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Leo and Ralph

Leo and Ralph

Leo and Ralph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leo and Ralph

Peter Carnavas

UQP., 2024

276pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99

9780702266218

When Leo starts Kindergarten he find it hard to make friends.  Perhaps it’s because his short legs can’t keep up with the other kids so they leave him behind, or because his words and sentences take a while to come out so they either butt in or walk away before he finishes, but he soon learns that the safest place for him to be is on his own. 

One day, Leo sees a white balloon floating high above him and it sparks an interest in space, an interest that turns into an obsession particularly when the balloon returns, gets stuck in the tree overhanging the house and from it comes a shaggy creature , smaller than he is, with two short horns, long, floppy ears , arms and legs like pointy socks and fur that changes colour.  And so begins the friendship that Leo desperately wanted, and that his parents and teacher felt that he needed.  It didn’t matter to them that Ralph came from one of Jupiter’s moons and that Leo was the only one who could see him- that fact that Leo was happy inventing and playing games with Ralph, much less anxious and so settled was enough.

The friendship continues through Leo’s early school years with the two being inseparable and wisely, Leo’s teachers all accepting his reality.  But financial pressures mean that Leo’s teacher mum has to choose a promotion position in a small country town and that is going to mean leaving Ralph behind.  Indeed, the book begins with a prologue of the poignant parting scene between the two.

So is this farewell to his friend who has made life bearable all this time, does it mean that Leo will slip back into that lonely world he was once trapped in, or…?

This is a gentle, sensitive story that embraces the world of imaginary friends, a world that most adults are not usually invited into, or, if they are, then they are tolerated-just.  Few get to embrace it in the way that those in Leo’s life do, and even fewer are as wise as they are.  

In a recent interview, director and writer of the popular new movie IF, John Krasinski said that as COVID and its consequences took hold, he watched his children slipping into the world of imaginary friends as isolation from their real ones took hold, and he realised that it was a vital part of who they were at the time,  And while he had been thinking of such a theme for some time, now was the time to do it.  And so, with many of our students no doubt seeing the movie, this is the perfect read-aloud to share with them. Perhaps, as children with their own imaginary friends who fulfil a critical space in their lives, they will feel validated as well as hopeful that their story will have a similar ending to Leo’s; and perhaps, as adults, the grown-ups around them will better understand and embrace those who share their child’s life in this way.

 

To and Fro

To and Fro

To and Fro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To and Fro

Anton Clifford-Motopi

A&U Children’s, 2024

304pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99

9781761180378

For twelve years, it has just been Sam, his mum and his Nanna (and Grandad when he was alive) and Sam has been okay with that.  He has survived his mum’s cooking, passion for second-hand things and dreadful driving; he visits his nanna often and copes with her religious beliefs, ornaments on every surface and gallery of photos of dead people on the mantelpiece; he fits in well at his school, has friends although they make fun of his Afro haircut especially Lachlan Bott, manages to rub along with his teacher Mr Peacock whose antics mimic his name and like most in Year 6, is counting down the days till primary school is over.  He has a dog called Trevor who has a haircut similar to his own, and altogether, he is just like everyone else he knows.

He has never met his dad although he knows he was a Black African who apparently left his mother when she was pregnant, and even that is unremarkable these days when family structures are so diverse.  But what he is not ready for is his dad suddenly appearing in his life, and his having to make the decision about whether he will meet him with all the ramifications that that will have. 

Most kids meet their parents when they’re born. All they need to do to impress them is poop, sleep and make goo-goo ga-ga sounds. But I’m twelve. None of that is going to impress my father.

And given that Mr Peacock has set the class a major investigation into “who am I and where do I come from?’ so Sam’s focus is already on his origins, it is a dilemma that only he can decide.  He does go ahead with the meeting but that just sets up more questions than answers – deep-seated questions that will shape his identity – but which provoke a lot of turmoil within and without.  Is he a white kid with a black dad? Or a black kid with white skin? Or half-black and half-white? How can he make his outside match his insides if he doesn’t know who he is?

This is an engaging novel for independent readers, many of whom may find themselves in Sam’s predicament whether the conflict be based on race, culture, religion, gender or something else.  As kids move through puberty, even those in the most “standard” of families, question who they are as they try to find and establish their place as independent individuals in the scheme of things, so it is going to have broad appeal.  Told by Sam himself, and being somewhat akin to the author’s own experience, the reader is drawn into Sam’s confusion from his perspective, rather than that of a narrator imposing their interpretation.  It’s funny, has a certain amount of toilet humour that appeals to the age and gives it authenticity, but more than anything, it is a compelling read that tackles deeper issues than just constructing a family tree because it takes that to the next level of looking at the relationships on it and their impact on the current generation.

While many modern stories for that upper end of primary often feature fantastic creatures, superheroes and good vs evil in some shape or form, my experience is that these readers also love contemporary realistic fiction like this – stories where they see themselves or put them in a position of asking what would they do, giving them an opportunity to work through genuine life issues at arm’s length.  They like being respected as intelligent, thoughtful readers, and through both the characters and the storyline of this one, the author has nailed it.  

The Kindness Project

The Kindness Project

The Kindness Project

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kindness Project

Deborah Abela

Puffin, 2024

338pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99

9781761340185

Nicolette’s favourite time of the day is when she visits her grandmother in “Alcatraz” – the local nursing home – each afternoon and together they complete a jigsaw, every piece fitting perfectly with its neighbour, just like Nanna and Nicolette.  Because Nicolette is a loner and a worrier and believes that her copy of the how-to-make-friends manual either got lost in the post or given to someone else.  School is a misery, for although she loves her teacher Ms Skye, she has to deal daily with DJ the bully who has always called her “knickers” and Layla, perfect, pretty but condescending and who apparently snubbed Nicolette’s birthday years ago and it still hurts.  

When a new boy with a weird name, peastick legs and oversized glasses comes to school – a boy with an amazing talent for drawing and creating stories about superheroes – tiny, tender tendrils of friendship twine them together, giving Nicolette a little bit of hope.  But then Ms Skye announces The Kindness Project and deliberately pairs the four children together, which has to be a recipe for disaster. Or is it?  

When Nicolette and Nanna bust out of Alcatraz for a day at the beach there are consequences far more wide-reaching than the police searching for them, particularly when Nicolette’s mum bans Nanna and Nicolette from seeing each other… consequences that open eyes, minds, hearts and doors for more than just the four children.

Written as a verse novel where every word is devoted to the who and their here-and-now, the choice of language is sublime and with clever use of fonts    and formatting that enhances the reader’s understanding of Nicolette’s emotions, this is one that moved me to tears as I binge-read it early one morning, and not just because of the story itself.  If we ever needed a reminder to not judge a book by its cover, to look beyond the behaviour to the circumstances driving it, for the story behind the story, then this is it.  Dealing with  issues like a grandparent with dementia, a mum with a mental illness, divorce and dealing with new parents and siblings, parents absent because of work deployments, over-the-top anxiety and feeling isolated if not abandoned,  the author has not shied away from exposing the real-life concerns that confront our students daily, and thus, the stories within the stories will resonate with many of our students – some of whom who will relate directly to the characters’ situations, others who might rethink their own words and actions.  

But it not only demands that we think about what is happening in the lives of our friends (and students) but also sheds light on the stories of those behind them.  While Nicolette may be having to come to terms with a grandmother who can no longer look after herself safely, that grandmother wasn’t always that way – she has her own backstory that guides her to guiding Nicolette; Leaf’s mum doesn’t spend every day in hospital receiving treatment for schizophrenia, DJ’s dad has made choices for altruistic reasons that a young DJ can’t yet understand. – and thus they, too have a voice in a world that seldom hears them talking.

Ms Skye sets the class The Kindness Project as a “way to change the world” and while Nicolette and her classmates are sceptical, Ms Skye assures them that “big changes come from small beginnings”.  And so it could be with this book.  One story shared could become the catalyst for so many more. 

The Buffalemu

The Buffalemu

The Buffalemu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Buffalemu

Paul de Guingand

Nandina Vines

Little Steps, 2023

3pp., pbk., RRP $A16.95

9781922833761

“Out East of Oodnadatta, where the elder animals meet, 

On past the towns, beyond the downs, and endless fields of wheat…'”

the band of old animal mates (Chewy the one-eyed red ‘roo, Smokey the wombat, Johnno the crow, Roosta the three-legged dingo, Sad-Eyes the ancient goanna) have gathered  together because they heard that their mate Aggie the emu is feeling upset and unhappy, and so like good mates do, they resolve to do what they can to help her.

‘We’ll go sort it out, with a chinwag, a yarn, have a chat. We’ll head up the creek, hear out her deep thinking, and figure out where her head’s at.’

For three days and nights, they head out to find her  – “They’d arrive when they got there, no sooner, no later; that’s how things should be in the bush” – and discover that Aggie is having an identity crisis.  To her, she doesn’t seem like a real bird with her long, thin wobbly legs and she feels she would be much better if she were strong with four legs, like a buffalo.  ‘I’d be Buffalemu!’, she says.

But no matter what her friends say, she is not comforted and begins a long walk of her own – one that takes her to the edge of a town and there she discovers that she not only fits in just as she is, but has a special place in the scheme of things.

Accompanied by appealing illustrations that really portray the sense of place of this story, this is one that young readers will enjoy as they not only identify the Australian fauna that they already know, but also begin to understand that no matter what we look like, our age or our impediments, who we are as we are is enough.  Many stories are written in rhyme, often contrived, that adds little to the story but the rhythm of this one carries the story along at pace and the choice of language is familiar but used so well. Common phrases like ‘barking up the wrong gum tree’ and ‘flown the coop” are embedded seamlessly but then you have stunners like this…

“Now Sad-Eyes , the ancient goanna, sat high on a pile of stones.

So old, they day, that the dreamtime could be seen written deep in her bones”.

Surely, for those who have never seen the weathered, wrinkled skin of this creature for themselves, there is an instant image of patience and wisdom, knowledge and understanding. What a model to use for aspiring young writers looking to develop their vocabulary! 

Stories about Australia’s unique wildlife abound, and the concept of being yourself is a common trope for this age group to explore, but the combination of the two in this one is a winner. 

 

 

 

Grace the Amazing

Grace the Amazing

Grace the Amazing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grace the Amazing

Aleesah Darlison

Wombat Books, 2024

192pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99

 9781761111174

Like many 11-year-olds, Grace Marshall is struggling to straddle that divide between childhood and independent young woman. While she would like to be seen as Grace the Awesome, Grace the Incredible and Grace the Miraculous, she believes others have a different view of her, particularly her mum, a zookeeper who is juggling work and home almost as a solo parent. A chance remark to the “most popular girl in school” some time ago means she appears to have no friends at school, her little brother is a pain, and while her dad loves her to bits she misses him terribly, he is a FIFO worker only home one week in four.  

Grace recognises that she is different, perhaps eccentric, certainly straight-talking, a girl of “many moods [and] many colours” but never boring.  But sadly, she also believes that being just Grace is never enough. Currently, her passion is doing magic as she strives to be known as Grace the Amazing, and when she discovers her one true friend at school is Pamela, her art teacher, has been away for the past few weeks because she has terminal cancer, Grace is determined to find the magic to fix her.

But even though the reader secretly hopes for a different, miraculous ending, there can be only one and this is an engaging, endearing story of how a child deals with the news and its consequences, while at the same time learning much about herself and life, love and friendship along the way. From a little boy in a foster family with a weird name, to Dr Granger the Stranger, to Emma who she thought despised her, to Pamela herself, this is a coming-of-age story that will resonate with many who also feel isolated, a misfit and misunderstood, as once again, Darlison has created credible characters who could be the kids we know and so the reader fits right into the story.

In a Q&A with fellow reviewer TL Sue Warren, Darlison says, “A great story often starts with a simple idea.  Ideas for stories bombard me each and every day. Ideas are everywhere I go. In everything I see and do. And in everything I hear.  If you’re interested in writing stories, you can find ideas in the world around you too. You see, stories abound in all the many subtle nuances of our life – you just have to keep your eyes and ears and mind open to them…” Given the dedications in this book, there is a suggestion that this story is more than one of imagination -it’s one of those ideas that Darlison has seen or lived, and that, in itself, gives it a reality and poignancy that is going to have wide appeal. 

 

Heather Has Two Mummies

Heather Has Two Mummies

Heather Has Two Mummies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heather Has Two Mummies

Lesléa Newman

Laura Cornell

Walker Books, 2016

32pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99

9781406365559

Heather’s favourite number is two – she has two arms, two legs, two pets and two lovely mummies, Mama Kate, a doctor, and Mama Jane, a carpenter, plus dog Midnight and cat Gingersnap.  But when Heather goes to school for the first time, someone asks her about her daddy … and Heather doesn’t have a daddy! But then the class all draw portraits of their families, and not one single drawing is the same. Heather and her classmates realize – it doesn’t matter who makes up a family, the most important thing is that all the people in it love one another very much.

In the international bestseller, Lessons in Chemistry, which focuses on the attitudes towards women in the 1950s and early 60s, Teacher Mudford asks her Year 1 class to fill in a diagram of their family tree including a photo, but not only does she share what she learns about some of the diverse families of her students with other parents, but she persecutes those children who don’t have the stock-standard, mother-father-child/ren arrangement that was the only accepted model of the times.

Fast forward 30 years to the 1990s and the original version of Heather Has Two Mummies is published, despite many rejections from mainstream publishers because it was considered too controversial because attitudes had scarcely changed, and is challenged, banned, the subject of public debate, attacked by clergy and politicians alike. By the end of the decade it was the 9th most challenged book in US literary history.  

Now, another 30* years on, the self-published first editions have become collectibles, and reprints are common in school libraries because diverse family structures are mostly more acceptable and children have both the right and the need to read about themselves. While as recently as 2015 teachers in some US states faced dismissal for sharing such stories, a situation that has become even more dire in some US states since the extreme right-wing presidency of Donald Trump with books with any sort of reference to sexual diversity being pulled from shelves and banned in state-sponsored legislation, nevertheless this book has persisted and has not been out of print for 35 years, indicating that there is clearly a demand for these sorts of stories that address the tricky topics that children live daily, that cause both confusion and anxiety, and which have to be shared if we are to normalise anything that is not the norm. 

For those for whom such stories might be problematic because of the ethos of their schools, I invite you to read both the discussions that were generated in 2015 when I wrote the tricky topics hat for my 500 Hats blog and how it has been addressed in the Sample Collection Policy under Diversity and Inclusion. The mental health of our students is more prominent now than it has been in the past and much stems from feelings of being different, excluded, not belonging and so, IMO, we as educators have a responsibility to embrace diversity, to show that there is so much more that includes rather than divides. As the wise MS Molly in the story says, “each family is special, The most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love one another.”

Words Between Us

Words Between Us

Words Between Us

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words Between Us

Angela Pham Krans

Dung Ho

HarperCollins US, 2024

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

9780063224544

Felix and Grandma have always lived oceans apart—until the day Grandma arrives in the city from Vietnam. Felix is so excited to meet Grandma and spend time with her. But it’s tricky when he speaks no Vietnamese and she speaks no English. They get by with both showing each other special things like Felix’s pet iguana Pete and Grandma showing him how to care for the garden but one day, when Felix and Grandma are visiting a big festival,  Grandma gets lost and doesn’t know how to ask for help.  It is then that Felix decides to teach her English, and by working together and teaching each other, they bond closely as they learn to share words as well, culminating in their shared love of pizza.

With end papers that have flashcard translations of common words, (and Grandma’s recipe for pizza), this is another story like I Hear a Buho and Giovanni  that allows us to share and celebrate the languages spoken by our students as they take the opportunity to teach us the common words for the things that unite us regardless of our heritage.  Having bilingual books in our collections and actively promoting them is a way that we can build bridges and open doorways for those who are not native English speakers by showing them that we value what they can bring to the teaching and learning experience.  

For many newcomers to this country not speaking the common language can be a very isolating experience, compounding the difficulties of what must have already been a difficult decision, but if we can reach out to families through stories – perhaps even inviting them into the library to share the stories of their childhood in their own language to encourage those of the same background to hear them and learn about them – we show the parents, particularly the mothers, that we care and that their child will not be lost.  And, in return, we all gain so much!!!

Kevin the Sheep

Kevin the Sheep

Kevin the Sheep

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kevin the Sheep

Jacqueline Harvey

Kate Isobel Scott

Puffin, 2024

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

9781761048951

Shaun, Shauna, Sheryl and Shane are sheep – and are as predictable in their sheepish behaviour as the alliteration of their names.  Along with the rest of the flock, they are happy doing the same things over and over day after day in their fields of green grass and clover.

But Kevin is different.  To start with, he’s allergic to grass and would much prefer a bowl of soup (sprinkled with chives) and instead of subjecting himself to the regular shearing, he prefers to keep his locks long, and have painted purple hooves!  And if that’s not enough, he’s into drama and dance, is learning to knit (from a Ewe-Tube video), and is mastering kung fu, among other things. Sadly for Kevin, the other sheep don’t approve and ostracise him, make him feel like an outcast and he gets sadder and sadder.  Until one night…

There are many stories for young readers about being yourself, embracing the things that make you unique and standing up to those who would prefer you to be one of the flock, but few that I have read have been as LOL funny as this one, and as appealing.  Living as I do in sheep country, sheep behaviour is a common sight and both the author and the illustrator have captured that brilliantly. A paddock of sheep is a paddock of sheep is a paddock of sheep… So to have a Kevin to rock the flock is a masterpiece, particularly as his differences span all sorts of attributes from physical appearance to food allergies to sporting prowess to hobby choices… No matter how a little one in your realm stands out from the crowd, they will be able to relate to Kevin and draw strength from his determination to accept his differences (even though it takes some sleepless nights to understand that he has the inner strength to do so) so that they, too, can revel in who they are, what they look like and what they can do. 

Teachers’ notes include some pages to colour that could become the centrepiece of the reader’s own story or they might even like to use Kate Scott’s illustrations as a model to draw Kevin doing what they like to do most, then making up their own story to go with that. 

Definitely one for both the home and school library.

 

Miimi and Buwaarr, Mother and Baby

Miimi and Buwaarr, Mother and Baby

Miimi and Buwaarr, Mother and Baby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miimi and Buwaarr, Mother and Baby

Melissa Greenwood

ABC Books, 2024

24pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99

9780733343018

Being your miimi (mother) is the most precious gift life can give.

When you were born you opened my heart as wide as the ocean.

There is no stronger bond than that between mother and child and using a palette as soft and gentle as the accompanying text,  Gumbaynggir storyteller, artist and designer Melissa Greenwood, has created an ode between mother and newborn that tells the baby of the connections to their family, totems, language and environment both past and present and how they can draw on the characteristics  to guide and protect them through their journey through life. 

While it is a story that echoes the feeling between any mother and newborn. it is expressed in a way that shows the long, strong connections to family, land and culture that reach far into the past of First Nations families.

While it is written in a combination of English and Gumbaynggirr  with a full Gumbaynggirr translation included, at the end, it is nevertheless one that could be in any language spoken in the world, so universal is it message. And as children learn their mother language-its meaning, its rhythm, its expression, its nuances -whatever it is, through listening to it, there is much that they absorb during these personal, precious moments beyond that expression of love. Therefore, these sort of lullabies have a unique place in language learning and should not only be among the gifts given to any new mother but also be the first in the baby’s library, regardless of their heritage..

Grandad’s Pride

Grandad's Pride

Grandad’s Pride

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grandad’s Pride

Harry Woodgate

Andersen Press, 2023

32pp., hbk., RRP $A29.99

9781839132667

Milly and her family, including Gilbert the dog, are back for their annual summer holiday with Grandad, and while she is rummaging in the attic to build a pirate fort, Milly discovers a beautiful rainbow flag.  It sparks a discussion about how Grandad used to march in the Pride parades, celebrating the diversity of the community and sharing the message that regardless of who they love or their gender, everyone should be treated with equality and respect. 

When Milly suggests going to a parade in the old camper van, and Grandad tells her his partying days are over, she has an idea… and Pride comes to Grandad and the village!

Not only is this a joyous celebration of Pride and all that it means, it is also a down-to-earth explanation that young children can understand immediately, and many will delight in seeing children just like them portrayed in the illustrations as the villagers come together to make this a brilliant celebration.  Like its predecessor, while gender diversity is at its core, it is more about relationships and communities and connections regardless of differences like skin colour, beliefs or living arrangements.  After all, we are all humans striving to be loved and treated with dignity and respect.