Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts – Ten Tales from the Deep, Dark Woods

Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts - Ten Tales from the Deep, Dark Woods

Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts – Ten Tales from the Deep, Dark Woods











Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts – Ten Tales from the Deep, Dark Woods

Craig Phillips

Allen & Unwin, 2017

192pp., pbk., RRP $A24.99


Ever since there have been children there has been children’s literature and having children learn lessons about life through this literature has been a constant thread in every culture across the globe.  Since the earliest days of mankind, stories have been created and told from generation to generation not just to explain the unknown but also to inspire better, more mature and moral behaviour in children with dire consequences inflicted by fearful creatures if boundaries were breached.  Didacticism was alive and well with stories featuring giants, trolls, witches, beasts and other fantastic figures achieving amazing things, wreaking havoc, surviving disasters or decreeing punishments so that adults as well as children lived in fear of retribution for misdeeds.

Now, with modern communication and science, while such creatures do not have the power of fear they once had, nevertheless they are still a central part of today’s literature with stories like the Harry Potter series and Game of Thrones commanding huge audiences as well as a continuing fascination for those stories in which the modern have their origins.  But until now, these have been retold and republished in formats that tend to scream “younger readers” and from which those who see themselves as more mature than the “picture book brigade” shy away from regardless of the quality of the content.  So to have ten traditional tales from ten countries brought together in graphic novel format as creator Craig Phillips has done is going to create a buzz of excitement.  Here, in one superbly illustrated volume, are stories featuring giants, trolls, witches and beasts with all their magical powers and chilling feats and universal messages of courage and obedience. that will appeal to those who are fascinated by this genre in a format that will support and sustain their reading.

Phillips has kept his audience in mind as he has drawn – the imaginary creatures are all sufficiently gruesome and grisly so their characters are clear but not so much that they will inspire nightmares. The mix of familiar and unfamiliar characters offers something for each reader to explore and perhaps think about why stories from such diverse origins have such similar themes.  Is there indeed, a moral and ethical code that links humans regardless of their beliefs and circumstance?

One that will appeal to a wide range of readers and deserving of its place among the 2018 CBCA Notables.


Bird to Bird

Bird to Bird

Bird to Bird









Bird to Bird

Clare Saxby

Wayne Harris

Black Dog, 2018

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


When a bird drops a seed to an English forest floor, who could imagine that that would be just the start of a journey that continued for generations across thousands of kilometers from its starting point?

A combination of minimal text from Clare Saxby, sublime illustrations from Wayne Harris and the reader’s imagination bring this story of nature, history, creativity and recycling together in a way that captures the imagination and inspires wonder. How could something as small as a seed have such a big future? That it could grow into a sapling then a tree which is harvested and become bunk beds on a convict ship bound for Australia.  And when that job was done its life was not over – it becomes a loom then a lean-to and then…

So often we explore life cycles with little people and we create a simple circle of birth>growth>reproduction>death, but we seldom explore much further.   Does the tomato that forms after pollination just drop to the ground or is it picked fresh and become part of a delicious recipe, or is it stored on a supermarket shelf picked over and not chosen, eventually becoming part of a compost heap?  Does a baby spider fly though the breezes to land far from its home-web and start a new colony or is it the victim of a foot or a can of bug spray?  Saxby has a much gentler conclusion for the seed her bird dropped but this story could spark a lot of investigation and imagination and new stories!

Teachers’ notes are available.

Gladys Goes to War

Gladys Goes to War

Gladys Goes to War










Gladys Goes to War

Glyn Harper

Jenny Cooper

Picture Puffin, 2016

32pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99


Auckland, New Zealand in the very early 20th century when girls were still supposed to be seen and not heard, despite having had voting rights since 1893 – still very much an English colonial mentality where they busied themselves with music, needlework and other “feminine” tasks.  However, unlike her sisters, Gladys was not good at such things, preferring instead to spend her time under the bonnet of her brothers’ cars and those of their friends.  

“No one will want to marry a mechanic” her mother told her, echoing the feelings and the culture of the times.  But her mother was wrong and in 1912 she met and married William Henning who taught her to drive and then set up a car sales business in Auckland. Being competent and comfortable in this “men’s world” meant that it was no surprise that when her husband and brothers enlisted when World War I broke out that Gladys wanted to go too.  But her efforts were met with the typical chauvinistic response of the times …”If you want to help the war effort, you should stay at home and knit socks and balaclavas.”

But they had underestimated Gladys’s determination and in 1916 with the assistance of the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood she was reunited with her husband in Egypt becoming an ambulance driver, and when he was sent to France she went to England.  But again male-dominated bureaucracy determined her place was in the hospital scrubbing floors not driving ambulances.  Until one evening, there was a shortage of drivers…

This is the story of just one of the many women who played an active part in World War I as doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and so much more, rather than being the stereotype wife/mother/ sister/ daughter who ‘kept the home fires burning’.  Despite their important contribution throughout history, so many women have been written out of it and when a request through a local network for a book for younger readers about World War I from a female perspective there was a paucity of replies.  Yet there are so many stories that could be told from both New Zealand and Australia.

Gladys was a pioneer in so many fields – in 1927, having survived both the war and Spanish flu, she and her friend Stella Christie became the first women to transverse Australia east to west and north to south in a car – and so bringing her wartime service to light is just the beginning of the stories that could be told about this remarkable woman.  But as well as her personal chronicle, this could be a springboard for having students investigate and retell the stories of other women whose contributions have been overshadowed by those of their male counterparts.  Searching the Australian War Memorial’s site for “women in war” is a good starting point.

But even if Gladys’s story is just shared as a standalone, it is a sound representation of #nevertheless,shepersisted 














Mike Dumbleton

Robin Cowcher

Allen & Unwin, 2018

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


A century ago.  Young Australian men were volunteering to got and join the forces fighting in World War I, seeing it as the greatest adventure of their lives and a way to escape the humdrum and hard times of home.  When James left, Annie stitched the name ‘Digger” on her favourite patchwork toy kangaroo and gave it to him as his farewell present. 

“A Digger for a digger”, she said.

Off went James and Digger  together, across endless, tireless seas and vast starry night skies to the battlefields and trenches of France.  And when the order came to advance, Digger was in James’s pocket.  He was there too, when James was evacuated to a French farmhouse to recover from his injuries, and Digger was mended too, this time by Colette who carefully replaced all his broken stitches. And he was still there when James was well enough to return to his unit.  He is even there when the worst happens… 

Inspired by and written as a tribute to the French schoolchildren who once tended the graves of Australian soldiers who died on the Western Front in the heroic battle for Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918, this is a touching story gently told and illustrated that brings the human side of war to life as well as commemorating the connections made that still live on

As the final centennial commemorations of this terrible time draw to a close, this is a special book to share as it demonstrates how the thinnest threads can connect us through the toughest time, and love and harmony and safe haven can grow from the smallest things.

A superb addition for Remembering Gallipoli

Every story has a hero

Every story has a hero

Oma’s Buttons

Oma's Buttons

Oma’s Buttons









Oma’s Buttons

Tania Ingram

Jennifer Harrison

Penguin Viking, 2018

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


Ruthie loved going to visit her Oma and doing all the wonderful things that grandmothers and their grandchildren do together – baking, singing, playing … One day she discovers a small tin under Oma’s bed – a small tin which holds BIG memories!  For in it were lots of buttons, each one representing a special person in Oma’s life.

And so Ruthie learns about the people who had passed through Oma’s life, each one special and significant like the red button that was from her mother’s apron because she loved to bake; the little wooden button from her father who taught her how to be brave; the blue button from the suit Opa was wearing on the day he proposed…   Even Ruthie is in there through the green button off her first dress. 

Fascinated she listens to all the stories , until she finds a beautiful button at the bottom of the tin – from Oma’s favourite coat and so Ruthie asks if she can have it to remind her of Oma.  That button goes with her everywhere that day, even to the park where it slips through a hole in the pocket in her jacket and is lost forever.  Ruthie is devastated but then Oma shows her the best memory button in the world…

This is a most beautiful book dedicated to the author’s mother-in-law who  was born in a displaced persons camp in Kematen, after her family had to flee the occupation in WWII and whose early experience as a refugee gave her an appreciation of family traditions and holding onto the memories of those we love.  Her button tin inspired the story and the love between her mother-in-law and her daughter shines through on every page as the story and memories of each button is shared and celebrated, clearly based on real events.   

Jennifer Harrison’s stunning illustrations are so photograph-like that each person comes to life so the reader not only feels they know them better but is also transported back to memories of their own special people – a grandmother who made porridge and served it with brown sugar as the familiar fanfare heralded the 8.00am news and taught me to make the traditional Kiwi favourites like pavlova; a grandfather who walked miles with us over the beaches and rocks of one of the southernmost towns in the world and who taught me to love the eternal, restless sea; a father returned from being a POW in World War II determined his kids would be brought up in peace and who taught me to look for the silver lining in everyone; a mother who insisted on keeping her hard-fought for career and who taught me to follow my dreams

Sadly, all are gone now as is my Nanna’s button tin, lost in international moves and the passing decades – but the memories are rich and alive. 

Tania Ingram and Jennifer Harrison have written an important book that will encourage reminiscing, perhaps even an investigation into why families are who they are for we all belong to someone, somewhere and we are all loved.  One to be treasured as much as the buttons.














(Through My Eyes-Natural Disasters  series)

Fleur Beale

A & U Childrens, 2018

208pp., pbk., RRP $A 16.99


DISCLAIMER: This will be neither an impartial nor an unemotional review. For one who called Christchurch home for many years, particularly those formative years of my schooling and teacher education, and for whom so much that was so familiar is now gone, it is impossible to be objective when the places and events are so well-known.  Although I was not there during the earthquake I have made trips back and I still can’t get my head around it.

February 22, 2011 and life has returned to normal for Lyla and her friends Katie and Shona after the 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck – that’s if having the earth move under your feet several times a day and making a game of guessing the magnitude can be considered normal. Even the daily reminder of the main block of their school, Avonside Girls’ High, being damaged and unusable has been set aside as they try to do the things that 13 and 14 year olds students do. Caught in town at 12.51pm when ‘the big one’ hit, their lives are plunged into chaos as buildings collapse and  people panic as the air fills with dust making visibility almost impossible.

While it is possible to watch endless news coverage, read articles and information it is impossible to know what a natural disaster such as this is really like unless you are part of it and experience it for yourself.  So while I had watched and read and listened and learned, spoken to family and friends who were in the thick of it and even returned home and visited the backyard of such a major part of my life, it was not until reading Lyla that I got a real understanding of what it was to be in the moment.  Beale has drawn on stories of the events of the day and the months following and woven them into a narrative that is both scary and un-put-downable that illustrates not just individual heroism but that sense of community among strangers that seems to emerge when humans are put under such duress – made all the more haunting when you can picture the reality of the setting which is a well-known as the face in the mirror.

In the beginning, there is the fear for family and friends as both Lyla’s mother, a police officer and her father, a trauma nurse at Christchurch Hospital are unaccounted for and she is separated from Shona and Katie in the chaos as the SMS service goes into meltdown, and while they are eventually found to be OK that need to know family is safe means that all families have an earthquake plan much the same as Australians have a bushfire plan. The theme of needing to be with others is strong throughout as neighbours have a need to eat and sleep and be together even if they have a habitable home to go to, and enduring and unusual friendships and bonds are formed.   

There is also a strong thread of Lyla feeling powerless because of her age but finding things she can do that make a difference such as babysitting her neighbour’s children so their mother can return to the medical centre where she works; helping shovel the oozing, stinking liquefaction for elderly neighbours; setting up a charging station for those still without electricity… seemingly minor things within the big picture but nevertheless critical to her mental health at the time.

But like so many then and now, the situation becomes overwhelming. Despite hearing the harrowing tales of others and the rising death toll, and the news of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and telling herself that compared to them she is in great shape, Lyla succumbs and needs qualified medical intervention.  This is another strength of the story – given that seven years on the city still has not recovered it was never going to have a happy, all-is-fine ending, so having Lyla denying help because the common thinking is that the people of Christchurch are somehow more resilient than others, that because her home isn’t munted she should be okay, but nevertheless accepting it and going some way towards recovery shines a light on the okay-ness of needing assistance to get things back in balance.  This particularly poignant in light of the subsequent increase in suicides, unprecedented demand for psychological help and the continuing need for support as there has been a 73% increase in the number of children who need support for mental health issues in Christchurch.

While this has been an emotional read for me, it and the others in both this series and its twin focusing on children living in conflict are essential elements of both the curriculum and the collection as they offer the ‘colour and detail’ to the stark monochrome sketches of news reports, websites and other information-only sources.  They are the blend of imagination and information that such fiction can offer that leads to insight and understanding.  

Seven years on, long after the event has disappeared from the news headlines and faded from the memories of those not directly involved,  the reality of that time is still in-your-face on every corner of Christchurch and will be for many years to come – Lyla and her friends will be 20 now, confronted by images and memories of that day still, just as anyone who has lived and loved Christchurch is.  For now Ruaumoko, the Maori god of earthquakes has settled a little (even though there were 25 quakes in the week preceding the anniversary, albeit peanuts compared to the 15669 on that day in 2011) but like her friends, family and all those who chose to remain in Christchurch to rebuild their lives and their city one wonders when he will wake again.

185 empty white chairs

185 empty white chairs surrounded by empty spaces, broken buildings and a gloomy sky – September 2015



Shout Out to the Girls: A Celebration of Awesome Australian Women

Shout Out to the Girls: A Celebration of Awesome Australian Women

Shout Out to the Girls: A Celebration of Awesome Australian Women











Shout Out to the Girls: A Celebration of Awesome Australian Women

Random House Australia, 2018

210pp., hbk., RRP  $A29.99


In recent reviews such as Barney and the Secret of the French Spies,  Women in Science and Three Cheers for Women I have challenged readers to consider a woman whose story, they believe, needs telling.  The problem is that when it comes to uncovering these stories few have been revealed and so it is those of the “usual suspects” that are told and retold.  

But now, this new publication from Random House Australia opens a whole new range of women whose lives and work need to be given “a public expression of thanks”.  Although we find people like Cathy Freeman, Germaine Greer and Mary Mackillop featured, there are dozens of new names like Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Rachel Perkins, and Felicity Wishart whose names might only be known to those in that particular field of endeavour. There are also those of more recent heroes like Sia, Carrie Bickmore and Turia Pitt making this an exploration of significant women in our girls’ lives, not just women in history with whom they may feel no connection. 

All in all over 50 women have a brief one-page biography accompanied by an illustration from a range of illustrators. However, the book also acknowledges all those who have made a contribution to the field, not just the “poster person” for it.  For example, while Magda Szubanski is celebrated for “helping us laugh and speaking the truth”, there is a shout out “Brava for the women who make their own roles on stage, on screen and in life”; Rosie Batty for “her compassion and bravery” but also to “the courageous and strong women who speak out for the vulnerable”; and Mum Shirl for “unwavering dedication and generosity” as well as thanks to all “the advocates and activists who give so much of themselves to help others in need”. There is a feeling of inclusivity that we are drawn into as though someone, somewhere is acknowledging that which we do as we go about our daily lives.

There is even a shout-out to the reader for picking up the book wanting to learn about awesome Australian women while the very last entry is a shout-out to the Smith Family to whom all royalties will be donated so they can continue helping Australian kids get the most from their education.

From the front cover depicting a range of Australian native flowers because like Australian women, its flowers “aren’t wilting violets; they are strong and tough, and have evolved to endure extreme environments” this is an intriguing book in its design and content that must be in every library’s collection if we are to continue to reveal and tell the stories of our women and how they have contributed so much to the life that we enjoy today, holding up mirrors, staring through windows, marching through doors and breaking down barriers.  

Again I ask, “Whose story will you tell?”

Barney and the Secret of the French Spies

Barney and the Secret of the French Spies

Barney and the Secret of the French Spies









Barney and the Secret of the French Spies

Jackie French

HarperCollins, 2018 

128pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99


Barney first met the mysterious Elsie hiding under a rock and, like him, eking out an existence on the shores of Port Jackson in 1791 where he was an orphaned child, son of a convict and with no one and nowhere to call home.  Like Barney, she was eventually taken under the wing of the Reverend and Mrs Johnson but she remained an enigma for she never spoke.  On one or two very rare occasions, Barney did hear her utter something but it was so fleeting he thought he was hearing things. 

Now, in this 4th in this series that features Barney telling of his life while uncovering some of the secrets of this country’s early beginnings, Elsie’s story is told at last.  While Barney is beginning to prosper on his farm on the Parramatta River, Elsie has stayed in Sydney Town with the Johnsons and become a sought-after cook by the colony’s elite like Mrs Macarthur. But when word comes that she is desperately ill, perhaps with typhus, Barney hastens to her side in the isolation hut at the hospital and while she doesn’t have typhus it soon becomes clear why she has been put in isolation.  For in her delirium she cries out and while to Barney’s ear she is speaking gobbledygook, both Mrs Johnson and Mrs Macarthur recognise it as French!  They also recognise the dire consequences if Elsie’s nationality is discovered for once again, England and France are at war.

Acknowledging his  enduring love for Elsie and his intention to marry her, Barney stays by her side as she recuperates, encouraged by both women for they believe that he is the only one one that Elsie is likely to divulge her secrets to.  And what a secret it is….

The very best historical fiction weaves fact and fiction so closely together that the reader is left not only wondering what is true and what is imagined, but also wanting to discover more.  And so it is again with Jackie French’s masterful storytelling only this time the secret that Elsie discloses opens up so many pathways to wander down and explore that it is almost overwhelming.  Traditionally history has been told by men because only men were listened to and only the things men did were deemed important and so women and their achievements have been all but invisible. 

But they were there – often in disguise as Elsie’s great-aunt was – and making their mark in life if not in the history books! In the prologue the reader is warned that there are two secrets in this book – not just the story of Elsie but another one “every person needs to yell out loud” – the stories of the women in history that have been kept secret for centuries and generations; secrets that are slowly being uncovered and secrets that will never be discovered.   For it is only in this generation of women alive now that so many barriers have been battered down – even my own mother was expected to give up her hard-fought for job in journalism so a man returning from war could have employment –  that we can learn about the role of the women in our past and acknowledge and celebrate it. Through Elsie’s story and her author’s notes, Jackie not only builds awareness that the role of women goes far beyond anything we can imagine but also challenges us to expose it!

Whose secret will you share?

Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus

Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus

Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus










Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus

Stephanie Owen Reeder

NLA Publishing

136pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99


What better way to share Australia Day than a look back to a significant part of our past when travelling circuses were a major source of entertainment, particularly in rural areas, and that of the Wirth Brothers was one of the most well known.  

Focusing on May Wirth, who as a seven-year-old growing up in poverty in Bundaberg in 1901, was given away to Marizles  Martin an equestrienne and a sister of the Wirth brothers. With big dreams and a desire to become the greatest bareback rider in the world, she transformed her ability for acrobatics into being able to perform them on horseback, even able to perform a Charleston as her horse moved around the ring!  Determined, resilient and tenacious she worked hard for perfection eventually performing for King George V and Queen Mary.  The Queen of the Circus was performing for the Kings and Queen of England.  Her dreams had come true!

Laced with photos and posters from the collection of the National Library of Australia, this new addition to the author’s Heritage Heroes series follows Miss May’s journey and introduces the reader to characters and times gone by which were so important to the shaping of this nation.  At a time when most young women were not encouraged to be more than a decorative appendage to men, May was a role model for an alternative lifestyle and she was a champion of women’s rights and suffrage and in 1964 she was one of just three Australians to ever be inducted into the American Circus Hall of Fame.

In 2016 Lennie the Legend: Solo to Sydney by Pony  won the CBCA Eve Pownall Award for Information Books, and my prediction is that Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus will be amongst the awards this year.  But whether it is or not, this is an inspirational read that celebrates an Australian of the past, a heroine unknown to many in an entertainment unfamiliar to many in this age of screens, that adds yet another layer to this country’s history. 

For those wanting more…Wirth’s Circus Home Movies , Wirth’s Circus Archive, May Wirth  and of course, the collection at the National Library of Australia detailed in the acknowledgements.

100 scientists who made history

100 scientists who made history

100 scientists who made history










100 scientists who made history

Andrea Mills & Stella Caldwell

DK, 2018

128pp., hbk., RRP $A29.99


Throughout history there have been so many perceptive pioneers, brilliant biologists, medical masterminds, clever chemists, phenomenal physicists, incredible innovators and other scientific superstars who have challenged the known to change our lives that to choose just 100 of them must have been a taxing task. 

Nevertheless, in this brand new release from DK, the achievements of people as diverse as Aristotle, Alexander Fleming, Louis Pasteur, Ernest Rutherford, Alan Turing and Edwin Hubble are all described in typical DK format with it characteristic layout, top-quality photography, bite-sized information and accessible language.  But there is so much (and so many more). Although not being of a scientific bent, while many of the names of those in the clear contents pages were familiar, there were as many that were not, and sadly many of those not were women.

But the authors have included many women in the lists – who knew that Hildegard of Bingen, aka the singing nun, born in 1098 could have had such an impact on medical treatments through her study of and writing about the medicinal uses of plants?  Or that of five of those credited with having such an influence on the development of computing, three were women? Or that Mary Somerville correctly predicted the existence of the planet Neptune in the early 19th century and that there were many 19th century astronomers who were female?

This is a wonderful book for everyone – not only because it will introduce a new generation to those who discovered so much of what we take for granted today – they didn’t make history because they became famous, they made the history we look back on so we can move forward-  but also to inspire – “If them, why not me?”  Challenge your students to find another scientist who could have been included and have them develop a page for them using the DK format as a model.

I know a budding scientist who needs this book!