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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. 

Ruby and the Pen

Ruby and the Pen

Ruby and the Pen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ruby and the Pen

David Lawrence

Cherie Dignam

EK Books, 2023

280pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99

9781922539380

Ever since her husband died, Ruby’s mum has tried to manage her grief with a series of boyfriends, each weirder than the last.  Ruby has named the current one Dodgy Dave and not just because he is sending her to boarding school in another state. Grounded and confined to her room, Ruby sneaks out to her favourite markets one last time to sell some of her cartoons and have a little pocket money for the trip, and through a series of mysterious circumstances comes home with an unusual old fountain pen, inscribed with the words manibus futuri meaning  “the future is in your hands. “

Being an excellent cartoonist, Ruby is fascinated by the pen but it is not until she gets to her new school and is being bullied by students and staff alike that she discovers it powers – whatever she draws comes true. But while she is able to protect herself from the bullies through her drawing, she discovers that Dodgy Dave and Mr Lemon, the principal, are in collusion in a very dodgy plan and it is going to take more than the stroke of a pen to disrupt it.  And although that leads her to making some friends, she also finds that there are things like relationships that need more work than a funny/nasty drawing.

With its Trunchbull-like characters and the theme of kids triumphing over adults, this is an engaging read that despite its humour in both text and illustrations, has some powerful undertones about relationships and how they can be much more complex to make and maintain than just having a magic wand to fix problems.

And to cap it off, it concludes with Ruby throwing her pen into the sea and it being purchased, again from a mysterious market stall, by a boy named Xander who loves to draw superheroes

Fluff, Bullies Beware!

Fluff, Bullies Beware!

Fluff, Bullies Beware!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fluff, Bullies Beware!

Matt Stanton

ABC Books, 2023

216pp., pbk., RRP $A15.99

9780733342080

According to the official government report, Gilbert’s dad disappeared in outer space but Gilbert knows that the truth is his dad died while defending the Earth from an aggressive army of aliens that wanted to turn the planet into a poo-processing plant.   Whatever the reason, Gilbert’s dad doesn’t live with them any more and to compensate, Gilbert’s mum gave him a big fluffy bunny toy.  But this is no ordinary squishy soft toy – Fluff can talk and he has attitude.  

So when Gilbert’s underpants are found hanging from the school gate – everyone knows they’re his because his mum has written his name on them – it is time to get revenge on the bully who put them there, especially as every gate in the street sports a pair of them too …

And so begins another series from the popular Matt Stanton, written for young readers embarking on their independent reading journey with minimal text on each page and lots of illustrations that carry the story forward.  With series like The OddsFunny Kid  and Bored to his credit, Stanton his continuing the legacy of authors like Paul Jennings and Andy Griffiths who turned kids, especially boys, of a previous generation on to the fun of reading by knowing just what it was they wanted to read about and how they wanted to read – pared down text that wasn’t complicated and didn’t take a lot of time.  And with the second in the series due early next year, this is another win not just for Stanton but also all those boys who are still looking for a reason to read. 

Ratbags 4: Take Flight

Ratbags 4: Take Flight

Ratbags 4: Take Flight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ratbags 4: Take Flight

Tom Harris

Shiloh Gordon

Puffin, 2023

192pp., graphic novel, RRP $A14.99

9781761340505

Rats, in general, do not have a good reputation for being friendly and kind, and The Ratbags are no exception.  Their goal in life is to make trouble and to look for naughty things to do.  They dream of mayhem and believe rules are for losers.  Except for one – Jigsaw.  He got his name because he does not fit in, like a puzzle piece that won’t squeeze into place no matter how much you twist and turn it. Jigsaw likes both rules and humans so he doesn’t fit in with the other rats and they shun him. 

In their fourth adventure in this series, The ratbags are on holiday on the trash-filled Scum Island, where everything is just how the ratbags like it – terrible! Even cats are kept in line by a high-flying falcon, who puts on a show for the ratbags! But when Cracker is carried away to the falcon’s lair, Jigsaw starts to worry… is the pesky falcon a feathery friend or foe? One thing’s for sure, with the ratbags in town, the holiday is packed with action, danger and VERY bad manners.

In previous reviews I have focused on the popularity of characters and subjects that make adults squirm and their power to appeal to reluctant readers as well as the attraction of a format that is text-light, illustration-heavy but has a quality story that focuses on familiar elements of friendship, standing your ground against peer pressure and being yourself , and this has been proven by a request from a young lad asking if I had the latest one yet. Not known for his affinity for reading, this was a surprise and one I took pleasure in satisfying (as did my contact at Penguin Random House). Who knows where this series might take this newly-independent reader as he explores the wide world of stories in print.

Maybe this will be the way forward for one of your students to…

Olive of Groves (series)

Olive of Groves

Olive of Groves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Olive of Groves (series)

Olive of Groves

9780733342615

The Great Slurp of Time

9780733342646

The Right Royal Romp

9780733342622

Katrina Nannestad

Lucia Masciullo

ABC Books, 2023

288pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99

Mrs Groves’ Boarding School for Naughty Boys, Talking Animals and Circus Performers is NOT the place for an ordinary girl like Olive but because her grandparents just wanted her to be able to mix with other people it is where she has ended up by mistake. And because going to boarding school has been her dream, Olive decides to stay even though she has to tell a lie that she is an acrobat to be able to satisfy the entry requirements because she is neither a naughty boy, a talking animal or an actual circus  performer. Apart from not being an acrobat, as those who are are keen to show her, she has to contend with a principal who is terrified of ordinary girls like her and whose leadership and management skills are non-existent as she seems to be perpetually flustered and flummoxed; a supercilious, egotistical pig who is a bully and determined to make her life unbearable, a goose that faints at the slightest thing, and sharing a strange turret room with three talking rats.  Thank goodness she has some allies.

Originally published in 2015 and shortlisted for the 2016 Indie Book Awards, this is a whimsical series for younger readers who can lose themselves in the nonsense of such a scenario and just enjoy Olive’s adventures for what they are.  There is tension and drama as the series progresses – it is one best read in order – but this is offset by the crazy characters, the situations they find themselves in and the clever dialogue. Even the title is a clever play on words. As all three have been republished and released at the same time, this is a series for those who like to binge-read without having to wait for the next episode. 

Dolly Parton’s Billy the Kid Makes it Big

Dolly Parton's Billy the Kid Makes it Big

Dolly Parton’s Billy the Kid Makes it Big

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dolly Parton’s Billy the Kid Makes it Big

Dolly Parton

MacKenzie Haley

Puffin, 2023

40pp., hbk., RRP $A19.99

9781761342837

French bulldog Billy the Kid was born with an ear for music. And not just any music. He loves barking to the beat of country music! So Billy sets out to Nashville to sing his heart out.

But when he meets some big bullies at the Battle of the Bow-wows, Billy worries he’s barking up the wrong tree. But when they start to pick on one of his new friends, one much smaller than all the others, he knows it is up to him to stand up and call out the bad behaviour.  But he knows he will need the help of his new friends, and so he comes up with a clever plan…

Based on the theme of one of Dolly Parton’s own songs, Makin’ Fun Ain’t Funny, based on her own life experiences, the anti-bullying message is strong as young readers are encouraged to celebrate differences rather than mocking them, a theme underlined in the illustrations which show dogs of every shape, size and colour. But as strong as that message is, there is  an equally strong one about following your dreams, believing in yourself and persevering to make them happen as Billy the Kid faces adversity and rejection before he finds his niche. 

Parton, herself, is well-known for her Imagination Library, a free book gifting program devoted to inspiring a love of reading in the hearts of children everywhere (including in some parts of Australia) with over 211 million books given to young children to help foster a love of reading and encourage them to dream. “The seeds of these dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world.” So this copy will find its way into the local community as part of the hidden books initiative that is growing daily. 

Ratbags 3: Best of Pests

Ratbags 3: Best of Pests

Ratbags 3: Best of Pests

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ratbags 3: Best of Pests

Tim Harris

Shiloh Gordon

Puffin, 2023

192pp., graphic novel, RRP $A14.99

9780143777472

Rats, in general, do not have a good reputation for being friendly and kind, and The Ratbags are no exception.  Their goal in life is to make trouble and to look for naughty things to do.  They ream of mayhem and believe rules are for losers.  Except for one – Jigsaw.  He got his name because he does not fit in, like a puzzle piece that won’t squeeze into place no matter how much you twist and turn it. Jigsaw likes both rules and humans so he doesn’t fit in with the other rats and they shun him. 

Now, after their antics in the second in this series by the author of the Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables series, the humans have had enough of rats and their ratbag ways. Even Mr Pecky has stopped giving them pizza. But things get taken to a whole new level when robot minks with laser eyes roam the streets, ready to destroy all ratbags, stray cats and jazz musicians! How are the ratbags to survive the humans’ latest pest control? By joining forces with their enemy, naturally! With Cracker and the ratbags on the same team, things are about to get really hairy!

Way back when, about 25 years ago, authors like Paul Jennings, Andy Griffiths and Christopher Milne brought a new style of writing to the children’s literature available at the time – a style that featured what became known as “toilet humour” in which bodily functions and similar subjects became normal and regular rather than the taboo territory they had dwelt in, and these stories, which immediately appealed to boys of a certain age, became a challenge for some adults to share – which, in turn, gave them even more appeal but, in the process, also turned a generation of lads into readers as they were determined to read the stories themselves.

Now, in a similar fashion, the availability and accessibility of the graphic novel format combined with characters and situations that make a lot of adults squeamish, is having the same impact.  Both author and illustrator have a sound understanding of what their target audience is looking for and its method of delivery, so that they are drawn away from the screen and into the world of print where books can be shared and passed around and available on demand. They also know that kids are impatient and so this series has delivered a new episode every two months (the fourth due in September) so there is no interminable wait in between to see what happens next or have other distractions overtake the anticipation.

So regardless of what teachers and parents might think of this as that subjective, elusive concept of “quality literature”- and I would argue that the strong threads of friendship, standing your ground against peer pressure and being yourself take it into that realm anyway –  if you have reluctant readers or those who just haven’t found a reason to read yet, then this is a must-have series. 

Ember and the Island of Lost Creatures

Ember and the Island of Lost Creatures

Ember and the Island of Lost Creatures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ember and the Island of Lost Creatures

Jason Pamment

A & U Children’s, 2023

288pp., graphic novel, RRP $A19.99

9781761067488

Fitting in can be hard, especially when you’re as small as Ember. He can’t remember anything from before he lived in an attic in a city where everything was giant-sized. He longed for friendship, but when he ventured out to try to make a connection, he was accidentally swept into a storm drain and out to a beach. He hopes his his luck will change when Lua, a kindly sea turtle, escorts him across the ocean to a school for little creatures on a wondrous island, and he meets creatures like Ana, a salamander, and Viggo, a stroppy blue-tongued lizard.   Ember learns that first days can also be hard – especially when your friends read your journal and mock you.  Lessons at school involve intriguing discussions of camouflage and mimicry and introductions to the unique denizens of the island and surrounding sea but it his adventures involving  fantastical cave-dwellers, ferocious storms and classmates that aren’t interested in making friends that teach him the most.
As he struggles to adapt to his school, Ember finds himself at the heart of an otherworldly mystery, facing a strange monster from the deep. And though Ember’s classmates may seem of little help, any good student knows appearances can be deceiving – and friendship can come from the most unexpected of places.
For those independent readers who like the graphic novel format, this is an intriguing story with clear, detailed pictures that in a lot of cases carry the story without speech, that reinforces the message of being and accepting yourself, building friendships with unlikely folk, persevering to get to know them better, and being open to new ideas and perspectives. 

Leeva At Last

Leeva At Last

Leeva At Last

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leeva At Last

Sara Pennypacker

Matthew Cordell

HarperCollins, 2023

320pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99

9780008606190

The tiny town of Nutsmore is ruled by two despots – the Mayor who seeks only fame, and her husband the Treasurer who seeks only fortune. And caught in the middle is their daughter Leeva, only conceived because her mother read in a celebrity magazine that a birth would give her more fame, but utterly neglected and ignored by both, used as their unpaid servant.  She has even been given an Employee Manual  (although she is the sole employee) that forbids her to leave the grounds. She is banned from going to school because schools teach “Human Inanities. Things like art, literature, poetry, music. Things you don’t need to get famous or make money.”

All Leeva knows of the world comes from a television soap opera, a fitness program and the weekly newspaper that teaches her a new word for the day. When Leeva reads in the newspaper that a new school is opening in the town and all children are required to attend, she sees a way that she might meet real people.  So after completing the daily book-keeping problem her father sets for her, she pushes her way through the hedge and discovers the town’s library – and a whole new world as she tries to answer her own question of what are people for.  What she discovers is that her parents are loathed for their tyranny, so much so that she can’t divulge her identity, but how can a little girl, a librarian and her nephew, a boy so scared of the world that he wears a hazmat suit and a badger turn things around? 

This is a story that reminded me in part of some of those of Roald Dahl, particularly those in which the children triumph over the nasty adults with little regard for some of the practicalities of real life.  Leeva, whose full name is Leeva Spayce Thornblossom because her mother was too self-absorbed to even bother naming her, is determined and resilient, as her instinct for survival and justice outweigh any trepidation or fear, and despite her parents’ attitudes is determined to win their love until she ultimately learns that such people can love only themselves and she opens herself to creating a new family who do love her. 

The day Leeva pushes her way through a hole in the hedge and discovers a library with a librarian who knows just the right books to help her answer her questions not only opens up whole new worlds for Leeva but also an entertaining read for independent readers who like whimsical, cheerful characters who overcome all the odds. 

 

 

Speak Up!

Speak Up!

Speak Up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speak Up!

Rebecca Burgess

HarperCollins, 2022

272pp., graphic novel, RRP $A39.99

9780063081208

Twelve-year-old Mia is just trying to navigate a world that doesn’t understand her true autistic self.  Mia would be happy to just be herself, stims and all, but the other students have trouble understanding her and even bully her, while her mother is full of strategies to help her attempt to mask her autism.  Although she wishes she could stand up to her bullies, she’s always been able to express her feelings through singing and songwriting, even more so with her best friend, Charlie, who is nonbinary, putting together the best beats for her.

Together, they’ve taken the internet by storm; little do Mia’s classmates know that she’s the viral singer Elle-Q! Ironically, one of her biggest fans is also one of her biggest real-life bullies, Laura. But while the chance to perform live for a local talent show has Charlie excited, Mia isn’t so sure.

She’ll have to decide whether she’ll let her worries about what other people think get in the way of not only her friendship with Charlie, but also showing everyone, including the bullies, who she is and what she has to say. Though she may struggle with some of her emotions, Mia does not suffer because of her autism. Rather than  a cure as though there is something about her that needs to be fixed,  she just wants acceptance, understanding and tolerance, just like the other characters who have other issues that drive their behaviour. 

For older, independent readers this is a graphic novel by an autistic author/illustrator offering a sympathetic depiction of one young person’s experience of autism, and because it is by one on the spectrum it is an authentic voice giving an insight into what it is like to be different at a time when peer acceptance is so important to who we are.