When a young girl is sent to work at a sea admiral's house, she discovers a bizarre boy-monster hiding under the bed in a secret room.
Young Emilia (affectionately known as Lampie) lives with her father Augustus in a lighthouse. It is part of her job to light the lamp in the lighthouse to warn ships, but one night she forgets the matches and disaster strikes. A ship crashes and all hell breaks loose. Lampie's father, who is also a drunk, strikes her on the cheek and she is sent away to work at Black House. Black House belongs to the often absent Admiral and Lampie must labour under the orders of Martha, the housekeeper. Lampie starts to hear rumours about a horrible monster that lives in a mysterious room at the top of the house. Curiosity drives her on, despite the possible dangers, and what she discovers is both amazing and shocking. A boy, the Admiral's son, is hiding under the bed. His name is Edward, although Lampie calls him fish because of certain physical attributes he has. Edward has difficulty walking due to what he describes as his “deformity” and would dearly like to walk like a normal boy, not so much for himself but to impress his distant father.
Lampie and the Children of the Sea, a first novel from Dutch illustrator and writer Annet Schaap, reads in many ways like a seafaring version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. The novel's central struggle centres around an orphaned girl trying to help a crippled boy regain his sense of self and belonging, and hence curing him. Whereas The Secret Garden is more realistic and psychological, Lampie and the Children of the Sea is an out and out fantasy, whimsical and otherworldly. There are some great set pieces – especially Lampie's visit to the fair and meeting with the "phenomenal freaks". Annet Schaap's visceral description of the freakshow mermaid, sitting in her dirty tub of water, is genuinely hair raising. It is this mixture of constant invention and playfulness, along with the novel's undertow of melancholy, its themes of displacement and abandonment, that makes Lampie and the Children of the Sea emotionally resonant but also an unabashed entertainment.
A thrilling, soaring adventure with a cast of idiosyncratic, if not bizarre, characters that captures the imagination.
9+ years old
Lampie and the Children of the Sea, by Annet Schaap. Published by Pushkin Children's. $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Osbert the family dog is considered too scruffy to attend Aunt Cathy's wedding. Can the children make him presentable in time?
It's the day before Aunt Cathy's wedding. Father has decided the family dog, Osbert, cannot attend. He's too scruffy looking. The family has had Osbert since he was one month old, and they'd hoped he'd turn into a terrier, but they've had to settle instead for a black poodle with limp fur. The children – Ann, Peter, Jane and Andrew – are terribly upset. They decide to take Osbert to Monsieur Toto, a popular ladies' hairdresser. Monsieur Toto is very busy with appointments, but decides to take on this urgent job. When the children pick Osbert up they are delighted with the transformation. Osbert has had a permanent wave, his fur is shampooed, his legs shaved into cowboy trousers and his head topped off with a spray of orange blossom. He's the hit of the wedding!
Noel Streatfeild, famous for her children's novel Ballet Shoes, first published Osbert in 1950. It fell out of print immediately after and has only now been revived, almost seventy years later. It's a charming, funny, quirky story, with delightful illustrations by Susanne Suba and sure to appeal to children and adults of all ages. A re-discovered gem that shouldn't be missed.
Osbert, by Noel Streatfeild. Published by Scholastic. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
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
North Melbourne Books