New boy George is not all he seems in this sweet and funny story about what it means to be human.
George is the new boy at Darwin Avenue Primary Academy. Everyone is eager for him to fit in and regular boy Daniel is picked out as a good candidate to show George the ropes. Things are progressing swimmingly, but then the students start to notice weird things about George. Firstly, did fellow classmate Louise really see George’s ear drop off? Why does a school visitor named Miss Crystal continually follow George around with a clipboard writing notes? Events take a sinister turn when the smug Mr Eden Marsh turns up in a big, black van. He seems to be George’s minder. Suddenly it’s announced George will no longer be attending Darwin Avenue Primary Academy. What could have happened? Daniel and his school mates decide that enough is enough and take drastic measures to save George
Brand New Boy is a warm, funny and sweet story about belonging and what it means to be human. As George slips from the children’s grasp, the values of friendship and togetherness come to the fore. A quirky tale, expertly told, with an eclectic and realistically drawn cast. This is crowd-pleasing children's fiction at its best.
8+ years old
Brand New Boy, by David Almond. Published by Walker Books. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A way-out looking menial worker catches the attention of a young school boy.
A young boy is obsessed with a woman who works the sandwich bar at a local supermarket. She wears ice-blue eye shadow and handles the sandwiches – putting them into their little plastic bags – with mesmerising dexterity. The boy calls her “Ms Ice Sandwich” and goes almost everyday to buy the cheapest sandwich, an egg one. Ms Ice-Sandwich never looks the boy in the eye, making her almost a deity in his eyes.
At school, the boy has a friend, named Tutti. She’s a bit offbeat herself. When she invites him around to watch a movie, she likes to play over and over her favourite battle scenes and even act them out. When she finds out that her friend is obsessed with Ms Ice Sandwich, she gives him an ultimatum: he must introduce himself. Tutti has a personal philosophy behind this. She believes even the most fleeting relationships should be deepened where possible. But when the boy returns to the supermarket sandwich bar, he discovers that Ms Ice-Sandwich has quit. Has he left things too late?
While ostensibly Ms Ice Sandwich is an adult novel, it can easily be read as children’s fiction. The story is sweet and quirky, while also dealing in a subtle way with themes of death. Both main characters have lost a parent. The boy’s grandmother is also dying. Tutti emphasises the need to make human connections and cherish people – from those closest to us, to even transient acquaintances.
A gentle, somewhat eccentric, but ultimately life affirming story that will leave you with a spring in your step.
Ms Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami. Published by Pushkin Press. $19.99
Three young children flee Russian tanks as Hitler loses the Second World War
It's 1945 and the Wolf family is apprehensive, like many of their fellow Prussians. Russian soldiers are advancing; the German army is losing the war. So bad is the German position they are sending out the elderly and under-aged to fight. Eleven-year old Liesl, seven-year-old Otto and toddler Mia have said goodbye to their physically disabled father, as he has been drafted into the war. The family keeps telling themselves everything will be alright, despite the soldiers advancing. Liesl steadfastly believes in the goodness of Hitler, while Otto has had enough and curses the Fuhrer. When the tanks and bombs start rolling in, there's nothing left to do but flee. They grab as much as they can carry and run with their mother (Mama) and grandparents (Oma and Opa).
It's a life of immediate hardships and they soon have to leave Oma and Opa by the roadside. As they traverse rivers covered in ice and wade through forests, they lose sight of their Mama and the three children must fend for themselves. They feel constant hunger, suffer cold and lose energy. Their hunger means they are often reduced to eating slugs and killing wildlife. From time to time they are lucky and find a barn to sleep in and a cow to milk. Often they rely on the rare kindness of strangers.
All during this period Liesl undergoes a conversion, from believer in the essential goodness of Hitler, to the realisation that he is responsible for the most hideous war crimes.
Katrina Nannestad has written an engrossing, nicely paced and plotted children's book that carefully balances its themes of war, hunger and extreme hardship against more uplifting and optimistic notes. We Are Wolves is quite an achievement: ambitious subject matter, smartly worked into a children's adventure story, with instructive lessons on war, politics and the importance of resilience.
We Are Wolves, by Katrina Nannestad. Published by ABC Books. $19.99
An affable skunk and his many chicken friends create mayhem at a scientist’s house.
Badger is a rock scientist who lives at his aunt Lula’s house. It’s a nice brownstone in the pleasant town of North Twist. Aunt Lula doesn’t live there herself, but allows a generous tenancy to her nephew, so he can pursue his important rock work. Imagine Badger’s surprise one day when there is a knock at the door. He opens it to find Skunk, whose mother is a friend of Aunt Lula’s.
Badger is thrown off course by this interruption to his quiet way of life. Worse still, Skunk says he is moving in. They are to be roommates. Aunt Lula has organised it. Things get chaotic when Skunk invites his many chicken friends – 100 in all – to stay as well. Soon the house is overrun with these feathered friends who repeatedly squark “Bock, Bock”. The stage is set for conflict as the mild-mannered Badger tries to cope with the eccentric and jolly natured Skunk. Feathers are ruffled and regretful remarks are made about Skunk’s personal hygiene. Can they resolve their differences and also keep Aunt Lula happy?
Writer Amy Timberlake doesn’t put a foot wrong in this delightful, zany, surreal and hilarious odd couple story. There are many pleasant digressions, including a discussion of Shakespeare's Henry V, a theory of chickens performing quantum leaps and a nonsense retelling of the story of Chicken Little. The characters are nicely drawn, with Badger the much imposed upon scientist and Skunk the affable guest who doesn’t seem to think his flock of chickens a problem. The novel’s good cheer develops and gains momentum as the story progresses and by the last page, as problems are resolved, the reader feels that all is right with the world.
With gorgeous illustrations by Jon Klassen, this beautifully produced book is destined to be a favourite with all lovers of children’s literature.
A frog story that will delight.
Bibbit is a frog that loves to jump. He has a sister, no longer a tadpole, whom he calls Little Frog. The two go on a picnic and find a banana tree. They pick the juiciest banana and share it with their other frog friends. Bibbit and Little Frog don’t only have friends in the frog world, they are also friendly with rabbits, squirrels, birds – even cats and dogs. They get involved in many adventures in the wild, but soon Little Frog wants to go to the city. Bibbit is not so sure – the city makes him nervous – but eventually he follows her lead. Together they navigate the city’s busy streets, find a lift in a big building, and go to the top floor for a big surprise.
Illustrator and writer Bei Lynn’s quirky story of frogs, tadpoles and other forest creatures is an utter delight from start to finish. Full of surprises and funny incidents (the scene with the balancing tadpoles is a hoot), and featuring beautiful line and watercolour illustrations, Bibbit Jumps will charm emerging readers – and adults too.
For ages 7 – 8 years old
Bibbit Jumps, by Bei Lynn. Gecko Press $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A young girl overcomes some dark secrets from her past.
12-year-old Bea has a lot going on in her life. Her parents have separated and her Dad has come out as gay. It’s all good, though. He’s going to marry the love of his life, Jesse, whom Bea really likes. The best part of the impending marriage is the fact that Bea is going to get a sister. Jesse has a daughter, Sonia, who lives with her Mum in another state, but has come to visit. Once their Dads are married, they’ll be real sisters.
The future should be all rosy for Bea, but she has done some things in her past that she’s not proud of. She also has a few anger management issues and can often find life frustrating. One particular incident from her past continues to chip away at her soul.
There is much to enjoy in this story about the pains of growing and the shameful mistakes we make along the way. Author Rebecca Stead has a knack for capturing the troubled yet endearing voice of a young girl trying to navigate the constant challenges of school and family. Bea is a totally believable character and very likable, despite her faults. Readers will warm to her socially awkward ways and enjoy being taken along on her journey. Rebecca Stead also leavens the story with a lot of humour. Bea can be witty and deadpan, especially in her exchanges with her therapist, Miriam. These are some of the funniest scenes in the book.
A sweet story for young readers that deals with the dark subjects of shame and guilt. In Rebecca Stead’s capable hands these trials become a way to personal growth and ultimately something to celebrate.
The List of Things that Will Not Change, by Rebecca Stead. Published by Text. $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A fun, energetic new installment in Louis Sachar's Wayside School series.
On the thirtieth floor at Wayside School, Mrs Jewls's class continues apace. All sorts of weird and wonderful things are going on. The kids are trying to collect one million nail clippings, Kathy has a bad case of “oppositosis” (she can't help but counter everything with its opposite), Jason is bravely trying to read a book with 999 pages and Mrs Jewls likes to rhapsodise on the wonders of the humble paper clip. There is much consternation when the children are taken to the rooftop to study cloud formations. Mrs Jewls describes the different types of clouds, but suddenly gasps when a dark cloud is spotted. With horror, she pronounces it the "Cloud of Doom".
Acclaimed children's writer Louis Sachar's latest book is a treat. Relentlessly inventive and comic, with 30 quick-moving chapters, it makes for a satisfying holiday read. The broad cast of characters is especially enjoyable: there is the librarian Mrs Surlaw with her giant stuffed walrus students can hug, the eccentric psychiatrist Dr Pickell and the hilariously mean Kathy (“That beard is really ugly. I guess your face must be even worse, huh?”). The school cook, Miss Mush, and her famous Rainbow Stew, should not be missed.
This is the kind of pitch-perfect book that can be safely put into the hands of any child. Adults will get a kick out of it too!
Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom, by Louis Sachar. Bloomsbury. $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A scruffy looking dog gets a make-over.
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
Book review by Chris Saliba
A young boy experiences exquisite happiness and terrible suffering in this Brazilian classic.
Five-year-old Zezé is going through some trying times. His father is unemployed and barely ekes out a living, while his mother and older sister slog it out at a local factory. Zezé has personal demons, often wondering if he's possessed by a bad spirit. The boy can't help but pull pranks which inevitably turn out worse than intended. When Zezé creates a snake out of an old, black stocking, the effect is so realistic he causes a pregnant woman to go into shock. Another time he thinks it a good idea to light a small fire under his uncle's hammock, with similarly dire results. Despite all this, Zezé's essence is sweet. He is touchingly fond of his younger brother Luis, who he calls King Luis, and when the family moves to a new house, Zezé makes friends with a small orange tree in the backyard, which he calls “Pinkie”. Pinkie is an imaginary friend and the two have many conversations about life and its problems. Zezé also likes to call Pinkie “Sweetie”.
As troubles mount at home, Zezé makes friends with an older Portuguese man, Manuel Valadares. The two met in strained circumstances, when Zezé was secretly taking a lift on the bumper bar of his car, but have now developed a special closeness. Manuel almost becomes a father figure, giving Zezé solace and relief from his difficult family life. Zezé achieves great happiness and contentment in his friendship with Manuel, or the “Portuga”, as he calls him, but tragedy soon turns his world upside down.
First published in 1968 by Brazilian author José Mauro De Vasconcelos, My Sweet Orange Tree is an autobiographical, coming-of-age story, set in Rio de Janeiro. Narrated by Zezé, its tone is both tender and endearing. The reader thrills at Zezé's cheeky and boyish adventures, but feels deeply for his hard life at home, where he is often the victim of domestic violence. Zezé's vulnerability and longing to be loved make for a unique story, deeply sad but also full of joy.
Translated by Alison Entrekin
My Sweet Orange Tree, by, José Mauro De Vasconcelos. Pushkin Children's $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
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
North Melbourne Books