The Whirlpool

The Whirlpool

The Whirlpool










The Whirlpool

Emily Larkin

Helene Magisson

Wombat Books, 2017

32pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99


Life is lovely for Polar Bear Cub.  He has a happy, loving family where he is safe and protected.  He has friends and dreams for the future. Each day is better than the last and he is in charge of his life.  Even the stars shine just for him.

But suddenly all that is snatched away.  Without warning, darkness descends and there is no family or friends.  No hopes and dreams. Loneliness is his only companion – not even the stars are there for him.

Born from a uni assignment of using words and pictures together to make meaning, this is an unusual story because as the text speaks directly to the reader, it is the pictures of Polar Bear Cub that provide such a graphic interpretation of what they are saying, even though there is no reference to him in the words themselves. Together, they give depth and understanding to a situation that many of our children find themselves in when disaster and catastrophe strike their lives and all that is familiar is gone. Even its title is symbolic of the range of emotions that are within us, sometimes raging out of control but always eventually calming to a manageable level.

To children, some things – such as the coming of Santa Claus – seem to take forever, while to adults the time passes in a flash.  Similarly, to a child darkness lasts forever with no hope of light and their emotions are intense.  This book is written “for kids to know that it’s okay to feel a range of emotions. It’s okay to feel lonely, sad or uncertain – but these times don’t have to last. ”  

The well-being, particularly the mental health, of our students is receiving more and more focus in our curriculum as mindfulness programs are seen as crucial to a student’s success in other areas so this is an timely addition to that collection of resources to initiate discussions and provide support.

The Fix-It Man

The Fix-It Man

The Fix-It Man









The Fix-It Man

Dimity Powell

Nicky Johnston

EK Books, 2017

32pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99


Dads can fix anything – that’s what dads do.  Kites, kennels, teapots – whatever is needed.  He can even cobble together a rug made of rainbows and old hugs for mum – but he can’t fix mum.  Not even with his special peach and honey brew.  Even the doctors and lots of rest can’t fix mum. Not even all the love in the world.  

And no matter how hard they try, little girls can’t mend broken hearts – not hers, not dad’s and not Tiger’s.  Well, not with stick tape or glue or needle and thread..  But dad has one more special thing up his sleeve  and together they start to mend.

This is a poignant story of loss and one that will resonate with many children who have lost a parent or other loved one.  With its gentle text and soft palette, even though it is sad it is not gloomy because the love between this family oozes from the page and from that, the hope is tangible. And the threads that bind the family are stronger and more enduring than nails, glue, sticky-tape or any other kind of man-made adhesive or fastening.

Grief is a natural part of life and while we might like to protect our children from it, nevertheless it happens and we often struggle helping them to cope with their loss.  This book allows conversations to start and explores the way it is an emotion that we each express and deal with in our own way.  Dad’s lap is cosy and warm but his face is crumpled and wet; pieces spill out from Tiger’s heart and little girls try to do what they can to paper over the cracks – but they are too wide. But together…

Whether shared as a 1:1 or as a class, it offers children the opportunity to talk about losses in their life and to learn that they are not alone in feeling lonely, lost, scared and even betrayed but there is love and it does get easier.

small things

Small Things

Small Things










small things

Mel Tregonning

Allen & Unwin, 2016

40pp., hbk., RRP $A29.99



Over recent weeks my life seems to have been leading up to opening this book.  

It started with a friend’s son committing suicide and my going back into the classroom as a volunteer to allow a colleague to attend the funeral.

There was RUOK Day which is a big thing for me because suicide has touched my life too many times.

Three schools I’ve been associated with have recently installed buddy benches.

This story came through my Facebook feed-Teen Makes Sit With US App That Helps Students Find Lunch Buddies and then, this morning, this meme…


Even so, I was not prepared for the storyline of this important book even though I’d skimmed posts about its launch on my network connections. Let the blurb tell it for you…

An ordinary boy in an ordinary world. small things tells the story of a boy who feels alone with his worries, but who learns that help is always close by.”

Perhaps a storyline that has been done one way or another many times – but then, on the publishers’ blurb there is this…

In 2008, Mel began illustrating a graphic novel about the universal feelings of loneliness and happiness. In May 2014, Mel took her own life.

It is the most absorbing story of a boy who is dealing with lots of the small things in life that we all face but which affect each of us differently – small things that appear to be so unimportant that they don’t even require capital letters in the title.  Yet, while for some they may be no big deal, for others they lead to sadness, anxiety and depression exacerbated by the perception that you are the only one feeling this way.  Other people can make friends, other people can do pesky maths problems, other people can play basketball – why can’t you?  And the thoughts and doubts start grow and become demons which start to chip away from the inside out and then open cracks until you are surrounded by and followed by them.  They constantly exude from you without let=up until you are so overwhelmed that the pain of keeping them in is greater than physical pain of letting them out. So you give them a helping hand and for a brief minute one pain exceeds the other. But when even that doesn’t help and the darkness descends…

Mel died before she completed her book and the wondrous Shaun Tan completed the final three pages.  And in doing so, he turns the darkness around into a powerful and hopeful ending so that even though there are small things that can cause such despair and desolation there are other small things that can lead to hope and happiness. It’s a story about discovering your place in the world and finding your path through it; about realising that while others’ paths may seem the same as yours, theirs may have obstacles invisible to you and hurdles they find too hard to climb; about being aware of others as well as ourselves and developing and showing empathy; about discovering that others have similar pains and you are not alone; about building a sense of a strong self and knowing and employing the strategies to achieve this. For all its physical, emotional and conceptual darkness, it is a story about light.

With so many of our students, even very young ones, struggling with bullying and mental health issues that too often lead to the dire consequences of drugs and death, this is an important book for teachers to examine so we can be alert to the needs of the children in our care and consider whether the remark made in jest or the less-than-average grade might have a deeper impact than we think. It’s about the need to help our children build a core of resilience and self-esteem so they can cope when their expectations are not realised and to help parents understand that stepping in and solving every problem for a child in the short term in not necessarily the best solution in the long term.  It’s about helping our children understand that there are not losers, only learners.

It’s about so much more than one reviewer can express in one review.  Perhaps its most critical role is that it even though it encapsulates the feelings and thoughts of the boy in its evocative pictures so well that no words are needed, it becomes the conversation starter – more than that, it generates a loud call to action.

On a literary level I believe this will feature in the CBCA Book of the Year lists in 2017; on a social level it is so much more important than that.

There are Teachers Notes for both primary and secondary available and they come with a warning of how you use it because of the nerves that may be touched, a warning I would echo.  Do not share this book as a stand-alone, time-filler. It’s format of many small frames does not readily lend itself to a class sharing, but rather a one-to-one exploration with a sensitive adult taking the helm.  However the teachers notes offer some really positive ways of promoting positive mental health and strategies for those who are feeling fragile as well as helping others know how they might help a friend.   Asking R U OK? is not just for one day a year. 

A most remarkable and life-changing book.  We need to nurture those who will sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria but we must also know who the lonely kids are.


Shaun Tan completes graphic novel after author Mel Tregonning’s suicide: ‘Her absence made me try even harder’

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

Lifeline 13 11 14

One Photo

One Photo

One Photo











One Photo

Ross Watkins

Liz Anelli

Penguin, 2016

32pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99


One day dad came home with an old camera – the type that used film and you took it to get developed and you had real photos in your hand to keep.  Then he spends his time taking photos of things around the house.  Not the usual things that people photograph but odd everyday things like his cereal bowl and coffee cup.  Things that he didn’t want to forget as though he thought he was in danger that he would.

He got the photos developed and stuck them on the window in his study.  He used more and more rolls and took more and more photos, but he didn’t seem to want to take any of his family.  This upset them terribly.  “Aren’t we worth remembering?” they asked.

And then the camera was gone.  And so was Dad. For ever.  But one day the camera turns up in the post.  There is still a film in it and when they get it developed, there is just one photo. And finally his family understands the purpose and significance of all those other photos.

This is a most poignant story, one of the most unusual I’ve read in a long time.  And yet it is a story of many of our students, one that may be hard for them to articulate.  In the gentle drawings and soft palette it traces a father’s way of dealing with a terminal illness, one which affects his mind and memory but in a way that is filled with love and tenderness.  The endpapers are intriguing as they juxtapose two different types of photos – one set full of people shots, the other not.  Those of us old enough to remember “real” photos will be taken back to the days of  photo albums and the pleasure they give as they are dragged out so memories can be revisited and recalled, where only one or two photos were taken for posterity rather than the plethora taken today as though we live through the photo rather than the event, even though we might not look at the photo again. Photos were private memories not public trophies  And we will understand what Dad was trying to do and why the old-fashioned camera was so important.  It could open up a whole new world for students who may be scrambling to find such memories in a few years as technology moves inexorably onwards.

One Photo is different.  It’s sad and moving and yet offers hope for those who might be left behind – memories don’t have to fade.


I was Only Nineteen

I Was Only Nineteen

I Was Only Nineteen










I was Only Nineteen

John Schuman

Craig Smith

Allen & Unwin, 2014

hbk., 32pp., RRP &A24.99


The banner across the top of the cover of this book says, “The iconic song about the Vietnam War that helped change a nation” and indeed, anyone who has heard the original with the haunting voice of John Schuman as the lead singer of Redgum will find that echoing in their head as they “read” this picture book version of the song that brought the realities of the war to a generation. If you are unfamiliar with it, it’s available on You Tube

While, for the first time in history, war was brought into the family living room through the immediacy of television news programs, it was the personalising of what was happening through the lyrics of this song that not only provided a real insight but which has also endured.  In fact, along with the picture of the little girl running naked from her village after it had been destroyed with napalm bombs it would be one of the most-recalled memories of that time.  Its refrain and final line, “God help me, I was only nineteen” encapsulates it all. Both the words and the sensitive, evocative images of Craig Smith show that war is the antithesis of the great adventure that these soldiers’ ancestors thought that it would be as they hastened to answer the call of 1914 and which will be in our thoughts as we move towards the commemoration of ANZAC Day.

But this is much more than another picture book about Australia’s war effort to support the national history curriculum.

As one of those who was very much involved in the events of the time and worked towards the big-picture objectives of not only having Australia and New Zealand troops out of Vietnam because we were against the “all-the-way-with-LBJ” policies of the prevailing governments but also against sending young men to war who, in their own country could not vote or legally have a beer, we did not consider or understand the effects our actions would have on those young men when they eventually came home, mentally and physically wounded, and to have served in Vietnam was a secret and a shame.  There were no parades or celebrations – you might talk about it with your mates to keep you sane but that was all. There was no respect from the public and each soldier was somehow held personally responsible for the events which we saw each night.  (If you, as an adult, want a greater understanding, read Well Done, Those Men by Barry Heard and Smoky Joe’s Café by Bryce Courtenay.)

And so we have the situation today that many of our students have grandparents who are perhaps not as they should be and cannot explain why. They saw and did things that no 19-year-olds should ever have to and it is their experiences, their illnesses, their PTSD, their suicides that have changed the way we now view our serving forces and how they are treated and supported when they come home.  The picture books and television shows always stereotype Grandpa as being loving and jovial and every child deserves such a person – the production of this book might help them understand why theirs is not. It has an important role to play in helping our little ones understand.

If just the lyrics or the clip of the original “I was Only 19” were the only ones used in a study of the Vietnam War, the story would not be complete.  It is through Craig Smith’s final illustrations of the young soldier now a grandfather with his grandson ducking from a chopper, then sharing an ice cream and finally marching on ANZAC Day together that are critical because they show that while he is still troubled by his experiences, he has survived and 40 years on society has moved on to a new and different attitude.  For that we have to thank the continued and sustained efforts of all those Vietnam Vets who would not let us forget. We salute you now as we should have then.

For those who see this as a teaching opportunity, there are teachers’ notes are available.


Republished in honour of the 50th anniversary of The Battle of Long Tan.  August 18, 1966



The Snow Sister

The Snow Sister

The Snow Sister










The Snow Sister

Emma Carroll

Julian de Narvaez

Faber Children’s. 2015

128pp., pbk., RRP $A 14.99



It is Christmas Eve in Victorian England and Pearl Granger has just got into trouble for using her sister’s beautiful red and gold paisley shawl to adorn the “snow sister” she has made to honour and remember her sister Agnes who died from fever three years ago.  Since her death, Christmas has meant little to the family so Pearl is more concerned about the scolding she is going to get but it will be worth it because each year she builds herself a snow sister and each year she misses Agnes a little less.  Living in poverty means there is not a lot of extras for Christmas – even taking the two pieces of coal for her snow sister’s eyes means that the fire will burn a little lower that night despite the blizzard that is approaching.

As she trudges inside to face her due, she is met by the postman whose sack is weighed down by “these new Christmas cards” and he gives her a letter that she is to give her father immediately.  It is a letter that would seem to change the Grangers’ lives forever as Pa has been summoned to a solicitor’s office in Bath to hear the reading of his rich brother’s will – a will of which he is the ‘main beneficiary”.  Imagining new wealth beyond their dreams,  Pearl is sent to beg some more credit from Nobel’s Grocery so the family can have the ingredients for their first Christmas pudding since Agnes died but a series of circumstances see her getting to see the rich side of life that she fantasises about and helps her understand that all may not be what it seems.  Life is not necessarily about how many sugar plums you can eat.

As it cover hints, this is a poignant, heart-warming short story, beautifully written and illustrated with monochrome pictures evocative of the period, that not only paints a picture of the poor in Victorian England but also teaches lessons about the true meaning of Christmas and the power and importance of family love.  The rich–poor, upstairs-downstairs nature of society where wealth determines status is very apparent and readers will engage with Pearl’s almost Cinderella-like character in comparison to the snooty, spoiled Lockwood girls.

This would be a wonderful choice for a family read-aloud over a few nights or for the newly independent reader who is looking for more than a picture book story about Christmas.  Reviews of other books by Emma Carroll have suggested that she is an author on the rise and if  The Snow Sister is a sample of the quality of her writing, she is one I will look for again.  Definitely one for the Christmas collection.














Christine Bongers

Woolshed Press/ Random House 2014

pbk, 328pp., RRP $18.99

9780857983763 (pbk)

9780857983770 (ebk)

For the three years since her mother’s death from cancer, Kat and her dad, Jimmy, have lived a very private life, keeping themselves and their business to themselves, fearing another intervention from the authorities which will split them apart again.  Each night Jimmy goes out to play gigs in Brisbane’s bars and clubs and then backs up with the early morning shift at a local bakery struggling to meet the mortgage on the house that his wife loved, but also leaving Kat home alone at just 14.  One night, Kat wakes up to find an intruder standing over her bed, his hand on her leg and it is only her blood-curdling scream and the arrival of the hated woman-next-door with a softball bat that prevents the attack going any further.

However, this event is just part of a traumatic experience for Kat as it is the catalyst for an unravelling of her life as she believes it to be with all the fervour, tunnel-vision perspective and sense of rightness that 14-year olds have.  Born from a real incident happening to the author’s daughter who was eventually able to get over her guilt and start exploring the what-ifs, this is an intriguing tale of revisit and reborn.  Kat has been shaped by her past and her interpretation of events and is trapped within it, and it is only when she is offered the choice of staying with her neighbour, whom she hates so much she will not even pass her house, or having a guard dog which she fears as a victim of a savage attack that she is forced to find an escape route from the cocoon she has spun around herself and Jimmy. It is not an easy journey and in travelling it she has to confront fears and situation that challenge her beliefs, which, while making her very vulnerable also make her stronger.   

Intruder is a story that will be adored by those on the transition between childhood and adolescence.  It has just enough suspense to keep turning the page, but not enough to terrify; its characters are diverse, realistic, memorable and recognisable and show that we all need a little bit of everyone to enrich our lives; and the plot, while very plausible, is not so close-to-home that the reader will fear being alone or turning the light off.  While I’m not a fan of one-size-fits-all, I acknowledge that this story would have great value as a small-group read, perhaps as a book club, where readers can discuss its layers, explore the what-ifs, and perhaps not only gain some insight into that typical tunnel-vision of the age group, but perhaps develop some safety strategies as well. Teaching notes are available.

Christine Bongers’ two previous titles – Dust and Henry Hoey Hobson – have both featured in the CBCA awards lists which gives an indication of the quality of her story-telling and ability to reach her target audience well. 

Please note that this is a book for senior primary/YA readers.  It has been included here because it is a CBCA shortlisted book for 2015.













Shine: A story about saying goodbye

Trace Balla

Allen & Unwin, 2015

Hbk., 32pp., RRP $A19.99



“Far, far away and long, long ago, on a beautiful planet, amongst the golden stars there lived a young horse.  He was so kind and bright, so sparkly and shimmery, that everyone called him Shine.”  Shine galloped with the other horses under the smiling moon until one day he met Glitter, the loveliest horse he had ever seen and soon Sparky and Shimmer had come to make a beautiful family.  But sadly and too soon, Shine had to return to the stars and Glitter, Sparky and Shimmer are heartbroken, crying an ocean of golden tears and climbing the high mountain of grief until they finally see and understand the overwhelming size of the love they shared.  And far above, the brightest star of all shines on them and brings them peace.

Trace Balla wrote this book for her niece and nephew when they lost their dad, suddenly and unexpectedly.  Even though it is so difficult to explain the inexplicable to young children, it gave them a moment of peace and beauty and moments are sometimes all you can get at such a difficult time. But it also gave them reassurance that they were still surrounded by love and hope that, in time, they would see their Shine shining down on them. 

We tend to think of death as adult-business but whenever an adult dies there is so often a young child deeply affected and trying to come to terms with the loss, not quite understanding the finality and perhaps blaming themselves for not being good enough.  Whatever the circumstances of the death, it is essential that the child knows they were loved deeply and will continue to be so, and this story not only shows that but celebrates it.  It acknowledges and allows the sadness of all those left behind, the grieving process is accurately depicted as a huge, steep mountain to climb that will take time but it also shows that it can be conquered and that there is still joy in the world.  Little people don’t have the vision to see beyond the horizon and so a story like this gives them some comfort that eventually the hurt starts to heal and the love shines through.  They have not been abandoned, they are not lost and they are still loved.

Because school is often the one constant in the child’s life at this time and particularly if the child is not involved in the final farewell process, it often falls to the teacher to provide the support that is needed and having a story like Shine to share gives them a starting point to share and talk with the child.  It is gentle, it is reassuring and based on the belief that “We all come from the stars, we all go back to the stars” it can be shared without risk of contradicting any religious beliefs.

Sadly, this particular copy will not be added to the collection at my school – it is on its way to a little person who needs it right now and who will get great comfort from it.  I thank Carolyn Walsh from Allen & Unwin for making that possible.


Paper Planes

Paper Planes

Paper Planes










Paper Planes

Steve Worland

Puffin, 2015

pbk., 208pp., RRP $A16.99




The beige town of Waleup sits in the beige landscape of rural Western Australia and generally life goes on there in a beige kind of blur. Life for Dylan is fairly beige too, particularly since his mother died and his father has sunk into a deep depression, often not rousing himself from the couch for days on end.  The one thing that brings Dylan alive is Clive – a large bird of prey that he feeds a rasher of bacon each day on his way to school.  That is until a student teacher comes to town and initiates a paper plane flying competition.

Remarkably, Dylan folds a paper plane in the way his mother taught him that flies further than anyone else’s although because it is wind-assisted he cannot claim a record.  However, it does open up opportunities for him to compete in the Australian junior flying competition (and perhaps even a shot at the World Championships in Tokyo) giving him a focus and an interest that he has not had for some time.  But Dylan has many battles to overcome – his father’s inability to support him; a rich-kid bully who thinks winning is everything; the costs of getting to Sydney and Tokyo- and he learns as much about himself and other people as he does about flight.  But Dylan is not alone and with the support of his fabulous 90 year-old grandfather and the current world champ Kimi, he pushes on towards his dream.

This is the novel of the highly-successful film Paper Planes that captured the imaginations of so many during the recent school holidays and because of the huge potential for learning about science, technology, engineering and maths from paper planes I purchased my own copy.  Although there is a difference between writing a screenplay and a novel, nevertheless it was an engaging read that I think many who have seen the movie will enjoy.  It offers huge scope to collaborate with classroom-based teachers to explore a wide range of curriculum areas and for that alone, it should be in your collection.  I even found myself seeking out the greatest, addictive time-waster of 10 years ago where I once ranked in the top 100 000 in the world!

Even if you don’t want to organise a competiton in your school, your students will be really pleased they can now enjoy this story in print as well as on the screen.

The Soldier’s Gift

The Soldier's Gift

The Soldier’s Gift









The Soldier’s Gift

Tony Palmer

Jane Tanner

Penguin, 2014

hbk, 40pp., RRP $A26.99


Ebk RRP $A7.99


There is always work to be done on Hillside Farm – except on Sundays.  Sundays are a day of rest and, on this prophetic Sunday, Tom takes his younger sister Emily to a special place high on a ridge overlooking the land below.  On it is a lone cypress tree planted by their mother as a tiny seed many years before they were born.  Now it is her memorial.

All is not idyllic on Hillside Farm though.  It is 1915 and each week the postman brings the newspapers which Emily reads and when Uncle Francis comes to visit, she hears him talking to her dad about the war and the young local men who are dead, missing or wounded.  But Emily is hardly concerned for it is on the other side of the world.  However, when Uncle Francis suggests that Tom might be branded a coward if he doesn’t enlist, it comes to her peaceful home and sets in train events that seem inexorable.  “Everyone else is going” does not seem a good reason to Emily when it becomes clear Tom is going to enlist, and as he sets out, standing so straight and tall and looking so grown-up in his uniform, not even his promise to write can stop Emily’s tears flowing.

Tom does write -funny, serious, and sad letters. In one he sends Emily some seeds given to him by another soldier “from a pine tree here in Turkey”. But no more letters follow and when Emily’s father finally gets the telegram he has been expecting, it has a devastating effect.  Emily runs to her mother’s tree and just sits, not even noticing her dad coming to get her and carrying her home.  That night, in a massive storm, the tree is destroyed.  Emily’s father withdraws into himself, wearing his grief like a heavy overcoat and Emily cannot reach him.  But one day she show Uncle Francis the seeds Tom had sent and he persuades her to plant them and nurture them…

This is a most sensitive story that has the events at Gallipoli as its backdrop, not its focus. While our students learn about the events at Gallipoli and appreciate them, it is difficult for them to connect with what life was like at the time in Australia. It’s like they have an episode in time captured in a bottle without reference or links to anything beyond those historical facts. A Soldier’s Gift helps them connect to life at the time by showing that it was just ordinary young men who were at the heart of this conflict, young men with families at home but a sense of duty to King and country calling them louder.  It shows the despair and hopelessness and grief that families suffered when the longed-for letters stopped coming, families grieving then at the loss of their loved one just as families grieve now.  But Emily’s planting of the seeds, their growth into seedlings and their need for protection which finally draws her father forward is symbolic of planting and nurturing hope for an enduring peace.  Just as Tom’s trees fight the odds for survival, so might the world.  Is his gift is more than a handful of seeds that look like dried moths.

Jane Tanner’s illustrations are superb in helping to make those connections. In muted tones that suggest both the mood and the times, they provide exquisite detail of the period, particularly those featuring the interior of the house, but also the calm, carefree lifestyle as chooks scratch in the garden and dog Roo runs free. This “ordinariness’ is highlighted by the illustrations on the endpapers- sketches of family photographs, marriage certificates and magazine covers but ominously interspersed with reminders that there is a war being fought and its fingers are stretching out to touch all that is known and cherished. 

On the final page following some notes about the war in Europe and at home, Tony Palmer makes reference to the seeds from the Aleppo Pine – the famous Lone Pine – that we know came back to Australia and are now thriving trees at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and the Australian War Memorial, and suggests that these might not be the only ones that came back. Tom may have sent some too. 

Given that it is not until students are in Year 9 – 14 or 15 – that they formally study World War 1 in the Australian Curriculum history strand, literature is the only way that most students can connect with the events that changed Australia for ever and which will be such a strong focus over the coming months as the centenary of World War 1 and Australia’s role within it are commemorated.  A Soldier’s Gift should be an integral part of that story. 

A peek inside

A peek inside