Once you've entered Cynthia Rylant's sweetly remembered childhood world, you won't want to leave.
It’s the early 1970s. Ten-year-old Flora lives in the idyllic Rosetown, Indiana. Her mother works at a quaint vintage bookstore three days a week and her father is a photographer for the local newspaper. Flora is a bit daunted by entering her fourth year at school – the classes are notably more demanding – but she has her good friend Yury to help smooth the way. Many nice things happen to Flora. She finds a wonderful cat, who magically appears on a seat at the vintage bookstore and relaxes there. Flora adopts the cat and calls it Serenity. Her school teacher thinks she has talent as a writer and encourages her.
While Flora’s life, and the little town she lives in, seems perfect in every way, there are dark shadows at the edges. Her parents have separated, the Vietnam War is slowly winding to an end and Yury’s family has fled the Ukraine due to war. Her best friend, Nessy, lives in a gated community, a fact that hints at a world that is not entirely safe.
These dark shadows, however, are only peripheral. They are grey clouds that soon pass over, leaving Rosetown forever bathed in sunlight and happiness.
Some readers may find Rosetown too idyllic, even saccharine. It’s true, Cynthia Rylant does describe a near perfect world. Some of it self-consciously so: the local bakery is called the Peaceable Buns Bakery and piano lessons are taken at Three Part Harmony. This reviewer, however, was totally won over, accepting that Rosetown is almost a work of fantasy, a re-creation of the best parts of the author’s childhood. Rylant’s style has a lovely naturalism, like that of Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery. Or to use a musical analogy, this short novel has aspects of Dolly Parton’s songs of sweetly remembered childhood, such as "Coat of Many Colours" and "God’s Colouring Book".
A perfectly constructed children’s novel that strives only to be itself.
Rosetown, by Cynthia Rylant. Published by Beach Lane. RRP: $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Meet Catvinkle, a pampered puss who dances in baby shoes and makes friends with a Dalmation named Ula.
Catvinkle the cat lives in a stylish house in Amsterdam with her owner, Mr Sabatini. One day the kindly Mr Sabatini meets a homeless Dalmation and decides to take her home. When Catvinkle sees the Dalmation enter her precious room with the deliciously warm fire, she takes umbrage. How could a dog be allowed in the house?
The Dalmation’s name is Ula and soon enough the two take the first troubled steps to get to know each other. As a friendship starts to emerge, Catvinkle reveals some secrets, one of which is her skill as a dancer. She dances in a pair of baby shoes and regularly enters the National Kitten Baby-Shoe Dancing Competition. Her great rival in the competition is the vain and conceited Twinkiepaws. With the help of Ula, Cantvinkle finds the courage to challenge Twinkiepaws in this most celebrated contest.
Elliot Perlman’s first novel for children is a charming and pitch-perfect story about learning to accept difference and meeting life’s challenges. The story has a broad roster of brilliant characters, from the frightening dog Grayston (it turns out he's not so scary in the end) to the somewhat aristocratic and eccentric Russian wolfhound, Lobbus. The hip New York cat Ketzington is a hoot: her parents met at a nightclub called Studio Fifty Paws. There is much energy, imagination and invention in Catvinkle. A favourite hangout for the dogs is a place called “Café Puppy Land”, where dogs had been “resting, drinking and snacking since 1642”; a club for cats called Kittens Anonymous meets on the western side of Vondelpark.
Enter Catvinkle’s cosy, pampered world and prepare to be charmed.
The Adventures of Catvinkle, by Elliot Perlman. Published by Puffin. RRP: $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
When a body is found stuffed down a well in the basement of the Rue Theatre, young detective team Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells know only they can solve the mystery.
It’s 1936. The place is London. Amateur sleuths fourteen-year-old Hazel Wong and fifteen-year-old Daisy Wells are staying with Daisy’s uncle Felix and aunt Lucy. To keep the girls busy and out of trouble, it’s decided to pack them off to the Rue Theatre. Aunt Lucy has some connections there and manages to land the girls bit parts in an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
They meet Frances Crompton, the owner of the Rue, and are soon enchanted by the magic of the theatre. But as they get to know the cast and other backstage members, they sense tensions bubbling away. Rose Tree, the actress playing Juliet, is tempestuous and has rubbed a few people up the wrong way. The fiery yet beautiful Martita, a Portugese actress playing Nurse, loathes Rose. Other actors, the American Simon Carver and handsome Lysander Tollington, playing Romeo, also have rocky relationships with her. The plot thickens as threatening notes start turning up, targeting Rose.
Something terrible is brewing. Hazel and Daisy fear they will have to open their famous Detective Society for business again. The full horror of their suspicions is revealed when a body is found stuffed head-first down the well in the theatre’s basement. Who could have done it? So many had a motive for murder.
For adults reading this brilliantly paced and plotted children’s novel, it may feel like a spoof of the Agatha Christie / Dorothy L. Sayers crime genre. This reviewer couldn’t stop chuckling away at the campy, shock-horror plot developments and character histrionics. In one scene, the forthright Daisy addresses leading man Lysander with, “Step aside! If you please.” The cast is well drawn and nicely varied, from old timer Jim Cotter who mans the stage door to the flamboyant director, Inigo Leontes. The doll-like and garrulous Annie Joy, the wardrobe mistress, is a hoot. Interestingly, Robin Stevens weaves several gay characters into the plot, but it’s done so well it doesn’t jar. Hazel and Daisy are quite progressive when it comes to such matters and see the law penalising homosexual activity as so much stuff and nonsense.
It’s perhaps best to describe Death in the Spotlight as a hugely entertaining romp, one that perfectly captures the mood, language and characters of the British crime genre of the 1930s. At close to 400 pages, the suspense, laughs and good cheer never let up. Great fun and highly recommended!
Death in the Spotlight, by Robin Stevens. Published by Puffin. RRP: $16.99
A young girl braves dangerous counterrevolutionary forces in the Cuban countryside in order to teach literacy.
It's 1961 and thirteen-year-old Lora has joined a paramilitary group to spread literacy. Only two years previously, Fidel Castro had marched on Havana and ousted the corrupt, American backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Lora defies her father and commits to one year as a “brigadista”, an army member teaching literacy in the Cuban countryside. Even thought Batista has been defeated, there is still fighting and treachery going on. Young people have been tortured and executed. Even though Lora's role is to teach reading and writing, it's still a very dangerous undertaking.
American children's writer Katherine Paterson has crafted a seamless novel about a young girl's coming-of-age in a Cuba still torn by political strife. Based on interviews with Cuban friends and personal research, the novel has an effortless quality that makes it feel like it's based on personal experience. You'd never know the author is American and not Cuban. The portrait of Lora as a young girl who wants to do the right thing for her country, but is often scared by the very real possibility that she may be killed by the Batista forces, gives her an authentic feel.
My Brigadista Year doubles as a fascinating short history of the 1961 Cuban literacy program and inspiring story of an independent young girl, volunteering for a worthy cause and finding herself transformed by the experience.
My Brigadista Year, by Katherine Paterson. Published by Walker Books. ISBN: 9781406380811 RRP: $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
When a mysterious virus hits Melbourne a group of girls take to the road to sort things out.
One day twelve-year-old Clara Bloom goes to school to find that there are no boys present. The male teachers are absent too. What could be going on? It appears a mysterious illness has afflicted all the men and boys in the city of Melbourne. No one can figure out why. A state of emergency is announced, major roads are blocked and there are up-to-the-minute television reports. Clara’s dad has gone fishing in regional Gippsland, along with friend Pete and his son Jack.
Clara and her teenage friend Izzy worry that the fishing trio may try to return to Melbourne, which would put them at risk of contracting the mysterious virus. Izzy, who has just received her licence, offers to drive to Gippsland. After picking up Clara’s best friend Arabella, the three girls go on a daring road trip.
Girltopia is the first installment of a three part series of novels from local North Melbourne writer Hilary Rogers. With its dystopian flavour and well-timed plotting, Girltopia makes for addictive reading. It has mystery, humour and loads of adventure. The main character, Clara, is easy to relate to, a young girl trying to piece her world together just as it is falling apart. Even though her parents are separating and life is full of confusion, she discovers strengths she never knew she had.
Parents will be happy with the novel's girlpower messages of independence, resilience and positive self-image. Girltopia will appeal to readers 9+.
Girltopia, by Hilary Rogers. Published by Scholastic. ISBN: 9781742994581 RRP: $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba