallery), the housework, cooking, gardening, etc, that one does, and I suppose I was a bit run down.

Three months rest - doctor's orders! What to do? Coloured pencils, a sketch pad, sitting by the fire in the dressing gown and an idea!

I wanted to make a little book for my grandchild of what we’d done together. Something for her to remember our times together. One’s imagination took hold!!

A friend saw it and sent it to my Fairy Godmothers, the lovely girls at Hardie Grant.

So here we are, three books later and I’ve just turned 70!

I just love doing it. It’s escapism, really. I wake up bursting with ideas. I have good powers of observation, honed from all those years of looking for paintings in the landscape, and so I think I see things, and think, ‘there’s a book in that!’ I’m just expanding and embroidering what I know.

At present, I’m having a little rest. Three books in four years has been huge, but I have more ideas!

Just doodling away with a trusty 4B and my kneadable eraser. Watch this space!

See more on Rosemary's books here.

Review: The Green-Eyed Mouse and the Blue-Eyed Mouse

Title: The Green-Eyed Mouse and the Blue-Eyed Mouse

Author/Illustrator: Bob Gill

Publisher: Phaidon, $19.99 RRP

Publication date: 01/09/2010

Format: Hard cover

ISBN: 9780714848877

For ages: 2 - 5

Type: Picture Book

About: Oh this is scrumptious. What is it about retro and retro-style books that strip away the pomp and ceremony and just operate on beautiful design and cleverness? It’s really that simple, and why they’re so simply fabulous.

Legendary author/illustrator Bob Gill achieves simplicity, humour, beauty and more in this gorgeous book about two mice who spend the majority of the book peeking at each other through a teensy hole in the wall. One mouse sees nothing but a big green eye, the other mouse sees nothing but blue.

‘Who are you?’ says Noah, the blue-eyed mouse.

‘Who are you?” says Raffaella, the green-eyed mouse.

But neither of them are brave enough to reveal who they are – thinking that one is tricking the other and are really ferocious blue-eyed or green-eyed polar bears or snakes or traffic wardens.

How can one tell, after all, what lies behind a teensy hole in the wall?

Eventually, after much to-ing and fro-ing, Raffaella steps it up a notch (figuring the end of the book would not have a happy ending if it kept going on, ad infinitum) and suggests they reveal themselves after the count of three.

But will the two mice be brave enough to trust each other and maybe even become friends?

This clever book is punched throughout with a single hole on each page, showing both the blue and green eyes that are subsequently illustrated with imaginative possibilities – and much uncertain conversation between the two main characters.

The text is classically Bob Gill funny (the green-eyed mouse was called Noah despite having a Chinese mother, for example) and the illustrations are simple line drawings with the use of only a blue or green eye, peeking through snowy pages.

This is an ideal book for any young child but it’s also a must-have for collectors of beautiful children’s books. A modern classic.

This book is available online

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Guest Post: The Writing of Graffiti Moon

Graffiti Moon feels small when I hold it. I flicked through it the other day and I couldn’t believe it took me such a long time to write. But it did. Because my writing process is long and muddled and it’s only at the end that I know exactly what it is that I want to say.

The first draft was about 80,000 words and it took me about a year to write. Ed, Lucy, Jazz, Leo, Dylan and Daisy were in the story. But they were completely different to the characters that appear in the published book.

I love the characters in the final version. I didn’t know the characters in the first draft very well and what I knew (or thought I knew) I didn’t like. There wasn’t nearly enough hope or poetry inside them.

So I pretty much deleted the lot. I threw out everything except their names, the glassblowing, the art and the night. I decided to get to know them again, properly. I went searching for things that might happen in their world.

I drove around the northern suburbs at different times. I took my laptop and wrote about the landscape while it shifted and changed with the light. I wrote most of Lucy’s descriptions while I sat under the Westgate. Some nights my friends would drive me over and over it so I could take notes. Lucy’s world is romantic, an industrial city covered in lights. It shines. In the first draft it was grimy and that didn’t work.

Ed doesn’t see the same beauty that Lucy does, even at night. So for him I wrote near the docks, where I had a view of the crates and cranes.

I went to parks and met a nighttime poet who eventually became Leo.

I ate in cafés in different parts of the city, at different times of the night, to see who might come in.

I talked to people about art (gallery and street). I spent a day in a glass artist’s studio and she told me not only about her craft but also about her life.

I met a teenager who talked to me about her psychic abilities.

And then from those small moments I went on to do what I love doing. I spent all of my time imagining the tiny details about my characters. What poetry did Leo write after Emma dumped him? What poems did he write when he was on the dance floor with Jazz? What paintings did Ed spray across the city?

My favourite part of writing is imagining the dialogue. In the second draft, that was the easiest part. In the first draft it took forever. I know now that if the dialogue takes me too long then I don’t have the characters right.

After I’d spent all that time in the night, the characters were easy. The second draft only took about three months. And because Ed and Lucy, Leo and Jazz, Dylan and Daisy had so much poetry in them, I missed them when they’d gone.

Visit Cath's Website

Review: The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain

Gracie loves to play soccer, and her team is on the way to the Nationals. Life is great. Unfortunately, she’s about to learn that it isn’t always that way.

Her coach is dealing with complaints from all the boys on the team, wanting him to get rid of her, she has to deal with embarrassment when it comes to the boy of her dreams, her best friend is moving away and her home life is about to become a mess.

Fun Facts - Cath Crowley

Want to know more about the woman behind the books? Here are some fun facts about Cath you may not know...

She was born in Melbourne in but moved to an isolated property in Gippsland before she started school.

She would like a pet fish.

Some of her favourite books are Trixie Beldon, Nancy Drew, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, plus anything by Judy Blume and Jane Austen. And Dr Seuss.

Cath studied radio production and literature at uni.

She was an English teacher.

Her favourite bands/singers are The Lucksmiths, Angus and Julia Stone and Bat for Lashes.

When she travelled around Europe, Cath wrote letters to her brother, who later turned them into a musical called The Journey Girl.

Cath studied professional writing at TAFE and wrote articles for papers and magazines.

One of her favourite films is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Her favourite storytellers are Charlie Kaufman, Ira Glass, Helen Garner, Daniel Kitson, Jeff Simmermon and John Green.

She sleep walks sometimes.

Three of her favourite artists are Mark Rothko, Sam Leach and Ghostpatrol.

Her first book was The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain.

Cath likes reading, TV marathons, the planetarium, politics and hanging out with friends.

She is passionate about art.

Her favourite TV shows are Doctor Who and The West Wing.

Cath finds it hard to make a decision.

She likes reading on trains and she really likes coffee.

Cath loves writing dialogue. She finds plots difficult.

Cath is currently working on a book called The Howling Boy.

Visit Cath's website or her blog for more.

Review: Rosie Staples' Minor Magical Misunderstanding

When Rosie Staples buys a curious Wishing Stone from the Mad Magic Shop (Rosie loves to perform magic tricks), she has one thing in mind - she wants the lead in the school play and will do anything to beat regular limelight hogger, Maddison Diamond, to it.

But this Wishing Stone must NOT be wished upon whilst a grandmother is standing on her head in the same household, and the fine print must be read excrutiatingly carefully before wishing... for example, one must take the utmost care that any cats are not be wriggling their bums at the same time as the wish, lightning must not be striking anywhere in the world and no seagulls must be standing on one leg begging chips.

Of course, the chances of all this not happening are low, so when Rosie makes her wish, all manner of kooky things occur, most especially since Rosie failed to follow rule No. 1 of Wishing - ask your question simply and end it in a full stop.

Being a chatterer who couldn't help but elaborate (read: rant and rave) or her wish, it soon becomes an essay and the young school girl quickly discovers the error of her ways (read the fine print!)... she wakes the next morning with half the brain of Maddison and half her own remaining brain.

But wait, things are worse - Maddison has suffered the same fate! What does this mean to the two young girls who haven't always got on in the past, and can they forge a friendship or will they remain brain twins forever?

Crowley has written a magical, fun and cleverly constructed story for this Aussie Bites contribution. Her characters are 'normal' girls that readers will relate to, but the injection of trickery and magic into 'everyday' lives makes the book irresistable. The author uses fun dialogue and cheeky humour, and illustrations by Judy Watson bring the entire story to life.

I'm sure we'll be seeing more Bites, Nibbles and maybe even Chomps from Crowley soon.

Title: Rosie Staples' Minor Magical Misunderstanding
Author: Cath Crowley
Publisher: Penguin, $12.95 RRP
Publication Date: 27 Aug 2010
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780143304968
For ages: Young adult
Type: Junior Fiction

Author Interview - Cath Crowley

We hope you enjoy this fabulous, insightful interview with Cath Crowley, author of young adult fiction and many other books...

Tell us a little bit about you... I live in Yarraville. The flat I rent was once an old dentist’s waiting room – it has two rooms and I write in the one that was the dentist’s surgery. I share a garden with the owner and sometimes I write out there.

I don’t have any pets or children. But I have lots of nieces and nephews and I love spending time with them and their pets. I’m also thinking about buying a fish this year.

What did you do before you became an author? Before I became an author I did a lot of things: waitressing, cleaning, cooking and teaching. I like writing the best of all the jobs I’ve had.

Did you always want to be an author? I’ve been an author for about ten years. I quit my teaching job when I was twenty-eight and enrolled for a course in professional writing at RMIT. As soon as I started to write I knew it was what I wanted to do for a career.

Can you remember the first book you ever wrote? The first book I ever wrote was The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain. It’s partly about a girl who plays soccer on an all-boy soccer team. And partly about how she copes when one of her best friends, Jane, moves away. Life gets pretty messy and confusing.

What made you decide to pen books for young adults? I like writing for this genre but I don’t think about teenagers so much as I think about people when I work. How do we all react to things like grief and friendship and love? I know I have the same reactions to these things now that I did when I was younger; it’s just that when I was a teenager the emotion was raw because it was happening for the first time. I like writing about those ‘firsts’: first love, first love disaster, first loss, first friendship.

What else have you written? I’ve only written articles and short stories for adults. They feel easier to me but that’s because they’re shorter pieces. I think writing novels is difficult, whether the audience is adults, young adults or children. The stories and the characters have to be believable and compelling. (Cath's first Aussie Bites book for kids - Rosie Staples’ Minor Magical Misunderstanding - will be out soon.)

What do you love most about producing books for young people? I love making up characters and writing dialogue. I love it when I get that first line of the character’s voice – like Shadow in Graffiti Moon when he thinks about the first things he ever painted: doorways on brick walls. I had a great time writing what he and Lucy talk about during the night when the novel is set.

What is the hardest thing about writing books? The hardest thing for me always is plot. I start from character and so I have to be patient and wait for them to tell me what the story is about. And I’m not a patient person so I don’t always enjoy that part of the process.

Why do you write? My book is the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning and often it’s what I dream about. I want to see what happens with my characters and I want to hear what they say to each other and I want to use language in an interesting way. I write because I couldn’t not write.

Your new book, Graffiti Moon came out in August. What inspired you to write it? Graffiti Moon is a story about a group of teenagers who are outsiders. They spend one night together, out in the city, and it changes things for them. They don’t work out who they are – that would be hard in one night – but they work out that it’s okay to be different.

Shadow and Lucy, the main characters, connect through art. So the conversations they have are inspired by the artists I love - Mark Rothko, Sam Leach, Rosemary Laing, Jeffrey Smart, Pablo Picasso, Johannes Vermeer, Michael Zavros, Rosalie Gascoigne, Bethany Wheeler, Ghostpatrol and Miso. I wanted to write about two people who speak through images as well as words.

Poet is my favourite character. He mostly comes from my imagination, but he’s partly inspired by all the teenagers I’ve worked with who say they can’t write and then they produce these amazing lines.

The inspiration for Shadow and Lucy’s love story was the painting The Lovers by Magritte; it’s of two people kissing through sheets. I thought that first dates might be easier if people couldn’t see each other.

Which of your books is your favourite and why? Graffiti Moon is my favourite. But I always like the one I’ve just written the best, probably because I feel closest to those characters. I do like the images of art in Graffiti Moon, and I like that it’s a quirky love story.

What do you think comprises great YA fiction? I look for a character with an original voice and interesting motivation. I love writers who use language and dialogue in ways I don’t expect. And I love books that leave me thinking about the bigger questions.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your book writing journey? It takes me a long time to find the story. I feel like I’m in the wilderness for months and then all of a sudden I find the thread and I can follow it and plot the narrative. This is my greatest obstacle every time.

Describe a typical writing day. I’m at my most creative from about five in the morning to about twelve in the afternoon. I try to be up early so I can make the most of that time. But really, if I’m excited about a book I can write all day and night. I make time to see films and read and look at art and visit friends and family.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? I’d be an astronomer.

What books did you read as a child? That’s hard – but these are the ones that come to mind:

The Famous Five by Enid Blyton
Trixie Beldon by Kathryn Kenny and Julie Campbell
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
I loved these old boarding school books that my mum gave me. I can’t remember the names, but I read them over and over.

What do you love to do? Reading, writing, film, politics, art.

What five words best sum you up? Curious, shy, a bit quirky.

What’s next for Cath Crowley? I’m editing Graffiti Moon for the US market. It comes out there in 2012. I’m working on a new novel that’s called The Howling Boy. It’s a mystery.

Check out Cath's website for more cathcrowley.com.au.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Review: Chasing Charlie Duskin

Title: Chasing Charlie Duskin

Author: Cath Crowley

Publisher: Pan Macmillan, $16.95 RRP

Publication Date: April 2005

Format: Paperback

ISBN: 9780330421607

For ages: Young adult

Type: Novel

About: Charlie Duskin is lost. She lives her life without friends or attention from her father, and is dealing with the deaths of her mother and grandmother.

Heading to the country for the summer holidays to spend time with her grandfather, Charlie is once again forced to face the fact that no one likes her. The other teenagers in town – Rose, Luke and Dave – ignore her most of the time and, when they do notice her, it’s to call her names.

Unaware of the fact that Rose, too, is lost, Charlie becomes the target of Rose’s plan to escape this dead-end country town. And in planning her getaway, Rose hurts everyone in her path to get the one thing she wants in life.

Given that Chasing Charlie Duskin was shortlisted for the CBCA’s prestigious Book of the Year, it’s unsurprising that this is an insightful, well-written novel.

There was just one thing that I didn’t like about this story: the scattered use of terms that made me wonder at times if was supposed to be set in an American town. Although it is an Australian story, it doesn’t feel that way; perhaps that was intentional to make the book appeal to a wider audience, but to me it took away from the honesty and reality of the plot. It’s not a case of having to be ‘true-blue Aussie’ though, just a need to feel the sincerity of the characters’ dialogues through their choice of words.

Aside from that, Chasing Charlie Duskin is a classic story of being true to yourself and chasing not just dreams, but also reality.

This book is available online

Teaching notes