Supersquirrel and the Crazy Rain Maker

Supersquirrel and the Crazy Rain Maker

Supersquirrel and the Crazy Rain Maker












Supersquirrel and the Crazy Rain Maker

Russell Punter

Josh Cleland

Usborne, 2024

80pp., pbk., RRP $A12.99


The Animal Action Squad is a top secret organisation of superheroes dedicated to fighting crime, and Supersquirrel is one of its operatives.  With her undercover occupation as a taxi driver, and her superpowers including being able to fly extremely quickly, x-ray vision and superhearing, she has to outwit the fiendish criminal mastermind Dr Drizzle and his sidekick Rocky who have stolen a top secret formula meaning danger if it gets in the wrong hands.

But she can’t do it alone – she needs the reader’s help, and this is what sets this remarkable little book aside from so many.  Part stepping-stone novel, part graphic novel, it is packed full of puzzles and clues that the reader needs to solve, making it as interactive as a print text can be.  Being directly involved as a character means the reader has to engage with the story, the text and its illustrations rather than a skim-read-what’s next book.  It can be read alone or shared as participants stop to consider what they have learned from a particular excerpt and how it fits into the overall scheme of things, encouraging deeper thinking, reflection and synthesising information. Although it doesn’t require making decisions to determine the path of the story, it could lead to an interest in the choose-your-own-adventure genre. 

A peek inside...

A peek inside…

This is the first in this series that I predict will become a must-have as it reaches out to newly independent readers, including those who are beginning to think that reading doesn’t really hold much for them.  So much more fun than pressing or tapping buttons just to accumulate a high score.  

Dragons of Hallow (series)

Dragons of Hallow (series)

Dragons of Hallow (series)











Dragons of Hallow (series)





A & U Children’s, 2024

352pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99

The first in this series begins… There are Three Great Secrets in Hallow, a country that loves secrets almost as much as it loves green jellybabies. No, I’m not going to tell you anything more about them. I am a loyal citizen of Hallow, and would never betray—
Oh, you have jellybabies?
Green ones?
Well, I suppose I could tell you a little more.
Come closer. Open your ears and your heart, and pass the green jellybabies.
I will tell you a story about an enormous magical pup, a child Queen and a very small minch-wiggin with the unfortunate title of Destroyer-of-Dragons…

And continues with a tale of “falsehoods, fortitude and friendship” about how a minch-wiggin, a Queen, and a rather large magical pup need to find the dragon that has turned their worlds upside-down-even if it means revealing all they want to keep hidden…

Two years later in Fledgewitch, life has moved on and Queen Rose is now twelve, and ruling Hallow with the Regent, Uncle Edwin and this story centres on ten-year-old Brim taken by Count Zaccar and Countess Xantha  to the School for the Prevention of Witches  because are the three Laws of Quill, carved in stone outside every town hall, and learnt by every schoolchild:
There shall be No Witches.
There shall be No Dragons.
There shall be NO SECRETS.

But Brim, despite having feathers sprouting from her elbows, and being the only one who can remember Snort, the Horned Glob, doesn’t believe she is a witch, one to be feared and outcast because of their dangerous, evil ways.

And so the story unfolds in a tale deeply rooted with themes of family, faith, loyalty and courage with engaging characters who display all those traits that we expect as they are pitted against dastardly, devious villains.  With its length, its seemingly unrelated stories  as well as the twists and turns in the plot, and the opportunity to put clues together if they are picked up, this is a series for fantasy-loving independent readers looking for something to sustain them over long winter nights, best read in order and best to read the first to establish the characters and their history and relationships – although these may not be what they seem.  

For those who want to know more about the author and how the series came to life, read this Q&A



Mawson in Antarctica: To the Ends of the Earth

Mawson in Antarctica: To the Ends of the Earth

Mawson in Antarctica: To the Ends of the Earth











Mawson in Antarctica: To the Ends of the Earth

Joanna Grochowicz

A & U Children’s, 2024

272pp., pbk., RRP $A19.99


Sir Douglas Mawson. His face is on the $A100 note; he has streets, suburbs and places named after him scattered across the country; and  the longest continuously operating station south of the Antarctic Circle bears his name.

So who is he and what did he do to deserve these honours? 

To learn that we need to go back to winter in Antarctica in 1912, just months after Amundsen and Scott have reached the South Pole, and a young Australian driven by his passion to contribute to scientific knowledge leads the Australian Antarctic Expedition intent on establishing research bases on the continent and sub-Antarctic islands to explore and chart the east Antarctic coastline  and learn from it.  As disaster befalls his team and gradually they perish, Mawson finds himself alone but is so determined to take both data and specimens back to base that he struggles on alone for 30 days, arriving just a few hours after the ship sent to retrieve the party had left..

Mawson’s remarkable tale of determination, endurance and resilience is retold in this absorbing narrative non fiction, the latest addition to this series which includes the journeys of Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton . Using a range of primary and secondary sources, its polar historian author tells the stories of these early pioneers of Antarctic exploration in a way that brings them to life, with all their foibles and faults as well as courage and tenacity, engaging the reader in a way that facts and figures, bare statements and grainy photographs can’t.  

And for those for whom a 272page book might be a bit daunting, there is also Douglas Mawson in the brilliant Meet… series, so an  opportunity for all to know a little about this remarkable real here. 

My own connections to the Antarctic were outlined in my review of Into the White – Scott’s Antarctic Odyssey but these are stories of real-life heroes that don’t require that sort of legacy to inspire their reading – these are for any independent reader of any age who enjoys true stories of doing the seemingly impossible, particularly in times when it is the human endeavour rather than the technological wizardry that determine success or otherwise.  Who knows – introducing a young person to this series just might be the trigger for a lifetime.

The Secret Doorway

The Secret Doorway

The Secret Doorway











The Secret Doorway

Catherine Sheridan

Little Steps, 2023

236pp., pbk., RRP $A18.95


Anna and her brother Peter are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, leaving their home in Australia for a holiday in Ireland. Just before they leave, Anna has a dream about black birds, a huge, gnarly tree and an old key, and being in danger. But despite having special gifts of seeing and feeling things that others cannot, Anna has no idea that what she dreamed may become reality.

Their holiday home backs onto a forest, and having met up with some local kids and enjoying camping in the backyard, when a peculiar fog lit by strange lights roll in,  they can’t resist investigating and find themselves in a world of magical folk and mysterious happenings.  But getting back to their home isn’t as simple as finding the fence and climbing over it… 

The subtitle of this book – the first in a series – is “Four  go on an Adventure” and for those of us of a certain vintage it immediately stirs images of the much-loved stories by Enid Blyton and certainly the connections continue as the story unfolds and the children find themselves in an enchanted forest having to help those who live there but facing situations that have to be confronted and solved.  While there are many portal stories for young independent readers to choose, this is one that is a safe, gentle escape, perhaps the next step on from The Magic Faraway Tree series that they can now read for themselves; maybe  even a gateway to those series about The Adventurous FourThe Famous Five, and The Secret Seven connecting them not only to the stories of a bygone era that sparked daydreams but also to their older relatives who may have enjoyed them just as much.  

The Bother with the Bonkillyknock Beast

The Bother with the Bonkillyknock Beast

The Bother with the Bonkillyknock Beast











Miss Mary-Kate Martin’s Guide to Monsters (series)

The Bother with the Bonkillyknock Beast

Karen Foxlee

Freda Chiu

Allen & Unwin, 2024

288pp., pbk., RRP $A15.99


Although a rather anxious child who prefers  to make lists so she can plan and manage her life because she doesn’t cope with change well, nevertheless Mary-Kate Martin has left the sanctuary of her grandmother’s home to travel the world with her mother whose life is spent on mystery-solving adventures such as why the Woolington Wyrm was causing such destruction in a quiet English village, and an equally strange creature was bothering Galinios, an idyllic Greek Island. 

In this third episode of this series for young independent readers, Mary-Kate and her granny are going to stay at a very quiet castle near a very quiet Loch in the Scottish village of Bonkillyknock. The perfect destination for reading beside fireplaces, going for long walks in galoshes and drinking cups of tea with Granny’s old friends. At least, that’s what Mary-Kate thinks.

However, this is no ordinary reunion – it’s a World Society of Monster Hunters’ conference. So, when an ear-shattering howl interrupts the convention, Mary-Kate isn’t too anxious. After all, the experts are on hand to investigate.

But when the castle kitchen is turned upside-down and the experts suspect the usually secretive Loch Morgavie monster, Mary-Kate isn’t sure the clues add up. Could there be some other kind of beastly problem bothering Bonkillyknock Castle?  Miss Mary-Kate Martin might only be a beginner, but she’s determined to get to the end of this monstrous mystery.

The first one in this series had me hooked with its setting in an olde English village, and so one set in a Scottish castle with its promise of a wild wintery landscape and warm comfort inside also had lots of appeal!  After all, there is a reason I live where I do.  And, like its predecessors, it is an absorbing read, even for one who is not a fantasy fan. As well as its appealing setting that just cries out for something out of the ordinary to happen, engaging characters and fast-paced action keep the reader turning the pages as they watch Mary-Kate develop from being that over-anxious child to one who is confident and more self-assured. And again, the beast is firmly grounded in local mythology – this time, the legendary highland fairy hounds known as the cù-sith (coo-shee) – perhaps sparking an interest in local legends.  What might Mary-Kate, her mother and granny encounter if they met an Australian bunyip or yowie? Perhaps, after researching them, they could suggest a plot outline for Karen Foxlee for the next episode, or maybe bring it to life in drawings as Freda Chiu has with the other monsters in the endpages of the story.  Or maybe just investigate the legendary creatures, totems and other emblems of the local First Nations peoples… 

So, as well as a captivating read, there is potential for so much more…

Losing the Plot

Losing the Plot

Losing the Plot












Losing the Plot

Annaleise Byrd

Walker Books, 2024

144pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99


Imagine if you preferred to be playing any sport in the world on a Saturday afternoon instead of having to stop indoors to practise your reading.  Especially with a kid you have nothing in common with.  Or, on the other hand, you enjoy reading but you’ve been assigned the task of helping someone with theirs, someone with whom you have nothing in common and who wants to be anywhere else instead. 

And then, suddenly, one of the characters leaps from the pages of the book and you are dragged into it and a wild adventure….

That’s the situation for Basil Beedon and Terry Clegg, who are neighbours but the street they live in is the only thing they have in common.  But since Basil’s dad and Terry’s nan got talking and it transpires that Terry will be kicked off the football team if his schoolwork doesn’t improve. Basil has been assigned to helping him with his reading. Every. Single. Saturday. 

Because boys of that age who don’t like reading prefer a bit of action and gore, Basil chooses some of the original versions of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, but neither is prepared for what happens.  As they begin to read The Complete Fairytales of the Brothers Grimm  Gretel comes shooting out of the story in tears because her brother Hansel is lost and she needs their help.  So the boys are plunged into a dangerous world run by the Fairytale Alliance Network of Character Yunions (FANCY), where not everyone is what they seem, Hansel has been kidnapped and a plot hole threatens to destroy everything.

With its setting far from the saccharine depictions of early childhood picture book version of the fairytale, familiar characters yet very different from the expected, fast action, clever use of words , particularly acronyms, and a myriad of twists and turns in the plot, this is the first in a series that will capture not only Basil and Terry but other newly independent readers as they not only discover a different world of fairytales beyond those presented by Disney (not so long ago I met a bookseller who did not know that there was a version of Cinderella before Disney!) but also that there is a wide range of these tales to read and explore, well beyond the most familiar.  It is a story that opens up the familiar in an unfamiliar way, draws on the need for trust and compromise as friendships, relationships and alliances are built between unlikely companions, and celebrates the magic that reading, in itself, can offer.  One that not only works with this year’s CBCA Book Week theme but also that of 2021 – Old Worlds, New Worlds, Other Worlds.  

(And while they wait for the next episode, readers might like to explore Pages & Co or Temora and the Wordsnatcher.)

Shower Land (series)

Shower Land (series)

Shower Land (series)









Shower Land (series)

Break the Curse 


Feel the Freeze


Nat Amoore

James Hart

Puffin, 2024

208pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99

Monday morning and it’s time to get up but bed is a much warmer option.  But Dad is threatening all sorts of dire consequences if you don’t, and your little brother is cracking silly jokes so you hurry into the shower, turn it on and BAM!   Suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a field, naked, and an army of soldiers is heading towards you.  Or, having had that experience, you resist having a shower until you really smell, and this time you find yourself knee-deep in snow on the side of a mountain in your swimmers!!

Such is the life of 10-year-old Felix in this new series for young independent readers.  

Not since the infamous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho  has taking a shower been so precarious because you never know where you might end up as it acts as a portal to other places.  Luckily though for Felix, while he finds himself in unfamiliar settings and times and his first priority is to find some clothes, he is able to find some friendly faces who are willing to help him find his way back home but not before he encounters characters with problems much more confronting than his own and for whom he is able to draw on his own family experiences to help solve, not only assisting them but learning more about himself and people generally, at the same time. 

This is a fast-paced series, with appealing, humorous illustrations and formatting to support the newly independent reader, that uses the portal trope to transport both the hero and the reader out of the everyday into worlds where anything can live and anything can happen – just the kind of escapism that is needed at times. Young lads will see themselves as Felix, others will relate to the single-dad scenario, there is the more serious underlying message of self-discovery that adds substance, and it is just the right length for a quick read that carries you along wanting to find out what happens to whom.

And with the promise of a third, Walk the Plank, in September, readers will have something to look forward to. 


Billy And The Epic Escape

Billy And The Epic Escape

Billy And The Epic Escape











Billy And The Epic Escape

Jamie Oliver

Puffin, 2024

416pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99


Billy and his best friends Anna, Jimmy and Andy are looking forward to a summer exploring Waterfall Woods, discovering more about the magical creatures who live there and the Rhythm of nature, the beat that keeps nature in harmony and keeps their world, and ours, in balance.

Then the woods come under attack from a mysterious red lady, forcing the sprites and brothers Wilfred and BiIfred into hiding, and the gang rush to the rescue! But what does the red lady really want? Could she be connected to Bilfred’s disappearance all those years ago? And, if so, how is it possible she looks exactly the same decades later. . .

Can Billy and his friends uncover the truth and stop the red lady’s plans, before the Rhythm is put in danger once again?

The sequel to Billy and the Great Adventure, this is an adventure fantasy, a genre popular with many young readers as they see themselves in the role of the hero conquering evil and saving their family, friends and even the world.  But what I love most about the series is that author Jamie Oliver has been deeply involved in its production using his own childhood experiences of having difficulty processing text and so it is formatted to be accessible to those with dyslexia as he is.  The print edition is in a sans serif font while the audio version has state-of-the-art sound effects, multiple voices including narration by the author so that the characters and situations are brought to life in “a fully immersive experience”. But apart from those physical concessions, at its heart this is an engaging, entertaining tale for all readers who enjoy these sorts of adventures. 

How children learn to read has been the subject of research and pedagogical debate for decades – in fact, a century when one considers the breakthrough works of Sylvia Ashton Warner – and clearly, if there were one approach that was the silver bullet for all children, it would have been identified by now.  But as factions and their fads wax and wane, there are kids who fall through the cracks as the favoured method does not meet their needs, and so there are many who get to be 8,9, and 10 for whom reading is a chore, who see and label themselves as failures already, and for whom the school experience becomes a negative to be endured with all the implications of that  Thus, any book that identifies and then caters to the needs of these children gets a big thumbs-up from me.  To add to the positivity, is the fact that the author is celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and it is so easy to find stuff by and about him that he can be held as a role model for these students with their fragile self-esteem.  Not only has he made a successful, high-profile career from cookery but even with his reading difficulties he has written two books – so if he can do that, what can they do?

They can start by enjoying an action-packed adventure that carries them along at a fast clip and enables them to join in discussions with their friends so they too can be part of something they felt excluded from.  And having achieved that success, who knows…. 

Jonty’s Unicorn

Jonty's Unicorn

Jonty’s Unicorn











Jonty’s Unicorn

Rebecca Fraser

ifwg Publishing, 2024

140pp., pbk., RRP $A22.99


In the quiet hamlet of Blaxby in the Kingdom of Irrawene, twelve-year-old Jonty Fairskye’s mother is gravely ill. A tonic from Dagatha, the fearsome witch who dwells in the dark heart of the Terrenwild Woods may be her only hope, but everyone knows Dagatha’s cures cost dearly — both in gold and regret.

Determined to save her mother, Jonty resolves to enter the King’s Annual Horse Race on her beloved horse, Onyx. The prize, a pouch of gold — more than enough to pay Dagatha. When Jonty discovers Rose, an injured unicorn, during a woodland training session, she is wonderstruck. There hasn’t been a unicorn sighting in Irrawene for over a century. Jonty smuggles Rose back to the safety of her barn to recover.

As the great horse race draws closer, disaster strikes and Jonty is forced to make a decision that will impact the lives of everyone she loves. Danger and betrayal lurk around every corner, and Jonty will learn that the true meaning of kindness and bravery comes down to how much you’re willing to sacrifice.

If ever there were a stereotypical entry into the world of fantasy for young readers, then this would be it. From setting to situation to characters to plot, it has all the hallmarks of what you expect from this genre for this age group from the ailing parent and the young child down to their last pennies; the possibility of a cure from the wicked witch who lives deep in the forest but at a cost too much to pay; the possibility of winning the money; the child ready to save the parent whatever it takes;  the disaster, the disappointment, the redemption – and of course, a magical unicorn.  But this is not a bad thing for the newly independent reader because it confirms and brings to life all those mind-pictures that they have formed already from listening to such stories and seeing illustrations in picture books.  Beautifully descriptive, here, in words alone, are all the things that have been imagined and now they can read them for themselves and solidify that platform they have built, perhaps even extending their reading by seeking others in the same genre.  

It also has the classic plot structure of a novel for younger readers with problems, possible solutions, complications and suspense to the final resolution making it an ideal way to introduce this longer format and the value in persevering rather than expecting the story to be done and dusted in one sitting like a picture book or television episode, while the underlying perennial message of being resilient and standing up for what is right is also strong as it carries the story along

Perhaps a little more expensive than other paperbacks, nevertheless its value as a mentor text for examining the tropes of this genre, the construction of a plot, and descriptive language that would enable even the lousiest artist like me to construct a mental or physical image of the setting and the characters, and its potential to extend the readers interest to find similar stories,  make it a worthwhile investment. 

Wurrtoo: The Wombat Who Fell in Love with the Sky

Wurrtoo: The Wombat Who Fell in Love with the Sky

Wurrtoo: The Wombat Who Fell in Love with the Sky











Wurrtoo: The Wombat Who Fell in Love with the Sky

Tylissa Elisara

Dylan Finney

Lothian, 2024

185pp., hbk., RRP $A19.99


In the fifty-fifth burrow of Bushland Avenue in a beautiful clearing on Kangaroo Island where the arching gum trees kiss, is the home of Wurtoo, the hariy-nosed wombat. His is the one at the end with the big red trapdoor and large gold doorknob and a myriad of tunnels because he loves to extend it, so much so that it can take awhile for him to get to his front door. It even has a library where he has just four books that he cherishes – a book of fairytales that has taught him all about love; a plant encyclopedia that told him where to find his favourite muntrie berries and wattleseeds;  a cookbook which helps him make them into something delicious, and a fourth, his favourite, which had stories as old as time and in particular, a map of a most sacred place, the Forest of Dreaming. And it fuelled his dream to follow the map across the water to the mainland, climb the ancient tree to the heavens, and marry the love of his life, the sky.

But first, he needs to find the courage because right now, he can barely leave the burrow without his nerves getting the better of him, because having led such a solitary life, the thought of meeting other creatures terrified him. And so , despite being nocturnal by nature, he chooses to go out in the daytime so he can be unseen, and each day he makes a pilgrimage to the lighthouse for a picnic.Little does he know, that on this particular day his life will change forever because he inadvertently saves Kuula the koala from a bushfire, and acquires the adventure companion he didn’t know he needed.

With Kuula by his side, Wurrtoo finds the courage to leave the safety of his burrow and sets out on an epic journey to cross the island, reach the mainland and climb to the top of tallest tree in the Forest of Dreaming. But it’s fire season, and danger and strange creatures lurk behind every gum tree. To make it, the pair must face their fears together, learn the importance of friendship and discover the power of wombat wishes.

Described as an “Indigenous Blinky Bill meets Winnie the Pooh”, this heartwarming and beautifully illustrated novel for independent readers by the 2021 black&write! fellow Tylissa Elisara, and it is worth reading for the power of the descriptions of the landscape alone.  Immediately, the reader is transported into Wurtoo’s world, akin to Tolkien’s description of the home of Bilbo Baggins, and relate to his ambitions, desires and fears.  It is one for those readers who love adventures and quests, and with traditional First Nation stories, knowledge, food and culture woven seamlessly into the tale, it becomes one that not only engages and entertains, but helps the non-indigenous reader better understand that incredible connection to Country that exists for those who are.

There is also the underlying universal theme of building trust, facing your fears, accepting those you meet for who they are, so friendships are built on similarities rather than differences, that will speak to many readers, perhaps encouraging them to think that if Wurrtoo can do this, so can they.  

For me, the mark of a story that works, is hearing myself read it aloud to a class of students, and this one is one of those rare ones.  So with teachers’ notes available to enhance and enrich the experience, this is definitely recommended as a read-aloud for Years 3-4.  Something different, inspiring and Australian.