Thursday, August 17, 2017

A happy ending…

I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess by Petra Kotrotsos and Christina Irini Arathimos, Makaro Press

Petra Kotrotsos
This picture book is a labour of love for a lot of people. Petra Kotrotsos was only six when she had a playground fall and doctors investigating her sore back discovered she had a neuroblastoma in her chest. So began weeks of treatment involving operations, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The story describes Petra’s high and low moments as she copes with the time in hospital, the treatments, and the side effects. She’d always wanted to be a fairy princess, but when her hair falls out she realises she’s better suited to being a fairy warrior in the battle against cancer. The story ends when her hair starts to grow back, but in reality Petra’s neuroblastoma recurred four times until she was fifteen.

Christina Irini Arathimos
The story was originally written by Petra when she was seven, and sympathetic editing has turned it into a straightforward, easy-to-read account of a brave little girl’s battle against cancer. The illustrator Christina Irini Arathimos was mentored by Fifi Colston and together they have produced appealing child-focused pictures, full of life and common sense, that show what Petra is going through – but at the same time they’re not frightening or overwhelming.

The printing of the book was funded by the Wellington Hospitals Foundation, and the list of thank-you names on the last page includes family members, friends, and medical professionals. As I said, a labour of love for many people.

The book would be particularly welcome for families with an ill child, but I can also see a firm place for it in hospital libraries, public libraries and primary school libraries.

ISBN 9780994137944 $25.00 Pb

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

2017 NZ Book Award winners

Congratulations to all the winners!

Recent picture books from Scholastic NZ…

The Curious Ar-Chew by Sarah Grundy, illus. Ali Teo and John O’Reilly, Scholastic NZ

This is the winner of the 2016 Storylines Joy Cowley Award for an unpublished picture book text. My heart sank slightly when I saw the rhyming text, because I read an awful lot of not-very-good rhyming text. But I’m delighted to say this is excellent – it flows beautifully, there aren’t any bumpy bits, and the rhymes are fresh and unforced. Congratulations to this first-time children’s book author.

It’s a friendly, uncluttered story about three forest creatures spotting a strange animal sleeping inside a hollow tree. It’s got big orange feet. Is it a goose? It’s got long ears. Is it a rabbit? It’s got a thick woolly coat… What is it? Of course the creature wakes up with a big sneeze – and soon we see exactly what it is. But I’m not going to tell.

The illustrators have used a clean-cut straightforward style that matches the simplicity of the story. Swathes of green convey open, rolling countryside; black shadows and silhouettes provide drama; and the tall straight tree trunks reflect the comfort of a forest full of sunshine. The illustrations also offer a pleasing array of sizes and viewpoints.

This is an excellent picture book for preschool centres and early primary classes; it would be great fun to read aloud to a group.

ISBN 978 1 77543 437 5 RRP $17.99 Pb

Too Much Poo by Scott Tulloch, Scholastic NZ

Author/illustrator Scott Tulloch’s previous picture books include one of my all-time favourites I Am Not a Worm! I’m saying this first, because I’m now going to admit that I don’t like scatological stories. However other professionals may not have the same qualms, so I’ll try to gloss over the “poo” aspect of this book. The promotional material says that the author’s observations on human greed were the inspiration for the story. 

It focuses on a blowfly (looking rather like an electrocuted pompom) who spots ever-larger animals defecating on the ground – until the piles of poo he investigates are too big for him to cope with. What is a poor blowfly to do?

The illustrations get more and more outrageous (I’m not going to describe the elephant scene!). Which prompts a warning about these types of story – any ambitious teacher trying to read this book aloud in a preschool or classroom environment would probably provoke a class riot.

Note that the book mentions a link to “for a hilarious free audio reading of this book.”

ISBN 978 1 77543 408 5 RRP $17.99 Pb

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman

Friday, August 11, 2017

Augmented Reality … or Augmented Fiction?

The Dragon Defenders: Book One by James Russell, animations by Yongtao Zhang, Dragon Brothers Books

Warning – I am discussing a multimedia experience here, more than reviewing a book. Most children’s lit enthusiasts will be aware of James’ earlier picture book series, The Dragon Brothers Trilogy. These were very popular, and the first one was reviewed on this blog in 2013.

This new series confronts us with some massive changes. Same two main characters, but different genre and format (it’s a junior novel, not a picture book), a total change in illustrative style, and the introduction of a digital characteristic popularly known as augmented reality.

Flynn and Paddy live on a remote island with their parents. For entertainment they read books, play games, go exploring, ride their horse, train their falcon, fish and hunt for food. They haven’t even heard of smartphones. But they do know that a colony of dragons lives on their island. When a boatload of thugs arrives on the island intent upon stealing a dragon’s egg and killing an adult dragon, the two boys know they have to foil the evil plan. The story is fast-moving and will keep young readers eagerly turning the pages.

The author says, “As far as I can tell, The Dragon Defenders is one of only two or three novels in the world to have ‘augmented reality’ content, accessible via a free app downloaded to your smartphone or tablet.” Once you have downloaded the app, you follow a few simple instructions and point your device camera at indicated pages to view the augmented reality. There are five of these pages throughout the book, showing extras such as a video of the evil guy being gross, and the decoding of a coded document, and an instructional map of the island. BTW, if you don’t have access to the app, the next page in the book tells you what you missed.

Having downloaded the app on to my Samsung Galaxy tablet, I did the camera bit and studied the extra segments. Then I thought about what it would be like to share this experience with a grandchild.
Firstly, to operate the app you have to be connected to the internet. Unless you have an incredibly trustworthy child, you will probably want to keep a close eye on what’s going on. Secondly, I didn’t have enough hands to hold the book open, clutch the tablet, get it centred on the GO arrow, and tap the screen (a grandchild would have been useful at this point!) Thirdly, I had a few problems with the app not doing what I expected it to do and booting me back to the beginning (though this might be the fault of my ageing tablet).

Lastly, I found the augmented reality segments a tad disappointing. Having seen many popular computer games full of action, noise, explosions, surprises and suspense, loud theme music, etc, I would like to see more of these features in the app segments - particularly more exciting sound effects to fill in the blank-page bits. And I’d love to see an enormous dragon swooping past, blasting out fire… 

As for the phrase ‘augmented reality’, aren’t we just adding an extra layer of fiction to something that is already fiction? Why use the word reality?

Buy the book, use the app, read the story (preferably with children), consider the potential of the augmented reality (ie. fiction?) aspect – and
plenty of encouragement to James and his crew to come up with MORE! You can visit them at

ISBN 978 0 473 37621 5 $22 Pb

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman 

Three very different picture books from Duck Creek Press…

Nina’s Phantom Friend by Andy Conlan, Duck Creek Press
Andy Conlan is a man of mystery – I couldn’t find out much about him. But his website at says “Author and Illustrator of Books for the World’s Luckiest Children,” as well as identifying him as a professional photographer and filmmaker. The website also introduces two previous picture books – Mr Gloomingdale’s Downpour, and Portrait of a Waiting Pig. I suspect these are written in the same wry (some would say blackly humorous) style as Nina’s Phantom Friend.

The book is certainly a departure from the usual Duck Creek Press publications – good on them for venturing out of their comfort zone. This story is best regarded as a sophisticated picture book – it’s definitely not for the littlies. Nina’s cat, Masaccio, has died, and she misses him terribly. But his ghost visits her, and tells her that she must retrieve his remains and bury them. To do this, Nina must venture into the underworld where she meets and outwits the Ferryman and the Bone Counter, both very spooky characters. Definitely shades of Orpheus in the underworld here, also Garth Nix’s Sabriel series. The artwork is stunning – as well as being challenging and unsettling. Picture in your mind a mountain of skulls…

Recommended for readers of intermediate age and older. It would also be of interest to art teachers and students – it’s really cutting-edge stuff.

ISBN 978 1 927305 32 4 RRP $19.99 Pb

So Special by David Hill, illus. Nikki Slade Robinson, Duck Creek Press

David Hill needs no introduction – as one of New Zealand’s most prolific and recognised children’s writers. He’s recently turned his hand to writing picture book texts – he received the 2016 Children’s Choice Non-Fiction Award for First to the Top: Sir Edmund Hilary’s Amazing Everest Adventure.

Nikki Slade Robinson has illustrated over sixty children’s books and readers as well as writing and illustrating her own stories, with several having been published by Duck Creek Press.
This latest picture book was created in collaboration with the New Zealand Defence Force. It addresses the difficult issues faced by children when a parent is deployed overseas. The story is suitably low-key, with an easy-to-read text featuring a boy called Oscar. People keep telling him he’s special because he comes from an Army family, and his Dad is special too because he’s helping out in war-ravaged countries. But all Oscar can think of is how much he misses his Dad. The story is probably most suitable for primary-aged children, particularly those with parents away from home for long periods of time.

The illustrations are done in a straightforward style with clean lines, calming colours, and plenty of white space. The book will be available in September, and there will also be a Maori language version available for the same price – He Tino Taonga.

ISBN 978 1 927305 33 1 RRP $19.99 Pb

Dragons under My Bed by Kath Bee, illus. Lisa Allen, Duck Creek Press

Here’s one for the littlies, pre-schoolers and early primary age. It’s the first picture book from Kath Bee, an award-winning children’s songwriter who has travelled all over New Zealand since 2002. Her most popular and requested song, Dragons Under My Bed, which won the 2014 APRA Children’s Video of the Year, has been turned into a book - with the song downloadable. I also found a version of the song on Kath’s YouTube channel.

As always with picture song books, the words are at their best when being sung. Any glitches in the rhythm of the words are miraculously ironed out when there’s a musical background. It’s a bouncy light-hearted tale told from the point of view of a little boy who has a bunch of pesky dragons living under his bed. It’s amazing how often they come out and create chaos after lights out!

I can see this book being welcomed by children’s librarians, pre-school and primary teachers, and musically-minded parents – anyone who likes to combine music and singing aloud with a popular song.

ISBN 978 1 927305 35 5 $19.99 Pb

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Exciting new historical graphic novel

Wars in the WhiteCloud: Wairau 1843 by M.H. McKinley (Kin Ltd NZ)

Non-fiction books for children and young adults nowadays have to compete with the internet, digital books, and social media. To encourage the target audience to pick it up in a library or bookshop it has to be visually exciting or interactive. First time author Matt McKinley has written and illustrated an episode of New Zealand’s land wars in graphic novel style and its stunning illustrations and speech bubbles are guaranteed to appeal to 13-15 year olds. The New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adult judges think so, too, shortlisting it it in the Best First Book category.   

Matt uses two teenagers, Te Arana from Ngati Toa iwi, and Will Archer son of Chief Constable John Archer to lead readers into the tragic incident at Wairau in 1843. The two young men are caught up in the meeting between representatives of the New Zealand Company who believed they had purchased land in the Wairau area and Te Rauparaha and his tribe who felt they had been tricked into signing away their rights to the land. Past hurts, an accidental shooting, and two stubborn leaders failing to compromise and talk it through, results in a battle where one group meets a fateful end.

Matt began the 60 page historical story four years ago, after finishing his Master of Design with Massey University. In an interview with The Dominion newspaper, Matt said it took 16 hours to illustrate each double page spread. He’s now working on the next book in the series about the Flagstaff War in Nelson.

Bound to be popular with Intermediate and High School students, especially students who love to read historical recounts of New Zealand’s history. Will be suitable for young people with learning difficulties or reluctant readers; the realistic drawings and speech bubbles telling the story in easy-to-read chunks.

ISBN: 978-0473-356514

RRP $27.99

Buy here

Friday, July 28, 2017

Some kiwiana

Grandad’s Wheelies by Jack Lasenby, Penguin Random House NZ

I’ve said in an earlier review that Jack Lasenby’s books are an acquired taste – and the same comment applies to this anthology of (extra-tall) tall tales. Any young reader dipping into this book who hasn’t read Jack’s work previously will wonder what’s going on. Whenever Jack (the narrator) visits his Granny and Grandad they regale him with hilarious and impossible stories about their past, each trying to outdo the other. Grandad invented the first road between Wellington and Auckland; Granny invented the first railway between the two cities; then Grandad invented the first train and drove it from Wellington to Auckland; Granny drove the first train from Nelson to Invercargill; then Grandad flew his train across Cook Strait at 10,000 feet and landed it in Nelson with such a thump that the top of the island sank and the sea rushed in and created the Marlborough Sounds – and so it goes! Each story has its own chapter, and most include an appealing black pen illustration by Bob Kerr.

Likely to be enjoyed by keen readers of about 6 to 9 (mainly boys, I suspect).

ISBN 978 0 14 350733 8 RRP $16.99 Pb

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman

New Zealand Kiwiana: To Read, Colour and Keep, by Dave Gunson, New Holland

This is the latest title in Dave Gunson’s series of activity books relating to New Zealand topics. Other titles in the series look at birds, wildlife, garden wildlife, extinct wildlife, etc. In this one the 30 colouring-in pictures include such New Zealand icons as the All Blacks, the local dairy, the koru, Vogel’s bread, Lemon and Paeroa, jandals, Jaffas and Weetbix, to name a few. Each picture is accompanied by a paragraph of simple information about the subject. An insert in the middle of the book provides some ideas for colouring in the pictures.

It should appeal to primary-aged children who like the peacefulness of colouring in easy pictures.

ISBN 9781869664527 RRP $9.99 Pb

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman