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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. 

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. 

 

Test Trouble

Test Trouble

Test Trouble

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Test Trouble

Serena Patel

Louise Forshaw

Barrington Stoke, 2024

88pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99

9781800902756

When his teacher announces that there will be a timed maths test the following Monday, Arun goes into meltdown.  Even though he is bright and attentive, tests, especially timed ones, make him feel extremely anxious as he feels the pressure to perform.  And so he is determined to get out of it by any means possible staging a protest about tests altogether (which only gets him into more trouble) and even pretending to be sick.  But then a conversation with his neighbour helps him see things in a different light….

This is a story that nearly every reader will relate to. The anxiety that comes with the expectation of being tested, and being expected to do well, no matter how often teachers and other adults try to reassure you that it is “just a test” to let them know how you’re coping and that they can know where you need support.  The fact is that the fear of not living up to expectations, particularly your own, can become bigger than the test itself and that is what distorts the results, not your lack of knowledge and understanding.  

But even though we, as teachers, know this and that there are better ways of assessing a student’s progress and program, boffins wanting to protect their positions insist on imposing tests to measure achievement as though a score on a paper on a particular day indicates anything other than that, and using the results to make all sorts of high-stakes claims and decisions.  So until there is enlightened leadership, such as the implementation of the ACT Senior Secondary Certificate, which does not require a final exam,  our students are going to find themselves in Arun’s position, sadly from their Kindergarten year. And so this is a worthwhile addition to every teacher’s toolkit, especially those who teach that middle primary area where the fear and anxiety really start to take hold, so it can be shared over and over, especially the conversation that Arun has with Mr Patel on pp48-49. Sometimes just turning up for something that we are afraid to do is the biggest achievement, and, having done that, the rest is not so hard.  

This is a little book that has the potential to have the most enormous impact.

This book is from a new imprint, Barrington Stoke, that HarperCollins UK has acquired. Many will know that Barrington Stoke print all of their titles using dyslexic-friendly paper stock, formatting and fonts. Many of their books, including this one, are hi-lo texts written by popular authors but which have been edited to have a lower reading age than interest age so it’s great that they are now going to be readily available in Australia.

Mia Megastar

Mia Megastar

Mia Megastar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mia Megastar

Ada Nicodemou & Meredith Costain

Serena Geddes

Puffin, 2024

176pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99

9781761342158

Meet Mia!
Her life is pretty interesting and amazing. She’s the only kid in her class who lives above a shop. And not just any shop – everyone knows Costa’s is the best place for groceries and the yummiest pastries. She has a cute-but-annoying little brother, Yianni, and the best friends ever. Oh, and her mum plays the worst pranks. Mia loves dancing and singing and is always putting on a show. And she’s ready to step into the limelight . . . this year will see Mia get closer to her dream of becoming a megastar.
But the road to stardom is not without a little drama. . .

Loosely based on her own childhood, this is the first in a three-part series  for young independent readers by Home and Away star of 22 years, Ada Nicodemou.  With the upsurge in online opportunities where anyone with ambition (if not talent) can showcase their abilities, there are many of our young students who will relate to Mia’s aspirations and who will find, like Mia (and someone close to me) that it involves a lot more than a camera and an internet connection.

A peek inside...

A peek inside…

Characters that appeal because the reader can put themselves into the lead role, an attractive layout with many visual features including acting tips from someone who has proven herself, and the promise of more to come in July and October, make this a series that is going to appeal to a large number of newly-independent readers who are looking for something new to pass the cold, winter months.  My aspiring young performer has grown through the phase now, but I know this will find a willing and wanting audience at the local primary school.  

Some Families Change

Some Families Change

Some Families Change

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Families Change

Jess Galatola

Jenni Barrand

EK Books, 2024

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

9781922539670

For most children, their family is their safe haven and they expect it to be the same format/structure. arrangement that they know for ever and ever.  And, in the past, that was usually the case with perhaps the addition of a baby or the death of an elderly relative the only changes to their world. In the 50s, the term “nuclear family” was coined and it commonly consisted of two adults, a male and female, who were married, had 2.4children of their own making with the adult male being the patriarch. And sadly, for many, this remains the “norm” embedded in their social, cultural or religious value systems meaning that those who choose or have to live outside of that model can be ostracised if not condemned and the casualties are many.

Today’s lifestyles mean that this is very different from even the time when I was a child and to some kids, change can be confusing and challenging, and if the change is not a positive one, they can shoulder the responsibility and begin the “If only I…” tail-chasing blame game.  And so this book which covers scenarios including single-parent families, blended families, and the loss of a loved one, can be a reassuring guide for children experiencing such transitions using gentle verse and illustrations that clearly show a photo of any family in the class will be different to the photo of any other.  As Ms Molly said, so wisely in Heather has Two Mummies, “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.”

The core Foundation Year unit of the Humanities and Social Sciences strand of the Australian Curriculum calls for children to know and understand “the people in their family, where they were born and raised, and how they are related to each other” and thus this book is an essential part of that understanding as they learn that not only are families different but also that theirs might change. 

 

Oh, Olive!

Oh, Olive!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, Olive!

Lian Cho

HarperCollins US, 2024

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

9780063237490

Olive Chen believes she is the most magnificent and brilliant artist in the whole wide world, and certainly, for one so young, her paintings are full of movement and colour. Her parents are also artists—serious artists—who live in prim and pristine monochromatic world while they paint prim, proper, and perfect shapes. They know Olive has the talent to follow in their footsteps. But Olive likes to smear, splatter, splash, and even lick. Painting squares and triangles is not her style and no matter how hard they and her teacher try, Olive cannot paint a shape, much to their disappointment and disapproval.  But Olive’s classmates love her riotous splashes of colour and she decides to teach them her technique. With a brush in each hand, Olive cascades through town with her friends in tow, painting what she wants to, what she feels—until she reaches her parents’ pristine art museum. . .

The story of parents trying to mould their children in their own image, expecting them to be mini-mes, with the same likes and dislikes is a common one and so this story which celebrates individuality and creativity is probably as much for the adult who shares it as it is for the little one who hears it. Despite being a common trope in children’s literature, Olive’s ability to ignore the wishes of the adults in her life and be true to herself regardless, is one that many children would like to have – rather than being torn between who they are and who they are expected to be. 

Older readers might like to draw comparisons between the endpages – the front being the monochromatic linear images of the town representing the rather dull version of ourselves that we might be if conformity and obedience to expectation become the driving force or the vibrant freeform version of the back images if we let our true selves shine through, identifying the details, differences in and demeanour of the various characters before and after Olive and her friends have swept through.    They could also examine and track how line and colour are used throughout to depict the characters and their moods making them as integral to the story as the words themselves.

Quality picture books deliver more and more each time they are read, and this is one of those. 

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.”

As Bright as a Rainbow

As Bright as a Rainbow

As Bright as a Rainbow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Bright as a Rainbow

Romy Ash

Blue Jaryn

Working Title Press, 2024

34pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99

9781922033062

When we think of the colour blue, do we all visualise the exact same shade or do we see hues like cornflower, ultramarine, azure, cerulean? Perhaps even turquoise like the ocean – but is the ocean just turquoise? Or can it be one of the myriad of iterations of green?

Just like there are so many ways to describe the core colours of the rainbow, then so are there many ways to express yourself as a boy or a girl and this book encourages young children to understand that there is no specific, set-in-concrete way to define one or the other.  

Gradually, we are moving away from the stereotype notion of “pink for girls and blue for boys” (so many ask for gender0neutral colours for baby items in the chop where I volunteer), although it was only 10 years ago when there was an enormous fuss in some places with the release of Jacob’s New Dress and people asked if girls can wear trousers, why can’t boys wear dresses? But while schoolboys wearing skirts in protest of school dress codes still get headlines around the world, and others roll their eyes and tut-tut if someone signs their email indicating their preferred pronouns, it is clear there is still a way to travel and this book for young readers not only raises awareness of the issue, particularly for those struggling with their identity, but does it in a way that is so simple to understand = an analogy that could be used to explore any sort of difference or diversity.

Regardless of the progress that has been made, gender diversity remains a struggle for those who are diverse, so perhaps this is a way to change thinking from the very beginning.  It is somewhat ground-breaking, would certainly be banned in some states of the US and perhaps in some schools here, but nevertheless it is an important contribution to the well0being of those who are different.