Category Archives: Children’s Books

The Lost Amulet

Middle grade fantasy book about four gifted children

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I’m currently very deep into my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this looked like a nice quick read.

Image is of “The Lost Amulet” by Mary Farrugia. The paperback book is resting on a wooden table next to a small purplish stone. The cover is grey with red sparks and a red stone with the text “To your destination you seek upon which obstacles must be completed to reach”.

“The Lost Amulet” by Mary Farrugia is the first bok in the “Stone Bearer Series” and is a middle grade fantasy book about three children called Alexandra, Jake and Kian who are raised together in an orphanage with the ferocious Ms Severington. When Jake and Kian are suddenly adopted, Alexandra is left alone. However, when she is adopted shortly before her 12th birthday by the mysterious John, the truth about her identity is finally revealed and her destiny as a Stone Bearer of the Land of Four Stones begins. When she begins her training and education with John and Gum Gully High, Alexandra is reunited with her friends. However, the race is on to find a lost Amulet before the chaotic figure Colt does, and the key may lie in the secret fourth Stone Bearer.

This is an easy read that follows plenty of the tried and true hallmarks of the children’s fantasy genre from orphans, hidden identities to being sorted into school houses. It is a quick and action-packed read with a strong focus on friendship.

Like many self-published books, this one felt a little heavy on the adverbs and the author did occasionally misuse some words. The story initially felt a little confusing moving from the orphanage to a day school for both magical and non-magical children, but perhaps some of these issues are resolved in later books in the series.

A fast-paced book that could appeal to fans of the middle grade fantasy genre.

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Foxspell

Young adult novel about a young boy’s affinity for foxes

I am currently doing my Short Stack Reading Challenge, and I raided all my shelves for some very short books to see out the end of the year. I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair some time ago. I can’t remember if I chose it because someone recommended it to me, or because this author was one I read as a kid because my (admittedly very annoying) year 5 teacher was obsessed with her. Either way, this was the next book in my short stack. It is actually a signed copy, addressed to someone called Katie in the year of publication – 1994. Edit: I was just reminded that I have read this author more recently, I had just forgotten her pseudonym.

Image is of “Foxspell” by Gillian Rubinstein. The paperback book is situated between a red, brown and yellow spray paint cans. The cover has a fox on the bottom half and a young boy’s eyes in the next quarter, and the text against a brown background.

“Foxspell” by Gillian Rubinstein is about a young boy called Tod who, after his father returns overseas, has moved with his mother and two sisters to live with his grandmother on a property in South Australia. Despite being a talented artist, Tod struggles with school and feels the strain of the arguments at home. When he comes across a dead fox and is moved to bury it, he unknowingly creates a connection between himself and a fox spirit. Spending more and more time in the area nearby called the quarries, Tod attracts the attention of Shaun, an older teenager whose gang vandalise property and who is interested in Tod’s sister Charm. As things at home become more and more difficult, and Tod falls further behind in school, the temptation to run with a fox and run with a gang becomes greater and greater.

This was quite a surprising book. Even though it was written nearly 30 years ago, it still felt fresh and relevant. Although not ever said explicitly, it is suggested that Tod has a learning disability like dyslexia and instead of blaming him for his difficulties, the book explores how the people around him are failing him. I also thought that Rubinstein did a good job of weaving earthy magic into the story while acknowledging that white people, like foxes, invaded this country and that Traditional Owners’ beliefs and connection to country persists. There were also lots of other interesting parts to this story. Tod’s mother is an aspiring comedian and uses anecdotes about her family in her sets, and I thought that the dichotomy between her lack of involvement in her kids’ day to day lives, and her disrespect for their boundaries by using their lives as material for her shows was a fascinating subplot. I also really liked the character of Tod’s sister Charm, and the complicated relationship between her, Shaun, Tod and Shaun’s younger brother.

An unexpectedly complex story that I liked a lot more than I remember liking Rubinstein’s other books.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Magic Realism, Signed Books, Young Adult

The Wonderling

Children’s book about an orphan fox boy

I cannot remember where I bought this book from, but there is no mistaking why. It is a beautiful hardcover book with copper metallic detail on the lettering both on the slipcase and beneath. Then, of course, is the premise. As I have mentioned many times on here I am a big fan of animal fantasy, and the little anthropomorphic fox and suggestions of steampunk had me hooked.

Image is of “The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok. The hardcover book is resting on a slate grey background with a pocket watch, a clockwork mechanism with a bunny and a key to the right. The cover is outlined in lime green with a teal band across and filling in the middle. There are clockwork beetles in the corners, ribbons, a key and a red fox with one ear wearing a great jacket and a necklace with the number 13.

“The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok is a children’s animal fantasy steampunk novel about an orphan fox boy known only as 13. A “groundling”, a mix of both fox and boy, he lives at the Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures run by the cruel Miss Carbunkle. Bullied and downtrodden, when he makes a new friend called Trinket who gives him a new name, Arthur agrees to escape the Home and try to find the truth about his past and his destiny.

There were a lot of positive things about this book, and I think Bartok’s writing is probably the strongest selling point. It is lyrical and playful and her descriptions are lovely to read. I really enjoyed the art sprinkled throughout the book and the all the different types of groundlings. Trinket was one of the best characters who, despite being tiny and almost entirely birdlike, had lots of gumption and pizzazz. I enjoyed the interludes with the young boy Pinecone and his family in their treehouse, and they were some of the most enjoyable parts of the book.

However, this book was heavily inspired by “Oliver Twist” with the hapless Arthur just as much a victim of circumstance as the orphan Oliver, and even Quintus is just like a hybrid of the Artful Dodger and Fagin. Despite these broad plot and character similarities, the story was rather confusing and there were a lot of elements that didn’t make sense or simply went nowhere. For example, someone out of kindness put something in Arthur’s pocket, but didn’t help any of the other groundlings? But Arthur inexplicably never checked his pocket? And then the thing was lost anyway? I also felt that while individually the elements of Arthur’s world were very whimsical, collectively the worldbuilding was a bit lacking. Some of the choices (e.g. men wearing top hats walking cats in Lumentown) seemed to be based more on aesthetics rather than logic.

An easy if somewhat meandering read that draws a lot of inspiration from Dickens.

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Animorphs The Graphic Novel: The Invasion

Graphic novel adaptation of middle grade sci-fi series Animorphs

As I have mentioned on this blog previously, I was a HUGE fan of this series when I was a kid. I’m still trying to complete my collection after cancelling my monthly Scholastic subscription, but when I saw that a graphic novel adaptation had recently been released I had to go out and buy it. I’ve been on a bit of a sci-fi graphic novel kick and I’m not even sorry.

Image is of “Animorphs The Graphic Novel: The Invasion” based on the novel by K. A. Applegate and Michael Grant, and adapted by Chris Grine. The paperback graphic novel is sitting in front of the “Animorphs” series arranged chronologically on a bookshelf. The cover has five kids standing on a slope watching pink lights in the sky in the bottom with the top quarter depicting a boy morphing into a lizard.

“Animorphs The Graphic Novel: The Invasion” adapted by Chris Grine is based on the science fiction middle grade novel of the same name: the first book in the “Animorphs” series by K. A. Applegate and Michael Grant. In this book, five kids who loosely know each other are forever bound together when they take a shortcut through a construction site coming home from the mall. While crossing through, they witness the landing of an spaceship and meet Elfangor, a dying alien from the Andalite species. Elfangor warns Jake, Cassie, Marco, Rachel and Tobias about an invasion that is already taking place on planet earth by a parasitic alien species called Yeerks and grants them the only weapon available: the ability to morph. Calling themselves the Animorphs, they must acquire the DNA of different animals and try to infiltrate a secret organisation recruiting humans as hosts and try to stop the Yeerks from enslaving the entire human race.

This is a great adaptation of the original book and Grine has done a great job staying true to the original story and dialogue while still bringing his own spin. Grine has kept the story set in the same time, the late 1990s, with that real mallrat flavour of walkmans, jumpers tied around waists and phones with cords. My initial response to the art style was that it felt a bit childish with thick, bold linework but then I remembered I’m not actually the target audience. With that in mind, I think it’s actually perfect for kids with a great balance between clarity and detail. I really liked the use of different shaped speech bubbles to distinguish between speech and thought-speak, and I also really liked that Grine allocated each character a different colour to help readers keep track of who was speaking in thought-speak. I also felt like some of the things that I had struggled to imagine like the Sharing and the Yeerk pool were illustrated really well, and I liked the take on the alien species, especially the Andalites.

I think probably the one part that I was a little disappointed with was the depiction of morphing. I completely see what Grine is doing, making it look a bit gross and unsettling which is certainly how it is described in the books. I also understand that with a graphic novel, you are just getting a snapshot, and each panel is highlighting a single moment in the uncomfortable, awkward morphing process. However, I think when I imagined morphing, it was a little less goofy and a little more awesome. A little more flipbook animation and a little less flailing.

This graphic novel had plenty of nostalgia but an original enough take that the story felt fresh and appealing to younger audiences. I can’t wait until more of the series is released.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy

Children’s book series about three hapless orphans

I am still enjoying reading this series and watching the corresponding TV adaptation, and I was looking for a snappy read to curl up in front of the heater with now the evenings are getting colder. If you haven’t read this series before, I would recommend starting at the beginning.

Image is of the book “The Austere Academy” by Lemony Snicket. The hardcover book is sitting inside an open notebook where the letters V.F.D. are written diagonally next to a pen. A tape measure snakes around the book and the notebook.

“The Austere Academy” by Lemony Snicket is the fifth book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” collection. After the Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus and Sunny barely escape the events of the previous book unscathed, they are sent to a boarding school called Prufrock Preparatory School. Any hope that finally their luck may change is dashed when Vice Principal Nero advises that because they don’t have a guardian, they will be living in a small, crab and fungus-infested shack. The only upside is that they have finally made some friends: the two Quagmire triplets Isadora and Duncan. However, when a new sports teacher called Coach Genghis starts at the school, things begin to look very dire.

I think that this is my favourite book in the series so far. There is some subtle but noticeable character development. The Baudelaires have started to lose faith in the adults around them and for the first time, do not sound the alarm when they realise a new scheme is afoot to steal their inheritance. Instead, they cut to the chase and start making their own plans. I also really enjoyed that Sunny has started occasionally saying actual words that Snicket doesn’t need to interpret.

Interestingly, I actually liked the plot of this book better than I did the corresponding TV series episodes. The TV adaptation attempted to soften the situation by introducing some additional benevolent characters, and I felt that the Baudelaires’ lack of hope in the book made the ending much more tragic.

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Echidnas Can’t Cuddle

Illustrated children’s book about echidnas and showing affection

On the second night of my Tasmania hike, my friend and hiking buddy insisted that I read this book she had found in the library because it was so cute. I didn’t quite get around to it on the second night, but on the third night we were staying in one of the trimanya huts, which means echidna in Palawa language, and I luckily found a copy in the library there. I also saw three different echidnas on my Tasmania trip, and they are so fluffy down there!

Image is of “Echidnas Can’t Cuddle” by Nieta Manser and illustrated by Lauren Merrick. The cover is of an echidna’s face surrounded by watercolour, collaged spikes. The book is placed in front of a veranda and Australian bushland, with a sign on a wooden post that says trimanya that has a dotted echidna footprint below it.

“Echidnas Can’t Cuddle” by Nieta Manser and illustrated by Lauren Merrick is a children’s book about an echidna called Erik who longs to be able to experience cuddles like other animals do. The problem is, every time Erik tries to cuddle someone, he inadvertently hurts them with his spikes. Despondent, Erik runs away. However, when predators try to attack him, Erik learns what his spikes are really for.

Image is of a very fluffy chocolate brown echidna

This was a very sweet book with a lovely message about accepting the bodies we have and celebrating their functions. The text rhymes and is very accessible for children. I also thought that it was a nice comment on intimacy and that when hugs might not be appropriate, there are other ways to show affection. Additionally, it is important to respect what other people are comfortable with. I really enjoyed the illustrations, and Merrick used some interesting techniques to produce an almost three dimensional effect by collaging watercolour illustrations.

Image is of a light brown, almost blonde, echidna searching for ants

A lovely little book that would be great for young children.

Image is of a reddish brown echidna behind some native plants

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One Small Island

Illustrated children’s book about Macquarie Island

I mentioned in my previous book review that I recently went on a hike in Tasmania. There were lots of fantastic things about this hike, but there were two things in particular I really enjoyed: the collection of books at each hut and the lovely and enthusiastic ranger on our first night who told us about this book.

Image is of “One Small Island” by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch. The cover is of an island in the distance with an ocean below and the aurora australis above. The book is resting on a handrail with bushland, ocean, coastline and mist in the background.

“One Small Island” by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch is an illustrated children’s book about the history and biodiversity of Macquarie Island. In particular, the book explores the impact of humans on the island’s delicate ecosystem and the battle to undo the damage done by invading species.

This is a beautifully and intricately illustrated book that captures the dramatic landscape and fragile wildlife with its vivid language. Not only is this a story about a critical environmental issue, the destruction of native flora and fauna due to introduced species, it is also a story with a beginning, a disaster, a challenge and a resolution.

An excellent book for children and adults alike with a keen interest in natural history.

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Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow

Third book in children’s fantasy series “Nevermoor”

Content warning: pandemic

If you haven’t yet read the first two books in this series, I would skip this review and go to the beginning.

Image is of a paperback copy of “Hollowpox: The Hunt of Morrigan Crow” placed next to a black and white Koolie dog with a red and purple face mask and a small bottle of hand sanitiser

“Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is the third book in the children’s fantasy series “Nevermoor”. In her second year as a scholar at the exclusive Wundrous Society, Morrigan is finally permitted to study the so-called Wretched Arts of the Accomplished Wundersmith. She eagerly jumps into her lessons, keen to master her new abilities. However, only able to watch records and without the guidance of a teacher, Morrigan’s progress is frustratingly slow. Meanwhile, a mysterious illness has struck Nevermoor throwing the city in chaos. Worse, it only seems to affect Wunimals, taking away their ability to reason and leaving only their most basic animal instincts. Morrigan is suddenly under even more pressure to master her abilities to save Nevermoor and her Wunimal friends.

This is a series that is getting better and better as it progresses. Townsend explores a plethora of social issues in this book from stigma and discrimination to diplomatic relations. Where I found the magic a bit chaotic and confusing in the first book, Townsend has settled into the story and created a great structure for Morrigan to progress through her education mastering different skills. I’m really enjoying the dynamics of her friends in Unit 919, and some of the personalities are really starting to develop in interesting and amusing ways. There were also some really lovely new characters like Sofia. However, the highlight of this book was without a doubt the visit to the Gobleian Library. Without spoiling anything about it, it was a wild couple of chapters that really captured the spirit of Nevermoor. Unlike some authors, Townsend has also introduced with little fanfare a same-sex relationship which was a nice addition.

I think my only warning is that if you’re a bit exhausted hearing about public health issues, then a book about a disease that races through a city sending society into panic might not be the book for you right now. I think from a kid’s perspective, this would be a good lens to consider some of the human rights issues that arise as a result of trying to protect individuals from the unknown, but in that respect it may be a bit heavy and too close to home for some.

A cracking read that has really hit its stride, I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Miserable Mill

Children’s book series about three hapless orphans

I was getting towards the end of 2020 and my reading goals, I thought I might tackle some of the books on my to-read pile. I have been reading this series for some time, and have been very much enjoying reading the book and then immediately watching the corresponding episode in the TV adaptation. If you haven’t read this series before, you should probably start with the first book.

Image is of the book “The Miserable Mill” by Lemony Snicket. The hardcover book is balanced on a wooden pallet next to some reflective wooden rainbow sunglasses

“The Miserable Mill” by Lemony Snicket is the fourth book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” collection. After the events of the previous book, the three Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus and Sunny appear to have run out of distant relatives and are this time sent to live at a place called Lucky Smells Lumbermill and, it soon turns out, to work there as well. The work and living conditions are enough to contend with by themselves, however when Klaus’ glasses are broken and he has to go to the sinister optometrist nearby, Violet and Sunny must work together to help their brother back to his usual self.

I do think that this series is improving with time, and I enjoyed seeing the children break out of their usual roles of inventor, reader and chewer to solve the problems they are faced with. Unlike the previous books, this book tackles some broader social issues like workplace conditions, minimum wage and exploitation.

However, the TV series continues to draw out much more sophisticated themes without fundamentally changing the story and the episodes that adapt this particular book was excellent. The TV series has introduced significantly more overarching elements to the plot and in these episodes lead the viewer to draw a particular conclusion that was shattered in a spectacular and heart-wrenching way . Without significantly changing the plot, the TV adaptation also reframed business partners Charles and Sir as a couple and explored an unequal distribution of labour in their relationship.

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She Ran Away From Love

Teddy bear picture book about finding yourself

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author, whose other book I reviewed previously.

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“She Ran Away From Love” by Mawson is a picture book about a teddy bear called Frilly who isn’t sure she is being her authentic self. She consults her friend Mawson for advice, but ultimately decides that she needs to go on a journey to find the answers herself.

This is a sweet book that gently explores the idea of personal development and wanting more from yourself and from your life. Frilly is an interesting character who tries to reconcile being true to herself with personal growth, and I particularly liked the part where she is very assertive about the type of quest she is going on and declines Mawson’s offer of swords, shields and horses because they are neither quiet nor pink. I also like that the book examines different methods for finding happiness, concluding ultimately that you have to do what works for you. The scenery in the photographs is arranged using things around the house that a teddy bear may well use and the author has grown more confident using different editing techniques to bring more emotion to the photos.

A thoughtful, uplifting book suitable for all ages.

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