Child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett wrote The House Without Windows, a song in praise of nature, at the age of twelve.
A young girl, Eepersip, finds living in a house – restrictive doors, windows, rooms and their attendant rules for living – repugnant to her. She decides to leave her parents' house and live in the wild. At first Eepersip roams the woods and meadows, making friends with animals and exulting in the plant life. She eats berries and roots, drinks freshly gathered water and makes comfortable beds in the wild for sleeping. Eepersip lives in a kind of ecstasy; a pure joy inhabits every waking minute of the day. She can't imagine going back to living in a house. Her parents, Mr and Mrs Eigleen, have different ideas. In a comic game of cat-and-mouse, they try to capture Eepersip and bring her back. But their half-hearted, ill conceived strategies always fail, often farcically. In one episode Eepersip actually jumps over her father and runs in the opposite direct.
Having experienced the wonders of the woods, Eepersip decides to discover the delights of the sea. For the third part of the novel, Eepersip treks to the mountain tops, where she experiences a near transformation, giving the novel a mesmerising, glittering finish.
Barbara Newhall Follett began writing The House Without Windows when she was eight and finished it at age nine. The manuscript was destroyed in a fire and so she began re-writing it from memory. Where memory failed her, she recreated, letting her writing go off in new directions. She was only twelve years old when her novel was published in 1927.
The House Without Windows is certainly an astonishing feat, for a writer at any age. The book is suffused with a magic and wonder; the descriptions of fish, animals, plants, insects all convey an utter ecstasy of experience. The book also offers psychological lessons. Eepersip eschews identity – there are sections where she doesn't even like to be called by her name – in favour of merging with the natural world. To achieve happiness and oneness with all things, the ego must be erased. By the novel's end, Eepersip, as a solid personality, with name, family history and place in society, has almost disappeared, replaced with a humming presence, a oneness with the world.
A book of mind boggling originality from a preternaturally gifted writer.
The House Without Windows, by Barbara Newhall-Follett. Hamish Hamilton $22.99
Staff review by Chris Saliba
Adventure – and some danger – looms for young Stuart Horten when he finds a box of old coins that hold the clue to his great-uncle Tony's mysterious disappearance.
Ten-year-old Stuart Horten has his fair share of troubles. His family has recently moved to the town of Beeton due to his mother's work. It's hard making new friends, especially when you're anxious about your height. Stuart is short, and he fears he's inherited the short genes in his family. His name doesn't help matters: S.Horten, or Shorty Shorten as he was teased at his old school.
Stuart's father grew up in Beeton and the Hortens have quite a bit of history in the town. Things start to get interesting when Stuart learns that his great-uncle, known by his stage name as Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten, was a famous magician who mysteriously went missing. Stuart also learns that the Horten family ran a factory, Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms, which was integral to developing some of Uncle Tony's greatest illusions. When Stuart discovers some old coins, they lead him on an adventure to find out what exactly happened to Uncle Tony.
Lissa Evans' first novel for children, Small Change for Stuart, (now re-printed) is a brilliantly constructed adventure story with plenty of magic, wonder and just a touch of nostalgia. Looking back to the 1940s, it's a time when technology was clunky yet magical nonetheless. Stuart must use his outdated coins, found in an old box belonging to Uncle Tony, to activate a series of coin operated machines - a toffee dispenser, a weighing machine etc. - which give him clues to find Uncle Tony's magic workshop and find out what happened to him. Comic relief comes in the form of the Kingsley triplets – April, May and June – who live next door and run their own newspaper. The girls are delightfully bossy and April, who has a real bent for sleuthing, ends up performing some heroic duties. There is also some danger in the form of the ruthless Jeannie (with her hopeless flunky Clifford in tow), who wants Uncle Tony's workshop for herself.
This is classic family holiday reading, the kind of adventure you want to keep coming back to.
Small Change for Stuart, by Lissa Evans. Published by David Fickling. $16.99
Book review by Chris Saliba
When a mysterious letter appears promising good luck, 12-year-old Emma finds her world turned upside down.
12-year-old Emma Macintyre is going through some tough times. Recently she lost her Aunt Jenny to cancer and her best friend, Savvy, has turned on her. Savvy is now running with a popular but mean set of school kids. Emma tries to fit in and accommodate everyone at school, but her best intentions backfire. It seems she just can't get a lucky break. But then a mysterious, unsigned letter is hand delivered to her home.
The letter promises that ten lucky things will happen during the next month if Emma will only wish for them. As Emma's wishes start to come true, she starts to realise she wants different things in life. The popular kids she thought she wanted to be friends with, she now wants to avoid. Emma finds that her attitude to luck also changes and she develops a new philosophy, accepting the random good and bad that comes her way.
Janice Erlbaum's first novel for children (she is known for her memoirs and adult fiction) is a sassy, engaging story told from Emma's point of view. The dialogue is lively and often humorous, with plenty of sharp observations. The story reaches a dramatic peak when Emma's best friend Savvy is trapped into sending a topless photo to a boy she thinks she's in love with, opening the story up to contemporary themes of bullying and teen pornography. It's hard to think of a better book to put into the hands of young readers just about to enter their teens, with its cautionary tale about the dangers of mobile phones and cliquey in-groups.
Funny, page-turning and with a diverse cast (there are gay characters and single mums), Lucky Little Things is an enjoyable ride through the dramas of middle school.
Lucky Little Things, by Janice Erlbaum. Square Fish $11.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A sweet story about friendship and community.
Zanzibar the crow is enjoying his dinner at home when there is a knock at the door. The surprise visitor is a lizard wearing glasses. His name is Achille LeBlab, a reporter for The Voice of the Forest. He wants to know if Zanzibar has ever done anything extraordinary. The crow thinks for a while, but can't come up with anything. Unimpressed, Achille LeBlab caps his reporter's pen and leaves. Zanzibar thinks about this and decides to lift a camel with a single wing. He asks the postman, Monsieur Seagull, where he can find a camel. In the desert, comes the answer, and so Zanzibar flies off. When he arrives in the desert, he meets Sidi the fox and Cheb the dromedary. A dromedary is similar to a camel, so he decides to lift Cheb. But can a crow lift such a large animal?
French illustrator and writer Catharina Valckx's charming chapter book for early readers concentrates on the sweetness of friendship and community. There is a wonderfully gentle tone to the writing and a delightful cast of characters, including Paulette (a mole), Ginette (a frog) and Madame Adele (a moth). Zanzibar will leave you feeling cheerful for days.
Zanzibar, by Catharina Valckx. Gecko Press. $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Life's bitter sweet for Merci Suarez as she deals with trouble at home and school in this realistic, yet heart-warming children's novel.
Mercedes (Merci) Suárez is an eleven-year-old scholarship student, living with her large family in three modest houses (Las Casitas – the little houses) that sit side by side. Besides her parents and brother, Roli, there are her grandparents, Lolo and Abuela, her aunt Tía Inés and cousins Tomas and Axel.
Life as a scholarship student presents its own special demands: Merci must make sure her behaviour and grades are exceptional. A major challenge comes in the form of Edna Santos, a bossy, rich girl who runs the social life of her class. Edna's catchphrase is “no offence”, which she uses to preface her put downs. (“No offence is what Edna says before taking a hatchet to your feelings.”) When Merci is assigned tall, handsome Michael Clark as her Sunshine Buddy (school policy assigns new students with a buddy to help with orientation) Edna gets jealous and starts to cause havoc.
If school problems aren't enough, then there are secrets being kept at home. Merci's grandfather, Lolo, has been acting strangely. He is becoming forgetful and causing much stress in the tight knit family. Merci senses something is not quite right and when all is finally revealed, she feels betrayed.
Cuban-American children's writer Meg Medina has created a realistic, funny, heart-warming story about family and the dramas of school. The large cast of characters are well drawn and the dialogue is punchy and smart, without being brassy. The pushy Edna Santos is an absolute hoot, somewhat like Lucy Van Pelt out of the Peanuts cartoons. Despite her jealousy and deviousness, she's also a consummate socialite who is easy to like. Even Merci admits to her charms.
Merci manages to get through her difficult year and celebrate Christmas with her family at Las Casitas. Life may be difficult, full of unwanted change, but the closeness of her family, with its celebration of food, song and togetherness, ensures life will always have a certain sweetness.
Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina. Candlewick Press $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
From teenage angst to bedroom farce, Nina Kenwood's debut romantic comedy for young adults is a winner.
Eighteen-year-old Natalie's world is coming apart. Her wonderful, supportive parents have told her they're separating. Then there are problems brewing with her tight-knit group of friends. She met Lucy and Zach at a writing camp. The three of them were best friends, but then things got more serious between Lucy and Zach. Natalie, without a boyfriend of her own, feels like a third wheel. On top of this there are all of Natalie's personal problems and vulnerabilities. She's terribly introverted, obsesses over the smallest thing and finds social situations – especially parties – mortifying. An acne problem in her younger years has left some scars, both physical and emotional. She hates the idea of showing her body to anyone.
Along comes Alex, a boy one year older than her, who starts to take notice. Through a series of farcical mix-ups, where Natalie and Alex are forced to share a bedroom, the two get to know each other. There are misunderstandings that follow, and when Natalie finds out some unpleasant details from Alex's past, she wonders if she can ever be his boyfriend.
Nina Kenwood's debut It Sounded Better in My Head is a charming, funny, all-too-human coming-of-age story. The novel perfectly captures those awkward, uncertain teenage years when emotions are constantly on the boil. The plot is simple yet cleverly crafted and paced, making it a dream to read.
Genuine, true to life and often quite funny, It Sounded Better in My Head is a winner that deserves wide appeal.
Reading age: 14 +
It Sounded Better in my Head, by Nina Kenwood. Published by Text. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A young bear learns to be careful of what you wish for...
Last birthday Henry Bear made a wish, one he regrets. He wished his parents were more fun. As a result Mama Bear and Papa Bear now encourage him to eat cake for dinner and stay up late watching TV. Mama Bear scoffs that school is boring. Why not take your toys along? Henry Bear is almost at his wits end. He's always late with school homework and is falling behind. When Henry Bear meets new girl Marjani at school, he tells her his troubles. She has an idea to solve his problems. With another birthday coming up, why not make a new wish? Henry Bear does so and his old life returns. His parents start acting like adults again, making sure he is in bed early and well rested for the next day at school.
Writer and illustrator Liam Francis Walsh's Make a Wish, Henry Bear is a delightfully told cautionary tale about the perils of getting what you want. His charming illustrations, with their soft colour palette, capture the cozy atmosphere of a close family. The introduction of an hijab wearing bear, Marjani, adds a nice touch of diversity. An ironic, often droll bear story that is sure to keep its young audience enthralled.
3 + years
Make a Wish, Henry Bear, by Liam Francis Walsh. Published by Roaring Brook Press. RRP: $26.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Can a dog that smells like sardines and looks like a doormat ever find an owner to look after and love him? Find out in this comic canine caper.
Dumpster Dog – a homeless canine without a family or owner – lives rough on the streets. He’s smelly and messy and completely unkempt, although we shouldn’t hold that against him as he’s a dog down on his luck. Dumpster Dog has a friend, Flat Cat, a luckless feline that was run over and flattened. He tells Flat Cat he’s going to try and find himself an owner. His friend doesn’t like his chances.
Things don’t go according to plan. Dumpster Dog meets a potential owner, a well dressed man with a car, but the man turns out to be a rascal. Soon Dumpster Dog is on his own again, and in more trouble. He’s abducted by a group of bandits and put into a cage with a lot of other hapless animals. Their fate looks grim. Can Dumpster Dog be a hero to the other animals and escape? Can he ever find the company he craves, despite smelling like sardines and looking like an old doormat?
The first in a series of short chapter books by French writer Colas Gutman and illustrator Marc Boutavant, Dumpster Dog is an hilarious romp through the city streets of France. The story has a wonderfully comic cast of human villains and ill-fated animals. Who doesn’t like an adventure story with the requisite group of archetypal baddies, not to mention the young girl who works for them, administering tranquilizer drugs? Colas Gutman hits all the right notes with this goofy caper, balancing the cruelty of Dumpster Dog’s predicament against his sweet, innocent nature. This is a vibrantly told story full of invention and pleasant surprises. A real entertainment. Marc Boutavant’s illustrations are utterly gorgeous, little works of art in themselves, making this a very special book indeed.
Dumpster Dog is sure to win you over.
Dumpster Dog, by Colas Gutman. Illustrated by Marc Boutavant. Published by Enchanted Lion Books. RRP: $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A young Mexican man takes a dangerous journey on top of a train to the US border.
Manuel lives a traditional life farming corn with his family in Mexico. His older brother, Tono, has left Mexico for America. He lives in Los Angeles and does menial work to scratch out a living. Being witness to a tragic event prompts young Manuel (he is twelve-years-old) to ride on top of a freight train to the US border. These freight trains are colloquially known as The Beast. It's an extremely dangerous way to get to the border as murderous gangs patrol the train tops. The travel is also dirty and uncomfortable, with access to water and food limited.
It takes Manuel several years to re-unite with his brother Tono in Los Angeles. By the time he arrives he is fifteen-years-old and his hair has gone white from the stress of travel. He finds life in America isolating and exploitative. In one memorable passage, Manuel finds a laboring job, but is treated abominably. This is the lot of undocumented Mexican migrants, as they have no legal protections.
As life in Los Angeles becomes lonelier, and his prospects wither, Manuel makes a surprising decision.
Tony Johnston and María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads have created a gritty yet heartfelt story of a young man out on his own, making a terrifying trip. The story has a nicely rhythmic prose, liberally peppered with Spanish words, giving it a unique feel. In theme, if not in style, the book is reminiscent of John Steinbeck classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, as it deals with indigent workers trying to survive in a harsh American labour market that is stacked against them. Realistic touches, such as the depiction of the notorious gangs, the kindness of strangers and the grim camaraderie of the beast riders, make for a refreshing authenticity.
Young readers here get a window onto a very different world, exposing them to a current political and moral dilemma of how to respond to the US border problem. An adventure story tempered with much sadness.
Beast Rider, by Tony Johnston and Maria Elena Fontanot de Rhoads. Published by Abrams. RRP: $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A typical English family turns out to be not so typical after all.
The Mennyms are a neat, respectable little English family living quite peacefully in their modest home. They have lived there for many years – forty in fact – without much to bother them. Out of the blue comes a letter from Australia. A certain Albert Pond has inherited the house and is their new landlord. He's a likeable enough chap, going by his letters, and wants to meet the Mennym family. He plans on making a trip to England. When would the family be free to meet him?
The prospect throws the Mennym household into absolute chaos. The problem? The Mennyms are not human. They are actually a family of rag dolls, made by the house's original owner, Kate. The exquisitely made rag dolls she left behind came to life and now reside in the house, functioning as a perfectly normal family. The family keeps a low profile in the neighborhood, wearing thick glasses to cover their button eyes and hats so they are not so conspicuous. Errands to the local shops are made quietly and with a minimum of fuss, so as not to draw attention.
There are three generations of Mennyms. Magnus and Tulip are the grandparents, Vinetta and Joshua the parents, Soobie and Appleby are the teen children, Poopey and Wimpey the twins and lastly is Googles, the baby. Not to be forgotten is Miss Quigley, who lives in the hallway cupboard. She likes to keep up appearances, knocking at the front door and pretending she has come from her house for a visit. Later she will officially farewell the family, but secretly slip in the back door and back to her cupboard. In fact, the Mennyms do a lot of pretending. Can they keep up a good enough pretence to make Albert Pond think they are real?
Sylvia Waugh's first book in The Mennyms series (she wrote five in all) is both charming and hilarious. They are a blameless family who simply want to get on with life undisturbed. The endearing comedy comes from the Mennyms trying to keep up appearances and seem normal. The family often devise ludicrous strategies to “pass” for human. Their cloth bodies often gets them into scrapes, like when Joshua, a night time security guard, finds that a rat has eaten the stuffing in one leg. He suffers enormous embarrassment when he tries to walk home with a leg that won't support him properly. Or there is the time when Soobie “scandalises” the family by blurting out in front of Miss Quigley that she lives in the hallway cupboard. The Mennyms' dignity and that of their lodger depends on a series of “pretends” and artifices. This is perhaps what makes The Mennyms so enduring, as one of its major themes is the fragility of our place in the world, and how our well being depends on the little kindnesses of others.
Highly readable and intimately human, The Mennyms is sure to captivate.
The Mennyms, by Sylvia Waugh. Published by Puffin. $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books