Sunday, May 28, 2017

An Excellent Series Continues…

1917: Machines of War by Brian Falkner, Scholastic NZ
The latest title in Scholastic’s Kiwis At War series, this follows the story of a 17-year-old New Zealander (initially named Keith, and therein lies a story) who is determined to become a pilot. He trains as an observer (flying in the rear seat of the bi-plane, back to back with the pilot, operating the Lewis gun) and the story opens when Keith is posted to La Bellevue Aerodrome just behind the lines on the Western Front. He arrives while the Germans are bombing the airfield, and manages to rescue a man from burning rubble, assist with pushing some Bristol Fighters out of a burning hangar, and prevent the armoury from exploding.

It’s not till the next day that Keith is able to report for duty, sporting bandages on his burned hands. He’s berated by the Squadron Commander for being late, and promised a disciplinary hearing. But he has no time to ponder on the unfairness of this – he’s asked to go up with one of the flying aces, and soon they spot and engage with an enemy aircraft.

The flying adventures come thick and fast after that, and it’s not long before Keith trains as a pilot. The death rate of these air crews in their flimsy aircraft was horrifyingly high, and the author has no compunction about telling it like it was – many of the characters we meet disappear from the story. But the focus stays firmly on Keith and his reactions to the fighting – his excitement turns to fear and disgust and then to cold-blooded determination. Every day he has to face the likelihood that he will be shot down.

A form of light relief is provided by the escapades of the youthful air crew, the descriptions of the engagements with the great German air aces such as the Red Baron, and a friendship/romance with a British nurse.

It’s a great read for teens (probably boys) who are interested in aircraft, war history, and the technology that eventually won the war – fighter planes, tanks, and armaments. Highly recommended. (Teacher Notes available at http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourcefiles/8502259_62314.pdf )

ISBN 978 1 77543 280 7 $19 Pb


Reviewed by Lorraine Orman  

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Four Picture Books…

Muddle and Mo’s Worm Surprise by Nikki Slade Robinson, Duck Creek Press

This appealing minimalist picture book is a sequel to Muddle & Mo which was published in 2015. Muddle is an opinionated duckling and Mo is a white goat, both portrayed in a very idiosyncratic style. Muddle decides they will have a picnic and the special dish will be worm surprise. Mo is not at all sure about this. Mo’s long face is a funny representation of complete dejection. But of course when the picnic basket is unpacked things aren’t as bad as he thinks…I really like minimal text in a picture book – a few wannabe picture book authors, including myself, should take note of how well it works in this book. The style of the illustrations is also sparse but very striking, with no background and only the essential items of the story shown. Very suitable for sharing with young pre-schoolers of around two to four.

ISBN 978 1 927305 18 8 RRP $19.99 Pb (also available in hardback)

The Harmonica by Dawn McMillan, illus. Andrew Burdan, Scholastic NZ
Dawn’s dedication says, “For the loved ones gone before us. We remember them.” It’s a delicate, lyrical story that touches briefly on warfare, and will be much more meaningful to older primary-aged children rather than to pre-schoolers. Carlos finds an old harmonica in a box in the attic. It belonged to his Uncle Jack, who was a soldier in Afghanistan. Carlos secretly teaches himself to play the harmonica, and the music he makes helps him understand more about the world – and about his family. The illustrations (digitally created in Photoshop and Painter) are stunning, especially the cover. The expansive double-spreads with their warm, soft colours and mood of contemplation match the story extremely well. I can see this book being very useful in the primary classroom as a way of bridging the gap between yesterday’s soldiers and today’s youngsters.

ISBN 978 1 77543 344 6 RRP $19 Pb

The Mystery Box and Finnigan Flynn by Lucy Davey, illus. Cat Chapman, Scholastic NZ

The author and illustrator don’t need much introduction, but here are a couple of reminders: Lucy Davey is the author of The Fidgety Itch and the Fifi la Belle picture books, while Cat Chapman has previously illustrated three picture books written by Juliette McIver. This is their first combined effort with Scholastic NZ. In excellent rhyming text we read about the magical mystery box that turns up on Finnigan’s doorstep.”Don’t open!” it says. So of course he opens it – and two crocodiles jump out. How can Finnigan stop them from nibbling his toes? All sorts of weird and wonderful things pop out of the box, and it’s Finnigan’s job to get them back in again. The illustrations are suitably zany, using colour and movement to make every page a treat. It would be great to read aloud to groups of pre-schoolers and young primary ages of about 3 to 6.

ISBN 978 1 77543 299 9 RRP $19 Pb

My Grandpa is a Dinosaur by Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones, colouring by Tara Black, Penguin Random House

The people behind this quirky picture book are better known as the producers of comic books, including the Blastosaurus series (you can visit them at www.squareplanetcomics.com). They took some steps a while ago towards traditional picture books with their series about a boy called Morgan. Now they have found a traditional publisher and have adopted some standard picture book conventions. The humorous heart of the story is revealed in the title phrase: old people are often called dinosaurs, and in this book the phrase is taken literally as well as figuratively. Wanda can’t understand why nobody will accept that her grandpa is an actual dinosaur. The fact that her big sister shreds chippies in an electric fan, while her parents fish for their dinner in a glass of water is irrelevant (but keen-eyed youngsters will find these pictures hilarious). The trope is continued till Wanda goes to her grandfather’s retirement village and finds many more dinosaurs.

The sophisticated humour and the very modern, edgy style of the illustrations prompt me to say that the book is probably more suitable for children of primary-school age rather than pre-schoolers.

ISBN 978 0 14 350719 2 RRP $19.99 Pb

Reviews by Lorraine Orman



Saturday, May 20, 2017

Three Great New Picture Books…

Witch’s Cat Wanted by Joy H. Davidson, illus. Nikki Slade Robinson, Scholastic NZ
This is the 2015 winner of Storylines’ Joy Cowley Award for an unpublished picture book manuscript. It’s a delightful story about a young witch (looking very un-witchlike) who needs the ultimate accessory – a cat. She puts out a sign, and very soon the cats start appearing on her doorstep. For each one she asks, “Could you ride on my broom across the moon, and stir my cauldron with a wooden spoon? Could you live in a house with toads and lizards, and feast each day on animal gizzards? Could you remember my spells from beginning to end? But most of all, will you be my friend?” Of course, none of the cats are suitable. It’s not until the witch’s cauldron sensibly tells her to go to the SPCA that she eventually finds the cat she needs.
The coloured pencil cartoon illustrations are quirky, lively, and refreshing. This book will become a favourite with many youngsters, particularly girls who love cats. My copy is going to my granddaughter, who’s four and a half. I’m sure she’ll love the cats and the happy touches of magic.
ISBN 978 1 77543 372 9 RRP $19.00 Pb

The Great Kiwi ABC Book by Donovan Bixley, Upstart Press
This ABC book has got everything – crisp, brightly coloured illustrations, familiar smiling faces, letters of the alphabet, labelled items – plus the challenge of items on every page that aren’t labelled, so the reader has to use some brain power to spot them. For example, the double spread for P includes (unlabelled) pirate ship, painter, pie, paua, present, pineapple, pear, pig, possum, parachute, pukeko, pogo stick, piano, panda, plane, pier, playhouse … phew, I’ve probably missed out a few. So the book will be good fun for both adults and children as they compete to come up with the most words beginning with the appropriate letter.
My copy will be given to my youngest grandson who’s about four and a half – I reckon he’s just the right age for it. In general it should be useful for children learning their alphabet aged about three to six. Recommended for all pre-school centres.
ISBN 978 1 927262 71 9 RRP $19.99 Pb

The Best Dad in the World by Patricia Chapman, illus. Cat Chapman, Upstart Press
I’m reviewing this too late for Father’s Day, but it was actually published on 1 August so hopefully a good number of copies were bought as presents. It’s based on a simple idea, as so many excellent picture books are: it’s a catalogue of reasons why “my dad” is the best dad in the world. He likes to get up early; he cooks the best breakfasts, he never gets tired; he likes really good music; he knows that icecream fixes everything … and so on (cleverly, there’s a different family on every page). Preschoolers will take all this at face value, but parents will smile to themselves when they see the picture of a dad awkwardly sipping out of a doll’s cup at a toys’ tea-party, or a sleeping dad having his eyelid prised open by small fingers… Because the book works well on these two levels, it has a particular appeal.
The handsome hardback format is utilised to enhance the story – the first end papers have a pleasant quilt-like appearance and offer an empty space where children can draw a picture of their own dad. The watercolour illustrations are rendered with bright, light colours and plenty of white space, so the atmosphere is one of light-heartedness and family love. Recommended for all pre-schoolers.
ISBN  978 1 927262 74 0 RRP $19.99 Hb

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman







Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A new gripping story from David Hill

Flight Path by David Hill, Penguin Random House NZ
With this gripping story David Hill continues his series of award-winning YA books on the World Wars, following on from Enemy Camp, Brave Company, and My Brother’s War.

It’s satisfying to see so many war-experience books for young readers being published in New Zealand at the moment – ten years ago there were hardly any local titles available (remember Ken Catran’s books?), but now the niche is being well and truly filled. I hasten to add that these books are NOT glorifying war. Quite the opposite – they should influence younger generations to prevent such devastating wars ever happening again.

It’s 1944 and 18-year-old Jack is beginning his first sequence of flights as a bomb-aimer and gunner, jammed in the nose of a Lancaster bomber. A desire for excitement and the chance to leave New Zealand and see the world kept him going throughout his training, but it doesn’t take long for his excitement to turn to terror and dread. The casualty rate for the bomber crews was unbelievably high. As well as coping with the discomfort and danger of the bombing runs over France and Germany, Jack has to come to terms with the realisation that he has a strong likelihood of dying.

I’m not the target readership for this book, but I couldn’t put it down. David has obviously done huge amounts of research to capture what life was like for the Lancaster crews, and has used his writing skills to capture the details that make the story come alive. Who knew that once they’d dropped their bombs, the bombers had to do a straight 30-second camera run over the target, through searchlights and streams of flak and attacking enemy fighters, in order to get a photographic record of the bomb damage?

David deftly weaves other themes into Jack’s story – a budding romance, the importance of teamwork, the cruel effects of war on families of all nationalities.

Recommended for keen readers of about 11 and up, especially those with an interest in the history of the world wars.

ISBN 978 0 14 377052 7 $19.99 Pb


Reviewed by Lorraine Orman     

Sunday, May 14, 2017

New Books from Book Island Press

Here Comes Mr Postmouse by Marianne Dubuc, Book Island (www.bookisland.co.uk)

Fox and Goldfish by Nils Pieters, Book Island

Book Island was set up in New Zealand in 2012 by Belgian-born translator Greet Pauwelijn in order to translate and publish Dutch children’s books in English. In 2016 the business moved to Bristol in England. Its books are still distributed in New Zealand, but with the author, the translator, and the publishing business no longer based here, its books don’t really fit the criteria of this review blog.
However Book Island books are of very high quality, and the company recently won the Bologna 2016 Award for Best Children’s Publisher of Oceania. So these two books are being briefly reviewed.

Here Comes Mr Postmouse is a charming story for pre-schoolers about a mouse delivering parcels to a range of animal recipients. The illustrations are done in a clever cut-away style so that readers can see inside the crocodiles’ house (full of water), Mr Wolf’s house (complete with burglar pigs) and the penguins’ place (ice cubes in the bath), etc. Each page offers many points of humour that can be shared between adult reader and child viewer.

ISBN 978 0 9941282 0 1 RRP $29.99 Hb

Fox and Goldfish is quite different in subject and style. Goldfish’s death is drawing nigh, and Fox takes him on a wild dash round the world to experience its splendours – swimming in the ocean, singing in the rain, climbing mountains, landing on the moon… “Okay, my friend, now you can go,” says Fox. 

Pre-schoolers do need books that include aspects of death, but how the subject is handled is important. In this case, the story and the wildly-colourful illustrations are joyous and uplifting – but families will need to decide if their four to seven-year-old can cope with the theme.

ISBN 978 0 9941282 1 8 RRP $26.99 Hb


Reviewed by Lorraine Orman  

For Dads to Buy for Mothers’ Day…


A Mother’s Day Dilemma by Juliette MacIver and Janine Millington, Scholastic NZ
Juliette MacIver should be familiar to anyone involved in children’s literature, with her most famous rhyming picture books probably being the Marmaduke Duck series. In this story she veers away from crazy animal antics and focuses on two children (who happen to be a Prince and Princess) trying to find the perfect Mother’s Day present for their mother (the Queen). Being royal, they have a huge variety of items to choose from – but in the end they create something very simple. “The nicest gifts are made with love,” says the text.
According to Janine’s website, this is the Canterbury-based artist’s first children’s picture book. “She’s passionate about creating detailed art, using a blend of hand drawn and digital media…” Her illustrations in this book are done in a colourful and very realistic style which reminds me a lot of Bruce Potter’s work. Preschoolers will find it easy to identify with the children depicted, and girls in particular will like the royal theme. I think it would be better read one-to-one, or with a small group so everyone can see the pictures close up.
ISBN 978 1 77543 345 3 $17.99 Pb

My Meerkat Mum by Ruth Paul, Scholastic NZ
Meerkats are unbearably cute, so this delightful picture book is hard to resist. Ruth Paul, prize-winning author/illustrator, has produced a companion volume to My Dinosaur Dad, working with the interesting abbreviated rhyming text she used in her Bad Dog Flash books.
“Up. Stretch. Left. Right. Sleepy Mum. Morning light.” Anyone who has watched meekats in the zoo will recognise how well the staccato text matches the watchful manner and quick movements of this typical meerkat family. Mum and three babies have an eventful day in the savannah as they hunt, play, eat – and stare.
Pre-schoolers and new entrant classes at school will enjoy the focus on these popular animals, and they may even learn a few useful concepts such as left and right, up and down, out and in.
PS. A hardback picture book for $18.99 is good value.
ISBN 978 1 77543 489 4 $18.99 Hb

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman


Monday, May 8, 2017

Two fun junior fiction titles

Sunken Forest by Des Hunt, Scholastic NZ

Since he began writing children’s fiction in the 1990s Des Hunt has published over 20 books. He’s captured an important part of the market with his combination of adventure and eco-science in a New Zealand setting, with the occasional dash of social issues, history, or supernatural events. I’m sure he must have a keen following of young readers by now.

Sunken Forest follows the same recipe as most of the previous books, so Des’s fans won’t be disappointed. Matt’s having family problems, and has to live with his grandmother and attend a new school. Things turn bad when he’s accused of stealing. He is sent to Lake Waikaremoana on a school-based wilderness camp, but things get even worse when the accusations of deceitful behaviour continue. Matt finds solace in the company of an ancient giant longfin eel whom he names Elsa. He’s determined that Elsa will not be caught and killed by a fellow camper. A sudden storm and flood puts everyone in danger, and Matt eventually finds himself rescuing the person who’s abused him the most…

It’s an excellent read for children of about 9 to 12, particularly boys. There’s plenty of action and suspense to keep the plot surging along. Recommended.

ISBN 978 1 77543 403 0 RRP $19 Pb

Johnny Danger: Spy Borg by Peter Millett, Penguin Random House NZ

This is book 3 in the series, with the previous titles being Johnny Danger: DIY Spy and Johnny Danger: Lie Another Day. It’s the first one I’ve read, and I did have trouble picking up the series storyline and characters in the first few pages – so I recommend that interested readers begin with book 1 in the series to get the full impact.

Johnny Danger is a boy spy working for MI6 whose arch enemy is Dr Disastrous. In this story the bad guy teams up with another ultra-bad guy, Yuri Boom-Boom, who has invented an army of Yuri-nators, cyborg clones that are so humanlike nobody can distinguish them from the original human. Johnny and his partner Penelope go in pursuit of the villains and find themselves on the island of Ikki Ikki Bunga where there’s an exciting confrontation in which nobody knows who is real and who’s a cyborg… The style can only be described as frenetic, with non-stop action, corny wisecracks, inside jokes, scatological humour and impossible plot events.

It’s worth reading an interview with the author at https://bestfriendsarebooks.com/2016/05/20/guest-post-peter-millett-on-johnny-danger/ Peter is keen to target a particular category of readers – mainly boys of about 8 to 12 who are reluctant readers. He hopes teachers will read the books aloud to their classes in order to “hook” those boys who’d rather be playing video games or watching cartoons. Warning: some jokes may cause classroom chaos!

ISBN 978 0 14 330907 9 RRP $17.99 Pb


Books reviewed by Lorraine Orman           

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Fantastical fiction for children

Hot Air by Donovan Bixley, Upstart Press

This is the second title in Donovan’s illustrated storybook series called Flying Furballs. If you don’t remember the first title (Dogfight), the series focuses on a faux-World War II scenario where the Cat Allied Troops (CATS) are battling against the evil DOGZ forces which have taken over much of central Europe. Hot Air follows the adventures of a cat pilot called Claude D’Bonair and his flying chum Syd Fishus as they sneak into Switzerland to track down the DOGZ latest weapon. Lots of nail-biting adventures follow – as well as a fair few word plays and puns! Donovan’s cartoon illustrations are a delight – one on almost every page.

My three primary-aged grandsons love this series, so I hunted down two copies to give them (and to enable me to write this review). Unfortunately my local Paper Plus took ages to get them in. My advice – go to the Upstart Press website at www.upstartpress.co.nz and order your copies online. Hopefully they won’t take long to be delivered to your door.

ISBN 978 1 927262 54 2 RRP $14.99 Pb

Upon a Time by R. L. Steadman, Waverley Productions

A sultry and very eye-catching cover should grab the attention of the target audience – teenage girls. This anthology by one of our top fantasy writers is a pot-pourri – it offers some very short stories, some longer short stories, and even a novella. All were inspired by fairy tales, and there are certainly some challenging versions in this collection. Several were inspired by Cinderella, while the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale sparked the novella called Death and Roses. This story is a complex one, using several narrators and timelines, and I had to concentrate hard to keep track of them. But readers who prefer to dip into shorter and easier stories will find plenty to keep them happy. There’s a good variety of tone and setting. My favourite is a cheeky technological version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

At the end there are some interesting Teachers’ Notes relating to Death and Roses. And there’s a lot more information on the author’s website and blog.

Secondary school libraries will find this engaging collection proves to be a popular addition to their stock. It’s available from online book stores in both paper copy and digital versions.

ISBN 9780473374679 RRP $24.99 Pb

Squeakopotamus by Dawn Macmillan, illus. Ross Kinnaird, Oratia Books

Bouncy rhyming text tells us about a weird and very large animal called Squeakopotamus which appears to be a cross between a mouse and a hippopotamus …!! This unusual visitor creates some problems: “We’ve run out of cheese! No more potato or peas! My heart starts to race. I feel the blood in my face. My head’s in a fuss. Maybe Squeakopotamus wants to eat … us!” But a visit to the supermarket takes care of that, and a rainy day takes care of the visitor’s awkward size – phew! This light-hearted story is brought to life by Ross Kinnaird’s colourful and detailed cartoon illustrations.

This zany picture book would be a good present for pre-schoolers and children of early-primary years, especially if they’ve been pestering for a pet for Christmas…

ISBN 978 0 947506 11 7 RRP $19.99 Pb


Reviewed by Lorraine Orman


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Picture Song Book review

10 Greedy Goats, pictures by Deborah Hinde, sung by Pio Terei, Maori lyrics by Ngaere Roberts, Scholastic New Zealand

Yes, it’s another one in Scholastic’s series of picture songbooks and CDs using the tune of 10 Green Bottles - following on from three earlier books featuring kiwis, geckos and penguins. It’s obviously a very popular series! The lyrics are written by Scholastic NZ staff, and there are a few hiccups in the scansion – but fortunately these are barely noticeable in the sung version. 

As always, Deborah Hinde’s Adobe Photoshop illustrations are crisp and colourful, and will retain the attention of any pre-schooler following the story of the ever-reducing goat clan having heaps of fun at the fair. The Maori lyrics are provided separately in the last few pages of the book.

ISBN 978 1 77543 407 8 

RRP $20 Pb


Reviewed by Lorraine Orman